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Pie Wars

If there was anything Martha Hemmersbach was proud of, it was her family and her Thanksgiving feast. Martha and her husband, Arnold were the parents of eight children, six of whom were grown and flown the nest. The two youngest, twins, Abigail and Amanda were high school seniors. Eldest son, Arnold Junior and his wife Felicity along with their two girls and two boys, lived in Port Wing, just a few miles down the road from the Hemmersbach farm. Arnold Jr. now managed much of the farm work, and as soon as Abigail and Amanda left home, he and his family would move into the 125-year-old farmhouse. Martha and Arnold would then move to the Dawdy house on the edge of the back pasture.

Eldest daughter Anne was an elementary school teacher in Oulo while Frank farmed along with their teen-aged sons. Second son, Andrew, was a realtor. He and Sarah and their daughter lived in Port Wing. Third son Alex and Rebecca were kept busy with their three boys and two girls just outside Ashland with the resort they owned and managed. Second daughter Agnes was a nurse at the hospital in Duluth and married to Phillip, a doctor. They had a boy and a girl. And of course, Amanda and Abigail lived at home. It was Martha’s youngest son who gave her fits. While seven of her children and their families all lived within an hour of the homestead as was proper, Albert and his wife Tiffany both lived and practiced law in Asheville, North Carolina. Martha was certain it had been Tiffany’s idea to hold a destination wedding in the Bahamas, with her brother Trevor serving as best man. While all her family attended the wedding, only Martha and Arnold had been able to make the trip. To top it off, though they had been married for three years, there was not a hint of a baby on the way. Well! At least they were coming home for the entire week before Thanksgiving so Albert could go hunting with his brothers. Martha had spent a week scrubbing down the Dawdy house so they would have a place to stay, even though Tiffany had asked about hotel reservations.

The second thing Martha was proud of was her Thanksgiving feast. Over the course of 40 years of marriage, she had perfected every aspect of it. And it wasn’t even as much work as it had been in the early years since Martha delegated the various elements of the feast, along with her recipes, to her adult children. Arnold Jr. was responsible for the mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and the venison roast; Alex for the Jello salad and candied sweet potatoes; Andrew, the baked squash and succotash; Anne, the baked beans and dinner, and because they  had the farthest to travel, Agnes brought the relish tray, bleu cheese dip, and five-cup salad. The twins would help Martha with the turkey, sage, onion and chestnut stuffing and giblet gravy. Martha would bake the pies: Dutch apple, pumpkin, schnitz, and mincemeat. She had accumulated numerous blue ribbons for all of them at past county fairs. As for as Albert and Tiffany, well, coming from North Carolina, they were guests. All told, the farmhouse would be filled to bursting with 30 people.

November 2, Martha began cleaning and then decorating. The brightest autumn leaves were dipped in a thin coat of paraffin, tied into leafy bouquets filling many vases and scattered singly across the mantlepiece. Squash, corn shocks, pumpkins, and Indian corn graced the wide porch of the old farmhouse. All the leaves of the dining room table were set into place. The extra chairs were brought in from the shed and dusted off. The children’s table was set up in the living room.

Friday, November 19, Arnold drove to the airport in Duluth to pick up Albert and Felicity. Martha proudly showed them into the Dawdy house. “It has two bedrooms, a full, eat-in kitchen along with a fully stocked refrigerator, bathroom with shower and tub, and a living room with a TV and stereo. And we do have Internet. Much nicer than any motel you could find around here.” Noticing Tiffany’s shiver, she also pointed out the Franklin stove, already with a fire burning merrily. “There’s plenty of wood stacked outside, and if you bank the fire and leave the bedroom door open, you’ll be plenty warm all night. Albert should remember how to tend the fire, but if you have a problem, we are just across the pasture.” Then Martha left them to settle in.

