‘I want to marry your daughter.’

It was Oct. 13, 1975 and I had two calls to make from my two-room apartment in Shawnee, Oklahoma. The first, was to Bob Carver in Colorado Springs. His time zone was an hour earlier than mine, but if I woke him up, I didn’t care. 

“Bob, this is Norman Jameson.” 

“Yes?”

“I’m calling for your blessing because I want to marry your daughter.”

“Which one?”

That’s not as odd a question as it might seem. Bob had four beautiful daughters. I had grown quite close to the eldest, Sue Ellen, when we both were volunteers at a Baptist mission in Espanola, NM a year earlier. But then we went our separate ways, me to Oklahoma Baptist University to finish a college career interrupted by the Army. Sue Ellen back home to live and work. Our contact was infrequent.

In the meantime, Bob’s second daughter, Leslie, had come to OBU as a student, more in pursuit of my roommate, Loren, than of a degree. But, she was there, and Sue Ellen wasn’t and Bob hadn’t yet learned of the sudden, unexpected reunion that I had with Sue Ellen the Columbus Day weekend she came to “visit Leslie.” 

So, when he asked, “Which one?” the question was legit. For all he knew, Leslie and I were dating. But, my answer was, “Sue Ellen.” 

“Do you love her?” 

“Yes sir.” 

“Ok then.” I think he was anxious to get back to sleep. 

The widow Ethyl Abbott ran Templo Bautista and stayed as long as the Lord would send her volunteers. Her first two volunteers married each other, on Dec. 27, 1975.

My second call was to Sue Ellen. I asked her over the phone to marry me and she agreed. We saw each other at Thanksgiving in Colorado. We married at Christmas in New Mexico. In that two months, Sue Ellen basically did all the planning and sewed her dress and her bridesmaids’ dresses. 

Army buddies from Texas and New Jersey stood up with me. My parents from Wisconsin met Sue Ellen for the first time when they came to the wedding. I don’t think mom fully believed I was getting married until she met Sue Ellen. Once she did, mom would have disowned and dismembered me if I had been fool enough to let her go again.

That was 45 years ago. December 27. Between semesters at OBU. Sue Ellen worked at a local bank to cover groceries and our $65 a month apartment rent. I edited the college paper and paid tuition with the GI Bill. 

A year later, she loaded the U-Haul while I made my senior marketing presentation to a local bank, then we drove into the night to Colorado Springs where I had an outside hope of landing a reporter’s job at the Gazette-Telegraph

We’ve made a lot of interstate moves for work ever since, each one supposedly improving our lot, moving from the newspaper to Nashville, TN where I started a career working mostly for Baptist entities. From Nashville to Texas for seminary, traveling now with two little ones. I didn’t know until we arrived in separate vehicles that Sue Ellen had cried all the way to Texas. 

Seminary was the most difficult time of our marriage. Working fulltime and going to school full-time. Leaving for the library at night with my son tugging at my leg. Discovering we had different goals for when we were finished.

One afternoon while agonizing in the combination porch-guest room-laundry room-study of our tiny rent house I cried out to the Lord for clarity of purpose and future. I heard clearly as if God had texted directly to my brain, “Stay in religious journalism.” Within 48 hours the editor of the Oklahoma Baptist Messenger showed up out of the blue and asked me to join his staff. I could finish my seminary degree by extension classes at my alma mater, OBU.

So, it was back to Oklahoma before the fundamentalist effluvium seeped into that state convention and made it untenable for anyone who possessed a contrary thought. We “told” God not to present a professional opportunity that He didn’t want me to take, because I was grabbing the first one that would carry me out of Oklahoma. 

Then Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina called, and we crossed the Mississippi with three children. Our daughter was six and North Carolina was her fourth state. We figured to stay two or three years and make our way back west. That was 33 years ago.

We’re in our fourth North Carolina city, or sixth North Carolina house and am retired from my seventh North Carolina job. 

45 years later, the years truly are golden and the mystery of oneness remains worthy of continual examination

I say all that to say Happy 45th Anniversary to the bride of my youth who has followed me, encouraged me, supported me, bore our children and taught them how to live, provided incredibly valuable insight and wisdom, sacrificed her own dreams for those of her family and laughed with me to keep me from crying. She’s been a rock, always trusting in the hand of God on our lives, and in me. She makes me a better man.

And she no longer answers her phone to an unidentified caller.

March of the Memories

One of the joys of examining the four boxes of clippings and slides I’ve carted through eight states since I started writing for newspapers and magazines in 1971 is the memories prompted by each. The bride of my youth has been after me for years to sort them out – an urging in which she redefines “sort” as “throw.”

