Wisdom

Memories made, lessons learned at our family table ~ Lois Rogers, guest blogger

The solid maple dining table is considered vintage now. If things go as I pray they will, it’s well on its way to becoming a cherished antique. Loistable

Just recently, it went out the door of my house, where it settled after my parents’ home was sold, never to return. Safely conveyed with its matching chairs by good friends to the young adult son of another good friend, it’s my hope that the table is once again destined to serve as a linchpin, connecting good meals and good conversation with good faith.

Such was its role from the time my mother settled on its wide, round, archetypal Colonial frame – the trend back in the ‘60s when it was new. She and my father found its shape appealing, I remember her saying to all of us.

No one sat at the head of the table or, by extension, at its foot. Everyone had good eye contact with each other. Best of all, our parents explained, sitting in a circle obstructed the view of the equally new, large color television set in the living room during meals, making conversation while perhaps not mandatory, certainly highly recommended.

Since those days, the table has taken a few hard knocks, from myself and my brothers, our friends and the frisky onslaught of the generation that followed us.

While well-intentioned rough housing – a burn here, a nick there – left marks over the decades, the table moved steadily through time, a bulwark that gathered family together into safe harbor at least once a day.

Getting it ready to leave for its new home as part of the “de-cluttering” process recommended by a home sale expert, I couldn’t help but revisit those meals.

The number of graces prayed over the food spread out on its surface like manna on holy days, holidays and Sacramental occasions is incalculable. The bread broken at that table among relatives and friends was something like loaves and fishes, especially in the lean times everyone shared at one time or another.

The image of my mother spreading clear plastic over the table when the grandchildren were just little tykes so they could make as much of a mess as they wanted and just have a good time stands out clearly in the mind’s eye. So does the picture of my dad engaging in philosophical conversations over snacks with our friends who sought out his company on Friday and Saturday nights.

When the table came to my house, I knew I inherited more than a round piece of wood on a sturdy base. I inherited a whole legacy, passed down by my mother and father of traditions that spanned, if not the world, at least Europe.

Blended together were ingredients that sparked the desire to know all about the people who created them, their customs, and their beliefs. It created a thirst to know what caused them to depart Ireland, Italy, the British Isles, the backwaters of the Austro Hungarian Empire and Scandinavia and stick it out in the face of terrible hardship.

The insights I gleaned from sitting with grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and our friends made it hard to give that table up. Still, it would have been much harder to send it off to a secondhand store or a garage sale, where its fate would have been unknown.

Just this week, while researching a story on how grandparents are coping with the digital whirlwind enveloping society, I found a number of stories on how the dining table had dropped from the single most important piece of furniture in the house to fourth or even fifth place.

After years of knowing the mom of the young man who wanted the table for his first apartment and her love of family and home, I have a feeling our family table will buck that trend.

PHOTO: BEARING WITNESS • This photo shows my mother holding her granddaughter, Jeannie, at the beloved family table. The table, now on its way to a new home, was at the center of more than one lifetime of memories.  

This column first appeared in the Aug. 9, 2018, issue of The Monitor, official newspaper of the Diocese of Trenton. 


Remembering is an Ebenezer passion and 'stone of help'

 

The ceiling of the Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church soars more than 70 feet high, supported by walls of cast stone, brownstone and brick. Stoneofhelp
Looking out across the congregation from a folding chair in front of the sanctuary steps, my eyes moved upwards across soaring stained glass windows, as if following the strains of the oboe with notes rising to fill the expanse of space above. 

There I noticed the resemblance of the ceiling trusses to the hull of a ship, symbolic, says the church history, of a vessel carrying pilgrims home safely to port.

“What perfect traveling music,” I thought, moved to tears by our oboist’s exquisite rendering of the hauntingly beautiful “Gabriel’s Oboe.”  The piece was just one of many offered by the Tim Keyes Consort as part of a service of remembrance celebrating the life of Geoffrey Ames Petersen, a consummate musician, organist, composer, teacher, and friend, say those who knew him well.

It was an experience of which I was especially grateful to be a part, for what is more meaningful than remembering and celebrating the life of another?

In looking back on more than 10 years of singing with the Consort, it seemed that this service of remembering was really part of a pattern, or more significantly, a passion of our director – a passion for remembering; remembering Christ, Mary, the Saints, the Apostles, the words of Scripture, the glory of creation, the richness and gifts of every culture, the value of each life.

In what he composes and what he calls the Consort to perform, Tim offers us, and our audiences, an opportunity to recall the glory and goodness of our loving God, an opportunity to be enriched in our faith and our musical lives.  He offers us an Ebenezer.

