Thursday, May 17, 2018

Mother's Day by any other name is just a day

This year on Sunday, May 13th I slept in, and that was quite a boon. I felt my luck. When I awoke, the kids were working on a homemade sign for me (our family designs banners for each other on special occasions). My youngest daughter, Gabriella, had made me oatmeal - not from a packet but with raw oats from a tub! It had no sugar, but it did have loads of fresh strawberries and bananas, and I really enjoyed such a healthy and hearty start to my day. My youngest son, Daniel, made me coffee from scratch. As it had been sitting around for some time, he heated it up in the microwave. I wish I had taken note of the time he punched in (two minutes!), because when he carried it to my chair, the cup was so hot, I couldn't hold it by its basin for more than a second. I thanked God that my little boy had not scalded himself with it while waiting on me.

Mother's Day is not my favorite holiday.

Do I still wield its power in order to enlist my family's help cleaning the house? Do I leverage it in an attempt to cut down drastically on arguing and whining? Do I demand the right to sleep in? Well, sure I do. Like many mothers, I'm desperate.

Do I want my own mother and mother-in-law every year to have the best possible day, to feel spoiled and adored? Absolutely!

But I don't like the day. A mother who doesn't like Mother's Day is like a romantic who doesn't like hearts. I'm both of those anomalies!

Reader, understand. I love my four children fiercely, and I love and feel intense gratitude being their mother. I don't credit myself entirely for their intellect, their talents, their hearts, or their good looks. I didn't design them (but I did choose their dad). I see the amazing masterpieces of God that they are, and I thank him, because I am a far, far better mother to them than I could ever be without his help.

But, quite simply, I do not like the pretentious pressure of one day called Mother's Day, and I don't enjoy all the hard-hitting reminders and advertisements that businesses pound us with for weeks beforehand.

What I want for Mother's Day will never change, because, essentially, it is what I desire every day: a clean house, peace in my family, and sleep. In fact, I want extra sleep for every holiday including President's Day! Will I always get these things? No, surely not, but I am not a "stuff" person. If tangible gifts come my way, I appreciate far more all the handmade cards, letters, and signs my children bestow over any store-bought article that I absolutely don't need.

When my kids are grown, they can just call me. I'll have slept in, my house will be clean, and I won't hear their petty arguments or their whining. My heavens, how I'll miss them! Please, God, may they come over early and bring the grandchildren!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Generous One

Adversity helps us recognize the generosity of God, allows us to stand beneath his wings when we find no other shelter.

Of course, we can recognize Providence in the moment or understand it in hindsight. Both have been part of my family's experience these past several months.

The temptation to file these many days under tribulation was quickly discarded once I read a concise definition. No, we have not had tribulation. We have cradled insecurity in our bosoms; we have worn anxiety like a cloak some days. But we have not known great suffering in my estimation. God is good, and we are grateful.

Grateful for unanswered prayers.

Grateful for worry that brings us closer to understanding others' experiences and imparts wisdom.

Grateful for friends who pray, worry for us, ask about our circumstances and extend gifts of time and advice.

Now Providence is something of which I feel wholly unworthy, but it fills me with love like flowing water when I reflect on how it has accompanied us since last summer.

My grandfathers passed away, and it was a terrible time. In mourning with my family in Idaho and feeling utterly exhausted and as taut as barbed wire, I decided, rather irrationally, that it was time for my family to sell our little house in which we had lived quite happily for almost 15 years. 

To make the transition to a new home much less stressful, we ditched our plans to put this house on the market (after consulting multiple contractors and agents) and sold to an investor who very generously offered to let us have three months free rent and then two months additionally at our mortgage rate. Little did we know what a blessing that would be! The days of those months ticked by, and we couldn't find a home here in the Phoenix valley, though I prayed hard day after day, growing frustrated and depressed, eventually turning to bribing God by attempting to correct past sins, becoming convinced that they were preventing my prayers from being heard.

It seems silly now, though I'm sure that downtown library in Dickson, Tennessee is glad to have back the overdue book that I finally returned after more than 20 years. (Don't laugh, Dad.)

