One Starry Night

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Following is an excerpt from “Christmas Carols in my Heart,” my new Christmas book just out this fall.

I love stories. The words “Once upon a time…” make my ears perk up. This song (“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”) begins like a story: “It came upon the midnight clear…”

Who knows whether the setting was really midnight, but it could have been! When I was nine years old, I wasn’t worried about theology or philosophy–I simply absorbed the story and enjoyed singing the words that etched themselves into my heart for later perusal. The real night referenced in the song very well could have been a night like the one when I, along with several of my brothers and sisters, took a very special Christmas Eve walk.

My two playmate brothers (the other three had already left home by then) had been building a small house in our woods that fall of 1951. They had allowed five-year-old Suzanne and me to help…up to a point. As soon as the house was “dried in” and ready to be enjoyed, they put us out. We were forced to find our own amusement. Hopeful that the hammering and sawing we heard might mean the boys were making us a present, we tried to think of something we could give them in turn. Mamma helped us hem handkerchiefs after we gave up on our efforts at pottery and aircraft construction.

Christmas Eve finally, finally, arrived. Mamma and Daddy banned us from the Hall (main room at Stone Gables with living area on one end, dining on the other) about five o’clock that afternoon so they could bring in the Christmas tree and decorate it. We could hear swishing and sliding as they wangled the tree in and Daddy instructed Mamma, “All right, now, up she goes.” Mamma then apparently eyed the tree’s straightness and replied, “No, to the right, little to the left, there–that’s good. Here’s the string. Catch!” We knew Daddy was tying the tree to the balcony rail.

Even the oldest girls, Pat and Ginger, home from college, were not to see the tree until the candles were all lit and Daddu blew the trumpet. Instead, they were in charge of feeding the rest of us supper. But no one was hungry except Stan, who was never full.

Suddenly, instead of prodding us to eat our bread and milk, Pat put on her big coat, fluffing her hair out over the collar. She grabbed coats for Suzanne and me too. Everyone else started moving and preparing themselves in turn. Somehow, Suzanne and I seemed to be the only ones who didn’t know what we were doing.

“Oh, Suzanne, where are your mittens?” asked Ginger.

“They’re in my coat pocket,” I said. “Suzanne’s coat doesn’t have pockets. Anyway, our mittens are so full of holes our fingers are sticking out.”

“Well, that’s a good thing,” said Pat, helping Ginger fit them on us. “If it weren’t for the holes they’d be too little. Hmmm…too bad you two don’t have new mittens. That’s a shame.” She sounded as if she was telling a joke, but I wasn’t getting it.

It was a moonlit night with a dome of stars overhead. The sky was so clear it felt almost as if the lights above were pulling my eyes right out of my head. Someone started singing “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” as we trailed down Sunny Lawn, across Sand Flat, and crunched in the frozen ruts of an old road that wound around Tulip Hill. I could almost imagine one of those angels appearing in our path and “bending near,” especially when Pat said in a hushed voice, “There! Do you see that one bright star?” We followed her pointing finger and, sure enough, the brightest star actually did have a shining longer tail like the stars featured on Christmas cards.

Suzanne and I were so intent on studying the stars that we didn’t notice Stan, Charlie, and Jackie running on ahead, leaving us far behind. The cold crept into my holey mittens and I fisted my hands to warm them. It had gotten pretty dark in the deeper woods, and I stayed close by Pat’s side, glad when she took one of my hands in hers. At least that one could be warm. Then, in the most startling voice, Ginger said, “Halt! Look through the trees! What is that?”

For the tiniest second, I thought, The angel has come down! Then I took a deep breath of cold air and realized the light before me, like a tiny pinpoint through the trees, was coming from exactly where that little house was–the one from which Suzanne and I had been exiled weeks before. I let go of Pat’s hand and, suddenly fearless, dashed ahead.

The Little House, as we began to call it, had been furnished and decorated by Jackie and our brothers. It was the most fantastic playhouse anyone could have imagined. There was wallpaper, a stove, a quilted doll-sized bed, and a window adorned with curtains above a sill on which a candle gleamed. Fifty years later, I remember the pounding excitement in my chest when I took it all in. The Little House was a gift of love that would last long after the walls caved in and the shingles disintegrated.

