Dancing with Angels

Sunset on the sea

A Tim Tidwell (age 9) escapade: The tide was going out, the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, and Tim and his little boat, which he'd taken without permission, were just a dot on the horizon, halfway to China

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Raising Tim

Terri Tidwell had gone completely gray by 40. To be fair, Tim Tidwell, Terri’s son, didn’t put all those gray hairs there, just most of them.

Fanny, the author

I, Fanny McElroy

Terri has three other children, now grown, and had two husbands: Chip, whom she divorced, and Arthur, Tim’s daddy, whom she buried. Arthur was dead at the time, as luck would have it. Three days earlier he’d been walking across the street and was run over by a drunk driver (who was uninjured), someone traveling on the highway who didn’t slow down when he reached the narrow brick street in downtown Hilltop.

It was sad, because Arthur was a fine fellow, but I think his untimely death kept Terri out of prison, because she was on the point of murdering his dreadful mother, who, after Arthur died, went to live with Arthur’s brother and his family. God bless ’em.

Everyone likes Tim…

Confident young man, handsome

Sister Alma Rose says Tim is 'too foxy for his own good'

…even the three mothers of his three children. He’s approaching 30, but since he’s been drinking since junior high as a way of dealing with pretty much everything, he’s emotionally stuck in junior high—at least that’s Sister Alma Rose’s assessment. So he’s kind of everybody’s little brother — handsome, funny, full of mischief, and, when he’s been drinking, either game for some escapade beyond mischief, or else just plain mean.

When Terri feels like she wants to run his life or else “enable” him in some way, she talks to Sister Alma Rose. “Y’all stay out of God’s way,” Sister Alma Rose tells her. “God has big plans for that boy.”

A recovering codependent

Attractive middle-aged woman

Terri, after her makeover that included collagen cheek implants; Sister Alma Rose says, "You go, Girl"

So, with Sister Alma Rose’s constant support, Terri doesn’t enable, and she doesn’t tell Tim what to do; she gives him calm advice when he asks for it and leaves it up to him whether or not to follow it. She doesn’t make appointments for him to see therapists (as she used to), and she doesn’t call him every day to make sure he’s not in jail. She has surrendered Tim and his fate to God, so she’s learned to stop worrying. And she doesn’t feel guilty or wonder what she might or might not have done during his childhood that could have made Tim happier and more well-adjusted.

And he’s not a happy guy, and Terri suffers with him. That’s a habit she hasn’t been able to shake.

Angels or hysteria?

Last week, Terri had a bizarre experience that she told Sister Alma Rose was either an encounter with angels or a very elaborate hallucination.  We were sitting at Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green wicker table on her grass-green wraparound porch, and Terri had made copies for each of us, which made me feel very grown up, of her poetic account of the incident:

Peach rose

Terri's poem

Pink rose

“Sister Alma Rose,” I said, after Terri had left, whistling cheerfully as she walked toward the road, because Sister Alma Rose and I not only affirmed her experience but also shed a few tears with her, in the way of women, of sisters, which I am just beginning to understand —

Medieval rendering of angels; source unknown

Medieval rendering of angels; source unknown

“I mean, I know that Terri’s angels were real, she’s not crazy or making things up, and I know she’s feeling reassured about Tim being in their ‘custody,’ — and maybe it shouldn’t matter, but I just wonder where this all took place. In a room in her house, or in her mind, or a dream, or was she transported to heaven, or what?”

“Fanny, my love,” said Sister Alma Rose, placing her broad, brown forehead against my freckled one, “y’all’s training starts right now. There are many dimensions y’all have never experienced, or else you weren’t aware of it. Scientists, now, they work in dozens of dimensions, but only in the realm of math and physics.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

The classic fantasy novel for kids AND grownups, A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

“Y’all remember the experience in your daddy’s hospital room, when y’all saw your future self and you were standing above the room and walking down them stairs?”

Oh, wow, did I ever. “That’s something I’m never likely to forget,” I said.

“Well, now, I’ve been in that hospital room dozens of times, and I’ve never seen it with the ceiling gone out of it and a flight of steps leading up to nowhere.”

“Oh!” I said, understanding. “It was really us, and it was really happening, but it was in another dimension. Like we slipped through a tessaract,” I added, thinking of Madeleine L’Engle‘s book A Wrinkle in Time, one of my favorites.

