…All Things New Again.

The very week after my heart surgery, there was an ad on TV for Lenox Hill that featured Dr. Singh and his team preparing for surgery in the same high-tech room I had visited only days before. I always look for ways to illustrate my posts, and in this case, the Universe provided!

So I’m going to make this as short and sweet as possible because it’s all behind me now and it’s way too self-centered, but there are some kudos to be given and thanks to be shared that I cannot ignore, however much they may require me to get personal, so here is the story.

It was about a dozen years ago, now, that I first suggested to my doctor that I couldn’t understand why I was suddenly gaining weight without any clear reason or change in habits (I even suggested, following some recent cat therapy, that perhaps I had contracted a (eww) tapeworm, which made him chuckle). He ran a few tests, but since everything turned out negative, I just chalked up my expanding waist and decreasing energy to aging, though I could never quite get over the idea that something just wasn’t right.

And so it remained until a couple of years ago. I had only recently put down the keyboard as a blogger in frustration because my brain just didn’t seem to be as clear, as crisp, as fertile as usual. It was like it wasn’t getting enough oxygen, I thought, so on my next regular checkup I once again brought up my concerning lack of energy. “I just don’t understand,” I said, “Why I am out of breath every time I climb the two flights of stairs to our apartment.”

“Oh,” he said, it was a question, “you have shortness of breath?” as little lights came on behind his eyes.

“Well, yes,” I replied, realizing that I must have said some magic words I had previously omitted.

“Okay,” said Dr. B. “You need to have a stress test. I’m sending you to a cardiologist, Dr. Marc Nolan. He’s very good.” (Dr. B stands for Dr. Jose Barbazan-Silva, my primary care physician who has now saved my life twice in the last 19 months.)

And so, a few days later I was off to Dr. Nolan, who conducted a reassuringly thorough stress test, though I began to be a little trepidatious during the part at the end when the technician asked me to lay down on a table where he and Dr. Nolan could watch my heart on a screen in bright living color while I could only watch their faces.

“Did you see that?” whispered the tech to Dr. Nolan.

“Yes,” said the doctor as he pointed to another area. “And there,” he whispered back.

Finally, disconnected from the spider’s web of wires, Dr. Nolan came in: “We see some blockages in the blood vessels surrounding your heart so I’m sending you to Dr. Varinder Singh who is the chief cardiologist at Lenox Hill [Hospital],” he said. “I think he will want to do an angiogram to get up in there and see what’s going on. The procedure is not very invasive. They just send a catheter up the artery in your arm and take a look around.”

So, only a few days later, on April 5 of 2018, I found myself splayed out upon a technological marvel of a table that Bones would have welcomed on the Enterprise as they explored my heart. Dr. Singh had told me beforehand that we could expect one of three outcomes: 1) he would find no appreciable damage and he would just look around and that would be that, or 2) he would find some blockage but something minor enough that he could clear it out right then and there, or 3) he would find issues so serious that they would require a return visit to his high-tech chamber to correct them.

As it happened, it was option 3, and even as I lay upon the table coming out of my semi-conscious state he said, “We found two 100% blockages in your LAD [the central artery that flows from your aorta right down between the left and right chambers of your heart], one at the top and one at the bottom, so even a by-pass wouldn’t work because we could only do the top or the bottom, so we’re going to do a special double angioplasty taking one stent up through an artery in your groin and the second one up your arm like we did today.”

This photo of me mowing the Fire Island back yard with our manual push mower (to reduce noise) only months before the fire and about a year before I was diagnosed with two 100% heart blockages, or the COPD, or the rest of it, yet I continued to push thinking it was only aging that was slowing me down. It’s a wonder I didn’t just drop dead right then!

He added, “You should be glad you have me for your doctor because this is a very rare procedure but I’ve done it a couple of hundred times, while most doctors have only done it a few, if any, times.”

When I told this to Dr. B once the whole thing was over with, he chortled and said, “If he’d told me he had only done it a couple of hundred times I would have been out the door!” Fortunately, by then, the deed was done.

That happened on May the 4th and Dr. Singh was as good as his reputation and he and a second interventional cardiologist whose name I actually never knew did a marvelous dance up my arteries where they first expanded balloons to open up my LAD, bottom and top, then inserted little chrome-plated platinum stents to keep it that way. The operation went well and at some point, through the sedation, I heard Dr. Singh say to his associate, “That stent is perfectly placed!” and I drifted back into my stupor, comforted.

It was 9 months later, after a few follow-up visits to Dr. Nolan that my heart was declared to have the clear flow of a newborn, and I was told I needn’t return for six months. My heart was done.

And yet, my shortness of breath, as Dr. B had called it, had not abated. Oh, my energy levels were improved and I could tell my brain was getting more oxygen – a welcome change – but I was still out of breath when I got to the top of the stairs.

“Well, then,” said Dr. B when I saw him again about a year ago,” I think you should go see the pulmonologist. I have a really good one, Dr. Barry Weinberg.”

So, I went and was tested and x-rayed and it turned out that – left over from 38 years of smoking though I stopped a decade ago – I have a slight case of residual COPD. “Don’t worry. We can fix this,” Dr. Weinberg said as he prescribed two puffs a day on my first inhaler. And, once again I realized some incremental improvement, but in all honesty, it was still not the ‘fix’ I had anticipated and over time another inhaler was added to the mix.

And then, the week before Thanksgiving – two and a half months ago – the inevitable happened and the unseen, unfelt, unrealized disease that had been at the bottom of all my physical troubles all this time finally asserted itself – subtly but unmistakably. Now that my circulatory system was 100% and my pulmonary system greatly improved, I would at last discover that my digestive system had been the culprit all along!

It began late on Friday night, November 15, with what I can only call mild discomfort as if I was, in my Sainted Aunt Mary Belle’s classic words, “bound up” and so for a full weekend I tossed and turned in the bed, unable to function and unable to find any comfortable position, though it really never rose to the level of painful, only very uncomfortable. And, given this mildness, I was somewhat surprised when I spoke to Dr. B that Monday afternoon and he rather insisted that I should go to the emergency room at Lenox Hill “since they have all the history of your heart surgery.”

I protested that it really didn’t seem all that severe and with several things on my plate that day, “Could I put it off till Wednesday?” I asked.

“ONLY IF YOU’RE NOT DEAD!” he responded. So, I took the hint and the next day at 9 am headed over to the emergency room across town, still thinking it was most likely just a temporary blockage.

Well, how wrong I was. By noon, after a CT Scan and abdominal x-ray, my gallbladder had been diagnosed as acutely inflamed and I received my first visit from a surgical resident to tell me they would probably be taking it out that afternoon, but then I called Dr. B to tell him of my diagnosis and thank him for insisting on my visit to the ER, and he fairly leapt into action.

“I don’t want you being a Guinea pig,” he said, “Dr. Greenberg. You need Dr. Marc Greenberg. Don’t let them do anything till he sees you. I’m calling him now. Also, expect to hear from Dr. Racconelli, my colleague who has Lenox Hill privileges.”

And so, by 3 pm I had been sent upstairs for an sonogram of my gallbladder (during which the technician, a marvelous Ukrainian immigrant, let me see a clear image of a huge gallstone blocking the entrance to my bile duct – clearly a cause of my discomfort) and returned to the ER to begin what turned into 4 days of serious IV antibiotics to begin to quell the infection.

“The CT scan of your gallbladder is scary!” were Dr. Greenberg’s opening words to me when he arrived later in the afternoon to let me know that because of the severity of my condition, they had decided a wiser course was to cool off the inflammation with heavy antibiotics for several weeks before going in to take it out arthroscopically. “Four little tiny incisions,” one of the residents said.

And so, for the entire week before Thanksgiving, “9 Wollman” (the floor) of Lenox Hill was my home where I was regularly visited by Drs. Greenberg, Weinburg, Racconelli and, once, even Dr. B as they checked in to make sure I was being carefully tended. And, given what I now know to be a stellar line up of highly-respected New York City all-star physicians, the nursing and other support care I received that week was top-notch, as well. Somebody had flagged my file, and the consequent and constant attention to my needs was clear enough.

Finally, after a bedridden week and feeling immeasurably better as the huge infection was quelled by the medicines, I was sent home to take three more week-long courses of antibiotic pills, seven pills a day, to further decrease the danger. I had come as close to having a burst and septic gallbladder as one can come without it actually happening, and for those weeks, the primary goal was to quiet that infection to the greatest degree possible so that, when Dr. Greenberg finally went in to take it out, there would not be as much chance of any residual or rogue spin-off infection to follow.

On January 23, the time had come, and I checked into the hospital that morning as fully at ease and confident as one can be in that situation that my fate was in excellent hands. Richard was there to provide his uplifting and entertaining support through the long hours leading up to the surgery, and even in the recovery room when I emerged from the grog not a little grouchy, if memory serves.

And, I have to tell you, now, two weeks and a few days later, I am already so much better, healthier, more energetic and sharp than I have been in years, that it’s a revelation. “I just feel all bubbly inside,” I said to Richard the other day, and that continues even as I write this. My voice is so loud from my exuberance that I have to consciously diminish the volume both on the phone and even just sitting and talking. To paraphrase what the psalmist said so fittingly in this situation, “Yea, though I walked through the valley of the shadow of death… my cup runneth over.”

There’s a song by Rogers and Hammerstein that was debuted on Broadway by Danny Kaye as Noah in “Two-by-Two”, an ill-fated musical about the great flood and the ark, called “I Feel Like I’m 90 Again!” The song comes at that point in the story when Noah, having complained to God that he is an old man (150, or so at the time) and just doesn’t have enough strength left to build such a huge boat, is zapped by a miraculous bolt of energy from God. Well, I may only be 69 rather than 150, but I completely know how Noah felt.

I reminded Dr. B on my last visit – after the surgery – of my concern so many years ago, poopooed by him at the time, that I might have contracted a tapeworm, and expressed my growing belief that my gallbladder issue must have been the source of my concerns even then and had been dogging me all the years since – exacerbating both the cardiac and respiratory maladies along the way. And I was very pleased when he agreed.

I must take this opportunity, now that it is all behind me, to extend my sincere gratitude to Doctor Barbazan-Silva, Dr. Nolan, Dr. Singh, Dr. Weinberg, Dr. Greenberg and Dr. Racconelli along with about a dozen additional doctors and an equal number of nurses who served on my behalf during these last 19 months. I could not have been in better hands and, chances are, without them I would not be here at all.

I also want to convey my most heartfelt and sincere thank you to our good friend Sarah Lazarus, who was there with me daily during that touch-and-go week before Thanksgiving and has continued to be a huge support to me in my recovery. And, of course, to Richard, whose extraordinary spirit and obvious love is ever and always my most secure and relied upon human source of strength. When I first arrived in the pre-op room before the gall bladder surgery, there were four very dour and visibly unhappy nurses complaining to each other about various concerns and job issues, but within five minutes of Richard’s arrival to give me support, he had them all doing the Bossa Nova and singing! The Lord ever and always works in mysterious ways Her wonders to perform.

Finally, a quick word to all those friends who found a way to feed me during the two months between Thanksgiving and last week when I was completely forbidden to ingest any fat whatever, people who went above and beyond to accommodate my situation: Richard, of course, plus sister Miriam; KB and Hunter; Sara Beth, James and Isaac; Stephen and Mark; and Noah. You guys were spectacular and I love you all so very much!

© 2020 by George Thomas Wilson. All rights reserved.

Posted in Angels | 6 Comments

The Family of God: Uncle Jesus (Sixth Posting)

From L to R and top to bottom: My Uncle Bubba (Edgar H. Baker), Mama’s youngest sibling and my favorite uncle, who was a brilliant venture capitalist with a wicked sense of humor and huge heart; Uncle Ned Baker, Mama’s middle brother, who ran the four-generation family dairy business for decades with skill and grace; my Great-Uncle Powell Baker, the eldest of Granddaddy’s five brothers,  a savvy intellect and wise businessman appointed in the 1930s by the Governor as one of the original Commissioners of the Alabama Dairy Commission; my 2nd-Great Uncle George A. Hogan, a pioneering Birmingham physician who, when appointed State Prison Doctor by the Governor, was almost singlehandedly responsible for abolishing Alabama prisoner chain gangs in the early years of the last century after writing a scathing report on the practice, and who, with his five noted physician brothers, laid much of the groundwork for the city’s burgeoning medical complex which began with the Hillman Hospital in which they practiced and has today grown into what is indisputably one of the finest in the world; my two-time 2nd-Great Uncle George M. Elliott, a gentleman farmer of Story County, IA who also served as President of that county’s School Board for many years, “two-time” because two of his sisters, Luella and Suzanna, were married, in turn, to my Great-Grandfather Henry Clay Wilson (a founding settler of the Oklahoma Territory who participated in the Great Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889); my 3rd-Great Uncle Marion Elias Hogan who was murdered in the night during a burglary of his Bibb County, AL, emporium The New York Bargain House when he was only 45; my 4th-Great Uncle Judge Washington Moody, who founded the First National Bank of Tuscaloosa, AL in 1871 and served as president until his death 8 years later; my 5th Great Uncle James Briton Bailey who was one of “The Old 300” original Texas settlers awarded land grants by Stephen F. Austin and who settled near Brazoria, TX in 1823; my 8th Great Uncle Friedrich D. E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834), a German philosopher and theologian whose outsized influence has labeled him “the Father of Modern Liberal Theology” and who is surely the only one of my ancestors to have his portrait on a postage stamp; my 19th-Great Uncle Richard Plantagenet (Richard II of England, 1367-1400); my 38th-Great Uncle Pepin, namesake of the Broadway Musical “Pippin”, who served for a time as king of France before his early demise, after which his brother Charles took the throne, and became Charlemagne, first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire; my 48th-Great Uncle Tiberius II Constantine, Eastern Roman Emperor from 574 to 582; and my approximate 62nd-Great Uncle Joshua Ben Joseph, more commonly known as Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Man. [All this, excepting the last one, can easily be verified here: https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/8130133/family (It costs nothing to visit Ancestry.com just to look and I invite you to do so).]

