Three More Birthday Wishes

Last year, on primary election day in Pennsylvania, I listed three wishes for my 68th birthday: a fair electoral system, a world where my grandchildren and their children and grandchildren can survive and thrive, and the ability to age well. I won’t comment on the progress on those three wishes except to say that at least two of them appear to be “wishes deferred” for now. Today, on my 69th birthday, I’m adding three more birthday wishes.

I wish for more success in following the advice of the psalmist to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46: 10). In a topsy-turvy world that often feels unstable and unpredictable and where a lot of wrong seems to be prevailing (or, in the language of Psalm 46, a world where “the mountains shake in the heart of the sea” and “nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter”), it’s difficult for me to be still. There is so much going on that disturbs me: consumer, environmental, and health protections being undone or in serious danger; ongoing assaults on the foundations of democracy, like a free press and voting rights; threats of draconian budget cuts to important programs that meet needs and contribute to quality of life; the normalization of unselfconscious and jaw-dropping hypocrisy and blatant dishonesty (several degrees worse than the kind of spin we’ve come to expect from most politicians ); the threat of potentially devastating military interventions rather than an unwavering commitment to peacebuilding and ever more serious diplomacy; lingering and serious questions about Russian connections and political conflicts of interest; and the list goes on.

With things happening almost every day that trouble me, I find it really hard to rest in the first words of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear….” My activist and impatient self wants to do something to make it all stop, to make a difference, to speak out and act on behalf of those who are most vulnerable right now. I have a difficult time taking the long view of history, trusting not only in God as my refuge, but also in the ability of the world’s oldest democracy to survive what feels like an existential threat. As I’ve said before, it’s not an either/or thing (that is, either I become politically active, or I serenely rest in God’s providence to work it all out while I plunge myself into local and family endeavors); it’s definitely both/and. But still the balance is difficult and my soul needs the rest that comes from “being still” and trusting in a God who cares about the world, individual people, and me.

A typical scene from my current life: Sophie the cat and a mug of tea sustaining me while I edit yet another article.

I wish for a continued (relatively) sharp mind so I can keep doing the things I enjoy and that give meaning to my life: editorial and writing projects, knitting, reading and writing, conversations with friends, travel with my husband, time with my children and grandchildren, volunteer work. Along with a sharp mind, I wish for good eyesight. I’m headed toward cataract surgery in the not-too-distant future, proof that the aging process moves inexorably forward. So much of what I enjoy doing requires not only a sharp mind but good eyesight as well.

Last year in my birthday post I mentioned my annual wellness visit and the three words I had to remember briefly to prove that my short-term memory is intact: apple, table, penny. At this year’s wellness visit, I pre-empted the test by repeating those same three words to the nurse before she had a chance to give them to me – proof, I thought, that my mind is still sharp! I don’t feel like my cognitive skills are slipping, but it’s hard not to have a moment of panic when I can’t remember something I think I should be able to remember (like someone’s name or a phone number I used to know really well or where I put something). Most of the time I tell myself that such memory lapses are normal for anyone who has filed away a lot of detail in her brain over 69 years – it’s not always easy to access the correct file of information from that brain! I also remember something my son said when he was six years old and half-listening to someone dispel some myths about aging. When he heard the speaker talk about “forgetfulness” as a stereotypical characteristic of old people and give the example of going upstairs and then not remembering why, Derek turned to me and said, “I do that sometimes.” Even six-year-olds can be forgetful, so I should give myself a break!

I wish for an attitude of gratitude for all the privileges, blessings, and opportunities that have come my way throughout my life. I don’t want to take anything for granted or assume any sense of entitlement, knowing that many people have not had access to the same privileges and opportunities. I want to be grateful and not bitter or envious about things I sometimes wish I had but don’t. I recognize the fragility of much of what I have and know it could easily be taken away. I also want to be grateful at some level even for the hard things that have been part of my life, not because I enjoyed them, didn’t wish them away at the time, or wouldn’t be just as happy if they had never happened, but because they have become part of who I am – part of my story – and have taught me valuable lessons. Many times, gratitude is not my first instinct, but I would like to be able to get there more quickly than I sometimes do.

The ability to “be still,” a sharp mind, and an attitude of gratitude: three more birthday wishes as I head into the final year of my 60s. Are they too much to ask?

Truth Matters

Regular readers of my blog know that I have used this forum to tell stories from my childhood, to write down for posterity memories of my early life. As I have done so, I have been keenly aware that there are many details about my childhood I don’t remember but really wish I could. On occasion I’ve discovered that my memory of a certain event was not entirely accurate. Along the way, some people have generously encouraged me to write a book, but I have always resisted in part because I compare what I could write to other memoirs I’ve read and I can’t begin to match the detail that others seem to recall about their lives. How is it possible, I ask, for memoirists to write in such detail about something that happened when they were three years old, when my memories of my three-year-old self are sketchy at best and mostly nonexistent? Do they just make up stuff? Did their parents and others write down everything down that happened, and now they’re using that information to tell their story? Do they “enhance” their sketchy memories and other contemporaneous recollections to paint a scene that is plausible but probably didn’t happen exactly that way?

