Mar 23, 2009

As seen in Alabama

Last week I had the privilege of attending the funeral of a dear friend's husband. I say it was a privilege, because it was indeed an honor to see firsthand the impact that Joe had on his family, his co-workers and his community. As I told Betsy later, you could have searched for a lifetime and not found a single person to say a harsh word about him.

I drove down to southwest Alabama for the service with a mutual friend of ours from work, Betsy M. We expected it to be about a two-and-a-half hour drive, so we allotted three hours to be sure we arrived in plenty of time. Good thing.

Did you know that if MapQuest (I just heard you roll your eyes from HERE) doesn't have enough information to take you all the way to your destination, it just takes you to the post office in the ZIP Code* you entered? Yep. Of course, it doesn't TELL you that when you print out the directions; it prints them out as though nothing at all is amiss.

So Betsy M. and I are traveling right along, and we got to the final turn on our directions, 40 minutes prior to the start time of the service. The final instruction was, "Go 35 feet."

Let me show you what we saw to the right after traveling 35 feet:

And here is what we saw to the left:

But just a little farther away, we spied a large-ish church and a post office. First Betsy M. went into the church to make sure that they weren't having a service that day, because even though the sign on the outside clearly said it wasn't the one we were looking for, we wanted to be completely sure it wasn't The Right Church before we turned around and left.

They confirmed that they were not The Right Church. We decided that the post office (which turned out to be a one-person operation) would probably know where we were headed and would be able to point us in the right direction. And we were right about that. They told Betsy M. that we needed to turn around, go the opposite direction for half a mile, turn left and GO EIGHT TO 10 MILES, and we'd see the church on the left.

MapQuest, you have forsaken me for the last time. Plus or minus eight to 10 miles is NOT an acceptable margin of error FOR A WEB SITE WHOSE SOLE PURPOSE IS TO DIRECT PEOPLE FROM DOOR TO DOOR.

So our lovely 40 minutes of "Hey, we're early!" time immediately disappeared, and we took off toward The Right Church. But not before I took a picture of this beautiful little country church (also not The Right Church) that we passed on the way back to the main road. Gorgeous. Postcard perfect.

We drove and drove down that long road, and along the way we saw some people coming out of their houses, dressed in black. We thought they must be going to the funeral, too. I didn't know how many people to expect, but when Betsy called to tell me Joe had passed away, she giggled when I asked if it would be a small, family service. She was like, "Um, no. I'm thinking there will be a lot of people there. You're welcome to come."

Since Betsy M. and I didn't have any idea what the church looked like, we were worried we might miss it, so we kept our eyes peeled as we drove down the country road. And then, we found it.

We needn't have worried about driving right past it, since there were cars parked on both sides of the road for a quarter of a mile in both directions and up on the hill across the street from the church. The whole county had come out to say goodbye to Joe, it seemed.

It was standing-room-only, but Betsy M. and I were able to get seats. The first man who spoke was a friend of Joe's, whom Joe had asked to speak at his funeral years and years ago. The man said it was almost like he knew he needed to prepare for it, a decade before the leukemia was diagnosed.

He was quite a character ... after introducing himself and explaining that Joe had hand-picked him to speak, he said that we'd need to excuse him, that he'd have to leave through the side door immediately after his part of the service was complete:

"You see, I have to be at another funeral at 3:00 over in Mississippi. Sad story, really ... my wife's nephew was kilt, and to make matters worse, 'twas his WIFE who kilt him. So men, watch out."

I wasn't sure if we were meant to laugh, but several people chuckled at that. He gave a moving tribute to Joe, and then he passed the baton to the pastor. He did leave by the side door, but he snuck back in (he literally crept across the stage!) to retrieve his wristwatch, which he'd left on the lecturn so he wouldn't run past his allotted time to speak. Like I said, a real character!

The rest of the service was uneventful, and afterward we were able to meet Betsy's sisters and their families, and I got to speak to her parents again, whom I'd met for the first time a few weeks before. My heart was breaking for Betsy, who had been with Joe for eight years, and who had been a real rock for him throughout his illness. I was glad she had her family there to support her.

It was about time for Betsy M. and me to get back on the road to Birmingham, so we climbed back in the car and grabbed a quick bite to eat at a local restaurant. Two things of note happened there: 1) Our waitress said, "You two don't look like you're familiar with our restaurant," which Betsy M. said was a really nice way to say, "You're not from around here, are you?", and 2) We ate the best chicken fingers that either of us had ever had. The. Best. YUM.

Anyway, after that delicious lunch at Robert's (no Web site; sorry!), we hopped back in the car and headed north. Allow me to share with you a few things that we saw on the way home (we'd passed them on the way there, too, but were in such a hurry that we didn't stop to take pictures).

These signs, Grayson later told me, look like the Burma-Shave signs from the '30s and '40s (Betsy M., that explains why we thought the last two signs in the series said "Bama Shove."):

Right around that same stretch of road, we came across something for which I have no words. It was a field, but a field populated by some sort of haystack art. Every piece was different, and all but the Tin Man were decorated bales of hay. I will leave you with this series, courtesy of rural Alabama.

And one last word for Joe ... Thank you for showing me a side of my state that I didn't know existed, a side that I discovered driving down your country roads on the most beautiful day of the year. You were clearly a man of integrity, a man who loved his friends, family and co-workers, who inspired the best in people. You are, in turn, loved by so many, and you will be missed.

* I wrote ZIP Code that way because ZIP is the acronym for "Zone Improvement Plan." I think every time in my whole life I've ever typed it, someone has asked me why I capped "ZIP." So, no need to ask. There it is.


Sarah T. said...

I like it when Mapquest directs you to "turn left on local road."

Chris D. Hilton said...

I was sitting in the hospital NICU waiting area as I read this post on my laptop. Started laughing out loud, face turned red and then I was forced to read about “You see, I have to be at another funeral at 3:00 over in Mississippi. Sad story, really … my wife’s nephew was kilt, and to make matters worse, ‘twas his WIFE who kilt him. So men, watch out.”

Being from a southern red neck area myself I am sure you miss quoted this fine gentlemen who would have said “to make matters worser, ‘twas his WIFE what kilt him. You simple don’t quite speak the same dialect.

Unknown said...

Well I do declare sounds like you had a true Southahn experience! Love the "it's his wife who kilt him" story. only in Alabama! (or maybe Missippy ;)
I've seen those demopolis sculptures too i think it's the "Birdman" - cool huh! I missed the 'burma shave' though was that on same road? cool.

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