A Child of the Manse
Only on a few occasions did Ernest ever talk about his young life—his life growing up as the
only child of a Methodist minister and his wife. When he did talk about his family, I sensed that
he was sharing his most personal, his most authentic self. And I would like to talk today about
what I learned. Appropriately we’re in a church not very different from those where he spent so
many hours as a child. And my theme is very simple: that the child was father to the man.
Especially important among Ernest’s early influences was his father as a reader, a man of
books who devoted his life principally to the good book, the Bible. And it was more than just
idle, solitary reading. His father’s mission was to understand and interpret the text, and to
teach those around him about its important meanings.
It’s no surprise, of course, that later, as a student in Providence and Oxford and Ithaca, Ernest
devoted his studies to doing the same things as his father had done—reading important books,
interpreting their meanings, and sharing his thoughts with those around him. And this, as we all
know, he could do very well.
Until he left home for college, Ernest attended his father’s church nearly every Sunday, and
there he also learned the joy— or perhaps more accurately—the importance of music. Long
afterwards, he could quote large snatches from the hymns he had sung on those Sundays.
And long afterwards, he enjoyed playing the organ on Sunday mornings in this very church.
But music well beyond the hymnal informed Ernest’s life. He especially loved vocal music and
would happily drive long distances and pay steep prices to hear concerts by singers like Jessye
Norman or Cecilia Bartoli. It’s fitting therefore that we have the pleasure of listening to Jane
and Chris performing at this service today.
There were other aspects of Ernest’s childhood in the parsonage that deeply influenced his
adult life. One was the importance of the congregation, the community. Ernest’s appetite for
socializing was legendary, but the significant point I’d like to make is that it was much more than
just mixing with others. It was his caring about others, his caring for others that mattered most.
Then there was the importance of sharing a meal, the breaking of bread with those whom he
loved. Like the communion service, the sharing of food was always important to Ernest. The
point I will always remember about Ernest and food was not that he was a gourmand or that, like
many others, I enjoyed so many good meals at his table.
The important fact is that he detested the thought of anyone going hungry, or of food going to
waste. Locally, he was always a strong supporter for the Western Mass Food Bank, and more
globally, he was a regular contributor to Oxfam, the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief.
Finally, I’d like to discuss the most important thing Ernest learned in the parsonage—and that is
the lesson of love. Let me conclude my comments with just one anecdote:
We were once driving along on the Garden State Parkway on our way to New Year’s
celebrations with friends in Washington and we passed an exit sign for a town where his father
had once been the minister. It brought back memories for Ernest, and he told me a story from
his Depression era childhood, a time when his family lived very humbly.
The story was that, one weekend afternoon, a relative came to visit them and all his mother
could provide for refreshment was a pot of tea and some crackers—Ritz crackers with Welch’s
grape jelly. They were four at the tea table and she laid out just eight crackers on a plate, two
for each person.
Ernest, being a good child, ate only one cracker. So, as the conversation progressed, and the
adults drank their tea and ate this humble food, the visiting relative reached over to take the
last remaining cracker, which was Ernest’s second cracker, and would have been the guest’s
third. Ernest’s father intervened, saying, “I’m sorry, but that’s Ernest’s cracker.”
There we were, driving along the Garden State, a half century after the event, and this memory
was as vivid to him as if it had happened just the day before. His appreciation for his father’s
thoughtful gesture was palpable.
Then later, on another occasion, as we sat over dinner one winter evening in Sunderland, he
was regaling me with stories of his life in the advertising world of London: the glamour, his
wonderful friends and talented colleagues, the life they lived, hobnobbing among the posh
clubs that line Pall Mall.
When he paused for a moment, I asked, “Why did you leave all that? It sounds pretty
marvelous.” He agreed that he had been living a charmed life in London, but said that he
returned to America to be near his parents. By the early 1960s they were getting on in years,
and their health was failing.
Then he added, “My parents had always supported me, they always loved me….and they loved
me despite the fact that I chose to live a life so completely different from their own.”
What he didn’t say, of course, was that he came home because he wanted to make sure that,
as they neared the end of their lives, no one would deprive his parents of their Ritz crackers.
Thank you, dear Ernest, for coming home to America. Thank you on behalf of your parents,
thank you on behalf of us all.
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