Last week the polar vortex plunged us to a wind chill of 35 degrees below zero. The day before it hit, I helped Sam stack extra firewood in the house. Four days later, the temperature soared to 60 degrees in Indianapolis, the snow melted off the roof, and the living room ceiling dripped in four places. Two days later we bundled up against more frigid winds. Crazy is the new normal.

Between the storms, I went again to visit Miss Ellie and her husband who have a new kitchen in their 1850s two-story brick home. [See Two Good Women] Down the hall from the front door and through the living room, I stepped into a work of art. The old summer kitchen now had a built-on dining room with a bay window looking out over the farm. Custom-made walnut cabinets designed to their specifications graced both rooms. I did a double-take at the tall standing cupboards. At first glance, they blended in with her grandmother’s antique corner cupboards. The cabinetmaker had done a superb job. Walnut dining table and chairs completed the harmony.

Miss Ellie now makes pies, and preps for canning at an over-sized island. Light and airy, and clean as a pin, the room is delightful. She said, “For decades, I had to clear away whatever I was working on to lay the supper table each evening. It’s nice to have the extra space.”

After admiring every inch and nook and cranny, we stepped back into the old living room and chatted beside the handsome wood-burning stove. I looked at the outdated room. She must have noticed my glances, and said matter-of-factly, “The carpet has a tear and the plaster ceiling’s cracked, but we stay warm.”

From my seat, I looked back into the attractive kitchen, and then turned again toward her. I felt whiplash between the two – one part of her home new and the other worn. How could her artistic nature design rooms that belong in magazines, and still be comfortable in the old? I had a glimpse of true contentment. Her living room is long familiar, which can bring a safe feeling. She doesn’t need everything perfect to live in peace.

After the snow melted from our roof, the insurance adjustor came. We stared at the old living room ceiling – water-stained and poorly hung knotty pine tongue and groove, with unsightly cracks at every joint. As a rule, I try not to look up. A few years back, we had to replace the south wall of windows that look out into the woods. Sam and I designed them to complement the roof-line of the vaulted ceiling, and carefully selected hickory trim boards from a nearby lumber mill. We also trimmed the west windows, baseboard, and door casings. I sanded and varnished forty boards, a week-long labor of love, and then Sam finished everything in his wonderful, meticulous way. The spacious room is inviting, and the view to the woods soothing. The ceiling is not. And it may stay that way.

I hadn’t realized how much I have in common with Miss Ellie – farming and the love of the land, and I’m learning to not only “not look,” but be content with the good part. Don’t get me wrong. I like to be comfortable: warm, dry, fed. Sam calls me part cat. But maybe being a little cold/hungry/dissatisfied allows me room to grow. And when a storm hits my personal life, faith brings a stillness in the midst. The beautiful and the needy live side by side. Doesn’t one consecrate the other?

Two Good Women

I tossed another log in the stove. Out beyond the bridge, I watched two deer step across the circle drive. “Sam, the deer are headed toward the apple trees again. Oh, there’s a little one, too.” I lost the fawn behind the parked teardrop camper. And then, through the binoculars I noticed the healthy, bushy-tailed fox.

“There’s a fox, too, following the fawn.” Sam looked up from his paper. “Wait. It’s not a fox. It’s a coyote, big and brown, handsome black tail. He must have eaten well this fall. It’s going after the fawn!”

The moms disappeared into the woods. The young deer, white flag raised in alarm, bounded and zig-zagged into the brush beyond the apple trees instead of following mama into the woods. Mr. Coyote loped after. A long moment later he came out of the brush, alone, crossed the drive and headed toward the open field. Whew.

“He didn’t get the fawn,” I said. “I’ve never seen a coyote this close. I’m not going outside.”

“Aw, the coyotes won’t hurt you,” Sam said as he went back to his paper. I still wasn’t going outside.

Sister K.S. called the next day. “Miss Ellie has made do for forty years with that old summer kitchen off the back of the house. Let’s go see her new kitchen.”

Miss Ellie grew up in an 1850s red brick house built by her great-great grandfather on a rise along the Mississinewa River. White limestone lintels grace the tall windows. Inside, the floors and walls are still straight as a die. Made from native trees on the property, the original untouched walnut doors, cupboards and woodwork are superb. K.S. attended grade school and graduated with her, and still lives only a few miles away. Not many of us enjoy the cheer and comfort of a well-built piece of historical architecture or a sixty-year-old friendship.

An herbal guru, including medicinal remedies, Miss Ellie still cans and freezes fruits and vegetables, putting up enough to see them through the winter, and then some: tomato juice, apple pie filling, cherry jelly; gallons of dill pickles, dried peppers, a crock of sauerkraut; freezer slaw, sweet corn, and sugar peas. Today “organic” gardens are something of an achievement. Hers has never been anything but.

