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.

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Oniontown Pastoral: Story of a Hero in the Small Hours

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.

A scant space for prayer

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.

From Left to Right: Elevander and Milkus

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.

Killian, full of joy, whose name will be added to Cole’s Room soon enough (Credit: Elena Thompson)

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.

Cole, awash in antibiotics, holding Elevander and Milkus, with new arrival Bunny Bunny snuggled between.

Johnny, We Don’t Say Things Like That

Johnny, We Don’t Say Things Like That

Over forty years ago the Erie Thunderbirds Drum and Bugle Corps was working on a routine when the music abruptly stopped. After a murmur from within the ranks, the drum major called out, “Would you kiss your mother with those lips?” Obviously somebody had fouled up and let slip some colorful language. Marchers and spectators alike laughed long and loud, and I tucked that jocular question into my mental chest of superb comebacks.

As Mom has been on my mind lately—and Dad, too—the drum major’s words have emerged from mothballs and nagged me. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about manners. I don’t remember first learning them, but the four Coleman kids knew the drill. Some rules were about appearance, like not holding your spoon like a shovel, but most focused on how we treated other people. Only recently have I begun to appreciate “mind your manners” and what that expression implied at 2225 Wagner Avenue. People matter. Their feelings matter. Their well-being matters. Their time matters.

Nerdy Museum Cardigan (Credit: Wikipedia)

My mother was a curriculum of care and tenderness unto herself. I fell asleep with my head in her lap. She tucked my 1970s hair behind my ear, which annoyed me back then. I miss that now. My father was also loving, but with a no-nonsense edge. If you wanted to see him scowl, boo from the bleachers. Not even a lousy performance deserved that. At one Thunderbirds practice, the soloist who played “Brian’s Song” was absent, so another horn stumbled through the piece. As Dad and I walked to the car afterwards, I said too loudly for his taste, “Boy, they sound like crap without Ronnie.” I can’t recall the verbiage, but his message was clear: My remark was not only impolite, but hurtful.

People matter. So when they ask how you’re doing, you ask about them, too. Please and thank you. Hold the door. Leave things better than you found them.

Awkward Museum Sneakers (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Name-calling was unacceptable. Once while shooting hoops in a neighbor’s driveway, my buddies and I spotted old Louie walking to the bus stop. He was grieving the passing of his partner of many years, but we hid in some bushes and roared a slur that begins with “f” and ends with “aggot.” Mr. Snell was out his back door before the echo died: “Johnny, we don’t say things like that.” In my fifty-seventh year, the shame still sits heavy in my throat.

Such schooling was bruising, but the diploma has been a blessing. When kindness reigns, peace like a river attendeth my way. It follows, then, that rancor and distain dam up my soul. This reality visited me a couple weeks ago as I watched “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” a profile of Mister Rogers on public television. He is my hero, which may suggest to you my definition of wisdom and bravery.

The man’s voice alone sent me into a crying jag. Wondering what Fred Rogers would say about how folks treat each other in 2018 got me teary. Picturing him bent low, comforting an immigrant child who had been separated from her family brought me to my knees. I was undone.

Images of terrified toddlers are more than sob-worthy, but my upset runs deeper still. With each passing day, with each cackling, growling news cycle, the land I love becomes more a hostile stranger and less a trusted friend.

What’s gotten into us? Have those of us fortunate enough to grow up in healthy homes forgotten where we came from? Is it acceptable to treat our fellow citizens with disdain and shout vulgarities at each other as I did at Louie, hiding like a punk behind shrubbery? What about the trash babbled within the cowardly foliage of social media? And is shabby behavior, no matter the provocation, respectable as long as our parents have gone on to glory or aren’t watching?

Extinct Bronze Hero? (Credit: Wikipedia)

Finally, should we feast on fearful and scurvy impulses just because our elected officials routinely do so, turning their backs on values they ought to champion? Of course not! It’s easy to dismiss the drum major’s question as silly, but half-truths are often spoken in jest. The point, after all, isn’t about kissing our parents, but conducting ourselves in ways that would break their hearts.

