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Sunday, March 13, 2016

Memento mori.

Historical Ellerbe

They buried my Uncle Fred today, on the farm where he was born almost 89 years ago. I was sorry not to be able to be there to see him off and, perhaps, to reconnect with the dwindling numbers of my extended family. Of my grandparents’ eight children, only the youngest two survive. My friend, the late poet Marian Cannon, has a verse about visiting the family cemetery plot and realizing, in her seventies, “there is no one left who remembers me as a child.”

These are the plain facts of Uncle Fred’s life:
FAYETTEVILLE — James Fredrick Comer, 88, of Fayetteville, passed away at Village Green Rehabilitation Center on Sunday, March 6, 2016. 
He was born April 25, 1927, in Richmond County to Lindsay Wister Comer and Maggie McFadyen Comer. In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by his wife, Estelle Huggins Comer, and brothers Clinton, Joe, Hubert, Jack, and Dudley Comer. 
He is survived by his sons James Comer, Jr. of Durham, Timothy Comer of Fayetteville, sister Margaret Thompson of Pinehurst, brother Ray M. Comer and wife Gwen of Greensboro, sister-in-law Helen Comer of Ellerbe and several nieces and nephews.
A graveside service officiated by Rev. Archie Barringer will be held at 1pm, Saturday, March 12th at the Comer Family Cemetery in Ellerbe, NC. Prior to the service, friends will be received at Carter Funeral Home, 143 Church Street, Ellerbe, NC from 11:30-12:30pm. 
A memorial service will be held at Sherwood Presbyterian Church at 1pm, Sunday, March 20th. 
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to Sherwood Presbyterian Church, 4857 Highway 87 South, Fayetteville, NC 28306. 
Online condolences may be made at 
Carter Funeral Home is serving the Comer Family.
Uncle Fred was part of what made being a Comer- even though I am one of the only three of many cousins who do not bear the name- a magical experience as a child, and a reassurance into adulthood. When my Uncle Joe was dying, I am told, one of his doctors remarked that he had never seen a family so close. He was right. There was nothing like the feeling of belonging that came from being in the middle of those enormous weekend family gatherings at the little farmhouse my grandfather built from wood he logged when he bought the property after World War I.

Uncle Fred was an outdoorsman, possessed of the infinite patience and centered stillness hunting and fishing require. He could sit, Easter Island-like, on my grandparents front porch on a summer Sunday afternoon, for what seemed- measured by my gnat-like attention span- for hours, a flyswatter poised, motionless, ready to mete out its sentence. Fred’s aim was true; his body count prodigious.

Other times, he’d be sitting there, a sphinx in a rocker, eyes fixed on Highway 220 and the occasional traffic that passed. Fifty-plus years ago, things were so slow on a weekend afternoon, even I knew who most of the cars belonged to, and where they were likely headed. The cousins in my age group would try sneaking past and behind him, on tiptoes, half anticipating, half avoiding what inevitably followed: a wiry arm would strike, coil around a tiny waist, and one of us would be over his knee, getting a mock spanking that ended in gales of laughter.

I can’t recall the substance of a single conversation I ever had with him. They were all in my childhood and as inconsequential as the soap bubbles we used to blow in the front yard. He was in his thirties but to me was an inhabitant of some ageless place only adults occupied.

When I was ten, my family moved 150 miles west. Distance and a series of lengthy illnesses afflicting my parents meant trips were less frequent and, when they did happen, were sad, rather solitary occasions when we were packed off there to ease the burdens where we lived, and I tried to feel less awkward and teenagerly than my norm. “You have to be a grownup,” I was told.

I think the last time I saw Uncle Fred was at my grandmother’s funeral in 1972. After that the extended family sailed off in their eight separate ways, then in dozens of new, cousinly directions. Mine was to college, graduate school in England, and a career in the Pacific Northwest. I thought I would only be there a few years, but it turned into nearly thirty. The cousins grew up and married and got families of their own. The world changed and no one who grew up in rural Richmond County stayed there any more.

