Last night, I had the pleasure of seeing Garrison Keillor perform. I’ll admit, I wasn’t really looking forward to the evening. Lake Woebegone was fun — in small doses. This was NOT Lake Woebegone. The was Keillor at his best. For a little more than two hours, he gave a performance that left me gasping for breath and laughing so hard not only was I crying but I swear I might have broken something. There were stories about growing up, dirty limericks and hymns. Yes, hymns. That he managed to get the audience to join in on. A very fun and worthwhile evening.
One that go me thinking and you know what a dangerous thing that can be.
As a writer, I do my best not to draw on my own family for inspiration. For one, no one would believe me. For another, my family doesn’t just carry a grudge, it nurses it, feeding it and letting it grow. So, nope. Not about to write anything one of them might think they have a role in. Nope and nope and nope again.
Yet, as I was talking to a friend this morning, I was reminded of something that happened when I was younger, something that has stuck with me and still brings tears to my eyes and a sense of wonder to my heart. It is something that will, before long, become the basis of a story or, as he suggested, a prompt for an anthology.
My dad was born and grew up in Ardmore, OK. He and my mom met on a blind date. Mom had moved to Ardmore from Tulsa to work at the hospital there. When I was maybe 14 or 15, the three of us took a day trip up to Ardmore to see my grandmother and other members of our family. We stopped on the way to my grandmother’s house to visit a wonderful lady (in the truest sense of the word) my mother knew from her days working at the hospital.
This lady worked in housekeeping at the hospital. She was one of those people who made anyone she spoke to smile and feel better. No matter how hard her life might have been, she made the best of it and never let on that there might have been problems.
She also baked the cake for my first birthday and she loved my mother.
Anyway, Mom wanted this wonderful woman to meet me as a teen. So we parked in front of this small house, really nothing more than a cottage. It was old, like so many homes in Ardmore, but well maintained and you could tell by looking at it that whoever lived there loved not only the house but the neighborhood.
Inside, the house was as carefully maintained as it was outside. It felt like a home, not just a place where people lived. You could almost feel the history in the house, not only of the good times but of the bad. What we didn’t know as we walked through the door was just how bad some of those times had been.
In a place of pride in the front room was a tabletop display case. This wonderful lady showed it to us. Her hand lovingly touched the glass. Inside was a pristine copy of a Look Magazine (or maybe Life) from the Viet Nam War. On the cover was a photo of a GI, obviously seriously wounded, another GI holding him, reassuring him. It was the first of a number of photos that chronicled the death of an American GI in Nam.
That GI was this dear lady’s son.
Her good son.
The son who wrote home every day. The son who had worked hard to graduate with good grades. The son who had promised his parents he would come home and do them proud, helping care for them and his other brother. The brother who was the bad seed. The brother who did drugs and too much booze and who never met a law he wanted to obey.
The son who, one day, quit writing.
For a month, this dear little lady tried to find out if anything had happened to her son. She contacted the Red Cross. She contacted the Army and she contacted the Defense Department. Nothing.
And then, one day after work, she stopped at her mailbox and pulled out her mail. Inside was the latest Look Magazine and she suddenly knew what happened to you son.
That would have broken a lot of us. Me, I’m pretty sure I would have broken and then I would have wanted answers — and blood. But not this little lady. She and the rest of her family mourned the loss of her son. But she also honored him. He died doing what he thought was right — serving his country. Watching her as she told us what happened, hearing the pain and pride in her voice, I learned what grace was that day. This woman who, I would learn later, had suffered so much more than the loss of her son over the years, never let life get the best of her. She continued to give of herself. She put her trust in God and she honored those she loved and lost through service.
How many of us can say we’ve done the same?
This one memory, a visit of less than 2 hours, made a permanent impression on me. It is something I have told my son, more than once. It is something I hold close now that he is in the military. She is long gone now but I know she continues being a guiding light to others, just as she is to me and mine. The memory of her shines on and, in that, she continues to live on, continues to serve and to love.
She was and is an example of what any of us can be. God bless her.