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Saying goodbye one last time

Rich Mayfield

I write this on the day of my Aunt Phyllis’ funeral. The service is being held in All Saints Church in the little town of Swanage on the Dorset coast of England. Phyl was the oldest member of my family and her death, although certainly not surprising, is a powerful reminder of the preciousness of life. I offer these thoughts as an invitation for you to remember as well.

MY AUNT PHYL

There is a photograph somewhere of my Aunt Phyl standing at her door waving good-bye. That image is sealed in my memory and locked away in my heart as if it was framed and sitting on my desk right now.

“Bye, love.” she says with the slightest of wave. Each time I said goodbye in return I wondered if this would be the last. I knew that if it was, I had enjoyed her company to the fullest and treasured every moment I had spent in her presence.

And there were some wonderful moments. Like the first time my wife and I came to her little cottage on a hill just up from the English Channel. My three very British aunts were together having tea. We were greeted like old friends, as if we had come from just up the street rather than halfway around the world. Then the phone rang and Phyl answered it.

“I’m sorry” she said into the receiver, “you must have the wrong number. (Slight pause) That’s quite all right. No bother. Goodbye.”

One of the aunts inquired as to who was calling.

“No one” said our lovely Great Aunt Phyl.

“Yes,” stated one of the sisters, “but who was it?”

“It was a wrong number.” said Phyl as sweetly as she could. She was acutely aware there were American cousins in the room.

“I know that but who was it?” another sister asked a little louder than the first.

“It was a WRONG NUMBER” came the slightly exasperated reply.

At this point, Aunt Phyl turned to us and smiled. How I remember that smile. It was regal. It always had a hint of something wise behind it as if she wasn’t letting you in on all that was going on behind the beatific countenance. In any case, she smiled at Sue and me and pretended the absurd conversation wasn’t actually happening. This respite was interrupted by another inquisition.

“BUT WHO WAS IT?”

There are times in all of our lives when our tolerance for the minor absurdities of human existence is stretched to the limit. This was one of those times. Our dear Aunt Phyl erupted in a cacophony of curious expressions that we assumed were uniquely British. This display was met by an equally dramatic demonstration by the siblings.

There was a moment there when Sue and I wondered if we shouldn’t just quietly sneak out the back door and take a ferry to Belgium but as quickly as the commotion had commenced, it ended and we were left sitting in that strange, even surreal, silence that, so I am told, fills the air after a major military engagement.

We all sipped our tea and talked of wonderful things and delightful people for the rest of the afternoon. Sue and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves on this our first day in Swanage. We were especially grateful that the phone didn’t ring again.

In 1990, our family came to Swanage to spend a few weeks before starting a summer assignment in London. Aunt Phyl had spent her life as a publican, that is, she was the proprietress of a public house or “pub.” It provided a modest living during her working life but, even so, she managed to get by in her old age. In any case, she was extremely concerned that summer as to our managing in the capital city given the high cost of living that is a part of London life. One day, for no apparent reason other than my modesty and charm, my dear Great Aunt slipped a 20-pound note into my hand. It was all rolled up so I didn’t see the particular denomination until later when Sue and I were sitting in the Black Swan. We toasted our benefactor … several times. Phyl would have appreciated that.

We had a VW camper on a couple of our trips across the pond and one day asked Phyl if she would like to go for a ride in the Dorset countryside. “Delighted!” she said and climbed in and sat at the little table wedged in behind the front seats that served as our dining room that summer. As we drove through the beautiful landscape, I would glance in my rear-view mirror and see my aunt sitting straight, quietly taking in the scenery. She looked, and in this I do not exaggerate, she looked like a queen seated on a royal throne surveying her domain. I was honored to serve as her chauffeur.

My heart overflows this day with similar memories. Because I have more than a passing familiarity with funerals and memorial services, I know how easily they can turn into flights of fancy filled with tributes that bear little resemblance to the actual life of the now departed. But I tell you true: No tribute could be too large, no praise too great as I remember and honor the life of Aunt Phyl. She gave us the most precious gift anyone can give another. She gave us her love and for that I will be forever grateful.

From thousands of miles away, we miss her as if she lived next door. Indeed, that is how I see her now, standing at the door offering a hint of a wave and the wisest of smiles, “Bye, love.”

Bye, Aunt Phyl.

Rich Mayfield is pastor of the Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church and weekly columnist for the Summit Daily News.


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