A Girl Named Al and the Other Regulars

A Girl Named Al and the Other Regulars

I can’t decide whether to feel guilty about a quirky, not-very-important dynamic having to do with the family dog’s routine.

About five times each week, the Coleman’s foxhound, Sherlock Holmes, goes to a dog park on Erie’s east side, several acres of fenced-in grass and trees.

Not to brag, but my lanky detective is a conversation piece among the regulars. He lustily announces his arrival with hoops and hollers as we pull into our parking spot. When I swing the gate open, he barrels toward the biggest cluster of dogs and skids to a miraculous stop in their midst without crashing into anybody. A session of chase quickly ensues, with Sherlock leading takers in a Rorschach pattern until by mutual consent they stop for a panting break, spittle flipping off of their tongues.

Thus loosened up, Mr. Holmes heads to a far corner for his daily constitutional. Yesterday the game was furiously afoot, such that four participants got nature’s memorandum at the same instant and dropped into the telltale crouch that, frankly, makes them look silly. (We might all learn from dogs the practical lesson that exercise can keep us regular.) Their communal bathroom break was no big surprise, as dogs tend to follow suit.

The shape of one of Sherlock’s chase routes (Wikimedia Commons)

For example, wherever snouts assemble, sniff tests are sure to be conducted. Some days, however, they can’t get enough of each other, which has me shouting, “All right, knock it off already!” In fact, our best friends have a policy akin to Murphy’s Law: “Awkward behaviors increase in proportion to the embarrassment they cause.”

This principle holds true with the most cringe-worthy, bawdy demonstration of dominance. One afternoon this summer, some human must have slipped steroids into the communal water bowls—that and/or Spanish Fly—as both males and females did nothing else for half hour other than show each other who was boss in the most sophomoric way possible. After dozens of protests, we moms and dads shrugged and actually resorted to chatting with each other.

Sherlock Holmes resting after a trip to the dog park

I exaggerate here only slightly. A fair amount of kibitzing does take place at the park, but for wife Kathy and me, the primary relationships are between ourselves and the dogs.

Which brings me to the dynamic on my mind: I can rattle off a baker’s dozen of dogs, but need only two fingers for the human names I recall. What does this say about me? People are more important than their pets, right?

I know Zero, Milo, Onyx, Titan, Max, Dexter, Gracie, Buck, Bailey, Prince, Zeus, Evy, Lego, Luna and Willow. And then there’s one of my favorites, Al, a female Rhodesian Ridgeback whose proper name is Alpine. The friendliest and least rambunctious regular, she was bred to hunt lions and other large game.

Used to be she would trot up as soon as I arrived and let me scratch the short Mohawk on her back. This was a thing, a ritual I came to love. Then she disappeared for a couple of months. There had been some dustups between dogs and spats between people, with the former acting more civilized than the latter. Anyway, I figured Al’s dad thought, “Forget this noise. We’re out of here.”

Al’s Mohawk, the ridge in the ridgeback

Turns out Al might have had ringworm and her dad kept her away out of consideration. But yesterday she strode into the place. I gave her time to renew old acquaintances before hollering from a good 50 yards away. “Alpine! Hey, Alpine, come here!”

To my delight, she made for me with steam in her stride. Holy cow! I’m not a huge presence in her life, just a park buddy. Still, once you’ve employed scratches, pats and sweet nothings to ask, “Can we be friends?” your heart’s doors swing open to let in a love as profound as that bandied about by humans. A dog’s affection is pure, no hidden agenda to rouse suspicion, no axe to grind.

Al, Gracie and the rest give me an infusion of uncomplicated joy, like a serum that cures scurvy of the soul.

So my mind is made up. Sherlock goes to the park to run off surplus energy, but I need to get there as much as he does. When I call my pals by name and they come to visit, something inside me feels right—hopeful, light, calm. For now I’ll grant myself special dispensation. Once the dogs make my heart big enough, I’ll ask what their moms and dads go by.

John and Al, dog park pals

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Oniontown Pastoral: The Hope of the World

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.

Leaving for school, Cole said, “I have to get on the bus. Bye!”

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.

Scanning the landscape for a lost girl. (Credit: Micah Coleman)

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.”

