No Rest

Edouard Hildebrandt

It happens often in rural parishes that priests preside at funerals for people they have never met. Parishioners have retired and moved away, but wish to be buried form the home church and in their family cemetery. Elderly people are in distant nursing homes or hospitals. Sometimes, a new priest simply has not found the time to visit someone housebound.

Such was the case with Elwyn. His little homestead was halfway up the mountain. I barely knew who he was. His world had shrunk to a hospital bed in the living room. I had been in my new parish only six weeks.

His wife and children cared for him. He was on oxygen, a victim of COPD. He rarely left the house. His wife, a woman who had faithfully attended the church for decades, was always by his side.  I had seen her briefly at an evening service, and while the household was on my visiting list, they had not yet made it into the next rota. The house lay in the second circle for visits; I would have been there in another two weeks.

Elwyn had caught cold. More likely, it was a bacterial infection brought in by one of the grandchildren. It took his life quickly, almost in a matter of hours.

The phone rang just as I was in my kitchen, having fed the sheep and made coffee. I was in clerics, but the collar was still unattached. It was Marcia, a neighbour and niece to Elwyn’s wife, Nina. “Uncle Elwyn’s passed,” she said. “The ambulance was just here. He couldn’t be resuscitated. Could you come out? Aunt Nina’s doing poorly.”

I put on my collar and drove up the mountain. Family and friends were arriving. Sons, daughters, daughters-in-law, grandchildren. Mother-in-law with sister-in-law. Cousins, siblings. The small house was crowded. The two nieces were busily cleaning, moving the hospital bed out to the porch, opening windows. They swept, shook out blankets, bundled sheets into the laundry. Nina sat at the kitchen table, holding her mother’s hands, barely moving.

I sat beside her. A niece put a cup of nescafe coffee in front of me. It was horrible, but I drank it in small sips as Nina slowly talked.

“He started to cough,” she said. “And then he started to choke. So I got behind him and lifted him, but he just gasped and died. Right there. In my arms. He was gone just like that.”

She had screamed for a grandson to call his father from next door. Harry had rushed in; his CPR efforts did not revive him. The ambulance arrived, and they worked on Elwyn for half an hour, They were too late. The pressure in his chest had stopped his heart.

He had been ill a long time, but his death was sudden. The stress of caring for her disabled husband had weakened Nina, too. Her heart was weak, her nerves frayed and raw.

The youngest grandson sat in a corner of the living room, weeping. He was pale and sweating. I put a hand on his forehead. He had a fever. He had contracted the same infection that had killed his grandfather. Alarmed, I asked him which of the many people in the room was his parent. He pointed to Maurice. “That’s my dad.”

I threaded through the crowd of coffee drinkers and took Maurice by the arm. “Sammy is sick.”

He looked startled through his thick glasses, then followed me to the corner. “Yeah, you’re right, he’s just burning up.”

I went to the bathroom, found a washcloth, soaked it in cold water, and went back to Sammy. I took the child, who was  about seven years old, on my lap, and bathed his face and neck. He coughed pitifully and leaned against me. He cried silent tears from fever and shock.

“Maurice, maybe you should take him to the clinic.”

Maurice nodded, and took the little boy in his arms. “Come on, partner. We’re going to go.” He found the child’s jacket and ushered him out the door.

Nina didn’t want the casket open at the viewing hours. Elwyn had been puffy with steroid induced edema. His face was mottled with broken capillaries, she said. She didn’t want to see him all made up, just so people could stare at him. She was nearly hysterical about it.  The funeral director and I didn’t push her. The family was troubled, but she had the right to decide. We agreed to hold the visiting hours in the church, and save the expense of the funeral chapel. I was doing the funeral at the church anyway. Elwyn would be buried in the little plot they had bought forty years before, when they had lost twin girls at birth. There was no stone, so I had the gravesite marked by the cemetery warden, but two days before the funeral, we had a hard freeze and a deep snow. We would not be opening the grave until spring.

The church was busy for the visiting hours. Sammy was still sick, and I put him in the vestry with books, toys and drawing equipment. He was tearful and somewhat drippy, but he had been prescribed an antibiotic and was already improving.

