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Beth's Father (All Saints' Day)

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I went to church on All Saints' Day.

sad old man in church

Amy Brenneman: Not raised in a church where this was celebrated, I never understood exactly what it was. Now I do. After the bacchanal of Halloween -- the costumes, the exhibitionism, the debauchery of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups -- comes the real day of the dead. The day we remember the dead.

At my church, they celebrate it in high style. Normally All Saints' Pasadena is earth-bound and somewhat casual. Yes, there is Gothic architecture and white robes, but look deeper and it tells a different story -- and that is why I, for one, am there. Many of those robed are gay, and many were married there in the Gothic arches. All Saints' is committed to radical inclusion, and for that, it may be tossed out of the Anglican union sometime in the future. The parishioners are a rainbow coalition of races and ages, the clergy the same. Every aspect of the liturgy has been examined and explored to express this radical inclusion. But All Saints' has retained its right to ritual because there is something in the pageantry of incense, procession, and song that leads the mind away from the mundane.

I sat in the back with Charlotte. We got there late, naturally. We sat with the other motley latecomers as the hymns began. I noticed a man next to Charlotte who didn't seem quite right. On the verge of homeless? Or just unwashed? Don't judge; don't judge, I tell myself. Remember, radical inclusion. Just. Don't sit so close to my daughter.

The procession of clergy and choir goes by us, swinging incense leading the way. As the clergy and assorted friends see Charlotte, they laugh and wave -- breaking the tone of the O-so-serious service. She waves back. She's delighted. Afterwards, homeless man says, "How old is your daughter?"

I tense up. Don't talk about my daughter. "She's 8," I mumble, not looking up from the program.

There is a pause. I look in his direction. His eyes are wet as he looks at Charlotte. "Take care of her," he says. "My daughter was killed at 17 in a car crash. Please, please, make sure your daughter wears a seat belt."

Game changer.

I nod. "Yes, of course," I say. Pause as the choir intones some more. "What was her name?"

"Beth." His eyes are bloodshot. With drink? Exhaustion? Grief? Cuz one thing that's sure -- his daughter was 17 a long time ago. I see the decades telescope -- the guy was a regular guy, a devoted dad, then Beth died and he slipped off the rails. Now he's the village crier, making his rounds on All Saints' Day, remembering the dead, getting an eyeful of living 8-year-old girls.

We invoke the names of the dead. Ed, our rector, invites people to say out loud those who died in the last year. The voices are tiny in the cavernous space, and start out slow. "Carrie." "Lourdes." "Jerome." Then, like a rainstorm, the names come quicker and the church is filled with whispered names. I can't help it. I say, "Beth" in a shy whisper. I look up at the dad to see if he's heard, but he's gone. Long gone.

next: Noah Cyrus Sings about Booze, Getting 'Crunk'
5 comments so far | Post a comment now
yunus January 15, 2010, 4:37 AM

Thanks for sharing.

RevSisRaedorah January 15, 2010, 11:12 AM

Amy, what a lovely requiem to your Dad, your Daughter, and Beth. This is also very well written. Might you consider submitting it to Guideposts? Blessing you with precious memories and even more compassionate moments.

Didi (as my father use to call me) January 15, 2010, 12:21 PM

Hi… that is so sweet for you to tell this story… I lost someone, and everytime i hear someone criticizing their dad’s my thought is always ; “at least you have one”… and i dont meant to be a bad person.. but i feel like one! why?? So i understand that man… and he is lucky in some way… he shared his memory with you . and now with millions… so Beth will be alive for ever…

Rachel  January 19, 2010, 11:22 PM

Wow. I’m speechless. Thanks for getting my brain working, Amy.

Nancy February 9, 2010, 5:13 PM

What a beautiful story…very moving. One thing about this world, that never stops amazing me, is how each of us touches, and is touched by live of others. All the time. Stories about people we have never met. We too, impact so many more lives than we will ever know. When I think about that, it makes me so much more aware to try my best to have a positive impact in everything I do, as people will surely be affected, without me even knowing. You Amy, have made a positive impact in sharing that story. So heartwarming. Thank you.

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