Monday, October 31, 2016

The Spirit of the Day

When I was a small child, I was very shy & did not like to be with other adults, other than my parents. The only other adult that I felt at ease with was my elderly aunt. She was my mother's eldest sibling, & she was all ready old by the time I was born. She was very relaxed, laughed a lot, & she always made me feel safe & comfortable. She put me at ease & made me feel loved & protected.

She was an amazing cook, & she always fixed me a plate of my favorite foods. That was wonderful for a picky eater like me. While other adults & my own older siblings tried to get me to eat different foods, my aunt just let me be & made a real effort to make me my favorites. I loved that about her. I could just be myself & know that she loved me & cared for me. I didn't know my grandmothers or grandfathers. But my elderly aunt was the eldest living relative that I knew & loved very much.

But perhaps my favorite thing about my aunt was that she was a gifted confectioner. She made amazing & delicious sweets & candies. And whenever she visited us or we visited her, she always had candy & treats for us. Her house always smelled delicious & sweet, like a bakery with freshly made cookies or cakes & pies. And chances were, she had those treats made just for us to enjoy. So we all loved visiting her or having her come stay with us. And every time we hugged her, we smelled sweet spices like cinnamon & cloves & vanilla on her. She was as sweet & wonderful as the delicious treats she made.

So when I turned six, it was very difficult for me to understand & accept that my beloved aunt had passed away. I knew that something was wrong, when I woke up one morning & wandered into the kitchen to find my father comforting my mother at the kitchen table. She looked as if she had been crying. Her eyes were red. My older siblings present at the table were also crying. I didn't understand what was going on, & it was alarming to see my normally boisterous older brothers & sisters appear so somber & crying.

My parents noticed me then & waved for me to come over. My father picked me up & sat me on his lap while my mother ran her hands through my hair, stroked my face, then gently told me that my elderly aunt, her eldest sister, had passed away in her sleep. Her children found her still in bed after she did not come out for breakfast. My aunt was an early riser & always made breakfast--it was a trait all farmers & farming families had.

Early risers were necessary to get the work started before the sun got too hot to do any more work on the farm. Farming was a hard living, but it was also rewarding & necessary, & it made for some good living & kept us well fed, well housed, & always close to each other, because we needed each other & had to work together to make the farm successful.

The next few days were a blur & whirlwind of activity as my family got busy making preparations for my aunt's funeral. A lot of people were coming. A lot of people knew & loved my aunt for the very reasons we loved her--she was kind, helpful, & she always treated people well & looked out for their well being. We made lots of preparations for the many people who would come for my aunt's funeral & stay with us to mourn her loss. We cleaned up the farmhouse, the bunkhouse, & even the small workshop was cleared of debris & tools were locked up so we could set up cots to handle the overflow. And sure enough, our house, the bunkhouse, & the workshop were filled to capacity with so many people coming to say goodbye to our aunt.

It felt strange yet also comforting having so many people over at our farm. Ordinarily, I shied away from strangers & other adults. And most of these people were strangers to me or unfamiliar relatives. But they were too busy making preparations, working, & reconnecting to each other to take notice of me. It was as if I was invisible in their presence, so long as I was very still & kept out of their way. And as a small shy child, I was quite gifted at staying hidden & out of the way.

I watched them closely, fascinated with their interactions & behaviors. They laughed, they cried, they teased each other, & they even had brief arguments that seem very heated one moment, only to cool off the next. The sang. They danced. They told stories of my aunt & their own lives. And sometimes, they were silent, each lost in their own thoughts, just quietly keeping each other company.

Sometimes, I couldn't relate to nor understand what they were talking about. I was witnessing & hearing things only adults could comprehend from their life experiences. I hadn't lived long enough to understand their words & meanings. But I did know enough to realize that what they shared was important, & what they spoke of was for adult ears only. Still, I stayed hidden & listened, mesmerized by the rhythm of life that pulsed from them as they went about the day, doing their tasks, telling their stories, sharing their thoughts & ideas & feelings.

