I learned two brutal lessons at 18, when my mother died six weeks into my freshman year of college. One: life is short, really damn short if you can get cancer at 47 and die within eight months, leaving a teenager just pulling out of surly adolescence, who you’ll never see grow to adulthood. Two: People say they’ll show up, but then they don’t and will tell you later how they meant to. And I thought then as I do now: that blows. Just do it or shut up.
My mother, Vi, was well-schooled in Showing Up. From Henryetta, Oklahoma, she was of that southern small-town stock that prized diligence and hard work without seeking ackowledgment, writing handwritten thank-you notes for every gift and kindness received, always wearing clean underwear in case you were in an accident and had to be cut out of your clothes at the hospital for all to see. She was a Girl Scout – and in fact her first job out of Baylor University was as a director for the National Girl Scouts in Dallas – who lived by their motto “to serve God and my country, to help other people at all times and to live by the Girl Scout Law.” Whatever that was, she certainly did the first three parts.
If you were a member of the First Baptist Church of Henryetta – as my mother and her family were — you were the lucky recipient of a well-oiled machine that sprang into action in times of trouble. When a congregation member went into the hospital, lost a job, had a baby or passed away, the Church Ladies materialized out of nowhere to plan, execute and deliver meals, necessary supplies and whatever else was needed – including designated watch over the deceased’s house while the funeral service was in progress so it wouldn’t be open to thieves since the obituaries always listed addresses and service times. All this before the internet and email, or cell phones and texts, with just a black rotary dial phone.
In my adult life over several states and two countries, with myself and most of my friends untethered from church membership, I’ve missed the Church Ladies something fierce. When a friend’s husband died suddenly a couple of years ago, I volunteered my services to be the event coordinator wrangling a dozen or so friends and family flying in from all over the country, cleaning house from years of her husband stockpiling hobby supplies and buying more when he couldn’t find what he already had, finding jumpy dogs a day home away from all the visitors, shopping for booze and food for vegans, paleos and non-glutens. It wasn’t a burden, but it was sure an eye-opener as to what happens without Church Ladies.
In the old days, there would have been at least four Church Ladies on site, two stationed in the kitchen washing and drying serving plates, one circulating with a trash bag and wet wipe, and another off-loading full Tupperware containers brought by neighbors and fellow congregation members into the household’s best china. In my grandmother’s case, it was Franciscan’s Apple pattern, which fills my cabinets today.
My Aunt Nellean had a full-on set of Desert Rose, my mother the ill-fated Ivy pattern which chipped worse than the other two and was discontinued early on in her marriage. Franciscan was probably the only china brand available at the local jewelry store in Henryetta for bridal registry; amazingly Apple and Desert Rose are still available in open stock at most major department stores. But I digress.
The point is, the Church Ladies showed up. You didn’t have to worry about a thing, because they always showed up, to clean and wash before the service, serve and clean up afterwards, with their good aprons on and usually sporting their own dish gloves in case the house didn’t have any. With a church directory in hand in case they need to make extra calls. They took care of things. All you had to do was relax and rock the baby, hold your loved one’s hand, graciously greet people in the viewing room of the funeral home, right across the street from my grandmother’s huge Dutch barn house. Funny thing how grief stimulates the appetite, or maybe it’s just a diversion from having to make awkward talk.
Vi brought this finely-honed Baptist tradition of Showing Up to her new life in Dallas, where sometimes the neighbors in the new neighborhood of Lake Highlands (where they moved in 1957) didn’t have church homes and therefore Church Ladies. She was first on the doorstep with cinnamon apples (peeled chilled apples cooked with a big handful of red hots) or chicken tetrazzini, a package of paper plates and plastic cups, and a roll of paper towels. Always with a handwritten note acknowledging the situation with her phone number to call if additional help was needed.
My mother taught me that death and illness are never convenient in the midst of busy lives, but there is only the moment in which to act. Most will profess good intentions – and in fact tell you how good their intentions were but something sadly came up before they could act on them – which is totally useless. We all, most of us anyway, have good intentions. The thing is, what do you do with them?
After having left Oaxaca, where I’ve mostly lived for the past ten years, in a hurry to get ahead of the pandemic exodus over the Mexican border, I left behind a fully furnished apartment, clothes in the drawers and closets, papers in disarray on my desk, my jacket and umbrella hanging on the rack in the entry. Realizing that my time in Mexico will be drastically reduced in the future, I finally made the hard decision to let my apartment go, after a decade of maintaining a furnished place there year round. I can’t get back there to deconstruct it and had to make the big ask of close friends to do it for me. In Mexico, where nothing ever rolls out as planned or on time. In the middle of a pandemic.
Fortunately, I found a friend who wanted to rent it as soon as my lease was up June 1 and who wanted all the furniture, a major score. How on earth could they have an estate sale in Corona Times, with the front gate to the street locked and only a few people allowed in the apartment at any one time? Even without selling furniture, there was still all my personal stuff to get rid of: clothes, shoes, books, kitchen dishes and utensils, towels, sheets. Ten years of stuff collected, even a toolbox and sewing kit, box of gifts, knickknacks, rugs, household refugees from my and other US overstuffed residences downsizing and Marie Kondo-ing. I found four friends who needed various things, the last stop my Spanish teacher Alberto whose friend MariCarmen will take what’s left to benefit an orphanage project in Oaxaca working with single mothers whose jobs were displaced by the pandemic.
My friends Jacki, Suzanne, Karen and Francine showed up. It wasn’t particularly convenient in the middle of a pandemic lockdown to go over and go through my office to look for my birth certificate and the harem costume I wear every Day of the Dead, to put aside specific items for my former boyfriend and Dolores, my dear friend who cleans for me and who just lost her husband to covid.
Yeah, it’s a little trickier in Corona Times to show up; those things we might have done for loved ones a few months ago – washing dishes or clothes, baby- and pet-sitting, cleaning the house – aren’t necessarily possible with distancing still in place. But there are still groceries and supplies to pick up, errands to run, calls to make and sometimes, just listening.
But here’s the thing: you have barely the blink of an eye after the phone call or text which comes out of nowhere, maybe 24 hours at best. If you don’t act then, don’t say later that you really meant to show up but, well, there just wasn’t time. Don’t say call me if there’s anything I can do. Just do it. Say, I’ve got to go to the grocery store anyway, what can I get you? Can I keep the dog in my yard while the family comes over to the house? I’m going to drop off toilet paper and paper goods (don’t even ask if they need them – they do). Give me a list of people to call or email.
In these sad, confusing, heartbreaking Corona Times Topped Off with Riots and Unrest, it’s tempting to become a Netflix hermit, a couch potato of the first degree, an over-eater and drinker because life is so damn hard. Yes, it is. And it’s not going to get better any time soon.
Now more than ever, we need to just do it — for each others’ sakes but also for our own. It reminds us that we do, in fact, need each other more than ever: more than is comfortable to ask, more than is comfortable to receive. But strangely enough, not more than is comfortable to give; that’s a muscle that can be developed with frequent use. It’s really not that hard.
Just. Show. Up.
Susan Bean Aycock, embracingthechaos.org, 6-2-2020
* My dear friend and En Via co-guide Sarah Cox Baker points out that “chapter closed” makes it sound like my time in Oaxaca is over. I surely hope not. What I meant is that the chapter is closed on my living there mostly full-time and maintaining an apartment year ’round there — when I go back, dios mediante, I plan to go for shorter periods of time and stay with friends or even in the guest room of the apartment I’m leaving behind. It’s still a big change, but hopefully not so cut and dried. I’ve had so many alarmed e-mails that I felt I needed to clarify that.