BLOWOUT!

 

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Our country is experiencing a blowout!

What’s happening to us?  Where is our respect for each other?  What has happened to civil discourse?  How have we become so splintered, self-focused, polarized?  What has happened to our beliefs that overarch the specifics of race, gender, place of birth?  Where have we ditched ethics and morality?  Where have truth and trust gone?

When a tire blows out you have to stop and deal with it.  A blowout disrupts your direction, energy, and purpose.  You have to do something definitive.  Oh, you could keep on driving on the wheel rim causing sparks to fly, eroding control of the vehicle.  Eventually, however, the blowout will stop you.

There are many actions available.  You might blame someone…the tire manufacturer, highway engineers, careless drivers who throw things from their cars.  You might blame yourself.  Blaming only prolongs the agony of the interruption.  It doesn’t fix anything.  Ultimately you have to change the tire. 

Our current societal blowout feels like we’re just continuing to drive, throwing out sparks, playing the blame game, certain that if we persevere the tire will just mend itself.   We throw out some of our passengers–they must be why it happened.  The road ahead is rough and extremely dangerous.  Preoccupied with ignoring the blowout for what it is, we will miss the bridge that’s out just ahead.  

When you buy a car the manufacturer provides a book with instructions about care and wear, and how to handle emergencies.  Even if you don’t consult it regularly, you know what’s in it and follow its wisdom.

One of the most universal human experiences, in all ages, from primitive to digital, has been the awareness of an intelligent Creator we call, in one form or another, God.  This Manufacturer of human life has provided us with instructions.  Our Creator has designed us to live in community, to experience joy and pain, success and failure, ease and hardship.  It is a given that we will sometimes be locked in conflict and other times embraced in love.  We fare best when we keep the highest values central.

One man of faith spelled this out in writing to an ancient civilization.  He said to inflate life with God’s Spirit.  When we do, our Creator will plant, restore, and enhance qualities that provide balance and healing for our emotional and societal blowouts.  The writer called the roll of those qualities:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.

School shootings, violent intolerance, rude and vicious rhetoric serve only to throw sparks from the speeding rim.  What we need is to fix the tire, correct the problems that are destroying us.  Thoughts and prayers are part of it, but they must spur us out of the box of the usual.  Let us intentionally consult our Creator’s instruction manual for the path to renewed health.  Change the focus from self to God and others.  Let’s put down the verbal and physical guns, and absorb the Creator’s healing qualities into the fiber of our lives.  

With God’s help, we can fix this blowout.

 

 

 

Love Prevails

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(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

[NOTE:  This is the draft of the final chapter in the book I have been writing about my mother’s life.  Previously I had titled it, “Dairyman’s Daughter.”  As I concluded this chapter I realized that was an inadequate title.  So, I have retitled the book, “When Love Prevails.]

Though she had learned how to function in spite of grief and loss, Mary was not insulated from its impact.  Sometimes an emotional trough of emptiness engulfed her between swells of spiritual assurance.  Most days she tackled the situation by putting on a cheerful “face,” as she called it.  Just as she put on cosmetic make-up each morning, so she dressed her mind with prayer and assurance.  It was all a matter of framing reality in a faith perspective.

This was a process Mary developed years earlier when Hugh’s cognitive decline began to worsen.  Until the later stages of Alzheimer’s set in, he appeared normal–but his words and attitude indicated he was not himself.  The impact for Mary was a deep sadness she wished she could cover up or bypass.  As she often expressed it, ‘I lost my husband while he was still living.”  Coping required a daily faith-building routine.

Hugh was undeniably dead, yet very much still alive, and present, in her mind.  She took meditative jaunts through her memory closet, recalling warm moments when their souls had intertwined.  The bond they shared was deeper than even the worst situations they faced.  Recalling her wedding vows, Mary mused, we had poor times when things seemed the worst they could get, and times of great joy and fulfillment.  We went through sickness as well as miraculous healing.  Despite obstacles and opposition, we were rich in spirit, abounding in joyful celebrations that overshadowed difficult things.

While browsing through picture albums Mary sniffed back a gush of empathic yearning, wiping away oozing tears that threatened to drain her inner reservoir.  Until deaith parts us, we promised.  Death!  It’s already here…so suddenly!  I should have been ready, but I wasn’t…I’m not!  Help me Lord.  You lost your Son on the cross.  I know you feel this pain inside me…I know you are here for me now.

“By God’s grace,” Mary often commented to her closest friends, “I get through the lonely times.  Every morning the sun brings light, beauty, and promise–an opportunity to get a fresh grip on my life.”

Volunteer activities helped fill her days with energy, insight, and purpose.  She increased her quilting activities, drawing inner strength with each stitch, remembering her days learning to sew with her Grandma Mary.  Sometimes she went shopping with friends or family members.  Before Hugh’s disabilities set in she had bought a used car.  As Hugh became unable to drive, she was able to transport him wherever he needed to go.  After he died, she became a source of transportation for others in the retirement community–the “old folks,” as she referred to them.

Ironically, it was this very activity that signaled a turn in her own life.  One day she drove three friends to town for a shopping trip.  Pulling up in front of the store, Mary stayed in the car while the other two women helped a third who used a walker get out of the back seat on the driver’s side.  Mary realized she had pulled up so close to the car in front of her she would have to back up before she could pull away from the curb.

Hearing the doors shut, she put the car in reverse and began backing up.  Suddenly there was a noise behind her, and people on the sidewalk were yelling.  Her heart skipped a beat as she hit the brake and looked in the rearview mirror.  She saw nothing, but one of her friends opened the passenger door and said, “Stop!  Don’t back up any more!”

