Category Archives: family

Someone Else’s Story

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And what chapter do you contribute…?

I have not written a post here in two and a half months.  In that time frame, 3 valuable people in my universe died.  Two of my connections from Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) died, both on Monday, April 27.  Randy, our unit supervisor, was a mentor, coach, sensei, cheerleader, buster-of-chops-and-rejoicer-in-successes.  John, a member of our peer group, was a United Methodist pastor on sabbatical, a warm hearted man of insight and humility.  These losses came to all of us as a shock, and for me, a gut-punch as I was still reeling from Aunt Helen’s death, which I shared in my last post here.

One week later, on Monday, May 4, my beloved friend, #FirstEverWorkHusband and Person, Martin, died.  I have written several times about him, his kidney failure, and our friendship in this blog.  We had just texted shortly before he passed, and his death appears to have been a fast and massive heart attack.  I can’t really write much about that right now; it is still pretty raw and I continue to process a great deal.

But the circumstances surrounding his passing left me inconsolable.  When I could manage to sleep there were dreams (which are to be expected and I know there will be more to come); various types of crying, from leaky moments to wailing, sobbing jags.  Finally as I stood in my yard, I spoke out loud, to Martin, to God, to The Universe, asking, pleading for…something.  A sign.  I said, “I need something to know that Martin is OK, so if he is…if you are…please, let the next feather that comes my way be either white or red.  I will take that as my sign.”  I didn’t specify that I needed to be the one to actually find the feather, but I didn’t give that much thought.

Flash forward a few weeks to a Thursday evening after work, when I reported to my church to record the service for the following Sunday, since we had not yet been cleared yet for in-person worship due to coronavirus.  On my music stand was my music for the service, and an envelope with my name on it.  I opened it to find these beautiful #featherblessings from my #ChoirBoss, Carroll, courtesy of his neighbors who had collected them on a walk with their dog.

 

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As gorgeous as the spotted feathers are, it was the red one that brought me to tears.  It was the sign I had begged for.  After we had finished recording the service, I thanked Carroll for his gift, explaining to him, with choked-back tears and a breaking voice, what the red feather meant to me, and how it was the first semblance of comfort I had received since Martin died.  I thanked him for unwittingly playing such an important role in someone else’s story…in my story.

We never know the importance of a seemingly small gesture.  Something we may do or say without a second thought can make all the difference in another person’s life.  When you get an impulse to reach out to someone, don’t ignore it.  You never know when you might be writing a chapter in someone else’s story.

 

Weirdest Lent Ever

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A church service and a phone call…

This year on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, our choir at Ebenezer UMC did not assist in the service there, so I took the opportunity to attend the service at the last church where I sang and served.  It was a joy to worship with the congregation at Messiah Lutheran, one of my church homes, and folks I will always consider family.  My patient husband was chauffeuring me around at the time because my vertigo had flared up, and we agreed with the family doctor that I probably shouldn’t drive until I was feeling better.  So Sweet Pea picked me up from work, we shared a tasty supper at PF Chang’s, then headed across Kingston Pike to the church.

”You are dust, and to dust you shall return…”

It was a beautiful service, contemplative and solemn…and just as we were leaving the church my silenced phone began to vibrate.  My cousin Hazen was calling to tell me that Aunt Helen was in the hospital and her situation looked pretty serious.  “Aunt” Helen is actually my first cousin, but because she was so close in age to Mama, and because they had grown up like sisters, we always called her Aunt Helen, just like all the other Aunts we were blessed to know and love on Mama’s side.  It was probably late in grade school before I figured out the actual family math on that relationship.  But she always functioned as an Aunt for me.

Because my vertigo was flaring I knew that a drive to Johnson City on my own was not possible, so I asked Dad if he might be up for a visit with Aunt Helen in the hospital on Sunday.  My cousin Stacy had told me that we should probably visit soon if we wanted to.  So Dad, bonus mom Carole and I made the brief trip up on The First Sunday of Lent, in beautiful sunshine and coolish temperatures.  Signs of spring were evident along the roadside as the landscape began to green up.

