Beyond Outward Appearances

by Rebecca D. Higgins 

Perhaps it was the recent invitation from my alma mater inviting me to my 30-year class reunion at Homecoming this year or simply today’s date.  Whatever the reason, I found myself rummaging through my files today in search of something I had written a long time ago–back in college, to be exact!  I was a student at what was then Marion College (now Indiana Wesleyan University). One day as I walked across the campus in early 1985, one of my professors stopped me to ask if I was planning to enter the Paul W. Thomas Christian Writing Contest sponsored by The Wesleyan Church. “I don’t know anything about it,” was my response. She gave me the details and strongly encouraged me to enter. That was all the incentive I needed to sit down and write an essay that had been on my heart to write for some time. The following is the result. The bonus was that it won first place in the nonfiction category that year!

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Hands trembling, picking at imaginary threads, the wrinkled woman sits quietly in the rocking chair in the corner of the room. As I secretly observe her movements, I wonder what thoughts pass through her mind causing her to fiddle so industriously with the red and white crocheted coverlet in her lap. Turning from this occupationGrandma at Easter, she picks up the large-print Bible lying on the stand beside her and randomly thumbs its pages, pausing here and there to read a verse or two. She next peruses old church bulletins and missionary magazines—items she has read countless times before.

In the eyes of most people, this frail little lady is merely an old woman who has been robbed by time of her ability for rational thought. The sight of her stooped figure shuffling across a room with the aid of a helping hand perhaps would elicit some murmured words of pity. “What a shame! It’s too bad old people get like that.”

But I must ask myself, do I see her the same way others do? Will my memories be these last impressions of her as she is now in this the autumn of her life? Would that be fair? Hidden behind the wrinkled and shrunken exterior is the real identity of one of God’s precious children. Somewhere tucked into the recesses of her confused mind lie the remnants of yesterday’s beautiful memories—memories of the very full life that she has lived.

The room in which we now are sitting is covered with her treasures—pictures of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. In the faces of these her family, I see the true meaning of what her life has been—an unselfish giving of herself for those she loves.

Born just two years before the turn of the 20th century in a farmhouse in Fairfield, Wisconsin, she has faced the anxieties of two world wars, a depression, and many personal battles.

Grandma bows cropped

As a young girl she enjoyed school and after graduating from the eighth grade anticipated attending high school. However, that dream was pushed aside when it was decided she was needed at home to help her mother who was not well.

Later, after she had married and was living with her husband and children on another farm near Baraboo, Wisconsin, she sacrificed at mealtimes in preference of her family. She was the kind of mother who didn’t care for any pie when she knew there wasn’t enough to go around. When she served chicken, she always selected the neck or the back for herself so that her family could have the choice pieces.

She saw to it that her family was present in church Sunday morning and evening and every Wednesday midweek prayer service. Even in the midst of the Depression when money was so tight that they couldn’t afford a car, her family attended church services regularly.

The biggest sacrifice of her life was yet to come. Her oldest boy quit school after eighth grade and went to work. Her second son, upon completing his high school training, was offered a scholarship to attend the University of Wisconsin. She didn’t want her boy to go to a liberal state school and prayed diligently that he would choose instead the small Wesleyan college in Marion, Indiana. She desired that her children would have the opportunity of a Christian education that she had been denied. Her prayers prevailed, and her boy turned down the scholarship and applied at Marion College.

When the superintendent of the Baraboo schools heard what had happened, he made a trip out to the farm. “Now, ma’am, I don’t think you understand what a big mistake your son is making,” he said. “You’re wrong to encourage him to go to some tiny college when he has such a golden opportunity in the form of a scholarship at the University.”

“I’m sorry you made a trip out here to tell us that,” she answered. “I prayed that my children would have the opportunity to attend a Christian school. Now God is answering my prayers.”

“You’re making a terrible mistake,” the superintendent fumed. “I’ll tell you this! If your son goes to Marion College when he has a scholarship at the University, I’ll never recommend him for a teaching position!”

In spite of the attempt to dissuade the little lady from her purpose, her son left home and enrolled as a student at Marion College in the fall of 1940.

In his first year he was a typical farm boy away from home. His letters to his mother expressed his homesickness, but although she missed her boy, she was thankful that he was receiving a Christian education. How she wished that the rest of her children could do the same! But such a thought posed a problem. If she and her husband remained on the farm, they would be unable to finance sending their remaining three children to Marion College. A decision had to be made. As always, she disregarded her own feelings and chose what was best for her children. Packing what possessions they could, she and her husband forsook everything that they knew and loved and moved their family to Marion, Indiana in 1941.

A farm woman with only an eighth-grade education, she felt inferior to the college people in her new environment. However, she enjoyed the services at College Church, and very quickly the people welcomed her with open arms and made her feel at home.

Accustomed to hard work, she wouldn’t remain at home without offering her services to those around her. She volunteered to baby-sit for married college students who had children, and many a young man at Marion College at that time was indebted to her for doing his laundry. Those were the days before permanent press, and every shirt had to be ironed and starched. She performed these tasks willingly out of the goodness of her heart.

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In 1955 her husband suffered a heart attack and died. Suddenly, she was faced with responsibilities she had never had before. She received a job working in the college kitchen. Unable to drive a car, she sold her larger house to a young family and moved into a small house within close walking distance of the church and the college. There she has lived up to the present. The doors of her little home always have been open to special prayer groups and to the college family.

