Monday, December 30, 2013

Carrying the Cross: Lessons I Learned

It was not something I was prepared for, but when the pastor called the afternoon of Christmas Eve and asked if I would be crucifer at the evening service, I said yes. Since joining the small Presbyterian church last April, I had seen the crucifer carrying the large golden cross and leading the procession each Sunday. The procession had not been part of my experience during my years attending a Baptist church, but having been raised as a Catholic, I found myself liking the rituals. So, knowing that I would be front and center for the very important Christmas Eve service, not only as crucifer but as a reader, I dressed carefully, even unearthing a pair of seldom worn high heels. Big mistake.

Memorial Presbyterian Church in Boothwyn is miniscule by any means. Our total congregation does not equal 50, yet Ron and I felt drawn to this church a year ago, when a friend invited us to the Christmas Eve service and I was hastily pulled up to the lectern to read a passage from the Old Testament. The minister was so grateful for my "super power" of reading and I realized how much I was needed here. It has been part of  my Sunday worship ever since. But carrying the cross? Well, we would see.

Pastor Kauffman's directions to me were skimpy. There had been, apparently, many last minute changes in the service and when I arrived at 7:15, no one seemed to really know what was going on except that we were not using what had already been printed in the bulletin. I'm a teacher and a mother, so I am used to chaos and change. No big deal. I was told I would be carrying the taller and heavier of the two ceremonial crosses and to "duck at the doorways." That was about it.

Okay, a little background here for those of you not familiar with the Anglican churches and the tradition of the crucifer. The word is made up of the Latin words "crux" meaning "cross" and "ferre" meaning "bear." So, literally, the crucifer is the cross-bearer. The crucifer plays an important role in guiding the worship of the congregation towards Christ and the cross, reminding them of His procession on Palm Sunday and His return to Heaven. No pressure, then.

After I had put on the black and white robes I've worn for the last year, I hefted the cross a few times. It was heavier and longer than I expected it to be. As the head of the procession, I would also have to open the door into the sanctuary while managing the cross, and carry it around the church during the candlelight ceremony. But the acolytes were already lining up behind me--ready to follow me whence I would lead--so there was no turning back. And as I carried the cross, reminiscent of Christ and His sacrifice for us, up and down the aisles of the small church and lifted it into its resting spot on the altar, I learned foru valuable lessons about being both a crucifer and a Christian.

1. KEEP YOUR BALANCE. Wearing high heels while carrying a large and heavy cross required a balancing act. The cross was top-heavy and would easily have toppled both me and it onto the floor. I needed to find the center of the weight, which was near the top of the cross, and focus my attention there. If I managed to keep the top perpendicular to the floor, the long staff would follow and cause me no problems.

Life, too, is a balancing act, often top-heavy with so many concerns and duties. Finding the center of the weights, prioritizing the importance of our many tasks, can keep us from becoming overly concerned about mundane details. Do the most important things and, like the staff, the rest will follow.

2. FIND YOUR OWN HOLD. A friend had told me to keep my hold on the staff low, around the region of my hips, but I found that I needed to shift my hands up just a bit in order to compensate for the weight of the top. Liturgically, it might not have been exactly correct, but it was what I needed to do to bear the weight. By the time I reached the turn up to the altar, I felt comfortable with my hold. This cross was not going anywhere without me!

I can apply this lesson to my own life and my own crosses as well. I may not always attack those things that need my attention in the way others think that I should. But that's okay. I have found my own hold on taking care of an ill husband, working two jobs, helping adult children, and trying to be a writer.

3. WALK SLOWLY. I tend to rush through things in an often vain attempt to save time, but there was no rushing the procession. The weight of the cross demanded that I slow my pace--particularly in high heels--and let the cross dictate the speed. At first, walking so slowly felt odd, but I realized that the symbolism of what I carried required dignity and reverence. Any task God entrusts to us should be handled in the same way. My long desire to make a living as a writer cannot be rushed, but must be slowly experienced. I am a better writer for the journey.

4. ALLOW JOY. For the first few moments of my time as crucifer, I felt overwhelmed, thinking of all the things that could go wrong, not the least of which was falling flat on my face. The fear kept me from enjoying the experience. Once I let go of my fear, though, I found myself marveling at the gift of Christ to me personally. I allowed the joy of my salvation to overtake my fears. I counted it a privilege to be the crucifer.

How often do I let fear interfere with my joy? How often am I afraid to embrace a new opportunity, or take a new step, because I fear failure? Allowing the joy to precede the fear can help me become a better servant for my God.

Each of us has been given crosses to carry. The one I carried Christmas Eve was designed to focus the worship onto Christ. It was important that I carried it with respect, reverence, and joy. And it is important that, in our daily lives, we carry our own crosses in such a way as to lead others to God.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

When Angels Dance

Merry Christmas to my Readers! Please enjoy the excerpt from my book.

Tap dancing in Church
Linda Waltersdorf Cobourn

To my Mother, the original Elizabeth Bates. This one is for you.

Chapter One.

            Elizabeth was trying to pray, squeezing her eyes shut in imitation of St Therese, whose picture hung just outside the school chapel. Sister Beatrice had told her to "clear her mind of all other thoughts" in order to commune with God the Father and His Son, Jesus. In that way, said Sister Beatrice, the Holy Spirit would hear her prayers. The whole idea of a Godhead comprised of three distinctive personalities was confusing to Elizabeth. She had made her First Holy Communion--she always thought of it in capital letters--last year with her older sister Eloise. Eloise was nine and should have taken her first Communion the year before, but she had a hard time learning things. Daddy said it would be alright if Eloise waited a year and went to catechism classes with Elizabeth so she could sort of explain things to Eloise. Father Hannigan had agreed with Daddy; most people did. Daddy, who often forgot to pay the power and light bill and the rent, could be a very persuasive man. Thats what Mama would say whenever Daddy came home with a chicken the butcher had "just happened" to be giving away as Daddy passed the shop.

