Burnin’ Love

 

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Sarah Gene Michael-Rush and George Klein, 2012 

I can’t tell you where I was when JFK was shot– I was yet to be born.  But I remember the day Elvis died.  I was 12 years old in 1977 and the only image I had of Elvis at that point, was due to the often-cruel media’s portrayal of him.  At the time, the only impression I had of him was a washed-up, has-been, past-his-prime rock star.  I hadn’t realized then that there were a few songs of his I’d heard on the radio during the ’70s that I really liked.  “Kentucky Rain,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Moody Blue.”  I didn’t associate those songs stuck in my head with the image of the chunky guy in the white jumpsuits.

On the day he died, my family and I were vacationing up at our home in the Pocono Mountains.  My mother and I were doing a craft project in the living room when we heard the news on our little transistor radio.  I heard about how thousands were gathering at Graceland in the hot, sticky Memphis heat– and they were devastated.  Days later I saw that awful picture of Elvis in his coffin, on a magazine in the grocery store checkout line.  I was horrified.  It was one of many times I began to see how cruel the media was toward him.

My life moved on.  I rarely thought about Elvis again.  Jump forward to 2002.  I had an adorable, passionate 8 year-old daughter whom I adored.  One day she came home from a friend’s house where they watched the animated Disney movie, “Lilo and Stitch,” whose soundtrack, I learned, was all Elvis music.  For days afterward, Sarah was going around the house belting out “A hunka-hunka Burnin’ Looooove…” with great drama and passion.  We thought it was so cute.  Music has always been a very important part of my life and spiritual life, so I tried to encourage that in Sarah.  Music was always playing in our house.

For Christmas that year, we bought her a CD of 30 of Elvis’ hits, which included “Burnin’ Love.”  I had no idea that I was throwing gasoline onto what was then just a small fire.  Sarah played that CD on her cheap plastic CD player over and over and over again, memorizing all the songs, twisting and gyrating to the beat and singing along energetically.  It wasn’t long before the CD had to be replaced because it was literally unplayable.  She’d worn it out.

Five years later we were visiting my parents in Southern Mississippi.  On the way down through the state, inevitably we passed many billboards advertising Graceland.  Sarah stared out the window, begging us to go.  We said maybe another time. I think we both assumed it was just a cheesy tourist trap.   However, when we left my parents’ house several days later, we were a little stressed.  I don’t know what happened, but there’d been some family tension.  Larry and I decided to swing East as we made our way north, and head to Memphis.  Sarah didn’t realize what we were doing until she saw the sign:  “Welcome to Graceland.”  

I thought she was going to hyperventilate.  She was 13.

Graceland really is a magical place if you care at all for Elvis’ music.  I’m sure that was the day that pushed me over the line into identifying as an Elvis fan myself.  There’s just a sense of “presence” there.  It’s hard to explain.  He’s everywhere throughout the modest mansion.  We took the tour, listening to the narrative on the provided headphones, as we made our way through the famous house.  The best part, of course, was watching my daughter take it all in.  She was in awe.  Her face lit up as she wandered through the rooms.  I doubt that we learned anything that day from the narrative that she didn’t already know.  I stood back as she knelt at his grave and shed tears for a man who died 17 years before she was born.  Her sadness was very real.

She knew even then that his life was tragic.  How could it not be, being as big a star as he was, and often taken advantage of by people who used him as a commodity to make themselves millions?  No one sugar-coated his life story.  But the power of his music, his talent, his passion, and impact on music was overwhelming.  That trip changed her life.  She was an Elvis fan for 5  years already, but after that, his music, his story and his image were engraved in her soul.

The fact that his life was so tragic and that he struggled so much seemed to make her love him even more.  It added power to his music for her, and became the thing she always went back to whenever she faced difficulties or disappointments in her own life.   Her grandmother, Sukoo, made her Elvis curtains for her room.  She got many more of his CDs with her own money over the years, and built up her collection.   She read all the more reputable books on his life, and the bad news in those books never made her love him any less–only more.

