Tragedy Down the Mountain

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The Quietness

    The slower pace and quietness of mountain life called out to our family during the 90’s. After the birth of our fourth child we purchased a home in the northwest corner of North Carolina, high enough to see into Virginia and Tennessee, and close enough to the Blue Ridge Parkway we could hike there. Yet the cities lay just an hour drive down the mountain.

Our 3,500 ft. elevation gave us resplendent Indian summers, but before the end of October, bone-cold nights and snow flurries checked in – to stay.

    By late November, Winter fell like the ax on the neck of the Thanksgiving turkey. She hunkered down with diamond-studded frost or snow, and branch-snapping winds. Often, after a solid week of fog, we’d bundle up, hop into the car, and drive “down the mountain” to Charlotte or Winston Salem just for a glimpse of the sun and the more alive smell of fall foliage.

    One such trip took us to a family reunion, making our light-sweater day especially long. Long after dark and everyone’s bedtime, we reluctantly headed home to our mountain paradise. I leaned my head back on the headrest as we accelerated against the incline, around the switchbacks – up and up into cold air. All four kids (two toddlers and two teens) snuggled under their coats and dropped off to sleep. The quietness in the car felt good.

The Event

    About five miles from the summit, my husband spotted what he thought was a deer carcass on the side of the road. A bit lighter in color than the usual deer, it almost glowed in the headlights of a car we thought may have hit it.

Two men stood over it, yet for some reason my husband decided to look closer. I stopped breathing as he made a fast u-turn back to the scene.

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    When we pulled up and got out, my throat tightened and I suddenly felt hot. I saw one of the men sort of kick at it, and in that moment I breathed a thank you to God that our two toddlers stayed asleep. For it wasn’t a deer.

    “You guys stay in the car,” my husband warned. “Try to keep the little ones asleep.”

       I grabbed coats from the older kids, and ran to cover what now was clearly a half-naked woman. She was alive, moaning incoherent, face down, but not visibly injured.

    My husband asked the men what happened.

    “Dunno… got here jis’ a minute ago. She was a-lying here, but we bin drinkin’ an’ well, we gotta go ‘fore the police come. We called 911 anyways and was jes’ fixin’ to take off when yous came.” They couldn’t get away fast enough.

    I noticed a small pile of clothes close to the car but said nothing to my husband who paced, waiting. As night deepened in utter quietness, all I knew to do was pray out loud for this woman. Her nails dug into the grass as I cradled her over the coats.

    In a few minutes the place swarmed with the swirling lights of police cars and men searching, wondering if a perpetrator might still be close. I kept my position over her, praying and consoling her.

   When the ambulance came, the EMTs replaced our coats with their blankets. Rolling her onto her back they yelled, “What is your name?”

    Her response, a loud fear-filled “Aaaaaah!” told that she’d been drinking. That fact and her car’s freshly cut tire provided a rape scenario (or conjecture) which supposedly began at a bar up the mountain. It seemed as though we’d been dropped into a CSI episode. As they prepared to lift her onto the gurney, the men EMTs asked females present to do as much of the steadying as possible. Their utmost concern for her dignity impressed me.

     As I returned to our bewildered teens in the car, I wondered… would this woman be able to tell them what had happened? Would the authorities work hard to find who’d raped her? Would I ever see her again? How will I talk to my teens about this?

The Meeting

    About three weeks later when the phone rang, I happened to pick it up first. The long silence after my hello clued me who had called.

Heart beating fast, I allowed the pause. Be patient. Give her time.

    In an almost inaudible whisper she finally spoke. “You …prayed … I remember your voice…”

    More silence. What do I say? “Are you alright?”

    “Yes, but I had to find you. I asked around. Can we meet?”

    “Yes, of course. Where? When?”

    We met at a local restaurant. The scene felt surreal. In a booth with ordinary lunch banter going on all around us, I sat before a woman in her early forties with pleasant eyes and smooth complexion, talking, or almost talking, about the most horrific thing imaginable. It seemed. As she thanked me for being there, I knew there had to be more.

   “See, my husband beats me. I just wanted a break from it all.”

     She went on to tell me about her clandestine plan to meet “another man” down the mountain. No mention of the bar, or her drink. The car started to act strange, she said. When she pulled over, a car came up behind, and a man came over to offer help. The darkness hid his face. When they walked around to look for the problem, he attacked her, dragged her down the embankment and raped her as she dug her fingernails into the hill. After he sped away, she crawled up the hill to get to her headlights. Temps in the 40’s meant hypothermia, pretty fast.

    Next thing she knew, I was praying over her.

    I met her once again a few months later. They had never found the perpetrator. She was fine, she said. “Life goes on.”

The Questions

    My mind reeled. She just wanted me to know that she knew I prayed.