“Sort of like that,” Sister Alma Rose agreed. “And Fanny, do y’all remember the young man who was standing beside your grownup self?” she asked with a twinkle.

“Oh, sure,” I said, “because I remember it flashed through my mind that he looked a lot like Matthew McCon— Well, I’ll be a flat rabbit on toast,” I said, looking with wonder, and a little embarrassment, at Sister Alma Rose.

“It was Henry,” I whispered in awe. “The man in my future is Henry.”

* * *


Our Place in Creation

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Be Gentle with Yourself

Illuminata — A Return to Prayer, by Marianne Williamson

Illuminata — A Return to Prayer, by Marianne Williamson

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. —Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles

* * *

Dear Sister Alma Rose ~ Some time in my 50s I figured out that we spend the first half of life discovering that we’re not the center of the universe (“Don’t show off,” “Share your toys,” “Be a team player”) and the second half discovering that we ARE. Being a woman, I don’t know if this is QUITE as true for men, but I suspect it’s close.

A Return to Love, by Marianne Williamson

A Return to Love, by Marianne Williamson

In any case, for some of us this realization comes at the time when we’re no longer responsible for running the family… and it IS, of course, by the way, important for kids, during the “first half” of life, to learn to be attuned to other people’s needs, to make compromises without throwing themselves away or kicking the dog.

These days, all the New Age wisdom, which I study, along with lots of other wisdom, is about “being gentle with yourself” and “not beating yourself up” (I love Susan Piver on this in How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life: Opening Your Heart to Confidence, Intimacy, and Joy), and, necessarily, figuring out what you WANT, when your WANTS have been on the back burner, by choice or necessity.

Doing what you WANT is one of the compensations of middle age (unless you’re in an icky marriage or have grown children who are parasites) — THEN the first challenge is to realize that you have choices. I think the sudden freedom is too scary for many people; they like their lives to be structured around other people’s needs and wants… or, at least, that kind of life feels familiar and safe, and they don’t aspire to joy, self-discovery, a pair of wings….

We are conditioned to suppress our gifts… until we see them as GIFTS… and find ways to use them that give us great joy. When that happens, we are benefiting “humanity” in the way that is MEANT, speaking metaphysically; we have found “our place in Creation.”

How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life, by Susan Piver

How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life, by Susan Piver

Don’t you agree, Sister Alma Rose? Signed, Free in Fredericksburg

Dear Free—What y’all say is true and wise. But Sister Alma Rose believes that children can be raised to be independent and self-aware. So often, children are admonished to be “unselfish,” but as Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche has said in his marvelous book The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness, “Everybody wants to be happy.”  We just can’t help it. The difficulty is figuring out what balance of “selfish” and “selfless” acts and compromises will bring us the greatest satisfaction.

Every choice we make, regardless of our age, is the choice we believe will bring us closest to happiness. Sometimes we’re wrong. Children figure out pretty fast that if they hog all the toys, yes, they have all the toys, but nobody else will want to play with them.Rinpoche_The_Joy_of_Living

Take care of y’all’s self

Sister Alma Rose might not use the phrase “center of the universe,” as y’all did, but she understands what y’all mean. Lovely Cheryl Richardson has written a book called The Art of Extreme Self-Care: Transform Your Life One Month at a Time. Sister Alma Rose has not read this book, but she is inspired merely by the title (just as the brilliant book title Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… and It’s All Small Stuff hardly makes it necessary to read the book).

Sister Alma Rose supposes — although, as mentioned, she has not read the book — that Cheryl Richardson advises her readers to refrain from guilt and worry, and to be aware of those times when y’all’s stress levels threaten to push y’all over the edge. Sister Alma Rose also supposes that taking a nice, long, relaxing bath with bath salts that smell like a summer flower garden, or, sometimes, cucumbers, is not the only antidote to dangerous stress that Cheryl Richardson recommends, if at all.

Sister Alma Rose believes it’s a damn shame that folks have to be reminded to stop doing the things that make them sick.

The Art of Extreme Self-Care, by Cheryl Richardson

The Art of Extreme Self-Care, by Cheryl Richardson

Find y’all’s balance

Sister Alma Rose has found, in her exceedingly long life, and this is just one of many (of Sister Alma Rose’s lives, that is), that y’all must always endeavor to have a life in balance, in which there is time for y’all to do what y’all love, even if y’all have nineteen children and a herd of pet llamas. And even children should learn to meditate, in order to find their true and genuine selves, which will unfailingly lead them to their dharma, their unique and particular path of joy and righteousness.

