The Launching Years

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Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016

Like clouds breaking open to reveal eternal expanses beyond the boundaries of earth, so our lives open as we journey through adolescence into adulthood.  These are The Launching Years.

Mary glimpsed this dynamic in her oldest son when he joined the Army and left home for three years.  His return in July, 1959, brought fresh transitions for the whole family.  He would live at home, but being out of the army’s “nest” meant he had two immediate needs–a car and a job.

“Look at this,” his dad said while reading the Saturday newspaper.  “‘Nineteen-forty-nine Pontiac for sale, good tires, runs well.  One owner.  Priced to sell.'”

“Let me see that.”  Hugh T checked out the ad and jotted down the number.  “Let’s call about this.”

“Go ahead.  You’re on your own now…but I’ll take you to look at it.”

He called and found the…

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The Launching Years

img_3578

Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016

Like clouds breaking open to reveal eternal expanses beyond the boundaries of earth, so our lives open as we journey through adolescence into adulthood.  These are The Launching Years.

Mary glimpsed this dynamic in her oldest son when he joined the Army and left home for three years.  His return in July, 1959, brought fresh transitions for the whole family.  He would live at home, but being out of the army’s “nest” meant he had two immediate needs–a car and a job.

“Look at this,” his dad said while reading the Saturday newspaper.  “‘Nineteen-forty-nine Pontiac for sale, good tires, runs well.  One owner.  Priced to sell.'”

“Let me see that.”  Hugh T checked out the ad and jotted down the number.  “Let’s call about this.”

“Go ahead.  You’re on your own now…but I’ll take you to look at it.”

He called and found the car belonged to two elderly women in the nearby town of Dayton. It turned out to be as good as advertised, and the price worked for him, so Hugh T bought it.

With the car issue settled, the next thing was a job.  He found an ad from a local sewing machine store seeking a salesman.  “Sewing machines!” he muttered as he read it.  “Guess I could do that.”  He went for an interview and got the job.  That’s when some new issues surfaced.  His first week went okay in the store, learning the features of each machine and how to use them.  The beginning of the next week was when things changed.

“Here’s how things work around here,” he boss told him.  “When you come in each morning we’ll have some leads for you.  These are people who have called in for service on their machines.”  He looked sharply into Hugh T’s eyes.  “I don’t want you fixing those machines!  Your job is to sell them a new machine.  You won’t get a commission from repairs.”

That set up a moral dilemma when he discovered that most of the calls were from elderly women, often widows, for whom sewing provided a sense of purpose.  Most of them lived very simply with limited resources.  He expressed his feelings to Mary one morning at breakfast.

“I feel like I need this job, but I can’t do what they want.  These are old ladies who know more about sewing than my boss will ever learn.  I just don’t feel settled about selling them a machine, no matter how advanced it is, when all they really need is a new bobbin, or some simple adjustment.”  He paused while he studied his plate, then looked back up.  “The trouble is, the boss says I either sell them new machines, or I’m fired.”

Mary felt his distress.  Her husband had been through issues like this a few times. “Sometimes you have to follow your conscience…your inner voice, even when you can’t see  where that will lead you.”  She put her hand on his.  “Besides, how do you know you’ll even have time for this job when your classes start next month?”

Hugh T’s tension seemed to fade a bit.  “Yeah, I thought of that, too.  I guess I just needed to hear it from somebody else.”  He paused thoughtfully.  “Glad I saved enough while in the Army to pay for the first year’s tuition.”

“That’s a blessing already.”

Hugh T got up from the table, stepped over to the kitchen sink, then turned back toward her.  “Actually, I hope to get a student pastoral appointment next summer…once I get my feet on the ground.”  She knew he had completed a year-long correspondence course while in France that had qualified him for a Local Preacher’s License.

Within a week he had quit the job, and shortly after that came student orientation and then the beginning of classes.   One morning when he was about to leave the house Mary handed him an official-looking  letter that had arrived the day before.  He had a puzzled expression as he opened it, then looked shocked.

“I can’t believe this!”  He waved the letter in the air.  “They say the Army overpaid me and they want the money back with interest.”  He sank into a chair, handing the letter to his mother’s outstretched hand.  “That’s practically everything I have in savings.”  He looked up at her.  “What am I going to do?”

