A regular occurrence

The house, unusually quiet as I sit reading.

Then pounding feet on stairs, basement door banging open, and my eldest son of 19 runs into the kitchen, around the island and turns, poised, looking back the way he came, face bright and expectant.

I abandon my book and watch Sidney, wondering . . .

His younger sister, 14, slowly walks into the kitchen, popping her knuckles.  Rachel moves around the island.  Sidney moves in the opposite direction.  She stretches her neck and shakes out her arms.  He laughs, makes a run for the dining room table, putting more distance between them.  She slowly paces him, menaces him with a glaring eye, a smile trembles her lips.

This has been a familiar scene since Sidney and I returned from Memphis 15 months ago.  Rachel loves locking her arms around her older brother, his arms imprisoned at his side, while he tries to wrestle free.  He twists and turns, dragging her from kitchen to dining room to living room.  She hangs on for dear life.  They fall to the couch, roll on the floor, twist their way back to their feet, lurch off walls and furniture.

Twenty minutes, thirty minutes — Rachel has a good, strong grip.  I hope they don’t break anything, including themselves, but it is a vague thought.  I am glad they play together.  In those early days of our return home, Sidney needed exercise, needed to rebuild wasted muscle.  During his tiredest days, escaping her grip was a fun distraction, a necessary workout.

I wonder if Sidney knows that Rachel needed those wrestling matches too.  Still needs them.

His reticent and undemonstrative sister needs to wrap her arms tightly around a brother she loves and never let him go.

Mystifying friendship

From Memphis with love . . .

Several years ago, maybe 5 or so, I attended a 2-day workshop for homeschooling moms.  I met a lovely lady named Michelle.  It was one of those rare, instant connections, a recognition of another heart that gets your heart.  I knew the moment she nonchalantly squeezed the dead cow’s eyeball in my direction, while pretending to seriously focus on note-taking.  We laughed a lot together and enjoyed many talks.   At the end of that workshop, I hugged her goodbye and sadly assumed that I would never see her again. She was a busy mom.  I was a busy mom.  We live about 3 hours apart and life happens.

To my surprise, Michelle called me not long after and drove that long 3 hours with her 3 little daughters to see me.  I was thrilled to reconnect with her, meet her beautiful daughters and introduce her to my children.  We spent a lovely day together and I regretted the need to let her go back home.  I hoped to one day visit her, but you know . . .the 3 hour drive and life.

Several years passed and Michelle stumbled onto the news of Sidney’s tumor.  She emailed me and planned another visit —this time, an approximate 11-hour drive to Memphis Tennessee.  So I met Michelle a third time.

That is not a normal heart.  That is a selfless and faithful heart and I am blessed, though also perplexed, she chose to count me a friend.  I’ve never gotten in the car and driven to see her, never sent her a birthday card or even kept up with her.  I either don’t talk much or I get nervous, swing the other way and talk too much, jumping right into tough, even awkward topics.  Unlike some people in my family, I don’t connect with people quickly.

But this friend overlooked my little oddities and hung in there beyond time and distance.  To top it off, she brought along one of her other friends, Kris.  I only got to hang out with Michelle and Kris for a few hours.  But I have a feeling Kris could be another one of those special, rare friends too.  They left Sidney and I both smiling and happy.  Isn’t that one of the best goals we can have?  To leave other people smiling and happy?

I don’t know all of God’s plans in this cancer muckiness, but I know he is blessing us many, many times over.

She only appears tame

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sitting quietly on the couch reading her Bible.

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A jiggly foot betrays restlessness momentarily lying beneath her surface — the need to run, stretch, climb, sing and dance fingers across a violin.

That archy foot with delicately curved toes carries her swiftly across grass, dirt, forest floor, too fast and wild to be constrained by a shoe.

In honor of my father

My father-in-law died 6 days ago.  We buried him yesterday in the cemetery of his church.  His place is near an old oak tree, its welcoming branches spread wide.  He is surrounded with beauty  — his quaint and historic church, headstones that go back to the Revolution, the Clay’s cow pasture and more distant views of the mountains, including Table Rock.

When driving into town, if I drive a little out my way, I can pass within feet of his headstone and wave hello.

