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Crucifix at Nuremberg Cathedral Photo by Sam Matteson 1978

Crucifix at Nuremberg Cathedral    Photo by Sam Matteson 1978

Easter is coming. I can tell from the Cadbury Bunny’s sudden appearance in TV ads. In addition to the mythical egg-laying leporid, we can look forward in a few days to hidden colored eggs, abundant candy and new spring outfits. The time is awash in pastel hopes for sunshine and the promise of warm days. Easter-tide is a sweet-toothed springtime celebration of the cyclical nature of the rebirth of the world after the cruel winter that seems more like a fairy tale than history.

Perhaps, lost in all the fun is a horrific historical event. Friday, next, April 3, 2015 Anno Domini, is “Good” Friday. A day when Christians of the western tradition (Roman Catholics and Protestants, for example) will observe the anniversary of the crucifixion of Jesus called the Christ. Those of the eastern tradition (Eastern or Greek Orthodox for example) will wait a week more, due to a difference of opinion that dates back centuries about fixing the annual celebration of Easter relative to the full moon in spring. Many may assume that with all this calendric shuffling, we cannot know when the first Good Friday or Easter happened. Indeed, some even assume that the holiday is merely a cultural relic from a more pious era that has no relevance to our time or any basis in a real event that happened on a particular day in history.

Was Jesus an Actual Historical Person?

There are a few who might claim that the date of the crucifixion is moot because they are skeptical of even the reality of a historical person called Jesus (Yeshuah in Hebrew, a variant of the first century common name that has also come into English as “Joshua”) of Nazareth, called the Messiah (Meshiach in Hebrew) or the Christ (Christos in Greek). I found both fascinating and accessible an article written by Lawrence Mykytiuk in Biblical Archaeology Review1 dealing with extra-Biblical historical evidence for the existence of this remarkable person.

Mykytuik concludes that there is ample secular textual evidence to persuade most scholars that there was indeed a Jesus called the Christ, who lived in the Roman province of Judea in the days of Emperors Augustus and Tiberius, and was executed on a Friday that was also the eve of the Jewish Passover festival. Jesus suffered crucifixion because he was a threat to the Pax Romana, as was customary in such cases. This travesty of justice was perpetrated by Pontius Pilate, who was governor or, more precisely, prefect of Judea in the period 26-36 AD. These details are so familiar to those who have heard the story repeatedly that we risk the events seeming to be folk lore set adrift from the grim realities.

Eyewitnesses to History

History has witnessed other violent deaths of public figures. I will never forget another Friday, November 22, 1963, where I was and what I felt. That was 52 years ago. Nevertheless, many are alive today that were there in Dealy Plaza in Dallas to witness the event. I was in my algebra class, three states away, but I experienced it too. The public address system crackled to life with my high school Principal’s voice: “My apologies teachers, we interrupt your class for this important announcement.” Then we heard Walter Cronkite’s familiar and trusted voice, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: ‘President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.’ (a pause as he glanced up at clock) 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”

The very public death of our president recalled a similar incident that occurred 150 years ago this month. On April 14, 1865, just days after the end of the great American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was shot in the very public venue of Ford’s Theater by the well-known actor, John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln died the following morning. We know these facts because of eye witness accounts. Yet, this event seems already so ancient and out of touch. Can we know anything with reliability? Indeed we can. In fact, the last witness to the terrifying event, Samuel J. Seymour, himself died April 12, 1956, when I was nine2. Even a century and a half after the events there are individuals of my generation who could have chatted with living witnesses.

But what of an event that is reported to have occurred almost two millennia ago? We have treasured documents that purport to share eyewitness testimony. One history written in the Greek language of the day begins “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses [emphasis added] and ministers of the word have delivered them to us.” (Luke 1:1) The work, called the Gospel According to Luke, is traditionally ascribed to Luke, the companion of the Apostle Paul, although the document itself does not identify directly its author. Scholarly opinion variously dates the writing of this document to between 80-90 AD or 90-110 AD, that is, as early as fifty years or as late as eighty years from the events it details. What is impressive to me is the claim of reporting eyewitness testimony of the events.

This document and its volume two, The Acts of the Apostles, that are attributed to and generally agreed to be by the same hand, provide wonderful insight and detail that can help fix the chronology of the final days of the remarkable individual called Jesus Christ. According to the author of the gospel, whom we will call without further apology “Luke,” Jesus began his ministry in “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea . . . .” (Luke 3:1) Scholars have variously understood the 15th year of Tiberius to be 26 A.D. (assuming one counts from Tiberius’ regency while Augustus was in semi-retirement) or 28-29 A.D. (assuming one counts from the Caesar’s death on August 19, 14 A.D.). Depending on how one interprets the gospels Jesus’ ministry lasted from one to four years. Thus, the crucifixion of Jesus must have occurred in the time period of from about 27 A.D. to 34 A.D.

