Friday, July 4, 2014

The 35th anniversary of The Great 4th of July Fire

Yeah…yeah…I realize 4th of July memories are supposed to be all about family gatherings and food, fireworks and fun. But…for me…the memory that tops the list is what I’ve come to call “The Great 4th of July Fire.”

It was 35 years ago today that Kevin, Barney, Pam, me, and a couple of leftover-Church-of-God-campmeeting-boyfriends were shooting bottle rockets out of Coke bottles in our front yard.

I should probably point out that it hadn't rained since...oh...March. And, I should also point out that, during almost everything I’m about to tell you, mama was unconscious in her bedroom in a drug-induced "coma," recovering from back surgery. 
Which…looking back…was probably a BIG blessin’.

Just across our front yard, separated only by two-laned Stouts Road, Albritton and Lucy Rice lived in a house fronted by 10-12 acres of pine trees, which amounted to LOTS of DRY pinestraw. (Did I mention it hadn't rained since March?) One last detail--to this day, Kimberly has a Volunteer Fire Department. (You may have seen the damage it suffered earlier this year when the tornado hit Kimberly.) That particular year, the primary bottle-rocket-shooter, Barney, was running for Town Council, with one “plank” of his campaign platform being better fire protection.

Well, sometime after midnight, an hour or so after shooting off the last rocket, we closed down the party. As my brother crawled into his twin bed (in the room he shared with our now-comatose mama and whistlin’ daddy...don't was a 2-bedroom house), he said he had a feeling he needed to look out the window. Next thing I know, he's running into the living room where daddy is snoring in his chair and Pam and I are watching TV. He's yelling, "The woods are on fire! Albritton's woods are on fire!"

On the way out the door, stopping only long enough to call Barney and tell him to get his butt and a bucket up to our house, Kevin yelled at me, Pam and daddy, “Hook up the hosepipe and get as many buckets as you can find." (We only found 3.)

Once and in look across Stouts Road told me that fire COULD NOT be put out with a hosepipe and 3 buckets. It was blazing!

But...truth be told...we were always a little scared of Albritton. He was the silent type. And most of us read lots of "stuff" into silence. So, all we knew was that...somehow...we had to put out that fire with a hosepipe and 3 buckets.

We could not call Albritton. We dared not alert the Volunteer Fire Department. The only call we could make was to Barney, who always was our family's version of 911. So, Pam and I—barefoot in our pajamas at the edge of Stouts Road (that's how far the hosepipe reached)—would fill up the 3 buckets; and then Kevin, Barney and daddy (who chain-smoked Salems throughout that entire night) would run into those fiery woods and back again to fill up those 3 buckets.

Well, this bucket brigade went on for quite awhile with no obvious results, So, in an act of frightened desperation, I went into the house and grabbed all the blankets and quilts I could find (many of them being mama's HOMEMADE quilts) to help fight the still-spreading fire. (Yes, you heard me.... homemade.... as in heirloom....and only Alzheimer's has allowed her to forget it...for now.)

I dumped that pile of quilts on the road beside Pam and yelled at her to soak them. Then, in my Keds and pajamas, with those dripping quilts, I ran into those blazing pine trees--throwing them onto burning patches of pinestraw and wrapping them around blazing tree trunks.

Every once in awhile, you'd hear pinecones explode. Each time that happened, my brother would freak out. Later, he said that each little explosion reminded him of a previous brush-clearing fire when a red-hot pinecone seed went straight up his nostril.

I can't tell you how many refilled buckets and resoaked quilts it took to put out that inferno...but with the bordering-on-miraculous help of God…and Barney, we did it. By that time, we couldn't go to sleep. So, all of us...exhausted and soot-covered...just piled on the living room floor...except for daddy who sank into his recliner...still smokin' a Salem. After a few minutes of quiet, Barney announced, "Well, there goes my run for Town Council." And...that did it...we couldn't stop laughing...tears made tracks down our soot-covered faces.

