My brother John and I, along with our brides, flew down to Seven Lakes, North Carolina last weekend to participate in the memorial for our beloved Aunt Ellen. She passed away two weeks ago, far too young, from unforeseen complications following stints in chemo for breast cancer. Her husband, our Uncle Buddy, has sort of defined the word “avuncular” all our lives (“Golf? I shoot in the low 80s.” Me: REALLY? “Yep, any hotter than that, I don’t even go out!”), but Ellen was everything to him, and we hated to have to help Buddy send her off.
The service on Saturday afternoon went fine, though my heart lurched as I saw my uncle, sitting right in front of me, just loose his shoulders and slump a little as the homilies began: he had busied himself for days by taking care of all the little details, and now there was nothing left to do but mourn. John and I had met Ellen’s grown daughter Tammy for the first time the night before. She looks and sounds exactly like her mom (they’ve even fooled Buddy once or twice on the phone), which turned out to be eerie and comforting at the same time, at least for me. The service hit Tammy the hardest (she was close enough to her mom to call her on the phone every day), and it broke our hearts to see it.
I clambered up to offer a few words on behalf of our family. At the reception afterward I received a brand new kind of compliment. “That was a WONDERFUL speech,” a longtime parishioner told me. As I was gearing up to say how easy it had been to praise Ellen, she elaborated. “You spoke so SLOWLY and CLEARLY. I can’t UNDERSTAND most of the families at these services.” For English teachers: this lovely lady was a fan of form, not content, but I’ll still cherish those heartfelt props until it’s time for my memorial service.
We went back to Buddy’s for more food – provided by neighbors, the church, etc. – but we were just noshing. Our emotional fuel was spent. After a while, the group began to dissipate; some of them had five, six-hour drives back home. The four of us – John, his wife Regina, my wife Linda and me – decided to caravan back toward our hotel, stop at the nearby village of Pinehurst (yep, the storied golfing spot; next year Pinehurst’s fabled No. 2 course will become the first venue in history to host both the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open, back-to-back), and have a beer or something at a little pub to wind down.
We waited in the charming town square’s parking lot, but it took John & Reg a few minutes to pull up. They’d taken a wrong turn and found themselves driving by the magnificent Carolina Hotel at the Pinehurst Resort. You gotta see it, they said. The azaleas are out, this place is way Old South. So we paused for a second and said, let’s have our drinks there. After all, we’re already dressed for it. So we hopped into John’s car and drove over.
They weren’t kidding. We strolled down a spectacular azalea-studded pathway at dusk on a perfect late-spring evening. Everything, even the temperature, was gorgeous. Just being there lifted our spirits. We walked into the main house, grand enough to impress Scarlett O’Hara, and passed through a sumptuous lobby. It’s all about golf: memorabilia all over the place. The bar is the “Ryder Cup,” get it? I ambled up to the dining room entrance and caught a sidelong glance at the menu. I later confessed that I didn’t read the selections on the left, only the numbers on the right, just to make sure we weren’t out of our league. Then I said, let’s not blow this chance. Let’s have dinner here. (Like the Omega Mus in REVENGE OF THE NERDS, we were being spontaneous.) The maitre d’ stepped on a pet peeve of my brother’s by asking, “Do you have a reservation?” while crickets were chirping in the nearly deserted room over his shoulder. He allowed as how he might be able to squeeze us in. “When would you like to dine?” Um, let me think: how about right now?
Turns out we were overdressed, which was a brand new sartorial experience for me, as any of my friends can assure you. See, we had neckties on. As the well-heeled golfers began to trudge in (they filled up many more tables, but, miraculously, ours was not needed!), the drill became evident: blazer, slacks, dress shirt, no tie. We ordered drinks and scanned the menu. Our server, a Wilford Brimley lookalike, was named Ted. The immense room was right out of GRAND HOTEL. John got us started properly after we told Ted why we were in town, we’d just wandered in serendipitously, etc. He expressed his sympathy, then John sprung the trap: “…so if you have a bereavement discount, that would make it perfect.” Funny guy, a real sit-down comic.
For the next two hours, the four of us had the most wonderful time together, talking about everything under the sun. GAME OF THRONES. John’s company, Sprint, and which suitor was more likely to win its hand. Texas politics (that’s where they live). Whazzup on Broadway. Cabbages. Kings. We have such chitchats at our annual family reunion, but generally in larger groups. This was different. The weight of Ellen’s passing was mitigated by the warmth of the company: gradually, organically. The only thing which would have really made it perfect would have been having my youngest brother Rick and his wife Diana there too, but he had a huge professional obligation he just couldn’t get out of.
It was still lovely outside as we walked back to the car. It had been really rewarding to do something we hadn’t planned on, just when we needed it most. If we hadn’t already been dressed for a memorial service, we might have spent a desultory hour in some pub instead. But that’s life. You never know what you’re missing. You just never know.