May God bless you, and when God shows y’all that path with neon signs and balloons and arrows and horns and whistles, as God is wont to do, may y’all be paying attention and not picking y’all’s nose or watching Gilligan’s Island reruns.

llama

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The_Rules_frontcover

Demon Lady Number Two

Little Lea, C. S. Lewis's childhood home

Little Lea, C. S. Lewis's childhood home

If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish. —Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

The Gospel According to Mrs. May Belle Mortimer, the Banker’s Widow

Some people just have way too much time on their hands, Sister Alma Rose is always saying. 

Sister Alma Rose is so full of love that it spills out of her like a tumble of wild roses on a venerable trellis. I don’t claim to be able to see people’s auras — though I wish I could, and angels, too — but Sister Alma Rose simply shines. She even glows in the dark — not like a ghost, or a firefly, or something radioactive… more like a wisp of cloud as it slides past the moon.

wild_roses_istock

Not that she’s a pushover. I’ve seen her good and mad a couple of times, such as when she and Cousin Dulcie were making plans to steal Janet, who is now Sister Alma Rose’s yellow labrador, and, further, to put the fear of God into the old drunk who used to beat her (Janet, I  mean, not Sister Alma Rose). But then, after Janet was safe, she (Sister Alma Rose, I mean, not Janet) prayed for that pathetic old man.

Janet

Janet

My third-grade teacher was so mean I called her Demon Lady. Now I can’t even remember her real name. Let’s say it’s Mrs. Pflug (it was one of those names that always make me think of sinus drainage). She hated children, and she especially hated me, and I wondered why someone who was practically allergic to kids became a schoolteacher. She always called me “Frannie” because, she said, “Fanny” was “a hideous and nasty name.” And when we had square-dancing on Wednesdays, if there were more girls than boys (which there almost always were), she’d make me sit out, every time, without fail.

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

Well, the Demon Lady was Troubled, and, as troubled people in Hilltop usually do, she made her way up the hill to talk to Sister Alma Rose. And the next time I plopped down on one of Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green wicker chairs on her grass-green porch and started complaining about the Demon Lady, Sister Alma Rose put up a hand to stop me.

“I know I can trust y’all, Fanny, to keep this to yourself,” she said. “That poor woman had two daughters, and she was driving them somewhere and ran a red light, and a truck smashed into her car and killed one of those little girls and the other one was brain-damaged and paralyzed and lives in the nursing home in La Mesa. Y’all remind her of the daughter who died, Fanny. She told me that.”

I just sat there, with one tear dribbling down my face, feeling sad and guilty. Sister Alma Rose took my hand and squeezed it so tight I thought I’d faint. Sister Alma Rose doesn’t know her own strength.

“There’s a lesson here, Miss Fanny,” she said, mercifully letting go of my hand, which had gone numb. “Don’t never take nothing personal. Shine love and light on the person who wrongs you. Everyone has a story.”

Meddling in the name of the Lord

I tried to remember that advice when Miss Price and Miss Haggarty almost got fired from teaching, though, technically, it was Miss Price and Miss Haggarty who had cause for grievance, not me. As everyone knows, Miss Price and Miss Haggarty have been together for thirty years, and they are Beloved in Hilltop, which has a sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell attitude toward these dear and generous women, though anybody who doesn’t have beet paste for brains knows that they’re not just a couple of old-maid schoolteachers who happen to live together for convenience, but Hilltop folks don’t think much, any more, about their intimate personal lives. They are very much a part of the mainstream in Hilltop, where almost everybody is good-hearted and chooses to see Miss Price and Miss Haggarty as a couple of grown-up Girl Scouts rather than Deviants Living in Sin…

Miss Price

Miss Price

…except for Mrs. May Belle Mortimer, the banker’s widow, Demon Lady Number Two, who is just plain mean-spirited, even Sister Alma Rose says so. She didn’t have time to do much mischief when Mr. Bert Mortimer was alive and they had children at home, identical twins, Maureen and Darla, who were nice girls in spite of their mother’s unrelenting attempts to turn them into May-Belle-Mortimer clones. Probably in self-defense, Maureen and Darla married men who lived in New Zealand — I am perfectly serious — and then Mr. Bert Mortimer died, and May Belle grieved for about forty-five minutes and then turned her attention to Cleansing Hilltop of Sin.

