Tag Archives: Kingston PA

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: History, Breakfast and Bill Glass

we-the-peopleMy grandfather taught me to love history. Though he never went to college, Harry Jakes was an educated man. His education was garnered through the books he read, books about history, chiefly American history. He knew most of the presidents by heart. More importantly, he knew what they did and how ideally the country should function, its bicameral representative democracy, its three balanced branches of government, the fair and equitable distribution of power—a nonpareil essentially lost nowadays as we have a largely dysfunctional congress, increasing executive overreach, and politicized Supreme Court appointments. Yet Harry knew how the country had struggled to preserve its constitutional integrity, and when, and why.

And thus, beyond mere civics, that self-same grandfather taught me to love history. Yet for all his knowledge of history, Harry either did not have the capacity or desire to explain it fully—he rarely talked about “history” per se and indeed was generally reticent about what he was reading, though occasionally he would mention an important historical person, offering a slapdash and condensed biography. And that is precisely what I plan to do now. Yet I will not speak about American history or even my favorite, Roman history, but I will offer one of those random biographies as Harry used to do, in this case about Bill Glass. And there is a reason I will do so.


William Sheppeard Glass, who goes by Bill, a former football player and not a “historical figure” per se, is someone whose story informed my grandfather’s outlook on life. Born in 1935, Bill Glass grew up in Texas, went to Baylor University, and then played defensive lineman for the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns, retiring from the pros in 1968.[1] In college Mr. Glass was a consensus all-American. As a pro, he proved worthy of the pro-bowl, and later authored or coauthored two books, an inspirational memoir entitled Get in the Game and another didactic work entitled Stand Tall and Straight, the latter of which is meant to foster character formation in young men. After his career ended, he attended Southwestern Seminary and would go on to learn about ministry from no less a preacher than Billy Graham. In 1969 Mr. Glass founded Bill Glass Ministries, whose primary thrust is to help emotionally and spiritually those who are in prison, though the ministry also touches those outside prison walls.[2]

Now what does this have to do with Harry’s penchant for history? For what reason do I quixotically offer this biography of a defensive lineman? No president, no congressman, he. It is because incumbent upon Harry’s general reticence about history was an equal reticence about interfering in the way Elaine Jakes was bringing me up. Elaine, you may know from reading the Curious Autobiography, was more or less a lightly practicing Jew throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. 9781480814738_COVER.inddAnd thus, I suspect, Harry felt it might be a breach of etiquette to encourage too strenuously his grandson to go to church, even though Elaine took me to synagogue but rarely, for she herself did not go regularly. Yet, Harry reasoned, if he gave me a record made by a football player speaking about his life—that football player was Bill Glass—then maybe I would listen. Maybe I would connect some dots that he thought, not without reason, I was not already connecting in my life. He was, and rightly so, deeply worried about my moral formation outside of church or, in my case, synagogue. And thus, Harry also thought, I suspect, that perhaps Bill Glass could make a lasting impression on me. Maybe I would even read Stand Tall and Straight, which I suspect he would have bought me for Christmas/Hanukkah if I had liked the recording of Glass speaking on the album that he had insisted I listen to.

Yet, though I was enamored of sports and especially loved football, by 1970 or so, when this was all happening, I had no interest in retired players—they were “old,” they were no longer playing, so I didn’t pay close attention to Mr. Glass’ impassioned appeal to turn to God, to give one’s life to Christ—though I don’t recall the specifics, I do recall the gist of the record. Had I listened, no doubt Harry would have been right to infer that I would have turned my life around—or rather God would have—and been on a better path, emotionally, morally, and spiritually. But that did not happen, not then.bill-glass-on-stadium

Now I forgot about all this for a long time. I forgot about it until a year or two ago when I was biking near the now demolished Floyd Casey Stadium in Beverly Hills, Texas, where the Baylor Bears used to play. On the side of that stadium was a larger than life-size portrait of none other than Bill Glass. I stopped my bike and looked at the poster and I said to myself, “I recall that guy. But how do I know him?” And then, as I resumed my bike journey it came back to me—history, my own history, and that of Harry Jakes as well. The awkward moment when he asked me to listen to the recording of Bill Glass.

