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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.

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The Silken Strand

I sit at my kitchen breakfast nook. It is the morning following my eldest sister’s death. I have been over to my little brother’s house to break the news to him. He says he’ll be okay, but I know that with him, it will be a delayed reaction. Today is also the 13th anniversary of my eldest brother’s death.

I have no energy, but I need comfort food, so I make biscuits and sausage gravy. Even with an extra dose of Tabasco sauce, I can scarcely taste it. I had just talked to Carole on Monday and had been alarmed at the new course her dementia had taken. Her mind was going, but I thought her body was stronger. It wasn’t.

So, I eat my breakfast and as I gaze out the window, the winter blue sky is streaked with high cirrus clouds. A light breeze is rocking the bare stems of the rose bush. And then, something catches my eye – a spark of iridescence. It is a single strand of spider silk stretching from the house siding to the trellis – a span of nearly eighteen inches. The breeze is tugging at it, pulling it for a brief instant into the sunlight where it shimmers and sparks. It’s almost the middle of December, and although it has been a mild month, the spiders are long gone. Yet that single strand of gossamer remains – incredibly delicate and seemingly fragile, but strong enough to have survived the 40 miles per hour winds we had last week.

My sister is gone, like the spiders of summer. Her faith was strong, and as my Pastor reminds me, “absent from the body, present with the Lord.” So like the spiders that will return with the Spring, I will see her again. Yet for now, she is gone. Still, there is this gossamer thread. Invisible for the most part, but shining gold when sunlit. So very delicate, but also tremendously strong – the iridescent strand of memory and love.

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Thanksgiving for Two

A Baby Boomer, I grew up watching “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver.” Children might squabble, but parents were always wise, compassionate, and understanding, although stern when needs be. Through the process of osmosis, those idealistic families filtered through the television screen into the depths of my psyche. They were the standard by which I judged my own family.

Boy! Did they fall short!

It wasn’t that I had a bad family or abusive parents. But we were, even by the standards of our blue collar neighborhood, poor. Also, there were a lot of us…six kids, two parents, and at one point, a grandmother. My younger brother was disabled. And there was a gap of eight years between me and my next oldest sibling. By the time I was nine years old, my father had lost his job due to heart disease and then he  was stricken with mental illness. My mother ran a day care service from our home to make ends meet. No. we were not a 1950s television family by a long shot.  

But several times a year, we came together and looked just a little like a Norman Rockwell painting. Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. By the time I was in my teens, there might be 20 people or more crowded around the kitchen table for a feast of turkey, candied sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, stuffing, succotash, cranberry sauce, ambrosia salad, black and green olives, celery and carrot sticks, baked beans, and apple and pumpkin pies. For one day, we talked, and laughed, and ate. Boy, did we eat!

After my father passed away, Christmas Day moved to my middle sister’s house. All of us, save for my eldest sister and her family, who lived too far away, gathered for a feast and an afternoon listening to Christmas music, drowsing in front of the glowing Franklin stove with a cat on one’s lap, while taking turns going out for a sleigh ride with my brother-in-law.

Even after I moved away, I always made it back “home” for Christmas. Even after my mother and disabled brother moved in next door to me, we always made it back home for Christmas…until my mother became too frail to travel in winter.

Tradition was etched deep into my soul and I clung to it with all my might. Perhaps it was because I had no husband or children of my own, but that elusive, illusive picture of family became my idol.

Then my eldest brother passed away. Then my mother. Then my next eldest brother. Then my sister and her husband became snowbirds and no longer hosted Christmas. My brother and I tried celebrating by traveling to our older sister’s home (she was by now, a widow), but a Christmas dinner of day-old Subway sandwiches, just didn’t cut it. Nor did celebrating Christmas on any other day but Christmas. And rather than an entire day together with extended family, this was eat while scattered throughout the house, exchange presents, and leave in just under two hours, all the while evidence of strained relationships rippled just beneath the surface. It definitely was not a Norman Rockwell painting. And then, as dementia took hold, our sister was unable to host even an abbreviated celebration.

So my brother and I were cast adrift, as it were, for the holidays. Easter, we usually found a restaurant…but not in this year of COVID. Thanksgiving, Christmas, I prepare a meal for the two of us. Me, who has words pent up behind the dam of isolation and him, who because of his disability, can only communicate only in a limited fashion.

It breaks my traditionalist heart.

But then I read, “ Listen, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your own people also, and your father’s house; so the King will greatly desire your beauty; because He is your Lord, worship Him.” (Psalm 45:10-11)

Traditionalist me wants a cozy, firelit home, groaning table filled with a dozen varieties of delectables, a cat or dog or niece or nephew (or–gasp! even a child or grandchild of my own) on my lap. Siblings, or perhaps a husband, with whom I can share memories, tell the family stories or even solve the problems of the world.

But I don’t have that. And perhaps this year, because of COVID, you don’t have that either. Perhaps it is just you and your young children, or you and your spouse, or just you. If so, like me, you have a choice to make. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you have a choice.

