“It was late last night. I was feeling something wasn’t right. There was not another soul in sight, Only you, only you…” (1972) “I Saw The Light” Written/Recorded By: Todd Rundgren
There it is. It’s that dusty box in the corner of the attic, basement, or the garage. Part of you doesn’t look forward with great anticipation to opening the box. As you do, you say to yourself; “I sure am glad it’s only once a year.”
Once you’ve carried it all the way to the Christmas tree by the window, you might begin to feel a bit lighter as your imagination of décor runs amuck.
As you dig through the various ornaments in the box, old memories begin to surface. One old Rudolph ornament from your childhood shines up at you from its resting place. Suddenly you can almost feel those warm footed pajamas with the gritted soft plastic soles. Another ornament rediscovered reminds you of your new little tax deduction with painted letters saying; “Baby’s First Christmas.” Still, another ornament way back in the corner of the box, wrapped in a paper towel, has bitterness attached to it. It might be a reminder of the passing of a loved one, a year of a bankruptcy, or the death of a marriage.
A cheerful smile returns about the time you begin to string the festive colored bulbs around the tree. After a quick trip to the fridge for a cup of cheer, you step back to examine the balance of your light display thus far. A tweak here and a tweak there, and it’s on to the hanging ornaments.
Ornaments themselves come in many shapes and sizes, not to mention textures. One of my favorites comes from my childhood. Made of wood, painted in red and gold, are various musical instruments. I mean everything from a piano to a piccolo. I think every parent has saved precious cardboard or paper ornaments, laced with yarn, crafted by little hands from a son or daughter. I know I have a few. At one radio station I worked for, each year the general manager gave the staff the official tree ornament from the White House from that year. Usually it was made of blown glass, or crystal, and the most pricey ornament on the tree.
Then there are the regular colored glass balls cradled in Styrofoam. Sometimes the wire hooks remain attached from the year before. I know I am guilty of such a crime. Hues of red, blue, green, silver, and gold are the norms. while some prefer the solid colors. Either way, the texture of the surface of each glass ball is designed to ricochet the stringed lights, or that wonderful color wheel I adore. In fact, the average glass ball ornament reflects more than just the holiday lights, but any other item it can catch in its reflective shimmering surface.
When the job is complete, there is a quiet satisfaction which descends in your spirit as you take in the sight. The further away from the display, the more beautiful it seems to become.
As a kid, I loved to kneel down to find my reflection in one of the glass balls. Oh, the funny faces you can make as you observe your expressions on the colored balls, with the festive lights changing the color of your skin. The shock is that you find it’s not how you view yourself in a flat mirror. My cousins and I used to cackle at our holiday reflections.
Christmas cards will often spell out the truth of “giving”, or the “giving season”. Most have heard the biblical concept, spoken by Jesus, concerning the joy of gifting. The joy is greater for the one giving than the one receiving. In today’s crash and grab robberies in our culture, the perpetrators have no clue of this joy. Entitlement is a cursed word.
Actually, the purpose for the event of that first Christmas was to help us understand what we DO NOT deserve. Christmas tree time can be a tad cluttered with thoughts of giving in proportion of what’s received. Will they spend more than you? Will the wrapped gift fall short of expectations? Will you run to Walmart afterward to purchase a gift card to make up for a gift you felt was too small? Yikes! What a mess we’ve made of this celebration. The wonderful gift given, the Savior Of All Sinners, the baby in the manger, speaks loudly from heaven’s gates, “I love you so much, I am giving of Myself to rescue you from your sinful nature birthed in Eden so long ago.” Truly, a gift given we do not deserve. When an honest look in the reflection is had, “entitlement” is far from the view. If one feels like the gift is unnecessary, that one will never receive the gift of redemption. Being rescued from oneself can only be accomplished by One Who is holy, without spot, without a condition of the fall.
As you peer into the glass ball ornament, don’t expect to see yourself in what you have come to recognize in the vanity mirror. What you can expect are distortions, coloring of shades not seen on your picture ID.
Yes, the decorated tree is beautiful, and rightly so, but in a private moment of biblical truth, glance closely at the reflective ball. In that moment, allow it to be a reminder of our distorted views, or misshaped slants, our condition of falling short through the prism of God’s righteousness exhibited in Jesus. Bittersweet is the true story of Christmas.
Any time of the year, find out how God truly views you in fuel for the race.
“Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” – 2 Corinthians 9:15 (NAS)
“She’ll change her name today. She’ll make a promise and I’ll give her away. Standing in the bride-room just staring at her. She asked me what I’m thinking and I said, “I’m not sure-I just feel like I’m losing my baby girl.” – (Album Release 1995) “ButterflyKisses” Recorded By: Bob Carlisle Composers: Thomas Randy Keith & Robert Mason Carlisle
I thought long and hard about just how to put the following in writing. Let’s start from August of 2008.
While living in Buffalo, NY for five years, I found myself sharing life with my middle daughter, Megan. Single parenting isn’t for the weak. My oldest daughter had already flown the coop to spread her wings a couple of years prior. My youngest daughter, a 2nd grader, left for Texas with her mom after I filed for divorce. I’ve written extensively and openly about this horrible chapter in my life before, so I won’t dive fully into all the sandpaper of history which brought my family so much pain. I will say the divorce occurred after 26 years of domestic violence, white collar crime, as well as, verbal, psychological, and physical abuse from a mentally disturbed wife and mother. Although it costs me almost everything I had, I needed to protect my girls. The history left deep scars upon all of us.
Megan was in the middle of her high school career at the time, and needed as much stability as possible in her life. So, I dedicated myself to staying in the area with my focus on getting her through high school in the school she loved.
After she graduated in May of 2008, I had the opportunity to relocate back to our original home, Dallas, Texas. I sat Megan down and revealed the options. She was welcome to come with me back to Texas, or decide to stay in Buffalo and make it on her own. With bitter-sweetness, she chose to stay. She had lots of friends where we were, and didn’t want to be geographically near her mother in Texas. It broke my heart, but I also knew I needed to support her decision, and respect it. She was 18, strong and independent. I am proud to say, she had a good head on her shoulders, smart, and talented on many levels. We hugged, cried, hugged, and cried some more. Fast forward, she not only made it very well on her own, but in spades. She became a well-known western NY vocalist and recording artist. She was the lead singer in an internationally award-winning band, and voted twice as best female vocalist in western NY. Her current band, Grosh, is considered Buffalo’s rock royalty. She has been on several albums with her bands, and many as a guest artist with other recording projects. To say I am proud of her, isn’t scratching the surface.
It hasn’t always been an easy walk in the park for Megan alone in Buffalo. A few years back she was involved with a guy who was an abusive so-in-so. I won’t go into details, but even after their break-up, he stalked her, threatened her, started brawls to get to her, kidnapped her, and tried a murder/suicide plot. She survived by THE GRACE OF GOD ALMIGHTY. Oh, I could tell you some hair-raising stories. All my prayers for her protection were answered.
About three years ago, she met a really nice guy from another band. The musician circle is a tightly knit group in the area. Most are all friends, and collaborators. The first night of connection with this young man, Kevin, they were able to just sit alone and talk. It lasted hours on end. She began to pray about that spark on her way home, asking God to make this clear to her concerning this new lad. Before you can say, “Tune my guitar”, they were a hot item. They moved-in together a couple of years ago, (not what I wanted for her) and not long after, he asked me for her hand in marriage. They do so well together.
So this happened on Saturday, June 5th, on the banks of the Niagara River where Lake Erie feeds into it.
Yes, I gave her away at the Frank Lloyd Wright Boathouse.
At the mouth of the Niagara, the winds coming off Lake Erie are constant and never just a breeze. Hair and fabric were everywhere.
Just like the lyrics in “Butterfly Kisses”, I arrived at the venue early, found myself gazing at her in the bride-room. She asked me what I was thinking. I admitted to just being in a state of cruise control. There was a tendency to feel I was losing my little girl, but really, I went through that uncomfortable feeling in August of 2008 when I moved back to Dallas without her.
