“What is Truth?”

   

The above question posed by Pontius Pilate to Jesus is well known and often used to counter or support various points of view.  However, when we examine the actions of Pilate concerning the “trial” of Jesus before he asked his famous question, we see that Pilate knew: The charges of the Jews against Jesus were lies and knew that Jesus was innocent; he was deeply impressed with Jesus; and that he did not want to condemn Him to death (even though he did). Pilate tries various means to remove himself from the “trial”, and in John 18:38 we are told how Pilate poses his question to Jesus “Pilate said unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.” How Pilate later acquiesced to the crowd is well known, but just examine his action after he asked that question of Jesus. John tells us that Pilate asked the question, then without waiting for an answer, he leaves Jesus to address the crowd.

Jesus’ answer to Pilate will never be known, and we can only offer conjectures. However, what I want to question is the action of Pilate as he asks such a question from a man that he admittedly admired. Also, we can only guess at why Pilate did not wait for an answer to his question. Was it his well-known arrogance? Was he cynical? John does not offer any information, but for us during the times we face today, we can draw at least one conclusion from Pilate’s action.

Truth! Yours, mine, theirs? While we may be presented with various thoughts, only one truth can exist. To quote Senator Moynihan , “You are entitled to your opinion, but not your facts.”  

As mentioned, Pilate was impressed with Jesus and looked forward to meeting him and talking with him, which he did. Conversation and debate are healthy. Questions directed to ourselves and others force reconsideration of a particular stance, and may lead to new or stronger positions. Yet, here is a Roman governor who fails to take advantage of an opportunity to learn from Jesus. Pilate asks the question but does not wait around for the answer. What did he miss? What does his exit cost us? We will never know, but we can learn from Pilate one important fact.

If we are genuine when asking a question, we will stay to hear the answer. Pilate did not, and my guess is he was using his power against Jesus, allowing his arrogance to over-ride his judgement. At that moment he was in charge and wanted all to know it. He asked an honest question and missed the answer.

Truth is an absolute. We cannot survive as Christians if we all have our individual truths. We may have different opinions, but we cannot all have our individual truth. For example, it is a list of Ten Commandments, not ten suggestions. Also, we may have opinions regarding the action of Pilate, but we cannot deny his decision to murder Jesus.

Ask questions of each other, knowing that “iron sharpens iron.” But hang around to hear the answer. It matters.

Forgiving the Traitor-revised

      

Since the terrorist’s attack on Capitol Hill and the subsequent calls for reconciliation in order to save our democracy, I have been thinking of Lewes Smedes and the five common mistakes, according to him,  people often make in the process of forgiving.

It seems to me that we Christians are often confused about forgiveness I think that the present, volatile, political climate we find ourselves in is one that can lead us astray regarding how we treat our fellow citizens and how forgiveness comes into play. But we all know that to move forward requires forgiveness of people like Senator Kennedy and Richard Barnett. Our secular laws will deal with terrorists such as Barnett, the man from Arkansas who posed in Speaker Pelosi’s office. The voters of Louisiana will commend or condemn Senator Kennedy when he comes up for re-election. But we as a nation must “move on” in order to heal our nation; yet the process of moving on cannot happen until all terrorists and their enablers ask for forgiveness and are forgiven by the majority of Americans who are appalled by what happened at our People’s House.

Smedes first tells us that to forgive someone does not mean we excuse their transgression. The lawless and their supporters who attacked the Capitol must be told how damaging and unlawful their attack was.

To forgive, Smedes says, is not to tolerate. The believers in conspiracy theories have legal avenues in which to express their opinions. Any such action as that on January 06 will be met by force, and lethal force  may be used if necessary to maintain order.

Smedes warns us that to forgive will not give immediate results. The storming of the Capitol was not a spontaneous event, but one building since November 03, if not before. Thus, to mend that scar will take time and patience on all our parts.

