The service was for Cynthia Lee Russell. It was held at the Stone Church in Navesink, NJ where I grew up and I was unprepared for the emotional wallop it would deliver. Cynthia Lee was the oldest child of Charlie and Ellie Lee and she was beautiful, smart, and supremely sophisticated in a very quiet way. Those of us who were five or so years younger watched her with envy as she grew up. She was everything the rest of us wished we could be. She was seventeen and I was ten when my mother took me to her wedding reception at the River Club in New York and to this moment I remember the beautiful bride standing next to her handsome new husband in his WWII Navy dress whites. And now, after decades of a happy marriage and five children, she died peacefully, surrounded by all of them.
That’s what I was thinking about as I walked into the church. I was completely unprepared for what happened next. From a side pew near the front of the church, I watched people walk in and up the aisle. Among the ones who were over 80, a sudden change of expression, maybe just a slight smile, would announce that he or she was one of the kids I had played kick the can or the flashlight game with years ago on the Lee’s lawn. One such a man came up to me to say, “Joanie, I haven’t seen you for 75 years.” A woman, now a widow, said her husband had loved his childhood friendship with me and when I looked at her middle-aged son, I saw his father who had taken me to my first opera in New York. I had been scared that night because I knew he was smart and loved opera and I, musically ignorant, worried about how to behave. Traviata it was, and it was a lovely evening that I have always remembered with a smile at my fears and appreciation of Billy’s good company.
David, a young boy who I first met when we were both small and he was newly arrived from England, sent with his brother to stay with cousins for their safety during the war, smiled and there he was at 85, same smile, same expression, same warmth. Cynthia’s handsome younger brother came down from Maine with his daughter, subdued after a recent illness but still with the quick sharp remarks he was known for as a teenager. His daughter and her family now live near my son and his family in Maine. Full circle.
And then there was the sea of faces mostly in their 60s, the children of my old friends. Most of them were unmistakably of the Lee family and I loved trying to identify them. It was their smiles, inherited from the generation ahead of them and then to the third level of grandchildren who were already speeding their way toward their 30s and 40s. I watched a church full of three generations and for that hour felt transported back to the early 1940s.
Back then, my mother took me to that same Stone Church each Sunday. The pre-service ritual was what I looked forward to the most. The entire Lee family would arrive on time if with a few spots of dishevelment here and there and always I wondered how such a big family could get itself into the car on time every Sunday morning. After the Lees were settled, a sense of quiet expectation hovered over all of us.
We were waiting, the whole church knew, for the arrival of the Talcotts. Suky Talcott was my best friend and she was one of four children of sensible, quiet Hooker and uncontrolled, loud Gertrude Talcott. Gertrude, it seemed, thought everything in life should work as it was supposed to without interference from her and when it didn’t, she screamed at the offending people or circumstance. They came into church each Sunday like a small explosion – after the organ had begun, always late and arguing. All heads turned toward their drama. The Lees, along with the rest of us, always laughed in a dignified under-the-breath kind of way. I looked forward to it every week.
But this day, 75 years later, belonged to Cynthia and the generations of her family who had come to Navesink. They had come from all over and they wanted to see each other. But mostly, everyone there, I sensed, wanted to be there for Cynthia. Singing the hymns more loudly than I have heard before, it was, I think, their statement that they wanted to be there and to sing in tribute to her. The Reverend read excerpts from her 24 page memoir full of recollection and ending with “I have loved my happy life.”
At lunch afterward at her sister’s house – the same house we played in as kids – wonderfully unchanged so every one of us felt we were both in today and three quarters of a century earlier – one of Cynthia’s children said that when her mother was a glamorous young woman, someone asked her why she went to church each week…”because it makes me happy” is what she said.