Mary wished she could step in and help, but she and Hugh didn’t have the resources available.  She also knew this was something her son really needed to work out for himself…the first of many challenges that would require spiritual resources.

“I don’t know, but if God called you to the ministry, God will have an answer.  Your Daddy and I have faced some things like this, and we found God was bigger than our problems.”

Just a few weeks later an opportunity opened for Hugh T that he couldn’t have seen coming.  The Keezletown church was part of a circuit that included two other churches nearer to Harrisonburg.  When her pastor had a heart attack, he had to cut back on his activities. He narrowed his focus to the Keezletown conregation and hired Hugh T to preach at the other two until June.  This helped with his day-to-day expenses, as did a part-time holiday job at a men’s clothing store.

A couple of months later Hugh T announced that he was going to get married to a young woman named Gerry he’d met through a college friend.  They had been spending a lot of time together, so it wasn’t a total surprise, but some flags went up in her mind.  Then she remembered how she and Hugh had known each other only three months when they got married.  Maybe this is how my parents felt! 

“Since your Daddy and I had a brief courtship, I guess I can understand that.  But things are different for you.  You’re in college.  This is a big step.”

“I know, but several day students are married, and they seem to manage okay…”  He paused a moment.  “Besides, there’s something else going on.  There’s a small charge east of Elkton that might become available as a student appointment in June.  I just learned, though, that they won’t consider a man who’s single.  By getting married this spring, I can qualify for consideration.”

“And how does Gerry feel about that?  Is she ready to be a pastor’s wife?”

“She’s excited about it.  You know, her parents are both active in their church.  She says she looks forward to it.”

Hugh T and Gerry were married in March.  In June he was appointed student pastor at the Blue Ridge Charge.  Two-and-a-half years later they presented Mary with her first granddaughter.  An image of her own Grandma Mary came into her mind and she wondered if she was ready for this.  Looking in the mirror she thought, With my gray hair, I guess I look old enough to be a grandma, but I sure don’t feel like it.  

Getting her oldest son launched wasn’t Mary’s only task during these years.  She had already seen her daughter through nursing school.  After working for a while at MCV in Richmond, Sis had moved to Staunton where she worked at King’s Daughter’s Hospital, and lived in nearby nurse’s housing.  Mary praised God for her daughter’s accomplishments, but she was also anxious for her to meet some man who would love her and take care of her.  One day the phone rang with a message that eased those concerns.

“I have someone I want you to meet,” Sis said.  “His name is Bill Diehr.  One of my friends at work is dating his cousin, and they introduced us.  We’ve been seeing each other for a while and I want him to meet you.”

Mary and Hugh had them for dinner and got acquainted.  Bill had been in the Air Force, and had a good job with a major airline at Washington National Airport.  He was different from anyone Sis had been interested in before.  She had dated a man who was in the Navy who asked her to marry him, but Sis had been unsettled about it.

Mary recalled Sis asking her, “Do you think I should marry him?”

“I don’t know,” she had replied.  “How do you feel about him?  Are you ready to get married?”

That same conversation happened several times, and finally Mary had said, “If you have to keep asking me about this, maybe you shouldn’t marry him.”  Soon after that Sis attended the christening of the ship he was to sail on…and met his wife!  

Sis had told Bill about that, and now he told Mary and Hugh his story.  “I’ve been married before.  I’m divorced.  I married a beautiful woman and we lived in South Carolina…but I found out she was really married to herself.  She had no room for me in her life.”  Bill went on, “I learned a lot from that.  I learned that I wanted inner beauty from a woman, and Merle has that.  I also think I learned something about being considerate and supportive as a partner.”

So, Mary thought, they’ve both been through bitter experiences–two broken hearts–two hearts being healed.  She and Hugh gave their blessing.  Sis and Bill were married in December, 1964.  They would soon present Mary with her first grandson, Tony, and four years later a granddaughter, Shannon.

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Jimmy, twelve years younger than Hugh T and six years younger than Sis, was having his own launching experiences in the midst of all this.  His entrepreneurial life began at age eleven when he took over delivering the Grit newspaper.  The boy who had done it before had simply handed the papers out to anyone who wanted a copy.  Jimmy saw a better way. He got on his bicycle and delivered a copy to each home in the community, which made the paper more visible.  He was soon gathering new customers.

