Monday, June 10, 2013

The Assignment

by Jim Morud

Chapter Six 

It was easy to feel at home in Nancy Stevenson’s little brown bungalow. Built in the 1920’s, it was tidy and modestly arranged with period-friendly furniture. Its silky cream-colored maple floor and maple wainscoting gave her living room a mellow, homey look. Simple and yet refined, Nancy’s domain matched her demeanor. 

Chopin’s piano composition, Nocturnes, was playing softly on audio-surround when she settled into an overstuffed chair across from Barbara with a creaky wooden fan slowly whirling overhead. Her long-haired cat, Helga, lay curled up like a furry pillow on the sofa. Barbara’s gaze had drifted to two large paintings hanging on a side wall, one showing three children frolicking in ocean waves and the other showing an elderly couple holding hands and walking along the strand at Oregon’s Cannon Beach with its celebrated Haystack Rock rising from the surf in the distance. Both were Nancy’s own works. Her gentle, artful eyes were now resting on Barbara.

“Every painting tells a story,” Nancy stated, noting her fixation.

“Do you know the people you paint?” Barbara asked.

“Most, but not all,” she replied. “But if not, I ask for permission to take their picture for my photo references.”

“So how do you know their stories if you don’t personally know them?” Barbara asked.

“I don’t know their stories – not, that is, as they might tell them,” Nancy replied. “I tell a story as I see it, and my medium for telling it is paint. If you had seen those same people on the beach you probably would have described them differently than I. And you certainly would have painted them differently. But whether you paint a story with words or with colors, you are telling a story in a way that only you can tell it.”

“And what about the color purple?” Barbara asked. “You were about to tell me how you came to like purple.”

“I was leading up to that,” Nancy replied. “There is a story behind that too.” She lifted the hefty notebook from the coffee table, turning and peering at its pages through half-moon reading glasses.

“Here it is,” she announced. “This is the letter that changed my mind about the color purple. But before I show it to you, may I tell you a story?”

“Sure,” Barbara said. She had sat often enough with Nancy to know that she had already weighed what she was about to say.  

Nancy paused, closing her eyes to absorb a shimmering movement – allegro in the music. “I will try to keep this short,” she continued, opening her eyes. “Have I ever told you how different Fred and I were when we first married?”

Barbara shook her head attentively.

“We were just out of Bible school and we were deeply in love,” she resumed. “Suffice it to say that we were more different than we knew. When we came to Elk Creek those differences suddenly popped out in plain view.”

Barbara smiled and nodded with understanding.

“I grew up in Seattle,” Nancy explained. “I was a big-city girl. We lived in a large, red-brick house on Queen Anne Hill with a splendid view of Puget Sound. My father was a prominent corporate tax attorney. My whole extended family was socially-connected. We were high-church, but I had never heard the gospel until as a girl I attended a Youth for Christ rally with none other than Billy Graham speaking. That’s when I welcomed Christ into my heart. From that point on, Jesus was very real and personal to me. The most evident difference He made in me was my turn from utter self-absorption to being other-oriented. I used to throw some nasty tantrums when I didn’t get my way.”

Barbara flashed a smile as she pictured Nancy throwing a tantrum. Its sheer absurdity struck her as comical. 

“But the more I responded to the Lord’s way with me the more I wanted to know Him,” she continued. “My parents appreciated the changes in my behavior, but they didn’t really understand the reason, and so I became the family rebel when I insisted on going to Bible College in Portland rather than going to the all-women’s college that my mother and my two sisters had attended on the East Coast. Mother was aghast at my educational preference, but surprisingly, my father stood up to her. More importantly to me, in doing so, he was also standing up for me. This was a major miracle in my life and probably in his too.

“Fred, on the other hand, came from a broken home. He grew up in a small timber town called Coquille near the southern Oregon coast. His father was a mill worker and an alcoholic. Fred was hastening along in his father’s footsteps when he encountered Jesus. His life changed dramatically.

“Shortly afterward, Fred came to the college. He was a year behind me in school but four years older than I in age. I had never personally met a man so vibrant in his love for the Lord. He was daring and outgoing and he took the campus by storm. He had the same kind of charisma and zeal that I had seen in Billy Graham. He rallied other students to join him in reaching out to strangers on the streets and bums on skid road. I admired Fred from a safe distance, but I was shy and self-conscious. I avoided the bandwagon because I was afraid my fear of talking openly about the Lord would expose me as a real phony.”

