Friday, December 30, 2011

Carrot Cake Connection

So Fawn texts me two days day before Christmas on her way to the grocery store.  "Mom, don't kill me but I need ingredients for carrot cake again!!!"  Just a few weeks earlier she had called and asked me for the recipe, that time for Thanksgiving.  The same thing happened last year and I think the year before.  To tell you the truth, I'm not sure how many times I've given it to her, I've lost count.  But I can't fuss at her too much.

Being that my dad had been a meat cutter, I would call him from Alabama every year a few weeks before Christmas and ask him about a particular cut of meat that I was preparing for a special dinner.  I used the same kind of roast and prepared it exactly the same way every year, but I always wanted to make sure that I got it right.    "Dad, how long am I supposed to cook this if it's a four-pound eye of round?" I would ask.  And every year he would patiently go over it with me again.  The first year after he died, I felt a sense of loss as I prepared the meat to go into the oven.  I had long mastered the recipe, but I missed the sound of his voice on the other end of the line, a thousand miles away in New York. I think the call I made from my kitchen each year on that particular occasion was something he had come to expect and looked forward to, simply one thing of many that connected us.

I do the same thing with my sister Beth.  There is a fruit salad carried down from my father's family that requires a certain amount of jello, and every year I call to ask her how much I should use.  It doesn't matter that I've made the stuff for most of my life.  I call every year and ask her what to do.  Except for this year.  She's been working a lot so I decided to go it alone.  She called a couple of days ago.  "So how much jello did you put in the fruit salad?" she asked.  I told her.  "You should have put in another pack," she informed me.  Sigh.  I told her I was afraid of putting in too much, I did that once and it wasn't as good.  "I thought it tasted pretty good this year," I continued, "but maybe I should have put in one more pack."  Like I said, we go through this every Christmas.  And in spite the fact that she makes me wonder if I'll ever get it right, somehow it seems to draw us closer together.

So I'm thinking that maybe when Fawn calls from Green Bay and asks for that carrot cake recipe again or Angela texts from El Paso for the umpteenth time asking how much soup she needs for her favorite chicken recipe, they might be using it as a way to connect, to be closer to their mom who is so far away in New York.  Maybe?  But then there's Autumn down in Birmingham.  She sent me a message a few weeks back.  "Mom, need your pastry recipe."  I knew the one she was talking about, the one that came from her Grandma Burke.  I always made it for my kids on Christmas and New Year's mornings, one of their favorites.  But I didn't hear back from her after that, so a few days later I called and asked her if she still wanted the recipe.  "No thanks mom.  I found it." 

Ok,  so maybe my theory has some holes in it.  Perhaps they're more like their father, writing things down on little pieces of paper and then forgetting where they've put them.  It doesn't really matter.  They can ask me as often as they like, however they like.  It's all good as it helps keep them close in spite of the miles.  Connected.  And I need that. 

Mom's Old Henry Bars recipe

So back to the carrot cake recipe.  Each time Fawn calls I pull it out of the large zip lock bag where I keep my special recipes.  No neat little file box with pretty three by five cards for me.  If I did that, I'd have to recopy the ones my mom wrote down on whatever piece of paper she had close at hand.  It probably wouldn't be a bad idea.   Her "Chicken Every Sunday" recipe is especially vulnerable, written on the thinnest  of paper and in danger of disintegrating at any moment.  But it reminds me of her, so I treat it as if I were handling one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, not wanting to lose any of her hieroglyphics.  The "Old Henry Bars" recipe has faded some over the years, but she loved making them when she needed something quick and easy and yummy. I do the same.  And then there's the pastry recipe from my mother-in-law, her letters large and neat, much easier to read than my mother's.  A couple of the corners are ripped off and there are food stains on the front and back of the card. But I won't replace it, it's more valuable than ever now that she's gone.

Some years back one of my girls decided to take all the recipes out of the zip lock and organize and write them down into into a notebook.  She was well into her project when I realized that she'd been throwing away the originals, including the paper with my mother's carrot cake recipe.  That was the first one to be entered into the notebook, now titled "Marcy's Carrot Cake."  The remaining originals are now neatly packed into the front pocket of that same notebook of which I pulled a cake recipe a few weeks back and made a couple of times over the holidays.  I felt connected to the giver as I mixed the various ingredients, following the familiar handwriting.   And naturally there were the compliments.  "What a delicious cake," they would say.  And I would reply every single time,  "I'm glad you liked it."  And then I would smile. "That was my mother's recipe."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Singing By Christmas

The choir right before the Christmas cantata

It had been six months since I'd flown to New York for the botox injections that help me talk and my voice was still doing relatively well.  I had a bit of raspiness and occasionally a word would catch in my throat, but all in all, I didn't sound all that bad.  In fact, I probably could have held off the trip a bit longer and if I had, I would have seen the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center and the stores on Fifth Avenue all decorated for Christmas.  It would have been a new experience for me, visiting New York during the holidays.  But it wasn't December, it was the first Tuesday in November, and there was a reason for going when I did.  I had been calculating in my head not how long it would take for the botox to help me talk, but how long it would take to let me sing again.

Having a voice disorder, my inability to speak without forcing every word was hard enough, but losing my singing voice was especially devastating.  Over time I accepted the reality of how my life had changed because of Spasmodic Dysphonia, but that didn't change the longing I had to make music again.  That is until early last year after meeting with a new doctor in New York.  (See "Singing" November 8, 2010.)  For the next few months I was able to do what I hadn't done in four years, sing.  Unfortunately the injections are temporary, eventually the effects of the botox wear off.  Thus the spasms slowly returned and sadly the singing was the first to go.   I had wanted to sing for Christmas, but it wasn't going to happen.  At least not this time.

And that's why I flew to New York when I did.  As I sat in the chair waiting for the doctor to insert the needles into the muscles adjoining my vocal cords, I visited with his two assistants.  They looked at me and both commented on how remarkably strong my voice was, even after six months.  "You're the best voice we've heard today!" one of them said.  I said something about wanting to get it out of the way before the winter weather hit the city.  I remembered my first time there.  It was January and a frigid, biting wind swept mercilessly through the streets of Manhattan.  I had never been colder in my entire life, so in part it was the truth.  But there was more, the part that was harder to articulate.  If I had spoken my heart it would have gone something like this:  "Well actually, I've been figuring out how many weeks it takes to sing again.  I knew if I came now, I'd time it just right for Christmas!" 

