Thursday, November 26, 2015

Amy Louise Parrish Jett: My Grandmother, the Change Agent, and My Constant

She died in the same way she lived, with a lot of grace and on her terms, in her time, and in her space.  She died at home, 90 seconds after we stopped singing to her in 3 part harmony, and 98.666667 (decimals, then rounding.....really, who besides me calculates that but you know, when I am approaching 99, I want the credit for every day I could get for hanging around this planet for so long!) years after being born at home. Of the myriad of lessons her life taught me, this lesson has become part of the fabric of my being; the lesson that birth and death, can and when medically possible, should happen at home, making sacred space even more sacred.

There is so much I could write about my amazing Grandmother.  It is odd to me now that I think about it, that the eulogy that I wrote for her is her first substantial "appearance" in my blog.  But that is the way it always is, right?  We never truly honor other individuals of such substance during their lifetimes as we should. So it is after their death, when they ostensibly can't hear us, that we speak of them the most. 

Although I have to say...I was constantly mindful of the time falling through the hour glass as she advanced in years, so I chose to be in her physical presence as much as possible, knowing how intensely I would miss her when she was gone.  There are really no words to describe how it feels, now that the sand has run out. But that is a blog post for another time.

We had her Celebration of Life ceremony on November 15th. Although she died on October 27th in Richmond, Kentucky, she donated her body to medical research at the University of Kentucky,in Lexington, Kentucky, so we weren't pressed for time.  She lived in Richmond her entire life & I have lived in Lexington for over 20 years now, making it feel more like home to me than my own hometown.  Honestly, it is strangely comforting to have her in Lexington with me. I never said I was normal. 

Interestingly, although she has 3 living children, & 7 living grandchildren, of which I am the youngest at 40, I wrote and delivered her eulogy. I was given 5 minutes.  Her service resembled more of a music concert, than a funeral.  It was 65 minutes of music and 10 minutes of homily and eulogy. I was given 5 minutes because we are not Catholic, nor Episcopal, we are Presbyterians. Presbyterians get a bit antsy when we breach the 60 minute mark for any service. Always mindful that we are charged to be the hands and feet of Christ, that there is pain and suffering to be tended to, and good works to be done outside of that building, long after the last notes of the music have faded. But we just couldn't get it all in under an hour.  

At the end a friend of mine overheard a comment from another congregant saying, "You would have to pay $1000 to hear this music performed in New York City!" Only the musical repertoire of Amy Jett would include handbells,  2 choir anthems with a flute accompaniment, 3 hymns beautifully sung in 4 part harmony, Amazing Grace sung a capella by a close friend, a spiritual, Precious Lord, Take My Hand,  Faure's In Paradisium, Bach's Sheep May Safely Graze, and conclude with Widor's Toccata from the Fifth Organ Symphony in F, Op 42 #1

It was only fitting that we requested that everyone remain seated to experience the Toccata. If you have never experienced it, do yourself a favor and click on this link and watch and listen as it is played in the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. : Widor's Toccata.  It is over 6 minutes long, so pull up a chair, get your ear buds, pour a cup of coffee, & commit to the Toccata. It is life changing. My kids made it through the entire service, including sitting quietly and contentedly through the Toccata, so you can too.  But, if you must fast forward, go to the 3:30 minute mark and listen to the end.  (And if you must fast forward...perhaps slow down a bit, the truest beauty of this life is happening around you, become a part of it. If you have the time to watch the SNL Thanksgiving skit rendition of Adele's Hello, you have time for the Toccata.  Speaking of Adele's Hello, if I were Lionel Ritchie, I would be saying the same thing...Hello?!

Everyone said it was perfect. It didn't feel like it.  I paused to find my voice time and again, as it cracked under emotion and I struggled to finish.  They said it didn't seem like that, but public speaking is a bit surreal by nature and when you are speaking about a recently deceased loved one, it is a surreal factor of 10.  Once I was seated again, after singing in the second choir anthem, Abide with Me, I found my zen place. But when the Tocatta filled the acoustics of her church (and mine) I lost it, sobbing into my hands, as the reality hit me that her favorite instrument was so masterfully played in her honor.   Does is surprise you that it was played by her favorite organist who gladly traveled 100 miles to be there and play in her honor?

It was the most fitting tribute to her that was imaginable.  She lived and left this life as masterfully as the Tocatta was played on "her" organ that day. The symbolism quite honesty, broke me.  It is now 11 days after I delivered this eulogy and while I am no longer broken, I am honestly not fixed either.  But that is how it is with grief, you are never really fixed, just eternally different.

So here it eulogy to Amy Louise Parrish Jett.

Welcome to Amy Jett's Sacred Place.  She would be so pleased to share this amazing instrument behind me, that will be expertly played by a good friend.  There was no greater protector of this Tracker Organ, than she. She would tell you that it is one of the finest pipe organs of it's size east of the Mississippi River.

