Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

A Father Supports His Daughter, and a Daughter Honors Her Father and Family—“Memento Mori: Life and Death Moment by Moment” at Alton, Illinois, First Unitarian Church

Over the Labor Day weekend I offered a service at the First Unitarian Church in Alton, Illinois, on the corner of 3rd and Alby. This was my sister Julia Ann Thompson's church and my cousin Irene Riehl's church before her. Now it is the church of my niece and her husband and their daughters.

My niece's family took advantage of the last of the summer to go camping in Elephant Rock. My father drove the two of us to church in his big white Buick packed with books and violin. After the service we offered copies of my book "Sightlines: A Poet's Diary" for sale as a benefit for the church during the coffee hour.

The Alton Church accepted the basic design of the service including readings and hyms that I'd given in Lake County, Northern California for the Unitarian community there. Their services used to be held at the Yacht Club where we could gaze out at the sea-like Clear Lake.

Although the talk I gave Sunday (I have a hard time using the word "sermon") is slightly revised from the earlier one a year ago (June 2006), you can read the text of "Memento Mori: Life and Death Moment By Moment" here on Riehlife in the talks at readings section.
You can read a description of the service in the First Unitarian Focus Newsletter here. I was most fortunate that Rev. Khleber M. Van Zandt was the liturgist for the service. Our entire family enjoys his warmth, clarity, and just plain good sense.

Before the service started Grace Madison and I were chatting in her pew. Someone told me Khleber was ready to start. I popped up to the front where I was supposed to be, warmed by my visit with Grace. I told Khleber I'd been chatting with Grace. He did a double-take and then smiled, saying, "We should take our Grace wherever we find it."

Most precious to me was my father's presence at the service. We arrived early to test out the logistics and acoustics in the sanctuary since we both were providing instrumental breaks during the sermon. My father sat in the front right-hand pew with the violin beside him.

Erwin A. Thompson, contented nonegenarian, author, and folk treasure

I was able to step down from the pulpit to pick up the violin to play phrases from "Someone to Watch Over Me" and then leave the violin there for my father to use later. I was also able to step down from the pulpit to stand next to my father and share a hymnal with him while he steadied himself on the arm of the pew and we sang together.

My talk "Memento Mori: Life and Death Moment by Moment" is a meditation on mortality that weaves in poems from "Sightlines: A Poet's Diary" and instrumental breaks.

Wikipeda defines Memento mori as: a Latin phrase that may be freely translated as "Remember that you are mortal," "Remember you will die," or "Remember your death". It names a genre of artistic creations that vary widely from one another, but which all share the same purpose, which is to remind people of their own mortality. You may also enjoy reading the longer article about Memento Mori here.

I tightened my talk to conform to the recommended time limits, leaving out my poem "Stay a Little Longer." The remaining poems woven inside the text of the message were "Quail Visitation" (about a quail that flew into our window in Lake County), "King's Sake" (for my father), "Heartbeat," and three poems on rainbows (an excerpt from "Just like you and me," "Double Rainbow Wisdom," and "Ashes Washed Clean" for my godchildren Thomas Alvarado and Andria Ebel). I dedicated my talk to my sister Julia Ann Thompson and my mother Ruth Evelyn Johnston Thompson.

Since my father at 91 was one of the older folks in church that morning, his presence at a sermon with a message of meditating on mortality really made the day. I read "King's Sake" about his aging and mortality and "Heartbeat" about the birth of his newest great-grandchild after his wife's death. My father stood up and rapped out a strong heartbeat on his Aunt Mim's violin (now mine). Slowly, the heartbeat faded. It felt to me like such an honest acknowledgement of his mortality and fragility. Such courage and dignity my father gives us all in inspiration.

Later, in between the second and third rainbow riffs, he played "When You Come to the Rainbow's End," singing these words as he played, in true fiddler style:

The say there are treasures of silver and gold
buried down by the rainbow's end.
The treasures I find are real peace of mind
when you come to the rainbow's end.

Privately, Khebler pronounced our combined efforts filled with grace and transcendent. That's good enough for me.

At the end of the service, I pulled my father over next to me so we could be on the same side of the receiving line and greeting folks as they left the sanctuary. We heard two rainbow stories. A young man from Israel told us that to Orthadox Jews a rainbow is a reminder of God's mercy (after wrath) because the rainbow first appears in the Old Testament after the flood.

Another man told us a rainbow story from a time when he was studying geology at the University of Hawaii. As it happened, staying in a high-rise dormitory in the tropics, he found himself looking at a rainbow on both sides of the building and he was standing right in the middle. I love this image of being embraced by a rainbow.

During the coffee hour my father held court with his usual aplomb and managed to entertain a passle of new fans. We'd tucked away his poem "Pretty Words" in hopes that he'd have a chance to read it during the coffee hour and naturally he did and this was a fine hit, especially the stanza that related to our service:

Speak not of being buried,
It sounds so dismal, and oppressed.
We've got to gloss the facts of life.
In modern times, we're "Laid to rest".

Then, he easily passed it on to his newest friend. With any luck, you'll be able to read the rest of "Pretty Words" on Riehlife tomorrow.

Back home we ate a late mid-day meal of garden tomatoes and omellette. Pop confessed he hadn't heard a word I said, only responded to my visual cues of when to come in (since I'd already walked him through the talk)...and, I burst out laughing. When I went out to grocery shop, you can believe he had some homework to read.

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6 Responses »

  1. What a service you and your father performed at this service, Janet.

  2. Well, you just never know where the gifts will come from. Memento mori. I did take Latin in high school, but had not thought about this term in years. I will print out your sermon and set aside some time for tears tonight.

  3. Your presentation on Sept. 2 was so moving and most appropriate. Many
    people told me how inspired they were by your words, and the presence
    of your father was an added blessing. Thank you so much for sharing
    your art, your experience, and your wisdom from your heart.

    Khleber Van Zandt

  4. YOU are embraced by rainbows and bring us all to your side with your powerful writing!

  5. I found the description of your service so moving and touching, I would have loved to have been there to experience it. I'm the Worship Coordinator at our UU Church in Riverside, CA (Southern CA). Our theme this year (2007-2008) is "Expect the Sacred". It seems like your presention was just that...Sacred. If you are going to be out west, perhaps arrangements can be made for your presence at our UU church.

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