Thanksgiving for Eight Kisses In her journal The House by the Sea, May Sarton describes walking with her friend Judy and dog Tamas to the Maine shore in early December: “How glorious it was! Fifty-mile gusts of wind driving the waves … Continue reading
Oniontown Pastoral: Why I’ve Been Quiet Lately
It was tomatoes cooking, the kindly surprise of their smell, that brought me around, helped my spirit to its feet and pointed me in a good direction.
If you look forward to my column in Greenville, Pennsylvania’s daily, The Record Argus, or my posts at A Napper’s Companion, you may have noticed that I’ve been quiet lately. When world and native land are convulsing in myriad ways, of what account are tomato-perfumed wisps rising in a middle-class kitchen? When the television news serves up images of relentless rage and pandemic, mentioning the cleansing joy of wife Kathy’s sunflowers bending in the breeze feels intrusive. When we human beings are enduring the labor pains of birthing a new society—and meanwhile throwing tantrums over trivialities and wetting our pants—who wants to think about a couple dozen corn stalks rising from a raised bed, the soil a mix of household compost and manure from a dear friend’s cows?
Maybe you do. I now believe my silence in recent weeks has been misguided. “Don’t go all poetic on me, John,” I imagined you saying, “about standing at a stove or pulling blessings from a garden, about how basil makes a sauce sing, about how walking by a bush of spearmint touches a place inside you didn’t know was aching. No rhapsodizing at a time like this, when so many of us are at each others’ throats and hardly an hour passes without yielding fresh anxiety and confusion.”
Of course, you weren’t saying anything like this. The fact is, I had convinced myself that what normally moves me to make paragraphs wasn’t relevant anymore. We all have bigger fish to fry, as the cliché goes.
But then those tomatoes reminded me of last summer, before the complication and misery of 2020. Kathy’s crop necessitated daily decisions. Would I make spaghetti or chili for supper? Or would I core and simmer down yesterday’s basketful, let it cool and pour it into freezer bags? More often than not, when Kathy got home from a day of nursing cancer patients, she would pause just inside the backdoor, close her eyes and breathe in.
“Oh,” her mantra went, “I do love the smell of my tomatoes cooking.” And then we’d kiss.
Yes, Norman Rockwell might have painted me wearing an apron and holding a wooden spoon straight up while Kathy looks on with rosy cheeks and a slight smile, but not one detail of the scene is embellished, honest. This was the start of our evening together. This was home and family and marriage. This was life and love.
All of these thoughts came to me wordlessly when, the other day, the pageantry of preserving my wife’s bounty started up again with the lovely scent I’ve described. She has already pulled garlic and onions, which I regularly help to fulfill their aromatic vocation, and canned some dilly beans. Cherry tomatoes are piling up, and, yes, I cook them along with the Better Boys and Romas and freeze them flat. That glad task will wait until tomorrow.
At the moment Kathy is drizzling dish liquid into a slowly filling blowup pool. Grandsons Cole and Killian are staying over this Friday night. I’m watching them from my writing hut—more on this new outbuilding on the Coleman farmette soon. Killian is running the length of the yard and jumping into the shallow foot of water, emerging suds covered and delirious. The way Cole is waving the hose around to make water snakes in the air, the pool may never reach capacity. No matter.
Planet Earth may be going to Hades in a hand basket, but even the gates of hell shall not prevail against my grandsons’ wonders in this hour. Nor can powers and principalities stop Kathy’s sunflowers, soaring six feet above the corn, from waving at me.
Silence is a skillful teacher, but its students are lost unless they listen with the ear of their heart. That was my problem. I paid attention to the faculty members who scream and shout that their subjects, crucial though they may be—war, oppression and illness—are the only ones worth studying.
So I write to insist otherwise and resume interrupting our shared daily travail with promises. Tomatoes still ripen in August and will remind you of grace if you put them on to cook. And sunflowers will bow to you when the wind is right. Remember to breathe deeply and bow in return.
Oniontown Pastoral: Afternoon of the Gladdened Heart
If my blessing had a face, it would belong to a three-year-old as yet unpunished by disappointment. Time ages us all, but it’s toil that paints pale bruises under our eyes and sculpts wrinkles and jowls. Anyway, the darling cheeks of my blessing would be smeared with grass and mud. A mother would lick her thumb and go after the mess, but the child would twist loose before the job was done.
