The following is the text of what I read at the reception for Sam and Donna, my newly-married son and his beautiful wife. Enjoy.DSC04550

Once we had a guy re-shingle our carport roof – a mostly flat roof, only slightly pitched downward from house to gutter. Bud uttered a minced expletive when he saw what the workman had done.

I thought the roof looked good with its neat black lines of overlapping shingles.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“He did it backwards,” Bud complained, but I still didn’t understand.

I’m slow to understand construction problems. I had to look at it for a long time before it sunk in. The shingles overlapped in the wrong direction. He had started at the top and worked his way down, so where they overlapped rain could work its way underneath the next shingle.

But this really isn’t about roofing or shingles or mistakes made in shingling.

It’s about Sam and Donna.

And it’s about the way our lives overlap, like shingles properly installed on a roof.

It’s about Sam’s first Christmas.

Not his first Christmas as a baby. He probably didn’t even get any good gifts that year. With him being the third child, I had figured out that babies almost one year old don’t care very much about shiny new toys. Hand-me-downs are fine as long as they come wrapped with paper that can be ripped into tiny pieces and with curly ribbon that can be waved and boinged.

Honestly, I couldn’t even find any pictures of Sam’s first Christmas. It was that non-monumental. The plight of the third child.

No, this is about the first Christmas when, as an adult, Sam didn’t come home.

“I just don’t get enough days off,” he told me, “and the holidays are such a busy time at the store.”

“What will you do?” I asked. “You can’t spend Christmas alone.”

“No worries, Mom.” He likes to say that. He knows I worry. “I’ve got several invites.”

“Who,” I asked, demanding to know, trying to make him a little accountable.

“The store manager invited me to spend Christmas with him and his family,” he said.

Perfect, I thought. Maybe the manager will like him so much he’ll start giving him better hours.

“Dan and Lindsay invited me, but I’d have to get over to the island,” he said.

Victoria Island. I had never met Dan and Lindsay, although I had heard stories about them and their child, Denali. I had chatted with Lindsay once on Facebook about the nutritional value of hemp. That could be a good choice, I thought.

“And a friend from school invited me to spend Christmas with her family,” he finished.

“Who is it?” I asked, like I might possibly know.

“You don’t know her,” he said, reading my mind.

“You should go to your boss’s house,” I told him. It seemed like a good career move.

When Christmas arrived, he didn’t go to his boss’s house. He didn’t go Dan and Lindsay’s house. He went to some stranger’s house, some girl I didn’t even know.

We skyped Christmas morning.

“Hey, Mom,” he said, “Donna’s mom wanted me to tell you that she gave me a hug today. She said that every mom would want to know that her child got a hug on Christmas.”

I laughed, and thought it was so sweet, and wondered how awkward that hug was. We’re not the most huggy family.

Donna. Sam referred to her as his friend from school. “We’re just friends,” he told me. At Christmas.

Six weeks later, around Valentine’s Day, I got this message on my cell phone – ““Hi, Mom, this is Sam. I was just calling because I have some exciting news. I have a girlfriend. Her name is Donna and she’s pretty much awesome…”

The rest, you know, is history, with more history being made here today. Sam and Donna.

Where do the shingles tie in?

It’s in the overlap.

While I was fussing because I would really rather have had Sam home for Christmas, God knew that it was important for Sam to be somewhere else that Christmas.

You see, that was Donna’s mom’s last Christmas.

Ruth Mayer’s last Christmas.

Her only chance to hug Sam on Christmas morning.

Her only chance to fuss over him and make his Christmas special.

No one knew that at the time, but it was a perfect overlap of lives, where Sam could meet her, get more than a hug, actually spend some time with her – and then, months later, be there to support Donna, to cover her protectively, like an overlapping shingle going in the right direction, so that the sorrows could be shared and run off both of them together.

