A Fresh Start

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On July 23, 1982, Sharon and I were married at Mechanicsville United Methodist Church where I was serving as pastor.  We had met a year earlier at Woody’s Funeral Home when I did her grandmother’s funeral.  Having each been divorced, our marriage was a fresh start for us, and for the children we each brought into the blending of a new family.

Having failed at marriage, starting over was a giant step of faith.  We needed, and received, the support of our families, both church and biological, and our friends.  More than that, we needed God’s grace and guidance, which we received in abundance.

Our district superintendent told us about a group called the Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment (ACME).  We became involved, learning new skills in communication, dealing with our emotional “baggage,” and relationship-building that gave us a strong foundation.  In time we attended leadership training with David and Vera Mace, ACME founders.   We led marriage enrichment retreats, and even served a term as leader couple for the Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia Region of ACME.  

We soon discovered a realty we hadn’t weighed.  When Sharon and I married each other, that didn’t mean our kids automatically fit together as a family unit.  Some people thought calling a step-family a “blended” family, would “fix” the issue by changing the focus. In reality, what was needed was “bonding” with each other, respecting each other’s separate identities, and intentionally working at identifying and building a common bond.  Couples facing these tasks needed a supportive network.  To address this, Sharon and I formed The Stepfamily Connection.   Under the umbrella of Mechanicsville UM Church, we held monthly meetings with other stepfamilies, sharing experiences, skills and resources.  The group existed until I was transferred to a different church.

Stepping into the role of a pastor’s wife at “mid-stream” brought challenges of its own for Sharon.  It also brought new spiritual growth and a deeper sense of God’s love, strength and redirection.  A full-time secondary teacher, she soon found building a new family unit required primary attention.  She moved to part-time teaching.  

“Fresh starts” continued to occur.  Spiritual growth  opened new vistas of God’s call in Sharon’s life.  After a few years she went back to graduate school for a Master’s Degree in Counseling, then went through the steps to become a licensed professional counselor and marriage and family therapist.  She spent fifteen years helping other’s find their own fresh starts.

Today, Sharon and I are celebrating thirty-five years of marriage.  We could never have become the persons we are today without the bonding God has given us in our life together.  When she went through a neurological crisis, we wrote a book about the experience in order to help others.  I have continued a life-long artistic expression through painting, drawing, and writing.  We’ve had struggles and triumphs, and most of all, no matter what, we’ve had each other.

We’ve also learned that around each corner, if we keep faith with God and each other, there is the promise of yet another life-enhancing “fresh start.”

 

Majestic Aging

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(Weathered Wall, Acrylic on Canvas by Hugh Townsend Harris)

What’s it like to be old?

I’d say it is like being enriched!

Take an old, retired tobacco barn in Halifax County, Virginia, for instance.  Seen from a distance, the barn appears to be almost lifeless, wood rotting away, in danger of toppling over.  But take a closer look.  See beyond the obvious to the character masked by the effects of aging.  That weathered old structure is actually in an enriched, majestic state of being.

Aging is a majestic process.  It’s the most universal and persistent of all human experiences.  We start it as soon as we’re born.  It’s a ripening process.

We associate wrinkled skin, thinning hair, loss of hearing, and generally a state of decline with the idea of being old.  So we don’t want any part of it.  “I’m only as old as I feel,” we tell ourselves.  Well…maybe…sometimes.  Some of us feel the wear and tear differently than others.  Ripening is about being enriched at a deeper, inward level.

The secret to majestic aging is staying alert, active, connected to God and to others, exploring new options as life’s stages unfold.  It’s learning to be comfortable in our own skin, not taking ourselves too seriously because now we know it really isn’t all about us anyway.  

When I missed my mother for the first Christmas in seventy-nine years I wrote a blog about “Feeling Old.”  Where once I had persistently seen my glass as half-full, I could now see it as half-empty.  I can now appreciate what it means to have more days behind me than in front of me.  That’s a good thing!  It frees me to capture the essence of each moment, each relationship, each unfolding experience.

It means I’m being enriched from the inside-out…just like the wall on that old tobacco barn.

That’s majestic!

 

The Launching Years

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Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016

Like clouds breaking open to reveal eternal expanses beyond the boundaries of earth, so our lives open as we journey through adolescence into adulthood.  These are The Launching Years.

Mary glimpsed this dynamic in her oldest son when he joined the Army and left home for three years.  His return in July, 1959, brought fresh transitions for the whole family.  He would live at home, but being out of the army’s “nest” meant he had two immediate needs–a car and a job.

“Look at this,” his dad said while reading the Saturday newspaper.  “‘Nineteen-forty-nine Pontiac for sale, good tires, runs well.  One owner.  Priced to sell.'”

“Let me see that.”  Hugh T checked out the ad and jotted down the number.  “Let’s call about this.”

“Go ahead.  You’re on your own now…but I’ll take you to look at it.”

He called and found the car belonged to two elderly women in the nearby town of Dayton. It turned out to be as good as advertised, and the price worked for him, so Hugh T bought it.

