Sifting Through

July 10, 2024 | My Jottings

From the archives…

She goes over the whole house in her mind again. The yellow stucco, the white trim, the half circle driveway out front. Her tiny self standing out there and looking south to the rolling gold hills in the distance, and listening for the call of the peacocks. Heelllp. Heelllp.

She goes back to the small galley kitchen at the front of the house, with a Formica covered table at one end, and the red vinyl banquette behind the table, a novelty to her which she called a booth, the cookie jar on the tiled counter with Nabisco Ideal cookies piled inside, the colored aluminum drinking glasses that gave a metallic taste to the water from the slowly dripping faucet.

She can see the good sized but narrow feet in the sturdy flesh colored sandals, anklet socks neatly turned down, and the stout but long calves above that, and the hem of the flowered cotton house dress above that, standing in front of the gleaming gas range. There is stirring going on, and savory smells she can’t bring to mind now because at that age she hardly ate the things others ate. Eggs, vegetables, pizza, soup, gravy and potatoes, almonds, apricots. All were impossible for her. She ate white rice with butter, Cheerios with whole milk and a spoonful of sugar, Skippy peanut butter and Welch’s grape jelly sandwiches on white Wonder bread, plain hamburgers “meat and bun only,” and Abba Zabba candy bars she bought for ten cents at the liquor store in front of Denel’s house. She would have a small salad if the lettuce was iceberg and the dressing was Wishbone Italian.

On the other side of the kitchen wall was the living room, with colonial style furniture, all arranged so the couple who lowered their bottoms down into the deep chairs and the divan with a sigh could see the television. Ed Sullivan. The Wonderful World of Disney. Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins.

There was a corner used-brick fireplace near the large cabinet television, where no fires were ever lit, and a many-spindled maple dining room set neatly pushed up against the far wall of the living room. A large painting of three little girls gathered together reading a book was hung over the divan. She liked being in this house, liked walking around and taking note of things, even though she was mostly invisible when she was there.

In the entry hall closet, which hid a vacuum and a few hanging coats, she always took out the inflatable Peter Rabbit, which was weighted at the bottom and stood taller than she, the single toy in the house that was a punching bag of sorts. It was dark blue, red and pale yellow, and she would give it a few whacks and smile when it righted itself and wobbled until it was still and waiting again.

She can see herself walking down the hallway to the three bedroom and two bathroom part of the house, in white shorts with cuffs, a white knit short-sleeved top, and bare feet. Her strawberry hair is shoulder length and parted on the side, and has the remnant of a pageboy curl at the ends, something her mother created with pink sponge rollers after a night time bath.

One of the small bedrooms had a gold vinyl sleeper couch in it and a desk. It had held her crib when she was brought home from Inter-Community Hospital to this house on Delay Avenue. Before her grandparents had moved here from Kansas and bought the house from her parents.

She looks in the door of the second bedroom, which used to be her two older brothers’ room. It has a double bed, a tall maple dresser and matching vanity and nightstand, and she sees the hardwood floors and the spareness of the room as she passes. Across the hall to the back of the house, she sees the room she was always drawn to the most. Two twin beds with rich mahogany head and foot boards, white chenille bedspreads perfectly made, and three other pieces. A tall, dark dresser, curved at the front, all the drawers stacked in elegant symmetrical unison, a shorter, wider dresser with a huge mirror affixed at the back and twelve graceful drawers, and a single prim nightstand that divided the two twin beds. Years later she met a furniture expert who looked at this mahogany set in her guest room upstairs and said, “Ooohhh, that’s probably a Drexel.” The expert pulled out one drawer, saw the confirming stamp on the side, and said, “Even in this condition you could get $10,000, easy.”

She closes her eyes and continues, tip-toeing around the bedroom, turning the key on the side of the nightstand lamp, on, off, on, off, so she can see the two china globes light so delicately, taking their turns. She was never much interested in what was in all the drawers. The tour around the house, quietly conducted for such a little girl (whose award years later from her Girl Scout troop leaders was a defining ribbon that read, “Perpetual Motion”) always led to the Japanese jewelry box on the long dresser. The outside was black lacquer, the inside had little portions lined with red satin. It had been a gift from her father to his mother-in-law, her grandmother, when he was serving in WW II as Lt. Commander of the USS Magoffin.

She stands in front of the dresser and reverently lifts the middle lid of the box, listening to the mournful tune that plays, and each tinkly note is still sharp and clear in her memory, over half a century later.

She sees herself close the jewelry box, then walk through the house to the kitchen back door, which led to an attached screened porch on the side of the house. A clean cement slab made the floor, the slanted roof was aluminum, which was so loud and comforting in the rain, and there were metal rocking chairs and a dark red stained cedar patio table along the perimeter of the porch. Mr. Clean, a yellow canary who sang and trilled and couldn’t stay out of his water dish, lived in a cage on the cedar table. She would sit close and say bird things to him, loving how he cocked his head at her and jumped from perch to perch.

Since this going back is a sunny day, she steps out of the porch onto the pink, porous cement block her grandfather has placed beneath the screen door, into the small back yard. There’s a tall, shady tree close to the house, a rose garden with pale pink and yellow wide blooms she pushes her nose into, and some common bladed grass, rather than the springy dichondra lawn her parents had opted for.

She can hear the clatter of dishes being set on the kitchen table. The conversation of her parents and grandparents inside. She doesn’t know why her brothers aren’t there.

She was never invited to spend the night there. There was no sitting on a squishy lap for the reading of a book. She doesn’t remember being asked even one question (How is school going? What books have you read lately? Would you like to help me bake cookies?) or looked upon with delight. She knows they cared, but whether or not they loved has never been firmly established. They came from a different generation of course.

