I was making chicken salad for school lunches at 10:15 p.m. when Grandpa called to tell me something that, as he told it, struck both of us as funny. These days, his voice often chokes with emotion as he speaks to people he loves, and I cherish this. As a result, our conversations have a depth that goes far, far beyond the words spoken.
Ever since I was two, I’ve always lived at least three time zones away from him, but time and distance don’t stop love. His unconditional concern and care has been a steadfast light shining from afar. He’s a pillar of strength, solidity, and resilience in a family that has spread out through geography, marriage, and experience. And in that way, he bears likeness to another Father who is always present.
I can look back now and see that all the twists and turns of my life, some of them known to my family, some of them just aches within my soul, have been overseen by the guiding and ever-loving presence of God. He has been right there alongside me, however far the distance between us might have seemed.
I heard this song today and it prompted me to write. There must be some connection.
An uncluttered mind is quick to see beauty. Thus, my youngest sees beauty everywhere. And he points it out, saying, “Mom. Look at that beautiful ________.” It’s usually when I’m totally preoccupied by something, anything, other than seeing life for the gift that it is. Two cases in point. We were at the pediatrician’s office a few weeks back and he tapped my arm. “Mom. Look at that beautiful tree. Can I take a picture?” I gave him my phone. Here’s his tree. What you can’t see in this photo is that the tree was blowing ever so gently in the wind, each of its leaves shimmering a different shade of emerald – a thousand ephemeral jewels twinkling for whomever would stop to appreciate them. And I would have missed them all if it weren’t for the open eyes of my young child.
Then, on Saturday, a similar event. I’m bounding up and down the two flights of steps at the front of our house, unloading a carful of groceries, ignoring my son as he stares intently into a shady section of our overgrown euonymus tree. On one of my passes down the steps back to the car he whispers, “Mom. Come here. Look at this beautiful butterfly.” This time, I spend so long looking that it’s a small miracle I even get this photo, for I am caught up in watching the silent opening and closing of her wings. My son and I scarcely breathe, seeing her shift position on the tiny flowers – her legs dancing on the stems and leaves, and we notice the miniscule, almost imperceptible feathers on her wings which become visible only when you are this close. Oh, to be still, and see. It is Love, given.
All too soon she flutters up, over the treetop, and away. She is the day’s unexpected gift of presence.
I had wanted to write about her yesterday. But was I caught up in the news…
When the world hurts my heart, like it did yesterday, taking time to focus on beauty is healing.
My son and I took one of our dogs for a walk this morning. On the way, we saw a stunning yellow and black butterfly ahead of us on the path – like it was beckoning us – to follow it.
A week ago, when I was at Sunday Mass and I heard his name read among the recently deceased, something inside me gave way and I started to cry. And then I couldn’t stop.
It was just before the Eucharist, and we were praying for lots of people, but I was stuck, focused on the fact that my neighbor was gone from this earth, reunited in heaven with his lovely wife who passed on almost two years ago. They were older people – had six children who were now grandparents themselves. This is the way life is supposed to play out. And I didn’t know them well. Yet I was so very, very emotional. Why?
Standing there, staring at the church rafters and reciting the Lord’s Prayer, I asked Him, “Why am I so upset? Why can’t I stop crying? I’m happy for them. Why does this hurt?”
From somewhere inside, His answer came:
You love life. He loves life. They love life.
I knew from experience that walking in faith means living with ambiguity, and that in time, hopefully, what I’d heard would make more sense to me. So I proceeded to do what seemed right.
I’d seen more cars than usual outside Mr. and Mrs. Schab’s home in the previous three days, and now I knew why. After lunch, I wrote a condolence note, collected myself, and walked over.
A white-haired woman in her sixties who bore a strikingly beautiful resemblance to her late mother welcomed me warmly at the door. My tears began to return the moment I said,
“I was just at the 11:00 Mass and I heard the news.”
She said, “Yes. He was my dad. He passed a week ago yesterday.”
Oh, I thought. We were away. That’s why I didn’t know.
She added, “The day before his 99th birthday. So, he got to celebrate it in heaven.”
Any idea I had of consoling her went out the window.
I stammered, barely able to see now, “And I miss your mom.”
She smiled slightly and looked down saying, “Oh, we do too.”
The next thing I knew, she was opening the screen door wide to hug me and kiss me on the cheek.
Then she said, “What is your name?”
Oh boy. I guess grief is like that. You forget to say your name.
I told her. “Gretchen.” And we went from there. The ten minutes or so we spent getting to know one another reminded me of what I had loved so much about her parents.
