Last week I said goodbye to an old, dear, friend…the first friend in my circle to leave us, and as it is with all such loss, it happened too soon.
Otis L. Griffin, of McLean County, was a civic leader, a large-scale farmer, the husband of my high school pal, Donna. He was a man who gave ballast to our social group and he was my friend.
From the scores of people who came to his visitation, it’s clear he cast a wide net in the friendship department. The line for those waiting to pay their respects snaked out into the hall of Muster Funeral Home. So many came, so many shared stories. So many needed, by their presence, to say how Otis had touched their lives.
I first met Otis in my late twenties—I think it was my twenties—when I and my contemporaries were easing into adulthood. We had jobs and car payments and thought ourselves quite something. Otis was a little bit older, a full-fledged adult compared to our apprenticeship status and he helped show us what grown-ups looked like.
When Donna and Otis started dating he slipped easily into our group, this big guy with quiet ways, one who wore suits on evenings out. Dapper, yes; stuffy, never. I can recall almost nothing of those early days except that we laughed all the time. We had “coming out” parties when someone brought home a potential mate, and I am not sure that it wasn’t Otis who orchestrated an Olympic-style number rating the evening Margaret brought home her future husband to meet us all.
She and Woody were late getting to the party and, as idle hands are the devil’s workshop, we improvised rating cards to hold up when they walked through the door.
Or maybe that little caper was my idea. I know it was Otis who told Woody, “I gave you a 9.5 but then you started talking and I had to drop it to a 6.”
Woody is a funny guy, too, and they were friends from that day forward.
Otis told me once he was in the habit of going to funerals, made it point to do so. He made a special effort if it was some forgotten soul with no one to be sorry he was gone. We always figured he liked funerals.
No, he told Donna. He didn’t like funerals, but it was the right thing to do. To bear witness. To show respect.
And that is who he was. A stand-up guy, Donna would call him. A traditional fellow, one who honored the earth, served on the school board. A father and grandfather. A protector.
When his two youngest children were little, Donna and I packed them up to drive to Hattiesburg, to see Margaret and Woody and their little one. Otis was staying behind, farming, and as we were loading the car, he was uncharacteristically cranky.
I asked him what was wrong.
“I don’t like it. You are taking away my babies.”
Their mother, I must point out, was in the front seat. It was just that he wouldn’t be there, and me in the driver’s seat was no substitute.
Funerals are sad, but they are homecomings, too. I so enjoyed reconnecting with Otis’s children, Lance and Jennifer and their spouses, and seeing their sweet babies, all grown or almost so. And Caitlin and Sage, the toddlers from that long-ago trip, who are stepping out and into their own bright futures. The Griffin children, all of them lovely and lovable adults. And the next generation of Griffins well on their way.
They have lost a sturdy pillar of their family, but they have not lost their compass. Otis had a way of imparting wisdom and giving guidance without you even knowing it. I learned from him every time we were together. His lessons were quiet, but deep. Otis himself, embodied True North.
The funeral procession meandered along Hwy. 136 amid the redbud and dogwood blooms. Cars pulled over as we passed by the farmland Otis worked, loved. A procession so long the first cars often disappeared around a distant bend as the last cars worked to keep up, like a game of crack the whip. The little country cemetery couldn’t hold us all.
It was, as the Rev. Jim Midkiff reminded us, as far as we could go with him now.
So, Otis, we love ya and we will miss you. But don’t you worry. We will keep loving this family and each other. It’s easy for us. We have some advantage. You have shown us how it’s done.