            Mama. That was the reason that Elizabeth was in the chapel, instead of in her classroom with the other third graders, learning math. She tried to keep the teardrops from leaving her eyes; Georgie Martin had called her a crybaby this morning in front of the whole class and even though Sister Beatrice had told the class that sometimes God sent us tears to help us heal, the whole class had laughed.  So Sister had told Elizabeth she could be excused from math class and go to the chapel, alone, to pray for " your dear mother." To Sister Beatrice, sweet Benedictine nun, everyone was " dear", even the boys who pulled the girls' pigtails so hard their eyes smarted.

            Elizabeth's eyes had that same feeling now, as if someone was pulling her hair too tightly, stretching her skin back from her face and drawing the corners of her eyes up. Sometimes, when Mama brushed her hair into a ponytail, the stretching feeling would happen. But Elizabeth' s hair was loose today, the thick mass of curls spilling onto her shoulders. Eloise had tried to help her comb it, but the hair was too difficult to pull a comb through and the hairbrush was missing. Shed given up and left Elizabeth to her own struggles when Daddy had bellowed that they were going to be late for schools if they didnt stop dawdling.

            At the thought of the morning, with Mama's absence leaving a gigantic hole in the departure for school, Elizabeth stopped fighting the tears and let them fall onto the back of the wooden pew. It was probably a sin to cry on the chapel pews and make more work for the little old nuns who cleaned, but at the moment Elizabeth didn't care. She was sad and frightened and even kneeling on the cold leather of the kneeler did not help to calm her heart. Eloise had not been able to find the navy blue stockings this morning, so both girls had worn their knee socks to school, their legs exposed to the windy chill of the October morning. Eloise, at least, had a coat to keep her warm, but Elizabeth had outgrown hers last winter and Mama had given it to the church charity in the spring. She had declared that she would buy Elizabeth a brand new coat in the fall, one that was not a hand-me-down from Eloise. Elizabeth could count on one hand the number of new things she had gotten in her life and the prospect of a new coat was exciting.

            "We'll take the bus into Chester, " Mama had declared, " and get you a brand new coat at Speares. Then afterwards we'll go to Woolworth's for a sundae." Elizabeth had been certain they would. Unlike Daddy, Mama never broke promises. The thought of an ice cream sundae at the soda fountain was enticing, but even more were Mama's last sentence of the conversation. Just you and me," she had said.

            Elizabeth shivered now, the thin blue sweater she'd worn over her school jumper doing very little to keep her warm. Mama had it all planned. The money earned from the vegetable garden would go towards the new coat and the bus fare. Plus, Mama would save a little "here and there." It became a secret they shared all summer. When Daddy would complain that hed had to eat oatmeal three days in a row instead of his usual eggs sunny side up, Mama would shrug and blame it on the egg man and his unreliable chickens. Or when Eloise would run a hole through her church knee socks, Mama would show her how to mend them neatly and do without a new pair. The money for Elizabeth's new coat grew slowly, wrapped up in a monogrammed hanky and hidden in Mamas top dresser drawer.

            But Elizabeth had not gotten her new coat, nor had they taken the bus into Chester. The week after Labor Day, Mama had started coughing, just a little at first. A bit of a cold, she said, with the change of seasons. But the cough had gotten worse, shaking Mama's thin body. She grew pale and weak, hardly able to hold baby Jimmy in her arms unless she was sitting down. Daddy went to Lindsey's Drug Store for medicine, sticky black stuff that resembled molasses. But it hadn't helped.

            Elizabeth squirmed on the kneeler, moving her bare legs so they made little squeaking noises in the leather. She shouldn't be thinking about this now. She should be praying for Mama right now, the way Sister Beatrice had told her to, the way Daddy had told both her and Eloise to when they' d left for school that morning.

            "Pray for your mother, girls", he had said, and that frightened her because for all that he made them go to church on Sunday and paid the tuition at the little Catholic school, no one would ever say that Daddy was a religious man. He was too handsome, Mama said, too used to getting his own way through his charm that made him think he didn't need God. "He'll change someday, Mama had said. "Someday there will be something Handsome Jim can't charm his way through."

            It was what she called him, Handsome Jim. And he was handsome, with dark--almost black--wavy hair, piercing blue eyes, and a long, straight nose. When he smiled, dimples formed at the corners of his mouth and his straight white teeth dazzled his audience. It was no wonder, said Mama, that they could be two months behind on the rent and not hear a peep from their landlady, Mrs. Brogan.

            Mrs. Brogan hadn't mentioned the rent in a long time. As Mama had gotten sicker and sicker, people from the church and the neighborhood had brought soups and stews to the house, and Father Hannigan was a frequent visitor. Daddy paced the floor at night when they were all supposed to be asleep. Finally, Father Hannigan said to Daddy, "Jim, your wife needs a doctor.

            "Doctors are expensive, Daddy had said. "Wheres the money to come from?" Unlike a lot of men in 1946, Daddy had a job, but it didn't pay so well. Father Hannigan had muttered something under his breath that sounded like "tap rooms", although it was no secret to either Eloise or Elizabeth that Daddy liked his whiskey.

            Two weeks later, with Mama hardly able to get out of bed in the mornings, Father Hannigan had offered to take up a collection to pay for Mama to go to a doctor. I will not accept charity!" Daddy had bellowed and shown the good father the door.

            Elizabeth had thought about the hanky, neatly knotted around precious coins and bills, hidden in the top drawer of Mama' dresser with her " good" jewelry, the pearls Daddy had given her on their wedding day and the cameo brooch that had belonged to Grandmom Looby. After supper one night- or what passed for supper since Eloise had taken over cooking--Elizabeth had crept quietly into her parents' bedroom, standing by her mother's side until Mama looked up and smiled weakly. What is it, Sweet pea?" she said and coughed so hard it made the bed shake.

            "Mama, the money for my coat..."

            She laid a weak hand on Elizabeth' s shoulder. "Dont worry, Lizzy. It's hidden. Handsome Jim won't drink it away. She tried to smile.

            "Mama, we should give it to Daddy for a doctor."

            Mama attempted humor. "Why, whos sick?" Then she turned solemn. "I'll be fine, Lizzy. I just need to rest up and shake this cold. Don't worry."

