family matters

Family matters. Every day. In big and small ways. Most of the time, it goes unrecognized but it should never be taken for granted.

I was young — too young! when I married into a large, boisterous family. Everyone lived close — too close! Within ten miles were my parent-in-laws, eight sibling-in-laws, their spouses and, eventually, seventeen nieces and nephews. Dozens more extended family lived within a half hour.

I came from a small family, by comparison. Three sisters. A handful of aunts and uncles. I didn’t see much of my cousins. Relationships were often strained among adults on both sides. There were few expectations for interactions and almost no traditions around family life, nuclear or extended. It was rather lonely, by comparison.

Entering my husband’s family meant a dramatic shift in my thinking and behavior. There was a steady schedule of family events, along with expectations to show up, bring something, and help out. This was a family in action and deed. Nobody moved homes alone, gardened alone, shopped alone, played alone, birthed or raised children alone. Babysitters were often as close as the backyard, in exchange for the same.

A huge box of baby things traveled from home to home — burp pads and receiving blankets, onesies and sleepers, delicate dresses or tiny sweater vests. Among the sweetest tasks of family life was washing the contents fresh with Woolite and Downy to pass along in time for the next newborn. Bag after bag of “handy downs” followed — clothing, toys, athletic gear, shoes and boots — helping keep the budget in check as the chids grew through to junior high.

Family time was Fourths of July at camp, Christmas Eves at the farm and everything in between. It was birthdays and anniversaries. Baptisms and first communions. School plays, recitals, and graduations. Helping to clean, organize, or coordinate. Cheering on the athletes and joining in family skates. Burgers and beer, watermelon and kickball, and playing ’til dark. Canning gallons of pickles, dilly beans and spaghetti sauce. Freezing bushels of corn. Wallpapering to the match. Litter-mate pups. Long days making hay. Meals on wheels. Garage sales. Meetings and fundraisers, at school and at church. Coffee and card games. Wine, cheese and weddings. Funerals and miles of dirty dishes in their wake.

These are the bricks and mortar, so to speak, of building an extended family. Families aren’t built in a day. It takes the time that it takes. And it wasn’t all peaches and cream. “Everyone” was in my business “all” of the time! (And I, no doubt, was in theirs.) There were strained relationships here, too. But because everyone lived so close, we had to figure it out. Or fake it until we did. Sometimes it seemed too much. Sometimes showing up was the last thing I wanted to do. Looking back, I can see how important it was.

It was at least ten years into our marriage before I found my place and became comfortable in the family. It wasn’t about them so much as it was about me. I needed to grow up. I needed to get over myself. It didn’t matter much what I thought — nor how sure I was of my wisdom and knowledge! It mattered what I did. Show up, bring something, and help out.

I was stretching and growing into adulthood as I was learning to parent and be a life partner. I was insecure, immature, and ill-equipped. It was sometimes painful, for me and them. Yet they were there for me, whenever I needed them to be. And I’ve no doubt their positive “peer pressure” helped to keep our marriage together: we weren’t going to be the first in this family to divorce! Sometimes living too close is a saving grace.

At my sister-in-law’s 50th birthday party earlier this week, a dirty little secret was revealed. One of the girls had suggested the celebration be contained to the sisters. Just the six of them. “Oh, no!” my mother-in-law insisted, “Those others are there for you whenever you need them. You’re not leaving them out!” She’s a tiny but fiesty octogenarian and matriarch. She still has the last word.

She’s right, of course, but it’s a well worn, two-way street. We are there for each other. Because at the end of the day, we don’t have to be best friends. Our chids don’t have to be best friends. We don’t need to share all of our secrets, or too many of them. We don’t need to take vacations together. We don’t even need to share a faith, although it’s extra sweet when we do. When push comes to shove, we just need to show up, bring something, and help out. The rest takes care of itself.

