Alright, we’ve been really busy on the farm lately – we’ve already baled hay, gotten several more fields cleared and planted, we’ve had almost fifty calves born this year and we’ve brought up two bulls from Texas and sold our Penn State, Jesse James Angus bull to our neighbor. We have three calves in our side pasture that we’re babying along, and one that was born with a birth defect where the bottom of his nose isn’t formed and he doesn’t exactly have nostrils. He’s a little odd-looking and we were seriously concerned about whether he would make it, but he figured out how to suck, despite his oddly shaped face, his mom is super patient and the girls named him “Augie” since they’d just watched Wonder a couple of days before  he was born.

I could tell you a farm story, but I’ve been feeling a little homesick lately and I thought I would talk about “puzzle time” which I had promised to do over a year ago when someone asked me how I write people’s emotions when I haven’t experienced what they’ve gone through.

I’m going to change a few details and use different names. This lady is a dear friend of mine and I know if her story can be an encouragement to even one person, she will happily share, but I want to protect her children.

Goodness, it’s been ten years ago now, but I played the piano in church, and was on my way back to my seat when a lady with a small child walked into church.

Watson typically stays in the back…I know, it’s sad that churches need protection today, but that’s his job. At any rate, he’s not comfortable going after this lady, and since he didn’t recognize her, he figured she’d need directions to the nursery. So he motions to me and I walk by my kids in their pew and go straight out the door after this lady.

We chat for a bit – I’m terrible at small talk. I show her where the nursery is, tell her I trust the nursery workers and I go back to the sanctuary.

She comes again the next week, only she has two kids with her, and the week after and the week after that. We find out her name. Let’s call her Maria.

Watson and I teach junior church and I find out that she has five children. We talk to her after church. Eventually we find out that her husband, an assistant pastor of a church less than an hour south of us, left her and her five small children for a woman who worked in his store.

We invite her to lunch. She brings all five of her kids. At the time we had several men from Chiapas, Mexico who ate every meal with us as well. They are astonished at the whiteness of her blond headed children. We laugh, because the men stare. They’ve never seen such white skin before. Her children – the oldest is eight, the youngest not yet one – are well behaved.

Because it is so far to her house, they stay for the afternoon. My girls take her kids outside, while my boys finish up the garage work that hadn’t gotten done the day before. Sunday evening is when most of the drivers leave, and the trucks need to be finished. 

Maria and I go into our living room and sit down. We have two full-size couches and they sit facing each other. I sit on one, she sits on the other and we kind of stare at each other.

I think I mentioned I’m terrible at small talk, and I have a lot of trouble trying to keep a conversation going. I’m curious about her, but don’t want to be nosy. It’s awkward. To say the least.

After an hour or so, my oldest son comes in for a drink and comes into the room, lying down on the couch with his head in my lap. He’s fifteen. He’s outgoing and personable and he chats with Maria. I’m relieved all I have to do is sit there and listen and disappointed when he leaves.

My second son, quieter, comes in and does the same thing – lies down on the couch with his head in my lap. He talks to me and I include Maria in our conversation, explaining what we’re talking about. He’s thirteen.

After he leaves, Maria looks at me and says, “I have never seen teenaged boys who act like yours – like they actually like you. And they’re respectful. That’s the kind of relationship I want with my boys when they’re older. I would really love for my kids to spend more time here.”

I invite her to come for Sunday dinner next week. She accepts and we have some more awkward time until the kids come in to get ready for church.

I’m not sure Maria has ever seen her children as dirty as they were that afternoon. She spent a lot of time in the bathroom trying to get them clean. 

As we’re walking out, I say, “Is there anything in particular you’d like to do next week?” I’m kind of desperate. I love that we can have her and that her kids are having a good time and that my boys seem to be a good influence on them, but the idea of trying to make small talk for six hours the next Sunday afternoon has me panicked. 

“That puzzle has been sitting there this whole time and it’s all I could do not to go over and start putting pieces in.”

Bingo. I know I’m grinning. “That’s great! We’ll put puzzle together next Sunday afternoon.” I love doing puzzles, and I often had one sitting out that I’d work on for a few minutes here and there.

So that’s what we did. But it was hard, because her little guys didn’t get an afternoon nap, then they fussed in evening church. 

In the meantime, she was having a really hard time in her marriage situation. Her husband had told her he didn’t want her, that he couldn’t stand the sight of her, that she was his biggest mistake and all the other things that men say in situations like that. But, he hadn’t moved out of their house. She was cooking for him, washing his clothes, and praying that he would break up with the other woman and not destroy their family.

