CHAPTER ONE: STORIES
“The business of life is the acquisition of memories.”
—Mr. Carson, Downton Abbey
Our lives are but a story in this book called life. Wow, that sounded so philosophical and canned—and who-cares-boring. Let me try that again. Your life experiences and my life experiences are so incredibly fascinating that they must be shared. That’s right: They must be shared. At this point, whether you believe it or not does not change the fact that it is true. This book is chocked full of unscientifically proven facts that you will just need to accept. We can review my credentials later.
I have always been an intentional memory maker and a natural story teller. Nothing is more satisfying to me than a captive audience. It doesn’t matter if it is an audience of one or one hundred. I am actually happy to tell a good story to myself. To be able to engage others through storytelling is powerful. Words are powerful. The Bible tells us that life and death are in the power of the tongue. Think about that. We have the potential to bring forth life through our words or death through our words. We have the potential to bring forth life through our stories.
Stories are birthed in our life experiences. Those experiences filter through our perspective filters and our belief systems to be categorized and deposited into our memory banks to be withdrawn as needed. While we may not be given carte blanche on the big scripts of our lives, we are given plenty of creative license when it comes to the story within the story.
At this stage in my life, I realize the important role that meaningful memories play in the well-being of my family and in all families for that matter. I am not talking about the kind of memories that are being made on the hamster wheel of life as we now know it. I am talking about the memories that give us stories to pass down, stories to tell around the holiday table, stories that insist on being retold again and again.
I have found that those stories are most often birthed in the ordinary moments on the ordinary days, not as a result of well-laid plans or elaborately orchestrated events. More often than not, my family’s best memories are about experiences that happened when we least expected them to—when we seized the moments and capitalized on the opportunities that presented before us.
Our family has been known to spend the Friday after Thanksgiving fighting the crowds and chasing down the deals. I am not saying that is memory-worthy, but it is the truth. This past Thanksgiving, however, we threw out tradition and headed to the Little Cabin on the Trail in Damascus, Virginia. The Little Cabin on the Trail is the place God gave to us after the accident to heal our hearts. I will tell that whole story later, but for now I want to share a how a seemingly ordinary day turned extraordinary.
The cabin, located on the Virginia Creeper Trail (a 34-mile bike trail that was formerly a mountain railroad), is quite cozy. We had spent the last year renovating it and turning it into our home away from home. It is 600 square feet total with about 300 square feet of area in which to congregate. In the spring, summer, and fall that is not much of a problem because the great outdoors provides plenty of overflow space. In the winter or when it is raining, it is a bit more challenging.
Thirteen people made the two-hour drive north on Black Friday with the intention of eating lunch at the cabin and cutting down our Christmas trees at a nearby farm. It was my sister’s and her family’s first visit. The cabin and its surroundings are truly magical, and I was anxious for her to see the progress we had made. I did not expect her to really experience the full magic of it, however, since it was a bit off season for bikers.
I was totally unprepared for what God had planned.
We knew it would be cold because—well—because we were heading north into the mountains and because—well—because we hadn’t quite gotten around to having the heat installed. We did not, however, expect the cabin and the trail to be blanketed in snow, glorious snow. There is absolutely nothing more beautiful than freshly fallen, undisturbed snow in the woods before Christmas.
The kids were ecstatic, and my heart did a happy dance inside of my chest. Even pre-tragedy, this scene would have thrilled me; but post-tragedy it ministered to me deeply. The tag line on our Little Cabin on the Trail sign is where memories are made and hearts are healed. I knew that God was healing our hearts once again.
Our group hit the trail quickly, eager to see the transformation the snow had made on our summer and fall playground. The kids served as tour guides as we pointed out to our guests the place we hang our hammocks, the place we search for “creek glass,” the bridge we walk the dog to each day, and our own Rock City. There were snowball fights and lots of laughter and, of course, plenty of photo shoots. We even encountered a horse on the trail—in the snow! It was perfect. Some days are like that. Post-tragedy, I do not take those days for granted. I take notice, and I give thanks.
If the story ended here, it would be good enough. The memory of it would still bring a smile to my face, and I would be inclined to remind the children of our first snow at the cabin—at least every year on Black Friday. But it gets better.
Returning to the cabin cold and hungry, I began the task of feeding our small army. I had planned ahead—which is note-worthy—and had a huge pot of corn chowder already simmering on the stove. I started making grilled cheese sandwiches to go along with the soup. I want to mention here that because the heat had not been installed yet, we were taking the edge off with the oven, an electric heater, and an industrial blower that kind of sounded like an airplane taking off.
People were eating at the table. I mean six people were eating at the four-person table. Three were eating while sitting on the couch, and one was sitting in the comfy chair. I was making the sandwiches and two other people were helping me pass out the food. There were boots and scarves and mittens and chaos. Just go with me on this. Do you have the picture?