The next morning, all the men were gathered in Martha’s kitchen at 5:00 o’clock. She served them a hearty breakfast and handed out thermoses of coffee and packages of substantial sandwiches before they headed for the woods. The family owned 50 acres of forest a half mile away that abounded with deer and other wildlife, so they were sure they would get lucky. As soon as the men were gone, Martha began making pie dough. She would bake the mincemeat pies today, as those had the best staying power. Monday, she would make the Dutch apple and schnitz pies and Wednesday, the pumpkin pies. Arnold would butcher the turkey on Monday, giving it a couple days to hang.

Just before noon, Martha was startled by a knock on the door. Tiffany. She had slept in and now was wondering if Martha had a blender, coconut water, banana, avocado and kale for her morning smoothie. Martha stared. Oh, of course, she had heard of such things on public television cooking shows, but almost none of those ingredients were to be found in her kitchen. She stammered, “Um…well, I have bananas. And a blender (it had been a gift for their 25th wedding anniversary), but I don’t have any of those other things. I don’t even think you can get them at the IGA in Port Wing. I can make you some bacon and eggs for breakfast.” (All the while thinking there were both in the fridge at the Dawdy house)

Tiffany looked horrified. “Bacon and eggs?”

Martha had a glimmer of an idea. If the poor girl couldn’t stomach bacon eggs in the morning, perhaps there WAS a child on the way. “Or, if that doesn’t suit you, how about some oatmeal?”

“Is it organic?” Tiffany asked.

“I’m sure it is,” Martha replied, although she was sure of no such thing. “It’s locally grown.”

“Well, I guess that will have to do,” the young woman said.

While Martha busied herself with cooking the oatmeal, Tiffany wandered about the kitchen. Martha’s list of who was bringing what for the big day was posted on a cupboard door. “What’s this?” Tiffany asked.

“Oh, that’s the menu for Thanksgiving. I’ve shared all my recipes with my children so we will have our traditional feast. If you lived closer, I would have asked Albert to bring something, but after all, you are guests.”

Tiffany surveyed the list, her frown deepening with every item. “What is this?” she did not speak the thought aloud. “No cornbread dressing? No fried okra? No macaroni and cheese? No sweet potato pie, no chess pie, no pecan pie? And she calls this traditional?” What she managed to say, was, “Wow, that’s a lot of food.”

“We don’t eat that way every day. It is after all, Thanksgiving,” said Martha. “Here now, sit and have your oatmeal. Would you like milk with it or butter and maple syrup?”

“Do you have almond milk?”

“Goodness, gracious, no. This is milk fresh from our cows this morning.”

“Um, well. I guess I’ll just have butter, then, and maybe some coffee?”

Martha thought, “Well at least there’s one thing she likes. Although, if she is pregnant, is coffee good for the baby?”

Finishing her oatmeal and coffee, Tiffany returned to the Dawdy house.

By late afternoon, the men returned triumphant. Between the five of them, they had bagged two bucks and a doe and the carcasses were soon hanging from the large oak tree in the front yard. Martha served supper for her husband, the twins, Albert and Felicity – a big pot of chili, green salad, and garlic breadsticks. “Nothing like a pot of chili to warm a body on a cold day,” she said as she ladled out the soup.

“Uh, Mom? Do you have any hot sauce? And maybe some cheddar cheese, Mom?” Albert asked.

“Hot sauce? Cheese? Whatever for?” asked Arnold.

“Well, the chili is a little on the mild side. It could use some pepping up.”

Martha bristled. “I have been making this recipe for 40 years. It was always good enough for you when you were growing up.”

Albert grinned, “Well y’know Mom, tastes do change over time. Tiffany and I enjoy a little heat in our food.”

Martha returned from the kitchen with an ancient bottle of Tabasco sauce, a block of cheese and a grater. “Here you go,” she said as she handed the ingredients to her son.

That evening, after the twins were upstairs doing homework and Albert and his bride had departed, Martha complained to Arnold. “I don’t know what that girl has done to that boy! My chili not spicy enough! She has sure bewitched him! And she wants the strangest food! But then, if she’s expecting, that may explain it.”

