The home in which I grew up was a two-story brick colonial built after WWII, circa 1945. As a youngster, I would purposely stand at the second story window of either the bedroom or bathroom, both of which overlooked the backyard, because it made me feel big. The sixteen-foot-view seemed to me like 100 feet and I felt larger than life.
Even now as an adult I will intentionally sit in a chair I don’t usually sit in to feel and sense an internal shift. Atticus Finch made this point to Scout when he said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
I had just that opportunity last week when I witnessed several people who had absolutely nothing—literally nothing but the clothes on their backs—receive some badly needed supplies. I was emotionally overwhelmed to the point of crying as I observed their expressions of simple, sincere gratitude and genuine joy. I felt downright envious because I began to wonder if I have ever been that deeply and sincerely grateful.
My pastor says God has a special spot in His heart for “the least, the last, the lost and the lonely.” Could it be because they exemplify what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:18? “In everything give thanks, for this is what God wants from you who are united with the Messiah Yeshua.” Their child-like thankfulness was a stark contrast to my own indifference. I have so much for which to be thankful and yet more often than not I feel like I take it all for granted.
But as I sit here in my office by the second story window overlooking the backyard and watch the birds at the feeder—a pair of Cardinals, Blue Jays, Finches—my heart is squeezed and tears slide down my cheeks. I am in awe of God … who loves human beings, who created us in His image to love and be love. Maybe I’m not as ungrateful as I imagine.
Two and a half years ago I wrote and read the following at my mother’s funeral:
Sweet, loving, kind, joyful, playful, spunky, good sense of humor, positive energy, having strength, real nice lady—these are just a few of the qualities friends and family attributed to my mother in her passing. In her journal she answered the question “Who Am I?” by writing “helpmate, a mother, a homemaker, a substitute mother, sister, a friend, a servant, and a teacher.” I believe the quality that helped her fulfill all that she saw herself as and all that God called her to be was devotion. First and foremost, she saw herself as devoted to God and everything else grew from there.
She met my father at a nightspot in 1950 but didn’t start dating him until after he graduated from the University of Maryland in 1952. When I talked with her about this, she told me she was engaged to another young man, but that her father did not approve of him. My grandfather did approve of my father and my parents were wed on October 2, 1954. Often, they would lovingly banter back and forth about who proposed to whom, and that she, in her vows, had promised to obey him.
For the record, she’s the one who said “let’s get married” and as far as obeying, she intuitively saw a deeper meaning to that vow. I asked her what it was she liked about my father when they were first dating and she said he was so reserved. He used the word shy and said he thought he would never get married. Through the many trips they took, raising a daughter, medical procedures, multiple miscarriages, loss of a stillborn daughter, and ups and downs of day to day living—they were devoted to one another for 62 years. In her journal she wrote “Married life teaches you one invaluable lesson—to think of things far enough ahead not to say them,” which made me wonder what she didn’t say since she was pretty outspoken.
After her passing, I was going through her 40 plus cookbooks and found The Wise Encyclopedia of Cookery. I wasn’t going to keep it until I opened it and saw the inside cover on which she had written “Susan, keep this book.” My father told me she had this book in her hope chest and brought it with her when they married. What makes this 1,300 plus page volume special is that my mother went through school with an undiagnosed case of severe dyslexia. She repeated second grade twice and graduated after completing eighth grade with very low grades. She never could sound out words using phonics, so she learned to read by memorizing what words looked like which explains why she had an amazing memory. She became quite an avid reader. Her school grades did not reflect her high degree of intelligence.
When I read the Encyclopedia of Cookery, I am awed by her tenacity, determination, faith and perseverance– these qualities helped her learn how to cook, crochet, knit, sew, manage a household and much, much more.
Early on in their marriage, with limited cooking experience, she decided to fix a steak for dinner one night. The Encyclopedia directions were to broil the steak for 350 degrees for eight to nine minutes for a medium well steak. She could not believe that it would take so little time, so with my dad expected home at 5pm, she put the steak in the oven at 3pm. You can imagine the rest—and yes, he ate the steak, or what was left of it.
In time, her coleslaw, macaroni salad, various cakes, pies, cookies and casseroles were deliciously legendary. Next to many of the recipes in her cookbooks she wrote “very good,” or “good.” There were even a few “very, very good,” a few “not to good” and an “OK” here and there—because she would try a recipe on Dad and I and then write our responses next to it in the cookbook. She learned that the “it was OK” response meant “don’t make it again.”
