Take My Breath Away

“The most completely lost of all days is that in which one has not laughed.” Nicolas Chamfort

Birthdays with a Zero in them are fine times for reflection. February 11, 2017, I turned 70.

I’ve enjoyed hundreds, thousands of moments that have taken my breath away. I’ve fallen in love and married. We’ve celebrated 44 anniversaries. I’ve watched the birth of two daughters. I baptized both of them.

I’ve been blessed to participate in the spiritual growth of many folks. I’ve helped alcoholics get sober. I’ve seen people whose lives were pure chaos find order, salvation and peace. I’ve watched rigid, self-righteous people discover grace. More importantly, I discovered grace for myself and for others.

In Mauritania, I got stuck in the Sahara Desert in a four-wheel drive vehicle. That might have taken my breath away but I found a small tent village and took a nap. You must have priorities!

I’ve watched Clemson win two National Championships in football. Exhilarating!

It’s a rush to hold a book you wrote that’s been published. I’ve had that privilege four times.

I survived two serious car wrecks, one with a fully loaded logging truck.

Sally and I were on a transatlantic flight when one of the plane’s engines blew. We heard it. No doubt about what had happened. Potentially breathtaking experience. Literally. When we landed, two dozen emergency vehicles followed our plane down the runway.

My two best friends died. Soul-crushing experiences. Even at their memorial services, we found ways to laugh.

I’ve listened to Ella Fitzgerald in concert. Magnificent.

I’ve seen Greg Maddux pitch. Incredible.

In Kenya, I’ve seen elephants, lions, giraffes, zebras, and ostriches in their natural habitat. Wow!

On Folly Beach, South Carolina, I watched loggerhead turtles bursting from their brittle eggshells and clawing their way across the sandy beach into the Atlantic Ocean. Awe-inspiring.

With my grandson, Lake, we peered over the edge of the Grand Canyon, then rafted on the Colorado River.

With my daughter, Julie, we watched whales and caught lobsters off the coast of Massachusetts. Incredible.

With my daughter, Jenna, my grandson Lake, and my wife Sally, we climbed to the top of Machu Picchu. Then, we hiked in the Amazon Rain Forest. Mindboggling experiences.

Two pieces of advice I got from Jerry and Jane Howington when I was a teenager: “Keep on keeping on” and “Hang in there.”

“I’m so excited. I’m about to lose control and I think I like it.” The Pointer Sisters

Categories: Baseball, Faith/Spirituality, Family, Football, Humor, South Carolina, Travel, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

A Blog from the First Century

Love

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put the ways of childhood behind me.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

St. Paul: I Corinthians 13

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The Problems and Challenges of Preaching in a Politicized Environment

The Problems and Challenges of Preaching in a Politicized Environment

Marion D. Aldridge

mariondaldridge@gmail.com

 

The Bible, in spite of its age, speaks to issues on today’s front pages: life, health, pain, suffering and death, war and peace, walls (pro and con), creation and environment, money (always an important spiritual issue). Can a preacher speak to these matters without alienating half of his or her congregation?

Yes. With one important exception: If someone (either the preacher or the layperson) is looking for a fight, they will find one. Some people can’t get along with their spouse or their children. They simply don’t know how to live with complexity and differences of opinion.

A pastor can’t make an unhappy person happy.

Otherwise, here are ten suggestions for preaching about hard subjects in politically charged times.

