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Beautiful On The Mountain
When there was trouble in Graves Mill, God sent the most unlikely answer
By Jeannie Light, Bonne Steffen
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Jeannie Light
All rights reserved.
HEADWATERS: ROME, JULY 4, 1976
It cannot be stated definitely what the call of God is to, because His call is to be in comradeship with Himself for His own purposes, and the test is to believe that God knows what He is after. OSWALD CHAMBERS
Someone said that obedience is a long walk in the same direction. It is one step at a time, one day at a time. We take wrong turns; we lose our way. There are no maps, but we follow a Voice—the Word—and love propels us onward.
For me, it all began in Rome.
My godparents had advised me to take a trip to Europe in the summer of 1976 because my ten-year marriage into a well-known Midwestern family was in serious trouble. At breakfast several months earlier, my husband, Harvey, had announced that he was very unhappy.
"Perhaps you should see a counselor," I said, feeling helpless.
"Maybe," he replied, looking woebegone.
"I can go and stay with Mama-san for a few days," I suggested, hoping that might help.
Frances Lee Lull, known to all her close friends as Mama-san, had taken me under her wing years before. I was certain she would be a wise counselor and that her kindness would bring some comfort to my fear and hurt.
"Don't do that!" Harvey exclaimed. "Think of the gossip! I don't want rumors on the county grapevine that we're having any trouble!"
"If I am away, you'll have time to think," I replied, pushing my breakfast aside. Food was the last thing I wanted at the moment.
I did pack an overnight case and drove to Springhill, Mama-san's farm, to see her. She took one look at me and showed me to the guest room. Harvey did call a counselor, a man reputed to be the best Charlottesville, Virginia, offered. In a few days he was enrolled in a transactional analysis group. When I told our pastor about the type of counseling my husband was receiving, he wasn't happy. In fact, he told me that being a part of those groups almost always led to divorce. After talking with Pastor Hall, I returned home and shared his warning with Harvey, then asked him to go with me to see our pastor.
He politely refused. He was delighted with the analysis program and was sure it was exactly what he needed.
"What is it?" I wanted to know.
He rubbed his temple. "Families have 'hot potatoes,'" he explained carefully. "These are issues they can't resolve so they pass them on to the next generation. Our marriage is a 'hot potato.'"
I stared at him in shock and disbelief. "Well, can I join that group?" I refrained from observing that it seemed to me that divorce, rather than marriage, might be the "hot potato."
"I need to do this alone," Harvey replied.
I was more than a little afraid of whatever transactional analysis might be and didn't push the issue, but when I told him my plans to move back home from Mama-san's, he was not pleased.
Soon, according to neighborhood gossip, he was involved with a member of the analysis circle, a local girl who also happened to be one of my friends. I knew her well; I trusted my husband's integrity and could not believe there was any substance to the rumors. However, the two were working together on a committee planning the county's celebration for the US Bicentennial, so it was awkward. My godparents thought the trip to Europe would spare me the embarrassment of the occasion, grant me a clearer perspective, and provide my husband space for reflection and a change of heart.
I didn't have any better ideas for what to do about my failing marriage, so I took their advice. And since I'd never visited Italy, I planned to spend two weeks in Rome after visiting old friends in Sweden. The itinerary for the summer also included time at L'Abri (the Christian retreat in Switzerland founded by Francis and Edith Schaeffer), the Salzburg International Arts Festival in Austria, and a few days in Germany with a friend from college days. In all, I would spend just over two months abroad.
* * *
Like most tourists in Italy, I tried to take in as much as possible in a short amount of time. I saw Michelangelo's Pietà, stood transfixed before Raphael's magnificent works, and trekked through the basilicas of St. Peter's and St. John Lateran. I walked and walked the ancient cobbled streets and city squares. Whenever I found a church, I would stop to pray. The most comfortable and comforting places were the small parish churches where no American tourists ever ventured, where elderly local matrons knelt in silence, heads covered with black veils. I was silent too. I had no specific petitions except a heart's cry for peace and direction. Sometimes despite my best efforts, I'd visualize my three-story Southern plantation house sitting behind its clipped boxwood hedges and Mary Helen, my beloved housekeeper and friend, standing in the doorway, smiling broadly.
On the Fourth of July, Pope Paul VI had promised a 1:00 p.m. audience for Americans abroad. The summer sun was almost directly overhead when I joined the motley lot congregated in St. Peter's Square. There were some turned collars and habits here and there scattered in the crowd, but the majority of those gathered were American tourists or businesspeople who happened to be in Rome that day. Most, like me, wore sandals and bright permanent-press shirts. Some held small American flags.
