When I was a kid at our Bray family gatherings, inevitably someone would request that we go to the piano and sing some hymns. Mama would pull out the old blue-backed hymnals, and off we’d go. By the time I was about 14, they expected me to play the piano, and I wasn’t always thrilled about that. I would much rather sing than play.
But with a resigned sigh, I’d plop down on the piano bench and take requests. Invariably, there would come cries for the well-known favorites—“When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Precious Memories.” My cousins and I would beg to sing hymns we recalled from our childhood days together at Forest Chapel UMC—“Love, Mercy and Grace” (#153 in the old Cokesbury Hymnal, if memory serves me correctly) and of course “Whispering Hope” which I had trouble playing and which had a high note on the chorus that practically nobody could reach without screeching.
Then we’d throw in a couple of old Chuckwagon Gang songs like “Jesus Hold My Hand,” “A Beautiful Life” and “Come Unto Me.” My personal favorite was “On the Jericho Road.” I loved the way Grandpa Bray’s bass voice would dip real low on the chorus when he’d sing, “There’s room for just two.” After Pa Bray passed in 1992, Uncle Donald or Cousin Mark, both of whom had terrific tenor voices, would tackle that low part, but it was never quite the same.
You know what’s sad? I don’t even remember when we quit gathering around the piano and singing. It’s been at least 20 years since the last time. If I had the chance to do it all again, I promise I would never once sigh about having to play the piano. I would play for hours on end if I could just hear those dear voices singing together again.
Isn’t that human nature, though? Not to truly appreciate what we have until it’s gone?
Now it’s not just Pa Bray’s voice that has been silenced; it’s Uncle Donald’s and Uncle Sam’s, too. If we take up the old hymn-singing habit again at Christmas, it’ll be Cousins Mark and Richard with the gray hair now—with only Daddy and Uncle Ira Lee left of the original four Bray boys.
I reckon the old saying is true: “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” If you can spend time with loved ones, do it now; that excuse about life being too busy isn’t good enough. Life will ALWAYS be busy, but our loved ones won’t always be here.
Week before last, I was thinking that very thought as I sat with my Aunt Sylvia in her quiet house. The sun was shining, spring flowers were blooming, and if you didn’t know any better, you would think all was right with the world. Truth is, I was sitting there with her because Uncle Donald had passed away. There in that lovely living room, I realized how close I came to missing something precious.
You see, for years I had been wanting to take my daddy and his brothers up to the family graveyards in King and Pinnacle to record them talking about family history. We never got around to it before Uncle Sam died in 2016.
But last spring, I finally said, “Let’s do it!” Well, we couldn’t all coordinate our plans, so before you know it, it was summertime, and the older Bray generation couldn’t do such a trip in the heat and humidity. So we decided to wait until fall.
Again, we couldn’t seem to get everybody on the same page, and fall was passing rapidly. Once Thanksgiving 2017 came, we all said, “Looks as if we’ll have to wait ‘til spring” because now they couldn’t do such an outdoor trip in the cold.
Then suddenly, the weather turned Indian-summerish, and God blessed us with a gorgeous springlike day on November 29! We hit the road—my hubster driving all seven of us in our big Expedition. What fun we had telling family stories in the cemeteries, pointing out old family landmarks all over King, and finally sharing a delicious meal at Stratford BBQ!
Just a few weeks later, Uncle Donald’s health deteriorated to the point that he had to enter an assisted living facility; he never left there again. What if we had waited until spring to take our family trip? We would’ve been minus Uncle Donald, our family patriarch since Pa Bray left us 26 years ago.
My memories of that bright autumn day are all sunshine-tinged and coated with peace and joy—treasured recollections stored away in my file marked “eternal.” As Doc “Moonlight” Graham said in my favorite movie “Field of Dreams”: “You know, we just don’t recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they’re happening. Back then I thought, well, there’ll be other days. I didn’t realize that that was the only day.”
For us, that was indeed the only day. We did not know that less than six months later, we’d be together on another gorgeously sunny day—but this time at a graveside service. I held it together pretty well until they played the old Chuckwagon Gang singing “Camping in Canaan’s Land.” Uncle Donald was now up there in “Canaan’s happy land,” and my tears were a paradoxical mixture of loss and joy as I imagined his reunion with my bubbly Grandma Bray.
When you say goodbye to a loved one, you want to hold your remaining loved ones even closer. At the graveside, my eyes kept making memories of my family members who were still here with me.
When it was time to head home, I had a strong desire to go to Pulliam’s Barbecue which was near the cemetery. Physically, I was hungry for those terrific hot dogs and unique barbecue sandwiches; psychologically, that was a place that carried me back to the old paths of my childhood when Daddy would take us all out there, and we’d eat in the car in the gravel parking lot.
As we pulled into that iconic place, I told my hubster and five kids I was surprised more Brays hadn’t had the same thought as me. Sure enough, as I exited Pulliam’s—Cheerwine in hand—in walked my cousin Tana who had had the same thought at the cemetery! I had to laugh as I hugged her one more time.
My family carried our rare lunchtime treats back to Walnut Cove and enjoyed them, huddled together in the small kitchen at our church. Call it age or call it wisdom, but I was very conscious of the fact that I needed to appreciate what I have on these current paths so I can make memories…..precious memories that linger and will ever flood our souls as we walk out this glorious journey called LIFE.
Leslie Bray Brewer can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her blog is at http://timesofrefreshingontheoldpaths.wordpress.com.