Sam’s first Christmas away may have been his most important Christmas – until this coming one, Christmas 2015, when he and Donna will have their first Christmas as husband and wife, together, building a life with each other.

Sam, Donna — May your shingles always overlap in the right direction.



Karl placed 2nd in Class C tennis doubles at sectionals. SECOND!

A great finish for my soccer-playing boy and his soccer-playing partner.

Karl and Michael
Karl and Michael
Sectionals at Camp Starlight
Sectionals at Camp Starlight

Last week, we had spent a sunshiny day on a Pennsylvania mountain for round one of sectionals. That was the day both Karl and I forgot sunscreen, but I had the luxury of sitting in the shade while he and his partner bobbed and weaved on a full sun court, easily winning all three matches. He was sun-burned, but moving on.

Sectional finals took place on indoor courts. He and Michael won their first match there less easily. Their opponents played in cargo shorts and won the first game. You can’t judge a tennis player by their shorts.

Karl and Michael won the match, though, and advanced to the championship.

Wow, I thought. Could he and Michael possibly be sectional champions?

The first serve by the kid in the backwards hat put a crack in that dream. Whoosh! I barely saw the ball.

Karl started laughing.


The server switched sides.  Karl stepped forward, while Michael moved into position to receive the next serve. The dance of doubles tennis.

Whoosh! Michael just shook his head.


Karl at the tennis center

Karl was better prepared for the next serve. He changed where he stood and crouched in readiness.

Whoosh!  The first serve hit the net. The second serve lobbed over for an easy return.  After a few back-and-forths, the server got his racket on the ball and smashed it into a far corner.


Michael was ready for his next serve.  When it came directly at him, he put up his racket defensively.  The ball bounced back to the opponents’ side and they had a short volley which ended in a point for Karl and Michael.


One more serve at Karl. Once again he was crouched and ready. Once more the gold sphere flew.


I watched Karl as they changed sides of the net. He was smiling and laughing. Part of him was enjoying this crazy game of tennis where he ultimately lost the match 6-1, 6-1.

As I told my father about it the next day, he said, “It’s a good thing he can laugh about it.”

Yes, it was. I had watched other players angrily whack their rackets into the padded walls in frustration. I watched them scowl and get angry. I wondered if any of them knew who John McEnroe was — masterful at tennis, but also masterful at the tennis tantrum.

Last night Karl said, “Somebody at school asked me why we lost so badly. I told him that he hadn’t seen that kid’s serve. No matter where I stood, he got it past me.”

And Karl was still laughing about it.

Laughter is sometimes the closest thing we have to grace.

Thankful for my son.


Maggie and the Rabbit

Maggie bolted out the door this morning when I went to sit on the deck for my quiet time.  She loves laying in the cool morning grass.

When she was a puppy, I had to be vigilant about watching her because she would take off chasing a squirrel and end up three blocks away.  Or worse, she would (re) discover the stream and splash up and down it becoming a muddy mess.

Now, she’s much more mature and self-controlled. She runs out, lays down in the grass, and waits.  I’m never quite sure what she’s waiting for, and I can’t break myself of the habit of being vigilant over her. So I sit on the deck and watch her while she waits in the grass.

I read and pray and watch her. And she waits.

This morning Maggie suddenly perked up her ears, and her head, and her whole body, alert to a visitor in our yard. Off in the distance, under an old apple tree, a wild rabbit hopped, lippity-lippity, along.  It was also enjoying the dewy early morning grass.

Maggie, at the very least, would have loved chasing the rabbit.  The rabbit seemed oblivious to its danger.  It nibbled the grass and hopped around the apple tree.

Maggie, tethered only by her own self control, watched its every move.

And so the little non-drama played out for a good half hour.Aviary Photo_130503424926524578 Maggie was a good dog.  Though she watched, she never made any move to chase.  She showed the same self-control that I’m attempting to exercise around sweets these days.