If I were to write a memoir, it would be important to me not to make up facts or incidents, and not to ascribe to others things they didn’t do or say. Or, if I used my imagination to fill in the missing details in sketchy memories, I would be honest and admit what I was doing and suggest that even though everything didn’t happen exactly as I’ve described it, the intent was to convey the reality of my life as I experienced it. I would call it something like a “fictionalized memoir.” Truth matters to me!

In my career as an editor and a writer, it has always been important to me to be sure that what I am writing and publishing is true and does not deliberately distort the facts. I am not a journalist by training, nor am I an academic researcher, but I value the ethical commitment in both disciplines to go where the facts lead and not make claims that are not supported by the facts. Much of my writing and editorial work over the years has been of the opinion, commentary, or memoir variety, driven more by individual perspectives, interpretations, convictions, or memories than painstaking research. However, I have always been careful not to be inflammatory in my opinions, even when I have expressed them strongly and without apology. And I have always tried to acknowledge that the facts might lead others to different opinions.

Since I was appointed editor for the Brethren in Christ Historical Society four and a half years ago, I have developed an even greater appreciation for those who research the past and write history, whether family or church history. Of course, historical research and writing often reflect the particular perspectives and biases of the researcher/author. Those unique perspectives and biases sometimes offer an alternative view of history that is important to consider (as in the case of American history as written from an African American rather than a white perspective). But, to be effective in helping us understand history, they also have to match the dictionary definition of truth: the information they impart has to be part of the “the body of real things, events, and facts.”

In today’s environment, however, there is so much that doesn’t pass that simple test. Truth doesn’t seem to matter anymore, and we don’t even seem to be able to agree on what a fact is. It’s apparently okay to just make stuff up or claim that something did or didn’t happen when there is what we used to consider irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

Many things upset me about the 2016 presidential campaign and outcome, but one of the most upsetting is what seems to have happened to truth, and what some have called the “gas-lighting” of America – that is, a form of psychological abuse where we are being manipulated into doubting our own memories, perception, and sanity. I feel like I can’t function in a world where facts aren’t facts, where you can just make up stuff and present it as true and real, dismiss a story based on facts that don’t suit your particular bias by calling it “fake news,” or demean and dismiss journalists and newspapers that have dedicated themselves for decades to telling the truth. The promotion and perpetuation of misinformation and falsehoods (okay, let’s be real and call them lies) destroys order and upsets our sense of equilibrium. The constant drumbeat of criticism of the press and journalists who are investigating the truth and correcting misinformation is a serious threat to the First Amendment and democracy itself. The dismissal of factual and well-researched stories as fake news not to be trusted or believed leaves everything up for grabs. Some days it feels like we can’t even trust that grass is green and not orange, or the sun comes up in the east and goes down in the west, or that up is in fact up and not down. If nothing is really true anymore, if there are no such things as facts (as some political operatives have actually claimed recently), how can we have any sense of being one nation?

Functioning in this crazy-making “post-truth” world where even our highest elected official lies and engages in gas-lighting on a regular basis is difficult, but I’m trying to adopt a few strategies:

  1. Continue to trust that there are journalists who are committed to facts and who are doing their best to tell the truth. I choose to believe the news sources I have trusted for many years that have tried to be fair and have shown themselves willing to investigate the truth. These include NPR and Time magazine, both of which I’ve been listening to and reading for decades. I’ve also added Reuters and BBC News to my Facebook feed as sources that provide a less U.S.-centric view. I do so knowing that even these reputable sources have their biases, but also trusting that their journalists and reporters subscribe to a basic code of ethics.
  2. Be skeptical of stories that don’t make sense and sound unbelievable. And then, refuse to spread questionable information unless I have verified it through other sources, including the fact-checkers (my favorites are FactCheck.org and Politifact, and sometimes Snopes.com).
  3. Recognize bias and account for it, and make deliberate efforts to sort out the facts of the story from the interpretation. In web-based articles, there are often links to the primary source material from which the author drew his or her conclusion or interpretation. I often check out those primary sources to decide for myself whether the author’s interpretation is fair.
  4. Relatedly, look for the full context. Yes, the Bible says, “There is no God,” but if you check the context in Psalm 14:1, what it actually says is, “Fools say, ‘There is no God.'” Big difference!
  5. Call out lies.
  6. Be willing to change my view if the facts lead there.
  7. Always tell the truth myself.

I don’t expect that these strategies will always keep me calm and sane, but I hope they’ll help. I have to do something to protect myself from what feels almost like an existential threat, not only to my personal sense of well-being but also to the nation and world in which I live. Truth matters!

