Monday, May 3, 2021

Working Through a Complicated Grief: Sympathy Cards and Papermaking


99..100..101. I counted each sympathy card in the pile on the floor of my small home office, some opened, some still sealed. I received these cards from kind and thoughtful people after the passing of each of my parents four days apart in mid-January 2013.  When the cards first started to arrive, I opened each one, freezing each time the card said something about happy memories or beloved father and mother.  No one who wrote the cards was aware of the strained relationship I had with my parents.

With their passing I was plunged into emotional turmoil, merely going through the motions of everyday life for many months. Kind remarks from people at their services and on cards made me confused, angry, and eventually numb. I wanted to grab these friends by the shoulders and tell them the truth. My parents, who were deeply admired by many and were mentors to countless teenagers and college students, had deprived me of love and care and hurt me, making me feel invisible and unsafe in my own home.


I had no voice to tell the truth. I stood numbly shaking people’s hands and receiving hugs.


Verses on many sympathy cards imply loving relationships. I quit opening the cards toward the end of January because I couldn’t tolerate the words. Reading a card with a loving sentiment was like hammering a nail into the middle of my heart.


Not knowing how to process what happened, I  googled “How to Grieve Abusive Parents,” and found nothing helpful on the internet. I met with a friend at the church I attend who was often consulted on grief. He listened attentively to my story, only to say, “Your grief is complicated.”


The counselor I was seeing at the time did not know how to help me. I realize grief has to be expressed with words and emotions out in the open  in order to have something to work with in a professional setting. But I was like a frozen statue. I was looking for a special set of steps, unique to my situation, that I could walk through to find relief.


At any funeral home visitations I had ever attended, anyone I knew who had lost a mother or father was sad, crying, clinging to items the parent had owned, putting together scrapbooks of family photographs and recalling pleasant, happy moments together. I wanted nothing to do with any of my parents’ material items. I felt I had nothing positive to remember. My brother who describes his childhood as happy and loving willingly packed boxes from their apartment to take home with him.


By early June, six months after their passing, I found strength to open all of the sympathy cards. I finally realized the cards were not about my parents, but for me. The love expressed in handwritten notes was sincere and meant to bring comfort to a grieving daughter. Being able to receive love from well-meaning people who sent cards was a large hurdle for me to overcome along this unusual path of grief.





Interacting with the cards in creative ways helped me find peace. The people who sent the cards to express their sympathy had no idea they were providing me with material to work through the complicated grief I was experiencing.


First, my writing coach at the time introduced me to the concept of “found poems.” A found poem is created by taking words, phrases or sentences from books, magazines or other sources and putting them together in lines.  I used my exacto knife and cut out phrases from the cards to which I could relate such as, “Jesus holds your hand,” or “God brings comfort.” I made several found poems using phrases taken from the cards. 


Here is one:


“Someone will keep your troubled heart,

Holding it close, with peace coming, during a difficult time.

Words are inadequate to express concern and sympathy

When deepest comfort is needed for the heart.

Jesus reminds us, “I give you my peace. Let not your heart be troubled.”



Next, I wrote thank you notes to the people who sent cards. I looked at illustrations on the front of the card, noting colors and designs. Opening the card, I read the verse or personal note and again looked for colors and objects. My thank you notes often made reference to the colors on the card and how a particular color affected me. For example, I wrote to one individual,  “The blue border on your card brought me peace. I think of peace when I see the color blue.”


Occasionally, I made a comment on my relationship to the sender. “I remember the fun we had with your family going to the swimming pool when I was in seventh grade,” I wrote to my parent’s close friends in the neighborhood where I lived from sixth grade through college.


I wrote twenty letters, but didn’t send them. I wasn’t sure about the appropriateness of sending a thank you note for a sympathy card. I concluded that the exercise was merely for me, a way to loosen feelings buried deep within, unexpressed feelings toward my parents who were now gone and couldn’t hurt me or anyone else anymore.


Over a year later, in April 2014, during my private art lesson, I mentioned the struggle I was having dealing with my parent’s passing, especially not having language to process my inner turmoil. I had no words, except the found poems I wrote from the sympathy cards, and those words weren’t fully mine.


My teacher, a kind and compassionate Seventh Day Adventist, asked, “Have you ever made paper?” 


“No,” I replied, but I trusted this young woman’s ideas and listened while she explained the simple, but time consuming task of making paper. 


Then she gently suggested, “Maybe when you are ready, you can tear the cards into small pieces and I can show you how to make paper from them.” 


I went home and looked at the cards still resting on the floor of my office. Some of the cards were intact, others sliced open by my exacto tool for found poems.  


I gathered a few cards, sat on the floor and started tearing. My mind recalled the day when my brother called Friday morning, January 11, telling me my father died during the night from aspiration pneumonia. He had been hospitalized in early December, and by Christmas he joined my mother at the Columbus, Ohio nursing home where she had lived for two years.


My husband, Mike, and I left for Columbus on Monday afternoon. Wanting to minimize contact with my father even in death, I chose not to attend the visitation at the funeral home Monday evening. I didn’t know what to expect at a funeral for someone I didn’t like. I was so confused thinking I should be sad. Friends whose fathers died were sad. I didn’t know how I felt.


The service was the next morning at the Greek Orthodox Church. On the way to the church, Mike and I decided to stop by the nursing home where my mother was receiving extended care. When we got to the facility, I asked for a chaplain at the front desk. I needed spiritual support for what I was about to face.


Walking down the wide halls and around a few corners, I reviewed the nature of the relationship I shared with my parents. My childhood and adolescence were not happy. Trying to sort out the various emotions surfacing left me feeling numb and confused.


We last visited my mother in July when we had hoped to take her on a walk outside in her wheelchair. Unfortunately, long-standing dementia had made her unresponsive and we left disappointed.


As we entered her room before the funeral, she was thrashing from side to side in bed, very agitated. The nurse standing nearby said she would get medication to calm my mother.


The chaplain arrived and introduced himself.  I sat next to my ninety-year-old mother’s bed. Her eyes were closed tightly. I put my hand on her shoulder, and spoke into her left ear, knowing hearing is the last sense to leave a dying person.  I asked God for words to say to a woman who had not known how to show love to me and failed to protect me from harm.


I quietly talked to her, telling her it was ok to go, to be with her mother, her two sisters, brother,  father, and husband. I tried to get into my mother’s grieving seven-year-old-heart from the loss of her mother to diphtheria, articulating what she never was able to put into words. Her grief had morphed and expressed itself in her actions as an abusive, controlling mother. I told her she would be able to see her mother and spend eternity with her. Her mother would give her as many hugs as she wanted, something she missed growing up. She and her mother would live together side by side forever.


When the nurse returned prepared to give my mother a shot, I told her to wait. During the time I spent talking, my mother’s body became calm and relaxed. God gave me the strength to show care to my mother during what would be the final hours of her life. 




I asked the chaplain to say a prayer before we left for my father’s funeral. When Mike and I walked out the door of my mother’s room, the chaplain, having seen how I had interacted with my mother, said,” You must have come from a loving family.” I wanted to tell him the truth, but I had no energy. We had to get to the church, and my mother’s nursing home room was not the place to explain my life story.


