Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Scrapbook (Mom's America)

My mom loved this country.  If she heard the National Anthem played, it didn't matter where she was, she'd stand to her feet and lay her hand to her heart.  She was a huge baseball fan, and when the Star-Spangled Banner came over the airwaves, I remember her at times standing at attention in our living room, waiting out the duration of the song. Sometimes her chin would quiver just a bit, especially on the part where the music goes up an octave and talks about the flag still being there. There's no doubt about it, she loved this land.

I can't help but wonder how she would be handling the behavior of some of our professional athletes, refusing to stand at the playing of the National Anthem or the antics taking place on the eve of the next big election.  She wouldn't be pleased and would most likely pen a letter to the editor of her local paper, something she'd done on other occasions when she had something to say.  But mostly I think she would cry, grieving for a Nation that she would no longer recognize.

Recently I was rummaging through a box of old photos and came across a simple scrapbook that my mother had put together a very long time ago. On the front cover there is a picture of the flag with the caption America the Beautiful followed by several pages of pictures taken from magazines. Beneath each are the stanzas of the hymn, written out in her own hand. The rest of the scrapbook is filled mostly with newspaper and magazine clippings of mountains and rivers and farmland and tree-lined roads.  This was her America.   

A page from mom's scrapbook

Today a portion of our society believes that they've been dealt a bad hand so they feel justified in expressing their disapproval in whatsoever way they choose. Now the divide between us is greater than ever, and the result has been a blow to the gut of our nation, putting us on our knees gasping for breath.  The idea of American exceptionalism is deemed to be offensive, and pride of country is being replaced with shame for supposedly exploiting nations and mistreating those within our own borders. Not exactly my mom's America.

My parents were not idealists.  They understood life's realities. My mother knew poverty when her father became crippled and could no longer support his family.  She grieved when her younger sister suddenly died and watched her mother sink into a life-long depression as a result of it. My father fought in the War in Europe and lived with chronic pain because of a serious injury. But they were proud of their American heritage and raised their five children to appreciate a nation that offered each of us opportunities like no other place on earth.  

A few months before my mother died I flew to New York to spend a couple of weeks with her.  One thing she said to me still stands out.  A woman of deep faith, she had accepted the inevitable and had no fear at what was ahead.  She also talked about how much she had loved this life, her family and friends and the simple pleasures that brought her enjoyment every single day.  Then at the end she paused for a moment, almost as if embarrassed to say it.  "But I'm having trouble letting go."  That was my mother, full of gratitude for the life God had given her.  And grateful to the nation that had offered her so much.        

Another page of "America the Beautiful"  

Monday, June 27, 2016


It was in the spring when Moshi found Joel.  He was just a bitty thing, a tiny bundle of gray and white who suddenly flew out from under a bush as Joel was mowing one evening. Nobody came around looking for a run-a-way kitten so my son claimed him as his own and gave him the name of Moshi.

It didn't take anytime at all to discover that the little guy had no intention of staying behind closed doors.   No matter where he was in the house, he had the uncanny ability to get to an open door before it closed shut. Those first several weeks we were either looking for him, chasing him around the yard or crawling under the shrubs trying to get to him.  He was the most determined cat I've ever encountered.  Nothing could stop him, he'd even worked his way out of one of our screen doors. So Joel figured he'd just lower the glass and raise the screen.  That didn't work either, he just climbed all the higher.

We have a nice walking track close to the parsonage, and Larry and I often take Rudy the dog for a couple laps in the evening. The first time I saw Moshi trailing along I panicked, concerned he'd not find his way back home.  But he always did.  One evening we had just left the park when a neighbor noticed him following close behind.  He asked if he was ours.  Kinda, I said,  and explained he belonged to our son.  He went on to tell us that he didn't care much for cats, but Moshi had been over there visiting on a few occasions.  "I really like this one," he confessed.

