A couple of years ago, I started a Thank You note series. The (lofty and unrealistic for me) goal was that I would write one a week for 50 weeks. Alas, the last one I published in the series came out in September of 2016. I never really quit the series; just got busy writing other things. I'm reviving it for this post--the story of someone whose name topped the list when I started this project.
Have you ever heard the one about how I met my wife? I mean, our union was in no way official because (1) it was illegal back then and (2) we are both happily married to our husbands. But still, she’s the only wife I’ve ever had. This is our story.
It was the first week of November 1998, the end of a very long six months. Jay had started working in Asheville, NC in early May that year; I stayed back in Sanford, NC with our three kids: ages 3 months, 2 years, and not-quite-4 years. The plan was that our Sanford house would sell quickly and we would find an affordable home in Asheville within a month or so. Yep, that was the plan. In reality, it took approximately forever to sell the house; by October, we gave up and rented it so we could close on our house in Asheville.
My memory places our first meeting simultaneous with the moving van’s exit. “I’m Joanna! I live across the street,” she said when I answered the door. “I was so excited when I saw you unloading toys; I think our kids are about the same age!” She was right. As it turns out, her oldest, a girl, is a month younger than my oldest daughter; her son is a month younger than mine.
She was a stay-at-home mom, working part-time, despite having advanced degrees that qualified her for a professional career; same here. There were other similarities—crazy coincidences we learned as we got to know each other. For example, she knew and loved sign language; I’d been raised around deaf children and had communicated with them fluently back in the day. I’d been gleefully addicted to Diet Mountain Dew since its inception; Joanna too. Like me, Joanna graduated from her high school in 1983.
“So where did you go to high school?” I asked her.
“A tiny little private school in Wilmington, NC,” she said. “You wouldn’t have heard of it.”
“It wasn’t Cape Fear Academy was it?” It was the only school I knew of that fit the description.
“Um, YES! How did you guess?”
“Oh my gosh you are kidding! Jay moved to Wilmington in the 11th grade and actually graduated from Cape Fear Academy in 1981!”
Our families shared Super Bowl Sundays, birthday parties, trick-or-treating, Easter Egg Hunts, and always snow days. Oh man, snow days were the best. I recall those days in full color, punctuated with squeals and laughter and sweetened by the smell of fresh baked cookies and steaming hot chocolate. The four big kids--Margaret always thought of “Nana” as her personal playmate—raced out to our backyard hill, streaking down then trudging up to do it all over again and again until they were soaking wet or completely exhausted or both.
Our friendship formed over Power Rangers™ and Powerpuff Girls™, Legos™ and Polly Pockets™, PTO meetings and summer vacation. We talked about parenting and marriage, friendship and family, and where to find the best prices on dinosaur egg instant oatmeal. When it was time for our girls to go to kindergarten, we were delighted that they were in the same class. Two years later, our sons started school—together in that very same room.
“It’s like having a wife!” we often said, appreciating the convenience of having someone to pick up a gallon of milk or drop off library books, watch the kids for just a minute or pick them up from school. But Joanna was much more than a partner in the monotony. When three-year-old Margaret, diagnosed with both the flu and pneumonia, was so terrifyingly ill that I could barely see beyond her rising temperature, Joanna was there. When little grade school Baker experienced yet another classmate making fun of his impeded speech, Joanna’s rage matched my own. When Jay and I rushed 8-year-old Trellace to the emergency room late one night, and during all the days after when she was hospitalized for peritonitis following her appendectomy, Joanna seamlessly filled in the gaps.
For a little more than five years, Joanna and her family lived across the street from us. I have to keep recounting that number because I just can’t believe it was only five years. (Of course, that’s just chronological time; it has never been all that reliable in tracking memories.)
So, here’s to Joanna, my across-the-street wife and one of God’s most extravagant gifts to me. I will forever be grateful for this extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime friendship that has made me a better me.
On Tuesday, January 23, 2018, my father-in-law, JB Lawrimore, suffered a heart attack; a week later, he had bypass surgery. The operation was a success and the doctors expect him to have a complete recovery, thanks be to God.