It was time to hurry back to our home, Stone Gables, and line up for the Christmas tree. I can still taste the piece of hard candy I ate, feel the warmth of  my new mittens, and smell the tantalizing scent of my brand-new book.

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Christmas Carols in my Heart is available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com and, locally, at Center Drugs, Miss Myrt’s, Rayann’s, and the Bookshelf. I’m also going to have a table at Mistletoe Market, downtown Cairo, on Saturday and will be hosted at a tea at Roddenbery Memorial Library, December 12, 4:00-6:00. I would love to have a chat with you!

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One Memorable Thanksgiving

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South Georgia Color

The pumpkin pies are out of the oven, the turkey is almost thawed. The Japanese maples are jubilantly red in the sunshine and our tiny gingko tree is bravely waving golden leaves. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a wonderful season of celebration. All our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren will be around our table(s) and we are so excited. In all the preparations with the house full of the scents of cinnamon, nutmeg, of onions glazing, and nuts roasting, my mind wandered to a wonderful Thanksgiving 51 years ago.

I was in the hospital. Not because I had a fever or appendicitis. Not recovering from surgery or a broken limb. I was there because on the 25th of November, the Monday before Thanksgiving, I had given birth to a beautiful baby boy. In 1968 the maternity hospital stay was a standard of five days.

I woke that morning jubilantly grateful and excited about what the day would bring. On that day the hospital bent their rules and would allow husbands to have Thanksgiving dinner with the new mothers. I had hardly seen Charles since the night William was born. Dr. Maddox had left on Tuesday so Charles had the whole veterinary practice on his own, quite a challenge for someone who had only been out of vet school for six months.

But today was Thanksgiving and the animal hospital would be closed. I looked forward with great anticipation to his coming, to our actually having dinner together. I nursed my baby that morning, enthralled with his sweet face, his tiny hands and feet. I explained to him that his father would be coming that day but he would only see him through the glass of the nursery window. “But soon,” I promised, “we’ll all be at home, a whole family, and you can see your father face to face.”

The nurse came and took William back to the nursery and I tried to concentrate on the book I was reading. Every time I heard a step in the hall I’d look up expectantly. When was that door going to open and let me see Charles with his big proud smile?

The dinner trays were delivered, one for each of us. I peeked under lids to see what to look forward to: sliced turkey with gravy, moist dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, I think, for dessert. I was wildly hungry but I wouldn’t think of eating until Charles got there.

What could have happened to him? Surely there couldn’t have been emergencies the whole long morning. Had he gotten stuck on some farm? Had he had a wreck? I had no way of knowing. The nurse came in and warned me that I’d better go ahead and eat. “We’ll be bringing the babies out in a little while,” she said. That nurse was very strict about her babies being nursed on schedule and the moms fully prepared. As I was to learn, she was very strict about fathers too.

I obediently began to eat the now cold food. There was a note on my tray that lifted my spirits. A child in a local church had written a Bible verse on a little card and it was tucked under the side of my plate. It said something like “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The child had then added in crooked letters the message “God loves you and I do too.” Maybe my little boy would be writing a card like that some day to cheer a lonely person in the hospital.

It was about 2:00, I think, when Charles finally arrived. The minute I saw his face I knew he was so tired he could have dropped in his tracks but he was smiling and apologizing for being late. “A morning that just wouldn’t stop,” he said. He began eating hungrily as he told me details of case after case.

I heard the nurse calling down the hall, “Babies with their mothers. All visitors must leave.” I was always so thrilled to have time with my baby. But now? The sour faced nurse came in and gave Charles a hard stare before saying in her sergeant’s voice, “Fathers are not allowed in the rooms while babies are in.”

I got up the nerve to speak. “He just got here. Couldn’t my baby be the last one you bring out?”

The nurse didn’t say a word. She just pointed at Charles sitting there with his tray in his lap and then she made a sweeping motion toward the door. Charles left his tray, gave me a wink, and started out.

“Couldn’t you wait in the lobby?” I asked. “It will only be an hour.”

“Sorry, but I’m on call, you know. Have to get back to the phone.”

