She’s Not Here, A Short Story

phoneThe young girl sat up in her bed, rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, threw her hair off her face in one easy motion, and scrambled out of bed.  It was an early Saturday morning in May. The house was hushed.  With the stealth of a burglar she tiptoed down the hallway and carefully descended the creaky stairs.

After some domestic disarray, the ten-year old clung to the solid comfort of this familiar routine.  She turned on the stereo, adjusted the tuner, and turned the volume to its lowest setting. Grabbing some throw pillows, she dropped to the floor inches from the speaker, flat on her stomach, her elbows in the pillows and her hands cupped under her chin.

The next two hours brought radio programs for children.  Thirsty for story, she drank in the drama while the rest of the house slept. Midway through the last show the jangle of the telephone pierced the quiet.  Like quicksilver she jumped up and grabbed the receiver before the phone rang again.

“Hello,” her high childish voice could barely be heard.

“Hi! Is your mommy there?”  the other voice trilled.

“Mmm…no,” she whispered tentatively.

“Would you leave her a message, please?”

“’kay…,” her voice wavered.

“The chair she had reupholstered is finished and is ready to be picked up at the shop.”

 “Thanks. Good-bye.”

She replaced the receiver and returned to her position on the floor.

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~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

The next Saturday was the same. The family slept while the young girl listened to Aunt Bee, Ranger Bill, and Sailor Sam. She took every precaution to listen without waking them.  Once again, the clatter of the telephone shattered the solitude. She darted to the dining room side table and grabbed the phone before the second ring.

“Hello.”

“Hello!  I’d like to speak to Nellie Harper!”

 The girl paused; she finally said, “She’s not here.”

 “Well, listen hon, this is the upholstery shop calling, and I called last week and left a message.  I told her when she brought it in that it would be ready in two weeks, and this chair has been in the shop for a month now, and I really need your mom to pick up this chair.  Would you puh-lease let her know?”   Her voice was a mixture of artificial sweetener and ill-concealed irritation.

 “Hmmm.”  came out in hushed tones.

 “Thanks, hon, I really appreciate it. You have a good day, now.”

~     ~     ~     ~      ~     ~

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A week went by.  The light was lasting longer, birds were chirping in the trees, and  school was winding down.  Summer had almost arrived, though the markers of seasonal change were little noted in that house.  Again, the young girl woke up early Saturday morning, crept around the squeaky spots and kept her rendezvous with the radio.

She wasn’t surprised when the phone rang; she answered it as she had done before.

“Hello,” spoken softly, so softly.

 “Hi!”  spoken in the tone of one eager to check off items on her list.

 They both recognized the other’s voice; they both had the script memorized.

 “Honey, look, is your mommy home this morning?” came the coaxing plea.

 “No.”   The single syllable dangled in space with nothing to support it.

 Exasperated, the woman on the other end of the line raised her voice.

“Well, where is she?  I’ve called, I’ve left messages, and still Nellie has not picked up her chair.”

She clipped each word shorter than a buzz cut.

The moment of truth could be delayed no longer.  The words that were stuck in the child’s throat, words that could not be spoken the previous Saturdays, words that were impossible to say, even today, were forcefully dislodged.

 “Ummm………she………well……..ummmm.   She died.”

 “Ohmygosh, she died? She died?  Your mommy died? What happened?  Oh, honey, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.  Was she in an accident?  She died?  I had no idea.  Oh, honey, I’m so very, very sorry.  Oh dear.  I–am–so–sorry.”

 “No…..she…….just……died.”

The silence was more uncomfortable for the girl than for the woman.  She sensed the shock, the awkward drop, the conversational vertigo of the voice on the other end.  The ten-year old knew she would have to bridge the gap and end this call.  The girl found her voice and began to comfort the caller.

“It’s all right.  You didn’t know.  It’s okay. No one told you.  I’ll tell my daddy about the chair when he wakes up, okay?  He’ll come to your shop and get the chair.  It’s okay.  You didn’t know… Good-bye.”

She walked back to the stereo, turned the radio off, sat down on the floor and sobbed.

 
[Originally posted November 2006]

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Five Seven

img022Five Seven. An unforgettable date. We may not remember Three Twenty-Three (her birthday). I don’t even know her wedding date (the year was 1945). But this day, oh I know Five Seven. The calendar starts fomenting emotions around the third or fourth.

