More Than A List

Remembering may be a celebration or it may be a dagger to the heart, but it is better, far better than forgetting. ~ Donald M. Murray

I sit cross-legged on a pillow, playing tug-of-war with shelved books. I find it hidden, stacked between Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever and a large rectangular volume of maps. Dust tickles my nose as I run my hand over the linen-covered yearbook embossed with the class’s gold emblem.

Beside me, my laptop is open to a Facebook group page, Gone But Not Forgotten. It lists those from my class who have died. How many could be gone from our 450+ class of 1977? I squint, adjust the brightness of my computer’s screen, and strain to read the list. As I turn each page of the yearbook, matching faces with names, I hug myself around my waist. Sharp grief elbows my stomach. Tears puddle in the knot-holes of the pine floor beneath me.

I cover my eyes, hoping the names will fade back into the screen if I don’t peek. But, like a monster in a horror film, death doesn’t evaporate during my game of peek-a-boo. I uncover my eyes.

* * * * *

 A shy boy with smiling eyes, long curly bangs, and a slight tilt of his head stands dressed in a black jacket and tuxedo shirt with bow-tie. I imagine he is, like me, eager to pack his suitcase and throw off the constraints of high school. His name is written in a plain font on the list. I don’t know when or how he died—or why.

I remember sitting next to him in an economics class. Our marriage was arranged by a creative teacher who divided the class into married couples and assigned each a starting sum of money to work with. Every week we withdrew a sliver of paper from a bowl, on which our teacher had written a financial difficulty to test our ability to create a budget and stick to it. I gave birth to twins, had to purchase a washing machine and dryer, and my husband’s hours at work were cut back. Groans of despair, lusty laughter, and sidewise glances at my spouse filled the class hour. I was a little bit in love with my husband.


Turning glossy page after page, images of the dead remind me how I categorized each person in my class, even the ones I didn’t know. I remember faces, voices, the bounce in someone’s walk, and the shuffle of another. Classmates resurface in my memory: the popular, nerds, band nerds, jocks, hybrids, and the ones who gathered outside a designated entrance to the school for a smoke break. Their group was known to me and some of my friends as the freaks.

Questions sometimes floated around the hallways: Do the freaks smoke weed? Do they “fool around” in corners? I mixed harsh judgement of them with my desire to join them. Incognito.

Plagued by hormone-soaked daydreams of cigarette smoke exhaled in dark corners, I thought the freaks must be bad people; some even scared me. When one, a girl wearing a frayed denim jacket and low-slung jeans, spoke with genuine kindness to me, I was perplexed. At that time in my life, God was a square: predictable, with clean corners, a deity of certainties.

* * * * *

I did not choose my first college roommate. The housing office paired me with someone from my high school class. But, I didn’t know her.

She was a freak.

The entire month before classes started, I worried. Does she know who I am? What if she doesn’t want to be my roommate? Should I call her and ask her if she wants to have matching bedspreads?

I told my mother I wanted sheets and matching curtains for my dorm room in a blue tie-dyed pattern I had seen in a catalog. While different from my usual love of pink and blue florals, I thought a hippie style would give my roommate the impression I was chill.

I remember when she arrived to our dorm room. My wooden Coca-Cola crate painted high-gloss blue was hung on the wall, filled with knick-knacks and memorabilia. New sheets were cornered tight on my bed accompanied by a matching sheet draped on a curtain rod at the window. Towers of textbooks, notebooks, folders, and magazines were already stacked on my desk.

When she arrived, she said something like “this looks nice” and plopped a bag on her bed. We introduced ourselves in an exaggerated fashion, shaking hands, and laughing about What are the chances that…?

Her smile was crooked, and she studied my face like she was mining for truth, or that’s how I felt.

“Do you mind if I crack open the window?” she asked. “I need a smoke.”

I said sure, even though I wasn’t sure of anything, except that I didn’t want to be a party-pooper.

As the semester went by, my roommate partied. Beer was a staple in our mini-fridge, and when an uncooperative breeze changed direction, her cigarette and joint smoke wafted under our door into the hall. I became the doorkeeper, listening for the approaching footsteps of our strict floor captain. Even though I did not participate in her activities, I knew I was her friend. I had her back.

When I vomited my way through a wicked stomach virus, she ran to the Quik Mart, bought ginger ale, and wedged it beside her beer in our fridge. She had my back.

