While in the U.S. Army for 20 years, I identified my home of record as St. Louis, Missouri, where I was raised on the south side in a home where my parents both worked full time to make ends meet. Life wasn’t a battle for survival, but it was a struggle from pay day to pay day.
Though now a Tennessee resident, when I speak of home I still focus on Missouri, especially the Ozarks where I was born and spent six formative years of childhood.
Recently I returned to the Ozarks near Fort Leonard Wood. There for three days, I faced an epiphany, an experience of both sadness and joy. Experiences that brought me closer to reality. Something happened that was unforeseen and unanticipated, something that wasn’t on my list of objectives for this trip. The result was a new personal “awareness” and sensitivity toward my own well-being.
The Ozarks surrounding Fort Leonard Wood was where I played with my uncles and cousins. We explored caves, woods, and hills. We fished, hunted and played hide and seek in the woods and in season, climbed persimmon trees and picked the fruit when it was ripe enough to eat.
The major objective of this newest visit was to reconnect with friends, family and former members of the Newburgh United Methodist Church. I wanted to strengthen relationships with those who had been significant others in my pilgrimage through life.
On this visit, I met members of this Newburgh congregation, where I had served for eight years as pastor. One startling demographic of this 40-member church concerned the educational level of its membership: highly educated and professional leaders, some 50% of the group had earned masters degrees. We had two doctors — Lute and Beth – who immigrated to the United States from South Africa.
Newburgh 40 years ago was a bustling and financially independent railroad town, but with modernization and the scraping of the steam engine the community took it “on the nose” economically. A mass exodus of jobs and workers sent the town into a decline, dropping its population to a mere 400.
While there I made friends, good friends. On this visit, I hosted a a dinner for them at the local Shoney’s. Of this original group of dedicated church members, only a handful remained. Though in their 70s and 80s now, they remained enthusiastic and healthy enough to drive the distance for a dinner/reunion with their former pastor. The, each and everyone, still served their community and church, and shared an occasional glass of wine.
So this renewal, this aforementioned epiphany, began for me. I was confronted with the knowledge that two-thirds of my friends from this dynamic church had died or moved on. The camaraderie arising from this dinner gathering strengthened my bonds with and feelings for Beth, Renata, Bob, Irene, Ruth, and Gordon. We dined on an Ozark dinner of frog legs, chicken and beef dishes. Throughout this period of fellowship, I relived some of the “good old days” we had together. The presence of these good people made me feel a better person and renewed my sense of achievement. I recognized that they had made a positive contribution to my life and had enabled me to find an elevated sense of self-esteem.
In this area, this county near Fort Leonard Wood, I still have a few aunts, uncles and cousins. Their number has dwindled since my last visit. The bell has “tolled” for a dozen of them in the last eight years. These family members from my mother’s side were supporting and accepting of me and contributed to our well-being; my mother was a single parent at age 18. These precious relatives helped raise me in an environment of loving care. Over the years, I’ve continued to express my gratitude, verbally, and with gifts, or frequent phone calls, for their daily positive confirmations of my value in childhood, especially those first six years.
Time has taken an ignominious toll on them; they are widows and widowers, having outlived their spouses. they are receiving extended medical care for a variety of injuries and diseases. Uncle Frank is 91, in overall good health but confined to an assisted living facility. There are symptoms of diseases, signs of the ravages of dementia and stroke. Individually they have had to surrender their self-determination and physical mobility to the demands of aging. For them, driving a car is no longer a comfort activity in life.
But back to my epiphany. As a result of this renewal with my friends and family, I have experienced a wake-up call. I am now one of the older generation in our family, and in 2008, I could become one of the few survivors of our clan. Thisfamily visit introduced me anew to my own mortality. Tearfully, I say that I am going to miss my uncles and aunts upon their demise. A comfort for me, though, will be my recognition that I “loved them now” while they are still with me. (Presbytarian hymn).
Mullings and Musings
A source of inspiration and spiritual boldness as I begin my 7th decade s the book Mullings and Musings by Clarksville’s own Charlotte Marshall, in which she gives comforting advice from decades of life through her gift for story telling. In one emotional and insightful story, she says:
“Then the purposelessness and fragility of life bound together as an ephemeral gift camae into sharp fears as to make me weep. Why have I been so dull, so unaware, so taking-for-granted the treasures given me? Never again will any of life be taken cavalierly.”
After my abbreviated time with my family in the Ozarks, I’ve returned to Clarksville withb a renewed sense of dedication “to set my house in order.” I have been more generous and have vowed not to be so cavalier in daily living.
A few concluding observations from this experience: Such confrontations are not joyful happenings, but are ones I can, with God’s help, use productively in the time I have remaining. Being Methodist, In hope to live as long as our founder, Rev. John Wesley, who left this earthly test at 86 years of age.
Also, as we say in the Ozarks, “I;m not allowing any grass to grow under my feet.” I’m busy sharing, doing good, and planning for my future, with it’s five or 20 years.
At the beginning of this new year, I am appreciative of my heritage and lineage. I am grateful for my family, especially the uncles and aunts that immeasurably contributed to my life, not with money but with affection and acceptance.
Happy New Year to all.