Smede tells us that to forgive does not mean the one forgiving must run to the forgiven and tell him or her of the forgiveness. The burden is on the transgressor, and in the case of the attack on our democracy, there are many insurgents who need to ask for forgiveness.

Finally, Smedes warns us that to forgive someone does not mean we must return to the same relationship we had before. Since the Capitol transgression was so deep and costly and deadly, our relationship with Senators Graham and McConnell and the Barnetts of the mob will never return to what it was before. However, they must be forgiven. But does that mean we forget?

As an American, who voted for President Trump in 2016, I have increasingly watched in horror as he grew into a Frankenstein of our making. I have been sickened by his enablers like Senator Graham while wishing for more like Senator Romney. Now, the words and deeds that so many tolerated and excused and encouraged have erupted. The pus from so many lies has spilled out and violated our democracy.

As Senator Graham said the night of January 6, “Enough is enough.” We must, as a nation, “move on”; and to accomplish that healing, forgiveness for the rebellious mob and its president is required. But our relationship with them can never be what it was before. They and their enablers must never be trusted and their racist lies finally wiped from our midst.

We cannot “move on” until the traitors, like the Prodigal Son, admits the wrong and asks for forgiveness.

Forgiving the Traitor

Since the terrorist’s attack on Capitol Hill and the many calls for reconciliation in order to save our democracy, I have been thinking of Lewes Smedes and the five common mistakes, according to him,  people often make in the process of forgiving.

It seems to me that we Christians are often confused about forgiveness I think that the present, volatile, political climate we find ourselves in is one that can lead us astray regarding how we treat our fellow citizens and how forgiveness comes into play. But we all know that to move forward requires forgiveness of people like Senator Kennedy and Richard Barnett. Our secular laws will deal with terrorists such as Barnett, the man from Arkansas who posed in Speaker Pelosi’s office. The voters of Louisiana will commend or condemn Senator Kennedy when he comes up for re-election. But we as a nation must “move on” in order to heal our nation; yet the process of moving on cannot happen until all terrorists and their enablers ask for forgiveness and are forgiven by the majority of Americans who are appalled by what happened at our People’s House.

Smedes first tells us that to forgive someone does not mean we excuse their transgression. The lawless and their supporters who attacked the Capitol must be told how damaging and unlawful their attack was.

To forgive, Smedes says, is not to tolerate. The believers in conspiracy theories have legal avenues in which to express their opinions. Any such action as that on January 06 will be met by force, and lethal force  may be used if necessary to maintain order.

Smedes warns us that to forgive will not give immediate results. The storming of the Capitol was not a spontaneous event, but one building since November 03, if not before. Thus, to mend that scar will take time and patience on all our parts.

Smede tells us that to forgive does not mean  the one forgiving must run to the forgiven and tell him or her. The burden is on the transgressor, and in the case of the attack on our democracy, there are many who need to ask for forgiveness.

Finally, Smedes warns us that to forgive someone does not mean we must return to the same relationship we had before. Since the transgression was so deep and costly and deadly, our relationship with Senators Graham and McConnell and the Barnetts of the mob will never return to what it was before. However, they must be forgiven. But does that mean we forget?

As an American, who voted for President Trump in 2016, I have increasingly watched in horror as he grew into a Frankenstein of our making. I have been sickened by his enablers like Senator Graham while wishing for more like Senator Romney. Now, the words and deeds that so many tolerated and excused and encouraged have erupted. The pus from so many lies has spilled out and violated our democracy.

As Senator Graham said the night of January 06, “Enough is enough.” We must, as a nation, “move on”; and to accomplish that healing, forgiveness for the rebellious mob and its president is required. But our relationship with them can never be what it was.

My Water Closet

       

If it is true that our experiences, especially those at an early age, help shape us, then my early experiences without adequate plumbing may have “warped me in the cradle”. However, that is understandable because my early years were spent using an outhouse that sat at the end of our deep, sloping back yard. At night we used a “slop jar”, a porcelain receptable best left to the imagination. A weekly bath was taken sitting in a Number 2 Washtub, which required even a young child to sit with heels tucked next to buttocks. However, that changed when I was about ten years old because (somehow)  my mother moved us to a mill house near the plant where she worked. It had three bedrooms, a kitchen where an oil heater held court, a living room, and one indoor bathroom. All of this space shared by our mother, her four daughters, and two sons. From that point on, I never returned to an outhouse, unless camping on the Appalachian Trail.

