Category

Memoir

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I used to be a skeptic.

“I don’t believe in God.  I can’t see him.”

I was four years old.    How could I believe something I couldn’t see?  My parents laughed when my Sunday School teacher told them what I had said.  To her, it wasn’t funny.

Unbelief is a dark place.

Like the afternoon Nancy and I, 10 and 9 years old,  were trapped in her sister’s bedroom closet.  I’m not sure why we had both walked into the space.   The door shut.

My fingers reached for the door knob.  I tried turning the cool metal.  It was locked.  Our prison was black as midnight on a moonless night.

“Hey, we’re stuck in here!”  We screamed.  Silence.

No one was home.

There was nothing to do but sit on the hard wood floor under the hanging clothes.

We waited for minutes, and then an hour.

Restless boredom overcame fear.

When Nancy’s Dad rescued us several hours later, we emerged, exhausted by the ennui.

 

In the last act of the play “Peter Pan,” Peter implores the audience, “Clap your hands if you believe in fairies!” in an effort to revive Tinkerbell.

Children throw their hands together with enthusiasm.  Adults, seated beside their children, realize they must clap, too, for their children’s sake at least.  Of course, they don’t believe in fairies.  No one does.  Except children.

But what to believe in?  In the film “A Star Is Born,” Jack preaches to Ally, his new songwriting friend who is having a moment of panic before presenting her art to the audience.  “There’s one reason we’re supposed to be here:  it’s to say something so people want to hear…don’t apologize… and don’t worry about why they’re listening, or how long they’re going to be listening for, you just tell them what you want to say.”

Urgency filled Jack’s words.

Writing about believing in God presses on me.  It’s what I want to say.  Like Ally, I need a push; it’s as treacherous as a mountain hike on a stony path with a steep drop off.  One wrong step and your credibility goes crashing away.

I can’t leave the  realities of God and me out of this memoir.  I’ve written the stories of my grandparents’ belief in God.  My mother’s life radiated confidence in God.  I have the note she weakly scribbled on the back of her menu at the nursing home, days before she died, “God loves you and I love you…”  She told me Dad’s story.  After WWII,  Dad came to America.  He wasn’t interested in God or church.  He’d been on a ship that rescued prisoners of war from Japanese camps.  He saw terrible suffering, which maybe caused him to question God.  A few years later, Don Chittick, a family friend, reached out to Dad, and helped him back to believing.

My own beliefs have been, sometimes, closely aligned with Judas, who couldn’t imagine Jesus as anything more than a loser, and went out into the night to betray him.  Contrasted with moments when I’ve had the faith of Mary, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!” (Luke 1:47).

 

My favorite color is white, because it’s the presence of all colors.  I don’t like black, it’s the opposite: the absence of light.

Red, orange and yellow leaves covered the trees of Wheaton’s campus in the fall of my first semester at a Christian college.   I met great new friends, had a terrific writing professor, and was able to do whatever I chose whenever I wanted.

After Christmas, a Chicago winter hung colorless over the campus.  Independence morphed into the burden of responsibilities.  Each class syllabus meant a Mount Everest of work.   Professors were pushing me to rethink what I believed about God.  I had a simple faith, and their ideas were confusing me.   I realized that no one had asked to room with me next year.   I made a giant social faux pas:  I called a boy I liked, who didn’t like me.  “Girls do not call boys!”  One of Mother’s Life Rules.  Living surrounded by Christians should have been heaven on earth.  It wasn’t.

I walked into my dorm room on an April afternoon.  My roommate and suite mates were gathered.  No one said anything.  Awkward silence.  I looked from Carol to Lynn to Rochelle.

“We have some bad news for you,”  Rochelle gently said.  “Don asked Elverda to the Banquet.”

The boy I had foolishly chased all year had asked out my own suite mate.

I needed to get away.  My parents bought me a ticket to go home for the weekend.  I had to fly out of O’Hare Airport, an hour’s drive from school.  I saved up my meagre babysitting money to pay someone to drive me to the airport.

At the ticket counter, the agent behind the desk asked for my student card when I handed him the money for my ticket to Minneapolis.

“I don’t have one,”  I answered.

“You need a student card to get that price,”  he informed me.  “That’s twenty five dollars.”

“I don’t have twenty five dollars,”  I answered.

“Then I can’t issue the ticket,”  was his gruff response.

I thought about crying, but didn’t think that would help anything.  He was adamant.  I needed twenty five dollars or no ticket.

I turned away from the counter.  I was stuck at O’Hare.  The driver from school was gone.  I didn’t have enough money to get on the flight.  My eyes were filling with pointless tears.  I didn’t know what to do.  I had to beg for the money.

Heart pounding, I approached total strangers.   Everyone I asked said, no, I can’t help you.  Finally a kind, older lady told me to go to Traveler’s Aid.  They arranged for me to fly home.

Those hours at O’Hare were like every day of the semester.  It was as if I was locked in that dark closet again.   I would sit at my desk and listen to a recording of the song, “He’s listening to you, he’s listening to you, he knows every heartache that you’re going through,” and cry.  I didn’t feel like God was there at all.

I didn’t know what to believe anymore.  When I got home for the summer, our church asked me to share a story of my faith from my first year of college.  They didn’t know I had lost it.   But I wasn’t going to be rude or embarrass my parents by not going to church.  On lined paper I wrote out some sentences about my new heretical state.  I read it to the church.

Mrs. Erickson, one of my Sunday School teachers,  came up to me after I spoke.  “I appreciate your honesty,”  she graciously encouraged.

My mother had another suggestion. “Why don’t you read the book of John for yourself?”

I had never done that.  I knew Bible stories and had heard sermons preached from the Bible.  When we were kids, we sometimes read verses from the Bible after dessert, as we sat around the dinner table.   It was boring.  I couldn’t wait until we were finished so I  could go out to play.

“I have some ladies in Bible study who’ve said this is their first time reading the Bible,”  Mother added. “They haven’t believed in God because they haven’t met him.”  That was me.

I started John, chapter 1.  I met Jesus.  His words and presence in each situation surprised and delighted me.  When I got to chapter 20, Jesus found Mary in the garden after his resurrection.  He called her by name, “Mary.”  It was personal.  When I read the sentences about that meeting, I sensed Jesus speak my own name, “Jill!”

I did believe in Jesus.  I realized I could take the baby and throw out the bathwater.  I could believe in him, without accepting everything else: the baggage of religion, the hypocrites,  and things I didn’t understand.

That was summer of 1974.

Seeing isn’t believing.   Believing is seeing.

I am human.  I still have moments of skepticism.  “God, where are you when things don’t go the way I think they should?”

But most days,

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.”  John 1:12

 

 

 

That’s me, the new baby.  I’m wearing the jester’s hat with a pompom, surrounded by a court of adoring family.  My grandmother’s face beams with love while her hands grasp me tightly.

Every time I look at that picture, taken in 1955, the year I was born, the past becomes my today.  I am loved.

I revel in the family photos, letters and legal papers I inherited from Mother and Dad.  Dad was organized, and kept these treasures in labeled manila folders, in a file cabinet.   After they died, I transferred the fragile gems into an acrylic storage container, with fresh manila folders, and a container of Damp Rid, attempting to obliterate the mildew smell.  Among the valuables in this cache:  all four grandparents’ naturalization papers from the early 1950’s.  The Robin Hood Dell program from my parents’ first date.  The menu from the Victory over Japan luncheon on Dad’s Royal Marines ship, August 19, 1945.

