Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Shoe Box for John

John

The lady handed me a check after the service that morning saying she wanted to help out with Operation Christmas Child, a ministry that sends hundreds of thousands of Christmas gifts to underprivileged children in third-world countries.   I'd never met her before, she was from out of town,  visiting with her mother on that particular Sunday.  The video we had shown that morning had obviously moved her.  "My husband died recently," she said.  "I'd like to do this in part to honor his memory."  My mouth dropped open when I looked at the amount.   This was going to fill a lot of shoe boxes.

We had spent several minutes filling the cart at the dollar store.  As Larry emptied the contents onto the counter I engaged in small talk with the cashier.  She had grumbled a moment before to a coworker about things not being put back where they belonged from the night before.  An older woman, she looked tired, as if taking this job had come out of pure necessity.   She mumbled about the disrespect she suffered on this job from some of the other workers.  I needed to lighten the atmosphere and commented that the items she was ringing up were all going into shoe boxes to be sent to needy children, most of whom had never received a Christmas present before.   But there was no lightening the mood of this woman.  "Well, I certainly hope they're staying here," she retorted.   "We have enough children in our own country who need help.  We don't need to be sending them somewhere else."  She brought up the recent storm that had created such havoc to the east of us in New Jersey.  I reassured her that I'd no doubt that various agencies and faith-based groups would make sure they were covered.  She continued to frown as we beat a hasty retreat for the doorway with our dozen or so bags.

One Christmas many years ago we stopped at the home of Rojelio and Argentina in La Julia, one of the poorest barrios in La Ceiba, Honduras.  As we entered their simple two-roomed house with its dirt floors,   I noticed nothing there that set that particular day apart.  No tree, no lights, no gaily wrapped packages.  It was in such sharp contrast to the mission house that we had just left with its colorful decorations and the newly-opened gifts that my children had been enjoying throughout the day.   Rojelio and Argentina hadn't seen the looks of delight or heard the cries of pure pleasure coming from their three boys as we had experienced that morning with our own children.

If there is anything I came away with from those years of seeing such blatant poverty, it was a profound sense of gratitude and humility at the privileges I had received because of where and to whom I had been born.   Day- to- day survival was not a concern for my parents.   But for Rojelio and Argentina, having enough food, medicine when needed and an adequate shelter for their growing family was all-consuming.   Having money left over to buy a few Christmas gifts was the farthest thing from their minds.

Back to the lady in the dollar store.  If there hadn't been other customers waiting in line behind us, I think I might have told her a bit about Argentina and her little two-roomed house with its dirt floors and no indoor plumbing.   And if there was time,   I'd go on to tell the story of Antonia and her family of five that lived in a tiny shack beside the river where they bathed and drew their drinking water.  I would remind her that because of the privileges offered her,  she will have a certain amount of money guaranteed her when she retires and her medical needs met as well,  so unlike the elderly and the disabled and the disadvantaged in other places that survive by whatever means they can,  sometimes doing odd jobs but mostly by begging in the streets.   I would remind her that no country in the world takes care of its own better than we do,  and that same generosity has always and should continue to extend beyond our borders. Whether she approves or not. 

Larry and I filled eighteen more containers after leaving the dollar store that afternoon.  We knew that each one equated with that  many more boys and girls in far off places having the joy of opening a gift meant specifically for them, possibly for the first time in their life.  And that in turn could easily bring the spirit of Christmas to an entire family.

A couple of years ago I received a letter from a grandmother in Africa who was raising her grandson, John.  He had received one of the shoe boxes that I had packed up a few months earlier.  She introduced herself, told a little about her family and then concluded her letter with this.  "Thank you for the gift you sent John," she wrote. "He was so happy, and I know that he received the gift that was meant just for him."   She had enclosed two pictures, the first of an eight-year old boy with a big toothy grin holding a package.  Yes, it was definitely from us,  I recognized the blue and white wrapping covered with snowmen.   The second photo was a family shot,  John's family.  He stands front and center surrounded by those closest to him.  They are dressed in their best, their love and support evident.  And their gratitude.

John's family
 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Paper Trail


I am not a collector of stuff.   Though I do have a few special trinkets, paraphernalia from our years in Central America and some special possessions given as gifts over the years,  we don't have a lot of non-necessities in our home.  As much as I hate to move, and I've done it enough, I've seen each major change as an opportunity to simplify my life.   I've always been this way.  My mom loved clean but didn't mind a few extra things lying around, her dining room table was ample proof of that.  Even as a kid I took it upon myself to keep that table cleared as much as possible, a never-ending task with four younger brothers and sisters who couldn't have cared less at that time. 
 
Larry has worked well with me on my need for tidiness over the years.  Well, that is except for his tendency to leave a paper trail wherever he goes. He'll write phone numbers and bits of information on tiny scraps of paper and leave them all around the house.  When I find them, often days or weeks later, he doesn't usually have a clue as to what they are.  Every once in awhile I'll commit the unpardonable sin, going into his office and peeking into or under his desk.  There is always paper, piles of it.  He seems to love the stuff: sermon notes, minutes from board meetings,  personal reminders, emails, letters.  You name it, it's there.

Then there are the boxes stowed away in our attic full of old bank statements, utility bills and the like.  The thought of all that paper makes me shudder.   I have mentioned more than once that I'd love to take a week off,  get a high-powered shredder and start eliminating it all.  But this is one of those subjects that has created some tension in our marriage, and I have learned to tread a bit more carefully when broaching the subject.  So I figured that if he goes to his reward first,  one of the first things I'd do is turn my music up full blast and start shredding away.  But if I were to precede him, I fear they would remain where they are.  I can just see my poor children opening those boxes and throwing their arms up in the air, wondering why their father hung onto all that stuff for all those years, leaving them to do all the work of sorting through. 
 
That brings me to today, our anniversary.  Thirty-six years ago I married a tall, skinny seminary student who is ridiculously romantic and terribly sentimental.  I'm neither.  So for example, if he's going to get me flowers, he's learned that I'd prefer a single rose over a dozen.  I reason that since they're going to eventually die anyways, why spend all that money?  This is what he's had to contend  with all these years, an overly practical wife.    
 
I had already had my coffee and watched almost an hour of news when he came shuffling down the steps this morning.  "I know what I'm giving you for an anniversary gift this year," he said.  "I'm going to start shredding those boxes of papers for you."  An hour or so later I heard the scraping of heavy objects being dragged across the attic floor and then the plod of heavy feet coming down two flights of stairs and then out the door to the office next door to begin that monumental task.  Except for a few hour's break in the afternoon to take in a meal and do a little shopping, Larry has spent almost the entire day on my anniversary gift.  
 