She met us at the front door, her hair pulled back into a bun. We stepped into the tall hall and down into the old living room where I noticed her gun-safe. They say she’s a better shot than her husband. As we passed through the covered porch, I saw knives and saws on a side table. She helps Billy butcher deer, hunted and otherwise.

“Did K.S. tell you about Billy makin’ ’at dere jerky?” Miss Ellie laughed as she handed me a cup of tea. Although ninety-nine percent of her speech sounds like a schoolteacher, she had slipped into the common vernacular.

“Uh, yes. I heard about that.” [See Jerky and Pears]

“Well, we had another road-kill. When a button buck got hit right next to my mailbox, I called the conservation officer and then K.S. She drove straight over, still in her pajamas, although she made time to tie a couple of scarves around her neck. [See The Red Truck] She backed up to where I stood guard. We looked at each other and hoped no one would drive by. I took the heavy end at the head and shoulders, and said ‘On the count of three, up and in.’”

Later at the local bar Billy chuckled as he told a buddy, “Two sixty-eight-year-old wimmen. They throwed that deer in the trunk.”

His buddy took another drink, thought about the girls taking care of business and said, “Well, I’d call them two good wimmen.”

The Red Truck

My sister, K.S., seldom writes checks, has no credit cards and doesn’t trust banks. She quietly confided to me one day, “I chased down some money and I’ve got a pocketful, but I’m not going to spend it right now.”

I know about that pocket of hers. Thousands could be in there. Who would know?

We are opposites. Naturally reserved, I prefer blue jeans and clean skin. She wears long-flowing chaos and never leaves the house without permanent red lipstick. My notepads are neatly stacked. She couldn’t find a pen if her life depended on it. Her notes are written with the red lipstick on torn pieces of brown paper sack.

I asked about her attire one day. “You don’t have to wear every scarf you own. Do you have on three vests?”

And yet we understand one another. Both left-handed and artistic, she expresses herself in oil paints. I use words. She brings color to my life, that’s for sure.

I kept one eye on the driveway for her as the corn on the stove began to pop. I had explained in detail why she would be interested in a must-see documentary movie.

Outside, Sam suited up with ear muffs, yellow goggles, and bright orange leggings. He pulled on the chain saw, prepared to do battle with another tree. That buzz makes me smile. It brings a sense of calm and shouts “All’s right with the world.”

I looked out the window again to see if she was here. And then I stared. “What?!”

The grill of her old, red beater truck lay flat against the hickory tree just beyond the garden shed. I rushed out the door. She made her way slowly up the walk, the cane keeping her balance. She looked up, smiled and waved and said all in one breath, “It’s okay. It’s OKAY. I knew I didn’t have any brakes and I couldn’t stop, and I wanted to miss the shed and I did NOT want to hit Sam’s truck, so I hit a tree.”

“What do you mean you have no brakes?” I asked.

“Well, I knew the truck needed brake fluid, but I wanted to come anyway. I made it, only the pile of gravel you left by the shed slowed me down and I’m stuck on top of it. I didn’t hurt the truck MUCH. Now, what is it we’re watching?”

I didn’t know what to say. Sam wordlessly lay down his saw and went for the shovel. It would take an effort to get the gravel out from under her truck.

After we discussed the movie, she told me what had happened the day before. “I stuffed a wad of cash in my pocket and drove to the tractor supply store. I paid the cashier and then went to pick up art supplies. When I reached in my pocket to pay for the paints my $50 bill was gone. I re-traced my steps, but never found it.”

She was a bit annoyed, but that was the last I heard about it. It must be nice to live so casually, to roll with the punches when things do not go as planned. She shows me how to holds things more loosely, and that spontaneity isn’t a bad word.

“The only real failure is the failure to try. And the measure of success is how we cope with disappointment. As we always must. We get up every morning, we do our best. Nothing else matters.” from the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Jerky and Pears

At a friend’s New Year’s party, we ate our way through a fine Hoosier appetizer – a plate of venison summer sausage dotted with jalapeño, sliced and nestled between cheese and saltines. It put me in mind of the jerky I ate in the fall. My sister, K.S., called. “The pears are ripe. We can pick anytime.”

Flesher Pond is on the back forty acres of the family farm. My grandparents died decades ago and now K.S. lives in the old farmhouse, a half mile up to the highway. I pulled into her drive and got out. One of the local characters, Billy, was just leaving.

Billy knows how to do most anything, and if not, figures it out until he does. His long, unkempt hair matches his beard and clothes. I saw him in clean jeans once on Thanksgiving Day. He seems to live without working much, but when he does he’s usually found underneath a car, the best mechanic around. If you catch him in a good mood, his eyes twinkle.

He had brought K.S. some venison jerky. When I got out of the car, he walked over, opened a zip-loc bag and handed me a piece.

