Big Stone Gap

Big Stone Gap, Virginia

Big Stone Gap, Virginia

For your recreational and mindful reading…

Big Stone Gap

Another view of Big Stone Gap, in the heart of coal-mining country (twchoir.com)

I’ve been doing a lot of waiting lately, something I do very well under most circumstances, but I was ready for a Good Read. I like to go into Quality Thrift, one of Hilltop’s two used-goods stores and by far the better of the two because Mona and Del Maloney, the owners, have an antique shop as well (Quality Antiques). They go on buying trips and bring home truckloads of antiques and “junque,” as they refer to the odds and ends often thrown in for free when they make substantial purchases at estate sales.

If they relied only on estate sales, the book selection would run to romance novels, religious books, and Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. Fortunately, for me anyway (though I have a weakness for mindless mysteries and for the better romance novels by first-class authors such as Nora Roberts and Kristin Hannah, but not necessarily in large-type editions, which for some reason make me feel like I should read v-e-r-y slowly, placing my index finger under each word), Mona and Del catch the library sales and the yard sales, especially in the spring, when people want to free themselves of the burden of STUFF that seems to gather and multiply in their homes during the winter.

Big Stone Gap, by Adriana Trigiani

Big Stone Gap

(I don’t have anything against Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, by the way. Mama used to subscribe and she and Daddy would read all the books and if there was one they really liked they’d buy the unabridged version.)

So you never know what you’ll find, bookwise, at Quality Thrift. Sometimes the books I pick up are Very Serious slice-of-life sorts of novels in which all the characters are adrift and are so badly flawed that the story amounts to people pretty much stumbling over themselves and each other and finally dying and you don’t care. I used to feel honor-bound to finish every book I started and then I’d go around in a funk for a day or two trying to Figure Things Out. Now I’ll read a chapter or two, say (mentally) Get Over Yourself to the author, and move on.

The paperbacks are just a quarter, so I donate the ones that don’t make the cut back to Quality Thrift. (The Maloneys’ antique store does quite well; the Quality Thrift profits go to the no-kill animal shelter in La Mesa.) As the books are five for a dollar (that is, five for the price of four), I don’t mind taking a chance, and that’s what I did with Big Stone Gap, by Adriana Trigiani, an author I had never heard of. If nothing else, I thought as I glanced at the synopsis on the back cover, I could enjoy an imaginary sojourn in the beautiful and mysterious Appalachians, as I did with the lovely book Christy, by Catherine Marshall, and as I do whenever Uncle Lester surprises us with a visit.

Big Stone Gap is a real town of about five thousand in the extreme southwest corner of Virginia. Adriana Trigiani actually grew up in Big Stone Gap among people with names like Fleeta (and her husband, Portly), Worley Olinger, Spec (the ambulance driver), Dicie Sturgill, and Pee Wee Poteet — hopeful, likable people who, if they died, you’d care, just as you care about the narrator, Ave Maria Mulligan, the self-styled town spinster, who is much more attractive and interesting than she thinks she is.

Author Adriana Trigiani

Author Adriana Trigiani

But, you see, she has never been mindful. That’s what this charming book is about — the Big Push that life gives Ave (pronounced AH-vay) Maria into Mindfulness.

“I took care of everything,” she says to herself at one point. “I was so busy, I didn’t think about what I was doing or where the years were going. I just did what was expected of me.”

I actually am enjoying this book so much that I am refusing to finish it. My paperback edition has 306 pages and I’m on page 295 and I’m going to fix myself a nice lunch of baked salmon and buttered asparagus before I read the next page, and after that maybe I’ll have a dish of apple crisp with real whipped cream and then read another page and by the time I finish the book I will have gained fifty or sixty pounds….

The June Tolliver House & Folk Art Center in Big Stone Gap. June Tolliver was the heroine in the 1908 novel THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE by Big Stone Gap native John Fox, Jr.

The June Tolliver House & Folk Art Center in Big Stone Gap. June Tolliver was the heroine in the 1908 novel THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE by Big Stone Gap native John Fox, Jr.

Fanny McElroy

Moi, Fanny

Check this out! Sister Alma Rose told me she wrote romance novels in another life. I said, “Sister Alma Rose, I don’t know how that could be, because you’re, like, one hundred and fifty years old and before that there was no such thing as a romance novel,” and she grinned and said, “Tells how much y’all know,” which only made me more confused than I already am about reincarnation and past lives, and I followed her into the kitchen and said, “Sister Alma Rose, is there such a thing as a future past life?” and she said, “Honey, there’s things y’all need to learn now and things for later, and this is one for later,” and she handed me a huge oatmeal-raisin cookie, to shut me up, I think.

————–

Learn about mindfulness meditation from Jon Kabat-Zinn.

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A Lovely Young Woman

Green leaf on blue water

'Up the mountain'—the pool at the spring near the Upper Shrine*

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Digesting a Difficult Book

Beautiful redhead with freckles

Fanny at almost-13

Fanny, who will be 13 in August, is about to leave for Daylight, the almost-inaccessible mountaintop home of the Ancients, with her mentor, Sister Alma Rose, and Henry, the man she knows she will someday marry. Fanny has learned only recently that she is a reincarnation from the Ancients. She will live with them until she feels that she is ready to serve among the “Lowlanders,” doing the healing and peacemaking work that will become her mission.

coffeecup wingding

I am packed to go “up the mountain” — indefinitely, although Mama and Daddy will be allowed to visit because they’re “special,” and I can come home as often as I want, maybe via magic carpet, I’m not really sure. Sister Alma Rose and Henry will be taking me. Henry will stay as long as I do; Sister Alma Rose is keeping mum about her plans.

Saint John of the Cross, 1542-1591

Saint John of the Cross, 1542-1591

While we are waiting to leave, Sister Alma Rose has assigned me to read The Metaphysics of Mysticism, A Commentary on the Mystical Philosophy of St. John of the Cross, by Geoffrey K. Mondello, a book of which “the goal… is unabashedly epistemological.” Whew! What if it had been gastronomical? Would I have been forced to eat the book? Would it have eaten me? And tidied up afterward?

It is heavy going; the author uses a lot of words such as solipsistic. And only occasionally can I infer the meaning of an unfamiliar word from the context, because the context is full of words such as refractory (not to be confused with refectory, which is where St. John and his fellow Carmelites went to eat dinner).

And so I slog along, reading indoors at the computer so that I can easily look up words every three or four sentences, until it is just irresistibly gorgeous outside, when I lug the unabridged dictionary out to the garden or go read on Sister Alma Rose’s porch. Sometimes I think she forgets I’m only 12.

Detail from Riding a Flying Carpet, by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1880

Detail from Riding a Flying Carpet, by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1880

Visiting Cousin George

Mama was an only child and so was her cousin George. (Everyone I know just calls him “George,” even my little brothers.) George and his parents— Mama’s mother’s brother and his wife (“Big George” and Jake, I don’t know her real name) farmed outside of Hilltop when Mama and George were kids, so they were like siblings.

Now George lives in Chicago, but he is hardly ever there because he makes huge amounts of money as a freelance photographer who specializes in going with linguistic anthropologists to remote places like Papua New Guinea (where more than 850 indigenous languages are spoken!) and the Amazon rainforest. So when he is in the U.S., which is hardly ever, he comes to see Mama or she goes to Chicago, and since he was at home last week, and I was going to be leaving soon, Mama, Henry, and I all flew to Chicago. Henry bought our tickets, and I still don’t know where he gets all his money, even though his parents are rich, but they don’t know where he is, and I don’t understand that either. I’m sure he’ll tell me when he’s ready to tell me (this is the new, patient, serene Me talking). 

 
 
 

The Amazon Rainforest, Brazil

The Amazon rainforest, Brazil

We didn’t tell George that I am going to Daylight, although if you could tell anyone and not be scoffed at, it would be George. We also didn’t exactly explain about Henry, but George takes everything in stride. His wife, Annette, used to go with him on long assignments, but she and their baby (Annette was five months’ pregnant) died on Borneo, not from some exotic jungle disease or snakebite or anything. She was standing at the edge of a four-foot embankment near a dry streambed when an insect flew into her eye, and she lost her footing and belly-flopped onto the hard ground, and she died of “multiple internal injuries” in a helicopter on the way to the hospital.

Being the observer

This tragedy happened while Mama was carrying me, so the baby, who was a girl, would be about my age. I used to wonder if I might be an unwelcome reminder of George’s unborn child— he always seemed to be scrutinizing me— but Sister Alma Rose has taught me to not be self-conscious but to observe rather than “feeling observed,” and when I started observing George I realized that he scrutinizes everybody, because he is actually interested. George is a person who lives in the moment. As Sister Alma Rose says, George remembers “where he is” (here) and “what time it is” (now). He’s kind and sensitive but not at all sentimental. He probably doesn’t know it, but he practices “mindfulness.”