God was smoothing the sharp corners of my world, rounding and rounding it into a growing, multi-colored circle.

* * * * *

I scroll down the list and stop. Her name is there.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine her in a black and white photograph. She is tipped back in her chair, legs crossed, feet up, smiling after taking a long drag from her cigarette.

* * * * *

Lisa bio YAH


The Hope That Sustains

Thanacostiae neighborhood doesn’t look that bad…,” I said. There was uncertainty in my voice, trailing off with an unspoken question mark.

To my West Coast eyes, where very few buildings have even turned 100 years old, much of the East Coast had sagging or worn features. It was hard to see a notable difference between the middle class neighborhoods and the struggling areas where my friends did outreach and ministry.

Look at the cars. That makes it more obvious,” Clark noted, lifting his hand off the steering wheel to gesture at the curb on his right.  

It was true, the cars in the neighborhood began looking more beaten down, held together, or rusted out as we drove deeper into the neighborhood.

Notice the store fronts.” Again, my eyes focused: cheap fried chicken, check cashing joints, mom and pop convenience stores advertising alcohol and cigarettes.

I nodded my head and looked silently out the window.

Days earlier, I had phoned Clark to ask if I could come visit his missionary community, A Simple House, for Holy Week. I aimed for casual but failed miserably. Rather, I called every twenty minutes until he answered. If it was going to work, I needed to buy a last-minute ticket from Tucson to Reagan Airport in DC. I spit out my request, over-talking and rambling. After an awkward pause, he responded with uncertainty. Nonetheless, I needed the “yes.” I logged onto the computer and bought the ticket.

I was grieving. Numb. Zoned out. Uncertain about how to face the future.

When I received the news of my brothers’ tragic and sudden death, I was traveling for work. In the weeks that followed, I thought of nothing else than immediate needs. Fly home. Be with family. Plan arrangements. Communicate details. Deal with logistics.

But, weeks had passed since that phone call and gentle probes about when I would return to my duties were creeping into the occasional conversation. I was the leader of a mid-sized nonprofit in the midst of growth. While the others were happy to cover for me, they were starting to feel my absence.

The idea of shouldering the responsibility of my life of ministry was more than my fragile, weepy self could imagine.  Fundraising.  Drama-filled scenarios.  Financial statements.  Staffing issues.  The mere thought sent me whirling.

But, the hugs had been hugged. The cards had been opened and the food from the refrigerator cleaned up.

It was time to return to “normal life.”

In my mind, visiting my friends and colleagues with A Simple House was an inbetween place, a way of tiptoeing back into my life.  I could be surrounded by ministry but not responsible for decisions, or finances, or saying the right thing.  I could show up to all of the liturgies of the holy season without having to face the spoken or unspoken question: “How are you?”  I didn’t know which I was more afraid of, the people who were unable to bring it up or those who did.   I could be surrounded by people who I knew but would be able to leave, people with full lives who cared but didn’t coddle.  I could still be messy and irrational and unraveled without causing concern.

As I walked into the house, one of the missionaries, Laura, welcomed me with a hug, trying to gauge my emotion. Moments later, her co-worker, Ryan appeared in the hallway.  In a few sentences he shared about his experience of death in his immediate family, a conversation that we picked up later in the visit. Whatever he said allowed me to exhale.  It was okay that I was here.  It was weird but, it was okay. My grief didn’t make me a burden.  They would work me into their life for a few days.

And they did.

Over the course of my visit, I heard stories of suicide and murder, of incest and sexual assault. Stories of generations of pain and heroic struggles to mount obstacles.  Indications of tiny steps forward and huge slides backward.

On Easter morning, in my Easter best, I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with my friends in the pew of the small African-American parish. I was standing among a suffering people.  I was a suffering person.

The choir wasn’t perfectly musical but they were singing from their lives–the burden of sin, the joy of redemption, the hope that sustains.  Their impassioned tones broke into my numbness.  From the somber reality of death and disappointment and illness and unemployment and addiction, there was praise.  It was chosen and it was gift. Praise.

With my hand extended to the sky and tears running down my cheek, I joined in.

We rejoiced that death was not victorious.  We celebrated the light, the new life that was promised and given.

As the liturgy ended, we walked out to the parking lot, full of cars in disrepair, and climbed into the ministry minivan decked out with its share of anacostia2 dings and dents.  I gazed out of the window, quietly watching the weary neighborhood, with its sagging porches and bedraggled lawns.