We arrived to find my cousin Lisa talking with the doctor, and Aunt Helen’s frail frame in the bed.  She was awake and recognized me before I fully made it into the room.  We exchanged “I-love-you’s” and I asked the questions I always ask at such a time as this.

”Are you afraid?”  She said no.

”Are you in pain?”  She said yes.

And I swear, it was like seeing Mama in her hospital bed, living that scenario all over again.

In the days that followed, our phones blazed with text messages and calls.  How was Aunt Helen doing?  Was Lisa eating?  Did anybody sleep last night?  Might they send Aunt Helen home?  What exactly would hospice entail or provide?

That Tuesday night, Aunt Helen went home with hospice care.

Wednesday morning, Hazen called again to tell me that Aunt Helen had died about a half hour before. Stacy was texting while Hazen and I talked.  I was at my newish job learning a very new task, and Amy, my trainer, who was aware of Aunt Helen’s condition, let me have her office for a while to make phone calls and cry.  It was a kindness I will always remember.

The Second Sunday of Lent was Aunt Helen’s memorial service.  Years ago she had asked me to do her eulogy, and I agreed.  My cousin Lisa asked if I could sing as well, which I also agreed to do.  I never sing well at funerals.  But I do it anyway, with the understanding that, while it won’t be beautiful, it will be loving.  I’m doing the best I can.

Rumors and speculation about coronavirus had already started to churn, and looking back now, I am grateful that we had the chance to gather as Aunt Helen’s family, by blood and choice, to honor and remember her.  I was able to hug my people, cry, sing, and laugh.  The church was packed with others whose lives Aunt Helen had blessed.  If a couple more weeks had passed, we wouldn’t have had the chance to be together like that.

The remainder of Lent saw us all self-isolating, exercising caution, and avoiding crowds as much as possible.  Many of our workplaces shut down, or drastically curtailed their activities and staffs.  A trip to the store became a major event. Toilet paper, of all things, became almost impossible to find!  And our church buildings have sat empty.

But The Church has, in many cases, been more vibrant and active than it was before coronavirus flipped everything sideways.  Technology has allowed us to stay connected to our church families via live streams and Zoom calls, for example.  I was privileged to assist my own congregation in worship on Palm Sunday and Easter, with a few other musicians and our pastors, from our mostly empty sanctuary, properly distanced from each other.

I miss hugging people.  I miss sharing space with my church family and my kinfolks. And Lord, how I miss Aunt Helen.

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(My last photo with Aunt Helen, February 2019, during #OperationTakeAMinute.  She was my first stop on a month-long road trip, and the days and nights I spent at her house are memories I will cherish forever, especially now that her New Home is someplace I can’t visit.  YET.)

Church On My Couch

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It’s not about the building…

This morning I went to church.  On my couch.  The flippant, sarcastic, class-clown side of my personality wants to call it:

The Fifth-Sunday Singing Service at The First Church of St. Social Isolation.

The trusted-Jesus-in-my-childhood side of me knows that it is, in truth:

The Church Is Not About The Building.

My childhood church had a motto that was printed on our bulletins.  It read, “Enter to Worship—Depart to Serve”.  That is ringing more true to me in these days of social distancing, self-imposed isolation, safer-at-home.  Thanks to the Interwebz, we can still participate in worship, work from home, see about our friends and family.  We can stay fairly well connected.

We can donate to causes, including the local church, that are working to provide necessary resources to our neighbors in need.  We can share music, humor, insight, and even our own original thoughts, in an effort to keep our loved ones engaged, lifted up, and encouraged in the days of COVID-19.  We can drop non-perishable necessities off onto our neighbors’ porches.  We can call, text, Zoom/FaceTime/Messenger Chat to stay connected.  I think that all of these efforts are “church”.

