Wishful Thinking

Recently I watched part of a documentary about the life of P.L. Travers, and one of the things that came out was that she lied about her life all the time, starting in childhood. Instantly, my mind leapt back to a very strange time in my own life, and to my friend Karen.

A long time ago in a state far away, my family was on “furlough” from our life in Africa. One year stretched into two, for reasons which are unimportant to this story. For the second of those years, at the age of twelve, I attended a private Christian school run by our church, and both of my parents also taught there. My dad was my homeroom and science teacher and my mom was my English teacher, a situation I do not recommend.

If I had felt excluded the previous year at a local elementary school, I felt much more so here in seventh grade. Most of the kids were from families that attended the church, and almost all were white and upper middle class. They had nowhere in their compartmentalized lives to place a girl who had come from Africa and who didn’t even know any of the popular songs they all listened to on the radio. Not to mention that I couldn’t afford to participate in virtually anything they did for entertainment.

It was a lonely, lonely time. Eventually, I was befriended by two girls in my class, both of whom were to some degree outcasts themselves. One was named Terry, and she deserves an essay of her own someday. The other girl was Karen. (That is not her real name—I chose it because it was a very popular name at the time.)

Karen latched on to me and became my constant companion at school. Despite being a little chubby, she seemed very glamorous to me because she wore makeup. In seventh grade! Unlike my shabby hand-me-downs, she wore fashionable clothes and shoes and was always quick to point out the trendy brand names—not realizing I was too clueless to be impressed.

As we became better acquainted, she began telling me about her home life. She lived in a huge house with a huge yard. She had a super-expensive imported English bicycle to ride when she wanted. She had been allowed to furnish and decorate her own bedroom with anything she wanted and furthermore, she got her own private Christmas tree every year for which she could pick out all new lights and ornaments. (That one blew my little MK mind.) She could have snacks whenever she wanted from the gigantic barrel of snacks in the kitchen. (I was sure this one was exaggerated. I pictured a largish cookie jar.)

Eventually, her birthday loomed on the horizon and I received an invitation to the party. I had already been hearing about it for weeks. We were going to go roller skating, then to a fancy restaurant for lunch, and then to a movie. I was very excited because I was finally going to see her family’s mansion!

On the appointed day, my mother drove me over there. It turned out to be a rather ramshackle house that Karen, her single mom and her younger siblings shared with her grandparents. Although the yard was indeed spacious, everything was dingy and rundown—not at all what I expected. If any grass grew there, it was by accident. Karen led me to the magical bedroom which was . . . very ordinary and well worn. Here and there I saw little elements which had been wildly exaggerated in Karen’s descriptions.

I asked about the fancy imported bicycle. It was “locked in the shed” and she wasn’t allowed to get it out because they were afraid it would be stolen. The one thing that was absolutely true was the gigantic barrel of snacks in the kitchen—a waist-high receptacle overflowing with junk food. That utterly stunned me. Food was tightly controlled at our house because there just wasn’t much of a food budget.

Eventually a couple of other girls arrived and Karen’s mom drove us to the skating rink. She left us in the car while she went in to “check on our reservation.” After several minutes she returned, saying the skating rink was inexplicably “closed” that morning. The same thing happened at the restaurant. Karen was furious, and her mom produced a pretty good imitation of anger too. (My guess is her true emotion was shame.) In an effort to appease Karen, her mother bought us some cheap burgers at McDonalds and we went back to the house to watch something on TV, because of course the movie theater was “closed” too. It was an incredibly depressing day, despite the fast food (a rare treat for me) and the birthday cake.

When I reported on the days’ events to my mother, she gently explained to me that Karen’s family were a charity case at the school. The kids were permitted to attend in exchange for some office work that their mother did. The family was on welfare—a concept I’d been sheltered from before then, despite our own ongoing poverty.

Karen and I remained friends, but I saw her through very different eyes now. Her constant bragging about her nonexistent luxuries and privileges made me sad. I never contradicted her, though she MUST have known that I knew she was making it up. Somehow, it was very important for her to keep up the pretense, and I saw no reason to take that away from her.

I have no idea what happened to Karen. After I returned to Africa at the end of that school year, I never heard from her again. I hope she found happiness—and contentment.

 

Beauty From Ashes

Life has some amazing twists and turns, doesn’t it? And no doubt years from now we’ll look back on 2020 as one of the twistiest and turniest times of all.

Let’s be honest—most of this year’s surprises have not been pleasant. So recently when I was treated to a truly amazing and heartwarming surprise, it seemed all the more remarkable, not to mention welcome.

For you to understand, I have to explain a chain of events. My freshman year of college, back in 1977-78, I was befriended by a very gifted art major named Matt. In November of 2018, he died, and I found out about it a couple of months later. You can read the whole story of that friendship here (and you really should if you want to understand what follows):

The Devil’s Friend

While I was in Tennessee earlier this month, the day after my mother’s memorial service, I received an email from a couple of strangers named Karen and Andrew. They were close friends of Matt’s and had read my blog entry and been touched by it. They wanted to know if they could send me a copy of a book they’d written, which featured one of Matt’s paintings in the background of one of the illustrations.

Of course I said yes. They must have sent it the very next day, because a package was waiting for me when we returned home from our trip on Saturday night. I pulled out the book and noted with delight that they had both signed it. (It’s a pretty high-class book about pairing food and drink.)

But the package contained something else that was flat and wrapped in bubble wrap. I carefully removed the bubble wrap, to reveal one of Matt’s paintings, signed by him and dated 1999. It’s not a “big” or showy painting, but I love it because it’s by him and I thought I had lost any chance of ever owning something he painted. I may post a photo of it someday. I don’t know. I’m pretty emotional about it right now, to be honest. Many tears have been shed.

