Thursday, July 24, 2008

On a summer evening...

On a summer evening in late July, we gathered upstairs to share a meal and to share memories. As the twilight faded into night outside the tall, narrow windows of the fellowship hall, we got up from the table, one by one, and told our favorite stories of Cliff. It could have been his retirement dinner. It should have been his retirement dinner. Nieta had arranged a collection of photos from his life and career up on the stage. His son Bruce came from Dallas to hear all the tributes. A longtime church member returned from Arkansas to be there with us.

Some of the memories were funny. Some were poignant. Most of them were post-Katrina stories, or, as we like to say around here these days, after the Federal flood. (New friends in Iowa are starting to understand what that's like this summer, as we trade stories of FEMA and other disaster assistance. But that's another blog.) There was a great one about Cliff and another man heaving a huge flooded desk through a bay window somewhere in Lakeview. Another great one about his test drive of a new riding lawnmower for the church that nearly took out the salesman's truck. My story about Cliff and I (me?) taking one of my seminary professors to lunch at a local bar, which so delighted the professor that he bought us all Powerball tickets, and we all vowed that if we won the Powerball, we would give the money to the church. (None of us won the Powerball jackpot, so we never got to put those vows to the test.)

At the end of the evening, the jazz pianist Peter Cho and one of our former organists, Greg Nussel, went downstairs to the sanctuary to see the ultimate tribute to Cliff. Yes, we got the grand piano. It arrived early in July. It's a Yamaha and it's gorgeous. It belonged to a professional musician who clearly took very, very good care of it, and according to Peter, it's probably no more than ten years old. (The beloved Steinway grand that we lost in the flood was a historic piano from the estate of Mrs. Katie Patterson, dating from sometime around 1909.) Both Peter and Greg took turns trying out the Yamaha. Oh my. Words fail me. I'll just say the acoustics in the sanctuary are wonderful, and in the evening dusk, with the beautiful old chandeliers glowing gold in that Gothic room, it felt as if we were somewhere in England, if England were hot and humid (the a/c was off).

Doggone it, I wish Cliff had been there. He would have loved the whole evening. And with his great love for music and singing, he really would have loved the piano.

Above all else, Cliff loved life. That was the quality in him that came out in all the stories: his boundless energy when it came to doing something for someone else, his childlike curiosity and eagerness to explore, his genuine sense of happiness in life.

When I worked with him as a seminary intern ten years ago, I remember that the homeless people who used to come by the church to see Cliff would ask for "Father Nunn." This is a Catholic city, and I suppose if you are a male religious figure, people will address you as "Father." But as I listened to all those stories last night, I realized that in many ways Cliff was like a father to all of us -- always there, always ready to help, always ready to listen and to give you advice if you needed it. God blessed all of us who had the great privilege of knowing him.

And every time I hear that Yamaha grand piano, I'll think of him.