Even though she filled many new roles after moving to Marion, the most important title to her remained that of “Mother.” When grandchildren entered her life, they, too, received a full measure of her love. Her cookie jar always was filled with her yummy chocolate chip cookies; consequently, little feet made frequent trips to her kitchen.

Her family has always known that she is a loving mother, but when on Mother’s Day in 1966, her church honored her as the Mother of the Year, the fact was made more meaningful. To her family it was a once-in-a-lifetime privilege for College Wesleyan Church to bypass all the college-educated mothers and select their mother as the one to honor. The church celebrated the occasion by portraying a This-Is-Your-Life drama.  All of her five children and their families were introduced. She was surprised and happy to have all of her children with her at the same time. It was a highlight for the whole family.

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Of all of her deeds of kindness and Christlike characteristics, the most important aspect of her life has always been prayer. Anyone who has sat with her at her breakfast table has shared in family devotions. Even yet, though most of the time her mind refuses to cooperate in directing her speech coherently, she still prays with intelligence and faith.. For years her prayers have held the often-repeated phrase, “Help us to be overcomers.” What a wonderful testimony to have! To be an overcomer! In these her final days when heaven seems so much nearer, she can testify that with God’s help she has overcome the trials that have come her way. Through them all, she has remained faithful. God has been her very present help staying near her in answer to the quoted words of an old hymn that she often prays:

We need Thee every hour;
Stay Thou nearby.
Temptations lose their power
When Thou art nigh.

But now I must shake myself from my reverie. It is her bedtime, and I must help her prepare for bed. Time has brought a reversal in roles. She who spent the majority of her life helping others now must rely on their aid. I see her as she is today, but in this short evening of staying with her I wanted to take a look at who she really is—a woman of love, faith, and prayer—and go on record that I for one will not forget the memories.

After her clothes are changed, her teeth removed, and she is lying in bed staring at the flowered curtains, I ask her if she would like to pray. Immediately, her eyelids close over her cloudy gray eyes, and a brief prayer from her heart parts her lips:

We come to You tonight. “We need Thee every hour; Stay Thou nearby. Temptations lose their power When Thou art nigh.” We thank Thee for this. We’re thankful that You are willing to stay with us, and we don’t have to stay alone. Stay with Beth and Becky tonight, and help them tomorrow. Give them the courage to face the problems, and help them to make the right decision and do the things they ought to do. Amen.

My heart is touched and inwardly I muse,  “Thank you for praying for me. It’s the nicest gift you could give and the best memory I could have.”

Aloud, I murmur, “Good night. I love you!”

“I love you, too, honey!” she says as moisture gathers in her eyes.

Stooping, I kiss the wrinkled cheek and again whisper, “I love you . . . Grandma!”

–written in February 1985

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Postscript:

A few months after I wrote this article about my grandmother, we had to move her from her little house into a nursing home. She lasted there about a year.  During that time, a shortened version of this article appeared in The Wesleyan Advocate–the denominational magazine at the time. I took a copy out to the nursing home, perched on the arm of Grandma’s recliner, put my arms around her so that she could see the pages, and read to her what I had written. I didn’t know if in her confused mind she would understand what it was about. When I had finished reading, I asked her, “Do you know whom that’s about, Grandma?”

Reading Grandma Advocate article 2

“Yes, it’s about your grandma.”

“It’s about YOU!” I told her.

She teared up and patted my arm. “You’re so sweet!”

A number of months later after suffering some setbacks and being taken to the Marion General Hospital, she lay in an unconscious state for a few days. Many of us who were her family gathered in her private room. We talked to her, told stories, laughed, sang songs, and most of all told her how much we loved her. We learned later that often as we were singing, nurses would tiptoe down the hall to stand outside the door and listen.

Various family members took turns staying with Grandma through the nights. On the night of June 12, 1986, my cousin and I stayed with her. After Lisa had left the next morning to go to work, I pulled out this article and read it to Grandma one more time. I didn’t know if she could hear me or understand, but I wanted to tell her once again just how much I loved her and how much she meant to me.

That night, June 13, 1986, as family members gathered around her hospital bed and sang songs of the church, my precious grandmother slipped from our arms into the arms of Jesus. I like to think that the echo of our voices as we sang, “What a Friend we have in Jesus” simply faded away as she woke up to meet Him face to face! At her funeral in the chapel at College Wesleyan Church a few days later, I read this tribute about my grandmother once again at the request of the family. Today, many years after her death, I pull it out in memory and thankfulness for the indelible imprint her love and decisions made on my life. You see, her second son whom she prayed would go to a Christian college was my dad. She encouraged him to take the less traveled road–the road of surrender to the will of Christ. In the words of Robert Frost: “That has made all the difference!”

As I soon will make my way to bed, my thoughts of my dear grandmother cause me to whisper once again, “Good night! I love you . . . Grandma!” I say it, and yet I know that for her, my “Good night” is an eternal “Good morning!”

Homesick!

by Rebecca D. Higgins

(It was on April 17, 2000, that my father–Verdon D. Higgins–went home to be with the Lord. Not many days have gone by since then that I don’t miss him. Not many days have gone by that I don’t feel a little homesick.)

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“Yuck! I can’t believe Miss Woodring is makin’ us do a poetry notebook. I hate poetry!” was the response of some of my third-grade classmates. I didn’t join in those complaints, however, because, you see, I loved poetry. It has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Perhaps that’s because I had a grandmother who used to quote and even write a few poems herself, and she kept a scrapbook of the poems her son wrote–her son who later became my father.