In feigned sincerity, I’ve maintained I’m saving those clippings, notes, magazines, reporter’s notebooks and photos and slides as source material for my biographer. Now, realizing I’ve lived a nominal existence as driftwood in pursuit of a dry bank, I am fully confident, with no regrets, to know that no writer will be examining my life as subject matter for a biography. 

With the perspective of time, I realize the yellowed, crinkly clippings of old articles that were so vitally important to me for decades – so important that I carted them from house to house, move by move, state by state – are really no more significant than the cardboard boxes that hold them. 

And yet, each story I pull strikes chords, pinging my memory with the characters that marched through my life: their intrigue, character, flaws, political maneuverings under the cover of religion, the revelations. Each of them and all of this was so vitally important – then.

“The next story” consumed my daily work life. Some were as mundane as an 11-year-old girl boxer fighting the boys,  or a man’s toy train hobby, or the announcement of program personalities for the next national convention.

Other stories still give me a twinge of pleasure when I recount the events and the people involved: the man who wrestled his single engine plane from a fatal collision with earth just seconds before certain death; Baptists returning from negotiations with the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini;  death row interviews; Christian disaster response. 

Writers – at least those who save their clippings – enjoy the enviable blessing of leaving a trail through our personal history that we can follow back to the beginnings. Like Hansel and Gretel,  our words are the cookie crumbs that prompt the memories that lead us home. They bring back the people, moments, smells, sights, and energy of the moment when we recorded them. 

The flying carpet of my memory whisks me back in time. A letter from Ronnie thanking my mission team for a life changing weekend; a congratulatory letter from Wisconsin Congressman Bob Kastenmeier for being valedictorian of my high school class ; my serviceman’s life insurance policy so President Nixon would know where to send the benefit in case the war he kept alive meant my death; my first Leave and Earnings Statement as a grunt in this man’s Army – $189, paid in cash, with which to go wild. 

I found the record of the first check I ever wrote: for $1,005 to Luther College  for my half of my first semester’s tuition, room and board. I also had a receipt for “drugs” from the Luther College health service…for 93 cents. Must have been for half an aspirin. 

I seemed to have a preoccupation with death and love, according to the poems in my journal and English papers. My freshman English theme on Virgil’s Aeneid, about “too much love” earned a note in red from my enchanting, young professor Dagney Boebal. She thrilled my besotted soul when she wrote, “An interesting and original paper.” Although she gave me an A minus…for spelling. 

There was a $4.35 receipt for oil and filter change, bearing my dad’s “preferred customer” imprint, since he managed the Farmer’s Union Co-Op  where I made the purchase. It’s not the nostalgic yearning for low prices that gives me pause. It’s seeing dad’s imprint on the receipt. He died three years ago.

I reduced four boxes of memories to one, and then tackled the slides. Oh my. They’d spilled out of their little boxes and jumbled 40 years of slides into one big gumbo. I’d reach into that mangle for a handful and hold the 2×2 inch transparencies to a reading light with no chronological reference to time and space. 

First, I’d see a Christmas picture with my kids’ grandparents, followed by disaster relief in the Caribbean, to Paris in 1983 to Petra in Jordan and ancient ruins in Israel, to children jumping dirt mounds on their bikes in Oklahoma. It’s disconcerting to go from an engagement picture to a 40th wedding anniversary shot in a minute.

It was dizzying. And delightful. 

I pulled fewer than one in 20 slides to scan into my computer. It will take me days. I’ll have Sue Ellen leave food and drink by my door. When I emerge, I may well feel it like Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep for 20 years and missed the American Revolution. 

We may be in the midst of another revolution. I’ll participate when I get through these slides.

It’s going to be a Covid Thanksgiving

I just tucked my crying wife into bed. 

For months, we’ve been looking forward to seeing distant grandchildren and tonight we realized that Covid 19 restrictions will keep us from our visit.  They’re in a state with a sudden surge of cases – but aren’t we all.

We’ve watched the sad stories of isolated grandparents missing the hugs, kisses, smiles and simple touches of their grandchildren, and we’ve felt sorry for them. I’m a hugger and we’ve enjoyed that relationship with our local family. But now, “them are us.”

Our sadness is intensified beyond this failed visit by the stark realization we may not see the distant grands for months yet. If a negative Covid test is required for admission, and we are unwilling to take such a test simply to travel, what does that say about when we might see them? What does that reveal about fear? Or about the blanket of paranoia draped over America’s frail shoulders?

Covid-19 is not a hoax. It is real. A million cases a week in the U.S. and 1.4 million deaths worldwide attributed to Covid are evidence that some virus is circulating in the human population…after living for untold centuries in animal populations – or for months in a Wuhan lab. Who knows? But, the virus is not random. Like any bully, it picks on the weakest kids in the room. 