I went out on Monday and found a suitable frame for it, and was able to frame it after carefully reinforcing the fragile corners. Now I have it propped up where I can see it all the time from my computer chair.

But that is still not the end of the story. Remember back in May when my brain was on fire and I wrote a story in two days? That story was a tribute of sorts to Matt, a way of processing my grief over his loss (because remember, I process things by writing about them). So after receiving the spectacular gift of the book and the painting, I emailed Matt’s friends to thank them and also asked if they’d be interested in reading the story “in advance,” before it comes out in an anthology later this year.

They responded by saying they’d like to talk to me on the phone, to tell me about the painting and about how they found my blog entry. I sent them my phone number and my story, and then figuratively chewed my nails wondering what they’d think of it, not to mention why they were being so nice to a Texas housewife when they are clearly famous.

When they didn’t call the first day, I kicked myself for sending them the story. I thought they must hate it because although the character in the story is NOT Matt, some aspects of his personality were based on Matt, whom they knew in real life, and much better than I did. How could I be so stupid?

But then this evening I did receive a phone call from Karen, and the story took an amazing turn. She keeps a card featuring Matt’s artwork on the wall near her desk. And on the 12th, the day after my mother’s memorial service, that card fell down. Her husband picked it up when he saw it on the floor and gave it back to her.

Seeing the card made her think about Matt, so she sat down at her computer and googled his name, and my blog entry popped up. When she and Andrew read it, they both instantly felt that they should give me one of Matt’s paintings (they own several). And they both agreed on which painting it should be—one that Matt had sent to Andrew as a condolence after Andrew’s mother had died.

And what Karen said that just destroyed me was that this was the only painting of Matt’s that they had never framed or hung, and she believed it was because Matt intended me to have it all along, and they were just keeping it for me until my own mother died and I “met” Karen and Andrew online as a consequence of Matt’s passing.

Now I didn’t know the history of the painting at all before our conversation, but I had felt very strongly since my first communication from Karen and Andrew that somehow Matt wanted us to meet. I wish his death hadn’t been the catalyst, but I felt tonight’s conversation brought a measure of healing for me. I so enjoyed talking to someone else who knew Matt too and understood how unique he was. The grief is still there, and will always be, but to have the painting is such a huge, unlooked-for blessing, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Also, I now have two friends in New York City.

And yes, she liked my story.

 

 

 

The Other “F” Word

The last few months have been very, very hard for me. Every time I turn around, it seems, I am faced with more evidence of my own shortcomings and failures. Add to that the fact that my husband had cancer,  I’ve lost my amazing mother and have been experiencing rejection on a deep personal level, and maybe you can understand why so many of my thoughts have been about failure. Failure as a mother, failure as a wife, failure as a teacher, failure as a writer, failure as a follower of Christ.

I am a deeply optimistic person—despite decades of depression, despite none of my overarching life goals being met. But these last few months have challenged my innate optimism. It is hard to keep believing that you will somehow succeed—when you never have. It doesn’t help that so many people who are close to me have seen me as a failure all along, and I’m sure have wondered why I continue to doggedly pursue my goals when they are clearly unattainable. No doubt, if some of them read this, they will think, “I so sorry you feel like a failure. I mean, you ARE a failure, but I wish you hadn’t noticed.”

The failure that has perhaps discouraged me most over the last year is my failure as a teacher. I have always believed I am a good teacher. Former students have affirmed this on many occasions. I put more time and effort into teaching than anyone else I know—but, for the last couple of years it hasn’t been enough. Despite all my effort, despite all my work to create materials that are easy to understand, I have failed to engage my students’ interest and get them involved in learning language skills (not all of them, but a high enough percentage to be very concerning).

Raised by parents who were both teachers themselves, I had the following statement drilled into my head during my growing-up years: “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.” More and more often over the last few years, I have had students who haven’t learned. I feel that they leave my class no wiser than when they came in. I can’t tell you how discouraging that is for me.

Yes, part of it is a generational shift. I have seen a change in student attitudes and behavior over the last twenty-plus years that I’ve been teaching other students in addition to my own kids. In the early days, I never had a student who wasn’t willing to work, even if he or she struggled with the material. Now it is unusual to have a student who is willing and eager to put forth the necessary effort to excel. But I still feel that somehow I should have been able to inspire them to put forth that effort—and I have totally failed at that.

Add to that the fact that I really overcommitted myself during the school year, and the result is that when I wrapped up my classes at the end of April I felt completely burned out. I wanted to give myself some recovery time before making any big decisions.

The last several weeks, though, have confirmed my first impulse, which is that the time has come for me to retire from teaching. I may retain one or two tutoring students, but I’m done with teaching classes. If I can’t be effective, I don’t feel I can ask other people to pay for my services. It seems like a pretty big decision, but the more time I have to think about it, the more convinced I am it is the right one.

For the last couple of decades, teaching has occupied the giant’s share of my headspace, and with that now free, I feel able to pursue other interests and other ways of bringing in some supplementary income. Maybe I need to focus my attention on activities where I have at least some chance of success. Sure, there is part of me that wishes I could have retreated in triumph, but we don’t always get what we wish for! Every day when I wake up and remember I’m not teaching any classes this summer, it’s such a wonderful sensation of relief, even though I am hard at work revising my  materials so I can publish some of my curriculum. I’m ready to close one door behind me and step forward into something new.