One evening Rudy and I were taking a walk down Charles Street.  He was especially excited, yanking at his leash, pulling me along at a pretty fast pace.  Just a few houses up from the parsonage a woman suddenly came bounding out her front door laughing.  "I'm sorry," she said, "but I have to say that seeing that little dog pulling you along and that little cat trailing behind you has to be one of the funniest things I've ever seen!"  I turned and sure enough, there was Moshi following at the rear.  Still laughing, my very amused neighbor headed back though the door as I made a grab for the cat.  But Speedy Gonzales wasn't about to let this outing end and he immediately flew out of reach. With a sigh, I turned Rudy around and we walked the short distance back home, Moshi not far behind. Following in a park is one thing, on a road at dusk is another.  

Some choose to live fast and furious.  That was Moshi, he had the DNA of a traveler, an adventurer. I always figured that as soon as he could crawl his way out of that birth box, away from his mama and siblings, that's what he did. Oh sure, he ended up living with us for a time and quite contentedly. He was small, but the motor-like purr that came out of him would fill an entire room.  He ate our food, curled up on our couch each evening, and crawled into one of our beds at night.  But when the sun was up, so was he.  There was no holding him in, he was ready to explore, to experience whatever and whoever he should encounter that day.  

Moshi was with us less than a year.  The very thing I feared is what took his life, the street.  Larry buried him in the back yard of the parsonage, right along the fence and placed a plastic bucket full of artificial flowers marking the spot.  That was a year and a half ago and the arrangement is still there. Larry asked me a few months back if I wanted it removed.  I told him to leave it.  There are some things worth remembering.  Moshi is one of them.  

Friday, February 19, 2016

A Valentine for Frances

Several adults with special needs attend our church.  Tim is one of my favorites.  After you read his story, I think you'll see why.

Tim rides the church van on Sundays.   Physically he's a man, mentally he's a child.  Frances, not without her own challenges, often rides the van as well.  "Frances isn't here today," he told me one day last February, looking disappointed.  He'd been noticeably watching for her from his usual place in the front pew, his head turned, eyeing the back doors that lead into the sanctuary.  "Maybe she and her mom are just running late," I said hopefully.        

I hadn't realized how much Tim liked Frances until the previous Sunday, the day after Valentine's Day.  He held up a small Walmart bag as I walked into the Sunday School classroom that morning, eager to show me what was inside.  It was a homemade valentine made out of a paper doily.  "It's for Frances," he told me proudly.  But Frances didn't come that morning.  She'd had her tonsils out that week and was recuperating.  And now a week later he was once again watching for her, eagerly hoping, still clutching onto that same Walmart bag.  But she didn't come that morning either.  I approached him after the service. "Why don't you let me take the valentine and I'll get word to her mom that I have it. Maybe she can pick it up for Frances."    

I peered into the Walmart bag after Tim left and couldn't help notice how rumpled the doily was by now.  That extra week in its confines had been hard on it.   But I sent word to Mom that I had a special delivery for her daughter and would she mind stopping by for it when able. Within hours Tim's homemade valentine was in the hands of dear, sweet Frances, still not feeling the best after her recent tonsillectomy.

Frances returned the following week.  "Did you get your valentine?" I asked. She nodded shyly with a touch of pink blushing her cheeks.  She obviously wasn't quite sure what to do with the attention. Tim sat close by smiling.  Frances was back and she had acknowledged his gift, his valentine.  It was but a simple homemade heart.  Much like coloring pages mounted by magnets on refrigerator doors, Tim had created out of childlike innocence something special for Frances, the girl that he thinks about and looks for when he comes to church each Sunday morning. And his heart was full.  

One particular Sunday as I was sitting at the keyboard leading worship, my eyes fixed on Tim, sitting there in that very same front pew.  As the song was concluding, he raised his head, closed his eyes and put both hands to his heart.   In simplicity, in childlike abandon, giving all he had, his heart to his Creator. The one who made him.  Exactly as he is.   And my heart was full.   

