As the title of this blog implies, angels turn up in surprising places. One might not expect to come upon an angel in a store that sells grave markers; that frankly is the last thing one might expect. Truth be told, one rather infrequently enters a grave marker store, normally known as “So-and-so’s Memorials.” Usually such a store’s modestly sized parking lot is far from teaming with customers and, if one does venture within, rarely, if ever, does one learn that that store is out of a certain type of headstone, or that they have a particular marker on “backorder.” And, of course, it would be gauche to suggest putting anything on layaway, as that would be driving the nail a bit too close to the thumb, so to say.
Indeed, the very word memorial is itself already driving that nail rather close, for the term is either a benign euphemism or an apt appellation. I prefer the latter, as I believe in memory, not that it may merely serve to be an ephemeral record of a life well (or otherwise) lived but also as a mental imprint that serves to preserve a record of meaning. It is a mirror image of the hope that can inform one’s future.
But to return to angels and gravestones. I entered that gravestone store, located on Wyoming Avenue in Kingston, Pennsylvania in the spring of 2012 with my uncle Ed Johnson, a retired professor of the school once called Wilkes College, to buy Elaine Jakes’ memorial marker. That place of business is one that I have fortunately had few opportunities to visit; but that cold March day, with its crisp, biting wind, Ed and I were on just such a gloomy errand. Though Elaine had passed away a few months earlier, it was now time to put her ashes in the ground at Fern Knoll Burial Park. We needed, and indeed wanted, a simple memorial, something to put over the place where Elaine’s ashes would rest. I had no idea that I would that day encounter an angel.
Now I had only once before encountered someone I thought could be an angel. I was 21 years old and was involved in a very strange fisticuffs. My close friend Tim Hoy and I, then a college senior, were walking home from a fine dining establishment and even better bar known as the Gingerbread Man in Carlisle, Pennsylvania . We had spent a few hours in that bar chatting, Tim drinking beer, I Perrier because at the time I had mononucleosis, a disease during which one is told to refrain entirely from alcoholic beverages. Besides, Perrier was cheaper and quite refreshing, particularly with a twist of lime. I felt, frankly, somewhat sophisticated. We spent a few hours chatting about C. S. Lewis, the Baltimore Orioles (Tim’s favorite team and, coincidentally, my favorite bird) and, by metonymic association, Cookie, the myna bird that taught me how to talk in a manner comparable to the way that a bear taught Elaine Jakes how to drive.
When it was time to walk home we took a less than circuitous course back to our admittedly shabby apartment, en route to which we encountered some ruffians—eight that I could count—who proceeded to engage us in a fisticuffs. Needless to say, they outmanned us. Tim’s jaw was broken on nearly the first punch. I fortunately did not rupture my then delicate spleen, to protect which I kept my arms over my belly, allowing my face to be knocked about at will, no doubt to the delight of the assailants.
Nonetheless, I don’t think either one of us were frightened—perhaps we hadn’t had time to be frightened, as it all happened so fast—until I heard and then saw one of the hooligans open his switchblade. For a moment, I thought all was lost. It was not. Just as he was approaching me, pinned as I was against the side of a car, a large man came from nowhere. He seemed, at the time, of superhuman size. Indeed, I doubt I have in the flesh ever seen anyone so large unless seeing an (American) football player, a lineman, at a distance during a football game were to count. But even such girth I am not certain would surpass that man’s—if he was a man. I had a feeling at the time that both the size and the rapidity of his appearance and then sudden disappearance could qualify him for angelic status. Admittedly, he did not sing; nor did he have a harp or a halo or wings. Yet even if he was not a capital ‘A’ angel, he was at the very least a lowercase ‘a’ angel. He came to announce to that entire group of ruffians that it was over and they should go home. And that they did, immediately, without asking questions or even tagging Tim or me with one last upper cut or left hook. They scattered. We were safe, and we stumbled home. And maybe that night, just maybe, we encountered a real live angel.
But that apparition was vastly different from the angel that Ed and I encountered in the memorial store on Wyoming Avenue in Kingston, for there we came upon a small, elderly woman who asked about Elaine Jakes. Was this Harry and Blanche’s daughter, she asked? Blythe Evans’ cousin? “Yes,” we said. Oh, she said, I knew Elaine—a bit of a free spirit, that Lainey. What a wonderful lady and what a fine family she came from. Blythe—well, everyone was proud of him, the district attorney. And, her sister—“My wife, Lee Ann,” Ed piped in—well, she was a marvelous person, raised two fine boys, didn’t she? “Yes,” Ed, added, “my sons, Mark and Eric.” Fine lads, the woman said; one became a doctor, the other, was it a professor? “Yes,” Ed and I concurred, adding a few details to round out the family portrait.
But Harry was special, she said. He was a wonderful human being. He bought his mother and his father’s memorials here, you know, and Jemima Jones’ and Lizzie Ann Evans’. Then afterwards he used to come by from time to time just to say hello, just to be friendly and keep us here in the store up with what was going on at his church, with the family and in his neighborhood. A good man, that Harry Jakes, she said. In parting, she gave Ed and me each a small gift; a small metallic medallion of an angel.
Take these, she said, and be blessed. It’s an angel, she said, a small gift to remind you that there are real angels. Ed smiled and took it, as did I, expressing our thanks.
To write this blog, I used Google Earth to try to find that memorial store. I thought it must still be there—after all, it was just three years ago that I was visiting and I bought the headstone. But though I thrice virtually traversed of Wyoming Avenue and looked up and down for it, I could not find it. I could not find even the place where I recall that it was located. It would seem to have come and gone nearly as quickly as that angel, if he was an angel, who delivered Tim and me from the valley of the shadow of death in Carlisle all those years ago. No, I’m sure that that store is there and that I just missed it. And perhaps that woman was not a real angel. But I don’t doubt that she gave us an angelic blessing, and that that blessing is one that points to the angels we encounter in this life, whether they be humans or something or someone, somewhat otherworldly, in human form.