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Twilight Zone

Funny. One of the things I miss most about my radio station job is the drives home in the middle of the night. This is from a few years ago.

I took a trip through the Twilight Zone on the ride home from the radio station in the wee hours this morning. Highway 10, from Milladore to Marshfield bypasses the small towns of Blenker and Auburndale and runs mostly through farmers’ fields. It is not unusual to encounter will-o-the-wisp fog that plays hide and seek with the ponds and cornfields and midnight drivers.


Tonight’s, this morning’s fog was different. Patchy at first, it coalesced into a thick blanket, almost a mist, limiting visibility to less than one-tenth of a mile. There’s little traffic on the road this hour of the morning, and what vehicles there are signal their approach with a nimbus thirty feet in diameter, the actual headlights mere pinpricks. There’s a sense of isolation, the farm lights nothing more than bright smudges off to the sides of the highway, no taillights visible ahead, no headlights in the rear view mirror. And there’s a sense of oppression…not so much from the fog itself, as from the smell. Rotting road kill, eau de dead polecat, paper mill effluence…all are trapped in the miasma and sucked into the car’s air vents.

Things…live in such a fog; come out to play in such a fog. High beams are useless, although some of the oncoming traffic uses theirs. Against the seamless scrim, smears of insect remains on the windshield shape-shift into mysterious creatures that play hob with one’s sense of direction and distance. I’ve passed, and narrowly avoided, two skunks and a rabbit which seem to think invisibility is their protection. Other eyes gleam from the roadsides, all fortunately close to the ground. They are no threat to 1,500 pounds of metal and rubber. It’s the eyeshine level with the headlights that pose the real danger.

Approaching town, a cell tower with its beacon stuck on white strobe flashes like lightning…no like the beam of a waterside lighthouse. Ah…that’s what is missing. For this woman accustomed to the childhood sounds of the South Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha foghorns, and the answering call of passing freighters on pea soup nights, the silence beyond the hum of tires on pavement is offputting. There should be a haunting, basso profundo call and response singing out a warning, singing out an invitation…a siren’s call to dance in the mystery.

In normal fogs, the veil lifts as one nears the heat sink that is paved city streets. Not this morning. This morning the fog is victorious. At the roundabout visibility improves under the sulfurous glare of a dozen and a half streetlights. But even here, the fog only softens the glare and one pierces the heart of a clouded amber jewel…and just as quickly leaves it. I almost miss my turn onto the angled street that leads me home, as the entrance is cloaked in the mist. But finally, I turn onto my own street and scatter four rabbits romping in clover-laced grass.

Indoors once more, the walls seal out the mists and its phantoms, although the open windows admit a slight, muggy breeze. Normal night sounds seem muffled. I can’t hear the whine of the few manufacturing plants a half-mile away and the unceasing rumble of trucks on the highway is muted. It’s past time for bed but the mysteries of the night still beckon just down the street, and on the road as it is said that, “goes ever, ever on.”

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Tempus Fugit

Just one year ago today, my brother Mike and I were in the car heading west. We planned a surprise visit to our oldest sister, Carole, on the occasion of her eightieth birthday. Little did we know then that would be the last weekend we would see our sister alive.

On the Saturday, her son Matt drove us to a party at a friend’s home out in the country. They were having a fundraising party to raise money to train and place service dogs for veterans with post traumatic stress disorder. As far as Carole was concerned, the party was just for her.

But there was a problem. On the way there, her nose began to bleed. The bleeding continued throughout the afternoon and into the evening. Concerned, I called her daughter, Irene, and was told to take Carole to the emergency room at St. John’s Hospital. We spent several hours there and Carole was sent home with her nose packed and strict instructions not to touch or remove the packing until she could see her regular physician on Monday.

Sunday afternoon, Mike and I visited a friend, Joseph Cortemanche and his wife Kip. The visit had been planned well before our trip to the Cities. But I should have known better than to leave Carole alone. When we returned from our visit, she had removed the nasal packing. She claimed, “it just fell out.” Then we had a wrangle over her medication. She was to take it twice a day, roughly twelve hours apart. She had taken her morning dose, and while we were gone, had also taken her evening dose, and as the day waned, was attempting to take a third dose. It was glaringly obvious that her dementia had progressed to the point she could no longer properly manage her medications.

Monday, Mike and I were due to leave. I made certain she had an appointment scheduled later that day with her primary doctor and that my niece would take her. Then it was time to go. And I will never forget my final words to my sister. “I love you, but you are your own worst enemy.”

Although I did not make another trip to St. Paul, I spoke to Carole on the phone every other week. If I called her in the morning, she seemed, well, if not totally with it, at least okay. In the evenings, she was quite befuddled. In December, I called to check whether the Christmas box I had sent to her house had arrived. When she answered the phone, she cried, quite literally cried, for help. She told me she was being held captive in a stranger’s house and was being forced to do all the housework. Very much alarmed, I told Carole that I had called her and that she was safe in her own home. It took a half dozen iterations before she finally believed me and found herself. Yes, she had received the Christmas box. Why, she wanted to know, had I sent her so many copies of the same book? I told her that the books were for her kids, my niece and nephews. Despite the labels on the packages, she had opened everything. After I hung up, I immediately contacted my nephew Matt to inform him of Carole’s mental state. He was aware. In fact, he and Irene had plans to admit Carole to a memory care facility the next week.

But that didn’t happen. Forty-eight hours later, Carole was dead.

Tempus fugit. Time flies.

Tomorrow will be my sister’s eighty-first birthday. She is celebrating it in heaven this year and for eternity to come. Carole was one of those people who seemed indestructible. Of course, she was going to live to at least match our mother’s age of 91, and probably even 100 it seemed. But it was not to be.

