Borrowed Grandparents

When my parents left their home in Alabama to move to Florida in the 1950s, I almost got cheated out of grandparents—almost. I got to know my grandparents through cards, letters, long-distance phone calls and the occasional week-long visit. But with both grandmothers and my one grandfather too far away for Friday night babysitting and everyday spoiling I almost missed out—almost.

            Instead I was abundantly blessed in the grandparent department. When I was two and a half, my dad became pastor Ocklawaha Bridge Baptist Church in the Ocala National Forest—a community packed with retirees living miles and miles away from their own grandchildren.

            I never lacked for a lap to crawl into or someone to sit with in church while daddy preached and mother sang in the choir.

            Earl and Frances Midkiff had dozens of grandchildren in Iowa but during their winters in Florida I had dibs on their attention. They invited me over to bake cookies and help them decorate their travel trailer for Christmas. Mrs. Goldie Hoffman made me stuffed animals and a rag doll. Mrs. Gertie Hartselle crocheted afghans for my brothers and me just like she did for her own grandchildren up north.

            Clyde and Kathleen Harless lived in Ocala, where he was director of missions for Southern Baptist churches across three central Florida counties. Rev. Harless and my dad were good friends. The Harlesses’ only son was a missionary and their only grandchildren lived in South America. They came to our house often for dinners and weekend cookouts. One Friday afternoon they stopped at our house in their new camper and took me with them to camp overnight at Juniper Springs. We played board games, built a campfire, and walked through the woods. When I was a teenager, I stayed with them when my parents had to go out of town. When their granddaughter came to the States for a visit, they invited me to go with them to Orlando. We camped and went to Sea World, the Magic Kingdom, and the Wax Museum.

            Ethel and Charlie Henderson lived in a beautiful old country house with a white picket fence. Mr. Henderson was a true gentleman farmer. On Sundays he wore suits and polished black wingtips. But for working in the orange groves and tending his cattle, he wore a starched long-sleeved work shirt, a safari hat, crisp pants tucked into work boots, and spats! He showed me how he cut the branch of an orange tree with his pocket knife to splice in another type of tree to create hybrid fruit.

            Mrs. Henderson was a librarian in Ocala and drove the Bookmobile. I’ll never hear Burl Ives singing Christmas songs without thinking about hearing his Christmas album at the Hendersons’ house. Their dining table was loaded with Christmas goodies and a cut crystal punch bowl full of hand-squeezed orange juice with all the seeds strained out.

            Understanding that passenger train travel would soon be a thing of the past, Mrs. Henderson invited me to go with her and her granddaughter, Susan, on a train ride from Ocala to Wildwood. We rode the train then spent the day at Homossassa Springs.

            The day my dad broke his leg, Mrs. Henderson met me at the bus stop to let me know why my parents weren’t home and to take me to the hospital to be with my family.

            Rose and Oswald Harrington lived just on the other side of the church. Mrs. Harrington was one of my favorite babysitters. On trips to Ocala, my parents would sometimes stop for lunch at the Burger King on Silver Springs Boulevard but we always had to sit at a boring ole booth. When I went to Burger King with Mrs. Harrington, we got to sit at that wonderful, long narrow counter by the front windows with the fabulous spinning stools.

            The Harringtons had a bulldog named Casey whose bark terrified me, a 17-year-old white cat with no tolerance for a little girl, a fishing boat, a dock that was perfect for jumping into the lake, and the first color television I’d ever seen. All these years later, every pot of chicken and dumplings I encounter is judged by how close they come to Mrs. Harrington’s recipe.

            When the ladies had their missions meetings at the church, Mrs. Hartman used to bring me a pint-sized freezer bag stuffed with boiled peanuts from her freezer. She would set them out to thaw but they still had just enough ice crystals to make them delightful. I loved sitting with the Hartmans in church because she kept butterscotch Lifesavers in her pocketbook and if she ever ran out, Mr. Hartman would share his Tums with me. Even after I went away to college, I continued to get birthday cards from Mr. and Mrs. Hartman—every one had a crisp one-dollar bill inside.