Friday, January 15, 2016

Thank You for Asking

The Macy's store located in our mall up at Big Flats is closing. That's big news here.  In fact it's so big that it was Breaking News the other day on our morning broadcast which irked my friend Mary considerably.  I can't remember her exact words, but it amounted to something like, "I can't believe with everything going on in this world, the closing of a store is breaking news!"   I tend to agree with her. Some things in the realm of information and news should definitely receive that distinction, but at times I scratch my head and wonder how other things make the cut.  Who decides what qualifies certain information to be deemed Breaking News anyways?

So back to Macy's.  I discovered the store a couple of years ago.  Well actually, it had been there all along, but I discovered its clearance racks a couple years back and was kicking myself for not walking through the doors earlier.  So when I heard the news that liquidation was starting this week, I headed for the mall.  A footnote here.  I rarely buy anything at full price.  I understand the principle of markup and know that overpriced items will eventually come down.  So I watch. And wait. And when the prices are slashed at no less than half with an extra twenty or thirty percent off, I hit the racks.  And that's what I did on Tuesday of this past week.

Tuesdays are relatively dead at the mall and the Macy's store was no exception, liquidation or not. There were shoppers and a few clerks attending them, but it already felt as if the life had gone out of the store. A couple of girls in cosmetics were chatting back and forth, and a few of the shoppers were conversing over pieces of clothing.  But it felt eerily quiet, a hush seemed to have settled over the place.  I carried a blouse to one of the scanners to check on the price. It was gone, already pulled off the wall.  Someone was certainly in a hurry to get this place closed up. And then it occurred to me. There was no music coming from the speakers.  Even that had stopped.

I was looking through some blouses on a long rack when I noticed a middle-aged woman wearing a name tag hanging a few items on the other end.  "Is this hard for you?" I asked her.  She looked up and after a moment nodded her head.  "Yes it is," she responded quietly.  And as she started to walk away she turned back towards me.  "Thank you for asking." 

I still think Mary was right.  In reflecting upon the horrific events taking place in our world, the closing of a store seems pretty small.  But to someone out there, it's anything but small.  I know nothing else about that clerk, how long she'd been working there or how much she relied on that paycheck coming in.  But I do know one very important thing.  She appreciated my caring enough to ask.      


Monday, November 9, 2015

Debbie's Story

Larry and I pulled through the gate of  Woodlawn National Cemetery and drove by the rows of white tombstones that spread out on both sides of the drive.  We were meeting with the family of the recently deceased, a veteran of the United States Navy, for interment.  It would be a small gathering, just a few family members and us.

It was a beautiful October day,  I had gazed out the car window the entire way, taking in the oranges and golds of the leaves that were still clinging to the branches, silently hoping they'd not let go quite yet.  I love the Autumn in New York, it's always been my favorite season.  But she is like the perfect guest who comes for a short visit, and despite all your imploring, never stays long enough. I hated to see her go.  

There was a cold breeze as we joined the others beneath one of the hardwoods that lines the driveway there.  I shivered and wished for a moment that I'd worn a warmer coat.  Two gentlemen in suits presented Debbie with the cinerary urn holding her father's ashes and then proceeded to lead our small procession out from under the trees into the sunlight and onto a pathway through the cemetery towards the columbarium, a bordering wall that harbors hundreds of niches holding the remains of service members who have gone on before. We stopped and stood quietly as the container was placed into its vault. Scripture was read, a hymn sung, prayers spoken, a few memories shared.

I'm sure those two men in suits standing to the rear of us wondered at the message of forgiveness that filled the conversation in those final moments.  But that is the theme of this story, one that tells of a little girl living an unhappy childhood with a physically and emotionally abusive father.  But grace came visiting when she was still a child, and she was rescued by another Father, the one who had created her and loved her unconditionally.

Many years later she would travel with her husband across several states to bring her father, now very old and sick,  back to her home in New York. Giving up her home daycare, she devoted her time to care for the one person in her life who probably deserved it the least. But because forgiveness has been the theme of her story, the same loving Father who had rescued a suffering child many years earlier mercifully reached down and rescued that child's father in his old age.  