And I would have forgotten about that, too, perhaps, but history doesn’t go away and often has a way of coming full circle. Later this week there is a fundraising breakfast for a ministry to the poor in Texas known as Mission Waco/Mission World. That breakfast was to feature Bill Glass himself as the chief speaker—until a week ago, when it was reported that Mr. Glass, now aged 81, has fallen ill and won’t be able to keep his speaking engagement. Needless to say, as a ticketholder to that breakfast, I am disappointed; more importantly, I sincerely wish him a swift recovery. I had hoped to tell him in person what a difference, albeit not at the time but over the course of time in my own personal history, that record album had made.

And thus I write this, on the one hand, for him: to let him know how his own history, many years ago, touched me, for though the message did not take root then, it would later. Within a few years of that moment, his words would come back to me. This time they came afresh in written form in St. Peter’s first epistle, spoken through the mouth of another person with Glass-like compassion—she would later become my wife—in Rome, Italy, a long way from Harry’s home in Kingston, Pennsylvania, a long way from Floyd Casey Stadium in Texas or the stadiums of Detroit or Cleveland. And I write this, on the other hand, for all of us, to remind us that history, whether our own, our country’s or simply that of a single individual, can have bearing on the present—redemptive bearing—and that, though we may not see figures of the past with our eyes, if we can recognize them in our minds and our spirits, their words and their lives truly will not lose meaning. Though I may never get to meet him, Bill Glass’ words resound and will continue to resound in my mind. I heard them but once, warbling on a wind-up Victrola nearly a half century ago.


[1] http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/G/GlasBi00.htm.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Glass.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman, “Recipes for Life: Paradise”

The title of this blog is misleading. It is not meant to be. It is, actually, meant to be leading, for it is the first in the series of blogs on recipes. Now that, too, is misleading. This series—about a month’s worth— will not simply present a recipe and a tasteful discussion of it, followed by another recipe the next week, and so on. Rather these recipes are going to be stories that happen to involve recipes. For those of you who have read the Curious Autobiography, you know already that from time to time the narrator, Elaine Jakes, introduces a discussion of an item of food in some detail, often offering at least partial cooking instructions. She is eager to share with her reader not simply her recollection of the prepared food but her account of how that food affected an event in her past.

Mickey Musgrove
Mickey Musgrove

The story we will considered today is that of the mildly mendacious mender of musical instruments, Mickey Musgrove, who that day dined at the Jakes home at 414 Rutter Avenue, Kingston, Pa; the second was the guest of honor—though he would have insisted that Mickey was that honored guest—the good Reverend Hugh Griffith, whom, if you have been reading these blogs, you have met in a previous iteration.[1]

Rev. Griffith
Rev. Hugh Griffith

On that evening, the first Saturday evening of December in 1941, Reverend Griffith was no longer the young, robust and enthusiastic evangelist who had served in a Welsh Presbyterian parish in Scranton before taking the call at Gaylord Avenue Welsh Calvinistic Presbyterian (and therefore tautological) Church in Plymouth, Pennsylvania. Rather, he was about 70—if not quite old by modern standards—somewhat frail, and wiser, still preserving enthusiasm, yet tempered by wisdom. And that evening this last quality was in full sail. His wisdom, and his very presence on that occasion, is highlighted and explained by the person who sat across from him at table, Mickey Musgrove.

Wyoming Valley
Wyoming Valley

No one had seen Mickey Musgrove in the Wyoming Valley for thirty years until Blanche ran across him when she was shopping in Wilkes-Barre’s Boston Store just after Thanksgiving but a week or so before the evening in question. In the old days, Mickey had been known for his unique capacity to repair musical instruments, specifically violins. Of Blanche and Harry Jakes, whose home he was then visiting for dinner with the good Reverend Griffith, he was sempeternally beloved, in no small part for his having often repaired the violin of Blanche’s father, David Evans, who had once penned award-winning Welsh hymns with Reverend Griffith. So there was a connection, if an indirect one, of vicar and vagrant alike. But the real reason Blanche had invited Mickey for dinner was, of course, because she was worried about him and always had been, even before he left the Wyoming Valley. She had heard rumors, she had said prayers, and she had always kept a place for her father’s old, somewhat strange friend in her heart.

Harry and Blanche Jakes
Harry and Blanche Jakes

“So, tell us about what you’ve been up to these past several years,” said the ever-and-always-interested-in-someone-else reverend.

“Traveling, rambling about at first, until I got to paradise.”

“Paradise?” the reverend queried. “What ever do you mean?”

“Well,” Mickey said, pausing and stroking his plenteous beard, “It all began when I left the Valley”—by this he meant, of course, the Wyoming Valley—“by train for Chicago. I thought I could find good employ there.”

