KOH2RVA: Day 112

snow-covered-fieldDo you know that song, “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go”? Yesterday that’s what I did with my family, except we went over the mountain and through the woods to grandmother’s nursing home.

On a good day it’s about a three-hour drive from Richmond to Franklin, West Virginia, and yesterday was a good day. My daughter Ellie is visiting from New York and Catherine is home for her winter break. We all piled into the car yesterday morning (along with Ellie’s two dogs) and headed for the hills.

We had plenty to talk about on the way, and as we got off the Interstate and into the country there was plenty to see. There was snow on the ground! The roads were clear but the fields on both sides were glazed like a Krispy Kreme doughnut. Ellie saw a horse-drawn Amish buggy whizzing down the road. Catherine saw a deer head hanging from a tree (yikes!). We went over Shenandoah mountain through so many hairpin curves that everybody began to feel a little queasy, but from the top the views were breathtaking.

When we finally got to Franklin we were dismayed to learn that the entire nursing home was under quarantine because of the flu, and were told at the front desk that we wouldn’t be able to visit my parents. I said, “But I called yesterday! But we just drove three hours! But my daughter has come from New York!” And while I was protesting the director of nursing happened along and said that my mother, at least, wasn’t showing any symptoms and could come to the family room for a visit.

So, that’s what we had: a two-hour visit with my mother, who entertained us the whole time. She had us laughing like a stand-up comedian. When it was time to go I asked if we could walk around to the side of the building and at least wave to my dad through the window. One of the nurses said she would go to his room and open the curtain. So, off we went, hiking around the side of the nursing home through ankle-deep snow.

As we went Christy reminded the girls of those days when they used to visit the nursing home in Wingate, North Carolina, where we lived at the time. She would take them to be “spirit lifters,” and Ellie, at least, spent a lot of time painting fingernails, which the ladies there seemed to love.

I thought about how that was one more way of bringing heaven to earth. Long before our year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, Christy and the girls were figuring out that when one person shares the love of Christ with another heaven touches down—however briefly–wherever you are.

And that’s what we had with my dad yesterday: a very brief moment.

The nurse pulled back the curtain and the four of us stood at the window to see Dad, lying in his bed, smiling up at us. Just because it seemed like the thing to do I began to sing, “We wish you a merry Christmas,” and the family joined in, and then, to our surprise, we could see Dad joining in, singing along with us. The nurse opened his window just a crack so we could hear him and he could hear us, and when we were finished singing we told him that we loved him and blew kisses and waved goodbye.

That was it.

That was all the nurse had time for but probably all my dad had strength for. He’s very weak these days. And to leave him with the image of four impromptu carolers wishing him a merry Christmas and a happy new year was probably about the best we could have done.

And so we drove back to Richmond, satisfied by the visit, having brought the Kingdom of Heaven a little closer to Franklin, West Virginia.

Today, I’m back in this city I love, wondering how I can be a “spirit lifter” here. What about you? Is there somebody whose spirit you can lift, even if you have to go over the river and through the woods to do it?

Keeping the Fifth Commandment

I’m in Frederick, Maryland, today, honoring my father and mother by taking care of them while my brother Scott and his family prepare for his daughter’s wedding at their farm in West Virginia. 

It’s been a pleasure.

This morning, for example, Dad came in to breakfast with a memory about sacking oats in his boyhood with a fellow named “Willie T.”  Dad said, “There we were, sacking oats in that little shed with the tin roof on it, on one of the hottest days in the summer, and boy, did Willie T stink!”  I had never heard that story before, and I had to look for a place to file the mental picture it created.

And then Mom spread out all her family photos on the dining room table while I was doing some reading for Sunday’s sermon.  One after another she would push them across to me and ask me if I remembered this or that event.  There they were: pictures of me and my brothers, my grandparents, some of the places we used to live.  Most of them I had seen before, but some of them were new.  Again I looked for places in my brain to store the images. 

The mental file cabinets are overflowing.

I’ve cooked meals for my folks, washed dishes, helped Dad get a shower, helped Mom find a pen—all those things they used to do for me without grumbling or complaining.  And it really is that endless stream of “little things” that flows into the pool of family love.  They did them for me, and now I get to do them for them, and the pool gets deeper and wider. 

