Grace Abiding

by Carrol Lee

Grace liked to spend the late summer afternoons sitting in the deep shade of her big front porch. The street was usually quiet then. The stay-at-home moms and their little chicks were all inside the air chilled, mid-century bungalows that lined her shady boulevard in the older part of town. And, it would be awhile yet before the working folks started arriving home.

It was her special time. Her favorite part of the day. She loved to sit in her well worn, but still comfortable and well padded wicker chair, and enjoy the lush, colorful plantings and hanging baskets she spent way too much time and money maintaining.

Since retiring three years ago from her job as assistant to the dean of the community college, Grace filled her mornings with gardening, volunteer activities, errands and keeping up with old friends. Her days had taken on a certain rhythm, and she liked it that way.

She'd always bring a big glass of something cold out on the porch with her, and sometimes her latest library book or home dÃcor magazine. But today, she had nothing to occupy her mind. She'd finished the latest novel by her favorite author " the one she'd patiently waited for as her name slowly crept up to the top of the library's "on hold" list " this morning, and the next issue of Country Garden Home wasn't due for another week. So, she sat abiding with the stillness that surrounded her.

Now, that was a phrase she'd picked up from her grandmother"abiding with (fill in the blank). Omega Lee, her mother's mother, was always abiding with something, and encouraging those around her to do the same. It might be some ailment she thought could be cured with one of her home remedies and a little time, or a decision hanging fire. Abiding with (fill in the blank) meant living with it, waiting to see what might transpire that would either render the situation harmless or point to a clear cut plan of action.

Ideally, abiding with something necessitated letting it go. Turning it over to God. Waiting on God. A comforting, wonderful concept. And, one that Grace struggled to hold on to. Patience was not one of her strengths. Well, that's not entirely true. She could be infinitely patient in gardening, waiting for seedlings to sprout and a flower bed's design to reach maturity. To be honest, it was people that tested Grace's patience most often.

Since the death - nearly four years ago now - of Charlie, her husband for nearly 40 years and the undeniable love of her life, Grace believed she had achieved a degree of peace, or maybe just acceptance of this phase of her life.

Grace always thought of her life in phases. Girlhood - spent in a small town an hour south where everyone knew everyone else. The youngest of two girls, Grace had always envied the ease with which her sister Madelyn - Maddie, for short - seemed to sail through life. The waters were a little choppier for Grace.

College - at the liberal arts school upstate where her mother had attended, and, some say, ruled her sorority, passing on her legacy to Maddie and a highly reluctant Grace. But, more importantly where she met Charles Butler, a middle child of the highly rambunctious and affectionate Butler clan.

Young Adulthood - as the newlyweds set up housekeeping and Charlie began his new job as a staff accountant for a large multi-national company. It was also during this phase that their dream of having several children - preferably two boys and then a girl - came to an abrupt end when Charlie contracted chicken pox after going on a fishing trip with his brother-in-law and six-year-old nephew.

Real Life - those years when everyone settles into the daily routine that will carry them through the next several decades of passing seasons; joys and sorrows; job changes and house moving; births and deaths; laughter and tears; the ebb and flow of friendships; and all the rest.

Now most people, when they come out on the other side of Real Life - provided they've been paying a modicum of attention and are being honest " will admit that there were always one or two areas in life where they just kept getting stuck, butting their heads into a brick wall over and over, despite their best intentions. Omega Lee had always been of the opinion that when God created us, he knew the special training each of us would require in order to achieve our full potential. And that, in his infinite love and wisdom, he provides countless opportunities for each of us to practice the lessons we need the most. No matter how long it takes us to wise up!

So, that's where Grace found herself now. In what she had come to think of as her Grace Years - the older woman with a lifetime of experience behind her; single again and living independently; in reasonably good health; with sufficient financial resources - not too much, not too little, enough for the occasional splurge; in the midst of creating a new life on her own; learning more about herself than ever before; kind of excited and kind of scared.

Grace Years was her private joke. Her time was her own, which could be a blessing or a curse, but she tried to keep a positive outlook. But Grace Years also conjured up images of a period of calmness and peace, which was not the state of mind in which Grace had found herself residing until very recently.

Oh, she had always known how blessed she was, but that had made her feel worse. Like an ingrate and a hypocrite. Sometimes, she had felt as confused and frustrated as she had when she was a young girl.

