Frank and Opal

Some men have a corny sense of humor. Sam especially. I usually just stare at him. This week I worked on the New York Times crossword puzzle and asked him, “What’s a five-letter word for ‘more dry, as in humor’? Drier can’t be right.”

“H-mmm,” he said.

As it turned out, the word was wrier. “Wry is a good word. I haven’t used that word in, well, I never use that word.”

“I used it just last week,” he said, and I began to be impressed.

“Yes, I used it when I ordered a Reuben sandwich.”

See what I mean?

The columns of fog move and twist over the pond like ballet dancers in silent, slow procession. And then the sounds of the geese break the morning’s quiet. “Sam, they’re back!”

One of the highlights of living on Flesher Pond is the return of Frank and Opal. They glide in on the first day of March more often than not. One year it was February 29. “It’s Leap Year,” I told Sam. “They don’t know it’s not March 1.”

Each spring, Opal rebuilds her nest in the same spot. Beside the pond she sits, tucking in grass and twigs that are within reach. That done, she roams around searching for anything else suitable. She also pulls out her down to stuff in and around. Miss Fussy toils for a couple of days, and then she sits. Frank stands guard, and swims and eats at leisure, but Opal just sits. Once a day, in late afternoon when the sun slants through the trees, she gets up and waddles to the pond to feed.

We named the geese after my paternal grandparents. Grandpa was gruff and scary, but Grandma Opal was just good. Our visits were always to see her and not Grandpa. As little girls, my sister and I thought Grandpa was called Opal, too. Grandma and Grandpa Opal.

Frank and Opal, the geese, take a proprietary view of Flesher Pond and consider it their personal front yard. Arguments are rare, but Sentinel Frank is loud in his disapproval when any other geese want to land. When his “calamity is coming” honking begins, Sam and I know something’s up. Frank lifts in flight to head off the interlopers, but the new arrivals are indignant and challenge him. Attacking and swooping, Frank steers them away from the nest. If several birds land, Opal gets up to join in the fracas. The honking from all sides is loud and serious, but Frank always wins. Opal resumes her brooding, undisturbed.

We don’t always get to watch the goslings grow. Some years a raccoon or fox upsets the peace and harmony, and we find broken eggshells scattered in the grass. One year Frank flew away before sundown. He does that sometimes. When Opal started honking and didn’t let up, I finally said to Sam, “Something is wrong.”

She honked all night. Each time I woke up I heard her still calling. In the morning, she flew away from seven perfect, white eggs and never came back. We missed them and their little family that spring. The next year she came to build with a new “Frank.” Forty-five degrees a few days ago and sixty yesterday should thaw the pond. In about five days we look for our goose friends to return and try again.

“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


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, “Both of them sixty-eight years old . 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.

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)

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).”

Sandhill Cranes

While Sam and I hung ornaments on our little Charlie Brown Christmas tree, I heard the buzz of the neighbor’s chain saw. Then I heard something else. Could it be?

“Sam. The sandhill cranes are here!”

We rushed out the front door, me in my slippers on the snow-covered walk, to gaze up at their long, uneven V. My scientist friend explained why one tail of the V is so much longer than the other. “It’s because there are more birds on that side,” he said.

My heart, ready to burst, sang with joy amidst the heartache as we watched and listened. My four children are a long way from Indiana. Now with seven grandchildren and three more on the way (twins included), families do not venture home to us for the holidays. Hanging their homemade ornaments is a bittersweet hour of my year.

The raw power of nature digs deep into my soul. The cranes sing hope to me. I don’t know why they affect me so much. Maybe it’s because they fly over Flesher Pond only twice a year – in spring and fall migration. One of Indiana’s best wildlife shows is found in the marsh in northern Indiana Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area from late September through December. Flocks of cranes stop to feed, dance, and roost. Then they fly south over us.

Maybe it’s the seldom available events which mean so much. No. That can’t be right. Spending holidays together every year was the norm in my childhood. It was good to look forward to grandparents and cousins, and favorite aunts and uncles. All the gifts, and loud, noisy fun. And the good food – the ham from Grandpa’s pig; hot buttered yeast rolls; and my favorite, Grandma’s dried corn, soaked and cooked to perfection. Everyone needs family.

But many don’t get that happiness. I treasure now the few and in-between times. Traveling to New York in the fall to say Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas all over one weekend is gold. In Seattle, I wait until summer when the weather on Puget Sound is perfection. Once, my younger son took me sailing on Lake Union for the afternoon. Just the two of us. Pure gold. Christmas in July.

God bless those of you who celebrate life and good gifts with your family each year. The Eternal Father, strong to save, sees and hears your praising hearts. For the rest of us, He hears our aching hearts. And those that are broken, too.

I remember my sister when, as a teenager, she fell off her horse and broke three ribs. She couldn’t take a full breath for the knife-pains. Twenty-five years ago, the first Christmas after my divorce was the hardest. The children were at their dad’s, and I was alone in the house. That morning, I couldn’t take a full breath either, for broken dreams and fragmented lives.

The years gone by have eased the pain. Now I am content when I hear the sandhill cranes, and run outside to say hello again for the two minutes it takes them to pass over. These in-between moments are golden.

“How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shown On Man by him seduc’t . . .”

John Milton (1608-1674), Paradise Lost