Saturday, April 30, 2011

This is the church, this is the steeple

The tornadoes down South have claimed many lives and loss of property this week.  One of my MT friends mentioned that her home church had been destroyed.  I know well the gut feeling of loss folks have when they hear such news about a piece of property that has made a difference in their lives.  As I mentioned last week, I am blogging for 4 weeks on losses of places - the places that have meant so much to me that it is hard to imagine this earth without their presence.  Last week, it was my alma mater, Lambuth.  This week, it is my home church, Harris Memorial Methodist (later United Methodist) Church.

Above is a bulletin cover, the one I grew up with for so many years.  Harris Memorial was located in inner city Memphis.  It was our home away from home.  With our dad being choir director and mom a Sunday School teacher for years, we were there at every service, Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesdays for choir practice.  With our dad also on the Board, we were there for church meetings.  We were there for Vacation Bible school for a week every summer.  And if that were not enough, we usually stopped by every Saturday with our parents to clean up the pews and replace hymnals in their little holders.  We helped Daddy retrieve choir anthems from the file, take out the anthems from the past few Sundays, and put new ones in their folios.   Harris Memorial was really our home away from home.

Here is a picture of Daddy holding me in front of the church when I was 3 months old:

And a later picture with both my parents:

I have vivid memories of growing up in that church, because back in the '50s, everyone dressed to the nines for services.  Women wore gloves and hats.  At Easter the fashion was intensified, of course, and everything seemed to have a special sparkle and energy.  Every Easter my sister and I got new clothes - I mean ALL new clothes, including underwear and socks and shoes.   New clothes for us was a rare enough occasion that going all out on Easter just made it even more exciting.  When we got to church, we knew that an incredible view awaited us.  Mrs. Grogan, a family friend, took it upon herself to personally decorate the front of the church for Easter morning, with satin drapes, flowers, and tons of Easter lilies.  It was beautiful, and every year it was different.  The whole atmosphere was glorious.  We got to sing the great Easter hymns, and then in the afternoon, we returned to church for a special choir concert (which took the place of the usual evening service).  Sometimes it was a cantata (one long piece of music).  Other times, it was what Daddy called "a mixed-up program" - various anthems he selected to trace the Lent/Easter story, always ending with, of course, the Hallelujah Chorus, where the entire congregation would join the choir in standing.   Those were extraordinary moments that were made possible by extraordinary planning and hard work by our small choir, the one called "the best little choir in Memphis."  Of course, we had the best director!

As my sister Joy and I got older, we made close friendships with the other children in church, many friendships which we maintain to this day.   We especially had a lot of fun on Wednesday night during choir practice, before we were old enough to join the choir ourselves.  We stayed in the Fellowship Hall, supervised by another Mrs. Grogan (the mother-in-law of the Easter decorator), an elderly lady who, I'm sure, was exceedingly bored with having to watch over and reprimand a bunch of boisterous kids who wanted to get into all sorts of trouble, kids who really wanted to play with volleyballs, which made her distraught and anxious because she was always worried we would knock the ceiling lights out.

When Joy and I became of age, we joined the choir, under Daddy's directorship.  The choir room was a small room at the back of the church on the right side as you faced the altar.  I can remember all the ladies taking their hats off and putting them on the shelf, where there was a long mirror so they would fix their hair and make sure their robes were properly positioned.  The sanctuary sloped towards the front, and therefore the choir room had to slope too, so when I ventured forth to the tiny dark bathroom at the end of the choir room, I felt I probably could have gone faster by sitting down and sliding.  Women even left their purses in the choir room - ah, those were the days one didn't worry about people coming in and stealing anything.  There was a red light near the door, and when that light flashed, that meant the organist, Sam, had finished his prelude and was ready for the processional.  Show time!

Before church, of course, there was Sunday School, which involved annual promotions, a certificate, sometimes a new Bible, and then maybe a move to a new room and new teacher.