Sexy blonde with cigarette, leather outfit, and fur stole

Daddy thinks Carla's a spy

George’s girlfriend, Carla, swears like a sailor and is physically the kind of woman who could have been called a “blond bombshell” in an earlier era. Carla might be a little on the flashy side for high society, and you might assume that she was no rocket scientist, but you’d be wrong because that’s exactly what she is, an aerospace engineer who was an associate professor at some university with initials like M.I.T. but not M.I.T., but now she’s a handsomely paid consultant with ultra-ultra security clearance, and she loves to talk but she doesn’t talk about her work. Carla lives in George’s apartment when he’s away and when he’s home. Daddy doesn’t approve, not that anybody asked him.

George is a self-professed Christian who says he has seen God’s grace “up close and personal” too many times to doubt its reality. It was grace, he says, that brought him and Carla together and that keeps their relationship strong though they both travel a lot and sometimes Carla can’t tell even George where she’s going.

Sultry beautiful blond woman

...Dagmar WAS a spy...

Daddy thinks Carla’s a spy. That’s because a long time ago, just before Mama and Daddy got married, there was a woman called Dagmar who was another “blond bombshell,” and she worked at the Diner and chewed gum and had this Bronx accent, and Daddy told Mama, “She’s a spy,” and Mama said, “What would a spy be doing in Hilltop?” and Daddy said, “Keeping a low profile,” and Mama laughed because Dagmar would have stood out anywhere, but it turned out that Daddy was right and Dagmar was a spy for the Russians or the Chinese or something. Daddy said she was less like a waitress than like somebody playing a waitress on television, and the gum-chewing and Bronx accent were “overkill.”

Loving is the main thing

Coffee in a light-blue mug

...a wonderful time drinking coffee...

Our day in Chicago ended too soon. We all had a wonderful time drinking coffee and eating George’s “culinary specialty,” fruit salad made with cream cheese and marshmallow cream and it is just to die for, if everyone had left the room I would have been compelled to eat it all.

As Sister Alma Rose has told me over and over until it finally sunk in, you cannot be loving when you are being an “observee” instead of an observer.  And loving is the main thing. So I got over myself; I relaxed and observed instead of being self-conscious and feeling as if all eyes were on me. It was fabulous, wonderful, liberating… liberating most of all. And when we left, George told Mama he thought I had “grown into a lovely young woman.” I didn’t need George’s approval any more, but it felt good. Validating. “The truth shall make you free.” **

 * Green leaf on blue water, vnwallpapers.com
** John 8:32

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Serenity Shots

A Cottage in a Cornfield, oil on canvas, John Constable 1776-1837

A Cottage in a Cornfield, oil on canvas, John Constable 1776-1837

An Indelicate Incident

The parade of people who march into and out of Sister Alma Rose’s little world is endlessly fascinating. I know why they come, at least some of them: You cannot help feeling safe with Sister Alma Rose. She just sends out these vibes: “Everything will be okay,” or, rather, “everything is fine, as it should be, right now.” She inoculates people with serenity.  

The Hay Wain, John Constable, 1821

The Hay Wain, John Constable, 1821

Sister Alma Rose does not expend energy needlessly, by which I mean, (a) she never worries, though occasionally she catches herself “fretting,” but she snaps right out of it, and (b) she is absolutely unconcerned about what people think of her— not in an in-your-face sort of way; it would just never occur to her to try to crawl into someone else’s brain.  

There’s a book I have not read (there are still a few of them out there) called What You Think of Me Is None of My Business (which is one of those books, like Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow, for which the title is so instructive that you almost feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth without actually reading the book)…. Where was I? Oh, I think that Sister Alma Rose could have written that book, because she doesn’t ever speculate about what people think of her, like, does my hair look okay, or, I wonder if she likes me.  

Book: What You Think of Me Is None of My Business

Terry Cole-Whittaker earned a Doctor of Divinity degree in 1973 and was ordained as a minister of the United Church of Religious Science in 1975. She left that denomination to found an independent New Thought church in San Diego

That being the case, she is never embarrassed. Here is something that happened, which, if it had happened to me then, I was in fourth grade at the time, would have sent me bolting to my room vowing never to emerge, picturing myself at age 73, that eccentric McElroy spinster who hadn’t been seen since the Embarrassing Incident sixty-four years earlier:  

Let me start out by saying that Sister Alma Rose never, ever naps. She is almost never “poorly” with a cold or the flu or aches and pains. I asked her once if she had always been so healthy, in her past lives, and she laughed and said that she had been an invalid during the Renaissance but that in each successive life she gets healthier and happier, which led me to wonder if people are always reincarnated forward in time, and she said that usually, when you die in one life, you are born into another at the same moment, and that she had always lived in this universe, on Planet Earth, which is usual but there are exceptions. I will have to remember to ask Henry about that, and about whether you are simultaneously a fetus and an independently living, breathing human being who is about to die. 

It was about six weeks after Daddy’s accident, a breathtakingly beautiful September afternoon, and Daddy wanted to walk across the road to see Sister Alma Rose. 

PICTURE OF SERENITY. Girl in the Garden at Bellevue, Édouard Manet 1832-1883. Manet, a French painter, was one of the first nineteenth-century artists to approach modern-life subjects [and]... was a pivotal figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism

PICTURE OF SERENITY. Girl in the Garden at Bellevue, Édouard Manet 1832-1883. Manet, a French painter, was one of the first nineteenth-century artists to approach modern-life subjects and represent the transition from Realism to Impressionism (Manet article, Wikipedia)

This was something Daddy and I traditionally did on those rare afternoons when he came in early from the fields, although of course he hadn’t been working since the accident; his brothers were taking care of the farm.  

The Cornfield, John Constable, 1826

The Cornfield, John Constable, 1826

I held Daddy’s hand protectively and we walked across the road, which is still brick as it winds out of Hilltop and climbs and curves to Sister Alma Rose’s farm and then on to La Mesa. We were a little surprised not to see Sister Alma Rose on the porch, shelling peas or whatever it is she does— her hands are always busy— but Mr. Truman LaFollette was washing the grass-green wicker furniture with soapy water, and he looked up at us and almost smiled, he is in general very grave, and said in his deep voice that always sounds rusty from disuse that Sister Alma Rose was in the kitchen.  

Caught napping

So we went around to the side door that opens into the pantry and the kitchen is just beyond, and she wasn’t there. I said, “Maybe she’s in the chapel,” which was on the other side of the parlor, so we turned into the parlor, and there she was, lying on that big old scratchy brown sofa with her back to us, and my first thought was that she was dead because I had never in my life seen Sister Alma Rose lying down.  

Dedham Vale, John Constable, 1802

Dedham Vale, John Constable, 1802

Daddy whispered, “I think she’s sleeping,” but I went closer to make sure she was breathing, and just then she woke up and turned her head toward us and started to smile, but the smile was interrupted by a violent sneeze, maybe you have experienced one of those, where the sneeze just takes possession of your entire body, so it wasn’t just an ordinary sneeze, it was one of those HONK fart-sneezes that is impossible to ignore or pretend you didn’t hear, especially since Sister Alma Rose’s backside was still turned inelegantly toward us and also, within a few seconds, something I can describe only as green swamp fog pervaded the atmosphere in the room.  

Peppermint, Franz Eugen Köhler, 1897

Peppermint, Franz Eugen Köhler, 1897— Peppermint is effective in treating certain stomach ailments; discuss with your doctor before using

I wanted to laugh. I wanted to cry. I didn’t dare look at Daddy. But Sister Alma Rose just chuckled and said, “Well, for pity’s sake,” she said, “pardon me,” and she stood up gracefully and glided across the room and gently herded Daddy and me onto the porch, saying, “Let’s just go out here where the air’s a bit fresher,” chuckling again, and then, obviously not giving it another thought, she expressed great pleasure at seeing Daddy looking so well, and we all temporarily forgot about the HONK fart-sneeze, although I tucked the incident away in my head to tell Mama and maybe Pablo.  

We didn’t stay long, because Sister Alma Rose did indeed have a cold and she said that she thought that she would treat herself and spend the rest of the afternoon in bed, reading or napping and letting Mr. Truman LaFollette fuss over her and bring her chicken soup and peppermint tea with honey.  

Sister Alma Rose recovered quickly, but “the incident” was never to be forgotten, despite Sister Alma Rose’s aplomb. Just the other night, after my brothers, Yo and Angelo, were in bed, Mama and Daddy and I were waiting for Henry so that we could play Scrabble, and I recalled “the incident,” and Daddy blushed like a teenager, and Mama laughed until tears rolled down her cheeks.  

Hampstead Heath, Looking Towards Harrow; John Constable, 1821

Hampstead Heath, Looking Towards Harrow; John Constable, 1821

“I read recently that people ‘break wind’ an average of fifteen times a day,” I said to Mama and Daddy. “I’m actually surprised that people don’t fart… you know, audibly… more often, especially when they eat broccoli or something.”  

“God is merciful,” Daddy said piously, and then grinned and confessed that he’d wondered the same thing.  

“Well, even if Sister Alma Rose weren’t who she is,” Mama said, “and I can’t believe we’re having this conversation— even if Sister Alma Rose weren’t the most gracious and self-possessed human being on this earth, I guess if you’ve lived as long as she has, and so many times, you’ve seen— and heard— it all, and you grow up beyond embarrassment.”  

