Friday, March 8, 2013

One Fine Day With Don MacRae

One of the finest days I’ve ever experienced on this planet was a day back in June of the year 2000.  I spent those hours, from dawn to magnificent sunset to moon-rise, with my friend, Don MacRae.  We were deep in the West Virginia woods, at a place called The Wilderness, located  on an old-timer’s map with a tiny dot and the name of Hemlock.  Solitary -  alone on hundreds of acres, deep in a forested holler, with high ridges on either side.  Don and I tossed our shoes in the meadows and walked through silky moss that reached our shins and made us giggle.  It was a year of magnificent mountain laurel and honeysuckle which formed royal arbors over the foot path to the waterfalls. We splashed in the river, a tributary, yes, a fork, of the Middle Fork River.  The water was mountain run-off and cold, but the sun was dappling and warm as we stretched out on a huge rock and told tales that may or may not have been true.  At one point, we began to hear voices - those of children - and we wondered if perhaps some magic was in the air, but we came to our senses and jumped from rock to rock until we rounded a bend in the stream and saw a dozen youngsters, holding a hallelujah service in the water.  We approached with broad grins and they responded, saying they were inner city kids from St. Louis, Missouri, and they were having a week in the wilds and somehow had wandered several miles up an old forest road and discovered the 1870s Wilderness cabin.  They invited us to sing and pray along with them, but we took ourselves back to our own sort of meditations, marveling at what can appear out of thin mountain air. We explored the old Methodist cemetery in Hemlock, reverently walking between the tombstones, guessing at the stories of the people buried there.  As we drove along Hemlock Ridge, the setting sun turned such brilliant colors that we simply stopped the car on the dirt road and couldn’t move until the divine show was over.  My friend Don was like that sunset – magnificent colors, soaking up the beauty and majesty that all of life had to offer.  And, like all wise people, he understood playfulness and curiosity.  May we meet again someday, my friend, on a rock in the fork of a mountain stream.  Love, Beth

Friday, January 4, 2013

Free Will Offering

One of my favorite duties in my job at the Reynolds Homestead, an off-site campus for Virginia Tech, is being the person who recruits and trains the Volunteer Interpreters (Docents) who show visitors around our 1843 plantation home, the birthplace of RJ Reynolds and his many siblings.  Each year, we honor all our volunteers and celebrate those folks who choose to give of themselves.  It made me stop and think about my own history of volunteering, something that has become a lifelong habit.

My mother and grandmother were the first to set me on the course of being a volunteer, usually over my protestations.  Many a Saturday morning, one or the other would fill a tin can full of freshly cut flowers from their gardens, add an Upper Room Daily Devotional booklet, and send me on my way to knock on a shut-in’s door and deliver some ‘sunshine’, as they liked to say.  Of course, I would find myself ushered into a sitting room and encouraged to climb up into an overstuffed chair, complete with doilies.  At this point, here I was -  sipping on a cup of tea or a glass of coke, nibbling on shortbread cookies, and hearing stories from long ago.  I’d leave with a glow and a big smile, though it never stopped me from grouching the next time.  Such is the teaching of a young soul to volunteer.

Through my 4-H club, I learned the importance of looking poverty in the face.  We would deliver holiday baskets, filled to the brim with food and presents, to the ‘poor people’ in our county.  Sometimes these families had children my age and I would ache with embarrassment....until I learned to simply smile and look into the eyes of the girl or boy my age – and wait until they met my own eyes.  I often saw contempt, pride, shame – and a yearning to be more.  But most importantly, I saw myself.....’there but the grace of God’.

Every Halloween, the church youth group would arm themselves with the little orange cartons and knock on doors around town.  “Trick or Treat for UNICEF!”, we’d call out and most folks would scramble around for some coins to drop into our boxes.  I could picture in my mind a starving African child having a drink of milk as the carton filled.  Maybe somewhat naive, but from this I learned that the whole world is our neighbor and we’re called to help - one penny at a time.  And maybe, just maybe, I made a difference.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

(The) Fall

As I sat out on the porch this morning, holding my coffee cup to my cheek for warmth, I was startled to hear fierce honking way down on the pond in the meadow.

“How can it be time for the Canada Geese already?”

But it is time. It is October and the season is changing quickly this year. Last week, Round Meadow was green, this morning it is yellow. Soon I will be able to look into the woods and see the meandering path along the creek, well-hidden during the summer growth.

Autumn has been a season of falling in love for me. I don’t overlook the irony of falling leaves, the smell of decay and the very soon frigid temperatures of late November. But is there not a sense of abandonment with the garish and lovely hues of reds and oranges and burnt sienna, the bluest of skies, the false promise of Indian Summer days?

My seducing powers lay in cranking up the old apple cider press, a bonfire, a hint of Captain Morgan’s special rum, Fall’s own spice permeating the fragrant air. It is not the hour for Spring time clarity, but rather the moment to reach out and grasp what may soon be covered by the winter’s snow.

A Moment in Childhood

“There is always one moment in childhood
when the door opens and lets the future in.” Graham Greene

I wonder if each of us can name that moment. I can.

Growing up in the mountains of West Virginia where one’s childhood world is not much bigger than the neighborhood friends on the hill, the grandparents’ home within an easy walk, the family’s church and the church that becomes family, the occasional trip into the county and maybe to the big city of Clarksburg, I lived in an insular and safe cocoon.

At the age of seven my world was blown wide open by a trip to the World’s Fair in New York City. For the first time, I encountered escalators in department stores, a hotel room on the 20th floor -higher than I’d ever been before - masses of people of varying colors and speaking languages that bombarded the ears. Heck, even the full-sounded accent of the local taxi driver sounded foreign to my mountain ears.