     Of course I hardly knew how to talk to my teens about the event. Even after clipping the brief article from the paper I didn’t know what to say. 

     Do we think there are answers, or some better situation, down the mountain, up
the mountain, or on the other side of the mountain? Or fence? Will we reach out to
others with whom we can hardly relate? How will we do it? When it seems there’s
nothing we can do, will we simply move on in the face of tragedy? Will we pray out
loud when it seems silly to do so?

    Possibly one of the most important questions is:  How do people cope with life’s knock-downs without a real, rock-solid Home to come home to?

    I walked into our warm house on the top of the mountain that last night we met, and realized that prayer is sometimes all we can do. It was my minimum at the time and I must believe it was also my maximum. She knew I prayed.

Molasses Makin’

Romans 15:16  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” (ESV)

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     I began my teaching career with a “boat” of a car, a ‘66 Pontiac Catalina, v-8 engine. Designed for the smooth roads of civilization, she seemed to rebel against the bumper-jarring ride to Billy’s house. He’d invited me to see the fall sorghum molasses-making, and it seemed a fun outing for after school on Friday. As the bumps and potholes banged our heads against the windows, I thought surely this “boat” would soon dock in some gravel driveway in a little farming area. Surely.

      What had I gotten myself into? What was “City Girl” doing deep in the Kentucky mountains? I mean, other than a job?  In 1971 the universities pumped out way more teachers than jobs in which to place them, and the U.S. presently suffered a glut of baby boomer teachers. I really should be grateful to have snagged one – in a nice public, albeit rural, school. I guess the children were my “other than a job.” One soap-deprived angel arrived on the first day with a little hop in her step.

      “Look, Teacher! Shoes! Ah got shoes!”

       Once, when the electricity went out, my windowless classroom fell into complete darkness. I asked the children if they’d like to sing.

       “Oh, yes, Teacher! Let’s sing ‘The Old Rugged Cross.’” As the students gathered around my feet, I felt something, or someone stroking my leg.  The red-headed lad probably had never felt silky hose before, either on or off a woman’s leg.

    Though the ruddy, freckled faces of the children had won my heart, I constantly worried.

      How in the world will my $5,500 a year salary continue to support me? There’s no way possible to make it through this first year of teaching. No way. Each payday, two hundred forty-five dollars…

     Suddenly my Pontiac ran completely out of road. Now my worry took a different form. No more road? Maybe I shouldn’t have done this. Billy opened the car door and cheerfully directed me out into the woods.

      “ We wawk the rist o’the way, Teacher. The car’ll be jes’ fine.”

     Walk? With nothing but dense woods in front of us, it looked like the beginning of a hike. I could see my panty hose full of holes and runs after this. Half walking, half hobbling, I inwardly fretted. Why didn’t I change clothes and shoes? A branch flipped into my face as if to force me to pay attention. Then, a clearing.

      As my eyes adjusted to the sunlight I abruptly came back to the moment. A dozen yards in front of us, a horse, harnessed to a long bar, trudged around a muddy circle. His strained push crushed stalks of sugarcane while a bucket under the mill slowly filled with juice. I winced at the smells of mud and manure as they mingled with the woodsy aroma of the fire pit nearby. A huge vat on top of the fire held what seemed like a hundred gallons of boiling liquid. I wondered how those ragged men bent over, sweating and stirring, continuously skimming off the greenish foam. The men neither greeted us nor looked up from their work, but Billy pointed to his dad and said they’d keep at it until late into the night, when that batch would be ready to cool and jar.

    Further into the clearing we reached the house. On the outside it looked bigger than I’d expected. Wood siding, a fairly new door. Billy led me to the side entrance where the kitchen greeted us with a chill. Now, away from the fire, I felt the bite of fall. For through the kitchen blew a draft from the unfinished, cavernous house. Studs framed would-be rooms and almost no furniture graced the plywood floors. The barren kitchen housed few utensils, which make me wonder if meals were prepared at all during molasses-making. On the walls, unpainted shelves held jars, some filled, some waiting. Curtains partitioned off bedrooms.

     Then finally, the big reveal. Billy’s bed. A separate, walled room held the beginnings of a bathroom, and as he showed me he beamed with pride. The glory of the room was his bed, the white clawfoot bathtub. Here he slept, he said, away from the noise and the chilled air in the rest of the house. I stood amazed at what I saw, from the production outside to the provision inside. I saw hope. Hope thrived in Billy’s heart because he had a place to sleep – and his daddy was making molasses!

    My fretful thoughts now shamed me. I had a warm apartment in town. I slept in a nice bed. I drove where I needed to go. How could I worry about my salary?

      As my huge boat of a Catalina drove home so many years ago, I asked the Lord to make me thankful for that day, for that tour of molasses-making. I asked Him to keep me thankful for His care, and for a lasting hope that always lay right in my lap.