Reflecting on his words as we got to our car, I realized how they had made my sadness worse. I felt he should have been more hesitant   to make a quick assessment on the nature of a person’s relationship with a parent based on an end-of-life observation. I felt he should have kept his impressions to himself so I could grieve without more complications. But, as I reflected, I thought back on how quickly I had sometimes made mental assessments about people as I observed their interaction with siblings, parents, family members, and friends in various circumstances. Being married to a pastor had brought many opportunities for me to be around others  in times of trial, perhaps more than the average person. I made a mental note to apply caution and restraint in the future, not to be hasty in my thoughts, never assuming family dynamics, and most importantly to keep my observations to myself.


Following my father’s funeral, a steady stream of people came to tell me how much he was loved by students and colleagues where he taught at a Big Ten School. When I could bear no more, I told Mike it was time to leave. On the way home, we stopped to give my mother the flag from my father’s casket, typically given to the surviving widow. She was as calm as when we left, her eyes closed tightly.  I tucked the triangularly-folded flag under her stiff arm and described the military ceremony a few hours ago, kissed her forehead, and forced out the words, “I love you.”


About two hours into our trip home, my brother called to say my mother had died. 


When we got home, Mike went to the church for a few hours to work. We took care of some business on Wednesday and headed back to Columbus on Thursday. Two deaths and two funerals in four days. I was exhausted emotionally and physically.


Sitting on the floor with a growing pile of tiny paper pieces on one side and a few last cards in front of me, I didn’t realize how quickly the cards took me back to those horrible seven days in mid-January. I didn’t feel as overwhelmed or angry as I did during the weeks following their funerals. Although I didn’t feel peace, maybe I was making progress going through the uncharted territory of complicated grief, by interacting with the cards.


When I walked up the steps of my art teacher’s quaint house, holding my shoebox of torn sympathy cards,  I was curious about our project. The artist greeted me at the door with a smile. “Are you ready to make paper?”


I stepped into the living room and saw three tables, one for each stage. The first table had a large tub of warm water. “Dump the torn pieces into the tub. The paper has to soak and get soggy.”


I stood next to the tub watching the paper gradually absorb the water. At the same time, I felt God softening my heart, a feeling I had not experienced for many months. I was like the paper, beginning a transformation.


Next, we dipped a sheet mold (window screen nailed to a wooden frame) into the tub of warm water, filling the mold with soaked paper.  Finally, we used a rolling pin over the pieces, squeezing out as much water as we could. The pieces gradually blended into one sheet of new paper.  We flipped the new paper from the screen to the third table covered with plastic to dry.

 I made four sheets of paper. “When you come back next week you can take the paper home,” my art teacher explained.


As we were cleaning up, I noticed pieces of the sympathy cards still floating in the tub of warm water.


“Can I take these leftover pieces home?” I asked my teacher, not wanting to leave any part of the cards behind. I had become quite attached to the cards. The companionship they had provided  for over a year made them seem like a friend, walking beside me, holding me up as I stumbled along the endless days of confusion, anger, and unknowing.


“Sure. Maybe you can figure out a way to use them.”


I put the tiny, wet paper scraps on a cookie sheet that my art teacher loaned me. When I got home, I spread the pieces over the counter of the spare bathroom. After a week,  I gathered  the wrinkled, dried remains, arranging them on the floor of my office. 


I trusted God to lead me to further exploration with the fragments in front of me. I spent time with the pieces each night, sifting them through my fingers, noting the ones with legible writing and signatures. I sorted them by color, and size. One night, I threaded a needle with white thread, and sewed the pieces together, making an X, a strong, basic embroidery stitch I remembered from long ago.


Each night I sewed more of the tiny pieces of paper.  God guided the direction of the pattern. When I started, I never knew what would happen, how I would sew the pieces or what shape they would take. I worked on the pieces for about three weeks, and had a strong sense when it was time to stop. I looked at what I had made – something done completely with God’s guidance – a paper quilt.


Sewing the pieces each day, moving the needle in and out of the dried, curled paper, slowly  brought a sense of calm to my heart, reminding me how I felt God’s presence when I quilted. When I finished and looked at the rectangular shape, my heart finally experienced peace. The turmoil was gone, my body relaxed. I was in awe of God’s goodness and use of these cards and this craft to help me when no one else was able to reach the place of my deep wounding.


The sympathy cards were transformed in many ways from the time they arrived at my home. Although I wasn’t aware at first, I was being transformed too. After initially feeling resistant to the cards, the colors had ministered to me. Then I ignored the words that weren’t helpful and cut out the ones that were helpful to make my own found poems. I had torn what remained into pieces and soaked them in water to make fresh paper. Then, I had sewn together most of the pieces that remained intact. About twenty small pieces remained after I finished making the paper quilt.  I wanted to honor the remaining pieces so I buried them in the woods behind my house. They returned to the earth.


When my art teacher suggested making paper from the sympathy cards, I had no idea what would happen in the process. But transforming these well-intentioned words of love and kindness into something new brought me to a place of comfort and peace.


Monday, April 5, 2021

Out of Sorts - The Human Condition


His mask hid the expression on his face, but I could see his tired eyes as he took my order. The skin bowled underneath, the lids half-way covering his eyes. His arm made jerking movements as he scooped over the toppings I requested for my salad. He moved quickly as if he had something else to do. 

While I waited for the salmon to cook, I put my credit card on the register. In a few minutes, he topped the overflowing bowl of lettuce, strawberries, olives, and avocado with a tenderly cooked piece of fish. 


“Oh, that salmon looks like it is cooked perfectly.” I said wanting him to know I was pleased and grateful for his preparation. I don’t enjoy salmon as much when it’s dry and firm. I like to affirm good service when offered. 


Not pausing to look up or respond to my comment, he snapped the plastic lid onto my to-go order. 


“Where is your card?” he asked. I smiled and pointed to the side of the register. 


Seeming embarrassed he said, “I’m out of sorts today.” He reached for my card and slid it through. I wondered what made him out of sorts – something at work, something at home, a health condition.


“I’m so sorry” I said, maintaining eye contact. I had sensed something was wrong the minute I saw him. Now my heart filled with compassion for this tired person who was serving me. He handed me my salad and credit card, and I could see his face relax and soften. I was thankful he could hear what I said behind my mask which often muffles sound and can make conversation hard to understand. 


“I hope your day gets better.” I said looking at him once again before I turned to leave. 


When he shared with me that he was out of sorts, I felt glad to be interacting with someone who was willing to be honest and open about how he was actually doing. Most of the time when I am out of sorts, I keep my feelings to myself. 


This restaurant worker revealed to me a part of the human condition. Feeling out of sorts is not uncommon in these days of covid recovery, getting vaccines, and businesses trying to rebound as people are getting out more. Although my exchange with him was brief, I was honored that this person shared with me, a complete stranger, what he was feeling. 


Each day I offer a prayer that I can be a vessel of God’s love wherever I go. That prayer was answered in the short time that this man and I shared space.


Monday, March 15, 2021

Coping in Confinement: How My Restless Self Lived through the Eras of Polio and Covid



“Get in a straight line, children. We’re going to the gym to get our polio vaccines,” the teacher said.  

We second graders were old enough to listen to the news and overhear adults talking about the dangers of polio. I wasn’t sure what polio did to the body, but in a magazine, I had seen pictures of children and adults confined to an iron lung, only their heads visible from the tubular machine. Laying still everyday looked uncomfortable and confining. I wondered if the children were ever allowed to get out and walk, run, laugh, or have any fun. Being confined day after day would surely challenge my restless nature. I craved movement and made every effort to get out of the house.


