“Okay, Number Five,” I said. “Let’s go find a waterfall.”
Now, as way of explanation: My grandmother used to drive me up the wall. She was always calling out to me, saying, “Frank, Bobby, Bill, … ah, Guy.” I mean I loved her to death; you’d think she would know my name instantly and not confuse me with all the other grandchildren. And then it happened. I became a grandparent. One day I caught myself calling out, “Ah, Faith, Ansley, Alma, ah, Kylee, come here a minute.” I had become my grandmother.
To circumvent this horrible condition, I decided on a strategy. I numbered them. Now, I don’t have to remember their names. I don’t get confused on who I’m calling out to. I just call their number, in order of birth. It works great. It sets me apart from the other grandparents. They seem to get a kick out of it.
Number Five was deserving of a treat. I’d taken her sisters, Number One and Number Two, to Alaska. Actually, I’d taken Number One to Alaska Twice. And I’d taken their cousin, Number Three to Alaska also. Number One and Number Two and I have traveled to New York City via an overnight AmTrak train ride with private sleeping compartments. It was time to give some others attention.
Number Five, six years of age, and I found ourselves in the Northeast Georgia Mountains. It was a waterfall trip. The first stop was the trail leading to Anna Ruby Falls. Anna Ruby Falls is actually two falls. The waters of York Creed drops fifty feet into the gorge below, and the waters of Curtis Creek cascades 153 feet. At the base they combine to form Smith Creek.
We hiked up the access trail. She stopped, thankfully, to read every informational sign on posts along the trail. The signs explained the various features of the forest, the animals, the plants, the water seeping from the rocks. I say “thankfully” because every sign gave me a chance to rest. Spoiler alert, dear reader: If you ever visit this place, the trail to the falls is uphill all the way.
At one point I stopped and called, “Number Five, come here.” She did. I bent down beside her and pointed. “Look up there.” She did.
“Holy smoke,” she exclaimed as she spotted the water rushing down the side of Tray Mountain. “That’s beautiful. Come on. Let’s go.” She started running. I followed at a more mature pace.
At the observation deck I caught up to her. “Number Five,” I called. “Don’t get too close to the edge.” I pointed to the warning sign. Another visitor to the falls asked, “Did you call her Number Five?” I told her I did. I explained my system. She laughed.
We hiked back down the mountain. She asked me if she could swim in the lake. “Number Two, said you would let me do anything I wanted.” She went swimming.
The next day found us at Amicalola Falls, the home of the Southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail and the home of Georgia’s tallest waterfall, 729 feet. Again it was uphill all the way to the base of the falls. Again, thankfully, she stopped to read every sign.
Our trip completed, we headed to the car. “Number Five,” I said. “I really enjoyed this.”
“Me, too,” she said. “But I need to tell you something. I’m not Number Five; I’m Number Six.”
A while back I started giving each of my grandchildren a monthly allowance. The oldest grandchild gets more and the youngest gets considerably less. I did this with the arrogant attitude I don’t need my children’s permission to give my grandchildren money. However, there were conditions.
The conditions for my grandchildren to receive an allowance from me is that they must: 1) save some money, 2) give some money away, 3) be able to tell where every dime went, and 4) send me a report on number 3 as a condition for getting the following month’s allowance. Now that report doesn’t have to be too specific. For instance, "spent $4 on personal stuff" is okay. It’s not that I want to know what they spend the money on; it’s that I want them to know where they spent their money. The younger children’s parents help them with the report. And there have been months when certain grandchildren got an email instead of the money. The email read: “Sorry you didn’t get an allowance this month, but I didn’t get a report. You must have been real busy. I love you.”
Number Two granddaughter is the best at sending the reports. She takes it seriously. She sends me a spreadsheet. And if you add up the figures it totals the exact amount given her. Considering the fact she’s thirteen, it’s amazing.
I got her report for June today. Again it was a detailed spreadsheet. She noted on the report that she took some money out of her savings for a purchase and that “when I get my July check I will replace it.” Loved that. I don’t require she not take money out of her savings. Again, the only goal is that the grandchildren develop the habit of knowing where every dime goes.