Humphreys and Waddington date Crucifixion to 3 April 33 AD

In 1983, I read an article in Nature by Humphreys and Waddington3 that argued very persuasively (to my mind) that the most probable date for Jesus’ crucifixion was April 3, 33 A.D. I subsequently corroborated their calculations myself using an astronomical ephemeris program with up-to-date corrections for changes in the rotation and orbits of the earth-moon system. The authors have revisited the topic both in a festschrift book3 and a decade later, successfully answering all of the credible criticism.4

They argue, in essence, that–on examination of the dates of Passovers that began on Friday evening during the period Pilate was prefect–only two dates emerge as calendrically possible: 7 April 30 A.D. and 3 April 33 A.D. Citing much historical evidence, they declare that the later date is significantly more likely than the earlier.

Moreover, it is especially moving that Good Friday 2015 also occurs on April 3 and that a very special celestial event will reoccur that recalls one of 33 A.D. I refer to what Peter alluded to in his Pentecost sermon, fifty days after that first Easter, in which he quoted the prophet Joel:

“In those days I will pour out my Spirit . . . I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood . . . . Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know. . . .This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.” (Acts 2:19, 20, 22, 32)

Blood Moon April 3, 1996  Photo: Preston Starr

Blood Moon April 3, 1996         Photo: Preston Starr

Thus, Luke reports a “Blood Moon,” that is, a lunar eclipse. Humphreys and Waddington point out that just such a celestial event occurred April 3, 33 A.D. at sunset. This year on April 4, 2015 A.D. the morning of Holy Saturday, just before sunrise (from about 6:00-7:00 am CDT) the moon will be “turned to blood” on the western horizon. If you are an early riser you, too, can witness this celestial reminder (weather permitting) of that fateful day 1982 years ago.

[Please note that contrary to what some have posted on-line, Humphreys and Waddington do not claim the darkness at noon is due to an eclipse. Lunar eclipses do not cause a darkness at noon. It was Thallus the Samaritan, in a first century history now lost, who was quoted and refuted by Julianus Africanus as dismissing the darkness as due to a solar eclipse. As Julianus correctly point out, no solar eclipse is possible at Passover when the moon is full.]

First Century Eyewitnesses Accounts Confirmed by Astroastronomy

I find it noteworthy that a reporter (Luke) of eyewitness testimony recounts a confirmed event (a blood moon) that did, indeed, occur as reported. This is indirect but compelling evidence that Luke shared eyewitness testimony, not folk tales.

For a self-identified calendar-and-history-nerd who loves a good mystery like me, the topic is fascinating. However, the historical debate can obscure the most important point: the gospel is a report of historical events that changed the lives of the people who experienced them and that have continued to impact people who subsequently listened to the news. We are the recipients of that good news story. In John’s gospel we read that Jesus, after his resurrection, said to “doubting” Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

What is more, the Apostle Paul reported

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that we was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, [emphasis added] although some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15: 3-8)

Thus, if the witnesses are to be believed, Easter is, indeed, a day to celebrate, after all. It is a day to dye eggs, a sign of new life, to revel in the vernal rebirth of the earth, and to put on new bright clothes—in short, to party. We do not celebrate the deaths of Presidents Kennedy or Lincoln. Too many hopes died with them. The good news that Paul delivers to us is echoed in the Easter greeting of the Orthodox tradition: Christos Anesti! Christ is risen! Alithos Anesti! He is risen indeed!

In that historical truth, hope is reborn—reason enough to party large.

References:

  1. Lawrence Mykytiuk in BAR On-line:

http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/did-jesus-exist/

  1. Wikipedia Samuel J. Seymour

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_J._Seymour

  1. J. Humphreys and W.J. Waddington, ‘Dating the Crucifixion’, Nature 306 (1983) 743-6; idem, in Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies Presented to Jack Finegan, J. Vardaman and E.M. Yamauchi (eds.), (Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns 1989) 172-81.
  2. Humphreys and Waddington Tyndal Bulletin

http://www.tyndalehouse.com/tynbul/library/TynBull_1992_43_2_06_Humphreys_DateChristsCrucifixion.pdf

Wei Yang

Wei Yang--"Not yet finished"

Wei Yang–“Not yet finished”

I arrived too late, too late for Dad to say a final “good-bye.” When I raced up the corridor of the hospital to my stroke-stricken octogenarian father’s bedside after an eighteen-hour drive, I realized that I was too late. The light had gone out in his eyes; he could not acknowledge my presence even if he were aware of me; the shades of his eye lids were drawn half-way down, and I sensed that he was no longer home behind his body’s gray-green stare. The man I had known for my sixty-plus years had unceremoniously departed a few hours before, felled by a stroke, although his breath still came paroxysmally in shallow and rapid gasps. It was small—and I must say bitter—comfort that millions of other “Boomers” faced the same scenario each year. Indeed, thousands I realized, were probably sharing the same experience at that very moment. I was glad that I had visited on a whim a few weeks before, but that, too, was little comfort now.

