Janet Holladay’s Homily

Theological Reflection: Day of Remembrance, Nov. 1, 2009
Janet Holladay, MTS, ALM
Chilmark Community Church, United Methodist
Good morning! First I would like to say that I am not standing
here in front of you as an ordained minister. Although it is true
that I have been lucky in my life to have had some special learning
situations — both formal and informal — but today I stand here
simply as a member of our collective Vineyard community.
I grew up in a nondenominational Protestant church, and am now
active in the Unitarian church; so my theology may differ from yours
in some ways. But like many of you, I have lived here for a long time.
Like many of you, I have known illness and loss, have been unlucky in
love, but also have laughed and danced and sang. like many of you, I
have been happy to see friends marry and watch their children grow,
been sad to see some friends leave for other places, mourned the
friends who died. I feel lucky to be part of small-town living, and am
grateful to be here, to share this time with you. What I would like
to offer today is a theological reflection, because that is what my
training and experience has been.
Last week took my mother for a drive. I wanted to show her the fall
foliage up-Island where it was particularly spectacular on the North
Road. I prefer, myself, to ooh-and-aah fall foliage like some show of
fireworks — the next maple even more brilliant than the one before —
on a cloudy day, a misty gray day, when the colors are saturated and
it feels as if you are entering a paint box. Last Sunday, however, was
glorious and sunny — a fabulous day — and to me the colors of the
foliage seemed washed out. But my mother was happy with the display
and she exclaimed several times over the glittery, shining sunlight
that bounced throughout the trees in the woodlands as we drove by. It
was as if she was seeing that light for the very first time.
But also I could see on her face another unspoken question, a
question that colors her life right now as surely as the diminishing
chlorophyll and the cooling temperatures at night color the trees on
the lovely rural roads of Chilmark: it may be the first time she drove
these roads with such pleasure in autumn; might it also be the last
My mother is 87 and 11/12 years old — her birthday is about a
month away, although she has been telling people all year that she
is 88. She operates a little bit like the Steamship Authority’s Woods
Hole parking lot which uses the calendar day. She goes by the calendar
year. Do the math, 2009 minus 1921 is 88, so come January first she
will feel 89, even though she just had her 88th birthday.
My mother moved to assisted living on the Island 3 1/2 months ago,
by my invitation. It had become clear to her and the family that she
could no longer live alone in the house in Ohio where she had been for
46 years, the town where she had spent most of her adult life. She was
willing and even eager to come live near me, but life can be confusing
to her now, and she never realized until she really got here, that
living here meant she no longer lived there.
The reality of getting old, and perhaps, I don’t know for sure,
the shadow of death, are ever present on her mind. That sudden loss
of light from death’s shadow visited our family 11 years ago when my
father, her husband of 50 years, died; at the same time that I, her
only daughter, was undergoing intensive treatment for a cancer which
had returned less than a year after it was first diagnosed and treated.
I always wondered if my father exquisitely timed his passing to free
my mother to come to my side, and not have to choose between caring
for him and caring for me.
Last Sunday when I saw on my mother’s face, both the wonder at
the beauty of the world and at the same time the fear of losing it —
like a tomato whose green is inexorably ripening to red as it prepares
to fall from the living vine — I felt surprised, and a little
afraid, too. Suddenly, like her, I felt vulnerable, and an incredible
tenderness for the beauty and fragility of the world seized me. I
could taste how sad and lonely I will be when she does die and how
I won’t really understand what it means when she goes there, and so
cannot be here anymore.
How grateful I felt last Sunday to have my hands on the steering
wheel of her car, and that she was still right there in the seat
beside me, drinking in the golden, flashing sunlight, the colors of the
autumn trees.
For it is the ripening time of year. All around us we can see it.
Tomatoes’ lush redness and smooth texture entice us to pluck and eat
them, which serves the plant well in its need to disperse the tiny
seeds neatly protected within the fleshy fruit. Everywhere we see
berries red and attractive, on the viburnum, the holly, the sumac.
Milkweed pods are splitting open, releasing white, fluffy, spinning,
youthful flyers into the air. The chestnuts send their young off in
prickly, spiny capsules, well protected and able to catch a ride. What
do any of these seeds know of the world that is opening up to them?
I am stunned by fall’s fullness yet know winter’s icy grip will
come that much closer in tomorrow’s bare branches. What is it I need
when I see life’s light emboldened by death’s shadow in my mother’s
eyes? As I remember the intense preparation that goes into the fireworks
of the fall of the year, the time of abundant harvest; as I remember
the nurturance involved and the predictable, dependable orderliness
from blossom to seed pod; I long to participate in that generativity,
in that productivity of life becoming more life. I long to participate
somehow, in seeing the potential of life being realized, life that
goes on in the face of the winter to come.
So, as my mother nurtured me; now, I will nurture her. I do what
I can, as she did when I was young, even though it may not seem like
much, may not seem like enough. Last week we drove the hills of
Chilmark in search of the seasonal display of fall foliage, grateful
for each other, though we spoke it not in words.
It was a memorable ride, but after an hour — that was all the time
I had, obligations elsewhere (always, it seems, though I would never
had made the ride in the first place except for her!) — after our
unexpectedly rich pilgrimage we found ourselves joining more and more
cars until gradually the woodlands were replaced by buildings, and we
were back in town. I turned to her and said: “Do you know where we
are?” “Vineyard Haven,” she said…

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