Having a remarkably shallow threshold for ick, I (intentionally) never gave much thought to how this procedure was accomplished. Thus, I was shocked when my husband informed me the night before surgery.
“They have to stop his heart to do the surgery,” my husband told me. “They will reroute Dad’s blood through a machine that will do the work of his heart.”
Say what now? A machine? You’re telling me a machine is going to take over for my father-in-law’s heart? Nope. No way. There is no manmade contraption that could handle that job. Oh, maybe a machine could pump blood through JB’s body; I get that. But the real work of my father-in-law’s heart? That job is much more than simple mechanics.
For example, how would that machine respond if it detected the voices of Barney and Andy quibbling over the rampant crime in Mayberry? JB’s real heart manufactures a deep belly laugh that crinkles his eyes, scrunches up his nose, and arrests any conversation previously in process. That same laugh might bubble up at any time, like when he’s sharing an anecdote from his childhood or one from just last week. Spontaneous, but also predictable, JB’s infectious laugh spreads through a group like a hysterical virus. Trust me: there is nothing mechanical about it.
Plus, a machine would have long ago shut down the nonessential milk bone operation that JB’s heart kicks off every time he drives up his driveway. His truck’s approach triggers the barking dog next door who immediately runs to the the designated meeting place by the fence. She waits as JB reaches into his hiding place and pulls out a treat. “Hey there girl,” he says, “Do you need a bone?” Instantly, that fussy old mutt morphs into pure sweetness as JB hands her the milk bone and scratches behind her ears. “There you go. That’s a good girl.”
Also, I have to wonder if this is a brand-new machine. If it is, it won’t have what it takes to do the job of JB’s heart. See, his heart shows evidence of extensive use. It’s been stretched significantly five times (grandchildren will do that to a heart), but it’s been broken too. Indeed, his life has been a beautiful one, but not one without his share of grief and pain, disappointment and loss. He’s outlived his parents—which he expected, no doubt—but he outlived his youngest brother too. Losing a brother who was closer to his son’s age than his own . . . if his heart had been manmade, it would surely have shattered.
And what about the lights in this device? It will need some with maximum luminosity that won’t dim over time. See JB’s heart shines for lots of things—the first shoots of new growth in his garden, a prayer of thanksgiving, the music of the church—but there’s nothing quite like the Granddaddy Glow his heart has emitted for the past two and a half decades. As each new life joined the family, JB’s heart light found a new height of brilliance. And yet, inexplicably, as JB’s five favorites have grown beyond cradles and playgrounds, to marriage and careers, his heart appears warmer and brighter with the passage of time. It’s a self-sustaining, never-fading illumination of abiding love. That kind of light—well it’s just not something humanity can manufacture.
I know this: no matter how advanced medical science becomes, there will never be a mere machine that can do the job of JB Lawrimore’s heart. But, I sure am grateful for that fancy contraption—and the skilled medical professionals who operate it—that kept it pumping though his surgery. As a result, JB’s heart can keep right on working for many years to come. To God be the glory!
On June 10, 1925, before God and the witnesses present, Mabel Louise Cobb, 20, and Jesse D. Martin, 23, promised to love and cherish each other as long as they both should live. And that’s what they did. For better, for worse, from Georgia to Cuba to Brazil and back to Georgia again; in sickness and in health and through the darkness of dementia. They loved (three boys and two girls; 11 grandchildren) and they lost (their oldest daughter in 1961: she was only 33 years old. . .).
By 1989, when Granddaddy’s death parted them, my grandparents had been married for 64 years. Oh, how they loved each other! Ten years earlier, reflecting on 54 years of marriage, Grandmama (then 74) wrote to my parents who had been married for 19 years at the time, and had three children of their own. She thanks them for the anniversary card they had sent and proceeds to describe what marriage in the golden years was like for them. Here is what she said.
We do feel most blessed to be as well as we are at our age. And to be as thoughtful and considerate of each other, but as the years go by, one learns that there’s much more to love than meets the eye when we start out our marriages. True love calls for lots of giving and taking. We have to learn to realize we aren’t always right. Even after as many years as you two have been married, there’s still things you probably don’t realize will draw you closer as years continue to pass until finally you become so close you can’t imagine life without one another. It’s a glorious feeling to know that there’s one who loves you and wants never to have to give you up, yet we have to realize any time after we get our age that God could call either of us any day. So, you must live each day for each other and thank Him so much for another day together.
