A friend died recently, an occurrence that unfortunately comes more often with each passing year (another friend observed wryly that “funerals are among the few social occasions I have any more”).
I was a lad of six or so when we moved across the street from her family. Her father, president of one of the two banks in our small town, was I suppose by the standards of the time, wealthy. Nicer folks one couldn't ask for. She, her sister, and their kindly mother treated me as one of the family, graciously ignored my country boy rambunctiousness, were generous with homemade cookies and lemonade on sweltery, un-airconditioned summer days. More importantly, they allowed me free run of their extensive upstairs library. Any book was mine for the asking; never once was I cautioned, “That one may be too old for you,” or “You may not understand it.” Many's the hour I spent, years before the advent of mind-numbing TV, whiling away lazy afternoons in the swing on their tree-shaded front porch, reading, reading.
I was barely in grammar school when she went off to do her part for her country in World War II, serving in the Women's Army Corps. At war's end, she returned home, completed work to become a Methodist missionary, and joined her sister, already a missionary in the Philippines. Years later, when her elderly parents needed care, she returned home to be with them, and after their deaths, began yet another career as a librarian at Ole Miss, happily working with students there until her retirement. She went home again, giving more years to church and community and, finally, died in the same house in which she came into this world 80-odd years ago.
Sitting in the church in which we grew up, I remembered — as did the host of friends and family — the love, selflessness, and great good humor that characterized her time on this earth. Just a girl from rural, small town Mississippi, the lives she touched spread ever outward, like ripples in a pool. And all were better for having known her.
This week, when we have been remembering the collective loss our nation suffered a year ago on Sept. 11, in unimaginable infernos of hate and destruction, it seemed to me somehow fitting that the life of my friend symbolize the America we hold dear (and too often have taken for granted).
As a people, as Americans, as a country, we have been ever generous, ready to help the less fortunate, whether here or half a world away; open, welcoming, even to those who despised us and would do us harm; trusting, believing that all humankind is inherently good; and always ready to defend our country and the principles on which it was founded.
On Sept. 11, 2001, we were suddenly, dramatically, forcibly shown the face of evil, of hate, and our lives were inescapably altered.
But America's spirit remains unbowed. Our generosity, our love, our selflessness, our steadfast adherence to principle, continue to be reflected in the lives of this country's sons and daughters.