New in His Hands

  “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.

My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.

He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber. 

Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. 

Thy LORD is thy keeper: the LORD is thy shade upon thy right hand.  

The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. 

The LORD shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul. 

The LORD shall preserve thy going and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.”

Psalm 121, King James Version

When I first ventured to Seneca Rocks four years ago, I was on the search for a new church home.  Back in Northern Virginia, I’d been at first incredulous, then appalled at the complete lack of regard for the physical and psychological abuse of a student in a parochial school in which I’d taught.  (Although I choose not to revisit that incident, please suffice it to say that I notified everyone in authority within the Diocese and also brought my concerns to the attention of the print media in the area, to no avail.  However, God works in His own time, and the bishop and the superintendent of schools in that diocese have since been replaced.)

Having witnessed first hand the lack of Gospel witness in the parochial school, and then in the Diocese as a whole, I simply could not bring myself to return to the Catholic Mass or Sacraments.  (For those Catholics reading this, please know this is simply my own journey with my own experiences; I’ve encountered many wonderful Catholics and I am particularly fond of the Franciscans, having been a professed member of the Secular Franciscan Order.)

Once in the mountains, I noticed there were two Mennonite churches in the area, Brushy Run Mennonite Church in Onego (pronounced, “Wahn-go”), and North Fork Mennonite Church on the way to Petersburg.  Both had neat white signs and an invitation to join them for services – “All Welcome”.  Well, I had NO idea what the Mennonites believed, nor if I truly was “welcome”.  Remember now, I’d been pretty much offered up as a sacrificial lamb all too easily by my own principal, pastor, school, church, and diocese back in Virginia.  To put it mildly, I was leery of any organized religion – or any church for that matter.

Last April, however, I guess God decided to bring the Mennonites to me.  I was living in a trailer near a ramshackle barn (which a month later succumbed to a strong wind) when I noticed a strange car parked on the road near the barn.  Now, that road dead-ends just beyond the barn at the home of an elderly woman who lived there with her daughter.  So I sort of looked out for odd vehicles and made sure that anyone venturing down that way had a reason for being there.

Since it was evening, I had on my flannel pajamas (it gets cold in the mountains in April) and pulled a jacket over my shirt before heading out to check on this new stranger.  I came up to the driver’s door and asked, “Can I help you with anything?”  The man looked a little startled but replied that he was here for a cottage meeting at my neighbor’s home and was waiting for the other vehicles to arrive.  I was delighted – I’d heard about cottage meetings the summer before when I’d asked her daughter about all the cars parked in their front yard the previous night.  “Oh,” she’d said, “We had a cottage meeting last night – members of the Mennonite church come and sing for Mom.”  I’d wanted to attend a cottage meeting ever since!

I asked if I could come and the man in the car smiled and said, “Sure!”  I raced back to get dressed and then headed to my neighbor’s home in time for hymns and devotions.

I had never heard Mennonites sing before and I was in for a treat.  Mennonite churches have no choir, no organ, no instruments of any kind.  The congregation itself is the choir, and every member of the church sings its part – bass, tenor, alto, soprano.  Song leaders have a pitch pipe to get the congregation in tune and lead the hymns.

Last April, packed in a tiny room full of God’s people, I was swept up into a beautiful hymn of praise in such perfect harmony as I haven’t heard sung a capella since I was a Girl Scout counselor-in-training back in the summer of 1973.  That song was one of those unexpected, joyous moments that took me back to a summer so sweet I could smell the pine trees on the wind and recall the friendships kindled around a campfire.

I clapped when they had finished their song, just caught up in the thrill.  Their faces were calm, but it was CLEAR TO ME that one does NOT applaud when Mennonites have completed a hymn of praise to God.  Okay, first mistake (of many!) but I wasn’t escorted to the door or reprimanded in any way.  I remember thinking, “Oh, please, let me not offend these dear people!”  I refrained from clapping for the rest of the hymns.  Yes, it was hard – I was conditioned to applaud when one encounters a wonderful event and this truly met that requirement.

Outside, after the cottage meeting was over, I spoke with some of the young people who’d come along.  One of them told the story of his parents, who’d moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia from Buffalo, New York and had converted from the Roman Catholic faith to the Mennonite faith.  He said she’d written a book about it.  I tucked that information into my head for a later time.

What struck me about this group of people of all ages was their kindness, their gentle spirit, and their fellowship – a coming together on a Wednesday night to sing for a member of their church who was home bound.  They listened to me, answered many questions with great patience, and invited me to attend a church service.

And that was the start of a closer walk with God.  Notice I write, “the start”.  It is an ongoing, daily conversion, a giving up of myself each day to God, in order to do His Will, not my own.  As a Secular Franciscan, we called this process “metanoia” – a daily dying of oneself to God’s Will for us.  Mennonites practice the same thing, without the Greek name.

