Liz, Mom, and the Witch

Today’s post is written by Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy, one of my writing mentors and former professors. Every time Dr. Murphy contributes to this blog and sends me a post, I cannot wait to read it. I know I’ll enjoy the story–and I know the story will speak to me. 

Bethany asked us to share stories about love during the month of February.  While this isn’t a typical February love story, I believe there is a kind of love in it.  This love is present when someone in an older generation takes the time to teach those in a younger generation a thing or two about how to live. There is, however, a link to the month of February.  One of the major players in this story is my grandmother, Ona Burns, who was born on Valentine’s Day in 1905.  Not only was she a sweetheart, she was also pretty clever when it came to keeping my sister and me in line. I am grateful for the life she lived and for the opportunity I had to spend time with her during her lifetime.

Liz, Mom, and the Witch

By Teresa Burns Murphy

The chickens strutted and clucked, pecking for bugs in the dusty barn lot just beyond my grandparents’ fenced-in backyard where my big sister, Liz, and I lingered.  Mom, our grandmother, had told us to come inside the house, but Liz decided we didn’t have to do what Mom said.  As I placed my chubby little hand on the back door handle, I cut my eyes over at Liz.  She pulled her shoulders back, tucked her chin to one side, and shot me a menacing look.  I froze, not sure whose wrath I preferred to incur – Liz’s or Mom’s.

I had known them both for six years, in other words, my entire life.  At eight, Liz was slim, agile, and fearless.  I admired the way she could stroll out into our grandparents’ pasture and coax the horses (huge horses!) into coming to her.  When one ambled over, she’d take hold of the horse’s halter and hoist herself onto its bare back, her long, brown curls bouncing to the beat of the horse’s gait as she rode across the field.  Mom sometimes gave us sugar cubes to feed the horses when they came up to the backyard fence.  When I saw those giant horse teeth coming toward my outstretched hand, I always dropped my sugar cubes on the ground, causing the horses to have to lick them up out of the dirt.  Maybe this is why they always bucked me off when Liz caught one of them and boosted me onto its back.  Liz, on the other hand, held the sugar cubes in her unwavering palm and waited for the horses to slurp them up.  I cringed watching those horses’ tongues whisk the sugar cubes from her hand, but Liz never flinched.

Mom and LizIn contrast to Liz, Mom was short and plump. For the most part, she stayed indoors – doing needlework, reading the newspaper, or putting together jigsaw puzzles once her household chores were completed.  I’d heard stories about how Mom’s father had been required to take her to an elementary school that employed a male teacher after she’d proven to be too feisty for the female teacher at her old school to manage.  I’d also heard about how she’d staked out her territory at the new school with a few choice words delivered to the other girls who believed they could bully her. Though I was aware that Mom had been pretty fearless herself, I figured most of her pluck had been used up now that she was in her late fifties, which, at the time, I thought of as old.  So, I cast my lot with Liz and released the door handle.

Clearly, I had forgotten the course these battles of will between Liz and Mom generally took.  I’d heard about one of their first clashes enough times to believe I remembered it even though I was a baby when it happened.  On the day that skirmish occurred, Liz and I were spending the day with Mom, and Mom had placed me in a playpen while she prepared our lunch.  A pocket door that could be made to disappear into the wall with a gentle push separated Mom’s kitchen from her den where I’d been situated.  As long as that door remained open, I could see Mom and I was content.  Liz, always one to shake things up, decided she’d close the door.  When she flung it shut, I set up a howl.

“Liz,” Mom said.  “Keep the door open so the baby can see me.”

“No!” Liz said, folding her arms across her chest and glaring at Mom in a way that only a defiant three-year-old can.

“Liz Ann, now you open that door so the baby won’t cry.”

Liz shook her head.

I don’t know how long Mom’s cajoling campaign continued before she issued Liz an ultimatum – either open the door or get a spanking.

“You better not spank me,” Liz said.  “If you do, I’ll tell my mother, and she’s really a fighter.”

I guess Liz figured threatening Mom with our mother was more effective than threatening her with our father since he was Mom’s son.  Somehow, without cracking up laughing or swatting Liz’s little behind, Mom lifted her eyebrows, opened her dark eyes wide and said, “Well, I’m really a fighter too.”

Seeing that Mom wasn’t going to back down and possibly realizing she had met her match, Liz opened the door.

