Where are you from?

Where are you from?

It’s a simple question. We ask it of new acquaintances and expect an easy answer. As a military kid, I didn’t have a quick response. Arriving on campus in Northfield, Minnesota in the fall of 1977, that was the default question we asked each other: Where are you from? Somehow geography became an inroad to conversation. I had to evaluate whether the person really had the time and interest in the answer before I gave it. Usually they didn’t. So I boiled it down to two sentences: “My dad is in the military so I’m not really from anywhere. But each summer we traveled to Michigan so that’s pretty much home.”

By the time I started college I had lived in six different places–twice overseas and in four different states. Minnesota was state number 5. What I learned along with other military kids is that family is about relationships, not place. Wherever my parents tucked us in at night, the six of us kids were home. As a large family we had instant community wherever we went. But, more importantly, I had a loving upbringing. Packing up and shipping off to another house was less traumatic than you might think because 1)it was normal for us and 2)we had the constancy of devoted care wherever we went.

But place means something to us. Jesus spoke of His own unusual itineracy when a rabbi proclaimed his willingness to drop everything so as to follow Jesus. It was not the answer the teacher of the law would have expected: “Jesus told him, ‘Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to rest.’” Jesus didn’t have an easy answer to the questions, “Where are you from?” He got Himself into a lot of trouble by saying that He was from God and that God was His Father. Yikes! Offer that response at a party and soon the whole room is agape. Crickets.

I’ve spent the summer tracking my ancestors in the places where they lived, worshiped, and were buried. To walk along the neighborhood streets where my grandfather lived and head to St. Edmund’s Church where he worshiped, bridged the distance between us a bit. To meander the street where we lived in Barton Mills, England was very meaningful for my two sisters who shared that space as “home” during our very early years. The smells, sights, sounds and even tastes of any one place leave their mark on us. When I returned to England for a visit at age 19 during a semester in Europe, I was amazed at how “familiar” it felt. Living there between age one and four made an imprint on me and recapturing a piece of home felt good after a wandering life.

So I spent the last full week of my Nourishing Roots sabbatical in a place I call home: along the shores of Lake Michigan. This is the property I wrote about in Edgar on the Lakeshore. My great grandparents bought this land and built a farmhouse for their large family in the 1890’s. When I was a girl there were three cottages that had been added and they housed various relatives in the Tharp family. My (great) Uncle Russ and Aunt Jo lived in the north cottage. My grandparents spent their summer in the middle cottage. My mom’s cousin, Jeanie, and her family, owned the south cottage. My grandfather’s sister, Stella, lived in the farmhouse. Each summer that we could, we headed to Fennville to reunite with family. We cooked hotdogs over fires. We walked the beach and explored creeks that wound through the woods. We played “Kick the Can” with our cousins late into the night, with long summer days that didn’t see a sunset until after 9PM. We rented space somewhere near the family property and crammed as much fun into our week as possible. One summer my older sister and I were allowed to fly on our own to spend a week on the lakefront with our grandparents. We were thrilled! I suspect my mom was pregnant and the distance from Washington, D.C. was too great for a full family vacation. My grandfather called this hallowed ground “the farm”. We simply referred to it as “Michigan”, as if the whole state took its identity from this small parcel of land. Each June arrived and we couldn’t wait to get there.

In 1973 the land was divided up and my mother and her sister were each given plots of land right on the lakefront where we could build. My dad, a woodworker, constructed a model of the house that the two of them designed. Having spent their married years traveling the globe with an increasingly large brood of children, it meant the world to them that they could put down lasting roots on my mother’s family homestead.

When we arrived in 1973 I was fourteen. We six siblings stretched in age from fifteen down to two. My dad had flown in earlier in the Spring to check on the construction of the framing. It was with great anticipation that we turned onto a new driveway that cut through the woods to see this dream home in all its glory. We call it a cottage but it’s really a house. Three and a half stories at the peak, it’s an A-frame with four bedrooms, not including the enviable loft that became my brother’s space when he was old enough to finish the space with my dad. The front windows had not yet been installed. Heavy sheets of plastic were stapled onto the frames, making noise when a storm rolled in off the lake. There was one working half bath on the main floor. We washed dishes in teams of two in this small bathroom sink when we first moved in. Bathing happened in the lake. That first summer I remember shaving my legs in a stream of cold water that trickled out of the bluff. No lie! Not too long after it was built we experienced severe erosion on the bluff due to high water levels. My parents made the difficult but necessary decision to move the house back, carving a wide swath from the dense woods behind our home. Pried from its foundation, we were told we didn’t even have to remove dishes from the cupboards as it was rolled to a safer location! Photographs of these early years display a work wardrobe for all of us: paint-smeared T-shirts and well-worn jeans. But this cottage happily consumed my parents time and passion for years to come.

The six of us siblings can make our own children feel legitimately slothful when we recite what summer was like for us on the lakefront. Each of us had our first jobs in Saugatuck as soon as we could get hired—usually at age 16, 15 if we were lucky. The (strong) emphasis was on saving our earnings for college. There was no fun money! Additionally, when we weren’t working at one of the food establishments (a couple of us were maids at one of the local hotels…character-building) in this resort town, we were tackling chores handed out by our very well organized mother. My dad used his annual vacation time to drive us to Michigan from wherever we were living, settle us in, hammer out as many projects as he possibly could before returning to our year-round home to earn a paycheck. My mom was happily left on the lakefront with her kids. Our aunt and uncle had built a cottage that same year so we overlapped with our cousins as they shaped a home for themselves. My grandparents lived a stone’s throw away in the middle cottage. So, when we weren’t working at our paying jobs, we were staining siding, insulating walls, roofing the house(honestly!), cutting and positioning sheetrock so that rooms became defined, putting up paneling (that was the look then!), digging a trench for the new plumbing, “poly-urethaning” new window frames (which was different from “poly-urinating”, my mom joked) or any variety of odd construction jobs assigned by our dear mother. Today I suspect a social worker would deem our demanding schedule a violation of child labor laws! But we did as we were told and laughed as we worked alongside one another. We were proud of each finished project. We gained building skills so my mother should not have been surprised when I asked for a jigsaw for my 24th birthday when I got my first apartment in Chicago! I learned the value of good tools and wasn’t afraid to use them!

