I said goodbye to two friends this week. Both official services took place in old New England churches and involved beautiful music and good memories. One friend is very much living; the other, sadly, has passed on.
Last Tuesday I attended an organ recital performed by a friend who is moving out of state. It was his way of saying goodbye (temporarily, we hope) and Thank You to all the friends he had made while he lived here. I had known him a long time before I knew about his musical background. He was working in an unrelated business and spoke only briefly about it. And so it was a delightful discovery to finally hear him make the music and talk about it. If you were listening carefully, you understood that you were in the presence of a Master, and the discovery was all the sweeter because of his humility.
Then, on Friday, I went to a memorial service for a friend who died suddenly. I’d met him and his wife through a mutual friend almost 20 years ago. We’d shared meals together and evenings of lively conversation. He was amazing man who delighted in everything from the universe, to the angle of the winter sun, to the intricacies of a Mozart piano concerto.
It’s difficult to live near Boston and not encounter the “30-second rule.” I use this term to describe anyone who has a degree from an Ivy League college. If, when you first meet them, they can go longer than 30 seconds before referring to their Ivy League degree, I give them bonus points. Many of them fail this test.
Joe, however, was different. I never knew he had a PhD in Chemistry from MIT.
I currently work with a man who cannot stop himself from talking about his perceived accomplishments. No one is asking; he is just supplying the trivial elements of his life. We all agree that he is just too insecure and for no reason that we can identify: he’s friendly, he’s good at his job, he’s talented. Yet, he can’t let his work speak for itself.
In my own life, I have not accomplished anything to brag about. Instead, I am struggling with what I perceive as a lack of accomplishment.
Then I remind myself that I came of age when a woman in America had few rights that weren’t connected to her husband. I read old newspaper articles and am reminded that women did not even have first names as far as the newspapers were concerned. You were “Mrs. John Smith,” not “Catherine Hughes Smith.” Your credit cards were in your husband’s name and you signed the charge slips as “Mrs. John Smith.” And when Mr. Smith died, the department stores canceled your credit cards with no thought to simply transferring them in your name. Mrs. Smith didn’t matter much without Mr. Smith.
I tell you this not to brag about my respectable credit rating. No, I tell you this because I have seen prejudice first-hand; because I understand the code that people use to hold other people back, be it a young woman applying for her first job, an elderly voter suddenly turned away at the polls because of the new version of a poll tax on the poor, or a young black man simply walking down the street.
I have found my purpose in this teachable moment. Age does have some benefits. I would be remiss if I didn’t try to address this, not in this venue, necessarily, but in others.