Daddy reads to his girls 2

I still remember how my sister and I would sit side by side in the old red chair in my father’s office at our house and beg him to read or tell us a story. Oh, in the earliest years, I’m sure we heard the regular stories like Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, but those aren’t the ones that stand out in my memory. Around Mt. Carmel where he taught and served as principal, my father was famous for performing his imaginary tale about Herman, his pet lion. “Tell it again, Daddy!” my sister and I would beg at home and giggle in anticipation of his funny voices.

Daddy’s repertoire also dipped into the poetry genre as well. He didn’t dwell in Mother Goose rhymes. Instead we sat wide-eyed as he recited “Little Orphant Annie” or “The Bear Story” by James Whitcomb Riley. I learned Longfellow’s “The Children’s Hour” and “A Psalm of Life” and a number of my dad’s other favorites. His love for nature and the outdoors that he instilled in me came through when he quoted Joyce Kilmer’s lines, “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” Sometimes he would tell us stories of growing up on the farm in Wisconsin and talk of the old farmhouse where he came into the world after a difficult birth and was not expected to live. And sometimes when he’d talk he’d get a faraway reflective look in his blue eyes as he quoted Edgar Guest’s immortalized words:

“It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home,
A heap o’ sun an’ shadder, an’ ye sometimes have t’ roam
Afore ye really ‘preciate the things ye lef’ behind,
An hunger fer ‘em somehow, with ‘em allus on yer mind.”

Funny, now that I think about it–Daddy never owned a house. A long time ago he followed Robert Frost’s advice and took “the less traveled road”–and that indeed “made all the difference.” When classmates were rushing down the road to pursue selfish pleasures of wealth and making a name for themselves, my father chose to follow God and honor His name. That decision led him to a life of faith–literally. He felt God’s call to serve in the Kentucky mountains, and in the fall of 1949 he arrived as a new teacher at a place he’d heard a lot about but never personally visited before–Mt. Carmel High School. Like the other workers, he didn’t receive a salary, but followed a pattern like that of George Mueller who went to God with his needs and trusted Him to supply–and He did.

Ten years later he married my mom, and my sister entered their hearts and home a year after that. I completed our family unit when I arrived with a bang on the Fourth of July four years later and almost immediately declared my determined and willful independence! But it was my dad who in love very early let me know that there were things about which I wasn’t quite ready to make my own decisions. I needed to eat some vegetables! I needed to be respectful to my parents and other elders. I needed discipline–not to break my will, but to train it. And did I ever get that discipline every time I loudly rebelled against my parents’ requests! (How hard is it really to eat some vegetables?!!) Some present-day psychologists would try to suggest that since my dad spanked me, I was an abused child. I know better. I can honestly say that never once do I remember my father’s spankings being done in anger–really! My father was firm but loving, and always, always told and showed that he loved me even when the spankings occurred.

In spite of the fact that my dad was the primary disciplinarian of our home, he was also very nurturing. I loved to be with him. Every summer he shed his suits and ties of the office and classroom for workpants and short-sleeved shirts and became the school’s gardener. I loved it–except for the sweating part. He sweat buckets! His clothes looked like he’d been hosed down! He started preparing for the garden weeks in advance by growing seeds in cups and trays along the windowsills of our house, but every spring also meant a trip to Keck. I always looked forward to riding along. Keck was really no more than a wide space in the road with a sign that proclaimed that it was Keck, Kentucky. But there were greenhouses there where Daddy would buy pepper plants and other things for the garden. To this day the tangy aroma of a vegetable greenhouse takes me back to those days when we would wind around the narrow mountain roads, the Kentucky mountains beginning to show the splash of color from the Divine Artist’s paintbrush–a touch of purplish pink here and there as the redbud trees began to bloom, a patch of white among the spring green leaves indicating the dogwood.

Daddy at Mill Creek

Spring and fall were times of wonderful walks together with my dad on Sunday afternoons. Oh, we had to observe “Quiet Hour” first, but then I’d come and say, “Daddy, let’s go for a walk.” And we’d head down the hill behind our house. Sometimes we’d sit on the large gray rock by the creek and marvel at how through the years the water had carved perfect circles in its base. As we sat in hushed silence, we listened to the music of the water as it rippled across the rocks on the creek bed. The birds sang sweetly in the trees, and Daddy would identify them all by their song.

As summer rolled around all of us on the Mt. Carmel campus worked hard, but if I could have had my preference I would have rather been out in the garden with my dad rather than in a stuffy house cooking or cleaning. The hot Kentucky sun would bronze Daddy’s face and arms, leaving him with the proverbial “farmer’s tan.” At night I would climb into bed with the windows open and be lulled to sleep by the symphony of the night– frogs, crickets, katydids, cicadas. I heard them last night. I almost missed it because of the hum of the window air conditioners trying to keep the temperature in my upstairs apartment tolerable, but when I went into the back room to rummage through my memories stored in boxes, the sound beckoned me to listen. I turned off the motorized noise, stepped outside onto the porch into the blackness of midnight and listened as the sounds took me home again.

But when was it that I had learned that “home” for me wasn’t so much a place but a person? I had moved away, but my carefully laid plans hit some detours within the first few months at college. Now what? I called home–I called to talk to Daddy and to hear him pray for me over the phone.

During those college years, anytime I drove back to Kentucky for a visit, my father would be watching out his home office windows for the car to pull into the yard, and then he would come to greet me with a warm welcome as I pushed open the car door.