“But you had work here,” Blanche said, briefly forgetting Mickey Musgrove’s well-known penchant for mendacity. Then, realizing her error and seeking to allow him a way out of her quasi-accusation, she swiftly added, “Didn’t you? Or perhaps I’m wrong.”

“My work was running dry. After your father’s passing, I lost some other clients, and well, it was getting pretty thin, lass.” He always called Blanche lass, for he had worked for her father and remembered her as a child.

Elaine as a young girl with her sister Lee Ann
Elaine as a young girl with her sister Lee Ann

“What’s a lass?” the precocious five-year old Elaine Jakes piped in, swinging her legs in syncopated rhythm over the side of her chair under the table.

“It’s you, a girl,” her father Harry responded, and then added, “Well, in Mother’s case, a lady.”

“Finding no good work there, I went on to San Francisco. I had heard that there were a great deal of violinists in San Francisco. They had just founded a symphony there three years or so earlier. So I moved there and found a good job working for the symphony repairing instruments. I loved the conductor, Mr. Hadley, but I failed to garner as much  work from his successor, Mr. Hertz, even though he had an electric personality and was famously on a Time magazine cover. So I decided to move on.”

three bean saladAt this point some good conversation followed, during and about the meal. The salad, though praised by the Reverend, was nothing flashy, just the three-bean style, the ordinary winter salad as lettuce was not in season. No one dared ask Mickey why he had been away, for there were  rumors of an affair with a woman of color and a child born out of wedlock, and his shame alongside her own. The woman, Shandra Braeburn, who eventually became the apple of his eye, had worked in the men’s clothing department of Fowler, Dick and Walker’s Boston Store in Wilkes-Barre, where Mickey was shopping for a new overcoat. They fell in love, but as racially mixed marriages were not permitted in those days, they could see each other only discreetly. Discretion gave way to a tryst; a tryst to pregnancy, and pregnancy to a baby and, for both of them, disgrace. Shandra found a position as an au pair to the wealthy Flødrødgrød family, new to the area having only freshly arrived from Denmark and with little English. Shandra would teach them and their child good English and they, in return, would give her and her child, Sarah, a good home free of racial prejudice. In their household Shandra was raising her lovely daughter alongside the Flødrødgrød child, Katarina, as if sisters. She did so until the influenza epidemic of 1918, when that savage disease took both Shandra and her child—Mickey Musgrove’s child—away from this life forever.

Yet when Shandra became pregnant, Mickey left the Wyoming Valley quietly, with no forwarding address and thus none of this did Mickey Musgrove know when he returned to the Valley or even when he came to dinner that night. Blanche was not sure if he knew it, but she knew that he needed to know and she knew that, even though Mickey had not been a churchgoer in the old days, the good Reverend Griffith was the one who could and should tell him. Blanche and Harry had explained all this to the reverend, of course, before Mickey arrived at dinner that evening. Yet, to their astonishment, as they were in the process of explaining the affair, they soon realized that the reverend already knew all of the salacious details.

What came next in the conversation, however, was the most shocking thing of the evening, for before Mickey Musgrove would explain what he had meant by paradise—and all were still waiting intently to hear about that, even as the main course of Welsh chicken, leek and prune pie was being served, whose recipe is detailed below—he told everyone why he had come home. “I’ve come back,” he said, “I’ve come home …” he broke off for a moment, as he was tearing up, “to find my Shandra, to find my daughter. Father, forgive me, I have sinned.”

This paternal reference was not to God, but to the Reverend Griffith who properly deduced that Mickey must have been Catholic as a child, for he used the ministerial designation “Father” rather than “Reverend.”

“God forgives the repentant heart, Mickey,” the cleric said comfortingly. “Go on lad, tell your story.”

“What’s a lad?” piped in the precocious Elaine, continuing to swing her legs squirmily.

“The opposite of a lass,” said Elaine’s older-by-seven-years sister Lee Ann, adding, “That means the opposite of you!”

“I thought you were the opposite of me. So you’re a lad.”

“Quiet, child!” Blanche said, restoring order among her daughters. “Now, if you’ve both finished eating, Lee Ann, why don’t you take Elaine upstairs to color?” Both girls were all too glad to escape the boring conversation of the adult world.

Adjourning to the adjacent living room for coffee and dessert, the conversation continued after an appropriately timed pause.

