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The Time I Lived in the Basement of a Creepy Southern Plantation

February 10, 2015

Someone called it “Zockoll’s Bakery” the other day.

It’s true that I have a small outlay of baked goods available every morning, nestled on my back table next to the likes of Oswald Chambers and Charles Spurgeon. Doctrine and doughnuts, you might say. Behind the pastries is an empty plastic Folgers coffee container for coins that help defray the cost of the baked goods I bring in each day.  I make a doughnut run every morning about 5 a.m. to the day-old section of the local Kroger’s and pick through the many crullers, cupcakes and bear-claws in order to provide a morning repast for the young ladies and gentlemen who wander down the halls of academia, weak and desperately seeking icing-laden nourishment.

After I cover the cost of the doughnuts, the excess goes toward various needs.  One week, we gave the excess to Kidz Team (http://kidzteam.org/), a non-profit organization that helps families whose children suffer with cancer.  Last week we gave to help guest Bobby McCoy, my assistant pastor and good friend.  Bobby is a quadriplegic who is an incredible witness for Christ despite his limiting handicap.  He spoke to each of my classes as he does every year. I wrote about his impact upon our group in an earlier blog you can read about here. The money was given to him to help him publish another order of his tracts, which travel all over the country.

Lately I’ve been pretty busy in a group publishing effort, as I had mentioned last month.

Most of my free time has been in used in the continual construction of our student-led Bible commentary, the Brickyard Bible study.  We have been receiving notes from youth pastors and missionaries around the world who are using this fledgling Bible helps ministry in their assemblies and study groups.   This is a never-ending project; we will continue to build and add chapters of the Bible, strengthening and editing as long as the Lord allows.

These first months of the calendar year have been delightfully unpredictable.  Yes, the pace has been at times frenetic, but each day the classes are enjoyable.  I see the lights go on in various students as we learn.  Jonathon and I talked about his new discoveries in Luke chapter 13.  Luke opened up a discussion about Jesus touching the leper.  Angela shared her fascination with the Gospel story of the invalid who was lowered down through the roof so that Jesus might heal him.  Doug was transfixed on the Greek word ἐξίστημι (pronounced existēmi), the accusation that Jesus was so committed to His ministry that he was “beside Himself,” i.e., He was losing his mind.

After the final school bell rang, I sat back at my desk and reflected on the fact that most teachers deal with the unpredictable every day.  Which student lost his homework?  Which dating couple broke up?  Who is absent due to the flu?  Which sophomore needs academic help?  Which two students are at odds with one another?  Which teen wants counseling about spiritual matters?

I learned long ago to deal with the unforeseeable.  One of my most stark memories was when I was a fresh college grad, anticipating my next career step.  I needed to wait on some responses from churches – it might be a lengthy wait.  I had to find a job in the meantime.  And housing.

A good friend had heard about my needs and approached me after church one Sunday.  “Why don’t you stay in town here and get a job over at the Gorman plantation? Old Mrs. Gorman is needing some help with her farm animals.”

“Really?” I was intrigued.  “Is it a full time job?”1d

“No, you don’t get paid,” he replied, “but it’s easy.  You just keep an eye on her horse and three cows – feed them every evening and do other things like maintain the fence line, simple things like that.  You can get yourself a full-time job in town.  Mrs. Gorman only wants a few chores done – and the rent is free.”

“It’s a plantation?” I asked.

He nodded. “Two guys already live there, helping out.  I think the building has like fifteen rooms, maybe more.  Mind you, she’s an eccentric, to be sure.  She’s almost eighty years old and a bit feisty, but hey, the rent is free and you can really build up some savings if you can get another job while you’re waiting for your next job.”  He gave me her phone number and the address and the next day I puttered my old Malibu Classic out to a rural setting and a long, long driveway.

Sure enough, it was indeed a plantation; I was waiting  to see Scarlett O’Hara in one of the windows.  The front lawn was acres-wide and the front porch had columns.  The whole place had a unique, if not a bit run-down, antebellum look.

Mrs. Gorman was a wizened lady who barely reached  up to my shoulders in height.  She agreed on the situation, showing me to my quarters.  “You’ll have the downstairs.  Let me show you.”

And she took me to the basement level in the elevator.

Yes, an elevator.

When the doors opened in the basement I was shown a sweeping apartment with a fireplace, furnished bathroom, king-size bed, and a small library of books.  Sure, it was dark and a bit musty, but the accommodations were nearly twice as large as my apartment in California.  I tried to hide my gleeful giggling as I moved my boxes into the bedroom – this was going to be fantastic.

Then I bumped into one of the upstairs tenants as I was unloading my car.

“So,” I said as I pulled a box from the trunk, “you’re one of the roomies on the top floor?”

“Not any more,” he said, heading to his car.  “I’ve had it.”

“What do you mean?”

He opened his car door and pulled out his car keys. “I mean I’m leaving.  That woman’s a nut case.”