Lots of couples say they have a special song that they've chosen for their own, music that expresses how they feel about each other.  We've never had that, one song that connects the two of us.  But today I heard music, and though there were no words, the humming of the melody from behind the office door was all I needed to know that he loves me. 
 
Then
 
More Recently
 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Mom and The Fourth of July

   
  

My mom would be turning 90 this year.  A lot of August 29ths have passed since she died more than 15 years ago, and there have been a few times that I've simply let the day go by without hardly giving it a thought.  I'm kind of bad about birthdays that way.  Sometimes I remember, sometimes I don't.  If my four kids weren't all born the same month I might forget theirs, but I get them all over with and then have eleven months break before I have to remember again.  It's easier that way.

There are other days, however, when I can't stop thinking of her, especially holidays.  She loved them all, perhaps in part because she enjoyed her kitchen and loved to bake, and what's a holiday without a few pastries and other goodies lying around?  She made the most delectable mincemeat pie with the flakiest of crusts sprinkled lightly with sugar for Thanksgiving, and the special fruit salad and popcorn balls that she and my dad made every Christmas have become traditions with my own family.  Memorial Day and Veterans'  Day weekends were excuses to make her decadent, walnut-filled chocolate brownies and ever-popular carrot cake.  I've never found a better recipe for either, and as I follow the instructions written in her own hand, I remember her and wish she were here to show me how to roll out the perfect pie crust for my strawberry-rhubarb pie.  I have yet to roll it out in a perfect circle like she was able to do with so little effort.

Yep, my mom loved the holidays and I'm pretty sure that food had a good part to do with it.  She enjoyed everything about it, the preparation as well as the eating.  Even the many letters she wrote to me over the years, and I have hundreds of them, include details on what she had prepared for dinner during that week.  I would say there's probably only a handful that don't have some mention of food in them.  My sister reminded me that she didn't like using the oven during the hot days of summer, but even so, she'd always manage to whip up some homemade biscuits for strawberry shortcake when the berries were in season.  And when the Fourth of July came round she was more than willing to put up with a hot kitchen to have a platter of Ol' Henry bars or a cake on the dessert table.

I never thought to ask my mom which was her favorite.  I imagine Christmas and Thanksgiving were right up there, but the day I miss her the very most is July 4th.  My mom loved America about as much as she loved us.  She couldn't get through the National Anthem without tears or see an American flag without placing her hand on her heart.  And if a flag passed by during a parade or a marching song was being played that stirred her, she would always stand to attention for a few moments.

I was in Alabama the winter she died.  She'd been sick for a long time, so when I got word that she was gone I felt mostly relief that it was over for her.  In fact, I was amazed at how well I was handling her death during those first months.  Of course I missed her, especially the phone calls and letters, but all in all I was doing pretty well.  And then July 4th came.  The day was full of activities: a pool party, a picnic, lots of people, lots of food.  But when I returned home that evening, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness and loss.  Memories of past years' celebrations came flooding into my mind and I longed for those times again.  And I longed for my mother.

I'll be traveling home in a few days to spend the Fourth with my family.  We'll picnic at my brother's in Olean and go to Bradner's Stadium in the evening to watch the fireworks.  We'll get there a bit early and sit on the field on blankets and lawn chairs anticipating that moment when the sun drops over the horizon and the display of lights and sparkle begins.  But first, right when it's almost time, the Star-Spangled Banner will come through the speakers.  All will stand to their feet and some will hold their hands to their hearts.  It is then I will remember and stand all the prouder, grateful for my nation and my heritage.  It is especially at that moment I will miss her and wish she could be there. 



Friday, October 12, 2012

Kathy


My friend Kathy's birthday would have been today. We were just a week apart in age and both of us lived on Chestnut Street in Weston's Mills.  I rarely got out of school for mine, only if it happened to fall on a weekend.  But she on the other hand never had to go to school when hers came around.  That's because she had the wonderful fortune of being born on the same date that Christopher Columbus bumped into a continent that hadn't been discovered yet and made it a national holiday.  I'll admit, at times I was a bit envious of her and wished that America could have been found on some other day,  like a week earlier maybe. 


When we were young we spent a lot of time together.  Because we were so close in age and only a few houses apart we just naturally sought each other out when needing something to do.  The Christmas we were ten we both got Mattel's Lie Detector Game.  We couldn't get enough of it, playing it as often as we could.  She never made it through the whole night at my house, she'd always get homesick.  But I'd sometimes stay overnight at the Williams where we'd sit in the middle of the kitchen floor for hours trying to figure out who'd committed the crime.  I still have mine by the way.


Most of the homes on Chestnut and Mill Streets in Weston's had kids, so there were often whole groups of us playing together. Certain games went with certain yards.  We used the Cassada's place for dodge ball because they had a side walk that divided their front yard in half.  Our place worked best for football and kickball and the Reese's field was perfect for baseball.  But one of our favorites was the gentler, quieter game of Mother May I.  That one was always reserved for the side yard at the Williams' house.  As for Wintertime, there was still plenty to do. Sledding, making snowmen and building fortresses kept everyone occupied.   And there was always the Mill Pond.  Kathy was a natural on skates, much better than I.  We spent hours there,  our absolute favorite thing to do during those cold months. 


But we didn't always get along. We were both bossy, liked to get the last word in and and have our own way.  At times our relationship was a bit strained.  I remember one day in particular  where we had a horrible argument  after getting off the bus and somehow ended up in my neighbor's yard.  It escalated to where Kathy took her metal lunch pail and hit me as hard as she could over the head.  I followed it up with a hard shove, pushing her into Sally Cassada's flowerbed that ran right next to the house. It was not one of our better moments. 


We were also pretty different.  She came from a family of all girls.  I didn't.  Her dad was Irish, so they were good Catholics, the kind that didn't eat meat on Fridays. When I had dinner at their house they always did this strange thing with their hands after saying grace and had a medal of some saint hanging in their car.  My family was Protestant.  She liked Elvis Presley and had his posters hanging on her bedroom walls.  I was more into Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music. She was athletic and played intramural sports at school and she could do a great cartwheel.  I couldn't get much beyond a somersault.   I played in the band and auditioned for school plays, stuff that didn't interest her all that much.  By high school we were pretty much doing our own thing, and the only time I saw her was on the bus.


I went off to college for a year then decided to take some time off and find work.  That year turned out to be one of the hardest of my life, a second-shift plant job in an environment that was completely foreign to me.  Kathy just happened to be working in that same place and reached out to me almost immediately, ready to pick up where we had left off.  I grabbed hold, needing a friend and grateful that it was her.  


