Monday, December 28, 2009

... but Joy Cometh in the Morning

How he would have loved this morning! Every tree turned into Christmas festooned with ribbons of sparkling hoar frost, lit by the glimmerings of a roseate sky. The intimate blanket of quiet resting lightly over this prairie town, the uncluttered peace of the horizon. And, just inside, sitting at the east window of the TH, the Monday morning men watching the sun rise and praying.

Our beloved Gordon departed from this world to enter into the next yesterday afternoon at 4:34, disappearing from our sight just as the sun slipped below the horizon. Deborah and Cathryn and his namesake Gordon were there, along with three of our aunts and two uncles.

As he was taking his leave of us, Debs held the phone to his ear and our Dad and their brother Clark spoke words of comfort and strength and release directly to his heart, that heart which had laboured long and hard over the previous 80 years and the past 17 days and was now about to enter its rest.

He left as he had lived, a man of deeply held convictions and strong opinions as to the correct order of things; but a quiet, unassuming man who didn't want to be a bother to anyone; a man who loved his family and his independence and his God.

He never forgot a birthday and called each year to wish us
He hated the metric system and daylight savings time
He spoke slowly but was a mental gymnast
He was a meticulous craftsman
He loved the outdoors
He would drive for miles to help someone in need

He was a good neighbour
He was a loyal friend
He was an attentive son
He was a devoted brother
He was a caring uncle
He was a faithful minister of the Gospel

Last night, at 6 o'clock, my Dad was scheduled to deliver the sermon at church. I took off from the TH's roast beef dinner hour to hear this other faithful man of God speak at such a difficult time. I know he had already been labouring and praying throughout the preceding Christmas week for the right message for this last Sunday of the decade. And now this.

The text he started with was John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." With God translated literally is face to face, nothing coming between.

And then he took us to Exodus and the detailed instructions for building the Tabernacle. Chapter 25, verse 1 lays the structure's foundation, not one of bricks and mortar but of willing attitude - "... an offering: of every man that giveth it willingly with his heart ye shall take my offering."

From thence proceeds the list of materials, the dimensions of the courtyard, the layout and furnishings of the temple. Dad brought us from the gates to the outer court, where the sacrifices for cleansing and atonement were performed on the brass altar; through the outer veil into the chamber that contained the table of unleavened bread and the seven-branched golden lampstand and where the priests would worship; and finally back through the inner veil to the most sacred area, the Holy of holies. The Holy of holies housed the ark of the covenant. Once a year the high priest would enter this area through the inner veil. No natural light penetrated the temple and no external sources of light were permitted to be brought in - the priest's way was illuminated first by the lampstand and then, in the Holy of holies, by the Shekhinah glory of God. The word Shekhinah means literally to inhabit, to dwell, a royal residence, the presence of God. I can only imagine how the priest so honoured would be forever changed by the inestimable privilege of being in the presence of God. Why would he ever wish to go back to the everyday world?

But as Jesus cried out on the cross, "It is finished!" this inner veil was torn from top to bottom, giving free access to that same presence of God to all who came to him. And there, with the ark of the covenant, was housed the mercy seat, something that - prior to Jesus' death - only one priest had access to only once a year. Romans 3:25 says, "God has set forth [Jesus Christ] to be a propitiation ... for the remission of sins." That word propitiation is exactly the same word as the word mercy seat in Exodus!

Only faintly now I see Him, with the darkling veil between;
But a blessed day is coming when His glory shall be seen.
What rejoicing in His presence, when are banished grief and pain,
When the crooked ways are straightened, and the dark things shall be plain.

Face to face I shall behold Him, Far beyond the starry sky;
Face to face in all His glory, I shall see Him by and by.
                                                    (Mrs. Frank A. Breck)

And Gordon, our dear Gordon, who so many years ago came with a willing heart and attitude to the mercy seat, is now face to face with the glory of God. No veil. No external illumination. Nothing between.

The sunrise I witnessed this morning was just a glimpse I was given through a veil of the first dazzling sunrise he experienced in the presence of the Son himself.

Although we miss him fiercely, why would we wish him back?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Six of Us

Over this Christmas we sat in the ICU at various times and watched our Dad watch his brother labour through tubes and machines and fever and infection and the inability to speak, to move, to breathe on his own.

Gordon's eyes remained closed for much of the time. He seemed so small in that room, so helpless. And yet, when Dad spoke to him, when Dad quoted scripture and sang and held his hand, those tired blue eyes fluttered open and fixed themselves on his younger brother's face. Blood pressure measurements crept toward normal levels. And he was calmed in his soul.