While dad worked and I went to school, she volunteered her time to help others. Over her 62 years of homemaking, she held 20 plus volunteer positions for 13 different organizations. Among these were President of the Asbury Guild of the Central District, President of the United Methodist Women and Church Women United, President of the Sligo Creek Homemakers and Montgomery County Homemakers, Sunday School Superintendent, Brownie Troop Leader, Girl Scout Troop Leader. One of my favorite memories of her volunteerism is when, in her late 60’s and 70’s, she led the exercise programs for the Berkeley County and Jefferson County Senior Centers.
I’d call her and ask, “what are you doing today, Mom.” “I’m going to do exercise with the old people.” Or in her 80’s, “Your Daddy and I are delivering Meals on Wheels to the old people.” You want to know the secret to a long life, that’s it right there—being young at heart.
One of the many benefits of her community service was the enduring and life-long friendships she made and kept. Once you were Josephine’s friend, you stayed Josephine’s friend. She had a tremendous capacity for compassion for all people from all walks of life in all circumstances of life.
Tucked away in her cooking Encyclopedia, I found a newspaper column by Erma Bombeck about children and parents. In it, Erma writes “What does a mother owe her child? Stability, gentleness, a presence during good and bad times, and heels that dig in as she pronounces ‘I’m never going to give up on you, so get used to having me around.’” She was and I did.
The article goes on to say: “What does a child owe her parents? You owe them a fair amount of patience, understanding and forgiveness, and love that is always there even when you don’t want it to be.” To be honest, in our relationship, I was inconsistent at best. Fortunately, with God’s help, we finished well together.
She was there when I breathed my first breath in this world and I was there when she breathed her last. Witnessing that sacred event made the following verses from I Corinthians ring even more true in my heart and soul: Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this scripture will be fulfilled: Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.
Oddly enough, with Thanksgiving and Christmas approaching, I find myself thinking about the people, places, and events of Easter—specifically, the “two others” (as one Bible translation calls them) that were crucified on either side of Jesus.
What did they do to deserve the most excruciatingly painful, humiliating, degrading, torturous and cruelest punishment ever devised? Who were they? Did they know each other beforehand? Were they partners in crime? Did they have family members standing at the foot of their cross? If so, were those beloveds grieving, cheering or something else? What were their professions, or did they even have one before they became “evil doers” (another translation’s interpretation)? What led them to the choices they made that culminated with them nailed to the stake?
In the books of Matthew and Mark, these men were referred to as “robbers” and both men joined in assaulting Jesus with insults. However, in the book of Luke only one of these two “criminals” verbally accosted Christ while the other “rebuked the first” saying “Ours is only fair; we’re getting what we deserve for what we did. This man has done nothing wrong.” The second man, it appears, had a change of heart. Why?
Had he seen or heard Jesus speak, perhaps at the Temple or on a hillside? Was it the sign hanging over Jesus’s head? Could he even read “This is the King of the Jews?” Was he familiar with the Passover story? Had he ever participated in a Pesach Seder? I think perhaps the eyes of his heart were opened when he heard the first man say to Jesus, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”—his heart burned within him as he asked “remember me when you become King.”
Jesus, who had a habit of being in the right place at the right time, received this dying man’s plea and confession of faith. With all the love his breathless voice could muster, he spoke “Yes, I promise you will be with me today in paradise.” I can only imagine the utter relief, deep peace, complete gratitude and overwhelming joy and love that flooded the redeemed criminal’s heart and soul.
“In my defenselessness, my safety lies” is a teaching my cousin often quotes to me. I cannot defend all the infinite missteps I take in one day—some bigger than others (as a recent occurrence has pointed out). I can only seek forgiveness. My pastor said: “Defenselessness is strength. It testifies to recognition of the Christ in you.”
“Ah ne’er so dire a Thirst of Glory boast,
nor in the Critick let the Man be lost!
Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join;
To err is Human; to Forgive, Divine.
(Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Criticism, Part II, 1711)
Of this—forgiveness—is what I am and will be grateful for as the upcoming Holy Days commence. Thanks be to God.
For we have no permanent city here; on the contrary, we seek the one to come. Hebrews 13:14