Service, Please

“…But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody…”
(1979) “Gotta Serve Somebody” Written and Recorded By: Bob Dylan

Dylan had gone through a spiritual heart conversion, and with it came this song. Many scoffed at it, including John Lennon, who cruelly responded publicly with his own cut entitled, “Serve Yourself”. It was one of Lennon’s final recordings before his death.

His name was, Uncle Doss. At least that’s how I knew him. He was an intriguing, somewhat mysterious man in my early childhood. I was always trying to figure him out.

My Grandmother Swindell lived in the country, just about six miles away from my grandparent’s house in Greenville, Texas. Now, I realize that sentence looks odd, but allow me to explain.

You might be wondering how many grands did I have as the crow flies. Ella Swindell was my grandmother’s mom. Although she was my Great-Grandmother Swindell, my mom called her, “Grandmother”, so I did, too.

To describe her at all would be best done to mention Aunt Bea (Frances Bavier) from The Andy Griffith Show. Although shorter than Frances Bavier, she dressed just like her. Her hair was arranged as Aunt Bea, most of the time. And on Sunday, like Aunt Bea, she wore the little pill hat, combined with a thin netting veil over her face, white cotton dress gloves, and a small black patent leather purse with a short strap. Oh, and yes, she had the “work your fingers to the bone” ethic, with the quick on the draw attitude of Aunt Bea. She was a green-thumb, no-nonsense, get-it-done worker of the soil. My mom called her a workhorse of a woman.

Photo: Wikipedia: The Andy Griffith Show -CBS. Frances Bavier. as Aunt Bea.

Generally, a few times a year in the early to late 1960’s, we visited her little cottage, out in the east Texas farm country, during weekend visits to my grandparent’s house. (If you’re a longtime blogging friend of mine, you might recall that I have written a snippet about Ella Swindell before. However, it’s been a long while.) We would drive down the county dirt road, passing corn and cotton fields, then pull up onto her makeshift driveway of chalky white rocks. I couldn’t wait to jump out in my cowboy boots, crisp blue jeans, and straw cowboy hat, run through her pasture behind the little frame house, and explore the old, haunted barn which rattled and groaned in the Hunt County winds. This city boy truly loved the adventure.

After I was called from the house porch to sit and visit, I would bounce through her opened screen door, greeted by her little Manchester black dog called, “Little Bit”. There was always a memorable aroma wafting from her tiny kitchen as we inched our way toward lunchtime, (Dinnertime, in her vernacular.) She made the best cornmeal fried okra and fried yellow squash you can possibly imagine, all grown from her garden. After hugging my 4′-11″ish Grandmother Swindell, I would immediately ask where Uncle Doss was, if he wasn’t already sitting in his chair in the far back corner of the front living room. Usually, her reply went something like; “Awe, he’ll be along dreckly. He knows when to come eat.” Being such a young lad, I didn’t have my arms around just why Uncle Doss wasn’t always around. After all, he was not what you would call friendly, sociable, or a chatter box. In fact, he was the opposite. He was evidently born without facial expressions, complete sentences, and topical interests. Yet, I couldn’t wait to see him.

Nobody had told me just yet how older generational married couples of certain upbringing lived. A good example was the fact Uncle Doss and Grandmother Swindell had separate bedrooms. Anytime I went to the back of the house toward the back door, which opened up to the back pasture, his room was the door just prior to the back exit. The door was always shut when visiting. My curious little brain always wanted to put my ear to the door to hear if he was in there. The temptation to slowly turn the glass doorknob for a quick covert peek into his domain was great. Before I had a chance to try the door, I usually heard; “Alan, leave your Uncle Doss be!” From kindergarten through 4th grade, I spent a week with my Grandmother Swindell during summer vacation. Once I ventured toward the back of the house, while she was out picking green beans for dinner (Supper, in her vernacular.) When I turned the corner for the back door, I saw his bedroom door wide opened. I tip-toed across the creaking wooden plank floor and took a gander. He was away fishing, or down at the general store trading fishing lures with some other old men in overalls. The room looked like something from a ranch bunkhouse for hired hands. It had a vaulted ceiling, and was just big enough for a single spring bed, a small chest-of-drawers, and a closet. I remember being amazed at how tiny it was. Maybe more amazed why he closed himself up in there whenever he was home.

But there we were, visiting with my Grandmother Swindell and Little Bit as he jumped into our laps begging for scratches behind his ears. When it came time for lunch, you could always expect the back door to open and close as Uncle Doss arrived from wherever he had been that particular day. As Uncle Doss walked into the the living room, I would look up at this tall, thin elderly man with a full head of snow white straight hair, ever-present stubble on his carved handsome face with bushy eyebrows. I was always stunned at how long his nose hairs were. I regret I don’t have a photo of him, but he looked a lot like the old western movie star, Randolph Scott.

RANDOLPH SCOTT PHOTO BY:ROBERT ABRUSCATO/MICHELSON/GLOBE PHOTOS, INC

Unlike Randolph Scott, he was not dapper, or even clean most of the time. He smelled of hay, dead fish, and chewing tobacco. He wore old faded denim overalls, a farmer’s cap, and dirty old lace-up rounded toe boots. With a sparkle in my eye, my exuberance in seeing him again would blurt out like water from a spillway, “Hi, Uncle Doss!” My Grandmother Swindell was regularly and surprisingly a bit sharp with him, “Doss, you go get yourself cleaned up right now! It’s dinnertime. Be quick about it. And scrape off those boots, for Pete’s sake!” He would nod his head at us in a down-home greeting, grunt at her, and head off to the bathroom built just for him. As a kid, I thought it funny, and a bit scary, how he was clearly older than she, and yet she inflicted her husband with such a quick tongue in front of us. Frankly, it was a tad embarrassing.

