When Mother's phone rang, she was delighted to see my cousin's name on caller id. Peggy and Mother text daily and Mother figured the call was just a routine check-in. It was not. Peggy's 88 year old mother, Ann Mitchell, had passed away in the wee hours of that morning. Peggy was calling to tell Mother the news. (Ann was the wife of my dad's brother Edward.)
Though she was shocked by this news, Mother had been expecting to learn of a sister-in-law's passing. Just not that one. Her sister-in-law Iris Martin (the wife of her brother who passed in February this year) had been under Hospice care for several days. She knew that call would come at any minute; and it did, later that day. Iris passed away peacefully that same night, less than 20 hours after Ann's passing.
The next morning I called Mother to check on her and Daddy, to see how they were coping after such a grief-filled day.
"Well," she said. "Its hard. Life is fragile. These are more reminders of that."
I agreed and repeated my sympathies to her. We talked some more about the lives of these two women, recalled stories, and shared memories.
"It is sad," she went on. "It is so very sad, especially since we can't have proper services for them." She's quick to add that the quarantine is worth the inconvenience and she's happy to wear a mask if it keeps people well; that doesn't mean there are not difficulties though. Not having funeral or memorial services for loved ones is indeed hard; Mother is right to grieve that loss.
"I loved Ann and Iris dearly; I am grateful for their lives and am sad they are gone." She paused, took a breath, and continued. "But, Daddy and I are just going to keep on living," she continued. "We are going to exercise and eat right and take our vitamins. We are going to do everything we can to embrace the life we have been given and not take one second of it for granted."
CAVEAT: Mother knows good and well that the 15 children/spouses and grandchildren/spouses in her immediate family cannot bear even the mention of losing either her or Daddy. There's a chance she was doing what she has done since she became a mother: taking care of her child. By speaking hope in the face of grief, she certainly protected me from additional pain. She's like that.
The call ended--Mother had to get to her exercise--but the wisdom she imparted during that conversation has been bumping around in my brain ever since. And it seems to me, it boils down to this: gratitude. See, losing these two sisters-in-law brought Mother & Daddy's losses to 10 family or friends-like-family in about two years. It's a lot. But Mother chooses to be grateful even in her grief. She's grateful to have loved those she lost. She's grateful for her children and grandchildren and husband and friends. But that's not all. My mother's automatic reaction is gratitude. Really.
I don't know if she's always been this way--I certainly remember a number of parental lectures that could hardly be described as appreciative in nature--but I have noticed that Mother isn't getting so much older as she is wiser. These days, her default is gratitude--whether it's for the nice clerk at the store, the birds in her yard, or the comfort of her favorite chair.
(For the record, Daddy has ALWAYS been optimistic, a real Happy-Head; he's been known to be grateful for bumper to bumper traffic: "So good to have all these tourists supporting our businesses down here!" Insert eye-rolling emoji.)
These are uncertain days for sure. Adding gratitude into the mix doesn't mean we discount the difficulty. Gratitude and grief do not cancel each other out; but having a grateful heart surely does make the grief easier to bear. In Philippians 4:6, the Apostle Paul says it like this: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God."
At the top of my gratitude list is the gift of healthy parents who still teach me every day. And also computers. And beagles. And a working washing machine and dryer. And lots of other stuff . . . . What about you? What fills your heart with thanksgiving?
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'd just finished teaching last night when my youngest child arrived. We had an errand to run so her brother dropped her off at the college to save us time. I introduced Margaret to one of my students who was still hanging around in the hall.
"Margaret, this is Zach*, a student in my class."
Margaret responded as she always does to new people: blushing, she gave a quick nonsmile as she began her escape.
"Hi Margaret, I'm Zach." The student spoke to her back. We were already walking away when the student added, "You have an amazing mom!"
"Thank you!" I responded to Zach, then linked my arm with Margaret's and joked, "Don't you wish you had a nickel for every time you've heard that!"
"I'd have a nickel," she said (smarty pants), "No wait, I'd have a bunch more than that. My grade** loves you. Even Ethan likes you. I don't know why he likes you."
(Evidently getting Ethan's approval is an accomplishment.)
So yesterday, as I lay down at the end of my day having forgotten to blog, I felt grateful to be loved. It is so very nice to be loved.
I shop at Trader Joe's for a zillion good reasons: fair prices, great selection of quality foods and hard-to-find items, efficient organization, and cheerful and knowledgeable staff. All that, and their greeting cards are the best I’ve found.
The incident I describe below, though, surpasses all those reasons and gets to a level of humanity that is often lost in today’s commercialism. So this thank you,* number 13, goes out to Trader Joe's: in a field of massive conglomer-marts, you are the real deal.