I could see the ugliness.

But, I knew there was life inside.



mary bio YAH


Author’s Note:  This piece is dedicated to the memory of Dave Bender who sold many a car that was beaten down, held together, and rusted out on my behalf.  He would leave with a car on it’s last legs and return with a few hundred dollars.  It was a hidden act of service that Dave did without fanfare or recognition for years and years.  May you be surrounded in the glory of His love, my friend.  Thank you for your service.


Learning the Mystery

Mystery is not the absence of meaning,
but the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend.
~ Eugene Peterson

*    *    *    *    *

When I was a girl sitting in church pews—a girl still small enough that my feet swung back and forth because they didn’t reach the floor—I learned that God was holy. Being with God meant spending Sunday mornings in a space like no other in my life, with ceilings reaching three stories high, painted blue like the heavens, and walls of stained glass to my left and right. In that space I learned that mystery and rituals matter in equal portion—that Sunday after Sunday we did the known things we could do in hopes of glimpsing the edges of the unknown things shrouded in mystery.

unnamed (1)I learned very early on that God is loving and accepting of all, but also that my own potential to sadden him had no bounds. Through unison prayers of confession, I became aware of not only of the many things I could do wrong, but also of the “right” things I left undone. Between the sins of action and those of omission, how could I possibly get through a day unscathed?

The God of my childhood was not a God of fire and wrath, but a God of head-shaking and disappointment. It seemed he was always looking down on me, wishing I had made a different, better choice.

*    *    *    *    *

At high school church camp, I learned the night sky could be the ceiling and the northern Michigan trees the stained glass of a different kind of church. I learned that God could be met anywhere, apart from pastors and acolytes donned in robes, and even apart from my family sitting alongside me in the pew.

I also learned, through the testimonies shared around campfires by leather-jacket-wearing ex-convicts and -addicts, that God’s love is bigger than his disappointment, and that he’s in the business of changing lives, not critiquing them.

*    *    *    *    *

During my senior year of college I sang in a gospel choir at a diverse urban church whose style of worship couldn’t have felt more different from Sunday mornings in the stained-glass church of my youth. In addition to learning the importance of clapping the off-beats, I learned my alto part by listening to the choir director sing it—I learned that God could be found outside of music staffs and key signatures, and beyond written confessions inked on pages at the back of hymnals.

In that place people wept their confessions, which were scripted in their hearts. I also learned that God made people raucous and joyful, and that I could get caught up in that joy for a moment or two, but faking it wasn’t the same as making it. My understanding of God had broadened over the years, but now I could see it was still flat, easy to see right through.

*    *    *    *    *

At a church in St. Louis, a couple of years into my marriage, I learned how God works in the lives of grieving people. We arrived just months after the sudden death of the church’s beloved pastor, and while that could have easily been a reason to leave the church, it became a reason to stay: In that place I first glimpsed an entire church full of people being raw and real in the presence of God.

I saw a broken community of people trying to make sense of a senseless tragedy, and trying to hold one another up. They worked out their anger with God over months, not hours, and I learned that God accepts our anger, like a father who lets a grieving child beat upon his chest until, finally exhausted, the struggle becomes an embrace.

*    *    *    *    *

But when my own life was falling apart, a handful of years later in another city, my new church presented me with a different God—one who wasn’t there to absorb and then transform my pain, but to deflect it back on me, to multiply it with guilt and regret in order to help me learn the hard, unforgettable way.

In that place, I almost unlearned everything important I had learned about God—the loving and holy mystery that can’t be contained by stained glass, the God of transformative power, who meets us in our raw pain and failures. Instead, I was learning why so many people walk away from it all, as I finally did one bright spring Sunday morning.

*    *    *    *    *

Until one day a few months later, when I walked into a space that felt nothing like a church, with its coffee stains on the carpet and institutional ceiling tiles above. It was in that place—filled with unpredictable, moving, awkward, painful, and joy-filled people and worship—that God taught me about grace, and about all of the learning I have yet to do.

Setting the Family Table

red-plate I miscounted the place settings for Christmas dinner last year.

As we approached the table to sit down, I saw the extra plate. I quickly whisked it away, returning all the accompanying pieces to their proper place in the kitchen cabinet.

I tried to brush it off as a silly mistake, a “Ditzy Mary!” moment. But, with my face in the cabinet, I brushed the tears off my cheek and took a deep breath.