After a made-from-scratch country lunch, which could win awards at the State Fair Of Texas, we would sit a bit longer in the living room, complete with sweetened iced tea, for more east Texas accented chatter. That was my cue to prepare to head out the door to have make-believe adventures in the old rickety barn, and visit a my great-aunt Madge across the dirt road for a slice of freshly baked homemade pecan or apple pie. No doubt, that woman baked all day, every day. She was invariably such a joy to spend time with, and treated me as if I were the only boy on the planet. But she knew I wouldn’t stay long. After all, there were hay stacks to jump on, and corn fields to get lost in.

Prior to my quick escape from the Swindell cottage, I would try to get Uncle Doss to talk with me. After lunch he would sit in his corner chair and light up his pipe. I would sit on the floor in front of him, next to his tobacco spittin’ can, made from a discarded coffee can, with his knees about eye level to me. My goal was to launch my usual start-up questions. “What kind of a pipe is that, Uncle Doss?” Or, “How long have you been wearing those old dirty overalls?” Or, “Can I touch your prickly whiskers?” (He would allow it. As if it were yesterday, it felt like sandpaper.) Otherwise, if he gave me answers, they were usually one or two word sentences coming from his stone face, “Yep”, “Nope”, and “Oh, a bit.” The dog, Little Bit, loved that old man. Anytime Uncle Doss planted himself in his chair, Little Bit abandoned whatever lap he was on, hopping right up on his dusty lap in one leap. By the time I got back from running around the countryside, Uncle Doss would be gone, or shut-up in his small back room. It didn’t seem like much of a marriage to me, not like the union my grandparents displayed day in and day out.

Later in my childhood, maybe third grade, I was saddened, as well as curious, when finding Uncle Doss in a bed in the front living room off in the corner where his chair would normally sit. I didn’t ask questions of him. I think my mom prepared me beforehand. Although surprised by the living room bed, she must have simply told me he was sick and needed more rest. Frankly, seeing him in that bed spooked me just a little. For some reason I was feeling a little frightened by it all.

It was one of the last times I saw Uncle Doss. However, I did find out it was only a temporary illness at the time. Later, he didn’t need the bed in the living room.

Being a tiny bit afraid of my Uncle Doss was the norm. That may be why I tried so hard to get to know him better, which never happened. While in Jr, high school, after seeing the movie, “To Kill A Mockingbird”, I recognized the feeling I had for Uncle Doss in the view of the children constantly trying to understand their spooky, mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley. I then understood, Uncle Doss was my Boo Radley.

Photo: popsugar.com To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) Robert Duvall as Boo Radley

I’m not sure how old I was when my mom finally broke the news to me. There must have come a time when she thought I could handle the unfortunate truth concerning my Uncle Doss. My Uncle Doss was my Grandmother Swindell’s oldest brother, not her husband. If memory serves me right, there were six brothers, and two sisters in that clan, my grandmother Swindell being the youngest sister, the youngest of all of her sibs. My mom also let me know why Uncle Doss was such a strange individual. Even though he was the oldest, he was like a nine year old child. He was the only one in the family who was stricken with a mental disorder. Being born in the late 1880’s, very little was known on how and why childhood illnesses often caused long-term effects. I’ve been told, Uncle Doss was left with some slight brain damage after a hard bout with a version of the measles when he was a child. Today we know, acute encephalitis can be the result of a measles infection, causing permanent brain damage.

The family was mostly poor share croppers, working the black soil of east Texas, more times than not, travelling from one cotton farm to another, wherever there was work available. Their mother, my great-great-grandmother Molly, was an invalid. The title of, “Invalid” could have various definitions back in those days to country doctors. Nevertheless, their mother was a sickly woman, and unable to take care of her kids. So, Ella, dropped out of school at 2nd grade to become the caretaker of her mom and the sibs who were too young to take care of themselves.

After their mother, Molly died, Ella became the mom of the clan. After everyone was grown and went off on their own, Ella continued to take care of her dad and her oldest brother, Doss full-time.

Sometime in the teens, Ella Tapp became Ella Swindell when she married Claude Swindell, but it was understood how life would be. So, for many years she took care of the three men in her life until her husband died in the late 1940’s. (Records for that branch of my family are scarce. I’m unsure of actual dates of some events.)

This is Ella on the far left next to her daughter & son-in-law, (my grandparents), my mom as a baby, with her two brothers in front. Ella’s husband, Claude, my Great Grandfather Swindell in the back.

The Swindells and Athertons around 1945. Doss not pictured.

A couple of years after I was born in 1960, Ella’s dad passed away, leaving her with her brother, Doss.