Several threads of thought spinning in my mind – some for a lifetime – have recently come together in an unexpected way, presenting an idea so remarkable to me that it must be shared. Much as the bee buzzing from flower to flower is content to gather nectar with no notion whatever it is also pollinating the field it farms, these ideas all began as small things, snippets of experience, without a clue as to where my thoughts were taking me until we arrived: an insight I find so profoundly joy-filled that it still takes my breath away.

So, whether out of sheer, naïve enthusiasm, or perhaps an overly-inflated sense of my own perspicacity (as some will surely say), or – and this would be my choice – as the flowering of some unseen but manifest spiritual inspiration, I am letting you in on my epiphany. That said, it is one thing to hope that I can share the full emotional force of what, to me, is a cosmic-level realization, and quite another to weave the word-tapestry to do so. Ultimately, after several false starts, I concluded there is no shortcut and the only way to get to the end is to begin at the beginning – to follow each thread as it was spun, some for a lifetime and others only recently – that they may come together for you even as they have for me.

[Note to my readers: If I am presumptuous enough to write a blog honoring angels, then it behooves me to periodically lay out for you exactly what I believe; to define, as best I can, just what my religious inclinations are. This is why I annually repost the first three essays ever to appear here (the second and third will reappear in the coming days). Taken together, they draw a fairly complete picture of those grains of spiritual Truth I have allowed into my thimble through confirming personal experience. That said, I also know that if Truth is Truth, then the Truth of Science and the Truth of its Creator must, when finally fully understood, line up exactly, without deviation, and this blog, writ large, represents my best efforts to illuminate those places where these divine conjunctions can most readily be seen.

Thus, you will find that basic arithmetic, genealogy, and my personal journey of faith join hands to underwrite this first essay, even as the recent discoveries of quantum physics support the second (“The Flow of God: Living Water”), and geology and biology undergird the third (“The Love of God: Uncut Diamonds”). It is my sincere hope you find these observations useful to you in your own personal journey, but I simply offer them for what they are worth.

The First Thread: “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep”

Christmas Card photo from those early years with my sister, Mimi, and me.

My parents were putting me to bed with nightly prayers long before I could remember it. I’m sure they started as soon as I could form the words. It was a tired world we lived in, where Norman Rockwell drove the Saturday Evening Post and the number one song on my third birthday was “How Much Is that Doggie in the Window.” After being held down as teens by the Great Depression only to be flung by the frightening excesses of WWII to the most exotic corners of the earth, all my parents Hank and Jane Wilson – and millions of their peers across the country – finally, really yearned for was the simple, the ordinary and the expected. So, it should be no surprise that the prayer we always, always said as they tucked me in – until I was at least of school age – was equally predictable: “Now I lay me down to sleep//I pray the Lord my soul to keep//If I should die before I wake//I pray the lord my soul to take.” And, then I would add my own personal coda: “God bless Mama and Daddy, in Jesus’ name, Amen.” Of course, as my perceptions enlarged, blessings for the grandparents were soon added, and when my sister came along, she also joined the list, which, as the nights turned into years, continued to grow until it embraced a whole “village:” neighbors, friends, aunts, uncles and dozens of cousins. Early on, it reached the point that my parents, well-versed in what was coming, would just leave me to finish when we got to that part, and many were the nights I fell asleep still thinking of people to add, never even making it to the “in Jesus’ name” part.

And – perhaps not as consistently as I’d like, or as humbly – as best I’ve been able in the decades since, I’ve tried to continue widening my prayer’s embrace, adding others to my list until, finally, I grew to realize that, if every human being is equally a child of the same Heavenly Father, then what I really should do is embrace everyone – include all the people of the earth in my prayer – for who would I, could I, omit without kicking sand into the eyes of God if we are all – every human being on the planet – loved with the love of a Father by Him who made us; if we are each and every one of us truly a son or daughter of God, without fear or favor, or respect of persons, places or proclivities?

Of course, logistically, even as a mental exercise, it is not easy to visualize seven billion people as individuals. On the other hand, everything, even praying, improves with practice, and when you start, as I did in those early days, with only your parents, then, over a lifetime, expand your conscious embrace as best you can, bit by bit, to include family, friends and, ultimately, a planetful of people, the step-by-step growth in “inclusion acuity” does help.

Here’s how it works: I still begin, as I have since those earliest days, with relatives and loved ones, then move on to our neighbors, actual neighbors. Living, as we do, in the midst of residential Manhattan, there are a great many neighbors, so I start with the ones we know who live next door and the families on the floors above and below, then stretch out my mind to include the unknown neighbors of the buildings beyond, and on out a little more until our ten thousand nearest neighbors – about the limit of my visualization capacity – are included. I pray for the shopkeepers and shoppers, the students and teachers, the parishioners and preachers, the elderly who live in the Jewish Home for the Aged just up the street and their caregivers, the sidewalkers and trash-talkers and derelict homeless sitting in the park. Whomever they may be and whatever they may be doing, I pray for our ten thousand nearest neighbors in that moment and their angels. This last part is important because, as my understanding of our astonishing spiritual helpers has grown over the decades, I have also come to appreciate how helpful they are for igniting the “Joy Profound” – that “peace that passeth understanding” – within each of our human hearts. They do it in all sorts of ways – synchronicities, ‘coincidences,’ perfect timings, close calls, personal touchstones, delightful surprises, ‘chance’ meetings – and praying for angelically-enhanced connections between our Maker and His children is about the best way I can think of to bless anyone.

Once I feel I have included the whole neighborhood, I then try to expand my embrace from ten thousand to the nearest ten million souls – more or less the entire city – from native New Yorkers to the most recently arrived tourists (and ten million are, after all, only 999 additional souls for each of the ten thousand neighbors I’ve already embraced). Then, after sufficiently envisioning this larger group as best I can, I ask for God’s grace to expand my prayer one more time, from the whole of the City to the whole of the earth, from ten million hearts to seven billion (which is actually less of a stretch, if you think about it, since it only requires adding 699 souls for each of those ten million already embraced). Seven continents, seven seas, and seven billion sisters and brothers, each and every one fully known and beloved by the same Heavenly Father Who, in loving each of us infinitely, loves each of us equally.

In other words, this first thread – that began on those early nights as a blessing for “Mama and Daddy” and grew to encompass the whole wide world – has wound itself into the essence of my being even as it has stitched together everyone on earth as family. And that ‘attitude adjustment,’ I find, is a source of imperturbable solace and strength. Richard asked me one day, after a passing stranger on the sidewalk had been particularly rude to us, why I wasn’t angry. “It’s hard to be mad at somebody you just prayed for,” I said, realizing, even as I said it, just how true it was.

The Second Thread: Not All Unseen Friends Are Imaginary

Okay, now please bear with me, dear reader, since this next question may seem ponderous, but I promise to lighten up quickly. The question is this: Who is Jesus, really?

There are many available answers, but none can be proved. He called Himself “Son of Man,” whatever that means, and even among learned theologians, opinions are so scattered as to be of little use. There are those who believe He never lived at all, or at best, was a clever charlatan with big ideas. Many others believe He was merely a man, but a man who could justifiably sit alongside Siddhartha, Lao Tzu, Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Mohammed and, one supposes, many other sages of old who might be named if they could but be remembered. I’d even go so far as to say that many “Christians” who go to church regularly really only believe Him to have been a man, a great man, perhaps, but, still, only a human who died on a cross and then went to Heaven like the rest of us hope to do, and, after all, aren’t all people who go to Heaven really “still alive?” So, perhaps, to say that Jesus lives is no great stretch….

And, then there are others, like me, who actually believe Jesus was something beyond extraordinary: the Creator Son of the Universe we inhabit; The One who made us and then became one of us the better to know and love us; an All-Powerful Personality who was, by choice, both completely Divine and completely human. But don’t think for a minute that I just accepted what someone else told me. My journey of faith has been fulsome and vetted by living.

The thread of my belief began to spin early on, for, if those nightly prayers were started before my memory tapes, our days at the Church of the Forest began even earlier. Mama had named it that, and it is, to this day, the only church ever built in Grayson, Alabama, a tiny sawmill town that used to be located smack in the middle of the lush and verdant Bankhead National Forest.

Two years ago, Richard and I made a pilgrimage of sorts to see the church my parents built in the Bankhead National Forest. The town may be gone, but the church remains.

Think “Hansel and Gretel” and you’ll have the setting exactly, and, just as in the story, my forester father was the woodsman! His boss, a kindly lumberman named Clancy, was enlisted by my newly arrived parents to donate the materials to build the church in 1948, and then they rallied the townspeople to erect it. That was two years before I was born and, by the time I came along, it was a thriving little Baptist church. (They held an election – Baptist vs. Methodist – after it was erected. The Baptists won in a landslide.) Truly a “poor church serving the poor,” to quote Pope Francis, it had nothing like the resources needed to support a full-time preacher, so a succession of itinerant clergymen – from “fire and brimstone” to “down and dour” – made their way through, and, when there was no one else, Daddy filled in handsomely as a lay preacher.

It was there among friends – and everyone in Grayson was my friend – that I began to discover my singing voice, and “Jesus loves” were the first two words of the first song I ever learned (“Jesus Love Me this I Know”), and the second song, too, come to think of it (Jesus Loves the Little Children”). His name was said before every meal we ever ate, regardless of where or with whom we may have been eating, and His story was always front and center, whether at Wednesday night fellowship, or at Church School and preaching twice on Sunday, not to mention that He was right there in the pew racks, staring back at us even as we prayed to Him, with His flowing brown hair and deep blue eyes printed on cloud-shaped cardboard fans from the Double Springs funeral home.

Jesus fan on a stick. When I was a child, every country church in the south had a supply of these scattered among the pews, a necessity when summer Sunday sermons ran long.

In short, Jesus was as much a part of my childhood as the pine trees and sawdust. Of course, that doesn’t mean I really understood who or what He was. After all, life was immersed in Him in those parts, and as is often said, “If you want to know what water is, don’t ask a fish.”[1]

One of my favorite things about Sunday School in those early years was its exclusivity. Because I was the only child in town anywhere near my age, I was often the only pupil in the class, but like the good troopers they were, my teachers never seemed to mind, and would forge ahead using the Southern Baptist study guides, week after week, even if we were alone. And, it was in just such a class, when I was nearly five, that a frustrated Mrs. Lethcoe said to me with some insistence in her flat, North-Alabama drawl: “Tommy, Jesus just wonts to be your friend!” Well, now, that was something I could understand.[2]

Imaginary friends come naturally when you’re an only child living in the woods with nary a playmate for miles, and one of the reasons I took to Nell Lethcoe’s suggestion so instantly was because I already had relationships going with two friends who were, apparently, invisible to others (as neither Mama nor my babysitters could see them). They were little old British ladies who wore printed cotton tea dresses and flowery hats. Their names were Mrs. Seafey and Mrs. Coctiff, and I honestly have not the vaguest notion how I happened to cast them in those particular personalities. Nevertheless, they were my steadfast friends and we truly loved each other.

At some point in the last 40 years, the US Forest Service decided to leave the sawmill, but erase the mill town of Grayson, AL that surrounded it, the place where we lived from my birth to age seven. Now, all that is left of the simple but stately white house we lived in (and where this story took place), is this ivy-draped hole in the ground where our basement used to be. I had to clamber deep into the prickly underbrush just to find this. No doubt, the removal of Grayson from the center of a National Forest was an environmentally sound decision, but it is nevertheless, very sad to me.

Now, you may scoff, if you like, at the idea of “real” imaginary friends, but, dear reader, ineffable are the realities of faith, as they were meant to be. Author J. K. Rowling got it right, I think, in that last pivotal dream conversation between Harry Potter and Dumbledore, when Harry asks his mentor, “Is this real, or is this all just happening inside my head?” and the Professor looks at him with love and replies, “Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry, but why should that mean it’s not real?” Were Mrs. Seafey and Mrs. Cocktiff actually angels that only I, the innocent child, was permitted to see? I cannot say, but they were as real as real could be to me.

Every afternoon I would set the child-sized card table in my bedroom with my sister’s toy Blue Willow dishes and, at precisely four o’clock, the three of us would settle in for tea. We talked about all manner of things over the months of our association, from the death of an elderly friend to the love of my baby sister, and, so, once Mrs. Lethcoe had introduced the notion of a friendship with Jesus, I wasted no time asking the ladies that very afternoon if they agreed that we should invite Him to join us.

Well.

Within a nanosecond of my posing the question, there He was, sitting right across the table from me looking a lot like His picture on those funeral-home fans, only vital, robust, alive. His familiar appearance put me at ease, and His voice was low and gentle like a mountain brook burbling over rocks worn smooth. We loved each other instantly, or, at least, I loved Him instantly, as I gathered He had already been loving me for some time. The ladies, not a little astonished at what had just happened, were tickled to a rosy hue, and we had a wonderful visit together for the rest of the afternoon as He and I locked in a friendship that has only grown stronger with each passing year for, now, six decades. It is often said that to truly believe, you must believe as a child. I know exactly what that means.

We continued our afternoon teas for some weeks until, the final time, He told me it would be our last tea, but that He would always be as near as my desire; that I need but knock and He would never fail to answer any question or rise to any occasion. And, dear reader, after all this time enjoying His close association, nay, friendship, I can attest that He has been as good as His word to that little me all those years ago. To illustrate, I could relate many specific and moving examples, but this essay would be a book if I tried to tell them all in the fullness they deserve, so I only mention a few here without details [but with end notes]: when I was seven, I found myself unwittingly, though not inappropriately, maneuvered into signing an official Baptist commitment card to be His missionary for life[3]; at nine, I received a special dispensation from the Bishop for early baptism and confirmation as a Methodist[4]; at thirteen, in a profound prayer on the night of JFK’s assassination, I was led onto a professional path that held me fast for seventeen years, all the way through law school and ultimately to NYC; when I was seventeen, He helped me maintain my sanity through a very difficult relocation just before the end of my junior year in high school [5]; when I was nineteen, He confirmed to my satisfaction in another intense prayer that who I am was not a mistake and that my having been born gay was as natural and as much a part of His plan as the sun rising in the morning; and, when I was 23, during and after my mother’s losing battle with pancreatic cancer, two profoundly personal, inexplicable mystical interactions between my Friend and me occurred to absolutely seal the deal of our relationship for eternity [6].