At the funeral, it was a bit startling to hear the preacher say his full name — Sidney Louis Gaskins, Sr.  My own husband is Sidney Louis Gaskins, Jr., but since my father-in-law went by his middle name Louis, it is easy to forget their shared name.

Louis’ children, neighbors and friends shared many wonderful stories of Louis yesterday.  And I want to add my perspective as an in-law.

Those of us who have married know that coming into a new family can be like entering a foreign country — strange, exciting . . . . and a bit scary.

The Gaskins were indeed a foreign country to me.

When Sid and I were dating, he shared a childhood memory with me.  His dad had a pick-up load of hay bales that he needed to get up the driveway.  For those of you who have never visited the Gaskins’, their driveway is long and steep — the kind of steep that loses gravel in a hard rain, so they poured concrete on it.  So the Gaskins’ have a long, steep and HARD driveway.  With a couple of sharp curves too.

Well, this was a problem, because Louis knew that if he started up that driveway with his load of hay bales, he was likely to end up with hay bales scattered down his driveway.  But my father-in-law was a problem-solver, and he often solved problems . . . or attempted to solve problems . . . in unique ways.

His solution to THIS problem was to put weight on the hay, to hold those bales down.  So he rounded up his kids and told them to sit on the hay bales.

So up the driveway they go —Louis in his pickup truck stacked high with hay bales and kids perched on top.  They take a curve . . . and then the hay . . .and the kids . . .all tumble down the driveway.

I knew I might be in trouble when this boy I was thinking of marrying told me how much fun this incident was.   Rolling down a concrete driveway didn’t sound like fun to me.

Sid had many such stories that often revolved around something his dad did.

So I entered this family with a bit of trepidation.  My father-in-law clearly lacked a careful concern for safety pounded into me since birth.   My cautious family had raised me to be fearful, whereas Sid was raised to be fearLESS.

Marrying into the Gaskins’ clan was a culture shock.

I had the good fortune of a long relationship with my father-in-law.  I met Louis while still a girl of 15 yo, not fully grown.  First, he was the father of the boy I was dating.  It was a given that I would find him intimidating.  But a few months later, Louis also became my Chemistry teacher.

In my family, education was not highly valued.  It was scary enough dating a GASKINS, because everyone KNEW how smart the Gaskins were.  Their awesomeness was LEGENDARY.

And I had to slog through Chemistry taught by the patriarch of all this awesomeness.  To say that I was terrified is stating it mildly.

I expected Mr. Gaskins (as I called him then) to place a high value on intelligence or book-smarts.  But I slowly realized that he valued heart and work ethic far more.  He was interested in people, their experiences, their opinions, their stories.

He showed a kind of respect for people one doesn’t often encounter.  He showed me what it meant to live as righteously as possible, to see good in others, and to extend grace liberally.

He even respected his adult kids.  He respected us with the expectation that we would make right choices:  righteous choices and also right choices for US.  Even if we were a bit slow about arriving at those choices.

When Sid walked away from his professional career in TV-News in favor of a dirty, sweaty job swinging a shovel, to do a job that required no education (a job that my own illiterate father had done for 40 years), most people would question that decision.  Most parents would express doubts or concerns over their adult child moving down the food chain, all the way to the bottom —- to install other people’s wastewater systems.

But Louis . . .(and I swear he did this with quiet excitement) picked up a shovel and jumped in to dig ditches too.  Into his 70s, he worked with Sid, often embarrassing our younger employees who admitted that Sid’s father was out-shoveling them on the job.  Our younger employees worked harder than ever to keep up with him.

If there is a motto by which Louis lived his life  — only one instruction that he could give to his children and grandchildren — I think it would be this —

to faithfully serve.

Louis was the most faithful and the serving-EST man I know.  Most people think of faithfulness only in terms of faithfulness to a spouse, which is a concrete idea or faithfulness to God, which is a blurrier notion, with a bit of fuzz around it for most of us.

But Louis’ faithfulness was not just an abstract thought.  He sought to put hands and feet to his faithfulness in every way he could.

Those who knew Louis know what I am talking about.  They witnessed his faithful service.  But those didn’t know Louis well, may not know that he also served in quieter, unnoticeable ways.

After I gave birth to my fourth child, I didn’t do well for a long, long time.  My mind and body were broken, and I did not know how to ask for help or even what specific help to ask for.