A screech coming from the dining room breaks her reverie and she’s back in her own home, knows her periwinkle colored parakeet, Phoebe, wants a morning greeting and a new stem of millet. She looks around her at the antique mahogany Drexel bedroom set now in her own home these sixty years later, and hums the tune from the jewelry box, long gone.

She has been told lately that she is cold and dismissive, that she is unable to make good human connection or change for the better. She has gone back to rake through the bits to see why this might be, what molds she was poured into that have shaped and hardened into what she is today.

She gleans no shiny treasures that would make her cry, “Aha!”

Except perhaps, just one.

It was in this yellow stucco house on Delay Avenue that she was clothed in a frilly dress and black patent leather Mary Janes. Her own lacy anklets were cuffed perfectly. Her hair brushed while she whined. From this circle driveway, the 1957 Buick LeSabre station wagon carried her off to Sunday School when she was three years old. She was taken into the pretty church, introduced to the warm and loving middle-aged teachers, and then her father drove home, returning to pick her up two hours later.

And this verse comes to her mind.

Philippians 1:6 – And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

She takes the gem and moves it in the light.

Wednesday’s Word — Edition 158

July 3, 2024 | My Jottings

“A car is made to run on gasoline, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on himself. He himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other.”

~~C. S. Lewis

Support for the Sojourn

June 7, 2024 | My Jottings

(Our grief support group has been meeting for many years now, and I thought I’d repost something I wrote about these dear people when I was first getting to know them….)

Twenty minutes after nine. She makes sure the front door is locked, takes her black wool pea coat from the hook in the entry and puts it on, slips her feet into the black suede oxfords with a retro wing-tip design, drops her iPhone into the middle pocket of her sizeable Vera Bradley purse, and heads to the garage. She starts the Outback, pushes the Robin Mark CD into the player, and backs out of the garage and over the berm of snow at the end of her driveway, piled there by the snow plow last week. The streets are wet, not icy, which means it’s already in the mid-thirties. Unusual for February, and not a good sign for the planet they say on the news, but it makes her feel hopeful and glad. The worst of winter has passed. Even if March brings blizzard after swirling blizzard, piles of snow never seem as sinister as temperatures that plummet to twenty-seven below.

She drives the few miles to the hospital and sings with the Irishman,

“Lord Jesus may Your Spirit come
And make this a holy place
For we have longed to gaze
Upon the glory of Your face.
Then every selfish will exposed,
And every vain desire
Are humbled and then purified,
By Your holy, holy fire,”

and it makes her think for the billionth time about her Michael, now moved on to the place and the Person of whom she sings.

She turns into the parking ramp across the street from the hospital, reaches out of the car window to press the blue button and take the ticket that pokes out, then drives to level P3, where she parks in the “Compacts Only” area near the new elevators that will take her up to the skywalk. She steps out of the elevator and passes medical personnel in periwinkle blue scrubs, professionals in work dress who nod, and people walking through the enclosed and windowed sidewalk, three stories up. She looks down on the street below and wonders how many of those cars hold people with pounding hearts and red eyes, hoping today will bring better news of their loved ones in the huge brick building.

Two years ago she was one of those people, doing normal things like driving, parking, walking, breathing, praying, while watching her husband withdraw from this world, preparing to cross over to a timeless land she could not yet enter.

This is why she put on her pea coat and zippered black suede shoes and got in her Subaru to drive downtown, to be with a group of fellow grief-travelers twice a month, where nothing is expected and everything is understood.

She waits for the elevator and hits the button for the second floor, down one from the skywalk. The signs taped to the walls point to the carpeted room next to the chapel where between twelve and sixteen people gather, pouring coffee, hanging coats, giving hugs, settling down into upholstered chairs. A facilitator will begin the meeting, going over guidelines for newcomers (crying is fine, expected, and we will wait for you to get through it or you can pass, this is not a therapy group but a support group and we learn from each other, remember to share your name and the name of your spouse and how he/she died, if you have to leave early feel free to slip out quietly, the bathrooms are down the hall to the left) and at ten o’clock they begin.

She feels glad to see everyone there. Dignified Noel, with his hearing device that he places on the coffee table, Dan, with his shock of white hair and shy manner, Vicki, with her knee brace and beautiful empathy, Sandy with his brotherly love and Christian faith that warms everyone. She sees Jim, who wears his grief and joy on his face and makes them all laugh and sob, Lovely Barb, who is furthest on the road they share, hopeful, serene and expectant now, Rod, who drives from almost-Canada to be there and can’t yet speak without the pain cutting his words short, Brenda, kind and sweet, who made a quilt for Vicki’s grandbaby, and Jo, who has lost husband and father, and whose humility and quiet sharing reveal real depth. She sees Lloyd in his chair, man of few words with feelings he either can’t or won’t bring to the surface, Mike, trying to navigate life with his daughters after the sudden death of his wife, and Faye, who also remembers the awfulness of Lewy Body Dementia. Chuck is there for the first time in a while, the oldest member of this senior group, and he deals with his sorrow by sitting with hospice patients who would otherwise die alone.

They know each others’ grief stories. Pancreatic cancer, Parkinson’s, aneurysm and ALS. Death by car accident, by dementia, by stroke, by Agent Orange.

She hadn’t planned on attending any grief support groups, because she thought she had wonderful support already. Family and friends have been so good to her. But Vicki, whose life mirrors her own in countless ways, encouraged her to come, and she has made it a priority for over a year now.

They listen. Pass Kleenex. Welcome the new, tentative folks who wander in with their fogs of sorrow. Heads nod in complete understanding when someone shares. Sometimes a smaller group of them go out for lunch or coffee after the meeting ends, and sentiments are expressed about having friends who truly understand the ways of grief and the scarcity of maps for this journey they were put upon, the emotional ditches they wander into, and how much the new normal hurts.

