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.
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.
An Advent message from the prophet Zephaniah "Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! . . .At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord." Zep 3:14, 20 NRSV
"Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you!"
Twenty voices sang to the little guest of honor enthroned in her high chair. Anna Kate, celebrating her second birthday, celebrated her first in a very different place. Back then, she lay in a Russian orphanage awaiting her turn for nourishment and a little nurture as well.
"Happy Birthday Anna Kay-ate! Happy Birthday to you!"
Anna Kate beamed, looking around at all the people gathered just for her. A look of wonder filled her eyes as she said just one word, "Happy."
And in that moment, I beheld joy in the shape of a little girl. I got a snapshot, just a glimpse, of what it must have been like to see the face of Christ.
Christ had a second birthday too, you know. When Jesus was two years old and toddling about, do you think humanity realized the treasure in its midst? Of course Mary did, and Joseph. And surely other family members recognized that this baby was indeed extraordinary. But there must have been those who missed their chance to cradle joy incarnate in their arms. There must've been.
This advent season, we are called to embrace the coming of Christ. Don't miss your chance. Celebrate the joy of Christ today.
"Jesus, let us glimpse this day, joy incarnate. In the midst of our 21st century frenzy, slow us down that we might recognize your face, thereby experiencing the wonder of Advent."
(an Advent Devotion I wrote originally for Asheville's First Presbyterian Church's Advent Devotional booklet in 1999)
I always got the back seat. The very back seat. The one in our 1972 Chrysler Station Wagon that faced oncoming traffic. My older sister and younger brother sat in the middle seat, behind Mama on the passenger side and Daddy in the driver's seat. The windows, fogged from the cold, made fresh drawing slates for us to sketch Christmas trees decorated with thumb prints and lined with fingernail garlands. Eight-track tapes sang Feliz Navidad, Drummer Boy, and Silent Night. Finally! We were on our way to Christmas.
It was a tradition, that trip. Almost every year, the five of us traveled great distances to be with my Mother's family for Christmas. I got my big Raggedy Ann doll in Atlanta, my dollhouse in Tulsa, and Redhead, my very favorite doll, at home in Wilson, North Carolina. The trip was just part of Christmas.
I liked the trip. I liked my hideaway in the wayback. With Redhead and a paper sack full of books I could ride for hours reading and napping and reading some more. I liked the car games we played as a family. (I can still spot an X or a Z on a billboard a mile away!) I liked having Daddy (a Baptist pastor by trade) to ourselves with no one to minister to but us. I liked that Mother was free from her at-home responsibilities. In that station wagon we found hours of forced respite, hours of what would now be called quality time.
We would arrive at our destination, spill out of our car, and race to the bathroom or the fridge, whichever need was greatest. Tins of homemade goodies beckoned us to just taste one. Packages, their bows crushed from the journey, fought for a place under the tree. Hugs and laughter, "You're it!" "Come See!" Refreshed from hours of unhurried family and private time, we were ready to celebrate!
And so it is with advent, our journey to Christmas. My prayer is that this year, I will take time to prepare my heart for the celebration of Christ. This year, I want to spend the Advent season resting in Christ so that, when the time comes, I can fully celebrate Jesus' birth.
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
Original Publication: July 31, 2012
“Oh, she’ll be fine!” “She’ll love it there!” “She is so ready for this new stage!” (And my personal favorite . . .) “Honey, it will be much worse on you than it will on her.”
True. Every single statement: absolutely true. In fact, because everyone knows these things are true, you will never need to say them to another mother whose child is going away to college. She already knows this stuff. Trust me (more on this in a later post).
But NOT saying something can be so difficult can’t it?
For example, if someone has a stomach bug, it takes true restraint for me NOT to tell them to drink plenty of water. Everyone knows that gastrointestinal upset in the extreme can lead to dehydration. I know that everyone knows this. But I feel the urge to tell them, just in case they’ve been living under a rock.
Here’s another one. I’ve actually tried not to say this; I can’t do it. My kids leave this house, keys in their hands, and I’m going to say . . . (say it with me now) . . . “Drive carefully!” I can’t help myself.