In 1971, Doss got out of bed in his long-johns to find the kitchen dark and quiet. He wondered why his breakfast wasn’t waiting for him. After walking to his sister’s bedroom, he saw the door was still closed. He knocked and called her name, “Ella?” Silence. He tried the glass doorknob, opened the door to find her sleeping soundly under a sheet and blanket. He spoke to her again and again. She didn’t rouse. He approached her bed, nudged her, and found her to be cold. All attempts to wake her fell short. Because she was cold, he went back to his room to fetch his patchwork quilt she had made him and covered her. Uncle Doss lit up his pipe and sat in his chair for some time. Getting a little hungry, he called to her several times without any response. At that point he began to believe Aunt Madge, across the road, might be helpful in getting Ella out of bed. He walked over to his brother’s house, still in his long-johns, where his sister-in-law, Madge was busy washing dishes after breakfast. Still wearing her apron, my Aunt Madge rushed over to the cottage to find my Grandmother Swindell had easily roused…in the arms of Jesus at about 67/68 years old.

It may come as no surprise to let you know, my Uncle Doss Tapp passed away not long after, within the following year.

In short, if my Uncle Doss were here today, with a full healthy mind, he would testify of the great and strong servanthood his sister Ella display for her entire life. Literally, she gave over 60 years of her life to serve others. Unlike John Lennon’s response to Bob Dylan’s musical statement on finding someone to serve, without demanding something in return, was about an unselfishness, putting one’s “self” last.

A hero of mine gave 33 years of service to others. He taught the servant was more valuable than a ruling king. Much like today, he served during civil unrest, crude political scandals and unlawful corruption, economic hardships, incurable diseases among the public, violence in the streets, etc. Still, he found a way NOT to say, Every man for himself!

In that bright “gettin’ up” early morning, when my Aunt Madge walked into her sister-in-law’s bedroom, the words could’ve well been spoken of Ella, “Here is one who emptied herself out because of unconditional, gracious love.”

About ten years ago, after many decades had passed, I chose to drive out to my Grandmother Swindell’s old place in the country. Most all expected a new parking lot over her pasture with a sprawling office complex. Rumors about the area had grown concerning new neighborhoods of expansion for new home buyers, along with zoning for business developments. I was emotionally prepared, or so I thought. Yet, not much had changed down her dirt road. It’s been crudely paved now, but that’s almost all the change. When I turned the corner to that favorite stretch of familiar road, I saw my Aunt Madge’s old house still standing next to the cornfield. Shock came over me to find the old rickety haunted barn was still erect. Her pasture was still wild and free from builder’s dreams. Before I move on, have you ever smiled and shed tears at the same time? That’s what happened to me as I pulled up in front of her cottage, or rather, where her cottage once stood. Seeing that her little humble house had been removed wasn’t the cause of my facial reaction at all. Rather, it was the arranged perennial flowers which continued to bloom, outlining where the edge of her house once was, in a rectangle just where she planted them back in the early 1960’s.

God speaks in various ways, doesn’t He? I heard Him loud and clear that day.

The greatest servant of all is highlighted and illustrated in fuel for the race.

“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.” – Apostle Paul – 2 Timothy 4:6 (ESV)

Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number

“Rikki don’t lose that number
You don’t want to call nobody else
Send it off in a letter to yourself
Rikki don’t lose that number
It’s the only one you own
You might use it if you feel better
When you get home”
– (1974) “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number” Recorded By: Steely Dan Composers: Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

On my Facebook page I decided to have a little fun with an age old question for old rock consumers. The question was: “Did Rikki ever lose that number?” Considering the song was recorded in 1973, along with the reveal that Rikki was an old college girlfriend of Donald Fagen from Steely Dan, it could be Rikki is in her early 70’s now. If Rikki has already experienced cognitive issues, maybe Rikki no longer has knowledge of where that number may be.

Rikki Don't Lose That Number - Steely Dan.jpg
Photo: Wikipedia

While counting down the hours to Thanksgiving this year, I watched a news feature on the growth of Dementia and Alzheimer’s in our country. Because Alzheimer’s runs through the maternal side of my family, I was glued to the report. Contrary to popular belief, Dementia and Alzheimer’s are not one and the same. The “plaque” which appears in the brain seems to be the main monkey wrench in the gears of the mind. Also, there can be shrinkage of the brain matter itself. Dementia is a general term for a slip in mental abilities which gets in the way of everyday life. Dementia is NOT a disease, but considered a brain disorder. There are various kinds of Dementia, as well. Trust me, it’s complicated and a bit over my lay-person’s head. However, if one has Dementia, the symptoms can mean troubles in connecting names of loved ones, or others. One can find it more difficult to follow driving directions, communication skills and focus, the spelling of words, and losing items like…(wait for it)…phone numbers. In the days of yesteryear, it often was referred to as “senior moments.”

Not long ago I mentioned on this platform the fact that my 76 year old mom is now wrestling with a minor form of Dementia. It does appear to be a fading of figuring out how to use her cell phone, remembering names and places on the fly, and losing train of thought in conversation. It’s difficult for me in that she has always been a sharp person with an incredible skill of trouble-shooting and memory. Before spellcheck software, she was my spellcheck. Now, she’s almost given up on texting words. And yes, she’s very much aware of the cognitive decline. It is very concerning.

Photo: My mom, Carolyn Atherton-Brown

It was a bittersweet privilege to watch her be a selfless 24/7 caregiver for my grandparents. My granddad had Dementia issues, and my grandmother had full-blown Alzheimer’s Disease. There was a great deal I learned from her just observing how she handled the frustration of seeing her parents traveling downhill with this issue. The main lesson i gleaned from her was how to speak to an Alzheimer’s victim. I learned to never correct the victim when they speak inaccuracies. Gently agree, or placate on a subject. Never show anger if the victim made a mess in the kitchen, or bathroom, or soiled their clothing. It’s best to approach them as you would a toddler. (In many cases, the victim almost “youthens” in their reasoning.) Most of all, we must treat them with compassion, and deliver the highest respect, even when at wits end. Remember, your Dementia or Alzheimer’s victim once was a doctor, a pastor, a teacher, a cop, or a quality control inspector, etc. Most of all, they were once loving parents in the majority of cases.

