Tiptoe......................peeking through the gate

Breathtaking Beauty


I almost missed meeting a breathtaking woman because I was saying hello and goodbye to dozens of my parents’ friends I hadn’t seen for years and wouldn’t see again in this life. They were limping into my childhood church, pushing walkers, frail, stooped, but still smiling at me, as they had 50 years before when they were 35 years old and I was ten.

We all were back to celebrate the 100th anniversary of a church in the midwest that tore my child soul open week after week with fire and thunder; then held out the balm of sweet trios, joyful choruses and prayers so heavy with love and faith that pain and joy fought continually in my soul. The pastor who had stirred my heart to such dizzying heights and nearly drowned me in fear was there, too. He dragged one leg as he approached the podium to preach. His first words were a shot from the bow, instantly resurrecting 1960. The old fire was alive. Day and night, day and night I long for a closer walk with God! Are you given to God? How is your prayer life? Your burden for souls?

When I was ten, he had reported hearing that the Communists would have a bloodbath of 20 million U.S. Christians by the year 1970. With one sentence, my hopes for marriage and children and even graduating from high school were killed. For two years I mourned the loss of my adulthood. But by age twelve, I stood by my bedroom window one Sunday afternoon and decided to talk things over with myself.

Eve, I said, you know you will never live to marry or go to college. You will never have children. But you cannot live like this, with so much fear. So you’re going to have to pretend. From now on, you will pretend that bloodbath will never happen and you will act as though you have a future. By some wonderful mechanism I do not understand, the fear dispersed and I went forward with my childhood, pretending--until I actually believed--that I would live. Now, at age 60, all was forgiven, and I was only grateful for the pastoral fervor that had helped to set my course long before.

After the service there was a reception in the church basement. I looked with melted heart at my old Sunday School teachers. Decades ago, they had set up cardboard walls of Jericho on the table so we could knock them down; they’d handed around booklets of colored papers showing that black sins turn to white by the red blood of Jesus and take us to the golden streets of heaven. Mrs. Taulk had vouched for the truth of the Bible and described the difficult joy of taking in foster children. Mrs. Windall had shared stories about missionaries to Africa who told jungle boys and girls about Jesus. Enthralled, I would retell them to my father after lunch while he rested in his nubby brown recliner. Once he dozed off. How, I wondered, could anyone could sleep through such adventures!

The Sunday School teachers had taught us in tiny cement block basement rooms with light green walls and no windows. Our opening exercises were in a larger room with a piano. There we sang our favorites, Climb, Climb up Sunshine Mountain and Deep and Wide, complete with arm motions. We sat in long rows with the chairs squished together. That was because kids showed up for Sunday School. Fred, a man at our church, liked to draw in the local children through stunts and contests. One year he had the youth pastor squeeze 15 kids into and on top of a VW bug. Large signs on the doors read, Come to Sunday School with Us! In 1957, any kid could hop on and no one worried about kidnapping or seat belts or sexual molestation. In 1960, Fred tried to snag Sunday Schoolers by offering a brand-new product—a transistor radio—to the kid who brought the most friends to Sunday School. Even more chairs crammed the rows as neighborhood kids piled into our crowded opening exercises.

By 7th grade, the magic evaporated and I loathed every minute of Sunday School. Gary and Richard and eight other boys didn’t want to be there. They shot paper airplanes and wisecracked their way through the year while I, the only girl, tried to look interested and answer the questions the miserable Mr. J. dutifully asked. One Sunday, things got so mouthy the teacher took a swing at Richard. An hour later,  Mr. J. stood in church sobbing, begging for our prayers. I probably thought he hadn’t swung hard enough.

Our family had another connection with Fred. Back in the 1950’s we had met him at a plot of land in the country one Saturday, where he outlined his vision for an amusement park, with go-carts, kiddie golf and an ice cream stand. He had the vision but no money. My dad had the money. Dad decided to buy in, along with another partner. Two would provide the capital and Fred would do the work. They would split profits three ways. The amusement park was a great success, partially because Fred was an idea person. Every year there was a new way or two to get kids to Sunday School, and every year there were more ways to bring paying kiddie customers to the amusement park. It succeeded in part because my dad knew how to put the brakes on Fred's more fanciful plans by refusing to pay.

Forty years into the venture, the park was thriving. Fred had moved onto the grounds, along with his wife and a son or two. It was then he began pressuring my father to sell out his share. Dad said he had told Fred no, he wanted the park to be an inheritance for his three children. When I was home from the East Coast, he muttered in disgust, “I wish Fred would let this go. I don’t want to sell out my share. I wanted it to take care of Murray in his retirement.” My brother Murray was a pastor, and Dad was not impressed with the retirement packages, or lack thereof, of most pastors.

