Zombie on the River


Chiques Hill, a high out-cropping of rock near my hometown in southcentral Pennsylvania, provides a breath-taking view of the Susquehanna river. To the north, like a vision of Oz, lie the giant cooling towers of Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. Thin white plumes of steam spiral out of the towers for Unit One, the only reactor still in use.  From up here, it all looks so placid, like a futuristic settlement on a far planet.

I remember seeing the massive turbines roll through town on flatbed trucks, headed for the new power plant being constructed on a sandbar on the Susquehanna known as Three Mile Island. We just landed a man on the moon, and now this clean, modern energy produced without smoke or pollution, would be generated twenty miles north of us.

Ten years later, on a day in late March, we heard about a minor incident occurring in unit two of the nuclear reactor. I was out shopping for wedding shoes with my mother. We listened to the reports on the car radio and then went to our favorite restaurant for lunch as planned. My mother was fighting breast cancer, so I was just happy to spend a normal day with her.

Outside there was no evidence of anything amiss.  No mushroom cloud or strange light in the sky. It was a typical end of March week in the mid-Atlantic, still more winter than spring. There was no assault on the senses that made you think something terrible had happened or was about to happen. We joked about holding our breath and glowing in the dark.

News reports told us that a pressure valve in unit two failed to close, and contaminated water drained into adjoining buildings, causing the core to dangerously overheat. Emergency cooling pumps were activated but human operators in the control room misinterpreted the readings and mistakenly shut down the pumps and the reactor. Residual heat from the fission process was still being released which caused the core to overheat to just 1000 degrees short of a meltdown.


Most of us had no concept of what any of this meant. Men in short sleeve dress shirts and narrow ties reassured us from our television screens that all was well. Governor Thornburgh, calm and professorial in his horn-rimmed glasses, initially suggested a precautionary evacuation of nearby towns but was quickly silenced by the corporate owners of the plant.


The core had come within an hour of a complete meltdown and over half the core was destroyed, but it had not broken its protective shell. No radiation was escaping. Sighs of relief. Crisis averted. No need to evacuate or scurry into those buildings with the ubiquitous yellow “Fallout Shelter” signs leftover from the Cold War days.

On March 30, we were told there was a bubble of highly flammable hydrogen gas within the reactor building created two days earlier when exposed core materials reacted with super-heated steam. The day of the incident, some of this gas exploded, releasing a small amount of radiation into the atmosphere. The sound at the time was attributed to a ventilation door closing. The experts weren’t sure if this bubble could create a further meltdown or possibly a giant explosion. Residents were ordered to stay indoors. The governor advised all pregnant women and young children who lived within a 5-mile radius to evacuate. The floodgates of panic burst open.  

My uncle, a retired physician, who had been shepherding my mother through her cancer treatment, tells her it’s time to head out, especially for someone with a weakened immune system. Schools and businesses closed. We decided to leave until whatever was coming was over, if it was ever over.

Lines formed around gas stations, banks were emptied of cash, roads were jammed with cars packed with possessions. People who never dreamed they would be refugees suddenly found themselves leaving their homes, not knowing if they’d ever return. With the looming specter of nuclear annihilation now a reality, those duck and cover drills we did at school during the Cuban missile crisis seemed utterly absurd. 


 My parents went to the New Jersey shore to stay with my mother’s best friend from college. It was the last time they would see each other. For my mother, who found it ironic that she was being evacuated to avoid radiation exposure, this was a brief reprieve from her radiation and chemo treatments. By the first anniversary of TMI, she had been dead for a month.

I went to my fiancé’s apartment outside Philadelphia where we practiced being newlyweds while waiting for Armageddon. We were young and idiotic, so we drank cocktails and watched TV, cooked meals, and walked the dog, all the while pretending we were grown-ups, just in case we didn’t get to do it for real. We found it darkly romantic. Huddling together safe from the sinister bubble. Waiting for news.

We returned to our homes after President Jimmy Carter toured the plant in his haz-mat suit and reassured us that the danger was past. TMI became a touchstone, a reference point. “I started teaching the year TMI blew up.” “Our first child was born during TMI.” “We live just south of TMI.” To this day, I never think of those three letters as standing for “too much information.”


