27 Summer Benedictions

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My summer has included grief, groans, and groping in the dark.
Same as you.
So this is not intended to be an episode of ‘my beautiful life’.
It is my retrospect of benedictions as I press onward.

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:: Farmer grandson in line to show his sheep at Stock Show ::

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 :: experimental gardening  growing Brussells Sprouts ::

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:: captivating clematis ::

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:: Mint, juice of one lime, Truvia, ice, and water ::

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:: her hair reminds me of a Fibonacci spiral ::

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:: halfway through The Pat Conroy Cookbook – a good book for foodies ::

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:: garlic scapes and wood rounds ::

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:: the moments before Susan from Munich arrived ::

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:: anniversary camping trip, Curt reading Shop Class as Soulcraft ::

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:: Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge ::

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:: reminds me of Hank, the Cowdog ::

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:: glory, glory, glory!! a surprise sibling reunion! ::

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:: Chris & Jessie’s table set for an extended family dinner ::

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:: Who knew 80 could look so glamorous? ::

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:: this girl, our youngest grand, lives life with zest ::

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:: moving up the ladder ::

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:: breakfast with Jack & Stacia, who mentored Curt in his teen years in Los Angeles ::

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:: harvest golden tones ::

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::   Papa cheesing it up with our Seattle grandsons ::

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:: Fair is where you take the hogs in August ::

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:: my ongoing magnet project — thank you, Shutterfly! ::

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:: last year I saved zinnia seeds. My frugal self is exultant. ::

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:: squash blossoms, garlic and cilantro from the garden; the makings of quesadillas ::

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:: teddy bear doubling as a pillow ::

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::  day is done (pinching myself that we live here)  ::

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:: chipmunk visiting during my day of silence and solitude ::

Cleaning before Being Cleaned

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There’s something radically new in my life: a young woman comes every other week to clean my house. It’s pretty weird. But I’m getting used to it.

I was telling my husband about a book I was reading,  The End of Your Life Book Club — the story of Mary Anne Schwalbe and her son Will, and the books they read and discussed during her final two years. As I explained their background, I said, Well, they lived three doors down from Julia Child. And Mary Anne worked full-time, back when moms typically didn’t work. But she must have hired a housekeeper because all they did was read on the weekends and you KNOW that someone had to clean toilets.  And Curt, bless his heart, leapt into this opening he had been waiting for to suggest that we hire a house cleaner.

So Jamie comes and I gather scattered books so she is cleaning and not picking up. I work on a deep-cleaning project while she’s here. To me, it’s akin to paying a piano teacher when you mostly need accountability to practice.

But, here’s the thing: the instinct is so strong to clean up myself before I get help. It’s neat to clean (Next to Godliness is my favorite soap from Trader Joe’s) but this is more about self-protection and perhaps some self-deception. I see this tendency in my life in other areas. After I lose 15 pounds, I’ll go to the doctor, I promise myself.

Years ago, I participated in a foot-washing ceremony. A group of women circled their chairs and the friend on the right got on her knees and dipped my feet in a large bowl sudsy with warm soapy water, washed, rubbed, and dried my dirty, stinky feet — a profoundly unforgettable encounter. It struck the same emotional response in each of us. We were happy (happy! happy!) to wash a friend’s feet, but our heart screamed No! when it was our turn to be washed.

Reviving A Comatose Pencil

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Curt and I, young and pre-children, had moved and were getting to know our new pastor at our new church in our new city. We explained that we’d loved to involve ourselves, but were burned-out and needed a season of rest. This wise man replied, “Take time. Sit down. Be still.  When the urge to serve comes back—and it will—, call me.” 

While I am not overburdened with my writing schedule (cough, cough) the urge to write is back. It’s time to revive A Living Pencil. Beginning with a few random thoughts.

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Has there been a decline in blogging? I think Facebook/Twitter/Instagram is to blogs what Walmart is to downtown boutiques. I find it oh so easy to post a photo to Facebook or write a sentence about the irony of including Man-Pleasing Chicken on our Mother’s Day menu.