August 1, 1940. The world was at war, although the United States of America was not yet involved. Carole was the second child of our parents. She was born almost exactly one year after our eldest brother, Carl, who did not survive the birthing process. Carole grew to be the epitome of a first born child – bossy, stubborn, nurturing. If she had been born today, she would likely have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Despite that, Carole did well in school and quickly became a favorite of all her teachers. Upon graduation from high school, she received a full scholarship to St. Francis School or Nursing (now part of Viterbo University) in La Crosse. While a student, a cousin introduced her to a former shipmate, who was the man she would marry, DuWayne Pfaff.

They embarked on a three-year engagement and were wed on May 11, 1963. Nine months later, they welcomed their first born, Mark. Two years after that, Matt came along and just fifteen months later, John. Irene completed the family in 1969. There were many challenges along the way. Mark was born with Fragile X Syndrome, like his Uncle Mike and great-uncles Phillip, Theodore, Pat, and Robert, and more than a half-dozen cousins A traumatic car accident nearly cost her daughter Irene’s life, and because of the need to provide transport to therapy, Carole learned to drive at age 40. If you ever had the opportunity to be Carole’s passenger in a car, you quickly became a believer in the presence of guardian angels.

After Wayne’s death, Carole became a world traveler. She and Wayne had made trips to Florida and Hawaii, but now she was off to see the world. Australia, Germany, Austria, Ireland, England, Canada, Greece, plus bus trips all across the Midwest, her suitcase was always packed and ready to go. The only place she wanted to visit but did not was Israel because her children were fearful for her safety. Of course, on all her trips, she embarked on guided tours because Carole had the ability to get lost anywhere more than a few blocks away from her familiar neighborhood.  

Bossy, stubborn, nurturing. That was my sister. The last decade of her life, even though dementia was chipping away at her mind, nothing could change that. All that to say, on this day before your eighty-first birthday, big sister, I miss you.

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Fresh Oil

I am likely one of the last generation of students who had to stand in front of her class and decline, or parse, nine of the twelve tenses of a verb in the English language. Oh, sure, we all know past presen, and future. But the past participle? Past perfect, present perfect, future perfect? Perhaps that’s why elementary school, in my day, and in my mother’s and grandmother’s days was called grammar school. We learned grammar. Boy howdy, did we learn grammar!

Insert nonsequiter.

A couple decades ago I entered into a harried season of quilt making. Nieces and nephews, left and right, were getting married and a handmade quilt was my go-to wedding present. Plus, a couple of friends commissioned quilts. Problem was, I hadn’t touched my sewing machine for a few years. So to prepare it for the marathon ahead, I knew it needed oil. In the drawer of my Aunt’s Singer treadle sewing machine lay a small, old fashioned oil can that had been part of the original equipment. So, I generously oiled all the little ports on my sewing machine and got started. Five minutes later, the machine came to a grinding halt. Yeesh. I didn’t have time for this. Fortunately, there was a sewing machine repair shop in town in those days. I took my trusty, supposedly indestructible White into the shop. A week later, I had it back humming along like new. I asked the technician what the problem had been. He said all of the works had been gummed up by old oil. Yeeps! And he sternly lectured me on the necessity of fresh oil.

Insert nonsequiter.

Remember those twelve verb tenses I mentioned earlier? Well, the Greek language has all of them — and one more. It is called the transitive verb tense. It is similar to the present tense in English, but it has one more function. The present tense in English says “Do something.” The transitive tense in Greek says not only, “Do something,” but, “keep on doing it,” — forever.

The Book of the Acts of the Apostles is a pretty fantastic account of what went on in the First Century Christian church. It talks about Peter, Philip, Paul anointing people with oil, laying hands on them, and the people becoming filled with the Holy Spirit. It is a promise from Jesus Christ Himself, that whoever believed in Him and confessed Him as Lord and God, would receive the Holy Spirit.

Now I know there is a lot of controversy in the contemporary Christian church as to precisely what that means. For some, it means that a person received the Holy Spirit upon a sincere confession of faith, and it is once and done. The Holy Spirit indwells that person henceforth for all the days he or she is on this planet. Others say, “Yes, that is so, but along with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, there is the filling of the Holy Spirit.” To them, just as your car needs to be filled regularly with gasoline to continue to function, the filling of the Holy Spirit is to be sought on a regular basis. And Scripture backs this view up. Remember that Greek transitive verb? When the Apostle Paul was writing in Koine Greek, he said, “Be filled with the Holy Spirit.” But he used that transitive tense so the statement ought to read, “Be filled with the Holy Spirit and keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Okay, remember my sewing machine? I tried to service it myself by using old oil. That didn’t work. The technician told me I must use fresh oil. Oil, in both Old and New Testaments has been used to represent the Holy Spirit. So, just like my sewing machine, to faithfully carry out the work that God has prepared for us to do, we need fresh oil.

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Fulcrum

What was the most pivotal year in your life? For some, it will be sixteen — the day they got their driver’s license or when they graduated from high school or college. Perhaps it was their first job. For others, it will be the day they married…or had a child…or lost a spouse or parent.

For me, it was my eighth year on this planet. I know. It seems terribly early. How, one may ask, can the entire direction of one’s life be determined at so early an age? I wonder that, too, some times. Yet over the years as I have answered questions such as, “When did you know you wanted to go to college?” “When did you know you would never get married?” “When did you know you would become your brother Mike’s guardian?” all of the answers go back to that pivotal year of 1961.

