Grandma’s picture

A couple of weekends ago my brother Mike took Jana and me and Barb up to Dubuque to have a quick visit with one of our favorite people, Sister Aunt Carolyn. We call her SAC for short. We came up with that acronym many years ago. The order of the letters made sense because, after all, she was a holy sister before she became an aunt to a collection of unholy nieces and nephews.

It was a beautiful fall weekend in Dubuque, a city on the Mississippi known as the San Francisco of the midwest because of its amazing hills. We drove up in the hills to Eagle Point Park on the last weekend it was open for the season. We went all the way to the top, surrounded by that amazing autumnal palette of colors as the leaves were getting ready to separate from the tree branches. We looked across the river to see Illinois and Wisconsin, looking equally as beautiful as Iowa. We watched a barge go through the lock and dam on the river, its containers empty now, but headed back down the river to gather more coal to bring upriver before the season ended. Or maybe it was headed downriver to be parked for the season…I don’t really know; I’m just surmising here.

From there we headed back to SAC’s apartment to pick up some furniture she had for Mike and Barb. But on the way we went by the cemetery where SAC’s mom and our grandmother was laid to rest in 1981. Grandma Thirtle (as we called her) is buried on one of those beautiful Dubuque hills next to a pine tree.

Grandma Thirtle prayer cardI remember when she died in January that year and we headed out from Omaha to go to her funeral. Grandma Thirtle lived with us for several years when we were young. Since Grandma Piskac had died in 1965, Grandma Thirtle was the grandma we knew and remembered and made good memories with. I thought that when Grandma Thirtle died she must have been very old, as in my mind’s eye she always was old. But there on the gravestone were the dates of her birth and her death: July 19, 1908 and January 26, 1981. She was only 72 when she died. And here we were standing by her grave with her daughter Carolyn, who will be 77 next year. SAC is a really young 76-year old! And it just struck me that if she is 76, Grandma must have been much, much older than that. But she wasn’t.

I said a quick prayer to myself and kept myself from crying. I have often wondered about the life my Grandma Thirtle must have experienced in her younger days. And then we went back to SAC’s apartment.

She has some wonderful family pictures on her wall. One of them was so familiar as I have the whole album of originals in my possession. It is a wedding picture of my own mom and dad, George and Jeanne Prescott, taken on September 17, 1955, in St. John’s Cathedral on the Creighton campus here in Omaha. They are so young! They would go on to have the seven of us – George, Jana, me, Susan, Mike, Sally and Cathy – from August 4, 1956, to December 7, 1964. And then on March 27, 1966, my dad would sit by Mom’s bed in the hospital as she took her last breath. Still, that wedding picture makes me smile.

It was another wedding picture on SAC’s wall that brought out some stories:

Grandma Thirtle's wedding day

June 30, 1931, in Omaha, Nebraska, was the day my grandma, Beatrice Chicoine, married my grandpa, Robert Thirtle. She is just shy of her 23rd birthday, and there she stands in her youth, a smile on her face, standing between her new husband and her own mother, my great-grandmother, Cora Chicoine.

I have never in my life seen a picture of my Grandpa Thirtle until this moment. And I have never seen a picture of my Grandma Thirtle as a young woman. And there she is, happy, radiant as a new bride. What must she have been thinking on that day in her white dress, white hat upon her head, holding onto a bouquet of flowers with a new gold band on her left ring finger?

Was she thinking that when her own daughter got married some 24 years later that she too would stand in a picture smiling, while her siblings looked on? Was she thinking that she would have five children of her own? Was she thinking of the possibility that two of them would precede her in death? Was she thinking that the man to her right would cheat on her and abuse her and cause her to flee with her children for their protection? Did she know that her own mother would be her strength and protection from this man? Did she know that life as a divorced Roman Catholic single mother would be as hard as it was? Did she know that she would inspire such love and loyalty from seven grandchildren who lost their own mother, her daughter, at such a tender age? Did she know that she would be the model for one of them in nightly prayers?

I have never seen a picture of my grandmother so young and happy and with her whole future ahead of her. And I am so glad that on June 30, 1931, she didn’t know about that future.

But there is one thing about this picture that is very familiar to me about my grandma and that is her smile. I can see that smile in my mind as we stand in her kitchen making chocolate malts. I can see that smile in my mind as she lets us take the salt and pepper shakers out of her hutch and lets us play with them. I can see that smile in my mind as she sits at the old piano and coaxes old tunes out of it as she plays from memory. I can see that smile in my mind as she teaches us how to play pinochle and canasta. I can see that smile in my mind as we ride the bus together to go downtown to shop at Kilpatrick’s and Brandeis and have a piece of pie at the lunch counter.

I can remember putting flowers on her grave that cold day on the hillside in Dubuque in 1981. We had gone into a florist shop to buy roses. When the clerk heard us say what they were for, she thought it was wasteful to put perfectly good roses on a grave on a sub-zero day. But we knew better.