Mary got out and saw people helping her friend with the walker get to her feet behind the car.  She gripped the fender and sucked in her breath as her knees weakened.  “Oh, my gosh!  I thought you were on the sidewalk.”  The woman was not injured, but had fallen when Mary’s bumper hit her walker.  That was the last time Mary drove.  There were no charges against her, no injuries, and neither the car nor walker were damaged.

Telling her sons about the incident later she said, “I could have run over her.  I don’t think I can see well enough to drive anymore.”

Mary had been having some eyesight issues.  A few years earlier she was diagnosed with macular degeneration (AMD) following an eye exam.  She remembered her response.  “I’ve known people who had that, but I thought it was a side-effect of diabetes, which I don’t have.  I was borderline at one time, but it cleared up through changing my diet…and exercise.”

“This has nothing to do with diabetes,” the doctor replied.  “There are two forms of AMD…’wet’ and ‘dry.’  You have the dry form, which involves deterioration of light-sensing cells on the back of your retina called the macula.  It causes blurred sight and with time, can cause vision loss.  You won’t become completely blind, but you will lose sight in your central area of vision.”

Mary remembered her shock.  “What can I do about it?  Is there something I can take?”

“Unfortunately, this isn’t something we can cure.”  He let that sink in for a moment.  They were sitting in his examining room where he pointed to a diagram of the eye and explained what he was talking about.  “There are some things, however, that can help, such as vitamins, laser therapy, medications, vision aids.  We’ll work with you.”      

When she got back to the Home, Mary shared what was happening with some close friends.  Knowing what an avid reader she was, someone asked what she was going to do without being able to read as much.

“I’m going to do what I always do.  I’ll just find a way around the problem.  I have a magnifying glass if I need it and, besides, publishers do make large print editions for people with vision problems, and I have a large-print Bible.”

Mary was not about to give in to AMD.  She’d face a lot of challenges in her life, but she never thought of herself as a victim.  To do so would only give the disease power over her.  She signed on to receive services from the “Talking Book” program offered by the Virginia Department for the Blind and Visually Disabled.  A magnifying lamp in her sewing room became valuable for more tasks than threading needles.  She continued quilting, learning to work by touch, not just sight.  Her peripheral vision was still present, and miraculously she retained some central vision in her left eye due to what the doctor called an unusual hole in the macula.

Keeping house, cooking, doing her laundry–everyday tasks she had taken for granted in younger years now became ways to maintain normalcy.  On holidays and other occasions her sons and their families, her daughter’s family, and her grandchildren and their families visited.  Supper around the kitchen table felt as natural as ever, although her loved ones saw signs that she wasn’t as sure of herself as time went along.  On occasions like birthdays and key holidays they would reminisce and try to look ahead.

“So, let’s see, you’re 97 now, is that right, Mom?”

“I guess it is.  Doesn’t seem like it.  I never thought I’d live this long.”

“How does it feel to be this age?”   

Mary faked a look of surprise at the question.  “Why, it just feels normal.  I feel just about the same as I always have.  A few more wrinkles, and of course, my eyesight’s not as good, but I don’t feel any different.”

Some time later things changed.  There was no disaster or anythig, just an admission that she was feeling tired trying to keep up.  Her eyesight was getting worse and she feared making a mistake while cooking.  I never wanted to go to Assisted Living, she mused.  Once you go over there, you never come back.  I’ve never felt ready for that…until now.  Maybe the time has come.  It would be nice to have somebody else keeping things clean and cooking.  Hmmmm!

She prayed about it and called one of the staff members she had known for years who was always there for her.  They discussed it, and Mary decided it was time to go.  She called her family and talked it over.  They made the formal arrangements, then set a date when everybody who could helped her sort through things, decide what to give away or sell, and what she could use living in one room instead of three.  She had long ago negotiated with her children and grandchildren about what things would go to whom, and now they were being distributed.  It was a stressful time, but everyone knew it was the right move.

In the midst of it all Mary remembered her mother and dad moving from Keezletown to the Masonic Home in Ohio.  It feels so strange…so uprooting.  I guess they felt the same way, although they never expressed it.  She had visited them there and remembered how well her dad had made the transition.  “I can do this,” she told herself, “the Lord being my helper.”

Once the furniture was in her room, it seemed much smaller than it had looked when empty.  Mary closed her eyes tightly and squeezed her palms.  I can do this!  She looked at her bed with one of her quilts on it, tucked up against the same bookcase headboard Hugh had made for her decades ago…but it felt different. A small closet was filled with her clothing.  I’ll have to figure out a better way to organize that!  There was a separate bathroom, but the washstand was in the room with her.  That won’t do!  I’ll get a screen to hide it.

She had a small TV set, two dressers, and a bookshelf that also contained her tapes, radio and tape player.  A secretary desk she’d had in the apartment stood flush to the wall beside the window looking out upon a tall tree, and the courtyard below.  She arranged a half-dozen small plants on the window sill.  They’ll love it there…put some life in the room.  Under the window sill she had a small desk with her sewing lamp, and a chair.  The Home provided a recliner which completed the setting.

When it seemed things were in order, her family members left.  Mary was touched by all the attention and help she’d received.  A few friends had tried to poke their heads in the door to welcome her, and she knew they’d be back.  She sat in the recliner and looked it all over.  Suddenly fatigue set in and she closed her eyes. Lord, I’m here.  I’m thankful to have this place.  Help me learn how to live with all the changes.’

She opened her eyes at the sound of a knock on the open door to the hallway.  It was the head nurse and one of her assistants who introduced themselves, then went over rules and procedures.  Mary clarified that she wanted the door closed at night, then a thought struck her.

“What time will you come in to check on me in the morning?”  When the nurse replied, Mary said, “Just one thing…don’t be alarmed if you come in and see me on the floor.  I’ll be doing my exercises.”  She explained about having done Paul’s exercises for him every morning for decades, and having adapted them for herself. “In fact, if I’m not on the floor, that’s the time to be concerned!”  They said they understood.