The Human Alarm Clock

As I’m sure you can understand, my mother is frequently on my mind lately. Several times a day I think of something I want to tell her—but I can’t. So I’ll keep sharing some of my memories of her here.

Often, when my alarm goes off in the morning, I think of my mother. As you know, most of my education took place at various boarding schools starting in third grade, but during the times that I lived at home as a teenager and young adult, getting up was a real challenge, as it so often is for people that age.

My dad’s method of rousing me from slumber was very direct. Pummeling my bedroom door incessantly with his fists of thunder, he would accompany the horrendous pounding by heartily bellowing a wake-up song to the tune of “Reveille.” I had mere seconds to leap from my bed and appear at the door upright and with eyes open before he moved to Phase 2, which involved stomping into my room and ripping the covers off my cowering body. Dad only had to wake one of us up this way in the morning. If it was me, my brothers knew to jump out of their beds and appear at their doors before he started pounding. No one could sleep through that din.

My mother, however, was much less direct. Hers was a kindler, gentler method. In fact she rarely if ever actually told me to get up. During the year I lived at home and worked between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I obviously had to get up in time to make it to work every day. In order to get there on time, let’s say I had to leave the house by 6:45 (I had to be at work downtown by 7:30).

I would set my little watch alarm for 6:00, knowing I could push the five-minute snooze at least a couple of times. If I had not appeared in the public area of the house by 6:15, my mother would stand outside my door and I’d hear a polite little tap, followed by her quiet voice saying, “Linda, it’s 6:15.” She always spoke quietly so as not to wake any of my brothers who might still be sleeping.

“Okay,” I’d say, glancing at my watch to verify that it was indeed 6:15. Then I’d pass out again until the next time my watch alarm went off or until my mother felt the need to return. “Linda, it’s 6:22.” If I still failed to appear, the announcements would come closer together. “Linda, it’s 6:27.” “Linda, it’s 6:31.”

She never yelled, never told me I was a worthless lazy so-and-so, never ordered me to arise from my bed. She just continued in her self-appointed task as a talking clock, giving me the opportunity to make my own life choices. I knew I could go from lying in bed to walking out the door in under ten minutes. I don’t think I was ever late to work.

My mother also used this indirect method when it came to household chores. If the dishes weren’t washed in a timely manner, she’d say, “Did you remember that it’s your turn to wash the dishes?” Or, “I noticed that the living room hasn’t been vacuumed yet.” These seemingly innocuous observations were a warning. Failure to act on the implied instruction would result in escalation in the form of my dad’s involvement. As you have no doubt gathered, he wasn’t subtle at all. I learned to recognize my mother’s gentle comments for what they were—inflexible commands which if ignored would lead to consequences.

I think her goal in using this approach was to encourage us to become self-motivated, rather than to only do things out of fear of reprisal. As much as possible, she made it my responsibility to make the right choices, rather than forcing them upon me. I have always appreciated that.

Ineffable Loss

Everybody who grew up in a loving home believes that their mother was the best mother—and they’re all right. God gives each of us the best mother for us as individuals. My mother was certainly the “best” for me. And you know, since I process things by writing about them, that I’m going to have to tell you about my mother, and the very first thing to know about her was that she loved God with all her heart and that He used her to love not just me and my brothers, but hundreds of people around the world.

I’m pretty sure that in God’s personal dictionary, there is a picture of my mother illustrating the definition of the word “lady.” Everyone who knows my mother at all would say, “she’s such a lady.” So elegant. So classy. So dignified. So gracious. So poised. What makes that interesting is that it’s so inexplicable. She was basically raised by a couple of hillbillies. My grandfather grew up on a farm in Tennessee and my grandmother on a farm in Kentucky. They raised their firstborn daughter in the depths of the Great Depression. Times were tough. They didn’t have much, and what they did have, they had to make stretch as far as possible.

My mother told the story of one school year when her parents scored a really great deal on huge number of Twinkies. That year, she had a Twinkie in her school lunch every single day. Guess who never fed us Twinkies when we were growing up? She had enough that year to last her for the rest of her life!

She was very bright, an excellent student, and graduated from high school a year early. During her teens, she also taught herself to knit and sew, and began making beautiful dresses and sweaters for herself, since she couldn’t afford to buy them. She was a consummate seamstress and made all of my prettiest outfits when I was growing up. Every photo I’ve seen of her in high school or college she just looks so elegant and glamorous!

She went to Bob Jones University against her parents’ wishes—they thought it was too worldly to get an actual degree. There she was exposed to all kinds of fine art—visual, musical, written, etc., and she developed a deep appreciation for beauty of all kinds. She thrived on the academics. She married my dad shortly after her graduation. They had known each other and attended church together since early childhood.

I came along five years later, followed by my three younger brothers. And the summer I turned eight (1967), we all moved to Zambia so my parents could teach at a mission high school for African girls.

One of my most vivid memories with my mom concerns our arrival in Zambia. After just two days at our new home in “the bush,” she accompanied me to boarding school for the first time. We didn’t have a vehicle yet and made the trip in a minibus full of other missionary families. I think that’s the first time I realized my mom was not like the other missionary moms. They all wore practical cotton dresses and simple sandals. My mother never wore sandals because she believed she had ugly toes. On this occasion, she wore a classy gray suit with nylons and chic high-heeled pumps—not stilettos or anything, but she was certainly the only mom there wearing heels at all.