With the car issue settled, the next thing was a job.  He found an ad from a local sewing machine store seeking a salesman.  “Sewing machines!” he muttered as he read it.  “Guess I could do that.”  He went for an interview and got the job.  That’s when some new issues surfaced.  His first week went okay in the store, learning the features of each machine and how to use them.  The beginning of the next week was when things changed.

“Here’s how things work around here,” he boss told him.  “When you come in each morning we’ll have some leads for you.  These are people who have called in for service on their machines.”  He looked sharply into Hugh T’s eyes.  “I don’t want you fixing those machines!  Your job is to sell them a new machine.  You won’t get a commission from repairs.”

That set up a moral dilemma when he discovered that most of the calls were from elderly women, often widows, for whom sewing provided a sense of purpose.  Most of them lived very simply with limited resources.  He expressed his feelings to Mary one morning at breakfast.

“I feel like I need this job, but I can’t do what they want.  These are old ladies who know more about sewing than my boss will ever learn.  I just don’t feel settled about selling them a machine, no matter how advanced it is, when all they really need is a new bobbin, or some simple adjustment.”  He paused while he studied his plate, then looked back up.  “The trouble is, the boss says I either sell them new machines, or I’m fired.”

Mary felt his distress.  Her husband had been through issues like this a few times. “Sometimes you have to follow your conscience…your inner voice, even when you can’t see  where that will lead you.”  She put her hand on his.  “Besides, how do you know you’ll even have time for this job when your classes start next month?”

Hugh T’s tension seemed to fade a bit.  “Yeah, I thought of that, too.  I guess I just needed to hear it from somebody else.”  He paused thoughtfully.  “Glad I saved enough while in the Army to pay for the first year’s tuition.”

“That’s a blessing already.”

Hugh T got up from the table, stepped over to the kitchen sink, then turned back toward her.  “Actually, I hope to get a student pastoral appointment next summer…once I get my feet on the ground.”  She knew he had completed a year-long correspondence course while in France that had qualified him for a Local Preacher’s License.

Within a week he had quit the job, and shortly after that came student orientation and then the beginning of classes.   One morning when he was about to leave the house Mary handed him an official-looking  letter that had arrived the day before.  He had a puzzled expression as he opened it, then looked shocked.

“I can’t believe this!”  He waved the letter in the air.  “They say the Army overpaid me and they want the money back with interest.”  He sank into a chair, handing the letter to his mother’s outstretched hand.  “That’s practically everything I have in savings.”  He looked up at her.  “What am I going to do?”

Mary wished she could step in and help, but she and Hugh didn’t have the resources available.  She also knew this was something her son really needed to work out for himself…the first of many challenges that would require spiritual resources.

“I don’t know, but if God called you to the ministry, God will have an answer.  Your Daddy and I have faced some things like this, and we found God was bigger than our problems.”

Just a few weeks later an opportunity opened for Hugh T that he couldn’t have seen coming.  The Keezletown church was part of a circuit that included two other churches nearer to Harrisonburg.  When her pastor had a heart attack, he had to cut back on his activities. He narrowed his focus to the Keezletown conregation and hired Hugh T to preach at the other two until June.  This helped with his day-to-day expenses, as did a part-time holiday job at a men’s clothing store.

A couple of months later Hugh T announced that he was going to get married to a young woman named Gerry he’d met through a college friend.  They had been spending a lot of time together, so it wasn’t a total surprise, but some flags went up in her mind.  Then she remembered how she and Hugh had known each other only three months when they got married.  Maybe this is how my parents felt! 

“Since your Daddy and I had a brief courtship, I guess I can understand that.  But things are different for you.  You’re in college.  This is a big step.”

“I know, but several day students are married, and they seem to manage okay…”  He paused a moment.  “Besides, there’s something else going on.  There’s a small charge east of Elkton that might become available as a student appointment in June.  I just learned, though, that they won’t consider a man who’s single.  By getting married this spring, I can qualify for consideration.”

“And how does Gerry feel about that?  Is she ready to be a pastor’s wife?”

“She’s excited about it.  You know, her parents are both active in their church.  She says she looks forward to it.”

Hugh T and Gerry were married in March.  In June he was appointed student pastor at the Blue Ridge Charge.  Two-and-a-half years later they presented Mary with her first granddaughter.  An image of her own Grandma Mary came into her mind and she wondered if she was ready for this.  Looking in the mirror she thought, With my gray hair, I guess I look old enough to be a grandma, but I sure don’t feel like it.  

Getting her oldest son launched wasn’t Mary’s only task during these years.  She had already seen her daughter through nursing school.  After working for a while at MCV in Richmond, Sis had moved to Staunton where she worked at King’s Daughter’s Hospital, and lived in nearby nurse’s housing.  Mary praised God for her daughter’s accomplishments, but she was also anxious for her to meet some man who would love her and take care of her.  One day the phone rang with a message that eased those concerns.

“I have someone I want you to meet,” Sis said.  “His name is Bill Diehr.  One of my friends at work is dating his cousin, and they introduced us.  We’ve been seeing each other for a while and I want him to meet you.”