The Grandmother I Never Knew

IMG_0645Among the old family photographs in the vintage suitcase was a letter from my grandmother, Alice Steckley Sider, who lived in Ontario, Canada, to her sister Ella in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I never knew my grandmother, from whom I got my middle name, because she passed away during a flu epidemic in 1920, just three days after giving birth to her fifth child who died the same day she was born. My dad was only eight years old when his mother died. The letter is dated February 18, 1919, a little more than a year before she died on February 29, 1920, exactly two months shy of her 32nd birthday.

When my father left home in 1930 and came to Pennsylvania, he lived in Carlisle in the home of another of his mother’s sisters who was married to Ella’s husband’s brother. He worked on the Lehman farm until he began attending Messiah Academy to finish high school. I remember my great Aunt Ella. Because Carlisle is not far from where we lived in Grantham and because of my father’s connection to the Lehmans from those years of working on their farm, we visited periodically. And today, one of my dearest friends is Aunt Ella’s granddaughter and my second cousin, Wanda Lehman Heise.

Ella and Alice

Ella Steckley Lehman and Alice Steckley Sider. I think my daughter Dana looks like her great-great aunt Ella!

Also in the suitcase was a photo of my grandmother and Ella. It’s one of very few I have seen of Alice. She was the fourth of 14 children; Ella was the third oldest, born in 1887, and Alice was born the next year in 1888. They had two older brothers and two more brothers immediately after them, so they likely were close as the first girls in the family and because they were only about a year apart. Perhaps that explains the photograph of just the two of them.

I have no idea how this particular letter ended up in my parents’ possession. Perhaps Aunt Ella gave it to my dad on one of his visits, knowing that he would value something tangible from the mother he lost when he was so young. For me it is a small window into the life of someone I obviously never knew but wish I had. Like her husband and my grandfather in his letters in later years to my father, Alice writes a lot about special evangelistic meetings at church and about her desire to be faithful to the message being preached by various ministers well-known throughout the Brethren in Christ Church at the time. Maddeningly for me almost 100 years later, she doesn’t write much about family life, although my dad is singled out for his scholastic achievements, which doesn’t surprise me because he always did well academically. I just wish she had said more!

Here’s the letter, slightly annotated [in bracketed italics] and edited to make it easier to read. Originally, it was one long paragraph. I retained most of the non-standard grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

————-

Marshville, Ont., Feb. 18th, 1919

Dear Sister Ella,

Your kind letter came to hand a couple of weeks ago, also read a letter from Mary [next younger sister, born in 1892, also living in Carlisle] last Monday so thot I would answer your letter now, and then I will write to Mary later perhaps when the meetings are over as it is hard to get at writing while the revival is on.

Well, our Bible Con[ference] is now in the past, but not forgotten. We surely had a refreshing time from the presence of the Lord. He gave us such beautiful weather and good roads for the three days and we had a lot of visitors. There was a lot up from Bertie [another Brethren in Christ Church some miles away] every day. A number of them came up with their cars, and they would go back and forth, some of them every day. Bro. Shoals came home and Bro. Ed Engle with him. My, he is a lively little man and full of the Holy Spirit and fire, and Bro. J. N. Hoover was here too. He had been holding meetings at Pelham for two weeks or more previous to the Bible Con, so he consented to stay and take in the Conference. Tommy Doner couldn’t be here to talk on his subject so they got J. N. Hoover to take his place. We had a glorious time together. It was time well spent and we felt richly paid for all our trouble. The altar was full of seekers on Monday night before the Bible Con. I wasn’t there but I thot something must have happened because Jesse [her husband, my grandfather] didn’t get home till 12 o’clock. Father and Mother came home with him. Jesse went to Fenwick on Monday P.M. after them. They brot Rhoda and Mary Brillinger [cousins] along with them.

Tuesday was our day to take lunch to the church, so I was glad to have Mother here to help me on Tuesday morning. They had it divided into three parts. There was 27 families to provide lunch for the Con. so that made 9 families for each day. Each family was to take 45 sandwiches either salmon meat or cheese and 35 cookies, 1 large loaf cake, 4 pies and 1 qt of pickles, but a number of us took more sandwiches than that. We was afraid there wold ‘t [wouldn’t] be enough. We had company every evening for supper and every night over night. I didn’t go nights while the Con was going on, as it was too much for the children to be there all day and at night too. My if we could only remember all the good things we heard. I guess there will be an account of it in the Visitor [Brethren in Christ periodical] after while. The Spirit of the Lord is working among the people. I think there has been seekers at the altar every night except two nights since last Monday. Bro. Shoals and Bro. Engle left again last evening for Ohio and Bro. J. N. Hoover left last Friday night on the midnight train from Welland for Merrill, Mich.

We had quite a snowfall yesterday and last night but hardly enough for good sleighing. It is thawing [or snowing, word is not clear] again today.