There are more critical times than these though, when people seriously do not need our comments.
Like when my sister was pregnant. She had a highly uncommon obstetric liver disorder that caused her to itch constantly, from the inside out. It was miserable, plus it was life-threatening to her and to her baby. She finally got some relief from an internationally renowned specialist and both she and the baby managed just fine, but here’s the thing: long before any doctors knew what was causing her symptoms, complete strangers would come to her aid.
“Have you tried lanolin? That stuff is amazing!”
“No, go with cocoa butter. It’s better.”
“Girl you need to get yourself some hydrocortisone cream. That’ll take care of you.”
Naturally, she had tried all these things and dozens more before she got her diagnosis. She knew all that and was painfully tired of hearing such things. In fact, not only did she not need to hear their advice, she really needed not to talk about her maddening condition at all.
The truth is, people usually do not need us to correct, advise, counsel, or admonish them. They need only for us to be with them: completely—silently—with them.
“That pizza smells good,“ my four-year-old nephew Banks said, his blue eyes sparkling. We were sitting on the back porch of the cottage where our family (16 of us in all) was staying for a week of fun in White Lake, NC. Banks and I were working on a craft project while others were splashing in the lake or working in the kitchen. I had the terribly burdensome task of amusing the youngest, and cutest, of our ranks.
“It does smell good, Banks. I love pizza,” I told him.
“Is pizza your favorite thing?” he asked me, not looking at me, still focused on his task.
“No, pizza’s not nearly my favorite thing. “
“Well what is, then? “ Banks looked up at me then, his head tilted to one side as he waited for my answer.
“One of my favorite things,“ I said, meeting his gaze, “Is playing with my nephew.“
Banks nodded without changing his expression, and went back to work. In a few minutes he questioned me again.
“Nephew. Is that somebody that you love?” Banks, not knowing the meaning of the word, “nephew,“ had figured it out for himself.
“That’s right, buddy, a nephew is somebody that you love.“
(Originally published August 15, 2008; Banks' birthday is October 7.)
Recently, my daughter moved to Brooklyn to attend New York University in pursuit of her PhD. Other than the airports, I had never been to New York City and had no burning desire to change that. As a southerner born and bred, I’m not about to seek out cities that don’t understand the goodness of hot buttered grits, home-made peach cobbler, and sweet iced tea. It was with no small sense of trepidation that I visited this foreign region north of the Mason-Dixon line.
And cover me with kudzu, but I liked it! My favorite thing—other than my daughter of course—was the public transportation. Do you know that in NYC, you can walk to a designated spot, and a train will come and take you where you want to go? It’s true! You don’t even have to own a car, much less drive one. It’s amazing. AND, you have a built-in workout in every day because, not having a car, you walk everywhere you want to go. Awesome! Here are just a few of the other things I saw in NYC while I was there.
Here are a few pictures illustrating the above plus a few more of the other interesting things I spotted. (Comment below and tell me your favorite thing about NYC!)
We always draw the attention of strangers as we—nearly 20 of us—claim our spot on the beach. It’s impossible for our cumbersome crew to go unnoticed: a half-dozen pale-skinned adults slick with sunscreen, eight bathing-suit-clad Caucasian cousins ages 9 to 18, and one African preschooler whose skin tone matches the color of rich, dark chocolate. So even on South Carolina beaches where almost anything goes, we are the exception.
It all started when my cousin lost her ever-loving mind. I found out from my mother, who called me to give me the news.
“You are not going to believe what your cousin Kathi is doing. You are. Not. Going. To. BeLIEVE it.”
Kathi is about ten years older than I am. Despite a life laced with heartbreak and disappointment, Kathi has done well for herself. She’s always been employed: factories in the early years, grocery stores for most of the last twenty. She owns her own home and has developed a network of faithful friends and beloved family. Her two sons, who she raised without the help of her ex-husband, their dad, grew into responsible, hard-working, family men.
“Kathi is taking in a 3-year old African child,” Mother said.
“Come again?” I figured I’d misheard.
“Your 50+ year old cousin is taking in a toddler from another country.” Mother proceeded to tell me the rest of the story. (For the sake of privacy and protection, I’ll refer to the child as Little One.)