The problem: so much content on Facebook (read Walmart) is generic and/or derivative. Most blogs offer a unique perspective. And most of the small blogs have closed up shop.

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I made it through the toughest weekend of my calendar. The anniversary of my mom’s death was on Saturday and Mother’s Day was Sunday. I also remembered my friend Carol, (my surrogate mom’s youngest daughter) who died in January, and her beautiful daughters experiencing their first Mother’s Day sans Mom.

I never want to drum up grief because of the day on the calendar. No. There was no need for drumming.

But this is what I realized this cycle: I always—for 48 years—carry grief with me, deep in the warrens of my soul. But May 7th is the day I give sadness permission to surface. I give myself permission to acknowledge the wound. I think that is a good, even healthy, thing to do.

Between Ewe and Me

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“Nothing’s happening with the sheep right now” were the parting words from the parents. Allrighty then, just make sure the regular chores get done, I thought. We were doing a grandparent gig out at our kids’ mini-farm. Just in case, I had the Lambing Crash Course stuck to the front of the fridge. Gulp.

I’m a suburban girl–the kind who gets squeamish about picking up dog doo. The plastic bag and steaming stuff…?? No, no, no, no, no. <gag> Not in my skill set. When I told my husband about the Crash Course, he chuckled. As if anyone thinks moi will be in the pen, let alone “pulling” a lamb.  I loved all the James Herriot books from the warmth of my pillow and down comforter. I just never imagined needing to use the word pulled in conjunction with any animal.

It was inevitable: Gavin (our remarkable pre-teen farmer/grandson) busted into the house and announced that things were happening. Of course, my husband was at work. I was the lone adult on site. We called the closest neighbor: gone. We called another neighbor (who, in this small-town-world happens to be my boss): gone. But beautiful Sue and her three girls came over to help. We failed to get Mama penned. She galloped across the pasture two or three times. Funny, I never could run like that right before giving birth. Finally, we formed a human fence and coaxed Mama into the lambing pen.

Our next job was to wait. Gavin monitored Mama every thirty minutes. The third time the timer buzzed, he wondered how necessary it was to check this time. I’ll go with you, I said. Solidarity, I thought. A younger brother joined us. As we approached the pens, Gavin started yelling, There’s two lambs!

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We were unprepared. No towels on hand to *Clean mouth & nose first. Gavin hiked off his hoodie, whipped his tee shirt off, put his hoodie back on and began wiping goojies from their faces.

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Even I knew we needed to get the baby lambs nursing. This was, um, complicated. Mama must have been the winner of Miss Woolly Oregon. And little Luke and Leia (as Gavin named the babies) couldn’t locate the teats.

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Gavin reached his hand in the nether-parts trying to find the udder and help the lamb attach. You are way too far back, I said, helpfully. You need to be closer to the front legs.

No, Nana, Gavin said with a firmness that belied his age. We held eye contact for a second. Then I looked pointedly at my chest and raised my eyebrows. I shrugged. We’re both mammals, n’est ce pas?

No, Nana, Gavin repeated with conviction.

And, it turns out, that 4H boy knows his anatomy. The udder of sheep, in case you didn’t know, is close to the groin.

I got in the pen (while wondering What is the etymological connection between pen and open?) and dried one of the little darlings with a towel.

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When nature was working, we left the pen and walked back to the house. As we approached the door, Gavin threw his arm around my shoulder and said, Good job, Nana! Praise I will treasure to my last breath.

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A Different Kind of Fairy Tale

Young Margo

By Daniel Harper

Margaret was a complicated person. Now, when someone says that at a funeral, alarm bells should go off inside your head.  But what I mean is that Margaret was a mixture of different characteristics like most of us.  Loving.  Patient.  Stubborn. Funny. Tough. Patient.  Stubborn.