That admission brought another smile to Barbara’s face. It was a laughable thought to her. Nancy Stevenson, a phony – nothing could have been further from the truth in her estimation.

Nancy paused, calmly taking in another shining moment in the music – adagio – which had now slowed to an easy gait, and then she went on. “One Saturday evening my friend, Charlene, coaxed me into going along with the band to downtown Portland. I had heard all kinds of interesting stories of people on the streets accepting the Lord and I wanted to see it firsthand, but with emphasis on seeing it. I only wanted to watch.”

Nancy laughed out loud. For such a soft-spoken person, her laughter was bubbly. “Oh my, was I in for a night! We assembled in a city park and Fred told us to pair up, guy-girl. At first I felt annoyed with him for ordering us around like that. I wanted to stay with Charlene. But after everybody had paired up I felt like the wallflower that nobody had asked to dance. I was the last one standing with Fred after everyone else had gone away. Then he looked at me so sweetly and he asked me, “May I have the pleasure of your company this evening?”

“Ahh!” Barbara cooed. “He was such a kind man.”

“Yes, I thought so too,” Nancy agreed, her green eyes sparkling. “But we hadn’t even taken two steps when we heard a loud scream coming from a corner of the park. A man then dashed out of the darkness and bolted across the street, and we kept hearing a horrible moaning coming from behind the shrubs. I was so scared I wanted to run the other way. But Fred ran to see what was happening. I was afraid to stay there alone, so I ran after him.

“It was such an awful sight. An old man lay on the ground bleeding. His clothes were rumpled and soiled and he looked to me like a wino. But Fred knelt down right beside him. He was shouting at the top of his lungs for help. Meanwhile he pulled open the man’s shirt. Blood was gushing out of a deep slash in his abdomen. Fred pulled off his own shirt and pressed it against his wound. He kept praying and pleading, ‘Don’t die, sir! Jesus is with you! Please don’t die!’ I was crying and praying frantically too.”

Nancy’s eyes were watery and her voice was slightly cracking. Barbara moved beside her and gently squeezed her. Helga jumped off the sofa.

Collecting her composure, Nancy continued, “His eyes were just bulging with fear. I’d never seen such a terrified look on anyone’s face. Fred just held him in his arms as if he were a small child. His blood was drenching Fred’s clothes, but Fred kept urging him to cry out to Jesus. The man was getting weaker and weaker, but I heard him say it, ‘Jesus, please save me!’ It was only a whisper, but right then I saw a peacefulness wash over his face. A police car then rolled up, followed by an ambulance.”

Nancy looked at Barbara and took a deep breath, fanning her face with her hands. “I’ll be all right,” she said. “I’m sorry this is taking so long.”

Nancy, I’m listening,” Barbara assured her, grasping her hands. “I want to know about this.”

“Well,” Nancy continued, “Fred and I ran to a department store and he bought a new shirt and trousers, and then we drove to the hospital. But we were too late. The knife had sliced his liver and had cut an artery. He had lost too much blood and he died before we got there.

“Fred later found out that his name was Marvin Neffendorf and he had been staying in a ramshackle apartment. He didn’t have a living relative. He was also a World War II army veteran. He had landed at Normandy during D-Day. I think he was a forgotten war hero, and he nearly died alone.”

She let that thought linger before continuing. “Fred made arrangements with the Veterans Administration to conduct Marvin’s funeral at Willamette National Cemetery on Mt. Scott. He had never led a funeral service before then. Besides two army soldiers, we were the only people at the gravesite. It was cold and windy and it was raining sideways up on that hillside. We sang Amazing Grace and Fred read the Twenty-third Psalm and he preached a beautiful little sermon to me. One soldier presented us with an American flag, thinking we were family, and the other played Taps. The soldiers left and then Fred and I stood there getting all sopping wet and crying for Marvin, a man we never even knew. And that’s when I knew I would go anywhere with Fred.”



Nancy sniffled and blew her nose into a kerchief. “At least that’s what I was thinking before we got to Elk Creek,” she chuckled.

Andante – Chopin was strolling right along.

“To Fred, Elk Creek was like coming home again,” Nancy went on. “It reminded him of his home town. In those days, the saw mill was running day and night and Fred just loved the smell of sawdust in the damp air. I remember the morning we arrived in Elk Creek. When he got out of the car Fred took in a deep breath and he had this great big delectable smile on his face. He told me it reminded him of how a clean, wet dog smells after a bath. I couldn’t believe my ears.