In the  ‘Legal Documents’ folder, my grandmother, Lily Sutherland Wilson’s,  birth certificate of 1894 resides.

I have her marriage license, December 21, 1923,  which records her age as 26;  three years younger than the birth certificate record!

Another folder holds the 8 x 10 family pictures Dad and Mother left me!

 

It’s more than a hobby; I’m like Alice falling into Wonderland each time I gaze into the folders.  It’s my virtual reality.  The past becomes my present.  Like a person doing jigsaw puzzles, I can’t wait to place another piece into the story of my family.  The story of me.

Which led to the phone call I made a few months ago, which led to that picture I love.  I didn’t inherit that photo of me in the jester hat from my parents.  I had to dig it out.  It came from the only living relative of my Dad’s generation on his side of the family: Uncle Don.

It took a week to find Uncle Don’s  phone number.  After my aunt died, he had remarried and moved a few blocks away in the retirement community.  I called their central office, who didn’t, for privacy reasons, want to give out his new phone number.

“Tell him his niece, Jill Mitchell Rommel, would like to talk with him,” The lady was very nice and said she would pass my number to him, so that if I was indeed who I said I was, he could contact me.

One evening, a week later, the phone rang.  It was Uncle Don.  “Jill, how good of you to call!”

At 87, his voice sounded just as I remembered.  A retired pastor, he had a gift for storytelling.  He coughed quite a bit while we chatted.  “I’m going into hospice care,”  he explained at one point.  He didn’t want to linger on that.  We laughed and chatted for almost an hour.

We hung up.

“We have to go up to Penney Farms and visit Uncle Don before he dies,”  I told my sisters.  It was three hours away.  “He’s dying.  We need to go soon.”

A few weeks later, his wife called.  “Jill, Don passed away yesterday.  I have your great grandmother’s soup tureen.  He wants it  to stay with the Mitchell girls.  And some family photos.”

I wanted that soup tureen.  And I was excited about what photos there might be.   I made the three hour drive to Penney Farms  with my sister for company.  When I got home, I set the delicate white tureen with red, navy and gold trim on the hutch.  I sifted through the pile of pictures.  I had seen some of them before.

Then there it was!   The picture of my grandmother holding me in arms full of love.  I set it on my desk so I could enjoy it.  Every time I look at it, I feel loved.

In the stack of photos from Uncle Don was also a daguerreotype; a word I am learning to say and spell.  A picture on glass.  In the corner is a seal from the Glasgow, Scotland optical company that made it, circa 1900.  That same grandmother, Lily, as a young girl, stands  with her arm around her beloved dog Jocko.

In 1955, that grandmother had her arms around me.  It really happened.  A picture proves it.

Someone told a memoir writer once, “You’re lucky to be writing a memoir.  At least you don’t have to do any research.”

Wrong.  We do research.  And it’s addicting fun.

Lily Sutherland Mitchell, her arms around her great grandsons, my sons, Mike and Jeff, in 1984.

 

“…I was once my father’s daughter, tenderly loved as my mother’s only child…”   Proverbs 4:4

 

At 63 I feel the same tremors I felt on the first day of school:  I wondered what my new teacher would be like and which of my friends would be in my class.   Would I be able to do all the new schoolwork?

Part of the curriculum for this 64th year is telling my story for my kids and their kids.  I’ve begun to do that at jill rommel.com, “Chocolate Chip Cookies for Tea.”  Each post springs from a picture that grabs a vivid memory.  The memory burdens me.  Writing helps, but as I begin I feel overwhelmed.   I’m sure I’ll never unscramble the chaos of ideas into a clear story.   Putting the right words onto paper feels like lifting heavy rocks and throwing them at a wall, hoping they’ll stay there.  Once I labor through writing, editing, rewriting, asking my husband to read it, rechecking phrases, discarding unnecessary details, and reading it out loud, I publish the story on my blog.  I feel released from the burden.  Satisfied.  I’m done.  Nervous.  Would anyone read it?  Then a few days later, a friend says, “I liked your story.”  Joy.  I connected with someone.  The next day, I worry.  I’ll never be able to write another story as satisfying as that last one.

Then, again, out of nowhere comes that sharp longing; a new idea consumes my heart.  It happened a few Sunday afternoons ago.   I was watching a Facebook video of the 75th Anniversary Celebration of Wooddale Church, a place I had belonged for forty years.  The program was emceed by an elegant looking woman in a black blazer with white rose boutonniere.  I hadn’t known her when we went there.  She was the chairman of the Elder board.

“A woman on the elder board, and chairman at that!”  I marveled silently.  When I attended , the elder board was made up of men.  Women served on other boards and committees, but not the Elder Board.

I could see her in my mind for days after that, standing, poised, at the podium.

Many still argue about what a Christian woman is allowed to do at church.  As a girl, I had heard quoted, ““Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”—Samuel Johnson, 1763

I was fourteen when I went forward in an evening service to dedicate my life to “full time Christian service.”  In 1969, that was limited to:  being a Sunday School teacher (as long as they were girls, or boys under the age of 21), singing in the choir, being a missionary, or composing hymn lyrics.

Wheaton professors challenged me to put more thought into my expectations as a woman for serving.  My major was Christian Education.   I learned how to lead Bible studies, facilitate small group ministry and principles of spiritual formation.  We were women and men in classes learning all the same stuff.

From ivory college towers I entered back into real church world where the thinking was still “men do this,” and “women do that.”   It didn’t really bother me, because I loved working with kids.  I got busy writing and leading an evangelistic mom’s program.  Facilitated small group Bible studies with women.   I didn’t agree with some hazy positions on women, but rationalized, “There’s plenty I can do without making waves.”

I believed that what the Bible illustrates, and what’s healthiest for ministry, is men and women serving the Body of Christ together, gifted by the Holy Spirit.  The spiritual gifts are not designated on the basis of gender.  But I kept my beliefs to myself.

Then last week I read Bible teacher Beth Moore’s May 2018 “A Letter To My Brothers.” (blog.lproof.org.)   She spoke out on misogyny, “dislike, contempt or prejudice against women,” she experienced in the church.  It happens.  I’ve experienced it.  I’ve witnessed men’s eyes become vacant when I speak, because “I’m only a woman, and the Bible says women should be silent.”  Misogyny in the church has two roots:  one placed in an interpretation or misinterpretation of what Scripture says about women.  The other is simple jerkiness, which afflicts even Christians: men and women.

The quiet presence of Shelly White, chair of Wooddale’s Elder board, contrasted with Beth Moore’s feisty letter,  yet both forced me to revisit my own reticence on the subject of women and what they can do in the church.  There’s an added urgency:  I’m 63.  Time is running out.  My two granddaughters are growing up.  I didn’t want to create unnecessary fuss but maybe I should have.  God might want Addi as part of a team of men and women serving on an Elder board.

 

He might give Sophie the gift to ‘preach the Word.’

God’s plan has always been men and women serving together in the power of the Holy Spirit.  It’s presented to fathers and mothers in Deuteronomy 6:7: “Repeat my commands again and again to your children.  Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up.”   I learned what I believe about the spiritual work of men and women at home.

Dad had four daughters.  We were never second class to him because we were girls. He was fully engaged in our lives.  He took us to church, on vacations, offered us spending money on Saturdays when we walked to Woolworths, made us lunch on those days, took us to music concerts, and would call to us, “Girls, come and listen to this!” when he heard an exceptionally beautiful piece of music on the stereo.   I’ll never forget how his smiling face would quietly peek around the corner of our bedroom door when we were little, to check on us.

