I’ve returned to my hometown twice in the past week. It’s a three-plus hour drive one way. The first visit last week was to spend time with a few close loved ones. While I was there, I learned that a dear family friend had unexpectedly passed away. Leo was so completely hale and hearty that it was a shock to all of us that he had gone. He looked younger than his age. He married into a family that has had a generational relationship with my family. His wife babysat me a couple of times, I babysat their now-grown sons. Her parents were well acquainted with my grandparents. We all attended the same small church and watched each others’ kids grow up.
Leo and Sarah have deep roots in our corner of Iowa and were well-known members of our community. Because of this, there were many people who came to the events to show their respect, pay their sympathies, and to just collectively grieve the loss of such a good man.
When I learned of the plans for his memorial, I made my plans to return to our hometown again.
The weekend prior allowed me to see those few loved ones whom I haven’t been able to see in years. It was emotional, absolutely, but on a small scale. However, this week was a tidal wave of people from my past and present. It was wonderful, poignant, emotional, and overwhelming at times. Former neighbors, my teachers (and classmates) from kindergarten through high school, family friends, church friends, and so many others. I was emotionally spent when I arrived back home late Saturday afternoon. It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around the fact that I have known many of these people most of my life – and I’ll be 57 in two weeks. I had a beer with a tableful of people who were in junior high and high school with me – including two whom I have known at least since we were three years old in nursery school together. And those who weren’t in my class year, well, our mothers graduated together.
Something that I have thought about for years is the special service that a small town funeral home provides to a community. I have close friends who do this work in our hometown and I imagine that it is quite rare that they ever serve a family whom they do not know. In larger communities and cities, I suspect that the opposite is true. They rarely know the family personally. If there is a clergy person involved, they may have no idea who they are.
Those who care for the families in our small communities not only know them well, but they also have similar ties as I have described. These are people who knew their grandparents. They grew up with members of their family. Their parents may have attended school together. They often have their own stories of their friendships with the deceased and their families. There has to be a sense of vocation in this. The commitment to be there at any time of day or night for the members of their community whether the deceased has lived a full rich life or may only be a child is something worth recognizing and honoring.
Seeing the passage of time on all of these people, no matter how long it has been since I have seen or spoken to them, has impacted me greatly. Some absolutely lifted my heart and others had changed and aged enough that it broke my heart.
Hearing Leo and Sarah’s grown sons eulogize their father was pretty powerful. These men, now fathers and uncles of babies, toddlers, and kindergartners, these men whom I babysat at these ages, are pretty amazing. Sarah remembered that when my son was born, I told them that my goal was to raise him to be like their sons – a Smith boy. Kind, honorable, resourceful, caring, respectful and respected men. John certainly fits that description. Each of these men revered their parents and their upbringing and told us that their father advised them to be kind and be honest.
The world would be a better place if all of us just did those two things.
So, thanks to you, Leo, for being a steady hand on the rudder. For cutting down and hauling in the best Christmas tree on your farm for the church and for all of you for growing the trees for our homes. To be a great example of a husband, father, and friend. Your passing is going to be felt for a very long time in our community. We are all richer and better people for knowing you. Rest well, friend.