Although I wasn't a Roman Catholic, I had decided to join the faithful. I admired this pope's efforts to reach multitudes professing no religion at all, as well as those adhering to non-Christian faiths. I'd read of his efforts to internationalize the Roman Curia (the governing body of the Catholic church) and of his untiring work for peace. I recalled his visit to the United Nations in New York in 1965—the first papal visit to the Western Hemisphere—and his often-controversial efforts to implement the work of the Second Vatican Council. The truth was, though, that I was alone in the city, homesick, and scared, and I wanted to do something to celebrate the Bicentennial. An audience with the pope seemed the best available choice. At least I'd be with other Americans on this special day.
I arrived early. To my surprise, several hundred people had already gathered. I worked my way through the crowd until I was fairly close to the balcony where the pope was supposed to address us. I searched the faces of those around me; they showed no trace of the usual Independence Day exuberance. Even the small children seemed subdued. A towheaded boy who looked to be about eight years old carried his little American flag as proudly as if he were leading a regiment. His two sisters, perhaps five and three years of age, giggled and whispered in the parents' shadows, but even they were surprisingly still for such small children.
I wonder what Joe and Mary Temple are doing this morning? Joe and Mary Temple Fray were my godparents and the linchpins of my life back home in Madison County, Virginia. I was certain they would be celebrating with their family today. Remembering the time difference, I realized it was much too early for festivities yet. Perhaps Joe was just waking up. No, he's probably outside feeding his chickens or checking his big garden for bugs or late peas. And Mary Temple's in her sunny kitchen preparing breakfast.
The Frays were prominent members of my church and leaders in the county's social life and politics as well as personal friends. They traced their history back to Madison's original German settlers who built the historic Lutheran church in 1740. Through the centuries, their descendants had been known for honesty and for their contributions to the good of the community.
As a boy, Joe's ambition was to be a dairy farmer, but when the county elected him treasurer, it was the beginning of a lifelong adventure serving the country people he loved. An old-timer once told me Joe was the only honest politician he'd ever seen on two legs, and I believed him. Joe was a young treasurer when the Great Depression devastated the country in the thirties, hard years when Virginia struggled with drought as well as the Depression. Terrible fires roared across the desiccated mountain forestlands. Wells and springs ran dry. Cash was as scarce as hen's teeth, but when a man couldn't find the change to pay his taxes, Joe would travel out to see him and his wife. They'd talk over the situation, and Joe would find some way through the crisis so the family could keep their home. Needless to say, he was well loved and respected in the community, and I was proud to be his and Mary Temple's godchild.
The way that happened was quite unconventional. I had attended the Episcopal church since college and never expected to be part of a Lutheran church. However, the Episcopal church was planning to issue a new prayer book and I, like many others, disliked the changes. The revisions sounded flat and awkward compared to the old prayer book's melodious King James English. One of my friends recommended that my husband and I visit Hebron Lutheran Church, situated several miles outside Madison, Virginia, sitting like a small gem in its lush green valley. Harvey liked the hitching rails, the frescoed ceiling, and the friendly congregation, so we continued to attend Sunday services, and eventually we met Joe and Mary Temple.
A few months later my mother was diagnosed with liver cancer, and after a brief struggle with the malignancy, she asked if she could come live with me in Virginia. Harvey was working at the naval hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, and had an apartment in the city. I lived in a rented country cottage with little electric wiring and no telephone. With the owner's permission, I set about making improvements so that the house would be comfortable for my mother and hired Mary Helen to help me care for her. Mary Helen was with me the morning that Mother died, peacefully, just a few days after arriving from Michigan. Joe and Mary Temple heard of Mother's passing and came to comfort me. After that, I was firmly committed to the Lutheran parish, though I missed the liturgy of my former church and still used the 1928 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer at home.
I became Joe and Mary Temple's godchild for the simple reason that I never was baptized as a child. My father's rather Victorian reasoning was, "Never mind baptizing the girls. When they get married, they'll just take their husband's denomination anyway." My parents insisted on plenty of religious education—I memorized Scripture, went to Sunday school, and joined the youth group—but baptism wasn't part of the program. Once I began attending Hebron, I became active in the church's life, even teaching catechism to thirteen-year-olds.
That is, I did until Pastor Hall discovered I wasn't baptized. He was horrified. He tried to explain the theology, and though I didn't completely understand what he said, I agreed to have water poured over my head. Joe and Mary Temple were delighted to "present me" for baptism. They proudly took their places beside me and promised "to bring up this child to lead a godly life." Ever after, Joe said the one thing wrong with the ceremony was that he couldn't hold the "baby." They did, however, take their promises seriously and from that day forward made me part of the family.
As I stood in St. Peter's Square and thought about them, I was tempted to weep, but I could almost hear Mary Temple's words of encouragement, "Now you just buck up. Things are never as bad as we think they're going to be." She would be looking at me with those kindly eyes behind the spectacles and ever so slightly incline her queenly head of snow-white hair. She was always erect, always a Southern lady. I straightened my shoulders. I wouldn't let her down, not if I could help it.