Remember, someday, it could be you needing the comfort of a champion caregiver.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

It would be a crime to suddenly think less of a loved one, suffering from this disorder or disease, who once knew how to care and love you without compromise. Certainly there are exceptions in every relationship. It could be you were a child of an abusive parent who now needs your love and care in the dark years of cognitive failure. It would be a treasure to know Jesus spoke about you…

“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.” – Jesus (Matthew 5:7) KJV

An accurate Greek translation from the original text reads like this…

“Happy are the kind – – because they shall find kindness.” – Jesus (Matthew 5:7) YLT

So, Rikki, if you did lose that number, it’s okay. Maybe you ‘sent it off in a letter to yourself’. Come on, I’ll help you find it.

I am full, due to the fact God remembers the count of the hairs on my head. I found out while topping my tank with fuel for the race.

Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.” – GOD From Isaiah 49:15 (NAS)

I Almost Couldn’t Bear The News

“When I know you know baby, everything I say
Meet me in the country for a day
We’ll be happy and we’ll dance
Oh, we’re gonna dance our blues away…”  (1972)  “Listen To The Music”  Recorded By:  the Doobie Brothers  Composer:  Tom Johnston

Someone very wise once told me that you never are really sure what you’re praying for when praying for your children.  Usually it becomes more clear in retrospect of a life event.

Megan is my middle daughter, now 30 years old.  I have written of her before, so forgive me if part of this post sounds redundant.

Out of three daughters, Megan is the one most like me, in various ways.  My girls are precious to me, and Megan is the one who aligns more closely to who I am.  It could be because when she was a toddler and pre-schooler, I was Mr. Mom for a few years.  When Tabitha, her older sister (2 years older), went on to kindergarten, Megan and I spent lots of solo time together.  In fact, the solo time lasted two of her young years.  Although she lives in Buffalo, NY now, and I live in Dallas, Tx where she was born, we do still have a special bond.  It’s always apparent when she comes home for a visit.

Megan hug April 1st 2017

Megan was a child actress before she turned singer & recording artist.  Megan has racked up a mound of accolades in upstate NY for the last 12 years.  The bands she fronts have been news worthy and award-winning.  (Currently you can see some of her videos when you look-up Grosh, or Grosh Band.)  She’s on stage about as much as she sleeps each week.

Meganfest

MEGAN-BROWN in Artvoice June 23rd 2016

Photo:  Megan in Artvoice Magazine, June 2016.

Exhaustion and burnout can be an issue if not careful in that business.

So, enter kayaking and camping.  We didn’t do either of these things for outdoor activities when she was a kid, but she always wanted to.  She and a small group of close friends often rough-it out in the beautiful countryside of the southern tier of New York State, or northern Pennsylvania.  With kayaks and tents loaded up, they always manage to find these areas of serene landscapes to unplug and get the fingernails dirty.  Last weekend, they chose the gorgeous hills of the Allegheny National Forest.  Megan always takes pictures for us.  (Why am I hearing the whistle of the old Andy Griffith Show theme song?)

Kayaks PA The lakes and streams are crystal clear, and cold.  With an oar in one hand, and a camera in the other, I love getting to see her kayak perspective.

Kayak 2 PA

Honestly, can’t you just smell the pines and feel the cool breeze rising off the calm waters?  Yeah, me too.

At night they circle the campfire, laughing at each other’s stories, and roasting s’mores over the open fire.  Usually, it’s the wee hours before everyone hits the tents and rolled out sleeping bags.  Ah, youth.

Early last Sunday morning, Aug 2nd around 5 o’clock, while nicely wrapped in their sleeping bags, the piercing quietness of the forest suddenly was shattered by the canvas-shaking roar and snorts of a loud animal in the camp.  Everyone jumped a couple of inches off the ground by the unexpected wildlife just a few feet from the tent stakes.  Peeking out from the flaps of the tent opening, Megan saw something huge and hairy hovering over the food supplies by the now quenched campfire.  Someone turned a flashlight on the enormous growling mass of a creature to find a extra large black bear.

Black Bear Wiki

Photo:  American Black Bear (Wikipedia)

The flashlight in his face didn’t disturb him one iota.  Then someone began to yell and scream at the hefty bear with hopes of frightening him away.  The vocals fell deaf on his slightly rounded ears.  About that time, someone, probably the drummer, had the idea to grab a couple of metal chairs, and beer bottles, and proceeding to clang them together in a sharp ruckus sound for the bear’s fear factors.  No doubt the sound echoed throughout the hills with an ear-shaking frequency.  Still, the bear did not flinch.  Not one eyelash was batted.  It seemed an 18-wheeler could hit the big wall of black hair and he would’ve only be slightly annoyed.  Fright began to turn in the minds of Megan and friends as their bear-banishing choices came to an end.  In cases like this, experts say to flap your arms way up in the air while growling and yelling as you jump up and down to make yourself look bigger than you are.  For some reason that is the best way to scare-off a bear, and other wildlife.  However, no one was brave enough to try it as close as they were to the massive beast.