From the moment she laid eyes on me at the door, she appreciated me. Not for what I wanted to give her (or thought I could give her, and others who were there), but because she saw my mere presence as a positive in her life. And I remembered right away that her sister had once greeted me at the door of this very same house with an identical warmth and generosity of spirit when I came to visit Mr. and Mrs. Schab, who of course, had been the genesis of the love these two women showed me. Or were they?
The first time I ever met Mr. and Mrs. Schab was Halloween. I think my oldest son (now 12), was 4. Instead of just handing out candy, they invited trick-or-treaters and their parents in for refreshments and conversation while offering a spread of treats from the dining room table, located just inside the front door. Maybe it was the glow of the antique lamps shining out from the bay window that made the house so welcoming on approach, or perhaps it was Mrs. Schab’s cheery, “Hellooooo! Please! Come in! Aren’t you adorable?” that made my son and I feel cherished. But from that memorable evening on, their home was, by far, our favorite on the block.
Later, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the Schabs were the founders of our church’s marriage preparation program, and over many decades had helped to counsel over 1,000 couples. It was easy to imagine them sharing their experiences, faith, joy, and time with men and women embarking on the road they had been journeying together – one which would culminate in 72 years of devotion. They also served on numerous community committees and stayed active outside of their home right up until the very end of their lives. They were humble, gracious, energetic servants.
But my personal memories of Mr. and Mrs. Schab – time talking in their garden, their gratitude for my cookies, how I loved hearing their stories of how our neighborhood changed over six decades – all of these are grounded in a feeling of us being “present together.” When I was with them, even though I didn’t know them well, time seemed to stand still, because in each moment, they were focused only on what was essential – living the moment. Not the next moment. Or the one after that.
After a week’s reflection, I think I understand what the Lord was trying to tell me as tears streamed down my face last Sunday….
When you really fall in love with Life, so much so that you see the divinity of it in every single person you meet, you can truly stop – right now – to appreciate the wonder and beauty of it all, and share deeply and effortlessly of the Love you are living. And the Love comes through you, to make the people with you feel cherished. You can give those around you a glimpse of eternity.
When we love the Maker of Life, we are given all we need to live this life in all the fullness He intended for us.
The key to living life in full, is following the Way of Life, and basking in His Love.
Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep….
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy;
I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
Today, my husband and I celebrate the 17th anniversary of our wedding. As my sister-in-law was taking me to get my hair done on that bright spring morning, she gave me the single best piece of advice: “At a couple points,” she said, “just STOP. Take a look around. Take it all in.” I’m so very, very grateful that she offered me this wisdom, because thanks to her, I have several clear memories of that gorgeous day, when I so easily could have lost them in the shuffle and momentum of the celebration.
Of the Scriptures that were read, this one stands out for me:
“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.” (Matthew 7:24-25)
I’m not even going to begin to claim that we’ve done everything right in our 17 years of marriage. And anyone who has been married for any length of time will tell you that rain will fall, floods will come, and winds will blow. Your commitment to one another will be tested, perhaps not to the breaking point, but there will certainly be challenges.
My sister-in-law’s wisdom is still the one and only thing I tell brides-to-be, and I think it applies well to the rest of life too. And I’m sure you’ve heard it before, too – because we all know that life goes by so, so darn quickly. You don’t want to let precious moments with your loved ones or friends slip by unnoticed. But I would argue that stopping to take a look around is also critical for the long-term success of a marriage.
When my husband looked into my eyes and pledged to be with me until “death do us part,” I could see in his green eyes that he meant every word. We both meant what we said, and still do.
It’s easy to stop at the good moments – to appreciate sweetness…The feel of my hand in my husband’s. The way he always kisses me goodbye before leaving the house – for any reason, big or small. The fact that he is exceptionally good at picking out gifts for me, and at whipping up the most delicious meals. At these times, it’s also easy to remember to thank God for this good man.
But then of course, storms do occasionally blow through. What I’ve learned is, they don’t have to tear us down – because in the midst of them, we can keep building the foundation of our house – brick by brick. It’s grace that taught me this – worked on me, really.
As often as possible, we STOP in the moment and take a look around. We look into one another’s eyes. We examine what’s really going on in the here and now – take an unflinching look so that patterns we know didn’t work for us in the past can’t repeat themselves. We speak honestly and openly about the present, and if there’s something that needs work – we work on it. Nothing gets swept under the rug. And the words we use with one another are words of affirmation – they support, encourage, reaffirm our connection and commitment to one another. They build up the foundation of our marriage – the foundation of “us.”
A house isn’t built overnight, but when the foundation is re-fortified, it can stand for a long, long time. May ours be built stronger, again and again. This is my prayer for us, on this 17th anniversary of ours.