See, no matter the circumstances, no matter if your Thanksgiving dinner this year is a frozen meal popped in the microwave or a scaled back meal you prepare for just a few, you are not alone at your Thanksgiving table. The God who created the universe is omnipresent; or in the words of the ancient hymn, “wheresoever man can go, Thou God art present there.” And then, Jesus promised that the Comforter would be with you. And Jesus Himself said He would be wherever two or more were gathered in His name.And the Apostle Paul says we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. (Yes, I know there is scholarly debate as to whether these witnesses are angels or those who have gone before us or a mixed crowd) But you are most definitely not alone.

As for me, on Wednesday, I will bake a pumpkin pie and pick up our deli meal from the supermarket. I’ll reheat it on Thursday and my little brother and I will hold hands, say grace, and enjoy our turkey and stuffing. And maybe, just maybe, we will garner a sense of those who cannot be with us and be content in the knowledge that they are all safe in God’s hands.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Commander’s Private Log

73rd Magesterium, Haakonus, Quartum 8

I, Admah Caphtor, have been assigned the post of commander of the cargo ship, Arkon with a crew of thirty. Our stated purpose is to harvest the resources, particularly dihydrogen monoxide, from a dying world in the Kuiper Belt of the system Corrolis. My first mate is Sener Tiras and one of my two chief advisors. The other is my lifemate Jamben Caphtor, although he is not listed on the crew manifest. Jamben serves also in a secret capacity. He is our ship’s theologian.  I have decided to keep and encrypt a private log of our journey since, with any grace, we will go nowhere near Corrolis and instead will travel to a new and distant world.

Commander’s Private Log

73rd Magesterium, Rigellus, Quartum 8

It is with great relief that the Arkon has cleared the transit point. Up until passing through the interspace portal, the chance of discovery and destruction was ever on my heart and mind. The Arkon is classed as a cargo ship, but unlike most other cargo ships of the Imperium, the Arkon has a very contraband, and very precious cargo: 120 followers of The Herdsman. Discovery would have meant death for us all, but now we are safe beyond the reach of the Imperium’s enforcers. My first mate has laid in the new course, the course given to us by the Pneumos through the Prophet of The Herdsman so many magesteria ago. We will follow our officially registered course for a quartum before engaging the change in direction. Oh, to be sure, there are Imperium spies among my crew. They do not yet know what “cargo” the Arkon carries, but as soon as we embark on our designated path, my brothers and sisters, for I too, am a follower of The Herdsman, will be released from their confinement. I have set up precautions to intercept any messages the spies attempt to send back, although for now, I am allowing their reports to go through. The Arkon is not the only ship fleeing the Imperium’s decree of death to all The Herdsman”s followers. We have scattered in all directions and with the Jothavah’s blessing, may we all find safe harbor.

Commander’s Private Log

92nd Magesterium, Cintrus, Quartum 2

There are murmurings of mutiny among some of the crew. They think I do not hear, but I have my own spies. And in this, the Imperium spies have revealed themselves. For the followers of The Herdsman and my loyal crew members all know the purpose of our mission. It is not, as the Imperium authorized, to find worlds with resources to harvest, but to find a new home, a refuge for the people whom our Deity, Jothavah and his Son, the the Herdsman love. Still, I have not been truthful in the official log. We have long since passed the point of no return, though the official log does not show that. The rebels continue to send their reports to the Imperium, but I have intercepted them all. 

The spies, of course, now know we are not on the way to the Corollis System and the real reason for our journey. In their eyes, it is I and our “cargo” who are the mutineers against the Imperium. I keep a close watch on them, for it is not without possibility they may try to hijack the ship. If they were to succeed, it would mean death for us all, including themselves, since there is no way back now to the Consortium of the Twelve Worlds. I continue to intercept their reports I wish there to be no trace of our path even many magesteria in the future.

The spies are most obvious to me when we gather each Justus to worship. They mouth the words, but I can see the discomfort in their eyes. How strange it must be for them to be in the minority, pretending to adore Jothavah, the Herdsman, and Pneumos to avoid detection. And how wonderful it is for us to sing the praise of our Deity openly, without fear of capture and death.

In happier news, seventeen infants have been birthed since we embarked on our exodus.

Commander’s Private Log

140th Magesterium, Haakonus, Quartum 4

We have begun intercepting audio signals from our destination. The translators are working feverishly to decode the transmissions. It appears that our haven is occupied. This, the Prophet of The Herdsman did not foretell. It also appears that the peoples of this world have several different languages. How strange, when throughout the Imperium there is but one mother tongue.  The differing languages also seem to have very different contexts. One is harsh in tone, much like the propaganda of the Imperium, praising its military heroes and exalting the imminent conquest of neighboring lands. This is unsettling, as the prophecy led us to believe that this world was different from the Imperium. Yet, other broadcasts seem to extol fatherhood and family life. The translators have deciphered phrases such as, “Make room for Daddy,” and “Father knows best.” Despite the differences, I have assigned a group to learn each of the languages we have intercepted. The children, now numbering 46, are most adept at this.

Commander’s Private Log

145th Magesterium, Pratus, Quartum 4

We now have video signals from our destination! I am astonished at how like the creatures of this world, which they call “Earth” are to us! Jamben gently chided me. He said that in knowing we are created in the image and likeness of Jothavah, I should not be surprised that our Deity would use the same pattern to create His other flocks. Of course, Jamben is right. One good thing about this is that we will only need to make slight adjustments to our own appearances to assimilate with these “humans” as they call themselves. It does seem strange that the features and colorations of these people appear to be fixed at birth when they have a sauroid creature they call a “chameleon” that can alter its external surfaces, as we can, to match its surroundings.

