Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Girl in the Picture

I’ve been haunted by a little girl the last few days.

Though we never interacted personally and she’s been gone from earth for close to seventy years, she and her family have been part of my life history the last fifty of those years.

How can that be?

Whenever I have occasion to talk about my life, I usually have reason to mention that seven years of my childhood—all in one stretch—were spent overseas. Our family got stuck, so to speak, in Africa during World War II. My parents and I arrived back their for their second term of service in the spring of 1939. By the time they would have been due for furlough, America was deep in the War. It wasn’t safe to cross the ocean. Passenger ships were regularly being torpedoed.

We knew. It had happened to one of our missionary families.

With their three children, the Shaw family booked ship passage for America. When they were torpedoed, the mother and 13-year-old sister went down with the ship. The father was on a life raft that never made it to land, while the 7-year-old daughter with a broken arm and her older brother survived twenty-one days on a life raft before being rescued.

There’s much, much more to the story, and I can’t believe that in June I am going to see those two survivors at a reunion and hear the story from them in person. That’s mind-boggling, and I can’t wait.

But it is the sister that went down with the ship who has been haunting me. Why? Because I’ve seen a picture of her this week.

In the picture she is about ten, with the sweetest smile on her face. A mutual acquaintance posted the picture on Facebook—isn’t that amazing? The girl is named as being in the picture, and it didn’t take me too long before her face came back to me, and I know which one she is. The memory has also come back that, even as a child, I thought she was one of the prettiest girls I knew, and I was so sad she died.

Now that I have a picture of her—and a little secret (she had a boy friend even at that young age!), I find myself thinking about the life and all these years God has given me but that in His Providence He did not give her. I think about the children she did not have and the brother and sister who did not enjoy her in their lives as they’ve lived all these intervening years. I try not to think about the terror she must have experienced in the last moments of her life.

I wonder what it will be like to meet that brother and sister two months from now. Will I have a chance to speak to them? Will I ask the wrong questions—or maybe not be able to decide what I really want to ask? This is a story with many layers, and some may be too painful to peel back.

I just know it is a story that has been part of my life as long as I can remember. Because of what happened to the Shaws, our family stayed put until the summer of 1945. My brother and sister were six and four before their grandparents ever saw them.

What a strange feeling to look at a picture of the girl in that story.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Who Named America?

Everyone knows who discovered America, right? Christopher Columbus in 1492, after he sailed the ocean blue. He did land on the west side of the Atlantic Ocean in the fall of that year, but it was a Caribbean island, not any part what we generally call “America” today. So how did we end up being called America and not Columbia, Colombo, or something like it?

Wednesday afternoon, sitting in the doctor’s office with my husband, I picked up a December 2009 copy of the Smithsonian magazine. The article that caught my eye was titled, “Putting America on the Map.” I remember in my youth learning that our continent got its name America from someone named Amerigo Vespucci. I assumed he was an important explorer, the captain of his ship.

But guess what? He was simply a Florentine merchant in the early 1500s who had taken a couple of voyages across the Atlantic—-one on a Spanish ship and one on a Portuguese one. So what did he do that made his name stand out from the rest of those on the ships? He wrote letters about his trips! He told about endlessly sailing down a coast that went on and on without a break—-even beyond the equator. That eventually led to the conclusion that the earth had four major parts, not just three as people had always believed.

The article went on for pages and pages and talked about seamen, map makers, explorers like Marco Polo, dukes who sponsored the work of scholars—-and a good bit about the ancient Roman scholar Ptolemy, who produced eight volumes on geography and “invented” latitude and longitude. It talked about a huge, mysterious map that scholars wondered about and searched for some 350 years before one man, a Jesuit professor of history and geography, ran across it by accident while searching for something else. The biggest accomplishment of the article was tracing the unnamed author who first applied the Amerigo name to that still little-known world.

Reading an article like “Putting America on the Map” is a real treat for me, though I know many people would have little interest or patience for it. However, I got a surprise. Because we waited so long for the doctor, I started reading snatches of it to my husband, and then a couple more, and then something longer—-and I was surprised how many times he chuckled in appreciation.

So what did Mr. Vespucci think about the honor of his name being applied to a whole new section of the world? The truth is, he most likely never even knew it.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The SS Europa

I found what I was looking for online about the Europa, that ship I sailed on as I approached my first birthday. Can't the Internet be wonderful? I even found a couple more pictures of it. It was a German liner, launched in 1930, six years before I was born, so it was in fairly good shape when our group of missionaries traveled on it. It could make the Atlantic crossing in a few hours short of five days.

