I Celebrate the Wonders of the Day

A prayer of sorts.
I open my eyes to the fresh wonders of another day.
I inhale the quiet.
I whisper “hi” to the barely moving morning.
I lift my face to greet the sol  and smile.
Lightly ribbed leaves pirouette in the wind. They show off with blinks and winks of brilliance. The trees they belong to have names I haven’t yet learned. Still, I give thanks for their gifts of shade. Their gentle sway reminds me the earth continues to breathe.
On the line, clothespins stand at attention. Two well-worn tea-towels, left to hold sway throughout the night, are ready to return to kitchen duty.
The buzz of early rising bees indicates the winged workers are already on the job.
Just over the cracked and spackled brick wall that separates us from the neighbor, roosters crow for show. Free-range and free-spirited, they announce daybreak any time they choose.
I move from back door to front. I open the door and stand just outside, with freshly brewed café con leche in hand. My garden thrives with roses, lavender, geraniums, lilies, aloe and others without names. And with so much color. Another wonder.
Movement just outside our gate. Matted orphaned dogs shake their heads, scratch their ears and, without hurry, stretch their legs then move into the street for another hit-or-miss day.
Six-thirty on the dot we enter the street as well. David and I, each with a leashed dog in hand, accompany Katherine to her bus.
We pass dozens of pint-sized uniformed children, wearing backpacks, toting projects, and clutching hands with their pajama-clad mamas. Our part of town is casual dress so no one bats an eye.
Down Calle Gran Columbia, we pass the Parquedero de Jesus. I smile. Jesus went homeless and only had one coat. Yet in Cuenca he has a parking lot.
Right next door, Iglesias Sangre de Jesus, a Sister brings a flowering plant as a fragrant offering. She enters through the massive, hand-carved church doors. The priest nods and smiles. Devout grandmothers cross themselves as they move to their pews for daily prayers. Outside, taxi drivers and passers-by make the sign of the cross as well, a visible reminder that many here acknowledge that a greater force is at work in the world.
Our morning walks set Katherine free to speak her mind. She talks of the boy she likes, who may or may not like her, and what she plans to do about it. She questions the existence of God one day and ponders the Big Bang theory the next.
I hold my tongue. I listen to the wonder of my growing child. The forming of her own ideas. The shaping of her quick mind. The working out of who she wants to be and what she believes.
I celebrate the many small and amazing wonders in each day.

After Onward Christian Soldiers…

hymns_62Recently some friends and I got to talking about hymns we sang as children — in particularly, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”  Despite finding ourselves in a much different place spiritually than our early church days, we all agreed many traditional church songs hold special memories.

Stacey spent her childhood virtually without supervision. “We were feral,” she said. ” We were the wild children on our street.” When her parents divorced, her mother worked and left Stacey and her siblings to fend for themselves.  A number of years ago, Stacey went home and visited with some of her former neighbors. “I learned many on the street were deeply concerned for our safety.”

As a child, Stacey found her “home” in church. For one thing, her Baptist church offered snacks and often what she ate at church was all had to eat for the day. Stacey grew to love the sense of community she felt at church — a place where people cared for her and nurtured her. When she was old enough, Stacey joined the choir and sang her heart out. The words of the hymns she sang on Sunday mornings lodged deep in her brain. She particularly remembers facing the congregation and singing the lyrics to “Onward Christian Soldier” with great pride. She felt part of something, connected to others, fully supported and cared for.

Stacey and I could not have more different backgrounds.

My parents, Watson and Mary, were too strict, too strong and much-too-present for me to go wild. They structured my days, beginning to end. We rose to Dad’s wake up call and shared breakfast around the small round oak table in the kitchen. We gathered for Bible reading (each person reading two verses each until one or two chapters were completed) and prayers in the music room every day before school. As a minister and a teacher, I could not get away from his presence.

The summer of my 10th year, I was sitting in church one hot Wednesday evening and thinking how much I wanted to be wild. I longed to be anywhere but where I was — sitting on a hard wooden pew, staring out the open window onto the lawn of the house next to the church. The setting sun streamed through the trees and created lovely shadows on the grass. I heard the neighbor kids playing in the nearby park.  I felt real life — the giggling, running about, shouting and playing hard life — resided outside my small church.