Or maybe our upbringing is best seen in a rearview mirror. Maybe dear Mister Rogers is not only dead, but extinct. Or maybe the manners we’ve left behind and the love once shown us are exactly what the world needs, as my father used to say, “immediately if not sooner.”

What the World Needs

Letter to My Grandson, Who Is Afraid to Die

Letter to My Grandson, Who Is Afraid to Die

Dear Cole:

Your wild red hair before waking on Sunday morning and heading to St. John’s in Oniontown

You’re only four and a half years old now, but I’m writing to preserve the thoughts under your wild red hair until the day comes for you to retrieve them. Of course, nobody really knows what another person thinks. Let’s call this letter a gift of love, then, flawed like everything else in the world.

A few months ago you said something curious to your Grandma Kathy: “I don’t want to grow up. I’ll miss my beautiful voice.” She and I tell our friends about your words, which we find funny, but also haunting and sad. Kids like you say things so fresh and insightful that adults laugh through their tears.

Saint John’s Lutheran Church, where you are loved

Your voice is beautiful, Cole. In fact, everything about you is so beautiful that, truth be told, your parents, grandparents, relatives and dozens of other folks, like your church family at St. John’s in Oniontown, wish time would stop here and now. How could you ever be more beautiful than you are today?

Clocks break, though, and watches stop, but the present hour leads to the next, and no prayer can change this fact. It’s incredible to us—the grown ups who love you—that you have reckoned so young the relentless passing of life. Good Lord, pal, I wish you wouldn’t rush that pretty head of yours into eternal mysteries.

But here you are, telling your mom and dad that you don’t want to grow up because if you grow up you’re going to die. You’re asking if dinner is healthy because food that’s good for you will make you grow up. You want junk food instead, which won’t make your body big and strong. Your parents have explained that eating crap will only make you a sickly adult, but this logic hasn’t helped.

“What happens when I die?” you’ve been asking. We ache with longing to ease your mind. Your mom said, “We believe you go to be with Jesus,” and she was speaking our truth.

The trouble is, Cole, we say “believe” for good reasons. We also say “faith” and “hope” a lot, too. The word we shouldn’t say is “know,” and even though I’m a Lutheran pastor, you should ignore anybody who presumes to understand the mind of God and the terms and conditions of eternity.

The last time we had family dinner, your fear and suffering was overwhelming. You had already cried a couple of times that day and picked at your food, though we had a couple of unhealthy options for you. After clearing the table, we sat in the living room.

A cute little cry before you grew hair, Cole.

I’ll never forget what happened next. You stood in front of your father, your hands on his knees, and suddenly sobbed. These weren’t normal little boy tears, like the ones that fall when you don’t get your way or you smash your toe. These were “save me” tears, “I can’t breathe” tears. I recognized the terror washing over you. It happened to your Pop when he was about twice your age.

This fear has a couple of fancy names, “ontological shock” and “mortal dread” among them. They all mean the same thing: You understand the possibility that long ago you didn’t exist and someday you might not exist anymore. Notice I used another flimsy word, “possibility.” I’m sorry. We just don’t know.

You probably won’t remember that on a Sunday evening years ago when you were terrified, your mom and dad comforted you. Nobody denied the abyss you were staring into or dismissed your fear or told you to hush.

“Cole,” I said, “I believe that when we die we’ll all be together and safe.” That’s my sustaining truth, but much as I would like to plant certainty into your soul, you’ve started the spiritual work of a lifetime early. Nobody can do this job for you or say anything to make it easy.

I’m still doing my work and remember well waking up in the dark in a panic about what must happen to you, me and everyone else. We all die, and I no longer wish to be an exception to this rule. I’m less afraid than I used to be.

When you read this letter, please think back. If your Pop ever saw you crying “save me” tears, I hope you remember me saying, “I’m scared, too, Cole. We all are. Let’s hold each other and imagine this is what it feels like to rest in God’s arms. ”

Love,

Pop

Oniontown Pastoral: Can I Tell You Something?

Oniontown Pastoral: Can I Tell You Something?

“Where’s that shaky guy?” grandson Cole asked.

The setting was the fellowship hall at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, the guy in question was Bob and the shaking referred to takes place during our “greeting of peace.” Bob and Cole’s handshake is spirited and playful—“shaky,” as the latter puts it.

