From reading fairy tales and the Edward Eager books, I should know to be specific when making a wish. I told people all I wanted for Christmas was a week in bed to read and eat small exquisite meals (brought to me). The Friday before Christmas, I finally finished wrapping, shopping, cooking, sending, tending, painting, moving—all done! I went into my freshly decorated sitting room and thought, My time.
But I’d forgotten to scan the fine print regarding wishes. The next morning I woke with a sore throat that quickly spiraled into bronchitis. I was in bed all right, but sleeping. On Christmas Day my husband drove me 110 miles so I could deliver presents at the family gathering. We stayed one hour.
Christmas night I cried. I was so tired from this year and ending it sick. The next morning I got up, still feeling sorry for myself. I turned on the lights on our tree.
Our neighbors across the street put up a lighted cross every year. He’s pastor of a non-denominational church. Reflected in the window, our red tree lights mingled with the lights of the cross. I leaned my forehead against the glass and thought, not for the first time, something is missing in my life.
I’ve struggled with religion from childhood when I was sent alone to Sunday school and told to say my bedtime prayers, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” Once I spent the night with a cousin and when we recited our prayers, her speech impediment turned the last line into, “I pray the Lord my soul to cake.” Since the possibility of croaking before daybreak seemed a terrible burden to place at the feet of a five-year-old, our souls certainly ought to become cake.
So I looked up my neighbor’s church. It seemed loving, but also churchy. I saw myself standing by the door, ready to bolt if asked to give up free will. Then I looked up the local Unitarian church, with its tempting special interest groups: memoir writing, great books, serious discussion. This last covered topics like “Should Internet Sales Be Taxed?” Nowhere did I find a group that handed out canned goods to the poor.
Also? The churches looked like medical centers. I want a steepled church and a cemetery with time-tilted headstones.
My husband came downstairs and we talked. I told him I’d probably like the people in our neighbor’s church, but would balk at the doctrines. The Unitarian church would accept my strangeness, but seemed more like a country club.
“You’ll have to make your own church,” he said. “I’ve been trying,” I said, “but Thoreau and turkey buzzards aren’t always comforting.”
Then I worried that joining a church would be a phase, like Curves. Over time, the machines in Curves became too easy and I never had enough space in Zumba. Where would I find a church that provided challenge and room for my thoughts to maneuver?
Thank heavens for the library. During my worst moments, the library manages to toss books at me I truly need. That day I picked up my reserves and a book of photographs called Maddie on Things. Back home, I went to bed to read Maddie first (small exquisite meals did not appear, however.)
Theron Humphrey took pictures of his rescued coonhound, Maddie, on a 65,000 mile trip through all 50 states in 365 days. Humphrey, a studio photographer, hated his job. He decided to travel the U.S. and meet and photograph one stranger each day. He set up a website to document the people he met. He also discovered his dog would perch wherever he set her—on soup cans, on a fire hydrant, astride rails. Maddie’s photos became an Instagram hit and then a book, more popular than his documentary site.
The pictures are wonderful, but I was struck by Humphrey’s reasons for taking this journey. He wanted to “meet folks like my grandfather [who had recently passed].” Immediately I longed to be a 29-year-old single man with a camper truck and a dog. I wanted to kick over my traces and travel and meet people, too. I don’t hate my job as a children’s writer, but I don’t get out much except for work purposes. Gathering other people’s stories—that’s missing from my life.
I took the next book off my stack, a memoir called Chickens in the Road by Suzanne McMinn, with a sniff. I wasn’t in the mood for another lifestyle-blog-turned-book, like Pioneer Woman who moved to a ranch with her Marlboro Man, or the woman from New Jersey who bought a Virginia vineyard and did chores in designer heels.
McMinn, a divorced romance writer, was at a crossroads in her life. Her father was from West Virginia and she had fond memories of summers on the family land. She says, “I loved swinging on grapevines over the river and learning to skip rocks. Most of all, I loved that sense of history and place.”
