Holy Week at Wal-Mart


     It was a routine Friday--early morning prayer group, followed by the grocery gauntlet.  Coupons in hand, I headed out to several stores, finally winding up at Wal-Mart.  The thought of crossing my Friday finish line in record time quickened my pace.  I cruised past the detergent and the fabric softener, but ran into a traffic jam across from the paper towels.

     An elderly woman blocked shoppers in both directions.  With a prosthetic foot, she inched along in a wheelchair, mumbling apologies. Her right hand nudged the wheel, while her left hand trapped toiletry items in her lap.  Surely someone must be here to help her, I thought, glancing at my list and then my watch. The crowd thinned.  I turned the corner and reached for cereal on Aisle 8B.

      You go and help her.  An audible command couldn’t have been more compelling, but this one came from my heart.  I never imagined that this could be an answer to a prayer—my own. 

     Retracing my steps, I parked my shopping cart next to a display of potato chips. There she was, all alone, looking bewildered and disoriented. I gently grasped the handlebars of the wheelchair and bent over to meet her gaze. 

     “Here, let me help you,” I said, and it warmed my heart as if I’d been the one in need.  “Is there someone here with you?”

     “Yes,” she stammered, “but I don’t know where she’s gone.” 

     “Is there a place where you are to meet?”

     “Take me to the checkout and maybe I’ll see her at the front.” 

     As we rolled along, I introduced myself and learned her name was Ellie.  She thanked me profusely and I told her I was happy to do it, and I was.  The smell of her hair reminded me of my grandmother. Once we got through checkout, we looked in both directions, but her friend was not there.

     “Honey, I have to go to the restroom. Can you wheel me inside?”

     “Sure, I’d be happy to.”

     Like the words to an old song, a once-familiar routine came back to me.  I pushed the wheelchair into the handicapped stall and locked the brakes. Supporting her under the arms, I helped Ellie stand and turn around.

     “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry you have to do this.  And me, a total stranger.”

     “It’s OK Ellie. I took care of my grandmother for ten years.” 

     But my grandmother never wore a diaper. Not a problem…the strange enablement continued, even as her bowels moved at an untimely moment. The floor was badly soiled and so was the one and only diaper. Still, the strange peace persisted. I managed to seat Ellie without either of us stepping in the mess all over the floor.  Humiliated, her shoulders began to heave as tears flowed.

    “I can’t believe you have to do this,” she sobbed, shaking her head.  “I’m so sorry.”

     I put my arm around her shoulders and words came: “Maybe someone will do this for me someday. Jesus cleans up my messes every day.”

     And the gift of that thought gave me the grace to joyfully tackle the mess around us with toilet paper. I couldn’t let her slip in it and fall. Never could I have pictured the women’s restroom in Wal-Mart, just before Easter, as holy ground. But in that moment it was a privilege to be there and humbly serve. As I worked, my heart overflowed with supernatural peace and joy.

     Somehow I salvaged the diaper and helped Ellie back into her chair. “There now, we did it,” I spoke as if nothing had happened, but we both knew better. A sacred serenity lingered in the air as we washed our hands at the sink. 

     I rolled Ellie out of that dark concrete cubicle and we exited the building into a bright spring day. An attendant from her assisted care center came running up to greet us. She thanked me and I gave my new friend a final farewell hug. 

     “Happy Easter, Ellie.”

     “You too, dear.”

     That’s when the prayer I prayed that morning came back to my mind:  Help me help someone else today in Your name. Help me do something I’m afraid to try, by relying on Your strength alone.

     As I walked back to the potato chip display, tears were streaming down my face.  My shopping cart was right where I’d left it, but I was in a different place--where finish lines don’t matter.


A Stroke of Luck

A Stroke of Luck

All semester I’d known the big tenth grade biology project was due May 17. Our teacher had warned us not to wait until the last moment to begin collecting, euthanizing, mounting, and labeling 50 different kinds of insects.  The ether-on-a-cotton-ball-in-a-pill-bottle method of execution took forever, so I opted for a quick kill—I plunged them into boiling water, and they came out like action figures. Think cryogenic Han Solo, but with heat. My project was finished—a week early! That had never happened—before or since.

    As the leader of the Boy Scout Explorer Post at church, Jim Swearingen was in charge of organizing a picnic outing to a local theme park. To help the scouts practice their “social graces,” the adult leaders required each guy to invite a date to the event.  It’s never easy experiencing rejection, but even harder when all the girls he called had the same excuse—“I’ve got to work on my bug collection!”  

    At fifteen, dating was not on my radar screen.  I’d been to school activities and was active in my church youth group. I wasn’t unattractive, just not ready to complicate my life with boys. I was the studious type, on the school newspaper staff, with plans to major in journalism and write the great American novel. Outside of football season, my idea of a great Friday night was writing another chapter in the novel about my future life, while I listened to the top 40 on WHBQ.  So when my mom said I had a call from Jim Swearingen, I was shocked. We barely knew each other. We certainly hadn’t talked. He was one of the cool guys who shuffled into Sunday School each week, intentionally late. The teacher always got a laugh when he thanked the “ four musketeers” for gracing the rest of us with their presence. 

    Why would one of the musketeers be calling me? I took the receiver from her hand and said hello. I couldn’t believe my ears. 

“Marcia, this is Jim Swearingen… from Sunday School?  I was wondering if you would be my date for the Explorer Scout picnic this Saturday at Lakeland Amusement Park?”