Her mother was not there, and to be perfectly honest, it was for the best. My wife, Megan’s stepmother, was unable to make the trip. So I gave her away, hugged and kissed them both, then sat down on the front row alone.
The reception was under a classy tent. Being from Texas, she wanted feed everyone tacos instead of wedding cake.
The wedding party, plus the wedding guests, were primarily made up of the who’s who of western New York rock musicians. The band for the reception were well deserved members of the Buffalo Musician’s Hall Of Fame. As the night progressed, it turned into a jam session with other musicians attending the event. To say the least, it was fabulous. I was able to surprise the couple by singing, “Wildflower” from Skylark with the band. I had to change a couple of the lyrics to fit the father singing to the couple, but it was the perfect song about a wounded bride with old scars. I didn’t cry, but I worked very hard at choking back the waterworks.
The band performed “Butterfly Kisses” for the daddy/daughter dance. Tears were overpowering at that point. We chose this song because I used to sing it to them at home and at church on Father’s Day while they were growing up.
The last time we danced, she was standing on my feet as I was teaching her steps as a kid. Megan and I shared a beautiful moment during the dance. I will always hold it close to my heart.
One of the unexpected circumstances was initiated by my oldest daughter, Tabitha. My girls were raised on various music icons like, The Beatles, Elton John, and Fleetwood Mac. The band began to play “Dreams” from Fleetwood Mac when Tabitha grabbed my hand and said, “Come on dad!” Before you could say, “Stevie Nicks”, I was dancing with all three of my girls at the same time. Again, that hasn’t happened in about 17 years.
My 10 year old granddaughter was there, but she was off chasing seagulls most of the time.
The reception/concert lasted about 5 hours. As the golden dusk spread over the Canadian shore across the Niagara, a soreness began to settle in my heart. The night was coming to a close. It meant she would drive away a married woman, this little girl I nurtured and protected the best way I could. Now, it would be Kevin’s responsibility to watch over her, comfort her, and allow her to dream on. At the same time, I had to put on a stage face for the scores of strangers congratulating me on gaining a son-in-law. I do feel blessed in that he seems to be a true, honorable guy who is loyal and loving. And yes, I gave her away into his arms.
When Jesus spoke of how important it is to give your very life away, it is for deep purposes beyond ourselves. When we were taught to give of ourselves, it was for the betterment of the recipient. When Jesus urged us to give to strangers, it was to offer our very best, not the crumbs of life. Before my feet left Buffalo, Kevin received my best. As the song, “Wildflower” says, I had cultivated her, attended to her, and raised her in my garden for such a moment as she took another name other than mine. I gave him my best.
Photo: Megan at 4 & 17
Tabitha, Skylar, and D’Anna flew on different flights, different days. I flew solo. The soreness I had felt toward the end of the celebration under the tent didn’t go away. In fact, I felt it not only linger, it grew. Trying to decipher deeply seeded burning stones in the soul can be difficult when negotiating an emotional event. While waiting to board my flight at the Buffalo/Niagara airport, I began to recognize the source. Megan’s mother wasn’t there at the wedding because she didn’t want her there. In other words, Megan knew she would be happier at her own wedding with her mother absent. Although I understand it, knowing the dynamics of the first 15 years of her life, my heart was sagging knowing it shouldn’t be this way. Megan deserved to have a loving mother by her side on her wedding day. Yet, that wasn’t to be.
My flight had a layover in Baltimore where I was to switch planes for Dallas. Sitting in the Baltimore airport, the guilt invaded. Guilt of “what might have been’s”. Torture paints the gut when gnawing on a good chunk of the “what did I not do’s?”. At the same time, I have wonderful, sweet memories with my girls as they were growing up. I miss those days, BEFORE MIDDLE SCHOOL. LOL However, I can’t deny the hardships my girls were faced with. There, right there, at the entrance ramp to board the plane, tears began to escape.
It was a night flight. The sunset was beautiful looking west at 10,000 feet. Looking down at the darkness there were pinpoints of light which could be detected as we flew over small towns and lit highways. Then at on point the pilot spoke to us over the intercom.
“Folks, we are entering Arkansas where there are a couple of severe storm cells of note. We will attempt to fly around them. Please remain in your seats and buckle up.”
Not long after that, I saw the storms out my window to the west. We were flying high above them. The massive storm clouds were ominous. Then, as I kept my eyes on the cell system, various sections of the clouds below lit up with brilliant flashes of lightning. Like popcorn under a glass lid, the illuminations popped up continually as I tried to count them while gazing from above the fray. Only when the lightning ripped through the thunderclouds could I spy the enormous structure of the cell. It was a sight to behold. There was a special beauty about the fantastic light show beneath us, although a danger to those beneath the storm.
So many times in my life, God has spoken to me through unanticipated visuals. Life has taught me to watch for these particular teachable moments as the Master speaks in illustration. Later, after landing in Dallas, I thought back on seeing the turmoil below in the Arkansas sky. An impression gently settled in my mind. The storms we faced as a family was indeed brutal, and harmful. Yet, now, it is in the past, and far away. I can now, I should now, not relive the torments of the life we had, but rather see it from afar, from above it. This is how I know Megan sees the threatening past. So should I. It is in that state I was able to let go, giving her hand to his.
Celebrations can be for a bright future, but also for leaving the past. It’s been done with fuel for the race.
“Now when the headwaiter tasted the water which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the groom, and said to him, ‘Every man serves the good wine first, and when the guests are drunk, then he serves the poorer wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.'” – John 2:9-10 (NAS) – Wedding at Cana.
“…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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
“There is no power on earth like your fathers’ love So big and so strong as your father’s love A promise that’s sacred, a promise from heaven above No matter where you go… always know You can depend on your father’s love.” (1998) “Father’s Love” Recorded by: BOB CARLISLE Composer’s: RANDY THOMAS, ROBERT MASON CARLISLE
I have a secret I want to reveal to you. But first…
The cover photo above is our young Japanese Maple in our backyard. One of the many talents packed inside my father-in-law was landscaping. In his backyard, he raised a tree to grow sideways. As you view it, the trunk comes off the ground vertically for a couple of feet, then with an extreme bend grew some five, or six feet horizontally to the ground. As your eyes would follow the great trunk, you then would see an extreme bend to rise upward toward the sky once again. The house was sold after he passed away a few years ago, so I do not have a photo of this large zig-zag tree trunk. It is highly unusual, but stunning. His daughter, my wife, has his genes coming out of her pores. As you can see in the cover photo, she is training a young tree to do the same as the tree she grew up with. If you can expand it, or zoom-in, you can see the stake in the ground, as well as a string pulling the lower trunk outward. It’s all outer space to me. She knows what she’s doing in this arena. One thing I do know, training takes time. Training takes endurance. Training takes the touch of love.
I was raised by a single mom. With the dynamics of my biological father, and a distant step-father who adopted me when I was six years old, I don’t have any good stories of great love from a father. Even my adopted father ended in divorce only four years after the remarriage. However, I can point to a plumb-line in my life who vowed earl-on to help raise me. He was old enough to have been my dad. He was only 42 when I came into the world.
Photo: My granddad, Martin Atherton (1918-2008)
My mom’s dad was a giant of a man. In stature he was only about 5′-9″ tall. Yet, his deeds, his love, his ethics, his words were from a heart of gold which only could belong to a herculean man of 6′-9″.
Martin Atherton helped to shape my thinking, even though I never lived under his roof, with the exception of a few short months in my toddler days. He was a blue-collar worker, master auto mechanic, who never wanted his kids to become a mechanic, as he thought the money wasn’t enough for the hard labor involved. His hard work was displayed in his rough, strong hands. Although soft spoken, he was a John Wayne type character. He would’ve done well in the wild west times. Oh, the novel I could write about this gent.
I will include the fact that he never once sat me down to lecture me on the Ten Commandments, the birds and the bees, or the “career talk”. He trained me gently by the sheer act of witnessing his life. He was a leader in his church, a respected man in his community, his workplace, and a man well-known for honesty, sealed with a handshake and a nod. His word was his bond.