Miss Haggarty

Miss Haggarty

Unfortunately, Mrs. May Belle Mortimer was on the school board and had a particular animosity toward Miss Price and Miss Haggarty. The lavish parties she used to give when Mr. Mortimer was alive were the only parties in Hilltop to which Miss Price and Miss Haggarty were never invited. If Maureen or Darla was assigned to one of their classes, May Belle would try to get them transferred to different classes, until Maureen and Darla put their collective feet down and refused to budge.

Gotcha

About ten miles south of Hilltop there is a lovely golf course and park on a small lake — big enough for sailboats, but not so big that you couldn’t walk all the way around it in a couple of hours. As cruel fate would have it, May Belle was driving to her A-frame cabin, which she always referred to, with haughty ostentation, as “Mortimer Cottage,” one Saturday morning in April — the first warm, glittery, delicious-smelling spring day of the year — when she spotted Miss Price and Miss Haggarty walking along the lake path, holding hands.

Spirea in full bloom (photo by Moja, GFDL)

Spirea in full bloom (photo by Moja, GFDL)

I can only imagine how ecstatic May Belle must have been as she pulled into the Bathhouse parking lot (tucking her petal-pink Town Car behind a clump of spirea), grabbed her fancy-schmancy camera with the telephoto lens, and surreptitiously, as if she were Sherlock-Frigging-Holmes, who never used a camera as far as I know, but anyway, May Belle took a slew of photographs of two kindhearted women, without a care in the world, walking hand-in-hand on a gorgeous spring morning; and naturally she presented these photographs at the next school-board meeting, announcing that the photos proved that Miss Price and Miss Haggarty were Perverts Consigned to Hell “and should be dismissed from their teaching positions before they can infect our daughters with their insidious lechery.”

Nobody said a word, though a couple of school-board members laughed out loud, according to what Mr. Archie Appleby, president of the school board, told Sister Alma Rose. May Belle continued to loom triumphantly in the silence, until she looked around and saw that everyone had sort of inched away from her, lest they become infected by May Belle’s insidious spitefulness.

“I move that we fire these practitioners of base depravity — immediately,” May Belle said in defiant rage. No one seconded the motion.

“Well,” she said, perching a little unsteadily on the nearest chair, “I guess I’ll have to take this matter to the state department of education.”

“Why don’t you just do that, May Belle,” said Mr. Appleby with quiet menace. “But first — May Belle, you got your camera with you?”

May Belle said that her camera was in the car and Mr. Appleby asked her to please go get it, so she did, and when she came back in, all the other school-board members, the teachers and principals who were in attendance, and the newspaper reporter who always came to the school-board meetings, were standing in a circle holding hands — men with men, men with women, women with women.

“If you’re going to the state department of education,” said Mr. Appleby, “you might as well not have to make two trips.” Mrs. May Belle Mortimer just stood there like a statue, Mr. Appleby told Sister Alma Rose, for what seemed like half an hour. He said, chuckling, that he had been afraid he would have to kiss Kevin O’Hara, the reporter, on the lips to break through May Belle’s paralysis, but eventually she just turned on her heel and walked out of the room.

Heart beams

I wish I could say that the incident cured May Belle’s homophobia and that she and Miss Price and Miss Haggarty became fast friends, but that isn’t what happened. Had May Belle shown any kindness or remorse, she would have been forgiven and welcomed back into the fold. As it was, she closed up her house and “Mortimer Cottage” and went to New Zealand “indefinitely.”

Sister Alma Rose believes that there are some people, or more likely, she says, they are androids or extraterrestrials (like the slimy giant cockroach from Men in Black), who are evil through and through, without souls. “Mrs. May Belle Mortimer is not one of those beings,” Sister Alma Rose told me, “but I think she’s going to need a few more lifetimes to scrape the crust off her heart. There’s a lot of bad karma that’ll need redemption.”

And Sister Alma Rose and I prayed for Mrs. May Belle Mortimer. I was a little worried that our warm, loving thoughts wouldn’t make it all the way to New Zealand, especially mine, which were tepid rather than warm, and if they weren’t precisely loving, at least I no longer wished that May Belle would be stricken with an agonizing and fatal disease involving flesh-eating bacteria.