The rabbit, though, the rabbit fascinated me. Unaware of any danger, so engrossed in its little patch of clover and the few green apples that had fallen, it didn’t seem to see the dog watching its every move.

And I got to thinking, how often am I like that rabbit?  I lippity-lip along in my own little world, unaware of those who want nothing more than to destroy me, or, at the very least, make me run for my life.

But therein lies a bigger truth.

Maggie can run fast.  When our neighbor got a Doberman, we were very happy to discover that Maggie can outrun the Doberman.  Not that we want her to have to do that.  It’s just nice to know that she can.

Still Maggie could not have closed the distance between herself and the rabbit fast enough to catch the rabbit. So, in fact, what looked like a dangerous situation for the rabbit really wasn’t dangerous at all.

And I think that is true for me as well.

Sometimes I see the scary monster and am immobilized by fear.

But God is always watching, and He has equipped me for whatever comes.

Perhaps I misjudged that rabbit, too.  It wasn’t quite as heedless as I thought.  As soon as Maggie rose to her feet to join me in the house, the rabbit scampered to the safety of the brush.

For a good half hour, though, it had enjoyed the coolness of the early morning in spite of the presence of a predator.  It didn’t live in fear.

I, too, have nothing to fear.


A New Notepad

It became a theme. A legal pad with only a few pages written upon.

When I found the first few of these on his kitchen table, I laughed and commented to his friend, “I can’t believe he only uses a few pages on each pad.”

“Welcome to my world,” she said with a smile.

As we dug deeper and deeper into the apartment — my brothers, my sister, my father all helping — it became abundantly clear that we had had a minimal understanding of Stewart’s struggles. Layered in with the notepads was a paper trail that told such a sad, sad story.

I daresay that each of us wept, though not collectively. Individually. Privately. Alone. As my family is wont to do. Hearts breaking, not just with the loss of a family member, but with the pain that we uncovered.

While over the years I was busy looking down my nose and saying things like, “I don’t understand why Stewart doesn’t just (fill in the blank),” Stewart was hitting yet another pothole on the bumpy road of his life. And I had no clue. I truly didn’t understand.

“I found a notepad if anyone needs one,” one of my brothers would call out occasionally.

the tip of the iceberg

We would laugh. There was no dearth of notebooks. He had legal pads – yellow and white, composition books, loose leaf paper and three ring binders, ring bound notebooks, blank journals, and paper, just plain white paper.

As I put together a timeline for Stewart’s life — the hidden part that I didn’t know — I began to see a theme. An attempt to put old things behind and start new, followed by a problem, followed by yet another attempt to start new.

This plethora of notepads was a metaphor for his life. A clean notebook. A fresh start. Followed by something I couldn’t always see that made him want to start again.

At the beginning of the weekend, I had driven to the Pittsburgh airport to pick up my sister. On my way, I had passed a man standing along a busy road where there was stop-and-go traffic. He held a battered cardboard sign that read something like, “HOMELESS. VETERAN. PLEASE HELP.” I had watched through my rearview mirror as someone handed him money out the window of their car. My cold hard heart felt nothing for him.

At the end of the weekend, after driving my sister back to the airport, I saw him again. I had no loose change to give him, but I wanted to ask him, “Do you have a sister? Does she live in a little town in a two-story house with her family? Does she know about your gritty exhaust-filled life here by the road?”

Stewart had never reached that point of standing by the road. But I never knew all the struggles he did have.

I wanted to roll down my window and hand that homeless guy a notepad.


The Receiving Line

One by one they took my hand.

“I’m Sally, Stewart’s sister,” I would say.  Then they would tell me their name and how they knew Stewart.

From the food bank. “I volunteered with Stewart at the food bank. We could always count on him.”

From Habitat for Humanity. “Stewart took the minutes for our meetings. They were always precise and thorough.”

From the church in Tarentum. “Stewart had been our pastor.”

From the Presbytery. “Stewart served on a committee with me.”

