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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

On Special Places and Special People: My Trip Down Country Roads

A couple of weeks ago my family and I drove to Elkins,West Virginia, my late father-in-law's hometown, for the memorial service of my husband's Uncle Jim. Steve was only 17 years old when his dad, who was the youngest of five children (four boys and a girl), passed away. Uncles Bob, Don and Jim and Aunt Barbara and their spouses have been immeasurably important over the many years he has had to live without his father. They tethered him and his brother and sister to their dad, keeping them grounded in the family. They never let them forget that this family belonged to each other no matter how many years or miles stretched out between them.

All three of my father-in-law's older brothers led long, full lives. They each passed away in the last couple of years. On that Saturday it was time to say good-bye to this last uncle and to close tight around Aunt Barbara as she faced her days without any of her brothers and around Aunt Evelyn as she faced a life without her love of over 50 years.

My guys knotted their ties and pushed their feet into dress shoes. We bundled ourselves up early in the morning to drive three hours along those country roads that John Denver sang about. Despite the sadness of the occasion, I felt a peaceful anticipation because we love this town and its people so. Even though my boys and I had never met their grandfather, I knew that as the song says, those roads would take all five of us down windy paths and through mountains to a place where we belonged. Even though we had never lived there, we would feel at home among the spirit of my father-in-law and his people. I knew that my husband, who has certainly felt loneliness since the untimely death of his young father thirty years ago, would never feel alone in that place among people who knew and loved William Joe Skinner so much - among people who never gave it a second thought that they would love his son, his son's wife and his three grandsons as well. We drove straight to the First United Methodist Church of Elkins, West Virginia where members of this family have sat in mourning so many times before.

The service was graceful and simple. The hymns were traditional and familiar. I felt I could very well have been sitting in the Wesley United Methodist Church in Longview, Texas as I had with my grandmom as a child. The congregants crowded in tight next to each other. I knew instinctively that so many of these sweet townspeople had sat countless times in these very pews before, for both happy and sad occasions, to support numerous generations of their community.

The women of the church put together the most perfect of receptions in the Fellowship Hall. They moved swiftly, surveying the tables and replacing foil tins full of ham and turkey, 9x13 casserole dishes bubbling with carbohydrates and butter and plates of lemon meringue pie and carrot cake. They filled and re-filled glasses of lemonade and iced tea. (Now, hon, this tea isn't sweetened, so be sure to get your sugar right over there, darlin'). And, praise be to God, there was that lime jello/whipped cream/crushed pineapple salad that had me looking up at the heavens and giving my grandmom a wink.

The men spoke of the volunteer fire department's fish fry that night. They mentioned how the cousins had kept Aunt Evelyn's driveway meticulously plowed in the last weeks of Uncle Jim's life. They carried the flowers to the cars. They shook hands and slapped each other on the back and drew each other into long bear hugs.

There was much reminiscing about the uncles. I was so happy to watch as my boys listened to tales of men of character and strength and humor. These men were formidable, humble, gracious and loyal to their wives and families. They worked hard and loved well. They gave to their communities and their churches. They were pillars in the town they called home. We revered them and honored them. What examples they are to my boys.

As we drove home that evening, I laid my head back and closed my eyes because those country roads can make a gal feel like she might lose her lemon meringue pie on the side of the road if she's not careful. We listened to CNN readying for the political debates. There was much talk about women:  sexism, rights, and about those who had come before and broken glass ceilings and paved the way for me and generations to come. There was talk about how far we've come, how women have choices now, have a voice now and have the chance to be whatever we want to be, including the president of the United States of America. All good. All important. All worthy of discussion.

Then, there was talk of exactly which women deserved our respect and support. And then there was that sentence from an accomplished American woman at a rally for one particular candidate that "there was a special place in hell reserved for women who don't help other women." Other women? She meant exactly one woman. Not all women.

Oh, yes, they would say it was out of context. They would say she wasn't talking about just one woman. They would say she'd used that line before. They would say it was tongue in cheek. I'm a gal who can take a joke with the best of 'em. None of that made it less startling. I sat up straight in the seat, my mouth wide open.

And I thought about the women with whom I had just spent time. I had no idea which candidate many of those women in that church that morning would support in this election. I had no idea what their politics were. I had no idea their education or their career paths or their lack thereof.  My guess was that not many, if any at all, were CEOs or lawyers or glass ceiling breakers. I knew for certain that their names would not be in the national news. I was pretty sure they would not be featured on CNN or stand at podiums to speak to thousands.

And yet, this is what I did know. The women I spent the day with could be described with the same exact attributes as I described the men. Formidable, humble, gracious and loyal. They worked hard and loved well. They gave to their communities and their churches. They were pillars in the towns they called home. They came together that day to help an entire family. Not just the women. They supported widows and widowers, sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters. They supported strangers like me. They supported their community of women and men.

Those women serving meals in the church did not ask me for whom I would vote. They did not ask whether I worked or stayed home or had an MBA or no education at all. Those women were shining examples of the type of woman I would want a daughter to become. They were shining examples of what I want my sons to become. And I did not admire these women simply by virtue of the fact that they were of the same gender as I. I admired them simply by virtue of their virtues and of how their actions spoke so clearly of those virtues.

I watched Aunt Evelyn, a tiny, grieving wife with a graceful, quiet voice command the full attention of an 11 year old boy with stories of his grandfather. I watched her reach up to hold my 6 foot 2 inch husband's shoulders and look him deep in the eyes to thank him for coming. I watched her put aside her grief to run up the stairs and return with newspaper clippings about my father-in-law that were over fifty years old. She had saved them for us.

I watched Aunt Barbara, the beloved matriarch of our family wrap my 15 year old in a giant hug and I watched how his face lit up with love and admiration and belonging. I watched her hold court at an entire table of guests in the Fellowship Hall making them laugh until they cried.

I watched several women we had never met cross the crowded room to tell my husband how much they had loved his dad, how they saw his face in his, how glad they were to see his children and grandchildren back in Elkins. Over and over they came. Over and over my husband nodded and grinned politely. Over and over I could practically see how his heart swelled. The memories of that church and that town can be incredibly painful for him. I will never get over the grace those sweet people showed us.

I would never in a million years announce that I know who might have a place in heaven or hell. I'm not sure of much, but I'm certain that's not my call.  All I can do is try to live my life in a way that honors my family and my children and my friends. To help me in that endeavor I can watch those who have lived life well. I can learn from both women and men. I'm less interested in their gender. I am more interested in their character, their loyalty, their honesty and their hearts.

In addition, I'll have to teach my children how to live that way. I don't have daughters. I have three sons and I don't think my job is any different in that respect than mothers of daughters. Yes, I will teach them to open doors for women and walk on the street side of the sidewalk. I will teach them "ladies first". None of that cancels out the fact that my boys can look to both the men and the women that surround them to learn what it is to be servants of their country, of their communities, of their families and of their God. I certainly don't need to turn on CNN to teach them how to live well. I'd rather take them to a small town in West Virginia every once in awhile. I don't have to say a word. We just have to sit back and watch.

The Skinners of Elkins, WV: Special People in a Special Place


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