JACKSON — I go to funerals because of Martha Crisler, mother of my friend Bob Crisler.
She wanted to see me before she died in 2015. She was seated upright in her bed at Hospice Ministry, her hair done nicely, talking conversationally. “I just want to say thank you for being such a good friend to Bob all these years,” she told me.
Her approach to death seemed something akin to preparing for an interesting European vacation. She didn’t know what to expect exactly, but she was upbeat about the coming adventure. A few days later, she was gone.
Martha told Bob to always go to weddings and funerals. So I go.
This time it was the mother of my longtime friend Hayes Dent. I didn’t know her, but I wish I had. Her name is Amanda Cary Bailey.
It was a beautiful day for the 50-minute drive to Yazoo City’s First Presbyterian Church. Bob and I drove together. Wife Ginny deferred, having been to a particularly sad funeral just a few days earlier.
Google Maps took us right down Broadway Street (Highway 16) as it comes down from the hills into the Delta. It’s one of the most beautiful roads in the state. For a brief moment, you can see the contrast and the majesty of the Delta and its endless miles of fertile farmland. Beautiful old houses line the descent down, some restored, some in disrepair.
Mississippi is full of beautiful towns such as Yazoo City, each with hundreds upon hundreds of beautiful aging houses. It seems such a waste to see so many fall into disrepair. I pray for the rejuvenation of small-town life, but right now we are in the age of the megalopolis and its unending sprawl. These trends ebb and flow.
First Presbyterian Church was beautiful as well, with magnificent stained glass windows and a unique architecture. Fortunately, Mississippi’s thousands of churches are still well-maintained by and large, a credit to the holiness of our people. These buildings are treasures that we must vow to never lose.
The church was packed, despite COVID. Everyone was wearing a mask. It was heartening to see folks refusing to let a disease intimidate them from paying their respects to one who so personified the Christian life.
She was a fixture at the church, having taught Sunday school there forever. We owe a great deal of gratitude to our Sunday school teachers, the thousands of them, who spend their time and energy helping us all learn the Word of God.
Amanda took it to another level, auditing countless classes at the Reformed Theological Seminary. She was known and well-respected by many a young seminary student, awed by her knowledge of the subject at hand. She held the unofficial title of having accumulated the most classroom hours and the least credit hours of any student ever attending RTS.
Dr. Guy Richardson gave a wonderful eulogy, after an introductory prayer by Dr. Ligon Duncan III. Dr. Charles Wingard led the Call to Worship. Three beautiful granddaughters each read Scripture, fighting back the tears.
One sees this often at funerals: Family members determined to pay homage to their lost loved ones by participating in the funeral service, yet having to battle a flood of emotions when the moment comes to talk. The split second their voices crack, my tears start to flow, and I pray for God to give them strength. He does, and they are always able to carry on.
We are like snowflakes, each one of us infinitely complex, yet in many ways the same. Billions of us. This is the miracle of creation. As the sermon went on, my imagination ran wild filling in the blanks.
Amanda experienced more than her share of death. She lost her husband to illness at 27 as the mother of three young children. Providentially, she met Bob Bailey, who became an instant dad to a full-sized family. The marriage lasted 53 years.
Two young grandchildren died in separate car wrecks. Delta roads are a grim reaper. When she lost her daughter several years ago to cancer, it was a big blow. Her health declined year by year. When the wretched COVID came knocking, it was more than her 82-year-old frame could defeat, and she passed away peacefully.
After the service, Bob spotted Nettie Clark Byrd sitting on a pew nearby and rushed over to speak. Nettie had a brooch bangle on her dress consisting of a dozen or so pendants, one for each year of perfect attendance at Amanda’s ladies’ Sunday school class.
“I would have more, but a minister didn’t approve of such ornaments, and Amanda quit giving them out,” she said.
Bob and she talked for quite a while, then we headed to the graveside service. “Man, I haven’t seen her since my days at Flora Academy. We would come up and date the girls in Yazoo City, but she was out of my league,” he told me.
Glenwood Cemetery is as pretty a small-town cemetery as I have ever seen, but the perfect fall day made it even more idyllic. The names on the tombstones were familiar, ancestors of countless current friends and acquaintances. The huge cedar trees must be over 100 years old. Kudos to whoever maintains this cemetery. It’s in perfect condition.
We then headed to Eagle Bend Road, which winds along the Yazoo River, to spend some time with the family. I was happy to see cotton in bloom. When I was young, living in the Delta, all you saw in the fall was endless white cotton fields. It was quite a sight. The corn and soybean fields cannot compare. I miss that.
Like so many Mississippians, Hayes could not sever his roots to the land. Lured from time to time by Big Time in the Big City, he always came back and is still living in the old family home on the same land his ancestors farmed.
Of course, there was delicious Southern food and plenty of drink as we reminisced about old times and I learned more about Amanda. Lots of laughter and some tears.
Later that night, Hayes texted to thank us for coming. I responded; “So glad to be there and see such faith. Happy to know Amanda is with the Lord.”