Small but Mighty! — for SheLoves

Our theme for this month is “Dangerous Women” and I decided to write something quite personal, known only to our particular family story. Maybe you’ve got a few of such ‘dangerous women’ in your own family tree? You can read the rest of this piece by clicking here.

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Elsie and Harry’s wedding day, circa 1905, two of her cousins as attendants

She didn’t quite make it to five feet tall. Born in the wilds of Alberta Canada at the end of the 19th century, Elsie lost her mother when she was just ten years old and her baby sister was three. Her dad worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway and was often gone for long stretches of time, and for the first few months after her mom’s death, Elsie ran their home.

Until she started buying more sweets at the grocer’s than nutritious food!

After that, she and her sister lived with their aunt in Vancouver, regularly attending the Salvation Army church with their three cousins. By her mid-teens, Elsie was a soprano soloist with the Army, singing on street corners, regularly attracting a small crowd. She attended a secretarial school during those years and worked in an office for a while, but then felt the tug to head to Winnipeg to go into training to become an Officer for the church.

And then — a mysterious and handsome older man heard her sing one afternoon. He was immediately smitten, and so was she. Elsie had just enough of the rebel in her spirit to choose a man 12 years older, divorced and a former gold miner in the Yukon. Very quickly, they were married and the idea of Winnipeg and officer training faded into the distance.

The couple moved to Vancouver Island, living in the town of Duncan, and Elsie’s Harry found a job in a lumber mill nearby. They very quickly had three children and Elsie was pregnant with the fourth when they decided to move to California. That move included Elsie’s sister and their three cousins plus a few friends. They piled everyone onto the train and off they went, into a future that was far from assured and fraught with economic insecurity.

They raised their four children in several different neighborhoods in the greater Los Angeles area, Elsie working full time for most of those years. Her family believes she needed a break from childcare — and all those unmarried women in the family were more than happy to provide help. Elsie Hobson was an early subscriber to the feminist ideal of equal pay for equal work!

Although she left the Army behind in Canada, her faith was still important to her. Her husband did not share that faith, but agreed that their children could attend church and decide for themselves. So each week, they’d drop the kids off at Sunday school and come back to get them later in the day. . . 

Please come on over and join the conversation. Tell us about a dangerous woman you have known – just click right here.

Remembering Her — Kathryn Ruth Byer Trautwein, January 3, 1916 – May 25, 2014

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It was a strange feeling to walk out of that room for the last time; it had been her home for the last five years, with just enough space for a few personal belongings, a private bath, and a small view of the lovely patio outside. Yesterday afternoon, we closed the door of Room 80 at the memory loss center where she lived, where she died.

We picked up the last of the furniture, filling both of our cars to do so; some of it will go to her eldest great-grandson, who will soon be setting up his own place.

It was a graduation weekend, you see. In every sense of that word. 

We got the call on Friday night. The Hospice nurse, who had been so faithfully checking on my mother-in-law each week for the last two and a half years said, “Something has shifted. This is the weekend and I just wanted you to know.” An hour later we were there, and it was true. There is a ‘look,’ an other-worldly sense that someone is not long for this plane. And we saw it.

We felt it. 

I took out my small prayer book, the gray one that I carry in my car at all times. The one with the beautiful prayers, the particular scriptures, and I made the sign of the cross on her forehead and I read the words I love so much, to this woman that I love so much:

Into your hands, O merciful Savior,
we commend your servant, Kathryn.
Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you,
a sheep of 
your own fold,
a lamb of your own flock,
a sinner of your 
own redeeming.
Receive her into the arms of your mercy,
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
and into the 
glorious company of the saints in light.
Amen.

May her soul and the souls of all the departed,
through the 
mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
– The Book of Common Prayer

And the next morning, we made the 140 mile drive south to celebrate Ben’s graduation from Chapman University, Dodge School of Film and Media Arts. And we congratulated him on winning Cinematographer of the Year and a lovely grant for his next project. We hesitated about going, but decided that if Mama were able to talk it over, she would say, “Go! Celebrate. Give Ben my love.”

And so we did. We gave him her love.

So much love.

