Like Making a Quilt

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Mom was a quilter.  In my book about her life (When Love Prevails, Kindle Store) I recall her experiences with her Grandma Mary when she was a girl.  Quilting was one of the things she learned from her, and mom became known for her quilts later in her life.

Whenever my wife, Sharon, and I would visit her at the Bridgewater Retirement Community, mom would always show us the latest quilt she was creating.  Many of her quilts were auctioned at the annual Fall Festival to raise auxiliary funds.  She practiced this craft even after she lost much of her vision through macular degeneration.  Her fingers, and her memory became substitutes for her eyes.

One thing I learned about her was that she really was an artist with her quilting.  Gathering odds and ends of fabric, varieties of colors, sometimes containing images or designs, she would piece together a quilt that told a story.  Some of the story might be things or people  each piece of cloth brought to her mind.  My brother and I are both visual artists, and we got it honestly–our talent comes from the same genetic well that resourced mom’s quilting.

In recent years I have turned to writing as a primary artistic venture.  Crafting a novel is much like crafting a quilt, or a painting.  Novels are made up of bits and pieces of life that flow from people, circumstances, places and experiences over the years.  When I embarked on my fourth novel (a work in progress at the moment), my muse presented me with a story that turns around a mountain community instead of the seacoast.  “Dinkel Island Smalltalk” didn’t seem inclusive enough now, so I expanded my WordPress blog site into a new domain:  Wordquilts.com.

Writing a book, whether a novel or nonfiction, is like making a quilt.  I’m in the early stages of the new novel now, but I have a theme, and a design, and lots of pieces of life to work with.  I even have a current social issue around which to wrap my story.  The title may change as the wordquilt comes together, but for now it’s titled, “Fear No Evil.”

I’m excited!  Can’t wait to see how this wordquilt comes out!

 

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)

 

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!