A sort of homecoming (Part 2)

You arrive early at the church; you have a hunch it is going to be a big funeral. 45 minutes before it is to start, the parking lot is already almost full. You decide to park down the street, a couple of blocks away, to give the “visitors” priority parking. You haven’t been here in 12 years, and yet somehow you don’t identify with “visiting” this place any more today than you would have a decade ago.

You admit to a certain measure of nerves as you walk up the steps. Already, you notice a small group of former teachers, now long retired, huddling together near the entrance. You almost stop and said, “Hi”, but you would have to introduce yourself, you’re pretty sure, and even then perhaps get some blank stares. You aren’t ready for that kind of rejection just yet.

[Okay. I don’t think I can keep up this “second person” narrative for the whole post. It was just a little “homage” to the opening of Timothy Findley’s “The Wars”, which OF COURSE we read with Mr. Pauls, the man whom we were here to honour. I think I’ll carry on in the usual boring “first person” for the rest of the post, if that’s alright with you?]

My first impression of the church was that it had not changed one bit in the previous 12 years. The carpets looked unworn, the tyndal stone as clean and bright in the afternoon winter as it ever did. All the lights were lit. My muscle memory took us across to the washrooms, and when we met out in the narthex again I said to my wife, “Should we sit in our usual spot?”
She kind of smiled at that, and I realized how silly that sounded. Did we really still have a usual spot? After all this time? Did she even remember?
“Over on the right hand side? By the windows?” she offered.
“Yeah, let’s go.”
We found an empty pew.
I couldn’t help but rubber-neck a bit once seated.

My friend Ed had mentioned that he would try to make it out for the funeral too, so every minute or so I would look around to see if he could see where we were sitting. I think I was starting to un-nerve a women sitting behind me but directly in my line of sight every time I turned around, so I tried to limit my gawking. The church was filling up with a mixture of school workmates and fellow congregants. Some of whom who look exactly the same, and some of whom have aged dramatically in the interval. My wife and I kind of played a whispery game of “guess who”. One of us would spot someone and the other person would try to come up with their name. “Two pews ahead of us, and over a bit. Recognize him?” “How about that lady in the hat? Oh God, remember HER?” and so on.

I mentioned that the church itself hadn’t changed a bit in the past 12 years, but I was referring only to the physical building. I keep referring to this church as my “childhood church” but I don’t want to give the wrong impression. This physical building is only 20 years old. Our old church had a devastating fire in 1992 and it burned completely to the ground. It started in the boiler room which was directly below the sanctuary, and the fire investigators believed that the fire actually started during Sunday morning worship. Looking back on it, it’s hard to believe that the basement was full of Sunday School kids and the sanctuary full of parishioners when mere feet away a fire was slowly smouldering, just waiting for the needed oxygen to spread. I was an usher that fateful Sunday, and I shudder to think what would have happened if the fire spread with a church full of people. I don’t think we would have got everyone out in time. It was very fortunate that the fire didn’t burst through the floor of the sanctuary until about 1 pm that Sunday afternoon. The church was in the midst of creating a new photo directory, and so there were a few people inside for that, but they all got safely out. Our old sanctuary was all varnished wood and carpet. Once the flames burst through, there was no saving it. That night, our stunned congregation gathered at a nearby Anglican church just to be together and check in. The fire fighters were able to pull out a couple of blackened and tarnished communion plates and cups, and we passed them around, symbols of our faith and loss.

To make a long story short, our congregation worshipping in a shuttered elementary school about 10 minutes away for almost two years as we went through the process of rebuilding, and that building is the one that still stands to this day, one of the newer churches in the neighbourhood, physically speaking.

This is all to say that the church, as we all know, is the people who make it up, not the building where they meet. That point was driven home that sad Sunday night in ’92 and we were reminded of it again as we looked around before the service began. The once mighty choir, led for 50 years by a legendary force of nature, had dwindled to a fraction of its former self, that choir director having died a few months ago himself. And once huge figures of my church childhood were either decrepit sketches of themselves or were not present at all. This was not unique to this church, obviously, but I had the sudden and blunt thought that maybe the United Church just needed to close 2/3rds of their locations and then amalgamate the following 1/3 to make each individual congregation viable in today’s climate. The thing is, of course, no one wants THEIR church to be the one that closes. But even though I can walk to church in 5 minutes, I would prefer to drive 20 minutes to a thriving church than to walk 5 minutes to a dying one, so there it is.

The one person who did not seem to age at all was the organist, Margaret. (Or Mrs. Grainger to us kids). Being in the neighbourhood, Mrs. Grainger would often accompany the elementary, junior high, and high school concerts, so my friends got to know her as well. Even 30 years ago, she had grey hair that was always up in a bun, and yet she had an oddly youthful face. One time, in high school, she came with our choir away to a music camp. Us guys were determined to see Mrs. Grainger with her bun down, but we were unsuccessful. Even before breakfast, there she was: all put together. She really is a marvel, and here she was in her usual spot on the right side of the chancel, where she’s been since 1994, (and before, of course, in the old church, for as long as I can remember). On our wedding day, I was sequestered in a tiny room with my groomsmen before the service, with the obvious nerves associated with the occasion. A few minutes before we were to start, the minister blew in and said, “I don’t want to alarm you, but we are going to be running a bit behind. You see, Marla thought the service was at 2 pm instead of 1:30 pm!” I couldn’t believe my ears. How could Marla have got the time wrong? She picked the time. We had been planning this thing for a year. I think the minister saw the looks of confusion on all of our faces and then he said, “Did I say Marla? I meant to say Margaret: the organist. She thought the service was at 2 pm. Marla’s here, she’s just downstairs.”