Eventually, Barney went home, and the rest of us decided to get some sleep. But...just like was deja-vux all over again. Again, Kevin looked out the front window. Again, he came running into the living room, this time yelling, "It's goin' again!" And out the door he went, stopping only long enough to call Barney...again.

By this time it's about 3 a.m., and I was just coherent enough to realize we needed reinforcements. So, I called Jeff Easter. Jeff says he remembers the phone ringing and wondering, "What fool is calling at this time of the morning?" But, he picked up, and...well...I'll let him tell this part of the story: "I heard this voice say, 'Put your hosepipe in your car and get to my house now'!"

When Jeff got there...hosepipe in hand...Pam and I were on bucket duty again. (But, sadly, by this time, mama's quilts had been lost to Fire #1.) And, we managed to hook up Jeff's hosepipe to ours, which made it long enough that we could actually get the water directly to the fire. the first hint of daylight and, quite thankfully, before Albritton ever had his first cup of coffee...Fire #2 was out.

Again, we collapsed on the living room floor—more exhausted and soot-covered than before—this time joined by Jeff. And, again, we ended up laughing ‘til we cried.

About 7 a.m....mama came stumbling into the living room in a post-surgery haze. She took one look at her living room floor, filled with soot-covered, sleeping people, and yelled, "MY, LORD, WHAT HAPPENED WHILE I WAS ASLEEP?"

So we told her, swearing her to secrecy, and then...with a rather pitiful blank stare on her face...shaking her head...she went to the kitchen and did the only thing she knew to do—cook us some biscuits and gravy.

Years after "The Great 4th of July Fire," as we came to call it, Barney confessed that, for several nights afterwards, he got out of bed, got in his car, parked in our yard and walked through Albritton's woods ... just to make sure.

Funny thing...the next summer, you'd have barely known what happened. As I walked through those woods...trying to figure out exactly where mama's quilts had “died,”...patches of grass were growing, wildflowers were blooming, and most of the trees had somehow survived. New little seedlings were popping up everywhere...probably from those blasted exploding pinecones.

Out of the ashes of The Great Fire 4th of July Fire, new life had already started. It occurs to me...the same thing happens to us. Out of the very ashes of the fires of our lives...God brings new life, growth, beauty...even laughter... IF we let Him.
"To all who mourn,...he will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
a joyous blessing instead of mourning,
festive praise instead of despair.
In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks
that the Lord has planted for his own glory.....
Instead of shame and dishonor,
you will enjoy a double share of honor.
You will possess a double portion of prosperity in your land,
and everlasting joy will be yours....
I will faithfully reward my people for their suffering
and make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants will be recognized
and honored among the nations.
Everyone will realize they are a people the Lord has blessed.”
I am overwhelmed with joy in the Lord my God!
For he has dressed me with the clothing of salvation
and draped me in a robe of righteousness....
Everyone will praise him!
His righteousness will be like a garden in early spring,
with plants springing up everywhere."
(From Isaiah 61, NLT)

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Growing up Kimberly

I’m not sure what will flow out of my heart and onto this blank page. I hope it offends none, encourages a few, comforts some. 

As is true most of the time when it comes to "things I worry about most," last night as I started scrolling through Facebook for weather updates and Garrett “sightings,” I was focused on the safety of “mine.” And then I saw a picture of my little church in Kimberly, Alabama—roof blown off, walls blown out, debris blown in. 

And I couldn’t quite take in what I was seeing. 

I haven't attended that church in more than 30 years. And, for the most part, the people who ARE that church to me have either died or move to other churches for reasons I won't go into here.

But, in those 30 years, I’ve taken that little church…and those people…WITH me. It and they make up such a large part of who Karen Kelley is that, to see it wounded and gaping open like that…well…I felt wounded...gaped-open. 

