In Mrs. Flakes’ first grade classroom at Rural Point Elementary, the most embarrassing thing that could have happened happened. I was sitting in the last desk in my row. I slowly began to feel hot. As my head warmed and I began to sweat, I had an uncomfortable feeling in the bottom of my stomach. No, it wasn’t butterflies of nervousness about something that we were about to do in class. It was lunch.
I had gotten a few dollars from Dad that morning so that I could go through the cafeteria line and get pizza with my friends. Unfortunately, after lunch when we were back in the classroom, the pizza returned. I quickly turned in my seat, and like a scene from Family Guy, it seemed to not stop. I vaguely remember standing up and not knowing what direction to go. I felt awful! Mrs. Flakes tired to steer me away from the throw-up and out the classroom door to the nurse’s office. From there, my parents were called and I went home.
I made a decision that day that I held to until my senior year in high school. I would never eat cafeteria food again! From that day on Mom packed me a lunchbox (until high school when the Alf lunchbox was replaced with a brown lunch bag.)
And the lunch was always the same. There was my peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread. There was an off-brand ziplock bag of potato chips, a Little Debbie dessert, and a drink. Mom remembers me using the thermos that came with the lunchbox in elementary school with either milk or apple juice in it.
Even in the first grade, I was a creature of habit. I would empty the contents of my lunchbox and arrange them. When I graduated to the brown lunch bag, the drink was always in the bottom, followed by the sandwich, and the Little Debbie cake, and the chips. I would eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich first. Then, the chips, and lastly the Little Debbie cake. And then, I would drink my drink. Why I did it this way, I have no idea. But that was my lunch routine.
When both Mom and Dad worked, I would stay at Mrs. Rice’s house. Later, when I got older, she would tell the story that whenever it was lunch time, she would ask me what I wanted, and the answer was always the same: “Peanut butter and jelly.” I image when I got older and into high school, I may have veered off that plan. But, for the most part, it was always peanut butter and jelly.
Today, whenever I’m hungry and there seems to be few options, I will make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – either strawberry or grape. It brings me a level of comfort. It reminds me of my childhood and the security of always knowing that peanut butter and jelly would be there for me.
And the best part is, I never got sick at school again.
I wrote the following upon reflecting on Psalm 51.
I had done everything I could think of to do. It was a warm, sunny day. My six-year-old self left no parts of the rural countryside undiscovered.
I had trampled through the small creek trying to catch frogs. I had successfully jumped over my grandfather’s fence. The fence was there to keep the goats in the lot, and to keep the grandchildren out of the lot. I carefully tip-toed around inside the old shed that served as a shelter for Old Billy. I ran through the lot, dodging the piles of little, round pellets the goats had left. I attempted to climb up long, stringy moss hanging from the trees.
I skipped through the strawberry patch, picking a few for myself. I got as close as I could to the beehive, without disturbing their work. I climbed high up into the old pine tree next to my grandparents’ home. I ran towards the edge of the cliff, jumping high into the air to avoid falling to the creek below.
As the day came to a close, and the sun begin to drift back to its evening place, I heard my mother’s voice. She was calling me home.
A ran through the woods, jumping over dead logs, through the mucky piles of leaves, along the dirt path, around the tractor shed, and up to the back door.
As I opened the door, I was instructed not to come into the house. “But, you called me home,” I thought to myself.
It wasn’t just the dirt on my shirt and shorts. It was the dirt on my arms and legs, my hands and bare feet. The dirt ring around my neck. My messy, dirty, and damp hair.
Dinner was put on hold.
I was lifted up into the air, as if we were playing Superman. But, we were not. I was carried down the hall and into the bathroom. My mother turned the water on and told me to strip off the dirty clothes.
The clothes were quickly taken to the wash and I was quickly put into the warm, bath water. Armed with soap and sponge, my mother began to scrub me clean. And scrub me. And scrub me.
When I was growing up, it was rare that doors were locked. I can remember as a kid roaming around and randomly going into my grandparents’ home next door. No knocking, and certainly no ringing of a doorbell. We would just walk in. But now that I think about, we haven’t asked my grandparents how they felt about any of us randomly walking in their house.
Then, at some point, the world changed. And doors were locked. It was strange. In order to go into someone’s house, we had to use the doorbell.
It was a little creepy at first. You didn’t know what was going to happen. The doorbell was a strange object. “We’re just suppose to push it?” we wondered. “That’s all?” We would push the button and wait to hear if anything happened. In some cases, the “bell” would be so loud it would freak us out a little bit. Others we wouldn’t be able to hear it ourselves, which meant we had to push the button again, right? Because if we couldn’t hear it, how could the people inside hear it?