We met so many interesting people at church, and most of them in my eyes were the old people.  I've always been fascinated with old people, and many times in my life, I have been much more comfortable in the presence of the elderly than in the presence of my peers.  We had one old man who gave away Wrigley gum to the kids.  We had one old lady who always kept a cushion in "her pew."  (Most congregants sat in the same place every Sunday, and we could tell at a glance who was absent by noting the empty places.)  Our favorite old lady was Mrs. Perry.  She was a feisty widow who sat on the second row, gave us nickels to put in the offering, and every once in a while would let me wear her fox stole - yes, with the head and other parts still on it - which at the time I thought was kind of exotic, but now would make me nauseated.   We picked her up for church and took her home.  She lived in one of those big old houses in a poor neighborhood.  It was dark and dank and smelled horrible - for she was the quintessential "cat lady," with cats and kittens running amock, and to this day I wonder if she even had a litter box.  But she was the nicest person.  She always gave us a birthday card, and sometimes made us a cake.  Her only request was that when we sent her a birthday card or get-well card, that we sign it in pencil, so she could erase our name and reuse the card for someone else; her heart was big, but her budget was small.

All our ministers were old as well.  Brother Fletcher was an older man who at one point was trying desperately to increase attendance at the Sunday night service.  He decided to issue a challenge.  If the congregation managed to get a certain number of attendees at a Sunday night service, Brother Fletcher said he would stand at the pulpit and sing - yes, sing - the new hit Beatles song "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."  Of course, we met the challenge, as that was too good to miss.  He obliged, too, swaying and singing right up there at the pulpit.  It was such an incongruous sight that I probably would be thinking I had dreamt it, were it not for its presence in Daddy's home movies.

One year, the church celebrated its 100th anniversary with a huge celebration and return of former members and music and special guests, and we started wondering who our next minister would be.  (The United Methodist Church has an itinerant ministry, appointed every June, and a church may have a minister for a minimum of a year up to several years, then be appointed a new one.)   The neighborhood surrounding the church had deteriorated, some public housing had sprung up, we were surrounded by poor people, and it was obvious Harris Memorial was turning into a real urban inner city church with a mission of outreach.  It was time for a younger pastor, someone with vision and energy and along came Joe.  The youth, by this time adolescents and teenagers, were mesmerized.  He was the first minister we had ever seen in shorts.   He was the first minister we had ever seen who played volleyball.  He had a young wife and babies.  He even dressed up for a costume party! Harris Memorial would never be the same.  Joe Pennel left after a few years.  He eventually became a bishop.

The church declined further. Congregants died or moved away or decided to go to churches nearer their homes.   Crime increased in the area.  The church building became used for mission work during the week and became a neighborhood center Monday through Friday.  The congregants tried their best to invite the area residents to attend the church, but not much became of it, and after a while, it was painfully obvious the church had to close its doors.   As sad as it was, it called for another celebration, and that had to include food, for, as Daddy used to say, Methodists never gather without eating, and so we had a huge service and meal, inviting back all former members, pastors, and guests.  So many former choir members came that the choir loft was bursting at the seams.  It was a bittersweet day.  One piece of trivia that was mentioned was the fact that Ed and I were the last couple to be married in the church.

Here is a scene from our wedding in 1974 when the sun burst through the beautiful stained glass window in the front of the sanctuary:

Our parents were also married in that church in 1942.

The building closed as a site of a worshipping congregation and was taken over by the United Methodist Neighborhood Centers, continuing the mission of outreach in that needy area.  But at least we still had the building there at the corner, the one we remembered from all those years, with its big stained glass windows and towering steeple and precious memories.

Then one day came the horrible news.  During renovation/painting work, a paint can apparently caught fire overnight and the church had burned down.  When I saw it, it looked like a bombed-out building from WWII.  Before the remains were totally demolished, some people salvaged some smoky-smelling bricks for posterity, and one woman salvaged some stained glass and made wind chimes to sell with proceeds going to the Neighborhood Center.  Even in death, Harris Memorial was giving back.