Nothing they did worked to spook the animal away because he was laser-beam focused on a nylon backpack full of all the ingredients for s’mores.  That’s right.  Inside were graham crackers, marshmallows, honey, and chocolate bars.  He tore into the tough nylon exterior of the pack, as if it were rice paper, and began to chow down, cardboard boxes, plastic wrappers and all.  Nothing that they could do, percussion, scream, or shine on him mattered.  His mind was in tune with one thing…his sweet-tooth.  Interestingly enough, right next to him was a cooler full of hot-dogs, deli turkey meat, and cheese.  I am sure his nose picked up on the scent of the meat and cheese, but even so, the sugar in the backpack was his priority.  THANK GOD!  Finally, the brute of a beast knocked over a cooking kettle next to him and with a dart, he ran off with the makings of s’mores.  The key was…he frightened himself.  His own, “fear itself” shook his core.

I told Megan if that had been a mama with her cubs looking for food, they all would be dead in the woods, far from civilization.  (It was just the dad in me adding that tidbit.)

alone calm faith light
Photo by Garon Piceli on Pexels.com

Yep, sometimes when you pray for your kids, you often don’t know just what you are praying for until after a life & death event occurs.  The Everlasting Arms searches the prayerful heart while holding the future in His hands.

In this strange and spooky election year, full of rage, riots, fires, loud voices, along with a frightening pandemic, we can choose to be the bear, or we can choose to be the kids with noise-making talents.  Personally, call me Yogi.  With all the distractions of our uneasy, restless times, I shall not be moved.  My choice is to stay focused of the life, liberty, and the sweet pursuit of happiness our founding fathers placed in a bag just for me and my descendants.  I will NOT be distracted from it by all the noise-making.  My choice is to stand on what I know to be true in my heart, that core which turns me to the east or west, north, or south.  I will keep my nose in that bag of treats from 1776 and disregard all else that attempts to woo my attention.

Thank you, bear.  Thank you for the personal application at this time in my life.  Most of all, thank you for obeying your Creator by not caring if my daughter was five feet from you while stuffing your cute face.

Speaking frankly, the bear necessities can be rediscovered in fuel for the race.

 “Let a man meet a bear robbed of her cubs, rather than a fool in his folly.”                – Proverbs 17:12 (NAS)

 

When Mom Fades

This was not the post I was planning for upload today.  Literally, I sat down at my desk to construct a post I’ve mulled over for three weeks now, when suddenly I remembered to try again to reach my mom on the phone.  It would be the fourth attempt today.  This time it worked.  She answered.  We spoke.  Afterward I felt the sliding of my emotions which tends to be the norm of late.

In the past, on Mother’s Day weekend, I have told her story.  Each year I gained morsels of bravery to shed more light on our tapestry.  It’s a unique, heroic recounting of a strong, courageous single mom.

Mom 1962 Grandmother's Kitchen

At 15, she found herself fighting off, or attempted to fight off, her rapist.  I was the product of that violent attack.  Being out of her crushed mind, heart, and spirit, she attempted suicide twice while pregnant with me, but survived.  She was unaware God had His plans of destiny beyond the messy road she was on.  I told this story with a great amount of reveals a year ago.  I invite you to look at May’s archives from last year to get a sharper camera angle of her torn life. (“If I Were…” From May 10, 2019)

Mom & Me Granddad's Coin Box

In the last 20 years she took-on the role of caregiver for her parents, who suffered from Alzheimer’s.  Nancy Reagan called this disease, “The Long Good-bye”.  She was right.  My mom retired as early as she could to move-in with her ailing parents, giving up her life to hold them up, as best as she could, as they faced the monster of this disease.  My granddad passed away first with complications of dementia in 2008.  My grandmother had full-blown Alzheimer’s, struggling with it for about 14 years before she passed.

My mom aged quickly while being a soldier for her folks.  It was difficult to see her own physical health decline during those years of tremendous servanthood.  I was never more proud of her battling away in those times.

Around 2014, her oldest brother, 4 years older than her, began to show signs of the same disease.  Today, he is deep in the jaws of the struggle, rendering him to a shell of a man, vacant in many ways.  A couple of years ago, my mom’s other brother, 2 years her senior, began to mentally deteriorate with the same invader of the body.  Trust me, it is no respecter of persons, or brilliance.

My mom is only 16 years older than I.  (I’m turning 60 in a few short days.)  Over the last 2 years, I became aware my mom was changing, and not for the better.  She lives alone about 70 minutes from me in the house she grew-up in.  At first, I felt the changes I observed were simple gaffs of the aging process.  Our communication often left me scratching my head.  There were occasions where she got lost while traveling to our part of the Dallas Metroplex, a way she knows like the back of her hand.  About 2 years ago we were to meet at a halfway point, as we have done many times before.  Her sense of direction was totally absent.  She had to call me for help to walk her through which way to turn at each intersection.  When I instructed her to turn left, she would turn right, not understanding the mistake.  It was on that day I realized she…we had a problem.  It would be a problem that would grow.

Recently, almost overnight, she found herself unable to spell the simplest words.  Her cell phone texts became more difficult to read as the days rolled on.  She began having issues with sentence construction and word retrieval during our conversations.  Items would come up missing in her house.  She blames it on her dog.  Asking if I can help is a loss.  She no longer allows me in the house.  Her excuse is it’s too messy for company.  In the last few months, she has had losing battles in operating her cell phone, including prompts, icons, and modes.  Today, in our telephone exchange, she expressed an urge to give it up and order a simple landline phone.  I hope it helps because she has trouble answering the phone these days.

