Hope in the Last Gift

My family draws names each Christmas. We hail from a frugal background of farmers. No extra fuss for the holidays. Everyone buys just one gift. So it’s always fun to see who has our names and what they have chosen for us.

For our 2021 Christmas get-together, we decided to open gifts when everyone was present — after the funeral and burial of our matriarch, my mom.

The younger kids passed out the presents and when they handed mine to me, I peeked at the gift tag.

Who had my name this year? Swallowed fresh tears. Mom had my name. This would be my last gift from her.

Our mothers do so much for us, we often take them for granted. Until we become parents and realize the sacrifices. Or until they are gone.

Mom gifted me with several things, but two of them stood out as I helped my siblings prepare Mom’s service. As we all reflected on a life well-lived.

Music: Mom grew up in poverty. Self-esteem destroying poverty. The kind that moves beyond just being hungry. Only one dress to wear every day to school. Hearing the taunts of the richer kids. Knowing she could never be one of the “in” crowd.

So as a parent, Mom worked hard to make sure all of her children had multiple choices of clothing. And she used part of her nursing salary to give her children a resource she never had. Piano lessons.

Every week, she drove me to my piano teacher’s house where I played my pieces, learned more about the scope of music, progressed through the various methodologies. Mom never had to remind me to practice. Music flowed from my soul to my fingers and into the sound board of our piano.

Mom was present at my recitals, the concerts and competitions that came later as I grew in skill. She even took a few lessons herself, so she would know what her children were learning. So she could confront the whispers of her past with the truth. No longer an outcast.

I didn’t make it into the Julliard School of Music  — one of my goals. But I took lessons for 13 years and later became a piano teacher myself. Mom was proud. Her gift was not taken for granted.

Words: In her high school yearbook, Mom was voted as the one most likely to become a writer. It was her secret passion, but one which never materialized. Life intervened. World War II happened. The government paid for women to become Army nurses, so her destiny was decided for her.

But she instilled in all of us a love for words, a longing to read as many books as possible. She demanded we use correct grammar. Bought me my first diary — the kind with the tiny key and a lock. Drove us to the library each week where all of us checked out a stack of books. Mom included.

After chores each night, then homework and piano practice, we curled up in various places and read. Often discussed our books at the supper table. The television stayed off until the weekend.

In 1985, when I became a professional writer and sold my first article, it was Mom who cheered for me. She supported me in various writer’s conferences, paid my tuition, read my words, cherished my books.

Until the memory thief stole the meaning of words from her.

When we cleaned out Mom’s room at the nursing home, reducing her life to a few boxes, we found several books she was reading. Her Bible, a mystery, a Guideposts collection. Even when her cognitive skills declined, she continued to read.

Her gift of words continues today as all of us read on family vacations, watch the sales for book deals, share with each other the latest novel we cannot put down.

So when I opened that last gift from Mom, I wondered what it would be. Granted, my sister picked it out. Mom was trapped in the shadows of dementia, living in the nursing home. But Kris chose something Mom would have definitely liked. Another thing Mom and I shared.

It was a cross, made from the aspens of New Mexico. Purchased in one of the stores in Red River, the little mountain town our family has vacationed in for 20+ years.

The perfect last gift.

For Mom regularly shared her faith. In her quiet unassuming way. She wore a cross necklace under her nurse’s uniform where she could touch it on hard days. To remind herself Who she belonged to. Her Savior always present.

It was Mom I told first when I decided to believe. She was the one who had driven me to the children’s story-time where I gave my heart to Jesus. Mom filled our home with children’s Bibles, regularly quizzed us on our weekly Bible verses, made sure we were clean and ready for church every Sunday.

Wearing a dress she sewed herself. Making sure her children were never rejected because of how they looked.

During her memorial service, we played her favorite song, “It Took a Miracle.” A reminder that this 93-year-old woman had lived her entire life enjoying music, words and hanging on to faith.

Every. Single. Day.