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Kathryn with her first born, Richard, 1942

We have lived such a blessed life. We have surely had our share of pain and struggle; we have endured wildfire and near-flooding, burglary and accident, disease and death. 

But we have had so much love.

Our children were the only ones in their circle of friends who had all four of their grandparents still living and active while they were students in college. At the time of her death, my MIL had fifteen great-grandchildren, one of them named for her, many of them with stories to tell about her great laugh, her delight in them, her fabulous cooking skills.

We know how rare this is.

And what a great gift.

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On a warm summer evening in 1968, soon after that first born,
his wife and infant daughter returned from two years in Africa.

I suppose on the strange and twisted scale of celebrity and fame that captures the minds of so many, Kathryn Trautwein was not a ‘big’ name. She never caused a scandal, she never made a ‘name for herself,’ she never wrote a book. From the outside, there wasn’t much that seemed the least bit big or celebrated about her.

But she was big in the hearts of her family. She was big in the hearts of her many friends. She was big in faith, big in love, big in laughter, big in commitment and joy and service. 

She was a remarkable mother-in-law. When it became clear that her son was getting serious about this younger student at UCLA, she called, and made an appointment to meet me. We had tea together in the living room of the small Christian sorority to which we both belonged, and she asked me some good questions. I think I was 18 years old when we met.

I passed muster. Because from then on, I was included in every family gathering – and there were many family gatherings! – and assumed to be part of the tribe. I was never criticized for anything, even though I’m sure she must have had a lot of questions about decisions I made and the way I raised my kids. 

They lived 5 minutes from us, she in the house she shared with her husband for 62 years, we in three different homes, the first of which she found for us. The only time I can ever remember her saying ‘no’ to me about anything, was to a house I was considering that had a pool in the backyard with no fence around it. She never learned to swim and hated getting wet, and she could not imagine her grandbabies surviving such danger!

I’m glad she said ‘no.’ I trusted her judgment and God had a much better house in mind for us, one where we raised our three for thirteen good years. A house she loved and enjoyed, too.

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 Mama & Papa with our son, 1972, in the house that she found for us.
It was his surprise arrival, bringing our brood to three, that pushed us into house-hunting again.

If I needed help with the kids, she was there. If I needed advice about cooking (NEVER about sewing!), she was there. If I needed advice about gardening, she was there. And she was there for a long list of other people, too. She was intelligent, well-read, loved crossword puzzles, made the world’s best short ribs and a magnificent 3-layer cake.

She was an active volunteer at their church and at Christian Women’s Club, where she taught and mentored younger women, and she helped with the Women’s Auxiliary of Fuller Seminary, where I later became a student. That was probably the decision of mine that caused her the most inner anguish. She did not come from a tradition of women in ministry and she wasn’t quite sure about it. But she never doubted God’s call on my life and after my installation at Montecito Covenant, she said the most interesting thing to me: “Now, you belong to the people here.”

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 At our daughter’s wedding reception in 2011, one of her last outings anywhere, with Dick’s sister Jean,
on the patio of Montecito Covenant Church. Such a happy day, but she struggled to be there.

And she was right. For fourteen years, I belonged to those people, as one of their pastors and as a kind of through-line during a lot of challenging transitions. 

But I also, and always, belonged to my family. And she was such a central part of my family, such a central part of me. I will be forever grateful for her love and encouragement. And I will miss her until the day we meet on the other side.

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On Mother’s Day this year. She died two weeks later.

Driving into the driveway at 11:00 on Saturday night, after the graduation festivities and the long drive, we called to check. “She’s still here.” “Good,” we said, “we’ll be there tomorrow.”

And so we kept vigil all day Sunday. What a privilege to sit in such holy space, to wait while the angels gather, to greet family as they come to say good-bye, to say ‘thank you, thank you’ to the amazing aides who loved her well during her time in this place.

Our nephew came and brought his three young children. Our daughters made the long drive and brought their husbands. Our son had been there the day before. All of her ‘local’ grandchildren came by to say farewell. At 5:00, we checked out for the evening, gathering good Mexican take-out food, and eating it on our patio with our girls and their men. Just as we finished, the phone rang. 

“I went into her room to check on her . . . and she was gone.”

Just like Mama, to leave quietly, no fuss.