Eventually at 90, Dad caved in and sold out for a modest price. So did the other partner. Not long after, Fred turned around and sold the business for nearly eight figures. It looked and smelled rotten to the few who knew. The other partner sued and won in court. My father refused. He had his own ideas about how to settle things. One morning he dressed in a suit and asked my brother to pick him up and drop him off at Fred’s office. Afterward, Murray asked if Dad wanted to say anything. I just needed to tell Fred I forgave him was Dad's simple explanation.

I wasn’t sure I had.

Down in the fellowship hall, I was sampling hors d’oeuvres before catching my plane back East, giving final hugs between bites. It was then I saw the tall young woman standing alone with a little plate of food. She was not tall and elegant, but kind of gawky in her very long skirt and unfashionable glasses. I didn’t want to talk to her. Too many old friends; too little time. But something compelled me to go over. I extended my hand.

Hi. I’m Eve. Do you attend church here?”

The girl looked at me with peaceful eyes.

Hello. I’m Ellen Susan. Well, I used to, when I was seven. I gave my heart to Jesus here in 1962.” Her voice was high and thin, like a child’s.

This woman who could have passed for a college student was almost my age?

And what do you do?” I asked.

Ellen Susan appeared startled by the question. She repeated it quietly.

“What do I do?” There was a pause.

“Well, I worship and praise Jesus all day. I sing and dance to him.”

She said this without drama, out of a great inner calm.

Suddenly, it seemed I was in a garden of roses, where perfumed air hung all around us. This blithe soul, who sang and danced to Jesus all day, had probably given her heart to Him after hearing one of our pastor’s fiery sermons in 1962. I knew all the families in our church and I don't remember hers. She had most likely come to us through a Sunday School stunt designed by Fred. As I stood there in awe of her beauty, a wonderful release swept over me. Things came together and I understood. We sin, we err, we hurt. We love, we inspire, we stuff cars full of kids. And, somehow, through it all, or in spite of it all, the Father who loves us can draw to Himself the Ellen Susans and Eves and even the goofy 12-year-old Richards in Sunday School classes. Despite Fred's worst, God is providing for Murray, who recently retired and told me he did not need the amusement park money to survive. His pension turned out to be larger than expected. Ellen Susan made me glad for all of church, for all of life, even the pain of my own childhood that has brought the joy of healing and release.

As I excused myself from the fresh beauty of Ellen Susan, she bent down and whispered, “Thank you for saying more than hello.

The pleasure was all mine, Ellen Susan. Praise be to Him.

Poor Dad, Rich Daughter


        A hero came to work on our house, but he was hard to recognize at first. That's because he was missing some teeth and wore a t-shirt with holes in it. He wasn't trying to be trendy; he was poor. He had what some people call a beer belly. Marv was doing a plastering job for us and spent a few days at it and some chunks of time chatting with me.

        I learned that he would drink himself drunk in his twenties and miss a day's work. When he returned, the boss would stick him on roof work as punishment. Now Marv had a fellow working with him that was pulling the same stunt. He didn't show one morning and Marv was disgusted.

        He was married to Jan, who had three children by another man. That man had money, but he wasn't nice to his kids. Jan's 15-year-old daughter Kerry lived with them and Marv loved her. He loved her so much he worried about her. Kerry was really overweight, he said, but a wonderful girl. He was so proud of her, he said. She wasn't motivated, she sat around the house too much of the day, doing little but eat. But he could see she was smart. He wanted her to go to college, but didn't know how to broach the subject. He didn't want her to feel he was pressuring her; he just thought it would be good for her.

        "You have to be careful when you say things," he said, wiping some sweat off his forehead with his torn t-shirt. "You don't ever want the kids to think you aren't happy with them."

        A few months before, Kerry's biological father had insisted she visit him in another state. She went, but called Jan and Marv a day later and begged to come home.

        Before Marv finished the job, he asked if Ross and I would like an old table that had belonged to his grandfather. It was sitting in a trailer that leaked and he didn't want it anymore.His grandfather had eaten breakfast at the table as a five-year-old in 1920. It might be even older than that, he said. We drove way out in the country to Marv's old trailer and saw the table, a dark oak beauty that needed refinishing and a new clawfoot on one leg. We thanked Marv and gave him $40, which he didn't ask for.

       Warm and friendly Jan appeared. She cleaned houses for people and mentioned that with school about to start it was time to get the kids' teeth pulled. (You can fill in the dots with that last sentence.)