Our four-year-old ginger finally tracked down Bob and said, “You want to come sit with me?”

How could that shaky guy with grandchildren of his own turn down such an offer? So Cole led him to the far end of the hall, where Grandma Kathy joined them for cookies, orange drink and a visit.

“Can I tell you something?” Cole said.

“You can tell me anything, Cole,” Bob answered.

If only I had heard the exchange. As it happened, the account came to me secondhand.

Our four-year-old ginger with his little brother Killian playing in the wings

I close my eyes and picture a boy and two grown ups putting their paper plates on a long table and having a seat. My grandson asks his grownup question, and Bob gives a loving answer.

I don’t know anything more about their conversation, but that doesn’t matter. It is as if my heart is gladdened by wine and strengthened by bread.

Sundays positively shine whenever Cole spends Saturday night at Grandma Kathy and Pop’s house and saddles up for the hour-long drive from Erie to Oniontown for church. His presence is a joyful tithe that doesn’t clink in the offering plate or show up in the weekly tally.

I wish every sister and brother in the St. John’s family could share my grandson’s start to the day. He and Grandma Kathy sleep on a sofa bed in “Cole’s Room,” and my job is to sneak in and cuddle with him as she wakes up and gets dressed.

If you’ve never held a child in footed jammies as he yawns and opens his eyes, I can attest to the moment’s medicinal properties. My favorite hymn includes this line: “Take the dimness of my soul away.” As my buddy stretches, transforming his lean frame into a two-by-four, the prayer of one lucky grandfather is more than answered. The shadows casting gloom over my spirit lift—trite, perhaps, but true.

The way to Oniontown isn’t too shabby, either. Pop serves as chauffeur while Grandma Kathy sits in the back with Cole. Toasted bagels, cream cheese and hot chocolate make for a lordly forty-five minutes as Pennsylvania’s I-79 takes us past Edinboro, Saegertown and Meadville.

Route 19 South leads to a borough that gives us a laugh. We count one-two-three at the “Sheakleyville” road sign, wiggle our bodies and turn three syllables into six: “Shay-ay-ay-ake-lee-ville.”

A few miles past Wagler’s Camp Perry, we watch for a dirty blonde horse in his yard. I let up on the gas as we wave and shout, “Hi, Onslow.” (He is such an affectionate part of my commute that I had to give him a name.)

On District Road we speed over the railroad tracks near Kremis and sing “ahh” with a hammy vibrato. It’s an operatic couple of seconds.

The St. John’s sanctuary

Finally, we walk through St. John’s doors. Lutherans are not the most demonstrative sheep in the Christian fold, but a quiet joy reigns in the house. And when kids come to worship, this pastor for one senses an angel visitant and opening skies.

Cole isn’t the only child to put a shine on the hearts of the faithful. Plenty of us sport crow’s feet, but you should see our eyes widen with gladness when any little one brings a flower down the aisle at the beginning of worship or helps carry the processional cross to the back of the sanctuary at the end. Brave kids are even welcome to join in shouting, “Go in peace. Serve the Lord,” to which the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.”

I would be remiss in not mentioning that Cole and his tribe do me the great service of enlivening boring sermons. There’s nothing like a game of peek-a-boo with pew mates to keep my long-suffering listeners pleasantly diverted.

Kids probably don’t understand the blessings they bestow upon St. John’s, but in years to come I hope they’ll remember the love shown them—the love of shaky handshakes, cookies and orange drink, and best of all, friends who mean it when they say, “You can tell me anything.”

Oniontown Pastoral: The Blessing of Okay

Oniontown Pastoral: The Blessing of Okay

“How’s it going?” If ever a question begged for a bland answer, this is it.

Occasionally a brave soul will come back, “Do you really want to know?” But we mostly say, “Oh, pretty good” or “not too bad,” then wander into other conversational pastures.

Years ago, maybe fifteen, I picked up a habit that persists to this day. When folks ask, “How are you today?” I pause. “Well,” my inner voices says, “how are you doing, John?”

After a couple seconds of taking stock, I usually give this honest reply: “I’m vertical. Nobody is busting my chops today, so I’m actually doing great.”