The morning after our arrival at the school, I was already in class as she was preparing to leave with the other parents from our station. I hadn’t seen her since our arrival the previous afternoon. She walked down to my classroom and called me out of class to say goodbye—something none of the other moms did. I was so embarrassed. I have always deeply regretted that instead of giving her a heartfelt hug, I tried to shrug her off so I could get back to my desk and my anonymity. She had done such a great job preparing me for my new adventure that I was anxious to get on with it. I had no concept of how heart-wrenching it must have been for her to have to walk away and leave me at school for the next 18 weeks. In fact I couldn’t really understand it until I had children of my own.

By the time I left for boarding school at the age of eight, of course, my mother had already infused me with her own lifelong love of words. When I was a tiny tot, she would tuck me into bed on snowy Michigan nights, and then sit on the end of my bed in the darkness, reciting Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” from memory as the snowflakes fell outside. When it wasn’t snowing, she had plenty of other poems in her arsenal.

Thanks to her, I think I had all the Dr. Seuss books memorized by the time I went to kindergarten, and as a result, I thought I could read! She introduced me to so many classic novels and timeless poems. When I was twelve, she set aside an afternoon to read me the sentimental Tennyson poem, “Enoch Arden.” By the end of it we were both sobbing—yet we read it together again several times during my teen years, and each time we both ended up in tears.

She, like me, was an English teacher for many years, and if you know what a grammar Nazi I am, I can only say that my rather formidable command of grammar pales in comparison to hers.

Because she loved words and language so much, perhaps, she hated to see words used to hurt others. I’ll never forget the time a friend came to stay with me for a week. I was maybe sixteen at the time. My mother couldn’t help overhearing our conversations. After the first couple of days, she pulled me aside. Never one to lecture or berate me, she asked me a question instead. “Do you realize,” she said, “that virtually all your conversations consist of badmouthing your former classmates and teachers? Do you realize that you have fallen into the habit of gossiping?”

Well, I didn’t realize it. I started paying attention to what my friend and I said, and I realized my mother was right. I hated that I’d become that person that never has something nice to say. I committed myself from that point forward to shun gossip and always look for the good in others. I’m still working on it!

One funny story about our mutual love of words: when I was eleven and we were on a family Christmas vacation in Rhodesia, she taught me how to play her favorite word game, “Jotto.” It involves trying to guess your opponent’s five-letter word using test five-letter words and learning how many letters they have in common. She taught me to play because my dad wouldn’t play with her anymore—she always won. She explained the game to me and I picked my secret five-letter word. Being only eleven, I just picked a word from a book title that was sitting right beside me. My mother’s approach was so methodical—but she couldn’t guess my word. I am much more intuitive and guessed her word quite quickly. Over the years we played the game many, many times—and I always won. However, it’s only fair to admit that she usually destroyed me in Scrabble.

Many years ago, I read an article by an adventure traveler who visited a remote tribe in South America I think. And one of the things he noticed about them was that they seemed to think failure was hilarious. Rather than get discouraged or angry when they messed up, they all had a good laugh about it. When I read that, I thought immediately of my mother. She was so much more patient than I will ever be.

To give you just one of many examples, we went to visit my parents a couple of decades ago when they were still living in a rambling old house in Virginia. One evening I sat visiting with my mother in her sewing room while she worked on a dressy blouse she was making. As we talked, she carefully gathered, pinned, basted, and then sewed one of the sleeves onto the bodice of the blouse. Then, when she held it up to admire her handiwork, she realized that she had sewn the sleeve on upside down! No doubt our conversation distracted her, because she was a consummate seamstress.

But it was her reaction that amazed me. Instead of throwing the blouse across the room and stomping off in frustration as I would have done, she burst out laughing. “Look at that!” she said. “I sewed it on upside down!” Still chuckling, she went to work right away on picking out all those careful stitches without damaging the flimsy material. I was in awe, to be honest.

Because she was a seamstress, she learned the importance of ironing early on, and she remained committed to ironing for the rest of her life. I kiddingly sometimes referred to her as the Queen of All Ironing. When I was little, many of our mother-daughter conversations took place while Mom ironed. She would “sprinkle” the clothes after they came in off the clothesline, and then put them into a vinyl bag which she kept in the fridge! Whenever she had a few minutes, she’d pull out that bag and iron a few garments.

So when my daughter Mary got married (the first of Mom’s grandchildren to do so) my parents came to the wedding. I had gone very short on sleep for a couple of weeks as I sewed Mary’s wedding dress and made her cake. Mom asked me if there was something she could do, and I knew exactly what to ask. “Could you please iron the wedding dress?” I had been dreading ironing that delicate silk. Mom’s face lit up and she said, “Oh, absolutely! Ironing is SO important!” The dress looked fabulous, by the way.

My mother was a generous and gracious hostess. Even before we went to Africa, my parents hosted many large family gatherings at our modest little house in Royal Oak, Michigan. I believe it was my mother who first introduced pizza to our mission station in Zambia. It was such a popular novelty that she was expected to provide pizza for almost any occasion. My brothers and I never complained.

Our house hosted a succession of visitors throughout my growing up years. When we lived near town, it functioned at times as an informal missionary guest house. Usually we had some warning of house guests, but not always. More than once I was roused from sleep with orders to strip and remake my bed, after which I had to stroll nonchalantly past total strangers in my pajamas so I could sleep in the little back bedroom.

And no matter who showed up, my mother fed them, and fed them well. Having grown up during the Depression, she was an expert at “stretching” ingredients like meat to make tasty meals. This was especially challenging in Africa, because when she invited another family to come for dinner, say, “on Tuesday evening,” they might show up on Tuesday—and there’d be a wonderful dinner awaiting. But they might come on Thursday instead. Or two weeks later. To them, the important thing was that they had been invited. Why should it matter what day they came? She learned to have precooked meals in the freezer that could be quickly heated up for such occasions. She almost never betrayed the stress she must have been under. In my mind, she was unflappable. She took everything in stride. If she ever freaked out internally, it never showed on the surface.