Time at the cottage was different from the rest of our year. Leaving our friends behind for those three months, we were more reliant upon the companionship of family members. We played countless games of “Spit” and “Oh Hell” (one of the few times we could use a swear word!), sitting on the living room floor. We had no TV so we read books. I stayed up late, reading by dim lighting, the latest Nancy Drew book I checked out from the library. We found time to sunbathe on the beach. We went into town to do laundry but also got an ice cream cone for our efforts. (Cones didn’t cost $7 each back then!) We ate meals with our relatives and took walks with our aging grandparents who easily made us laugh. On Sunday we went to church and I often wore a dress I had sewn on the workhorse of a sewing machine we always brought with us to Michigan. That machine gave me much of my wardrobe in my teenage years when my dad’s solo salary didn’t allow for much extra in a family of six children.

When my fellow-coeds asked me where I was from, full of excitement at the beginning of our St. Olaf College career, I would tell those who had the interest, that my home was on the shores of Lake Michigan. It was here that I learned I belonged in a family that cherished this bit of utopia purchased by my great grandparents. In this place, like every other setting for my childhood, our Christian faith was central to our family life. My grandfather was a very emotional man and he would put into perspective his great love for his favorite president with these words: “Abraham Lincoln was the greatest man who ever lived…..after Jesus Christ, of course.” Then he would get choked up and we knew that this profession of faith was of utmost importance to him. I remember going on a walk down the beach with him, my younger sister and my cousin. The three of us girls were joking with each other in a way that sounded catty to my old grampa. He stopped us right there on the beach and said that we needed to pray. We were shocked when he then launched into a prayer with three self-conscious teenaged girls who really weren’t mad at each other at all! Some Sundays we had a family worship service on the bluff rather than driving into town for church. My grandparents joined us and my dad led the music with his guitar. We always ended our day with bedside prayers (not so much when we were teenagers). One of the benedictions we sang came from my father’s military service: Taps. Singing that while looking out at the sun setting over Lake Michigan was indescribably beautiful.

So it was only fitting that the last week of my Nourishing Roots sabbatical would be spent in our family cottage on the lakefront. It is here that I feel my parents’ presence more powerfully than anywhere else. It is here that I can be assured that “they rest from their labors for their deeds follow them.” I sat on the beach and read, not Nancy Drew mysteries anymore. I canned peaches from our productive tree at home. I hosted a group from church for a Bible Study, which my dad often did as a pastor and Air Force Chaplain. I went out for ice cream and ate at a couple of our favorite local restaurants. I savored morning coffee on the balcony of the master bedroom that overlooks the lake and did my devotions. I prayed for God’s guidance as I re-enter my ministry and figure out how to incorporate all my experiences this summer into a new schedule. I basked in the memories of so many summer seasons of experiencing God’s grace in this place I call home.

My parents, grandparents, and other family members are buried less than two miles from the cottage in Taylor Cemetery of Ganges township. I don’t always visit their gravesite when I’m there but I did this time. I was surprised at the emotions I felt as I got out of my car to approach their tombstones. These were the ancestors I knew and loved. These were the ones who cared for me in such a way that I learned to take an interest in my family. Not everyone wants to trace their roots. Some family reunions are endurance tests with walled-off relationships for generations. I realized as I stood at the graves of my parents and grandparents that I had traveled the world this summer to track down their ancestors because of the beautiful experience of family they had shared with me. I know not to take that for granted. So I gave God thanks as images of ancestral homes and churches, streets and cemeteries from my trip washed over me. I made it back to the lakefront in time to watch another sunset. In my heart I could hear once again the words of my childhood prayer:

Day is done, Gone the sun, From the lake, From the hills, From the sky;

All is well, Safely rest, God is nigh!


Viking Proud!

Viking Chorus CD coverFor $81.45 I sent a vial of my saliva off to a lab and they broke it down into defining DNA. I had always identified myself into neat quarters of ethnicity: ¾ English and ¼ Scottish. When emailed the results to me I clicked open the link with curiosity. My figures were actually a bit off. Go figure! There was more of a mix than I imagined. England has a firm grasp on me: I’m 87% English! I joked with the good people at Cloverfield Church (where I preached in Thetford, England) that my sisters (three of whom were with me on the trip) and I were a bit put off that we hadn’t been invited to The Wedding. We had even bought fascinators to impress but to no avail. Scottish dibs on my genes was less than I assumed: 5%. Bummer. I like my Highlander roots! There’s a nebulous mix of ethnicities that comprise 3% of my physical being. But the figure that surprised me most was the remaining 5%: Scandinavian. I attended St. Olaf College in Minnesota—did that make the difference? Did my alumnus status graduate me with more than just a diploma and some good memories?

As I headed off to Europe to trace my roots the mystery of that 5% stayed with me. Just eight days into our grand European adventure I ran into the first hints of my Norse ancestry. My husband, daughter and I met up with the parents of our French foreign exchange student “daughter.” They live in Villerville in Normandy, France. I was a French major in college and speak pretty fluent French (albeit with a 39-year hiatus from the time I lived there!) so I relished reclaiming the language. One street sign pointed toward “Cricqueboeuf.” I know that “boeuf” means “beef” in French and wondered why that would be part of the name of a French town? So I asked our hosts. Louis responded that the translation was not French but traveled back to the Viking presence in this part of Northern France.

Vikings! Apart from chanting “Um yah yah” at the St. Olaf athletic events in college, I have never felt any connection to the Vikings. They seem only to factor in dusty history accounts that I don’t read and that certainly don’t impact me. But I was in Viking territory! More specifically, I was vacationing on a northern coastal area of France that was invaded by Norsemen in the early 9th century. They liked it. They stayed. Called “Normans”, meaning “north men”, they battled and charmed their way into political positions for hundreds of years to come.

When traveling through Europe I recognize how young our history is as European transplants in America. The Reformation, which impacts who I am as an American Protestant in a seemingly distant way, has visible impact all over Europe. The French Revolution left its mark on the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Soldiers knocked down all the statues of the saints carved above one of the doorways except for the statuette of Mary. When we toured the cathedral on a Sunday afternoon in June, a bird’s nest sat smugly atop her crown! The Holy Mother, who survived the siege more than 200 years ago, protects fragile life still today from her doorway perch! World War II connects to the present on a very personal level in many of the cities we visited. Reminders of the Nazi presence were unfortunately easy to find. Vikings showed up at the history potluck as well! They sailed with ease across the ocean in their long boats, aiming for monasteries and churches. They knew that they would find precious metals, gems and costly fabrics in those holy places. Many cathedrals housed the bones of revered saints which commanded a good price in the secular world. For example, St. Therese’s kneecap is encased in glass in St. Catherine’s Church in Honfleur, France (near Villerville). To build your sanctuary on the strength of the saints was highly valued spiritually and could command a good price!