Little One’s mother, a friend of a friend of a friend, was incarcerated and needed someone to keep her child for just two weeks. Kathi didn’t know the mother and neither did the woman who called her. To sane folk, the whole thing sounded like a legal disaster. We cautioned Kathi. We advised her. We insisted she procure some official statement of custody. She listened, but as I said, she’d lost her mind right about the time she learned of this child in need. (It might also be possible that Kathi’s mind was right where it was supposed to be, being transformed.)
Little One moved in and soon everyone who loved Kathi loved the child. Two weeks came and went ten times and after five months the mother saw fit to reclaim her child. By then, the bond between my cousin and Little One was strong enough to last.
So for the last three summers, Little One has been with us on the beach: playing in the surf, building sand castles, looking for shells, never out of sight of this new family-in-love. And at some point, salty and sleepy, Little One seeks out Kathi and climbs into her lap.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” Kathi says in response to our praise of her selfless actions. She enfolds the sandy brown hand resting on her knee into her own; the child leans back, snuggled against the shoulder that has proven so reliable. “Little One needed a place to stay. God told me to offer my home. So I did.”
And to Kathi, it really was—is—that simple.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2
During the last 3-4 years, my mother has had more knee replacements than anyone ought to have in a lifetime. It's a long complicated story, but suffice to say you do NOT want to get an infection when you get a knee replacement. Curing that infection is not a matter of proper rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and a prescription for a Z-pack. It's an ordeal that requires not one, but two additional surgeries, along with in-home IV antibiotics and so much more. And all that was just for the first knee. Getting the second one done was yet to come--overcompensating as it was for the pain and infection in knee-number-one. It's been ridiculously frustrating and also rather frightening for Mother and therefore for all of us who love her.
You can imagine, then, my alarm when my sister called last night, beginning the conversation with, "Mama's fine. She's fine, really. She's in the Emergency Room, but she's fine." Naturally, I assumed that she was not fine in the least. Worst case scenarios raced through my psyche at a heartwrenching pace. Thankfully, Mother really is fine. It is not a blood clot as first thought; instead it is a common and treatable (though painful) condition that is (somewhat) easily corrected. Last night, the emergency personnel conducted the appropriate tests, applied the necessary treatment, and released her. As a matter of fact, she called me first thing this morning, sounding just like herself, getting ready to head to church. So she's fine. (Allow me to remind myself of this one more time, if you will; it's been our experience that where Mother's knees are concerned, everything is serious. She's okay though. Really.)
But that's not the whole story. Not even close.
My parents, though they are 79 and 81, are business owners who lead full, complex lives. (If something happened to either of them, our whole family would feel as if they'd been struck down in their youth.) Back in 2001, Mother and Daddy purchased Together Forever Wedding Chapel in North Myrtle Beach, SC; in 2008, my brother and his family moved to North Myrtle Beach to join our parents in operating Together Forever. So when Mother's knee gave out on her Saturday, my sister-in-law was nearby; Hal and Daddy were there too, completing one wedding and preparing to begin the next one. Mother wasn't in such dire straits that she wanted the business to come to a standstill to attend to her needs, so when she decided she should go to the ER, she asked her daughter-in-law to take her. After confirming the plan with Daddy and Hal, Mother and Kim took off, sans husbands.
Now, I have never taken for granted--I don't think--the gift of my sister-in-law's love for my parents. Even before she married my brother, Kim has been committed to our parents. She doesn't think her devotion to them is anything that remarkable; it's just who she is. But I recognize her unselfish commitment as extraordinary. You see last night, as my sister Dawn and I talked on the phone, trying to suppress our urges to drive straight to North Myrtle Beach, we would remind each other in turn, "Kim is there. Everything will be okay." We knew that Kim would not allow our mother (who--let's be honest--is a force to be reckoned with in her own right) to be ignored or overlooked. We knew that together they would ask the right questions. "Kim would tell us if we should go down." We could sit still, trusting Mother to speak for herself and Kim to back her up. "Don't worry. Kim's with her." And because she was there, we could breathe in and breathe out while we held our phones in our hands, waiting for an update. "Kim will tell us if she knows anything at all." We never doubted it.