Last Sunday evening I had the privilege of directing our Christmas cantata.  Not only did the choir watch my hands to bring them in and cut them off at the appropriate moments, they were watching my lips as well.  For you see, I sang along with them on every single song, every single note.  And Christmas Sunday morning, just a few days from now,  I'll be singing the carols along with everyone else.  It's all I really wanted, all I asked for this year.  I wanted to be singing by Christmas.  

Larry and I right before the cantata

Warming up with the choir before the cantata  

Monday, December 12, 2011

Dropping Needles--A Christmas Reflection

We have a real Christmas tree set up in the sanctuary.  A guy who attends here has a tree farm and asked if the church might like a live one this year.  It's big, about ten feet tall and a good seven or eight feet across. And it's nice, real nice, evoking quite a few oohs and aahs over the past few weeks.  There's only one problem.  It stopped drinking water a few days after it went up, and I'm afraid it might start dropping too many of its needles.     

I like live trees, that's what Larry and I had always had in our families.  I still remember sitting on the couch in my piano teacher's living room waiting for my lesson, watching the colors change on her aluminum tree.  Even as a child I didn't quite understand the appeal of that.  But she lived in a neat little house without imperfect children or bothersome pets.  Looking back now, I suspect that she simply didn't want to deal with a dirty tree and those pesky pine needles.

That's the chance you take with the lives ones.  There's almost always a big sign on the lot advertising the trees as being fresh.  Hmmm.  I've learned you need to size em up, shake them around a bit and then watch the eyes of the sales person as you ask when they were brought in. And if they don't meet your gaze while talking,  you take your business somewhere else.  But no matter how hard you try, sometimes you get a bad one.   

Six or seven years ago while still living in Alabama,  I noticed the water wasn't going down in the tree stand.   We were barely into December and our lowly fir was already beginning to drop needles.  I went back to Lowes and approached a girl working in the garden center.  "We bought a tree here a week or so ago and already it's dropping needles," I explained. She looked at me rather suspiciously.  "Do you still have the receipt?  she asked.  "Bring me the receipt along with the tree and we'll give you another one."  I suspect she didn't believe me, that I wouldn't really come back with a tree.  But a couple of hours later we pulled the poor half-naked tree out of our van and dragged it into the store, leaving a thick path of needles behind us.  She took one look.  "Oh, I guess it is dropping needles, isn't it.  Go head, get yourself another tree."  And she pointed in the direction from whence we had originally picked out our pathetic little pine.  "Could we get something a little pricier?"  I asked.  It was worth a try.  After all, we had gone to a lot of trouble to strip it of its lights and ornaments,  load it back into the van and drive it across town.  Plus I'd be vacuuming needles out of the car for weeks.  No sympathy from this lady however.  "Sure, you can get whatever you like as long as you pay the difference."  So much for Christmas spirit.

Finding a live tree was never a concern until we moved to Costa Rica for language school. It was 1985, our first time so far from home.  It was going to be hard enough as it was, and not having a proper tree would make it all the more difficult.  Therefore, when Larry said that he had seen some being sold on the street six or seven blocks from the house, I was ecstatic.  We rallied the kids and headed out in the direction where he had seen them.  Not only was it a longer walk than what we had anticipated, we discovered that the trees were actually set up in the center of three major boulevards on a small medium.  We managed to cross with all three kids in tow, ignoring the best we could the traffic whizzing all around us, and picked out a good- sized pine, remarkably similar to what we might have found in the States. Somehow we managed to get it back across the street to the sidewalk and started the long trek home, five gringos and a very cumbersome,  heavier than anticipated pine tree.  There were a few times during that year we could have really used a vehicle,  this was one of them.

Angela, Joel and Fawn on Christmas morning in Costa Rica 

It wasn't too many days later that we discovered our treasure already dropping piles of needles.  On Christmas morning it looked so sad that I didn't even take a close-up shot of the tree with all three children sitting in front of it.  Instead we took a shot of them sitting on the steps leading down to the living room, the tree well out of view.  The best picture I have is one of our little chihuahua sitting underneath the lowest branches.  Even in that, it's pretty obvious that the arbol has nothing left of its former glory.  A few hours later we removed all the decorations and dragged it outside, the remaining needles trailing behind.

Chiqui under our very dry Christmas tree 

We had another reason for removing the remaining vestiges of Christmas that afternoon.  My sister Dawn had come to spend Christmas with us, and the next morning we were going to load up on a bus and head to the beach for a few days.  The tree might have been a disappointment, but the adventure of spending that memorable Christmas in Costa Rica was not.  In fact, it turned out to be one of our absolute favorites ever.  

Larry,  Marcy , Fawn, Joel and Angela at Caihuita in Costa Rica two days after Christmas

This will be our third year in this parsonage and three years with an artificial tree in the corner of our living room.  Fifty-seven live trees, fifty-eight if you want to count the lemon from Lowe's, and after all these years I buckle and resort to a fake.   But someone offered it, we're not putting money out for a new one every year and our kids aren't around to fuss and complain.  Besides, most people can't even tell it's not the real thing anyways.  But the best part of all, it manages to drop a few needles, just enough to remind me of those past places and times that have been such an important part of my life.  And in that remembering, I joy and I laugh.   

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Bride in the Watermelon Dress

I went to the most wonderful wedding last week.  It was on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of this eleventh year at the eleventh hour when the music began.  Each member of the wedding party came into the room dancing, including the bride's eighty-something-year-old grandfather who had been given the honor of accompanying  his granddaughter down the aisle at the eleventh minute.  There she was, her hand on his arm moving to the beat.  And the groom, who had just finished his own dance down the aisle, turned just in time to see his bride in the gown that had been kept hidden from him.  His smile said it all.  She was dressed in a lovely shade of watermelon pink.

I've been to lots of weddings.  It's one of those things that comes with being married to a pastor.  I suppose being a pianist has something to do with it as well,  I've played the Bridal March more times than I can count.   Most of them I've pretty much forgotten, especially the ones that went off without a hitch or the ten-minute ceremonies followed by a reception in the basement of a church where one gets to eat cake, mixed nuts and mints.