“Now, Martha. Aren’t you being a little hard on her? She didn’t grow up around here and her folks most likely did things differently and different doesn’t mean bad. After all, it took me a while to get used to your cooking.”

Martha snorted. “And what’s wrong with my cooking?”

“Nothing, dear. Nothing. It was just different from my mother’s cooking. When Ma learned you put nutmeg in your beef stew, she thought you were crazy.”

Martha hmmphed, but knew the subject was closed.

Sunday, Martha was pleased that Albert and Tiffany joined them for church, and even more pleased that they joined in the worship. It took a while to get free as old friends quickly surrounded Albert and Tiffany after the service to catch up on old times. Albert explained that the church he and his bride attended in Asheville held three services with 2,000 people in attendance at each service. Martha could not imagine feeling comfortable in such a crowd.

Sunday afternoon, Albert asked Arnold if he could borrow the car. Tiffany had forgotten some things, he explained, and would like to go into Duluth to do some shopping. Arnold handed over the keys and warned Albert to watch for deer and be careful of black ice. “It’s been a long time since you did any winter driving.” The pair returned just before 9:00 PM.

Monday, Martha went into hyperdrive. Although Albert dropped in early for a cup of coffee with his father and then went out to help with the milking, Martha did not see Tiffany all that day. She asked Albert what she was up to, but he just smiled and said, “It’s a secret.” Martha did not see Tiffany on Tuesday, either, although she joined them for lunch on Wednesday. “I hope you’re enjoying your accommodations.”

Martha said.

“Oh, they’re fine.” Tiffany responded. “You were right. That little house is much nicer than a motel room. I understand from Albert that eventually you will be moving into it.”

“That’s right. It’s a tradition. Arnold’s parents moved into it when we married and we took over the farm, and his grandparents did the same. I would hate to have to move into town when it’s time for Arnie to take over the farm.” Martha was pleased with the girl’s interest in their family traditions. Perhaps there was hope for her yet.

Wednesday, Martha did not see her daughter-in-law at all, although Albert kept her company when he wasn’t helping his brothers dress out the deer. Martha couldn’t help wonder what the girl was doing all by herself, but she thought perhaps she was preoccupied with the Internet.

The Thanksgiving feast was scheduled for 2:00 in the afternoon, as it always was. Martha was up early. The turkey they had raised dressed out at 30 pounds and a bird that large would take a long time to roast. Their children and families began to arrive just after noon. Albert came over, bearing a long table that he set up on the screened back porch. “What’s that for?” Martha asked.

“You’ll see,” was all Albert said. He then recruited the help of some of his older nephews. Soon a procession of pans, bowls, and platters were brought in and set on the table.

“What’s this?” Martha was puzzled.

Albert said, “Mom, I know you are big on tradition for Thanksgiving. But so is Tiffany. And since this year she had to be away from her family, she brought a little of her traditions with her.” He walked the length of the table pointing out the southern treats: Fried okra, cornbread dressing, macaroni and cheese.

Martha was fine up to that point. But then came the pies. Chess pie, sweet potato pie, and not one, but three pecan pies. Pies? Why, Martha was the best pie baker in Bayfield County! They were her specialty and everyone knew it. Just before she began to splutter, Arnold gripped her elbow – hard. “Now dearest, isn’t it wonderful that Tiffany and Albert are so generous? Just imagine all the hard work she did in an unfamiliar kitchen. It truly is a blessing to have such a thoughtful daughter-in-law.”

“Yes. Yes, I suppose you’re right. Thank you, Tiffany. Thank you, Albert,” she choked out.