“Shandra and I, well, we were a couple, Father, and we had a child out of wedlock. I know it’s a terrible thing. You see, Father, Shandra’s a negro.”

“God forgives,” the good prelate said, and pointing toward Mickey’s likely Catholic heritage, he added, “He has already forgiven you at the cross. You know, that’s why you often see Jesus depicted on a crucifix, suffering. He suffered for your sins and mine, and took them away. But the sin,” he added thoughtfully, “has nothing to do with the color of her skin, Mickey. Nor with the baby born, for God loves all the little children, indeed all people.”

“Not her color?” Mickey asked.

“No, not Shandra’s color, nor your child’s. Rather, the sin is yours for having relations with her, son”—for he reasoned that if Mickey called him Father, he might make Mickey feel more comfortable if, in the Catholic manner he called him son, even though less than ten years separated them—“when you were not married. And it is society’s fault, too, for telling you that you couldn’t marry her.”

“I wanted to marry her—desperately I did—but I could find no way to do that properly.”

“I know, son, and I understand, and God does, too.”

“Do you absolve me, Father?”

Now here Reverend Griffith was going way out on a limb not open to most protestant ministers when he said, “I do,” but, lest he deviate too far from Reformed thought, he quickly added, “for Jesus did that already on the cross.”

Overall, the evening was not as awkward as it sounded. Blanche’s pineapple upside-down cake was a wonderful cap to a delightful meal. But the most difficult part was to follow, just after Harry cleared the dessert plates.

“That was delicious, the prune, leek, and chicken pie, a delight, the pineapple cake, like paradise,” Mickey said, adding after a chorus of affirmations, “You know, there are pineapples galore in paradise.” And at this point Mickey was clearly about to explain how he left San Francisco for Hawaii, how he had taken a small apartment not by the then already famous Waikiki beach but rather not far from the ship depot at Pearl Harbor, and how the view of the Pacific and the natural beauty of the Diamond Head volcano was indescribable. Yet the reverend broke in right after he mentioned the copious amount of pineapples in paradise.

Diamond Head Volcano, Hawaii
Diamond Head Volcano, Hawaii

“Mickey, I have some bad news for you,” Reverend Griffith said, changing the subject.

“What is it, Father?”

“Shandra and Sarah, your daughter, died just a few years after you left. It was the terrible epidemic, the flu.”

There was a pause, a look of loss and bewilderment on Mickey’s face, and on all their faces. Harry and Blanche were tearing up as the Reverend sat next to Mickey on the couch and put his arm around him.

“Where are they buried, Father? Can I see them? Did they have a proper funeral?”

“I did their funeral, son.”

At this last piece of information Blanche and Harry were flabbergasted. Mickey let his emotions out, sobbing what sounded like, “Father, thank you, Father.” Yet now it did seem that he was praying, rather than addressing the prelate.”

The evening ended with no discussion of paradise, merely with the hope of another. It was clear that though Mickey’s earthly paradise lay beyond San Francisco, to find which he had gone to the end of the earth or at least past the edge of the continent, Mickey was on the verge of discovering a further paradise. The promise of that paradise had been at home all along or, rather, beyond the edge of one’s physical home, just beyond the edge of one’s imagination.

“Will I see you in church tomorrow?” the reverend inquired as they were going down the front steps of 414 Rutter Avenue.

“I’ve not been in a house of God for many a year, Father.”

“But you were in a godly house tonight, Mickey. There’s no difference between a godly house and a house of God,” Reverend Griffith quipped, and then added, “You’d be most welcome.”

“See you tomorrow, Father. It will be a day to be remembered, for come I will.”

That next day would be remembered in more ways than one. It would be remembered for the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, which was in fact the paradise that Mickey Musgrove had failed to mention. He had found paradise, but needed to come home to find family and peace. Had he stayed in his comfort zone, he might have died there. Instead, he came home to a welcoming Welsh leek stew, through which to find life anew.

Blanche Evans Jakes’ Welsh Chicken, Leek and Prune Pie
(handed down by Elaine Lucille Jakes)

Chicken Leek Prune Pie





[1] The view from here.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The View from Here

“Well, yes, thank you, I think I will,” Reverend Griffith responded to the invitation of Elaine Jakes’ mother, Blanche, to come in for some cool, almost iced, Black Current tea, served with homemade water biscuits, and Hen Sir cheese. So it was that after church, the devoted rector was making a few pastoral visitations on that warm, far too humid summer afternoon of the first of August in 1937, nigh upon eighty years ago now. Even though it was a bit outside of his regular rounds further down the Susquehanna River in Plymouth and Larksville, Reverend Griffith came to Kingston, mainly because Blanche and Harry lived there, quite a stretch from Plymouth’s Gaylord Avenue Welsh Calvinistic Presbyterian (and therefore tautological) Church, a house of God with far too long a name.