I invite you to read along in the next several posts and share my missteps and blessings as I’ve come to know and embrace this Gospel way of living.  Learning about the Way of the Gospel does not come quickly, particularly when one is used to living “in the world” as I have done.  I liken this conversion to a novitiate in a Catholic religious order – there, a period of years is required for the formation of a candidate prior to her final vows and profession to the religious order.  In the Mennonite faith, especially for me as an “outsider,” I see this period of time in the same way.

There is no rush in this casting aside of the old life and putting on the new;  I want to fully understand and embrace this life of greater faith.  I seek to “Purge out therefore the old leaven… as [I] am unleavened.”  Cor 5:7  Some tasks associated in wearing the veiling come more easily than others.  And in some instances, God has needed to give me more than a gentle “nudge”.  But He has been a constant presence in my life, and His people have been a constant source of support, encouragement, exhortation, and love.

Since last April, I’ve been going through “Basic Bible Studies” by Wendell Heatwole, published by Christian Light Publications, Inc. in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  Now, the book is only 79 pages, but it is SO good!  I’ve learned more about the Bible than I’ve ever learned before and I’ve been FULL of questions and tend to get off-topic during my regular Bible studies with Larry and Rhoda Showalter.  (Maybe I should say, instead, that the topics in the book lead to related topics and questions.)  We joke that maybe by the fall of 2017 I’ll be ready for rebaptism.  That is probably closer to the truth than I would’ve imagined last year!

I don’t think I mentioned that Larry Showalter was the man in the car in front of the barn that day last April, the person I thought might be lost.  He is a retired Mennonite bishop.  (Even now, my cheeks flush with embarrassment just thinking about that first encounter.  There I was, flannel pajamas, no veiling, hair blowing in the breeze.)

Larry wasn’t lost.  But God knew I needed some direction and sent it my way.

Embracing Lady Poverty

“Embracing Lady Poverty,” is what St. Francis of Assisi termed his eager acceptance of and fondness for living – um – extremely frugally.  He felt that by doing so, he removed many obstacles that stood between him and God – and he wanted nothing to stand in the way of his relationship with God.

As a single mother of three, I’ve known some pretty thin times.  But I never really struggled with poverty until after a car accident left me unable to work.  My meager savings eventually disappeared, I sold over half of my belongings, and moved to Seneca Rocks, West Virginia, a place I’d fallen in love with just a few months earlier.  I lived in a trailer for the first time in my life – and I loved it!  The living room of the trailer had large windows on three sides and, since the small trailer court was on a mountainside, I was able to view the gorgeous scenery quite easily.  It was definitely an improvement over gazing at three stories of vinyl siding on the neighboring townhouses in Northern Virginia.

I tried to work, but even a job I thought I’d be able to do – being a tour guide at Seneca Caverns – required its guides to rake leaves, pick up sticks after wind storms, and heft 40-pound boxes of rocks.  Couldn’t do that!

After I broke my leg and developed blood clots when the cast was removed, a dear woman at the local hospital filed paperwork so I could receive Medicaid.  That has been a life saver!  When food supplies dwindled, friends suggested applying for food stamps – and that was a real blessing, too.

I couldn’t afford to put gas in my car, much less make payments, so I gave my car to my son.  When I could no longer afford the monthly trailer payments, my two aunts made them for me.  I couldn’t afford Internet service but I could always use the computer at the library.  I haven’t had TV in over 22 years, so that wasn’t anything I missed.

In July, I moved into an old Craftsman-style home, built around 1900-1910, I’m guessing.  It hadn’t been occupied for over 10 years so you might be able to imagine its condition.  But I loved this house immediately – I saw what it could become.  All those earlier episodes of “This Old House” (back with Bob Villa) and “New Yankee Carpenter” (with a stouter Norm Abrams) and my decades-old affinity for old “fixer-uppers” had found a focus.

I had no car and no money for one.  A dear church friend loaned me one – and twice, he’s filled it with gas for me.  He and another church friend, also an auto mechanic, have fixed the loaner several times and have never billed me for parts or labor.  (Now that I’m employed, I intend to change that.)

I had no money to pay rent.  So I made a deal with the landlord – I’d fix up the house for 10-12 months in exchange for living here rent-free.  I gave him a list of what I intended to do in the house (fix roofs, restore light fixtures, upgrade electricity, etc.)  He agreed.  Friends helped clean, a church youth group from Pennsylvania tackled the kitchen and front siding, and two friends helped pull off old linoleum from the sun porch floor to reveal solid oak hardwood in great shape.

In August, I was asked to fill in for a housekeeper who cleaned three rental cabins on Spruce Knob.  I didn’t know if I could do the work – making my own bed was taxing.  But, I wanted to try.  If I could do the work at my own pace, which included breaks as needed, I just might be able to do it.  And I did!  It was hard, and I depended on pain relievers,  muscle relaxers, and frequent breaks to get me through it.  But I could do it.  I worked in exchange for the cabins’ owner, a carpenter, to fix two leaky roofs on my old house.

When I had to clean all three cabins in short order, it was next to impossible for me – and the frequent rentals during October’s fall foliage season made it harder than ever on my back.  I had to ask for help from the owner’s daughter-in-law and her husband.