        Not long after this the phone rang one evening. Someone who knew Marv had worked for us thought we should know that he had dropped dead of a heart attack at age 40. Ross called Jan, and she said she would be okay. He didn't speak with the one Marv would have worried about. How does a teenage girl cope when a man who has loved her unconditionally, who has been proud of her and dreamed of what she could be, suddenly leaves? How does a girl go on without her dad?

         Because that's what Marv was. A real dad.

London, Day Four


Day Four happened more than a year ago, so the memories have a hazy quality by now. But, someone has asked for more London stories, so let’s see what can be retrieved at this late date.

An image is coming back… of me, standing in the lobby of our elegant hotel early that last morning, talking to an assistant manager about the Bedbug Letter I’d received the day before. That was the letter that assured me there were no bugs in this fine hotel, and the welts on my leg couldn’t possibly have happened within its walls. In soothing, almost singsong tones, this man was upholding the storyline, assuring me that, of course, he was sorry I had a problem on my leg, but certainly the hotel bore no responsibility.

Arguing about bedbugs was no fun, but I suffer from a condition called Responsibility Sickness, learned at the knees of my mother and father, who both lived through the Great Depression while missing one or more parents, and who felt the weight of responsibility for their own lives at far too young an age. It caused my mother to type so fast (to earn college money) that her employer at the bank paid her double the hourly rate. It caused my essentially fatherless father to assume emotional and financial responsibility for four younger siblings when he was just a boy himself.

R.S. makes me stop to kick stones and sticks off the road to possibly spare someone’s tire, or to pick up glass shards and carry them home to our trashbin. It also makes me feel guilty if I don’t. So, the R.S. was on me that morning and I wasn’t about to back down. The next guest in Room 317 would not sit down to use her computer and leave the chair with two welts on her thigh.

Would you mind coming around to see? I asked. Assistant Manager in his black pin-striped suit glided out from behind his desk. Now we were on equal footing. I turned around and pointed to Exhibit A, an angry welt right behind my kneecap. Exhibit B was too far up my leg to display. He nodded, then glided back to the safety of his desk and fished out Exhibit C: the ultra-violet flashlight that x-rays furniture for bugs. I was unmoved. May I please speak to your manager? I asked. Like Jeeves the butler, his face betrayed no annoyance as he placed a quiet phone call to a Higher Up. Within minutes, Natalia appeared.

Natalia was startlingly attractive, with creamy olive skin, a streaked blonde ponytail and deep green eyes. I showed her both welts and mentioned the letter. She tossed her beautiful head. “That’s just ridiculous,” said she. “I can’t believe you were sent such a letter. Of course, we have bugs at times in our hotel. All the hotels do!”

Ross joined us just as Natalia was handing me her card and asking if there was anything she could do for us, perhaps on a return trip? I asked her to remove the desk chair from Room 317. Ross, who does not have R.S. and rather doubted we would be seeing Natalia again, quickly made the most of the offer. Might the hotel have a spare black stone soap dish he quite admired that we could take home? “Certainly,” said Natalia. An underling was sent to fetch one, and Ross slipped it into his suitcase.

Now we were ready to start our last day in London. With time for only one stop, we chose the Wallace Collection a few blocks away. This treasury of 18th and 19th-century European pieces is located in the Hertford House, previously owned by four Marquesses and one illegitimate son. (Thumbnail refresher on British nobility: the titles run—from least to greatest—Baron/Viscount/Earl/Marquess/Duke. So Marquess is really up there.)

As I revealed in an earlier journal entry, I am not keenly interested in the contents of museums. So, what I found fascinating that morning was not all the armor and Marie Antoinette’s toiletries and the European masterpieces but rather the intriguing tidbits handed out about Sir Richard Wallace, the final owner of Hertford House and the donor who gave the lot to Britain on his death.

At this remove, with some help from Wikipedia, here are several facts about the 4th Marquess and his son, Richard:

  1. The 4th Marquess of Hertford came to England in 1816.
  2. He fathered a son named Richard Wallace in 1818, just 5 years after Jane Austen wrote her manual on 19th-century propriety and moral rectitude known as Pride and Prejudice.
  3. The mother was Mrs. Agnes Jackson.
  4. The 4th Marquess of Hertford was a neurotic recluse.
  5. Richard took his mother’s maiden name.
  6. He was raised in Paris from age six by his mother’s mother.
  7. The 4th Marquess never acknowledged his paternity of Richard Wallace.
  8. In adulthood, Richard was made a sale-room assistant and adviser to the 4th Marquess.
  9. On the death of the 4th Marquess, Richard inherited his estate but not his title.
  10. Due to his philanthropy, Richard was made a baronet in 1871, shortly after marrying his mistress, who was also the mother of his 30-year-old son.
  11. Richard's wife and son refused to assimilate in England, so Richard was never accepted in English society.
  12. He gave his estate to England anyway on his death.

