Editor’s Note: For this article Steve Garber asked longtime friend Virginia Watson to reflect on her life and the liturgies that have kept her faith and love alive over a lifetime.
All of my granddaughter Virginia’s life I have given her presents on her birthday and since I am never with her on this special day I send presents and cards. I buy cards from the lovely Sisters at All Saints Convent. The cards are not drippy religious cards, they are beautifully hand drawn by resident artists and reproduced. The texts in these cards are classy and classic, words of substance and depth. I usually write something on the card but I always include the words, “I am glad that you were born!” Recently a young friend gave me a small stash of cards also created by the giver. These cards have figures that are comic but sophisticated. They are trendy, bright, and splashy. I sent one of the new cards signed with my usual “I am glad that you were born” and it accompanied a present. When granddaughter Virginia received this card she called and said, “I have a card with handwriting like you, signed grandmother but my grandmother did not send this card.” For Virginia this was a non-liturgical card. It did not affirm who I am and my relationship to her.
The liturgy of the church affirms who we, the people doing the work of worship, are. A definition from Vatican II: “Liturgy is the means whereby we express and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the nature of the true church.” We are Christians gathered to worship. Our worship takes the form of praise, repentance, confession, forgiveness, instruction, prayer, peace with one another, thanksgiving, self-offering, transformation, and the opportunity for growth. We leave church with purpose— to go out and do the work God has before us. Liturgy is not static, it is ever changing: morning prayer, evening prayer, the little hours, ceremonies of birth, death, and the big moments of life in between.
All of these patterns are part of life. The church liturgies are there to keep us connected to worship of our God. One’s principles need structures, liturgies, so they can become meaningful and effective. In December I will be 90 years old. Who knew way back in childhood and subsequently what principles to establish, or how to go about making them a part of life? I certainly didn’t. It wasn’t a conscious well thought-out reality, but I believe my early life did prepare me.
My parents were born in 1897 and 1903 in rural Georgia and grew up on working farms. They knew what it was to honor your family, work hard, be good neighbors, and go to church. They lived in a community that practiced Christian values of honesty, concern for others, and belief in God. My father ran a small dairy, and they moved from the rural community, where they knew and were known by everyone in their orbit, to Atlanta. We lived two-and-a-half miles outside the city limits of Atlanta which was at the time also somewhat rural. They were hard hit by the Great Depression and had less financial success than their parents. I was an only child and grew up in a house without indoor plumbing. We were poor but I did not know it. I had everything a child could want: bountiful food, forty acres of land to roam in, a stream to wade in, a neighborhood of safety where we never locked our doors, friends, parents who loved me, success in school and much time to play.
I loved school, loved learning, loved books and reading. I didn’t have many books but I did know the Bobsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and Elsie Dinsmore. I wanted to be like Elsie Dinsmore. She was practically perfect, smart, gracious, loving, considerate, honest, a true Christian and rich. I do not think I focused on the rich part very much because Papa Dinsmore saw to it that she ate simple healthy foods, and money was a way for her to help others. There were many books in this series. Elsie went from being a child to being a grandmother. They are not politically correct because they were written before slavery was abolished and are full of dialect. None-the-less I wanted to be like her—the gracious, considerate, loving Christian, eager to learn. That is still my aspiration. I fall far short but then an ideal needs to be both lofty and yet attainable. I will never reach the goal but I enjoy some small successes.
Life got harder for me when I was about twelve years old. I became slightly aware that my father had times of erratic behavior. He was always good to me but I saw a raw and unreasonable anger and came to recognize a strange odor. I did not know what alcohol was and I never saw him drinking but he was an alcoholic. A serious alcoholic, he would disappear for a day or two and no one knew where he was. In my senior year of high school he was hospitalized with severe alcoholic neuritis and was never truly well again. I continued to make A’s in school and went to college one year but hurt and pain entered my life. I still feel pain when I think of my father, who I dearly loved. What a tragedy that his life took such a turn. He died in 1945. Then we did not know much about treatment for alcoholism.
Frank and I were married in October of 1941, two months before my eighteenth birthday and two months before Pearl Harbor. We certainly were married too young and were lacking practically everything we now tell young people makes for a good marriage. We were in love and stayed that way for 67 years, so despite all that was against us we did a lot of things right. We were both only children, both had faith in God with similar family backgrounds. We did not see one another for two years in WWII while Frank was overseas. Frank went down to enlist the day after Pearl Harbor and I was proud of him for doing that. Part of our common liturgy of life was patriotism. That was good because Frank became a Regular Army Officer, and served in Korea and Vietnam before he retired after 24 years in the Army. During the Korean War he once again was sent overseas and we did not see one another for one-and-a-half years.
We needed structures of our lives then: faith in God, patriotism, love for one another and our family, love for country, and commitment to one another for better or worse.
There were some very good things about the 24 years in the Army. We were privileged to live almost three years in post-war Japan from 1947 to 1949. We lived four years in Naples, Italy. Frank earned two college degrees in the Army years and I learned a lot also. One of my goals is to be a lifetime learner and I had many opportunities, between books and studying, managing four children, moving, making a life and friends in many places and being happy and content most of the time.
Worship in a liturgical church, being part of a faith community, following the teaching of the Christian year, reading the Bible and praying have given structure to my life and my family’s life. These liturgies have taught me some great truths. Some of them are make peace with reality; consider each day a gift from God and offer it back to him with eagerness; life is action, not just thoughts; take care of the body; always be open to learning and excited about learning; stay connected to your family and friends with letters, meals, presents, phone calls, email, prayers and being there in person if possible; in all things give thanks; seek to serve; avoid “sulking through the inevitable”; keep a good calendar and make room for what is important; make love your aim.
The golden thread throughout my life and these liturgies of life is faith and trust in God. Following close behind is love of and commitment to my husband, children, family, and to that spark within that wants to keep on improving, growing, and learning.