Soon, the tables were set, Arnold said grace, and the family dug in. With Arnold’s eyes upon her, Martha was obligated to sample each of Tiffany’s offerings. To her shock, each and every one, with perhaps the exception of the fried okra, they were good! No, they were more than good – they were delicious, especially the pecan pie. In what seemed like no time, Martha surveyed the wreckage. The venison roast was gone, but there was plenty of leftover turkey, as well as the various salads and side dishes. That was to be expected. What Martha didn’t expect was the leftover pie – Dutch apple, schnitz, pumpkin, and mincemeat, as well as the chess pie. But there was not a crumb left of the sweet potato and pecan pies! Never did she expect to be bested in her own kitchen.

Agnes and Phillip left right after the meal since they had the longest drive and Phillip would be on call that night. Happy chatter filled the house as the older grandchildren were given the task of clearing the table and doing dishes under the supervision of their mothers. As soon as the kitchen was ship shape, most of the youngsters went out to play in the barn while the adults gathered to watch football. Tiffany ventured, “What, no Bulldogs?”

Albert laughed, “No dear. It’s pro ball today.”

Arnold was soon snoring in his recliner, so Arnie, Alex, Andrew, and Albert took care of the evening milking. Once that was done, the remaining families left for whome. The twins had friends they wished to visit but promised to be home by 10:00. Martha was left alone with Tiffany. “I’m happy you were able to share some of your family traditions with us today,” Martha said.

Tiffany replied, “I’m glad you enjoyed them. It was interesting to see what is considered traditional here up north. I especially liked the mincemeat pie. I’ve never had that before and I need your recipe. Now I’ll know what to make for Albert next year.”

“I would be happy to do that and before you leave on Sunday, perhaps you could share your recipes for your pies, too.”

When Arnold snorted and woke up, Albert said, “Thanks to my two most favorite women for a fantastic Thanksgiving. I’m looking forward to leftovers tomorrow.” With that, he and Tiffany departed for the Dawdy house.

Arnold shifted in his recliner, “See, Martha. Tiffany is a perfectly lovely girl. The way she can cook, you don’t have to worry about Albert going hungry. And isn’t it lovely to try something new?”

“I suppose,” Martha sniffed. “If only it wasn’t pies.”

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Holy Imagination

Lord.

What a wonderful time You must have had with creation.

In Your mind’s eye, You saw:

                        fiercely blazing white dwarfs

                        friendly yellow suns

                        cool and ruddy giants

                        enigmatic black holes

                        curtains of gold and violet, green and blue and red.

Myriad upon myriad of stars, planets, nebulae, galaxies; and each with a name.

And the morning stars sang together.

In Your mind’s eye, You saw:

                        artery and vein

                        liver and lung

                        joint and sinew

                        muscle and skin

                        feathers – rachis and barb

                        beak and claw

And when the form hovered before You, perfect and complete, You thought color:

                        shimmering emerald

                        glistening gold

                        ruby red

And then You spoke, “Be!”

For each and every creature, atom by atom, cell by cell, You thought structure and form, texture and color and You spoke, “Be!” until the very sphere was filled with life.

Yet, unlike the stars, none were named.

Almost finished, You thought one more creature. A creature, as it were, in a plain brown wrapper. Not very large. Not very strong. Colored by the clay from which You molded him. Not much to look at, though clean of limb and regular of feature. But, Oh! What secrets You hid inside him to be revealed in ages to come:

                                    hazel eyes and skylit blue

                                    shining brown, verdant green and sparkling ebony;

                                    tawny skin and deepest brown

                                    pinkly pale, ruddy hued, and golden;

                                    silken black hair and flaxen tresses

                                    copper curls, wiry jet, and brown and silver.

And this one, unadorned, naked creature You also gave a name – Your own. Into this, Your crowning achievement, You breathed the breath of Your life and spoke, “Be!”

To this one, to this man, You imparted Your joy. You shared Your sovereignty, for to this one You brought the others to be named:

                                    hummingbird

                                    elephant         

                                    whale and stork

                                    and wonder of wonders – woman.

Like Yourself, You made them. In perfect fellowship You walked with them. And yet they, and yet we, turned from You to follow the foetid vapor of a lie.