            But Elizabeth was worried. "Mama, you've been sick for four weeks."

            Mama was surprised. "Four weeks? Really? You're back to school?"

            Elizabeth nodded. "The leaves are starting to turn color, Mama. Look out the window and youll see."

            Slowly, painfully, Mama turned and stared for long moments. "You'll need your coat, she said.

            "No, Mama, you need a doctor. Lets give my coat money to Daddy so he can go get a doctor for you."

            She shook her head and went into a coughing spasm. "Handsome Jim would spend it at the tap room."

             Elizabeth choked back a sob. "Id give it to Father Hannigan and he could pay a doctor. Please, Mama?"

            But Mama had shaken her head. I 'll be okay, Elizabeth. I promise."

And Mama always kept her promises.

            Now, three weeks later, Mama was no better. She was, in fact, worse. Last night, a coughing spasm had wracked her for hours, leaving her so still and pale that Elizabeth had feared for a moment that Mama was dead. It had shaken Daddy as well. Hed gone next door to the O'Brian's, who had a phone because Mr. O' Brian was a shift supervisor at Sun Oil, to call for the doctor. When Doc Boyle arrived, hed taken one look at Mama, felt her weak pulse, and told Daddy very quietly to go back to the OBrians and call for an ambulance.

            Moments later, the flashing red lights and the screaming siren filled Market Street; neighbors and curious boys on bikes congregated on the small square of grass that served as front lawn. Mrs. O'Brian gathered up Baby Jimmy from his playpen and tried to hustle Eloise and Elizabeth next door to her own house, but Elizabeth grabbed onto her mother's hand as the stretcher was being wheeled onto the front porch. Dont die, Mama, she begged, tear streaming down her face.

            Then Mama was gone, carried up into the ambulance, and Handsome Jim jumped up behind the stretcher in his shirtsleeves, forgetting his hat and his overcoat. Mrs. O'Brian had made hot chocolate for all of the children, and then fixed pallets of blankets on the living room floor for Eloise and Elizabeth. Jimmy was carried upstairs to spend the night with the youngest O'Brian boy. Mrs. O'Brian had listened to the girls say their prayers then had kissed each of them on the forehead and told them to come and get her if they got frightened during the night. The two girls had huddled together in their blankets, sobbing through the night.

            Daddy had returned in the dark hours of the morning, whispering to Mr. and Mrs. O'Brian before whisking the girls home to get ready for school. Mrs. O ' Brian would take care of Jimmy for the time being." It was what neighbors did for one another. Mama had taken care of all five noisy O'Brian children when little Tim was born in July.

            "How is Mama?" Elizabeth had asked. Eloise had just cried, the way she had done most of the night.

            But Daddy wouldn't answer. You girls get ready for school, was all he said. He went into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee and some oatmeal, but he forgot the girls' lunch sacks and Elizabeth didn't to dare to remind him.

            Daddy had deposited Eloise and Elizabeth at school almost an hour early, hurrying them down the hill and through the gates of the church yard. Elizabeth had tried to wrap her sweater around herself more tightly, but it was a struggle to hold onto her books at the same time. She was afraid the school would be closed--the sun was just barely over the horizon--but when Daddy rang the bell at the front door, Sister Clarence, the principal, had appeared. Elizabeth had always suspected the pleasant-faced nun slept in school. Sister did not look surprised to see the Bates girls standing on her doorstep so much before the bell. She ushered them in with a wide gesture of her arms and invited them to go sit in her office while she talked to Daddy.

            Elizabeth, good child that she was, had never been to the principal's office. But Eloise, who was equally good but often lax in her studies, knew the way. The door to Sister Clarence's office squeaked open into a room that was blessedly warm, with big chairs and soft cushions. Eloise was reluctant to sit in one, thinking they were reserved for parents, but Elizabeth was too cold and tired to care. The floor at the O' Brian's had been hard and Eloise had cried most of the night.

            There was no clock in Sister Clarence's office, but they sat on the comfortable chairs for a while. The sky outside the window grew lighter and Elizabeth felt she might have dozed off for a few minutes. By the time Sister Clarence returned to the office, the echoing footsteps of students could be heard in the hallways.

            Sister Clarence opened the big door to her office quietly, almost floating into the room. For all of the three years Elizabeth had been at Holy Savior, she had wondered if the nuns who taught them had feet, or merely hovered over the floor. Eloise always told her not to think such "fanciful thoughts". But Sister Clarence not only gave the appearance of floating, she seemed to glide with ease across the rough wooden floor, her hands hidden in the long sleeves of her habit. She spoke softly; Elizabeth had never heard Sister Clarence raise her voice, yet even the big 8th grade boys listened and did what she said.

            She slid up to the Bates girls and touched each in turn lightly on the forehead, making the sign of the cross. "Dear girls," she said, "your father has told me of your mother's illness. All of the sisters will pray for her and for your family. And if either of you needs to talk, please come and see me." Both girls nodded their heads and Sister said a Hail Mary before dismissing them to their classes.

          Elizabeth and Eloise separated in the hallway, Eloise heading to fifth grade and Elizabeth to third. The students jostled one another, pushing and laughing as if this was like any other day. Susan Norton, who was in third grade with Elizabeth, smiled brightly and said, "You must have left early this morning! Usually I catch up with you both on the hill!" and Elizabeth wanted to tell her to stop grinning and acting as if everything was okay. Instead she walked right past Sue, who was usually a good friend, and slumped into her seat. "Grumpy, Sue said good naturedly and slid into her own seat. By the way the third grade teacher, Sister Beatrice, touched her hair, Elizabeth knew that Sister Clarence had told her about Mama.

          Elizabeth had tried to pay attention in class, even though she was still tired and cold. She knew that Mama put a lot of stock in education. She had wanted to be a teacher, she'd once confided to Elizabeth, but her father had been drafted to fight the Great War and shed needed to help out at home. She would have made a good teacher, too, Elizabeth had thought. Mama was kind, like Sister Beatrice, and she told stories that made it fun to learn. She had taught Elizabeth to tie her shoes with a story about a bunny and the letters of her name with a song.