Most of us would probably associate the name with Dicken’s “Christmas Carol” and the miserly curmudgeon, Ebenezer Scrooge. Perhaps there is more meaning in the name than we’ve realized.

In the Bible, in the Book of Samuel, we read about the Israelites’ losses in battle to the Philistines. The Israelites press Samuel to continue in his prayers to God on their behalf, and as he does so, God throws the Philistines into confusion and they are subdued by the Israelites.

Scripture recounts, “Samuel then took a stone and placed it between Mizpah and Jeshanah; he named it Ebenezer, explaining, ‘As far as this place the Lord has been our help.’”

The “stone of help” would serve as a reminder to the Israelites of God’s presence and assistance.

In our lives, Ebenezers may be crafted or experienced in any number of ways, but always serving to remind us of the ever-present love of God – songs, hymns, prayer, Scripture, sacramentals, liturgy, the sacraments, and, perhaps most especially, other people.

Then there is Ebenezer Scrooge.

I always wondered why Charles Dickens chose the name for his protagonist.

But I find it interesting that, after a night of remembering and foreseeing which leads to an epiphany, the man best described early on as Scrooge, becomes the true man, Ebenezer, a “stone of help,” for Tiny Tim and the Cratchit family, and, no doubt, many others. Finally, Ebenezer was able to love and to accept love.

It seems Dickens understood it is only in our remembering that we become who we are meant to be.

“I shall remember the deeds of the Lord; Surely I will remember your wonders of old.” Psalm 77:11

A column from Things My Father Taught Me. Mary may be reached at mary.wellspring@yahoo.com. Her book, “Things My Father Taught Me About Love,” can be found on Amazon Kindle. Follow her on Twitter @mreginam6.


Resurrection is the reason for our hope and joy

We all have a story.

For families, the story includes those of parents, children and the ones we love, living life intertwined, each person affected, for better or for worse, by the joys, Crossonsnowmountain
sorrows, and choices of those whose stories touch ours.

Sometimes, it is in the darkest moments of our stories that we become aware of our own capacity to love.

My epiphany came on Mother’s Day, 2015.  It was not, perhaps, an epiphany to match that of Thomas Merton, the very famous Trappist monk who had an epiphany of love on a street corner in Louisville. But it was my epiphany and all the more meaningful for me.

I was sitting in the locked-down lobby of the county jail while waiting to visit my son. I had been visiting once or twice a week for the past two months, and every time, as I sat waiting, I was thinking, “This was never part of my plan. How did we get to this place?”

My first visit was surreal … being buzzed in, the police officer checking my ID behind a protective shield, the glass window behind which my son stood when he was brought down, the phones we used to communicate, the prisoner’s uniform. It just seemed like a scene from “Law and Order” instead of one from my own family story.

I realized that, in jail, they use the more politically correct term of inmate instead of prisoner, but prisoner is what my son really was – a prisoner of opiates long before he ended up behind that glass window in that uniform. I felt sick, heart-broken, guilty and alone. Surely, looking around the lobby on that first visit, I didn’t belong here, and neither did my son. Still, here we were, at the cross.

But in one instant on Mother’s Day, in that dreary jail lobby, I realized that all of us, waiting for our turn to visit, had entered, in our own way, into the life of Christ. Like the Apostles, each of us, no matter how different and in spite of our own weaknesses, were there because we loved someone, hoping to make a difference in their life by our simple presence – and I heard the words of the powerful Taize hymn, “Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray.”

In the Gethsemane stories of those who sat waiting with me, I heard their unique, yet familiar, struggles – broken marriages, broken relationships, drug addiction, the death of children, bad choices, bad friends, loss of faith, loss of family, suicide, terrible financial difficulties and, sometimes, homelessness. Some stories were so heartbreaking I could barely contain my emotions, and I was grateful, and privileged, to have exchanged promises to pray for one another.

Not long after Mother’s Day, my son called to tell me he had been paroled. His time in jail had been good for him. He was drug free, though he would need continued support to stay so, and he was positive and prayerful, looking forward to a new chapter in his life. “See, I make all things new,” filled my heart.

I remember breaking down in tears. “My son is coming home,” I thought, and I wondered if God might have had a similar feeling on the day of the Resurrection. Surely, the God of Love would have felt the pain and anguish of his only beloved Son, and would have known the joy of Jesus’ coming home, the joy of new life. Certainly, Mary did.