Dear Father, Thank you for stopping me in my complaint! You are my hope today and always!

Hair!

The monthly ritual of cutting my husband’s hair spans 35 years. About ten years ago I began to notice my sweepings. Not only much less in volume, the strands started to take on the look of shimmery slate. As more years went by, the slate grew lighter and lighter. You still couldn’t see the extra-fine white hairs, just the gloss that changes with the light. Beautiful.

Unlike mine. In my mid-thirties my hair took on Mousy. For over 20 years I’ve fought the dreary-weather color of gray. But sooner or later, in a thousand variations of time and hue, we all turn white. And that is beautiful. Let’s be positive about it. I have two close girlfriends, young autumn women, with radiant, pure white hair. So today, while I salute the shimmery slate of my husband’s head, join me in a whirlwind trip back. Way back.

Do you  remember when Johnson and Johnson brought us “No More Tears” shampoo in 1957? It sure made washing hair for us little ones a lot better. Saturday nights, freshly bathed, smelling like cherry blossoms, we’d sit cross-legged in our flannel pajamas as Mom used rags to produce pretty Sunday curls. She’d wind a small section of hair around the cotton strips and tie the two ends together, loose enough to remove easily in the morning. The results? Bouncy ringlets that would last several days.

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When bobby pins came on the scene, so did hope for perms gone bad. Actually any hair problem could be solved with a simple bobby pin – or five or ten. I loved them. At about seven, performing a solo in front of the whole church, a bobby pin came loose and dangled by my ear. Would this deter me from my moment of glory? Not a chance. In the middle of the song, when my bobby pin fell to the floor, I stooped down, opened it with my teeth, and replaced it. Without missing a note. Why the congregation found that funny, I had no idea.

Just a fact of life, dealing with hair. At eight, Mom decided I needed to shampoo my own. Angry, abandoned, I filled the sink and flipped my hair upside down. Bang! my forehead hit the side, adding pain to insult. Mom’s fingers always felt like love as she massaged my head. Yet afterward, despite sloshed water on the floor and stinging sinuses and eyes, I saw a slightly older girl in the mirror. And that felt good.

In 5th grade bangs became popular. Both parents wrinkled their noses at the idea, yet I had to find out what bangs would look like on me. So I rolled a fringe of my front hair into a sort of flat hotdog– and kept it in place with lots of bobby pins. By supper, though, I decided against showing up with a hair hotdog on my forehead.

In the eighth grade a group of us girls attended Charm Class at the YMCA. We learned how to walk and dress well. But mostly we learned grooming and how to style, or I should say poof, our hair. Charm class changed my life– from a plain, giggly school girl to a coiffed, giggly school girl. That year my head grew at least three inches in diameter.

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In the 70s, with the advent of acid rock music, wild, straggly hair became a sort of free-spirit identity. This both shocked and disturbed me at the time.

And what did I marry?

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Yup, this is my hubby during the 70’s.

Which brings me back to his disappearing, almost white locks. Ahhhhhh… Huge relief as my mind settles back into today. I sure prefer our autumn married life kind of “free-spirit identity.”

Sometimes out by the pool, dripping wet after a nice dip on a hot day, I’ll pour him a cool drink and give him a haircut.

Then, in utter splendor he’ll sigh, “What a great setup. I actually get to sleep with my barber.”

 

 

First Love

 

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I remember his last name. But I will just call him Danny. We lived in South Dakota and I assume he had been around all along in the 4th and 5th grades. But we didn’t talk until 6th grade when during the first week of school he commented on my handwriting. I said I liked having nice handwriting- and he said he did too, but guys weren’t supposed to be into that sort of thing.

He noticed my handwriting! He had me. From then on my thoughts strayed to Danny. As a student first, and a girl second, my thoughts stayed on his character– his good grades and wrinkled brow when writing so neatly. But especially I noticed his books with machine-stitched cloth covers. Book covers no red-blooded boy would carry.

But did I say my thoughts “stayed” in the realm of character? That wouldn’t be completely true. As a girl, I noticed the curls around his ears, the smell of Tide as he walked by my desk, and the tightness of his chin when he spoke. All of that created a funny feeling in my stomach. But it only lasted a few seconds.

Three “Danny” events from the 6th grade stand out. First, he confessed on a walk home from school one spring day that my valentine had been the only one with a sucker in it. I guess I needed to know that.

Second, he asked if I’d stop by his house with an armload of his cloth-covered books, while he stayed after for sports. Only a block or so from the school, this caused no anxiety in me at all. He just asked me to do a small favor and I would do it. That I would meet his mother and see inside the front door did interest me some.

When I rang the doorbell, she came, all smiles. I couldn’t help my blurt. “Hi, Mrs. ‘Smith.’ I really like the book covers you made for Danny. They are nice.”