Two months ago, I joined a gym. It was time. It wasn’t about weight loss, and I won’t pretend it wasn’t at least a little bit about vanity. (I’m 42. At some point, you have to admit you’re going to have to work a bit harder to keep whatever it is you’ve got, right?). But mostly, it was for my heart – I was panting after climbing two short flights of stairs (and we have six in our house, so that most definitely was not good). And, it was for my bones. By themselves, those chocolatey calcium supplements are simply not going to fight my genetic predisposition toward osteoporosis. No matter how much I wish they would. It was time to start pumping some iron.
I brought up my need to some friends, who told me where they go, and that’s where I joined. By grace, and yes, I’ve asked for His help in this, because I can’t tell you how I loathe to work out, I have faithfully made it to the gym 3x a week ever since joining. Just knowing that there are others in the same pursuit of health is what gets me there. I know I’ll never have the figure of a supermodel (and hello! I LOVE cake), but it has made me appreciate my body and its remarkable capabilities once again, too.
Today, I was reflecting on where my body has taken me in this incredible life so far:
It gets up every morning.
It has lived in 6 U.S. states and traveled to many, many more.
It has taken my soul to Western Europe, a bit of Northern Africa, and much of North America.
It has enjoyed and absorbed nutrients from thousands of meals.
It has loved – in all senses of the word – and, with my amazing husband, was given the privilege of carrying and birthing three people.
It has embraced and learned from others every single day, and miraculously, kept working with relatively few problems for just over 42 years. Indeed, through none of my own doing, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14).
It’s taken me a long time to say it boldly, but I LOVE my body. And I’ll keep on using those medieval-looking machines to show my gratitude – by taking care of it.
One summer evening 9 years ago, I was holding the reins of life so tightly that the tension had crept into my jaw. I knew I was grinding my teeth at night; it’s one of my body’s telltale signs that I’m seething with something that needs to be vented and hasn’t been. You’d have thought that pain in my jaw, neck, back, and legs would have brought me to some kind of reckoning – but No. People are stubborn. And if you mess with an animal in pain, often you just aggravate them further. So it was with me.
I was physically miserable, but I was compounding my misery by arguing with a few people – the main one being my husband. Today, I don’t even know what I was fuming about, exactly, but we were working through some tough things, individually and together, and it was all crashing in on me. So I was letting him have it.
Disagreements can be productive, but the problem on this day, and others like it, was that no amount of arguing was going to solve the issues at hand. Primarily for one very good reason. My husband was not in the room. He wasn’t even in the house. Whether he was traveling, working late, or out with friends, I don’t recall….it was long ago….and his whereabouts then are not germane to this story. What is germane is that I was very angry and resentful – feeling ‘put upon,’ as they say – and my rant with him, and some other people, lived entirely in my head, was leading me exactly – nowhere.
Our two kids at the time were ages 3 and 8 months. I had spent much of that day on a chore no mother can ignore. Laundry. I’d done 4 or 5 loads of it. But because I couldn’t find precious minutes to fold those loads between picking up toys, making meals and snacks, cleaning up messes, and entertaining my charges (especially the ‘older’ one of our babes), I had deposited the clean clothes on the only large, flat surface available – our bed in the Master bedroom. Through tight eyes, I was staring down a mountain of ‘lights,’ ‘darks,’ and ‘colors.’ I was NOT happy.
I wanted to crawl into that bed and shut out the world. Stop the spinning. Stop the incessant demands on me. Forget about life. And sleep. Front time to time, I was doing too much of that, too. Sleeping. It was an effort to refresh my body, sure, and I justified the mid-day naps by saying I needed them to cope. But the truth is, I used these breaks to not cope. It was a means of escape. And it wasn’t good, restful sleep. I wasn’t waking up feeling a whole lot better than when I’d laid down.
So, back to my tirade…I wanted to take that pile of laundry and hurl it across the room in a fit of rage. But I had hit a wall. I just couldn’t do even that. And that’s when, for some unknown reason, I sank to my knees next to the bed, buried my face in my hands, and prayed.
I hadn’t really prayed – in that position, or in that kind of way – since I was a little girl. A jumble of tangled thoughts, fears, concerns, worries, complaints, and frustrations tumbled up and out of me as I talked to God. And the longer I went on, the more I felt His steadying hand on me, the reality of His presence with me in my room, telling me that peace is possible – even for me. I was down there on the floor for about 20-25 minutes. I know because I looked at the clock when I got up and was shocked at how much time had passed. I had entered into a timeless space with God during our dialogue, one that in hindsight I’d see marked the beginning of a new way of living.