Another example of this was a camping vacation we had on the beach at Lake Malawi. We were there for several weeks and eventually ran out of the food we had brought. The nearby “boma” had very limited resources, but Mom felt confident they’d have some basic staples. So one afternoon she sent my dad and me to the boma with a 5-item shopping list. I don’t remember all five items, but I know three of them were flour, eggs, and milk.

Dad and I arrived at the boma and made the round of the handful of shops there. No milk. No flour. No eggs. Dad made a spur-of-the-moment decision to drive to the capital city of Lilongwe and go to a real grocery store—without returning to the lake to tell my mom. That was a very memorable trip (about 70 miles each way, I believe). My impulsive dad filled up two carts with groceries in Lilongwe and then we headed back to the lake.

All afternoon, my mother had no idea where we were or what had happened. Our little excursion to the boma should have taken less than forty minutes, not more than three hours. For all she knew, we had been killed in an accident. But she never betrayed her anxiety to my brothers. When Dad and I rolled into camp at sunset with all our loot, my resourceful mother was calmly making pancakes for supper with the very last of the flour she had, not knowing if there’d be anything for breakfast in the morning, or if she still had a husband and daughter.

My mother was always gracious, always kind, and always a good listener. She told me once that during my college years, she was in such demand as a confidant by me and my brothers, that sometimes she felt she was turning into a giant ear! One by one we’d show up in her sewing room and unburden ourselves. She never gave unsolicited advice, but would often ask questions that would help me think things through. She was so wise and thoughtful.

But, as much as my mother radiated grace and elegance and dignity, she could be silly too. I think I was the only one who witnessed her legendary and spirited rendition of “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog,” sung to our dog in our kitchen in Zambia. Well, that’s not true. One of our Zambian employees came to the door while she was in full cry and no doubt thought my mom had gone mad! She had a great sense of humor, and often told stories on herself.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I already miss the phone calls. When my parents came to the States before my freshman year of college, my mom made a commitment to write me every week (as she had done through all the previous years I was at boarding school). And she said that if she failed to write me a letter in any given week, she’d call me on the weekend.

The letters stopped coming quite quickly. A phone call was so much easier and more interactive. For most of my adult life, she called me on the phone once a week and we talked over anything that either of us wanted to discuss. I looked forward to those phone calls every week. Some weeks I needed them badly! I’ve got a couple of voicemails from her on my phone that I don’t plan to delete. Not that I could ever forget my mother’s melodious voice. I was so blessed to have her for a mom.

Tonight, my dad and brothers and my mom’s two sisters and I all got online for a group chat and it was great to share some memories of my amazing mother. I’m sure many more will surface in the days to come. Afterward, I got Lucy to play Jotto with me in my mom’s memory. We stumped each other!

Parting Shot:

Mom on her wedding day.

Words Fail Me

While I work on my inadequate tribute to my mother, I remembered this poem that I wrote to honor her several years ago. I had a beautiful rose blooming in my yard at the time, and I took a photo each day to illustrate and parallel the progression from rosebud to death. When I wrote the poem, I had no idea how my mother’s life would end, but I don’t feel the need to change anything.

A Life of Grace

Small rose,
You’re unfurling
Like velvet soft petals
Reaching upward then uncurling
You, a little girl with a sweet rose face
Filled with promise and inborn grace
Swirling in a bright dress
Reveling in
Girlhood.

Blooming
Rosier now
Than you were yesterday
Your young zeal is so amazing
Starry eyes hopeful and forward gazing
Demeanor ruffled by sharp storms
Weathered with grace and pluck
You will blossom
More still.

Serene
Shy loveliness
A bride brimming with love
Eager to start a new venture
At the side of the man she has chosen
To be her life’s companion
She longs to do him good,
Not evil, for
Always.

Gentle
Radiating
Grace and kindness and love
A young mother sweet and guileless
Instructs in wonder, and partakes thereof,
She is the center of the world
To her doting children
And her husband
Loves her.

Mature
Yes, matronly
Treasuring years gone by
Looking forward to days ahead
Reaping the rewards of motherly care
Her growing children bless her name:
This reward beggars fame.
She is content
And blessed.

Faded
Lace and perfume
Characterize you now
A grandmother who remembers
And treasures in her kind and loving heart
The sad and tender, joyful days.
You read to the children,
Whisper to them,
“Love you.”

Lady
You are old now
Your hands flutter slightly
When you reach for your teacup.
You may not hear the doorbell but your mind
Is sharp as ever; you delight
In telling tales about
Your younger days,
Sparkling.

Farewell
Is difficult
To do with grace and charm.
I’ve prayed you would not come to harm
In these last days when you seem so helpless
So bereft of independence.
The sparkle is still there.
I sigh and stroke
Your hair.

Missing.
You are gone now
Your smile a memory
Silver hair and lovingkindness
Your love still echoes through the years and lives
Of all who loved you and received
Your fierce strong loyalty,
Your deep friendship.
Adieu.

Light in the Darkness

I don’t want to forget to tell you about something I’ve started doing and am encouraging others in my neighborhood to do. One of my friends in the UK posted a photo of a candle in her window the other night, and when I asked her what it was for, she explained that people were doing it at a specific time to indicate that they are praying for the world in this time of crisis.