            Robert and Frances Peebles had more than enough grandchildren but they always made room for me too. An afternoon at their house was pure delight and I loved every one of their grandchildren and other kids she kept while their parents worked. Mrs. Peebles collected salt and pepper shakers and had two shelves full of craft magazines. I loved looking at all the crochet instructions and patterns for intricate decorative pillow covers and tablecloths. My mother would never let me have a friend spend the night during the week, but when she and Daddy went of town, I often stayed with Mrs. Peebles and she always invited a friend over. When Mr. Peebles was sick and the family had been told to say their goodbyes, I was honored that he counted me among his adopted grandchildren.

            Mrs. Beatrice Holly lived in a big old wooden house across the road from Don Baker’s store and was another one of my favorite babysitters. She came to stay at our house when Tom and I both had the mumps, but I spent many afternoons at her wonderful old house. Her kitchen had a pie safe that always had something special inside. I’ll never eat warm homemade bread slathered in butter without thinking of Mrs. Holly. Her house had a huge screened back porch with a wind-up record player and in the rafters was a quilt frame. I remember going to her house one day when the quilt frame had been pulled down and the quilt was surrounded by grannies sewing and spitting snuff juice into soup cans.

            Christine Beedle’s youngest daughters were close to the ages of my big brothers. The Beedle girls always made me think of fashion models with long “That Girl” hair, white frosted lipstick and Twiggy eyelashes. I was at Mrs. Beedle’s house one day when she accepted delivery of several huge boxes of baby chickens and I got to help transfer them into an incubator. Another day a package arrived from her son, Robert, in California. She set up a slide projector so we could all see the pictures Robert had sent of the giant redwoods.

            With all my happy memories of all my many borrowed grandparents, I owe thank-you’s to countless bonus cousins for being willing to share their grandparents’ love with me. I adored them all.

            And it pains me to confess that I also owe an apology to a new generation of kids to whom I could not return the favor. When I grew up, I moved far away from my mom and dad. They showered their “grand” affections on every child they encountered. But somehow I really blew it when trying to teach my daughter to share her grandparents.  As a little girl, she was extremely possessive of their attentions and she tended to pout when she saw other kids hugging her Grandma. With five-year-old Jennifer in tow, my mother arrived at church one night and collected hugs from a small assembly of other kids. A man asked my mother, “Are these your grandchildren?” Normally shy, Jennifer quickly and firmly answered for her: “I’m the grandchildren.”

            And I’m so sorry.

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Pound Cake Packing Preacher

It's hard to take a picture of this cake because it disappears fast.

In 2009, Oxmoor House Publishers came out with a book called Southern Living Comfort Food. The back cover of the book carried the following quote from Susan Dosier, a former executive editor at Southern Living: “Maybe a pound cake needs to be perfect because it’s the hallmark of Southern hospitality. It’s the handshake of friendship to a new neighbor or a tender beacon of sympathy for those who survive a loss. It’s a happy catalyst of cozy chats and midnight snacks…. Pound cakes nourish much more than the body. They feed the soul.” I wonder if Susan Dosier ever met my Dad.

Daddy has always known his way around the kitchen. He used to make chocolate fudge and pecan divinity at Christmas and even though Mother did most of the cooking in the family, Daddy could put a meal on the table. But after the kids all left home, Mother went back to work and Daddy started baking in a big way.

I think it probably started out with him baking a cake or pie occasionally just to help out while mother did other things like vacuum and dust and cook the main meal. Or maybe he would bake a cake or pie in the afternoon before Mother got home from work so she wouldn’t have to spend so much time in the kitchen when she got home. They always went to a lot of church suppers and community covered-dish events and desserts usually travel well. The favorite standby recipes were Cream Cheese Pound Cake, Coconut Pie, and Almost Sugar-Free Banana Pudding. People would compliment my mother’s cake or pie and she was quick to tell them she didn’t make it, the preacher did. He started to get a reputation. As Mother’s Alzheimer’s progressed, Daddy did more and more cooking and his reputation for pound cakes continued to grow.

Diabetes prevents him from eating desserts except on special occasions, but he is still baking. A week seldom passes without Daddy making at least one pound cake. A few years ago he won a men’s cake-baking contest and he once donated a pound cake to an auction where it brought in $35. He takes pound cakes to church suppers and always brings home an empty plate. He often takes pound cakes to people who have been hospitalized and to families gathering for meals before funerals. He has also given them as birthday gifts. He made at least 10 for Christmas gifts this year. He has taken them to family reunions—ours and dozens of other families’ reunions as well. He once sent a pound cake to a college graduation in another state and when the graduate saw what was in the box, she cried.