There are also other health issues of concern I recognize as side symptoms of dementia.  She is a proud, independent woman, and holds these cards close to her chest as I attempt to decipher how her daily life is changing.

Frankly, I know where this is going.  As she shrugs it off as amusing, even humorous, I am accepting the fact that my mom is fading before my eyes.

Somewhere in the thicket of my mind, I knew this day was coming.  Although there was a 20 year span as my grandparents experienced massive declining health, there were also wonderful times of mysterious joy in the midst of it all.  I must remember this as I tend to my mom’s needs today and tomorrow.  Currently, I just don’t know how, or where to begin.

Mom salon

So, what’s the purpose of this particular post?  Unaware of the true answer, all I can do is display brutal honesty of how I feel on this Mother’s Day weekend.  Because I didn’t have a dad around, most of the time in my life, I saw her as my touchstone.  I liken it to a small child in a swimming pool, with an inflatable tube around his/her torso.  He/she feels much safer holding on to the side of the pool with his/her waterlogged wrinkled hand grasping tightly to the concrete edge.

I’m turning 60 years old now.  It’s time to let go of the concrete edge.  Scripture tells us not to hold too tightly to this world, especially what we deem as “concrete”.  Even concrete crumbles.

As the concrete crumbles in my grasp, I am reminded once again, God is the life-saving tube around my torso.

My days are filled with the reminder that I need to top off my tank every day with fuel for the race.

“So I said: ‘Do not take me away, my God, in the midst of my days; your years go on through all generations.  In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded.  But you remain the same, and your years will never end.'”  – Psalm 102: 24-27 (NIV)

 

 

 

Delivering a Great Plumbline

Cover Photo:  Painting by Bob Niles, my father-in-law.

[ Just a quick note to you, my reader.  Please take honest, strict care of yourself and those you love.  Coronavirus continues to spread throughout the globe.  Medical experts are reporting it will get worse before it gets better.  Guard your health and don’t stop. Trust in the One in control even during what seems to be chaotic times from this side of the darkened glass.   – God’s grip, Alan ]

“…And I feel like a bullet in the gun of Robert Ford.
I’m low as a paid assassin is.
You know I’m cold as a hired sword…”    (1976 release)  “I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)”   Recorded By:  Elton John   Composers:  Elton John & Bernie Taupin

The infamous outlaw, Jesse James, and his brother, Frank James, were raised in the home of a Baptist minister, Rev. Robert S. James.  The Baptist preacher also was one of the founders of William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri in 1849.

Rev. Robert S. James findagrave.com

Photo:  Rev. Robert S. James  – findagrave.com

Rev. James was a member of the Missouri Baptist Convention.  Although Rev. James passed away during the rearing years, one can only assume Jesse & Frank grew up hearing multiple sermons in and outside the home by a very strict, hell, fire, and brimstone father.  No doubt the preacher’s wife must have been a Bible-mother as well.  Of course, their private home-life behind closed doors is unknown.  Although he had earned his Bachelor of Arts, Rev. James commuted from Clay County, Missouri to Kentucky to gain his Master of Arts from Georgetown College.  It would appear the preacher was away from the home much of the time due to his academic pursuits.  One thing is clear, in the case of the preacher’s kids, it seems being frightened out of hell didn’t take.

If you’ve ever read the bio of the James brothers, or have seen a movie about their lives, then you already know how dipped they were in a serious life of crime after the Civil War.  In fact, some consider Jesse James to be one of the most notorious gangsters in American history, if not at the top of the list.  From Texas to Minnesota, the James boys, and gang, left bloodshed and ruin in their wake.

After years of shocking crime sprees, there were dead gang members left in the dust, or swinging from prison gallows.  Replacements were being vetted by Jesse all too often.

Jesse James and Bob Ford

Photo:  History.com  (Rare photo of Jess James with his killer, Bob Ford.)

Two young recruits looked promising to Jesse, in fact they were good friends.  Bob and Charley Ford were brothers very familiar with a life of crime.  The James family, and the Ford family, spent time together as if in the same clan.  Jesse even invited the outlaw brothers to move into his house.  What Jesse seemingly didn’t know, the Ford brothers had dollar signs in their eyes as the Missouri Governor, Thomas T. Crittenden, had offered up to $10,000.00 to anyone who could “capture” the James brothers.  In the Ford case, Gov. Crittenden went as far as to offered amnesty for past crimes as well.

On April 3, 1882, after breakfast at the James family dinner table, Jesse, Bob, and Charley went to the living room to talk business.  It seems there was a robbery being planned for that week.  Some say Jesse was suspicious of the Ford’s intentions and loyalty.  That remains a mystery.  What happened next has been debated since the event.  Some write that Jesse observed dust on the frame of a painting on the wall and wanted to wipe it down.  Others claimed the frame was crooked on the wall and Jesse intended to straighten it.  (The latter is the story I grew up with.)  One thing is certain, Jesse James left his pistols on the sofa, walked across the room, placed a chair just under the framed painting, stepped up to reach it when Bob Ford pulled his gun shooting Jesse James in the back of the head.  Zerelda Mimms-James, Jesse’s wife, was just in the next room of the small house.  Jesse was 34 years old.