Mary ate most of her meals in the dining room, assigned to a table with three other residents who became a kind of “family” to each other.  Eating institutional food became a difficult adjustment.  She was eating many of the same things she’d had at home, but it felt different.  One day Jim dropped by at lunch time.  Mary was sitting there poking at her food with a fork, but not eating.  She looked up at Jim,

“Do you see this?  Do you see what they want us to eat here?  I don’t know what this is, and I won’t eat it!”

Jim said, “Let’s see what we have here.”  He took her knife and fork and cut into the meat.  “Mom, that’s grilled chicken.  It seems to be tender.  What don’t you like about it?”

Mary gave him a look of distrust.  “I don’t believe you.  Here’s what it says on the menu.”  She held up a sheet of paper with a list of food choices.  “I can’t even pronounce what this is.”

“I see what’s going on, Mom.  I think they’re trying to make your meals more exotic, so they’ve given things some new names.”

“Well, they can keep their names.  If I order chicken, that’s what I want…not some exotic thing.”

It took time, but she adjusted to the food and the “new culture” plan the Home was using with its menus.  Sometimes she skipped means in the dining room, substituting Ensure or other snacks she kept in a fridge down the hall.  Every two or three weeks she had Jim take her to the grocery where she stocked up on items that helped her maintain some sense of independence.  Whenever she missed a meal her table “family” inquired about her.  Sometimes she said there just wasn’t any privacy at all in such a setting.

There was a table in the hallway near her room where people worked on puzzles, which she sometimes enjoyed.  There were various planned activities, programs put on by visiting choirs or other groups, chapel services and daily devotions.  It wasn’t all so bad, she sometimes admitted secretly.  One good feature was the quilting room where she’d been working for several years, located outside her room and down the hall.  When family members came to visit there was a large community room they could use by arrangement…which was great for birthdays and at Christmas.

During one of his and Sharon’s visits, after she’d been settled for quite a while, Hugh T said he had been re-reading the memoirs she had written in 1989.  “Mom, have you ever thought about writing an addendum to that?”  She had ended it with Merle’s death.

“Well, I guess I could.  I’m glad you still have it.  I’ll have to give that some thought.”

A short time later she tackled the task.  Despite her macular degeneration, Mary had maintained legible handwriting over the years.  She found herself expressing her grief over Hugh’s death and how it had affected her.  She surprised herself since much of this was repetitive from her memoir, then she realized what she’d been doing.  Her grief was still alive, and she’d been getting back in touch with it consciously.  Deep inside she knew this was therapeutic.  She wrote:

“So, now I’m here living in Asst. Living at the Home because of my health problem, Macular Degeneration.  I can’t say that I’m always happy living here.  I’m used to being able to be more active physically and going and coming as I want.  Also, I miss a larger space, to ‘keep house’ and cook my own meals; not to mention driving myself where and when I want to go.  But, I realize due to the sight problem and my age I need to be in a care-giving situation.  At times I get very lonely and want to pack up and go ‘home.’  Then I remember ‘why’ I am here.  I’ve been blessed with a caring family all my life and I still am!”

She went on to address many ways different family members had blessed her. Setting her writing aside, she felt afresh the warmth their love brought her.  Hugh T and Sharon lived in Richmond, so their visits were scattered, but they kept in touch by phone nearly every week.  At Christmas, and one week in early summer, Mary continued a practice she’d developed a few years earlier of traveling to Richmond where she enjoyed staying with them in their two-story house on a wooded lot.  A large deck extended out from the great room, two stories above a slanting yard that ran down to a small creek.  She loved to sit there under an umbrella and listen to the birds and other sounds of nature.  Mary always called this her “bird’s nest.”

Her greatest blessing, however, was having Jim close by so he could look in on her and participate with her in different activities, take her shopping, to doctor visits, and to see some of her friends.  Jim and his wife, Debbie, lived in Staunton.  He was retired, serving as associate pastor for the Bridgewater United Methodist Church.  Some of his pastoral visitation always involved the Home, so looking in on his mom was easy.  With Debbie’s help Mary got to church each Sunday.  After worship they would often go out to eat.  

Another blessing was Jim’s daughter, Debbie, who lived with her husband in Alabama.  About once a quarter she would drive up to Virginia to spend time with her grandma. As great-grandchildren came along, she and her husband Kyle brought them, too.  Another granddaughter, Hugh T’s daughter Diane, visited frequently from Northern Virginia, and later from the town of Strasburg farther up in the Shenandoah Valley.  A network of love prevailed through all the changes in Mary’s life, wrapping her in comfort and peace.

At the same time, there were some discordant notes during those years.  When Mary’s family threw a large 100th Birthday party for her on May 21, 2011, it was a celebration of more than her age.  The previous fall she had been through a medical crisis that put her in the hospital for a few weeks, and involved a stint of temporary dialysis to restart her kidneys that had been affected by an infection.  She had recovered well.  At her party no one would ever have guessed what she’d been through.

As a centenarian Mary became more vulnerable to illness.  She suffered a heart attack during a Bible study at the Home, and Jim was there to see her through the ordeal.  It was not severe, and she recovered quickly.  Another time she developed a MRSA infection that caused her to have a toe amputated.  She did well through that ordeal, too.

In 2015 she remembered she had not finished the update to her memoirs that Hugh T had requested, so she got back into it, recalling Hugh’s journey through Alzheimer’s and its impact on her.  She wrote:

“One of the hardest things to cope with was the fact that he really did not recognize me anymore.  He asked me continually many times a day, Where was his wife?  Where was Mary?”

Here was that trough of grief between the swells of spiritual assurance, surging again in her spirit.  She talked about working with the Alzheimer’s group in Harrisonburg, then went on:

“Because Hugh didn’t know me (as his wife) I told myself ‘I can handle this–the person I know and love is gone, so I’ll take the best care of the person in his body.’