In the crazy days of my youth, I used to ask Him for signs that I was on the right path, but I long ago stopped needing them when I began seeing them all the time, and the long and short of it is that for me to say, “I believe in Jesus,” is to understate the case. I know Jesus. We are BFFs in the most literal possible sense. I have seen Him with my own eyes sitting right across the table from me, and heard Him with my own ears in the most unexpected of times and places. I know that He lives because He is my ever-present Companion, my long-time, oft-disappointed, ever-forgiving, proactive Loved One, and the thread of our association has only grown stronger and more resilient through the mercerizing years I have spent dog-paddling, as best I could, through life.

Oh, there have been times, even years, when my attention to our relationship has waned, but even then, when I finally came around, it has always been as it should be when old friends meet: as if there were no time between. That said, we are now far beyond those days, and the bonds of our companionship – of our real, true, living relationship – are, for me, unmistakable, undeniable and unbreakable.

The Third Thread: An Unexpected Obsession

Mama, age 8, 1933

Several years ago I received a letter addressed in an elegant hand on engraved blue note paper from someone I did not know, and, when I opened it, a confetti of small black and white photos fluttered to the floor. These, it turned out, were first- and second-grade school portraits of my mother and her siblings from the early 1930s, and had been sent by a distant cousin who had found them in one of her grandmother’s old trunks. I was thrilled, and was soon writing back to thank her and, while I was at it, to ask some questions about her branch of our family tree.

She did get back to me in great detail, but once the questions had surfaced, I decided to look for some answers on my own by logging onto Ancestry.com. The site was new and offering a two-week free trial membership, and, well, oh my word but did I fall down a rabbit hole! It was some months, as Richard will attest, before I finally resurfaced.

Uncle Ned, Age 7, 1933

And, what a Wonderland I found! The more I uncovered about the people from whom my parents and I sprang, the more I wanted to know. It was like the best novel ever, full of surprises and sudden turns to drive me forward, or rather, backward in time, as I met thousands of fascinating forebears and – as a quite unexpected delight – reconnected with history in a fresh and much more personal way through the stories of these real members of my family who fought wars, built log cabins, or traveled aboard clipper ships. It was an extraordinary journey, and as I continued, generation before generation, it became ever more clear just how rich the marvelous tapestry of family can be.

Aunt Peggy, age 6, 1933

Predictably, of course, there were some dead ends – family lines for which the information just petered out after a few generations – but a lot fewer than you might imagine, and I was surprised by just how many lines continued back for hundreds of years. Indeed, there were so many leads to follow and historical eddies to explore, that after following one line all the way back to the first century BC just because I was astonished that I could, I ultimately limited myself to researching only as far back as the “original immigrant” in each line. (But not, fortunately, before I clicked on yet another little green leaf “hint” to discover Lady Godiva, of all people, was one of my 30th great-grandmothers! Now, that was a rush.)

Uncle Joe, Age 9, 1933

And, though I did ultimately put down the genealogy for other pursuits, there were at least two great lessons that I came away with about the true nature of family and our intense interrelatedness across time and place.

The First Great Lesson: Families Don’t Grow on Trees

A family is not at all the vertical construct we generally imagine. In fact, families are shaped nothing like trees at all. Rather, picture a field of daylilies where expansion comes both from family groups of tubers multiplying underground, as well as from their seeds – pollinated by butterflies and planted by birds – spreading the beauty into every corner.

Now, this is counter-intuitive because the shape of the family we know is actually treelike, with a trunk and branches that leaf out into our loved ones. However, even with 20/20 hindsight, we don’t perceive the reality. Instead of envisioning the great flowering field of more than a million 18-greats-grandparents – let me say that again: more than a million, 1,048,576 to be exact, 18-greats-grandparents – that each of us, by definition, must have had only 450 years ago, we hardly think beyond those we can actually remember.

But the math doesn’t lie: 2×2=4 x2=8 x2=16 x2=32 x2=64 x2=128 x2=256 x2=512 x2=1024 x2=2048 x2=4096 x2=8192 x2=16,384 x2=32,768 x2=65,536 x2=131,072 x2=262,144 x2=524,288 x2=1,048,576. And, as hard as it is to believe, if you keep doubling it all the way back a thousand years, Lady Godiva, as it turns out, was only the most notorious of my 4.2 billion 3o-greats-grandparents!

I have struggled to find a way to illustrate just how VAST every family tree is but here’s another go. If every blue square in this chart represents a direct forebear (i.e., actual grandparent) the chart runs off the page after only six generations, and by the 20th would use up 9620 sheets of paper laid end-to-end at the same scale! If you could actually make a chart going all the way back to the time of Christ, you would need over 82 TRILLION sheets of graph paper, probably more than exist in the world, I’m thinking. Our interrelatedness is irrefutable.

The Second Great Lesson: We Are All Cousins

But that, you might well posit, is impossible. After all, there weren’t even 4.2 billion people on the planet in the 10th Century, and, of course, you would be right. But in the end, it’s not about the size of the population but the number of fruitful copulations, and it only took 2.1 billion of those. Plus, as it turns out, some of our ancestors were extremely good at conceiving. Consider two examples: Genghis Khan and the passengers of the Mayflower.

It has long been known that Genghis Khan was fond of procreation. It was even reported by Chinese observers as early as the year 1272 – only forty-five years after he died – that there were already twenty thousand of his progeny in positions of power across several neighboring regions.[7] And, in 2003, the American Journal of Human Genetics reported that over sixteen million men – and, by extrapolation, their sixteen million sisters – were all Genghis Khan’s descendants: thirty-two million literal cousins sired by one man only eight-hundred years ago![8]

The case of the Mayflower is similar. She landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 with just over a hundred survivors, but forty-five of them died the first winter, leaving a colony of only fifty-seven Pilgrims. Consequently, if you are related to one of them, it is almost a slam-dunk certainty you are related to several, since they and their children had only each other for “acceptable” mates, and even after additional ships arrived, their numbers were exceedingly small for scores of years.

Additionally, mindful of this shortfall and being made of hardy stuff (especially the women), the early settlers tended to have a great many children – very often in excess of twenty – who, in turn, had a great many more. The result, in hardly any time at all, was similar to that of the Mongol Emperor, only this concentration of genetic inheritance included twenty-four procreating men rather than just the one. An article in the September 20th, 2004 edition of the Kingston Mariner relates: “a staggering thirty-five million people claim an ancestral lineage that runs all the way back – sometimes through fifteen generations – to the original 24 [Mayflower] males. That number represents 12 percent of the American population” [9] [emphasis added]. Twelve percent!

In other words, we are all – and I do mean all – far more related than we think. Everyone reading this – however far away in time or space you may be from the here and now of this writing – is almost certainly my blood-kin cousin. And, even without the concentrated hubs arising from isolated populations or overreaching despots, this would still be unavoidable. Look at the math the other way ’round. Lady Godiva had eleven known children, but, again, for the sake of being ultra-conservative, let’s say she only had two who bore children, giving her four grandchildren who then only gave her eight great-grandchildren, etc., so that you generate the same multiples over generations as with the grandparents. Well, then, given a perfect progression, over 4.2 billion people living today share my 30th great-grandmother. And, the same calculus would also have to be true for every other one of my 4.2 billion 30th great-grandparents! How could we not be related? Seen through such a distant lens, the fabric of family is tighter than canvas and covers the whole of the earth.

Now, it is no doubt the case – at least common sense would allow – that Europeans are more related to each other than to Africans, who are more related to each other than to Asians, etc., but that said, we humans have been prone to cross-fertilization as far back as the Neanderthals,[10] and, it only took one 12th Century marriage between a Crusader and a Mesopotamian, for example, to join millions of previously distinct forebears into one family that, by today, has extended the bloodlines of both to a great proportion of the planetary population.

[Also, lo and behold, in the week this essay was originally published, The New York Times published an op-ed by A. J. Jacobs entitled “Are You My Cousin?” which made exactly my point using new insights arising from the growing list of genealogy-related websites.[11] Did I say “synchronicities”?]

A Joining of Threads

All these were fascinating, fun discoveries, but I still could not quite fathom my compulsion to keep looking deeper and deeper into family history. Why the obsession? What was my inner Father trying to tell me; teach me? I often took the question to Him in prayer, but the answer remained elusive. I did, however, after many hundreds of hours, finish the job of naming my forebears back to the original immigrants as best I could.

Of course, I should have known, having prayed the question with a sincere heart, that an answer to my quandary would eventually appear, and, though it took its time falling into place, it was more than satisfactory.

As I did my research, my growing understanding of family ties did have an impact upon my prayers for others – from the neighborhood, to the city, to the planet as described above – since I began thinking of all our neighbors as something significantly more, as actual cousins however distant, and it really does feel differently when you visualize them that way.[12] There is an undeniable intensification of the emotional investment when you truly see those you are praying for, however unknown, as literal family. Blood, as they say, is thicker than water, and what had become increasingly clear to me was the utter impossibility of drawing any dividing lines between our one family of seven billion cousins. Family, as we learn from our very cradles, is always to be accepted with love and – in spite of foibles or follies, if necessary – not to be judged unkindly. How wondrous it would be, then, were all embraced as kin, to dismiss unkindness altogether!

And then, at long last, one marvelous morning as I prayed, all these threads of understanding, some having taken a lifetime to work their way up through my consciousness, came together in a blink, as most revelations do. Prostrate in the dark of my bedroom, I came to that part of the prayer where our nearest ten-thousand neighbors are my focus, and, almost without realizing it, prayed “for our ten-thousand nearest cousins… YOUR ten thousand nearest cousins…” And then I stopped as the full force of what had just happened washed through me. Of course! That was the point! I finally understood what my oldest Friend, my dear Friend Jesus, who had been holding my hand since those days around the tea table, had been trying to tell me. He had inspired my inquiries, step-by-step, until I could finally, fully see the reality that we – He and I and, yes, you – are not only friends, but literal, blood family!

And with the next breath came the next realization – flowing from my long-established understanding that Jesus was the eldest of a large family of children – that if they, too, had been my long-ag0 cousins, then He was also, by definition, my long-ago uncle! Uncle Jesus!

The “brotherhood of man under the Fatherhood of God” is an old but valid trope – though I would today amend it to read ‘sisterhood and brotherhood…’ – that relies upon a wondrous spiritual nexus: God as Heavenly Father of all His material children. But how much more tangible is this newly seen connection: to be a member of the actual family of God? And, better yet, to understand the Son of God to actually be one of your own? It’s one thing to ask a loving spiritual, but Heavenly, Father for forgiveness, and quite another to ask your favorite earthly Uncle for a favor. And, after all, He did choose “Son of Man” as his preferred appellation, putting the focus squarely upon His humanness rather than His divinity.

The Family of Jesus

With all the emphasis upon the twelve Apostles, Jesus’s actual family generally gets short shrift. With the exception of Mary, we don’t really think much about them at all, though most experts agree He had several siblings.[13] Matthew, Chapter 13, tells us of four brothers named James, Joseph, Simon and Jude, and “sisters,” so one may conclude that, at the very least, He had six.

There also can be found records of later generations, including Judas Kyriakos (the last Jewish-Christian “Bishop of Jerusalem”), great-grandson of Jesus’s brother Jude,[14] but, of course, we have no way of knowing exactly how many nieces and nephews Jesus may have had. Nevertheless, for the sake of discussion, let us continue taking an extremely conservative approach and assume that only two of His several siblings had children. If we then assume the same progression and double the number in each generation, by the 30th, around the year 1000 AD, Jesus would already have had 4.2 billion great-nieces and nephews, and given that it would take another thousand years to bring us up to date, each and every one of those 4.2 billion relatives would likely, by now, have their own 4.2 billion descendants!

And, if that isn’t assurance enough for you that we are all, almost inevitably, the nieces and nephews of Christ, add into the equation the undeniable consequences of the Jewish Diaspora – the spreading out of the Hebrews to the furthest ends of the earth – which began with the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem six centuries before Christ and would seem to be entirely unrelated to His arrival. Nevertheless, for the sake of making the point, if the Universe wanted to ensure that Jesus might ultimately – in the fullness of time – be the literal blood Uncle of His entire human family – of every human on earth – it could not have gone about it in a more systematic or effective way. That said, I don’t believe any loving Father (or Uncle, for that matter) would purposefully so displace His family as has been done to the Jewish nation throughout history, but it is an inarguable fact that the result is a far more interrelated world today than would have otherwise been the case.

Of course, if you believe, as many do, that Jesus was conceived immaculately, then any DNA endowment would theoretically be purely that of His mother. However, (and I’m bound to get into trouble for this) if, as I, you believe that His Divinity is actually enhanced and His sacrifice ennobled by His having been the Creator Son of our Universe who chose to be conceived in the normal way – as the utterly vulnerable firstborn Son of Mary and Joseph – His endowment would, of course, include the inheritance factors from both families. Either way, the point remains the same. Whether His DNA was only hers, or some combination of hers and God’s, or a combination of hers and Joseph’s, her son was still the blood brother of James, Joseph, Simon, Jude and His sisters, and He was still the uncle of every child born to them and great-uncle of every grandchild.

Uncles are Cool

As it happens, benevolent uncles were a big part of my childhood. My grandfather had several brothers, and my favorite relatives in the early years were my great uncles Edgar and Powell, both of whom were long-widowed and doted on me at every opportunity. Beyond that, my mother’s brothers, Ned and Bubba – yes, Bubba – were fundamental to the health of my self-esteem as I grew up truly a stranger in a strange land. Though I may have been the family’s limp-wristed misfit – the inexplicable outlier – they were always there when I needed them with a word of encouragement or even to help with more mundane things like buying a used car, or refilling the honey jar from the 55-gallon drum of Tupelo kept on Great-Grandmama’s back porch, for their love of family and particularly for their sister, my mother, always took the ascendant.

