The walls of the Roanoke Church of Christ are saturated with so much song and scripture that beads of moisture resembling pearls of great price seem to flow down them like the tears of the many faces who have passed through her threshold seeking shelter and higher ground only to find there no places in this world ultimately watertight or safe. If they could speak, they would tell tales of sinners whose souls were both won and lost, epic pulpit battles over the “least jot and tittle,” deep betrayals and unlikely reconciliations, and people—so many people—dying way too young.
A man remembers four babies sitting in the laps of their mothers in the church nursery in the fall of 1971, one his own daughter. The mothers were all in their 20s, except one, who was pushing 40 while toting her “little surprise.”
They’re all gone now. First E. at age 13, then J. in his early 20s, M. in his 40s, and finally Melanie Kay Brown Gentry, just a few weeks shy of 51.
Those walls soaked up a few more stories on November 12, 2022, when a memorial and celebration of life gathering took place in Melanie’s name.
Virginia born and bred siblings, in-laws, aunts, cousins, and high school friends were there, as well as members of the Roanoke church who remembered when she was born and held her as a baby, others who recalled her father’s death and watched her come of age under less than ideal conditions, and some who may not have known her at all but pitched in to prepare the facility and make food for the occasion out of love, concern, and maybe a little curiosity.
A pair of couples traveled to Roanoke from farther away than most. Together with Melanie’s brother and his wife, they had recently formed a band of brothers and sisters out of a complex crisscrossing of past relationships. Their lives intertwined once more, they made up not just a three, but a six-fold strand “not easily broken” which would hold fast “for such a time as this.”
Tables filled with photos became collages representing the many phases and relationships that formed Melanie’s life. A copy of Melanie’s obituary was on a lectern near one of the tables. A slide show created by one of Melanie’s daughters was running on a continual loop, accompanied by a soundtrack of mostly sweet and sad country music songs, some of Melanie’s favorites.
There were violets—lots of them—spread around the room, all of which had descended from one planted in 1999 by Melanie’s sister to honor her son A. who had died in 1998 at the age of 10. There was a metal flower stand containing small ones that she gifted to those in attendance.
After visiting and eating together, Melanie’s brother called the gathering to order. He welcomed everyone and made a few opening remarks, and then he invited others to step forward and share their own memories and stories of Melanie.
Many did, and there were both laughter and tears, punctuated with periods of penetrating silence.
Melanie’s sister-in-law was one. Always a truthteller, her remarks are worth highlighting:
I have two brothers, and from the time I was 3 or 4, I prayed—fervently—for a little sister. That prayer was answered when I was 20 and met Melanie.
“She was my little sister in so many ways, loving each other fiercely, sometimes annoying each other. Melanie wasn’t always easy. But she was fun, smart, and beautiful.
“She was so deliberate in the things she said and did. She was a person with deep faith and a strong sense of right and wrong. She was an organizer. If it sat still, she organized it, and when she could no longer do the organizing, she was the supervisor and we organized together. One of our last projects was organizing her closet—again. This was about 10 days before she died.
“She loved order, but she also loved ice cream, slushes, and candy. Whenever she got someone to take her to a store, she almost always grabbed a bag of candy at the checkout and asked you not to tell J. and then hid it in her nightstand.
“She would share the candy, of course, because she loved to share. She loved giving gifts, and on our last shopping trip, she was buying gifts for her girls and contemplating a gift for J. He might have liked the wooden hangers she wanted, but I’m not so sure he would have liked us organizing his closet.
“She was a giver, and she was attentive. She noticed things and people. She surprised me sometimes when, in the middle of her pain and illness, she saw someone who needed something and tried to give it.
“Melanie was formidable. She was no pushover, and she wasn’t afraid to “have words” with someone. She was fiercely protective of her family, as well as her friends.
“She was so many things, but one of my favorite things about Melanie was her sense of humor. She never lost it; amidst pain, indignities, loss, fear, and illness, she could, and did, laugh. The Brown women were, and are, like that, and I have long admired that trait.
“Melanie was a dear sister to me to the end. Her last words to me were “Love you” and “Okay.” It was at the very end, and she said “Okay” several times.
“I’m convinced that she was telling me that she was okay and that we would be okay. I know we will be okay, but she is irreplaceable and will always be missed as my little sister.”
A few more spoke, then Melanie’s sister, an accomplished pianist, and her husband came forward. She sat at a keyboard, he took the mic, and together they offered up a contemplative, even “jazzy,” arrangement of “Jesus Loves Me.”
Melanie’s brother made one last call for stories. When no one responded, he said softly, “Let’s bring this home.”
Then, to the surprise of most, he did something most unusual for a wake, especially a belated one: he stepped aside, so to speak, and let the deceased speak for herself.