How far we have come, my son and I, since the days when an exceptionally inquisitive toddler would find ways to escape the locked doors of our house and wander happily in his pajamas in the new winter snow in our backyard. Loving him has taken on new forms as he’s grown into a man. One of the most meaningful has been waiting with him in Gethsemane, and walking with him as he embraced his crosses. It has not been easy. After all, the hallmark of a mother is to fix everything, to take away pain and make things better. Part of the growing up process for moms is accepting that there are many things we cannot control.

For us, as Christians, Jesus’ Resurrection changes everything.  With love at its heart, the Resurrection is the reason for our greatest hope and our greatest joy. It allows us to accept the invitation to new life that is inherent in every cross, and to hold on to our faith in God’s promises.

For me, the Resurrection has become a new focus of my faith, one that as allowed me to believe, when others didn’t, that my son would experience his own resurrection through his singular faith in God.

That is reason for a very joyous, “Alleluia!”


Holding on to a storm of anger damages body, mind and spirit

For many years, I believed that being submissive to God meant accepting everything that came my way without complaint, without anger, without moaning and Darkstormgroaning. But as I grew in my understanding of the spiritual life, I realized that the very demonstrative, outspoken and loving women in my family were often more on target about the spiritual life than I was.

They embraced their emotions and expressed their feelings – embellished by a wide variety of hand gestures – seeming to know instinctively that such expressions were necessary to who we are as God’s children. My learning was reinforced by my therapist, whom I came to trust as a spiritual advisor, as well, while being treated for depression. “The best thing you could do for yourself is get angry!” she advised me one day.

She reminded me of Jesus, turning over the tables in the temple in a fit of anger, and his frequent frustration with the Apostles, which he didn’t hesitate to express – but always with a goal in mind, always with an eye toward growth and positive change.

“Getting angry is healthy and it’s real,” she said, stressing that the need to express strong emotions in appropriate, constructive ways can add years, and satisfaction, to life.

Not only is dealing with anger  an emotional exercise, it is a spiritual one, as well. When a storm of anger makes its home within us, it impedes our relationship with God and others; it destroys our bodies from inside out and holds our souls in darkness.

Learn some healthy ways to express anger,  http://www.prevention.com/mind-body/emotional-health/healthiest-ways-express-anger, and look at anger from the spiritual perspective http://www.answersforme.com/article/1297/find-answers/family/the-effects-of-anger


My Mother's Lessons

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Sing ~ Study ~ Read books ~ Wear gloves ~ Learn to type ~ Serve muffins ~ Be kind to animals ~ Practice the piano ~ Write thank-you notes ~ Learn to be self-sufficient ~ Always carry pens and tissues ~ Never forget where you come from ~ Speak up and speak out when necessary ~ Smile and make the world more beautiful ~ You can run but you can’t hide from your mother ~ A mother's love is the source of incredible strength ~ There will never be anyone who will love you with the unconditional love of God, except your mother.


A small thank-you makes a big difference!

During my visit to North Carolina for my granddaughter’s third birthday I had the chance to sit in
the upstairs gallery of the gymnastic studio and watch this petite whirlwind and her classmates run, Handwrittennote
climb, tumble and spin their way to pure enjoyment.  

At several points during the class, when the instructor had assisted my granddaughter in some way, I heard her adorable, three-year-old voice say, “Thank you.”  Her expressions were priceless, and memorable, especially in a culture that has all but forgotten the value and meaning of gratitude.

I’m proud to say her cousins have learned the same graciousness. My sons and their wives are passing on something that was taught to them, and it is something that was certainly handed on to me by my parents, especially my mom.

I was raised during the time of Emily Post manners, which meant white gloves when you went shopping, tasteful clothes for Mass and cultivating the now lost art of the thank you note.  What I learned is that manners, and expressions of gratitude, are more than just trite social mores.  They are opportunities to express respect and appreciation of others, to build relationships, and to be reminded that we are not the center of anyone’s universe except our own. 

Imagine my delight when I discovered that Emily Post’s great-great-grandson, Daniel Post Senning, is carrying on Emily’s legacy. He writes, in The Costco Connection, “Good manners are about more than fulfilling bare-minimum social obligations. They are an opportunity for us to connect to the people in our lives in a meaningful way. In an increasingly informal digital world, continuing to pull out pen and paper is a way to distinguish yourself. The handwritten thank-you note speaks volumes simply as a medium and sends the message that you care enough to invest yourself personally in acknowledging another.”

In my work as a writer and columnist, one of my greatest pleasures has been the notes I’ve received from readers, some of whom have stayed in contact and who I consider as friends. I have kept all the notes I’ve received during the past 20 years and I take them out every once in awhile and re-read them. The thank-yous I've received for my writing
give me the boost of encouragement I need sometimes when my spirit is lagging. I am grateful for them and the people who wrote them.