This is for the best. What catches my aging breath isn’t in the child’s face alone, but in the anointing of sweat, dirt and spit. And especially in what once annoyed me, but now returns as longing: Being pulled close by my mother, looked at with what only ancient Greek fully captures, agape, and gently tended.
The blessing was simple: Kathy and John Coleman’s grandsons, six and four, played in our muddy backyard. They filled milk jugs from the hose and made a pond behind our garage. Given enough time, they would have built a moat. As Cole and Killian troweled new layers of crud on their skin and jeans, son-in-law Matt and son Micah sunk posts in for a fence, and pregnant daughter Elena and Kathy kept an eye on the boys and talked. I sat on the steps, mindful of the sun. The shepherd’s pie I had labored over bubbled in the oven.
My efforts, I confess, were fortified by a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon. Having skipped lunch, I wasn’t drunk, but my heart was gladdened. In this condition, I watched with outsized pleasure Cole and Killian, whom Kathy and I hadn’t seen much during the Coronavirus pandemic, lose themselves in the possibilities and wonder of their grandparents’ yard. For good or ill, we adults had decided to loosen the restrictions within our family.
Many grandparents live far away from their grandchildren, an arrangement that would dig a ditch down the middle of our lives. As the weeks wore on, we saw the boys from six feet away. We didn’t hold their hands or kiss them on top of the head or pick them up. Kathy got weepy when the subject of being separated from Cole and Killian came up and crossed her arms in a hug that came up empty.
If having grandchildren were worship, then those boys perching on my lap and leaning into my chest would be Holy Communion. I never take for granted being Pop next to my wife’s Grandma Daffy and the good fortune of our adult children choosing to reside nearby.
So the blessing was mostly this: Peace in the family, laughter in the yard, grandsons who come near again. Every once in a while a gathering of minutes is so right as to seem otherworldly. Friend Jodi told me about a day long ago when she and her brother were fishing on calm water. Leaning back in his seat and looking at the sky, he said, “I feel sorry for anybody that’s not us right now.”
That’s one way of putting it—grace tells the seconds to hush and mercy is perfect air passing over your arms and face.
Man, was I happy. Who knows why, then, my late father joined me on the steps? He would have rolled his eyes at my glass of red restorative. He was a Schlitz man, not an alcoholic, but in leisure hours he could dent a case.
50 years ago I sat with Dad on Grandma and Grandpa Miller’s porch steps. No talk. The beers had gone down quickly, and Mom was mad that he had gotten a fat tongue before family dinner. He stared somewhere far off, beyond Horton Avenue. Dad was in the dog house for good reason, but I’ll never forget how licked he was. My parents weren’t made for each other, that’s all. Sad time stretched out in front of him–and Mom, too, I know–long loveless summers of little but getting by.
It was strange, but lovely, to recall my father’s saddened heart while the great-grandsons he never met ran carefree “in the sun that is young once only.” My unmerited joy rested Dad’s defeat on its shoulder and was the sweeter for it. Maybe this is why I thought of him. That could easily have been me decades ago, slack jawed and dazed on the in-laws’ steps, a son keeping vigil. Lucky is what I am.
The face of gladness is young, fresh with promise, but it’s not real without the streaks of earth and blades of grass. That’s how I know it belongs to me.
Oniontown Pastoral: Morning with the Colemans
So, what sounds like a Lilliputian giving the raspberries to Gulliver mixed up with a playing card flapping against bicycle spokes? Give up? It’s my wife Kathy’s electric toothbrush at 6:30 a.m. She adds virtuosity to her performances by opening and closing her mouth, as we are all wont to do when brushing our teeth. Imagine, then, the melody I’ve described modulated by “wow ooh wow ooh wow.”
Welcome to my morning routine, which may be of interest because life with the Colemans consists of the unremarkable interrupted by outbursts of the curious. See, the man who descends upon Oniontown thrice weekly packs in a full day of observation and contemplation before he is fully conscious. If you happen upon St. John’s Lutheran Church—and by all means, please do—the pastor occasionally rubbing his temples may appear amiable, but a little odd. If you squander five minutes reading what follows, you’ll understand why.