Soon enough, the day of my aunt's funeral came closer, & with it came many visitors & mourners. And there was much wailing & grieving amongst the busy work that kept us going to host the many who came for the funeral. So much food & drinks were served. Even my older brother & I were tasked with helping to serve some of the guests. Most times, we were messengers between the family heads who greeted the guests & the large family crew that ran the kitchen & outdoor grills to keep the guests & family fed.

And in the few times my brother & I weren't busy being messengers, we were with our five year old baby brother & other small children. We were all sequestered in the bunkhouse, out of sight & out of the way, under the watchful eye & care of elder siblings or cousins, who made sure to feed us, keep us safe, & kept us away from the busy activities surrounding my elderly aunt's funeral. The week leading up to the actual funeral was full of activity, & the crowds got bigger as people kept arriving from near & far to bid my aunt farewell.

In her younger days, my aunt was a teacher. In fact, she was the first local teacher in the area who ran a one room schoolhouse that taught all grades from first to eighth. It was quite an accomplishment, the first in our family to graduate college. She taught her small one room school until enough people moved into the area & the district & county lines were redrawn to warrant building our own elementary school. She taught for several years & advanced to school principal, one of the youngest ever to hold the post.

Then she met a missionary doing work in our area, got married to him a year later, & soon they were off to distant & foreign lands doing missionary relief work. Most of their children were born overseas in those foreign lands where they worked with the poor, refugees, & those seeking a better life after escaping from harsh tyranny & war torn countries.

After twenty years of working overseas, they retired back to our farm community. They were the pride & joy of the region, because they were world travelers & they did the Lord's work, aiding those in need. Having survived various conflicts & disasters, they were looked upon as leaders in times of crisis or when natural (& unnatural) disasters struck the area. They even negotiated for workers to get them better, fair working wages when they went on strike against the regional gov't. Their success & fairness led to them being asked to mediate several large regional disputes between other workers & large employers or even different districts battling over limited gov't funds.

And when they retired from civic duties, my uncle took to gardening & leading the neighborhood clean up committee--helping to eliminate litter & end improper hazardous waste disposal. And my aunt took up teaching again, this time it was for preschool four & five year olds. My eldest siblings were among the last students she taught before she & her husband finally fully retired from the community & stepped down from all their leadership roles. They were content to let others lead & spend their days with family, entertaining grandchildren & nieces & nephews & all children from the area.

So given their history & the work they did, it was no surprise that so many people came to my aunt's funeral. Former students, people they assisted & ministered to overseas & at home, workers they fought for, gov't officials, business leaders, civic leaders & organizations, & so many others who felt my aunt & uncle's positive effect on their lives came to pay their respect.

Many of them also came for my uncle's passing several years before. He passed away before I was born. In fact, he passed away shortly after my year older brother was born. We were told that he was ecstatic to learn that my brother was named after him. There is a great picture on the living room wall of my proud, happy uncle holding my infant brother in his arms, standing among the flowers & fruits of his blooming garden. My uncle passed away peacefully, sitting on the back porch, gazing at his beautiful, bountiful garden.

The funeral for my aunt was full of people who came near & far to pay their respects. Her funeral, like my uncle's, had been held at our farm because we had the space & accommodation to handle so many people. It seemed like we were open 24 hours a day, with people arriving at all sorts of different hours. The fires in the kitchen & grills kept burning as food production went on continuously to feed the masses.

Our house, bunkhouse, & workshop were filled to capacity with so many visitors looking for a place to rest after a long journey. Even our outdoor open pavilion & gazebo were full of people who didn't mind the clean, cool, open air accommodations & sleeping in sleeping bags or on floor futons. The weather was lovely, so we didn't have to worry about the heat nor humidity. And the general atmosphere, though it was for a funeral, was nonetheless very genial & friendly & comforting. Everyone was welcomed. Everyone got fed & had a place to stay. Everyone worked together & united in our love for my aunt.