A year later I was back in school almost a thousand miles away.  I was glad, relieved to be gone from the place, but I missed my friend.  Our friendship had gone to a deeper level this time, far beyond Mother May I and playing games on the kitchen floor.  I'd been teaching children's Bible classes at the school throughout the year.  She'd gone with me a few times and with that came questions about my faith and why I believed as I did.   When I came home for Christmas a few months later she said she'd been waiting for me, that she was now ready to give her life to Christ. When I told her that she could have done that on her own, she said that it was important I be there. I was honored.  Humbled.    


Kathy had already been married for a few years when I met Larry and married during his senior year of seminary. Kathy wrote from New York and said she and her husband would love to take a little vacation and come to see us for a few days.  We were living in Wilmore, Kentucky in seminary housing in a very small apartment.  It had just one bedroom so we put the two of them on a sofa bed in the living room.  Kathy was concerned.  She knew that to use the bathroom she'd have to walk through the bedroom. Larry assured her not to worry, just to come right through.  Nothing would wake him up anyways, so he said.  He'd be sleeping like a baby.


I was suddenly awakened when a loud yell came from our bed followed by a horrible scream.  Larry had opened his eyes to see a white ghostly figure slowly making its way across the room.   As he hollered the startled apparition in the white nightgown began to scream back.  "I thought you were a ghost!" He was still shaking.  And then she started to laugh,  a wonderful loud belly laugh that went on and on, and the next day she was still laughing.  All these years later I still laugh out loud when I think about it.      


Kathy the morning after she scared Larry half to death
I saw Kathy several times over the following years.  I always felt that she was a much better friend to me than I ever was to her.  When I'd get back home for a visit she'd always try to see me.  When I came home for my brother's and dad's funerals she was there.  When she remarried, she made arrangements for me to meet her husband Kevin and to see her new home.  I spent an evening with her there.


I was living in South Carolina when I got the call from my brother Rex.  Kathy was gone, a blood infection of some kind had taken her life.   She'd had some serious health issues resulting from a botched surgery a few years earlier, but I'd never expected this.  I grieved as if I'd lost my own sister.


When I was a kid you always knew when it was suppertime at the Williams' house.  That's because Kathy's dad would stand outside when it was time to eat and call her home. Sometimes we were right in the middle of something and I'd wish she could just stay a few more minutes. But she never hesitated, not even once. She'd drop whatever she was doing and start down the road.  Going home.  There was no one with a voice like that.  It would boom and everyone in Weston's Mills would hear it.  The Father calling his daughter home.  

Monday, October 8, 2012

Her Name is Fawn


Fawn came home from the hospital in this outfit 

My third child turned thirty years old today.  Her name is Fawn.  I've only met a couple of other people in my lifetime with the same name, and one of them had a rather peculiar spelling.  But it seems to fit her well.  If everyone was matched up with a particular animal on the basis of appearance, she could easily be described as a deer with her slender build, long-legs and big doe-like eyes.  Where her name's concerned, I'd say her dad and I got it right.  But we almost didn't.

Fawn seems to always be running a bit late.  When she calls she'll usually preface the conversation with "Mom, I'm running late."  In fact, of all four of my children, she was the only one that came after she was due.  The first two both arrived on the exact day and her little sister had the courtesy to show up early.  But Fawn arrived five hours after midnight, the day after.  No, she wasn't terribly late, she never is.  Just a little late.  I still remember my mother's call the evening before asking if my labor had started.  Nope, not yet.  She confidently assured me that I'd have my baby by the next day.  She was right.  I called her early the next morning to tell her that she had a new granddaughter.  She wasn't even the least bit surprised.
When I gave that final push during that early morning hour and heard we had a girl, I knew what we would call her, a name I'd loved since I first heard it while in college.  It belonged to one of the most striking girls on campus and had fit her perfectly.  When I called my mother that morning to tell her that we had a new little girl, she already knew her name.  In fact, it wasn't a surprise to anyone.  We'd told most everyone the names we'd picked out, both for a boy and a girl.

The name wasn't received well by some of our church people.  I attributed it to the area.  Bradford County is made up of mostly country folk, so I assumed they preferred more traditional things, including names.  Whatever.  I still liked it.  And besides,  they'd get used to it.  It would grow on them over time.   But the response of one especially close friend still bothered me.  "If you have a little girl, I'll love her," she had told me.  "But I'm not sure I'll be able to call her by her name."  Ouch.

As I held that new little baby girl in my arms on that first day, I called her by the name I had held on reserve all those years. But I was uneasy, something didn't feel right.  When Larry came in that evening I told him that I was thinking we might want to rethink this whole name thing. As much as I loved what we'd chosen,  I needed for others to like it as well. I asked him to bring me the  baby book of names from the house.
I hadn't remembered putting a star by the name Fawn in the little paperback.  But there it was.  I stared at it for a moment then ran it over my tongue.  It sounded right.  I continued to look through the book noting what else I had highlighted at some point in my pregnancy,  but I was only half-reading.  I sensed that I'd already found the right one,  certainly not as common as some might like, but one our friends could learn to live with.  When Larry later walked into my room,  I showed him what I had found.  "And we could use your mother for the middle name," I said.  He smiled. 

My friend Tina Laudermilch stopped at a children's boutique in Towanda, bought a little outfit and brought it to the hospital just a few hours before we were both to be released.  I opened the wrapping to find a red velvet outfit with puffed sleeves and a little white collar. "I thought you might like to have something new for her to wear going home," she said.   I felt the soft fabric and then reached to tear off the cardboard tag that was attached to the sleeve.  I couldn't believe my eyes!  I asked Tina if she'd looked at the tag.  She shook her head.  There imprinted was the picture of a deer, and above that in large bold-print letters was the word FAWN.

  
I have told my daughter many times the story of her name and how we chose it.  She has used it now  for thirty years and has thanked me over and over for not staying with the original.  She's not all that crazy about it either.   Actually, it's thirty years minus one day, for in the archives of one particular newspaper, she is known by another name, the one she had for that entire first day.  After I called my mother,  she contacted the Olean Times Herald that very morning and had a birth announcement placed in the paper.  It's in print that on that very day,  Friday, October 8, 1982, I gave birth to a daughter, Love Lee. 



Fawn all grown up.  She has lived up to BOTH of  her names!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Rex



I traveled to Olean a couple of weekends ago for a birthday party.  It was a big one.  My brother Rex turned 60.   His wife Gale rented the pavilion at War Vets Park right across  from Bradner's Stadium, our favorite place to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July.  It seemed fitting.  Rex has always loved to watch things explode,  especially when they're high overhead splattering the sky with color.  There's no one I'd rather watch with than my half-man, half-child brother who shouts out in pure delight and joy at the best of them, his eyes never once leaving the sky.  A couple of years back he had the audacity to go to a major league baseball game on that day and watched the fireworks from the stadium there.  He said they were awesome, some of the best he'd ever seen.   But for me, that day wasn't quite the same.  