“Our prayers and compassion will be carried on angels’ wings, wherever they need to be received,” said Sister Alma Rose… and the glow of the setting sun seemed to cling to Sister Alma Rose for a long, long time after dusk became dark and the crickets began their evening litany.

Milford Sound, New Zealand

Milford Sound, New Zealand

 

The Ancients, Part 1 — Daddy Pete

The Ancients, Part 1 — Daddy Pete

Five Minutes Well Spent

Make This Your Morning Prayer

I’ve seen many renditions of this bittersweet song with video. I prefer the Nanci Griffith audio, but the video here, by Mark Castle, is ALMOST perfect.

Amen….
* * *

 

Thud

Finding Your Place in Creation

Honey Mesquite (photo, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station)

Honey Mesquite (photo, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station)

Sister Alma Rose gets around. She don’t just sit on her grass-green porch in her grass-green rocker at her big white house at Hilltop Farm and crochet doilies and spout wisdom the way Old Faithful spouts… whatever it is that Old Faithful spouts.

One day, when Sister Alma Rose was in Arizona, she was setting next to a sunny window — sometimes, in southern Arizona, it’s exceedingly difficult to find a window that ain’t sunny — and she’s gazing absently at the mesquite tree right out next the window. As y’all probably know, mesquite trees has thousands (or maybe millions) of tiny oval leaves… and Sister Alma Rose says to herself, each one of those leaves is absolutely essential to the life of that tree.

That’s when Sister Alma Rose understood that each of us is like one of them little tiny leaves. We all have us a place in Creation — a niche only we can fill — and finding that place — which is the place that both gives us, as individuals, the most joy and fulfillment, and also does the most possible benefit to the world, to the universe, to “all sentient beings,” as the Buddhists has it — is everyone’s assignment.

Jon Sullivan)

Old Faithful (photo: Jon Sullivan)

Soon after that, someone (Dr. Gerry Swanson, a great man) gave Sister Alma Rose a copy of The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, which, if y’all ain’t read it, is a lovely little fable about how the Universe knocks itself out pointing y’all in the direction of your niche, your place, your destiny, your joy… and simple abundance. And if y’all ain’t paying attention, then the Universe will give y’all a big, and often uncomfortable, jolt to wake y’all up. Bonk. Thud.

Anne Lamott has written that huge pain often precedes huge joy, only she didn’t use them exact words, but Sister Alma Rose can’t find the place where Anne Lamott put that thought down in words much more eloquently whimsical than Sister Alma Rose’s words. It’s like giving birth, that huge pain is, and y’all who’s done that knows that when y’all’s in the middle of it, there’s a time when y’all’s thinking, this is not a Good Thing, I am hating this, and then, out jumps the Joy.

Sister Alma Rose was in a Dark Place when she wrote the song “All Alone.” The Universe was pulling her every which-a-way, and she just throws herself into God’s arms and says, “Take me away, somewhere, anywhere but here,” and God holds her a bit for a little rest and then sets her down in a new place, where there’s love, and light, and a calling. Sister Alma Rose prays y’all will find that place of your own, and maybe, if y’all be paying attention, y’all will find that place without the Universe having to pick y’all up and drop y’all down real hard on y’all’s head.

All alone, just me and you, O Lord,
we are all alone in the world. I need you to
help me through this moment, God— please
strengthen me when I am weary.
My only home is here with you. There’s a
peace I’ve never known before.
I need you alone, my God,
and nothing more.

There’s a sickness in my heart
only you can heal. When I
come apart, only you
can make me whole again.
Only you my tattered soul can mend.

Only you can lift my spirit high. Only you
can shine in the dark; only you can
heal my broken heart and put my
mind at ease when I am afraid. But you
paid the price. Now I am free. You
gave your life for me, and I will
never need to feel all alone
again.

Reconcile me, Lord, to
brother and sister. Help me to
find my place in Creation. Take my life
and make it a celebration of your grace.

And the flame inside my heart will blaze, and will
light the way for others, lost and
all alone, as I once was… and together
we shall gather in your love.

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The Secret Sisterhood of Healing

Laughter is carbonated holiness.Anne Lamott

When Sister Alma Rose was ailing, a dear friend sent her this get-well card. Sister Alma Rose is grateful for deeply spiritual people who do not take themselves too seriously.