But the wonderful thing about the family was, you always knew you were part of it, and when you did make it home, you’d be welcomed back as though no time had passed at all. News was traded back and forth on the phone, and Christmas cards flew in gusts between the branches of the clan, even as the gatherings happened less often, and more often at funerals.

I came out in 1995 and, though I dutifully kept in touch each year’s end through the century's end, Uncle Fred's and his wife’s Christmas card was one of the ones that stopped. In 2001, I gave up on all the family members who'd ghosted me. 

Maybe I gave up too easily. I’d anticipated the news would not be well received for twenty years. In the event, I discovered I’d been almost entirely correct and should’ve just gotten it over with earlier, instead of trying to tiptoe past another decade or two, undiscovered. I’d seen how divorced spouses were sealed in blocks of carbonite, sold to desert traders, and never spoken of again. As C3PO remarked, it’s not too bad, if you survive the freezing process. Much in my family goes unsaid. We interpret the entrails, and consult the heavens.

When Fred Comer came into the world, Calvin Coolidge was the thirtieth President of the United States, and the world, much like today, was a rolling day-to-day mashup with one foot in a dazzling future of technology and one in a past filled with natural disasters, wars, and economic upheavals. Fred came into the world as the first transatlantic telephone call was placed; a new Federal Radio Commission opened to govern sound carried invisibly in the air. Charles Lindbergh flew alone across the Atlantic. 700,000 people were displaced by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and the prevailing view was that local government was best suited, and best placed- if under many feet of water- to deal with it. We all deal with our lives and times as best we can; I imagine I was one of those new-fangled inventions whose uses seemed obscure and for which a need had not proved apparent.

Uncle Fred was buried in a new family plot at the farm, alongside his wife and a brother, rather than at the family church where everyone else, from my father and brother to ancestors stretching back over two hundred years, lie. The family has always had an innovative streak: my grandfather, I was told, gave the land for an AME Zion church just up the road from his home, and owned a television when they were huge boxes with tiny porthole screens. Shortly before he died, he bought the most astonishing, Jetson-like furniture for the parlor, and it gave my grandmother a decade of fits as we cousins spun each other around in them, risking a one-way trip out of orbit with every turn. Besides death's more quotidian anticipations, I am not sure if, now, we cast lots for plots, or submit an application for land use change to a board chaired by a particularly imperious cousin.

I can see the merits of each place. The farm is the place I grew up, through many relocations, thinking my home. I once entertained a fleeting fantasy of seeing if Uncle Joe would sell me an acre or two for my retirement (I was still in the closet; cognitive dissonance was my middle name). Contemplating eternity among the low, forested hills is a pleasing prospect even if Aristotle was right in considering death an endless, dreamless sleep. Across the forest, near Norman, Mount Carmel Presbyterian’s graveyard will be my own, eternal production of Our Town.

The novelist Ann Patchett recently wrote an article about her large, rather fraught extended family that rang some familiar notes for me today. Of realizing her Christmas party had long past reached its sell-by, she wrote, “By continuing to throw the Christmas Eve party, I was interacting with this endlessly extended family as if I were still a child, brightly rolling up my sleeves and getting along. When you’re a kid someone else deals you a hand and you have to play it. As adults, we’re free to fold...The modern family is a dark and twisted river. All I can say is that I was trying to navigate as best I knew how.”

Uncle Fred was a very good man. He raised two sons who have done well, was a dedicated churchman, and was happily married close to forever. His constancy was absolute. We called at the same ports for a time long past, and had an agreeable acquaintance before sailing different seas. He weathered all the storms in his voyage, delivered his passengers safe and dry, and now has gone west. As Sophocles reminds us from the distant past, one must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been. For those who loved and will remember him, his life has been splendid indeed.

1 comment:

  1. Well written, Waldo. He sounds like he was a good man, the kind every family and community never have enough of. You have my condolences.