Eight years old — third grade. In school, I was smart. My mother was already pushing me to consider a career in nursing. That’s what smart girls did. That, or become a teacher, which in 1961 was pretty much a guarantee of living a life of genteel poverty. Nurses made more money. While I loved science, I knew nursing was not for me. I had heard too many stories from my eldest sister who was a nurse. So,, if I didn’t want to be a store clerk, factory worker, or secretary, I knew I had to go to college. (What I really wanted was to be an astronaut, but in 1961, that was not an option for girls)

As for marriage? Well the cruel taunts of many of my classmates had already wormed their way into my psyche, convincing me I was, and would forever be too fat and ugly to ever attract a mate. And Mike? Yes, my eldest brother had solemnly promised our father that he would take responsibility for our developmentally disabled younger brother if anything happened to our parents. But even at that age, I knew he would never do it.

Pretty deep thoughts for an eight-year-old, right? What I didn’t realize, what may parents didn’t realize, what my teachers didn’t realize is that I was already fully in puberty when I started third grade. This was only confirmed the “day I became a woman” on the last day of school. A month later, my father had his first heart attack. Suddenly, our family was plunged from blue-collar, lower middle class into poverty as he was unable to find work. Suddenly, I had a lot more responsibility as my mother did home daycare to make ends meet and watching the day care children became part of my daily routine. My Dad taught me to read a map and from then on I rode shotgun, instead of my Mom on family trips. He taught me what to do should he have another heart attack while behind the wheel. He showed me where the water and natural gas shutoffs were and how to change a fuse in the basement. And just a few years later, he taught me how to balance the family checkbook and prepare the family tax returns, handing off that responsibility to me.

Within just two years, our family at home shrunk from eight people to four as my older sisters married and my older brothers moved out. By age eleven, I was babysitting for my sisters’ children, and then taking on paying babysitting gigs as well. I was twelve when I got my first job as a library aide, in order to pay my high school tuition.

It seemed my course in life was set from that one year forward.

And the questions? Yes, I did go to college and graduate school, although neither my coursework nor the career paths to which they led were straightforward. No, I never did marry, although there was one bright but brief year when I thought that might be a possibility. And yes, I am my brother’s keeper, and will be until one of us is gone.

All of that is from a worldly, earth-bound perspective. Because what is really the fulcrum, what is really the most pivotal moment in a person’s life is not the thoughts and dreams one has, is not the circumstances that push one in one direction or another. The pivotal point is what answer one gives when asked, “Who do YOU say Jesus Christ is?”

Yet I am a little bit fuzzy on that point myself. I can indeed point to a certain day in October of 1973 when I answered that exact question as it was put to me by two interlopers as I was studying for midterm exams. But it goes back further. My Pastor says it is his belief that it takes two things for a person to bend the knee to Jesus — the movement of the Holy Spirit and someone praying for the person. One of my aunts told me that when my mother was pregnant with me, she took fifteen minutes out of every busy day of caring for a husband and four children to pray for me, the reason being that she had lost three babies after the birth of my middle sister, accounting for the eight year gap between us. Then, in my baby book, my mother recorded that I was saying the Lord’s Prayer, on my own at the age of two-and-a- half. Obviously, I may not have understood all that my mother taught me to say, but she had pointed me in the right direction. First Communion, Confirmation — both approached with great anticipation — and met with mild disappointment at the seemingly mundane lack of response from heaven.

And then the years of walking away from the faith. The decline began in my early teens but I didn’t make the final break until the day after I graduated from high school. But God. But God did not allow me to wander far, or for too long a time. A question from two interlopers interrupting my studies brought me face to face with the truth — the truth of who Jesus Christ really was and is. A truth that demanded a response from me. What else could I do but surrender to His authority?

We all have moments in life when and where the path we are on forks. Two, three, four, or even more choices lie ahead. Which way do we go? Which path do we choose? The choice may come early. It may come late. Whichever way we go, it will set the stage for what comes next. But of all the choices before us, there is one choice on which, not our education, not our marital status, not our career, not our prosperity, but our eternity rests. The fulcrum, the tipping point, the pivot — Who do you say Jesus Christ is? And will you follow Him?

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Going Lower

I have a love-hate relationship with the inanimate objects in my life. It’s not something new, but an experience that has been with me a long, long time. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that I am inordinately clumsy. As a child, this clumsiness resulted in numerous trips to the emergency room. Good thing it was a long time ago; emergency room personnel take a dim view of accident prone children these days.

                Some of it may also come from my expectations. I expect things to last forever. A 70-year-old mixer should still work, right? (In truth, my Hamilton Beach Model G still does). Another contributing factor is a poor sense of spatial relationships. I do not do well at Tetris. But how does all this manifest in my daily life? For example, I washed dishes and put my favorite butter dish in the dish drainer. Ten minutes later, from the living room, I hear a crash. The cover for the butter dish has slipped out of the dish drainer and crashed into the sink, shattering. Or typing on my laptop. I stand up to take a break and somehow my foot has become entangled in the power cord and the computer flops to the floor. Or taking the greatest pains to eat a juicy BLT neatly, I still end up with a grease stain on my brand new shirt. Or take this morning. I was doing some mending and attempting to thread the needle…with a needle threader, no less. (Oh for the days when that was a simple task!) Somehow the needle flies from my fingers into the carpet. Fortunately, I had a magnet handy for just that contingency so I could use it, instead of my bare foot, to find the needle.

                Then there was this evening. I took some meat out of the freezer to defrost for Sunday dinner. Now perhaps, your freezer is well organized with everything neatly stacked. Mine isn’t. So I dig around, find the meat, remove it, and close the freezer door. Rather, I attempt to close the freezer door. Hmm. What exactly is protruding so far as to interfere with the proper door closure. I rearrange the contents. No go. I start removing the contents. Now the door must surely close, since there is nothing to stick out, right? Nope. I remove more items. Still no go. Now I’m beginning to worry. Yes, the refrigerator was purchased in 1992, but it still hums along. (Well, really it roars – sounds like a jet engine when it fires up – but it has done that since day one) I cannot afford a new refrigerator. Plus there’s the food. Fortunately, if needs be, I can transfer everything to my brother Mike’s refrigerator and freezers next door. So I begin to pray. Yes, I know, I should have done that first.