We may all feel weak and susceptible to the bully, but in fact, we are not equally vulnerable. Statistically, 90-plus percent of those “kids” getting bullied have health weaknesses upon which the bully feasts. They already are obese, old, frail and with poor immune systems. Covid is a Darwinian herald, an ax wielding assassin rampaging through the human population, spotting these weaknesses and swinging its deadly weapon with lethal results.

In America, we make ourselves vulnerable by not paying attention to our health. We are pale and pasty from too many sedentary hours, eating food whose ingredients we cannot pronounce, demanding our doctors prescribe antibiotics for even the smallest sniffle. Or, we insist that they diagnose the undetectable, psychosomatic disaster that we’re sure will take our life before morning – unless we get a prescription for the miracle drug we just saw on TV.

If we are vulnerable, it is in large part because we delegate responsibility for our health to “professionals” – depending more on the cauldron of chemistry to correct our ailments, than on our own diet and exercise. 

On a visit to The Sixth Floor Museum dedicated to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I was struck with a curious itch while watching the newsreels of Kennedy’s 1963 arrival in Dallas. Something was different, a bit off. Examining the video, I finally saw it. Everyone in the video, from his security detail, to the airline personnel, to the police and virtually everyone in the crowds lining the parade route, was thin. You’d have to look hard to spot a person who looked like he was trying to smuggle a watermelon out of Winn-Dixie under his shirt.

The National Center for Health Statistics at the U.S. Center for Disease Control showed that 42.4 percent of U.S. adults were obese in 2018. Obesity is the petri dish in which countless illnesses multiply.

The constant advertising of Big Pharma for costly remedies (whose list of warnings exceeds its list of benefits) pounds into us the misplaced trust in chemistry over personal care. We’re deluded into thinking we don’t have to take care of ourselves because “there’s a pill for that.” 

Instead, doctors I follow advocate steps to promote a healthy immune system. Encourage gut health by eating whole and fermented foods. Roll in the grass, get fresh air and inhale the microbes in the atmosphere, play with your pet, or the neighbor’s. Stop sanitizing every surface  because you’re killing good microbes and creating an environment that keeps your babies from accruing immunity to simple illnesses.

A new Mayo Clinic study shows that infants who receive antibiotics before age two suffer long-term effects for anything from allergies to obesity because antibiotics kill good bacteria babies receive from their mothers in the vaginal birth process.  Yet, they are too routinely administered, like farmers administer antibiotics to chickens and beef to promote quick fattening.

We are a sick nation, which makes us more susceptible to Covid-19 than we should be. Our health care system is really a sick care system, because health is not profitable. Local hospitals are advertising “well visits” and warning us “not to neglect regular doctor’s appointments.” Our hospital systems’ financial health depends on a steady stream of people with real and imagined ailments, funded through a complicit insurance system that gets more impossibly expensive every year.

And yet, a hospital system for which I once worked, is bidding more than $5 BILLION to buy another hospital in the state. Tell me there is no money in non-profit health care. 

Covid-19 is opportunistic. A virus spread through the air, and by contact, it attacks the vulnerable. Cases of “healthy” people becoming ill from it are extremely rare. CDC data shows that Americans, regardless of age, are far more likely to die of something other than COVID-19. Even among those in the most heavily impacted age group (85 and older), only 9.4 percent of all deaths between February and September 2020 were due to COVID-19. 

A significant cadre of doctors not linked to the machinery of hospital systems, Big Pharma and insurance companies, warn that closing the country down, sentencing elderly to die alone, killing the dreams and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of small business owning families, subjecting millions to unemployment, hunger, depression, increased suicide rates and general malaise, will have longer term negative health effects on the population than will the virus. 

I have dear friends in the high-risk category. They are basically not healthy, either from long-term illness or age or obesity or some combination of comorbidities onto which Covid-19 loves to latch. I care for them as they stay secluded in what they hope is a safe bubble. But, I miss them. 

And I miss my grandchildren. 

Extra Money

For decades into our married life, my budget-faithful wife Sue Ellen would ask, “When are we going to have extra money?”

As frugal as she is, she never willingly accepted my answer: “We will never have ‘extra’ money,” I said, “if by ‘extra’ you mean funds beyond what we require to take care of immediate needs and future retirement.”

In part because my career was in non-profit and denominational work, and in larger part because of my upbringing, molecules of frugality bang around in my DNA loud enough to keep me awake should I spend a dollar frivolously.

My parents first met my wife when they came to our wedding. No great story of family dysfunction in that fact, just issues of time and distance. I lived in Oklahoma. Sue Ellen lived in Colorado. My family lived in Wisconsin. And, we married in New Mexico after just a two-month engagement.