He expected us to be aware of the current events of the day.  We discussed politics each evening at dinner.  Questions were modified by age.  Wendy, the oldest, was asked something more complicated, while Pam, the youngest, was asked, “Who’s the President of the United States?”

Dad would exclaim, “Think, girls, think!”  if he felt we were missing the mark on a topic.  He had worthwhile hobbies, like tennis and classical music, and encouraged us to have them, too.  Mine was choir, which he supported by driving me to early morning rehearsals before school on his way to work.

 

Dad believed in me.  That provided me with security and acceptance of myself as a person. He had a quick wit and delightful sense of humor.   But he never stooped to teasing, which I often unfortunately witness unwise parents do with their girls (and boys.)  Instead, he often told us he loved us.

“If you think something nice, say it,”  he would say.  He told us we were terrific.   Girls that have a father like that generally don’t allow themselves to be around men who belittle them and don’t take them seriously.  At school, work or in the church.

If  Dad taught confidence,  Mother’s life exemplified a woman using her Holy Spirit gifting. Her family was her top priority.  But she also shepherded other women teaching them the Bible.  Mother taught young adults at church, in addition, and that meant teaching men along with women, not the norm in that era.

 

“Mother doesn’t sound like other women’s Bible teachers I’ve heard,” I quickly noticed when I first heard her teach.  I was in college, and had listened to other women speak in chapel. “Her voice isn’t breathy, and she doesn’t quote poetry.” Mother sounded the way she did at home, as natural as when she asked us to set the table for dinner.

Dad and Mother were my first and best experience of seeing how men and women serve God together.  They were on the same team, loving each other and their kids.  God uses men and women working together, gifted by the Holy Spirit, to build up the Body of Christ.  I haven’t heard of a catchy slogan for this ministry concept.  But I’ve seen it happen in small groups, children’s programs, Bible studies, in homeless shelters, Sunday School classes, and worship teams.  The list goes on.

Addi and Sophie, when the Holy Spirit gives you a gift for service, whatever it is, use it for the Body of Christ, alongside Henry and Ethan.  I hope you remember me doing that, too.

 

 

                                            “…your sons and your daughters shall prophecy…”  Joel 2:28

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Mr. Paskins is so funny,”  Mike, our sixth grader,  piped up from the back seat of the van on the way home from Wooddale Church.  “He told us the coolest story today about-”

“God, thank you for Sunday school teachers like  Jerry Paskins!”  I thought.

Wooddale.  The world where, besides home, I poured out my heart.  Duane and I wanted Mike and Jeff to grow up loving God.  Our family attended every Sunday.  We invited families from Wooddale to our home.

And we got involved in children’s ministry.

(Wooddale Church directory picture)

Wooddale had just moved to Eden Prairie.  Plans called for the church to be built in stages.  They had only finished Phase I.  That meant space in the growing church would be tight.  The ‘Gathering Place,’ an enormous brick walled room, would host Sunday morning services and be divided at other times for classes.  Nursery and children’s classrooms were on the lower level.

“We don’t have enough room for elementary age children in our services right now,” Ivy Beckwith, children’s pastor, shared at a leader’s meeting.  “Pastor Anderson suggests we offer a church program for kids in grades 1 through 6 in another space.”

As a child,  attending children’s church meant singing hymns from hymn books as we sat on adult size folding chairs lined up in rows. Then a flannel graph Bible story.  I couldn’t imagine my boys liking that kind of an hour.

“I have a new idea for a children’s worship program,”  I mused to Duane, later that night.  With a Christian Education major, I was comfortable dreaming about what we could offer kids.  They wouldn’t passively sit on chairs; they would create the service themselves through music, art and activities.  The book, “Worship is a Verb,” by Dr. Robert Webber, a Wheaton professor, was my inspiration.

The challenge intrigued me.  (“Fools Rush In.”)  We would have a large number of kids; 150 – 200.  The age range, from first to sixth grade, meant kids were at different developmental levels.  And, our space was limited: we were allotted an expansive, but single, room, Apple.  Wooddale named each room after a tree.

The biggest hurdle would be finding adults willing to serve in something experimental.  I could count on Duane.  The music pastor’s wife, June Bullock, whose kids were friends of our kids, said she would help me.  Jim and Heidi Satterberg signed up.  Their daughter was in Jeff’s class.  Pam Sampson, an artist, wanted to help with room design.  Pat Dourte, a school teacher, was eager.   I knew we needed more help but didn’t know who to ask.

I invited our team to dinner at our house to figure out what we were going to do.  I had a few ideas, but this would be a group effort.  Pastor Ivy threw her support into the project.

The Sunday before the dinner, a trim gentleman in a suit approached me in the hallway at church.

“Hi, Jill, I’m Jerry Paskins, ”  he offered his hand and shook mine firmly.  “I hear you’re starting a program for kids on Sunday morning.

“Oh, you’re Inez’s husband,”  I smiled.  Inez was Jeffrey’s sweet preschool Sunday school teacher a few years ago.

“I’d like to help with that kids’ church program,”  Jerry continued.

“Terrific!”  I was thrilled, and surprised.  People rarely volunteer for children’s ministry. “I’m not exactly sure what you’re volunteering for, but we would love to have your help.  We’re having dinner this Thursday night at my house to pray and plan our program.”

“Great,”  Jerry answered.  “I’m in town this week, so I’ll be there.”

At dinner we brainstormed and laid out plans for the first  weeks of what we called  ‘Youth Worship.’   We decided to start with a unit  on how Israel worshiped God in the Old Testament.  Pam Sampson’s husband worked in hospital supply so she knew where to get old sheets to hang on all the walls in the Apple Room.  That would transform it into the Tabernacle.

“I’ll make the altar of burnt offerings for the center of the room out of cardboard,” I volunteered.

“Are we going to be sacrificing animals?”  June joked.  “I guess they should be stuffed animals.”

We continued to meet together each month over dinner to refine our ideas.  We did six weeks on “The Living Word,”  a history of how we got our Bible.  in another session we experienced the truths of Jesus in ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.’  The kids had to enter the Apple room through The Wardrobe.

Heidi designed a mural for the kids to paint with markers.

We aimed to relate God to kids in ways they would understand.  When we studied the history of the church, June led our massive group of kids on a tour of our church building, pointing out the meaning of each part of the architecture of our building.  I wish I had a video of that.

And Jerry kept showing up each Sunday.  The kids loved him.  At our planning dinners, Jerry kept us laughing with his stories about the insurance industry.

“You know,”  he leaned over his dinner plate and whispered to us, “people put a few slices of bacon in a frying pan on the stove, turn the heat on to high, and go out for a half hour walk.  They can get a whole new kitchen out of that.”

On a first impression, I wouldn’t place Jerry in children’s ministry.  He looked formal, probably because he was slight of hair and dressed in suit and tie.  But each Sunday the kids gravitated to his energetic enthusiasm.

“Feel this muscle,”  he’d tell the group gathered around him.  He pointed to his arm, cloaked in the fine wool jacket.  “Can you feel that? I love to run and work out.”

“Wow!” a kid would say, poking the fabric, ” Your arm muscle is like a piece of steel!”

Jerry could have said he was too busy for ‘Youth Worship.’  He traveled around the country most weeks, as an executive with an insurance company.