After graduation, I worked at my church’s international headquarters for several years until one day I heard about an open door of ministry in the former Soviet Union and felt God’s call to go. On one of my visits with my parents, while sitting at their kitchen table, I shared with Mom and Dad that I felt God wanted me to go to Russia as a volunteer with CoMission. My dad’s response was what I expected. His chin began to quiver, his voice broke, and tears gathered in his eyes. “Becky, if God wants you in Russia, there’s no place I would rather have you be. It’s far away, but I would never stand in your way for anything.”

As I went through training in Kankakee, Illinois just prior to my departure for my first year with CoMission, I received the call from home that the doctors had discovered that Daddy had an abdominal aortic aneurysm. I was frightened and anxious. My dad knew that and did everything he could to reassure me. On their way to my Commissioning Service, he experienced chest pains which forced him to the emergency room in Lexington, Kentucky. However, Daddy announced to the doctor that he had to be released because his daughter was being commissioned to go to Russia. He needed to be at my commissioning. He was! He and I both knew that our limited time together was precious. Early one morning before I had to go to my required training sessions, we walked the campus of Olivet Nazarene University, ultimately finding our way to the prayer chapel. There we shared our love for each other and had a beautiful time of prayer together. Always concerned about how his problems would affect others, he told me about his prayers to God about his situation. “Now, Lord, my daughter’s going to Russia. She doesn’t need to be worrying about her old dad back home. She’s just had to say goodbye to my brother, her uncle that she loves who’s dying of pancreatic cancer. And now the doctors tell me I have an aortic aneurysm. My family doesn’t need this right now. I’ve got to have victory here!” He then confidently shared with me, “Becky, God has given me the assurance that I’ll be here when you get home.”

He and I both clung to that promise when a month after I arrived in Russia, I received the news that my dad’s brother had passed away. We clung to that promise five months later when my sister called me to inform me that my dad’s aneurysm had grown requiring immediate surgery. We clung to that promise a few weeks later when he underwent another emergency surgery to remove a gangrenous gall bladder that had almost killed him. Then when my year was over, we realized the fulfillment of the promise. As I drove up on the campus in a borrowed car and into my parents’ yard, my dad was watching from his office window. Before I could get the car door open and make it to the house, he had come to meet me. Tears glistened in our eyes. The embrace was what we both had been waiting and longing for throughout our year of separation.

God led me back to Russia two more years as a volunteer with CoMission, and my father became my most devoted and faithful supporter. He wanted to know everything. No detail was too small for him. He wanted to know the names of the people in the photos, what their stories were, and if they had come to faith in Christ. His prayers seemed to have a direct link to the Father’s throne and with me in Russia, bridging the distance between us.

When God directed me to return to Russia as a missionary with my denomination, my father never once questioned that decision or stood in my way. I knew it was hard for him to think of my being so far away in his years of deteriorating health, but all he ever wanted was for me to do God’s will.

On January 19, 1999, I was scheduled to depart from the Indianapolis airport. My parents had come to see me off.

I had probably had less than three hours of sleep in the preceding three days as I packed up and moved out of my temporary apartment, packed for going overseas, and took care of final logistics and business. I had literally moved the last of my things out of my apartment into storage that very morning, wading through crusted snow to carry things for storage to the garages of friends, then rushing back to shower and dress for my long trip. My parents’ car was piled with items they were taking back to Kentucky for me. My trunks packed for Russia were loaded into a minivan owned by Global Partners. Daddy rode along with me to headquarters, and then he got in the car with Mom to head to the airport. A mission administrator drove the van with my luggage and me to the airport, making one final stop at the bank on the way. We had sent my parents on ahead with Mom driving (Daddy no longer drove because of his Parkinson’s), telling them to meet us at the airline check-in. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the airport, there was no sign of Mom and Dad, and we had no cell phones back then with which to communicate with them. Mom had missed her exit and gotten a bit lost. They finally showed up, but by the time we were able to sit down at my departure gate (pre 9-11 security rules), I had only about 45 minutes before the boarding call for my flight.

Daddy and me at airport 20511

Anyone who knew my dad knows that the first priority when we sat down was to have prayer together. The minutes flew by all too quickly. My flight was announced, and it was time to say goodbye. A final lingering hug . . . tears . . . “I love you!” I then was walking down the retractable hallway to find my window seat in the Northwest airplane.

For some reason, my flight stayed at the gate for a while. Exhaustion brought from my hectic schedule of the preceding days took over and I fell asleep. When the plane finally began to back away from the gate, I woke up. As the plane backed around so that my window seat was parallel with the terminal, I could see my dad’s backlit silhouette in the window with my mom patting his shoulder. I did not have to see his face distinctly to know that his emotions were doubtless causing his chin to quiver and his blue eyes to glisten with moisture. I looked and waved until that cherished silhouette was no longer visible.

A few days after I returned to Russia in January 1999 for my 3-year term with Global Partners, my father sent a card in which he wrote in a shaky Parkinson’s-affected script: “Well, you are back in Russia again, and three years seems like a long time. However, as long as Russia is God’s will, then it is mine, too. I’m so glad I can say that from the depths of my heart. I am so glad you are our daughter. You have brought joy and God isn’t finished. I love you very much, Becky. A part of me is there in Russia with you. Let us hear from you. God bless you. I’ll be praying often. Lots of love, Dad”

Every time I talked to him on the phone, he would pray for me about the struggles, the burdens, the responsibilities that I carried at the Bible college and the Russian students that I taught. The last time was on Sunday, April 9, 2000. He and my mom had been in an accident a month before–an accident that had totaled their car and had left my mom with seven broken ribs and my dad bruised and sore. My sister had taken them to recuperate at her home in North Carolina.

