Never Her Own Person

I can’t speak to her years of growing up, of being a teenager but I suspect that as the oldest of at least eight children, Mom probably never really had the chance to be a kid. If memory serves me correctly, more than one of her siblings said, “Ruby was more of a mother to me than our mother was.”

Those early years of responsibility served her well when she married Dad and began a family of her own. Her firstborn son, Reuben, lived only a few hours. The following six have survived to this day with their ages spanning from seventy-three to fifty-three. Perhaps owing to her own early experience, there was never any confusion among the six of us as to whom was our mother.

She was as hard working a person as I ever knew, and I knew quite a few of them as I was growing up in western Kentucky. She was also as authentic a pioneer woman as was possible, I think. She made her own soap, made clothes for the family, canned just about everything that could be canned and would as soon have her hand cut off as to have someone accuse her of wasting anything. Throughout the years of my own recollection, her family had three complete home-cooked meals a day, three hundred-and-sixty-five days a year every year except for leap years. She also tended the garden, helped with the milking, planting and harvesting on the farm. And in all her spare time, she’d do for others, especially those in need or in grief.

Those habits continued up well into her eighties, I’d say, although not to the degree as when she was in her prime. It was not until she was in her nineties that the decline took away pretty much everything that defined her. The one thing that never changed, though, was the fact that she was never allowed to be her own person.

My Dad was a good man with many good and honest virtues but there was no question of his control over his wife and family. If Mom needed a new stove, he’d go pick one out for her. If she needed a new washing machine, he’d go get her one. In fairness, I have to say that I never saw him trying to tell her how to do her work. He was not a micro-manager of the household but he was, without question or contradiction, head of his house.

It wasn’t that Mom resented her role. In fact, she told me several years ago, “All I ever wanted was to be a preacher’s wife.” I never knew of anyone who defined that role as broadly and completely as she did. Her statement notwithstanding, though, the happiest I ever saw her was the few years during the early Seventies that she was the head cook at an elementary school in Mayfield, Kentucky. She had a talent for that and the school administrators there recognized it and rewarded it. Anyone who ever ate her homemade yeast bread or cinnamon rolls appreciated it, too.

So, for five years out of ninety-nine, Miss Ruby had her own identity, her own role independent of marriage or family. I think it was the only time and place when she was something other than “Brother Charlie’s wife.” And she loved it. When Dad decided, without any consultation with her, that they would move to North Carolina, she was crushed. She did her duty, submitted to his decision and resumed the preacher’s wife role, but she was never the same again.

She went directly from the control of her parents to marriage. Shortly before Dad died, she was placed under the control of a series of court-appointed guardians. She lived a good life, made a good name and gained the respect of nearly everyone who knew her. She was a virtuous woman, a woman of character and dignity with more than enough personality to distinguish herself. I could not miss the apt irony of her funeral sermon.

The minister, a friend of the family for over sixty years, spent more time talking about Bro. Charlie than he did about Mom. At the grave, he admitted “they were such a team that it was hard to talk about one without talking about the other.” What he didn’t realize was that he seemed to have had no trouble five years earlier focusing on “Bro. Charlie” when he preached Dad’s funeral. I know that it was not for lack of respect or love for Mom; he just didn’t realize what he was doing until it was too late.

I believe Mom deserved her own eulogy. Maybe this will serve as a start for one…

H. Arnett

Posted in Aging, Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Death & Dying, Family, Relationships | Tagged , , , , ,

The Sharing of the Centuries

There are so many ways in which we show our love for one another, too many to even try to list. There are so many expressions of caring and concern, things we do that carry with them clear messages of support, of tenderness, of compassion. Sometimes it is someone else stepping to do what we cannot do at the time; sometimes it is a lifting of a different kind. Sometimes it is something as simple as a phone call or a touch in passing. Among all of those things and certainly among the finest of them, are those conveyances of caring, consolation and condolence in the passing of a loved one.

In Murray, Kentucky, this past Sunday evening and Monday morning, I was so richly blessed it is hard to describe. How do you convey to others your appreciation for their hugs, their kind words, their warm smiles and soft voices? Friends from high school days and even earlier, people I barely remembered from my childhood, those who’ve loved me since before I can recall, made it part of their schedule to come by the funeral home during visitation or came to the funeral. Others sent cards, text messages or email. Still others, including some who do not even know me, helped prepare food for the family.

