Unbroken Circles


Outside of church, my earliest memories of music are sounds from a cheap transistor radio, playing in Mama’s kitchen from some place up higher than I could reach. And in the Deep South of the 1970’s and 80’s, radio mostly meant country music, where old hymns freely crossed over from Gospel music as bluegrass hits.

And all these years later, when I hear the opening notes of an old classic like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” being plucked out on a banjo, when the good Dr. Ralph Stanley’s distinctive voice starts to weave lonesome lyrics about a mother’s funeral over and through a sweet symphony of pickin’ and strummin’ and fiddle playin’, I know just how the cool kitchen tiles of my childhood home felt in bare feet.

I couldn’t help stomp clappin’ and whirly twirly fake cloggin’ all over my Mama’s kitchen floor then, and probably no matter how old I get, I’ll still have to carve myself out a minute or two of joyful stomp twirlin’ and heehaw-in’ around whenever that old favorite comes on.

I guess I owe most of the Joy that springs up in me when I hear it to the good fortune of having had 40 long years to savor its celebration of sounds before I ever tasted the sorrow of its lyrics:

Well I told that undertaker,

Undertaker, please drive slow.

Mercifully, I didn’t spend a moment of my darling little Mama’s life imagining the day I’d see that hearse, how I’d feel following behind some undertaker hauling her precious little body away. Only on that lonesome road did I know the mournful, woe-filled inspiration for those words.

“Lord, I hate to see her go,” that old song says, and if any words can come close to describing the moment, those seven are about as good as any.

I knew she was gone as soon as I stepped into the triage area where the paramedics had handed her off to the county hospital’s emergency staff.

I’d never been more familiar with the feeling of a person’s presence than I was with hers, and she just wasn’t in that ER. I recognized the figure in the room as the body she’d inhabited in this life, but her Spirit wasn’t with it.

So when we were asked to place a tracheotomy tube, I was terrified we’d be taking away her only escape route. The lines between life and death are so blurred already in Western medicine, and I didn’t want the main exit blocked when her body was ready to let go.

And anyway, Mama was a big fan of avoiding difficulties and complications of most every kind, particularly the emotional ones.

A self-proclaimed Queen of Denial, if my Mama had gotten to field the tracheotomy question herself, she would’ve sprinkled a dab of the too-soon gallows humor she so loved over the warm smile cultivated by every self-respecting Southern Belle and said, "Tracheotomy tube, heyull. Y’all should’a never pulled me out of that car!”

Maybe I was the only one, but I could totally appreciate the sentiment.

We heard tiny pieces of encouraging news a few times, but really I just spent the long weeks I shared with my stepdad at her bedside asking myself why I was the only one who didn’t believe she’d be healed.

I felt guilty for not believing with her Church members and friends who kept turning up to hold hands around her, praying for and claiming Miracles of healing. They all assured me that she was strong and a fighter. They sincerely hoped for a full recovery.

And I didn’t believe a word of it.

I was too ashamed to say so, and some days I cried the hardest, not over my loss, but over my total inability to believe she was coming back, to even wish for a Miracle.

And when finally the option to seek hospice care was presented, I felt the first drops of anything even resembling relief.

I wasn't relieved that whatever suffering might be happening inside that shell that remained of her might soon subside.

I wasn’t even relieved that the weeks of keeping vigil with the cornerstone of my strength, while her youthful little body wasted away, were drawing to an end.

I felt better because it was finally ok that I didn’t believe she was coming back. At long last, everyone else had turned the corner to believing with me, finally accepting what I’d guarded as my secret from the first hour.

And around seven weeks after the accident, on a Sunday night in September, she passed peacefully on.

In these parts, the typical sendoff starts with an evening of visitation with the family at the funeral home. It's basically several hours of receiving mourners and a public viewing of the body, all as a modern nod to the much older tradition known as a “wake.”

Then there's an hour or two more of pre-service visitation on the morning of the funeral, followed by another good hour for the formal ceremony in the funeral home’s chapel, with at least a few songs and no less than one full-length Sunday sermon.

When the official service wraps, a smaller group of mourners usually follow the hearse and family to a graveside memorial and interment, where the remains of the dearly departed are ceremonially placed in the ground, likely also with another song or two.

I didn’t want to do any of that.

