SUNFLOWER SISTERS

It’s that time of year again. My three favorite months of the year are now behind us; it’s always hard for me to leave summer behind.

There is one grace, one gift of late August/early September that gives me an unparalleled high: the Kansas sunflower is in full bloom. Around Labor Day, the sunflowers start showing off again–and they have every right to.

Our mom loved sunflowers. In yet another effort to keep our parents’ spirits alive and well, Gail, Suzanne and I have taken her affinity for the Kansas state flower and formed a new appreciation for this beautiful gem.

Perhaps I am a little more extreme than they are in many ways, but I took it to the next level, complete with Mom’s signature in the leaf:

My long-lived affinity for blue moons is celebrated as well, wrapped around the sunflower. It just seemed right to pair them.

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What a gift it is to be born into a family with sisters whom you love so much. Many women aren’t so lucky, and we are fully aware of this. We had no choice but to be together, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. They are not only my sisters, they are my best friends.

Other friends are in our lives by choice. We decide who to let in, and who to keep. Sometimes friendships are made because we are drawn to a person, other times they are formed by chance.

When I went to college in 1984, I was assigned a potluck roommate. You take what you get, and this means taking a chance. I hit the jackpot with Marilyn. She was a sophomore, having learned the freshman ropes already. She was majoring in speech pathology, and I always admired her dedication to this field. It sparked my interest as well, but it took a master’s degree, and I knew I would be lucky to finish with a bachelor’s.

Greater than my interest in her field of study was our friendship. We hit it off, and we welcomed others into our circle, including my dear friend from my hometown, Tracy, as well as Denise, a friend from close to her hometown.

The four of us lived together in an apartment the next year, and the memories we made will last forever, even if some of us can’t remember certain ones. I will never forget, and will always be grateful to Marilyn for inspiring me to pursue the career I chose.

We had the opportunity to fill in each other’s memory holes this past weekend. Two years ago, we gathered to celebrate our 35-year-bond (A Time to Reap, July 2019).

We vowed to gather again every July, but last year, well, it was 2020. This year, however, we had a grand opportunity to meet. After being delayed twice to COVID, we took in a concert in the grand theater in the downtown of my small city.

This was no average concert. This was another Kansas girl, our very own Martina McBride. Even more cool than that, she hails from very close to Marilyn’s and Denise’s hometowns. When she spoke to the crowd–she made it clear how much she loves to be back home, mentioning her hometown of Sharon, Kansas, as well as her family band she grew up in: The Schiffters–her maiden name was Schiff. We were among the few hooting; Marilyn and Denise knew exactly where Sharon, Kansas was, and we were in the area to hear her years ago. Her musical family played at festivities in the area and when I went home with Marilyn in 1984 (85?) for a weekend, we had the privilege of hearing her sing at a wedding dance.

Martina played at this same theater five years ago, and we were there, too. Her legendary voice comes from such a small dynamo, but we know that Kansas girls are big, strong and mighty on the inside. Martina exemplifies this in her voice; we all waited for our favorites to be belted out, and she didn’t disappoint.

We know we are truly Blessed, and I’m pretty sure I’ve made it clear the every day should be Independence Day. If I’d had one request, however, I would have asked for the all-time great Christian song, the song that has the power to bring so much peace to a funeral: How Great Thou Art. We had it as one of the songs at our parents’ funeral, and I will never forget it. Perhaps, however, that request was granted long ago, as I will detail in a moment.

All three of these friends-for-life made the trip to be with me that day, and I will never forget that, either. All three of them know the joy of having sisters, but all three of them also know the pain of losing a sister. I cannot fathom that pain, because, as Martina sings in Blessed, I love them so much it hurts.

But both joy and pain in life, as we all know in our own ways, and from our own losses, have a way of waxing and waning. Joy, if we work at it, and let our loved ones and friends help, can override the pain. It takes work, and it takes letting those people in to share the pain, but it can be done.

Remember, sharing joy multiplies it, while sharing sorrow divides it. And never ever forget there is a force stronger than any of us at work all around us. Love is our proof of that. I have a story about more proof I found on my own, the story of my request granted.

It was in the 90’s, and my husband and I were visiting Mom and Dad on the farm. It was late summer, and the sunflowers and other wildflowers were in bloom, and the road west of our farm was a great place to take in this natural beauty. I headed out for my morning run, and put on my music–this was pre-iPod days, and the best I had was a bulky set of headphones that would tune in to local FM stations.

I almost always run to music, and these usually got me through. It was a Sunday morning, and there was a local station with a Christian music show at that hour, so I tuned in.

When I got to the curve about a mile west of the farm, the DJ announced a song from Martina McBride. I was hopeful that it would be How Great Thou Art, of course. Just two weeks prior, we were visiting Mom and Dad, and when I ran, I had the same station tuned in and her masterpiece rendition of that song played. Further, it was in almost exactly the same place I was running at that moment.

The song began, but it wasn’t that one. I don’t recall which one it was, but I know it was beautiful. The FM signal wasn’t always consistent, and it began to fade. That song faded out, and another song faded in: it was Martina McBride singing How Great Thou Art. She finished, and her first song faded back in, and it finished. The DJ came back on, commented on her beautiful voice in the other song, and went on with the show. No mention was made of what I heard. I do know what I heard, and I will believe this was a show of that great force that is always at work all around us. Sometimes we have to look for it, but sometimes, like that Sunday morning so long ago, it was presented to me, and could not be missed.

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There are many things that bond sisters together. Love and loss, life and shared memories. Friends have those same bonds. It is often said that friends are the family we choose for ourselves. I am speaking for myself, but I couldn’t have chosen better sisters. I do get to choose my friends, but they have to choose me as well, and for that, I am so thankful that Tracy, Denise and Marilyn chose me back. We are celebrating 37 years as friends this fall; we came two-by-two to Fort Hays State University, and became a circle of four.

