Third Chances

Frank and Opal are upset this year (see Frank and Opal). The last plunge of the polar vortex kept them away from Flesher Pond until March 18. Sam texted me while I was in baby heaven (see Sleep-deprived but Happy) in the Pacific Northwest: “Frank and Opal have arrived.” He said they wandered over the yard, and came and left, and came again. Opal still hasn’t nested. We don’t think it’s “Frank” or “Opal.” We go along for years, and even decades in the case of our resident geese, and then everything changes. Sometimes, too, the Big Ds invade our lives: disease, divorce, death.

Last Thanksgiving, Sam and I were too busy to get to the hospital. Our brother-in-law just had his second “little” heart attack in two weeks. We decided to wait and see him on the weekend, back at his home. On Saturday, both cars were there when we pulled into the drive. My younger sister didn’t answer her phone or my text so I sheepishly walked into the garage and pushed open the kitchen door. The dogs didn’t come to greet me, and that was strange. It felt too intrusive to go to the bottom of the stairs and call up, “Are you up there?” But I felt strongly that I should see him NOW.

Instead we drove away. At 3:30 the next morning, she called. “He fell to the floor and is not responding. Meet me at the hospital.”

I had to wash my hair, but we were still in the car in twenty minutes. In the E.R., I asked her to take me in to see him. His body was still warm when I touched his forehead. It just wasn’t right. Nothing about it was right. But he was gone.

Four years ago, I was busy planning my own 60th birthday party. I thought maybe that would bring my children home. And it worked! Spring was a happy time planning and preparing for my family. Then things turned the wrong way. A month before Party Day, we got word that my cousin was diagnosed with leukemia. My older sister, K.S. (see Jerky and Pears, Two Good Women, and The Red Truck) and I, busy with party planning, decided to wait to visit her.

Ten days before the party the toilet started to leak. Sam had to tear out the floor; and finished the sub-floor, vinyl, and new low-flow toilet in record time. In the living room, a crack in the wall became large enough that we knew it wasn’t just our old house shifting. I cleaned up the drywall dust on the floor and Sam went outside to tear off the cedar siding. Extensive termite damage, up waist high. We called the bug man. Then the u-joint and the air conditioner went out on the Jeep Cherokee. Then the fridge died, and the dryer, too (no kidding). Just before the party one night, my cousin needed emergency surgery. The next morning, we heard she did not pull through. My sister and I had missed the window to say, “Hello. We’re so sorry you are sick.” We missed saying goodbye.

THEN we had a great party.

Since there were too many expenses before the party, Sam and I exchanged our two-week vacation at the Outer Banks for two days in Michigan. Our in-laws joined us, and the second afternoon they drove our Jeep back to the campsite. Not knowing how to tell us, they pointed to the back bumper. A telephone pole in the restaurant parking lot had reached out and bashed them. With a shrug, I calmed the worried look on their faces. I would rather have a broken bumper than another funeral.

Change is hard, but also inevitable. The geese aren’t nesting. And God gives third chances.

“If you do not start choosing to get lost in some fairly low-risk ways, then how will you ever manage when one of life’s big winds knocks you clean off your course? …In my life, I have lost my way more times than I can count. I have set out to be married and ended up divorced. I have set out to be healthy and ended up sick…I have found things while I was lost that I might never have discovered if I had stayed on the path.” Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World

Mama Mouse

The three tall, narrow windows that follow the slope of the ceiling up to the south loft make a dramatic view to the woods. Cedar siding leftover from the exterior covers the wall. One day a friend walked in and stared, seeing the sunlight slant through the windows. Cardinals were busy in the feeder. Binoculars and bird guides lay on the end table. “This is a sanctuary,” she said.

One afternoon, I sat alone looking out to the woods and noticed a dark knot-hole in the cedar. I don’t remember that knot being so large. I went to get the ladder.

Bats are common on Flesher Pond. As a little girl, I often ate supper in the screened-in porch with Grandma and Grandpa, and along toward dusk we watched the bats’ erratic flight through the yard as they ate up mosquitoes (see A Job Well Done).