“I can vouch for that,” Henry said, letting himself in through the screen door and making disgusting fart sounds with his mouth— which I can’t do, it’s mostly a guy thing— and cracking everyone up.  

Clearing the air

I still can hardly believe I actually got these Scrabble letters (“tiles,” I think, is the proper word for them)— maybe Henry switched letters on me with this sleight-of-hand thing he does— but Daddy had made the word L-A-T-E-R and I was able to add F-L-A-T-U to the front of it. Mama and Daddy burst out laughing, but Henry narrowed his eyes at me and said, “It would be O-R, not E-R, if there were even such a word, which there is NOT,” and of course he was right.  

Henry and Daddy have discovered that, by bizarre coincidence, of which, Sister Alma Rose claims, there is no such thing, they both like to smoke a particular blend of perique pipe tobacco. Since perique is grown only in Saint James Parish, Louisiana, it’s not available at your 24-hour convenience store, or, for that matter, anywhere in Hilltop. Daddy was getting it by mail order from a company in Vermont until Henry showed up with an apparently inexhaustible supply, but they still smoke it sparingly, as if it were gold dust. It smells wonderful.  

Lake District Scene, John Constable

Lake District Scene, John Constable

So they were out on the porch sharing a testosterone moment, and Mama and I were tidying up as we womenfolk have done since we all lived in caves.  

Something was off, though. Mama had been unusually quiet since Henry got there, and Henry and Daddy were outside longer than usual, and there was an uneasiness growing in me that I couldn’t explain away. And then Henry and Daddy came inside and we all sat down, and that’s when I learned that Henry and Sister Alma Rose and I would be going “up the mountain” to Daylight on the first of May.  

Blue Ridge Mountain Road

The Road to Daylight

 
 

John Constable, 1776-1837, English Romantic painter

John Constable, 1776-1837, English Romantic painter

John Constable (11 June 1776 – 31 March 1837) was an English Romantic painter. Born in Suffolk, he is known principally for his landscape paintings of Dedham Vale, the area surrounding his home – now known as “Constable Country”- which he invested with an intensity of affection. “I should paint my own places best”, he wrote to his friend John Fisher in 1821, “painting is but another word for feeling”.  

His most famous paintings include Dedham Vale of 1802 and The Hay Wain of 1821. Although his paintings are now among the most popular and valuable in British art, he was never financially successful and did not become a member of the establishment until he was elected to the Royal Academy at the age of 52. He sold more paintings in France than in his native England. —John Constable: The Complete Works 

* * *  

The world's best Mother's Day cards, on 100% recycled cover stock

The world's best Mother's Day cards, on 100% recycled cover stock

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country road

'Henry was hiking on country roads, with no particular route or destination'

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Secrets of the Ancients Revealed

Me, Fanny McElroy, age 12

Me, Fanny McElroy, age 12

(Continued from previous post…) So I went home and began babbling to Mama — my little brothers were off spending a few days with Aunt Belle and her monsters, excuse me, her dear little ones, Tigger and Anja, who are just freely expressing their unspoiled innocence when they yank on your hair and stomp on other kids’ toys if they’re not allowed to play with them, and Aunt Belle, who is dear and kind and rather vague and stares in an unfocused way at Tigger and Anja like she’s not quite sure who they are or how they got there, literally wrings her hands — and then I had to start babbling all over again when Daddy came in, but he wanted a shower first, which was probably good because it gave me a chance to gather my thoughts, and then, wearing clean Levi’s and a purple (which is not Daddy’s color, it makes him look sallow) “Kansas State University Athletic Department” T-shirt and holding a bottle of Harp beer, he sat in the blue Morris chair that is Only His (Daddy says that by now the chair is perfectly molded to his butt)…

Antimacassar

My grandmother crocheted antimacassars and placed them on the "headrest" parts of chairs to prevent men's hair oil, specifically "Macassar Oil," from soiling the chair

…and Mama sat beside him in her grandmother Dolly’s overstuffed rocking chair, which I don’t know why she likes it because the upholstery is cow-patty brown and scratchy and covered with doilies and, I swear, an antimacassar, unlike Mama, who was, of course, not covered with doilies but was, rather, aglow in a white sundress with huge red polka dots and who was, uncharacteristically, drinking a glass of Rhine wine mixed with pineapple juice and a dab of peach brandy (a delicious punch she made for the wedding shower she hosted for her piano student Clarissa Whitney earlier that day, otherwise Mama rarely drinks alcohol, but gosh that punch is crisp and refreshing, and yes, I was given permission to have a small sip)…

(I really was)

President Obama delivering the 2010 State of the Union address

President Obama delivering the 2010 State of the Union address

…and she and Daddy held hands and looked at me expectantly, as if I were about to deliver the State of the Union address, so I said, “My fellow Americans,” and then launched into the story of Henry the Hiker and told them, Mama and Daddy, I mean, that he, Henry, is the spit and image of Matthew McConaughey, and about my premonition, and Pablo’s, and the 2000 newspaper article, with the photo of Henry, Ben, and Portia, reporting Henry’s disappearance, and my suspicion, confirmed by Sister Alma Rose, that Henry was one of the Ancients, and then Sister Alma Rose’s cryptic comment, which she refused to elaborate on, that Henry had not come to see her, Sister Alma Rose, but rather to see me, Fanny McElroy, 12 years old last October 4.

“What would he want with me?” I asked in great perplexity. “Oh, I know! He’s come to give me tennis lessons!”

Helen Keller, 1904

Helen Keller, 1904

That was supposed to be a joke, but no one laughed. Mama and Daddy had exchanged “significant glances” a few times, but they didn’t seem surprised by my “shocking revelations.” Sometimes I almost think Mama and Sister Alma Rose have this mental-telepathy thing going, because I can tell Mama about something that happened at Sister Alma Rose’s and it’s like she already knows, though either of them would die before they would betray a confidence, so I’m thinking Vulcan Mind Meld or else a convergence of highly developed women’s intuition.

Pray without ceasing

Growing up, I had known about the Ancients, in the same way you know about stuff like the Italian Riviera, and plantain (the fruit, not the weed), and Helen Keller: It’s out there (except for Helen Keller), and you have a vague idea what it is, and someday maybe you’ll care, but for now it’s just a Frito in the Massive Smorgasbord of Knowledge. In our house, if you had an odd sock, it was, like, “Maybe the Ancients took the other one,” and I used to think of them as Gollum-like creatures who slithered around and stole your homework or fiddled with your carburetor so your truck wouldn’t start — sort of like poltergeists in the flesh.

Portofino, the Italian Riviera; photo, Stan Shebs

Portofino, the Italian Riviera; photo, Stan Shebs

But from time to time I would overhear somebody — Mama or Daddy, Sister Alma Rose or Cousin Dulcie — saying “the Ancients” in a conversation that was respectful in tone, even reverential. So I came to believe that the Ancients were real people and somehow near, and eventually I just knew without being told that Sister Alma Rose and Cousin Dulcie had come from the Ancients, and, of course, dear, misguided Portia, who is fey, which means

(a) slightly insane
(b) elfin: suggestive of an elf in strangeness and otherworldliness; “thunderbolts quivered with elfin flares of heat lightning”; “the fey quality was there, the ability to see the moon at midday” — John Mason Brown
wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

NOTHING AT ALL LIKE THE ANCIENTS: Gollum, as depicted in the most recent film version of The Lord of the Rings

Portia notwithstanding, knowing about the Ancients has always given me a warm, safe feeling, like these almost-angels are keeping an eye on things while we clueless more-mortal mortals lurch around trying to make sense of our lives and, ideally, help other people be more comfortable in their skin, but often not succeeding, as evidenced by the number of times (average 12.7 per day) that you hear someone whine, “But I was JUST trying to HELP.”

Sister Alma Rose seldom discusses the Ancients with me, but she has told me one thing I love: that they literally pray without ceasing — so I can be conversing with Sister Alma Rose, and I have her full attention, but at the same time, in another part of her brain, or maybe in her heart, or her gallbladder (an organ not possessed, according to Wikipedia, by lampreys), I don’t understand the physiology of it, she is praying for me, or praying that she’ll understand what I’m saying, et cetera, and she says that anyone can do this praying without ceasing, you don’t have to be a monk or an Old One, and it brings great peace and health and vigor, and, of course, love, and you never, ever worry. I’m working on that.

Lampreys. People EAT them. There are EYES looking out of those tentacles

Lampreys. People EAT them. There are EYES looking out of those tentacles. Photo: Drow Male

* * *

So when I finished telling Mama and Daddy about Henry, et cetera, Mama announced that she had decided that the time had come to tell me as much as she could about the Ancients, and my heart did a little cardiac happy dance and in my mind was the cover of some magazine like People with Mama’s picture and the teaser “SECRETS OF THE ANCIENTS REVEALED.”

Or not. In any case, I sat cross-legged on the ottoman and scooched it over near Mama and Daddy and waited for Mama to begin. What you will read below are Mama’s words, minus the “ums,” et cetera, though I think she must have been practicing because she hardly had to stop to scratch or sneeze, or lose her place and find it again, or anything….