The flag goes up on Iwo Jima. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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: An Old Friend with a New Name

Oniontown Pastoral: An Old Friend with a New Name

Over two years ago I decided to call the blonde stallion on Route 19 Onslow. Each time I drove by, he seemed disheveled, like maybe he had recently enjoyed a roll in the dirt.

The late actor Geoffrey Hughes, who played Onslow (Credit: Wikipedia)

His namesake was from the old British comedy television show “Keeping Up Appearances.” This Onslow wore a sleeveless woolen vest with nothing underneath and a baseball cap. Other characters described him as bone idle, but he was amiable, if lazy, neither judging others nor doing much other than swilling beer and eating crisps. The fictional Onslow and his equestrian counterpart seemed to be kindred spirits, easy in their own hides and tranquil about their lot in life.

I figured that one day I would stop and meet Onslow. But what reason could I give for knocking on a stranger’s door and asking permission to introduce myself to one of the barnyard horses? If a good excuse ever came along, I would find the hutzpah necessary to make my request.

Last week Garage Sale signs in front of Onslow’s house gave me an opening. Even then I drove a quarter mile past before turning around. “Dog gone it, Coleman,” I thought, “get back there.”

The St. John’s Lutheran folks and I once laughed it up when I confessed that I was trying to muster the courage to make a cold call not on a man but a beast. No doubt about it, Pastor John was going to look silly.

A one-buck electric can opener in the drab olive green of the 1970s caught my eye. I carried it to the card-table sales counter and introduced myself: John Coleman, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran over on Mercer Road.

The friendly proprietor was Darlene, and as soon as I mentioned writing about her horse in The Record Argus, she had me. A friend had put one of my Oniontown reports under her nose and said, “Hey, is this about you?”

“What was it you called my horse?” she asked.

“Onslow,” I answered. “I made up the name.”

“That’s right, Onslow.”

“But what’s his name really?”

“Trigger.”

Trigger? Trigger. I tried to take it in. Sure, the name had a fine pedigree, pared as it was with Roy Rogers, but it would require effort to let go of Onslow. The name glowed in my imagination, and no kidding, when wife Kathy and I brought our grandsons to church, we would all wave and shout, “Hi, Onslow.”

“Would it be OK if I said hi to Trigger?”

“Sure,” Darlene said. “He’s the friendliest horse in the world. He might even come over to you.” Every morning, she explained, she goes outside to feed a duck named Clyde and says hello to Trigger.

So my old friend with a new name isn’t a grouch. He occupies his own yard because—and I was the last to figure this out—impure masculine thoughts and impulses take possession of him when he spends too much time with the ladies.

My loafers got covered with dew on my way across the yard. In a modest stall beside the stallion formerly known as Onslow was Sandy, a mare who by genetics or modification doesn’t awaken his inner Don Juan. I still don’t quite understand this wrinkle.

“Trigger,” I said, holding out my hand, palm up, “I want to say hi. Come here.”

He stomped a few times, shook his head to shoo away flies, but didn’t budge. Sandy arrived for tufts of grass and strokes on her nose.

Trigger (the stallion formerly known as Onslow)

To folks who live in Oniontown and thereabouts, getting close to horses might be commonplace, but to me, magnificent is not too strong a word to describe the experience of running fingers between those flaring nostrils, watching those great lips open to receive grass and listening to the deep, guttural crunch as they chew.

I stayed for half an hour, communing with Sandy and calling out to Trigger, but finally had to leave for another day in the pastor’s saddle at St. John’s.

So now I know Trigger’s real name and must say godspeed to Onslow. On Sunday mornings we grandparents and grandkids will say, “Hi, Trigger! Hi, Sandy!” I’ll keep an eye open for Clyde.

And I’ll check with Darlene to make sure it’s OK to visit Trigger again. He’ll come to me eventually. I’ll brush away flies and offer him grass or an apple if I’m allowed. Hopefully he’ll know I’m perfectly serious when I call him my friend.

Oniontown Pastoral: The Human Moment

Oniontown Pastoral: The Human Moment

I was peeved. Pittsburgh Avenue in Erie was bustling on Saturday afternoon, and Mr. Pokey Joe had no business jaywalking while cars, including mine, bore down on him.