We are learning much about this world from the transmissions. It is as though the Consortium of the Twelve Worlds were contained on one planet. We have also learned that this species is highly xenophobic. Therefore, my counselors and I have decided that we shall not all disembark together. Instead, we shall scatter in kinship groups across the several continents. It grieves me that we cannot remain all together, but we are not here as invaders but as refugees.

Commander’s Private Log

162nd Magesterium, Aulus, Quartum 3

We are now within probe range of our goal. We have detected many communication devices and a spacecraft in orbit around the planet. Though primitive, this indicates a higher degree of sophistication than I would have expected. It is a good thing we have shields to prevent our detection. Still, until all of the probe studies have been analyzed, we will remain in the shadow of this world’s moon.  How strange it will seem to look up at the heavens and see but one moon instead of seven. It is also astonishing how fast this world moves. Its solar days and the timing of its revolutions around its star are so short! Whereas our home world rotates once in 46 hours, has nine solar days to a week, 40 weeks to a quartum and eight quartums to a solar year, and ten solar years in a magesteria. this world rotates once in just over 24 hours, has seven days to a week and 52 weeks to a solar year, although some cultures follow a shorter lunar year. It will mean considerable adjustment for our people.

Perhaps it is a function of the rapid revolutions of this world that causes its people to have such short lives. In the Coalition of the Twelve Worlds, our average lifespan is 150 magesteria, although that does vary somewhat depending upon which world one comes from. I cannot help but wonder if, as we adapt to this new world, if we – or our offspring – will also develop shorter lifespans or if we will become conspicuous by the length of our days. Well, it is all in the hands of Jothavah, whichever shall happen.

Commander’s Private Log

163rd Magesterium, Lystrus, Quartum 4

The analysis of data from the probes is complete. This world is far more complex than I had imagined.  And then there is the water! So much water! While all the technology is primitive, some is more so, much more so than others. There are people groups living a subsistence existence whose only source of energy is the combustion of organic materials on individual hearths. Others, a little more advanced consolidate organic material combustion into plants to feed energy grids that stretch across much of the planet. Some small areas have tapped the geothermal resources of this world where access is close to the surface. And while there is evidence of nuclear generated power, many of these primitive reactors are either idle or appear to be ageing. Most laughable of all are power generators that rely on solar radiation or wind, as these sources are unpredictable and unreliable. It is strange to me that since it is apparent they have the capacity to use nuclear fission, that they do not make more use of it rather than less reliable or clean methods.

I am greatly relieved that there is a global communication network. This will make our diaspora less grievous since the kinship groups will be able to remain in communication. There is much yet to do to assure a seamless assimilation. Some of the people groups require little to no documentation of its citizens; others, much like the Imperium, require much. However, since some of their communication is electronic, we can create the necessary information for our people and provide them with documents such as birth records and things like “social security numbers.”  It is ironic that this will be easiest among the most advanced and the most primitive cultures of this world. It is those in the middle, those that still rely upon physical records collected in civic buildings that will be the greatest challenge. Fortunately, these are in the minority.

Social analysis also reveals several types of mediums of exchange. Some use barter, some use fiat currency, some use certain metals and yet others conduct all transactions electronically, but most use a combination of these forms. Most of these nations have a standard based in metals such as gold, silver, and copper, even if the actual units of metal are not in popular use. Thus, by depositing a stockpile of these metals mined from this solar system’s asteroid belt, and creating digital accounts, we have been able to purchase lands on the several continents for our people and provide them with the means of commerce.

We have discovered that there is one country that is almost as repressive as the Imperium itself. I have assigned this location to the spies. Having learned the language, they should feel right at home there.

So. All told, we are 197 souls including the nine spies. We will establish colonies in places called China (the spies), Russia, India, Uganda, Europe, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Australia and the United States of America. The groups will of necessity be small to limit discovery and the areas where they will settle seem to have sparse populations.  Of course, kinship groups will remain together. My husband, brother, his lifemate and their five children have drawn lots for an area in the United States called Wisconsin. Our probes showed many agricultural units in sparsely populated regions near forested areas that have been abandoned. We have purchased two of those units adjacent to each other and will settle there. Even though our people will be scattered across the globe, this planet, this “Earth” has well established, though primitive communication systems that will allow us to remain connected. The life ships are due to depart tomorrow. If all goes well on this world, and it is the haven the Prophet foretold, in two of its year’s time, the Archon will launch itself into the solar system’s sun and we will remain here until our passing or until the Jothavah and The Herdsman make all things new.

Commander’s Private Log

January 15, 2020

We have taken possession of our new homes. Both parcels of land have family dwellings upon them as well as outbuildings for livestock, although all are in need of repair. The land here is rock hard and covered with snow. It is like the ice caps of the planet Centares, but the analyst guides tell us that this season will change into one conducive to agriculture. To that end, we have purchased planting machinery and seeds. I do hope the guides are thorough. I have been a ship’s officer and commander all my adult life and my husband a theologian. My brother and his lifemate were both teachers on our homeworld, so none of us have much experience in agricultural production, especially on this primitive a level.