St. Therese' kneecap!The Vikings hunted those treasures down, taking slaves and killing anyone brave/foolish enough to stand in their way. Some Scottish nuns went to great extremes to prevent capture by the Norsemen. Around 870 AD, as Viking raiders crashed through the gates of their convent at Coldingham, the Sisters cut off their own lips and noses to dissuade the men from taking them captive! Take that, you brutish marauders! Everywhere we wandered in Europe, the three of us TenHave-Chapmans walked blithely into living history. Slowly my Scandinavian ancestry began to make sense.

But it took the trip to Scotland to finally understand that mysterious 5% of my DNA. My husband and daughter had returned to the States to resume their professional lives and three of my sisters had joined me for our ancestral trek through England and Scotland. Our destination in Scotland was Oban, home territory for the MacDougall clan. (I wrote about them earlier.) My paternal grandmother was a proud MacDougall! We toured the Donollie and Dunstaffnage Castles in Oban that were built by our Scottish kin to house their growing numbers in the 13th century. We learned about our history. We trace back to King Somerled who claimed dominion over the wilds of western Scotland. Somerled was a warlord of Norse-Gaelic descent who set his sights on the Kingdom of the Isles that was controlled by his brother-in-law, Godred Olafsson. The faltering leadership of this Nordic in-law didn’t bring words of comforting advice over cheesy potatoes at a family reunion. Instead Simon the Somerled waged a violent coup and seized half of Godred’s kingdom in 1156. But that wasn’t enough! Two years later, he completely defeated him and ruled the entire kingdom until his (Simon’s) death in 1164. I can imagine the in-law jokes told over a pint of stout for generations to come!

So Simon died in the Battle of Renfrew but his sons maintained control over some of the territories he had conquered. Two of his sons were named Dougall and Donald. Since “Mac” or “Mc” means “son of”, you have the beginnings of two Scottish clans who proudly point back to Simon as their forebear. My Scottish roots are actually a rich porridge of northern European warriors who intermarried Norman conquerors who decided that Scotland was the tropics compared to their rough winters. Dougall (meaning “black stranger”?!) continued the greedy streak of his father and established a family-the MacDougalls-that built castles on promontories to protect and defend their fair damsels. The Gaelic language is still in evidence with names of places that make no sense to me as a native English-speaker! Customs, language, objects and DNA were dragged south and added to the cultural soup, leaving an imprint on people who are now scattered across the globe! I have such proud Viking tales to share now with my children!

gaelic sign oban

But the stories weren’t all bad. In fact, once the Vikings axed out populations to claim land for themselves, the testosterone levels stabilized and the men settled down into tranquil family life. DNA studies estimate that one quarter of today’s Scottish men have Viking ancestry. In my earlier blog about My Clan I described positive attributes of MacDougalls, including a desire for  peace and progressive attitudes toward women! I also encountered my Viking kin when I closed out my European pilgrimage on the Isle of Iona. Right next to the Abbey is St. Oran’s Chapel which dates back to the middle of the 12th century. It is believed that Somerled or his family members built this and were buried there. Somerled’s daughter, Bethoc, established a nunnery on the island which thrived until the Reformation. At that time Roman Catholic institutions in Scotland were shut down and cloistered servants scattered for survival.

So a very unexpected part of my “Nourishing Roots” sabbatical was my foray into a Viking identity. I remind you that it’s only 5% of my corporal constitution so don’t hold it against me too much! As for my St. Olaf classmates who share these roots in much higher percentages, it turns out I’m one of you! I may lack the Norwegian sweater with the silver buttons and the yen for lutefisk. I may not know the Lutheran liturgy by heart or boast of a double “aa” in my name. But I’m in the club, it turns out! Viking Proud! Um yah yah!

Um Yah Yah



Haverhill Street sign


Two syllables, not three.  Hav-rill.

Just as Leicester is pronounced “Lester” and Worcester is pronounced “Woo-ster”, Haverhill locals don’t follow phonetic rules when it comes to their town name. Of course, these names were all borrowed from English towns and transplanted across the ocean. I’m not a local but my father was. Of the three towns that stretch along 26 miles in northeastern Massachusetts into New Hampshire, Haverhill is planted tenderly in my heart. I grew up knowing that we had roots in this New England hamlet. We knew to cheer for the Boston Red Sox. We begged my dad for stories about his childhood growing up in the back of a store. “Tell us about the robbery,” we pleaded. My mom rolled her eyes then smiled. That’s all it took for my dad to regurgitate the same details he had told us countless times before about his mother jumping over a back fence to summon help during the hold-up. Haverhill was a part of my childhood, even though I don’t remember ever traveling there when I was young.

Part of the intrigue of this place was that my grandparents lived there. My very proper grandmother lived with us a month of each year and tales of the fabled upbringing of her children inevitably were woven into dinnertime conversations. But I never knew my grandfather, Walter. There was an element of mystery about him since we never met him. But I felt like I knew him from the many accounts of family life in Haverhill. When my dad got together with his two siblings the room was filled to capacity with laughter. As they reminisced my grandmother smiled, not wanting to admit that she enjoyed their tales–but she clearly did! Walter was the one with a sense of humor and a love for words. He was frequently part of their memories and I somehow knew that I was meeting him in my dad and his siblings.

The Chapmans “lived in three rooms behind the store” that they operated for their community. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that description of their sparse living conditions. There was only one bedroom. My grandfather had a twin bed in his room. His two sons slept on bunk beds in the same room. Boy-Girl quarters. My grandfather was 20 years older than my grandmother so his needs for comfort perhaps trumped hers. Or maybe the boys got the bedroom because there were three of them and only two women. My grandmother and her daughter, my Aunt Flo, shared a day bed that opened up as a bed at night and folded up in the day so as to not take up space in their shared quarters. There was a kitchen with a table pushed up against the wall and four chairs around it. Five family members—four chairs. There wasn’t room for the table to be away from the wall, accommodating a fifth chair. There was a tiny bathroom with a toilet and small sink. No shower. No tub. My aunt described how she was given “privacy” in the communal kitchen each Saturday night to bathe in the kitchen sink. (Remember when folks took weekly baths?) There was a door by the sink that opened into the store the family ran. It had a glass window in it, threatening to blow her cover. So she hung a coke poster in the window so that she could strip down in their communal room, hoping desperately that no one would inadvertently violate her weekly “pampering”. She says she can picture that coke poster to this very day.

