Aunt Jeanne Marie

The Love of a Boy and Girl

IMG_3631Last week I feasted at Aunt Jeanne Marie and Uncle Eugene’s dining room table. At eighty-seven, it’s a struggle for them to entertain guests. But they were delighted when I came, bringing two friends along with me. For over an hour we ate great food and drank fine wine. And as we did, the conversation became richer and richer.

Finally, I pushed my chair away from the table and declared, “This is the best.”

“No,” replied Aunt Jeanne Marie, “The love of a boy and a girl, that’s the best.” Then she turned to Uncle Eugene and tenderly tapped him on the shoulder.

The moment froze. For a few seconds, years of photographs flashed in my mind. The young bride and groom. The two of them in their forties, fifties, and sixties. Uncle Eugene so tall and handsome, usually with his arm around his stunning wife.How to get Mojo

Sitting there, I felt honored to have witnessed such a great love story.

And, once again I realized how distorted my view of love is. How too often my heart gets sucked into a Hollywood romance because the couple is young and beautiful. How I’m easily impressed by wealthy celebrities declaring unending love for one another.

But true love sat in front of me last week. And it was quiet and reserved. Deeper than anything I’ve ever experienced. And it didn’t need words. It shined through in the simplest glances. And spoke volumes in the gentle tap of a shoulder.

If we lived in a right side up world, there would be a line outside Aunt Jeanne Marie and Uncle Eugene’s door. People would come from miles in order AJM & Grandfather 1to soak in their wisdom. Talk show hosts would compete to book them on their shows.

And they would be the celebrities of the day. Their faces beaming on the cover of the magazines in the check out line. And our young men and women would clamor to be just like them.

Ahh, what a wonderful world that would be.

Yup, I Was a Dirty Kid

I have a vivid memory of standing next to a pretty little girl in my 4th grade classroom. As I glanced down at our hands, my fingernails were not as white as hers and my arms still showed the dirt remnants of my latest adventures on the ball field.

Two years later, at a new elementary school, I learned the devastating truth, that apparently, I dressed all wrong. “Why do you wear summer clothes in the winter?” The perfectly dressed classmate asked me?

Seasonal clothing – that concept eluded me. But the shame of not fitting in didn’t, it stuck for years.

There’s a grei8opez3yna8118yat scene in Betty Smith’s book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, where seven-year-old Francine has to take her little brother, Neeley for their vaccines. To take his mind off what she perceives is impending torture; Francine spends the morning with Neeley making mud pies. Forgetting to wash up like their mother told them, Francine drags her brother, mud and all, to the local health department.

Francine goes in first where a nurse scrubs a nice clean white spot on her arm. In disgust a Harvard trained intern who was obligated to work a few hours a week at the clinic says,

“Filth, filth, filth, from morning to night. I know they’re poor but they could wash. Water is free and soap is cheap. Just look at that arm…”

Francine is so angry she doesn’t even feel the needle jab. And while the nurse is bandaging her up, Francine blurts out,

“My brother is next. His arm is just as dirty as mine so don’t be surprised. And you don’t have to tell him. You told me…besides, it won’t do no good. He’s a boy and he don’t care if he is dirty.”

I anguished reading that scene.

For years my shame would pop up it’s ugly head. It drove me to overcompensate in many ways. Kelly and Daniel

And when I had children of my own, I overcompensated by keeping them clean. No dirt would gather under their fingernails. And of course, they had the best clothes, even if it meant sewing them myself from scraps purchased at Ben Franklin’s.

But then a funny thing happened. One day, in casual conversation my Aunt Jeanne Marie said,

“After your father died, when I was living with you guys in Arlington, I used to watch the little girl next door as she left for school. Her clothes were always pressed and her hair neatly done. Then I’d look at you guys and my heart would just break. There was so much to do and your Mother and I were doing the best we could. But I always wanted better for you guys.”

Suddenly, all those years of stored up pain melted away. Somehow, just knowing she saw my need made it better. There was comfort in knowing I didn’t suffer alone.

Aunt Jeanne Marie knew. And that knowledge was like cool water to a thirsty soul.

And to think, He sees it all…

He has searched me, and He knows me.
He knows when I sit and when I rise;
He perceives my thoughts from afar.
He discerns my going out and my lying down;
He is familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue, He knows it completely.
He hems me in behind and before, and He lays His hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain…

Praise be the Lord.


Passing the Baton

AJM & Grandfather 1

Uncle Eugene and Aunt Jeanne Marie 1980’s

About thirty years ago, after spending a day touring the sights in San Francisco, I sat down at my Aunt Jeanne Marie’s dining room table while she busied herself in the kitchen.

The table was clear except for a small very thick photo album I’d never seen before. I slid it in front of me and opened it to the first page. There sitting neatly in its plastic sleeve was a picture of my mother. On the next page was a picture of my brother Jim, his wife, and their three kids. Page after page, a new family appeared, including mine. We were all there, including Uncle Eugene’s sister and her families.

Aunt Jeanne Marie came in from the kitchen and sat across from me.

“Oh you found my prayer book. I find it so much easier to pray for someone if I have a picture of them in front of me.

I smiled as I turned the last page to a formal picture of then President Ronald Reagan.

“Oh, you know the bible says we’re to pray for our leaders, so I pray for him too.”

Now I’d like to say I went straight home and made me a prayer book of my family’s photos. And that each day I took it out and prayed diligently over each member. But I didn’t. At that time, my prayer life consisted more of desperate pleas for God to remove me from my latest trial.

But lately, I can’t stop thinking about that little photo album. And the idea that for most of my life, well probably all of it, Aunt Jeanne Marie has prayed for me.

TPDFrank Peretti’s compelling novel, This Present Darkness, tells of a demon invasion of a small American town. And whom do those demons fear? The tiny “remnant” of saints whose greatest weapon is prayer. And the one they fear the most is an old lady named Edith. When she begins to pray for that town, the demons recoil in fear.

The bible says we struggle not with flesh and blood, but with powers of this dark world, and spiritual forces in heavenly realms. Perhaps Frank Peretti’s story is truer than we’d like to think. And if it is, we need more remnants in constant prayer for our families and our towns.


My Granddaughter Jo with Aunt Jeanne Marie, 2010

Aunt Jeanne Marie is in her late 80’s. And I’m convinced when she begins her prayers, evil forces in heavenly realms have to withdraw. And the weakening of her physical body does not deter the strength of her spirit. And daily she goes to war for the souls of the ones she loves.

As I contemplate the future of my family, I realize my generation needs to pick up that baton. We need to prepare to do battle in spiritual places. To build remnants who understand the scope of the fight. To prepare to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil. Are you in?






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 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.