The air seemed warmer when we walked back towards our cars and the colors of the trees appeared more vibrant than ever. The chorus to that old Fannie Crosby hymn was running through my mind as we drove back through the gates towards home.  This is my story, this is my song. Praising my Savior all the day long.  This is my story....

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Here Lies Mark Twain. And Cecil Bullock.

Our friend Cecil was buried a few days after Thanksgiving.  There were only eight or nine of us at his graveside that day as he had no family and very few friends.  Larry and I had gotten to know Cecil and his ever-present dog Petey when he was attending the church for awhile.  He was odd, amiable one day and difficult the next. He'd been beaten years earlier, had suffered severe trauma to the head and was never the same after that.  But as unpredictable as he was, he could also be generous and hospitable. On those occasions when he knew that he had been particularly offensive,  he would apologize by leaving a gift at our door as a peace offering.   I could never stay mad for long where Cecil was concerned.

We were stunned to hear that he had died.  He was in his fifties, pretty young by today's standards.   A friend had invited him to Thanksgiving dinner but he never showed up.  Two days later that same friend found him in his apartment, his little dog Petey close by.  There would be no autopsy.  No funeral. No fanfare.  

Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York
There was quite a noise in Elmira recently over a missing plaque stolen from that same cemetery. Stealing from a grave is pretty despicable, but this was especially egregious, considering whose plot it was taken from, Mark Twain's.  Yep, the one and only.  You'd think he would have preferred burial in Hannibal, Missouri or somewhere else along the Mississippi.  But nope, he's buried here along with his wife, daughters and extended family. The thief helped himself to one of the plaques that was mounted on the monument that marks the very spot.  By the way, it was eventually found thanks to a little detective work and a thief who couldn't keep his mouth shut.
This was big news in Elmira

The plaque before the theft  

Mark Twain is written all over this town, his name is everywhere. There's the Clemens Parkway, for example,  which goes right by the Clemens Center, a beautiful theater for the performing arts.  Hal Holbrook, the actor best known for his flawless portrayal of the man, comes back every two or three years and does his show there. Elmira College has a study program on Mark Twain, and the little octagonal study where he wrote most of his work sits on the grounds there. So naturally when we have out-of-town guests, it just seems right to ask them if they'd like to visit Mark Twain's grave. They always say yes. After all, he is one of the most celebrated authors in American history.

Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens) in his later years
Of course he is not the only notable person to be buried at Woodlawn. There are others with markers pointing the way to their graves. Perhaps they're not quite as famous as Mr. Twain, but they are celebrated as well.  Ernie Davis,  the first black Heisman Trophy winner and Hal Roach of Hollywood fame both have road signs.  There are politicians, historical figures and others of prominence, all at rest beneath the sod of Woodlawn, Some of them are not so familiar, but the mausoleums set into hillsides and the numerous monuments engraved with family names speak of power, prestige and position, a reminder of what Elmira used to be.  
Ernie had a movie made about his life

Mr. Roach went to Hollywood and produced "The Little Rascals"
We had a bit of trouble finding where Cecil's service was to be held that day in early December.  We spent several minutes driving the winding narrow roads past numerous grave sites and had just passed Mark Twain's marker when we saw some activity up ahead.  There was Cecil's name marking the spot with a blue casket directly behind, ready to be lowered into the earth.  I was grateful for those who had come out on this chilly day to remember the man.  The proximity to the most famous of monuments was not lost on me.  Imagine that.  Practically neighbors with the Clemens clan.     

Cecil's graveside service
Cecil still has no stone on his grave.  It's been a hard winter, but spring is approaching and the church will take care of ordering one and having it placed there. We've done this before.  Christopher Jensen, also without family, had suddenly passed away and the church took up an offering to ensure that he would not be forgotten either. He lies in Woodlawn as well, not too far from the famous Mr. Roach. 