“Taste ’at ’dere jerky,” he said. “Just made it in ’at smoker for twelve hours. Mm-hmm.”

He watched me carefully as I bit into it. I chewed, smiled, and nodded. “This is GOOD.”

Then I noticed the ornery twinkle in his eyes. He said, “Deer got hit on the road an’ I butchered it.”

I stopped chewing. He butchered a deer killed on the road? I stifled a choke. Spitting seemed rude.

I gulped and swallowed.

K.S. stood in the drive with a grin on her face, and Billy said, “’At ’dere wuz road-kill yesterdee mornin’.”

His belly laugh told me he would chuckle the rest of the day. A little comic relief never hurt.

I drove the truck through the yard and under Grandma’s old, gnarled pear tree, adjusted the ladder in the bed of the truck and climbed up with my basket. K.S. stayed on the ground ready to catch what fell. I carried one basket to the car and another into the old farmhouse where K.S. had already canned some of the fruit.

The yellow pears in clean glass jars all swam in light syrup. The pretty preserves stood tall against the backsplash of Grandma’s old white, cast-iron sink, and covered the iron drainboards on both sides. I love spending time with her this way even though she and I are so different it’s almost wrong we’re sisters.

For a decade, I lived away from the farm, and have visited grandchildren in New York and Seattle for the past twenty years, but I’m always glad to come home to wide skies and open spaces. There is something settling about the continuity of living on the land in one place for fifty years.

“It is rare for any of us, by deliberate choices, to sit still and weave ourselves into a place, so that we know the wildflowers and rocks . . . so that we recognize faces wherever we turn, so that we feel a bond with everything in sight.” Scott Russell Sanders

“I was born in this state, have always lived here and hope to die here. It is my belief that, to do strong work, any writer must stick to the things he truly knows – the simple, common things of life as he has lived them. So I stick to Indiana.” Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924)

Wind and Waves

The wind moaned and picked up throughout the day, and at dusk got downright serious. I get twitchy when that happens, since our back yard is a seven-acre woods.

Thankfully, the last dead ash threatening the house came down the first of November. I answered Sam’s call while waiting in Seattle to board the plane home.

“Another tree guy is here. Said he can take the tree down right away.”

“What does right away mean?” I asked. This was the fifth guy who had looked at the tree.

“He’s getting his equipment out of his truck.”

“That’s great,” I said.

Later Sam told me, “You should have seen this guy tie off the ash to a stout willow at the shallow end of the pond. He tightened 100 feet of rope until you could pluck it like a guitar string. The tree fell exactly where he wanted. Missed the house, the two little white pines you wanted to keep, as well as the clothesline. A master tree surgeon. He’s about my age so I invited him in for a cup of tea.”

We were both relieved. That ash could have crashed into our bedroom window. Death by falling tree. It happens.

Last week’s wind brought to mind not only falling trees, but boats thrown off course. We listened to NPR while the wind howled. A panel of four “experts” discussed the belief, or not, in hell. Usually, NPR hits a home run covering current topics, but their comments on the complex subject were like controlled chaos.

In my forties, a hurricane struck my spiritual boat. My son, raised in the church and about to graduate from a Christian university, told me he didn’t know if God was real. Aren’t the church and a Christian university supposed to help our children grow in faith?

I began to question the teaching of hell. In the Christian faith, that teaching is dogma. How does one stay a Christian and yet question the Bible? My faith tossed on the high seas of doubt for twenty years. I clung to God as Eternal Father to keep from being washed overboard.

Since my boat finally sailed to a quiet harbor two years ago, I can write about the experience. In fact, over the summer, I felt compelled to write a 40,000 word memoir. Madeleine L’Engle encouraged me to try: “Sometimes he will say, ‘It’s been said better before.’ Of course. It’s all been said better before. If I thought I had to say it better than anybody else, I’d never start. Better or worse is immaterial. The thing has to be said; by me; ontologically.” Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet (emphasis mine)

Ontology is the study of the nature of being or essence. For the Christian, the concept of God entails the existence of God.

I like how George MacDonald put it, “If there be a calling child, there must be an answering father.”

C.S. Lewis echoed MacDonald in The Silver Chair when Aslan said to Jill, “You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.”

How can I have the yearning for God if He doesn’t exist?

As far as things which I cannot understand, I trust Him who sees the end of things.

Beavers Take Naps

It’s been a bumper year for oaks and acorns. All the animals are fat and sassy. Deer browse daily in the woods, as well as the yard. Rearing up on hind legs, they’ve eaten that last apple low enough to reach. A herd of six nap in their “living room” beside the drive, not thirty feet into the brush.

Late summer, I snapped pictures through the window one morning of a curious fawn, come to inspect and sniff the three lawn chairs beside the boardwalk. Just a few feet from the front deck, I thought he might come up the steps and knock on the door.

