The Final Relationship

“We knew you got good grades, but we didn’t know you were smart.” So, that’s what they thought of me

How would I have known? Our relationship was formed biologically. My brothers and I were all but strangers.

We had grown from childhood to adulthood in the same house, but we never really knew each other. That was due to the shameful, secret relationship. All of us were enmeshed in it, but none of us mentioned it.

Our father was an alcoholic—a mean one. Each of us struggled alone to survive as best we could in that relationship. Actually, I should correct that.

Two of my brothers—Bill and Jim—probably talked about it. They cut lawns together. They played Little League together. They got part-time jobs together. They walked out of the house together and walked back in together. Of course, they would know each other and share in ways I did not.

Maybe I wasn’t included because they were born only ten months apart. Maybe because I was a girl. Maybe because I was the oldest.

But circumstances changed, and Bill and I were forced into a different relationship—a financial one. He held the power of attorney while I was the on-site advocate for our father in the nursing home. So, it was necessary for Bill and me, separated by 1500 miles, to talk about our father’s care.

One day, as we discussed what was best for him, I relayed how I had dealt with a problem. That’s when Bill blurted out, “We knew you got good grades, but we didn’t know you were smart.”

Then a new relationship surfaced. We had conversations about our children, our grandchildren, the past, people whose memory only Bill and I were alive to recall. What a discovery to find that we had a common interest in politics!

For the first time he sent me birthday cards. Through them our humor met and, now unmasked, recognized itself.

Finally, Bill and I had an open and honest relationship. Free to be ourselves together, we were no longer victims of shame. I’ll always hold in my heart the singing birthday card he sent me that symbolized our passage:

Do your boobs hang low?
Do they wobble to and fro?
Can you tie ’em in a knot?
Can you tie ’em in a bow?
Can you throw ’em over your shoulder
like a Continental soldier?
Do your boobs hang low?

This past May, after a surprising, brief illness, Bill died.

And the Lord will guide you continually
    and satisfy your desire in scorched places
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters do not fail.
(Isaiah 53:11 ESV)

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The Slumbering Chord

Is there a song that, whenever you hear it, awakens a slumbering chord in your heart? For me it is “Trouble in the Amen Corner.” (If you are not familiar with it, you may listen to it on this link: https://youtu.be/1urlF0DH5AY.)

“Trouble in the Amen Corner” stirs my heartstrings for Steve. He was my third brother.

. . . the one who was born premature at seven months. My mother said he was so fragile she was afraid to touch him.

. . . the one who had a stroke when he was three. Johns Hopkins Hospital discharged him with a permanent limp and limited use of his left arm.

. . . the one who had surgery for testicular cancer when he was fourteen. Radiation treatments for lung cancer when he was a high school senior. That was the year the doctor gave him six months to live.

. . . the one who wanted to be a state trooper but got jobs whenever and wherever he could. Once he was a night watchman. Another time he was a stock clerk. When his supervisor’s boss saw him, he told her to get rid of Steve. “But he’s my best worker,” she protested. It didn’t matter; he was an insurance risk.

. . . the one who volunteered to teach backyard Bible lessons for a children’s ministry. He got good feedback. When he asked for a paid position, he was told he had not taken Bible courses. Solely supporting himself, he left Baltimore, Maryland, to attend a Bible college in Calgary, Canada. Holding those credentials, he returned to Baltimore. Without explanation, the organization would not hire him.

. . . the one who sang in the adult choir at the church where he grew up. He had answered the invitation for any church member to join it. That did not count when the choir was preparing a special concert and so-called important people who belonged to something somewhere else would be attending. The music minister asked my brother Steve not to sing.

“For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God.”
(1 Peter 4:17 KJV)

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The Longing

She was nice but she was not Mama. My aunt had come up from Virginia to take Mama’s place while she was in the hospital. Aunt Alice did everything for us, but my heart longed for Mama’s presence.

During that time, my fourth-grade teacher taught the class a poem. I drew a picture for Mama and included it: “Alone, alone, I walked in the woods and sat on a stone. I sat on a broad stone and sang to the birds. The tune was God’s making, but I made the words.”

My nine-year-old mind did not perceive the power of the poem. At the time, it was the only grown-up poem I knew. I wasn’t a baby, who would send Mama “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Humpty Dumpty.”