For a ship, it had a fairly interesting life--including a serious fire on board, being captured in a world war, sailing under the flags of three countries, and colliding with a sunken ship in harbor. It carried US troops at the end of WWII, experienced a complete name change, and appeared briefly in a famous movie (the original Sabrina with Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart).

The collision happened after it had been turned over to the French as part of reparations following the War. The Liberté, as they had renamed it, broke loose from its moorings during a storm and collided with the already sunken SS Paris. Following the collision, the Liberté itself sank. After much discussion, the French decided to raise it and repair it. I can’t even imagine bringing a sunken ship up from under water, cleaning up the resultant mess, and making it usable again. It served another eleven years as one of the largest liners in the French fleet before being scrapped in 1962.

As far as a I know, the ship only made the Atlantic crossing between Europe and America. That means my parents, with me in tow, had to get from Africa to Europe in order to board it, but I don’t remember ever hearing anything about that. In these days of electronic communications, international reservations, and things worked out with surprising precision, it’s hard to grasp how uncertain everything must have been for them.

I’m going to have to watch Sabrina again and see if I can wrap my mind around the idea that, for five short days in my life, I was in person on that ship.

Friday, April 9, 2010

An Amazing Connection

Have you seen any old friends recently? I mean really old? No, I don’t mean someone with a multitude of birthdays. I mean someone you knew a long time and haven’t seen for many years. We had someone like that in our home last night—someone we hadn’t seen in more than fifty years. That was what I was going to write, but during the day today some things started clicking, and I have an even greater “old friends” topic to write about.

This week someone sent me a piece of my family’s history. It is section of a page from a ship’s log, and it has my name on it. The ship was the Europa (I hope to learn more about it), and the date on the log is June 17, 1937. That was two days before my first birthday. My parents’ names are just ahead of mine, along with our ages, birth dates, and birth places. Ahead of our names on the list are the names of two missionary ladies who were a part of my childhood, and after ours are the names of the five members of the Wimer family.

When I first saw the ship’s log (sent to me by a friend whose brother ran across it during a search on, I didn’t connect it to a picture I saw a few months ago. That picture was of a group of missionaries, including my parents and me, on a ship when I was small enough to sit on a lap.

Wait a minute! That’s the size I was at the time of the ship’s log, and some of the people in the picture are those whose names are on the log . . . oh, my! The two go together!

The picture was posted on Facebook by the widow of one of the young boys in the picture (I know "young boys" don't have widows, but you know what I mean). She and I have never met in person, but the fringes of our histories have overlapped, and that led us to becoming friends on Facebook.

I know this is an amazing age where technology almost daily helps us do or see things even our grandparents never imagined, but this one has me still shaking my head. The ship’s log and the picture started out in the same place, yes, but the log stayed with the shipping company and the picture went with members of one of the families’ in the picture. How can they, from totally unrelated sources and with no connection between them for almost three quarters of a century, have found their way to the same place now—-my computer?

Young Art Wimer was another lap child in that old picture. He’d also been born in Africa the year before. Some different connections between him and me lay far ahead in the future, but I’ll have to tell you about those some other day. (In the picture, I'm on the lap of the dark-haired lady fourth from the left; my parents are immediately on her left.)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Not Your Thumb, Your Eye

Have you ever said, “I just don’t have a green thumb?”

Did you mean by that statement that plants never thrive for you, that most plants you’ve tried to grow ended up sickly or dead?

I found all kinds of references to the term in an Internet search this evening, but only one pure definition—-in the Oxford Pocket Dictionary. It called a green thumb a “natural talent for growing things.” I agree that's what most people think the term means. So it must be something you’re born with, right? That’s the part that I don’t wholly agree with.

You see, I have a theory. I don’t think a green thumb has anything to do with your thumb or even your hands. I think a green thumb is simply an awareness of plants. In other words, it has to do with your eyes, not your thumbs. Let me tell you why.

This morning when I sat down for my coffee break (for me, that’s hot chocolate), I naturally glanced out the double window. One glance was all it took to see that my topsy-turvy tomato plant had a problem. It was a barely noticeable problem, but my eye caught it immediately. Its leaves were slightly limp. The thing needed water.

Whatever this green thumb is, my sister and I both have it. Did we get it from our mother? Maybe, but in my theory she didn’t give it to us in our genes. She gave it to us because plants were important to her. She cared about them, talked about them, babied them. The result was plant awareness, for her and many people around her.

The truth is, this plant awareness, or green thumb, doesn’t usually come at birth. It develops over time, depending on how much exposure one has to plants or to those interested in them. A few children pick up on it, for whatever reason, but mostly I think it grows through life, depending on what one experiences with plants along the way.