I think I must have succeeded because he asked me to marry him, as he said, ‘When I get out of this place.’  At 103 years of age I’m still trying to deal with each day as it comes, because that I can do–we really have only ‘One Day at a Time’ anyway.”

Here, fourteen years after they were parted by death, the love Mary and Hugh shared was still alive.  In her mind, Mary was still married to him, and she would be for all eternity.  That became clear to most who knew her at the Home when a widower who lived down the hall from her room became attracted to her.  Time and again he would come calling, bringing flowers or gifts.  She told him she was not interested in a relationship…she was married to her Hubert.  He would leave and she would discard the gifts.  He would come back and try again with the same result.  Mary felt sorry for him, but her love for her husband prevailed.  Death had not parted them.

On May 21, 2016, Mary’s family gathered again to celebrate her birthday, this time 105 years.  Jim’s daughter, Debbie, a professional hairdresser, spent time with Mary, cutting and styling her hair, and making her up so her inner beauty shone through her face.  It was another great celebration.

Two months later Mary experienced a medical downturn.  Jim called Hugh T on Monday morning.  “Mom’s in the ambulance and we’re headed for the hospital.”

“What’s going on?  How serious is it>”

“We don’t know, but….”

“Okay, I’m leaving as quickly as I can.  I’ll see you in a couple of hours.”

Mary was talking to the angels when Hugh T arrived.  Jim and Debbie had been waiting with her for hours and he took over to give them a break.  Mary knew her family was there, and it was comforting, but she also knew she was finally going “home.”  God was calling her.  Weakened by IV’s that bruised her arms, she lay in the ER cubicle with her eyes closed, sheets pulled up around her neck.  From time to time over several months she’d had a vision of Hugh standing in her room, dressed in the maroon shirt he often wore.  He looked at her, urgency in his face.  “Mary…come on!  Why are you taking so long?”

It’s time, she whispered in her spirit.  Mary felt the guerney move as hospital attendants rolled her to the elevator and up to a room.  The angels were still there, comforting, encouraging, reassuring.  Hugh T was in the room as she opened her eyes.  The IV in her arm burned and she wanted relief.  She tried to pull out the lines, but her son stopped her.  “Its stinging me,” she said, looking at him pleadingly, wishing this was all over.

“I know!”  His voice was thick with emotion.  “It’s feeding you.  It won’t be long.”

It seemed long.  She closed her eyes and felt the angels with her.  She was aware as Hugh T kissed her forehead before he left to return home at midnight.  A slight smile curled her lips.  Thanks.  I love you.  She couldn’t arouse to the point of words, but she new he heard her thoughts.

Mary drifted through the night, in and out of consciousness, vaguely aware Jim and Debbie were sitting with her.  The bedside phone rang.  Debbie answered, then held it up to her.  Granddaughter Debbie’s voice fell lovingly on her ear.  “Nan Nan, I love you.  We all love you, and it’s okay.  We’ll miss you, but you can go now.  It’s time.”

And love prevailed as Mary Ellen Townsend Harris left this life where she’d spent a hundred-and-five years, her spirit rejoicing as she entered the radiance of God’s blessed eternity.

(Excerpt from “When Love Prevails,” by Hugh Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)

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Lost and Found!

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After retiring from the ministry, I continued a habit I had relied on for decades.  I kept a calendar/workbook to organize my activities, and compile important records I would need at the end of the year.  

During the first eleven years of retirement, I traveled as an artist.  I also worked on staff in several churches, or served part-time pastoral appointments.  In my calendar/workbook, I recorded meetings, visits, events, attendance, and even honorariums.  I also had a contact list of key people.

The next stage of retirement involved becoming a caretaker for my wife as she dealt with a severe neurological condition.  My notebook came to contain an elaborate network of medical information, providers, and related material.   

During this time I also began writing.  My calendar/notebook, became the repository for pertinent information and contacts related to publishing.  

So, when a question arose Easter Sunday about scheduling something, I reached for my calendar/workbook.  It wasn’t on my desk, or in my car.  I practically turned the house inside-out trying to find it, to no avail.  It was gone!   

I tried to remember where I might have put it down away from home, and made some phone calls, with no success.  When I prayed about this, I felt an assurance that it would turn up.  I even had an intuitive picture in my mind of my workbook lying on a paved surface somewhere.  I called places I’d been, but no one had seen it.  No one had turned it in.

On Tuesday, I decided it was simply lost, so I bought a new one.  My wife and I called places to recover appointments we knew were scheduled in coming weeks.  Many clues were in my computer, but not a duplicate of the workbook.  

Tuesday evening I noticed my cell phone was turned off.  I found a missed call with a message from a man I’d never met, who lives near our home.  He had found a calendar/notebook along the heavily-traveled highway in front of our subdivision.  Seeing information inside that looked important, he started to look for the owner, ultimately calling me.

I called him back and we met a few minutes later.  I thanked him and gave him a copy of one of my Dinkel Island novels.  I also thanked God.  The book was in rough condition, having been through a deluge of two severe thunderstorms, and there were tire tread marks on it, so it had been run over.  Most entries are still legible.

Finally, I realized what had happened.  I had loaded some things in the back of my car on Saturday.  The calendar/notebook in my hand made it difficult to do this, so I put it on the roof of the car, intending to move it inside.  Then I went into the house for something before backing out of the garage and driving away–forgetting I’d left the notebook on the roof.

We have a low speed limit in our subdivision, so it rode on the roof until I stopped, then accelerated, pulling into traffic.  That’s when it came off the car.   Remembering this, I could identify the pavement I’d seen in my prayer/vision.  