“I’ll always be here on Sunday,”  he informed me.  He was.

Over the years I’ve served in several churches, and done a lot of recruiting; asking people to serve.   I’ve often heard, “I’m too busy with work to serve.”

Not Jerry.

When Wooddale built its Worship Center,  and had enough room for people of all ages in the services, Youth Worship ended.  Jerry went back to teaching Sunday School.   Mike was in his class.

I knew Mike loved being there from the stories we heard in the car on the way home from church.  Jerry shared his life and his love for Jesus with those kids.

We moved to Florida in 1995.

I was holding a baby in the nursery for our church’s MOPS program on Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001.  That was the day Jerry Paskins was conducting business on the 94th floor of Tower 1 of the World Trade Center.

Hobbies and Special Interests:

Member of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. University of Nebraska football fan
teaching Sunday school
coaching little league
running.

“We have happy memories of the godly.”   Proverbs 10:7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6105 Abbott Avenue So.     Edina, Minn. 55410                            March 1970

“Dear everybody,

Instead of sitting here for hours trying to figure out how to start, I’ll just start.  I still have to finish unpacking many cartons and find room for loads of things, but I would rather write and give you some of our impressions so far.

The weather is great. Despite the low thermometer readings you hear for Minnesota, it’s just beautiful when you go out:  the sky looks like Florida and the ground looks like the North Pole. 

Pam is out playing on our ‘front snow’ (we hope there is a lawn underneath.)  We did have a small snow storm last Thursday, but the streets and driveway are bare again.

The people are friendly.  The first Sunday we were here at Wooddale Church a family invited us home following the evening service.  They live in Edina, too, and have a daughter Jill’s age.  Then on Wednesday I was invited to an informal luncheon for the wives of the couple’s class Allan and I attended.  I got to know ten or twelve by name which was a nice feeling when we went back this Sunday.  Next Tuesday one of the deacon’s wives has invited a few of the newer women for coffee.  So you can see why I still have so many cartons to finish unpacking….Did I mention, Monday night as the moving truck pulled out, one of the couples from the church pulled up with a casserole and a chocolate cake for us?”

Mother wrote these letters about Wooddale Church because long distance phone calls were too expensive.  Our family of six had left all our family and friends 1200 miles behind in Abington, Pennsylvania.  The letters exude cheerfulness, a British trait she and and Dad shared.

“My sergeant  in the Royal Marines taught us to look in the mirror every morning and say, ‘In every way, throughout the day, this is going to be the best day of my life,”  Dad repeatedly told us.

Mother’s response to Dad’s, “We’re going to Minneapolis!” the previous fall, was an immediate, “Terrific!”  Their cheerfulness grew out of their belief that God was leading them.

It wasn’t easy.  My grandfather had been the pastor of our church, Berachah.  My parents were pillars there.   Dad was an elder and Sunday School Superintendant.  Mother taught the College and Career class and directed the Christmas pageant each year.  Wendy was a junior at Abington High school.  I was in the 9th grade Madrigal choir.   Jennifer and I loved Pioneer Girls.  We loved sleepovers with our cliques at church.  Only four, Pam was already popular at church, with a ‘boyfriend’, Eddie, in Aunt Nancy’s preschool class.

Our friends couldn’t believe it.  “Minnesota – where’s that?!  Like near California?”  “Will you be going to a one room schoolhouse out on the prairie?”

My parents taught me three essentials to meet our new challenge:

  1.  British “Keep calm and carry on” cheerfulness.
  2. Persistence.
  3. Hang out with people who love God.

The first year we moved, I was surprised how hard it was to be the New Girl, in spite of that cheerful attitude.

Loneliness pounced on me when I walked into the school lunchroom every day, jammed with teenagers merrily eating  lunch with their friends.

“Who will I sit with?”  I  was scared.

Even a friendly church like Wooddale required a year of patiently pushing myself to go to every scheduled youth activity, knowing no one was waiting for me to arrive.

“You just keep going,”  Mother often encouraged my sisters and I, and followed up those words by example.  By next summer, I was Vice President of the Youth Group.

For our family, the people who loved God were at Wooddale Baptist in Richfield.  From an April 1970 letter:

“Dear Family,

Here’s the news;

We’ve just finished a prolonged wrestling match with Pam, getting her to bed and trying to get some Mecca ointment on her big toe, which has been sore.  Now she’s ready for Sunday School this week.  She loves Sunday School.  They have a water table in her room!  Pam comes home on Sunday afternoons talking exactly like a Midwesterner, imitating the kids she’s been with.  

We’re all enjoying the Sunday School.  Our teacher is dedicated and his obvious love for the Bible makes it a great hour.

Speaking of Sunday School, we were at the S.S. Superintendent’s house last night after church.  The service begins at 7 p.m. and is over at 8:15, so it’s nice to visit following the service.  I think we’ve been invited out every Sunday night but one since we moved here.  We’ve met a lot of different couples this way, which is very nice in a big congregation like Wooddale’s.  

Our Sunday School class had a picnic last Sunday!  Of course it was in the church gym following the morning service.  We all brought something and had a buffet style lunch.  We all brought our children, too, so there was a crowd of 150 or 160.   There sure are a lot of Larsons, Gustafsons, Nelsons, Anderson, Lunstroms, etc.  

We’re enjoying the church.  The services are really alive!  The choir is filled in the evening service as well as the morning!  They use a tremendous number of young people, too.  

I could go on and on about our impressions at Wooddale…”

Wooddale Church celebrates its’ 75th year this September 2018.  Mother’s letters ignite memories of my first days at Wooddale.  Forty years of memories; bursting with genuine friends, gatherings, conversations, retreats, service projects, parties, singing groups, ministry planning sessions, and yes, services and sermons .  Duane and I married at Wooddale in June 1977, one year after Leith Anderson became the Pastor.  After Duane’s medical training in Chicago and Rochester we moved back to Wooddale in 1984 with our two boys.  Sat in the front row every Sunday morning with them at the new red brick campus in Eden Prairie.

 

We moved to Florida in 1995, but I hold all my Wooddale memories close in my heart.  I only wish my mother had written more letters, and I had more pictures.

Wooddale Church A Place To Become A Place To Belong

“Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow builds her nest and raises her young at a place near your altar, O LORD of Heaven’s Armies, my King and my God!”  Psalm 84:3

– with love and gratitude to Peter and Chuckie Unruh & family and Leith and Charleen Anderson & family

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday May 25, 1975  10 p.m.

“Jill…”  I heard Dad as I walked past my parent’s open bedroom door. My heart pounded.

“Help me God!”  I prayed silently.  “What are they thinking?”

Dad was sitting in his pajamas on the bed, the quilt folded back.  Mother’s dresser lamps glowed, filling the room with light.   At the center of the dresser, on a carefully ironed linen scarf, stood Mother’s small glass jewelry box, trimmed with gilded edges; pretty as a mini Ark of the Covenant.  Beside the bed, curtains fluttered in the night air, drifting in the open window.  I felt the Minnesota coolness of it on my arms.

Dad motioned to me with his head, “Come in here.”

“Honey, what are you doing?” he called to Mother, in the bathroom.  Mother appeared in the doorway, toothbrush in hand.  Like incense in the Holy Place, Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew dusting powder scented the air.

Their bedroom was as unique and special as any sanctuary.  This was the place Mother and Dad discussed life.  Many times I’d heard their voices, back and forth,  in musical rhythm, as I lay in my bed down the hall.

