This interview is one part of a series written by our 2020 CBF Summer Ministry Intern, Emmaline Rogers.
Mary Smith was at the church for her second funeral this summer when she walked past my door, paused, and said hello. She told me that she’d been meaning to send me an email about an interview. I wrote down her contact information and promised to send her an email to arrange a time, and she continued down the hall to see the rest of her family that had gathered for the funeral.
“I think it became real for me when we couldn’t gather at church anymore,” she said when I asked her about he pandemic a week later over the phone. “You heard of it affecting other people and that was terrible and you put ‘em on your prayer list, but it hit home when it affected me being able to come to church.” She has been missing her “church peeps.” “When you worship with a number of people over years, there’s just a connection there that you just can’t really describe. It’s different from most other relationships.” The adjustment to online worship was, though missing the important factor of sharing the experience and space with her church family, not terrible for Mary. “I can’t tell you enough about our church staff and their efforts to get people together on all levels they can to worship, and they have actually accomplished that, and it’s not quite as bad as it seemed like it would be at first when they said we can’t gather in the sanctuary anymore. Actually, come to find out, it is good and it feels good to see the sermons in the sanctuary because it’s so familiar, but, at the same time you really don’t need the premises, so to speak, to maintain the relationships. The sermons have been wonderful, our Sunday school Zooms are great…it’s as good, I think.”
I asked her what the most impactful church-related experience has been for her this summer. “I mean I’ve had two funerals there, so, that was pretty impactful! But kidding aside, I can’t say enough about how the funerals were handled, I mean they just saw to every detail and they addressed it in such a good way and made sure it was safe for those who were there. I couldn’t have appreciated that more. Also the sermons, the evenings we had in the grove…that was wonderful to see everybody, and it was hard to safe distance, but everybody did it and they wore their masks, and we were all just happy to be together. And we knew that if we didn’t abide by what we needed to do, that we probably couldn’t keep doing that, so everybody was conscious of that so we could keep doing it.”
The process of having a funeral in the middle of a pandemic was, as much as a funeral can be, a positive one. “When I spoke with Stephen about Joel’s funeral, we probably spent about five minutes on the phone, and he wanted to know what I wanted. And I said well, I feel kinda silly telling you what I want for the funeral…I can’t imagine me telling you to do something you wouldn’t do in a better way. And there wasn’t any specific Bible verses or songs or anything…We like a lot of songs, and every time I pick up the Bible there’s things meaningful for me to read and hear…I just said I want you to do it, and you will do it in the best way possible, and he absolutely did. He and Julia just did a beautiful job. And then the rest of everyone…took a task and followed it through to the point where it was done…they had someone standing there to write the names down so that people didn’t have to cross-use the pens. I mean, those details were just unbelievable how they thought through those details. And the coming in the sanctuary and the leaving, it was just as safe as it could have possibly been…I just can’t say enough about how they did that.”
These past weeks have been “an adjustment” for Mary. “I’m sad. I have my moments. But you know it’s okay, it’s okay. I pray through the moments. You know, God is with us, and He makes sure He sees us through everything, and anybody that thinks they don’t need prayer or they don’t need a relationship with Christ, I don’t know how they get through tough times like this.” Her parents died when she was young, and left behind notes and a well-worn Bible, pieces of their life; “it was almost like they were speaking with me about how to handle things in a godly way.” This is a different grief, but the religion that Mary learned from her parents has been able to guide her through. “I call it a sort of walk-out-of-their-shoes when they just die suddenly. Navigating these days is very strange, but it’s okay. It’s alright. It’s going to be okay.”