I knew enough about polio to know I didn’t want it, but I had heard nothing about the polio vaccine. Perhaps my parents had signed a permission slip, but they had not prepared me for this. Even though I just ate lunch, my stomach was gurgling and in knots. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t even know what the word “vaccine” meant, and had no idea what it looked like or felt like. Ready or not, I was on my way to the gym to find out. I listened to my teacher’s instructions and stepped in line behind a classmate. 


For years, virologist and medical researcher Dr. Jonas Salk had worked tirelessly to find a way to prevent polio from spreading. In the late 1940’s, the polio outbreak in the United States disabled more than 35,000 people each year. Though I don’t recall my parents limiting my playtime with other children (our sandbox was a popular gathering place), I have read that many parents were afraid to let children outside to play especially in the summer when the virus peaked. Finally, in April 1955, the oral vaccine was ready for distribution. Dr. Salk was regarded as a national hero.


On vaccination day, I followed the line out of the portable trailer where our classroom met on the school grounds. We cut through the playground on that cool spring morning. The main building had become overcrowded and a new school was being built three miles north.


We entered the school building and found our way through the doors of the gym.  My teacher led us to a table where we received a small white paper cup. I peered into my half-filled cup curious what the vaccine was like. It looked like water. I followed the example of the children ahead of me and swallowed the tasteless liquid. I was relieved to receive the vaccine and discover there was no harm or discomfort involved. The vaccine program developed by Dr. Salk has made the United States polio-free since 1979. As a young vaccine-recipient, I was thankful to be spared a life of confinement in an iron lung machine. I would have had great difficulty lying still on my back for any period of time. I couldn’t handle the thought of not being able to swing on my swingset in the backyard where I had the physical and emotional space to be my full self.


Just a few weeks ago, sitting in an uncomfortable aluminum chair in the waiting area of a repurposed Marsh grocery store in line for my first Covid vaccine, I remembered vividly the day of my polio vaccine in second grade.. As a child I was relieved to avoid polio. Now decades later, I found myself  grateful I had not contracted the coronavirus and was finally in line to get vaccinated. I had been filled with anxiety from the time the state’s lockdown was put in place in March 2020. My daily pattern had become consumed by carefully sheltering, wearing masks, carrying around bottles of hand sanitizer, and washing my hands until I thought the skin would fall off. Receiving the vaccine would not only reduce my chances of getting the virus, but also relieve the anxiety I’d felt under statewide Covid restrictions that in turn restricted my natural way of relating to the world. I tend to be a movement-oriented person who needs to get out, exercise daily, and find places of meaning in my life, most of which involve being of help to other people.


Sheltering at home, I have missed volunteering at the IU North Hospital cancer center where I served for 10 years prior to Covid-19 and in an elementary school classroom where I helped for five years. It’s hard to feel like myself when I’m not able to give love and interact with those who need care in the hospital or in the classroom. When the lockdown began, I was so sad and angry about not being able to volunteer that I threw out my school entry badge and hid my red hospital volunteer jacket with the ten year “star volunteer” on the lapel under the carpet in my trunk. I could not bear to be reminded of the loss of contact with people and meaningful work in God’s kingdom, so I put any remembrance of those things out of my sight. 


The past months brought a change of lifestyle in other ways, too. Curbside pickup and delivery became regular words in my vocabulary. In the past, I rarely ordered items online, instead enjoying the process of going to the store, pondering my choices, and touching the things I wanted to buy. All of these familiar practices were gone and no one knew when regular shopping would return, especially when the shutdown of non-essential stores in mid-March continued through the end of May. Online shopping became my new, unwelcome reality. 


Particularly devastating was my lack of ability to go swimming. All gyms and exercise facilities were closed for 2 ½ months. Swimming is a body, mind, and spirit experience for me. The water is like a counselor ready to receive my thoughts or emotions, whatever comes to mind while I go back and forth in the pool. The water is accepting, and holds me. Swimming between lane dividers offers containment. Counting laps in my head brings order. Order and containment are two of my ongoing emotional needs. Finding ways in every day life to nurture these needs offers reassurance, and that made the Covid closures especially difficult for me. While I enjoy the feeling being contained, my anxiety rises when I feel confined. I felt a sense of loss and sadness as I looked at my swim bag filled with goggles, swim cap, arm paddles resting in the backseat of the car, and my swimsuit on a hook in my closet. 


Although I walked two days a week, I did not receive from walking what I did from the total body immersion in the water. I had no other safe activity but walking, and walking, and more walking. Fortunately, in mid-March the temperatures weren’t too cold. Every day, for the next ten weeks, I walked for three hours. At first I didn’t like walking so much. I missed interacting with people in the locker room and in the halls of the YMCA. 


There was no community in walking, or so I thought. I did see a few people with their dogs, but people often didn’t speak to each other in those early days of the virus as the risk of contamination was unknown and no one wanted to take a chance to spread the disease.



In time, however, walking felt similar to a labyrinth experience. When I left home, I knew my destination, my half-way point where I turned around and started my return path. In walking a labyrinth, the first stages involve shedding what is on your mind, a time of letting go. When you reach the center, your mind is clear,ready to receive what God might offer. In a labyrinth you can stay in the center as long as you want, however, when I got to the midpoint of my walk, I paused briefly, took a deep breath, and started home.  I did feel like I had released various thoughts scrambling around in my head when I reached the middle, and felt refreshed and open on my return trip. 


I have always practiced mindfulness, being aware of what is around me, noticing details to stay present. During those many weeks of walking during coronavirus distancing, I found mindfulness helped me create a connection to what I was seeing. For example, I noticed bird nests from the past spring, visible in leafless trees. I observed their shapes. I noticed if they were lodged in the crook of the tree or hanging from a branch. I wondered what the bird used to make the nest. I saw pieces of yarn, plastic bags, tags from clothes, string, branches, and dried leaves. Noting how the nest was constructed led me to research how birds made mud to hold their nests together. 


Then, as I took walk after walk past the same house, I watched the stages of a bee hive being built. In time, I noticed small trees surrounding the hive. One day, the owner of the house was outside when I walked by. Wearing a mask, I asked a few questions, curious about what he was developing. He described placing certain plants around the hive to attract bees, and how he planned to collect honey. 


I had several routes I walked, and often I went into other neighborhoods not my own. One of my favorite paths went by the backyard of a house with an outdoor swimming pool. The pool was covered with thick plastic for the winter, anchored by rope attached to the side of the yard. Even though I was walking daily, my restless nature, only fully assuaged by swimming, needed a more fulfilling outlet. Each time I walked by the yard with the pool, I wanted to jump over the short fence, pull the ropes, remove the cover, and jump in the water. I missed swimming so much that, in my imaginary dip in that backyard pool, I almost didn’t care if I was arrested for trespassing, I just needed to get in the water! 


As the months continued, I had trouble connecting with the phrase I heard every night on the news, or on a commercial, or when the governor made a special report on the virus: “We’re in this together.” I didn’t feel like anyone was with me during this time. I felt lonely and displaced. I couldn’t understand or join in the implied camaraderie adversity might bring. There was no sense of me helping anyone or anyone helping me. When I saw others not taking the same strict precautions for safety that I was (having good times with family and friends and going on trips and vacations) I felt frustrated. If we were really “all in this together” I felt everyone would sacrifice interaction with those who were important to them, just as I was careful to do. 