I revisit my last goodbye as I trotted towards the car, facing forward out the front door, head turned on the final step as I sing-songed my farewell: ♪♫♪ Bye Mom! ♪♫♪  I see my father waiting for me at the edge of the school grounds, and I hear the deadly quiet when we entered the house.

Last night when I read about Kara Tippett’s family’s first event without her I burst into sobs. Have you followed Kara’s story? Her shimmering grace, her honest struggle, her big love. I look at her kids and I know a small piece of their story. The oldest girl, who will mother her siblings the rest of her life. The girl and boy in the middle whose grief might get overlooked, who will consider their dad’s cares. The youngest girl, the focus of concern for all, the girl who turned six this week.

Although Five Seven can never be the second Sunday in May, it is always in the suburbs of Mother’s Day. Sorrow scoots over and makes room for gratitude. For too many, the grief of Mother’s Day is the ache of having had a mom who couldn’t or wouldn’t, but clearly didn’t express love and kindness. Their focus is on breaking the chain of affliction, expunging the critical words, watching others to figure out how to be a good mom.

I learned the goodness and kindness of God through Mom. Sure, she taught us and corrected us; but she sang while she laundered, she cheerfully plowed through sandwich-making every school day morning, she wrapped her long arms around us, she prayed. What didn’t she do? She never gossiped, she didn’t complain, she didn’t worry, she didn’t fear. Sometimes she sighed, and I know she groaned. But she lived a simple, authentic life, a small life really, that influenced many for good. And she loved me, this I know. To know your mom’s love is a gift of unfathomable magnitude.

Thank you, Mom. I love you.

Nellie Arlene Stover Harper
3/23/1920 — 5/7/1968

Mom, Migration, and Graduation

Nellie young

Mom was raised in Wapato, Washington, in a farming family in a farming community. Her father, a widower with two sons, married a much younger woman who had immigrated to America from the Netherlands. They had two daughters and three sons. Mom was the oldest.

Hers was a life of rising early, milking cows, doing chores, watching siblings, weeding gardens, canning produce, cleaning up. Evidently it was also a life of reading and studying. After she graduated from high school, she studied one year at Biola (Bible Institute of Los Angeles).

She wanted to transfer to a recently established college in Dayton, Tennessee, named after William Jennings Bryan. She was offered a car ride across the country—before the interstate highway system—, so she decided to check it out. Her mom was doubtful. She wondered how Nellie would pay for tuition and books? The admissions director had the same question, asking her what skills she had. “I know how to milk cows,” Mom offered. It just so happened that the college had cows but lacked knowledgeable milkers. So she was hired. She earned money ironing and eked out a degree with academic distinction.

She also met my dad, whom she called “Johnny.”  She wrote in his yearbook: “Labs, water fights, Gutenburg trips, Sun. Piano playing, Street meetings, Dr. Gregg, or reading together, I’ve enjoyed it all and been blessed by it. He has been extra good to us, hasn’t He? Ps 103 — Nellie. I Cor 15:58

It’s a wonder to me that Mom started in the Yakima Valley of Washington and ended in Lombard, IL, two states over from Ohio, where her father began his life. And I, raised in Lombard, settled a few hours south from where she lived.

I’m gobsmacked that this quiet girl took it upon herself to ride halfway across the nation to go to an unknown college. I hitched a ride with friends to go to one year of Bible school in Los Angeles. My plan was to establish residency and go to UCLA. I never stepped on the campus, frozen with fear. If I had but asked, a dozen people would have been willing to help me navigate both the mass transit and the admissions process.

So Mom migrated, milked her way through school, and graduated. She never knew that her oldest son became both a scholar and a dairy farmer. I imagine a conversation today between her and David, her intelligent questions and thoughtful replies. She would chuckle and sigh, “Farming sure has changed.”

Mom left her mark at Bryan. Reading her senior yearbook, I find these benedictions:

Your life has been a blessing and joy to us. — Eugene Rosenau

I’m unable to tell you what your daily work has meant in my life! — Cleo Graham

I’ll never forget what a friend in need you were. Knowing you has really enriched my life. —Dorothy Borror

I’ll never forget your beautiful smiles. — Delbert Baker

Thanks for letting me sleep in your bed overnights-even if there were stones in it! I could never tell you what a blessing you’ve been to me this year. I really enjoyed my frequent visits to your rooms. — Miriam Levengood

Years later, I’ve been told, Mom was in the throes of a nursing baby, dirty diapers, hungry toddlers, and active preschoolers. My dad arrived home, scooped up a child, and asked the most pressing question on his mind: “Did you study your Greek today?”