Kathy’s Crest-with-flouride recital comes after her alarm goes off. The enthusiastic beeps don’t bother me. What does give me pause is my wife’s violent start every time the snooze expires. I’m not exaggerating. It’s like the darling beside me—both of us savoring the warm haze of waking—is being suddenly tased or jolted by a cattle prod. “But honey,” I don’t say, “you know those beeps are coming. What’s the deal?” I’ve resigned myself to this quirk, but one of these days I’m due for an elbow to the chops.
I’ve also gotten used to Kathy kibitzing with herself as she finishes getting ready for eight hours of oncology nurse work. Half the time I can only surmise the conversation from inflection. Example: “Where are my glasses?” “But you put them right here.” (This, by the way, is preposterous, as she never sets things down where she thinks. I know this from having chased many a wild goose from room to room, only to hear, “Oh, never mind, it’s right here in my purse,” followed by laughter. She can explain in epic length and exhaustive detail why her, say, nail clippers should have been on the arm of the couch. What can I say? “Hmm.”)
It’s also obvious when she is kissing foxhound Sherlock Holmes on the snout and whispering sweet nothings. “How’s my boy? Is he my good little boy?”
Adult son Micah stirs at about the same time as his mother. Here you might picture a sloth creeping across a tree branch, except without that dopey grin. His fifteen minutes from feet on the floor to banging the backdoor shut wouldn’t be worth mentioning except for a recent addition to his musical repertoire, measures of which crawl under his door and reach my head, still on the pillow.
“Mongolian throat singing.” I’m not kidding. Briefly, then: a Mongolian guy runs a bow across the two strings of a rustic cello and, in the case of the recording Micah shared with me, croons a toe-tapping number called “Praise of Genghis Khan.” I’m sorry. I want to be and generally am artistically adventurous. My boy is besoothed by Batzorig Vaanchig’s mellifluence, but what I hear is a man trying to clear his respiratory system from sinus to glottis to lung. Think a human being waking up to discover himself turned into a didgeridoo.
One sunrise last week I heard the exotic singing and sent Micah this text message, and I quote: “Ommmm weee weeee ommmmm.”
His response: “Oooooooaaahhhhhaaawewoooyayaya.”
How could I not be moved?
Once Kathy and Micah are gone, I listen to the neighborhood out my window, opened a crack even in cold weather. My favorite sound is rainfall, best of all accompanied by God’s throat clearing thunder. At such moments gratitude visits. Life is not too shabby at present. I appreciate that.
One challenge awaits me before I head to my writing perch or to Oniontown. Sherlock Holmes must get out—absolutely must. He sleeps on the living room couch and looks in the dim light like bagpipes in disarray. Most dogs are eager to get outside and sniff for anything that has transpired overnight, but not our sleuth. He grumbles his own style of throat singing to register his displeasure.
If you see me massaging my temples, as I mentioned, it’s probably because the Coleman’s spindly-legged pal has been obstinate. Like lots of you, my days are wondrous and fascinating, right up until I get out of bed. Even then, more often than not, I find myself singing to God, over and over: “Wow ooh wow ooh wow.”
Oniontown Pastoral: The Hope of the World
Events have conspired lately to make me emotional. In addition to the world’s brutish, rude, ignorant disposition, several situations have left my heartstrings frayed—and given me hope.
First of all, grandson Cole started kindergarten after Labor Day. Most went well, but one factor has befouled his new adventure. His bus driver has been—Lord, preserve me from cursing—insensitive. The maiden voyage was great, but on the second day, Cole cried on the bus, upset about not being with his mother and brother. The driver said that he needed to stop crying, that hers wasn’t a sad bus but a happy bus. Whether she elaborated I don’t know, but the rookie student thought that she was going to pull over and kick him off the bus. He was terrified. How would he get home? He would be lost.
Who knows what really happened? The point is, any adult with a splash of empathy can imagine a beloved five-year-old in such an inexcusable situation. Something in the bus driver’s delivery or manner conveyed the opposite of comfort and encouragement. Thankfully embarking this morning was more calm. A fifth grade girl has buddied up with him. Also, as he explained to Mom, “If I don’t cry, the driver won’t holler at me.” There must be a growth lesson somewhere in this kerfuffle, but at the moment I can’t help wanting to fix a wagon or two.