We hear coyotes more often than we see them, and a mama mink might turn up in the late winter to take over a muskrat den in the front yard. But only once in thirty years has a beaver come to Flesher Pond. I remember the summer morning at the edge of the beach when I saw an eight-inch cottonwood lying in the water, the trunk gnawed in a way that could only mean one thing. I ran back to the house to find Sam.

“Sam. You’ve got to see this tree. It must be a beaver, but it can’t be. We’ve never had one before.”

Back at the beach, Sam pointed out the chewed-off branches just under the water. “He’s going to use those to build a lodge and eat the leaves.” We had a new show on the pond.

Every fall, we put on Downton Abbey and watch all the way through to Christmas. Sam loves the costumes and cars, and chuckles at the Dowager Countess’ quips. Granny cracks us up. Watching the beaver reminded me of her view of life as a constant challenge. Reminded me of my own life.

“All life is a series of problems which we must try and solve. First one and then the next and then the next, until at last we die.”

Not much humor in that.

I keep busy trying to build harmony with family and friends, especially after putting my foot in my mouth again. For me, it takes daily touches here and there, and constant gnawing; so too, the busy beaver, constant in his purpose. But even beavers need a little rest. One warm afternoon, we spied Mr. Beaver across the shallow end of the pond, curled up on a tuft of dead grass near the grand-daddy cottonwood, its leaves trembling, flashing gold and green in the slight breeze. I ran for the binoculars.

We watched the beaver raise his head, yawn, and sink back down to sleep. “Did you see that?” Sam asked. “Such a personal thing to do.”

Observing the animal express a human trait made us, well, gleeful.

Mr. Beaver left the pond before cold weather. We wondered if he had come through the neighbor’s woods to the north and now made his way back to the next pond over.

(May I just say here that Hoosiers like prepositions, especially folks who don’t know what they are. We who do, know not to end a sentence with one. But after all, I live in Indiana. We double them up, write them back to back, and sprinkle them about with reckless abandon.)

After fussing long enough with next week’s blog, and needing a break from thinking about the latest interruption to my peaceful life on the pond, I yawned and went to take a nap.

Of Turtles and Teapots

I didn’t grow up with teapots, and a teabag was rare. At eight years old, I made the Kool-Aid: orange, lime, cherry, or black raspberry. Add water to make two quarts, and pour in a full cup of sugar. The blue ceramic pot-bellied pitcher looked like the smiling Kool-Aid pitcher, minus the smile. I measured and mixed instant tea, too, from a glass jar, with the same amount of sugar.

My first teapot came as a Christmas gift from my piano teacher, Miss Shannon. It held a music box in the bottom. I didn’t know it could ever hold liquid and has always been on the shelf.

We lived in a big, white house with a two-acre backyard. Painted turtles lived in the small swamp at the edge of the yard. In the winter, the swamp became a private, tiny skating rink. My brother played hockey on the twin ponds behind our neighborhood, called Lakeview, while I slid around in my boots with the younger children. The Christmas I was seven I opened a large flat box. “My own skates! I’m going out after breakfast,” I said.

My parents and brother never played with me, and my big sister, five years older, was much too important to bother. I walked alone across the back yard, tromping through the snow in my new skate guards. For most of an hour, I “skated” through the snow-covered ice, falling over and over. When I get better I will bring a shovel.

Back at the house, I took off my new skates. Bruised and already aching, I looked forward to tomorrow when it would be a little easier. Soon I would be skating like Peggy Fleming.

This week, the ice on Flesher Pond is perfect, smooth as glass. I won’t be going out, though. My sixty-something back wouldn’t take kindly to a fall. It’s been five years since I laced my skates. I remember because Sam took pictures. On that day, I skated in figure eights and backward, gliding from one end of the pond to the other. Sam slid along behind me down to the shallow end. Just a few inches under the ice we saw snappers buried in the mud, hidden except for the shape of their enormous shells. No cute painted turtles, these. We counted four monsters.

Back inside, I warmed by the wood stove. The kettle whistled and Sam brought in the tea tray. Now we have several teapots: two six-cup floral designs from his grandmother, a couple Japanese pots from Seattle, and two single-serving brown betties from England which we use daily, antiques picked up from a rummage sale. The blue Kool-Aid pitcher sits on the shelf, now probably an antique.

For full-proof tea, warm the pot with hot water while the kettle boils. After the boiling stops, add two teabags for a six-cup pot, pour the water from the kettle and steep five minutes. My favorite “ahh” drink, nothing is more soothing than black tea sipped at the perfect temperature. For me, no sugar added.

Perseverance – a steadfastness in a task, despite difficulty or delay in achieving success – I learned at age seven.

“Let us not be weary in well doing (Gal. 6).”