I was checking out at Trader Joes, when a young man appeared, took my empty grocery bags from the counter beside the cash register, and began bagging my groceries. He didn’t make eye contact, but I knew he’d meant the question for me.
“I absolutely want to hear a fun math fact,” I told him. He quickly glanced up at me then back down at his work.
“Have you ever heard of the Birthday Paradox?”
It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember what it was, so I said that I had not.
“Let’s say you had 23 people in a room. There’s a 50% chance that two people in that room will have the same birthday.”
I found that hard to believe. He went on to explain it though, and in the moment it made complete sense to me. (I confess I didn’t retain the knowledge, but that’s on me, not my impromptu teacher.) Turns out the Birthday Paradox is a complex and well known statistics phenomenon that apparently has a number of applications. He explained it to me in the time it took him to bag less than $50 worth of groceries.
“That’s so interesting!” I told him.
“I know.” He responded without surprise and headed towards the next customer who could become his student.
Now, as amazing as this interaction was, it was what happened next that was most noteworthy. While all this was going on, the cashier--a taller than average, clean-cut young man in his twenties I’d guess—went about his own work. He’d finished ringing up my groceries, but waited to give me the total until the Birthday Paradox lesson ended.
I looked up at him, expecting one of two reactions: either an eye roll of irritation, or a patronizing gesture of feigned tolerance. Actually, I didn’t know that’s what I expected until I got something else entirely.
“That guy is a genius,” he said, with not a flicker of pity. “I learn something from him every day.”
Now just let that settle in a moment. The cashier is a handsome, competent, socially adept guy who probably has a lifetime seat at the cool kids table. The bagger has none of that intrinsic privilege and is, I’m just positive, on the autistim spectrum. Yet the cashier used his position to elevate the bagger, and effectively squelched any possibility of judgement or discrimination. Extraordinary.
*In a continued celebration of my 50th birthday on 7-22-2015, I'm writing 50 thank you notes in 50 weeks.
It was, no question, one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.
We had met years previously at a community center program when our kids were little. I think it was called Tiny Tots? Maybe Toddler Time? I’m not sure.
Anyway, we had a lot in common. Her two kids were the same ages as my older two; we were both stay-at-home moms; and we had a similar sense of humor. I was always glad to see her at Tiny Toddlers where we would exchange stories of runny noses, sibling squabbles, and pet escapades. Soon, our kids went to each other’s birthday parties and enjoyed playdates outside of the monthly Tot Time at the community center.
Surely before we ever had our extracurricular get-togethers, she knew the truth about my . . . well . . . my tendency to underestimate the amount of time it takes me to . . . um . . . get places. I can’t prove it, but I’m sure there were times I wasn’t exactly punctual to Time for Tots; so she had to know that I had this shortcoming.
By the time of the one-of-the-nicest-things-anyone-has-ever-said-to-me comment, our kids were in elementary school, so we’d known each other five or more years. That day, we were supposed to meet at a lake; Lake James, I think.
Oh wait. There’s something else. See one of the many reasons I underestimate the time it takes me to get to my destination, is that I so often get lost. You see, I was born without a sense of direction. It’s a serious disability. No kidding, I even got lost in Buies Creek, NC when I was a student at Campbell University. Now, if you are unfamiliar with Campbell, just know that Buies Creek is every bit as small as it sounds.
Okay, so I had looked at the map—luckily, I can read a map—and I thought I knew where I was going. No, I did. I did know how to get there. The problem was (I so hate to admit this) I . . . um . . . how should I put this? Ok fine, I’ll just blurt it out: I managed to get on the interstate going in the opposite direction and didn’t realize this for a good 15 miles. No, of course I didn’t notice the exit numbers were going down instead of up. I had three children and probably a beagle in my van so I missed that little detail. Whatever.
I did have a cell phone with me—a flip phone with an antenna as I recall—but back then it was so expensive to make calls, I rarely used it. OKAY fine! I’d probably already used up all my free minutes for the month. Sheesh. The point is, I didn’t call my friend until I knew I was going in the right direction and I had a good idea of when I might get there.
By the time I called, I was in a frenzy, on the verge of tears, furious at myself for doing this, again.
“Hi Tamara,” I said when she picked up. “I’m so sorry I’m late. [Insert the long explanation of my untimeliness from above.]”
And that’s when she said it.
“Aileen, I learned a long time ago that you run late. I decided that I value our friendship enough that I wouldn’t let that one little thing get to me. So relax. It’s okay. I’ll be glad to see you when you get here. We’re fine.”