The worst damage was inflicted on what I’ve always thought of as “The Old Sanctuary.” My first still-crystal-clear memory of this thing called “church” was in that old sanctuary. I was no older than 4, standing on the pew next to my mama, who was crying over a sermon some preacher was shouting about “the moon turnin’ to blood.” I was wiping her tears away and wishing I could tell that preacher to shut up and stop makin’ my mama cry. 

At the altar of that old sanctuary was where I asked Jesus into my heart, where I saw “signs and wonders” and watched in mortal fear as my little brother would pretend to be “slain in the Spirit” and hurl himself off the stage. (I just knew he was gonna be struck down dead.) 

In this old sanctuary was where one of my favorite Kimberly stories took place—when Sister Janie (name changed to protect the innocent) shouted down her “stack” and, as she ran by the board where the YWEA plaques hung, that long whipping hair picked up one of those plaques…and she shouted it all around the sanctuary. (Like I said…signs and wonders.)

The stage of that sanctuary is where I played the little blind girl in “Christmas Comes to Detroit Louie,” and learned to LOVE the gift of music. 

That sanctuary is also where I became three peas in a pod with Joy and Pam.
Two of the "peas": Joy in pigtails; me in blue.
Downstairs was where Sister Gracie and Sister Minnie made Bible stories come to life through flannel boards and tables turned into sandboxes. That basement also held the church kitchen, where you could count on the smell of a constant pot of coffee brewing if Brother Jim had anything to do with it. And that far back room (more dark cellar than church basement) was where Sister Mary scared the pee out of me (quite literally) on more than one occasion. 

In the “New Sanctuary,” which suffered less tornado damage but is still gaping and gashed, is where—after years of worrying and praying and bad dreams— I FINALLY was able to look down from that choir and see my sweet daddy’s hands raised in worship to a Savior who not only saved him but also instantaneously freed him from a 30+-year-three-pack-a-day Salem addiction. 

That sanctuary is where our sweet Brother Thompson showed us what Love looks like, acts like, pastors like. And that sanctuary is where his…our…sweet Sister Thompson would be so filled with the Spirit of God as she sang about “The Love of God” that a heavenly tongue was needed to finish its verses. 

That room is where, on a Sunday night, as I sat between Jeff on piano and Barney on organ (or vice versa), while waiting to "sing a special number," we all three fought HARD to recover after hearing my mama stand up and give this tearful, worry-filled prayer request: 
"Y'all need to pray for me; my doctor says I'm a walkin' bombshell."

That room is where our Brother Jerald encouraged us, disciplined and discipled us, and where our beloved Sister Marla taught us that “you have to breathe before you can sing.”

And how we did sing! Across the entire state of Alabama, much of the Southeast, on street corners in Manhattan, and general assemblies in Dallas. To this day, I’d hazard a very large bet that every. single. member. of the Kimberly Church of God Youth Choir could—with just a little prodding—remember every.single.word. to of “Celebrate Life.” 

That sanctuary is where Becca and I got in BIG trouble for laughing out loud when our "skippin'-Brother-Beasley- prediction" came true right before ...actually just to the right...of our very eyes during a Sam Luke revival.

That sanctuary is where I said goodbye to my sweet daddy. And where—years later—our Opa dedicated our first sweet baby boy to the Lord…surrounded and serenaded by family and friends. 

And, most recently…so many years after all of THAT…that sanctuary is where I said goodbye to Sister Mary, my mama’s best friend--the same one who scared the pee out of me--said goodbye for both me and mama. 

For some reason, not being able to share today’s sad news with mama—that the church she loved and worked for…fried countless pieces of chicken and apple pies for…fought for (even if a couple of those “fights” were with its preachers)—well…somehow it makes it more sad. 

And...confession time...this special place is where I had hoped to say the final goodbye to my mama after this years-long season of "the long goodbye."