Cleaning the cabins gave me the courage to apply for a position as a sort of “visiting grandma” – picture someone who nurtures, supports, educates, and provides screening for families with children ages 0 (pre-natal) to 5.  That sounded ideal to me.  And it wouldn’t be so difficult physically.  I interviewed with the supervisor and was offered the position.

The first day of training, I had to drive a little over an hour away.  I had no money and I had an empty gas tank.  I stopped at the post office to check my mail, hoping that maybe a birthday check was in there (my birthday had been two days earlier).  And my former employer, the cabin owner and his wife, had sent a birthday card and check for $100.  That is how I put gas in the loaner car.

The day I received my first payroll deposit in my checking account was sheer delight!  I have never in my life filled out a check with as much pleasure as that first check for trash pickup!  Up until now, every time I had to pay a bill it was incredibly stressful.  I have a little plaque on my desk to help me overcome my financial fears – “I can do all things through Christ… Philippians 4:13”.  I ordered checks years ago with scenes of antiques arranged in attractive displays – I needed to enjoy the process of paying bills and those checks helped.  But during that first day of writing checks just two weeks ago, I didn’t feel a need for my plaque or the pretty checks – I finally had money of my own and was able to afford things so many take for granted – garbage pickup, for example.

My second payroll deposit was last Thursday – the day I arrived home to discover that my water pipe had frozen.  I figured the following day I could pick up heat tape.  Well, I did – I also picked up new fuses for the ones that had blown when my space heaters were struggling to supply heat to my house that night.  I woke at 2 in the morning to a freezing house – drove 45 minutes or so to Walmart, hoping they’d sell what I needed.  I was able to get a few things, but had to wait until stores opened at 7 for fuses and heat tape.  Until then, I had not been able to afford those things and fortunately, I had money in my account when I really needed to buy them.

Before I was hired for this new position, I’d sold my sterling silver – the last asset I had.  With the proceeds, I bought a stacking washer/dryer and paid off some debts to friends.  A friend has been doing my laundry for me since my 46-year-old washing machine started leaking, but I don’t want to be lugging loads of wash 150 feet from the house to the footbridge, over the footbridge, and to my car parked about 50 feet up the road – in snow or ice.  Had a glaze of ice this morning and it was unpleasant enough maneuvering across it without carrying laundry!

I’ve discovered that living here in the mountains, it’s far easier to live with poverty – and to embrace it – than it was back in the suburbs.  Here, we have no Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors or fast food restaurants or malls or theaters or any number of places conspiring to lure me in and take my money.  Goodwill and Walmart are about an hour away.  Landscaped  yards and manicured lawns are uncommon, unless you go to town, so there’s no need to “keep up with the neighbors”.  Yes, I take care of my yard, but it’s easier here.

Back in April, I started attending a conservative Mennonite church here.  I found my church home!  I’m still going through the Basic Bible Study booklet and have applied to be received into the church when I’ve completed it, but I have never been so at home with any church community or people in my life.  I even find the women’s apparel fits with my preferences so perfectly.  When I moved here, I opted to let my hair go gray as I just disliked the endless need to keep up with coloring my hair.  I didn’t feel a need to wear earrings or jewelry, and I had no one criticizing me for my fashion (or lack of fashion) choices.  When I started attending our Mennonite church, I loved the way that the cape dress worn by the women was sensible, modest, and attractive.  The same style of dress worn by my friends today was worn by their mothers and grandmothers decades ago – their family photos display the same dress styles we wear now.  I like that – I really like that our apparel is not dictated by a fashion industry or department stores.  Mennonite women take their cues for dressing from the Bible.  Cape dresses are handmade to fit each woman.  Up until yesterday, my four cape dresses were from second-hand sections of Mennonite stores in Virginia and Ohio.  I’ve been quite happy with them!  But for my birthday, a dear friend from church gave me two pieces of material and offered to make dresses for me.  Yesterday, another dear friend sent over a completed cape dress, made to fit me using material that had been donated to the church’s sewing circle.  I look forward to wearing it to church tomorrow!

As much as I enjoy wearing a cape dress each day, I also have come to recognize how liberating a limited wardrobe is.  I own only a winter coat that needs dry cleaning.  My clothes fit pretty easily on a hook or two – a small closet would be more than enough room to fit them all!  I don’t have to coordinate pieces or have accessories to match.  When it gets cold outside, I layer skirts underneath the skirt of my dress for added warmth and sometimes add flannel pajama bottoms!  It’s actually warmer layering like this than wearing jeans.

Mennonite women also do not wear makeup, and I find that incredibly refreshing.  My morning routine has been shortened by not applying the little bit of makeup that I used to wear – mascara (that would run in hot weather), blush, and under-eye concealer.  Occasionally, I would wear eye shadow or lipstick.  But to be free from that routine is truly delightful!  And I don’t miss buying makeup.