In the summer of 2008 Mother got sick and had to go to the hospital for what we thought would be a minor illness. But her body started to shut down and her Living Will was called into play. She had been firm in making sure we knew she didn’t want to be kept alive with feeding tubes and breathing machines. It was all spelled out, signed, sealed, and notarized. She was moved to Marion County’s Hospice House and we waited while days dragged into weeks. For more than 50 years, Daddy had ministered to hurting families and prayed at bedsides. He wasn’t used to being on the other side of the bed. Church members prayed for us and we held firm to the belief that death ends life on earth but a better life awaits. We were especially touched by the kindness and compassion of the Hospice employees. They lovingly took care of us as well as Mother. A few weeks after the funeral, Daddy stopped by to visit the Hospice staff to say “Thank you.” He took them a pound cake.

The Recipe

Daddy’s famous pound cake recipe is no big secret, although some would like for it to be. He once shared the recipe with a woman in Texas. She made it for a family reunion and her aunt (a bakery owner) asked for the recipe, she refused, saying, “No way. I can finally make something that you can’t make.”

The recipe is in lots of cookbooks, but I first got it from Patsy Arnold more than 20 years ago. Patsy was director of McElwain Baptist Church’s ministry to shut-ins. And one year she had an idea to take each shut-in on “the list” a whole pound cake so they would be able to have something to share with holiday visitors. To avoid any problems, she wanted everyone to get the same kind of cake so she published the recipe in the church bulletin and recruited everyone who knew how to operate a mixer to bake cream cheese pound cakes. The Birmingham Baptist Association later expanded the idea to delivering whole cakes to prison inmates. When I worked for The Alabama Baptist, I wrote a feature article about the cake-baking ministry. Mother liked the article and around that time she switched from her usual Sour Cream Pound Cake to the Cream Cheese Pound Cake recipe. So with apologies to the sweet lady in Texas, here is the recipe:

Cream Cheese Pound Cake

1 stick butter

2 sticks margarine

8 oz. cream cheese

3 cups sugar

6 eggs

3 cups cake flour

Dash of salt

1 ½ tsp. vanilla

Cream the butter, margarine, cream cheese and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, along with cake flour, salt, and vanilla. Mix until smooth. Bake 1 ½ hours (or a little less) at 325 degrees.

You can bake it in a tube pan, a bundt pan, or 2 loaf pans. Shorten the baking time for loaf pans. Daddy doesn’t use special cake flour and his cakes work just fine. Sometimes I use 2 sticks of butter and one stick of margarine instead of the other way around. The secret to a pound cake (according to Mrs. Kate Randall of Conner, Florida, who lived to be 103 and was also famous for her cakes) is to cream the butter/sugar mixture really well before you add the eggs. Don’t beat it too long after you add the eggs.

Happy baking!

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Sleeping Arrangements

On a trip to Historic Williamsburg, Virginia, I loved touring old homes, taverns, government buildings, and shops and learning about everyday life in the 1700s. One of the fascinating tidbits I learned on a tour of a historic inn was that centuries ago when a man checked in, he was simply renting a space in a bed. There were often many beds in a room and an inn guest had no say over who he slept with.

In my early childhood, my family operated under a similar system. Grandmother figured out sleeping arrangements and as long as everyone had a pillow, a quilt, and a soft spot to rest, it worked and no one complained.

Make up a double bed sideways and three granddaughters fit just fine. Once you take the cushions off the pull-out sofa, you tuck them into a twin-size fitted sheet and lay quilts on top; that makes a perfect pallet for one of the grandsons. Pallets could be tucked anywhere: between a bed and a wall, under a dining room table, or (in hot weather) on the screened porch.

When our house was going to be full of guests, Mother sometimes borrowed a rollaway bed. One time the house was so full of company there was not even room to set up the borrowed rollaway bed. So Daddy set it up in the fellowship hall at the church. After everyone else was in bed, Mother and Daddy took a flashlight and padded through the sand to sleep in the church building. The plan was for them to get up early enough to be back at the house cooking breakfast before anyone even knew they were gone. The plan almost worked. However, I was really little and when I woke up in the night I wanted my Mother and no one else would do. One of our guests–teenaged Rhonda Basford–bravely carried me through the nighttime forest to get me to where my Mother was.