“What are they talking about?”  I wondered.  I was curious.

Because their analysis was gold.  They were always right.

Which is why I had brought Duane home with me that Memorial Day weekend.  We had been friends over dinners in the dining hall at Wheaton that winter.  We had our first date in April.   On May 7, while sitting on my red gingham blanket on the front lawn of Blanchard, I had said to Duane, “I love you.”

He had said the same words to me on May 6.

I needed to know what Mother and Dad thought about Duane.

Just a few years before, in high school, I found it mildly annoying, but could not deny, my parents’ superb judgment.

“Will I ever be able to make choices on my own?!” I fumed to myself one Sunday morning.  Mother had gently suggested that an outfit I wore into the kitchen was not suitable for church.  The skirt was on the short side and the top was a bit tight.

“Okay, she’s right…” I stomped back to my room and changed.

Mother and Dad made excellent choices.  They had chosen a smaller house, but in a great school district.  They chose interesting friends.  They chose a great church for our family.  Even their vacation (Florida and England) and leisure  choices like books and movies were intelligent, fun, and worthwhile.

I was pretty sure about what a great guy Duane was, but was looking for final confirmation before giving my heart away.  My Wheaton girlfriends approved, and they could be picky.  But the ultimate answer would come from Mother and Dad.

Duane and I drove from Wheaton on Friday to Edina.  We had to drive back on Monday, so Mother planned our Memorial Day picnic for Sunday after church.  Often in Minnesota, a Memorial Day picnic is celebrated in the dining room with a fire in the fireplace because it’s still cold.  We never picnicked in the back yard, but Mother wanted to do something special for my little sister Pam’s birthday.  A few of her friends would be there, along with two family missionary friends in town, and Duane.  And it was a gorgeous spring day, with the lilacs blooming along the back fence.

For more ‘minor’ holidays like Memorial Day, July Fourth or Labor Day, Mother always made Yummy Bars.  Mother found this phenomenal recipe in the Star Tribune.  It was the ultimate dessert flavors: chocolate and caramel.  It was super simple to make, with five ingredients easy to keep on hand.  Everyone who bit into the gooey goodness asked for the recipe.

The yummy bars were a hit at the backyard party, as expected.  With additional guests for the picnic, Duane didn’t have to worry about too much scrutiny that afternoon.

That night, standing in my parent’s bedroom, I waited to hear their verdict about Duane.  We were heading back to school in the morning.

“Is this serious?”  Dad asked me, with Mother standing there in her sleeveless cotton nightgown.

“I wanted you to meet Duane and see what you thought… if I was missing anything,”  I answered.

“He’s quiet,”  Mother said.  They knew Duane was a straight A student, but besides that, they liked the relaxed confidence he showed in how he treated me, them, and my sisters.  Mother’s words, decoded: a high compliment.

Dad nodded, “He spoke very well, when he could get a word in.”

They both smiled.

That simple.  I knew I had my parent’s approval!  I could give my heart away!  I did!

I stood there, relieved and happy.  With one more thought.

In two weeks, on June 8,  I was taking the trip of a lifetime: I was going on the Wheaton in England literature program.  I would be away from Duane until August 23.  Eleven weeks.  He would be working at Montgomery Wards in Chicago, assembling bikes.

“I’m a little worried about being away from Duane for eleven weeks,” I confided.  I could always talk freely with my parents.

“Oh, eleven weeks isn’t that long!”  Mother insisted.

That’s the one small thing Mother got wrong.  The framed  phrase, “Nobody’s purfect,” hung in the hall outside their bedroom.

Here’s another wrong that needs to be put right: the Yummy Bar recipe:

Yummy Bars

1 package of German chocolate cake mix

50 Kraft vanilla caramels, unwrapped (hardest part of recipe)

3/4 cup melted butter

2/3 cup evaporated (not condensed!) milk, divided

6 – 11 ounce package milk chocolate chips

Can you spot the problem?  In the last years, instead of changing the price for a box of cake mix, the manufacturers have changed the size/amount in the package.  What used to be an 18 ounce box of cake mix is now 15 ounces.  This throws the recipe off, which is why they haven’t  turned out as yummy as they used to be.

I tried a few changes to make the bars right again:

What I added to the 15 ounce cake mix:

6 tablespoons of flour

scant 1/8 teaspoon baking soda

scant 1/8 teaspoon baking powder

1/8 teaspoon of salt

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Second, when I melted the butter in the microwave, I added to that 4 tablespoons of semi sweet chocolate chips, stirring the butter and the chips together as they melted.

It worked!

Yummy Bars 

Mix cake mix (with the additional flour mixture), 1/3 cup of evaporated milk and the melted butter/chocolate mixture.  Pat half of that batter in a 9 x 13 pan (you really don’t need to butter/grease it there’s already so much fat.  Just trying to break through baking myths/old habits with the facts. And you don’t need to line the pan with aluminum foil, either!)

Bake for 7 minutes at 350 degrees.

Melt the 50 caramels in the microwave with the other 1/3 cup evaporated milk til smooth.

Sprinkle half of however many Nestle milk chocolate chips you decide to use over the baked layer when it comes out of the oven.  Some people may want to sprinkle on chopped nuts at this point; we never have.  Then drizzle the melted caramel over the baked layer and sprinkle the rest of your chips.  Drop globs of the rest of the dough over this as evenly as you can.  There will be some ‘bare’ areas, the dough pieces do not cover everything completely, but it  spreads as it bakes.

Bake for 28 more minutes in the 350 degree oven.  In 28 minutes, if the pan of bars seems kind of jiggly in the middle when you take it out of the oven, bake for 3 more minutes.  It’s already gooey enough with all the caramel in it.  You don’t want to underbake it.  But don’t overbake it either!

I’m thankful for my Mother and Dad being right about Duane, and my Mother’s Yummy Bar recipe.  And the memories of our family holidays.  On even regular days, I hear their thoughts and wisdom in my head, still.

“The godly people in the land are my true heroes!  I take pleasure in them!”  Psalm 16:3

 

“Remind me why I’m moving,”  Elizabeth looked up from the armload of stuffed animals she was packing.

“You found a wonderful new house,”  I reminded her.  One she and Mike had picked out. They invited Duane and I to see it.  We loved it.  Contracts signed, they were preparing the ‘old house’ for a showing.

” When you’ve spruced up your house so much that you wonder why you’re selling, then you know your house is ready to sell,”  I thought.  Duane and I have sold eight houses.

I never had a moment of sadness about leaving the old house behind.  I was always eager for the next blank canvas; the new dream.

Until now.  I walk through the quiet rooms of 4851 Cross Pointe Drive, where we’ve lived the last twelve years, and wonder if I could ever leave.  I remember the weekend Duane’s Mom flew here to visit; we drove to Jacksonville with her and my Mother to celebrate Mother’s Day at Pam’s house.

Family parties.

 

Holidays.

 

I painted every wall and trim in whites I love, displayed all the items in my life that bring joy, and even remodeled the kitchen with the handmade tiles we carried back from England.

 

I used to be restless for the next house to fix up.  I love new places.  I inherited that from my grandfather.  He brought his family from England to America.  To Philadelphia, then Minneapolis, then Australia, then Florida. Nana had penciled,  “Aren’t we smart looking in our new hats?!”  on the back of this picture, taken at the Newcastle train station the morning they left.  (April 1947; a family friend, Nana, Pawpaw, Aunt Ruth, Dad)

I like making things, like granddaughter Addi.  My hobby since childhood has been making houses beautiful.