Trips to the hair salon are non-existent now, too.  I don’t miss paying $25-50 for haircuts, and not always being happy with the results.  When I moved to West Virginia, I decided to let my hair grow out; I’d never had long hair, even as a girl, and I decided to see what it was like.  Since attending our church, I’ve learned to pull it back in a bun and wear a small white cap called a “veiling”.  I actually prefer it to any hairstyle I’ve ever had.  I will wear this hairstyle for the rest of my life – no need to keep up with current fashion trends or concern myself (and my budget) with salon treatments.  The veiling is scriptural and many Christian women are now adopting veiling for themselves.  For me, it’s also a delightful reminder that God is in charge – He is head of my home.  As a single mother and a former teacher used to making dozens of decisions each day, it is a relief to NOT be in charge.  I GLADLY let God be in charge, to be attuned to His “nudges” in my life.

In two weeks, I shall gladly bid adieu to my Medicaid card, happy that I’m once again able to provide for myself.  When this last monthly food stamp allotment of $194.00 is gone, I will be delighted to let someone else who truly needs that service receive the money.  Both types of assistance were provided to me in times of great need.

My lessons in poverty will stay with me, I trust.  I’m reading a book about Christian budgeting, loaned to me by our pastor.  And I can see how, just coming into money as I am now, will make it far easier to budget appropriately.  I have most of what I need (eventually, I’d like to get a car of my own) and everything I could possibly want.  I truly want for nothing.

Living in poverty – with no income, dependent on Medicaid and food stamps – was very humbling.  Humbling, not embarrassing.  I learned what I truly need in order to live – and I greatly prefer my simpler lifestyle.

Back in April, I was staying at a friend’s trailer (had no money for trailer rental of my own, no where to go) when I met my new Mennonite friends, who’d come to the farm for a cottage meeting at the neighbor’s.  Had I not been so impoverished financially, I would never have been at that farm, would never have met the retired Mennonite bishop who invited me along, would never have known the incredible riches of my new faith walk in the Mennonite church.  I have placed my faith firmly in Christ and not once have I been disappointed.  I know without a doubt that as I trust Him to guide my steps, He makes sure I walk on firm ground.

I have been so richly blessed this year – yet, had I failed to “embrace Lady Poverty,” I would not be here today, so deeply happy, in a church I admire and thoroughly love, with a life full of dear friends, and with a career that I am so excited about.  I know, too, that “Lady Poverty’s” friendship will allow me to relate to others I meet here and help me reach out to them in a way that would have been impossible before.

St. Francis of Assisi’s embrace of the Gospel was pretty radical – taking a vow of poverty was not exactly something that religious orders of the Middle Ages espoused.  But he was so right about its value – simplifying our lives makes us more open to God’s will, to God’s daily miracles, to God’s guidance in our lives.  Poverty makes us radically dependent upon God for everything.  And when we turn our lives, our hearts, and our minds, to God, we will never be disappointed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas… Recalling the Truly Humble Birth of Our Lord

When I was expecting our first child, it occurred to me – on a new level – that Jesus’ birth took place in the most humble of surroundings.  In February of 1987, I was decorating a tiny nursery at Chanute Air Force Base, Illinois, with a dresser, a crib, and a rocking chair.  Little outfits were washed and stored away, plenty of diapers had been purchased and tucked away in the closet, and I’d taken Lamaze classes and read about breastfeeding so I’d be as ready as possible for our little one.  I was within minutes of the hospital, where I’d give birth to my firstborn in a warm, well-equipped room surrounded by nurses, an obstetrician, and an anesthesiologist.  This last staff member happened to be our next-door neighbor, who called home throughout my labor and delivery to report on my progress to his wife, who then relayed the news to our other neighbors!

That Christmas, I compared my preparations for our newborn with those of Mary and Joseph.  Surely, Mary knew about nourishing her child – that would have been something she’d have learned about by being around other newborns and new mothers.  She would have also been accustomed to birthing, if only from the animals around her home.  I think, though, that experienced mothers in her life would have helped prepare her for childbirth.  Prior to their journey to Bethlehem, had Mary tucked tiny little outfits, blankets, and soft rolls of cloth in a bag?  I think she must’ve known her time was near and would have wanted to be as prepared for her newborn as possible.  I wonder if she was a bit worried, with the prospect of being far from home and away from friends and family who could help with her labor and delivery.  It must have been disheartening, too, seeking shelter in a town bursting with visitors.  Over and over, Joseph sought a place to stay in Bethlehem – any place –  and was repeatedly turned down.  How long was Mary in labor as she and Joseph searched for a room?  Fatigue from worry and the strain of travel must have been wearing them down.