My Grandmama wrote that in 1979, back when people worried about gas prices and the cost of long distance phone calls, and when computers were housed in large buildings rather than back pockets. But the wisdom she shares is truly timeless. When Mother uncovered this letter recently, she said to me, “It’s amazing how her letter perfectly describes how your daddy and I feel about our marriage.” (Mother and Daddy got married in 1960 and just celebrated their 57th anniversary.) Every morning, my parents have breakfast together and share a time of prayer. Every prayer begins like this, “Thank you God for the gift of a new day.”
Today is the 113th anniversary of Grandmama’s birth. There are lots of things about Grandmama that I could celebrate—her love of the color purple (my favorite too); her delicious homemade biscuits; her hearty, full-body laugh. But today I think I will celebrate by trying to apply Grandmama’s words, not just to my 30-year marriage, but to all my relationships. I will try to be thoughtful and considerate, to remember I’m not always right, and to thank God for the gift of a new day. I hope you’ll celebrate with me!
I was 22; he was just barely 24. We started dating when we were students at Campbell University and two and a half years later we said our vows. How thirty years have slipped away since that day, I could not tell you. But boy, have we made a lot of memories since then. Here, in celebration of our 30th anniversary last November, are just a sample of them.
One of my all-time favorite stories (at the end of this post) and worth a re-run.
Before I moved to North Myrtle Beach, SC in my junior year of high school, I lived in Goldsboro, NC. Back in the 1980’s when I was a student there, Goldsboro High School lacked diversity. Everyone there looked alike—at least to the few of us who were of the paler variety. Evidently we white folk couldn’t differentiate between the colors of mocha, caramel, and dark chocolate. I guess we couldn’t tell the difference in hair texture, color, and style either. And, perhaps we didn’t notice the zillions of variances in facial features, body structure, height, weight, and so on. We were, after all adolescents, and by nature not that discerning. Anyway, I don’t know the ethnic percentages at GHS, I just remember that when we saw white faces, we waved; they were probably our relatives.
When I lived in Goldsboro, I was blessed: African-American role models were the norm for me. My favorite teachers, Mrs. Delaney and Mrs. Hayes, were strong African-American women; our principal, Mr. Best remains the standard by which I judge all school administrators. He is an enormous man in my memory. “His biceps are the size of our football players’ quadriceps,” we often quipped. But it was his presence, not his size, which looms large in my recall: how he commanded the boisterous hallways by striding silently along, nodding at students, calling them by name. He died young, a loss to the community and to the world.
Goldsboro is an Air Force town; race boundaries blurred early there. So, if I’d get off the bus to find my mother was not yet home, I’d go to the home of the African-American couple the Hightowers. Mr. Hightower had retired from the Air Force and was always home during the day, usually tending the roses in his yard. I spent many afternoons there learning about the delicate flowers he loved so well.
The Hightowers lived on one side of us in a house about the size of ours. On the other side was a house twice as big and parked out front was the son’s BMW. This family was also African-American. Sometimes I caught a ride from school with Darryl, who didn’t have to ride the bus since, well, he had the BMW and all.
Recently, chatting with a friend who coaches girls’ basketball, I got a chuckle when she told me about something her nearly-all-white team experienced. They were playing at a school that must have been something like Goldsboro High School was back in the 80’s because most of the students at the rival school were African-American. My friend’s team was not bothered by the circumstance, played a good game, and headed to the locker room. On the way, they passed a few middle-aged men from the rival school and my friend over heard a bit of their dialog. Observing the pasty skinned opponents, the men shook their heads and commented quietly to each other, “Man, look at those girls. They all look alike!"
Dr. Sheri Adams led a class on Civil Rights and Religion in May 2009 which included a tour of key historic sites from the Civil Rights Movement. One of the places we visited was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage where Martin and Coretta King lived during their ministry there. This story comes from that experience.
I am standing in my Grandmother Martin’s kitchen. It’s true: Grandmama died nearly 14 years ago and her kitchen was dismantled long before that, but I’m telling you, this is her kitchen.