[shifting abruptly from the snowstorm back to the revival meetings] A number of the members have been digging thro[ugh] and got into the liberty but there are still a number who are all bound up and have no testimony. My prayer is that every one of them may get to realize their condition and plunge into the fountain and be made whole. I’m so glad that I ever went thro[ugh] with God until the fire fell on my soul. [This language about plunging into the fountain and fire falling on one’s soul was typical of the revivalist/holiness movements of the time.] It is so precious to know that we are right with God and that we are just filling the place he would have us fill.

I hope you are having good meetings in Carlisle. Norman Wingers were up to the Con. on Thursday. You know she was Margaret Shoffner, one of the orphanage girls. My, they have a fat baby. They call him Murray, and she is getting so stout herself. Well it is nice that you can leave your baby with Grandma when you go away. It isn’t so tiresome for you. My baby is so afraid of everybody [probably a reference to her youngest child Elmer, about 14 months old at the time). If any stranger takes him he will just cry as hard as he can. I wish he wasn’t so afraid. Lewis [my dad, her oldest child, who was then seven years old] likes going to school. He is learning fast. The teacher talks about putting him in the 1st book. You know they have different books than they had when we went to school. They have the Primer first and then the 1st book comes next. He can read pretty good already.

Next time you write, let me know what the Roseoline [some kind of medication, ointment?] cost you – that is the charges and all – and I will send you the money. It was nice for you and Abram’s [Lehman, Mary’s husband] to take in the Philadelphia L. F. [can’t read the initials for sure and don’t know what she’s referring to]. I suppose Mary enjoyed it. Well I must close and get to work.

Lovingly your sister Alice and family

—————–

 

Lessons from the Suitcase

I’ve been delving into family history lately, occasioned by an event and a suitcase. In November 2015, Harriet Bohen Bert, my mother’s last remaining sibling and for whom I was named, passed away at the ripe old age of 98. My father’s siblings are all gone too, so Aunt Harriet’s death marked the end of a generation.

Some years ago, Aunt Harriet wrote her memoirs, and recently one of her sons loaned his copy to me. I read the memoir with interest (each typewritten page carefully preserved in a plastic sleeve and inserted in a binder), especially the sections where she recalled her early life with her grandparents, parents, and siblings, including my mother.

sarahsteckley

My paternal great-grandmother, Sarah Heise Steckley (1860-1953)

Following Aunt Harriet’s death and the family reminiscing that ensued, I took temporary possession of a vintage suitcase of old photos that my brother has had ever since we cleaned out our parents’ home at Messiah Village many years ago. The photos were not organized in any way, just stuffed into the suitcase for safekeeping and because it didn’t seem right to throw them away, so my first order of business was to sort them into categories: my mother’s side of the family; my father’s side (two categories here because of the number of photos – his mother’s Steckley family and his father’s Sider family); my immediate family (my parents and siblings); school and other photos of their six grandchildren (my children and nieces and nephew); and random/unknown people and a few smaller categories. Some of the photos I could easily identify, some had names written on the back, but quite a few were unidentified in any way. The oldest photo I found was of my paternal great-grandmother, Sarah Heise Steckley, which was probably taken around 1871 when she was 11 years old (see photo).

Some observations and lessons from the suitcase and the photos it contains:

  • sevengenerations

    A treasured photo combo: seven generations of Bohens. Top photo (circa 1914) from left to right: Walter (my grandfather), Herman (my great-grandfather), and Jodokus (my great-great-grandfather), with my mother Gladys Bohen Sider on her father’s lap. Bottom photo: My mother, daughter, granddaughter, and me at my dad’s funeral in 2003. Almost 90 years separates the two photos.

    I am fortunate in knowing from whence I came. On both sides of my family, I can trace my ancestors back to Germany. My father’s side: According to the genealogy book, Two Hundred Years with the Siders, a man named Georg Seider arrived in Philadelphia from Germany in 1752. His son Jacob, thought to have been born about 1758, married Maria Wenger, a Mennonite woman, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. In 1788, Jacob and his brother-in-law and their families became part of the first generation of River Brethren (later Brethren in Christ) and emigrated to Canada in 1788. I am a direct descendant of Jacob; he is my quadruple-great grandfather. My mother’s side: Jodokus Theodore Bohen was born in Germany in 1827 and emigrated to the United States in 1854, settling in Illinois. After his wife’s death, he moved to Kansas, where he lived with his son Herman until his death in 1917. Herman’s son Walter was my mother’s father (see four-generation photo, top left).  My maternal grandmother’s Book family ancestors emigrated to America in 1769, also from Germany. The Book family, including my great-grandfather Adam Book who was born in 1858, lived in Lancaster County until 1877 when they moved to Kansas. Clearly, I have a strong German heritage!