If there were a theme for this Fifth Commandment Retreat it might be “Abundance”: an abundance of memories, an abundance of love, an abundance of care once received and now given with gratitude.  “Honor your father and mother,” God said.  Today it strikes me not so much as a command but as an offer, as a way of entering into abundant life.  But those of you who have cared for your aging parents know how it goes:

Tomorrow may be another story altogether.

Wake-Up Call

It’s 6:30 a.m. on the Tuesday after Labor Day, and all across the Greater Richmond Metropolitan Area mothers and fathers will be trying to get their children out of bed and get them off to school.  In honor of those efforts, and those parents, I’d like to tell the stories of how my own parents used to get me and my lazy brothers out of bed on a school day (as shared in last Sunday’s sermon).

When my brothers and I were boys, living in that big, old farmhouse in West Virginia, my mother would try to get us up on a school day by cooking breakfast for us, hoping that the smell of frying bacon would bring us down the stairs.  And if that didn’t work she would start calling up to us, sweetly, “Boys!  Time to wake up!  You’ve got to get ready for school!”  But if that didn’t work she would move to her measure of last resort.  She had this record called “America’s Favorite Marches.”  She would put it on the turntable, crank up the volume, and drop the needle.  And as soon as we heard that scratchy hiss coming through the speakers we would leap out of bed, come running down the stairs, and turn down the volume, because if we didn’t “Hooray for the Red, White, and Blue” would come blasting out of those speakers at something upward of 200 decibels—the equivalent of a Saturn Five rocket lifting off the launch pad. 

And then…

There was a three-month period in our life when we lived in my grandmother’s cabin in the mountains of North Carolina.  It was a summer cabin, but we were there in the winter, and it was cold.  My two older brothers and I slept in a little room under the eaves that was reached by a ladder through a door that opened out into the large main room.  Beside the ladder there was a brass fireman’s pole that my grandfather had put in, just for fun.  On those cold winter morning my dad would get up early, build a blazing fire in the fireplace, and then come over to that pole and start banging it with a wooden block.  Clang!  Clang!  Clang!  Clang!  “This is the day the Lord has made!”  Clang!  Clang!  Clang! Clang!  We were supposed to say, “Let us be glad and rejoice in it!” and then leap out of bed, slide down the pole, and run warm ourselves by the fire, but usually it was only my brother Scott who followed the script.  Ed and I would lie there and groan until my dad finally climbed the ladder, stuck his head through the door opening, and threatened us with bodily harm. 

America’s favorite marches, banging on brass poles, threats of bodily harm…sometimes you just have to do what you have to do to get your children out of bed in the morning.  Because it’s true, and maybe especially on the first day of school:

Waking up is hard to do.

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things


Today I’m driving to Summerville, South Carolina (no relation), to visit my mom and dad (every relation).  I’m going mostly because Mom had some minor surgery last week—nothing serious, but it does give me a good excuse to go see them. 

When Dad turned seventy a few years ago I gave him a book called, “Seventy Things I Remember about My Dad, in Honor of His Seventieth Birthday.”  It was so well received that when Mom turned seventy, two years later, I wrote one for her, too. 

I wanted to share some of those memories here as a way of introducing you to my parents, so that while I’m driving down Interstate 95 today you can get to know the people who gave me my life, my faith, and so much more.  If it’s true that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” I’m glad I fell from this one. 

MY DAD: James Somerville, b. 1931

1.      The classic memory is this one:  One winter morning all five of us boys were gathered in front of the little gas heater in that drafty farmhouse up on the hill in West Virginia.  We stood there shivering, and complaining that, at ten degrees Fahrenheit, it was too cold to walk the mile to school.  Dad came in from milking the cow, and when he heard our complaints he didn’t say a word.  He just set down the bucket, took off his coat, took off his gloves, took off his hat, his boots, his socks, his coveralls, his T-shirt, his boxers, everything—and out the back door he went, naked as a jaybird.  We watched from the window in disbelief as Dad leaped around in the foot-deep snow, got down and rolled in it, made snowballs and threw them at the window.  And then he came in and toweled off, got dressed, and got on with his chores.  Well, what could you say after such an exhibition?  We got dressed and went to school.


2.      I remember watching Dad split kindling on some of our family camping trips.  I was amazed by the way he could prop up a piece of firewood, swing the axe over his head, and come down in one clean blow after another, splitting off beautiful, polished pieces of kindling that looked like they had just come from the factory.