          Somewhere in the school, a bell rang, calling the children out for recess. From her seat in the chapel, Elizabeth heard them stampeding down the hallways despite the quiet admonitions of the sisters to "act like ladies and gentlemen." No one came to get her, so Elizabeth sat back onto the hard wooden pew, feeling warmer and calmer. Thoughts of Mama always made her feel safe and loved.

         She must have fallen asleep--which was surely a sin!--because she awoke with a start, Mamas voice in her ears. "I love you, Lizzy, said the voice and Elizabeth whispered back, I love you, too, Mama." Mama would be alright; Elizabeth just knew it. Mama had promised she would always be with Elizabeth and Mama never broke her promises.

         Feeling much better, her tears gone, Elizabeth sat up and made the sign of the cross to apologize for falling asleep in His House. She meant to look at the crucifix above the altar, the place where Jesus-God's-Holy-Son hung on the cross to die for the sins of all mankind, and think reverent thoughts about Him, the way Sister Beatrice said all Catholic children must do if they wanted to go to Heaven, when a flash of bright blue caught her eye and made her head turn to the right. There, in the lower left hand corner of a stained glass window that depicted Jesus visiting the home of Martha and Mary to raise his friend Lazarus from the dead, was Mama's angel.

          She didn't really belong to Mama, of course, because angels were created beings and did not belong to anyone and this one was made of stained glass instead of whatever angels were made of, but Elizabeth had always thought of the being in blue as Mama's angel.

          When Elizabeth had first come to school at Holy Savior she had been afraid of the chapel with its dark pews and high ceilings, and the lifelike man who hung bleeding on the cross. She had cried to her mother that she was scared of the man and the creaky pews and the high ceilings with its dark corners where, Eloise had told her, souls of dead babies waited to snatch the life of a living child. After making Eloise scrub the kitchen floor as punishment for frightening Elizabeth with such nonsense, Mama had taken Elizabeth onto her lap and smoothed her curly hair, murmuring soothing sounds.

          "Next time you are in the chapel, Mama said, " Don't look at the things that scare you. Find the angel that tap-dances and look at her."

          Elizabeth laughed. "Angels don't tap dance!" At least, she had never heard that they did, although she had see a man tap dancing once when Mama and Daddy had taken her and Eloise to the summer fair by the river. The mans feet had made clicking noises on the wooden platform, moving his feet so fast they were a blur.

          Mama had laughed. How do you know that angels dont tap dance?" she asked. The Bible tells us that King David danced before the Lord in praise. Why shouldn't angels, who are created to honor God, tap dance?"

          Elizabeth shrugged. "I don't know. But I did not see an angel tap dancing. And tap dancing is noisy. It is very quiet in the chapel."

          Mama laughed. "Angels are silent when they tap dance. It is the joy they show in dancing--not the noise--that pleases the Lord."

          Elizabeth thought for a moment. "Mama, I did not see an angel. Are you sure?"

          Mama nodded. "You forgot, Elizabeth, that I went to that very same school when I was a girl. And the angel is there, wearing a beautiful gown of blue, with her wings stretched up to heaven and her arms open wide, like this." Mama demonstrated. "And her smile, continued Mama, is the most beautiful smile you ever saw. But you will know that she is tap-dancing because, unlike most angels, you can see her feet doing the ball-and-chain." Mama stood and showed Elizabeth the step.

          The next time Elizabeth needed to go to the school chapel, she averted her eyes from the scary high ceilings and the bleeding man on the cross and looked for the angel. She was right where Mama had said she would be, a look of pure joy on her face as her feet tapped on the stained glass grass. She helped Elizabeth to not be afraid of the chapel anymore. Mama's angel was always there, waiting for her, making her feel safe.

          There she was today, in all her stained glass glory, the faint light of the October morning shining through her and casting rays of color onto the floor. Unlike the angels Elizabeth had seen adorning the tops of Christmas trees and singing carols in her children's missile, Mama's tap dancing angel had dark, curly hair--much like Elizabeth's own--that reached to her shoulders. She smiled at Elizabeth and Elizabeth smiled back, feeling a bit warmer now and finding that her tears had stopped. The angel was still tap-dancing, still bringing glory to God through her moving feet and suddenly Elizabeth wanted to do the same. She had never seen anyone, other than Mama's angel, tap dance in church before, but she could not remember ever being told that tap-dancing in church was a sin. It seemed to Elizabeth that many harmless things seemed to be sins if done in church. Was tap-dancing one of them?

          Elizabeth considered. She tried to remember what Sister Beatrice had told her and what she had learned in her catechism classes. She could not recall one single thing either for or against tap-dancing. Mama had said it was the way the angel was praising God. Mama had even taken down the big family Bible, where Elizabeth's name and birth date and that of her brother and sister were written down, and shown her the place where King David' s dancing was described. " And David danced before the Lord with all his might, and was wearing a linen ephod." (2 Samuel 6:14)

          She had no idea what a linen ephod was, but she could easily see that the angel was dancing with all her might, putting all of her energy into her dance. It was what Elizabeth longed to do. Surely God had heard her prayers and her mother would be well again. She could hear the shouts of the children out on the playground. Most of the teachers would be out there as well.

          Cautiously, Elizabeth slipped out of the pew, genuflecting before the altar and slowly approaching the rays of color streaming through Mama' s angel. She positioned herself into a patch of blue, raising her face to the angel and holding out her arms in imitation. It felt good to stretch up to heaven! She could understand why the angel looked so happy and felt her own mouth begin to smile. Looking at the angel's feet carefully, Elizabeth tried to position her shoes accordingly. One of her classmates, Cindy Jerome, took dancing lessons and often showed the girls moves at recess. Remembering what Cindy had shown her and keeping her eyes on the angel, Elizabeth attempted to execute the step Mama had called the ball and chain.

          She tripped and found herself sprawled on the carpet. Unhurt, except for a bang to her elbow where it had hit the baseboard, she was pulling herself to her feet when the back door of the chapel opened.