February 23, 2020

We have met our nearest neighbors. They are experienced agriculturalists, but they eschew even the small machines we have purchased and the electrical power we use to heat and light our dwelling units. Instead, they use organic combustion to heat and light their homes, although they do use an internal combustion generator for some things. They also use horses to work their land. They have determined that we are “Englisch cityfolk” who have chosen to depart from the large urban centers of this area to become “farmers” and that we are completely inexperienced. However, recognizing our lack of skill, they have offered their assistance, both in restoring our dwelling places and outbuildings, and in teaching us what we need to know to be effective farmers. With us, they speak the common tongue, but with each other, I note they have a different language, one which appears to be a dialect of one of the languages of the continent of Europe.

But here is the most wonderful thing of all! They know Jothavah, The Herdsman, and Pneumos! They call them the Father Jehovah, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost. They even have, not just one, but several copies of the sacred writings, both in their family tongue and the common language. On our homeworld, mere possession of the Lifebuch, in any form, was an immediate death sentence.  Among our entire company, we had but one physical copy, which Jamben gradually duplicated during our travels. Here, their Bible is published freely. We have obtained several copies and Jamben has spent many days carefully comparing it to the Lifebuch. Of course, the historical sections are very different, for they tell the story of this world and not ours. But the ethical teachings, rituals for atonement and cleansing are identical, and the Bible’s songbook is as exquisitely beautiful as our own – many of the phrases, allowing for translation – are identical. The most amazing thing of all is the story of the Herdsman, the One they call Jesus and who calls Himself “the Good Shepherd.”

In the Coalition of the Twelve Worlds, there have always been the people of Jothavah, although always few in number. These people, my ancestors, lived by a code of the highest integrity and had many rituals that set them apart from all others. The rituals also provided a means of cleansing, for who among any created being is able to live perfectly? The fortunes of the people of Jothavah rose and fell and rose again during many magesteria. But then the Imperium gained power, first on my homeworld, and then among the other worlds of the Coalition. The Imperium did not look with favor upon the people of Jothavah, but was content to allow them their liberty as long as they obeyed the imperium’s laws. It was a hundred magesteria after the Imperium’s rise to power that a great mystery was proclaimed by the prophets of Jothavah. They declared that in visions and in the stars they saw the Herdsman, the Son of Jothavah become corporeal. Oh, not in our worlds, not in any world that the prophets knew. Still, they were certain of the event and a new joy infused the people of Jothavah. And then, in scarcely any time at all, the joy became a death dirge and the prophets wailed and lamented. At that time, great cataclysms wracked all the twelve worlds. Yet in even less time, the joy rebounded and even the constellations changed. The prophets declared the Herdsman had sacrificed Himself so that all Jothavah’s people would forevermore be free of the required rituals and would be given the Pneumos so that they could know the Herdsman for themselves. And so for three generations, we have gathered, worshipped, and felt the Pneumos come upon us bringing the peace of the Herdsman.

The cataclysms and changing constellations greatly frightened the mages of the Imperium. Soon, worship of Jothavah and the Herdsman was outlawed. The Lifebuch, wherever it was found was destroyed. As the persecutions worsened, plans were made to flee. Prophets on all the Twelve Worlds were given visions of havens and the instructions to reach them.

That was our story. Jamben discovered that here on this insignificant, primitive, blue-green ball, the story of the one called the Good Shepherd was not just written on the stars and in visions. Here, the Herdsman was actually birthed, lived, died, and rose! Imagine that! On this world, people saw, heard, touched the Son of Jothavah! We did not know that our exodus would also be a pilgrimage. And yet, even though this world was granted the greatest honor in the universe, it is divided and torn by strife. Jamben has shared his research with all the other kinship groups and rejoiced to discover that all but one of them have discovered followers of this Jesus in their new homes.

Our neighbors also told us their history, how their ancestors fled from persecution for their beliefs, first to a place called Ukraine, and then to the United States of America. I feel we have much in common with them.

March 30, 2020

True to their word, our neighbors have assisted us in preparing the soil for planting and in repairing our barn. They have also sold heifer calves to both my lifemate and me and my brother. They tell us that we will not be able to harvest milk from them until next year, but until then, we can purchase what we need from them. It is good to have such beneficial relationships, especially now. A plague has descended upon this world, and much of it is in quarantine. I do not know if our people will be susceptible to it. In a way, it is beneficial to all our groups. It gives us more time to assimilate in limited communities. As to our groups, we remain in communication with each other, with the exception of the spies who were sent to China. We have no knowledge of what has become of them.

All around us, the snow is melting and the earth is greening. It is marvelous to behold this new life, especially now as I feel the stirrings of new life within myself. Jamben, I mean James – we have adopted Earth names — my husband is overjoyed.

Thursday, November 26.

Life on this primitive world has been so busy! I have not had time to maintain my personal log. All through the spring and summer months, there were crops to plant, then to harvest, then to sell or preserve. James bought six goats, which along with the calf needed daily tending, And then there is the child growing within me. Both our harvests and my brother’s have been abundant. It could not have happened, even with our guidebooks, without the help of our neighbors, the Yoders. Today, we have invited them into our home in a feast they call Thanksgiving. It is a day set aside to respond in gratitude to all the good gifts the Jothavah, the Creator, Him who is called God the Father, has given us. He has been good indeed.