The congregation (who, as we all know, is the real church, not the building) is still close and keeps in touch.  There was, in fact, a reunion just a few years ago, where people could come share their memories.  But more congregants are dying every year, and so many first-witness accounts are dying with them.  The babies baptized in that church became little kids who slept on towels during Vacation Bible School, became bigger kids who played during choir practice and went to Lakeshore camp for a couple of weeks every summer, became adolescents who were wowed by a preacher who was younger than 70, became teenagers who became lifelong friends - and they are now in their 50s, and time, as it is prone to do, marches on.

It's been decades, yet I still can't get over the fact that that building is not there anymore.  I find it sad that our generation will be the last generation to remember what that church was like - the Easters, the Christmases, the potluck suppers, the music, the weddings and funerals and everything that made growing up there such a remarkable time in our lives.  After we are gone, the stories will be relegated to obscure history books, maybe some tales being passed down within families, and some randomly written down as I have done today.  I realize this post is exceptionally long, and I'm not really recording these words for anyone but me and the others who want to remember what it was like to be at the corner of Seventh Street and Looney in Memphis, Tennessee, on any given Sunday morning years and years ago.

RIP, Harris Memorial United Methodist Church.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The losses build

When one thinks about aging, one has to consider loss in all its forms.  You just can't escape that inevitable fact of life.  The physical losses alone would fill a library:  Loss of balance and coordination, loss of hearing, loss of vision, loss of hair, loss of skin elasticity, loss of height, loss of memory, loss of bone know the list.  But forget the physical representations of aging for a moment.  There are the devastating "people" losses - those times when loved ones leave.  Death is the major reason, of course, but there are others: Divorce, kids growing up and moving out, family moving far away, loved ones who have developed dementia, friends who seemingly have dropped off the face of the earth, to name a few.  In each case, the status quo has had an earthquake, and things will never be the same again.

Relationship change, either through death or other means, is probably the most traumatic of the losses in stability, but changes/destruction/closing of important places in our lives can contribute to our overwhelming sense of loss as well.

I had an incredibly satisfying and happy childhood.  I have lots of places in my mind that bring back fond memories, from the corner neighborhood grocery store to the Main Public Library in Memphis, both of which are either gone or so transformed and rebuilt that my memories of "the way things used to be" remain frozen in time but not in present reality.

We like same; we like familiar; we like routine; we like stability.  Yes, I've heard of (even known) some folks who thrive on change and that adrenaline rush, who can't stay in one place because boredom sets in so quickly, who if they had to live my life would develop cobwebs within one week.  But I still think the majority of us are comforted by sameness up to a point.  We want people, places, and things, if they are comforting to us and hold treasured memories, to always be the same.  Unwelcome changes bring confusion and frustration. evolves, as its DNA demands.

I had some news last week that upset me.  Some of you may remember that I only went to college for one year, as I learned quickly that at that time in my life, college just wasn't a good fit for me.  I have always loved learning, but I was ready for something other than formal education, and wanted to stretch my learning in the music part of the equation and forget the math and science part for a while, which you just can't do if want to earn a college degree.  But that one year, my total higher education career, was spent at Lambuth College in Jackson, Tennessee.  It was a small private liberal arts college, almost like an overgrown high school (one of its nicknames was Lambuth High).  Its campus was a lovely Georgian architecture style and its dorm curfews were strict.  Most people outside of Tennessee had never heard of its existence.  Sometimes by word of mouth or by its affiliation with the Methodist Church, a non-Tennessee student would show up (my roommate was from Shelter Island, New York, lured to Lambuth by a close friend from her hometown, God only knows how her friend ever got there in the first place!), but on the whole, we were all fairly Southern kids, at least in my time.

At one point years later, Lambuth decided to become a University, which kind of diluted its specialness and strength, I think, and down the road, got into financial troubles, may have overextended in areas, ran out of money, was denied accreditation, and last week the Board of Directors voted to close the school.  Its beautiful campus may be continued as a seat of higher learning, maybe under the auspices of University of Memphis, maybe not.  Nobody knows.  The only sure thing is there will not be a Lambuth College or Lambuth University in a few weeks.  A place I always assumed would be there will be gone forever.

