Friday, August 15, 2014

About Alice

I just returned from the funeral service of a woman I'd only met a handful of times. She was a dear friend's mother-in-law and passed away two months shy of her 95th birthday. As I was thinking about her and the family this week, I realized that when she was my age, she hadn't yet lived half of her life.

I didn't know Alice very well; I'm sure she wouldn't have known who I was if our paths had crossed other than at her son and daughter-in-law's home, where we would have been reintroduced. I attended today's service in support of my friends, but came away blessed by the testimony of Alice's life.

She was born in Plymouth, PA, and raised in Wilkes-Barre in a coal-mining family. She was only eight years younger than my grandfather who, along with many in his family, were also coal miners in that region. She, like my grandfather and many of their generation, left that area for different opportunities. She moved to Harrisburg and began a job in state government. She met her husband through her roommate, and when he was drafted in WWII, she took the train to Mississippi to marry him before he was deployed. And then, like many other young women, she worked while she waited for the next snail-mail letter from her soldier, which took up to a month to arrive.

When her husband returned, she stopped working and stayed home to raise their two children. She and her husband bought a piece of land and built the house where they would live the rest of their lives. They were founding members of the church where her service was held today. They celebrated 50 years of marriage and enjoyed 18 years of retirement together. Alice outlived her beloved by two decades.

When it came time for attendees to share their memories of Alice, there was an awkward pause. I thought to myself, as I had several times over the week, that when you live 95 years, you've likely outlived most of your friends who have shared your life's journey. But then ...

The pastor read from a letter from her nephew in North Carolina, who I'm guessing to be in his 80s. He recalled how Alice lived Philippians 4:8: Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things. He said Alice gave those around her much think about as she embodied each of those characteristics. He remembered decades earlier when Alice had made his new bride feel welcome and comfortable when she arrived in Pennsylvania from the South.

My friend's mom said how when she met Alice, she and her husband went to shake hands, and Alice said, "Oh, no. We're huggers." The music minister was a bit emotional as he shared how he missed Alice's kind words of greeting each Sunday from her usual pew. Another woman from church shared how Alice encouraged her in the early years of her marriage, when she was feeling insecure about her role as a wife.

I love stories, and as I sat in the memorial service for a woman I barely new, surrounded primarily by friends of her children gathered in support, I thought about stories. Each of us has a story. Each of our stories matters. If we look closely enough, we can find parallels between our own stories and those of others. The little things we say can make a significant difference and may be remembered decades after we've forgotten the words. Hard work is important - whether on the job, at home, in the community or at church. Sometimes - most of the time - you have to go the extra mile for the ones you love. Perseverance and endurance matter, whether we're building a marriage, a home or a church.

I came away today encouraged by the example of a life well-lived over more than nine decades. I rejoice that Alice is where she has longed to be, and I am grateful to be inspired by her legacy.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

More Books ...

This week is the library's annual book sale. I've only been once. How could I not go? It supports a great cause (the local library), and I had a book due and one waiting on reserve. I've been striving to be more self-controlled in my book purchases after clearing off the bookshelves of tomes bought and never read, many of them from previous library book sales.

So because I needed to be at the library on Monday, I thought it too much to ask myself to avoid going to the book sale (conveniently located on the first floor of the library). In an attempt to moderate my purchases, I rode my bike (knowing whatever I purchased I had to carry home) and told myself I would spend no more than $10.

So how did I do? I bought five books and spent $12, but two of them I found as I was walking down a back hallway on my way out. And one of those two is a collection of teachings by Mother Teresa. Really, who couldn't use a word from Mother Teresa?

Here's my stash:

Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott - Anne (as if we're personal friends) is a writer's writer. Her book Bird by Bird has survived numerous book purges, although I haven't read it yet. This short book focuses on three prayers that she finds essential. I've read some of Anne before and while I don't think our faith perspectives always mesh, I'm interested to see what she's gleaned from focusing on these three prayers.

No Greater Love by Mother Teresa - I enjoy reading essay collections and as mentioned above, I think there is much to be learned from Mother Teresa's life and example. This book covers prayer, love, giving, being holy, work and service, Jesus, poverty and the poor, forgiveness, children and the family, and suffering and death. It also includes information about the Missionaries of Charity, a conversation with Mother Teresa, and a biographical sketch of her.

The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton - This is the wild card of my book sale purchases. It runs the highest risk of meeting the same demise as other chancy book sale picks: languishing unread for years on the bookshelf or going back to the library for next year's sale. I should purpose to read it first to make sure it gets read. Doesn't this excerpt from the back cover sound enticing?
"It follows an American librarian who travels to Africa to give meaning to her life, and ultimately loses a piece of her heart."
True Colors by Kristin Hannah - I've read and enjoyed several of Hannah's other books but wasn't familiar with this one. I was happy to stumble across it. It was voted "a book club best bet choice" by Coastal Living Magazine. It appears to have been submerged in the waves along some coast in its former life, but I'm good with that.

Lowcountry Summer by Dorothea Benton Frank - This is a new author for me, but I'm a sucker for novels set in the South. I've read good things about Benton Frank's (clearly not on a first name basis) work, so I thought it was worth a try for a $2.50 donation to the library.

A few others that are in my current line-up are Who is this Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus by John Ortberg; One Light Still Shines, My Life Beyond the Shadow of the Amish Schoolhouse Shooting by Marie Monville; and Atlas Girl, Finding Home in the Last Place I Thought to Look by Emily T. Wierenga.