I still remember this washtub from my grandparents' house
 

Rex came along just thirteen days short of my first birthday.  We didn't always get along during those growing up years.  My younger brother Karl was pleasant and easy going.  Rex, on the other hand, was much more intense.  If I annoyed or upset him, which seemed to be quite often, he'd give me a good punch to the stomach, knocking the wind out of me and putting me to the ground.

We were still getting got along when this was taken

 
But occasionally we got along.  One of our favorite things was to go down into the canal that ran by our house and look for snakes and lizards.  One day we picked up a piece of sheet metal and were suddenly set upon by a swarm of yellow jackets.  I immediately went one way, he went another.  I came through the incident unscathed,  but Rex wasn't so lucky.  In no time he was covered with ugly red welts from the angry bees' stingers.  My mother, hearing the screams, came flying from the house, snatched him up and ran for the driveway where she proceeded to thoroughly roll him in a mud puddle.  Obviously he survived. 

Speaking of puddles, another incident I specifically remember involved a live lobster that my dad was going to prepare for dinner after he got home from work one night.  A meat cutter with five kids doesn't generally include lobster in his food budget, this was a luxury.  But Rex managed to spoil it for all of us when he got a hold of the crustacean and decided to take it for a swim after a good rain. I never heard my mother use one curse word her entire life, but I doubt she was ever closer than she was on that particular day.    I wasn't anywhere near when my father got home from work that night, but he never brought another one home.  It would still be several years before I'd get to taste my first lobster.  I had my brother to thank for that.

 
Karl would grow up to be the good brother

We loved to fish as kids, and nobody more than Rex.  We'd often walk to Haskell Creek with our poles and spend a couple hours just waiting for a bite. Honesty, I don't ever remember catching a fish in that place. I don't know if any of my siblings ever did either, but we spent more hours there than I could probably count.  One particular day I was standing high on the creek bank with my two brothers when Rex pulled back on his pole and gave it a hard yank, wanting to cast his line out past the trees and into the water below.  As the line jerked forward, I suddenly felt a sharp tug at my upper lip and then heard the snap of the fishing line. There, dangling from my mouth, was his hook and an entire worm, still intact.  First stunned and then upset, I begged him to ride home with me.  But fishing in a creek where we never caught anything obviously came first.  He refused.  But the good brother had ridden on ahead and my mother was waiting for me in the car as I pulled my bike into the driveway.  It would be several days before the swelling would go down because of the stitches,  and for the longest time there was a little bump on my upper lip where the hook had lodged itself, a continual reminder of that day and of my horrible brother.

I'm not sure if over time that little bump simply faded away or if just became so insignificant that I no longer noticed it.  No matter.  That's often how relationships evolve between siblings.  I grew up,  he did the same.  The crises of childhood somehow faded, no longer all that important. I'm not sure  when it was that I began to see my brother as a friend.  I just know that it happened.

Rex and his co-counselor at Circle C Ranch after a ride down a mudslide  
Around eight years ago I noticed that Rex was slowing down.  A lot.  Always full of energy, he was considered the fun uncle.  He loved  baseball, amusement parks and roller coasters and would often  set off  his own private stash of fireworks to the delight of his nieces and nephews.  One day I watched as he put on his jacket, it was as if he were moving in slow motion.  Something was very, very wrong.  We pushed him to see a doctor.  It was Parkinson's. 

When you don't see someone very often, you can't help but notice the changes.  Medications  help, but they don't heal, so he moves somewhat slower, tires more easily,  talks softer.   But he seems to take it all in stride and continues to see his life as blessed and lives it to the fullest.  

Oh, by the way, when I got to the party the first person Rex insisted I meet was some Bona's basketball player.  Rex is probably the biggest St. Bonaventure basketball fan out there.  He never misses a home game and is known by all the players and most of the people in the stands as the flag man.  That's because he has flags representing all the countries that these young players come from and waves them when they're on the floor.  He's even been written up in the newspaper and has been featured on the news. 


There's no bigger St. Bonaventure basketball fan than Rex


Rex has always been a bit crazy for sports.  He knows the teams, the players, the stats.  From the time he was a kid trading baseball cards he's loved the Yankees, and when baseball season is over, he's totally immersed in keeping up with his football team, the Buffalo Bills.   And then there's his beloved Bonnies that kick their basketball season off just as football is winding down. 

The party was scheduled from two o'clock to five.  It wasn't hard to see how tired he was, but there was someone else he wanted me to meet.  One of the bosses from work had come to congratulate Rex on his milestone birthday.  Rex is the manager of the frozen food and dairy department of a large grocery store in Olean, a physically demanding job.  And cold.  The last time I was there he was wearing gloves as he loaded up the ice cream freezer. He sometimes goes in early and often stays late.  It takes him longer nowadays.  But he likes to work and says he wants to do it as long as he possibly can.  He's well-liked and respected there. I can understand why.     

Five o'clock came and we began to take down the decorations and gather up the food and gifts.  We needed to head home, but Larry loaded some of the stuff into our car to drop off at the house on the way out of town.  We found the living room already full of people, some who had come a long ways to share this special day with Rex, and I knew that though the party was officially ended, the celebrating would continue on for a bit longer.   I hope that someone thought to set off a few fireworks in the backyard as the sun dropped behind the horizon.  There's nothing Rex would have liked more.

Rex in his Bills' jacket among his family
 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Singing

It's been over ten months since I last went to New York for the injections that let my vocal cords work. The best part is that I've been able to sing during most of that time.  I'm going back in a couple of weeks because the spasms are slowly starting to return, but amazingly, I can still sing some harmony.  I think this would be a good time to repost what I wrote almost two years ago:  
 
When I asked my voice doctor in Atlanta if I would ever sing again, he guaranteed with the treatments I would be speaking almost normally again.  And he was right.  A few weeks after the muscles on either side of my vocal cords were injected with botox, I was speaking again.  If someone didn't know that I have spasmodic dysphonia, they wouldn't have realized that I have a voice disorder.  But he offered me no hope where my singing was concerned.  The vocal cords work harder to sing than to talk, and it was highly unlikely that I would ever sing again.  And as grateful as I was to finally speak without forcing almost every word, I missed the singing terribly.