“Huh?”

He leaned on the door, gesturing as he spoke.  “She’s paranoid, that woman.  One night I was ironing my shirts and I dropped my iron on the floor.  She came up the elevator and started screaming about how she wasn’t going to allow us to go bowling in her hallways – she was demanding to see the bowling ball!  Another time she accused us of trying to climb the outside trees.  Then she claimed we were trying to chop down the outside barn for firewood.  Every time we hear the elevator hum, we cringe.  She’ll have some other wild accusation, whether it’s climbing on the roof or stealing some cat food.  Well, free rent or no free rent, I’ve had it.”  Before he closed the door he pointed at me.  “You can’t say you weren’t warned.”

I laughed and nodded.  Well, maybe I didn’t exactly laugh.  Perhaps chuckled. Uneasily.

Because within a week I found out it was true.

Mrs. Gorman was actually haunting me.

The elevator would hum and she’d march through the doors into to my room.  “Why did you take my spaghetti?”

“I didn’t, Mrs. Gorman.  I didn’t take your spaghetti.”

She frowned hard.  “Well, somebody took my plate of spaghetti and you’re the newest tenant here…”

The next day, the elevator hummed.  The doors opened.  She stomped in.  “Where’s my daddy’s portrait?  Why did you bring it down here?”

“Mrs. Gorman, I didn’t bring your dad… your father’s portrait down here.”

“Well, I can’t find it…”

This was a daily occurrence.

In addition, I would get errands.  Once, she told me to try to go out and take the limbs off of the electric fence.  I had seen that the fence had long ago been shattered by falling limbs, knocking whole sections of wire to the ground.  I headed out and collected limbs off of the posts, and in doing so, began to untangle a branch from a wire next to a post.

Then I got up off the ground.  A shock had burst through my arm from the elbow to my chest.  I arrived back at the house.  “Mrs. Gorman, uh, the electric current in the f-f-fence…”

“Oh, yes,” she said breezily.  “I had it fixed over the weekend while you were gone.”

This curious relationship went on for weeks – a balance between odd chores and false accusations.  She would become agitated at the slightest incident.  I would hear the elevator humming.

Elevator humming became a nightmare to me.  I heard elevators humming in my sleep.  I hated Otis for inventing the elevator.

Mrs. Gorman became erratic in her behavior.  I was becoming unstable myself.  I was slowly starting to fill a schedule with speaking engagements at churches and schools, but coming back to the plantation and facing the Unknown Elevator Humming was starting to make me a bit unbalanced.

Until I started praying for God to solve this.  Amazing how long it takes for me to find a common sense solution.

And God answered.  Let me tell you how.

I came through the side entrance one cold, rainy, raw evening after feeding the horse and cows in the barn.  Mrs. Gorman was standing next to a handful of lady guests, looking perplexed.  I pulled off my ski cap and walked over.  “Anything wrong, Mrs. Gorman?”

She was wringing her hands.  “Yes.  The heat has gone out and the man won’t be here to fix it for an hour.” She glanced at her friends.  “It’s getting cold in here and I was wanting to make some tea, but the room is a mite chilly.”

I looked at her friends and back at Mrs. Gorman.  She seemed lonely and confused.

All the elevator hatred and uneasiness drained away.  This poor lady just wanted someone to help her.

“Let me make a fire in the hearth,” I said, pulling my cap back on.  “I used to be a Boy Scout, and I know a bit about fire building.  There’s a stack of dry wood in the old pavilion, and I’ll get you ladies a fire in no time.”

Within minutes, thanks to the Lord and some extremely dry branches, I was able to have a nice roaring blaze.  The ladies were notably impressed.

One lady nodded in my direction.  “Your servant really knows how to make a fine fire.”

Mrs. Gorman looked at me and paused.  I had just been called her servant.

It was time to swallow some pride.  A whole throat full.

“Is there anything else you’ll need, ma’am? If not, I’ll be downstairs, but if you need anything…”

She shook her head lightly but I could see her eyes.  She knew what I was doing for her.  “No,” she said slowly, “that will be all for now.  I’ll call you if I need you.”

We never did share our secret with her friends.

But she and I had a new relationship.

The next night the elevator door opened.  “Um,” she said, “would you join me for dinner?  I heated up some spaghetti…”

I smiled.  “Yes, ma’am, I would love it.”

That night in that dingy kitchen Mrs. Gorman shared stories of her childhood on the plantation.  Her eyes were animated and she actually smiled – actually smiled – for the first time.  We had a quiet and wonderful evening.

When it came time for me to leave months later, I was actually kind of sad to go.  I clasped her hand and she told me she would miss me.  I never did see her again.

Our gracious Lord  taught me much about the unexpected during that season in my life.  I began learning many lessons about dealing with anger, confusion, and better communication.

And humility.

God brought Mrs. Gorman into my life to shake me up a bit.  It was good.

And I’m not afraid of elevator noises anymore.

1f

 

 

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