The funeral was uneventful. It was a typical Anglican funeral. A cousin played the anthems. Nina was tearful and upset that Elwyn was going in the vault, and not in the ground, but it was an expensive proposition to open a plot in the winter after the hard freeze and through snow. Mistakes had been made in the past. Without a clear triangulation of the plot, I dreaded the possibility of accidentally digging up a little white coffin.

The vault was a concrete walled building with a peaked roof, painted a plain medium grey. The door was securely locked. I had a key, the cemetery warden had a key, the funeral director had a key. It was dry and clean. In the summer, the gardener kept his maintenance tools and a lawn chair in the vault, and he would rest in its cool shade on hot days. The caskets were couched on steel racks. It was as secure and vermin-proof as the Tower of London treasure rooms. It was locked because one local, having lost his mother the year after the vault was built, took to visiting it before her interment. No one had thought it necessary to lock in the deceased.

I asked the sons to keep Nina in the church while we took Elwyn’s casket to the vault. She shook them off and walked out with us. She held a handkerchief to her mouth, a son at each arm, steadying her on the ice. The casket was slid into place, the door locked as I said prayers.

Nina got through the winter with help. She had her children, her family, her neighbours around her. She never mentioned the coming interment. Perhaps she had blocked it out of conscious thought.

I could not forget it. I had no problem with using the vault. It was an old thing rediscovered. In previous generations, those who died in deep winter were put in their coffins, the coffin wrapped in oiled or waxed cloth, and the coffin set on trestles in an empty granary or shed.  Some places tried to open the ground by building fires over the gravesite, but in our rock-bound mountaintop cemetery, this was impossible. A backhoe could open the frozen shale and gravelly loam, but caused too much damage going in. Stones were sometimes damaged, and the whole procession from church to grave was fraught with the danger of broken ankles.

I could not forget that the interment was delayed because Elwyn was restless. While his body and casket lay locked in the vault, I could sense and see his spirit prowling around the church, standing at the gates of the cemetery, shaking his head in impatience. I had to pass through the cemetery to feed the sheep twice a day, and I found myself hurrying to finish before sunset, when his presence was more apparent.

Caspar David Friedrich

I do not fear the dead or their spirits. But his cold, sometimes visible dissatisfaction was uncomfortable to pass through.

Spring came. Nina was composed and quiet through the interment. It was brief, with just the immediate family gathered. Sammy had grown a couple of inches since his birthday. He had matured quickly.

The sheep watched from the pasture. The sun was high, bright and warm. It was a different world from the spirit haunted winter snow, the icy winds, the moonlight shadowing a bulky, hunched figure at the lych-gate.

I did not see Elwyn again. I had never seen him in life, nor in the silent flesh; I knew him only as a shadow. I was satisfied that he had, finally, found rest.

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A Last Love

Clergy-in-training are cautioned time and again: Do not fall in love with a parishioner. It violates all the relational mores we are supposed to keep. It is not a relationship of equality. You, the clergy-person, hold forgiveness and sacrament. You are always the parent, never the partner.

I incautiously overstepped that rule once.

Lars was in hospital. Not the most modern, or the biggest, or even the closest, but the tiny twelve bed facility where I served as chaplain once a week and on call. I did not know Lars; I was new in the parish, and he rarely attended service. He was more likely to go to the Roman Catholic church on the far side of the parish boundary with his caregiver.

Lars was no longer young in body. His vision and hearing were failing. He had been a life-long bachelor, in a tidy little house in a glen over the ridge from the rectory and church. It was set in a lush meadow, with a merry brook running through. I doted on that farm. It evoked ancestral memories.

Lars was sitting up in bed, in the concentrated care room right off the nurses’ station. His caregiver, Antonia, was with him. It was late. There had been a difficulty of some sort getting him to hospital, a doctor arriving late, Lars detained, gray and coughing, in the emergency examining room for a couple of hours. It was dark: I had to get the porter to let me in.

With an oxygen cannula in his nose, Lars was improving. I whispered to Antonia as I met her, “Heart attack?” She shook her head. “No, just bad pneumonia again. It comes on him suddenly.” I held out my hand to Lars. “I don’t know you,” he said softly, in a sibilant Danish accent. “But I know who you are. Andy speaks highly of you.”

I looked to Antonia. “Andy – Anders Madsen. His nephew.” A warden, active in the church.