From his apartment complex. “Stewart sat in the gazebo with us every night and we talked.”

From a coffee shop that had become his family. “We didn’t even know he was a pastor for the longest time.”

A young couple said, “Stewart performed our wedding.”Stewart 017

One man told me, “Stewart changed my life.”

A man named Buster stood in front of me, humble, awkward. He was as tongue-tied as I felt all day, his eyes watery as they looked at mine. “Stewart was a good man,” he finally said.

“Thank you,” I said, over and over and over.

I wished I had more words.

No, I wished they had more words. I loved hearing about the lives he had touched.

“Stewart drove me to the doctor.”

“Stewart drove me to the store.”

“Stewart loved that skate park.”

“Stewart listened.”

“Stewart helped.”

The two hour receiving line became almost unbearable. All these people. All these names. All these words — good words — but I couldn’t hear any more..

After the service, while people were still milling around and chatting, I sat by myself a short distance away. Maybe I seemed uncaring. I only knew that I was exhausted. Mary came to sit beside me and I hugged her.

This may sound crazy, but instead of a two hour receiving line, I wished for a two month one, where I could sit, one day at a time, with the people, share a cup of coffee with them, and really hear their story.

I have so many questions for them.

Did Stewart laugh a lot? I always liked his laugh.

Did Stewart cook for you? He was a pretty good cook.

Tell me everything you can about Stewart and his life here. Please.

I’m so hungry for more.

A Month of Remembering

The Teakwood

Where did you spend your happiest memories with your loved one? Before all this, of course, were there special places you lived or traveled to that you can look back on and feel good about?

I forget how the topic came up.  The way my parents used to tell the story, we were all begging to go to Myrtle Beach, because everyone else was, which just sounds wrong, because our family was never particularly susceptible to peer pressure.  The way the story goes, though, is that we were all begging to go to Myrtle Beach so my father told us to pick out a place to stay and show it to him.

This was all back in the dark ages, before the internet.  With a AAA membership, we were able to obtain a two-inch thick tourbook for the South Carolina.  There was pages and pages of motels and hotels on the Grand Strand.  Those little listing were hard to decipher, so my father suggested writing to the Chamber of Commerce in Myrtle Beach.  I wrote the letter, and then had the thrill of receiving a whole bunch of mail.  (Parents, if your children ever ask why they don’t get any mail, suggest they write to a chamber of commerce somewhere.)

With the stacks and stacks of brochures that arrived, we began culling through and narrowing down the search.  I wanted a swimming pool.  And small.  Even then, I wanted someplace small and homey.  Twelve stories simply doesn’t appeal to me, even if the rooms could face the ocean.  Small, homey, swimming pool — yes, those were the criteria.

I found the perfect motel.  It was called The Caravelle.  It wasn’t huge.  It had a swimming pool.  It was right on the beach. Perfect.

Except they had no vacanices for the week we wanted to go.

So I went back to the pile of brochures and found our second choice.  Small, homey, evening bridge games in the lounge (something I thought my parents would enjoy), a swimming pool, and a vacancy.  We went to Teakwood Motel that year.  And every year after that for about thirty years.

We patronized The Teakwood through several different owners and watched its decline.  The last year we went the roof was covered with blue tarps and one of my children found an insulin needle under the bed. Now a parking lot for a high-rise hotel has replaced that motel.

In its heyday, though, The Teakwood was like family.  We saw the same guests year after year.  We knew the owners well, and one owner actually became family, in an extended sort of way.

There are so many, many memories of The Teakwood — an annual picture by The Teakwood sign, a bagpiper practicing in the Teaky Forest, cookouts, swimming in that pool, sliding down the slide into the pool (until they removed it for insurance reasons), kids freely going from room to room as we often booked four or more rooms in a row, crossing Ocean Boulevard to get to the ocean.