After being turned away from one inn after another, and after enduring labor pains while riding a donkey, the humble stable finally offered to Joseph and Mary must have looked so inviting.  At last, Mary could ease off the donkey’s back and lie down, resting in the straw.  Joseph could kneel beside her, comforting Mary as her contractions became more intense.  Imagine the earthiness of this stable for a moment – dust and cobwebs, cow “pies” and donkey droppings to sidestep, a dirt floor covered with straw, the smells of the animals present, gentle munching sounds as hay and grain were eaten, soft calls of the stable’s occupants, and the warmth those creatures must have added to the stable.  This is the place our Savior was born in.  Was Joseph able to make a bed of clean straw for his laboring wife?  Did he heat the well water to clean Jesus and his mother?  Giving birth in a stable is nothing any one of us would aspire to.  Christmas carols sanitize the event – “Away in a Manger” never mentioned the possibility of splintered wood, wobbly legs, or dusty, prickly straw.  Things we take for granted now were not so simple for the Holy Family.

The first visitors to the newborn King were humble, too, simple shepherds alerted to Jesus’ birth by heavenly angels.  I like to think that Mary and Joseph were delighted by these visitors, who told the new parents how they’d learned of their son’s birth.  Being simple country folks, the shepherds carried some food and water with them, and they probably offered to share what they had with Mary and Joseph.  If there were older shepherds in the group, they most likely gazed upon the infant Jesus with admiration and approval, congratulating the new parents on their new son.  I think these older men would’ve clapped Joseph on his back, perhaps embrace him, and assure him he did a fine job bringing his son into the world.  And all these things Mary would remember, would treasure in her heart.

As Christmas draws near, I want to create as warm and as welcoming a place in my heart as I possibly can for Jesus.  I want my heart to be filled with gratitude for the many blessings he’s provided me, with abiding love for the cherished friends and family in my life, and with a deep desire to do what Jesus would have me do, not what I would have me do.  Jesus asked his disciples to share God’s love with the world, to be a little beacon of God’s light for all.

Mary and Joseph would have gladly stopped where a little flame from a candle or oil lamp beckoned them to rest.  Please, God, let me be a little flame of your love in my little part of the world.

 

When Remodeling a Bathroom…

There are new things to learn every day, if only we have eyes to see them!

I’d learned a few things about toilets over the years, and I thought some of these might prove useful to others.

First, I always replace rusty tank bolts with brass ones.  I do this when I move into a new-to-me house.  It’s just something I do.  I dislike rusty bolts and I dislike dirty tank water.  Brass won’t rust and it’s an easy fix.

Second, when I had to replace a toilet, I chose a chair height toilet.  I didn’t even realize they were available when I headed to Home Depot but I didn’t need convincing to buy one.  It’s easier on the knees and back.  Great for older folks and those with arthritis and simply anyone who wants an easier toilet to sit on and rise from.

Third, teach your sons to replace toilet seats.  Enough said.

The next two things I learned from cleaning rental cabins; their toilets all have these great features.

Fourth, you know that little oval-shaped handle that turns the water to the toilet off and on?  Well, you can purchase one of these connectors that slips easily from off to on – no more endless turning of this handle when the toilet is overflowing.

Fifth, newer toilets have eliminated the rim under the seat – the part with the holes for water to wash away waste.  If you recall, this is also the part that is really difficult to see when cleaning.  New ones have no lip – it’s slanted, and you can also see the holes.  No more acrobatic configurations trying to see if the toilet is clean!

I realize this information is not exactly life-changing.  But, these are all simple fixes that can help save frustration.  And that is worth writing about!

 

 

 

…”we can do small things with great love.”

Two weeks ago, I was asked to fill in for a housekeeper who’d broken her elbow.  She is responsible for taking care of three gorgeous rental cabins on Spruce Mountain in West Virginia and should be able to resume her duties in two months or so.  Although I was a bit hesitant, due to some back problems, I agreed to help the owners clean up a cabin the following day and see how it went. 

Just days before, I’d spent a day and a half cleaning a local pavilion for a family reunion.  It was very tiring, but very satisfying work.  I wanted to see if my back could handle the added labor.

Well, Wednesday night, our Mennonite community had a clean up night in the church.  I scrubbed the two bathrooms and was just about done in.  I was trying to keep up with the rest of the crew and overdid it.  I decided I’d better bring along an extra helper in case I couldn’t keep up with the cabin the following morning.

For the cabin, I planned a bit better.  I took a pain pill and a muscle relaxer before I headed over to the mountain. That helped and I felt that I really would be able to take on this housekeeping position.

I am quite surprised by how much I enjoy doing the work.  I cannot imagine a more pristine setting – the view from the cabins’ decks overlooks Germany Valley and right now, all I can see are green leaves and trees everywhere.  Fall must be beautiful from this vantage point – and a winter scene of snow everywhere would be so delightful!  As I drove up the narrow mountain road this morning, two deer crossed the road in front of me.  Definitely beats any prior commutes I’ve had!

Besides the great setting, the cabins themselves are a pleasure to work in.  The owner built them – he’s a carpenter, and the care he took shows in every little detail.  The angles of the roof peaks are mitered perfectly, the handrails of the staircases leading to the cabins are routed on the edges and sanded smooth on the ends.  Really nice.  It’s truly a delight to work in such a structure, a privilege to be entrusted to keep it clean and inviting for the next guests.

