FAMILY LESSONSĀ 

FAMILY LESSONS

This may be a bit sappy, but it is straight from my heart. 

I come from a family of kind hearted, industrious, hardworking, pioneering, generous, loving, civic minded, patriotic Christians, & this evening several of them are on my mind, as they are ever in my heart: 

Pa-pa Lehman was the salt of the earth, & many who knew him have said the same thing about him, which is that he was one of the nicest men that they ever met. He sang me silly songs like “The Animal Fair” when he picked me up from school, he made me wooden, carved toys, cracked pecans from his yard for me with his hammer, & peeled & sliced small, sour green apples off of his tree in the back yard with his pocket knife, which happened to be the same one he used for innumerable things, such as cleaning his fingernails & tightening screws. He was a wizard with metallic gray duct tape, which is all that they made back then. He let me help him sow seeds, weed, & harvest in the garden out behind his house. We sat together, just the two of us, in the dark summer evenings & he pointed out the constellations to me, engaged my mind with the latest article he had read in the Encyclopedia Brittanica, & assured me that the bats flying overhead were not going to swoop down & harm me. He let me sit on the hood of his car, & as I leaned back against the windshield, he showed me the glory of the heavens. He allowed the scuppernong vines to sweep low to the ground in the grape arbor, for he knew that the grandkids loved to play house or hide & seek beneath its shaded arms, & he did not care if we left dozens of grape skins littering the ground after we had feasted on their sweetness. But I suppose the best lesson which he ever taught me was tolerance, for one hot summer day the neighbor kids were leaning through the wire fence & picking our hard earned baby tomatoes & running off with them, presumably taking them home to their parent’s dinner table. Pa-pa & I had worked all summer long together, just the two of us that year, in that garden, & I was very proud of its produce. Beside, I loved those “Tom-EE-Toes”, as we called them. So I shouted out to the kids, berating them, & warning them of possible consequences if they stole any more of our vegetables. I was so shocked when my Pa-pa fussed on ME for scolding them. It is the one & ONLY time that I ever remember him getting on to me about anything. But he actually raised his voice to me as he demanded that I “leave them alone, because they don’t know any better. Their Momma ran off with the postman, & their Daddy is trying to raise them all alone. They probably need those tomatoes more than we do.” With that, he abruptly took the hoe from my hands, & irritably went into his garage to sharpen it, leaving me to sob into my hands, standing alone amidst the okra, squash & cucumbers. It was not until after he had passed away a few years later that I fully grasped the lesson which he taught me that day. But he was, indeed, one of the nicest men that I have ever, even to this day, met.

My Daddy was a very smart, but very insecure man. He allowed his insecurities to cause him to drink more than he should, but he was a functioning alcoholic who always held down a job which took him away from home at times. When he was not drinking, he was a gentle man. We would, like I did with his father before him, sit out on the covered back porch, listening to the breezes blow through the leaves overhead, late into the summer nights, & have the most delightfully intriguing conversations on a wide & diverse range of topics. He had an Associates degree in Business, yet he turned down an opportunity to move up to Pennsylvania with a chemical company for which he worked in order to stay close to family. His mother’s family had settled North Alabama when it was still the Mississippi Territory, & he wanted to remain close to his then widowed mother. So his job as a fireman belied his intellect. But he was a very smart man. We talked for hours on end, & sometimes the only lights flickering in the darkness were the occasional lightning bugs & the glow of his Winston cigarette. He would get me to fetch him a beer, & I would drink my Dr. Pepper while we talked about God, the Universe, human nature, psychology, science, etc. We were estranged at the end of his life, but he taught me many things, & we loved each other. He had MANY friends of all walks of life, & he was extremely loyal to them. He loved children & could easily make them laugh. Though he no longer attended Church, he talked to me about the importance of loving God, obeying the law, about patriotism (he was a veteran of the United States Air Force), & about how I could make a difference in the world if I would just apply myself. He was a good encourager, & was always proud of my good grades. He always told me that I should grow up to be a writer. Alas, I have not done that, but maybe he would be proud of my sophomoric blog posts. The most important lesson my Daddy taught me, though, was not sitting out on that back porch beneath the big old pecan tree, but in his actions, for he was one of the most generous souls I have ever known. He would literally give anyone – family member, friend, or stranger – his very last dime, if they needed it. 