We returned to that space, met my friend Sherry, who is the chaplain at The Samarkand Retirement Community, said a few more prayers, picked out some clothes to send with her body, talked with the hospice nurse who made everything official.

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THIS is who she was – a beautiful, caring, faithful woman of God,
who loved her family and lived well.

Kathryn Trautwein was a true gift to this world. A brave woman, a strong one and a good one. She loved us well. We are grateful for her long life, and we are grateful for her release from it. I find myself saying ‘thank you, thank you,’ just under my breath; drifting off to sleep at night, waking in the morning, these are the words in my heart and on my lips.

She will be buried on Monday, in a crypt in Ontario CA that she will share with her husband of 64 years. Jean, Dick and I will make the long drive and I know our rich memories will carry us all the way there.

Like her father before her, she was an occasional poet. These are two of my favorites, ones we will include with her memorial folder at a service of celebration in the Chapel at The Samarkand Retirement Community in Santa Barbara on Sunday afternoon, June 8th, at 2:00 p.m.

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How like God to have His 
lamb be born in a stable.
Be announced to and first
worshiped by shepherds.
Be dumb before His
accusers then be
sacrificed for me and
be risen as my Good Shepherd.
Now I the obedient sheep do
follow him!
–  Kathryn R.B. Trautwein

Potter’s Ware

I am God’s
    signed, named, original
    not cloned with many likenesses,
    one of a kind,
made in His image,
    treasured by Him,
    valuable in His sight.
A simple earthen vessel but
Indwelt by eternity.
— Kathryn R.B. Trautwein

Learning, Un-Learning, Re-Learning: Mothering

My grandparents on their wedding day, their attendants on the outside edges of the picture.

Short and square, she could barely see over the edge of the steering wheel, but that size-five-foot managed to reach the accelerator with exuberance and commitment. My mother’s mother learned to drive just before her 60th year, and with every outing, attempted to make up for all those years of deprivation. Putting her large, General Motors vehicle in reverse, she would back out of the driveway at 30 mph, turning her car and her mind toward the street and the day ahead. This image of my small grandmother behind the wheel of a car is one of the strongest ones I carry to this day, fifteen years after her death. She was a woman of indomitable will, a gifted business person and from all I can gather, pretty much an absentee mother.

She had four children in four years and was often so completely overwhelmed by motherhood that she literally could not speak for weeks at a time. Fortunately, she had extended family nearby, maiden aunts who loved her kids and made themselves available when needed.

And were they ever needed. Nonnie went to work, you see. Her husband drank too much and gambled too much and they all needed the stability of a regular paycheck, so she did whatever she could find to do. And to tell you the truth, I think it was a relief to her. She never quite ‘got’ the whole mothering gig, although her children adored her, and hung on every word she said to them. The message my own mother got was this one: daughters take care of mothers. And that is exactly what my mother did during most of her growing-up life: she took care of Mother, standing between her parents when Grampa came home drunk, cleaning up his messes and their home, looking out for her siblings.

So when it came time for my mother to be a mother, she very deliberately did a lot of it differently. She never worked outside the home, choosing instead to nurture and support her husband and her kids by becoming the quintessential 1950’s housewife. She was a gracious hostess, a creative seamstress, a committed volunteer at church and school. One thing, however, remained exactly the same: the message she passed down to me — daughters take care of mothers.

And I got it. Oh, yes, I got it.

Mom, me and Dad when I was about two.

And I’ve spent a lot of years trying desperately to un-get it. At a very early age, I became a primary support system for my mother’s emotional health and well-being. It was not intentional, it just was. I was confided in, worried over, instructed in the ways of womanhood-according-to-mid-20th-century-conservative-Christianity, and generally expected to understand things that were far beyond my age or emotional capacity to understand. And I was a sponge for all of it, adoring my beautiful mother and wanting to be just like her.

Only, I wasn’t her. I was me. And it’s taken a lifetime to learn how to differentiate myself from her expectations and to find the courage to be the person God designed me to be, not the person my mother wanted me to be. This is a lesson I am still learning, on this the 68th anniversary of my birth. Still.