It also seemed so formal. Like we had to wear our Sunday best to visit someone. We were not formal people. We were country, where everyone knew everyone. Honestly, though, everyone was related to everyone – which is a whole other blog post.
Doors were no longer open. Being invited in was no longer taken for granted. We had to ask to be invited in.
When the doorbell rings, we have been trained to go to the door. We may peek through the window first to see who is out there. Maybe we are expecting guests or a delivery, and we wait with anticipation for the doorbell to ring. The power of who comes in is on us, we who are inside the house. If it is a salesperson, we do not have to let them in. If it is some annoying grandchildren, we do not have to let them in.
When I lived in an apartment in the West End of Richmond, a group of Mormons from Central America were making the rounds in the apartment building. I knew when my doorbell rang that it was this group of people. I knew what they were selling, and decided that I needed to bury my head into my textbooks instead. I figured after they rang the bell and no one came to the door, they would move on to the next door.
However, the bell kept ringing. After awhile I finally got up from the table where I was studying, and answered the door. The elder member began chatting me up in a quick pace of Spanish that I did not understand. I finally realized that they had the wrong apartment. They were looking for my neighbor, who was a relative they were looking for.
About the same time that Dad got sick with prostate cancer, I brought home a black lab. Dad named her Lady. She had been left on the side of the road near the church I worked at at the time. She was malnourished, to the say the least. And as a result, she spent the first few months inside the house.
As we got better, she would spend most of her days outside. At some point Lady learned that if she jumped up and pushed the doorbell, one of us would come and answer the door. And I don’t mean a neat little trick where she uses her nose to push the bell. No, she would jump up and lean on the door. Once “standing,” she would use her paw to ring the bell. It looked a little bit like this:
And because we had been trained to response to the doorbell, we would always check to see who it was. Imagine our surprise the first time we realized it was not a person, but the dog!
Lady was not surprised. And once we started answering when she rang, she would continue this habit. Especially when she sensed a storm coming. Lady was deathly afraid of storms. On these evenings, she would ring the doorbell at the front door, and if no one came soon enough, she would run and ring the bell on the back door. This would continue for awhile until my Mom would wait patiently for her at one of the doors to let her in.
One evening while Dad was in the hospital, I was home with my two younger brothers. Lady had gone outside. Not long afterwards, the doorbell started ringing. I – the older brother – told my brothers, “Don’t answer the door. It’s just Lady, and she needs to learn to stop doing that.”
The doorbell did not stop ringing.
Finally I got up, annoyed with the lab, to let her in. Only, there was no black lab waiting at the back door. Instead, it was one of our neighbors bringing us a casserole. I was only slightly embarrassed.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I thought you were the dog.”
One summer in high school during our youth group’s Youth Sunday service I played a duet with my Aunt Polly. I on the trumpet and she on the organ. That Sunday was Mr. Paul Krupp’s “Come Back Sunday.”
Mr. Krupp and his wife had been absent from church for three or more months due to a horrible fall that he took replacing a clock in his workshop. That fall, which left him in the hospital for awhile, was just the beginning of his troubles. Physical therapy and then trying to get his Driver’s License back is what followed. The doctors never thought he would be able to sit up in bed after that fall, much less be able to drive a car again.
After the service, Mr. Krupp came up the aisle, followed by his wife of 50+ years, and he stopped by my side. His hunched back being supported by his walking cane. As his cane landed by my foot, he looked up into my eyes and told me he enjoyed the music. Mr. Krupp was a very talented musician and teacher. He played tuba in the community band for years. In addition, he fixed instruments for many of the students in the high school bands. He found any kind of brass music enjoyable, especially in worship.
Over the next week or so, Mr. Krupp took my trumpet into his workshop to give it a tune up. When he was done with he called to let me know it was ready. When I asked him how much we owed him for his time, he said, “Nothing at all. But, I do want you to come by.” So, I got my Momma to take me to his house.
After arriving at his house, I asked him again about a payment. He said, “Your playing in church was payment enough. I really enjoyed it. No matter how simple.” He proceeded to tell me what a great sound I can get out my Bach horn. And then, he brought out another trumpet and asks me to play it. So I doodled a few notes on the scale on it.
“Sounds good,” I said. He looked at me, and his old, worn, tired face smiled at me as he said, “It’s yours, and I mean it. It’s yours.”
I was speechless. I tried to form words, but I couldn’t. He chuckled from his old throat, and gave me instructions to use this horn for marching band as not to mess up the Bach horn.
