A tribute

Twelve years ago, in the fateful spring of a blossoming love, Matt brought me down the hill from St. Olaf campus, across the road, and along a winding lane to a magical fairy house on the banks of Heath Creek. The house was handmade, low-ceilinged, full of stone and books and cigar smoke. The owners, Howard and Edna Hong, served us too-strong coffee and homemade bread, and told us how they had moved the house from on campus to its present location, and I fell in love.

This was before I really knew anything about the Hongs, before I began working at the Kierkegaard Library, before I had read any Kierkegaard, or any of Edna's writings. It may have been an unusual method of courtship, but Matt took me back several times that spring and in the following years, for woodland walks, book discussions and cups of that too-strong coffee. We heard about Edna's engagement bike, learned how to age cheese, tried to follow Howard's rabbit trails of thoughts that always led exactly where he intended, and had our English questioned and corrected over and over.

We left those afternoons inspired and hopeful, refreshed in the knowledge (though never did we articulate this) that such a good life was possible for us too, and that what it required was not masses of talent or intellect or success (though the Hongs had all of that in plenty) but simply the willingness to think, to live thoughtfully and ethically, to act in accordance with one's beliefs, to be ever seeking clarity, to do, in Mother Theresa's words, "small things with great love" (and I would add--great attention as well.)

Last summer we drove down that lane one last time, bringing our son to visit Howard. We shuddered a bit at the stacks of books and papers covering the floor and every surface except our chairs, afraid of the damage our 16-month-old could do. The cigar smell and the coffee were the same, though, and Howard's eyes twinkled. We talked about Edna's death in April 2007, about our life in Hong Kong, about reading poetry aloud to Finn. 

(Heath Creek Gothic, we call it) 

I've tried to make sense of what it is about certain people that their success doesn't make me feel bad about my own life, its smallness or lack of success. Instead, remembering their lives, remembering time in their presence, I am both inspired (given breath) and encouraged (given courage) to attend to my daily duties with attention and care--working out both my humanity and my salvation in the stuff of childcare and chores, not getting lost or consumed in such dailiness but not inattentive to it either.

Howard Hong died a few weeks ago, on March 16. He was 97 and it was not unexpected. Reading the many tributes to him and listening to his memorial service has renewed our sense of privilege at knowing him and Edna, though we were but two of thousands who sought wisdom and coffee at their door. The legacies of their lives will surely play out in uncounted ways around the world. In our own, we have a pair of silverware given as a wedding gift, a wheel of Gouda aging in the back of the refrigerator, and a child who is lulled to sleep each night with the words of Frost and Eliot and Shakespeare. And more than that, we have courage--and when we don't have courage we at least have breath--for the living of these days.

1 comment:

Lauren Jackson said...

This is such a kind and reverent tribute to your friends, the Hongs. We have our own set of Hongs, the Fagerlunds, who were married 76 years before Frances died last spring at 100. They, too, loved/wrote poetry, and Gunnar was a National Parks naturalist and photographer. We can only hope to live their legacy of multigenerational friendships, not simply passing on wisdom, but being genuinely interested in those decades younger than we are.