I spent yesterday afternoon with a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Seriously! I was delivering food boxes with Ms. Opal Lee and found out she had just been nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. In true Ms. Opal fashion, she laughed and said, “There’s thirty-two other nominees but it’s great to be one of them”. It was no big deal to her – just another of the honors this beautiful woman has received in her ninety-five years of service to her community and the world. Meanwhile, we went about delivering food boxes as she’s done for many years – just another of the ways she serves her community with love and determination.
I’ve thought much of the gifts I’ve received since I began working for Unity Unlimited, Inc. in the Fall of 2018. Perhaps the greatest gift of all is knowing Ms. Opal. I wish I could talk to the Nobel Prize Committee directly; to tell them about this special woman who makes the lives of everyone she touches better. It’s not just the public things she does – and does she do a lot! I can only speak for myself, but I feel I’m not alone. She’s helped me become a better human being.
She’s quietly taught me to love and serve others better. Simply being in her orbit transforms my heart daily. People probably get tired of hearing me say, “Ms. Opal says…” but they’ll have to get over it. I’ve become adept at sharing the many things I’ve learned from her. I could not have asked for a better mentor and friend. The wisdom she has so graciously shared with me is the good news of what it means to be just another of God’s kids serving God’s other kids. I’ve learned the simple value of listening and serving.
Working for Unity Unlimited, Inc has been a Godsend. Dione Sims, her granddaughter, is our Executive Director and I get to tell everyone I work in the family business! One day a while back, I told Ms. Opal that I was jealous of Dione. When she asked why in the world was I jealous of Dione I told her that Dione got to call her Grand Dear and both my grandparents were gone. She laughed and told me some of the most precious words I could ever imagine – “Oh, son, I am your grandmother. I’m just from a different mother.”
Now I know Ms. Opal is “the grandmother of Juneteenth” and I know she’s a grandmother to multitudes of people because that’s just who she is, but I’m so proud to claim her as my own.
So… to the Nobel Prize Committee – I know there are thirty-three nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize this year. I know they are all eminently qualified to be winners. I’ve read of their work and praise them all. But… I don’t know them and they’re not my grandmother. I can’t think of anyone better to receive the honor this year than Ms. Opal Lee!
The last thing I wanted to see tonight was the news of another hero of the faith passing on. I was flying through personal email when a headline caught my eye just as I clicked “delete”. I hurriedly went to the deleted folder only to discover that Archbishop Desmond Tutu passed away today at ninety years old.
I first came to learn of Archbishop Tutu through his work to end apartheid in South Africa. He received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in 1984. When apartheid finally ended in South Africa, Archbishop Tutu went on to help start the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to bring healing to the country. His was a heart for restorative justice for the perpetrators and the victims of apartheid’s senseless violence.
He spoke to injustice anywhere regardless of color or status. In 2004, he accused post-apartheid President Mbeki of catering to the South African elites and forgetting the people he was elected to serve. He wasn’t afraid to call anyone out.
He reminded us that silence in the face of injustice was not an option. During my college years he said something that has stayed with me all these years – “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality”. Silence may appear neutral, l but it’s really consent to the oppressor.
I could go on for pages about Archbishop Tutu’s work. He was indeed a true hero of the faith. May we follow his example. The world is a little quieter without his voice.
I try to write every day, whether I feel inspired or not. I’m told that such a practice will make me a better writer; that quality content will become more frequent. Lord knows I need that. Some nights though – after a long hard day at the farm – I come home, turn on the stereo (the computer actually), and sit down to do paperwork and answer emails. That’s not happening tonight though; the paperwork and emails I mean. Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, and Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” put an end to that. There’s nothing left to do but lean back, breath deeply, and enjoy the music.
I never fit in. It’s the oft told tale of being on the outside looking in. I’m not sure why really. I was blessed to have a great family. My sister and I are both adopted – wanted and loved dearly by the couple that became our parents. I didn’t come from a broken home. Mom and Dad celebrated fifty-three years of marriage before Dad passed. There’s no abuse that I know of; at least not physically or emotionally. Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian home I went to church three times a week, learned about a rather arbitrary God, and tried to live up to impossible standards of piety. That is spiritual abuse, but that’s another story…
The one vivid and undisputable memory was the music. It was always present. Saturday evenings were devoted to Lawrence Welk (my Dad’s favorite) and country music shows like “Live from Panther Hall” and Porter Waggoner (featuring a young Dolly Parton; my Mom’s favorite). Perry Como, Mitch Miller’s Sing-along, and Andy Williams filled the rest of the week.
My earliest and fondest memories were of singing in the car while on the way to South Texas to visit my uncle’s ranch each summer. My Dad would prop me up on his lap and let me take the steering wheel of our ’64 Oldsmobile 88 as we rocketed down the highway (there were no such things as seat belts and the car seat consisted of his arm across my chest when we had to come to a sudden stop…). Man, that car would fly. We would be running at ninety miles an hour and Dad would be singing all the way.
Dad had varied tastes. He’d belt out 1940s Big Band hits on minute, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, or bluegrass hymns the next. Many years later he told me that my Uncle Bynam, who was killed in World War Two, was the singer in his family. After hearing Dad, I respectfully disagree…
Melodies filled the car, the miles faded into the rearview mirror, and all was perfect in my little world. Dad’s lap, my driving (okay, steering – I couldn’t reach the pedals), and the songs made that Oldsmobile a piece of heaven on Earth. I can still hear him sing “I love you, a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck…” or “Mares eat oats and does eat oats…” some five decades later.