I hand sewed red gingham curtains and hung them on strings at the windows of my playhouse in Abington.

Then, fixing up houses went into high gear.  In 1979, Duane and I moved into a condo in Rochester, Minnesota for three years while he was a Resident at the Mayo Clinic.  In those days before HGTV, we loved watching  “This Old House.”

 

“One day we’ll be able to buy our own house and fix it up,” we dreamed.   After being married seven years, we bought our first house:  7209 West Shore Drive, Edina.  We tiled the orange formica counter in the kitchen, removed the center cupboards, and painted them white.

Before:

After:

Hardly finished with this house,  I was dreaming of remodeling a house on Lake Cornelia, a mile away.  One day while I was biking along Cornelia Drive, I saw the “For Sale” sign.  I called our realtor the minute I got home.  His impression of the house:  “I won’t see you guys for six years.”  It needed work.  The kitchen floor was covered with pink bedroom carpeting.  The living room and dining room floors were tiled with thick brown Mexican tiles.  The owner smoked heavily; all the walls needed painting and screens scrubbed.  We had to replace the roof.  But the back of the house faced onto Lake Cornelia; and it was only two blocks from Southdale mall and six blocks from Duane’s office.

 

It did take us six years.  Then Florida beckoned.  We were finished with Minnesota’s 9 month winters.  We bought a house on a golf course with a swimming pool.  Mike and Jeff were in high school; we put a pool table in the living room and opened our doors for church  parties.

When Mike was a college freshman and Jeffrey a senior at Countryside High, we stopped in at an open house at a high rise condo out on the beach, and fell in love.  A former model, the views of the Gulf and Intracoastal were spectacular.  We lived there three years.  If you ever ask yourself about a new real estate purchase, “Is it too far?” it’s too far.

 

We moved back into North Pinellas, a maintenance free two bedroom with study villa home on a lagoon.

Mike and Jeff got married.  Our parents would visit.  We needed another bedroom and wanted our own pool.

After a huge fight, where Duane made me swear this was the last move and sign a contract in blood, he conceded we could contact a realtor about our next house.  “It has to be on a beautiful lot, with water behind it,” he insisted.  We prayed about it.  In four months, our realtor called.  “I think I found it.”

When we walked in, we knew immediately.  The house was light and bright with a beautiful lagoon and golf course view.  We put in an offer before we left.   I was excited about making all the changes that would make the house our own place.  The black and white checkerboard pool trim had to go.

One of my favorite Psalms is, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of Heaven’s Armies.” (Psalm 84:1) We’ve lived in some lovely places.  I’ve enjoyed making them lovely; so has Duane.  We’re homebodies.  When asked, “What’s your favorite restaurant?” we both answer, “We’re not that ‘into’ going out to eat.”  We’re happy eating at home.

Lately I’ve started wondering why we’ve stayed at this address so long.   Wonder why I’m feeling sad about the day we’ll sell.  This isn’t like me.  I know this house is just four walls and a roof.  It’s the people that make it home.

Jesus said, “I am going to prepare a place for you.  I will come and get you… so that you will always be with me where I am.”  It’s being with the people we love that’s the big thing.

 

Grieving the loss of my parents,  and some close friends recently, has distracted me from dreaming about our next place.  Instead of checking out real estate online  I’m often staring at photos of past places and the family and friends I love who are gone.

I turned 63 this May.  I also realize that this next move may be my last.  Ouch.

The ability to change, to be flexible in all life’s events, is a mark of emotional health.  Look at the most emotionally healthy person ever:  Jesus.

“…he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.”  Philippians 2:7

The old chorus, “Out of the ivory palaces…”  reminds me that Jesus left an incomparably better home than the new one he had on earth.  He came, out of love, to give us life and hang out with us.  “The joy set before him,” the cross, meant he was excited about his plan to bring me into his life and home.

In March 1970 the Mitchell family gathered at Aunt Marian’s house for Sunday dinner and a family photo (Mother, Wendy, me, Jennifer, and Pam seated on Dad’s lap.)  We moved that week cross country, from Philadelphia to our new house on Abbott Avenue in Edina.

Mother’s attitude about the new house, which lacked a formal dining room  (one thing she really wanted) and had carpet so old it was like walking on linoleum, was:  “What joy for those who can live in Your house.”  (Psalm 84:4)  Since Jesus was with her, she couldn’t wait to go.

A while ago, on our bedroom wall I painted  “I AM here,” (John 6:24) in translucent white acrylic.  When the light catches the letters at a certain angle, the hidden message appears.   Where ever we’ve lived, and where ever we’ll live in the future, when Jesus is there, it’s  home.

 

 

 

 

 

Corrine Rommel holds her son, Duane.  ‘Corrine’ was not always her name.  This is her story, in her own words, presented at the Ladies Tea at Windsor Park Retirement Community a few weeks ago:

“I will start where I lived.  I was born on a farm in Hebron, Illinois.  I was born on February 5, 1931.  My real name is Norella Wilma Clara Warfel.  It was the Depression, so we were very poor.  Every spring we had to move as we did not make enough money to pay the rent.  We leased a farm.

My brother told me we had a large open wagon driven by our horses.  Little children like myself could ride on the wagon.  The older brothers and sisters had to walk alongside the cart.  If something spooked the horses they would take off.  Our furniture would spill off onto the ground.  That made my brother laugh and laugh.

The farm house did not have electricity or plumbing.  We had kerosene lamps and an outhouse.  If we little ones had to go to the bathroom, my mother would put a white porcelain pot outside the kitchen door so the smell would not go into the kitchen.  When we had a bath we had a large galvanized tub.  Only two at a time could fit in it.  When the water got too cool, they warmed it for the next ones.  I don’t know how they did this.

There were 10 children.  One brother died at age two of pneumonia.  My mother was pregnant with her 11th child.  My father took the boys on a fishing trip.  While they were gone, I don’t know how long they were gone, my mother went into labor.  My mother told my oldest sister, who was 13, to stay and help her.  She told my sister Grace who was 8 years old to take the younger ones to the barn.

I don’t know what happened after that.  I know our Dad deserted us for six months.

A neighbor or relative called the Lutheran orphanage in Addison, Illinois, and told them we were by ourselves.  The oldest of us was 13 years old, and the youngest one was 2 years old.  The home had a bus which picked us up.

The girls were on one big side, the boys were on the other side of this big building.  We could only stay in the orphanage till we were 13 years old.  My brothers were boarded out in nearby farms.  My older sister was on a farm to help with the children there, and cook and clean.

We had our jobs to work in the orphanage like make our bed every day, change sheets on Saturday, and set the table where our whole family would eat together in the main dining room.  We would be given a tablespoon of cod liver oil every day.  I guess that was our vitamins.  I did not like that.

I peeled potatoes when they told me to do it.  I would put some of the raw potatoes in my pocket.  When I went outside I would eat the raw potatoes.  My job was also to clean the toilets and sinks in the bathroom.  I didn’t like doing that so I would stand on top of the toilet so no one would find me.  They did.  So I would have to finish doing that, then iron pillow cases and wash down a long flight of stairs that led up to all our beds.

We went to school, single file; St. Paul’s Lutheran School.  For church, we each got a penny to put in the offering.  If we talked we had to stand in a corner through the whole church service.