And 33 years later, I am sure Grandma is smiling. And that is how I will always remember her.

Hand in hand

Holding hands on wedding dayThere we are on our wedding day, May 18, 2002. Gosh! We look so young you can’t even tell we are 43 and 44 years old (she said while wearing her rose-colored glasses). I remember that day like it was yesterday!

For both of us, it was our first – and we have pledged! – only marriage. First time for two folks in early middle age. Steve’s parents were married when his mom was only 19 and Chuck was 25. My mom was 23 and my dear old dad was 27. It seems so young to me!

So there we are, standing in the church for pictures on the big day, and I love this one because we are holding hands. We get teased often at church for our PDAs: public displays of affection. We often hold hands, stand arm in arm, and even exchange kisses. It’s still first love for me. It always will be.

We did meet at church, in Sunday school actually. I sat in the front row with Jana, and Steve sat in the last row. He used to tease us for being “teacher’s pets” and I accused him of flinging arrows at our heads from the back row…figurative arrows. Somehow we were friends who liked to tease each other and then we ended up on the adult education committee together. Our families joined together with other friends after church for lunch on Sundays at Arby’s. Our pastor George and his wife Pam were part of that group. After we got engaged, George shared the story of how he woke up in the middle of the night after having dreamed that Steve and I would be married someday. He woke Pam to tell her, too. Oddly enough, it was before any of the rest of our “keeping company” started. He just had a vision and I have always loved that story.

Anyway, how we eventually ended up going out that first night is another story for another day. It involves a letter from me and then a returned letter from him. It’s not fodder for an HBO mini series, but I am sure there will be a movie about it someday. Steve will be played by Kevin Costner and I will be played by…me.

The first night we went out was exactly one year before that wedding picture: May 18, 2001. We met at Delice, a bakery/bistro in Omaha’s Old Market area. He had a cup of coffee and I had a Diet Coke. We each paid for our own. I had nothing else to compare this to as I told Steve, “This is my first date. With a man. Ever in my life. Did I tell you I was 42?” That was the truth!

After our caffeine intake, we decided to walk a bit farther into the market for dinner at the Upstream Brewery. And that is when it happened: he reached out for my hand. And for the first time at the advanced spinsterly age of 42, for the very first time, (did I stress that enough?) my hand was nestled into the larger hand of a man who was not my father, not my uncle, not my grandpa. And I will never forget the wonder of that feeling. I can close my eyes and see us walking down Howard Street, hand in hand, and thirteen years have melted away. I knew then and there I would marry him someday, so it was funny when George told us of his dream.

I also experienced my first kiss that evening, but this story is not about that either. It’s about holding hands.

At dinner that evening, Steve ordered a burger and I ordered a salad. My whole self was just in shock that I was even there, and I was so enthralled that I just couldn’t eat, so Steve finished mine. But that was the end of the meal. The beginning went something like this. Steve said, “Should we say grace?” And I just nodded, knowing I couldn’t say anything. He reached his hands across the table and took both of mine in his and thanked God for our meal.

And we have never done it any other way.

After that first date (I only use that term because it’s easier. We never considered that we were dating, just keeping company.) the story got out quickly that we were a couple. We tried to keep it just to ourselves for a while because it was new and special, and frankly, I think we were both a bit scared. But once we were discovered, it was wonderful to be so easy with our PDAs, especially holding hands. We started sitting together in church and when it was time for prayer, somehow we just reached for the other’s hand and held them until the “amen.”

And we have never done it any other way.

I think of how many times we have prayed hand in hand like that in the last thirteen years. So many meals. So many church services. Weddings. Funerals. We have prayed for our family members in their joys and sorrows; we have prayed with and for our friends in theirs as well. We pray with our small group when we gather to share lives and learn more about our God. We have prayed on trips to be with the church in Germany, the Czech Republic, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. We have prayed for peace, over and over again.

I know when we join our hands like that, God meets us right there as we pray.

praying hands in DamascusAnd so this picture means so much to me. We were in Damascus, Syria, in January with The Outreach Foundation. We had traveled to Lebanon to be with the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon along with other global partners of NESSL. Sixteen of us made the short journey to Damascus to be with the church in a country that had been at war for almost three years. They still are, and we continue to pray for them even now with the news of the impending U.S. participation in a plan against ISIS. Oh! How we pray for peace.

While we were in the church service that day, surrounded by the members of the Damascus congregation plus the refugees who had fled other parts of Syria to be there, we bowed our heads in prayer as we have done so many times. And we reached out our hands to each other as we have done so many times. And somehow that caught the eyes of a photographer and this photo was posted on Facebook.

If there is only one picture that you can pick to describe the life you have shared with that one person you know God picked for you personally, this is the photo I would pick to tell the story of Julie and Steve. And they are not the hands of Kevin Costner.

They are Steve’s, and they are mine. Hand in hand.