So, the realization that Jesus was not only my BFF, but my Uncle, as well, was a wonderful discovery, and one I took instantly to heart. Of course, it may not mean very much to you, if you don’t believe, as I do, that He is the Master Creator Son of the Universe who made not only our world, but millions of similar worlds to populate our heavens; or if you don’t believe, as I do, that out of all the worlds He made, He chose this one as the site of his materialization experience – from defenseless infant to Divine Teacher – the better to know us and love us as one of us, as well as to show not only us, but all His vast, starlit creation, the Way of Love through His perfected example. But, I do believe all of those things, so for such a God to be, also, my literal Uncle is more than unimaginable, it is a gift far greater than anything I could possibly deserve or even ever have dreamed. God is my Uncle? Not only is He mine, but yours, as well.

And, that, my dear cousin, is news worth sharing.

– February 9, 2014 [Sixth revision, January 11, 2020]

© 2020 George Thomas Wilson, All rights reserved.


[1] I have been utterly unable to track down the source of this quote, though there are thousands of uses of it cited by Google, most of which attribute it as “an old Chinese proverb.” Nevertheless, the sentiment is sound.

[2] For years I have called Nell Lethcoe’s simple, emphatic statement to me the “most profound theological point I’ve ever heard.” And, as an aside, in all the years following that day, in spite of spending countless hours in countless churches, I had not heard one other person put it quite so well until until Pope Francis appeared and said the same exact thing. It turns out that “friendship with Jesus” is also one of his favorite themes. As recently as 1/4/14, for example, he actually tweeted (tweeted!) “Dear Young People, Jesus wants to be your friend, and wants you to spread the joy of this friendship everywhere.” You have to love it when the Pope quotes your childhood Sunday School teacher!

[3] It’s a long story, but had my Great-grandmother Baker died either one day before or one day after the day she actually passed away, I would not have been shipped off for a week in mid-July of 1957 to Cook Springs Baptist Women’s Missionary Union Camp, and would not – as a seven-year-old! – have found myself, at the end of that week, compelled to sign a 3”x5” commitment card that, of all things, I would continue to be a “missionary for Jesus” for the rest of my life. I may have been too young and too innocent, but in full consultation with my teatime Friend, I made a knowing commitment and I am still striving to live up to it.

[4] Two years later, when I was nine – and still very much in the glow of my innocence – I discovered our preacher was to be transferred (we had become Methodists in a new town by then) and since I found Brother Langford to be the most Christ-like of all the preachers we had ever had, I asked him to confirm and baptize me before he left. It took a special dispensation from the bishop because I was three years too young, but I succeeded in confirming my commitment to my good Friend in the best way I knew how.

[5] When I was only six weeks away from the end of my Junior year, I was suddenly transferred from the tiny (300 students in six grades) rural Florida high school where my mother had been a revered teacher, to an Alabama city school of 2000 people in 3 grades where no one knew me and I had no time at all to learn an entirely new curriculum for finals before spending my final high school summer working in a bread factory as a union trainee. I was utterly miserable and had it not been for the embracing group from the Campus Crusade for Christ led by a wonderful woman named Cook, I’m not sure I would have made it through my senior year intact. But, thanks to my Friend, Jesus, and my angels’ particularly strong and consistent overcare during these days, often demonstrated to me in real, perceptible, ways, I managed to suffer through with only minor scrapes and bruises. I truly do not know how I could have made it through those torturous months without my faith.

[6] The first of these occasions may sound insignificant in the retelling, but it involved several entirely unlikely, nearly impossible, sightings of an out-of-place dragonfly that appeared in response to my prayers for guidance and strength during those painful months, and the message received was, essentially, “Your prayers are heard. Do not worry. Worrying only depletes your energies and accomplishes nothing.” From that moment on, though I did the best I could for her in the weeks that followed, and mourned her passing when she died, my worry ceased and those energies were put to better use. [since the original version of this post in 2014, I have written about the dragonfly experience in detail. The link is here and I encourage you to read it.: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2014/11/02/the-dragonfly/ ]

The second event was an actual, as-God-is-my-witness, cloud-based vision that included a clear-as-a-bell image of my Friend Jesus standing tall with the sun streaming through His flowing hair and beard, His right arm raised in a blessing. Of course, as is the case with all such personal “for your eyes only” touchstones of faith, I cannot prove either of these contacts really happened, but I know, and He knows, that they did.

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/11/science/a-prolific-genghis-khan-it-seems-helped-people-the-world.html “As for Genghis himself, Dr. Morgan cited a passage from ‘Ata-Malik Juvaini, a Persian historian who wrote a long treatise on the Mongols in 1260. Juvaini said: ”Of the issue of the race and lineage of Chingiz Khan, there are now living in the comfort of wealth and affluence more than 20,000. More than this I will not say . . . lest the readers of this history should accuse the writer of exaggeration and hyperbole and ask how from the loins of one man there could spring in so short a time so great a progeny.”

[9] Article by John Galluzzo printed in the September 20th 2004 edition of the Kingston Mariner and reposted on the History News Network website of George Mason University on October 23rd of the same year. Link: http://hnn.us/blog/7360#sthash.DzfuEwh8.dpuf

[12] Or, as A. J. Jacobs put it in his article “Are You My Cousin” in The New York Times on 2/2/2014: “…a mega[family]tree might just make the world a kinder place. I notice that I feel more warmly about people I know are distant cousins. I recently figured out that I’m an 11th cousin four times removed of the TV personality Judge Judy Sheindlin. I’d always found her grating. But when I discovered our connection, I softened. She’s probably a sweetheart underneath the bluster.”

[13] It is incumbent upon me at this point to allow that there are many who dispute whether the brothers and sisters of Jesus were His full brother and sisters, half brothers and sisters, or somehow the children of some other couple. For me, I go with the writer of Matthew, who said “His Brothers” and “His sisters,” without qualification of any sort.

Posted in Angels, belief, faith, God the Father, Holy Spirit, Love, prayer, religion, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Giving Life to Art: A Profound Event

This enormous (4’x6′) portrait in oils of our wonderful friend Steve Metzinger in his alter ego as Ginger Vitis, replaced the great mirror that ordinarily hung above our mantlepiece on the day Gallery+Positive came to Fire Island Pines on August 3, 1996, 23 years ago today. Signed ‘Binnie’.

We didn’t know it at the time, but the summer of 1996 proved to be a turning-point of enormous proportions for the world – and especially our little corner of it – because that was the season when we first began to realize there might actually be some light at the end of our nightmare, that newly available medications were really working and that, finally and for the first time, hearing an HIV+ diagnosis from your doctor might not actually be a death sentence. But this good news had yet to percolate up through our daily lives – our friends literally at death’s door had not quite yet begun to rehabilitate back into the fully healthy, rosy-cheeked and happy people they would soon morph into – when Richard and I hosted the one and only Gallery+Positive Benefit at our newly acquired Cedar House in Fire Island Pines 23 years ago today, August 3rd. We still had no idea they all weren’t about to die. I had already lost 52 friends, and as far as any of us knew, the scourge was destined to continue.

Indeed, the event we hosted that day had arisen from such a loss. It was during a memorial gathering the previous November held for our most recently departed friend, Steve Metzinger, that several of us, led by our friend Danny Lauferswiler – who himself was desperately ill – had made a pact to honor Stephen in the best way we could think of by starting Gallery+Positive, the point of which was to help preserve the artwork of those talented but as-yet-unsung artists all around us who were simply dying too young to be recognized, with their deserving creations all-too-often being tossed into the trash by those they left behind either because they were family who wanted to forget the whole thing as quickly as possible, or friends who simply didn’t have the space. It was a terrible waste and helping prevent it was a worthy cause for our time and talents.

Our friend Steve Metzinger who was only 30 when he died Thanksgiving week of 1995.

We also made plans during the memorial for a group of Metzinger’s closest friends to gather a couple of weeks later, in mid-December, at Cedar House for a final send-off where we would scatter Steve’s ashes into the Atlantic. The house had become ours the same week Steve had died and this would be our first use of it. Even though the reconstruction was already well underway, it was still more than sufficient to host the 10 or so people who joined us.

Richard and I embrace immediately following the scattering of Stephen Metzinger’s ashes into the Atlantic off Fire Island Pines. A recent nor’easter had only the week before laid waste to much of the beach and you can see some of the damage behind us.

The weather cooperated that weekend, with a beautiful, fluffy snowstorm covering the pines and the boardwalks to the beach – punctured here and there by deer hooves that had passed by looking for those last tastes of autumn – and having that time together also gave us a chance to consider how we might best promote our new idea. We realized that Cedar House, which had great “people circulation” with five bedrooms that each had at least two entrances plus several hallways and generous common rooms, would be the perfect place to hold a summertime benefit in the form of a major art exhibit that could support the work we proposed to do by featuring the work of both those artists who had already died, as well as artists who were currently still fighting the disease.

And, with this realization in hand, we elected a Board of Directors of ourselves, basically, and set to work. We knew the rebuilding would take months, so we settled on an August date and got to work lining up artists and a working alliance with VisualAIDS, an organization that, by then, had been supporting HIV+ artists for nearly a decade and had the requisite 501(c)3 designation for us to piggyback onto to raise money for the cause. And, ultimately, looking back, what we put together was a mind-boggling success.

The cover of the 24-page program for our event which was originally printed in black and white due to budget constraints (it cost a lot more in those days to print in color) but for this article, with the kind cooperation of the VisualAIDS staff, I have done my best to replace the muddy original images with crisp digital renderings of the art on display that day. (Cover art: Beach Sombras by Luis Carle, 1994.)

In all, 27 afflicted artists were included in our show, 11 of whom had already died including both Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring, surely the most well-known of those American artists who were stricken by AIDS. Of the 16 artists who were still with us at the time, most attended the event to discuss their art, which was hung throughout the house in dedicated areas where individual artists could mount several works. In all, there were 66 artworks in the show including all those featured in the 24-page program for the event, which I am reproducing here in its entirety.

I can tell this photo of our reconstructed Cedar House was taken on the very day of the event because the railing around the upper roof deck was only installed that morning. We had told our contractor in January that he would have to be finished by August 3rd for our event, and at 2:15 that afternoon, only 15 minutes before we opened the doors to paying guests, the last of the construction materials were carried off the premises.

(I was reminded by one of the artists in preparing this post that at one point all the attending artists were grouped around our pool for a photograph which I have spent weeks trying to find without success. Indeed, I haven’t been able to find any photographs from that actual day in spite of reaching out in several directions. If I do eventually get hold of any, I’ll add them to this post. Videotapes taken that day that were stored at the house were, of course, lost in the Cedar House fire two years ago.)

In addition to the artwork, there was significant live entertainment. During the afternoon portion of the event from 2:30 to 5:00 pm (which only cost attendees $20 to attend) the jazz trio Big Joe (composed of Bessie and Obie Award-winning composer Robert Een who led the combo, Anne DeMarinis of Sonic Youth, and percussionist Hearn Gadbois) held forth on our roof deck from where their lively beat kept up a happy atmosphere throughout, except when the featured entertainment was staged around the pool with three talents who were just starting out at the time, but who have grown over the last two decades into gay cultural superstars: Joey Arias, Raven-O and Varla Jean Merman! There was an open bar to accompany the stunning hors d’oeuvres provided by legendary Village restaurant Flourent and Circo (a sister restaurant to le Cirque, where Lauferswiler’s partner at the time, Tim Shaw, was the pastry chef).

The inimitable Varla Jean Merman (the illegitimate offspring of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine, to hear her tell it) both performed on our pool deck in the afternoon, and then served as a hilarious emcee for the cabaret portion of the evening’s entertainment. (Photo used by permission.)

The second stage of the event, from 5:00 to 7:30 was a cocktail-hour reception for VIP guests who paid a little more for the privilege and were able to mingle with the exhibiting artists and performers, and the third stage – the most ambitious part of the day – was a seated dinner in our living room for 55 super-VIP guests who had paid $250 each and were not only feted with a Circo-provided meal, but a cabaret performance emceed by Varla Jean (who actually found her long-time manager among the diners that night) and featuring a bevy of NYC’s most talented cabaret performers including Lisa Asher, Kat James, Lina Koutrakos, Tom Postilio and Joel Silberman.

Headlining the afternoon performances was Joey Arias, who was gaining fame for his astonishing vocal performances at Bar d’O in those days but went on greater things, including starring in Cirque du Soliel’s Zumanity in Las Vegas from 2003 to 2009.

In addition, a marquee set up in the back yard hosted a silent auction throughout the daylight hours and, on the whole, we really pulled out all the stops to make the event as moving and comprehensive as possible.

Of course, holding an event is one thing, but getting people to forgo the beautiful sandy beach and fork over a few bucks on a mid-summer Saturday afternoon to look at art is another, and we were concerned from the get-go about attracting enough paying guests, though we were not disappointed as we eventually clocked in about 350 people for the whole day, which in those days was an astonishing turn-out.

…And the third gay icon to perform that afternoon was the astonishing Raven O, who, like Joey, uses his remarkable singing voice to great effect. (Photo by Albie Mitchell)

Fortunately, we had fate on our side. First of all, the sun went behind thick cloud cover along about 2 in the afternoon which reduced the appeal of the beach, and secondly, we had also done something in advance of the event that no one had ever done before and today would no longer be possible: addressed hand-calligraphed invitations to every share house in The Pines with every name who lived there (as many as 24 names per envelope), which were then individually delivered overnight to all 500 houses in town. (This was only made possible because, 1) we had lots of volunteers and 2) in the days before cellphones, every share house had a landline and all those phones were listed – with all the names at every house – in “Emily’s Phone Book” which had been started some years before by the 10-year-old daughter of a Pines resident to help her father, Charlie Ziff, who was dying of AIDS, meet his medical expenses. It could never be done today.)

But, of course, the art and artists were the real stars of the day. With works by both Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring hung in our house, the insurance rider exceeded $2,000,000 and we were required to hire both specialist fine art movers as well as a special boat to transport the artworks across the Great South Bay from the mainland for the installation and then to take them back across the water once the event was concluded. The curators and staff of VisualAIDS were enormously helpful in mounting the exhibit and I believe it can safely be said that no Fire Island Pines art exhibit either before or since has ever come close to equaling the art on view in our house that day.

But even better news is that our whole reason for starting Gallery+Positive in the first place soon began to wane as all our friends and the associated artists we were seeking to help became healthy again. I asked Danny Lauferswiler, our Chairman, before writing this post, if he would mind my saying that, as he thanked our guests from a stool next to our pool that afternoon, he was so wasted away and weak that we were all a little afraid that he might just fall off his perch and die right there, for he surely was at death’s door. But, glory be, within only a few weeks as the medicinal ‘cocktail’ kicked in, he was showing off his well-toned six-pack. “No, I don’t mind,” he said. “It’s the truth.”