We all had boxes connected against the wall where we were able to keep some of our things.  I had a large comb which I was so proud of.  For Christmas we all received one gift.  I got paper dolls.  That is what I kept in that box.

Our Father would come and see us once a year.  He told the home he only wanted the boys.  They told him NO.  They said, you take all of them or none.  He said “I don’t want any.”

My first foster home:

It was out in the country.  I went to school there.  The kids were mean to me.  No one would be my friend as they knew I was from an orphanage.  They would throw stones at me to and from school.  I told the lady of the home where I was.  She told me to fight my own battles.

The girl that sat in front of me had beautiful hair with long curls.  I thought to myself, “I would like that.”  So one Saturday morning, I took a comb and wound it up in my hair.  The lady called me for breakfast.  I could not get the comb out!  So I cut my hair, and put the hair behind the sink in the bathroom.  She found it when she was cleaning.  She pulled me by my hair down the stairs and showed it to her husband.  He beat me with a long razor strap.  I cried, and told them I wanted to go back to the orphanage.  I was happy to go back.

My second home:

My folks had the last name “Will.”  They came to the orphanage to get me.  It was 8 p.m. so I was tired because that is when the home had us go to bed.  I did not want to go by my new ‘dad.’  I was afraid of him because of what happened with the first people.

The first thing my Mother did was she took me downtown on the train and bought me all new clothes.

On Sunday we all went to church.  After the service, up in front of church I saw my sister Carol.  I ran up to her and hugged her.  We were in choir together.  On Fridays I would see her at practice.  My sister told me I was not to be with her.  We could not march together down the aisle.  So one Sunday morning her mother came to the choir room.

“Stay away from Carol!”  she told me.  That made me feel real bad.  I cried.  In their eyes, my folks did not ‘have money.’  My Dad was just a mailman.  Also, my folks let me go to the movies, which they thought was a bad influence.

But they were wonderful people.  The Lord really blessed me.”

 

“There’s more to your story,”  Duane said to his Mother when he called her after she spoke at the tea.  He had finished reading the hand written notes she had sent him.  “This isn’t very long.”

“I don’t like talking in front of a lot of people,”  his Mother answered.

We found a few family pictures that continue the story.

The Wills, the childless couple who adopted his Mother,  gave Norella a new name, “Corrine Joyce.”  She’s the one on the far left in the second row, in a school picture.

Despite being separated to different farms and homes, the sisters and brothers all settled in the Chicago area.  They remained close; celebrating birthdays and holidays together.  The Warfels still gather for family reunions each July.

Corrine was a bridesmaid at her sister Carol’s wedding, where she met Richard Rommel.  They fell in love, and married in 1952. Duane was six months old when she and Richard bought the house at 625 N. Hamlin Avenue in Park Ridge, Illinois.

Duane’s sister Joyce was born in 1957.  Brother Jeffrey in 1960.  Jeffrey cradles their dachshund.  Corrine loves dachshunds.

‘Norella’ moved a lot; Corrine stayed put.  She  lived at 625 for sixty years, before moving to  lovely Windsor Park.  From lonely orphan to the ‘wise woman’ of Proverbs 14:1, who ‘builds her home,’  Corrine’s greatest joy is when her family gets together.  Duane’s Mother loves her kids, grandkids and 10 great grandchildren!

In 2016, granddaughter Janelle and husband Erik had a baby girl.  To honor her grandmother Corrine, Janelle chose the name, “Norella.”

“Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow builds her nest and raises her young at a place near your altar, O LORD of Heaven’s Armies, my King and my God!”  Psalm 84:3

 

This Easter I arranged for a photographer to take a family portrait.  I was trying, with a picture, to battle ‘the empty nest’ feeling.   Jeff, Heather and their kids live out of town.  Mike and Elizabeth are involved in a new church plant in Tampa.  Over the last three years my Dad and Mother died.

“Traditionally, photography is supposed to capture an event that has passed…but photography brings the past into the present when you look at it.”  – photographer Julian Schnabel

Here’s a professional portrait of Duane’s family circa 1966:

We still joke about the non-professional infamous ‘pink shirt’ Mitchell family portrait of 1982:

I looked for a Bible verse about the empty nest, and found, “He sets the lonely in families.” Psalm 68:6.   I used to think it meant, “God puts us in families so we won’t be lonely.”  But my parents lived out the real meaning.  They invited the lonely to join our family

Mother taught a Bible class of young adult ladies  at Berachah Church.  Those women married and her class morphed into the Young Marrieds.

Mother and Dad invited couples from the class for dinner.  Two reasons this was not easy:

  1.  Our split level house in Abington was small, all of 1746 square feet.  The dining room probably 10 feet by 10 feet.  The pine drop leaf table set in the middle of the room had two leaves that could stretch the table to squeeze  maybe 12 people around it, extending into the living room.
  2. Mother did not like to cook.  She did prepare simple suppers for us.  Mealtime was important and happy.  Her strategy, most afternoons, was to drive to the Food Fair, 10 minutes away, to choose ‘something’ for dinner. 

To overcome her dislike of preparing food, while still having people over, Mother rotated three simple, ‘set’ company menus.  The first, was a ham dinner.  The second dinner included a casserole.    A dessert created from a Jello box or ready made graham cracker crust.  The third, Golfer’s stew, used Campbell’s soup.  Layer Beef chunks with chopped onions, white potato chunks, and sliced carrots.  Pour a can of tomato soup and a can of mushroom soup over all and top with a can of peas.  It earned the name ‘golfer’s stew’ because you could bake it in the oven at 275 degrees for five hours, or long enough to play a round of golf.  Mother never played golf, but it was easy and served a crowd.  Add lots of rolls, and a tossed salad, and no one would go home hungry.

For her birthday one year, Mother’s best friend Grace Chittick gave her a white ceramic soup tureen and ladle dotted with blue flowers.   Golfer’s Stew became almost elegant when presented in that dish.

The evening of the dinner, Wendy, Jennifer and I sat segregated from the company, at our kitchen table.  The Young Married class was jammed around the dining room table.  They were laughing and talking, ignoring us kids, just inside the adjacent room.   Dad began ladling the Golfer’s Stew from the tureen onto each plate.

“Eat up!”  Dad encouraged, while he tried to make sure he retrieved an even amount of meat/potato/carrots from the stew onto each plate he filled.  Mother gave us our stew to eat in the kitchen, then stepped into the dining room and glanced at the stew in the tureen.  She was surprised at how little was left in the bottom.  Dad had three more plates to fill!

“Just a minute,”  Mother said to Dad,  leaning over to take the tureen.  “I’ve got more stew in the kitchen.”

She turned and walked into the kitchen.   She set the tureen on the counter.  She lifted the cooking pan with the stew, and scraped out the few remnants of carrots and potatoes.  Mother glanced at us, stabbing our stew with our forks.  “Wait, girls!”

Mother grabbed each of our plates.   She slid our uneaten portions into the tureen, and breezed back into the dining room.

“Here we are,”  Mother set the tureen back in front of Dad. “There’s plenty.”

We didn’t really like Golfer’s Stew that much anyway.

Our family moved to Minnesota in 1970.  At Thanksgiving dinner that year, Dad’s voice cracked with emotion when he gave the blessing.  It was just the six of us around the table.  We were used to celebrating with cousins, aunts and uncles.  Every year after that, Mother and Dad invited people from church who did not have family or a place to go for Thanksgiving.

