Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Down Tobacco Road

I wrote this a few years ago for a writing class. It's all true. The road has now been paved and cleared. There are nice houses built on the road now with swing sets and picnic tables in the yards. It doesn't seem the least bit frightening.

Dixon's Store, archives

 I can smell the beach house sometimes—the stale scent of heat and dust, suntan lotion, and Old Bay seasoning. I can feel the pain in my toes from stubbing them on the heavy furniture. When the weather is warm, clear and bright, it brings me back to the screened porch and the boundless view of the Bay, so wide at that point that we could see the eastern shore only on the clearest days. There I am on the upper floor, early in the morning, listening to the seagulls while lying in one of the old rusty metal beds. I feel the heat from the mysterious storage spaces under the eaves where there were boxes of sharks’ teeth we found at the water’s edge and arrowheads that my father had found in the tobacco fields as a boy. Black snakes shed their paper-thin skin in the dugout garage under the house near the old agitator washing machine with the roller wringer. The wind-up record player with only one record, “I’m a jaaaaaazzzzz baby.” The blue Shirley Temple glasses in the corner cupboard. Pouring vinegar on jellyfish stings. The old black tenant farmer who drove a horse-driven wagon down the road, shouting, “Cantaloupe . . . watermelon.” 
My grandfather on my father’s side built the beach house. He was an ice and coal man, at least until people got electric refrigerators and central heating. Even during the Great Depression people still needed ice and coal so he earned enough money to build a small house overlooking the Chesapeake Bay on an old tobacco plantation called Neeld Estate. My father grew up spending summers in the little house and his children did the same. We had no telephone, no television, no hot water. Then I thought it was dreadful, but in retrospect it was nearly perfect.
Despite the languid, idyllic summer days spent at the beach house, I am haunted by a menacing quality, a vulnerability that grew from the isolation and the solitude. The Neeld family still occupies the plantation house that has been there since before the Civil War. Growing up I heard a legend about a slave child who was thrown down the stairs and killed by the mistress of the plantation. It was said that the child’s ghost could be heard crying in the house at midnight. We avoided walking past the plantation house after dark, but one night, in my 15th summer, I had no choice.
My friend Anna had come to spend a few days at the beach house with my family. Early one evening Anna and I walked down the road to the beach where we ran into Ray and his friend. I knew Ray only slightly from past summers, but he had a car and made us an offer hard for any 15-year-old girls to refuse, “Want to ride with us to North Beach? I have to pick up something for my father.” Of course Anna and I wanted to go. We could ride in a car with boys and listen to the radio.
What Ray was getting was not for his father. He bought beer in North Beach and headed back, but he turned off the road into a gravel pit about four miles from home. He stopped the car. I was in the front seat with Ray. Anna was in the back seat with the friend. One of them said, “Put out or get out.” We had never “put out” before but we knew what they wanted. We got out and they drove away without a word.
We were barefoot, on a moonless night, in an area I scarcely knew. There were no houses nearby and we had no telephone in our beach house, so even if I had wanted to call my parents I couldn’t have. We considered our options. The quickest way home would have been to go across an inlet between Breezy Point and our beach. “I don’t know how deep it is,” I told Anna, “and I don’t know if we can climb those slimy jetty walls on the other side.” So we took off for the one-lane dirt road we called Tobacco Road. It was the major connector between Neeld Estate and the rest of the world, but it had never been paved. “But what if a car comes along? We won’t know who’s in it,” Anna whispered. So we decided that we should hide if a car approached. We feared what a stranger might do to two girls walking in the night on a secluded dirt road.
We walked in the darkness as fast as we could, hid when we needed to, and prayed Hail Marys aloud. At one point a car approached and we hid out of sight on the side of the road. But Anna slipped off the side into a ravine where people had been dumping trash. I screamed, “Anna! Anna! Annie, please answer me!” No response. She finally came crawling up, shaken, with her feet bleeding. We continued to walk in silence. When we reached the paved road, a dog belonging to a neighbor with the unlikely name of Mason Dixon came out of nowhere, barking and growling. I wet my pants. Finally, we reached the Bay. We just sat in the edge of the water and washed ourselves as best we could, then we walked home past the old plantation house. We didn’t hear the child’s ghost scream. Our own experience was horror enough.
             At the time, I didn't tell my parents what had happened, fearing I would be punished for going in a car with boys. Anna and I innocently went for a ride with boys we thought we knew. We could have been raped or died trying to get home, yet we thought we were at fault. Over 40 years have passed and I have lost contact with Anna. I don't even know if she remembers that summer night in our 15th year when our innocence started to slip away.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


One day last week I had a conversation with a friend who is struggling with feeling distant from God, feeling like the brokenness of her life is only moving her farther away from Him. She asked how I had coped with the losses I have suffered in recent years. Yes, I had felt that same distance, but in time I developed a closer relationship with God, not in spite of the pain but because of the pain. And I heard myself saying that I found something sacred in it.