  • My active involvement in the Brethren in Christ Church is not surprising, given the fact that my maternal and paternal grandfathers and great-grandfathers were all ministers in the church, with my two paternal great-grandfathers also serving as bishops. Letters from my Grandpa Sider to my father after he left home are filled with church news (see my blog post, “The Grandfather I Never Knew”), and a 1919 letter I recently discovered in the suitcase from my Grandma Sider (written only about a year before she died) to her sister in Pennsylvania also includes church news. Both testify to the important place the church and Christian faith had in their daily lives, which continues for me.
  • I wish I had asked more questions when I had the chance, when my parents were still living. My dad wrote his memoirs (focusing on his missionary career), so I have some of his perspective on his life, but I wish I had asked my mother more about her early life and her perspective on how her life unfolded. She might not have told me the whole truth, because she would have worried about how what she said would affect other people, but I should have asked. I wish I had recorded some of their stories. I especially regret not having either recorded or written down a story my mother used to tell about her family’s move from Kansas to California in 1923. She and her two oldest siblings traveled with their father by car, while her mother and the three youngest children traveled by train. She used to describe in graphic detail the harrowing aspects of that car trip, including doing her 12-year-old best to keep her brother quiet so he wouldn’t bother their dad with persistent questions while he drove, a motel fire one night, and the meager amount of food they had for the journey (they were very poor). She also talked about how they arrived at the Upland Brethren in Christ Church in California on Thanksgiving Day looking quite bedraggled and dirty, and how the church people welcomed them warmly. Fortunately, my Aunt Harriet wrote a short account of the family move to California which preserves many of the details, but it’s still not the same as that first-hand account I could have recorded from my mother. These regrets are a reminder that I need to write more of my stories as a legacy for my children and grandchildren (and perhaps a nudge to them to ask me questions!).
  • Photographs need to be identified by date, location, and the people in them! While some of the photos in the suitcase had information written on the back, many of them didn’t, and I’ve had to rely on my own family knowledge or consult with family members who are still living. Identifying printed photos is one thing, but one also wonders what will happen to all the hundreds and even thousands of digital photos we store on our phones or upload to our computers. They’re easy to access and share now, and in many cases are floating out there in cyberspace, but what about 50-100 years from now, when my grandchildren and great-grandchildren are wondering about their ancestors? One thing I’ve starting to do with old printed photos that I scan to the computer is include a description in the file name and documentation, but I still have a long way to go.

Did my parents wonder whether their children would ever care about this suitcase of old photos? I know I wonder sometimes how much my children will care about all the mementos of the past that I’ve saved, and whether they care as much as I do about our family history.

I have been amazed at how Alecia, my oldest grandchild, likes to figure out and know where she fits in the extended family. She’s able to understand complicated family relationships that stump many people (like second cousin once removed, etc.). Recently, I was showing her a photo of a large group of college students in 1932 that I found in the suitcase. I had not been able to identify anyone in it until I did some research. I couldn’t even find my own mother in the photo because the faces were so tiny and difficult to see. Within seconds of looking at the photo, however, Alecia correctly pointed out my mother. So maybe there’s hope that the family legacy will continue! (See this blog post on the Brethren in Christ Historical Society’s website for information about the photo.) Maybe Alecia’s name – a form of Alice which is my middle name and the name of my paternal grandmother – is a sign that she will be the one to continue to preserve family history! Can I bequeath that responsibility to her?

Endings and Beginnings

Yesterday we buried my father-in-law, John Bicksler, and yesterday also marked the end of my almost-23-year career with the Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the beginning of full retirement. Two endings and one beginning; emotional overload.

funeral

Three of Dad Bicksler’s 12 great-grandchildren at the grave site

With Dad Bicksler’s passing, Dale and I are now the patriarch and matriarch of our respective families – he as the oldest son, and me as the only daughter. All four of our parents are now gone. Yesterday at his funeral, I had the honor of delivering the tribute to Dad Bicksler on behalf of his three children. I prepared by listening to stories from Lois, Dale and Dennis about their growing-up years and reflecting on my own experience with Dad over the 45 years I’ve been part of the Bicksler family. I was struck by the fact that as far as we know, he reached the end of his life without regrets. He was a man who was comfortable in his own skin, loved “the marvels of this life,” to quote a phrase that he almost always used in prayers, and was generally an optimistic and forward-looking person. He was ready to die, having long ago made his peace with whatever would come in the next life. He leaves a strong legacy of three children and spouses, seven grandchildren and spouses, and 12 great-grandchildren who will remember the many attributes he taught and modeled. In my tribute, I highlighted a few of those attributes: hard work, frugality, ingenuity, active lifestyle, healthy living, strong faith.

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My retirement certificate signed by the secretary of the PA Department of Human Services

I too am in the process of making peace with what comes next in my life, although certainly not in the same way. Almost 23 years ago, I was hired part-time to create two new publications that would tell the story of the public children’s mental health system in Pennsylvania. Through changes in state administration and shifts in job responsibilities, one thing remained constant – my role as editor of those two publications. I retired from full-time employment three years ago, but kept a small part-time contract and continued to edit the newsletters.

