Christmas Past

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2015

Two years ago my wife and I drove up to the Shenandoah Valley for our annual Christmas visit with my mom, Mary Ellen Townsend Harris (When Love Prevails, Kindle books).  It was the last Christmas visit we would have with her.  Mom was 104 then, and an active member of the assisted living community where she resided.

One of the things we always did with her was to reminisce.  We would remember  relatives long deceased, and recollect various Christmas occasions.  One such was during WWII when my uncle Bud, mom’s youngest brother, came to visit on leave from his Army  assignment at the Pentagon.  He was my idol.  I asked him  what he was doing to beat the enemy.  I’ll never forget his reply.  He tousled my seven-year-old hair, laughed and said, “I’m squirtin’ ink at ’em every day.”  His job was writing training manuals, but that was good enough for me.

I especially remember post-war Christmases.  My paternal grandparents had a small farm about fifty miles east of Cincinnati where the whole Harris family would gather.  Those were occasions that still reverberate in my spirit.  There would be a large evergreen tree trimmed with electric lights, ornaments, shiny aluminum icicles, and garlands of all sorts.  Grandma would be in the kitchen wearing a jolly smile and her best apron, tending a turkey in the oven.  All sorts of mouth watering aromas drifted through the house, mingled with the pipe smoke my dad and his dad conjured up in the living room.

Dad would load all our gifts in the car before we left Christmas morning, so one of the first tasks was transferring them to join the array of things already under grandpa’s tree.  I was past the Santa Claus stage, but my siblings weren’t.  Much effort was spent assuring them that Santa knew we’d be there instead of at home, so there would be gifts for all.  There always were.

I don’t recall precisely when we opened gifts, but I suspect it was before dinner.  I do remember how exciting it was.  Somehow Santa always managed to leave a toy for me that was perceived as a little beyond me, so I would have to grow into it.  “You can look, but don’t touch,” dad would announce.  “Grandpa and I will have to figure out how that works later, then we’ll show you how to use it.”

Gift sharing would yield to gathering around the table for grandma’s feast, then she and mom would be in the kitchen cleaning up and sharing stories about us kids…and whatever else.  I can still hear grandma’s laugh–a sort of twinkling chuckle–echoing through the house.  Dad and grandpa would plunge into figuring out the exotic game that was ostensibly mine, then retire out back to grandpa’s shop beside the barn to play pinochle (no kids allowed), while the rest of us took naps.

Much of mom’s time was spent there, just as it was at home, looking after the needs of my brother, Paulie, who had cerebral palsy, and my sister, “Sissy,” whose physical activities were curtailed due to a heart murmur.  I was supposed to “look after her” if she needed anything, which usually led to fights between us due to a wall of independence she built around herself.

Finally the pinochle games would end, a light supper would be served, and as darkness fell we’d head for home, exhausted, each in our own way satisfied with the events of the day.

Looking back, I was aware that Christmas was about the birth of Christ.  Mom told us the stories, and we heard them in church.  We had a cardboard manger scene that we always erected somewhere in the living room.  I knew the story of the three wise men who brought gifts to the Christ child, but I’m not sure I ever connected those gifts with the excitement that consumed most of Christmas Day at grandma’s house.

 

 

 

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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Abiding Peace

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(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

After Hugh’s death, Mary felt like a ship adrift on a windless sea.  Having been through the long struggle with his neurological decline, she knew in her heart that his death was actually his healing–but that didn’t replace the empty feeling that gnawed at her spirit. During their long life-journey they had forged a spiritual bond so deep that it was unbreakable, even by death.  In Mary’s mind, Hugh was an indelible part of her own being, and he would remain so until she joined him in eternity.

That’s not to say she was shallow on grief.  Mary felt her loss with every breath she drew. Her response was to lift it all to God.  She found comfort and strength through inspirational readings, and thoughts she wrote in her journal each day.

Especially helpful was an exercise she had used just a year before Hugh’s death, when faced with his increased withdrawal into the Alzheimer’s world.  It was titled, “Count Your Blessings, Name Them One by One.”  In the still hours before she turned out the light at night, Mary would read again the list of “blessings” she had discovered.  She read aloud:

  • “I’m alive.
  • I have a good, safe place to live.’
  • I have enough food.
  • I have a caring family and good neighbors.”

She paused.  All of these things were still true, part of the glue holding her soul together. She read on:

  • “I had many happy, fulfilling years of marriage to Hugh.
  • I am able to physically care for myself.
  • I am able to help others.
  • I have nice furnishings, many of them Hugh or his father made, and it is comforting to have them about the apartment.
  • I have suitable clothing–and can still sew for myself and others.
  • I can read, and I enjoy a great variety of books. 
  • I can think positively, and try to remember to do it.
  • I have many good friends who care about me, and I them.
  • I have many acquaintances from long years ago.
  • I attend an active Bible-centered church and participate in the United Methodist Women.
  • I still enjoy God’s beautiful outdoors and still raise a few flowers.
  • I have no enemies of which I am aware.
  • I have the HOPE of eternal life.
  • I have sufficient income to live comfortably (if I am careful of my choices).
  • I have lived eighty-eight years and am in reasonably good health.”