          Silently, it seemed, Sister Clarence glided down the aisle.  Elizabeth waited just as silently, holding herself as still as she possibly could, certain she was about to be reprimanded for uncomely behavior in church.

          But Sister Clarence merely placed her hand gently on the top of Elizabeth's head and said, "Come with me, child. Your father has come to bring you and your sister home."

          Elizabeth could think of only one reason Daddy had arrived at the school for her and Eloise; God had heard her feeble prayers and Mama was well again, perhaps even ready to leave the hospital! She walked quietly beside the nun, longing to ask her when her mothers illness had left her, convinced it was at the very moment Mama's angel had smiled. But the rules of the school were clear; children waited until they were spoken to. Sister Clarence said no words as she and Elizabeth moved down the corridor, although the good sister's lips moved silently. Elizabeth had the impression she was praying.

          They arrived at the door to the principals office before Sister Clarence spoke. Your sister had already been summoned and your father is waiting. Then she made the sign of the cross on Elizabeths forehead. Bless you, dear child. You will need to be brave." With that she opened the door and motioned Elizabeth in.

To read the rest of the story...

Sunday, December 15, 2013

How Neat!~

My mother believed that cleanliness was next to Godliness. My brother and I used to tease her that if one of us got up during the night to go to the bathroom, she would make the bed. It was only a small exaggeration, because tidiness ruled Mom's--and subsequently our own--world. Our small house was so neat and tidy that visitors would wonder if people actually lived there. Harvey and I were taught to never leave our toys or games around; everything had a place and belonged in that place unless it was in immediate use. Mostly, we played in our rooms or in the basement. The living room was for public view. The exception
was Christmas, when the train platform took up most of the living room and Mom sighed loudly as she picked up silver tinsel from the floor. It was a difficult time of year for her.

It was, to say the least, annoying. While my brother and I kept our rooms neat and tidy, my own closet was a total mess. It was the one place in the house where I felt I could revel in chaos. And since it was a huge closet, going way back under the stairs to the attic and almost as big as my whole bedroom, it became a place of messy refuge for me. I would take a pillow and a book into the closet, relaxing amid the jumble of stuffed animals and doll clothes in the making. When I was grown and had my own house, I would think as I lay on the hard wooden floor, I will let them play wherever they want. I would not mind a little mess.

Thirty years, three kids, and several vacuum cleaners later, I have discovered a startling truth about myself: I have inherited my mother's neat gene. I long for order amid the clutter that four adults and three animals can make in a three-bedroom row house. I long for a chair to relax in that does not hold at least one animal and a pile of sports magazines. I want to walk in the door without tripping over size 12 snow boots. I want to--dream of dreams!--sweep the kitchen floor without discovering that the broom has been used to scrape snow off of a Mercury van and now sits outside amid the fall rakes. I want--yes, I will say it--a house where there is a place for everything is in its place.

I have about as much chance of getting it as a vacuum cleaner has of surviving in our house. And the reason is clear: everyone else in my family, with the exception of the oldest son who lives in the city, hasn't a neat bone in their bodies. Either that or they are totally unaware when a tornado sweeps through the house.

Let's take yesterday, for example. I worked ten hours at the college, drove home in the snow and ice, and entered the door to find that my coffee table had now become home to a laptop and a video game console. Someone--probably Allen--had chosen to sleep on the love seat and pillows and blankets were strewn around. The mail had found its way into three separate piles and it appeared that each of the three inhabitants had needed to wear two coats; I know this because I counted six thrown onto various chairs and two tossed over the banister. And that was only the living room. I will spare you the description of the kitchen. Let's just say it was not an improvement over the living room.  Sigh.

I managed to step over the clutter without breaking a hip and sought for a place to put down my schoolbag. I swear, there had been a spot just that morning, but it had disappeared under a mound of wrapping paper and Christmas cards. Double sigh. Ignoring it all--or at least trying not to explode about it--I made my way into the kitchen and ran water into the tea kettle, moving aside a few dishes to get to the faucet and wiping off some burnt- on -something from the stove. As I stood leaning against the kitchen counter waiting for the water to boil, it all became clear to me, the reason my mother craved order and tidiness, the reason I found myself longing for the same thing in my life. In the midst of my epiphany, the tea kettle whistled and as I steeped my bag of Earl Gray into the teacup, I thought it through.

My mother's early life had been one of disorder and upheaval; her family moved often and had little. Her mother died at an early age, and my mother and her siblings were shuffled to a series of relatives. My mom could recall very few possessions she had or any relative's house where she did not feel she was a burden in the post-depression economy. Her desire for order was born of its lack in her early years. It was the whole neat thing that provided her with the security she did not have during her childhood. Timid and introverted, order was the way my mother coped with a world that held many fears.

I am neither timid nor introverted. And, to be honest, I am used to chaos. I can remember a time when the kids were small and the backyard was full of noisy children putting on a circus with every bedsheet in the house contributing to the Big Top. My mother dropped by and asked me how I could stand all the chaos. What chaos? I asked her. To me, it was all pretty normal.

In the last eighteen years, though, my own life has become as out of control as anyone's can ever be. With Ron's frequent trips to the hospital and ongoing illnesses, I have learned to expect the unexpected. I can handle it all with nothing more than a pair of knitting needles and a good book. But something in me, my mother's neat gene, longs for tidiness, for order, for an entryway not full of spare computer parts. It doesn't seem to be too much to ask, but I am pretty sure I will not get it. I have tried to control this bunch of inmates before. It does not end well.

But the longings of the soul are not to be denied. Quietly, I crept into the dining room and retrieved my Kindle from the desk. Carefully holding my tea in one hand and my Kindle in the other, I made my way over a sleeping cat and a basket of laundry and up the stairs. While my husband and two adult kids were squabbling over the television, I sought my own refuge, a small corner of my bedroom that had somehow been spared the tornado's path. I sipped on my tea and relaxed, one thought in my head: someday, when they have all moved back out and I have my own little house at the beach, it will be neat and tidy all the time.