                Thoroughly frustrated after struggling with a recalcitrant inanimate object for fifteen minutes, I grab my kitchen stool and sit in order to ponder the situation. And then I see it. A bulldog clip which had been used to close a partially used bag of veggies has jammed itself on the underside of the freezer door. Remove the clip, close the door. Problem solved. I put everything back into the freezer and turn to preparing my supper. And then it hits me. I had to go lower to see the solution.

                I had to go lower to see it.

                Suddenly, it was no longer about a stubborn freezer door. I had to go lower to see it. It is a life principle. It’s a life principle most of us do not like. Yet the gospels and epistles are filled with the concept. Jesus said of the Pharisees that they were highly esteemed by men but an abomination before God. He also said that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. To reiterate the principle, the Apostle Paul reminds us to not think more highly of ourselves than we ought.

                We have to go lower to see it. The truth of the Gospel. The ordering of the kingdom of God. How often do we go about our daily routines thinking everything is just fine. We can handle everything that comes our way, no help needed. But then. But then, illness comes, an accident, financial disaster, the loss of a loved one. Suddenly we are knocked from our high perch, and like Saul of Tarsus, thrown from his horse, we look up and say, “Who are You, Lord? Why have You done this to me?” From our new perspective, flat on our backs, we can finally see it. What is it? Perhaps it’s the path we’re on, taking us farther away from God. Perhaps it is a relationship that is in danger because of our preoccupation. Perhaps it’s just our own independent nature persuading us we are doing just fine on our own. Whatever the “it” is, we have needed to go lower to see what is wrong, what the obstacle to our walk with Jesus is.

                As it is with us as individuals, so also it may very well be with us as a country. America! The biggest! The best! The culmination of the advance of history! Perhaps as a nation, we also must go lower to see it. There’s a verse from the Old Testament that Christians like to quote. It says, “If My people will humbly pray, and repent from their wicked ways, I will hear them from Heaven and heal their land.” It does not just say, “If My people pray.” It says, “If My people will humbly pray.” And what is humility but to go lower? And then, what is seen from that humble perspective? Our wicked ways. Not the wicked ways of nonbelievers. Our wicked ways – and the desperate need to repent of them.

                We must go lower to see it. It’s a life principle in the kingdom of God. Like it or not, we will, as individuals, as a church, as a nation, find ourselves in that lowly position some day. How much better to choose to take it than to be knocked off our high horse!

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Day of the Samaras

Do-do, do-do; do-do, do-do…coming soon to a neighborhood near you…The Day of the Samaras! No, no reason to be alarmed. Samaras are the fruit of maple trees. Back around 1991, I watched my neighbor, plant a scrawny stem of a tree in his back yard, replacing a dying white birch. Today, that silver maple (or soft maple as my Marshfield friends call the species) soars to a height of over 50 feet.
Today is also launch day. Saturday’s wind storm loosened a few of the seed pods, but today is the big drop. I sit at my kitchen window listening to the samaras hit the metal screens with a whing and a whang and the dry patter against the siding and roof, while watching the tawny pods helicopter to the ground, falling by the hundreds. (Hey…anyone want to come clean out my rain gutters?)

Sprinkled over the green grass of my back yard is the potential for a veritable forest. Each samara contains everything needed for the growth of a new tree. All that is required is that it be buried in a few inches of soil, and with a little bit of rain, and the pod will split, sending out roots and shoots. Yet of the thousands of seeds, perhaps only one or two will ever germinate…and even then the young sapling will fall prey to a lawnmower or weed-whacker. In some way, it all seems like a futile effort. Why such a prolific crop in the face of such hostile conditions? Yet it’s the not the tree’s place to question the efficacy of its seeds; it is the tree’s place to produce fruit.

It’s like the old question: “How many seeds are in an apple? Five. How many apples are in a seed? Who could count them all?” Or like the horseradish rising up, waving its broad green leaves to the sun. It’s brand-new this spring, yet its legacy goes back more than 100 years. Good German folk that they were, my father’s parents who moved from the Upper Peninsula to Wabeno brought horseradish with them and planted it in their yard right around the turn of the century…the 20th century. When my grandmother’s house was about to be removed from its home in the town to a lakeside location, my father traveled to Wabeno and dug up the crowns, planting them in our back yard. That was some time in the early 1960s. When I moved to Marshfield, I brought some of the crowns with me and planted them in my yard. No, there is no part of the original roots remaining, but their descendants thrive.

Jesus had a lot to say about trees, about grain, about seeds, about fruit. He spoke of the grain that must be buried and die to bring forth more grain. He talked of the hearts of men that are like the ground upon which the seeds land…some hard-packed and closed, some open but too shallow to sustain growth, some receptive and productive. He discussed trees that bore fruit…and what would happen to those that did not. In the end, we are like both…the soil and the tree. Soil that needs to be raked with the sharp tines of the plow and harrow to be receptive of the seed. And a tree, fruitful, casting the seeds of the gospel far and wide. Will that fruit we produce germinate and bring forth new trees? Only God knows…but that is not our job. Our job is to be faithful…and the legacy we leave, even though we may never see it with our earthly eyes, will touch eternity.

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The Music of the Storm

It was a wild night here in the heart of Wisconsin, although it was much worse up north before the sun went down. Someone was killed by the fury of the storms, a couple dozen more injured, property damaged and scattered over the farm fields — toys tossed by a tantrumming toddler. Two areas getting some of the worst, Chetek and Ogema. I have a friend who has a daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren in each of those towns and I am sure prayers for their protection have been nonstop. Prayers also for those wounded and those who have lost property and life.