The nurse impatiently ushered him out as if he were a criminal or something.

As I nursed little William I told him, “Just wait till Saturday. We’ll all be home on Saturday and you will get to know your father.”

And we were. Charles lovingly cuddled his son, burped him, even changed diapers. And we’ve been able to laugh many times about the sergeant nurse who drove him out of my room that Thanksgiving Day.

William is 51 this year. He has a beautiful wife and three children, the oldest of whom (also named William) is now slightly taller than his 6’2″ dad. Hard to believe he was ever so small! And to think of the blessings we’ve enjoyed in the intervening years!

For all our family and other rich gifts from the Lord we give thanks.

May you have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day!

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Cow Crafting

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Married to a veterinarian for almost 54 years, I’ve heard about, witnessed, even occasionally helped with hundreds of calvings. As a child, on occasion, I knew the feel of a cow’s side against my forehead while milking, the sound of the milk hitting the bottom of the bucket. I’ve wheedled cows into a stable, hunted them when they were lost, and coaxed a calf to suck milk in a bucket with my fingers. I even wrote a children’s book about “One Brown Cow,” a lonely cow who had been willed her pasture for life. But this week for the first time my veterinarian and I completed the crafting of a life size cow for our manger scene.

We created the first figures for our manger scene (with the help of Fred and Linda Bearden) about ten years ago: Joseph, Mary, the Baby Jesus, and three sheep. Then, after several years we made a docile gray donkey. Now, finally, we have a cow.

After we stenciled the outer pattern onto a sheet of ply board, Charles began the tedious job of cutting using a jigsaw. My job was to hold the extraneous pieces of wood as they were cut loose. We were so excited to see the cow take shape.

Time passed before we could start getting the cow ready to paint. We used a brown as near to that suggested by the pattern as we could find. It doesn’t quite look like any cow I’ve ever seen! More time passed before we started stenciling the features onto the “old” girl. Then, finally, this week, we actually painted eyes, ears, nose, tail and demarcations to show her bone structure, her shape.

Neither of us is an artist, a fact anyone will know when looking at our creations. They are crudely painted but with much love which, the Bible says, covers a multitude of sins (I Peter 4:8). But Charles does know the anatomy of a cow. He should after having spent his life tending to them, operating on them, chasing them down, inoculating them and even performing necropsies to determine their cause of death. So, though the pattern was not always accurate, Charles could fill in the “gaps” with his knowledge of the shape of bones, where this line should end, where another would help to give more substance to our cow. Neither of us is happy with the ears, partly because of that awful Pepto Bismol pink on the inner ear. But, somehow, the overall appearance is such that we can almost imagine this cow mooing on the night Jesus was born.

The art in my little cow book is referred to as “whimsical art.” Maybe what we’ve done on this poor cow is akin to that cartoonish creativity. (My apologies to all artists.)

Anyway, we’ve decided she will “do.” She doesn’t have to give milk, mother a calf, browse a pasture, chew the cud, or anything strenuous. Her only job is to be part of a scene that reminds folks of that holy night in Bethlehem when Jesus was born.

 

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Persimmon Time

Persimmons have a color all their own. Under their scalloped black hats is a pinkish orange with pale blue gray shadows.  This time of year you can see them still clinging to wispy branches after leaves have fallen, like tiny bright birds ready for flight.

There was a persimmon tree near the porch of the cottage where my parents set up housekeeping.

When they built their new stone house at the top of the hill, Mom and Dad rented the cottage to summer vacationers or used it for a guest house. We kids found it a grand place to play when it was unoccupied. A trunk full of clothes from the 1890s provided costumes for our many impromptu plays. A spinning wheel seemed right ready to go to work if we’d had our great grandmother’s skills and materials. And, to make the place chillingly scary, there were two six foot rattlesnake skins my father had kept from his days homesteading on Cape Canaveral. And, joy of joys, in October the persimmons began to fall giving us wonderful refreshment.