This has happened to me before, of course.  There are three other important places in my life that have disappeared or are about to, and each one deserves it own blog post which it will receive in the coming weeks, but this week, my mind has been consumed with Lambuth.  It is a wonder it bothers me at all, since I only was there one year, but bother me it does.  For one thing, I met two lifelong friends there, one who maintained the relationship until last year when she had a traumatic experience and has disappeared, and the other, with whom I had lost contact for decades until I tracked her down a few years ago and renewed our wonderful, close friendship.  It was at Lambuth I learned so much about music.  My amazing teacher, Dr. Jo Fleming, introduced me to the pipe organ, and I was hooked.  My voice teacher, Mr. Coulter,  taught me arias, including my favorite to this day, Un Bel Di.  My theory teacher, Mr. Brown, showed me how hymns and chorales were built, how the transitions between chords occurred, all the technical things about music I had never realized.  My speech teacher, Mrs. Whetstone, showed me how much fun it could be to give speeches in front of an audience.  My English teacher, Dr. Mayo, instilled in me a lifelong fear of the word "nice" - saying it should never be used because it doesn't really convey anything.  (Of course, I made sure that year to find a birthday card for him that said "Have a Nice Birthday.")

Lambuth was also my first introduction to a Yankee, Ginny Jernick, from Shelter Island, New York, my roommate. She taught me the word "soda" for Coke.  The only other words for carbonated beverages I had ever heard were "soft drink" from my dad, and my Aunt Bessie from Missouri said, "Pop."  I remember one of the first days of college, Ginny said something about a soda machine in one of the buildings.  The only sodas I had ever heard of were ice cream sodas, and I was confused but understandably overjoyed at the news.  I was suddenly seeing the South from the eyes of a Northerner and got another kind of education in that way.  Ginny didn't like Lambuth, was homesick, and left after the first semester, so I roomed alone for the remainder of the year.

That one year was the first time I had ever lived away from home, a learning experience in itself.  I had only lived in one house, gone to one school from 1st grade through 12th, had only attended one church my whole life up to that point, always sharing a bedroom with my sister.  This was a major adjustment.

Finally, Lambuth introduced me to Ed, my future husband.  There was only a small window of opportunity for us to meet.  He was in and out of college between farming and serving in Vietnam.  I was only there for one year.  But he had a car, and my friends and I didn't, so he agreed to drive us to the ice cream joint one night and before long, despite the concerns of my friends who worried about the dubious wisdom of a relationship between a smoking, divorced drunk and a sheltered, church-going, nonsmoking teetotaler 8 years his junior, things evolved, we went through years of hell intermixed with happiness, and now in August we will have been married for 37 years.  I owe my marriage to Lambuth, and my children and grandchildren owe their very existence to Lambuth.

So my one year at Lambuth had a profound effect on my life. I was there in a pivotal point in my personal growth, and Lambuth changed me forever.  Since I heard the news, I have been thinking over the other places in my past I have lost or am losing, and it is taking a great deal of effort to come to terms with it all.

RIP, Lambuth.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Glory Days

When I was having high school angst in the late '60s and early '70s, to cheer me up my mom would occasionally say, "These are the best years of your life!"  Of course, I had such a horrible time in high school (not at home) in many ways that that saying only depressed me.  I thought, These are the best days and things will go downhill from here??!!  I hated the way I looked, hated to be told what to read and write, hated my shyness, and wished I could sing better, play piano better, write better, look better, and interact better with my peers.

Here I am in 2011 to again refute my mom's premise.  I still look back on high school with distaste.  However, it tempted me to ask myself this week, What are the best years of my life?  Are they in the past, or are they yet to come, or are they both?

This is one of the perils of growing older and having completed over half one's life.  Nostalgia mixed with regret mixed with disappointment mixed with elation mixed with fear - the latter being mainly that I fear The Glory Days are over.