My father-in-law, my busy, busy father-in-law, would stop by my home several times a week.  He sat on my couch in my tiny, cramped trailer.  Little Sidney, Lincoln and Rachel clambered over Grandpa while baby Prairie slept.  He talked about growing up or taxed my brain with an unusual theological question.

Often he would fall asleep, sitting upright on my couch, with my children still attached to him.

At first, I was perplexed at why he took the time to hang out with us week after week, when I knew he had many commitments.  But eventually, I realized that he was checking on me and looking for some unobtrusive way to serve me.

He was probably hoping for manual labor, something to fix.  It would probably surprise him to know that he was fixing, or building up, my faith.  Church so often felt empty and useless to me, and faith slippery.  But Louis’ theological questions, crazy though some of them seemed, drove me to my Bible, reading scripture and then asking my own questions.

I learned from Louis to be fearless in asking God the big, scary questions.

And to be fearless when those answers are not clear.

Louis changed my approach to God and the way I talk to my kids about God, faith and the Bible.

I began to tell my kids, “Be fearless in seeking the Truth.  I learned that from your Grandpa.  But just in case he asks, don’t climb onto any hay bales stacked on his pick-up truck.”

When the words won’t come out the way I want them to

It is a beautiful fall day, the kind of day everyone loves — sunny with morning chill.  Later, we will be pulling off layers and lightly sweating in the garden.  Well, I will be sweating in the garden.  Sidney will likely tinker on his car.  Lincoln and the girls will play in the woods, with Lucy or the stray kitten the girls found last week.  And Sid will drive to the funeral home with his mama to plan his dad’s funeral.

That stray kitten has completely undone the steel of my husband’s resolve.  Sid strongly dislikes cats.  Perhaps I should say that he is indifferent to other people’s cats, but he is opposed to our family owning a cat.  We have tried it before, when a friend going through a divorce talked us into taking his cat.  It seemed like the least we could do.  We couldn’t repair our friend’s marriage or his pain, but we could relieve his concern about his cat.

We blinked and the cat’s gestation period passed in that blink.  That one cat turned into 18 cats.  It was traumatic.  We don’t like to talk about it.  Plus we realized that taking our friend’s cat was not the least we could do.  We could have done less, like NOT take the darn cat.

Then this starving kitten hides in our old goat barn, trapped by our dog.  It mewed and cried until our girls found it.  So, now we are stuck with a cat, because two experienced parents with years of saying “No” did not want to quell the hope in a daughter’s heart.

Unless Lucy, our dog, eats the cat, which is a possibility.  Perhaps a secret, hopeful possibility for my husband.

So today is a lovely day.  I have work to do in the garden and lovely schoolwork to do with my children.

And I have all these words to describe the weather, our uninvited cat, and the ordinariness of today.  But there is this big, gaping hole that I keep pretending is not there.

And the important words, the ones that matter most are clogging my heart, clawing their way up my throat until I feel like choking.  The words bubble up and leak out my eyes and nose — messy, sticky words that cling no matter how much I wipe them away.

Words like father, faithfulness, stubborn, pain, good, love, family, church, grandfather, protector, kind.  And even careless.  Though that tear-word makes me laugh too.

Sometimes, a few of the words connect and form cohesive bonds

I miss him

what a father should be

He was so good to me, so good to me, so good to me

I meant to ask him . . .

He made me feel worthy

Sid just left with his Mama for the funeral home

so glad I had him

And mixed with my congested and disjointed thoughts are flashes of memory — when Louis put my small child on a pony and then walked off . . . without the pony!

When he caught a 12-inch long snapping turtle and brought it over because he thought it would make a great pet for 3 yo Sidney.

When he brought me a vase of flowers in the hospital after I gave birth to Sidney.

When he created chemical explosions for a younger Sidney and Lincoln at the kitchen table rather than outside.

When he turned over our bobcat 3 different times, within inches of the whole machine toppling into his pond and Sid had to figure out how to get it out.

When he taught the kids his version of Psalm 23 . . surely mercy and grace shall follow me all the days of my life . . . and never catch up with me!”

