In Memoriam: Signy Zetterstrom
Which is the way Signy chose to be known, though married a second time (to George Ahlman), following the death of her husband, Herbie Zetterstrom, with whom she brought into this world three children. Signy Alice Egeland was born April 20, 1932, just four months after Bobby Howard saw his first light of day. My connections with Signy, especially from our Brooklyn days at Sunset Park Norwegian Methodist Church, are suggested in this message and prayer I offered at the funeral service for Signy Saturday, September 4th, at Green-Wood Cemetery.
As I reported to Doris when she phoned Tuesday, her mom, Signy, has been missing in action, to me at least, for the past year or so. Earlier, she was among my most frequent Email and phone correspondents, usually in response to my latest posting on Critical Christian. When last we talked she was weary, not so much physically as in her spirit (and there were few souls more spirited than Signy in her prime!). Her explanation was pretty much been there, done that, no need to repeat it; let the next generation take the lead, I’ve had my turn, I’ve done my work. She wasn’t despairing. She was ready, ready for the next chapter in this story each of us writes under the watchful gaze of eternity, if not here then there.
Years and years ago, 1971 to be exact, as I approached the unmagical age which we are supposed to abhor, Signy and Herbie presented me for my birthday a book entitled, “Life Begins at Forty.” That is, I think they gave me the book. To tell the truth I could not find it. Doesn’t matter, the sentiment is what counts… though in retrospect I suspect Signy could have been encouraging herself and not just me, seeing that we were bornjust months apart.
In fact, life doesn’t begin at forty. It begins much earlier. At least liveliness does, for which, liveliness, there is no surer witness than Signy, a woman of incredible energy, an abiding compassion, especially for those in a tough place, and an inquiring mind that put to me on many occasions deep questions about life and death and the hard-to-decipher ways of God with us. Signy was full of life and love long before and after forty.
And I was privileged to be a part of it, to see her in action. She made sure I was a part of it, a part of you, her family. We would be here for hours were I now to lapse into remembrances of things Signy past: confirmations (and lusekufte), weddings (two in Brooklyn, one in Bethlehem, and one in Quogue) baptisms, funerals. Oh, and the kransekakes! We commiserated about knees. She never let me forget how I scared the wits out of her and the youth fellowship at Shelter Island with a ghost story about Green Eyes. Spiked punch at a Christmas Party for young couples at the Grecos where Herbie and Freddie fell to the floor giggling blowing a ping pong ball around the table; spaghetti and a lot fancier at the Italian restaurant on Fifth Avenue where she and George were married. Whenever Barbara was perplexed with a medical issue, guess whom she called. You can add your own chapter and verse about Tricky Grandma and the cannonball off the diving board. No one was more alive than Signy.
As recently as two weeks ago I quoted St. Signy, as I have on a dozen occasions thinking about the demographic changes in our world, her observation about Sunset Park Norwegian Methodist Church, now Christ United Methodist Church filled not with blond blue-eyed worshipers but with those of darker hue with brown eyes and black hair from Bombay. Considering that change Signy said simply, wisely, and generously, “Now it’s their turn.”
Life begins at forty, fifty, thirty, twenty, you name it, whenever you grab hold of it, make the most of it, and share it with those whom God and circumstance have put you with. After doing that for seventy-five years in every venue in which she found herself – Brooklyn, hospitals, Lake Candlewood, on the water, always returning to 523 Senator St. – Signy can be forgiven for being more than a little tired and thinking, as she expressed it to me more than once since we turned 75, that it’s time to sit back before it’s time to go.
But I would not be true to my initial connection with Signy, and the occasion and the frequent subject of our continuing connection through the years, without adding, in the shadow of the cross, that life begins when life is done. We have it on good authority, the best in fact. Jesus it is who said in the words of the Good Shepherd, that he comes that we might have life and have it abundantly, here, of course, but beyond here, in the Father’s house with many rooms, in the verdant pastures of heaven, gathered around the feast at the heavenly banquet, where we shall know as we are known by God, enjoying the peace that passes all understanding, where at last, unlike here, we shall run and not be weary, we shall walk and not faint, where life rises full, complete, loving, and whole, leaving behind the brokenness which always overtakes us here. So fulsome a hope rises from the pages of the Gospel. We do not see it, and can sometimes hardly imagine it, but then, face to face with our maker and redeemer, we shall embrace that life which is life, good and true, forever.
And Signy, who often asked me about this part of our creed, life everlasting, wondering how it could possibly be, Signy now has the answer, gathered with those whom she and we “have loved and lost awhile,” celebrating life with kransekakes and diving board exhibitions, lots of laughter, and all the other joyful events which filled her life before and after forty.
God of our days, all of them, who surrounds us with your eternity before and after, in time, this time, while mortal life rises within us, we thank you. We thank you for the privilege of being here, living, breathing, loving, working, laughing, and doing all the things with which our days are happily filled. We thank you for those who share this time with us. This day we thank you especially for one who lived among us, loved us, held us, taught us, and served your compassionate purposes over and over again. We thank you for Signy, Mom, sister, grandma, aunt, friend, and neighbor. She freely and gladly spent her life on others, a lot of it on us. Her skilled and caring hands and heart lifted the bodies and spirits of many patients. Her faith in you and Jesus was generous and insistent. She danced, she sang, she laughed and loved to your greater glory for the gift of life. On her behalf we thank you for surrounding her with a loving family from beginning to end, from an immigrant family to children and grandchildren who have inherited the promise of the American dream. She loved and was loved by two adoring husbands. She made the most of her time for us and for you. Reserve a special seat for her at the banquet feast of heaven. Hold her close in your everlasting arms. Unite her with those who have gone on ahead of her and us, in the fellowship of the blessed. And help us who remain to live our lives with the same loving intensity as she did, that not only for us, but through us, the abundance of life, life eternal, may be multiplied; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The service was held in the cemetery chapel, a space renovated since my last visit there, for the funeral of Signy's brother-in-law, Herbie's brother, Fred Zetterstrom, who was married to Signy's older sister, Karen. A hundred friends and family members gathered at 10 AM. Barbara and I had driven down to the island (yes, Brooklyn is on Long Island) from West Hartford, bringing with us an order of worship for use in the service. Herewith are the four pages from that program.