Her resin dishes are laid out on the Formica table ready for supper—though I remember them being a pale pink, not this mint green. The table setting includes a bowl of pecans. Granddaddy often collected pecans from the yard to be cracked after supper; and for the record, he and Grandmama called them “pea ca’ns,” giving equal emphasis to the first two syllables and letting the third one slip in for free. (Only those uppity carpet-baggers from the North used the term “puhcahns,” spitting out the “puh” just to get to the “cahns.”)
The ceramic napkin holder is new to me. I’m not surprised it’s in her kitchen though since it has strawberries on it; Grandmama did love her strawberries. Her oven, probably still hot from cooking biscuits, looks like it always did and her Frigidaire does too. The coffee pot—a percolator—has not changed at all. The kitchen shelves hold the usual, everything from Jewel® shortening to HotShot® bug killer in the pump and shoot tin can. Granddaddy murdered many a 6-legged intruder with that beastly weapon.
“’Get out of town within three days,’ the caller threatened, ‘or you’ll be sorry,’” The docent’s words drew me out of my reverie. “Martin knew this threat was different.”
“The call had awakened him and he could not get back to sleep, so he left Coretta and newborn Yolanda asleep, and came in here to the kitchen.”
This kitchen: this kitchen that looked so much like my Grandmama’s.
“He made himself a cup of coffee, but says he never even took a sip. And he sat down at his kitchen table. By the way, most everything in the parsonage here is authentic; however, this table is not the one that was here at that time, but it is very much like the one Martin sat at that night.”
(And it’s very much like the one my Grandparents sat at in their kitchen in Georgia during those very same years.)
My divinity school colleagues—19 of us counting students and professors—crowded into the parsonage's tiny kitchen and stood around the little table. Studying civil rights and religion, we were travelling to significant sites in the South, learning more about faith’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. Coming to the end of this tour of the Birmingham parsonage of Martin Luther King, Jr., we found ourselves spellbound by our guide’s retelling of the famous “kitchen table epiphany.”
“Martin sat here, full of despair. He thought of Coretta, and baby Yolanda. He thought of all the threatening phone calls. He thought of all he had to lose. He sat here in the wee hours of that morning and cried out to God, confessing his own doubts, his own weaknesses.
“When Martin recalled the story, he said it was at that moment of confession that he heard the voice of Jesus say to him, ‘Martin Luther stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ He heard Jesus tell him he would never be alone, no matter what.” The docent looked up to heaven, lifting her hands as if in thanksgiving. Then looking down, she shook her head slowly.
“And he didn’t give up. Not even three days later when his house, this house, was bombed. You see Martin was right: the call he got that night was more than just a prank. It was a real threat. What a blessing that Martin had just reaffirmed his calling and his faith right here in this kitchen.”
This Montgomery, Alabama kitchen that belonged to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an African American Baptist preacher and the leader of the Civil Rights movement. This kitchen:so familiar to me that it could have been in the Albany, Georgia home of Mrs. Mabel Louise Martin, my white, Southern Baptist grandmama.
Published originally February 2009
"In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ " Isaiah 6:1-3
“In the year King Uzziah died. . .” Remember the year? It was an awful year. For the people of Judea, it was the year King Uzziah died. King Uzziah had been such a great king. During his reign, they were prosperous and peace ruled in their land. But when he died—well it felt like all hope died with him.
What year was it for you?
“In the year the shuttle crashed. . .
“In the year of September 11. . .
“In the year of the Virginia Tech Tragedy. . .
Or is it more personal?
“In the year my mother/father/sister/brother died. . .”
“In the year of my divorce. . .”
“In the year my favorite teacher died. . .”
It’s the year hope dies. The year that what was, is no more. It’s the watershed moment: when everything before and after is defined by that moment. Everyone get’s it when you say it. They nod, knowingly, as if to say, “Oh, that year. Yeah. That was awful.”
“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.”
I wonder what Isaiah was thinking when he went into the temple. Was he thinking, “I’m so great—righteous really—that I will lead the wretched ones out of their despair into God’s Glory. (amen)” That is, was he full of himself? Or. . .was he empty? Did he go to the temple thinking, “I’m not up for this. My hope is gone. How can I lead the people of God into his glory?”