Over the last few years, as Facebook has given me the gift of reconnecting with family and friends, three phrases have become frequent expressions of how blessed we were…and didn’t even know it: 
“Growing up Kimberly” 
“Growing up Kelley” 
“Growing up Kimberly Church of God.” 

I guess that makes me three-times blessed!

I’ve read and "Amen" people’s encouraging words: “God will bring beauty from ashes.” 
“It’s just a building; the people are the church.” 
“Maybe God wanted Kimberly to have something bigger and better.” (Although I’ve learned bigger does not always mean better.)

But…for a few days…I just need to grieve what is now gone. And…that…well…that somehow feels fitting…even sacred. 

So, for all you others out there who know the blessing of “Growing up Kimberly Church of God,” if I could, I’d reach out and gather you all up. And we’d stand in a tight circle… and we’d hug… and pray… and cry… and we’d tell our stories (for the 10th or 30th time) all over again…and we’d laugh…and laugh some more…and we’d share “I Love Yous”…and we’d sing—OH HOW WE WOULD SING—and we’d say a proper “Goodbye” to this special little place God used in such a mighty, loving way in our little lives.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Surprise Upon Surprise....

You, whose conceiving 
was predicted by that incensed angel
In answer to a prayer by parents 
long past creating.
You, whose birth was unannounced 
by your voiceless father,
Whose doubts had dared to question,
And…then…mutely waited-out 
some pregnancy of his own.
Your name scribbled 
by that still-silent father.

(Because who on earth would listen to a mother!)

And…then…with new voice suddenly birthed,
That father breaks into Holy Ghost song:
"And you, my child, 'Prophet of the Highest,"
Will go ahead of the Master to prepare His ways."*

—Surprise upon surprise—

You, who grew up healthy and spirited out in your desert,
Until that voice of yours had to cry
(or else bust your soul wide open)
That message sent from God,
"Prepare for God's arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!
Every ditch will be filled in,
Every bump smoothed out...."

(And who doesn't want that?)

So they came to your riverbank,
Expecting filled-in ditches and smoothed-out bumps.
Oh, to have seen their faces when you greeted,
"Brood of snakes!
Why are you slithering down here to this river?
You think a bit of water on your snakeskins
Deflects God's judgment?
Change your life, not your skin.
And don't even think about pulling rank
By claiming Abraham as your father--
God can make children from stones if He wants."

—Surprise upon surprise—

But something—sickness of themselves,
Desperation for change,
Fascination with you and those camel-haired coverings
And honey-covered bugs,
Some primal, cosmic longing—welled up in them to beg,
(or else bust their souls wide open)
“What can we do to change from snakes to children?”
To which you cried, 
“Quit hoarding and extorting!
Quit beating, bribing and blackmailing!”
Which made those wannabe children wonder,
“Could this camel-covered, bug-eating voice be Him?
Be Messiah…?”

—Surprise upon surprise—

Even Herod got wind of you;
Courted that wild voice of yours.
But got stung by it instead
“On the matter of Herodias,” sister-in-law-turned-wife.
And, so, stung back—that’s what Herods do.
And there you sit, in that prison cell
Cut off from your saving riverbank.

And, because sometimes cells wear down voices
--no matter how wild and free they once were--
You begin to wonder about that cousin of yours,
The One you baptized,
“Are you the One?”
“Or are we still waiting?”
Waiting in that prison cell
With worn-down voice and worn-out heart.
How many doubt-growing days passed, John?
Until you send heart-sick followers to ask,
“Are you the One?”

And…for 3 hours…
(at least not with words)
He’s too busy—
Curing. Casting. Causing.

—Surprise upon surprise—

And then, as if 3 seconds had passed,
He answers your question with His own,
“Is this what you were expecting?
...The blind see, the lame walk,
Lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear,
The dead are raised,
The wretched of the earth
Have God's salvation extended to them."

