Good morning. My name is James Dennis. Sue Patton was my aunt, my father’s baby sister, and my godmother. She lived with my family until I was about four or five years old. She took me to my first movie, which was Bambi. She was crazy about me, and I was crazy about her. She was like a second mother to me, and there were times when I wished she was my mother. That may sound mean, but just so y’all know, there were also times when my mother felt the same way — times when my mom also wished that Sue was my mother.
And before she passed away, Sue asked if I would speak to y’all this morning. So, before I go much further, on behalf of the family, I want to thank y’all for coming this morning, and to thank you for what you meant to Sue.
You know, it seems an odd thing, a funeral service during this season of Advent. It’s odd because of the stark contrast between this season of joy and bright ribbons and Christmas carols and our feelings of loss and grief. It hardly seems fair that we would place upon this infant, this child and his mother, not only all our dreams and desires, our hope really, but also our grief and our sorrow. We come here, as though this child and his mother could take away our pain, as though they could make it stop hurting. It seems unfair to ask this child and his mother to bear all that weight. But you know, I think that’s exactly what they intended to do.
Sue was born in 1941, the youngest daughter of a West Texas ranching family, and raised in Rotan, Texas. Until the family moved to town, she grew up on the ranch. Now, we called it ranch, but it was really just a large piece of scraggly property for the family to collectively starve to death and raise some very skinny cows. And we somehow managed to own what I think was the only real estate in the State of Texas where there was virtually no oil.
While in school, Sue was a cheerleader and lettered in basketball and tennis. In high school, she also met the central love of her life, my uncle Ed Patton. Somehow, these two have no memory of knowing each other before that, although they lived only 3 blocks apart.
Now, you need to know something about my family. It is full of scoundrels and scallywags and rascals. To be a full-fledged member of our family you need just a touch of larceny in your heart. And Sue had just the right amount of it. For example, I’m told that she and my uncle Ed occasionally liberated a watermelon or two from the soil of a neighbor’s yard. And every now and then, she would sneak into the swimming pool in Rotan, climbing over the fence at night with her friend Jan after the pool was closed. Like I said, I come from a family of scoundrels so Sue knew exactly when the police would patrol and knew where to hide so that she could avoid the lights of the police. My aunt was fearless.
Sue and Ed dated through high school, but broke up when Ed went to UT. They resumed dating a couple of years later and were married in 1964. When they married, Ed joked that he married into half of Fisher and Stonewall counties, because the joinder of these two ranching families left them related somehow to just about everyone in the vicinity.
They had three children, and their daughter Beth is with us today. Beth also remembers my aunt having a rebellious side. For example, when Beth and Edward would beg her, she would race home in their van. And I want you to imagine my aunt racing through the streets of Abilene in a van, while Beth and Edward jumped up and down in the back, in a competition to see who would fall down first. Beth would tell you that her mom always thought the best of people and was devoted to helping others and making people feel good about themselves.
In 1968, the family moved to Calgary and my family went to visit them there with my grandmother. While we were there, they Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the Mounties) celebrated their 150th anniversary. The Queen came for the celebration. And somehow, in my 7 year-old mind, I concluded that my aunt must be very special because the Queen of England came to see her. And, I therefore concluded that I must be very special because I came to visit my aunt as well. I was a very confused child. But I was right about two things: my aunt was very special, and I was special because she made me feel that way.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta famously said, not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love. So, I want to talk to you about a few of the things that Sue loved. She loved Ed and Beth fiercely and was devoted to her family and friends. And Olivia. Olivia, you need to know that you were the diamond of her life, and there was not a single day on this earth that she did not treasure you. You could always make her laugh, and just the mention of your name brought an incandescence to her face.
She loved genealogy and traced the family history of the Dennis family and the Patton family. I think she loved this because she had a promiscuous curiosity. You see, we come from a family of great storytellers, and I think Sue just wanted to know the stories.
And Sue loved her church, and I think served it well. She was the first female President of the Pastoral Council here at Holy Family. And she found great joy in arranging flowers and creating beauty. And even where the liturgical color of the season was simply white, she often would find a way to slip just a bit of color into the arrangement. Like I said, she was a bit of a rebel.
Mostly, Sue loved people. And she loved making them feel welcomed and respected and valued and even loved. That was her gift. So, what do we do with this loss?
Like my aunt, I have known grief, known it too often and known it too well. And I read something really insightful recently by Maria Popova wrote. She wrote:
“Grief is the shadow love casts in the light of loss. The grander the love, the vaster the shadow. So much of who we are — who we discover ourselves to be — takes shape in that [shadowy] space as we fumble for some edge to hold onto, some point of light to orient by.”
Sue knew grief and understood loss and having your heart broken. And in her it produced her a remarkable compassion for and understanding of broken hearts and people who were down on their luck. She was fearless in her generosity.
So, if you find yourself grieving this loss, I want to encourage you to pay attention to your tears. They are a holy spring that tells us how much Sue mattered to us. They tell us about ourselves and about the people that were important to us and the love that we felt. But hopefully, we have something else to remember. You see, just this Thanksgiving, Beth was talking with Sue and asked her to reflect a moment. Beth asked her, “What would you say about your life?” And Sue answered, “I had a wonderful life.” And she did.
I’ll close with an observation, a kind of prayer, that we sing in my church. We say, “All of us go down to the dust. But even though we go down to the grave we make our song, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!” And so, I would tell you, this was a wonderful life. Alleluia, my friends.
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022