Today we are burying Imogene, who was 97 years old, and who as a girl rode her horse to the Cairo schoolhouse. At 15 she was a champion milker, winning the milking contest at the local fair. Imogene was always of good cheer. When I would ask after her health, she would explain that she felt no pain, and she indicated she still got around pretty good, and she would always remind me that her mother lived to be over a hundred years old. She would usually tell me some little story of what her cat had done, often the same story, and now I am a bit dim on the details. The cat had noticed that, since Imogene’s fall, she was especially weak and the cat, Suzie, knew that things were not right. Suzie being worried about her well-being would go to great lengths to be of comfort, making sure to sit near-by lest anything bad should happen. The cat apparently has special powers of empathy and was worried as Imogene grew weaker. She seemed to be her guardian – so I was only mildly surprised to encounter Suzie on her death-bed and in her coffin.
I always felt that I already knew Imogene, but I had known her in her Japanese incarnation. Yakashigisan was our children’s Japanese stand-in for a grandmother and she could not have been much more than 4 feet tall when standing straight, and she never stood straight, as she was permanently bent over. She wore the finest of colorful Kimonos, and for all the years she was able, never missed church. She was one of the early converts of David Tsugio Tsutatda, “The John Wesley of Japan,” whom she described with great respect but she said sensei was quite strict. I had come to know one of his sons, the head of the Immanuel Church at the time, as his son (the grandson) had come to study at our small Bible College. The famous grandfather, at the outbreak of World War II, refused to erect a Japanese flag in front of his church and bow to the Emperor. He said, “Only God in heaven is divine. We worship Him alone.” Tsutada was arrested, along with about 130 others who also refused to comply with the regulation, but after two years he was released on probation. As Yakashigisan told the story, he took to the streets preaching and she encountered him there and became a member of his church.
Each week she would prepare pickled vegetables, as after church in Japan the custom is to drink green tea and eat a few pickled vegetables or a small meal. She found great amusement in watching me, a foreigner after-all, eat whatever she prepared. I took it as something of a test. I suppose if she had presented me lawn clippings sprinkled with soy sauce, I would have dug in and remarked how good they were. I can’t say I particularly disliked her pickles, at first. But I noticed as the years went by the pickles took on a decidedly fermented taste, and often I seemed to be the only one who truly appreciated “all things” Japanese, even among the Japanese. I ate them till she was no longer able to make them.
As our children came along, we discovered Faith would always develop a debilitating sickness during pregnancy. When this first occurred, we were visiting Yakashigisan and told her this. She excused herself and went outside, where I followed her. She dug around underneath the house and came out with a huge liquid filled jar bulging with bright red orbs. She explained that she had pickled these plums more than 50 years ago and was waiting for just such an occasion. At first, Faith was quite skeptical of eating this ancient, salty, fruit. But after hesitantly eating one she found them quite tasty and they turned out to be the only cure she ever discovered for morning sickness.
Imogene, like Yakashigisan, was the Dorcas of her community, making hundreds of quilts in her life-time, sewing clothes for her children, and lining up all of the relatives and measuring them so as to make them flannel shirts. The “best shirt I ever had,” her grandson told me. One of her daughters estimated that she had made hundreds of quilts and afghans and passed them along as gifts.
It is strange, when you consider all the moving deaths in Scripture, it was with the death of Dorcas (also known as Tabitha), that the disciples of Lydda, near Joppa, were inconsolable. Her dying caused them to send for the great man Peter. “‘Do not delay in coming to us.’ So Peter arose and went with them. When he arrived, they brought him into the upper room; and all the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing all the tunics and garments that Dorcas used to make while she was with them.” The best tunics they ever had, I bet. It is interesting the disciples of Lydda, sought out Peter only so as to get Dorcas back – it was Dorcas who had held their world together. “But Peter sent them all out and knelt down and prayed, and turning to the body, he said, ‘Tabitha, arise.’ And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up. And he gave her his hand and raised her up; and calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive” (Acts 9:38-41).
It is said that when Napoleon was on Elba island that he explained to a visitor that there was no one in the world that was his friend, no one that he loved, not even his own brothers. There are those who pour themselves out for others, and those who would suck up everything and consume it. If we are adorned in the afterlife with the love clothing we have ourselves stitched together – many “important” sucking folks will go about in the buff. If adorned with the stuff woven in “the hidden person of the heart, the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God” (I Pet. 3:4) then I know a couple of old ladies who will be luxuriously outfitted.
When Faith and I stopped in, the cat was there in the nursing home, lying on the bed next to her. I prayed, not addressing the cat, but aware she was probably listening. I prayed a simple prayer – “let the pain stop, let her quickly find rest in the arms of Jesus.” She died within two hours.
When we went to the visitation last night, Suzie was curled up near Imogene’s head in the coffin, watching over her very carefully.