Aunt Helen was, by all accounts, “A Mess”, which was a Southern expression meaning she was “something else”, not that she was literally a mess. She was vivacious, a bit kooky, & had sparkling green eyes & a ready laugh. She, too, loved children, & to this day I have not understood why God in His wisdom did not allow someone who wanted a baby of their own as much as she did to have one. But Aunt Helen made up for the lack of biological children by loving on her stepson & nieces. When I was very small I would go & play at the country home of her & her first husband. She let me just be me. I could, without pressure, chase Monarch butterflies through the yard for no reason other than it delighted me to do so. She knew how much I loved to read, & so she arranged for her mother-in-law, who was the librarian at the local school, to bring her a big stack of books whenever I was going to spend the night with her. She was a Dental Hygienist by vocation, & whenever she cleaned my teeth, she would reward me for being a good patient by taking me for a piece of lemon ice box pie at Krystal. She is actually the one who taught me to drive. Unbelievably, my first few times behind the wheel of her sage green car were in the most narrow of roads at Maple Hill Cemetery – the ones that are so narrow that today they are blocked off from modern day, larger vehicles. It is a wonder I did not veer off & run over my great-grandparent’s graves, or worse yet, one of the “famous” Huntsvillians in the historic part of the graveyard. Aunt Helen had a zest for life that few possess. She showed me to always keep your spirits up, despite adverse circumstances, which in her case included two divorces from the same man. The most important lesson I learned from her, though, was not to be afraid to approach others & be the first to extend the hand of friendship. For wherever we went, whether it was the supermarket or the movie theater, she greeted everyone with kind eyes & a smile. 

Ma-ma Lehman had the most profound & lasting influence on my life of anyone who ever walked the earth during my lifetime. It would take an entire book to list all of the many things which we did together. She kept me during the summers & after school when my mother worked. She had a knack for making every single one of her ten grandkids feel as if they were the most special one of them all. She had countless friends, whom she was always ministering to in one way or another. She had that gift of gab, & I well recall many days when I, reclining on the wicker settee in the broad foyer with a Nancy Drew mystery book in hand, halfway listening to her as she sat across the room from me on the black telephone table with the vinyl seat, chatting on that black rotary dial phone, assuring one of her innumerable friends that everything would be all right. She took up money for flowers whenever someone in the neighborhood had a death in the family, & she took food to those who were ill. She made me grilled cheese with Campbell’s Tomato Soup & Pepsi whenever I had an upset stomach. She was my mentor, my champion, & my rescuer from an unhappy mother. She let me play dress up in her lace gloves & coat with the mink collar. She spent hours culling through old family photos with me, which she had stored in two huge blanket boxes from Montgomery Wards. She regaled me with tales of growing up on that farm in Big Cove, & how she eventually moved to town to work in T.T.Terry’s Department store. Though she was not a politician, she was heavily involved in politics. Her ancestors had been constables, County Commissioners, Justices of the Peace, & Postmasters who were well known & respected in the area. Her great uncle had even been a six term United States Congressman from Jackson County. How many times she must have said, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know  that counts!” She was the Queen of Networking before that word was ever coined. She could make beautiful dresses on her pedal driven sewing machine. She was a fabulous cook & I loved to stir the buttermilk cornbread or divinity candy – everything she made was from scratch, without a recipe or mix, & it was always perfect. She took me to Church every single Sunday, & let me carry her prized possession: her Bible. She was a country girl who “could out pick every man in Big Cove in a cotton picking contest.” She was a Christian woman who taught several local boys about God in Sunday School, boys who grew up to be preachers in well known Church of Christ congregations in the area. She was a mischievous prankster who delighted in entertaining people with the corniest jokes. A fastidious dresser who preferred the conveniences of city life to the rigors of the farm, she would nonetheless  lapse into her country vernacular & say that, “Funny things keeps you going!” She was a well respected community leader whose calls were taken & opinions valued by Governors, Senators, Mayors, County Commissioners, & City Councilmen alike. She was a force to be reckoned with, if you dared cross someone she loved. I owe my very life to her in more ways than one. But the most important thing that she taught me was this, “The good Lord gives, & He takes away.” That is a lesson I am still trying to fully grasp. But the faith which she instilled in me has resounded throughout the years, & I know that God only takes away something which we percieve to be good if He has something better in mind for us.

These & more of my God fearing family members have long ago passed on. But their legacy remains. They all loved God, country & family. They all valued good morals & hard work. They all believed in the sense of community, in giving back, that, “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” They all loved the innocence of children, valued friendships, lent helping hands to neighbors, enjoyed making others laugh, & had a song, joke, or Bible verse at the ready, if anyone needed their spirits to be lifted. 