She eats the rest of her romaine and blue cheese salad while Noel finishes his seafood chowder beside her. Jim works on the sandwich he picked out thinking it was only a croissant, Lloyd crosses his arms and rests them on the table after crumpling up his napkin, ready to bring some of those few words forward now that the group is smaller, perhaps safer. Across from her, Brenda is a good listener and offers cheerful encouragement. She’s thinking about selling her house and moving into an apartment. Shoveling snow when one is sixty-nine is getting old. Sandy says something about how they’re always going to be there for each other, how they’ll keep coming back to this grief group because there are no expectations here about how long they can sorrow, and how they understand each other so well because they’re on the same difficult road.

She wants to believe this is true, but something deep inside tells her it’s probably not. Already one of their group has met a widow at his church and fallen deeply in love. He stopped in at the meeting a few weeks ago, bringing a photo of the two of them smiling and glowing, cheeks pressed together, and wanted to say goodbye to the group he no longer needs.

She knows this will happen again with others, and she knows it will most likely be the men. She thinks that often men need to have someone in their lives to cook for them and take care of them, that perhaps they aren’t as comfortable with aloneness and silence as women are.

After a couple of hours, the lunch/grief group pushes their chairs away from the table and they all pull on their coats. Hugs are exchanged, hats are placed on bald heads, parting words are spoken about anticipating the next meeting in two weeks.

She walks to her car across the parking lot partially covered in melting snow, thankful for the rubber soles on her shoes. She drives the winding roads past the cathedral and looks at the gorgeous, expansive view of the Great Lake that never fails to uplift. The winter sun transforms the lake into an enormous blue field strewn with glittering gems. She lets her mind recall how it felt when her soon-to-be husband brought her here from sardine-packed Southern California almost thirty-six years ago.

She feels grateful for this group of sojourners she sees twice a month, and the comfort and fellowship they offer. She prays for some of them as she hangs up her coat, puts her shoes on the floor tray to catch the snow, revels in the little howls of greeting her dog gives, and opens the French doors overlooking the lake to let her out. She walks to the bird cage and greets Phoebe the parakeet with a ch-ch-ch sound that makes her hop from perch to perch.

She fills the tea-kettle and sets it to boil on the stove. She walks down the hall to the office and turns on the Mac to get some work done before it’s time to cook dinner. Pounded chicken breasts sauteed in butter and lemon, maybe. Asparagus. She wishes she had bought a baguette while she was still out.

Before she returns to the dining room to let her aging and scruffy Schnauzer back in, she checks the big calendar on her red and cream toile-wallpapered office wall, making sure the words “Grief Support Group” are written on the square for Wednesday, two weeks from this day.

The Day The World Almost Blew Apart

May 31, 2024 | My Jottings

(This granddaughter will be a senior in high school next year, and heading off to college before we know it. I’ve been thinking about what a treasure she is, and how, one day years ago, was one I’ll never be able to forget. Reposting the story today….) Photo by Reyna Meinhardt

One winter afternoon my seven year-old granddaughter went missing, and for the first time in my life I knew what genuine terror felt like.

It was in early 2014, and I was sitting in the living room with Michael as I always did, once we’d reached the point in his illness (Parkinson’s with Lewy Body Dementia) where I couldn’t leave him alone anymore for more than a minute or two. I was keeping him company as he watched Bonanza on TV. My thoughts had turned again toward how I was going to make dinner and keep him from getting up on his own and hurting himself, how could I once again try to explain to him and actually have him understand, that I’d just be in the next room and would be back with him soon.

The phone rang and it was my son-in-law Chris, asking if seven year-old Margaret had come over to my house after school. She had not. Adrenaline shot through me, and in two seconds my mind leaped to this sickening conclusion: Margaret didn’t make it home after school, some evil man had taken her and they were already on their way out of state, we would never see her again, and darkness and despair would engulf and paralyze our family, and we’d never claw our way out of it. The fear that gripped me felt truly hellish.

I quickly moved to help Michael downstairs into the basement, then out to the attached garage and into the car. We raced over to Chris and Sharon’s neighborhood, where several friends were already going door to door asking about a pretty little dark-haired girl in a khaki school uniform and a pink coat. The police were called. A photograph of Margaret was given. A white van with no windows that had been seen exiting the alley around the time Margaret normally got off the bus was reported.

We tried to reach Sharon, my oldest daughter and Margaret’s mom, but her phone was off because she was busy with a photography session at her work studio. In minutes three police cars rolled up, and Chris and Sharon’s house was searched. Chris could tell he was under suspicion, because those closest to a child always are. After the police searched the house once, they asked for permission to search the entire property again, looking deeper and more carefully this time — in the basement behind the furnace, in the attic crawl space, in the garage rafters, under the tarp in the back of the truck.

Margaret knew the rules, that she could never under any circumstances talk to a stranger, or allow them to get close if she could help it. She was an obedient, bright and lively little girl. We all knew she would never have willingly gone with someone. I couldn’t help thinking about how we are the products of a society with Elizabeth Smarts and Jacob Wetterlings and media reporting that never lets up, so we choose the lesser of two evils and instill an unnatural fear in our little ones rather than risk losing them forever to sick perverts.

Had I ever prayed before this day? Had any of my years of seemingly earnest prayers since learning about God’s love and power in my three year-old Sunday School ever really been as true and desperate as this? As Michael and I drove around with our windows open in the bitter cold, the car heat and radio off so we could hear any little cry, I whispered under my breath a thousand times, please God, please God, please God, with every pound of my heart.