I climbed the ladder, and saw it was a dead bat stuck fast to the wall. Complete rigor mortis. I climbed down to find the fireplace gloves, and climbed back up. I had to pry him off, the poor thing. Bats have come into the house before, but this one had gone unnoticed. Another time, I lugged the heavy wicker laundry basket down the porch steps and walked toward the clothesline. A mama bat with babies attached hung on the line. I quietly lugged the basket back inside.

In order to keep the mice down, we’ve had many cats over the years. Sam wrote about Yellow Cat and Mama Mouse:

“One sunny spring day I hauled the lawn mower out of the shed to get it ready for the mowing season. It wouldn’t start, so I took the cowl off the motor to see what needed to be fixed. A mouse jumped out with five babies hooked on, and scrambled across the grass, the babies falling off as she ran in a panic toward the trees. All this time I was supervised by our big yellow cat. He seldom had any comments or suggestions about the completion of my chores. Usually when I spoke to him, he just lifted his head and turned away in disdain. This time, he meowed and hopped from his perch on the back step. He quickly sought out each flailing little baby and ate each in one bite, eyes half closed in delight. Then he went after Mama Mouse who had scrambled up a hickory tree to hide under a piece of bark. Full from his course of hors d’oeuvres, he soon gave up the chase and strolled away.

That night I had a dream about chores and cats. In the dream, I re-lived taking the cowl off the mower, and the mouse and babies scattering in the grass. Yellow Cat came trotting across the back porch bringing one of our red-and-white checkered cloth napkins, as if he had jumped up from his table at a Paris café. He skipped over to each baby and slurped it up, dabbing the corners of his mouth after each little mouse bite. Then he took his napkin and sauntered away to resume his supervision of my chores. For once, I awoke from a dream laughing.”

Funny or brutal, it happened just as told. When I was a single mom intently trying to survive and keep life and limb together, had I been too keen on where I was headed to notice ways my children might be getting swallowed up one bite at a time (see Fox News)? We parents do our best and yet are unable to protect our children from all harm. Here is where I learned to trust a loving, Eternal Father. He never lets go of them.

A Job Well Done

When I was eight, my dad built a simple summer cottage for my maternal grandparents, Keith and Bea Flesher. He poured the concrete floor, and in the porch steps I traced “1963” in the wet corner. We ate supper in the screened-in porch and at sunset watched bats dip and swoop through the yard. On cool evenings, Grandpa would light a small fire in the old tin stove. I have seen that stove glowing red, the thin lid dancing.

I remember the freshly dug pond, the dirt banks dry and smooth, waiting for the first rain to fill the hole. Dairy farmers, my grandparents milked 35-head of Holsteins morning and evening. The cottage and pond became a respite for them after evening chores. Sundown was the best time to fish.

Many of my summer days I spent on the farm two miles from town. Most days were routine. Mornings I helped bring the cows in from the field. They filed in the barn door and stood, heads already down in the stall to munch the hay we had pitched in the boxes. Grandpa clamped the stanchion shut around each cow’s neck and strapped the stainless steel milker around each strong back. Then he attached the four suction cups, one to each teat. A quiet, serene business, warm fragrance wafted off the cows, filling the hazy air in the barn. The only sound in the room was the steady hiss of the suctions cups and an occasional swish of a tail, unless a cow let loose a heavy stream, or a plop of a pile went into the trough below.

Every spring, my grandparents planted a two-acre garden and I became their free labor. I picked never-ending rows of green beans and shelled endless peas. With the dew still on the field, Grandpa picked the sweet corn. Later, he and I picked cucumbers and green peppers (he called them mangoes) and lots of tomatoes.

But it was Mrs. Powell who became my first employer and paid me for my efforts. She was a 70-year-old rich widow whose husband had been a medical doctor. She lived across from us on Half Street, and I went over to visit on occasion and sit with her in the heavy wicker porch swing. The thick cushion was nicer than anything we had at home and I made sure not to put my feet up on it. Even the painted chains creaked in good taste.

First, she hired me for ten cents to take letters up to the post office on Main Street. I rode my bike, carefully holding the precious items. I always needed spending money, not just for one-cent pink Bazooka bubble gum, but for important things like a new baseball.

When I was twelve, because I had been responsible in the little chores, she hired me to mow her yard for two dollars. Only she called it a lawn. The small front yard just inside her circle drive was fun, the back and side yard tedious, pushing row after straight row. She showed me how to trim along the edges, and watched while I worked. I picked up the weeds I had pulled, tossed them into the heavy wheel barrow and dumped them in a neat pile at the back. Now I was earning enough to save for a new left-handed mitt. (I had always used my brother’s old righty in a backwards manner.)