“To me, the whole town smelled nauseous and his dog analogy sounded disgusting. I told him so. He looked jolted when I said it. That was my first clue that we held some widely-divergent opinions.”

Barbara found it hard to picture Nancy telling anyone so. To her, she was the embodiment of grace – with her every hair and every thought and every word always in its proper place. She wondered if Nancy was even capable of having an argument, certainly not starting one. But she liked what she was hearing, and her eyes widened with interest.

“I detected a tinge of hurt in his eyes and he stared at me so seriously,” Nancy continued. “He told me sawdust also smells like jobs for supporting families and schools and churches and whole communities. Fred was very protective of his roots, as I found out, and he drew the line right there.”

Barbara felt a slight letdown upon hearing the earnest outcome of that exchange, but she held her interest. “So how did you two wind up at Elk Creek?” she asked.

“The short answer is Fred needed a job,” Nancy replied. “We had just learned that I was pregnant, which explains why I felt so nauseated. Fred felt we couldn’t afford to wait for a church to call him. He heard about a job-opening at the mill in Elk Creek, and because he had done mill work in Coquille, he knew he could earn a living.

“We got there just before church on a Sunday morning and we decided to go to the first church we saw. As you may know, there are only two churches to choose from in Elk Creek. It so happened that the Community Church was in between pastors and  they were planning to have a ‘sharing’ service that morning. But Fred stood up and offered to preach. He was always ready to preach. The people were cheered by his message and before we knew what was happening we were getting a grand tour of the parsonage.”

“Viola at your service?” Barbara asked with a lilt in her voice.

Nancy giggled, nodding. “The weather was just awful that morning and  the parsonage looked drab, almost gray. I did not feel inspired to live there. Viola gave us a long history of every room in the house. To prove how well-built it was, she placed a golf ball on the floor and she was proud to point out how it didn’t budge from its spot.”

“Nor has Viola budged from that demonstration,” Barbara interrupted.

Nancy snickered, and then she caught herself. “I shouldn’t laugh,” she said. “Viola really means well. I came to deeply love and admire her. I must tell you more about her, but first I’ll show you what I found out about that purple house.”

The heavy notebook was lying open on her lap and Nocturnes was now swinging slowly – lento – like the fan whirling overhead. “Here,” she said, handing the book to Barbara. “I think you should read this yourself."

Barbara began reading silently while Nancy stepped to the back door and let Helga outside.

June 13, 1967
Pastor Charles Faubion

To our beloved family at Elk Creek:

     Jeanette and I realize that during our three years of ministry among you we could not give to you as much you have given to us. We hope you do not feel short-changed by us, but as you all know, we really needed your help. You gave to us when we had nothing but our tears to offer you in return. Losing our only child, Patty, was and still is the most painful episode of our lives. Without your love and support it might have been unbearable. 
     I have been asked to write this letter for posterity’s sake, as previous pastors at Elk Creek have done before me. With respect to the godly men who have laid the foundation of this fellowship, I feel like a small boy standing on the shoulders of giants. Even so, to future pastors of this church, I offer you our story:
     Patty was five years old when she died last year from leukemia. She first showed signs of her sickness shortly after we had come to Elk Creek two years earlier. When tests confirmed that she had cancer, we were devastated. We began taking her to the Children’s Hospital in Portland for treatments, which sometimes meant weeklong stays. Most of the traveling and overnight stays fell on Jeanette. We took turns, but my second job at the mill kept me from going as often as I wanted to go. It was hard on all three of us.
     That is when the saints at Elk Creek took turns loving us. It would take a whole book to tell all that everyone did for us, so I will give only a sampling in this letter.
     Harley Phipps is in charge of payroll and scheduling at the mill. Although I had no seniority, he let Jack Stone switch shifts with me. I went to working day shift and Jack went to working swing shift. That was better for me and my family. On days when I had to go with Jeanette and Patty to Portland, Jack worked both shifts and he worked it out with Harley for me to get paid for his working my shift. 
     We were served meals almost daily for nearly two years, not only by our church members but also from strangers and people in the area who don’t go to church at all. Somebody had secretly coordinated all of that help, and we know who you are, Alma Fitzgerald. I am convinced that the ladies of Elk Creek are the best cooks in Polk County.
     Gilbert Hawkins kept us supplied with firewood, split and stacked, for the winter.
     There were days when a hug from Claudette Marley was all we needed to make it. Patty loved Claudette’s hugs. She used to say it felt as if Jesus were hugging her when Claudette hugged her. I felt the same way.
     Despite her illness, Patty was a bright and happy child. She had learned to read simple books by age four. Her favorite book was Mr. Pine’s Purple House.