The Legend of the Ancients

Little girl, all dressed up, playing in clover

'Get in touch with your inner child'

There are many tales about the Ancients, or the Old Ones [see “The Old Ones,” below], and most of them contain at least SOME truth. So shut down your skeptic’s brain and pay attention, with a willingness to be enchanted. “Get in touch with your inner child,” because this is a lovely story, and it is mostly true. I know, because I was there.

The Old Ones, in one form or another, exist in every culture, but this story is about the Old Ones in North America because the author has personal experience with them. It is said that they have been on this continent for at least three thousand years, but the author cannot verify that.

Mountains of the Ancients?

Mountains of the Ancients?

According to one legend, many centuries ago a group of mystically inclined Indians created a village at the top of the highest mountain they could find and dedicated themselves to Knowing God. Since they could not at the same time dedicate themselves to learning the warriors’ ways, they needed to make their homes in a safe, secluded place, and they wanted to be close to the sky.

Over the millenia, they learned the arts and sciences that were revealed to them, and, because God was in their hearts and they were compassionate, some of them left the mountain community and went down to live quietly among the valley people, teaching and healing. 

BlueRidgeMountainRoad-Istock

No one can find them unless they want to be found

A small group of Europeans — just a handful of families, the story goes — with much the same vision stumbled upon the Indian village in their search for a mountain refuge. (No one today seems to know how they got to North America from Europe.) The Europeans and the Indians compared notes, in a manner of speaking, and found that the Europeans knew a great deal that the Indians did not, and the Indians knew much that the Europeans did not, so that by combining their knowledge they became more powerful and more compassionate, and the two communities became one.

MotherDaughter

They are...

They are still there, in that original settlement. No one — no person, no army, no camera or satellite — can find them unless they want to be found. Small groups and individuals have been led there — escaped slaves and refugees as well as mystics, gifted healers, and gypsies.

They are a beautiful people, physically and spiritually. Many have golden brown skin, wavy chestnut hair, and whiskey-brown eyes, though it is not unusual to see a blue-eyed blond in the village.

Dad Lifting Young Son

...a beautiful people

The Ancients are fully human, though they use more than the five senses you and I were taught about; in fact, all their senses are highly developed, including intuition, the so-called sixth sense, as well as manifestation, healing, and tapping the collective unconscious. They can literally make quantum leaps, and time travel is old hat to them, though, by unanimous agreement, they do not visit the future.

None of this is “supernatural.” It is simply science, advanced knowledge, mastered by people who are in continuous communication with God. The author has been told that as long as the Ancients remain in their mountain home, they age very slowly. They are completely self-sufficient in providing shelter, clothing, herbal cures and other forms of healing, and food. Meditation is a way of life. Prayer comes naturally, easily… it is second nature. Negative stress is practically unknown.

Reincarnation — ‘enormous compassion’

But the mountaintop home of the Ancients is no Shangri-La. Like their “Ancient” brothers and sisters throughout the world, they live in harmony and bear good will toward all people. They dwell apart but journey into the larger world to bring peace and healing. As in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition,

…they are moved by enormous compassion to be
reborn again and again in order to help all
living creatures discover in themselves
complete freedom from pain and
suffering….  —Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
Blonde in Autumn Grain Field

The Ancients are exuberant by nature; Portia is no exception

The mission of the Ancients is to share their gentle wisdom with all humanity, so they come, singly or as families, to live among us, often but not always in rural areas. They are your neighbors, teachers, mechanics, clergy, hair stylists, carpenters, architects, and landscapers.

Some stay for a year, others for a hundred or more. The latter have, apparently, exceptional tolerance for pollution, artificial pesticides, questionable food additives, the blare of media, and the accelerated lifestyle; but there is no question that they age much faster “down here” than “up there,” in spite of the serenity they gain from habitual prayer and meditation, which are, however, powerful protection from mental and physical illness and deterioration.

The Ancients believe, in a nutshell, (a) that the attributes they have developed and strengthened over countless lifetimes can and must be transmitted “down here” to certain people — those who are intelligent, intuitive, and generous of spirit — and (b) that, beginning with these people, peace, love, and joy will spread over all the earth.

Dad carrying young daughter on shoulders

...reincarnated through a family "down here"

The author has been told that from time to time one of the ancients is reincarnated through a family “down here”; such children might or might not remember their past lives among the Ancients. These little ones are usually looked after and mentored by one or more of the Ancients dwelling nearby for just that purpose.

The author has only a vague idea of how all this works, since she was not privy to the secrets of reincarnation among the Ancients. She was told, however, that most “reincarnates,” at an early age, remember their past lives.

The light sensor

The Ancients claim that everyone has, on his or her head, at the crown, a sensory receptor for light. This receptor opens and closes, like an eye, but on the general population it is practically invisible. If there is no hair on the head to cover it and someone happens to notice it, that person thinks little of it, believing it to be a freckle or a small mole.

man-with-outstretched-arms

'Flooding the body with light'

But the Ancients have “exercised” this receptor for hundreds and hundreds of years, for the purpose of flooding the body with light for healing, and it has evolved into a larger circular “discoloration” about half an inch in diameter and very slightly raised. This, apparently, is the only outward difference between the Ancients and “ordinary” people.

Having my head examined

Mama stopped talking and took a sip of her drink.

Fanny McElroy at about age 4

Sister Alma Rose has always known that I was 'unusual'

“Dear One, we’ve been waiting for the right time to tell you all this,” Daddy said, taking my face gently between his hands, “though Sister Alma Rose has been urging us along for the past month or two. You’ve been a happy, well-adjusted child, you see, and there was no need, and a small part of us — a very small part — hoped that she was wrong. But you’ve been drawn more and more to Sister Alma Rose, who’s known since she first laid eyes on you as a newborn that you were… um… unusual.”

My heart was thumping wildly. I was about to be told something important, crossing an invisible line that would change my life, in a good way but also challenging… a quest, maybe, like Frodo’s with the One Ring, but not so dangerous and not, I devoutly hoped, involving a fiery-eyed wizard and the undead on winged chargers.

Brand-new puppies

All must leave the warmth, familiarity, and perceived safety of the womb

For a moment, more than anything, I wanted to stay on the not-knowing side of the line and go on as I always had, but that would be impossible, just as it is impossible for a baby to refuse to be born.

I didn’t want to hear it. I couldn’t wait to hear it. I needed to hear it, because it would lead me to my place in Creation, and nothing would bring more good to the world or more satisfaction to my spirit than doing what God had meant for me to do.

And then I knew. I lifted my hand and held it over my head, above the crown. The feeling of warmth was unmistakable. I slipped my fingers under my hair and I could feel the raised half-inch circle.

“I’m one of them, aren’t I?” I asked, my voice shaking, looking at Mama, then Daddy, for confirmation, and their eyes told me all. “I’m one of the Ancients.”

Young girl happily dancing

One of the Ancients...

Sidebar: The Old Ones—Other Legends

A great many older religions may believe that Old Ones are the beings that existed at the creation of the universe and everything in it, possibly considered to be minor gods or deities or… co-existing with gods…. In The Dark Tower series written by Stephen King, the Old Ones (also sometimes called Great Old Ones) were a highly advanced civilization, called the Imperium, that ruled the All-World many centuries, or possibly millennia ago…. In The Dark Is Rising sequence by the British author Susan Cooper, the Old Ones are agents of the Light, born as men and women, whose task is to prevent the Powers of the Dark from taking control of the world.

“They are immortal but are not Gods and most do not appear different than late middle age humans…. Their abilities include time-travel, shape-shifting, and ability to speak and understand various languages without having learned them….

Madeleine L'engle's Murry Family series

Madeleine L'Engle's Murry Family series

“In Madeleine L’Engle‘s… science fantasy books about the Murry family, [the]… Old Ones are similar to the ones in Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series—humans born with unusual mystical powers and dedicated to a never-ending struggle against the powers of darkness and evil. In both series, the Old Ones are associated with an Old Music.” —Wikipedia

* * *

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Passing Through

Sh-h-h-h: Limeade

Mr. Truman LaFollette's Incomparable Limeade Recipe

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Inhaling God in deep breaths

It was the laziest possible of summer afternoons, and Sister Alma Rose and Father Dooley and I were enjoying Mr. Truman LaFollette’s new recipe, which was new only in the sense that it was limeade instead of lemonade, which Mr. Truman said: weren’t we getting tired of it, meaning his incomparable lemonade, and we emphatically informed him that we were not, and he finally confessed that he was getting a little bored with always making lemonade, and I have to say that his limeade is so crisp and refreshing that I will be a little sorry when he gets tired of limeade and goes back to lemonade, or maybe he will try something exotic, like papaya limeade, which, whatever he concocts will be delicious.

Mr. Truman LaFollette always uses fresh lemons when he makes his incomparable lemonade. They are SO fresh that I think he must have a lemon tree hidden somewhere

Mr. Truman LaFollette always uses fresh lemons when he makes his incomparable lemonade. They are SO fresh that I think he must have a lemon tree hidden somewhere

I was happy and relaxed, but I had a mild premonition that something extraordinary was about to happen. I was just too whipped to have a strong premonition, or else I surely would have. Sister Alma Rose trusts and actually encourages my premonitions. “Heaven is talking to y’all, Girl,” she’ll say.

