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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The War Years

Hughs Wordquilts

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(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

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

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

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

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Never a Dull Day!

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House on Berwyn Place, Downstairs Apartment

(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

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

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

Nothing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life was Good!

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Mary Ellen with brother Bud at a family picnic.

(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris 1911-2016)

For a while after she quit school Mary Ellen felt relieved, unstressed, and happy.  Sleeping late was a luxury she felt she could get quite used to.  Her mother had other ideas.  She tolerated a few weeks of “Met,” as she called her when she was mad or being sarcastic, lazing around, shopping, and running off to Columbus with Artie.

Merle wasn’t sure about this young man.  He was a good student, had a lot of promise, but he was a socialite.  Mary Ellen and Artie grew closer and by summer she was wearing his engagement ring.  He still had another year until he would graduate from college, and then he had to get a job.  He believed that would be no problem.  Merle Townsend wasn’t so sure.

One morning in June when Mary Ellen came down to breakfast her mother announced, “Met, I’m leaving in a few minutes for my Eastern Star meeting and I want you to come with me.  You’re eighteen now.  It’s time you got involved in some worthwhile activities.”

Boom!  Just like that!  Her mother had been through all the Eastern Star chairs and had said many times that she wanted Mary Ellen to join when she was old enough.  It wasn’t that she was disinterested, it just wasn’t something she wanted to do right then. She knew better than to get into an argument over it, so she went.  In high school she’d belonged to a sorority.  The Eastern Star felt a little like that, but it was focused on biblical teachings, and had a lot of very rigid rules and practices.

Joining the Eastern Star opened a door her mother used to get her into more organizations and activities.  Mary Ellen decided enough was enough.  One Saturday morning when she and her dad were in the kitchen by themselves she decided to have a talk with him.  Elmer Townsend was a wise and patient man.  Though he and the family were now attending the Methodist Church, his Quaker roots of quiet contemplation were still present.  He had not been happy with her decision to quit school, but had not pressed her about it.

For her part, Mary Ellen had done some research.  She had checked into the Littleford Nelson Business School’s offerings and decided she wanted to go there.  It was expensive and she had to ask her dad for the money.

“Daddy, I think it’s time for me to have a job…some way to support myself if I should need to.  I can’t go on living here forever, and it will be awhile before Artie and I can get married.”

He looked at her with his characteristic expression, one eyebrow raised higher than the other.  “You know jobs are hard to find these days.  You didn’t finish high school….”

She knew even a high school diploma was no guarantee of a job.  At Western Hills she had made Home Economics her course of study.  She had learned skills in cooking and sewing that she knew would serve her well throughout her life, but a job in those areas?  Probably not easy to find.  The country was in the Great Depression.  She’d been in the classroom when news of the stock market crash devastated everyone.  Her teacher had invested in stocks for retirement and lost everything.  The school had been closed down for the day.

Elmer looked intensely at his daughter.  “Mary Ellen, I understand what you’re saying, and I’m impressed that you’ve looked into this.”  She had told him the cost.  “I could afford to send you there, but how do I know you’ll stay?  What if your young man wants you to be with him when you need to be in class…what will you do?”

“He won’t do that.  Artie knows I need to take care of myself until we can get married.  And what if something happened to him later?  I’d need some skills to fall back on.  I don’t have my head in the sand about this.”

The discussion went on and finally her dad softened his concerns.  “Okay, I’m going to trust you.  I believe you really do want this and that you’ll stick with it no matter what.  Is that a promise?”

‘Yes, I promise,” she said, hugging him.  “Thanks, Daddy.  I’ll make sure you won’t ever regret this.”

At Littleford Nelson secretarial students had to choose between learning shorthand, or stenography, which was a code system using a special machine that was faster than shorthand.  Mary Ellen chose stenography and did well with it.  She felt deep satisfaction and pride when she had completed everything and was ready for a job.

Her joy was tempered, however, by a change in her relationship with Artie.  That’s when he developed a new romance at college and broke off the engagement.  Her spirit was torn between the joy of achievement and the pain of a broken heart.

Her dad offered her a job at the dairy.  She accepted it, suspecting that he did it to keep an eye on her.  Every day she checked out the newspaper classified ads.  One day a secretarial position was offered with a coal company in Bluefield, West Virginia.  She read the ad.  “Must be willing to travel.”  Oh!  This is perfect.  I’ve always wantd to travel.

 It was a dream job that she knew was meant for her!  She went for an interview but felt intimidated when she found a room full of people filling out applications.  Still, she filled out hers, was interviewed, and then left to keep an appointment to have her hair done.

When she got home her mom said, “Did you apply for a job today?  Someone has been calling you–they want you to go back to the hotel this evening for another interview.  Oh, they said to bring your machine with you.”

Mary Ellen was elated.  She went back and got the job with the Virginia Smokeless Coal Company.  The position was as secretary to the manager of a branch they were opening in Cincinnati.  Travel arrangements were made for her to go by train to Bluefield where she would work in the home office for about six weeks.  When the train pulled in she was met by the the vice president, Dr. Houston St. Clair.  He took her to his home for breakfast and then to a room with a private bath he had rented for her.