Up and down the streets we drove, looking left and right, stopping every single person we saw and asking if they’d seen a pretty little girl with dark hair, a khaki school uniform and pink coat? No one had. As I drove east on Superior Street I saw a squad car one street down, driving slowly, looking for my flesh and blood whom I wasn’t sure got a hug and kiss from me the last time I’d seen her.

By this time Sharon had been reached and she had joined in the search. How she was not screaming, I didn’t know. A quiet, fierce determination was on her face as she drove and looked and drove and looked, urgently leaning forward over the steering wheel.

Margaret’s friends’ families were called. No one had seen her. The bus company was called, the bus checked to no avail, and prayer chains activated in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Tennessee.

When the sun began to set, Margaret had been gone for over two hours. I had to stop searching and go home to begin dinner and evening cares for my two foster women with disabilities. I wanted to tear my skin off my body with the cruel incongruity of needing to go home to make salad and spaghetti for our fosters and help my husband go to the bathroom while my beloved granddaughter had vanished.

I knew that if the next day came and she was still gone, I would never again be able to do normal things.

After I filled a pot with water and set it on the stove to boil, I went to our bedroom. I vividly remember laying across our bed, putting my face into our sheets and wailing out my prayers to God. I didn’t care if the neighbors heard, and I knew our fosters would be sitting in their rooms wondering what had happened to their foster mom, but that didn’t deter me from sobbing. While my ailing husband sat helplessly in a bedroom chair, quietly distressed and unable to speak well, I howled out my plea to God. PLEEASE! Bring her back! God! You know where she is! I paced, I sobbed, I slashed the air with my hands as I prayed. I got back down on my knees again and pleaded, “Michael, pray with me!” and he bowed his head and whispered the most urgent, “Help us Jesus!” prayers his frozen body and fading mind would allow.

Somehow I served dinner. As the winter sun went down and the outside temperature dropped, my body slowed from exhaustion, but my mind was still under siege: I felt like I was close to losing my grip on sanity. I couldn’t allow my thoughts to wander to what might be happening with Margaret.

I kept crying and praying, begging God to give me another chance to show my love to my precious granddaughter. I couldn’t even bring myself to ponder what her parents were going through as they searched the streets and empty lots, and went door to door for hours.

When the phone rang and I heard Sharon’s elated, “They found her!” I sank to the floor and sobbed in relief and joy. Margaret had gotten off the bus and accepted the invitation of a new little girl in her class to come over and play. She had called out this information to her sister Eleanor and assumed she had heard.

A police officer who’d been searching for two hours spied a little girl with a pink coat bouncing up a neighborhood street on her way home after a nice time at her new friend’s house. Margaret was alarmed when he stopped her and asked her name, then insisted she get in the car with him so he could take her home.

I wept out the words thank you thank you thank you to Jesus over and over that night. I will never be able to thank Him enough for the priceless gift of Margaret. For the riches of all my grandchildren, my daughters, for life.

My own grandmother never hid the fact that she was, at best, ho-hum about having me for her granddaughter. She never really showed me much love or interest. As each of my grandchildren have entered the world and gloriously turned our hearts and lives upside down, I’ve wanted to be different, and make certain they know how much I treasure them.

I don’t think I’ll ever be the same after Margaret came back to us on that historic day. That experience simultaneously freed and imprisoned me.

To the frustration of all my grandchildren, when they ask to leave my yard, perhaps to skateboard down the sidewalk, or ride their bikes on the nearby Lakewalk, unless I’m with them the answer is always no.

But to their reluctant grins and and I hope their delight, they never leave my presence without kisses and hugs, words of encouragement, games of Farkle, and a thousand or so I love yous.

Afraid to Fail

April 30, 2024 | My Jottings

Have you ever missed out on something wonderful in life because you were afraid to fail? I have. More times than I care to count.

When I was little I quickly learned the things I did well (swimming and reading, mostly) and spent a lot of time doing those things. But there were things that I was not good at, and while I don’t think I gave it as much thought as I am doing with this post, I kept a low profile when it came to those things.

I was not a fast runner, not a lover of upper levels of math, or someone who was surrounded by swarms of friends. So instead I played basketball, concentrated on the literary parts of my education, and savored my two or three close friendships. I didn’t know it then, but I can look back now and see that I may have had a fear of failing.

My dad was a basketball coach at my high school from the 1940s until the 1970s. I tagged along with him to almost all the games, sitting in the bleachers and watching the basketball excitement cheerleaders. Even when I was seven years old I knew all the cheers, knew all the cheerleaders by name, and would go home and practice cheers in front of the sliding glass window that led from our family room to our patio. I can still do some of those cheers today, but I am certain you would not want to see this.

I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a cheerleader. At the end of my freshman year of high school, I tried out for cheerleading and miraculously made the squad. In Southern California at that time, one group of six cheerleaders was chosen for the whole school year. We didn’t have a group of cheerleaders for each sport like they do where I live now. My squad had cheerleader uniforms for the football season, the basketball season, and we had what we called a rally uniform for when we had pep rallies during school assemblies and did some of our cheers then.

In order to be a cheerleader one had to go through four weeks of cheerleader training after school, where we learned to do the different jumps (air splits, Russians) and the different cheers and the various contortions required. Then the forty of us went through Screen Outs, where professional cheerleading judges were brought in and we tried out in front of them. This narrowed the approximately forty of us down to twelve, and the results were posted all over the school the next day. I was ecstatic to see that I came in third place. But the next part of the competition was what made me the most nervous. The entire high school then had to vote on the twelve girls who made Screen Outs, and the six with the most votes out of those twelve would be the cheerleaders for the following year. I wasn’t certain of my popularity and thought there was a pretty good chance I would not win.

