Oniontown Pastoral: Wondering Where All the Places Are

Report from Oniontown: Wondering Where All the Places Are

In The Prophet, Khalil Gibran writes of joy and sorrow: “Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”

Gibran’s words visit me every time I’m wandering the valley between gladness and grief—which is to say, much of the time. I should probably give the late Lebanese poet his own loft in my soul.

Anybody who knows me can name my joys these days: wife Kathy and children and family and an embarrassment of friends; the village of Oniontown, Pennsylvania, and my sisters and brothers at St. John’s Lutheran Church; the silence of contemplative prayer; improvisation in the kitchen; and the cultivation of good words.

Killian and Cole (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Most of all, grandsons Cole and Killian bless me so often that I’ve become a bore. A pop who drones on about his boys “ad nauseam” has everybody in his sphere searching for escape routes. I get it.

But stay with me a moment. The eventide of kindness and cooperation everywhere is fast falling. When apocalyptic weather isn’t laying waste to the human enterprise, people compensate by wreaking havoc on each other. Sweetness and light are close to extinction, while civility is an endangered species.

Cole knows nothing of such gloom. The evening news hasn’t yet tripped up his giddy groove, and he comes out with thoughts that lift my fog of pessimism. It happened just the other day.

I wasn’t present for this gem. My daughter Elena found Cole in his room, lying on his bed with fingers laced behind his head and staring up at the world map tacked to his ceiling.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m just looking at all these places,” he said, “and wondering where they are.”

Elena couldn’t remember how she answered, but she’ll never forget the next line: “Where is the playground with the sand?”

Cole wanted his mother to point out, on a world map, the location of the jungle gym and swing set where his Grandma Kathy takes him to play.

Why does this little slip of dialogue leave me stunned with pleasure? After all, his statement is nonsensical, his question naïve.

I’ve spent hours rubbing my temples and concluded that there’s no logic in my response, only emotion. Cole’s thoughts about our big planet make me want to scoop up the little master and hang on tight.

Just imagining the embrace pierces me with joy, but sorrow, ever dutiful, also waits on my board and peers at me over its reading glasses: “Ahem. You realize, of course, that the future might scourge thoughtful souls. Even now, dreamers are having nightmares.”

Point taken. How will tomorrow greet gentle folks who ask where all the places are? And what will become of the pure in heart who need directions to the playground with sand?

Dear World, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could you please take it easy on this dreamer. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Even as I rejoice that one innocent child rests on his bed, looks toward the sky and speaks the language of wonder, I grieve that kindred spirits of his generation may one day hold their tongues, bullied exiles in their own land.

The arms I wrap around my grandsons long to protect as much as love. Unless humanity has a change of heart, the world they inherit will be selfish, ignorant and brutish.

“Will be?” some would say. “Aren’t we already there?”

Not so fast. As far as I know, Khalil Gibran didn’t account for hope. Joy is light enough to ride the mildest breeze. Sorrow surges and gusts. Hope, on the other hand, comes without watches or warnings. Its news comes from redheaded boys.

Most of all, hope is announced by children who have been tossed into the air, caught safely and drawn in close.

As long as my muscles hold out, I’ll pick up Cole and Killian and ask, “What are you doing? What’s on your mind, kid?” If my heart is without guile, their answers will heal and sustain me. I promise to keep you posted.

Joy and sorrow, meanwhile, will live as neighbors on a floodplain, the former assuring the latter that love always has the last word.

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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: Listen to Your Grandma

Oniontown Pastoral: Listen to Your Grandma

Dear Cole and Killian:

img_4987Last week your Grandma Kathy came in all sweated up from picking vegetables and said, “Oh, John, there’s one of those tomato hornworms in the garden with eggs on its back, probably wasp eggs.” Her bottom lip wasn’t quivering, but tears weren’t far off. Poor bug.

I don’t want to see any creature suffer, but I’ve never been a fan of hornworms. First, they’re gross; they look like a bald, glossy-green, plump, juicy caterpillar. Second, they never finish their meals. I would be glad to share if they didn’t go from tomato to tomato, munching a portion and ruining the rest. And third, they leave pellet droppings called frass. Most of it falls into the soil unseen, but a little plastic table Grandma Kathy situated near a tomato plant got covered with it. The guilty insect frassed so much I couldn’t help thinking it chuckled to itself, pellet by pellet.