Barbara looked up from the page smiling. She had read that book when she was a little girl. It was one of her favorites also.

     Purple was Patty’s favorite color. She loved purple dresses and purple hats and she even had a purple teddy bear. Her bedroom was decorated all in purple. Mr. Pine lived in a neighborhood where all of the houses were painted white. Because they all looked alike, he couldn’t remember which house was his, so he painted his house purple. The parsonage was all white, just like Mr. Pine’s neighborhood. It had never been any color but white, and that was not likely to change. But Patty prayed out loud in church one day that God would let her live in a purple house like Mr. Pine’s.  
     Toward the end of her fight, Patty spent longer and more frequent periods in the hospital. After one particularly hard stay we got the surprise of our lives one day when we came home, especially Patty. You guessed it. The parsonage had been painted purple! Patty was so delighted that she started squealing and jumping up and down in her purple pajamas, flapping her hands the way little girls do when they are too happy to stand still. Jeanette and I just stood there crying for sheer joy.
     I know that Hank and Viola Chalmers take seriously their stewardship of the parsonage, and they had kept it painted white for good reason, but they seemed to have found a better reason for painting it purple. They painted it purple for the same reason that they had built it – to honor God and to love people.
     The following Sunday morning everybody came to church wearing something purple – hats, dresses, blouses, shirts and socks. Harley wore a purple bowtie. Patty started squealing and jumping again when she saw everyone dressed in purple and Jeanette and I couldn’t hold back our tears. I really lost it when Hank hung his Purple Heart and ribbon around Patty’s neck. Do you know how good it makes you feel to see other people loving your child like this?
     We may never feel so loved again as this, dear friends, but we do want to love others in our future assignments as we have been loved by you during our time in Elk Creek.

Thanking God for you in all our prayers,

Pastor Charles and Jeanette Faubion


Nocturnes had come to its ending and the rickety fan was swirling warm air around the room when Nancy returned. The notebook lay open on Barbara’s lap and she was sitting quietly, looking pensive.

“So the story inspired you to live there,” Barbara said softly.

“In all honesty, at first it was simple necessity that inspired me to live there,” Nancy replied. “You see, I had had the idea that when Fred came to Jesus, he was destined to move up in the world, not to go back to his humble beginnings. And Elk Creek wasn’t exactly Queen Anne Hill. My two sisters had each married into affluence, much to my mother’s delight. She carefully avoided mentioning my whereabouts to her friends. But God had other plans for me.

“So there I was, pregnant for the first time, far removed from my life and family in Seattle, and living in a dreary little town by no choice of my own. And then one rainy day – exactly which one, I can’t remember, because almost every day was rainy – I was bored, and so I sat flipping through this notebook and I came across Patty’s story. After reading it, it dawned on me that, even if I hadn’t chosen to live there, I did have a choice about how I would live there. I could tell my own story.”

The cat was at the door again, meowing to get back into the house. “Excuse me,” Nancy said, rising. “Oh, it’s gotten so warm in here. Can I pour you some iced tea?”

“Sure, I’d love some,” Barbara said, placing the notebook on the coffee table. Helga ran in and sprang onto the sofa.

“Painting was my only getaway,” Nancy called from the kitchen. “I’ve always loved to paint and I wished I had more time for it. Well, I had lots of free time after coming to Elk Creek. So one rainy day I decided to paint the parsonage.”

“You did?” Barbara’s eyes widened.

“I meant on canvass,” Nancy laughed. “I’m not that ambitious.”

“What color did you paint it?” Barbara inquired.

“Just a minute,” she replied. “I’ll show you.”

Nancy walked into her studio – an enclosed window-wrapped porch – and she gathered four small paintings. She returned and set all four on two easels for Barbara to see. One painting showed the parsonage painted yellow like a daffodil. Another depicted it in copper red. A third had it in a soft pastel green. And the fourth was painted with a gentle lilac-purple. Each painting appeared to have been done in spring. Irises and lilies were in bloom beside the porch, and each rendering made the parsonage look gorgeously quaint, like a vacation cottage for a queen.

“What a difference a splash of paint can make!” Barbara marveled.