In the years following the accident, disturbing studies on cancer rates of those who lived within a close radius of the plant popped up on a regular basis, only to be quickly discredited by representatives of the company’s owners. Investigative reporters dug deep, but that data was banished into the far recesses of the state department of health. Hard copies probably now long destroyed.

 TMI is once again back in the news because it is to be permanently shut down in 2019.  Nuclear energy generation is no longer profitable and at this point, the state is not going to bail out the company. This morning an article in the local paper described the potential dangers associated with long-term storage of nuclear waste. Beyond the environmental impact, there is concern that with reduced security at closed plants, the waste itself could be more vulnerable to attack by terrorists or anyone with a deadly agenda.

 40 years after a nearly catastrophic nuclear event, the dancing atoms will at last be stilled. Insidious spores of radiation will no longer be spewed into the atmosphere. TMI will become an island wasteland, an abandoned behemoth rising out of the river, a permanent shrine to one of the greatest human screw-ups in modern history, its deadly innards sealed in lead and concrete but always with the potential to come back and destroy, given the right circumstances. TMI is our zombie on the river. It will never really die.











To Those of You in the Back Pew…

            There have been more of you recently sitting there in the back pew or along the sparsely populated sides. You look a little nervous, a little uncomfortable. You’re young–maybe in your 30’s, maybe you have a small child or two with you. You’re not sure if this is the right place, but you’re seeking. Something. Maybe you don’t even know what that is yet. Or now that you have children, you need a place for them to learn about God. You’ve passed this lovely old church many times on your way to the farmer’s market or a restaurant and thought to yourself, “Why not give this one a try?”

            The people at the door are dressed up but they welcome you warmly. Worship is more formal than what you may be used to or perhaps you’re not used to a church at all. The service starts and ends with a sort of parade with someone carrying a big cross and kids carrying candles and a book covered in gold. There are no screens or electronic instruments, but there is beautiful organ music and a choir that sings well. The service involves a lot of standing up and sitting down and even kneeling. Everyone around you seems to know what to do, and you may feel a little lost at times. But the pastor in the colorful robe is friendly and preaches a wonderful sermon and people shake your hand and ask your name and your children’s names and invite you for coffee and cookies afterwards. You walk up to take communion and watch what everyone else does so you don’t make a fool of yourself at the rail. Many of the attendees are older but there’s a smattering of young families and a teen-aged boy in the choir and something about this place feels ok, if a little intimidating.

            Let me tell you something. I was one of you once. I sat here alone in a side pew for the first time 25 years ago when I was at a low point in my life. Although I knew the service, I didn’t know a single soul until a lady named Zoe swept by and invited me to join the choir. My life hasn’t been the same since. These are My People. This is a good place to be.  A place to heal, to learn, to become a more whole person. To find a way to better serve God and those around you. Whatever you need, you can find it here. Let this church be as one of our members recently put it, your “Oasis of beauty in a dark and troubling world.”

            We are the artisanal denomination, the farm-to-table church. We believe that there is still value in some of the old ways. That gracious and reverent worship using beautiful language and beautiful music is ok. That for one hour a week, we can set aside our constant need for screen time and self-gratification and be still and know that He/She is God. And if my observations are correct, there seems to be an increasing hunger, especially among those of you who are young, for calm, meaningful and yes, liturgical worship. The comfort of a quiet, candlelit sanctuary and the rhythm of familiar prayers temporarily erase all the shouting in the world. There is powerful sustenance in the weekly meal of bread and wine. There is peace and hope and as our wonderful leader has recently been broadcasting from the rooftops, there is love here. For all.

            So, to those of you in the back pew who are tiptoeing hesitantly into the waters of worship, keep coming back. I know, all this rigmarole in a church service takes some getting used to (ask my husband) and we may be a tad formal compared to the big suburban churches but give us some time. There is a Zoe, an angel, here for every one of you. Who will help you find what you are seeking. This is a good place to be.  


Ordinary Music

 As concert season winds down, the power of music still amazes me, even after all these years. I don’t just mean what happens in wonderful performances like I experienced in the last few days, but what happens when music pokes its nose into our daily lives, and subtly works its magic outside of the concert halls. When it pounds the pavement right along with us. When it takes us away from the madness, even for a brief period of time.