So when I did, I was thrilled and a bit relieved. Maybe I wasn’t the geek I thought I was. And being a cheerleader during my sophomore year in high school was a blast. I was on the squad with five other girls I hadn’t known very well before this, and each one of them was a jewel. Over the next year we competed in different cheerleading competitions, went to San Diego State University for a week of cheerleading camp, had practice two times a week after school, rode on the buses to the games to cheer the teams on, wore our uniforms to school on game days, tried to generate a lot of school spirit during the games, and made lots of memories I still carry with me.

As my sophomore year drew to a close, it was time to think about trying out again for cheerleading the next year. But the more I thought about it, the more I grew afraid that I wouldn’t make it again. I thought that being chosen once was a near-miracle, and that my chances for being voted in two years in a row were unlikely. So rather than just do my best and see what happened, I didn’t try out again. When people asked me why I wasn’t trying out for cheerleading the next year (because most people just kept right on trying out for cheerleading once they’d made the squad) I just casually answered that I didn’t want to. This was not the truth. I really did want to be a cheerleader again, but I was afraid to fail. So rather than try and fail, I just decided not to try at all. And maybe I missed out on another year of wonderful memories.

Here’s the yearbook photo of our cheerleading squad in 1973. Our uniforms were cardinal (deep red) and white:

L-R: Cindy Akin, Shelly Zahrt, Desiree Giambrone (in back), me (doing splits in front), Shawn Cover, Trudy McRae.

How about you? Have you ever refrained from doing something because you were afraid you would fail at it? Have you ever not reached out to someone because you weren’t sure they would accept you? What kinds of things have you missed out on because you didn’t want to fail?

I have failed at marriage, at friendship, at mothering, at being a good Christian, at loving well, at so many things…

And I keep failing. But I’m going to keep trying. With God’s help, I will face my failures, ask Him to help me get back up, trust that He’ll help me do better next time, and try again.

Blind Judas, Seeing Mary

March 29, 2024 | My Jottings

On Monday I was reading from a devotional book called Magnificat, and the writer isn’t credited. What was written about Mary anointing Jesus with oil and Judas’s indignant response to it hit me hard. I thought I would share.

Judas thought Mary’s anointing was wasteful, preventing the costly nard from benefiting the poor. In point of fact, it served precisely that purpose when, “the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.”

The worst sort of poverty is to be unaware of or unmoved by the Savior’s presence, and Mary’s action drew the attention of everyone to Jesus….are we willing to “waste” our lives for the love of Jesus? To be embarrassingly attentive to Him? Do we believe He is worth it?

May your Easter be full of His life and hope,


February 23, 2024 | My Jottings

I have a few good memories of my brother Steve.

When my first marriage ended suddenly while living in Germany, I was 22 and my daughters were 2 years and 8 months old. We returned to Southern California to get our bearings, and Steve and his first wife were very good to my little girls. They took toddler Sharon to their favorite salon in Beverly Hills for her first official haircut. We delighted in the way Sharon said, “Unca Steeb got my hair cut in Bebbaly Hills!”

He would get down on the floor with my girls and play with blocks and dolls, and read books to them. He laughed at their antics and hugged and kissed them. They adored him for the short time he was in their lives. Once my divorce was final, my girls and I moved to a beach city an hour away when I got a job, an apartment and began life as a single mom. Steve’s marriage ended not long after that and he was involved in trying to recreate his own life, so we didn’t have much contact.

But the way he doted on my young daughters is what I remember most fondly.

I had two older brothers. Larry was 15 years older than I, Steve was 10 years older. In many ways I was like an only child, since by the time I was 8, both of my brothers had moved out. My most vivid memories of my brother Steve all revolve around the way I knew he felt about me: I was his pesky younger sister. I know he must have loved me because we were siblings, but he was more often dismissive of me. Sometimes he teased me by putting his front teeth over his lower lip as if he had an overbite, making a goofy rodent sound and calling me Bucky Beaver. Those were the days before my braces. He also liked to scare me a lot. He used to hide behind a door or crouch outside in the brick-bordered flower bed under my bedroom window at night, and when he saw me he would jump out and yell a loud and deep “mwahahahaha!!” and he would laugh when I cried or got mad at him for doing that.

I’m told he was a sensitive little boy, and I know now that he was secretly and violently bullied by my older brother.

Steve didn’t like to get dirty even when he was young, and didn’t want to be a boy scout because that meant camping, which meant getting dirty. He used to shower twice a day as an adult. He always looked nice, dressed well, took care of himself.

Here’s a picture of Steve in 1949, when he was two years old.

He loved peanut butter and jelly and milk. He used to take a spoon and scrape out a dollop of Skippy, and then a plop of Welch’s grape jelly on top of that for a quick snack, washed down with a swallow of Foremost milk from the carton. He loved graham crackers and milk. I remember seeing him when he was a teen, dipping a layered pile of long graham crackers into a bowl of milk, and biting off the soft, mushy ends. To this day I could have that same snack if I’d let myself.

By the time he was in junior high school he was excelling in basketball. We had a basketball hoop on our garage on Eckerman Avenue in West Covina, and Steve shot baskets constantly. He carried a basketball with him in the house, and used to effortlessly spin and balance it on the tip of his finger. My dad was the basketball coach at Covina High School, and by the time Steve attended there, he was a star player. Because he was only 6′ 1″ he was a guard, but he was quick, a superb shooter and ball handler, and he held the school record for assists decades after he graduated in 1965.