Now I understand that poem as the heart’s longing to be in the presence of God. Even “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16 NIV). Was He missing the closeness He had had with His Father before the separation of the Incarnation? Was He longing to be in His Father’s presence when He “went up on a mountainside by himself to pray” and “was there alone” (Matthew 14:23 NIV)?

Mama’s cherished reply is still readable although her handwriting is fading. She began her letter with “my dear sweet Judy” and ended: “I liked your picture and poem. It made me cry. Mama misses her little darlings.”

Two longing hearts embraced.

 

 

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Zip It!

The set of her jaw stopped me. Peering closely at her picture, I noticed that her barefoot stride also showed determination to get to her destination.

Bands of bright green cloth spiraled snugly around her head. Not a strand of hair leaked out.

She had on a flowered cotton dress. I liked it until I saw what was missing. The center back seam was creased for a zipper—a 22-inch one, my sewing eye sized. But no zipper had been sewn in. What audacity!

Who in the world would wear a dress without a zipper? Not me! Oh, no, I took pride in my zippers, carefully selecting the right color for every dress I made. I had even gone so far as to make a perfect match with Rit dye. Recently, I had started saving zippers from throwaways. Reusing a zipper was fine, but not using one was absolutely—without excuse—totally unacceptable.

Who would leave her dress wide open from the neckline to way below the waist? Who would expose herself like that in public? And look! No underwear! What kind of woman would do such a thing?

Repelled, I shut the magazine. A score of years passed before, connecting the dots, I could finish that picture.

In an article about a church’s missions work, I read the reprint of an old appeal for clothes donations that would be sent to Haiti. The last sentence admonished: “Do not remove the buttons or zippers.”

Then I knew what kind of woman she was. Dirt poor. Desperate. Destitute. Dependent. Doing the best she could with what she had.

Sadly, I cannot say that experience cured me of a critical spirit. But I can say that it is still a good reminder to heed Jesus’ advice, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24 NASB).

 

 

There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it ill behooves any of us to find fault with the rest of us.
(James Truslow Adams, 1878-1949)

 

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Button Connection

Was it because she had no daughter that my grandmother asked my mother, “Do you want my button can?” Perhaps. However, it was not the reason I heard.

No longer would my grandmother walk upstairs and sit at her sewing machine. Her feet would not treadle like a see-saw under the window. Her eyes would not glance out at what used to be her strawberry patch while freckled fingers deftly told the hand wheel when to go and when to stop.

Accepting she had come to the end of those days, my grandmother offered their last link to my mother. Buttons that for years had been snipped from worn-out shirts, blouses, dresses, coats, and pants passed to Mama. There was unspoken hope they would be revived on new garments.

As time would have it, there came a day when Mama relayed the button can—with her additions—to me. I had already begun my own collection; so I merged them. Watching the aged buttons tumble on top of mine, I was surprised to see again the three mother of pearl shell buttons.

Years before while exploring my grandmother’s button can, I had wondered about those iridescent buttons. Where had they once glistened? Had my great-grandmother sewn them on a special dress for my grandmother? Was it an Easter dress? Was it the dress she wore to the disappointing talent show she shared with me from her rocking chair? Or were they worn on something else forever buried in my grandmother’s memory?

In the end, those buttons from long ago, for whatever reason, had not been selected to adorn anything again. Yet, they had never been discarded. Not like “Family Buttons.”

I discovered “Family Buttons” framed and leaning inconspicuously against a box on a garage floor. When I asked the young mother if it was also for sale, she said yes and added, “My grandmother cross-stitched that for me. When she found out she had cancer, she made one for each of her grandchildren before she died.”

“How much do you want for it?”

“Two dollars.”

Fifteen years later “Family Buttons” still speaks from a wall in my home. More than one guest has valued its words:

A button here from Grandma’s gown
Worn on her wedding day;
Another from mine, a pearl one,
Precious as words can say.
That one is from my husband’s shirt,
A blue one, I recall.
And those are from the baby’s things,
That’s why they are so small.
There’s buttons here from children’s clothes
Discarded through the years.
Buttons recalling happy times,
And some recalling tears.
Counting the different buttons
Sewn here around my rhyme
I see they form a history
Of a family—
Mine.

On the day of his death, Moses taught the people he was about to see no more a song he had written. Among the words is the instruction, “Remember the days of old, Consider the years of all generations” (Deuteronomy 32:7 NASB).