Mary complimented him on the way he did this.  “Just like your daddy,” she said.  “A born salesman!”  Early in his life Jimmy had exhibited artistic talent.  When he entered a contest connected with a local Saturday TV show, she wasn’t surprised that he won.  Local artist, Judy Preston, ran the show, and Jimmy was invited to appear as a guest.  He became a regular participant, and also took oil painting lessons from her.

Mary and Hugh’s friend, Bradford Cobb, owned a small cavern in the Massanutten Mountain.  When Hugh T was a high school sophomore, Brad was just getting started with the enterprise, and trained him as a part-time summer guide.  After Hugh T went into the army, Jimmy wanted to take his place.  He worked there three summers…first cutting grass, then selling tickets, and finally as a substitute guide.

In 1955 Hugh took a job selling oil and grease to large construction projects in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.  The company, Lubrication Engineers, was headquartered in Dallas.  Periodically they had sales conferences where the men brought their wives.  When Sis was working in Staunton, she was able to stay at the house and care for Paul and Jim while Mary went with Hugh to these meetings.  It gave Mary a break from her routines, and sometimes included sight-seeing.  One time they took Jim with them to New England where they visited Boston, where Hugh had gone to high school, and Cape Cod.

After high school, Jim entered Richmond Professional Institute (RPI) where he studied art. The campus, which later became Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), was located in downtown Richmond.  One day his dad made an unexpected visit to his son, whom he didn’t believe was getting along as well as he could in college.  Not long after that Jim joined the Navy.  He took his basic training in Florida, and then was trained as a photographer.

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While at Pennsacola, Jim had been assigned to help the protestant chaplain.  When he reported for duty on an oceanographic ship with a small Navy complement, he was again asked to be chaplain’s assistant.  He spent his enlistment on this ship in the Atlantic Ocean, then when he was released, got a job as a photographer in Cincinnati.  He lived there for a time with his uncle and his wife, Bud and Charl, in the old Townsend Dairy farmhouse his mother had loved visiting when he Grandma Mary lived there.  Since the family had moved to Virginia when Jim was two, this gave him a chance to connect with his Townsend roots.

The Launching Years!  Mary’s family was growing up and moving into their own life spheres.  Just as she began adjusting to the changes, her mother and dad called from Florida.  “We’ve put our place here on the market.  Florida has been a nice retirement place, but now we’d like to get closer to family.  We were wondering if you could help us find someplace near you in that beautiful valley?”

Mary was thrilled.  “Oh, yes, we’ll help any way we can.  Of course, the weather won’t be as nice as Florida.  Are you sure you’re ready for that?”

“Absolutely,” her dad said.  “It will do us good to have four seasons again.  Besides, your children are growing up and moving away, but Paul is still there.  You tell Mr. P. R. Harris that I can’t wait to fill up some of his empty space.  We’ll have a grand time together.”

Mary was energized with preparations.  Elmer and Merle bought a mobile home and had it placed on a spot just across the driveway from Mary’s house.  Hugh built an entry porch and storage room onto the trailer, poured a sidewalk to the driveway, and built a carport for Elmer’s Buick.  All was ready for the dairyman and his daughter to reconnect, away from the city…out in the country.

Thank you, Lord, Mary prayed.  How truly blessed I am!

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(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)

 

 

 

 

 

Building the Happy Muscles

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Gee, I write a lot about what I see deficient or confounding.  Maybe not here but certainly in my journal. The things I give my energy to are the things that will grow stronger.  So why on earth am I doing that?

As the Christmas Season becomes the focus of my retail workspace and I search Pinterest for display inspirations a smile effortlessly becomes part of my face!  There is something about Christmas…I know I’ve learned this before.

I am always determined to carry the heart of the season with me through the year.  Somewhere around March it begins to fizzle out.  This coming year my biggest resolution (yes, I know it’s a bit early) is to build my happy muscles.  Christmas is like the can of spinach that always gave Popeye his big muscles.  Well, I think that I can keep more spinach on the shelf by shopping for the blessings. …

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By God’s Grace!