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1313

1313 Villa Street. The sign said, “Vicki’s Junque Shoppe…Yesterday’s Trash, Today’s Treasure.” I must have passed that store a dozen times a day…and like all the kids in the neighborhood, gave the malodorous sidewalk vents a wide berth. Oh, not that the display windows didn’t hold their temptations…my ten-year-old self lusted after the millifiore paperweights that sparkled in the rays of the setting sun, but the more than life size reproductions of Gainsborough’s “Pinkie” and “Blue Boy” in ornate gilded frames that flanked the walls were just creepy. And there were the Aunt Jemima syrup bottles that had been fitted out with various costumes. Then there was the building. At one time, in the late 1800s, it had been a hotel on the street that once bore the name “Workman’s Row” instead of the more elegant, “Villa Street.” It was two stories tall with a squared off false front and hadn’t seen a coat of paint in decades. The siding above the huge display windows bore the remains of a coat of white paint, but the walls beyond were dark brown and the windows that looked north and south were dark and lifeless, bearing the remains of tattered shades. A rickety outer staircase ascended the south side of the building to a door that had been sealed by two planks nailed criss-cross over the portal. Of course, the creepiest factor of all was the proprietor…Vicki herself. Rumor had it that her husband was a prosperous real estate developer who dropped her off early every morning and picked her up after dark each evening. Funny thing, though — no one could ever recall seeing that happen. With snow-white, fright wig hair, dressed in ankle-length skirts, with ragged cardigans layered over stained, frilly blouses, and a reputation for chasing children off the sidewalk in front of the shop with a broom, she had all of us convinced she was a witch. Then there was her propensity for “stealing” water from the outdoor spigot of Grandma Turkowski’s house, when the plumbing for the store didn’t work, that sealed her reputation as “eccentric” with the adults. Needless to say, we kids did not need to be told to avoid the place…especially on Halloween.

That all changed the autumn of my eleventh year. School couldn’t dismiss early enough that October 31st. The lure of trick-or-treating was on the mind of every student and our attention spans were non-existent. A few lapses too many throughout the day meant I wasn’t leaving school with my classmates. Instead, I had three rooms worth of chalkboards to clean. So my walk home was unusually solitary. Passing the open door of the Junque shop as dusk began to fall, I was startled to hear the sound of sobbing. The wordless cries morphed to the breathy, strangled words, “Help me!” Frightened, I looked around. The street was empty. A few more yards and I would be safe on my front porch and my parents could answer the cry for help. But the words came again, fainter this time…and this time, I heard my name. With a mouth as dry as cotton, I tip-toed through the door. But Vicki was not there. Instead a scrawny man in a purple coat and striped top hat beckoned me further in. I walked through the dark and dingy anteroom and my jaw dropped in amazement. Beyond the beaded curtain to the back of the shop, light streamed into a high-ceilinged series of rooms that stretched far beyond the fence marking the Cook’s back yard. Not an inch of wall space was visible for the bric-a-brac that glittered and gleamed in the foggy illumination.

Silently, the man handed me a paperweight and then shooed me out the door. It was fully dark, and all up and down the street, costume-clad neighbor kids were trotting up and down the steps to jack-o-lantern and porch light illumined doors. Wait. What happened? Trick-or-treating wasn’t supposed to begin until 6:00. I had stepped into the store shortly after four. I called out to the nearest group of children running between the Mosher’s house and the Peterson’s. For just a moment, the kids stopped, stared at me, and then ran screaming to the corner. Puzzled, I turned and caught my reflection in the shop window…my reflection of white, fright-wig hair, ankle length skirt and ragged cardigan over a frilly stained blouse.

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Catherine Ann

Saturday, October 21, 1916.

Casper Flock was concerned. His 21-year old wife Mary had just gone into labor. Together, they had spent the first year-and-a-half of their marriage in a tiny cabin on his father’s property as Casper managed the farm. He had sent word to the main house to send for the doctor, but so far, no one had come. And then there was no more time. Casper delivered his baby daughter, whom he named Anna. Late in the evening, the doctor finally arrived. He was none too sober. He checked over the new mother and infant girl and filled out the necessary information for the birth certificate, checking the box for “male” and writing in “unnamed.” Officially, Anna Catherina Flock was an unnamed, male child.

It didn’t take long for Mary to tire of the heavy German pronunciation of her daughter’s name, “Uh-nah” so she changed it to Catherine Anne. (Years later, this would prove to be a problem) Two years later, little Catherine would be joined by a brother, Phillip and two years after that by her twin sisters Marie and Eleanor. Life in the little cabin was getting crowded. But it was soon to change. In May, 1920, Catherine’s grandfather Herman Flock died and Casper’s stepmother Magdalena evicted the little family. They moved to a farm in Hall’s Valley, near Melvina, where Richard and Ruth were born.

Casper lost that farm to foreclosure. Catherine and her siblings were sent to live with her Willger grandparents in Sparta while Casper and Mary proved up a parcel of cut-over land in Gilman, 100 miles away. Catherine’s grandparents were stern Germans. Catherine started her education in the convent school, where the nuns were just as stern. Naturally left-handed, she soon learned through many cracks of a ruler across her knuckles to write with her right hand. She also learned to watch over her brothers and sisters. On a hot summer’s day, when she was supposed to be babysitting, she wandered off to a grocery store owned by a cousin where she hoped to be treated to an ice cream. Instead, she was sent immediately home. As part of her punishment, that evening, she was forced to stand in the doorway of the dining room to watch her family eat before being sent to bed without a supper.