What are you reading this summer? Anything I need to add to my list?

It's a good thing we have a picnic to go to this evening. It will keep me from running back to the library sale, where books are now three for the price of one! Restraint, my dear self, restraint.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Gumbo Girls' Book Club: Bittersweet

I've never been part of a book club before, which seems surprising given my love of books and penchant for reading most anything and everything in sight.(I do sometimes skip the fine print, but pretty much read anything else with words.) It's not surprising, though, given that I'm not prone to filling my calendar with social gatherings. L, a book club veteran, told me that book clubs aren't about the books, they're about the food. N is currently the member of a book club and she shares the club's current book picks with me in case anything seems interesting. She recently hosted book club and I asked how it went. She said they really didn't talk about the books, but chatted about a variety of other topics. She actually wanted to talk about the books, and thus was birthed the Gumbo Girls' Book Club.

Natalie and I have a nearly 20-year tradition of making gumbo together and so the name was an easy decision. (I just made it up and she went with it.) This book club works for me because I like hanging out with N to begin with (social gathering - check), she is the quintessential hostess who always has yummy snacks (good food - check), and we often enjoy the same books (books, the supposed point of a book club - check). We don't see each other nearly often enough, so perhaps GGBC will give us added incentive to get together or perhaps just additional fodder for when we do.

That was a rather lengthy introduction to my synopsis (I'd hesitate to call it a review) of our first pick (hijacked from her real book club list): Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Wittemore. GGBC hasn't met yet, but I needed to return the book to the library and wanted to jot down a few thoughts while they were still relatively fresh in my mind. So, if the other member of GGBC is reading this in the midst of a blog-reading binge, let this serve as a bit of a spoiler alert.

The book's description sounded like a good summer read full of intrigue and drama:
On scholarship at a prestigious East Coast college, ordinary Mabel Dagmar is surprised to befriend her roommate, the beautiful, wild, blue-blooded Genevra Winslow. Ev invites Mabel to spend the summer at Bittersweet, her cottage on the Vermont estate where her family has been holding court for more than a century; it’s the kind of place where children twirl sparklers across the lawn during cocktail hour. Mabel falls in love with midnight skinny-dipping, the wet dog smell that lingers near the yachts, and the moneyed laughter that carries across the still lake while fireworks burst overhead. Before she knows it, she has everything she’s ever wanted:  friendship, a boyfriend, access to wealth, and, most of all, for the first time in her life, the sense that she belongs.
But as Mabel becomes an insider, a terrible discovery leads to shocking violence and reveals what the Winslows may have done to keep their power intact - and what they might do to anyone who threatens them. Mabel must choose: either expose the ugliness surrounding her and face expulsion from paradise, or keep the family’s dark secrets and make Ev's world her own.

The story started out strong and grabbed my interest, but it quickly began a steady descent into moral depravity. It reminded of the verses in Proverbs where Solomon lists six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to Him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension. Bittersweet had all seven (and many more) in spades. The seeming lack of conscience, or even a remote sense of right and wrong, was disturbingly pervasive in almost all of the lives of the Winslow family and even in Mabel's. With each consecutive chapter, the characters engaged in exceedingly appalling behavior and exhibited zero compunction about any of it.

Beverly-Wittemore is a strong and interesting writer. She uses strong vocabulary and deftly pulls the reader into the story. I think she missed the mark by focusing on the degenerate behavior of the Winslow family instead of structuring more of the story around the secret regarding the source of the family's wealth. That would have better showcased the author's clear talents and made for a more intriguing story. Mabel's back story also deserved more development, instead of the sporadic mentions and brief explanation it received.

I don't always expect - or want - a nice, tidy ending to a book, where everything is wrapped up with a pretty bow. In this book, I didn't get a tidy ending, but I got a disturbing one. I was disappointed with Mabel's choices and the family's somewhat lethargic attempt at penance.

A unsatisfying first pick for GGBC, but here's to a better selection next time.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Bits and Pieces

"Aunt Beth, do you have marshmallows? Because if you don't, we can go to the grocery store and get some."  - A voicemail from my 11-year-old nephew. The start of a very fun weekend at the cabin with both nephews - shooting pool, tubing and, of course, s'mores.


"You should have a circus act." - Our octogenarian neighbor as the dogs and I were walking by this morning. I asked if it was because we were that bad (and it had actually been an uneventful walk - no picking up of squirrel carcasses (Shelby), lunging like a lunatic at other dogs (Cooper) or tripping over uneven sidewalk (that one's all me). He replied, "No, it's because you're that good." He's such a sweet man and his wife inspires me so as she takes ambles slowly and determinedly around the neighborhood with her cane and sometimes with her golden retriever!


Upon seeing a promo for The Jennie Garth Project:
B: "She looks like Brandi." (from In Plain Sight)
Me: "No, that's Kelli from 90210."
B: "Seriously?"
Me: "Yes. She must not have been able to get a Lifetime movie gig, so she's doing an HGTV show."
B:"She was on Lifetime?"
Me: "Yes. And no, I'm not watching Lifetime movies anymore. I don't even know what channel Lifetime is. I don't need to watch a Lifetime movie. [Sometimes it feels like we] live a Lifetime movie."
Notes:  90210 and Lifetime movies are relics from my single-girl days. I have much more sophisticated television taste now. Ahem. And generally we strive to keep our lives drama-free, but some days it's harder than others.