That morning, Sister Alma Rose had been up since before dawn “putting up” produce, tomatoes and peas, I think, and Father Dooley and I had ridden our bicycles to Beth Israel, which is the Reform synagogue in Hilltop, where we were taking a class called “The History of Judaism,” which is every weekday morning for three weeks, and I found it absolutely mesmerizing and was spending hours at the library reading everything I could find about Judaism, but on this particular day I had an extra lot of chores to do when I got home, and Father Dooley had an extra lot of confessions to hear, or something, and so we all felt as though we had earned an afternoon of lethargy, except that Sister Alma Rose was sitting at the grass-green wicker table shelling peas, which is her idea of doing nothing, while Father Dooley and I were sprawled bonelessly in the roomy grass-green wicker chairs with green-and-yellow flowered cushions. Or she might have been shelling beans. I remember reading somewhere that peas ARE beans, of a sort.(1)

THE SPANISH INQUISITION. St. Dominic Presiding Over an Auto-da-Fé, by Pedro Berruguete, c. 1495. An Auto-da-Fé (act of faith) refers to the sentencing of a heretic to die by being burned at the stake

THE SPANISH INQUISITION. St. Dominic Presiding Over an Auto-da-Fé, by Pedro Berruguete, c. 1495. An Auto-da-Fé (act of faith) refers to the sentencing of a heretic to die by being burned at the stake

Pablo had come and gone. He is taking French, which he does every summer, and he is in Advanced French now, so he and Father Dooley and Sister Alma Rose chatted in French, of which I know only enough to expostulate on la plume de ma tante, a topic that soon loses its charm, but when the conversation changed to Judaism, in English, Pablo got up and cheerfully bid us au revoir and climbed onto his bicyclette and rode off. Not that Pablo is uninterested in Judaism, but we were discussing the medieval Inquisitions, and Pablo is very tender-hearted. He was almost inconsolable when his labrador, Myra, dragged a half-dead gecko into the house. A conversation about the cruelties of the Inquisitions would depress him for a week.

Pablo and I are pretty sympatico, and as he was leaving, he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Something’s up.” I nodded soberly.

Pilgrimage

The three of us were lounging in a comfortable, exhausted silence (except for Sister Alma Rose, who is always comfortable but never exhausted), enjoying the light breeze that floated across the shady porch, when we heard the crunch of feet on the gravel driveway, and I sat up and watched as a man approached, waving and smiling, and I knew that he had something to do with my premonition, and I said, “Thank you, Jesus,” in my head, because he was wearing cutoffs over exquisitely muscled legs and a very nice butt, and he had on a short-sleeved lightweight cotton plaid shirt, unbuttoned, that looked like vintage Eddie Bauer, and I could tell from his high-dollar shoes and backpack that he was a hard-core hiker, not to mention that he was neither sweating nor short of breath and he had just walked up a long, steep hill, which I knew because if he had been coming from the other direction we would have seen him on the road.

Peas in pods

Peas in pods. Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons, by Gaetan Lee at http://www.flickr.com/photos/gaetanlee/

It’s not unusual for strangers to visit Sister Alma Rose as they are passing through Hilltop, although usually they are from La Mesa or one of the other nearby towns, and they have heard of Sister Alma Rose, who has something of a reputation as a healer, a wise woman, an oddball, a guru, a saint, or one of the Ancients, depending on whom you ask, but if the person you ask is Sister Alma Rose, she will say she is a farmer. I had never seen this man before, I was positive, because I would have noticed him inasmuch as he looked almost exactly like Matthew McConaughey, or like Matthew McConaughey might have looked when he was nineteen, and I sort of but not devoutly wished that he would button his shirt because my newly discovered hormones were popping like fireworks in my chest. He was quite a package, with his hip, expensive hiker stuff and his suntanned not-too-hairy chest and sunstreaked, longish, curly hair and slightly cheeky grin, and his very, very blue and surprisingly sagacious eyes, and when he approached us on the porch he smiled directly at me and I smiled back and told myself very firmly to focus on him and not on whether my hair looked okay or did I have a parsley morsel on my teeth or was I drooling.

Matthew McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey, not just eye candy

But when he reached the table he stuck his hand out to shake Sister Alma Rose’s hand, and he spoke to her with something like awe, saying, “Y’all must be Sister Alma Rose,” and I waited to see if he would wince, because Sister Alma Rose’s hands are large and strong and her handshake is legendary, and he didn’t wince but he did raise his eyebrows. The soft, gentlemanly Virginia drawl almost finished me off, though I was able to smile and cock a finger at him and say, “Richmond,” and he smiled back and cocked a finger at me and said, “Bingo.” I’m very good at accents.

Mystical encounters

He shook hands with Father Dooley and then with me, and introduced himself as “Henry the Hiker.” I introduced myself as “Fanny the Drooler,” and he gave me a very fetching wink. Sister Alma Rose graciously gestured to the empty chair, and Mr. Truman LaFollette appeared out of nowhere, which is sometimes disconcerting, especially since he is nearly seven feet tall, with a frosty glass of limeade, and then he was gone before Henry could shake hands with him. When you’re not used to Mr. Truman LaFollette and he makes his ephemeral lemonade appearance, or, in this case, his limeade appearance, it’s a bit like being served by a ghost, and I saw Henry shiver, very slightly, but then he smiled, and I noticed that his teeth were perfectly even and almost blindingly white, and parsley-free, and that he had freckles, for Pete’s sake, and I thought, I am done for.

Patrick Henry delivered his 'Liberty or Death' speech at St. John's Church in Richmond

Patrick Henry delivered his 'Liberty or Death' speech at St. John's Church in Richmond

Because there was more to Henry than dazzling good looks. He was eye candy for sure, but he had an odd kind of quiet vitality, and life just rolled off him in waves. I never thought I’d say this, but even Sister Alma Rose seemed almost ordinary next to Henry.

He had just finished his first year as a seminary student (Princeton, Presbyterian), he told us, with a nod to Father Dooley, as if to say he didn’t have anything against clergy who were other than Presbyterian; and he had heard about Sister Alma Rose through our friend Ben, who had been Henry’s best friend since third grade, which indicated that he also didn’t have anything against black people, which was useful information because southerners sometimes have odd ideas about people whom Pablo refers to as “our darker equals,” ironically, because Pablo is very brown, as is Sister Alma Rose, for that matter.

Pable and I take this road to the library, though it adds a half-mile to the trip

He, Henry, was hiking on country roads with no particular route or destination, he said, other than his journey being in part “a pilgrimage” to meet Sister Alma Rose because Ben had told him that if anyone could help him clear his head, Sister Alma Rose could. His head needed clearing, he explained, because he had entered seminary confidently, with a definite calling, but after a year of study he felt that he had gained a lot of information but had lost his sense of closeness with God.

“I was a strange little kid,” he said, throwing us a killer grin, and, I surreptitiosly checked my chin for drool. “I was always praying. Not conspicuously, like falling down on my knees in the middle of a Little League game, but privately, first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and feeling like whenever something was wrong I could go to God and be wrapped in love and made strong. 

“It just came naturally. I’d start to pray, at home or in church, and right away I was just lost in love, and I was surprised when I found out that it wasn’t the same for everyone else. But I was never embarrassed about it, and sometimes kids would call me ‘Holy Henry,’ but they weren’t being mean, so I’d just smile and say, ‘Alleluia,’ or, ‘Bless you, my child,’ or something, and everyone knew it was just who I was.”

He looked inquiringly at Father Dooley, who had been gazing at Henry with a kind of reverence. “Unusual,” Father Dooley said. “Yes, I’d say it’s very unusual for anyone, of any age, to have mystical encounters on demand. In my own experience, God has been accessible enough to keep me inspired… to keep me excited about my work and to enable me to genuinely love and feel honest compassion… and I often know that I have truly encountered God in prayer, but just as often I get up from prayer dissatisfied, as if one of us showed up and the other didn’t.”

I had never heard Father Dooley speak so earnestly, not even in class.

“Oh, yes!” Henry said, obviously grateful to be understood. “That’s just how it’s been with me, almost since I started seminary. The second thing you said, I mean. One of us not showing up.”

Like breathing

MOI, Fanny

MOI, Fanny

To my credit, I like to think, I had stopped seeing Henry as a sex object and had become absorbed in his story and sympathetic with his dilemma. I pray a lot, and I feel loved and nurtured when I pray, but my Close Encounters with God, the kind that Henry had routinely, have been like lightning bolts out of the blue, huge and unexpected and infrequent gifts of grace.

“It’s like breathing,” said Sister Alma Rose, breaking the silence. She was still shelling peas, and I was reminded of Pablo’s mother praying the rosary, a rhythmic, repetitive, tactile exercise, with the added benefit of the peas being living things just off the vines and smelling fresh and earthen.

Sister Alma Rose looked appraisingly at Henry, and then she nodded, as if something she’d suspected had been confirmed. I had the feeling that there was a secret between them, like they were both members of the Scottish Rite or something, but then Sister Alma Rose went back to shelling peas.