“Thank, you, Dear. I am amazed he carries them, being such a boy boy. You are a sweet girl. Thanks for bringing his books.

Oh, boy. That was cool. His house smelled clean, like him. On the way home I pondered. Would I marry Danny? Or would I marry someone handsome and charming and smart like him? Next year we would be in junior high. Would he even remember me?

The third incident happened the first week of summer vacation. He rode over on his bike and found me in the yard. “How about a bike ride?”he asked.

“Okay.”

Now you may wonder if I went inside to either ask permission or tell my mom the plan. To that I can only say, life was so different in 1961. During summer, parents saw their children at meals. In between existed a whole world of exploring and play. If a child didn’t return for the next meal, or couldn’t be found with a little help from neighbors in an hour, then concern might make its entrance. But summer independence had long been familiar territory by 6th grade. We felt safe because, except for the rare freak occurrence, we were.

To get back to Danny, little kid cartwheels, adolescent fireworks, and grownup picket-fence images jumbled around in my head. Was this a date? Was this a date!?

On the bike ride we saw parts of the town unfamiliar. In a more country area the chain came off my bike. Laying his down, he put it back on expertly and wiped his greasy hands on the grass. There it was, that jaw thing again. He seemed to clench his teeth when in thought or stress. Could he be sorry he did this?

He led, I followed. Almost no talk.

After about an hour I found myself back in my front yard. He threw up his hand and away he rode. As I got off my bike, a bit breathless from trying to keep up and riding for so long, I felt a mixture of emotions. Pride that just possibly this had been my first date, and confusion about what he might be thinking right now. What did all this mean? Had I acted stupid on our ride? (How could ten words be construed as stupid?) Had he crushed himself with remorse over his nerve to do this? Had he stirred up feelings in both of us that neither could do anything about? Or did these emotions bring us up short? Get real. This is the summer after 6th grade.

In a month, my dad brought news that we were moving to a new state. I would begin junior high in a faraway school.

Danny had just become history. Funny, I still remember his last name.

Do you recall the whole name of a special boy in your past?

Safe, summer independence for kids has been gone a long time.

When did it go?

 

How I Became a U.S. Citizen and Reagan Became President

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My family moved from Canada in 1957 just before I entered the third grade. On that first morning of school when my teacher randomly asked me to lead in the Pledge of Allegiance,  I had no idea what she meant. But I obediently walked to the front. When the children placed their hands on their hearts, I followed. Then, without another option, I simply opened my mouth. At that instant the class recited the pledge!

Now, at 31, a college graduate, a teacher, the wife of an American, and the mother of two American babies, I typed a letter to my then senator, Jesse Helms. How else could I vote for Ronald Reagan?

Here is my letter, written in the winter of 1980.

Dear Honorable Senator Helms,

Thank you for your service to our great state of North Carolina. I request your office to expedite the process of my naturalization to become a citizen of the United States. Would you please consider my request before the Novermber election?  It is with great excitement I hope to help elect Ronald Reagan as president.

In May my reply came from the circuit court. What could have taken years actually began to unfold. I was to report on the morning of July 4th, 1980, to be examined and sworn in with a large group of aliens. Oh, boy, oh boy. I hired a babysitter and hoped my hubby could get there by the time of the ceremony, 2:00 pm.

Dressed in a blue print cotton sundress with white sandals and hose (We wore hose year round when we dressed up…), I climbed the steps of the stately granite courthouse. Names echoed along the hallway as I waited for mine to be called. Finally, a bespeckled man ushered me into a an office. Could I name the three branches of the American government? Who was our first president? Did I understand that I would be asked in front of many witnesses to renounce the country of my birth? Did I know that my answer in the affirmative would grant my citizenship today?

I swallowed hard and took a breath. Relatives lived in Canada. It’s where I visited every summer. But American public school and college provided my education. America had given me my husband. America collected my FICA withholdings in promise to return them back in the form of Social Security checks some day.This should be a no-brainer.

But Renounce is a big word. Did I understand what that meant?

Well, it meant that I could vote for Ronald Reagan, the man we needed in Washington. I smiled and said, “I do.”

In the next hour the courtroom filled. It hummed with a low cacophony of many languages, as over a hundred onlookers stood shoulder to shoulder in the back. Where was that husband of mine? From the middle of the room, I began to worry. What if something went wrong with the babies? What if he couldn’t find parking? The air conditioner struggled to keep up with the need. We all sweated the rainbow of odors from around the world. Would my sundress get me through?  Yet, I felt blessed. This happened to be July 4th- a holiday within a holiday. And the ceremony began.

The judge’s speech, a bit long for the heat, charged us to be involved citizens. Then I gathered the nerve to turn around. There he stood, sleeves rolled up, crammed into the crowd. I guessed he’d jogged from blocks away. But he had made it.