Her love for Elvis became like another living presence in our house.  I fell in love with his music, and began to understand why he was such a powerful influence on Rock ‘n Roll and on other musicians across many genres.  I understood why the Church was terrified of him, and how Elvis’ presence could literally shake up a passionate heart, make them feel things they never felt, and get those feet moving, even if you had no idea where to move them.  I became an unapologetic enthusiastic fan.  Sarah and I danced often in the kitchen when his music was on the CD player.  If I noticed that Elvis songs were the only songs playing on her iPod, I could sense that maybe she was having a bad day and needed a lift and encouragement.  Elvis has always made her feel better.

Sukoo gave Sarah a silver TCB lightening necklace many years ago. She only takes it off to go swimming.

We took another trip to Graceland in 2012, after Sarah graduated from high school.   It was in August, so the humidity was very high and as soon as we stepped out of the car, the sweat pores opened.  It rained off and on that day, but that did nothing to cool things off, just made the humidity worse.  Since it was a Friday, Sarah knew that Elvis’ best friend from high school, George Klein, would be in the radio studio that afternoon.  She’d brought Klein’s memoir of Elvis with her, hoping to get an autograph.  We were skeptical.  We knew he started his show at 3 p.m., so we went over to the front of the studio to wait.  People were hanging around, but it wasn’t crowded.  Suddenly, a man came up behind us, touched Sarah on the shoulder and said, “I’ll be with you in a moment, honey,” and as he headed through the studio door, we realized it was George Klein!

Sarah started laughing a bit breathlessly, staring after him, looking and forth to us and the closed door as if needing affirmation that that just really happened.  I was laughing with her, and Larry just looked confused– it had all happened so fast.  Then minutes later, Klein came back out the door and put his hand on her shoulder.

“Now, what can I do for you, honey?”

It took a moment for her to speak.  But she finally found her voice and asked him to sign her book, which he did without hesitation, and posed for a picture.  He gave her a one-armed hug, and then went back to work.  We were still laughing and Sarah’s eyes were filled with tears.

Later, while on our second tour through the mansion, Sarah was watching a video of Elvis from the Hawaii TV special on a large screen  in the Jumpsuit room.  The walls were filled with memorabilia and several of his iconic jumpsuits were on display.  The room was hot, as it was packed with tourists.  I watched Sarah as she watched Elvis do one of her favorite songs, “An American Trilogy,” with tears trickling down her face while she smiled.

We heard the thunder outside as it was getting louder, and then suddenly there was a loud BANG! and the lights went off for just a minute or two.  As the lights came back on, there was complete silence until someone said, “Hey, Elvis,” and we all responded with nervous laughter.

I don’t remember the year we started the ritual.  But we are a family of rituals and traditions that may seem odd to someone else.  We have a habit of remembering our favorite dead musicians on their birthdays and death days.  It started with Elvis.  On August 16th and January 8th, Sarah prepares fried catfish, okra, and cornbread for dinner, followed by banana pudding for dessert.  All day long Elvis sings on a repeated circuit on her ipod speaker, from the time she wakes that day till we all go to bed that night.  (We do the same for Johnny Cash on his appropriate days)  That evening we watch one of Elvis’ many recorded concerts or one of the movies that isn’t particularly cheesy.  We’ve done this for years.

Over the years listening to Sarah’s music come down the hall, I’ve recognized Elvis songs that I overheard coming from my brother Don’s room when I was just a little kid myself.  Songs that became ingrained in my consciousness, only to reconnect many years later.  I’ve been known to spontaneously dance in the kitchen when an Elvis song comes on, or sing loudly along with him in the car.  His music has brought more joy and passion into our lives, and has become a significant part of the soundtrack of our family’s life.

All because of a silly little blue alien named Stitch.

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A Moment

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My favorite house of all that I’ve lived in was the house in Red Bank.  We moved there when I was just 5 years old, and sadly moved away when I was starting high school.  The house on Broad Street had three stories and a basement.  The top half of the house was red and the bottom half was white, and a porch wrapped around the front.  To a little girl, it felt like a mansion.  

