My Brother, My Friend

My brother died on a Monday. It was unexpected. He was supposed to get better, but he didn’t. We were left reeling from this new reality and aware that we had to plan his Celebration of Life service. It would be small–immediate family only. But good friends made it possible for us to offer a Live Facebook of the service as well as a You Tube video available now at the bottom of this post.

Following is what I shared. I have much more to say about this experience and what God is showing me through the sadness, but not yet.

Bill Gray – 1954-2021

I want to thank all of you who are joining with us on-line how much your prayers and encouragements have meant to our family these last 5 weeks. It has been one of the hardest seasons we’ve faced and you have helped carry our burden. Words seem inadequate, but it is all we have to give. Thank you.

I am Debi Walter, Billy’s little sister, and Bettie is Billy’s older sister. I am sharing today on behalf of both of us what my brother means to us. Bettie was born in 1953, Billy in 1954 and I was born in 1959. My Dad was a pharmacist with his own store and soda fountain. It was a great time to grow up. 

Billy took great delight in teasing both of us as often as he could. But I still believe I got the brunt of most of his attention. He made up all kinds of games with the excuse of being able to tease us. Like “Flinch”. If he acted like he was going to hit you and you flinched, then you had to let him hit you. Being 5 years younger I usually let him and had the bruises to show for it. I’ve heard he was a lot like my grandfather. They both loved to fish and loved to tease those they loved—unmercifully.

Billy and his good friend invented the group hug. But it wasn’t a pleasant experience when it first began. If you were caught in the middle between the two of them it always hurt. But they laughed and I learned to laugh too. Now the group hug has become a tradition in our family whenever we are saying goodbye. No one ever knows who will end up in the middle, but the younger ones fight to be caught in the center of it all. Lots of love goes into those hugs. Like holding on tight because we don’t want to let go.

Another game was a take on the pool game Marco Polo. But instead of calling out “Marco” with your eyes closed, you called out “splash”. Wherever you were in the pool you had to splash. The idea was to tag someone making them “it”. I always managed to be “it” because I wasn’t fast enough to tag anyone, especially my brother or his friends. One time I remember being caught between two of them while they both splashed me. My brother accidentally splashed my ear and caused my ear drum to rupture. He felt bad and I felt worse because I wasn’t able to swim for the rest of the summer. I was often the casualty of his games.

It’s strange how stories from when you were young that used to cause heartache, become the very things you’re grateful for as adults. 

My brother loved me and my sister very much. But I didn’t realize this until we were adults. Being the baby of the family I know I was bratty. I most likely asked for much of the undesired attention he gave me. 

On family vacations I would always end up in the middle of Bettie and Billy in the backseat. Invariably, Billy would say, “Hey Bettie, want a fight between you and me?” And they would both start slapping me. I would cry. My Dad would yell for us to stop. And Billy would grin in my face, bragging that he got me.

Yeah, that’s what we did on road trips before iPhones, screens and DVD players were available in cars. We played games, sang songs and ate candy my Mom packed from my Dad’s candy counter at the pharmacy.

When Billy went away to The University of Florida (Go Gators!) My sister was already married to Dennis, so I was home alone. I missed him so much. And I think he missed me too. He sent me a card once that he had drawn of our toothbrushes side by side. His had racing stripes on it and He said he couldn’t wait to have tooth brushing races again. It sounds silly, but as a 15 year old this card meant so much to me. It was true the adage that says, “distance makes the heart grow fonder”. It certainly did for us.

He graduated from U of F the same year Bettie graduated from nursing school at Valencia, the same year I graduated from high school. Major events for all of us that prepared us for our life ahead.

Our family attended Powers Drive Baptist Church. This is where we made many lifelong friends. Many of whom are watching today. It was at this church where we each were saved, baptized, and married. We grew up realizing the power, love and support there is in being in a community of believers who love Jesus. We are so grateful for the impact this church and its members had on our lives.

In 1978 Billy found the love of his life, a cute blond named Sherry Newmons. He brought her home to our house for Sunday afternoon dinner. We could tell this was the one he had waited for and we fell in love with Sherry too. At this same time Tom and I began dating and got engaged too. Once again we were doing a major lifetime event together. In 1979 we got married only 5 weeks apart. My poor parents! They never complained about how difficult having two weddings so close together would be. But it was fun sharing this season of life together.