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Sibling Reversals

“Hey, you little pipsqueak, get down here. Father wants you at home. The judge showed up, and he says he won’t finish his business until he sees you. So hurry up.”

“But what about the sheep?” the boy shouted back.

“You little squirt, don’t you think I’ve thought of that? Do what you’re told, and don’t waste any more time doing it. Why, oh why, am I always the one who has to find the baby brother?”

Sibling stress was still rearing its ugly head five years later when David’s father sent him on an errand. He wanted his youngest son to check on the three oldest ones, who were now on active duty in the king’s army. The teenager was to bring them food and greetings from home and then return to his father with news about their welfare.

David was up at the crack of dawn and, having arranged for someone to tend his flock, took the food and was on his way just as Jesse had directed him. He arrived at the camp just as the army was moving into battle formation, shouting the war cry. Israel and the Philistines moved into position, facing each other, battle-ready. David left his bundles of food in the care of a sentry, ran to the troops who were deployed, and greeted his brothers. While they were talking together, the Philistine champion, Goliath of Gath, stepped out from the front lines of the Philistines . . . .
(1 Samuel 17:20-23 MSG)

What happened next between David and Goliath is world-renowned ancient history. But what is sometimes overlooked in the telling of it is that before slinging the fatal stone, David had to ignore a stinging sibling taunt: “Eliab, his older brother, heard David fraternizing with the men and lost his temper: ‘What are you doing here! Why aren’t you minding your own business, tending that scrawny flock of sheep? I know what you’re up to. You’ve come down here to see the sights, hoping for a ringside seat at a bloody battle!’” (1 Samuel 17:28 MSG).

There was no such innuendo fifteen years from that day, however, when David was public enemy number one. Convinced that David wanted the throne, King Saul was hounding him like a mad dog day and night.

Sly as a fox, David had slipped through the maniacal king’s hands again and again by the time he “escaped to the cave of Adullam. And when his brothers and all his father’s house heard it, they went down there to him. And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander over them. And there were with him about four hundred men” (1 Samuel 22:1-2 ESV).

When the brothers joined David’s gang of outlaws–submitting to him as commander–did they recall years ago when Samuel the judge had passed over all seven of them to pronounce their baby brother a future king? Did they remember the day they didn’t expect the puny runt to take out the giant Goliath? How did the siblings feel about the current turn of events?

David recorded his answer. Sometime–whether before, during, or after this development–he wrote, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1 ESV).

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Long Ago

Fillmores’ Jewels for Little Singers is tattered and torn and no wonder! It’s been on the earth since 1898. The ink signature in the middle of the cover belongs to my grandmother:  “Mrs. S. S. Barnes, Nokomis, Virginia.” At the top is a handwritten claim of ownership, “The property of Coan Sunday School,” with a follow-up request at the bottom, “Please do not take it away.”Fillmores' Jewels

How it came to fall into my hands has long ago sifted out of my mind. But that is not true of one of the jewels buried inside. While carefully parting and turning the collection’s frayed pages, I unearthed Jewel 58. More than half a century ago, my mother used to sing it at the kitchen table to my brothers and me:

“I love you, mother,” said little John;
Then left his work, and his cap went on;
Then to the garden, high in the swing,
Left her the water and wood to bring.

“I love you, mother,” said rosy Nell,
“I love you more than my tongue can tell;”
Then she went pouting full half the day,
Mother was glad when she’d gone to play.

“I love you, mother,” said little Fan,
“To-day I’ll help you as best I can;
How glad am I that school doesn’t keep,”
She rocked the baby till it fell asleep.

Then stepping softly, bringing the broom,
Swept up the floor and then cleansed the room;
Busy and happy all day was she,
Helpful and happy as a child could be.

“I love you, mother,” that night they said;
Three little children were gone to bed;
How are you thinking that mother guessed
Which of her children really loved her best.

Jewel 58

My mother’s song of bygone years now had a title:  “Which Loved Best.” I also saw it was written by ageless Anonymous (creator of countless poems) and set to music by J. H. Fillmore (1849-1936). It’s not far-fetched to imagine my grandmother (1882-1972) voicing these verses to my mother (1919-1997), her little girl.

Long before I learned from the 1611 King James Bible that Jesus said “Ye shall know them by their fruits,” my mother had taught me that truism through a song.

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What a Difference a Preposition Makes!