My own children have grown up & moved away. But I am not alone, for like Aunt Helen, I meet no strangers, & have been blessed with an outgoing personality; like my Pa-pa, I survey the wonders of the Universe & my mind is occupied with thoughts higher than my own which make times of solitude enjoyable; like my Daddy, I understand that a generosity of spirit is returned a thousandfold by the respect of friends; & like my Ma-ma, I know the value of networking, & the power of God. So whenever I feel a wee but lonesome, I remind myself that I come from good stock. And I thank God above that He has blessed me with an abundance of friends. Though my biological sister died a very long time ago at a young age, I have women that I am proud to call my sisters, & a couple of those I claim kin, though we are not related by blood. I have friends who allow me to join in their family celebrations, & those who allow me to love on their kids, for my heart, like my family members I have written about, has always had a soft spot for kids & young people of all ages. Some of them even let me love on their parents & grandkids, too!

The most important lessons I have learned from all of this is that there really is not any substitute for loving kindness, & if being a nice, hardworking person who loved God, country, family & friends can one day be my own legacy, too, then I shall feel that I have lived my life well. 

I still miss you, Pa-pa, Ma-ma, Aunt Helen & Daddy. If y’all have any say so up there in Heaven, please put in a good word for me. One day when we are reunited, I want to hear all of your stories again, & hopefully I will add a few of my own into the mix. Meanwhile, I look for the good in people & situations, like y’all taught me, & “Funny things keeps me going!”

– Lou Lehman Sams

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LETTER TO MY CHILD

LETTER TO MY CHILD
Dear Child:

If you were not afraid of the BoogeyMan, you would not cry out in the night allow me to come in & comfort you.

If you were never afraid of the throngs of people pressing in on you, then you would never grasp my hand so tightly.

If you had not fallen down & hurt yourself, you would have had no need of my ministrations.

If you did not ever get your heart broken, you would not crawl up in my lap & let me hold you close.

If you were not ever sick, then you would not have needed me to give you medicine, or rock you to sleep.

It hurts my heart to see you go through each of these things, but if they had never happened, we would not have drawn so close to one another. Like any parent, my heart hurts worse when you hurt than does your own. But like every parent, I wait in the background with a watchful eye, ever ready to step in on a moment’s notice whenever things go awry, or I hear your cry. I remind you to please make wise decisions, but then I sit back & watch to see what you will do, for you are your own person. Though I gave you life, I gave it to you to live it your way. Hopefully, that will be in accordance with what I have tried to teach you, because I have seen things that you have not yet seen.

You will become frightened of the darkness that surrounds you, but I will be there to turn on the light, & chase away the shadows.

You will get lost in the crowd, but I will be there to search for you until you are found, & I will hold your hand until you reach safety.

You will fall down, but I will be there to administer first aid, to send you back on your way, & to cheer you on to the next victory.

You will have your heart broken, but I will be there to embrace you, dry your tears, listen to your grief, & distract you until your heart heals.

You will become ill, but I will be there to feed your soul, bathe away your grime, & nurse you back to health again.

For I am your devoted & loving parent. I am fearless & fierce when it comes to protecting my offspring. I am always just a call away. I think of you often, every single day. You never have to question my unfailing love.

Signed:

Your Father

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Footnote:

My daughter just moved to Oklahoma, & though she is a strong, independent young married lady with two degrees attached to her name, the transition to her husband’s new post has not exactly gone smoothly. From bad weather enroute to her husband being very ill to being notified that their belongings will not be delivered on schedule, her latest adventure has been fraught with misadventures. And this accomplished, organized, faith filled young lady has been reaching out, as most all of us do at times such as that, to me much more frequently than usual. Typically she is too busy for as many communications as we have been exchanging. But alone in a foreign land without a place yet to call home & the heavy mantle of responsibility to care for her sick spouse, she has naturally gravitated towards her childhood source of comfort.

No matter the circumstance, I am always delighted to hear from her, even under less than stellar circumstances, though I wish that every one of her days would be filled with simple successes, rather than terrible trials. So I started writing this letter to her. But a few sentences in, I began to see myself there in my own words.

You see, for the past few years, I have been alone in a foreign land, with a heavy mantle of responsibility, & in my discouragement & fear, I, too have reached out to my source of comfort. In the writing of these words, I found that, though God is portrayed as a masculine figure, I am best able to understand His heart by looking into a Mother’s heart.

There is not anything I would not do for my kids, including giving them the leeway to make & learn from their own mistakes, even though that is sometimes a painful process which is none to easy for me to watch. Sometimes I just want to step in, intervene, & stop them from making those mistakes. But then they would learn nothing from the process, & it is the waste products that come from indulging in the wrong things that sometimes make the best fertilizer to precipitate the most bountiful growth in our lives. And is that not what any parent wants? To see their children, the by products of themselves, to grow, flourish, & produce beautiful blossoms?

I am thankful for the times that I have been there to pick my kids up. I am thankful for the times that God has been there to pick me up. Somehow, though I never thought I would say it, I am thankful for the heartaches I have had, for it is there in those most broken of times that God held me closest in His arms. He will do the same for you.

Lou Lehman Sams

June 2016

EQUIPPING FOR BATTLE

EQUIPPING FOR BATTLE

If you have ever gone hiking in the great Smoky Mountains, there is a chance that you may have, like me, encountered one or more baby bear cubs while wandering those lush green woods. Once, while on a tiny trail on the edge of a very narrow trail on the edge of a cliff, I paused to photograph a couple of bear cubs. My companion, knowing that their mother would not allow them to meander through the forest unattended & thus would be found not far behind them, urged me to cease taking pictures & hurry down the trail away from the cute little cubs. And that is what we did, as we knew we were no match for a ferocious mother who thought her babies were in jeopardy. Sure enough, as I was scurrying away, I caught a glimpse of her lumbering down that hillside, joining her offspring who were by that time almost to the spot where I had been standing snapping pictures.

When my kids were small, I was always like that protective Momma Bear, standing at the ready to lunge after whomever might pose a threat to their welfare. And there were many times throughout their lives when I sprang into action, fighting foes whenever needed. When my five year old daughter had a Kindergarten teacher who not only refused to allow her to cleanse her glasses with the little cleaning cloth that she kept in her pencil pouch, but who also did not let any of the children in the class wash their hands after going to the restroom or before lunch, I immediately called the teacher to complain. When that did not yield the desired results, I met with her Principal. When that still did not work, I contacted the local Health Department officer, who then enforced the hand washing policy of the school system. But not only did I do that, I had my child moved to another teacher’s classroom, for I knew that there were potential ramifications that my daughter might get from that teacher, whether conscious or subconscious because I had dared to go up against her in such a manner. Yes, I was THAT Mom. I do not like controversy, nor do I like to “stir the pot”, but if you mess with my kids, you are also messing with me! Maternal instincts are God-given, & nothing to be trifled with, for even the most stalwart souls will discover that there is “No fury like that of a Momma Bear protecting her cubs.”

And there were times when I would question the behavior of rec league coaches, school bus drivers, & anyone else that was careless with the safety, health, or well-being of my babies, for they are God’s greatest blessings to me on this earth. I tried really hard not to go overboard, & to only intervene when necessary. And while I did not always get that right, for the most part, I think I did okay with it. Do not misunderstand, my kids are far from perfect, for like everyone else on the planet, they are flawed human beings; however, though they are still a work in progress, I think that they have turned into pretty decent young adults.

But the hard part came when I had to let go & let them handle situations for themselves. I knew that, in order for them to develop as they should, they needed to learn to deal with controversy, stave off attacks, & fend for themselves in the Jungle of Life. I started out with small things, such as making them place phone calls to local businesses to ask for hours of operation or directions. (This was before everyone had GPS & internet.) They would sometimes balk & cry out against doing so, for they felt intimidated to call adults on the phone, & they knew I had no qualms about doing so myself, as that was a part of my daily professional life. Despite their protestations, I made them do it anyway. And they gained confidence from doing so.

Then, as they got older, I no longer approached their soccer, basketball & baseball coaches to help resolve issues, for I knew that, in order to secure their rightful places on teams, they had to learn how to deal with authority & interact with teammates without assistance from their parents. It was sometimes painful to watch as they went through the paces of learning how to develop the finesses to do these things, but they each learned valuable lessons along the way that they would not have learned had Momma Bear swooped in for every little issue that arose. Yes, this meant that each of them had foibles & mishaps that I was oblivious to, but I always ended up learning about anything that was truly important.

When they asked me for help with their homework, I always helped them, but I never ever did it for them. No, not one single time. While it is amusing to see parents in SitComs doing school projects for their kids, that does not prepare them for real life. One cannot exactly take one’s Momma Bear to the office to do one’s job for them every day, can one? Yes, I would purchase supplies, offer suggestions, & provide tools for them, often overseeing their efforts, But I knew that they had to do the actual work themselves, otherwise they would be cheated of the satisfaction that comes with accomplishment.

Do not misunderstand: I was always waiting in the wings, ready whenever necessary to step in & take over, if & when my kids needed me to do so. There were times that they literally begged me to take over an issue or a project, but I refused – those were the times that, while I knew it would make their lives easier & more comfortable, they would not learn the lessons that they needed in order to develop & progress properly, so I refused to do anything other than offer them my support & encouragement. At those times, they were unhappy with me. They did not understand why I could not, like many other parents, make everything right in their world. At times there were tears, rebellion, & yes, even anger displayed by them towards me. But they were learning how to take care of things themselves. Sometimes one of them would step up & help solve the other’s problem, or assist with their homework, not realizing I was watching from the near distance, happy that they were developing empathy & their abilities to work together.

And there were times when the kids hid incidents from me for one reason or another – they knew that they would be in trouble at home if I found out that they had behaved in a less than appropriate fashion, or they would be embarrassed if I came to school to discuss small daily problems. They slowly learned to navigate their days without my help, yet the guidance I had given them in their early years was constantly in the back of their minds. shaping their decisions, even if they did not listen to it & made wrong ones sometimes.

Even up into their high school years, there were occasions that I did make appointments with school counsellors, teachers, administrators, etc. in order to be an advocate for my kids. However, I limited those occasions to the times when I knew that the issues were too intense for them to handle alone, & thus required adult assistance. But I knew I had done something when they each went off to college, & refused my offers to contact their advisors. My daughter found herself in a particularly tricky situation that was entirely of someone else’s making. She was not in trouble, & had done nothing wrong whatsoever, but without divulging details, suffice it to say that someone else was not behaving in an appropriate manner. Since the individual in question was an employee of the university, & I knew that my daughter’s welfare could be potentially adversely affected by the outcome, my first impulse was to make a phone call to schedule an appointment with said employee. My daughter adamantly refused my offer to come down there, & said that she could handle it herself. And handle it she did – & very well, I might add. Part of my Momma Bear persona was sad that my cub no longer needed me to run interference, but the larger part of my heart was bursting with pride that she could handle herself & her own affairs.

And well I recall the times I knew those same kids were in over their heads & could use my help, but they refused it, thinking that they could handle it on their own. Eventually, at those times, they came back around & told me I was right, & would I please help them out. And of course, I always did so.

And that, my friends, is a lot like how I imagine that God feels about us. He is that protective parent that is with us every step of the way, but who allows us to slowly grow so that we can handle more things on our own. He gives us the foundation that we need, but allows us, as we become capable, to try more & more challenging things. He see our every distressing moment, & listens to our problems, but only intervenes when He sees that it is necessary for Him to do so. He knows we need to go through certain things in order that we will be prepared for the next level, such as how a student has to pass high school before going to college. He tells us “No” to things He knows are bad for us, but allows us to make our own choices, & then, having made such choices, watches as we face the consequences, even though His heart breaks for our pain, sort of like when my son had to run extra laps at baseball practice. Would I rather he not have had to do that? But of course! Would God rather we not have to “run extra laps”? But of course! Yes, there are players who are successful without ever having run extra laps, but sometimes those extra laps are the very things that gives the player the strength, endurance, & speed to be one of the better players on the team.

There are also times that God allows us to get a little uncomfortable, such as those cubs getting a little too close to people. Momma Bear was there, watching & waiting, & when I got too close, she made her appearance. Though you may not be able to see Him, God is right there, in the pretty woodland behind you, & He is not going to allow the stranger on the path to harm you.

Though you will be uncomfortable at times, God knows that, like my children, there are some lessons you will only learn by experience. And yes, there are some things that you will have to experience more than once until you get the hang of it. But do not think for one moment that it means that God does not care for you, that He is not silently helping you, that He has not given you the proper guidance in the past so that you are equipped for the assignment, or that He will not, when needed, swoop in & save the day.

And take comfort in knowing that God is far fiercer than the Momma Bear – no hunter’s rifle can ever bring Him down! The enemy may be attacking hard, but He knows just how much you can handle on your own, & exactly the right moment to come in & save the day. He wants you to grow & learn so that one day, you can be like Momma Bear & help protect, encourage, & support someone else. If you are in a battle, He knows He has already equipped you for it; otherwise, He would not allow you to be in it. If God is offering to help you through something, it means He does not think you are ready to face that challenge alone, & it would be best to listen to His voice; however, if you turn down His help, know that, also like Momma Bear, He is still waiting in the wings, ready & able to help you out of your messes. And when you are assigned to run extra laps? Do so without complaining, knowing that each & every step you take is preparing you for the next, & giving you more strength, more endurance, & more speed to run the race that lies before you. He is equipping you for your battle, & is proud of you when you get to that place of trust, where you know that you can rely on the lessons you have learned to get through the issues you are called to face.

~ Lou Lehman Sams