Doris Robinson died on Easter morning, just as the sun was rising. She was born on March 31, 1929, also an Easter Day. If she were still here to talk about that good fortune, we would never hear the end of it.
It has been 21 years since I was around Doris very much. During those two decades everyone evidently began to dote over her, talk about what a sweet lady she was, and marvel at her spryness. But the Doris I knew would slap me if that’s all I could come up with at her funeral. Back in the day, she would have squinted her eyes, stuck her nose up in my direction, and said, “Come on buster, give me your best shot.” So…. here goes…
Doris loved to talk. She would have liked nothing more than to be the featured speaker at her own funeral. But alas, the husky voice, the rapid flow of words, (with no chance to get a word in edgewise), the sheer experience of a Doris Robinson monologue: all are now but a grand memory; and we, her friends and family, are left with long silent gaps from her passing. I thank LeAnne for this opportunity to at last get a word in edgewise.
I was Doris’s pastor for 13 years, at the Glen Carbon New Bethel Church. Her son and I, had he lived, would have been the same age. But Billy died, unexpectedly, on the day he was born. And so, I was more than just Doris’s pastor. She treated me kind of like a son. And we most certainly were good friends.
I never said this to her, but I felt a little afraid of her at first, being only 34 when the bishop sent me to her church. And it was her church. It didn’t take people long to learn, “don’t mess with Doris.” She was twice my age and twice as tough. In her late 60s, she sort of looked like a short, stocky wrestler, albeit comely and attractive. Nobody used body language better than Doris. She’d get right up to you, throw back her shoulders, stick out her ample chest, tense up her hands, tighten her lips, and tell you exactly what she thought. And just in case you missed her point, she’d repeat herself, several times. I don’t know whether it was the deep, raspy voice, or the body language, or that Granite City grit, but she could be scary.
And so it was that my first Glen Carbon Ash Wednesday rolled around. Doris had been complaining about the service, I can’t remember why, but it was normal for her. She hadn't decided yet whether to accept me as her pastor.
I was nervous for everything to go well. Maybe Doris just wouldn’t show up and I’d be spared the critique. But as I walked into the sanctuary, there she was, in her normal seat, third pew up and to my right, sitting next to her buddy, Ruth Bast, another of Glen Carbon’s formidable dames from those days.
We sang our Ash Wednesday songs, I gave a brief sermon, and invited everyone to the altar to receive the ritual of ashes. Ruth and Doris were in the first batch of folks to come forward. They kneeled at the altar rail and awaited my arrival to impose ashes on their foreheads.
I approached Doris, dipped my thumb in the bowl of ashes, made the sign of the cross on her forehead, and began to intone the words... “Remember, O woman”…
At this moment, however, a big clump of ash toppled from her forehead onto the left side of her nose…
Nevertheless, I braved on: “that thou art dust."
But while I was saying one thing I was thinking another, …what the hell shall I do now?...
I decided to keep intoning the ritual while simultaneously searching my brain for a way out.
As I said the words, "and to dust thou shalt return," I impulsively took my little finger and tried to flick the clump of ash off her nose. Sadly, instead of falling harmlessly to the floor, the clump exploded and covered half her schnoz in black powder. All the while Doris remained kneeling before me, her eyes closed, her face set in a slightly angelic smile. Ignorance is bliss.
I of course, couldn’t take my eyes off the wreck I was causing. I had to think fast. There was still one more line in the ritual: another two seconds for me to come up with Plan B. As I droned, “Repent and believe the gospel,” I took my thumb and tried to inconspicuously wipe off the black ash. I don’t know the exact color you get when you mix black ash with peach mascara, but that was now the new color of her nose.
As soon as Doris felt my thumb stroking her nose, her eyes flashed open and that angelic look immediately disappeared. Ruth, meanwhile, was watching the whole thing and was trying so hard to hold her laughter that the whole altar rail started shaking. As Doris glared at me, I gingerly bent over and whispered in her ear, “I think I’ve made a little mistake… maybe you should stop by the ladies’ powder room before heading back to your pew.”