I remember reading the story of Dave Dravecky, a professional baseball player who lost his pitching arm to cancer.  He wrote in his autobiography about the deep grief he experienced during that time.  And though this thing in my brain that makes my vocal cords go spastic is not life threatening, the grief was just as real as if I had lost a limb.  I used to wonder what it would be like if I could no longer play the piano or hear music.  But to think hypothetically of losing my voice, the thought was just never there.  So when it happened, I was completely unprepared.

I imagine there are times when Dave dreams that he's playing ball again, throwing the fast ones.  I know, because I have the occasional dream where I am singing again.  I used to dream as a kid about flying down the deep, narrow staircase of our home.  Even in my sleep I could feel the freedom of no longer being restricted by gravity.  I was always a bit disappointed to awaken and find that I couldn't fly after all.  When I dream now, the words I speak and sing come out flawlessly with no catch in my throat.  It's liberating.  Then I awaken to reality, always vaguely disappointed.

It took me almost two years to work through the grieving process.  It was during that period of time I lost my dad and brother, moved from Alabama and said goodbye to many dear friends.  I also left the wonderful preschool where I had served as music director for 11 years, as well as three of my four children who were now living independent lives.  I arrived at our new home, emotionally exhausted and with my voice at its worst.  I was vulnerable, and grief washed over me like a tsunami.

A number of factors working together brought me through that difficult time.  A friend sent me the right book dealing with grief, someone else recommended an excellent doctor trained in the treatment I needed, I found some part-time work, and I was beginning to use some of my talents again.  In group settings I was no longer tearing up as those around me sang.  Life was getting good again.

When people ask about my voice, especially after the spasms have returned and I need another treatment, I can tell them with confidence that I'll soon be speaking somewhat normally again.  But the injections will not give me the ability to sing.  That only comes from God.

Today I sang as in my dreams.  Only I wasn't dreaming, and for an afternoon I sang to the One who stilled the tremors long enough  that I might praise Him.  I don't know how tomorrow will be.  I have no guarantees that what I had today will be a part of any of my tomorrows.  But I know that today He gave me what only He could give. He let me sing.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Letter

Mom and Dad visiting us in Costa Rica,  1986 


Dear Mom,

You would have turned 90 last week.  What a great time it would have been to have a big celebration, an ideal time to get all the family together.  We would have had a picnic with a store-bought cake and a huge dessert table in honor of you,  that being your favorite part of the meal after all. Then, after we finished eating, we would have said lots of nice things about you, some to make us laugh and perhaps a few to make us cry.

But we all know it's pointless to plan a big party when the guest of honor has no intention of showing up.  After all, even if you could come, nothing would ever entice you back here, even for just a few short hours and a promise of the most delectable sweets imaginable.  Even so, I think it would be a good time to mention some of those things I might say if you were here.  And if by some chance there is but a thin curtain between your world and mine, you just might hear what I have to say.  So here goes.

Even though you've been gone a long time, I still think about you a lot.  It's hard not to as there are reminders of you everywhere.  This parsonage has a nice patch of rhubarb out behind the garage, and I can't make up a batch of sauce or a strawberry-rhubarb pie without thoughts of you.  I took a couple of pies made with your homemade crust to the Marvin reunion last month.  They were a hit.  In fact, I use several of your favorite recipes.  Larry's family especially loves your carrot cake.  In fact, I just made one this past weekend to take to his sister Paulette's for a picnic.

Do you remember after Beth started kindergarten and you went to work,  how you'd start dinner in the morning and have me finish it up when I'd get home from school?  I'd complain sometimes, like when I had to help with the canning and freezing during the summer.  But when Larry and I took our first church in Bradford Country,  I couldn't begin to count all the corn we froze or the applesauce we canned.  Our big chest freezer was always packed with vegetables and meat that came from farmer friends,  and the shelves in the basement were covered with mason jars filled with tomatoes, peaches and jams among other things.  I never lacked, and that allowed me to invite people into our home week after week. You prepared me for that.


I wish I had expressed so much more how grateful I was for all you had done for me. One day I went into  Stroehman's Bread Store here in Elmira and told the lady at the register how my mom had put me through four years of college working in a bread store just like theirs.  I don't know if I ever thanked you for that, the sacrifices you made so that I could not only attend school but come out debt free.  And on top of all that, you managed to find time to write me once or twice every week, long hand-written letters with five-dollar bills often tucked between the pages.  I looked forward to those letters more than you can imagine,  I was so lonely for home.

I still have most of your letters, hundreds of them.  Besides my college stash, there's quite a few you mailed to Costa Rica that year we were in language school and an entire suitcase packed full of those addressed to Honduras.  When we returned stateside, you kept writing. There's a smaller stack from when we were in Colorado Springs trying to work in a very difficult church and a few that you even sent to our place in Alabama, even though you were so sick at the time. And then they stopped coming altogether and I knew. 

But it wasn't just the letters.  You were sending us stuff all the time, especially while we were in Central America.  No matter what we asked for, you took care of it.  If we needed clothes, you found the right sizes.  If we sent film home, you had it processed.  If a work team was coming down,  you'd always get a package to them before they flew out.  You even sent a basketball hoop to Larry that he requested after building that small basketball court in our back yard.  And you never fussed at us, never complained.  You always gave so willingly.

Always giving!  Here she is with Fawn, Joel and Angela in Costa Rica
I know we always said thank you.  I don't think we took you for granted, but if I had to do it again, I would have written you a letter just like this one.  You loved words, especially when they were written down.  You would have read it over again, maybe several times.  You might have even put it in your Bible. That's where I keep one that you wrote to me right before we left for Language School.  Most of your letters were filled up with the details of your days, the happenings of my siblings and what you'd eaten for supper that week.  But this particular letter was full of your heart,  sadness at our going, pride that we were, and gratitude that we were serving the God whom you had loved for most of your life.  I wish I had written a letter like that to you.

There are a few things more I would have said.  I have some regrets, especially about the times I was particularly selfish and difficult.  But when I apologized to you towards the end of your life for the times I'd disappointed you, you acted as though they had never happened.  Grace.

There was never any doubt that your love for others was the directive of your life.  Even in those last days,  you didn't want to talk about yourself.  You would always turn the conversation towards others.  And that caring was genuine.  Your entire life had been a reflection of God's love invested into others.

And finally, one last thing.  Do you remember when we were traveling to Guatemala and stopped by the roadside to eat our lunch and all the children gathered around our vehicle?  You looked in the lunch bag to see how many sandwiches were left, and when you saw there weren't enough to feed them all, you began to cry.  "There aren't enough," you said.  "There aren't enough."  That scene never left me, your visibly broken heart.