The lost was found!  It was never lost to God, but it was to me.  When I prayed, but didn’t understand the answer, God sent someone else to recover it for me.  Thanks be to God!

In our bustling world of emotional frenzy and surface interactions, we sometimes miss the honest goodness that resides within most people.  I thank God for one good man’s efforts.  I hope I am as diligent for others.

Paul!

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(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

Some time before Mary and Hugh celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, Paul accomplished something most people would have said was impossible.   It began one evening years earlier when Mary paused to talk with him before saying goodnight.  She noticed he seemed restless, and wondered why.

“Paul, you seem a little uptight tonight.  Is something bothering you?”

His eyes widened as he responded,  “Mother…I have…something…to say,.”

She pulled a chair beside the bed, sat down, then leaned forward.  “Okay, I’m all ears.  What’s on your mind?”

Paul spoke laboriously, almost taking a breath between each word.  “I have…something…to do…and….”  His breath gave out, and he turned his head to the side.

Mary stroked his arm.  “Take your time.  I’m listening.”

“No…not now.”

Mary was puzzled.  Because his speech took so much effort, Paul often made succinct remarks that signaled deeper, unspoken thoughts.  She encouraged him to take her to that deeper level.  “Is this something you want to do tomorrow?”

“Maybe…I need your…help.”

Mary leaned closer and spoke warmly.  “What is it, Paul?  What do you need me to do?”

He took a deep breath.  “I…want to…write a”…he exhaled…”book.”

Usually Mary had a pretty good idea what was going on in Paul’s mind, but this caught her off guard.  “That’s a big order.  Are you sure?”

“Yes!  God…told me to…write a book…to…inspire people.”

“So, you feel God is giving you a message, and you need me to write down the words for you…is that right?”

Paul turned his head toward her as his body arched to the extent his restraints would allow.  He squealed with delight.  “Y…yes!”  He expelled tension as he smiled.  “Can you…do that?”

“Of course!  What is the book about?”

“God…and…faith.”

She leaned over and kissed his forehead.  “That sounds good.  I know you have a lot to say.  Let’s talk more about this tomorrow.”

Paul relaxed, and she saw how exhausted he was.  “Good night,” she whispered as she moved the chair back to its proper place, and turned out the lights.  She thought back to the out-of-body experience Paul had shared with her after he nearly died from post-neurosurgical pneumonia seventeen years earlier.  That’s when he told her, “I saw Jesus! He said my parents need me here, and i still have things to do.”

When she raised her children, Mary had shared her faith with them.  She encouraged each one to listen for God’s call that would show them their own unique purpose in life.  Her two sons became ordained pastors and her daughter a nurse.  Now she sensed Paul was discovering a unique purpose that would authenticate his life.  Lord, she prayed silently, I know you have a special purpose for Paul.  Help us see clearly what it is.  She went to sleep wrapped in a sense of assurance.

The next day she and Paul established the ground rules.  Knowing how much energy this would take for him, they decided to dedicate an hour at a time to the project, whenever he felt up to it.  Formulating his thoughts and emotions into words, then waiting while they were transcribed, would take an immense effort from him.  She wasn’t sure he had the stamina to actually do this…it would be a long, drawn-out process.  He was determined, and a teacher at COHOPE offered to work with them, so they launched the project.

Writing the book stretched out for several years.  Finally, in 1979, the manuscript was complete.  It consisted of poetry and prose, all hand-lettered.  There was a photograph of Paul in the opening pages.  To save on cost, they formatted it for letter-sized paper, folded in half.  He dedicated it to his mother, and she wrote an introduction.  Once they had the copyright, a local printing company in Harrisonburg produced the book.

“One Day at a Time,”  was the title Paul gave his book.  It was about his journey, learning how to get through life in spite of severe disabilities.  He observed the activities, attitudes, and reactivity of able-bodied people around him, then plugged in his own perspective.  He had a formula:  take things in stride, one at a time, don’t get in a hurry, never stop trying, and trust God in everything.  At first reading his words might seem simplistic, but reading through again, with an ear tuned to his spirit, could unlock the hidden depth of his insights.

Paul came to experience a consciousness of God’s presence in everything.  He expressed it as “seeing” God and wrote a poem around this theme.  “I saw God when I woke up,” he wrote, and called the role of all the experiences where he felt Go’s presence.  He saw God in the sunrise, sunset, trees, water, birds, wind, terrain, weather…everywhere.  When he saw God, he discovered love at the root of everything.

Constant tension marked Paul’s world.  Opposing forces pulled against the center of his life, yet that’s where he found God’s healing touch.  When one part of his brain wouldn’t let him express feelings in a coherent flow of words, God’s Spirit would overcome the tension, communicating spiritually beneath the words.  The same was true when he wanted to raise his arm and his brain produced a contrary motions instead.  God put people in his midst who understood this and helped him resolve the conflicts his movements produced.

Some severely handicapped people faced these tensions by withdrawal.  Paul faced them with engagement.  His mother gave him that flexibility.  Someone would walk up to Mary in a public setting and say, “You should be ashamed of yourself, strapping that poor, helpless young man into that chair!”  She would reply, “If you knew him, you’d understand those straps are merciful.  They keep him from harming hisef, or others.”  Paul would say to her about such people, “If they only… understood…themselves, they…would understand me.”  He had great insight.

 Paul wrote about his faith in a piece titled, “My Testimony.”  He wrote, “The Lord touched me.  He filled me with the Holy Spirit.  He told me, ‘You are ready to do my work every day.  I will tell you what to do.  You tell others that I have filled you.'”

He told what happened to him at a Full Gospel Meeting.  “People were around me, and then the Lord was with me right in that room.  He held out His hand and talked to me.  Then He touched me, filling me with His love and the Holy Spirit.  And I thought I was drinking water.  After that, I felt like the Lord lifted me all the way out of my chair!  After He did all that, He took away my fear.  Then He took away His hand.”

