I loved Mr. Roth. We all loved Mr. Roth, us girls in the first three grades. If he came into our room during the day, which he seldom did, we all flocked to hug his legs, reached up to pat his side and burbled cries of delight with sparkling eyes, attention which he seemed embarrassed to receive. Maybe he was just diffident about causing such a scene in a working classroom.
Mr. Roth was the school janitor; he was old, with a big belly and kind eyes and outside of class he might reach down and lift one of us quickly up into the air and down, a fun ride that made us laugh. He lived alone in the school basement and with his wife in a small house with a small yard surrounded by a chain link fence just two blocks down the street from the school. In my eyes both places were equally his home.
And then he wasn’t in the basement anymore. He had retired, whatever that was, and every time I passed the small house going to and from school I looked to see him but never did. Now, as I look back my memory hazes over; I don’t know how long it was before I knew that he was sick or if I heard it at home or at school. And then he died. And though he had never attended services there the funeral was going to be at my church.
It must have been on a Saturday because my father was home that day, which I spent in anticipation of the moment when my mother would say “Get dressed, it’s time to go to Mr. Roth’s funeral.” but the appointed time approached and she didn’t say anything at all. So I did. And my parents were bewildered. And I was adamant that we must go. I didn’t see the signal that passed between them but my mother told me to get dressed, my father changed out of his chore clothes and he and I jumped into the car and drove to town.
The service was already started. Our small church was packed and it was standing room only in the entry hall and nursery to the right, which had the advantage of a large window looking into the sanctuary. We squeezed into the nursery and I suppose my father must have lifted me up for a bit because I remember looking through the window, eagerly straining to see what a funeral is and finding it to be a room full of people, and I remember being filled with a great satisfaction that my father and I had come. With the nursery door open the sound of speaking and singing came in and then it was over and we went home. And I was happy.
I had loved Mr. Roth as a little girl loves a kind old man she hardly knows and I knew that because I loved him going to his funeral was the right thing to do. Why I was certain of that I do not know because his death is the first one I remember. I did not mourn him; he was dead and gone and to my young mind that was a simple fact that needed no explanation.
I was twelve the first time I sang at a funeral and the first time I saw a grown man cry. And because I play the piano and organ I have provided music for dozens of funerals over the past sixty years, witnessing emotions ranging from anguish to fury to wordless pain. And because I am old, I have lost the presence of many people I have loved, and experienced for myself the emotions of heartbreak. Still, being old seems to have brought me back to where I was as a child. If I love someone, I honor them when they die and no longer demand an explanation, either from them or from God.
It’s not that I have slipped sideways back into a child’s uncomplicated view of life or that I have stripped myself of attachments and emotions so that I may exist in serene acceptance of whatever may come. No, it is because I find myself living completely the wonderful richness of old age with my mind, my heart, my very life, filled with people who are dead and gone, but just like Mr. Roth, have stayed with me.