  • Possibly the most patriotic thing any of us can do is to pray for our leaders in government. That’s biblical. This week in worship, I prayed for our President, our Senators, our Legislators, our Supreme Court Justices and others who are in positions of responsibility in our nation and state.
  • Remember: in America, Church and State are constitutionally separated. The government cannot tell churches (or mosques or synagogues) what to do and our churches have no authority over the government. People can say almost anything they want to, but this safeguard is writ large in our First Amendment. Every year, not just this year, there are challenges, but for two hundred years, the wall of separation has stood.
  • Separate your rights as a private citizen from your responsibilities as a priest and/or prophet. Teach your congregants to do the same. As taxpayers, pastors and laity are entitled to vote, to petition, to march, to write their legislators, to serve on juries, to be involved in local, state, and national political activities. Sometimes, like husbands and wives, they will cancel each other’s votes!
  • Try to pay attention to what others are saying. No individual has the whole truth, the entire word of God. The Bible is a big book. The world is a big world. Humility about the limits of our knowledge is a good thing.
  • Be stingy with the phrase, “Thus saith the Lord.” Nobody wants to be beat up in church. There should be safety in the sanctuary. It helps me, during sermon preparation, to consider what my best critics would say. Sometimes, nuance is needed. If you are truly biblical, you may need to acknowledge, “On the one hand… On the other hand.” Don’t use the pulpit, often called a “sacred desk,” for every issue. Protect it from glib or careless comments. Some themes need a Sunday night discussion, not a Sunday morning proclamation. Note: The prophet spoke hard words to King David, but he did so privately, not in a sermon.
  • Remind the congregation of the enduring principles of scripture and the eternal reign of God. Preach these boldly. Pepper your preaching with phrases such as, “Thirty years ago, our parents and Sunday school teachers taught us…” or “During the era of Martin Luther…” to make the point that you didn’t choose to preach on an issue because of someone just elected or merely because you read a rant on Facebook. The timeless themes of scripture have been around a long time and people need to know them.
  • Balance the painful with the hopeful. If a pastor preaches a challenging and confrontational sermon one week, and sometimes that is necessary, maybe the lessons the next few Sundays ought to be grace, hope, faith, peace, love and joy.
  • Preach (and act) with love. Pay attention to your own heart. Be careful with your own spirit.  Be self-aware. Don’t let fear drive you. Don’t be reactionary, sucked into another’s anger. We bring the deficiencies of our own personality to the pulpit. Are you passive-aggressive, not missing the chance to dig at people with whom you disagree? Are you easily seduced by hysteria on social media? Are you too often angry? Beware.
  • Sometimes, prophetic words and actions are required. Dietrich Bonheoffer, Christian ethicist during the reign of Hitler, understood the landscape had been altered. Hitler was not an inconvenience. He slaughtered millions of human beings—Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and Jews. Different circumstances require different strategies. Christians need to remember, also, the civil disobedience of Martin Luther King, Jr. There is a time to break an unjust law. When we do, we don’t whine but we suffer the consequences with dignity.
  • Model a full, happy, and contented life. Take advantage of our magnificent American freedoms. Turn off the television news and the social media and take a walk in the woods. Go to a baseball game. Read a novel. Visit the Grand Canyon or New York City. Invite strangers into your home for a meal. Volunteer at the local food bank. It’s a big, beautiful country. Beyond our borders, the earth is a big, beautiful creation. Embrace and enjoy.
Categories: Faith/Spirituality, Health, Lists/Top Ten | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Movie Reviews January 2017

Since I’ve been in Connecticut (December 4, 2016) as an Interim Pastor at Wilton Baptist Church, I haven’t seen a bad movie. If I think I’m not going to like a movie, I don’t go. I’m not a movie reviewer! I pay money for my ticket and I want to be entertained.

But, because inquiring minds want to know, here is my list, in order, beginning with my favorite, with a comment or two about each:

