Sunday, January 06, 2008

A Day At Arlington: It Is Well With Auntie's Soul

It was a bit surreal being back in D.C. (for my Great Aunt Helen's funeral) after so long an absence. Hers was the last of seventeen funeral services scheduled at Arlington National Cemetery on December 31. She was buried with her first husband, my Great Uncle Louis, an Army chaplain. It was a simple service held in the Fort Myers chapel at the cemetery. In her later years, Aunt Helen re-married (I think Art was a Navy man). But a waiver was obtained in order for her to be buried with Louis . . . for his were the children and grandchildren that she raised and doted on as her own.

Louis's first wife is buried beside him. In order to bury Aunt Helen, his body was briefly disinterred and the coffins were stacked. It saves space . . . and, as the cemetery is a bit crowded now, it really is the only way to do it.

My Auntie Helen was a great Southern grand dame of the old school. Refined. Proper. Well-travelled. Well-read. She was a woman with a career (in government service) who married in her forties. She was always impeccably dressed . . . a real hat & gloves kind of lady (who always smelled good) . . . with a wicked and dry sense of humor. Her mere presence in a room would make even the burliest/surliest man hide his drink (this actually happened at one of the Johnson family reunions . . she walked into the room, fashionably late, and suddenly all of the plants were watered with whiskey & gin).

My Auntie could also kill you with a look.

Uncle Louis was quite a character, a lovable curmudgeon, and really deserves a post unto himself. His funeral many years ago was, of course, conducted with full military honors. It made quite an impression on this then-youngster.

I represented Pops at his Aunt's funeral. Helen held a special place in his heart . . . and he in hers. She was kind of a substitute grandmother for my brother and I. Dad's Mother (also named Helen) died when I was just a wee baby . . . from metastatic breast cancer. Grandmother barely lived to see me born (she finally got her girl). I am told she was too weak to ever hold me without assistance.

As Aunt Helen's health was very fragile when Dad died in 2005 (and there was no way she could have attended the service), she was not immediately told he had passed away. I was later informed that when she did find out, she was not very happy with those of us who "conspired" against her. Sometimes I regret the decision . . . not giving her the choice to attend (because I know she would have moved heaven and earth to get there). But I still think we made the right call. I got to see her again a while after that (when her health improved enough for travel), at another reunion. And I was glad of it.

I digress. Mom and I drove up to Northern Virginia (in the glorious pouring rain) on Sunday evening . . . and stayed with Aunt Cricket at her farm a little over an hour south of Washington. I was really dreading the drive in, but the traffic on US 29/I-66 & the Capital Beltway on Monday morning was actually fairly light. My Uncle Johnny had told us not to worry . . . that D.C. would be "shut down" for the New Year's holiday ("it's a big night for the politicians . . . they've all got to get liquored up") and he was right. We went to Auntie's condo (in Silver Springs, MD) for a brunch with the family, and then drove on to Arlington.

Leaving nothing to chance, Mama and I left the family gathering early, and arrived at Fort Myers Chapel only to see the end of another funeral. It was apparently that of an officer killed in Iraq . . . with full military honors . . . including a band/drum corps, caisson and riderless horse. Exiting the chapel behind the flag-draped coffin, the widow . . . pale and wan, and hanging on to her uniformed escort for dear life . . . appeared very young and very lost. Some of the young people fanning out into their cars after the service (in order to follow the caisson) appeared bewildered and over-whelmed by the little piece of history that they were now a part of.

Very sad.

Aunt Helen's very simple and dignified service was conducted by a military chaplain. He told us (with a wink) that all services at Arlington are special, but that chaplains and their families were "more equal than others". We had a cool and efficient "Arlington lady". My cousin, Steve, gave a nice eulogy, commenting on how much history a life of 97 years can encompass/witness, and thanking (as he should have) my cousin Rocky (his brother) for taking such good care of their Nana in her final years.

One of the hymns we sang at Helen's service was "It Is Well With My Soul". This is the hymn I chose for my then-beau, Tim to sing at Daddy's funeral. And Timmy did Daddy proud, blowing the tiles off FBC's steeple when he sang it. I cannot hear or sing the song now without choking-up, and Aunt Helen's service was no exception.

There was a "Sarah Jessica Parker" moment at the end of the service . . . during the processional out. It's an inside joke between me and Rocky. I loved it. I know, looking down from her perch with the angels, Auntie did too;)

Prompted by my original post on this subject, Rocky had asked that the ladies attending the service all wear hats. I bought one especially for the occasion (and was teased endlessly for it by my uncles Reid and Ralph). Mama wore a jaunty red hat that I bought her a few years back - in celebration of her "purple" years. Those who did not have a hat were given one out of Aunt Helen's collection to wear.

There are always tourists-as-on-lookers at Arlington during funerals . . . they are quiet and keep a respectful distance. While Auntie's on-lookers were not dazzled by military pomp & circumstance, you could see many of them smiling and pointing at the hats.

Alas, many of the wreaths placed on the graves at Christmas had already been removed.

At the graveside service, the Chaplain commented on the beauty of the site . . . Chaplain's Hill is actually one of the prettiest sections at Arlington, with sweeping views of Washington. He spoke of the trees and the birds and the history visible all around. Then, as a massive United Airlines jet took off from the nearby Ronald Reagan Airport, flying right over the Pentagon and slicing the peace & tranquility like a knife, he bemoaned the noise made by "those annoying jets".

With my eyes fixed on the jet gloriously soaring into the sky, I remembered a few days not so long ago when the skies were silent. I smiled, thinking of my brother (who could not attend the service because he was working . . . flying one of those jets).

And I said to myself, "I'll take the noise those damned jets make any day."

It is the sound of freedom.

Rocky's Mom, Donna, did not want to leave any flowers out in the cold, and asked everyone to take one of the cream-colored roses from the arrangement adorning the casket. Mama and I each took one. We put them in some water and left them in Cricket's kitchen the next morning . . . where they would last a little longer.

We got lost leaving Washington. Coming out of Arlington, I missed the turn-off for George Washington Parkway (you'd think that the Nation's capitol would have better traffic signs), corrected the mistake, and then missed the turn-off again. We wound up on 50 West. We stayed on it until we could figure out how to pop back onto I-66. That was fun in the 5 o-clock New Year's Eve traffic (not).

When we got back to Cricket's, we watched the third Pirates (of the Caribbean) movie in order to unwind. We did not stay up to watch the ball drop. I slept late the next day. Aunt Cricket (on her first day of retirement) made me breakfast . . . bacon and eggs.

That is the story of the day . . . at least the parts I'm willing to share here.

Since getting home, I've paused a few times, closing my eyes to to imagine what it's like to rest on Chaplain's hill . . . amongst valor on on the most hallowed of ground. I expect someday I will visit Arlington again.

In the meantime, I know all is well with Auntie's soul.


Emory Johnson said...

Very well said...



Thank you, Cousin. It was good to see you and your lovely wife. I would like for this generation to do it more often.

Ths silver set that Auntie bequeathed me shined up real pretty. Mama is trying to find some "Renaissance wax" (that's what YaYa Ka calls it) to put on the pieces and preserve the shine.

I see the spark of Bruce in you.