I mentioned all those letters I have in my attic, I hope someday to have some extra time when I can go through them.  I know there are some wonderful stories and memories to be relived.  But there's a passage in the Bible that talks about us being living letters.  That's what you were to me.  That's what you were to so many others.  You were the greatest letter of all.

I have only a few pictures of just the two of us--1986 in Costa Rica  

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Double Brown Doors

They weren't in their room.  The door stood open,  all the furniture gone.  It had been some weeks since we'd been able to get over to the nursing home to visit with the couple who always greeted us with wide smiles and an invitation to find a seat in one of the chairs that fit snugly into the tiny living room.  They had been on the first floor in this small suite complete with a small bedroom and a bath.  There had been no need for a kitchen, all meals were provided in the dining room just down the hall.  They had especially enjoyed that part, dining in the large, cheery room that seemed more like a restaurant with its small, festive tables.  There were even menus so that they could select each day what they wanted to eat.  It might not have been the home they had shared for many years, but it would do.  Best of all, it allowed them to be together.

Someone passing in the hall stopped and told us they'd been moved to the second floor, that we'd find them behind the double brown doors.  We climbed the stairs, passed through a long hall and found what we were  looking for.  Larry gave one a push.  It didn't budge, obviously locked from the inside.   I don't know why I was surprised.  I vaguely remembered a mention on one of our visits of  the second floor residents being there because they could no longer care for themselves.  I don't believe the word Alzheimer's was used,  but it was fairly obvious what she had meant.  Their names had been on a plaque outside their little home on the first floor along with a welcome wreath on the door that was usually open when we stopped for a visit.  I suddenly felt weary, sad, at the sharp contrast.   A worker told us to try the double brown doors again,  that someone would open them from the inside. But be careful, she warned, not to let anyone come out as we were going in.   

He was sitting at a table with some of the other residents playing a memory game. We watched for a bit then wandered into his wife's new room.  A twin bed sat in the middle of the floor, her daughter plopped down on the corner putting pictures in a frame while her mother sat close by watching.  She talked as she worked, expressing concern that her mother needed to get more rest, that she needed to sleep in the bed each night like she was supposed to.  She looked up at me and explained that her father had been coming to her mother's room at night.  One would take the bed while the other slept in the chair. "You both need to sleep in your own beds," she said, gently scolding her mother.  One of the sons stood a bit awkwardly on the other side of the room, perhaps not quite knowing what to do with himself.   His father was becoming increasingly disoriented and had recently wandered off the premises, he confided to Larry.  That's why they had been moved out of their little suite on the first floor.

"We've been together for sixty-two years."  Her voice came from the corner where she sat. "We've never been apart."  The daughter picked up an album and pulled a few pictures for the frames that would hang on the walls, something to make this sterile little room feel a bit more like home for her mother.  Suddenly her father appeared and plopped down in the chair that sat empty next to his wife.  His eyes twinkled. He looked at his bride of sixty-two years.  "So I've been wondering," he said.  "Who gets the bed tonight?"

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Perfect Timing

I went back home for a couple of days last week to celebrate the Fourth.  It was nice being with family and sitting on the field at Bradner's Stadium to watch the fireworks.  But the best part of the trip had nothing to do with the occasion,  it had more to do with meeting up with a friend.

I hadn't seen Debbie for several years, the last time was when her husband Gary was pastoring a church in Olean.  Her kids were still home then, teenagers I think.  Now they're adults with families of their own.  But a few months ago I happened to see a picture of her on a  friend's facebook page and felt a nudge to contact her.

I need to go back a few more years.  Karen is married to Gary's brother Will.  While visiting their son  in South Carolina,  they came to spend a day with us.  I was not having an easy time with my voice, my Spasmodic Dysphonia was making it especially difficult to speak during their visit.  Karen remembered, and when Debbie started having problems with her voice,  her sister-in-law mentioned that the symptoms were similar to mine.  I heard from her a few days after making contact.  Included in her message she wrote,  "I hear that you have experienced vocal loss in the past.  I was diagnosed with Spasmodic Dysphonia.  Have you heard of this?  I am struggling with vocal issues."

I don't know why I am always surprised and amazed that our lives somehow manage to intersect with others in ways that I know to be far beyond mere coincidence.  I never dreamed all those years ago  that the day would come when we would both be facing the same health challenge.  But I am the veteran, six years of working through the questions and frustrations.  This is still pretty new for her, and if her experience is anything like mine, quite overwhelming.   I am convinced that this was a divine directive, perfectly timed, designed to bring us together through a series of circumstances and individuals.  This was just the latest, that we would both be in the same town visiting family and friends for the Fourth. 

We were heading South a little over a year ago when I tuned into a Christian radio station a few hours into our trip.  I knew as soon as I heard the news announcer that there was something seriously wrong with his voice.  The words were forced as if in a tug-a-war with his vocal cords. I looked at Larry.  "Listen to him, I think he has what I have!"  I quickly wrote down the call letters and sent an email to the station after returning to New York.   I explained that I suspected one of their staff had a voice disorder that I could identify.  It wasn't long before I heard back from the station manager, appreciative at my concern and curious at what more I could tell him.   We exchanged a few messages and then I heard nothing more.  I still don't know the end of this story or if I ever will,  but I've no doubt that my tuning into that station during those few minutes of news broadcast was devised ahead of time.

Larry and I were married his senior year of seminary.  We had little money and didn't own a television set, so we would go over to the student center to watch The Waltons on Thursday nights.  One particular evening it was snowing hard as we drove back to our apartment, and we came upon a lone figure walking along the side of the road.  Larry pulled over and asked if he could give the man a ride somewhere.  His name was Bob Scott,  a pastor from New York taking a sabbatical from his church to work on his doctorate.  He would be separated from his family for several weeks, so I asked if he'd like to come for dinner some night. He accepted.

We sat around the table for a long time the night Bob came.  I guess he liked us, because before he left, he asked if Larry might consider letting him send a resume on up to his district superintendent in New York.  We looked at each other.  What could it hurt?   Not too many months later, we were in that very district, settling into our first parsonage in beautiful Bradford County where we would spend the next eight years. I can't watch an old episode of The Waltons without thinking of that night, over thirty-five years ago now,  and the man we just happened to pick up on the side of the road.  That simple act would determine not only where we would be in those early years of ministry, but would shape our future steps as well.  

So back to Debbie.  She's still trying to figure out what recourse to take with this voice stuff.  I opted awhile back to go with botox injections,  she's seriously thinking of trying voice therapy.  It was nice to reconnect and have someone to talk over these things, something that impacts both of us.  Come to think of it, the timing couldn't have been more perfect.  

