Gathering: Where We Are
“IN JUNE OF 1921, CAPTAIN John Roper, former Union soldier and, since the end of the nineteenth century, a legendary Norfolk lumber baron, died at the age of eighty-six. A month before he died, the Lydia Roper Home was chartered, named for his wife, Lydia Hand Bowen Roper, and, according to some sources, intended as a safe haven especially for “widows of Confederate soldiers and others who had no sons to provide for them.” A woman who was an administrator of the Lydia Roper Home for twenty years tells me that she heard the Home was Lydia’s idea. Mrs. John Roper wanted a place for women she knew whose husbands had died and left them without enough money. She wanted her husband to help. He did.
The rambling brick building, with its shingle roof and sunny front porch, sits half a short block from a busy Norfolk street, hemmed in now by a louder world. Crepe myrtles line the sidewalk; the porch is furnished with wicker chairs and sofas and pots full of flowering plants. Visitors must ring the bell to be admitted. The large entry is carpeted in soft green; a six foot tall gold-leaf mirror hangs on one wall; the stairs rise by landings to the second and third floors. It is quiet inside.
Much later, as I realize I have embarked on a search for an unaccountably elusive Lydia Roper, I will discover that on June 7, 1865, the year he returned south after the war, Captain John Lonsdale Roper married Lydia Hand Bowen at the Columbia Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia and brought her from the city of her birth to the corner of Virginia that he had already mapped and claimed as his own. The 1865 membership roster for the Columbia Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church includes neither Bowens nor Ropers.
Whatever their church affiliation in Philadelphia, John and Lydia were soon established as active members of the Granby Methodist Episcopal Church in Norfolk—later Epworth United Methodist, relocated to Freemason Street. Ultimately, the Roper family would prove a strong force for Methodism in the Virginia United Methodist Church. Captain Roper’s grandson Albert, three-term mayor of Norfolk, founded the Wesleymen, a men’s prayer and Bible study group, which celebrated its one hundredth birthday in 2014. It still meets every Sunday morning at nine- thirty. In 1965, the Mayor published a book titled Did Jesus Rise From the Dead: A Lawyer Looks at the Evidence (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1965). Today there are no Ropers in the congregation at Epworth United Methodist Church.
As I consider that I might want to know more about Lydia, it doesn’t occur to me that there could be problems finding what seems such obvious information. I have not really moved beyond a strong imperative to write about the Bible Study and the women who come every week. I have not yet become a researcher.
However, I am curious. I begin, tentatively, with little real investment of time or attention, to look for Lydia.
I know so far that Lydia Roper bore the Captain six children and that she died in 1930 at the age of ninety. Her interment card at Elmwood Cemetery reads, simply, “cardiac failure.” Lydia’s heart stopped beating.
In 1963, the Roper family donated the Lydia Roper Home to the Virginia Conference of the Methodist Church; with that gift came an endowment for the maintenance of the building. A plaque in the foyer tells visitors that sometime between the Captain’s death in 1921 and her own in 1930, Lydia Roper endowed the Home again.
One condition was attached to the original gift—that it retain the name of Lydia Roper.
Kate arrives a little late from her weekly hair appointment. Her hair, as always, is shiny clean and in one of those careful styles that looks like no style at all. She is classic and dressed in the way I have come to expect: slim black slacks, a long- sleeved pullover in off-white, a simple red silk scarf tied loosely at the neck. She wears small gold earrings, and I ask about her bracelet, red enamel with intricate gold insets. It was a gift from her grandchildren, who live now in Italy. When she reaches for something on the table, her sleeve is pulled back slightly. There is an intimate glimpse of pale skin, marked with the spots and prominent veins of old age. The wrist, feminine and beautiful, catches the eye. Kate’s birthday is next month; she will be ninety-seven.
Today we confront what we learn is called a Portable Public Address System, acquired when I realized that too many of the women were just not able to hear me unless I shouted. Sometimes we take a break from our studies—to swap stories, to sit on the porch, to talk about the relief of not having to wear girdles or shave our legs. Today it’s the P.A. system.
We play musical chairs. Kate and Evelyn and Catherine move around the room, trying out the best positions near the speaker. They are our test cases, since they are in most need of the amplified sound. I move furniture and check out the speaker in different locations. I turn the volume up, turn the volume down, adjust levels of this and that, and I think we’re a success. Evelyn actually asks me to lower my voice!
When I lived here, Evelyn and I shared a table in the dining room; we still do on those Wednesdays I’m able to stay for lunch. She is a shy woman, self-effacing and kind. If someone asks for an extra dessert, Evelyn is likely to pass hers over. I was delighted to find that she has an impressive collection of large, bright, dangling earrings and that she is meticulous in her choice for each day. This week, Evelyn took me to her room to see those earrings, jumbled together in small jewelry boxes: three silver teardrops, one inside another; tiny round bouquets of enameled flowers; large silver discs from which swing ten small mother-of-pearl coins; pair after pair of gold and silver hoops. My favorite is a pair of outrageously large green enamel triangles.
