These Warm My Heart

February 24, 2017 | My Jottings

I have two or three “big” blog posts I’ve been working on for a while now, but every time I go back to them there’s so much to say I can’t seem to do it. The unfinished posts don’t have any bad news or for that matter, anything that’s mind-blowing, but they mean a lot to me. Maybe that’s why I’m having such a hard time getting the words out in black and white. They feel like such deep things.

Anyway, hopefully before Christmas I’ll get them done and then I’ll see what I always do, that the things that seem to loom huge in my mind always get that way because I’ve ignored or overthought them.

For today, I thought I’d share some photos of people and places that warm my heart.

The photo below is my youngest daughter Sara, who took a five week trip right after Christmas. She traipsed solo around France, Portugal, the Netherlands and Israel, and made me jealous the whole time. I dream of solo travel and have this big month-long trip to the U.K. all planned out in my mind, which I hope will be a reality before I’m too old. I so enjoyed all the photos Sara texted me almost every day, and this one was from a bicycle tour of Paris:

My oldest daughter Sharon joined Sara in early January for a week in Paris. They biked, ate, took the Seine River cruise at night, toured the Louvre, and sent pictures back of all the unique and delicious cafe meals they ate. Below, Sharon is standing in front of a hotel in Paris with her (almost) last name:

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (meaning northeastern Minnesota), my middle daughter had begun rehearsals for a play she was in at our local playhouse. I guess You Can’t Take It With You is an oldie but a goodie, first a play and then a movie in the late 1930s. I didn’t know the story but when I went to see the play last week I loved it. The play was so funny and quirky, and since Carolyn was one of the players who made the audience howl, I had to do the proud mom thing and tell the people around me (at intermission) that that young woman was my daughter. She played two characters, and below you can see her as The Grand Duchess Olga Katrina in the purple. You can click to enlarge photos if you like.

Imagine my awe and delight when I got this photo by text from Sara:

That is the real secret hiding place in the home of Corrie ten Boom in Haarlem, Holland. Sara took a train from Paris to Amsterdam and then to Haarlem, so she could tour the Ten Boom house museum.

This is Sara actually crawling out of the hiding place. What a chance of a lifetime! That’s another trip I’d love to take someday. After studying The Hiding Place this last summer with several friends, seeing this home where God’s love changed so many lives would be a dream come true.

This sweet and beautiful girl is Vivienne, my fifth-born grandchild. She is eleven, will be in middle school next year (sob!) and I want to stop the hands of time because I won’t be able to take it. Vivie loves science facts, and a few months ago when we were driving, she asked from the back seat, “Grandma, do you think that infinity has mass?”

I told her I had never considered whether or not infinity had mass, but my guess was no. Gah. Vivie is a gifted artist, a thinker extraordinaire, and loves and takes delight in her little sister Miriam and dogs Frances and Walter.

I have a special weekend planned for my two foster gals, so that’s all for now. I hope your weekend is a good one.

Wednesday’s Word — Edition 134

February 22, 2017 | My Jottings

“Restlessness and impatience change nothing except our peace and joy.

Peace does not dwell in outward things, but in the heart prepared to wait trustfully and quietly on him who has all things safely in his hands.”

–Elisabeth Elliot

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Support for the Sojourn

February 16, 2017 | My Jottings

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 N. with his hearing device that he places on the coffee table, D. with his shock of white hair and shy manner, V. with her knee brace and beautiful empathy, S. with his brotherly love and Christian faith that warms everyone. She sees J. who wears his grief and joy on his face and makes them all laugh and sob, Lovely B., who is furthest on the road they share, hopeful, serene and expectant now, R. who drives from almost-Canada to be there and can’t yet speak without the pain cutting his words short, B., kind and sweet, who made a quilt for V.’s grandbaby, and J., who has lost husband and father, and whose humility and quiet sharing reveal real depth. She sees L. in his chair, man of few words with feelings he either can’t or won’t bring to the surface, M., trying to navigate life with his daughters after the sudden death of his wife, and F. who also remembers the awfulness of Lewy Body Dementia. C. 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 V., 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 N. finishes his seafood chowder beside her. J. works on the sandwich he picked out thinking it was only a croissant, L. 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, B. 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. S. 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.