 Mary paused again, taking a deep breath.  It’s so easy to lose sight of your blessings amidst your trials, she pondered.  It helps to remember!  A tear of sorrow mingled with spiritual joy made its way down her cheek.  She brushed it away, sniffled, and went back to reading:

  • “I had the love and companionship of a good, caring husband for almost 64 years.
  • I have had the privilege and joy of giving birth to four beautiful babies, loving them, raising them, and seeing three of them marry and start families of their own–and of caring for, and enjoying, Paul’s special personality and companionship for forty-five years.”

Mary opened the photo album she kept in her bedside drawer.  There was Hugh next to her, dressed in his light blue seersucker suit, wearing a smile that bespoke deep inner satisfaction.  She closed her eyes for a moment, skipping back to the fiftieth anniversary celebration where that was taken…and then turned more pages.  Pictures of Paul at various stages of his life…and her other children…and grandchildren.  She shuffled through them, embracing each page and the life it represented with a tender touch. Then she set the album aside and read on:

  •  I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren to love and pray for as they grow.
  • I am able to volunteer at the Bridgewater Home in the laundry, at the help desk, and at the Village Gift Shop.  For the past seven or eight years I’ve been volunteering my time and talent in quilting at the Bridgewater Nursing Home. I enjoy this activity and it gives me an opportunity to help raise money for needs of the Home, as quilts are auctioned at the Fall Festival each year–or when doing quilts for an individual, the money going for this cause.”

Setting the photos and papers aside, Mary shivered.  She reached for a quilt made up of rectangular pieces of cloth she had cut from Paul’s old pajamas and other garments that would have otherwise become rags.  She pulled it around herself, leaned back on the bed, and closed her eyes.  The years seemed to dissolve and she pictured herself with her Grandma Mary in the Big House, helping with housework, learning to sew and quilt.  Truly the greatest treasures are things of the soul, not possessions.  She meandered through snapshot memories of the times in her life when she’d found strength in her Lord, despite suffering, uncertainty, or fear.  It helped to live with a sense of blessings, rather than loss.  Settled in her spirit, she turned out the light and slumbered in peace.

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Mary could have moved after Hugh’s death, but she chose to stay in the apartment they had shared.  She enjoyed housekeeping and cooking.  Tending her African violets contributed a sense of normalcy to her routines.  She wrote letters to friends and family, and turned a portion of her bedroom into a sewing area where she laid out quilt designs. Outside she tended her marigolds and geraniums in the planting area between the front porch and sidewalk.   On pleasant evenings she sat out there, enjoyed the breeze, chatted with neighbors, and nurtured peace in her soul.

Writing became therapeutic as she picked up a project she had begun after Paul’s death in 1989.  Initially she saw it as a way to give her children and grandchildren a record of their heritage.  She titled it, “Remembering!”  Picking up where she’d left off, however, Mary soon realized she was doing more that writing a memoir–she was engaged in a healing process.

She penned, “In writing this, I am also realizing how good God has been to me to have seen me through thus far on my journey through life.  He has been a steady ‘rock’ to lean on in times of uncertainty and stress.”  She paraphrased a portion of Psalm 107, “Oh, that men would praise the Lord for His goodness and for His wonderful works to the children of men.”  She reflected how central this passage had been when facing her many challenges–especially in her efforts to give Paul a meaningful life in spite of his handicaps.

Sunday afternoons were the hardest part of the week.  She went to Sunday school and church in the morning, but the afternoons were often long and empty.  These had usually been joyful times of family togetherness.  Sometimes her children or grandchildren visited, kindling afresh the flame of familial warmth.  Mary knew she had to keep busy and focused beyond herself.

When an opportunity arose to volunteer at the North River Library, she plunged right in. She continued the volunteer work she’d begun with the local Alzheimer’s group back when Hugh had gone into the skill care unit of the Home.  This group had just gotten started, working in a building adjacent to the Muhlenberg Lutheran Church in Harrisonburg where she had once been the secretary.  This had given her access to books and articles that had helped her understand what Hugh was going through, and how she could avoid irritating him.  Continuing to help with this group now gave her a way to be present for others facing similar situations.

It seemed like God opened doors just when Mary needed them.  She got involved more intensely with the “Quilters” group at the Home.  This was an informal group where women came and went on their own time tables, helping each other piece and sew quilts that were auctioned off each September to support the work of the Bridgewater Home Auxiliary.

