(To read the prologue of this story, click here)
The snow outside church portended a brutal night and I watched the parking lot as much as I watched the costumed kids preparing for their role in the Christmas pageant. I expected the arrival of a new helper who was racing south from Colorado ahead of a blizzard.
She was a helper whose arrival I anticipated with mixed emotions.
I had been a volunteer at Templo Bautista in Espanola, NM for two months. Recently discharged from the Army as one of America’s last draftees, I’d gone there to exercise my faith with the goal of making a difference in an environment foreign to me, a Midwestern Scandinavian who grew up in Truman’s World.
Is it any wonder I wanted no intruders? Teresita Naranjo, left, recognized as the No. 2 potter in all of New Mexico, cut my hair with Mrs. Abbott.
Mrs. John Abbott – never Ethel – carried on the work at Templo that she and her husband started decades earlier. But John had been killed in a farming accident and Mrs. Abbott told God she could only carry on as God would send help.
I was the first long term helper and became bus driver, Sunday School teacher, wood splitter, phone tree operator, youth director, visitation director and encourager. Life was good. Mrs. Abbott treated me like a son, fed me like a king and taught me like Socrates.
Two months later I returned to the church I attended in Colorado Springs to tell my crowd what was happening in Espanola, and to raise a few bucks to buy Christmas gifts for the kids there. In that crowd was the daughter of a man I knew well. She had just left college and was at loose ends, struggling to discern a broader, greater plan for her life.
My heartfelt appeal and enthusiasm for life at Templo Bautista struck a chord in her heart and she wanted to pray with me about the possibility of coming to help. The last thing I wanted was an intruder to dilute my lone role as Golden Child in Mrs. Abbott’s realm.
But, we prayed and this girl and I had the unmitigated gall, the brazen audacity, the cocksure brass to demand the creator of the universe provide a clearly discernible answer within seven days.
I returned to Espanola with some cash for gifts and a secret. I didn’t want my apple cart upset. I wasn’t going to stand in God’s way, but I wasn’t going to feed him an easy assist, either.
So I waited several days before telling Mrs. Abbott about Sue Ellen Carver’s interest in coming to help. I figured Mrs. Abbott would take a couple days to pray, to cogitate and consider. By then, the seven-day deadline would be passed and I’d be home free. So, at breakfast on the sixth day, I mentioned casually that Bob Carver’s daughter, Sue Ellen, was interested in coming to Templo to help.
“Bob Carver’s daughter?” she asked. Bob had been to Templo many times on weekend work trips and was a member of a very supportive church.
And yet, who could blame me for my resistance fading?
I nodded, smug in my manipulation of the calendar. To my dismay, Mrs. Abbott reached for the phone, asked me for Sue Ellen’s number, called it and said, “Come on.”
“OK,” I thought. “It’s a couple weeks before Christmas, and she’ll have to give notice at her job and make arrangements and well, maybe I’ve got three to four weeks before the invasion.
Instead, within three days she was on the road, racing a winter storm south from Colorado to New Mexico, sliding into the median, using every ounce of knowledge her dad gave her about rocking the car to get out of a drift, crossing Raton Pass just before it was closed and arriving at Templo Bautista just as the shepherds and angels were marching through the hallway to line up for their part in announcing good news to a waiting world.
She arrived covered in frost with a smile that would melt many a heart just as the kids were shuffling down the hallway to the stage. It was a Christmas pageant scene so perfect that it would have embarrassed even Hallmark.
Over the following months, we worked daily together. Eventually, of course, I began to see Sue Ellen far less as a nuisance and far more as someone I wanted to know on a far more personal level. Sure, she was the only green-eyed blonde in Sante Fe County, but just as attractive was her indomitable, loving spirit that pitched in enthusiastically to every task and made every person who crossed her path feel like they’ve been heard, seen and loved.
Whatever it was, we left Espanola heading in different directions and had only occasional, long distance conversation until in October the following year, she came to Oklahoma Baptist University to visit her sister and we reconnected. We talked for hours – much to the dismay of her sister, who felt neglected. We talked of our own perspectives of the future, who we were and who we wanted to be, never really talking about that future together.
Yet, when I returned to my apartment after seeing her off to the airport, I knew. The next morning I called her dad and said “I want to marry your daughter.” To which he replied, “Which one?” He had four and he had no clue Sue Ellen and I had been talking.
One month later we returned to Espanola for the first time – to plan our wedding, which took place one month after that.
I’ve made a lot of decisions in my life, but none were better than that one 47 years ago.