Think on it! God created His angels, ministering spirits with hearts of flame, millions upon millions, and named each one. He spoke stars and galaxies, nebulae, planets, quasars and asteroids into being and called each by name. Then He imagined each and every living creature and named none but one. And with that man, that man, our forefather God shared the final act of creation: the naming of everything upon the face of the Earth.

Imagine the Father’s delight as Creator and creature shared the unique properties of each living thing and completed the process of creation. Yet, having experienced this intimacy, Adam turned his back on God for a lie. We gasp. We shake our heads. “Not I. Not I,” we say. But only look at what the Father has shown you, shown me, and look at the lies you, I, have believed, have spoken.

But despair not. For the Uncreated became creature. Infinity enclosed, laid, sealed within the walls of a virgin’s womb. Took on:

                                    flesh

                                    bone

                                    hair

                                    blood

                                    pain

                                    judgment

                                    sin

                                    abandonment

                                    death.

And when the voice that spoke, “Be!” to angel, star, moth, and man was stilled, laid, sealed within the walls of a virgin tomb, earth and sky convulsed and wept.

In the moment of the night, when light was but a hope, Hope itself and Light answered the Father’s call. More brilliant than the sunrise, Uncreated Creator yet created Man, arose and the lie and the father of lies saw defeat. Seraphim and galaxy, ocean wave and mountain peak, hummingbird and humpbacked whale rejoiced.

With the Dawn came promise. Promise of a new creation. Fellowship restored. Life eternal. Listen, O man. Listen, O woman. Listen to the promise. Believe no more, speak no more the lie. Look upon the wonders of creation, beautiful still, though marred. Look to the promise of the world’s, the universe’s redemption and your own. Listen. Look. Believe – and share the Creator’s joy.

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The Hallowe’en that Wasn’t

There’s something special, something important about final events: the last day of summer, the day before you move away from home, the day before one’s wedding, the final day on the job. My birthday is November 3rd. In my small town, in 1969, one of the unwritten rules governing Hallowe’en, carved in granite, was children could go trick-or-treating up to, but not one day past one’s twelfth birthday. Oh, there were no parents, teachers, or police to enforce such a rule – only the ironclad tyranny and scorn of peer pressure. A 12-year-old could technically make the rounds on All Hallow’s Eve if he or she had younger siblings to escort but could not go begging him or herself.

On November 3, 1969 I would be twelve years old and had no younger siblings to supervise. So it was that I was fully engrossed in preparations for my final fling at trick-or-treating. The route was mapped – hitting the old, painted lady Victorians on the lakeshore, then the postulant houses at the convent, and of course the homes of all my neighbors all meant great treats – and a route covering two miles. But what’s two miles in two hours? And with Hallowe’en on a Friday night, I didn’t even have to worry about how late I was out. The costume was ready; I had spent weeks creating a long, lush, black wig out of yarn, found my older sister’s peasant blouse along with her old crinolines in the attic, grandma’s colorful babushka and beads from the trunk, and purchased a bright, full skirt from the St. Vincent DePaul thrift store. I tried to get my mom to let me have my ears pierced, but she refused. Still, I would be the best gypsy on the streets. I was ready!

Then my older sister who had moved with her husband to Texas, went into labor a month early. Mom and Dad flew down to be with her, leaving me in the care of my 17-year-old brother. While it would be different with the parents gone, under the negligent care of Angus, I would get to stay out even later! Evelyn, Brenda, and Cheryl met every afternoon after school at my house to consolidate our plans. Finally, it was Friday morning – Hallowe’en! I couldn’t wait for the final bell of the day. I raced home to double check my costume and was met at the door by Angus.

“Change of plans,” is what he said. His friends, the Christensen brothers Dave and Arnie were headed up north to close up the family cabin for the winter. Angus and their friend Bob were invited along for an end of summer party. The guys would be by in half an hour to pick him up for the weekend.