Here, the storm is just sweeping over us with her skirts. Still the thunder rattles my windows and shivers the floorboards. I don’t know if it’s the construction or the location, or both, but my house seems to act as an amplifier, not just for thunder, but for many neighborhood noises, and tonight is no exception.

The storm’s been playing bass on all her instruments tonight. There’s the low grumble of the distant tympani rumbling along for nearly a minute at a time, like a distant freight train. Growing nearer, staccato beats punctuate the silver treble of the rain. Ripples of a slightly higher pitched roar chase each other and I can feel them rolling over and about like a litter of puppies at play. Ah, the basso profundo! The flash reaches into the corners of the room as the lightning rips the air apart and the crash resonates throughout the house, followed by the scream of a rocket in flight. The rain itself is moving from treble to alto as it intensifies.

There is danger in the storm, as she has so profoundly proven this day. There is music as well, and a dark beauty. Jeremiah the prophet described the voice of God in terms of thunder…”When He thunders, the waters in the heavens roar; He makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth. He sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.” We cannot control the power of the storm, so we fear it. But even in the midst of the tempest, whether the tempest is a tornado, hailstorm, or rain…or illness, or loss, or poverty, God still remains in control.

The storm is also a prophecy. A single lightning bolt that tears the very atoms of the air apart contains enough energy to power a small town for a day. The soundwaves of the thunder itself can shatter glass. Neither goes unnoticed. Neither can be ignored. So too, the prophecy…”The LORD will cause people to hear his majestic voice and will make them see his arm coming down with… consuming fire, with cloudburst, thunderstorm and hail.” Or as Jesus Himself stated, “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” and “I AM. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

As children, to allay our fears of the storm, our mother told us thunder was the sound of angels bowling in heaven. We must be pragmatic and take precautions against the fury of the storm. But it is wisdom to also listen to her message. There is a power in the world beyond our control. That power can speak of judgment…where judgment is due. But it also speaks of the One who controls the power and in His care, even though loss of the most severe nature, may come, there is safety and a haven from which to observe and revel in the glory and majesty of Him who rides the heavens on the wings of the storm.

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Ah, spring.

Today’s snow flurries bring back a memory from a few years back.

Ah, the paradox that is April. The remnants of last week’s blizzard have left a three-foot high snowbank in my front yard, although the shallower depths have melted away. Still, to sit outside at 6:00 in the evening, gazing upon the snow, in sunshine warm enough to permit shirtsleeves, even in the face of a cool breeze, is indeed paradox.

With the westering sun warming my face, I close my eyes to listen to the early evening concert. In the soprano section are the finches with their delicate trill, the cardinal with his wheet-tew-tew- tew- tew and the robin’s cheer-up. On slightly lower notes come the sparrows’ chip-chip-chip and the juncos whistle. Playing alto are the mourning doves’ coo-coo-caroo and tenor is sounded by the call and response of the Canada geese. Binding the birdsong together, the pentatonic scale of the wind chimes, set into motion by the light breeze.

Mike brings Frankie out to join me and the serenity is broken by a hyper-active border collie/husky mix. He’s up in my face, sniffing my hair, and generally just trying to sit on my lap. He’s too big for a lap dog. But then he’s off, sniffing the droppings from the neighbor’s dogs that litter the thawed portion of my front yard. That keeps him busy for a minute or two until he catches another scent. Rabbits! Rabbits have been nesting under my hollow, concrete front stoop for at least as long as the 30 years I’ve lived here. And now Frankie is on their scent…and he wants them. First he tries the left side of the stoop, then the right, then back to the left, but the concrete proves unyielding, so he starts to dig. Soon his white paws are as black as the rest of his coat, and Mike has to pull him away.

A walk down the block in the snow along the parkway cleans his paws, but as soon as he nears my walk, he’s tugging to get back at the rabbits. I don’t know what he would do if he caught one; he doesn’t seem like the hunter type. But he was a stray for some time before Mike rescued him, so who knows? Wild rabbit may have indeed been on his menu.

The sun is moving further westward and as it does its strength is no longer enough to offset the quickening breeze. Time to go in…but with the promise that Spring really is right around the corner.

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Christmas Fair

Perched on a stool in the textile workers’ booth at the Bethlehem marketplace, Hannah drew more of the soft brown wool from her distaff and fed it to the twirling spindle that dangled beneath her fingers, drawing out the fine thread. A few feet off to her left, seated on a straw bale, her adolescent helper was carding a white fleece. The spindle touched the ground and Hannah drew it up, wound the new yarn around the base and set the spindle whirling again. Twist, spin, pull, wind, twist, spin, pull, wind. The motions were mesmerizing and so familiar she scarcely gave it any thought. Her eyes and thoughts were free to wander as she watched the crowds streaming past her stall. Most stopped just long enough to stroke the swatches of wool, flax and silk, but every now and again someone, usually a mother with young children, would stop and ask questions.

That was perhaps Hannah’s favorite part of the evening. She loved explaining how the wool grew on the sheep and how the sheep got a haircut every Spring; how the blue-flowered flax was gathered, soaked, dried, and hackled, beaten, to make a fibers that could be spun into a strong thread to weave into linen; how the little worms ate the mulberry leaves and spun themselves a cocoon which was then boiled, and how the women with tiny notches cut into their fingernails carefully unwound each cocoon to make silk. She also enjoyed seeing the children’s eyes widen as she told them that a skilled spinster would be able to spin enough yarn to be woven into cloth that would make just one suit of new clothing for each member of her family. “Just think,” she would say, “what would it be like if your Mama could give you only one new outfit for the entire year? And she had to make it all by herself. There would be no Walmart where you could go shopping.” Then she would tell the little girls that as soon as they celebrated their fourth birthday they would be given a spindle of their own so they could help their Mama make clothes for their father and brothers. Hannah would show them the small spindles she had made with dowels and wooden wheels. “Looks like a toy top, doesn’t it? (She was continually surprised at the number of children who had no idea what a top was!) For little boys, it is a toy, but for little girls, it is a tool. While the smaller children would be fascinated, the pre-teens usually just rolled their eyes as their parents reminded them how much they had to be thankful for. And while Hannah would loved to have engaged them in more conversation, there were always the Roman soldiers mounted on horseback to keep the crowd moving.

