The pastor began the ceremony by pointing to a giant photograph of the deceased. He noted that “that smile will tell you more than anything my words can ever say.” It’s true that Ralph’s smile was ceaseless and wide and more than merely warm. The clergyman added, “Pay close attention this evening, and you may leave here a better person than when you came in.” He rightly explained that Ralph had been one of the very few of whom it could legitimately be said, “'You were always glad to see him.'”
There were moving testimonies from his family. His son Dan, who lives in Alaska, spoke to all his father’s experiences and achievements: he served three separate hitches in the military, for instance. But he kept coming back to one simple sentence: “He was my dad.”
Ralph’s friend Kenny, a hard-boiled Yankee who normally sheds about as many tears per year, I suspect, as Captain Ahab, was reduced to sobbing. “We were church trustees together. Now I can’t call him up for help...” Kenny couldn’t go on, and there were multiple others who couldn’t sustain speech for the emotion they felt.
Ralph’s widow, the wonderful, warm and tough-as-nails Marlene, told the crowd that she and Ralph had recently celebrated their fiftieth anniversary. She recalled that her own father once told Ralph, “If you don’t marry my daughter, I bet you’ll spend the next 25 years in jail.” Marlene recalled that on their 25th anniversary, Ralph crowed, “If I’d only listened to your dad, I’d be a free man tomorrow!”
That was Ralph all over.
It seemed extraordinary. so many faces contorted by simultaneous crying and laughing.
I don’t know if I came away a better person, but I came away with two significant responses. First, I noted that somehow that deep-gut, ultra-basic commentary of Kenny and Dan and others– no, to say it more accurately, their reduction to inarticulateness in spite of themselves: that was the most affecting part of the evening, as the most polished, precise and eloquent remarks could never have been.
We wordsmiths need to think about what that may mean.
Second, looking around, I found myself pondering my more cosmopolitan friends’ frequent assertion (on the basis, usually. of scant or no experience) that “nothing ever happens” in rural, postage stamp-sized towns like my own. They make that charge despite the fact, of course, that the most important things –birth, death, love, hate, courage, cowardice– are evident no matter where. In any case, having surveyed that crowd of farmers, mechanics, cops, cooks, lawyers, business people, and even, in my person, one hyper-educated Ph.D., I believed I’d beheld something crucial, which tends not to happen where those self-styled sophisticates tend to live. How many Americans nowadays can be witnesses at a top-to-bottom community ritual?
I need to think, too, about what that signifies to a poet, though I hope my work shows I’ve been thinking about it for many decades now.