A “Good” Death

The next week was unforgettable, even if excruciating. The transfer to the hospice facility, the execution of his “directive,” the vigil, the final breath, all shouted “mortality!” In those hours watching Dad’s body incrementally shutting down, I saw not him but me lying abed there, slowly sinking down with each breath, each feeble cardiac palpitation, until in the early morning hours of Good Friday, March 21, 2008, the vernal equinox, a day for turning to the light, although it could have just as well been the longest and darkest night of the year, at last we arrived—at stillness. Even as ugly as is death, I could not look away. I had ignored it until then, until it was impossible to deny, but then I was forced to look at it full face: I am inevitably my father’s son, son of Adam. Indeed, it is difficult to escape your genetics, and it is impossible to cheat death in the end. It comes on, welcome or not.

In the year after his departure (“death” seems too harsh a word to utter even if it is all too real), I felt my own mortality acutely. I pondered the meaning and significance of Life, my life, in particular. I reflected on the rumors of a future hope, and wondered. I slipped into a perpetual sadness over the possible futility of human existence. I did not smile as often as before life and death had orphaned me. My typical bravado was shaken just as when, as I child, I bravely scaled the high dive ladder until the kid before me had taken his turn, disappearing over the edge of the platform, and I stood staring down into the depths below, a lump in my throat. I had suddenly realized when my children and grandchildren were assembled at a table per stirpes for thirteen that somewhere along the line I had imperceptibly grown into a patriarch, the elder son, a scion of a complete branch of our family tree. The realization was unnerving.

Wei Yang

I was helped somewhat by sympathetic friends and family, but the grief work was mine to do alone, since the only answers that are relevant to our deepest questions are the ones we discover for ourselves. Christmas came, the first Christmas without Dad. My eldest child Carrie and her family gave me a high-tech walking stick to use on our hikes in Colorado. She also included two books on theology, in recognition of one of my hobbies. Over the next few months these items came to mean more than I understood at first. Indeed, they bespoke that my life was not over; there are trails and other journeys that I have not explored. On impulse, I decided to give my walking stick a name and looked up the Mandarin characters on-line for “not yet finished.” Thus, I stumbled upon the phrase “Wei Yang,” a classic literary phrase, little used today, as I learned from my Mandarin-speaking friends. The elegant connotations of the ideograms suggest that life holds more possibilities in its unfinished-ness than we can foresee. I prepared a wooden plaque with the characters in calligraphic form to remind me of this truth and to provide a daily encouragement, when quite by accident (or God’s providence) a Chinese student noted the sign and amended an insight.

Dad and Sammy Gene 1948

Dad and Sammy Gene 1948

“Have you been to Wei Yang?” He asked. “. . . in China?”

“Been?   No.” I replied.

He explained, “Wei Yang was the largest palace ever built. Its name means: ‘Never ending. . . .” How do you say? . . . ‘eternal’ palace.”

In an inexplicable way it is comforting to my spirit that part of the eternity of life is its unfinished, never done character. Indeed, when my days among you have expired I suspect that I will be on my way somewhere and must leave much unfinished. Until then, I will not sit and wait for the end. It must and will catch up with me on the way, as it did my father.

In Memoriam

Lewis Edward Matteson
(August 13, 1919 – March 21, 2008)

The Mycophagists

Photo credit: Sam Matteson

Photo credit: Sam Matteson

Behold I show you a mystery: it seems to me, that the greater my distance from home, the better I understand my mother’s voice. After sixty years, I can still hear Audrey, my mother, speaking to me: “For a hungry man, no bread is too stale; for a starving man, no soup is too thin. So, drink your soup! Eat your toast!”

The trouble was that in my family we did not willingly eat mushrooms. It was decades later and leagues away from the swamps outside Mobile—after I left home for good—that I learned of the pleasures of button, Shitake and honey mushrooms, of mushroom and Alfredo cream sauce, of sautéed mushrooms and onions, of salads with sliced, fresh mushrooms and almonds, of meaty portabellas, morels and golden chanterelles. Such exotic delights had to wait for sophistication. But when I was a child of the 50s, mushrooms were treacherous plants—as everyone knew. People died eating them.

We were convinced of the facts because we encountered ‘shrooms all the time in the woods. Circles of the white and elegant Death Angel grew in mysterious, deadly fairy rings in forest glens. Overnight, after a rain, brown-encrusted buttons pushed up from the black humus, summoned by unknown malevolent powers. Dire warnings were not lost on us about eating wild fungi and the fate that befell indiscriminant mycophagists.