Just about the only thing I liked inside church were the hymns. I listened to Mama play with passion the requested songs. I sang along from memory. We Thorntons had very little need of the hymnal because we knew the lyrics by heart. The words flowed with ease and they connected me on some deep level with the men and women in the pews around me.

My personal belief had not yet become an issue with me.  All I knew was that singing “Rescue the Perishing,” “Count Your Many Blessings,” “Onward Christian Soldiers” and many other songs that represented the faith of my parents helped lift my spirits, soothe my anger and spoke to my soul on some level.

imagesI left home for college when I was 17.  There, a boyfriend introduced me to Johnny Got His Gun and Malcom X. I began to question blind patriotism and American Christianity. As more and more male students dropped out, were drafted or signed up for the Vietnam war, I grew more and more uncomfortable seeing the American flag and the Christian flag together on the same podium — especially in church.

Stacey moved away from traditional organized Christianity, as well. Despite going to seminary and earning an M.Div.,  she does not preach nor does she attend  an organized church.  She’s found her place and peace in Wisdom theology and contemplative prayer. Stacey structures her life around meditation. She and her partner open their home to people in need of quiet and rest. They offer retreats, courses and counseling to those in search of inner healing.

Stacey’s a far cry from that feral child who roamed the streets. And me? The girl raised in church who went  in search of living wild and outside? I’m quieter now.  Stacey and I are both discovering more and more about living faith that nurtures hope and love.

I struggle to live like Jesus did. At time I wish I were more like Stacey with her peaceful aura and kind spirit.

Onward-Christian-Soldiers-Edited-900However  I know she, too, has her personal struggles. We both continue to take steps towards peace, not war, to pursue love not engage in battles.

I feel we’re part of a growing corp of enlisted people of faith who are marching onward, just not to war. 

 

Onward Christian soldiers,
Marching as to war
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before

Onward then, ye people
Join our happy throng
Blend with ours your voices
In our triumph song

Christ the royal master
Leads against the foe
Forward into battle
See His banners go

Crowns and Thrones may perish
Kingdoms rise and wane
But the cross of Jesus
Constant will remain

 

 

I Tried to be a Sunbeam for Jesus

323d9ae390224e0c9c298d35779bbfb7
Our church in the 50’s would have fit well into a Norman Rockwell-type painting.

**This post appeared the other day under on a different site: First & Third Verse. I launched a second blog (which I now think may be a mistake) to provide space for a bigger project: First & Third Verse  This site looks at traditional hymns and how they impacted my spiritual development and how they continue to be meaningful even as I’ve moved from a traditional way of thinking to a much more progressive viewpoint. If you have a love for the old church hymns, I hope you’ll visit the site.***

I feel I was predestined to be smiling and joyful for Jesus, whether I liked it or not.

Not only me, but all nine of my siblings were programmed to be sunbeamers from the minute we were born. And of course we could and would be because, well, we had the joy, joy, joy, joy down in our hearts.

Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,
To shine for Him each day;
In every way try to please Him,
At home, at school, at play.

A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
Jesus wants me for a sunbeam;
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
I’ll be a sunbeam for Him.

Sunday after Sunday I gathered with a handful of other children in the damp, cool basement of First Presbyterian Church in Greenfield, Illinois. Together we filled the lower level with loud, off-key voices and occasional outbursts of giggles. We moved in close to the piano and acted out our happy verses, arms to the sky, hands cupped around our cheeks, fingers wiggling in the air.  We climbed climbed up sunshine mountain with faces all aglow and, like that wee little man, Zacheus, we climbed up in a Sycamore tree then plopped down on the floor when he dropped down from the tree to eat dinner with Jesus.

Those melodies were campy, peppy and repetitive and the lyrics– definitely long-term memory material. All memories of church were.

Church was my second home. As the preacher, dad was required to be there whenever the doors opened. When he doubled as the janitor, we got there early to open the doors and stayed until the halls were empty.

Sunday morning and Sunday night we were present. No exceptions. Wednesday night prayer meeting was also mandatory. And one Tuesday a month we visited the Prairie Home, the local nursing home, bringing songs, a short message and good cheer to the old folks of our little town.

downloadHow I dreaded those evenings.