But there have been some unforgettables as well.  For example, the time the bridesmaid fainted is pretty memorable, and the fact that she was close to six-feet tall made the fall all the more dramatic.  Nor will I forget singing "Endless Love" while one particular bride shook uncontrollably and then couldn't stop giggling during her vows.  But I've seen men and boys shake from nerves too, grooms with their knees knocking together and a ring bearer who threw up just as the service was about to begin.  I was playing for a wedding in Montgomery, Alabama when the bride could not get down the aisle because of her hoop skirt, inspired no doubt by the lovely Scarlet O'Hara herself.  She finally had to tilt it upwards with one hand while clutching her father's arm with the other,  obviously not having taken the width of her dress into consideration when she booked the church.  I've also seen a veil catch on fire and a new bride grab and kiss her groom so long and hard that even the guests began to squirm a bit uncomfortably.  So when it comes to weddings, I've learned to expect anything.

Well maybe not everything.  There is a Hallmark commercial that features the brother of the bride who continually puts his foot in his mouth.  When he stands to toast his sister,  everyone suddenly becomes quite nervous, concerned at what he might say.  But he wisely pulls a greeting card from his lapel, reads the beautiful prose that Hallmark has already penned and everyone breathes a great sigh of relief and applauds.  Sigh.  I so wish a particular relative of ours had pulled a greeting card out of his lapel while toasting his brother at a wedding we attended this past summer.  But unlike the commercial, it was obvious from the first sentence that the best man was going to wing it.  Thus when he said,  "I probably shouldn't say this," he shouldn't have.  In retrospect, someone should have politely pulled him to the side and encouraged him to rethink what he was about to say, perhaps even better yet,  tackled him to the ground.  For as the video rolled,  he proceeded to tell all assembled there in that lovely setting that when his brother, the groom,  was especially nervous, he would go into the bathroom and....are you ready?....take a really big dump.  Oh my.  I was sitting across from my sister-in-law whose big brown eyes grew considerably larger.  The laughter he was anticipating never came, not even a ripple.  No one spoke or even cleared their throat.  Just silence.  Thud.

So back to the wedding with the bride in the watermelon dress.  Her name is Amie, and the decision to get married hadn't come easily for her.  Her parents had a troubled marriage, and she and her brother ended up being raised by their grandparents.  She had thought long and hard before agreeing to marry Jeremy, the man who would have waited forever if necessary.  She had told him she would marry when she was eighty.  "Then I will wait for you until you're eighty," he had said.  Now who wouldn't want to marry a man like that?   

Amie planned her wedding for two years, and it was clear from the moment the first of her wedding party danced down the center aisle, she was going to do it her way no matter what anyone else might think.  From the candy-filled centerpieces to the carnival-style photo booth complete with props,  it was clear how much she wanted everyone to enjoy this day with her. Food was plentiful with a breakfast bar in one corner and a dinner buffet in the other, and  I finished off my meal with a smoothie served in a fine china goblet.  She had simply thought of everything.

There was more of course.  The day had started with music and dance and it would end with it as well.  And though I've no doubt Amie enjoyed every part of her wedding on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of this eleventh year, I suspect her favorite part of all was the moment she stepped onto the dance floor.  You see, she had come prepared.  For poking out from under that lovely watermelon gown, she had worn the most comfortable of dancing shoes complete with laces, a pair of plaid sneakers.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

It Started With A Name

Matthew Woodfin along with Zac
His name is Matt, he's just recently had his thirteenth birthday and his last name is Woodfin.  Nope, no relation to my son-in-law or the other Woodfins from the South land as far as I know.  He lives near Detroit with his mom and dad and maybe some siblings.  I'm not really sure about that part.  He also happens to be a huge Packer fan.

It was Saturday morning and Fawn wanted to take us to Kavarna, the coffee house that she had discovered right after moving to Green Bay.  Zac had gone on ahead as he'd made arrangements to meet someone there.  It turns out it was birthday boy Matt and a few of his family members.  They'd all come in for the game, Matt's first, and a great way to celebrate this milestone birthday.  After all, turning thirteen is a big deal.

I'm not all that sure how the family had made contact with Zac in the first place.  I imagine they probably follow the Packers pretty religiously and saw that the team had hired a new strength coach whose last name just happened to be the same as theirs.  Who made the initial contact isn't all that important to the story anyways.  The thing that does matter is that a young assistant coach was making time to meet a kid who loves a certain football team and had traveled 300 miles to see them play.

As we pushed through the front door, we immediately saw Zac near the entrance sitting across from a kid in a Packer's sweatshirt and a middle-aged guy, obviously his dad.  An older cousin and uncle were seated at the end of the table. We ordered our drinks then pulled up some chairs to listen as he talked with them about the team and answered what questions he could.  They weren't missing a word.  To commemorate the occasion Fawn ordered a brownie and set it down in front of Matthew as we sang to him.  The whole experience must have been a bit overwhelming,  he asked his dad if he could save it for later.

Fawn and I were the first to leave.  She had dinner guests coming later and we had a couple of errands to run.  I'd also promised her that I'd make some sauce out of the apples we'd brought from New York to add to the meal.  So we said our goodbyes, not expecting to see any of them again of course. The stadium holds almost eighty-thousand people.  The chances of running into them the next day was highly unlikely.

We'd only planned to stop at the Pro Shop at Lambeau just long enough to pick out a couple of shirts to wear to the game the next day.  The place was crowded, wall-to-wall with excited Packer fans who had come in from all over the country.  Between checking out the racks and waiting in line for a dressing room, we had already spent more time there than expected.  Also mingled there among the crowd of shoppers were several families of players and staff members who had traveled in for the game just like we had. Every few minutes we were being introduced to another mom or cousin or grandparent and it was during one of those chance meetings that we were told the training area was going to be open to family members that afternoon.  All we needed was a player or staff member to take us through.  And for us, that would be Zac.

We hadn't expected to see where he worked.  We were cool with it, but now that I knew we were going to see the facility, I was stoked.  The applesauce could wait. As we congregated outside the Pro Shop,  I was surprised to see that someone else had joined us.  Zac had received permission to invite a few extras to come along, three men and a thirteen-year-old boy who had come from Detroit to see his first Packer game.  I would have loved to have been there when those guys got that call.