I’m repeating myself. Let’s go back to childhood and try and remember some things about Margaret.

First off she was much older than myself.  6 whole years.  At that age, 6 years seems like an eternity.  Along with Dorothy and David, she seemed much older, cooler, and smarter than I would ever be. She had interests and knowledge I could never match.

But we shared one huge event as a family.  The death of my mother when I was 13. In many ways this shaped all of us because my mom was the anchor of our family and to lose her at such an early age brought many changes.  One random memory from that time is a chicken dinner which Margo prepared. (And maybe Dorothy was involved. I plead teenage male goofiness). This was fried chicken in some kind of cake batter that puffed up as it bubbled in the oil in a cast iron skillet.  We shared a love of good and wonderful food.

Later, she went to nursing school and took her first job at Belmont Hospital. After living in an apartment overlooking the Eisenhower Freeway with all the noise and traffic she moved to 804 S Euclid in Oak Park which was a two flat also known as the Harper Hilton. Two older brothers, David and John, lived in the upstairs flat and Margo along with various roommates lived downstairs.

In 1977 I moved in upstairs and little knew how much Margo would change my life.

Through sheer ineptitude I managed to flip a 3 wheel construction cart on my left foot and was off work for a month or longer. During this time Margo, Bette Unander (now Smillie) and I visited my brother Jim and his wife Kathleen in Portland, Maine.  We took the tour of Boston, parts of New Hampshire, and Maine where Jim and Kathleen gave us a royal visit of that wonderful state.

As I recovered from my foot injury I had time to prepare late night steak bbqs for Margo and Bette when they came home from the 3 to 11 shift.  Our bonds as brother and sister grew especially in the Tuesday night Bible study that met downstairs in their apartment.

At this time I was taking voice lessons, singing solos in a large church choir, and being a member of the Chicago Symphony Chorus.  Margo encouraged me in my singing and attended many concerts with our circle of friends, mainly from the Tuesday night Bible Study.

It was during this time that Margo developed severe headaches. While visiting my brother David she had to be taken to Pittsburgh for treatment but the brain tumor was not discovered for some time.

In the early summer of 1979 the pain was even worse and finally she was diagnosed with a severe and dangerous brain tumor which she decided to have the needed surgery at Mayo Clinic.  While she was there she called me and asked if I would give a ride to a co-worker that wanted to visit her for that week in Minnesota.  I gladly agreed and gave Valeri Kijak a ride up to Mayo Clinic. (And my life was changed forever!!)

Margo had many radiation treatments and at the end of those we planned a celebratory lobster dinner (sent by my brother Jim from Maine).  It was during this dinner (ironically before we ate the lobster) that Margo had a seizure.  This was in September of 1979 and for Margaret the prognosis looked very grim. Later, the whole Harper clan all gathered at brother David’s house for Christmas and most of us thought this would be Margaret’s last Christmas.

God had different plans.  For some unknown reason Margo’s body enveloped the brain tumor and stopped its growth.  But the damage from the treatment had taken a toll on Margo’s body.  She was told that from then on her life would be very limited.

She would never work again.
She would never drive again.
She would never live on her own again.

Here is where her stubbornness comes in.  This is where her toughness comes into play.

Margo did all those things.
Work two different jobs.
Buy a new car. And drive it.
Buy a condo on her own.

But.  The damage from the cure was tremendous.  Margo’s body was never the same again. Her amazing piano skills were never the same. She had much difficulty in moving and having the stamina for being a nurse.

God gave Margo a difficult path to walk.

Here’s where we need to learn what Margo knew all those years ago: God’s way is best even when we don’t understand.

Bitterness only eats up those who are bitter.
Each day is a blessing even with all the challenges that Margo faced.

In the midst of this God sent a gift to Margaret in the form of John Walker. John loved Margo for who she was including the physical deficits because he saw the real Margo that was hidden behind those physical problems.

In 1994 John and Margo were married.