These 12 points whipped up a flurry of questions. Such as:

  1. Who was Mr. Jackson, and did all of this happen before or after he married Agnes?
  2. Why was Richard raised in Paris? And why did he take his mother’s maiden name? Was it because of Agnes’ marriage to Mr. Jackson?
  3. If all of this happened after Mr. Jackson’s marriage to Agnes, why did he stay married to her? Did they work out a deal, such as little-Richard-must-go-to-Paris-and-then-I-will-keep-you?
  4. Why did the 4th Marquess make Richard his sale-room assistant when he refused to acknowledge his paternity? And why did he bequeath his estate to a son he would not acknowledge?
  5. How did Richard feel about being a sale-room assistant to such a father?
  6. Was all of this relational tangle the result of trying to uphold the standards of propriety so evident in Pride and Prejudice?
  7. Richard apparently fathered a son at around age 22, but did not marry the mother for 30 years. Why?
  8. Was Richard only fit to be made a baronet after he married his mistress, and is that why he married her?
  9. What caused Richard’s wife and son to refuse assimilation in England?
  10. Why did Richard leave his estate to the nation of England, which did not accept him, rather than to his son?

More questions than answers, none of which I could find on the internet. (A search for Mrs. Agnes Jackson only pulled up a website about a black blues singer.) Still, interesting to ponder.

The museum owned several items belonging to Marie Antoinette, including her perfume burner and commode. While staring at the ornate objects, I realized I knew nothing about Marie Antoinette except the cavalier “let them eat cake” comment so often associated with her. Back home, I checked out a biography of the French queen and discovered, to my surprise, that she came to France from Austria and married at the tender age of 14. She was the fifteenth child born to her parents. The French initially loved her, and admired her beauty and grace. Over time, they viciously turned on her, suspecting her of sympathizing with her native (and hated by the French) Austria. She was a devout Catholic.

Her husband, Louis XVI, also was a devoted Catholic and a humble, gentle man. The “let them eat cake” statement so often pinned on Marie is surely apocryphal, since the expression had floated around the Continent for several centuries. Marie did spend money like a drunken sailor, but she didn’t know any better and was only behaving like a European queen. Louis was executed by guillotine on January 21, 1793. Eight months later, at age 38, Marie endured the same fate, calmly, with faith in God.

Ross and I decided to have lunch in the Hertford House restaurant, a terrace-like room in the heart of the building. The lunch would not have been memorable, except for our French waiter. For some inexplicable reason, my menu choice gave him the giggles. I ordered gratin, a small oval dish of sliced potatoes with broiled cheese on top. That was all I wanted, having dined too well in London for several days.

“Yoost gratin?” he said with a grin.

“Yes," I said.

"Hhhhreally?” he giggled.

“Yes, please.”

More giggles. He walked away, and I saw him approach another waiter, whisper and point at me, still chortling. I didn’t care. The gratin was excellent, and I wasn’t in the mood for anything more.

I ended my days in London with a mad dash to the department store selling the official 2012 London Olympics t-shirts, certain our four children would treasure owning something one could only get in Britain. Ross wisely stayed behind at the hotel, where Natalia had arranged for our bags to be held. I ran the whole way there and back. We were the last passengers to board the plane, arriving at the gate just before they closed the door. It would have been worth it if the kids had loved their shirts. I only saw one of them wear one, twice. Last month, our youngest handed me several bags of unwanted clothing destined for Salvation Army. Right on top was the Olympic t-shirt. Never again!

I don’t remember the flight home or handing around the t-shirts. The bedbug bites are long gone, but memories of London are still alive in my mind. There is no city like it!

I Killed a Snake!


            I was a dreamy, exhausted child. The exhaustion fed the dreaminess, because I was mostly exempted from work around our house for reasons I didn’t fully understand. This left me plenty of time to nurture a rather wild imagination. (At five, I gripped the corner of my sheet during a routine night of insomnia and the thing began to stretch into a long kite-tail that sprang to life and whipped me through the bedroom window out into the street where it whirled me between houses up and down the neighborhood. Gradually it reeled me back in until I slid safely into bed. The experience was so vivid I spent several days trying to figure out if it had really happened.)

