Now that my editor-turned-Episcopal-priest husband has retired from our parish and serves in interim assignments, I no longer teach Sunday School. But the liturgical seasons beat out my year anyway. This week marks Advent, four weeks at the beginning of the church year when we wait for the coming of the baby on Christmas.
What happened to me during my own baby-waiting, aka pregnancy, happens to many of us during Advent, especially Advent 2020, when the books of Isaiah and Matthew, the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, come at us on the nose, talkin’ bout “the people who walk in darkness.” We here on earth open up to those who are coming — and those who have left.
This morning, Black Friday, as it’s been called in Philadelphia since I can remember, has opened up parking spaces on our street. Post-gentrification neighbors have not stayed home safely, but have driven somewhere to play COVID-roulette. So my husband has dashed out to sweep the gutter, to keep leaves from compacting into dog-urine-peat that stinks its way into our front doors when we open them happily in Springtime.
As I hear his rhythmic sweeping, my Advent mind delivers up a smiling, actually, a laughing, face from across the street, gone since 2013, but that I still look for at times like this. Mrs. Jones would have opened the door and cheered Bob on, laughing a blessing: on clean curbs and windows and marble steps; children riding the Philly sidewalks; and local church people going to the Apostolic retirement village on the corner to deliver meals and keep house for the elderly of her Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, just up the street.
For years, I’d meet Mrs. Edith Jones, a few blocks from home, hauling more bags from our local market than it was humanly possible to carry. I’d offer to help; she’d say no, thank you, then accept, and I’d lay hold of one after another of the double plastic bags that might as well have been filled with rocks. Then she’d tell me the occasion: someone at church had gotten sick and couldn’t make luncheon, so she’d help out; some nice young couple was getting married and hadn’t ordered enough food — Oh, Lord!; a grandchild’s birthday was coming.
It’s always something!
She said it not as complaint, but complex benediction. My Episcopal liturgy urges us to “delight” in God’s will. And if it were God’s will that Mrs. Jones must single-handedly schlep 50 pounds of groceries and fry 20 pounds of chicken by nightfall, well, she would delight in that!
She’d laugh as we’d walk the few blocks home. She had a great laugh; it would start as a tiny giggle. Sometimes she covered her mouth, although not when she was carrying enough chicken wings to feed the multitude. Then, it progressed, through a silent, lips-pressed head shaking to full-out guffaws with ribs rocking and eyes crinkled nearly to closed. I cannot remember what we said, but we’d laugh so hard we’d have to put down her John Henry bags to throw our heads back, right there, and laugh into the sunshiney sliver of Kater Street sky.
Often we laughed at the impossible job of parenting. Mrs. Jones was one of the first older women who told me honestly — it was in the kitchen, naturally, while my child and her grandchild, best friends, were whooping it up, up, up and down the stairs — that sometimes you simply do not have what it takes to give each child what he or she needs at this moment.
(“Brina! Brina! Stop that running! They’re not going to stop, Ms. Lorene, are they?”
(“No, Ma’am. Not unless I go get my daughter and carry her out of here.”)
I felt as if I hadn’t been doing so hot myself right about then, and I asked her, since she’d had six children, each one a perfectly unique temperament, whether she’d ever felt inadequate to this most important of life’s tasks. She told me, not in answer, but as an anecdote to keep me company, about a time when she’d sent her little daughter Doris to church with family members, while she stayed home to finish some church work and promised to come, soonest. But Doris had made noise in church, lots of it, so someone took her out. Then she made even more noise coming home from church, two blocks away. This was not a one-off.
“They’d come out the church, and if you had our front door open down here, you could hear her all the way from the next block. I’m telling you. The next block, Ms. Lorene!”
“Not from up by 22nd Street, Mrs. Jones? She couldn’t’ve been more than, what, five? You couldn’t have heard her right from church!”
“Yes you could! Yes you could! You could hear that girl all the way! That’s why they called her Hollerin’ Doris! She’d get going, and, what could you do? She hollered.”
What could you do, indeed? Mrs. Jones indicated that you could love each one exactly as he or she was to the best of your ability. You could ask God to help you — and keep asking. She told me this with perfect respect and seriousness. Not like: Get your Episcopal-whatever theology correct and pray like I do; but with faithful and motherly comfort: Do your best, love the whacky, glorious, difficult, miracle children given you, and when you fall short, which you will do every day, God knows, pray to do better; pray to grow in ways that will attune you to their needs; and then pray for them to thrive past your errors.
Pray without ceasing. Pray because evil and weakness thrives everywhere, prowling like a lion seeking whom he can devour. Pray because God is God, bigger and more mysterious than our small minds and our stubborn divisions. Pray because how else can we carry the load? Pray because it frees our minds and hearts for love — and laughter.
Mrs. Jones laughs through the darkness of Advent 2020, reminding me that light begins a long way off and shines into the future.
Parts of this article were published in 2013 on my earlier, now discontinued, blogsite.