After the elevator had descended into the belly of Lambeau,  I had a sense of anticipation as we stepped off and followed behind our newly-appointed guide.  I enjoyed the sense of privilege I felt while checking out the rooms full of exercise equipment, seeing the team dining hall, visiting the locker room, taking in names like Woodson, Matthews, Rodgers and standing just feet away from their gear.  It was fun trying out the recliners in the theater and standing just feet away from Bart Starr as he passed us in one of the hallways.  Finally, walking through the tunnel, imagining the roar of the home crowd as we approached the  field, looking up and seeing the size and beauty of the place from that vantage point, it was all very cool.

Larry, Matthew, Nathan, Me, Steve and Bob in the theater

But of everything I remember about that afternoon, the thing that stands out most for me were the smiles that never left the faces of Matthew and his family.  This special tour, being in that part of Lambeau that many never get to see, this was something they hadn't anticipated a few hours earlier.  When I saw a player out of uniform, I didn't usually know who it was.  People look a lot different without helmets on their heads and don't usually wear names on their backs so people like me can identify them.   But it was obvious that these three men and a boy seemed to know just about everything and everybody connected to the Green Bay team.

Matthew and Steve Woodfin in the locker room

That was the last we saw Matthew and his three companions though a couple weeks later his dad sent me the pictures of their trip.  He also wrote a letter to Zac, thanking him for his part in making his son's birthday so special.  Actually, I think the whole story is pretty special.   And just think, it all started with a name.

Cousin Nathan, Uncle Bob, Matthew, Dad Steve and Zac at Lambeau Field  

Monday, October 31, 2011

Watching the Credits

Larry and I took in a movie this week.  It's called  "Courageous," and it was produced  by the good people of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia.  They've done some pretty ambitious projects including "Facing the Giants" and "Fireproof."  They've obviously got some very talented people on staff there, people like brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick who write the screen plays, get the movies made and then somehow manage to get them distributed all over the United States.  Amazing what a couple of church guys can do, huh?

After the movie was over, Larry and I remained seated and watched the credits roll until the end. I'll admit, those were some of the most interesting I've ever seen.  I think everybody that lives in or has ever visited Albany, Georgia was listed including Jim Bob and Michele Duggar and their nineteen kids.  I'm not sure what they did, but they're there.  And I think everyone that brought in a nice home-cooked meal got their names on the big screen including  most of the Sunday school classes at Sherwood Baptist Church.  But the best part came towards the end when the dozens of  baby sitters who helped watch kids during those long, grueling months of film-making are recognized as well, a few seconds of film devoted just to them.      
There was a time I wouldn't have bothered with the credits.  They seem to take forever, and I thought it totally unnecessary to include all those hundreds of names.  Then in 2003 some big-time movie people decided to make a movie in our part of Alabama and put out a call for people who might like to be a part of it all.  I sent in my resume along with a picture and they called me within a week or so.  A few days later I drove to Montgomery to be fitted for my costume and get my assignment.  I would be filming for three days on a cotton farm about a forty-five minute drive from my house.  My only instructions were to wash my hair each night, set it in sponge rollers while it was still wet, sleep in them and wear them to the site.  Oh, and I wasn't to wear any makeup.          

It was still dark when I arrived at the farm that first morning.  There were signs pointing to the parking areas, and after I locked up my van, a shuttle took me and several others to a large tent set up in the middle of a cotton field.  We were encouraged to help ourselves to a nice breakfast that had been set out and after that proceeded to another tent for makeup and then on to another for our costumes.

Turns out I was hired as a background actor, my official title.  Okay,  I know I spoke no lines, was hired merely to fill in the landscape and got minimum wage.  But I must admit it made me feel good to have the word "actor" in my job description, especially as I stood on that Alabama river bank for three days in February in nothing but a skirt and a blouse and a blazer.  Those who live elsewhere assume that Alabama can't possibly get all that cold, even in the dead of winter.   Well, they're wrong.  It can and it was.  I was freezing as were all the others who stood in costume on the bank of the Coosa.  I shouldn't complain, at least I had long sleeves to protect me a bit from the wind cutting across that river.  I could have been one of the girls dressed in a strapless prom dress or a circus entertainer dressed in a leotard.  If it wasn't for those running out with blankets and setting up propane heaters between takes, I think we would have stood frozen in place until Spring came to thaw us out.

I came away from that experience with an appreciation for those who were working so hard behind the scenes, and in this particular movie, there were hundreds of them.  I would arrive at the set before daybreak, but the extras' coordinator and her helpers had  been checking people in as early as 4 a.m.  One crew had been preparing breakfast,  others were driving the shuttles back and forth, several were doing makeup and hair and getting everyone into costume while others were setting up for the day's shoots.  And who knows how late they had been working into the night, many surviving on just a few hours of sleep.   During the filming, as soon as the action stopped and cameras were being repositioned, people would suddenly appear with those blankets and heaters I mentioned while others would move quickly up and down the hill rearranging hair and checking makeup.  Then, just as quickly, everyone and everything would quickly disappear as the director began the count once again and called for the action to begin.

If you asked me the name of the film, who directed and what actors starred in it, I could spout their names off quickly.  But beyond that I can't tell you the name of the woman who cast me or the one who did my hair or those who helped fit me for my costume or wrapped me in a blanket during the coldest of those three days.  I no  longer remember them or even what they looked like.  They were simply people working behind the scenes, doing their jobs.

The movie did real well by the way.  It was even up for a couple of Academy Awards.  But don't look for my name in the credits.  Not everybody thinks like those people at the Sherwood Baptist Church. Actually, don't look for the names of any of the background actors.  We all knew that was just a fancy name for what we really were anyways.  Extras.  But the others, those working  behind scenes, doing their part to take a  story and visualize it for us,  their names are there.  And that's as it should be.  That's why I don't complain about all the time it takes to run those names after the movie has finished telling its story.   

A few years later, I got a phone call one night from one of the guys in our church in South Carolina.  "Marcy, is it true that you were in that movie 'Big Fish?'" he asked.  I told him it was true.  "I want you to know," he said.  "A few years ago I was at the end of my rope.  My life was going nowhere.  I was into drugs and alcohol big time, so I checked myself into a motel.  I turned the TV on and that movie was playing."   He paused for a moment.  "You know about my dad and all, how he died in prison for killing my mom.  I held a lot of anger and bitterness towards him."  He paused a moment.  "By the time the movie was over I was bawling.  That story helped me to get some stuff resolved where my dad was concerned.  Just wanted you to know."