I like that idea. I like having a reminder. So every night until some sort of normalcy is restored, I’m turning on my porch light and lighting a candle from 8:00-9:00 p.m. I can’t put my candle in the window because our windows all have rather fragile blinds, so I put it out on the corner of my front steps. And as I do so, I pray for my family, for my community, for my nation, and for the world.

With the events going on in my own family, I am very aware that there must be thousands of families like ours who are facing bereavement and who can’t be with their loved ones. Babies being born that loving grandparents can’t visit. Graduations cancelled, weddings postponed indefinitely, educations and travel plans disrupted, jobs lost. I pray for all of them too. So much heartache.

To make sure I don’t forget my nightly appointment, I have an alarm set on my phone to help me remember to turn on the porch light and light the candle. And now, I also have an alarm to remind me to go blow out the candle and turn off the light an hour later! This morning when I went out the front door to check the mail, there was my candle still burning. . . .

Let me know if you decide to join me in this nightly time of prayer. I know at least one of my neighbors is doing it too.

The Long, Slow, Sad Goodbye

I don’t know which is harder—being surprised by a sudden death, or being forced to watch it approaching for months or years, never knowing for sure how long it’s going to take, but having to watch it slowly take away pieces of someone you love.

I’ve known my mother was failing for almost 5 years now. It started so subtly (at least it seemed very subtle from my distance). My mother did something that seemed out of character for her, and that really hurt my feelings. In fact I was so hurt that I stopped calling her every week as I normally did. I figured she’d miss hearing from me and call me to ask what happened, and we’d talk it over and everything would go back to normal.

Only she didn’t call me. After three months, she still hadn’t called me. I was concerned, so I called her. I wasn’t able to make her understand why I’d been hurt, and that’s when I realized that things had changed. She had changed. Thanks to my dad’s excellent care, we’ve had a few extra years with her, but it’s been hard to watch the woman who raised me be replaced by someone who looks like my mom and even sounds like my mom some of the time, but is in some ways quite different.

I’ve watched her lose ability after ability. When I first went to help with the cooking, she’d hover over me to make sure I was doing it right, and help me with chopping and measuring ingredients. Then she started making mistakes, and she lost interest in the kitchen. She forgot how to operate the microwave. She couldn’t even get a snack out of the fridge when she was hungry. When I was there cooking, she no longer wanted to stay in the kitchen with me.

She spent more and more time dozing in her chair, and although she still enjoyed reading, she found it hard to follow a plot. Each time I visited, she was visibly weaker and thinner. The last two visits, when she was in the nursing home, were hardest of all. Seeing her so helpless, so passive, so confused some of the time, was heartbreaking to me. Yet even in that situation she was so happy to see me and didn’t want to “miss out” on anything I might want to do with her. I got some radiant smiles from her, which I’ll treasure in the days to come.

Now, it seems, we are almost to the door—the door that she will walk through alone while the rest of us remain on this earthly side. She has stopped responding to treatment and is no longer able to eat. My dad was with her all day and he felt at least some of the time she was aware of his presence, but I think more and more her spirit is distancing itself from what remains of her life here. The door, I know, has been flung wide open in welcome, and joy awaits her on the other side.

I want that joy for her, I want an end to her suffering—but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it’s hard for those of us left behind. I already miss being able to call and tell her what’s going on my life. She hasn’t been up to phone calls for some time now. For many of the last 15 years, this blog has been written primarily with her in mind, because she read it so faithfully every day. In a way I feel . . . unmoored now.  If I skip posting for a day, there won’t be any phone call asking me what happened.

So I’d appreciate your prayers more than ever in the next few days. My dad is the only one allowed to see Mom, and today was heartbreaking for him. He will be looking into hospice care tomorrow. Travel restrictions are making it hard for my brothers and me to make plans to be there for Dad when the time comes. This is not the way any of us thought it would be at the end—losing our mom in the middle of a global pandemic. I’m sure thousands of other families are experiencing this same grief and frustration, and I pray for them too.

Love, Panic and Solaria

Have you noticed that if you take the “dem” out of “pandemic,” you are left with panic? The panic over the coronavirus is beyond anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. From the mystifyingly empty toilet paper and bottled water shelves to the sudden commitment to obsessive handwashing, to the cancellation of gatherings, it’s as if everyone expects the worst.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s justified. I still don’t see anything to make me think we’re looking at something comparable to the Black Death, which wiped out up to one half of affected populations in the Middle Ages.

Still, I am very concerned. Not so much about the spread of the virus itself, but about the permanent effect the surrounding hysteria may have on our society and on the way we interact with each other.

Already, businesses are pushing their employees to work remotely. People are being told to consult their physicians online rather than in person. The university where my husband works has cancelled all gatherings of over 100 people—including chapel, and I assume, Homecoming, which is scheduled for next month. Today my husband discovered he will have to get a mic and camera for his work computer so they can have meetings online instead of in person, even though they’re all still in the same building.

Students have been asked not to return from Spring Break and those already on campus are being urged to leave, while professors are scrambling to figure out how to teach everything online. The writers’ event I planned to attend in Dallas later this month has also been cancelled. I heard there will be no more handshaking and hugging in church—assuming that any churches still meet in person. Most that I’ve heard of are putting their services online for the time being, including the one we currently attend.

These precautions may or may not be necessary. I don’t know enough about the actual facts to make that call. What I fear is going to happen, though, is that many of these emergency measures will become permanent. Once people get used to working from home, they won’t want to go back to commuting—and as an introvert, I totally understand that. And there are some jobs you can do just as well from home, of course.