For my dad and his brother, I think their childhood was an adventure. They didn’t miss the lack of privacy. The front part of their building was a general store that offered solace to families whose babies needed milk or soap to wash behind the ears. They were open seven days a week. It was an outreach to their neighbors as much as it was about making a living. Since they couldn’t all fit around the dining room table in their private quarters, they sat at a table with two benches located in the store. It was wedged between the pastry counter and the ice cream freezer. Passing the mashed potatoes was often interrupted when Mrs. Miller had to be rung up at the cash register. My grandmother tried desperately to maintain a sense of decorum about their very public family life. She told a story about the pastor stopping over one evening as they were having supper. The bottle of milk was on the table and she wanted things to look more formal. She had been raised in a lovely home with good manners. So she slipped the jug under the table to spruce things up a bit. This made her feel better until one of her kids accidentally kicked it over. The ruse of fancy living was quickly dispelled as the puddle of milk traveled rapidly toward the pastor. Grammie would laugh in telling the story but the stress she carried raising a family of three children in tight quarters in the depression years was apparent.

Riverside Church old photo

Riverside Church in flowers

Riverside Church 3 cousins

Just as the condensed floor plan limited their movement, so did the orbit of their life in the neighborhood. Right across the street from their general store was the Riverside Memorial Church. Eight of us descendants had the privilege of worshiping there in August (my cousin Lauren Littauer Briggs and her husband Randy, my sister Michelle and four nieces and nephews)! It’s been beautifully modernized and hosts a vibrant congregation. This spiritual home was a fixture in their weekly activities. Each Sunday they sat in pews with the same people they had served during the week. They derived strength as they sang together, “Great is Thy Faithfulness”!  They prayed for relief from times that were tough for a nation and rejoiced in God’s simple gifts that outweighed their trials. Katie and Walter anchored their family life in the Christian faith. Christ’s emphasis on mission outreach was behind the question they asked their customers at the Riverside Variety Store: How can I help you?

Dad, Flo and Ralph.jpg

dad's ordination article.JPG

It was a tightly-knit community that affirmed the gifts of the three Chapman kids. Florence headed to college and returned to Haverhill to teach in the high school. When Fred Littauer proposed to her she turned the wedding into a class project! Her students helped to plan the service and took an active role in shaping the day of her dreams. It was such a creative endeavor that LIFE Magazine covered the occasion, showing off Riverside Memorial Church and the townsfolk in a generous feature article. Florence became a Christian speaker who traveled the world, inspiring thousands through both her written and spoken words. My father, Jim, played lead roles in Haverhill High dramas. He sang in church and majored in music at the University of Massachusetts. The faith imparted to him at the church across the street from his modest upbringing went deep. He attended Oberlin School of Theology and came home to Haverhill to be ordained. Over 500 people crowded into the church to hallow this rite of passage. He and my mother traveled the world with the six of us kids while my dad served as a Chaplain in the U.S. Air Force. Ron enlisted in the Army and was given the job that suited him best: radio broadcaster for the U.S. Army in Korea! He became a beloved D.J. in Dallas for over 50 years and was inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2010.

Dad's high school diploma.jpg

Haverhill HS

Haverhill High statue with kids.JPG

Katie and Walter Chapman, whose family life was squeezed into three small rooms behind their store, could not have guessed how their love, Christian faith and sense of humor would catapult their three children into the far reaches of the world. Walter won an essay contest with a letter he sent to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. It was a political piece and his love for words was affirmed. He passed this on to his children, all of whom thrived in careers that gave them a voice. When they visited together when I was a girl, you couldn’t shut them up! And that was a good thing! My grandfather died at age 70, leaving my grandmother behind as a widow at age 50. He wasn’t able to see how he shaped three remarkable individuals who continued to ask folks in different ways, “How can I help you.”

Chappie and children

Walter had few possessions but I found a few poems cut out of newspapers that have his name marked next to them. My eye was drawn to one entitled, Only a Dad, by Concord Monitor. My grandfather had lost a baby sister and mother when he was 14. He and his 10-year old brother had been left in a  boarding house by their father, whose work required him to travel to provide for his boys. Walter learned early on that he had to work hard to provide for himself. I think that may be part of the reason for why he didn’t marry until he was 47 years old. Making up for lost time when he found the woman he loved, they raised three joyful, eloquent, faith-filled children who would use their ample gifts for good in the world around them. You’ll see in the picture below where my grandfather wrote the word, “Amen” in the margin. He wasn’t able to provide the kind of financial life for his family that he would have liked. But I think those three loquacious kids would agree that he—and my grandmother—gave them all they ever needed!

Chappie's poem.jpg


A Marathon Tour

It’s only recently that I became acquainted with my great grandparents, Thomas and Maria Chapman. Ever since I have been putting together this summer of Nourishing Roots, I have been delving into genealogical sources so as to organize a travel itinerary. My cousin and her husband, Lauren and Randy Briggs, have done an amazing job of compiling our family history. I am very much in their debt for research on my father’s side of the family. Lauren helped me to trace my grandfather‘s lineage back to his parents. Her mother, Florence Chapman Littauer, is an awesome source of information as well. I was so glad to be able to attend her 90th birthday party this past April where I pried her for details of her father’s side of the family. His background has been a mystery to me. I’ve known that Exeter was the name of the town where my grandfather, Walter, lived before meeting and marrying my grandmother. Since he didn’t get married until his mid forties he lived a significant portion of his life in that town before they began their married life. Lauren told me that Exeter, New Hampshire was the place where they had lived after moving to the United States from Rochdale, England. It’s the place where Thomas, Maria and their baby, Maria, were buried. So this past weekend I made my last out-of-state trip to the East Coast. Having spent time in Chicago two weeks ago delving into my mother’s side of the family, this trip would be all about my father.

I’ve been struck quite often this summer with the proximity of locations related to any one part of the family. In other words, they lived out their lives in a relatively small geographical orbit. Of course, that is the case in many parts of the world still today. In our fast-paced society where some jobs require air travel on a regular basis we forget that many contemporary populations are born, live their days, die and are buried in the same town. I headed to New England with the names of three towns in mind: Haverhill, Merrimac and Exeter. Exeter, the northernmost of the three, is in New Hampshire while the other two towns are in Massachusetts. The distance between Haverhill and Exeter is just 19 miles, 26 miles if you stop at the mid-point of Merrimac. One marathon race covers the distance between my father’s kinfolk. These three towns hold the childhood memories of my father’s parents, Walter Chapman and Katie MacDougall, and the town where they raised their three children. While I have known the stories associated with my dad’s upbringing in Haverhill, this past weekend we stepped into the neighborhoods of my great grandparents.