The 1963-64 World’s Fair focused on Fantasy and a vision of a Futuristic World. The Jetsons of my Saturday morning cartoons were suddenly real. I rode on a moving sidewalk, stood with my mouth wide open at laser shows, ate food that astronauts would eat - my first drink of Tang and crunchy so-called ice cream in a bag. Medical science was actually dreaming of a human heart transplant!

As I looked around at pavilions from most of the countries on the planet, my sister Annie grabbed my hand and led me to a seat on a small boat. We went into a tunnel and the wall speakers began to blast what would become a familiar tune to all: “It’s a small world...after all....” And I knew then the world, the whole wide world, could be mine.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012



One of the most bewildering days in my life was the day my husband left. We had been married for twelve years. He wasn’t going far, just about a quarter mile hike down the little dirt lane that wrapped around the Vermont lake. As a matter of fact, I would see the light glowing from his living room window. In the winter time, our 9 year old son could cross the frozen ice on his skates, leaving my arms and racing into his father’s waiting embrace.

I didn’t want to be anywhere near home on that hot summer birthday. With little money, a precious week carved out of my job at the Alzheimer facility, my son and I had just enough poker coins between us to feed the gas tank and make it down to Topsail Island. My sister and her family had invited us to share their large beach house for a few days, promising food and sanctuary. My child and I made a game out of eating biscuits, sans chicken, that we could buy by the dozen at little restaurants along the way...getting more buttery and flakier the further south we traveled.

I had a huge shopping bag of Agatha Christie mysteries. My sister set me out on the beach, where I read one after another after another.

It was the birth of the sea turtles and a nine year old’s love that woke me up again to life. “Please, Mom, please. Just get up and run with me down the beach a bit. The turtles are hatching and they need us to form a safety line.” His excitement was tinged with worry for this mother who hadn’t moved in days, whose smile was pained.

The sight of hundreds of tiny turtles, leaving the nest and heading for the ocean water, strangers holding hands and breath and not daring to move a step – that was the Miracle, the marvel to awaken all life and to keep it marching forward.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Evening Chorus

Many folks like to listen to the birds at dawn, I prefer the hour before sunset. They were in full harmony on this gorgeous evening - and it seemed as though the creek was singing along with them, as well as the barking dog keeping time on the neighbor's hill, and the minnows were doing water ballet. As I soaked in the sunshine coming through the trees and lost count of the shades of green, I realized it wasn't the beauty or perfection of the natural world that brought my thoughts to God -- it was the pervading sense of peace that quieted my mind enough to see it all...that's when I have no doubts.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Shudder Said It All

I hope it was a farce I heard on the NPR program this evening. Surely. The man was suggesting one ‘go green’ and send plastic flowers for Mother’s Day. He said is was the perfect gift to last for many years - one that could even be ‘re-gifted’. I laughed and I remembered.

As a young child, I loved to climb up on the kitchen step stool that served as our telephone chair and open up the topmost cabinets which held the good dishes - fancy candlesticks, the parfait cups, tiny custard bowls, delicate juice glasses, the Noritake China. There were also boxes filled with keys that no one knew about, candle snuffers, toothpick dispensers from state park visits, nut crackers, and the like. On one of my snooping adventures, I reached into a box and pulled out a rose. It was hard, had no fragrance, and the thorn merely bent back when I touched it. “Mom,” I said as I carried it over to the sink where she was washing dishes. “What’s this?” She, a learned botanist, turned and looked and visibly shuddered. It was the first time I had ever seen anyone make such an emotionally physical statement without speaking. “Oh, dear, where did you find that, that thing?” And she shuddered again. “ Let me show you something.” She led me out onto to the side porch that served as a greenhouse in the winter and she pointed at a beautiful pink geranium. “Smell and touch that flower, Bethy. Look at its amazing color, how delicate the shades of pink merge into each other, how soft the petals are. And smell the earth, feel the dirt.” At that point, my mother paraphrased the poet Joyce Kilmer and I was convinced by her wisdom: “Only God can make a flower, Bethy, only God.”

When my own son was just learning to speak, I wasn’t nearly as wise and patient. “Taylor,” I said, “repeat after me: ‘Plastic Flowers Are Tacky’.” As he lisped out his first full sentence, I clapped him on the back and said, “Let’s make brownies and celebrate!” No, not nearly as wise....

Taylor was 3 years old (and surely older than his years), when Grandmommy Topsy, my mother-in-law, moved from Baltimore to a house down in the holler near our old farmhouse, along the banks of the Buckhannon River. Topsy, whom I adored, was a true ‘blue-blood’ and a woman of sophistication, lovely clothes, beautiful antique furnishings, and a strong sense of self. She also saw nothing wrong with winding plastic ivy and flowers along the shelving in her new bathroom. As a matter of fact, she was quite proud of it. As she showed us her handiwork, Taylor started to speak, “But Grandmommy......” I gave him the look, a nudge, and a wink - and he said no more until Topsy had gone into the kitchen to fix us all a pot of tea.

“Taylor, I’m not so sure you’ll understand the concept of ‘subtle’ yet, but suffice it to say, we don’t want to hurt Grandmommy’s feelings. But I do think it’s okay to ask her what she likes about her, um, plastic ivy and flowers.” So over tea, my dear little boy asked. She smiled and said, “Isn’t it wonderful that I don’t have to water them, they stay alive in the winter, and they remind me of tramping around the woods. They’re just the thing for a bathroom!” Kindness and wisdom seemed to surface from that little child who some may say I prejudiced, “Grandmommy, if you like them, then that’s just great!”

Through the years, my son has sent me many beautiful flowers and plants for Mother’s Day. Year before last, it was a Bonsai Tree and I adored it. I also killed it. Sometimes life is more complicated than “Plastic Flowers Are Tacky.”