I had my own room at the top of the long staircase that felt like it was designed for a princess.  The colors were blue and white, with wallpaper that was decorated with flowers and latticework designs.  All of the furniture was white, with gold flowers and leaves decorating them.  The handles were made to look like brass.  I had a full double bed all to myself, and lots of floor space to dance to my David Cassidy records and play with my Barbie Dolls.  There was a non-functioning fireplace in one wall, where I stacked my collection of books.

The basement of the house was cold, dark and somewhat dingy.  My mother tried to whitewash the walls to keep them from crumbling, but most of it fell off.  No matter how much she swept or cleaned, it was just a dank, dusty place.  To my friends and I it was a place of mystery.  We dared each other to sneak down there in the dark and walk around, usually running quickly back up the wooden stairs to the comfort of the kitchen as we screamed like only little girls could.  Venturing further into its depths, we discovered,  in the distant corner, a painted image of a skull and crossbones.  Beneath the image was a long, thick nail embedded in the wall, upon which hung– yep– a skeleton key.  We would dare each other to walk all the way into the darkness, to actually touch the skull image, which we did, before running back up the stairs shrieking like we were being chased.

Sometime later, however, when I was in early middle school, my parents purchased a ping-pong table and installed it in the basement.  More efforts to clean the environment failed.  But now we had a reason to go to the basement.

My father, it turned out, was an excellent ping-pong player.  Each of the boys and myself took our turns playing him.  None of us could beat him.  He had a wicked serve that was nearly impossible to return.  Dad was very competitive, in whatever he was doing, so letting me win never crossed his mind.  I kept asking for rematches, and as I played him over the years, I got better.  I began to be able to return more of his volleys, and learned to sometimes return his wicked serve.  Every night after the evening news, I begged him to play.

He still wore his shirt and tie from his day at the church office, but he was a different man in competition.  No mercy.  He loved to win.  I ran from side to side of the table, diving, reaching, jumping, screaming sometimes and sweating profusely.  Dad wasn’t the type to cuddle or have me sit on his knee.  He didn’t tousle my hair or kid with me.  He was very serious, always the preacher or counselor.  Always The Tie.  But for those moments, we got to play.  We had a small transistor radio in the basement that we kept on a current pop station as we played the best of 2 out of 3, which of course, Dad always won.

When we moved to Woodbury, the ping pong table was in the garage.  And we played.  I got better over the years, but couldn’t beat him.  We didn’t talk, except to announce the score as we went.  If we laughed, it was nervous tension, part of the play.  Dad and I weren’t close, he wasn’t always sure how to relate to a girl.  He felt more confident in his role as pastor and counselor than he did as father.  But in those moments, we got to play.  He didn’t give me pointers or tips, I learned simply by trying to return his hits.

Finally, when I was a wife and a mother living in Nebraska, it happened.  We had our own ping pong table in the basement and I challenged Dad to the best of 2 out of 3.  And I beat him.  Finally.  He was retired by then, in his mid-sixties, but no less energetic at the ping pong table.  It was a close couple of games, but I finally beat him.

As we went back upstairs he was a bit sheepish, muttering something about how he’s not as energetic as he once was, as I high-fived Larry and scooped up my baby daughter in celebration.  Mom laughed nervously.  I wasn’t feeling mean or smug.  I simply felt like finally I could beat Dad at something.  Or at least be as good as him at something.  He wasn’t the kind to give praise, so I spent a lot of years trying to impress him.  To get his attention.  It was a small triumph.

He got older.  We didn’t play again after that.  We lived 1500 miles apart and as we moved around, we didn’t have a place for a table anyway.

When I was at clergy retreats, where I never truly felt comfortable anyway, I found that I could at least feel less awkward when there was a ping pong table at the facility.  I beat all the guys, much to their surprise.  I sweat a lot, put all my energy into the games.  I never felt comfortable with all the politicking that went on wherever clergy were gathered, but give me a ping pong table, and I could stand out a bit.

