House of Feasting

I appropriated Daddy’s old hunting jacket for my barn coat. It still smells like him; every time I put it on it’s like he’s putting his arms around me. Some days, this fills me with a warm, gentle joy; others, it makes me want to pound my fists and rail against death. I don’t want his things—I want him.

“Death is our friend,” wrote Rilke, “precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.”

As I’ve said before, I think death is the most clarifying force in the world; it awakens such a keenness for life. Everything in us rebels against impermanence; it’s no wonder that philosophers have wearied themselves since the beginning of time over the tension between the limit of our lifespan and our yearning for perpetuity. We’re made for Forever—it’s written on our hearts, Ecclesiastes says. And death brings it so blessedly near. We start to reevaluate everything in the light of this undeniable presence and this inconceivable eternity. The light is blinding at times, but it makes everything so much more real.

I understand why the Victorians gave themselves a year of mourning. While it might seem stuffy, repressive, morbid to our modern tastes, I can’t help but feel their approach was healthier than the hurry the grieving are subjected to in our society. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were at once more respectful and less afraid of death than we are, I think. Grieving takes time; it’s messy and rough-edged and unpredictable. It’s shot through with unexpected sunlight, and it will swallow you whole in a sudden thunderstorm of despair. It makes you strong, and it makes you vulnerable, and it tinges your joy with wildness, as of of all things born in sorrow.

Seeing what grief is really like makes me want to go back and apologize to all of my friends who have lost parents—I’m so sorry. I had no idea it was like this.

But these same experienced friends have given me wonderful advice: It looks different for everyone; take all the time you need; be gentle with yourself.

I’m trying.

I hit a really rough patch at the three-month point. The sadness and the finality of the thing just pulled the rug out from under me. What’s more, that clear, calm sense of the nearness of heaven started to fade. The veil didn’t seem so thin anymore; it didn’t feel, as it had before, like Daddy was just in the next room of a lovely mansion. The darkness grew so thick; the sadness smothered out the sun. I felt chained to earth; I felt despair clap a clammy hand over my mouth.

It was almost as if he’d died all over again.

I’m definitely at the self-conscious stage—it’s hard for me to be so honest, even here, even among such friends. But this is what my landscape looks like; this is the weather of my soul. The sense of loss is spreading like a dye through the waters of my life, and nothing remains untouched. I’m so glad there’s a good, strong word for it: Bereaved. An adjective and a noun. It makes me feel less conspicuous, somehow, to have a name like that to hide behind for a space.

And it fills me with hope to remember that God often changed people’s names in the Bible after a life-altering experience. This name isn’t permanent; this barrenness isn’t forever; these wounds aren’t disfigurements. Beauty will be given for ashes and mourning will be turned to dancing. My words feel so clunky and hard-wrung and ill-fitting against such tremendous realities, but perhaps even they will be changed someday. I don’t know.

But I do know that if sorrow is a houseguest for the night, joy shows up in the morning. I know that those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. I know that joy is my birthright as a child of God. And while all these solemnities gather round, I know there’s a great belly-laugh of fulfilled purposes welling up in the heavenly places at this very moment.

And there’s a glint on the horizon. When the afternoon sun pours into my kitchen windows these days, it slants at a new-but-old, late-Novemberish angle, lighting on the old pine cupboard in the corner. I love that piece; in a way it’s the heart of our home, sitting very near the centermost joists and walls, built by the son of the man who built this old farmhouse. The shelves behind the wavy glass are lined with Willowware and oddments I picked up in England, and on the notched workspace reposes the old, dented silver venison dome that accompanies our most festal occasions. (Remind me to tell you a funny story about it someday.)

I look at that cupboard, bathed in gold, with the delicate etchings of tree shadows wavering over its honeyed surface, and something very like excitement ruffles its feathers in my heart. I’m ready for those stacks of plates to be in service, for the incense of woodsmoke and spice to permeate my rooms, for fuss and bother and secrets and little sacrifices.