With lack of adequate space at home, I often retreated to my car, driving to a retention pond that I could see out my back window. There, I would park and watch the small waterfall in the center.  At least I could see water moving even if I couldn’t be in it. I reveled in the feeling of containment my car offered for emotions unraveling inside, feelings that were difficult to express. 


Preparing for Christmas in December 2020 was about as difficult and impersonal as it got. I was used to buying gifts in person, maybe going to one or two stores to find exactly what I wanted, wrapping them simply, and mailing the gifts to out-of-town family members. Choosing, preparing, packaging, and watching the gifts wait on the floor of my office have always helped me add love to what I was sending. I would walk by the gifts I had chosen for each person and think of how they would wear each item, or how they would play with each toy, or what they would experience as they read each book. It used to be that I savored the connection I was building and imagined all of my thoughts pouring into the gifts, adding a dimension of care not possible with mechanical and impersonal online ordering.


Even our zoom Christmas was impersonal. Yes, it was wonderful seeing everyone’s faces, but the energy of people being together in one room could not be recreated on the screen. Virtual hugs are a poor compensation for the real thing.


It is the lost time with our small family that has been most heartbreaking to me. We’ve had limited contact with our daughter and son-in-law who live thirty minutes away. They have continued to work through these challenging days and don’t want to take the chance of giving us the virus. Our interactions have taken place through windows, and in the summer and fall, through a few short outdoor masked gatherings in the backyard.


We have a grandson born last May who we haven’t met. Our planned trip to visit him in Oregon was canceled. I had no idea that in 2018, when I was watching friends and family having fun and dancing at our daughter’s wedding in Oregon, that it was the last time our family would be together for the foreseeable future.


People throughout the world have experienced disappointments, deaths of loved ones, inability to fully mourn these losses, and disruption in routine and relationships no one ever imagined. Parents are stressed to the max, combining jobs, helping children learn virtually, and managing the change of normal routines. The fear of the elusive virus has affected those who are healthy as well as those with chronic illness. During the height of the polio crisis, although fear for the lives of children was pervasive, physical separation and isolation for weeks and months were not part of daily life for those without the illness.


Although others were dealing with circumstances far worse than mine, I was cautious not to compare my feelings with the difficulty of others or minimize what I was experiencing. Feelings are feelings and need to be honored. 


Living long enough to receive medical treatment for two diseases of global proportions makes me feel fortunate to participate in medical history and to receive the protection these vaccines have offered. I mourn for those who have lost family and friends from the virus, for their inability to be with them at death, and for missed opportunities to share their grief with family and friends. I also mourn my own losses. I have missed the time that would have been used to build memories with family, to explore interests more deeply, and to serve people who are sick. 


Right now, I can’t give a hurrah speech about how I came through hard times and emerged a new person, or how I am grateful for these past eleven months. I am not a new person. I am grateful to be alive, but I am not grateful for the way my life has been altered these past eleven months. That is my reality. I am a struggling person at the high end of life expectancy longing to spend time with my family, serve others, and enjoy the people and places around me, . 


Despite my hurt and anguish, I have been grateful to keep working with my writing coach, Darcy Wiley. From the sweltering months of summer through many weeks in the cold of winter, we have met weekly on the balcony of her house. We have continued our sessions in all seasons, picking blackberries together and watching her garden flourish, sweating in the hot summer, and noting the leaves as they changed color and fell to carpet the ground in the fall. The winter snow made the short walk from my car to the balcony sometimes treacherous, but with caution, I made it.  We have worked together on expanding and editing my essays, and have enjoyed the creativity of photographing my artwork against the background of her house for use in my blog posts. Masked and distanced, we have found the balcony a creative way to add adventure and fun to our weekly time together, peppered with visits from her young daughters who were selling fresh garden-grown vegetables, bracelets, or slime at a stand in the front yard, or just needing a moment to get a thought from their mother. All of this added surprise and delight to our time. When temperatures dipped near 25 degrees, we realized just how hardy we were. We wore snow pants, boots, hats, hooded coats, heated lap blankets, and gloves lined with hand warmers to keep our in-person connection, only resorting to online meetings in storms or uncertainties about sickness. 


I was also able to continue weekly counseling sessions because of a special type of online conference call platform insuring confidentiality, helping me grow further emotionally, allowing me to stay grounded when I experienced a difficult trigger late last year. Coming through these times and learning how my past affects the present was my focus each week rather than dealing with the effects of a pandemic. I could work and change what I was experiencing emotionally, while most of the pandemic was out of my control.


Finally, in late May the governor cautiously allowed gyms to re-open. Returning to the pool was joyous although it took a few visits to get back into the rhythm I was used to in the past. Going to a public place created anxiety at first, but using great caution, I heeded the guidelines facilities had to follow, adding my own adaptations, such as showering at home instead of in the locker room when I finished swimming. Getting back in the water was my first taste of normalcy. I was so thankful to feel my muscles stretch and welcomed a rhythm that felt like home. 


Still, the fear of Covid followed me when I went to swim. Hearing about people who had socially distanced and taken precautions yet still suffered with the virus made me hypervigilant, not wanting to get too close to anyone walking in the hall or to stop and talk to people I knew but barely recognized with their faces covered with the required mask. 


In the days after I received the first vaccine, I did venture out for a quick stop at Target, but have kept a low profile otherwise. I am still in the middle of this strange moment in history, or maybe coming to the final stage of it as the vaccination we prayed for has become a reality. Sometimes when a person is in the middle of a challenging event, distance is necessary to assess the impact of the experience. I am waiting to see what I have learned from these months of isolation.

Although I did not deal personally with the Coronavirus nor did I know anyone who had the disease, I have had many disappointments. Not being with local family and family far away. Missing out on holding my first grandchild and supporting my daughter during those early weeks of motherhood. Not attending church in person. My restless self has struggled in lockdown and isolation. I have a past history of loss which seems to trigger me when events of deprivation occur but which also allows me to connect and feel compassion for the suffering people in our collective grief and loss. 


Now that I have received the second vaccine, I have less anxiety and can see life more clearly. I will continue to ponder the effects of this last year for some time. I can’t necessarily say it’s been a positive experience. Many times I’ve felt I should be coping a lot better than I have. This has been hard. Yet, when I look back, I see a woman who has kept going, forging ahead with counseling, writing, art, exercise...at least some of the things in life that are important to me. Maybe I have coped better with my limitations than I gave myself credit for. I did not withdraw. I did not become a hermit. I didn’t collapse. I kept walking. I kept moving. I kept going. 



Monday, March 1, 2021

God Is with Me Always

 




My father put his hands on the wheel of the car while my brother and I sandwiched ourselves between him and my mother.  Seat belts and car seats were not invented. When we wiggled and squirmed my mother’s hand reached across our laps to hold us still. We were on the way to church.

I walked into a classroom where I played with other children my age. I remember sitting in one of the wooden chairs arranged in a circle. My feet didn’t touch the floor so I dangled them back and forth, looking at my black patent leather shoes, my “Sunday shoes” that I only wore for church or special occasions.