Once a dwelling had been built on their Gilman property, Casper and Mary sent for their children. The house was little more than a shack, set on rock piers with no foundation or basement, but they were together again. The property was 80 acres. Before a house could be built, before a plow could furrow a field, all the stumps had to be dynamited. Dynamiting the stumps sometimes set the roots ablaze and the smoldering fire would spread from one root system to another, exploding into living flame when close enough to the surface. On some days, wisps of smoke from the burning roots would drift up between the rough floorboards of the house. Twice, forest fires swept the region, but the little shanty was spared by being in the middle of cleared land.

By 1932, Catherine had two more brothers, Theodore and Leo (Pat). In January, on an evening when her parents were out visiting, the gas lantern in the kitchen exploded. Catherine got all seven of her siblings safely out of the house, where they stood barefoot in the snow, watching their home burn to the ground. The family lost everything, including all the canned food meant to see them through the winter that had been stored beneath the beds. When the ashes cooled, Catherine found her piggy bank. The amber glass pig had melted into a solid blob, forever encasing the few copper pennies that had been stored within.

Casper and Mary built a new house. The children helped by wrapping rags around their hands and carried the sharp-edged tiles to the builders. It was in this house that Catherine’s remaining siblings, Agnes, Robert, and Caroline were born. Catherine became a nurse’s aide in the Sparta hospital upon graduation from high school.

It was at the hospital that Catherine would meet the man she would marry, although she was not impressed with him at their first meeting. Clarence Kexel was quarantined in the hospital with the mumps. Before being discharged, he asked Catherine for a date. She refused.

Now Catherine was just a little bit of a party girl. In between Sparta and Fort McCoy was a bar and dance hall. Friday and Saturday nights it was a lively place, frequented by National Guardsmen and members of the Civilian Conservation Corps stationed at Fort McCoy. Catherine and her fellow aides and nurses would make the drive just about every weekend where they would dance the night away — or at least until the last minute before they had to leave to make it back to their dorm before curfew. However, after Clarence was discharged from the hospital, Catherine no longer had any dance partners. Clarence was the camp cook with the CCC and he had made it known that the pretty and petite nurse’s aide was his, and his alone. And no one messed with the camp cook.

Disappointed over this turn of events, Catherine left Sparta for LaCrosse where she worked first as a housemaid for a wealthy family and then as a nurse’s aide at St. Joseph’s Nursing Home. After she and Clarence had become engaged, Catherine moved to Milwaukee, working in another hospital and living with an aunt while Clarence worked in the foundry at J.I. Case in Racine. They were married on June 18, 1938 and spent three months on a hitchhiking honeymoon, staying with relatives and sleeping in barns…and for one night, in the Richland County Jail. Picked up by the sheriff, they had been taken to his home and treated to a delicious supper. As the sheriff had no prisoners in the jail at the time, his wife pushed a couple of cots together in a cell and furnished them with sheets and blankets. Catherine and Clarence spent the night in the unlocked cell and were treated to a hearty breakfast, then sent on their way with a hamper full of sandwiches. After traveling through Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula, they returned to make their home in Racine.

Catherine’s first child, was stillborn in August, 1939. Her daughter Carole was born in August, 1940. Tom came along in 1942, Ken in 1943, Sue in 1945. Then Catherine had three late miscarriages. Kathy was born in 1953 and Mike in 1956. Mike’s birth was traumatic. Much like her first son, Mike presented with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and at first, he was not breathing. Then Catherine hemorrhaged and her heart stopped. Both were revived, but both developed pneumonia. Catherine was hospitalized for a month; Mike for three. Not long after he came home it became apparent that like Catherine’s brothers Phillip, Theodore, Leo, and Robert, Mike had Fragile X Syndrome.

Throughout her marriage, Catherine worked, on-and-off as a third-shift nurse’s aide at St. Mary’s Hospital. In 1962, after Clarence had his first heart attack, Catherine needed to be home to care for him so she became a day care provider in her home, and later for the children of a college professor. On January 21, 1978, in the midst of a blizzard, Catherine had a heart attack and was transported to St. Luke’s Hospital. Exactly one week later, Clarence had his final heart attack and was being treated just down the hall from Catherine when he passed away.

After recovering from open heart surgery, Catherine took a job as a kindergarten teacher’s aide at Winslow School, a position she held for three years. In 1995, Catherine and Mike moved from Racine to Marshfield to become her daughter Kathy’s next door neighbor where she lived until her passing in 2008 at the age of 91.

Catherine coped with heartache, loss and poverty throughout her life, yet she never lost a spirit of hope and a heart for others. Even into the 1950s, hobos would find their way to her back door for a sandwich and a glass of milk. She always saw the good in others, even when they were taking advantage of her. She had an unconquerable joy of living, and even up to her last days could be heard to say, “God is good.”

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Clarence Sylvester

My father, Clarence Kexel would have been 111 years old today. No, he didn’t leave me a magic ring.

