A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
What is your answer to the question, "What is America's biggest problem"?
Immigration law? The terrorist threat? The Federal defecit? Funding for education? An oil-spewing hole in the Gulf floor? A second stimulus package?
I wrote a post in June titled Father's Day; a fond remembrance of and tribute to my Dad. That post appears in the column immediately to the right.
A friend who read it was kind enough to suggest and then loan me a book called Messages From My Father, by New Yorker columnist, Calvin Trillin. It was an absolutely delightful read, full of whimsical remembrances and winsome reflections; a "pocket rocket" of a book. "Pocket" in that it is small and short; "rocket" in that it is packed with good and powerful content. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
"Well - you know how to read; now you need to learn to love to read".
I can still remember my Mother saying that to me as a boy. And while this might not have proved the most important lesson my parents taught me, it has perhaps been the most cherished.
There are certain dead giveaway signs of getting old. Do you audibly sigh when settling into a comfortable recliner? Do you find youself going to bed about the same time you used to be heading out for the night? Do you hear youself saying, "man - what is with this music today"?
Well - in the last few years I can plead guilty on all three counts.
Most people forty or younger probably think of Steve Martin as a movie actor. His roles in solid hits like Cheaper By The Dozen, Father of The Bride, and The Pink Panther have established him as a reliable, if not spectacular fixture in Hollywood.
The great founder of philosophy and of the concept of liberal arts education, Socrates once remarked to a student, who supposedly was meandering on without much of an objectively identifiable foothold, "If you would speak with me, you must define your terms".
This quote from antiquity came to mind this morning when I saw another in the sadly long line of headlines referring to so called "suicide bombers".
Five years ago next month I traveled to the Gulf Coast with a group from our Church. Our senses don't absorb devastation of such enormity, for they are woefully inadequate for the task. The breadth of the suffering was so great; FEMA and the media rushing in to help, and to chronicle the story of "a stricken region". Our small group kept reminding ourselves that we couldn't help "the region", only the individual people we encountered; one by one, family by family.
Most of our time was spent in the rural setting of Pine, LA. For ten days we traveled from home to home repairing roofs, hauling garbage, hooking up fresh water, providing food and medicine, and cutting and clearing a seemingly endless number of trees. But more than all that, we listened to people tell us of the things they had seen and experienced.
Words fail you at such moments. Not because you can’t think of anything to say, but because you realize they didn’t WANT us to say anything. They just wanted us to listen, and to put a hand on their shoulder as we tried to comfort them. On that trip that I came to understand what a Pastor I know calls, "the ministry of presence".
So many images and people are planted in my memory from that week, but none more so than Miss Molly.
She was tiny – just over five feet; and I am certain she failed to reach triple digits on her bathroom scale. She was sixty-something and as quiet as a shadow; a church mouse would have considered her noisy. I met her one morning as we were finishing breakfast and preparing to head out for the day’s work. She was standing there, hesitant; she did not want to intrude. So I approached her and introduced myself, and I can still hear her tremulous reply; "Hello Tom - my name is Molly. But folks here call me Miss Molly”.
We talked softly for a while, and then she screwed up her courage to ask for help; a request as foreign to her as I was to that place..........“I’ve heard about your group, Mr. Tom” she said, “and was wondering if y’all could come by and help me. You see – I’m all alone”.
I just listened..............As she spoke I learned that she had children, but they were long grown and gone. Later that day I learned from her Pastor that after years of abuse from an alcoholic husband, she had summoned the courage to divorce him and live alone on her "spread", as she called it. So we scheduled a day later in the week to visit Miss Molly, and spent that day cleaning, hauling, cutting, and repairing. As we were packing our equipment to leave, she could barely speak, but murmured, “God Bless you”, as she embraced us one by one. In my memory's eye I see her standing in that driveway, waving good-bye to us; tears streaming down her cheeks, even as my own eyes moistened and my throat hardened.
She came back to the church a few days later and sought me out, insisting that she be allowed to offer a tangible expression of her gratitude. We refused, but she again insisted. So I reluctantly agreed, and asked her if she could do some laundry for us. “Why heavens sake sure” came her reply, and the next day we had fresh, dry clothes to pack for the long drive home.
First Miss Molly melted my heart...........then she broke it.
Several months after the trip I learned from her Pastor that her estranged husband came back, and in an alcohol fueled rage, put three bullets in her head. She was found in a crumpled little ball, her dried blood hardened on the wooden floor of her kitchen. I remember that phone call............the wrench in my chest, the metallic taste of bile in my mouth.
Why is it that some people have the hardship of ten lifetimes - all crammed into one? Why was this demure and kindly jewel mowed down, no better than a steer on the slaughterhouse floor?
I don’t know the answer to that any more than you do. But some things I do know………
I know that Miss Molly was the real deal. I know that despite her diminutive size she was a giant; a lioness whose courage roared louder than yours or mine ever will. Despite her suffering, and despite living amidst the greatest devastation I have ever witnessed, she was concerned about doing my laundry.
My LAUNDRY for heaven's sake.
How could this have possibly mattered to her at such a time?
I doubt Miss Molly would have given much thought to that question - it’s just who she was. And if I had asked her, I suspect she would have said something like, “Well - you got to help people when they need it. It’s just what folks 'round here do”.
I don’t have a picture of Miss Molly. Somehow in the rush of things, I didn't tend to it. That was a big mistake.
I would pay a lot to have that picture. I would pay a lot to show it to our kids as I told them about her.
But I would give even more to do her laundry.