While I waited for the teacher to gather her papers, I smoothed the blue smocked dress, made for me by my mother’s oldest sister, Aunt Helen, a relative I had never met. Red, white and blue  thread criss-crossed my chest. I moved my fingers over the bumpy surface feeling the fabric gathered like an accordion. Maybe one day I might learn to smock. The puffy sleeves made me feel like I was a princess.

I heard the teacher call my name to make sure I was listening before she started the story about Jesus feeding many people from a boy’s small lunch of five fish and two loaves of bread. .Each week she read a Bible story from a printed pamphlet.   She taught us about people who lived long ago and had adventures I didn’t quite understand, and about God and how God could help us. I did not know what God meant.

One Sunday we learned about prayer. She said prayer was talking to God. I still didn’t know what God meant, but I did understand how to talk to someone.

We weren’t old enough to ask questions, but everyone, especially me, enjoyed the coloring page attached to the story.  At home, my mother hid the box of broken crayons on the top shelf of the coat closet in the hallway. I could only color a few times a year when she put the box on the kitchen table. She said coloring was a waste of time, but I liked to draw shapes and houses and think about what colors I wanted to use.  At Sunday school, each child had their own box of brand new crayons. As I opened the box, I breathed in the smell of wax and fresh cardboard. 

After church, my parents picked me up from the classroom. I clutched the handful of papers the teacher gave us about the lesson. She suggested to my parents, “You can review the story we talked about at home. Your daughter can tell you the story in her own words. She is a good listener.”

I smiled hearing the teacher say something nice about me. I rarely heard the adults in my life say that I was good at anything.

When I got home and changed my clothes, I looked at the pictures and thought how the teacher described God and people in the Bible. In time, I had a stack of these handouts on the floor in my bedroom. Anytime I wanted, I could look at the pictures and think about God.

I looked forward to going to church each week, being with someone who smiled at me, and having an opportunity to color.

God became more of a reality in my life when I was seven. I realized my home wasn’t normal because I started looking for another mother. I observed the way other mothers in the neighborhood acted toward their children in loving and kind ways. They combed and brushed their daughters’ hair and put ribbons or barrettes to hold their hair in place. I did not feel loved or cared for. I easily noted the favor my parents gave my younger brother. He was the center of their lives and I felt left out.

During these times when my heart ached for attention, I went to my room to read the Sunday school papers about God, how God listens to our thoughts and how we can talk to God anytime. I remembered how much fun I had coloring the pictures of the stories.

I walked to school by myself envying the two sisters across the street with their matching dresses and hair bows. I wanted to have a bow in my hair too. When I arrived at school, I found my desk and got ready for the day’s assignments.  I had trouble keeping my mind on what I was supposed to do.  I had to read the same paragraph over and over to remember what Alice and Jerry were doing.  Numbers were confusing. I kept writing them backwards. I could add two numbers together, but subtraction didn’t make sense .

 My spelling book was a mess. The letters I wrote were too close together, according to my teacher and I could hardly identify the word. My pencil point kept breaking and I was embarrassed to get up and walk to the sharpener. I was sure everyone was watching, and I wanted no one to notice me.

I wore dresses that were too short paired with my ugly brown leather shoes. My parents only bought me one pair of shoes a year and by the end of school in June, my toes pressed into the front of the shoe.

Although I didn’t know the word anxiety, I feel certain my emotions could be described as anxious. One day sitting at my desk, looking out the window at the school yard, I remembered what the Sunday school teacher  said about talking to God. I didn’t say anything, but I thought about God. In a few minutes I felt different inside. Back then I didn’t have a word for what I felt, but today I would call it peace or comfort. This new feeling brought me back to my desk. I held my pencil a little tighter and worked with a little more clarity to solve the problems in my math workbook.

Walking home from school that day I remembered when I said the word, God, and how I felt inside. Maybe that’s what the teacher meant: God can help us, because God surely helped me stay calm during the rest of the school day.

My family didn’t talk to God and my parents often yelled at each other, but despite what was happening in my home, I could talk to God and feel calm inside. At night before I went to sleep, I shared my fear with God and prayed, “Please help me live tomorrow.”



When I was in fourth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Rossi, had us sing hymns while we passed our papers down the row of desks. Some of the hymns I remembered from church, now that I was old enough to attend the service.  “Come thou Almighty King,” and “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” were two of her favorites. Mrs. Rossi didn’t attend my church, but she knew the same songs I did. Hearing about God in music, even in my public school, nurtured my growing understanding of God.

 “Come Thou Almighty King”  praised God as “Father all glorious” and described God as “Holy Comforter.” “All Things Bright and Beautiful” told how God created flowers, birds, mountains, rivers, the sunset, cold winter wind, and food in the garden. I learned God gave us eyes to see what God created, and lips to tell others about God and what God had made.

I don’t remember if Mrs. Rossi wrote the words to the hymn on the chalkboard or how we learned the song, but all of the children joined in to make music and keep from talking while our papers were collected. She didn’t realize how closely I was listening to these words and absorbing their meaning describing God and how God had created everything on the earth including me.

My family moved to Pennsylvania when I was in the middle of fifth grade. At my new school in fifth and sixth grade, we formed a line to walk to the cafeteria each day.

Before we left our room, the teacher would say a prayer for lunch.  I didn’t know about praying before eating, but these two teachers helped me realize it was good to thank God for the food I was going to eat.  In sixth grade, one student was Jewish.  About once a week, my teacher asked her to pray. First, she said a short prayer in Hebrew, then gave the English translation. I realized that God was present in my friend’s prayers too, even in another language.

Even though God was never mentioned in my home and my parents never read from the Bible, I was learning about God in school and Sunday school. Praying at school and at night, I was slowly learning to build trust in something I couldn’t see or even understand. I experienced how a single word, “God,” made my heart feel lighter and not alone. 

When I was in sixth grade I memorized the catechism of the church outlined for confirmation. I didn’t understand what the words meant nor did the classes I attend make my concentration any clearer. What I did know was that “God”  was becoming as “real” as someone could be without being seen. 

I felt God in my heart when I prayed. I knew I wanted to thank God for the food I ate. I liked going outside and looking at the mountain at the end of our gravel road. Seeing the birds in the trees reminded me of the hymn I sang with Mrs. Rossi  “All Things Bright and Beautiful” describing how God made every living creature.

After I was confirmed, I received a certificate of confirmation in the Episcopal Church, and a silver pendant embossed with a picture of Christ on the front and the words, “I am an Episcopalian,” on the back. I wore this necklace every day. I never took it off. Sometimes, friends in school noted the necklace and asked if I was wearing a dime around my neck. When they realized I had a religious symbol they stopped talking and seemed to feel awkward. I sometimes felt a little shy about this public display of my faith, but I kept wearing it because it helped me feel the strength of Christ.

Right before I entered seventh grade, I made an altar in my closet. On top of a burgundy train case I placed the brown cross necklace I used for singing in the children’s choir at church. Next to the cross, I placed a bright red picture book of children’s prayers along with a copy of “The Book of Common Prayer”  from my confirmation.

When I felt lonely or discouraged or left out I went to my closet and sat next to my altar not knowing exactly what to do, but feeling comfort knowing God in some form was close by.

One day my mother saw my altar and said, “What are you doing with this silliness in your closet?!! You need to take the necklace to church so you don’t forget to wear it on Sunday.”