Thomas and Maria, my great grandparents on my paternal grandfather’s side, were from Rochdale, England. I wrote about them in my blog post entitled Placing Walter. They were just one year apart in age. My grandfather, Walter, was their oldest child, born in 1878 in Rochdale. Their second child was a son named Arthur, born in 1882. They courageously traveled to America when the boys were young and settled in the area of Exeter. The next thing I know about them is that they had a daughter, named after her mother, in 1892 when their boys would have been 14 and 10 years old. Sadly the little girl died just a couple of months after she was born. Her mother, my great grandmother Maria, died not long after. I don’t know any more details about either of their deaths. Heartache is proposed as a cause of death for 36 year old Maria who lost her sweet daughter. This means that her husband, my great grandfather, was a widower and single parent to two young boys when he was just 37 years old.

Thomas was a harness maker. His work required him to travel to farmers who needed equipment for their work animals. With the death of his wife he lost the caretaker to his children. When I imagine the emotional impact the death of the two Marias had on their household, I think of the movie, Billy Elliot. It’s a beautiful film in which an English family comprised of a father and two sons is marked by the absence of the mother who has died. There is a grandmother who lives with them and she suffers from dementia. 12-year-old Billy is often left in charge of her, which is no easy task. In the movie the heartache of losing the mother is palpable. There are no hugs, no tender words of encouragement, no dinner table laughter with the mother gone. Life has changed for Billy’s family and there’s no going back. Similarly, when Thomas lost Maria, his job required him to continue traveling. He had to find a setting in which his boys would be safe and nurtured while he was on the road. He could no longer provide that for them in his home.

In the good old days, which are never as golden as we like to think, there were women who ran boarding houses. They rented out a bedroom and provided meals for their tenants. Typically these were suitable accommodations for single men who worked during the day and needed a place to call home at night. My 14-year-old grandfather, Walter, and his younger brother Arthur, age 10, were placed in the care of the owners at 6 High Street in Exeter. I find it heartbreaking to think of two young boys leaving for school each day without either parent to hug them or wish them well. No matter how kind the owner of the boarding house, in no way could she replace their mother. The memory of holding a sweet baby sister not so long before must have stayed fresh in their young minds. We pulled up to the boarding house which is still standing. We believe they had a back bedroom. The home sits on the edge of the Exeter River. Not a bad place for two boys to spend their after-school hours. That’s the extent of my knowledge about my grandfather’s boyhood. I suspect he enjoyed a loving home until his mother died and then much of the color to his life drained away. All I know of Thomas’ life is that he died on New Year’s Day, 1909 at the age of 54. The stated cause of death on his certificate is alcoholism. In looking at his life circumstances I can certainly understand how he might have turned to alcohol to ease the grief from losing his cherished family. But I’m deeply saddened to think that he sought solace from alcohol rather than family or the church where he had nurtured his faith in earlier years. It leaves many unanswered questions for me about the impact of his disease on his sons, Walter and Arthur. These are questions I will never have answered.

The next stop chronologically on my East Coast trip was to track my paternal grandmother’s family. They were from Merrimac, Massachusetts. My cousin and her husband led us to 15 Orchard St. where my great grandparents’ home proudly stands. It is now blue whereas in the era of James and Florence MacDougall, it was white. My calling card on this Nourishing Roots journey has been to shamelessly stand in front of strangers’ homes because of their treasured association to our ancestors. We take pictures, compare the house to old photos and have lengthy conversations. Two cars full of relatives did this at 15 Orchard St. in Merrimac. A shadowy figure stood in the living room window when we first arrived, no doubt jarred by the fact that a symphony of voices were talking animatedly in her front yard. My two sweet nieces, who look as harmless as one can imagine, waved at her and she waved back. But she never did emerge from the house in spite of our efforts to explain why we were there. The house sits on a lovely lot. I can imagine my grandmother, Katie, enjoying the woods and the flowers along with her seven siblings. When my father was a boy, he would go to this grandmothers’ house for holiday meals. There is a picture of my great grandmother, Florence, sitting by a sideboard in the elegant dining room. My grandmother often spent time with her extended family at her birth home. I have a photograph of her in the house turning toward the camera. She stands in front of a tall music cabinet that her father James, a cabinet maker, made. That’s a treasured connection to my MacDougall heritage that I have in my living room now. The neighborhood still holds architectural gems of homes from the late 1800s when my grandmother would have played along those streets. It was not difficult to imagine children calling out to each other and knocking on each other’s doors to play games and climb trees in lush green yards.

From there we stopped at the Merrimac Congregational Church. The front doors and pillars are grand. They still host worship services at 10 o’clock each Sunday. I’m always encouraged to learn that churches where my ancestors worshiped are still building up the Body of Christ today. More than 20 years ago we had a family reunion in Massachusetts and the membership at the Merrimac church allowed us to lead them in worship. My father preached, his cousin, Ed Clark, played the organ and I was able to lead the congregational prayers. The funny part was that I could hardly understand the prayer requests directed my way in a heavy Boston brogue. I picked up enough of what they said to know that they were sharing heavy concerns. One was for Norma with a brain tumor. However, voiced with the local accent, it became “Nohma with th’ brain tumah.” My siblings still laugh at my strained effort to be both compassionate and accurate in my praying. On this trip we simply looked at the church from the outside and tried to imagine my grandmother and her family bustling into services each Sunday from their nearby home with seven children scrubbed and “gussied up” for another Sunday’s service.

The final place to visit was the Locust Grove Cemetery in Merrimac. My great grandparents, James and Florence, are buried along with five of their eight children.  After having explored my MacDougall roots in their clan homeland of Oban, Scotland, it was interesting to see the Scottish name etched on so many tombstones in a Massachusetts cemetery. Thomas and Maria are buried just 13 miles from Florence and James. Both pairs of parents have the name of a daughter on their tombstone. Baby Maria, just a couple of months old, is listed with her parents. James and Florence have the name of their daughter, Sadie, inscribed on their stone. Sadie was a piano teacher in Merrimac. In that worship service we led 20 years ago my father asked how many people in that congregation had taken piano lessons from her. Even though that was several decades removed from the ending of her career, quite a few hands went up. She also taught music to kindergartners and I have some of her instruments on the wall in my living room. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 16 which would have been in the early 1900s. They performed a surgical mastectomy on her at that time, using the family dining room table for the operation! I can hardly imagine what that must have been like for a 16-year-old girl. Fortunately the surgery, as primitive as it may seem to us now, was successful and she lived a long life.