THE SECRET SISTERHOOD OF HEALING

Blaise confronting the Roman governor

Blaise confronting the Roman governor

When someone we care about is sick, the Secret Sisterhood of Healing conducts a Healing Ritual.
1. We sit solemnly in a circle with a candle in the center.
2. One of us solemnly lights the candle. 3. The candle solemnly burns. It drips wax on the carpet. That’s what candles do. 4. We extinguish the candle in disgust. Solemnity goes out the window. 5. We join hands and pray — to God, to Jesus, to St. Blaise the Hieromartyr (he is normally in charge of Deliverance from Cattle Plague, but we like his name), to the angels — to Whoever Is On Duty, is the long and short of it.

6. We beg, we bargain, we cajole, we threaten. Then we shut up and listen. Whoever Is On Duty makes small wounds in our hearts so that the love can seep in. Then we pray more, with greater power and not so much whining. 7. Next comes the ritual Casserole-Baking, involving expensive organic ingredients like wild barley from the mountainsides of Tibet, etc., plus exotic and hideous mushrooms from Madame Sasha’s Hideous Mushroom Emporium, kosher lentils, special healing garlic (or else hyacinth bulbs, we cannot tell them apart), etc. After we bake the “casserole” in a 520-degree oven for 47.5 minutes, as prescribed in the ancient Ritual Casserole Cookbook, the bottom half-inch looks like volcanic rock.

Exotic Mushroom

Exotic Mushroom

8. So we have the ritual Throwing of the Casserole into the Dumpster. No one ever receives one of our casseroles. They are for Ritual Scorching and Discarding only, as a kind of purging of our spirits, to make our prayers more pure and loving. It didn’t start out that way, but it’s how we justify the expense…. 9. Then we have the ritual Sacrifice of the Sacramental Wine, which is a closely guarded secret. Dynamite Cabernet, incidentally, by the by, à propos of nothing, is a lovely, mellow dry red, sinfully smooth.* 10. The more beloved our heal-ee, the greater the Sacrifice of the Sacramental Wine. In your case, all the Sisters fell asleep on the floor, waking now and again to pray quite fervently, speaking in tongues or moaning in agony, we are never sure. 11. Our good friend the Rev. Bruce Hurley once told us that God Sorts Out Our Prayers. We certainly hope and trust that this is the case. 12. From that day forward we hold you in our hearts and pray unceasingly that you will be blessed with joy, peace, and glowing good health.

 

With much love, on behalf of the Sisterhood…

 

* Two-Buck Chuck is an economical and tasty alternative.

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We Meet the Blood Brother of Jesus

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On the way to town

On the way to town

A Walk into Town

This morning I got up early and went across the street to Sister Alma Rose’s farmhouse because we had planned to walk into town. She had made cheese omelets and fresh-squeezed orange juice and coffee for our breakfast, and as we sat down to eat, the sun was clearing the long row of poplars east of the house, and I waited for Sister Alma Rose to say a prayer, as she always does, and this is what she said this morning:

This is the day that You, our Creator, have made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Thank you for air to breathe and water to drink and bread on the table. That is enough, for us, for today. Praise the Great Source of all life, of all universes, who pours forth love. Amen.

eggs

Sister Alma Rosalie of Hilltop Farm

Now, when Sister Alma Rose meets someone for the first time, she always says, “How do you do? I am Sister Alma Rosalie of Hilltop Farm”—using all her names, you see, like in the Middle Ages when people said, “How, now! I am Will the Wainwright from the Swampy Glen, forsooth.” And folks would call him “Will Wright” or “Will O’Glen” or something, to distinguish him from Will the Cooper from the New Town on the Southern Bank of the River Muddlebury….

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

Sister Alma Rose is rather prim in the matter of introductions, but she manages to be gracious and warm at the same time. I introduced her to Daddy’s Auntie Pru—or, rather, I introduced Auntie Pru to Sister Alma Rose, because Sister Alma Rose is the elder of the two—one rainy morning on Sister Alma Rose’s big wraparound porch.

Sister Alma Rose extended her strong, capacious right hand and closed it firmly around Auntie Pru’s small, bony one, and then Sister Alma Rose placed her left hand on top of their clasped hands and squeezed, causing Auntie Pru to wince, and it looked for all the world like a Venus flytrap devouring a moth.

