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Posts Tagged ‘Whitby’

papaw-grandkids

Last week, my dad sent a group text to my mom, my sister and me, reminding us that it was my grandfather’s birthday. “He loved the three of you very much,” Dad wrote. “I do too.”

I read it and thought about Papaw, a quiet man with kind eyes (pictured above with some of his grandkids in the late ’80s). It seems unbelievable, but he has been gone 16 years now. He died of cancer in the summertime, when I was a high school student, and we drove up to the family farm in southwest Missouri as we did every summer – but this time it was for the funeral.

We gathered with family on a June day at the old farmhouse outside of town where my grandparents raised their three boys. My dad spoke at the funeral and made everyone laugh, telling stories about his childhood and honoring the man who taught his boys to work hard, respect their elders and love one another.

Afterward, we all went back to the farmhouse and I helped my Aunt Carmen, my grandmother’s best friend, clean out the crowded kitchen fridge so we could find room for a dozen deli trays. (I remember us laughing helplessly at outdated jars of mayonnaise and so much sliced cheese, grateful for a moment of lightness amid our grief.)

Even without that text, I would have remembered Papaw this month: he was born on June 2 and later died on June 19, and so this month always reminds me of him.

There are dates that loom large in every life: birthdays, anniversaries, deaths. The births or the funerals of those we love; the days we receive the news that will change our lives, for a moment or forever. As I recently passed the one-year anniversary of my layoff, I’ve been thinking about the smaller anniversaries that also mark us.

I got laid off on the day before my husband’s birthday, which also happens to be the same day he proposed, nine years ago now (we’ve been married for nearly eight). There are other dates I don’t have to mark on a calendar to remember: the August night I got the phone call about my friend Cheryl’s death; the long-ago spring evening I got baptized in the little Baptist church in Coppell. And the night we arrived in Boston, grubby and tired from four days of driving cross-country but still eager to begin a new adventure.

I’ve written before about how my body also seems to remember certain places at certain times of year: the mountains of New Mexico in mid-May, windswept Whitby in February, Oxford at many times and seasons. Time and calendars may be relatively recent human inventions, but I believe our bodies and souls hold these memories, nudge us to remember these anniversaries. It is part of being human, this bittersweet ribbon of memory, the way we are marked by both grief and joy.

I miss Papaw even though he’s been gone a long time: I wish he could have met my husband and my sister’s husband, attended our weddings and our graduations, gotten down on the floor to play with his great-grandsons. He would have loved it, all of it. But I am grateful for him and his memory, and for the quiet reminder in my soul (and, okay, from my dad) every June: a nudge to remember.

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Every year, the first weekend in February takes me back to 2004, when I squeezed onto a bus with about 40 other people, and rode from Oxford all the way up to Whitby, on the North Sea.

Beautiful, ruined Whitby Abbey sits at the top of 199 steps leading down into the little fishing village. It is COLD up on that windswept hill – but oh my, the ruins are gorgeous. And if the wind didn’t take your breath away, the views certainly would. Looking out east, all you can see is the North Sea and sky – “just things that God made,” as my friend Blake said. Though what man has made here is certainly lovely.

The abbey dates from the seventh century, and on our first night there, three friends and I walked up the hill – right past the “No Public Access” sign – and spent a happy hour climbing on the ruins in the dark. The top of the arch on the far left in the photo was the “Arch of Ambition” – and I actually climbed up there! (Not bad for someone who used to fear heights.) We eventually heard voices behind us, and panicked when they belonged to two of our professors – but we didn’t get a scolding. Instead, they joined us for a little while! – before we all headed back, cold and tired, but happy.

This is the four of us the next morning, on our approved visit to the abbey:

(From left: Brett, me, Charity and Seth. We called ourselves the “Fearsome Four” – and I’ve treasured that adventure, and this photo, ever since.)

Two years ago, I returned to Whitby with the Oxford Spring ’08 gang – Jacque, the Wiggins clan, and a new gaggle of students. And oh my, it was wonder all over again.

Here’s a view of the village from the hill:

I can’t explain what it is about Whitby that captivates me. Maybe it’s the unspoiled quality, at least in February when there are no other tourists about. Maybe it’s the simplicity of the stark abbey ruins rising out of the ground – nothing up there but sea and sky and stone. Maybe it’s the quaintness of the steep streets, or tea and scones in little tearooms, or the memories of walking along the beach one night, and the students spontaneously bursting into song. Maybe it’s the feeling of being in a “thin place” – where the boundary between heaven and earth seems almost to disappear. Probably it’s a little of all these.

When our spring ’04 group was mourning about having to leave Oxford, Ron Morgan (our director) reassured us, “We’ll always have Whitby.” And we did – and do, and will forever. And I am extra lucky, because I got to have it again, with a new group of students and dear friends. And every year on the first weekend in February, I close my eyes and remember the wind on my face, the vivid greens and blues of the grass and sky, the sunset colours over the harbour, and the quiet joy of long walks with good friends.

I fully intend on going back someday. But you were right, Ron. We’ll always have Whitby.

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