 I see its power working in a troubled student at the school where I teach. Her grandmother and I are both struggling mightily to get this young lady to lessons and rehearsals. She’s teetering dangerously close to the precipice of serious trouble and right now, needs to hold on to her violin for dear life. When I asked her one day if she still wanted to play, she looked shocked and said, “You know I do.” She finally showed up for a lesson last week, despite the siren call of friends she should not be hanging out with and for now, that’s enough.

I’ve watched another student who used to be very insecure blossom into a fine young cellist this year. She’s still at basic level but is playing with more confidence and has become the de-facto mother hen of our little cello section. She scurries around marking fingerings and bowings in the other kids’ parts, (without any prompting from me) or yells at them for missing a rest. I just sit back and enjoy.  

 A woman who recently took over as the drum major in my husband’s drum and bugle corps is so excited to be in front of a performing ensemble again that it’s all she can talk about. She was a dynamic middle school band director who left the profession to stay home with her young children and now she’s once again studying scores and practicing conducting patterns. She has rediscovered the passion of her life, and her energy and enthusiasm have revitalized this group of drummers and horn players who range in age from 15 to 82. And for some of these folks, “the corps” is what gets them out of bed in the morning.

Lancers DCA 2012 formal

 My husband’s Aunt, a lovely lady in her 80’s not only still plays the piano but takes lessons and practices. She is widowed, and her adult children do not live nearby but her piano is there to keep her company and give her daily goals and challenges. She proudly told us that some Beethoven and Mozart pieces she had been working on for a long time are finally coming together, and she occasionally plays for other residents in the retirement community where she lives. For her, music provides a future at a time in her life when some days, the future may look bleak.


Enjoyed lunch recently at an outdoor venue where a trio of older gentlemen were entertaining the crowd with some blues and classic rock. Their bass player was a local professional photographer who had recently taken up the instrument and this was one of his first performances. They’re never going to give the e street band a run for their money, but they were having a blast, especially the rookie bass player.

For me, making music is something I can still do reasonably well, unlike getting up from sitting on the floor or watching TV without my glasses. I’m singing with the finest choral ensemble I have ever been a part of and am re-discovering what it means to practice and even memorize a few pieces. Unlike the other person who shares my home who can instantly sing the harmony part to any tune he hears, I must work hard to memorize alto lines. I felt good this past weekend when I could sing our memorized pieces with confidence (except for the one that required off-beat clapping, but then I just didn’t clap much.)

Memo music

There is no downside to this music thing. There simply isn’t. Yes, it requires practice and discipline and at the professional level there can be bitter competition and politics, and some of us are inevitably going to be better musicians than others. But that’s true of most things in life. Whether you’re a concert pianist or a fifth-grader blowing the first few notes on a saxophone or a senior citizen singing in the retirement home chorus, it’s all good. Music quickens our pulse when our souls are dragging and comforts us when the storm outside becomes unbearable. Music stimulates our brains and bodies and it’s something we can do forever, unlike a lot of sports which, let’s face it—sooner or later, are going to cause our knees to pack up and say, “Ok, that’s it. We’re out of here.”

So keep singing or marching in the drum corps or playing in a local bluegrass band. Start taking lessons at 40. Or 80. Get out your old trumpet and play along with your child or grandchild. Sing in your church choir. Ring a handbell. Try out for a performing ensemble. Play in a praise band.  I often told my students that you don’t have to be first chair to enjoy making music. You don’t have to be great. You don’t even have to be good. There’s nothing wrong with ordinary people making ordinary music. Sometimes sitting in the back of the second violins (what I used to affectionately call “Margaritaville”) is just fine if you’re happy and it makes you forget about life for a while.

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Random Spring Thoughts

            This post may be what we used to call in educational jargon, a “bird walk,” which occurs when your lesson plan sort of meanders all over the place. But it’s finally spring, and meandering is not only allowed but encouraged.

            I’m sitting at the dog groomer’s waiting for Vinnie and Stella to get their spring haircuts. A stone’s throw from a local ski resort, it’s beautiful here. Quiet and peaceful unless the herd of West Highland White terriers and Border Collies come charging into the fenced enclosure. Thanks to extraordinary vet care, Vinnie is still very much with us, happily chasing this year’s crop of squirrels and chipmunks. His auto-immune-destroyed-liver is miraculously functioning well, and he just turned 11, a birthday that we honestly didn’t expect him to see. Despite frequent clean-ups, creative meal preparation and stuffing a lot of pills down his throat, we treasure every day we still have him.