When I offered to dust or vacuum, my mother refused the help. She said I had allergies and that dust made me sneeze. My brother and sister joined my parents in spading up the garden, but I was told to stay in because the pollen would make me cough. I sat on the turquoise sofa one spring looking out the picture window at everyone else working. It didn’t strike me as odd.

                I suppose that’s because my mother, who was a pretty tough nut, really believed something was wrong. And certainly there was. Mrs. Heald, my elderly kindergarten teacher, sent a little note home with me (probably pinned to my blouse) the second day of school. It read something like this:

                Dear Mrs. Summers,

                Please do not send milk money to school with Eve anymore. She has vomited her milk both mornings. Thank you.

Mrs. Heald

                My father was a bit tougher on me. Well into my adulthood, he confessed that he was sorry he had forced me to drink milk as a child. I accepted the apology. Milk made my stomach hurt and my head ache. But in 1957 no one seemed to be talking about food allergies, so mine went undiagnosed. And there was no getting around drinking my milk at home. In first grade, I rebelled at dinner-time, which began at 5 p.m. I was told to stay at the table until my milk was gone. At 9 p.m., weary of sitting and determined not to drink a drop, I thought of a brilliant move: dump it all in the garage. My mother found the curdled mess the next morning.

On camping trips, I could dribble it away under the picnic table, little by little. All three of us disposed of our spam sandwiches by stuffing them into our pockets (Murray), wadding them up in our napkins (Kay) or grinding them underfoot into the grass beneath the picnic table (Eve). This we found out in adulthood.

But to return to my point: not much was asked of me, and this led to hours upon hours of doodling and scribbling in my ever-present notebooks, a habit that has continued to the present day. While my brother and sister fetched wood and water at our campsites on vacations, I sketched clothing designs and drew plans for the perfect campground, which featured a small oblong lake encircled by two dozen campsites, each with an English garden and a little sandy lakeshore.

                My parents were not fanciful people. They both started their lives on farms, so I might have gained a practical education if I had been working with them in or out of the house. But, being a city girl who stayed indoors, I didn’t learn much about the natural world. This has led to embarrassing moments. There was the time I worked briefly on a pig farm in Hampshire, England, shoveling a very dark pile of something wet into a wheelbarrow and transporting it to another wet pile to dump. At the end of the morning, I asked the pig farmer’s wife what I had been shoveling. Was it mud? I wondered. She looked at me quizzically to see if I was joking. “No,” she said with a smile. “That was pig manure.”

So my practical greenness showed itself again today. At ten o’clock this morning, I was busily tilling up my third row of soil for English peas in our kitchen garden when, suddenly, colors flickered through the soil. A head rose; little black eyes turned on me, and a forked tongue darted out. It moved toward me. Smash! Crash! My spade went lethal, striking everywhere as the snake wriggled and writhed. After ten wild stabs, the body went still, but the head still leered at me. I maneuvered it onto the end of my spade and chucked it over the garden wall.

I returned to spading up the soil. Something gray moved. I went after it with a smack and discovered I’d hit a toad. He was still alive, so I helped him over the fence and hoped he’d survive. A few minutes later, a cobalt blue tail shimmered in the dirt. Frightened, I stabbed at it with my shovel and then saw the whole creature—a brilliant lizard. A brown creature slithered by like a snake. At eight inches long, this thing was either the longest worm I’d ever seen or a baby snake. I took a few seconds to think. If it was an earthworm, and I cut it in two, it would still live. The spade sliced quickly and two creatures wriggled away.

Tired of playing the mass murderer in my own garden, I stopped to think. An innocent toad and lizard were now wounded or dead, and perhaps a harmless snake, too. And yet, I needed protection. Leather sandals were the wrong footgear. I left the garden to find the Wellies our daughter had bequeathed me two summers before, commenting to Ross in passing that I’d just killed a snake. He was surprised. It was kind of surprising. But it was instinctive. Locals have warned us about the snakes in the Carolina lowlands. Some of them are lethal, and I don’t know my snakes. Or my lizards or earthworms.

The experience stayed with me the rest of the day, heavy with spiritual overtones. I thought of Eve in the original garden, dealing with snakes badly. She made the mistake of cozying up to a liar, and I made the mistake of going into the garden uninformed and unprotected. What if Eve had taken a spade to the snake that day? What if I had studied Carolina snakes and worn my Wellingtons in the first place?

How do we protect ourselves spiritually? By becoming informed and staying alert; by wearing proper attire and using proper equipment. By moving fast enough but not too fast. By embracing wisdom through knowing and obeying the truth, found in the Word of God.