I met Chris Ann Nelson the first summer we owned our condo on Mackinac – before I knew a soul there and before Bree’s Blog (which I started the next summer) was even a thought in my mind. I walked into Sutler’s Store at Fort Mackinac looking for bed linens for our master bedroom. I didn’t have a clue where to go back then to find things like that off the Island, and I’d heard the fort store had a pretty good variety of spreads and quilts. I found the perfect queen-size coverlet and pillow shams, but needed another coverlet in a twin to bring home with me to Georgia to have a window treatment made that would match. When I approached the lady behind the check-out computer, she looked up with a dazzling smile and said, “Hello! How may I help you today?” I’m smiling as I write that because I really don’t remember what her words were. But I sure remember the smile.
I told her my dilemma, and she spent a few minutes phoning the store at Fort Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City. They were busy and would have to call back. I gave this kind lady my cellphone number, and she promised to call as soon as she knew something – which she did that afternoon. I saw her often that summer because I was in and out of Sutler’s on several occasions, and we always chatted like old friends. Me – being me – told her my whole life’s story, and she shared with me about her wonderful, huge family and her love of Mackinac Island.
Fast forward to the next spring – May, 2009 – I began Bree’s Blog. On May 11 (two or three days after the first post) I received a comment from a Chris Ann Nelson saying that she would be following our journey back north, and I replied my “thanks” to her. Then she commented, “I am anxious to follow you on your island journey. My husband and I have traveled to the straits for over 50 years, and in 1970, when we married, we chose Mackinac as our ‘short’ honeymoon. We found our home in Mackinaw City in 2004, while making our annual anniversary trip to the Island. We live in Pine Island Florida part of the year, but Mackinaw is our HOME. We always thought that we would retire to Mackinac Island, but when this place became available we jumped on it. We went to the island yesterday for Mothers Day, and I often work at the fort there for the park service. More later – we are shopping in Petoskey right now.”
Well, THAT story certainly sounded familiar! I quickly wrote back, “Are you the Chris Ann who works at Sutler’s and helped this Georgia girl out last summer?” And she was – one and the same.
Our friendship grew from that moment. We saw each other sporadically over the next four summers, and she was always the same – a joyful blend of smiles, kind words, bright laughter, and the peace that shows through in people of great faith. When the state park decided they needed Chris Ann more at Fort Michilimackinac than Fort Mackinac, we didn’t get to see each other as often, but we still found ways to keep in touch. We met for lunch on the Island a few times, she and Burton would come to Shepler’s to welcome us back when we’d arrive at the dock in Mackinac City, we’d see them on the Island when they’d come over to watch their children or grandchildren run races, and last year they spent the night with us at the lake on their way back to Michigan from Florida (they always arrive up north earlier than we do).
Those of us who know Chris Ann – and there are many around the world - knew little of what was happening with her over this past summer – except for an occasional word that she didn’t feel well and was in some pain. But now we know Chris Ann knew something was very wrong, and she was almost positive what it was. She had fought cancer before, and she had won. She found out this week, with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer that has spread to her major organs, that this time she will win again – but in an entirely different way.
I knew a teacher once who was diagnosed with breast cancer. She told her students that she would be ok either way. If she beat the cancer, she got to stay here and live with her family and friends. If she didn’t, she got to go live with Jesus. To her it was a win-win situation. I believe that’s the way Chris Ann looks at it also.
Chris Ann posted her diagnosis on Facebook yesterday. She has Hospice care now, and she said, “If any of you have any memories you’d like to share with me, I’d love to read them.” And I thought to myself, what an amazing idea! Her Facebook page is filled with memories now, with more being added by the hour.
When I look at my most recent photos of Chris Ann, I see them differently. Our time together with the Harlem Globetrotters, the Shepler’s Lighthouse Cruise in September, and the day in October she came to the Island, thinking she would spend the day, but having to leave after only a few hours because she was so tired. What I see in these photos now is not pain – what I see is a glow.
Chris Ann and Burton left their cottage in Mackinaw City at the foot of the Mackinac Bridge a little early this year. Ted and I were going over to help them with a few outdoor “closing” things, but the morning we were to go over, the weather was terrible. We were walking out the door to catch the ferry when Chris Ann called and said, “Don’t come out in this. We’ve got it handled.” She talked me into not coming, and I let her do it. I can’t tell you how much I regret that now. Because I know – if the situation was reversed – she would have ignored me and come anyway.
Chris Ann is one of the most caring people I know. I cannot remember how many times she’s offered to let one of our children stay at her house in Mac City if their plane was arriving after ferries stopped running. She’s offered to pick them up at the airport and take them back – anything to help. It didn’t matter if she was having 30 folks arrive for a family reunion the next day – she had time! God, I wish I was more like her!
All of it – her joy for life, her love for friends and family, her heart that won’t quit giving – it all comes from her faith. Without being preachy or the least bit judgmental, she carries her faith with a peace and calm – and glow – that radiates for all to see.
The winter of 2010 my Georgia friend Dawn and I, along with Mike Forrester and Jill, flew to Mackinac Island in February for Winter Festival. While we were there two ladies were accidentally killed on their snowmobile. The night they went missing Mike and Jill spent a couple of hours going into the restaurants and taverns open on Mackinac during the winter and asking if anyone had seen the two ladies. The morning after the accident the four of us flew off the island and before we started our trip to the Flint airport, we stopped in Mac City, and I called Chris Ann. With tears in her voice she told me this story: She had received a call that morning from a friend of hers who works for the state park who knew she knew me. For a brief time the evening before, because of Mike and Jill’s inquiries into the whereabouts of their “friends”, it was thought that it was Dawn and I who were missing. When news came early that morning that the two ladies had been found, there were some who still thought it was us, and one park employee called Chris Ann to tell her we were gone.
I will never forget what Chris Ann told me she said to that person. She said, “Brenda’s faith was so strong. I know she was ready for Heaven.” Those words impacted me so much, and to this day, I hold them in my heart and try to live up to them with every breath I take. I usually fail miserably.
But today, I echo those words back to Chris Ann. “Your faith is so strong, my friend. I know you are ready for Heaven, and I know what a great celebration there will be when you get there.”
Chris Ann, you are one of my biggest heroes. You make me want to be a better person, a better wife, a better mother, a better friend – a better Christian. When I think of you in the years to come, I will remember your smile, your joy for life, your peaceful nature, and your love for Burton, your family, your friends and your Lord. I will remember you, not with sadness – though I will miss you greatly – but with the steadfast knowledge that I will see you again.
“In my Father’s house are many mansions.” I hope ours are right next door to each other.
I love you, my friend. I love you.