Your grandmother, who is on strangely good terms with the wastrels, wanted to send me on a rescue mission, but not by plucking the larvae off the hornworm or ending its suffering.

“You write about these things,” she said. “Maybe you could write about it.”

Grandma Kathy was right, boys. For whatever reason, your pop thinks a lot about sadness, and some likeminded folks like to read what I come up with. She was right, too, that in hopeless cases, one sympathetic witness can be a saving grace.

The trouble is, I don’t have much to say about future wasps dining on a hornworm, other than to note, “That’s life for you.” One being’s grilled chicken is another’s raw caterpillar. The main difference is presentation.

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Listen to your grandma, boys.

On the other hand, I do have something to say about Grandma Kathy. You won’t read this letter for another ten years, but as you grow I’ll be steering you toward this advice: “Grandma Kathy has a big soul. She knows how to live. Listen to her.”

I’m only trying to save you time and trouble. If my math skills are still operational, your grandmother and I have spent 2/3 of our lives together. Only in the last three years have I figured out that most of the time she knows best. Since 1980, then, I’ve been letting her steer 1/10 of the time, which is silly.

And I’ll tell you why. Grandma Kathy was right about that hornworm from the beginning. It’s as much a resident of the earth as I am and worthy of consideration.

“Don’t you think we ought to kill it?” I asked. “The last thing we need is a wasp infestation.”

“No, we’re too quick to kill things,” she answered. “Besides, I think wasps might be beneficial.”

I swallowed my response, which would have been, “Hey, I’m not too quick to kill things.”

But she was half right. I checked an almanac and learned that you shouldn’t squash the hornworm and its passengers. Wasps are—and I quote—“beneficial” for a garden.

img_5008Only in the last few weeks have I decided that Grandma Kathy also knows best where the garden hose is concerned. All our marriage long she has left it snaking around the yard rather than coiling it up. I bring the matter up once every decade, though not anymore. When I walk out the back door, my glance goes immediately to the hose and my mind says, “Unkempt.” Your grandmother looks first to the sunflowers, and her mind says, “Ah, beautiful.”

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The better part

She has chosen the better part, and I won’t take it from her.

When Grandma Kathy plays with you, Cole, she lets you decide what to do and where to go. That’s because you know how to play better than anybody else. By watching her, I’m learning to be a good pop.

And Killian, you’re just a few months old, but it already seems that you’re going to be quieter and more reserved than your big brother. You watch, kiddo, Grandma Kathy will look into your brown eyes and see how to help you love yourself and feel so happy you’ll want to fly.

Someday you’ll be able to understand that big souls make big sacrifices. When you’re ready, I’ll explain that Pop owes his life to Grandma Kathy.

IMG_4286But I’ll wait for later to tell you just how. It’s enough for now to say that when I was weary and lost unto despair, your grandmother left a few of her dreams behind as if they were frass to help me find myself again.

Grandma Kathy knows how best to love you and me and the rest of creation. Please, save yourself trouble and spend more than a sliver of your years following her lead and trusting her example.

Care for the tomato hornworm. Look first to the sunflower. Give yourself away for the sake of love.

We’ll talk before you know it,

Pop

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.

Mindfulness in a Driving Rain

The foundation of happiness is mindfulness. The basic condition for being happy is our consciousness of being happy. If we are not aware that we are happy, we are not really happy. When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. But when we do not have a toothache, we are still not happy. A non-toothache is very pleasant. There are so many things that are enjoyable, but when we don’t practice mindfulness, we don’t appreciate them. (From Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh)

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Baby Crash watching common rain, the Buddha looking in

Just now I closed my eyes and paid attention to my non-toothache. My mouth looks like a demolition derby in there, so I can vouch for the venerable Buddhist monk’s counsel. And sometimes I think my soul looks like my teeth—cracked, patched up, cavernous, important pieces missing.

Just now, with open eyes, I took in a full breath and enjoyed the air flowing back out past my throat and through my nose. My body, relaxed and light, isn’t cramped with any of the absurdities my mind habitually puts it through by narrating potholes into sinkholes and possibilities into finalities.

Happiness is fantastic, but okay will do. Hold the drama-trauma, blue cheese, and skydiving, and I’ll likely be fine. My job is to pray-meditate, walk mindfully, and swaddle Overthinking, kiss its spongy head, and shush it to sleep.