We Kept Our Distance

We were well acquainted with mushrooms, but without really knowing them. We encountered them everywhere but maintained only a nodding acquaintance. Mushrooms, toadstools, bracket mold, and mildew, all were denizens of the dark and decaying places of the earth. No place was safe. Even in our bathroom in the humid corner under the toilet tank, there grew up what my mother—a proper Southern lady—called a Devil’s Finger: red, sticky and rank. But in my roguish imagination Lucifer’s fungal appendage seemed something more phallic—and alarming—than an interloping digit.

Thus there was no escaping the incursion of mushrooms into our lives. And mushrooms and toadstools were indistinguishable to children. So we maintained an uneasy truce, keeping our distance, we and the fungi. Perhaps, if we gave them a wide enough berth, they would not harm us.

At the same time my Mother Audrey, faced a daily and challenging question that grew ever more acute as she “X-ed” her calendar, inching toward Dad’s next payday: “What am I to feed my hungry children?” I am sure that she felt like the mother bird with a nest of open-mouthed chicks that are never satisfied, all pin feathers, flightless wings and mouths agape. I see her standing before a near-empty pantry, one hand on her hip, one hand drumming her cheek, her eyes scanning the labels of the few remaining cans on the shelf. “What to feed them? Oh, Lord have mercy! What to feed them? Ah! Soup! And toast.   ‘Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom.’ Mmmm…I wonder? No Tomato. This is all we have. It’ll have to do.”

Anti-fugal Insurrection

In retrospect, I, Sammy Gene Matteson—as the eldest, at the cheeky age of nine—must have been the provocateur who incited the riot, the one who reminded his sister Cindy Lou, his junior by twenty months and their brother “Baby” Dale, soon to turn six, of the admonitions regarding eating wild mushrooms.

“What if they made a mistake at the soup cannery?” I began.

“Yeah! . . . What if they put in a toadstool by mistake?” Cindy added.

I continued, “It could happen. Remember when we got the piece of rag in the can of beans?”

They both nodded.

“What if Mother has finally had it with us? We have been a little naughty, lately. . . . Do to think she is trying to get rid of us?”

I thought of the headlines: “MOTHER OF THREE POISONS KIDS! MUSHROOM SOUP IMPLICATED!” We began to bawl. We began to howl.

“What’s the matter, children?”

“You’re trying to poison us! You’re feeding us toadstools!”

“Nonsense!”

Her reply did not convince us. Indeed, nothing she said made any difference. No reasoning, no cajoling, no pleas had any effect. At last, her face reddened in frustration, then she began to cry, too. “This is all I have to give you. Can’t you eat it? It won’t kill you.”

After more tears and more negotiation, we children finally agreed to drink the creamy soup, but we resolutely refused to eat the “poisonous” mushroom pieces that floated in it. I finished my soup first. I looked down to glimpse an ironic half-formed fairy ring of uneaten mushroom bits smirk back at me from my bowl.

I hear my beleaguered Mother’s voice once again, and it breaks my heart. For from this distance I understand, at last. She set more on the table than food: she ladled love-seasoned desperation into our empty bowls. She offered up everything she had, meager and unwelcome though it was to us. We did not mean to be cruel. I only hope that she forgave our anti-fungal insurrection. Surely she did. But whether she did or she did not, she never tried to feed us mushroom soup again.

The usual suspects. The Matteson kids ca. 1953, a few years before the soup riot. (L to R) "Baby" Dale, Cindy Lou, Mother Audrey, and Sammy Gene.

The usual suspects. The Matteson kids ca. 1953, a few years before the soup riot. (L to R) “Baby” Dale, Cindy Lou, Mother Audrey, and Sammy Gene.

Postscript:

As those who follow this blog will notice, this vignette was read for the Listen to Your Mother casting. We were disappointed to learn that it did not fit with the directors’ vision for this year’s production. More the better for my readers, since the tale is too true and too “rich” to sit on the shelf.

Featured image

1943 Copper Cent valued at $80,000 Photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/

On Saturday March 7, I auditioned for a slot in the cast of Listen to Your Mother—Nashville, an evening of readings of stories in honor of mothers. Since March is National Women’s History Month and today is International Women’s Day, I offer a tease of what I shared: “The Mycophagists,” a recounting of the great mushroom soup insurrection.

Listen to Your Mother

Behold I show you a mystery: it seems to me, that the greater my distance from home, the better I understand my mother’s voice. After sixty years, I can still hear Audrey, my mother, speaking to me: “For a hungry man, no bread is too stale; for a starving man, no soup is too thin. So, drink your soup! Eat your toast!”

The trouble was that in my family we did not willingly eat mushrooms. . . .

Dream or vision?

You will have to be patient to hear the rest. Either hear me perform the piece in person May 2 at the TPAC in Nashville, Tennessee or read it here in my blog, sooner or later. We will shortly know whether my dream will come true.