The musicality of James and Florence’s family was passed on not just to Sadie but to other family members. A cherished item hanging on the wall above the piano in my childhood home was the violin case from my grandmother. She played the instrument into her adult years. My father was a music major at the University of Massachusetts and sang as part of his ministry for the 50 years he served in churches. There is a wonderful picture of my great grandfather, James, wearing a kilt and playing the bagpipes. I imagine the sounds of singing and instruments wafting out of the windows of their home on Orchard Street as the children did their obligatory practicing. One of the fond memories I have of my grandmother is her willingness to sit beside the piano while we did our practicing, her toe always tapping to our discordant efforts at melody while we simply counted the seconds before the practice time was up.

In three weeks’ time, first in Chicago and now in New England, I have seen the final resting places of three pairs of great grandparents. I need to figure out where the one remaining couple on my mother’s side, William and Katharine Seymour, is buried. For some reason knowing these places matters to me. Perhaps it’s because of my own military upbringing that I value the impact of location. By the time I left home for St. Olaf College I had lived in six different places, two of which were overseas. I could never get too attached to any one place because we moved almost every four years. For me family has always meant people not place. But rediscovering where my ancestors lived and worshiped, worked and played has given me a deeper understanding of their lives. In Scotland my sisters and I talked about how clean and invigorating the MacDougall air felt as we breathed it in. In Sawbridgeworth, England we admired the quaint town in which our ancestors went about their daily tasks. In Rochdale, England we walked into the City Hall, dedicated just a few years before my grandfather was born. It was easy to imagine that my great grandmother, Maria, must have walked through this stately building with her young son, admiring the beauty of this city landmark. I feel blessed to have walked in the footsteps of my ancestors in so many places. To know where their bodies lie, bones wearied from challenging lives, gives me peace. I think of the passage from Revelation 14:13 that I have offered many times at memorial services and am grateful for the lasting impact of each generation:

“‘Blessed are the dead who from now on die in Christ.’ ‘Yes.’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.'” Amen!


Locked Out or Locked In?

Garrett’s side of the family calls it the “Kerken en Zerken Tour”, Dutch words for churches and graves. What could be more exciting than that?! Especially for a quartet of teenagers? In spite of that apparent disconnect we set out with precisely that combination this past weekend. Four of my nieces and nephews, ranging in age from 12 to 19, hopped in a rented minivan along with my sister, Michelle. We traveled into my dad’s home territory of Haverhill, Massachusetts. While tracking the significant places related to our ancestors we worshiped in a church that nurtured their faith generations earlier. We hiked through hot cemeteries looking for elusive gravestones. We took pictures of ourselves in front of strangers’ homes (that once belonged to our kinfolk) while the current owners peered anxiously out their own front window!

On this trip we got to spend a little extra time in the Exeter Cemetery because the doors to my rented minivan spontaneously locked once we all piled out to look for the Chapman marker. After the thrill  (maybe not so much on the part of the teenagers) of finding the stone and taking the obligatory photographs, we discovered we were locked out. Fortunately my cousin Lauren and her husband Randy were with us and they graciously offered to pack the four kids into their rented a car and return them to the hotel room. Since the two nephews were already curled up in the fetal position in the shade,  there was no greater gift they could have offered to us. As their overloaded car headed out of the cemetery gates and back toward Haverhill, Michelle and I found two accommodating tombstones and settled in for an indefinite period of time. We were waiting for a locksmith to arrive because of a 1-800 call I had placed to the rental agency.  I had wisely opted for the additional expenditure of $3.99 per day that assured quick response in case of roadside emergencies. So no worries!

When I talked to the sweet young woman on the other end of the phone she pinned down a locksmith who would be coming from Skip’s Radiator and Automotive. We were half an hour in at this point and she estimated that it would be 45 minutes before they arrived. So be it. We were still wearing the church clothes that we had donned that morning when we attended worship in my father’s home sanctuary in Haverhill. We figured the trip to the Exeter town cemetery would be quick so changing out of dresses was unnecessary. Michelle and I had plenty of time to voice our regret for that decision as we sat on the ground that was home to several species of insects. We leaned against tombstones and prayed for a rapid rescue in the heat and humidity of a Sunday afternoon.

We were heartened by how many people stopped by to offer some form of kindness to us. My van was in the middle of one of the lanes that snake through the cemetery because I expected our time there to be brief. Now it was blocking traffic for the occasional mourner who drove in. A woman rolled down her window and told us we would need to move our car. We explained our predicament. She immediately offered to get us some water and extended her cell phone to us. We thanked her and told her that help was on the way. Another guy pulled up in a truck and was sympathetic, learning of our plight. If people didn’t ask what we were doing we made a point of telling them since we appeared to be taking a leisurely and rather irreverent break in a sacred burial ground. One young man with a backpack strapped onto his body emerged from the nearby woods and hiked his way across the green lawn as if it were a mountain range. There was a groundskeeper who was distinctly disinterested in our situation but mowed rigorously, keeping the Exeter Cemetery in fine condition. One guy pulled up to water the plants at his family tombstone. When he understood our situation he suggested we consider calling the local police department. “They often help people who are locked out of vehicles.” he stated in a wonderful Boston brogue. Since help was on the way we weren’t concerned but decided to write down the number just in case. He told us that he was raised by a single mother. He and his three brothers knew intimately the workings of the local police department from their earlier years! It turned out that his tip would be most useful to us.

More than one hour after our initial appeal for help to the emergency hotline, we received a call from the guy who had drawn the short straw and had to rescue us on a Sunday afternoon. He asked for further clarification about the whereabouts of our cemetery. He wasn’t finding it. His confusion (and the fact that his caller ID came from Nebraska) led me to ask if he understood that it was indeed Exeter, New Hampshire where we had been waiting. With an astonished laugh he asked, “You’re in New Hampshire?“ “Yes”, I replied weakly. “Where are you?” With a laugh that seemed less humorous to me than to him, he said he was in Exeter, Nebraska. Alphabetically Nebraska precedes New Hampshire so my spunky helper at the rental agency must have grabbed the first Exeter that she could find and led some poor guy from Skip’s Automotive on a wild goose chase. I asked him how long he thought it would be before he could reach us. He laughed again, now off the hook for the rescue mission. We mutually decided I should call our car company back to find a savior a little closer to our location.

At this point Michelle and I knew we needed to do two things. We dug out the number and called the local police department. We stressed that we were afraid we would get locked into the cemetery if someone didn’t come soon as the gates are locked at dusk. The police department, which our helpful new friend knew so well, was organized. They took our address, crisis details and promised to send someone out. Worrying that even a skilled police officer might not be able to coerce their way into a 2018 locked vehicle we called our 1-800 operator back. I was less pleasant than I had been on the first call. She apologized and promised to find a repair person from New Hampshire! Before I even finished that conversation, a police cruiser arrived and a helpful officer begin to take down the details. It was only at this point that the groundskeeper showed any interest in us. He whipped over in his lawn mower and fawned all over our rescuer. Funny how two sweaty women lingering in church attire had gone totally unnoticed by this elderly gentleman. The police officer set to work with a wedge and an inflatable device that made me think of angioplasty. With the equivalent of a bent metal hanger he popped us into our car in no time. It was only when we drove out the gates of the Exeter Cemetery, knowing that we wouldn’t be locked in, that we called the car rental agency. We cancelled whatever secondary effort they had put into place.