Then, as the clerk read our names, each person stood. Such variety of color and style. Older Asian men, young European women, Middle Eastern students, Indian grandmothers, eager, all eyes glistened. Then as we stood in unison, the clerk instructed us to raise our right hand. Affirmations prompting I wills and I dos made a kind of choir. Our song proclaimed to the world that the United States of America now held first place as the country we call home.

Hubby and I drove home in separate cars, the babies had had a great 4th, and with my help, Ronald Reagan did become president that year.

So here’s my charge to you on this 4th of July, 2014.

1. Don’t take your citizenship for granted. Vote.

2. Remember that citizenship in Heaven means we renounce the world. Yes, that’s something to think about.

3. Love your colorful neighbors all the time. Be color grateful as much as color blind.

 

Purity Culture, Kissing, and a Look in the Rear-view Mirror

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Our Family in 1992

     When any event brings our family together, you won’t hear munching around the table. As each one vies to get a word in edgewise, the discussion is always lively. But one topic quiets me — the parenting of our first teens.

My rear view mirror reflects the phenomenon known now as the Christian purity culture. It marched into our lives just as our older kids hit puberty. Banners waved “The Answer.” “No Dating.” “No Kissing.” The new standard fascinated us. We joined the revolution.

Thankfully, our kids know what motivated us – a safer path for them. During the sexual  revolution of the 60’s and 70’s, my husband and I dated dozens of people –and kissed most of them. So what that we attended church regularly? We carried scars. And we desperately hoped that our kiddos could avoid the pain and peer pressure of our past.

As pendulums do, we swung toward legalism. Surely, we thought, raising our teens in a kissless culture will hold temptation at bay. Of course we knew that only a personal relationship with Christ could navigate them through the minefield of romance and sex. Yet the lure of “do’s and don’ts” seemed irresistible

And for the first time in modern history, purity culture brides walked to the altar kiss-less. To be fair, many couples gladly chose to save their first kiss for the wedding. But what makes me blush now is that we believed the kissless formula would provide a better chance of a strong marriage. We knew it wasn’t that simple, but yet…

Gradually, when our last two entered the teens, we walked out of the fog. Although our first two married in the thick of it, our new insight showed that purity movement rules were often founded on Fear (that kids would stumble as we did) and Pride (in our enlightened methods). As a sad result, many parents struggled to fully release their children to adulthood- to God’s design for an independent, new home.

Today, our guinea pigs, children of the “revolution,” give us a lot of grace. No words can express our joy in watching them graciously parent our grandchildren, some already teens. Gingerly navigating the internet, texting, and social media, they boast no easy answers. No formulas. No piece of cake. Just lots of communication and love. Looking into my rear view mirror isn’t really so bad. I am proud of them, in spite of our bumbling and stumbling.

I wonder if your grown kids talk much about their dating rules. I’d love to hear your reflections from the rear-view mirror.

Don’t Mess Up My Picture!

jessicas painting     What quirky traits have you inherited from your mother? And what about your girl from you? I bet you can think of quite a few. As for me, take school art.

In my elementary grades we had an easel or two at the back of the classroom. When we finished our work, fresh white paper and nice mixed paints awaited. Maybe if I had worked faster or smarter, getting back there more often, I would have had a different experience…

But each and every time, without exception, I drew the same thing. A big tree on the side, a house in the middle, and a swing set beside the house. It never occurred to me to put a car beside the house, or children playing on the swing set. That level of drawing, totally out of my reach.

I remember more than once, standing in front of blank paper in the 3rd grade, having this conversation with myself.

Me: You dummy, why can’t you paint something different this time? You’ve been waiting for this chance all day. Be brave, be creative!

Me: But I can’t be brave or creative. If I draw something other than my tree, swing set, and house, it will look horrible. I’ll hate myself for making a mess of the paper. No, I have to do what comes out of my brush.

Now, fast forward twenty-five years to my daughter’s kindergarten class. The teacher sent home special paper and issued a challenge for all the students to enter a painting into the state fair. The rules, however, required all the paintings to begin with crayon drawings, then washed with broad stripes of watercolor in varying hues over the top.

So on a Saturday morning Wee One and I assembled our supplies on the kitchen floor, so she’d have plenty of room. Then I informed my budding artist she could draw anything she wished with the crayons. Without hesitation, you guessed it– a tree. Then a house. Finally, the swing set.  My smock-clad five-year-old’s brain worked just like mine!

But when the rules added a twist, the twist quickly became a tornado. The conversation went something like this:

Wee one: Mother, Mom! Not paint on top! Maybe stripes on the top and bottom. That might be nice.

Me: But that doesn’t finish the piece, Dearest.

Wee one: No! I will mess up my paper!

