Month: December 2013

From Generation to Generation

In September 1948, on a trip to Richmond, Virginia, my father wrote a letter home to his mother in Rhode Island. He was searching for Libby Prison where his beloved grandfather, my great-grandfather was held as a prisoner of the Confederate army.

In the letter, my father details his struggle to find Drewry’s Bluff, the sight of my great-grandfather’s capture. When he found the spot where the old soldier had lay wounded,  letters my great-grandfather had written came back to him.
My Great Grandfather Edmund J Gibson
Inscription in my father handwriting on back of photo
The memory of those letters sparked my father’s imagination. To his mother he wrote,

“The far-off crash of that old battle came louder and louder down the path of years. Leaves of the trees cut off by whizzing musket balls, and old-fashioned white powder smoke swirled around. I heard the shrill Rebel yell from the rear, and saw the first blue-coats, covered with dust, break through the trees on the run…I let my imagination run on until I can see the wounded Captain with the blood stained arm lying against the tree…”

As I read my father’s words, they reminded me of a visit I had made several years ago to the sight of another Civil War battle. My sister Sheila (a Civil War Buff) and I quietly talked as we walked along the hillside of the Manassas Battlefield. Standing below the majestic statue of Stonewall Jackson my two young granddaughters, Josie and Juliette started getting restless.

Attempting to liven things up, I spread my arms wide and gestured to the pasture below.

“Imagine, hundreds of soldiers on horses thumping up the hillside. Their faces tense; their swords clanging at their sides. Look! They’re getting closer and closer.”

With my hands I made noises like horses’ hoofs.  I mimicked the sound of swords clashing. Josie stretched her neck and looked over the hillside, as if any moment she would see troops coming toward her. Juliette, confused said with her four year old lisp, “Grandma, I don’t see no horses.”
Several months later, Sheila and I again stood atop that hillside next to General Jackson’s statue. We laughed at the memory of the girl’s response to my vivid imagination. How strange to read a letter that so intimately detailed my father’s own vivid imagination. Funny how some things are just ingrained in us. How such deep traits get passed from one generation to another.
I’m often taken back by how strong the bonds of family are. Even if we’ve never known our ancestors.

Love – The Best Gift of All

The Herdman kids in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever were “…absolutely the worst kids in the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls).” They were six dirty banged up kids who all looked alike except for being “different sizes.”
After the third time Leroy Herdman stole Charlie’s dessert from his lunch box, Charlie announced, “Go ahead and take it, I get all the desserts I want at Sunday School.” And so began the invaision of the Herdmans at the Second Presbyterian Church.  Needless to say, it wasn’t the Herdman’s who changed the most that Christmas. Their simple response to the gospel affected the whole church.
Several years ago, I slipped a copy of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, into Aunt Jeanne Marie’s bag just before she boarded a flight home to San Francisco. “You’ll get a kick out of this short book. These kids will remind you of my brothers and sisters and me.”
Having lived with us for a year after our father died, Aunt Jeanne Marie got the brunt of our bad behavior.
A couple weeks later I received a Christmas card from Aunt Jeanne Marie. On the cover was a beautifully lit Christmas tree with six lovely children lined up from the tallest to the smallest. With the youngest dragging a teddy bear by its arm.
It was a warm picture full of the best stuff of Christmas. I opened the card knowing a note was inside.
“Oh no Ellen, it began. “You were not Herdman’s, I remember you and your brothers and sisters as being just like the children on the front of this card.”
I laughed out loud thinking, “No, Aunt Jeanne Marie, we were just like the Herdman’s.”
The reality of my life is, I was a Herdman. Impulsive, passionate and destructive. But my aunt refused to see me that way. She chose to love me unconditionally in spite of who I was. She made a conscious decision to see the good in me. She heard the words I said, and I’m sure she saw me whack my sisters. But she chose to discipline me with love.
When I referred to us as a Herdman’s she “corrected” me with a picture of six lovely children.
I am a different person today because of her love. And that love has been passed on to my children and grand children. And that love will continue to echo down through the generations to come.

My Inner Raging Battle

She sat across from me at our kitchen table, her belly bulging with my first grandbaby. The early morning sun streamed through the window. Tim had brought her home from Phoenix where she lived with her husband. After many conversations with friends and family, he decided Kelly was the best person to confront me.
As I dug into a bowl of cereal, her voice quivered,
“Mom, I’m really worried about you. You’re just not the same. You’re so unhappy. And I’m afraid my baby will never know the fun loving mom who raised me. Please go see the doctor. I’m sure there’s something he can do to help you.”
A few weeks later, I sat in our doctor’s office discussing an injured knee. I thought it odd that he kept asking me if there was anything else wrong. My heart pounded. I wanted to tell him, but I couldn’t spit the words out. Finally I sputtered,
“I think I’m depressed.”
He sat up straight, and shot off a list of questions. Did I get eight hours of sleep, was I exercising and cutting down on sugar, had I seen my therapist lately? It was almost like a preplanned script. Years later, I learned he already knew. Tim had sought his help.
It’s an ever-raging battle, this war I have against depression. Many times, I’ve crept close to the edge. I’ve lost my sense of reason. I’ve argued inside my head against the value Jesus puts on my soul and the worthlessness I feel in my depraved mind. Too often, I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking my family would be better off without me.