I outgrew Dad’s lap and at sixteen, found my own seat behind the wheel of a ’68 Chevy Impala Sport Coupe. Dad’s singing was replaced by an eight-track tape deck blasting everything from The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Steely Dan to Jackson Browne, Neil Young, and Cat Stevens. My tastes were as varied as Dad’s. My part-time job was next door to Independent Records (the Top 100 albums were on sale for 3.99!). When I got paid on Saturday mornings, I made haste to cash my check so I could buy new albums. My purchases were always dependent on whatever adolescent challenges I was facing that week. Some of you know what I mean…
The eight-track gave way to cassette tapes, CDs, and later to MP3s and streaming services. The ‘67 Chevy has been replaced by my old farm truck. I drive the speed limit most of the time. My feet have reached the pedals for fifty years or so. Every now and then you just have to crank it up to ninety, crank up, the stereo, and keep an eye out for State Troopers, even when you’re sitting at your desk…
Thoughts From the Porch
Winter officially arrived at 10:19 Saturday night. That must be why it’s not cold enough to freeze but still a wet cold that pierces the skin and settles in the bones. Such is winter in North Texas. I’ve been here all, but seventeen years, of my life and I’m still not used to it. At least it’s warming up for the rest of Christmas week…
A box with Christmas floral arrangements arrived the other day. My sister in Georgia sent them. She asked me to place them at the cemetery for Mom and Dad. My sister is far better at remembering things like that than I am. It’s not that special days aren’t special. It’s usually because I’m so forgetful. I never seem to think of birthdays and holidays until the day before or the day of. If I’m totally honest then I must admit sometimes the day passes and it doesn’t dawn on me until two or three days later. I’d love to blame it on my past neurological issues. The reality is that I’ve always been that way with holidays.
I go to the cemetery regularly. Sometimes it’s just a quiet place to pray and meditate, but mostly I go to talk to Mom and Dad. I’m quite sure they hear me loud and clear although their place in time and space limits my ability to hear them. I can only settle for memories of conversations long past.
I took the flowers to the cemetery. I went to place them in the vase above the headstone only to find the vase broken again. It had cracked once before and I guess I need a different epoxy glue for the marble marker. There were two arrangements, one for Mom, one for Dad. It didn’t seem right to only acknowledge their markers. After all, it’s a family plot. I certainly couldn’t overlook Grandmother, so I placed the two arrangements at opposite sides of the family headstone and stepped back to check the placement. Now everyone was honored…
I wished them each a Merry Christmas and tried to leave but I could not. I felt the tears well up and erupt in a sudden explosion of grief. Honestly, I was a bit shaken by it all. It’s been seventeen years since Dad passed and seven years of Christmas without Mom. My sister moved her to Georgia five years before her death since she required more care than I could offer here at home. At least I had some time to ease into the holidays without either of my parents.
“All my life’s a circle, sunrise and sundown…” – Harry Chapin
The cycle of life goes on. Birth, life, death. Rinse and repeat, right? It is what it is. We all die and experience the death of those close to us. I’m generally in acceptance of the whole affair. Grieving is something we all do. I still think about my parents on almost a daily basis, but it’s usually happy memories and I’m at peace. I guess that’s why I felt so blindsided by the sadness that poured over me. I simply wasn’t expecting it. Grief has a way of doing that…
When Mom passed in 2017, I walked through the grieving process with the help of family and friends. The strong relationship with God, forged by recovery, afforded me that opportunity. Mom got to watch the miracle of my recovery unfold in her later years. Staring at the headstones for the rest of those in our family plot, I realized no one else could say that (except for Uncle Bynam, who died at Anzio in World War Two – born at the end of the “War to end all wars” and died in the next one – the irony isn’t lost on me, but that’s another story for another time…). Sorrow and regret washed over me.
My life, for the most part, is free of regrets. Acceptance and a relationship with a loving God helped me deal with the demons of the past; especially those of my own creation…). Life doesn’t allow “do-overs” and I’m okay with that. I made amends where I could, accepted those I couldn’t, and received and gave forgiveness to others and myself to the best of my ability. Most days, I live in the present and the future is bright. It is what it is…
Standing there in front of the family plot reminded me of what I do regret, what I wish could have been different. I wish with all my heart my Dad, not to mention my uncles and Grandmother, could see me today. My faith says they do, but it’s not quite the same as having them physically here.
Contrary to popular belief, “time doesn’t heal all wounds”. It merely closes them up, scars over, and aches from time to time It’s like my knee surgeries. I’ve recovered from the injury, but they still hurt from time to time. Grief will come at unexpected times and with no expiration date stamped on it.
When it does it’s often accompanied by regret, but my perspective has changed. Instead of the old “if only” inner dialogue, I’m reminded I can’t correct the past, but I can change my future: a future I’m pleased to live out under the gaze of those I love.
I stood there until the tears subsided. I said my goodbyes and wished those I love a Merry Christmas. I would’ve wished them a Happy New Year as well, but I’m convinced that has little meaning for them now. God’s time is measured differently.
As I turned to leave, the wind, which had been absent a moment before, blew fiercely through the surrounding trees. The Tibetan Book of the Dead says that when a great a soul dies the winds blow mightily. It happened on the night of my father’s death and every time I’ve visited the cemetery since. I like to think it’s his way of saying, “I’m proud of you, Son. Keep doing what you’re doing”. The tears began again. This time they were tears of gratitude and joy…
“That’s why we can be so sure that every detail of our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” Romans 8.28