I pulled up a chair to the bedside. Antonia excused herself to go home.

“Not yet, Tonia,” Lars said. “You should get the reverend lady a cup of coffee or tea first.”

Antonia smiled. “If she wishes.”

I waved her out the door, protesting that I needed nothing. I was impressed, though, with the chivalry of this elegant elderly man, who addressed the hospitality owed a guest even as he was ill in hospital.

He turned clear blue eyes on me, and a high wattage smile. I returned the smile.

“My dear reverend lady,” he said. “Why are you here?”

“Because you are ill, and I have come to pray for you.”

“You don’t know me at all. You have never met me before. And yet you came all this way to see me, in the dark!”

“Of course.”

“Because it is your job?”

“Because I wanted to.”

I had received a call from the duty nurse, asking me to come in.  This wasn’t unusual, as I was the chaplain on call, and the clergy of record for almost half the county. I had charge of five churches with four congregations.  I had two classes of confirmation students, a total of twenty-five. My parish itself was in the hundreds of square miles. There were four hospitals within my range. Despite high demand I did want to see the sick, the housebound, the elderly and the least mobile.  I preferred the company of the very young and the very old.

Lars was over eighty years old. He was handsome. He was tall, upright, thin. He had a craggy Viking face, eyes the colour of summer skies, and a sharp mind. He had farmed all his life, but like some of the older inhabitants of the Settlement, he had learned to read in English and Danish at home. He had not attained many years of schooling before he was needed in the fields; still, he had educated himself.

“Come sit on the edge of the bed,” he urged me. “I can barely hear you down there.” So I perched on the outer boundary of the hospital mattress as he held my hand and asked me where I was from, who my people were, what I did with my time. I was breaking the first rule: Never sit on the bed. I was well-known for breaking this rule. I was – and am – an unapologetic hand-holder, hugger, and motherer. I kiss cheeks and comb hair. I make soup and cups of tea. I have even gotten on the bed to take a dying friend in my arms, despite my clerical collar and title.

Lars was in hospital a week. I gave him communion and prayed with him daily. I sat on the bed and held his hand. I kissed his cheek. He loved a good story. He had little breath for talking, so he let me talk about my sheep, my travels, what I had found in the countryside as I wandered with my dog.

We fell in love.

It was a beautiful and chaste love. We would sit quietly at times, holding hands. We didn’t have to express this emotion, this autumn romance. Sometimes Antonia would come in, or Anders. But mostly we sat alone, until he was discharged. I visited him at home about twice a week, with cups of tea and sweet bread made by Antonia. She joined us more often in the kitchen, and encouraged him to fill up the time with tales of his own life.

Adoption had been common among the Danes in the early half of the twentieth century. Some families took in orphans and abandoned children, Danish or otherwise, as easily as old ladies take in stray cats. Anders had been among those children, adopted by an uncle and aunt when his own parents died in an influenza outbreak. He was raised with four other adopted siblings. He remembered his childhood as happy and blissful. His adoptive parents doted on the children. They were rural poor, eking out a subsistence living on the farm, with cows, potatoes, grain fields and a large garden to manage. Dollars were earned working for other farmers, wild-harvesting hazelnuts and blueberries to sell, and cutting cord wood. Toys were handmade. Lars remembered a wooden wagon, painted red, and a homemade teddy bear. Food had been plain and plentiful. The days were long and full of work. He regretted he had not been able to attend school after age ten, but he had gained his height and strength early, and he was needed to drive a team.

He was a natural shepherd, but it had been a couple of decades since he had kept sheep. We talked sheep endlessly. Anders took him for a drive and they stopped at my pasture so he could admire my flock of Shetlands. He leaned on his cane and surveyed the ewes and near-grown lambs. “Where’s your ram?” he asked. “I didn’t keep one,” I said. “Those two over there are wethers. I will borrow a friend’s purebred ram next month.”

“I do like the coloured fleeces,” he said, gently scratching the ears of Gala, a grey ewe with a lively white splash on her black head. “Oh, these are fine looking animals, reverend lady. You have them spoiled.”

I promised to bring a lamb or two by in the spring, to see if he wanted to keep a pair as pets. The Shetlands are small, intelligent sheep, hardy and thrifty. He would look forward to it, he said.