One morning each week Mary went over to the laundry where she folded towels and bibs.  She watered flowers throughout the nursing home for a year.  As she came to know more employees, she discovered more avenues for volunteer work.  She worked in the gift shop for several years.  Remembering that she chuckled to herself.  I worked there until I couldn’t always identify the difference between quarters and nickels!  It was an undeniable sign of aging and she took it in stride. When something didn’t work, she shifted gears.  Two mornings each week she worked at the lobby desk in the Maple Terrace building which was a primary gathering place for residents and guests, and the site of the cafeteria, coffee shop, and activity room, among other things.

Mary thrived through all these things, but her losses didn’t stop when Hugh died. On April 12, 2000, her daughter, Merle, died in the hospital in Winchester.  Merle had been a special source of strength to her mother, calling her every week, and taking an interest in her activities.

Mary had seen her daughter through the childhood years of heart murmur, and then the surgical healing of her heart.  She had rejoiced when Merle became a licensed nurse, dedicating her life to helping and healing others.  Along with that, Merle had raised three foster children as well as her own two kids.  She had been active in her church in Winchester where she earned the affectionate respect of many for her love of children, and her commitment to faith and service.

Merle had suffered with diabetes for years, and her death came when she experienced a seizure and fell, striking her head on the floor.  Her death was a harsh blow for Mary, but she had learned to walk with God’s Spirit through the dark valleys life sometimes involved.  At the time of Merle’s death, Mary had just finished her “Remembering!” manuscript, and was getting copies printed and bound for distribution to the family.  She had shared the journey of writing with Merle and had anticipated giving her a copy.   Sadly, that would never happen.

Almost on the heels of Merle’s death came the loss of Mary’s dear friend, Peggy.  She and Peggy had “been there” for each other supportively through thick and thin over the year since Hugh’s death.  It was another deep loss.

But loss was never the bottom line for Mary.  She always turned to her Lord, and found the joy of God’s Spirit that gave her enduring strength, and abiding peace. She knew peace not as an absence of pain or suffering, but as an inner spiritual presence that enabled her to thrive amidst circumstances which could have destroyed her.  Looking back, the Dairyman’s Daughter knew she had first encountered this peace at her daddy’s side in the old Quaker meeting house, and from her grandma on the farm.  Through her faith in God, she’d been able to keep it alive.

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

 

 

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)

 

The Big Five-0

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(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

Mary sat on a couch in front of the fireplace in the COHOPE dayroom, a quilt wrapped around her shoulders.  Hymns emanating from a local radio station anchored the atmosphere with a calm sense of security.   It was Monday, Januay 21, 1985.

Outside the weather was bitter.  The coldest air mass in 86 years had the entire eastern third of the country in its grip.  Heeding weather forecasts, Hugh had spent the weekend making sure the water pipes under the building were protected, and the heating system working properly.  He had brought in extra firewood.  Mary and the cooks had made sure the pantry was stocked.  There was no storm associated with this air mass, just bitter, cold temperatures.

They had not picked up the day students because of the weather.  To conserve heat, they closed off the classrooms and everyone gathered in the dayroom.  The morning became a cozy time games, songs, stories, and “family” bonding.  After lunch, the students returned to their rooms for a rest period.  Some staff members left early.  Mary found it an ideal time for reminiscing.

Putting dfor own her Bible and journaling notebook, she leaned back and closed her eyes.  On days like this it seems like spring will never come.  She thought back to her childhood days on the dairy farm, and the warmth of the wood-burning stove in the kitchen of the old house, whose soul was rooted in the log cabin that had spawned it.

Mary’s thoughts turned to hers and Hugh’s fiftieth wedding anniversary coming up in May.  She remembered the vows they had wrapped around their lives standing before an elderly minister in her parents’ living room.  “I, Hugh, take you, Mary…I, Mary, take you, Hugh…for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…until death….”

She wished she could whip out an album of wedding photos to remember everything, but there was none.  Why didn’t we think to have someone take pictures of the wedding? Dad Harris had a 16mm camera he loved to use…it doesn’t make sense.  I guess we were just in a hurry to get our lives going!

She thought about the journey she and Hugh had shared across these years.  We’ve had our share of both the better and the worse, she thought.  In the beginning, their resources were scarce, yet they felt like they owned the world.  Now we have so much to be thankful for…this place and the mission God has called us to fulfill.  Paying the bills had become stressful at times as they awaited influx of support.  It was humbling.  Thank you, Lord, for keeping us going!

Mary opened her eyes, got up and added a log to the fire, then fell back into her thoughts.  She felt especially thankful for the good health she and Hugh had experienced for five decades.  There had been a few glitches, to be sure.  She recalled the time Hugh had left early for a sales trip to North Carolina.  Suddenly he felt a pain so severe he had to stop the car.  It wouldn’t let up, so he turned around and drove back to Harrisonburg where he went directly to the emergency room at Rockingham Memorial Hospital.