I didn’t know then how strained the relationship was between my dad and Steve. I think as long as Steve did well on the court, things were okay with them. But after he graduated from high school and went to college and didn’t finish, things between him and my dad deteriorated. My dad could have been a more supportive father. He showed dictator-like qualities toward his sons that he didn’t toward me. He put his coaching before his family at times. Then my father divorced my mother after 31 years of marriage and that seismic event made us all into people we didn’t want to be. I have some pretty awful memories from those years. One of those horrible memories resulted in complete estrangement between my dad and Steve, and Steve legally changed his last name from Sooter to Brontë.

Steve tried high school basketball coaching, but it didn’t last. I was never sure why. He married his long time girlfriend and they both had good jobs and a lifestyle that included frequent French dining in Beverly Hills, shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue, and European trips.

Over the years Steve and my dad would have tentative contact with each other and it seemed like things were going to mend, but harsh words and accusations would always erupt and then it was over again. Sometimes for years.

I don’t want to write too many details, but what should be mentioned is that unforgiveness and bitterness can change a person into someone hardly recognizable if those choices are left to stand for years. Steve never got the kinds of apologies from my father that he should have had. Pride is also a great destroyer.

When Michael and I married in 1981, it was the last time my family was ever together in one place. This photo was taken on that day.

From left to right: me (age 23), Carolyn (age 2), Sharon (age 4) and Steve (age 33).

As decades passed, my brother did and said things that stunned the rest of us, and we were a family by DNA only. My brothers were estranged from each other, from my father, my parents were divorced, and my brothers came in and out of my life as their moods struck them.

Steve married again and had two children. His wife and grown kids are beautiful and have trusted God to get them through the hell that was their existence. Steve eventually ruined every relationship he had, and his family had to try to survive apart from him. They moved to a state where decent jobs could be had, and Steve stayed in California and mostly lived in his car.

I never quite understood why Steve alternately loved and hated me. Once in a while I would get an email from him, apologizing and asking for a fresh start, and we would try to begin again. But invariably it would all fall apart when I refused to hate or disown my father for letting his family down. I was terribly confused and disappointed by the things I learned about my dad, but I had seen the wreckage bitterness brings, and I didn’t want to let my pain bring me to that. So then the fragile beginnings Steve and I were making would collapse and he would cut me out of his life with vitriol and cruel, mocking hate mail. I wouldn’t respond, and the wall around my heart got thicker and taller. This happened at least a dozen times. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him, I just didn’t trust him. I had deep compassion for him, and deeper suspicion, all mixed together.

He used to check in on this blog, and he usually left comments that were reminiscent of the Steve I knew could be — loving, sensitive, funny, compassionate. My heart would wrench at those times and I would think to myself that maybe it was time to reach out to Steve after so many years had passed and try again to have a brother-sister relationship.

In September of 2016 I was walking in the cemetery where Michael is buried, as I love to do. The maples were showing off their glowing oranges and golds and crimsons, and leaves drifted to the ground around me as I strolled. My cell phone rang and I didn’t recognize the number, so I let it go to voicemail. When I listened to the message it was Steve, saying hi in that old voice of his that told me he was more himself that day. He knew from my blog that Michael had died. He was still estranged from his own family and I don’t think he ever fully understood that it was his doing. His words told me he was feeling wistful and wished that he and I could have a real, supportive, brother-sister relationship. He told me he loved me and asked me to return his call, words I’d heard a hundred times. Only someone who knows Steve could understand why I wouldn’t just punch in his number and call him back right that minute. He perceived my guardedness and silence as unforgiveness and anger. I knew it was self-preservation and the unwillingness to open the door to drama and strife in a time of my life when Michael’s health was fast declining. Only someone who has gone through something like what our family did can truly understand that you can love a person and still not trust them. Steve never understood that.

But that golden morning at the cemetery tears came to my eyes and I prayed to the Lord about Steve. My heart hurt at what his life had become, and how easy it had been for me to just keep the lid of that Pandora’s box locked. I told the Lord that if He wanted me to try again with Steve, I would. I would answer Steve’s call the next time he rang.

But he would never call again.

The Los Angeles County coroner thinks my brother died of a heart attack on October 1, just three weeks after his call to me. He was found almost three days later, in the business of an old photography friend of his, who had been letting him stay in a shed of sorts at the back of the building. He died alone, not connected to his family, and I had not responded to his pleas to call him back.

His family decided that there would be no funeral or service, no obituary, no way of memorializing him whatsoever. I do not pretend to understand what they experienced, and have nothing but love for them. All three of them are beautiful people who have weathered the storm of their lives in ways I can only surmise was due to the grace of God.

As much as I’m trying to here, I have not been able to put words to what I feel after knowing that Steve’s message to me in September was his last. Sorrow, guilt, regret, unbelief, grief….these words only touch the surface of the turmoil that sloshes around in my heart when I allow myself a few minutes to ponder his life and passing.

My one consolation is for the both of us. Steve was a believer in Jesus, and even though his faith never worked itself outward as much as it should have, there is no doubt in my mind that he cried out to the Lord every day.

I also am a believer in Jesus. And my faith hasn’t worked itself outward in the radical changes I have hoped for either.

And I cry out to the Lord every day.

He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
    so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
    he remembers that we are dust.

As for man, his days are like grass;
    he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
    and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
    and his righteousness to children’s children,
to those who keep his covenant
    and remember to do his commandments.
The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
    and his kingdom rules over all.

Bless the Lord, O you his angels,
    you mighty ones who do his word,
    obeying the voice of his word!
Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
    his ministers, who do his will!
Bless the Lord, all his works,
    in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul!

Psalm 103:10-22

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Good News

January 18, 2024 | My Jottings

Hello friends. It has been so cold here in northern Minnesota these last several days, I’ve been setting my alarm for dark thirty so I can drive my foster gal to the bus stop. Normally she walks to catch the city bus herself, knows how to dress herself warmly and looks forward to her part-time job each day. But when it’s eight degrees below zero, I don’t want her skin hitting the air for long. Frostbite is a serious thing.