At age seven, I learned perseverance (see Of Turtles and Teapots); at eight, how to finish and not quit on the long, long rows of green beans; and at twelve, Mrs. Powell taught me to take pride in good work and a job well done.

Sleep-deprived but Happy

I don’t know what day it is again. I escaped the polar vortex wind-chills in Indiana by flying across the country to Seattle, today sunny and seventy. It’s not supposed to be this beautiful until summer, but there it is. A week of heaven on earth.

Coming from flat corn fields, the snow-covered mountains always take my breath, and then I gawk again at Mt. Ranier, the highest in the Cascades. I’ve been flying out here for eighteen years, and it still stuns, an immense lone spectacle. The air is different in the Pacific Northwest – the latitude, rainforest, saltwater, and mountains – and I feel sure that this invigorating healthy atmosphere is adding years to my life.

Hiking up Little Si; Seattle Aquarium with the Puget Sound flowing in and out of the outer tanks; famous Pike Place or orca whale watching – all things tourist must take a back seat this trip. I have babies to see to.

Newborn twin boys have kept me busy this week. I walk the 23 steps between kitchen, dining, and Baby-Central living room where my 4 a.m. shift begins. Back and forth, heating bottles filled with vitamin-rich formula added to mama’s milk, changing diapers, fixing breakfast for three-and-a half-year-old Big Brother who sweetly asks, “Would you please put the baby down and help me now?”

I scoot Marbles off the couch, the heaviest ball of fur I’ve ever seen; and intelligent, trustworthy golden retriever Ranger nearly wags his tail off as he slips in a forbidden lick to the milk running down baby’s cheek. There’s all kind of happy here.

Mom is sleep-deprived and still smiling, and dad, who has taken several all-night shifts this week, sleepwalks through his day while running his own business. Even fifteen-year-old Steady Son offers to babysit while the parents run to the grocery.

Born two months early at three-and-a-half pounds, the twins are now eight pounds of sacred wonder. Peaceful Merrick smiles at me so hard his eyes crinkle. He is Darling Angel. Wyatt, the older by two minutes, grunts, groans, and carries on so long and loud that I laugh. He will be Strong Protector. These perfect little boys, alive for ten weeks now, have enlarged our hearts by magnitudes.

A newborn’s rhythm takes a mom down to the core of what’s important: meeting the basic needs of the defenseless, providing safety and shelter, all with a love so deep it aches. Parents live on a simple plane for long months, and then suddenly infancy is over. Baby, like Big Brother, wants to take matters into his own hands.

The second week I drive up the road twelve miles to watch three-year-old grandson daredevil on his little scooter, and help Mother Abby sort through tubs of baby clothes while we await another precious this summer. If I ever move, it will be to Edmonds, Washington. The historic downtown, a few blocks from the ferry, is often filled with tourists and unfamiliar languages, but still feels homey and quiet. Volunteers spruce up garden spaces along the sidewalks, store owners put out water dishes for the walked dogs, and flower baskets hang on every corner and then some. I’ve never seen a prettier town. Out my bedroom window the Olympic Mountains beckon across Puget Sound and soothing train whistles fill this magical air night and day. Three weeks here isn’t long enough.

I’m a happy grandma in Pacific Northwest Paradise, but Sam just called from Indiana and said it snowed again.

When I Can’t Hear

I said yes to Jesus when I was twelve, and for the next fifty years stumbled along the Christian path. The first three decades during my morning devotions I first praised God, then asked help for my needs, and closed with thanks. The last two decades, devotions absent, I groaned my way through the day: “Why won’t You answer me?”

God is omnipotent (all-able) and omniscient (all-knowing). His job is Eternal Father, strong to save, as the Navy hymn declares. Jesus reaches down and the Holy Spirit whispers, “I’m here.” I usually don’t see how He helps until after I’ve gone through it.

My job is to listen and cling to the rock with my fingertips, if necessary, as the storm lashes me over and over; to listen harder when I pray, “Lord, bless me, even when I won’t give up the one thing I must.”