  1. Hidden Figures—I loved it. Good story, well told, about an important subject—previously unknown to most of us—well acted, inspiring, educational. A small group of brilliant, black, female mathematicians played a vital role in the American space program, overcoming the obstacles both women and African-Americans faced and face in our culture. Octavia Spencer has been becoming one of my favorite actresses and she is perfect in this role.
  2. La La Land—A bright, clever, pretty, musical movie, but not in the tradition of Grease or Fiddler on the Roof or Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Two dreamers sing and dance their way to an unexpected conclusion. Emma Stone, who charms me in almost every movie she makes, and Ryan Gosling, who is apparently handsome, are the stars.
  3. Manchester by the Sea—Do not go to this movie if you only like happiness and light. This movie wrestles with the dark side of human nature, but does so with sympathy and hope. Fine acting, even by minor characters. It’s not the kind of film you love, but I suspect it sticks with you more than a few days.
  4. Patriots Day—“Based on the true story” of the Boston Marathon bombing and manhunt for the perpetrators. Riveting.
  5. Passengers—I’d be lying if I left this science fiction film to the last of my list. I’m sure serious reviewers would consider this movie too simple, but I loved it. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt were exactly what they were supposed to be, two beautiful, smart, interesting, resourceful passengers who discovered they were stranded ALONE on a space ship for the next forty or eighty years or something. They worked it out.
  6. Fences—I wish I could rate this movie higher, because it stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, two of my favorite actors. Washington directs the film, which was adapted from a successful stage play about an overbearing dad making life miserable for a good son. After I had seen the film, someone suggested that maybe this was Black America’s Death of a Salesman. Could be. The movie has some powerful lines and moments, but, for me, it disappointed. I wanted more hope, redemption, reconciliation, or grace from the father. It never happened.
  7. Lion—Another “based on a true story” film about a five-year-old Indian boy who is separated from his brother at a train station near his village and ends up utterly lost a thousand miles away. No last name. No identity. Taken into an orphanage, he is adopted by a couple in Australia. As a twenty-five year old (played by Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire), he begins an almost impossible pilgrimage to find his home village and his birth mother.
  8. Rogue One—The latest in the Star Wars saga, this was a mostly entertaining installment in the science fiction genre. I go to Star Wars and the Ring Trilogy and a few other series as much out of duty as anything else. I miss the Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher days.

Disclaimer # 1—My Protestant Work Ethic, even in retirement, makes me feel a bit defensive about seeing so many movies.

Disclaimer # 2— Film is an art form. These are not all movies that should be seen by the easily offended. As an English major, decades ago, I learned that good literature portrays real life. So, I’m no longer upset by Shakespeare’s or Chaucer’s bawdiness or bad language in a modern movie.

Marion D. Aldridge

mariondaldridge@gmail.com

Categories: Book Review, Race | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Sandy Hook Elementary School

Sandy Hook Elementary School

As a child, and as a young adult, I was taught to shy away from trouble. That was a good lesson for a lad. If there was a schoolyard brawl, teachers said not to get involved. There are Bible lessons about not hanging around bad folks doing bad things and avoiding all appearance of evil. (Psalm 1 and I Thessalonians 5: 22 are examples.) So I shunned playground fights. I never learned to play poker and I didn’t go to pool halls because gambling was involved. I was a good kid.

There’s a difference, however, in innocence and naiveté. And there’s a difference between being ten years old and thirty years old. As a maturing adult, as a pastor, I was much too ignorant for much too long about too much that was a part of our culture.

Sometimes my ignorance was funny: During a children’s sermon, when a little girl said she wanted a Jam Box for Christmas, I was befuddled. I knew what a jelly jar was, but not a jam box.

But my problem was more serious. If someone said a college friend who dropped out of school had been raped, I didn’t want to think about it. If I was told that a couple in the church was having trouble because the husband was having an affair, I resisted the idea: Surely, not him. I secretly hoped the couple would not come to me for counseling. I liked the husband and wife. My fears of the painful and the unknown paralyzed me.

Eventually, I made some decisions to become more aware, to grow up, to listen, to pay attention to what was really going on and not just live within my idealized fantasyland. Others might say I became more “worldly.” But I needed to know stuff I didn’t know. That didn’t mean I needed to smoke pot (I never have) or get in a bar fight (I never have). But I have made an effort to learn about worlds I previously had known little or nothing about.

What does that have to do with Sandy Hook Elementary School? This winter, in Connecticut, I live fairly close to Sandy Hook, where a young man shot his mother, then drove to the local grade school where he murdered twenty boys and girls between six and seven years old, as well as six of the school’s staff members before he committed suicide.