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Mary, Paul, Jim, Hubert after Paul’s Surgery

(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

The grant that paid for Sis’s open-heart surgery required periodic follow-up visits in Richmond.  At first it was every six months, then every year over a multi-year period.  She did well with her recovery, enjoyed high school, and became an avid reader.  She became increasingly interested in nursing as well, and after high school attended the Northampton-Accomack Hospital’s LP Nursing course on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

This was before construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, so trips back and forth were made on a large ferry boat.  Usually the trip took about an hour-and-a-half, but one time they were caught in a heavy storm.  Sheets of wind-driven rain along with high waves rocked the boat and slowed the trip to four hours.  They had taken Paul and Jimmy along that time, and both boys saw it as…

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By God’s Grace!

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Mary, Paul, Jim, Hubert after Paul’s Surgery

(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

The grant that paid for Sis’s open-heart surgery required periodic follow-up visits in Richmond.  At first it was every six months, then every year over a multi-year period.  She did well with her recovery, enjoyed high school, and became an avid reader.  She became increasingly interested in nursing as well, and after high school attended the Northampton-Accomack Hospital’s LP Nursing course on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

This was before construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, so trips back and forth were made on a large ferry boat.  Usually the trip took about an hour-and-a-half, but one time they were caught in a heavy storm.  Sheets of wind-driven rain along with high waves rocked the boat and slowed the trip to four hours.  They had taken Paul and Jimmy along that time, and both boys saw it as more or an adventure than did their parents.

After Hugh T went into the army, Mary kept in touch with him through a regular exchange of letters.  When he was transferred to a Virginia post following schooling in New York, she rejoiced.  As expected, he was able to come home many weekends, but she soon found it was not just to be with the family.  He spent most of his time at home with a girl named Beverly.  They had dated in high school, even though she was two years behind his class, and Mary had thought the interest would die out when he went into the service.

Instead of that, the relationship deepened.  After six months in Virginia, Hugh T’s duty station was changed…he was reassigned to the 319th Station Hospital in Bussac, France. He would be there for two years.  Mary’s real surprise came when he announced that he and Beverly had become engaged.  She talked to him about the age difference between them and thought they should wait until he returned.  She had only to remember her own teenage engagement to Artie, however, to understand what was going on.

After about a year she received a letter from Hugh T.  “I guess I should tell you, I got my ‘Dear John’ letter from Bev a few weeks ago.  We’ve got a ‘Dear John Bulletin Board’ here in the barracks, and I put mine up there with the rest  She said her daddy told her how it was when he was in the service, and he was sure I was unfaithful to her.  I wrote back that it’s not true, but she hasn’t responded.”

Mary felt both relief and concern.  It seemed this might be the hand of God at work.  Hugh T had written her the previous fall that he’d accepted a call to the ministry and would be going to college to prepare when he came home.  It dawned on her that in recent weeks her efforts to stay in touch with Beverly had not worked out.  When she talked with Hugh about it she said, “God knows best!”  That settled it for her.

While her daughter and oldest son were breaking out of the nest, Jimmy was very much still in it.  He attended Keezletown School and came home one day with an announcement.  “You don’t need to go to that meeting tonight, Mom.  Most of the parents don’t go, so you’d just be wasting your time.”

Since he was referring to a PTA meeting, that comment aroused her curiosity.  “Oh, really?” she said.  “You just thought I should know that, huh?”

He did a little shuffle.  “Yeah.  You’ve got enough other stuff to do.”

“Well, thanks for telling me.  I hate to disappoint you, though, because I’ve already made plans to be there.  Even if it’s boring, I’ll be okay.”

“No, Mom, really, you don’t need to go.”

She stooped down and looked him in the eye.  “Have you done something you don’t want me to know about?”

“No!”

“Well, I’m going, and I’ll find out if you have.”

She found the meeting to be uneventful where Jimmy was concerned.  His teacher told her he did his work, although he talked a lot, but he wasn’t a problem.  Mary couldn’t figure out what was going on…until she walked into the house later.

Jimmy looked a little sheepish when she spoke to him.  “It looks like you’re doing well in school…but your teacher did say you talk too much.  What do you think we should do about that?”

He sidestepped the question.  “Now they’ll all know,” he pouted.  “They’ll know you look old enough to be my grandmother.”

Mary pulled him to her.  “Do you mean you think I look old because I have gray hair?”

He finally admitted it, and they talked that over.  Jimmy was a sensitive boy, and he felt he had hurt his mom’s feelings.  To make up for it, he made her a card that was decorated with flowers.  He wrote on it, “Though your hair is gray, you are as gay as May.”  It was something she would cherish for years to come.