Neither of these men will have signs pointing to where they now lay, nor will they have monuments that speak of earthly fame or fortune.  But in the end, it doesn't really matter whether it's a simple granite stone or monument or mausoleum that holds the name.  They all attest to the same thing. Mark Twain and Cecil Bullock and Christopher Jensen all lived for a time.  And then they died.  And that is worth remembering.          

The sign pointing the way  

Monday, January 12, 2015

It Happened at Legion Field

Zac warming up the Packers before a game

It was a year ago in January that Zac resigned from his position as Assistant Strength Coach with the Packers. He had been offered the opportunity to work with his former coach, a close friend and mentor, and to become Head Strength Coach at his Alma mater back in Alabama.  The Blazer football program had not done well over the past several years, and the school was ready to make some changes.  He was up for the challenge.

And there was something else.  He had seen and understood the pressures put on professional athletes unprepared for the accolades, the money, the fame.  Even prior to his time in Green Bay, while working with athletes at a sports' complex in California, he had approached the owners on more than one occasion about including a program that addressed these very concerns.  They expressed some interest, but in spite his efforts, it didn't happen.

Zac's job as a strength and conditioning coach is to get the players physically prepared for the football field. But the desire to mold lives, not just bodies, never went away.  So when the opportunity came to do both at the university level, it didn't take long to make up his mind. He met with the Packers' head coach Mike McCarthy and asked to be released from his contract.

Zac back at UAB

On Valentine's Day the newly assembled members of the  UAB football team gathered on Legion Field in Birmingham and began running up and down the bleachers of the stadium as part of a conditioning drill. Except for one, Tim Alexander, who sits in a wheelchair. An auto accident while he was still in high school cut short his aspirations to play college ball.  But he had approached the previous coach, Garrick McGee, asking if he could work out with the team. His infectious, positive spirit convinced the coach and he was welcomed, even getting his own locker and number.    

Zac looked down at Tim, now alone on the field. Upper-body workouts were one thing.  He did push-ups and leg lifts everyday and could bench press right along with the rest of them. The guy was strong. But he'd never have the chance to run those steps with his teammates. Something stirred inside of Zac.  "Do you want to go up to the top?" he hollered down.  Tim didn't hesitate.  "Yes sir!" At that, Zac lifted him onto his back and began the long climb up the steps of the stadium.

This was no small feat.  Tim is well over six feet tall and weighs no less than 250 pounds.   Legion Field is a large stadium that holds more than 70,000 spectators.  The stands rise high. After a few minutes Zac began to feel his legs shake. But he continued on, hoping and praying he could finish what he had started.  And then it happened. Tim's teammates began to converge on them, surrounding them, doing what they could to lighten the load as together they continued to move forward.  Upward. To the top.

Zac carrying Tim on his back up the steps of Legion Field
The team knew that something extraordinary had taken place that day in Legion Field.  Their new strength coach had unintentionally demonstrated through this one selfless act what they as a team could accomplish as they endeavored together, unified.  There, gathered with those who had carried him, Tim movingly spoke the mantra,  "One team-one goal."  The process of molding had begun.

Life has a way of throwing things at us when we are least expecting them.  The UAB team had made tremendous progress.  Physically, the team was bigger, stronger.  The Blazers had become competitive, playing their best football in a decade, and were in contention for a bowl game.  To realize that this had been accomplished in less than a year makes it all the more amazing.   But then the unsettling rumors began. There was talk of shutting down the program.  Permanently.

Consoling Tim
Eventually that would be the outcome. Some said it was the money.  Others said it was politics.   But Zac would stand with his boys, march with them, even go before the Birmingham city council, fighting for them to the end.   And then when it was inevitably over, he would grieve with them.

This past weekend Zac received word that he has been recognized as the top Strength and Conditioning coach of any university in the country. The press release calls him the heart and soul of the program and goes on to say that Zac physically transformed his guys, making them bigger, stronger, more competitive.  He also inspired them to believe that they could win, that they were made to be champions.  But most importantly, he showed them what it is to come together and help carry a brother.  It happened that day in Legion Field.