About 1870 wealthier home owners began installing indoor toilets. Prior to that, the term bathroom was quite literal—it was a room where a bathtub was located for the sole purpose of bathing. However, soon rooms were added to homes to house the new indoor plumbing, the toilet. Some houses can still be seen that have the appendage-like structures added to accommodate the new and more sanitary system for waste disposal. The new,  indoor convenience was called many things-a water closet, a bathroom, a toilet, a lavatory, or one of many other term or terms.  But no matter what it is called, the new, indoor convenience is a much better way of taking care of a certain necessities we all share. A user of outhouses and make-do bathtubs on a kitchen floor, I have a great appreciation for indoor plumbing, but I cringe at the lack of privacy the modern home lavatory offers.

All the houses I have lived in, prior to the present one, were older houses that had dated bathrooms remolded over the years by various owners. The Victorian farmhouse my wife and I moved from three years ago had no original indoor plumbing, so creativity ruled as indoor plumbing was added by various owners. We even built a new bathroom in the corner of a large, upstairs bedroom. However, the house on Lake Norman where we presently live is the most recently built. Its master bathroom is as large as the bedroom my brother and I shared in the mill house.

Like all modern master baths, ours has a walk-in closet, a vanity with two sinks, a shower, a bathtub, and an alcove just  large enough for a toilet. It is designed for two people to prepare for their work day, to get up and not have to wait until space is available. There is space for two people to do whatever is necessary while sharing the room: Brushing teeth is possible because of two sinks; one can shave while the other applies lip gloss or whatever; one can bathe while the other showers or the shower is large enough for both at once; the walk-in closet is large enough for both to choose the day’s clothes; and that alcove offers false privacy for bodily functions. The modern, master bath facilitates individual convenience for the up-to-date working couples. However, privacy is debatable.

I love my wife, Mary Ann. I like her. Yet something about the mystique in our relationship is lost when she and I use our  individual sinks at the same time. Brushing of teeth is noisy, messy, and deeply personal. A person’s tooth hygiene should be shared with only his or her dentist, not spouse or lover or best friend. I do not want her watching me shave or see her remove make-up. Some functions are best when left to be done in private, especially that which takes place in that uninviting alcove.

I have heard bathrooms called “reading rooms” and that is for some folks an accurate phrase. Such a bathroom likely will have a rack of some type next to the toilet which holds magazines, newspapers, and other reading materials. Such a toilet space is equipped for a personal, leisurely experience. However, the spiteful toilet alcoves in the modern master bath prohibit any such relaxation because they offer no room for a receptable of reading material. The user is forced to remember to carry something to read to the reading room. But the entire design of the modern master bath is to discourage relaxation and encouraging a rush from one activity to another.

I do not pine for “the old days” when a long walk was required to attend to certain functions. Nor do I miss the Number 2 Washtub. However, I  do wish designers of new homes would encourage a domestic pace unlike that required by the world at large. Such a designed home will offer a place for respite, not more angst.

Share the Load

                                              

Here we are again! Our news is full of reviews of the past year. We have reviews of “the best” of many parts of our lives. Lists of “the best” books, movies, photographs, and more are being written about. And the end of year 2020, the one of the COVID-19 pandemic, is being rightfully celebrated more than usual. But that is not going to correct the misery of 2020.

