JAMES F. BURNS: Ohio artist’s eye for beauty

By James F. Burns

It is easy to give thanks when things are going well. It is harder to do so when life has dealt us difficult, demanding, and depressing situations. But just as a smooth sea never made a good sailor, the most genuine expressions of thankfulness are created in the crucible of adversity.

The Apostle Paul said that it is “thankworthy” when a person can still express gratitude in the face of grief and suffering. My ancestral cousin dealt with the deaths of his daughter and granddaughter by writing the message below to his bereaved son-in-law.

“We live in a land of plenty. The all-wise Giver of every good thing bestows on his unworthy subjects the necessities and comforts of life in abundance—and yet how little do we appreciate His unbounded love and mercies. I feel at times that I should blush at my ingratitude.”

An ancestral uncle had a similar attitude of gratitude and humility. “We are in good health thanks be to the Almighty God for all his mercies to us poor and unworthy sinners. We thank God for having plenty to eat and clothes to wear. We are content.”

But it was my Great-Aunt Mary who had the best eye for spying the silver lining in a grey cloud. She boarded a train late at night in Ohio en route to a new job as an art teacher in Virginia. Mary soon spotted a full moon out the window and cheered a blind musician who serenaded the handful of passengers, including “two girls from Iowa going to Cumberland Gap to teach in a mission school. We had a jolly time.”

But things were considerably less jolly when they arrived at Cumberland Gap only to find that the tunnel through the mountain had collapsed. Riding in creaky horse-drawn wagons was the only way over the mountain. Mary embraced the opportunity.

“I climbed into a wagon with six men so I could sit in front. The horses were bony and so were the drivers. The rocks rose straight up on one side and straight down on the other, so that a little jump to that side of the road would have made pressed beef of me.

“On the summit we were in three states at once—Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee—and I was in a fourth, a state of bliss. Six men behind me, one at my side, and the loveliest mountain scenery all around. As far as the eye could see, rose one mountain after another. Some were above the clouds, some below, but a blue haze hovered around the tops of all of them.

“The road was rocky, solid sandstone in some places, but with beautiful flowers growing out of the stones, and ferns that would have set one wild had there not been so many other things to take your attention.”

Aunt Mary later became a wealthy bookseller in Kansas City. My wife and I visited her shortly after her 98th birthday. Her birthday cake, she proclaimed with a wave of her hand, had been “a blaze of glory.”
So was she. Aunt Mary left her sizeable fortune to local charities, her way of saying “thank you” to the city which had embraced a female entrepreneur.

After attending a lecture by Roots author Alex Haley who spoke of having a white grandfather in Ireland, I wrote him a letter about my 1790s family letters from Ireland. Haley replied that “what you’ve written naturally thrills a buff of history like me.” His parting advice, offered shortly before his death, was “Find the good and praise it.”

As we prepare for Thanksgiving, let us reflect on the good things in our lives with a humility that makes us blush for any residual ingratitude. And may we embrace our faith, family, and friends with the zest of an Aunt Mary and have her appreciation for the beauty and warmth that surrounds us.

James F. Burns, an Ohio native, is a retired professor at the University
of Florida.



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