“I was 30 the first time I got an Easter basket,” my mom said to me last weekend. “My dad got it for me, and I was so excited.”
Mom was born during the Great Depression. She had one dress to wear to school and her sister had one dress, so they took turns swapping them. They had one pair of shoes apiece and after they wore out, they put cardboard in the bottom. Her parents were rarely able to provide meat for meals, and sometimes she went to bed hungry.
During summer break, life was different. Mom would board a bus to visit relatives in a town an hour away. They weren't well to do, and I'm sure they made sacrifices so my mom could visit, but they certainly had more than mom was accustomed to.
“It was like living on top of the world for a few weeks, until I had to go home and go back to school … with nothing,” she said. “We would get up and grandma had a big breakfast waiting for me. We would visit for a while and then I’d go out and play with some of the kids in the neighborhood. Then she’d get lunch ready – that was always good.
“Sometimes we would get into my aunt’s car and go shopping downtown or go to a movie, so I had good times there.”
I know these stories because I began recording audio interviews with her sporadically on Saturday afternoons five years ago. We have talked about her upbringing, her marriage to my father, her work history, her friends and much more. I learned more about her during those conversations than I ever imagined. We took a break from the interviews for a while, but we’ve recently started recording them again.
The longer I talk to her during these interviews, the more I am picking up on her natural tendency to make sacrifices for the generations in her family that came after her. When you have experienced hardship and lived to tell about it, easing the burdens of the people you love hardly seems like a sacrifice, even when it is. I suspect she would consider it a privilege.
She survived hunger, a lack of clothing, a lack of material goods in general and many other hardships – with her dignity and faith intact. And now, nothing makes her happier than to make sacrifices for the people she loves – the way her aunt and grandmother did for her.
“I’ve been told I’m a lot like my grandmother, and I probably am,” she said a few Saturdays ago. “As far as clothes – now I have more than I need. I need to give about half of them to the Goodwill, but I’ll probably hang onto them as long as I can. And I’m still working. The Lord has been good to me.”
Indeed he has.
But that didn't stop me from buying her an Easter basket this afternoon.
UPDATE (04-20-14): Here's a photo of Mom posing with her basket.
As soon as the auction trailer pulled up in front of the house across the street on Friday morning, I knew Barney was gone.
I didn’t know him well, but he was one of those guys in your neighborhood who seems elderly when you’re a kid, but then he lives another 30 or 40 years and you realize he couldn’t have been as old as you thought. A quick search for his obituary revealed that he was 97 when he died, so he would have been in his 60s when I was a kid, which doesn’t seem so old anymore.
He had a grandson named Mike who used to visit him often. We would sneak away to the sandlot to play baseball – just him and me. We took turns hitting a tattered tennis ball while the other would pitch. And we kept stats.
Anything out of the gravel infield was a hit. Right field had a tall fence that was maybe 125 feet from home plate. Anything over that fence was a home run. Since no fence existed in left field, the utility wire that stretched across the field served as the home run marker, but it was much farther away. We often disputed one another’s home runs to left field because it was difficult to tell whether the ball cleared the wire or not. Instant replay would have come in handy.
Whenever I knocked on Barney's door to see if Mike was there, Barney was always pleasant, but I’ll always remember one interaction in particular.
When I was 16 or 17, I climbed into the driver’s side seat of my mom’s car one day that was parked on the street. I don’t remember where I was headed, but a car was parked in front of me and Barney’s truck was parked in back. As an inexperienced driver, it seemed like I had about two inches to spare on both sides.
I eased the car into drive and inched forward. Then I shifted into reverse, and before I knew it, I heard a sickening crunch.
My heart raced. Not only was I going to have to tell my mom I hit Barney’s truck with her car, but I was going to have to tell Barney. After pulling the car forward a bit, I climbed out and inspected the damage. Mom’s car, an old Pontiac, was part tank and it didn't have a scratch on it. But I left a dent the size of a small fist in Barney’s front bumper.