Hugh had built a grate into the downstairs ceiling so heat from a gas stove in the living room could circulate up to the bedrooms.  It also allowed sound to travel through the house.  Mary had a small piano in the living room and every night she would read Paul and Jimmy a story, then go downstairs and play lullabies to help them go to sleep.  She made those things into times of special bonding with them.

As usual, things didn’t stay settled too long in the Harris household.  Mary was surprised when an orthopedic doctor at the clinic in Harrisonburg asked to talk with her after one of Paul’s visits.

“I just want to share something with you that might be good for Paul.  You remember we did some tests that indicated he would be left-handed if he could use his hands.”

“Yes,” she replied, curiosity rising.

“There are a group of doctors doing some very impressive things with neurosurgery at the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville.  I’ve been talking with them about Paul, and we feel there’s a chance they can help him become able to use that hand.”

Mary leaned forward.  One effect of severe CP was a condition called dystonia–an involuntary contraction of his muscles that caused uncontrollable repetitive motions.  In Paul’s case, his hands and arms would move exactly opposite of the way he intended.  His dad had devised padded hand restraints to keep him from scratching his face or experiencing other difficulties.  If just one hand could be free, what a difference it would make for him.

“As I said, this procedure is being used successfully with Parkinson’s patients,” the doctor explained further.  “It involves inserting electrodes into a part of the brain that is malfunctioning, then creating lesions to correct that condition.   It’s called a pallidotomy.”

Mary considered his words and asked questions.  “Won’t this be hard on him?  How long will the operation take…and his recovery?  How many other CP patients have had this and has it been successful for them?”

“Those are good questions.  I don’t know how many CP patients have received this surgery since this is a new application of it.  Paul will be sedated.  The procedure will take some time, mostly for mapping his brain to determine the right place to implant the electrodes.”

Mary and Hugh talked about it with Paul at home.  He had no reservations.  “I want to do it,” he said.

She had seen him accept his physical limitations with a patience she knew could only come from God.  She couldn’t pass up even an outside chance that he could be helped, but she wanted to feel God’s blessing in it.  She prayed, Lord, if this is your will, then we’ll do it.  She felt reassured in her spirit and the surgery was arranged.

When Paul was admitted to UVA Hospital, Mary arranged to stay in the room with him.  She slept in a chair to be available when nurses came in.  On the day of surgery she and Hugh waited through the long hours.  Finally the doctor came into the room and she knew by his expression that something was wrong.

“I’m sorry, but I have bad news for you.  Paul’s okay–he did fine and is in recovery…but we weren’t able to get the results we had hoped for.”

“So”–Mary hesitated–“nothing will change with his hands and muscle spasms?”

“I’m afraid not.”

It was a huge let-down.  Hugh went back out to work and Mary stayed on.  Paul would be in the hospital for a few days.  On his second day, however, his condition set off alarms that brought doctors and nurses rushing to him. He had developed pneumonia. More than ever, Mary felt she needed to be with him, but now she wasn’t permitted to stay overnight.

She rented a room in a hotel across the street from the hospita, which enabled her to get some sleep at night.  Each morning she went to his room at seven o’clock, and stayed until eleven each night.  Paul was comatose.  They did a tracheotomy to help him breathe. Watching him go through all of that was the hardest thing she’d ever done.

As she arrived at the hospital one morning a nurse who had been with Paul on the night shift recognized her.  She told her something that reassured Mary of God’s care.

“I’m not supposed to tell you this, but while I was sitting at the desk writing charts, something kept telling me to go see Paul.  I tried to ignore the thought, but it persisted.  So i went to his room and he was turning blue.  I ran down the hall to call for oxygen and just as I got to the elevator, the door opened.  An orderly came out with a tank of oxygen.  I told him I needed it for Paul, right away!  He said, ‘That’s where I’m taking it–I was putting it away and something told me Paul needed it badly.'”

Mary heaved a deep sigh of thanks and praise to God.  I asked you to take care of him, Lord, and I don’t know why this surgery didn’t work, or why he has pneumonia…but I know you are here with him, and with his nurses.  Thank you!

Within weeks Paul recovered enough to return home, but he was very weak and needed a lengthy recuperation.  One evening she put him at the window to watch a brilliant sunset while she was busy in the next room.  He called to her…”That’s what it looks like!”