“So…I’m supposed to stay home alone until you get back?” My mind was in overdrive. This could be the best Hallowe’en ever! Without even Angus to supervise, I could do whatever I wanted! And, since I had been cooking for the both of us for the past week, I wasn’t even concerned about food.

Angus quickly popped that bubble. “No. I’m not that irresponsible. I’ve made arrangements for you to stay with the Christensen’s until I get back.” The Christensens lived on a farm far out in the county. “Pack a bag for the weekend, and we will drop you off on our way out of town.”

“But what about Hallowe’en?” I wailed. “This is my last one and my friends and I have plans!”

“Plans change. After you get packed, call your friends and tell them you can’t make it. But I’m sure you won’t miss out on all the fun. The Christensens might live in the country, but I’m sure there’s trick-or-treating out there as well. Now get a move on – the guys will be here any minute. Oh, and don’t forget something nice to wear to church on Sunday.”

I briefly considered ducking out the back door and hiding in the park until Angus and his friends drove off, but I knew how stubborn my brother could be, so dejectedly, I dug out my suitcase and dumped in clean underwear, a skirt and blouse, my favorite cords and sweatshirt – and my gypsy costume. If I couldn’t be the best dressed gypsy on the streets of town, I would be the best dressed gypsy in the countryside.

An hour later, I watched my brothers and friends depart down the long farm driveway. An hour-and-a-half later, as I helped Mrs. Christensen set the table for supper, I learned to my horror that the Christenens did not celebrate “Devil’s night.” After a lengthy discourse on the evils of this pagan holiday, I realized there would be no trick-or-treating for me this night – and next year I would be too old. I wanted to cry.

I am certain the meal prepared that night was delicious. Mrs. Christensen had a reputation for being a marvelous cook. But to me, it was all tasteless as I dreamed of the Snickers bars, malted milk balls, Hershey’s kisses, and salt-water taffy I would be missing. I wouldn’t even have any candy for the Red Cross boxes at school on Monday morning! As soon as the supper dishes were washed and put away, I asked to be excused and went to my room, or rather, Dave and Arnie’s room. Morosely, I opened my suitcase and gazed at my gypsy costume. So much planning. So much effort. And now, nothing.

I don’t know how long I sat there, but the room was completely dark when a knock came at the door. Mrs. Christensen poked her head in. “Gracious, child! What are you doing here in the dark? I hope you have a warm sweater. If you don’t you can borrow one of mine. We’ll have to hurry. The bonfire starts in fifteen minutes.”

Bonfire? I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about, but I snatched up my sweatshirt and pulled it on. I followed Mrs. Christensen out the door and into their large back yard. I don’t know how I missed hearing them all arrive, but the barnyard was filled with cars and yet more were arriving. People of all ages spilled out of the vehicles and made their way to a ring of straw bales set around an enormous mound of old timbers, long dead Christmas trees, and still green branches.

Getting everyone settled on the straw bales took forever, but eventually all the little children were corralled and silence descended on the crowd. Mr. Christensen stood up and began to speak.

“On this day in 1517 a brave young monk by the name of Martin Luther wrote out a list of 95 complaints against the Roman Catholic church. He had come to these conclusions after several years of studying and teaching the Bible at the University of Wittenberg. He posted his 95 theses on the door of the University church to invite discussion and in the hope of reforming the Church. Instead, he was eventually declared a heretic and with a price on his head, went into hiding. While hidden away in Wartburg Castle, Luther translated the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into the language of the people, which then and there was German. His stand for truth eventually led to the translation of the Bible into almost every language known to man so that the light of the Gospel could be preached to everyone.”