Cole’s bus woes have nothing to do with hope, except for that sport of a fifth-grader who took my little Red under wing. No, aches, pains and bullies come along, and we have to learn to shuck, jive and endure even as we dab our cheeks.
But two other vignettes soothe my spirit and speak of possibilities. The first is a picture of—surprise—Cole, who heard his mother’s smartphone chime with an Amber alert. She explained that a child in northwestern Pennsylvania was missing and in danger. Son Micah, who was visiting at the time, sent me a photograph of Cole’s response. He headed to the backyard, climbed his fort and scanned the landscape for any sign of a lost girl. Looking in one direction, then another, he believed the kid might be nearby, within reach. Maybe he could find her. Maybe he could help.
And so he did! My kindergartener’s chances were slim, but from my perch his effort was in the service of hope. What if we all ascended our forts and glanced around? Who knows? Anyway, my grandson’s odds of succeeding were certainly greater than mine of hitting the Powerball Jackpot, which wife Kathy and I give an occasional go.
I thought of Cole this past week while visiting one of St. John’s eldest members in a nursing home. Lloyd is in his nineties and all but deaf. Conversation requires nose to nose shouting, and even then he is often lost. Each time I show up, more time passes before he recognizes me.
“Lloyd has a great story,” I hollered, looking back at wife Kathy, who had come to Oniontown with me that day. “He actually saw the flag go up on Iwo Jima.”
His expression was blank. Then, as I stood to leave, he said, “I’ve got a story.”
Ahoy! I sat back down and leaned in, anticipating his beloved World War II tale. But for the first time ever, he needed my help. As we looked into each other’s eyes, I wished the old plot out of him. Boatswain on a landing craft, he conveyed soldiers to that costly assault. When Lloyd faded, I drew close and fixed on his pupils, as if to say, “Push, brother! I’m listening.” And it was a birthing of sorts.
He stared back at me and rummaged for the essentials: soldiers getting shot in the water; the captain telling everyone back on the staging ship to point binoculars toward Mount Suribachi; Marines putting shoulders to the flagpole; the stars and stripes snapping out into the wind.
Then and there I remembered that Cole also searched for a lost soul. His was young, mine was old and full of days, both were adrift.
Hope makes its home on perilous seas, where the mere prospect of safe harbor is enough to give a tenderhearted kindergartener and his grandfather cause to cry. In fact, wherever one set of eyes looks out for others desperate for rescue and communion, hope survives.
Nothing can drown hope, and honest to God, that brings me to tears.
Oniontown Pastoral: Tomatoes and Corn
Late this August afternoon I have an appointment at the kitchen counter and stove with a basket of homegrown tomatoes. Preservation is my assignment. Wife Kathy’s crop is coming in hot and heavy, and we have an agreement. She sows, weeds, frets and reaps, and I cook up and put up. I get the better end of the deal. “Boy, there’s nothing as satisfying and medicinal as getting my hands in the soil,” is something I’ve never come close to thinking, let alone saying. But put a ripe northwestern Pennsylvania tomato in front of me, and nothing short of love rises in my chest.
The taste alone is swoon-worthy, but together with corn on the cob, tomatoes grown in local dirt feed this pastor’s soul more than his body. For the past few weeks, since Kathy walked through the back door with the first glossy red-orange jewel of the season nestled in the setting of her fingers, I’ve mulled over the meaning of tomatoes and corn.
That garden gem my wife held was petite, of the plum variety. We split four humble slices, and I honestly can’t remember what else we had for dinner that evening. The flavor made me feel as though I was enjoying once again the meals and picnics that now live only in family albums, the photographs black and white or the unearthly tones of Instamatics.
The tomatoes of my childhood were sliced and adorned with a dollop of Hellman’s mayonnaise. A frequent accompaniment included corn on the cob and boiled potatoes. The salt and butter we laid on would have present-day nutritionists staging interventions.
Mom cut her corn off the cob and ate it over smashed potatoes—polite and tidy. Dad contended with his right out of the pot, and decades later I can summon the spectacle, the wonder of the sight. He seemed annoyed with the corn, as though it had done something that rubbed him the wrong way, and he meant to show those kernels in no uncertain terms who was boss.