Uncle Byron and his family surprised us one weekend. No one knew they were coming and the whole family had already gone to bed when they arrived. Tom, the light sleeper of the family heard them drive up. He was a teenager and he quickly took charge of sleeping arrangements. He put Susan in my bed with me. He quietly made up the sofa for Uncle Byron and Aunt Iris then he fixed a place for little Stevie. He had just put Lamar in his own bed and was trying to figure out where he would sleep when my Mother woke up.  An expert at sleeping arrangements, Mother said, “I’ll crawl in with the girls, you go sleep with your Daddy.” That plan worked fine until Daddy, unaware of the all the activity that had taken place since he went to bed, rolled over and put his arm around the warm body he thought was his wife.

For many years, breakfast table conversations at family gatherings focused on who snored, who kicked, who hogged covers, and who talked in their sleep.

All that changed in the late 1970s. Maybe we were part of a larger cultural shift or maybe we just got a little more sophisticated when we got older. But no one expects to have to sleep with cousins any more. Now when we get together, some people might actually stay at a nearby hotel. And the catalyst for the change in sleeping arrangements in our family can be traced back to one person: Gail Taquino Estes and my big brother’s love for her.

As the oldest grandchild on both sides of our family, Don carried a lot of clout in the family—still does. He is quiet and doesn’t say much, so when he does speak up it’s usually important and people pay attention. Shortly after Don married Gail and turned her into the first granddaughter-in-law, life changed for the whole clan.

The family was gathered at Grandmother and PawPaw’s house and, as always, Grandmother had figured out sleeping arrangements. Her plan was for my Mother and Daddy to have the guest room; Gail would sleep with me on one of the pull-out sofas and Don and Tom would share the other one.

When Don heard the plan, he revolted. He cornered Grandmother and quietly but firmly said, “Now listen. I don’t want to cause trouble, but I didn’t get married to still have to sleep with my brother.”

Without another word, Grandmother changed the sleeping arrangements.

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Big Dimples

Asian (Oriental) American girl with dimples.

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Back when I was young and single I stopped for lunch at a restaurant near my office for lunch one day. I was eating alone but couldn’t help but notice a young family at a nearby table. An adorable little girl about three years old was eating lunch with her parents and struck up a conversation with a grandmotherly gray-haired lady at the next table. The parents beamed as they watched the lively conversation develop. Their beautiful little girl had the attention of almost every patron in the small dining room and you could tell they were proud to share her cuteness. They had no idea that in just a moment they would both flush with embarrassment and they’d wish they could melt into the floor.

The little girl explained to the older woman that she had been to Mother’s Day Out. They talked about all kinds of things and the conversation went on for quite some time. The little girl was more interested in talking to her new friend than in eating her hamburger and began to pick little pieces off the bun. She picked off bits of bread until she had holes in her bread resembling facial features—eyes, nose, mouth. She showed the face to her new friend and squealed with laughter as each feature was identified. But there was a spot on the bun near the mouth and the little girl didn’t know what that could be. “What’s that?” She asked, pointing to the spot beside the mouth.

“Maybe it’s the dimple,” suggested the woman.

“Nymple?” questioned the little girl, “What’s a nymple?”

“Yes. A dimple” explained the woman. “It’s the little dent in your face right beside your mouth. You have big dimples like your daddy.”

After studying the woman with a blank look for a second. The little girl suddenly understood and her face broke into an animated smile. These people were teasing her and she was smarter than that. “Nooooooo,” she countered loud enough for everyone in the dining room to hear, “Daddy’s got little nymples. Mommy’s got great big ones.”

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The Mouse that Came Forward

Common house mouse (Mus musculus), wild type.

Image via Wikipedia

At the close of his Sunday evening sermon, my pastor dad stepped down from the raised platform at the front of the small country church to stand in front of the pulpit. As is the tradition in many churches, he stood there to welcome and receive anyone who might come forward during the final hymn asking for membership in the church or wishing to publicly announce a spiritual decision.