He was asking me for a date?  My stomach was in free-fall and my mind was a jumble. Somehow I gathered my wits and responded: “Thanks for asking me. I need to know how long it will last and who will be driving before I ask my parents.” I was thrilled to have found enough words to buy myself time to think.

“I would pick you up at two o’clock Saturday. We’ll be swimming first, so bring your suit and a towel. Then we’ll eat and go ride the rides. I’ll have you home by ten.”  

“That sounds like fun.” I said. “Hold on a minute.” If I chickened out before I got to the next room to ask them, I could say my parents said no. In my fantasy, action adventure novel, I controlled all the outcomes, but this was real life—more risky, and judging from my racing pulse, definitely more exciting. By the time I got to the next room I was begging to go. My parents recognized the family name from church. After verifying that there would be adult chaperones, my real life adventure was set for Saturday.

Once the shock wore off, I realized I didn’t even own a swimsuit. But when Jim picked me up, I was toting a brand new blue one with flowers on a trendy blouson top. It had looked so pretty in the dressing room, but once in the water, the over-blouse inflated. I looked like a giant jellyfish six months pregnant!  I had wanted to make a big impression, but not like this. We decided to change and make our way to the picnic grounds.  As Jim turned the ignition key, the radio sprang to life and there it was again, the song we’d heard earlier—a hauntingly beautiful melody by Sounds Orchestral called Cast Your Fate to the Wind. The irony was not lost on the novelist. 

    The day flew by and I realized we were actually having fun. By this time the sun had set and a brilliant full moon was rising. There was time for one more excursion and Jim chose the sky ride, a twenty minute journey high above a beautiful lake with a commanding view of the whole park.  As soon as our gondola launched, I knew I’d made a big mistake. 

 For the first time all day we were completely alone and as we left the lights of the midway, it became very dark and very quiet.  Jim slid his right arm around behind my shoulders.  I’d never been kissed before and that wasn’t the script I’d planned for a first date. Too late now. I tightly gripped the edge of the open window and stared out at the reflection of the moon on the water, chattering away about how pretty it was, ever careful to keep my face turned away from his. He let me ramble on and then gently reached around with his left hand and pulled my chin toward his. At the last minute I pulled away. I was embarrassed that he would try and yet secretly glad he did. The last half of the sky ride was completed in silence. It seemed to take forever. Once back at the midway, it started to rain and everyone began packing up for home. 

    The next day at church Jim did speak to me, but then I heard nothing.  Part of me was scared to death he would call, the other half equally scared he wouldn’t, but when the call finally came on Tuesday, I knew I could never go back to make believe.

    It’s been 44 years since that first date. On a cruise to celebrate our 38th anniversary, I finally popped the question:

    “Just how far down that original list of names was I?”

    He leaned back with twinkle in his eye. “You, my dear, weren’t even on the list. I guess I just got lucky.”

For four years of college, 500 miles apart, a dozen yellow roses were delivered every year on May 15.  We married June 12, 1971.

For four years of college, 500 miles apart, a dozen yellow roses were delivered every year on May 15.  We married June 12, 1971.

Winter Roses

In response to my first blog about the valiant yellow rosebud blooming in my winter garden, a long time friend and fellow bird watcher wrote from Virginia: “You need to get a heater for your birdbath!”

 A hot tub for my feathered friends? I’m running a spa out there already, with tiered feeders and homemade suet bars. Why not go 5-star? The flock of 30 turkeys would love a nice warm beverage with their birdseed. The squirrels and chipmunks would probably like to warm their toes as well. I could put up a sign: “Welcome to the Swearingen Wildlife Refuge.” Maybe I could get a tax-credit to underwrite the birdseed. 

But the daily drama outside my kitchen window is worth every penny. There are no yellow roses right now, but here are a few “flashes of gold” since the first blog: 

  • A technophobe launched a website with a lot of help from a friend. Thanks to all of you for your yellow roses of encouragement!
  • We got a snowstorm and a surprise visit from our daughter and the grands!
  • A big answer to prayer: Pastor Saeed Abedini and three other Americans were released from prison in Iran.
  • I attended a wedding shower where someone asked the honoree: “What first attracted you to your husband?” The bride thought a moment and quickly responded, “He was always ready to lend a hand to help anyone who needed it.”   

So I asked myself the same question? Since we’re ramping up to Valentine’s Day, you might        ask yourself the same thing: What did you first notice about the guy/gal who’s shared your life?You might be surprised at the answers.

The first thought that came to my mind was a bus ride. In mid-60’s Memphis, county students rode yellow school buses. Not so—city kids. When classes let out, lots of us rode the city bus home. By the time it got to our school, all seats were taken. We were like livestock packed tight the length of the aisle. Anyone who snared a seat was lucky!

So, of course, I noticed, when a boy from church, who went to a school downtown, offered the space beside him to a girl from our school. That was nice, and then I forgot about it. My stop was at the end of the line. At the stop before mine, it was just the two of us—him and me, sitting on bench seats across from one another. I sort of looked up once and then awkwardly stared at the ribbed rubber matting on the floor. He looked my way and then was up and gone. 

At the next stop, I got off and the incident faded. Later that fall, I noticed he opened the car door for his mom as she exited the building after church. That was nice.  Later that spring, he asked me out. I wasn’t his first choice, but I was the final choice.  That’s another story.

This week we got a good laugh remembering. I never knew he only rode that bus for two weeks due to an athletic injury that sidelined him from practice! I guess that was nice too.

  • Late breaking news: I came home and found a bouquet of yellow roses on the kitchen table!  My neighbor’s gift for taking care of her cat! She didn’t even know about the last blog. Thanks Bonnie!