In my one year of college, I learned how to play the pipe organ.  I was fortunate enough to attend a church in Memphis that had a beautiful pipe organ and I got to play it many times, even substituting for services.  What an experience on a magnificent machine!  Both hands, both feet going different directions, changing stops and volume, sometimes having to direct a choir at the same time - man, that was exhilarating!  I haven't touched a pipe organ in over a decade. Many churches nowadays are moving away from pipe organs, as they are expensive to buy and maintain.  I also have been working on Sundays for years now, so I haven't even heard a pipe organ in a long time.  I fear my pipe organ Glory Days are gone.

The picture above was taken at a dinner theater at that church when I was playing Fanny Brice.  This was probably the time I was more comfortable in my own skin.  I was certainly brave enough to go on stage and sing in front of audiences.  It's one thing to be comfortable growing up singing in church, straightforward music with which I was familiar in an equally familiar setting, but wearing that flapper dress, singing a torch song like "My Man" was a different story.  One of the hardest things in life is to put oneself out there to be watched and judged - but to try it and be successful is euphoric.

I don't sing much anymore, certainly not publicly.  I'll sing for family funerals, but that's about it.  I miss it.  My singing Glory Days appear to be gone.

I have other hobbies - quilting and sewing, for instance - in which I used to be prolific and now it seems I have the will and desire, but just don't have the energy I used to have in order to create the countless number of items I want and need to make.  Are my quilting and sewing Glory Days over?

Of course, needless to say, age and gravity takes it toll on the appearance in every way possible.  I'm pretty much assured my appearance Glory Days are over!  I've never known women to look better in their 50s than in their 30s, LOL, but hey, that's just the natural way of things.

I constantly reassure myself that I have grown since that picture was taken.  I may not be playing organ and singing in shows, but I have made a few beautiful quilts and a few pieces of clothing.  I have written many off-the-wall poems and some pretty serious blogs.  I overcame a paralyzing fear of flying and I learned medical transcription and even passed the certification test.  In the process of my living my life since 1954, I have also helped raise two compassionate, intelligent, talented, productive, mannerly children who are now raising their own kids.  They are adults now and on their own, though.  I still wonder, Are my Glory Days as mother over?

This introspection has taken over my life this week.  I guess at a certain age, one looks backwards more than forwards.  One sees the hourglass with more sand on the bottom than the top, and can't help but wonder if any Glory Days lie ahead, or if instead, the Glory Days fell to the bottom with the sand and now just serve as warm memories.

Oh, I've read that list of how so many famous people "came into their own" at an older age - and that can be quite inspirational - but still the doubt is there.  As I think about my almost 88-year-old mom, who, having lived a good life raising her family with love and care, now spends all her time sitting watching TV, so bored, surviving on hearing about the grandkids/greatgrandkids, talking about the weather and what's for supper - I question my own existence and future.  My mission is not just to survive, but to thrive until my very last breath.  I want to always have a vision, a purpose, a guiding drive to make the years to come ones of satisfaction, joy, creation, learning, and teaching.  I refuse to accept the fact that my Glory Days are behind me.  Glory Days are part luck, part work, part talent, part vision, and just part of the evolution of life.  They have no time limit and no expiration date.  There is still, I hope, plenty of sand in the top of the hourglass, and I vow to make the best of it.  Rejoicing in the blessings of the past, delighting in the blessings of the present, and looking forward to the blessings of the future - that's my vision for the old Glory Days and the Glory Days yet to come.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Be vicarious with me!

Need to relax? Smile? Ponder? Or just sit and stare in awe?  Have I got the sites for you!

I know time it precious to us all, and my major problem with time is the myriad of blogs and sites on the Internet that I follow.  Words are important to me, and I love reading what other people have written, but alas, that takes time and time is what I seem to lack these days.  I try, but I'll never read everything on the Internet that I would like to read.