There was a time when I simply put such events out of my mind. Actually, that’s probably impossible. I suspect they go deep into your mind, manifesting themselves in different deep-seated fears, in dreams, in relationships, and in who knows what other ways. At some point in my adult life, I began to embrace the need to pay attention to the full range of human reality. Some people are ghoulish about such horror stories. They are voyeurs, weird and inappropriate. I have no desire to hunker down with the hideous and gruesome, nor do I want to turn my head away from the real pain and suffering in the world and pretend it’s not there. I’ve been to Buchenwald concentration camp. I’ve been to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where a bomb killed four precious girls attending Sunday school. I now try to pay attention to the full reality of our world.

Next month, I turn seventy. I’m glad I’ve learned some things since I was thirty, I no longer tell grieving parents, “It will be okay.”

I drove by Sandy Hook Elementary School this week and was reminded that some things are never okay.

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Devotional Time?

Years ago, during the Q and A after I’d made a presentation to a group of Catholic priests, one of them asked what I meant by “my devotional time.” Catholics pray the Rosary and walk through the Stations of the Cross, none of which are an ordinary part of my life.

Three important confessions:

  • I feel as if I am one of the worst pray-ers in the world;
  • I have what my mom called “ants in my pants.” I’m sure my 21st century diagnosis would be Attention Deficit Disorder;
  • Listening (to people or to God) is not something I do well naturally.

Southern Baptists, during my childhood, encouraged families to participate in Daily Bible Readings. They published suggested texts. My family, off and on, read these. Not always, but sometimes. Later, when I was involved with Young Life as a teenager and young adult, I learned the evangelical terminology of Quiet Time.

Whatever it’s called, I began the habit/ritual/routine of a morning devotional time with my morning coffee. I suppose thousands of volumes with short daily readings have been published, but I was always a Bible guy. Why read what someone else says about the Bible when I had access to the Holy Scriptures? So, almost every day for over fifty years, I’ve read about three or four chapters of the Bible. I jump around from the Old to the New Testament, from long dull passages to shorter brighter texts. I marked each “book” with the date I finished it. It takes me about a year and a half to read through the entire Bible. Then, I usually read a different kind of devotional literature for about a month (The Journals of John Wesley, Pilgrim’s Progress, etc.). Then I pick up a different translation of the Bible and begin again. My first favorite was The New Testament in Modern English, translated by J. B. Phillips. I also read the Catholic Bible, called the Jerusalem Bible, which included the Apocrypha. Somewhere after midlife, I began to make sure I read more of the New Testament and especially the Gospels.

Typically, my devotional period was in the morning, but I could also do my reading during the lunch hour or catch up in the evening. It might last five minutes or fifty minutes, depending on my schedule.

For a few seasons of my life, maybe for six months or a year at a time, I kept a journal as part of my devotional meditation.

For me, as a pastor, it was important that my reading was not for the purpose of sermon preparation, but for my own spiritual health. My quiet time was about the health of my spirit, about my relationship with God. So, at least once a day, I was a listener/reader instead of a talker or a preacher. At least once a day, I was focused on Something/Someone bigger than I was, transcendent, spiritual, hopeful. I learned about faith, love, justice. I was quiet and still.

During my retirement, I’ve given myself permission to read other holy texts, works by Lao Tzu, Rumi, Confucius, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.

I’m pretty sure everyone can benefit from a regimen of quiet, disciplined listening to something other than Self. Sit down, turn of the radio and television, and read. Or pray. Or listen. A year from now, you’ll be glad you did.

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One Month in Connecticut, December 2016—Survived!

South Carolina friends asked me to keep them posted on my second winter sojourn into the great Frozen Northland, otherwise known as New England. It snowed again last night, about an inch where I live in the woods of Wilton, Connecticut. It’s not supposed to get above freezing for a week, with a low temperature predicted to be 9 degrees.

