Sometimes we’re welcomed into another’s story in the most unexpected places and all we can do is recognize it as a gift and be a good keeper of what’s been entrusted to us.
In line at the deli of my small-town grocery store stood an elderly couple ordering ham and cheese loaf, sliced thin. I smile at the wife as I remember my own father’s love for the same combined meat and cheese between white bread.
“Is it sandwich night?” She asks me.
I turn and laugh out my answer, “ohh, yes. I have five hungry kiddos waiting in the van.”
“What’s their favorite?”
“They like turkey and salami best.” I tell her.
We chat for a few minutes as the deli worker portions into her gloved hand my pound of turkey. “A 1/2 pound of salami, as well, please.” I throw my voice strong over the glass case of golden-brown meats, the kids are waiting, and I’d hate to be skipped over by my own natural timidity. She begins the slicer again with the same repetitive motion in her wrist.
Bagged and priced she gently lays the meat on top of the case. I am just about to turn and B-line it for the Ginger ale to complete the promise I had made to the youngest for his good behavior at the library, when I hear the crackly voice of the same old woman next to me in line.
“I’ll show you this, because I like you.” She says.
I smile at her quick conclusion to befriend me as she walks slowly closer, leaning on her cart. She opens her purse and pulls out an old black and white photo. A posed picture of about 35 elementary aged school children, all in plain skirts and button-down tops, and in the center, a man with a stern looking face, a furrowed brow and a cinched in mustache that fits just under his nose. His look, familiar, but I dare not ask. She tells me to guess which one is her, but my eyes are glued on the man in the middle. I try and keep a lighthearted look not to give away my thoughts. She catches them anyway and points to her 7-year-old self, “middle row, third from the left, that’s me.” She says. “The Americans liberated us when I was 9 years old.”
I no longer need to inquire about the man, whether Hitler himself or one of his mimicking puppets, I begin to follow along with her story.
She tells me, five of her classmates were killed because they didn’t possess the distinct look of a non-Jewish person. And one child in the picture lived here in America for all her adult years after the liberation, and they remained friends until her death.
Her eyes are deep with age and tender from experience, she trusts me with the details of her past and allows me to ask questions. I try and memorize her words as she speaks, I want to be a good keeper of stories and retell them honorably.
She pulls out two more pictures. One of her standing with uncles and brother about to board the train that would take her to a camp.
The other, a joyful picture with aunts and cousins and siblings all piled on the grass of a summertime gathering. Some stretched across in the front, some crouched down on knees, all squeezing in trying to be part of the moment. Likely before the war began.
“That’s my mother.” She points to a lovely woman in the front with a big smile and womanly figure. “Beautiful”, I say.
As she touches the photos, I can see her hands are strong, her fingers twisted and gnarled. She’s a Polish woman of 80 plus years with children and grandchildren and a joyous smile when she speaks of them.
I put my hand on her arm, “you’ve had a very hard story” I tell her. Without hesitation she smiles and says, “oh, parts of it, yes...but we’re here now!”
But we’re here now...
I hold onto it and bank it away as wisdom I’ll need on days my surroundings deceive me. The visible faults and failures of life in a broken world can easily victimize the soul, if allowed. And here I stand beside a woman who’s seen more adversity than I can imagine, yet still living in the moment of a decades-old rescue.
But we’re here now, I replay in my mind after children are tucked in bed and teenage thoughts resolved and laid to rest.
Is it possible that being fully here, right now is like a big spoonful of thankful medicine? That living in the moment of our greatest deliverance keeps us continually aware of all that’s good and beautiful.
When we accept the rescue mission of Jesus’ birth for us, and do not deny his life and death and life again! Keeping it in the front of our story and not forfeiting it to a generation of those believing to be victimized by every remark and disapproval of others - we will be able to say, “but, I’m here now!” And live fully.
I round the corner of the cereal aisle, regaining my pace and focus on what I came for, but with a shifted heart.
That night we eat a simple meal of cold cuts on soft bread. Popcorn is popped and a movie picked out as we pile on couches and chairs in our pj’s. I look around the room at the faces I see every day and exhale a smile. “But we’re here now!” I down a spoonful of my own prescription.
“The stars are so patient, mom. They don’t have a worry in the world, do they? They just wait on God to tell them when to arrive and when to fizzle out.”
She stands past my shoulder now with her straight, strawberry-blond hair that echos my genes entirely.
It was a coal-black night when we stood barefoot in the yard with tilted heads, eyes peering into the darkness, counting the stars that resemble more of tiny diamonds than the majestic fireballs they are. The howl of a coyote, the leader of the pack, passes through the field and our bones at the same time. The chill in the air is good enough reason for us to skip back inside.
I let the thought of patient stars run through my mind while I lie in bed and wonder if I could be so trusting, so steady as a tiny light in the darkness, all for the glory of God.
It’s a “golden year” under the three trees, that’s what we call it, though it doesn’t always happen, so we roughhew into our schedule a plan to stretch our lungs beneath the trees paper-thin crisps. Sun light finds its way through the cracks, and the memory is etched.
By the afternoon the fading of chores and schoolwork and guiding children rightly brings me to the same spot. I watch from the kitchen window, wet up to my elbows in bubbles and dish water, as day after day the trees change and loosen their hold on what once was theirs.