I am concerned that as a society, we will interact less and less with each other in person. Maybe institutions like churches will never recover. Friendships will be carried out primarily online. No more meeting in coffee shops or in each other’s kitchens to visit with a friend. A video chat is just as good, right?

No. It is not. I believe that we human beings were designed to be part of various social groups—families, employees, churches, clubs, etc. I would much rather rub someone’s actual shoulder or give them an actual hug than “wave” at them on social media or “like” their post.

I’m sure you’ve read all the articles about how one of the common denominators of people who engage in violent acts is social isolation and loneliness. Yet we seem to be hurtling toward a future where a much higher percentage of people will be socially isolated and lonely.

Where does love fit in to all of this, especially for someone like me, who believes that one of my primary purposes is to show God’s love to others? Can you adequately love others via the internet? Sure, you can order flowers or a meal delivered. You can send encouraging messages. But nothing, nothing beats a heartfelt hug from a friend when you are hurting.

As each day goes by and the hysteria spreads out of all proportion to the threat, I find myself thinking more and more about the planet of Solaria in Isaac Asimov’s Robot series. On Solaria, humans lived on huge estates with 10,000 robot slaves for each person. The humans socialized with each other via video chat, but were disgusted by the idea of actually meeting each other in person. In fact, if I remember correctly, they had become hermaphrodites to make reproduction possible without, you know, actually having to be in the same room with someone else.

When Asimov wrote that story, video chats were well in the future. Robots of the kind he wrote about are still in the future. But the move toward social isolation is ongoing and alarming.

Where do love and kindness fit into this strange new world? Is there anything we can do to stem the tide? Of course there is.

First, I think we need to all realize that this crisis is temporary—perhaps comparable to a war which is devastating for a certain duration, but after which recovery is possible and expected. The toilet paper dearth won’t last forever, and neither should our squeamishness about being physically present with other people. When the wave has passed over us, we should rush back into each other’s arms and enjoy some overdue hugs.

Now, while we’re all hunkered down in our own spaces, might be a good time to revive the charming practice of writing letters and notes to each other. Since no one can get in to see my mother, I am committed to sending her notes and cards several times a week. A real note on real paper can be treasured and reread and carried about in a way that electronic communications cannot. Written words are so powerful.

In addition, even before the crisis passes, you can take action to help those whose livelihoods have been seriously threatened by this crisis, particularly people who make the bulk of their income by performing for groups of people. Is there a band or other group of performers that you love? Buy a t-shirt. Buy an album. Buy ALL their albums. Help them make it through the next few weeks. If you can’t see going to your favorite restaurants, order carryout and eat at home. Support the local businesses you love.

When the worst is over, be the first one to start inviting people over again (and if you haven’t invited your friends over in the past, start!). Go to your favorite restaurants and tip your servers generously. Go to concerts and sporting events and support your favorite form of entertainment. Show up at church and reconnect with your friends there. Find a way to help if the church/neighborhood/nursing home needs help. Host a potluck and revel in the opportunity to socialize with your friends.

I may be an introvert, but I need other people just as much as anyone else—just not all at once, all the time! I’ve learned that it’s okay if I seem to be putting forth most of the effort in some of my relationships. Some people aren’t initiators—but that doesn’t mean they don’t value their friendship with you. Reach out in love to those who don’t reach out on their own.

I’d like to also echo something my daughter Mary has very eloquently said, which is that no matter what you might be feeling in the middle of all this—it’s okay, and it’s valid. When I was young, and something bothered or upset me, I was constantly told, “Well, you shouldn’t feel that way.”  As an adult, there are times when I’ve been critical of someone’s response to events in their lives—but I kept my mouth shut. Your emotions are yours, not mine. Who am I to say you are feeling the “wrong” thing? Kindness goes such a very long way in making this situation more bearable for us all.

If you are living in fear right now and making all your decisions based on the worst-case scenario—you have my sympathy and compassion. Fear is a hard, hard master and I pray you find peace even amid all the panic. If you are a person of faith, it helps to remember that none of this is a surprise to God, or beyond his ability to act upon. He is still on the throne.

What if you are in a place of happiness and contentment right now? Perhaps you’ve just had a baby, or finally retired, or been promoted. Is it okay to rejoice and not feel guilty? Of course it is. Your good news doesn’t erase all the scary stuff that’s happening right now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate and be happy—even if your celebration involves sitting in your kitchen with a homemade meal and iced tea, instead of eating in a fancy restaurant or jetting off to northern Italy. And if you know someone who has something to rejoice over—rejoice with them! Even if you’re not in that place at all. This is what love does—it wants the best for others, and rejoices when they find it.

I guess what I’m trying to say in my awkward and rambling way is to PLEASE not let this “new normal” become the permanent normal. Don’t allow the distance between you and your fellow sojourners to become wider and more permanent. Let even this time of uncertainty be a time to practice love and kindness like you never have before. Don’t give in to the temptation to be critical and suspicious or competitive. Strengthen your bonds with your friends and family in any way you can. Plan shared gatherings and activities for the future. And please, please, please stay safe—and be kind.

Goodbye for Now

Thursday morning, while I was still asleep in my bed, someone I love woke up “within the palace of the King.” No, it wasn’t my mother—but it was someone who was a mother figure in my life, an inspiration and a mentor.