Over this Christmas the six of us sat in one of our homes, surrounded by the people we love the most on earth. And as I looked at each dear face, I thought of Dad and Gordon gazing wordlessly at each other, speaking a language too deep for words, too profound for this world, linked by their earthly parents, their heavenly Father and their deep and abiding love and respect for each other.

Ecclesiastes 4:12 says, "If one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart."

Death, when it comes, will be unable to cut this cord: though one strand will be in heaven and another remain on earth, the golden strand of grace will lash them together until they can be reunited once more. They will never be alone.

Over this Christmas food was eaten, presents exchanged, stories told, games played and laughter shared. Kindness and goodwill abounded in that home.

I have come to realize that there is no one I would rather be with for special occasions than my siblings. It is to them that I come with my joys and sorrows. It is their joys I rejoice in as exuberantly as if they were mine. It is their sorrows and troubles that I agonize over more deeply than my own.

They know me with a knowledge far deeper than language. They love me more than I deserve and they accept me for who I am.

"You've been a good big brother," my Dad said to Gordon.

When it comes my time to leave this world I want one of my sisters or my brother standing at the side of my bed, holding my hand, reminding me that Jesus loves me and so do they, singing to me:

In the sweet bye and bye we shall meet on that beautiful shore
In the sweet bye and bye we shall meet on that beautiful shore


Goodnight, our God is watching o'er you
Goodnight, His mercies go before you
Goodnight, and we'll be praying for you
So goodnight, may God bless you

Or I want to be able to do the same for them.

Happy Christmas, Bronwyn, Allan, Cathryn, Beth and Deborah Joy. Being one of your siblings is the greatest earthly gift I could be given, at Christmas and throughout each year. You've been a good brother and good sisters.

I love you.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Snow Angels

Oh, the weather outside is frightful! During this past couple of weeks I could not imagine having to navigate the snow drifts that piled up around and in front of the TH.

Last Saturday Marlowe tunneled a passage from the parking lot to the verandah, as well as cleaning off the ramp and all the verandah. Later, Charles widened the passage. Bruce showed up on Sunday with the bobcat and cleared all of the big drifts. Ted shoveled the edges. And Brent swept off my car and cleared the back entrance.

Where would any of us be without friends?!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wednesday evenings at the TH

Lots goes on at the TH between Monday and Friday; but the one thing that is immutable is our Wednesday evening Bible study group, led by my Dad. This group has been in existence for about ten years. It used to meet in Mum's and Dad's home; but in 2007 when they regrouped after Mum's passing away, I suggested that we meet in the TH as it was pretty central and had a lot of room.

Well, our last meeting involved turkey and Christmas crackers and carols and laughter. We remembered people who are no longer with us -- Dick and Thelma, Marion, Mum, Mae, Tina, Willie, Norma, Bill --  and held the ones who were left a little bit closer to our hearts.

This year Roselind -- a real pro in the kitchen with journeyman papers to prove it! -- came early and got everything into order and on schedule. Dianna, our intrepid nurse who with her husband Bob is spending Christmas in Nepal with their daughter and family, also arrived in plenty of time to allow me to relax and know that everything was going to go off like clockwork.

Ted carved the turkey, Leona made the salad, and Beth filled the glasses and then took on baby-sitting (or, to be more accurate, baby-carrying) duty for the entire evening so that the lovely Ruth Ann could have a break.

As is our tradition, we each received a Bible verse at our place settings. Mine was this:

Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
                              (Gospel of Matthew 11:28)

To George and Leona, Ralph, Lynda, Brenda, Ted, Ed and Ruth-Ann and "our" beautiful little Anna Grace, Sherlotte and Marjory, Beth, Harvey, Bob and Dianna, Rich and Cindy and Joey and Caelynn, Charles and Roselind, Joyce, Betty, and of course to Dad, a happy Christmas! Wednesday evening is one of the highlights of my week. I feel honoured to belong to this special TH family.
The Linden Girls' Christmas Dinner

I'll be writing about other Christmas parties in posts to come; but this dinner is the one I was looking forward to all through the time leading up to Christmas parties, so I want to capture it for you while it remains fresh in my mind and heart ...

It all started when I got a call one day quite some weeks ago: "Karyn, this is Evange. Why can't us single girls from Linden have a Christmas dinner?" There was no reason I could see, and so the date and the choice of meat were set and I immediately began to count the days until Monday, December 7, at 6 p.m. I had no idea who would be in attendance. On Saturday I asked Max, a young single girl from Linden who comes to the TH frequently, if she would be there, but she said no. And I couldn't for the life of me put a face to Evange's voice or name. I was excited to see who would be coming to this dinner ...