All three of us had our children at the same time, which was fun watching cousins become friends.

That’s our history. When my Dad died in 2004, my brother took on the role of caring for us in the ways my dad had—providing medical advice and help whenever it was needed. He helped us through some very frightening times, most recently with two of our grandchildren. I’m so grateful for the way he loved us, cared for us and was there for us.

My sister and her family are here today and I know if she were able she would also talk about their adventures. Bettie and Billy had a special bond. They were only 14 months apart so they did everything together. Just recently Bettie and Dennis and Billy and Sherry went on vacation to see the Ark Encounter in Kentucky. Tom and I were unable to go, but I am so glad they had this time together. The photos and memories they made are precious today.

I don’t know what the future will look like without Billy here to make us laugh, give the best hugs, share funny stories, offer support or to help us in our times of need. But I do know that Billy would tell us all—what really matters is this – make sure we know and love Jesus by living our lives for Him and his glory.

Billy is seeing his Savior face to face and I believe if he could he would say, “Whatever you do make sure you are ready when it’s your turn to enter eternity. Live for Christ! You never know when your days on earth will be over. Make every moment count!”

Sharing From The Heart – Just As I Am

Yesterday I was given an unbelievable honor. I was asked to speak at the funeral of the pastor who led me to the Lord. It was a privilege I didn’t take lightly. I prayed that God would help me capture with words what this man meant to me, and that He would give me the strength to read it. He answered my prayer and following is what I shared.

Anyone who knew Dick Milham was impacted by his love for the Lord, for people and for life itself. He was a faithful friend and made himself available to our family on countless occasions.

Our family started going to Powers Drive Baptist Church in the early 60‘s when I was only 4 years old. I don’t remember when Pastor Milham started leading our church, but I’m grateful God sent him to us.

The year was 1969. I was ten years old and sitting in the pew between my mom and dad as I did each and every Sunday. But this time when the familiar hymn began to play–

Just as I am, without one plea,

But that Thy blood was shed for me,

And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee,

O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

My heart nudged me to go forward. I was afraid, so I asked my Dad to walk with me. When we got to the front, Pastor Milham met me and said he wanted to be sure I knew what I was doing and that there was no hurry. He asked if I could come to his office and discuss what this decision would mean for me? I said ok.

Just as I am, and waiting not

To rid my soul of one, dark blot;

To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,

O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Over the next three weeks I went to his office while this dear man with a huge heart for young people explained the Gospel. He made it clear that this decision would change my life forever. And it did!

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;

Sight, riches, healing of the mind;

Yes, All I need in Thee to find,

O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Once he knew I understood the decision I was making and what Christ had done for me, I accepted Jesus as my Savior and was baptized on December 21, 1969.

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,

Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;

Because Thy promise I believe,

O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

I’ve know many friends over the years who, as adults, were re-baptized because they said they didn’t understand what they were doing when they were young. Because of Pastor Milham’s kindness and patience with me I have never had that experience. I knew exactly what I was doing and it has been the foundation of my life to this day.

My sister, Bettie, shared this memory she had with me and said how it has helped her countless times throughout her life when facing trouble.

During a Sunday message Pastor Milham must have been going through some tough times and shared this analogy with the church: He got in a boat and rowed out into this big lake to have time alone with the Lord and maybe he could get some answers. As he was out there a big storm blew up all the sudden. As he saw the far shore line he started to get worried about getting back to shore, but noticed a piece of paper in the lake a few yards from him. He heard the Lord tell him to row for that paper, then there was another and then another and before he knew it he was back on shore. He realized then the lesson the Lord was teaching him, there may be something really big and almost unreachable in front of you but if you take it step by step or paper by paper and keep your eyes on the task you will get there.

Photo Credit: Walldevil.com

Just as I am, though, tossed about

With many a conflict, many a doubt;

Fightings within, and fears without,

O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Pastor Milham was the real deal. He shared his life with all of us, and was there for all the moments when we needed him most. He came right away when my Dad was dying from brain cancer and sang by his bedside because my dad loved to hear him sing. There were no accolades, no audience’s applause, just my dad needing to be reminded of the truth of the Gospel.