A lot can be learned through their surrender, their willingness to let God decide what’s next and when. If we could get to a place where we stand sturdy and strong like an 80-year-old maple that no storm can break, yet tender and willing to allow each season to have its way in us. Oh, how wise we would be!
There’s a hill of laundry that threatens my sanity daily but the act of sifting it down to a few straggling socks and someone’s mid-day change brings great success to this orderly heart. A young girl follows me into where the work awaits. She recites her assignments aloud to me as I fold the sleeves over and down, over and down. Towels and jeans, verbs and conjunctions. My hands and her mind straightening the wrinkles and working through the speech patterns.
Freshly baked pumpkin bread for a snack. Some slather butter, others prefer only the baked-in moisture of the pumpkin purée. Small boy hands complete with dirty nails, and I snap a picture. It’s his unsophisticated innocence that frees my heart of any legalistic tendencies I might be hanging onto. He reminds me often how to live these days well. Unashamed and open handed, dirty and all.
It’s a tornado out there beyond these doors. Not the kind that destroys the siding, or tears at the shingles, but the kind that crushes the heart and cuts through the deepest bonds of love.
Yet, for the heart that trusts its own delicate frame to The One who formed its life-nourishing rhythms - there is no crushing that kills, no confusion that shocks and no stress that renders the heart abandoned.
"We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed." 2 Corinthians 4:8-9
Because...Jesus. He is the only soul saver in the story. The only healer of your history, the only tender to your tender heart. He is The Holy one of God, who IS God and will only ever be God!
There is an enormous rest in such a right maker, truth teller, hand holder, and spirit keeper like Him. Though the days long and hard, and often the sun sets on tear-stained paths down weathered cheeks - this I know, and lean in close, my friend. The shifting of your one broken heart to His pierced-for-you hands is what will shape your future. And your broken but beating heart will find a new song to drum to. You’ll be made new and given a thump-thumping in your chest that steps to God’s own beat, a rhythm fit for a King.
So, when you find yourself under the stars of night, or the oak’s browning leaves, or even if you find yourself under your own quivering quilt, do not let your heart be troubled, take cover in Him who wishes to cover you with His love.
"Do not let your hearts by troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me." John 14:1
Oh, the ache of summer’s end, it gets me every year. The Celtic music playing in my van matches the season with its quick stepping fiddles and the repetitive notes of the flute, a bit melancholy, a bit exciting, but never exhausting its welcome. Fiery red branches touching arms with the golden maples for the 15th, 30th, maybe even 100th year in a row seem to sing a similar tune. Hello fall, goodbye summer, again and again.
There’s laughter on the porch as an assembly line of wood is stacked in its new home. Dining room chairs pulled out because the sun’s cheerful presence made known my lack of mopping the floors. Light always reveals hidden dirt, there’s just no escaping it.
Later that day when I’m almost to the finish line I hear, “Mama, let's go for a walk, you’ll love the tree up the road..." Spaghetti noodles still limply draped over the edge of the table where the youngest was seated, sauce still in pan, parmesan sprinkled like snow across the countertop, a sink full of plates and forks. The porch door cracks open and those familiar eyes peer in, he heard the request for a walk and knows my bend to decline in order to keep house - “Emma, go for the walk, we’ll all help clean up afterward.” A sneaky grin under his full beard convinces me quickly and we slip on shoes and overcoats or whatever we can find that’s not still tucked away with the scarves and hats of January.
And we walk.
To that tree that isn’t ours, but we call it, “our tree” because that one autumn day when the breeze was light and the leaves barely holding on, we walked under a sprinkling of orange and red peddles that rained down on us for what felt like an hour. We laughed and jumped and kicked at the piles and lifted our hands to the sky catching all the tree surrendered to us. It was said that day, the timing of the maple releasing its leaves at the wind’s command, was for us. So, the tree became, “our tree" and remains still in our minds.
The linking of arms will forever be one of my fondest memories.
It’s that time of year again when we knit in close to one another to stay warm and arrange the table with more than paper plates and vases of dandelions. Everything changes in fall, everything slows, and we’re all challenged to re-learn how to live more hours within these walls together. The children are growing and changing so quickly it’s no wonder grace is needed moment by moment under this roof.
The Word tells us to rejoice always in what the Lord has done and is doing. We’re called to keep in full view and at our fingertip's, gentleness in all things and to all things. Gentleness, not as much in kind touches and hushed words, though rich and lifegiving. But gentleness can be the way we let go of grievances caused by others and the contentment we possess and the generosity we express within our hearts, all spring from a gentle spirit. The way we bend our ways and wills to those rubbing shoulders with us daily.
You know the people...the ones sharing your washing machine and squeezing from the same shampoo bottle. The ones borrowing your socks or favorite DVD never to be returned. The ones inviting you over for Thanksgiving this year and the ones you’ll invite to your feasting table. Our leniency and mercy toward the faults and failures of others will always echo to the world a spirit of gracious humility, gentleness being evident to all.
"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, REJOICE! Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near." Philippians 4:4-5
Today is the day to find gentleness in all your doings.
"My life passes as swiftly as the evening shadows. I am withering away like grass." Psalm 102:11