3.      Dad used to push back from the table after we had enjoyed an especially good supper and he was feeling relaxed and happy.  He would get this twinkle in his eye and then ask, “Who are we going to make cry tonight?” which was his way of challenging us to a game of Monopoly.  We loved Monopoly, and when Dad issued the challenge we would jump up to clear the table, get the board, make popcorn or peanut butter fudge (part of the tradition), and on the best nights we would put on crumpled fedoras and old neckties so that we looked like big city gamblers.  Usually, it was Dad who made us cry.  He knew the game of Monopoly backwards and forwards, had memorized all the pieces and prices, and had a way of making the dice do just what he wanted (“Seven come eleven, baby needs a new pair of shoes!”).  But there was always the possibility that one of us might win, and occasionally we did, and that’s what kept us coming back.


4.      Dad taught me how to shave, of course.  I watched him for years, taking mental notes on how to puff out my cheeks and upper lip for a smoother shave.  When he watched me the first time he saw how much shaving cream I squirted into my palm and let out a gasp.  “That’s way too much, son!” he said.  I’ve been a frugal shaver ever since.


5.      People have asked me what it was like to be a “preacher’s kid” and I have told them it wasn’t like that at all.  For one thing, Dad didn’t have a regular church most of the time I was growing up.  He was more like a home missionary, doing all he could to help the poor in West Virginia.  But also Dad wasn’t “pious” in the sense that we ever felt guilty about having fun.  Dad had fun, and we had fun with him.  And anybody who can roll naked in the snow, wear a mop on his head to make his children laugh, or wrestle with five boys at the same time is not your typical preacher anyway.  No wonder that I was not a typical preacher’s kid.


MY MOM: Mary Rice Whiting Somerville, b. 1933


1.      Might as well get it out of the way:  I remember that Mom used to wake us up in the morning by playing “America’s Favorite Marches” on the stereo, loud enough to wake the dead and almost loud enough to wake her five sleeping sons on a school day.  To this day I have a fear of marching bands: “Sousaphobia” they call it, as in John Philip Sousa.  But then again . . . sometimes she would come upstairs and sit on the edge of my bed and stroke my head gently while she eased me into the morning.  “Honey?  It’s a new day.  The sun is coming up over the top of the mountain.  The chickens are out scratching up their breakfast in the back yard.  The bacon is frying in the cast iron skillet . . .” All in a very soothing voice that made waking up almost a pleasure.  Ahh.  That was sweet. 


2.      I remember the wonderful Bible stories she used to tell us when we were boys, especially at our second house in Wise, Virginia. We dragged our mattresses out into that central room upstairs and Eddie, Scotty, and I listened as Mom made the Bible come alive.  It was there, I recall, that I first heard the story of Jael from the Book of Judges, how she crept up on the sleeping Sisera and hammered a tent peg into his temple.  It was a gory story, but we were boys, and the gorier it was, the better we liked it.  Much of my love for the Bible—and for storytelling—comes from the way my mother told those stories.


3.      She once made my brother, Scott, an “airplane” birthday cake—just cut the shape out of a sheet cake, frosted it with gray frosting, and wrote “SWS” across the wingspan for Scott Whiting Somerville.  I liked it so much I told her I wanted a rocket cake for my birthday, a month later.  I think my mother stayed up most of the night before trying to make a cake that would stand up on cardboard tail fins covered in tin foil.  When I saw it I was amazed.  I had thought she would make one lying down, like Scott’s, and probably told her so.  I may have forgotten to say, “Wow!  Thanks for being the most amazing mom in the world!”


4.      Mom used to write numbers on the ivory keys of her Steinway grand piano with a pencil so we could get our fingering correct as we worked through the John Thompson piano book, “Teaching Little Fingers to Play.”  That’s not something most people would do to a Steinway, but it was just one more way my mother taught us that people were more important than things.


5.      I can’t remember how many times someone would huff and puff up our hill there in West Virginia looking for Dad, wanting some kind of help.  Mom always seemed to have coffee to offer and some time to sit and listen.  In my thinking this was how she helped Dad with his ministry.  While he was out doing “Matthew 25” kind of work (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.), she was at home doing “Matthew 28” kind of work (making disciples and teaching them all that Jesus had commanded).  Whether or not she thinks of it that way, one of the disciples she made—this one—does.


Thank you, Mom.  And thank you, Dad.


See you soon!