That singular experience with prayer changed my way of viewing God – from some distant, remote ‘being’ who has knowledge of me but no real interest, to a God who was approachable. Someone I could talk to. And in time, I stopped venting to Him, and started thanking Him, because I could see evidence of His love for me in my daily life, and then in my life in general, and finally, even in the parts of my past for which I felt ashamed.
Today, I know beyond the shadow of any doubt, that The Lord is my truest friend, the Lover of my soul, who cares for me so much more than I care for myself. And the key to a good night’s sleep is not my chamomile tea, or a few carefree moments with a novel – though I enjoy both of these before I turn in. No, the key for me is to lay everything within me at God’s feet, knowing and expecting Him to handle my present concerns with the same undivided attention He has given to me all of my life. His Hand on me is peace.
The couple was passing me on the sidewalk as I was heading into the shopping center and they were walking out. He was slightly ahead of her and all of us were instinctively hunched over, bracing ourselves against the 14 degree temperature and sub-zero wind chill. He looked back at her and gruffly said:
“I’m not tryin’ to leave you, but I’m getting to the car.”
Then he turned and headed off into the parking lot, leaving her there, moving along slowly with a downcast face.
I immediately thought of my husband. I’m not going to say we’re perfect people and have never had a rough patch in our marriage, and unfortunately on this Friday afternoon, I also don’t have time to paint a full picture for you and list all of his best qualities. But I just HAD to write this.
In our 17 years of marriage (plus one year of dating), he has never left me alone. Not without his love, not without his friendship, not without his support, not without his concern, not without his physical presence at a moment when I really needed him. Never left me alone.
And when it comes to cars and parking lots – there’s the truth about him in a nutshell. If the weather was bad or the situation iffy, he’d tell me to stay where I’d be warm, or dry, or cool, or safe, etc. and he’d go get the car and bring it around to me. I admit, there might have been times when this was better for him (he’s a faster walker than me, and if the road is icy you don’t want to walk with me!), but whatever the case, he’s always considering my best interests, and if the kids are with us, theirs as well.
Last weekend when I woke up on Valentine’s Day, the first thing I saw were gorgeous red roses from my husband. And down the hall, my daughter saw pink tulips, from that same good man. Tonight, he will take our daughter to the annual Father-Daughter Dance at her school. It’s the fourth time they’ve been, and my little girl looks forward to it every year. This ritual is close to her heart and I know why. It’s a night where she has the undivided attention of her first love, her dad. I love this night, too, because I know that day by day her interactions with her dad form her expectations about how she is to be treated by a man somewhere down the road. Tonight she gets to practice being the apple of someone’s eye. And my sweet girl is blessed, just like me.
They were married by the local pastor on January 18, 1942 in the living room of her parents’ home. It was a simple ceremony with immediate family in attendance. She wore a navy blue dress and an orchid corsage, and afterwards they had a celebratory lunch. For their 60th wedding anniversary, I asked her sisters what kind of cake they’d had so that I could replicate it. Neither one could remember. I had wanted the cake to be a surprise, but I finally broke down and asked the bride – my grandmother – and even she couldn’t remember. Such details weren’t important, apparently. What was important was that they’d made a lifelong commitment that day, at the young age, both of them, of just 19.
As of today, they have celebrated 73 years of marriage, and 73 Valentine’s Days as husband and wife. If that isn’t “a love that lasts,” I’m not sure what is.
In 2012, my family gathered to celebrate my grandparents’ 70th anniversary, and I was one of several people who gave toasts at dinner. I read a longer version of the letter below in a trembling voice. A few months later, my grandmother wanted to publish my letter in their church’s quarterly newsletter, and so my thoughts were shared with a broader audience. I was flattered, but also a bit nervous, since I guess you could say this was my public writing debut – at least for the kind of writing I care most about – matters of faith and the heart.
On Tuesday this week, as Grandma told me she and Grandpa would attend a Sweethearts Luncheon for Valentine’s Day, I asked for her thoughts on publishing a short form of the letter here. She consented and said it was a good idea. She has always encouraged me. And so, in celebration of this day of love, I venture into heart-filled terrain once again.
A tribute to my grandparents:
Dear Grandma and Grandpa,
Five years ago we gathered together to celebrate your 65th wedding anniversary, an extraordinary event. Yet here we are, blessed again, with another 5 years of a remarkable marriage….
Your marriage didn’t simply last, it flourished. How did that happen? I explored the idea with the goal of more deeply appreciating your marriage, and strengthening my own. And here’s my theory.