Vinnie at groomer

            Last week, we experienced spring at the beach. The osprey couple is back on their nest in the creek behind the house. The last two summers, there have been no fledglings, so we’re hoping for better luck this year. In town, the hotels and restaurants are waking from their winter hiatus, and there’s that pre-season sense of anticipation, of “it’s going to be better than ever this year,” the way teachers and students feels in those first few days of school.osprey pic 1


            Spring concerts loom. One of our Susquehanna Chorale pieces, “Only in Sleep” is a gorgeous setting of a Sara Teasdale poem about remembering our childhood friends now “only in sleep.” The piece takes me right back to the street where I grew up, and I literally see my childhood friends playing hopscotch and jump rope on warm summer evenings in the 1960’s. The first time I sang this was one of those rare occasions when the emotional impact of a piece struck me before I even thought about what I was supposed to be singing. So often, those of us who create art get so caught up in the mechanics—the right notes or brush strokes or sentence structure, that we forget the whole point–that we’re creating beauty and a better world. Not that we shouldn’t strive for excellence, but sometimes it’s ok to let our guard down a little and allow the magic of raw emotion to take over.

hopscotch (2)

            Recently I’ve been working on a piece about a dear friend who passed away some years ago from colon cancer at the tender age of 40.  Writing about this funny and irreverent and yet deeply spiritual woman has brought her alive once again for me. I can still hear her voice when I write her dialogue and I often keep this picture beside the computer, so I can see her smile when I’m working. Like “Only in Sleep,” telling her story has kindled unexpected emotion amid the struggle to get all the right words in the right places.


            As I come down the home stretch toward another birthday, I am grateful that spring has finally emerged, and I can stop wearing socks. That Vinnie is still here with us. That the osprey are back and the hummingbird feeders are filled and ready. That it will soon be time for mint tea (and mint juleps.) Grateful for the opportunity to sing “Only In Sleep” and write about the precious time spent with a friend who left us way too soon.

         I’m grateful that nature reminds us each spring to get rid of the dead leaves, to push out the flowers and new shoots and turn our faces to the warming sun. Thanks be to God that we get opportunities for fresh starts, to open the windows to refreshing breezes of hope and optimism after long periods of winter cold and darkness.

lilac basket

            Now I’m going to pour a glass of iced tea, sit on the patio and wait for the hummingbirds to arrive.

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The End of an Era

This week two long-time symbols of a bygone era passed away—Barbara Bush and The Bon-Ton, a department store chain that was founded in the town where I live. Not that I would compare the life of Barbara Bush with the demise of a retail business, but they both represent a way of living and looking at the world that has changed radically in the last few decades.

I was never a huge fan of the Bon-Ton, especially in recent years, but I did my share of shopping there. The store was an institution, a stalwart anchor, first in downtown business districts and then later in the malls that sprang up in the 1970’s. But with the growth of online shopping, the Bon-Ton along with several of its competitors, foundered and never quite achieved acceptable hip-ness. As the wolves at the door grew closer, cost-cutting in the form of shoddy merchandise and minimal staffing took its toll. On my last few visits, I left frustrated because I could not find clothing that was stylish and appropriate for my age, or because I couldn’t find someone staffing a cash register so I could pay for it.

When we remodeled our bathroom, (which naturally required new towels,) I didn’t even consider buying them at a department store. I researched the best towels on-line, bought several sets from various recommended websites, noting that every site offered a pleasant chat person to assist me. I’m an aging baby-boomer and yet that was the way I approached a purchase that ten years ago would have sent me scurrying straight to the Bon-Ton or JCPenney. The old order changeth.

I can’t say that I agreed with everything George Bush did as president, but he and Barbara conducted themselves with the grace and humility fitting for the leader and first lady of the free world. George and Barbara Bush personified the meaning of service to country and family in every aspect of their lives. They were decent people who deserved, and I think for the most part, received the respect and gratitude of an entire nation. I miss having a President who I can admire, whether or not I agree with his or her politics, and who doesn’t make me cringe with embarrassment every time they open their mouth. The Bushes were a class act, as were the grand old department stores in their heyday.