One more advantage to cleaning these cabins – my spine is actually feeling stronger than it has in decades. I cannot imagine a better place to head for physical therapy! And I’d much rather do something truly worthwhile that sit at a machine doing exercises.

I probably like working in those cabins because my home is not exactly pristine – yet.  When I moved in the end of June 2016, it had been unoccupied for over nine years.  Cobwebs were everywhere and leaves filled the kitchen floor to a depth of about five inches.  Two windows were in need of glass and admitted all sorts of night insects.  I don’t miss those at all.  I’ve made a lot of progress in the house, and had a lot of help doing so, but it is still in need of paint and scrubbing.  A bit at a time, I’m bringing the house back to life.  Tending to those rental cabins gives me incentive to tackle my own house as well and give me a bit of a vacation from the chores back home.

This past Monday, more than 150 people gathered at St. Bonaventure Catholic Church in Paterson, New Jersey to honor the contributions of janitors in the community.  Housekeepers, maids, janitors – all have similar jobs.  I have always respected the folks who kept my classroom warm, clean, and repaired as needed.  When I’ve stayed at hotels, I appreciated the care taken to make sure the room is comfortable.  And now that I’m a housekeeper, I take pride in making sure the cabins are just what the guests are looking for.  I realize that it’s the housekeeper whose touch in each cabin is one of the factors that can make or break a guest’s visit.  I scrub spots off of the stainless shower fixtures, scrub any spot that looks out of place, basically treat the cabin like it’s my own and family’s coming to visit.  Grandma was born in Barry, Ontario and we used to be encouraged to “clean as if the Queen is coming.”  Well, the Queen is welcome to visit here!

Saint Teresa was canonized by the Catholic Church on Sunday.  One of my favorite quotes is attributed to her and I think it’s fitting to close this reflection on doing small things with it.

“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

Mother’s Day 2016

Like some of you, I am separated from my mom by many miles; one does not simply hop in the car and drive from Seneca Rocks, West Virginia to Copper Harbor, Michigan on a whim.  And when one is prone to falling asleep at the wheel as I am, driving is not an option at all.

So it’s been many years since I last saw Mom.  She and her youngest sister drove to Northern Virginia for Rebecca’s high school graduation in 2006.  That’s the last time I visited with her.  In person, that is.

But I visit with Mom each day, though she may not realize it.  When I sit with a cup of tea to write a letter or type a new blog post, it’s as if we’re having a discussion.  I can imagine her expressions as she reads my sentences, see her nod or chuckle when reading about something funny in my stories.

I spend a lot of time with Mom in my kitchen.  It’s her tried-and-true recipes that I turn to most – or those of her mother.  Right now, I have some cooled, hydrated raisins that will become Puffed Raisin Cookies within the hour.  I cherish those old recipes with her handwriting and her mother’s handwriting.  Holding my measuring spoons or leveling a measuring cup full of shortening takes me back to where I first learned those skills.

It was Mom’s kitchen where I first learned the delightful pleasure of sampling raw chocolate chip cookie dough.  Now, I know about the dangers involved in consuming raw eggs in cookie  dough – but I’m 58, still enjoying chocolate chip cookie dough, and I haven’t died from eating it yet.  Sue, my sister, is still alive and kicking and eating it, too.  But if I did happen to kick the bucket while munching a spoonful of cookie dough, ah, what a way to go!

Mom used to give one of the cookie dough-covered beaters of her Sunbeam Mix Master to my sister, Sue, and the other to me.  Scrumptious!  When our brother, Mike, arrived on the scene, it became a bit more difficult to be fair when sampling the dough!  Just how does one divide up two beaters among three kids?  Spoons!

At Christmas, Mom used to let us kids decorate most of the cut-out cookies, but she preferred to save the trees for herself.  First, she’d smooth on a perfect layer of pale green frosting.  Then, she’d pinch a bit of green decorator sugar between her fingers and create a garland on the tree in sugar.  Multi-colored sprinkles became the lights, a cinnamon candy adorned the top of the tree as its star, and once in a while, she’d add chocolate jimmies for the trunk.  When I make Christmas cookies, I still decorate the trees like Mom does.  It’s as if she is right there in the kitchen with me!

I remember standing in Mom’s kitchen, learning to memorize a short verse for my Brownie Girl Scout investiture ceremony.  “Twist me and turn me, and show me the elf; I look in the water and see – myself!”  Even at that age, Mom made sure I projected my voice and spoke clearly.  And when I was a Brownie leader, teaching our little troop how to conduct a flag ceremony, it was like Mom was teaching the girls.  “Good – speak up nice and loud.  Speak slowly – when we’re nervous, we have a tendency to speak quickly.  So just remember to slow down and you’ll do fine!”

Mom had a special poem that she memorized for school back in the 1940’s.  “The Christmas Dolly” became a tradition in our household, too.  Mom made sure her own daughters memorized this beloved poem and even passed it down to her grandchildren.  “I’m a poor, sad Christmas dolly, battered and oh, so forlorn!  You’d never guess by my looks I was new just last Christmas morn!  One year ago, I was handsome – bright eyes and beautiful curls; rosy cheeks and silken lashes, and teeth that shown like little white pearls!”  (And Mom, I haven’t looked at a copy of that poem in I don’t know how long – I bet you’re finishing it for me right now!)

