Between Stuart and me I like to hold myself out as the more sophisticated.
Anyone who knows us both well knows that the truth is far from this. Stuart possesses the enviable capacity to embrace his family and their stories. I’m still trying to figure out mine and theirs. Some families talk about being the first generation to go to college. On my father’s side, I’m only the second generation who could read. And I’m fairly certain that Stuart’s grandparents lived in houses with electricity and plumbing. My father’s parents did not. They were tenant farmers on a cotton farm in a little Texas town of 490 people, located just a few miles off Interstate 35 halfway between Dallas and Waco, called Frost.
Like many families, mine had its share of unexplained mysteries. For as long as I can remember I had never heard my grandfather speak. And everyone who lived in that house, without a car or a telephone, seemed to know when someone was about to show up for a visit. Other than gathering eggs and driving the tractor I don’t remember much about what made my brothers and me so anxious to go there every summer. Well that’s not entirely true.
I went for the love — pure, unbridled love. Regardless of their strangeness, they wrapped us up in it from the moment we arrived until they disappeared from our view through the rear window of the car, waving goodbye to us as we drove back to Dallas. We churned ice cream on the front porch, and learned to whittle on corn cobs. In the evenings as the sun was setting, my grandmother would give us brooms that we would sweep in the sand to make patterns, because grass was a luxury for city dwellers. Most of that part of Texas is really just dirt and Mesquite trees, which may make great barbeque kindling, but are a poor excuse for actual trees. You cannot climb them and they aren’t even pretty to look at. If trees could convey a crabby mood, it would be they. We would wake up with the rooster on the slim chance that we might actually watch a morning glory open, just about the only blooming plant we ever saw there unless you count the creamy yellow blooms that dotted the rows of cotton plants before the bolls formed. These lasted a little longer than morning glories but not by much.
My grandmother was an amazing storyteller. She would tell us stories about places in Europe that I know she had never seen. The furthest away from Frost she had ever journeyed was Dallas and you’d have thought it was the other side of the moon to hear her talk about it. It took me a while to realize that the stories she told us were borrowed from women she’d met at quilting bees who lived in the nearby settlement of Catholic Czechs and Lutheran Germans in Ennis. But when she told us about events in those foreign countries, it was as though she had been a frequent visitor there.
Frost had taken a direct hit from a tornado on May 6, 1930 — one of the ten deadliest tornadoes in Texas history. It literally killed half the town. Many of her stories were based on events from that day, that hour, those moments that changed everything for everyone in that place where destruction touched every single family. There was no need to use her imagination to conjure those images for us. They were apparently seared forever in her mind’s eye.
For the people of Frost, Texas, the tornado was an event with the impact of Pearl Harbor or 9/11. The character of the town was permanently changed, so that even if the tornado itself wasn’t mentioned, a sense of life’s precariousness always hung in the air. All questions about life and life choices were weighed in the balance of the constant fear that, if one chose poorly – if one ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time — there might never be another chance to make things right.
I was thinking particularly about my Frost family this week when looking at the lectionary texts in the light of preparing for the baptism of Mary Margaret Elaine Brown. In particular, the Gospel:
“The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going.”
Without electricity, the days pretty much ended when the sun went down. There were a few kerosene lamps but after a day of playing in the barn, riding the tractor and throwing rocks at Mesquite trees, sun up to sundown was plenty long for us kids. We slept on feather tick mattresses that were lumpy but mostly soft unless the feathers’ quills poked out through the ticking during the night, sticking us and waking us. The mattresses were laid on iron bed frames. Because there was also no indoor plumbing, there were chamber pots beneath each bed to accommodate nighttime necessities.
During the day, there was a small building on the far side of the barn that was available, the early forerunner of the portable facilities that are part of the landscape now of every outdoor public event.
At night, however, without the benefit of moonlight or starlight, navigating one’s way from one house to the other house could be treacherous. But, one night, I decided that I was old enough to make the journey, even in the dark. I made my way through the house and out the back door and then froze on the porch, because I could hardly see my hand in front of my face. Spoiled by the constant ambient light at home in Dallas, I hadn’t realized country dark was quite so dark. Then I heard the screen door hinges creak, and I turned around to see my grandfather. He stood there silently and then took my hand and together we navigated our way across the yard. He waited patiently at a discrete distance until I was ready to return, and then he walked me back.
All in all, it isn’t a very profound moment. Most of life isn’t profound, at least at the time. Only when looking back do we see that there are always these edges of our competencies that we all reach, and at those edges we become overwhelmed by our fears, our shortcomings, our limited vision. And then we realize that, upon further reflection, guides always seem to show up when we need them, because on some level when we are afraid, our fear triggers memories of fear in those who love us. They find us, because they know that, unless we feel the love from their companionship, their willingness to walk alongside us, the fear of what might happen can keep us from moving to where we need to go in life.
In our tradition, we think this idea of holy companionship is so important that we officially assign godparents that role. We task them with being alert to one particular child so that, as that child grows and stretches, the godparents can be available when she gets stuck on a porch, caught up short by not knowing what might lie on the other side of the threshold, what is out there in the dark that she cannot see.
It’s why we all recommit ourselves at every baptism to walk alongside each other, to offer the light of Christ to a world that is stumbling around in the dark. And why we promise to practice looking for that light in others so that at those inevitable moments when we lose our way, when memories of earlier disasters terrify us, and when we just know in our hearts that it’s time to take the next step – ready or not – that we know that we won’t have to take it alone.
“Then Jesus said, ‘walk while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.” Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia Park, LPC, PhD
September 17, 2018