Funerals were among the biggest events in our community, especially when it involved the loss of one of the community's most beloved members. So it was natural that funerals were week long affairs that involved so many people & rituals & customs meant to comfort the living, strengthen our ties, & bid farewell to those we had lost. It was a lot of work & expensive, but it was also necessary to honor our loved ones & help us move on as a family, as a community, & as a people. Death was a natural part of life. It was the next step to the next world, & sooner or later, we all make that journey to the other side, where our loved one who had gone before us await our arrival.

It was a lovely & heartfelt funeral for my aunt. And when it was all over & the people had all left to return to their homes, it suddenly seemed too quiet, too empty, too lonely to be on the farm. It was strange to wake up those days afterwards to silence. No loud laughter from the visitors, no noise nor activity in the kitchen, the outdoors grills were cold with no fires burning, nor were there meats nor vegetables roasting. No songs from the masses to entertain or comfort us. No stories being shared about life lessons & experiences. No messages to pass to & from the family heads & the crews who kept the masses fed, housed, & cared for during the funeral event.

The farm felt strangely empty. It felt weird to long for noise & people, especially from a shy kid like me who hated attention. But it wasn't attention that I was missing. It was the rhythm of life that once beat so strongly & pulsed everyday we had those crowds at our farm. The world felt much more alive with the noises & activities & the hustle & bustle of so many. Now, it all seemed too quiet, too still, as if my mind had awoken before my body, & I felt stuck, paralyzed, not in control.

In a few days, I got used to the quiet again. Eventually, the rhythm of the farm came back to me, & it felt like home again. But I never really got over missing my aunt, & I still had not processed that she was gone. I still woke up wondering what she was doing or if she would visit soon & bring us treats. I woke up wanting to go see her at her house, only to be reminded by my parents & siblings that my aunt was gone. Still, a part of me refused to accept this. I couldn't understand how she could just be gone. Somehow, I felt like she was still with us.

A month later, it was Halloween. Our church & culture celebrated Halloween & the first & second day of November as part of a feast to honor & remember our dead & dearly departed. It was a mishmash of old native beliefs that the missionaries who came to our shores could not suppress. And the ancient rites & rituals were soon incorporated into the religion the missionaries brought. Christianity is very good at absorbing pagan beliefs & customs--if they can't erase it, then they adopt it.

Just look at Christmas & Easter & all their holiday customs. This flexibility allowed Christianity to take hold. And it led to ancient cultures & customs being kept alive by the natives who hold these core beliefs that are sacred & essential to their identities. Adaptation allowed for the survival of both ancient beliefs & Christianity. It may look weird & confusing to outsiders, but for the local people who've incorporated ancient culture with Christianity, it feels right.

The idea was that during the three days of the harvest festival, from 31 October to the 1st & 2nd of November, we would hold a feast to remember & honor all our passed loved ones. The spirits of the dead would often walk among us, in dreams & in real life. They would come to help us, protect us, & watch over us. While evil spirits & harmful demons & vicious gods were to be feared, during the festival, we had nothing to fear, because the spirits of our loved ones protected us & kept us safe. Besides, it was common knowledge where the evil spirits & harmful demons & vicious gods dwelled. And so long as we avoided those places & did not disturb those entities, then we had nothing to fear.

A month after my aunt passed away, my church decided to have an evening service to honor our dead. That was unusual. Usually, the service was held in the morning. This second evening service was an experiment to engage the youth & kids. The idea was that after the service, the Sunday school teachers would lead us kids in a group to go trick or treating in the neighborhood. Then we'd all go back to the church hall for snacks & a sanctioned party for the teens & kids.

It was the church's effort to hold on to the youth, most of whom were going to parties with their friends or to other churches that held bigger, more festive Halloween carnivals. It wasn't so much a battle for our souls rather it was a battle for numbers, to hold on to the younger generations & increase the church following (& donations); it was an effort to keep or increase the church's power as it competed with other churches for followers.

I was not happy with this arrangement. I never liked going to church services. We all ready went to too many. And I never felt anything remotely spiritual or even formed a connection to the church. It was all business. Even as a small child, I knew that this church focused more on material matters than spiritual.