Mary and Hugh had them for dinner and got acquainted.  Bill had been in the Air Force, and had a good job with a major airline at Washington National Airport.  He was different from anyone Sis had been interested in before.  She had dated a man who was in the Navy who asked her to marry him, but Sis had been unsettled about it.

Mary recalled Sis asking her, “Do you think I should marry him?”

“I don’t know,” she had replied.  “How do you feel about him?  Are you ready to get married?”

That same conversation happened several times, and finally Mary had said, “If you have to keep asking me about this, maybe you shouldn’t marry him.”  Soon after that Sis attended the christening of the ship he was to sail on…and met his wife!  

Sis had told Bill about that, and now he told Mary and Hugh his story.  “I’ve been married before.  I’m divorced.  I married a beautiful woman and we lived in South Carolina…but I found out she was really married to herself.  She had no room for me in her life.”  Bill went on, “I learned a lot from that.  I learned that I wanted inner beauty from a woman, and Merle has that.  I also think I learned something about being considerate and supportive as a partner.”

So, Mary thought, they’ve both been through bitter experiences–two broken hearts–two hearts being healed.  She and Hugh gave their blessing.  Sis and Bill were married in December, 1964.  They would soon present Mary with her first grandson, Tony, and four years later a granddaughter, Shannon.

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Jimmy, twelve years younger than Hugh T and six years younger than Sis, was having his own launching experiences in the midst of all this.  His entrepreneurial life began at age eleven when he took over delivering the Grit newspaper.  The boy who had done it before had simply handed the papers out to anyone who wanted a copy.  Jimmy saw a better way. He got on his bicycle and delivered a copy to each home in the community, which made the paper more visible.  He was soon gathering new customers.

Mary complimented him on the way he did this.  “Just like your daddy,” she said.  “A born salesman!”  Early in his life Jimmy had exhibited artistic talent.  When he entered a contest connected with a local Saturday TV show, she wasn’t surprised that he won.  Local artist, Judy Preston, ran the show, and Jimmy was invited to appear as a guest.  He became a regular participant, and also took oil painting lessons from her.

Mary and Hugh’s friend, Bradford Cobb, owned a small cavern in the Massanutten Mountain.  When Hugh T was a high school sophomore, Brad was just getting started with the enterprise, and trained him as a part-time summer guide.  After Hugh T went into the army, Jimmy wanted to take his place.  He worked there three summers…first cutting grass, then selling tickets, and finally as a substitute guide.

In 1955 Hugh took a job selling oil and grease to large construction projects in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.  The company, Lubrication Engineers, was headquartered in Dallas.  Periodically they had sales conferences where the men brought their wives.  When Sis was working in Staunton, she was able to stay at the house and care for Paul and Jim while Mary went with Hugh to these meetings.  It gave Mary a break from her routines, and sometimes included sight-seeing.  One time they took Jim with them to New England where they visited Boston, where Hugh had gone to high school, and Cape Cod.

After high school, Jim entered Richmond Professional Institute (RPI) where he studied art. The campus, which later became Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), was located in downtown Richmond.  One day his dad made an unexpected visit to his son, whom he didn’t believe was getting along as well as he could in college.  Not long after that Jim joined the Navy.  He took his basic training in Florida, and then was trained as a photographer.

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While at Pennsacola, Jim had been assigned to help the protestant chaplain.  When he reported for duty on an oceanographic ship with a small Navy complement, he was again asked to be chaplain’s assistant.  He spent his enlistment on this ship in the Atlantic Ocean, then when he was released, got a job as a photographer in Cincinnati.  He lived there for a time with his uncle and his wife, Bud and Charl, in the old Townsend Dairy farmhouse his mother had loved visiting when he Grandma Mary lived there.  Since the family had moved to Virginia when Jim was two, this gave him a chance to connect with his Townsend roots.

The Launching Years!  Mary’s family was growing up and moving into their own life spheres.  Just as she began adjusting to the changes, her mother and dad called from Florida.  “We’ve put our place here on the market.  Florida has been a nice retirement place, but now we’d like to get closer to family.  We were wondering if you could help us find someplace near you in that beautiful valley?”

Mary was thrilled.  “Oh, yes, we’ll help any way we can.  Of course, the weather won’t be as nice as Florida.  Are you sure you’re ready for that?”

“Absolutely,” her dad said.  “It will do us good to have four seasons again.  Besides, your children are growing up and moving away, but Paul is still there.  You tell Mr. P. R. Harris that I can’t wait to fill up some of his empty space.  We’ll have a grand time together.”

Mary was energized with preparations.  Elmer and Merle bought a mobile home and had it placed on a spot just across the driveway from Mary’s house.  Hugh built an entry porch and storage room onto the trailer, poured a sidewalk to the driveway, and built a carport for Elmer’s Buick.  All was ready for the dairyman and his daughter to reconnect, away from the city…out in the country.

Thank you, Lord, Mary prayed.  How truly blessed I am!

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(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)

 

 

 

 

 

Going the Extra Mile

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CP Mother of the Year

(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

Mary and Hugh were challenged to go the extra mile when they got involved with a CP Parents group.  Here were people who wanted to create a center to provide schooling and physical therapy for their children.  They were actively exploring methods to fund their dreams.