So she ripped up her three kids from the suburbs and moved “to the boonies of West Virginia, to the countryside outside the tiny town of Walton just over the hill from my great-grandfather’s old farm. I took a deep breath of the clean air, looked up at the sky littered with stars you could actually see, felt the far-reaching pull of my family’s roots.”
She knew nothing about farming or even how to light a woodstove. But McMinn stuck it out. The book tells the real story she didn’t put in her popular blog posts. I read her memoir straight through because it’s good and because I can relate.
As a kid, I began going to funerals in Shenandoah County (my mother’s aunts and uncles were departing this world). I loved the long drive over the mountains, the services in the little white churches, the food afterwards. Our trips to the Valley were only day trips, enough time for me to wander up country roads, amble around cemeteries. I had never seen such beautiful country—a secret valley within the Valley, mountains in every direction. I longed to live there and made plans.
But life didn’t lead me to Shenandoah County. I stopped going there after my mother died. I’d lost my connection. A few years ago, I read about a man whose farm had been designated a Virginia Century Farm (must be in the same family a hundred years). Dellinger Acres had been in the same family 250 years. My mother’s name was Dellinger and the farm was in the hamlet where she was born.
I contacted Noah Dellinger, then 97, and he wrote me back. He outlined our family tree—we were indeed related. That Labor Day weekend, my husband and I went to visit.
Noah was sharp as a box of tacks. He told me so much that day—how our ancestor Christian Dellinger joined the Revolutionary War armed with a pike, the only weapon he had, and how Christian’s mother provided beef for the Continental Army.
His father died when Noah was 7 and his mother, Nody, sold everything but the land until she remarried and could farm again. He told me about my grandfather’s undertaker’s business. Story after story spooled from him. My husband and I were spellbound.
Noah drove us (!) back to the cemetery on his property. The farm, established as a 400-acre land grant from Lord Fairfax in 1766, is now 750 acres. Corn, barley, and wheat are grown and cattle are pastured. Then Noah took us to the house he and his wife moved into when they were married in 1934. Two large rooms, one over the other, with an enormous two-story fireplace comprised the original 1766 homestead.
Later Noah and his wife moved into the large brick house owned by his father, built in 1850. His wife died 15 years ago and they didn’t have children—nephews run the farm.
We toured the homestead, now a shed. Noah demonstrated a 1934 Maytag washer that still runs. On that rainy morning we stood in an inch of water as Noah said, “Here, Cousin Frank, plug this in the socket.” I don’t which surprised me the most—the fact my husband didn’t jitterbug horizontally or the washer began agitating.
I left with a bag of walnuts from Noah’s tree and a sense of connection I haven’t felt since I was a child. Noah’s land and his stories soothed my husband, too. We went back this past Labor Day weekend and this time Noah took me to the house my grandfather had built, possibly where my mother was born. He told me about every house and former store as we rattled down one lane gravel roads. We left, promising to return.
After I finished reading Chickens in the Road, I held those two library books and realized what was missing from my life: people and their stories, the chance to ramble over countryside and take pictures without trespassing, and, most important, the far-reaching pull of my roots. I am the first generation in ten not born in that county.
I told my husband I had found my church. It’s in Shenandoah County. I will find more of my mother’s family still living. We’ll go see Noah more than once a year. He’ll be 99 on February 17. Our 35th anniversary is February 14. Guess how we’re spending it? I’ve never been to Shenandoah County in the winter. We will bring cake!
Every chance we can get away, we’ll spend the weekend in the Valley. Noah won’t live forever. I want—I need—his stories. I want to ramble over land where I am welcome, take pictures, let my thoughts expand.
And on Sunday mornings? There are two little white steepled churches. My mother went to both until she had to leave the Valley at age six.
I plan to take her place.