Having people over for lunch or dinner wasn’t only about eating.  It was the ambiance and conversation.  The food wasn’t gourmet, but there was always a tablecloth, and lit candles.  Dad told funny stories.  Mother came across interesting dinner questions in her reading that would promote discussion and laughs.

“What are you looking forward to this week?”  was a favorite question.  Mother would go around the table, making sure each person had a chance to answer, and be listened to.

Mother and Dad taught me that the essence of etiquette was considering the other person and how to make them feel comfortable.  That hospitality was work but balanced with bountiful rewards.

Our Easter portrait session produced fun pictures:

But God’s serendipitous plan for the family with the empty nest, having people over,  is better.

“Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!”  Hebrews 13:2

 

 

 

“We’re going on a Mystery Drive!”  With delight Dad dangled the idea in front of us on a rainy Saturday morning.  From our house in Abington, Pennsylvania, to where ever …  our family would be together in our Plymouth station wagon;  Wendy, Jennifer and I lumped in the backseat behind Mother and Dad.

I loved a planned adventure.

Where were we going?   We ended up at the Stangl Factory in Flemington New Jersey, an hour away.  Mother needed more of her ‘Fruit’ pattern cereal bowls or extra plates.    We didn’t catch on, until years later, that this was Dad’s way of Making Life Fun.

The sprawling store was a now an unused kiln surrounded by a maze of showrooms,   stacked high with dinner plates, cups, saucers, bread and butter plates, cereal bowls and fruit bowls.  I loved wandering among the colorful pottery dishes, free from my parents.   They took a long time when shopping. I liked choosing exactly the pattern I would buy when I grew up.

If Dad loved going for a drive, Mother loved dishes.  She had inherited her own mother’s bone china tea cups, made in England.  Mother didn’t like to cook.  But she had the gift of hospitality, and often invited friends and new people from church for a meal in our home.  The food looked more enticing than it was, because we ate on  such nice dishes.

This Mystery Drive combined the best of both worlds for Mother and Dad: cars and dishes.  Dad inherited his love of cars and driving from his Uncle Bertie, his mother’s only sibling.  Here’s Dad’s sister Ruth at the front of Bertie’s car, with two unknown children, and Dad, on the far right, leaning forward in the exact pose I’ve seen my own son Mike take.  Mike inherited Dad’s love for cars and driving.

To my Dad, Uncle Bertie was a family patron saint.  Wendy and I met him in 1975 when I was in college, on a Wheaton in England program.  She was traveling with a friend.  We stayed at the home he shared with his wife, Aunt Divinie, in Dumbarton, Scotland.  They took us for a ride in their car with a picnic lunch at Loch Lomond, the lake that holds the Loch Ness Monster.

Uncle Bertie was the older brother Dad never had.  Bertie was close to his sister, Dad’s mother Lily, and even included (seated on the right)  in this family portrait.  Look at the expression on Dad’s face!  I have a picture of Dad, age 19, in the Royal Marines, with hair that looks just like Uncle Bertie’s.

In 1939, Dad and his sister Ruth left their parents’ home in Newcastle England, to live with Grandma Wilson, his Dad’s mother, and Uncle Bertie.

People have heard of the blitz of London in WWII.  Many don’t realize other English cities experienced German bombing.  In Newcastle-on-Tyne, northern England; 400 people died, thousands were injured and homes destroyed.  Dad’s parents stayed; PawPaw was the pastor of his church and a neighborhood leader.  30,000, mostly children, including my Dad and his sister, were evacuated.

For the two years the Germans were dropping bombs on Newcastle, Dad and Ruth were safe in Grandma Wilson’s home, on Scotland’s west coast.  Uncle Bertie often dropped by and  told them stories before they went to sleep about “Blackie” and  “Whitey”, two fictional dogs.  Dad told us those stories.  Uncle Bertie took them to “Laurel and Hardy” movies.  Going to the ‘cinema’ was not off limits for Christians, like it was in America.

If Uncle Bertie was known for hijinks and fun, Grandma Wilson was a legend.  Christina Sutherland Wilson stood less than five feet tall, even in her Sunday shoes (far right).

“She could pick up hot coals with her bare hands and throw them back in the fire.”

“She could sing like a bird.”  Dad attributed my singing ability to Grandma Wilson.

“After cleaning up the lunch dishes, she would sit at the kitchen table, lay her head on its’ wooden surface, toss a dishtowel over her head, and have a rest.”

 

 

Fast forward to 2013.  Dad and Mother moved to Regency Oaks Senior Living, five minutes from  Wendy, Jennifer and me.   Because of Dad’s poor health, we sold his car.  He’d bought it,  a brand new Chrysler, the year before.

We took stock of all the dishes Mother had accumulated.  She still had all her Stangl ware, and her mother’s tea cups, which she began to give away to granddaughters.   On their many trips to England Mother had  chosen her own teacups and plates.  We found Nana Mitchell’s dishes from Scotland.  We ‘oohed’ and ‘aaahed’ over those dishes.  We placed dibs on who got what.  We wondered about who in the next generation would even want them?

Dad’s sister Ruth died.  She and her husband Donald did not have any children.  But Uncle Don wanted to keep Grandma Wilson’s china, that Aunt Ruth had inherited, in the family.  Wendy drove up to Penney Farms to pick it up.  Uncle Don had carefully packed the delicate white bone china, edged with red and navy swirls,  into boxes.

“I can’t find the soup tureen!”  he puzzled.  “I’ve looked everywhere.”

“Don’t worry about it,”  Wendy reassured him.   Wendy loved dishes, but she knew we had plenty.

Dad, who played tennis daily until he was 82, grew so frail he could hardly walk.   Our son Mike bought a brand new BMW convertible.  I think it was a BMW, I don’t know because I don’t care about cars.   Dad cared.  When he heard about Mike’s new car, he mentioned he’d love to go for a ride.  On a lunch break from work one day, Mike stopped by and took Dad for a spin.  I took a picture of Dad, seated beside Mike on the front seat.   Mother kept that picture on her dresser.  That drive lit up his final days.

Then Mother died. too.  We’re still shuffling the dishes she had between us sisters.  We display some of them.  Some are in drawers.  I treasure a tea cup I use for tea most evenings.  If it ever slips out of my hand and smashes, I will cry.

Besides enjoying our family china, I’ve been studying the family documents, letters and pictures Dad saved in organized manila folders. , After studying them, I have more questions.  Last week I telephoned Uncle Donald.  Maybe he would have answers.  He told me he’s in hospice care now, then carried on with as many stories as he could remember.

He  told me this story about Dad’s dad:

“A good friend of your grandfather said to him, “Ralph, if you were walking down the street, and a manhole cover was missing, and you fell down into that hole, you would come up with a fish!”

Instantly my sister Pam came to mind.

Later in our phone conversation, Uncle Don mentioned, “Guess what!  I found Grandma Wilson’s soup tureen!”

In a few days Wendy and I are planning a Mystery Drive, returning to Penney Farms.  In honor of Mother and Dad, and Uncle Bertie we’ll visit with Uncle Don, and retrieve Grandma Wilson’s soup tureen.  I want it!

“To understand and reconnect with our stories, the stories of our ancestors, is to build our identities.” – Irish author Frank Delaney

Grandma Wilson’s silver teapot that my mother accidentally left on the stove so that the knob on the top accidentally ‘melted’ to the side.  I watched Mother pour tea from this beauty.

 

 

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