The group provided good networking for Mary.  She thrived on their bi-monthly meetings that provided bonding around common experiences, ideas, frustrations and triumphs.  She got involved with the funding discussion.  Television was a new and powerful communication instrument.  The group decided to approach WLW-TV about doing a telethon to get visibility for their efforts.

They launched a contest to name one of their members “CP Mother of the Year,” and have this person presented during the telethon, which would be held at a prominent hotel. Over a period of time community business leaders submitted letters nominating someone for this honor.  Mary was overwhelmed when she received the most letters and was selected.  The night of the telethon her children were thrilled to see their mom on television.

From there on fund-raising efforts proved effective.  The group hired a professional fund-raiser to direct the program and soon they were able to move forward with the center.  That’s when Mary suddenly hit a brick wall.  When the center was ready to open she found out Paul wasn’t qualified to participate.  Several other children with similar levels of need were also rejected.  She learned that group leaders had set minimum standards for participation that said only children who could feed themselves and were toilet trained could qualify.

Mary was crushed and angered.  “I can’t believe this, can you?” she said over the phone to another parent whose child was rejected.  “Why did we all work so hard if this isn’t going to serve the children who need it most?”

She took her feelings to God in prayer.   Lord, I don’t understand this.  We found this group, believed in their cause, helped them raise money to create this facility…and now we’re blocked!  Why?  What did we do wrong?  Show us the way.

In response, she heard an inner voice saying, Wait!  Keep the faith!  Look deeper!

Mary found herself going the “extra mile” again.  She called the other parents of rejected children.  “Maybe this just wasn’t the right approach,” she found herself saying.  “Maybe we need to do something else.  Can you come to our house Saturday afternoon?  We’ll have sandwiches and talk this over.”

On Saturday five children and their parents showed up.  This was a different “coming together” than they had experienced with the other group.  They were all active caregivers who loved their kids and wanted to advocate for them.  They began to meet each week and dubbed themselves the CP Support Group.

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The impact on the children was noticeable.  Being a child with Cerebral Palsy was isolating.  People around them didn’t understand their condition or their needs.  The support group had the effect of normalizing their lives.  Now they could simply “be kids”–laughing and playing together in the safety this group provided.  Mary and Hugh were thrilled.

“Sometimes God has different ideas that we can’t see right away,” Mary said one day.  “We had to run into a brick wall in order to see past the boundaries we had helped set up.”  The support group began to feel energized and soon became visible, and people wanted to help.  One of those  was Paul’s Sunday school teacher.  She and Mary had become friends, and one day she said, “You know, I’d love to come over when your group meets and read some stories to the children.  It might help stimulate them to learn words.  Do you think that would be all right?”

Mary and the group welcomed her.  Soon she was innovating ways to teach these special needs children to speak.  She would put a word she wanted them to learn on a red ribbon that she pinned to their shirt or dress.  The kids squealed with delight and tried to form the words.  They began to have contests to see which child could get the most words on their ribbon.  This became such a stimulus that the group grew from six to twelve children.

About that time Clifton Methodist Church received a new pastor, Reverend Warren Bright. Mary invited him to her house for one of the support group’s meetings.  He was impressed with what they were doing, but noticed how crowded they were.  He made a suggestion.

“Have you ever considered meeting at the church?  We have a large social hall, a kitchen and bathrooms–anything you might need.  You would have so much more room.  I do hope you’ll consider this.”

It didn’t take them long to say “yes.”  The group became known as the Clifton “CP School.”  A woman named Mildred Martin emerged as a key leader who would keep the group functioning for many  years.

Mary and Hugh continued their trips with Paul to visit Dr. Phelps during all of this.  They were still thinking about moving to the Shenandoah Valley some day so they could be closer to Maryland.  Mary also remembered how the beauty of the area had attracted her.  They put their house on the market, but after a while took it back off due to lack of interest.

Hugh had been selling women’s hats, and had done well with it, but it took him out of town a lot.  Then he had the chance to open a business of his own.  He had become interested in woodworking and cabinetry.  A space suitable for a shop opened up on Vine Street, next door to a moving company.  It was an ideal location.  A major part of his work became refinishing furniture damaged in transit.  Applying his woodworking skills to the house, he decided to remodel the kitchen.  About this same time they put the house back on the market, still thinking about Virginia.  He was only halfway finished with the remodeling when the house sold.

Suddenly their world was turning upside down again.  The dream of living in the Shenandoah Valley was now a possibility.  Hugh drove to Harrisonburg where they had stayed at the Pure Village Court, and looked for a house.  He had limited funds and the realtor showed him several places, but nothing seemed right.  Then he was shown an old tenant farm house in the village of Keezletown.  It had once been part of the estate of Senator George Keezle.

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The property covered three-and-a-half acres that included an apple orchard…and a magnificent view of the Massanutten Mountain and the valley that spread out from it.  The house needed a lot of work, but the price was right.  He went home and described it to Mary.