As I type these words, two grey squirrels are in our back garden under the dogwood tree. One is under the birdfeeder searching for fallen black sunflower seeds. The other runs up the trunk of the tree, rushes down,  rolls in the mulch, sits erect, jumps about and turns somersaults, then pauses to eat a morsel before repeating its acrobatic routine. The one is acting as we expect a squirrel to act while the other’s conduct causes a mix of questions or even concern. Is the flipping squirrel rabid? Is it simply happy to be out and alive? Why is it acting in such an unusual manner while the other acts so normal? The answer is that it has parasites which are causing irritation and itch. It is trying, in its only way, to relieve its discomfort. Unfortunately, it cannot come in to our veterinarian’s hospital to have the parasites eradicated and the awful itch cured. An animal in the wild, it will continue living as it is with the parasites and their itch continuing to be a part of its life.

We are much like that squirrel with the parasites. While it is understandable that we celebrate the end of this awful year,  we will continue to live with the cause of so many of our problems such as massive deaths, a poor economy, and loss of social contacts until we fully contain  the virus. The vaccines are to be celebrated and taken when made available. However, until then we should continue to do what our school children are instructed to do. It’s that simple, and it must be done, and done by all of us. If we do not, we will be like that squirrel living as best as possible with its parasites as it tries to  run, bounce, and scratch its way from them.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is Proverbs 27:17 in which it is written that “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” That is wisdom for any person, and it seems especially good in our time. We need to sharpen each other by sharing this load we have. It is not a time to squabble and move apart. Let us be the iron that our neighbor needs instead of being the squirrel under the feeder carrying on as usual while the other suffers its misery.

Just a Paperback Copy

One advantage for me during the pandemic is that there is more time for reading. While it is true that I, as a retired person, did  not have the pressures of a job and young family before the pandemic, there was time for outside activities, such as church and meals in restaurants. The pandemic has caused those activities and others to be curtailed, so more reading has filled the slot.

One day this past week, I decided to re-read A Month in the Country, the delightful and powerful novel by J.L. Carr. The author states in the foreword that he was trying to write  “a rural idyll along the lines of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree.” Carr accomplishes that and more in his story of Tom Birkin’s brief time in a remote Yorkshire village after the Great War as he restores a church painting depicting the apocalypse and his own re-healing seen through his eyes years hence.

In 2000 or so a fellow teacher recommended Carr’s short novel, and since then I have read it several times, given copies as gifts to fellow teachers and friends, and even owned a signed first edition. However, I gave that copy to my friend Druin who lives near Oxford, England. I had introduced Druin to Carr one summer while working in Pembroke College, and he is the one who pilfered my copy of The First Saturday in May, Carr’s nostalgic remembrance of a cricket match in 1936. Over the years, every time I mentioned First Saturday, Druin admitted his taking of the book while refusing to return it; so when my wife and I visited him and his family in 2010, I decided since he had one he might as well have the other, so I gave him my signed first edition of Month-one pilfered, one gifted.

Another friend that I shared Carr with was Joy, a lady and poet who I worked with at NCS for ten years. She was quite a literary person who enjoyed a strong poem, a well-crafted story, and chocolate. She was my best editor until her death, at age 90, in January 2020. (I often think that her death from heart failure was a foretelling of the dreadful year to follow.) Years ago I had introduced Joy and Druin via email and read many of their literary discussions with awe. One, a writer in Northwest DC and the other in Oxford, England, both sharing their delight in writers such as Carr and many more. Druin and I enjoyed Joy’s pleasure when she received, unannounced, a copy of Druin’s latest book, The Shape of Things to Come.

Now here I was removing the thin paperback from a bookshelf before I settled in to read a bit before the urge to nap took control. But I quickly became puzzled  by what I saw on the insider page when I opened the book,  However, the puzzlement soon evolved into a pleasing appreciation for life’s unannounced moments.  In the upper right-hand corner was a pasted label with Joy’s full name and address. A neat, diagonal line crossed through the label and below it in Joy’s neat hand was written: “From Roger B. 2/14/01” but below that line was written: “To Roger B. 9/23/15.” I had given her this copy of Month not long after I had “discovered” it, and she returned it for some reason fourteen years later. I flipped through the book and noticed pencil highlights that I had made during some reading but stuck between pages 22 and 23 was a bright colored piece of paper on which Joy had written these words from the novel: “And, at such a time, for a few of us there will always be a tugging at the heart, knowing a precious moment gone and we not there.”