I completed an extended unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) in 2012.  The ages of my peer group ranged from mid-40s to late 60s.  The eldest member of our group was participating at the recommendation of a ministry of his church, a well-established, well-heeled, and well-respected faith community here in Knoxville.  Toward the end of our time together, Bob remarked that he was “seeing more church happen inside the walls of the hospital” than he had ever seen at “church”.

Which illustrates the point, once again, that it’s not about the building.

Church is loving our neighbor, whoever they are, wherever they are, however we can, without trying to judge whether or not they are worthy.  When we are unable to gather face-to-face, church can still happen.  Loving our neighbor from a distance is still love.  Prayers, financial support offered online, front-porch drop-offs, whatever we can do…we can still love our neighbor.

We can be the church.

We ARE the church.

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My 2020 Vision

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And so many interpretations of that idea…

I am running out of time.

We all are.

Not to sound nihilistic, but it is a fact.  When a person is born, the meter starts running.  We are given a finite, and unknown to us, number of years/days/seconds in which we are to fulfill our life’s purpose.  Some of us never even determine what that purpose is, much less fulfill it.

I remember when we perched on the cusp of THE YEAR 2000, and Y2K Fever was rampant.  Doomsayers warned us that computer systems would fail, grinding the economy to a violent, albeit temporary, halt.  End-time prophets advised us all to lay in extra supplies of food, water, medicines, and cash, to protect us from the coming mini-apocalypse that the start of The New Millennium would bring.  All that the paranoid pundits feared amounted to a lot of nothing.  I am grateful that the predicted collapse didn’t happen.

That was 20 years ago!  Now we perch on the eve of another year that has a zero on the end of it, and I’ve been thinking about the phrase “20/20 vision”.  Medically, the term refers to perfect eyesight.  I have not enjoyed decent eyesight without correction since I was 9 years old and began wearing glasses.

But I have also been thinking about my vision for the coming year…MY 2020 Vision.  I won’t lie; I have no idea what may be coming.  I know that I should be doing all the things: I need a full-time job, in the most urgent way imaginable, and I need to be looking much harder to find one; I should be writing every single day; I should be seeking out the best books and reading them constantly; I should be exercising my body and my voice daily as well to condition them and keep them supple; I should be intentional in keeping my relationships strong, expressing appreciation for every person who inhabits my family/circle/village/tribe.  And all the things seem to require way more energy than I have.  Every day I know I’m running out of time.

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This time last year my emotions were mixed as I anticipated the end of a job I had held for almost 18 years.  I felt uncertain, but also hopeful, looking forward to a road trip that I christened #OperationTakeAMinute.  I enjoyed that trip, but looking back now, part of me feels like it was a waste of time and resources.  I lost a month of time with my precious dog, #OurBoyRoy, and my husband.  (The photo below is from last New Year’s Eve.  We had to let #OurBoyRoy go to Heaven in July.)

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I spent money I should have saved.  It was an indulgence that felt necessary at the time; now I wonder if it was the right thing to do after all.

Hence I recall another adage about vision and sight:

Hindsight is always 20/20.

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And I’m running out of time.

#My2020Vision

 

Tides

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A week of extremes…

As I write this, I am in a northwest Florida condo with a gorgeous view of the Gulf of Mexico.  The temperature is 66 degrees, the sun is bright, and the surf is a bit more active today than the Gulf is most of the time.  Foamy whitecaps dot the surface of the blue-green water, and the sugary white sand is completely devoid of people.

Five days ago I was working at my current temporary assignment at the library and watching a postcard-pretty snow fall just beyond the reference desk windows.  Oak Ridge was whited out, but the streets and pavement were clear and safe, just wet.  It was every bit as beautiful as the setting I enjoy now; it was also about as opposite as one could imagine.