I was used to my mother’s criticism.  Her favorite words to me were, “You need to change your ways.” I didn’t know what she meant because I thought I was an ok person and didn’t know what I needed to change. I never heard her say, “I love you,” ever.

When I was twelve, attending church took on more meaning.  My faith was developing. Although I still wasn’t sure about who God was, every Sunday the familiar words of the liturgy wrapped around my heart like a cloak. Holy Communion was the first Sunday of the month, the rest of the Sundays the service of Morning Prayer. I knew what to expect when I went to church.



The liturgy was a constant to counter my chaotic life at home. I continued to have difficulty concentrating at school, spending many hours reading and re-reading history and English, and trying again and again to focus on solving math problems. I felt frustrated at my inability to retain what I learned. I knew I was smart, but I know now that the difficulty I had at home clouded my concentration.

I prayed each night throughout junior high and high school. Although the nature of my life at home didn’t change, God sustained me.  My life with God was simple. I said a short prayer every night before I went to bed and continued my practice of thinking about God when I was in school. I did not have a Bible, but I occasionally read prayers from the two books on my altar.

I couldn’t quote scripture like my friends who were Baptist, but I knew the reality of God in my heart, an immediate source of comfort and strength wherever I was.

Throughout elementary school, all classes began by saying the Lord’s Prayer and standing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. My ninth-grade homeroom teacher read to us from the Bible each day following morning announcements. Many of the ways I learned about God, especially in the public school, would not be permitted in this day and age.

The early formative years of my faith were foundational to who I am now as God’s child. I’m so grateful for the ways I learned about God despite not growing up in a home where faith was nurtured. Never underestimate the power of teaching a Sunday school lesson to a four year-old, the effect of passing along the words of a beloved hymn, or how your encouragement as a confirmation mentor might help a child. You never know what a child may be dealing with at home. Your words can be a beam of light directing them toward a life sustained by God’s presence.

 

 

Church Steps

(a poem about my childhood faith experience)

 

Every Sunday I climbed the steps

Half-awake, opened the door,

Entered the tiny vestibule

Tables on both sides,

Held booklets for devotion

Pamphlets about the church year.

 

I walked down the aisle,

My hard, leather shoes making noise,

In a place meant for quiet.

Seated myself on a hard, wooden pew,

My soul cradled by liturgy.

 

People good and bad dotted the rows

I sat near the cross that hung over the

Cloth-covered altar,

In the choir loft,

In front of the sanctuary,

I sang God’s praises

And watched those

Who fell asleep.

 

My faith was sustained and

Refueled by liturgy,

“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.”

I carried the echo of

Those words in my heart

Wherever I went.

 

In my fingers, I pressed the

Medallion,

The size of a dime,

Dangling around my neck.

Up close the face of Jesus

Beaming at me with strength

For my climb back down the

Steps of the church

To go home.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Unbinding My Hands

 


I was sitting with my mother at the kitchen table eating half a bologna sandwich when we heard a knock on the door.  My mother walked to the door and turned the knob to open it. She returned to the table with a small package from her sister, my aunt Ann who had no husband or children of her own at the time  and, therefore, doted on her nieces and nephews.

 

She lived in New York and I saw her only once a year when my family visited every summer. She always had a surprise for me, usually a little doll. She knew how much I liked dolls.

 

I wondered if the package contained the aqua-colored sweater she was working on for me when I saw her a few months ago.  I was almost eight at the time.  When we got to her house, she said, “I haven’t seen you for almost a year. Before I finish your new sweater I want to measure your arms to make sure the sleeves are the right length.” I held out my arm and was excited to hear I would have a new sweater for winter.

 

 “Do you like these?” Aunt Ann asked, showing me six sparkly buttons attached to a piece of cardboard. “Oh yes, they shine like stars!” I replied.

 

“In a few weeks, I will send a package with some things to keep you warm this winter: two new pairs of mittens, one for you and one for your brother, and the finished sweater. ”

 

Mom opened the package and inside were some boxes of jello, pudding, and cake mix. “Is my sweater in the box?” I asked anxiously, remembering my aunt’s promise.

 

My mother reached in again and pulled out a pair of grey mittens for my brother, red mittens for me, and my much-anticipated sweater.

 

I held the sweater close, sliding my fingers across the buttons. The aqua-colored surface and shimmered brighter than I remembered. The sweater represented more than just an addition to my winter wardrobe. It was also a tangible reminder that someone had thought enough of me to spend hours knitting with me in mind. Putting on the sweater, my slender body warmed.

 

 School bus transportation was not available in the mid-1950s. Students walked to school in rain, cold, and snow. I knew the sweater would keep me extra warm walking the half-mile each way. I wore the sweater all afternoon thinking about the day Aunt Ann measured my arms. The sleeves came right below my wrist, the perfect length. Her attention made me feel noticed, special, and worth the time to let me know through her creative work how much she cared.

 

When I finished my bologna sandwich, I carried the red mittens to my room and put them in my coat pocket ready for the first cold day.  Hanging next to my coat was a light blue dress with puffed sleeves that my mother’s other sister, Helen, had made. Aunt Helen liked to smock.  I was drawn to the grooves of the fabric and the stitches criss-crossing the front of the dress. Sometimes I took the dress off the hanger, sat on my bed, and rubbed my fingers over the red, green, and yellow thread used to gather the pleated fabric across the top of my dress. How did the fabric become pleated like an accordian? I wondered.  My mother used a needle and thread to mend holes in my father’s socks, but smocking was different, a beautiful pattern unlike the simple stitches my mother used.

 

I didn’t know much about knitting  or what tools were used, but I noticed the even rows of stitches Aunt Ann used to make my mittens and sweater, the same stitch for both. I rubbed my fingers over the soft wool and imagined what Aunt Ann might look like when she knit. Where did she sit? Where did she keep the yarn? What did she use to loop the yarn together to make mittens or a sweater? Did she have a pattern? How did she make sleeves on a sweater or a thumb in a glove? I wanted to learn more about Aunt Ann and her knitting.

 

I was grateful for these homemade items, gifts from the hands of these creative relatives who I rarely saw but deeply appreciated. When I asked my mother about needles and thread, or other artistic activities like coloring, she said these activities were a waste of time. She kept our shoebox of broken crayons on a shelf in the coat closet and occasionally let us color. One time Aunt Ann sent us a roll of paper with pictures printed to color, like a coloring book on a scroll. I thought for sure my mother would let us color this gift from her sister, but she put the roll in the crayon box out of reach. We only colored a few times a year. I felt that Aunt Ann would be disappointed if she knew we ignored her gift or didn’t bring the paper with us to show to her when we visited.

 


I wondered why my mother did not  knit or smock like her sisters. Their mother died from diptheria when my mother was 7, my Uncle George, 9, Aunt Ann 11, and Aunt Helen 13. Aunt Ann was so distraught over the loss of her mother that she missed a whole year of school. Perhaps the older girls learned hand-work from their mother before she died and my mother was too young to pick up on these skills. Maybe my mother thought hand-work and coloring to be a waste of time because she didn’t have an opportunity when she was young to do these things. My mother once told me that when she was in first grade, her teacher held up a picture she colored and made fun of it in front of the class. I was sad to hear her story, but since I had crayons and paper, I wondered why I wasn’t allowed draw? Without crayons or paper in reach in our home, my mother’s shame and embarrassment translated into deprivation for my brother and I.