She went to him.  “What is?”

“When I was so sick…I died and went to heaven.  It was so beautiful, all bright, shining gold and pink.  Jesus met me and held me in his arms.  He told me he wasn’t going to let me stay because my parents still needed me.”

An incredible sense of peace came over Mary.  She felt goose bumps on her body, and beneath them was that same sense of positive energy she remembered the night when Paul was very small and she committed her total trust to God.  She held onto him, closed her eyes and felt God’s grace at work.

“I wanted to tell you in the hospital,” he said.  “But I couldn’t.”

Of course!  The tracheotomy had prevented speech.  She watched him as the sun continued to set.  This was so vivid for him.  She gave thanks for Paul’s unwavering faith and courage.   Words from John Newton’s hymn, Amazing Grace, came into her mind.  “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ’tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

Yes! she whispered in her spirit…all things are possible by God’s grace! 

(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)

 

 

 

 

Pieces of the Puzzle

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Mid-1950’s–Mary with family members (left to right)

Her parents, Elmer and Merle Townsend; Sis; Paul; Mary; Jimmy; Hughie

(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

Harrisonburg News-Record story on January 20, 1954 bragged, “Smallest City to Have Cerebral Palsy Center.”  That headline proclaimed the success the CP parents group experienced when they linked up with the Rockingham County Chapter of the Virginia Society for Crippled Children and Adults.  Even with Sis’s heart issues, plus her daily care for Paul, Mary had been involved with this venture.  It was a dream come true.

The Rockingham Crippled Children’s Center was located in the basement of the Harrisonburg Municipal Building on Main Street.  Mary took Paul there three hours a day, three days each week, for physical and speech therapy, and academic lessons.  Since Hugh had their only car on the road for his sales work, she hired a taxi to transport her…

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Pieces of the Puzzle

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Mid-1950’s–Mary with family members (left to right)

Her parents, Elmer and Merle Townsend; Sis; Paul; Mary; Jimmy; Hughie

(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

Harrisonburg News-Record story on January 20, 1954 bragged, “Smallest City to Have Cerebral Palsy Center.”  That headline proclaimed the success the CP parents group experienced when they linked up with the Rockingham County Chapter of the Virginia Society for Crippled Children and Adults.  Even with Sis’s heart issues, plus her daily care for Paul, Mary had been involved with this venture.  It was a dream come true.

The Rockingham Crippled Children’s Center was located in the basement of the Harrisonburg Municipal Building on Main Street.  Mary took Paul there three hours a day, three days each week, for physical and speech therapy, and academic lessons.  Since Hugh had their only car on the road for his sales work, she hired a taxi to transport her and the children.  She deposited Jim at a nursery school, and once Paul was settled, she experienced a rare treat–time for herself.

She enjoyed walking dowtown, visiting different stores, and generally feeling free.  It was when she came across an alteration shop that her pattern changed again.  She felt an urge to go inside where she was quickly noticed.

“Can I help you?”

The voice belonged to a middle-aged woman wearing an apron with bits of colored thread clinging to it abstractly.  She had a measuring tape slung around her neck, and an inquisitive, but friendly face.

“My name is Mary Harris.”  She hadn’t thought about why she had entered the store.  With a relaxed laugh she said, “I noticed your shop and…well, I’ve loved to sew ever since I was a little girl….”

“Oh, you sew!  Wonderful!”

“Yes…when I have time.”

The woman motioned for her to follow.  “Let me show you around.”  She took her into her work area.  “As you can see, I have a lot of work backed up…it’s hard to keep pace with it all.”

She paused and looked keenly at Mary.  “Would you be interested in working part-time?  I mean, I can’t pay a lot, but there’s plenty to do, and I think we could work well together.”

 Mary took the job.

At the center, Paul was making progress.  Verbal communication was a huge problem for him, as it was for most of the children who attended.  A woman named Gray Pifer, who went by the nickname “Pipy,” was his speech therapist.  Blind from birth, she was a musician with a unique talent for teaching children.  She would learn specific things about each one, then write rhymes about those things, often matching the sound of the words to musical tunes.  Each child learned to verbalize sounds related to familiar things in their daily lives.

