It was a curious birthday this year, this time of celebrating seventy-three years on Planet Earth, this time of launching my seventy-fourth year. There are days when I feel so much younger than seventy-four, and there are days when I feel so much older, as though my great wisdom has aged like wine or distilled like a fine whisky. And then I trip on something or forget something or . . .
All gloriously humbling.
And so I sit at my desk, my cat Angel in my lap (with her abundant and remarkable tail), and I reflect on my birthday and why it was so curious, meaningful, and strange, as though God was pulling my crooked lines straight, then breathing life into the lines.
On my birthday (Friday) my sister and I visited the columbarium which has been pre-arranged for our mother’s future cremains. Our mother lives in assisted living, at the feisty old age of one hundred-and-one, and will probably live on for some time. The interment space is outdoors in the Kurth Memorial Garden to the side of the sanctuary of the Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church, known locally as “LOPC,” east of San Francisco.
Our father, Carl Thomas, was the founding pastor in 1953-4, having come from Berkeley First Presbyterian as a Student Chaplain. Our mother was the founding pastor’s wife, with her own amazing talents. So LOPC was a natural location, and the church welcomed the idea, even suggesting that my father be remembered there too, even with his ashes scattered at sea forty years ago. He was a popular pastor, loving and inspiring and full of faith in those early years. He preached the love of Christ in the new suburbs east of the Caldecott tunnel, to young families still bruised with war but grateful for survival. He had served in the Pacific in WW II and had survived. He was grateful too, and glad to bring his family (I was seven and my sister five) to these rolling hills and comparative safety.
And so we toured the present-day church in blistering heat, pausing in shady places, and letting memories flood us. Here is where we went to Sunday School. It’s now turned into offices, but a new building houses a preschool and classrooms over there to the right. Here is the Fellowship Hall where our father preached. Here is where his old office used to be. Here is where we had choir practice and Confirmation classes. Do you remember? Do you recall? It’s quiet this heat soaked afternoon but it was bustling then when our young energy was, for a few hours on Sundays, corralled and tamed, for we were in church, within boundaries that required good behavior.
At home we grew up surrounded by walls of books that informed quiet purposeful pursuits. Our mother was organized, and while not wearing heels and pearls in the kitchen (that I recall), she took pride in her homemaking skills, and we were the beneficiaries of the home she made for us. She took pride in her neat-as-a-pin rooms that graciously opened onto one another, the sofas and the matching draperies, the color schemes carefully considered. Quiet and balance and beauty surrounded us. Our daily schedule was ordered as well, breakfast, school, snack, dinner at 6. Homework and reading and more reading. Piano lessons. Tennis at the public parks. Brownies and Girl Scouts and merit badges sewn on to a wide green band. Sometimes tea in the afternoon, a lesson in manners and pouring and offering and conversation. We listened to music played on long-playing records in the hi-fi cabinet: Mozart, Beethoven, show tunes.
We didn’t have much income, but a great wealth resided in our mother being home, in charge of bringing us up to love the Lord. She became our finishing school, teaching us table settings and table manners. We wrote – in cursive – thank you notes and prayer journals. We had “Quiet Times” to reflect and wonder and write. We said bedtime prayers that placed us safely in the Savior’s palms.
She and my father hosted church dinners, and “LOPC” became famous for their potluck gatherings for newcomers in one another’s homes. We children would peak around corners to see what was going on in the living room, or spy the pies set aside in the laundry room, around the corner from the kitchen. We counted the dishes on the buffet in the dining room, casseroles sitting on hot pads, lids tight, waiting to be eaten, bites between words.
She saw her first calling as wife and mother. My sister and I were blessed to be raised in such love and safety and order.
Many years have passed since those years in the ‘fifties. Many experiences have molded and moved us in ways both good and bad, to bring us to this moment in the heat of a Friday afternoon on a hilltop east of San Francisco, touring the church in which we grew up. And considering our mother’s future ashes, and my future ashes too, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, thoughts on my birthday.
I thought of my father, and how he lost his faith and left the ministry. I thought of my mother, who followed his thinking (or perhaps he followed hers) and abandoned all Christian belief. They embraced the new world of self expression and psychology and proclaimed the new religion, that God is dead; we have been fools.
And I gave thanks that our parents would be remembered here, in this Presbyterian church on a hillside. Before we left, the current pastor’s daughter gave us a heartwarming welcome and tour. She was so very gracious, full of grace.
I had completed a circle in some unfathomable way, stepping through the past, through the shadows and the sunlight, seeing our parents return to their glorious time of faith, where they made a true difference, saving souls for all Eternity.
One day my mother’s cremains will be placed in the stone vault, and one day my own body will be buried in a local Catholic cemetery, Queen of Heaven, awaiting St. Peter at the gates. Both locations are in the same town, Lafayette, where we grew up, one on a hill, one in a valley.
This morning I thought of these things, as I joined in prayer and praise at St. Joseph’s Chapel in Berkeley. I thought how these fellow worshipers were my true family, had been for many years, for we were one body in Christ. We were mask-free, our faces glowing with the love of God. How can one describe such joy? The joy of letting go, all the worries of the week, the pain of the past, the fear of the future. We give it all to Christ on the cross, Christ of the empty tomb, Christ of the ascension to Heaven. We offer our sufferings and we are healed with joy. We know our Redeemer lives and we shall live with him. We are giddy when we leave St. Joseph’s Chapel. We are giddy with grace.