Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

“Do you know whose shoulders you are standing on?” asked Pastor Mike Lyons.

Last Sunday after our visit to Trinity United Methodist Church for All Saint’s Day in remembrance of Mama, I left with a lot to think about.  That question has floated through my mind all week.

One week ago was All Saint’s Day, a good day to remember those who have gone before me and cleared the underbrush and brambles a little further on down the path to make my way a little easier.  Monday will be Veterans Day, a day for honoring those who have served in the Armed Forces.  Another good day to remember those who have cleared the way for us to enjoy so many of the things we have and we do.

The image of standing on the shoulders of others was imprinted on my mind, so I did a little digging.  I found this quote attributed to the 12th century theologian and author John of Salisbury.  Though he wrote this in Latin in 1159 in a treatise on logic called Metalogicon, the interpretation is basically this:

“We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”

As I was writing this tonight my oldest, Aub, brought this gift home for me.

Pastel drawing by local artist Micah Goguen, a gift from Aub who knew how much I love it.

Pastel drawing by local artist Micah Goguen, a gift from Aub who knew how much I love it.  It is a beautiful work of art; this picture does not do it justice. 


This beautiful drawing by local artist Micah Goguen is a treasure.  I fell in love with the pastel drawing the first time I saw it several weeks ago.  Just looking at this young woman remembering, I knew she knew on whose shoulders she stands.   This is not Micah’s interpretation, but mine.  His makes it even more beautiful.  He shared with me later tonight that they are both shepherds, resting on their duties–he writes “an African Shepherd guarding his flock and a domestic Shepherd guarding her flock…..hence the broomstick and the staff.”

Poetry in pastels.  I love it even more after hearing his thoughts on what he created.

And I love the idea of a domestic shepherd.  Protecting, leading, guiding–because those who came before me did those things, I am able to stand on their shoulders and see even further than they were able to.

Mama used to quote “To those whom much is given, much is expected.”  I believe it came from the Good Book in Luke 12:48.  That one stuck with me, perhaps because she said it.  Quite a bit.  When I look back at all those who led, protected, and guided so I could have all the opportunities passed on to me that I have been given, I am overwhelmed and overjoyed.  And I do not take it lightly.  I have been given much, now it’s my turn to give, so that my children and grandchildren and so forth can stand on these shoulders and see even further.  I want to live so that I can stand tall and give them all a strong foundation to plant those feet and walk further down life’s path.  I am a domestic shepherd–it’s my turn to lead, protect, and guide.

Veterans Day is also known as Remembrance Day in some parts of the world.  Moving from All Saint’s Day to Veterans Day to Thanksgiving, this month seems to be a beautiful time set aside for reflection and remembering and giving thanks for those whose hard work and love and dedication paved the way for the life I have today.  As I close my eyes tonight, I think of my paternal great-grandparents, who raised rat terrier puppies and folks came from all around because they knew they were the best.  My great-grandfather and my Papa, his son, were both carpenters and they passed that along to my Daddy, whose hands gently and fiercely and with strength and know-how touched and carved and built several things I have and love.  My great-grandmother and her sweet voice, and my Granny, her daughter-in-law who never made anything that was less than absolutely delicious.  She could make me feel the most special in the world with two words, “Hey girl.”  My maternal great-grandfather who was a probate judge and had lost his hand in a sawmill accident.  It never slowed him down and he had the best smile and gave the greatest hugs.  His daughter, who never had children of her own, loved my Mama and her brother as though they were hers and then all of us too.  Mama learned well that love could go beyond kinship boundaries, and she also loved those she had not borne with a fierce passion.  So many others… great-aunt who sent packages at Christmas and birthdays that were second only to Santa Claus’ gifts.  She taught me generosity and the gift of laughter and story-telling.  She knew how to give fun gifts and things that you needed too. The best sets of sheets and Mama’s dish towels and Daddy’s bandanas came from her over the years–those and a Whitman’s sampler each year.  And my great-great aunt, who always kept a tissue tucked up her sleeve and let us play with her lipsticks in front of her movie star mirror.  She had never had children of her own either, but she never said no or complained when we accidentally messed up a tube of lipstick or two.  She never considered her kitchen to be a part of her house no matter how much I tried “logic” to argue with her, and she always kept ice-cold bottled Co-Colas and that Zebra fruit stripe gum for us as treats.