So, the summer after our wedding I brought my new bride to Wisconsin to meet the extended family. My wonderful, doting mother offered us a Pepsi, back in the days when we disrespected our bodies enough to drink carbonated sugar water. We said, “Sure,” and mom dutifully divided a single soft drink into four glasses, one each for me, Sue Ellen, mom and dad.

Later, mom offered a candy, from a bag of pink Brach’s mints. And gave us each one.

In the days when the only telephones were connected to each other through an intricate – and reliable – system of land lines, long distance calls were considered expensive and mom recorded each one made, to check it against the monthly bill. After a visit during which I had to make a call or two, mom sent me the bill for those calls – about 10 dollars.

I grew up on a farm with several out buildings, one of which mom transformed into her storage shed. In it were lawn chairs that needed re-webbing, a grill with rusted bottom, various non-functioning toasters, umbrellas, coffee pots, and kitchen appliances. She wasn’t recycling, she was storing these items against a day when they would miraculously spring back to life.

My dad, who once sprung for a brand new 1959 Ford Galaxy, later bought the more elegant Mercurys that our local leading businessman sold after he’d driven them a couple of years. Our little Ford Ferguson tractor, which never had working brakes, dated from the 1940s, was probably 20 years old when dad bought it and he used it at least 30 years – when it started.

When the 1948 Ford pickup I learned to drive on gave up the ghost, dad had the box cut off and made into a trailer – which I pulled with the tractor for countless hours while picking up stones in the fields.

When I needed to drive that trailer and tractor without brakes down the road to the dump, I learned to manipulate the throttle and gear shift to slow sufficiently enough that I never ran into anything that didn’t need to be run into. 

So, my frugality is well earned.

Consequently, when my young children sang their relentless chorus of “I want, want, want, need, need, need, please, please, please,” my most frequent response was, “No, we can’t afford it.”

Admittedly, that excuse was my fall back to avoid drawn out explanations of our standards, versus the Joneses because in some instances we could have made the purchase. I just didn’t want the kids to be caught up in that “gotta have it because Suzy has it” burn cycle.   

The best pizza we ever ate in our house was the weekly Friday special Sue Ellen made to devour while we watched a movie in the wonderful world of VHS and Blockbuster. There was no TV during the week for us, so when we popped in Karate Kid, or Back to the Future or Flight of the Navigator, it was a special time made more special by the rectangles of crispy thin crust topped with pepperoni, hamburger, cheese and jalapenos.

On rare occasions, however, I’d give Sue Ellen a break and splurge for a ready made pizza for our Friday night extravaganzas. It was a splurge, but one night when I was feeling especially generous I ordered bread sticks to go with the pizza. I realized that night how our kids labored under the wet blanket of our frugality when the oldest son saw the bread sticks and exclaimed, as surely did Aladdin when entering the Cave of Wonder, “Wow, dad must be doing really well.”

I long for the days when I could impress my kids for a buck.

I need younger friends

It’s a vital part of “church” to be involved with people beyond Sunday morning. When the outside activities of the Bible study group my wife and I were involved with seemed awfully tame, we started a class that targeted a younger demographic – those 55-65 years old. 

Our activities would take us beyond local restaurants and dinner theater. We “youngsters” hiked at Hanging Rock State Park, rode bikes down the Virginia Creeper Trail and canoed the New River

One Sunday morning a sweet couple visited our class. When Sue Ellen noted the ages indicated on their visitor card, she called the church office and suggested John and Mary might find the older class more suitable. She was told no, they specifically asked for our class. 

We weren’t going to shut the door on anyone, even though they were the age of many of our parents. And what a wonderful addition they were to our class. Ironically, Mary, who had a teaching doctorate with a specialty in English as a Second Language, had recently worked in Colorado for a man who was a young boy in the same church where Sue Ellen and I were members years ago. 

When we learned that John and Mary’s ministry careers were primarily among students, we understood why they wanted to be in our class, among people a generation younger. They’d always worked and lived among young people and we were a touch stone to that earlier era. Being around younger people made them feel younger. 

They could not physically do everything we did, but if they attended a game night they gave it everything they had.

And goodness, their insights from a life in Christian service at home and abroad enriched us all. When they moved to Tennessee recently to be closer to their son we showered them with a surprise and rousing send-off with class members and friends holding signs and singing hymns. 

I’m at the point in life where some of my friends are turning…old. My army buddy Steve turned 70 today. When I rode with him last summer in Omaha he took another spill on his skinny tired road bike. He’d only recently healed up from a previous spill that broke some ribs and bruised him ugly. 

At his wife Linda’s insistence, Steve recently purchased a hybrid bike as his main ride. Now, Steve is a guy who hikes, skis, swims in the ocean and likes to ride his road bike long distances. He’s on no medicines and gets synapse collapse in his brain when he sees the number 70 pop up in relation to his age.  