The pandemic has affected the usual way we show comfort to others; physical contact is dangerous, as is sharing a room with someone. But Mary’s friends and loved ones found safe ways to demonstrate their love for her. “As far as people coming to visit, like a lot of people that bring things over to the house when this first occurred, food and flowers, there [were] no hugs, and there were people who wanted to hug, and I just couldn’t do that…with a pandemic, you can’t start hugging. It just wasn’t safe to do. So I didn’t, I didn’t, and I just let them know we were safe-distancing. And most everyone was very cognizant of the pandemic, and they brought things that were packaged from other places that they didn’t prepare in their own home. So everyone was very mindful of the pandemic. When they came over to my house for the most part they stayed at the door and passed it through the door, you know some of them came in but they were here very briefly, and just brought in and offered condolences and left readily. That just made it better for everybody. It was different, in that you’re just used to huggin’ and doing all that for a funeral, but you have to be mindful, we are in a pandemic, and you have to be mindful of that.”
In the early months of the pandemic, Mary’s routine faced several significant changes. “For one, I wasn’t working, so that was different.” She also began to shop differently. “I grew up in the country, so when you grow up in the country, when you go to the store, you prepare to go to the store once a week or maybe sometimes twice a week, and so I found myself doing that again. For instance, before the pandemic, living in the city if you forget the milk when you’re at the store earlier, you can run out and get the milk again and still have dinner on the table on time. But during the pandemic I’m limiting my time and times I go into the store, so I’m very diligent about my list and that I get what I need while I’m there…I don’t shop for things that are unnecessary…My husband used to say to me, and I took offense to it the first time he said it, he said “You’re not a shopper, you’re a buyer,’ and I thought he was saying that I spent too much money and of I course I responded with, ‘I am not!” and he said, “No, you know what you need, you go in and you get it and you come back out, you don’t shop around for sales or deals or what else you can buy,” and I said ‘well you’re right’…I just wasn’t raised to do that.”
Since they were both at home, Mary was able to spend more time with her husband. “…We had some real quality time together for two months before he died. And if we hadn’t been in the pandemic he would have been going to the office for fourteen hours a day like usual and coming home and having dinner and going to bed like we always do, and I’m very thankful for that time. We took long walks, we talked about things, we laughed, we got in the kitchen together and cooked great meals and laughed about that too because we were the only two people enjoying it and we weren’t sure we could repeat it again…we enjoyed time with the dogs. We had more family time, so to speak, together.” Her favorite thing they’d do together was “I guess our walks. Because when we’d go out and walk in our neighborhood, all the neighbors would be out. We live on the corner across the street from the park that’s in our neighborhood so we already see everybody that goes to the park. But everybody was coming to the park, and those that were too busy and working were out there too. Because they weren’t busy and working at their office anymore. So we’ve met a lot of neighbors, and actually sometimes the corners got crowded with all the dogs, like, you cross first, no you go ahead. And seeing all the drawings on the sidewalk from the children! And I told them all, ‘I’ve got a corner lot, y’all come over if you run out of space in front of your house, come over and use my sidewalk’ and they did and our sidewalks are just full of children’s drawings in chalk. I think that was the best times we had, just being out and meeting new people who we’ve been living here for twenty years and didn’t know ‘em.”
“I think the hardest part was isolation from people that we see on a regular basis. We were limiting our visits with his parents, we were going out there once a week instead of two or three times, or just whenever we wanted to drop in whenever we were out in that directions, and we’d had groups of friends we would get together with every now and then, I’m in a garden club, I miss those ladies they have been so wonderful to me since Joel’s death. And then a book club, and just, you know, Sunday school people, and calling each other up and saying hey we’re going to so and such place after church, lets all go, you know walk into a restaurant and say hey, there’s twenty two of us,” she laughed.
Joel’s father died shortly after Joel passed. “He would have days when he wasn’t cognizant of his surroundings, and then the days that he did know what was going on, he was just very sad from losing Joel. So those few days he had between Joel’s death and his own, I’ll just say this, he wasn’t having fun anymore…It just was what it was. His mom is doing remarkably well, of course she has her moments, losing her son, her only son, and her husband…and they say the loss of a child the absolute worst loss you can go through. But she’s hanging in there. So far so good.” She and her mother-in-law call each other often, sometimes four times a day, but always at least once.