I cared about the elderly and their loneliness. I often left the building with tears rolling down my face because of the sorrow I sensed and felt within those wall. I ached for the women and men who sat by themselves in their rooms, day after day, without visits from their children.

I just didn’t know what to say.

I felt uncomfortable holding their shaky hands and feeling their paper-thin skin. Shouting to be heard embarrassed me (I mean, what doesn’t embarrass a teenager?) Pervasive smells of disinfectant and urine made me gag. Yet, going there was my duty. A rigorously enforced duty. By the time I reached 16, I had counted the number of Tuesdays I had to go before high school graduation.  Freedom couldn’t come too soon.

At the nursing home, at school, at play, I wasn’t much of a sunbeam.  I tried. When the music played, my voice rang out clear and strong. During prayer time my head remained bowed , and neither of my eyes would look around. I memorized verses and taught the little kids in Sunday School. With other kids in the youth group, I attended Youth for Christ rallies in St. Louis. I raised my hand countless times for this joy, joy, joy thing to take root in my heart.

But (and there’s always a but in  life) faith for me hasn’t been sunny. Over the years the path I’ve walked has been some sun and partly cloudy. Overcast days followed by serious thunderstorms. Maybe it’s the way I viewed them — glass half-empty kind of thing.  My dear friend Lauralee has never met a day that wasn’t filled with something good. She sees her glass filled to overflowing in even the darkest circumstance.

Varying levels of serotonin in my brain have created mood swings. That’s a fact. Or it could be I was born with my stars out of alignment. Whatever the cause, I’ve had as many weepy, tear-filled days as I have joy-filled ones. I have grown comfortable with angst.

In the past my gray-sky outlook has left me with a sense of being less than. Not a good Christian. Letting down the Lord. Failing the family. Not giving God God’s due.

So guilt on top of my Eeyore-like world view has done a number on me.

Until this past year.

Moving to South America, a new continent, far removed from family and the land that formed me, I’m discovering a new freedom.  Here we experience rain almost everyday and the clouds hang very low. Some mornings, so low I feel I can almost touch them. But in this high place in the Andes, sunshine manages to burst through at least once a day. And those rays are brilliant, warm, energizing and potent. I feel my cells waking up. I feel my spirit come to life.

No longer do I feel I ought to be a sunbeam, much less a sunbeam for anyone.

But I have grown to celebrate and love the sun.

The Dining Room/It’s All about Mary #a-to-zchallenge

DOur white Victorian home at 601 Sycamore Street seemed much larger when I was young. Not that that’s unusual. Objects always appear bigger than they are when you’re a kid and you are the one responsible for cleaning them on Saturdays.

Upstairs held three bedrooms. Mom and dad’s which was off limits except for me to clean. The other two bedrooms were mine. I floated between them, depending on my mood. Larger and lighter was the front room. Smaller, quieter and a bit more formal the side room. By the time I was ninth grade, all the other siblings were out and about and I felt I held free reign of the second floor.

db8a4f7c143778d14f200d3d5c092c8e
Not exactly like our window, but close enough!

Downstairs,  the music room  with its large front window and beveled trim overlooked the front yard. As the sun set, beams of the afternoon sun reflected off the prisms, transforming the pale green walls into a display of shimmering rainbows.

Once my cleaning was done, it was here I sat and rocked in dad’s nubby swivel rocking chair. To enjoy the quiet in a freshly cleaned home felt therapeutic for me. The ultimate delight was having taken a bath and put on clean pajamas, I would watch the light and color dance across the room as I  listened to mama play.

Even then I knew I loved being alone more than just about anything else.

For me, the most difficult room to clean was the dining room. It was not a big space by any means. It held a small coal fireplace.  A plate rail around the room displayed mom’s favorite platters and things. All required dusting.

The family table could be extended to seat 12 or more, depending on how close everyone wanted to be. In the bay window stood a small, marble-topped walnut table. Intricately carved, it caught all the dust from the drive way when windows were open. A slightly stuffed side chair, claimed by our basset hound, Higgins, showed wear. When guests arrived, a clean throw hid the worst of the damage.