There weren’t any low limbs on the tree and it was a hard one to climb so we had to wait for the fruit to fall. When a persimmon plunked into the grass it split in tiny cracks giving one a peek of the sweet orangey inside. If it didn’t squish down juicily it probably wasn’t ripe and if a sibling teased you into biting into it your mouth would go into a torture twist for five minutes. The juicy ones, though, were incredibly sweet and delicious. You had to be on the lookout for those plops or they would be attacked by bees and ants before you could claim them.

My mother made persimmon pudding if we managed to take her enough fruit both from that tree and another one in the meadow. Her pudding was absolutely heavenly, better than sweet potato casserole. Sometimes the boys brought a possum instead of a bucket of persimmons. The possums liked that fruit too, enough that they’d risk being treed by boys and dogs on a moonlit night.

Years later, after Charles and I moved to South Georgia, I met another persimmon tree. It grew in a corner of the pasture behind Mama and Papa Graham’s house. I was so thrilled to find it, like an old friend in a far country. But I never really captured enough fruit to do any more than snack on one or two. I couldn’t set a watch on the tree and the pasture grass was not particularly clean.

Yes, you can buy persimmons at the market. They will be much bigger than the wild ones, maybe almost as big as a tennis ball instead of barely ping pong ball size. They will not be soft or quite so full of seeds but will be quite firm. The color will be that same indescribably orangey pink but without the pale blue gray shadows. And the taste? The market persimmons are good but if you’ve ever eaten the wild ones you will be disappointed in those you buy.

A year or two ago our friends Johnny and Susan Hancock brought us persimmons from their tree. They were large and sweet, almost as good as the little wild ones from the tree beside the cottage, and I enjoyed them so much. The taste reminded me of those days when my siblings and I vied to see who would get each persimmon that fell. In addition to savoring the bit of sweet fruit, we also enjoyed seeing how far we could spit the seeds.

As October turns into November and the fields are white with cotton; as the sweetgums grow bright and goldenrods fade beside the fences; as you drive across the countryside enjoying the autumn scenes, look for a persimmon tree growing at the edge of a pasture. The leaves will have fallen, leaving exposed the tiny orangey pink fruits ready to plop into the grass–unless a hungry possum gets them first. Do the possums’ mouths go into a torture twist if they eat persimmons before they’re ripe?

He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work. Psalm 104:13

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One Gray Day on the Seashore

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October is one of our favorite times to enjoy the beach. There’s something restorative, healing, and inspirational about simply being at the seashore. We’re not sunbathers so an overcast day was a blessing to us. One day we rented three chairs and established our home base from which we could take walks, wade in the edge of the lacy waves, and hunt for the seashell that could not be left behind.

We watched families having a good time digging in the sand, flying a kite, taking a few daring swims in the cool water. There were walkers who were intent on exercise and strollers out to absorb the majesty and greatness of the ocean. Some of the walkers had ear bauds and I guess were enjoying their music more than hearing the rhythms of the sea. Maybe they lived nearby in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and were so used to the sand and the sea that it would be boring to walk without some entertainment. I can’t imagine that!

Walkers with dogs strolled or ran by. It’s always interesting to see how owners and dogs have similarities. For instance, a girl with long swinging blonde hair was accompanied by a fluffy haired golden retriever, a large muscular man kept pace with a hefty bulldog. But then there were the unmatched owners and dogs eliciting a giggle from one or other of us (after they passed, of course!). Those would be a giant guy with macho tank top trying o keep up with a dainty teacup poodle or a gray haired petite lady running to stay in step with a St. Bernard, her hand at waist level lightly touching his back as they went.

Since we were so interested in the people who walked and played on the beach, I can only think that others might have watched us at times. Here was Charles fully clad in long pants and button collar shirt taking time to do some crazy form of two-step and bow low as we passed a group of beach sitters. Here I came barefoot and in my swimsuit (a very decent one!) plodding along and using my trusty walking cane to dislodge seashells I might want to claim. And thirdly, Charles’ sister Revonda walked gracefully along in her suit and bare feet. Usually she was in front taking in the whole scene, hunting shells, and feeling the ocean breeze in her beautiful silvery hair.

We were all three reading when Charles got up to take one of his frequent strolls down the beach. When he appeared again he was carrying a bag from which he pulled three orders of hot crisp nachos and cheese. Nothing ever tasted any better than that treat on the beach! We watched the waves roll in as we munched and refrained from feeding seagulls that came close to eye us with jealousy.