When I began to think that I wanted to fully retire, one big thing standing in my way was my own worry about what would happen to those newsletters. Would they just die for lack of anyone with the time, skill, or inclination to continue them? And if so, what would that say about their value for all those years I kept on as editor? Over the years, I have received lots of positive feedback for the work I’ve done to fill the need for regular, consistent and educational communication, but what would it mean if that was all for naught and the newsletters were “retired” along with me? These questions are not meant to suggest that I think I am indispensable, but are indicative of how hard it was to become willing to let go of something in which I had invested so much of myself. I finally made the decision to retire before I knew whether or how the newsletters would continue. And now, even though I have been assured that they will continue in some form in the future, I am able to say that I’m okay with whatever happens. I’ve made my peace with what comes next.

At the end of the summer, I’m looking forward to another ending. I have served on the same committee at my church for about 30 years, the last six years as chair. I’ve been in some kind of major leadership role in the congregation for a significant portion of my adult life, and as of September 1, I won’t be on any committee or board for the first time in a very long time. Just as it was difficult to imagine those newsletters not continuing if I stopped editing them, it was also hard to make the decision to step down as chair and member of the committee. The issues we’ve been responsible for are ones I’m passionate about, and it wasn’t at all clear at one point that anyone would be willing to take over. Again I wondered, what will happen if I step down? And again, it has been hard to let go of something in which I’ve invested so much time, energy, and strong conviction. But other voices in my head – those voices that were expressing my weariness with the responsibilities of committee work and a growing awareness that it was time to “pass the torch”  – got louder and I had to listen. And now I’ve made peace with what comes next, even if it might not be the same as (and quite possibly will be much better than) it’s been for 30 years.

So what does come next? It will certainly be a change not to have to think about those two newsletters or any other work-related responsibilities, and it will feel very different not to be in any leadership role at church anymore. I will likely miss some things, and perhaps even find myself second-guessing methods or decisions made by others, but I really am looking forward to being free of certain responsibilities and the weight of multiple deadlines. I know people who talk about five-year or ten-year plans for their lives, but I don’t have any grand plan for what to do next. I am simply looking forward to more space in my life. More space is something I’ve needed for a long time, and so right now I don’t feel the need to find anything new to fill the space. I still have two ongoing volunteer editorial responsibilities that are creatively challenging enough to help keep my mind sharp (I hope), and I’m looking forward to having more time for other things I enjoy – my family (especially the grandkids), books, writing, friends, knitting, traveling.

Endings are always difficult, whether it’s the end of a long and well-lived life, or the end of a 23-year career. And even though beginnings sound like more fun, they’re also sometimes more difficult than you would think. But I’m ready for what comes next.

 

Home for Christmas

As a child in boarding school, I always looked forward to going home to the mission station over the longer Christmas break. We had fun with a variety of seasonal celebrations at school, but I wanted to be home for Christmas to be with my family and enjoy the traditional missionary get-togethers, gift exchanges and mission church celebrations.

After boarding school, the next time I was away from home in the months and weeks leading up to Christmas was in 1968 during my first year of graduate school at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho. As a survivor of boarding school accustomed to being away from home for extended periods of time, I was completely unprepared for the severe attack of homesickness I experienced in those early weeks of grad school. Stuck in Idaho all alone with no one I knew, it seemed like December couldn’t come soon enough. I needed and I desperately wanted to go home. Quitting grad school would have been an option, I suppose, but I never seriously considered it because it would have been humiliating to admit defeat. After all, I had survived boarding school and I was just a child then. One way I coped was by buying my roundtrip plane ticket home as soon as I could scrape together enough money – probably sometime in October. Somehow knowing I had that ticket in my possession helped me persevere through the homesickness. The numerous letters I wrote and received from my mother and college friends scattered all over the place along with the busyness of adjusting to graduate school and teaching freshman English Composition also helped.

Then in the last days heading into the holiday break, winter hit the Pacific Northwest and snow was forecast for right around the time I was supposed to fly out of Spokane, Washington, about 80 miles north of Moscow. I was in a panic. After having saved that plane ticket all those weeks, desperately hanging onto the knowledge that I would be going home again, I could hardly bear the thought that my travel plans were in danger of being disrupted. The day of my flight was snowy. I worried that I wouldn’t even be able to get to Spokane and would miss my flight east. So I took an earlier bus, figuring that it would be better to be in Spokane than stuck in Moscow. I was operating on instinct and out of desperation, rather than with any rational plan in mind. The bus didn’t go to the airport, so I had to find transportation from the bus station to the airport. I think I took a cab, but I don’t remember for sure.