 A lasting memory of that arrival in Bluefield would always be Dr. St. Clair’s small son who gave her a big hug and then announced, “My, you smell pretty!”

Her landlady, Mrs. Stringfellow, was a single parent with a little girl, and her mother also lived with her.  To supplement her income she had a small home business making cakes, candy and pastries.  They made Mary Ellen feel right at home by designating her the “official taster.”

“The air here is a little different than Cincinnati,” Dr. St. Clair told her.  “Take a few days to get adjusted before you come to work.  You’ll probably want to sleep a lot at first.”  He was right.

When she did report for work, Mary Ellen found the office staff cordial and welcoming.  Dr. St. Clair’s father was the president of the company.  One day he called her into his office to take dictation for some letters.  While transcribing her notes she was startled to read the words, “chicken ridge.”  Chicken ridge?  I must have made a horrible mistake.  If I type this I’ll be fired.   Her training kicked in, however, and she typed the letter exactly as she had transcribed it.  She took the typed letters in to President St. Clair with great apprehension. He read each one carefully, then signed all of them.  “Be sure to get these in the mail today.”  He handed them back to her.

The next day she asked Dr. St. Clair what “chicken ridge” meant.

“Oh, that,” he said, breaking into laughter.  “So he tried that little trick on you!”

It seemed that Dr. St. Clair’s father was dubious about stenography and the fact his son had hired such a young, inexperienced girl.  She continued to learn about the coal businss and about people, and how to get along with them working in a large office.

The coal mines were located in Jewel Ridge, Virginia.  The coal was called Jewel Pocahontas.  They gave Mary Ellen a tour of the mines, and showed her how coal was separated into different sizes.  She learned about gondolas, freight cars, tippies, and how coal was shipped to various parts of the country.

At the end of her training she returned to Cincinnati where she went to work for the branch manager, Mr. Victor Gillespie.  The office was located downtown in the Mercantile Library Building on Walnut Street.  Mr. Gillespie was out of the office almost three weeks every month.  Her job was to be there, answer the phone, write letters, and be ready to really work hard when he returned.

Mary Ellen soon found this gave her a lot of spare time.  She would sometimes cut out and baste a dress or a blouse.  She had time to do a lot of reading.  And there were always salesmen coming by to give her a diversion and conversation.

Life was good!

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

A Cozy Timelessness

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

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

“I’m coming!”

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

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

“I’m sorry.  I forgot.”

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

“No, Ma’am.”  Mary got to work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I didn’t!”

He grabbed for it.

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

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

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

“I like it,” said Mary.

Helen made a face at her.

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

That resolved the soup issue.

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

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

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

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

An Unstained Spirit

DSCF6857Years ago my mother gave us a spray bottle containing a formula that has proven stronger than many a stubborn carpet stain.  At the time we had light grey carpeting throughout our house.  No commercial stain remover (short of steam cleaning) came close to hers in maintaining that carpet.

I have thought about that during this holiday season.  Christmas is a stain remover!  It’s a time when we can dare to lift our spirits toward the highest and best, rather than being submerged in fear and despair.

There are so many things happening every day–big things that affect communities and nations–and small things that are private, seemingly invisible.  It’s easy to become stained by fear. Faith frees; fear stifles!  The problem is, you can’t have both at the same time.

Christmas tells us that what really matters is being connected to God’s love, because it overpowers fear.  It defines us as unique and special–each one of us.  Much of life revolves around either finding this uniqueness and being empowered by it, or being stained by fear that thrives in the darkness of a stained spirit.

Recently I came across some of my old grade school records. Among them was a report card that triggered emotions I had long ago laid to rest.  I picked up my pen and began to recall the occasion–and how it felt.

A STAINED SPIRIT

Forebodingly my spirit spirit sank with each step as

I plodded ten long blocks home from school.

Duty-bound, I carried a note containing a

future-stifling proclamation:  I had failed!

Failed to measure up.

Failed to earn my way to grade three.

Feet dragging.

Spirit sagging.

It wasn’t fair, I told myself.  It wasn’t right.

All because we’d moved to Clifton’s gas-light

heights.  If only I could have stayed with

the simplicity of the Blue Ash country school.

Now that was gone.

What kind of place was this?

What kind of people these?

What would become of me?

In a world too big for me to comprehend,

a war had just ended.

In my inner world, one had just begun.

What could the future hold for one

so tainted?  My fears were stoked by the

teacher’s note.  “I do wonder,” she wrote,

“whatever will become of Hugh?”

It took years for me to live past that soul-staining sense of failure and unworthiness.  Only God could remove that, and he did!

We all go through soul-staining experiences.  It goes with the territory of human life.  Yet like my mother’s stain remover applied to carpets, God’s love applied to life can lift us out from the most stubborn stains.  It can set us free to try it again, and just maybe, we’ll succeed this time.

God love you, and if you let him, he will give you an unstained spirit.  Trust him!