It has been exactly two years, since my beautiful grandmother stepped out of this life, and right into the arms of Jesus. Beverly June Sperling Malick Kennedy was her name, but to us, she was "Gammy." The other day, something made me think of her, and for the tiniest, slightest, split-second, I reached for my phone to call her... and then I remembered.
A flood of emotion washed over me, and for the first time, I walked to my closet and reached for one of her treasures that I had tucked away. I had wrapped it up safely, with her photo on top, knowing that someday, the time would come for me to get it down. I think somehow when it was graciously passed on to me, I knew that it would take time to learn the lessons it held. I wouldn't say it possessed great earthly value, but something in my heart knew it was holy and sacred, and for whatever reason, my heart hadn't been ready to discover it... until now.
I unwrapped the package, and lifted out this tangible, physical thing... an Ebenezer of sorts, of a life, lived well.
The thing I'd had hidden away on a shelf in my closet was one of my Grandmother's old tablecloths. An ordinary, everyday thing, this lily-white, cotton square, in a single instant, began to change my life... in the same way that over decades and decades, I'm sure it changed hers.
Let me tell you the story of the tablecloth….
For me, it holds the same life-giving, truth-telling power of the parables that Jesus would tell, using ordinary, everyday things to speak the heart language of those listening nearby.
I don't know exactly how the story of the tablecloth began, but I do know how it ends, and even more importantly, how the long middle of this story, was made up of hundreds, and maybe thousands of normal, beautiful, life-changing, ordinary days.
I always hear stories about how my grandmother and grandfather would push back the furniture in their tiny, white house on Vanderbilt, and they'd fill their home to the corners with neighbors and friends. On one of those familiar days, my grandmother laid out her white tablecloth, reached for a pen, and invited her guests to sign their names, right there on the tablecloth, next to the black eyed peas. Then, after they'd gone, she'd gather up the tablecloth, and one by one, she would take a needle and colored thread and stitch, by stitch, embroider their names over their signatures, onto the tablecloth.
I would have loved to have seen it come to life... first, a neighbor or two, then maybe some friends from St. Andrews Presbyterian church, then maybe some guys from the office, or parents of kids at their daughters' school.
The tablecloth that I hold in my hands today must have been a familiar fixture at the annual New Years Day party, family holidays, and all the other everyday-type days, that my grandparents chose to reach out for the people that God had put in their path.
Stitch-by-stitch, my grandmother would teach her heart to say, "come in... you're welcome here!" And she would stitch those names and their lives, right on her very heart.
This tablecloth began to tell a story... each name written, being brought to life, by the up and down, in-and-then-out, rhythm of the colored thread, forming the names, letter by letter. The tablecloth tells the story of the practice of presence. How the over-and-over-and-over-again practice of deep, sustaining friendship is not born over night, but in the repeated rhythms of sitting down for a meal, asking questions, sharing stories and looking right into the eyes of the people across the table. Friendships that span over the years, and even decades, beginning with a heart that says, "here, write your name....," followed by the hard work of being patient, letting that name and the soul that goes with it, begin to sink down deep.
"Margie Montgomery... Ruthie Hozlyer... Micky McGuire... Irene Jacks..."
In the sea of hundreds of names, I notice that one name, "Dotty Elmer" is embroidered in blue, then quickly followed by "Ketter" in red. My grandmother must have had her friend, Dotty, at her table, and then, later welcomed her back again as Mr. Jack Ketter's wife.
Right in the center, I see a child's handwriting spell out the name, "Karen"... my very own mother, as a tiny girl, stitched into this family... into this way of life, of writing others on your heart.
Like an echo through time, my grandmother built a life, together with her husband, raising three daughters, just as I am doing now.
If there is tension in the struggle of balancing real-life, and family and work, and kingdom-truth, in the every day... my grandmother must have known it too.
After each of the stitched names, the thing I love most are the stains. This tablecloth was a real part of her life. The stains are badges of honor… a collection of memories of life lived together, soaked right into the fabric…the tea-stained threads weaving not only the fabric together, but a story of a life full of intentional “with-ness.”
It's funny how an ordinary thing can change a life….
How, in a moment, one generation can reach down to the next, and speak the wisdom of the ages, without saying a word.
I want my life to paint a picture of the kindness of Jesus, made up by the beautiful names and faces of people that He has brought my way.
And maybe you feel it too?
That in a world of virtual friends on screens, there is a deep, soul-longing, and a desire for friendships to walk the long road of years and years of life lived together.
The tablecloth in my heart has been given the gift of deep friendships...of soul sisters whose names were written on my heart more than two decades ago. This coming April will be the twenty-second year that we'll make the long pilgrimage home to each other. Always the weekend after Easter, we gather to catch up, laugh at memories from college...to eat and eat, to laugh and cry, to share stories of our own children (that are somehow close to the age now that we were, when we met, in our first days together at Baylor University.) The names of these forever friends were written on my heart so long ago, and I cherish the beauty of learning from them, and for the gift of knowing them, and of being known by them, as well.
I guess I'm realizing that whether we are tending the friendships from long ago, or the ones with the new neighbors around the corner, each of us can choose what our tablecloth will look like at the end of our lives.
I'm learning that the kind of depth that comes with long-standing friendships, happens in that steady, patient rhythm... stitch by stitch, name by name.
It happens over cups of coffee, on front porches, shoulder to shoulder in churches, in hospital waiting rooms, and in the ordinary, everyday of offices and playgrounds. And the only way to start is to lay out the tablecloth, grab a pen, invite someone in real close, and with all the courage and hope you can muster…
offer your heart and say, "here... write your name.”
And then reach for the needle and thread.