I didn’t discover Barbara Brown Taylor until last month, although she wrote An Altar in the World in 2009. I’m only nine years late. But not really. The Lord meets us right on time. For me, last month. For my friend, yesterday, when she said through her tears, “Why can’t I hear Him?”

I told her what Barbara said about how faith looks sometimes. It is a “blunt refusal to stop speaking into the divine silence.” We trust even when we can’t hear, and not hearing is not an accident. This is when we walk through something necessary, a lesson to learn.

Taylor also wrote in Leaving Church: “When everything you count on for protection has failed, the Divine Presence does not fail. The hands are still there – not promising to rescue, not promising to intervene – promising only to hold you no matter how far you fall.”

And so He holds us when He’s silent. And in our groanings, we pray the same as Lucy when she whispered, “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.” (C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)

Hoosier Hospitality

I don’t know what day it is. It’s been nine months since I retired, and a rhythm has developed to my weeks. Sunday morning still has me in church for an hour of fellowship; Tuesday noon I attend an Al-Anon meeting learning to detach and yet still care; and Friday noon my writers’ group meets to discuss one of our current stories. But this pesky polar vortex has descended on us again with below-zero wind chills, and I haven’t been anywhere this week. All my days have run together. The geese didn’t return on the first day of March (see Frank and Opal), and no wonder. The pond is frozen over again and it’s too cold to be outside for anyone except fur-hooded folks who like igloos.

In-between arctic plunges, I chatted with Billy, who had repaired my ninety-year-old mom’s car. I was hoping he couldn’t fix the u-joint, whatever that is, but he did (see Jerky and Pears). He used to run his own repair garage, but like many of us, has slowed down. Now he works on an occasional car in his driveway. Too bad many of my readers will never get the benefit of his expertise. By the way, my mom says she wants to drive again if spring ever comes, but that’s another story.

Billy told me about what had recently happened to him. Apparently K.S. isn’t the only one who loses $50 bills (see The Red Truck). He had stopped in at the local bar for a late afternoon pick-me-up, and then headed to the grocery store. When he reached into his pocket to pay for cigarettes and coffee, his fist came up empty.

“I knew which pocket my fifty-dollar bill was in, but it warn’t there,” he told me.

He left his items with the cashier and re-traced his steps to the tavern. “I asked the bartender if anyone had turned in a $50 bill, knowing the chance was slim to none.”

A stranger at one of the tables overheard his question and piped up, “Which table were you sitting at?”

Billy turned around to speak to him and pointed at the table.

“Which chair were you sitting in?” the man asked.

Billy walked over and pointed again.

“Which side of the chair did your fifty-dollar bill fall on?”

Billy said, “The left side. Had it in my left pants’ pocket.”

The stranger reached in his shirt pocket, pulled out a $50 bill and said, “This must be yours, then.”

That’s life in small-town America, filled with kind strangers and honest car mechanics. Hoosier hospitality is real, and still deals out fairness and generosity, both of which are in short supply in our country’s leadership. But that’s altogether another story.

Recipe – Miss Ellie’s Cornbread

Miss Ellie and I discussed this recipe as I ended my last visit. (See Two Good Women and Contentment)

“For good cornbread, the trick is to get hold of quality cornmeal,” I said.

She looked at me and smiled. “Follow me.”

We headed toward the covered porch where she pieces and sews quilts. As she reached to open the top of the freezer, I asked, “Did you find somewhere to buy in bulk?”

Miss Ellie pulled out a zip-loc bag and handed it to me. “We grind our own corn.” Oh my.

I thanked her profusely and drove straight home. Sam already had cajun red beans simmering on the stove, and made the cornbread within the hour.

Miss Ellie’s Cornbread
Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.
1 c. cornmeal
1 c. flour
3/4 t. soda
1 t. salt
1 t. baking powder
2 T. brown sugar (makes a crustier edge than white sugar)
Combine thoroughly. Make a well in center of mix.
Add 2 eggs. Beat slightly.
Add 1 c. sour milk (I pour 1 T. cider vinegar in cup, then fill with milk and let set a few minutes.) Beat well.

Melt 1/4 c. lard in 8” iron skillet (or melt shortening) and pour into mix. Beat well.

Pour mix back into the hot, well-greased skillet. Bake at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes until well-browned and crusty around the edge.