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It has been a week of extremes.  My #FirstEverWorkHusband Martin’s mother passed away on Halloween.  Fort Walton Beach was their home for many years, and Charlotte was a driving force behind the local Stage Crafters Theatre company, so it was decided that her memorial service would be held there.  Hence our trip to Florida in December.  Even though a month and a half has passed since she died, it is still a fresh grief for them, and the gathering of family and friends from decades gone by and miles away seems to have brought a fresh tide of emotion.

At least, it has for me.  I grieve the death of a woman I never met, but feel like I knew.  I grieve because my friend/person is grieving, and, as Truvy said in the film Steel Magnolias, “…no one cries alone in my presence.”  I grieve remembering my own Mama’s death, the anniversary of which was a week ago today.  December always brings a fresh tide of memories.

Since we had not seen each other since I visited him in February during #OperationTakeAMinute, Martin invited me to go with him to his dialysis session on Friday, so we could talk and visit away from the crowd of family and friends.  When I arrived to collect him, he presented me with one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received…a pair of large, beautiful feathers he had found during the months since my last visit and had saved for me.

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We arrived at the clinic, did paperwork, got him connected and me gowned up, and, as much as possible, we enjoyed short periods of conversation mixed into wordless times of simple shared presence.  About halfway through treatment he began to have some chest pain and, long story short, we ended up taking an ambulance ride to the nearby hospital to have him checked out.  Fortunately, his heart is medically all right.  I am grateful.

While we were in the emergency department, a portable X-ray unit was brought in to examine him in his triage space…and a fresh tide of memory flooded over me as I relived a moment from when Mama was in the hospital and a portable X-ray unit was brought to her room to check her, a moment when she was not stable enough to transport to them, so they came to her.  It was my sweet husband’s one meltdown moment during the whole of Mama’s hospital stay.  A moment of his deep attachment to my Mama, and his mother-in-love.

It is an odd thing, how present grief can churn up past grief, like the foamy whitecaps of a turbulent surf.  The tides are constant, sometimes tranquil, sometimes violent.  But the ebb and flow never cease.

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Pans And Patience

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And a misplaced tradition…

Once upon a time, long, long ago, there were women in my family who made magical sweet treats and savory dishes.  My cousin Judy carries on her own version of the family culinary heritage.  I thought of her today as the first snow of the season fell, because on the first snow day every year, Judy likes to make a fruit pie.  I hope she enjoyed baking today and looking out at her beautiful snow-covered farm.

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WAY back in the day, both of Reed’s and my grandmothers, and also Aunt Martha, made apple stack cakes.  Apple is the only flavor I ever remember them making, at least.  I also remember the apples for many of those cakes being dried on window screens inside a shut-up car in Mamaw and Papaw’s yard.  Granny never referred to dried apples as apples; they were always simply called “fruit”.

Reed had the foresight to ask for lessons in stack-cake-making from both Mamaw and Aunt Martha.  The recipe itself is not a difficult one, but the making of a stack cake is a process.  I remember Reed saying that Aunt Martha told him it just takes pans and patience.  (I might add that counter space would be really helpful!)

It’s strange how so many of my food memories have become less about the food and more about the hands that prepared it.  Of course, every tooth in my head is a sweet tooth, and I do LOVE me all those yummy treats, especially the rare, special-occasion ones.  A few years ago at Christmas time, Reed got a hankering for a stack cake, but did not have the desire, pans, or patience to make it himself.  Fortunately, we have a high school friend who at that time owned a highly-acclaimed local bakery (she has since sold it to her niece, so it remains in good hands).  Reed mentioned to Peggy that he sure would love a stack cake, and Peggy said something along the lines of, “I can hook your a$$ up!”

And hook it up she did.  He brought this humble-looking, beautiful creation to Christmas Eve at Dad’s house, and eventually we tore into it.  The moment I took a bite, I burst into grateful tears.  Decades disappeared, and my mouth and mind were flooded with the flavor of nostalgia.  Once more, I was reminded that tastebuds and heartstrings are directly, and closely, connected.