Elena and Micah as teenagers. Don’t they look sweet? Um, they about did me in.

Like most people, I’ve had stretches of years when life was decidedly not okay. Shortly before my daughter Elena was born, I developed panic disorder, an exquisitely shattering affliction. Both Elena and son Micah were high-spirited as teenagers, by which I mean, “Holy cow, those two just about killed me.” Along the way, a few professional challenges taught me that I can be embarrassingly fragile sometimes—not an easy confession for any man.

And, again, like most people, I’ve learned to appreciate life’s temperate seasons, especially following the brutal weather of loss, illness, disappointment, name your own stress or sorrow.

After getting knocked flat by a frigid gust of crisis, being able to say, “I’m vertical” seems miraculous.

And it is. “Count your many blessings,” an old hymn advises, “name them one by one.” Standing on my own two feet and walking to the kitchen to pour a glass of iced tea is an honest-to-goodness blessing, and you can call me trite for saying so.

Understand, I’m not suggesting that gratitude is a treatment for clinical depression or a remedy for terrible circumstances. (Take it from me, a panic attack licks its chops and guffaws at church hymns.)

All things being equal, though, I maintain that “okay” is really “amazing” speaking in a whisper.

Friends often remark that driving from Erie to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown and back again must be a combination of bore and chore. Not so. A couple of times each week as I speed past the fields and their inhabitants, I find myself caught up in the splendor of nothing much being wrong.

Just as a frosty Coca-Cola pairs perfectly with Brooklyn style pizza or household chores can be joyful if tenor arias are playing in the background, listing what all is not wrong these days—in other words, what is just fine—takes on added sweetness when I’m looking out my car window at summer forests and fields.

“I have a decent place to live,” comes to mind first. Then “food on the table and clothes to wear.” (In fact, I have three wardrobes, not extensive, but adequate for different weight classes. Sadly, I’m in my top tier of trousers at the moment and will be forced into suspenders if I don’t start pushing away from the dinner table soon.)

“Bills are paid, cars are running.” Much “okayness” crosses my mind as I nod to cows and horses, dozens of them, grazing calmly as if they’ve never had a single worry about their mortality. Sun, rain or snow, they stand, blink and flip their tails. “I feel vertical lately,” I say, taking in a generous breath. “And nobody is ambushing me with drama.”

As I add up all the okays, a gentle descant sounds: “Amazing.”

Amazing Kathy on the patio/deck she made from the long ramp she removed from our backdoor.

When trees nearly form a cathedral over the road, I think of the best part: “I’m happy with my wife Kathy, my children and grandsons, too. And everyone is ambulatory and taking nourishment.”

In addition to my embarrassment of okayness, I can’t walk far in any direction without running into love—and that includes my faith in Mysterious Love, who holds this crazy world together and abides my frustrating soul.

Of course, unexpected complications constantly raise their voices, pretending to be tragedies. This afternoon I have to figure out what’s wrong with my car’s fickle battery, which warrants nothing more than, “Oh, bother.”

When I get a case of the blues, I try to remember that if my life were even a smidgen more okay, I’d be twins.

Reckoning a New Name

Reckoning a New Name

In Gramp’s senior years he acquired jowls. Earl Charles “Curly” Miller, my grandfather, was thin and remarkably bald. His stooped back and forward hips made his profile resemble a question mark. He wore a belt out of custom only, as his trousers rode high over the hillock of his belly.

Gramp before jowls and probably younger than I am now

For practical reasons, Gramp and I weren’t close. I was the youngest of his grandchildren, and the nine who preceded me knocked the play out of him. Also, he moved Gram from Pennsylvania to the dry heat of Arizona when I was under ten years old because of her severe arthritis.

Gramp passed in 1989, but he has been a frequent morning visitor lately. When the razor clears whiskers and foam from my cheeks, the past and future both look back at me: I’m getting jowls.

Did Gramp’s begin to show at fifty-five or am I outpacing him? This question, of course, has little to do with vanity and everything to do with aging. Season by season, I become more a grandfather and less John and Dad. The shift is glacial, but unmistakable. Even wife Kathy and grown children Elena and Micah join grandson Cole in calling me Pop. Killian is working on Mama and Dada, but he’ll chime in soon enough.