Enter.....photographs.  Ah, yes, now photos don't take much time to enjoy.  They are just placed before me in all their splendor and glory.  No arguments, no typos, no speed-reading - just pictures.  There is a gracious lady who lives on Prince Edward Island in Canada who takes the most unusual and beautiful photographs of her environment and posts them on the net for all to see.  Almost every photo is worthy of its own calendar or postcard.  I've never been to PEI, but I'd like to go one day, and until then, I visit vicariously through her.  Her eye for detail, light and shadow, and her ability to catch nature at just the right moments is incredible.

So this week, I thought I'd share these favorite sites with you.  It will only take a moment of your time to view some of her photos, and if you are like me, you will feel honored to share in her amazing world - a world of nature, color, beauty, humor, and contrasts.

An Island Walk

Photos and Pursuits

Pictures and Pursuits

Friday, April 01, 2011

The Ultimate Control

Those who read my blog are well aware that I have a guiding prayer for my life - the Serenity Prayer.  "Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change (control) , the courage to change (control) the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."  I add the word control because I think that is the essence of the prayer, and I'm speaking from one who has a problem with control, or specifically, inability to deal with being out of it.

Take the weather, for instance.  Today we are expecting a spring snowstorm with wind gusts to 50 mph to dump 6-12 inches of snow on us.  Can I control that? Nope.  I just think it's lucky we haven't put away the shovels yet.  The reason I was successful in calming my fear of flying a few years ago is that I was able to realize and accept the fact that when I am up there in that plane, I am totally out of control, and whatever happens happens, and I can do nothing to change it.  I'm always trying to identify and tame my desire to control.  (Hmm...trying to control the desire to there something weird about that?)

My blog readers are also probably aware that I am mildly obsessed with death and greatly obsessed with correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation.  Add those things to the word control and that's a powerful combination, as I discovered this week.

An acquaintance of ours died a few days ago.  We did not know this woman well, but I was aware she had passed away and I made sure to read her obituary.  To give you some background, this woman had spent her whole career as a high school and university English teacher.  She also taught poetry and writing and had contributed to literary journals.  Her obituary was long (as most are up here in Maine) and detailed.  Here is the sentence that took my breath away:  "She was baptized in 1941 in the United Methodist Church and maintained the church's values and principals her whole life."

Major ouch!  To have this distinguished English teacher stuck with "principals" instead of "principles" in her obituary for the ages?  How I feel for her!  

You see, what happens to you after you die is the ultimate out-of-control situation.  You may record what you want on your tombstone, you may write your own obituary, you may hope that your life will be perceived as worthwhile and your journey on Earth a generous one, but in the end, all that is out of your reach.  Presidents, for example, are always wondering what their "legacies" will be.  You can't even control what people think of you while you're alive, much less dead.  You can make plans, but it is at the discretion of the survivors whether or not to carry them out. Even Elizabeth Taylor, bless her soul, made arrangements to arrive fashionably later at her own funeral as one final act of control.  The family fulfilled her request.  Your funeral service (for those who choose to have one; many in Maine don't) is an area where you can make plans for favorite hymns and that sort of thing, but there is something unique about the importance of the obituary as the final written testament to one's life.   Now I'm paranoid about having a typo or similar error in my obituary.

I wrote my own obituary before my first plane ride a few years ago (I said I'm more relaxed, not unprepared!), but I am wise enough to know that what is done with that, added or subtracted, revised, or otherwise changed is out of my control once I'm gone.  And I'm OK with that.  All I ask is PLEASE, have someone proof the thing before it's printed in the newspaper.  There are several astute people up to the task - my friend Sally in California, or Audrey in Memphis, or Dr. Annie, my friend in Michigan, or Joy, my amazing sister - better yet, have the teachers in the family look it over too - the more the better.  That's what e-mail is for, folks - for fast communication.  It can be done.  

Today is April Fool's Day and we are getting a snowstorm joke played on us by Mother Nature herself.  She will have the last laugh while we patiently (or not so patiently) await the arrival of the Spring that the calendars assure us is here already.  My husband, with his wacky sense of humor, may think a spelling error in my obituary would be a funny joke, too.  Don't let it happen!  My self-written obituary as of this date has been scoured for possible errors, and I find none.  Please keep it that way.  Thank you.