When she learned that Paul’s dad was building a house, Pipy taught him a rhyme that went like this, “I know how to build a house.   Saw, saw, saw, hammer.”   Soon Paul was forming those words, although you had to listen closely to understand him.  Mary thought Paul felt like he was “getting in on the conversation,” as she would put it, for the first time in his life. Pipy lifted him beyond the squeals and facial expressions he’d always relied on to communicate.

Pipy was only one of the people who impacted Paul.  His physical therapist encouraged him to see his handicap as something he could learn to live with productively. The therapist was studying to become a doctor, and felt that too often people taught handicapped children to see their individual circumstances as barriers to a full life.  He wanted to change that perspective.  His wife worked as a bookkeeper to help him through school, and a few years later he did, indeed, become an obstetrician.

The center touched Paul’s life at the very time when Mary needed this kind of input from beyond herself in caring for him.  She became challenged in unexpected ways, however, when Pipy became ill, and had to leave her work.  She was so unique that it was hard to find a replacement for her.  She needed a year’s absence in a different climate to facilitate her recovery.  The center was governed by a steering committee whose chairperson called Mary, asking her to take Pipy’s role temporarily.

Mary had been concerned about the situation, but hadn’t expected this.  “I thank you for your confidence in me,” she replied, “but I’m not qualified to do that.  Besides, my youngest son is only three years old.  I already have my hands full.”

“I hear what you’re saying, and I understand that.  At the same time, I’ve seen your strengths and abilities with Paul and the other children.  You’ve been right there with Pipy on so many occasions.  Her approach works, and we don’t want to lose that.  You can do this!  You’re the one person I know who can make this happen.  If little Jimmy is your main problem, we can fix that.  My sister runs a nursery school and I’ll arrange for him to attend there.”

 Overwhelmed, Mary prayed about the challenge, and then accepted.  After Pipy returned the next year, Mary looked back and saw how it had been a growth experience for both her and Paul.

Growth came in other ways, too, during these years.  Mary became a familiar presence at the local library.  One day the librarian came to her with a question.  “Excuse me,” she said.  “I see you here a lot, and I wonder…do you know how to type?”

Surprised, Mary smiled and introduced herself.  “I was a secretary for a coal company in Cincinnati a few years ago…it’s been awhile, but yes, I can type.  Why do you ask?”

“I thought maybe you could.  I’m asking because we’re expanding the library to include a whole new catalog of phonograph records.  We need someone who can type to make up the card file for this.  Would you be interested?”

 Mary took on this volunteer work which deepened her love of books and reading.  She found a bookstore run by a Madison College English professor that was located on Main Street.  She discovered that he also needed a typist.  He was writing a novel and needed someone to take dictation.  She still had her stenography machine, so she dusted off her skills and began to live in the unfolding world or fictional characters.  About the time she was really into it, however, he decided to move back to Minnesota–taking the novel drafts with him.  She would never know if the book was published.

A paying job emerged from the want ads.  The Muhlenberg Lutheran Church in Harrisonburg needed a part-time secretary.  Mary pondered that for awhile, finally deciding to apply.  She sent a hand-written letter…and was surprised when she was called in for an interview.

“Mrs. Harris, I called you in because of the letter you wrote,” the pastor told her.  “I was impressed by the clarity of your handwriting.  That is a rare gift.”  After interviewing her he said, “When can you come to work?”  She worked at the church for several years–a time that would always stand out as a highlight in her life.

These years were in the early to mid-1950’s, when America was growing past the deep intrusion of World War II into a society of constantly expanding frontiers. Mary’s dairyman father, Elmer Townsend, had retired from the Townsend West Dairy several years earlier.  He and Merle now lived in St. Petersburg, Florida.  Every summer they would journey north to connect with old friends and relatives, which always included memorable visits in Keezletown.

Elmer was a quiet, patient man whose Quaker roots permeated his relationships–especially with Paul.  During his visits they would sit in the yard, where he told Paul stories and, and planted a respectful admiration for God’s creation.

All of these things were essential diversions–pieces of Mary’s life-puzzle that filled important gaps amidst the demands of parenting two special-needs children.  They were touches of the “ordinary” in an “extraordinary” life.

Mary was always conscious of the change of direction she had experienced when, after Paul’s birth, she had turned every dimension of life over to God.  Her central focus was finding ways to help Paul reach beyond his physical limitations.  She knew in her spirit that God had a plan for his life, and her job was to help him discover and assemble the pieces of his own life-puzzle.

(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)