Thursday, January 8, 2015

Nothing Is As It Appears

Have you ever heard the phrase “nothing is as it appears?” It reminds us that we only “see” through our own mental filters. We bring our opinions, learning and past experiences to everything we see, hear and think which colors our perspective.

When we were kids, my family traveled from our Virginia home to visit relatives in the mid-west. I remember we stopped in Michigan one year and my dad decided to treat us to a “nice” dinner. After a recommendation from the hotel staff, we were off. Dad negotiated the station wagon up and down the crowded city streets until we came to what appeared to be a run-down warehouse. A single metal door marked with the name of the restaurant was visible under a lone street light. The building had no windows, no decoration, no curb appeal. It was scary.

“This can’t be it,” my mom said. “It’s the right address,” Dad countered. “The guy said it looked rough, but for us to go in anyway.”

We entered through the stark doorway, through a small hall and into a dazzling dining room sparkling with beautiful tables, giant floral displays, elegant chandeliers and smartly dressed staff. “WOW,” I remember thinking. This wasn’t the Waldorf Astoria, but the restaurant was completely different than it appeared from the outside. This episode helped me understand the adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” Great advice for us all, don’t you think?

I got an even deeper understanding of this principle just this past weekend. My husband’s oldest sister, Joann, passed away on New Year’s Eve after a short but aggressive bout with cancer. In the ten years since Joe and I’ve been married, I’d only spent time with Joann twice, and spoken to her on the phone a few times more. She lived eight hours south and we’d both been dealing with sick family members for several years. We were going to visit soon. They were coming up to see us soon. It never happened. And now we were heading to Charleston, South Carolina to put Joann to rest and be with her grieving husband, children and grandchildren.

Based on the time I’d spent with Joann and the stories I’d heard from Joe and other family still in Virginia, I was confident I knew all about her. I was wrong. As many of us do, I’d forgotten she’d continued to grow and change over the years as I had. It hadn’t occurred to me she was more than the wife, mother and school teacher I had spent time with. My memories of Joann held her tight in a specific box in my mind, complete with a few descriptive phrases I remembered when I thought of her. My little box proved woefully inadequate to describe the woman she was in this life. Where had I gone wrong?

I had neglected to see the beautiful Divine spirit that she truly was. I felt this spirit embrace us all as we gathered at the funeral home on Sunday to bid farewell. I saw it in the stunning portrait of Joann that had been painted only days before by her brother-in-law. Her spirit was there in the fragrance of the vibrant flowers as their scent wafted through the room. It was her spirit that shined through the eyes of her beautiful grandchildren, when I saw them laugh and cry.

As I sat through the service, I heard the pain in her son’s eulogy and I knew his great pain came from the great love he had for his mother. Her spirit was there again in the striking poem read by her adult granddaughter and the tearful words of her ten year old grandson. I began to understand the woman she was when, after the service, I saw two young men come to pay their respects to the family.

These two had been best friends since sixth grade when they were in Joann’s Language Arts class. She had truly inspired them and since that time, they had gotten “A’s” in every English class they took. They were now college seniors. Amazing. Two young men – at the end of a holiday weekend – took the time to let her family know how Joann had changed their lives all those years ago.

Back at the house, her husband David reminded me that he and Joann had gone back to college in their late 40’s to get teaching degrees. Joann had been a high school drop out as a kid. In her 20’s she was a mom to five children, then added several step children. Many years later, she got her GED and graduated from college when many people would think it was too late to reinvent themselves. But Joann did.

David also told me Joann had first worked as a teacher in a very poor, rural area of South Carolina where many children were raised by their grandparents. Many of the adults in the area were illiterate. At the first parent-teacher night that first year, Joann was shocked when only two parents in the entire school showed up. So she concocted a plan. She and David went to local grocery stores and got donations, then purchased supplies for a cookout and, on their own, threw a party at school inviting the kids, parents and grandparents. David smiled as he remembered nearly 150 people showed up for the cookout.

“Joann knew the adults were intimidated by the school, but she also knew everyone shows up for free food!” he remembered as his eyes sparkled with the memory. Brilliant. She figured out a way to meet the families and got them involved in school life.

Incredible. And I never knew. I never knew the spirit of this woman who was determined to help children in need and found a way to do just that.

Was Joann a saint? Not at all, as was apparent from the hilarious stories told around the table after the service. I bet you’re not either. I know I’m not.

I am thankful to have been a part of the family gathering to celebrate the life of this special lady. And I’m grateful to be reminded that nothing, and no one, is as they appear from our limited thinking.