By the end of the night Doris thought it was hilarious. And after that, I was never afraid of her again.
Her personality was a paradox. She was a tomboy and yet reveled in feminine hair and makeup. She was tough as nails and yet would routinely tear up during a sermon. She trusted in God, but insisted that God let her do all the fighting for him. She stubbornly clawed her way to get attention and respect, and yet threw it all away if a child, any child needed her help.
Doris had been a hard worker in the church all of her life, first in the Dewey Avenue Church and then in Glen Carbon. When I became her pastor, I wanted her to be more than a loyal trooper. I wanted her to be a leader. We talked, I asked, and she acted surprised. She had self-doubts and insecurities, even though they were heavily masked by her tough exterior and brash personality. Being a leader would subject her to criticism, attack, and possible failure. She had to think about whether to take those kinds of risks.
But it didn’t take her long. Her love of her church, her passion for children, her commitment to the underdog, her pride in everything she’d ever accomplished, and her tomboy competitive spirit pushed her over the edge. She stepped up into true leadership and never looked back. When we needed a bulldozer, or a fierce defender, or a tireless trailblazer for justice, we always called on Doris. And she never let us down.
She formed a team with others in her generation, Norma Abram, JoAnn Delaney, Ruth Bast, Bob and Bev Jones, to bring stability to a rapidly growing church and to nurture and encourage a growing number of younger people coming along after them. That group made room for the Dilleys and the Lees and the Lawheads and the Havises. I’ve never seen a corps of leaders in a church who did more than those wonderful folks from my parents' generation to open the doors, offer the invitation, and work alongside the young leaders, who are now that age.
The hardest moment of Doris’s life was when she lost her newborn son. Back in those days, women were heavily drugged during the delivery of their babies. And so Doris never knew, until she regained consciousness, a couple days later, that her baby had died. Before Doris could leave the hospital, Billy was quickly given a funeral and buried. The doctors told Doris's family to never speak to her about Billy, about his death, or about the funeral and burial. They said Doris wasn’t strong enough to handle it.
Thus, for over 40 years Doris bore that pain alone. When she brought up the subject, others would fall silent. And so she would talk about something else. Was her loquaciousness on other matters due in part to her being silenced over her grief?
When her daughter (LeAnne) became pregnant with Michael, however, the repressed pain inside Doris burst its dam. She staggered and disappeared, physically and emotionally. None of us could figure out what was happening. She suddenly disappeared from church, from working with children, from all her social activities… She couldn’t bring herself to walk out the door of her own house. All the paradoxes of her personality were coming undone. She couldn’t bear to see children on the TV or be around them in person. How odd, for she had always plunged into any opportunity to be with children: in the nursery, teaching Sunday School, babysitting, working with LeAnne’s preschool… All the kids called her “Grandma Doris.” But now she was freezing up before our very eyes.
And then a miracle happened. God would not leave the children without Grandma Doris. Nor would God leave Michael without Grandma Doris.
With a courage that could only have come from God, Doris went back in time and began to tell the story of Billy, of her pregnancy, her awful emptiness, the horrific silence that surrounded her, the seeming deafness of all those she wanted to tell, even the silence of God. And as Doris mustered the courage to talk, everyone she loved mustered the courage to listen, affirm, and comfort her.
Doris fought her way back from the abyss and toward the children, her friends, her church, her family, her long awaited grandchild. By the time Michael was born, Doris was back to her true self, never doing anything halfway.
I thought that after this liberation... and the birth of her grandson... that maybe Doris wouldn’t need to be talking so much all the time. But no. The pride made her talk all the faster and all the louder. She continued to repeat things, endlessly. She’d stick out her chin, and her chest, more than I thought was physiologically possible. And she bragged incessantly. And you couldn’t get away from her, no matter how hard you tried.
But thanks be to God… even though Doris left us on Easter Day, I’ll still never quite get away from her, nor ever quite stop hearing her voice, nor ever ever quite stop seeing her strut while standing perfectly still.
Get ready Billy, someone’s headed your way… and we can’t entirely explain her to you… you’ll just have to experience her for yourself!