When I was in high school, she was the lunch lady. And she was my great aunt. And I am sure that the small talk we made as she dipped mashed potatoes onto my tray were a diversion so that the other kids didn’t see that she was giving me more than them.
That was my Aunt Mabel.
On Saturday past, the last of the generation on my dad’s mother’s side of the family left this earthly pilgrimage. Mabel (nee Schultz) Parker was the youngest of her two sisters, Ethel (my grandmother) and Martha, and two brothers, Les and Walt. She was younger than the rest by enough that the children she had with Uncle Gene—David, Joy Ann, Nick, and Dan—comprised a half-generation tucked neatly between their cousins (for example, my dad), and their cousin’s children (like me).
I cannot say that I knew Aunt Mabel tremendously well, but the impression which she and Uncle Gene made on me will not allow me to let her passing go without my penning my memories. Mabel Parker was, in a word, a gentle woman, and Uncle Gene a gentle man.
Aunt Mabel epitomized the Schultz spirit. She, my grandmother and their siblings were hardworking, easy-going, kind, generous, fun, and full of life. They were unflappable. And they made great use of their gift for gab.
I loved hot lunch in school, and I loved seeing Aunt Mabel. She was always upbeat, had a big smile, and made me feel special. As the head cook, she provided us with a quality of meals that public school students of today do not enjoy. Though she was small of stature she stood tall in my eyes, the kind of person you look forward to running into. Whom you know you should emulate.
Before I departed my home town, whenever I saw Aunt Mabel, perhaps at a wedding reception or in one of the aisles at Montague Foods, I knew what to expect. She would draw me down to her level, place both hands upon my cheeks, and plant on me an auntly kiss.
The Parkers lived north of Montague on Whitbeck Road, on the far side of Eilers Road. (Yes, Virginia, there really is an Eilers Road.) When I was young, I thought they lived way out in the country. Then, as a high-schooler, I would ride my bike up Whitbeck, turning west on Eilers, to pick asparagus at Benny Scholl’s. I could see their farm from the corner. Hmm, the Parkers weren’t so far out in the country, after all.
They had this distinctive concrete block building on the other side of the driveway. I am thinking it was the milking house, though I cannot tell you that they were dairy farmers. The building’s blocks were a creamy color, a shade that I don’t believe I have ever seen on another building. Even now, when I am visiting Montague and I purposely take Whitbeck Road north out of town, I have to gawk as I drive by. And I am a kid again.
After high school, my best bud Tim Todd and I joined the Thursday night bowling league. Uncle Gene bowled in that league. Now, I really got to know the man. He was good-natured and kind, always quick with a story and a laugh. That smile! Surely, when young Gene and Mabel first laid eyes on each other it was their smiles that drew their hearts together. They enjoyed true wedded bliss all of their sixty-three years, until Uncle Gene was laid to rest in 2000.
He must have had really bad knees. He was as bow-legged as I ever saw a man. Making the approach to throw his bowling ball, he looked like he was held together with some of the baling wire from his farm. Yet I still could not find a way to beat him.
Returning to the bench after a nifty strike, he was fond of finding me. “See, Greg,” he would smile. “That’s how you do it.” The stinker.
I never got to know their sons, David and Nick, but I crossed paths with Joy Ann and Dan plenty of times over the years and, in them, I saw their parents. Last February, I attended my first family funeral as Gina. Before the Sunday afternoon gathering, I went to worship at primo pal Tim’s congregation, Montague United Methodist.
During worship, they have a moment for sharing good news and prayer needs. Tim took the microphone to rejoice in the marking of the fortieth anniversary of his baptism. When Tim handed the mic back to the pastor, I stood and requested it. I thanked the congregation for the warm welcome they gave me before worship, noting that the last time I had been in that church was to be Tim’s best man in 1981. I spoke for a second about the challenges of being a transgender Christian, then asked for their prayers for all people who are easily cast off by family and society.
It never dawned on me that this was Aunt Mabel’s congregation. No, she was not in attendance as she had been confined to the local care center for some years, but Joy Ann was there. After worship, she sought me out. Seeing her, I felt like a punk for the shock she must have experienced when I spoke and she realized who it was. Finding me after worship, she greeted me with the familiar Parker smile. We threw our arms around each other and made quick catch-up talk. All was well!
Later, at the funeral, I saw Dan. He also graced me with a big Parker smile. I said, “I ran into Joy Ann at church.” “I know,” he replied. “She called right after church.” Of course, she did.
In Joy Ann and Dan, I continue to know Aunt Mabel and Uncle Gene. And isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? We pass on ourselves through our children. Hopefully, what we hand down shows that it was good that we had children. It was very good that Aunt Mabel and Uncle Gene had children.
Our Lord Jesus, recorded in Matthew 5:16, said, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Aunt Mabel and Uncle Gene did just that, and by their good deeds God the Father was glorified and we, their family and community, received the benefit.
And so concludes an all-too-brief snapshot of my Great Aunt Mabel.
And so she was. She was great.