There weren’t many children around that day. It wasn’t a school holiday for most. But the ones who were there were certainly having a good time. One father with two or three children made a sand monster so real it almost took off towards the water. That family reminded me of our Will who has always taken opportunities to build forts and castles with his children. Then there was a family flying a kite, members taking turns being the kite flyer and retriever when it plummeted sandward. One group built a small volcano-looking production and left it with a shell on top like a cap. We admired it since it was right in front of us, between us and the sea. The funny thing about that volcano was that a perky little Jack Russell came along and hoisted his leg, carefully marking that very sculpture, then frisked on down the beach behind his owner. Oh, the brevity of success!

I finally found the shell for the day, a perfectly formed shell with ridges on the outside, a pinkish gray interior. It was rough around the edges from its terrible tumble in the sea, from grating across sand and maybe being tossed in a storm. It probably could hold about one fourth cup of water. It easily fits in my hand where I can rub it and feel a connection somehow to the vastness of the ocean and to the Creator Who made the sea and the tiny creatures.

Scenes to remember from our gray day on the beach: blue-gray water disturbed by zillions of whitecaps and stretching all the way to a pearl gray sky; boats of various descriptions plying their way across the whitecaps; fishermen with poles secured upright as they sat back smoking while they waited for the lines to go taut; a mama with two small children introducing them to the water; a brave swimmer striking out as if to reach Ireland but heading ashore in five minutes; great waves forever rolling in, splashing white on the shore and sucking the sand as they simmered down in time for the next one to crash; the pearly smooth wet surface of sand reflecting the sky as a wave recedes; the expanse of beach between the waves and the dunes held secure by the gentle strength of sea oats.

As we enjoyed our day on the beach I kept thinking of lines from Lord Byron’s “Childe Harold”: Roll on, thou deep blue ocean roll. Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain; Man marks the shore with ruin, his control stops with the shore.

Unfortunately, man is now marking the ocean with plastic and oil. But, ultimately, God will make it all new.

As we gathered our things and headed back to our rooms, I looked once more across the sea. The sun was trying to break through the clouds making a bright path of light across the water.

 

 

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Grandma’s Biscuit Pan

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Grandma’s Biscuit Pan

It’s amazing how inanimate objects can take on life as you remember who used them before, who gave them to you, their storied background.  I’m not talking about what would be considered heirlooms. For instance, Grandma’s biscuit mixing pan.

It’s just a simple aluminum pan with a zillion crinkles as if it’s been through a few battles. The crinkles remind me of sweet Grandma Sue Mote’s softly wrinkled face. She was my husband’s grandmother. I didn’t know her until I became part of his family and, by then, Grandma’s home was a gathering place for her six children and dozens of grandchildren and great grandchildren. I only remember seeing her use this little pan a time or two but I can imagine her now pinching a biscuit size bit of dough from this pan, patting it out in her hand and adding it to others ready to bake.

When Grandma died and her girls distributed her things, I was very honored to receive the biscuit pan. It brings back memories of her simple kitchen, her hand sewn curtains and aprons, the smell of chicken and dumplings on the stove, the happy crowd of cousins that spilled out into her carport and the yard. She was never prouder than when everyone came for her birthday or at Christmas.

I admit I no longer use this little pan to mix biscuit dough in, even when I rarely make biscuits. But I do use it for mealing a mess of catfish to fry or I slice okra into it. And when I do, I remember Grandma Sue, her sweet smile, her perfectly white hair and her joy in simple pleasures like cooking for her family.

Then there are those knives with a history. You probably have some like that too. For instance, the shiny little paring knife my mother gave me when she visited one time. She sat down to cut apples for me and was very displeased with the knife I produced for her to use. Later in the day she told me we had to go to the store and, once there, she chose this sharp dependable paring knife that, after thirty years, is still doing its job. “Every cook has to have a good knife,” she said.