Most of all, he trained me by my willingness to listen to what others would testify about him. Scores and scores of men and women spoke highly of him, as the countenance on their faces gleamed while the Martin Atherton soundtrack of the mind rolled out of their mouths. He was someone God would write about.
He trained me by seeing how he loved my grandmother, and how she responded.
Photo: Martin & Opal Atherton (1941ish)
He trained me by his love for America’s freedom, fighting in WWII while serving in the navy in the Philippines. He had two young sons, both under five years old, and one on the way, when he could no longer keep himself tied to the title of “citizen” only. He heard the urgent alarms of military service needed in the Pacific and answered the call at great risk.
He trained me to do all I could to respect and honor the president of the United States, even if policies and personalities were not personally agreeable.
He trained me to search to find the good in the individual, even if looking the other way at times seemed appropriate.
He trained me to love family, nucleus or extended family, even when greatly tempted to hate.
Example: Back in the late 1940’s he had a brother-in-law, my Great-Uncle Buster, who was physically abusive to his wife, my Great-Aunt Pauline. She once lost a baby when he punched her in the belly while pregnant with their first child. She never could have children afterward. This man was a severe hyper-alcoholic, to the point of drunken violent rages landing him in jail many times. He often caused havoc in their small farming community. At one family gathering in east Texas, this man showed up baked to the very bone with bottle in hand. It’s unclear just how it started, but the man caused a violent, profane stir in front of the family, including the children attending. As was the “bent” of my granddad, he tried to calm his brother-in-law down, but the sloshed man wouldn’t abide. Being a WWII sailor, my granddad knew how this would go. My granddad began to strongly encourage him to leave and sleep it off. During the altercation, my Great-Uncle Buster pulled out a knife with one hand and broke off the top of his whiskey bottle with the other. He charged at my granddad to stab and cut him open in front of the entire clan. Thank God he disarmed him and knocked Buster cold. He didn’t hold a grudge against his brother-in-law. In fact, years later, he trusted Jesus as he put away the bottle, sobered up and lived a peaceful, calm life on his farm until the day he died. In my growing up years, I never knew the “other” Uncle Buster, and I’m grateful. Throughout, my granddad showed love and respect for him, even though many did not.
He trained me to valiantly defend the home, family, and loved ones. It was his way to aid any and all, even if it meant personal loss. He was always looking out for the needy underdog.
He trained me to think and act with an abundance of generosity and benevolence.
He trained me to troubleshoot difficult circumstances, even if it was a painful road.
He trained me to walk closest to the curb when walking with a lady on the sidewalk.
Many pages could be filled about my granddad. Again, he was a soft spoken man with very little words, but with great deeds of a legacy to ponder. Truly, a salt of the earth gentleman.
There is a passage that’s always caused me pause. It comes from Solomon.
“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” – Proverbs 22:6 (KJV)
There have been many a commentary on just how to interpret this scripture. Some believe it simply means, instruct a child in the way he is bent while still pliable. Some say it speaks of training the child in the tenor of his way. A few will say this only applies to academia, in which Solomon was a champ. Another will say, instruct a youth about his way(s), common or uncommon. Some will say it’s concerning training in a specific trade inside a youthful life. (You might be a piano player, yet the child shows gifting in construction.) Some will teach it’s all about moral training from childhood. Sermons are built on the idea this passage speaks of training in the things of God, and His Law. While others will preach the meaning surrounds the training of the ways of the culture, the civility of the community one grows up in.
Personally, I think it’s possible all of the above options are accurate. Whatever the subject matter, not one child will be schooled if there is a lack of an instructor.
At the same time, we all can attest to the well-known fact that all kids do NOT grow up clinging to what they have been taught. Just ask most ministers with older kids. How can one say a young rioter deems it righteous to loot and burn down a place of business, if he was trained to honor and respect his/her neighbor? The other evidence can been found in generations of weeping parents. It very well could be Solomon was not “promising” a life of roses for all who were trained to observe righteousness and love. Much of Solomon’s own children were lawbreakers. For me, I believe the scripture pertains to a generality of the averages. Certainly the principle is there. I know my daughters were trained up to observe righteousness, civility, and ways of career and education. However, as adults, they don’t always abide by what I trained them to do. Regardless, they have my love and respect even so.
Photo: L-R: Tabitha, Megan, me, D’Anna (2015)
For me, the explosive word in Solomon’s text just might be…”Train UP…” The idea is, onward and upward for a better future, not the opposite. It’s always an advantage to have a grandson write about how great you are sixty years from now. Wouldn’t that be commendable?
The Japanese Maple in our backyard is being trained up with a bend in its trunk. Although we have plenty of winding, bends in our road of life, if trained well, we trend upward. My hope is that it will survive gravity and the Texas weather in the years to come. It takes a stick and a string for now.
Oh, yes. I mentioned I would share a secret with you. Here it is. My secret is, I have failed way too many times to even measure closely to my early training. When I get it right, I just consider it a special moment from above.
Training UP has a manual within the heart of fuel for the race.
“…Well I thought about it, you know I’m not playing. You better listen to me, every word I’ve been saying. Hot is cold, what’s cold is hot. I’m a little mixed up, but I’ll give it everything I’ve got. Don’t want your money, don’t need your car. I’m doing all right, doing all right so far. I’m givin’ it up for your love – everything.” (1980) – “Givin’ It Up For Your Love” – Composer & Recorded: Delbert McClinton
Merriam-Webster defines “Invest” with three different entries. The third is this: “To involve or engage especially emotionally.”
Most see it like this…
I was given a gift when I was about 10 years old. It was a piggy bank, but not in the traditional. It wasn’t in a “piggy” shape at all. It was transparent glass cylinders melded side-by-side. There were four of these cylinders, each just the size of each denomination of American coins. Much like a rain measurement gauge, the cylinders were marked-off to indicate how much was accumulated, depending upon how high the stack of coins. Unlike the old piggy bank, I could see and count how much my investments added up to based on my deposits. What a great teaching tool for a little kid. Within this profile of the man below, I will get back to the transparent bank of deposits.
Today, the north Dallas suburb where I live has a population of around 140, 000 citizens. When my mom and I moved here in the summer of ’73, it was far smaller. The suburb is clustered with other suburbs to the point of not knowing which one you are driving through if you are unaware of the borders. It’s always been a busy place with lots to do for whatever interests you might have.
Perry Road was between our apartment complex at the time, and the school I went to. It was explored the first week we arrived so we would know the route to my school. I walked that road every day during my 8th grade school year. Later, I would consider it my jogging street.
I often saw a little old African-American man walking down Perry next to the curb in a brisk gate. At first I didn’t really pay much attention to the man as we drove by. After seeing him a few more times, as the summer went on, I took a bit more notice of the old man. Once I got a good look, he appeared to be a vagrant, a poor homeless man, with weathered skin like leather. He looked to be in his 70’s. The idea of “Mr. Bojangles” came to mind. His thin faded shirt was oversized, ragged and dirty. His pants were either old cotton khakis, or worn-out bluejeans, complete with holes in various spots. There were times he was seen wearing a postal carrier’s uniform, but it was old and frayed. I always wondered where he got it, as I knew he wasn’t working for the post office. He always wore an old sweat-stained baseball cap. After awhile, it was the norm to see him with a burlap bag, or an old army duffle bag, swung over his shoulder with a couple of baseball bats sticking out. Being new in town, and knowing I would be walking to school, my mom was hoping we had moved to a neighborhood where transients wouldn’t be an issue. Seeing this old man caused her pause.
After the school year started, from time to time I would see this old man at my school’s baseball diamond swinging bats, hitting old lopsided beat-up baseballs with the stitching unraveling. There were always kids around him, from 6 year olds to teenagers. One day, I watched him from behind the backstop knocking one ball after another to whatever part of the field he pointed to.