Then I recognized his predicament. He had a bum leg and, like me, was past his prime. Each step made him wince. The trek to a legal crosswalk would have been an ordeal, especially with a jammed knapsack thudding against his back.

My peevishness slunk away, tail between its legs. Of course, I was relieved not to have run the fellow over, but grateful as well for a human moment. That is, a connection with another person’s reality, a chance to remember in the midst of a day’s jostle and distraction that the faces I encounter belong to pilgrims worthy of my consideration.

Credit: Michael McCartney

My life is mostly a pilgrimage from one human moment to the next. This past week, for example, I found myself at McCartney Feed and Hardware in Fredonia. I paid for 25 pounds of deluxe birdseed—call me extravagant—and took my receipt across the way to a huge barn.

As I waited, a machine reaching from floor to ceiling growled, rattled and rumbled. What was this behemoth all about? Thankfully, it hushed up as a young man arrived with my purchase.

I said thanks and turned to leave, but felt like I was ending a sentence with a preposition out of mere laziness.

“Hey, what does that thing do?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s a grinder,” he said.

Another member of the McCartney crew arrived and told me they would be putting oats in soon, but first they had to get residue out of the machine.

“Ah,” I said, “so you have to let the grinder clear its throat?”

They both nodded and laughed. I thanked them and drove off. That was about it.

I can’t swear to the specifics of what those McCartney’s guys explained to me, but here’s what I know. Carrying birdseed through the sunshine from barn to car, I was glad. All was well with my soul. The world seemed right, except for the odor of fresh manure, which my city nostrils haven’t yet learned to savor.

I had showed up with dollars, but the transaction was about people being together in harmony, however briefly.

“Oh, there you go again, John,” you’re thinking, “always with your head up in the clouds.”

Hardly! This is probably a good time to mention a caveat. If you want to collect human moments, prepare to be served joy and dismay in equal helpings.

Syrian boy Omran Daqneesh comes to mind. Pulled stunned and bloody from building rubble and set alone in an ambulance, he stares at me still, three years after a bombing raid ravaged his neighborhood. Maybe you saw his face on television.

Sad to say, for a sympathetic conscience, human moments arrive without permission. Go ahead, close your eyes. It won’t matter. Like light, love comprehendeth the darkness.

Lovely valley, kind of lonesome (Credit: Dreamy Pixel on Wikimedia Commons)

My wife Kathy is an oncology nurse, and she brings home impressions of folks passing through cancer’s lonesome shadows. Never names, ever, but plenty of heartache, including her own.

Sipping pinot noir as the evening news recounts inhumane moments, I embrace souls in Kathy’s care whose ends are near. One of them weighs next to nothing. Eternity is barreling toward her. She said through tears, “I don’t feel good.” The understatement catches in my throat.

I can see her. She wears a sleeveless summer dress like the ones my Aunt Mart loved, flowery prints. The poor lady’s hands, all scarlet bruises and torn skin, tremble in mine. She is weary, afraid, not ready to die.

Oh, yes, I can hear you thinking to yourself again. “John, stop dwelling on other people’s problems!”

No, I won’t. The fact is, you can’t have human moments all one way or all the other. If I didn’t appreciate a nameless patient’s suffering, then I wouldn’t have spotted bliss at a recent wedding. The couple made promises, and I pronounced them husband and wife. Minutes later the bride leaned into the groom, her smile as close to heaven as I expect to witness this side of glory.

So I receive Omran and the bride as both package deal and personal obligation. The foreign boy and domestic woman and the McCartney guys and wincing stranger abide under my watch.

That’s how human moments work. When I neglect any neighbor near or far, I turn my back on the Creator who made this Oniontown pastor a human being in the first place.

Love Begets Love

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.

Oh, Watson, dear old buddy!

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.

Grandson Cole with Sherlock Holmes. Those fur-covered shillelaghs are really something!

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.”

In the car on the way to the vet’s office. An hour later, Watson was gone.

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.

Sherlock Holmes this very day, tail a blur of waggery, his heart at home.

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

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.

German round bales, looking like those in Oniontown, though stacked differently

Bare branches against a German sky

Bare branches against a Pennsylvania sky

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.

Out looking for Magdalena

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.)

Church where Johann Specht was baptized

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.

Pulpit of the Castle Church in Wittenberg–visiting clergy may not ascend!