Harry and Blanche Jakes
Harry and Blanche Jakes

Nevertheless, the good cleric traversed that far distance, specifically to the house of Jemima Jones, where also dwelt Jemima’s niece, Blanche, and her husband, Harry. Jemima had taken in the recently wed couple a decade before, and they were in the process of raising a young family in that fine, but far from fancy duplex there near the intersection of Rutter Avenue and Pierce Street.

“There’s a lot of love in this house,” said the reverend. “You have a fine family, Blanche.”

“Pshaw,” followed by a pause; then she added, “But thank you. Harry is in the backyard. Why don’t you go out and chat with him and I’ll bring the tea and cheese out to you. It’s Black Current tea, Reverend.”

“How rare, hard to find these days. It sounds wonderful, Blanche,” he said making his way onto the narrow back porch.

There sat Harry in a ribbed tank-top tee shirt and shorts in the middle of the yard on a folding chair with his feet in a washbasin-sized bucket of cool water, which he was splashing up on his chest and head just as the reverend descended the back steps. After he welcomed Hugh Griffith with the proper august holy-ringing title he said, “It’s a tiny yard, but I love it. It’s cool here in the shade of the house and the trees, and I come out here to clear my head, to pray.”

As Harry tended to write down his prayers, it is likely that he actually went into the back yard to compose with pencil and paper. I won’t talk about that today, though, as I’m writing about something else, his yard. Harry loved that backyard, and though I suspect, in terms of its comeliness, Reverend Griffith might have failed to see why anyone might love it, no doubt he grasped its importance to Harry as a refuge from the troubles of life, a place where he could go and think—or rather be still—and, as he said, pray. No doubt Reverend Griffith admired the latter—he was, after all, a Presbyterian minister—and he likely knew that for Harry praying started with writing; he knew, too, that writing, reflecting and praying took place in Harry’s backyard on a regular basis. That much anyone who ever knew Harry would have known, for he was gentle and kind. And, as if on his behalf, the tiny yard seemed to divulge as much.


Texas Hill Country
Texas Hill Country
San Antonio
San Antonio

My Italian friends would call even such a postage-stamp-sized backyard as my grandfather had, a giardino. Now this is important not simply because Italians have the unique capacity to make all things sound more beautiful than they really are but because they also have the capacity of pointing out the beauty in something that you might otherwise have overlooked. For example, while most of my American friends from the eastern coast of the country are essentially allergic to Texas, my Italian friends are not. One and all, they love the state, and find great beauty in its prairies, shoreline, Hill Country and, among its cities, San Antonio in particular. Thus, I’m sure that Harry’s Italian friends referred to his tiny yard as his giardino. I’m sure they said, “Your giardino, it is beautiful!”—saying as much in a comely and robust Italian accent, of course.

And they likely said the same of the mimosa in the front yard, a small tree that Blanche adored. And then there were two or three rose bushes that Harry tended dutifully. These entwined a lattice that ran along the side of the house by the carport, next to the door that opened, after five ascending steps, into the kitchen. Next to that rose bush was a heavy, thick, oblong stone about a foot in length, into which Harry had faintly carved “Harry + Blanche,” a lover’s whisper, hand-engraved, time-defying. That rock marked the holy temenos that made their yard, small as it was, a place of beauty and wonder whose paltry amount of flora and fauna was more than enough. It was a giardino.

That’s where Reverend Griffith sat with my future grandparents—for Blanche had joined the men, as Jemima had taken the girls out for a stroll with her sister Elizabeth Ann—drinking iced tea and eating Hen Sir cheese, the Welsh cheese that oddly came to symbolize spiritual renewal in our family. But all of this is, of course, wryly chronicled in The Curious Autobiography. And so they chatted, speaking about topics that the cleric liked, such as God’s sovereignty, mercy and charity, and topics that Harry liked, such as his hope to get a job away from the coal mines, the threat of war in Europe, and how good Hen Sir was with a smidgen of strawberry jam (for Blanche had included that with the homemade biscuits). And how much he appreciated that the reverend now preached sermons in Welsh and English both, as Harry confessed that his Welsh was lacking.

