It was the Summer of 2001, pre-9/11. I breathed in deeply, filling my lungs full of the fresh salty air and releasing it loudly as I settled under our tiny faux canvas beach shelter with my husband. All three children, sufficiently slathered with sunblock, were released to enjoy the sun, sea and sand. We were freshly re-located to the East Coast, waiting on our house, hanging out at Grand-mother’s in the interim, and could not get enough of the beach. As I drank to the full of the great, big, blue sky, and the vast ocean before us at Cape Henlopen, Delaware, the saying, “God’s in His heaven—All’s right with the world” fit perfectly. [i]
Our first homeschooling study unit, as we resumed that season, was of course, the ocean. We beach-combed and sorted everything, from delicate iridescent slipper shells to the heaviest item (salvaged by our daughter) ‘beach concrete’. We made new discoveries like shark purses, gawked at the remains of a horse shoe crab and were thrilled to pause reverently as a school of dolphin swam their regular path home each evening, less than half a mile off the beach.
Everything but the concrete, was put in the ‘buckets’ we had dutifully made by attaching short bungee cords to recycled two-liter drink bottles (to emphasize good stewardship of the earth, of course). We logged math lessons, tallying and making charts and graphs of our findings by number.
Back at grand-mother’s, romantic poems punctuated with the blissful phrase ‘Oh the sea, the sea!’ were entered into their ‘ocean journals’ as well as drawings and tracings from library books; fliers and literature from shops in the Delaware watershed area, and the Cape Henlopen ocean nature center, were cropped and also pasted in. The visits facilitated conversations with rangers, and responsible hands-on encounters with the ocean flora and fauna.
Earth Science lessons emerged as we boiled sea water down to salt on grand-mother’s stove; grew crystals of our own from a purchased kit, as well as on strings suspended in supersaturated solutions; and the pièce de résistance—rock candy bought on the boardwalk. But the magnum opus that Summer was the design and execution of a large frieze titled ‘under the sea’. This was inspired by the scores of story and picture books about the ocean borrowed from the Dover library. A large segment of drywall, left over from a repair project in grand-mother’s basement, was gradually given a third dimension, and a new lease on life, as a paper maché eel, a menacing shark, sea anemones, a starfish and a school of clown fish emerged from the blue, painted gypsum, depths.
I hoped and prayed that my children’s memory cups would be as treasured and full to overflowing as mine was when our house was finally ready to be occupied. We drove four hours away to Richmond and launched into life. The elementary years slid into middle-school years. One started high-school then, somewhere in the middle of it all, I made the fatal mistake of blinking…and 18 years went by.
It is true, as a Scriptural proverb says, that “A wise woman builds her home, but a foolish one tears hers down with her own hands”[ii]. That is, unless her tearing down is actually preparation to empty her house for rental, on the verge of moving away to another country for three years. I felt like I now understood how the mother eagle feels as she scratches out the accumulation that had nestled and succored her young so well in their infancy, but must now be tossed, like so much trash, as the eaglets have flown the proverbial coop…
As I wallowed mid-process, one day in said ‘trash,’ it had all come flooding back, like the evening tide on the Delaware beach 18 years before—I fingered the sparkle tube-paint letters on the foam cover of one child’s ocean journal, remembering the effort and concern to get it right…A wistful longing settled on me, though I had been distinctly warned by the greying, wizened ones, yet still I questioned, “How! How did it all go by so quickly?” Answer: One grain of Time’s sand at a time.
In the sorting and packing away the perpetual question cycled ‘round — “To toss or not to toss”. For the thousandth time I was caught on the horns of the now over-familiar dilemma—Which memorabilia best captured the memories to treasure…or not? Does empty-nesting have to be an “emptying?”
Needing a break from the anguish, I reached for a faithful friend, the Holy Scriptures, and instead let the sands of the details of a favorite Bible story drizzle through the fingers of my imagination.
Two dusty, specters swaddled in shawls against the punishing sun and bruising sand, straggled along at the edge of a caravan from the north, as it approached the well just outside the city of Bethlehem. The two women unwrapped their sun-leathered faces and the younger helped the older as she slumped by the well, eager for a draught. A Bethlehemite woman, drawing water, looked at them, then looked again. A nonchalant glance dismissed the younger, as her features revealed her a foreigner; however, something familiar in the face of the older caused her to set her jar down and draw nearer with greater scrutiny and question…
“Naomi? Naomi, wife of Elimelech? Is that you?” Her voice rose as did her excitement. “Why, it is! My old friend! Naomi! Naomi!”
“Shula? is it you? Shula! Shula!”
It was almost painful to watch as, for several minutes, the two clung to each other, now laughing, now crying, hardly containing themselves. Finally, satisfied with gulps of water from Shula’s jar, Naomi arose, and remembering her travel companion, introduced her daughter-in-law, Ruth, to her long-time neighbor and friend. Receiving scarcely a nod, Ruth busied herself gathering their small bundles as the two older women, in as much hurry as their matronly gait would allow, entered the city.