I mean that statement more than metaphorically. A few years ago I had a vivid dream that I was standing before a group—reading aloud. I gradually recognized the words as my own. I was reading my story, my memoir, the child of my memory and of my childhood. My gaze lifted to look into the eyes of my listeners. I was at Barnes and Noble for a book signing! Perhaps it was a gratuitous wish fulfillment, but perhaps it was actually a vision of what lies ahead. The Lord knows and we shall see.

But the question comes to me as I ponder the future and my compulsion to scribble: why do I tell stories? In the years that I have worked at the craft of teaching and communicating, I have studied and practice the art of the well-turned phrase, of the clearly expressed idea, and of the fresh glimpse of reality. What scientists and professors do in my discipline is exposition and argumentation. Only rarely do we deploy narrative to illustrate our point, and then it is often considered an ornamentation.

Homo narrans

Humans are narrators. Homo narrans, I have heard our species called. We love a story. Oliver Sacks, a consummate story teller as well as clinical neuroscientist, has taught me so much. He has illuminated neuropsychology for us all by his stories of the bizarre and poignant behaviors of his patients in works like The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and many others. Sacks makes the point that the inner self of a human being is his stories and his memories. So I tell stories because they are me, at least in part.

And my stories are gifts, from the hand of the Father, I believe. They are like treasures we pick up along the way. I once was inspired in 2002 to express that thought in verse that I will now inflict upon you, dear reader, as my admonition.

These are Lines Scribbled

These are lines scribbled
with a blue pen
Found on the concrete,
Picked up on the way
To somewhere.
‘Forget where.
Discovered letters, these.
Stumbled-on words
Scratched on an envelope back
Lest they be lost again forever.

They spill out the ball
As if a thing alive,
A skipping, undulating scrawling wave
That carries meaning on its back
Like flotsam or flying fish
In a gray-green sea
That romantics would call blue.

Truth is found like green pennies, too,
On the pavement, snatched up,
That nothing be lost.
Heads—I keep it;
Tails—I give it away.
But never leave it lie.
Someday it might be a copper ’43 Steelie’s twin
Lost somehow ‘til now.

So do pick it up,
Unafraid as you go by,
Gold is where you find it.

Moments of pure and unalloyed joy are rare. But the glow of their memory lights our way in the dark, lonely, struggling days when our determined head is down with clinched teeth and our shoulders strain against the ropes of our responsibilities.

I have always loved flying things: birds—geese as they vee across the sky or sparrows that explode at the threat of an arm-waving child, only to coalesce again on the wind; clouds, like cotton wads that scrub the blue overhead; even leaves that dive from the branches in fall in a last bravura show, to swirl and dance for a few seconds becoming earth-bound; and kites.

I love kites.

Kites are magical

Something magical uncoils when a kite goes up. A fresh breeze is an invitation to flight. I hear the rattle of paper. A short dash with your hair combed by a gust until the string pulls hard against your finger. Pay out the line fast and get the paper bird up a few more feet where the wind does not stumble on the trees or the houses or the concerns of people. Bliss.

I first learned of kites before the sleek technology of rip-stop nylon and carbon fiber struts. Paper and balsa and cotton string were the materials of the sky-yearner. And rags for tails. Diamond kites were the way to go. A cross of balsa sticks tied at the junction; string around the outside with newspaper laid over and glued at the edges. A tail and a string bridle, and you were set. Except you had to have the tail; and it had to be just right.   Too short and the kite would whirligig and crash into the ground, too long and the weight would keep it on the ground. The tail bothered me. An elegant airfoil dragged down by a trail of rags somehow did not seem right.

Box Kites have no tails!

Then I read about a box kite. No tail! I dreamed of it: launching the device and seeing it sail, higher and higher, to the edge of space where the sky turns dark indigo and the stars and sun share the sky. I had to have one. I saved every penny I could wangle or earn until I had a fist full of coins. I searched the aisles diligently every time we went to market at Delchamps and one Friday it appeared: a 36 inch Monarch box kite, multicolored stripes, fabricated of the finest polyethylene and balsa. Somehow the money I had saved was exactly enough to buy the kite and six balls of string when I gave it to my Mother.

Saturday morning came so late. I hurried through a breakfast of hot cereal and milk. My mother made the predictable remarks about going to a fire and slowing down, but I was not restrained. The kite was assembled in minutes and pockets stuffed with balls of string, I took to the fields behind the house. The wind was just right. The air was falling over the cool earth and rising over the warmer bay churning off shore in the sea breeze that sailors had ridden for centuries out to sea in the morning home again at night. But my thoughts looked higher up. I held the kite up and the wind gently took it from my hand. I heard the plastic panels crackle with anticipation and felt the tug of a river of air dragging the kite down wind and up into the sky. I unrolled one ball of string until I reached the end and then I wrapped around my hand for a while. The string sang a soft tune, whistling a high wailing melody.