“I bought the most magnificent view you’ll find anywhere in the Shenandoah Valley.  You can sit in the front yard and look out across miles of farmland.  She was fascinated with his description, and intrigued by the apple orchard.  Then she choked back some misgivings when he told her more about the condition of the house.

“It has a cistern for water located right outside the back door.”

Mary pictured the well outside the kitchen of the hold house on the dairy farm where She wasn’t sure how she felt about the cistern.  Then he told her the biggest drawback.  “It doesn’t have a bathroom, and it has no closets.”

“Hubert Harris, if you think I’m going to live in a house without a bathroom or closets, you are mistaken!”

He tried to console her.  “You won’t have to live in it like that, honey.  I’m going back for a few weeks and I’ll fix it up.  The soil perks, so I can put in a septic tank and build a bathroom…and I can build closets.  I’ll also turn the old back porch into an enclosed utility room.”

She thought about the view and her desire to live in the Valley.  This was the biggest “extra mile” she’d encountered yet.  After prayer and more discussion, she saw God’s hand in it. It was 1951 and they had lived in the house of her dreams on Howell Avenue for six years. She reckoned it was time to trade dreams and entrusted that to God.

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The dairyman’s daughter was about to move back to the country…not to a farm, but close. It felt good!

(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is it REALLY Alzheimer’s?

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Not everything that looks like Alzheimer’s Disease, is AD!

I’m Hugh Harris and I worked with my wife, Sharon French Harris, to write this small book that journals our experience with a neurological condition that can mimic Alzheimer’s Disease and/or Parkinson’s Disease.  Dr. Adam Mednick (Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus:  From Diagnosis to Treatment) states that as many as five percent of people who believe they have Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, may actually have NPH!  We wrote our book to try to make this condition that may be correctable visible to more people.

Classic symptoms that flag the possibility of NPH are:  impaired gate, falling, lack of balance; impaired thinking, including loss of short-term memory; and incontinence.  Any of these might be mistaken for normal aging.

The standard test for NPH is a spinal tap and then a three-day period of observation to measure effects when cerebrospinal fluid is periodically withdrawn.  Improvement can lead to implantation of a shunt in the brain that regularly removes the fluid and allows a return to normal functioning.

In Sharon’s case, she was slow to respond to the spinal tap and was diagnosed with irreversible dementia.  Then her responses emerged and she did receive a shunt…but all of that is what the book is about!

We’re not doctors, so this is not a medical/technical book.  It is the story our our journey through diagnosis, the shunt procedure, and recovery.  We have written it in a personal, everyday manner.  If you, a spouse or loved one, a parent, or a friend suffer with the three classic symptoms mentioned above, you and those you care about are the people for whom we wrote this book.

NPH:  Journey into Dementia and Out Again, by Sharon French Harris with Hugh Harris.  Tate Publishing.com   Amazon   Barnes & Noble

 

 

The War Years

Hughs Wordquilts

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(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

Wartime hit like the explosion of an artillery shell in the backyard of everyday American life.  Pearl Harbor’s “Day of Infamy” rained enormous consequences that touched every aspect of life.  No one was spared its impact!

In Mary’s family it touched two of her brothers directly when they were drafted into military service.  Both served in the U.S. Army–John in North Africa, and Bud as an officer at the Pentagon.  When Bud was drafted he qualified for Officers Candidate School. Upon completion of his training, as a second lieutenant, he was headed for the Pacific Theater.  Just before boarding a troop ship he received a change of orders sending him to the Pentagon where he spent the war writing training manuals.

Hugh’s older brother, Floyd, served on the Atlantic Ocean as part of the Merchant Marine throughout the war.  Hugh was not drafted.  The…

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Never a Dull Day!

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House on Berwyn Place, Downstairs Apartment

(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

The charm of Mary and Hugh’s Walnut Hills “castle” crumbled within a few weeks.

It happened on a Saturday when Mary was dusting furniture in the living room.  From the corner of her eye she caught a sudden blur of movement on the floor.  She stopped, stood still, then ventured a glance over her shoulder.

Nothing!

She waited a minute, then shrugged and resumed her dusting.  Must have been my imagination.  Again she caught a sense of movement on the floor.  She turned quickly, then screamed.

“Eeeek!  Hubert…there’s a creature in here.  Help!”

Hugh had been drying breakfast dishes in the kitchen and came quickly.  “What is it, Mary?”

“There!”  She pointed in the direction of the wall and suddenly another little black figure darted, then stopped with its long feelers exploring its surroundings.  Hugh grabbed a section of newspaper, rolled it, swatted the insect before it could run again, and disposed of the corpse in the trash can.

“It’s okay, honey.  It’s just a roach.”

“A roach?  That’s awful!  Where did it come from?  How many more are there?”  She shivered as she spoke.

“I don’t know,” Hugh said, comforting her with a hug.  He started searching the baseboard and found some more.  A little investigation revealed the source of the roaches.  There was a laundry right behind the apartment.  It had a wooden floor that stayed damp most of the time.  That’s where they were coming from.

They lost no time finding another apartment, unaware that they were starting what would become a two-year period of apartment jumping.

