On the last warm morning of autumn in South Texas, five dozen friends and family gathered in the heat to pay true homage to the beloved Mr. Goodman. Under the shade of Fort —— Cemetery sat women with ankles crossed in their good dresses and the Goodman family. There were men standing at the back at parade rest in American Legion regalia and a gentleman shifting foot-to-foot in his work overalls. There was a baby kicking her silver shoes at her mother’s hip in the overflow crowd that stood out under the untroubled blue sky. To one side of the pavilion were several young men dressed in black or gray guayaberas with the plain stitching and those fine, tailored wool trousers that look so right with polished spectators. Those young men held their hands over their eyes, glancing over at the small, discreet box that held the remains of Tío Goodman.
We were there too— my stepfather was sweating genteelly in his chalk stripe suit coat as he stood next to my mother, who shifted from heel to heel in her low dress shoes. My mother’s soft right hand rested at her side close to my blunt fingered left hand that was busily clutching and unclutching a Kleenex against my black funeral dress. At exactly 10:30, the Ft. — liaison made a path for two members of the honor guard, a young Army man and a representative from the Navy, who unfolded and refolded the flag using the sharp, austere arm movements that give military funerals their sweet and heavy gravitas.
But when they presented the perfectly folded flag, a flag smoothed into slow, deliberate creases by the young Army private and offered, with a respectful flourish, to Mr. Goodman’s oldest son, (who took the flag in hand and bowed his head by way of thanks), my eyes welled with a shock of tears— I was going to miss Mr. Goodman. You see, I grew up next door to the Goodmans and their already grown sons; it was Mr. Goodman who taught me how to play pool and how to tell a joke, who showed me—by example, year after year—how a decorated retired military man can also be a good family man, a fine neighbor, a loyal friend, a gentle soul at ease with his own company.
In the middle of last summer, I spoke with Mr. Goodman one day. He was seated in his wheelchair in the sun of his front yard where he was left outside for a moment to enjoy the sun and the day. I was in the old neighborhood to feed our feral cat colony when he called me over in a clear voice, neither low, nor high, not murky with pain, not clouded with age. I set the cat food bag down. walked the short space between the houses. He reached out to shake my hand, but I took his hand in both of my hands and held it, and we joked for half an hour as if it were any hour from the last three decades. If he was hurting, he didn’t show it. If he was tired, I couldn’t see it. Mr. Goodman maintained the talent of always being Mr. Goodman in any season— he was respected and admired universally for this truly rare quality.
Truthfully, Mr. Goodman was a popular fellow with his friends and neighbors for decades; he adored his wife and loved his sons fiercely; he had one especially bright expression he reserved for his lithe, tall granddaughter, and another wide grin that he saved for his compadres at the American Legion. But when I think of Mr. Goodman, I see a man with a garden hose in one hand watering his hedge, wearing a gleam in the dark iris of his eye, ready with a joke, an easy rib, a funny story that he’d start while you strode across the grass of his perfectly-edged front lawn: His hands, neatly manicured; his military tattoo, blurred; the face of his wristwatch glinting, always glinting in the sunlight.
After the presentation of the flag to the eldest son, the Fort — Cemetery liaison directed us to turn to face the seven-member Honor Guard for a three-volley salute, and the somber party stood as one to observe the young servicemen presenting their arms on a cue from the superior officer commanding them from their right side. My mind wandered to the obituary on Mr. Goodman from last Sunday’s newspaper. The short piece featured a picture of him I’d never seen before: Mr. Goodman sits on the steps of the uncovered back stoop of a freshly shingled white house. He holds a baby deer on his lap, encircling it with his gentle arms; his face is alight as it always would be, his eyes intent on whomever is taking the photograph— he is so very heartbreakingly young. The fawn in his arms looks sleepy and unafraid and the light is high over both of them in this early afternoon image snapped just one second before forever.
A noise startled me; I came back to the now where the young honor guard, as young as the Mr. Goodman from the photograph in the paper, raised their rifles, notched the gleaming wood stock butts of their weapons to the inside nook of their youthful shoulders, and fired three times in succession into the blue light of an early Tuesday morning. The honor guard trumpet player blew the first few notes of “Taps”; a mockingbird atop a beam inside Pavilion No. 3 sang a sweet counterpoint. Some of the men cried; some of the women cried, but all of us did so in silence. Mr. Goodman was a member of the famed 36th division, serving four years overseas during WWII plus many more stateside after the war with the National Guard. He was a union carpenter like his father before him. He was a parent, a son, a neighbor, a friend, a natural man. Samuel Xavier Goodman, aged 91, died in bed at home, peacefully, without pain.
A BRIEF NOTE: The names of Mr. Goodman and his family have been changed in order to protect their privacy as well as my own. Thank you.