Table at Luther’s house, where he talked many a long hour

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.

A retired watch

Hanging on and Letting Go

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.

When I had hair to tuck behind an ear.

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.

Gone on to glory. Nameless. Not pleased.

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. 

Mom and Dad

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: Introducing Foxhound Sherlock Holmes

Oniontown Pastoral: Introducing Foxhound Sherlock Holmes

Why do people welcome dogs into their homes? As you might imagine, I already have my answer to this question, but it’s worth asking out loud anyway.

God bless my St. John’s family in Oniontown for asking me to bring Sherlock for a visit–and bless friend Bill for the license plate.

In fact, I knew well in advance why the Coleman family adopted Sherlock Holmes, a three-year-old foxhound, on December 17, 2018. Not for an instant have wife Kathy and I regretted our decision, but as the honeymoon period of sharing 900 square feet with this hooping, nose-to-earth sleuth wanes, the consequences of rescuing a stray snap into focus.

Today’s tame reckoning takes me back to 1988, the year daughter Elena was born. “Everything is an ordeal,” I groaned. “We can’t even run to the store without holding a strategy session.” Pros and cons had to be listed. The toil of wrestling a surprisingly strong, howling infant into a car seat had to be weighed against other exertions scheduled for the day.

Daily life, though joyful, was also a snarling pack of unintended consequences. There was no end to what needed to be reconsidered in the light of parenting a fresh baby.

Dear old Watson–may God rest him–went on to glory before his partner Sherlock Holmes arrived.

Three decades later, adapting to Sherlock Holmes is child’s play by comparison. His food-in to food-out ratio is owner-friendly, thank goodness. I’ve lived with German shepherd Dutch and black-lab mix Watson before, so I know what it’s like to wander about with a shovel and hold my gag reflex at bay.

The bigger aesthetic issue is mud, which Mr. Holmes generates with a Midas touch. The chap is all leg and paw. At a sprint on level terrain, he appears to be careening down a steep hill. Bone, lean muscle and fur swing in all directions. Yard slurry flies like in a macho truck commercial.

No worries, though, as a rag by the backdoor and grass seed come spring will put matters right. Even Sherlock’s scavenging for treats can be managed with a toddler’s gate across the kitchen doorway, which has so far fooled him into doubting his steeplechase skills. Good thing, for no corner of the countertops is out of his reach. The other night Kathy spent three hours baking healthy treats for “Holmes”—her preferred handle—but left two cookie sheets of them unguarded. He consumed 2/3 of the batch, which means he’ll be lively and regular for days to come.

At the shelter our new family member was called Ollie, but the name didn’t stick.

Mr. Holmes’ need for stimulation and activity has certainly been an adjustment, but since this benefits our sedentary family, we can only thank him for three-mile walks and bracing excursions to the dog park.

In fact, our gratitude for this overgrown beagle has more to do with spiritual than physical wellbeing. I figured this would be the case.

No newsflash here. Dog owners share an understanding that living with animals taps into a deep reservoir of human emotion. If you own a computer, check out “puppy surprise” videos on YouTube. Just have Kleenex nearby. Thousands like me watch as a golden retriever or pug or dachshund gets handed to an unsuspecting person of any age or gender. First there’s a gasp, then a squeal, scream or “aw,” and, of course, tears.

Kisses on the snout follow, along with blissed out petting and hugging. Some folks go to pieces, rocking from side to side with their foreheads resting on the floor.

I myself have never cried over adopting a dog, but I’ve been undone by saying goodbye and know exactly why this Oniontown pastor bothered to take in a frightened, confused stray.

When I get home later, I’ll sit on the couch and pull his face toward mine, breathe in the earthy smell of dog and run my face over his head for as long as he’ll stay still.

If you’ve ever done something like this with your dog—or cat or whatever—you know that time stops as you take in draughts of blessing.

The end of the honeymoon–Sherlock had to be corrected for being a little too touchy about his food and intolerant of family cat, Baby Crash.

You’ll never hear me put “just” before “a dog.” The sweet nothings we whisper in our foundling’s ear can never compensate him enough for what he gives.

And what he gives is an invitation to love, especially when nothing else can draw us outside of our personal cages or stop us from chewing the cud of sad memories.