This hybrid bike has fatter tires, a smoother ride and more stable (read: forgiving) handling. But, in his mind, it’s like he traded a Mustang convertible for daddy’s Buick. 

“I’ve never felt so bad about a purchase in my life,” he said, when I called him to wish him happy birthday. “I felt like it was the first step toward turning in my car keys because the kids don’t think I’m safe to drive anymore.”

After a shared laugh he said, “I felt it was like going to the vet to get fixed.”

Of course, he made sure Linda felt his pain. But 44 years of marriage has coated her sympathy nerve with a layer of Teflon, which is to say she wasn’t hearing it. 

He confessed that after an initial “getting acquainted ride” he likes the bike a lot. He even says it just might be nimble enough to use for RAGBRAI next year, in riding across his home state of Iowa. 

Between John and Mary and Steve the lesson for me is clear: I need younger friends. 

Dad’s wallet reveals a life

My Norwegian bachelor farmer uncle Donnie treated his wallet like a filing cabinet. He collected each year’s expense receipts in his wallet, which grew fatter with each passing week. 

Each tax season, he emptied the wallet for his tax man who sorted the receipts and paperwork to file Donnie’s taxes. Then, the wallet would slowly fill again during the year, making a continually widening bulge in his pocket. 

One summer – meaning the wallet would be about half full – Don lost it. While climbing a fence, or crawling under a farm implement, or sitting on a jouncing tractor seat, it somehow fell out of his overalls. 

Whatever money was in the wallet was an afterthought. He was distraught about all the records, receipts, his license and the agony of retracing all the lost transactions. His distress was well known to all the family, repeated over each Sunday meal and birthday cake.

Dad’s wallet was a pocket portfolio of his life, including pictures of his grandchildren and his Selective Service card from 1948.

About two months later, my cousin Dickie and I drove the pickup down to the furthest pasture to chase the cows back up to the barn for milking. All of 13-14 years old we parked the truck, climbed the fence into the field of alfalfa – a thick, leafy forage crop about knee high. Mutually lamenting poor Uncle Donnie’s lost wallet and the resulting decrease in the “wages” he generously bestowed on his nephews, I said to Dickie, “Wouldn’t it be something if we found Donnie’s wallet?”

At that moment, as if a star ripped a seam into the heavens to beam a shaft of light at our feet, we looked down and there was the wallet, seemingly set there atop the ground with a careful hand, with the long tendrils of alfalfa pressed aside. We looked at each other and screamed, jumped up and down, picked up the wallet and headed for the pickup. 

Now, as I said, we were several years too young to be legally driving a truck, but that’s the way it was on the farm. Don taught us how to drive because he needed the help. We relished the privilege and were always very careful drivers.

But now, I possessed not only Don’s long-lost wallet, but also what I knew was a get-out-of-jail pass to drive like a bat outta hell back to the barn. No matter how mad Uncle Donnie would be to see us bouncing and spinning up the dirt track like that, I knew that when I flashed the wallet, everything would be all right. 

And that’s exactly how it turned out. 

With credit cards and electronic records kept online and on cell phones, modern wallets don’t always carry the same identifying history they once did. I mean, goodness, some guys actually carry their wallet in the FRONT pocket now. My dad was more careful with his records than his brother, Donnie. But his wallet still was a valuable filing cabinet for him, and a treasure box of memories. 

My sister Linda sent me dad’s wallet last week. Dad died three years ago, after a fall on ice in Wisconsin, in the town where he was as much a fixture as Main Street. The town where I grew up and graduated from high school, in the same building in which I started first grade.

I was hesitant to delve into that historical trove at first. Going through dad’s wallet was sure to carry me back. How far, I had no idea until I dove in. 

Every part of the wallet’s contents prompted memories. Some items were much older than I would have anticipated. Of course, I was gratified to find pictures of my children, one taken when the youngest could barely sit up straight. Today he’s 36. 

My high school graduation picture was there, as well as an earlier picture of me and two siblings. So much of the content consisted of business cards for his various doctors and insurance carriers. In fact, those were the majority of the items in his pocket filing cabinet. 

Others included a driver’s license, good through 2018. It’s expiration date outlasted his own. 

Maybe most surprising was the presence of dad’s Selective Service registration card, dated Sept. 18, 1948. Maybe he kept it because a line on the bottom of the frayed card says, “The law requires you to have this card in your possession at all times for identification and to advise your Local Board of change of address.” Dad was a stickler for the rules. 

It helps me understand a little better his lack of understanding when I registered as a conscientious objector with my own draft board in 1971. 