And your followers return to that cell where you wait,
Telling their own stories of what they saw Him do
--with their own now-opened eyes;
And echo words they heard Him speak
--with their own now-dug-out ears.
Did their stories answer your questions?
Did His question quiet your doubts?
(I ask because I know how hearing of others' miracles
Can cause the question, "Why can't I have one of my own?")

But, your cousin, The One you baptized in that river,
He doesn’t seem offended by questions:
"What did you expect?
When you went to see John in the wild?
A weekend camper?
A sheik in silk pajamas?
Not by a long shot.
What then?
God's messenger?
That's right...
Probably the greatest messenger you'll ever hear."

—Surprise upon surprise—

Then Herod has a birthday,
And a young beauty
—the girl of that sister-in-law-turned-wife—
Gifts him a dance.
What a dance it must have been!
A dance that birthed a vow,
“I’ll give you anything you want!”
But the young dancer has no wants.
And, so, asks her still-stinging mother, who hisses,
“That meddling Baptizer’s head on a platter!”

—Surprise upon surprise—

And so the birthday encore:
That plattered head—eyes and mouth open—
Looks straight at Herod.
(No wonder his dreams turned to nightmares)
And that headless body is buried
By stomach-sick, heart-broken followers
Who must tell his cousin, The One,
That the voice crying in the wilderness is silenced.
But wait…
—Surprise upon surprise—

(*All Scripture references are based on The Message.)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

We are bold to ask...

So....another side effect of being 50something--sometimes I REALLY believe I have that "thing" known as adult-onset ADD. Used to, I could keep at least 6 or 7 "balls" in the air without even breaking a sweat. But no more. 
Where my ADD reveals itself most is in my prayer life. I'll begin to pray, and the first shiny object that crosses my mind...--well, let's just say the prayer turns to dust, and I'm off and hopping down some rabbit trail.
But...somehow...Jesus must have known there would be people like me. (Well...HA...of course He did--He knit us together.) So, when those first road-weary followers asked, "Teach us to pray, Lord," He gave them words that would settle them down, focus them on what's important, words that can be used as a START line for any prayer that has ever come out of my heart. They aren't FANCY words and, when you REALLY contemplate their meaning, they definitely aren't EASY words. (He must have known we don't really need FANCY or EASY--oh, of course He did.)
So, this morning, after I had JUST used this unfancy prayer to settle me down, to focus my heart, to pray for His Kingdom to take over my heart, my Honey's heart, our boys' hearts, my nephews' hearts, my beautiful niece's heart, my family's and other dear hearts...well, these words for March 27 found me. (I just love it when God has a theme!):
"....'We are bold to say'.... 
The word 'bold' is worth thinking about.... We do well not to pray the prayer lightly. It takes guts to pray it at all. We can pray it in the unthinking and perfunctory way we usually do only by disregarding what we are saying. 
'Thy will be done' is what we are saying. That is the climax of the first half of the prayer. We are asking God to be God. We are asking God to do not what we want but what God wants. We are asking God to make manifest the holiness that is now mostly hidden, to set free in all its terrible splendor the devastating power that is now mostly under restraint. 'Thy kingdom come...on earth' is what we are saying. And, if that were to suddenly happen, what then? Who would be welcomed in and who would be thrown the Hell out?...Boldness indeed. To speak these words is to invite the tiger out of the cage, to unleash a power that makes atomic power look like a warm breeze.
To speak the second half of the prayer, you need to be bold in another way. Give us. Forgive us. Don't test us. Deliver us. If it takes guts to face the omnipotence that is God's, it takes perhaps no less (guts) to face the impotence that is ours. We can DO NOTHING without God. We can HAVE NOTHING without God. Without God we ARE NOTHING
It is only the words, 'Our Father' that make the prayer bearable. If God is indeed something like a father, then as something like children, we can risk approaching him...." 
(Frederick Buechner, "Listening To Your Life")
“And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?
Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.