We can’t know what he was feeling, but we know this: Isaiah went to the temple. Last Tuesday, I arrived at the divinity school to find out one of our professors, a man younger than I, had died. Soon after I learned of his death, I heard we would be having a chapel service in a few hours.
It was a terrible day. It was like the year the shuttle crashed. It was like September 11th. I felt shock, confusion, grief. It was that day. You know the one?
Like Isaiah went to the temple, I went to the chapel. By grace, I was not met by the fearsome vision that Isaiah beheld. But I did see God there. I saw God in the tear stained faces of my godly professors, struggling as we were to make sense of this tragedy. I saw God in the hunched forms of students, embraced by other students. I heard God in the stories, the testimonies, the music. God filled up that chapel last Tuesday.
In the year king Uzziah died, Isaiah went to the temple. And despite his despair, Isaiah saw God there. But Isaiah did not stop with that one visit to the temple. Isaiah kept going back. Sometimes, he surely felt the full presence of God’s glory. Sometimes, though, I bet he came away with little more than a meal plan for the upcoming week. Still, he kept going back to the temple, going back to worship. And somehow, I’d say miraculously, he found his way out of the darkness of grief; he found his way back to hope.
It was January 13, 2009 and I was on my way to the college when my cell phone rang.
"Where are you?" my GWU friend asked.
"On the way. What's up?"
"Uhhh, nothin', just wanted to see if you wanted to meet Gary and me for coffee."
"You're out of class?" I asked. It was only 8:30 and they had Dr. Cal Robertson. Doc Cal never ends class early. Never. "I thought you had Robertson."
"We do. . . we just . . . well . . . we're at the coffee shop."
"Is something wrong with Robertson? Is he sick?" There was something she wasn't telling me, but she said he was fine. "Robertson is NOT fine if he let you out of class early."
"No, really. Robertson is fine."
I'm slow on the uptake at 8:30 in the morning. I didn't hear the shock in her voice, the utter disbelief. I didn't hurry. When I got to GWU, my friends met me, not at the coffee shop, but in the yard outside the divinity school.
"Aileen. Dr. Goodman died this morning," Donna told me.
"It's true Aileen," Gary said, "He collapsed in the shower. We don't know any more details right now."
"Dr. Goodman?" I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "Are you sure?" (We ask stupid questions like that when we are in shock.) They nodded, even while still disbelieving the news themselves.
“Hold on to the railing,” our guide said as we wound down the stairs of the Church of the Nativity to the Grotto. “These steps are centuries old and very tricky.”
The church, built under the direction of Saint Helena, has been used continuously since 333 AD. St. Helena, using her influence as the mother of Constantine, Emperor of Rome, had this sanctuary built over the site where she believed Jesus had been born.
So, beneath this ancient church, is a cave—a cave that, back in first century Jerusalem, looked like any other inner-city cave. As the city grew up around it, the cave found a job—you know, made itself useful. Situated next to an inn, it offered its services to the innkeeper as a stable for sheltering his animals. The cave would have been a quiet, peaceful place, a place where guests often stayed when the inn reached capacity.
Today, a silver star on the floor of that cave marks the spot where St. Helena believed Mary gave birth. Another niche is considered to be the place where Mary laid Jesus in the manger.
True? Hard to say.
To me, whether the Grotto of the Nativity is the real, exact place where Jesus was born is not the point. I don’t really care much about such particulars. This I know: for more than 19 centuries, believers have come to this place to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They have come from far, far away, and from right next door, on donkey-back, on camel-back and on Amtrak. They have come: speaking Aramaic, Latin, Greek, Spanish, Swahili, Russian, even English. They have come in a steady stream of expectation, watching their step and holding onto the railing, to worship in this place. It's like an Advent Devotion come to life!
So as I stepped carefully on those tricky centuries-old stairs, my spirit reached out to the great crowd of witnesses there in that grotto with me. I turned to face the silver star and, joining my voice with theirs, I prayed, “Glory to God in the highest. And on earth, peace, good will to all people.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven,(Originally published in my 2008 Christmas letter.)
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” Luke 2:13-15 (NRSV)