A Winter of National Muteness: The Challenger Disaster

On a mild, windy unwinter day in North Carolina, January 28, 1986,  twenty-six years ago, my placid housewife/home school world became suddenly unsettled. Our 8 year-old daughter and 7 year-old son had completed a ho-hum morning of math, reading, and whatever-else.

Heading out for a pre-lunch errand to the library, and afterward, muffin-making for 4-H Club meeting, we hadn’t really planned to watch the morning lift-off of the Challenger space flight. The thing had been delayed for days, over and over again; and by now the whole country was wondering, “Will it ever launch?” Yes, we cared. Who wasn’t fascinated by the reality that regular, ordinary elementary school teacher, Christa McCauliff, was on board! She, along with six other astronauts and a satellite payload, made this a truly historic event. Imaginations all over the country had been captured by her amazing good fortune to be chosen. The very thought of a next-door type person being given the privilege of training for many months, of finally escaping earth’s atmosphere, of actually viewing the world as a tremendous 3-dimensional blue ball was, well, it was surreal. Something every school kid and young adult might dream of.

So in brisk late-morning, loaded with books, leisurely heading for town, the radio playing a classical station, a calm announcer’s voice abruptly betrayed the horror of the news. “We interrupt this programming for the following breaking news. The space shuttle Challenger has apparently exploded 73 seconds after lift-off, killing all seven on board. I repeat…..”

Challenger Disaster

Could we have heard right? The ocean already being plowed with dozens of rescue ships trying to find the shuttle and its passengers? Mute, we continued our trek to the library. Parking and asking the kids to wait, I remember needing a moment to be alone, feeling confused and weak. The ancient musty-smelling library room, full of silent, studying, lounging people, aroused an urge to yell, “Don’t you know what has happened? Haven’t you heard?” But of course they hadn’t. And of course I couldn’t. So I returned the books and walked out.

Back home, life went on. We proceeded with our 7 and 8 year-old kind of day. Watching TV was my idea, not theirs; but even though I felt they needed to understand the historic impact of this, they were way too young to grasp the repercussions of disaster. There were muffins to make, after all, and  the drive over to the 4-H meeting. Once there I pondered the somber weight of silence and darkness. We adults made small talk, but no one brought up the news. Not being close friends may have been why. Maybe we all needed to process….

Oddly, over the next few weeks there was an ongoing national reticence surrounding this event. Unlike the assassination of JFK, some 20 years earlier, or the more recent attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, there was silence. Seven bodies lost at sea, seven families devastated in muted shock, sadness hung over the nation. The bereaved families were shielded from all media, and the space program ground to a complete halt. It was as if, once the problem of the 0 rings was identified, it shouldn’t be news anymore. It was one tragedy we didn’t seem to process well. President Bush, the former, spoke of the great need to “press on”– the true “challenge” of The Challenger. However,  it would be a long grief.

We did eventually pick ourselves up. The space program was righted, dusted off, and begun again, all fresh and hopeful. But 26 years ago, our land was truly lost for words.

Who Am I?

English Tea Cups

I love my tea cup collection and our home is known among friends as the place you go when you want to curl up in a soft chair with a hot cup of tea, and chat. But there’s a catch to this scenario- one never knows for sure where they will sip tea in my house.  I do have cozy little sitting areas in various places, but chances are, those spots have moved.

And that brings me to my undisputed, hands down trademark. Though I like to call it Decorating, my kids call it Maddening. My husband used to call it Annoying. But now, things are different. In His amazing providence, according to Romans 8:28, “God has worked all things for good and for His purpose.” But that’s jumping ahead a bit. So, what is my trademark? It is Moving Furniture!

Now, even though my friends think this is cool, God’s particular “working out” of this issue with Hubby did take awhile. For many years he would often assume he was coming in for a smooth landing after a hard day’s work, and then find himself standing in the front doorway, confused, the living room completely rearranged. I would then giddily show him two other rooms which were now used for entirely different purposes. He would then nod, shrug, and smile that better-accept-this-because-she’s-going-to-do-it-anyway smile. But he didn’t love it, especially the part where he had to help, and of course, the process took several revisions. The office was just fine where it was, thank you. And he didn’t love tripping over newly relocated furniture in the middle of the night, either.

Then one day 11 years ago, my long-suffering spouse did something that “moved” my habit (no pun intended) to a whole new level. He bought an investment property, complete with outbuildings and a Victorian-style house that was a bit larger than we needed. You’d have thought I won the lottery! Flea market finds now had a home in an oversized garage, until they found their new temporary perfect spot in the house. Over time, we transformed all the spaces, which used to be horse stables, into (voila!) apartments. Each time we finished building an apartment we got to decorate it! And each time I needed to use something from my house, it was just like, “When you give a mouse a cookie….” Well, that empty spot must be filled, so a massive domino-effect switcheroo would take place – or I should say, unplace. And on and on it went…. The quintessential “Helpmeet”– pretty amazing.