A little over a month after Amy Louise Parrish was born on a day so snowy that the doctor was required to ride on horseback to deliver her, the Unites States sent combat troops into France and declared war on Germany during World War I.  This was the first of 2 world wars that would take place during her lifetime. 

War was not the only source of death and casualties that year as a flu pandemic also struck in 1917, claiming the lives of 500,000 Americans, including the life of my husband's great grandfather only 100 miles north of Richmond, Kentucky. How frightening it must have been for my great grandmother Lucy, whom I am named for, to realize that a flu pandemic was yet one more medical threat to the life of her newborn born on Mule Shed Lane in Madison County, Kentucky.

She was 3 when women were given the right to vote 55 years prior to the day of my own birthday, August 18, 1920. The first motion picture with sound was released, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was created, the first transatlantic flight took place, and the Stock Market crashed which instigated the Great Depression....all before she turned 12.

She would tell me stories of her childhood, growing up on the farm in Kirksville, Kentucky, when an orange would be her only Christmas gift, and for that one orange, she was abundantly thankful.  I am sure that this attitude of abundance served her well as she faced the rations that all Americans endured during the 
second World War of her lifetime.

She was the greatest of the Greatest Generation and came of age in the era of the New Deal. Franklin D. Roosevelt would serve an unprecedented 4 terms of office, being inaugurated when she was 15 and serving until she was 28. And it was during this time that she started her family, giving birth to her own version of the Silent Generation.  If you know my father and his sisters, you will recognize the irony, as these three are rarely silent about anything.  They learned from their mother that using your voice, whether for advocacy or for soul soothing activities such as a vocal performance, is important.

Her mother & father realized that she had a brilliant mind, that never stopped, and made the monetary and considerable logistical sacrifice to make sure their daughter received an education.  She graduated from high school at the age of 16 and proceeded to fall in love with a man many years her senior.  Paul Jett also recognized her intellectual ability and always encouraged her to be herself, allowing her to live her passions for music, gardening, Cecilian Club, National Federation of Music Clubs, church, Project Read, the list goes on and on, but most importantly her family, during almost 6 decades of marriage.

When my Grandfather was no longer able to do so, she went to work at Jett & Hall (what my family refers to as "the stores") assisting my mother and father in continuing the Jett & Hall legacy.  She stayed mostly in the clothing store, with my Dad, making custom alterations to suits, pants and sport coats.  What she didn't finish while in the store, she would often carry home to finish after dinner and bring back the next day. If asked, she could have quoted the measurements of many in this room today as she performed your alterations over the years.  I have fond memories of spending Saturdays with her in the stores as she taught me how to match a men's tie to a latent thread color in a suit, how to rectify my cash drawer, build displays of accessories, credit and debit charge account statements, make night drops, and wrap gift boxes.  

She taught me how to interact with customers and close a sale because that was ultimately put food on our table, but she also taught me compassion and kindness for the "characters" who sometimes wandered in off Main Street. 

Included in the inventions that revolutionized the world during her later years, were the personal computer, satellite television, e-mail, and the internet.  She embraced all of them.  In her 80s, she bought a new computer & paid a tutor to teach her how to use the computer. She was over 90 when she began using facebook, years before some of her own grandchildren did, and she used e-mail to communicate with her network of friends and family that stretched throughout the country and other countries.

And in all of this change that occurred during her lifetime, in my lifetime, she was simply my constant.  After the deaths of my mother and brother, she was my constant source of strength.  She was my constant and incessant cheerleader.  During my teenage years, many of which were spent living with her and my grandfather, she was my constant source of guidance and governance.

One salient memory I have is the loving care she provided when I came down with mononucleosis.  As part of my treatment, I had to have round the clock oral antibiotics. In the weeks of my treatment, she would set an alarm in the middle of the night, and bring me my medicine, along with something to eat as this medicine could not be taken on an empty stomach. To give you some perspective, she was 72 years old at this time, raising a 4th teenager. 

She was my sage, in the 40 years I was blessed to have her, she was a constant mentor to me drawing on her experience as a talented musician, master gardener, skilled cook, concerned citizen, caring mother, loving grandmother, & compassionate friend.

Based on the outpouring of condolences that I have received since her passing, it is obvious how many lives she touched and the difference that she made in the lives of so many.  The overwhelming message from all of them was that their lives were made better, just by knowing her.  

But her greatest gift to me was teaching me to live an authentic life. She taught me to never take a day for granted and live each one like it might be my last. She taught me to use my voice, both musically and intellectually, but she also taught me to say what I mean and to mean what I say. She taught me to live fully, love deeply, care passionately and trust my instincts.  She taught me that you are never to old to learn and you are never too old to change.

Thank you, Amy Louise Parrish Jett, for being a change agent 
for so many but for being my constant.  

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