* * *
The pope hadn't appeared yet. I turned around slowly, admiring St. Peter's Square and marveling that I was there. What a long way I'd traveled since my childhood! My father, a third-generation Michigan farmer who had worked the land his family cleared early in the 1800s, died when I was twelve. My mother, a professional violinist, had a nervous breakdown, so my only sibling, a younger sister, and I went to live with an aunt and uncle. That is, I lived with them during the school year; summers, I worked for local families as a live-in housekeeper and mother's helper.
By strict self-discipline and intense study, I managed to finish high school in three years, doing well enough to earn multiple scholarships that covered my entire tuition to Kalamazoo College. Once there, I worked for room and board, books, and life's little necessities. I earned a bachelor's degree in English literature, a Phi Beta Kappa key, and a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, allowing me to attend the graduate school of my choice.
I chose the University of Virginia not only because it was an excellent school but because my mother's family had been southern and some of my earliest memories were of the family gathered in my grandmother's parlor on Sunday afternoons, telling stories of the South and the Blue Ridge Mountains. In nine months, I finished my master's degree in nineteenth-century English literature with honors, and one success capping another, I "married well," as my little Victorian grandmother would have put it.
Feet shuffled on the cobblestones. I looked around at the crowd, but the pope still hadn't appeared. I longed for a distraction from the thoughts floating up unbidden. I'm sure Doctor isn't pleased with the mess his son and I are making of our lives. I shuddered. I had come to know and love my husband's family while I was a student at Kalamazoo. In fact, the family had endowed the college's scholarships for study abroad and I had received one, spending the summer between my sophomore and junior years in France. The following summer I came to work for the family as a live-in cook. Soon they were my very dear friends, and to my surprise, father, mother, and sons treated me as if I belonged among them. Because I missed my own father and mother and the stability of the old home farm, I snuggled into their kindness like a cat on a warm hearth.
Harvey was the youngest of the four boys. During the time I lived with the family, we met only briefly because he was either traveling or studying at Yale. When I returned to Michigan on my first Christmas break from graduate study in Virginia, the two oldest brothers were married and the third busy with his own life, leaving the "little brother" at a loss for something to do. I was idle, too, so Harvey and I took long walks through the snow and flirted over a desultory chess game. I returned to Virginia and my classes; he went back to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he'd transferred from Yale. To my surprise, he wrote fairly often. The letters were friendly, and I was flattered with the attention.
Then came the telephone call from his mother. I don't remember the words, but the news shook my world to its very core. She and Doctor, as we called him, had separated and were getting a divorce. After I hung up the phone, I began sobbing so loudly that a friend across the hall rushed to see what had happened. Somehow the divorce was worse than a death in the family. The safe harbor I had cherished against the unknowns of the years ahead was utterly demolished.
June came and my graduation was only days away. My family was proud of my accomplishments, but none of them planned to celebrate the occasion with me. I understood; it was summer and harvesttime at the farm, and Virginia was a long way from Michigan, but I was deeply disappointed. Then I received a letter from Harvey. He was coming! I was nearly overwhelmed with gratitude and excitement.
Once I had my diploma in hand, he asked if we could spend a day or two hiking the Appalachian Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains just west of Charlottesville. I hesitated. A little voice in the back of my mind whispered that this wasn't wise, but after all, this was my "brother," so I finally said yes. I knew parts of the trail in that section quite well since it was my usual escape from study and the fevers of the academic world, and I was happy to share my familiar haunts with "family." Besides, he had come from Michigan to Virginia for my graduation.
Harvey came well prepared with camping gear; I had quilts. He slept in his sleeping bag. I slept in my quilts. However, when he kissed me good-night I realized that this relationship wasn't likely to remain exactly fraternal, though it did remain chaste during those days in the wilderness. We both loved the out-of-doors and the adventure of exploring wild places, but I suspect that during those two days on the trail we paid more attention to one another than to the flora and fauna around us. I know that was true of me. I remember his blond hair blowing in the wind more vividly than I recall the campsite.
When Harvey left for summer school in Oregon, absence made our hearts grow fonder and the friendship became a whirlwind courtship. I had a summer job as a hostess in one of the mountain lodges in Shenandoah National Park, but at the last minute the oldest brother in the family asked me to work with him as a reporter and writer for the Kalamazoo city magazine he owned and edited. I loved the family, I loved writing, and if the truth were known, I was a little homesick. After some debate and several telephone calls from the family, I agreed to come.
Excerpted from Beautiful On The Mountain by Jeannie Light, Bonne Steffen. Copyright © 2014 Jeannie Light. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc..
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