I’m ready for the bright, glad burden of December to rise on the darkness of the world, for the excess of love and fellowship, the Light shining out of darkness. I’m ready for my rooms to fill, my heart to overflow.

I’m ready for a Feast.

Do you remember how the first sign that Aslan was on the move in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was the appearance of Father Christmas, doling out presents and pots of tea? That image is so symbolic to me—just like the creatures in ice-bound Narnia, what I need at the end of this long winter of a year is Christmas.

It seems so incompatible with grief, doesn’t it? The House of Mourning has little to do with the House of Feasting—or, so it seems at first glance. But as my friend Kelly so exquisitely put it, “Anytime you sit at a table with those who share your conviction that Jesus is returning, you declare war on the lies of this … mixed-up, passing-away, broken world. You reinstate the truth of creation, joy, and all things made new.”

My darling Laura articulated the mystery in her own inimitable way: “Seasons come; seasons go. Sadness overstays, but hope, thank heaven, proves most tenacious of all.”

Every feast is a waging of war on sadness and broken things. Every glass raised in fellowship is a declaration that death doesn’t get the final word. Every act of love is a song of hope.

I long—long!—for new life to spring up out of the ground of this death.

But Christmas tells me it already has.

To the Kingdom, friends!

23 Responses to “House of Feasting”

  1. My parents both lived to old age, my Mother dying at 88 and Daddy at almost 93. I could find some comfort in their deaths as a release from illness and infirmity. Missing a loved one continues–to this day I often think of music I would enjoy sharing with my Mom [a musician life-long] and I find myself wishing I could tell my Dad of the changing seasons where I now live, in Kentucky.
    I think as time passes grief assumes a gentler face, becomes familiar, and the promise of ‘joy in the morning’ offers a sustaining hope.

  2. Judy says:

    It is such a privilege, always, to be invited into your story.

    My lovely dad passed away many years ago now, but I still recall that period when he no longer ‘seemed to be in the next room’. In the earliest stages of my grief, memories and images flooded my mind with a kind of exquisite, aching beauty, and then…just a few months later, I could not even will them back into existence. It wasn’t that I didn’t remember him, but somehow I had lost the capacity to hold his presence. I didn’t use the word ‘bereaved’ to articulate the excruciating pain of that period of sorrow, but reading it here, it is the right one. It is the honest summation of the experience.

    May the God of comfort continue to hold you.
    May He bless your sorrow with His loving presence.
    May your Christmas feasting be a foretaste of the joyous, eternal, gathering.

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Oh, Judy, thank you for expressing so beautifully what it’s like. It helps me to know I’m not alone. Your words are a gift.

  3. Holly says:

    “…for the incense of woodsmoke and spice to permeate my rooms, for fuss and bother and secrets and little sacrifices.”

    You write so well, Lanier. I just love it when I read something and say to myself “Yes! That’s it! That’s what I mean, exactly!” What a gift you have. It is such a pleasure to read what you write, even though my heart aches for you in the loss of your dear dad. I have no words, so I send you a hug and a prayer, right…now.

  4. Yes, to these words, “I’m ready for the bright, glad burden of December to rise on the darkness of the world, for the excess of love and fellowship, the Light shining out of darkness. I’m ready for my rooms to fill, my heart to overflow.”
    Such beauty and heartbreak and truth here. Wow.

  5. April Pickle says:

    Thank you for this. It’s perfectly timed for me as I prepare for Thanksgiving. Four pies are in the freezer, the menu is planned, six bottles of French wine just arrived at the door, and best of all, I think my heart is finally ready, ready to feast as deeply as grief, ready to fellowship in a dining room next to Mo’s piano, ready to sing one of his favorites, “God Bless the Master of this House.”
    And yet, I am afraid. Lord I believe, help my unbelief. I think I will need to read this post again on Thanksgiving morning.

  6. Allison Redd says:

    On this cold November day I tuck my mother’s puffy-sleeved coat around me, the one she used to bring in firewood. The one that belonged to my grandmother. There was a period that first winter after she died when I wore it EVERYWHERE. I so understand.