In the funeral home office with my stepdad, one or the other of us expressed how dry our tank was, and when we agreed to no more than an abbreviated visitation and a short graveside service, I took my first deep breath in a long time.

In Mama’s little town, the local newspaper only comes out once a week, on Thursdays, so we set the graveside for Friday morning.

The funeral parlor was packed with a steady stream of people she loved, friends of hers, of mine and my brother’s, lots of people I’d known my whole life. Some of them had kids I’d gone all the way through school with, and a few had kids who were growing up with mine.

It was a great comfort to see so many loving faces, and since Mama and my stepdad both retired from the Mississippi Highway Patrol, many of those faces belonged to law enforcement folks in uniform.

The next morning my son and I drove to the funeral home, and I was just expecting close family to go with us from there to the cemetery: her husband and children, her grandchildren, her siblings, and their children. The cemetery was in a little town one county over, and it was a weekday. Maybe a few of her cousins would come. Probably a couple of church friends who lived out that way would meet us there.

But when I turned into the funeral home’s parking lot, cruisers and motorcycles from all three branches of local law enforcement were already lined up with the hearse and a town car for the family. What a sight!

It was a salve on the fresh wounds inside me. I remember being so grateful and thinking how pleased she would have been to see them, partly because I have my own love for the precious heart of each guy who’d lined up there to escort her, but mostly because they made up a cast of favorites that couldn’t have pleased her more if she’d chosen them herself.

The cemetery was almost 30 miles from the funeral home, mostly along divided highway U.S. 49, which is known for linking Mississippi’s capital to its beaches. It's also known for being inherently dangerous, given the tricky interplay of interstate speed limits, frequent median crossings, and unregulated access from parking lots and private driveways.

In fact, on the day that made this one inevitable, Mama had been trying to navigate that same highway, bogged down in traffic caused by a fatal car accident about a mile further north of her. A tow truck driver who was hurrying to the scene of that accident … caused another one.

Somehow I hadn’t even realized we’d be taking that route to the cemetery before I pulled in at the funeral home where all the comfort I needed for that journey was already waiting.

One thing that had occurred to me on the way to the funeral home that morning was a remnant of Old South gentility that still has a strong hold in Mississippi: the custom of all motorists here to pull their vehicles to the side of the road when funeral processions pass.

In the old days you’d see folks standing outside their cars and trucks along the roadway, men standing solemnly with their hats over their hearts.

Even folks who live in other parts of the South are impressed to see funeral processions in South Mississippi traveling alone on open roadways in the middle of the business day, motorists pulling onto the shoulders of multi-lane highways, stopping in reverence.

We all do it.

So widespread is the practice that the folks just passing through are easy to spot. They start to slow down, then look around curiously, and finally they pull to the side with the rest of the herd. Whether from confusion or deference I’m not sure, but I’d be willing to bet when they see why they’re stopped, it makes an impression.

The power of the gesture is indescribable, if you’ve never seen it, and no doubt it’s a custom worth preserving.

As our small motorcade pulled away from the funeral home and onto the first block, where a city cop was holding traffic at the intersection, I was thinking about all the folks we’d see between here and there, pulling to the side of the streets and highways on their own, stopping their vehicles without any official direction, as an act of reverence.

I thought about how hard I cried at the wake, just sobbing in gratitude every time I saw a loving face pained with my loss, and with theirs, and how I hadn’t cried at all that morning before the funeral.

I was on my way to say a woefully premature goodbye to the woman who gave me life, and then enriched that gift exponentially by being a wonderful sister to me, my most trusted confidante, my only real father, my best husband, and my dearest friend.

In this world, she had no equal then. She has no equal now.

And still somehow, on what should’ve been the most difficult day, there wasn’t a drop of fear or even sorrow in me anywhere. I felt a Peace that, just then, didn’t feel strange at all.

What I didn’t expect, what stunned me, what caught me completely unprepared, was what I saw once we were north of the city.

When we passed under the last red light leaving town, I was mentally settling in for the 20 miles of highway stretched out in front of us, but at the first median crossing, a Highway Patrol vehicle was stopped in the paved turnaround between the northbound and southbound lanes of Highway 49, lights flashing. Two troopers stood at attention, saluting.