Triple sigh.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

It Matters Whom You Marry: Before and After

My daughter is planning her wedding. She and her fiance want a very simple affair with less than a hundred people. They are not concerned with the flowers or the music or the food at the reception. They are concerned with making sure their marriage will honor God. This is what they put their energies into as they move towards June 28, the day they will become husband and wife.

My daughter's happiness spills out of her and I rejoice that she, who has seen so much hurt in her young life, still has the capacity to love someone as much as she loves Jared. I thank God for that. But I also take a little credit. Somehow, in the midst of a home life where their father has been hospitalized more times than not, my children still believe in everlasting love and Christian marriage. What a miracle! How has this come to be?

This morning I saw a blog on Facebook entitled "It Matters Whom You Marry." The intent of the blog was to give advice to young Christian girls on how to choose their future husband. And as I read through the five suggestions given by the author, God revealed the answer to my question to me. The reason my children can all still open themselves up to loving another is this: I chose the right man. And, equally as important, he chose the right woman.

Since Ron's car accident in 2000, our lives have been divided into "Before" and "After." Our marriage is  no different. So to well-meaning doctors and acquaintances who ask me, "Why do you stay with him?" I respond with my own list of five.

Ron and I began attending church together shortly after we started dating. In the year before our wedding, we read through the Bible together using a couples' devotional. I had come from a Catholic background and Ron had been raised in the Baptist church. We built up one another's faith. We took on ministries in our church right away and started every meal with a blessing. When we had children, we dedicated each into God's family and made sure they were fed spiritually. Sunday School, Church, Evening Services, and Wednesday night prayer meetings were our weekly routine.

In the after time, there are Sundays when Ron cannot get to church. I go without him when I feel that I can leave him, letting others at church know that he is thinking of them. The accident has altered Ron in many ways, but it has not altered his care towards others. He calls those that are hurting or sick and tries to cheer them up. Does it impact me spiritually? Definitely. Ron's illnesses bring me closer to God. I have spent many, many hours praying in hospital rooms and trusting Ron's very life in the hands of the Great Physician. There has never been a time in the After that I have not been able to ultimately say, "God can handle this."

In the Before time, Ron was a kind person who was not afraid to show his own emotions. If I cried, he held me close and handed me his handkerchief. He never once accused me of being a cry-baby or a weak woman! He did all he could to keep me balanced. I tend to take on too much in my life, and Ron always tried to get me to set priorities and keep myself safe in all ways.

Ron is still the same kind person, even though his own emotions are often out of whack. I do not cry much in these After days, simply because my life is too full and time is precious. I would rather pray than cry. But the first 20 years of our marriage gave me the groundwork I needed to become a wife and a mother. My emotions now channel into my writing, which Ron whole-heartedly encourages.

Ron worked hard to support us. When we married, he was making little more than a hundred dollars a week and I was going to school. Money was tight. Money has always been tight. Material things did not matter that much to us. We always had a warm, safe house and food to eat. We had enough to share with others in more need than us. Ron worked a second job from time to time when the kids were small. If a child needed shoes, he did without. He even welcomed the series of "Lost Boys" into our home, fellows who would stay with us for a while seeking some stability. It certainly impacted his wallet, but I never heard him complain.

Ron is no longer able to work. I work two jobs now to support us and provide for Ron's medical needs. I try not to complain, although I do get tired from time to time. He is the first one to suggest I take a day off or sit and rest for a while. It is advice I do not always take. But because I know the bulk of our support depends on me, I take care of myself. I watch my weight, exercise, take vitamins, and try to get enough sleep. If he is snoring too loudly, he will move to the couch so I can sleep.

Yes. And yes. Ron told me early on in our dating days that he had a bit of a temper. It was never, ever directed towards me or the kids. I desperately wanted to finish my bachelor's degree, and Ron helped me make that happen. The fact that he did not have a college degree himself did not impact the decision to encourage me.

I now not only have a bachelor's degree, I have a master's and a doctorate. Mentally, it is sometimes challenging to handle all of Ron's medical and psychological issues. But I am grateful that I was prepared to support us with my advanced degrees, and that my ability to understand medical issues has helped me to panic less when a surgery looms. I have sometimes wondered if I would have all the education I do if Ron had not become ill.

I have a small, but close, family. I also have really good friends. Ron supported the time I spent with my family and friends and made sure we divided holidays up evenly. I will admit I have lost some friends in the After time. There are those who just do not understand that my time is very limited. There are others who do not "get" while I am still with Ron. I do not need those people.

The friends I hold dear now are the tried and true friends, those who have seen me through crisis after crisis after crisis. Even if I do not see them as often as I would like, I know that they uphold us in love and prayer. I maintain a close relationship with each of our three children as well. In the After time, they have adjusted to a different sort of Dad. But they have adjusted. Ron continues to support my friendships. I have a standing monthly dinner date with a close friend. Only the end of the world would make me miss it. Ron would not suggest it.

If you want to read the original article that prompted by thoughts on this snowy day, here is the link.

I'd like to leave you with just one more thought. Marriage is about hope. As Emily Dickenson noted, it is the thing with feathers and can quickly fly away. But choosing the right person to marry makes Hope cling to the branch despite the storm. Hope does not promise it will be easy. My marriage of 37 years --yikes!--has not always been easy. Ron's illnesses were not something I could have predicted when we said our marriage vows.

 For better or worse.

I meant it.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Memory in Three Parts: Part Three

December 1, 2002. 5PM

It is growing dark outside when I leave the hospital and the cold air, holding a promise of snow, nips at my  nose. I have post-poned this last leave-taking as long as I can; now the red streaks of the setting sun on the horizon make it unlikely that I will return to the beach house before twilight descends and will be driving down Route 1 at a time when my vision is at its worst. Still, I am reluctant to make this final departure. A hundred times, as I sit in the parking lot, I am tempted to return to the vigil at Mom's bedside, holding onto her fragile hand and listening to her labored breathing, knowing that before long her brain will stop sending signals to her heart to beat and her lungs to fill with air.

