The Mouse that Came Forward

Common house mouse (Mus musculus), wild type.

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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

Fireplace.

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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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Sounds of the Times

While the beauty of the Ocala National Forest is indescribable, the sounds of the forest were memorable as well. On warm summer nights chirping crickets and croaking bullfrogs filled the air with a sound as big as a big bass drum. Throw in the bellow of a bull alligator and a chorus of owls and it made an unforgettable concert indeed.

On summer afternoons the sound of thunder rumbling in the distance was a prelude to the frantic sounds of preparation: Run to gather in the clothes drying on the clothesline, prop the wicker rocking chairs on the porch so the cushions wouldn’t get wet, roll up the car windows, and run through the house closing windows. Then stand on the porch watching the rain come across the lake. The glassy surface of the water turned wavy as the wall of rain came closer. Someone inevitably quoted Moby Dick with a shout of, “Thar she blows.” Finally a deafening crescendo as the raindrops hit the tin roof of our little wooden house.

Those forest sounds were timeless but other forest sounds were sounds of the times. I remember days when we watched the fuzzy images on our black and white television as NBC News broadcast a countdown of a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral. Right after liftoff we would rush outside to scan the skies for a peek at the rocket hurtling toward outer space.

On some days the sonic booms were much closer. The forest was home to a military practice bombing range. The jets rattled the windows and we felt the bombs explode. Pilots often flew frighteningly low over Church Lake and at times neighbors called commanders to complain about how close the pilots flew. The sounds of the planes and the bombs brought to mind the sounds of the nightly news where we heard about the war in Vietnam. On Wednesday nights during the church’s weekly prayer meeting, I heard prayers for the soldiers. I heard men, women, and teenagers pray for soldiers by name—their sons, nephews, boyfriends, classmates. Their prayers were simple and personal and real. Just on the other side of the church from our little wooden house was the church cemetery. I remember being at home and hearing the jolting sounds of the 21-gun salutes during funerals for soldiers.

On other days the sounds of the forest were quieter. Hymns chiming from the church steeple. The low hum of Mother’s New Home sewing machine and her sweet soprano singing while she worked. Ski boats on the lake. Swimmers laughing and splashing. Burgers sizzling on the grill. And the sound of fallen oak leaves skittering across the yard in the wind. The sounds of peace. And freedom.

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