It all began on a cool October night. October 15, 1935. Born at home in a little four-room mill house which would be my home until way after I went away to college. Dr. Wooldridge, delivered you, my mother would say with reverence. They had waited for years years and no baby came. And I guess they had almost given up when she learned she was pregnant. No Mama could have been prouder. Not only then but her whole life long. You don't think of the wonder of that love and utter delight she showered on you until she was long gone and you look back with a lump in your throat. She and my father had so little of the world's goods--and yet she had two boys that always were her treasure.
Turning eighty-one is not such an easy thing. Forget: "Just remember the alternative". Some days I wonder where it all went. If it had not gone so fast maybe I would have spent more time looking and listening and really seeing the wonder that was all around me.
One of my favorite writers is a Nova Scotia poet I discovered a couple of years ago. He moves me like few poets do. Why? He touches those places in the heart that we all have. Places that dredge up those good, good things we should never forget.
One of his poems is entitled, "Great Things Have Happened." I won't write the whole poem for you but he said he was talking one day with someone about the great things that had happened in their lifetimes. They talked about all sorts of things--and then he said: Nah, those were not the greatest.
one-tenth as much to me as one night in 1963
when we lived in a three-room flat in what once had been
the mansion of some Victorian merchant prince...
on a street where by now nobody lived
who could afford to live anywhere else.
That night, the three of us, Claudine, Johnnie and me,
woke up at half-past for in the morning
and ate cinnamon toast together.
'Is that all?' I hear somebody ask.
Oh, but we were silly with sleepiness...
everything was strange without bering threatening...
it was like the feeling you get
sometimes in a country you've never visited
before, when the bread doesn't taste quite the same,
the butter is a small adventure, and they put
paprika on the table instead of pepper,
except that there was nobody in this country
except the three of us, half-tipsy with the wonder
of being alive, and wholly enveloped in love."
81 years. What were the greatest things that happened? I do not rightly know. I don't have the word-pictures of Nowland. It took years and years for me to know that growing up across from the mill with so little of the world's goods...knowing deeply the hard-living people around me--that the gifts they gave me are with me still. Or the little church with the tall white columns where I walked down the aisle terrified one night and began my faith journey.
Maybe it was college. A school nobody thought was important that opened the doors and windows to so much that was out there. What a glorious time. Going to the Post office week after week and opening that little envelope that held fifteen crumpled dollars from my mother that kept me going. Who knows?
Seminary. The Y where I worked with kids who came from the wrong places and could tell you the
damnedest stories. Or those Profs that helped you open the black book like it was the first time and discovering an inner world you did not know existed. Or that December 5th night when, you had your first date with you and you knew--then and now still--was the prettiest girl in the whole wide world.
That first church way out in the middle of nowhere and farmers and wives who loved us despite our city ways. Or Pooch our first dog. Or even bigger-- that red-headed little girl who came one cool October night of her own. Followed four years later by another redhead, a boy this time.
Or all those other churches little and big where they came in one by one hoping just hoping that something said or done would make a difference. But for me...the Reverend...they gave me more faith and hope and love than I could ever give them.
The rare Sundays when God really did walk down those some unlikely aisles and changed it all. The buildings we built. The prayers we prayed. The people we had to say painful words over at some cemetery. All those with AIDS we ached for. Who knows? Or those who didn't have to but came to your rescue when you were so broken and wondered if you could go on. But more--the woman who believed in you and propped you up and stood and stands by you then and how. Talk about great things.
That night when they gave me a retirement dinner and they came out of the woodwork from every church I had ever served. Or that next last day when Tom Corts prayed as only that gifted wordsman could pray: "Thanking God for all those people I had touched that could not even remember my name."
Kids growing up. College for them in Louisville and Chicago. Wandering from rooms to room missing them so, so much. But that summer we spent in England. Their Graduations and hurled into the world of adulthood. Teaching in Louisville...finding your way in Chicago. Or standing not once but twice at the hospital as our grand-girls were born. And watching them grow up and become young women. How did that happen? That week-end when I stood on holy ground by a fireplace and married my son to his partner. And the wonderful week-end that followed.
The great things. Work...wife...children...friends. Faith on and off and hope sometimes and a love that I still am overwhelmed by: that never lets me go. The great things. Cats and dogs and houses we wall- papered and painted and made work. Flowers. Cars that worked. The fresh-smell of grass cut and job over for another week. And books and music and sunshine and changing seasons--especially October.
This is far too long. The reverie of an old man who maybe ought to shut up. But on this day, the day of my birth I do remember some of the great things that have happened and I am grateful.