Mary had mixed feelings when Paul left the Keezletown church to join an evangelical congregation in Harrisonburg, but she had raised her children to be independent.  She was thrilled as his faith and excitement grew through that fellowship.  Sometimes if felt to her as though he was simply on loan to her and COHOPE–that God would call him home, and the time would have gone by too swiftly.  Then she would pick up his book and let the title sink in, “One Day at a Time.”  She gave thanks, and treasured each day God gave her with this very special son.

Among Paul’s poems was one titled, “Autumn.”  He wrote, “I always love the Autumn wind in October.  It reminds me of when I was little.”  As the poem unfolds, he says:

“Autumn is here,

And I feel like singing a new song!

The wind is blowing the leaves

Off the trees.

And how lovely it is outside!

What is Autumn?

Autumn is many colors!

How does He do it?

By His love.

And the Lord turns the leaves gently

From glory

To glory,

Like us!”

It was on an autumn day, October 25, 1988, when Paul made a sudden announcement during lunch at COHOPE.  “I’m going…on a trip…alone,” he told his mother.  “You can’t…go with me…this time.”

Mary saw a glint of excitement in his eye.  Hmmm!  Something’s up.  Maybe he’s hatching a scheme to get someone to take him somewhere–maybe a pretty girl.

“So, where are you going?”

Paul didn’t respond.  Seeing a far-away look in his eyes, she decided to let it go–he’d tell her more when he was ready.  They finished lunch, and the day wet on with no more mention of a trip.  In fact, Paul didn’t speak of it again until five months later.

Early in 1989, Hugh T called Mary with a question.  “Mom, how long has it been since you were in Cincinnati?”

Mary thought back.  “Gosh, I’m not sure…I guess the last time, Hugh and I went together for some shindig when he was working for Samuels.  Why?”

“Well, I’ve been telling Sharon about my growing up there, and it occurs to me I haven’t been back in decades.  We’ve decided to take a few days the last week in February and drive out.  Now, hold your hat…we’d like for you to go along.  Interested?”

 It was something “out of the blue,” as the saying goes, for Mary.  “Well, that would be wonderful, but I have responsibilities here, and your dad can’t drive distances like that any more.”

“Oh, we’ll do the driving.  Just thought it would be a fun trip and give you a chance to go back again.  We’re leaving Monday, February 20th, and will be back by Saturday so I won’t have to get a substitute for Sunday.  How does that sound?”

“It sounds great!   Let me think about it and talk it over with Hugh.”

When she told Hugh about it, he said it was a good idea, and he’d be fine staying there to keep an eye on things,  She called Hugh T back and agreed to go.

In Cincinnati, they visited the old dairy farm property in Covedale, which was now a residential subdivision.  The Big House was still there, although altered somewhat in appearance.  So was the house Elmer and Merle had built, but the house where Mary was born was gone.

They visited Price Hill, Norwood, Blue Ash, Sharonville, and Clifton.  Many neighborhoods had changed, but they found most of the houses where she and Hugh had lived.  After a visit with her brother and his wife, they drove out to Springfield to visit her parents’ graves, and Highland County to the burial sites for Hubert’s parents.  As planned, they returned to Keezletown on Saturday.

Mary hadn’t realized how much she would miss Paul and the COHOPE family.  He was delighted to have her back.   Then he made an announcement with a familiar ring.  “I’m going…on a trip…soon.”

At first, she thought he was just being playful because she’d been away, and he wanted her attention.  Then she remembered five months earlier…back in October.  Somewhere in her spirit she heard an alert sounding.  Lord, what’s going on here?

A settled feeling came over her.  “That’s nice,” she said to Paul.  “You can tell me about it later.”

When Hugh T was getting ready to return to Richmond, Paul said to him, “I’ve got…a…secret.”

“A secret?  Can you give me any hints?”

“I’m going on…a…trip.”

“Where?”

“That’s the…secret.  You will…know…soon.”

After Hugh T and Sharon returned  to Richmond, Mary settled back into her routines.  Then on Sunday, Paul became ill.  He was worse by Monday, and they called the doctor.  He had viral pneumonia.  When it continued to worsen, Paul was put in the hospital.  Things did not look good.  By Thursday, he was place in the hospice unit.

“I’m very sorry,” the doctor told Mary.  “Paul just doesn’t have the strength to pull through this,  We are making him as comfortable as possible.  If there are family members who want to see him, they need to come soon.”

Mary sat with Paul Friday night.  They had elected to do no “heroic measures,’ and his tubes had been removed.  He was sleeping more peacefully than she had ever seen–no twitching nerves, unruly hands, or hard breathing.

Mary leaned back, closed her eyes, and released her emotions.  She sobbed a flood of tears.  Letting go of her son was so hard.  He’d been so much a part of her life for so long. Her comfort was that she knew he was ready, and God would now receive him through that tunnel of light where he had met Paul years earlier, then sent hi back to finish his task on earth.

During the day on Saturday, Paul was alert, relaxed, and speaking more clearly than he ever had before.  His siblings and many friends came and went.  Hugh relieved Mary for several hours, then she returned.  During the night Paul awoke briefly and talked to her.

“I love you, Mother.  Thanks for taking care of me.  Tell all my friends I love them.”

Then he was ready to sleep again.  He smiled.  She leaned over and kissed him.  “I love you, Paul.  God has many wonderful blessings waiting for you.”

He opened his eyes a few moments later.  “You will be all right, Mom,” he said, then closed them.

Sometime in the early hours of Sunday morning, he died.

And Mary was all right.