When I had done the mental tally of plates to set out, I started with five. The same five that I had started with whenever I set the table throughout my childhood: my mom & dad, me, my brother and sister. Then, I added a plate for everyone else who was with us for that meal. Last year, in an unthinking moment, I had included a place setting for my brother. But, my brother no longer had a physical place at the dinner table. Five years ago, he was killed in tragic bicycle accident on a windy California road.

In that flash of realization, with the red plate in my hand, I ached with the memories of our last Christmas with him, the last time that I had seen him alive. Like all of his adult years, several history books had been wrapped under the tree with his name on them. He had been in active flirt mode with a pretty girl, texting her and grinning as he glanced down at his phone. One evening, we sat outside in the brisk winter air and he offered me the sage dating advice: “Get a little more sizzle.” It was the last Christmas of my childhood five.

After a moment of regrouping in the cabinet, I re-joined the table and everyone settled into their seats. Everyone was aware of his absence, having learned to hold their grief in their personal ways. I didn’t need to draw attention to the error I had made.  Perhaps everyone knew and was pretending; perhaps the moment passed unaware.

This year setting the table, my reflexive mental tally was different. Mom and Dad. Me. Sister, brother-in-law, their twins girls. A fundamental shift had taken place.  My sister and her family have become a unit of tally in my head, a number that expands as their family grows. The place of my brother-in-law and those precious girls who call me “Aunt Mary” has become a fixture in my sense of family.

I never knew my brother-in-law and nieces were missing from the family. But, now that they are here, it 10525806_10152577461657943_3529085354067141334_nis plain to see that the family tree has long had the perfect spot for their branches to grow. They have filled a gap we didn’t know existed until they arrived; they have generated love we didn’t know was missing until it was exchanged. Perhaps additional branches are still hiding in the roots of our family tree–my own husband and children? more children for my sister? other branches that will get grafted on in a mysterious way? Only with the passage of time, with the insight of setting the Christmas table for years to come, will those answers make themselves known.

Until then, I am so grateful for those who have a place at the family table.

And so aware of those who no longer do.10620700_10152666817242943_4425648014993846216_n

The Mourning House

I currently sleep in the guest room of my house. The other room I used to sleep in—which I have been calling the “hospice room”—is now a more hallowed space. That room was redesigned just prior to death of the woman who had accompanied me through life and parenting for 27 years. We’d only been married for just over six months, due to a five-hour period during which same-sex couples were allowed to marry in Michigan. The death was unanticipated; diagnosis of advanced breast cancer, just one year earlier, had led us to believe we had “years” instead of a year to share our lives together. Once a partner, spouse, and co-parent of two daughters, I must now try on the identity of widow, while existing inside of a house that no longer feels like home.

In the hospice room, the hospital bed is gone, but there are many artifacts put in place for healing purposes. A Buddha statue from Sri Lanka donated by sister for good luck; framed photos of orchids taken by our daughter when we went to the orchid show last year; a print of the magnificent sand hill cranes whose visits to the wetlands of Michigan we witnessed every October.

When I walk through that room I see not the space where my partner and I once slept together, did our nightly roundup of the days events, and watched our favorite television shows. Once I had listened to Nancy whisper “sleep with angels, darlin’” each night before we switched off the lights. Now, I see a kind of vacuous shrine that I don’t wish to disturb.

The hospice room is artful. Our antique mahogany bed is spread with a treasured cover from Nepal, and its geometric purple and green hues are echoed in the pillows and in the lilac paint on the walls. Nancy has left many objects containing memorabilia—cigar boxes, a pewter bowl, an old candy tin. When I am brave enough to look through them, I find weathered photos of her father and grandparents in sepia, small jewelry boxes containing antique rings and pearls, the invitation to her parents’ wedding in 1950, the baby shoes of our daughters. It contains remnants of a life I once was part of.

In the guest room where I sleep, I still feel like a visitor. The room remains the same as when it housed guests, not particularly inviting and disturbingly impersonal. The colors clash: pink curtains, a blue patterned quilt, walls painted a jolting lime green. A large unadorned bed dominates the smallish room. It’s not designed for comfort or charm. But in my current uncomfortable frame of mind, it seems to fit my requirements.

A perennial basket of unfolded laundry resides in the corner of the anonymous space where I now reside. My computer, my refuge, stands ready for my use, although I still can’t find a show I want to watch or a book I want to read. Scanning Facebook, reading through emails, I seek connections to fill the stillness that stretches before me.