Now it's clear why we never found a house here; why the homes we loved in this valley were not to be ours though we tried; why my husband couldn't find a job in Phoenix when he left his old company, though he networked aggressively and submitted his resume religiously.

What a straight path it has been, littered though it was with hard stones and humility, what an excellent plan it was given the events we did not see coming - and here I stand now, looking back and praising God! 

How generous is the One Who first loved us! For my husband has a good job at last, and the offer they made to him brought tears to my eyes, realizing again God's generosity; we did not expect it. We also found a home afterwards on the second day of looking - a home that reminds me of the one I really liked here that a friend advised me was just a place marker for the one we were supposed to have.

When my grandfathers died, and I attended their funerals over one long weekend in which I cried a river with my parents and siblings, the loss of my grandpas - not one left in this world - struck my core. To find comfort I wanted a fresh place, a new home for my family that would remind me of how I felt in my grandparents' homes. 

I should have known God would mold my prayer into something better, giving me not what I selfishly desired merely as balm for my aching heart, but something that was life-giving for my family - not a place to remind me of grandparents but a place that would give my children what I had known and appreciated keenly: a home with grandparents.

My kids will finally live near grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins for the first time in their lives. There will be birthday parties and holiday meals and relatives to come to their sports games and school events. Great, everlasting memories will be made. Stories will be created and enriched.

I have for many years preached that family and home are everything. I wanted a shell, a mere house, an impermanent thing, but God gave my family Love, gave us time with Family.

God is good; I am His witness. He is so very good. Truly, His mercy endureth forever!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Epiphanies and Uncertainties

Phoenix is always a strange place to be around this time of year. Some trees are dropping their leaves. Perhaps it finally grew cold enough at the end of December to inspire them to shed the glory of last year. Still, with this weather it is nearly always a good day in winter to go to the park. Why, I just recently enjoyed a hot afternoon hike with my children beneath the January sun!

Did you know the Christmas season ended for us Catholics yesterday with the The Baptism of Our Lord? I was going to get a few more carols strummed on my guitar last evening and ended up looking at photo albums instead. The pictures of our little children playing in this house and yard that we no longer own made me wistful. Our family is experiencing a time of transition and uncertainty.

I have so many emotions lately! That is always true with me, I'm afraid, though I am trying harder not to be led by my feelings and not to let them spill forth from my mouth - that is my perpetual resolution for self-improvement, and I don't need a fresh year to remind me of it.

Aside from emotions I had many small revelations and minor disappointments this past Christmas season. This last Sunday was the feast of the Epiphany commemorating the visit of the Three Wise Men and the revelation of the Messiah to the Gentiles. Epiphany is a great feast and an important one to me. I love the story of the wise men. I am grateful to be a Gentile who has seen the light. But this last feast day found me not altogether happy with every change that has occurred in our family life these past months nor entirely without fear when I try to plan for our future. Where will our own star lead us?

On a more frivolous note, because I am currently employed in retail and often work weekends, I was unable to have friends over or prepare all the usual yeast breads, cakes, and gingerbread camel cookies that I typically do, and I may have even cried about it - mostly because I just really wanted some homemade bread to stuff in my face while spending time with people I love!

On the way home from work that evening I found Rosca de Reyes at Walmart to serve my family for the special occasion, and I played We Three Kings and O Holy Night on my guitar at the dinner table. It was still a celebration, just not the one I hoped to have. Yet, my oldest son Berto made sugar camel cookies all by himself for the family, for me. He also, with Papa's help, made the cookies for Santa this year, and can you imagine how proud these efforts made me? They were very good cookies, too.

Beyond the revelation that my son may enjoy baking like me, I had other important epiphanies this past December.

While preparing one morning to read at church for the fourth Sunday of Advent, I read the Gospel passage where Gabriel visits Zechariah and greets him thus:

Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.

Zechariah later responds:

How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.

Then Gabriel replies:

I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce this good news. But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time.

