Saturday, January 30, 2010

Turning 50 -- 56 Days to Go -- My Towns

My dad became a pastor back in the days when tenure was short in each church and moves were typically made every three to four years.  Thus, by the time I was eleven years old and Dad was going into fulltime evangelism, we had lived in three different communities.  Lambert was the first, and then came Columbus, MS, and Broadacres United Methodist Church.  I was barely three years old when we moved there and so many of my memories are sketchy, but I can certainly say that a number of experiences there remain etched in my memory.

There was the day my brother and his friend, Jerry, were shooting fireworks in Jerry's backyard.  One of them failed to let go of the cherry bomb soon enough and nearly got his fingers blown off.  Then there was the day we were visiting parishioners and their German Shepherd bit my on the collar bone -- 44 years later, I still have a scar to show for it...and a healthy respect for guard dogs.  And again, my mother had to be admitted to the hospital for an ectopic pregnancy and I was left with another church family.  By then, I think I was five and their son about the same age when he pulled a butcher knife out of the kitchen drawer, said "En Guarde!" and sliced my left ring finger.  Got my first stitches with that one, and still have a scar to show for it, too.  And there was the night that we were walking in the neighborhood (yep, the same one of the thunderstorm on my daddy's shoulders) and I felt down, cracking my head on the edge of a pot-hole -- more stitches.

I never shall forget the day Mama took me with her to a very fancy lady's house -- at least that's the way I remember it.  We were poor as church mice and lived at the end of a dead-end street in a very nondescript frame house, among a neighborhood of nondescript plain houses, none of which could have been more than 1000 square feet in size.  This family lived in a lovely hillside mansion, with landscaped gardens terraced behind the picture window off their kitchen and den.  While the ladies were talking, I went out back and picked several lovely flowers for my mother, which I did often from our abundant crop of dandelions.  When I came back in with a fistful of beautiful tulips for my mother, I received a severe tongue-lashing for my indiscretion.  I'm sure my mother felt badly for that, as I have when I scolded my son for doing the "wrong thing" but with the best of intentions.  Why can't we parents see the heart, first, as Jesus does?  How many times must he praise us for our efforts at love, even when the action falls far short of perfection?

It was in Columbus that I first was introduced to the notion that Santa Claus might not be real.  We were in church, the night before Christmas, and some little boy -- maybe the same one with the butcher knife; sounds like him, doesn't it? -- asked me if I knew there really wasn't a Santa Claus.  What I remember most is my mother's outrage that he had burst her baby's bubble.  And then I turned right around and asked some other child the same thing, and another mother came to her, just as incensed that I had stolen this last bastion of childhood innocence from her little one.  Oh my, the tangled web we weave.  I'm sure my own seven year old must have pondered the reality of the fat dude who comes down the chimney, especially now that we have a chimney-less fireplace, but he refuses to face that reality, and this mother is grateful that he is truly innocent and trusting.

In Columbus, our church had a fair sprinkling of military families, since the Air Force base was only a few miles down the road from the church.  My mother befriended several military "widows" and at least one of them, another Norma, stayed in our home with some frequency while her husband was deployed.  She was working on a degree at Mississippi University for Women, and while she stayed with us, she was doing a project with baby chicks.  I begged for a chick, and sure enough, I had one delivered to me.  I was so proud of that tiny bundle of yellow feathers, and begged for permission to take it to the skating rink on Saturday morning.  Mama finally relented, and it must have been the cacophony of rubber wheels on wooden floors, and shouting chicken, and The Baby Elephant Walk that did him in.  That night, I sat on a quit on the floor furnace and tried to nurse that tiny creature back to life, but it was no good.  The next morning, he lay cold and dead.  And the quilt was burned, too, with the criss-cross pattern of the furnace forever marking the death of my beloved pet.

My dad became the possessor of a German Shepherd dog while we lived there, presented to me and my big brother, Sam, on Christmas morning.  The neighbor boys tormented him ruthlessly and precious, gentle Little Ruff became a mean, uncontrollable bully.  There was no fence around the yard, so Dad was forced to chain him to the clothes-line.  The chain was loose, so he could run back and forth, but he couldn't run away.  It just left him defenseless to the neighbor boys.  One day, my mother and I were near him, perhaps to pet him or feed him, and he wrapped our legs completely in his chain, bruising both of us from ankle to thigh.  We were both terrified and helpless. 

One day, Dad came out to find one of those mean neighbor boys on the ground, with Ruff standing over him, still chained to the clothes line, growling and drooling.  Another moment and that child might have met his end.  The next day, Ruff was sold to my dad's cousin, who needed a guard dog for protection during a particularly tough season of race relations.  Years later, their son returned home from college and when he entered the house, with no one else at home, Ruff attacked him and tore his flesh down to the bone.  When his wife insisted that they have him put down, he said, "No, that's exactly what we need him for.  We'll just teach him to love Junior." 