I am writing this on Christmas Eve afternoon and wondering at how good literature and good friends intertwine in our lives. This past year, such a difficult one that has been full of toil and trouble and death, is also the one of Joy’s death. But the lines she copied onto that sheet of paper tell much about her and all of us. James, the brother of Jesus,  writes, “For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.”

I did not nap, but instead placed Joy’s copy of Month beside my signed copy of Carr’s What Hetty Did in the glass bookcase. No longer will the small paperback sit on the shelf for reading copies.  Once in her last year, Joy told me that she was having too much fun living to die. That was all! No fear of death. No tugs of her heart.  Just a recognition and appreciation for life’s “precious moments.”

BC:AD

                                       By U.A. Fanthrope

            This was the moment when Before

            Turned into After, and the future’s

Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

            This was the moment when nothing

               Happened. Only dull peace

            Sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans

            could find nothing better to do

than counting heads in remote provinces.

            And this was the moment

when a few farm workers and three

members of an obscure Persian sect

walked haphazard by starlight straight

            into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Words Matter

A local independent school is encouraged to include more literature in its curriculum that reflects the Black experience. Wanting to be inclusive the school conducts studies and hears recommendations from its community. Of the newly included literature, a well-regarded play by August Wilson, Fences, is added to the school’s curriculum and is read aloud in 9th grade English classes. Because of Wilson’s liberal use of a derogatory word referring to Blacks, the students are directed to say “n-word” when reading the word Wilson uses. Perhaps the school feels that it has made progress in race relations, but as a retired independent school English teacher and administrator, I disagree for several reasons.

First of all, while Wilson’s play is highly acclaimed, I question if it is it a valid choice for the 9th grade, or even  high school? I suggest that the play would be better used in the 11th or 12th grade curriculum, if at all. This is  not an argument about the merits of Fences, but the appropriateness of it for this level. Even if it is used in an independent high school, how it is read and examined should be carefully considered and monitored. While students may be able to read the words in assigned literature, that does not mean that they can understand their music.

Secondly, the decision to read Wilson’s play in class is a poor use of class time.  Students in independent schools purchase their textbooks so each student has his or her own copy to read and study outside of the classroom. By reading the text outside of class, class time is made available for discussion and thoughtful examination of the play and what it has to say concerning the Black experience.

Third,  I think the students should not be allowed to repeat the pejorative that Wilson uses—in any form- and saying  “n-word” is a form of that word. During my teaching career I prohibited students from repeating any word used in a text that was derogatory or vile or both. My students and I discussed how and when and why any such word would be used in a text, but its use by an  author did not give us  license to use it in our class discussion. Language, as Orwell writes, is political. That is a lesson students need to learn.

Finally, two of the most powerful words I know are ones referring to females. One rhymes with witch and the other with runt. They carry power for me because, as far as I know, there are no such words used to refer to or used to describe males. Now imagine a class of about 15 males and two or three females that is orally reading a poem or play in class and the reader says “b-word” or “c-word” instead of the actual word. It does not require much experience teaching or being a parent to understand how those girls would feel, and what message that method sends to all the students. The word is present for the author’s purpose, not ours, and those words and their substitutes carry power. To say or write “n-word”  or “b-word” or “c-word” seems to me to be a self-serving cause which allows those in power to disparage the disenfranchised. An author must use language that reflects his or her characters. Fine. But we do not need to offer some substitute for the word(s). Instead, I suggest all readers of a text allow recognition for its presence and its purpose while not causing discomfort to any student(s) by any form of repetition.

The adult word usages surrounding the oral reading of Fences in the classroom of the independent school demonstrate the power of words. A parent uses strong, offensive language when she perceived her complaints about the play’s use were being ignored. She posts her language on the web while angry and later expresses regret for her words. The school does not expel her son but terminates his contract for enrollment. The words of the adults, like those of Wilson, carry much weight. But a 14-year-old pays the price, not the users of the  words.

