Yesterday, Anna, Sofie and I spent all day in downstate Illinois near Lincoln. One of our “adopted grandparents” died this past weekend, and we went to the funeral.
Glenn and Mildred Baker lived across the street from us in the small town where I last pastored. They were Presbyterians, but since the church were I ministered was literally across the lot from their home, they had had ongoing relationships with several of my predecessors, and, of course, with various church members.
When Anna and I first moved in to the parsonage and I began my role as senior pastor, I was encouraged by our church treasurer, the late Lynn Edwards, to go over and introduce myself to Glenn. As things turned out, I was too busy in my first weeks to do other than wave at Glenn as he mowed his lawn on his John Deere lawn tractor. But introductions to the Bakers were soon taken care of, when, shortly after we arrived, Mildred walked across our back lawn to bring us cookies as we stood on the back porch talking to a neighbor. Soon we were eating dinner at their place with some regularity.
The Bakers were farmers, and, when we met them, in their eighties. They had seen their share of heartache. Their first child, Samuel, died in infancy. Their only other child, Sandra, almost ten years prior to our arrival at the church there in town, died at age forty in a car accident. In typical Midwestern farmer tradition, they remembered often, grieved a little, and went about their daily chores and routines.
Glenn and Mildred were careful to watch over our welfare, being young, newlweds, and having signed on to serve a church with a history of turmoil. When Anna needed new tires on her car, since she was travelling almost an hour one way to finish her bachelor’s degree, the Bakers bought them. When they learned our microwave had gone on the fritz, they gave us one that they’d “just had laying around.” They were frugal to the point of eccentricity. Glenn would wear the same pair of overalls till they were falling off his body–though he had a brand new pair still in the package waiting to be worn.
When we left the church, the Bakers were both angered at what had happened to us, and saddened that it had happened. Since we remained in the area, never more than an hour away, we visited frequently and kept in touch. When we left Illinois for Baton Rouge, so Anna could go to library school, we quite literally on our way out of town visited Mildred, who’d just broken her hip, as she recovered in the hospital. There we were, Ryder truck towing our car and our two cats and a ferret, parked illegally, but visiting the Bakers.
When we returned to Illiniois, to live and go to school in Chicago, we continued to visit the Bakers. Mildred, of course, had gone from the broken hip right in to the nursing home. Glenn every morning would wake, go argue politics at the local hangout, then head to the nursing home to have breakfast with Mildred. He would often eat lunch and dinner there. The separation was difficult for him, and it was challenging for him to keep the house, so he put his affairs in order, and moved in to the same facility as Mildred. He would then be able to have all his meals with her.
Glenn died on Christmas Eve 2001. Though I was asked to officiate at his funeral, I hadn’t pastored in some years, and truth to tell, I was too shocked and saddened to do so. Glenn’s death was unexpected. We went to the funeral and said our goodbyes.
News of Mildred’s death this week, however, was not unexpected. Shortly after arriving in the nursing home, she began to deteriorate badly. She soon lost her ability to communicate, though she seemed to recognize us when we visited. Not long after that, she lost conscious awareness of her surroundings. Though we did not know it, in the last several weeks, she’d stopped eating, and they were having trouble getting her the nutrition she needed. She died Sunday, coincidentally my birthday. She was ninety-three years old.
She has a sister-in-law and her granddaughter who have survived her. The rest of those in attendance were her former school children. Mildred taught at a one-room school house not twenty miles from the funeral home, and only miles from her gravesite, and a good dozen of her pupils, themselves in their seventies, came to pay their respects and to say goodbye.
As Anna and I drove around the area yesterday, we remembered why it was that we love small towns. Everyone knows everyone. Though you’d nearly run your neighbor off the road to get your beans in to the elevator and get the best possible price, you also know that disaster is nor respector of persons. When tragedy hits, you help your neighbor. I’ve seen farmers who otherwise would be at one another’s throats, join hands to help another farming family make ends meet. I suppose that when you farm, you risk your entire family’s livelihood and your own sense of self-worth everyday. A life like that will either solidify your vices, or at least make an honest man out of you.
We relived a lot of memories. Our year and a half in that small town was in a lot of ways a very difficult time. But there were many good memories that we were able to revisit yesterday. Including all of the ones involving the Bakers.
May the Lord grant rest to the soul of Mildred N. Baker. May her memory be eternal.