Larry's talking about seeing  "Courageous" a second time.  I'm not sure yet if I'm going or not, but I'm tempted.  It's a good story and hopefully might help change some lives for the better.  And if I do, I think I just might hang around for a few minutes at the end.  I wouldn't mind watching the credits again.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


I'm still working through this thing called getting older.  I know, nowadays sixty is still considered relatively young, especially when you have so many living well into their eighties and nineties.  Still, the realization that I'm here at this juncture has me reflecting a bit more than usual on what I've done thus far and what it is exactly that I'd still like to accomplish during this latest chapter of my life.  I think it's easier to explain where I want to go if I reflect on where I've come from.  So what better place to start than near the beginning.
Kindergarten--I'm standing, second from right
I'll never forget Mrs. Slocum's kindergarten class or how shy I was,  too afraid to ask questions or speak what was on my mind.  I recall the crush I had on the cutest boy there,  but because some little red-headed, freckle-faced girl boldly announced to everyone that she liked the same boy,  he agreed that he would indeed be her boyfriend.  I still remember wishing that I'd had the same kind of courage that she did.  If so, perhaps he would have been my boyfriend instead of hers.  Actually, probably not.  But that little episode in my five-year-old life reminds me that I don't want to live in fear of what others might think.  I want to speak and live out my life with courage and confidence.    

Secondly, I don't want to get too comfortable in my little corner of  the world.  Our kindergarten classroom sat next door to Miss Smith's first-grade class.  I still have these few seconds of recall where I'm passing those first-graders in the hallway and feeling a sense of awe at their size, their maturity. I couldn't wait to get there.  As a five-year-old, I only saw what was close to me and anticipated only that which was directly ahead.  My world was pretty small back then and consisted of my family, a few neighborhood friends, my church and Mrs. Slocum's kindergarten class. As I became older, it got bigger of course.  Going to college a thousand miles from home, pastoring churches around the country, learning to speak Spanish and living in a third-world country, these challenging, and yet wonderful experiences grew me and enlarged my world.  I'll be honest, there's still a little part of me that wants to sit back and surround myself with things that are familiar, comfortable.  But how easy it would be to become complacent, just coasting along for the rest of my life and missing those wonderful adventures that God still has planned for me.     

The school bus dropping me off with my brother Rex  
Third, I don't want to be afraid of the "what ifs."  One day not too long after I started school,  I was sitting in the back seat of the bus heading home when I suddenly realized that the bus was completely empty except for me and the driver.  I ran down the aisle and tearfully told him that I had forgotten to get off with the others. He scolded me, told me to pay better attention and opening the door, let me off.  Fortunately he hadn't gone very far, but for weeks afterwards I was overwhelmed by the fear that I would forget to get off that bus. Even when I wasn't on the bus, I thought about what might happen if I should forget again.   I think back to how much time I wasted anticipating and fearing something that never happened.   I'm a grownup now, but I know how easy it is to fall into the worry trap, expecting the sky to fall at any moment.  I don't want to live there.

Fourth, I don't want the fear of failure to keep me from taking risks.  When I turned sixteen,  I was afraid every time I got behind the wheel of a car and froze when it was time to take my driving test.  I failed of course.   A year or so later I tried again.  And failed again.  I would take the test four times before I could finally stop renewing my permit and get a license.  When we moved to Honduras, I had to learn to drive stick on a Toyota double-cab truck if I wanted to get anywhere. The narrow roads, the absence of traffic lights, the myriad of buses and cabs and horse-drawn carts and bicycles weaving in and out of traffic absolutely terrified me. But Larry was patient, taking me out on Sunday afternoons, allowing me to practice shifting when the traffic wasn't so heavy.  Finally the day came when he had to leave for a two-week trip to Jamaica, and suddenly it was up to me to get our kids to school across town everyday.  I did it, and soon I was weaving in and out of traffic along with the rest of them.  Those past challenges  remind me that I don't want to come to the end of my life filled with regret because of the things I wanted to do but didn't because I was too afraid to go after them.  

Angela, Fawn and Joel in the back of the Toyota
Finally, I don't want to stop dreaming.  I want to believe that God still has great things in mind for me, but I won't discover what those things are if I don't keep moving forward.  To do that I have to take to heart the other goals I've set for myself:  to live my life courageously and with confidence,  to get out of my comfort zone, to quit worrying about the "what ifs" and take some risks.  Those things don't come natural for me as I am by nature a bit of a coward.  But with God's help, I can do and be all that He has placed within me.  After all, I left kindergarten a long time ago. 

Friday, September 30, 2011

With the Windows Down

Joel on his fourth birthday

I've always loved October best of all.  As a kid, I would rake up the leaves from the large maple that sat in the corner of our yard and throw them over the bank into the empty canal by our house.  Then a few of us would hike through the neighborhood, rakes in hand, asking neighbors if we could gather up theirs as well.  When we felt that we had enough, lining up one by one, we would jump into the wonderful piles of reds and yellows and oranges just a few feet below us, making twists and turns as we went, much like swimmers jumping into a pool.  The earthy smell of leaves and the sound and feel of them crackling beneath my feet stirs up such wonderful memories for me still.  It was and continues to be my favorite time of the year.

Therefore, when Angela my first daughter was born, it seemed somehow fitting that she should come in October.  She arrived during the second week, just a few days after my birthday.  The Pennsylvania trees were ablaze against the cloudless sky the day we drove home from the hospital with her, so Larry took the back way from Towanda to North Rome through the Endless Mountains with glorious vistas all the way.  Two years later, waiting just long enough for October to roll around again, Joel showed up on the first day of the month.  Fawn made her entrance three years later and Autumn, appropriately named, came four years after that.  And yes, they both made their appearances in October.

What used to be the most harried time of the year for me begins tomorrow.  My only son turns thirty-two.  A few days ago a card with a check enclosed went out,  not terribly personal I know, but he could use the money.  This will be the more personal gift to him, my words, which will come slowly and deliberately, because that's simply how I write.  I hope that he will value and treasure them more than anything monetary I could give.  He likes words, especially when they're written down, and he often expresses his own thoughts that way as well, but mostly in poetry.