Just as I am, Thy love unknown

Has broken every barrier down;

Now, to be Thine, yea, Thine alone,

O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Pastor Milham, you are now before the throne of God and your faith has been made sight. What a celebration must be taking place as all of those who were influenced by your life, faith and love, have welcomed you home.

I am forever grateful for the foundation of Truth you laid for me that I am still standing on today. I pray my life will influence others for God’s glory the way your’s has impacted mine.

Richard Milham 1934-2017

Orlando Sentinel Obituary

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And So It Begins…

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I’ve started to do research again for my second book. It happened yesterday when I really didn’t have the time to do it, but I just did. Sometimes that is  when I get the most work done, when it’s spontaneous and not planned.

I’m setting up a timeline of events beginning in 1907. There are many moments I am very familiar with, but I know that when I start to write her story I will relive much of the emotions Grace must have walked through. It is a privilege to document her life, her struggles and her faith in God. I am part of the story–her legacy, but I must admit that there are events she walked through that I pray I never experience.

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Marion W. Oswalt, b. 7/1/07, d. 7/20/08 Leonard E. Oswalt, b. 3/20/09, d. 1/21/10

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Vincent b. 11/2/1912, d. 3/19/1920

These are the grave markers of three of Grace’s children, my Mom’s brothers. I know I’m giving away part of the story by writing this post, but as Halloween is tomorrow, I wanted to make a statement that death isn’t something to trivialize.

In our writer’s group this week, one member shared how he has been affected recently of the reality that we will all die soon. Most of us are in the second half of our lives–our children are grown, our time is more available to do the things for which we’ve dreamed, and realizing the brevity of life will help us push past the excuses of why we haven’t completed the writings God has laid on our hearts to write. We were sobered and convicted to make sure we do those things that are of most importance to us.

Time is short.

It took me 12 years to write Through The Eyes Of Grace. In 12 years I’ll be 67, if the Lord doesn’t take me home. I have no guarantees. I must DO, not talk about doing. I must write, not think about writing. It is what God has called me, as a writer, to do, so I’m starting with this post. I hope I haven’t rambled too much, but sometimes getting a rusty engine going again takes lots of puffs and sputterings. Soon my computer keyboard will run full speed into writing the rest of Grace’s story. Won’t you pray for me? Prayer is the fuel I need to keep pushing through until I discover what it is God wants me to know and the story that is of most importance for others to read. Our stories matter because they are his story–our history.

And so it begins…

 

Happy Mother’s Day

My Mom is no longer here for me to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day. So to honor her, I decided to make a special Pinterest Board sharing photos, blog posts and songs of all the things she taught me.  I miss her so much, but I’m grateful for the legacy she left behind. Click the photo below to see it. Make the most of Mother’s Day this year by honoring all the Moms who have touched your life.

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Resolved

Graphic Credit: sendingsunshine.wordpress.com

Graphic Credit: sendingsunshine.wordpress.com

Today I am 54. 54! How did that happen? I know, I know, the answer is simple–one year at a time. But wow.

This is my first birthday without my Mom and Dad, who were used by God to give me life in July of 1959. My Dad led me down the aisle of our little baptist church in 1969. It is strange to no longer have parents here, but they’re not gone. They’ve just relocated to a better place. And because of God’s gift of salvation to me on December 19, 1969, I will see them again. Until that day I am resolved to live out the rest of my years in glorifying the One True God who gives life to all who call on His name and choose to follow Him.

Jonathan Edwards was considered to be one of the greatest American philosopher/theologians of his time and was a key figure in what has become known as The Great Awakening of the 18th century. He has been quoted as saying:

“Resolved, that I will live so, as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.”

The Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman trial has received unbelievable media coverage this past month. We live only a few minutes from Sanford, FL. so it was with great interest that we stayed up with the trial. When that February night occurred in 2012, neither Trayvon nor George knew that their lives were going to be permanently changed as a result of the choices they made. My point isn’t to discuss which side was right/wrong, for both lost in my opinion. But their case stands as a stark reminder of Mr. Edwards quote. I ask myself,

  • Am I living today as if it were my last?
  • What do I want to be known for?
  • If my epitaph was to be written tomorrow, what would it say?
  • Better yet, what would I want it to say?

I heard someone suggest that we take time to write the epitaph we would want written about us today. Then, make our choices based on that goal. Of course, even those who have the best intentions can’t always guarantee their life will play out as planned. This is why my epitaph should reflect God’s work in my life and not my own plans.

A couple of great epitaphs include:

George Washington

LOOKING INTO THE PORTALS OF ETERNITY TEACHES THAT THE BROTHERHOOD OF MAN IS INSPIRED BY GOD’S WORD; THEN ALL PREJUDICE OF RACE VANISHES AWAY.

Benjamin Franklin

The body of Benjamin Franklin, printer (like the cover of an old book, its
contents worn out, and stript of its lettering and gilding) lies here, food for
worms. Yet the work itself shall not lost, for it will, as he
believed, appear once more In a new and more beautiful
edition, corrected and amended by its Author

Finally, I found this site that lists over a hundred great epitaphs from which to choose. Take some time and consider which one would best mark your final resting place. Then, live each day to make the statement true.

A Short Love Story

Photo Credit: curvewire.com

Photo Credit: curvewire.com

Today I want to share with you a short story I wrote awhile ago. I’ve posted it on The Romantic Vineyard, since it’s a love story. But it also fits well with this blog on family history. I hope it stirs in your memory similar stories you’ve heard from parents or grandparents. Be sure your children and grandchildren know these stories, for it’s part of who they are. Knowing them also gives them direction for who they’ll become.

Click on the following title to read the story:

Vito’s Coffee Shop

What Weddings, Funerals and Reunions Have In Common

Photo Credit: qcveterans.com

Photo Credit: qcveterans.com

A reader posted yesterday about how she discovered more about her family’s history at her uncle’s recent funeral than she ever had before. It’s sad in a way to think we don’t talk about such things until there’s a death. In fact, this is the opening scene of my book, Through The Eyes Of Grace. At my grandmother’s funeral I am given a beautifully wrapped gift. I want to put off opening it until later, but my Mom insists on me opening it now. Here’s a portion of it:

As I plopped into the black leather seat I felt something crunch underneath me.  It was the gift I had seen on the table!  This was all I needed to deal with now.  I tossed it aside no longer interested in the who or the why questions that had incensed me before the service.

Mama picked up the gift, “Gracelyn, this is for you.  Don’t you want to open it?”

“Um, no! Not now.”

“Why on earth not?”

“Oh, Mama! It’s just not right.”

“Gracelyn, I insist.  It may be the giver will be at the dinner.  You’ll want to be sure to thank them.  I really think it best to open it now.”

Mama usually had the last word, and this time was no exception.  I have learned it’s best to do what she says.  Picking up the gift I slowly rip the paper away revealing a stained wooden box that smelled much like the old church we had just left.  Lifting the lid I discovered the source of the scent – a worn out leather journal.

“What’s this?”  I asked casually hoping my excitement didn’t show.

“I’ve seen this before; why, it belonged to Mama.  See the engraving – Grace Stella Oswalt?”

As I opened the cover a note fell on the floor.  I picked it up only to discover it was in Big Mama’s handwriting.  The brief excitement drained from my fingertips as if the dead were calling my name.

“M-Mama, you read it.”

Dear Gracelyn,

I am an old woman now, and time is running out for me to share with you my story.  I’ve waited for you to ask, but now the waiting ends.  You are my youngest granddaughter, and one who reminds me so much of myself.  It is my prayer as you read this journal you will grow in your understanding of who you are and to whom you belong.  Your life is not your own to live as you want.  I learned this the hard way, and I pray this journal will help you after I am long gone.  Read it well and remember, although life is brief – love is forever.

Affectionately,

Big Mama

I sat there in disbelief as the limo came to a stop.  I wasn’t sure if I was happy to have this gift or angry she singled me out as needing special help.  Maybe it was a little of both, but as hard as it was to admit, I was comforted.