Even inclement days are sweet when my chops aren’t being busted and when I refuse to itch old scars open. Last Friday was one of those days. Weather has never bothered me, but Friday, November 13, 2015, was stern. Each chilly, gust-whipped raindrop was a slap on the cheek.

Poor daughter Elena couldn’t take Cole, now a Ninja of motion, to the playground, which is why I received a call at 10:11 a.m. Toddlers can turn homes into Thunderdomes.

“Hi, Daddy.” Was that a quiver of desperation in her soft greeting? “I was just wondering what your schedule was like today, if maybe you wanted to do lunch or something.”

Here’s a summary of our negotiations:

1.) Elena: Could we please not have lunch at my house? [X]

2.) Elena: There’s a play place at the [Millcreek] Mall. Maybe we could get a Starbucks and let Cole play there for a while. [X]

3.) Daddy: Then we could find somewhere to have lunch. [X]

4.) Elena: There is a God. [X]

We met at noon-ish, fed quarters to a fire truck and convertible, picked up coffee, and settled in at the official play place—and by settled in I mean kept Cole from making a break for the concourse, which he did four times, and from dispensing hand sanitizer until his fingers were raw.

After ten minutes of crawling through tunnels and nearly colliding with a dozen or so children of other desperate parents, he announced “Cole done” and copped a few sips of Pop’s decaf latte. Next he gnawed an eggroll and noodles while Elena and I had bourbon chicken.

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Cole likes coffee and spicy food

Then it was time to go. An hour with a toddler doesn’t allow for segues: ride the choo choo train, slip and almost fall on the padded turtle, get hurt feelings because the thick-boned boy hopped on the tug boat ahead of you, sample coffee, squeeze duck sauce on your egg roll, and refuse to hold Pop’s hand when it’s time to go home.

So we ran together, my little buddy’s jelly bones all akimbo. Before we reached the door, Elena insisted: “Do you want to ride in the stroller or let Pop carry you?”

“Pop!”

Bullets of rain got us right away. Cole’s face pinched in, and two steps later I felt his head settle on my shoulder.

“Aw, are you getting tired, buddy?” I said.

“No,” Elena said. “That’s what he does when it’s too windy.”

I must say, mindfulness is getting to be a habit for me, and it’s not for nothing. My bald spot and glasses were getting pelted, but so-the-hell what? A grandparent is made for the moment when the grandchild leans in. Love, fatigue, or safety could be the reason, but who cares? I still haven’t figured out exactly what a parent is made for, mainly because I was a trembling neurotic in that role. But Pop, I’m meant to be a shoulder for my grandson. The rest of me—I sometimes believe—is vestment.

“You okay, pal?” I said.

“Yeah.” One lilting syllable, almost a chirp.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that mindfulness can turn neutral into joyful. A non-toothache is hardly noteworthy. Neither is being able to breathe through your nose. Standard operations, that’s all. A two-year-old using his grandfather’s shoulder to hide from cold rain is about the same—thirty unremarkable seconds across the parking lot to the car.

Commonplace but for one truth: while my embrace kept Cole dry and warm, I found my own shelter from the elements.

What I Hope My Grandson Will Remember

A Napper’s Companion love, love, love alert. If you’re tired of me going on about grandson Cole, you are hereby issued a pass. My next post, already in progress, will be the customary blend of joyful and brooding. For now, if you can’t get enough of bald babies, come on in.

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Cole’s friendly monster first birthday party . . . by Elena Thompson and Cole’s groupies

Following my last silly post, Naming Monsters on Black Friday, dear blogging friend NapTimeThoughts and I had a little exchange that basically ended this way:

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Fifteen little monsters up for adoption

I wrote: “Wouldn’t it be great to sit with our grandmas again? Mine would have Vernors ginger ale and big brown tins of pretzels. Heaven.”

NapTimeThoughts wrote: “Mine would have coffee ice cream and graham crackers with butter on them, and we’d be playing Chinese checkers in the den. Someday Cole is going to have this conversation with someone, you know. What do you want him to remember?”

Not only does NapTimeThoughts have a belly-laughing, thoughtful blog, but she comments generously and genuinely on mine and others. Her question here has lingered with me in the days since she asked it. “What do you want [Cole] to remember?” My answer will change over time. Since Cole just celebrated his first birthday, he would be beyond genius if he remembered anything about me, should I cash in my chips in the near future.