Joel at eight years of age

Dear Joel:

A guy who writes poetry has to be pretty sensitive, but with that comes a certain vulnerability as well.  I remember the time you wrote something for a girl you liked in high school.  If I remember right, she returned it and told you she thought it was stupid.  Ouch. That must have hurt.  But that tender spirit has been with you since you were a young boy.   Do you remember packing up most of your toys while we were living in Honduras and carrying them down the street to Victor and his younger brothers and sisters?  After all, you figured they didn't have much, so why not give what you had.  And the year we were living in Pulaski,  you went with the youth group to help out at a soup kitchen in Syracuse.  You were so touched by the need that you dropped all the money you'd saved towards Christmas and put it in the offering bucket.  After our move to Alabama, you reached out to those on the fringe, the misunderstood, the troubled.  You even brought some of them home with you, a few of whom are still in your life.  I saw how you were down in the Bayou after Katrina hit, working in the relief effort.  I think it was then your father and I knew without a doubt that this is what you were made for, to serve.

This has been a hard year for you, one of the worst. I know there have been times when you didn't think you could survive it, didn't know if you wanted to.  But you have.  You've persevered, and with so many encouraging you, loving you and praying for you, you have made it this far.  Now it's your birthday.  All is new,  and there is no better time to reflect on and prepare for what's ahead.  It won't all be easy, but it will be good if you trust your Creator to work out the details. I want to remind you of something you wrote during the darkest of days:

How can I know the difference
In all these things that I've been shown
How do I end back up here
When I hate it ever so
My movement always halted
How will I ever grow
Will this cycle ever end
Or is it up to me to break it
New life always offered
Why do I refuse to take it
I swear this place away
Each and every time I'm here
Just feel, so, destined to fail
Yet each time becoming more clear
So I'll take this step, a tiny one
Not worried if I fall
I'll open my eyes and listen
So as not to miss the call
I'll open this broken heart of mine
Knowing it can fall right back apart
I'll pick myself up at any point
Just not quite sure where to start
I'll live this day, Just this day
And welcome what tomorrow brings
Just never again, these walls, this cage,
This pain, this death, this sting

The italics are mine, but the words are yours.  Open your eyes, listen with your ears and welcome the opportunities that your Heavenly Father brings your way.  Utilize the many gifts that He has given you, and begin to serve the "least of these."  Only you will know what that means.  Live each day in anticipation, and look forward to your tomorrows with expectancy.  And He will begin to show you what it is that you've been created for.

With the Windows Down 
            by Joel Burke

With the windows down
I hold back what I feel
Turn the volume down
No looks for the mood to steal
With the windows down
I can give the empty glance
Wait on the light to change
Then just give it the gas

And then the windows don't matter
No one else is around
Then it really doesn't matter
At my tone or my sound....
                                         With the windows down
                                          With the windows down

In my heart there's a yearning
For all the world's turning
Want to let my light shine
Against all of this burning
I can't even convey
The hurt of the day
Will just all blow away
When you hear my soul churning

And we share this short burst of life
With my heart so open wide
And you feel a piece of what I have
Of the one who lives inside

And in this day
I roll my windows down
This hurting world
Needs to hear the sound
So I will choose to sing
And take the looks I will
But in this hurting world
I will choose to still                
                                             Roll my windows down

 A Happy, Blessed Birthday Joel Keith.  I love you.  Mom

Joel with Larry, me and his sister Fawn in Alabama this past April 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Marva and the Peanut Butter

I'm really struggling with this patience thing lately.  I've got a couple people in my life who are really getting under my skin, stretching me to the max.  I have already written about Marva and the challenges she brought to my life.  (You can check it out on my blog posted March 11.)  I need to continue her story, however, because even though God had changed my heart towards her, He was continuing to process the fruit of patience in my life through her.  That took some time.  Here are some excerpts from my journal during our final few months in Honduras:   

March 4, 1993
Marva called out to me as I passed her home this afternoon.  "Wait Miss Marcia, " she called.  "You've got to see my little girl!"  She carefully, lovingly pulled an 8 by 10 glossy out of the folder she was holding and beamed as I admired the pretty teenager posing with her escort at a formal dance.  "That's my pretty black baby, Miss Marcia. She's growing so much.  What do you think of my Cindy, Miss Marcia?"

Cindy, the one person in Marva's life that gives her pride and determination to live another day.  In the hell of her unhappy life, there is Cindy.  What does it matter that she's not seen her for seven years.  Or that she lives in a different world, so far away from her mother.  She simply is.  She is the one thing that Marva has done right in her life.

March 7
Marva tried to reach her daughter in New Orleans again.  She has phoned collect four times in the past week, and every time the person on the other end says that she is not there.  I feel sorry for Marva.  She knows that they're probably lying.

She didn't leave right away.  I ended up pulling out photo albums and showing her pictures of our families back home.  And then right before she left she asked me, "Just a little favor."  She pulled out a plastic bottle, and I thought for sure she was going to beg some more Vaseline.  But not this time.  "Could I have just a little peanut butter?" she asks.

I would rather spare my Vaseline!  Peanut butter is this family's most precious commodity and I told her so.  But I pulled out my last jar and dished out a few tablespoons into her container.  Fawn had been standing there observing everything when suddenly Marva orders her out of the kitchen.  "Leave and don't be looking at me!" she says.  "I was raised as a little girl not to be hanging around the adults when they were having a conversation."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing.  No one was going to speak to my child like that in her own home.  I looked Marva directly in the face and told her that I was appalled.  Unless the conversation was a private one, Fawn had every right in the world to be in the kitchen.

You misunderstand, Miss Marcia!  I'm not telling your daughter to leave."

"Then exactly what were you saying?" I demanded.

"You misunderstand me," she kept saying.  "Oh, Miss Marcia.  You are "wexed" with me, aren't you?"  Pleased don't be "wexed" with me.  I'm just ashamed to have to ask for the peanut butter."

I responded that I was not vexed with her, but that if she was too embarrassed to have to ask me for the peanut butter, and if she couldn't ask for it in the front of my daughter, then she shouldn't have asked for it in the first place.  That woman!  She makes me so impatient and angry at times.