Oh, Margaret. Mrs. Grainger. Oh, that was fine. We actually started almost on time, all it meant was that there wasn’t very much “pre-service” music, but all our guests were busy visiting and I’m sure they didn’t even notice.

These were some of the thoughts going through my head beforehand. And then, after the choir filed in and the family took their places in the front pews, the service began.

I wasn’t familiar with this new minister. The minister who married us, who mistook Margaret for Marla, had retired a few years before. This minister had a folksy, almost Garrison Keilloresque  style to her, which I didn’t mind, but I don’t think I could listen to week after week.

During the first prayer, I guess I was really into it, with my eyes closed and head really bowed. I didn’t notice that my friend Ed had arrived just as the service was beginning and he spotted us and came over to sit with us. I was right on the aisle and I guess he was standing there for QUITE SOME TIME before my wife noticed him and gave a little start. I opened my eyes and there was Ed, inches from my face. I felt a little self-conscious because I had found the minister’s words quite meaningful and I already had some tears in my eyes. I slid over and luckily Ed didn’t comment on my vulnerable condition.

I always like when a person’s funeral is in a church where they were an active member. It makes the eulogies, hymns and prayers a bit more meaningful than if they weren’t, and this was one of those services. The minister made many references to Harry’s presence in the choir, and his contributions as a father and husband, and as a teacher in the  community since the 1960’s. Two of his children related some loving stories about their father, and it was sometimes difficult to reconcile these stories with the hard-assed, demanding English teacher that I knew from high school. We learned that one of his favourite lines as a parent was telling his kids that something “wasn’t necessary” and I kind of loved that. I think I may try to use that one on Audrey a bit. “Why can’t I get that doll? I WANT that doll!” “Audrey, it’s just not necessary.” Another thing that he apparently drove home with his own kids was the idea that no matter what happened, you could always do better. Striving for improvement. I’m going to file that bit of wisdom away for some future time as well. One last gift. I remember trying to impress Mr. Pauls so badly in grade 12, to prove to him that us “dumbs” were just as capable as the I.B. “nerds” that when we were studying Margaret Laurence’s “The Stone Angel” I headed a group project where we actually tracked down one of Margaret Laurence’s friends and did a fucking phone interview with him. A friend of ours (who wasn’t even in our English class, but who was kind of a techy nerd, was able to come up with this crazy contraption where we could record the interview onto a cassette tape. This was 1991. Our friend also was able to edit this half hour phone conversation down to about 10 minutes of useful stuff for our class presentation). When it was our time to present on whatever we had to present in class, we did our bit and then super casually said, “Oh, and we managed to get a hold of [Mr. X], a colleague and friend of Margaret Laurence’s who kindly took some time to answer our questions about her writing method and character development. We then played the class (and Mr. Pauls) the cassette and waited for the accolades to roll in for us going above and beyond the scope of the project. But for a second we forgot we were in a Grade 12 English class and none of our classmates cared. I DO think I saw a look of admiration pass over Mr. Pauls’ face at the end of the tape, but maybe that was my imagination. All he said was “You got [Mr. X]’s permission to record this voice, I hope?”

“Oh sure, sure,” we said. Holy shit we totally forgot to ask him if it was okay we recorded his voice you guys.

I looked around the church at one point and noticed, in addition to Ed and me, that there were a number of other former students who had taken time out of their busy schedules to pay their final respects. One of them was a provincial cabinet minister. Actually: to be more accurate, a former disgraced provincial cabinet minister, and I  thought to myself, “Good LORD, I’m old enough to have gone to school with not only cabinet ministers but disgraced former ones.” But he was always nice to me in school and I think perhaps his star will rise again depending on how this whole provincial leadership business shakes down in March. [I’ll say NO MORE.]

Before I knew it, the service was winding down, and the minister was delivering the benediction. At the end of it she said, “and in the words of Harry Pauls: CRANK it, Margaret!” and that was Mrs. Grainger’s cue to let loose with a lively and spirited postlude.

Ed had to head back to work immediately after the service, and so we offered to give him a ride. Which was just as well: I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into many conversations with former teachers or former congregants on this day. My “homecoming”, for what it was worth, didn’t really have the emotional impact I thought it might. I was just further reminded that the church, any church, is the people that make it up. Everything else is just window dressing.

As it turned out, we bumped into a number of people who wanted to come over and catch up with us in the narthex, so we did end up spending longer visiting than we had thought we would. I had a chance to express my condolences to Mr. Pauls’ daughter and widow, and they both remembered me, which was a nice feeling. I looked around for Ed, and he too was cornered by a couple of people from our shared past. Ed told me later that he really thinks that if it wasn’t for Mr. Pauls encouraging him to audition for our high school play, he wouldn’t have graduated. Mr. Pauls saw the potential in my friend, who was not a very good student, and took the time to help foster and channel his creativity into something worthwhile. I could write an entire blog post about our experiences putting on this production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” but I’ll leave that for another day. Suffice to say, the afternoon brought a lot of wonderful memories back to Ed and me, and I think we were grateful to have the opportunity to say goodbye in our own way.

We studied Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” in grade 12 with Mr. Pauls, and so it only seemed appropriate that this poem weaved its way throughout the minister’s eulogy as a fitting tribute to a man who meant so much to so many students, to even future disgraced cabinet ministers, it seems. I was reminded of Mr. Pauls once again a couple of years ago when we went to see John Hodgman perform his Ragnarok show in 2012. At the end of it, he sang this beautifully haunting song, “Resist the Tide” accompanied on his ukulele. That song lifts a line from this poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night, rage rage rage against the dying of the light, ” which also is quoted at the beginning of Margaret Laurence’s “The Stone Angel”, and is just further proof to me that there are no coincidences in life. The song ends with: “It takes a lot of work, but oh baby it’s worth it.”

In Mr. Pauls’ case, I really think that is true.

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

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