Surely there must be a trademark-worthy gene for Furniture Moving. Because I am assured beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if I never went to thrifts or yard sales, and didn’t have to “help” my husband with his new career, I would still move my furniture often. Tea parties are so much more fun in a new little corner, with a lamp brought from the other side of the house, and a friend to sit by its fresh new light. That’s what I think, anyway.

 

Restoration

Joel 2:25–”I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten….”

There he was, standing by the kitchen door, sweaty and red-faced, filthy from stained sandpaper, smelling of harsh stripping chemicals, and obviously frustrated. Three hours earlier my ambitious hubby had dug out of the corner of the garage two rejected pine chairs, dumpster-bound but not quite garbage yet. However, in his determination to restore them to their former glory, something went badly wrong.  The chemicals produced a gunked up mess! The longer he worked, the messier both he and the chairs became! You got it, they were now in the dumpster, and I was biting my lip to hold in the giggles.

“Maybe I should give up furniture refinishing,” he groaned. “ I don’t think it’s my specialty.”

I couldn’t help but think how different it is with God. Yes, there he was, in all his “glory,” not “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” but strong, and loving, and capable– my refinished, restored husband!
Many years ago his mother had prayed this verse in Joel regarding her very-far-from-God son. And since restoring people truly is God’s specialty, He fulfilled that promise! Reclaimed from years in the deep recesses of drugs’ trash heap, my man lived to begin and run a business, raise a wonderful family, and tell others how God had not only saved him through faith in Jesus Christ, but also “restored the years the swarming locust” had eaten.

“Father, thank you for your specialty, changing and restoring people! Keep working on me as I yield my days to you. Amen

Grace, A Quiet Blessing

My bedroom door creaked open into our pitch black hall.  Mom and Dad kept it that way so they could sleep with their door slightly ajar. Tiptoeing  toward the sounds of muffled snoring, I felt the wooden trim, and stopped for a second or two, trying to decide if I really needed to do this. Three times in last few weeks! This is crazy. I am almost 11! But the orderliness and supposed serenity of our middle-class Canadian home didn’t stop the nightmares. As a matter of fact, the rude intruders had appeared often enough recently that Mom had made an appointment to see our family doctor.

Deciding to go ahead, I carefully pushed open the door. There she lay, as always, purring softly on her side of the bed. Just a whisper, “Mom, I had a bad dream,” and she would quietly lift the covers to invite my skinny, shivering frame. Slithering in like a little snake, so Dad wouldn’t suspect I had arrived, I would cuddle up beside her, my forehead to her chin. I’d lie as still as a dead person, hardly daring to breathe,  thoughts of reluctance totally banished. She had allowed me, as old as I was, into her sanctuary. And there I would stay, until the need for oxygen would force me to move.

She would hold her arms down by her side, acting as though I wasn’t there, but I knew she was aware of me. Free to go and welcome to stay, it was glorious. She smelled of the lily of the valley cologne donned earlier in the day along with her modest pink calico house dress and beige hose.  Could I even imagine Mom in pajamas? Her bedtime wear was always silk and lace and ribbon; and in the mornings a flowing champagne-length robe would drape the most stately shoulders I have ever seen.

Her name was Grace and lots of  people said she reminded them of the queen. Yes, our queen. Queen Elisabeth of England who was younger than Mom by about 6 years. Well, actually precisely 6 years, since they were both born on June 4th. But the slightly more mature face of my mother was, to me, way more beautiful. Her larger brown eyes, almost perfect teeth, radiated a smile of warmth and acceptance to all in our household. And her hair,  that short, wavy brunette hairstyle, could have been coiffed by the same stylist as the queen.  I often wondered if women in this era longed to look like the queen, so many of them wore that hairstyle.  But unlike most, my mother was also tall and thin, and graceful. She did look like the queen, only better. And I knew what her hug felt like. Those full cheeks of incredible dewy cream were so like the powder puffs she used to dust them. Even though they have caressed me, I can’t describe that softness.

And, like the queen, Mom was a woman of few words. Her busy life as a neonatal nurse, mother, and humble hostess for a pastor husband had already been difficult. She was healthy and strong; but a stoic quietness marked her spiritual journey. By 65 she would be rendered completely immobile by a debilitating muscle disease, transitioning from cane to walker, to wheel chair, to nursing home. All with a grace that reflected her name.

But that was the mysterious future- decades ahead of us. Tonight she was my rock. During that brief half hour or so, becoming hotter and hotter, I would grow cramped and sore from lying stock still beside her. So I would gingerly slip out of the covers and feel my way out the door and along the hall back to my own bed, the refreshing coolness causing me to fall instantly asleep.