Me: But we have started a project, and the paint won’t mess up your art at all. It will make your crayon picture look different and lovely.

Wee One: (sobbing) But… but, I know I will mess up my paper!

 

Looking back at that moment, I think of how many times since then I’ve gotten stuck thinking I know what lovely looks like.

“This was to be our special weekend to do the river together. Now a major back ache, really?”

And we read an awesome book together– and we learned important stuff…

“I’m settled and happy here! Don’t make me make this huge move!”

And the move turned out to be so wise- especially for the children.

“No, Father! You know I just finished menopause; things look much better now. Do I have to go through breast cancer?”

And cancer unearthed, for healing, important realities in a stuck heart…

On and on it goes. Loveliness so often doesn’t fit our picture of it. God has to wash over our routines, schedules, and goals. Kicking and screaming, I follow his rules. For I am not really my own. I am His.

My Wee One won second place in her division. Her stripes of color must have impressed some judge. For there it hangs now on her wall. As a mother of five, soon to be seven, she lives with a constant reminder that His version of loveliness trumps ours- if we let it.

 

River Romance

   “Up here, Honey! Look up!” Leaning over our foyer balcony, I watched him pass by under me- my handsome mid-sixties guy. At 2:00 on a Friday afternoon a new spot on the Guadalupe River awaited our arrival. Blood, sweat and tears had gone into planning this outing, designed to return a bit of romance to our lives.

     Reading James lately, taking each verse slow and deliberate, brought this memory to mind. James 1:2 tells us to “count it all joy” when we meet trials of various kinds, for we “know that the testing of our faith produces steadfastness” (endurance). And we are to let it have its perfect work in us to make us “complete, lacking nothing.”

    When I hear His words “trials” and “lacking nothing,” I think of God’s goal for marriage: To mirror His amazing relationship with His Bride the Church. It is to be both a test (do we trust God?) and a tool for changing the world, through our romance and through raising children who see it.

     I really wanted to live out this Mirror. A few years back I also desperately wanted our last remaining nestling to see a mom and dad “engaged” in their marriage; and this had become a passion all its own. But how could we do it? Family business stress ate away at our niceness. Health and financial issues brought daily annoyances. And those common Christian realities of resentment, irritations, and church activities — all conspired to put us at arm’s length from each other.

     On this day, however… we would make memories, or die trying. Private property on the river, a one-day gift from dear friends, meant privacy for us –and Hubby would love it.

“Hey, Babe, are you ready, yet? I found the perfect blanket up here, and the food basket is all set.” Practically intoxicated by Spring’s pale green live oaks under an almost neon blue canopy, I inwardly squealed with anticipation. Why did he look so good to me even though he acted almost as though being led to slaughter?

     “I have way too much going on today to do this, but…” and then he seemed to catch himself. “I’ll be ready in a minute, Baby.”

    Now, everybody knows that attraction comes before romance, and most even add the belief that attraction is the necessary fuel on which romance runs. But based on my river experience, I disagree.

Attraction is fickle.

Romance is work. But it is also attitude. With zero desire, zero attraction, a set of lousy circumstances to boot, there is still enough soil in marriage for a romantic plant to grow a nice crop of attraction.

Why do we resist this thesis? We women want romance. Actually we need it. Badly. We watch “Jane Eyre” and “Pride and Prejudice.” We long for the thrill of an afternoon on a blanket with the middle part of ro-man-tic. Enough of the “ro.” Enough of the “tic.” Give me the man! But besides work and attitude, romance is definition.

We get the definition all wrong, and live romantically through our skewed imaginations. Resentment dresses up as lack of attraction, killing romance in our humdrum lives, and we feel “forced” to live vicariously through social media, our perception of other’s lives, and even our children.

     I bet you have already pictured my hubby and me out there on that blanket. You don’t even need a photo. Not at all. You picture us kissing, eating our food, and sipping our wine, all while fluffy clouds roll above us.

     Not quite. I was attacked by chiggers before even spreading the blanket. (That tall grass between the car and the river should have tipped me off; yet he could have carried me!) Also, the river was alive with canoes and rafts and laughter. Yup. Other folks floated by, probably with the same idea- romance. So, lacking the privacy we bargained for, my husband kept up a steady conversation of a different kind.

    We did eat our food and act silly a bit.

     But did we make a memory? You bet. And did it register as romantic? Yes- for both of us. Years of remembering can improve some things. But the planning, as well as the giddiness I felt on the balcony that warm afternoon, have memorialized our river romance quite nicely.

    James 1:12 encourages us. “Blessed is the man (woman) who remains steadfast under trial, for when he (she) has stood the test he will receive the crown of life.”

    Do you have memories of attempts to be romantic? Do you find yourself defining romance in light of media?

    I’d love your thoughts!

 

 

 

Lessons From the Worst Winter Ever

First Lesson: Never Get Married in Winter.