 

In one corner, next to the built-in cupboard that held mom’s good dishes and serving bowls, stood an 4-drawer metal file cabinet. Sheets of music and piano books overflowed. Saved articles, pictures torn out from magazines, a few choice books, various papers and spiral bound scrapbooks covered the top.

This was mama’s domain. Her office during the week; her table for entertaining on Sundays and holidays.

As a piano teacher, she stockpiled exercise books for early beginners to advanced level students. Over the years she had accumulated countless pieces of sheet music. Classical works by Chopin, Beethoven, and Mozart, contemporary favorites like Rhapsody in Blue, Christmas music, choir music, hymnals and hard to find sheets from the early 1900’s.  A total mess to the untrained eye, but mama knew what she had and where to find it.

 

Mama was into scrapbooks before scrapbooking was cool. But she didn’t have any order in the way she saved things. Slap dash was her form of organizing. She stuck anything she found interesting onto the pages of myriad paper scrapbooks. Illustrations of sad dogs, cartoons from The Family Circle strip, obituaries of neighbors long past. She added cards from friends, photos from grandchildren, Bible verses that spoke to her. A recipe for peach ice cream was positioned next to an article about fine pottery in Japan. A grandson’s first grade photo appeared adjacent to handwritten stanzas to a favorite song.

These books of memories had absolutely no rhyme or reason. Anything her brilliant mind found funny or touching, uplifting or insightful was glued to a page. Lots of pages.

She kept her visual journals in their earliest days in Japan, raising the first pack of kids in the Ozarks and the second half of the family in Greenfield, Illinois. Their life back in Japan in the 70{s provided a lot of fodder for my mother. She kept scrapbooking until her final days in Cartersville, Illinois.

After mama died the five sisters (Alice, Ruth, Elsie, Martha, Cathy and I) and one sister-in-law (Marcia) spent hours sifting through the stacks of scrapbooks, determining what to keep and what to toss. The first ten years after her death, we kept the books intact. We stored the volumes in large cardboard boxes and each spring when we would gather for a week at our cousin’s lake house, one of the sisters would deliver the trove of memories. We spend many days and evenings pouring over the pages, reliving mom’s life through her memorabilia.  Only a few years ago (almost three decades later) were the scrapbooks disassembled.

These compilations of information said a lot about who mom was and what she loved. Every page was interspersed with newspaper articles, lyrics to songs, recipes, photographs, cartoons, Bible verses, pretty pictures, silly pictures, birthday cards and anecdotes she wanted to remember.

Her entries  yellowed and grew brittle. Pages fell apart. But over the decades, her collections revealed her lifelong passions:  Family, faith, music, food and humor.

 

 

C: It’s All About Mary/ Counting My Blessings

Growing up with Mary as a mother meant that music was central to my life. Our days as a family usually often began with her playing one or two hymns.

WatsonM7
The Thornton family well long I came to live with them. Mom delivered 11 children in all. I was #10.

She wasn’t much of a morning person. If she had her druthers she’d sleep until 9 or 10, I’m sure. Her favorite times of day were late at night when the family had gone to bed. But dad, as a guidance counselor at the high school, was up and out the door early during the week. On the weekends, he was the preacher, so definitely no late mornings then.

 

Mary dutifully rose and cooked breakfast for her husband and children. We ate together most mornings. Unless I was bleeding or upchucking, no excuse was good enough to miss breakfast or family prayers.  School bells could ring and I’d be tardy, but I could not miss devotions.

Once breakfast was finished, we migrated to mom’s music room for devotions. Two sets of oak sliding doors were used to close the room off when mom was giving piano lesson.  In the mornings, the doors were open and we found seats between and around mom’s grand piano and organ .

Family devotions consisted of (if time allowed) singing a hymn, reading two chapters of the Bible and praying for every person we knew by name — including missionaries all over the world, the people they witnessed to and then some.

When dad prayed for the family, mom remembered the missionaries. Bill and Alice Widbin somewhere Africa, Dorothy Clark in Nigeria, an orphanage in India with a little boy named Jothi.  I prayed for Jothi for decades. One day not long before mom died, I asked her whatever happened to Jothi.  She said he had grown up and was living near the orphanage. Despite his physical and mental challenges he was  doing well.  Good to know our prayers worked for him I said.  “Oh, Nancy, hush!” she said with a smile. She sometimes like my irreverence.  But not always.

