“A kind heart is a fountain of gladness, making everything in its vicinity freshen into smiles.” — Washington Irving (1783 – 1859) American short-story writer, essayist, biographer, historian, and diplomat.
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I met Carlton and Martha McAlister in 1969 and fondly remember being in and out of their house on Magnolia Drive frequently that summer. Back then, few of us growing up on the south side of Mount Pleasant in the neighborhoods around South Ward Elementary School imagined the unique bond we would share today. But it exists.
It’s been 14 years since Carlton passed away. And I last saw Miss Martha four years ago at her 90th birthday party. Yet, her kind heart and contagious smile were ever-present. And despite being one who chose to blend in herself, the way she engaged people to make them feel special—more than just part of the crowd, never changed.
But blending in with the crowd was all I wanted to do Saturday before last when family and friends gathered to say goodbye to her. Try as I did though, blending in is sometimes impossible to do.
To deviate on blending for a moment, my grocery bill includes upkeep for about a half-dozen cats. It varies because one may go off on the crusades for weeks just as another walk-on discovers the food dish is always full on George Ihlo Drive.
Cats are not the only critters I keep fat and happy. Others looking to occasionally steal a meal might include a raccoon, opossum, or a skunk … like the one that waddled across the patio recently. I wasn’t wearing my glasses and almost opened the door to greet the newcomer kitty. Luckily, I saw the white stripe in the nick time.
I was also without glasses the night I noticed a group gathered at my back door for chow time. Seeing what looked like a cat congregation, I turned toward the feedbag before stopping mid stride to think, “Hmmm. Something about that bunch just doesn’t look right.
Upon closer inspection, one of them was noticeably different. The masked face and ringed tail were dead giveaways. A stranger was trying to blend in, hoping to cash in on the cat food.
Still hoping to blend in at the funeral, I followed my sister, Sylvia. Since first grade, she and Susan McAlister Prewitt have been lifelong friends, graduating together in 1971. Their class members were sitting together, so I inconspicuously eased in with Sylvia.
The officiating minister was Dr. Clint Davis, better known as Brother Clint. He also conducted services in 2016 for my lifelong Mount Pleasant friend, Oscar Elliott. A trademark of Brother Clint’s funerals is his skill for lifting spirits by blending humor into a time of sadness. He called on that talent to take a good-natured jab at the class of ’71, intentionally exaggerating their age.
Leaving the service, I shook his hand, told him my name, and reminded him of being at Oscar’s funeral. “I remember you,” he responded. “And I see your picture in the paper, I read your column every week.”
“Oh, I forget about that,” I laughed. “Please don’t hold that against me.”
I was driving home later that afternoon when Susan called to thank me for coming. Then added with a smile in her voice, “Let me tell you about my conversation with Brother Clint while ago. He said, ‘I didn’t know Leon was a member of the class of’ 71.'”
“He’s not,” Susan said she told him.
“He was sitting with them.”
“Yes,” Susan said she responded, “He graduated in 1966, but he came with his sister, my friend Sylvia, so he just sat with them. Leon’s just part of a package deal,” she laughed.
Laughing with her, I told Susan that package was expanding by the minute. I related that when I dropped Sylvia off for a class of 1971 get-together planned weeks before, the group named me a semi, sort of honorary member with a standing invitation to return.
“Just blend in,” I laughed at myself as I continued driving south toward Center in the evening sunshine, “that didn’t work out very well.” I was outed for posing as a member of the class of ’71 by the ever-observant Brother Clint Davis who I had met once six years ago. Then later the same day unofficially named an honorary member of the same group. And along the way, I renewed several friendships, many of whom bravely admitted in public to reading my columns.
Then it hit me, and my smile grew even bigger.
I had been for my final visit with Martha McAlister. And just like every time before, I left smiling, feeling like more than just part of the crowd.
In my mind, I knew she had a hand in that … and was probably smiling herself.
(Photo above: Martha McAlister)
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