I felt as if an old Viking Lensgreve had visited me.

Antonia called me from the hospital a few days later. “Lars has had a relapse,” she said. “There is a lot of fluid building up.”

I went into the hospital to see him that afternoon. He was very weak, but his smile was still sweet and strong. I sat on the bed and gave him communion, supporting his head as he received the wine, and finishing the chalice myself.  He had no strength for words, so I sat with him, held his hand and sang softly, old hymns I knew by heart.

After a while, he said gently, “You go home, reverend lady. I will see you again.”

I kissed his cheek. It was cold. There was a hint of a tear in his eye.

Anders called me later that night, as I sat in front of my fireplace, reading John Gardner’s novel of the Protestant Revolution in Scandinavia, Freddy’s Book. It is a tale of nobility, spirituality and defeating the devil in the far north. I had just poured a small glass of sherry.

“Lars has passed,” Anders said. “Antonia and I are here. Do you want to come in?”

Of course I did.

I said the prayers to welcome the soul to heaven, anointed the body, and kissed his very cold cheek.

The day of the funeral, a storm took all the autumn leaves from the old maples in the cemetery. The funeral was the plain Book of Common Prayer service. I walked up the aisle with Lars, not as the love of the heart I had become to him, but as his priest. It had been a pure love; and though I was sorrowful, I knew he had borne my love to heaven, and offered it at the throne of God. A chaste, noble love; the truest love.

We buried him among his family and friends, while his surviving nieces and nephews stood at graveside. I picked up a handful of damp grave soil to begin the words, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” I stopped, looked across the grave at a young niece, and warned her, “You will put out that cigarette right now, Miss, and show your uncle some respect. You will not smoke in my cemetery.”

The cigarette was stubbed out with an annoyed sigh. In a strong voice I finished the office. A few roses were cast into the grave as the casket was lowered. The congregation hurried back to the church hall for coffee and tea. I stood at the head of the grave as the hole was filled.

“Goodbye, Lars,” I said. “I love you. I will see you again.”

The Origin of My New Blog Name

All in green my love went riding

 

All in green went my love riding
on a great horse of gold
into the silver dawn.

 

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
the merry deer ran before.

 

Fleeter be they than dappled dreams
the swift sweet deer
the red rare deer.

 

Horn at hip went my love riding
riding the echo down
into the silver dawn.

 

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
the level meadows ran before.

 

Softer be they than slippered sleep
the lean lithe deer
the fleet flown deer.

 

Four fleet does at a gold valley
the famished arrows sang before.

 

Bow at belt went my love riding
riding the mountain down into the silver dawn.

 

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
the sheer peaks ran before.

 

Paler be they than daunting death
the sleek slim deer
the tall tense deer.

 

Four tall stags at a green mountain
the lucky hunter sang before.

 

All in green went my love riding
on a great horse of gold
into the silver dawn.

 

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
my heart fell dead before.

 

e.e. cummings

Death and the Horseman via Getty Museum

What Remains

Malmo, Sweden, 19th Century

It was the time of the Gilded Age. Railroad tycoons and mining magnates had huge new mansions filled with gas appliances and the new electric light. They had twelve cylinder motorcars. They traveled the world by steamship or under sail on yachts bigger than warships. The future looked glowingly bright, with new factories being built and as cities improved services, laying on water and sewers. Immigrants swarmed to America.

Among the immigrants were Scandinavians from Sweden and Denmark. Shortly after the Irish potato famine, grain crops failed in northern Europe. People starved in the rural districts. American ambassadors arranged for many people to make the long voyage to a land similar to the countryside they would leave behind, and groups emigrated to the St. John River Valley between Maine and New Brunswick.

John Anderson family, immigrants to Maine

It was harsh. The weather was subarctic, as bad as anything the Swedish immigrants had experienced, and more severe than the Danish families had seen in decades. The winter came early, and it seemed wise to build one large dwelling in New Sweden for all the group to share. Land would have to be cleared in the spring, and the deep acid soil amended with ashes, limestone, and manure. But the first concern was to survive the winter.