Ocean Grove
Ocean Grove

They also spoke of Ocean Grove, New Jersey, where there was another view altogether, not of a giardino, but of the majestic Atlantic, which will be the topic of another blog.

Bay of Naples
Bay of Naples

So the conversation went. Now I myself have seen some pretty superb views, such as the Bay of Naples, as I peered out from behind a well-placed sphinx, to the view of Baltic Sea from Vogelfluglinie ferry that brings you to incomparable Copenhagen. I’ve walked upon Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, thrown a Frisbee in the Villa Doria Pamphilij, where far and wide one can see Respighi’s inspiration on display.

Pines of Rome in Villa Doria Pamphilij
Pines of Rome in Villa Doria Pamphilij

I’ve visited the amazing Abbey district of St. Gallen and gawked at the heaven-like interior of the abbey library—mirable visu—not to mention the Alps themselves, in which the town of St. Gallen is nestled. But I say Harry and Blanche’s giardino was a finer view than any of these.

St. Gallen library
St. Gallen library


Portrait Bust of Sappho

In one of her most amazing poems, the Greek poet Sappho puts it this way, “some say an army of cavalry, or infantry, or sailors is the most beautiful thing across this coal-black earth, but I say it is whatever you love” (fgt. 16). A giardino is no army, but it springs from the coal-black earth and it is a place that one can love. It was a place of love for Harry and Blanche, whether that love be merely recorded upon a great round rock that I now have in my own giardino or it be seen in the occasional rose that Harry would harvest for Blanche from the rose bush, or it be simply the love they shared with the visiting Reverend Griffith over a cooling glass of tea, some homemade biscuits, and a bite of Hen Sir. That giardino framed their home the way a picture frames a painting. That home and its yard was the place where they created a family with their two daughters and with their aunt Jemima.

So the view was, for Blanche and Harry, Lee Ann and Elaine, pretty fine from that house on Rutter Avenue. As I see it, it surpassed the Baltic, the Bay of Naples and the Jersey Shore. Their view was more encompassing than just a giardino. It was what so many of us crave beyond anything else in this life, a family and a home, a place where Jemima, just before she died saw an angel. But I have spoken of angels in a previous blog; and I imagine I will again. For now, I shall simply look at my small backyard, which is perhaps two postage stamps in size—but the cost of mailing a letter has gone up over the years—and I shall think of Harry and Blanche’s view. Maybe my own is not that different after all. Yes, I like the view from here.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Angels and Headstones

As the title of this blog implies, angels turn up in surprising places. One might not expect to come upon an angel in a store that sells grave markers; that frankly is the last thing one might expect. Truth be told, one rather infrequently enters a grave marker store, normally known as “So-and-so’s Memorials.” Usually such a store’s modestly sized parking lot is far from teaming with customers and, if one does venture within, rarely, if ever, does one learn that that store is out of a certain type of headstone, or that they have a particular marker on “backorder.” And, of course, it would be gauche to suggest putting anything on layaway, as that would be driving the nail a bit too close to the thumb, so to say.

Indeed, the very word memorial is itself already driving that nail rather close, for the term is either a benign euphemism or an apt appellation. I prefer the latter, as I believe in memory, not that it may merely serve to be an ephemeral record of a life well (or otherwise) lived but also as a mental imprint that serves to preserve a record of meaning. It is a mirror image of the hope that can inform one’s future.

Kingston welcome signBut to return to angels and gravestones. I entered that gravestone store, located on Wyoming Avenue in Kingston, Pennsylvania in the spring of 2012 with my uncle Ed Johnson, a retired professor of the school once called Wilkes College, to buy Elaine Jakes’ memorial marker. That place of business is one that I have fortunately had few opportunities to visit; but that cold March day, with its crisp, biting wind, Ed and I were on just such a gloomy errand. Though Elaine had passed away a few months earlier, it was now time to put her ashes in the ground at Fern Knoll Burial Park. We needed, and indeed wanted, a simple memorial, something to put over the place where Elaine’s ashes would rest. I had no idea that I would that day encounter an angel.