Last week, watching a squirrel nibble peanuts outside my den window, I remembered that changing names is a big deal. Abram and Sarai had to leave for the land that God would show them to become Abraham and Sarah. Jorge Mario Bergoglio had to pass through the Room of Tears before greeting the world as Pope Francis.

My new name has granted greater blessings than I had thought possible, but it has also brought on reckonings. Grandma Kathy and Pop are becoming family elders, the generation of jowls, crow’s feet and shuffles. Reflecting on this natural progression, I recognized an unflattering personal tendency: I’m kinder to the quick than to the dead.

A new friend?

Staring at the hungry squirrel’s pale auburn tail fluttering in the wind chill, I concluded that the living are works in progress, whereas the dead are finished. Stiff sentences roll off of my tongue easily when I don’t have to look the defendants in the eye.

Gramp, I must add, was a good sort. He took gentle care of Gram (let us name her, Dorothea Specht Miller) for decades, boiling syringes and giving shots. His achievement as a business executive was notable—paid cash for his fat Buicks. And as he sat outside his greenhouse, squirrels would take peanuts from his lips. I saw them nearly touch their noses to his neat mustache.

But he had flaws, no more or less than your standard, boilerplate soul. Still, without realizing it, I’ve been unduly hard on Gramp and other relatives gone on to glory.

As my own jowls grow, I name the transgressions of my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and am ashamed to say that my forgiveness has been lacking—as if it’s my place to forgive anybody for anything. This realization hasn’t kept me up at night, but I do repent (the Greek word is metanoia: to change one’s mind, to turn around).

Every family has trespasses that it keeps in one silent attic corner, covered in the dust of consequences and regret. One of my tasks in the years ahead will be to drag old sins out into the light and grant them my share of absolution.

Someday I’ll no longer be an elder, and this Pop’s length of days will await his children’s and grandchildren’s verdicts. I say these things now in part to ask them to be more sympathetic than I’ve been, to echo words my elders would probably like to pass along: “I made mistakes, but did my best. I still need your love.”

With luck I have plenty of years before me. By the time Cole and Killian are able to sit quietly, maybe I’ll have the neighborhood squirrels taking peanuts from my lips. That’s my goal, anyway.

“My Gramp fed squirrels the same way,” I’ll say. “He was a good man. I hope that’s how you’ll remember me.”

Killian and Pop: if my jowls become saddlebags, I have a way to hide them.

Oniontown Pastoral: Pop’s Christmas Psalm

Oniontown Pastoral: Pop’s Christmas Psalm

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Cole fixing our toilet tank

Schmaltz Alert! If you’re tired of my posts about the grandsons, please take a pass. No hard feelings.

My grandson Cole loves all things mechanical. Put a toy hammer in his hand and he’ll go on a fixing spree. Wobbly bed posts will be pounded tight, rough edges in the home tapped smooth. Whining drills and purring engines command his rapt attention.

Come to think of it, Cole’s love isn’t restricted to tools and motors. He has an expansive spirit for a tenderfoot of three years. His interest reaches beyond fascination. When I recently took my thumb off for him–a corny trick I picked up years ago from Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live–he said, “I don’t like that.”

“Oh, buddy,” I said, “I didn’t really take off my thumb. That was make-believe.”

But he assumed that if my thumb came apart at the knuckle, I must have hurt myself. Honest to God, his frown and furrowed brow have medicine the human race needs to feel compassionate again. I promised not to do that trick anymore.

When Cole comes with my wife and me to St. John’s in Oniontown on Sunday morning, he often ends up weaving between the pine trees along the parking lot. Grandma Kathy follows behind, the two of them gathering a treasure of cones. The air itself–hot, cold, doesn’t matter–brings the kid joy as he runs his silly run through it. His trunk and limbs swing independent of each other so he looks like a marionette with a drunkard at the strings.

Cole’s run put to words would mean, “Look! This is gladness!”

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Pop and Cole just before his second birthday: the air alone makes his face shine. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

But he wouldn’t say anything like that. He is too giddy to make an observation. Anyway, his mouth has no way of keeping pace with his speedy mind. He deals with this inconvenience by simply repeating whatever word happens to be on his tongue until the logjam in his brain clears. Many of his sentences begin with “I, I, I, I, I.”