March 10
Marva was back to use the phone this morning.  Fortunately, it was just a local call to be made.  Afterwards it was, "Miss Marcia, could I just be asking a little something.  Just a little skin cream is all I be asking."  So I gave her some Vaseline Intensive Care and sent her on her way.

April 13
Marva came to use the phone, but I think she's lonely more than anything.  She always stalls and wants to talk.  And if she can manage it somehow, she gets something out of me.  Today she asked me for the leftover egg salad that she saw in the dog dish. "Could you let me have that, Miss Marcia?" she says.

At first I thought I had misunderstood.  Food out of a dog dish?  She was serious. "Marva, that's there for the dog.  He's already eaten a bit and it has dog food mixed in with it."

"It doesn't matter." Marva had nothing in the house to eat.  Her Mr. Albert would be bringing her something at the end of the day she assured me.  But in the meantime, she was hungry.  So I gave her half a loaf of bread.

April 15
I told Marva this afternoon that we were leaving this summer.  At first she misunderstood.  She thought I was speaking of vacation, but I explained that there was a good possibility that we would not be returning to Honduras and that someone else would be living in this house.  At first she didn't say a word.  Then the tears started down her cheeks and she began to rock back and forth.   Finally she said, "Oh Miss Marcia,  nothing good ever lasts."  She started talking about all the hurts and disappointments in her life.  Her mother had lavished her with gifts sent from the States when she was young.  Even as a teenager, her mother sent her beautiful dresses from California. "I was dressed the best of anyone in the whole Panayoti Store," she said.  "I had my teeth and I was an aristocrat.  Some day you'll see Miss Marcia.  I'll have my new teeth and wear shoes and pretty dresses again.  You'll see."  And then she paused.  "Nothing good ever lasts."

April 20
I lost it with Marva today.  She came over this morning to say that she was on her way to the emergency room.  She has a tremendous amount of pain in her back and sides and wasn't able to sleep all night.  It sounds like a possible kidney infection.  She had stopped by to see if someone was going to town and might be able to drop her off at the hospital, but since our car was in the shop this morning, that was impossible.

I admit that I get tired of seeing her everyday, and sometimes it is so difficult to get rid of her.  I kept trying to get her out the door telling her that the sooner she was at the hospital, the less time she would have to wait for admittance.  But she just didn't seem to be in any great hurry.  She told me that Mr. Albert had given her money for the emergency room.  Good!  But she needed a little more to take a taxi.  So that was it.

"Marva," I spoke not too kindly.  "Why can you never come here without asking me for something?"  And I pulled some change out of my purse and handed it to her.  But she refused to take it.  The look of shock on her face surprised me.  I didn't think that what I had said would affect her.  Then she began to cry.

"No,  I don't want the money.  Oh, Mr. Albert was right.  He told me that I shouldn't be asking you for things.  I feel so bad,  I feel so bad."

And then I felt bad!  It's not her fault that she's sick.  I hurt her very deeply by what I said.  I could have just said no and left it at that.

It took her several minutes to calm down and for the tears to stop.  I apologized repeatedly for what I had said, and as it turned out, she did finally take the money.  Humanly speaking, I suppose I was justified in what I said to her.  But in the spiritual realm, I was unkind and insensitive.  My past experiences with Marva have shown me that she is quick to forget when I have been rude or abrupt with her.  Hopefully, this time will be no exception.

April 21
Marva did come back yesterday afternoon to let me known that she just had a small infection.  I guess I'm forgiven.  Clark and Linda Huffer, good friends from Topeka, Kansas have come to work and be with us for a week.  She brought us several jars of peanut butter.  I took one to Marva, partially because I know she loves peanut butter, and also to let her known that I truly am her friend.

May 1
Marva was here three times today.  Larry should never have told her that his father is ill.  Besides wanting to use the phone now, she has to make at least one trip a day just to ask about how he's doing and to assure us that she's "always remembering him in her sweet prayers."

May 14 -The day after Larry called from the States to tell me his father had died:

I don't want to think right now.  I don't want any demands put on me.  Marva was ready to kill both her neighbor and Mr. Albert last night.  She had a crowbar ready, stowed underneath her porch.  But it's as if she knows I can talk her out of her anger.  So she came looking for me, seething with rage.  I walked to her home and found her almost irrational.  She was so angry, pacing back and forth, unable to stand still.  I never did fully understand why she had murder in mind, but "her enemy" had blatantly insulted her, and Mr. Albert did not come to her defense. So she was going to do them both in.

Emotionally, I was exhausted. I didn't feel like talking her out of killing her neighbor and Mr. Albert.  I don't think I even prayed for wisdom this time.  Finally, when she decided to take a breath I said, "So you'll be just like them, Marva."  And I said the same thing three times.

She looked at me.  "What do you mean, Miss Marcia?"

"Jesus could have have lashed out at those who hurt him, Marva.  He's God.  He could have destroyed them.  But he didn't do a thing.  You'll be just like them, Marva.  Just like them."

"Just don't do anything, Miss Marcia?" she stood there with her toothless mouth hanging open.

"Don't do anything Marva."  And with that I left.

She was at my house early this morning.  "Oh Miss Marcia.  Thank you so much for keeping me from killing my neighbor and Mr. Albert.  I just got the news that my brother is here!  He's coming to see me today, and if you could lend me four lempiras to get a cab to buy some different clothes so I could be seeing him looking all nice, Miss Marcia!"

Well, at least for today Marva is thinking about other things.  For today, she's "normal."  And just maybe she'll not think about killing anyone for a long time.  At least not until I am gone from here.

May 23
Marva showed up at church tonight!  She has said all along that she would be there some evening before we leave.  I must admit that I really didn't believe she'd come through.  But she did, she did.  God bless her.

A Postscript:
Larry and I would see Marva once more when we returned a few years later on a ministry team.  On finding out that we were coming, she sent a letter with a list of items that she needed.  I still have that letter asking for a blanket, some sheets,  a black or brown sweater, a pair of size 12 shoes, some skirts, blouses, a bottle of perfume, some curtains for her front window and two jars of  peanut butter.  Larry and I packed up what we could between our two suitcases.  She was extremely pleased.  