Without leaving Walnut Hills they found an efficiency apartment–one room with a sofa that opened into twin beds.  Behind two doors they discovered a kitchen complete with a small sink, two-burner hot plate, small refrigerator and two shelves.  There was a nice bathroom, and the price was right, so they took it.  Since it was summer they left the windows open during the night to gain some breeze.  They’d hardly gotten to sleep when some nearby neighbors got into a heated argument.  Since they were still in honeymoon mode, this became an intolerable intrusion.

Moving again, they found a furnished apartment with an in-a-door bed they could roll out of a closet each night.  A small kitchen featured a full-size stove and refrigerator, and there was a nice bathroom.  A large house next door had a fenced yard where two Irish Setters with red satin coats lived.  Mary enjoyed them greeting her each evening as she came in from work.  All was well until night when they discovered the man upstairs beat his wife several times a week.  They stayed until they couldn’t endure this any longer, then went apartment hunting again.

“Honey, why don’t we look over in Norwood where you grew up?”

Hugh agreed and the soon found a second-floor apartment on Madison Street.  It had a private entrance, living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom and bath.  This place felt good.  They settled in.

It wasn’t long until Mary visited a doctor and learned that she was going to have a baby.   She shared the news with Hugh that night and they reflected on their situation.

“I’m so glad we have this place,” she said.  “It’s going to be just right for starting our family.”  They had a romantic dinner and then sat holding each other while he sang songs to her softly.  Things were looking up.

Hugh had a new job that required travel, selling machinery related to manufacturing bottle caps.  The drawback was that it required out-of-town travel, so she was alone many nights.  The landlord couple downstairs had a twelve-year-old daughter who would come up and keep her company.  They talked, and laughed, and she gave the girl manicures and fixed her hair.  Mary remembered herself at that age and enjoyed the relationship.  One evening the girl said Mary seemed to be unusually happy and wondered why.

“I’m happy because in a few months we’re going to have a baby.  Then you can come up and help me take care of it.”

When the girl told her mother about it she was forbidden to visit upstairs, and Mary was told that she and Hugh would have to move because small children weren’t allowed.  Hugh was upset about this and asked the husband why they objected to a baby upstairs.  The man seemed embarrassed and apologetic.

“It’s nothing personal,” he told Hugh.  “You two are great people and we like you, but we lost a baby early in our marriage and my wife just can’t emotionally handle having a baby around.  I really am sorry, but you’ll have to find somewhere else to live.”

That took the wind out of Mary and Hugh’s anticipation of childbirth.  He went to work and found a better apartment on Berwyn Place in the Oakley section of the city.  They rented the downstairs of a house located on a cul-de-sac that featured a garage and a wooded backyard.  Hugh had recently traded in a Model A Ford he’d been driving, for a Chevrolet.  The garage would come in handy.

The owners of the house were two older ladies of German descent, Anna and Doris Stenning, who had never married.  When they found out this new couple renting their apartment were expecting a baby, they were delighted.  Mary and Hugh settled in.

The baby was due in March and as the date drew near storms began blowing dust clouds into the area from the Midwest Dust Bowl.  Mary went into labor one stormy Saturday morning when it was raining mud.  Hugh took her to Christ Hospital.  Rain falling through the dust clouds created a muddy smear on everything, including the hospital windows.  Suddenly through the air came an unmistakable cry.  Mary’s first child had just been born!  They named him Hugh.

It was customary then for a new mother to remain in the hospital for ten days after childbirth.  Mary enjoyed this special time with her tiny offspring whom they had decided to nickname “Hughie.”  When they came home Hughie was an immediate hit with the Stenning sisters.  They spoke with a noticeable accent and called him “Little Chu.”

Mary was thrilled to have built-in baby sitters.  Anna and Doris were constantly around Little Chu, making sure he was safe.  One day Mary left Hughie in the playpen out in the yard and went shopping.  While she was gone Hugh decided to take his car apart, literally.  She returned to find the entire driveway filled with auto parts.  She was flabbergasted.  Hugh said there was nothing to worry about.  He just wanted to see how it was made and could put it all back together.

In a state of shock Mary looked toward the playpen.  It was empty!  “Where’s my baby?” she yelled at Hugh.  He looked completely baffled by her reaction.

“Oh, he’s alright.  He’s inside.  The Stennings have him.”

Of course.  That explained it all.  Her anger abated and she went inside the house.  The first thing she noticed was loud banging coming from upstairs.  She dropped her shopping bags and ran up to see what was going on.

The banging was accompanied by joyful laughter coming from the bathroom down the hall.  She stopped in her tracks when she reached the door.  There was little Hughie sitting in the bathtub, banging away with a bath brush.  Anna and Doris were applauding and rolling in laughter.  Mary couldn’t help but break laughing herself.

That day became etched in her memory.  Life had surely shifted for the dairyman’s daughter who now had a husband with all the parts of his car spread over the driveway, a small child banging recklessly on the sides of a bathtub, and two old ladies nearly going berserk with laughter at the sight and sound of it all.

