A couple Fridays ago, we said goodbye to a 100 year old friend. It was bittersweet. In July, we celebrated her 100th birthday with a fun party. In mid-August, our friend was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Are you kidding me? We wondered and then did what needed to be done to make her comfortable in her final days. Then, a couple Fridays ago, we said good-bye during a service that Miss Odessa would have loved.
During the service, the minister exclaimed, “your life tells your story,” and it made me think about Ms. Odessa’s life. She worked hard as a house mother and cook at a few different schools and colleges for decades. And though she never had her own biological children, she had so many children, really. She was widowed longer than she was married, and her fiesty “I can take care of myself” independent spirit was one of my favorite things about her. She stayed in her own house, despite failing sight and hearing, until she was 97 and then still fussed over her decision to go to a nursing home. And if you took too long between visits to her, she’d scold you– with a clear memory of just how long it had been since she’d seen you.
During the “Homegoing” service, I sat across from the stained glass Ms. Odessa had purchased years ago to support the historic little church of her childhood and to honor her father, who raised her after her mom died when she was young, and her husband. I watched the ladies she used to run with pass out programs and comfort the mourners, listened to the choir she used to sing with belt out a soaring rendition of I’ll Fly Away, I heard people’s memories of her, marveled over how her life indeed told her story, and cried over the last cruel blow of cancer.
Days later, I was rereading the assignment I had made for my Body Image classes. In Chapter Four of The Body Project, Joan Jacobs Brumberg writes, “Today many young girls worry about the contours of their bodies– especially shape, size, and muscle tone– because they believe that the body is the ultimate expression of self. The body is a consuming project for contemporary girls because it provides an important means of self-definition, a way to visibly announce who you are to the world.”
And, in that moment, instead of thinking about what questions I wanted to make sure my students pondered about that point, I couldn’t help but wonder what Ms. Odessa would have thought about that point. If I had told Ms. Odessa that the world that she was more and more shut off from because of her blindness and almost deafness had turned into a world that thought appearances mattered more than character, that body size mattered more than heart size, that we were maybe more worried about what we announced to the world with our appearance than how we cared for the world with our good acts.
Ms. Odessa would have shook her head and probably proclaimed, “well, I’ll be.”
And that’s just it, right? What will we be? Who will we be? What story will our lives tell? I think we all have a sense of what it is we want to stand for, how it is we want to be in this world, what story our lives will ideally tell. Today, in honor of Ms. Odessa’s 100 years, I hope you’ll tell that story fearlessly and loudly. Be who you were meant to be, how you were meant to be, now.