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

 

Achievements and Recognitions

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(Chapter 22, “Dairyman’s Daughter,” remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

The Cybertype machine was only one contribution that came through the link of Community of Hope with Madison College–which became James Madison University in 1977.  The school’s growing reputation for excellence in health services meant Community of Hope had access to cutting edge advances in speech therapy.  When two professors discovered a grant was available in the use of technology to teach people with speech problems, they thought of COHOPE.

Mary and Hugh were excited, but also curious.  They asked one of the professors, “Aren’t there always a lot of people competing for grants that can only go to a few?  How would we go about doing this…I mean, what makes you think COHOPE would have a chance?”

“Of course it’s a competitive process.  We wouldn’t downplay that, yet look what you’ve already built, basically from scratch–a program effectively serving some of the most severely speech impaired people we’ve seen.  We believe, if you focus on that, you can be very competitive.”

Mary pondered his words.  She was drawn to the idea.  “Okay, how would we go about this?  Is there a formula or something we need to follow?”

“Yes. there is a protocol, and we can help you with that.  Most of all, though, grants are awarded on the basis of uniqueness and merit.  Your program already stands out in those areas.”

After further discussion, they decided to give it a try.  Hugh worked hard at learning the “system,” as he called it, for presenting their cause.  They submitted their request and waited.  Finally, the word came–they had, indeed, won a grant.  Mary and Hugh were thrilled.

When the money arrived, they used it to sponsor a Communication Workshop at the Ingleside Resort in nearby Augusta County.  People attended from all around the state.  COHOPE staff members were among them, including two teachers who produced an outstanding project.  They published a book detailing a unique approach to handicapped education that became a resource in the JMU library.

Of special impact was a chapter about an innovation called the “Nine-to-Nine Board.”  This was a chart that could be adapted to the needs, interests, and background of individual students. Through a system of nine different eye movements, handicapped persons could use the chart to communicate.

One COHOPE resident named Melody, was severely handicapped, confined to a wheelchair, and had no speech at all.  Using the technology of the Nine-to-Nine Board, in tandem with a sensitivity fostered by Community of Hope’s faith-based philosophy, the staff tapped into Melody’s bright, active mind that was otherwise masked by her condition.  She learned to communicate her thoughts, needs and wants by casting nine different expressive eye movements.  As a result, she entered a new world of relationships that was thrilling to her…almost like a bird set free from a cage.  

Trough experiences like this, the dairyman’s daughter often realized how far her life had taken her down a path she could never have imagined in her childhood days of cherry tree musings on her grandpa’s farm.  Then there were other times when she learned things through unexpected interactions with her COHOPE family.

Such an experience occurred one day during lunch, which was the primary daily meal where residents, day students, and staff members gathered around the table.  Mary wasn’t always able to be there, but on this particular day she was.  Since Paul needed someone to feed him,   she took that responsibility to free someone else.  On this day she sat next to him, alternating between feeding him, and then herself.

Paul sometimes had difficulty chewing and swallowing, so his food was pureed.  Still, if he was given a second bite too quickly, he could choke.  Over the years Mary fell into a habit of coaching him by saying in a low voice, “Swallow, Paul.  Swallow,  Swallow,”

For some reason Paul suddenly rebelled against her method, as if he couldn’t listen to her coaching any longer  He reared up in his chair, actually standing on his footrests for a few seconds, pulled loose his arm straps and shoulder strap, then turned to his mother and shouted, “Swallow!  Swallow!  Swallow!”  Exhausted, but triumphant, he flopped back into his chair amidst an awkward silence as everyone stopped eating and fastened their gaze on Mary to see how she would react.

She felt equally shocked, but recovered quickly.  Calmly, she refastened all Paul’s straps, then continued eating her own lunch.  She completely ignored Paul for several minutes, then quietly resumed feeding him.  She offered spoonful after spoonful, and he ate as though nothing had happened.  Conversation resumed around the table as everyone got back to their own lunch.  Incident over.

Later that afternoon Mary passed Paul;s room, glanced inside and his eyes met hers.   His facial expression said he wanted her to come in and talk, so she did.

“I…am…ssorry…Mmmo-ther.”  He twisted his head, straining in his chair as he spoke  “I…am…sorry I…BLEW…UP!”  He exhaled deeply as the tension left his body, keeping eye contact.

Mary reached to him, looking into his eyes.  “You had every reason to blow up, Paul, and I’m glad you did.  Thanks for making me put myself in your place and realize what a mistake I’ve been making.”

Paul said nothing more, but his relief was comforting to Mary, as was the beautiful smile that accompanied it.

Life at COHOPE was like that!  It was sometimes full of surprises, always involved learning experiences, was frequently exhausting, and always fulfilling.  Mary would lie down at night, offering thanks to God for everything that was happening in her life.  She would pray for wisdom and strength to continue the journey she had begun the day she married the man of whom her father said, “You’ll never have a dull moment.”

He had been right.  What was also right, she realized, was that without Hugh’s unique talents and temperament, she could never have met the challenges her life had produced.   She gave thanks as she reminisced.

COHOPE truly was a community where hope resided, and became visible in peoples’ lives. Mary and Hugh were often invited to speak before church and civic groups, telling their story. From the beginning, this was natural for Hugh, the salesman who never seemed to meet a stranger.  It was much harder for Mary.  Early on she told him she didn’t think she could do it. His reply was characteristically to the point, couched in a touch of humor.

“Oh,” he said, “just act like you’re talking on the phone.  You never have any trouble with that!”

She smiled to herself remembering this.  His advice had been sound, and she had learned to just relax and be herself in any situation.

Sometimes Mary and Hugh’s efforts brought formal public recognition.  Every year the Exchange Club in Harrisonburg presented a “Golden Deeds” award to someone in the community.  One year Hugh was given that award in recognition of his devotion to the cause of helping where he saw a need.

