Lillian Barbara Ishman was my co-worker for the over 20 years I've worked for the State of Con(n). When I was still a brand-nubian I got hoodwinked by another co-worker to go and ask Barbara to perform some task or another. Apparently this second c0-worker knew Ishman didn't like her and would never agree to perform this task (Ishman supervised one of the clerical units) so I unknowingly became the sacrificial lamb. After finding her lair and having a couple of people point her out to me, it took her approximately 15-20 seconds to hear me out, assess my level of stupidity for even thinking of stepping to her with such a bold yet innane request and proceeded to curse me out for whatever I was worth in her estimation. I stayed away from her for the next 2 years, "Mean lady", I'd mutter whenever I was out of her hearing range.
Ishman had battled breast cancer for a number of years and REFUSED to stay home. She came to work bumping into walls, having James, the office "everything man" carrying her pocketbook & totebag upstairs for her, driving her car into the fence in the parking lot too many times to mention. She was beyond frail - she no longer looked like anyone I'd ever met. The only thing that remained the same was her voice and her fight...
Saturday, May 31, 2008
9:30am: A warm, sunny morning gave way to humidity and overcast skies with a forecast of an all day rain. Ishman had lost the fight the Sunday before, May 25, and her memorial service was being held at her longtime church, Macedonia Baptist in the one-horse Connecticut valley town of Ansonia. My co-worker and sister from another mother and father Linda Comen scooped me up and quicker than you could shake a lamb's tail, we were at the church. The first thing I noticed was the compact-ness of everything. The street corner, the parking lot, the church (not that I can talk - since there aren't too many church's smaller than my own!) But this was different - it was a typical church structure: white clapboard, steeple, stairs leading up to the entryway just - compact. Like from another era when people weren't as big as we are now. Whatever. We create a parking space and enter the edifice. The first floor is mainly the vestibule and what appears to be a fellowship hall. We're directed up a narrow staircase and are greeted by ushers who offer us programs and memoriam cards both imprinted with excellent likeness' of Ishman - in her way healthier days. We sign the guest book and enter the sanctuary only to find it pretty much filled up. The absolute back pew is available so I figured we'd better sit our happy cracks down while we could. There are current and former co-workers sprinkled throughout the congregation and more coming in. We got here just in time...
10:15: Silence. More people come in and get in where they can fit in.
10:30: Silence. People are now being directed to the compact choir loft to be seated.
10:35: Silence. Finally a man's voice from what sounded like the front of the sanctuary yelled out: "It's too quiet in here!"
"It's too quiet in here!" The same voice repeats. I squeeze Linda's arm and think to myself, "Welllll, if y'all had spent a buck and hired an organist/pianist we could have some nice funeral interlude music. Otherwise get somebody to lead a congregational hymn."
10:38: The pastor enters the pulpit. I realize he's the same fella who was "traffic directing" in the miniscule parking lot. He greets the assembly, gives the invocational prayer and has the motley crew of a choir lead a congregational "Blessed Assurance". After old and new Testament scripture readings and a valiant but off-key solo by one of the aforementioned choir members, the reading of the obituary and a few acknowledgements, the "Reverend Dr. David Penn, Pastor" begins his eulogy by referring to the deceased as "Lillian Shaw". I grab Linda's arm again. Now, I've been to funerals where the pastor didn't know the deceased personally, heck I've been to a wedding where the bride was called by some other name throughout the entire ceremony. But dang - this is your last public hurrah - shouldn't somebody make the effort to get it right??? I've got to admit, I didn't really want to listen to much more of what he had to say. He did preach from II Corinthians 5, but his Word, like the rest of this service was pretty darned dry. He kept it moving though and reached for common ground with a little self deprecating humor.
10:50: I noticed a co-worker, Ed Donroe who'd been amongst those sitting in the choir loft get up and leave the stand. His wife was still sitting with the others and then I realized - they were getting ready to sing again. Ed's wife, the only white person up there, stood along with the rest of the choir members too - until one of them gave her the high sign and she scurried back to her seat. Linda and I crack up.
11:00: The benediction is given and this one's a wrap. There's no viewing, I figure she must have been in pretty bad shape physically when she died since she had been withering right before our eyes daily at work for months. She was being cremated and as the congregation came around to pay their respects to the family it was clear that there were at least as many people in the outer sanctuary/vestibule as there was inside. My friend and Ishman's work buddy/confidant Jackie, had left the sanctuary earlier in tears - the only person to do so. I wanted to get outside to check on her. She's fought the breast cancer fight too.
Petite and frail Barbara Ishman was probably one of the physically strongest and determined women I've known. She'd worked at that job for 30 years. 61 years old, married with a grown son and an almost grown granddaughter. She didn't have to work these last few years - she chose to. She didn't want to be home waiting. She wanted to live. She wanted to redeem her time.
She collected clowns. I'd made my peace with her years before when I discovered her passion by turning her on to my old neighbor who made ceramic figurines. Ishman loved her work and had a couple of clowns made. It's always curious to me what people collect - what the signficance is. I never asked Ishman why clowns, I didn't want to risk getting cussed out again. I was just glad I'd made it to her good side.