I hardly know how to begin describing Betty Lou Teasdale. She was nothing like my own elegant, cerebral mother. I remember exactly the first time I saw her in 1976, which was my junior year of high school (boarding school) in Kenya. She was at the school visiting her daughter Bobbi, and as I passed them on the sidewalk, Bobbi stopped to greet me and introduce me to her mother. I had never, not once in my life before that moment, seen a missionary lady wearing trousers, let alone jeans. Betty Lou was wearing jeans, and clearly had not been struck by lightning. That one fact all by itself made me kind of wish I knew her. Of course I had no way of guessing that some day I’d know her quite well.

When I was a newlywed and a senior in college, the college nurse was also the wife of the missionary in residence. I had to see her quite often because of my seasonal allergies. And during one visit, when we were discussing my husband’s and my plans to be missionaries in Africa, she said, “I know the perfect place for you. There’s a place that’s just started up with the goal of training remote area missionaries.” She rummaged around on her desk until she found the flyer she’d been looking for, and gave it to me.

The flyer announced the formation of “Mission Ready,” a remote-area training school for missionaries, located in the Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina. After reading through it, I showed it to Walter, and we agreed it would be worth checking the place out if we ever had the chance.

A year later we were living a miserable existence in Atlanta, Georgia, desperately poor and lonely. After more than a year there, Walter had some vacation time and we were determined to have a vacation even though we had no money. We borrowed a tent. We scraped together enough money to spend three or four nights camping at the Mother Earth News Eco Village, where we could also take classes for free. And we couldn’t help noticing that the Eco Village was not very far away from Mission Ready. This could be our big chance to check it out.

I pulled out that brochure and called the number. Betty Lou answered. When I heard her last name, I hesitantly asked her if she was any relation to Bobbi. Of course she answered that she was Bobbi’s mother—and she invited us to stay with them for a few days.

As we drove up the dirt road to the mission, I couldn’t help thinking how much it looked like Africa. We received a warm welcome from Betty Lou and her husband Paul. Their house and their son Jim’s house were the only completed buildings at that time, so we slept on a bed tucked under the stairs in their house.

The next morning, we got a tour and an offer to help work on clearing the bed for the lake they planned to put in. We spent several hours clearing and burning brush with Paul, who had recently recovered from a horrific sawmill accident and was still limping.

That was the first of many, many visits over the decades. Our desire was to go through the training there, but alas it never came to pass. We moved back to Texas and back to our old college, now a university. We requested that the school invite Mission Ready to their annual missions conference, and that first time Paul and Betty Lou came, they stayed with us. The mission has sent someone most years since then.

My husband organized annual Spring Break trips to the mission to help out with the work of developing the property. Some years he took more than twenty students. I didn’t get to go very often because of having babies and young children, but I did make it a few times, and every time Betty Lou was such a blessing to me.

She was born and raised in Congo, the only child of pioneer missionaries. Her dad took her hunting big game while she was still a kid. (Please note—that was the only way to get meat back then.) Most of the exotic skins mounted on their walls were from animals Betty Lou had shot in her youth.

Paul was an MK from Kenya who lived through the Mau Mau rebellion as a teenager. They raised their own family (Bobbi and her two brothers) in the remote north of Kenya near Lake Turkana, until they returned to start Mission Ready, which has since become The Master’s Mission. In Kenya, Betty Lou sewed and knitted clothes for orphans, shopped once every few months, and grew a garden. She worked hard and was widely respected.

One thing I think anyone would say about Betty Lou was that she was hospitable. Anyone and everyone was welcome. She and Paul left the keys in their vehicles in case anyone needed to use them. We have been on the receiving end of their hospitality countless times.

She was also very kind and compassionate. I remember one visit when our daughter Lina was a toddler. We went on the bus with all the college kids, and I’ve gotta tell you that getting a large bus up those switchbacks on that narrow dirt road is not for the faint of heart. When the week ended and it was time to go back down, Betty Lou noticed my anxiety. She offered to take Lina and me down in her car so that we wouldn’t have to be on the bus. Although I’m sure she normally drove that familiar route much faster, she took it slow and easy and commented to me that no one should have to be terrified in a vehicle. I joined the crowd on the bus at the bottom of the mountain.

Over a year ago Betty Lou was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She endured surgery that would have killed most women her age. When my husband and I were planning our big trip east last year, I begged to go to the mission and see Paul and Betty Lou, They had been away from the mission the last two times we had gone, and I wanted so badly to see them again. I knew the time was running out. My parents’ generation has been greatly diminished by departures already.

Betty Lou worried that we’d think she was lazy because she had to spend so much time sitting in her chair (although she kept popping up to answer the phone and do things). That woman didn’t have a lazy molecule in her body.

The visit was short and sweet (a day and a half), and when we said goodbye, I was only too aware that it might be our last goodbye. For the last several weeks, I have anxiously followed Bobbi’s updates about her mom, until Thursday morning when the news was of Betty Lou’s “graduation.” Later came word that the funeral would be this coming Wednesday, at the little church where Paul and Betty Lou have ministered during their decades in North Carolina.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. An elderly woman in a remote part of the Smoky Mountains has died, and her funeral will be held in a tiny country church whose members are mostly Cherokee Indians.

I wish I could be there. And if I was, I’d be representing a vast host of people from all over the world who are mourning the loss of this amazing woman: Africans in Kenya and Congo, missionaries in countless countries, hundreds of men and women who came to Master’s Mission as college students to help with projects, and found themselves on the receiving end of “Grandma’s” wisdom and kindness and excellent cooking.

It’s still hard to believe she’s gone. The questions I would have liked to ask her over the years will forever go unanswered. She was everything I still aspire to be. Maybe someday, when I’m grown up, I’ll be like Betty Lou. Until then, I’m only too aware that knowing her has been one of the great gifts of my adult life.