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)

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).”

All is Well, Go Gently

I rummaged through my few holdout CDs. Then I looked carefully. And then looked again.

Sam had built a blazing fire in the wood stove, and I sat back down with him watching the flames as we drank our first cup of coffee.

“It’s not possible, but I can’t find my old Michael W. Smith Christmas,” I said. “One of the finest Christmas songs. An inspired arrangement! How could I have given it away?”

He looked at me, held up his index finger, and got up to get his phone. Wordlessly, he plugged it into the sound bar, found the song, and handed me the remote. I cranked the volume. With the first words my tears began. There is no more angelic sound than a boy’s high soprano.

“All is well, all is well.
Angels and men rejoice.
For tonight darkness fell
Into the dawn of love’s light.”

I remember the first time I heard this song in 1989. My sixteen-and-a-half year marriage was on the brink of collapse, and had been for several years. Our children were 15, 13, 8, and 1. With the first words, “All is well,” I lost it. Somehow the words, sung in the child’s pure voice, sent hope all through me. Money was too tight to buy cassette tapes, so I kept the radio on much of the time in hopes of hearing it again. One suppertime during Christmas week, it came on. I ran to the radio, turned it up, and worshipped while we ate.

The winding road of the next years was, as usual, a twisty thing. But through it all, I knew better than to give up. As Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

“All is well, all is well.
Let there be peace on earth.
Christ has come, go and tell.
Lift up your voice and sing.”

All is well, go and tell. But go gently. Gently. Be spare with your words. Tremble when you speak “apples of gold in pictures of silver.” God is at work.

After coffee by the fire, Sam morphed into full cookie mode and donned denim apron and red Santa Claus hat. I went to type next week’s blog.

The weary world is watching. Merry Christmas to all.

“O holy night . . . the thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.” Adolphe Adam, 1847

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