I reread her report. I texted her, telling her to call me. She did. First, I complimented her on her detailed reports. “Twenty years from now, when I’m dead and gone, and you’re managing your finances so well you’ll remember me making you do this. You’ll appreciate it then.”
“What do you mean, ‘dead and gone’,” she said. “You won’t be dead and gone.”
“Well, if I’m not I’ll be living in your basement.”
“Nope,” she said. “I love you, but that won’t happen. But I’ll come visit you in my sister’s basement.”
“Okay,” I said. “I guess that’s plain enough. But I needed to ask you about your check for July. You said ‘when I get my July check,’ but my records show that you should have already gotten your check. I called your cousins and all of them have gotten their checks, including the ones in Connecticut.”
“Well, I didn’t get mine?”
“Did your sister get her check?”
“My older sister did, but I don’t know about my younger sister.”
“Your older sister got her check?”
“Yes. I know because I was with her when she deposited it on her iPhone.”
“Sweetheart, the checks all come in the same envelope. Ask someone if your younger sister got her check.”
“Hold on,” she said. She shouted, “Hey, Dad, did my baby sister get her allowance check from my grandfather?” There was a pause. Then she said to me, “He said he deposited it yesterday.”
“Think on this a minute,” I said. “All the checks come in one envelope.”
There was a pause. Then I heard, “Hey, Dad, was my allowance check in that envelope?” Again a long pause. “Hold on; he’s looking for the envelope.”
I held on. I held on some more. I held on even more.
Finally, she spoke. “He found my check. I’ll deposit it in just a minute. You have no idea how much stress I go through being the middle child.”
My mother died on Mother’s Day. And on that Mother’s Day she, once again and finally, got the last word on me. She was at Wesley Woods Geriatric Center, where I’d placed her for evaluation following the death of Daddy, one month and one day earlier. Mother had a lot of problems, most of them medical but a few of them directly the result of her being just plain ornery. And at the end of her life there was the problem that she had only one drink a day. You see, if you refresh the drink before the glass is empty, technically it’s still one drink.
So I arrived at Wesley Woods that day in the company of a lady I’d been dating. In fact, we’d been dating seriously enough that it was time she was introduced to mother, scary as that might be for her. My mother, apparently, sensed that this relationship was serious. She said to the woman who, in a few months, would be my wife, (now let me translate her words into PG language), “Don’t take any male cow manure off him.”
We talked a bit more. And then my mother brought up the subject we’d been avoiding for weeks. She said, with grit and determination in her voice, and with that look on her face that long ago my brother and I had learned to interpret as a signal to shut up or be stomped, “You think you’re going to put me in a nursing home; but I’ll show you.”
That’s the last thing she said to me. Mother got the last word. I never put her into that nursing home. I didn’t get a chance. The nurses told me later that, twenty minutes or so, after she’d spoken those words to me she called them. She gave the nurse her wedding rings and said, “Give these to my son; he’ll know what to do with them.” Five minutes later my mother died. She got the last word.
Today my daughter-in-love, the mother of two of my precious grandsons, in Connecticut, wears those rings. I did know what to do with them.
You’ll forgive me today, upon our celebration of the Festival of the Christian Home, as I remember my mother.
Our Gospel lesson this morning, taken from John 10: 1-10, speaks of Jesus being the Good Shepherd. “Let me set this before you as plainly as I can,” said Jesus. “If a person climbs over or through the fence of a sheep pen instead of going through the gate, you know he’s up to no good – a sheep rustler!”
No one was going to rustle up my mother’s lambs. Why? Because she was in the pen with them, physically wrestling with the best of us and making us cry uncle. And I’m not talking about when I was a small child. Even when I was in high school, mother could take down the most competent athlete and pin him to the ground. Her petite body belied the strength that controlled the muscles in that once competitive gymnastic lady.
I’m pretty sure that one of the reasons my brother, Bill, and I turned out to be fairly decent people (and despite the fact I had to struggle with the reality that it seemed Mother always did love Bill best), was that Mother was truly the shepherd herding her lambs.