Yesterday, on the (46th!) anniversary of her death, I talked to my husband about my mom. A sob caught in my throat, and I admitted, “I still miss her.” He nodded and said, “One day you’ll never have to miss her again.”

Never Used to Your Absence

Nellie Harper 3/23/20 – 5/7/1968

 

My mom’s death from an undiagnosed autoimmune disorder was sudden. There were no good-byes other than a casual “bye, Mom!” tossed over the shoulder as I left the house.

As I re-read some of her letters, I notice how she said good-bye to my dad, a college professor teaching in another state. And, these many years later, she continues to instruct me.

 

 

I miss you here – really seems lonesome without you – just a few weeks like we had in Sept. spoils me.  But since I love you so much I know that it will always be that way – I don’t get used to you being away, I just wait for you to come home.

Je t’aime beaucoup, beaucoup…

Now I must close – surely do miss you.  Guess I didn’t write partly because I was just too lonesome and didn’t want to sound too sad.  Those spells come when I feel as though I just have to see you, and anticipating a week end without you seems too much.  I just must not think ahead to weekends but take each day as it comes.  And the thought of you using so much time and energy and losing out on your studies just to come home doesn’t cheer me any either.  All in all it is not the most satisfactory situation, but it is the best one for us now or else the Lord would change it, of that I’m sure.

Must close for now.  I do love you and, like Danny, I often would like to give up because “I want you”.  But because of you I take heart and strive to do a good job here.

But we’ll keep on in our feeble way.

I love you and I just can’t get used to having you gone so much — howbeit the Lord has given joy and peace just to know that you are busy for Him.

Time to close — wish you were here to talk to instead of writing. Take care of yourself these busy days. We love you and your name is mentioned ump-teen times a day. I’m learning that when you really love a person you never get used to having him gone — it gets worse instead of easier. Hurry up, summer!

I love you and miss you so much. I would like to have a week or so together with no other responsibility but to catch up on all we’ve missed this winter. But we can only dream of such a time with all the cares of this world upon us.

Like Jimmy says “Daddy can fix anything.” But it is not primarily a handy man that I need here, but to have your love and fellowship in person.

Oh, Mom. I remember you. Forty-five years it has been and I continue to note your absence. I wish that your daughters-in-law, your sons-in-law, your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren—every one of them—could know you the way my brothers and sisters and I know you. I wish I could call you on the phone and exclaim today’s good news: the next baby is a GIRL!! I can hear your chuckle at my exuberant joy.

Your letters inspire me. I can take heart and strive to imitate you, to become a Nellie Harper to my people. Thank you for pouring yourself out for us, for giving us yourself, day after day after day. Thank you for being the best mom ever.

Always yours,

Carol

 

Other May 7th posts:
Dear Mom
A Reduction of Tears
Lighthearted on a Heavy Day
May 7, 1968
She’s Not Here

Letters from Mom

Dear Mom

Dear Mom,

We love you. We miss you. We remember you.

Even though we are separated by that grand canyon between mortality and immortality, our love for you continues. You left an enduring imprint on us. We all have ways that embody Nellie Harper. Your kindness is part of each of our DNA. It would be fun to tell you about the kindness of your children, exhibited just this year. That quiet kindness abides in each of your grandchildren, too. It isn’t always evident between siblings (wry grin), but they are kind people.

We all have wishes.

We wish we could honor you, our mom, face to face. As the years accumulate, we see with greater clarity what we owe you. What was a given—your smile, your excellence, your steadfastness, your encouragement—when we were kids, we now know was such an immense gift. You shaped us into who we are. We all would love to ‘praise you in the gates’. To have you hear our gratitude, feel our hugs.

We wish our kids knew you…beyond the stories we tell. Ditto, for the husbands and wives who never met you. They get the trace elements of you through us, but we’d love them to know the real you.

And Mom? We all wish we were more like you. Sometimes that is the grief we silently share, more than missing you. Your wisdom: your sweet, practical wisdom. Your generosity. Your faith. You made such an impact on more than one community. You were extraordinary in such an ordinary way.