Below is the full 24-page program with featured art and quotes from many of the artists who exhibited that day. I hope you’ll continue reading this down to the end. This was a day for the ages, saluting the beauty, goodness and truth so ably promulgated by so many, including some who, ravaged by an ungodly disease, would never fully deliver upon the promise of their creation. Thank you for coming along. I will update this post if and when I am able, and my sincere gratitude to all of those who helped me put this story together.

Again, thanks to all those who helped me pull this together, and thank you for taking the time to take a look. Posting on the 23rd Anniversary of this remarkable day, with love!

© 2019 by George Thomas Wilson. All rights reserved.

Posted in AIDS, Angels, health, Holy Spirit, Love, miracles | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The First Day of April, 1957

Formosa azaleas from near Century, FL where I grew up. Seeing this photo on facebook today inspired this post. Photo: Pam Robinson Callahan

[Excerpted from my as-yet-to-be-named memoirs (a lifetime’s work in progress) recalling the day we moved from Grayson, Alabama (in the middle of the Bankhead National Forest) to Century, Florida (on the Alabama/Florida State line) in 1957. A friend posted photos of the local azaleas on Facebook today, inspiring this recollection…]

I rolled up my little brown quilt on the last day of the fifth six-weeks of First Grade, took my all-As report card, and said goodbye to Miss Olena and phonics forever. I’d like to think that Mama picked me up that afternoon, but if she did, I don’t remember it. Daddy had preceded us south a few days before our departure, and she was probably too busy attending to last-minute duties. And so it was that, by early the next morning, we were on the road in our navy blue ’54 Ford, Mama, Mimi and me, to spend the weekend in Birmingham with Grandmama and Granddaddy before driving the arduous six hours to Century. Even the main highways, in those days, were only one lane in each direction, and our route south on U.S. 31 was no exception. With actual farm tractors, considerable eighteen-wheeler traffic and rolling hills that made passing a rarity, the trip from Birmingham – past the domed capitol in Montgomery and around the squares of towns with mellifluous names like Georgiana and Castleberry – would not be speedy.

At last, it was the day we had anticipated for months, and all three of us were anxious and excited when we turned down Granddaddy’s winding driveway to head for our new home. Anxious, because none of us, not even Mama, had ever been where we were going – and we were going there to live; and excited because it was a new adventure, with new people to meet, new teachers, new preachers, and new opportunities. I was still depressed about leaving my entire seven years of life behind, but I had the promise of a return visit in my pocket, and was beginning to warm to the idea of living in a real town with other children and a school within walking distance. For her part, Mama, the sun worshiper, was elated that we would only be an hour from Pensacola Beach, and Mimi, well, Mimi just wanted to be out of the car. “Are we there yet” was rarely more overused, or more annoying, though I admit I was weary, too, and silently appreciated her persistence.

Finally, though, she got the answer she was hoping for. We were crossing the Florida State line, which was the cue for Mama to turn left onto Route 4 and slow the car to look for the Alger-Sullivan Lumber Company sign on the right pointing to the turn-off. Once we found it and made the turn, she slowed even more – the better to take it all in – as we passed a few modest homes before coming to a cypress swamp on our left and some ancient frame structures on our right trying nobly to hide their neglect behind gnarly oaks so old and majestic they had undoubtedly shaded the Confederacy, all wearing thick shawls of Spanish moss with fringe hanging down to the ground. Then, as the swamp gave way to solid earth, and the road divided just ahead, we found ourselves in Wonderland. It was the first day of April and massive old azaleas in every direction were singing the Hallelujah Chorus. Everywhere we looked were great waves of blooms, each bank of color trying to outdo the next as they sang silently to angels in the afternoon sun.

“Look for Daddy’s jeep,” Mama said. “He said it would be easy to spot.”

Daddy’s jeep was always easy to spot. It was an old WWII surplus vehicle he had bought when he moved to Grayson because it would take him anywhere in the woods he needed to go, and he had painted it bright yellow both to alert the hidden moonshiners that he wasn’t a revenuer coming to get them, as well as to make it easy to find among the trees. It also made it easy to find that day, but we were so mesmerized by the astonishing floral display that we missed it the first time around, and had to go the full length of the boulevard, past the office, commissary and an impressive row of tall, verandaed Victorian homes with azaleas overspilling their lawns, before turning around to pass them all again. The houses were all identical in form, but there was whimsy afoot because the one nearest the mill, with the most luxuriant gardens, was painted bright orange. The next one had been painted bright green, and the third, bright blue. With the vibrant houses shining in the light and the mounds of flowers wherever you turned, it was a visual feast that has rarely been equaled in my experience. In a word, Century, on the day we arrived, was beautiful.

Originally named Silk-Stocking Street, a row of multi-colored “executive homes” greeted us upon our arrival. With horses and buggies, this photo preceded us by about 50 years, or so, but aside from the oak trees which had grown to completely cover the street by the time we moved there, it looks much the same.

Once beyond the blue house, we passed the community club house on our right and then, as we came to the first side street, the windshield filled with the most impressive sight of all. It was a gleaming mansion that dwarfed all the others, and, we would eventually learn, the only house in town allowed to be white. It looked for all the world like a square, two-tiered wedding cake surrounded with trellises, columns and pink-icing flowers climbing the walls and effusively mounded on every side. One of the most impressive homes I had ever seen, it said “old money” without shouting, and was a perfectly executed study in ostentatious restraint, if there can be such a thing. We would come to know it as the Hauss’s house, but in that moment we only knew it as a visual tour de force, and even Mama’s jaw dropped as we moved slowly closer.

This postcard from the 1930s shows the Hauss house as it looked the day we first saw it, only by then it was covered in roses and 40 years worth of azaleas.

“There!” I shouted, a little too loudly, “There it is.”

“Where?” Mama asked, her mind returning to the task at hand.

“Right there! Right over there,” I said, pointing down the side street.

Daddy had said he would park the jeep in front of our new house, so Mama turned right and we were soon pulled up at our front gate.

It was on a street with seven houses built for the superintendent class – mill foremen, logging superintendents, and such – and, while not as grand or large as those we had passed on the main boulevard, they were spacious enough and well beyond anything that had been supplied by the mill to the employees we had left behind in Grayson. All the houses were painted gray. In fact, except for the three colorful ones we had passed on the boulevard and the white confection, every one of the 40, or so, Alger houses, street after street, were painted the same color. Mr. Hauss, I was later told, had acquired a quantity of surplus battleship paint from the Navy after WWII, which accounted for it, though I always had the sense that it  suited him to paint them gray, regardless. It provided just enough contrast, even on cloudy days, to set off his sparkling showplace in the center.

There was a lot of movement in those days between Grayson and Century, as Mr. Clancy had called upon some of his best men to relocate to his newly-acquired mill and mill-town, and there were others, being replaced, who were moving on to new jobs in new places. By and large, this worked out for everyone, but the timing wasn’t always perfect and we were caught in a situation where the house we were supposed to move into – the green one – was still occupied. But then, due to the sad but timely demise of the widow McGee, we were given her house on the side street to use until ours was ready.

Daddy was there to greet us as we emerged from the car, and when he saw the look on Mama’s face, started in right away reminding her that the house was only temporary. She understood, of course, but it was a real come-down from our simple but elegant Grayson house on the hill, and I don’t think she was well pleased. The recently-departed Mrs. McGee had lived there for over fifty years, and while all her furnishings had been removed, everything was still in its original 1902 condition, including the kitchen and the bathroom. The rooms were relatively spacious, the ceilings very high, and every wall was paneled in dusty green bead-board, but the house was absolutely plain. I was excited to find that the single light bulb hanging in the center of the living room had a string pull long enough for even me to reach – Mrs. McGee had been very short – but my new powers of incandescence only lasted until Daddy tied a knot in it.

The rest of the day was spent moving furniture around and getting the house ready for living, but my mind was already on the day ahead, my first day of Florida school. I was confident it would go well. After all, I had been going to school for almost a whole year and thought I knew what it was all about. Miss Olena had made me her teacher’s pet, and I was fairly sure I could maintain that standing with my new teacher, whomever she might be. It never even occurred to me that I might need my scared-proof clothes.

The next morning at eight, Daddy and I headed out, hand in hand. I had my spiffy, Mama-made naptime quilt with tassels of bright orange yarn under my arm, Daddy had my lunch box, and we were both in an upbeat mood. The grammar school was only a block and a half away, past a row of foremen’s houses on the left (smaller than the superintendent houses, but bigger than the line workers’) and the nearly identical side-by-side Baptist and Methodist churches on the right, and we were there in minutes. Out of all the buildings in Century, the school was the most dilapidated, but a new, modern Century Elementary was already under construction two blocks away, so repainting the old one, or even patching the holes in the roof, had been forestalled.

Our first stop, the principal’s office, was also my first indication that this school might be different than I imagined. In Moulton, the principal was a jiggly, jolly old lady with severe elephantitis in her right arm who ruled through kindness; O. H. Hinson was different. To begin with, he was a man, which was my first surprise, and from the set of his chin and his permanent scowl, ruling through kindness seemed unlikely to be his accustomed technique. He was Ichabod Crane without the hat, completely bald, tall, lanky and humorless. I knew him for ten years and I don’t think I ever saw him smile except once, at his daughter’s piano recital. This was going to be interesting.

Our next stop – Mr. Hinson, Daddy and me – was at the classroom door of Mrs. Monk, my new teacher. More Mama’s age than Miss Olena’s, she was as tart a woman as one might ever hope to meet – Jane Hathaway of the “Beverly Hillbillies,” only brunette and bitter. It was hard not to notice her unhappiness. The principal made introductions, and the adults all shook hands, then Daddy gave me a kiss goodbye and left me to fend for myself on Planet X.

The next sign that things might not go as well as I’d hoped was when Mrs. Monk asked me about my little quilt.

“What is that under your arm, Tommy?” she asked.

“My mat. For naptime. My Mama made it,” I said proudly.

“Naptime!” she exclaimed. “We don’t do naptime in Florida.” Her nose seemed to be rising ever so slightly. “Just throw it over there in the corner,” she motioned dismissively with the top of her head toward the back of the classroom. “You can take it back home with you when you leave. You won’t be needing that here!”

“Now, where to seat you,” she said to herself. “I know, yes, that’s perfect.”

Then, to me, “Here, Tommy, let’s put you here, between Pam and Emily.”

“Class,” she said in an elevated voice, “this is Tommy Wilson. He just moved here from Alabama, and will be joining us from now on. Let’s make him feel welcome.”

“Tommy,” she said, turning to me, “this is Pam Wood, and this is Emily Hitchcock. Since they haven’t been able to learn how to stop talking in class, I’m going to put you between them, and we’ll see how that works.”

‘Uh-oh,’ I thought to myself. But that was only the beginning.

The rest of the day, at least until recess, is a blur, though I quickly realized that my position between Pam and Emily was going to be a problem. Just because I was in the middle didn’t mean they were going to stop talking, and every time they did, I got a sidelong scowl from Mrs. Monk.

Reading was also interesting since I had no trouble taking my turn in spite of not having learned the lesson in advance. Florida first-graders were taught to memorize a weekly list of new words so they could then read all about Tom, Dick and Harry. But memorization was completely unnecessary with my phonics skills, which made Mrs. Monk look somewhat superfluous. (Why any other system but phonics would be used in the classroom is beyond me. There is simply no contest.)

Finally, after lunch, recess arrived and I was happy for the relief, but it didn’t last long. I expected Drop the Handkerchief, or maybe Mother May I, but they didn’t pussyfoot around in Century. There were swing sets and slides beside the school for the girls and a sandlot across the street next to the churches for the boys, who made a beeline for it with a duffel-bag full of bats. I only vaguely knew what baseball was, and had never even been near a ball or a bat, so I assessed the situation and decided the better part of reason would be to head for the swings and play with the girls.

This, however, only lasted for about ten minutes, until Mrs. Monk came out and saw me. She immediately launched into an impassioned lecture about which side of the street I was supposed to be playing on.

“But Mrs. Monk, I don’t know how to play baseball,” I pled.

“Then it’s high time you learned, young man,” she said. “Now get yourself over there and play baseball like you’re supposed to. I don’t want to ever catch you over here by the swings again!”

And so, my heart in my mouth, I reluctantly walked across the street.

“Mike, put him on your team,” she shouted. It would be the last time he ever did it willingly. For the next several years, school day in and school day out, the boys would choose up sides, and my name, without a single exception, was always the last one called. It happened at least a thousand times. There was no animus in it, and I did understand. I was simply terrible at baseball, but that didn’t make it any easier to bear. I really tried, over the years, to get it right, but never could throw a ball worth a damn, and nothing frightens me more, even now, than a loose round airborne object headed in my direction. I wanted to be better, and gave it all I could. It just wasn’t in my genes.

Mrs. Monk seemed to like me less and less as the days dragged by. My phonics skills didn’t help, but from my point of view, it was mostly due to Pam and Emily, who never stopped talking to each other, or to me, and it was impossible to avoid being in the middle of it since, let’s face it, I was in the middle. Finally, one day, she’d had enough, and stood me in the corner. I was horrified. Nothing even remotely like that had ever happened to me in my life, and I protested the injustice. It was Papa’s apples all over again, and I was not going to have any of it. It was hardly my fault that she couldn’t stop them from talking.

My stubborn streak surprised her, I think, and soon I was tearfully walking the million miles from my classroom to the Principal’s office. I made no bones about why I was there and was defiant in my insistence that it wasn’t my fault. Mr. Hinson calmed me down and returned me to class, but I cried all the way home that day. It was definitely the lowest I had ever felt in my life. I was miserable. I’m not sure what happened next, exactly, but the best I can figure Mama must have called Daddy when I got home and told him about my misery because the next thing I knew, he had me by the hand and we were walking at top speed back to the school. It was the most angry I ever saw him get at anyone outside our family. He was red-faced and fully intent on telling Mr. Hinson a thing or two, and he wanted me moved out of Mrs. Monk’s class and into the other section of first-graders.

