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We thank you. Welcome to All Together Now Fridays with The Moth, I'm your host this week, Surachai, as a producer of Story Samson mainstage shows, you may have seen me around. I'm the crazy tall one. I'm really happy to be joining you and all your homes for this. I'm also a little bit out of my comfort zone because I'm more of a behind the scenes kind of girl. But I am honored that I get to spend some time with you.
Just talking about a story that I loved. This week, we're listening to a story about finding your strength to stay true to yourself and all the love that that demands.
Isaiah Owens told this at a main stage show in New York City where the theme of the night with stories of insight.
Here's Isaiah live at the Moth House.
Good evening. I am a funeral director. I know grief and I know how to comfort people. When I was growing up in my hometown in Brownsville, South Carolina, we were fed fried chicken, collard greens, corn bread and funerals at a funeral, there was a hearse. The hearse brought your body to the church and took you to the cemetery.
That same hearse would take you to the hospital if you were sick.
So the funeral homes acted as a funeral home and an ambulance service.
When you was going to the funeral, they told the bills as the family approached the church. Once inside the church. They fed us that life, no matter how long you live, is just like a vapor. It appears for a moment and then it disappears and then they fed us that that we are like grass, which grow up in the morning and flourish and grow it up.
And then in the evening we are cut down and with it and we fly away.
At the age of five years old. I started burying things. After my grandmother, Mama Alice, died. I went and I buried a matchstick, I realize now what was happening is I went to my funeral and I saw them put her in the ground and they covered up and they made a nice mound of dirt and they put beautiful flowers on her.
So then playing in the yard after the funeral, I went and I dug me a little hole and I put a matchstick in it, covered it up, and I put some flowers on it.
And that was my first funeral. As I grew up, I continued to be attracted to Burián things I buried everything that died on the farm.
I grew up on a cotton farm.
So all of the animals, the chickens and whatever, dad, I gave them a funeral which caused me to be rejected by my family, isolated.
And I was an outcast. And they thought that I was a little funeral nerd.
However, I had one friend. That was engineer, engineer was born in 1882 and she was 68 years old when I was born. So I played funerals and at Genea would play funerals with me. Evgenia was the first African queen that I know. When we were growing up at could, because a big pan on top of her head and walk from my mother's house to her house with our hands by her side, the pan will be full of butter beans or whatever it was.
She never had to hold it with a hand. And Gina had a vocabulary like HESTA on Sanford and Sons.
She made up her words as she went. She will call you a fish at food as she will call you an old hag.
But then after she hurt your feelings, she would always call you in a room and give you some candy or some chewing gum or even a nickel.
So again, I had this little love affair going on and Agena attended at least 10 of my little funerals.
She thought that I was absolutely normal and I remember one funeral, we had a toy wagon that had torn up.
I wanted to dig a grave to do a funeral for it. So I got it. And we went down in the woods in the field, and I performed the funeral for the red wagon top.
And that was the family. She just thought that I was you. And I loved it very much when I was 14. Evgenia passed away. And I was devastated. Now it's time to go to a genius funeral. That day was a day that I felt that I had no reason to live. So as we left at Genius House, they started ringing the bell and the bell was so bitter and so hard to me. And I just kind of looked out of the window of the car and I cried.
The more the bell rang, the more I cried. And I just kept saying to myself, No more and no more engineer. However, after the funeral, I picked myself up and five years later, I graduated from American Academy MacAllister Institute of Funeral Service and I got a diploma in funeral service and it was one of the best days of my life because now I was on my journey to become the funeral director that I wanted to become.
And I was just 18 years old when I graduated. Have been such a wonderful day for me. It was a very sad day because none of my family members came to my graduation. After that, I got my license and I buried my first customer, Mr. Rufus Felton, in 1971 from the church that I attended, after that, my business mushroomed. Now is gone. My sister Maxine has taken a genius place, so Maxine and I were like twins and she loved me and I loved her.
My family never referred people to me for a funeral. But when Maxine got her job and started teaching school, whenever someone passed away, she would always refer them to me. And Maxine wound up living with me for some years until I got an apartment. However, Maxine came down with systemic lupus.
My mother was here to help take care, Maxine, when she was in the hospital. And the last time she was here, she called me aside and said, listen, I know that Maxine is not going to make it and I want you to do Maxine's funeral.
And I was honored that my mother would ask me to do Max's funeral because I know that my family never used my services. Well, Maxine died and we took her home to Branch Bill for her funeral and burial. And that Saturday night after her viewing and her wait at my funeral home, my brother Anthony and Lynn and myself, I was locking up the funeral home and they said to me, we can't leave Maxine here tonight by herself.
And my brother Lynn and I agreed. So we went and got in the funeral home on the floor by Maxine's open casket and we stayed the night with her the next day. Maxine's 30th birthday was a funeral. And on my way to the church all of a sudden, I heard. Thanks. That was the church bells and the bell that they sounded when their dad was so harsh and terrible, but this time I listened to the bill and the bill went from being such a harsh sound to be to being a very sweet home at the end of the sound when I realized that this is a family reunion.
I was hugging my mother, my father, my brother Anthony, Miss Jane, a genius daughter in law, Lizzie Mahavira, my high school principal, Mr. Joseph Jackson, sister of use of the wife of the pastor that baptized me and Maxine.
My battery was charged up and there was love. At the end of the day, I realize that I had been confident all of these people for all of these years and now not only my family, but the community has come to comfort me. At the end of the day, I realized then that. There was love and that the spirits of those people who were gone on before, along with the spirits of the people that are alive. Makes me strong and it restores my soul and it restores us.
That was Isaiah Owens, as it owns and is the funeral director of Owens Funeral Home in Harlem last year in 2019, he celebrated his fiftieth year in business. He was also the subject of the critically acclaimed film by Christine Turner Ongoings. You can find it in the extras for this episode on our website, The Mouthguard Extras. There's so much that I love about Isaiah's story. First of all, let's talk about how Izzy has been prepping to be a funeral director his whole life.
He figured out what it was and he was like, that's going to be me. And then he stuck to it. And I respect that. But on a more serious note, what's so wonderful about this story is how it's deep with his love, his love for and junior, who never made him feel like anything other than normal, his love for his sister who came back into his life, the love for his community, and, yes, even the love for his brother who attempted to beat the funeral out of him.
He speaks of all of them with playful adoration. My community feels so far away right now. But as this story reminds me how important it is to wrap yourself in the love and comfort of your family, chosen or otherwise. If as a story inspired you, here are a few questions to get you thinking about stories of your own. Who in your life is giving you strength? When was the last time you had an unexpected reunion? Who was it with and what did it feel like?
You can also find these problems in the extras for this episode on our website, The Mouthguard Extras. That's all for this week. Remember, you can purchase your own story at our pitch line, read on our website. And if you're looking for more mothe, you can check us out on Instagram at Moth Stories and at The Moth on Facebook and Twitter. Until next time, from all of us here at The Moth, I have a story where the week.
Zorah Shah is an assistant producer for the Moth Story Slam and Main Stages, she's previously worked as a bookseller in various independent bookstores around New York City. It's where she first got the chance to witness the universal power of stories. A native New Yorker through and through her favorite stories still come from the streets of her home, even from those who are too scared to take the stage.
Podcast production by Julia Purcell. The Moth podcast is presented by PUREX, the Public Radio Exchange, helping make public radio more public at PUREX Dawg.