The word “sacred” in relationship to human suffering sounds a bit out of whack. Was I being ultra-dramatic, spouting off a bit too much sanctimonious woo-woo?

It is absolutely true that my communion with God and my desire to continue to grow closer to Him would not be what it is today if I had not suffered some big, painful losses in my life. I have said it before and I’ll say it again—when life brought me to my knees, it was then that I realized that on my knees was where I needed to be. God did not cause the brokenness in this world. He didn’t point His finger at me and say, “Let’s see what I can dish out to her and let’s see how she’ll handle it.” No—wretched things happened that I could not control and that I will never understand on this side of heaven. After years of moaning and unending questions, I have stopped trying to analyze rationally all of that life junk. Ultimately it’s a big waste of energy. It’s like going into a maze that has no exit, because there are no answers that would make any sense to me now. It is not for me to know. I have pretty much accepted that life sucks sometimes. But the darkness, those wretched things, led me to a deeper and deeper reliance on the Lord.

We are not alone when in the wake of pain and loss we question God’s benevolence. Perhaps in our minds He becomes a maleficent overlord with whom we want no relationship. It happens to the best of us who call ourselves believers. In the abyss of grief after his wife died, even C.S. Lewis had his understanding of God shaken and he referred to God as “the Cosmic Sadist and Eternal Vivisector”—tough words coming from the revered author of Mere Christianity. (CS Lewis, A Grief Observed, p. 38)

Pastor John Pavolvitz wrote about this on his blog Stuff That Needs To Be Said: (

"There’s an oft-misused excerpt found in Scripture, where the author Paul writes:

"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:2

"This isn’t a heavenly insurance policy paid with faith and exempting us from anything unpleasant, but the promise that if we choose to respond to all things from a place of love and goodness, that we—not necessarily our circumstances—will be better for it.

"In this way, I believe in suffering as a sacred space."

Yes, he said it—suffering is a sacred place. For me it took much too long to get to that understanding, but thankfully God walked beside me through the whole ugly mess and I now rest assured that He will continue to be beside me.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Beauty school dropout

Here in Virginia it’s Election Day for local elected offices. So I dutifully went to my local polling place to cast my vote. (I’m so grateful that this marks the end of the annoying robocalls—it has been strangely quiet in my house today.)

In front of the local high school where those in my precinct vote, I ran into a woman I used to know from PTA activities when my kids were in elementary school. She kept moving up from PTA president and is now chairman of the county school board. She introduced me to a young man who is her colleague on the school board. The colleague recently moved into my neighborhood, on my street, just a block away. As I drove home I thought it was such good luck to have a neighbor on the school board in case I ever need something done in the county school system.

But then it dawned on me—what would ever cause me to need help from a member of the county school board? My kids are grown and have moved many states away. However, there’s that recurrent nightmare of mine with varying details that has to do with my not graduating from high school. For example, after years of work in both graduate and undergraduate school, I dreamed that I couldn’t get my graduate degree because I flunked a quiz in Mr. Wojick’s geometry class. The graduate program required me to go back and finish high school, then repeat college and grad school. Nothing counted because of that one geometry quiz.

I have to confess that geometry was not my strongest subject. I got almost a perfect zero in one quiz—just one lousy correct answer that was pure luck caused me to get 5 percent. It has been over 50 years since I earned that 5 percent and it still haunts me. However, I must have great intuitive sense when it comes to geometry. We had to take some sort of standardized national geometry exam and I breezed through it with a high score. How could that be? I guessed. I just looked at the measurements—if side A was 18.5 inches and side B was 36 inches, then I guessed that proportionately side C looked like it should be 42 inches. I didn’t waste time doing those tedious Pythagorean things. (It shocks me to know that I just used the word Pythagorean in a sentence. Will wonders ever cease? Next thing you know I'll be swimming laps at the Y.)

Other than the geometry bugaboo, I have found myself trying to graduate wearing only a slip—my dog ate the cap and gown. Many times I have had night terrors about not being able to find my assigned classroom or I had forgotten to go to the class all year and it was time for the final exam. Or maybe that was real life. Hard to tell. Now I’m going to panic. I need to find my diploma to prove that I really am a high school graduate. I don’t think my influential neighbor can help me get my diploma. Not only did I go to high school outside of this county, outside of this state, but my high school went out of business many years ago. The only thing I have is a fading photograph. That’s not proof. Am I going to have to sign up to take a GED exam? Please tell me there’s no geometry on the exam.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Corrie ten Boom on forgiveness

This is not my writing, but the writing of a Dutch woman named Corrie ten Boom, who spent years in a Nazi concentration camp for hiding Jews in her home. Her account of forgiveness makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Excerpted from I'm Still Learning to Forgive.
"It was in a church in Munich that I saw him—a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.
"It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown. ‘When we confess our sins,’ I said, ‘God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever. …’
“The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.
“And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!
[Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent.]
“Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’
“And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
“But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
“ ‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.
“ ‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out—’will you forgive me?’
“And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
“For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’
“I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
“And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“ ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’
“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then”