Even my writing has its roots anchored in the way Mom helped me prepare applications for Girl Scout Wider Opportunities (“Dig! Mankind” in Wyoming in 1972 and “Traces Through Time in Utah the following year).  Rough drafts were written in pencil on notebook paper, corrections made, edits done until it was deemed worthy enough of the real application form.  The same was true of job applications (life guard, Girl Scout camp counselor) and my sole college application, Michigan State University.  Just a few days ago, Mom asked about any permissions I might need to use some of the photographs in my blog posts.  Still on the job!

I like to open the door of this little trailer first thing in the morning and greet the cattle with, “Good morning, world!”  I get that from Mom.  When driving in the car, I’ll turn off the air conditioner and roll down the windows to get – as Mom puts it – “real air”.

When we used to travel, Mom always made sure we had plenty of AAA literature and maps.  As we were about to enter a new town or visit a landmark, it became tradition for Mom to announce, “A reading… from… The Book!” “The Book” was the appropriate AAA Guidebook; Mom kept us in the know about all the spots we were traveling through.  I did that with my own family.

This afternoon, I picked up an old True Temper Flint Edge Kelly Works two-sided felling axe for $1.00.  Right now, it’s soaking in vinegar – all 10 inches of it – because I (like my mom) love to learn about the history of old rusty stuff.  I have old handmade square nails from a barn on my desk – more rusty old stuff.  Mom surely approves!

And tomorrow, I hope to get to the post office in time to mail a box of items I’ve collected just to share with her – tiny little pine cones from a hemlock tree, a beautiful feather from a ruffed grouse, two paper ice cream cone wrappers that I know she’ll love – American flags.  One time, a snowy owl landed on Mom and Dad’s dock in Copper Harbor.  She sent one of its feathers to our family, wrote to tell us how to hold it and drag it quickly through the air – it made no sound.  That owl was a very silent predator.  On one of her visits, Mom brought snow from the Upper Peninsula, thoroughly delighting her grandchildren who made snowballs with it that summer!  In 1976, I dubbed Mom “Bicentennial Bess” because of her propensity for wearing red, white, and blue throughout the year and taking us to any and all Bicentennial exhibits near Detroit.  I teased her, yes, but I loved it all.  And I’ve shared her abiding love of history with my own children and the students I’ve taught over the years.  So Mom’s even been with me in my classroom!

Mom has a very large collection of rug beaters hanging in her laundry room; I have just one rug beater, hanging on the wall of my laundry area, but I think of her each time I see it.  We share a fondness for quilts, too.  And real maple syrup.  Mom attended Green Mountain College in Vermont, where I must assume only real, 100% Vermont maple syrup was featured at pancake breakfasts.  To this day, I just can’t enjoy homemade buttermilk pancakes unless they’re topped with real maple syrup.  Thank goodness West Virginia is a maple producing hotspot – my local favorite is Dry Fork Maple Works in nearby Randolph County.  I bought a quart of his delicious syrup for $16.00 – then phoned him to say I would’ve paid more for it!  It’s still $16.00, still delicious – and even Mom approves of his syrup.  That is high praise!

So, although Mom hasn’t been to West Virginia in person, and I haven’t been to Copper Harbor, Michigan in years, we still visit through letters, emails, blog posts, and occasional boxes of “stuff”.  And Mom’s with me everywhere I am.  She’s a part of me.  I can hear her voice without needing a phone – “Hershey Bar!”

That’s another story.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.  I love you to bits!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FarmerHoney Digs to China!

As I write, FarmerHoney is trying out the latest addition to his farm equipment – a small Allmand backhoe/loader.  He’s been wanting one for several years; there are plenty of projects around the farm that require a backhoe.  This is one purchase that just could not be postponed any longer.  (And I once thought farmers pretty much limited their equipment to tractors and hay wagons!  Oh, no – there is a LOT of equipment on a farm that most people wouldn’t expect to find.  But that’s another story.)

Closeup Terry on backhoe

FarmerHoney is very happy with Project Number One. 

Prior to selecting this backhoe, FarmerHoney spent hours checking out backhoe videos on YouTube.  (Yes, there are lots of such things!)  All sorts of folks have been filmed using various brands of backhoes; FarmerHoney was determined to evaluate them all and choose the best model for his needs.  So thus began endless hours watching Backhoe YouTube videos.  At the time, this was actually a reprieve from endless hours watching Italian World War II movies.

I think it’s safe to say now that we’ve watched backhoes in all sorts of circumstances.  They can get stuck in the most incredibly messy ways.  Some backhoe operators must believe their machines are equipped with inflatable flotation devices.  Others drive them on steep inclines only a mountain goat has any business attempting!  We’ve watched backhoe operators use just the features of their machines to load and unload them from flatbed trucks – no ramps needed.  One video showed a backhoe “climb” a series of increasingly higher platforms, then descend to the ground again.

