I discovered the world is a dangerous place in my second-grade classroom. Billy Harris was writing numbers on the blackboard when the principal knocked on the door. Billy disappeared, his sums incomplete. He left the rest of us wondering what was going on.
First, there’s shock
By recess, I’d completely forgotten Billy and his unexpected departure. Tommy, a known bully with blue eyes and curly blond hair pummeled me with a handful of gravel. He snarled and cursed with a hatred I’d never seen. A dozen other boys joined in. Then the girls pointed fingers and I fled the jungle gym.
Mrs. Baxter ushered me into the principal’s office. A little while later, my mother, tightlipped, arrived and shepherded me home.
I’d forgotten that day until I read the first chapter of Kate’s book. I suppose it makes sense. We see a group portrait and immediately look for our own face. Narcissistic, perhaps. More likely, human.
I gazed out at the small garden outside my window, but saw instead my mother’s bridge club. Something was wrong. The card table wasn’t set up in the middle of the living room. The chairs had not been unfolded, and Mrs. Jennerson was wearing black capris. Who knew she wore trousers?
In those days, children were meant to be seen and not heard. I think I must’ve been fine with that, but I wanted to know what was going on. I remember drawing in a coloring book on the living room floor. I can’t recall if my sister was there, but I imagine she must’ve been.
My mother and her bridge club friends drank coffee, spoke on the phone, and shared the news. I pieced the story together. There’d been an accident at the mine. An explosion. Some men were trapped. I wondered if Billy Harris’s Daddy was one of them.
My father was the boss. I knew that for sure. I understood he was at the office, but I couldn’t picture him there. I’d never seen his office. “Coal mines aren’t for girls.” Instead, I saw him walking out our front door in a brown suit with a briefcase in his hand.
My father was more than a superhero. He knew everything and could do anything. Monday to Friday, he went to work in starched white shirts, striped ties, and a stiff felt hat. Saturdays, he rolled up his sleeves and built a little garden playhouse for my sister and I. Sundays, he walked a foot taller than everyone else at church. He was a giant. Yet my mother and her friends were worried about him.
Reality engulfs us
They seemed to be worried about us, too. My sister and I were forbidden to go out and play. We stayed locked in the house for weeks, although I’m sure it was just a few days.
I learned that the accident was my father’s fault. He was to blame. One of the exhaust fans had broken and no one bothered to fix it. Or maybe, the whole mine had been poorly designed. There was too much gas. Too much coal dust. Not enough air.
I knew my father didn’t go into the mines. He worked in an office. I was sure of that. Still, it was his fault.
The next thing I remember is the funeral. Just one. Billy Harris’s Daddy had come out alive, along with one of the other minors. The third, Mr. Carter, hadn’t made it.
My mother fussed over our clothes; white gloves, black patent leather Mary Jane’s, matching black purses, and brand-new Navy blue dresses. My dress itched and the Mary Jane’s were too tight.
In new confusion
I remember standing on the black and white tiled floor in the doorway of our house when my father came downstairs to take us to the church. He was wearing a black suit and carrying a black hat. I never saw my father wear black and I didn’t like it.
The church wasn’t our own, either. Ours was pretty and full of light and air. This one was dark, plain, and packed with people. No one talked to us.
Our family and the other bridge club families took the pews behind Mr. Carter’s wife, children, parents, and cousins. Still, no one talked to us.
In the middle of the service, my father stood up and walked to the front of the church. I looked around and saw hardness in the eyes of all my neighbors. Tight jawed, they glared at my father. I trembled.
I stood up, suddenly aware that I was in the guesthouse, in my private quarters, and not in a crowded church in West Virginia. Kate’s book fell from my lap. I picked it up off the floor and thought about the words she’d written. “That’s the thing; we’re never the same.” ~Why God calls us to dangerous places, pg.22
We try minimizing
I felt a sudden pang of guilt over the direction my thoughts had taken. Kate had written about missionaries; tender, beautiful human beings whom I knew so very well. They’d gone to the far side of the earth, all for the sake of Jesus. What had I done? Built a guesthouse in Malta. And a beautiful one at that. And anyway, what did a little girl’s experience have to do with the stories of so many of my guests?
I dropped Kate’s book on the glass topped table and filled my hot pot with water. Perhaps a cup of tea, I thought, would bring me back to where I am.
As I waited for the water to boil, it occurred to me that what makes the stories of my guests different than my own is only their frequency and their foreignness. Someone once told me that most of us in America experience three traumatic experiences in our lives. I counted two; that first mining accident, and the death of my husband. Both changed the course of my life, and more than that, they changed the way I see the world.
Until consequences require us
After the mining accident, I became something of a pariah in school. It didn’t last forever, but long enough to hurt. More devastating, though, was what happened to my father. That giant of a man who could do anything, became human. Of course, I still loved him. And no, I never blamed him. But he stopped being the superhero I’d known all my life. In his place, a man in a black suit, loosened tie, and disheveled hair, sat at our kitchen table and choked back tears.
Leaning against my little kitchenette in my guesthouse in Malta, I realized something I’d never recognized before. After the accident, I had to get to know my father all over again.
To begin again
The click of the hot pot shutting off punctuated my thoughts with the kind of full stop that marks the closing sentence in a well-prepared speech. Its summation echoed in my mind. “I had to get to know my father all over again.”
I watched the steaming water splash, tint, and brown in my tea cup. Perhaps that was what Kate was trying to do – get to know her father, our father, all over again.
And so we do
I picked up her book from the end table next to my wicker butterfly chair and opened it to the last sentence I’d read. “This book is my humble attempt to explore what it means to know this God who suffers and loves and invites his fragile children into life with him.” ~Why God calls us to dangerous places, Pg 26.
I could hear Kate’s voice in her words and knew I would continue to find my own story in hers.