When I was young, I thought grace was an old-fashioned trait, like Marmee in Little Women when she suggested they give their Christmas morning breakfast to a poor family (“You shall all go and help me and when we come back, we will have bread and milk . . .”), and that grace went out of style with hoop skirts.
Over the years I’ve seen many examples of grace but was too thick-headed to recognize it. Only last week did grace walk in and sit down quietly, waiting for me to notice.
It came with the turn of a kaleidoscope. All events cause the colored chips in our lives to tumble, sometimes shuffling only a little, other times dropping so drastically the pattern changes entirely. The recent death in our family triggered massive shifts. We aren’t certain of our new, raw-edged roles.
Last week I visited my sister, just us two for the first time in weeks. I parked in her driveway and looked at her house. The windows had been cheerfully decorated for Christmas. A wreath with a vintage plaid-ribboned ice skate hung on the door. The bushes had been trimmed and the leaves raked.
Inside, the house was pin-neat. A small white tree with tiny white lights sat on the dining room table. A Santa Claus plate with cookies waited in the kitchen (we always dive into sugar first thing). The hearth in the den was lined with pictures of grandkids on Santa’s lap and the last surviving wooden reindeer from a set my brother-in-law made years ago.
My sister looked put-together with her hair up, wearing a nice outfit, make-up, and her jewelry. She was working on her thank-you cards and her Christmas cards. Only the careful lines around her eyes told the real story. I was astounded.
When our mother died in 1989, I couldn’t face Christmas. I couldn’t get out my decorations, couldn’t find my cookie recipes, couldn’t figure out where anything went. The patterns were too different. Nothing fit any more.
So I ran away. My husband and I spent Christmas Eve day wandering the outlets in Williamsburg, and just as the Royal Doulton store was closing, I scored a set of $1000 platinum-rimmed bone china for $250. Instead of opening our presents and enjoying our traditional little buffet around the tree on Christmas Eve, we ate supper in a Holiday Inn. I remember looking at my reflection, thrown back at me from the blackness outside, and realizing running away was not the answer.
I did not behave with grace. (And we only used that china one time.)
Grace is meeting a terrible situation head-on, making the best of things even while you’re in pain, playing the hand you are dealt. Grace is not packed away in mothballs. People still demonstrate that trait.
There was the woman years ago who asked me to speak to her writing group. She drove from Maryland in the December rush hour to pick me up in her boxy old Mercedes. Her husband sat alone in the back seat. She told me he was an alcoholic, that he went to work every day, but got drunk every night and she did all the driving. She said he wouldn’t bother us and he didn’t. After the meeting, she drove me back home, all the way around the dark Beltway while he hummed in the back seat. That woman, who clearly did more than “all the driving,” had grace.
There was Mom Byers, an elderly member of my mother’s Friendly Neighbor Club. Mom Byers’s husband had left decades ago. She took in foster children and was so good with them, child services gave her the most hopeless cases.
The Christmas club meeting was always at Mom Byers’s house and I was the only child who attended. I was amazed her little living room could hold twenty women and never seem crowded. Mom Byers had a short, fat tabletop tree loaded with homemade ornaments. Her house smelled like pine needles and sugar and radiated good cheer. If Marmee was real, she’d be Mom Byers.
I can still see the warm wash of lamplight and the fawn-shy children watching us. Mom Byers, who gentled the even the worst holy terrors, had grace in spades.
That day last week, when it was time for me to drive back home, my sister walked me out to my truck. For so many years two people waved at me as I backed ineptly out of their driveway. But my sister waved as if her husband was still standing beside her.
During the sixty miles up Route 1, I put myself in my sister’s place. I wouldn’t get out of bed. My house would be a wreck. I’d eat nothing but dry cereal. And I certainly wouldn’t decorate for Christmas.
When I pulled into our driveway, my husband’s car was in the garage and the house lights fell in a familiar yellow mosaic on our lawn.
Now that I’ve seen grace, know what it looks like, there’s time yet for me to find it.