Did you know there is a backhoe designed to operate on top of open railroad cars?  FarmerHoney and I stared in fascination (yep, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it – guess it was a slow day in the country) as the operator managed to get his backhoe off of a railroad car and safely onto the ground again – no ramps required!  He had quite an audience watching while he gingerly eased the heavy machine back to earth – I imagine they were wondering if he’d capsize or not.  Maybe there were even friendly bets among those onlookers!

backhoe on railroad car

This specialized backhoe is called a “cartopper”.  It was filmed by Bob Dahringer and posted to You Tube as “Unloading a Herzog Cartopper.”  FarmerHoney and I aren’t the only folks who watched this – it’s had well over 7,000,000 views!

Just when we thought we’d seen every conceivable thing a backhoe could do, we came across a choreographed “march” of five or six backhoes.  I think whoever came up with that idea had either been in marching band or had a child in marching band.  It was pretty clever.  Picture the Blue Angels – on Monster Truck wheels.  And slow.  V-e-r-y   s-l-o-w.  Or imagine synchronized swimming performed with construction equipment.  You get the picture.  I don’t know about FarmerHoney, but I think I’ve seen all the backhoe videos I ever want to see!

Dancing Backhoes

This is JCB’s backhoe stunt team, the “Dancing Diggers”.  Incredible show!

As I began this story, FarmerHoney decided that Project Number One with his new backhoe would be to improve the cattle guard – the trench below the grate was so shallow the calves in the pasture easily walked on the soil just below the grate and into our front yard.  The only things the grate prevented from entering the yard were the cows and the bull.  We should be grateful for small miracles.

Calves at cattle guard 6

Now, I truly don’t mind the calves munching on our grass.  Heaven knows it needed trimming and the lawn mower wasn’t working.  But it’s the little gifts the calves deposit on the lawn that I have a problem with.  Anyone ever get upset over a neighbor’s dog dumping on your yard?  A calf is a LOT bigger than a dog!  So are its dumps!  And they’re not as easy to dispose of.

Okay, enough of that!

FarmerHoney removed the grate that covers the trench and began scooping out one shovelful of soil at a time.  He had practiced using his new backhoe the week before, when landscaping around his sister’s home. It showed.  He’d become quite adept at toggling two levers at a time, so the outstretched bucket would reach out at the same time it was being positioned.  FarmerHoney had this down to a science!  I was amazed at the amount of dirt and rocks piling up on the south side of the road.  I could just imagine him at the beach, digging to China with his backhoe.  He’d be the envy of all the boys!  What a hole that would be!

Terry, backhoe and cattle guard 2

Notice the cattle in the distance.  I think they’re just trying to act like they’ve seen backhoes before, it’s nothing new, why get excited?

After about 30 minutes of digging, FarmerHoney was ready for a break, so he walked in for lunch.  His absence in the backhoe was the cattle’s cue to examine the site.  A few of them walked over – rather quickly, I thought.  I watched in fascination as more joined the first cows.  And then cattle from all over the field were actually running to see the excavation!  In my imagination, I could hear shouts of “Me, first!” or “Hey, wait for me!” from the herd.  What did they expect to find when they arrived?   Massive piles of sweet feed or a bucket of molasses?

Cattle at excavation site

With FarmerHoney out of the picture, the herd has no reason to retain its aloof attitude toward what’s happening at the cattle guard.  They came running over to see what was going on – and I mean running!

Whatever it was the cattle were searching for, they seemed to discover it in the pile of dirt and rock. They happily munched on weeds that had been scooped up with the soil and sifted through the pile with their hooves and noses.  I could relate.  I used to hunt for rocks and fossils as a kid and the cows’ behavior looked familiar.  Except for the eating weeds part.

Once the pile of dirt had been investigated and plants sampled, the cattle took turns checking out the backhoe.  Cattle are naturally quite curious and just about any novelty will attract their attention.  It’s a wonder no cow or calf was accidentally pushed in the trench!  I half expected one of them to clamber into the driver’s seat of the backhoe, they inched in so close.

The cattle spent about 45 minutes examining every part of the work area and backhoe.  Then FarmerHoney walked to the trench and jumped down, using a small spade to complete what the backhoe was too large for.  The herd was quite interested in this and stuck around to watch The Man in the Hole.  When FarmerHoney was happy with his work, he climbed back out of the hole and into his backhoe, then lifted the grate back into position and filled in any depressions in the road.  He was very pleased with the result!

Evidently, the calves are happy with the improvements, too.  While they can no longer walk across on the soil, they’re still able to scamper across a narrow section of posts and rock I’d placed adjacent to the grate.

To prevent the calves from doing such a thing.

Time to learn about building a set of wings for that guard.

cattle guard with wings

This is not our cattle guard – it has wings on it.  I suspect the calves would figure a way to crawl below the wing in this picture, so we’ll have to block any access to that area as well!