Until December 7th, when she graduated to heaven and saw in person the reason she believed.

Mom’s final gift hangs in my living room as homage to her life and to the faith we shared. Her lifetime of gifting to her family and to others will live on.

But it is her last gift I will cherish the most.

And what was the last gift I gave her? I wrote Mom’s obituary.

©2022 RJ Thesman – All Rights Reserved

New Mexico Calls with Hope

What is it about New Mexico that calls to me?  flag-of-new-mexico-l

Surely it is more than the memories of 22 family vacations in the historic mining town of Red River.

Could it be the combination of sights and sounds that provide a sensory experience each day?

  • The pine scent of tall trees, dressed in breath-taking greens
  • A chipmunk daring me to hold out another handful of peanuts so he can stuff his cheeks
  • Hummingbirds dive bombing for a bit of sweet nectar
  • Aspens clapping their leaves in fluttering applause
  • The babbling river that cleanses both the stream and the sediment of my soul

Although my family vacations in Red River, Santa Fe and Taos are my favorite Southwest cities with their terracotta textures, the diversity of their people and the history of fine art.

It is no wonder Georgia O’Keefe chose this land to live in, to find solace in painting its various colors and tones.

Yet this year, I needed the mountains in a new way. Before we climbed into the van for the eight-hour trip, God instructed me that the object of my vacation was to follow the words of Psalm 46:10.

“Be still. Rest quietly. Wait patiently for God.” 

As we drove over the last summit and looked below at the town’s quiet repose, I knew it would be a special vacation – a gifting of rest.

Although seven of our family members bunked together in a condo, I purposely made time for solitude. Every morning, I carried my mug of hot tea and feasted for precious minutes with the divine One.

In the wonder of worship, I sat beside the river and entreated God to replace the murkiness of my soul with clarity and fresh intimacy with him. red-river-stream

I looked upward at the mountain crest – my mountain – at the crevasse carved there, as if God had dipped his hand in it during the second day of creation.

His signature of intense power. A reminder for generations of pilgrims that only God could create such grandeur yet dare to be personally involved in our lives.

God rarely spoke during these morning vistas as we quietly sat together and enjoyed the cool air. As we communed in silence, I embraced the beauty of solitude and the intimacy of being in his presence without speech.

Once again, I breathed deeply of the spiritual fervor of New Mexico, forgot the trials and burdens I left behind and gratefully received the solace God offered.

New Mexico is called the Land of Enchantment, but for me – it is the healing irony of mountains and desert, Native Americans and Hispanics, turquoise and coral – somehow blended into a symphony of texture and diversity that rises in a spiritual explosion of praise.

How sweet to experience how it also became a quiet haven for individual retreat where I once again learned to be still and acknowledged that He is God.

©2016 RJ Thesman – Author of the Reverend G trilogy 

This post first appeared on “Travel Light,” by SuZan Klaasen.

How Do Writers Research?

One year ago, my friend and I drove to Santa Fe, NM. We planned it as a research / vacation trip in the wonderful Southwest, with side trips to Taos and Red River.santa fe

Why Santa Fe? Because I knew that my main character, Reverend G, loved the Southwest and particularly Santa Fe. I also knew that I wanted to include something about that region in the third Reverend G book – which is still in its first draft stage.

So we drove to Santa Fe, enjoying the mountain scenery and the warmer weather. After a hard Kansas winter, we needed to soak up the sun as well as to soak in the culture.

Writers can, of course, do research on the internet. In fact, that’s where I started – looking up the main sites of Santa Fe. But the internet can only provide facts and stats for a region.

If you want to write credibly and make your stories real – you have to actually experience a region.

The writer needs to know how people communicate in a particular area, how characters dress and talk, what it feels like to stand in line at the Georgia O’Keefe museum and then spend several hours drinking in the colors and textures of her paintings.

The writer needs to discover new artists who craft incredible sculptures out of metal, pictures of women on horses that seem to fly through the studio, textiles that flap their colors in the wind.