We think of fairy tales as the young prince who carries off his young bride in some idealized Hollywood movie. Let me give you another version:

A 40-something cancer survivor meets a young man who sees the fairy princess locked up inside her own body and loves her for who she is.  

THAT is a movie I want to see. John has been a  faithful and loving husband to his bride, Margaret.

In the last conversation I had with Margo a month or so ago she amazed me with her wit and intelligence and I hung up the phone exhilarated and rejoicing in who Margo was. And is. I selfishly would love to have that conversation with Margo again but I know that as of right now Margo is in the presence of her Lord and Savior.

Free from pain.
Free from limitations.
Free from a body that served her well but imperfectly.
And at rest and at peace with her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Amen.

Margaret and Music

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By Jim Harper

So, as you all— I am Jim, by the way, the middle brother —as you all probably know, music is very important in the Harper family.

When we were growing up, we were each either assigned or picked an instrument to play… some of us went further with this than others. (laughter) And I always sort of thought of it in my mind as the Bach Family Orchestra. I sort of thought that maybe Dad had so many kids to fill the gaps in the orchestra. But, that never panned out.

So, Margaret played the cello. That was her division, her instrument. And she also played the piano, just like Carol and Dorothy. But she also loved to sing.

She got together with Judy Petke and Rosalyn Hines at Bair Lake Bible Camp — we spent most of our summers at Bair Lake Bible Camp — and they formed a trio: The Bair Lake Lovelies. And they had wonderful harmonies.  And I think they even sang out here, in Lombard, under a different name: The Lombard Lovelies.

But I came across this quote by Garrison Keillor, who I think Margaret enjoyed listening to, from a piece he wrote, Singing with the Lutherans. And I presume by that, he meant Singing with Sanctified Brethren, because that’s who he grew up singing with.

“Lutherans are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony. It’s a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person’s rib cage. It’s natural for Lutherans to sing in harmony. We’re too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When you’re singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it’s an emotionally fulfilling moment. I once sang the bass line of Children of the Heavenly Father in a room with about three thousand Lutherans in it; and when we finished, we all had tears in our eyes, partly from the promise that God will not forsake us, partly from the proximity of all those lovely voices. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.”

So, when we turned off life-support for Margaret, we sang her into heaven. She lasted two songs, and her heart stopped.

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Here is my playlist for the prelude with some choice lyrics. One of my favorite piano quotes is from my sister Dorothy: Play the words.

Sweet, Sweet Spirit  — Without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived when we shall leave this place.

King Jesus — For He opens doors for me, doors I’m not able to see, That’s why I say King Jesus will roll my burdens away.

He’s Able — I know my Lord is able to carry me through.

Softly and Tenderly — You who are weary, come home.

There Is a Fountain — Redeeming love has been my theme and shall be till I die.

I Will Sing of My Redeemer — How the victory He giveth over sin and death and hell.

I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say — I came to Jesus as I was, so weary, worn, and sad. I found in Him a resting place and He has made me glad.

Wayfaring Stranger — I’m only going over Jordan; I’m only going over home.

Come Thou Fount — Tune my heart to sing Thy grace.

Abide with Me — Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

My God Is Real — [written by Mahalia!!] His love for me is just like pure gold, My God is real, for I can feel Him in my soul.

Come, Ye Disconsolate — Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Precious Lord, Take My Hand — At the river I stand, guide my feet, hold my hand, take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

Blessed Assurance — Angels, descending, bring from above echoes of mercy, whispers of love.

 

 

Deep Sorrow

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The tagline for my blog is Solid joys, deep sorrows, aggressive hope. I’m in a period of Deep Sorrow.

Here is a photo of my brothers and sisters taken circa 1959. I’m the youngest on the left. We are seven. Last week my sister Margo (middle girl) died at the age of 67 from respiratory failure related to pneumonia. It’s remarkable that she was just three years shy of threescore years and ten.