I wasn’t into baseball, but this old man was surprisingly talented at the sport. They say from time to time a kid would beg him to hit one over the fence. A crooked grin would launch from his sweating weathered face, followed by a soft chuckle, then pick up a ball and at will, knock it over the fence. Two things come to mind. First, he did it with ease. Secondly, he looked far too skinny and old to put one over the fence. Like a finely tuned choir, the kids would say, “Wow! Cool! Far-out!” I could’ve hung around longer but, there were other things to do, places to go, people to see. Plus, baseball just wasn’t my sport.
The kids in the community knew him simply as, Jimmy. You could say he was like the Pied Piper, leading countless boys and girls to home plate and the pitcher’s mound. He was well-known for walking to various elementary schools, as well as the Jr. High schools, and city parks to start pick-up games for whoever wanted to play.
Little did I know he had been doing this for the neighborhood kids since the 1960’s. This mysterious old black man would come walking to these various baseball fields from seemingly out of nowhere. Out of his old worn-out bag came a couple of old baseball bats which he held together with screws and nails after being split or cracked. An armload of old baseballs, three or four ancient left-handed baseball gloves would fall out of the bag. He coached. He taught. He umpired. He pitched. He chose players for the teams. It didn’t matter to him if girls showed up. Jimmy saw them as no different than the boys. They all played their roles on the diamond, or outfield. If there was a kid who struggled at the game, he spent more time with them for encouragement and personal growth. Many an afternoon was spent teaching the art of baseball to the young community of our suburb. He loved the kids. They truly idolized the man. Jimmy would stay until the very last child had to go home. After waving the last player homeward, he would gather his baseball equipment in the bag and off down Perry Road he would go.
A few of my friends grew up being coached by Jimmy in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It’s amazing to me that I never really learned about Jimmy until I became an adult. Little did I know we had a baseball star in our midst.
Jimmy Porter was born September 2, 1900 somewhere in Tennessee. For some unknown reason, Jimmy Porter came to Carrollton, Texas in the 1920’s. Prior to his journey he had played for the old Negro Baseball League in St. Louis. When he arrived in Carrollton, he was unemployed, uneducated, and didn’t have a dime to his name. Considering the times, he was what they called a “hobo”, destined for a pauper’s life out on the streets. On top of that, being a black man in the south, life was not promising in the 1920’s. At the same time, he was rich in talent with a higher vision.
Shortly after he set foot in our community in the 1920’s, he formed a black semipro baseball team known as, The Carrollton Cats. He played and coached The Cats for several years until they eventually disbanded. Later, Jimmy convinced the leaders of the community to found a Carrollton Little League for the children. As expected, Jimmy coached the league for many years. Even after the Little League grew way beyond what it was in the beginning, after he no longer was the “official” coach, he continued to coach outside the league through pick-up games, not only in Carrollton, but also in the neighboring suburb, Farmers Branch, Texas. The games were casual, friendly, and educational. Jimmy was a small man, so he always made sure the smallest kids got to bat first. Everyone was welcome to use his old baseball supplies. Often at the end of the games, he hugged all the players with the warmth of approval. They say he always left them with a wave and yelled out, “Everybody just love everybody”. It’s ironic in that his motto described who he was.
Jimmy’s coaching grew some fruit. For many years, our high school’s baseball team was considered one of the best in all of Texas. In the trophy-case on campus, you can check out the championship trophies racked-up through the years. Some players went on to terrific college teams and minor league teams across the nation.
Although he was poor, he didn’t ask for money for any of his work with the kids. He was never seen begging in the streets. Jimmy did receive high praise from the community through the decades of his selfless work. Many offered him jobs. He was known for odd-jobs when he could get them. He did yard work, janitorial jobs, and grunt-work nobody wanted.
Despite his state in life, there would be awards of honor given, parades where he would be featured, as well as, a front row seat just behind home plate at all Little League games where he would hoop & holler encouragement to the players. In 1973 a city park, named in his honor with a beautiful baseball field, was built which included a Jimmy Porter monument. Jimmy didn’t have a family, so in 1977, Jimmy was awarded a lifetime membership by the Texas PTA. He was featured in several newspapers, local television, as well as, the NBC Today Show in 1982. Each year there is a recipient who is elected to receive The Jimmy Porter Award for outstanding community service. Today, some of Jimmy’s old baseballs, caps, bats, and gloves can be seen under glass at the Carrollton Historical Museum.
Little did I know at the time, Jimmy Porter lived in an abandoned railroad boxcar just off the depot about 3 miles from most of the ball-fields he visited. Frankly, I don’t believe most of the town knew where he lived. In the early 1980’s, Jimmy’s health began to decline. A few civic leaders, who once were under Jimmy’s wing in the dugout, built him a small frame house. It was way overdue. This old, quite hero shed a tear or two as the keys to the humble house were given to him.
At this point, I must admit I have some lingering anger. It spews from the fact that decades went by before this community offered Mr. Porter decent room and board. Think of it. In 1973, when he was 73 years old, they built a city park for the man and named it Jimmy Porter Park. Afterward the ceremony, they watched him walk back to his boxcar. I’ll leave the subject here.
Mr. Jimmy Porter softly left us December 11, 1984, just about a year after moving into his new home. He was 84 years old. The community purchased a modest plot in one of our cemeteries, on Perry Road, where he wore out his shoes walking to and fro the school’s ball-fields. His humble headstone features two baseball bats crossed.
Mr. Porter had no idea how important he would be to Carrollton and Farmers Branch, Texas. Sure, he was a pauper, an uneducated man, a man seen as a vagrant in the eyes of the misled and misdirected. Yet, as poor as he was, he gave. Much like the Apostle Paul in scripture, he was willing to be poured out for others, and the generations to come. Jimmy Porter gave of his personal value, the God-given special wealth inside of him. Like a transparent piggy bank, he lived long enough to see the dividends of a lifetime of deposits from his heart and talents. Multitudes who are now between 40-70 years old, who were raised in my neck of the woods, were, and are, his treasures. His investment was enormous. I would say, not so poor.
Like any good teacher, Jimmy Porter left an indelible mark on young lives that can be seen to this day.
Often I drive down Perry Road for old-time sake. It never fails, I admit to looking down the street for an old tattered black man with worn-out baseball bats slung over his shoulder.
Investing in the lives of others, without seeking anything in return, pours out in fuel for the race.
“Cast your bread on the surface of the waters, for you will find it after many days.’ – Ecclesiastes 11:1 – King Solomon (New American Standard Bible)
A special thanks to Dave Henderson for some of Jimmy Porter’s memories.
“Kodachrome They give us those nice bright colors They give us the greens of summers Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah I got a Nikon camera I love to take a photograph So mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away…” (1973) Kodachrome Written & Recorded by: Paul Simon
Many moons ago I was a photography enthusiast. Actually, I still am, just not a practicing one anymore.
Around 1983, one of my co-workers was selling his gently used 35mm Canon AE1. I never had a serious camera before, just happy with an Instamatic and Polaroids, but always wanted one. It didn’t take long in life to discover I had a photographer’s eye and really wanted to dive in. When he realized I was interested, he sold it to me for a little bit of nothing. I made out like a bandit on that deal. I guess I have taken a few thousand shots with it through the years. These days it sits in my old dusty camera bag…in a closet I rarely use.
My photo albums can testify how much I love real film, not to mention the scads of containers of photos stored away. They are just visual moments in time documented for future eyes. Recently, a fabulous photographer encouraged me to pick up the camera once again. A big thanks to Darren across the pond at The Arty Plantsman.
Once I became an owner of a great camera, a telephoto lens and a telephoto zoom lens was added over the years. All-in-all it adds up to some great shutter adventures.
If you’re new to a 35mm camera, one of the first things to learn is the focus of your subject in the viewfinder. In the scope you find uneven lines to mesh together for a sharp focus of the subject targeted. So vital. Line up the focus lines and click away. (I love the sound of the shutter.) The field of depth can be tricky, but it can be mastered. Let me show you some old pictures of mine to give some visual examples.