Ahhhhh. Go ahead: take a sip of that tall drink of mercy. Sweet, isn’t it? Refreshing. Life-giving even.
Surely I thanked her then; but at the time, I didn’t know how that moment of grace and forgiveness would inform future relationships in my life. It turns out that since grace was given so abundantly to me, I, in return, am more gracious with others. Grace works that way.
So this thank you note is for you Tamara. Thank you for a comment you probably don’t remember, one you made a decade ago, that continues to bless me to this very day. I will forever appreciate your generous gift of grace. And I promise I will continue to pay it forward!
Dear Mrs. Doris,
The Storehouse Ministry you have established at your church is a blessing to so many. In an effort to thank you for all the ways you have impacted your world, I wrote this story about a day I spent volunteering at Storehouse.
“Okay! Everyone on the porch!”
The volunteers pour out of the house that used to be the church parsonage. Now, the three-bedroom, brick ranch is home to the Storehouse Ministry: a program that has grown into one of the most productive and efficient food pantries in the region.
“I believe we’re ready,” she tells us. Grocery carts are lined up on the sidewalk; bags of canned goods are piled on the steps. Under the carport around the corner, fresh bread and baked goods are stacked in the bed of a pick-up; frozen foods will be added at the backdoor. The line of recipients has started forming on the other side of the carport; Mrs. Doris’ table is along the back. From there, she and other volunteers will greet each person: checking id’s and credentials while chatting about life this week. Mrs. Doris knows them all. She asks them about the specifics of their lives, remembering them from months, years gone by. She hugs them, she laughs with them, and by her very demeanor she reminds them that they matter, that they are loved.
Back on the porch, the volunteers—that day there were more than 20 of us (when she started this ministry, Doris Johnson was one of a two person team)—circle up, squeezing in shoulder to shoulder. They come from her church and other local congregations; but they also come from the community—from Doris’ community. Some worked on the farm she used to have. Some started here as recipients and have stayed on to help. There are wealthy people here, and people who receive public assistance. They are African-American and Caucasian, neighborhood locals and people who haven’t yet learned English.
(Looking around the porch that day, I see a glimpse of the Kingdom.)
“We’ve got a great group here today,” Ms. Doris begins. “And of course, all of us have stuff going on in our lives.” She lists needs among us and names a few of her own. “But we’re going to put all that aside right now and serve these people who’ve come our way. We’re here because Jesus calls us to feed the hungry and we’re going to do just that.”
In a few minutes, we would leave that porch and everyone would get busy filling carts and helping recipients load their groceries. Each recipient (unless Ms. Doris knows of special circumstances and makes an exception) will get a single cart that has been filled to beyond the top with canned foods, dry goods, fruits and vegetables, proteins, and treats.
Most families are allotted a single monthly visit to this ministry. Ms. Doris says the food we provide will not last the whole month; it will last around a week, depending on circumstances. “But,” she tells us, “We do what we can. And we do it in Jesus’ name.”
Ms. Doris turns to me. “We have a guest here today. She’s a seminary graduate, a youth minister in North Carolina. I’m going to ask you to say our opening prayer, Aileen; and folks if you meet someone today in need of prayer, Aileen will be here to minister to them.”
See to Doris Johnson, delivering groceries to people in need is important; sharing the love of Jesus, though, is transformative. So every cart that is filled with food is also covered with prayer; every person who comes through the line for service is seen as a beloved child of God.
“Let us pray,” I invited the group. And we bowed our heads, committing that day to Kingdom work.
Doris Johnson, you are the very face of Christ to so many. Thank you for who you are and for all you do in Jesus’ name. Your example teaches me so much about how to honor God. May the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ be with you always.
With grateful heart,
That’s who I am thankful for today. How about you? Who would you like to thank?
1. I can worship however I want. Or not. Church. I love it.
2. Public School. I take it for granted (I do) that my kids have gotten to go to school in their own neighborhood for the cost of supplies and minimal fees.
3. Washington, DC. Love that city: the restaurants, the museums, the history.
4. Rosa Parks. What a woman. Proud to say we share the same nationality.
5. The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Because of this legislation, I have friends and mentors I never would have known. Thanks be to God.
7. The Gettysburg Address. These few words carry a magnitude of meaning. Also the economy of verbiage taught me more about writing than any class ever has.
8. Public Libraries. Ahhh. Where memories are made and dreams are formed.
9. Blue Ridge Mountains. Home.
10. Gardner-Webb University. My third and favorite alma mater.
11. The South. Flawed though it may be, it is still my home. And I love it.
12. Free Speech. I have a lot to say.
13. Roger Williams. He was nearly 30 when he arrived on North American shores, but what he did for religious freedom in America transformed our future.