Another knife is known by the whole family as “the good knife.” It is a chunky big wooden handled knife which keeps a good edge, and is just right for halving a head of cabbage or carving a roasted turkey. I don’t usually tell anyone how we acquired this knife. They might think it could never have been sterilized enough to forget its first life. But it was my husband’s necropsy knife when he was in veterinary school. Yes, it cut up some pretty gross stuff, I know. It was his own personal necropsy knife purchased at a dear price. His name is etched into the blade. That’s how we’ve found it numerous times after it was lost at the church, on a fishing trip, at family gatherings. When cutting a watermelon or slicing ham, that is the knife of choice.

But I have a favorite new knife as well. My sister Suzanne and her husband Bill gave me a really sweet little paring knife bought in Amish country. It will peel, slice, chop, shred just about anything. I treasure it and keep it in its very own slot.

One of my favorite things is an oblong shallow wooden bowl used by my  mother. Somehow, out of a family of ten, I became the new owner. It’s too cracked and worn now for me to use but I can enjoy it displaying decorative fruit or other pretty things. I remember Mamma chopping cabbage for kraut in it (no wonder it’s so scarred!), mixing bread, or making potato salad. I can almost taste the bread she cooked on a flat griddle on her woodburning stove. That flat bread was a standby for her when the day suddenly arrived at suppertime and she had so many mouths to feed quickly. And oh, how good, slathered with her freshly churned butter!

I have a cooking fork acquired from a sister-in-law’s things, a wonderful long heavy stainless steel spoon perfect for stirring jelly given to me by my daughter Julie for Christmas one year, an ice cream scoop that is the best, given to me by my son Will and his wife Christi. A scratched pitiful looking cutting board reminds me of when we first moved to Cairo and the Welcome Wagon lady came calling. She was as friendly as her title indicated and she gave us a bag of items from downtown merchants. This cutting board from Wight Hardware ( a store long since gone) has been so serviceable and has long outlasted all the other gifts.

These are not the things I’d grab if the house were burning down. I’d grab my Bible and my purse. But I sure would miss these simple handy time-proven objects that remind me of many dear folk.

 

 

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Little Drummer Lady

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A window at North Myrtle Beach First Baptist Church

While on vacation last week we visited First Baptist Church, North Myrtle Beach. Visiting churches in other towns, other states, other countries not only is an opportunity to worship the Lord, but also is a great way to identify with the people in that locale. It is always interesting, whether we’re startled by the crowing of a rooster in Kauai at the very point of Peter’s denial, or hearing a sermon in two languages in Aruba, or being part of Youth Sunday in Bromley, England.

We (Charles, Revonda, and I) had found this church while heading north to eat seafood in Calabash, North Carolina. It looked like a lively church so we checked their schedule and made plans to be there on Sunday morning.

The church was warm and welcoming. We perceived there were many other guests that morning and wondered if it were usually like that. In fact, we found ourselves welcoming other guests to church!

The congregation grew and grew, several being seated by an usher who was a big jolly guy with a ready smile and handshake. I talked to a couple from Charlottesville, Virginia who, also, were there for the first time. Charles nudged me to notice a white headed lady who appeared to be preparing to play an organ. There was an air of excitement as members greeted each other and then a hush as the worship leader welcomed us and invited us to sing.

We were happily singing praises when I looked over at the “organist” and realized she wasn’t playing an organ at all. She was playing timpani drums! She was a dainty little lady and her hands moved with such grace from one drum to another with what seemed musical accuracy, each beat right on time. Once having discovered her, I could hardly keep my eyes off her. Her hair was white as a fluffy cloud, her figure slim and erect and her drum beats so effective, like exclamation points in a script.

The sermon was very good, the music wonderful, and the members caring. There was even a lady at the door as we left passing out loaves of bread to first time attenders. But I was sorry I didn’t have a chance to speak to the little drummer lady. When we asked the worship leader about her, he smiled really big. “Oh, yes, would you believe she’s in her mid-eighties?”

I thought he would go on to say the lady had been playing drums all her life and just wouldn’t give up. But what he said was that she’d only been playing for three years. He said she decided to learn to play drums at about 83 and had perfected her skills so she could accompany the other instruments, a brass ensemble, in church.

We came away blessed by this outreaching church, an inspiring sermon, other friendly visitors, two loaves of bread, and the humble, graceful “little drummer lady.”

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