Having spent 2 1/2 hours in that one cemetery in addition to others on earlier “Kerken en Zerken Tours”, my phone GPS now identifies any nearby burial grounds when giving me directions. I am known in cyberspace as someone who goes gaga for graveyards. I could certainly be known for much worse! My sister and I were able to bond with my great grandparents, Thomas and Maria Chapman, for a couple of hours in a small town  just over the Massachusetts border where my father grew up. We told the police officer that we were visiting for the first time to trace our ancestral roots. We thanked him for showing such a caring side to this community that is part of our heritage. God sends us saviors in many different forms. What an interesting assortment of helpers we encountered in one lone cemetery. They offered us the Biblical cup of cold water, the opportunity to phone a friend or summon the police. Our needs were fully met. I’m thinking I need to argue for a refund on my rapid-response emergency assistance surcharge of $3.99 per day. I might just make that a donation to the fine servants at the Exeter Police Department in New Hampshire, not Nebraska! And the kids? We took them out for ice cream that evening and all was forgiven!



When I was speaking with Pastor Ben on the phone I read to him a portion of a letter that had been sent to my grandparents after Johnny’s death in 1969. It was from Ruth Conner, a member of his congregation from nearly 50 years ago. It was a condolence letter to my grandparents, Ruth and John (he went by “Gib” because of his middle name, Gilbert), because their son had just died at the age of 28. The Morgan Park Presbyterian Church had been my grandparents’ home congregation for many years while raising their son. Even though they had moved away some time earlier, their church family responded with compassion when Johnny died.

Ruth Conner wrote, “I want to do something to mark Johnny’s memory, and rather than send flowers or some perishable thing, I should like to give a memorial to his name to the church. We are just furnishing our fireside room with silver appointments and I have been busy purchasing items and having them engraved..I will probably purchase a small silver bowl to be used to take up sunshine fund money when circle meetings are held in the Fireside Room, and give it to church in memory of Johnny Tharp. Is this idea OK with you, or would you rather a check to the Memorial Fund to be used as needed? I’ll await your decision as to how the memorial is to be given. Lovingly, Ruth Conner”

I asked Pastor Ben if they had a storage area somewhere in the church that was the repository for things of the distant past? Every church I’ve served has some dank, dusty space with engraved items that are long since forgotten. I wondered if my grandparents had agreed to Ruth’s lovely suggestion and, if so, was it possible that there would be a silver bowl tucked into obscurity in the building that hosted his spiritual family? If so, I thought it would be very meaningful to hold it out to the congregation in the sermon I was going to preach the following week in their worship service.

I’ve always had a warm place in my heart for Johnny. He was my mother’s brother, born when she was seven years old. Her older sister, Marguerite, was 11. Johnny was a healthy child until he was born. The umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck thus depriving him of oxygen. At the time he was delivered he had a diagnosis of severe cerebral palsy. He would require life-long care for a greatly diminished life expectancy. His birth marked a seismic shift for my mother‘s family.

An important place for me to visit during the summer of my Roots exploration was Morgan Park, Illinois. This is a neighborhood on the very south end of Chicago. My grandparents moved away from Hyde Park when my mother was about four years old. They moved to Morgan Park, a nice suburb with appealing neighborhoods and a quieter life than Chicago offered. Knowing that we would be there over a weekend I looked up the contact information for the church where my mother was married, Morgan Park Presbyterian Church. It is still a vital congregation serving their community! So I had the audacity to email the pastor, asking if I might be given the privilege of preaching in the very sanctuary where my mother grew up as a girl and where my parents were married. Pastor Ben was excited to have me come. I love courageous pastors who are open to the movement of the Spirit! I imagined my sermon would be a message of gratitude for the support their forebears had offered to my mother. It gave her a firm footing in her Christian faith, the gift that kept on giving to the six of us kids. But my conversation with the pastor changed my intended preaching direction. He said he was grateful that I could preach for him on that particular Sunday because the following week they were hosting a Vacation Bible School for neighborhood children. That would give him extra time to prepare. Hearing of their continued commitment to nurturing the spiritual life of kids, I realized that I wanted to talk to this congregation about their past support of a family with a special needs child whose name was Johnny.

My husband, two sisters, one niece and two great nieces went with me to the worship service. We brought with us various documents and items related to the life of our grandparents’ family in their church. We had the certificate of enrollment for Johnny in the Cradle Roll Program. Johnny was born in 1940 and this was a popular way for congregations to welcome children, aged newborn through four years old, into the life of a supportive church family. Johnny’s certificate assured the Tharps that their brothers and sisters in Christ would tend to his spiritual needs faithfully!

We have letters that indicate that the integration of a special needs child into the family was challenging. My mother, Katie, and her sister, Marguerite, were in the care of their grandmother for some time while my grandmother recovered from Johnny’s birth. Marguerite wrote a letter to her mother while waiting for the family to be reunited at home: “Dear mom, so the baby is a boy eh, that’s fine. Were all fine here and I hope you are…Lots of Love, Marge” This was only the beginning of the extended family helping out with the care of my grandparents’ family as the focus shifted in the direction of Johnny and his medical needs. Three of my great grandparents were alive and living in the Chicago area. In various letters they spoke of their concern for Johnny to get the best treatment possible. My grandfather‘s mother had been widowed 10 years earlier and, since she had a special needs daughter, her heart was particularly attuned to Johnny’s challenges.

Letters from my grandmother’s parents, who lived in the Chicago Loop, convey a tenderness they felt toward this little boy whose life changed so severely at the moment of birth. At one point they sold some real estate so that they could help pay for the best medical attention possible. My great grandmother’s wording is funny because she doesn’t want to be intrusive but assures her daughter that they are grateful to be able to offer financial assistance.

Some of the letters we still have are from doctors stretching from Maryland to California. My grandparents sought out the best answers from the most skilled professionals of their day. Johnny was referred to as “a spastic.“ There were countless doctors’ appointments with follow up home visit from nurses who did physical and cognitive exercises with this precious crippled boy. Johnny had a fairly sharp mind although it was difficult to fully discern his intellectual capabilities. The only control he had was the movement of his eyes. So he would look up to answer yes and look down to answer no. He also had very expressive feet that kicked energetically when he was excited.