That's power: the power of a sister who joined our family through marriage and instantly committed to be there for all of us, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.
It was the second time in a week I had experienced the power of a sister.
My own beloved mother-in-law has been seriously ill for most of the summer. She was admitted to the hospital (for the umpteenth time this summer) on Friday, July 28, 2017. At the time, I was actually in North Myrtle Beach for my family's annual gathering there. When he heard the news about his mother, my husband Jay, who had not yet left Asheville, went immediately to his parents' home that Friday night. He spent most of Saturday in the hospital with his mother and was about to go over on Sunday morning when his dad called him from his cell phone.
"Jay, come to the hospital now. Overnight, your mother's health took a dangerous turn. Come now." He quickly explained to Jay that his mother had been moved to the Intensive Care Unit and was having a procedure done that required anesthesia. Now, my mother-in-law has had muscular dystrophy for 50 years or more and her lungs and heart don't always play nicely together any more. Adding anesthesia into that cocktail of concerns could end badly. Not doing the procedure would definitely end badly though, so they made plans to proceed.
As Jay got into the car, he called his sister with the urgent message; simultaneously, I happened to call my father-in-law. When he answered, he was distraught, beside himself with fear and anxiety. I'd never--in 30 years of marriage plus 2 and 1/2 years of dating--heard him sound that way. It was heartbreaking. I awakened my daughters to go with me to the hospital which, under the best conditions, was a ninety minute drive. Next, I called my son's fiance; my son was about to lead in worship at his church so I was hesitant to call him directly. I knew Addison would handle it and that together they would figure something out. (They were more than two and a half hours away, but arrived at the hospital as soon as possible.)
Oh wait. Did I mention that I had just had bilateral carpal tunnel surgery? Yeah, so that was about a week and a half old at that point. Pain was still pretty pronounced and function still limited to the slightest tasks. The surgeon's post-op directions had said to avoid using my hands for lifting anything over two pounds, or pushing, pulling, or twisting. (You might be surprised at how many activities those restrictions eliminate.)
"Get food, don't lift anything heavy, get caffeine, what else do I need, where are the girls, don't hurt your hands, is there anyone else to call, maybe there's a shortcut, is Jay at the hospital yet . . . " My brain was grabbing at whatever it could find so that it didn't have to process the possibility of losing my mother-in-law. It didn't work. "What if she dies what if she dies what if she dies what if she dies what if she dies . . . " it was the cadence of the cacophony in my mind.
"I'm going with you." My sister, laden with a knitting project or two and her sling bag, wasn't asking me. She was ready to go when we walked out the door.
"I don't want to take you away from everyone," I looked from Dawn to Mother and around at the rest of the family.
"It's what we do," Mother said. "This is what we do."
We arrived at the hospital, emotion running high. The procedure was to take 15 minutes and when we arrived it had already been 45.
Dawn took a seat across the waiting room, present yet not intrusive. "I'll just be over here if you need me," she said, taking out her knitting.
I did need her. I needed her, for example, to run errands--it turns out that even in a crisis, people need to eat and dogs need potty breaks. But I also needed her to share the experience with Jay and me and the rest of the family. I needed her to be there in the flesh. My first best friend and playmate, my teacher and mentor, my friend and confidante. My sister's presence helped me to be my best self. That's a powerful presence right there.
Incidentally, all 12 of my mother-in-law's immediate family members made it to see her when she came out of anesthesia. She's still recovering, but for now the urgency has subsided. She welcomes your prayers for her continued improvement, as do we all.
So there you have it. Two mothers plus two sisters, at least in my life in the last week, equals the circumstances surrounding one emergency room visit plus one critical ICU patient, raised--that is, lifted--from untethered desperation to grounded hope by the power of two loving sisters.
Also, one more thing. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that when Hal learned what was happening, his response was, "I'm so glad Dawn could go. If she hadn't been able to go, I would have gone with Aileen."
It's what we do. It's just what we do.
It’s my 52nd birthday. Here (in no particular order) are 52 of my favorites.