We have been talking about her visiting my home since before I moved out of Lydia Roper last October. We promised each other that she would be my first guest, but circumstances of health and family have kept that from happening. Now her eyesight is failing and I worry we won’t pull it off. Today’s earrings are gold, circles within circles. Evelyn is ninety-three.
This room where we meet is just right for us. It’s small and cozy and the furniture—two overstuffed armchairs and a small sofa covered in Williamsburg blue—provides almost a sense of luxury. I remember when all the new furniture arrived and the old, worn sets began to disappear everywhere: from the downstairs living room, from the dining room, and from the landings and corridors.
A few months ago, in a reshuffling of the activities schedule, our Bible Study was moved from the main living room to this much smaller second floor parlor with its comfortable blue furniture. We’ve decided that being closer together is good for practical things, like hearing each other better. It has also created a little island where we’re just crowded enough to be pushed into closeness in other ways.
I’m looking it over now, as Nan distributes the handouts for our final look at the introductory material for Luke’s Gospel. I take a breath and watch Nan, as she moves around the room. I watch the ladies, landed happily and willy-nilly on the perches of their choice, chatting easily with each other and with me, looking up occasionally to see if we’re ready to begin. No one’s in a hurry; we’re perfectly at ease just being here. I am finally choosing my own perch. I usually squeeze in on the sofa with one or two residents or take an armchair. I have to be where everyone can see and hear me fairly well. Today I’m aware of the speaker on the table and of keeping my mouth close to the tiny microphone. I can hear the sound fade if I turn my head. It requires a bit more attention but I can tell the difference.
We have already worked our way through most of the Introduction to Luke’s Gospel, and have talked about the basics.
Today is an easy catch-up and gives us time for a few new ideas. An important characteristic of this Gospel is the sheer number and variety of women. It is the only place where we get a glimpse of the young girl, Mary, as she hears the announcement that will change her life. It is, in fact, the only Gospel in which the Annunciation is even made to Mary. Mark doesn’t include the birth narrative at all; Matthew’s angel announces the event to Joseph; John’s Jesus is, simply, “the Word.”
Luke’s story begins with a familiar greeting, “Do not be afraid.” But here is Mary, a real girl, who is “perplexed by his words and ponders what sort of greeting this might be.” She dares to question, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” Can she possibly, in that blinding moment, understand the angel’s words? “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great … ” (1:31-32).
She is very young here, on the pages of the third Gospel. Luke tells us that “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” I will discover that it was almost easier to find Mary than it will be to find Lydia Roper, the woman for whom this old brick building is named. Here in Luke’s Gospel, Mary has a story, and stories make sense of things. It will not be so easy to find stories about Lydia Roper.
Not so easy as in Luke’s Gospel, where more women than Mary have their stories. Mary visits her elderly cousin Elizabeth who will give birth to the Baptist. They wait together (1:39-56). Anna the prophetess recognizes the infant Jesus (2:36-38); the unnamed woman with the alabaster jar enters the house where Jesus is dining with a Pharisee and washes his feet with her tears (7:36-50); the wealthy women of the countryside travel with Jesus and the disciples, support them, and stay with them all the way to the cross (8:1-3; 23:55-56).
The Lydia Roper ladies seem a little surprised by this impressive parade. Inez recalls the disciples who were, by contrast, confused by Jesus’ predictions of the approaching ordeal, fled when he was arrested, and failed to recognize him when he returned. Peter denied Jesus three times; later Jesus called him “the rock on which I will build my church.” Nan wonders what we are supposed to take away from this. Peter is forgiven; Peter is more than forgiven. Peter is promoted! The women seem to understand from the start, yet no rewards for them.
Terry, a friend of Nan’s who has been coming to the Bible Study for several weeks, asks how we’re going to define “rewards.” Once again, we have questions rather than answers. We’re getting accustomed to it. The questions we ask today will come up again when we read the Parable of the Prodigal Son. How do we feel about second chances, about forgiveness? How do we feel, especially, when the second chances come to someone else?”
(at the end of the book)
Prologue and Chapter One
Gathering: Where We Are
- Chapter One introduces most of the main elements of the book: the Bible; the women in the Bible Study; the Lydia Roper Home itself and a little of its history; and the mystery of Lydia Roper. Which of these do you find most interesting, and why?
- This is a short chapter, yet four buildings are mentioned— the old building where the author lives; the Lydia Roper Home; two Methodist churches. Why so many? Do you think they are important? Why and how?
- At the end of Chapter One, do you have a clear sense of where the book is going, of what’s coming next? What keeps you reading?
A Few Extra Questions for Thought:
- Have you ever suffered from depression? Has anyone close to you?
- Do you have relatives or friends in assisted living facilities? Have you faced moving parents from their homes to such facilities? What was that like?
- Are you afraid of getting old and spending your later years in a group home like the one in this book?
- What, if any, experience have you had with Bible studies? Were they similar to the one in this chapter?
- Do you have a community like the one that seems to be growing at the Lydia Roper Home, with people growing close, getting to know each other, getting to care about each other?