Okay, I can hear the nay-sayers already. “I’ve tried and tried—-and everything still dies for me.” Remember what I said at the beginning? This is a personal theory of mine. I can’t present scientific evidence. It’s just been my observation for years and years now. People who really like plants and want them to grow will usually have more success with them than those who have a myriad other interests and don’t think about the plants until they are is seriously sad shape.

You’re welcome to disagree with me, of course. Or maybe this is a new idea that makes sense to you. Whatever, spring is a glorious time. Some folks who never think about plants any other time notice them now. So hurray for spring!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Easter Music

Seven years ago last month we moved to Nashville. After we got the truck unloaded and spent a week settling in with help from family, Easter was upon us. To me Easter meant music. What was I going to do for my Easter music in this new place? One crossroad in our end of town sports three large churches, one of them Baptist, which was our background. A Baptist church ought to have good Easter music, I reasoned, so that’s where we showed up on Palm Sunday.

I was right. The choir was “classic” and impressive, but the special music took my breath away. A talented young tenor, in costume, performed “Watch the Lamb!” I was hooked. We returned the next Sunday, and a man and woman, both with powerful voices, sang the Mary Magdalene song titled “I’ve just seen Jesus.” Except for worshipping with our son’s family at their church from time to time, we’re still where we started out.

Last Sunday that same tenor, a few years older now and the father of a little girl, was part of a breathtaking male quartet that sang the Gaither song, “I Believe in a Hill Called Mount Calvary.” We were delighted when they sang it again last evening at our Good Friday service. I think the Gaithers outdid themselves in “poetic” with the line about “And when time has surrendered and earth is no more, I’ll still cling to that old rugged cross”!

At least two other Gaither songs have powerful messages for the Easter season. I’ve long loved the dramatic one about the crucifixion, with the chorus, “It…is…finished, the battle is over…” ending with “It is finished, and Jesus is Lord.” The first words of the second verse have gripped my heart afresh these last two days:

“But in my heart the battle was raging; not all prisoners of war had come home. There were battlefields of my own making—I didn’t know that the war had been won.”

Someone in our extended family is right now in the clutches of battlefields of his own making and doesn’t seem able to grasp that the war has been won. It gives me a new perspective for praying for him.

I can’t mention Gaither music and Easter without including “Because He Lives.” If you don’t know the story of how Bill and Gloria wrote it in connection with the birth of their third baby, you need to look it up. We used it at the last two funerals in our family, but it’s message is so much broader. No matter what the turmoil around us these days—personally, nationally, or any other dimension, we can face tomorrow because our Savior lives. Knowing that He holds the future makes our lives worth living—tomorrow and all the days beyond.

Here is just one of several websites about the Gaithers:

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Easter Memories

Singing with the Angels
My mother died during the Easter season.

A couple of weeks ago marked the 19th anniversary of her death. Another 1 and 9 to go with the date—March 19, 1991. (I was glad when that year was over so I wouldn’t have to keep seeing all those nines and ones.)

At the time of her death, I wondered if it would forever cast a shadow over Easter for me. I’ve found instead that it has only made Easter more precious. Mother had been practicing Easter music with the small choir (eight people) at her little church in northern Arkansas. At her funeral the group sang one of the songs she had been practicing with them. Melancholy, yes, but only from an earthly perspective. I couldn’t be sad for her. She sang with the angels that year—and every Easter since.

Golden Cross
The only place on earth I have attended a true sunrise service was the mission center where we worked in South America. We gathered every year at six in the morning on the highest hill at the center, overlooking a long lake. With our blankets spread on the ground, we sang Easter songs and listened a brief devotional message.

One year an amazing thing happened. A breeze ruffled a narrow horizontal strip across the far end of the lake. We didn’t notice it particularly until the sun slipped up above the horizon at that far end. The next moment, a golden glow spread vertically down the length of the lake toward us—and the ruffled cross strip turned gold as well.

Can you see it—the golden cross on the lake … on Easter morning?

Resurrection—and Guns
Easter morning in 1981was memorable in a different way. In January subversives had taken one member of our group captive and a few weeks later executed him. Our center was still under guard by the country’s military, and we were told it would not be safe for us to meet on the hill. Instead, we gathered at a central location, with homes and trees around us and only a small piece of the lake visible. Soldiers and a couple of machine guns were in clear sight. That year we sang with extra gusto, “Up from the grave He arose, with a mighty triumph o’er His foes!”

Grandmother’s Birthday
A footnote to my mother’s death during the Easter season is that she died on her grandmother’s birthday. This was the grandmother for whom she was named and whose name my mother later gave to me. Esther Sophronia Porter (later Stauffer) was born March 19, 1868, and died six years before I was born. I like to think of her welcoming Mother that Easter season in 1991—and then the two of them singing together with the angels.

What memorable Easters have you experienced?