For Rosemary

These are the notes for the sermon I preached today at the funeral of a most beloved friend. May we all aspire to embrace a mere fraction of the gusto for living that she had…and not be afraid of making the mistakes that are absolutely inevitable.

Rosemary Dodd’s favorite story to tell about our family is that my Uncle Garland was the first man she ever slept with. The summer they were born, Gainesville had a local baby boom-let, of sorts. The hospital was full of new mothers and their babies, so Rosemary and Garland were placed in the same bassinet in the nursery.

The temptation in talking about the deceased, especially at their funeral, is to lionize them and speak of how flawless they were. We are trained “not to speak ill of the dead,” so we avoid any comments that might be interpreted as negative or detracting from their character. But I know that if I were to only stand here and say how wonderful and perfect our Rosemary was, she would stare down at me, head cocked to the side, mouth drawn down on either side, eyes narrowed, and give me the faintest shake of her head. “Don’t you dare…” I can hear her say.

The day before I got married, Rosemary hosted my bridesmaids luncheon at the Piedmont Driving Club in Atlanta. In order to honor the formal ladies luncheon it was, we all decided to wear hats and gloves to the event – make it something special. Of course, that required most of us to go out and buy a hat and search for gloves. The twelve or so wedding party members piled into a van and made our way to Atlanta. Thanks to an overly eager driver who nearly did us in a couple of times, we arrived early to the club, leaving us to wait in a perfectly appointed lounge while staff members set our tables. I didn’t know a 15 passenger white van could weave in and out of traffic like a Maserati, but it confirmed something I knew already: it shouldn’t.

With time to kill and a captive audience, Rosemary seized the opportunity to fill us in on the calendar she was creating. I’m sure some of you remember this calendar; it was a collection of paintings based on the nude bust she had in her collection. The sculpture was of a woman from mid thigh to the neck. It has no head but the most wonderfully round belly. 

Rosemary painted a different variation of the figure appropriate for each month and she was overjoyed to share it with us…as we sat…in the Piedmont Driving Club…hats and gloves on…with my mother, my godmother, my fiance’s mother, his godmother, and his grandmother…who herself had worn heels and kid gloves when she pushed her infant daughter down the streets of downtown Huntington WV in the 1940s. I’m sure you can imagine the amused look on my face and that of my mother, the nervous giddy expressions of some of my bridesmaids, and the scandalized look of many of the others.

I learned an essential lesson that day: whereas you or I would say that there is a right and a wrong time to share certain stories and information about ourselves, it was NEVER the wrong time to BE Rosemary Wood Dodd.

It has been my pleasure to sit and visit with Rosemary over the past few months. She would tell me she wanted to talk about my book, which is about death, but mostly she wanted to talk about her life and her death. She reflected on what it was like to reach this stage in her life, how it felt to have lost loved ones, recount lovers and friends from the past, and tell more than a few tall tales.

One day she said she was particularly concerned about seeing her mom and dad after her death. Her story wandered a bit until she landed on recollecting her first memory of ever being in trouble. She couldn’t remember her age but that when she was very small, she found a box of matches in the house and a quiet corner near a blank wall. She discovered if she struck the match then blew it out, the end of the stick became a writing utensil. Match after match she lit then extinguished in order to draw on the blank canvas of the wall. Obviously her parents were not as enthusiastic as she was about her discovery. A first moment of creating also became the first moment of being punished. 

Can you imagine? Our brilliant, creative, imaginative Rosemary being reprimanded for bringing some of her first artwork into existence.

A quiet moment passed between us when she said she worried her parents would reprimand her for giving up; that her dying would be seen by them as her not fighting hard enough, not striving hard enough., to somehow push just a little further. Over time she let go of this fear but the story has stayed with me.

When my children were small, someone gave us the book Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg. The synopsis of the book reads, “It’s OK to make a mistake. In fact, hooray for mistakes! A mistake is an adventure in creativity, a portal of discovery. A spill doesn’t ruin a drawing—not when it becomes the shape of a goofy animal. And an accidental tear in your paper? Don’t be upset about it when you can turn it into the roaring mouth of an alligator.”

I love what this story teaches us not only about self-forgiveness and grace, but how our mistakes become opportunities for greater creativity than we previously had imagined. 