He told me to wait outside while he went into the principal’s office, and when he emerged a few minutes later he was a much calmer man. Mr. Hinson must have explained that I was in the more advanced of the two classes, and it would make no sense to move me. After all, he must have said, it was only a few weeks until the term was over, and it would all be behind us. And, he prevailed, because I wasn’t moved, though Daddy explained as we walked back home that he thought things would get better and Mr. Hinson was going to speak to Mrs. Monk about moving me out from between Emily and Pam.

She did so the next day, which solved the talking issue, but the baseball routine continued, even as it had for generations. I learned, soon enough, to take the daily humiliation in stride, since there was nothing else to be done. The game was a quasi-religion in Century – even the people who didn’t go to church would never miss a Little League game – and if I was going to live there, I would just have to deal with it. Scared-proof clothes were my new school uniform.

© April, 2018 by George Thomas Wilson. All rights reserved.

Posted in Angels, Love | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Betty’s Bradford Pears Twenty Years On

Bradford Pears blooming today (March 7, 2018) in Dallas. Photo: Stacie Renee Hernandez

[I originally published this post in April of 2014, but a friend of ours posted this beautiful photo of the Bradford Pears peaking in Dallas on Facebook today and it inspired me to realize that it was exactly twenty years ago, March 7, 1998, that we lost our wonderful second mother, Betty, so I’m reposting this brief remembrance in her honor. Our father was truly a fortunate man.]

Our Mama, Jane, about 1953, five years after they married. Daddy took the photo.

In 1973, when my mother, Jane, died at 50 of pancreatic cancer, everyone agreed it was much too soon for one so vibrant, so giving, so clearly an instrument of the God she served to leave the earth. It’s a long story, but she died only two-and-a-half months after our family had relocated to a new town in a new State, Fort Valley, GA, and even so, the First Methodist Church was filled to capacity at her funeral with those whose lives she had already touched in such a short time. Further, as testament to her long years of generous service to others, her obituary took up a full column in the Alabama Methodist Christian Advocate and both the Rev. C. Everett Barnes, Head of the Council on Ministries of the South Alabama/West Florida Conference of the Methodist Church, and the Rev. Edwin Kimbrough, Senior Pastor of First UMC Birmingham, the largest Methodist Church (at the time) in the North Alabama Conference, had traveled for over five hours from both ends of the State to jointly officiate.

Betty and Daddy shortly after they married and she began buying his ties, which she always insisted be Countess Mara.

So it is no wonder that I was very confused by her death. How could it be that God would find it necessary to remove one so young, so marvelous, as Mama; to elevate her to the next plane when there was still so much for her to do on this one? How could there possibly be any sense in that? What on earth was He up to?

Well, the Holy Spirit is a mysterious loveliness, and, dear readers, while we may not understand every move She makes, if we can just be patient, things do eventually make sense. I will always, of course, believe that Mama died too young, because she did, but looking back now, through the long lens of time, I can also discern the blessings that grew out of our sorrow, and at the top of that list would be my second mother, Betty Gates Wilson. I say “second mother” because, when I was 40, Miriam 37 and Mary 28, she adopted the three of us out of love both for us and our father, and so she literally was, from that time until her death a quarter-century later, our mom.

Me, Miriam, Daddy, Betty and Mary at the time of our adoption in 1990.

I’ve been thinking of her a lot lately because the Bradford Pears have finally bloomed in New York City. I’m sure they came and went in the south in early March, as they are wont to do, but up here, they have only now appeared. If you don’t know what a Bradford pear tree is, they are prized all across the country for their dense white blooms that appear in the early spring and turn the trees into gigantic balls of cotton. You have certainly seen them, since they seem to be everywhere these days. They were all the rage, and something relatively new, when Betty built her Fort Valley dream house in about 1982, and she planted a grove of them in the front yard where, for the next sixteen years, they were her pride and joy. Nothing made her happier than when, just as she had planned it, they flushed out each March with their display of bright white set against the dark caramel-colored brick of her house.

And so, it was perhaps only right that they were at their absolute densest bloom on the night that she died. Richard and I had been vacationing in Costa Rica, but, due to her failing health after years battling emphysema, had rescheduled our return trip to go to Georgia rather than New York, and arrived after dark on a Friday. She had known for several days when we would be arriving, and Daddy told us that all week long, as each morning arrived, she had asked him, “Is it Friday today?” and every day, when he said, “Not yet,” would look crestfallen and just a trifle annoyed as she continued pushing those tortured breaths in and out and in and out. Clearly, she was determined to be there to greet us when we arrived, and by grace and her own stubbornness, when we drove up about four that afternoon, she was still very much herself, if a diminished version of the Betty we knew.

We visited for a short while and then she rested for a bit while I helped get supper ready, then we gathered around her bed to eat while we showed her the photos we had “rush” developed so she could share in our trip with us. I also told her that her trees, which she couldn’t see from the bedroom at the back of the house, were blooming like crazy, and that brought a huge smile to her face. It was a lovely, touching, loving reunion, even though we were all aware we were nearing the end, and at four a.m. that morning during a tumultuous Georgia thunderstorm, she died.

The next night, after the miraculous women of the “Fort Valley Funeral Brigade,” as I lovingly called them, had cleaned up the mess and headed home (the same four wonderful women who had been in our kitchen to feed 95 out-of-towner family and friends when Mama had died fully a quarter-century earlier!), I curled up in Betty’s easy chair and wrote a few lines about those pear trees that would find their way onto the back of the program for her funeral service the next day.

Betty’s Bradford Pears

Her Bradford pears were peaking in a flush of radiant white
And clouds began to form above as day moved into night.

I would have wheeled her out to see, but she was just too weak,
So I settled for effusiveness when I began to speak.

I told her just how glorious, how flower-full they were
(Because I knew she knew I knew how much they meant to her)

And, soon enough, my tack began to generate a glimmer
That turned into a twinkle, as her mind began to simmer;

She looked at me with knowing eyes and said, “I’m thrilled to death.”
Then said it yet again, after a pause to gather breath.

As darkness fell, the sky began to shed its rainy tears;
The thunder boomed throughout the night as lightning lit our fears,

And as the roiling clouds moved on to other destinations,
Our Betty climbed aboard, at last relieved of respirations.

Yet, when the sun returned to start our first dark day without her,
Her trees stood bright just like the light that ever shone about her.

For hers was love that knew no bounds nor compromised devotions —
Outlasted every thunderstorm, outdistanced all the oceans,

So as we make our way through time, through storms and trials and strife,
May every blooming pear tree be a tribute to her life.

— George Thomas Wilson

© 2018 by George Thomas Wilson. All rights reserved.

 

Posted in Angels | Leave a comment

Ode to a Pew

Distinguished law professor, Dean Emeritus M. Leigh Harrison (1907-1997), makes a point during Contracts Class only a few years before I wrote this poem in the very same front “pew” shown in this photo that I was astonished to find online. The ancient solid oak pews were covered in the carved graffiti of decades of use and just wide enough for two aspiring lawyers to occupy with a slant board attached to the back of the pew in front for taking notes. Photo was taken about 1970 by Pat Graves, now a retired Huntsville lawyer, who posted it on the University of Alabama Law School website on the occasion of Dean Harrison’s induction into the Alabama Lawyer’s Hall of Fame in 2016.

With apologies to all my lawyer friends…

I’ve decided to leaven all the long-form posts I’ve either posted or have in the pipeline with occasional poems from my 1998 compilation, “Ups and Downs”. I called it that because they chronicle so well the highs and lows of the middle years – from 1974 to the late 90s – which included law school and the first two decades of my New York adventure. And, as they are arranged in chronological order in the book, I’m starting at the top and will work my way through.

This one, the first, was the result of several factors: it was the second semester of my first year of law school and 1) I had just pulled an all-nighter and 2) was sitting front and center in 3) a 9:00 a.m. “Contracts 102” class on “third-party beneficiaries” being taught by 4) a distinguished former Dean of the law school, so that I, 5) had to look at least like I was paying attention and taking notes. By the end of the class, this had landed on my legal pad:

Reading the Law 

The chair whereon I sit is but a pew
That on one look tells tales of quite a few
Whose derrières have spread themselves abroad
While minds above contracted to defraud
Debase, defame, delight in monies made
In consequence pursuant to the trade
For pedagogue of which was first designed
This seat that, for the moment, takes my mind
From strict attention to Socratic babble
Twixt learnéd Dean and an assorted rabble
Who, in idyllic notion of the Bar,
I had assumed would never get this far!
Yet here we sit, ensconced in Gothic couches
That someday we might fill our money pouches!

— Written in the spring of 1975

© 2018 George Thomas Wilson, all rights reserved.

Posted in Angels, poetry | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Family of God: Uncle Jesus

A 1975 gathering of Baker cousins (I’m on the far left) after the dedication concert of the Edgar H. Baker Pipe Organ, given by my favorite great uncle to the McElwain Baptist Church in Birmingham.

[Note to my readers: If I am presumptuous enough to write a blog honoring angels, then it behooves me to periodically lay out for you exactly what I believe; to define, as best I can, just what my religious inclinations are. This is why I annually repost the first three essays ever to appear here (the second and third will appear in the coming days). Taken together, they draw a fairly complete picture of those grains of spiritual Truth I have allowed into my thimble through confirming personal experience. That said, I also know that if Truth is Truth, then the Truth of Science and the Truth of its Creator must, when finally fully understood, line up exactly, without deviation, and this blog, writ large, represents my best efforts to illuminate those places where these divine conjunctions can most readily be seen.

Thus, you will find that basic arithmetic, genealogy, and my personal journey of faith join hands to underwrite this first essay, even as the recent discoveries of quantum physics support the second (“The Flow of God: Living Water”), and geology and biology undergird the third (“The Love of God: Uncut Diamonds”). It is my sincere hope you find these observations useful to you in your own personal journey, but I simply offer them for what they are worth. [Of course, if you did read this when previously posted, there is no need for you to do so again. I have re-edited it, as I do every year, but the main points remain the same.]

[Originally published February 9, 2014:]

Uncle Jesus

Several threads of thought spinning in my mind – some for a lifetime – have recently come together in an unexpected way, presenting an idea so remarkable to me that it must be shared. Much as the bee buzzing from flower to flower is content to gather nectar with no notion whatever it is also pollinating the field it farms, these ideas all began as small things, snippets of experience, without a clue as to where my thoughts were taking me until we arrived: an insight I find so profoundly joy-filled that it still takes my breath away.

So, whether out of sheer, naïve enthusiasm, or perhaps an overly-inflated sense of my own perspicacity (as some will surely say), or – and this would be my choice – as the flowering of some unseen but manifest spiritual inspiration, I am letting you in on my epiphany. That said, it is one thing to hope that I can share the full emotional force of what, to me, is a cosmic-level realization, and quite another to weave the word-tapestry to do so. Ultimately, after several false starts, I concluded there is no shortcut and the only way to get to the end is to begin at the beginning – to follow each thread as it was spun, some for a lifetime and others only recently – that they may come together for you even as they have for me.

The First Thread: “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep”

Christmas Card photo from those early years with my sister, Mimi, and me.

My parents were putting me to bed with nightly prayers long before I could remember it. I’m sure they started as soon as I could form the words. It was a tired world we lived in, where Norman Rockwell drove the Saturday Evening Post and the number one song on my third birthday was “How Much Is that Doggie in the Window.” After being held down as teens by the Great Depression only to be flung by the frightening excesses of WWII to the most exotic corners of the earth, all my parents Hank and Jane Wilson – and millions of their peers across the country – finally, really yearned for was the simple, the ordinary and the expected. So, it should be no surprise that the prayer we always, always said as they tucked me in – until I was at least of school age – was equally predictable: “Now I lay me down to sleep//I pray the Lord my soul to keep//If I should die before I wake//I pray the lord my soul to take.” And, then I would add my own personal coda: “God bless Mama and Daddy, in Jesus’ name, Amen.” Of course, as my perceptions enlarged, blessings for the grandparents were soon added, and when my sister came along, she also joined the list, which, as the nights turned into years, continued to grow until it embraced a whole “village:” neighbors, friends, aunts, uncles and dozens of cousins. Early on, it reached the point that my parents, well-versed in what was coming, would just leave me to finish when we got to that part, and many were the nights I fell asleep still thinking of people to add, never even making it to the “in Jesus’ name” part.

And – perhaps not as consistently as I’d like, or as humbly – as best I’ve been able in the decades since, I’ve tried to continue widening my prayer’s embrace, adding others to my list until, finally, I grew to realize that, if every human being is equally a child of the same Heavenly Father, then what I really should do is embrace everyone – include all the people of the earth in my prayer – for who would I, could I, omit without kicking sand into the eyes of God if we are all – every human being on the planet – loved with the love of a Father by Him who made us; if we are each and every one of us truly a son or daughter of God, without fear or favor, or respect of persons, places or proclivities?

Of course, logistically, even as a mental exercise, it is not easy to visualize seven billion people as individuals. On the other hand, everything, even praying, improves with practice, and when you start, as I did in those early days, with only your parents, then, over a lifetime, expand your conscious embrace as best you can, bit by bit, to include family, friends and, ultimately, a planetful of people, the step-by-step growth in “inclusion acuity” does help.

Here’s how it works: I still begin, as I have since those earliest days, with relatives and loved ones, then move on to our neighbors, actual neighbors. Living, as we do, in the midst of residential Manhattan, there are a great many neighbors, so I start with the ones we know who live next door and the families on the floors above and below, then stretch out my mind to include the unknown neighbors of the buildings beyond, and on out a little more until our ten thousand nearest neighbors – about the limit of my visualization capacity – are included. I pray for the shopkeepers and shoppers, the students and teachers, the parishioners and preachers, the elderly who live in the Jewish Home for the Aged just up the street and their caregivers, the sidewalkers and trash-talkers and derelict homeless sitting in the park. Whomever they may be and whatever they may be doing, I pray for our ten thousand nearest neighbors in that moment and their angels. This last part is important because, as my understanding of our astonishing spiritual helpers has grown over the decades, I have also come to appreciate how helpful they are for igniting the “Joy Profound” – that “peace that passeth understanding” – within each of our human hearts. They do it in all sorts of ways – synchronicities, ‘coincidences,’ perfect timings, close calls, personal touchstones, delightful surprises, ‘chance’ meetings – and praying for angelically-enhanced connections between our Maker and His children is about the best way I can think of to bless anyone.