Fortunately, the boy makes listening worthwhile. My daughter Elena told me about watching with Cole from the family mini-van as a backhoe scooped away at a patch of ground next to a pine tree. The hole got deeper and deeper, but neither mother nor son knew why.

Then the backhoe did something surprising. The driver put the back of the bucket against the tree and pushed it over. Turns out the hole was dug to weaken the roots and fell the tree.

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Watching (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Elena didn’t need to describe Cole’s expression. I could imagine it. His face—those pink cheeks and fine eyelashes—bright with awe, darkened in an instant. And I’m sure what happened required a few seconds to take on words.

“The tree can’t be down like that,” he finally said. “It has to be up. So so so the squirrels can eat the pine.”

I can’t remember what Elena’s response was, but I’ll bet everything she kissed him and said he was right. My buddy didn’t get a great soul by accident. His parents are faithful stewards of their son’s divinations.

Sure, there was probably an excellent reason for the pine tree to fall, but that’s not the point.

And now you’ll assume I’m speaking poetically, but my purpose couldn’t be more prosaic. Please don’t try to domesticate my grandson’s wild kindness or the Christmas psalm I now write, grateful to be his Pop:

Listen, you nations of the world,

listen to my grandson

and make his loving gaze your own.

Children of God must never be uprooted,

offspring of the Creator never left without pine.

Legs must run a silly run for the Lord.

Arms must never be separated from their bodies,

lest infants who find no room in the inn

be denied the manger of human hearts.

Sing, all people to your God,

sing a song of mercy.

Pray to your Lord for spacious spirits,

where refugees find welcoming borders

and bread enough for multitudes.

Look, you nations, at children.

Your Lord sees you with their eyes.

 

Oniontown Pastoral #10: Mom, Please Tell Me About the Glammazombies

Oniontown Pastoral #10: Mom, Please Tell Me About the Glammazombies

IMG_4284My drive from Erie to St. John’s in Oniontown is never wasted. If nothing else, thoughts wander, graze and lie around with other sympathetic thoughts.

Halfway to church the other day, a tongue-in-cheek remark returned to me: “Your kids grow up and move out just as they start to get interesting.” I forget where I heard this and, in fact, disagree, but the ideas started moving.

I was remembering my mother and listening to Glenn Miller. No sniffles or tight throat, just a speculation: “By the time children want to listen to their parents, it’s too late. Mom and Dad are gone.”

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Dolores Miller

“A String of Pearls” made me think of Mom’s 1944 high school yearbook, which notes that her favorite song was “Sunday, Monday, or Always.” Crosby and Sinatra covered it, but Mom liked a version by Gene Parlette, who worked the Erie region back then.

In my imagination, Mom went to a dance, before my dad came along. Who was her date? She wore the dress from her graduation photograph, dark with bone-white lace. “I want you near every day in the year.” Was that the line of lyrics that spoke to her, Parlette singing and conducting his band? Did she dance, a bit awkward?

Then, with “Moonlight Serenade,” wonders came along.

“What was it like at home when you were growing up? What kind of a mother was Gram? What about Gramp? Did you and Uncle Earl and Uncle Ed fight? What were your chores?”

“Tell me about your friends in high school? What did you do for fun? Did you date a lot?”

I wished Mom were in the passenger seat, filling in the picture I never troubled to ask about before she passed eighteen years ago. Comings and goings in this life aren’t cordial to the past and the hours it takes to welcome stories. Some miscellaneous task always seems pressing.

But as years gather round, so does longing. Here I am, then, fifty-five pretty soon, with my wonderment pressing like a deep hunger.

I can see Mom with three or four friends, sitting on a log, probably on a beach at Presque Isle. Maybe one of my sisters or brother still has the photograph in an old hat box. The girls, smiling and carefree, are dressed in white sweatshirts and khaki pants—slacks, Mom would have called them. On the back she wrote, “The Glammazombies.”

“Mom, please tell me about the Glammazombies. Where did you get that name?”

Why do my ears finally open up when the only response is a sweet, slow clarinet over a car’s speakers as it speeds by crops and cows?