Looking back on it, I’m truly grateful that Mother guarded the gate and kept us safe, and from time to time came into the enclosure to make us feel special.
There are so many things I could tell you about my Mother. I could tell you about all the embarrassing things she did to me, like the time she asked Carole Memory, just before our first date, if she planned to swap spit with me. I could tell you about all the times she said, “Someday, you’ll understand,” and how, now, I understand. I could tell you about the times she said, “Someday, you’ll be sorry.” And today I’m truly, truly, sorry.
But what I really want to share with you today is my Mother’s insistence on me being in church. In the lesson from Acts, this morning, there’s a description of the church immediately after Christ’s resurrection. “They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God.”
Truth is, I have a lot of unresolved issues surrounding my Mother. There’s the issue of me searching for and finding my biological father. There’s the issue of her becoming more reclusive in her later years. There’s the issue of her one-drink-a-day, as well as some others.
But there’s one thing that is not an issue. It’s the one thing that shaped my life more than any other. Back in 1996, Bishop Lindsey Davis called me and asked me if I’d like to be considered to become pastor at the historic Epworth Church in the inner city of Atlanta. I said, “Yes.” He asked me if I wanted to know the salary. I told him, “Not particularly.” What Bishop Davis did not know was that church was only a few blocks from where I was born. What he did not know was my earliest memory in life is crawling up the steps of that church.
You see, my Mother took me to church before I could walk. I cannot remember a time, prior to getting my driver’s license, when my mother did not take me to church. And, when in later years, we joined a different church where there was no youth group my Mother formed the youth group.
So many, many memories of my Mother are centered about church. Sunday after Sunday sitting beside my mother, from knee pants to 1950s black slacks and pink shirt, every Sunday I was in church.
And so here I am today, in church, preaching to you, telling you about the first church where they were daily at the Temple and at home, praising God. And telling you about my Mother, so dedicated to her children, so conflicted in her being, so concerned that her kids go to church, and who always got the last word. And if from time to time, I seem a little overly dedicated to the church, to praising God, to the public worship and the daily prayers, you can blame my Mother.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Next to doing things with my grandkids, the thing I most enjoy doing is messing with my children. Now I don’t get involved in their lives. Well, I don’t get involved unless they attempt to define what I can or cannot give my grandchildren. Generally, speaking I respect their space and they respect mine.
They are, however, typical kids who shake their heads in consternation at the “old age” things I do or will not do. A few years back they did apparently get some instruction from the Almighty that advice on living and living properly should be sent my way on occasion.
It used to be that I’d help them out around their houses, cutting the lawn occasionally, putting in a new bathroom floor, little things that occupied my time and gave me a sense of being useful. I don’t do that anymore. All my children have children. And I don’t care if this is the Twenty-first Century or not; I firmly believe children, I’m speaking of their children, should be required to do chores such as cutting grass and such. So I don’t do those projects anymore. Besides I’ve reached the age where my back hurts.
This reduction in activities, however, does not diminish my joy at messing with them. And I’ve gotten a bit cagey at it. Such was the case recently.
One of my kids, the oldest son, is an Artistic Director of the Pilobolus Dance Theater. His dance company was performing in Atlanta. I bought the tickets and made plans to attend. Not wanting to go alone, I called my two oldest granddaughters. The older one, the one with the car and driver’s license, informed me she couldn’t fit it into her schedule. I hate it when they start thinking on their own. Her younger sister, who doesn’t have a driver’s license or a boyfriend, jumped at the chance.
So, we made our plans, dinner at a nice restaurant and then the dance performance followed by a visit backstage to talk with the dancers.
Now to the part about messing with my kids. Well, wait before that part, here’s a note to a certain woman: There are people in this town who like to talk, to make something out of nothing. Therefore I’m not mentioning your name. But thanks for making it possible for me to mess with my kids.
Okay, there’s this lady in town to whom I happened to mention the dance company was coming to Atlanta. She bought tickets for herself and a friend. We’d planned for the two of them to meet my granddaughter and me at the restaurant and then head to the dance. It turned out at the last minute her friend couldn’t go. We rode together to pick up my granddaughter.