Those boys truly were mean.  Treats, special gifts, were a truly rare occasion in our house.  There just was nothing extra to go around.  And so, when my daddy bought me a pom-pom on a stick (you know, the kind they hand out to the cheering crowds at football games; not the real ones the cheer leaders use), I thought I was the toast of the town.  Less than 30 minutes later, one of those mean boys took a match, while I was still holding the stick, and burned my prize possession in one blaze of glory.  My daddy took that stick and tanned that little boy's hide with it.  I was afraid to go anywhere near him for the remainder of our time in that town, but I was so grateful my daddy stood up for me against that bully.  And I don't remember that he ever taunted us again.

Not everything in Columbus was terrifying and tragic.  I also had two of the best school teachers I have ever known.  It began with Miss Lola and the Peter Pan Kindergarten.  I loved going to school, and had actually attended preschool at the lab school at Delta State University when we lived in Lambert and Mama did a couple of years toward her degree there.  I remember little of that experience, excepting watching huge earth-moving equipment work just on the other side of the school fence.

But Miss Lola's place was where imagination was born.  I remember the shelves loaded with wooden blocks, those old brick-painted cardboard building blocks, shelf after shelf of books, wooden furniture, paints, crayons, construction paper.   It was a child's dream world.  At the close of every day, we spent a few minutes in show and tell.  Parents were gathering by then, and waiting, in clement weather, outside the sliding glass doors, peering in to admire their perfect children.

One week, and I vaguely remember the experience, my daddy took me with him to a funeral.  What I remember is standing on the steps of an old house, peering into the parlour, where the dead guy was laid out for observation, and family and friends trooped by to pay their respects.  I remember a song, a sermon, and a few words of appreciation. 

So, for show and tell that week, I asked Miss Lola if I could arrange a funeral.  She told me that I could, but that I would have to put it all together by myself.  Ever one for a good show, I did just that.  I had 3 little girls sing a trio, one appropriately serious little boy give the sermon and eulogy, and I was the dead guy, all laid out in a casket made of brick-painted cardboard boxes. 

I saw Miss Lola 30 years later while I was leading a revival in Columbus and she still remembered that day, too.  But what she remembered was how nervous she was getting as the funeral wore on and on and parents were arriving and she wondered what they would think of letting her let 5 and 6  year old children conduct a funeral.  Long after the service had ended and the benediction was said, I still didn't move from my pretend casket.  After several impassioned appeals from Miss Lola, ending with, "Lee Ann Williamson, get up and return to your seat now!" I finally raised up from the dead and said, "Whew!  It's harder to be dead that I thought it was!"

And that is ever the case.  Until it is really so, I suppose.

My second wonderful teacher was Miss Fannie George, the world's best first grade teacher, at Franklin Academy, just two blocks off Main.  The school was close enough to our house that a big gang of us kids walked to and from school every day.  I think the journey took 30 minutes or more, but we loved the time and freedom.

I was Miss George's teacher's pet.  There.  It's been said.  And as I write it, I realize that she is just the sort of teacher who would have had the genius to make every child in the room feel the same way.  I remember that I was asked to read to the entire class, that I was told to supervise when she had to step out of the room, that I was given special privileges.  But I suppose the rest were equally treasured.  She moved to Starkville years later and joined the church our family attended.  What a joy to reconnect with her.

AT the end of one grade period, we were each given our report cards.  Mine usually recorded straight A's, but this week, when I opened the envelope outside the building, I saw one long list of the blackest, roundest zeroes that have ever been recorded.  I wept all the way that long walk home, and dreaded what I would find when I got there -- surely a fate worse than Ruff's chains. 

When the long walk finally ended, Mama greeted us at the door and saw my grief.  I thrust the horrible grade card into her hands and burst into a fresh round of crying.  She took one look at it, picked up the phone, and spoke immediately to Miss George.  The story was...Miss George had recorded my grades in the 3rd quarter column instead of the 2nd quarter column, so she had very carefully covered each A with a dark, round circle, and then backed up to the proper position to record my usual straight A's.  I think those grades were the sweetest I ever received.  And the good laugh it gave Mama and Miss George, for years to come, was almost worth the angst I suffered on that long walk home.

My dad endured the most difficult pastorate he ever had in that town, though with some of the sweetest rewards of forgivness and reconciliation, and a completely new understanding of the power and person of the Holy Spirit.  My parents survived the rockiest season of their marriage in that town and came to know that with God, they could keep the vows they had made before Him, and move on to renewed trust and affection.  My mother lost two babies while we lived in that town,but did manage to finally finish her college education, after five or six schools in as many communities.  Columbus was an eventful three years in our family's life.  We will certainly not ever forget the precious people who helped us to survive the tough times, and who poured into our lives the goodness and gentleness of God's grace.

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