I hope the message stopped with me. I pray the message stopped with me. I was given the immeasurable gift of two glorious daughters, just 22 months apart, and then a son 30 months later. And while they were little, I carried around with me the image given me by my mom — stay-at-home, do-the-meals-and-the-laundry, be-sure-your-husband-is-happy-and-your-children-well-behaved. But I knew very early that I did not want that hand-me-down message to come out of my mouth or out of my unspoken expectations for either of my girls. More than anything, I wanted them to be their own unique selves.

Our three kids, ages 5, 3 and 1.

I did not mother them perfectly — not even close. I loved my kids more than life, but I often felt overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood. And I often felt more than a little bit lost. I hungered for adult companionship, for creative space, for more sleep! I often felt like a complete failure, impatient, distracted, inadequate. But one thing I did well — I enjoyed the ways my children were different from me and from one another. They were fascinating to me!

Even when I felt confused, even when I wondered if they’d live to see adulthood without killing one another, even when I wanted to walk out the front door and never look back — I was intrigued by who these small people were, each one so totally themselves. Yes, I was overbearing at times and yes, I sometimes expected too much from them. But this much I knew, right into my bones: I was their mother, they were my children. I was responsible for them — they were not responsible for me.

How could they be? They weren’t me. As I look back on those years, I believe that insight was a gift of grace, given to me by God, primarily through the gift of my marriage and our experience of living far away from family during those crucial early months of our married life. It didn’t come to me from my own experience of being mothered, nor from my mother’s experience of being mothered. And I hope and pray to God that this insight is the one that I communicated to my daughters, and not the one that came to me through our mysterious system of familial osmosis.

I’ve written here and elsewhere about my abiding love and admiration for my mother and my gratitude for the ways in which she and my father created such a remarkable and rich family life for me and my brothers. But this particular piece, this expectation of reverse-mothering-for-daughters — this does not land on any gratitude list. It’s been a difficult piece of my personal story for decades and I still must intentionally shrug off the debris that remains.

So I find it more than a  little bit ironic that now, at the end of my mother’s long life, after years of my own heavy-duty reflective work on this complicated piece of our story . . . I am indeed responsible for my mother’s well-being. I have a hunch I had to un-learn my grandmother’s and my mother’s version of daughters take care of mothers in order to finally be able to do that in a whole and healthy way. Time will tell . . . and grace, too.

All of us, spring of 2012. My daughters and DIL are doing such good mothering!

Joining with Emily Wierenga’s weekly theme, this week the prompt is ‘mother.’

Family Portraits #6: Uncle Chuck

This series began as an invitation from The High Calling to write a short, descriptive word picture of someone from our childhood who had an influence on us, either for good for not-so-good. I so enjoyed that invitation, that I kept going. Then Thanksgiving was upon us all, and my Wednesday Family Portrait page (I wish for the life of me I could figure out how to ‘do’ pages on this blog!) has been seriously slighted for several weeks now. No longer! I am back at it, with a list of names still to be written about. Trying to keep it to 5-600 words has been a challenge, but a worthy one. Here is the latest entry in the log:

He was a larger-than-life person to a little girl. Dark hair, swept away from his face, jowls that made you think of Santa Claus – without the beard or the white hair – and a laugh that invited you right on in. He was handsome, he was charming, he was fun and he was crazy in love with his wife and family. I loved to be around him.
And that’s a good thing, because in my earliest growing-up years, we were around him a lot. Chuck was married to my mom’s sister, Eileen (the first in this list of family line drawings). They were young when they married, and he had a little girl who was two years old. Then they had another girl and then a boy – very close in age to me and my next youngest brother. And they lived 3 blocks from us for about eight years. Many days after school, I would stroll over to their place as easily as I would my own.
We had meals together every so often. We went to Daily Vacation Bible School with their kids. Chuck met Jesus as an adult, a dad who loved his kids and wanted a good life for them. And he decided that the best life to be found was that of disciple. For years, our little family was the only one in my mom’s extended family that went to church, committed to following in the Jesus way. Then Chuck and Eileen stepped onto the path. And off again for a few years, when their beloved pastor was mistreated by his congregation. Chuck was a tender man underneath the laughter and the joie-de-vivre. And injustice was very hard for him to grapple with.
Chuck worked in the grocery industry and he worked hard. Long hours, some traveling, worries over the bottom line – these added lines to his face and stress to his life. But whenever our families gathered, all of that faded away. And we laughed together, we sang together (my mother and her sister used to sing a duet of “Whispering Hope” that wildly embarrassed their children!), we played games together. And we took some vacations together, too. I remember getaways to Rick’s Rancho Motel in Santa Maria. And I remember wonderful times at Newport Beach and Balboa where we would rent a house or apartment for the whole tribe of us.
After all of us grew up and began growing families of our own, Eileen and Chuck and my mom and dad took some wonderful trips, just the four of them – to Europe, to the British Isles, to Canada, to the northeast to see the fall colors, to the south to see the Outer Banks. And they had such a great time. Their love for each other, the fun they found together, their shared sense of adventure – these are the things that marked me deep, as a kid and as a grown-up. My father was a quiet man, very reserved and private. But he loved Uncle Chuck’s gregariousness, his social ease and his ready sense of humor. When Chuck became suddenly and seriously ill about 8-10 years ago, and then died within a matter of weeks, my dad suffered greatly. In truth, I think Chuck’s death hastened his own, which came just a few years later.
I miss that laugh. I miss the sweet singing, and the dancing that often went along with it. And most of all, I miss all that love.

Family Portraits #5: Uncle Harold

It’s been a weird week – lots of travel, with many hours spent in the car. And intermittent problems with internet connections several times this week, too. So I am late with this post. And I completely missed posting on Sunday’s service, something I will try to rectify very soon as we heard a magnificent sermon at our daughter’s church, one that we’ve been pondering ever since. 

With this week’s word portrait (500 words, lots of detail), I’m moving back to my mom’s family after a couple of weeks with dad’s siblings. One more uncle next week, then a few reflections on more distant relatives before circling round to each of my grandparents. I highly recommend this kind of written memory work – it helps to pull together some of the threads of your life and serves as a kind of living gratitude journal. Try it – I think you’ll like it!

My mother with her kid brother, at Mom’s 90th birthday party last June.

Fifteen months younger than Mom, my Uncle Harold – like all the Hobson children – was a beautiful baby. Now in his late 80’s, he is an adorable old man. In between, he was a heartthrob teenager, an emotionally wounded soldier, a man who dealt with some personal demons, and a devoted husband and dad. Like all of us, Harold’s personal history is a tale that is complicated and uneven. But in my life, as a little kid and through all the stages of adult life, he has been a steady, fun-loving, kind and affectionate presence.

During most of my growing up years, my grandparents owned and operated two nursery schools in the San Fernando Valley. They lived at one of them. I have clear memories of family gatherings there – with the play equipment in the yards and no furniture in the house. Instead there was a master bedroom, where my grandparents lived, and there were assorted cubby-shelves, small tables and chairs, toy baskets and napping cots spread throughout what would have been a living room, dining room, family room and additional bedrooms.

Both of my uncles worked for their parents, but one of them always felt like the low man on the totem pole. I am sure my grandparents tried to balance the complicated dual relationships that so often show up in a family owned business, but they were not terribly good at it. I spent a week or two assisting my grandmother during summer vacation from high school and I saw those hurt feelings erupt into bitter confrontation. At the time, I found that puzzling and troubling.

As I’ve gotten older, I have understood more about it – and I have been able to see my grandparents in a more realistic light. They did play favorites, they did keep secrets, they did undercut their middle son and it was not fair, it was not right. And I am sorry for the pain of those years and for the scars that were left, scars that lasted a long, long time.

But here is what I have learned from watching my Uncle Harold live his life: by the grace of God, we can choose to let go of the pain, we can choose to learn from it, grow through it, be transformed by it. Like my mother, Uncle Harold suffers from macular degeneration and is almost completely blind. He lost the love of his life to a rare form of cancer, he lost one son at a young age to the ravages of drugs and another to a long lifetime of sad choices. He lives alone (enjoying dinners out with a kind lady friend most days), he has two beautiful, courageous daughters whom he adores, and he is one of the sunniest, most cheerful people I know. He thanks God for his life, even for the hardest parts of it. And this small man with the twinkle in his eye, well… he literally radiates good cheer wherever he goes. For me, he epitomizes growing old gracefully and I am grateful.