She believed in the power of prayer. Dad did, too. They brought everything to God in prayer. And they brought us right there with them. We got down on our knees around the circle of chairs (I tried to get the softest one because I could catch a few more minutes of sleep).  Dad or mom started the prayers and we went one by one until all had thanked God for our many blessings or asked God for help with someone and something. The other parent would wrap up our time of thanksgiving and petitions.

I hated this time as a child.  As a teen, especially, I was so embarrassed when friends would spend the night and Dad and Mom would urge them to participate in the ceremony.  Nothing and noone kept Mary and Watson from spending time with the Lord in the morning.

Family worship wrapped up with the Lord’s Prayer. By the time we got to “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” I was up off my knees. By the “Amen”, I was out the door for school.

The middle part of prayers was reading the Bible.  We went front to back, Genesis 1:1 to the final verse of Revelations, two chapters a day, two verses at a time.  Starting with the youngest and going to the oldest. On the longer chapters, we could go around the circle three or four times. I have no idea how many times I’ve read the Bible through, Old and New Testaments, but I know I have countless verses committed to memory.  Even today, almost six decades after living at home, I can recall verses I read as a child.  I also firmly believe that we are all good readers because of these early days.  We learned to read at very young ages sitting together in the mornings sounding out words like Methuselah, Sennacherib and the pages and pages of Hebrew names in the Old Testament.

My favorite part of prayers, without a doubt, was when we had time to sing. Mom played her grand piano with such power and passion. She loved her God and she showed that love through her fingers on the keys, whether the melodies were hymn or classical pieces she had memorized.  As I write this I feel tears welling up inside. An ache for the woman who comforted me so often with her music. When I longed for something as only a teenage girl can long and it didn’t come to pass, when I had a broken heart, or when my feelings were hurt from someone at school.

Mama would sit me down in the easy chair next to the piano and she would play songs like “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, “Does Jesus Care?”

She played until my tears stopped.  And then we’d go and get a bite to eat.

Food and music.  It’s a theme you’ll see in Mary’s life.

For any faults she had (and yes, Mary Scott Gash Thornton had her fair share) she was a woman of intense love and faith, and my life continues to be blessed with the gifts she gave me every single day.

 

I regret that I have no recordings of mama playing.  Some may exist in the United States, in the homes of my sisters and brothers. But here in Ecuador, I have no access to them. Instead when I want to be with mama at the piano, I go to YouTube and plug in the name of a hymn that she would play.  The link below takes you to one of my favorites.

For friends reading who are not of the Christian faith or perhaps any faith at all, this may seem very foreign to you.  All I can say is I pray that you have a similar source of comfort and joy. Life feels easier with such a person.

My mother’s name was Mary.

 

 

A: It’s All about Mary

WatsonM7
Mary, Watson and seven of their nine living children

Mary Scott Gash Thornton left this earth with a deep sigh one Spring evening in 1986.

Dad held on to his faith for support but he so missed her. Never have I seen him look so lost as in the days following her death.

Mary made it past Mother’s Day, so she had recently heard from all of her children. The twins, Alice and Ruth, were the the oldest and each lived just a few blocks from mom and dad’s small rental home on the edge of Cartersville, Illinois.  The other seven kids, spread out from California to Alaska to Georgia had sent their flowery Mother’s Day cards or placed their phone calls.

I called because I loved the way mom sounded when she knew it was one of her children on the line. There was no mistaking the joy in her voice.  “Oh, hi,” she’d say with such warmth. Every time my face would break out in a smile.  She liked me. She really, really liked me.

Mom didn’t need a fabricated holiday to tell her that she was adored by her children and her husband. This five-foot two-inch woman knew she was loved.

Mom had a heart the size of Australia and a personality to boot. My dad’s heart was smaller, more like Texas. He was reserved and severe and very generous. They made a good couple.

Mary and Watson were a study in contrasts. Over the years mom grew to be as round as she was short. Dad remained tall and trim and really quite handsome. She was outgoing to his formality. Mary entertained people while Dad preached, instructed and admonished. She could talk to anyone and engage them in stimulating conversation. He preferred to sit and observe. Talking made him very uncomfortable. He said he was at a loss for words except for when he was teaching or preaching.