Saint Jerome Praying, by Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)

Saint Jerome Praying, by Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)

God always shows up for gratitude

“Y’all can’t be somewhere God isn’t,” she said to the peas, “because there isn’t any such a place. But y’all aren’t always aware of God, just like y’all aren’t always conscious of breathing. Then y’all go to pray, and it’s like y’all are inhaling God in deep breaths, and he fills y’all up and yet he still surrounds y’all.

“And then Henry, he goes to seminary and he learns about the mechanics of breathing and respiration, and how the air supplies oxygen to the lungs, and the oxygen gets into the bloodstream, and into every cell, where it’s exchanged for carbon dioxide, which the blood carries back to the lungs and then it, the carbon dioxide, gets exhaled. Cells can’t live without oxygen, so breathing and all is pretty important.

“But it happens automatically. It’s not a rule. If y’all tried to push oxygen into your bloodstream and then force it into your cells and exchange it for carbon dioxide, and so forth, thinking that if y’all worked hard at it y’all could make it special, maybe sacred, y’all are gonna most likely hyperventilate. Because it’s already been done for y’all. What y’all can do, in prayer, is wonder at it and accept it gratefully and praise God with every breath. God always shows up for gratitude.”

Vanished

For a while the only sound was the slight crackle of fresh pea (or bean) pods opening and the soft plop of peas (or beans) falling into the bowl. Then Henry asked Father Dooley a question about transubstantiation, and thus began a lively conversation to which Sister Alma Rose contributed now and again, and I closed my eyes and listened to the pleasant hum of their voices, like bees in a patch of clover, and when I opened my eyes, Henry and Father Dooley were gone and the sun was low in the sky.

Then Mr. Truman LaFollette was setting a plate of fresh fruit on a romaine lettuce leaf in front of me, with my favorite snack (if we’re not talking hot fudge), sharp cheddar cheese and Triscuits, just within reach.

“Y’all’s mama says y’all can stay for supper,” Mr. Truman LaFollette said, in a voice so seldom used I thought he must have to scrape the rust off. And then he evaporated before I could ask where Sister Alma Rose was.

She appeared a moment later, looking thoughtful, and before she sat down to her salad she carefully placed a yellowed newspaper clipping on the table to my left.

“Don’t y’all be dripping any strawberry juice on that,” she said, and then she bowed her head, so I did, too, and she said, “God of wonders, we thank y’all for the gifts both substantial and mystical that y’all shower upon us, and we ask that y’all help us use these gifts to grow strong and wise and generous. Amen.”

Strawberries

Mr. Truman LaFollette won't tell me where he gets such FRESH FRUIT

I had to bite my lip to keep from giggling as she prayed, first because it always amused me to hear her address the Almighty as “y’all,” and second because her words invoked an image of strawberries and grapes and pineapple falling out of the sky.

“That’s it?” I said, surprised. Usually Sister Alma Rose prays until the food, if it started out hot, is tepid.

“It’s enough,” she said. “Read that newspaper, Missy.”

Without picking it up, I began reading the clipping, at the top of which was a two-column-wide black-and-white photo of a grinning Henry, flanked by a grinning Ben and a bemused-looking Portia, who is the daughter of Mr. Henry LaFollette and Sister Alma Rose’s cousin Dulcie, who had given birth to Portia back when she was Wanton and Wild, which is exactly what Portia is, though Dulcie has turned into a round, comfortable person who smells like talcum powder and who Does Good Deeds. Portia, I thought, was an odd person for either Ben or Henry to know. Sister Alma Rose once told me that Portia is an Aberration, one of the Ancients reincarnated who remembers nothing of her former life and has no idea that she has been sent to do anything other than seduce men and twirl in circles, looking and singing like a fairy child, in the woods.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci ("the beautiful woman without mercy"), a painting by Walter Crane (1845-1915)

La Belle Dame Sans Merci ("the beautiful woman without mercy"), a painting by Walter Crane (1845-1915) that always makes me think of Portia

The story was dated July 28, 2000, and I was startled to see that Henry looked exactly as he had looked that afternoon, even wearing the same shirt (I couldn’t see his butt; unfortunately it had been cropped out of the photo).

Somewhere in Tennessee

‘Seminary student vanishes,’ read the headline. The story went on to say that Henry Morgan McKenzie, Jr., age 19, son of the newspaper’s executive editor and his, the editor’s, wife of twenty-two years, onetime film star Julianne Morgan, had begun a solo cross-country hike just after his classes had ended the second week in May. The photo had been taken as Henry was setting off. As promised, he telephoned either Ben or his parents at least three times a week, but the last phone call had been made on June 2, from somewhere in Tennessee. Of course, law-enforcement personnel in three states were searching vigilantly, blah, blah, blah, but they had found no trace of the missing boy, who had been in excellent health and spirits, with no history of mental illness, blah, blah, blah.

Jessica Lange lookalike

COVER GIRL: Julianne Morgan, a respected actress and Hollywood favorite, before she gave up her career for marriage and children

Scotch-taped to the story was a brief piece published on the five-year anniversary of Henry’s disappearance. There was a small photo of Mr. and Mrs. McKenzie, with Julianne looking youthful and serene and Henry Senior appearing haunted. Their son had been neither found nor heard from, though his mother said that he visited her in dreams and she was at peace, but apparently nobody paid much attention to Julianne, least of all her husband, who said that she was “in denial and receiving psychotherapy.”

I sighed and looked wide-eyed at Sister Alma Rose.

“Poor Julianne,” I said. “But NOT ‘poor Julianne,'” I added, on second thought, “because she knows that Henry is okay. She’s probably thinking, all right, send me to a shrink if you want, but I know something you don’t, and I’d tell you if you’d listen.”

Sister Alma Rose beamed at me, as if I’d proven the unified field theory.

“Ben never mentioned him,” I mused, “or Portia.”

Sister Alma Rose and I both knew that if Ben had been worried about his friend’s disappearance, he would have come to Sister Alma Rose. Therefore, Ben had somehow been in touch with Henry, or knew where he was.

The Angel Gabriel (by Guido Reni) resembles Henry a little bit

The possibilities eddied furiously in my head. Henry had been run over by a semi and had come back as an angel. Henry had been a collective illusion shared by Father Dooley and Sister Alma Rose and me. Henry was one of the Ancients.

“Henry is one of the Ancients,” I almost shouted. That explained Portia’s being with him, sort of. And Sister Alma Rose had known. That explained the long, penetrating look she had given him.

“But why did he come to you? Was it just as he said? About wanting to feel close to God again?”

Sister Alma Rose ignored the latter two questions.

“He didn’t come to me, Fanny,” she said, taking my hand and squeezing it and probably breaking nine or ten small bones. “He came to y’all.”

The thing in me that had always thought I was weird and longed to be normal… it seemed to dissolve in that very moment.

“Oh, my,” I said, trying to take it in without knowing what “it” was, but sharply conscious that my hormones were alive and well and having an emergency convocation in what would someday, with luck, become my left breast. “What a world we live in.” And for the first time in my life, I didn’t have the least idea what to do next.

lemons

(1) Common beans can be used for shell (or shelling) beans, which have the pods removed before they are cooked or dried. The term can be used to refer to other species of beans, such as lima beanssoybeanspeas, or fava beans, that have their shell removed before it is eaten. Nutritionally, shell beans are similar to dry beans, but in the kitchen are treated as a vegetable, often steamed, fried, or made into soups. Wikipedia

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The Healing Power of Touch

The Healing Power of Touch

In harmony with GodWe are continually amazed and delighted that God will talk to us, that He loves us, that the guiding Intelligence of the universe really cares for our small concerns. His lavishness overwhelms us and his humility humbles us….

On the days when I am in harmony with God, who is love, all things both great and small seem to work together for my good. My work is done easily and with power and my decisions are quick and unerring…. But when I fall into annoyance and irritation, nothing “clicks.” I work slowly, make careless decisions, and waste time generally….

The healing touch of God through us — [If I am in harmony with God, I can] help people directly, face to face and often with my hands upon them…. It is a natural impulse to hold the fevered hand… to pat the fretful child…. In so doing, we convey the power of love one to another, not through the understanding of the mind but through the tenderness of the heart,… [which is] from everlasting to everlasting and in touching it we have touched immortality. Agnes Sanford, The Healing Light

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

The Battle of the Barbers, continued…

(Read “The Battle of the Barbers,” Part 1)

Here is a mystical story about the Ancients from Sister Alma Rose’s childhood.

The cast of characters is large for such a small story:

The person telling the story (the “I”) is, of course, Sister Alma Rose. Calista and Merrily and Lorelei are Sister Alma Rose’s little sisters, and Vincent and Colleen are the couple who lived in the big farmhouse, where Sister Alma Rose lives today, and helped take care of the children, the household, and the farm after Sister Alma Rose’s mama died; and Daddy Pete is… well, Daddy Pete is who he is….

Eastern garter snake

Eastern garter snake

‘They Have Much to Teach You’

When Colleen and Vincent and Daddy Pete tucked us in at bedtime, Calista was still cross. She turned her face sideways when Daddy Pete and Vincent tried to kiss her, and she pushed Colleen away when she sat down next to Calista on the bed.

