Of Crooked Thumbs and Strawberry Kool-Aid


My aunt, Mary Francis, had a crooked thumb. It was a source of interest to me when I was young and she was in her adulthood. But it was a source of endearment to me in my adulthood and she was in her golden years. That unusual thumb probably caused me to consider her a bit disfigured. I was admittedly a little afraid of that thumb until I was old enough to understand that we’re all disfigured in our own way.

Mary Francis was one of my baby sitters during my elementary years. She was married to my dad’s oldest brother, Ancil, who was just a bit cantankerous in demeanor. But Aunt Mary Francis was silly; easy going and fun with just a bit of dingy stirred in. Every weekday she would ask, “What would you like for lunch?” And each time I would answer, “Macaroni & Cheese, Mashed Potatoes, and Strawberry Kool-Aid.” This redundant daily request says much of my personality and the fact that Mary Francis fixed it each day per my request says much of her personality. We were a good pair.

After lunch, she would play the piano and we would sing. I’d watch that crooked thumb trying to tickle the ivories. It didn’t look quite right but the music didn’t suffer for the appearance. Everyday, as sure as butter melts on hot mashed potatoes, we’d sing and forget for a while that we were just a middle-aged lady with a crooked thumb and a young boy with a Strawberry Kool-Aid mustache. It was glorious.

I once hid from aunt Mary Francis; under her bed and behind some boxes. Upon realizing I was missing, she began her search, knowing it was a game. Mary Francis, being a little silly, never looked under the bed and I, being set in my ways as evidenced by my menu preferences, never offered to come out unfound. Silliness and stubbornness are a bad combination.

When I heard Mary Francis on the phone asking a neighbor of my whereabouts, I stayed put. When I heard her talking to the town’s police chief on the phone concerning my missing status, something ornery still held me in place. When my father came through the front door to join the search and said sternly, with no excitement or surprise in his voice, “Gary Joe,” I was out from under the bed before the echo died away. I knew my afternoon was not going to end well.

Mercifully, my father was a talker mostly. He sat me down to explain that Mary Francis was giving up her freedom by baby sitting me and that hiding was not an acceptable repayment for such sacrifice. Dad pointed out also that there would come a time when I would miss Mary Francis and regret these times of stress.

That time came a few short weeks ago. Aunt Mary Francis lay dying in her nursing home bed. I was leaving one Thursday evening for Paoli, my home town, to see her when Collin, my four year old son, hugged my goodbye. “Why are you going to see Mary Francis tonight?” he asked. I thought and said , “She’ll be going with Jesus soon. I’m not sure how soon, but soon.”

I had driven only to Orleans before my father called to say aunt Mary Francis had gone on with Jesus. I didn’t turn around because I knew the family would be gathering at her bedside. I have one of those wonderful families who practices laughter through tears very well. Amid the sadness, there were soon stories being told with great embellishment of times with Mary Francis. I told my story of under the bed.

I’ve thought since then that we all have crooked thumbs. These disfigurements may not be as noticeable as a bent finger against black and white keys because life is not black and white. And we may try to hide our imperfections from each other. But I don’t believe much in that anymore. I’d rather you show me who you are, crooked thumbs and all, so I can chose to love you anyway. And personally, I’d rather been seen as flawed than known as someone who hides for fear of people knowing who I really am. I’m just not afraid of crooked thumbs anymore.

I called my wife to tell her of the passing and that I would be home in a while. I walked through the living room door to see my son. Collin said, “How was aunt Mary Francis?” I leaned over, hesitated over this moment I considered sobering and said “Mary Francis died before I got to Paoli,” to which Collin replied without hesitation, “Man, Jesus is fast!”

He is fast. And life is short and ending quickly. We’re all dying; sadly, some of us at more predictable rates or for more accurately diagnosed reasons than others. But we are all surely dying.

This fact makes me very much unafraid of my crookedness and of yours. So let people see who you are and give them a chance to love you despite your disfigurement. It’s the only true joy to be had between humans: unconditional love. It was modeled first by this man that my son says is Fast but it is charged now to us for the purpose of being lived out in a world full of crooked, flawed, wonderful people.

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