The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. 
Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Like this:
Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best—as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
Yes. Yes. Yes."
(Matthew 6:5-13, The Message)

Oh, Abba God...thanks for knowing I would need these bold (but centering down words)...and then giving them to us. 
May Your Kingdom come. 
May Your will be above, so below. 
Yes. Yes. Yes.

Friday, February 28, 2014

My cousin, Barney, is a liar!

(Today's Kimberly story was "told" to me by Jeff Easter, one of my dearest, kindest, funniest friends. He has made me laugh on some of my saddest days and cry from laughter on some of my happiest. The other character in the story is my friend, Barney, who was always my family's version of 911, and a pretty funny guy in his own right--that's him in the picture. I love them both. I'm re-running this story in honor of Jeff's birthday.)
"It's an easy job. All you gotta do is answer the phone."

I should've known better. After all, my cousin Barney is a liar.

I should've paid attention to the chill that ran up my spine as I thought of the shadowy, casket-lined rooms and the pre-recorded, macabre organ music piping out strains of "Rock of Ages." I don't even like that song. Nor do I care for the smell of carnations--the funeral bud of choice among lower-income Southern mourners.

What if I got trapped in the embalming room? Or had to touch a dead person? Doesn't the Old Testament speak against such things?

But, Barney kept assuring me, "All you gotta do is answer the phone!" (At that point in his vast and sundry career, Barney was apparently serving as Messmer Funeral Home's human resources director.)

Truth be told, it was sort of expected of me. I was a 16-year-old Harden, and working for Mr. Messmer had become a rite of passage for us Harden men.

Besides, I'd make three dollars and fifty cents an hour. I'd be rich!

So, I said "OK, I'll do it."

My boss was Mr. Messmer himself, a kind and portly man who had earned the trust and, therefore, the newly-passed members of most families in the Kimberly-Warrior metropolitan area.

My first assignment was the Thursday night viewing for the newly-passed Mrs. Taylor. The plan was for Mr. Messmer to greet the grieving family, get them settled in and then leave me to "answer the phone."

At 5 o'clock sharp, the mourning Taylors arrived en masse. There were tall Taylors, short Taylors, fat Taylors and skinny Taylors. There were ugly Taylors and foxy Taylors. Taylors in suits and Taylors in overalls. There seemed to be a thousand Taylors, all packed into the small confines of the parlor, which was unchangingly decorated in faux-wood paneling, naugahyde chairs and crushed-velvet drapes.

Shortly before 6 o'clock, with Mr. Messmer long gone, a steady stream of grievers began arriving to pay their respects and to comment on how "natural" Mrs. Taylor looked--yet another reason Mr. Messmer was the regional undertaker of choice.

At four minutes past 6--I noted the time because it was my first official duty--the phone rang. "Messmer Funeral Home," I said, with a sudden swell of manly-Harden pride.

"Who's dead?" screeched the voice on the other side of the phone.

Somewhat rattled by the irreverent inquiry, I blurted back, "Mrs. Taylor. She's being buried tomorrow. Thanks for calling." And hung up.

Just then, a wiry Taylor woman, with a trail of what appeared to be dried snuff running down her chin, marched up and informed me, "There ain't no toilet paper."

As I sat there, blinking at her snuff trail, the only thought I could muster was, "Is that my problem?...My job is to answer the phone. Barney said so." But Snuffy just stood there, chewing on something, clearly expecting me to solve the encroaching toilet paper crisis.

Well, before I could get up out of my chair, both phone lines lit up. "One minute," I signaled to Snuffy....And there it was again...that screeching voice. Only this time it was angry and crackling, insinuating that I had hung up on her.

After repeating the newly-passed Mrs. Taylor's arrangements--twice--I finally began making my way through the sea of grievers in search of toilet paper...all the while doing everything I could to avoid "Snuffy," who had stomped off in a huff while I was dealing with Screecher.

As I maneuvered toward the mystifying no-man's land of the ladies' room, carrying an armload of toilet paper, I remember thinking, "I could be at home watching Gilligan's Island."