My mother (a dutiful pastor’s wife) sat on the second pew. Normally she would have been standing with the rest of the congregation as they sang the service’s final hymn, but on this night she sat between her two little boys, each stretched out asleep and each with a head in her lap.

When the pianist struck the first note of “Just as I Am” a little mouse ran out from under the piano and went straight to the front of the church. The mouse stood up on its back legs right in front of my dad. Daddy watched the mouse carefully, formulating a plan for what he would do if the critter started climbing his leg. The mouse circled him three times, stopping in front of him each time to stand and look up. Daddy’s eyes followed the mouse as far as his head would turn then quickly switched sides to catch it on the way around.

Except for my mother no one else in the church could see the mouse. From her vantage point, she had a perfect view of every step it took. She also saw the terror in her husband’s eyes. Daddy was a big, strong guy and he wasn’t afraid of the mouse per se. But he was terrified of the disruption he would cause in the solemnity of a worship service if the mouse decided to run up his pants leg. Mother didn’t shriek. No. She stifled a laugh. The more she tried not to laugh, the more persistent her need to laugh. Her face turned red and her whole body shook as it tried to contain the laugh that wanted out. While the other people in the church couldn’t see the mouse, they could see the preacher’s head spinning with his eyes glued to the floor and his wife convulsing with stifled laughter.

When the song ended the mouse disappeared under the piano and they never saw it again. We aren’t sure if it had come out to complain to the management or if there was something else it wanted to discuss with the pastor. But since it was not welcomed as a member at the Baptist church, I’m pretty sure it became a Methodist.

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The Today Show got it wrong


Image via Wikipedia





This morning the Today Show did a segment on debunking traditional wisdom. They said it’s OK to go out in the winter with wet hair and turkey doesn’t make you sleepy. They also said fireplaces don’t make your house warm. I think the Today Show is wrong. The Today Show never spent the night with Mr. and Mrs. Peebles.

Robert and Frances Peebles lived in a wonderful traditional old Florida farm house and when Mother and Daddy went to the Florida Baptist Convention in November or the Pastors Conference in January, I often stayed with them. The fireplace in the livingroom was their home’s only heat source.

Mrs. Peebles was every kid’s favorite babysitter. She preferred taking care of kids in multiples so they could entertain each other. So, while my mother didn’t let me have spend-the-night company on school nights, when I was staying with Mrs. Peebles, she usually invited one of her granddaughters or one of my friends to spend the night too.

On those cold evenings, after bathtime we would put our clothes for the next day in the livingroom. We would stand close to the fire, turning to warm all sides, then run to get into a bed piled high with quilts.

The next morning, before they woke us up, Mr. Peebles would have a built a roaring fire and closed all the doors so the livingroom would be toasty warm. Mrs. Peebles would have spread our clothes on chairs to warm in front of the fire.

It was one of the warmest homes I’ve ever known.

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The Alabamian Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain

In about 1985 Hugh Grant starred in a movie called “The Englishman who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain.” It’s about a World War I-era village whose inhabitants didn’t like the idea of their local mountain being classified as a hill by a map maker because it wasn’t tall enough to meet the official size criteria to be called a mountain. So the local residents piled dirt on top of the hill to make it higher so it could be officially called a mountain. A few years after the movie was made, a certain Alabamian named David Lowry (my husband) went up a hill and when he got to the top and started to come back down it didn’t looked like a hill any more. It looked like a mountain—a steep, icy, treacherous, mountain. I know because I was right behind him in the back seat.

It was a snow day in Birmingham. Schools, daycares and businesses were closed because the streets were too icy for safe travel. It wasn’t a pretty, fluffy snow that was good for playing. It was wet, soggy, icy snow that made you want to curl up on the sofa with hot chocolate and a good book. But David is not a curl up with a book kind of guy. He had just finished restoring and rebuilding the engine on a 1981 full size Ford Bronco with huge tires and four-wheel drive. When he bought the thing it was a burned out wreck that had to be towed home. He rebuilt all the mechanical parts, had the frame straightened, detailed the interior, installed new carpet, had the outside professionally painted and purchased new tires. He was really proud of the result of all his work and in his mind a snow day and a closed office was the perfect opportunity not to stay home, but to go out driving to road test his toy. He drove around the block and was so excited about how well it did, he wanted to take me for a ride too. He installed Jennifer’s safety seat in the back and we loaded up for a trip to the grocery store (everything else was closed because of the snow so there wasn’t really anywhere to go).