Wilton Baptist Church is the reason I’m here. There were 75 worshipers on Christmas Eve and 25 Christmas morning. Average attendance seems to be 35-45. The church is fully organized and functioning with different folks responsible for flowers, the Lord’s Supper, children’s choir, Sunday school classes, and other typical church activities. I’m impressed.

But, it’s a church, and there are always surprises. The congregation cannot support a full-time pastor without being creative. They own a manse (parsonage) where I am living, and they have made the difficult decision to sell it to help underwrite their salary expenses for the next three years. Property here is high, so that will provide a half-million dollars income ($500,000). Since I have been here, volunteers have been working day and night to paint and prepare the house to be sold for top market value.

Yesterday, our fine part-time secretary/administrative assistant told me she has a new fulltime job requiring her resignation here. Phooey. We will be sorry to lose her. She is a faithful and good worker, and we will need to replace her. Churches don’t just run themselves. People behind the scenes make organizations work.

Last week, the first Sunday of the New Year, a family of four joined the church. I’m having dinner with them tonight to talk about their faith journey. This is the fun part of being a pastor.

My friends want to know what kind of foolishness I’m up to with regard to sightseeing and traveling around the area. Facebook is the easiest way to participate in my over-sharing! I post too much there, I’m sure, but I enjoy the humor and the sometimes-lively discussion.

Sally flew up for our 44th anniversary and Christmas. The truth is we ate, slept and churched our way through the four or five days she was here. Oh, and we went to the movies to see LaLa Land, which we both liked. I was glad the Wilton folks got to meet Sally and she got to meet them.

I drove over to Boston to visit with Julie and Tom for two days and watched the Clemson-Ohio State game with them. Since I was a nervous wreck, I’m not sure that was exactly fun. But we won, so I’m going back over on Monday to watch the National Championship Game. Go Tigers!

Finally, I went into New York City. Because of poor planning, I went two days in a row. I had a ticket to see The Great Comet of 1812, a musical about a portion of War and Peace. The very next day, I had a ticket to Front Page starring Nathan Lane and John Goodman. Best part of either trip was a long subway ride to The Cloisters, a recreated Romanesque and Gothic showcase for Great Art. Not on most “must see” lists, but it has been my favorite thing in New York City so far.

 

Categories: Faith/Spirituality, Family, Football, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Suggested Reading for 2017

Falling Upward by Richard Rohr (The winner, hands down, for the volume that most affected me in recent years. Rohr says life is divided into two halves. The skills you need as a young adult are not the ones you need past age forty. If you only read one book in 2017, read this one.)

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (Knowing way too little about the early history of our United States of America, I learned something on every page. It’s not a comic book, but it’s easy enough for adults to read. Hamilton gives perspective to this difficult political season.)

The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill (I find myself repeatedly quoting this book, so I must think it has something to say. I read everything Cahill writes.)

The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh (What I learned in Baptist life, including seminary, was a caricature of the actual beliefs and practices of other faiths. Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to listen to what Buddhists say about themselves, what Muslims say about themselves, etc. This book is a good start.)

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (An impressive account, academic and easy-to-read, of Americans of African descent, who left a perilous existence in the Deep South and moved North, hoping to create better lives for themselves and their children.)

Under the Banner of Heaven—John Krakauer (Continuing in the theme of trying to understand worlds I know little or nothing about, I’m fascinated by Krakauer’s stories of both faithful and radical Mormons.)

Overcoming Adolescence by Marion Aldridge (Well, of course, this book impacted my life. This is my story. I distill thirty years of life’s sometimes painful lessons on the subjects of fear, grace, wisdom, power and addiction.)

Marion D. Aldridge

Mariondaldridge@gmail.com

Categories: Book Review, Faith/Spirituality, Holiday, Lists/Top Ten | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

A Gift of Advent

Over the past few years, I have become exasperatedly aware how Big the Bible is. I’ve read it all my life—I don’t know how many times. I’ve even read the New Testament in Greek.