Never before had I been so fascinated with this passage! Often have I overlooked it in favor of that greater announcement that Gabriel makes to a young woman named Mary, but several things struck me quite powerfully this time. Why, oh why, did Zechariah question the answer to his prayer, no doubt a prayer that he made fervently and doggedly for years in hope of God's reply? Could it be that by the time Gabriel visited Zechariah, Zechariah had long since given up on this prayer, on uttering his pleas, and resigned himself to God's silence or a definitive "no" from the Most High? Why else argue with an angel, God's messenger? For Gabriel specifically said, "your prayer has been heard"?

I don't know the answer, but I find the whole thing very, very interesting, and as someone who has sometimes felt like God's 11th hour baby - haven't we all? - when it comes to prayer life, it bolsters my faith - and also encourages me not to argue with God's messengers when they come at their proper time.

The other small revelation I had came from a conversation I had with my friend Dana. We were speaking about the suffering we see in the world, and she brought up that old saying, "God doesn't give you more than you can handle". Dana added something like this: "But he gives you right up to that limit." 

I told her I felt the saying was trite and added, " Sometimes I see people, and I think they have more than they can handle."

Later in the car - again on the way to or from work - I was thinking about my own response and feeling a little appalled by my own cynicism. My speech was not hopeful or encouraging, probably because my family was having a rough few days - mostly my fault, I must say. In the car it occurred to me that, yes, perhaps that old saying did need a bit of editing but it was not to be discarded like stale dessert, for if one just adds a few more words, I think it makes sense to me:

God doesn't give you more than you can handle [with His grace].

Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.  2 Corinthians 12:8-9

Friday, November 17, 2017

Unanswered and Grateful

Gratitude can be found in unlikely places:

One can feel it while sitting in a chapel and listening to a fellow volunteer explain the Gospel parable to children, hoping to gain new insight, too.

One can experience it while watching bees hum around a honeysuckle bush that produced more reddish-orange blooms in a week than it has in a year.

One might find it in the simple yet challenging endeavor of winding pliable Eucalyptus branches around and through each other to form a wild wreath, however strange and ill-proportioned it may appear to visitors on your door.

Ironically, it can also be found in a change of circumstances that, on the surface, seems bad and unsettling.

And it can certainly be found, just like that classic Garth Brooks' song claims, in unanswered prayers.

Throughout this past summer and fall I thought the thing I really wanted was a new home for my family. I prayed diligently for God to guide us to the house that best suited us in the right location - not too far from work, church, schools and friends.

I walked into place after place and got discouraged. Often I didn't understand why I couldn't like a house. They were nice, but they elicited nothing from me save ambivalence. I kept praying, and - at last! - we encountered a house that felt immediately like home to me. I was so excited that I trembled as I texted my husband. It had the perfect rooms for our children, the ideal spaces to entertain friends and family. Unfortunately, it wasn't in the best location for schooling. We hesitated, and someone else made an offer while we were debating and sorting out the details.

Then another house, completely different from the first one we loved, came on the picture a few weeks later. It felt more like home than the first, seemed a better fit. As we quickly made our offer, however, other offers were coming in, and another family was blessed with that home.

So we toured more homes that made me feel uninspired, including one quirky one in a nice neighborhood in the right location that we didn't make an offer on because I was indifferent to its charms. Boy, was I being difficult!

Yet now I am grateful for the indecisiveness that resulted from my perplexing feelings.

Two days after Halloween we received some news that altered our circumstances; it could logically be perceived as an upsetting and unsettling change in our fortunes.

No longer could we continue to shop for houses. We needed to adjust.

My first emotions about this news were surprise and sadness at the conclusion of a long, important, and mostly fulfilling episode in our family's life. The news wasn't a complete shock, but it was of such a nature to make one take a step back to evaluate the future.

As for the house hunting? I was glad it was over! I was relieved!

It is always surprisingly refreshing to receive a slap in the face that reminds you of what's truly important to you in life. The larger, nicer home? Not so important to me it turns out. All that anxiety, all that discouragement for nothing. My faith is tried by silly things. Family, love, health and security - those really matter. Home is truly where the heart is. God didn't answer our persistent pleas, but now I understand why. Thank God for unanswered prayers. I cannot imagine the stress my family would feel at this juncture if we had gotten that big home we desired, that I desired for my family.

There was another feeling, too, that rushed in upon the heels of surprise, sorrow, and relief.