Tuesday, October 19, 1909

In the tiny, unincorporated village of Soperton, Wisconsin (a “suburb” of Wabeno), John and Emma Kexel welcomed the arrival of their seventh child, a son, whom they named Clarence Sylvester. The family was not rich, but neither were they impoverished. John and Emma owned their own home on a half-acre lot…plenty of room for a garden, ducks, and chickens. John worked in town at the Connor Company Lumber mill. His eldest son Ferdinand also worked for the Connor company, but at the logging camp. Fishing, hunting, and running trap lines in the surrounding Nicolet National Forest augmented the family table and finances.

Clarence was a bright boy, doing well in school and especially at mathematics. He was also expected to assist in maintaining the family homestead with chores and with money from his jobs. Shortly after his tenth birthday, his mother woke him at 4:00 AM. Clarence caught a ride with the driver of the milk wagon to the lumber camp. As a cook’s helper, it was his job to stir up the fire in the huge iron stoves, light the lanterns, haul in the milk, start the coffee, and start cracking eggs…lots and lots of eggs. It was also his job to pull the sheet off the copper kettle of the previous day’s pancake batter, which would be used as the starter for the day’s pancakes, and skim off any insects or rodents that had found their way into the pot. As soon as the kitchen was warm, he would be joined by the cook who fried up mounds of potatoes left from the previous evening, rashers of bacon, scrambled eggs, and stacks of pancakes.

At first light, the breakfast bell was rung, and the loggers, all 60 of them filed silently into the mess hall and their assigned seats. No talking was the rule – break it, and you didn’t eat. Clarence’s job was to keep the trays of hot food, pitchers of coffee and milk coming. After the men had cleared their plates and filed silently out, Clarence collected the dirty cups, plates, and tableware and began the chore of washing up the tin utensils, which also had to be thoroughly dried to prevent rust. Then he had to place each table setting back at the correct seat at the long tables. Each man knew his own cup and plate and getting the placement wrong would earn Clarence a box on the ears from the cook. By 8:30, the kitchen would be in order with preparations for the noon meal ready to go. Clarence just had time for the half-hour walk back into town to be on time for school at 9:00.

Monday, through Friday, this was his routine. On Friday mornings, he would be paid – the princely sum of $1.00. Fifty cents of this would go into a savings account at the bank. Twenty-five cents went to his parents for room and board, Ten cents was for his tithe at church. The remaining fifteen cents was his to spend as he pleased. Clarence was not only bright, he was frugal. His lumber camp earnings along with the bounty he received from the pelts garnered by his traplines slowly added up. By the time he graduated from high school, he had $1,000.00 in savings. His goal was a university education, and four years of tuition, books, room and board at Madison would require $2,000.00. Unfortunately, his older brother Ted also had college ambitions and $1,000.00. Their father John decreed that Clarence’s savings would go to pay for Ted’s college education.

Disappointed, Clarence attempted to join his younger brothers Francis and Vincent in joining the Army, but was rejected due to his less than perfect vision. It was 1936 and the Great Depression was in full swing. Jobs were hard to find. Clarence found employment with the Civilian Conservation Corps, where, due to his lumber camp experience, he was made one of the camp cooks. It was also while in the CCC that he would meet the woman he would marry. Quarantined in the Sparta Hospital with a case of the mumps, Clarence spied the petite nurse’s aide, Catherine Flock on his first day and was instantly smitten. She, of course, would have nothing to do with him until her Aunt Clara intervened. Their courtship lasted two years and crossed three counties. They were married June 18, 1938. Laid off from his job in the foundry at J.I.Case just two days after their marriage, Clarence and Catherine spent the summer on a hitchhiking honeymoon traveling from Racine to Sparta and LaCrosse, to St. Paul, to Gilman, to Wabeno, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, to Door County and back to Racine, where Clarence found a job driving city bus with the Racine Motorcoach Company.

Just over a year later, August 1939, Clarence was eagerly anticipating the birth of their first child, He had borrowed a co-worker’s Buick to transport his laboring wife to the hospital. Unfortunately, the child, a boy who was to have been named Carl, never drew breath. Clarence was so upset when he left the hospital, he crashed his friend’s car. A year after that, their daughter Carole. In 1942, their son Tom was born, followed fourteen months later by Ken. Sue was born in 1945. Clarence’s 4F rating combined with his employment in a reserve industry (one deemed essential to the war effort) kept him out of the military during WWII. In the years between 1945 and 1953, he and Catherine lost three babies. In 1953, Kathy was born. In 1956, Mike, who was born with a genetic condition now called Fragile X Syndrome arrived, completing the family.

Although Clarence, an extrovert, loved his job, bus driving was not a lucrative career, especially for a man with six children, one of whom was disabled. He tried a number of side jobs, from delivering sandwiches to taverns, upholstery, and selling shoes from a catalogue. Clarence was never very successful in any of those ventures. In 1961, at the age of 52, he had his first heart attack, ending his bus driving career and plunging the family into poverty. From then on, until he finally qualified for disability benefits in 1974, he held a series of jobs, each of which ended with a subsequent heart attack. Clarence’s final heart attack occurred on January 28, 1978. He was just 68 years old.