About six months later we received a letter from the missionaries who had moved into the mission house and had become Marva's neighbors.   It's postmarked June 6, 1998.  Here's a bit of it:

Dear friends....We wanted to let you know of the death of Marva, our neighbor.  She entered the hospital Atlantida (government-run, deplorable conditions) for a month for treatment of a long-term infection in her leg.  When she came out, she was having trouble breathing-shortness of breath.  Though she received some treatment for her breathing problems, she died waiting for money from her uncle, so she could go to D'Antoni or Centro de Salud....So much of her life was sad.  Your family's care for her was a source of much encouragement.  Her daughter Cindy did not see her before she died though she had been notified of Marva's illness.  Sorry to be the bearer of sad news, but we thought you would want to know of her death.

Final Thoughts:
I still think of Marva, especially when the demands of people or ministry begin to wear on me.   I recall my sadness at the news, but I also know that I had no regrets where she was concerned.  There will always be the Marvas in my life. I just pray the lessons learned during those years will stay with me, and that when I'm called upon to give up something precious, kind of like that peanut butter, I will do it in a way that pleases my Father.

This picture was taken in La Ceiba, Honduras in 1997.  This was the last time I saw my friend Marva.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Piano

Last week there was some catastrophic flooding going on not too far from here.  The county right to the south of us got hit real bad and to our west there are lots of homes and businesses that were under water as well.  They've got some work ahead of them:  cleaning up, drying out and then rebuilding.  I know. Our family was in the same place once.

It was the summer of 1972 and my dad was about to complete an extensive remodeling project on our home.  The house was well over a hundred years old when we moved there in 1956 and it needed lots of work.  He started by working on the bedrooms upstairs then progressed  to the ground floor.   He tackled the bathroom first, then went on to the kitchen.  I still remember my mom preparing food in the garage where my dad had set up her appliances.   I'm not sure how long she cooked out there,  but it was probably for several weeks, especially considering how much had to be done.  My father had saved the living room for last, and he was just within days of finishing.  The wall paper had been replaced with new wood paneling, and where the linoleum once was,  there was now gold-shaded carpet.  All it needed was to be secured and the baseboards put in place.  What had been started so long ago was almost done.

It was Thursday, June 22nd.   I was in the dining room playing our old upright piano when I saw my mother walk through with a couple of lamps, heading towards the stairs.  We had attended a concert at church earlier that evening but there weren't many there.  It had been raining for several hours, and there was news of some possible flooding.  It was still coming down hard when we got home.   I got up off the piano bench and started carrying things upstairs, still not quite believing that all this hauling was necessary.  I didn't know it, but that would be the last time I would ever sit on that bench or play that old piano. Within an hour, water from the Allegany began to fill our neighborhood forcing us to make a hasty retreat for our neighbors who lived across the way.  They were lucky, they had the wonderful fortune of living on a hill.

Hurricane Agnes had hit with a vengeance.  After the waters receded and the damage was accessed, it would prove to be the costliest storm up to that time in U.S. history.  All I knew was that our little street in Weston's Mills was a mess.  As soon as they were able, the firemen came through and starting at the one end of Chestnut Street, turned their high-powered hoses on and began the task of forcing the several inches of mud out of each home.  The piles of water-logged couches, worthless appliances and anything else that couldn't be salvaged was piled up at the end of each driveway waiting for the trucks to come through and haul it all away.

There is a picture somewhere that shows our newly-laid carpet rolled up on top of the piano.  It was naturally longer than the old upright and one end is shown hanging over the side.  The part that hangs is wet and dirty, the rest is clean and dry.  Thanks to my father's quick thinking and the height of that instrument,  the carpet was saved.  Not too many days later he hauled it up to a friend's yard, spread it out and thoroughly cleaned it.  Several months later he laid it once again, but this time he tacked it down, securing it firmly into place. He had finally finished the job.

The hardest thing to remove from the house was the piano.  Naturally it was heavy, the old uprights were never easy to move.  But it was more than that.  It had a history.  It sat in my grandparents' home for many years,  having been purchased by my mother for her youngest brother and sister, both several years her junior.  My grandfather was crippled, unable to afford such a luxury.  But my mother saw the potential in both of them and somehow knew they needed this. My aunt told me recently that it could easily have been her salvation, keeping her occupied for hours and away from things that could have been potentially harmful.

For me, it was the first one I played and loved.  Whenever we went to see my grandparents, my favorite thing to do was sit at the piano, at first playing what I could by ear and eventually adding songs from my lesson books.  I had been taking lessons for awhile when the piano was moved from the little house in Farmer's Valley to our place in Weston's Mills.  There was no comparison between the ordinary upright I had been using to the instrument that now sat in the dining room.  It had the most wonderful touch and tone,  for me it was perfection and an absolute delight to play.  And I did, everyday.

My sister thinks it was my Uncle Glade who helped my dad push the piano to the end of the driveway.  I wasn't there, but I had touched it for one last time shortly after it was taken out of the house.  It's been almost forty years, and still that moment stands out more than any other.  I reached down as if to play a note, and the key broke away beneath my finger.  I had expected to hear something come out of it, but there was nothing.  No sound, just silence.  Later, my mother watched as the piano was wheeled away from the house to the trash pile. The two men had just a few more feet to go when suddenly music came out from deep within the belly of that old worn and weary piano.  One last time.  And it was at that moment my mother saw my father cry.

A few weeks after the flood, my mother asked me to go for a ride with her one evening.  We ended up at a home where there was a spinet piano for sale, and she wanted me to try it out.  I said it would do, and she wrote out a check for four-hundred dollars that same night.  It was the first major thing I remember her replacing for our home, for me.  At least I thought so at the time.  But maybe it was for all of us.  Because in the midst of what must have seemed insurmountable, she knew that we needed the music again.

The little spinet sat in the newly remodeled dining room for several years.  My sister Dawn has it in her home in Maryland now.  It's fine with me, as I was never particularly attached to it anyways.  It fulfilled its purpose.  It brought the music back and kept our home filled up with it for a long, long time.  As for me,  I've had several pianos since then including a couple spinets, some nice consoles and even a medium grand.  But I don't miss any of them.   It's only that old upright that graced our home until the rising waters silenced its song that still holds my heart. 

This is my young neighbor Stacy Lowe playing the piano at our house several summers before Hurricane Agnes.