A sad-sweet Courtland homecoming

Published 9:37 am Saturday, November 3, 2012

This is the homecoming season. The other day, I had a bittersweet one. Or maybe sad-sweet is the better word.

I came back to Courtland for the funeral of Tommy Pittman, a beloved family friend and one of the best peanut farmers ever. He’d long welcomed friends to the farm he called “The Promise Land.”

Tommy, like my parents, was a stalwart in Courtland United Methodist Church. He was also the husband of Barbara and the father of my friends Hugh, Bill, Wilmer and John.

I made it to the church just a few minutes before the funeral began and took a seat with my buddy Patty Simmons on one side and my mother, Hazel, and one of her best friends, the ever-classy Betty Brooks, on the other. Several years ago, I returned to the Quaker faith that my parents’ families were rooted in, but I always love to visit Courtland United Methodist, my boyhood church. I looked around the sanctuary at childhood friends now middle-aged and their parents now elderly. They all looked mighty fine to me.

As the funeral started, Tommy’s family walked down the aisle, red-eyed but holding it together, just as Tommy would have. I remembered that the Pittmans had been there for my family when my father died eight years ago. The pain of my father’s passing came back as I stood in the church. I tried to tell Wilmer that it does get better, but that sounded so trite.

Both my father and Wilmer’s father were 82 when they died. Some might say that’s a long time to live. But the long full lives they’d led and the love they’d showered on us just made the loss all the harder.

Just as when my father died, plenty of things eased the pain. At the Pittman funeral it was a black choir of Tommy’s friends singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one crying. Then there was a reception in church fellowship hall where I got to hug family and old friends.

After the funeral, my mother and I went for a ride. I drove her to Sedley, where she spent her first years. It’s also the town where her parents and many of her other relatives are buried. We checked out the headstones, making sure the plots were being carefully maintained. Afterward, we drove slowly past the two-story frame house where my mother spent her first years, wondering who lived there now.

Later that afternoon, at sunset, I got in a quick paddle on my boyhood river, the Nottoway, which winds slowly behind Courtland United Methodist Church and the courthouse where my father tried cases and my brother Richard and nephew Edward still do. Homecomings, especially for those of us fortunate to be from small towns, are rich with a sense of roots and permanence that brings comfort in the face of painful change.

John Railey, who grew up in Courtland, is the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, where this column ran last week.