 

One day my mother asked me to help her clean a closet. We took everything out: cleaning supplies, toilet paper, kleenex boxes, towels and washcloths, and a plastic bag with cloth inside.

 

“What in the bag?” I asked my mother.

 

“Oh, that’s an embroidery kit I got a long time ago. I think it’s time I throw it out.”

 

“What is embroidery? Can I see the kit? ”

 

It seemed that my mere presence annoyed her. She threw the bag at me and said, “Here you can look at it yourself. Go out and sit on the side step while I finish.”

 

My mother seemed glad to get me out of her sight. I like being outside and away from her. I sat on the concrete steps at the side of the house and could feel fresh air around my face. Hearing the birds sing made me smile. I watched the clouds moving across the sky, changing shape. I looked down, opened the bag, and pulled out a piece of fabric stamped with x’s and flower petals. I found, a needle, a circle made of wood, a folded paper printed with directions, and some blue, green, and yellow thread cinched around the middle with a black and gold strip of paper.

 

I read the directions and placed the fabric between the two nesting circles, or the hoop as the directions called it. Threading a needle was a challenge for my untrained hands. The hole was so tiny. I tried over and over and finally the thread went through. I followed the directions, knotted the thread and pulled it from the underside of the fabric to the top, and began to push and pull the thread, sewing in and out. With the blue thread, I made an x and then another one until I had a row of blue x’s. “I can embroider,” I said, pleased with my first efforts.

 

However, when I tried to create petals using the daisy stitch again and again, I couldn’t figure out how to make them. They didn’t look at all like the picture. I became discouraged, and went in the house to ask my mother to help. She refused.  I put everything back in the bag, put the bag under my bed and decided to try another day.

 

A week later, when I came home from school, I pulled the bag from under my bed, and went outside to the porch steps. I embroidered another row of blue x’s. Starting to feel more confident, I tried the daisy stitch for the flower petals, but frustration came quickly. I put everything back in the bag, threw it under my bed, disappointed that a few days later my fine motor coordination hadn’t improved enough to make something beautiful.

 

Sadly, my hands remained bound for many decades.

 

When I met my husband, Mike, he was finishing graduate school, preparing to enter the three-year seminary program at Duke University. We married following his first year. Each summer, students are appointed to serve a church. From June to August 1975, Mike pastored two  churches in rural North Carolina about forty-five minutes from where we lived in Durham.

These churches were not large enough to support a full-time pastor. They were used to having students from Duke care for their needs, provide leadership at meetings, assist lay people in making decisions for the church, as well as having a service each Sunday morning. The warmth and gracious hospitality of the people in these churches reflected their gratitude for having a pastor.

 

Many Sunday afternoons and occasionally during the week, we were invited to have dinner with individuals and families in the congregations. We looked forward to going to people’s homes where we would get to know them and the history of the rural area and the church. Most of the families had been in the church for generations and were proud of their long-established heritage. We learned so much by visiting them in a relaxed and informal setting. Being a newlywed, I always took along notecards to record recipes from church members. The southern women were excellent cooks and were generous in sharing their secret ingredients and advice for preparing delicious meals.

 

Annie Watson, an elderly member of one congregation, was a retired teacher who had spent most of her early career in a one-room schoolhouse. She had taught many children who were now adults in the church. One evening, she invited me to share dessert while Mike attended an evening meeting. I was thrilled to have time with “Miss Annie,” as everyone called her. We laughed and talked about teaching

 

“Do you want more cream?” she asked several times while we lingered at the dinner table covered with a lace tablecloth. At first I didn’t know what she meant by “cream.” She chuckled. “Cream is what we in the south call ice cream.” I laughed adding “cream” to my growing list of southern expressions.

 

Of course I wanted more “cream,” and Miss Annie added another scoop to my bowl.

 

Miss Annie had a rack full of quilts in her living room, and a stack piled on the book shelves. I had never heard of a quilt before and wondered if quilts were another part of living in the south.

I was intrigued how combinations of circles, triangles, squares, and rectangles came together in each quilt.

 

“I sewed every last one of them.” Miss Annie said.

 

“Where did you get all of the fabric to make your quilts?” I asked. When I wanted to make a dress, I went to the fabric store, but Miss Annie told me her quilts were like diaries recording the memory of the people who gave her fabric.

 

“You see, most fabric for quilts is made from scraps leftover from projects like making drapes, or dresses, or aprons, or clothes for little ones. Here in the country, we save our scraps and use them to make quilts. My cousins, sister, sisters-in-law, friends, and nieces all have boxes filled with scraps. When we want to make a quilt, we share our scraps with each other.”

 

Miss Annie spread one of her quilts over the couch and pointed to each piece of fabric. “My sister gave me this fabric after she made dresses for work. One of my teacher friends gave me a whole bag of fabric leftover from making drapes and clothes for her little girls. One day I came home from school and saw a bag of fabric ready for the garbage at the end of my neighbor’s driveway. I quickly jumped out of my car, and knocked on her door. She said she was tired of the fabric, didn’t know what to do with it, and decided to throw the bag away. When I asked her if I could have it, she said, ‘Of course, take all you want.’ The fabric she gave me is the border of this quilt. When I look at a piece of fabric, I think about the person who gave it to me. Sometimes I remember a happy time we shared together.”

 

Over the summer, we found most homes we visited for dinner also had a pile of quilts just like Miss Annie. When I asked about the fabric, the stories I heard were similar to Miss Annie’s  - remembrances of people who were special and loved.

 

I enjoyed hearing the stories about these quilts and was fascinated by the way different shapes were put together to make colorful patterns and designs, like when you turn a kaleidoscope and see different pieces of tiny glass in colorful arrangements. I decided when Mike graduated in a few months, and was assigned to a church back in Indiana, I was going to learn to quilt --- and I did.

 

Walking into the YMCA one mid-September evening to swim, I noticed a sign on the community bulletin board for a beginning quilt class offered at the Y on Monday nights for six weeks from 6-8 pm. Before entering the locker room, I took a minute to register at the front desk. I was so excited and could hardly wait to write Miss Annie a letter telling her I was going to learn to quilt just like her.

 

We moved to New Castle, a small town in east central Indiana in June 1976, where Mike was appointed to the First United Methodist Church. We were getting to know the people and adjust to the rhythm of life in the church. We had one car and lived three miles south of town, but Monday was a frequent church meeting night. When I told Mike about the class, we decided to ride in together and park in the church lot, and I could walk to the Y a block away.

 

At the first class, I listened attentively as the teacher, a lawyer from a town fifteen miles south of New Castle, taught the basics of quilting. I learned about batting, how to put fabric together, and how to join the top fabric, batting, and bottom fabric with a special stitch. The teacher suggested we start with a simple pattern: the nine patch alternating solid and patterned fabric.

 

Oh how I wished Miss Annie was there to help. I joined Mike in the parking lot, eager to get home and find the pieces of leftover fabric from curtains I made for Mike and his two roommates when they all were first year students in the Divinity School. Their small apartment had two long windows. I had volunteered to make curtains, if the guys paid for the fabric.

 

I had spent many nights in my own apartment making the curtains, happy to have a project to look forward to after a long day at work. I saved the scraps not knowing how important they would be in the future.