I shopped at the Bon-Ton today for what I suspect may be the last time. It was sad to see the garish “Total Liquidation, Everything Must Go” banners associated with fly-by-night furniture stores pasted over windows that always displayed the latest fashions. The high-end merchandise appeared to have already been removed from the store, and what remained was hurriedly thrown together, with racks of clothing in the aisles and minimal price reductions. The sales clerks put up a good front, but behind their pleasant demeanor, they looked shell-shocked and devastated. Probably the way a lot of government employees feel these days.

I suppose it will all sort itself out, as the British would say. Our retail world is changing just like it did when we moved from buying items at dry goods stores and ordering everything from the Sears catalog. Downtowns are coming back, and small businesses are still selling wonderful things, and the almighty internet helps us find those people who have just what we’re looking for. Today our sheets, towels and toilet paper may be dropped off by a drone, but it wasn’t so long ago that our milk and even bread and fresh meats were delivered to our home by a local merchant driving his own truck. Some of the old ways are coming back, just in a faster and more efficient way.

But it’s still hard to say good-by to the store where we bought our prom dress or sat at the Clinique counter for our first make-up lesson or where we had lunch with our grandmother in the tea room of the downtown flagship store. It’s even harder to say good-by to a woman who was truly a First Lady, another stalwart anchor from a time when the folks who occupied the White House were kind and good and cared first and foremost about our country. I hope and pray that those old ways are going to come back some day, too.

Barbara Bush



Overheard at Ulta

I was waiting to check out at a chain cosmetics store when I heard the cashier say to the customer in front of me, “I love your eyebrows. They’re amazing.” The young woman smiled and proudly replied, “Thank you. I do them myself.”

Huh? Her eyebrows are amazing?? And what does she mean, she does them herself? Since when did eyebrows start to require professional intervention? As if those of us  over 50 don’t have enough to worry about, now we must maintain our eyebrows? Apparently, tweezing and a dash of pencil are no longer enough. An entire industry has sprung up around micro-blading and procedures which render two strips of biologically necessary hair above our eyes into perfectly groomed little arcs that on some people remind me of the brows on Kukla, from the old 50’s puppet show.  I can’t help thinking about a friend of mine going through cancer treatment who would just be happy to have her eyebrows back, even if they grew in a straight line across her forehead.

Kukla, Fran and Ollie (2)

Of course, the older we get, the harder it is to keep playing whack-a-mole with our appearance. Color your hair and three weeks later, the gray roots peep through. Eat the seven-inch plate of grilled chicken and salad with a whisper of spray-on dressing, drag yourself faithfully to the gym and the doctor still says, “Hmm…looks like you’ve gained a few pounds.” Accidentally bump the selfie button on your phone and you recoil from the sudden shot of your double chin and the sad little lines around your mouth that look like cracks on a once pristine windshield. I’m not proposing that we let it all go to hell and run around in floral-print polyester with lank strands of gray hair flopping in our foundation-less faces, but despite our best efforts, Mother Nature is going to give us less return on our investment.

I may be over-reacting to what was simply a kind gesture of small-talk on the part of the sales clerk (probably required by corporate trainers.) But I struggle with society’s mixed message. On one hand, we’re encouraged to accept different lifestyles and sizes and partners, yet at the same time, would we be so kind as to maintain our brows and manicure and a timely shot or two of Botox would be appreciated as well. We can overlook Chrissy Metz’s obesity because her face is perfectly made-up. Helen Mirren and Jane Fonda are now oh-so-amazing not so much because of their talent and contributions to their art, but because they don’t look their age.

Accepting ordinary, healthy appearance is the final frontier, the last bastion of political correctness. Let’s celebrate the ladies easing out of their textured tanks at the gym after Aqua-Fit class because they’re moving their bodies and taking care of themselves. Let’s hear it for those of us who refuse to reign in our bellies with Spanx because we want to breathe comfortably and laugh easily. Who have those bellies because we’ve shared good food and good times with friends or birthed a kid or two and our metabolism and our appetite just don’t see eye-to-eye anymore. Let’s wear our dorky shoes proudly because we’re on our feet taking care of grandchildren or elderly relatives or working in the restaurant or the school or the hospital and tiny little kitten heels or sky-high stilettos simply aren’t going to cut it.