Below, notice the tight focus of the bee hovering over the blooms at the renowned Ft Worth Botanical Gardens in Ft Worth, Texas. (Theses photos are from the mid 1980’s, so the color has faded with age. However, I’m sure you’ll get the picture. :>)
For the photographer, what I’m about to explain is simple common knowledge. I focused sharply on the bee visiting the blooms, but when I “focused” on the bee, the background became “unfocused”. Notice the leaves and branches are blurry. It’s okay for a shot like this and frankly, it’s expected.
However, when I focused more toward the middle of the field of depth, and not closing up on a bee, all becomes focused. See what I mean?
If Pinocchio came to my house I could zero-in on his nose, but it would leave the rest of his face out of focus. Isn’t it true, sometimes in life we do tend to focus on lies, deceit, and untrustworthy words? Panning back, one can always view the larger picture.
Here’s another example from my old Karate/Kickboxing days. (I used to break concrete for martial arts demonstrations in another life. Patio concrete slabs at Walmart were less than a dollar in those days.)
Notice the tight, sharp focus centering on the concrete slabs atop the mason blocks. Yet, the back of the heads, in the foreground, are very much out of focus. If I had focused on the back of the gentleman’s head on the right, then the stage area would be hazy in the field of depth.
One of my faults is a tendency to be a newshound. With all the jarring frays in the American political world of late, I find I must walk away and focus on other things. I guess you might say I need to fix my eyes elsewhere for a more pleasant subject in my mental viewfinder. Simply put, I need to adjust my field of depth. Do you ever feel that way?
Not long ago, I had a real issue with my 20-something step-daughter. We first met about four years ago. She lives hundreds of miles away making it a bit difficult to have a thriving, authentic relationship. Over a Facebook post, harsh words were spoken. Attitudes, which were hidden, suddenly bubbled out into the raw open. It was a hurtful event. (Much like political hearings on Capitol Hill.) At first, I focused on the words said, words typed, and tried with all my might to keep from judging her too harshly. Unfortunately, I already had. What I needed to do, and eventually did, was to avoid focusing on the words, but also make efforts to step back to get the entire picture inside the frame from a different camera angle. When accomplished, I was able to adjust my lens for a broader view to the point where the up close and personal issue, which involved me, became less of the subject in the field of depth. In that way, the view of the world will always develop much better after possessing. It’s an art, don’t you think?
Photo: Chay Garciavia Pexels
While tell you this, I was hit with a biblical hammer. The parable from Jesus, concerning the Good Samaritan, captures much of the same idea. Here is my layman’s modern paraphrased version. PG13…Suitable with the exception of extreme violence and nudity. (LOL)
A poor traveler was beaten, stripped, and robbed by a gang waiting behind the rocks on a path in rugged desert area. They left him half-dead. Soon, a priest came down the same road, saw the distressed wounded traveler and made it a point to look the other way. In doing so, he went to the opposite side of the path to avoid him. Not long after that, a Levite approached. (A Levite was one who lived in the temple in Jerusalem, born to serve in the daily duties of temple business. Much like a monk or nun.) He too, quickly looked the other direction to avoid the traumatized one in need and walked around the naked, wounded traveler while fixing his gaze on the road ahead. A Samaritan man (From a geographical locale called Samaria in mid-Israel.) came down the same road and saw the poor guy. He had pity and compassion on him as he considered his terrible ordeal. Although the victim was left naked, bloody and unable to walk, he immediately gave him first aid as he bandaged him with what little he had. Then he, not caring if he soiled his own clothes, picked the bleeding man up and placed him on his donkey. Not long afterwards they reached a small hotel. He booked a room, taking care of him throughout the overnight. The next day, he found the wounded man was still in no condition to travel. He left him bandaged in his bed. Before leaving, he gave the hotel clerk a generous amount of funds. He instructed the clerk to take care of him. He went on to tell him to supply whatever needs might arise concerning the unfortunate man. He let it be known he would reimburse him for whatever expenses rose above the money offered when he returned from his trip. (Ref. Luke 10:35-37)
Honestly, volumes have been written about the application of this parable. There is so much taught from the tale. As Jesus shared this parable, He was showing the true heart of God and what kind of heart God can place within each of us who are willing. The “holier than thou” clergymen were focused on where they were going, their schedules, and their own concerns. When the two “men of the cloth” saw the poor, broken traveler, they chose not to focus on him, just like the back of the heads of an audience at a Karate demo. Although the victim was right there in their foreground, for them the idea was to keep the vision of him, and his needs, contained in a blurry haze of forgetfulness. The Good Samaritan had a schedule to keep as well. He was also focused on where his destination was, his clock, and the distance ahead. But when he saw the beaten, bloodied traveler, compassion caused him to think to himself, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Suddenly, he adjusted his lens to a sharp, clear focal point on the needs at hand. His new focus allowed him to see clearly what needed to be done for this stranger who owed him nothing. His new focus delivered a bias for action. You might say, he chewed his gum and walked at the same time. It’s clear, his field of depth changed as he refocused.
After I am dead and gone, my three daughters will be going through my photo albums, my plastic tubs of Kodak prints scanning some forty+ years, as well as boxes of snapshots I felt were important to keep. When they do, they might learn far more about what my true focus was in life. Hopefully they will discuss my authentic field of depth.
Focusing on the subject of need isn’t always easy, but it will add to your personal field of depth. The viewfinder is always located in the mixture of fuel for the race.
“Let us fix (focus) our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” – Hebrews 12:2 (Berean Study Bible Version)
“She was just sixteen and all alone when I came to be. So we grew up together…mama-child and me. Now things were bad and she was scared, but whenever I would cry, she’d calm my fear and dry my tears with a rock and toll lullaby…” (1972) Rock And Roll Lullaby. Recorded by: B.J. Thomas. Composers: Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil.
With age, I have learned that…
If I were the teen who fought through a sexual assault, then carried an unwanted pregnancy, debating the heart’s choices, then allowing life to grow, I would be a spectacular teenager wise beyond my years.
If I were a parent who protected my newborn from assault and murder at the hands of the father, with a sacrificial unselfish front, I would be a medal of honor recipient.
If I were to end an abusive marriage, to defend and shield my innocent toddler, knowing there would be no child support, I would be a heroine authors would write about.
If I were a single parent constantly contending with the voices of psychological demons, chanting accusations of worthlessness, depreciation, and shame, all the while rising above it all to raise my child, I would be the dragon-slayer described in countless novels.
If I were to defeat my fear by moving into an uncharted world, away from family, to make a life for my young child, I would be a courageous warrior with monuments anointing the landscape.
If I were one who taught my toddler the true value of the gift of grandparents, I would be a brilliant educator with my name on the walls of universities.
If I were to faithfully read scripture to my young child each night, combined with the simplicity of personal prayer and church attendance, I would be a righteousness seeker with my statue erected by the world’s cathedrals.
If I were to seek out the finest pre-schools and kindergartens, in the attempt to assure my only child got a leg up, I would be a proactive parent to be noticed.
If I were to be rejected for loans and credit, due to being a single parent in the 1960’s, only to exercise faith while tackling a life of poverty with my head held high, I would be a fearless champion in my child’s eyes.
If I were to knock on every door to find a job waiting tables, or struggle with an overnight shift on an assembly line, I would be a humble workhorse of a provider for others to impersonate.
If I were to give away the opportunity to have a brilliant singing & recording career, just to be home with my child at the end of a hard night’s work, I would be self-sacrificing, worthy of a screenwriter’s time.
If I were to provide for my child after several lay-offs, by way of two or three jobs, I would be Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman combined, never being poor in spirit.
If I were to train my child well enough to leave him alone overnight, in order to work the graveyard shifts, I would be an example of a strong tower of faith.
If I were to work overtime to aid in the development of my elementary age child with raw musical abilities, by paying for piano, violin, guitar, and voice lessons, my portrait would hang in Carnegie Hall.
If I were to be a staunch, independent single parent, refusing financial aid from my parents, I would be wealthy of heart.
From my granddad’s cedar coin box. The two of us from 1969.