Another card dated August 1949 declares dad’s draft status as 3-A – a hardship deferment from being called to service, “because service would cause hardship upon his family.” His first child was born the next month, when dad was 19 and mom was 18.

And then there was the final draft board classification card dated Aug. 24, 1965 that said his draft status was 5-A – over the age of liability for service. That’s a card worth keeping. 

Dad had in his wallet his Social Security card, and cards both for membership in the Teamsters Union and honorary withdrawal from the teamsters seven years later when he was no longer driving milk truck for Bancroft Dairy in Wisconsin. 

Dad’s wallet was a pocket portfolio of a life lived both honorably and dutifully. Thank you, Dad.

Be a spark or get tossed

Sometimes we get into a cleaning, sorting, trashing, unloading kind of frenzy when we’re feeling burdened by stuff and stuff’s attraction, demands, care and maintenance. 

When Sue Ellen hits full frenzy fury, I chain myself to a post to make sure I’m not tossed into a box subconsciously labeled “of no further use,” or as an item that “no longer sparks joy,” in Marie Kondo’s terminology. 

Some few things have outlasted every purge in our 44 years together. Thankfully, I’m one of them. 

But this week Oskar died. 

Oskar was a small food chopper and came as a wedding gift in 1975. It endured several super glue fixes in recent years before finally throwing up its blades and sighing, “Please no more nuts, carrots, celery for salads, or styrofoam bars to make snowflakes for kids’ plays.”

When we think of “things” that have lasted the duration of our lives together, now that Oskar is gone, we can name three. 

First is a sleeping bag I bought when I got out of the Army. Mine was to be a wild and free life after the olive drab constraints Uncle Sam put upon me. That sleeping bag, and a tent that turned out to be a portable rain forest, so impermeable it turned my moist breath into morning showers, along with a 1964 International Scout that had a mind of its own, were my tickets to adventure. 

I still use the bag. 

We married while I was still finishing my degree at Oklahoma Baptist University. Summers were stifling and neither our apartment nor our car had air conditioning, so we bought a Gott cooler and a bigger tent and spent many weekends at the lake. 

We still use the cooler

It often carries goodies as we travel to see our children, none of whom were conceived at the lake. Every time we pack it up, I marvel that it has been with us for so long. Yet, it still regulates the temperature of the items it contains, like the thermos I once gave a secretary. When I saw her using it the next day she told me she appreciated its capacity to keep hot things hot and cold things cold. 

I asked her what she had in it today. “Coffee and a popsicle,” she said. 

Sue Ellen was just 20 when we married. She worked at a bank and had her own apartment after moving out from a home with six siblings, and had neither time nor money to accumulate much of a trousseau. But she had started her dish collection of the then popular Yorktowne pattern from Pfaltzgraff. 

For 21 years, these were our “good” dishes, pulled out to impress company and only after the kids were old enough to know dishes were not suitable as heavy Frisbees. When my mom died we inherited her china, which became our company dishes, and the Pfaltzgraff became our everyday dishes. 

Funny how the exceptional loses its aura when pressed into common use. 

The Pfaltzgraff is heavy, and hard to spell. We can always peg the length of a friends’ marriage within a year or two if they feed us on Yorktown pattern Pfaltzgraff. 

Sometimes we look at new dishes, brightly colored, modern patterns, disposable. They might brighten up the kitchen table and provide a fresh perspective. But, they wouldn’t hold our food any better.

I confess I hold this feeling much more closely than does my wife, but there is something endearing and enduring about the consistency of an everyday implement that has been part of our lives together – every day. Not temporary, not disposable. Just consistent. Present. Available. Useful. Non-demanding. 

There is a fourth thing that we brought to our marriage, but it is more intangible. We each brought a part, insufficient of itself, but required for the whole – like the final spark plug required to make a dead engine roar to life. 

That, of course, is love. Our love for each other, a love we thought fuller and richer in the first blush of our infatuation than ever known by previous humans. Yet, it has grown with time into intimacy, interdependence, tolerance, forgiveness, adoration and the mystery of oneness into a force to overcome many an onslaught. 

When my mother died in 1996, my dad stood in the window as the hearse pulled away, kissed his hand and put it to the glass. I know our birth canal opens toward death, but dad’s slide toward the inevitable started in earnest that day. Losing mom wasn’t just grief for dad. It was an amputation. 

They had been married 47 years. I’m older than dad was at mom’s death and when I survey my environment, the accumulation of things around me and consider those few things that have been with Sue Ellen and me our entire lives together, it’s easy to dismiss the sleeping bag, the cooler and the dishes. 

The one constant that matters for 44 years has been my partner, my heart, my life. We’re closer now to the end than to the beginning, but every day still dawns a treasure. 

Happy anniversary, Sue Ellen. 