A Mile High

I tied on a second ball of string and let it out six inches at a time. The kite rose higher and higher. It grew smaller and smaller. The string ran from my hand in a graceful arc into the blue then disappeared. A tiny rectangle hovered high, dark against a cloud. I shielded my eyes and smiled. Another ball of string, and another. At last, all six balls of string were tied, end-to-end, over six thousand feet of twine between me and the flying thing I had launched. The kite was a barely distinguishable dot a mile away.

I stood still a long time and tasted the air. It was salty and smelled of sunshine. I half-closed my eyes and half-saw the houses and roads and trees, all transformed then into prismatic points of blurry light. The string pulled against my hand and I knew that this thing I had assembled looked down on all that concerns us and everything looked to it so small and unimportant. And I was flying with that kite that had no tail.

Moments of pure joy are rare enough to remember.

Kindergarten Thanatopsis

“Everybody dies,” Erin pronounced solemnly. I looked into her face, searching for a sign of concern; her eyes betrayed no alarm; her voice was steady. “Charlie is old. She will die soon.”

“Poor Charlie, her hip hurts so much,” I replied glancing down at the “Westie” at my feet. “I guess she will die someday soon.”

“But little kids don’t die very often, unless they get very sick or have an accident,” my five-year-old kindergarten granddaughter commented as if to reassure me and herself.   I could hear in her observation the echoes of the voices her RN mother and her ER physician father. I envisioned the conversation they might have had, since I knew Erin had attended the funeral of her great grandfather within the last year, and I knew, too, that she is an inquisitive child.   Yet I was astounded at what she had said. Nevertheless, I was about to write it off as a random, innocent parroting of adult homilies when she continued.

She leaned her petite head forward and whispered in my ear as if sharing a great secret with me: “You will die sometime, too.”

“Not soon, I hope!” was my surprised reply.

“Charlie will die first, I think,” she concluded.

“Probably.”

Then she jumped down from my lap and ran to dress or undress one of her dolls. I dimly recalled that the Bible said something as I watched her disappear around the corner, “Out of the mouths of babes you ordain perfect praise.” Indeed, I concluded, the most profound sermons are uttered incidentally. God often speaks loudest in the smallest voices. Little angels visit from time to time to give us little intimations of God. I remembered then words that formed themselves into a prayer in my mind, “Lord, help me to number my days aright that I might apply my heart to wisdom. Amen.” I resolved again at that moment to rejoice in the presence of my beloved children and grandchildren as much as I had opportunity.

But Wait! There’s more

But the sermon had not concluded. A few minutes later, Erin came again to sit upon my lap. Charlie, not wanting to be left out, hobbled back into the bedroom and hid beside the rocking chair, her nose peeking out from under the bed skirt. I thought distractedly how pets are often an object lesson in life both to children and their parents. Then I thought to change the subject.

“I hope to retire someday and then I could spend more time with you. What do you think of that?”

Erin nodded, “Yeah! That would be great! And then you can hold my babies, too . . . and someday I’ll be a grandmother and have granddaughters like me that I will hold on my lap like you do, Papa . . . . But you probably wouldn’t be here then. You will be dead.”

I tried to hide my astonishment at her matter-of-fact apprehension of one of the great truths of life and of the human condition.

“That will okay. It will be your turn,” I said as I wondered at what other profundities lay behind her dancing eyes, but I was afraid, perhaps more than a little, to ask her what else she was thinking for fear of provoking hard questions from her and unsettling ones for me, questions for which I have no certain or ready answer. So I changed the subject again.

“What do you think? Do dogs retire? What do dogs do when they quit the dog’s life?”

She leaned over the arm of the chair to consider Charlie whose greatest joy as a pup had been to chase a rubber ball, but now only lay about the house or wandered the yard in a daze when let out.

“When dogs retire, they die,” was her considered response.

“Well, I hope that is not what happens to people,” I said. I meant it too. I think Erin thought that was a good idea as well.

Sad Good-byes

Later as we said “good-bye” and departed for Texas at the end of our weekend visit, I reflected on how very much our leaving was a picture of a “passing.” As Jesus told his disciples, “I am going to a far country where you may not follow.” His friends were not happy to hear this news. Nor are we glad to see a loved one leave us, even for a little while.

The pain of separation is very real but really only for us who must stay behind. Those who go on ahead either pay us no mind because we are already with them there in the future, if the promises are to be believed, or they pay us no mind because death is a forever sleep. In any case, it is we who are left behind to remember that know the pain. Yet it is in remembering that we find comfort and touch again the heart of those we have loved.

My mother’s funeral coincided sixteen years ago—now going on seventeen years—with the very day that I first learned of Erin’s elder brother’s existence. Audrey would have adorned Erin (as she would have treasured all of her great grandchildren) if she had had the chance to know them. But in this kindergartener especially she would surely have delighted, for my mother would have seen herself manifested, and she would have been right.

