Writer of the Month

Susan Diamond Riley

Susan Diamond Riley

Susan Diamond Riley, freelance copy editor and former journalist, is currently writing a series of historical mystery novels for middle-grade readers. The first installment, The Sea Island’s Secret, will be published by Young Palmetto Books (2019).

The View From Above

By Susan Diamond Riley

How like Sandra. Trying to control the plans right down to the very last minute!”

I know that’s what they’d be thinking if they knew I was watching them from up above at this moment. The four most magnificent women I have ever known—my soul sisters for the last quarter century of my life.

They are the FFF’s—our shorthand way of saying “Five Fearless Friends”—not because we were ever without fear, but because we were anything but! So many years ago, when we were up to our ears in diapers and doubts about our aptitude as mothers, the five of us had come together in a couples’ Bible study. For two years we met with our husbands every other Sunday night to munch on coffee cake and offer observations on the Gospels. Always careful not to reveal too much, we made sure the truly personal revelations remained unspoken.

Then someone suggested a separate, weeknight get-together just for “us girls”. Carol was the creative, resourceful one of the group. Cathy, the wise, self-disciplined one with a grace we all envied.  Kim’s quiet, sweet nature had a calming affect on us all. Nancy’s gift was hospitality, and it generally led her to put everyone else before herself. And then there was me, Sandra. The others would probably have said I brought humor to the group and, despite some “control issues”, had a knack for finding joy even in uncomfortable situations. We made a great combination.

Under the guise of discussing literature, we escaped on those Tuesdays from the responsibilities that faced us at home. We relished those times, at first because they meant someone else would have to put our toddlers to bed that night, but later because we found that we could open up to each other. Layer by layer, we peeled away at the facades we had each put up to guard ourselves from disapproval. And before we knew it, we were just us.

For our first Tuesday night meeting, we had each shown up with a small paperback book called Facing Our Fears. I, of course, did not need this book. Having no fears of anything, I could not benefit personally from such a study. But I decided that since the group had seemed enthusiastic about that particular choice, I would go along. Perhaps I could help them by virtue of my own fearlessness.

As it turned out, everyone else in the group felt the same way. How had that book even slipped through the selection process? Obviously, we were each strong, capable, self-confident women! But by the end of Chapter 1, the walls started to come down. Who knew that worrying over every little thing was a sign of fear? When the first of us admitted how powerless and overwhelmed we felt, the floodgates opened. We were—all five of us—actually scared to death of just about everything. The bond was forged, and with a chuckle we became the “Five Fearless Friends”—“FFF’s” for short. The irony was that, in each other’s presence, we really did become fearless. We came to trust that we would always have the unconditional love of the other four. Over time, as we all scattered across the country with our families, we found that although hundreds of miles separated us, our hearts grew even closer.

Now, more than twenty-five years later, my four dearest friends are gathering once again, but for a purpose we never expected. I look down on the sanctuary below, as a few more friends and family walk slowly to their seats.

Such a drab dress that one woman is wearing, I note, as a neighbor seats herself in a rear pew. Even now, although I am totally powerless to control it, I find myself hoping that at least the FFF’s will remember what I had requested:  bright, cheerful colors. Easter clothes!

As if on cue, here comes Carol in a beautiful rose-colored dress, her plump purse filled, no doubt, with tissues. Beside her is her husband, followed by their two grown girls. How kind that they have both taken time off from work to travel all the way here with their folks. On such an emotional day, I am sure Carol appreciates the presence of her two precious girls, all grown-up but still their mother’s daughters.

By the time Carol’s family has taken their seats near the altar, along comes Kim and Jon from Chicago, with their own sweet daughter following closely behind. She’ll be entering her senior year at Notre Dame in the fall. Their son, of course, is not with them, since his wife is expecting their first child any day. What wonderful grandparents Kim and Jon will be! I admire Kim’s floral skirt and jacket as her family takes their seats behind Carol. The women silently squeeze hands over the pew that separates them. No words are necessary today.

Cathy is the next FFF to enter the church. She looks lovely as usual in a slim periwinkle dress—no little black dress today! Her husband Mike follows closely behind with the children, although they can hardly be called children anymore. Their son towers over his Mom, while petite Caitlin looks every bit like the successful gymnastics coach that she is. Megan and her husband sit down last, with their infant daughter sleeping peacefully in her daddy’s arms and their 3-year-old son rushing to climb into Grandpa Mike’s lap. A memory comes to mind.

We are all sitting around the beach at Chris and Nancy’s lake house. Adults in lawn chairs, preschoolers playing in the sand, and a blanket spread for the babies. Jonny, Caitlin, and my own son Brandon are all plopped on the blanket, some sitting up more steadily than others.  Caitlin has a pretzel in her fist, sucking the salt off of it. Brandon wobbles, then falls over onto his side.  He rolls over onto his back and stares up peacefully into the clouds of a warm July afternoon.  The moment is brief, but like so many other precious times shared by this group of families, is preserved forever in a photograph. These summer afternoons were a gift to us all from Nancy and Chris.

Looking down, I can see Nancy’s two oldest sons standing below me in the sanctuary. Funny to think that ten years ago we thought her Greg and Cathy’s Megan might end up together. (Those annual family get-togethers were such a great idea!) Alas, though, after two years of long-distance dating, the couple had parted amicably. More like cousins than spouses, apparently.