Didn’t you used to be somebody?

The entry alcove to our house features glass panels on either side of the solid wood door. It’s a nice touch that enables me to see who is at the door before opening it. The panels also provide a tall, narrow view to my neighborhood and at least twice a day I find myself standing by them, peering out. 

I say “find myself” because I didn’t really intend to go over there like some watcher in the woods. The world outside the glass just drew me. I watch nature’s cycles on the maple tree, from buds, to leaves, to color to bare again. 

Sometimes I see people out there: kids waiting for the school bus, adults getting into cars on their way to work, someone putting a card or letter or bill payment into the mailbox and flipping up the red arm that reminds the mailman not to pass by this box. Often there is a dog walker with a small, warm bag dangling from his hand as if he had just discovered a treasure to which only his dog could have led him.

Mustard’s mug, retired at the local diner, along with his brother Marv’s — my dad — and everyone else whose funerals meant they no longer needed the mugs.

My uncle Donnie – Mustard, to those who knew him from youth – was a Norwegian bachelor farmer right out of Garrison Keillor’s tales from Lake Wobegon. He scratched a living from the sandy loam of southern Wisconsin where he raised corn, alfalfa and oats to feed the 19 head of dairy cows whose milk fed him. 

He didn’t always trust God and nature to do their jobs after he’d worked so hard to prepare the soil for planting. He’d give God a few days to breathe life into the corn seed and then, if he saw no green shoots, he’d nervously walk down to the field, look for the little arched rows of dirt left by the planter, and scratch away the soil just to reassure himself.

Maybe the planter wasn’t working. It put the seeds directly into the ground so you didn’t really see them being distributed, unlike a grass spreader that sprays seed so you know it’s going where it needs to be. Maybe this year the seed was bad. It’s never been bad before, always come up before. But this year, maybe the seed is bad. 

And it’s been dry. Has the seed dried up before a good rain could come germinate it? Or, it’s been really wet. Maybe the seed has drowned. Donnie would scratch at the earth until he found the seed and reassure himself it had gone into the ground and was just fine. From then on, he had to trust. And God never let him down.  

When I stand at my window I feel like Uncle Donnie checking out the field, making sure everything is as it ought to be. I spotted a service man walking around the neighbor’s yard once when no one was home, and I called the neighbor at work to tell him about it. It was OK. He had an appointment and the neighbor was late. 

This morning, on my birthday, I looked out the window and wondered if I would be there to look out the same window in 20 years. If so, I’d be the age of my dad when he died. How would my life be different in 20 years? That’s not a long time. 

I’m reminded of the cartoon my wife and I, both fitness advocates, posted for years on the refrigerator. A couple, about our age, were exercise walking and one said to the other, “What do you say? Two more years and we’ll let ourselves go?”

I don’t intend to let myself go, but stuff happens. I consider myself exceptionally healthy because at age 67 I eat well, take no medicine and can still ride my bike 100 miles in a day. Then I remember I’ve had two emergency surgeries and a broken neck and cracked skull. My mom died of cancer and my dad had a heart attack and bad kidneys. 

I’m also old enough to appreciate my father’s wisdom. When he was finally retirement age I was in the thick of raising my teenage children and spare time was more rare than spare change. I told dad he must appreciate the way days surely linger for him now that he’s older, with fewer responsibilities. 

Instead, he told me, “The older I get, the faster time goes.” I didn’t believe it then. I do now. 

Someone speculated that time goes faster as we get older because each unit of time is a smaller portion of our life than it was when we were young. That last month before Christmas for a five-year-old is a huge, slow moving portion of his entire life. He’s only had 60 months. A month to wait for a 60-year-old is but a blink. He’s had 720 of them. 

I think of my older friends whose social calendar revolves around doctor visits. It’s their excuse to get out and it’s a time when someone important is looking for them, expecting them, preparing to receive them. 

And I think of my friend Cliff who had a very significant career in church ministry and administration across several states. Visiting him at age 92 in the sad, shared room of his nursing home after his wife died, he looked around at his narrow bed, the few pictures taped to his wall, the closet with just a few items hanging there, and said, “I used to be somebody.” 

We assured him his life mattered, that it had counted for good in the lives of his children and in the many he touched through his work and devotion. 

I think of that this morning, standing at my window, staring out at the corn rows of my neighborhood, and wonder if in a few years my friends and neighbors will look at this house, scratch their heads and try to remember the somebody who used to live there.

Lonely at the Lake

A dip in Hyco Lake saved the day.

Deep in his heart, every man longs for a battle to fight, an adventure to live and a beauty to rescue. – John Eldredge

Of all the great memories from my cross-state bike adventure with my friend Mark,  the most lasting image came from a moment off the bike. 