All of these people and so many more I never knew–I stand on their shoulders.  They were shepherds of sorts as well, guiding and protecting and leading the way for people they were never to meet, people who didn’t share time or space with them.  They lived their lives, made mistakes, learned, and tried again, pushing through the wilderness of living, so that those who came next and the ones after that could pick up where they left off and continue seeing further and further and making a bigger difference and leaving a better, kinder world with each generation.

Those are big steps to follow in, but I’m going to give it a try.  After all, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.

Many thanks to Micah Goguen for sharing his beautiful gift with the world and for taking time to share his thoughts with me tonight.  And a huge thank you and hug to Aub for going the extra mile and bringing home this treasure for me tonight.  Love to all.

About Remembering, Belonging, and Being Long-Suffering

My Mama spoiled me.  I know she did.  Because of her I’ve spent my entire life with high expectations for birthdays.  It wasn’t the gifts.  It was the attention.  You knew it was your birthday and so did everyone else.  Because while she loved everyone equally, your birthday was YOUR day.  Or week, that was how she rolled.

Mama made us cakes from scratch and enjoyed decorating them and surprising us with the design.  I remember the carousel cake she made me one year, complete with the most enchanting set of plastic horses on top.  I named each one.  I think the green one was my very favorite.  The one she probably worked the hardest on was the crossword puzzle cake.  She designed it on paper with words that described me, and then she transferred it in icing on the cake. That was my twelfth birthday, I think.  I wore the striped shirt she made me and I got Bogart the Bassett hound as my gift.  I had seen him at KMart and wanted him so much.  I slept with him up until I had my first child.  True story.

I’ve also had the angsty birthdays.  I remember it being a huge deal to go to double digits, and then thirteen.  The night before my twentieth birthday I sat in my dorm room on first floor in Persons (I was a Resident Assistant) and wrote a poem, “On the Eve of Turning Twenty.”  I don’t remember what I wrote, but I remember thinking it was very important that I get down my emotions before midnight when everything.  Would.  Change.  Yeah, I was that teenager.

Today has been a day.  My first without my Mama.  It was hard.  Not that the past two were worth writing home about either.  Last year we were all missing Daddy and anticipating the anniversary of his death coming up.  That and being worried about Mama’s declining health were two huge clouds hanging over the day.  Two years ago, Mama didn’t let me see Daddy when I went over to the house.  I was disappointed and mad.  It was my birthday, and I wanted to see my Daddy.  It was exactly two weeks before he would leave us for a better world, but we didn’t know that yet.  I’ve talked to her about it since she left.  A couple of weeks ago when I was in the shower, I told her again how much that upset me.  (Yeah, I talk to her a lot when I’m in the shower.)  And then I felt her there.  And I just knew, as clearly as if she’d said it, she had been protecting me.  I knew he was having a rough day, but I didn’t know how bad.  And that was why.  She didn’t want me to experience that.  And then I also “heard” her say that most anything and everything she ever did was to protect me.  Because she loves me.

I get it.  I have three of my own I love and want to protect.

This morning I had the honor and privilege of being invited to Mama’s Sunday School class and church for their All Saint’s Day services.  Mess Cat was there, and I had the whole crew with me.  Mess Cat met me at the door, “Get ready. I’ve already been crying.  A sweet lady came up and just took my hand and started crying.”  Bless her.  And all of them.  Y’all.  My Mama found a wonderful group of people to love and to be loved by.  They were all so gracious and welcoming.  And good gravy, as Aub pointed out, I believe they were channeling my Mama today.  They kept trying to feed us.  It was just so sweet.

The class at Trinity UMC were remembering three of their friends who passed this year.  When the service began, Mama’s dear friend Miss F stepped up to share about Mama.  She was so sweet and it was apparent she knew Mama well.  When Miss F talked about how Mama didn’t like to brag but you knew how much she loved her children and grandchildren, I lost it.  The tears were flowing freely by then.

When Miss F started talking about the fruit of the spirit, she listed them saying, “Is there any one of these that doesn’t make you think of Barbara?”  I smiled, but when she listed “long-suffering” I had to laugh.  (Quietly.  I used self-control.)  There is some family lore in describing my Daddy’s family as being “long-suffering.”  Mama was married to Daddy twice as long as she went by her maiden name, so she used to joke in recent years that she had earned her “long-suffering” ways of his family outright.  Fair and square.  I just know Mama was there laughing with me in the midst of the tearful remembering.

I loved that each one who shared and talked about “our brothers and sisters who have gone before” emphasized that they were no longer with us PHYSICALLY, but they were still with us all.  I like that, because I think that is very true.  That’s why I talk to Mama whenever I feel like it.  And Daddy too sometimes.