When I looked at Erin I saw all of us plainly on display in innocence and sprightliness. I recalled the assertion, “Grandchildren are God’s proposition that the human race should continue.” I meditated only a moment and hoped it not presumptuous to second His motion, my “Amen” almost audible.

When my time on earth is spent and I must depart, I pray that it will be a gracious exit, and that those who remain will remember me with loving thoughts and appreciation. If so, then I will live again in them and in their memory. And it is our hope and His promise that we will soon see each other again, very soon. For all people die sometime. I know this. Erin told me so.

Who can find a virtuous woman?  for her price is far above rubies.”
Proverbs 31:10

         A sister is often, for a brother, a dubious blessing at the start.  At the beginning he cannot easily see what value is her half of humanity. Sisters are truly different, bona fide members of that subspecies of homo sapiens that is uniquely female and, thus, alien to him.   My sister was no different, nor was I.

Cindy Lou, of course

         Cynthia Lou Matteson, known, of course, as “Cindy Lou” was always part of my world, just as were my mother and father.  From my first memories she is there with them, but as somewhat of a competitor for their attention rather than as a collaborator.  And nearly two years my junior, she seemed much more vulnerable and helpless than any of my peers as we grew up, so that—unfortunately—I slipped into that common brotherly state of mind that discounted her as one not having much to contribute to my interests.  I was wrong.  I did not understand her for a long time, or any other woman, for that matter.  If I had paid closer attention to the lessons she could have taught me then, I would have been so much better prepared to become a husband, a father and grandfather of the girls and women of my life.  But brothers begin thickheaded and slow, more inclined to rough housing than to listening, more attuned to footraces, marbles and tree climbing than insights into feeling.

Nobody in my family enjoyed washing the dishes after our family meals.  As the dessert was finished, my sister and I would glumly look at each other.   The first to speak was sentenced to a lonely half hour over the sink.  At first it was just the two of us, Cindy and I, who sat in jeopardy, but later, when “Baby Dale” was older, there was a trio of potential bottle washers.  So loathsome seemed the task that I, sometimes, would give Cindy a provoking look or whisper, “It’s your turn.”  Somehow I often could get my sister to speak out loud.  “Sammy talked first!” Or “Mother, make Sammy stop tormenting me.”

Cackling syblings

“You children stop ‘nyah-nyahing’” Mother would plead. “The first chicken that cackles laid the egg,” she would intone and Cindy was often chosen.  The pronouncement would be met with “That’s not fair!”  And it probably wasn’t fair.  But more often than I, Cindy was sentenced to sink duty, although it did not seem to me to be too frequent at the time.  For things in the kitchen were “women’s work” when I was a child.  Such tasks were resented by my masculine prejudices.  When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I was heard to reply, “A man would do nicely.”  Indeed, I was very glad I was not a woman.

It seemed to me that girls were held captive by their bodies.  A guy was okay if he showed the least bit of athleticism, or he could compensate with knowledge of sports or automobiles or even science.  No boy thought it a compliment to hear that he was such a pretty baby.  A heavy male could be a lineman on the football team.  A freckled-faced carrot top, known naturally as “Red,” could still be a cheerful pal.  But a girl was judged fit or worthless by her looks and that was the end of it.  If she were overweight or plain or shy in the critical eyes of her peers and of those she admired, then she was doomed.  What is more, her emotions were the slave of hormones that raged through monthly cycles with frightening changes, both publically visible in acne or bloating or more intimately and more distressing.  I had only a dim understanding of human physiology in general and that was primarily focused on the masculine gender in particular, despite a provocative but remote interest in the female anatomy admiringly inspired at a distance by women other than those of my clan.  I did not really know nor appreciate what women endured.  I was only glad that I was or would some day be a man.

When I did ultimately become an adult, I began to understand what passed between my sister and me.  I once was asked to give advice to a newly wedded colleague.  He had lived as a bachelor for a long time and had never had any sisters.  He recounted how his bride was angry with him for hurting her feelings.  “I told her, honestly, that I did not mean to hurt her feelings…She was still mad as a hornet.  What can I do?  She is just not being rational about it.”

I thought back to my own experience.  I should have begun to understand this very situation, years before, on that day when I was playing with an old sock.

My sock-full of angry

In my part of Alabama, we had to make our own fun.  I had found an orphaned athletic sock, the kind that eventually everyone finds in the wash, its mate absconded to parts unknown and the forlorn lone sock destined to live out its miserable existence abandoned in a drawer.  I had rescued the lonely hosiery and put it to better use.  I sat on the grass beside the sandy cul-de-sac of Broadmoor Place filling the sock with gray sand and pounding the ground with this surprisingly hard dirt hammer.

I heard my name called.  I twisted to look over my shoulder to see Cindy.  She frowned at me and called out again, “Sammy Gene, Mother says you need to come in to wash up for supper…and by-the-way it’s your turn to do the dishes tonight,” she added a little too sullenly, I thought.  Then she turned to reenter to the house.