Manners were observed around the Coleman table and on relatives’ patios, so there were never smacking sounds or slack-mouthed chomping. Ah, but Dad’s singleness of purpose, eyebrows drawn down as if his whole face were lending force to the chewing, and the crimson glimmer of his lips from all that butter and salt fill me with a son’s quirky pride: “Look at my dad have a go at that cob of corn!” I want to say. “Isn’t that something to behold?”
Within a few weeks I’ll be cheering Kathy when her first ready corn comes marching through the back door. She planted a raised bed of it on a whim, and the growth has been steady. We’ll get at least a few meals out of the experiment.
My wife’s crop won’t taste like the stuff Dad attacked and Mom mixed with her potatoes. The family palate of my youth called for what I now realize were plump, starchy kernels that owed most of their savor to what got slathered and sprinkled on them. Over time Kathy has converted me to sweet corn, which doesn’t demand the full, heart-clogging, blood pressure raising treatment, though that doesn’t make me cut back. In my case, excess in its many expressions is hereditary.
Some things last forever, but I try to relax about what doesn’t. “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth.” I left tomato and mayonnaise on white bread behind at my childhood home on Wagner Avenue. Now whole grain and sharp cheddar cheese join what’s always been the same: fat slices of a Big Boy and Hellman’s and too much salt. And the ears I shuck for Sunday dinners aren’t deep yellow like they used to be.
But no worries. As long as tomatoes and corn are on the table, the past is preserved. I can stop and appreciate my dad’s enthusiasm. I can see—as in this moment—Mom in her sleeveless blouse, sitting beside me. She had a large vaccination scar on her shoulder. I had almost forgotten.
As far as I know, Mom never cooked down tomatoes and froze them in plastic bags, which is what I’ll be doing soon. She was a canner who considered stewed tomatoes vegetable enough for any meal.
Before leaving for work this morning, Kathy said that she expects to smell tomatoes bubbling away when she gets home. The steam, rich and sweet, will cloud my glasses and set me to dreaming of a table with a place for every family at a feast that has no end.
Love Begets Love
Dogs have occupied my thoughts lately, mostly because foxhound Sherlock Holmes, who moved in last December, finally reached a milestone that his predecessor Watson had licked from day one. Our lanky detective hopped up on our queen-sized bed, curled into a big boney oval at my feet and slept there all night long. His first night with us, black lab-terrier mix Watson yipped and yiped in his crate until Kathy and I relented and nestled him between us.
This was adorable, but risky. He wasn’t housebroken. Whether by miracle or fate, Watson leaked not a drop. I suppose he knew that he had found room in the safest of inns. There wasn’t more than a handful of nights from 2004 to 2016 that Watson didn’t snore in the crook of Kathy’s leg or under the shelter my arm, his head pressing my nose flat.
His stay with us was sickeningly affectionate from the start. Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, has been sizing us up at his own cautious pace. I don’t blame him. He endured trauma of some sort during his three years before landing at the shelter where we found him.
The nerved up guy becomes a maelstrom of fang and claw whenever we try to administer medicine. No malice is intended. He’ll let me dig deep into his ears for some heavenly itching—my fingertips nearly meet at the center of his skull—but let me sneak a dab of ointment into the transaction, and he beats a retreat and says, “Et tu, Brute!”
Our veterinarian prescribed a sedative should we need to bring our leggy pal in for treatment. Sherlock’s initial checkup was bananas. Imagine subduing a creature wildly swinging four fur-covered shillelaghs tipped with little spikes. Again, it’s nothing personal, only no injections or palpating permitted.
So the intimacy between dog and human that profoundly nourishes both has been slow to take hold. Son Micah smears peanut butter on his nose to invite a kiss. Meanwhile, Kathy and I have patted our mattress and pleaded ourselves hoarse: “Come on, buddy. Come up with us.”
As so often happens in my life, the milestone passed quietly and unbidden. The other day Sherlock was suddenly up on the bed, sleeping as if engaged in a routine. Same thing happened the following night, but since then he has occupied the couch.
We’re not complaining, though. When his doggy synapses so compel him, he’ll arrive to hog our legroom and give both of us a reassuring pat on the spirit. Meanwhile, the Colemans have decided to let Watson of blessed memory be Watson and let Holmes, here among the quick, be Holmes.