A Promise Made

In so many ways, there are no surprises in reading A Promised Land by President Obama. Suspicious of the slickness of a word-processed draft, Obama explains that he hand wrote his autobiography in which he covers aspects of his life that all readers look for while he also offers some unknown, at least to me, tidbits of his life. And like all autobiographies it is not too critical of the writer. Obama shares much concerning his early life, his Harvard years, the formative years in Chicago, and the lessons learned as a state senator in Illinois.

Obama does not flinch at telling of his struggles with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to get certain measures, such as the ACA, passed. He shares the burdens he felt that came with the wars and tensions of the Middle East. We walk the halls of power in many countries with him as he sorts out their leader’s programs, and how they will affect the United States. His accounting of the Deep-Water Horizon catastrophe is the best that I have ever read. Obama’s telling of the Osama bin Laden affair reads like a good story, but one that is fortunately true. As expected, A Promised Land is chock-full of these and more accounts of Obama’s first term.

We also meet people who Obama allows to mark the pages of his book. There is no veneer placed in front of his wife and their relationship. He allows her words to show who she is, such as her telling him it was okay if he ran for the United States Senate, but, “In fact, you shouldn’t even count on my vote.” Obama admits to his dubbing by Bobby Rush, an experienced Chicago politician, in an early campaign. All the names we anticipate, and others, are here. Best of all,  each is presented as they are—real people.

For instance, Obama introduces us to two of the White House senior butlers.  Buddy Carter had “been around since the tail end of the Nixon presidency” and Von Everett since  Regan. The two senior butlers, we are told, always spoke of previous First Families with discretion, but the Obama family soon realized there was a special bond between them and Carter and Everett. Once, in explaining to the First Family why they continued to dress in tuxedos instead of khakis and polo shirts (as requested by the Obamas) to serve them, Von Everett said, “We just want to make sure you’re treated like every other president.” Then Buddy Carter chimes in, “That’s right. See, you and the First Lady don’t really know what this means to us, Mr. President. Having you here….” He shook his head. “You just don’t’ know.” We are never told if either man traded the tuxedoes for khakis and polo shirts, but we understand their pride in serving the Black First Family.

Obama shares his enthusiasm for his “chance encounters that made the [presidential] campaign come alive.” We meet Edith Childs when Obama keeps a promise made early in his campaign by visiting Greenwood, South Carolina during torrential rains, to speak to about twenty people in the local municipal building. Thinking it a wasted day and planning a quick exit, he and his staff are startled by a voice shouting, “Fired up!” The twenty or so people in the room responded, “Ready to go!” The exchange continued, and Obama was later told how Ms. Childs was well known for her yell, even at the local high school football games. And the crowds always responded in kind. Before long, the sodden candidate admits to feeling “ready to go” and tells us that after his encounter with Ms. Childs he realized that “a campaign—and by extension a democracy-proved to be a chorus rather than a solo act.”

Reading the book, I began to anticipate Obama’s learned lessons and insights that he would share after an experience. They showed his vulnerabilities, his thinking, and his humanity. One such shared moment is his telling of going to the residence late one night after Ms. Obama is asleep, and he thinks as he lies next to her in the dark, “about those days when everything between us felt lighter, when her smile was more constant and our love less encumbered, and my heart would suddenly tighten at the thought that those days might not return.” I submit that a spouse who feels enough to think that way has no need to worry.