“Yes it can,” Nancy agreed. “Now, look at each painting and give me one reason why you would choose to live in each house. Don’t tell me why you wouldn’t want to live there. Tell me why you would want to live there. I asked myself the same question after I had painted each of them.”

Barbara stood and studied the paintings. “Okay,” she said. “I would pick the yellow one because it reminds me of a sunny day, and I’d probably forget what that looks like if I were living in Elk Creek.”

Nancy smiled. “That is quite true.”

She pointed at the green parsonage. “I like this one because it is so normal-looking and it blends well with its natural surroundings.”

“And why is looking normal important to you?” Nancy probed.

“I’ve never liked standing out in any way,” she replied. “It’s why I liked living in our housing association. Our house, the neighbor’s house and everyone else’s house look basically the same – only they are painted in different shades of beige. I felt comfortably anonymous living there.”

“I see,” Nancy said, lifting an eyebrow. “And were you allowed to choose the color of your house?”

“No, just different shades of beige,” she replied.

“So you didn’t really have a choice?” Nancy inquired.

“No, I chose not to have a choice,” Barbara said. She sensed that Nancy was going somewhere with her line of questioning.

“Okay,” Nancy continued, “and what about the red house?”

“I would choose this one just to be rebellious,” Barbara admitted. “I’d paint it red just to tweak Viola and her rules.”

“What rules?” Nancy probed.

“When she was showing us through the house she made a big point of it: ‘There’s only one rule!’” Barbara quoted.

“How many rules?” Nancy asked.

“One…,” and Barbara’s sentence trailed off.

“Did she say anything about the color of the house?” Nancy asked,

Barbara paused before speaking. “You mean there is no rule for the color of the house?”

“Not that I can remember,” Nancy said. “I can only remember one rule.”

“No more holes in the walls,” Barbara uttered.

“Did Viola tell you why she doesn’t want any more holes in the walls?” Nancy asked.

“She said she doesn’t want them to look like Swiss cheese,” Barbara answered.

“I suppose she also boasted about how Hank had built the parsonage single-handedly,” Nancy added.

“Yes, with some help from herself,” Barbara said.

“Well, he literally did build it single-handedly!” Nancy exclaimed. “You see, Hank had only one arm – his left arm. He lost his right arm during the war. That’s how he got his Purple Heart. Before the war he was a carpenter, and he was right-handed!

“Hank and Viola were engaged to be married before he went off to war. She came from a poor family of fourteen children. Hank promised to build her a home after he returned. When he came back without his arm, it meant he had lost his means of making a living. She kept her promise to marry him, and he vowed to build her a house. But to do so, he had to teach his left hand to do what his right hand had done, although he never could saw or hammer or drill fast enough to make a living at it.

“After they moved to Oregon Hank went back to dairy farming as his father had done. He never liked it, but he always worked hard at it. And he kept his promise to Viola. He built her a home, but with her help. You see, she recognized that he had lost more than his arm in the war – when he lost the skill of his right hand he lost a piece of his manhood.”

“She told me she did the heavy lifting for him,” Barbara added.

“Yes, she did. But she didn’t make him feel the lesser for it. More than that,” Nancy added, “she was his right arm. Viola stood by Hank.

“The funny thing is that you couldn’t have found an odder-looking couple than Hank and Viola. Hank was thin and wiry and he stood about nose-high to her. But I think she made him feel taller than he looked. They really loved each other. And, oh, how Viola grieved when she lost her Hank. He got kicked in the head by a cow he was milking and he died a few days later. Forty years have gone by since then and she still honors him by preserving his handiwork. That’s why she won’t allow any more holes in those beautiful wooden walls.”

Barbara took the painting of the purple parsonage from the easel and held it in her hands. With the fan still creaking overhead, she quietly studied it.

“Why would you choose to live in that one?” Nancy softly inquired.

Barbara kept her silence for a few moments. “Patty’s story,” she finally answered. “She painted her own story there. Hank and Viola painted theirs. And you painted yours. I suppose I’ll paint mine too.”


2 comments:

Dave said...

Wow Jim. You have taken God's gift of writing and grown it 100-fold. This story is so heart-warming and convicting at the same time. I have been hanging on every word, and can't wait for the next chapter.

Thank you.
Dave McGowan

Ira P. Swanson said...

Man Jim, what a great story! I been crying and laughing and learning in every chapter. I feel like part of the story or the stories within the story. Thank you my friend for a great time.

Your friend,

Ira P. Swanson