I am not fond of the trendy five-second rule for springing out of bed within five seconds of the alarm’s sounding to get the show on the road. At my age I prefer the 900-second rule. I need about fifteen minutes of slowly waking. I might raise the head of my electric bed and pull the covers up, looking out toward Lake Superior in the dark. I might reach for my phone and play the day’s devotional from the Pray As You Go app. I probably do get up to go potty, but then I click up the heat and hunker down beneath the covers again until I feel my room warming up. I reach for my little clip-on reading light and ask the Lord to speak to my heart through the epistle, the psalm, and the Gospel scriptures I’ll read.

Then after holding firmly to my 900-second rule, I get up, take my keys and my phone, and while I’m still clad in my nightgown, my sweet foster gal and I head to the car and set out in the still and white neighborhood, up the hill away from the steaming Lake to the sheltered bus stop. She pulls on her mittens, thanks me cheerfully for the ride, and gets out of the car to stand in the sheltered shed, where the bus will stop for her in a few minutes. I make a U-turn on the deserted main road and drive home. I make my coffee, warm up a wheat-filled heating pad in the microwave to wrap around my always-chilled neck, and pad down the hall in the dark to my bedroom sanctuary.

Here’s the Gospel (which means Good News) I read this morning, propped up in bed with a single beeswax candle lit and a magenta band of light peeking up on the horizon of the Lake:

Jesus withdrew toward the sea with His disciples. A large number of people followed from Galilee and from Judea. Hearing what He was doing, a large number of people came to Him also from Jerusalem, from Idumea, from beyond the Jordan, and from the neighborhood of Tyre and Sidon. He told His disciples to have a boat ready for Him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush Him. He had cured many and, as a result, those who had diseases were pressing upon Him to touch Him. And whenever unclean spirits saw Him they would fall down before Him and shout, “You are the Son of God.” He warned them sternly not to make Him known.   Mark 3:7-12.

As I sat and slowly read this, of course I tried to picture the details. Jesus being so pressed in by the hordes of people with such desperate needs, He was close to being crushed. I’ve been to Disneyland and Disney World, two places that come to mind that at times can have such crowds you can barely walk along without having someone within inches of you. But I have never been in a crowd so dense that there was a danger of being crushed.

What struck me in this passage was the last part — the unclean spirits who cried out when they saw Him, “You are the Son of God,” and how Jesus would not permit them to say that again.

They weren’t wrong. He was and is and ever will be the Son of God. Demons and their father satan always lie, but evidently they can’t lie about Him. But why did Jesus sternly warn them to stop saying He was the Son of God?

I’ve heard sermons and read things with excellent theological explanations about why Jesus forbade some people (and unclean spirits) from spreading the word about Him, mostly regarding the timing of His ministry. It was not yet time to declare He was the Messiah… there was still more for Him to do before He could permit His arrest and mock trial and eventual crucifixion.

But this morning I thought, Jesus will not permit the Gospel to be preached by demons. The Good News of Jesus Christ is to be preached by people. And by all creation. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says the rocks will cry out about who He is. In Isaiah we’re told that mountains and hills will burst into song about the Good News, and that the trees of the field will clap their hands with joy. Which, by the way, I totally believe, and think of reverently and joyfully on a breezy fall day in Minnesota. When I watch a nature program on television that shows slow aerial footage of the Alps or the Rockies, I think to myself, “I can’t hear their song with my own ears yet, but they are singing out about the glory of God.”

I do not have the gift of evangelism. I don’t have the courage to stand on a street corner and preach the Gospel like some do. I think I might have other gifts. But this morning as the sky pinked up and I read and reread the verses from the Gospel of Mark, I thought of how good news is preached to me every day.

The other night I was able to sit with my nineteen year-old granddaughter and gently brush her beautiful, long auburn hair. I remembered how I used to do the same thing when she was a little girl, and she’d patiently sit while I French-braided it. Being close to her and feeling her love and the life within her, being able to love her back, was good news to me. To pray for her is a privilege. A gift from the Son of God.

That same night my eleven year-old granddaughter asked me if she could put makeup on me. She washed her hands, gently applied moisturizer to my face, let me choose the dramatic sparkly burgundy-colored eye shadow, slowly and softly put a bit of mascara on my old-lady lashes, smiled her beautiful smile at me, and made me feel drenched in good news. She and her older sister are my own flesh and blood, and the Lord saved my life when I was fourteen years old so I could be brought to my sixty-sixth year to know and love them.

My twenty-one year-old granddaughter texted me last thing before I slept last night, and first thing this morning. What a gift. My delight for her cannot be plumbed.

I recently shared a restaurant table with my three daughters, who are the blood in my veins. To look upon their faces, into their eyes, feel the depth of love I have for them no matter what we are all going through, was good news to me.

Today I will brave the bitter cold and drive to the Subaru place to have my oil changed, tires rotated, things checked out. What unfathomable grace is it that I have a car, it has gas, I have eyes and faculties to drive it, money to pay for the service, a furnace to keep my home warm? Isn’t the Lord preaching His Good News to me every hour of every day? I am here. I am caring for you. I sent my Son to save you. You can trust me. I am your Light, your Bread, your Hope, your Life.

Unclean spirits are not allowed to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is too sacred, too wonderful and life-changing and pure and holy, for them to speak from their foul lips.

But you and I can speak His Gospel. To our loved ones in various ways, even with just a brush in hand or by putting our head back on a soft leather couch to give a child a warm memory. We can tell of His faithfulness in our lives without standing behind a pulpit and preaching a sermon.