In all of these ways and in many others, they shared as they could in the passing of my mother, showed love in the same ways we humans have tried to show over the millennia of our existence upon this earth. They also shared the faith and hope that bring comfort that goes beyond the sharing of sorrow, a faith and hope that look to the ending of sorrow. Ultimately, for those who believe, it is the promise of resurrection that brings the closest bonds, that offers us the greatest comfort.

For all of those who have shared, and will continue to share in these expressions of love and mercy, I give thanks.

H. Arnett

Posted in Spiritual Contemplation, Aging, Death & Dying, Relationships, Family, Christian Living, Christian Devotions | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Shall I Grieve?

Shall I grieve the stillness of those hands that patched our jeans and sewed our shirts, made my sisters’ dresses and skirts, Dad’s underwear? Shall I grieve the stillness of those fingers that fastened buttons, mended socks, crocheted table pieces, embroidered pillowcases, and a thousand other things?

Those hands long ago swelled with the pain of arthritis, the knuckles became twisted and cankered, huge barnacles on slender fingers. She stopped shaking hands with church visitors thirty years ago because of the pain. Those hands no longer ache, no longer swell, no longer torment her with their pain and the reminders of the things she loved to do and could no longer do.

Shall I grieve the body that drove tractors and trucks, that milked the cows when Dad was sick or gone, that tended the garden, that canned countless jars of green beans and peas and whatever else was in season, that buried her firstborn after only a few hours of breathing and then raised six kids? Shall I grieve the stillness of that body that cooked countless meals for family and friends, for kith and kin, for neighbors visited by death, for fellow believers in their sickness or grief? Shall I grieve the empty kitchen?

That body long ago turned against her, trapped her in its shrinking prison. She lost nearly five inches of vertical measure in the last twenty years of her life. Near the time of her death, she weighed less than eighty-five pounds, could not be touched or turned upon her bed without her screaming from the pain. Unless they’d already given her the meds.

Shall I grieve the loss of conversation, the lack of those late night talks at the dining table with Dad snoring in the room down the hall and my children asleep in the basement? The phone calls that came every Sunday afternoon. Shall I grieve the voice that sang a soft sweet alto in the a cappella churches of my youth and “Happy Birthday to You” once a year over the phone? Shall I grieve the reading of Brer Rabbit and Uncle Reemus and a hundred other characters from hand-me-down books from richer cousins?

The conversations ended five years ago.

Shall I grieve the closed eyes that used to brighten when I came to visit? The smile that lit up her face as I hugged her? Her obvious pleasure in my company?

She hasn’t recognized me for over three years.

This grieving I have already done, these losses–and countless others–already mourned. The mother I knew–the one who raised me, who loved me, who delighted in my visiting – that woman disappeared years ago. Her I have already grieved.

I will not grieve, but rejoice that she has passed into rest, that her suffering is ended, that she is in Abraham’s bosom. I will not grieve but I will continue to miss her. Until the moment of our reunion, when all of grieving will have ended.

H. Arnett

Posted in Aging, Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Death & Dying, Family, Relationships, Resurrection/Return, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Even in Darkness, Light

In these heavy dews of August,
when the grass would make us think
it surely must have rained in the night,
in spite of that clear brightness
of a full moon,

In the surprising chill of morning air
when it seems that this must be surely
be some early autumn’s dawning,
even though we know the apples
are not yet ripe,

In the soft stillness of locust branches,
when it seems that not even a breath
could pass without leaves flinching,
and the birches drape toward earth
without the slightest ripple,

In the low-hanging mist over the pasture,
when it seems that every gray particle
holds its particular place
in spite of all the gravity
that pulls against this week:

In all of this there is peace,
a quieting of my thoughts,
a knowing that even in the aftermath
of suicide and all other passings,
in spite of all pangs and pains,
all fears and tears,

The God Who Draws Near to Us
is continuing to work
for the good of those who love him,
who are called according to his purpose.