Johnny was a beautiful boy. There are poignant photographs that show my grandparents looking down at their golden-haired son. They adored him! He was named after my grandfather – John Gilbert Tharp, Jr. His severe Cerebral Palsy deprived his body of a normal growth pattern. My grandparents were committed to caring for him in their home as long as possible. This became increasingly burdensome for my grandmother. As he grew into early adolescence, he became too lanky and heavy for my grandmother to move him on her own. Providentially my grandparents received an inheritance from two of my grandmother’s aunts who were college educated and had never married. They doled out their money to their nieces giving extra allotments to the two nieces who had special needs children. This unexpected income allowed my grandparents to find the best possible home for Johnny. It also allowed my grandfather to retire from the physically demanding career of working in the steel mills in Indiana. The decision to put Johnny in a care facility was a very difficult one that they delayed for as long as possible. When they finally did admit him to a reputable home in Illinois, my grandmother went to bed for two months, exhausted and brokenhearted.

I knew Johnny from the early part of my childhood. Since we are a military family we moved around a lot. But we always tried to go to Michigan in the summer to be on the lakefront. The Lake Michigan property was bought by my grandfather‘s father, Edgar, in the 1890’s. It was and still is sacred land for our family. We would inevitably visit Johnny at his residential home on the way. We picked up a milkshake for him at McDonald’s on our way in because that was a real treat and something that he could eat. He lit up when he saw my mother and she loved him dearly. Both of Johnny’s sisters became social workers due, in no small part, to their firsthand experience dealing with the needs of a person with severe impairments. Johnny was a favorite among the staff members and became a beloved part of his new community. We are best able to understand this through the letters that came to my grandparents at the time of his death. Johnny died on New Year’s day in 1969. He was a few months shy of his 29th birthday. I read through a stack of condolence cards that expressed deep faith in a God who created and loved Johnny. Many of the cards came from members of Morgan Park Presbyterian Church where members had pledged to care for this child. My grandparents had since moved out of the area to North Carolina but the friendships were deep.

The minister, William Graham, sent a note on church stationary: “Dear Friends, There comes with this note our expressions of gratefulness for the Tharp family who knew always the presence of God’s blessings. Although we cannot always interpret the ways of life, God brings the best of life to the surface. We share with you these moments… William Graham.” My mother‘s cousin, Charles Seymour, wrote a beautiful letter that is practically a Sunday school lesson: “…You should never condemn yourselves for Johnny’s apparent condition during the past years. The truth is revealed in ST. JOHN 9 (1-3): ‘And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.’ Actually, your Johnny always was perfect and always will be perfect. With love, Chic”

The faith of my grandparents’ community was deep and abiding. No one railed at God for saddling the Tharp family with a special needs child. Rather, they had seen God‘s glory through Johnny’s happy personality and the kind treatment of so many individuals over the course of his life. Just as Jesus taught that disability is not a result of sin, it was obvious that God was glorified through the life of this handicapped child. Even the caregivers were deeply impacted by his death. One of them wrote this note to my grandparents: “Dear Mr. & Mrs. Tharp, I just came back to work after my night off and Mrs. Kerley told me the sad news about our Johnny. My heart aches for you…It is hard to understand…why Johnny should be taken when he had so much love and some of our little ones haven’t even had a post card in the 3 1/2 years I have been night watch on A.Inf #1. We had so much to talk about in your letters and cards. I’ve often wanted to write you but never got up the nerve. Do you remember writing John about Mr Tharp’s coconut birthday cake a couple years ago. Johnny would almost kick the sides out of his bed he would get so excited whenever I’d mention it to him. He never forgot it. Or if you were coming to see him or called that time. I could go on and on about the many ways you made him happy. He was very sensitive you know and even though he couldn’t talk much he told you a world of things with his pretty blue eyes and those feet…Well I have 40 other little ones needing my attention but I just had to write. All our prayers are with you and may God bless you for being such wonderful parents. I only wish we had more like you. Sincerely, Maxine Arold.”

Particularly bittersweet was the note written to them from one of Johnny’s house mates. My grandparents became beloved mother and father to many of the children there and visited as often as they were able. They sent gifts to Johnny and sometimes to some of the other children. This young man must have been on the receiving end of their care because he proposed, in his own special language, that he would happily become their son now that Johnny had died: “Dear Mr. and Mrs. J.B.Tharp,….That it is to bad to here about him that he pass away New Year Day. When you come I would like to know if I could take his place. The sun of anlgel the Star go bright I now he is in heaven you can see his face I hear mama calling him don’t worry he right besight you. Mrs Tharp I to find out if I could call you Mother and Mr. Tharp if I could call you Father when will you be out this summer. I got your Christmas Present you send me and was very glad to get it. You know that Jueus love him just as much as Johnny Jueus will alway love Johnny and that is all for now. Fred Jensen”

I remember my mother getting the phone call from her parents that Johnny had died. She wept with them. I would have been nine years old. My grandparents decided to bury him in Taylor Cemetery, just a couple of miles from the beloved farmhouse where my grandfather spent his summers and, one generation later, my mother did too. He rests under the shade of a tree in the good company now of his parents, sisters and other family members. The letters, photos and other documents enabled me to get to know and love Johnny and grieve the loss of an uncle who might have added his own children (my cousins) to the family tree.

I thanked the membership at Morgan Park Presbyterian Church for their commitment to the spiritual nurture of children. Specifically, I was grateful for one little special needs boy named Johnny Tharp who was on their Cradle Roll 78 years ago. My family and I had a wonderful time talking with people after the service, getting caught up with “family” we had never known. As we packed up the memorabilia we had brought, Pastor Ben emerged from the church basement with a shiny bowl in his hands. He held it out to us joyfully. He had dug around in their dusty repository of old and forgotten items and found an inscribed silver bowl: In loving memory of John Tharp. We were incredulous! And moved. Many links to our past are intangible. But every so often an unexpected gift surfaces that reminds us of the concreteness of human existence. The pastor insisted we take it with us–they had plenty of other lovely memorial items in their dark closet if they needed any! We held it gingerly and looked at the beautiful cursive writing of our uncle’s name. Accepting the gift, we took it to our family cottage on the shores of Lake Michigan where it was part of the reception table set out for 18 young adults and children who are his grand nieces and nephews. Somehow it felt to me like Johnny had finally come home.

(The artwork depicting Johnny was done by my nephew, Daniel. I keep it hanging in my kitchen and love it!)