I didn’t play for 15 years after that, as we never had a house that had room for a table.  Two years ago, I was eligible to participate in the Nebraska Senior Games, being over 50.  I’ve never been much of an athlete, but wanted to participate somehow, just to get out of my comfort zone.  So I signed up for the ping pong match in my age category.

I didn’t have anywhere to practice, so I went to the match without having played in 15 years.  It turns out being much like riding a bicycle.  You never forget.  I won a medal.  It wasn’t the Olympics or anything newsworthy, but it felt good nonetheless.  It was one thing that Dad and I had.  I can still remember the sweat stains appearing under his arms, his forehead breaking out in a sweat as he leaned forward with an expression of determination.  And the end, laying my paddle down, out of breath and sweaty myself, as I’d met every volley from one side of the table to the other.  And then the day I finally beat him.

Dad didn’t give a lot of compliments, and when I became a pastor, he liked to remind me that he was the better pastor.  But when I was a hospice chaplain and sat with many of the dying and the suffering, one day in an off-guard moment, Dad said, “You know, you’ve done things that I could never do.”  It was what he could give.

But it was even better than beating him at ping-pong.

 

Our Story is All We Have

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“I now see how owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.” 
― Brené Brown

I’ve always been a teller of stories.  When I see someone whom I haven’t seen for a long time, I tell them stories.  My life is a collection of stories.  I think in narrative.  That’s one reason why when I discovered the preaching of Gene Lowry I was astonished.  He teaches Narrative Preaching.  It was the kind of preaching that I was already trying to do, and here there was a name for it.  And one of the best preachers I’ve known was doing it.

I’m confused when people listen or read a story I’ve told and tell me it’s not right.  There have been people who have refuted what I’ve said.  MY story.  I’m the one that lived it, felt it, experienced it, cried through it, laughed through it, been scarred and inspired by it.  No one can tell another person that their story simply isn’t true.  If my story offends you, that doesn’t make it not true.  Or if my story reveals something that makes you uncomfortable, that’s something you must deal with and ask yourself why.  But no one has the authority to tell someone else that their story isn’t true.  Sure, we do it all the time, and throughout history, it’s true that the stories that make us feel better are the ones that get told.  History has been most often told by the winners.  We don’t like the dark side of our histories.  But it’s there.

It’s life.

Then sometimes we find out that the stories we were told were not entirely true, or were missing key parts.  My father remained a mystery to me my whole life.  He didn’t reveal a lot about himself.  His whole life in India–his first 20 years– is a book that we couldn’t open.  My brother sent me Dad’s Bible that he had when he was just 18 years old, still living in what is now Mumbai.  I cannot imagine my father ever being that young.  I’ve seen pictures of a painfully skinny, darker-skinned, black-haired young man looking like he would get sand kicked in his face at the beach.  But it’s hard to see that young man as my father.

His Bible is underlined in various colors, especially the New Testament.  He made notes here and there.  He was a passionate young Christian, then, eager to spread the Gospel.  He volunteered in a Student Christian Movement that did just that.  He came to the US in 1949, two years after India gained independence.  He was there for the violence of Partition, the riots and killings.  He never spoke of it.

I don’t know what his life was like those first 20 years.  I don’t know anything about my grandfather, Percy, who died when Dad was 14.  Until Facebook, I didn’t even know who my cousins on Dad’s side were.  I’ve seen pictures of other darker skinned, black haired people that are my aunts and uncles, now all deceased.  My grandmother, Jesse, I know, gave birth to 11 children, only 6 of which survived.  She lost 5 children and a husband.  She had to be a tough lady to survive.  I never got to meet her, as she lived on the other side of the world.  I wish I had.

She was Indian, but for some reason hated all things Indian, and raised my father to love all things British.  Until a few years ago, I thought my father was a British subject with a little bit of Indian blood.  But we learned that Grandma Michael was 100% Indian, and Grandpa Percy had a good percentage of Indian in him.  Further back, there’s some English blood mixed in.  But Dad was more Indian than he knew.  Or at least told us.