One of my greatest regrets is losing the envelope with the return address of a reader who sent me the very meaningful gift of a dishtowel from the Sunrise Café in Ortley Beach. I tore my office, at home and at work, apart looking for it because I wanted to send a thank-you note. I actually lost sleep over it.  

Perhaps, she will read this column and know that I absolutely loved the towel and have it hanging in my kitchen. It is especially meaningful now that the café is gone, a victim of Sandy, and we are forced to sell our home in Ortley Beach.

You just never know how much a handwritten note, or seemingly small gift, will mean to someone.

"Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father ... " Ephesians 5:20

 

Image from apartmenttherapy.com where there's great article on making thank-you notes a fun activity for kids.


Love, like bread, needs to be made and remade

My mother may not have been the best of cooks, but there was never a night or a Sunday afternoon Hand-making-of-bread-2-1307330-1599x1070 when she didn’t put a home cooked meal on the table in spite of working every day. She had some specialties, like a mean macaroni salad and an awesome salad dressing which still gets me rave reviews when I make it for family or friends. But when it came to making meatballs, she should have taken lessons from her sister, my dear Aunt Ginny.

Aunt Ginny’s meatballs were robust and tender, full of spices and homemade bread crumbs, and it seemed she always had a pot full of meatballs and sauce on the stove when my cousins and I came to visit.  On the other hand, my mother’s were small and hard and, I discovered by accident, made a loud thud if they fell on the floor.

My mom never mastered the art of making shankleesh like my Aunt JuJu and Aunt Jeanette, so I always relished the Sundays when a mound of this (mold ripened) cheese, covered with spices and drizzled with olive oil, was sitting on the kitchen table with warm Syrian bread when we came to visit after Mass. In spite of the fact that my five cousins were almost always there, along with any number of adult family members visiting from downstairs or down the street, there was always enough.

And who didn’t love when my Aunt Evelyn came to family gatherings at our house carrying a pot of stuffed grape leaves or a bowl of tabouleh? I swear I remember someone taking a good number of those stuffed rolls and hiding them in a separate container in the back of the refrigerator “for later” when most of the guests had gone home and the immediate family was left to clean up…and eat leftovers.

But I also learned from my mom how to make some of my favorite Syrian food: riz and lubee (rice and green beans), mamool (dough stuffed with chopped nuts and sugar), and pita bread.

I especially loved the days when she made bread. The anticipation of warm round loaves coming out of the oven, of pulling off a piece and spreading the inside with real butter and then having a good strong cup of tea was heavenly. But sharing it with family seemed to make everything taste better, and, certainly, the animated conversations of a house full of Syrian women, and the occasional courageous male of the family, was always memorable.

But I didn’t realize how much work went into the bread making until I went through the whole process by myself as a young married woman – the measuring the kneading, the rolling, and then the waiting. The experience was a lesson that helped me see the truth in a lovely quote by writer Ursula K. Le Guin:

“Love doesn't sit there like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all of the time, made new.”

In looking back, I've realized her words are a beautiful description of the most important work of a family - love ... made, shared and made new all over again.


Spend today riding dragons into the future


Dragonon woodMy mother had a fondness for dragons, and it caused a tussle between us on more than one occasion.

You see, whenever she came to visit she would steal the little pink plastic dragon that came with my sons’ Fischer Price Play Family Castle.

One summer weekend, when I took the boys to visit my parents in Albany, I noticed the dragon sitting on the book shelf in the spare bedroom. Well, that was the last straw! We had a dragon showdown.

My mother's  excuse was that my children did not care about the dragon, and were always leaving it on the floor. My logical response, that a house full of young children, six to be exact, are likely to leave toys on the floor, fell on deaf ears.

I confiscated her ill-gotten gains, and my oldest son decided the best course of action was just to hide the dragon when Nanny came to visit. Eventually, as the boys got older, they gifted her with the little pink bit of fantasy and it moved to a prime spot in my mother's dining room hutch.

My mother never completely lost the heart of a child, and her fondness extended to fairies and unicorns and the little people of the old sod, though she had not an Irish bone in her body. She loved the romance of pirate adventures, mystical places like Brigadoon and the tales of the Knights of the Round Table.

I can imagine her delight had she been able to see her youngest grandson, now 6’ 2”, greeting customers with his heavy Scottish accent at a pub in the shire of the N. Y. Renaissance Faire, and to take a step back in time with other costumed guests to a little piece of Elizabethan England, made a bit more comfortable with flushing privies!