water aerobics

From my curmudgeon’s perch, I want to smile indulgently at those two young women in the cosmetics store. I remember 20, that magical time of life when eyebrows and manicures can be priorities. When you’d rather buy cosmetics than groceries. But I want to tell those girls that eyebrows are the least of it. I want to tell them to take care of their future children and eventually their parents and treasure their friends and work hard at something they love and if along the way, they happen to gain a little weight or end up with a few scars or find they no longer have time for perfect eyebrows, all the better. That means you’re living life with a vengeance, with a damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead attitude even if you’re wearing Mom jeans with your graying hair pulled back in a scrunchy and eyebrows that look real instead of perfect. Because our mothers were right. It’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Easter Eggs from Home

            This week I found myself sitting in the room where I first learned about Jesus. Where dear old Mrs. Stevens would toddle over to an out of tune upright piano and plunk out Jesus Loves Me and Fishers of Men while we sat on little wooden chairs painted in pastel colors, singing our hearts out and doing the motions to the songs. Where we’d gather at tables and learn Bible stories, pasting cardboard cut-outs of Moses and Abraham onto felt-covered boards. Where at the end of Sunday School, the wooden double doors would open, and our parents would be standing there waiting to take us in to church. (If we were old enough for Sunday School, we were old enough for church and our parents saw to it that we sat there quietly, sang the hymns, and said the prayers. Our boredom or need for entertainment did not factor into the equation.)

            Today that old Sunday School room serves as the church’s office, cluttered with paper and boxes of ink cartridges and smelling of the kerosene burner that helps to keep it warm without running up a high heating bill. I was there to pick up homemade Easter eggs a dedicated crew of parishioners makes every year as a fund-raiser. I buy lots of them in a feeble gesture of support and gratitude to this parish for being my cradle of Episcopalian-ism and in appreciation for the ministry they provide to a community that desperately needs it.

            Sadly, this church, like the town surrounding it, is not so healthy these days. The spirit is there but the outside flesh continues to weaken. The bell tower needs work and the roof should be replaced. The rector is down to part-time and is already serving past retirement age because, well, it’s going to be hard to find someone to take on the job.

St. Paul's columbia

Fifty years ago, this downtown street where the church is located was bustling in the week before Easter. The hardware store sold baby ducks and those awful pastel-colored chicks skittering around under a heat lamp. The women’s clothing stores, of which there were at least four in a two-block area, displayed the latest spring dresses in their windows. Woolworth’s aisles were jammed with Easter candy, and we bought our Hinkle’s egg dye from the owner of the store where it was invented. On Good Friday afternoon, the stores all closed from noon to 3 pm because everyone was in church and of course, no one opened on Sundays except for a few corner grocery stores.

Hinkle's egg dye 2

This once vibrant middle-class community now suffers from the same blight affecting others just like it across the country. Industry moved out taking with it the tax base, so property values plummeted. Homes sell for rock-bottom prices, often to greedy landlords who turn beautiful properties into apartments for low-income rentals. Many of the churches my friends attended are empty shells, their scout meetings and choir practices replaced by food pantries and social service agencies. The poverty rate is staggering, and the school district is bankrupt.

It breaks my heart to drive these streets and see the elderly and infirm shuffling along on the sidewalks. The scared kids on the corner, putting up a menacing front. The worn-down young mothers pushing strollers, while trying to rein in another small child or two. To see so many homes in urgent need of repair, to see what were once thriving businesses shuttered and gone or replaced by thrift stores and other earnest and hopeful start-ups—a coffee shop here, a yoga center there, most of which will probably not survive.

I take those luscious eggs I buy from my childhood parish, place them in pastel cupcake wrappers and donate them to the dinner that the parish I belong to now serves every year on Easter Sunday. As soon as the last note of the postlude sounds, we literally take the Good News we just celebrated in majestic ceremony out into the world. We serve dinner right smack in the middle of Easter Sunday to the hungry, the lonely, to first-responders who can’t be with their families because they’re protecting us—to anyone who needs it.

Easter dinner guests

When I place food in front of our guests, I see the faces of the people in my hometown. I like to think that what helps support the church where I grew up, brightens the day, and lifts the spirits of those we serve in our own parish and that what I learned about Jesus all those years ago in Mrs. Stevens’ Sunday School classes still makes sense in the world I live in now.

Chef GrantEaster dinner 1