She remembered the phone awakening her.  Picking up the receiver, she struggled to say something coherent.  The caller sounded urgent.

“Mary, this is Dr. Hearn.  I called to tell you Hubert is sick.  He has a kidney stone.”

She was awake now.  “Oh!  Well, does he know it?”

“Of course.  He’s lying here in a lot of pain.  Hurry up and get in here.”

Dr. Hearn,a friend as well as their doctor, was a supporter of COHOPE.  He performed surgery, and Hugh spent a couple of days in the hospital recuperating.  In recent years he’d developed some back trouble and had begun sleeping in a recliner chair instead of a bed.  There was no recliner in the room, and none available in the hospital.  True to form, he solved the problem…by having his own recliner brought in from home.

That’s Hugh!  No obstacle is too great…he always finds a solution.

Her mind drifted to her own hospitalization when Dr. Hearn sent her to the emergency room with dehydration.  It was about eleven o’clock at night, and they assigned her to a room that had been occupied by an unruly, intoxicated man.  He had kicked out the window before they subdued him, and removed him to another section of the hospital. Maintenance replaced the window temporarily with a sheet of cardboard taped to the frame, but it let in cold air.  Mary remembered receiving IV’s while huddled under blankets, trying to keep warm.  She shivered at the thought.  I think that’s the coldest I’ve ever been.

There had been some other hospital stays under much better conditions.  The causes included a hemorrhoidectomy, hysterectomy, and a abdominal tumor they thought was cancerous.  Surgery proved it was benign, but she spend several inpatient weeks while they searched for blood with platelets to match hers.  It was an ordeal!  She signed. Nothing, though, compared to what I’ve seen others experience.  Mary was stirred from her reverie by the sounds of people stirring about.  Rest time was over.

Such was one brief day in the midst of winter that soon morphed into spring.  In the background of that wintry day were preparations her family was making to create a special celebration for their mother and dad.  The anniversary would fall on a Sunday, so they planned a three-part celebration.

Finally May 5th rolled around.  The celebration began at Keezletown United Methodist Church.  All four of their family was there, including grandchildren.  Congregation members overflowed with joyful greetings.  They were in the sanctuary of the new church built some years earlier, after the merger of the two churches Mary had noticed the night she arrived in town.  The service was structured around the theme of marriage.

A retired pastor, and close friend of the Harrises, Reverend Frank Baker, was the guest speaker.   As he concluded his sermon he said, “Mary and Hugh have asked to renew their wedding vows this morning.  If there are other couples who would like to join them, please come to the altar rail.”

Many couples responded.  Mary and Hugh faced each other, joined hands, engaged each other’s eyes, then repeated the vows.  A warm flood of emotion surged through Mary’s body, finally moistening her eyes with tears of joy.  “I love you,” she whispered to Hugh.   Her words were caressed by the same from him.  All of the challenges, hardships, joys, and fulfillment they had known together were baptized afresh with God’s grace.

After the service, Mary and Hugh, along with their families and a few friends, drove into Harrisonburg where a special meal had been arranged at the Sheraton Hotel.  Following dinner, their four children presented them with a check for $10,588 they had raised to honor their parents.  It was made out to Community of Hope, Inc. to support the project in which their parents had invested so much of themselves.

Later that afternoon, a third piece of the celebration took place with a reception back at the church.  Friends joined family once again to express joy, appreciation, and encouragement.

At the close of the day, Mary and Hugh gave thanks to God for the sensitivity of their family and friends.  They dedicated the check to daily operating needs at COHOPE.  It was a time when financial needs pressed them every day.  Many factors contributed to this.

For one, they had been in operation for fifteen years, during which time laws had been passed to mainstream care for the handicapped in schools, and public accommodations.  Community awareness had progressed to the points where handicapped persons were no longer looked upon as strange, embarrassing, or frightening.  The dairyman’s daughter and her husband had been part of making that happen.

New terminology had emerged.  Their clients were no longer “handicapped, but “developmentally disabled.”–a more inclusive category.  The term effectively communicated who they were.  It also spawned changes in how the community perceived their purpose.  COHOPE was still held in high regard, perhaps higher than ever, but now they had more competition for financial support as new organizations with somewhat similar goals came into being.

To meet the urgent need for support, Hugh made fundraising a daily activity.  Retired now, he frequently drove around the community seeking contributions.  He went to community and church leaders, and often door-to-door.  When his parents died, he received an inheritance which he dedicated solely to Community of Hope.

From this perspective, the “Big Five-0” gift was a high moment for Mary and Hugh–just as renewing their commitment to each other at the altar was a high moment undergirding their life together, and their enduring faith and trust in God.

(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!

 

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!

 

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.