Among her many blessings was her group of women friends. A couple years ago, Grace and a long-time acquaintance, Alma Jean, had started to spend more time together, and Grace had hoped they could become good friends. But as they had gotten to know each other better, Grace found herself easily annoyed by some of Alma Jean's ways, and knew that if she and Alma Jean were to remain friends, she would have to step out of her comfort zone.

But that's the thing about friendships, isn't it? They get complicated and messy real quick. And, Grace had always been uncomfortable with messy, loose ends.

Alma Jean could sometimes be like a child wanting to be the center of attention and keeping the conversation focused on herself. If someone did manage to change the subject, at the first opportunity, Alma Jean would turn the spotlight back on herself. Grace had developed an aversion to divas during her sorority years, and found this particularly irritating.

Sometimes Alma Jean failed to acknowledge something that had just been recounted about someone else's troubles or concerns, only to launch into some trivial anecdote about herself. Or, upon being introduced to someone new, might offer a brief greeting and then distractedly turn and wander away. What was that all about?

Neither current events, nor historical ones for that matter, seemed to hold any interest for Alma Jean. She often mentioned her dislike of reading. In fact, Grace could not remember ever hearing Alma Jean express curiosity about any subject whatsoever. Information most people gleaned in the course of normal conversation seemed to elude Alma Jean. She would repeatedly ask questions that had just been answered. Was Alma Jean just not very bright?

Trying to plan an outing with Alma Jean drove Grace nearly to distraction. Granted, it wasn't that long a trip. Alma Jean was initially agreeable to most social invitations that came her way. Then the questions would start, and the worries about the timing of whatever arrangements were in place, and the vague suggestions as to what might work better " without any offer to assist in making any alternative arrangements. Alma Jean didn't like to drive in traffic, rain, after dark, in any unfamiliar area, or beyond a prescribed distance from her home, and so always wanted someone else to drive. She also had a long list of food-related likes and dislikes which made choosing a restaurant a lengthy process requiring much discussion. Grace would find herself exhausted by the time arrangements had been made to everyone's (read Alma Jean's) satisfaction, and not the best of company at said event, anticipating Alma Jean's next concern/problem/suggestion/request.

Grace had wondered if other people noticed these things, or was she just being mean spirited? She recalled a conversation many, many years ago with Pauline, one of Alma Jean's oldest and dearest friends, who had confided that as much as she loved Alma Jean, she was also tired of being shadowed by her and would like some time to herself. While it wasn't quite the same, Grace took it as an indication that she might not be alone in her feelings, either.

Why, it would be fair to ask, would Grace concern herself with trying to remain friends with someone who at first glance seemed so self-centered and inconsiderate? Grace had come to believe that her first impression of Alma Jean was not accurate, although she wasn't sure exactly what was going on. Was Alma Jean self-absorbed or just easily distracted? Maybe she just hadn't had the confidence or opportunity to cultivate many interests. Or, could Alma Jean be ill or struggling with failing mental faculties?

Grace's initial reactions to Alma Jean's behavior had been familiar ones to her. She had employed them many times in the past. Attributing a motive or meaning behind someone's actions without all the facts. Taking things personally and having hurt feelings. Negative judgments about others. Taking responsibility for someone else's happiness. Walking away from a relationship rather than confronting a problem head on. Those had been her uncomfortably comfortable ways of relating to the world. As it is with anyone, Grace had accumulated her bag of coping mechanisms over a lifetime " some passed on in a pre-packaged genetic/personality bundle at birth, some adopted along the way for lack of understanding or a better example.

But, by God's heavenly grace - and through years of loving and being loved by Charlie, and "growing up together" as they had always called it " earthly Grace now knew there was a different, more loving way of relating to others than what she had known before. Grace had seen and learned that generous portions of patience, trust, and forgiveness were basic to this new way of relating. And, the one person that Grace had come to realize needed patience, trust and forgiveness more than anyone else was not Alma Jean, but Grace herself. She was the one who needed a healed and humble heart. Because only then could she show real grace to others.

It was hard, trying to replace life-long ways of behaving with healthier physical, emotional and spiritual habits. Although the old ways had never worked all that well, they were easy to slip into. But the Lord was doing his part by providing her with plenty of opportunities to practice, and she meant to keep at it " abiding with it.

Grace found her mind wandering back to days she had spent as a girl with Omega Lee, and marveled at the wisdom the older woman had dispensed with such ease"there's a place for everyone in this old world, and time for everything that needs to be done.

As she got up from the old wicker chair to head inside, Grace thought she'd go give Alma Jean and a couple of the other girls a call and see if they'd be up for a movie and dinner tonight.

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