730 Days

February 9, 2017 | My Jottings

Michael moved to heaven two years ago today. He packed lightly for the move, leaving all his clothes and toys and various belongings here on earth. He even left his body here.

His clothes have been given to family members, donated to others who needed them, and a few still hang in our closet. I don’t see a need to say goodbye to them yet. People ahead of me on this journey tell me I will know when it’s time to clear everything out, and that has been helpful. Today I still want his jeans and shirts hanging nearby.

His man toys were happily given to people who could use them. I gave his fishing boat to his best fishing buddy Steve West, who regularly catches walleyes from the sixteen-foot craft on Boulder Lake. I gave his Yamaha 4-wheeler to his brother-in-law Joe, who loves the snowplow attachment it has. I gave his snowmobile to his friend Jeff Schilling, who graciously stored it for us when it wasn’t in use. I gave his truck to a dear son-in-law who needed some four-wheel drive transportation in our snowy climate. And that son-in-law gave it to another dear son-in-law recently, who needs it for hauling. It seems so right that all these items which could have been sold, instead belong to people Michael loved.

I’m so thankful Michael doesn’t need his earthly body anymore. It was a pretty nice body, and as his wife, I should know. It was strong and muscled, hardworking and active, faithful and dependable. That body provided for our family, held me close, knelt beside me to pray, shoveled snow, held babies, and filled a space in our lives that seems so huge now. When you lose someone you love, you come to experience that their absence can feel like something actually present in itself. Michael’s absence fills our home and my heart.

I visit Michael’s grave regularly, and it brings me comfort, even joy, to picture his earthly body clothed in a suit, in that wooden casket below the grass. It doesn’t seem morbid to me at all, because this is the order of things. I suppose if I didn’t believe in Jesus and the resurrection He promises His followers, then the thought of Michael’s precious body in a box underground would be a terrible thing to ponder. But that body of his was like the outer coat of a seed. When a seed is planted in the earth, the seed coat breaks down and opens, and truly miraculous new life comes forth. I know this is what has happened with Michael’s body. Yes, it will break down over the decades, but it is no more useful to him now than the outer parts of a seed are to an oak or a maple tree. The Parkinson’s disease and the Lewy Body Dementia that caused his brain and muscles to malfunction are still in that grave. No illness or disease is allowed where Michael has gone.

“We know that when these bodies of ours are taken down like tents and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrection bodies in heaven—God-made, not handmade—and we’ll never have to relocate our “tents” again. Sometimes we can hardly wait to move—and so we cry out in frustration. Compared to what’s coming, living conditions around here seem like a stopover in an unfurnished shack, and we’re tired of it! We’ve been given a glimpse of the real thing, our true home, our resurrection bodies! The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what’s ahead. He puts a little of heaven in our hearts so that we’ll never settle for less.

That’s why we live with such good cheer. You won’t see us drooping our heads or dragging our feet! Cramped conditions here don’t get us down. They only remind us of the spacious living conditions ahead. It’s what we trust in but don’t yet see that keeps us going. Do you suppose a few ruts in the road or rocks in the path are going to stop us? When the time comes, we’ll be plenty ready to exchange exile for homecoming.”  –– 2 Corinthians 5:1-8, The Message

Even though I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that two years have passed, and I will never see Michael again on this earth, I do experience grief and good cheer simultaneously. I’m so thankful for the way the Lord has seen me through.

For those of you who haven’t seen these treasures, here are a couple of links:

Click here for our daughter Sharon’s unforgettable, hilarious, touching eulogy at Michael’s funeral.

Click here to see our daughter Carolyn and her husband Jeremy sing Psalm 84 so beautifully at Michael’s funeral.

Click here to see the marvelous slide show (with our three favorite songs) played at Michael’s funeral.

Yesterday at the senior grief support group I attend, a friend shared how she once read these words of condolence: “I’m sorry for your temporary separation.” I love that. What a perfect, hopeful thing to say to someone who’s grieving.

Today, as I recall how dark and life-changing and glorious and painful and wondrous February 9, 2015 was, I am missing my husband Michael. I miss him with hope and with cheer, mingled in with the loneliness and tears.

Thank you for stopping by, and may God give you His hope and good cheer today…


February 3, 2017 | 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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