Eight days after that April 9 phone call, I was awakened in the middle of the night the Monday after Palm Sunday to the shrill ringing of the telephone. When I picked up the receiver and heard my sister’s voice on the other end, I was immediately wide awake preparing myself for the bad news I didn’t want to hear. As she shared with me that Daddy had gone to heaven after suffering an apparent heart attack, I selfishly wished that I could have seen him just one more time, could have felt his embrace one more time, could have heard his matter-of-fact prayers one more time. But I knew how happy he was that he was finally home. As I knew that night was descending on my family in North Carolina, I watched as the first rays of dawn broke the horizon in Russia. I was reminded that what seems the darkest night for us here is daylight “over there.” And just as we were in the midst of commemorating Passion Week, the power of Easter brought with it the hope of the resurrection. I remembered how my father–who was not a world traveler (he’d only crossed the border into Canada)–had said that if he could travel anywhere in the world he’d love to visit the Holy Land. He once told me, “Oh, what a thrill it would be to see the empty tomb!” As we began that Easter week, I rejoiced for my father through my own tears and personal sense of loss that he was finally seeing– not the empty tomb– but the Risen Christ himself! He was experiencing the greatest thrill of all!

God answered prayer and got me on a flight a little over 24 hours after my sister called. On that long, lonely flight, I remembered my father’s promise the first year I went to Russia: “Becky, I’ll be here when you get home.” I turned my face to the window as tears welled in my eyes and rolled down my cheeks. He wouldn’t be at the gate as the airplane landed in Cincinnati. Instead, my cousin who lived in Indianapolis would be picking me up to drive me down through the eastern Kentucky mountains that were coming alive with the colors of spring–splashes of green, the white of the dogwood, and purplish pink of the redbud trees. He wouldn’t be there to push open the screen door of his office and come to embrace me as the car drove into the yard. He wouldn’t be there to welcome me home. But then I heard it–the words whispered gently again in my heart: “Becky, Becky! I’ll be here when you get HOME!” And then I realized what it was Daddy had been teaching me all along: This isn’t home! We’re not home yet. This life of serving is just a journey to where we really belong. No, this isn’t really home, because home is where the Father is! And that’s what my earthly Daddy taught me.

Becky at Mill Creek after funeral

A trip by myself to the creek after my dad’s memorial service.

 

Daddy in Colorado (2)

A photo of my dad, Verdon Higgins, enjoying the beauty of Redstone, Colorado in 1991. Photo was taken by my cousin Brad Higgins.

 

In memory and celebration of my father, my teacher, my friend,

Verdon D. Higgins (June 29, 1922 – April 17, 2000)

DADDY IN THE CLASSROOM

One of the final photos of my dad taken in a Mt. Carmel classroom. Photo courtesy of Eldon Neihof.

 

Homesick!

by Rebecca D. Higgins

(It was on April 17, 2000, that my father–Verdon D. Higgins–went home to be with the Lord. Not many days have gone by since then that I don’t miss him. Not many days have gone by that I don’t feel a little homesick.)

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“Yuck! I can’t believe Miss Woodring is makin’ us do a poetry notebook. I hate poetry!” was the response of some of my third-grade classmates. I didn’t join in those complaints, however, because, you see, I loved poetry. It has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Perhaps that’s because I had a grandmother who used to quote and even write a few poems herself, and she kept a scrapbook of the poems her son wrote–her son who later became my father.

Daddy reads to his girls 2

I still remember how my sister and I would sit side by side in the old red chair in my father’s office at our house and beg him to read or tell us a story. Oh, in the earliest years, I’m sure we heard the regular stories like Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, but those aren’t the ones that stand out in my memory. Around Mt. Carmel where he taught and served as principal, my father was famous for performing his imaginary tale about Herman, his pet lion. “Tell it again, Daddy!” my sister and I would beg at home and giggle in anticipation of his funny voices.

Daddy’s repertoire also dipped into the poetry genre as well. He didn’t dwell in Mother Goose rhymes. Instead we sat wide-eyed as he recited “Little Orphant Annie” or “The Bear Story” by James Whitcomb Riley. I learned Longfellow’s “The Children’s Hour” and “A Psalm of Life” and a number of my dad’s other favorites. His love for nature and the outdoors that he instilled in me came through when he quoted Joyce Kilmer’s lines, “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” Sometimes he would tell us stories of growing up on the farm in Wisconsin and talk of the old farmhouse where he came into the world after a difficult birth and was not expected to live. And sometimes when he’d talk he’d get a faraway reflective look in his blue eyes as he quoted Edgar Guest’s immortalized words:

“It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home,
A heap o’ sun an’ shadder, an’ ye sometimes have t’ roam
Afore ye really ‘preciate the things ye lef’ behind,
An hunger fer ‘em somehow, with ‘em allus on yer mind.”