In the gospels we find kindred spirits in the bumbling disciples. Again and again they say and do stupid things. Peter is possibly my favorite among them, repeatedly swinging from arrogant bravado to withering powerlessness and doubt. Throughout the story, Jesus is left shaking his head at Peter for his eagerness to have the right answers or actions followed by his utter lack of understanding. Peter walks on water then sinks when he remembers he can’t. When he sees Jesus at the transfiguration, he enthusiastically suggests they build three dwellings so Jesus can always stay on the mountain with Elijah and Moses. Jesus demands to wash the feet of his friends at what becomes the Last Supper and Peter interrupts with his own demand, “Lord, not only my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

Starting tomorrow we will walk with Jesus from Palm Sunday through Good Friday and Holy Saturday to the joy of Resurrection Sunday. Along the way Jesus will tell his disciples that they all will “fall away” and “scatter like sheep.” To this, Peter replies, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And yet, the cock crows and Peter devastatingly realizes he has done just that, not once, but three times.

Jesus’s disciples were not successful in this life, becoming great apostles and leaders, in spite of their mistakes and doubt but because of them. With every misstep and screw up, new opportunities opened for them and for us to learn of the depth of God’s love. If God cared only about perfection, God would have made sure the failings of the disciples would have been redacted from scripture. It is their humanity that made them beautiful and it is ours that makes us beloved children of God.

As a faithful Daughter of the King, a women’s order for prayer and service, Rosemary dutifully wore her cross every day, including her last. She suffered under no illusion that she was perfect. In fact, it seemed her mishaps and missteps were among her favorite stories to share with me. But she knew herself on a most fundamental level to be a marvelous daughter of God.

Each of us is handed a blank canvas at birth to do with what we will and we stare at it, afraid to make a mark because we don’t want to get it wrong. We might spend years studying the craft of painting or drawing, insisting on mastering the art of the single line before we painstakingly add the faintest mark to our canvas. Meanwhile, people like Rosemary grab the paint and brush and with abandon, fervidly begin to cover the blank spaces with brilliant color and strokes. Layer upon layer they add to it, turning one brush stroke into something else, covering this color with that while still letting the old color show through. Such artistry means watching an overloaded brush dripping blue-green streaks down the painting, then turning it into a river filled with trout or mermaids.

To do so is to understand the true meaning of Grace. In our baptismal covenant in the Episcopal Church, a creed we repeat several times a year together, the priest asks, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” Notice the priest does not ask “if” but “when.” The paint will drip, the straight line will go crooked, the path we started on will meander and take us through valleys of shadows of death of our own choosing and making, and all of it is life. Grace is learning not to deny our imperfections but how to turn them into beautiful oopses, opportunities to find beauty even in the rain, especially in times when we only would have had sun.

Rosemary, I hope when you arrived, some wonderful angel handed you a box of matches and you found a quiet corner and a blank wall. Where you are, no one will dare take away your matches.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Love this! Rosemary was an amazing woman. Her parents were friends of my grandparents, and Rosemary was a good friend of my aunt’s, so I’ve known her all of my life. Her invitation to have lunch one day in 1976 and the advice she gave me that day set my life on a different path, and I am forever grateful to her.


  2. Dee DeFoor says:

    Mary, what a beautiful tribute! I’m imagining Rosemary is reveling in all these delightful stories from the gospel of “oops” that she lived so brilliantly. Prayers for you and your family as you grieve AND celebrate her wonderful and impactful life💛


    1. Thank you, friend. She was one in a million.


  3. Regina Southerland says:

    Beautiful tribute to Rosemary! So happy I was able to read this! Thank you!


  4. Marynell Crawford says:

    Thanks so much Mary for sharing this wonderful remembrance of Rosemary. She was a dear friend of mine and my family for many years.
    Thanks again ( I am Marty Mulkey’s sister and the daughter of Eleanor Crawford also known as Mimi)


  5. Betty Livingston says:

    A beautiful tribute! God gave Rosemary many talents, and she used them to benefit mankind.


  6. lov2shoot says:

    Mary, what a beautiful story about Rosemary. I love how you weaved in Holy Week as you talked about her. Rosemary has a special place in my heart—as does Peter. What a lovely tribute to a colorful woman.


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