You and I were born to love. Every word or action suggesting otherwise is a bad translation of what we were created to be.

Dogs like Sherlock Holmes return us to our fundamental truth. His eyes tell me, “If you forget how to love, don’t worry. I’ll be here to remind you.”

Oniontown Pastoral: Thanks for the Christmas Spirit, Uncle Bim

Oniontown Pastoral:

Thanks for the Christmas Spirit, Uncle Bim

I’m pleased to report that my Christmas spirit arrived ahead of schedule this past Wednesday evening. Lutheran purists discourage Yuletide carols during Advent, but as a neurotic of long standing, I’m used to competing crescendos in my soul. There’s always room for joyful melodies in this pastor’s inn.

Uncle Bim and his wife Mabel

Good old Uncle Bim deserves credit for my cheerful disposition. Over lunch at Greenville’s Stone Arch recently, he gave me some great guidance. That Bim was really something! He died years ago and wasn’t actually a relative, but he reached across bloodlines and granted a stranger quiet joy, which I’ll explain momentarily.

But first, that aforementioned Wednesday evening: I was lounging when Kathy issued a terse statement: “John, I want you to decorate the tree.”

Oh, bother! Hanging ornaments on a plant that’s more porcupine than tree doesn’t make me festive. “Nothing warms me up like blowing steam off a mug of cocoa while selecting another lovely bulb,” I’ve never ever said, “then rummaging through wads of tissue paper for a loose hook.”

In truth, I bear holiday scars. My mother made me string popcorn and cranberries, and for every inch of artistry, I earned one sewing needle prick in the finger. Before that I was assigned to tinsel, which Mom insisted be applied strand by staticky strand. My method of flinging clumps from three paces back wasn’t tolerated.

For love of Kathy I feigned merriment at my assignment. The only thing worse than battling inertia would have been bursting her buoyant Christmas spirit.

Pick that one!

As I surveyed the ornaments, Uncle Bim patted my shoulder. Was the fellow whose pinched features I’ve seen only in photographs advising me? “John, look at those faded construction paper ones your kids made. Pick those.”

So I did, and as kindergarten led to third grade and graduations led to grandsons, other handmade treasures revealed themselves. Suddenly it was my turn to be the boss: “Kathleen, I’m putting up mostly the ones people made for us.”

Wooden circles became snowmen. Cotton balls grew into Santa’s beard. Starch and thread formed lacy snowflakes. I imagined loved ones, especially kids, working at kitchen tables. Felt coats dressed Popsicle sticks. Elbow macaroni took the shape of angels.

One of daughter Elena’s ornaments, with a smile to hide a missing tooth

Son Micah’s handiwork: “I’m making this for my dad.”

Our plastic tree came alive. Elmer’s Glue showing around an elf’s cheeks and cracks in the gingerbread house were dear, like a child’s milk mustache or crow’s feet when Grandma laughs.

Uncle Bim’s matchstick cross

Lifting up beauty after ragtag beauty, I thought of Bim hunched over his own kitchen table. St. John’s friend Bill told me all about his Uncle Bim at the Stone Arch. “Bim used to make crosses out of nut shells and matches,” he said. “He gave two matchstick ones, plus a basket made of old Christmas cards.”

So that’s where the walnut-shell cross in the church office at St. John’s came from! I later found the attribution—Wayne Miller, 1980—scratched in pencil on the back. Bill can’t say where his uncle’s nickname came from, but that basket still abides on his dresser and holds car keys and odds and ends. The old crosses also hang in Bill’s basement, where he retreats from the summer heat.

Uncle Bim’s walnut-shell art hanging over church secretary Jodi’s desk

Sad to say, when my own children’s masterpieces graced the family refrigerator, I would have considered Bim’s work “kitsch”—unaccomplished, sentimental. Back then I was neurotic—some things never change—and a snob.

Not anymore. At this time of year in particular, I’m drawn to what is worn thin by human touch or crooked because a halo got bumped while the glue was wet. Thank God, beauty has been patient with this Oniontown beholder.

In blessed memory I kiss hands that held the scissors. From the next room I hear the laughter of a grown son who once thought, “I’m making this for my dad.”

Don’t forget me, Bill.

The work of loving hands refuses to be silent. That’s what Uncle Bim helped me to understand. His basket made of season’s greetings and red yarn still says to his nephew, “Hey, Bill, don’t forget about me.”