Even though the weight of what is
and what soon will be
may press down on me
like the heat of a prairie sun,
I will claim the peace of this good promise

and I will take the good of this good day.

H. Arnett

Posted in Aging, Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Death & Dying, Family, Metaphysical Reflection, Poetry, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

At River’s Edge

She lay on her back all morning,
eyes fixed,
maybe seeing something
no one else could see,
cankered hands lifted toward the ceiling,
perhaps feeling the call
of children long ago
grown and gone
yet now still small,
reaching toward her.

Perhaps she saw the face
of her husband
dead now for five years,
ached for the feel of his flesh
once more.

She refused to eat
and the day before
and there was no store
of anything
in her eighty-four pounds
that could carry her ninety-nine years
forward for much more than this;
even her organs were shrinking.

No one could get a hint
of what she was thinking,
whether angst or anger
or if maybe she just hoped
that reaching toward heaven
she might find some unseen hands
reaching down to draw her out
of this shriveled prison
and she would be glad
for whatever she could gain
from fingertip to elbow

in shortening her time
left this side of Jordan.

H. Arnett

Posted in Aging, Christian Devotions, Death & Dying, Family, Metaphysical Reflection, Poetry, Relationships, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The Aftermath of Suicide

There are many tragedies in this world and few departings from it that do not involve at least some degree of sorrow and sadness. Even when we can see the release that death brings from some long lingering disease, we still feel the pangs of sadness in the separation. It is a futile thing to try to compare degrees of despair and heartache; all of grief holds pain.

All of that notwithstanding, there is something peculiarly painful when a loved one takes his or her own life. We feel something of the knife’s own edge ourself, feel that our lives have taken some of the impact. It seems unlikely than any life is so completely solitary that its taking doesn’t leave a void in the lives of others, that no one else feels the pain of its dying.

We find ourselves wondering, even in the midst of our anguish, what we could have done differently, what we might have said at some particular moment that could have pierced the gloom, brought some light of hope. How do we explain to children and grandchildren? How do we help the spouse or sibling understand the depth of darkness that overwhelmed the soul? What do we say that can possibly help stave away the blunt-toothed gnawing of guilt or its long-fanged sharpness?

Even when we reach that point of understanding that reminds us that we cannot control the choices that other people make, we still sorrow, we still grieve, we still miss the one we loved. Even those of us who have ourselves slipped to the very edge of that dark chasm, even though we believe that we can understand the depth of that despair and hopelessness, still feel the pain of those left behind. We cannot keep from thinking about all of life that could have yet been lived, priceless moments that will go unspent.

In the end, we know that it takes a greater grace than lies within us to heal the woundings of a loved one’s suicide. It takes a soothing greater than what we can offer to bring a balm of comfort to the aching hearts, torn lives. We should not pretend to know what others feel, even when we believe that we have been through the same thing ourselves. Perhaps the best that we can offer is to acknowledge their aching and offer our sympathy and love. And to pray for them in the fervency of truest compassion.

Even in this, we may feel inadequate. But no matter how clumsy our offerings, we should keep in mind that the most awkward caring is far more loving than the most eloquent pretension.

Maybe we can remember that the purpose of our expression is not to erase their pain but to let them know that it is shared.

H. Arnett

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Feeding After the Storm

In the waning light of dusk,
a three-quarter moon
seeps through clouds
the color of rust and bruises,
edges tinged in the least hint of a sunset
that passed a half-hour earlier.

Still soaked from afternoon rain,
the black locust tree, thornless,
droops slender limbs and small leaves
against the pale stillness
of the western sky,
its stark silhouette graceful and delicate.

Lush as April
on the first Thursday of August,
a blend of perennial rye and bluegrass
passes into the darkness
shaded beneath the trees
on the eastern side of the slope
that leads to the neighbor’s place.

There is a peace
in the passing of the storm
and even a hard rain
leaves some gain in the ground.
Already, the tomato plants
have started to straighten
from the pounding of wind and water.

Just now,
the moon gleams
from a break in the clouds
and I see clearly
the path from the barn to the house.

H. Arnett

Posted in Farming, Gardening, Metaphysical Reflection, Nature, Poetry, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment