The summer when I was 12, my family drove up to New Hampshire for a week. I remember knowing that the people we were going to stay with were my parents’ friends and mentors from college. My family had just moved to New Jersey and now we were no longer too far away to drive up to a far-flung north east corner of the East Coast to see this special couple. Dr. Young had been my dad’s college theater professor, but to my dad and his fellow classmates, he was Jimma. One of the very first things that I learned about Jimma was his love for special names. He often called his beautiful wife June “McCune.” Jimma loved words and rituals, stories and people.
The little New Hampshire house Jimma and June lived in during the late 1990s was off a winding set of dirt roads that curved around lakes nestled under tall mountains. I remember the beauty of that first drive to their home. It was so remote and magical — a sea of green leaves and tall brown trunks and solitude. Their house even had a special name: Aslan’s Den. As we drove, my dad told stories about Jimma, how he always had apricot nectar, Life cereal, and extra dry toast for breakfast. That he saved special stamps for bills so whoever processed his bills would see a pretty stamp. He called my dad Jack-iah, and my father saw Jimma as a second father.
As we pulled into the steep little driveway, Jimma came out to greet us. He was lean, with big glasses and neatly combed white hair. He looked like he could play an older Roman Caesar: noble, well-dressed, and brilliant. I remember getting out of the car and being nervous, as 12 year olds are wont to be when meeting new people. He hugged my parents and said, “This must be Amy and Jon!” and he gave my brother and me a great big hug. Instantly, we were like extended family. We went in to meet June. She was the embodiment of quiet grace, tall and lean like Jimma but with soft white curls and a gentle reserve. She welcomed us in a warm and unhurried way to their home, complete with a beautiful dog they were keeping for a granddaughter.
A special thanks to Bonnie Brooks for use of this beautiful image of Jim and June
Of all the weeks in my childhood that I could relive, I think that I might go back and choose that one—that first week with Jimma and June at Aslan’s Den. I don’t even remember that many specific things that we did. I just remember this feeling of being wholly and completely welcomed.
There was a warmth and rhythm and joyful rest there that completely captivated me. Every night we said Evening Prayer, praying for former students and their spouses and their children, and every morning there was the promised apricot nectar and extra extra dry toast. I remember that over towel hooks in the bathroom were our names on index cards taped to the wall.
I realized early on that they were extraordinarily generous. One morning, June asked if I liked the soap in the bathroom. The soap had not made a particularly large impression on me, but eager to please June, I said it was just lovely. June told me that it was her favorite soap. It was from England. Then she went and got a bar of that Yardley soap and gave it to me. I remember feeling both overwhelmed that she would share something so special to her, and guilty that I wouldn’t be able to appreciate it specialness like I had said I did. I kept that bar of soap for years. Every time I opened my bathroom drawer in high school, I remembered June and her generosity.
I also remember from that first visit the sense that I was being listened to with complete attention. I remember being welcomed to ask questions. When the newspaper didn’t come one day, Jimma was very upset. I asked him why. He said with tears in his eyes, “How will I know how to pray for the world today without the newspaper?” He cried and laughed so easily, like he was just so full of compassion and mirth that at any moment either one might spill over.
I don’t know exactly how just two people seemed to have so much time for all four of my family’s members, but that week was an unhurried and peaceful time, where all the introverts got that balance of connection and reflection for which they yearn. Jimma and June seemed to just give you permission to be yourself. We stayed home and planted flowers or did large jigsaw puzzles. “Can you find the red braid?” Jimma would exclaim “Red Braid! Red Braid! Red Braid! RB!” Or sometimes we ventured out for maple ice cream, lobster rolls, or a view of the ocean.
Jimma, who was not a fan of competitive games, had even invented his own game: Pass and Fold. Pass and Fold was a game for after dinner, before Evening Prayer. We would all sit around the dining room table, everyone had a blank sheet of paper and a pen. The first person started by asking a question that everyone else had to answer on their paper. The questions could be anything: what’s your first memory? favorite place? where would you go on vacation? Then after you had written down your answer, you’d fold the paper backwards in order to hide the answers and pass it to the person next to you. After everyone had their turn to ask a question, all the papers were gathered, then shuffled and passed out randomly. Then you’d restate the questions one at a time and take turns reading the answers from the paper in front of you and trying to guess who had written them.
It’s a lovely game, and one I’ve played many times while thinking of them. But what I remember most about the game was how each memory or preference or thought that you shared as you answered those questions seemed to be treasured as a sacred insight.
Their home was a haven.
They were a safe haven.
When I was a freshman in college, and my roommate moved out, I was a wreck of sadness and anxiety. My Dad and I got to visit them on spring break. I remember thinking that everything would be better if I could just talk to them. Jimma was sick then, and they were down on the Gulf in Florida. I remember sitting on the couch surrounded by shell lamps and crying and telling them all the painful things about freshman year. I hadn’t gotten into the theater workout group, the amazing bi-weekly community building experiment Jimma had started in the 70’s and my Dad had been in, and my roommate had moved out, and other painful rejections that had rocked me. And just like I hoped, they listened with compassion and prayed for healing. And all the pain didn’t disappear, but it seemed easier, better somehow. It was a testament to the effective prayers of the faithful.
They were always teaching me about peace and listening. Even when Jimma died last spring and Evan and I traveled up to the funeral last summer, they were teaching. Again we drove up to those lonely tall forests in the shadow of the mountains.
We returned to their beloved church. It was my first Anglican funeral. It seems appropriate that Jimma who had introduced me to the liturgical way of saying a simple goodnight in Evening Prayer, would teach me to say the great goodnight in the Burial of the Dead. The church was filled with so many people whom Jimma and June loved. When I think about the kind of home and people I hope Evan and I can have and be, I hope it’s like Jimma and June and Aslan’s Den.
Jimma believed that creativity came out of hard work, trust, vulnerability, and love. He wrote about much of this in his beautiful memoir Stages: Growing in Faith and Art. For decades he helped to create that space, workout, for college actors who miss him deeply. And he and beautiful June created that space in their home and welcomed in family, friends, and strangers alike to help them become simultaneously more like Jesus and more like the people that Jesus had made them to be.
Who are the people in your life who have welcomed you into a safe haven?
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