 

Family Portraits #4: Aunt Frances

I must admit that I am finding this series to be both fun and moving to write. It is a good thing to remember the people who influenced me in my early life – a very good thing. This week’s installment is about my dad’s older sister. Keeping these essays to 500-550 words greatly limits what I can say, so it’s interesting to note that what rises to the surface are all the truly positive things I recall – and usually one or two interesting, even quirky memories. There is no room here for complication/implication/criticism, and each of the people I am remembering was (or is) a very complicated person, living lives filled with both good and bad choices – like we all do. My thanks once again to http://www.thehighcalling.org and Ann Kroeker and Jennifer Dukes Lee for designing the original series from which these ongoing Wednesday reflections flow.

The fountain at Laity Lodge, where I met both Jennifer and Ann.
Like my dad, Frances was born in Arkansas, and traveled as a toddler to Los Angeles where her parents, grandparents, and other assorted shirttail relatives settled in adjacent neighborhoods. Both Frances and Dad were born in the midst of World War 1 and grew to adulthood during the Great Depression. Sepia-toned photos show her with a brown bowl-cut, a huge bow on her head and a large, heavy-looking jaw. Her eyes twinkle, looking out at the world with intelligence and curiosity.

When she went to UCLA, she studied hard and excelled, also working a part time job to save money for jaw surgery and orthodontia. It is hard for me to imagine such female determination in the 1930’s, especially growing up as she did in a very conservative Methodist home. But education was highly valued by my dad’s entire family – my grandfather had an accounting degree, my grandmother a teacher’s certificate and all three siblings were college graduates, two earning doctorates. ‘Looks’ were definitely not a high value. I don’t think it occurred to my grandmother that Frances felt self-conscious about hers. 
After college, she married a big, blustery Norwegian named Bob and together, they set out to change the world. Literally. My Uncle Bob was a local politician, working in city and county government until his death from cancer about 35 years ago. And Aunt Frances? Well. Frances Gold Anderson was the driving force behind two county-wide Sunday school organizations – G.L.A.S.S. and B.R.A.S.S. That first acronym stands for Greater Los Angeles Sunday Schools and the second for Bernardino Riverside Area Sunday Schools.

Let me tell you, from the 1950’s up until about the 1990’s, those organizations were a very big deal in southern CA evangelicalism, and lots of people knew and deeply respected my aunt. To me, however, she was just another member of my dad’s quirky family – a gifted, sincere, big-hearted soul. It wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that I realized that Aunt Frances was a Big Deal.

This is what I know about her: she loved the Lord, she loved the church, she loved her family, but she also really, REALLY loved her work with para-church ministries. In truth, I would say that she was a very driven person. In her later life, she added a ministry area and worked to build California Baptist College into a university with a growing reputation for excellence.

And she knew how to throw one heckuva bridal shower. She did that for me and for each of my three kids at her sprawling home in Riverside. Everything was always carefully, creatively and deliciously done. She did not have my mom’s flair for beauty and décor, but she was great at clever games (so was my dad, actually), really thoughtful about family history and a gracious hostess and concerned aunt.

Every single Christmas, she sent out a long family Christmas letter, almost always written in rhyme. Yes, that’s what I said – rhyme. Oh my, we giggled over those! But we also looked forward to their arrival and secretly sort of admired her chutzpah. She was a widow for a long time and was the last of her siblings to die. I didn’t always understand what made her tick, but I admired her a lot. And I loved her, too.

Family Portraits #3: Uncle Charles

This is third in a series of about twenty family portraits I am attempting as a ‘kick-start’ to the compilation of some sort of memoir for my grandchildren. It began as a Community Writing Project over at www.thehighcalling.org. We were asked to submit 500 words, with lots of detail, about someone in our close circle growing up, someone who influenced us either negatively or positively. This week, I’m also joining Bonnie over at The Faith Barista for her weekly invitation. Her theme this week is “a gift you’ve recently received from God.” Uncle Charles as gift is not a new thing – but this project most definitely is. In the process of searching my memory for influential people, I have been reminded over and over of God’s goodness to me over time. My family growing up was far from perfect – lots of eccentricities and flaws. But it was most definitely God’s gift to me – helping to form me into the person I am and modeling for me the living of a faithful life. I am grateful for the story that is mine – the good stuff and the tough stuff – and it is a pleasure and a privilege to reflect back on some of those people whom God used to let me know I was loved. So, this week – Uncle Charles. (This one is about 65 words too long, but I really, REALLY tried! Portrait #1 can be found here and #2, here.)