I cry openly on the drive home, alone in the car. The rest of my family--husband and children--wait at the beach house, suitcases packed and ready. Mom no longer inhabits the body that lies in the bed at BeBe Hospital. Dad and I have debated this at her bedside. Is she already in Heaven or is her soul lingering with us for a while longer? We have come to no conclusion. The doctors tell us that "the lights have gone out" for Mom and she is no longer aware of what is around her. The nurses, though, seem to think that even those who are comatose can hear our voices, so we have kept up a cheerful line of chatter for the last three days Sometimes we cried and told her how much we will miss her, and sometimes we laughed with stories from our life as a family. Before I leave her for the last time, I kiss her and assure her that I will take care of Dad. Then I leave, my heart breaking.

Harvey has already left for his long and lonely drive back to North Carolina. Both of us have volunteered to stay with Dad, but he has insisted that we go back to our own lives. He will sit by the side of his wife of 52 years. His own good-bye to her will be private.

December 2, 2002. 8AM

I have just returned home from school where I told the principal about my mother. He has sent me home and insisted that I not return until the end of the week. The light on the answering machine is blinking.

"Linda? This is Dad. Mom passed away at 6:45 this morning."

Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Memory in Three Parts: Part Two

November 30, 2002.

Mom is dying. Nothing we can say or do will change that. Last night, pouring over family photo albums and telling stories about her, we had come to terms with it. And while it had taken us until dawn to decide, we know we are making the right choice. She has lived her life with dignity and fortitude. We will allow her to die the same way.

The small hospital room is full of people now: the nurse who will turn off the machines that are keeping Mom’s heart going, the doctor who will monitor her response, my brother, my father. One of the nurses has given me a memory box. Into it I tuck a few of the cards from the windowsill, a yellow rose from the bouquet Dad brought in, and a locket of her hair. “Her rings, too,” says my father. He is kneeling by the bed, his hands holding onto hers. I nod and he moves over, releasing her left hand to me.

Her hand is cool to my touch, the skin paper thin, the blood vessels blue against the pale ivory. In the real world, Mom is olive skinned, but here she takes on the pallor of a ghost. Her knuckles are swollen with arthritis. I kiss her hand gently, the white gold of her engagement diamond brushing my lips. Carefully, not wanting to cause her any discomfort, I slide the tiny ring off her finger. Her hand smells faintly of Jergens lotion; she kept a bottle by the sink, lathering the lotion onto her hands after doing the dishes, the diamond ring safely in a china dish. For a moment, I hold the ring in my hand. It is still Mom’s, still carries with it the memories of childhood; the ring glinting in the sun as she hangs sheets in the summer sunshine; the ring sliding through my hair as Mom plaits my braids; the ring catching on my sweater as I kiss her goodbye. I place it into the memory box lovingly and draw in my breath. The wedding ring will follow it.

But now Dad stops me. His voice chokes, but his words are clear. “I put the wedding ring on her,” he says. “I will take it off.” I slide over by the bed, allowing Dad access now to her left hand. On the other side of the bed, my brother, Harvey, holds her right hand. Dad takes Mom’s hand and raises it to his lips. He kisses every finger, the palm, the swollen knuckles. Then he speaks to his wife. “Betty, “ he says, “52 years ago, I put this ring on your finger and you became my wife. I am taking this ring off now, but it does not mean you are not my wife. Forever and always, you will be my wife.” Then he slides the ring off and it joins the other mementoes in the box.

Dad nods to the nurse, who flips the machine to off. Mom’s chest continues to rise and fall. It could be hours, it could be days, the doctors have told us. My brother and I have decided, however, to say our own goodbyes now. Each of us, in turn, gives Mom one last hug, one last kiss. Then, arms around each other, we depart. The final goodbye must belong to Dad.

We stand outside, however, seeing our parents through the room’s window: Mom lying on the bed, the last  breaths escaping from her body as she eases her way out of this world, and Dad, his head buried in her shoulder, reluctant to let her go. After a few moments, he raises his head, kisses her on the cheek, and kneels with her hand in his.

This is love, I think. Not the fairytale, happily ever after love that people find  impossible to emulate. This is the love that has survived life, two children, lost jobs, financial burdens, illnesses. This is what my brother and I will take with us today, as we leave Mom and Dad to their final goodbyes and each of us returns to our own often difficult lives. The trappings of love may be superficial, but love—enduring, pure love—needs nothing else.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Memory in Three Parts

November 30, 2002. 9AM

Saturday morning in Rehoboth. I have done the breakfast dishes at Mom's sink, looking out at the end of Silver Lake that abuts the property, a view that Mom loves. It is just cereal bowls and coffee cups and little plates for the Pillsbury cinnamon rolls that Mom bought and thought we would all eat together this morning after Black Friday. My brother, Harvey, teased me about the orange icing but has eaten two anyway. This is Mom's sink, I think. It will always be her sink. And suddenly I need to be outside, watching the ducks, walking where Mom loved to walk.

It is bitterly cold outside and everyone else in the house is still getting themselves ready for the hospital vigil. Dad has left early. I walk to Silver Lake, down to the ancient wooden bench that once sat in Pop Pop's garage on Washington Street and which Nanny threatened to have hauled to the dump on a weekly basis. It did make it there once, I recall, but PopPop turned around and retrieved it. Now the plain bench, showing at least three different layers of paint, sits at the edge of the lake, a place for Mom to rest her bad hips while she watches the ducks. It has always been Dad's dream to have a house on Silver Lake and while Harvey and I are astounded at the speed in which they sold the family house in Swarthmore and ran away from home, I am glad they had these few years in Rehoboth, within the sound of the ocean's lapping waves and the whisper of pine trees. They have been contented here. Mom has her ducks to feed and worry about, especially in the spring when the turtles eat the newborn ducklings and drive the duck families away. Sitting here on the bench that is part of Pop Pop's past, I watch the ducks swim, recalling the night long ago when Mom stayed up all night and watched a baby bird cling to the nest his mother had plastered to our attic window. She worried all night, as the wind blew and the rain fell, that the baby bird would tumble from his nest and die. But God watched over Mom's little bird and in the morning it was still safe in its nest.

