We buried TWK Klein today. This really was one of the best funerals I’ve ever been to. Can you say that? What was so great about it was the way both Father Roldan, in his homily, and Laura, in her eulogy, paid warm tribute to TWK without sentimentalizing him or playing down his rascality. Because of all the things people might have said about TWK, the one thing they would have agreed on was that he was a mess, both for good and for bad. Father Roldan praised TWK’s good qualities — he said that only the rich soil of West Feliciana Parish could have produced a character like TWK, and that’s no lie — but also said, accurately, that it wouldn’t be honest or credible, not with a congregation full of people who knew TWK, to send him off without talking about how difficult he could be. Father said that not too long after he moved to town, he saw TWK in the Bird Man coffeeshop in town, sitting alone, reading his paper. He spoke to TWK, but TWK responded gruffly. Father invited him to sit at his table, but he declined. Father returned to the church sure that TWK didn’t like him.
Later that day, TWK came to pick up his granddaughter Bella from the Grace Church kindergarten. Bella had had a bad day, and when her grandfather saw this, he took her into his arms, rubbed her back, and told her it was all going to be all right. That, recalled Father Roldan, was when he knew what TWK Klein had in him, under that roughness. And then Father used TWK’s imperfections to talk about the mercy of God, and how comforting it is to know that His love for us is greater than all our sins and failings, if only we will accept it. It was a very fine evangelical message, one that did an excellent job of praising old TWK without flattering his memory, or making him out to be someone he wasn’t. Father said in his sermon that the thing that made TWK stand out was that he was irrepressibly, unapologetically himself. Truer words have never been spoken.
If that were the only address delivered today, it would have been a touching and uplifting funeral. But then Laura delivered a eulogy for her Father that was one of the dearest tributes I have ever been privileged to witness. She said how much it would have pleased TWK to have seen so many people at his funeral. Daddy wouldn’t miss a funeral, she said, because he knew who everybody was, and who their people were, and what their stories were. He knew things about your family’s history in this parish that you didn’t even know. And he attended funerals because TWK felt that the loss of every person in the parish diminished us.
Laura went on to talk about how her Daddy would take her hunting as a girl. He taught her, as he taught his sons Tommy, Ben, and William, and his daughter Rebecca, how to hunt, fish, skin a squirrel, drive a tractor, and on and on. Laura remembered riding around West Feliciana with him, and stopping at the Chicken Shack or the C.&.E. Drive-In — both long gone — to eat and drink Cokes. She talked about how everybody in the family got used to TWK’s phases. He had his hippie phase in the 1970s, his cowboy phase, a big ol’ Cadillac phase, and about eight other phases, all of which came with a costume. For a time, as an antiques dealer, he went through a turquoise jewelry phase, which was so extreme that when he appeared on Antiques Roadshow, said Laura, “They made him take off all that turquoise so that he didn’t look like a total nut.”
Laura talked about how her dad loved to take road trips. “TWK always took the scenic route,” she said, usually with his passengers complaining about his meandering and diversions. “TWK never cared too much about the destination,” she said. “For him, it was all about the journey, and what he might get to see along the way.”
It was a lovely and true send-off for one of the all-time great eccentrics of our little part of the world. As I was in line to pay my respects before the funeral service began, I spoke to Rebecca Klein, who told me that last night, TWK’s kids stayed all night long with his body there in Jackson Hall, next to the church, to wake him. It was a very TWK affair, she said, with everybody laughing and telling stories. About three in the morning, Rebecca laid down on a cot or something to try to get some sleep, and was startled to hear music. She sat up, and there was her tall brother Ben, a Baton Rouge lawyer, standing at the head of TWK’s casket, wearing his cowboy hat, whiskey in one hand and beer in the other, tapping his feet to the rhythm.
West Feliciana Episcopalians are a breed apart. May they never change. I was thinking today, watching the five Klein kids going to kneel at the communion rail at the conclusion of the Eucharistic service today that TWK’s greatest legacy is those kids. They are such good people. The best people, in fact. My friend Laura has been all around the world as an Army lawyer and officer, and now lives in Hampshire, in England, with her British husband and their son. We don’t see enough of them, and that’s a problem for me. Everybody who knows Laura is a better person for it, which means her absence from West Feliciana Parish is inhibiting the improvement of my character, just as the departure of TWK from our midst degrades our collective capacity to nurture characters. Somehow, we’ll muddle through.
UPDATE: I took the photos out of this blog entry, out of concern that a couple of shots of TWK’s burial service at graveside would violate the privacy of the family.