Funny, now that I think about it–Daddy never owned a house. A long time ago he followed Robert Frost’s advice and took “the less traveled road”–and that indeed “made all the difference.” When classmates were rushing down the road to pursue selfish pleasures of wealth and making a name for themselves, my father chose to follow God and honor His name. That decision led him to a life of faith–literally. He felt God’s call to serve in the Kentucky mountains, and in the fall of 1949 he arrived as a new teacher at a place he’d heard a lot about but never personally visited before–Mt. Carmel High School. Like the other workers, he didn’t receive a salary, but followed a pattern like that of George Mueller who went to God with his needs and trusted Him to supply–and He did.

Ten years later he married my mom, and my sister entered their hearts and home a year after that. I completed our family unit when I arrived with a bang on the Fourth of July four years later and almost immediately declared my determined and willful independence! But it was my dad who in love very early let me know that there were things about which I wasn’t quite ready to make my own decisions. I needed to eat some vegetables! I needed to be respectful to my parents and other elders. I needed discipline–not to break my will, but to train it. And did I ever get that discipline every time I loudly rebelled against my parents’ requests! (How hard is it really to eat some vegetables?!!) Some present-day psychologists would try to suggest that since my dad spanked me, I was an abused child. I know better. I can honestly say that never once do I remember my father’s spankings being done in anger–really! My father was firm but loving, and always, always told and showed that he loved me even when the spankings occurred.

In spite of the fact that my dad was the primary disciplinarian of our home, he was also very nurturing. I loved to be with him. Every summer he shed his suits and ties of the office and classroom for workpants and short-sleeved shirts and became the school’s gardener. I loved it–except for the sweating part. He sweat buckets! His clothes looked like he’d been hosed down! He started preparing for the garden weeks in advance by growing seeds in cups and trays along the windowsills of our house, but every spring also meant a trip to Keck. I always looked forward to riding along. Keck was really no more than a wide space in the road with a sign that proclaimed that it was Keck, Kentucky. But there were greenhouses there where Daddy would buy pepper plants and other things for the garden. To this day the tangy aroma of a vegetable greenhouse takes me back to those days when we would wind around the narrow mountain roads, the Kentucky mountains beginning to show the splash of color from the Divine Artist’s paintbrush–a touch of purplish pink here and there as the redbud trees began to bloom, a patch of white among the spring green leaves indicating the dogwood.

Daddy at Mill Creek

Spring and fall were times of wonderful walks together with my dad on Sunday afternoons. Oh, we had to observe “Quiet Hour” first, but then I’d come and say, “Daddy, let’s go for a walk.” And we’d head down the hill behind our house. Sometimes we’d sit on the large gray rock by the creek and marvel at how through the years the water had carved perfect circles in its base. As we sat in hushed silence, we listened to the music of the water as it rippled across the rocks on the creek bed. The birds sang sweetly in the trees, and Daddy would identify them all by their song.

As summer rolled around all of us on the Mt. Carmel campus worked hard, but if I could have had my preference I would have rather been out in the garden with my dad rather than in a stuffy house cooking or cleaning. The hot Kentucky sun would bronze Daddy’s face and arms, leaving him with the proverbial “farmer’s tan.” At night I would climb into bed with the windows open and be lulled to sleep by the symphony of the night– frogs, crickets, katydids, cicadas. I heard them last night. I almost missed it because of the hum of the window air conditioners trying to keep the temperature in my upstairs apartment tolerable, but when I went into the back room to rummage through my memories stored in boxes, the sound beckoned me to listen. I turned off the motorized noise, stepped outside onto the porch into the blackness of midnight and listened as the sounds took me home again.

But when was it that I had learned that “home” for me wasn’t so much a place but a person? I had moved away, but my carefully laid plans hit some detours within the first few months at college. Now what? I called home–I called to talk to Daddy and to hear him pray for me over the phone.

During those college years, anytime I drove back to Kentucky for a visit, my father would be watching out his home office windows for the car to pull into the yard, and then he would come to greet me with a warm welcome as I pushed open the car door.

After graduation, I worked at my church’s international headquarters for several years until one day I heard about an open door of ministry in the former Soviet Union and felt God’s call to go. On one of my visits with my parents, while sitting at their kitchen table, I shared with Mom and Dad that I felt God wanted me to go to Russia as a volunteer with CoMission. My dad’s response was what I expected. His chin began to quiver, his voice broke, and tears gathered in his eyes. “Becky, if God wants you in Russia, there’s no place I would rather have you be. It’s far away, but I would never stand in your way for anything.”

As I went through training in Kankakee, Illinois just prior to my departure for my first year with CoMission, I received the call from home that the doctors had discovered that Daddy had an abdominal aortic aneurysm. I was frightened and anxious. My dad knew that and did everything he could to reassure me. On their way to my Commissioning Service, he experienced chest pains which forced him to the emergency room in Lexington, Kentucky. However, Daddy announced to the doctor that he had to be released because his daughter was being commissioned to go to Russia. He needed to be at my commissioning. He was! He and I both knew that our limited time together was precious. Early one morning before I had to go to my required training sessions, we walked the campus of Olivet Nazarene University, ultimately finding our way to the prayer chapel. There we shared our love for each other and had a beautiful time of prayer together. Always concerned about how his problems would affect others, he told me about his prayers to God about his situation. “Now, Lord, my daughter’s going to Russia. She doesn’t need to be worrying about her old dad back home. She’s just had to say goodbye to my brother, her uncle that she loves who’s dying of pancreatic cancer. And now the doctors tell me I have an aortic aneurysm. My family doesn’t need this right now. I’ve got to have victory here!” He then confidently shared with me, “Becky, God has given me the assurance that I’ll be here when you get home.”

