I really like a good funeral. That may sound ghoulish and more than a little macabre, but there’s something about gathering together to grieve a loss with friends, families and strangers that really makes sense to me.
So it was with a peaceful heart that I travelled with David, my partner of 12 years, to Richmond, Virginia this winter to mourn the passing of his 90-year-old granddad, Ralph Goodwin Roop.
Granddaddy Roop was quite a man. Born to humble Virginian farmers, he built an impressive career as a Southern oilman, peppering the state with convenience store gas stations while ensuring that his own good fortune was reflected in his philanthropic endeavours to charities and educational institutions.
I first met Ralph in 1999 at a family reunion he and Grandmother Inez had organized (and paid for) in the Florida Keys. I was already more than a little intimidated at the scale of said reunion: David’s parents and aunt and uncle were there, plus seven grandchildren with their assorted spouses, all ensconced in an entire wing of Key Largo’s Courtyard Marriot.
Being prepped ahead of time for the reunion with the grand-parents’ basic profiles (staunch Republican Methodists) did little to mitigate my nervousness in facing yet a larger group of my beloved’s extended family. Relations between David’s parents and I were already strained, due to my variable hair colour and resolutely uncloseted mannerisms. I expected that this fresh hell would be just as unhappily rooted in prejudice and intolerance — albeit with water skiing, parasailing and room service.
As I was ushered into the hotel sitting room, my feelings of dread were overwhelming. There was David’s mother, looking uncomfortable, and his father looking anywhere but at me. Sitting on a couch by a window overlooking the ocean were two elderly people, smiling up at me as they rose in greeting. Ralph shook my hand, and Inez kissed me on the cheek, as they both expressed how happy they were to finally meet me. I was touched at the sense of genuine welcome I felt, and by their unforced naturalness.
As we exchanged pleasantries, Ralph motioned for me to join them on the couch. I demurred, explaining my certainty that a family member would want to sit with them, and was flabbergasted when Ralph grabbed my arm and said, “You are family, son. You belong here, so sit down.”
I shared that memory at the dinner following Ralph’s funeral, and felt as choked with emotion then as I had felt seven years earlier. In only a few minutes, David’s granddad had dispelled my trepidation and replaced it with a sense of safety and belonging. It was a most magical and generous gift.
Following the funeral service, we were approached by a woman who introduced herself as an associate bishop for the Methodist Church. She told us the harrowing tale of a gay man who had been refused entry to the church community, and of her own censuring by the church for speaking out against such bald prejudice.
Ralph had stood by her, publicly and privately, offering the weighty support lent by years of personal involvement and financial support to the congregation. The outcome is still undecided, but Ralph’s role was yet another example of an honourable and outspoken man who somehow balanced his own Southern, churchgoing conservatism with a conviction that everybody should be treated as equals.
I believe that Ralph’s moral conviction stemmed from his fascination of people. Waiters, CEOs, shoeshiners — all were of equal interest to a man who could remember personal details from the briefest of conversations. Growing up in an era where freed slaves worked hard to eke out meagre livings, Ralph witnessed the unfairness of inequality and it left a resolve to do right by society’s victims.
In publicly accepting his grandson’s relationship with another man Ralph made a clear statement, not only to his contemporaries, but also to those of us who have become sadly accustomed to expecting the worst from the world outside our carefully protected queer borders.
That message of protection and approval changed, or at least challenged, the people around Ralph Roop, and inspired us to do the previously unthinkable during our final Virginia trip: when departing the funeral service, David and I held hands, just like the other family couples, as we walked up the aisle ahead of a few hundred other mourners.
I’m certain Granddaddy would have approved.