Then he moved out and moved in with his girlfriend.

Maria cried. Her children cried. Her husband missed one of his kid’s birthdays, Maria’s birthday, then they didn’t hear anything from him on Christmas, he wouldn’t answer her calls or texts, Maria didn’t even know if he was alive. We gave her money, my husband fixed her roof, and I sat across the puzzle table from her and asked, “What can I do?”

Maria said, “I’m busy during the week – with school and that routine – but on Friday, the weekend looks so long and hopeless…”

So I said, “You have a standing invitation to come to my house on Fridays. The trucks come in, your kids will love seeing all the action at the garage, we’ll have supper, we’ll put puzzle together and talk.”

That’s what we did. Every Friday night for years, Maria picked her school age kids up after school and brought her children to my house, usually staying until Watson insisted it was bedtime – often eleven or midnight. I’m not much good after nine or so, and her kids often fell asleep, but it gave Maria something to look forward to, rather than dreading the weekend that she would spend alone with her children.

We ate small dill pickles and ranch dressing, had pizza, let the kids have picnics outside, she made me eggplant parmesan, (and I will love her forever), we drank soda, ate brownies and donut holes, talked, laughed, cried, stalked her husband to try to find out where he was living with his girlfriend, went to youth conferences together, and bought an embarrassingly large amount of puzzles. We’d put one 1000 piece puzzle together every Friday night, or two or three 500 piece puzzles. 

We became quite good at puzzles – hopefully that’s not bragging, lol – and talked about a lot of things. I learned so much from her. She would have forgiven her husband at any point and taken him back. She didn’t want to. But the Bible says “forgive” and her heart was always toward whatever God wanted her to do. 

She confided that one of her children had an especially hard time. He would wake up in the night screaming for his father. Crying inconsolably. Her already broken heart ached for her son, but she couldn’t fix it and couldn’t do anything other than hold him while he asked her why his daddy wouldn’t come home. Why his daddy didn’t love him anymore. Why daddy didn’t live there anymore. And would mommy please ask daddy to come back home?

Such innocence. The solution was so simple to his little mind and so hard to understand why. 

One of her other children blamed her and said if she weren’t such a bad person, daddy wouldn’t have left. Goodness, I can still feel the pain of that statement.

One of her kids has anger issues, one hates their father. 

Everything Maria did was with the absolute best for her children in mind. I watched her struggle. Listened to things you all have probably heard, and maybe even experienced yourself. Things no one should ever have to live through. Things I couldn’t help her with, other than to provide a listening ear and a safe and fun place for her and her children on Friday nights.

I often wondered why God allowed this to happen to her – she’d already lost her mother to cancer as a teen. And I prayed daily – sometimes multiple times – that her husband would go back to his family. 

He never did.

Her faith as she trusted God to provide, her tears as she endured the pain of her children and the abuse of her husband – who eventually demanded to see his kids – her graciousness as she refused to badmouth her husband in front of her children (it was YEARS before her kids knew he left because he had a girlfriend) her unwavering faith in a God who sometimes seemed very far away and silent.  She was such an example and inspiration to me. 

We’ve never been picky about our house and five kids can make a pretty big mess in eight hours. Julia would help me clean up after they left. I suppose there were times where she resented that. I suppose there were also times when the kids got in the way at the garage. And I suppose there were times when I could have done something else on Friday night.

But the lessons my children learned – not just about hospitality, but about the pain of divorce and the hurt selfishness and living for yourself can cause. They saw choices have consequences and that marriage isn’t easy and that there are hurting people all around us and if we have something to share – time, food, and home and family – why wouldn’t we? 

Because of Maria’s heartache, and because we were willing to open our home, God blessed me with a beautiful friendship. I moved away from Marie when we moved to Virginia, but she’s still one of my best friends – that’s more of the beauty that God made from her ashes. 

It’s funny, but since I moved to Virginia, my whole family has only been together for a couple of hours last Thanksgiving. Next week, my family will all be under the same roof for the first time in over a year. I’m really excited. The funny thing is, maybe because of Maria, but we’ve never taken a vacation with just our family. This year we’ll have at least six extra people with us. lol

Julia and I were actually talking about that and she said how nice it would be to go on vacation with JUST our family. Then she said, “But I don’t really want that. Not really. Because it makes you feel good to think that your family can be a blessing to people who don’t have a family of their own.”