Most of the church services & activities focused on raising money for the church, with routine donations & offering reports that made the church seem more like a bank or business than a place of worship & fellowship. And most of the money went into making the church appear more opulent--more statues, more shiny gilding, bigger pulpit & plushier carpeting. It bothered me that most of the money went to bling for the church instead of actually helping people in need.

And it really bothered me that instead of going trick or treating with my two brothers early, we had to go to church service that took an hour of prime trick or treating time! Ugh! By the time the long, boring service was over, I was getting restless & frustrated, especially when I looked out the window & saw groups of kids all ready collecting candy! Normally at church, I kept a low profile & kept my head down. But this time, I was getting anxious & kind of irritated when the service finally let out & we were lined up by class by our Sunday school teachers.

Our group leaders were two young adult women, still teens, & a slightly older woman. At the first few houses, they kept us in a group. But by the fourth house, we started complaining at how long it took to get everyone lined up & go to the next house. The leaders were getting irritated, too. So they let us move ahead to the other houses after we got our candy while the others waited their turn for their candy treat. Pretty soon, we all split apart so we could canvas the neighborhood thoroughly for treats.

I was so thrilled & fired up collecting as much candy as possible that I suddenly found myself in an unfamiliar neighborhood. I had been following some kids in costume, thinking that they were from my group. But when we got to that last street, they took off their masks & I realized that they were strangers! And by now, the sun had set & the street lights came on. I went ahead & collected all the candy I could from this street. Then, with a heavy bag full of candy, I turned around & tried to find my way back to my group. Except, when I got to the end of the street, I didn't know where to turn or which direction to go.

By now, it was starting to get late. I had a really heavy load of candy from doubling back to some of the houses I had recognized from trick or treating earlier. But as I tried to find my way back, some of the houses started turning off their porch lights, the signal that they were out of candy. Now I was getting worried.

I found myself at the corner of a street that I didn't recognize in the dark. Places & objects look so much different in the night from what they look like in the day. And while there was a small chance that I might've recognized the streets & landmarks during the day, at night, the whole area was unfamiliar & starting to creep me out. I was starting to panic. The streets were starting to get empty as the kids & adults were done trick or treating for the night. I was starting to get scared.

Suddenly, I felt someone next to me. My heart was beating so fast & my breathing was starting to increase. I was too scared to move & was desperate to get home. Suddenly, I smelled a unique & particular scent in the air. And then I felt someone standing next to me & I looked up at them. I was surprised, let out as gasp, & suddenly felt overwhelmed as they took my hand in the darkness.

In the meantime, my two brothers had raised a ruckus when they realized that I was not with them. The two of them had ended up near my eldest sister, who was assisting with another group. By then, my group had scattered & the leaders didn't care or noticed that we were gone. Upon seeing our eldest sister, my two brothers called out to her & ran to her to report that I was lost.

Alarmed, my sister left her group in the capable hands of the other two leaders & took my two brothers to track down our leaders. She confronted them & demanded to know where I was. The leaders at first denied that I was lost, but they couldn't account for my whereabouts. Then they tried to pass it off that I wasn't with their group to begin with, but my two brothers & friends in the group adamantly argued that I was with the group at the beginning before we all scattered.

By now, my sister was furious at the negligence of the leaders & actually threatened to beat them up! Other group leaders converged on the scene & were alarmed to discover that several of the kids in my group were missing! By now, my baby brother started crying. He was frightened, so my sister decided to take him & my older brother home while the rest of the leaders looked for us missing kids. She would tell our parents what had happened after dropping my brothers off at home, & she'd rejoin the search party for the missing kids, recruiting any of my other older siblings into the search effort.

On the way home, she hurried along in the dark street, carrying my sobbing baby brother, trying to comfort him while my older brother held on to their bags of candy. She was frantically trying not to panic & comfort my brothers at the same time. And she dreaded telling my family the distressing news.

When she reached the turn off to our farm at the end of the road, she noticed some people coming from the opposite way. What she saw made her gasp & stop. Then she ran as quickly as she could towards those people, followed closely by my older brother as she cradled my baby brother in her arms.