Just kidding, I do have a real lesson to share with you. But it is true, winter weddings may not be wise. They mean winter anniversaries. Winter anniversaries yearn for warm weather celebration. And warm weather celebration usually means a Caribbean island, Cancun, or Coral Gables– (wonderful places, but only every 4 or 5 years might fit our budget). Our Valentine wedding did seem a great idea at the time… but now I tell every bride I can, “Wait for spring!”

There are other downsides to winter anniversaries. In 1986, when our sights turned north for the fulfillment a lifetime dream, my hubby got sick. “No! Not this year! Not our New York year! Our Broadway show year!”  And the engagement diamond, planned for this special anniversary? Though carefully chosen during the January sales, its sparkle somehow faded.

Picture me sitting beside our bed where my miserable, weak, coughing husband groaned. Picture our plane headed to New York without us.

“Honey, are you sure you’ve got the flu?”

What a cruel, telling question as I looked at the thermometer reading 103. My selfish heart and I drove to the jeweler, picked up the diamond, put it on my finger, drove home, and fought tears of disappointment. It felt like  the worst winter ever. But I had seen a side of me I didn’t like, and hubby didn’t much like it either. I asked forgiveness, which he gave, and then I cared for him through the flu.

 Fast forward to January 2014. Packing the car for our month-long trip, we had no idea this would turn out to be, for many Americans, the worst winter ever. Yet, thrilled the plans had gelled, we set out to visit family scattered around the eastern U.S. and Canada. Our 5,000-mile adventure included New York City- that place still smirking on my bucket list, after almost three decades! Maybe the Big Apple didn’t care if I ever showed up, but I cared. I practically shook with excitement!

We left on a mild morning without sunshine, and glad of it for easier driving. All the way east along the gulf before turning left toward North Carolina – no problem. After several visits, we hugged loved ones goodbye first in the Raleigh area and then near Washington D.C. We  knew that bad weather crouched ready to pounce the next day. Best hurry.

However, on January 7, our easy day-trip north to Toronto through Buffalo, winter descended early. She took her time, though, and that morning we chose to talk and enjoy the countryside, with no radio. Convinced we’d make it to the Peace Bridge to Canada by mid afternoon, we drove through tiny flakes, blowing sideways fast in subzero cold.

We kept contact with my Toronto sis. “It’s sunny here! I’ll have tea when you arrive!”  I could already smell and taste the elegance of her hospitality. But hubby’s concern began to grow when we encountered a “closed road” sign. I liked the back roads better anyway.

 “You don’t think it’s because of the weather, do you?”

 “I don’t know, Babe, but it seems early. It’s only 1:00.” We stopped for lunch in a tiny deserted town and he took in the darkening sky and single-digit temps. I, on the other hand, didn’t give either one much thought. It’s winter, after all. With snow accumulating beside the road, my husband climbed into the drivers seat. Buffalo now lay a mere 30 miles away. Past the American side of Niagara Falls, four times we drove to an entrance onto the main highway, and four times we turned back because of barricades. Conversation halted and the car grew very quiet.

When we stopped in the touristy town of Hamburg, in front of a convenience store, Hubby knew it was our end of the road moment- that the last hour out there had been unwise. He stared straight ahead. “Babe, we have to get to a hotel and spend the night.”

No! While both tension and snow swirled ferociously around us, what did I do?Selfish Heart and I lowered the eyebrows, raised the shoulders, and whined, “This close? We have to quit?” He pursed his lips as I opened the door and braved the six feet to the storefront. Loud and confident inside, I inquired, “Ma’am, we are only 14 miles from Buffalo. Do you think we could find a way to get there?”

She replied as loud and confident as I had asked. “Lady, this highway was closed at 9:00 this morning. What don’t you understand about the word Blizzard? Police are trying to clear all roads. I have been telling folks like you all day, ‘Get a hotel and try again tomorrow.’”

But the story gets worse. A local man buying milk and beer seemed kind, and I asked him if he knew a way. Before you could say Frosty, he hopped into our car to draw a napkin map. Truth is, while trying to help us, precious minutes were lost. Our car pulled out of the parking lot not one minute too soon and very close to too late.The blizzard had arrived full-throttle with thumb-sized flakes. We were now in a whiteout.

The next 30 minutes rank high among my husband’s worst nightmares. Though several hotels stood only a mile away, we couldn’t see the road. We could barely see signs. Our white car narrowly missed being hit by a snowplow. And we narrowly missed hitting one. But using an open window to stay on the roadway, going just fast enough to keep unstuck, a miracle. In front of us an 18-wheeler appeared- and turned left.

It was a Quality Inn. A quality life-saver.