Their opposites attracted and even after 55+ years of marriage they remained smitten . I knew without a doubt I wanted a marriage like theirs.

They married in February 1929, the same year her father passed away.  A year later, Mom and Dad sailed for Japan to serve as missionaries.

That move must have been difficult for her but she never complained in her letters. She was a St. Louis girl and they were moving to the outskirts of a city in a foreign country. She had no understanding of Japanese (Dad did, he grew up there). She didn’t cook or clean or sew. She knew nothing about birthing babies.  Mary Scott Gash Thornton only knew how to play the piano.

And she was good. She was very very good.

In fact, at age 8 or so, mom performed a concert in St. Louis to raise money for the WW1 war effort. Her talent was impressive. Professionals encouraged her to pursue a career as a concert pianist. She wrestled with the idea but ultimately chose dad and life with him as a missionary.

Not long after they married in St. Louis, they moved to Japan. She left behind her widowed mother, two brothers and sister. Her twin, Nancy, had died at age 3. Mary also left behind her piano.

Letters from Mom to her mother, Mattie, in St. Louis describe the challenges of her life. Of supervising house help who could not understand her nor her them. Of working with people who wanted her to get herself together and become more serious. To wear longer hair, not her fashionable bob. To be more serious and not so full of laughter. She was to become someone other than who she truly was. And she was to birth babies.

The Thornton family expanded rapidly to include the first five children.  Alice and Ruth (the twins), Charles, Elsie and Martha.  The Japanese family.  The better half of the siblings I’ve always called them.

WWII was about to break out, so Mary and Watson whisked their family back to the States until peace was restored. They had every intention of returning, but that dream was put on hold. Thirty years would pass before they arrived back in Japan to live.

In those intervening years, the Thornton family grew even more.  Mom bore 11 children in all. Sam, John, Mary Catherine, me and Susan.  One little girl died shortly after birth. A few years later, the youngest child, Susan, was hit by a car and died. The nine remaining kids married and did their fair share of multiplying. Mom got her piano back and dad stepped into the pulpit.

My father reveled in his grandchildren. Mom not so much.  She was tired of babies and burping and changing diapers.  She wanted to play her music and  read her books and visit with her children. One day she told me rather apologetically, “I really don’t care for the little ones. I enjoy the grand kids when they are 14 or so, when I can have a conversation.”

She’d earned time for herself.

During the month of April  I will use daily posts to introduce you to my mother, Mary Scott Gash Thornton. A remarkable woman in so many ways.  Few had her gift  and passion for music. Her sense of humor was engaging.  She’d entertain guests around the table, placing bank presidents next to the town drunk and all would be well. She loved her kids. She loved her Watson. She lived her faith. And she brought a world of music to the people around her.

My mother’s name was Mary.

 

All About Mary

The 2017 A-to-Z Challenge will begin in about a week. So for 26 days (not counting Sundays) I’ll be joining hundreds or (maybe) thousands around the world in blogging my way through the alphabet.

Last year I made itA2Z-BADGE-100 [2017] most of the way through the month describing our new life in Cuenca — from belching buses to homesickness, llamas to roaring rivers. Along the way I met up with some interesting people and made a few friends from far-off places.

This year my theme will be built around my mom. She was an amazing pianist and blessed my life with an abundance of music — both religious and classical.

The daily blogs will be fodder for a memoir I have in mind for her. In my family it seems like most of the focus has been on my father and his side of our ancestry.  Mom deserves her place.

She was smart and funny. Hated housework and spent hours on the piano every day. She was short and round and rosy-cheeked. Her children loved her dearly. Her husband of  60+ years adored her until her dying day.

This will also be a look at growing up as a fundamentalist Christian and becoming a progressive both in politics and theology. I will write of small town, middle America in the 50’s and 60’s. College in the 70’s. And life as the youngest in a family of 11 children. And every entry/chapter is centered around one of the most loving, interesting and talented women I have ever met.

I invite you to read along. Please pass on the blog site if you like what you read.

Mary was amazing!