My late mother’s snowflakes, nothing but starch and thread, whisper, “Remember how I loved you, John.” Other voices from here and beyond join hers.

Tonight I’ll recognize them all while praying in the light of our tree. “I love you, too, Mom,” I’ll think. “I love all of you. I wish we could be together again right now.”

My mother’s starch and thread

But I’ll be quiet, look at the ornaments up close and receive the Christmas spirit—which is to say, wipe away tears.

Oniontown Pastoral: We Could Get Together for a While

Oniontown Pastoral: We Could Get Together for a While

Of everyone on my Christmas gift list, my father was the toughest. If he wanted something, he went out and bought it—not that he spent much. He wore Velcro sneakers, Navy-issue boxer shorts, and store brand polo shirts. What treasure do you wrap up for a consumer who rarely ventured beyond Kmart and whose favorite song was Morris Albert’s “Feelings”?

In the early 1990s, I proposed that a couple times each month we go out for lunch. “That’s a perfect gift!” he said. Ironically, Dad picked up the tab, but food was incidental. What we both needed was time.

During my current season of life I’m taking many backward glances and discovering not only that time was the best gift I ever gave Dad, but it always has been the one possession most worthy of sharing with anybody.

Actually, “time” is the wrong word. Where relationships are concerned, minutes and hours are the accepted way we measure our presence to each other, numerical values we assign to shooting the breeze or holding hands. What counts, though, is offering my very self to you and you responding in kind.

Sometimes the strong one, sometimes the one leaning. You, too?

We’ve developed strategies to make being together appear less schmaltzy. We “do lunch” or “have coffee.” We go to painting and wine parties. Decades ago my mother would announce, “I’m having ‘club’ here tonight.” Pinochle, that is. The ladies kibitzed hours after the cards were put away.

I’m a fan of every conceivable excuse to be where two or three are gathered, but I’m also partial to truth telling, at least where conversations of one are concerned. By the time I’m finally ready to lay my burdens down, the life that passes before my eyes ought to be an edifying story with themes that never die.

And so when my 5th grade teacher Mr. Grignol took me golfing one Saturday morning in 1973, the hours were sacred. He gave me two sleeves of balls because the three in my bag might not be enough. I asked if his Chevy Impala, a drab-green behemoth with four-on-the-floor, had power steering. “Yeah,” he grunted, “man power!”

I now think to myself, “He didn’t have to spend a morning with a student going through a rough patch of childhood.” Right now, I’m standing beside Mr. Grignol again, watching to see if the drive he has just crushed will clear a pond. “If that one doesn’t make it,” he says, the ball soaring away, “I can’t do it.” Few of the wonders I’ve witnessed top waiting shoulder to shoulder with my teacher for a splash or a safe landing, his presence alone a grace he could not have reckoned.

Grace–all golf aside

My professors at Behrend College in the early 1980s gave of themselves richly and definitely without material reward. Their tenure and promotion didn’t ride on having winding discussions with undergraduates at the beach or in a bar, but I profited as much from those classrooms as the ones on campus.

Is it too much to claim that most human activities are window dressing for the sacrament of rubbing elbows and wagging chins? The Saturday Star Trek nights my old neighbors and I used to observe were a front for socializing. Often an hour or more passed before we got around to picking an episode to watch.

Or take church meetings. I no longer wonder why they tend to go on longer than necessary. “We could go walking through a windy park,” England Dan and John Ford Coley used to sing, “or take a drive along the beach or stay home and watch TV, you see it really doesn’t matter much to me.”

Day by day, the world over, the best reason for celebration and often the only prescription for heartache is an invitation: “We could get together for a while.”

Perfect place to get together

Example: Jessica showed up at St. John’s last week and sat down across the desk from me with a stunned expression. Hours before she had held the family cat Riley, who had to be put down unexpectedly. What was there to do other than let disbelief hang in the air between us and lighten the sadness by each of us taking half?

Words aren’t much good when your young cat winds up with a tumor in the belly or your golf ball plunks into the drink, as Mr. Grignol’s did. More often than not, I keep my mouth shut about tears and bogeys. Best to hush as you and I stare at the horizon together, never knowing what will happen next.