Debbie Beers and me (she's on the right) on July 5, 2012 in Olean, New York

Monday, June 25, 2012

Directionally Challenged

I have never made a secret of the fact that I have a horrible sense of direction, or as I prefer to call it, being directionally challenged.  The person who gets to his destination with little mental effort has no idea how difficult it is for those of us who sometimes get discombobulated just leaving a parking lot.

A few days ago I had to be in a certain place at a certain time.   Larry gave me what he considered a simple map.  I knew the exit, no problem.  I was positive he had told me to take the first left and then the next right after getting off the ramp.  But something about the road wasn't right.  I pulled over to the side, pulled out the map and looked at the part he had highlighted in yellow.  I was still confused.   But I wasn't going to panic yet, he promised me that he'd have his cell phone close at hand, just in case. I dialed and it rang.  And then it rang again and then again and a few more times before going to voice mail.  My palms started to sweat and my chest tightened as I began to talk out loud.  I always talk to myself when I'm feeling out of control.  This time I added Larry to the conversation as well, addressing him through clenched teeth as I tried the church and house numbers.  The only one who answered was my sixteen-month-old granddaughter who's visiting with her mom from El Paso.  She obviously didn't call her grandfather to the phone.  

Several years ago, long before cell phones were even a concept, I got lost in Rochester, New York.  Larry had spoken at a men's breakfast earlier that morning and I was supposed to meet him at the entrance to the New York thruway around nine or so.  We were driving to Buffalo where I would be speaking at a women's luncheon that afternoon.   I would soon find out that the pastor's wife who told me how to get there is as directionally challenged as I am. 

It wasn't long before I was driving on the widest highway I had ever seen with cars whizzing past me at high speed.  I had no idea where I was, where I was going or how to find my way back.  My two youngest were in the backseat watching, their mother with her hands clutched vice-like to the wheel, talking to herself while blubbering like a baby.  It eventually occurred to me that it might be a good idea to get off the highway, find a gas station and ask for a phonebook.  I was able to stop my shaking long enough to look up the phone number to where we had been staying, to tell the mutually directionally-challenged pastor's wife where I was and to inform her that I wasn't moving from that spot until someone came to get me.  The first thing Larry asked when he saw me was if I realized how far out of the way I had traveled.  Let's suffice it to say that I was considerably late for my engagement, the women had already had their lunch and were waiting for me in the sanctuary.

And then there's the time that we were in Allentown, Pennsylvania.  We had made arrangements to meet our friend Mick at the school where he was studying for the ministry.  Larry immediately jumped out of the car upon seeing him and before I knew it Mick had suggested I might want to drive on over to the trailer park where they lived.  Cindy and their two girls were waiting for us there.  He hastily gave me the directions, assured me that I'd have no trouble finding the way, and suddenly they were gone.

I wasn't too far out before I knew I had no idea where I was, for not only am I directionally challenged, I also have trouble retaining a lot of information at once.  I remembered the first few turns, and then nothing more.  My mind was blank,  I was completely lost with no address, no phone, no number.  And so I did what I do so well in this situation,  I gripped the wheel as tight as I could and cried.  "Sing."   The voice wasn't audible but it spoke nonetheless.  So I sniffed one last time and started singing one of my favorite songs, "Praise the Lord." I don't think I was hardly out of the first verse and chorus when I remember descending a hill and coming up on the other side to find directly in front of me the most beautiful scene imaginable,  a trailer park. 

Last August some friends came from South Carolina to spend four or five days with us.  Unexpectedly, a dear friend from Alabama died right before their arrival and Larry was asked to fly down and perform the funeral service.  I was in a panic. Granted,  I wouldn't have to drive, but they would need me as navigator, getting them where they wanted to go.  When I actually found my way to Watkin's Glen one day, I inwardly breathed a huge sigh of relief.  They had no idea how terrified I was that we might end up somewhere else. There was one afternoon, however, that went particularly badly.  They love thrift stores, and we put some extra miles on their speedometer getting to the Salvation Army.  I knew where it was, I had been there on several occasions.  I just couldn't remember how to get there. 

But I do know how to get to the airport where we picked Larry up the following day.  I was never so happy to see him, a tremendous burden lifted!   On the way home I asked him if he minded making a stop.  It was one of those thrift stores they'd wanted to check out.  I'd tried to take them but ended up somewhere else.  He didn't even hesitate, knowing right where to go.  I wish I could do that,  head somewhere and get there without getting lost first.  

I read an article in Reader's Digest several years ago about people like me.  Turns out there is something in the brain making it difficult for some of us to get to where we want to be.  I suppose that should make me feel better, the realization that it's not my fault, that  I simply don't have the same neurological GPS setup that my husband has.  No, it doesn't make me feel better.  But on the other hand,  he has been there time after time to get me to where I needed to be or at least heading in the right direction.  He rescued me in Rochester all those years ago and just a few days ago, when he realized that he missed my call, he traveled some extra miles to make sure I found my way home. 

While living in Alabama I was hired to play an extra in a movie that was being filmed in our part of the state.  I got word that I was needed in a place about forty-five minutes from where we lived, and had specific instructions to arrive before dawn.  I was terrified I'd not be able to find my way, especially in the dark.  So very early on that first morning Larry drove ahead of me, led me to the movie site, then headed back home.  That was all I needed, and I was able to find my way up and back on the final two days of filming.  I just needed someone to show me the way.           

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Rhubarb

My first picture taken with my mother

I picked the first of my rhubarb on Saturday.  I think it was early this year due to the short, mild winter we had.  I cooked it up into sauce, set some aside for us and then took a container over to my neighbor John who really likes the stuff.   I was glad some of it was ready.  It was Mother's Day weekend and it brought back some special memories for me, especially of my mom.

I love rhubarb, so you can imagine my delight when I discovered a small patch of it after we moved into our little parsonage three summers ago.  It sits back behind the garage so it was several days before I even noticed it.  One day I decided to take a stroll around the yard and voila, there it was!  I could hardly wait for Larry to come home to share my find with him. 

Growing up, there was a row of rhubarb that popped through the soil every spring in the far corner of our back yard.  My parents purchased their home when I was five years old, and I don't ever remember a time when the rhubarb wasn't there.  I can't begin to imagine how much I must have eaten over the years, the desserts, the jam, the sauce served in little bowls still warm off the stove or as a topping over vanilla ice cream.  I never tired of it.

My mom loved her kitchen and could bake most anything , but of everything she concocted, her pies were the best.  Her crust was melt-in-the-mouth perfection which she would first roll out into a perfect circle and would then bake to a golden brown, the filling bubbling through the narrow slits she'd cut into the top.  They were all wonderful, the apple, the peach, the cherry, the blackberry.  She made a mincemeat in a ten-inch pie pan every Thanksgiving, with a light sprinkling of sugar over the top crust.  It was exquisite, I've never had better.  But of all the pies she made, my absolute favorite was the strawberry-rhubarb.