“Calista,” said Colleen very seriously, “garter snakes are protected by the Ancients. Would you want one of the Ancients coming into your room at midnight to find Greenie and take him back outside where he belongs?”

Vincent looked startled. It wasn’t like Colleen to try to frighten children into obedience, and he opened his mouth to say something, but Daddy Pete put a hand on Vincent’s arm and shook his head.

“Pooh!” said Calista, who was five and didn’t believe in fairy tales. “The Ancients are just made up. Our mama said so.”

“Oh, no, Darling,” said Colleen. “The Ancients are all around us. They are kind and they would never harm you, but they would not allow you to keep Greenie in the house with you.”

“Colleen,” I asked drowsily, “have you ever seen one of the Ancients?”

“Why, I suppose I have,” she said, “though I might not have known it.”

“But aren’t they terribly old?”

“Very old indeed—hundreds and hundreds of years old—but some have been born into new bodies.

Some say the Ancients live in these mystical mountains

Some say the Ancients live in these mystical mountains

“All the Ancients used to live high in the mountains,” Colleen said, in her storytelling voice, “so high that they walked with God, and they rarely let themselves be seen by lowlanders. Some are still there, but not nearly as many as in my grandmother’s day.”

“Where did they go?” I asked breathlessly, at the same time Merrily asked, “Why did they leave?”

Colleen laughed at our eagerness. “Well, for one thing, with so many people in the world, it’s harder to stay hidden. That’s one reason, but there’s another, and it’s more important.

“The Ancients know things that no scholar or scientist could even imagine. They have developed their senses so that they can see and hear things that happen miles away. And they have discovered other senses, which all people possess but are not aware of. They can see angels. They can understand the language of growing plants and trees. They know how to heal body and mind. They can read patterns in the universe that tell them of things that happened long ago, and they have ways of knowing what is yet to be. Some of them can fly without wings and, I’ve been told, can move from place to place without going between. And in their wisdom, they use their abilities for good, never for evil.

“So God scattered the Ancients throughout this troubled world, to bring peace and healing. Some came down from the hills just as they were, but the oldest he caused to be born again, as babies. Have you never heard someone say of a new infant that she is an ‘old soul’?”

This man lives near Ouidah, Benin. We think he is one of the Ancients who came down from the hills

One of the Ancients who came down from the hills, this man lives near Ouidah, Benin

“How do you recognize them?” Calista asked, having forgotten that she was angry at Colleen for giving Greenie his freedom. “Do you know an Ancient when you see one?”

“There is a sign,” said Colleen, “but only the Ancients themselves know what it is. I can only guess—when I look into someone’s eyes and I can see to the end of the universe; or when they have a certain serenity and purity, or they are wise beyond their years; or when they seem to attract miracles; and most of all, when I feel completely safe and loved by someone the moment we meet—not like Vincent and I love each other, but more like a mama’s or daddy’s love—then I am almost certain I have been in the presence of one of the Ancients.”

We were all quiet for a moment, thinking of the people we knew and wondering…. Then Merrily, the skeptic, turned to Daddy Pete and said, “Daddy Pete, is this true, or is it just made up like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’?”

Daddy Pete reached over and gently tugged a lock of Merrily’s hair. “Oh, it’s true, Little One. Of course, even ‘made-up’ stories, like the ones about King Arthur and the Holy Grail, and Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, have sprung from true things. There is a great deal that happens in the world, and the part we know about is just a tiny dot. Never doubt the Ancients, girls. They have much to teach you, if you can find them.”

Source: Daddy Pete, by Mary Campbell

Queen Guinevere's Maying, by John Collier, 1900

Queen Guinevere's Maying*, by John Collier, 1900

Sister Alma Rose Tames the Barbers of Hilltop

I wanted to give this story sort of a dramatic title because it was, as it turned out, a rather dramatic event, and you have to know something about the Ancients to understand it, because Sister Alma Rose is one of them (the Ancients), I suspect, though when I ask her straight out, “Sister Alma Rose, are you one of the Ancients?” she only smiles and bakes bread, or something, she is always doing something useful, and even when she is relaxing on her wonderful porch, doing nothing, she is crocheting, which she has been doing for at least a hundred years, maybe a thousand, if she is one of the Ancients.

Mama and Daddy know, I think, but when I ask them, they just say, “Well, it’s certainly possible.”

A woman churning butter in a barrel churn, by W. H. Pyne, 1805

A woman churning butter in a barrel churn, by W. H. Pyne, 1805

Here is why I think she is one of the Ancients: In the stories she tells of her childhood, she is always churning butter or skimming the cream off fresh milk, or embroidering a sampler, or the like, and there is no mention of a car or a refrigerator, and Daddy Pete goes everywhere in a horse-drawn wagon.

But more than that, it is the way she is — not exactly magical, but just sort of charmed, if you see what I mean, in the way she knows things, in the way she is wise and untroubled, in the way she calms people who are in a state of panic because their husband is fooling around with the babysitter, for heaven’s sake, and when people are sick, she tucks them into bed in her lovely pink attic bedroom, which, Mama and I agree, is like being a bee in a poppy, and they always, always get well under Sister Alma Rose’s care.

Fanny Mendelssohn

Fanny Mendelssohn

And here is the real giveaway, I think: Mama and Daddy let me spend as much time as I want with Sister Alma Rose instead of making me babysit for my brothers, Johannes and Arcangelo, whom we call Angelo, so as you can see, we are all named after musicians, Mama’s favorite composers, although Daddy put his foot down when Mama proposed “Wolfgang” for Johannes, which I wish he had done (put his foot down) when Mama said she wanted to name me after Fanny Mendelssohn.

Sister Alma Rose can hold energy in her hands
through the power of the Holy Spirit, she says, and I have felt the warmth of it. She can heal with her hands, and she says that, by the grace of God, anyone can do what she does.

“I have been given a few gifts,” she says modestly, “and I thank God every day that I have useful work that I love to do and that I am able to do it. For instance, do y’all know anyone who makes better barley bread than mine?” she asks, her eyes twinkling. “Do ya’ll want me to teach you to make barley bread, Miss Fanny?”

Photo by Klaus Höpfner

Photo by Klaus Höpfner

“Well, yes, I do, actually,” I say.

“Life is so good,” she says with a look of wonder. “Sometimes I almost burst with gratitude, and I would burst, too, if I didn’t use the gifts God has given me. And then I would lose them.  Y’all remember that, Fanny McElroy, because y’all have been given much, and much will be expected of y’all in time.”

I sometimes think that I am supposed to be something like Sister Alma Rose’s apprentice, sort of, because she takes me almost everywhere she goes, and she says, “Y’all remember that” a lot, but I’m not sure I do remember what I’ve learned, though it’s quite a bit, I believe, and I ought to go make a list, but not now, because today, at the mayor’s special meeting, I expect that Sister Alma Rose is going to use her unusual gifts to heal the town of Hilltop and reconcile the barbers, Bill and his son Henry. I’m just not sure how….

To be continued…

Poppies, from Quiet Garden on Bing

Poppies, from Quiet Garden on Bing

* Queen Guinevere’s Maying

Maying means “celebrating May Day.” Traditional English May Day rites and celebrations include Morris dancing, crowning a May Queen, and celebrations involving a Maypole. Much of this tradition derives from the pagan Anglo-Saxon customs held during “Þrimilci-mōnaþ” (the Old English name for the month of May meaning “Month of Three Milkings”).

May Day has been a traditional day of festivities throughout the centuries. With Christianity came agricultural feasts such as Plough Sunday (the first Sunday in January), Rogationtide, Harvest Festival, and May Day. It is most associated with towns and villages celebrating springtime fertility and revelry with village fetes and community gatherings.

Since May 1st is the Feast of St Philip & St James, they became the patron saints of workers. Seeding has been completed by this date and it was convenient to give farm labourers a day off. Perhaps the most significant of the traditions is the Maypole, around which traditional dancers circle with ribbons. —Wikipedia

Photo by Michael Maggs

Photo by Michael Maggs


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Sticky Kisses

Besotted

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

I never had to think much about homosexuality until George and Tony moved to Hilltop. Tony is a nurse and George is a woodworker. He makes the most beautiful things out of wood that you ever saw, and he can fix anything. Miss Price took George her granny’s rocker to be “repaired” — it was literally in shards, probably twenty pieces, and George reassembled it, and now to look at it you would never know it had been broken, that’s how well he put it back together.

Miss Price

Miss Price

The little town of Hilltop is not exactly a magnet for homosexuals, although “everybody knows” that Miss Price and Miss Haggarty, who are teachers at Hilltop Elementary School and who have been together for more than thirty years, are lesbians. But they were born and raised in Hilltop, and just about everybody under 50 was taught by Miss Price and Miss Haggarty, and Miss Price makes the best cinnamon rolls in the entire world, and Miss Haggarty tithes at the Lutheran church and crochets afghans, and so, because they are loved, it is easy to think of them as a pair of elderly spinsters who happen to live together rather than as a “couple,” and nobody minds, including, I imagine, Miss Price and Miss Haggarty.