Two years later, in May of 1884, a suicidal Charley Ford shot himself.  He was 26 years old.  On June 8th of 1892, a man named, Ed O’Kelley, walked into a tent saloon, owned by Bob Ford, and shot him in the throat with a shotgun.  Bob was 30 years old.  In January of 1904, you guessed it, Ed O’Kelley was shot dead by a police officer he was trying to kill.  Ed made it to 46 years old.  Amazing domino effect, isn’t it?  Let’s hope the policeman lived to see his 90’s.

In the end, Jesse James was an outlaw, but he was also a teacher.  Let me show you what I mean using the simplicity of an item in many a tool box.

Plumbline Alamy

Photo:  Alamy

The plumbline is an ancient builder’s tool.  It is also used by surveyors.  You can find this instrument mentioned with tremendous intention in the Old Testament book of Amos (Amos 7:8).  Today it is usually a stainless steel or solid lead pointed weight attached to a string.  It is used to align anything which stands vertically, a wall, a beam, a door, etc.

plumb_line

Photo: theworldflu.wordpress.com

When building a brick wall, if aligned geometrically with a plumbline measuring an upright line, as the center of gravity shows it to be without faulty readings, that wall will stand perfectly straight.  If the walls stand perfectly straight then the entire frame of the building will have integrity.  On the other hand, if the wall is built via an eyeball’s view, it will lean at some point in the process leading to the failure of the entire structure.

The crooked picture frame, which Jesse James was obsessed with on that fateful morning, reveals an outstanding irony.  Jesse and Frank were raised hearing all about the straight and the narrow.  A student of the Bible, their father, and mother, obviously taught them of a great plumbline for living, yet they grew up to be crooks.  A crooked life has its toll.  If the leaders of a home are crooked, or altogether absent, more than likely the home will not stand with endurance.  No matter how much stolen cash is accumulated, the crooked life has a higher price.  Jesse James has taught us this truth by example.  A choice was made and the James brothers ran from the measurements of society, which were based on law, making the allurement of crime something to be at risk for.  You might say the wall Jesse built leaned heavily, doomed for gravitational collapse.  Fame and fortune destroyed his life, the life of his killer, and the life of his killer’s killer.  “…and be sure your sin will find you out.” – Moses – (Numbers 32:23b) 

Teaching our children well is our responsibility.  Afterwards, the choices are their’s.  It’s good to be measured for structure-sake.

Unlike sand, when building on a solid rock, there are different results.  It can all be found, measured and delivered in fuel for the race.

 “I will go before you and make the crooked places straight; I will break in pieces the gates of bronze and cut the bars of iron…..so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who calls you by name.…”  Isaiah 45:2-3b  (NKJV)
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DNA And Me

Photo:  “Our” family reunion of 1902.

“…Scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind.  Smiles we gave to one another for the way we were…Can it be that it was all so simple then?  Or has time rewritten every line?…” (1974)  The Way We Were.  Recorded by;  Barbra Streisand.  Composers:  Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman, Marvin Hamlisch.

There’s much to learn from a simple photograph.  I adore antique photos, always have.  They are even more special when you find images depicting your own flesh and blood.  If you love family history, then you and I could share some time over a few cups of java.

Check out the cover shot I placed above.  This is a 1902 family reunion from my paternal side.  No doubt it’s from the summer time in Texas, yet there’s all that clothing.  Look at all stiff high collars, neckties and gowns that crawl up to the chin, along with the hats.  Summers in Texas can reach 100+ degrees easily.  How did they do it?  In all honesty, the southern tradition was to have an event like this right after church on a Sunday afternoon.  Maybe that’s why everybody is in their Sunday-go-to-meetin’-clothes.  I see watermelon slices, cakes, pies, etc.  And then there’s that guy on the back row, just right of center, swigging a big bottle of….well…uh…Okay, who knows. But remember, church was over. LOL

Being from the south, there is a depth of Confederate soldiers in the family.

Alexander Ambrose Timmons Great Uncle-in-law 1866ish

Photo:  Meet Great Uncle Alexander Ambrose Timmons (1865)  Now THAT’S a knife!

Lewis Pinkney Brooks Great Grandpa 1866ish

Photo:  Meet my Great Grandpa Lewis Pinkney Brooks (1866)  After the war, he rode a mule from Georgia to west Texas to stay.  He found himself to be a cattle drover, pioneer settler, homesteader, 2nd sheriff of Young County, Texas, stage coach inn owner, and Indian fighter.

Yes, sometimes inside family history one can find skeletons which may not be politically correct by today’s self-imposed standards.  I’m not one to erase history.  In fact, I gaze at it, study it, and recognize the truth of the way we were.  We need to see how far we’ve come.  We need to discover how and why issues in society arose.  We are in need of understanding before we repeat some aspects of our history which may stain us as a culture.  We also should value perspectives.  One can title a person an “Indian fighter” but often neglects the realities of circumstance.  As for my my great-grandfather Brooks, he dealt with the pains of pioneering.  Tonkawa and Comanche often raided his barn overnight to steal horses, cattle, and mules.  Another time, he and his cousin were building a three-foot herd wall, made of stone, when they were attacked unprovoked.  Grave plots had to be topped in layers of large stone to discourage grave-robbing for clothes and jewelry.  Outlaws are outlaws, no matter the culture.  Yes, it was a lawless wild country in very different times.  Only after years of fighting back in defense of his wife and children did peace began to rise.