Gingerbreak manNow I had only once before encountered someone I thought could be an angel. I was 21 years old and was involved in a very strange fisticuffs. My close friend Tim Hoy and I, then a college senior, were walking home from a fine dining establishment and even better bar known as the Gingerbread Man in Carlisle, Pennsylvania . We had spent a few hours in that bar chatting, Tim drinking beer, I Perrier because at the time I had mononucleosis, a disease during which one is told to refrain entirely from alcoholic beverages. Besides, Perrier was cheaper and quite refreshing, particularly with a twist of lime. I felt, frankly, somewhat sophisticated. We spent a few hours chatting about C. S. Lewis, the Baltimore Orioles (baltimore oriole capTim’s favorite team and, coincidentally, my favorite bird) and, by metonymic association, Cookie, the myna bird that taught me how to talk in a manner comparable to the way that a bear taught Elaine Jakes how to drive.

When it was time to walk home we took a less than circuitous course back to our admittedly shabby apartment, en route to which we encountered some ruffians—eight that I could count—who proceeded to engage us in a fisticuffs. Needless to say, they outmanned us. Tim’s jaw was broken on nearly the first punch. I fortunately did not rupture my then delicate spleen, to protect which I kept my arms over my belly, allowing my face to be knocked about at will, no doubt to the delight of the assailants.

Nonetheless, I don’t think either one of us were frightened—perhaps we hadn’t had time to be frightened, as it all happened so fast—until I heard and then saw one of the hooligans open his switchbladeswitchblade.  For a moment, I thought all was lost. It was not. Just as he was approaching me, pinned as I was against the side of a car, a large man came from nowhere. He seemed, at the time, of superhuman size. Indeed, I doubt I have in the flesh ever seen anyone so large unless seeing an (American) football player, a lineman, at a distance during a football game were to count. But even such girth I am not certain would surpass that man’s—if he was a man. I had a feeling at the time that both the size and the rapidity of his appearance and then sudden disappearance could qualify him for angelic status. Admittedly, he did not sing; nor did he have a harp or a halo or wings. Yet even if he was not a capital ‘A’ angel, he was at the very least a lowercase ‘a’ angel. He came to announce to that entire group of ruffians that it was over and they should go home. And that they did, immediately, without asking questions or even tagging Tim or me with one last upper cut or left hook. They scattered. We were safe, and we stumbled home. And maybe that night, just maybe, we encountered a real live angel.

Harry and Blanche Jakes
Harry and Blanche Jakes

But that apparition was vastly different from the angel that Ed and I encountered in the memorial store on Wyoming Avenue in Kingston, for there we came upon a small, elderly woman who asked about Elaine Jakes. Was this Harry and Blanche’s daughter, she asked? Blythe Evans’ cousin? “Yes,” we said. Oh, she said, I knew Elaine—a bit of a free spirit, that Lainey. What a wonderful lady and what a fine family she came from. Blythe—well, everyone was proud of him, the district attorney. And, her sister—“My wife, Lee Ann,” Ed piped in—well, she was a marvelous person, raised two fine boys, didn’t she? “Yes,” Ed, added, “my sons, Mark and Eric.” Fine lads, the woman said; one became a doctor, the other, was it a professor? “Yes,” Ed and I concurred, adding a few details to round out the family portrait.

But Harry was special, she said. He was a wonderful human being. He bought his mother and his father’s memorials here, you know, and Jemima Jones’ and Lizzie Ann Evans’. Then afterwards he used to come by from time to time just to say hello, just to be friendly and keep us here in the store up with what was going on at his church, with the family and in his neighborhood. A good man, that Harry Jakes, she said. In parting, she gave Ed and me each a small gift; a small metallic medallion of an angel.

Angel medallion
Angel Medallion

Take these, she said, and be blessed. It’s an angel, she said, a small gift to remind you that there are real angels. Ed smiled and took it, as did I, expressing our thanks.

To write this blog, I used Google Earth to try to find that memorial store. I thought it must still be there—after all, it was just three years ago that I was visiting and I bought the headstone. But though I thrice virtually traversed of Wyoming Avenue and looked up and down for it, I could not find it. I could not find even the place where I recall that it was located. It would seem to have come and gone nearly as quickly as that angel, if he was an angel, who delivered Tim and me from the valley of the shadow of death in Carlisle all those years ago. No, I’m sure that that store is there and that I just missed it. And perhaps that woman was not a real angel. But I don’t doubt that she gave us an angelic blessing, and that that blessing is one that points to the angels we encounter in this life, whether they be humans or something or someone, somewhat otherworldly, in human form.