Today I sang at another funeral. There is something in the water around here, I swear, because I have sung for roughly one funeral a week since January. I thought of putting a sign over my front door:
“FUNERALS R US”
I love being able to praise and comfort through song, and I am grateful for the spirit that is always present at these sacred gatherings.
Today we buried our old friend Maureen Johnson. The service was lovely, filled with memories and funny stories, many of which reminded me of my mom. Maureen’s granddaughter talked about her Grandma’s quirky practices, like salting her watermelon and putting a scoop of vanilla ice cream in half a cantaloupe, and wrapping green leaf lettuce around a spoonful of sugar and eating it. Oh my goodness, these were some of the quirky habits of my own childhood!
“QUIRKS R US”
While I was sitting near the front in the congregation, with my guitar, I heard a familiar sound from the lack of the chapel. I immediately recognized the sound: the pitch, and the timing…all of it. It was my sister, clearing her throat. I looked back, searching for her. She was on the back row, where the handful of angel Relief Society sisters who were handling the family luncheon were sitting. It was curious to me how badly I wanted to be sitting with her. Maybe it was the emotion of a funeral, the sorrow of separation hovering over everything, but I had an almost desperate need to be sitting next to her. If we are in the same room, we are usually together.
Libby has been by my side most of my life; physically, emotionally, and spiritually. She is the one human in this world with whom I am most comfortable. She knows me in all my various versions; the me that shines in certain settings, the me that doubts herself, the pitifully sad hormonally driven monster me that appears a little too often for my liking. Dave knows all of these versions as well, he just doesn’t quite know what to do with them. I guess Lib has been dealing with them her whole life, and she has a way of letting me own my own struggles, while not removing herself from me in the process. I guess it’s a sister thing.
There have been portions of our lives when Lib and I have not shared everything. Looking back, there really were some pretty big chunks of independence. I married at 19 and lived in Provo, while she stayed in Pittsburgh and worked for the airlines. She worked her way up in TWA, transferring to Kansas City, then California. Dave and I moved to New York, then back to Pittsburgh, then to Utah. Eventually Libby was promoted to Regional Sales Manager for TWA and relocated to Salt Lake City. She was a real career gal, being the youngest sales manager TWA ever had. She was dynamic at what she did. She traveled the world. She hosted impressive clients, while never losing her down-to-earthness. She earned the Alfred E Packard award for Eating the Competition Alive, but everyone, even her competitors, loved her. She was busy making TWA the go-to airline for business travel, and I was busy churning out babies one after the other. Still, she knew me and I knew her. My kids were her kids. And her God was my God.
Libby, Mom and I were like the 3 Amigas. I remember one Easter weekend, years ago, walking around this very neighborhood wearing our Easter bonnets – straw hats to which we had glues tacky silk flowers, fake feathered birds and plastic eggs. Lib and I always did enjoy playing dress up. She was the world’s best playmate. Seriously! She owns half my creativity, because my whole life she went along with whatever crazy idea I had, and she owned the role she was assigned wholeheartedly, with gusto and imagination.
Last Sunday, in Primary, we role-played together with great ease. She is Primary President, and I am Primary Chorister. Dave and our sister Sherry are Primary teachers. It’s a family affair, I tell you, on Sunday afternoons. Primary is basically Sunday School for children in our church. We wanted to teach the kids about he Holy Week, in preparation for Easter. So Dave wore his judge’s robe, and Libby was an attorney calling witnesses from back in time to testify that they had seen Jesus. I had written the script, and it played out pretty sweetly. We had extra time in the end, and instead of Libby getting all nervous with what to do with an extra 15 minutes, I turned back to her and said “I’ve got this.” She nodded, and sat down, letting me wing it, trusting me completely. If I ever lost her trust I think I would cease to exist.
Libby and I are not completely alike. She is more organized, and likes things more tidy than I do. And yet she does not make me feel guilty for my propensity for making messes. She goes to the gym regularly, and rides her bike, and drinks lots of water and works in her yard. I sit like a bump on a log. But she still likes me, and I like her. She understands me, can sense when I need encouragement, compliments when everyone else assumes I feel successful enough to not need reassurance. Everybody needs a Libby!
Lib left her TWA job and moved to Boston back when my kids were all under my wing, but were also attached to hers. I remember the night she told our kids she would be moving across the country. Kate, who was maybe 5 years old, sat at the end of the dinner table and completely ignored her after she told us. Kate had spent so much time with Gram and Libby that I went through a period of mourning, thinking she had forgotten who her mother was. Her indifference to Libby’s announcement stung. Twenty minutes later, when the other kids had finished their dinner and had asked to be excused, I looked down at the end of the table and there was Kate, her head hovering over her dinner plate. I watched as a stream of tears fell onto her peas. I looked at Libby, who had noticed her in silence, tears streaming down her own face. She whispered Kate’s name. Kate looked up, clutched her fists to her chest and moaned, “It hurts right here.”
I imagine with great reverence the courage it had to take for Libby to move so far away. Career-wise, it as a good move. She was Director of Reservations and Marketing for Sheraton International, and she oversaw all their international reservations centers. She has seen more of the world than the most wanderlusty dreamer could dream of. After Boston, she moved to Chicago. She loved every place she lived, mostly because she just tends to see the good around her wherever she goes. But at some point the Spirit whispered to her that this was not enough. So she left a career as a well respected executive and came home. Home,; where the arms of that little Kate was in need of unconditional acceptance, where her aging mother needed a graceful way to turn the page in her book of life, where her other nieces and nephews needed an ally in multi-generational mischief-making. Home, where her mother’s Real Estate expertise was needing to be shared and taught, where Primary kids and Young Women needed her influence, and where this old tag-along sister of hers needed her oldest companion to help her raise her kids. She sacrificed a lot to come home. But she will not agree. She will say it was an uneven trade, where the benefits far outweighed the sacrifice.
Libby and I have shared so much of our lives that it’s hard to tell who’s who. In many ways I am her, and she is me. I wrote in a song about sisters:
“What is so clear now, I couldn’t see back then.
If you were not you, I would not be who I am.”
The poet, Christina Rosetti, wrote a wonderful epic poem called The Goblin Market. It is a beautiful Christian allegory about the love of two sisters. It’s a family favorite. If I close my eyes and sit very still, I can almost hear my mother’s voice reading it aloud to us. The last stanza of the poem reads:
On this blessed Good Friday I am reminded of the great gift of eternity that is promised to us after we die. Maureen Johnson’s family is holding fast to that tonight, having left the body of their mother in the ground at Farmington Cemetery, not far from where our own mother is buried. I am grateful that my heart naturally leads my head in matters of faith. And I have unwavering trust that my existence in that eternity includes my greatest treasures, not the least of which is my oldest and truest friend, my compadre, and partner in crime, my sounding wall and mentor, and gift from the start…my sister, Libby.
Here’s the recipe of our childhood, made at Christmastime by our mother, and repeated by all of us in her absence.
2 cup butter, softened
2 cups packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 egg yolks
4 cups Gold Medal® all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups milk chocolate chips or two large Hersheys milk choc bars
1 cup finely chopped walnuts
Heat oven to 350°F. In large bowl, mix butter, brown sugar, vanilla and egg yolk. Stir in flour and salt. Press in greased rectangular pan, large cookie sheet size.
Bake bars 25 to 30 minutes or until very light brown (crust will be soft). Immediately sprinkle chocolate chips on hot crust. Let stand about 5 minutes or until chocolate is soft; spread evenly. Sprinkle with nuts.
Cool bars 30 minutes in pan on wire rack.