It was excitement. Perhaps a slightly inappropriate emotion to feel at the time, I definitely felt it. If the river suddenly changes course, one must anticipate adventure.

This change has come in Autumn, not the most auspicious time of year in which to face a drastic change in circumstances, but we have desired this kind of change for a while. It just came about in a more urgent way than expected, but I am resolutely - may God help me not to waiver - anticipating growth and opportunity to spring forth.

Lastly, though it is entirely secondary to more important considerations for my man and our kids, a most welcome opportunity for me followed the cease and desist of home shopping.

I got to write again.

I realized as I cried with joy the first day I earnestly played with words - not just spinning sentences in my head but actually putting paragraphs and ideas down - that no beautiful home could make me as happy as writing can, particularly writing on my book.

As I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving, these are the things for which I am personally grateful: unanswered prayers; another Thanksgiving and Christmas spent in the only home my kids remember; brave, new horizons, diverse opportunities, and wide open possibilities; and a chance to renew the pursuit of my passion.

May we all be blessed with a well-timed slap in the face occasionally in order to realize what we really value! And may we learn to, not just embrace, but squeeze the life out of change.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

On homes and grief, life and loss

In a joking way I have always asserted that it would take an act of God or nature for our family to move from this little house in which we have known love, good health, security, and happiness these many years.

Now we've sold our family home, and I can only say that, in a way, I came to the decision because of an act of God.

Both of my grandfathers passed away this late spring and summer, and I experienced a real emotional crisis. As my extended family's loss began to sink in, I felt so badly for my husband who had lost all of his grandparents in the past couple decades, his paternal grandfather before we were even a couple. Losing our grandparents feels like an indelible marker on the road of life: You Are HERE. 

And I just want my grandpas back. It was a comfort to know they were in the world even though I spent so much of my life hundreds of miles away from them.

I look back to when I was a teenager and recall how very unhappy I was to be moving from Tennessee to Idaho. And now? I earnestly thank God for that time I had with my grandparents in Idaho, camping, talking, shopping, eating meals, taking walks, that I never would have had if my parents and I had stayed in that beloved home in Tennessee so far from extended family.

My generous husband flew me up late June for what turned out to be a brutal weekend in which I attended my paternal grandfather's memorial service on Saturday and then my maternal grandfather's funeral on the following Monday. The true solace of those few days was the raw beauty found in mourning with family - some of whom I had seen seldom or never actually met before - in telling stories of Papa and Grandpa for the benefit of each other, singing their favorite songs, and listening reverently as "Taps" was played in the quiet of verdant cemeteries for each by an Honor Guard sent to pay tribute to their military service in WWII.

(I will never forget the beautiful image of my mother, her sister, and three brothers standing in a line before their dad's coffin, hand joined in the solidarity of grief.)

Still, emotions ran high during conversation, company was kept late and sleep was elusive, and the evening before my Grandfather Asher's funeral, my sister and I had a vital but highly charged conversation that drained both of us further. (Yet I know Grandpa, who undoubtedly had many difficult family discussions in his life, would have been proud of us for clearing the air.)

When I got home 4th of July, I felt I looked about 50 after sleeping fitfully and eating poorly and balling my eyes out on multiple occasions. In the car ride home from the airport, I sprang the news on my husband that, after talking with my brother and parents about my feelings, I wanted to sell the house. Then I balled again in his arms when I saw that he and Berto had refinished my dining room table as a surprise.

Honestly, I don't know what I've done, why I've done it, or what I've gotten us in to. In large part the idea of selling this house was a way to avoid succumbing to depression in the wake of such a huge loss, a loss that felt so much heavier, because Grandmama Asher, to whom I was very close as a young woman, passed away when my youngest, Daniel, was only six months old.

I thank God for the time I had in my Grandparents Asher's house. I always felt at home there, loved, well cared for, and I admit that my memories of being in their large, rambling home with its spacious yard in a small town made me long to give my family something like it now that both of them are gone - a sort of legacy of the home they created for their grandchildren to visit.

So I have taken a leap of grief and faith and said goodbye to the small but only home my family has ever known since our oldest, Berto, was a mere babe in arms.