Elmer had told his daughter she would never have a dull day if she married Hugh Harris.  He was right!  What would happen next?

(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris.)

Into the Pit of Remembering

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(15-foot Whirlwind Runabout–1970)

Sometimes I fall into a pit of remembering.

It happened today.

I came across an online image of a painting by an artist friend, Jerry Spangler, who now lives and paints prolifically in Florida.  The scene featured a deadrise workboat passing a channel marker, presumably returning to port.  So well executed was it that I could hear the screech of the gulls, the pounding surf, and even the sound of the boat’s engine.

I closed my eyes and fell into the pit.  I could smell the salt air and feel the sun against my face as the wind cut smile wrinkles in the corners of my eyes.  I could feel the deck swaying with the rolling swells.  It was a step back in time, out of urban culture, into the mystique of fresh air and sea foam.

My experiences living in a coastal area began in 1968 when I finished seminary and sought a pastoral appointment.  I’d been raised in Cincinnati, spent my teenage years in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and then served in the US Army overseas.  My only up close and personal acquaintance with the sea had been aboard a troop ship sailing through an Atlantic Ocean hurricane.  I was ripe for a fresh experience.

That’s exactly what I got when I was assigned to a church in Colonial Beach, Virginia.  I spent four years there, then three in Gloucester Point.  During those seven years I learned to love saltwater fishing.  A retired man at the beach taught me about bait, steel leaders, casting and playing my line–and about cleaning and cooking what I caught.  He also taught me what great parking lot paving material oyster shells make!

My coastal appetite grew quickly.  Someone in the church ran a marine supply store and also sold small used boats.  I bought a 12-foot Old Towne Canoe with a 25 hp outboard motor, and rented a slip for it on Monroe Bay.  I soon learned that the boat leaked and I had to install a bilge pump.  I always took someone with me when I went fishing, supposing two heads to be better than one in a crisis.

No crises occurred, but I did give everybody a scare one evening when I went out alone.  I pulled in off Church Point to do some fishing.  The sky began to change as dark clouds formed and a stiff breeze picked up.  I pulled anchor, stowed my gear, turned the pump on and headed for the bay.  Unfortunately I was moving windward which slowed me down.  Darkness fell and I wasn’t sure my small running lights made my boat visible.  I felt relieved and gratified when I crossed the sand bar and found my family, neighbors and friends on the lookout for me.  I never went out alone again.

That winter I put the boat up on saw horses in the back yard and covered it.  On cold fall and winter mornings I would sometimes walk across from the house to sit on the shore and watch oyster tongers lined up across the river, harvesting their bivalve mollusks.  My fascination with the water and fishing grew.  In the spring I refinished the wood hull on my boat, fiberglassing the bottom and repainting it.  Then I sold it.  I replaced it with a 15-foot Whirlwind runabout with a slightly larger motor.  Now I was ready for some serious fishing.

I got the chance for that in a manner I would never have expected.  Colonial Beach is located on a seven-mile-wide section of the Potomac River.  It is downstream from the Dahlgren Naval Weapons Station.  This was during the Vietnam War and they test-fired sixteen-inch guns down the river, which was marked off as a range area whenever firing was active.  This particular day a new man in my church and I went fishing off Bluff Point.  We put out our lines and enjoyed fishing and getting acquainted.

When we decided it was time to go in I stowed the fishing gear, pulled the anchor, and started the motor…only it wouldn’t start!  We tried over and over with no results.  Meanwhile we drifted into the range area as it became active and we could hear the report of the guns and the shells passing overhead.  I pulled out my emergency horn and blasted away, but no one was near enough to hear.  We accepted the fact that our only recourse was to drift across the river to the Maryland side and seek help there.

That being decided, I pulled out the fishing gear, cut bait and started fishing.  My friend declined, spending his time praying instead.  Eventually we were rescued by a coast guard vessel that towed us across to Monroe Bay…and lectured us about staying out of the range area.  I had caught quite a few fish which I shared with my buddy at the pier.  He thanked me for the fish, and I thanked him for the prayers.  Soon after that he bought a larger boat of his own.  He never fished with me again.

Stepping back out of the pit of remembering now, I want to thank Jerry Spangler for sharing his painting online.  And thanks to you my readers for going along with me in this adventure.  Hope you enjoyed the trip!

A Cozy Timelessness

Remembering the life of Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016

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“Missy, you’re gonna wear that swing out,” called Mary Ellen’s mother from the kitchen.  “I need you to set this table.”

“I’m coming!”

At age ten chores were an interruption in her imaginative world, but Mary Ellen dutifully slid off the porch swing and slammed the screen door as she entered the house.

Her mother turned from the stove, hands on her hips.  “Do you have to slam that door?  I’ve asked you a million times not to do that.”

“I’m sorry.  I forgot.”

Her mother shook her head.  “Well, I hope you haven’t forgotten how to set the table.”

“No, Ma’am.”  Mary got to work.