Older family members tend to talk more at reunions and weddings as well. So it’s not just during the saddest of times, it’s more at the pivotal times when family is elevated and given the prominence it deserves. Many young people roll their eyes when they think of going to a family gathering, especially if there’s going to be old people there who only remember them when they were knee high.
We had our first family reunion of distant cousins a few years ago here in Orlando. People traveled from all over the country, but the majority flew in from Oklahoma. My Mom had the time of her life. At 87 she was the oldest living family member there, and everyone had questions to ask her. We made a huge family tree on the wall of our meeting room and asked those attending to bring pictures in order to tape it next to their name. This helped us realize how far reaching our roots have spread in the past century. I also happened upon a conversation starter called Table Topics for Family Gatherings. This ended up being my favorite part of the entire weekend, because people told stories we had never heard before–and we laughed. We laughed until we thought our sides would split.
May I encourage you, if you have the privilege of being invited to a family reunion this year, instead of being the one to roll the eyes, why not look at it as a great adventure where you’re setting out to discover things you don’t know about your family. And then, come back  here and let us know what you’ve learned. A story become more permanently fixed in your mind when you’ve repeated it to someone else.
We all have a story, we just might not know it yet!

Questions #11 – Have you ever been to a family reunion? What was it like, who was there, and what stories did you learn?

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This is post #11 in the challenge to post everyday in April.

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If Tombstones Could Talk

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I have many interesting stories about my ancestors:

  • I have a great-grandfather who drowned in the Misssissippi River while returning on a barge from delivering a herd of cattle up the river. There was always a question of foul-play, but no charges were ever filed.
  • My paternal grandfather was a soloist at his church in Rhode Island, Roger Williams’ Baptist Church. One Sunday night after singing a solo, he returned to his spot in the choir. Before the end of the service he had a massive heart attack. It had always been his wish to die singing, and he did.
  • My great-grandmother, Sarah (Grace’s Mother) died in the Great Flu epidemic of 1918. (If you’re a Downton Abbey fan, it was the same epidemic that took the life of Matthew’s fiance.) She had been visiting her sick daughter’s home and became ill herself while she was there. Once she recovered, her husband Frank came to pick her up. The rocky wagon ride home caused a relapse from which she never recovered. I had the chance with my Mom a few years ago to visit the cemetery where Sarah Kirwin is buried. Seeing the place where Frank laid her to rest made her story seem so much more real to me.

I enjoy visiting cemeteries, not to be morbid, but to pause and consider the lives of those who once lived.

Remembering them gives them respect, and knowing their story is even better for it honors them in a way nothing else can. I wish tombstones had a sign explaining their personal story for all who pass by, like the Vietnam Memorial Wall in D.C. does. Reading the laminate pages left by loved ones brought those in memoriam to life. However, there are times when the headstone tells a story without words. Consider this headstone of a young disabled boy named Matthew. Such a powerful story that gives me chills, yet warms my heart. What a loving way for his parents to express their faith in God and love for their son.

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  • Probably the most tragic story in our family was how my great-grandmother on my Dad’s side of the family died. She lived in Maine. One cold winter she was caring for her sick child holding him close by the hearth to keep warm when a spark from the fire caught her long dress on fire. She ran out of the house to protect her children as well as the house with the intent of rolling in the snow to extinguish the flames. Sadly the snow had iced over, making it impossible for her to escape. She died, leaving her husband a widower and several children without a mother.

These stories are sad, but I believe knowing them brings understanding to those who were affected by the sadness when it happened. Now for today’s question to help you discover your own story.

Question #4.

If your grandparents or great-grandparents are no longer alive, do you know when and how they died? Do you know where they’re buried? This may seem like a basic question, but one to which many don’t know the answer.

What about you? Do you have some interesting stories to share? If you don’t know, I encourage you take the time to find out–one question at a time.

“If you don’t recount your family history, it will be lost. Honor your own stories and tell them too.

The tales may not seem very important, but they are what binds families and makes each of us who we are. “

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I am taking part in the Ultimate Blog Challenge to post every day in April.
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