Not that there’s any alternative. What’s true of dogs is true of humans and anybody else with hearts and eyeballs. During a recent session of chin wagging, friend Judi put the matter perfectly. As we lamented folks with disputatious personalities, she tapped a verbal gavel: “Sometimes you have to accept people the way they are.”
The late Fred Rogers would agree, and so do I. Obviously the path of acceptance shouldn’t lead to staying in an abusive relationship, hobnobbing with a psychopath or spooning with a king cobra, whose venom the Encyclopaedia Britannica claims can “kill an elephant in just a few hours.”
Old pal Watson’s worst offense was sudden crystal-shattering barks for no discernible reason. We learned to live with it. Sherlock’s baying is equally loud, but we know exactly what he’s fussing about.
When I get home in an hour, he’ll be jonesing to run. I mean, he sprints with such abandon that his back legs can’t keep up with his front. The result: those back legs dangle behind his body, momentarily swaying carefree until they touch down again.
Until I drive Sherlock to the dog park’s glorious acres, he’ll hoop and whine and wander about the house, clicking his nails on the hardwood floor. There’s no changing this foxhound’s stripes or taming what his Creator intended for him.
Funny thing is, I’ve come to love our goofy dog exactly as he is. With each passing day, his place in the family grows more sweet and easy. And this is the moral, if you ask me. Acceptance begets acceptance. Love begets love.
I can see this truth in Sherlock’s face—I swear. We let him be who he is, and he understands somehow or other, “These people love me. I think I’m going to like it here.”
Oniontown Pastoral: A Time in Germany
When wife Kathy and I traveled to Berlin in March, my old wristwatch went with us. This was risky, as the second hand had broken free from its post. My digital Timex Ironman would have been the logical choice, but there was something poetic about a second hand napping as if in a hammock slung between 5 and 7. Anyway, it served faithfully for decades and deserved one cushy foreign assignment before its retirement.
Kathy and I had been in the land of oompah bands and lederhosen—we encountered neither—for less than a week when I determined that Deutschland was more foreign to my watch than to me, the greatest distance between Germany and Pennsylvania being Central European Time’s five-hour lead on Eastern Standard Time. The human condition “auf Deutsch” and “in English” is about the same.
Of course, appearances insist otherwise. For example, scads of Berliners dress in solid black: fedoras, scarves, leather jackets, dungarees and boots, all black. A citizen strolling down Oniontown Road so attired would draw glances, while in the German capital you could go a whole afternoon without seeing America’s color “du jour,” pink.
And holy skinny cow! The percentage of Germans who look undernourished roughly corresponds to Americans like me who ought to give their forks a rest.
Other trifles jump out. Unsweetened iced tea, my go-to beverage, is practically anathema. Pharmacies sell medicine, never cosmetics and school supplies.
The most curious difference between the Federal Republic of Germany and the United States of America may be each country’s cemeteries. In 2010 Stars and Stripes reported what our friend and host Claudia explained to us: “Under German law families lease grave sites for a specific period of time, usually 15 to 30 years. And, if a family is unable or unavailable to renew the lease, the grave’s contents are removed and the grave site reverts to state ownership and may be reused.”
Tombstones over a century old are rare—which was disappointing news. Kathy and I wanted to visit the grave of Johann Specht, my great-great-great-great grandfather who was born in 1767, but contented ourselves with following narrow roads to Gross Köthel, the village where he abided his 66 years. We also checked out Schröedershof, birthplace of my great-great-great grandmother Magdalena Peters Specht in 1816. She immigrated to the U.S. and died in North East, Pennsylvania, about 15 minutes from my front stoop.
Soon I’ll look for Magdalena’s resting place, but I won’t be wearing my old watch. The minute hand has now fallen off, which doesn’t count for much when you’re musing about ancestors, but here in the present, a quarter of an hour either way matters.
I’ve decided to hang the languishing timepiece on the wall beside my desk as a reminder of Germany.
Standing in the places my great-greats called home and wondering at crumbling stone buildings that they might have known, I didn’t cry or even get choked up. Still, these villages felt vaguely familiar, as if presences who have always loved me patted my hand, like my mother did when I was worried.