Pioneer women were of a different breed.  They were tough as brass doorknobs while growing and nurturing families in the harshest conditions.

Mary Lucinda (Cinnie) Moore-Brooks Great Grandma 1877ish Photo;  Meet my Great Grandma Mary Lucinda “Cinnie” Moore-Brooks (1877).  She was not a doctor, but performed medical aid for the citizens of the county when needed.  There are stories of her alone on foot, in late night hours, traveling to attend to women in labor miles away.  Once a young family in a covered wagon, headed for the western frontier, stopped at the homestead asking for medical aid.  The couple had a baby who was ill.  The family lodged in their house for a good couple of weeks as Mary Brooks tended to the infant.  Sadly, the child couldn’t be saved.  They buried the baby in our family cemetery on the land.  Brokenhearted, the couple got back on the trail and was never heard from again.  She was not only a woman of great courage, but a woman of heart.

Great Aunt Alverse Brooks 1905ish

Photo:  Let me introduce you to my Great Aunt Alverse Brooks (1905ish).  I don’t know much about Aunt Alverse, I just love her face.  I do know she liked to swim in the Brazos River with her sisters.  She lived as a single woman.  (The men must have been pushed away, or simply stupid.)

Grandma Brown with two sisters 1911ish

Photo:  Say hello to my Grandma Bessie Brooks-Brown, with her two sisters, swimming in the Brazos River just below the family homestead (1909ish).  This lovely refreshed and digitized shot is nothing but a joy to look at.  My grandma is on the left.  Notice the swimwear where EVERYTHING is covered.  How many layers do you think they were wearing?  However, it didn’t keep that guy behind them from gawking in his ten gallon hat.  Yes, times were different.

You might be asking yourself, “Why is Alan forcing all these family pics on us?”  There’s a method to my madness.

Have you seen those DNA test commercials?  How can you miss them?  You know the ones where the actor says something like, “I thought my family came from Scotland, so I bought this kilt.  Then I had my DNA tested and found out I’m actually German!”  Recently I had been given a birthday gift card encouraging me to get my DNA tested.  It’s something I always wanted to do.  One of my thrills comes from reading family trees.  This is a notch above the tree.  So, I ordered a DNA kit.

Not long ago I was reviewing some of my medical lab work from a blood and urine sample.  There was an indicator of a possible unknown ethnic bloodline hidden in my genes.  I was shocked.  I do know of some Native American on my maternal side, but I just assumed Anglo-Saxon was the balance of my strand, due to surnames.  The DNA test will spell out the surprises.  It will be nice to get to know the authentic “me”….or will it?

I find it funny how some of these DNA test ads speak of “…finding the real you”, or “I never knew I was this, or that.”   One TV spot had an actor speaking a line similar to, “I ordered my kit because I wanted to know the true me.”  Of course, I understand what the meaning is behind such scripted lines.  I get it.  My issue is the idea of “the true me”.

Lately I’ve been deeply diving into Larry McMurty’s novel series, Lonesome Dove.  I guess I enjoy tales of the state from which I call home.  Reading of its wilder, unsettled times is a blast.  Frankly, it helps me to understand my family in our photos.  One main character, a former Texas Ranger and drover from the Texas Republic years, lost a leg and an arm in a shootout with a Mexican train robber and serial killer.  After he realized he would live as an amputee for the rest of his life, his bolt, staunch personality changed.  He became more withdrawn. I guess you could say the heart of the man shrunk.  His words often consisted of how “HE” was no longer who he was, or used to be.  He saw his missing limbs as tools that identified his toughness, his persona, and his legacy.  It’s not unusual for depression to invade an amputee’s psyche shortly after the vacuum of trauma.  Yet, why look at an amputated limb on a table and think, “Hey, that’s me over there on the table?”  It’s a terrible mistake that tends to haunt.  A disabled vet can testify to this depression-fed mindset.

A leg, an arm, even a DNA strand does not say WHO you ARE.  These things do not relabel the soul and spirit of the individual person.  After a tragic plane crash, or the sinking of a ship, they do not report, “100 bodies were lost.”  Traditionally it’s printed, “100 souls were lost.”  One can be robbed of a limb, a featured look, or a physical profile, but the person inside has not been altered on the operating table…unless the individual cuts away at it by choice.  Whether I am a burn victim, a man of extreme age, facially mutilated, newly unemployed, or an amputee, I know WHO I am deep inside where flesh doesn’t live, grow, or die.  MY DNA doesn’t alter the ME which turns me to the right or the left.  My genes have no power over the ME which molds behavior, or makes eternal decisions.  No bloodline rules and reigns over the ME who chooses to love, serve, or share.  No bloodline from my family tree can measure up to the ME I select in life.  After all, flesh turns to dust in a future grave, or ashes spread by the winds atop a west Texas bluff.

Have you ever heard someone’s final words on their deathbed to be, “Oh, how I wish I had a Celtic slice in my DNA strand.  I would have been a better person?”

We all have our choices, no matter the accent, skin color, cultural slants, or the soil of our birth.  Even a surname doesn’t register the YOU inside your core.  The heart is key.  It’s what God said He evaluates, nothing else.

I look forward to the DNA reveal concerning the body I host.  I know this because of the intake of fuel for the race.

“…Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?  Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.  And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.  – Jesus – Luke 12:6-7  (Berean Study Bible)