I have a more vivid memory of the next incident of Liz’s pitting her will against Mom’s.  Mom’s house was a treasure trove of fascinating things for Liz and me – mahogany gargoyles whose mouths were open just wide enough for a couple of little girls to pretend to get bitten by their pointy teeth when they jabbed their fingers into the gargoyles’ mouths; boxes of fancy, old-fashioned Valentine cards Mom’s mother had sent to her during the first half of the twentieth century; and always – wonderful food.  Usually, Mom’s food was something she’d prepared herself – a pot of hamburger soup chock-full of vegetables, a pan of thick cornbread, a pedestaled plate of three-layer coconut cake.   One day, when we arrived at Mom’s house, Liz and I spied something Mom generally didn’t have – store-bought candy.  On that day, a candy bar was lying on her kitchen countertop, and Liz and I both wanted it – all of it!

“I just have one,” Mom said, unwrapping the candy bar, placing it on a plate, and pulling a knife from a drawer.  “You can each have half.”

“I’ll cut it!” Liz said, reaching for the plate and grabbing the knife.

I watched as Liz slid the knife through the skin of that chocolate bar.  It didn’t escape my notice that one piece was more-than-slightly larger than the other.  Apparently, it didn’t escape Mom’s notice either.

When Liz finished cutting the candy bar in “half,” Mom took the plate from her and said, “Okay, Liz, you got to divide it.  Now, Teresa, you pick the piece you want.”

A picture (sweeter than any candy) of Liz’s face is permanently etched in my memory.  Her brown eyes widened and her mouth popped open as Mom held the plate out to me.  Having raised four children, Mom had been down this “sharing” path before.  The only word I have to describe the feeling I had as I snagged the larger piece of candy and bit into it is joy.

Considering this history with Mom and Liz, I’m not sure why I chose to side with Liz when Mom told us to come back inside the house, but I vividly remember what happened next.  In the little Arkansas town where Mom lived, there was an old woman who wore long black dresses and old-timey black boots.  Not many people scared Liz, but she was scared of this woman whose pinched face and beak-like nose gave her a witchy appearance.  We didn’t know the woman’s name, so we simply referred to her as “the witch.”  Having listened to far too many fairy tales and having overactive imaginations, we had no trouble at all envisioning the witch flying through the air on her broomstick, scouring the town for little girls she could swoop down on and possibly eat.

Standing outside Mom’s house that day, we had forgotten all about the witch until the air was saturated with the sound of a spooky voice that shrieked, “I’m gonna get me two little girls.”

Liz almost knocked me down as she made a beeline for the back door.  In a flash, we scurried across the concrete floor of the screened-in porch and into the den where Mom sat in her rocking chair, calmly crocheting.

For days afterward, Liz and I puzzled over how Mom could have thrown her voice in such a way to make it sound as if it were coming from outside her house.  We thought maybe she had gone to an open window at the back of her house and screeched out that threat, but we dismissed this notion because we didn’t think a woman of her advanced age could have possibly made it back to her rocking chair so fast.  That left us with only one logical explanation – Mom must have gotten the witch to do it, which meant she actually knew the witch.

Liz and I never asked Mom how she managed to send us that witchy threat.  I suspect as we got older, we realized that Mom was much faster and shrewder than we’d given her credit for being.  But on that long-ago day, the belief that our grandmother had enough power to convince a witch to do her bidding was enough to keep the two of us in line.

Day 14–Love that lasts

*Big thanks to my friend Judy Woolf, who has lived a love story in front of me and set a great example of what real love is, in good times and bad. Love you, Judy, and you too, George. Happy anniversary to one of the most amazing couples I know.*

Judy and George

Judy and George

This story of love and gratitude began 38 years ago today on Feb 14, 1975, when my sweet Valentine proposed!  It actually began 4 ½ years earlier with a blind date, but that’s a story for another day.  Although he was one of the kindest, gentlest, most compassionate people I have ever known, he rarely showed that through overt action.  This day he came through in spades!  I guess when it is most often subtle, those rare moments are all the more meaningful.  His romance would sneak up on me and just overwhelm.  I remember one day during our first year when he came home from work and said he had to put in days for vacation.  When I looked at his dates, one week was during the time of our one-year wedding anniversary.  What man would think of that? Overwhelmed!  He just made me smile – a lot!