Supplies were brought in to the Capitol Hill dwelling house. It was two stories, with a kitchen. Most of the Swedish families were from farming stock, and they had been living a sixteenth century life before departing for the New World. A winter of isolation, cold and hard work didn’t worry them.  They carried on with their peasant traditions, having brought spinning wheels, knitting needles, loom hardware, woodworking tools, and other necessities. They settled in to making new wool clothes, furniture, and tools. They prayed, sang and occasionally argued. The months of long nights set in, and they went on with life, surviving on their traditional diet of grains, pulse, and pork.

Capitol Hill building

On the other side of the river, the Danish settlers would have more trouble. Most of Denmark was already cleared for farmland, and the immigrants did not bring clearing axes and other necessary equipment with them. The hills of New Denmark were covered with boreal forest, pines, maples, birch. They had expected fields ready for the plow. The Danes, too, built a communal dwelling, a loghouse of several rooms, and settled in for a grim, long winter.

Some of the settlers on both sides of the river had been weakened by illness and poor nutrition. Death was an ordinary event in peasant populations. Potential grave sites were chosen, just in case.

The Danes lost older people in the first couple of winters. Another death in the New Denmark Colony was of a stranger, who had walked up from the frozen river, apparently after sighting the smoke from the fires. He was sick, and weak. The Danes took him in, nursed him as best they could, and never understood a word he said except one: “Halifax.” He was coming from, or going to, Halifax. If it were his name, he would be an Englishman. He did not speak English, any Scandinavian language, German, or French. The Danes surmised he was a sailor, perhaps making his way to the only Canadian port he knew. He died after a few days, and they buried him in the little unmarked plot.

The old log house that was the first Danish building in New Denmark lasted a couple more generations. A community school was built on the same lot. The little cemetery, the first hallowed ground in the Settlement, remained unmarked, until one older resident insisted that it be identified and fenced. The actual location was lost to modern knowledge, so a best guess was made, and a suitable enclosure erected. Pragmatic Danes, gently satisfying the scruples of an elder.

The Swedes in Maine had a more difficult time on their mountain top. The Black Diptheria set in, and the youngest members, infants and children, were taken suddenly and in pain. Graves were dug at a distance form the communal house, and a monument was erected a few years later. Depression and grief subdued the new settlers.

Peasant children, 1860, by William Carrick

The Capitol Hill location in New Sweden is now a museum, as is the original settlement site in New Denmark. I did not spend much time in the New Denmark museum, but I was a museum curator near New Sweden, in the neighbouring village of Stockholm. At that time, the curator at the New Sweden museum was an old friend, a Baptist lady I had known since childhood, a former teacher. We would visit each other in the museums, compare items from the collections, and collaborate on grant proposals and community activities.

I knew my museum to be haunted. It was the original general store in the community. The family had lived on the second floor for years. There were many old artifacts from houses, and a few things brought over from Sweden, including immigrant trunks, small farm equipment, and clothing. There was a veterans’ room full of uniforms and ordnance. I don’t know who haunted the upper story, and occasionally ventured down to the kitchen while I sewed on a  treadle machine, or worked on rugs at the old loom, but he or she was noisy. Slamming doors, furniture moving, footsteps on the stairs. Volunteers of a sensitive nature did not like working alone. I am never bothered by ghosts. As my mother used to say, “It’s not the dead who can hurt you, but the living.”

Farmstead in Sweden, late 1800s

The Capitol Hill Museum building was a replica. The original had been struck by lightning and burned, and a duplicate erected from the original plans. It was sound and square. It was lighted by lovely big windows, a pleasure to visit. We did not expect ghosts. My understanding is that when a haunted building burned, the trapped spirits were released.

But one sunny summer day, I was over in the Old Colony, visiting with my colleague, Una. We worked a bit on the flax wheel, adjusting and renewing drive bands; I could spin, she did not know how. We discussed having the rug loom warped by another weaver. We moved to the other side of the floor, to retrieve a pair of wool hand-carders I was going to borrow for a demonstration.

Scandinavian-style spinning wheel

As we examined the carders, we heard a gentle step, and unexpectedly, a large baby pram rolled across the floor, coming to rest about seven feet from where it started.

“Well,” said Una. “Will you look at that!”

I have since pondered what that lone spirit was trying to tell us. That she was there? Was it a mother asking where her baby had gone? Was it a child, lost and forlorn, afraid because her parents were departed? I think of that sad monument behind the museum, and wonder if the the children are cold and lonely still.