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People of faith often talk about Heaven being a wedding feast, or a banquet.  I like to believe that this is true.  And I like to imagine the tables there, laden with something to satisfy every craving, and plenty of room for everyone to share in the marriage supper of The Lamb.

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(I shared this recipe for a church cookbook shortly after I was married.  The amount of fruit needed was not specified, it’s just something you have to eyeball…but more is better.)

Rewind

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If I could turn back time…or place…

Do you ever wonder what would happen if you could turn back time?  I indulge in such fantasies now and then, particularly when my life does not seem to be going the way I would like it to go.  But if I had the ability to rewind my life, how far back would I want to go?  It’s a rabbit hole I could fall into and never come back from if I let myself dwell on it.

Maybe I would go back to when I was about five years old, before Becky Ezell drowned and my little life had not been touched by death yet.  Even at that young age I understood that the lifeless form in the casket only resembled Becky, but it was not really her, not anymore.  It was just the package she had lived in before she died.  She was about 12 years old when she drowned, but I have never forgotten that she was sweet to me.  It’s a big deal when an older kid is nice to you.

Or perhaps I would return to the first time I ever sang a solo in front of people.  I was in the Herald Children’s Choir at my church and Becky Kidd, our leader/teacher (and phenomenal church organist) had me sing a solo in a little musical we put together and practiced diligently to offer to our church family.  I think I was nine or ten years old.  So many times in so many places I have offered up songs since then, a gift for which I give thanks.

I think about the many turning points along the way, sometimes wondering, “What if I had chosen differently?”  Just one step in a different direction alters the entire trajectory of a life.  Would I go back to a decade…a year…a moment…for a do-over?

The whole last two years of Mama’s life…I’d definitely do those differently.  I screwed some stuff up there.  Probably the first two years after she died, too.  Worrying about other people’s grief kept me from properly processing my own.  It cost me in ways I am probably still paying for.

Or would I just go back to the first of this year, when my dog was still alive and I had plans that I felt would fix a lot of things for the people I love?  Wondering about it serves no purpose, I realize.  But sometimes it is difficult not to.  There is an old adage that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Perhaps these tangents are my way of trying to learn from history, and trying to look forward.

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Catching Dreams

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Or even remembering what mine used to be…

Last year after returning from a vacation trip to Houston for our niece’s wedding, a friend at work asked me, “Didn’t I hear you say something once about collecting feathers?”  I responded that, yes, I indeed collect feathers.  He mumbled something and shuffled to his desk a few seats over from mine.

A moment later he returned with a gift that surprised and warmed me to my core—a Native American dreamcatcher.  I yelled, “Squeeeeeeee!” And hugged him so hard I think it startled him.  He explained that he donates to a mission/orphanage out west somewhere and they had sent him this beautiful dreamcatcher as an appreciation gift for his contributions.  He wanted me to have it.

I was floored, humbled, and touched by his thoughtfulness to share such a beautiful item with me.  This guy has always been a friend to me, but his exterior can be gruff.  He does not like people to get too close to him.  I have often described him as a “cactus with a marshmallow center”!

The legend of the dreamcatcher is that a person is supposed to hang it over their bed at night.  The woven web in the center catches the sleeper’s dreams, trapping the nightmares while allowing the sweet dreams to flow down the strands to the feathers below, allowing them into the mind of the sleeper.

I have always heard tell that my Mamaw’s Grandma Sayne was full-blooded Cherokee.  I have never been able to verify this, although with technology evolving all the time and so many records available online now, it might be possible to do so.  A first cousin I have never met in person reached out to me on social media hoping to learn more about our family, and he might be the person to unravel this branch of our family tree.  Even a tiny portion of Cherokee in my lineage would make sense of a lot of things about me, how I see my world, and the things I value.  Perhaps confirming such a family history would help me to remember the childlike dreams of my past…those days when I thought anything was possible.