1989 -- picture by the Teakwood sign -- see the bottom of the "D"?
1989 — picture by the Teakwood sign — see the bottom of the “D”?
The slide into the pool at the Teakwood
The slide into the pool at the Teakwood
Wandering from room to room at the Teakwood
Wandering from room to room at the Teakwood

The Caravelle is still in operation today.  I would drive past it whenever we went to Myrtle Beach, just down the road from The Teakwood.

I’m thankful that the Caravelle was full in 1972.

Would my mother have gotten lost trying to find the post office from The Teakwood. (see Six Ways to Anywhere)? Probably not that year.  That would have happened further down the Alzheimer’s road; The Teakwood was like a second home.

If there’s a special place for us, it’s a little mom-and-pop motel in Myrtle Beach called The Teakwood that has now gone to motel heaven.



Communion is a joyful time at our church.

For so many years, I was used to a different way of celebrating communion.  A somber, sober way.  A stay-in-your-seat kind of way.  A contemplative, inward-looking way.

Not that those are bad things.  Communion — eating the bread and drinking the cup — shows forth the Lord’s death until He comes again.  Death is a somber, sober thing.  It calls for contemplation and looking inward.

IMG_2808[1]At our church though, we walk to the front and receive the bread, a chunk torn from a small white loaf, with the words, “This is the Bread of Life.”  Next, we dip our bread into the challis and hear “This is the Cup of Blessing.” The bread, now soggy with grape juice, must be eaten immediately, unless it is so large that it takes several bites.  Children love this.

At first, I was critical of this method.  I mean, really, everyone knows Jesus didn’t use leavened bread, I would scoff to myself.  But the reality is that Jesus also didn’t serve wine in cute little cups that could be used later for VBS crafts.  No, modern communion only recalls that Last Supper; it doesn’t replicate it.  And that attention to the outward details is exactly the pit into which the Pharisees fell.  What’s important is what’s going on in the heart.  More precisely, for me, in my heart.

Once I set my inward Pharisee aside, I could laugh and enjoy communion.  It’s a little chaotic. Children grin broadly and sometimes laugh when they are handed a large piece of bread.  More than once bread has fallen into the challis.  One parishioner’s guiding eye dog, not always in harness, but still in church, sniffs the floor hopefully for a few crumbs.

Yesterday, I went forward for communion.  The pastor said, “This the Bread of Life,” and tore a piece from the loaf.  I looked up into eyes that were warm and tender.  This was someone who knows me and loves me.  The young acolyte lifted the challis for me.  His little voice was timid and sweet as he said, “The Cup of Blessing.”

Afterwards, as I sat in my seat, I thought about that last supper Jesus shared with His disciples.  I’m sure He looked them in the eye and smiled at them as He gave them the bread.  Maybe it was a little messy sharing the cup.  I know for certain, though, that the love was palpable.

It reminded me of something Frederick Buechner once wrote about a communion experience.  I’ll leave you with that.

… I was receiving communion in an Episcopal church early one morning.  The priest was an acquaintance of mine, and I could hear him moving along the rail from person to person as I knelt there waiting for my turn.  The body of Christ, he said, the bread of heaven.  The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.  When he got to me he put in another word.  The word was my name, “The body of Christ, Freddy, the bread of heaven.”

…There was nothing extraordinary about the priest knowing my name — I knew he knew it — and there was nothing extraordinary about him using it in the service because he evidently did that sort of thing quite often.  But the effect on me was extraordinary.

… For the first time in my life, maybe, it struck me that when Jesus picked up the bread at his last meal and said, “This is my body which is for you,” he was doing it not just in a ritual way for humankind in general, but in an unthinkably personal way for every particular man or woman or child who ever existed or someday would exist.  Most unthinkable of all, maybe he was doing it for me.  At that holiest of feasts we are known not just by our official name but by the names people use who have known us the longest and most intimately.

from Spiritual Quests:  The Art and Craft of Religious Writing,
edited by William Zinsser

Food for thought the next time you partake in communion.