Mourning the Death of a Family Member from a Distance

This week has been filled with stresses.

Traveling up until the last minute when I had to get home so the movers could come and pack me up, may not have been the smartest thing, but the results of the AgChat Foundation Conference will be felt for a long time. The enthusiasm I picked up from the 100 or so participants, will no doubt power me through lots of blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts and videos! So much so, I sounded a bit giddy when I talked to Ray Bowman with Food & Farm about the AgChat Conference.

The movers…. they are simply awesome. Leo & Shaun are new friends. They are making the trek as stress-free as they can but there are other things. First, simply getting a cashier’s check that big can make you lose your breath, there are all the things like boxing up something to be returned, making sure you’ve checked off the change of address info and all those other things. But those things are melting as I’ve plugged in my iPod at a new house and been doing things like covering pantry shelves and having rooms painted.

Charles Woodall creating excitement for kids at the Memphis Farmers Market June 2010

Charles Woodall creating excitement for kids at the Memphis Farmers Market June 2010

Of course, saying goodbye (really so long) to friends and family is difficult even though I know I’ll be back in Memphis often and many of them will be visiting me in St. Louis. But to be packing my house as a dear family member had an accident, one which proved to be fatal, well, that was not anything I could prepare for. I had the chance to say goodbye to him in the hospital and while he may not have responded, I have a feeling he knows. The family was gathering before I left as we knew his time was short and I am so glad I got away to visit over a bite of dinner.

I may be getting ahead of myself but have to tell you, he was not a family member on the conventional family tree. And I have to admit I sometimes stutter when people ask how I’m related. None the less, he was definitely family. I loved Charles Woodall as did lots of other people and with great reason. My reasons and interactions with him were definitely unique and since I am in St. Louis while the rest of the family is gathering in Memphis, I decided I could tell some of my Charles stories here to share with those of you who may read the blog post whether or not you knew him. If you’d like to read the obituary they did on Charles Woodall, it has a more formal nature… one Charles had at times (especially as Reverend Charles Woodall), but the zest for life was obvious too and that’s what I want to focus on.

  • Enjoying family breakfast at the Arcade last year

    How we were “related” — I didn’t meet Charles until I was in my mid-teens when my sister was dating Jimmy (Charles’ youngest son and now my brother-in-law for decades). Cheryl & Jimmy moved to North Carolina a few years after they got married and I really missed having my sister around (still do). So, whenever they would come to Memphis, I just hopped along for the ride. The Woodalls have always been so warm and welcoming. I was able to spend Christmas Eve with the massive family (Jimmy was one of six kids and all of them had families). My connections have continued to strengthen and by the time I moved back to Memphis, I was invited to Woodall family events even if my sister & Jimmy weren’t around. (I’ll keep pushing Chuck and Nancy on that too!) And the casual visits with Chuck are one of the things I’ll miss about such frequent visits to downtown Memphis.  

  • Our academic connection — Charles was in his mid-eighties, but the fact he and I went to the same small university (the now shuttered Phillips University in Enid, OK) meant we were forever connected. He like many others studied religion and became a minister. My studying journalism was no deterrent to conversations about the buildings and people on campus as well as how people spent their free-time. I have an architect’s drawing like one Charles had hanging in his home for years. And I remember a friend in Nashville buying me an old postcard of the Phillips campus at a flea market years ago… the friend had no way of knowing it was from Charles & his wife Eula to their kids but I was blown away by the smallness of the world around us.
  • A love of travel — A long time ago, Charles and I began trading travel stories. Granted I had one or two “big trips” when we started, but Charles was as excited about the experiences I had, sites I had seen and people I had met as if he had been there with me! He asked a million questions but they were all the kind of questions you not only could answer, but relished answering! No facts and figures required (though greatly appreciated) but an enthusiasm for the change of scenery — that was MANDATORY! I remember talking about his trips on the Amazon & the Nile. Trips to Hawaii and Australia. I haven’t been to those places yet, but know I’ll pause to think about how much Charles enjoyed them when I finally get there. I thought of Charles this summer during my trip to Israel knowing he was one who had come before and enjoyed seeing such incredible history.
  • We had the waitress at Broadway Pizza step outside to take this family photo last summer. Wish more could have been there!

    Photography bugs united in action — I admit it. I have a photography problem. One that I practice routinely. Charles had it too. Back in the day, we would both have our 35 mm cameras and be buzzing about, looking for those photos that captured the spirits of the people around us or of the places we went. Sharing those photos was something we loved doing.I took photos at family reunions as well as captured the faces of so many family members attending services when Charles’ great love died several years ago. I love that Charles regularly trusted me with his camera so I could take shots of him with his kids or grandkids. I also loved that he’d want to trade places with me (or have someone else do it) so I could be in the family photos too.

  • Perspective — Psychoanalyze if you like, I lost my granddad and dad both too early and have loved having the perspective of people who have “been around the block” a bit. Charles was a wealth of info. He knew more about Abraham Lincoln than you would think possible without a first-hand meeting! He loved how history made changes that significantly impacted our lives & the lives of those around us. It wasn’t until the last year or two that I learned Charles had witnessed part of Memphis’ history as he was working with the department of sanitation when the workers went on strike. It was that strike that brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis that fated day in April when King was killed. Charles remembered what it was like in a way a child during that time couldn’t have thought of.
  • Jimmy, Jake & Charles a month ago at Central BBQ

    Joie de vivre — Think about it…. Charles was 84 and though he found the love of his life early and spent more than 50 years with Eula, he not only dated again, but got married. No disrespect to Eula in the least, he was living life in the moment. I had the chance last fall to give Charles a ride home from one of the family events at Chuck’s house. I told him since he was so tall, I thought we better put the top down. He smiled as big as I’d ever seen him smile. And we took the really long way home, making sure we had plenty of time for the wind to blow though that bright white hair of his. The last time I saw him was just a couple of weeks ago as he finished dancing on a Friday evening and joined Jimmy & the one and only Jake (one of quite a few of Charles’ greatgrandkids) for barbecue with some of our family. I love how he was excited about life and greeted me with such enthusiasm.

He’s been a great dad to Jimmy, great father-in-law to Cheryl and the granddaddy who would take my nieces to Huey’s to blow toothpicks into the ceiling as well as make sure they got their first glimpse of a panda bear. And to me, he’s been a great member of the family, even if I’m not sure how you would want to label it. I’ll just call him Charles, sometimes refer to him as dad or granddaddy.

So tomorrow as I unpack boxes as the movers bring them in the house, I’ll be looking through memories, many of which are connected back to this great man. I’ll miss being with the family but I know we will be celebrating Charles’ life for a long time to come. And I’ll take a drive with the top down to let my spirit fly. I’m pretty sure that will bring a bit of light from above as Charles will no doubt have to smile as he sees the wind whipping through my hair. Who said you can’t pick your family? I’d say Cheryl picked pretty well!

If anyone else wants to add stories about Charles (Rev. Woodall, Granddaddy, etc.), please do! I’d love to be able to be part of the celebration of his life even if I am several hours drive away.

About Janice Person

I'm Janice & this blog is about my passions -- photography, travel, agriculture & whatever else comes to mind. Putting all those things together is intriguing to me…. I can spend a lot of time soaking it up! It's almost always a colorful adventure!

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