Once I feel I have included the whole neighborhood, I then try to expand my embrace from ten thousand to the nearest ten million souls – more or less the entire city – from native New Yorkers to the most recently arrived tourists (and ten million are, after all, only 999 additional souls for each of the ten thousand neighbors I’ve already embraced). Then, after sufficiently envisioning this larger group as best I can, I ask for God’s grace to expand my prayer one more time, from the whole of the City to the whole of the earth, from ten million hearts to seven billion (which is actually less of a stretch, if you think about it, since it only requires adding 699 souls for each of those ten million already embraced). Seven continents, seven seas, and seven billion sisters and brothers, each and every one fully known and beloved by the same Heavenly Father Who, in loving each of us infinitely, loves each of us equally.

In other words, this first thread – that began on those early nights as a blessing for “Mama and Daddy” and grew to encompass the whole wide world – has wound itself into the essence of my being even as it has stitched together everyone on earth as family. And that ‘attitude adjustment,’ I find, is a source of imperturbable solace and strength. Richard asked me one day, after a passing stranger on the sidewalk had been particularly rude to us, why I wasn’t angry. “It’s hard to be mad at somebody you just prayed for,” I said, realizing, even as I said it, just how true it was.

The Second Thread: Not All Unseen Friends Are Imaginary

Okay, now please bear with me, dear reader, since this next question may seem ponderous, but I promise to lighten up quickly. The question is this: Who was Jesus, really?

There are many available answers, but none can be proved. He called Himself “Son of Man,” whatever that means, and even among learned theologians, opinions are so scattered as to be of little use. There are those who believe He never lived at all, or at best, was a clever charlatan with big ideas. Many others believe He was merely a man, but a man who could justifiably sit alongside Siddhartha, Lao Tzu, Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Mohammed and, one supposes, many other sages of old who might be named if they could but be remembered. I’d even go so far as to say that many “Christians” who go to church regularly really only believe Him to have been a man, a great man, perhaps, but, still, only a human who died on a cross and then went to Heaven like the rest of us hope to do, and, after all, aren’t all people who go to Heaven really “still alive?” So, perhaps, to say that Jesus lives is no great stretch….

And, then there are others, like me, who actually believe Jesus was something beyond extraordinary: the Creator Son of the Universe we inhabit; The One who made us and then became one of us the better to know and love us; an All-Powerful Personality who was, by choice, both completely Divine and completely human. But don’t think for a minute that I just accepted what someone else told me. My journey of faith has been fulsome and vetted by living.

The thread of my belief began to spin early on, for, if those nightly prayers were started before my memory tapes, our days at the Church of the Forest began even earlier. Mama had named it that, and it is, to this day, the only church ever built in Grayson, Alabama, a tiny sawmill town that used to be located smack in the middle of the lush and verdant Bankhead National Forest.

Two years ago, Richard and I made a pilgrimage of sorts to see the church my parents built in the Bankhead National Forest. The town may be gone, but the church remains.

Think “Hansel and Gretel” and you’ll have the setting exactly, and, just as in the story, my forester father was the woodsman! His boss, a kindly lumberman named Clancy, was enlisted by my newly arrived parents to donate the materials to build the church in 1948, and then they rallied the townspeople to erect it. That was two years before I was born and, by the time I came along, it was a thriving little Baptist church. (They held an election – Baptist vs. Methodist – after it was erected. The Baptists won in a landslide.) Truly a “poor church serving the poor,” to quote Pope Francis, it had nothing like the resources needed to support a full-time preacher, so a succession of itinerant clergymen – from “fire and brimstone” to “down and dour” – made their way through, and, when there was no one else, Daddy filled in handsomely as a lay preacher.

It was there among friends – and everyone in Grayson was my friend – that I began to discover my singing voice, and “Jesus” was the first word of the first song I ever learned, and the second song, too, come to think of it. His name was said before every meal we ever ate, regardless of where or with whom we may have been. His story was always front and center, whether at Wednesday night fellowship, or at Church School and preaching twice on Sunday, not to mention that He was right there in the pew racks, staring back at us even as we prayed to Him, with His flowing brown hair and deep blue eyes printed on cloud-shaped cardboard fans from the Double Springs funeral home.

Jesus fan on a stick. When I was a child, every country church in the south had a supply of these scattered among the pews, a necessity when summer Sunday sermons ran long.

In short, Jesus was as much a part of my childhood as the pine trees and sawdust. Of course, that doesn’t mean I really understood who or what He was. After all, life was immersed in Him in those parts, and as is often said, “If you want to know what water is, don’t ask a fish.”[1]

One of my favorite things about Sunday School in those early years was its exclusivity. Because I was the only child in town anywhere near my age, I was often the only pupil in the class, but like the good troopers they were, my teachers never seemed to mind, and would forge ahead using the Southern Baptist study guides, week after week, even if we were alone. And, it was in just such a class, when I was nearly five, that a frustrated Mrs. Lethcoe said to me with some insistence in her flat, North-Alabama drawl: “Tommy, Jesus just wonts to be your friend!” Well, now, that was something I could understand.[2]

Imaginary friends come naturally when you’re an only child living in the woods with nary a playmate for miles, and one of the reasons I took to Nell Lethcoe’s suggestion so instantly was because I already had relationships going with two friends who were, apparently, invisible to others (as neither Mama nor my babysitters could see them). They were little old British ladies who wore printed cotton tea dresses and flowery hats. Their names were Mrs. Seafey and Mrs. Coctiff, and I honestly have not the vaguest notion how I happened to cast them in those particular personalities. Nevertheless, they were my steadfast friends and we truly loved each other.

At some point in the last 40 years, the US Forest Service decided to leave the sawmill, but erase the mill town of Grayson, AL that surrounded it, the place where we lived from my birth to age seven. Now, all that is left of the simple but stately white house we lived in (and where this story took place), is this ivy-draped hole in the ground where our basement used to be. I had to clamber deep into the prickly underbrush just to find this. No doubt, the removal of Grayson from the center of a National Forest was an environmentally sound decision, but it is nevertheless, very sad to me.

Now, you may scoff, if you like, at the idea of “real” imaginary friends, but, dear reader, ineffable are the realities of faith, as they were meant to be. Author J. K. Rowling got it right, I think, in that last pivotal dream conversation between Harry Potter and Dumbledore, when Harry asks his mentor, “Is this real, or is this all just happening inside my head?” and the Professor looks at him with love and replies, “Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry, but why should that mean it’s not real?” Were Mrs. Seafey and Mrs. Cocktiff actually angels that only I, the innocent child, was permitted to see? I cannot say, but they were as real as real could be to me.

Every afternoon I would set the child-sized card table in my bedroom with my sister’s toy Blue Willow dishes and, at precisely four o’clock, the three of us would settle in for tea. We talked about all manner of things over the months of our association, from the death of an elderly friend to the love of my baby sister, and, so, once Mrs. Lethcoe had introduced the notion of a friendship with Jesus, I wasted no time asking the ladies that very afternoon if they agreed that we should invite Him to join us.

Well.

Within a nanosecond of my posing the question, there He was, sitting right across the table from me looking a lot like His picture on those funeral-home fans, only vital, robust, alive. His familiar appearance put me at ease, and His voice was low and gentle like a mountain brook burbling over rocks worn smooth. We loved each other instantly, or, at least, I loved Him instantly, as I gathered He had already been loving me for some time. The ladies, not a little astonished at what had just happened, were tickled to a rosy hue, and we had a wonderful visit together for the rest of the afternoon as He and I locked in a friendship that has only grown stronger with each passing year for, now, six decades. It is often said that to truly believe, you must believe as a child. I know what that means.

We continued our afternoon teas for some weeks until, the final time, He told me it would be our last tea, but that He would always be as near as my desire; that I need but knock and He would never fail to answer any question or rise to any occasion. And, dear reader, after all this time enjoying His close association, nay, friendship, I can attest that He has been as good as His word to that little me all those years ago. To illustrate, I could relate many specific and moving examples, but this essay would be a book if I tried to tell them all in the fullness they deserve, so I only mention a few here without details [but with end notes]: when I was seven, I found myself unwittingly, though not inappropriately, maneuvered into signing an official Baptist commitment card to be His missionary for life[3]; at nine, I received a special dispensation from the Bishop for early baptism and confirmation as a Methodist[4]; at thirteen, in a profound prayer on the night of JFK’s assassination, I was led onto a professional path that held me fast for seventeen years, all the way through law school and ultimately to NYC; when I was seventeen, He helped me maintain my sanity through a very difficult relocation just before the end of my junior year in high school [5]; when I was nineteen, He confirmed to my satisfaction in another intense prayer that who I am was not a mistake and that my having been born gay was as natural and as much a part of His plan as the sun rising in the morning; and, when I was 23, during and after my mother’s losing battle with pancreatic cancer, two profoundly personal, inexplicable mystical interactions between my Friend and me occurred to absolutely seal the deal of our relationship for eternity [6].

In the crazy days of my youth, I used to ask Him for signs that I was on the right path, but I long ago stopped needing them when I began seeing them all the time, and the long and short of it is that for me to say, “I believe in Jesus,” is to understate the case. I know Jesus. We are BFFs in the most literal possible sense. I have seen Him with my own eyes sitting right across the table from me, and heard Him with my own ears in the most unexpected of times and places. I know that He lives because He is my ever-present Companion, my long-time, oft-disappointed, ever-forgiving, proactive Loved One, and the thread of our association has only grown stronger and more resilient through the mercerizing years I have spent dog-paddling, as best I could, through life.

Oh, there have been times, even years, when my attention to our relationship has waned, but even then, when I finally came around, it has always been as it should be when old friends meet: as if there were no time between. That said, we are now far beyond those days, and the bonds of our companionship – of our real, true, living relationship – are, for me, unmistakable, undeniable and unbreakable.

The Third Thread: An Unexpected Obsession

Mama, age 8, 1933

Several years ago I received a letter addressed in an elegant hand on engraved blue note paper from someone I did not know, and, when I opened it, a confetti of small black and white photos fluttered to the floor. These, it turned out, were first- and second-grade school portraits of my mother and her siblings from the early 1930s, and had been sent by a distant cousin who had found them in one of her grandmother’s old trunks. I was thrilled, and was soon writing back to thank her and, while I was at it, to ask some questions about her branch of our family tree.

She did get back to me in great detail, but once the questions had

Uncle Ned, Age 7, 1933

surfaced, I decided to look for some answers on my own by logging onto Ancestry.com. The site was new and offering a two-week free trial membership, and, well, oh my word but did I fall down a rabbit hole! It was some months, as Richard will attest, before I finally resurfaced.

And, what a Wonderland I found! The more I uncovered about the people from whom my parents and I sprang, the more I wanted to know. It was like the best novel ever, full of surprises and sudden turns to drive me forward, or rather, backward in time, as I met thousands of

fascinating forebears and – as a quite unexpected delight – reconnected with history in a fresh and much more personal way through the stories of these real members of my family who fought wars, built log cabins, or traveled aboard clipper ships. It was an extraordinary journey, and as I continued, generation before generation, it became ever more clear just how rich the marvelous tapestry of family can be.

Aunt Peggy, age 6, 1933

Predictably, of course, there were some dead ends – family lines for which the information just petered out after a few generations – but a lot fewer than you might imagine, and I was surprised by just how many lines continued back for hundreds of years. Indeed, there were so many leads to follow and historical eddies to explore, that after following one line all the way back to the first century BC just because I was astonished that I could, I ultimately limited myself to researching only as far back as the “original immigrant” in each line. (But not, fortunately, before I clicked on yet another little green leaf “hint” to discover Lady Godiva, of all people, was one of my 30th great-

Uncle Joe, Age 9, 1933

grandmothers! Now, that was a rush.)

And, though I did ultimately put down the genealogy for other pursuits, there were at least two great lessons that I came away with about the true nature of family and our intense interrelatedness across time and place.

The First Great Lesson: Families Don’t Grow on Trees

A family is not at all the vertical construct we generally imagine. In fact, families are shaped nothing like trees at all. Rather, picture a field of daylilies where expansion comes both from family groups of tubers multiplying underground, as well as from their seeds – pollinated by butterflies and planted by birds – spreading the beauty into every corner.

Now, this is counter-intuitive because the shape of the family we know is actually treelike, with a trunk and branches that leaf out into our loved ones. However, even with 20/20 hindsight, we don’t perceive the reality. Instead of envisioning the great flowering field of more than a million 18-greats-grandparents – let me say that again: more than a million, 1,048,576 to be exact, 18-greats-grandparents  – that each of us, by definition, must have had only 450 years ago, we hardly think beyond those we can actually remember.

I have struggled to find a way to illustrate just how VAST every family tree is but here’s another go. If every blue square in this chart represents a direct forebear (i.e., actual grandparent) the chart runs off the page after only six generations, and by the 20th would use up 9620 sheets of paper laid end-to-end at the same scale! If you could actually make a chart going all the way back to the time of Christ, you would need over 82 TRILLION sheets of graph paper, probably more than exist in the world, I’m thinking. Our interrelatedness is irrefutable.

But the math doesn’t lie: 2×2=4 x2=8 x2=16 x2=32 x2=64 x2=128 x2=256 x2=512 x2=1024 x2=2048 x2=4096 x2=8192 x2=16,384 x2=32,768 x2=65,536 x2=131,072 x2=262,144 x2=524,288 x2=1,048,576. And, as hard as it is to believe, if you keep doubling it all the way back a thousand years, Lady Godiva, as it turns out, was only the most notorious of my 4.2 billion 3o-greats-grandparents!

The Second Great Lesson: We Are All Cousins

But that, you might well posit, is impossible. After all, there weren’t even 4.2 billion people on the planet in the 10th Century, and, of course, you would be right. But in the end, it’s not about the size of the population but the number of fruitful copulations, and it only took 2.1 billion of those. Plus, as it turns out, some of our ancestors were extremely good at conceiving. Consider two examples: Genghis Khan and the passengers of the Mayflower.