The scene shifted. Hannah was now walking through her favorite Christkindlmarkt. In her left hand, she had a brimming mug of glühwein and in her right, a tender, spicy pfeffernǖsse. She set both down on a nearby table to pull her shawl more tightly about her shoulders. Odd. She was wearing her costume from the Bethlehem Market while those around her sported dirndls and lederhosen, but no one seemed to notice or comment. She picked up her drink and cookie and set off down the narrow lane between the miniature chalets. Hannah oohed over the technique of the man at the scherenschnitte booth as he snipped intricate designs into the folded paper. She aahed over the woman deftly weaving long, narrow strips of paper into German stars, then dipping them into melted beeswax and sprinkling them with glitter. She chuckled at the warty green pickles in the glass ornament booth and enjoyed the tinkling chimes of the brass carousels with their angels gently spinning in the heat of the candles. A little further down the lane she caught the scent of fresh pine where Advent wreaths were being made and then the mouth-watering aromas of the bakery where Zimsterne, Vanillekipferl, Lebkuchen, Butterkekse, and more Pfeffernǖsse were on display. She took a warming sip of the glühwein and the colors of the Christkindlmarkt shimmered before her eyes.

Colder now, she again snugged her shawl about her shoulders. Still in her first century costume, Hannah struggled through the snowdrifts blocking the long drive up to the farmhouse that had been her childhood home. Golden light streamed from the windows and delicious smells wafted through the icy air. Reaching the back door at last (no one uses front doors in farmhouses), Hannah shook the snow from her frozen feet and shoulders. Warmth, light, sound, and scent embraced her, as did a half dozen young nieces and nephews. The children had just finished their light supper and pulled her along back outside as they piled into four cars and headed off to church. Redolent with pine and beeswax the country church was transformed into a place of wonder. The children were enchanting as they acted out once more the timeless tale of the Nativity – although Mary got a bit ruffled when one of the sheep stole Baby Jesus out of the manger – and their sweet voices singing the ancient carols recalled the voices of angels.

Then it was back home where the little ones tore into the brightly wrapped packages Hannah’s brother-in-law Max had set out beneath the tree while the rest of the family was at church. Max wasn’t one for church and sentimentality and such. When the children were finally in bed, Max remained at home as the rest of the adults piled back into the cars for the midnight carol service at church. Home once more, the schnapps was passed as they quietly enjoyed a small feast of Sommerwurst and Weisswurst and Butterkäse, Schmearkäse, Limburger, and Gruyere on crackers along with pickled herring, sweet gherkins, olives, and a wicker basket of dried fruits.

Then suddenly it was midday and Hannah stood in the farmhouse dining room in front of a table laden with roast goose (her sister Cecelia never did care for turkey), smoked ham, mashed potatoes, dressing, and a dozen different salads and side dishes. The aromas were intoxicating and Hannah could scarcely wait to fill her plate and savor the feast. The children, holding hands, formed a circle around the table, chattering excitedly. The adults, with Max and Cecelia at the head of the table, formed a ring around the children. Hannah’s brother Karl raised his hands for silence, then bowed his head as he began to say grace.
Wait.
Karl was here? All the way from Seattle? And so was Hannah’s brother Mathias from Florida. And Cecelia? Hannah looked over Karl’s head. Behind him were gathered the translucent figures of their mother, father, and grandparents, and further back, the bearded figures of their fathers and the full skirted and aproned wraiths of their mothers. Again the colors, scents, and sounds began to swirl about Hannah and she sat up with a gasp. A dream. It was all, all of it, a dream. Hannah looked over at her bedside clock — 3:15 AM, on the morning of Christmas Eve. She gave a dry laugh that turned into a sob. It wasn’t 1990 anymore. No, it was 2020 – the year without an Easter, without a Thanksgiving, without a Christmas. Hannah debated going back to sleep. As much as she wanted to crawl back into her dream, she also dreaded it. Parched, she decided on a glass of water and then picked up a quilt and settled herself in her recliner. The amber streetlight on the corner glowed dimly through her lace curtains. The holiday light displays decorating several of the neighbors’ houses were dark. Though Hannah was determined to stay awake, it was not long before she was once more asleep.

The sound of a siren wakened Hannah. For a moment, she was unsure of where she was. Then she saw the wicker basket holding her spindles and her distaff wound with soft brown wool, the pot with the Norfolk Island pine and its string of miniature lights. Her living room. Morning. Christmas Eve. The awakening was bitter. She might as well be in Narnia when it was winter but never Christmas. Well. She could lie here in her recliner all day, or she could get up and at least accomplish something although she could not fathom what that might be. Classes would not begin again until the end of January, and her lesson plans were finely tuned by more than two decades of use. The carpet could do with vacuuming, although there was no one but herself to see it. And last night’s dishes were still in the sink, but ditto. The temptation was strong to do nothing, but she shook it off, rose, took a shower, and got dressed.