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He was my grandmother’s ‘baby,’ born nine years after my dad, ten years after their sister. He came with a cleft palate and separated lip – and his mother said ‘no’ to major corrective surgery: the lip was sewn shut, the palate wasn’t touched. Gran thought it would be ‘too painful’ for her sweet little boy. Such a hard choice, and such a wrong one – Charles struggled his entire childhood with both talking and eating; pictures of him as a small boy show him glowering, always on the outside edge of things.

He was a college kid when I was born and I remember him as a ‘big brother’ who would often swoop me up and take me outside to play. My grandmother kept chickens at her home in Los Angeles and my uncle had a favorite he called Rusty. One Sunday, gathered around their table for an after-church dinner, Charles refused to eat. I was young and curious, so I asked him what was wrong. “This is Rusty’s leg,” he said, angrily picking up a drumstick, “and I will not participate in this meal!” I was stunned and shocked. So that’s where drumsticks came from.

When I was about eight, Charles disappeared from our lives for a few years to do some biblical studies in a different state. He went to Asbury in Kentucky and met and married Aunt Norma. I could not for the life of me figure out why he needed any other female in his life!

He found a job in Duluth, Minnesota where they lived when their two sons were born, last in the line of cousins of which I was first. About that time, Charles opted to have the corrective surgery his mother had refused him so many years before. It required money, pain, and hard work, learning to talk and eat all over again, and I was so proud of him. I also sensed his bone-deep discouragement as he struggled to find a teaching job during those years.

In later years, Charles poured all of that pent-up determination into pursuing a PhD, becoming a concert level organist and an excellent and highly competitive tennis player – sometimes at the expense of his family life. Both of his sons grew up estranged from the church and both died young and sadly.

I asked Charles to be the organist for our wedding. And the single thing most folks remember about that day is this: just before the pastor was set to introduce us as husband and wife (as part of a liturgy that I had put together at the know-it-all-age of 20), he jumped into the “Toccata” postlude a beat too soon. I turned toward the organ and stage-whispered, “Not yet, Uncle Charles!” And he stopped just in time for the grand announcement to be made. We made a good team.

Charles died over 20 years ago, the first in his sibling trio. The doctors said it was pneumonia, but I have always believed he died of a broken heart. His life was a mix of struggle and triumph but at the end, I think maybe the struggle just wore him down. I admired and loved him, but I did not understand all the angst that drove him so fiercely. I trust that he has found the peace he sought – and I miss him.
 

Family Portraits: #2 – Auntie Mae

I don’t have a photo in my computer files of Auntie Mae, but this is me, my mom and her sister (the famous Aunt Eileen from Family Portrait #1) on the day of my youngest brother’s funeral in October, 2009. Still trying to follow the guidelines set out by The High Calling’s Community Writing Project – 500 words or less, rich in detail, describe a family member who influenced me during childhood.
 
Bird-like, slightly mischievous, eyes a-twinkle, heart afire, Mary (Mae) Thompson Alsup Nichols managed to leave a very large footprint, despite wearing a size four shoe. And she was proud of those feet, happy to tell you that she was among the select few who could purchase the shoes displayed in the store window. Because every shoe looks ever-so-much better in a size four, right?

Left motherless at age three, never to have children of her own, she ‘adopted’ her sister’s kids – my mother and her siblings. Mae had energy to spare, loved to laugh and was cute as a button, right up until she died at the age of 102. She married and buried two husbands, both of whom she adored, and lavished love on all the various children of all the various cousins in my extended family.

