I have an abiding memory of sitting in the lap of great-aunt Myrtie Sewell on the bank of Anderson Creek up at Herman White’s place across the fields where the creek made a pool of clear, pure and very cold water. Other folks were spread out along the banks on quilts. They were there to baptize new believers from the first Baptist Church of Anderson, Alabama. I watched my parents, first Neil and then Doris receive the sacrament, that great sacrament our Lord himself practiced and proclaimed when the Kingdom came near.
They were young in those days. Dad survived WWII but felt a certain survivor’s guilt never talking much about his life as a sailor in the Lend/Lease Fleets ferrying the material of certain death, destruction but also necessity to Europe. He told me once that while on shipboard he heard a live speech by Adolf Hitler, whose voice had a hypnotic cadence of menace as the monster proclaimed the 1000 Year Reich, his perverse obscene version of the kingdom of God. I doubt it crossed my father’s or any of his compatriots minds that they would not defeat that evil man and the criminal mischief he loosed into the world. It didn’t occur to them because losing was too terrible to consider so they got up, that greatest generation, and did what had to be done.
My mother was young, a redheaded Scots woman who wanted nothing more than to be a wife and mother. The irony was she could easily conceive but hardly carry a baby to term. These losses formed her mind and I can say even without poltergeists, the farm house grand-daddy Owen build there was, at least for me, haunted. There are three of us here today and there are four of us who met her last December that she introduced to their father day before yesterday.
It was the middle of the middle decade of the American Century that morning by Anderson Creek, but I sat securely in the lap of the 19th Century. Uncle Byrd was a bugler in WWI & Aunt Lila, Uncle Cliff & the unforgettable Aunt Susie, Aunt Myrtie, the one who never married and lived on at home to care for the old folks. Great-grandfather John loved gadgets and whole-heartedly embraced an early phone system before WWI. The good news was you could almost always get a dial tone, the bad news was that the phone book had one page and that page one letter, because the phone your could always get a dial tone on, only rang in houses of people with the same last name. It was the 1960s before Ma Bell discovered that part of Lauderdale County. [If I may venture a moments candor, when you live surrounded by relatives on every side you learn to be if not good at least discrete.]
What they and the rest of the family had in common was the land. The Sewell’s love their land. Dad and his siblings grew up on Granddads’ farm nestled in amongst the other family farms. Dad loved that 105 acres and never wanted to be anywhere else. Even though we do not live there we love the land. A cousin said to me, “It makes me sad to think of the place without a Sewell to call it home. Yes, that is so.
I also remember the day; I walked with mother down through the woods to the silage pit carrying Dad a drink of water. Sitting on the tractor he told my mother that he had to get a job because we could not continue to make ends meet farming. Working at Reynolds Aluminum cost him his hearing but saved the farm.
The only thing that mattered more than the land was his faith. His faith begun that morning in Anderson Creek made a real difference in how he lived his life. For Neil Sewell, what he believed on Sunday had everything to do with how he lived on Tuesday. Whatever he set his mind to and turned his hand toward he did with integrity. I remember the time he gave a glowing recommendation to a fellow worker, knowing full well that they both were being considered for the same position. He said, “He was more qualified than I was.”
None of this is to overlook his humanity. He was not perfect. It is classically said, “Beware a poet who reads his own verse.” That is all I have to say on that subject.
Larry, Tina and I know that as his strength ebbed he fought to keep going. Not only was he determined not to leave the farm, he intended to live on that farm the way he always had. Only two years ago he was bush-hogging on the back of the place by himself in August. He also kept planting a garden in the same spot he always had a garden. He was determined, and we are a stubborn people. I learned why a few years ago when he achieved one of his goals; 2011 was the 100th time a Sewell planted, weeded, and harvested in that spot.
Wendell Berry, the Kentucky agrarian poet, once said, “The finest growth that farmland can produce is a careful farmer.” And he was that.
Today, to borrow an expression from the Old Testament, “Neil Richard Sewell, the youngest child of Owen & Mamie, is gathered to his fathers and we lay him to rest among his people. We live our lives as we marry for better for worse and none of us ends our years, neatly with edges tucked under. We meet our Lord as humans always do hat in hand seeking not justice but mercy and since Jesus teaches the primacy of grace over judgment, we are invited in if we will accept his welcome.
Dad had a way of seeing the inevitable and having seen it, the capacity for choosing it. Such courageous acceptance of reality makes it possible to turn the pages of our lives from chapter to chapter with spare and elegant grace. It is a courage to be emulated. Therefore, I think that Neil Richard Sewell came to the end of his days with remarkably few regrets chiefly because he fully lived all his days.
Again in the words of Wendell Berry
let me rise up joyful
When I fall
let me fall
like a leaf
To Jesus be glory now and forever. Amen.