On a snow day in Birmingham a grocery store is a happening place. When the whole city shuts down, everybody wants to eat snacks and make chili—and it’s almost a rule that the minute the weatherman says the word snow, every resident in the city goes to the store for a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, and a jar of peanut butter. Don’t ask why; that’s just what we do in Birmingham. The Bruno’s store on Montevallo Road was packed that morning. The store was operating with a skeleton staff and the lines were halfway back to the meat department. In the store, people were talking to friends and neighbors telling their war stories of how high the snowdrifts were in their yards, how many fallen trees they’d seen, and how they had managed to get to the store. David talked to someone he knew who had walked all the way from Crestline. When David told him he had come to the store in his four-wheel-drive Bronco, the guy asked David if he could give him a ride back (it was still freezing outside after all). David was thrilled to be able to help.

The man thanked David for the ride and said if we’d drop him off on the corner of his street he’d walk the rest of the way home. He lived on the high side of Euclid Avenue and he never imagined that anyone—not even in a four-wheel drive vehicle—would attempt to drive up such a steep, icy hill. But this is David we are talking about—the Alabamian who went up a hill…

I don’t know what David was thinking. He drove up that long, steep hill like it was a sunshiny day in springtime. He was quite proud of himself for making it to the top. After the friend got out and again thanked him for the ride, David turned around. That’s when the trouble started. Somehow it just never crossed his mind how he was going to get back down. From the top the street looked like a cross between the grand finale drop of a roller coaster and a bowling lane where a gutter ball could be deadly. David drove over one block to see if that route looked easier and it didn’t. Like a crouching cat about to leap, David sat in the driver’s seat of that huge green Bronco with his eyes darting from side to side down that long, steep, narrow lane. The street itself was covered in ice and snow. On either side were small perfect yards, posh houses, and street-parked European luxury cars covered in snow. The cars’ hood ornaments peeped out of the snow blankets like sparkling dollar signs mockingly reminding us of how expensive this downhill drive would be if David did it wrong. We both knew that once he took his foot off the brake and tapped the gas pedal, he’d be committed. (The word committed here has a little double entendre and they both fit. He was obviously crazy to try this but that didn’t seem to matter.)

I sat in the back seat praying and holding onto Jennifer’s car seat. She craned her neck to see between the two tall front seats and gripped the chest guard of her child seat so tight her little fingertips turned white. No one said a word. About halfway down the hill that huge vehicle started to slide. I became acutely aware of a house on the left side of the street. Built low on the hillside, the house’s sparkling picture window was right at street level and we were sliding straight toward it. With the momentum we had going I figured we’d go airborne, miss the yard, crash through the window, and land in the living room right in front of the fireplace.

Instead, David managed to guide the skid. The slight lip at the edge of street changed the course of our slide and like a queue ball on a billiard table we bumped from side to side between the cars parked on both sides of the street. We only hit one mailbox but it sustained no visible damage. There was just a small scratch on the Bronco door—a souvenir of the trip.

Once we got home and our knees quit shaking and our heart rates returned to normal, David said that there would be a permanent imprint of his rear in the driver’s seat from where he had gripped so tightly. For the next six months, every time we got into the Bronco or drove down Euclid Avenue, Jennifer said, “Please Daddy, not go up that hill again.” My sentiments exactly.

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What he was born to do

As adorable as he is, and despite the fact that he does spend a lot of time indoors, Bean is not a parlor dog. He is, in the vernacular of the South, “a huntin’ dog.” Boykin Spaniels were originally bred to flush wild turkeys in damp, marshy areas. Bean has amazing instincts for hunting. He absolutely loves sniffing and flushing and retrieving. He is ecstatic when he has a job. It’s what he was born to do and you can tell. If it’s possible for dogs to smile, Bean does just that when he is fetching and running and chasing birds.

On the other hand, if you ever want to see one sad puppy, catch Bean on a rainy day or a day when he hasn’t had a chance to run and explore the yard. He is so miserable, it makes me feel awful. He just doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself. He sniffs and snorts and carries a training bumper around the house. He’s pitiful. He sort of acts like a horse that’s anxious to run—you just can’t rein him in. He knows he is out of sorts, but he’s not sure why.