The woman of whom I speak is (How shall I put this?) The woman is a fox. She definitely above average. This head-turner and I pulled up at my daughter’s house. We walked in. I said to my daughter who’s four years older than this woman, “Hey Sweetheart, this is my friend (insert name here).” My daughter was transfixed for a moment. “Oh, how nice to meet you.”
We three enjoyed our dinner and especially the performance.
My phone rang a few minutes ago. It was my youngest son. “So, Dad, I hear you went to the dance last night. Did you have a good time?”
I thought I’d write you a little epistle, sweetheart. I wanted to let you to let you know how much you did for me, how you expanded my horizons, reoriented my goals, and just put some spice into my life. It was a great time while it lasted.
I want to thank you for all the help you gave me in keeping healthy. You know, some people my age go to the gym or some exercise center to keep in shape. Others head over to the mall almost every morning to walk around and around the place. You taught me one does not have to leave home to get exercise. Remember how you used to get me to draw those squares on the walk in front of your house. And then we hopped on one foot from one square to the other. Sometimes, you’d toss a beanbag into one of the squares and we’d have to skip that one.
Those were good times. I suppose now I would do well to remember that game. If I played it more often I’d be in so much better shape.
I also need to thank you for bringing out the artist in me. I never would have thought I could sculpture as well as you taught me. I remember that day sittinging at the table on your porch when you showed me how to transform that unshaped blob of Play Dough into a resemblance of a person. My artist creation was not as impressive as yours, but you told me it was pretty good.
I never achieved your proficiency in the arts, but I’m grateful you pulled a bit of an artist out of me.
And then there was the goal setting. I had always thought of myself as being one who always strove to achieve a higher level. You taught me I had not set my goals high enough. I remember that day so vividly. We were at the playground down the street from my house. We were on the swing set, beside each other. I was content to just swing with you, to pass the day. You pointed out to me that we could reach higher. And then you suggested we reach even higher. You informed me that if enough effort were put into it we could stretch out our legs and maybe touch the sky with our toes. You were obviously not limited by the length of the swing’s chain.
You turned me into a philosopher when you discussed thing with me, such as: “What is time?” and “How can you prove tomorrow will come?” You put forth religious suppositions that not even the most learned theologian could fault, statements as: “God is absolutely too big to fit in a church.”
Now, I realize it’s over. Your big sister couldn’t pick you up at Kindergarten the other day. Her car was in the shop. I volunteered. I knew the times I’ve described above had come to an end when you turned the corner and saw me standing there. You stopped. You studied me. Then, you said, “I like it better when my sister picks me up.”
Graduation from kindergarten is only a few months away. You’re entering the world of your older sisters and cousins. Do me a favor. Continue being an artist; continue reaching for the sky and pondering the unanswerable. And once in a while remember those times you taught me so much.
It was one of those kind of days. The kind of day that frequents my neighborhood this season of the year. The morning was chilly, but not too chilly. The first caress of the air encouraged the wearing of a jacket or sweatshirt or such. Then the sun rose more fully; the chill diminished; the covering was peeled away.
Halfway through the morning we hiked across a field, sweatshirt tied about our waist. There was a promise of temperatures later reaching the seventies. The body hinted at the beginning of a sweat. Then we moved into the forest, down a trail covered with a canopy of tree limbs. The shade conspired with the coolness to produce shivers. Sweatshirts again covered the torso.
“This is really cool,” she said as she led the way, pointing to this feature and that. “This is really cool.” Suddenly she stopped, quickly whirled around with her index finger to her lips. The finger left her lips and the hand formed the classic “Stop!” command. I stopped. Slowly the commanding hand formed into a fist but with the index finger extended to direct my attention to a spot fifty yards away where the mother deer stood with her fawn. Again I was silently commanded to stay still; then, to squat alongside her. “Don’t move!” was whispered
I kept quiet. I didn’t move. How could I? This ten-year-old had just commanded the seventy-two year old to squat. I can still squat on command. But once there, I’m there. She watched the deer. I pondered how I was going to stand back up. While considering the options I slowly raised my phone and took several pictures.