The rest of the house is also still alien territory, transformed by the permanent vacancy of one of its occupants. My sprightly teenaged daughter, whose easy laughter hasn’t changed much since toddlerhood, begs me to go upstairs with her at night. She will not go back downstairs again without me, spooked by a house that is devoid of her other mother. She asks me to accompany her to the bathroom at night and in the early dark mornings. She fears that Nancy is somehow here in the house as a ghost, but perhaps not as much as she fears living in a house where Nancy no longer exists.

Nancy’s mother says she cannot bear to visit us in this place, not while the painful memories of her daughter seem to bounce off every surface of the house. But my daughter and I must live in this mourning house, trying to find our way to another kind of home where we can co-exist with what is here and what is not.

 *   *   *   *   *

JuliaGrant“The Mourning House” was written by Julia Grant. Julia lives, writes, and works in higher education in East Lansing, Michigan. She and her partner, Nancy, were one of the 300+ same-sex couples who were married on March 23, 2014, in Michigan.


It was the evening of October 18th, 1985. I remember the exact date, because I had accompanied my (then) boyfriend, Tom, and his mother to a Tex-Mex restaurant to celebrate her birthday. Tom’s mom and I had spent little time together during the two years I had been dating her son. I felt as buoyant as the bright, helium balloons hugging the ceiling of the cantina. At the same time, I was nervous and anxious to please. Mrs. Phillips was a “proper” Southern lady.

Later that evening, Tom and I—his mother was not with us—were sitting on his ugly, sturdy couch striped in bachelor-brown colors, when he declared: “Well, I guess we ought to get married.”

There was no kneeling or “prithee,” but a decisive suggestion by this man who had been pegged by his friends and family as “not the marrying kind.”

I don’t remember if I said yes to the question hidden in his declaration, but I do remember sliding from the couch to the floor where my purse was and retrieving a snippet of a newspaper ad hidden in my wallet. It was a picture of an engagement ring. I tossed it into my beloved’s hand.

“How long have you been carrying this around?,” he asked.

“Oh, for about a year,” I replied with exaggerated eyelash flutter.


We were to be married almost ten weeks later on December 21st. The planning was fast and furious. Early on, I took my future mother-in-law to lunch to share the plans with her. In her gracious way, she informed me I had misspelled Tom’s father’s name in our engagement announcement in the local newspaper.

Later that week, I found out that Tom’s father had died on DECEMBER 21st in 1972. Almost blubbering, I approached Mrs. Phillips and apologized for my—for setting the date for the wedding on the calendar day her husband had died.

She tried to console me and said: “Now, we will have something happy to celebrate on that day.”


A longing for my childhood home ambushed my heart when Tom and I were driving home to Memphis after a three day honeymoon spent in the Ozark Mountains. It was Christmas Eve. I felt like a little girl again on a night-time car ride “gone looking at the lights” in the country. As Tom and I passed decorated houses, I exclaimed about the Santas and reindeer on roofs, hundreds of lights strung on double-wide trailers, and the front-yard nativity scenes with plastic Holy Families.

The transition from honeymoon to the first Christmas dinner with my husband’s family felt awkward to me. Tom’s mother was not my mother. I did not feel free to hug her or re-share the details of the wedding with her. I wanted my mother. Mrs. Phillips was kind, but I sensed a welcome cloaked in caution. Since Tom’s father had died, it had always been her and her sons at the Christmas table.


I sat still and silent—a feat for me—as the gift-giving and unwrapping began. We took turns opening our cards and reading the sentiments aloud. Gifts were opened. Quiet thank-yous were said. The wrapping paper was smoothed of its wrinkles, folded and saved to be used again.

I was a naive bride immersed in my own sorrow about leaving the familiar and cleaving to a stranger whose holiday tradition seemed stripped of joy. I was unable to recognize the power of grief to isolate and insulate a family from intrusion.

All I could think about were the festivities taking place at my aunt and uncle’s house three hundred miles away. Torn, crunched wrapping paper would carpet the floor, and ribbon would stick to shoes. The tree would be real and huge. Someone would be banging out “Silent Night” on the out-of-tune piano, and the women in the kitchen would be having simultaneous conversations about new babies, holiday weight gain, and which gospel quartet would sing-in the New Year at church.

I wanted to go home.