Tracy’s gift to us two years ago were the bracelets pictured above. This year, these rings are our new shared treasures.

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The Kansas sunflower never fails to share its beauty at the close of every summer. My husband, knowing how much I love them, tried to plant a patch for me in his garden, with only one showing up.

Mark and The Sunflower Stalk

It seems that, much like some Kansas girls, they have a strong will to thrive in the wild, making their own decisions about where and when to bloom, choosing to do it in their own way. They prefer to share their gifts on their own terms, and they do it well. Leave them to act on their wisdom, and they won’t disappoint. But they never forget, just like Martina said to do as she left the stage, to take care of each other.

Just like some Kansas girls do.

THIS ONE’S FOR THE GIRLS

THE BITTER AND THE SWEET

When I was a few months shy of my 24th birthday, I departed for a year in Philadelphia. I signed a contract as a nanny for a suburban Philly couple, and I left 31 years ago last month. Despite the initial homesickness, and the difficulty inherent in living in someone else’s home and taking care of their children, it was a sweet experience.

My firstborn son is a few months shy of 24, and he left Friday for the first of his three-year commitment in ministry in south Asia. For me and his dad, it was mostly a bittersweet experience. For him, I know it is sweet-bitter.

Unlike me at age almost-24, he seems to genuinely care that it was hard for us to send him off, and hard to be without him here. I don’t remember giving a flip how my parents felt when I left them, but I do remember wanting so badly to turn around in that narrow center aisle of the airplane after they dropped me off, and run back to them, letting the fear overriding my sense of adventure. But I didn’t. I made it there, and I made it through the year with two visits to home.

My son will spend his first year there before he comes home for about a month. It will be sweet.

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Life has a funny way of coming around full-circle.

When I was in Philadelphia, I made two lifelong friends, both named Amy. They, too, were nannies, and both from the Midwest, so we had a lot in common. When I speak of both of them among others, I aptly differentiate them as “Tall Amy” and “Short Amy.”

“Tall Amy” sent me a text last Saturday. She wanted to let me know that they would be driving through my small city in six days on their way from Minneapolis to Texas with their three children for Spring Break, and would it work to visit, at least for a bit?

This was a gift from Above. Knowing my husband and I would be sullen and sad the day after sending our son off, I knew there couldn’t be a better remedy than a visit from an old friend.

There wasn’t. They arrived at dinnertime Saturday, spent the night and departed around noon today. I hadn’t seen her for almost two years, and she hadn’t been to my home since our second-born son took his first steps, almost 20 years ago. He joined us too, and at 6’4″, wondered why she didn’t get as excited about his ability to walk now as she did then.

Laughter is such good medicine, and we did plenty of that.

We recalled our dark, desperate days of the first week alone in Philly before we met each other. Both alone in a strange city, living with strangers, and soothing ourselves with the only familiar remedy: food. There seemed to be a big hole that could be filled with nothing but food.

We both arrived on Saturday, February 17th, 1990, through the same agency. They got us in touch with each other, and when she answered the door on February 24th, my first thought was this: “I know I am going to like her.”

I still do.

We were perfect company for each other, and quickly discovered our similarities: we both grew up in large Catholic families. We both couldn’t stop eating. We both were/had been runners; she was still running, but I left it behind after high school. We quickly became inseparable. Our respective employer families both suggested other nanny friends to us, because, perhaps, it wasn’t good to have just one friend. We both disagreed, and until “Short” Amy came into the picture in my neighborhood in the fall, we were all each other needed.

By May, she had me running again. I cannot put into words how grateful I am that she gently, but assertively coaxed me back into running. It saved me, I shed the extra weight, and I felt better than I had in my 24 years. She held me accountable to meet her for early morning runs, and I have been hooked since. I rarely miss a day now, and when I don’t run, well, I don’t run. Nothing else runs, either. And, it still saves me.

From the depths of my heart and soul, dear Amy, thank you.

I dug back in my Philly photos, and found one of the few of us together. While we took many excursions together, we had mostly pictures of each other. No selfies back then! We are no longer concerned with taking pictures with hot lifeguards.

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When we get together, or even through the mail–typically for no occasion, we like to share small gifts with each other. This time was no different. Let me preface the rest of the story with this: of our many food remedies in those early days of our year together, dry cereal seemed to be good medicine, and there was always plenty with kids in our respective houses. One kind in particular eased the most pain; and I called it my “crack”–its name fit. While putting together our bag of goodies for each other, we had the same idea:

This morning, we enjoyed a run. At age 54 for both of us, this now means a run/walk. We were gone for an hour, and I had my 10,000 steps for the day before we got back. It was gloriously reminiscent of our early days together, 31 years ago. Last night, we called “Short Amy,” and left her a voicemail. She lives in Hawaii now, and we dream of going there to see her. If not that, we keep trying to find a way for all three of us to connect when she is back on the “Madland,” as she aptly calls it. She left a voicemail back for us this morning while we were out running. We will keep trying, because friendships this special are worth the effort.

We enjoyed a brunch, and they hit the road. Their children were delightful and patient with our extended visiting, but Spring Break 2021 was calling, so they hit the road.

Two big send-offs in one weekend was enough. A shared meal is always a good way to begin the goodbye process, and we were able to enjoy a family lunch Friday in Wichita on our way to the airport.

I feel that big hole deep inside again today, and, once again, I have been trying to fill it with food. This time, I know I can rein it it, and accept and appreciate both the sweet and the bitter that life offers, and not rely upon food to provide it. However, I’ve got an entire box of cereal waiting to make me feel better…