As for that party, I brought the bubbly: Showing up. Helping out. ;=)

~Rene Morley

secrets

Let me tell you a secret: Family matters. It really, really does. Why? Well, you’ll have to come back for the next post. I’m still processing…

But I will tell you this: My six (yes, 6!) sis-in-laws and my mother-in-law are so precious to me. I just returned from a 50th birthday party for the baby sister in the brood. What a beautiful family, in every sense of the word. They are a strong and resilient bunch. They are successful and smart. They are sometimes stubborn, often generous, usually fun, and always reliable. And after thirty-odd years, they are my people, too. I love these women!

Ssssshhh. It’s our secret. ;=)

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~René Morley

bridge lessons

I left home as dawn was breaking. The sun rose brilliantly on the river as I crossed to catch my flight. I grabbed my phone to capture the shot. Normally I give all my attention to this bridge. It is broad and high, stretching and bending over waters deepened for international shipping. Salties and lakers laden with cargo routinely pass beneath. The current is strong and, even in summer, this river runs cold. In winter it is frozen solid. Under the best conditions, the surface of the bridge seems slippery under the tires; the vehicle shimmies unnervingly.

Under the worst conditions, navigating this bridge is a hair-raising, faith-testing ordeal. Returning home as a mid-January storm system settled in, I drove cautiously through a city blanketed in snow, roadways thick with slush. By the time I hit the highway, freezing rain was pelting my windshield. Even that was nearly barren, so late was the hour and severe the storm. Weather predictions made traveling the next day only more unlikely so I persevered, slowly, prayerfully, counting the miles and hoping for a break as I drove south. It was a dark and desolate journey.

And that is how I found myself all alone at 1:30 in the morning traversing suspended steel under great duress. The surface was slick, quick-frozen condensation under the tires. Icicles hung, longer than my hand, from every rail. Unfortunately, conditions were not obvious until I was part way across. There was no turning back. I prayed, loudly, then louder, with as much conviction as I could muster, as the car slid back and forth, up and then down the incline.

I have never been so glad for icy pavement as when I slid off steel slats and onto blacktop that morning. The U.S. customs and immigration agent looked at me incredulously, no doubt questioning my sanity as he inquired about my citizenship. I was equally baffled to learn the bridge does not close due to weather conditions. Buyer beware: heart-stopping, take-life-in-your-own-hands thrills in exchange for $2.75 toll.

In the months that followed, I used the bridge numerous times and shuddered in recalling that treacherous passage. But it was not for nothin’, that journey. Odds are pretty good that I’ve seen just about the worst that bridge has to bring. There is great comfort in that, as I’ve a lot of miles ahead of me yet. So I’ll chalk this one up to foolhardiness on my part and faithfulness on God’s part. And I remain thankful, so very thankful, that He sees me when I travel (Psalm 139:3).

But on this mid-May morning, temps were a comforting thirty degrees above freezing when the sunrise beckoned from the bridge. I laughed when I snapped that pic. First at myself — who photographs while driving alone across a bridge? Not a scaredy-cat! Then I laughed at the bridge — I’m back. Take that! And I laughed again, with joy for a day still brand-new and unblemished. And for faith, affirmed on the wings of the morning.

O Lord, you have examined my heart
and know everything about me.
You know when I sit down or stand up.
You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
You see me when I travel
and when I rest at home.
You know everything I do.
… You go before me and follow me.
You place your hand of blessing on my head
I can never escape from your Spirit!
… I can never get away from your presence!
… If I ride the wings of the morning,
if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
even there your hand will guide me,
and your strength will support me.
… To you the night shines as bright as day.
Darkness and light are the same to you.
(Psalm 139)

~René Morley

indianapolis

Indianapolis tomorrow. I haven’t been there since, well, the time I left my passport behind. As a U.S. citizen flying to the U.S. via Canada, that made for an interesting trip.