As it is, I look at this sweet gift, a reminder of a friendship from a workplace Shinsky and I no longer share, but memories I will value for a lifetime.  I will pray that both of us will conjure and fulfill new, meaningful and happy dreams moving forward.  I will give thanks for his heritage and for mine, for years of shared work and a future that I cannot yet see.

Purposeful Planning

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Pages and passages…

I have always been a sucker for a pretty calendar.  Decades ago when I first discovered Coach leather goods, I purchased a navy leather organizer that contained an address book.  The address book is still inside it, along with all the addresses I have penciled in (including those of people who have died. I’ve never been able to bring myself to erase them.  It’s just too sad.)  There is space on the other side to tuck in a small pad of paper or a calendar.  My preference is for a calendar, one with monthly and weekly spreads, and with enough space to write down things like birthdays, appointments, musical events, etc.  I color code the items so I can quickly identify what is going on and coming up.

My calendar serves as a hybrid volume: a planner for what’s coming, a journal for what has come and gone, and a mini-scrapbook for my memories about both.  A couple of months ago I posted a query on social media asking my friends who are “planner people” which planners they use and like, and what features they appreciate.  My current work assignment as a temp got me thinking that I needed to branch out a bit and try a vertical daily calendar layout, and I wanted some feedback on what my friends were using to schedule their lives for efficiency and productivity.

I received numerous replies suggesting all kinds of planners at various price points, and with lots of interesting and helpful features.  The one I ended up choosing for myself has a lot going for it, but the main selling point for me was its disc-bound format that allows me to add and remove sections as I need/want/use them.  Ultimate customization is ultimately appealing!  It offers plenty of space to write, add stickers and washi tape, and the paper is good quality with no bleed-through.

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As much as anything else, my hope is to plan and document my life’s passages, and the life passages of people I love, in a creative, meaningful way.  I have kept my calendars for years, looking back over them with gratitude for a written record of events as they have happened.  An electronic calendar works great for some people, and at some point it might work for me; but I don’t think I will ever be able to part with the old-fashioned-pen-to-paper tool that I’ve used all my life.  The simple act of writing things down feels good to me; it reminds me of both the things to come and the ones already done; it gives me some accountability to see my goals in writing; and ultimately I hope it will help me to become more productive and effective as I try to live a meaningful life of service to God and the people around me, navigating my life’s passages with joy, wisdom and purpose.

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The Stories

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And why they matter…

I have asserted countless times, in my everyday life and this blog, that I am a collector, of objects and of memories.  My home is filled with little items that might have no value to “normal” people, but they are priceless to me because of the memories attached to them…because of their stories.  My hope is that, piece by piece, I can photograph these objects and share their stories, if for no other reason than to make someone pause to think about their own similar little treasures.  Those little treasures can often open the floodgates to deeper levels of history.

For as long as I can remember, a small, round, ornately decorated trinket box sat on Granny’s dresser…then it became Mama’s dresser and trinket box after Granny died. After the move from the Ford Street house, Mama and Dad picked new bedroom furniture, and that little box found its home on a different dresser.  After Mama died, the little box came to live with me.

I don’t know if it was a gift to Granny from one of her children, or a friend, or maybe even from Granddad before he died.  I never thought to ask about its story prior to my own awareness of it.  It was just pretty and shiny, and it played music.  Now I wish I had learned more about it.

That is how I feel about so many things now…I wish I had asked a million questions while Mama, The Aunts, Granny and Mamaw, were still here to answer them.  Recently a first cousin on Dad’s side, whom I have never met, found me on social media and connected with me, hoping to learn more about our family history.  And once again, I find myself feeling sad that I never bothered to learn more from those who knew the stories best.

I can’t change the past and ask the dead all the things I want to know, but I can pick Dad’s brain while he is still here.  I can do research online.  I can share what I know and hope that, moving forward, it can benefit the younger family members who might someday want to know about their past.

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