I asked about her prayer life. “Boy, it’s picked up about 100%. [In the pandemic] you have more time TO pray. Unfortunately, because we live in a world that there’s so many distractions and shiny things, they can kinda take your attention. And when that all stopped, there was more prayerful time and due diligence with reading God’s word and studying it and really being present with God. Then of course with the death, my goodness, I can’t quit praying. I can’t stop praying. I pray while I’m walking my dogs, I walk out of the door saying ‘God is great, God is good, thank you for these good dogs, y’all are going to be good, right?’” “But yeah, I am a lot more prayerful. Especially when I have those moments and things come up. It’s really strange, you know you expect the big things that come up with a death. You see them coming and you expect them and you know they’re going to be tough times. There’s times I’m not even thinking about him and I’ll be in casual conversation, for instance the other morning someone…commented on the dogs, and I said well, WE have, and WE will always have. I’m having a hard time moving away from We and Our and Us.” “Yeah, well, you just take deep breaths and those moments pass. But it’s things like that that kind of catch you that you’re not expecting. It’s those little things that take your breath away.”
Her favorite thing to eat recently has been “Tomato sandwiches. Yeah, nothing else sounds good. For about five weeks I lived off of tomato sandwiches.” She makes them out of fresh tomatoes and bread, with mayonnaise and a bit of salt. During the pandemic, she’d gotten to know Joel better as a cook. “Well, he loved to embellish everything he made, he would put as many ingredients in a dish as he could think of. And I’m more of a simpler cook. But we would get in the kitchen together…I would do the fresh herbs and such and he would do the spices and sauces and stuff. He liked to do more hearty things, you know this started in March so we were still in kind of colder weather, and he liked to do short ribs…he did more hearty dishes and I would pull out some fresh seafood, we would go to the Paradise seafood and get fresh shrimp and fresh things, and I like to cook more stovetop and fresh things. But he would put some awesome dishes in the oven that would have to cook all day…” She laughed at how the dogs used to stay in the kitchen all the time because the meal smelled so good.
When Mary remembers the pandemic itself, “I will think of how fearful everyone was. I was thumbing through my Bible the other day and there was a little piece of paper that fell out, and this was WAY before your time, but there was a lady named Corey ten Boone and she wrote some books, she was a holocaust survivor, she was just a brilliant lady, and one of her quotes fell out of my bible… ‘Never be afraid of an unknown future with a known God.” And that just sort of hit the nail on the head with this pandemic…the fear of the unknown is pretty powerful. And that’s when we absolutely have to hunker down and pray our fear out. So I think that’s what I’ll remember most, is the fear factor.”
But, when it comes to remembering this summer and the connections she made, “I don’t know what I would have done that night that Joel died if Stephen hadn’t been there with me. He loved him and he was as shocked as I was, and we both were just devastated about the news and he was so supportive and I kept telling him he didn’t need to hang around with me all night, he needed to go home and have dinner with his family, and he said ‘no, Amy wouldn’t let me in the house if I did go home.’ But having him there…boy I don’t know what I would have done if he hadn’t been there. Because that connection, having him there that night, during the pandemic, that night was the one.”
At the end of the interview I asked Mary if there was any part of her experience this summer that we hadn’t gone over “Oh, we didn’t cover the traffic!” she exclaimed. “The traffic was a lot better, everybody was off of the streets, it was kind of fun to go to the store!…it was kind of like a snow day in a way!”
Mary has had to endure a lot this summer. Yet, through it all, she has been able to rely on God’s love to help get her through. Small things like tomato sandwiches, sidewalk chalk, and light traffic have brought her joy, and the support from her “church peeps” has been incredibly meaningful to her. As she said, there are hard moments, but they pass, and she prays her way through them. The little, simple things bring her joy and, along with her faith, will continue to carry her through these hard times.