Right smack in the middle of all this lovely chaos, someone knocked at the door. It is not really uncommon for someone to knock on the door of the cabin. According to Internet sources, somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 people ride the Virginia Creeper Trail each year. That may seem like a big range, but to me it matters not. Whether 100,000 or 300,000, it is still a lot of people without cell phone service in the wilderness. So, just about every time we visit the cabin, someone stops by. They either need an ambulance, a ride to town, a tire pump, a phone, a Band-Aid, or a potty. And sometimes they need something to eat.
That day our guests were hungry; and in their defense, many people have mistaken our fairly large cabin sign for that of a restaurant’s and have just walked on in. At least they knocked. I am not sure why with twelve other people not cooking, I answered the door; but maybe it is because the cabin is really my domain. I am used to the knocks on the door, and I absolutely love interacting with the people on the trail.
I cheerfully greeted the young girl at the door—after all, I was having a great day. She asked if the cabin was a restaurant because she and her family (mom, dad, and brother) had just ridden the 11 miles down from the top of the mountain, and they were looking for a place to get something to eat. Really? They actually rode bikes down the mountain in the snow? Who does that? In all my cheeriness, I told her that the cabin was not a restaurant, but that she and her family were welcome to join us for soup and sandwiches.
Then she said, “Really?” And as if her family could not hear the conversation from where they were standing about ten feet away through the porch screen, she repeated the invitation.
The mom then said, “Really?” They all exchanged glances, and then she offered to pay for some food. They must have really been hungry. Of course, my cheeriness was definitely encouraging them to throw caution to the wind—or at least to the creek. Why shouldn’t they just lay down their snow-covered bikes and enter a cabin in the middle of nowhere and eat with thirteen people that they had never seen before?
And they did just that. I told you—The place is magical!
I scurried four people away from the table to make room for our guests. I think my son, the police officer, thought I had lost my mind. He had not spent much time at the cabin. There are different rules there. Hospitality is king. And my sister and niece who would normally err on the side of practicality and logistics immediately got caught up in the whole experience, making my new friends feel right at home. My husband and daughters had already been smitten with the cabin magic, so they did not even flinch.
I served them soup and took their orders for mozzarella or pepper jack sandwiches. We began chatting. It came so easily. It was a divine appointment to take our ordinary day and add the extra. We were given the opportunity to show some bikers the love of Christ, and we seized it—you know, carpe diem and all that stuff—re-affirming what I already knew: God’s anointing is on that cabin. They were from Germany, residing in North Carolina. I am of German decent. Their daughter was a junior. My daughter was a junior. They loved the snow. We loved the snow. Back and forth the conversation went with a soothing rhythm. The daughter asked for seconds, and the mom said that it was the best soup and sandwich she had ever eaten. She asked how I made the grilled cheese, so I shared my unique technique of taking two slices of bread, buttering them, adding some cheese between them, and toasting them on my George Foreman grill. I told you—magical!
If the meal was not impressive enough, my sister had made cookies that the dad deemed something out of a commercial. My brother, a professional chef, after hearing this story, told me that it is a fact that the right atmosphere makes food tastes better. I agree, but take note that the right atmosphere does not mean perfect. We were crammed into a rustic cabin with heat challenges, eating on paper plates. The right atmosphere totally consisted of the willingness to offer hospitality to four cold, hungry bikers. They kept saying that nobody in Germany would ever open their door to complete strangers and serve them a meal. I told them that most people in America would not do it either. Most people don’t own magical cabins.
I joke about the cabin being magical; but what I really am saying is that when God gave it to us, I specifically prayed for Him to use it for His purpose, that He would give us opportunities to serve others like people had served us in the days and weeks following our darkest hour. I continue to be amazed at how that plays out each and every time we go there.
As the mom was walking out the door to continue the ride down the mountain, she turned to me and said, “We have taken many vacations and have experienced many things, lots of which we do not even remember; but the memory of today will never be forgotten.”
It was just an ordinary day, a snippet of life with some snow, grilled cheese sandwiches, corn chowder, a few bicycles, and some of God’s children thrown in. It did not really take that much to make it extraordinary. A few days later, I received an email from the dad. He related how he told the people he worked with his family’s experience. They could not believe it. He said it made him realize how uncomplicated life could be. His signature was followed by M.D., Ph.D., MBA. Wow! The part of me that gets intimidated easily would never have extended the invitation had I known how accomplished he was. It is a good thing he hid his accomplishments under all of that snow gear.
His observation about how uncomplicated life could be has really stuck with me. The more I break down the process of making meaningful memories that result in great storytelling, the more I realize that simpler is better.