Christians get the same way when we don’t do what we were created to do. The Bible tells us that we were created to fellowship with God and give Him pleasure. We were designed to be God’s friends and companions. When we don’t spend time with Him, we are just like Bean without a romp—antsy for no apparent reason. When we miss out on the vital communication with our creator, we don’t know what to do with ourselves. We don’t know which way to go or what we ought to be doing. We often compensate with frenetic activities—sometimes good ones like serving others and doing good deeds and even church activities. But those activities don’t fill our need for communion with God any more than Bean carrying a training bumper satisfies his need to hunt.

“May He grant you according to your heart’s desire, And fulfill all your purpose.” (Psalm 20:4 NKJV)

 This story is part of a series I call “Bean Parables.” These are life lessons I’ve learned from my two Boykin Spaniels named Cocoa and Bean.

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Mama Howard’s Thanksgiving

My Great-Grandmother was known to half the county as “Mama Howard.” One year when I was in my twenties we were all having Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ house and my mother called to invite Mama Howard over to eat with us. Mama Howard declined the invitation and Mother was horrified, “But it’s Thanksgiving.” Mama Howard told her she did not need a special day on a calendar to be thankful. She was thankful every day. Besides, she was busy and couldn’t spare the time. Later that afternoon, we went over to visit her (and to see what was keeping her so busy she couldn’t stop for lunch). When we got there we found her busy at her sewing machine, piecing quilts. Before she died, she had made quilts for all of her 11 children, 33 grandchildren, 66 great-grandchildren, and 11 great-great-grandchildren. I think tonight it’s cold enough to cover up in my quilt and be thankful.

The pictures with this post were taken in the 1970s by my cousin Bill Howard. Bill is officially my mother’s first cousin. But in our family, the sophisticated designations like second cousin twice removed are way too complicated. We are all just plain cousins.

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A Touch of the Master’s Hands

Our Boykin Spaniel, Cocoa, has never met a human she doesn’t love. Big, little, bold or timid. If someone is offering ear scratches or belly rubs, Cocoa is their friend. She was in doggie heaven the day we took her to our church’s Fall Festival. Little kids in costumes accompanied by parents and grandparents filled the church parking lot. Teenagers and college students were helping with games and activities. They all seemed to want to love on Cocoa and she ate it up—along with every dropped popcorn kernel she could get her tongue on.

A commotion across the parking lot heralded the arrival of one of the church’s senior deacons. Dr. Kent had been gravely ill for quite some time and it was surprising to see him out and about. I knew Dr. Kent and his wife well enough to speak in passing but not well enough to make a beeline across the parking lot to speak to them. Cocoa, however, was mysteriously drawn to this man and no discipline techniques I’d learned in doggie obedience classes prevented her from dragging me over to Dr. Kent. It was a little bit embarrassing. She clambered over kids and nearly knocked over two older ladies to get to the front of the line of people gathered to speak to Dr. Kent.

When Cocoa got to Dr. Kent, his face lit up and I suddenly noticed that he was as drawn to her as she was to him. For a brief moment my little brown dog and this ailing man I barely knew seemed to revel in each other’s presence. He touched her head and it was different from the dozens of other people who had patted her soft brown curls that afternoon. Dr. Kent’s hands were practiced—both firm and gentle. All afternoon people had been asking me what kind of dog Cocoa was and how old she was. Dr. Kent had never met her but he knew. He knew what kind of dog she was. With fingers that seemed to work instinctively, he felt her head and her teeth then he told me how old she was.

Did I mention that Dr. Kent was a retired veterinarian? Seemingly as a matter of habit, Dr. Kent had examined Cocoa. It was a beautiful, loving touch of a master’s hands. Just as beautiful was Cocoa’s adoring response to the touch of this master’s hands.

Oh, to be like Cocoa—to be drawn toward The Master—uninhibited and unhindered; to feel The Master working in my life and to adore being held by The One who knows me better than anyone else.

“I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.” John 10:14

This story is an installment of “The Bean Parables.” These are life lessons I’ve learned from life with two adorable Boykin Spaniels named Bean and Cocoa.

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