And finally it was just about 6 o'clock. The dining room looked beautiful, with winter white linen, twinkling tea lights peeking out through ruby-red glass candle holders; champagne flutes bubbling with sparkling apple juice; gold chargers; silver party crackers; and the Christmas lights on the tree, the mantelpiece, the piano and the ceramic Christmas tree promising a warm welcome from the cold.

All was outshone when "the girls" started to arrive. So many of them were friends of my Mum's and I was immediately enveloped in hug after hug, with ladies murmuring to me how they missed her yet. I remembered Evangeline the minute I saw her -- how my Mum loved her, and Pearl, and so many of them!

They mingled around for a bit, helping each other with coats and checking out the Christmas decorations; and then they sat down in preparation for the evening.

"I think we'll have a table song," one of them suggested; and together they all bowed their heads and in three-part harmony sang the Doxology. The star above the manger scene seemed to glow just a little more intensely for the rest of the evening.

And then the girls settled back for some Christmas fun. First was the Christmas crackers: off they popped, to disgorge golden paper crowns, prizes like pens, picture frames, cuff links and the like, and of course the corny little riddles and jokes. Each lady put on her crown and read her riddle to the table. Little toasts were performed, with the delicate flutes clinking together across the table.

Curried butternut squash soup and dinner rolls were followed by a mixed berry salad tossed in a roasted peach and red onion vinaigrette.

And then we served the turkey. "We have turkey with mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes encrusted with pecans, green bean casserole, and turnips," I began.

With one voice they exclaimed, "Turnips!", beaming in such delight that I wanted to be adopted by all of them on the spot.

After a little break, dessert was offered: a choice between sticky toffee pudding drizzled with warm caramel sauce, carrot cake, and Skor cheesecake.

Coffee and tea and bursts of laughter and moments of companionable silence wove their way with rich hues throughout the tapestry of the evening. My dad dropped by to make sure all was well, and they called out to him joyfully: "Hello, Al! Checking up on things?" He had a plate of turkey dinner in the kitchen, perched on the little green stool in the corner; and then he went out to chat for a few more minutes to the girls before heading off back home.

My heart, which was already full, threatened to burst wide open when I mentioned offhandedly to one of the ladies that Miss Manners would not like the way I was stretching over her to fill up her water goblet. "Do you like Miss Manners?" she asked. When I confessed that I was addicted and recounted a typically pithy exchange from one of Miss Manners's books ("Dear Miss Manners, How do I walk in high heels?" "Gentle Reader, Left, right left, right."), my little lady burst out laughing and said, "I like that one too!" It turns out that she teaches grades eight and nine and tries to instruct her pupils in manners and ettiquette, basing her course material on Miss Manners's classic volume. "Outside in!" she prompted in a sing-song voice when there was some question as to which fork to use. Who knew that a gift I would receive today would be discovering another Miss Manners afficionada?!

Far too soon the evening came to a close. As these saints struggled into their coats and bundled up against the wind, it struck me that on this night Nilgiris had been transformed into a home filled with love and the true spirit of Christmas, from the kitchen where Lois, BA and I cheerfully and carefully worked to make sure everything was perfect for our girls, to "the girls" themselves with their full lives and yet their hopes and dreams and their courage in making some of them come true tonight. This turned out to be an evening that far exceeded any dream I had dreamt for my sweet little TH.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Nilgiris Tea House 2009 Christmas Event / No More Mr Nice Guy

The Tea House staff went to Calgary on Thursday, December 3, for two reasons: to have our Christmas event and to celebrate Brent's 18th birthday, which was the next day.

First we went to dinner at Babylon Qithara, a wonderful Mediterranean eatery that Debs introduced me to. The pictures in this entry are from dinner. Eleven of us feasted on lamb, fragrant rice with nuts and raisins, moussaka, eggplant and potatoes, tabouli salad, hummus and pita, and baklava with Moroccan tea. BRENT DRANK TEA -- and LIKED IT! This from a person who will only drink coffee although employed at the tea house. I believe my sense of pique is entirely justified, don't you?!

Then we rushed down to SAIT's Jubilee auditorium where we met the three people in our party who could not join us for dinner but were able to make it to ... Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe Christmas concert! There was an old Dave and Morley favourite, as well as two new stories. John Sheard, the pianist and Vinyl Cafe music director, was brilliant and Stuart McLean was as endearing as always.
Two notable things happened: the first is that Brent and Curt got to meet Mr. McLean after the concert, when he autographed a copy of his latest book for Brent's birthday. And Oliver's extremely loose tooth wiggled free in the second half of the program!

After the concert the out-of-Calgary people stopped at Timmy's for one for the road. We caravanned home, with Brent driving the lead car. At midnight we in the second car called him and sang "Happy Birthday" to him, then I advised him that he could now be tried as an adult. He immediately responded, "That's why I'm keeping it at 110 ..."