One of the most intriguing events Obama shares is the story of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship captained by Richard Phillips from Vermont, and one of the lessons his power as President taught him. Three Somali pirates boarded the ship and when they could not navigate it, they took Phillips hostage and boarded a covered lifeboat, demanding a $2 million ransom. After five days, two of the pirates came out into the open night air and the other could be seen through a window as  he held a gun to Phillips’ head. Three Navy SEAL shots, and Phillips was rescued. Yet, Obama reflects: “but I also realized that around the world, in places like Yemen and Afghanistan…the lives of millions of young men like those three dead Somalis (some of them boys, really, since the oldest pirate was believed to be nineteen) had  been warped and stunted by desperation, ignorance, dreams of religious glory, the violence of their surroundings, or the schemes of older men. They were dangerous, these young men, often casually cruel…. Still, in the aggregate at least, I wanted somehow to save them—to send them to school, give them a trade, drain them of the hate that had been filling their heads. And yet the world they were a part of, and the machinery I commanded, more often had me killing them instead.” Thus, Obama shares a bit of the burden a president’s power instills on the person.

Each reader will have his or her own reason(s) for reading A Promised Land. The story of an unknown state senator’s political rise is one reason.  To gain some insight to the working of political America is another. Famous people, such as a President, are often thought to being known by the general public. However, unless the curtain of invincibility is pulled back to reveal the vulnerabilities and fears and struggles of the famous, all we will ever know is the packaged image. Obama gives the expected stories in a good light for himself, but he also shares himself, and for me that is the best reason to read this first volume chronicling  his presidency..

Being First

In many situations being first is desired. Athletes train to be first in order to stand alone. Explorers take risks to be the first to reach an objective, such as a mountain peak, which will likely be named in the explorer’s honor. Students study to be first in their class to reap scholastic rewards. The winners in professional sports are richly rewarded by fan adulation and huge salaries.  In our culture, to be the first is to be special and successful. Being first is associated with being a winner, and the rewards for that will be vast.

However, there is one first that I wonder about, and that is being the first child. I wonder what it is like being the child on which parents work to perfect their parenting skills? What is it like being the child who is expected to help after the younger siblings arrive? How does the first child react to expectations that he or she had but that are not later made of the younger ones?  Does the pressure of being the yardstick for all children in a family ever lessen? How old does the first child have to be before the remark, “You’re too old,” stops hurting or stinging? How damaging is the mantle of adulthood placed too soon on young shoulders, and does it sometimes cause them to sag?

            As I type these words, all six children of my mother cover the range of the 70 aged group. But in a few days, the oldest, a girl, turns 80. Once again, she will lead us into a novel age decade. Yet she has led us before because she is the oldest: Into Marriage: On being the first parent;  She would be the first college graduate; She led us into and through many life experiences. In many ways, she showed us how to navigate life’s water.

            At one time the seven years between my older sister and me was a chasm too deep and wide to cross. But as we aged, that space between us grew smaller, and we developed a kinship that was not possible when, for instance, I was thirteen and she was twenty. The family baby is ten years younger than the girl who soon turns eighty, but those ten years are now nothing more than dates on a calendar. Life and aging have a way of closing such gaps, reducing the space that once seemed insurmountable.

            Our mother, a divorced mother of six children, worked hemming washcloths in Plant 1, Cannon Mills. Her life was hard, but her unconditional love covered us. Later after she retired and needed help to live in her mill house on South Juniper Street, my four sisters took turns spending a week at a time with her. Each Tuesday at Noon one sister would arrive, and one would leave. This rotations was done in their birth order, so for this loving gift, the oldest child was once again the first. Many observations and stories came out of the eight years my sisters cared for our mother. One often repeated story is how they all heard our mother walking through her three-bedroom mill house softly repeating over and over, “Just me and my six little children.” Each sister would share feelings about her time with our mother, and the oldest told me more than once, “Those days brought me peace with our mother.”

            Tobie now lives in the same neighborhood with her closest sibling, a girl two years younger. While that younger sister will soon enough turn eighty, the best thing of all is that they again share much of living just as they did when they shared the front bedroom of our mill house with another sister. Ponder that: Three adolescent girls sharing one bedroom!

            Life lived and shared, and Tobie was and is the first in so many ways. Some of those ways undoubtedly were difficult. Some were joyous. But all along the path she travelled, she left blazes–marks easy for her younger siblings to find and follow.