“Thank you for your kindness. Little items like notepads, cookies and razors go a long way to boost the morale of our Marines, sailors, and soldiers who are far away from family and friends. May God continue to bless you.”
Clearwater, FL lies a paltry 30 feet above sea level. But when you consider the impact that my Aunt Fran has had on this breezy port, that number soars as high as the clouds that hover above the Gulf of Mexico.
My sweet aunt lives At the Top of the World, a sprawling retirement community, a microcosm, really. The promotional hype dubs places like it tailor-made for active adults. Leave it to her to bring breathe new meaning and texture into the ‘active adult’ characterization. She dishes up an astounding grasp of knowledge that touches on cooking, politics, art history, banking, and unvaccinated babysitters. She surpasses the tangled academics, replacing it with her comforting, personal homespun wisdom. No wonder the smartest of the smart know better than to seek public office, I tell myself.
So where to begin? I could tick off a list of the proverbial smorgasbord of clubs and organizations offered for the 20,000 residents spread over the many condo units.
For starters, you can link with likeminded knitters, line dancers, golfers, book lovers, and visual artists. She has friends in every nook and cranny. And I can easily imagine her piloting the shuttle that whisks folks to Wal Mart and Publix.
At 87, Fran sports a super-charged energy output. She carries her special fairy stardust to the daily coffee klatch at the facility. And other groups that bear her footprint are simply too numerous to detail in this limited space. Wisely, prayerfully, she harnesses her gifts, reserving some of her robustness to lavish on independent outreach. One in particular stands close to her heart.
It started in 2006, she said, when a relative was lamenting about the struggles with loneliness soldiers feel. “He was in Iraq,” she recalled, “and he told me that he never heard from anyone, not even family. I can only imagine how isolated, how discouraged, he felt. They all need cheering up.”
But this didn’t amount to passing chatter, a way to fill in the time. In my aunt’s mind, playing the convenient blame game didn’t cut it. Working under the authority of Christ himself, she was forged ahead, fixing her gaze on naval personnel at sea. “I bought and packed everything from toothpaste, socks, underpants, Oreo cookies, chewing gum, and Slim Jim.” After meticulously packing each box of goodies herself, she hauled them to the post office. Across the history of the effort, she has filled 900 boxes!
Nor was this a one-shot deal. My aunt, true to form, turned her missionary heart into a ritual, a one-person affair fueled by her deep Orthodox faith and her awareness of the rich blessings that have followed her. The campaign she started to bring joy into the hearts of military lives has expanded into the life of the Church, she reported, her voice rising with enthusiasm. She’s inspired the Philoptochos and AHEPA to donate. Plus, she was the driving force behind the installation of a troop foot locker in the church hall, where donations are welcomed.
She loves to give me a summary of what her priest, Father Jim Paris, spoke about in his sermon or his online spiritual reflections. She goes to the well, drawing astonishing vitality from his words and the overarching theme of faith. They are her personal wings that propel her along the path of salvation.
She affirms the spirit of one of his messages: “We learn of the indisputability of faith…Despite Saint Paul being a zealous persecutor of Christ’s fledgling Church, Christ chose Paul for a Divine Purpose.”
Father Jim’s words oscillate with Aunt Fran. She engraves the good priest’s affirmation in her soul: we’re mere pilgrims. She has felt the pain of loss. She’s buried a son, a son-in-law, and husbands. Still, she forges on, with her eye on how much she can squeeze into one lifetime, how many lives she can help in her loving, grand and glorious style.
“People don’t give a second thought to our soldiers,” she huffed. “And it makes me mad. It reminds me of Christ himself. He loved us before he even knew us. We are all his children. Look at what he went through in order for us to gain salvation.”
Cultivating a servant’s heart, she said, is what life is about. She recalled the advice she dispensed to her children while they were growing up. “My daughter, Laura, says I always reminded her to never return an empty dish. I also made it a point to remind her if you don’t give, you’re not going to get.”