In disgusted resignation I carelessly flung the sand-filled sock one more time into the air.  “Ah, forget it all!” my action said.  I jumped up and turned to go in.  To my surprise and horror, the sock that I had released had become a ballistic missile that was arcing in a high and graceful parabola toward my retreating sister’s back.  I calculated the place where it would land and extrapolated Cindy’s position.  I had thrown the projectile with a precision that was far beyond my skill.  I wished I could reel in the airborne bludgeon with invisible threads of regret, but it was now beyond control.

The sand-loaded sapper struck Cindy between the shoulder blades and sent her sprawling under the oak tree.  I heard her scream in pain and anger.  She lay there for a short while with the breath knocked out of her.  I started for her.  Then I stopped.  Breathlessly at first, she pushed up to her knees, then, deliberately, ominously she climbed to her feet.  She turned to me with eyes of fire and came running at me, her fingers spread with claw-like nails to scratch my eyes out.

She would not listen to my protests of innocence and apology.  She clearly wanted blood.  Fortunately, I was bigger and stronger and caught her by the wrists before I was blinded in her wrath.  I held on tight and struggled with her.  She cried and yelled in pain, fury and frustration.  At last, her anger finally began to abate as I continued to apologize.  Eventually she relented in her attack, but I think she was still not convinced of my truthfulness despite my continual protestations of innocence and of regret.

Many times since that day I have let loose reckless words that flew in what seemed like a high ballistic arc out of my control; I always wished that I could suck them back into my mouth or freeze them in place so that they fell to the earth and shattered, anything, as long as they would not hit their unintended mark.  But alas, words, like sand-filled socks have a mind of their own when we have flung them out.  And every time I let fly reckless missiles I relive the sickening scene of remorse.

Not all lessons are lost on brothers

Fortunately, such lessons are not always lost, even on brothers.  Sibling-inflicted pain is not necessarily simply perverse or suffered in vain.  I had learned a lesson that was valuable, a lesson taught to me at my sister’s expense.  I told my friend to imagine that he were working on his house, happily and distractedly driving nails into the siding with a large hammer.  “Imagine,” I continued, “your wife softly comes up behind you unnoticed.” In my parable he strikes his dear one in the head, hard but unintentionally.    She is gravely hurt.  “Of course,” I said, “you say, ‘I’m sorry that you are hurt.  I didn’t mean to hurt you.’  But she continues to cry and perhaps is unreasonably angry in her pain.  Then will you say to me: ‘Now isn’t that just like a woman! So irrational!  I said I’m sorry but she still is upset.  Women, who can understand them?’”   He got the message.

I wish I had got the message sooner, too.  I guess that I should have paid more attention when I was just a brother; then I would have been wiser, sooner and a better husband from the start.  Too bad I was asleep during most of my adolescence, dreaming my own dreams.

I did try to make it up to my sister afterward, but I now realize that even the kindness I showed her was still selfish at its base.  I would, from time to time, surprise her with a little toy I made for her, like the inch-long knife, spoon and fork that I hammered from a wire for her to use when her dolls had tea.  I would carve pine twigs into dolls for her dolls.  She always seemed to appreciate whatever I gave her.  I secretly appreciated her, although I did not really show her.  When you are self-absorbed and uncertain, you are more than a little bit frightened that who you are becoming is not who you want to be, and you have little time or interest in any other person, except when they make you feel capable, admired or at least more worthy.  Sisters rarely make you feel more capable or worthy when you are an adolescent.  Their opinion can’t be trusted, you see; sibling rivalry and jealousies make them untrustworthy.  And besides, they have their own problems.  They also are much like you, since you are from the same gene pool and household.   And you may not care much for such a faithful mirror.

So you’re a Matteson?

So I left Cindy to fend for herself most of her high school years.  I think that she did not have an easy time following two years behind me in school.  Sisters rarely do.  Whether a brother does well or not, expectations and biases among teachers cannot be avoided.  “So you’re a Matteson, huh?” a teacher might remarks ominously and vaguely.

But the magic of maturation and experience happens even when we are not looking.  While I was away from home, first at college and then on my own, my ugly duckling of a sister metamorphosed into a swan.  Somehow the awkward girl became a capable woman when my back was turned and my attention diverted.  Some may wonder if it were she or I that changed—or both.  In any case, now I look on my sister’s accomplishments with pride, and marvel at her affection for the not-always-kind brother of her youth.  I must not be such an awful human being if a person of her caliber finds me worthy of friendship.  Or perhaps it is just that she is a person capable of saintly forgiveness.  Nevertheless, I listen to her with new interest and wonder. I have learned at least one thing: I now know that brothers have much to learn that sisters were specifically designed to teach, both at their beginning and later on.

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