On Sunday I wrote on the menu board, "Brent's now 18: No More Mr. Nice Guy!" No one believed me, of course ...

Happy birthday, dear man. We used to joke that if 17 was perfection, would it be all downhill for you when you turned 18? I think you're safe. You are one of the greatest forces for good to have ever been involved with the TH. Your life -- a beacon shining on a hill -- is a gift to all of us who are privileged to be illuminated by its rays.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Gifts of the Magi

So they came, my wonderful friends, bearing gifts for the season, telling me they know me and they love me.

Friday, December 4, 2009

"Comfort Ye, My People ..."

I felt imprisoned this afternoon, penned in by obligations and snow and this incessant wind. Today is the day I traditionally begin anticipating in August when I come to the realization that summer is drawing to a close and that tickets for the CPO fall and winter concerts will soon be for sale.

Today is the day my friend Mary and I were to attend the CPO's production of Handel's Messiah. It is no exaggeration to say that the Messiah is the musical highlight of my year. If it were at all possible - and, actually, before I reopened the teahouse it was possible - I would go to the Friday performance, the Saturday performance, and the Sunday sing-along. There is just something about this work, lifted from the poetry of the King James Version of the Bible and the lilting, joyful baroque musical stylings of Georg Frideric, that causes my heart to soar throughout the Christmas season.

But of course early today the wind started to mock my carefully laid plans. Highways were closed; YYC was shut down; reports of jack-knifed semis and buses stalled across two lanes of traffic were dutifully phoned in by concerned family and friends.

And at about 10:30 I yielded to the gale force and decided to take the safe route of staying put. After all, I know this music: I have performed in productions of it in India and in the U.S. and have enjoyed it almost every year in Canada. I even wrote my O Level music paper around the Nilgiris Choral Society's annual production of the Christmas and Easter portions of the work.  Did I really need to sit through another performance?

Ahhh, but I have also been privileged to see Mary herself singing with the CPO Chorus some Christmases ago under the testy, heady direction of the wonderful Ivars Taurins. Part of the magic of attending the annual performance with Mary is in seeing her eyes like stars, her beautiful face glowing like it's been lit by a hundred Christmas tree candles, as she disappears inside the music, occasionally consulting her well-marked score. Part of the joy is in knowing that she knows this music, both the score and the heart of it, the music and the meaning, outside and in. This is what she wrote me in one of our email exchanges in anticipation of the evening:

"And he shall purify -- all the lace of sixteenth notes coming in from all 4 corners of the world (SATB) ... I get teary eyed just thinking about it"

And I got teary eyed thinking about missing it. In fact, I wept, disconsolate, on the phone to my sisters as I asked one of them to go with Mary in my stead, as I stumbled over my phone request to the CPO to change the will-call tickets from my name to Mary's.

Mary and I met years ago when we both worked for Carswell. Somehow, despite all our differences, we became friends. Her two sons remind me of two of my nephews. Her husband has always welcomed me to their home with great kindness. When I have the chance to spend time with her or her family, I leap at it.

Finally late this afternoon I huddle in a purple chair in front of the fireplace, contemplating the driving snow and the driving conditions and the driving pain in my heart. I turn on no music. There are no melodies that can ease the catch in my throat, no lyrics that can compensate for the inexplicable feeling of desolation I labour under today.

I think it is because the realization has been brought to bear on me today for the first time that I am no longer a "city girl" who can pop down town in my own car or hail a cab or hop on the C-train -- for the first time I am unable to carry out my plan due to the weather. Never before in all these years of living in Three Hills have I missed an event due to weather. I can no longer pretend to myself that though I sleep and shower and work in Three Hills, my own life continues on in Calgary.

(The other thing the weather did was prevent me from buying the weekly groceries for the TH. But I did get the dining room pulled back into shape and cleaned, and we will muddle along through tomorrow as best we can.)

This evening, shortly after the real performance starts in Calgary, I finally put on the collection of Messiah arias and the Hallelujah chorus that are loaded on my iPod. The pace of the singers is brisk and business-like; a few of the notes do not ring completely true ... but it is the ancient words and age-old melodies that ease the futility of the day, that assuage the disappointment in the weather and in myself.

Then as I hear "Comfort Ye, My People" I am given a measure of reassurance that I am indeed in the right place at the right time. I am meant to be in Three Hills for now, despite the weather and the staffing and the sadness that days like this can conjure up:

...And cry unto her that her warfare, her warfare is accomplished,
that her iniquity is pardoned ...

And, as Mary and I have said for years now when there is nothing that can be done, Oh well.

Oh well.

The wind stops howling for a few moments, just long enough for the trumpet to sound. And I am comforted.