I made the dreaded walk to Barney’s door, staring at the ground when he answered. “Barney, I … I backed into your truck and dented your front fender. I’m so sorry.”
“Let me come and take a look.” He went inside to get something and then met me at the scene of the crime. He surveyed the damage while I held my breath. “You know, this old truck already has a few dents in it. Another one isn’t going to hurt it one bit.” He smiled.
He had me dead to rights and probably should have collected from my insurance company, but surely he knew that a claim on my insurance policy, as a male teenage driver, would raise my rates. And since he didn’t care that his truck had one more dent in it, he let me off the hook.
I never forgot that.
He owned that truck for several more years, often parking it in front of his house. Every time I saw the dent, it was reminder of his mercy.
I have been to three funerals in the past three weeks, and each one has been beautifully different – varying in faith tradition, length, and ways in which families shared memories of their loved one.
But each memorial also contained one similarity, captured by this verse from one of the memorial programs:
There is work still waiting for you,
So you must not idly stand;
Do it now, while life remaineth--
You shall rest in Jesus’ land.
As I left the third funeral, I contemplated this notion of unfinished work. It makes perfect sense to leave a memorial service motivated to finish a project, especially one that will outlast us.
Along those lines, I’m reading a devotional book by Pamela Sonnenmoser called Praise & Paraphrase. Pamela was a friend, and sadly, her funeral is one of the three I attended recently.
In one of her devotions, she talks about the process a twice-baked potato goes through. It is cooked for an hour, then removed from the oven, cut open and its insides are scraped out and crushed. A few ingredients are added and then everything is put back into its shell. Finally, it has to go back into the oven.
Here’s what Pamela concluded:
"I want to be like a twice-baked potato; perfected by the process God requires, having all of myself removed and having the extra things that come from the Holy Spirit added. I want to be yielded by His refining fire again and again. I long to be ready to serve the glory of God."
Pamela lived this. And now, because she finished the work God gave her one earth, she is able to speak to us from beyond the grave. And that’s a beautiful thing.
But this admonition to avoid idleness goes beyond finishing the work before us.
If you were to ask me what I desire more of, I would tell you a slower pace – one that allows for more contemplation, more reading, more fishing, more nature photos, more bonfires and more baseball games on the radio. My soul is fed as I intentionally avoid the highways of life in favor of the byways.
A few years ago, while traveling across Missouri, I pulled off the interstate to visit a winery. As I left there, I decided to take a detour through the small town nearby called High Hill, population 195. As I puttered down Booneslick Road, I saw the Mayberry police car you see pictured above. How could I not pull over and shoot that photo?
It reminded me of a simpler time – one my parents grew up in. By simpler, I mean a time of less distraction – a time in which you didn’t have to pull off the interstate to search for a slower pace because interstates didn’t exist. My parents were twenty when President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that created the interstate system we know today.
Ultimately, my trip down Booneslick Road allowed me to pause and contemplate how much the world has changed since my parents were teens. And in a small way, I was paying respect to who they were, who they had become, and everything they have done for me.
I want to finish the work God has given me before my time on earth is finished, and I also want to make sure I’m stopping long enough to visit Mayberry once in a while.
When I signed into my account on Walmart.com this morning to reorder a prescription, it asked me for my date of birth. I had to scroll twice on the drop-down menu to find the year I was born.
In other words, I’m getting a bit long in the tooth.
If I were to use that phrase around my youngest niece, who is nine, she would respond the way she did the last time I visited and said something else that was dated. I can't remember what it was, but it's not important.
“Uncle Lee, you are so old school.”
How could I disagree?
All of us grew up using certain words or phrases that have been replaced by the next generation (or two). I’m not referring to slang, though each generation has its own slang as well. Instead, I’m talking about commonly accepted words or phrases that have been replaced, or changed. A motion picture is now a movie. Decoration Day is now Memorial Day. Junior high school is now middle school.