I don’t know his story, just bits and pieces.  It seems that my three brothers and I all experienced Dad differently.  I came 7 years after the youngest son, and wasn’t a part of my brother’s lives for the most part, growing up.  When Dad was young, with three sons, he played football with other pastors, preached from the Bible, didn’t want Mom to wear a swimming suit in public.  But the father I knew had “graduated” into psychology, and focused more on self-help type sermons, throwing a little verse in there to make it churchy.  I learned the Bible from my mother, or from a variety of other people who crossed my path.  The father I knew wore a tie all the time, would never be caught dead in a pair of jeans, and never played football.  Or played much at all.

The four of us have different stories about our parents.  Being the last in line and the only girl, my stories differ a lot from my brothers’, though some coincide.  For a long time, I was hesitant to tell my stories.  We all form our own impressions of someone who is in leadership.  I do, I know.  I’ve learned that sometimes my impressions don’t always match with who they are at home, out of the public eye.  Of course, with some celebrities we are completely disillusioned.  We don’t want to believe the “other” stories.  Who wanted to give up that fun, loving image of Bill Huxtable, or the guy advertising Jello with little kids–to accept the REAL story?  We’d rather just say it can’t be true.

There are stories I will never know about my father, because he didn’t want to tell them.  He told himself and others for 80-some years that he was a subject of the “British Empire,” and he stuck to it.  It made him feel better than being an Anglo Indian in British-occupied India.  He wanted to side with the “winners.”  Don’t we all?

I don’t fault him for that, but it was confusing to find out that a lot of the stories I was told simply weren’t true.  I know also, that we tell ourselves stories all the time to feel better.  And after a while, we believe them.  Don’t tell us any different.

At my mother’s funeral, I learned from a cousin, that before Mom met Dad, she regularly preached revivals!  My Mom!  Cousin Landon laughed through the tears in his eyes, telling me how he went with her, and was always amazed at how people were literally rolling in the aisles, “slain by the Spirit,” and my Mom kept on preaching the Word.  I never knew that.  My mother was always a devout Christian, studying the Bible diligently, marking them up (she had several translations) and underlining and making comments.  She kept a journal for years, reflecting on the Bible passage of the day and what it meant for her life.  That never stopped or wavered.  But I never got to hear my mother preach.

I would have loved that.

This all makes me realize, of course, that there are a lot of stories that I don’t know about either of them, and may never know.  They didn’t tell.

We’ve learned a lot about our ancestors in Southern Mississippi.  It’s certainly not all pretty, but how can it be, knowing what we know about the South in those days?  I have ancestors that fought for the Confederates in the Civil War– I got to visit their graves.  Some  fought in the Revolutionary War.  Some owned slaves and some were even slave traders.  Those are the hard stories.  They’re unpleasant.  But I believe we have to tell the hard stories as well as the good stories to know who we really are.

It’s human nature to want to be known, to be seen, and to be heard.  It’s hard when someone won’t listen, or refuses to believe us.  Or only wants to believe the good stuff.  We need to tell.  We need to be heard.  We need to be connected.  And believed.

One of the many joys of working as a hospice chaplain was hearing the stories people told me of their lives.  People who are dying want to know that their lives mattered.  The good, the bad, the hard struggles, the triumphs and the failures; all of it is the stuff of a life and is part of who we are.  The images people have of us are no less true just because they don’t know the whole story.  Those images are part of us as well.

I think my daughter knows me pretty well, certainly better than I knew my parents, because I wanted her to know me.  Sure, there are stories that she doesn’t know, and may only discover after I’m gone– because knowing her, she will dig out all my journals and read them!  And I trust she’ll love me just the same.  

In a couple of years we hope to go to India to get a sense of the culture in which my father grew up.  I want to get a deeper sense of that world, so foreign to me, and maybe understand why he didn’t want to own it.  To see the world that shaped him.  And, I think, haunted him.

Maybe I’ll learn something.