Thursday, September 13, 2007
Cousin Fred was the anchor of my Winter roots
Several months ago I went to Fulton, Ky., to take part in the funeral of my cousin Thomas F. Winter. Cousin Fred, as we called him in the family, was my last Winter relative. He had lived alone the past many years, and into his 80s we had suspected he would go quickly, which according to his frequently-expressed wish, he was blessed to do. He was independent and active to the end. For what more could one ask?
In the last years when I grew interested in such things, he was a wonderful source of information about our family and its life in olden days. Most of the relatives had migrated away from the old home place there in western Kentucky.
He was the anchor to our roots, and had made the contacts each time to arrange for the interments of seven of my immediate family members through the years at our old cemetery at the beautiful tree-lined Oakwood Methodist Cemetery out in Hickman County.
How often I had made that drive up 51 Highway from Memphis to Fulton.
In the past few years I had made it a resolve to make the journey for purposes other than final rites, and so Cousin Fred and I had many wonderful visits, exploring some of our common interests including local history and trains.
Cousin Fred’s father and brothers were engineers on the I.C. Railroad, and doubtless provided the genetic disposition for that hobby that brings much relaxation and pleasure in my leisure hours. For them, however, the railroad meant work, and I think that they might be amused at my recreational interest in the company whose very name would inspire some of those men to curse.
As we moved toward the chapel for the funeral service, I conversed with Cousin Fred’s pastor, the Rev. Timothy Atkins, of First United Methodist in Fulton, and discovered that he had begun his preaching ministry shortly before I came at the Victoria United Methodist Church right here in Marshall County.
In his homily, he remarked that while many at church knew Cousin Fred, remembered from his familiar presence in the choir (he had recently retired, not wanting to miss a note due to failing hearing), more would notice his absence the following Sunday for a kindness most did not realize Fred performed.
For years, he noted, Fred had come up to the church early and stayed behind afterward to lock and unlock the doors, turn on the lights, and adjust the thermostats. He had always anticipated what would be needed and saw to it that everyone else was able to arrive and depart from God’s house in convenience and comfort.
Immediately I thought of Psalm 84, “How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts.” I often recite the Psalm silently as I tend to the duties of opening and closing our Holly Springs Presbyterian Church. I especially think of the line, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.”
Sometimes our deacons perform this duty, but I do not mind and actually rather like doing it. It is a kind of “centering” exercise for me, enabling me to make sure everything is like I want it for the upcoming service or activity, and to focus my thoughts on what is to be said and done, and upon the people who will be coming, for whose souls it is my responsibility to care and to minister. These activities are usually done in the absolute quiet of the empty church. Sometimes our organist, Mrs. Tate, is practicing upstairs, and always I think her music is most beautiful in those moments.
I think of many people and many things as I go about my habitual rounds. I pray for those who come often and for those the church has not seen in a while. I am not very good at praying while just sitting quietly with hands folded. In such moments my mind tends to wander. But I can think of others and pray on their behalf while I work. Opening and closing the church is one appointed time when I can do that.
Perhaps Cousin Fred felt this also. I shall never know because he had never told me of this little ritual he performed. Perhaps he thought the task unimportant. Certainly, as I knew him, this gregarious gentleman was eager to be early and to stay late, so as to visit as much as possible with every single person who passed through those church doors.
I do know this: I shall never pass another Sunday opening and closing our church that I do not remember and be grateful for Cousin Fred, and thinking that in doing what I am doing just then, I am following in his footsteps, and performing a task that he thought was important.
One can certainly be a Christian with no family examples to inspire and to guide. But I am so grateful that I have had many whose lives said to me, “This is the way, walk ye in it.” My cousin Fred was not a rich man, but what he had he gave.
Of course, as I said, he spoke of none of this with me. But the greatest sermons, I think, are the ones preached with no words.
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