For the last seven decades, consciously or not, you have each cultivated a servant’s heart. You have awoken each morning and asked your soul, “How can I promote the well-being and happiness of this person I love – today?” And then you got up and did what was needed. It was through billions of kind words, billions of small acts of love, and billions of tiny moments. In short, whether you always did it intentionally or not, you made the love you share a higher calling.
Even today when I sit and observe you, I see the ripple effect of a small, seemingly insignificant choice – the way you say one another’s names. Hazel. Allen. You say each other’s names lovingly, softly, in a voice that asks, “Are you here for me, my love?” And the response, however it comes, is always, “Yes. I am here for you. I am fully present to you. You can be confident in me. I am devoted to you.”
In all my life, as I have listened to your exchanges, I have never heard resentment or bitterness creep into your voices when you speak to one another. If you have been angry, you have discussed the issue, reached a decision together, and let it go. To my knowledge, and from what I have witnessed, you have never carried grudges against one another. You have never ledgered wrongs. You forgive. …
Now I look forward and ask, “What can we as a family do to continue your accomplishment? What lessons do we carry forward?”
We can move forward as you have, with servants’ hearts. Love is only advanced in the world when people choose to serve others. To do that, we must set ourselves aside and focus on one another. I look to you both as role models in how to do this, and in how to live a full life, rich in all the ways I want mine to be. …
Cathedral builders worked entire lifetimes without ever seeing the results of their work fully incorporated into the finished structure. Every individual life is like this. We don’t always know the full impact of the countless small decisions we make every day. But we move forward in faith, and in your lives, the results have been beautiful.
Our family gathered here is your cathedral. Your marriage was the cornerstone, and we are building upward. The values, skills, and morals you have passed on to us are the buttresses and beams. The memories and stories are the artwork and stained glass windows. And an occasion as special as this one is like a visit to the cathedral – a chance to celebrate what has been accomplished.
I love you more than I can ever express here. I am honored to be your granddaughter. And I will take what I have learned from you and pass it on. I will do my very best to make your story my own.
We’re standing in the church sanctuary, a place of holy refuge, and I know she feels safe. She’s facing a very tough day. She’s been carrying heavy burdens for several people, trying to help where and however she can, and I can see the weight of many hard weeks bearing down on her. She’s got herself together – she’s beautiful and graceful, keeping up with self-care, but none of us can do the impossible. We can’t bring people back from the dead, or stop the march of a loved one’s disease right there in its tracks with one desperate, pleading prayer. Her eyes fill up and flood over and I don’t have words so I do what friends do then. I hug her. And I don’t let go until she lets go first.
Later in the day I remember three women I haven’t thought of in many years. I dig up their picture:
Arms linked together, they were a bit of an obstacle walking down the Roman street at dusk on that cold, January day. I followed them for a little before snapping this photo. They were in no hurry, and didn’t sway from between these yellow lines. People went around them. I was wishing I spoke Italian so that I could catch snippets of their conversation, though I’m fairly sure the bulk of it was the same as that of women’s talk everywhere – mostly family, the work of homemaking, marriage, schedules, maybe some chit-chat about clothing, books, and other entertainment thrown in for fun.
But I took the picture because I was most captivated by the fact that they were linked. They were unified. They were together. They were walking through life, sharing the journey, and their joined arms confirmed to one another not just an intellectual support system, but a true physical presence. My arm in yours says, “You are really not alone.” Touch comforts when words can’t.
Valentine’s Day is coming up. Who else needs a hug? Maybe even a walking hug – where we join arms and travel some of this life together, sharing what we can, and letting the silent strength of one another’s arms be the reassurance we need when words fail us?
They burst into the kitchen, their young faces flush with excitement. “We have a GREAT idea!” they said. “We’re going to make Valentines for everyone in the neighborhood!”
“Um, ok.” I said, incredulous. “That’s a….good idea..??”
With amazed and delighted disbelief I watched my daughter and her friend follow through on this loving, joyful impulse. In the unusually warm weather, they spent all of Sunday afternoon sitting on our front porch making Valentines for neighbors, most of whom they don’t know, taking breaks now and then to run off with exuberance for “deliveries.” If the recipient was a friend, he or she received the card face-to-face. If not, the Valentines were left in the house mailbox, one from each girl, sweetly signed with only their first names. In a span of 4 hours, the girls industriously covered our little section of the world, 4 tiny streets, with love.
We were all conceived by the One who loves like this – with abandon. But somewhere along the way, we usually acquire a harder-hearted response – the one that I showed yesterday – to love, freely given. Lord, open my eyes today. Help me to see all the ways you love me. Help me share your everlasting love with the world.
Many waters cannot quench love,
Nor will rivers overflow it;
If a man were to give all the riches of his house for love,