A lot of times you hear about a funeral being a celebration, but it doesn’t feel that way.
But with Elzie Whittington, childhood friends Scooter and Teo’s grandmother who was always “Grandma” to me, it was truly the case.
The stylish silver hat that lay atop her coffin was just one indicator of the strength, wisdom, courage and compassion she displayed during each of her 95 years before she passed last Sunday.
Born in 1916 as one of 16 children to her parents in Ashland, Mississippi, she first showed her wisdom at an early age by learning how to sew in order to get out of the hot sun, said the pastor who presided over the ceremony. She only showed further wisdom, he added, by accepting Jesus in her heart and basing her life on love.
It was a fruitful one.
After moving to Chicago, she met and married George Whittington in 1935. The couple had five children before he died in 1953, leaving her a widowed single mother.
Grandma didn’t blink.
Instead she rolled up her sleeves and continued the hard but rewarding work of raising her children to be decent, contributory people.
She succeeded, too, as the first row at A.A. Rayner’s filled with smartly-dressed children, grandchildren and other relatives attested.
Grandma didn’t just get by, though.
She brought all kinds of loving touches to her family, cooking memorably delicious meals, sewing clothes and cutting family members’ hair in the latest styles.
The family reciprocated the love she gave, as we heard through the series of moving tributes.
Teo’s younger cousin Will Worley read a letter from Sage, Scooter’s daughter who could not attend the funeral because she was taking her final exams.
“Thank you for teaching me that saying ‘What’ is not polite,” Sage wrote at the beginning of her list of sources of gratitude. “Thank you for making me a corsage when it was my time.”
Later, Scooter’s mother told me that Grandma made each of her granddaughters a corsage for their Sweet 16.
In Sage’s case, she was 94 years old when she did the work.
The pastor made the point that the Bible only promises 70 years, so that Grandma had a quarter century of life on God’s time.
When I spoke, I mentioned that the pastor may be right, but Grandma never looked more than 60 or 70 years old to me.
I also talked about her sense of humor, remembering how after Scooter’s wedding Grandma, Teo, Mrs. Lee, family friend Bev and I were driving along talking about the wedding.
Who wore what.
Who said what.
Then we started laughing.
All of us laughed so hard for what felt like 15 minutes that eventually I said, “My smile is starting to hurt.”
A twinkle in her eye, Grandma led that charge.
Teo sprang up after I spoke.
Pain in his eyes, he talked about Bill Withers’ song, “Grandma’s Hands.” It was all right for other people’s grandmothers to co-star in the song, he said, but this was Grandma’s song.
After the ceremony, Jon and I went to Aunt Linda’s house, site of a legendary barbeque on July 4, 2003. We reunited with the family and did what you do after funerals: eat; enjoy each other’s company; eat some more; and visit some more.
It was precisely the kind of gathering Grandma would have loved, everyone agreed.
To begin, the food was bountiful and lovingly prepared.
Fried chicken. Barbequed chicken. Two types of lasagna. Pasta salad. Four types of cake.
I caught up with Scooter.
We swapped notes about the college application process and how we deal with our kids’ dating lives. We shared our conviction about how positively our elementary school teachers had impacted us. And we talked about work and love.
Mrs. Lee told me about Grandma’s last day, how she told one of her two remaining daughters that she was an Obama woman through and through.
If they were the only two people who voted for him next November, so be it, Grandma said.
We visited with Teo and Sylvia, saw their children Julien and Raven, and then needed to return home for dinner with Aidan, who had just flown in after completing his first semester at Tulane.
We passed Scooter on the street outside Aunt Linda’s house.
We hugged, said we loved each other and drove to the highway, edified by Grandma’s legacy, challenged to live as fully in the time granted to us as she did in hers, and grateful for the unconditional love she gave and that I was one of so many people privileged to receive.