This week, my heart is heavy with the news of the suicide of a young Orlando pastor. The man who baptized my grandchildren, the spiritual leader of my daughter and her family. He mistakenly thought his family would be better off without him. I understood his pain.
So many of our battles are fought in places no one else sees. Whatever drove us there doesn’t matter.

When this happens, we all need a grace revolution. A time to set aside judgment and lean in close to one another. To listen to the gentle murmur of the hearts and souls around us. Who knows, maybe we can pull those folks back who are teetering close to the edge.

My Ugly Beautiful

A house mate in front of cottage at St Joseph’s Villa Summer 1972
One of the most painful times of my adolescence was the two months I spent in a home for wayward girls. After an arrest for shoplifting, my mother thought it was the best way to straighten me out. After telling me I was a bad influence on my younger siblings, she dropped me off at St Joseph’s Villa in Richmond Virginia, and then she drove away.
It took me years to learn the damage that decision caused me. How the fear of abandonment jaded my judgment in every relationship. That it was the driving force behind my need to please the people around me.
But even after learning the devastation her decision had on me, I never blamed my mother. After my father’s death, which I wrote about here,I always saw her as a wounded soul. I saw the poverty of her spirit. And I felt she did the best she could with what she had.
Me on Tim’s car at St Joseph’s Villa
Someone recently asked me if perhaps I gave my mother more credit than she deserved. If I didn’t think she was just looking for an easy way out of a difficult situation. It caused me to think.
How are we supposed to view those with damaged souls who in turn damage others?
I found my answer in Ann Voskamps book One Thousand Gifts.  She writes,
“…what the French call d’un beau affreux…the ugly-beautiful…That which is perceived as ugly transfigures into beautiful…suffering can deliver grace…the Prince is born into a manure-smeared feed trough, where Holy God…breaks bread with cheats, where God wounds Himself through with nails on a cross and we wear the symbol as beauty.”
What if there is a widow’s mite of the soul? What if, just like in the temple, Jesus is saying, “come here, let me show you who really gave the most.” And what if that most no longer looked like pennies to us? Would we then change how we see others?
Aunt Jeanne Marie, Mother, and me. December 1982
I’ll never know my mother’s true motives. In many of our conversations in the last years of her life, she wept bitterly over her regrets as a parent. She said she did the best she could. Her heart spoke volumes so I never felt the need to press for an apology.
Ultimately, it’s my choice to apply grace to her actions. And in doing so, I rob the ugly of any potential to grow. I stop the progression of the wounded wounding others. I change the projectory of the wrong.
For after all, God’s grace covers all. And in Him, I see with different eyes. In Him, I see the transfiguration from ugly to beautiful. And it changes me.
34. A loving aunt.
35. The grace to forgive.
36. Untainted memories.

My Christmas Crime

At our house Christmas, had always meant baking cookies. So I had to do something. Daniel needed a Christmas cookie so I planned my crime.

One cold December day, I mixed up a small batch of gingerbread dough and rolled it out onto the counter. Choosing the smallest gingerbread man cookie cutter, I cut myself an array of the one-inch gingerbread men.
Lined in neat little rows on the baking sheet, I then poked holes in the top before shoving them into the hot oven. Once the cookies cooled, I selected the best one to be my contraband. With a beautiful red ribbon slipped through the hole, it made a wonderful necklace.
The next Saturday Tim and I drove to the prison for our weekly visit with Daniel. I especially dressed in Christmas colors to help conceal my little friend as he draped shamelessly around my neck. You could hardly tell it was a cookie.
I was a little nervous as we walked up to the main entrance. If the guards suspected I was a smuggler, I would be banned from visiting Daniel for the rest of his sentence.

Inside the guard station, I took off my coat with the cookie still resting safely on my chest. The guard checked my coat pockets while the gingerbread man and I walked through the metal detector. Suspecting nothing, the guard patted me down. I felt confident when we were approved for entry into the visiting area.
Tim and I chose a table in a far off corner so Daniel would be free to eat his cookie. As soon as he entered the room I was on my feet. When we hugged I whispered in his ear, “How do you like my necklace?”
Back in our seats, we made casual conversation, but Daniel couldn’t take his eyes off the gingerbread man.
Finally, Daniel said, “OK, now.” I broke the cookie free and discreetly slid it across the table. In one slick move, Daniel popped the entire cookie in his mouth. His head went back, his eyes closed, and he slowly chewed. I was so proud to have brought a little tradition into my son’s life.
Traditions are a wonderful part of the holiday season. But they are best kept flexible.
When you think about it, long 
ago a poor traveling couple found no room in the inn. The woman gave birth in a cold Bethlehem barn. Not the circumstances Mary and Joseph envisioned for the birth of their son. It had to be disappointing that all they had waited for seemed to take place in such a peculiar way. 

And yet, over two thousand years later the story of the birth of Christ continues to bring peace to an otherwise chaotic world.

I believe Christmas is best celebrated in spite of the world around us. And we must do whatever possible to bring the peace of the manger into each other’s lives. Even if it means bending a tradition to make if fit our circumstances.