March 22, 2007

A Mother's Legacy: The Gift of Laughter

African-American writer Preston AllenIt had always been there, but I never saw it. Or perhaps I was too close. Although I can’t see why. No, a better answer is that I was focused so much on Preston’s talents as a writer and teacher, and it took a funeral for me to notice.

On Sunday, March 18, 2007, the funeral for Iris Eleanor Gale Allen, Preston’s mother (or Aunty Iris as her family called her) was held at Mount Pisgah Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Although she had been ailing for some time, her death came as a shock, for no one’s ever prepared for a parent’s death. It was especially hard on Preston’s son, Quinn, who had grown into a fine young man from the Yugio trading boy who had attended my twentieth wedding anniversary four years ago. Yet here he was, standing beside his father and three uncles, and when the time came for his reflection, a poem Preston had written, Quinn read with poise and eloquence beyond his twelve years. Although I never met her, I can say Aunty Iris (I am claiming this intimacy) would have been proud. For in a way, I did know her. She reminded me in many ways of my mother.

One of the main reasons for my friendship with Preston has been the remarkable similarities in our lives. Besides growing up in the Caribbean and trying to figure out our place in the diaspora, Preston and I were brought up by matriarchs who were grounded in fundamentalist religions. We both went to colleges in Florida, met our wives at Miami-Dade College, and we’ve both lived and worked as writers/teachers in Miami for the past twenty years. Sometimes when I stroll over to the English department, my former colleagues remind me of the afternoons when they’d eavesdrop on the conversations that Preston and I would have about O’Connor, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Pushkin, and the Miami Dolphins.

We’d open the doors to our offices that faced each other, our brains still on fire from writing all morning, and grade papers, trade manuscripts, and crack jokes. In fact, that’s what I remember most about those conversations. Our laughter. Preston has a great sense of humor. He once told me about his starving student days (he still has to write about them) and how he “volunteered” to become a patient for some dentist interns on the condition that he would release the university from all indemnity. He signed the forms, got eighty dollars, and he’s been in pain ever since. Although he was describing a horrible experience, the way he told the story (I’m laughing even as I write this) was so funny, I had tears in my eyes from the laughter. We spent many evenings like this: telling jokes, trading stories, and laughing.

Late in the evening after the din and clamor, we’d settle into a pattern of quietly talking about our deepest fears and desires. Would we make it as writers? After so many rejections, should we try self publishing? Would we get a review in the Herald? Would we get promoted this year? Would we turn out like our fathers? For we wanted to be better than our fathers. We wanted to be generative, supportive, protective men for everyone in our lives.

Yet when I got the e-mail about the funeral at a Seventh-Day Adventist church, I was a bit hesitant. It had been a long time since I’d been to an Adventist meeting, and my wife, good Catholic that she is, had never ventured inside those Protestant doors. We sat in the pews and waited as the family and extended family filed in, and once the invocation was given, it seemed as if we were in a regular American church with readings from the Old and New Testaments. However, once the reflections began, it was clear that we were at a Caribbean/Honduran funeral with the requisite singing of every single verse of hymns such as “as “In Times Like These (You Need a Savior)” and sermon by fiery preacher--Jonathan Edwards with a West Indian accent.

As we sweated through the sermon that ended the service, what struck me more than the preacher’s exhortations was the deep sincerity and appreciation that the speakers and the audience had for Aunty Iris. Many had come from all parts of the world to honor a woman who had given assistance in any way that she could—sometimes opening her door to strangers who stayed days, weeks, months, or years in her home (another thing Preston and I have in common). Speaker after speaker commented on her kindness, and I couldn’t help but think, how many of us, as sophisticated as we are and locked away in the hermetic cells of academia, have touched lives in such as profound was as this simple woman from Roatan? How many people are going to show up at our funerals, not to talk about how our books, or ideas influenced their lives, but how we provided, food clothing, or shelter without thinking about the IRS deduction? And Aunty Iris went beyond that. The “fatherless boys" testified about how she drove around in her station wagon and took them to church on Sabbath. Many were thankful that Aunty Iris, despite the fact that they had sometimes fallen by the wayside, always loved them and stood by them in times of need: “Whenever she was in the room, we knew everything would be all right”.

And when the time came for Preston and his brothers to speak, in the midst of the congregation and although he was the shortest (“We got the height and he got the brains,” Cameron explained), Preston was slowly, before my eyes, assuming a gravitas that I had never seen before, and his wife, brothers, son, mother-in law, the entire congregation watched the transformation in awe. Preston spoke about his mother's legacy and her sense of humor. He reaffirmed the bond that a mother and son share, especially when a father is not present. He knew he could call her up at any time and talk to her about anything and she would listen. Even though she was a Christian woman, Aunty Iris would listen to everything because she, too, had lived. She knew about this world that breaks the heart of its lovers, and still she laughed. Whether she was in pain or nearly comatose, she taught him always “to be of good cheer.” It felt good to be in the midst of the congregation and to listen to Preston speak about the value of a life lived in the service of others and delivered with a gentle wit and compassion. Preston's homily had more of an impact on me than the preacher’s rant.

And when we came outside into the midday sun where the hearse waited to take his mother’s body to its final resting place, we could hear the laughter of Aunty Iris in the voices of her sons, grandsons and all the fatherless boys of Miami. Aunty Iris was probably smiling and laughing as we cried and laughed during the service. I know she was. I heard your laughter, Aunty Iris. I also saw your son transform into the man he always wanted to be--the man you knew he always was—that I and the host of witnesses now saw. And I knew you (and all the saints who were smiling and laughing) were proud.



1 comment:

Stephen A. Bess said...

Wonderful story. Preston's mother sounds like a great woman. God rest her soul. By the way, there's nothing like a friend. A good friend. Peace~