There would be no passing my fingers over Johann’s name carved in stone, but I still hoped to touch the font in which my great-great-great grandfather, also Johann, was baptized in 1811. No such luck. The church was locked, and worship was being held down the cobblestone street in an auxiliary building. Peeking in the window, Claudia, Kathy and I saw the pastor in a black suit preaching to a handful of elderly congregants. (America isn’t the only country with empty pews.)
You might think our trip was a letdown, but Kathy and I loved Germany and most of all commiserating with Claudia. The thing is, joy and disappointment travel hand in hand.
We saw the villages, but not the graves. We saw the church, but not the font. We saw the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Martin and Katie Luther’s home and other sites, but dragged along with us tickling coughs that persist to this very moment.
The world is thus, here and abroad. I refuse to let perfect be the enemy of wonderful. Yesterday and today are at once poetic and broken, like my old watch, now able to remind me only that hours are passing away.
It’s still right twice a day, but the third hand must eventually lose its grip. When it does I’ll pray to visit Johann and Magdalena in glory and hope that great-great-great-great grandchildren searching for my grave will feel me pat them on the hand.
Hanging on and Letting Go
The photograph of Mom and Dad may as well have fluttered into my hands from a cloudless sky. They were a couple of kids, younger than my own Elena and Micah, now 30 and 27. There’s no “Dolly and Denny” followed by a date. My guess, late 1947, their first apartment, no children yet. Mom is seated, Dad standing over her shoulder, passing her hair through his fingertips. Their expressions are carefree, Mona Lisa smiles on them both. The moment is unutterably tender, the future still a blue heaven of hope.
Mom died in 1998, arthritis remedies having given more punishment than relief. The burden of divorce pained her sense of self in like fashion. I miss how she tucked my long hair behind my ear when I was a teenager.
Dad lived to be 85, but insisted in his last years that he was 88. “Is my mother still alive?” he asked now and then, anguished and embarrassed. “But she couldn’t be, could she? I just can’t remember.” He taught me to hold doors open and pay respects.
Dad’s possessions have slept in my basement since 2012–picture albums and a rattle of keepsakes. I could say that they’ve collected dust because I’m lazy or that I’ve been passive aggressive toward wife Kathy’s pleas to decide what to hang onto and what to let go of. The truth is, I didn’t want to stare into those boxes of memory and visit again with those whose absence still hurts my chest if I think of them for long.
But once the first lid was off, the choices were obvious. Dad was meticulous in documenting the mundane and daily: scores of various views of his living room and dining room and bedroom, populated only by furniture and lamps; multiples of the same snowbirds lounging beside the same Palm Bay swimming pool.
Sorting was easy. The keepers went beside me on the couch: a boyish Navy portrait: nameless relatives gone on to glory before my time; a former residence, front yard and stoop. There weren’t many of Mom, which shouldn’t be a surprise. After twenty-something years with her, Dad quickly remarried. In an instant, “Dolly and Denny” turned to “Denny and Mary.” I hold no grudge on this account. My parents simply weren’t suited to each other. Their pursed, tired expressions on and off camera often spoke to me of disappointment that wore a rut into their souls.
After separating in the mid-1970s, they both knew joy in life, but it’s hard to describe them as happy people. Their union yielded four fine children, but also a mournful descant that sounded beyond nuptial vows to the end of their days.
This, then, is how I remember my parents: two people with much to celebrate, but who often swam up upstream emotionally. For decades now I’ve thought of them with warmth, but more than a little sadness.
Such sentiments–not enough to bring tears, but plenty to clutch at the throat–stayed with me for the hours I sorted through what was dear to Dad–hanging on and letting go. Then, suddenly, that picture.
One of my siblings told me that Mom and Dad were happy for their first eight years together. As the youngest of four, though, my memories are of a tense, distant relationship.
It’s naive to infer too much from one photograph, but I know my parents’ faces well enough to detect fakery. In this one moment, on this one day, my mother and father were glad to be together. Whatever went wrong was still some ways off.
Mom was fussy about her hair, but here it was loosely pulled back. Dad held the ponytail, gently, playfully. Beautiful. That’s the only word for it. They were both so beautiful, and to find them this way moves my soul the way an excellent port wine warms the throat.
Eventually I’ll stop carrying Dolly and Denny everywhere with me, setting them to my left while working, on this coffee shop table now and on my desk at St. John’s in Oniontown, where I stare at them, then out at the pine trees and corn stubble and red barn. After 57 years it is as if I’ve recovered a treasure I never knew was lost.