Because of her work with COHOPE, Mary was invited to join the Pilot Club of Harrisonburg. This was an organization for women comparable to the Rotary Club.  The group took interest in their members for the kind of services they provided through charitable organizations. Mary remembered warmly the honor she felt when the club presented her with the Salvation Army’s “Others” award for her work at COHOPE.  She was the second person in Harrisonburg to be given this award.

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Mary cherished all of these experiences.  Her life became a treasure chest of accomplishments focused on others,  She felt blessed and deeply fulfilled

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

Can This be Patched?

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Nope!

It’s gone!

Nothing to do now but pick up the pieces.

In its day, this workboat plied the Chesapeake Bay with pride.  Its skipper took it out in all sorts of weather.  Sea gulls played in its wake.  Its crew dredged oyster beds.  The comradery of watermen sharing laughter, anger, anticipation, disappointment, triumph, and brotherhood echoed in its timbers.

One day, probably all too soon for its owners, the boat gave up its seafaring days. Propped up ashore to fade away with dignity, it is remembered by many.  Some will never see it again.  Few will know what it was like to walk its decks, man its equipment, or store fish in its hold.  It has made its contribution.

Life goes on!

This old boat that I photographed decades ago came to mind two weeks ago when I opened an email saying my publisher had suddenly gone out of business.  Tate Publishing and Enterprises is no more.

Gone!

Like the old boat, it can’t be patched up and refloated.  The watermark of its presence in the publishing and music world is left to fade into the background.  Hopefully, its authors and artists will not!

I have been a Tate author since 2013.  I signed on in 2012 when I had polished up a manuscript I had worked on over a twenty-year period.  In the confusing world of e-books, self-publishing, and predictions that print media was outdated, the editorial staff at Tate showed me how to lose 40,000 of my 122,000 words, ending up with my first novel, A Change of Heart.   

Since then Tate enabled me to develop my Dinkel Island Series, which includes book two, Return of Bliss, and book three, Secrets at Lighthouse Point.  When my wife, Sharon, and I had gone through the neurological sidetrack of Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH), Tate published the book we wrote together:  NPH Journey into Dementia and Out Again.   

So, what does Tate’s closing mean for us?  Is it the end of our books?  

We don’t know what’s next, but we’re not ready to have our writing propped up on shore to fade away.  Several publishing houses have contacted us.  I don’t know if the Dinkel Island Series will continue, or simply be allowed to live on as a trilogy.  Sharon and I both have other writing ventures underway.  One of my goals is to finish the biography of my mother’s life, Dairyman’s Daughter:  Story of One Woman’s Enduring Faith and Courage.  I also have another novel partially written.

Once we find a new publishing boat to board, we’ll be underway again.  Meanwhile, we have books available for sale.  Amazon has both paperback and kindle editions up on their site for all our books.  Barnes & Noble has them all up in Nook editions.  Soft cover books are still available at Book People in Richmond, and Buford Road Pharmacy in Bon Air.

Sharon and I are grateful to all the people who have bought our books.  We also extend our prayers for the Tate family, former employees, and our fellow Tate authors.  As we move on from here it’s good to remember that my books are about redemption and hope.

That’s our centerpiece!

 

Feeling Old

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It’s December 28th–three days left in the year!  The Christmas tree is still up.  The candles are still in the windows.  Even with the fireplace lit, there has been a bit of a chill in the air this season.

I miss Mom!

Except for two years when I was overseas in the Army, I’ve always spent some part of Christmas with Mom.  No matter where I lived, my family and I either went home, or she came to us.  When pastoral duties interfered with Christmas Day, I visited her for New Years.

The season has felt strangely silent this year.  I feel old.

I’ve known other times of loss, but Christmas didn’t feel this way on those occasions.  Dad died in 1999–on New Year’s Day.  We had watched him die slowly for years, receding into an Alzheimer’s world where we couldn’t go.  When he died I felt relief.  I didn’t feel old.

Of course, there have been other losses–my grandparents, my brother, Paul, and my sister, Merle.  There have also been aunts, uncles, cousins…and close friends.  Paul died of pneumonia in 1989.  Sis died from complications surrounding a diabetic seizure in 2002.  I didn’t feel old when they died.

Aging has been a mysterious journey for me.  I have looked into the mirror and found my father’s face staring back at me many times, but I never felt old.  I’ve been blessed with good health and energy.  I’ve explored my creativity through art and writing.  I’ve always seen the glass as “half-full.”  This year it seems to be “half-empty!”

Mom had an intrinsic vitality that captured and inspired others, including me.  She was a woman of enduring faith and courage.  She took challenges in stride as opportunities.  She suffered, but she also persevered, and you never felt that her suffering had defined her parameters.

She strode through life in deep companionship with her Lord.  When she made mistakes, she owned them.  No excuses.  No blaming.  When she stumbled, she picked herself up.  She always had time to connect with you, rejoice in your successes, and feel your pain.  I always wanted to be like her in those things.

In recent years when her resources were small, Mom found ways to give gifts that became her trademark at Christmas.  For me, it was always a small package of handkerchiefs.  For someone else it might be one of her “treasures” from a shelf, or perhaps a book.  She would hand me my handkerchiefs with a twinkle in her eye.  “I always know what a man needs,” she would say, then laugh.  What she really gave us were pieces of herself.

So here we are.  No great family gathering this year.  A few phone calls.  Mostly quiet remembering.  Before me the portal of a challenging year begins to swing open.  I look to God with gratitude for all he has given me, all he has taken, and all he has yet to reveal.  I thank him for Mom.

I miss her.  I miss calling to check in with her.  I miss occasional notes from her that would show up in the mailbox.  And yet…and yet I sense her presence still with us in the fiber of our daily lives.

And I feel old…as I should after seventy-nine Christmases past!  It’s about time!

Thank you, Lord, for each day you grant.  Help me to use each one well.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

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)