 

Mike usually worked on Saturday morning, making final preparations for Sunday, reviewing his sermon and making sure the sanctuary was ready. If there was a baptism the next day, he filled the water in the fount at the front of the sanctuary. If communion was scheduled, he looked in the church kitchen for juice and bread. He put the bulletins in the narthex where the ushers would hand them out the next day. There was much to do to get ready to welcome a congregation Sunday morning.

 

One Saturday, he came home carrying a box.

 


“Guess what I have for you? “ he said with a twinkle in his eye. I didn’t know but looking at his expression I knew he must have something special.

 

“I told the ladies in the quilting group last Wednesday about your class. They wondered if you had fabric. I told them only a few pieces. Yesterday, I heard a knock on my office door. Marilyn came in holding this box. She said everyone wanted to help you get started with your quilt.”

 

I was so touched by their thoughtfulness. Mike put the box on the floor and I quickly turned it upside down. Out came scraps of  solid fabric, fabric with designs, plaids, cotton, corduroy. A rainbow of color, red, blue, yellow, green, aqua carpeted my floor. Looking at the abundance I realized I had more than enough to start cutting squares for my quilt.

 Although the ladies did not label their fabric, I looked at the pile and felt loved. Their generosity showed that they noticed me and cared about my new interest in their much-loved hobby. This was especially meaningful since I had only known them a few months.

 

I cut the fabric into squares, matching complimentary solids to patterns. Using a running stitch, I hand-sewed the squares together, making twelve nine-patch squares, big enough to cover our double bed. And just like that, my first quilt top was done!!

 

In my final quilting class, I learned how to layer batting, a fiber filler, between the quilt top and bottom fabric.  Sewing these three layers by hand was a challenge. The stitches needed to be short and close together. The teacher explained pioneer women made eleven stitches per inch, but my beginner fingers could only manage four or five. I was looking forward to the coming winter, where I could practice making smaller stitches during the long, dark nights.

 

When I finished the top, I went to the church during the ladies quilting group to show them my work. I pointed to the fabric from the box expressing once again my gratitude for their kindness. I described my friend, Miss Annie, and how each of her quilts was like a diary of her relationship with others who gave her their scraps. They smiled when I told them I would always carry their thoughtfulness in my heart, pictured in my first quilt.  

 

I spent the winter of 1977 sitting on the floor moving an oval wooden hoop over sections of the quilt, working hard to narrow my stitches to seven or eight per inch, binding my quilt together.

 

One night when Mike was at the church for a meeting, I noted my stitches getting shorter and shorter.  Watching my right hand manage the needle and thread and feeling my left hand steady the fabric underneath the hoop, I remembered those days when I wanted to learn how to embroider. I recalled frustration and disappointment sitting outside on the step next to my house. The energy in my hands matched the desire of my heart to create.  At that time, my hands were not developmentally-ready to embroider, but now my hands had the necessary dexterity and an outlet to make beauty. I was grateful for Miss Annie who introduced me to quilting, for the class where I finally received instruction in this form of handwork, and for the dear church ladies who lovingly donated their leftover fabric to a newcomer like me.

 

Sitting on the floor, covered with my quilt, I looked out the window at the dark, dark night. I saw a few stars, shining like the buttons on the aqua sweater my aunt had made. I wished I could share my quilting with Aunt Ann and Aunt Helen, both of whom brought love to me with their handmade gifts when I was growing up. They introduced me to creativity and handwork that I could explore when I got older.


Moving the needle in and out of three layers of fabric, peace came to my heart. The steady rhythm of quilting, watching the needle go in and out of fabric, was calming, meditative. I discovered a deeper meaning than just sewing fabric. This felt like a spiritual practice.

 

Up to that time, I had engaged in prayer while reading my prayer book or being in church. Now I was becoming aware of God’s presence everywhere and in every activity. I felt God near me with every stitch. I wasn’t just putting together fabric from loving friends, I was making a connection to God. I was praying.

 

I felt a strong sense of comfort as I finished my first quilt.The first night I slept under it, I felt surrounded by God’s love and filled with God’s presence. This quilt was a tangible reminder  of the kindness of God and the hospitality of other women.

 

When my youngest daughter left for college, she asked if she could take the quilt with her. For four years she used it, resting under my love, God’s love, and the love of others. She still has the quilt in a box in her garage in Oregon.

 

Through the years, I made many quilts for my daughter’s beds and for their dolls, often using scraps of outgrown dresses I had made for them.

 

In my own home today, stacked on a set of shelves in the family room, I have four quilts over a hundred years old made by Mike’s maternal grandmother. On another shelf, I have two quilts I made for each daughter to celebrate their move from a crib to a big kid bed. Next to this shelf is a lap quilt made by a close friend when my parents died in January 2013. The quilt on the bottom shelf was given to me by the quilting group at Center United Methodist Church in Indianapolis where Mike served from 1983 to 1989.  Full of quilts, my shelves now look like the ones in the homes we visited in rural North Carolina during our early years of ministry.

 

Often I wove together Scripture, my emotional needs, and quilting. For example, in one season, I reflected on Psalm 73:23-38. These verses speak of God’s constant presence, guidance, and assurance. God’s strength will sustain, even in times when “my flesh and my heart seemed like they were failing.” (verse ).

 

To illustrate my broken heart, I drew a large heart on a piece of paper and cut it into seven pieces. Using it as a pattern, I cut a different fabric for each piece and sewed them all together to make a complete heart. When I quilted the pieces onto fabric, each tiny stitch was the cry of my heart to an ever present God. God was with me. (picture)

 

When I wanted to feel the coziness of God around my heart, I pieced together the log cabin pattern where light and dark fabric strips wrap around a yellow square in the middle. The yellow square meant “Light in the window.”  Darkness and light seemed to weave in and out of my life for many years. The log cabin was the perfect picture of what my heart was craving. Once again, as I placed the fabric  and quilted a square, each prayerful stitch brought God’s comfort and companionship. (picture)

 

The most powerful image from Scripture that still grounds my quilting is the story of the woman who suffered from severe bleeding for many years (Mark 5:25-34).  This suffering woman was powered by faith to get through the crowd, believing, “If only I touch his cloak, I will get well” (verse 28). When she reached Jesus and touched his cloak, her bleeding stopped. She felt inside that she was healed of her trouble (verse 29)  Jesus turned around to see who had caused power to go out of him. Trembling with fear, the woman came to him. Jesus said, “My daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your trouble.”

 

The story of the woman and her encounter with Jesus was a connection that became foundational to my quilting.  Every time I held fabric or quilted, I imaged myself touching Jesus’ cloak. I longed for my own wellness. I felt when I had fabric in my hands, I was connected to his hem, reaching out for comfort, courage, support, strength, and companionship. (picture) In difficult times, I could relate to Jesus through my familiarity with cloth. Later, I would be able to connect with Jesus for who he was beyond just what he wore, but the idea of the cloth at the edge of his robe was an unthreatening starting point. I could eventually look at him face to face without fear. I could imagine him calling me daughter.

 

Although I did not have a mother who was interested in helping me learn to work with my hands, I had two aunts, whose small gifts of handwork opened my eyes to creativity and introduced me to the possibilities of what I could craft with my hands.  And I had the women in our churches, like Miss Annie and those who gave me scraps to make my first quilt. They encouraged my interest in quilting and introduced me to a serendipitous connection to God.