I want to take these two kids into my arms, watch them together, hear their voices again. They did once love each other, after all. I’ll hang on to this truth for the rest of my life, even as it hangs on to me.
Oniontown Pastoral: Story of a Hero in the Small Hours
“Elevander and Milkus,” grandson Cole said through tears from the foot of my bed. It must have been around 1:00 a.m.
Cole and his little brother Killian had landed at Grandma Kathy and Pop’s house at 6:00 p.m. for a sleepover, followed by our Sunday drive to Oniontown for church.
Half an hour later, Kathy and Cole were cuddling when she said he felt warm. I kissed our ginger’s forehead, the temperature-taking method my late mother used. The patient was not quite burning up.
Kathy encouraged grape ibuprofen, but was rebuffed. No surprise there. Our own daughter and son regarded any remedy for a fevered brow as outrageous, possibly unconstitutional.
By 7:30, Cole was ready for bed. A scant half of our enclosed front porch serves as a prayer corner for Pop, and the rest is “Cole’s Room,” dubbed by the lad himself with the same swagger Columbus displayed in claiming the West Indies for Ferdinand and Isabella. On sleepover nights, the sofa bed there gets pulled out, and Grandma and “those babies,” as she calls them, prop themselves up on an embarrassment of pillows, lean into each other and watch cartoons.
Kathy, it must be noted, is no grandson’s fool. She goes for a soft sell. “Hey, best buddies,” she says, “it’s time to get ready for bed.” Not time to sleep, mind you. These things must be done delicately. First, get pajamas on, then slide under Grandma’s feather comforter with nightcap in hand—juice box, tortilla chips, rack of lamb, whatever it takes. Eventually, glad bellies and slapstick animation lower the boys’ defenses and slumber descends.
The routine is glorious, every crumb and dribble of it. On the night in question, Killian was clinging to wakefulness when I retired to Pop’s Room. Cole was long gone.
Having a queen-sized bed to myself ought to be glorious, but I’d just as soon keep our quartet together the whole night through. With Grandma Kathy between them, though, Cole and Killian’s last waking moments on that lumpy sofa bed seem an adventure, as if she is keeping watch as they sail over dark waves toward dreamland.
Whenever the boys stay over, my sleep is light, ears keen, especially to a child’s cries. Kathy can normally rock and coo her shipmates back to sleep, but occasionally Pop is called upon to sing a shanty of sorts.
That’s what brought Cole to the foot of my bed. He needed a story—not from a book but one of his very own. The protagonists of choice are Elevander and Milkus, stuffed brother and sister rabbits whose names Cole inexplicably blurted out to his mother one day.
The plots of late are as unlikely as the characters’ names. A year ago a micro-tornado hit my daughter’s house, flinging the boys’ swing set over telephone wires a full block away.
In my yarns, Cole found Elevander and Milkus hiding behind the garage after the twister. He brought them into the house and cared for them until a climbing wall replaced the swings. Then he made them a home in its shelter. Hay from Grandma Kathy’s garden provided a sweet bed, and Cole asked Killian to get lettuce and carrots from Mama for his friends.
Telling Cole a new chapter, I knew Kathy and I wouldn’t be bringing those babies along to Oniontown in the morning. They would go home instead. Still, I was determined to remain at my post and finish my duty.
After surrendering to sips of grape medicine, my boy lay nose to nose with me as I recounted the arrival of two squirrels whose tree had blown down. They had heard rumors about the boy nearby who took in a couple of frightened rabbits.
Elevander and Milkus happily shared quarters with their bushy-tailed neighbors, and Killian ran to get them peanuts from the cupboard.
The next day, of all things, a lost pony showed up. Cole figured the rabbits and squirrels could spare some hay for their new guest until Grandma brought more. Everyone had plenty to eat, a place to sleep and love enough to believe that tornados are no match for kindness.
Part way through my tale, Cole made a bathroom run. Pausing at the foot of the bed, he put up his finger and said, “I’ll be right back, Pop.” As if I would go on without him!
Cole doesn’t realize yet that he is the hero of every Elevander and Milkus story. I want him to fall asleep knowing that real heroes are most of all kind.