But it was different with George and Tony. George, too, was born and raised in Hilltop, but he left years and years ago and went to live in St. Louis. When George’s mother and father (Mr. and Mrs. Douglas, who used to own the Hilltop Steak House and then sold it to the Connors, who were vegetarians, so that was a bit of a mystery, and then they, the Douglases, retired, and then Mrs. Douglas died from a blood infection or something); anyway, when the Douglases came back from St. Louis, Mr. Douglas railed at anybody who would listen — about George, and how he was a “sissy” and how he and Tony had “matching wedding rings,” which made Mr. Douglas “want to barf,” and how George, was, in Mr. Douglas’s exact words, “no son of mine.” Mrs. Douglas just wept.

elderly_woman2_istock

Miss Haggarty

George had had a much-older brother, Jimmy, who was killed in the war in Vietnam, and one April afternoon, Mrs. Douglas (before she died), trudged up the hill to confer with Sister Alma Rose, and they sat talking on the grass-green porch and drinking Mr. Truman Lafollette’s heavenly lemonade, and Mrs. Douglas told Sister Alma Rose that she had already lost one son and she wasn’t going to lose another, and she wanted to go visit George but she was afraid she’d burn forever in Hell, because of what the Bible says, about homosexuality and about being disobedient to your husband, though if George was going to be burning in Hell too, at least she, Mrs. Douglas, would be with George, and what did Sister Alma Rose think?

Judge not, less’n y’all be judged

Everybody in Hilltop knows that Sister Alma Rose knows the Bible backward and forward, and the first thing she said to Mrs. Douglas was, “The Gospel of Matthew admonishes, ‘Judge not, less’n y’all be judged.’” Then she said that nowhere does the Bible condemn loving, monogamous relationships but rather “licentiousness” and “fornication,” and that even if homosexuality itself were a sin, for which she, Sister Alma Rose, could find “no substantiation” in the Bible (and here she talked about the homosexual relationship between King David, before he was king, and Jonathan, son of Saul), “did the Lord, or did he not, make of himself the ultimate sacrifice for our sins?”

Sister Alma Rose, though she did not say so to Mrs. Douglas, believes in reincarnation. She has told me that it is “not unbiblical” to think that all roads lead to Heaven and all the people on all those roads arrive there after many lifetimes, and, she adds enigmatically, “I ought to know.”

In any case, Mrs. Douglas, defying Mr. Douglas, visited George and Tony in St. Louis at least twice a year, and she became quite fond of Tony and called him her “other son.” And then, well, she died, and Mr. Douglas said, bitterly, that it was “a judgment upon her.”

Tony and George

Tony and George

George and Tony came to Hilltop for the funeral. At the reception afterward, which was in the ballroom, for Pete’s sake, of the Douglases’ huge dark-green Victorian house, about half the guests (along with Mr. Douglas) ignored them completely, the other half were warm and friendly, and somebody spray-painted obscenities (in neon yellow) on their beautiful cherry-red Ford F-250 extended-cab pickup truck with its sleek red-and-chrome slide-on camper. When George and Tony left to go back to St. Louis the next day, the spray-painting was gone and the truck looked as shiny and new as it had when they arrived, and nobody, except possibly Sister Alma Rose, who knows everything, is sure how that happened.

About a year after Mrs. Douglas died, Mr. Douglas was found to have Parkinson’s disease, and he blamed Mrs. Douglas for that, saying it was “a judgment she brought upon” their house. For a while he did okay on his own, but then he got to the point where he couldn’t put an eating utensil into his mouth without all the food falling off first, and Dr. Deirdre Barstow told him that if he didn’t go to live in the Hilltop Nursing Home he would die of starvation or else fall down the stairs and kill himself that way, and Mr. Douglas said he’d rather starve to death than live in “that place,” meaning the Hilltop Nursing Home, which, he said, was full of “crazy old people and the stench of their incontinence.” He said, “I’ll be damned if I won’t die in the same house I was born in,” to which Dr. Deirdre Barstow replied, “Well, Doug [which is what most adults call Mr. Douglas], you very well might, but the only way I’ll allow you to stay here is if George and Tony move in and take care of you, because the house is falling apart and so are you.” Dr. Deirdre Barstow can be a little scary.

Petra

Petra

Well, Mr. Douglas was between a rock and a hard place. He told Dr. Deirdre Barstow that he’d just go out to the wreck of a building that used to be a carriage house, and he’d get his shotgun and blow his brains out. He was half-starved and was so unsteady on his feet that the attempt itself would have been suicide, Dr. Deirdre Barstow told Sister Alma Rose, but she, Dr. Barstow, was sure that he, Mr. Douglas, would try it anyway, so she put Mr. Douglas in the hospital for a few days, and she called George on the phone and told him what was what.

Three days later, Sister Alma Rose and I, on our way home from Ninghong’s little store, watched as the red pickup truck and camper pulled into the Douglases’ driveway and three people got out: George, Tony, and Tony’s very pregnant twin sister, Petra, who had been raped (Sister Alma Rose told me later) by one of her father’s drinking buddies. Tony and Petra’s dad and mom had insisted that Petra have an abortion, but Petra refused, saying, “A baby’s a baby,” and so her parents, who had six other children, had thrown her out of the house and disowned her, as they had disowned Tony years before.

Little Doug

Tony and Petra looked a great deal alike. They were exotically beautiful, with thick, curly black hair and smooth olive skin, high cheekbones, full lips, and strong, stubborn chins. I had time to notice this as Sister Alma Rose was tugging me across the street to “give them a proper welcome, because they won’t get one in that house,” gesturing with her head toward the dark-green Victorian.

Out in the driveway, Sister Alma Rose hugged George, and then Tony, and then Petra, and then they all hugged me. George thought he might have to break in to the house, but Dr. Deirdre Barstow drove up in her little Volkswagen Beetle just then with Mr. Douglas, and Sister Alma Rose and I went on our way. Petra’s coming was “providential,” Sister Alma Rose told me, though I couldn’t see how Providence could have had any part in a pregnancy that resulted from a rape.

Little Doug

Little Doug

A week later, when Sister Alma Rose and I were playing canasta on the big porch after supper at Hilltop Farm, we saw George and Dr. Deirdre Barstow walking up the long driveway past the virgin oak grassland, which is Sister Alma Rose’s pride and joy. Mr. Truman Lafollette appeared out of thin air, I do not know how that large man comes and goes so stealthily, with two glasses full of ice cubes, and he poured lemonade from the pitcher into the glasses and placed them on the wicker table by the two empty wicker chairs, and then he disappeared like a chimera, and George took a huge, greedy gulp before he set it down and smiled.

“Are y’all settled in?” asked Sister Alma Rose. “How is y’all’s papa?”

“Besotted,” George said with a grin, “over Petra. He calls her ‘Rocky’ and lets her win at chess.”

“Ah,” said Sister Alma Rose.

Dr. Deirdre Barstow, who had also sat down and who was sipping her lemonade with ladylike dignity, smiled broadly. “You wouldn’t believe the change in Doug,” she said. “I don’t mind admitting that Tony knows much more about advances in Parkinson’s treatment than I do. Petra’s a terrific cook and not much of a nurse, and Tony’s a superlative nurse and can barely boil water, so they do sort of a tag-team nursing job on Doug, while George is putting the carriage house back together and fixing up the main house.”

George chuckled. “At first, I think Dad just squinted and tried to pretend that Petra and Tony were the same person,” he said, “but now he calls irritably for Tony when he wants help getting down the stairs so he can sit on the porch. I mostly stay out of the way, and he doesn’t say much to me, but when he does, he calls me ‘Sonny,’ like in the old days.”

Anyway, between the medicine Dr. Deirdre Barstow had prescribed, based on Tony’s recommendation and her own research, and Petra’s “terrific” cooking, Mr. Douglas’s condition improved so much that, when Petra had her baby boy, Mr. Douglas visited her in the hospital, supported on one side by his son and on the other by Tony.

Sticky kisses

“Little Doug” is two years old now, and he calls Mr. Douglas “Grandpa.” The dark-green Victorian house, with new cream-colored shutters and with its refurbished carriage house, is a showplace. Mr. Douglas no longer needs Tony’s ministrations twenty-four hours a day, so Tony works in Dr. Deirdre Barstow’s office, and none of her patients seems to mind, even the burly macho buffalo-plaid-flannel-shirt-and-feed-store-cap types who used to fall down laughing at Mr. Douglas’s “homo” jokes. 

Mr. Douglas, it must be said, still doesn’t understand why George doesn’t marry Petra “and make an honest woman of her.” But he plays chess with Tony, although he won’t let Tony win as he does Petra. And whenever Little Doug goes somewhere with Petra, even for an hour or two, Mr. Douglas frets until they get home. Then he calls for Little Doug. “Get over here right now,” he growls, “and give your grandpa some sweetness.” And Little Doug, who always gets a lollipop on his outings with Petra, climbs into Mr. Douglas’s lap and covers his face with sticky kisses. And Mr. Douglas doesn’t even wipe them off.

* * *

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