I do want to speak words that convey His Gospel as well. I’m not very good at it. I’m still bumbling along learning to live it. I look for ways to share that in the midst of all the disappointment, hard times, turmoil and confusion of my (also richly blessed) childhood, He made Himself known to me when I was three years old. He reminds me that He is the Son of God, in charge of all, and that He brings the Good News of Himself and His love to any who would try to listen and receive.

Wednesday’s Word — Edition 157

January 16, 2024 | My Jottings

Take fifteen minutes (that’s it), leave your phone in another room, and go to the most peaceful and quiet room of your house. And just sit there, quietly. Say nothing, except, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And then listen. Just for fifteen minutes. Do nothing, say nothing, just sit quietly and listen.

The first few days it will be a little uncomfortable. You may not hear much. After a week you’ll really be starting to listen and you’ll probably love those fifteen tranquil minutes in your day. After a month you’ll be aware of little things the Lord is saying to you all the time. In a year, you’ll be a prayer professional. At the end of your life, you’ll be a saint.

There’s no magic to it, just say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And then listen. If you do that every day, I bet God will transform your life. 

~~Fr. John Hammond

Permanent rebellion

December 30, 2023 | My Jottings

One of my young granddaughters has been really getting into doing her own hair, curling it, taking care of it, letting it grow so beautifully. It made me remember how a few years back when she was still pretty little, she got her hands on some scissors and cut her own hair. It was not a happy occasion. Her parents had decided to let her hair (and bangs) grow out back then, and it was getting past that awkward stage when the bangs were too long to be worn on the forehead but too short to do anything with. Her hair had started to grow long and was looking so pretty. Then one day she chopped away at it, and her mama had to try to salvage what she had done, and bangs had to be cut once again.

That brought back to me a hair memory from my youth. When I was growing up my mom had a thing about long, stringy hair. And bangs. She disliked both. If my hair grew to shoulder length and fell down in my face for an instant, she’d say “Get that hair out of your face.” My mom was a very loving person and she didn’t say it unkindly, but I grew up in the sixties, and long hair stood for something back then. And what it stood for wasn’t something my conservative parents wanted their youngest child to be associated with in any way, shape or form.

My mom also had a thing about permanents. She thought they were adorable, especially on little girls. I didn’t really agree with her, but when you’re five years old you’re still forming your own opinions and ways in which to express them, so I never said, “Mom, can we talk? I don’t really want you to give me a Toni Home Permanent Wave. I want to grow my hair long and have pigtails and braids, okay?” I probably should have taken that route. Instead of obedience and/or diplomacy, I whined and pouted, and then took matters into my own hands.

My first permanent was when I was five years old, in preparation for a big event — my kindergarten school picture. My mom’s good friend Mabel, who was also her hairdresser (we didn’t call people stylists back then), put a tight, smelly permanent in my shoulder-length hair, and my mom thought it looked pretty darn cute. I must have thought it looked pretty darn awful. We have no pictures of me with that first perm, because that very night when my mother went to work (she was a professional organist) and my oldest brother Larry was babysitting me, I quietly slunk to my room, took my little turquoise blunt-end scissors and hacked all those curls off.

The next morning when I appeared in the kitchen for my Cheerios and milk, my mother was stupefied by the sight of my mangy look and was understandably quite upset. I remember a lot of muttering on her part, a scolding from my father, a sharply wielded hair brush as Mom tried to make my hair look presentable, and my loud sniveling crying.

1962 – Kindergarten

Here’s the Kodak memorial to the rebellion against my first perm at age five.

I actually think my kindergarten hairstyle pretty much resembles the one I have now, except I don’t wear plastic barrettes anymore and I actually pay someone money to give me the moth-eaten look.

1962 was also the year I had my tonsils and adenoids out and began a years-long trend of what my parents called “talking through my nose.” Because of the complications of the surgery, I also had the added problem of liquids sometimes running out of my nose as I drank them. Yes, I was a child of many unique talents.

Anyway, back to the subject of hair. By the time I was in junior high school I put my inner foot firmly down about short hair and perms. I decided to let my hair grow fairly long and I kept it that way, or at least past my shoulders, until I was in my thirties.

When this kindergarten photo fell out of a memento folder I was going through last week, I sat down and studied it for a few minutes, and so many memories came flooding back.

Warm and golden Southern California days, a little red bicycle with training wheels, my teacher Mrs. Staton playing the piano and singing “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” playing “store” with neighborhood friends, brothers ten and fifteen years older than I, learning to swim at The Covina Plunge, our epileptic, rock-fetching dog named Dutchess, playing hopscotch almost every day, our behemoth Buick station wagon with California license plates JDT 043, my father coaching high school basketball and watching Perry Mason, my mother playing the Hammond B-3 organ and ironing shirts, my stoic grandparents Bud and Oma and our Sunday visits to their house.

Now I’m a grandparent myself and I have kindergarten photos of my own dear grandchildren in my office, bedroom and wallet. I show them to anyone who’s polite enough to act interested in seeing them. How do I say that time flies without sounding trite and clichéd? I don’t know, but I’ll try anyway. Time zooms, it rockets, and I’ve gone from being a vulnerable, trusting, slightly moth-eaten and headstrong five year-old to being a vulnerable, trusting, slightly moth-eaten and headstrong sixty-six year-old. In what seems like about seventeen days.

I guess I’m steeping myself in nostalgia lately. I sort of like the sound of that phrase – nostalgia steeping. This morning one of my friends asked me what I had planned today and I gave her the list. I should have answered her, “I’ll probably do a little paperwork, some housecleaning, some grocery shopping, and quite a bit of nostalgia steeping.”