The writer keeps a journal of the trip and gathers brochures, maps, postcards, photos wherever she goes. But the writer also records the emotions she feels, touring a particular city.

I wrote about our tour of the Plaza: “Native Americans spread out their creativity: jewelry on black mats, shining silver and bountiful turquoise, coral, copper bracelets, earrings, necklaces – nothing that Reverend G would buy but all of it – she would enjoy. The pottery – some with colors of the earth, some with the brightness of primary colors.”

We talked with tourists, but also with the locals – interesting blends of Hispanic, Caucasian, Native American and some Asians. Reverend G and I both loved the diversity of the Southwest.

These friendly people, women in broomstick skirts of various colors. Men with tanned and wrinkled faces. They seem to live an idyllic life where they have the freedom to leave workplaces and spend time with a writer from Kansas, to tell her how long they’ve lived in Santa Fe and why they moved out of corporate America to operate a coffee shop in New Mexico.

We ate at a little café with different colors painted on each wall – purple blended into orange, yellow beside red. Small salads with walnuts, salmon and bleu cheese with a vinaigrette dressing. Iced chai tea in tall glasses – spicy yet sweet and so refreshing.

So many variations of wildflowers, splayed in gardens along with buckets of pansies and Indian blanket daisies. A momentary wrong turn and we were lost, but then found in a rose garden at the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Bathing our hot faces in the fountain that promised health. Snapping my promo picture while surrounded by lavender roses.

Statues of Mary everywhere and the creativity of God surrounding us. Worship all around us and in us as my friend played a Native American flute, and I wrote in my journal and savored the day.

The Loretto Chapel, famous for its spiral staircase. You can’t imagine what happens to Reverend G in the chapel, but you’ll have to wait for the third book to find out.

Although we smelled smoke from mountain wildfires, the resulting atmospheric change brought us colorful sunsets – a sacred end to a busy day.

We left a few sites for the next trip – whenever that will be. But I found enough material and soaked in enough of the Southwest to add to my book and make it credible.

How do writers research? They live in the area for a while. They let every one of their senses open fully to the people and the places where they exist. They look for the inner soul and the textures and colors around them. They listen for dialects and observe relationships. They take time to literally smell roses and meld new friendships. Then they come home, organize their notes and write about it.

And a year later – they wish they could return.

©2013 RJ Thesman – Author of “The Unraveling of Reverend G”

Divine Appointments in New Mexico

During a recent vacation, my traveling companion and I toured the towns of Santa Fe, Taos and Red River. New Mexico – the land of enchantment – contains plenty of enchanted places and wonderful people just in these three cities.

Although the vacation had a dual purpose – to rest and reflect, but also to do research for another book in my Reverend G series – a higher purpose soon surfaced. Each morning, we asked God to point us toward someone who might need encouragement, hope or a sense of His presence.

Without fail, each day revealed a divine appointment. A beautiful couple traveling through the area without a schedule: we discussed various places we had seen and encouraged each other to visit the Loretto Chapel and the Taos galleries. A young woman in need of surgery: I prayed God’s healing for her. A young man who was stressed out in his job needed a smile and a “I think you’re doing great!” comment. An incredible young woman on her way to a law degree blessed us with her strength even as we prayed God would work out His plan for her life.

Each day, someone crossed our path and at the end of each day, I recorded the divine appointments in my journal. But when I returned home, I thought Why should the divine appointments only happen in New Mexico? Can’t they also happen in the summer heat of Kansas?

So I am trying to be more proactive – to look for those people who might need a word of encouragement, a measure of hope or a simple prayer. All of us know how it feels to be blessed by a smile, a kind word or a pat on the back. I want to be on the alert for ways that I can bless others and find those divine appointments every day.

If I do that, then the blessing of the vacation continues and the hope of God travels from one heart to the next. Just imagine if all of God’s children kept their divine appointments.