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Good questions

The truth is, all my questions wander and graze. A few lucky ones rest in the sun, full and glad, but most remain hungry, needing more.

I take in longing when it visits, but sometimes lost conversations echo in my own breath. Sentences move silently past my lips into the empty space of the passenger seat.

“Mom, tell me what gave you joy. You loved being pregnant, I know that. But what were your dreams? Some of them came true, right? And you got hurt. What brought you to your knees?

“At least tell me about the Glammazombies. You looked so happy in that picture. Tell me about that day at the beach. And you couldn’t stand your own singing voice, but let me hear “Sunday, Monday, or Always.”

“One day long ago you sang to yourself, faintly. You had a lovely voice, Mom. I should have said so right away, but I was a kid and didn’t use words like lovely back then.”

Message for a New Grandson

Message for a New Grandson

Friend Jan assures me that those in extremis can hear and understand. Son Micah told me once that when death is close, euphoric chemicals show up with kind words, beloved faces, and bright lights.

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Lake Erie light

I’m all for our glands throwing us a going-away party, but what Jan says feels right. Besides, she is wise and knows about deathbeds.

But I have my own reasons for hoping that words of love and care somehow get through. During parishioner Annie’s last minutes, I leaned in close and whispered Psalm 23. Thou art with me. Goodness and mercy. Forever. A single tear ran down her crow’s foot to the pillow. I saw it.

And I saw my mother’s hand lift and fall as I said goodbye to her eighteen years ago. Mom’s purposeful movement said, “I’d answer if I could, John.”

Since then, I’ve spoken freely to the almost-gone. In fact, I’ll speak to everybody and nobody. Words are good, so I say what should be said in hopes that if nothing else, the universe might hear.

Years ago wife Kathy raised monarch butterflies on our front porch. Occasionally, one would be hopelessly deformed, and before resting it underneath a stargazer lily and giving it a quick end, I said, “I’m sorry this life didn’t work out, but it will be over soon. Everything will be okay. You’ll see.”

When geese fly over, in a pair or by the dozens, I say, “Thank you.” Am I addressing the birds or God? Both, I guess.

My most recent monologue came out on—appropriately enough—April Fools’ Day. Killian Davis Thompson, grandson number two, arrived at 2:01 p.m., and within a few hours I got to see him.

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Kathy and Killian

Kathy helped with the birth, so she had already held him. I let Micah go first. After Kathy had seconds, it was my turn.

Time passes dreamlike when you’re looking at a baby you’ve been imagining month after month. I heard giddy voices—daughter Elena, son-in-law Matt, Kathy and Micah—but, I swear, no words.

Killian and I were in a bubble. Even now, I remember only a couple of details, which I report without exaggeration: I disappeared into his face; before I knew what was happening, I found myself whispering to him; and, on one lucid front, I hoped my breath wasn’t nasty. (The little nugget was defenseless, after all.)

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Killian and Pop in a bubble

I can’t bring back exactly what I said, but what I meant is still fresh. As much as I wanted Mom to hear my goodbye, I longed for some quiet room in Killian’s soul to hold in safe keeping his foolish Pop’s welcome. I meant . . .

You were so safe and warm. Now here you are. It’s so cold and bright. Don’t wake up. You must be exhausted. Being born is hard, isn’t it?

But, listen, don’t be afraid. You’re so lucky! We’ve all been waiting for you, wanting to meet you, wanting to see your face.

Don’t be afraid. You have a whole bunch of people who will take care of you. Your mom and dad are beautiful. You have a nice little home. It’s warm and dry. And you have a big brother.

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Lucky baby, lucky family

I named everybody in the family and told him about his tribe. Then Elena’s voice penetrated the bubble: “Are you talking to him?” “Yeah.”

This world is pretty good, but it might not be as great as where you came from. I don’t know. But I’m here, don’t forget. Whatever you need, I’m here. I’ll try to stay close.

Yes, I know, newborns don’t remember anything. And a dying woman doesn’t take green pastures and still waters with her into forever.

But maybe. I’m allowed to hope. All I know is, loving words are good, and if only the universe hears, I’ll keep trying to say them.