I arrived at the airport many hours ahead of my flight. As the afternoon and evening progressed, flights were delayed and then delayed some more. The Spokane airport in those days was pretty small, with nothing to do, plus I was all alone and an introvert besides. I paced the airport repeatedly, trying to fill the time. I don’t remember striking up conversations with anyone, except perhaps to ask whether there was any new information about when our flight would leave. The evening and night dragged on interminably, and my anxiety continued as I wondered if and when I would get home. Finally, sometime in the wee hours of the next morning, my plane finally took off, and I made it home (although I don’t remember how I let my parents know when I was arriving in Harrisburg).

At the end of the Christmas break, during which I spent much-needed time with family and friends, I made the return trip to Moscow. While I was gone, Moscow had severe cold weather, registering a record-breaking 50 degrees below zero on December 30. When I returned, my plane was not able to land in Spokane due to snow, and continued on to its final destination in Seattle. The airline put all the Spokane passengers on a bus across Washington back to Spokane, but I still had to find a way to Moscow. I hitched a ride with a carload of other students going back to school; I vaguely remember that some of them may have been going to Washington State University which is just across the border from Moscow. I didn’t know the students, but a kind of camaraderie had probably developed during our long bus ride, so I must have thought it was okay to trust them to get me to Moscow safely.

The winter of 1968-69 still holds the record for the snowiest in Moscow, with almost 110 inches of snow, more than 55 inches coming in January. (Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I was able to confirm what I had long suspected, in this handy chart of snowfall in Moscow, Idaho since 1892-93!) In my memory it snowed every single day in January – sometimes just a little, other times a lot. My apartment was a 20-30 minute walk from my office and classrooms on campus, and I had no car, so I trudged back and forth to school every day in the cold and snow. I don’t think classes were ever cancelled due to snow that winter, unlike these days (at least here in central Pennsylvania) when even the threat of bad weather prompts numerous cancellations.

I had been attending the Church of the Nazarene ever since I arrived in Moscow in September, but had not really connected with anyone during the first semester and before I went home for Christmas. That January, however, after I returned, one of the church families began inviting university students who attended the church to their farm home on weekends for sledding parties. There was no shortage of snow for sure! I joined the group and at those sledding parties finally began making friends. In fact, the daughter of the family hosting the parties who was also a student at the University of Idaho became one of my best friends in Moscow; we still exchange Christmas cards 45 years later even though I have never made it back to Moscow to visit. Whether it was because I made it home for Christmas and felt fortified by renewed connections with family and old friends, or because I began making new friends during those sledding parties, or some combination of the two, I was never homesick again, thoroughly enjoyed my final year and a half in Moscow, made more friends, and was sad to leave after I graduated in June 1970.

The Pelicans Reprised

Once upon a time, sixteen teenagers enrolled at Messiah College, most having grown up in the Brethren in Christ Church but not really knowing each other. Friendships developed and romances blossomed. Graduation and/or marriage dispersed them to many parts of the world. During one year, those sixteen teenagers became eight married couples. (Okay, to be accurate: two of them became a couple the year before, but let’s not quibble too much.) As the eight couples settled into adult life, friendships continued – sometimes across great distances to the other side of the world – and others were formed. For a time, some lived in the same neighborhood in Harrisburg where their children played and went to school together. Over the years, their careers have varied widely: doctor, nurse, therapist, museum curator, postal worker, missionary, business owner, administrator, computer programmer, business analyst, editor and writer, volunteer, pastor, teacher, insurance broker.

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The “Of Pines and Pelicans” house in the Outer Banks. This photo was taken in 2013 during a little trip down memory lane.

The network of relationships that began during college and continued through more than two decades of marriage brought all eight couples together to celebrate their 25th anniversaries in a huge rented house called “Of Pines and Pelicans” in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. They had such a great time that they decided to continue spending time together and started calling themselves The Pelicans in honor of the Outer Banks house. Life and geographic distance intervened, and most of the time the original group of eight couples became five with one or more of the other three couples joining the group occasionally. Five couples celebrated the next three milestone anniversaries together: the 30th in southern Ontario; the 35th on a cruise to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia; and the 40th on a cruise in the Eastern Mediterranean. In between these bigger events, the couples get together in their homes, at other special events, and once a year for a weekend in a rented house called Ox Bow View in Juniata County, Pennsylvania.

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Around the table at Ox Bow in 2013. Photo taken by yours truly.

Of course, this isn’t a fairy tale, and these are real people. I’ve written before about our wonderful group of friends with close to 50 years of shared history and almost 20 years of regularly spending time together as couples since that week in the Outer Banks. Since I’m the resident “professional writer,” I’ve often been encouraged to write our history and try to capture in words what we experience when we’re together. Honestly, I don’t think it’s something one person can do, since so much of what happens during our gatherings is an amazing confluence of all the experiences, creativity, wit and wisdom of everyone who is there. But writing by committee is difficult and frustrating (for me anyway), so here’s my small effort to add to the story, focusing on some common themes that we seem to return to every time we’re together.