With that, Mr. Christensen thrust a torch into the middle of the wood pile. In seconds, flames were reaching for the sky. Cheers erupted. In minutes, they towered 50 feet above the ground. Adults began assembling a huge quantity of s’mores and handing out caramel apples and popcorn balls. Several men and women took up positions with guitars, a fiddle and a flute and began playing merry tunes that I later learned were actually hymns. As soon as the flames subsided to coals, each child – and me – were handed a long stick to roast our marshmallows for the s’mores. More treats, apple cakes, pumpkin bread, lemon bars, cookies galore and jugs of fresh apple cider were set out on a large table. Just as I was so full I thought I might never move again, a scavenger hunt in the darkened corn field was announced. There must have been 20 kids of all ages, including my own, and teenagers as well who took off for the field equipped with flashlights to search for treasures. Wandering through the rustling cornstalks, I found a small pouch with some chocolate candy, a miniature Bible, and a gold cross on a chain.

Inevitably, I, along with several others got thoroughly lost. Just as panic began to set in, I could hear Mr. Christensen shouting, “Just follow the light. Follow the light.” Looking up, I could see the bonfire once more reaching for the stars. I followed its light until I was back in the ring of straw bales. A few more minutes and all the kids were accounted for. We settled happily onto the straw as the musicians now led the crowd in a hymn sing, beginning with “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” I don’t know how long we sang, but eventually the fire was nothing but embers. Many of the smallest kids were asleep on blankets on the grass. People began gathering their families together and headed for their cars. When the last car departed the farmyard, Mr. and Mrs. Christensen went inside. I was shocked to see that it was after midnight.

And that was how I spent the Hallowe’en that wasn’t.

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Autumn Ramblings

I miss big water. This three-acre pond above the zoo just does not compare to Lake Michigan or Lake Superior. Yet, it does have its own charms. A grandmother and her two tiny grandchildren are feeding the multitudes of Canada geese and mallard ducks handsful of grain while a squabble of seagulls observe. The flocks approach, but not too closely. I am privileged to be the audience to an aerial ballet as skeins of geese converge from every point on the compass, crossing each other’s paths without a single collision. The airborne birds maintain a holding pattern until they can land on the water as the floating flocks swim shoreward and clumsily waddle towards the bounty, shoving the early arrivals out of their way. And still, the seagulls observe.

Her gallon of grain exhausted, Grandma and her charges depart. The mallards surge forwards to gobble the corn that has fallen at and under the picnic table. The sky clears of all but the puffy clouds as geese and ducks settle on the pond’s surface. I think the gulls recognize my car, for they have gathered around it. I finish my burger and reach for the bag of French fries. They’re not for me. Breaking off bits, I toss them out the car window and am entertained by another ballet, both aerial and terrestrial as more than 30 gulls jockey for the tidbits. Yes, I know I’m not supposed to feed human food to wild birds, and while that may hold true for the ducks and geese, gulls are scavengers which will eat anything.

The music, Andrew Peterson’s “Light for the Lost Boy” pulls my heart in one direction as it speaks to the losses of the past year: a sister, a cousin, a nephew. The golden sun, blue and white sky, and myriads of birds pull my heart in another direction: heavenwards. I contemplate the beauty of the scene before me and try to imagine the beauty of the world when it is made new. When gaggles of geese and flocks of ducks will not scatter before the approach of a human being. When “the lion shall lie down with the lamb” and “the little child shall play at the cobra’s nest.” When there shall be no more pain or sorrow and every tear shall be wiped dry by the hand of the Savior. What a day that shall be!

The fries are gone and most of the gulls take wing. Three, however stand their ground a few feet from the car door begging for more; their cries like the mewing of a herd of cats.  It’s time for me to go. The path leads around the zoo and through the wooded park. The bull elk’s antlers are still covered in velvet, but it won’t be long before he rubs it off and the rut is on. One lone bison grazes at the farthest extreme of their enclosure while the remainder gather under the shelter. The goats and deer are nowhere to be seen, but the wolves are alert and excited, running back and forth. Under the canopy, most of the leaves are down and I can see the sky through the bare branches that arch over the lane. Just a week ago, the heavens were shrouded by green leaves. Autumn is here. Winter will follow, and by God’s grace, spring will return once more.

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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.