He and I both clung to that promise when a month after I arrived in Russia, I received the news that my dad’s brother had passed away. We clung to that promise five months later when my sister called me to inform me that my dad’s aneurysm had grown requiring immediate surgery. We clung to that promise a few weeks later when he underwent another emergency surgery to remove a gangrenous gall bladder that had almost killed him. Then when my year was over, we realized the fulfillment of the promise. As I drove up on the campus in a borrowed car and into my parents’ yard, my dad was watching from his office window. Before I could get the car door open and make it to the house, he had come to meet me. Tears glistened in our eyes. The embrace was what we both had been waiting and longing for throughout our year of separation.

God led me back to Russia two more years as a volunteer with CoMission, and my father became my most devoted and faithful supporter. He wanted to know everything. No detail was too small for him. He wanted to know the names of the people in the photos, what their stories were, and if they had come to faith in Christ. His prayers seemed to have a direct link to the Father’s throne and with me in Russia, bridging the distance between us.

When God directed me to return to Russia as a missionary with my denomination, my father never once questioned that decision or stood in my way. I knew it was hard for him to think of my being so far away in his years of deteriorating health, but all he ever wanted was for me to do God’s will.

On January 19, 1999, I was scheduled to depart from the Indianapolis airport. My parents had come to see me off.

I had probably had less than three hours of sleep in the preceding three days as I packed up and moved out of my temporary apartment, packed for going overseas, and took care of final logistics and business. I had literally moved the last of my things out of my apartment into storage that very morning, wading through crusted snow to carry things for storage to the garages of friends, then rushing back to shower and dress for my long trip. My parents’ car was piled with items they were taking back to Kentucky for me. My trunks packed for Russia were loaded into a minivan owned by Global Partners. Daddy rode along with me to headquarters, and then he got in the car with Mom to head to the airport. A mission administrator drove the van with my luggage and me to the airport, making one final stop at the bank on the way. We had sent my parents on ahead with Mom driving (Daddy no longer drove because of his Parkinson’s), telling them to meet us at the airline check-in. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the airport, there was no sign of Mom and Dad, and we had no cell phones back then with which to communicate with them. Mom had missed her exit and gotten a bit lost. They finally showed up, but by the time we were able to sit down at my departure gate (pre 9-11 security rules), I had only about 45 minutes before the boarding call for my flight.

Daddy and me at airport 20511

Anyone who knew my dad knows that the first priority when we sat down was to have prayer together. The minutes flew by all too quickly. My flight was announced, and it was time to say goodbye. A final lingering hug . . . tears . . . “I love you!” I then was walking down the retractable hallway to find my window seat in the Northwest airplane.

For some reason, my flight stayed at the gate for a while. Exhaustion brought from my hectic schedule of the preceding days took over and I fell asleep. When the plane finally began to back away from the gate, I woke up. As the plane backed around so that my window seat was parallel with the terminal, I could see my dad’s backlit silhouette in the window with my mom patting his shoulder. I did not have to see his face distinctly to know that his emotions were doubtless causing his chin to quiver and his blue eyes to glisten with moisture. I looked and waved until that cherished silhouette was no longer visible.

A few days after I returned to Russia in January 1999 for my 3-year term with Global Partners, my father sent a card in which he wrote in a shaky Parkinson’s-affected script: “Well, you are back in Russia again, and three years seems like a long time. However, as long as Russia is God’s will, then it is mine, too. I’m so glad I can say that from the depths of my heart. I am so glad you are our daughter. You have brought joy and God isn’t finished. I love you very much, Becky. A part of me is there in Russia with you. Let us hear from you. God bless you. I’ll be praying often. Lots of love, Dad”

Every time I talked to him on the phone, he would pray for me about the struggles, the burdens, the responsibilities that I carried at the Bible college and the Russian students that I taught. The last time was on Sunday, April 9, 2000. He and my mom had been in an accident a month before–an accident that had totaled their car and had left my mom with seven broken ribs and my dad bruised and sore. My sister had taken them to recuperate at her home in North Carolina.

Eight days after that April 9 phone call, I was awakened in the middle of the night the Monday after Palm Sunday to the shrill ringing of the telephone. When I picked up the receiver and heard my sister’s voice on the other end, I was immediately wide awake preparing myself for the bad news I didn’t want to hear. As she shared with me that Daddy had gone to heaven after suffering an apparent heart attack, I selfishly wished that I could have seen him just one more time, could have felt his embrace one more time, could have heard his matter-of-fact prayers one more time. But I knew how happy he was that he was finally home. As I knew that night was descending on my family in North Carolina, I watched as the first rays of dawn broke the horizon in Russia. I was reminded that what seems the darkest night for us here is daylight “over there.” And just as we were in the midst of commemorating Passion Week, the power of Easter brought with it the hope of the resurrection. I remembered how my father–who was not a world traveler (he’d only crossed the border into Canada)–had said that if he could travel anywhere in the world he’d love to visit the Holy Land. He once told me, “Oh, what a thrill it would be to see the empty tomb!” As we began that Easter week, I rejoiced for my father through my own tears and personal sense of loss that he was finally seeing– not the empty tomb– but the Risen Christ himself! He was experiencing the greatest thrill of all!