Frances Lea Marvin, my mom!

My first year away at school was especially lonely for me.  I was in South Carolina,  nine-hundred miles away from home and terribly homesick.  But someone who was traveling through from New York came to my room one day bearing gifts from my mother.  In the first container was a dress she had made, a green one to match my red hair.  And in the other container, much to my delight,  was a strawberry-rhubarb pie.  There would be more packages.  Each birthday she would send a new dress, every one of them green.  And if she knew of someone coming my way,  I'd get a hand-delivered strawberry-rhubarb pie.

My sister Dawn and brother Rex visiting me my junior year.  Take note of the green dress!

When Larry pastored in Pennsylvania, one of the members had some at her place and insisted we help ourselves to all we wanted.  And I did, making my share of rhubarb sauce and rhubarb crisp and rhubarb pie, just like my mom had.   And like her, I'd make sure to freeze some so it would be on hand during the winter months. But eventually we left the north land and headed to the far south where rhubarb refuses to grow.

I missed my rhubarb,  but occasionally one of the grocery stores would bring it in and I'd pay a ridiculous amount of money to buy enough for a couple of pies.  One time Larry flew home to see his ailing mother in New York.  He had a surprise for me when I picked him up at the airport a week later, a carry on full of rhubarb. 

Now back to this past Saturday.  Early that evening I decided to go see my octogenarian friend Rena and check out the seedlings she's been growing to put in her garden.  I  spent several minutes in her little greenhouse admiring the young plants and walking around her backyard to see where everything would eventually go.  Then suddenly she raised her hand and pointed to the far fence which bordered her property.  "Do you see what I have growing there?" she asked.   My mouth dropped open.  The entire length of the wall was nothing but rhubarb!  Then she pointed to the right of where we were standing and there was more yet.  I had never seen so much rhubarb growing in one place in my entire life!  "Do you like rhubarb?"  she wanted to know.

Some of Rena's rhubarb

The next morning I got up early and cut up what I had brought from Rena's house.  She had insisted I take some and to help myself anytime I'd like more.  So I made what I had into sauce, filling a couple more containers full.  I delivered them that afternoon after church.   I think my mom would have been pleased.  It was, after all, Mother's Day.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Albert

Larry will never forget the first time he saw him.  We were pastoring in Herrickville,  a farming community in Northeast Pennsylvania.  I've written a bit about our early years in Bradford County, a beautiful little chunk of God's creation made up of dirt roads and green vistas.  He was traversing one of those very roads when he came upon a lone figure dwarfed in a large trench coat, wearing a crumpled hat and carrying a gas can.  Larry pulled over to ask if he could give him a ride somewhere.  He was met with a toothless grin as the gentleman slid in beside him.  He introduced himself as Albert.    

He showed up for church the following Sunday with his wife Jeanette and their son Joey who was probably twelve at the time.  Albert was scrawny,  I don't think he weighed much over a hundred and twenty pounds.  His son, however, looked nothing like his father.  He was big for his age, favoring more his mother who was a bit on the plump side.  They settled in and we began to see a lot of them.  Jeanette was intelligent and pleasant.  But we soon discovered that Albert was a different matter altogether.  He was slow, simple.   And at times difficult.  He wanted to play softball, for example, so joined the church team but would curse every time he missed the ball.  He found it difficult to control his emotions and was easily offended, much like a child on the verge of puberty.  In spite his lack of certain social graces, most in the church were patient with him. There were a few, however, who complained about him, tired of his poor manners.  Thinking back,  I might have been one of them.

Then came Father's Day.  Larry had asked his Sunday school class to write down and then share something they had learned from their dads.  During the course of the discussion,  Albert said he had learned nothing from his father because he'd never known him.  He proceeded to tell his story, about being birthed out of an illicit family relationship.   When Larry later told me what Albert had said that morning, I felt so sad for him, for the childhood he must have had. 

There were still some episodes with Albert after that, at one point he even left the church for awhile.  But Larry was always attentive towards the family,  and after paying them a few visits, we saw them once again back in the pews. I remember well the time they invited us into their home for a meal,  so proud that they were able to extend hospitality to the pastor and his family.  Larry happened to take a  picture of Albert in his kitchen that day.  He looked a bit frazzled, but I know that he was trying the best he could to express his gratitude to us for caring about him, making him feel important. 

Albert in his kitchen the day he and Jeanette invited us for dinner

Albert had been given the important job of counting heads on Wednesday evenings when we ran our children's program, and Jeanette was helping pretty regularly in the nursery.  It was also on a Wednesday evening in early December that we would see them for the last time.  As they headed out the church door for home that night, Albert turned to Larry and told him how glad he was that he took the time to pick him up on the road that day. 

The phone call came during dinner the next night.  Albert's house was on fire.  As Larry pulled up to the property, he saw no sign of the family among the crowd that had gathered there. It wouldn't be until the fire was extinguished that the horrible, gruesome discovery was made. There were three bodies in the garage, so badly burned they were unrecognizable.  An investigation would later reveal the truth.  They'd all been murdered.  The place had been doused with gasoline and set ablaze to cover the crime.

It was sometime afterwards that Larry sat down with the man who would spend the rest of his life in prison for their murders. He had asked for the preacher to come, wanting in some way to explain how an ordinary day had turned so tragic.  Ironically, Albert had considered him to be one of his closest friends.  But it was a female companion, also a so-called friend,  who suddenly snapped and pulled the trigger, killing Joey first and then his parents.  I can't imagine the shock, then the unimaginable horror of that moment when Albert and Jeanette heard the blast and saw their son fall to the ground.  He was, after all, everything to them.  It was his being that gave them both purpose.  So as horrible as those next moments were,  when those final shots rang through the air,  I do believe that God was showing mercy to Albert and Jeanette.

There was a memorial service for the three of them and the church was packed.   I think they would have been surprised but pleased to see how many people had come to pay their respects.  I was in Herrickville a couple of months ago and passed the place where their home used to sit.  All traces of the house are gone,  nothing there to remind us that a very simple man and his family died on that bit of ground almost thirty years ago.

But Albert never really went away,  I've seen him many times since,  pretty much everywhere I've lived. He looks different and his circumstances have changed, but it's him.  He can be difficult and sometimes demands more of me than what I have or feel like giving.  And his story often makes me uncomfortable,  it's so different from my own.  It's then that God speaks to my spirit.  "Except by my grace," he whispers, "that could be your story."  

Jeanette, Joey and Albert in 1983, a year before they died