The Peace of Green: In Memory Of Sarah McCurry

Sarah at the riverIt was a long drive. I watched the earth unfold, rise and fall in long, green waves. Even in such circumstances, there was a muted, familiar peace that grew as the miles went by.

Since we moved to North Carolina’s Piedmont in 1990, I have loved the way westward. I stop where I am enveloped, where the ridges of each and every mountain enfold and embrace me. Greens there are touched with gold, infused with blue.

As I drove up the ridge to my destination, Chimney Rock rose in the distance. Fields rolled up and away before me. In my mind’s eye I held the picture of a small creek with a plank stretching across the water. I saw a young woman walking across it, flowers in her hand: Sarah.

It was only a picture. That day, I was driving to that creek to officiate Sarah’s funeral, where her ashes would be scattered in the creek she had played in as a child. Sarah died last January, at the age of 24.

To teach is to love. Students grow and delight you; they invent and recreate. They reimagine the world with you. They give you hope.

Sarah McCurry took each and every class for her Judaic Studies minor with me. It was a surprising choice of study; she came from rural mountains of North Carolina. She was not Jewish; no one in her family was. She came from rural, white, hard-scrabble farmers. When I went to her family home, I saw first-hand the kind of poverty she knew growing up.

Sarah McCurry
Sarah McCurry

Sarah was a “wildfire,” her boyfriend Eric once told me.

In eighth grade she came home from middle school to tell her mother that she was going to apply to a local college program that would let her complete her high school degree and get an associate’s degree all at once. Her mother didn’t believe such a thing could exist (or that Sarah could manage such a thing), but her daughter brought home the paperwork, got into the program, and finished everything in three years.

Sarah was one of the hungriest students I’ve ever had – hungry for learning, for discovering, for the world. She wanted to travel, and she did. She wanted to know the world and understand it. She wanted to figure people out, the meaning of life, decipher her own soul.

That determination would make her face her fear of heights and – literally – crawl up Grandfather’s Mountain, clinging to the earth. True to form, once she arrived at the summit, she stood up and posed for a picture as if it had all been a breeze and she had never had any fear to conquer or no panic to overcome.

I sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” for her. Her nieces sung “Amazing Grace,” we recited Psalm 23, and I read “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke.

As I spoke of Sarah, the water burbling and bubbling behind me, the lacy green of trees overhead, my tears fell on my guitar, on my hands, on the paper as I read.

The loss of Sarah cannot be measured by those who knew her.

At the end of the service, I held up a plain jar. Sarah had used it to carry flowers down to the creek with her the previous summer. She had laid the flowers there in memory of her aunt Susie, who had died of colon cancer six months before Sarah was diagnosed with the same disease.

Sarah had left the jar at the creek, and though this past winter the creek had several times overflowed its banks, Sarah’s mother, Sheila, and Eric found it when they came to clean up the area for the funeral.

I brought out a small box. In it were uncut gemstones from the Blue Ridge mountains. There was pinkish rose quartz and lilac amethyst and green fluoride. Green was Sarah’s favorite color.

I went from person to person, asking them to choose a stone to drop into the jar. They would be Sarah’s sparkles – natural, as she had been. I gave the jar to Sheila and Eric.

I keep seeing the picture Eric showed me of Sarah clinging to the earth as she climbed the rocky face of Grandfather Mountain, clinging so that she would not fall.  Then I see her walking across that plank, sure she would not fall.

I pray: No more fear, no more panic, Sarah, but only peace. Peace in the green you loved.

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Adding Silence to the Seder

stageI longed for silence.

I had been sitting in a high school auditorium, complete with hard seats, the inevitable dusty black curtains drawn across the stage, and the aging podium. About a hundred people were present. Most were teenagers, some teachers, some were parents.

 

From left to right: Don Greenbaum and Ernie Gross

 

We had just seen a film depicting the liberation of Dachau. Two men were going to speak after the film, men whose stories had been part of the film’s subject matter. One was Don Greenbaum. Now in his early nineties, Greenbaum was a boy of 18 when he joined the army. He was part of the invasion of the Normandy coast during D-Day. He survived the Battle of the Bulge. He was one of Dachau’s liberators on April 29, 1945, a witness to the Final Solution.

The other man was Ernie Gross, who was deported at the age of 15 to Auschwitz, where his parents and younger siblings died. He spent a year at various labor camps, became ill, and was sent to Dachau to die. On the day he was marched toward the gas chambers, the Americans liberated Dachau and saved his life.

The film was devastating.

Afterwards, there was a short intermission before the two men spoke. Refreshments were also served.

I sat in the school lobby wondering, as I always do, how it is that anyone can speak, much less reach for a cookie and soda after witnessing the kinds of scenes we’d just such films depict. But the question is stale and unhelpful. One might as well ask how any of us go about our lives given the trauma and horror occurring in our world in any given moment.

Still, it seemed to me that we could have taken a moment for silence. We could have asked those present to sit or stand quietly for just a few moments. We so rarely offer ourselves the silence we need.

When the two elderly men made their way to the stage, I wanted to stand. I wanted us all to stand, in silent recognition of the story they carry, the narrative they tell.

Don Greenbaum began by noting their age and acknowledging that they would not be able to tell their stories for very much longer.

Ernie Gross told us that when he first tried to speak about the Shoah, he was barely able to get the words out. So, he added, he learned that he would have to use humor now and again to get through everything.

Astonishingly, with delicacy and care, he did exactly that, interspersing a tale from his early childhood or his later adult life to make the years he spent in Auschwitz tellable. After he spoke, he gave students dollar coins for answering single questions. When a young man answered the first question correctly and came up to get a coin, Ernie said: “You can’t spend it; it’s for a memory.”

Don told the students that he was talking about what had happened for as long as he could so that they would tell the story after him.

Every survivor I’ve known wants to make “never again” a reality. They believe that explaining what they know must make it so. It seems so rational: If humanity only heard the cries these survivors are muffling inside, we would cease our crimes.

They are not wrong. It is just that humanity is hard of hearing. To listen to those cries, you would need to be silent.

Tomorrow night we will sit at our seder tables and we will recount a tale of slavery and human oppression. It is not the tale of the Shoah. But it is a tale of truth. We will celebrate our freedom and we will eat well. We will enjoy the company of friends and families and know security and safety denied our ancestors, denied our people, denied human beings each day.

Perhaps we could listen to our story and be silent for a little while. Silence, too, could be part of our seder.

To Ernie and Don: Thank you for speaking.

May we listen, and acquire some knowledge that does your courage justice.  May we honor it in deed in the year to come.  May our Pesach be a lesson in the freedom that is due to the earth itself and all who live upon her.

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