Perhaps most precious to me . . .after I had Prairie and was sick and not recovering well.  He would drop by randomly, sit on the couch in our tiny, cramped trailer, while the 3 older kids crawled all over him.  I would sit fold laundry or make bread, while he played with the kids or asked me a deep theological question.  Most of the time, he fell asleep, sitting on the couch with kids on him.  And it was a comfort to me.  There was no pressure.  He expected nothing of me.  He simply loved me.  He came and sat on my couch several times a week because he loved me and he was checking on me.

Like I was a daughter.

A rare and true gift —

that is a good friend.

You can be serious with her and say hard things.

my friends, Helga and Courtney

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You can laugh loud and deep.

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You can be pensive and ponder big questions.

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And then laugh like loons again.

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For each of my children, I pray this —-

that you make a good friend,

a friend who reflects your soul,

who gets your whole story with a few words,

who loves your heart even when it is broken and crooked,

who turns your eyes to your own worth.

I pray you can also be that kind of friend.

Courtney, Helga, me (Tina)

For my friends, I pray that another 26 years does not pass before we meet again, but if it does . . . well, we had our moments together.

They were beautiful moments, and I feel heard and understood, my heart is less crooked, and my eyes can see.

I have been blessed and the memories continue to bless.

Their Longest Day

**Note:  This account is mostly true with a bit of fictionalized tweaks where my memory blurred.  But even the fictions are true on many days and might have been true this day.  I like for my kids to see that I value writing, to encourage them to write fearless.  It is a safe place to be “reckless” as consequences are minimal.  So, it is only fair that I should do what I ask my kids to do — write fearless even when uncomfortable.  What is the worst that could happen?  That you won’t like it, that I won’t like it, I suppose.  Nothing to fear there.

Summer solstice invited them out-of-doors.

It was evening, supper time actually, but for once nobody asked the question — “What’s for supper?”  The day’s heat had lifted, clouds swept the sky, and breezy fingers strummed gentle music among the trees and teased her skin.

She heard the giggles of a son and two daughters and the squeaky springs of a rusty trampoline.  A door thumped shut when her teenage son stepped onto the porch, and the whir of her husband’s saw sounded from the backyard.

With the flow of family edging her awareness, the woman dug another hole and plunked a cinnamon-leaved coral bell into place 18 inches from the hosta.  Thunder rolled, the breeze kicked, blood danced in her veins, and something called to her. She looked up, wondering if she would finish planting before it rained.  The air was electric, molecules buzzed against her skin, filled her lungs — movement and stillness, an expectancy, a held breath.  A certainty was coming — her arms, legs, bones, and skin reached toward it.

Exhilaration bubbled through heart valves, pumped into her fingers, toes and marrow.  Wanting to laugh, she dug another hole, half expecting and hoping the sky to rain absolution and praise on her.  She settled a coral bell with burgundy leaves close to another hosta.  Her sister had given her the hostas, had dug them from her own yard.  This coral bell came from her mom, who gave her a plant every week, claiming she couldn’t care for plants anymore, too much trouble for an old woman.

She laid a thick layer of pine needles around her new plants.  Seven years since they had moved into their house on the hill in the woods.  All those 7 years held her longing to plant a flower bed along the front porch, to grow grass in the front yard for bare feet.  The woman didn’t miss much from childhood, but she missed the brush of grass on bare feet, especially dew-kissed grass on a cool spring morning.  The grass, too, waited almost 7 years, due to finances, poor health and because it took time to learn how to grow tender living things in hard red clay.  It had been harder than she had imagined, and year after year, her yard had remained dry, hard, rough and painful to exposed soles.

Her patch of earth still didn’t grow the lush grass of her original dream, but it was mostly covered with soft, green growth — clover, plaintain, unidentified weeds and grass — and she was content.  This year, honeybees gathered nectar in her yard.

Her daughters flitted across the soft green in bare feet, wearing their older brothers’ play cloaks, cloaks too small even for their 9- and 11-year-old frames.  But the girls  didn’t care, their imaginations making the cloaks what they wanted them to be.

The woman exhaled.  The certainty broke over her, and she grasped it, pulling it inside her  — my dream, I am living my dream.  She heard her husband’s hammer, building her bench.  She saw her older son tinkering under the hood of the car, while her daughters and middle son carried sticks and imaginary worlds.

They were all here, her family, together, home.

With the gift of a few extra minutes added to their day.