Over the years I thought on and off about it whenever our 1240 square foot house felt overwhelmed by our family's activities, but something about the realization of the life marker that clearly states "You Are HERE" gave me an attitude of now or never, leap or sigh. 

I can only hope we find a home that reminds me of all the love and joy I knew in my grandparents' houses.

Our beloved Grandpa and me

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The home my grandparents made

Tuesday night I lay awake in bed thinking about how strange it would be to enter my grandparents' house and neither of them be there.

And then I cried silently while my husband slept next to me, the tears matting my hair and dribbling into my ears.

I love Grandpa and Grandmama's house in that small Idaho town where both my parents spent years of their childhood. Even though my grandparents didn't acquire that house until I was a teenager, it's the one I associate most with their presence. And so to be in it, and they be absent, will be very sad.

It's a fine, old two-story home, partitioned into many rooms that have changed slowly over the years, but those rooms always seemed to be brimming with family, with life, and with small, energetic dogs who followed my grandfather around. How many of our clan have spent several nights or even years under the same roof as our patriarch and matriarch in their welcoming home where the coffee and conversation flowed freely?

In the summers of my teenage years, I used to spend the night often - even bringing along my best friend Sarah - and loved the middle room upstairs with its window overlooking a slice of the front yard and its enormous pine trees. I loved Grandmama's fine garden to the back of the garage, that garden she seemed to call forth effortlessly, though I know she must have labored in it continually. I have good memories of sitting on the front porch with her, snapping green beans from that verdant plot into huge bowls.

I loved Grandmama's colorful flower borders by the front walkway, now gone.

...and the raised flower bed and outdoor seating area in back that Grandpa built

...the knickknacks, multiple prints of famous artwork, and abundant furnishings that my Aunt Stephie helped to collect, mostly from yard sales

and the spacious park at the end of the street where Grandmama and I used to walk before stopping in a little cafe to get smoothies or coffee.

Just last October I was in that house, and as usual an abundance of family was there - some I did not expect to but was overjoyed to see - and a new little dog whom I had not met, and the coffee percolated constantly in an industrial-sized coffee machine.

My Grandmama died more than six years ago, but I sat with Grandpa out back beneath the awning he had made as he told stories about his wife, including all the classic ones about how jealous she could be, once telling a waitress to "Get your damn hands off my man!" I love those stories, because I am a jealous woman myself, and they explain where I got it from.

Grandpa was starting to forget things, and there were so many people around, and so he asked me which one I was. I told him I was Hillary, nicknamed Hoodoo, and I reminded him of the time I lived with him and Grandmama for a brief time in Boise after my family moved back to Idaho from Tennessee and how I disliked my new school so much  - built like a prison with slivers for windows! - and was so slow getting up and ready for it that Grandpa, who loved to tease, called my walk to the bus stop (or ride if I were running late) the Hoodoo Trail of Tears.

His eyes lit up with the memory, and he exclaimed, "That's right!" and chuckled afresh.  (It was a story he retold every time I saw him, but I had to tell it this last time.)

On Tuesday I found out Grandpa had passed away, not even a month after we lost my Grandfather Hylton. Our family's grief is compounded. My mom and dad have each lost a parent. My siblings and I have lost both our grandpas. It's a summer for grieving.

I won't hear Grandpa call me Hoodoo again or see that tell-tale twinkle in his eye or hear him chuckle at his own stories.

I won't get another chance to ask him about his service in WWII or the crazy adventures of his unusual childhood.

And I am so sad and heartbroken for my darling mother, his daughter.

But I am sure that whenever we may enter that house again, even while now missing both Grandpa and Grandmama terribly and feeling their absence keenly, it will still be brimming with family and love.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

In Memoriam: Grandpa Hylton

Memorial Day will be one of many days for my family to remember the man who was my grandfather, C. Lee Hylton, in the years to come. He was a veteran of WWII who joined the Navy near the end of the war when he was just 16. In my grandfather's own words, he was a "hillbilly boy" who had "no whiskers yet, just a wild ambition with a lack of wisdom".

He passed away recently just after Memorial Day on May 30, 2017.