Morning coffee in hand, Hannah stood on the front stoop of her Cape Cod cottage, one of a dozen of nearly identical homes that lined the block. The air was brisk but there wasn’t much in the way of snow – just a few inches on the lawns. The street was deserted. On past Christmas Eves, the Schieffer’s driveway would be filled with cars, as would the Kasberger’s and the Leibl’s. Those were the only houses that still had couples, but their children and grandchildren always showed up for Christmas. The rest of the houses, like Hannah’s, were occupied by single people and most of those were rentals. No one with children wanted a home with just one bathroom anymore, or at least, that was what the mayor said. When her mug was empty, Hannah went back inside and surveyed her domain. She had not really decorated for Christmas. What was the point? Like everyone else on her street, she would be alone for the holiday. Sure, she had draped some miniature lights over the Norfolk Island Pine, and beneath it she had placed the olive wood Nativity Cecelia had purchased for her in Israel, and there was a wreath on the front door, but that was it.

Always winter and never Christmas. The phrase came back to Hannah. Just like in the story. But here there was no white witch. Instead, there was a virus. From March until this very day, like a line of dominoes, one thing after another had been cancelled. Hannah loved the Christmas season. It began in November with a drive to the Christkindlmarkt in Germantown. It wasn’t that she bought much at the market, but she loved the miniature chalets, seeing the artisans working at their traditional crafts, and the festive Christmas cookies, chocolates and other delicious treats. But not this year. The next part of her Christmas preparation was the Bethlehem Market Place. Several churches came together each year at the Fairgrounds to recreate a first century village. Roman soldiers on horseback collected “taxes” from the visitors who were then admitted to the “village” in the exhibition hall. Potters, carpenters, bakers, spice merchants, and textile workers like herself, demonstrated age old handicrafts as the crowds made their way along the sawdust street to the heart of the building where a live nativity depicted the true meaning of Christmas. Then there were the Christmas cookies to bake for her church’s Christmas program. Not this year. There would be no Christmas program, and only an online service for Christmas Day. And finally, there was the short trip into the countryside to the old farmstead Hannah’s great-grandparents had homesteaded in the 1850s. But that was gone, too. Cecelia had succumbed to COVID in April and Max had put the house on the market a month later, moving to Indiana to be near most of his grown children. Karl and his family were in Seattle, Mathias and his family in Florida – and no one was traveling this year. So Hannah was alone. Hannah had shipped off her boxes of hand crafted gifts to her brothers, brother-in-law, and their families the week before Thanksgiving amid dire warnings of postal slowdowns. She had also received packages from Karl and Matthias, so at least she had that.

The day dragged. Just after 3:00, Hannah drove to the supermarket to pick up her Christmas dinner meal. It had the basics and all she would have to do was reheat it tomorrow. Plus, she would have leftovers that would last almost until New Year’s. As the sun set, Hannah set off once again. When she was a very small child, her father would take her and her siblings out on Christmas Eve and they would drive to town to see the Christmas lights while her mother played Santa Claus at home. This at least she could do. Street after street seemed to outdo one another with strings of lights and inflatables and life-sized Nativities. Hannah had never seen her town this decorated. Perhaps it was just one way for people to push back against the darkness this year had brought. Back home, she opened her presents and smiled to see that Karl had sent her a sampler of cheeses, sausages, herring, dried fruit and chocolates. Well, that would certainly do for supper. She openly chuckled when she discovered Mathias had done the same. At least they remembered how much Hannah loved tradition.

With supper done and the few dishes washed and put away, Hannah picked up her old copy of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” The phrase, “always winter and never Christmas” had haunted her all day, so the classic children’s tale seemed to call to her. Losing herself in the battles, betrayals, and final victory, the evening slipped by. When she closed the book, it was almost midnight. She stepped out onto her front stoop. This was the moment in all the sappy Christmas movies when the estranged families would come together and the snowflakes would softly drift to the ground. But this was no sappy Christmas movie; this was the year without a Christmas. No snowflakes either. The sky overhead was clear. The waxing moon and stars shone crisply bright. A wave of bitterness swept over Hannah as she gazed at the decorated houses across the street. The lights seemed so futile. One of the lights up the block moved. The glowing end of a cigarette. She knew the landlords of the rental houses didn’t allow smoking indoors. So there was one other soul alive in the world this night. Hannah sighed. She drew the fleece blanket closer around her and closed her eyes.

The images from her dream flickered past her mind’s eye. All the things that meant Christmas to her that would not be. And yet, as the silence and chill settled upon her, the bitterness drained away. Softly at first, and gradually growing louder, she began, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, alles schläft, einsam wacht…”

Startled, she heard a raspy baritone pick up, “Round yon virgin, mother and child, Holy Infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.” Hannah looked to the house up the block. The cigarette had been snuffed and all she could see was the rough outline of a man. He began, “O Come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant…” Hannah joined in. And now, they were joined by a tremulous soprano, “O come, ye, O come ye to Bethlehem. Come and behold him born the King of angels…” Now, yet more voices, “O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.”

Up and down the street, people were standing on their front porches and stoops. Then Chuck Schieffer’s voice from the house on the corner rang out, “And there were in the same country, shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger’. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”

The soprano rang out with “Joy to the World,” and the neighbors chimed in. At the song’s conclusion, they wished each other a Merry Christmas and returned to the warmth of their homes. No, Hannah thought, this is not a year without a Christmas. There will never be a year without a Christmas.

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The Spinster Squad vs. Cupid: A Valentine’s Day Massacre

The Spinster Squad vs. Cupid: A Valentine’s Day Massacre

Cornelia Hackenbroich needed a half gallon of milk. Really, she only needed a quart, but the half gallon was less expensive per ounce. As far as that went, a gallon would be cheaper still, but factoring in the reality that it would go sour before it would be finished, the half gallon was the most economical choice. Cornelia stepped into the Pick ‘n’ Save and frowned. It was the morning of New Year’s Eve and all the streamers, party hats, and noisemakers had already been shunted to the discount aisle. An arch of red, pink, and white hearts greeted her as she passed the produce section, heading for the dairy case at the back of the store..