As the service in the Sunday School class wrapped up, several of the beautiful people in Mama’s class came up and introduced themselves and said hello to my crew.  “Are these your children?”  “Yes ma’am.  All three.”  “They’re just beautiful.”  “Thank you.”  One gentleman even teased, “Don’t they know they’re supposed to be misbehaving?”  (Ummm, let’s don’t put that out there.  We were touch and go there for a few minutes, but I didn’t tell him that.)

It was in the middle of these conversations that a memory was triggered.  It was Fall of 2007 and we were at a big Family reunion of my Daddy’s daddy’s people, my Papa’s sister’s and brother’s families.  We were gathered in a big barn, and the food overflowed.  My great Aunt had made many quilts that she generously shared at the end of the day.  I don’t remember what dish it was that we were labeling the same as everyone else was so it would come back home with us, but as a joke, I wrote on a piece of masking tape, “Belongs to Bill” and stuck it on my shirt.

Today it was when one of the dear ladies asked me, “Do these precious children belong to you?” and I answered “Yes ma’am” that it hit me.  I don’t have anyone who can say that about me anymore.  Point to me and say, “Yep.  That one belongs to me.”  I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but with my parents both gone, I don’t belong to someone like I used to.  No name to put on the piece of tape so I can find my way home again.

And yet I do belong to something, to someone, don’t I?  I am loved.  Far beyond anything I could earn.  There is grace in being loved the way I am.  My day started off with children who, when they remembered it was my birthday, didn’t grumble quite so much about the cinnamon toast I made for breakfast.  (Yes, they’re spoiled.  They were holding out for pound cake.)  I had an e-mail from my Aunt who gave me a great gift in letting me know that it was okay if today was hard.  (Thank you.)  Mess Cat and Leroy made the day special and my nephew Shaker suggested that I might still be getting a binturang.  (Maybe for Christmas?) So many friends and family have made my day with sweet messages on Facebook and texts and phone calls.  Joyful tidings.  In the midst of the chaos and emotions and hard things that have been on our hearts today, my family still sat down and laughed tonight over leftovers and cocoa apple cake, and I got books and a beautiful literary bracelet.  (I am loved and known.)

The candle lit for Mama is on the far left.  The beautiful plaque has the name of members of this dear class who have died over the years.

The candle lit for Mama is on the far left. The beautiful plaque has the names of members of this dear class who have died over the years.

And at the end of the day, I was sung to twice–once this morning and then this evening with my people.  This morning Mess Cat threw me under the bus and told Mama’s Sunday School class that it was my birthday.  They sang to me and Miss M, who also was born on this wonderful day.  Candles were lit.  And during the church service this morning, when Mama’s name was called and the bell rang, they gave our family this beautiful flower in remembrance.

The white carnation given to us during the All Saint's Day service this morning.

The white carnation given to us during the All Saint’s Day service this morning.

As we were leaving the classroom, Miss F brought me a loaf of her legendary bread–I remember Mama sharing a slice with me last year.  But ONLY a slice–Mama was generous, but she wasn’t crazy.  It’s that good.  Miss F makes a loaf for each person who has a birthday or anniversary that week. (She’s a lesson in grace and servanthood all by herself, isn’t she?) Loving on folks with her gifts and talents.  No wonder Mama loved her so much.

The bread baked by Miss F with Love.  When I suggested that she might do something else with it (it's hard for me to accept sometimes), she said, "Unh uh" in such a way that there was no further discussion.  It was loving but firm.  I have to take lessons.

The bread baked by Miss F with Love. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?  It tastes even better.  When I suggested that she might do something else with it (it’s hard for me to accept sometimes), she said, “Unh uh” in such a way that there was no further discussion. It was loving but firm. I have to take lessons.

Candles, flowers, and a delicious treat.  The things all good birthdays are made of, even if they were a little different this year.

Tonight I am thankful for a different kind of birthday.  One of remembering and feeling loved, even if it’s not the same this year.  I am thankful for friends and family who walk this journey with me, those who share similar heartbreaks and those who don’t.  And tonight as I remember my parents, my Mama’s cousin Miss B, and my Fella’s cousin, I also think of my college classmates who have lost those they love in the past years.  I am thankful for the reminder that even though my heart breaks about Mama and Daddy not being here, I still belong to them and to many others who love me fiercely.  And who make me cry when they say they are thankful I was born to them.

And that will do for number 45.