All my life I’ve avoided funerals like they were catching. I never got much solace from them, and I didn’t think my absence disrespected the principal, the dead being rather indifferent on the subject.
I never realized the power of publicly contemplating a life well-lived until the lesson was forced on me by the death of an extraordinary woman.
It was a sunny Saturday last May; I drove out busy Geary St. to a funeral home in the Richmond. I was there to celebrate the life and mourn the passing of Barbara Griffith: founder, teacher, critic and cajoler of the Sunset Writer’s Group, my writer’s group for the past few years.
Barbara had the gift of attracting and inspiring people, as much by her presence as by her words. From the barrens of post-war Levittown to the artistic ferment of San Francisco she gathered acolytes in a long an useful life. I gladly counted myself among them.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one. The funeral hall was large and overflowing with mourners, almost all strangers to me; I felt very alone. Among the people I was introduced to, there was one who really got me feeling sorry for myself, a guy by the name of Joel, the best friend of Barbara’s son, Bill.
I’d never met Joel before, and yet it turned out that not only is he my 2-doors-down neighbor in Glen Park, but he also shares my last name.
Now, I will cop to being something of a hermit, but what kind of a life am I living when I can sleep 75 feet from another guy named Goldstein for seven years and never know it, never even (and take this, all you critics of the US Postal Service) get a piece of his mail by mistake? Has life in the big city become so isolating that we no longer bother to know one another anymore?
And whose fault is that? I never knocked on Joel’s door, never brought over a cold one, never even thought about it. Now here I am at the funeral of this great woman, surrounded by people who loved her, and I know virtually nobody in the room.
And yet … not quite nobody. There sits Jack, the retired hospital administrator from our group who is writing a novel about a wise-cracking merchant sailor coming of age in the post-war Philippines.
He is consoling our brilliant Penny, a legal secretary who hates her job, and who is writing a dark comedy about a woman who so hates her job she brains her boss with a plaster fish.
And next to her is Bob, our computer whiz who writes equally well about young gay men searching for love, and cats who play the piano. And Eleanor, our tiny, sardonic holocaust survivor who writes with such painful beauty that when she reads, we all hang on every heavily-accented word. And Jean, our Tenderloin security guard and comic playwright, who lives out of town and sleeps in her van when she works swing-shift so she can make our meetings. And beautiful, elegant Jo, our British-colonial expatriate, whose book on love and war in Rhodesia is so good she is already agented and on the road to publication.
I knew all these people because a magnet named Barbara Griffith had drawn us together, because a 79 year old woman had posted an Internet listing years before they became fashionable. I had a community because she took the trouble to make one. Now it was up to us to keep it alive.
When I left that dark room and stepped into the sun I was feeling better. And when I got to my car I beheld a minor miracle. Out on Geary the meter maids had done their worst. Every car on the block was flagged with a ticket. Every car but mine. My meter still showed 60 minutes, just like two hours ago.
A couple of weeks later I ran into my neighbor Joel. I was on my way to the first post-Barbara meeting of the Sunset Writer’s Group. It was another beautiful day and I had the top down. Goldstein spotted me as I backed out of my driveway.
“Hey Allan, where you heading?” he asked.
“I have a writing group meeting tonight.”
“That’s great,” he grinned, giving me the high sign. “You guys keep it up.”