Our children and grandchildren: Back in 1996 in the Outer Banks, each couple shared their courtship and marriage story. Our children were still in their teens and early 20s and trying to find their places in the world. In the years since, we’ve talked a lot about our children – their successes and failures, our joys and concerns for them. Now they’re all well-established as responsible adults (thank you, God!), with spouses of their own, and they’ve given us some of the world’s most adorable grandchildren to pamper. So our conversations have shifted to “grandparent tales,” and the photos we share are more often of them and not their parents!

Our health: You might expect health to be a topic of conversation among 60-somethings, as we lament the way our bodies are breaking down and do our best to forestall the process. Three of us are cancer survivors, one had open heart surgery, one had back surgery, one had a minor stroke, several are becoming more hard of hearing (and periodically show off their new and improved hearing aids), and we all have an ever-changing variety of the aches and pains of aging. We’re fortunate to have a couple doctors among us who don’t mind being consulted informally about the latest symptom. Our memories are all fairly well intact, but being well aware that increasing forgetfulness is often a characteristic of the aging process, we joke a lot about how we’ll soon be able to repeat stories because it will be like hearing them for the first time. Diminished hearing also makes for laughter, when what someone hears is not what the speaker intended. Without even trying, we have our own version of the whisper game.

Language, words, and old songs: I might be the one who makes her living with all the words I write and edit, but we all enjoy language and words. One person is our master pun-maker, able to come up with a clever and appropriate pun in the moment, and others try really hard to keep up with him. We all appreciate the English language correctly used, and can easily spend an evening around the dining room table listing all our language and grammatical pet peeves. (See here for some of mine…) I always have a worthy opponent for a couple games of Scrabble anagrams, and we’ve played hilarious rounds of the dictionary game. We also like to sing together – especially old hymns and songs that were popular during our teen years. One evening around the dining room table consisted of a version of “Name That Tune,” as one person gave the first word or phrase of an old Sunday school chorus (think 1950s) and everyone else broke into song. We were amazed at the huge repertoire of choruses we had among us, from all those years during our childhoods of attending Sunday school, children’s meetings at conferences and camp meetings, Vacation Bible School, etc.

Recurring jokes: There are certain words and phrases that are guaranteed to evoke laughter – as we remember their context in a joke from 15 years ago, or just 15 minutes ago. These are inside jokes, definitely of the “you-had-to-be-there” variety, which don’t translate well for others not in the group. The words and phrases sound innocuous enough – sweet corn, stick, saran wrap – but they remind us of moments of doubled-over, tears-producing laughter. There was also the time we were going around the table with each couple telling a story about themselves that no one else knew. One couple told a story that had the rest of us wide-eyed and open-mouthed – we couldn’t believe this had happened to them and no one ever knew. Then the punch line: it was all a fabrication, a lie. Yet it sounded so believable the way they told the story, with both husband and wife fully engaged in tag-teaming the details. We will never let them live that down – and now we are not nearly so trusting of the stories we hear.

Intense discussions: We are not a monolithic group, with everyone believing the same thing and coming down on the same side of controversial issues. We range from fairly liberal to fairly conservative on the theological and political spectrum. Some of us are quite sure of what we believe, while others are far more nuanced and tentative, which makes for interesting conversations when one person declares that “this is the way it is” and someone else wishes for more uncertainty and open-mindedness. We have had significant personal disagreements, to the point of serious conflict that made us wonder whether our group could survive. Sometimes someone feels left out of the conversation because it’s about something he or she doesn’t care or know anything about, or because it feels too trivial when there are important and life-changing issues to discuss. Navigating the waters of these intense discussions has been difficult, but we keep trying because we care about each other and value our friendship.

The food: One year at Ox Bow, as we were fantasizing about the book we could write about ourselves, we lit upon the idea of a cookbook. We always eat well when we’re together. In the early days of these weekend getaways, we ate three full meals a day. (Before each weekend, we divvy up the meal responsibilities, with one or two couples being in charge of each meal.) It began to feel like all we ever got done was preparing for a meal, eating it, and then cleaning up afterwards, not to mention never really being hungry when time for the next meal rolled around. Finally, we got smart and scaled down to two meals a day – a mid-morning brunch and an evening meal. But those two meals are always feasts, whether they consist of traditional fare or new recipes that the gourmet cooks among us like to try.

Last fall, on our way home from a return vacation to the Outer Banks, Dale and I searched out the house the Pelicans rented in 1996. From the outside it showed clear signs of wear and tear: hurricanes, tropical storms, sun, sand and wind have beaten down on it. I couldn’t help thinking that the way the house has weathered a lot is something of a metaphor for the Pelican couples as well. We’ve weathered much and we’re showing signs of age, but like the house, we’re still standing strong and ready not only for the next stage of our lives but also for more good times together with treasured friends.