And again at the next crossing. And the next. And at every median crossing on that divided highway, beautiful Souls stood in the blazing heat, fully uniformed, saluting my precious little Mama as she drove past, saying their last goodbyes, honoring their friend in a reverent and loving display that all but defies description.

After we passed each crossing, the troopers standing at attention fell in behind us. Behind her.

We arrived at the cemetery in a sea of blue lights, patrol cars filling every available space, surrounding the cemetery in every direction.

My Mama’s favorite preacher conducted a brief graveside service, foregoing the opportunity to preach the Gospel in favor of some heartfelt words of Loving Kindness about his cherished friend.

When his part was done, the preacher concluded the service, asked the crowd to stay for a moment while a little music played before we departed, and he took a few steps back.

A wonderful musician, tall in stature and enormous in Spirit, stepped forward with a guitar. He introduced himself and said that although he never met her, he felt like he knew my Mama by knowing my son and me. He’d found out a day or two after she passed that he’d literally been writing his first Gospel song in the moments she was making her voyage across that great beyond.

He said he believed that somehow she’d found him on her way out of this old world to help give him something that meant so much to him, and he wanted to honor her by playing it for us all.

Boy, did he.

In that enormous crowd around her, only two folks besides me and that fella with the guitar even knew he was going to perform. His contribution to our memorial efforts was quite an unexpected surprise for all, and one I was certain would’ve made my ordinarily well-composed little Mama burst into a loud howl of jubilance, the kind of unbridled display of laughter she usually reserved for strictly non-public consumption.

I couldn’t remember ever being any happier. It was all just too beautiful to soil with the slightest whiff of the pervasive sadness that had already consumed so much. Not a molecule anywhere in me wanted to weep.

When I looked around the crowd, I saw something I’d never seen at a funeral: Joy had spread across every face in the crowd.

Hands and feet were tapping. I saw one of my pals, a lady a bit older than me, easing over closer to the action and visibly trying to contain the urge to dance.

When the song ended, I watched James, one of the biggest, most intimidating men in this congregation of uniformed enforcer-types, make a beeline to the singer.

I couldn’t hear what James was saying when he grabbed ahold of him, but I could see he was speaking through the biggest, most beautiful smile I’d ever seen on his face. And in a lifetime of knowing James, I’d seen him smile a lot.

The next thing I knew, James had wrapped both arms around this fella and hugged him so hard that I wouldn’t have been surprised at all to see his feet lift right up off the ground.

James was one of my Mama's dearest friends, and he meant so much to her. He was a leader among those who turned out to honor her. He’d stood close to her casket during the graveside service.

And so moved was he, so touched by this song and how it came to be, that it broke him too wide open not to show it with the kind of embrace we rarely see between two big, strong manly men, and never when they’re strangers.

When I think about James and the way a few sincere words and a few moments of music for my Mama transformed that moment for him, I’m humbled to be her daughter and to call these men friends.

If that moment between those fellas, the 40 years of choices and relationships that brought those two men together, and made me their witness, if that was the only awe-inspiring thing that happened on this journey, it would still be a story worth telling.

But that wasn’t all. Not by a longshot.

I never dreamed the stretch of this life I’d be asked to walk without my Mama was gonna be so long, but by Grace it has been scattered with so many little Mercies that I noticed them.

I could see little ways I was shielded. I noticed small kindnesses, gentle turns of favor and precious little pieces of Love and Hope and Joy that, when it feels like everything else is broken, are just enough for the center to hold.

So as it turns out, an old Gospel song that weaves the sorrow of a mother’s funeral into one of the greatest examples of what the Good Book calls a Joyful Noise … that actually makes real good sense to me.

And even on an awfully rough day, I know the answer to ol’ Ralph’s question.

Don’t you worry, Doc, and I won’t neither.

Not only is the circle unbroken, it’s still plenty strong.



About the Author

Ginger Weston

Ginger is a Native of the Gulf South, a Christian and a Proud American.

She's a semi-retired lawyer / broker / salesman / editor / small business owner 

who spends most of her extra time stretched out in the shade, 

wandering around in the great outdoors, 

and experimenting with micro-homesteading and permaculture gardening 

in the little river bottom where she makes her Home.

Ginger believes in capitalizing purely according to a word's importance 

and practicing Loving Kindness in everyday life 💚



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