Later on that evening, the search party was called off. All the missing kids were eventually found. Some of them found their own way home. Others found themselves in other groups whose leaders recognized them & took them under their care. And me? Well, before the night was over, I had told my story at least five times. The first three times were for my panicked family. The last two times were for the neighbors & community & church leaders who were eager to calm my family & curious to learn what had happened to me.

I told them how I thought I was with the group, following some kids who wore the same masks & costumes as some of the kids in my group. And I was so eager to make up for that candy collection hour we lost to the church service that I didn't realize that we had gone far to the other neighborhoods, way outside of our district! I was much too focused on getting as much candy as possible & was having a really fun time.

It wasn't until we got to the last street in an unfamiliar neighborhood that I learned that the kids I was with were not from my group. I didn't recognize them when they took off their masks & made their way home. It was getting dark. Some of the houses were turning off their lights, & the street lights were coming on. Soon, it got dark & the streets were getting empty. I realized that I was lost, & I had no idea where to go.

I was getting scared & starting to panic when I suddenly felt someone near me in the darkness. At first, I couldn't see their face, just a form in the darkness. Then I smelled them. And I recognized that smell--cinnamon, cloves, & vanilla. Before I knew it, they took my hand. And when they came into the light, I recognized the face. It was my aunt! She had come to take me home!

I felt so happy to see my aunt again. I hugged her tight & told her how much I missed her! On the way home, I told her all that had happened since I last saw her. I told her that so many people came to her funeral & stayed with us. I told her about what we had been up to since she left. And when I asked her where she had been, she just smiled & said that she was with my uncle now, & she decided to come visit us, because she missed us, too. And she could tell that I needed help. I smiled at her as we held hands & walked home that night. Along the way, there were a few more houses with the lights still on, so we knocked on those doors for trick or treat & soon were rewarded with lots of candy. My bag was overflowing with candy. It was such a great haul--the best I ever had!

When we got near our street, I was starting to recognize the neighborhood. Soon enough, we made it to the turn off that ended at our farm. My aunt stopped. She bent down & told me how much she loved me & my family. She told me not to be afraid. She told me to look at the opposite end of the street. I saw some people coming from there. And I soon recognized my eldest sister carrying my baby brother & my year older brother following close behind. My aunt stood back up, she smiled, & she waved at my sister & brothers. They ran towards us. But by the time they reached us, my aunt was gone.

My sister & brothers & I looked for our aunt, but she was gone. My sister & brothers tell that they really did see my aunt, that she smiled & waved at them. That when they crossed the street to meet us, our aunt faded away with a smile on her face. The only thing left was the scent of cinnamon, cloves, & vanilla. After spending a few minutes looking for our aunt, my sister decided that it was time to go home. She called the church to let them know that I had been located & brought home safely.

She then relayed the story of what had happened, which at first alarmed my parents & family & visiting neighbors. But by the end of her tale, word had gone out about what had gone down, & lots of people came over to our house to hear the telling & retelling of our adventure that night.

My parents were relieved that I was safe. And we held a prayer to thank my aunt & the spirits of our family for guiding us & protecting us. That night, I split my share of the candy with my brothers & family. Candy is so much sweeter & tastier when shared among loved ones. That was also the last time my parents entrusted us to the care of the church for activities. From now on, only our elder siblings could be trusted to keep us safe & from wandering off.

Over the years, many people have come to us & asked if this story is true. To them, I can only say that what happened to me happened exactly as I told it. Some people doubt me, especially those who don't know me well or didn't grow up with me. But that's okay. It's natural to have doubts about things you don't understand nor believe in. Some things you have to take on faith. Some things you have to experience on your own to truly understand & believe.

And the point of the story is not whether ghosts are real or not. The important lesson is that I was lost but then was found & safely taken home. It's important to know that my family looked for me & loved me & cared for me. This isn't a story about spirits or the afterlife.

This story is about the importance of family & love. We should be kinder & nicer to each other while we are still alive. We should tell our loved ones just how much they mean to us & how much we love them. We must embrace our loved ones & live life as fully & as happily as we can. Because life is short, & we shouldn't wait for a funeral to tell someone that has passed on how much we love them. We should wake up each day & cherish our loved ones & do the things that make us happy & be with the ones we love. That is the spirit of the day. It's about family, & it's about love.