If I were to resist the temptation of suicide, while being beaten down by company lay-offs, Green Stamp submissions, and accepting government blocks of cheese, I would be a brave ferocious fighter for my child’s future.
If I were to support my teen’s sports and musical interests, which differ from mine, I would be a liberally devoted parent of love and understanding.
If I were to tirelessly stand up to my rebellious teenager, with the possibility of damaging our relationship, I would have attributes resembling the God of the Bible.
If I were to sit all alone in a church pew watching my child wed, I would have earned the vision of a soldier adorned in glistening armor after a long battle.
If I were to bless my grandchildren with my physical presence, my mind, as well as my heart, I would be worth my weight in gold.
My mom with my middle daughter, Megan. (1992)
If I were to deny myself, for the betterment of my child, to the point of self-injury, while killing my own pursuits, and avoiding life’s trinkets that shine in the night, I would be Joan of Arc, Boudicca, Anne Sullivan, and Rosa Parks rolled into one.
If I were to be an example for my adult child, by being the caretaker of my aging parents, suffering from Alzheimer’s and Dementia, along with other elderly ones in my community, I would reflect what I have always been…a mountain of love, compassion, and selflessness.
If I were to describe a fictitious character from my own dreams, they could not come close to the one I have held in my heart for my entire life.
I don’t have to write the words “If I WERE…” The reason being, I simply could never measure up. The one described above is my mom, Carolyn Atherton-Brown.
I am her portrait. I am her monument. I am her novel. I am her screenplay. I am her statue. I am her champion. I am her armored soldier. I am the medal of honor.
To be gracefully broken, brilliantly strengthened, and beautifully poised is to be one who drinks deeply from the well of fuel for the race.
“…As surely as you live, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the Lord. I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given to the Lord…” – The words of Hannah – I Samuel 1:26b-28a (NIV)
“Farewell, Irene, where your dreams abound…You dream of the north, Irene. Well then that’s where you oughta be…” (2016) Irene. Recorded and composed by: Courtney Marie Andrews
As I introduce you to my fabulous cousin, Irene, allow me to lay down a teaser right here. In a few lines I will deliver a shocker, a twist in my spotlighting of this precious and beloved lady.
When I think of cousins, my memory projects mental Super 8 footage of summer days chasing each other with water guns. I have snapshots in my childhood haze riding double on horses, bareback through the pastures. Notably, there’s always visions of playground swings, chasing the ice cream truck down the street, family reunions in the park, and visiting our grandparents together. Cousins were, and are, so much fun.
Entering stage left, my cousin, Irene.
When I was little, I had trouble calling her, “Irene”. My understanding the word, “Ring” came out of my mouth. I was able to overcome that problem.
Over the Easter weekend, the old band got together for a bit of a reunion performance for a Messianic Passover event way north of our home in Dallas. For a Texan, Oklahoma is north-enough. I drove myself up to Enid, Oklahoma, in the northwestern part of the state, for our musical adventure. The long drive gave me lots of time to freshen up my vocals before arriving at the venue in the late afternoon. We had played there two years ago. At that time, after a Facebook posting about the gig in Enid, my cousin, Irene, replied with a tad of chastisement for not informing her. It was my mistake in that I was under the impression she and her husband resided in southwestern Oklahoma, closer to Altus where her mom lived. Turns out, she lives closer to the Kansas/Oklahoma border, in Tonkawa, OK, just another thirty miles or so north of my turn-off for Enid. So, I promised her then I would contact her ahead of time if I’m in that area again. As you can see, we finally got together. Here’s the beauty with two of her pals and my ugly mug.
(We have Cherokee in our family tree. The features show up so much more through her branch of the family. Her mother, my Aunt Evelyn, was very much the same way.)
Although we had kept in touch over the decades, it was always through emails, texts, and Facebook. Rarely were we hanging out for family picnics. Literally, the last time we physically sat together was at our uncle’s memorial service in 1977. It’s such a shame to only see the ones you love at times of sorrow. Do you know what I mean?
What a terrific visit. It’s amazing what you can learn about others when you actually sit and talk face to face. I knew she was an artist, photographer, and an avid activist, a gifted musician, but there’s so much more to my cousin, Irene than I once knew. Part of her artwork is landscaping. Her property is a testament to the fact.
I must say, it’s vastly different from the natural brush country in that part of the state. She’s turned it into a showplace. It reminded me so much of the Dallas Arboretum Park. (Google for photos.) Truly a professional would be amazed.
Part of her array of gifts surrounds being active in charity work and fundraisers. She has donated many items for local charity auctions. One of the things she is known for is her artwork on chairs. You saw the cover photo at the top, by the title, of her in action. Here’s another example of her artsy eye on old unwanted furnishings.
(Collaboration Art by: Irene Ackerson & Gene Doughtery)
These chairs go for a few hundred dollars at various auctions. You can see why.
Irene stays very busy. She is well traveled and well educated. She and her husband were teachers, loving the craft of education. She is a talented canvas painter. An active animal lover, Irene rescues dogs, as well as, dog-sitting for others in the community. Somehow she walks multiple dogs at the same time. I struggle walking two of them. My dear cousin collects items of interest, much in the realm of artwork, from all over the world, decorating her home with such. She’s a volunteer for civic and church events. She can be found in the throws of various social and charitable occasions. She probably makes animal balloons, too. These are just some of the things I have missed out on in not getting to know her better.
We both have a good sense of humor, which has been handed down through our family tree. One day, back in the 90’s, she got a real kick when I called her the “Kate Jackson (Charlie’s Angels) of our family.” The resemblance was authentic. There was a lot of truth to my title for her when we were younger.
(Irene with her oldest son, Jeff.)
Now for the twister of this story about my cousin, Irene. We never played in the playground swings together. We never rode bareback horses through the Texas pastures. We never chased down the ice cream truck. Irene and I never once shot each other with water guns. It’s certainly not because she lived so far north from my stomping grounds. So what’s the mystery?
If you have seen my Facebook page, (Connect with me anytime – Alan Brown, Carrollton, Texas.) then you know she’s not shy about her age. In a recent public post on my Facebook page, Irene mentioned the occasion where we first met. In fact, there is a photo of the moment, which currently I cannot locate in my stacks of family photos. It was 1964. I was four years old, shaking hands with Irene, the beautiful bride!!! (YES, scroll back up for another look at us from Easter weekend.) Irene is actually my mom’s cousin, my 2nd cousin. Not willing to publish her actual age, I will reveal that I will turn 59 in a few days, and Irene is two years older than my mom! Maybe I should add, she’s never had work done. (Haha)
Let it be known, she can run circles around me. We had a very sharp aunt who lived to be 103 who walked faster than I did.
Truly, there’s lots to be said about staying active. There’s lots to be said about keeping the mind youthful and open. There’s lots to be said about nurturing the body, and keeping it moving. Irene has done all of that, and more.
I also think love has much to do with the “youthening” process. Do you agree? Have you noticed? Irene pours out love for others as a way of life, including the animal kingdom. I believe those who chew on hate have bitter, shortened lives. Frankly, that is a biblical concept.
Jesus taught to love one another as we love ourselves. He also went further. He taught we should love the ones we perceive as outcasts, or socially despised. He said so because that is how God loves. In following suit, we find life to be more palatable altogether. Life is sweeter when my mind chooses to love those I normally might not even notice.
Maybe Irene’s teaching days aren’t over. Turns out, I’ve learned a few things observing our Irene.
Love and youthful endurance are grand products of fuel for the race.
“Yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run and not get tired. They will walk and not become weary.” – Isaiah 40:31 (NASB)
“I will remember you. Will you remember me? Don’t let life pass you by. Weep not for the memories…” I Will Remember You, (1995). Recorded by: Sarah McLachlan. Composers: Sarah McLachlan, Seamus Egan, Dave Merenda
Cover photo: Anne Neville/Buffalo News
Life sure has its ways of reminding us how we should have corrected ourselves at some point and time. The rear-view mirror can be a teaching tool.