I picked up two colleagues very early the morning we left town. One mentioned, rather casually, that he was often scrutinized by customs and immigration. Apparently, he had “the look.” The other was only slightly less suspicious — the absent minded professor, gadgetry dangling from every pocket. And indeed, passing through No Man’s Land at 4:00 am, I was told to park the car and we were told to step inside. This was a first for me; normally I sail through the checkpoint. Our documents were examined; information entered and retrieved. Thirty minutes later we were inexplicably released to continue on our way.

I’d boarded the airplane in Canada by providing my driver’s license, no problem. But when I tried to board for the return flight in Indianapolis several days later, I was denied. And I was flabbergasted. Post-9/11 regulations were still novel. I had no idea how to respond.

Thankfully, one of my colleagues stepped into the fray. He respectfully raised the issue to supervisory level, reminding the airline representative that the company had allowed me to board in Canada — with this documentation. My problem was their problem, he persuaded. Eventually, they agreed to allow me to board, but only if I signed off. Whatever Canadian customs and immigration might impose upon landing was beyond their control and solely my problem, they insisted. The options (perhaps a fine or jail) were a bit unsettling but the alternative (renting a car and driving home) seemed worse!

Fortunately, we also had a layover in Chicago and we all began working our connections. By the time we touched down at our final destination, we had a plan. A copy of my passport had been FAXed by my employer to the airport and to the border station at the bridge. One colleague proceeded me in line at customs at the airport. He provided some advance credibility for my own spiel about this conference. Although the customs agent was very unhappy and sternly reprimanded me when I processed through, I remained apologetic and contrite, per instructions. But my other colleague was behind me in line, just in case it got out of hand.

It was hairy but it worked! On that trip, two colleagues became trusted friends. These kind and considerate gentlemen hold a special place in my heart. I don’t know how I would have fared without them. I don’t know yet what I’m getting into this time in Indy but I will have proper documentation! And I’ll be happy to make more friends on the trip … I just hope it’s less eventful.

~René Morley

silence

Silence is a gift
Time and space to think
To breathe,
Deeply

In the silence
My heartbeat thunders
A reminder
To be thankful

Silence sings, a chorus
Of crickets and frogs
Flames crackle
In the dark

I am still
In the silence
Leaning, listening
For the voice
In silence

~René Morley

transplanting

We went to the nursery tonight for green things. We returned with a truck load. This is not our normal mid-May nursery run for geraniums or petunias to accent the landscape. This project entails uprooting and digging deeper. It’s time.

Framed by split-rail fence at the back corners of the property, sand cherries and hydrangea bushes are out of control. We’re going to try blueberries and grapes there — two varieties of each. Sweet. The plants we purchased are loaded with tiny green fruits so this year’s harvest looks promising already. We can only hope our resident feathered friends are willing to share.

And in the front, along the brick walkway, an oddball barberry and sickly spirea will soon be history. A dwarf Alberta spruce, a pair of compact spirea shrubs, and a variety of astilbe will soon take their places. We’ll add some big rocks for interest. I’m sure the Hubs is just dying for a chance to retrieve and recycle castoff fieldstone. And if not, I know he’ll be a good sport about it.

We’ve lived on this property for more than 25 years and, well, sometimes it takes more than pruning and fertilizer; sometimes it takes transplanting to keep things fresh. Oh, how satisfying to remove the overgrown or spindly and replace with vibrant and healthy.

I can’t help but notice the parallel as we join into a new church fellowship, transplanting ourselves, so to speak. One of the motivating factors has been to make an impact on the local community (remember Tony?); this church is all over that! But deep in my heart I have been pondering my role with the next generation in my own family. The as-yet unborn grandchildren can count on me for significant investment in their lives. Deep and strong roots in my faith are essential to our family’s landscape. I don’t ever want to stop growing.

The stark reality is that the best I might hope for is to be reaching the half-way point of my life. The first half has certainly been fulfilling and I have few regrets. But, God-willing, it was only the first half! I hope and pray the last half counts for at least as much.