“Really!” she hmphed. “It’s bad enough that the entire month of February is given over to all this foofaraw, but now I have to contend with it in December as well! It’s time something is done about it. Yes. Something must be done!” But what? Cornelia picked up her half gallon of milk and didn’t even return the cashier’s cheery “Happy New Year!” as she checked out.

That night, Cornelia treated herself to a small glass of eggnog at 9:30 and was in bed by 10:00. At her age, she felt no need to stay up and watch the ball drop and as far as she was concerned, 2020 couldn’t be done with fast enough. But her sleep was restless, filled with images of giant, heart-shaped candy boxes and mountains of red roses and memories of the decorated mailbox in her fifth-grade classroom. Starting on the first of February, every art class was devoted to making Valentine’s Day greetings which were then to be slipped surreptitiously into the mailbox at the back of the classroom. On St. Valentine’s Day, or the on the school day closest to it, her teacher would draw the name of a boy to play postman and deliver all the handmade cards that had been collected. While the most popular girls received 30 or more greetings, Cornelia received two: one from her teacher and one from her archnemesis, Danny Weber. Danny’s card read: “Rosses are red; violets are bleu. Pig poop stinks bad and so do you.”

New Year’s Day 2021 dawned ice cold and brittle. But not nearly as ice cold and brittle as Cornelia’s heart. She also woke with a steely determination. This was the year something would be, must be done. Along with determination came inspiration. The only way to banish Valentine’s Day forever was to take on that stupid little putti named Cupid. Cornelia could scarcely wait for a decent hour to call her friend, Sybilla Brenders. Cornelia and Sybilla had been friends since their senior year of high school when the both of them had sat in Sybilla’s car across from Memorial Hall with a tape recorder and made fun of the frothy gowns their classmates were wearing to the prom. Although they had gone to different colleges and graduate programs, Cornelia and Sybilla had ended up working for the same law firm, where they made a formidable team. Neither of them had married and now that they were retired from the practice of law, both had found time to be heavy on their hands.

At precisely 9:50 on New Year’s Day, (Cornelia didn’t want to interrupt Sybilla’s ritual 10:00 beer), she placed the call and outlined her plan. Sybilla was delighted, but said, “This is bigger than the two of us. We need reinforcements. Let me make a few more calls.” Cornelia agreed. By the time the sun set on New Year’s Day, Margareta Koch, Ursula Finck, and Gertrudis Bocehm had signed on to the cause. The Spinster Squad was born.

On January 4th, the first order of business for Cornelia was to apply for a passport. Never having been out of the country, she had not needed one. Ursula and Gertrudis also needed passports, but Sybilla and Margareta already had theirs. Cornelia’s second stop of the day was at her bank where she withdrew a small, leatherbound book from her safety deposit box. The book was old. Very old. It had belonged to her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother Maria Bodt who had been born in 1618. Maria had a reputation for being a wise woman. No. She was not a witch. She did not worship the devil or any of the nature gods of the Alpine villages where she lived. She simply had collected, saved and written down the lore of herbs and potions passed down from her own great-great grandmother. Of course the fact that Maria was not a witch hadn’t saved her from being burned as one. Fortunately, her little book had by that time been safely handed over to her own granddaughter.

The next step in Cornelia’s plan involved research. For this she enlisted the aid of everyone in the Spinster Squad. In no time, Cornelia’s dining room table was covered with printouts of Cupid’s origins, which were contradictory in the Greek and Roman mythologies, paintings, and sculptures. It was Margareta who located the oldest known sculpture of the imp – as an “afterthought” attached to the statue of Roman Emperor Augustus of Prima Porta. Unfortunately, the statue was located in one of the most secure museums in the world – the Vatican.

For two weeks the members of the Spinster Squad debated the best way to access the statue. Time was of the essence. International travel was still a dicey proposition with the United Kingdom under a travel ban. But by the first of February, Italy was open. They decided the best way to approach the museum was as part of a tour group. Gertrudis, who had been a travel agent, arranged the details of the trip. Cornelia had carefully gathered the necessary ingredients called for in her little book. No. She did not need eye of newt or gall of toad, thank you very much. But she did need to boil the ingredients in either rainwater or melted snow in a copper vessel over an open fire. Of snow, there was plenty, but it was chilly work as she stood outside on a 20° day heating the potion over a fire in her Weber grill. She carefully decanted the greenish liquid into a tiny bottle that had once held nitroglycerine tablets for her Aunt Adelaide.

And so it was on the tenth of February that Cornelia Hackenbroich, Sybilla Brenders, Margareta Koch, Ursula Finck, and Gertrudis Bocehm boarded a plane for Italy in the company of a tour group of senior citizens from Canada. On February 14, they stood in the Vatican Museum before the statue of Augustus of Prima Porta. The tour guide droned on about the great military victories Augustus had achieved and how he had bestowed upon himself the role of divinity. As planned, Ursula feigned a heart attack, drawing the attention of the tour guide, guards, and most of the members of the tour group. Cornelia, Sybilla, Gertrudis, and Margareta joined hands and quietly chanted while Cornelia uncapped the vial and flicked a few drops of the potion onto the statue of Cupid at Augustus’ feet. They held their breath as the marble softened and took on the color of human flesh. But just as Cornelia was about to utter the final words of the incantation, a shout arose from one of the guards. Distracted, Cornelia turned to look and as she did so, instead of being consigned, along with every other depiction of Cupid in existence, to the depths of Hades, the little putti rose up on iridescent wings and faster than a heartbeat fired off ten golden arrows. The darts found their marks in Cornelia, Ursula, Margareta, Gertrudis, Sybilla and five widowed Canadian gentlemen who had been on the tour. Just as quickly, the little imp returned to pose at the great Augustus’ feet.

And that is why five American spinsters emigrated to Canada, where, I am told, Valentine’s Day is celebrated with great enthusiasm.