Next morning, the episode wasn’t mentioned, by her anyway. I would say, “I had another nightmare, Mom.” Then she would go on doing what she was doing, making a pan of biscuits or buttering toast; and she’d purse her lips together in a half smile, the way she always did, so I would know she heard me. But her love flowed from that quiet gentleness. All day at school her warmth would comfort me. Grace. My quiet blessing.

The Other Side of Friendship

“Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” Proverbs 27:6 (ESV)

“Boyfriend Stealer!” Me? No way. I was a Christian! Yet that is exactly what I overheard in my college dorm over 40 years ago. Yes, I had, in a moment of hilarity, dumped ice and soda on the head of a handsome student, who just happened to be “taken.” Still, when the awful truth was official (ouch!), tears of self-pity flowed.

That weekend, alone in the dorm, I found my friend Donna ironing with her door open. Surely she would understand how unfair this was. But pouring out my trouble didn’t move her. Instead of commiserating, she allowed a long, tense silence to replace the oxygen in the room. Finally…

“So this is about you? Really?” Then with narrowed eyes boring into my soul, she said, “You are wrong. Flirting makes you look cheap, and it hurts whoever has a claim.”

Whoa… I was stunned, my petulant selfishness exposed! However, a strong desire to please God prompted a split-second decision.  Sure her words hurt, badly.  But I chose to thank her. These wounds were those of friendship. And ever since that day, I have thanked God for the other side of friendship.

“Lord Jesus, thank you for a courageous, honest friend. And Lord, let me be so in tune with you so as to be that kind of friend- when necessary.” Amen

~Joan

The Morning of My Autumn

During my junior high and high school years — those post-war, pre-crazy years– Mom worked as a nurse and was out the door for her seven to three shift by 6:30. So it was Dad who rousted us out of bed at 7:15 and prepared delicious bowls of creamy oatmeal, which we called porridge.  Dad’s porridge was delicious to me, anyway. My younger sister’s was always too hot- probably not enough milk. My brother’s was too cold- too much milk. (Oops, mixing up my stories a bit here here…) Both siblings preferred cold cereal, but the pantry often dictated Dad’s choice.  However, with the freedom to sprinkle or dump as much sugar on top as I pleased, this “Brownielocks” loved the sweet softness of the hot oats, with just the right amount of milk.  The whole kitchen smelled of morning and warmth and security.

It was a routine we could count on. In it I found comfort.

oatmeal 1

Why such a random tidbit snipped from my way-more-interesting past? Because long-gone smells and textures hold thoughts and emotions inside them.  My oatmeal memory succinctly and clearly captures the desire all children share–a desire to connect with Dad. You see, mine didn’t talk during those breakfasts. Maybe we were all “morningmute,” dumb from sleepiness. But somehow I felt compelled to connect. I often did this the only way that seemed possible at the time. By matching the rhythmic pace of his eating with my own spoonfuls. He would pray a blessing on the food and then begin a steady pattern. If he hadn’t been such a neat and orderly man, one might have called it shoveling. But after each generous spoonful, the tiny drop of milk which remained on the edge of his lower lip would be quickly blended into the next, thus making the process quite unmessy.

What tugged on his mind while he ate “on autopilot?” Was he across town dealing with a car part? Chores? He was known for doing the dishes and vacuuming and dusting before 8:30. Or were pressing issues awaiting him at the office? Well,  I knew what played on my mind.  To keep up with his spooning, stoke for stroke. Scoop, lift, gulp, swallow; scoop, lift, gulp, swallow– all in one seamless flow of motion.  Make fast work of breakfast? You bet! It never crossed my mind to time us, but I’m guessing it was about two and a half minutes, total.  And funny, he never seemed to notice that I was pacing him. He never slowed down or sped up, to enjoy the game. He just ate, oblivious to me.

Like rickety shutters on ancient windows, the most minute memories are portals to thoughts and emotions stashed under some musty couch,  further inside. These memories help us sort out both yesterday’s issues as well as today’s.

So we remember.

I like to think of this present part of life as the morning of my autumn season. Morning is forward-looking, the day ahead perched on your counter like a luscious, chilled watermelon, begging to be cut and eaten.  Or yummy hot oatmeal ready for the spoon!

Autumn, though, with shorter days, chilly evenings,  the pungent smoke of bonfires and the moist aroma of fallen leaves, brings a flood of memories- memories mixed with questions and ponderings.

Aging is not easy. Life is not easy. But,  in some ways these are the best of times. The kids are gone. Who cares if you hit snooze twice, or go out to eat three nights in a row?  Choices abound. It’s time to enjoy the youth you didn’t always know what to do with when you were young.

We all have a legacy to share. I invite you to share yours here as you read mine.

So the words written here comprise a combination of memories savored and lessons learned, with the optimism of possibilities and untapped potential. In any season life is hard work; but whether you’re a morning person or not,  morning in autumn is a great place to be.

~Joan