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October 18, 2016

Tuesday morning, 2:00 AM. Leaving the radio station, the moon is a full circle casting a broad halo in the hazy sky. Closer to the horizon, clouds reflect the lights of Stevens Point, twenty-some miles away to the east; a smaller streak to the west pinpoints Blenker. The air is moist but apart from the high haze, there is no fog. The car thermometer reads 63 degrees. Sixty-three degrees in the middle of the night in the latter half of October. Amazing. Trundling in from the west, the Canadian National locomotive whistles in the dark, a long and lonesome sound.

I have the highway almost to myself; only a few semis heading east cut the darkness with their headlights. The highway still shows signs of the earlier rain, but the brisk southerly wind is rapidly drying the concrete. Despite the lonesome sound of the train, I’m not lonely. Although tired, somehow I am alert and feeling as though I could drive for hours more. Hmm…three hours…I would be knocking on my sister Carole’s door just after 5:00 AM…would probably scare her out of three years growth…and at 76, that wouldn’t be a good idea. Four hours would take me to my sister Sue’s house – the sun still wouldn’t be up at 6:00, but they’re early risers. No. As much as the wild temptation to pursue the adventure, the practical side of my nature…and the quarter-tank of gas in the car rule otherwise.

Instead, I take advantage of the mild night air to sit on my front stoop and contemplate the night. October. It’s such a significant month. The day after tomorrow is my father’s birthday. He would be 107. One hundred and seven. Scientists who study such things as telomeres, the cells in our bodies that determine how long we will live, say that optimally, they are designed to last about 120 years, but damage from free radicals shortens them…and shortens our lives. 120 years. Interesting. When God brought Noah out of the ark, He said, “I will no longer contend with man forever. His years shall be 120.” Well, Dad’s been gone for 38 years. That’s more than 60% of my life. And then Friday is Mom’s birthday. She would have been 100. It is amazing that through them, I can reach back and touch the history of more than a century ago. And last week marked the fifth anniversary of my brother Ken’s passing. Like Dad, he was 68…much too young for this day and age. Still, there are positive days in this month. Sister Sue is turning 71 on the 28th.

Even though I’ve lived more than half my life without him, Dad still casts a long shadow. I remember the half dozen times I rode his city bus route with him until he got off work at midnight. I remember the stories he told, his rich baritone voice singing “Blue Skirt Waltz” and “Minnie Was a Moocher.” Picking wild strawberries in the woods near home and blueberries in the boggy stretches of the Chequamegon National Forest. I remember the frightening times when his heart gave out and he turned grey as we waited forever for the ambulance to arrive or racing out to Sue’s at 80 miles per hour to pick up Mom so she could meet the ambulance at the Emergency Room. I remember his laughter…and his rages. A long shadow indeed.

And then there was Mom. The eight years she has been gone seem barely a heartbeat or two…and yet seem forever. It’s a grand story…born in a log cabin 100 years ago without benefit of midwife or doctor. A century of tragedy…lost babies, a handicapped son, early widowhood, physical challenges. Yet it is also a century of triumph…six children living to adulthood, the love and respect of just about everyone who knew her, creating a home where all were welcomed, making one scrawny chicken feed eight people for half a week, overcoming a heart-stopping – quite literally – delivery of her youngest, outliving her cardiac surgeon’s long term prognosis by ten years. Oh, not earth-shaking victories but rather the quiet persistence of a woman of deep faith.

And Ken? Too many questions there. His last wishes unfulfilled because he ran out of time. He was scheduled to see his lawyer…and a judge…the day after he died. It’s a reminder to all of us…we like to think we have time, all the time in the world…but we don’t.

October night…or rather morning…musings. I’ve been here before…when the night wraps its arms around my city and the world downshifts to a slower pace. The wind is picking up and there’s a slight change to its direction bringing a whiff of chill air…a reminder the seasons are changing. Winter is just around the corner and this Indian Summer will soon be ending. It’s a reminder too, that a century is a long time, yet sometimes not long enough and time is ever advancing and just when we think we have all the time in the world…we don’t. Well…speaking of time…time now for bed. See you in the morning.

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Firestorm

October 1871 — 149 years ago. The small family of Engelbert and Barbara Zeiser and their children had recently moved from their home in Pennsylvania to the bustling frontier town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin.

All through the late summer and early autumn the skies had been hazy and the air smelled of smoke. On the edges of the Zeiser property lay piles of tinder dry slash. Just a generation before, the land they had purchased to farm had been solid forest. Before a plow could be sunk into the rich, but thin forest soil, hundreds of stumps needed to be pulled up and/or dynamited. Hard and dangerous work.

On the night of October 8, the Zeiser’s world exploded. The many little fires that had been burning throughout the previous unseasonably hot and dry weeks coalesced into a monster. There was just time to put as many family possessions as possible into the root cellar and head for safety. The family was fortunate. They survived. Somewhere between 1,200 and 2,000 people did not. And while the family’s possessions in the root cellar also survived, their homestead did not. So they packed up what remained and moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where a year layer, their daughter Emma, my grandmother was born.

Today, on my shelf sits a teapot. It is black, ornamented with medallions of enameled flowers. Teapots like it were made by the tens of thousands in England for export to America, where the teapots, cups, and saucers were sold cheap. I could walk into just about any decent antique store and find a twin to my teapot for about $40.00. Ah, but mine is unique. It survived the Peshtigo fire.