The wind shifted. The mommy deer stuck her nose into the air. She sniffed and sniffed again. She and the fawn bolted up the hill until the white of the tails were but pinpoints disappearing into the shrubs.
She jumped up. I sort of fell to one side, placed my hands on the forest floor, and rolled to a standing position. “Oh my, did you see that? She was beautiful. Her baby was so cute. Give me the phone and I’ll text those pictures to Mom. She won’t believe I was that close to those deer.”
The trail started down into the canyon. The deeper we got the more the chill. A longing for another sweatshirt accompanied me. “Are we going all the way to the bottom?” I told her we were. “Great,” she said. “This is cool.”
Before we reached the canyon’s floor she heard the rushing water. “Is that a waterfall?” I told her it was. “Come on. Let’s hurry.” I told her the waterfall had been there for thousands of years and would be there when we got to the bottom. “Okay,” she said, “but I’ll run ahead a little bit. Don’t worry. I’ll wait for you.” I told her to me sure she followed the trail’s blaze marks. “I know; I know. Follow the yellow marks.”
Reaching the bottom, I realized down here it was even more cool. She was sitting on a rock ten feet out into the pond, bare feet in the water, staring at the stream cascading over the cliff in front of her. I was more aware of the spray now dampening my sweatshirt.
“This is so cool,” she said. I instead looked up to the canyon’s rim. She was so cool I had not considered we’d have to hike back up.
In the cemetery located in an upper middle class area of metropolitan Atlanta, there is a special section. It’s nestled near the bottom of a sloping hill, up against the boundary of the property. It’s called Babyland.
A drive wanders through the large acreage, meandering among the immaculately cared-for graves, in and out the massive trees. As one moves along the drive, coasting quietly down the slope toward Babyland, a modest but beautiful piece of statuary appears.
I stopped my car there the other day. Solitude was mine; no one was around. For a moment I stood looking toward the statuary, a winged cherub reaching toward the heavens. Beams of sun pinched their way through the branches forming a latticed awing over the place. The cherub’s foot rested upon a pedestal which is surrounded by neatly laid paving stones, many with names and dates carved into them.
I knelt there and placed a rose on a brick bearing the name of Lennon, another on the one reading Joy, another on Rose’s brick. These are the resting places of my never realized grandchildren, all of them died in their mother’s womb. A fourth rose was placed on the brick bearing their stillborn cousin, Isabella.
Rising, I stood, remembering the days I’d led a quiet worship service at Babyland, beside the ascending cherub. The services were to lay these precious children to rest. The services were momentous for many reasons.
These celebrations acknowledged the sacredness of life of these children who never knew the sweetness of life nor how they were loved. The celebrations affirmed their worth for we who were never blessed to hold them, to behold their smile or coo in contentment with them. We loved them mightily just the same. These were not blobs of undeveloped tissue. These were my child’s child, with beating hearts and unlimited potential, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh. They were precious.
The parents of these children grieved then, and, amid the pitter, patter of the beautiful children who now occupy their lives, they still grieve. Here at Babyland, that grief was given a focus that day when the Service of Death and Resurrection for a Stillborn Child was celebrated.
Oh, Lennon, Joy, and Rose, objects of my love, with whom I never played neither hide-n-seek nor peek-a-boo, nor watched you fly far above my backyard on the rope swing, you were such a promise for me. Oh, Lennon, Joy and Rose, how I miss what might have been. But because we celebrated that day the unfulfilled life that was you, because the physical you was committed to the love of God and now lies among those other precious children of other parent’s love, there is a place I can come, as I have today, to honor you, to remember you, to love you. In that service of death and resurrection your worth, the sacredness of your life, was acknowledged. And you will always abide and be loved in my heart.
The morning had turned to midday as I left. Driving home I embraced the uniqueness of those celebrations. How wonderful they were. How rare they are.
If children are sacred from the moment of conception, as is maintained by many in the church, why are such celebrations not commonplace?
Just came across this photo from a few years back. The occasion is the baptism of Number Seven grandchild, Sam. He is the last one of the six generations who have worn the handmade gown sewn by my great-grandmother.
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