God answered prayer and got me on a flight a little over 24 hours after my sister called. On that long, lonely flight, I remembered my father’s promise the first year I went to Russia: “Becky, I’ll be here when you get home.” I turned my face to the window as tears welled in my eyes and rolled down my cheeks. He wouldn’t be at the gate as the airplane landed in Cincinnati. Instead, my cousin who lived in Indianapolis would be picking me up to drive me down through the eastern Kentucky mountains that were coming alive with the colors of spring–splashes of green, the white of the dogwood, and purplish pink of the redbud trees. He wouldn’t be there to push open the screen door of his office and come to embrace me as the car drove into the yard. He wouldn’t be there to welcome me home. But then I heard it–the words whispered gently again in my heart: “Becky, Becky! I’ll be here when you get HOME!” And then I realized what it was Daddy had been teaching me all along: This isn’t home! We’re not home yet. This life of serving is just a journey to where we really belong. No, this isn’t really home, because home is where the Father is! And that’s what my earthly Daddy taught me.

Becky at Mill Creek after funeral

A trip by myself to the creek after my dad’s memorial service.

 

Daddy in Colorado (2)

A photo of my dad, Verdon Higgins, enjoying the beauty of Redstone, Colorado in 1991. Photo was taken by my cousin Brad Higgins.

In memory and celebration of my father, my teacher, my friend,
Verdon D. Higgins (June 29, 1922 – April 17, 2000)

DADDY IN THE CLASSROOM

One of the final photos of my dad taken in a Mt. Carmel classroom. Photo courtesy of Eldon Neihof.

Christmas Memories: Swauger’s Gift

by Rebecca D. Higgins

I was probably in the third or fourth grade when I had the revelation that I must be destined to be an artist! I just “knew” that I was going to do wonderful chalk drawings just like Mrs. Boggs, our school’s art teacher! Oh, the blissful ignorance of children! As Christmas approached, I let my parents know that the deep desire of my heart was to develop this budding talent. Oh, if only I had the tools necessary to do so!

Colorful chalk pastels in box on color wooden background

In our little eastern Kentucky town of Jackson, there wasn’t much in the way of art supplies to be found anywhere in the sparse offerings of the five and dime store on Main Street or at the frequently visited Maloney’s, Jackson’s version of a Dollar Store at that time. Oh, sure, you could find a box of Crayolas, but no art chalk or artist paper. Those could be found only in a larger city like Lexington. Our family didn’t make very many trips to Lexington. Mom and Dad’s responsibilities at Mt. Carmel, the boarding school where they worked, weren’t conducive for getting away very often. However, there were people at Mt. Carmel who did make frequent business trips to Lexington on behalf of the school. Mr. Raymond Swauger was one of those people.

Mr. Swauger, or just “Swauger” as we campus kids sometimes affectionately called him, had been an integral part of the history of Mt. Carmel from its very beginning. He was the architect who had designed and built the very first buildings on the campus back in the swauger1920s and he’d been there ever since. He and his wife had never had any of their own children; and when she passed away, that left Swauger alone. However, all of us adopted him and the feeling was mutual! Swauger was always jovial and kind with all of us campus kids and other students. We loved him, and he loved us!

Evidently my parents asked Swauger when he made a trip to Lexington to look for a box of pastel chalks and a large pad of artist paper and gave him the money to make the purchase.

As was our family’s custom, we were going away for Christmas that year to celebrate with relatives. We opened some presents before we left so that our car would not be as loaded down for the trip. While I loved the pastel chalks and art pad, my favorite present that Christmas was something else.

One day shortly before we were to leave for our Christmas trip, I looked up the gravel campus road that led to our house to see Swauger making his way to our door. Even now all these years removed I can picture his distinctive gait as he approached carrying something I could hardly believe. He almost always gave some type of little gift to campus kids at Christmas—a box of chocolate-covered cherries or something. However, this year his gift for me was extra-special. In the shop in his basement where he made so many creative things over the years, he had made me a wooden easel. It was complete with adjustable legs, a tray to hold my chalk, and a board with clips to hold my art paper in place. In fact, he had clipped several pieces of art paper to the board. On the first page with a red marker he had scrawled the words “Merry Christmas!” I couldn’t believe my eyes! I was beyond excited!

img380_edited-2crop

An old, grainy photo I found in my mother’s boxes of the easel Swauger made for me that Christmas

I confess that as I type these memories, I get a bit teary. Perhaps at the time I thought Swauger’s special gift to me that Christmas was an easel. But what makes me remember it with great fondness after all of these years is something for which the easel was simply a tangible symbol. You see, Swauger’s real gift to me was NOT an easel. His real gift was that he had taken his personal time and had given of himself to believe in and affirm a little girl’s dream and by so doing had communicated something in actions that sometimes words alone fail to convey. His gift said to me, “You are loved, and you are valuable enough that you are worth my time.”

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, so often we get caught up in rushing here and there, crossing things off of our to-do lists in an effort to make our parties and decorations the perfect Currier and Ives print, to find the perfect present to give everyone on our list, and in the process we fail to realize that the best gift we can give to others is ourselves—our time, our love—not just in words but in actions. Sometimes what people want more than presents is PRESENCE. For those of us who have said goodbye to loved ones, when Christmas rolls around we don’t say, “I sure wish _____ was still around to give me a present this year.” No, what we really long for is their love and their presence.

When you really think about it, that’s the true message of Christmas: Immanuel—God WITH us. “So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son” (John 1:14 NLT). The Message puts it this way: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son. Generous inside and out, true from start to finish” (John 1:14 MSG). May each of us learn to be a true reflection of that Christlike spirit of giving of ourselves in our interactions with others this Christmas season and throughout the year.