I talk to the ducks for a few minutes, telling them about Mom. She won't be coming down to feed them anymore, but Dad will make sure they are supplied with bread. Then I heave myself off the bench--it is really too cold to be sitting--and walk back up the hill, the dry leaves crunching under my sneakers. Tears freeze to my face by now but I cannot go back inside. Not yet. I continue up the driveway, up to School Lane, down the old high school where Harvey and I rode our bicycles over the paths and around the school. A soft, summer wind brushes past my face and I can hear the sounds of children calling to each other. "Linda! Watch me! Can you do this?" and the resounding laughter. There are the tennis courts where we brought our badminton rackets. There are the swings and the tower where we played weather station. Then, around the corner, past the condominiums that were not here thirty years ago, through the stand of pines and picnic tables where students lucky enough to live at the beach eat their lunches outside, to the bridge across Silver Lake.

The bridge, too, has changed, from roughly hewn planks of wood my mother used to fear for us to ride across to a sturdy structure with rails. The old bridge would hold only one bike at a time, steered carefully down the narrow and rail-less planks. We would hold our breaths as we crossed it, Harvey and I, not really fearing the splash into the water--all of three feet deep--but knowing Mom would panic if we came home drenched. Mom never liked bridges and would drive miles out of her way to avoid one.

In recent years, Dad has convinced Mom of the safety of this bridge. Almost every night, they walk across it, hand in hand, stopping in the middle to admire the lake and the ducks and their own good fortune at being together after so many years.

Now, Dad will walk it alone.

Across the bridge is a small park that was a golf course when we were young. Balls would sometimes sail across the narrow expanse of water and we would collect them in our bike baskets, bringing them back to the house on Washington Street to be used in our own miniature golf courses, made with spare wood from Pop Pop's garage. Along the pathway from the bridge are two stone benches, one in memory of Nanny, one for PopPop. Dad says he often sits here to talk to his parents, although he has not yet come to tell them about Mom. I cross the bridge now, stopping at each bench to caress it and read the name engraved on each stone. Elva M. Waltersdorf. Harvey R. Waltersdorf. I tell them what Dad has not been able to, that Mom will shortly be joining them in Heaven. 

Back across the bridge. Up the path. Around the school, memories of my summer childhood calling out to  me. All of them at the house will be ready now to return to the waiting room outside the ICU.

Let me be strong enough, I pray. Let me be strong enough for Dad and Harvey and Mom today.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hearts Are WIld

 November 26, 2013

"Now, where do you come from?" the Queen of Hearts says to Alice.

 Alice replies, "Well, I am trying to find my way home."

"YOUR way?" retorts the Queen. "All ways here are my ways!"

Thus ensues a ridiculous game of croquet with hedgehogs being used as the balls and playing cards as the wickets. It is an unlikely game, filled with misadventure and threats of "Off with her head!" issued by the angry Queen. And all poor Alice wants to do is get herself out of that danged rabbit hole and back home.

It is all most of us ever want, but sometimes we need to put up ridiculous and seemingly meaningless rituals to get there.

We are on our way home, home from the hospital and the last of the tests Ron needed to endure before he could get the clearance for the ketamine infusion therapy. The tests have taken most of the day and involved a stress test, a tilt table test, and other measures of cardiac health. I have held my own breath the entire time, remembering that many, many people are praying for a positive outcome. As my friend Madeline told me on Sunday, "This will work because it HAS to work."

It has to work, it has to work, it has to work. That was the mantra as we headed up to the hospital and negotiated the morning rush hour traffic on Broad Street. It is to work it has to work, it has to work. We are the Little Engine that could, Little Toot the tugboat out on the foggy ocean, the Brave Little Toaster. We are the epitome of Alice and Dorothy and Luke Sywalker, trying to find our way back to a world we once knew, one that made sense to us.

Hearts are tricky things. They are the central organs of our bodies, the one that keeps us moving and living and loving. But, according to the ancient Egyptians, they are also the seat of our emotions and breakable. Hearts can be affected by our diet, our exercise, and our lifestyle. They can be transplanted successfully from one human being to another. But scientists have not get found a way to live without one. Even the Grinch had a heart, albeit a small one. But, as you will recall, his heart grew and grew and grew when he, too, finally found his way back home.

Years ago, when the infections that have always plagued Ron during his many hospitalization began to affect his heart, we were told that the damage was irreparable. An enlarged heart works harder to pump the blood. Four years ago, we were told that Ron's heart was working at about 12% capacity, making him out of breath all the time. We resigned ourselves to it. Ron endured another surgery to have a pace-maker/ defibrillator   inserted. Of course there were complications--there always are--and the simple two hour procedure took five and resulted in another infection. Ron carries a card in his wallet in case his bionic powers sets off alarms in stores and airports. But in the last four years, the defibrillator has never gone off.

Yesterday was the ultimate test. As the doctors at Hahneman Hospital put Ron literally through the ringer, I continued the mantra. It has to work, it has to work, it has to work. Finally, by 4 o'clock, the doctors exited the exam room, clearly puzzled.

"We can't find anything wrong," they said.

What's that, now? I am not sure I recognize the words. They sure sound like English, but I am not used to hearing them.

"We even called his cardiologist--Dr. Lee--and she faxed us his records. His heart was damaged, no doubt. But from what we can see, well, we don't really know how to explain this, but, his heart looks okay." They shake their heads, these three men in white coats. They look at me expectantly. Surely there is a rational explanation for this?

I shrug my shoulders. "Everyone we know has been praying," I say. They nod, unconvinced.

"Well, " they say, "there's no reason we can't put him into the ketamine program."

Hearts are tricky. They can be damaged and scarred and still keep on beating. They can suffer attacks and come back to function again. They can break and they can heal. They can hope and love and never ever stop believing that somewhere out there is a place called home.

It has to work, it has to work, it has to work. We are now several steps closer to what we hope will be our own way back.

To all who are praying, who have upheld us these last thirteen years, who have never given up hope, accept our deepest gratitude. We are not there quite yet. But, like Alice when she finally realizes just how ridiculous the Queen of Hearts and her court are, we are finding our way back.

We may yet find our way out of the rabbit hole.