She is nameless and faceless in memory but not speechless. What she said is forever etched in my life journal. By changing one word–a preposition–she lifted my grief out of despair.

Every day for a year after my mother’s death, I dissolved into tears. I cried and I cried alone for the suffering she had endured at the hands of my alcoholic father. I remembered his physical abuse. I heard again her blood-curdling screams and the screen door slamming behind her as she ran into the arms of the dark.

I wept over my guileless mother going without money for the barest necessities. Underwear. Sanitary napkins. In the midst of her deprivation, I saw her make sacrifices for her children. More than once her fingers took a bite of meat from her mouth and handed it to my brother who had complained he was still hungry.

Shuttered in my house of mourning, I ached, too, for my mother’s childhood abuse by other hands. Why? She hadn’t done anything. Why was my mother the poster child for innocent victims?

After the alcoholism was a thing of the past, my mother was dehumanized again. This time, in her bedridden years by a urinary catheter bag. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” she once told me.

I wished I had visited her more often. If only I had been a better daughter. More thoughtful. Kinder. If only . . . But there were no more chances. They had died with my mother.

As that grim year came to a close, I was tired of flailing about in the quicksand of grief. I wanted to get out–be at peace–but how? The answer came when least expected.

It was my first Sunday to join the group of volunteers who met to pray for the ongoing worship service. The leader began by asking us for personal prayer requests. Maybe it was because I felt safe among these strangers that I divulged being stuck in the torments of grief.

I did not finish with a plea for prayer, however. What bubbled out of me was the cry, “When will I get over this?”

Immediately, the lady, whose face and name are now blanks to me, replied, “You will never get over it. You will get through it.”

That made all the difference. One word. A preposition. Going forward, I only expected myself to get “through” the grief, not “over” it. So it was. And so it is.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me (Psalm 131:2 ESV).

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Where Is Love?

Her fingertips moved the curtain ever so slightly. She must see him, but he must not see her. It was best this way. Best for him. Maybe for her.

She had made the decision yesterday when she peeled his hands from around her neck and forced him kicking and wriggling into the arms of his substitute mommy. Her lunch break had all but ticked away, and she could not be a minute late for the assembly line. As she rushed off with her son’s escalating screams chasing her, she decided she would not put her little tyke through this again.

Intellectually, she accepted she could not make a two-year-old understand why she had to leave him or believe that his mother’s heart ached to stay in the sandbox. No. She would deny herself holding him and squeezing him and kissing him in the midday interlude. The neighborhood babysitter quickly agreed to faithfully bring him outside at this hour so that she could watch her son unseen from the window. Childhood Sandbox

She allowed herself a twinge of regret that her husband could not see their toddler pouring a bucket of sand over his head. But she thought he would be pleased with his little man when he saw him for the first time. She also thought he would be happy she had kept up the mortgage payments when … if he came home from the war.

My observation:  Deep, abiding love has its hidden parts. What do you see?

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Now I Lay Me Down In Peace

It was a scary prayer my mother taught me to say on my knees. Being so young, I knew no other and dutifully prayed:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Afterwards, I’d lie in bed worrying I might not wake up. I wasn’t sick or old like the woman in the newspaper who was forty. Why should I die?

That bedtime scenario, though, was not as frightening as the nights I was jolted awake with words that lacerate the heart. My drunken father would be on a tirade and my mother, the silent victim of his attacks. With a filthy cord of profanity, he lashed out at her. Some of his barbed criticisms and accusations I understood. Others, I grew into.

Whenever I heard rushing footsteps on the heels of my mother’s terror shrieks, I was afraid she would die at my father’s hands. I’d hold my breath and hope for the slamming of the screen door. That would mean my mother was safe somewhere out there in the dark.

As the house then turned deathly silent, I’d dread my father’s alcoholic side would burst into our bedroom and beat my brothers and me. Mr. Hyde never did.

Now I lay me down in peace. I have no fear of being slapped awake with violent outbursts before dawn. Often, while basking in my bedroom’s tranquility, I lull my heart with Psalm 4:8: “I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety” (KJV).

I am old now and not afraid to die before I wake. In my finite mind’s imagination, it looks like the best picture. If, however, I should open my eyes again to this world’s morning, I can recall another prayer that came through my mother. This one is on a piece of linen she embroidered while expecting me, her firstborn of six:

Now I wake

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