So this holiday, I hope that you're with loved ones. I hope you tell them how much they mean to you, how important they are in your life. I hope you get to spend time with them, doing the things that make you all happy. And I hope that you have delicious treats to enjoy & share with those you love & hold most dear. Happy Halloween. Happy Festival of Remembrance. Happy Gathering with Friends & Loved Ones.

Related Links:
A sailor in the fields, a treasure in the trees
The Boys of Summer
Brothers and Sisters
Tradition
A good jacket keeps you warm
Hope is a yellow dump truck
Shoes
Holiday Dismay
Are you there, Santa? It's me
It's the Most Stressful Time of the Year
Finding the way
The thing about fathers
Veterans Day Reflection
Best Laid Plans
That offal taste
The Fisherman & the Lucky Cat


8 comments:

  1. I enjoy your posts about your prior life on the farm. The vivid mental image I always have is of the farm my maternal grandparents had and the surrounding farms in Northeast Texas. Your stories could have happened there and your family would have fit right in with that community.

    My grandmother would have understood the story about your aunt. I've mentioned it here before, she was a believer in spirits.

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    1. LX, Thank you for the compliment. I think all farming families, no matter where they are in the world, share the same experiences & challenges. We all work closely with the earth & we rely on each other to make the farm succeed. Harvests & livestock only survive & thrive when we all work together. It's a hard life at times, but it's also incredibly rewarding.

      Most people would never guess that I grew up on a farm. But I am as much a farmboy as a beachboy who grew up in a remote coastal farming community. I spent so many years dreaming of life in the city & faraway places, & I count myself lucky for having done it, lived out those childhood dreams. But it's funny how these days, I get nostalgic for the farm. And I can't believe that I actually miss it! I think it's really just me, missing my family & the closeness we had working & living on the farm. I don't see myself as a farmer--I've still got a few more dreams to live out. But maybe in the future, someday, I'll find a piece of paradise, & I'll return to my farming roots, to live off the land as I once did so many years ago.

      And when it comes to spirits, all I know is what I experienced & believe. And I know that there is so much out there that we don't yet understand or know about. The universe is so much more incredible & wonderful than we could ever imagine. Who can definitively say that there is no afterlife or another world or existence beyond our current one? We don't yet know all the mysteries & magic of the universe. So let's just enjoy the experience & share life's joys with those we love & care for.

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  2. A wonderful post, Mr Swings! I am sure I have been guided in a similar way when in a dangerous situation, maybe not so directly, but the feeling was there.
    Sx

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    1. Scarlet, I'm glad you enjoyed this. I had another post in mind, but when I woke up Halloween morning, I immediately thought of my aunt, so I just started writing.

      It's always important to listen to those gut feelings & sixth sense. I do believe that someone really does look out for us. I'm always better off when I listen to those warnings & gut feelings.

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  3. Thank you for sharing that wonderful story, Eros! It's nice to see that Hallowe'en isn't just about monsters, goblins and frights.

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    1. IDV, You're welcome. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Halloween is also about free candy!

      I had a different post in mind. But when I woke up Halloween morning, I suddenly thought of my aunt, & I just had to write down all these thoughts & memories that I had long forgotten. I wasn't sure if I should've shared the story. But then I thought, I may not be with family this Remembrance Holiday, but I know that wherever am, family is always with me--if not in the flesh, then surely in spirit. And I need to honor & remember those loved ones who had passed on. I want them to know that they are missed & loved, & I want to thank them for looking out for me & for keeping me safe. I miss them.

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  4. I love this story.

    Sometimes, when I'm out for a walk, I pretend my grandmothers are walking with me.

    My ancestors are always with me in spirit.

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    1. MJ. I'm glad you love the story. Thank you. I never knew my grandparents, but I did enjoy hearing about them. Like you, I also like to imagine sometimes that I've family with me on long walks & hikes. And I certainly feel their presence on treks & when I need them the most.

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