Miss Patsy honored,
Dear Miss Patsy,
We hope you don’t mind us making a fuss over your passing. We know you never sought acclaim and notoriety for yourself. But we would be poor friends indeed if we didn’t share what you meant to us. Think of this as an attempt to tell your story accurately. As a good historian, I know you will honor that intention.
We were wholly unprepared for this. There were no signs or warnings. A haunting emptiness shades every hour. We wake up in the morning feeling normal and then remember you are gone. And the rest of the day is blighted by a feeling that something has gone wrong that we can’t fix. We have crossed through a gate into unfamiliar territory and we can’t get back to the other side.
Your funeral was like none other. Fighting off the tears, your boys, your husband, your daughter-in-law and other family members courageously recalled their fondest memories of you. They spoke of the preparations for family gatherings, the holiday occasions you hosted, your recipes for coconut cake and potato salad and shrimp chowder, the thoughtful gifts you gave them, the tender letters you fashioned, the countless ways you had to make them feel loved. We know you were proud hearing them testify. Clearly, your unstinted affection achieved its highest hope.
Who could predict when your extravagant love would work its wonders? November a year ago, Bartow lost a fine gentleman and a war hero, Johnny McMillan. Shortly after the funeral, Johnny Mac’s wife of 60 years, Patsy, left town to be with relatives. Upon her return, she found her house decorated for Christmas, an elaborate wreath on the front door, a Christmas tree on the porch. You couldn’t help but try to cheer a friend’s broken heart.
You were devoted to people, but you also valued institutions. Organizations, you understood, served as vehicles to remember what had been done in the past and to ensure that good things would be done in the future. So you gave your music to the Bartow United Methodist Church, your leadership to the Bartow Community Club, your imagination to the Schoolhouse Players, and you took on the challenge of inventing a new institution, the Bartow Museum. As if that weren’t enough, you started and sustained Magnolia Mornings, which was less like a business and more like a thousand acts of gracious hospitality.
While known for your gentleness, your devotion to these institutions was fierce and relentless. On one occasion, you decided with a handful of others it was past time for the Schoolhouse Players to honor Bartow’s own Lonnie Coleman by producing one of his plays. After choosing Next of Kin, the difficult job of finding real dramatic actors began. We floundered around, finding little but frustration and rejection. We rationalized, “Maybe this play shouldn’t be done or couldn’t be done.” But you would have none of that talk. You just kept calling people…people who hadn’t acted in Bartow before, people we didn’t know, people who had evinced no interest, people who lived as far away as Thomson. In the end, you astonished us all by assembling an able cast with fresh new faces. And the production surpassed everyone’s expectations.
In a rootless age, we never met anyone more committed to a place. You taught us all what it means to turn a piece of geography into holy ground. How big is the area described by the Bartow United Methodist Church, the Bartow Museum, the Bartow Community Playhouse, and Magnolia Mornings? Twenty acres? But it was your sacred place, ground worthy of your best efforts, your best gifts. You showed us all how transformation is possible when you mix love with persistent energy.
What made you do all this? Where did you get your motivation and inspiration? We’ve known people with aspirations, but in almost every case they were driven by the desire to acquire a name for themselves. There was not the slightest trace of that in you. The purity of your motives made us eager to hold you close and to help you with your projects.
A few of us were privileged to be in your Sunday School class. It was there one could tell what kept you going. Our discussions revealed your faith and your serious efforts to understand the holy text. For you, religion was not a social affair or a spare-time pursuit. Rather, you wanted to know what an earnest heart should do in response to God’s love. You surrendered to His commandment that we love one another. And your life’s work was a personal interpretation of what it meant to be obedient to that command.
In the interest of full disclosure, we must note you had a few traits that were not quite saintly…but it won’t take long to name them all. You had a fondness for all things sweet. And woe to him who spoke ill of Bartow! Your protective streak would flair if you felt your town was under attack. You loved those reality shows, particularly if the players were dancing, singing, or ice skating. If we wanted your attention at a Community Club Board meeting, we knew we had better get it early. Because if it was semi-finals night on American Idol, you would be headed for the door by 7:55. Yes, you were human and that endeared you to us even more.
Time and disappointment and cynicism have chipped away at many of our beliefs. But one thing still seems undeniably true. The dead are not dead. For those with eyes to see, you are living still among us. In your adoring family. In the legacy of your good works. In the hearts and memories and imaginations of all who knew you. And, triumphantly, in the soprano section in glory land.
In fact, one of us thought she saw you yesterday, crossing Speir Street on the way to the Museum with a Christmas wreath in your hand. We want you to know that now, as in life, you are always welcome. If you’re so inclined, drop by tonight. The season finale of Dancing with the Stars is on the air.
Rest now in God’s loving arms,
Roger and Rosie Burge and
All Your Friends in Bartow