Pearls to Pay Forward

Consciousness felt its way through the weave of the screens with the crow cries. Nana’s bare feet plucked at the linoleum downstairs, moving toward the kitchen door where the dogs stood, fanning the air. I lay still, eyes closed. There was something else, an image, a niggling whisper.

Remembering how I had wrapped my final baby tooth in tissue, I slid my hand beneath the pillow. Usually, it was a coin, occasionally a dollar bill, and once a bar of halvah. I pulled out my prize, sat up and looked at a string of perfect pearls, exquisitely round and unabashedly grown up.

I hurried downstairs and found my Nana. She patted my bed hair, handed me a cup of honeyed coffee and cream, and told me how an oyster takes an intruding bit of grit and surrounds it with soft smoothness to make a pearl. And that it can take years.

Barbara Lorie died on Monday at age 93. I didn’t know her well, but we swam in the same circles, occasionally crossing paths. I would turn a corner and feel the hum, a hive-like buzz that signaled Barbara’s presence. She was charismatic, outspoken, and prone to profanity. Barbara’s “Who are you?” had the disconcerting effect of pushing you off balance while putting you at ease. She was a teacher, a mother, an idealist, a civil rights advocate, and a fundamental force behind the creation of Blue Heron Farm Community.

I stayed up late the night before Barbara’s funeral reading the first chapter of her autobiography. She described her early childhood in an upper-middle-class household supported by nannies, cooks, and gardeners. She loved watching her mother prepare for an evening out by spraying cologne into her handkerchief and draping a strand of pearls around her elegant neck. When Barbara was ten her father died and his funeral drew thousands.

The next morning I pulled on a black dress and noticed Nana’s pearls on top of my dresser. I had dug them out because I’m going to give them to my oldest grandniece. Alanna reminds me of myself in the way she takes responsibility for her younger siblings. Rather than take those pearls to my grave, I want to acknowledge my niece’s sacrifice. I will show her how to scrape her teeth lightly over one. “Does it feel slightly gritty?” I’ll ask, “Like sandpaper?” That’s how you know they are real.

Pearls go great with little black dresses. I would wear them one last time.

Nickolas was directing traffic when I arrived at Blue Heron. Mary drove up at the same time so, we parked and walked into the farm together, past a stunning stained glass blue heron. We joined a stream of people carrying food, some in black, many in bright colors. Who I didn’t know, Mary did. By the time we put our cookie plates in the food tent, we had hugged dozens.

Barbara wanted a raucous send-off, and that is what she got. She rested in her cardboard casket atop a colorful wooden cart while we held hands in a big circle, and then, in her cart, she led the procession to the burial site. The Bulltown Strutters came next, all drums and horns, brassy and Mardi Gras-loud. They were followed by hundreds of mourner-celebrants, some carrying giant Paperhand Puppets, billowy silk banners, and orange and black butterflies. Mary and I waved our butterflies to make their wings open and close.

Our destination was a large meadow with chairs facing a steep-sided red clay hole. A woman handed out programs, someone had put out drinking water, and a big pile of dirt waited on the far edge of the field. I chose a seat close to Lyle, David came and sat on my left, and Arlo—Tami and Lyle’s son—joined us a little later.

Longtime Blue Heron affiliate, Gary, kicked off a parade of tributes with some well-chosen words. Stacey made us laugh with, “I was Barbara’s favorite neighbor.” Tami spoke of their long friendship and said that Barbara was looking forward to seeing Zafer—Tami and Lyle’s other son who we buried with a similar ceremony three years ago. Many spoke about Barbara’s indelible influence, about how her unabashed and forthright manner encouraged them to be themselves. Several young people testified to her profound impact on their lives and one vowed to honor Barbara’s memory by paying it forward.

When it was time to lower Barbara into her grave, I reached for Arlo’s hand and let the tears flow. Home burial is raw and real. There are no buffers. Cemetery staff doesn’t finish the dirty work; it’s up to friends and families with shovels and hoes, in sandals and tennis shoes. As I watched people drop handfuls of peony petals and red clay into that straight-sided hole, I saw her legacy in action.

Here are my takeaways from Barbara’s funeral: Legacies are what happen when we inspire others by being ourselves. All our words and actions leave impressions on those around us. Best be aware of what kinds of seeds you plant. Keep a lid on the weeds. Take your pearls and pay them forward.

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