My grandmother used to refer to Decoration Day because that’s what it was called when she grew up. And even though a federal law changed the name to Memorial Day in 1967, she never referred to it as such. How could she? She was 52 when they decided to rename the holiday.
But that didn’t stop me from being confused as a child whenever she referred to it by its former name. For a while, I thought it was two distinct holidays, but as we were decorating graves one year, it hit me – Decoration Day is Memorial Day. I asked her if she knew when the name changed and she didn’t, probably because it didn’t matter to her.
Technology, styles, language, cultural norms – they all change so quickly. If you ask to see a photo of me from the 1980s, you'll see that my wardrobe was mostly Bike shorts and long tube socks. I don’t wear either any longer, but I have to tell you – modern shorts that nearly touch my ankles will never feel right.
Most of us reach an age when we stop trying to keep up. And I get that. I am close to that point right now regarding technology, styles and cultural norms. But I don’t want to get to that point regarding language – especially as a writer. I want to be able to talk to younger generations using terms they understand.
Now I just have to figure out how to retire the phrase “long in the tooth.” Maybe I should just say I’m getting old. Every generation would understand that.
In the summer of 1978, my dad bought a beat up old caravan like the one you see in the photo (minus the outside table and the shack) and he dropped it off in an otherwise empty parking lot in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Dad had landed the contract to paint the nursing home (he was a commercial painter) that had just been built in Lincoln and rather than paying for a hotel every night, he bought the caravan.
As a 12-year old boy who was getting to spend the summer with his dad, the caravan couldn’t have been a more perfect place to do so. My parents divorced when I was eight, so I took any opportunity I could get to spend time with my dad. Throw in the fact that we didn’t have a shower, and we could eat whatever we wanted and it felt as close to heaven as a boy could ask.
At night, after a long exhausting work day, we would hole up in the caravan and play Gin Rummy (the card game) on the small table near the door while an AM radio station played in the background. The cards gave our hands something to do while we bonded and they made conversation more natural. At that age, I doubt if I would have just sat at a table and had a conversation with my father. Too much pressure.
“How’s school?” he asked.
I had just finished 7th grade – my first year in junior high school. It was a whole new world for a shy overweight kid who couldn’t figure out the delicate balance between wanting to fit in while at the same time not wanting to be noticed, or picked on. So I told him what any kid in my situation says. “It’s fine.”
“How’re your grades?”
I was an average student who didn’t take to the rhythm of cramming for and taking tests very well. I was more the creative type, so I just wanted to dream. I got 2s and 3s, with the occasional 1. Algebra hadn’t tripped me up yet. That looming monster was waiting for me in 9th grade. Since I wasn’t honor roll material, I said what any kid in my situation says. “They’re pretty good.”
More than once, I turned the conversation toward a more adult-like topic. “Why aren’t you and Mom together anymore?”
My parents never spoke ill of one another in my presence that I can remember. That’s a good thing, but it does leave a kid wondering who to blame.
Dad always made eye contact during a serious conversation. I often saw hints of pain he never verbalized when I was young and that made me even more curious.
“Someday, when you’re old enough, I’ll explain,” he said.
Seven years later, he kept his promise. He struggled with alcoholism and it came with a price.
Later in his life, our conversations went deep: failures, disappointments, unrealized dreams – no topic was off limits. But I don’t think we would have arrived at that place if it weren’t for those card games that broke the ice and allowed us to be natural around one another. We also didn’t have any distractions that summer – no phones, no video games, no television.
It was a simpler time, for sure. And I don’t think we can or should go back to it. But intentionally escaping to it once in a while isn’t a bad idea.
A few weeks ago, my niece and her boyfriend called me because they needed a ride to the laundromat. After they filled the washers with their clothes, I went out to my car and got a scratch pad, a pen and UNO (the card game). They snickered at first. They may have even rolled their eyes. But five minutes into the first hand of our makeshift game on a small table near the door, we were having a blast.
“So, how are things going?” I asked my niece.