    I used to love the fall. It was my favorite season. Hers, too. Now, though, it is tinged with the memory of her sudden death. But I love what you said about Christmas and needing the feast. You put it just right, “ready for the bright, glad burden of December to rise on the darkness of the world.” Yes, that. With extra twinkly lights this year to chase away the night.

    Love you, friend. So close and yet our lives so far apart. I hope to sip a cup of tea with you sometime, m’dear, and revel in this season and remember. To remember what is yet to come.

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Oh, Allison. I know. One of the main things I’m thanking God for this year is twinkle lights. xx

      Let’s have that cuppa in the New Year!!

  7. Jade says:

    I love you, my bright hearted kindred spirit. To Jupiter and back again. Thank you for letting me know you.

  8. Anita says:

    When my mother passed, I was immediately inconsolable. The next evening, I found some letters she had written and I laughed and laughed. They certainly weren’t meant to be funny. But I laughed.

    For awhile after that, no tears. There was a sense of dismay because she had just been here. She had been HERE, on this earth. I could just pick up the phone, she was there. Also,there was this expectation that she was not finished. That it was not finished. It just felt like she had gone away for a visit and that she would be back. This feeling stayed for a couple of months. Maybe three.

    The feeling lifted and down came a darkness that stayed for a long time. I had to have light. More light in the house, everywhere. I went from not caring if the lights were on during the middle of the day to having to have every light on and then some. Lights that didn’t even exist in this house, suddenly needed to be here.

    It’s been 7 1/2 years and I cannot bring myself to throw out those few clothes of hers that still hang in my closet. Dreams of her still, occasionally, find life in my sleeping mind. I think that I still don’t quite know what to make of her being gone. It just is, I guess.

    So sorry for your loss. Your father sounds wonderful.

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Anita, my heart goes out to you. There’s one thing I know–everyone grieves differently, and we all need to take all the time we need.

      I can totally relate to the feeling that your loved one is temporarily absent. They are, of course, but it’s just HARD when that finality this side of heaven hits.

      I’m so sorry. And thank you for your sympathy. Means the world coming from one who knows.

  9. Judy says:

    I am back again ten days on – via Brenda at coffeeteabooksandme.

    I am so very sorry for the death of your beautiful goat – another loss in a season of very great loss. I simply want you to know I am holding you before our Heavenly Father today – begging His comfort for you, praying that as you wade the flooding river of your sorrow, you will not be overwhelmed, that you will know that underneath all are His Everlasting Arms. Rest there awhile and let the Spirit of God minister His healing balm on your soul.

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Judy–THANK YOU. Your comment made me cry, and also filled me with sweet comfort. The Lord indeed knows the pain of our hearts, and I think it’s just beautiful when He uses other people to remind us. I’m deeply touched.

  10. Martina says:

    How good to have such an exeptional cupboard with a special history. I love it how you call it “heart of the house” – that could come right out of “Pilgrim’s Inn”… And I am glad it calls you, even in a time of sorrow. I always enjoyed your Advent and Christmas articles and your beautiful photos. Feasting around this time of the year is such a pleasure. You might have to look for new ways of celebrating, remembering, doing it anyway.
    Be gentle to yourself.

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      *Dear* Martina–thank you for the reminder. I’m definitely taking things more slowly this year, seeking to give grief and joy equal space.

  11. Jenny says:

    Grief is still fresh in our home. My mother in law passed away November 10 at the age of 80. She had been ill a long time, so it wasn’t unexpected…but the reality of her empty chair is soul wrenching. I’m watching my husband struggle with this sorrow. He was an only child and has now lost both parents. People try to comfort him by saying he has us…true, but he has lost those with whom he shared memories prior to meeting me. Thank you for reminding me to take time, to give him time.

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Oh, Jenny. I am so sorry. Yes, grief is long and deep. And it looks different on everyone. My sympathies to you and your husband.

  12. […] – Mrs. Lanier Ivester, “House of Feasting” […]

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