It has long been known that Genghis Khan was fond of procreation. It was even reported by Chinese observers as early as the year 1272 – only forty-five years after he died – that there were already twenty thousand of his progeny in positions of power across several neighboring regions.[7] And, in 2003, the American Journal of Human Genetics reported that over sixteen million men – and, by extrapolation, their sixteen million sisters – were all Genghis Khan’s descendants: thirty-two million literal cousins sired by one man only eight-hundred years ago![8]

The case of the Mayflower is similar. She landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 with just over a hundred survivors, but forty-five of them died the first winter, leaving a colony of only fifty-seven Pilgrims. Consequently, if you are related to one of them, it is almost a slam-dunk certainty you are related to several, since they and their children had only each other for “acceptable” mates, and even after additional ships arrived, their numbers were exceedingly small for scores of years.

Additionally, mindful of this shortfall and being made of hardy stuff (especially the women), the early settlers tended to have a great many children – very often in excess of twenty – who, in turn, had a great many more. The result, in hardly any time at all, was similar to that of the Mongol Emperor, only this concentration of genetic inheritance included twenty-four procreating men rather than just the one. An article in the September 20th, 2004 edition of the Kingston Mariner relates: “a staggering thirty-five million people claim an ancestral lineage that runs all the way back – sometimes through fifteen generations – to the original 24 [Mayflower] males. That number represents 12 percent of the American population” [9] [emphasis added]. Twelve percent!

In other words, we are all – and I do mean all – far more related than we think. Everyone reading this – however far away in time or space you may be from the here and now of this writing – is almost certainly my blood-kin cousin. And, even without the concentrated hubs arising from isolated populations or overreaching despots, this would still be unavoidable. Look at the math the other way ’round. Lady Godiva had eleven known children, but, again, for the sake of being ultra-conservative, let’s say she only had two who bore children, giving her four grandchildren who then only gave her eight great-grandchildren, etc., so that you generate the same multiples over generations as with the grandparents. Well, then, given a perfect progression, over 4.2 billion people living today share my 30th great-grandmother. And, the same calculus would also have to be true for every other one of my 4.2 billion 30th great-grandparents! How could we not be related? Seen through such a distant lens, the fabric of family is tighter than canvas and covers the whole of the earth.

Now, it is no doubt the case – at least common sense would allow – that Europeans are more related to each other than to Africans, who are more related to each other than to Asians, etc., but that said, we humans have been prone to cross-fertilization as far back as the Neanderthals,[10] and, it only took one 12th Century marriage between a Crusader and a Mesopotamian, for example, to join millions of previously distinct forebears into one family that, by today, has extended the bloodlines of both to a great proportion of the planetary population.

[Also, lo and behold, in the week this essay was originally published, The New York Times published an op-ed by A. J. Jacobs entitled “Are You My Cousin?” which made exactly my point using new insights arising from the growing list of genealogy-related websites.[11] Did I say “synchronicities”?]

A Joining of Threads

All these were fascinating, fun discoveries, but I still could not quite fathom my compulsion to keep looking deeper and deeper into family history. Why the obsession? What was my inner Father trying to tell me; teach me? I often took the question to Him in prayer, but the answer remained elusive. I did, however, after many hundreds of hours, finish the job of naming my forebears back to the original immigrants as best I could.

Of course, I should have known, having prayed the question with a sincere heart, that an answer to my quandary would eventually appear, and, though it took its time falling into place, it was more than satisfactory.

As I did my research, my growing understanding of family ties did have an impact upon my prayers for others – from the neighborhood, to the city, to the planet as described above – since I began thinking of all our neighbors as something significantly more, as actual cousins however distant, and it really does feel differently when you visualize them that way.[12] There is an undeniable intensification of the emotional investment when you truly see those you are praying for, however unknown, as literal family. Blood, as they say, is thicker than water, and what had become increasingly clear to me was the utter impossibility of drawing any dividing lines between our one family of seven billion cousins. Family, as we learn from our very cradles, is always to be accepted with love and – in spite of foibles or follies, if necessary – not to be judged unkindly. How wondrous it would be, then, were all embraced as kin, to dismiss unkindness altogether!

And then, at long last, one marvelous morning as I prayed, all these threads of understanding, some having taken a lifetime to work their way up through my consciousness, came together in a blink, as most revelations do. Prostrate in the dark of my bedroom, I came to that part of the prayer where our nearest ten-thousand neighbors are my focus, and, almost without realizing it, prayed “for our ten-thousand nearest cousins… YOUR ten thousand nearest cousins…” And then I stopped as the full force of what had just happened washed through me. Of course! That was the point! I finally understood what my oldest Friend, my dear Friend Jesus, who had been holding my hand since those days around the tea table, had been trying to tell me. He had inspired my inquiries, step-by-step, until I could finally, fully see the reality that we – He and I and, yes, you – are not only friends, but literal, blood family!

And with the next breath came the next realization – flowing from my long-established understanding that Jesus was the eldest of a large family of children – that if they, too, had been my long-ag0 cousins, then He was also, by definition, my long-ago uncle! Uncle Jesus!

The “brotherhood of man under the Fatherhood of God” is an old but valid trope that relies upon a wondrous spiritual nexus: God as Heavenly Father of all His material children. But how much more tangible is this newly seen connection: to be a member of the actual family of God? And, better yet, to understand the Son of God to actually be one of your own? It’s one thing to ask a loving spiritual, but Heavenly, Father for forgiveness, and quite another to ask your favorite earthly Uncle for a favor.

The Family of Jesus

With all the emphasis upon the twelve Apostles, Jesus’s actual family gets short shrift. With the exception of Mary, we don’t really think much about them at all, though most experts agree He had several siblings.[13] Matthew, Chapter 13, tells us of four brothers named James, Joseph, Simon and Jude, and “sisters,” so one may conclude that, at the very least, He had six.

There also can be found records of later generations, including Judas Kyriakos (the last Jewish-Christian “Bishop of Jerusalem”), great-grandson of Jesus’s brother Jude,[14] but, of course, we have no way of knowing exactly how many nieces and nephews Jesus may have had. Nevertheless, for the sake of discussion, let us continue taking an extremely conservative approach and assume that only two of His siblings had children. If we then assume the same progression and double the number in each generation, by the 30th, around the year 1000 AD, Jesus would already have had 4.2 billion great-nieces and nephews, and given that it would take another thousand years to bring us up to date, each and every one of those 4.2 billion would likely, by now, have their own 4.2 billion descendants!

And, if that isn’t assurance enough for you that we are all, almost inevitably, the nieces and nephews of Christ, add into the equation the undeniable consequences of the Diaspora – the spreading out of the Hebrews to the furthest ends of the earth – which began with the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem six centuries before Christ and would seem to be entirely unrelated to His arrival. Nevertheless, for the sake of making the point, if the Universe wanted to ensure that Jesus might ultimately – in the fullness of time – be the literal blood Uncle of His entire human family – of every human on earth – it could not have gone about it in a more systematic or effective way. That said, I don’t believe any loving Father (or Uncle, for that matter) would purposefully so displace His family as has been done to the Jewish nation throughout history, but it is an inarguable fact that the result is a far more interrelated world today than would otherwise be the case.

Of course, if you believe, as many do, that Jesus was conceived immaculately, then any DNA endowment would theoretically be purely that of His mother. However, (and I’m bound to get into trouble for this) if, as I, you believe that His Divinity is actually enhanced and His sacrifice ennobled by His having been the Creator Son of our Universe who chose to be conceived in the normal way – as the utterly vulnerable firstborn Son of Mary and Joseph – His endowment would, of course, include the inheritance factors from both families. Either way, the point remains the same. Whether His DNA was only hers, or some combination of hers and God’s, or a combination of hers and Joseph’s, her son was still the blood brother of James, Joseph, Simon, Jude and His sisters, and He was still the uncle of every child born to them and great-uncle of every grandchild.

Uncles are Cool

As it happens, benevolent uncles were a big part of my childhood. My grandfather had several brothers, and my favorite relatives in the early years were my Great-Uncles Edgar and Powell, both of whom were long-widowed and doted on me at every opportunity. Beyond that, my mother’s brothers, Ned and Bubba – yes, Bubba – were fundamental to the health of my self-esteem as I grew up a stranger in a strange land. They were always there with a word of encouragement or even to help with more mundane things like buying a used car, or refilling the honey jar from the 55-gallon drum of Tupelo kept on Great-Grandmama’s back porch.

So, the realization that Jesus was not only my BFF, but my Uncle, as well, was a wonderful discovery, and one I took instantly to heart. Of course, it may not mean very much to you, if you don’t believe, as I do, that He is the Master Creator Son of the Universe who made not only our world, but the millions of similar worlds that populate our heavens; or if you don’t believe, as I do, that out of all the worlds He made, He chose this one as the site of his materialization experience – from defenseless infant to Divine Teacher – the better to know us and love us as one of us, as well as to show not only us, but all His vast, starlit creation, the Way of Love through His perfected example. But, I do believe all of those things, so for such a God to be, also, my literal Uncle is more than unimaginable, it is a gift far greater than anything I could possibly deserve or even ever have dreamed. God is my Uncle? Not only is He mine, but yours, as well.

And, that, my dear cousin, is news worth sharing.

– February 9, 2014 [Fifth revision, January 31, 2018]

© 2018 George Thomas Wilson, All rights reserved.


[1] I have been utterly unable to track down the source of this quote, though there are thousands of uses of it cited by Google, most of which attribute it as “an old Chinese proverb.” Nevertheless, the sentiment is sound.

[2]  For years I have called Nell Lethcoe’s simple, emphatic statement to me the “most profound theological point I’ve ever heard.” And, as an aside, in all the years following that day, in spite of spending countless hours in countless churches, I had not heard one other person put it quite so well until until Pope Francis appeared and said the same exact thing. It turns out that “friendship with Jesus” is also one of his favorite themes. As recently as 1/4/14, for example, he actually tweeted (tweeted!) “Dear Young People, Jesus wants to be your friend, and wants you to spread the joy of this friendship everywhere.” You have to love it when the Pope quotes your childhood Sunday School teacher!

[3] It’s a long story, but had my Great-grandmother Baker died either one day before or one day after the day she actually passed away, I would not have been shipped off for a week in mid-July of 1957 to Cook Springs Baptist Women’s Missionary Union Camp, and would not – as a seven-year-old! – have found myself, at the end of that week, compelled to sign a 3”x5” commitment card that, of all things, I would continue to be a “missionary for Jesus” for the rest of my life. I may have been too young and too innocent, but in full consultation with my teatime Friend, I made a knowing commitment and I am still striving to live up to it.

[4] Two years later, when I was nine – and still very much in the glow of my innocence – I discovered our preacher was to be transferred (we had become Methodists in a new town by then) and since I found Brother Langford to be the most Christ-like of all the preachers we had ever had, I asked him to confirm and baptize me before he left. It took a special dispensation from the bishop because I was three years too young, but I succeeded in confirming my commitment to my good Friend in the best way I knew how.

[5] When I was only six weeks away from the end of my Junior year, I was suddenly transferred from the tiny (300 students in six grades) rural Florida high school where my mother had been a revered teacher, to an Alabama city school of 2000 people in 3 grades where no one knew me and I had no time at all to learn an entirely new curriculum for finals before spending my final high school summer working in a bread factory as a union trainee. I was utterly miserable and had it not been for the embracing group from the Campus Crusade for Christ led by a wonderful woman named Cook, I’m not sure I would have made it through my senior year intact. But, thanks to my Friend, Jesus, and my angels’ particularly strong and consistent overcare during these days, often demonstrated to me in real, perceptible, ways, I managed to suffer through with only minor scrapes and bruises. I truly do not know how I could have made it through those torturous months without my faith.

[6] The first of these occasions may sound insignificant in the retelling, but it involved several entirely unlikely, nearly impossible, sightings of an out-of-place dragonfly that appeared in response to my prayers for guidance and strength during those painful months, and the message received was, essentially, “Your prayers are heard. Do not worry. Worrying only depletes your energies and accomplishes nothing.” From that moment on, though I did the best I could for her in the weeks that followed, and mourned her passing when she died, my worry ceased and those energies were put to better use. [since the original version of this post in 2014, I have written about the dragonfly experience in detail. The link is here and I encourage you to read it.: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2014/11/02/the-dragonfly/ ]

The second event was an actual, as-God-is-my-witness, cloud-based vision that included a clear-as-a-bell image of my Friend Jesus standing tall with the sun streaming through His flowing hair and beard, His right arm raised in a blessing. Of course, as is the case with all such personal “for your eyes only” touchstones of faith, I cannot prove either of these contacts really happened, but I know, and He knows, that they did.

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/11/science/a-prolific-genghis-khan-it-seems-helped-people-the-world.html “As for Genghis himself, Dr. Morgan cited a passage from ‘Ata-Malik Juvaini, a Persian historian who wrote a long treatise on the Mongols in 1260. Juvaini said: ”Of the issue of the race and lineage of Chingiz Khan, there are now living in the comfort of wealth and affluence more than 20,000. More than this I will not say . . . lest the readers of this history should accuse the writer of exaggeration and hyperbole and ask how from the loins of one man there could spring in so short a time so great a progeny.”

[9] Article by John Galluzzo printed in the September 20th 2004 edition of the Kingston Mariner and reposted on the History News Network website of George Mason University on October 23rd of the same year. Link: http://hnn.us/blog/7360#sthash.DzfuEwh8.dpuf

[12] Or, as A. J. Jacobs put it in his article “Are You My Cousin” in The New York Times on 2/2/2014: “…a mega[family]tree might just make the world a kinder place. I notice that I feel more warmly about people I know are distant cousins. I recently figured out that I’m an 11th cousin four times removed of the TV personality Judge Judy Sheindlin. I’d always found her grating. But when I discovered our connection, I softened. She’s probably a sweetheart underneath the bluster.”

[13] It is incumbent upon me at this point to allow that there are many who dispute whether the brothers and sisters of Jesus were His full brother and sisters, half brothers and sisters, or somehow the children of some other couple. For me, I go with the writer of Matthew, who said “His Brothers” and “His sisters,” without qualification of any sort.

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