Her name sifted and buzzed among the market stalls and soon poured out of doorways and windows, “Naomi is back…Naomi…. No sign of Elimelech? And didn’t they have two sons?
Lifting up weary eyes the old woman answered the questions uttered, and those unspoken, with one statement,
“Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD has brought me home again empty”.
I love the dry, awful, almost melodramatic bitterness of Naomi’s fatalistic declaration though I am aware that I have that privilege only because I know how it all pans out for her, a fairly short time later: ‘Gleaning’, a wonderful provision written into Israel’s God-given social laws that provides for the poor, puts Naomi’s daughter-law in the barley fields and sights of a wealthy relative; then sudden recall of another wonderful societal provision, the ‘kinsman-redeemer’, sets Naomi coaching Ruth through a process that lands her in the lap, or at least at the feet, of Bethlehem’s most eligible bachelor. He, already in love, works his way delicately around the lone obstacle; next thing we know, there’s a wedding…and a baby!
Ruth placed the tightly swaddled baby boy into the arms of her Mother-in-law, Naomi. Sensing the import and the tender, joyful climaxing of the moment, all the female family, friends, neighbors and helpers, gathered ‘round. The aged face, once sorrow-creased and sallow, now radiated with a fresh glow as she snuggled the precious bundle to her soft and sagging bosom. Her lips parted in unutterable song, and a sound —not unlike that of one who had just drunk to the full, quenching a long thirst—escaped her lips. And the women sang:
Blessed be the Lord!
Yes! Blessed be the Lord,
Who has not left you this day without a close relative!
May his name be famous in Israel,
May his name be famous in Israel,
And may he be to you a restorer of life
and a nourisher of your old age.
For your daughter-in-law,
For your daughter-in-law,
Who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has borne him.
There is a son born to Naomi!
There is a son born to Naomi!
There is a son born to Naomi!
And his name is Obed!
I love a happy ending! Especially when sorrow gets trampled under the dancing feet of the one who had suffered most, and her cup overflows.
The unchanging, unshakeable Word of the Lord of Life tells me that those of us—on this side of Jesus’ incarnation, atoning death, glorious resurrection and ascension—also have some amazing provisions written too, like ‘empty-nested’ Naomi and ostracized outsider Ruth. Our Kinsman-Redeemer, Christ, has secured an eternity of joy with Him when this vale of tears is past, but grants power and grace to set our feet dancing on this earthly plane too.
As Jesus’ dejected disciples had sat gazing into the clouds at His disappearing form over two thousand years ago, the heavenly messengers had to shake them back into recalling the words of prophecy written and the spoken teachings and directions left by their Coach—
There was a harvest to be brought in, invitations to be issued in life’s highways and byways, a Bridegroom-King’s return to await, oil lamps to be filled and trimmed, a Wedding to plan for and yes, many sons and daughters to bring to glory!
Feeling somewhat like Ruth may have felt, as Naomi hustled her along, wrapping her in her shawl, a new and glorious plan unfolding as she pushed her out the door repeating instructions, I looked around our home at my no longer needed ‘nest-fluff’: I rejoiced that I had photos, like that of my bairns’ young faces grinning between home-grown stalagmites and stalactites, posing by a tidewater-filled moat on the beach or squatting by a pile of flotsam and jetsam on grand-mother’s back deck. Seizing the new dawn, in obedience to the Coach, I scattered the seashells and rock collections over the front garden beds, salvaged the bungee cords, tossed the drink bottles in recycling and looked for a place to hang the ‘under-the-sea’ frieze to decorate the garage.
Like rejuvenated Naomi, I wiped my tears and prepared to disciple another generation in a new land, to lay into the ripened harvest with the collateral of experience and knowledge of God’s enduring Truth, knowing that “She who goes forth weeping, sowing Precious Seed, shall doubtless come again rejoicing, bearing her sheaves”.
And who knows, in time, on a beach somewhere on the East Coast, there might come wafting across the sands song of a wedding or two, and of the birth of wee ones… on this earthly plane, to boot! …ready for a full interactive encounter with creation, where “God’s in His heaven— and all’s right with the world.” [iii]
[i] Robert Browning, Pippa Passes (1901)
[ii] Proverbs 14:1, The Holy Bible New Living Translation (NLT)
The featured image is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and used with her permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
I am Denise Stair Armstrong; born and raised Jamaican. I received all my formal academic education in the land of my birth at Shortwood Teachers’ College and the University of the West Indies, specializing in English Language & Literatures in English. The remainder I’ve gained home educating our three wonderful children – Joseph, Charis and Timothy, parenting them with my husband Claude, and in caring for my wheel-chair bound mother. I enjoy reading, cooking, gardening, theatre and ballroom dancing with Claude (only!) and digging into the Word of God.
My passion is worship expressed primarily through writing inspirational pieces that urge readers not to miss how much the Lord has “cramm’d earth with heaven”. My heart is to encourage them to traverse the gap between all our hearts and the cultures that shape them, via the Bridge that is Calvary’s cross.
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