Our life together was not always easy, but always full of joy and contentment and commitment.  I never questioned his love for me, and I think he felt that in return.  I have often told people I was fully committed to living the rest of my life with that man!  But another fateful February day changed that when on Feb 2, 2009, he slipped into eternity.  February now had a whole new feel for me, full of sorrow and grief and questions and . . . I don’t even know how some of the feelings can be described.  How are you supposed to go on when you had worked so hard at this “two becoming one” thing, and now you are no longer whole?  Then I happened upon some writings of C.S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed”, that he had penned after the death of his wife. In it he discovers that we must be careful to separate our emotions of the loss with the memories of the person else those memories become tainted with sadness.  So therefore, I choose to be grateful for the time we did have together. And now you can be grateful that I turn to the gratitude part of this.

George's namesake, Georgia Leigh, with Grandpa's guitar and hat

George’s namesake, Georgia Leigh, with Grandpa’s guitar and hat

George and his girls

George and his girls

I am so grateful for our three beautiful daughters that our union produced.  Each so unique in their own ways, yet to me they each also mirror a little of their father.

Sarah has such a sweet spirit, loyal, tender-hearted; Cindy has a quiet resolve about her, competitive, steadfast, committed (but  not always so quiet); and our February blessing, Amy, is her own self, has a special sense of humor, and has developed into a strong woman and just the best mother around to our next February blessing, Georgia Leigh.  Two years ago, this little sweetheart came along and again changed the feel of February.  We celebrate her life as his namesake and know that he would have been just the best “Grandpa George”.

Little Georgia Leigh

Little Georgia Leigh

I am so grateful for the time we had together, the lessons learned, the things he taught me.  George was content to be at home with his girls around him. Or to be at their ballgames cheering them on and encouraging them and their teammates.  I think he had an extra dose of the gift of encouragement.  And time with family was important to him.

George did not finish college – I did – yet I never felt smarter than him (well, maybe in some things, but generally, no).  God endowed him with a special wisdom.  He became my sounding board, always had a wise word, but never too quickly.  Again, his words carried weight because they did not come fast and furious.

George taught me many things, like maximize the positives, minimize the negatives.  Also, the importance of reading instruction manuals, the most valuable one being that one for life, the Holy Bible.  He spent time there, thus arriving at aforementioned wisdom.

No story of love and gratitude would be complete without focusing a little time on the ultimate Love, and gratefulness for the eternal Hope found in Jesus Christ.

These last four years have not been easy, but my faith has never wavered.  I think maybe the Lord gave George some “Hezekiah days” (look it up).  Three years before, he had a pretty serious health scare that could have resulted in death, but the Lord saw fit to leave him yet a while with us.  During those years we had opportunity to grow in our faith together and spend a lot of time just the two of us together.  I am so grateful now for those days; they are so special to me.  Did the Lord provide that as preparation for what was too soon to come?  Maybe.  It is hard for me to worship now without my soul mate and with a broken heart, yet my faith remains strong.  It is a puzzlement.  I am still at times mad at God, question God, and cry out to God. Yet Scripture promises that His mercies are new every day and I hold to that.

There is a popular worship song that has a fitting message by which to close.

It says,  “Higher than the mountains that I face, stronger than the power of the grave, constant in the trial and the change, one thing remains: His love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me. On and on and on and on it goes. It overwhelms and satisfies my soul.”

And this old hymn speaks to me about that unexplainable peace that passes understanding which only comes through faith and knowing this Great Love:

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll;

Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, “It is well, it is well with my soul.”

28 days of love

Photo by Phoopla Photography in Dallas, Texas

Photo by Phoopla Photography in Dallas, Texas

Starting February 1st, I’m stoked to announce that almost 27 of my favorite people will be serving as guest writers for the blog. They were asked to submit posts related to love and gratitude and to run in any direction with that topic. I can’t wait to read the variety of posts as they come pouring in, and I’m really grateful to all the writers who’ve agreed to take a stab at it and join me in this endeavor.

Those of you who regularly read this blog know that I believe very strongly in focusing our minds, hearts, and eyes on what we have to be grateful for–to focus on the solutions, not the problems, and to choose gratitude over grumbling.

Love is a touchy subject for many people. Some people never feel that they’ve been loved at all, or they beat themselves up for mistakes they’ve made that have cost them relationships with people they loved. Or they have been victims of abuse by people who “loved” them.

I’m hoping that, by reading 28 different perspectives on love by people from varying walks of life, you’ll find something to relate to, some hope to hold onto, or inspiration to love others well. And ultimately, I hope that this month, you’ll come to believe that True Love has been there waiting for us all the time–we just have to open our hearts and our eyes.

So happy loving, folks!