I lived in Williamsville/Amherst, NY, a Buffalo suburb, from 2003-2008. It’s approximately 5,300 in population. I chose Williamsville because it was a beautiful, quaint little area, away from the city where I did a radio show. The property taxes were higher, with the safe neighborhood, as well as the school district. It was a superb place for my three girls.
Often times, while driving into the quiet, older downtown village of Williamsville for a dinner run, or a nice walk down to the Ellicott Creek waterfall in Glen Park, we would see a mysterious man walking the sidewalks. He was quite the oddity for the setting of Williamsville’s more upper-crust reputation. He was a homeless man, or so we assumed. The majority of the homeless were seen in the city, not the norm for the Williamsville/Amherst section of Buffalo. More than likely you would see him clad in camouflage coat & pants, or a pair of cargo khakis, hunting lace-up boots, and long heavy yarn scarves wrapped around his neck that hung down to his thighs.
One evening, while sitting in the car in a parking lot, waiting to pick-up my daughter from a musical rehearsal, I saw the man was nearby, digging through a trash bin outside a Wendy’s fast food location. At closer glance, I observed the scarves with a better perspective. The scarves were not scarves at all. They were extremely long strands of thick, matted hair, appearing to be mufflers of wool. These strands were not dreadlocks, with crafty braids of hair art, although many attempted a good spin by calling them dreadlocks. They were as thick as a dock rope. It was an amazing sight, and certainly highly unique. It told part of this man’s narrative.
My oldest daughter, Tabitha, 16 at the time, worked part-time for Spot Coffee, a popular coffee and pastry bar. He made a semi-daily stop there for a tall cup of straight java. He was offered free coffees and food from most of the businesses in the village. or wherever he showed up, but he always paid when he could. Empty bottles and cans were his prey. It was a familiar scene, a plastic trash bag full of the soon-to-be recycled items, draped over his shoulder. He had a zip-lock plastic bag of coins and dollar bills stashed in the thigh pocket of his pants. Nobody ever saw him begging on the street corners. However, the community members, not allowing judgement to overrule them, donated money to him coming and going. One might wonder how the business owners and the police dealt with him. I am proud to say, very kindly. Everyone understood, this man was part of our community, living a life of his choosing.
More days than not, if you drove by Spot Coffee, you would see him sitting at one of the patio tables with coffee in hand, gazing off toward the horizon. He seemed to live in his own world. He was gentle, never causing trouble. Although he was not one to enjoy talking much. He would respond if spoken to. My daughter has a big heart. She made sure she spoke to him while serving him coffee, or whenever she was close enough on other occasions.
Photo: Carole Taylor & Buffalo News
Sometimes you could see him sitting outside a Burger King on a sidewalk bench, eating a burger. Other times, he would be stuffing one into an old worn backpack. It was not unusual for him to decline someone offering him fries to go with it. My opportunity was one August afternoon as I jogged by the bench. You guessed it. I looked straight ahead listening to Fleetwood Mac on my headset, pretending I didn’t notice him.
Many have seen him walking the campus of the University of Buffalo, watching the pigeons. There is a subway station there, on the south campus, where he often took shelter. With that said, I think he simply enjoyed the peaceful surroundings of the campus, even under hostile weather.
After a year of living there, this man just became a fixture to me. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I no longer acknowledged his presence, but rather I expected to see him…somewhere. What’s truly nagging at me is the fact he had a story and I didn’t know it.
Although he was an icon, even a staple in the area, most only heard rumors concerning who he really was. Not many ever knew his name, including your’s truly. One rumor painted the man on the street as an alcohol and drug addict. Another rumor dubbed him as a military vet from the Vietnam conflict. Because he often paid for his coffee and food, many believed he was covertly wealthy, wanting to experience the street life of the poor. It’s funny how we can extract scenarios about someone when they are shrouded in mysteries.
One thing is for sure, he was a tough soul. During the decades of street life, he braved some of the worst winter blasts Buffalo/Niagara had to offer, and they are many.
My middle daughter, Megan, still lives in Buffalo. Recently I asked if she has spotted the roving man after all these years. She said he stays pretty much in the Amherst/Williamsville suburbs, but nothing had seemed to change for him.
Last week, Megan posted an article from the Buffalo News newspaper. During the horrid polar vortex weather system, which blew in sub-zero temps, and all that goes with it, Buffalo was hit extremely hard.
At the height of the storm, he had gone to one of his coffee hang-outs, a Tim Horton’s location, but it was closed due to the travel ban with the deep freeze encasing the region. (It’s highly rare to see a Tim Horton’s closed due to weather.) He then entered, for the very first time, the lobby at a nearby luxury hotel. The manager of the restaurant and bar, offered him coffee and a chair, which he accepted. Seeing that he was suffering from the penetrating polar winds, he was generously offered a room for the night. He declined. (Even if he had accepted, he would’ve abandoned the accommodations soon after.) The manager then offered hot food, a warm hat, as well as another coat. As it was his usual form, he declined. After a small time of warmth, the poor man began to make his way to the lobby door. The staff begged him to stay longer, only to watch him nod as he made his frigid exit.
Lawrence “Larry” Bierl, age 67-69, was found the following morning, January 31st, just two blocks down from the hotel, on a bench at a three-sided plexiglass bus stop on Main Street. Somewhere in the overnight, he had passed away from the wrath of the polar vortex.
Photo: Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News
The Buffalo News article had published a beautiful letter from Larry’s extended family. Nobody was aware he had family at all. His sister was the writer. As the family revealed Larry’s story, I could hardly hold my mouth closed. Larry held a master’s degree. He was once in management of a well-known airline corporation. He never was a vet. He never was a drug addict, or alcohol abuser. One day, in the mid 70’s, for no apparent reason, he walked away from his life as he knew it to be. He traveled the country, often hitching rides with truckers and hopping trains, only to return to Buffalo to live as a homeless man. The family did all they could to help him. They tried for years to convince him to get help. He declined. After many years of tracking him, pushing him to get the much needed assistance he deserved, the family surrendered to his wishes. Nobody in his family ever knew exactly what happened to his mind, or what derailed his life, but he lived with a mental illness.
After reading of his terrible death, along with his story, I must admit, I cried. As I write this blog, my mind still hasn’t come to grips with how I feel, or how to process this. Why? Because I never spoke to Larry, although many I love had done so. Not once did I ever offer him a meal, a bottle of water, or a new pair of shoes. It came to mind to grab a gift card at a hair salon, or a clothing outlet, but I never did. Clearly, God gave me opportunities, but apparently “I” was more important.
“…Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Jesus – Mark 12:31a (NIV)
Sure, there were internal excuses. They went something like this, “The Buffalo City Mission downtown will take care of him.” Here’s another, “My neighbors will do it.” Of course the most common, “I don’t have the time on my schedule today.” Ironically, I’ve volunteered at missions and shelters since I was a teenager. You could’ve found me feeding the homeless at various soup kitchens, from time to time in my life. But Larry….not one thing, not once. Mentioning him on my radio show would’ve been acceptable. I could’ve brought more awareness to Larry’s plight. No, I didn’t open up at all. I had the chance to make a difference in his day. I did nothing of the sort. Part of me never wants to hear rejection, even if it’s offering a pair of socks to a homeless one who may decline. Well, that’s my lame excuse. Frankly, my tears weren’t just for Larry, but they were also for my seemingly growing jaded outlook. God forbid that my heart grows cold and hard with age.
Someone very wise once said, “Never cry for a life lost. Rejoice because it happened.” (Paraphrased) One sour soul might say Larry’s life was a wasted life, a waste of time, and a waste of space. However, the hundreds that helped Larry, who gave of themselves through the decades, were enriched by the man. Think about it.
“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” – Jesus (Quoted in Acts 20:35 – NAS)
It might be wise to deice, or defog the rear-view mirror first, before going the extra mile.
The ice melts. The sub-zero temps vanish. But life…life makes its stamp. Somewhere in Williamsville/Amherst, NY, if you go to a quiet place, you just might hear the whisper of Lawrence Bierl, “I was here.”
Remembering and serving, floods from the river of fuel for the race.
“Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh(and blood)?” Isaiah 58:7 (NAS)
“Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were…” Old Man – 1972 By: Neil Young.
It’s true. A trinket has lots to say. I believe the older one gets, the more this truth stands out. One of my old high school friends collects guitar picks, some from rock concerts of note from the past. For you, it might be a bigger trinket like a 1960 Chevy Corvette. If you were to visit my house and rummaged through some shelves and boxes, you will discover some valuable items. Sure, they might not appear valuable to you, but for me, they are treasures.
In Greenville, Texas, just one house over, and across the street from my grandparents old home, lived an elderly couple. I knew them as, Mr. & Mrs. Cook. (All of the houses there were built in the 1840’s-1860’s.) They were not just neighbors, but also friends from our church. My mom tells me the old folks there in the house became like grandparents to her, along with her two brothers throughout the 1950’s. Mrs. Cook was known to be very astute, a woman who could see clearly what was beneath the surface. She had the right last name, too. She was widely known for baking terrific pies. All the kids on the block were welcomed at their house, mainly after school before parents arrived from work.
Mr. Cook, could usually be spotted sitting in his rocking chair on the front porch just watching the neighborhood grow. I have one picture of him on his front porch, but at the moment I cannot locate it. Vivid in my mind is a derby hat, round Teddy Roosevelt-style bottle-lens glasses, a cane and a wooden leg. (The below is as close as I can come to generally representing him.)
Mr. Cook was a quirky, funny character with loads of stories to tell, usually with a punchline at the end. The kids would gather on his porch knowing they would hear of adventures, heroes, as well as, the old witch who lived in the large, unkempt, overgrown house some three doors down. (Actually, he might have been telling the truth. She was a spooky old lady, who once shot at someone walking in front of her house on the sidewalk.) His tales told of local ghosts to watch for, the old long-gone minor league Greenville baseball team, and how he lost his leg jumping off a mule wagon where his foot landed in a deep pothole in a dirt road. As he told it, the leg snapped off and ran away from him in the woods, never to be seen again. The norm would be that he would raise the cuff of his pant-leg, revealing his old wooden, rather rustic “limb”, so to speak. There, in the shin area, was a missing oval-shaped knot in the timber. He would invite the curious, wide-eyed kids, to knock three times on it to see if a squirrel lived inside. As I’ve been told, he offered the little ones to take a look inside the hole to find the critter in his hollow leg. Then he would dare them to stick a finger inside the hole just before the kids ran away from fright of the idea. His belly laughter was loud, so was his good nature. He loved to tease the neighborhood kids and they loved being teased.
In one of my previous posts, I have written of my mom who was barely 16 when I was born. Mr. and Mrs. Cook often cared for her when her parents were at work during her pregnancy. Mrs. Cook could’ve been easily mistaken for a midwife, right up to the day my mom went into labor. They were at the hospital to greet me when I arrived.
Take a deep breath. You may find this hard to believe, but you will just have to trust me on this. Mr. and Mrs. Cook are part of my very first memories. Although my memories come from my 3rd and 4th year of life, I have been told they often babysat me, gave gifts, including Mrs. Cook’s homemade clothing tailored just for me. By the time I was 2 years old, we lived with my grandparents, but the Cooks were very much my 2nd grandparents.
As early as 3 years old, I have memories of playing on the front porch by his feet. When I was 4 years old, I remember how he would grab his cane, walk me down the sidewalk and around the corner, to an old general store, about four houses down. (Long since gone.) To this very day, vivid is the limp, the cane’s sound as its tip touched the concrete of the sidewalk, as well as, his hard leather wingtips scuffing along the cracks of the pavement. His caring, rough, large hand held mine as we walked slowly to the old general store. He never let his handicap keep him from life.
Mr. Cooper’s General Store was a small, old wooden frame, neighborhood store. Way before large grocery stores were available for small towns, there were “neighborhood” stores and shops. When the neighborhood was new, merchants would set-up shop near, or in the central area, of the houses built. One hundred years later, there were some of these old stores still open for business for the very local patrons. As I recall, we would walk into Mr. Cooper’s store, with burlap, sugar and the scent of old weathered wood wafting through the air. Creaking sounds came with each step on the old planks of the floor. There, on the counter-top, sat large thick jars of hard candies. A ring would reverberate through the small business as the heavy lid was removed from the jar. I wish I could recall the sound of his voice when he said, “Al, how ’bout that candy cane right there? A broken cane won’t do.” No doubt, I didn’t hesitate in confirming. I do remember walking back to his house with a peppermint cane sticking out of my mouth. You guessed it, each time we went, I expected to get a candy cane.
There was also a counter-top curio case filled with small items. Among the shelves was a hodgepodge of assortments like, a children’s slingshot, Indian head nickel, small coin pouches, tiny glass dolls, etc. One item that stuck out was a small black glass pepper-shaker, in the shape of a baby elephant, Dumbo-style, about 3″ tall. (In retrospect, it must’ve been a mismatched item, as there wasn’t a salt shaker with it.) At this point, my memory has faded. However, a few years ago my mom presented it to me. She had kept it in a box of little treasures for some 50 years. She told me Mr. Cook had given the tiny elephant to me while he had taken me to Mr. Cooper’s store on an occasion. Instantly, I recalled him picking it out for me. Mr. Cooper placed it in a small paper bag with my candy cane.
As times and circumstances changed, sometime in 1964, my mom and I moved to a boarding house a few blocks away. Yet, we still spent lots of time at my grandparent’s home, and always looked across the street to see if Mr. Cook was sitting out on his front porch. His chair sat empty more often as time went by. When he did appear on his porch, he always waved and yelled out a greeting of some kind. Visiting him was always a highlight of that time period.
On May, 18th, 1965, Mr. Cook let go of this life. It happened to be my 5th birthday. In those days, it was customary to have a wake, with an open casket in the house of the deceased, for family and friends to visit and grieve together in familiar surroundings. Food would be brought and shared, along with lots of conversation about the one honored. My mom was heartbroken. When we arrived at the house, after greeting Mrs. Cook, we approached the coffin. It was my first experience with death. Watching my mom cry, I told her something I had obviously been taught in Sunday School at our church. Although I do not recall doing this, they tell me I looked up at her and said, “Don’t be sad, mom. This is only the house Mr. Cook lived in.” She tells me she squeezed my hand, chuckled, choked back the tears, and told me I was absolutely right. We grieve, but not as those who have no hope. It would be easy to say, that 5 year old was talking about the old structure, the house we were in, constructed of wood and paint. However, I was taught well. The body in the casket was only the cocoon, the shell, or the “house” Mr. Cook lived in. The spirit of the elderly man we knew, with all his stories, laughter and kindness, had exited to live at the feet of his Creator.
Through the decades, we have seen multiple families move in and out of the old house on Jones Street. There’s never been a time I didn’t want to walk up to the front porch, introduce myself so I could tell them of the magnificent couple who resided there. There’s never been a time I didn’t look over at the old porch, imagining Mr. Cook sitting in his chair waving at me with a gigantic grin on his face. There’s never been a time in my life when unwrapping a candy cane, I didn’t think of him. Isn’t it odd how an item, or a place, can bring back visions of old love from long ago?
Today, a small trinket, that insignificant little glass elephant, sits on my bathroom shelf. I see it several times a day. It makes me smile.
As for Mrs. Cook, she was a strong, healthy woman. There was no reason why she couldn’t have lived another 10 years or more. From May 18th, to July 22nd, she lived alone in her house. As you can see by the dates of their tombstone, she wasn’t without him for very long.
Over the Christmas holidays, I visited their graveside. There are two flower vases, one for each side of the tombstone, not seen in the picture. I went alone. I stood there in the chilly Texas wind, spoke to him of my gratitude for helping to teach me, early in childhood, more of what love is. Before walking away, I placed a peppermint candy cane in his vase. I hope it’s still there. More than that, I hope he was told what I did there.
A trinket has lots to say when filtered through fuel for the race.
“For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.” – St. Paul – Romans 14:7 (NIV)