A Memorial Day tribute. This story is related to my previous article submission "Reverence." This is my first article to get published in book form. It is the true story about a special lady I am proud to call my friend...
I knew her name a month before I met her. When I started my job at the Christian bookstore everyone talked about Penny. “Oh, you’ll like Penny,” I heard over and over.
The following month, Penny returned to work, and I had to agree with my coworkers. She was a special lady. I was surprised to learn that what I thought had been a resort-type vacation turned out to be a trip to see her husband who worked in Iraq – a location not making my top ten list of vacation spots given the fighting and instability in the region.
I later learned that Penny’s son was killed in Afghanistan. Waiting at a landing zone after completing a mission that included taking food to Afghani civilians, Phillip’s battalion engaged in a battle that took his life.
Penny told me the story – how she answered the door to her apartment and received the news of her son’s death. She told me how the company her husband worked for flew him from Iraq to Afghanistan, where the body was, so he could return home with his son.
On a rainy Sunday morning, my family and I drove to church. Not our church – Penny’s. As we made the turn into the parking lot, my wife Lynette looked over and asked, “You going to be a gentleman and let us out at the front of the church?” I laughed and was about to say yes when the church came into view. This was our first visit, and I didn’t quite know what to expect, but the scene in front of me wasn’t it.
My daughter Amy spoke first. “Who are they?”
“I’m not sure,” I said.
The three of us stared wide-eyed at row after row of motorcycles in the church parking lot.
“Are you sure we’ve got the right church?” Lynette asked.
I looked at the sign in front of the building. “Yeah, that’s the one.” And then I remembered. “You know, now that I think about it, Penny did say something about a motorcycle group...the, uh...the Patriot Guard.”
We pulled into the parking lot and made our way to the front of the church. The loose gravel and potholes made for a bumpy crossing – especially in the old clunker I drove, but we made it.
As soon as I pulled up to the drop-off, a man in a military uniform walked to the passenger’s side and – umbrella in hand – assisted Lynette and Amy out of the car.
By the time I parked and made it inside the church, the foyer was packed with an eclectic combination of people in military uniforms, motorcycle “gang” attire, and Sunday-go-to-Meetin’ clothes. I found Lynette and Amy, and we made our way into the sanctuary to one of the pews about halfway down the aisle.
Penny saw us immediately.
“So glad you could come,” she said, then introduced us to some of her church family. She caught her husband’s attention and motioned for him to come over. Carson greeted us with a tired smile and a handshake, then they moved on to greet other guests and friends.
Alone again, we settled in and looked around. Two men were at the front of the church setting up a professional looking movie camera. “Must be the people from the news station,” I said.
Suddenly, a man with a smaller camera walked in front of us and took our picture. He shrugged as he said, “They gave me the camera and told me to start taking pictures.” We laughed, and he walked away.
The sanctuary filled and all the chattering ceased as the praise and worship team entered and the service began – a service celebrating God, family, and country. In between songs we watched video clips that documented the faith of our country’s founding fathers; how their strong religious convictions laid the groundwork for our great nation. The pastor spoke of service: service to others, service to country, and service to God.
The message concluded with the minister and worship team singing a wonderful rendition of “How Great Thou Art” ending with the repeated words “How great You are.” I looked down the aisle at Amy and saw tears in her eyes. They would be the first of many.
After the singing, a slide show began. Images of people serving flashed before our eyes: church members building and cleaning the church, Sunday school classes filled with children and adults.
Suddenly the images turned to photos from 9/11. Two burning towers. The smoldering Pentagon. Men and women rescuing the fallen.
Penny had told me earlier in the week that her husband put together the slide show. I looked over as she and Carson watched the presentation and saw Carson wipe tears from his eyes.
A picture of a grave marker consumed the screen.
Phillip C. George
KIA - Afghanistan
Born - 9.3.82
Died - 8.18.05
“His Grace Is Sufficient”
The photo faded, and an image of Phillip dressed in his formal military uniform took its place. The whole church went silent as the image remained on the screen. The realization hit me that this young man was not only Penny and Carson’s son, but also the son of this congregation of believers. The tear-streaked faces in the sanctuary evidenced their admiration for their fallen soldier.
The Pastor regained composure long enough to pray for the fallen and for those who had served down through the ages. Then he introduced a special speaker.
A woman from Home of the Brave, a group of ladies from Vidor, Texas, took the stage and microphone and explained why she and her friends had come to make this presentation to Penny and another woman named Zaida Walters. She gave a brief history of memory quilts and told of their tradition dating back to the Civil War.
“Every quilt is unique,” she said. “Each has a patch with the name of the fallen soldier, another patch with the name of a soldier killed during the Vietnam War, and one replica patch from the Civil War.”
Penny, Carson and Mrs. Walters were called to the front of the church. With tears in their eyes, women from Home of the Brave made their presentation. We all smiled, lumps in our throats, as the quilts were unfolded and held high for all to see.
I was moved beyond words, watching with tears as Penny received her quilt. A quilt made by some very special women. A quilt made in honor of her son, Phillip. A quilt made with love and care in a tradition passed from generation to generation, conflict to conflict, since the Civil War.
As I watched Penny accept the quilt, my thoughts drifted back to some of the things I’d seen in the last year working together.
Once a customer came in to purchase a Bible for a soldier about to go off to battle. Penny was there to talk to her and encourage her. I watched in amazement as she, one who lost her own son in war, kept that experience to herself and instead smiled, nodded, listened and promised to support this woman and her son in prayer.
Then there were the customers who suffered losses. The ones who came in to find something – a book or some inspirational item – anything that would encourage them through their trials.
And, as always, Penny was there. First she listened to their stories, then she shared her own.
There was one customer I will never forget. Penny and I were at the register when a lady came in and looked straight at her.
“I want to thank you for saving my life,” she said. “I was contemplating suicide the last time I came into this store. You prayed for me that day.”
The tears started, and Penny left the counter to talk to her. I don’t know how the rest of the conversation went, but there was Penny again, ministering to someone in need. And this time around, she caught a glimpse of the harvest.
I asked Penny what she was going to do with her memory quilt. She told me she had a place picked out on a wall at home. She plans to hang it and let it serve as a reminder of the sacrifices life requires and good people offer – like a kind group of women from Vidor, Texas, who honor fallen soldiers with tangible expressions of compassion – like a courageous young man who believed he was doing what God called him to do and paid the ultimate price – and in my estimation, like a brave soldier of the cross, my friend Penny, who reaches beyond her own heartache to minister God’s healing and comfort to others.
Thank you, Penny.
This story is featured in the book "Quilting Patches for Life" by Lori Wagner. For more information, click here: Quilting Patches for Life