When I was in middle school, a friend of my Dad’s brought a collie to our house. He had found her on the side of the road, hit by a car. He took her to the vet. He couldn’t keep her because of the apartment he lived in, so he brought her to us. He had named her Penny. Penny looked just like the famous collie, Lassie, just a lighter shade of brown.
Over the years, Penny would be there to see us get on the school bus each morning and to welcome us home each day.
My senior year, our marching band trip was to Walt Disney World. My Dad was going as one of the chaperones and we were leaving the house to go to the school. It was that part of the day when evening was coming on. The sun was slowly slipping away and the moon was slowly rising to takes its place. Penny was nowhere to be seen. I remember thinking that this was odd. She was always around. She always there to greet us or to see us off. But on this evening, she wasn’t.
Something deep within me knew that something wasn’t right.
I called her name, “Penny! Penny!” Nothing. No bark. No collie feet running through the woods. Nothing. The strange feeling I had that something was wrong wouldn’t leave me.
I called again. Still nothing. My Dad was urging me to get into the truck. We were going to be late. It would be ok, he said, she’ll find her way back. I kept calling. Then, I heard something. I asked my Dad, “Did you hear that?” He said he didn’t. I called Penny’s name again, and the sound of faint bark could be heard. Soft, quiet. Something was indeed wrong.
I took off running, despite the cries of my Dad telling me to wait or to get a flashlight. Back behind our house was a huge creek that would run into the Pamunkey River. There was a trail from our house to the creek and another trail that would lead to my grandparents’ home next door. I ran, stopping every so often to call Penny’s name again, listen for her bark, and then run in that direction.
I ran down the path, jumping over dead logs. I crossed the creek using the old oak that had fallen in just the right place to serve as a bridge. I struggled to get up the steep hill using weeds and branches to pull myself up it.
I reached the top and there was this old abandoned house. No one had lived here for years. Windows were broken. Doors were missing. It looked like something out of a horror film. As I ran around to the front of the house, I stopped to see Penny standing on the roof of the porch.
Without a moment of hesitation, I ran into the dark house, up the stairs, and found the room whose missing window, Penny had walked through. I called her to me, and she came back into the house and together we ran out of the house, down the hill, across the old oak bridge, and up the path back to my house. Somewhere in the midst of this running back, we bumped into my Dad would was coming after me with a flashlight. But, we didn’t stop, we both kept running until we made it home.
I was a freshman in high school. It was Sunday evening and we were gathered upstairs in the youth room at church. There was a handful of us up there seated at various adopted couches. It was a typical night with lots of chattering and munching as we caught up with each other and passed the snacks around.
Finally our volunteer youth leaders settled us down and gathered us together. They explained to us that we had a task for the evening that needed to be completed before we left that night. Our task? Plan a Youth Sunday worship service.
As an introverted child, I never felt like I had much of a voice. Or at least not very loud or noticeable. So, here, I was a short, shy, skinny freshman participating in my first experience in youth group planning a Youth Sunday. So, I did the only thing I knew how to do, I quietly sat at the end of the table and said nothing. I waited for the conversation to come to a close, anticipating volunteering for something simple like collecting the offering.
My fellow youth groupers were naming hymns and prayer ideas over top of each other. Others were volunteering to be greeters or ushers. The youth leaders were busying writing all of it down, trying desperately to keep up with the flow of ideas. I thought I was in the clear. So far, so good.
Then we came to the sermon. Who was going to deliver the sermon?
One of the seniors spoke up and said, “Jason would be good at it.”
I was absolutely scared to death. I’m sure my face went through a few stages of red. The youth group discussed it quite passionately and all agreed I should do it. They started to give me ideas, convincing me it would be awesome. I reluctantly agreed. My youth leaders helped me through the process. And when Youth Sunday came along, I did it.
“Are you getting married?” Ms. Clark quizzingly asked me.
“Yes, ma’am,” I answered, “in April.”
Ms. Mary Clark has been a LebCamp resident for the last three LebCamps. I had gone by her home a few days ago to check on something that was causing her some concern. After talking about her family and raising one of her nieces, Ms. Clark turns her wit and wisdom towards my future.
“Marriage is hard work,” she said. “You have to take a little and give a little.” As we stood around in her LebCamp-painted back room, she shared quite openly about her marriage and the struggles she experienced and the eventual divorce.
Ms. Clark then told me that it’s important to be patient in a marriage. “Womans . . . well,” she says as she begins to chuckle. “I am one, so I know,” she says. She began to pat her chest as she said, “We got a lot stuff going on in here, you just got to be patient.”