The Holy Book is HUGE—containing 66 smaller books, some of them not-so-short. Some texts are enigmatic. All are written in languages foreign to me. Some of the Bible is fiction—that’s what a parable is. Paul even resorts to sarcasm. There is no end to conversations and debates about the Bible.

Three years, at least, is how long a pastor needs to preach through the Bible, and that requires skipping a lot of texts. A sermon based on a passage from II Chronicles gets the same attention as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. For me, that’s a problem. I’m a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ. I’m not a Davidian and certainly not a Branch Davidian. Some are. I’m not. I read the entire Bible. I value the entire Bible. But I’m a Jesus guy.

Twelve Step groups  read each step at every meeting, focusing on a different step each week. When the group finishes the Twelve Steps, they start over and go through them again.

Not so in Sunday school or sermons. If we limited ourselves to a single Bible book each week, we’d need sixty-six weeks to skim through the Bible once. We’d spend only one Sunday, for example, on Matthew—to learn about …

The birth of Jesus

The visit of the Wise men

The preaching of John the Baptist

The Sermon on the Mount

The Beatitudes

The Lord’s Prayer

The healing of a leper, etc. etc. etc.

That’s an impossible task.

The Gift of Advent is that for four weeks, every year, we focus on …

Hope

Peace

Joy

Love.

Year in and year out, approaching Christmas, we are reminded that these attributes are important. No need to ignore salvation, grace, justice, or the Ten Commandments, but at least once each year we will focus on Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.

Year after year. Over and over.

Hope

Peace

Joy

Love.

Categories: Book Review, Faith/Spirituality, Holiday | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

I Don’t Need To Repeat My White Christmas Experience!

2016-12-17-08-21-12

Last week, the snow fell in Connecticut, lots of snow. This part of the world, the rural landscape, can be stunningly beautiful. It was 27 degrees. I fixed bacon, eggs and grits for breakfast. Nothing was planned for the day. I washed clothes and cleaned the house. The snow is still on the ground and it is 10 degrees today. (I took this picture from the house where I am living.)

Life is good. God is good.

Last winter, in New Hampshire, when it was – (minus) 17 degrees, one of my South Carolina friends said we needed to call church off in that kind of weather. If you close church, school or businesses in bad weather up here, you’ll never go to church, school or work.

Have I ever had a White Christmas? Yes, and it was half magical and half not-so-much.

At age 24, I visited my girlfriend and her parents in Westchester County, New York, an area very similar to where I’m staying this year in Connecticut—hilly, rocky, rural, woodsy, no leaves on the trees, magnificent homes, a beautiful Currier and Ives setting. On Christmas morning, we ice-skated on the pond near her house. A fairy tale. Perfection.

Then, Christmas afternoon, it was time to leave fantasyland. Her dad was to drive us to the airport in New York City where my girlfriend and I were to catch a plane back to the Carolinas. I was in charge of a Young Life Camp beginning the next day, December 26. As we drove into the city, the snow was furious. After driving for a while, her dad asked which airport we were using. Turns out, he was taking us in the wrong direction to the wrong airport, and he was not a happy father-of-the-girlfriend. He had to backtrack to get us to LaGuardia. After he dropped us off, we discovered all planes had been grounded. Fourteen hours later, we managed to secure seats on a jet leaving LaGuardia. We arrived in plenty of time for our camping experience.

Though guilt comes easily to me, I never felt the trip to the wrong airport was my responsibility. He was the New Yorker. I kinda think it would have been smart of him to ask “Which airport?” when we left his house. Enchanting morning. The afternoon was less charming.

I’m pleased to say that relationship never worked out. I’d already met Sally Craig, and the next year, she applied her own charms and we married on December 22, 1972.   On Thursday of this week, she’ll fly into Connecticut for our anniversary. She’ll stay through Christmas. Snow or no snow? Who cares? I’ll have my love to keep me warm.

Categories: Family, Holiday, Humor, Travel | 3 Comments

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