Psalm 92:12-14

But the godly will flourish like palm trees
and grow strong like the cedars of Lebanon.
For they are transplanted to the Lord’s own house.
They flourish in the courts of our God.
Even in old age they will still produce fruit;
they will remain vital and green.

~René Morley

wide wings

My very best friend in fourth grade remains among my dearest friends today. We now live several hundred miles apart but for a decade it was a 1.5 mile hike. Often, J and I would walk or bike one way or the other; sometimes we’d meet in the middle.

Between my house and hers was a lonely backcountry road, unpopulated until the outskirts of her tiny village. At about the half-way point there was a sketchy stretch that cut through a swamp. Murky black water, green with algae and thick with brush, no doubt s-s-s-snakes! and other undesirables, lay on either side of the narrow, shoulderless road. It gave me the heebie-jeebies, even in broad daylight. I always hurried through, relieved to crest the hill on the other side and return to civilization.

One lazy summer day as we were walking toward her house and nearing the swamp, a red car passed, slowly. My invisible antennae popped up: too slowly. Too slowly! We were youngsters — ten, maybe eleven, years old. Suddenly I felt extremely vulnerable.

We seldom heard about child abductions back then but my mother had narrowly escaped a stranger under similar circumstances, decades prior. I knew that story well. A heartfelt obligation to return her brother’s bicycle was her salvation. Otherwise, she would have climbed into the car to help the “nice man” find his “little boy, gone missing.” No one had ever warned her otherwise.

But I had been warned. My antennae quivering in alarm, I crept ahead to peek around the bend in the road. To this day I am surprised I had either the foresight or the courage. (Was there an angel pressing me on?) My antennae nearly launched me into outer space when I saw the trap!

The car was turned 180 degrees, so as to be headed back in our direction. Stopped in the middle of the swamp, the engine was still running. The hood was up. The man appeared to be fixing something. He was standing there, by the front of the car. I must have stifled the urge to scream because I am still so inclined, thirty-odd years later. I carefully crept back to my friend.

J had yet to be convinced of the danger but alas, she was an innocent. We were some distance from my house. The only thing that occurred to me was to hide in the ditch. She conceded and we did, hoping the grass was sufficient cover.

It wasn’t long before we heard the hood slam, the door shut, and the tires turn. We held our breath as he drove ever so slowly past our hiding place. Amazed to remain undiscovered, we lay still for some time, barely breathing. When it finally felt safe, we scooted back to my house as fast as our legs would carry us.

The police report dead-ended and I repressed the frightful memory. But years later, driving down that road, it all came rushing back. I slowed where we hid and shuddered, appreciating the unlikely outcome. Even if the ditch was much deeper then, and the grass thicker and longer. Even though we were just kids. It was not much of a hiding place.

There is no doubt in my mind that we were protected from evil on that day. Incredibly, from the first time I allowed myself to fully revisit the memory, it includes an additional detail. In my mind’s eye, I see our niche in the shallow ditch covered by mighty wings.

This imagery has remained vivid for two decades. These are not the wings of a flighty songbird. These wings are like a shield. The feathers are long and layered so densely as to be impenetrable. They are mottled shades of gray and brown, melding into the scrub brush and dried grasses. They overlap slightly but are plenty broad to conceal what lies beneath. There is no hint of refugees in hiding here. This is a secure shelter, a safe place, a dry and warm haven.

When my children were little, I made up a simple tune to help them learn Psalm 91:11. He orders His angels to protect you wherever you go. I’ve often hummed it to myself, drawing courage from a promise I know — I know! — to be true. I’m so thankful for wings wide enough to hide — be they wings of angels or of God. I know that fledgling faith flourishes beneath.

Psalm 91:1-4

Those who live in the shelter of the Most High
will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
This I declare about the Lord: He alone is my refuge, my place of safety;
he is my God, and I trust him.
For he will rescue you from every trap
and protect you from deadly disease.
He will cover you with his feathers.
He will shelter you with his wings.
His faithful promises are your armor and protection... [Read more…]

~René Morley