legacy

The Woman Who Loved Storms

On the afternoon of May 7, 2002, a large tornado hit my home town, Pratt, Kansas. My brother Vernon, Pratt County Sheriff, immediately called our parents and told them to get to the hall bathroom and stay there. When he later dropped in to check on them, he found them standing at the sliding glass door, gazing at the beautiful terror of the storm.

       Mom was always ready to trade safety for the thrill of dazzling and dangerous spectacles. Her love of ominous Kansas weather forged one of the anchors of my life. She loved the very things which sent others diving into storm cellars or basements.

       Not only was she unafraid, but blizzards, thunderstorms, and even tornadoes brought pure squealing-with-delight joy to Mary Chinn. And she passed it on to her children. Mom’s exuberant enjoyment of storms was wonderfully infectious; we caught it the same way people catch colds.

       The great blizzards of my childhood served magical gifts to the Chinn boys. They kept us home from school, drew us outside to play in the snow, and gave us Mom’s “snow ice cream” (vanilla, sugar, and cream in a bowl of snow). Surely, we were the only children in the world who had ever tasted such a magnificent dessert. 

Beyond Burger King

I’m grateful for the great virtues and lessons that I learned or caught from Jack and Mary Chinn. But a love of storms may be the most valuable legacy handed down to me.

       Why?

       Because God loves storms. They reflect an essential part of His nature, and they also comprise the planet’s fleet of big transport trucks that haul temperature and moisture to places that need them. Furthermore, by learning to love what the Creator loves, we find new alignment with God.

       Mom loved and lived the words of the old hymn,

“O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed”[1]

       Mary Chinn would rather have known the “awesome wonder…of rolling thunder” than safety.

       But, in our consumer age, many people turn away from wonder in their reach for control. They prefer the words of an old Burger King ad: “Have it your way.” 

       A storm, however, is a powerful reminder that a great sweep of life lies beyond our control. We cannot choose the timing, the target, or the intensity of a storm. A tornado or hurricane is an enormous swirling billboard that announces, “You can’t have it your way.” 

Nature’s Theater

I’m forever grateful that I grew up beneath the large canopy of south-central Kansas sky. We had front row seats at the grand theater of nature. I slept in the backyard as often as possible; the night sky overwhelmed and charmed me. And few natural exhibitions can be as thrilling as a black thunderhead boiling up out of the western Kansas horizon.

       We grew up knowing that a storm might kill us, but it couldn’t destroy us. We knew life was a continuum; it would go on… somewhere! Nature held no threat over our real life. Knowing that released us from the fear of death, a fear which keeps many from living a full life.

       After living a very full 96 years, Mom died November 1. The weather forecast for the day of her funeral and burial called for 37 degrees and light wind. But, when we arrived at the cemetery, the temperature was 22, and snow came horizontally out of the north.

       I could almost hear her laughter in the wind.


[1] “How Great Thou Art,” Stuart K. Hine

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

The true story Rod Dreher tells in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (Grand Central, 2013) is simple and straight. And we know the end from the beginning. Rod and his little sister Ruth grow up in a small town in Louisiana. He cannot wait to leave the place. He wants the “big” – city, money, fame. She chooses the local, the little, and the quiet.

At forty, she is stricken with a very aggressive cancer. Rod watches the community come around his little sister. Her quiet and steady sowing – her “faithfulness in small things” – turns into a great harvest of kindness and generosity. She dies. Rod not only writes a book honoring his sister and her choice of the “little way,” he realizes he can and must find that way.

It has been said that a great book will read us more than we read it. This is that kind of book; at least it was for me. I too grew up in a small town. And I could not wait to leave Pratt, Kansas. My brother Vernon stayed. Except for an excursion through the US Army and Viet Nam, and postwar ranching jobs in Nebraska and Colorado, Vernon has been a supporting column for family and community all his life.

So this very real, organic, and probing book was a mirror for me. I saw myself in the intricate layers of father-son relationships, the shades of familial and community acceptance (and rejection), and the nuances of sibling relationships.

But, the real beauty and power of The Little Way…is the compelling twin portraits of Ruthie and St. Francisville, Louisiana. Ruthie was a very full-spirited southern woman. She always manifested a serious, even sacrificial, approach to life. But she also dropped her bra at a Hank Williams Jr. concert, swung it like a lasso, then released it to soar onto the stage (Hank draped it from the neck of his guitar).

In time, Ruthie settled. She became a teacher; “Listen, sweet baby, you can do this,” she pleads with a student. She loved her parents, her husband and daughters, her students, cooking and St. Francisville. She was a true community spark plug. Everyone in town knew and loved her. Ruthie comes right off the pages in full throbbing color.

When Ruthie got sick, the town folded around her like a right hand would grab and hold injured fingers on the left hand. This is one of the most vivid portrayals of community you will ever read.

For example, the town came together for a “Leming-Aid” concert in the park.  Out of 1700 residents, a thousand people came, and they gave $43,000! People were buying ice cream cones with hundred dollar bills.

When Ruthie hit a very bad place, a text message called her daughter Hannah out of class at LSU. Hannah quickly asked a classmate to drive her home (30 miles) in her Jeep. He drove so fast that he blew the radiator. Almost immediately a couple picked them up and drove them straight to the hospital. That night, as the family returned from the hospital, their house had been cleaned, the tables and counters piled high with food, and the Jeep was sitting in the driveway. The radiator had been repaired.

True to the rhythms of community, her open casket sat on the same spot in the church “where she and Mike had stood years earlier and promised to be together until death.”

Ruthie was often barefooted; it was something of a signature. When the pallbearers stepped to the rear of the funeral coach to receive her casket, they were all barefoot, with their suit pants rolled high over their ankles. They carried her “to her grave with the wet green grass of Starhill [Cemetery] between their toes.” When Ruthie’s daughters saw that, they removed their shoes too.

After the funeral, Rod and his family knew – and told some friends –they were returning to St. Francisville. In the little way of small towns, immediately someone told him about a house. He looked at it and took it.

The house was located on Fidelity Street.

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