Now, for some unfathomable reason, Mrs. Taylor had chosen to pass in late July, the very apex of the Great State of Alabama's annual inferno. Each time the doors opened to welcome the seemingly endless tide of friends, neighbors and church "family," the evening's hot, humid blanket rolled in with them.
Who was this woman? How could one gain so many admirers in one short lifetime?

But, apparently, Mr. Messmer's air conditioner was no respecter of persons and, on that Taylor-congested evening, it decided to give up the ghost. Within seconds of its final, sputtering, lukewarm puffs, I was sweating life a farm animal.

Right then, one of the short Taylors in overalls reached out and grabbed my arm, practically shouting, "I been lookin for you everwhere. I think there's somethin wrong with that-there air condition."

"Ya think, Shorty?" was what I wanted to say...right after a much-needed cussin fit.

Instead, I strived to assume the kind countenance of a funeral home director, which seemed to work so well for Mr. Messmer, and told Shorty, "I'll see what I can do."

By this time, the smell in the over-Taylored parlor was a hot, cloying concoction of body odor, perfume, spearmint gum, Aqua Net and those blasted carnations.

I wound my way back to the desk where both phone lines were blinking...holding my breath and loosening my suffocating necktie.

And...I kid you if on cue..."Rock of Ages" began piping through the speakers. At that moment, I would have gladly traded places with the newly-passed Mrs. Taylor.

As I sat lines still blinking...the ugly truth hit me. I couldn't call Mr. Messmer. I couldn't fix the "air condition." I couldn't stand on my desk and shout, "Will all you people just please go home?"

We were and those sweaty that stinking, hot place of death. Hell took on a whole new meaning.

At 8:35...with just 25 minutes to go...I thought I saw the proverbial light at the end of the proverbial tunnel...until I realized it was just a reflection off the sweaty forehead of the rapidly-approaching, panicked-looking Taylor woman.

"May I help you?", I reluctantly asked. To which she responded by covering her mouth and speaking to me in low, hushed tones, as if we were sharing some long-held secret.

"Umh," she began. "I really don't know how to...umh...tell you this. But, you see, Mrs. Taylor is my sister, and...well...y'all have too much 'stuff' up there," she stammered, gently patting her own well-endowed chest area. "Could you possibly take a little out?"

What!...Could I what? That was definitely NOT in my job description. I had never touched a live woman's chest...I was certainly not about to touch a dead one!

"I'll tell Mr. Messmer," I spewed, as I took her by the elbow and ushered her out the door.
Forget Gilligan's Island. I'd rot in the Jefferson County Jail for murdering that lying, no-good Barney before I'd ever do this again!

By that point, I had shed my tie and jacket--a certain violation of Messmer's employee policy. (Good thing I'd listened to mama and put on clean underwear because the pit-stained, blue Oxford was the next thing about to be shed.) But, just as I began unbuttoning it, I happened to glance at the clock and noticed that its little hand was on the longed-for 9. "Thank you, sweet Jesus!"

Thankfully, one endearing quality of Southern mourners is that, except for the few disturbed outliers who threaten to fling themselves into their loved-one's casket for the night, they know when to call it a day. (After all, the food's back at the house.)

So, at 9:01 sharp, the tired, hungry Taylors began emptying the foodless, inferno-like parlor. By 9:05, everyone was gone...except for me and the newly-passed, newly-endowed Mrs. Taylor.

After tucking her in for the night, I snapped off the organ music--how could Rock of Ages possibly be playing again?--and, with neck hairs standing on end, beat a hasty path through the shadowy, casket-lined room and out the back door to sweet, blessed freedom....My cousin Barney is such a liar!

For everything there is a season,
a time to be born and a time to die....
a time to cry and a time to laugh....
a time to grieve and a time to dance....
(from Ecclesiastes 3 NLT)