We’re getting together for Anne’s wedding soon. A large, unruly, talkative, loud crowd of relatives. It will be a great time.

It always comes round to thanksgiving. The hollow years without you can’t compare to the full years of having you. You filled us up; you fed us; you nurtured us; you made each of us know how special we were to you. The tears have slowed to a tiny trickle. We all get throat-lumpy in May. But it is thanksgiving that we feel in the end. Another of your legacies is the lack of bitterness in your children.

Mom. We love you. We miss you. We remember you.

Carol, for all of us

Serendipity Overload

Serendipity
is one of my favorite words.
My definition: finding something wonderful that you weren’t looking for.

 

One of the most splendid serendipitous events of my life took place on Monday night.

I was packing for a trip to Chicago to see my family and friends. I had inherited my Aunt Betty’s photograph album. She died in July near Cape Town, South Africa. She never had children; her friend wanted to send her few personal effects to a family member and asked me if I wanted them. Of course, I replied. When the packages arrived there were two paintings, some brooches, a cross-stitch I had done for her, and a photo album.

I was interested in seeing pictures of my grandpa and grandma, Aunt Betty, Jean-Blaise—my Congolese cousin (my aunt’s foster son)—, and dear Virginia who was my aunt’s best friend. My aunt survived three husbands and I couldn’t distinguish #1, #2 and #3 in the pictures. Obviously, I didn’t pore over each picture. My life was full when the packages arrived; I remember enjoying the photos and setting them on a shelf.

When I was picking pictures to bring with me on the trip, there were a few bunched up underneath another photo. I drew one out and saw Aunt Betty pushing a stroller with two toddlers: my oldest sister and brother. She had come to help out my mom.

The next picture was my mom holding a baby. I turned it over and read, “Nellie and Carol Ruth, 3 months.” Electricity sluiced through my body. There was my mom. And there was me.  I have never seen a picture of me as a baby. I didn’t think one existed. One of the hazards of being a seventh born.

The next photo was just overload. I was stunned. The date down the vertical margin was MAR 55. Elisabeth Elliot holding Valerie with Jim Elliot next to her. I don’t know where this picture was taken. Or why my aunt had it. Two possibilities exist. 1) Aunt Betty was a classmate of Betty Howard (aka EE) at a girls boarding school in Florida. But I never got the impression from Aunt Betty that they were particularly close. 2) Jim Elliot and my grandpa were close friends during his time at Wheaton. Perhaps my grandpa was the original recipient of the photo and my aunt inherited it after Grandpa and Grandma died? 

Who took the Elliot family photo? These scans don’t show it, but both pictures are the same size with the same border. This will take some research.

 

 

I love spending time finding the right word, the word that best fits the need. But, gentle reader, I am flummoxed and befuddled. To articulate the treasure that I have been given requires words I don’t yet know. I do know this: I am forever thankful. Thank you Aunt Betty, for saving a piece of my history. Thank you Virginia, for ensuring these treasures weren’t thrown away. Thank you, Almighty God, from Whom all blessings flow.

 

A Reduction of Tears

 
Nellie Stover Harper, March 23, 1920 – May 7, 1968

Sorrow has no shelf life.

There is, however, a difference between the jagged edges of fresh grief and the patina of an old grief worn smooth like a faded flannel shirt. The splash of hot tears and spasms of sobs wind down, and eventually become sighs and wistful smiles.

A reduction, in cooking terminology, uses heat and evaporation to get the essential flavors, the best bits, into a thicker base.

Grief–the healthy kind–can make a reduction of our tears, concentrating those salty drops into a savory flavoring.  Cardamom, by itself, is sharp and bitter, pungent and overwhelming. Reduced with cinnamon, cloves, ginger and black tea, it becomes a vital ingredient in chai.
  
Revelation (last book of the Bible) promises a day when God will wipe away all the tears and Psalm 56 speaks of God storing tears in a bottle.  

I know that God sees our tears.  And if he knows the hairs on our head, surely He knows every tear that falls. 
 
I know that God–the One who Redeems–transforms our sorrows, giving us beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning. 

I imagine that the oil of joy is a reduction of our tears, redeeming our sorrows and transforming them into praise. He gave the tears; one day we will offer them back to Him.

Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.

~

More thoughts on grief.

Some letters my mom wrote.