Decades earlier what was now the kitchen had been the Townsend family’s original log cabin.  It had gradually been expanded to include a dining room and parlor on the first floor, and three bedrooms upstairs.  The kitchen was arranged around a table with chairs in the center, and cupboards, a wood stove, an ice box, and a sink against the surrounding walls.  To Mary Ellen there was a cozy timelessness about this room that she liked–even though it was uncomfortably hot when the wood stove was fired up.

Mary had learned to give her mom space when her words grew abrupt or short.  Her mother’s maiden name had been Merle Kemp Smith, and she had some Irish blood in her.  She often told the children stories about her mother, Romina, who had come to America from Ireland.  Her father was a doctor, which became an important connection when Merle came down with tuberculosis.

A family friend, Dr. William Savage, was studying to become a surgeon..  He was one of several doctors who were exploring a theory about using ether to treat TB.  Merle’s case gave him the opportunity to test the theory.  He periodically administered either through a face cone, spacing treatments with rest periods.  It took a long time, but Merle recovered with only some scar tissue in her lungs.  There were no lasting effects beyond that.  She went on to give birth to her youngest boy, Bud, and learned to drive a car.  She became active in organizations like the church, Mother’s Club (a forerunner to the PTA), and the Order of the Eastern Star.  Her husband, Elmer, came to refer to her as a “joiner.”  She would live to be eighty-nine.

The TB experience spanned an entire year.  Elmer built a sleeping porch on the back of the house to isolate his wife.  She stayed there day and night, sleeping in a hooded, down-lined sleeping bag on a twin bed.  Elmer slept on the other bed to be available if she needed something during the night.  The room had screened windows on three sides, with heavy canvas blinds that were rolled down when it rained hard and during the winter months.  All of that had been a harrowing time that Mary knew she would remember clearly for the rest of her life.

 Having life centered around TB didn’t prevent Merle’s children from being normal kids.  Mary Ellen’s sister, Helen was a typical sixteen-year-old.  She had an attitude that seemed to put her in conflict with people around her, especially her mother.  To her family this was balanced by the fact that she had developed rheumatic fever at age three which resulted in having to wear a brace to walk for eight years.  Mary thought that had a lot to do with her attitudes.  Helen wasn’t around much now.  She had a boyfriend down the road and spent a lot of time there.

Mary’s twin brothers, John and Gene, were fifteen and created frequent havoc with their behavior.  They had jobs caddying for golfers at the country club where their father was a member.  Merle felt they spent too much time at the clubhouse picking up bad ideas and habits.  Mary thought that was probably right.  The two boys seemed to stay away from the house as much as possible.

Mary felt a close bond with her younger brother, Bud.  He often became her charge..  While she hated doing household chores, she never rebelled about caring for Bud.  At age three he had developed a serious illness.  It was during a time when the family enjoyed trips to a wicket dam called Fernbank on the Ohio River near Cincinnati.  It had been constructed the year Mary was born, 1911, to deepen the water channel for navigation.  Families visited the dam and children loved to drink from a public water fountain with a pedal you stepped on to make the water flow.  Mary’s parents became convinced that Bud got sick from that fountain.

The doctor disagreed.  The family had a well outside the kitchen with a bucket they used to pull water up from an underground source.  The doctor had the well tested and found it was filled with bacteria.  The well was closed and Bud recovered–Mary Ellen said–without becoming bossy like his sister, Helen.

Mary set the table as asked, then her mother sent her into the parlor where Bud was playing on the floor with a metal farm set.  She picked up a toy chicken.  “Well, well, you forgot to lock up your chickens.”

“No, I didn’t!”

He grabbed for it.

“Time to put everybody in the barn so we can eat supper.”  Mary made a game out of playfully helping Bud put away his toys, then took him to the sink and washed his hands.  Helen came in and helped her mother serve the plates, then they settled into eating.  Merle had fixed Mary’s favorite dish–vegetable beef soup.”

“Ugh!  Not this again,” said Helen in a sulking mood.

“It’s good for you and you’ll eat it, young lady!”

“I like it,” said Mary.

Helen made a face at her.

“Now, children, that’s enough of that,” said their mother.  “I think I smell a rhubarb pie in the oven.  Everybody who finishes their soup gets a piece of pie.”  She looked at Helen.  “If you don’t finish…no pie.”

That resolved the soup issue.

Mary’s dad came in after dinner was over.  She ran to him.  She loved hugging him around his legs.  He reached down and had her put her feet on his shoes, then walked her around the room.  She wished he could work there on the farm instead of at the dairy downtown.  She wanted to be with him more often.  Elmer’s job required so much time that he frequently left for work before Mary got up, and came home after she was in bed.

This particular night Mary Ellen was glad her daddy had gotten home a bit early.  When he tucked her in bed she fell asleep with pleasant thoughts to round out an adventuresome day.  For the dairyman’s daughter, life could not have felt more comfortable.  She had learned to adapt to challenges, knew when to stay in the background, and was quite adept at simply being herself.  Mary Ellen couldn’t imagine that things would ever really change.

She could never have dreamed that thirty years later she would have her own kitchen in a farmhouse in Virginia that would remind her of the cozy timelessness she felt at age ten in her mother’s kitchen!

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(An excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter,” by Hugh Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)