From my mother I caught the enchantment of myths and the romance of days gone by. From my father I learned to appreciate the endless possibilities within dreams for the future. But from the example of how they actually lived their lives, I learned to embrace the gift of the present, full of potential and the need to be God's love for others.

As Thomas Merton wrote: “Humans have a responsibility to find themselves where they are, in their own proper time and place, in the history to which they belong and to which they must inevitably contribute either their response or their evasions, either truth and act, or mere slogan and gesture.”

 

 


A little bit of love in a muffin tin

JiffyNever be without a box of Jiffy muffin mix.

That was the bottom line for my mom, who loved to give guests something fresh from the oven.

As a mom who worked outside the home, quick and easy was a welcomed choice, and you couldn’t get any quicker or easier than Jiffy. Still, we loved the small yellow muffins hot out of the oven, sometimes with a pat of butter or a dusting of powdered sugar. But on weekends, when she had more time, she would sometimes make ma'amoul, a Syrian pastry, or Syrian bread – both worth the time and effort.

She was proud to share her ma’amouls with my cousins when family came to visit. I suspect there was a bit of a rivalry between aunts as to who could make the best ma’amoul, but if it meant my mom would keep trying to make it better, I was happy to be the taste tester.

Today, it’s the one family favorite I continue to make.

My mother-in-law, Muriel, on the other hand, preferred Entenmann’s. My sister-in-law once said to me, “If I ever bring an Entenmann’s cake to a party, shoot me!” We were both about home-made in our younger years. Not so much anymore!

I have often recalled the many animated, and sometimes, loud “discussions” that took place at the table set with a plate of muffins or ma’amoul or coffeecake, and sometimes wonder what it was like at Mary’s house during those years of Jesus’ grounding. (You know, after Mary and Joseph find the 12 year old in the temple after he was missing for three days? You think there’s not a reason why we don’t hear from him again until he’s 30? Mary was no push-over.)

Of course, my less than theological version of Jesus’ time at home, working as a carpenter alongside Joseph, does not do justice to a time that served as a profound experience of Jesus’ growing “in wisdom and grace,” before beginning his ministry at exactly the right time – God’s time.

Still, I wonder what it was like for guests at the home of Mary and Joseph while Jesus was there.

What did Mary serve her guests? What did she bake? Did she participate in the conversations? What were the loud discussions around the table?  And assuredly they would be loud if they were about religion! Did guests from Nazareth, their home town, chastise Jesus, as one of their own, for thinking he knew everything? What was the dynamic between Jesus and the guests, or even Jesus and Joseph?

So many questions, so few answers, other than those that might be expected from the culture of the time. But thinking about the unknown life of the Holy Family, reminds me that they were just that – a family, like mine, with the same challenges and joys. And Mary was a mother, like me, dealing with all the same issues and relationships that we each deal with, from putting muffins on the table to following a child to the cross.

I often think how good it would be to have Mary to tea, and muffins, and talk about the old days.


A mother's presence is full of lessons

Frogs on love seatAs we continue the work of restoring our home in Ortley Beach, so heavily damaged from Sandy, it’s interesting to note what survived the storm that took whole houses from their foundations.  A sentimental survival from our yard was a small cement statue of two frogs sitting on a love seat. My father, who gave the statue to my mom on the occasion of their 25th anniversary, had the umbrella under which the frogs sat painted with the anniversary dates of their wedding.

The statue is beat up, but the cracks and chips only serve to remind me of what life, and marriage, is all about. It also is a reminder, for me, of the two different people who were my parents. Two people who taught me many things, but each in their own way.

While my father taught me much with words, written and spoken, my mother taught me by her presence. Her gracious hospitality, her devotion to her family, her integrity, generosity and willingness to sacrifice for those she loved are all lessons I learned just from being in her presence.

A look at Scripture reveals the same for Mary. There are only four times in the Bible when we “hear” Mary’s words – when she speaks with the angel during the Annunciation, when she meets Elizabeth and she speaks the words of her Magnificat, when she finds Jesus in the temple  and when she intervenes at the wedding in Cana.

Throughout the rest of the New Testament we come to know Mary simply through her devoted presence with Jesus throughout his ministry.  We do not hear her speak, but we know she was there, in all the moments of his life, in the joy, in the disappointment, in the pain, in the grief.

As a mother, I have turned to Mary often as I travel those moments with my sons, and now their families, as well, continuing to draw strength and wisdom from Mary’s example.

When I consider the last words of Mary recorded in Scripture, I think that perhaps there was no reason to record any more, for her few last words reflect the most profound wisdom ever offered: Do whatever he tells you. 

What else is there to say?