Then Sister Alma Rose smiled, and the rain stopped and the sun came out. I am perfectly serious.

“How do you do?” she said. “I am Sister Alma Rosalie of Hilltop Farm,” which Auntie Pru already knew because I had just said so.

Cucumber Sandwiches

Cucumber sandwiches, Yum! Image by pirate johnny via Flickr

But when Sister Alma Rose and I are chatting comfortably, after lunching on cucumber sandwiches made with barley bread and cream cheese, perhaps, on that wonderful porch, with its floor of wide wooden planks painted gray and with sky-blue soffit as the ceiling, she might say, “Sister Alma Rose has some cold lemonade in the icebox [she’s never gotten used to saying refrigerator] and I think there’s just enough for the two of us.”

That’s the shortest her name gets: “Sister Alma Rose.” Nobody would dream of calling her “Sister Alma” or just “Alma” or “Alma Rose” or, Heaven forbid, “Rosie.”

A lot of kids ask me about Sister Alma Rose

“Fanny McElroy,” they say, “is ‘Rosalie’ Sister Alma Rose’s last name? What does she look like up close? Is she really, really old and wrinkled? Is she rich?

“Why does she always wear those big dresses?” they want to know. “Who takes care of the farm? Is it that giant? Is he her boy friend? Is Sister Alma Rose Portia’s mama? Where does Portia go when she goes away?”

I usually say, “Why don’t you go call on Sister Alma Rose yourself? She’ll give you fresh-squeezed lemonade, and you can see what she looks like and maybe you’ll meet Mr. Truman LaFollette, who is Portia’s daddy. Ask him to say, ‘Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum,’ if you like. And if you are feeling extremely rude, you can ask how old Sister Alma Rose is and how much money she has and where she gets it.”

Sister Alma Rose's house at Hilltop Farm

Sister Alma Rose's house at Hilltop Farm

But they don’t go — not yet — though Sister Alma Rose is almost always sitting on her wraparound porch in a big wicker rocking chair painted grass-green, the same color as the green shutters on the enormous white house her grandfather built (the shutters that Mr. Truman LaFollette took down to paint and never put back up), the same color as the wrought-iron rail around the widow’s walk at the very top of the very tall house on the crest of the long hill that starts its upward course at the Wild Turkey River.

If Sister Alma Rose doesn’t have a visitor, she knits or crochets, and she reads a lot of books about geography and anthropology. She is fascinated by people who live in faraway jungles and on islands where life hasn’t changed for hundreds and hundreds of years.

The view from Sister Alma Rose's front porch

The view from Sister Alma Rose's front porch

But often she just sits and gazes contentedly at the countryside, a queen surveying her realm, as if God made the rich, rolling farmland and the slate-blue bluffs, the foothills covered with wild clover and goldenrod, the creek and the frogs and the clear blue pond, all just for her; and she smiles her gratitude.*

A Walk into Town

One hazy summer morning, when it was still cool but the air was heavy and promised afternoon heat, Sister Alma Rose and I walked into Hilltop early, just as the shops were opening. It is a downhill walk to get there, so of course it is uphill all the way home, and I was already looking forward to lemonade and canasta on Sister Alma Rose’s porch.

Ning's magical pathway

Ning's magical pathway

Sister Alma Rose was going to buy tang kuei from her friend Ninghong, though Sister Alma Rose calls her “Jia Ning.” I don’t know why. Ning sells Chinese food and herbs out of the front room of her house on Poplar Street. It is one of the oldest and loveliest houses in Hilltop, but it might have been built yesterday, as sturdy and neat as it is. The tiny front yard is planted entirely in flowers—deep-coral hibiscus, white oleander, pink roses, yellow and red hollyhocks, and honeysuckle and orange trumpet vines draped over twin arches next to twin weeping willows that shade the large porch. In stark contrast, the house is a delicate eggshell shade, inside and out. The porch is cluttered with old-fashioned white-enameled outdoor furniture—a glider and chairs with deep-red cushions, and small café tables. On this particular morning, a man is sitting on the glider, singing to himself. He stops singing to smile at us, and his smile is sweet and warm, despite the conspiculous paucity of teeth.

