Last Wednesday morning, as I woke to the pale sun coming up over the mountains, I realized that more than 3,000 miles away, Caroline Kennedy was being buried by the people at St. Nicholas Parish in Portland. How fitting, it seemed, that Caroline's funeral would fall on the feast of the Transfiguration.
Caroline was a magnificent planner in all regards. She wore elegant hats to the services and did not neglect to coordinate them with her husband's bow ties. When she and Alex had us for tea, everything was artfully arranged--there were the crustless cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches, real tea, pungent and earthy, poured from a fine tea pot into delicate china glasses that jingled on the saucers. She and Alex were gracious and warm and put us at ease. They were also pillars of the community at St. Nicholas and Caroline's death created a gap that no one else could fill.
It grieved me, that morning, to be so far away and to miss her funeral. But during those first moments of the day, when I was lingering at the edge of sleep, as I lifted my head from the pillow and saw the green mountains against the pink sky, I didn't feel so far away. I felt like I was "there" for just a few moments, an experience that is both sweet and odd and seems to occur more often around funerals.
It was also Anna's first day of first grade, which seemed another genius stroke of planning. What better day for her to start "real school"? Because it was the feast of Transfiguration, I didn't just have to remember Anna's medical forms, vaccination records, emergency supply kit--complete with flashlight, non-perishables and a family photo and note--as well as her backpack filled with her sharp new pencils, unused erasers, squeaky clean tennis shoes, socks and lunch and snacks, but, also, just as I was headed out the door with Anna and her heavy backpack, we stopped to gather our fruit into a basket: mangoes, papayas and limes.
As I drove up the winding road to the school, a teacher was waiting for me. She leaned in my window. "How are you this morning?" she said, smiling at me despite the cars behind me. She showed me where to park. Then Anna and Natalie and I walked up the hill, where the assistant principal greeted us, followed by another teacher, with a camera. "Would you like me to take a picture?" she asked.
I was glad that the teacher wanted to take a photo because Anna was not very cooperative with my attempts to capture her on film. In fact, she seemed downright embarrassed by my camera, which caught me off guard. Just a few weeks back, it I was was still pretty much the center of her universe, but that morning, I was a liability. She was ready for this and she wanted to face it on her own, without the cumbersome distractions of the mama paparazzi.
Her school is a small charter with an emphasis on project-based learning. The classrooms, which were designed and built by the teachers and parents are like small houses, dotting a lush field surrounded by Hawaiian gardens that the kids tend. Anna's room as a huge lanai for stories and cubbies, just ten feet from a gate where cows graze and moo. She's also a stone's throw from a "butterfly house" teeming with tropical flowers.
Here is Anna beside her cubby, on that first day:
The moment Anna stepped into the classroom, she was focused on the teacher, eager to see what would happen next. She didn't even glance back as I stood in the doorway with the other moms, which was a good thing, because tears were streaming down my cheeks and I couldn't do a thing about it.
Fortunately my cell phone rang. It was John, who was already at the church but had run out of wine. So I was pulled back to the feast, with all its concrete, earthy details. I rushed home for the wine and corkscrew, and then headed back up the mountain to the church.
Just a few of us were at that service, and Natalie was terribly out of sorts after seeing her sister off to school, so I was a little distracted. But by some grace I did get to hear the sermon and it was a good one. John said that Transfiguration is the day that the Glory of God shone through Christ, but only to the extent that the disciples could bear it. He said that God is so kind that way, just showing us a little bit of himself at a time so we won't fall down dead from his fierce glory. But, he said, this day is also a challenge to open ourselves a bit more, to carve out a more space each day so that we can increase our capacity to bear and reflect this light.
And then, he sprinkled holy water on our little baskets of fruit, the humble offerings of a fledgling community, picked from the imperfect trees on a small island in the middle of a vast ocean, barely visible on most globes. He reminded us that this custom comes from agricultural societies, where the farmers had been nurturing seeds for months, praying and laboring for a good crop. This was the day that the hope bore visible fruit that everyone could see and celebrate. And this year, for us, it was the day that our own first fruit started first grade, and also the day that our old friend, Caroline Kennedy was laid in the ground to await her own transfiguration.