In 1979 she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor (a glioblastoma). After chemotherapy, radiation, and a surplus of surgeries, her tumor was encapsulated. But the “cure” brought a lifetime of disability. Her life was difficult but her signature response was “Blessed.” She enjoyed describing herself as not in her right mind.

This is the first of several blog posts introducing you, dear reader, with my dear sister and my forum for processing my grief. I’ll write about how we “sang her to heaven” and how we honored her life.

These are my [edited] reflections which I read at her service.

My Sister Margo

There were just enough years and sufficient siblings between Margo and me that we seldom quibbled and rarely quarreled.

After I left Lombard, she was the Great Communicator. A punster, she loved clever quips and sent me many, many funny cards. Like all of my siblings, she devoured books and music; she insisted I read My Name Is Asher Lev, Lord Peter Wimsey, and a boatload of Brock and Bodie Thoene books. Ten years ago, she and her husband John made a dream come true, by taking me to see the great cellist YoYo Ma at Ravinia.

Our friendship was sustained by annual visits. When finances and young children constrained my travel, she ventured out to Oregon. One October she joined our family’s hunting camp and kept the fire burning. As a nurse, she was fascinated with gutting, skinning, and hanging a deer, disappointed that our guys came up empty.

In 1994 she brought John to meet us. Soon there was a wedding. She was 45. In recent years, I came to Chicago. The sweetest moments we shared were our evening meals. We lingered long after the last bite was chewed and reviewed memories. In the dimming light, she relived school stories, recounted old friendships, told of her travels and took comfort in the simple benediction of remembering.

We played Scrabble. If you know Harpers, you know we compete. Year after year I could not beat Margo at Scrabble. I certainly tried. In 2014 I eked out a one-point win. Oh yeah! I crowed and danced, hands above my head. She leveled her gaze at me and smirked, “You are celebrating beating someone with only half a brain?”

Her life was beset with brokenness and besieged with pain, a continuous series of losses. She lost her balance, her manual dexterity, her ability to walk, travel by plane, hearing in one ear, and eventually clear speech. She steadfastly refused to complain; instead, she reckoned herself blessed.

Margo thrived on belonging. She relished belonging to the wild roundup called the Harpers. She valued belonging to the Lombard Gospel Chapel family. Back in the day, she belonged to her people at Bair Lake Bible Camp, Emmaus Bible School, Pacific Garden Mission, Sunshine Gospel Mission, Belmont Hospital, Rest Haven Homes.  She belonged to John; johnandmargo became one word.

Margo belonged to Jesus. The Heidelberg Catechism begins: What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong — body and soul, in life and in death — to my faithful savior Jesus Christ. He was her rock, her fortress and her might.

Finally, Margo was beloved. The response to news of her passing is a witness. As a young girl she was warmed and nurtured by her mom. In Margo’s last years of life, Mom’s love — Mom’s praise — was a diamond she pulled out of her pocket and prized. “Mom used to say, ‘You are such a help to me,’” Margaret remembered.

Our brother John was a faithful friend and support, especially the last dozen years of her life. He brought meals, helped her exercise, encouraged and cheered. His love was an important aspect of her life.

When she had long adjusted to life as a single woman, God brought John Walker to Margo. He loved her; her delight in him knew no bounds. Joy and laughter took up residence in her life. Look at the photos! Their marriage was the gospel made plain. He cared about her as he cared for her. His sacrifices shouted “My life for yours.”

Margo’s disability went from challenging to difficult to arduous. John’s love was a counterpoint to her struggles. The more dependent Margo became on John, the more evident was his love. Few wives are acquainted with the depth of love that Margo knew. Indeed, she was ‘blessed.’

Margo loved Narnia; she adored Lucy. Margo’s journey on earth is done. She can say,

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!”

Our ‘Lucy’ — I think of her as Queen Margo the Valiant — has gone ‘further up and further in’. Her faith is sure, her hopes are fulfilled, her love remains.  Goodbye, Margo.