One of his many grandchildren and great grandchildren, I am the granddaughter he called "Tank" when she was an infant because of her chubbiness, and dubbed "Hildy Bee" in her teenage and adult years. I can still hear the way he used to say, "Well, Hildy Bee..." in his gentle, joking way. I can hear his joyful, subtle laugh, a laugh I heard often when I took my own children to visit him. It is my great pleasure and privilege to write about the man who was my Grandfather Hylton.

Grandpa traveled the Pacific with the Navy, but most of his life was spent in Idaho's small towns and wilderness areas.

He was working as a shepherd on West Mountain when he met my grandmother, Alverna, a book keeper in a small store in nearby Council, Idaho where his older sister was a clerk. They married in 1948. Little did Grandma know then that her husband would soon become a different sort of shepherd and that his life's work was to have a far greater impact even than service to his country.

His vocation came to him quite unexpectedly, and it began with a conviction that struck his heart like lightning.

Papa, as many in our family called him, labored in an auto body shop repairing the damaged steel frames of wrecked cars after he and Nana married. He was a drinker in those first years of marriage and child rearing -  not a habitual one, but a man who drank to excess when, as my Grandma put it, "the wrong friend came around".

One of those errant friends worked with my grandfather. As they were leaving the shop one day, he turned to Papa and said out of the blue, "You know, if we don't change our ways, we're both going to hell."

That very next Sunday, Grandpa took his family to church. When the altar call came for people to confess their sins and offer their hearts to Christ, my grandmother handed their baby son to Papa and hurried to the altar to kneel. He was mad that Nana beat him to the punch. The following Sunday it was Grandpa's turn to give his heart to the Lord. That was the year 1952.

Reverend C. Lee Hylton
Two years later they were headed to Los Angeles Bible School. Grandpa and Grandma had saved their money, so that Papa could train to become a pastor.

Upon their return to Idaho, they were given several small churches one after another, called "missionary churches", as their little ones grew up. Preaching and extravagant living rarely go together; it always seems incongruous when they do. Papa did not make much from doing the work of God, so he painted houses during the week, no doubt mulling over the Word of God and his sermons for the coming Sunday with each rhythmic brushstroke.

Though my grandfather dedicated years of his life to shepherding churches in Idaho, what really ignited him was traveling as an evangelist, going to other congregations to preach each night of the week in order to revive the faith of communities. One of his revivals lasted five weeks! Papa even brought his family here to the towns around Phoenix in his evangelical mission.

A favorite sermon to deliver, one that he preached several times over the years according to my dad, was born of his experiences as a shepherd on West Mountain. My grandfather encountered many a mountain stream while herding sheep. Those tributaries in Idaho are beautiful, pouring forth cold, clear water from the heights. But they sometimes become clogged with the debris of nature, mud and stones and fallen pine branches. When Papa saw such diminished watercourses, he knelt to scoop out the detritus from their chilly, trickling water until they rushed again through the lush mountain meadows as they were meant to do. This was an allegory for what we must routinely do in our relationship with our Maker, Papa asserted: we must remove the litter to receive the rush of grace and love that God so freely and mercifully gives each day.

I didn't get to spend much of my childhood with my grandparents. They were in Idaho, and we were in Tennessee. But I knew my grandpa as a man short of stature but full of fire when he delivered a sermon, a man who always wore weathered cowboy boots - something I loved about him. And he was a man who had a strong voice for hymns as well as preaching, one who was never ashamed to sing praises to the Lord as his wife skillfully played the organ. One of his favorite hymns was "Down From His Glory".

When my Aunt Cheryl told me how Grandpa used to love to sing that song, and I looked it up, I could hear my Grandpa's fine voice and see his face tilted just so as he sang it in the small New Plymouth, Idaho church where I heard him preach as a teenager.

What is Grandpa's legacy? Every one of his three sons has served as a pastor and each of his two daughters married one. They hold fast to their faith, regularly work to share it with others using their unique talents and have passed it on to their own children. His grandchildren know how their Papa praised and loved the One who came down from His glory to win all our souls, the One Who once spoke to and changed Grandpa's heart through the blunt words of a friend.

That man's name is Jesus, and He has now another stalwart servant in His loving arms for all eternity.