SEILING — When my grandmother, Lavon Gore, died in early March, every pew in the local Methodist church was full. Many other people, unable to find a seat, congregated along the walls.
Just a few weeks later when Granddad died, there were nine of us in the chapel for the service, including two ministers.
It was not as if Alton Gore had not meant as much to our family, or to the community he had been deeply involved in his entire life. Rather, credit a pandemic that had crossed an ocean and finally reached our doorstep in small-town Seiling, Oklahoma.
But Gore was not a victim of COVID-19. It was a stroke that took his life. Yet social distancing to slow the novel coronavirus limited the ability to celebrate his life.
Funeral directors, dealing with an unprecedented situation without a real play book, tried to adhere to new directives that limited gatherings to 10 people. This meant our family was split. A few of us said goodbye in person, while the rest watched a live stream in another wing of the church.
In this instance, my stubbornness came in handy, as I stayed put and simply said no when asked to leave my seat on the second row. I made it understood that I was not going to watch the service on a TV screen.
Selfish? Maybe. But regardless of my presence or lack thereof, there was plenty of room for social distancing. We complied at the beginning of the service, but as the funeral proceeded to a slideshow of our family’s favorite memories, the distance between us disappeared, emotionally and sometimes physically.
The service was similar to Grandma’s in its message — our family’s mourning and the recordings of gospel songs by Willie Nelson and Alan Jackson. But it was so heartbreakingly unfamiliar.
I felt torn that my cousins were having to watch Granddad be put to rest remotely, even though they were in the same building. Somehow that thought made it even worse, being so close and feeling so far away.
However, when I glanced behind me as Willie wrapped up his rendition of I’ll Fly Away, I could not help but smile. Several family members had filtered into the back of the room.
I guess stubbornness runs in the family.
It was a somber feeling as we walked beside the casket to the hearse waiting outside. Not only because it was a last goodbye, but because we were doing it without so many important people.
There were no friends to hug or distant relatives who made the trip, no old classmates to share stories about days gone by and no one from our little town expressing how much Alton Gore had meant to their experiences growing up in a tight-knit community.
It was hard. It was unfair. It was a funeral during a pandemic.
As we lingered outside the church before the procession to the cemetery began, there was still a feeling of incompleteness.
But as we drove down Main Street and passed by Gore’s Phillip’s 66 Service Station, which has been in our family since 1939, there was a sense of normalcy.
Cars and trucks stopped along the road, drivers got out of their vehicles and took their hats off to show respect. Some from the community were able to be there for my family and to wave goodbye. It was a small sense of closure.
There is no doubt it has been a hard year for my family, losing our patriarch and matriarch in addition to my father, Marty Gore, who died in August in a motorcycle accident. My great-grandmother, Betty Wilson, also died in December. But through it all, and even a pandemic, we have been there for each other and carried on together.
My family has not lost anyone to the coronavirus, but the pandemic definitely altered the way we said our goodbyes to Granddad.
In the days following the funeral we had the collective chore of sifting through our grandparents’ home of more than half a century. And believe me, it was all there.
This may seem like an unfortunate chore, and it was a daunting task. But we were all there together, rediscovering memories once lost under piles of paper and stacks of boxes.
As we worked throughout the day, a few of my cousins and I would occasionally sneak into the backyard, where Grandma and Granddad had once set up our own family sandlot. We played baseball until dusk, like we were kids again, and the only tears came from laughter.