The McDonalds next door made a killing on everyone’s misfortune, but provided supper. We watched the news, a few TV shows, and attempted sleep on opposite sides of the king-sized bed. Our stomachs rumbled in stereo. Grateful, warm in body, but frozen in our hearts. Niagara Falls also froze that memorable night -as it had last done a hundred years ago.

In the dark, I pondered my husband’s earlier question, “Why wouldn’t you trust me?” I had no good answer. Freezing out his good judgement had put us in grave danger. Selfish heart and I had almost gotten us dead.

Long after darkness fell, I apologized.

And he forgave me, again. Forgiveness. It truly is a wonderful thing. Undeserved. And because it is undeserved, I luxuriate in it’s warmth.

Even in the worst winter ever.

Stay tuned for the next lesson!

Slow Down

      girl clockAhhh, Fall…the chilly nip in the evening air (occasionally, anyway, in Texas) the blinding lights of the football field behind us, the restarting of schedules, plans for the holidays. Don’t we always speed up after more leisure days of summer? We speed up to get out the door in the morning, speed up to accomplish the “To Do” list.

    And then, in the midst of all the hustle, a gift. The undeserved, automatic windfall of an extra whole hour. I think it’s delicious.

    Each year since becoming a mom in my late twenties, the fall time change has loomed large in my mind. Each year, as the wonderful Saturday approaches, a sort of warm balm, along with a sense of power, flow all over me. While others may not even know when the day is due, I circle it on my calendar, twice. While others grab a Sunday morning catchup of sleep, I lie awake, soaking in the gift. While others fuss about having to change a dozen clocks around the house, I gleefully climb on chairs and counters, aging knees notwithstanding, giddy. Sure it’s great simply driving to work in daylight again, but I usually have plans for making my extra hour count. And, of course, my goals for this glorious gift have changed over the years, depending on my season.

   During the 80’s, toddler bedtime could mean toddler badtime. Summer totally shot their sleep schedule. Daylight savings turned into twilight mayhem. “No bed, Mommy! It’s still day!” (I always thought daylight savings time -robbery- should be punished by a national boycott of the first hour of work.) So in mid October,  bone tired by 7:30, I looked forward to payback, when their darling little bodies would automatically fall asleep one hour earlier.

    My plan, concocted in my own little brain, would hopefully garner not one, but two extra hours out of the deal. It worked this way: If the wee ones usually fell asleep at say 9:00, too late for my happiness on this earth, today I would feed them a bit earlier, at 5:00, get them bathed a bit earlier, by 7:00, and read to them until about 7:30. A little song, a bit of extra rocking, tonight they’d fall asleep closer to 8. Then, triumphant, I’d change the clocks back to 7! See, two hours for the price of one. Sweet deal, if I could stick to it. Did I mind them getting up early? No, because breakfast, dressing, and play adjusted to the new time on the clock, thank you very much. A reprieve all the way around.

    By the 90’s those toddlers were teens and two more babies graced our home. So each year, as a team, we attempted to work the same magic, getting little ones asleep extra early. But during that time my own agenda had drastically changed. Life ramped up to high gear. Tonight I would get to bed earlier, get up earlier, grab the mission of getting more stuff done, with a vengeance. I even made lists for what I would accomplish: menus, an extra load of wash, a few papers graded. While I thought I was grabbing the gusto from the extra hour, it probably felt more like real “vengeance” to everyone else. Looking back I can just see the eyes of the older kids rolling, “And she’s off! The Great Mommy Machine!”  How did the gift become a curse? “Give the lady an extra hour and she beats everybody up with it.” Ouch.

    In the 2000’s two married children began their families, and we had two left at home. Breast cancer ushered in two years of treatment, so also two years of the extra hour. “Oh, good. This will be a help,” I thought. “The kids can get up easier…less for hubby to do and me to think about…”  As the early light flooded my room after dark October mornings, I often heard breakfast cacophony downstairs in the kitchen. Their conversations, inaudible but sweet, lifted my spirits. “Yes,” I thought, “the mornings will get dark again soon; but for now we get a few weeks of easy-out-of-bed days.” Just a little thing, maybe; but it felt good.

    Today, autumn comes to a house with no full-time kids. Ten grands joyously spin in and out through our revolving door, and we find a multitude of blessings to count. Yet, although my hero sometimes dances me with twirls and dips around the kitchen radio, we can easily find ourselves weighed down with concerns and heartache, just from regular life in this world. And again I receive my gift. An extra hour. What to do? What to do?

    The last few years have spoken clearly to me. The days are evil and I must slow down. With our final nestlings, two single twenty-somethings,  flying out on their own, I need to be on my knees. Of course, the extra hour will be swallowed up in no time. Of course, eyes opening a full hour before the alarm rings will fade in a little over a week. Unless I slow down and grab it.  Not rushing to start the day. Not choosing to sleep it away. But slow down. To pray.