15. Jury Duty. I've got opinions.
16. Voting. Lots of opinions . . .
17. Fourth of July Fireworks. Caveat: OFFICIAL 4th of July fireworks. All the booms and explosions in backyards for the week preceding the actual event drive me kind of crazy--mainly because my beloved Charlie (may he rest in peace) was terrified of them. But the actual celebrations? The official, safe, sanctioned productions? Oh I love those. So beautiful, so exciting, so fun.
18. Denzel Washington. I like beauty. I just do.
What is something you love about America?
My friend Trevar Simmons met Sherry Ingram when he interviewed with her for a job back in 2007. They became friends and remained close for the next six years. In 2013 they realized they were falling for each other; they were married 12 days ago. To my great frustration, I was not able to attend the wedding. I wrote this prayer for them, in celebration of their love and marriage. (Trevar blogs at http://trevar.blogspot.com.)
March 1, 2014
Thank you for the love that you have created between Sherry and Trevar. As we look on this love, we see your hand in its intricate design, its deep formation. We look at them loving each other and we experience the kind of divine wonder we feel when we behold natural beauty: a sunset over the mountains, the expanse of the ocean, a new song by the neighborhood mockingbird. We are brought to our knees by the magnificence of it, and we are grateful.
In seeing how Sherry and Trevar love each other, we are reminded of your complete love for us. The way you give to us abundantly, joyfully. The way you laugh when we laugh and cry when we cry. The way you indulge our need for second chances, and third ones. You love us in our brokenness. You love us in our foolishness. You love us like crazy.
We praise you God, that Sherry and Trevar, by loving each other like you love us, have called us back into your embrace. We feel at home here. We feel at peace. We feel loved.
May the home that Sherry and Trevar build together always be one that radiates the peace and love that they feel in this moment. May their marriage surprise them with fresh joy and encourage them with lasting hope. And may their love, so vibrant now, grow ever more so day by love-filled day.
God in your mercy, Hear my prayer.
My kids know him as “That Guy Who Held His Plate Upright In The Cafeteria.” When we were in college, my friend David and I made lots of memories; but it’s difficult—at least in the retelling—to top the plate story.
Here’s what happened. Back in those days, colleges didn’t have food courts like they do today. Choices were . . . well . . . limited. (Usually limited to “take it” or “leave it.”) That particular day, the entrée available was chicken chow mien; we took it. And we left it untouched on our plates during the hour or so we spent chatting in the crowded dining hall.
Now, it just so happened that the chicken chow mien prepared in the 1980’s Marshbanks Cafeteria had a certain gelatinous quality, adhesive even. So David, upon discovering his meal had coagulated, forming what appeared to be a permanent bond with its serving dish, tilted the thing—millimeter by millimeter—until he held it vertical, perpendicular to the table. We nodded our approval, but David clearly needed more.
As we looked on, still processing the view of Buies Creek cuisine epoxied to ceramic, David pushed back from the table, stood, and quietly held the plate on display. As I recall it took only seconds for him to garner the attention of the entire room. Curious laughter morphed into appreciative applause. Bowing with a flourish, David gently returned the plate to its intended position, and took his seat.
And that is the story of “The Time David Held His Plate Upright In The Cafeteria.”
Today, seeing each other for the first time in 25 years, we recalled some of the great times we had as Campbell University co-eds. The memories brought laughter and not a little overdue embarrassment. But our visit was so much more than a nostalgic reliving of the past; today I was reminded that some friendships are just timeless. And for that, I am truly grateful.
I've been sorting through some writings on my computer and ran across this one I wrote several years ago about Cameron Brown. I was reminded as I read it what a blessing he is to me, and to so many others as well.
Cameron's Special Praise ©2008
The children’s choir program included skits, dances, sign language, and of course plenty of singing. Through it all, fifth grader Cameron Brown smiled from the front row to his parents and others in the congregation. He turned and looked at the children behind him. He patted the girl beside him and held her hand. He waved to people he knew. He never sang. Not once.
Rather than distracting his audience, though, Cameron Brown enhanced the experience for worshipers that Wednesday night. Cameron is special—in lots of ways. He’s exceptionally sweet and loving. Church members line up for his hugs and his smile lights up the sanctuary.
And Cameron learns differently than other children. Plus, he grows differently and that makes him a little less sure footed than most kids.
Near the end of the program, the children sang a song while they signed it in American Sign Language. Cameron knew one sign. He watched all the other children and when they got to the word “praise,” Cameron, just like his friends, lifted his hands heavenward.
So a special “Thank You” today to Cameron for his leadership. He has most assuredly chosen the most excellent way.