To this day, my 90-year-old mom and her 88 and 86-year-old siblings give thanks to God for Auntie Mae. Their parents worked full-time during the depression and were seldom home. But my grandmother’s kid sister and the two female cousins with whom she and Mae were raised – they were always available for comfort, fun and companionship. These three attended Angelus Temple and were fervent admirers of Aimee Semple MacPherson. When Mae married and moved across town, she attended The Church of the Open Door in downtown LA, but she never forgot the drama of the Temple.

And color? The brighter the better. She learned to crochet in her late 70’s and promptly began creating anything and everything imaginable. Afghans, sweaters, hats, novelties – I lost count of how many ‘dolls’ she created with crocheted skirts to cover the extra roll of TP on the back of the toilet. Unfortunately, she also went through a ‘neon’ phase. One year, she made coats and hats for my daughters in vibrating fluorescent colors so intense they never made it out of the closet, except for photos to send with thank you notes.

When I was five, I had my tonsils out in a local doctor’s office. Something went terribly wrong and I landed in the hospital for a week, fighting for life. When I was released, I went to Mae’s home, because it was closer to the hospital than our little 40’s house in the valley.  She cared for me as if I were her own little girl, bringing me ice cream at the demand of my bedside bell, encouraging me to talk gently through that ruined throat.

It was a two-week stretch of time that only we two shared. Even though I badly wanted to be in my own home, with my parents and brother and my own safe bed, I somehow knew Mae was special. The gift she offered with her kindness and care was an important one, one that breathed Jesus to me even before I could fully grasp who Jesus was. Mae truly loved the Lord. And she lived a gospel life while creating fun wherever she went.

Family Portraits #1: Aunt Eileen

Written at the kind invitation of Jennifer Dukes Lee for the High Calling’s group writing project. The assignment? Describe someone from your childhood who influenced you in some way, either positively or negatively. Use lots of detail and keep it to 300-500 words. If you’d like to join in, hop over to this post at Jennifer’s site: http://gettingdownwithjesus.com/gladys/

 Photo taken two years ago this month, October 2009. Such a sweet face, such a dear aunt.

To me, she was beauty and grace personified. She was fun and flirty, blond and soft-spoken, with a lovely soprano singing voice. She had a great laugh and she wore cat’s eye glasses through which her eyes always twinkled.

My mom was the second of my grandmother’s four kids, and Eileen was the baby. Mom got about 99% of all the drive in that quartet and Eileen? Well, Eileen was a softer person than my mom in many ways.* My mom wanted our rooms, including the woodwork, scrubbed every Saturday. Eileen didn’t seem to notice or care all that much. She lived with orange crates for furniture for a lotta years, and I found that charming somehow.

Eileen married a big bear of a man, whom she adored. I can see my aunt looking lovingly at my Uncle Chuck to this day, the two of them dancing to love songs that they sang to each other at our family gatherings. I loved watching them.

I was a weird duck as a kid, but she loved me anyhow. I read all the time. Always a book – sprawled on the couch, in the bathroom, even while brushing my teeth. There was usually one propped on my white wooden chest of drawers while I languidly dressed for school each morning, and another one under the covers at night, read by flashlight. That love of books came from my mom, but a very different kind of reading love came from Aunt Eileen: Hollywood glamour magazines.

So delicious, so forbidden! When we went to their house, I knew exactly where she kept them and I’d take a stack, throw myself across their bed and start reading, from cover to cover. My mom would not abide such things in our home, so this was my chance! And I took advantage of that chance every single time.

Mom always wanted me to be ‘more social, interact with people!’ But I preferred reading about starlets and limousines. And Aunt Eileen breezily told my mother to leave me alone. An aunt who was an ally – who could ask for more? Especially when gossip columns were there for the reading.

You see, I was too tall, too bookish, too awkward when I was growing up. My mom worried a lot, transmitting those worries to me in such a way that I became terribly self-conscious. For my aunt, however… Well sure, I was a tall girl. And I did like to read an awful lot, but … I was interesting. I was a bit of a puzzle and she was intrigued. Perhaps because she didn’t have to raise me, she could look at me in a more disinterested way. She liked what she saw and I knew it. Can you imagine what a priceless gift that is for an insecure young girl?

I love you, Aunt Eileen, and I thank you for loving me even in my weird duck-ness!

*Lest you think my mom was a harsh person, may I refer you to this post, which talks about her in a more fully-orbed way.

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