Organ music startles me to attention. Is that the opening strains of “Hey Jude” drifting up?

No! Not yet! I feel like shouting to those below. It’s not time! But, no, it’s just a classical piece that I vaguely recall from one of my daughter Annie’s piano recitals. Too solemn! I want cheerful!” I think, although I know I have no control over today.

Admittedly, there have been many challenges we’ve each faced over the years that were completely out of our control. All of them, in fact. Most of us experienced miscarriages. All of us dealt with our kids’ homework hassles, teen sarcasm, and the occasional broken heart. There were the marital rough patches, job woes, the deaths of parents, the cancer scares, and now this. How I wish I could call down to each of them sitting quietly in those pews and let them know what a treasure they have been to me, always there during the good times and the bad.

I am at Carol’s house helping out since her back has gone out again after giving birth to her second daughter. Her oldest, Rachel, and my first-born Claire are toddlers, and I have just suspected that I may be pregnant with a little person that turns out to be Brandon. Suddenly the sky turns dark, then an odd shade of green, as the wind howls and sirens blare. I grab baby Kayla as Carol leaps off the couch (that back can work pretty well when it has to!) and races down the basement steps dragging Rachel by one hand and my Claire by the other. To drown out the noise of the coming tornado, we lead the girls in singing “Jesus Loves Me” until they forget to be frightened. 

Fast-forward a few years. We are at Nancy and Chris’s house for a Bible study meeting.  The kids are mostly preschool and school age by now, but not too old to be scared when the tornado sirens start sounding outside. We crowd into the basement bathroom—about ten of us—and once again pray, talk, and laugh to alleviate the fear. It works, because we are together with people who mean the world to us.

Suddenly, a deep voice brings me back to the reality of the day.

“It’s time.”

I turn to see the most beautiful man I have ever seen standing in front of me, smiling.  Once again, I am back to another day.

A five-year-old Brandon looks up at me sweetly, his tiny face covered with freckles. In his hand he cradles something golden.

“They’re helicopters from the maple tree, Mommy,” he announces, handing them to me. “Happy Mother’s Day!”

I give him a hug and breathe in the lovely scent of sweaty little boy as I nestle my face in his little buzz haircut. 

“Come up in the treehouse and drop them with me,” he says, but I have my own plans. The Sunday newspaper lies on the counter, as yet unread.

“Oh, you go drop them,” I say. “I was going to read for awhile.”

Nonplussed, he takes my hand and pulls me toward the back door. “No, Mommy. You have to drop them with me,” he insists. “That’s part of your present.”

It only takes us minutes to drop the entire supply of helicopters, the final ones falling all at once as we jubilantly toss them in the air and marvel as they spin majestically to the ground. We laugh and lay on our backs in the treehouse, catching glimpses of clouds—this one a rabbit, that one a dolphin—through the budding leaves of the maple tree. It is a most glorious Mother’s Day. The newspaper does not get read.

“Come on, Mom. It’s time,” he says again. I take Brandon’s arm and look up into that dear face. Once again I allow him to lead me to a grand adventure.

We carefully proceed down the steps from the church balcony, and I chuckle as we approach the doorway into the sanctuary. It really is “Hey Jude”—my favorite song—playing now, as the mother of the bride enters and Brandon seats me in the front left-hand pew and takes his place as Best Man.

The bridesmaids march in nervously, but without any major stumbles. When it is the Matron of Honor’s turn, in comes my first-born, Claire, six-months pregnant and looking a bit uncomfortable in the flowing pink dress. I notice her smile as she passes her husband in the pew behind us, and then takes her place at the front of the church.

The organ pounds those first few notes of the wedding march and, as if in a dream, I stand with the guests and see my husband walking toward me down the aisle. On his arm is our baby, although today she is a grown woman in a flowing white gown. Always our “Princess,” today Annie truly fits her nickname.

“Who gives this woman in marriage to this man?” the pastor asks.

“Her mother and I do,” my husband responds, with a reassuring wink to me. He leans over and kisses his baby daughter on the cheek, then places her hand in that of Nancy’s own baby, Jonathon.

He’ll always be Jonny to us, I think as I am drawn back to a summer evening 20 years earlier.

We are at Nancy and Chris’s house, snacking and visiting. This gathering has been planned for a couple of weeks, so we decide there is no need to cancel when Annie and Jonny, Nancy’s youngest, both come down with the chicken pox (courtesy of time spent with a previously-inflicted Brandon). The rest of us are hanging out in the kitchen, laughing and talking as usual, when we notice that Annie and Jonny are missing. Someone finds them in the family room, Annie lying on the couch, Jonny sitting on the floor beside her. He is rubbing her back gently, easing that awful itch. A few moments later, oblivious to their adult audience, the two little ones switch places. Now Annie slowly rubs Jonny’s itchy back, quietly sympathizing with her pal’s predicament. They are there for each other.

Clearly, God has blessed the union of our children, for although we’d had no view of the future in store for us way back then, God had undoubtedly seen it coming. After living most of their childhoods several states apart, these two old pals had rediscovered each other on social media just two years ago and surprised us all by how quickly a new type of love took flame. And now, here we are.

I glance across the aisle at Nancy and Chris and notice that Nancy is smiling through her tears. Behind me, I know, Carol, Cathy, and Kim are likely smiling through their tears, as well.  What a day!

We truly are family now, I think.  But, of course, we have been all along.

You can find this story and many others in Reflections

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