We open the front door, with its lovely oval of etched glass, and a bell tinkles. Ning is in the front room opening cartons with a box-cutter and setting the contents—bright yellow boxes of tea—on tidy shelves. Ning’s front room is one of my favorite rooms in all the world. The tall, narrow windows on three walls are open, and there is a heady mix of fragrances—the ginger and the teas and a breath of honeysuckle on the damp breeze. The wide-planked pine floor is polished like the surface of a lake.

Ginger root

Ginger root

Ning emerges from behind the huge pine counter, as shiny as the floor, and squeezes my cheeks between her small, strong hands, kissing my forehead. “Good morning, sweet Fanny McElroy,” she says in unaccented English. Sister Alma Rose has told me that Ning was born in Hilltop, but the two of them always converse in Chinese—Mandarin, I think. Sister Alma Rose takes Ning’s little hands in hers, and I wince, as I always do, expecting to hear the crunch of bones, but Ning only laughs delightedly.

The bell rings again, and we turn to see Ning’s mama holding the door open while Ning’s grandmama shuffles in, leaning heavily on a shiny black cane and smiling. I couldn’t say, precisely, but I think that Ning’s grandmama has just a few more teeth than the man on the porch. Ning’s mama is carrying a box, and when she sets it on the counter I see that it is filled with dozens of small drawstring bags made from colorful fabrics—purple, red, green, and yellow, some flowered, some striped.

Ning is out of tang kuei, but her nephew will deliver it to Sister Alma Rose tomorrow. Ning and her mama and grandmama and Sister Alma Rose chatter for a bit in Chinese, and then Sister Alma Rose takes my arm and guides me to the door, and I turn and say zàijiàn, which means “goodbye” and which is the only thing I know how to say in Chinese, and Sister Alma Rose smiles her approval, and then we are on the porch.

The man with the missing teeth is still sitting on the glider. He is wearing what looks like a basketball uniform, dark green, and his skin is a dusky black. He smiles at us, and we smile back. I notice that the whites of his eyes are mottled with red and that the hand he raises in greeting is unsteady.

“Do you have a dollar for me today?” he asks. At least I think that’s what he is saying, but he has a thick accent and his speech is as unsteady as his hand. Sister Alma Rose reaches into her pocket and pulls out two quarters, places them into his hand, and then takes both of his hands and squeezes them, as is her way. I have a quarter and a dime in my coin purse, and I give them to him, and he holds onto my hand for a moment and looks deep into my eyes and says, “I am the blood brother of Jesus. Do you see the blood in my eyes? That is Jesus’ blood.” At least I think that’s what he is saying.

Mr. Truman LaFollette always uses fresh lemons

Mr. Truman LaFollette always uses fresh lemons

“God bless you, then,” I say politely, and then Sister Alma Rose and I begin our trek up the hill toward home and Mr. Truman LaFollette’s lovely lemonade. It is already uncomfortably warm.

“Sister Alma Rose,” I say, “do you know that man? What does he mean, he is the blood brother of Jesus?”

She only smiles, so I go on, “Do you think he is a toper?” That’s what Uncle Lester calls someone who drinks too much alcohol. “Should we have given him the money? Maybe he’ll spend it on liquor.”

Sister Alma Rose takes my hand, gently, for a change. “God tells us to give to the poor, Fanny. It is between them and God what they do with what we give them.

“I have seen this man before. He is from Ethiopia, and he has had much trouble. It is good that he can smile. It is good that people smile back. A great deal is exchanged in smiles from the heart, Miss Fanny.”

“But what did he mean,” I persist, “when he said he is the blood brother of Jesus? Can that be true?”

“Well, Fanny,” says Sister Alma Rose, “it is not a lie. That I can tell y’all. But it is a mystery. Not all angels have wings.”

She is quiet for a moment. Then she says, in her teacher voice, “Did y’all know, Fanny, that everyone on earth is your relative? We are all at least fiftieth cousins. And did y’all know that, in no more than one year, y’all breathe in oxygen atoms that have been in the lungs of everyone alive and everyone who has ever lived?” **

We walked the rest of the way to Sister Alma Rose’s front porch in silence. Sister Alma Rose might be my twenty-ninth cousin three times removed, I thought. And perhaps the man on Ning’s porch is an angel of God.

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* From The Ancients, Part 1: Daddy Pete, by Mary Campbell
** From the 2005 book Pronoia, by Rob Brezsny

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