It was our second day, and hottest. The bank sign said 96 degrees when we rode past. It seemed we climbed all morning and early afternoon as we left the NC mountains and navigated around bodies of water, racing down to them, then slogging back up to level ground. Now, we were crossing Hyco Lake on a short, flat bridge when we looked longingly at the dark, calm water. 

“Every time we cross a lake on a hot day, I want to jump in,” Mark said. I shared the sentiment and when I saw a cabin with a “For Sale” sign on it at the far end of the bridge, I rode into the short driveway, intending to walk unnoticed to the end of its dock and jump in. But, as we rode into the cabin site, the owner came out to attend to something on his deck. 

Unthwarted, I rode up and asked if we could take a dip into the lake from his dock. Skeptical at first, he said, “Go ahead.” 

Mark, hoping tryouts are still open for Olympic underwater dancing team.

Mark stripped to his bike shorts and jumped in. I didn’t want to ride the rest of the day in wet shorts, so I got nakie and jumped. Oh my goodness. Given the day, the ride, the heat, the perfect water temp, the freedom, it was heavenly. 

After we’d gotten refreshed, we air dried a bit. I wiped myself down with my sweaty jersey, put on my dry shorts and walked back up to the cabin. Mark squished his way up to where the owner was back out on the deck. We chatted long enough to learn that he was from Massachusetts and had bought the cabin three years ago to be near his son and grandchildren, who lived about an hour from there. 

“That must have been great,” I said. “Lake house, grandkids, lots of fun.” 

“They only came twice in three years,” he said. “And my relatives from Massachusetts never came.” So, he’s selling the place and moving in with his sister back home. 

I can’t get the image out of my mind. He’s not a rich man, he said. The lake home wasn’t a vacation spot. He planted his life there so he could be near his son and grandchildren – an hour away. They came only twice in three years. 

No one visited from Massachusetts. Not once. It costs 80 bucks to get the yard mowed, and his boat looked like something you’d put your supervisor in, hoping to create a sudden job opening. He couldn’t stay. No reason to.

He was a lonely man, lonely enough to leave his grandchildren and move in with his sister back home. We thanked him, wished him well, and took off – up the hill away from the lake and on to Roxboro. 

I don’t know the family dynamics. Maybe he was hard to get along with, maybe he mistreated his son’s mother. But to uproot your life in your retirement years, move 700 miles to be close to your grandchildren, and then be ignored – that just struck me as too, too sad.

There are lots of lonely people out there. For lots of reasons. Don’t let some of them be your grandparents. And, don’t be afraid to say hello to strangers.

The wisdom of Bill

I was facing a big life decision recently so I went again to talk with my friend Bill. He’s the strong, silent type and a great listener but when he speaks, his voice always slices like a knife of insight through the goop clouding my thinking.

Bill’s place is very comfortable; shady with a great view of nature from where he rests – woodlands, pastures and now a large stand of loblolly pines that one day will be harvested. I laugh with him to think that when those trees are cut, people that have been driving by them for a generation are going to gripe and complain that the forest was cut down in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

They won’t remember the trees were planted 20 years earlier specifically as a cash crop to benefit the work of Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, where Bill grew up, and lived and worked most of his career.

I can hear him chuckling and shaking his big ol’ head, rubbing the bald pate once forested with hair. The more time I’ve spent with Bill the more I realize he’s always understood people at a level much deeper than his easy-going nature typically revealed. He’s not snowed by the self-important preening of others who gathered around his table, even when it looks on the surface like he takes their words at face value.

I tell Bill how much I appreciate him, how he and his wife, Louise, took us in and showed us the ropes when I started working where he worked. I was a generation younger, in a higher “position” on the organizational chart and from another part of the country. None of that mattered, only that we respected each other, each worked hard and we all loved our children.

Bill doesn’t say much, but I know he cares. But, I digress.

I told Bill about the decision I faced. Comfort is cool; change is hard. His expression was stone cold, waiting for me to continue. The more I told him, the more I heard myself talking it through, the more it became clear which direction I should take.

I just chuckled. He’s always like that now, waiting for me to talk it through between us, without saying anything, knowing that eventually I’ll make the right decision.

With that out of the way, I tell him I know that he and Louise are enjoying their time back together again after several years apart, due to circumstances beyond their control. I catch him up on the kids, and sense his pride in them, as he’s proud of every kid who grew up at Baptist Children’s Homes, also due to circumstances beyond their control.

Bill acts as if he has all the time in the world, and I’m reluctant to leave him, but…life goes on. I thank Bill for his time and wisdom, rise to my feet, brush the fallen oak leaves from his headstone, and close the gate to God’s Acre behind me.

Thanks again, Bill. You’re always there for me.