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Whatever you remember about your gramps, kiddo, be sure to include color!

But a grandfather can hope. My Vernors and pretzels and NapTimeThoughts’ coffee ice cream, graham crackers with butter, and Chinese checkers are details—as my friend well knows—that help resurrect our grandmothers. A soda pop bottle, a cool marble, that’s all it takes. Suddenly, a personal, particular love lives again.

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Thanks, NapTime, for a question worth a couple days’ reflection. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Good old NapTime enjoys a bit of back and forth, thank God. Her query was a gift that led me to an answer. “What do I want Cole to remember?” Assuming at this point he won’t recall my feeding him broccoli cheddar soup or his kissing my cheek with a peck and a mmmwah, I do pray that this one piece of Gramps takes hold.

Here’s What Happened

This morning daughter Elena and Cole showed up at the house. As usual, wife Kathy and Elena had a plot to hatch, so Little Lord Cole and I had to find a way to amuse ourselves. Grandma’s ginger snaps and a walk around the dining room was the ticket. Already eager to embrace multi-tasking, Cole gummed bits of cookie and reached for my mother’s old teapot on top of the china cabinet. In response, I channeled Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh—gently, without being heavy: “Cole, just enjoy the cookie. You don’t need to do anything else.”

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This is life, Cole: taste the cookie.

“Yeah, right, Gramps,” he probably thought. But Cole is a deep soul. Once he had a fresh piece of ginger snap on his tongue, I stopped roaming and looked at him. We were perfectly alone.  “Listen, Cole,” I said. “This is very important.”

He actually got still. Amazing. His only movement was the cookie lolling around in his mouth.

“You have to remember,” I said, “I love you. It doesn’t matter if things are really great or really bad, your gramps loves you. Nothing can change that.”

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Schmutz face or pristine face. National Honor Society or way out of line. A life-time promise, sir. I’ll never give up on you, and when you stumble, I’ll remind you of the good I see in you. Take that!

After Cole and Elena left, I walked around the house for a while, looking at the commonplace–the wilted blossoms of Cole’s great-grandmother’s Christmas cactus–through a watery blur of blessing.

Here’s What I Hope:

Cole will remember neither the cookie nor my words. And on glad days, he won’t need a rearview mirror to make do. But, my dear NapTimeThoughts, my answer to your question on my grandson’s first birthday is this: when he is old enough to shave and has done himself stupid harm, let spirit-memory bring back what I gave him this morning. Let him know that he is worthy of love. Let his shoulders recall these old arms drawing him close and let his cheek still feel the kiss of unconditional grace.

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You won’t always be this cute, birthday bucko. No worries. When you get pimples and smell like sweaty socks, you’ll still be okay with me.

P. S. Thanks, NapTime. And Elena, could you put this one in Cole’s memory book, please?

 

 

Naming Monsters on Black Friday

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Birthday-boy Cole and his sister Layla catching a nap

Friday, November 28, 2014: While millions of Americans fed this day’s gaping maw of capitalism, I engaged in my own form of madness. For seven hours I sipped decaf redeye after decaf redeye at a Starbucks miles away from the shopping traffic and named monsters. Daughter Elena sewed and stuffed fifteen of the little weirdos, and my charge was to come up with biographical snippets for each of them. My motivation was compelling: each monster would be given to a young guest at grandson Cole’s first birthday party this coming Sunday. Parents would read the bio; kids would squeeze, lick, and gnaw on Elena’s handiwork. In the midst of much online research, I informed my erudite table mates of incidentals (e.g. kangaroos do not, in fact, burp) and learned, stifling laughter, what “upper decking” means. When at last I looked up from the screen to see the patrons spinning–no lie!–I knew it was time to go home for a nap. When I awoke, I had a Philly cheesesteak with handsome Cole and family, then sent the following to Elena in preparation for Sunday. Enjoy . . . if you dare.

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Battersby “Juano” de Vamp

Battersby “Juano” de Vamp: Battersby’s love for the night life and chatting with the ladies led to the first part of his nickname, Juan—this being Don Juan, a fictional character who enjoys hanging out with women. The “o” part of his nickname came from his buddies, who discovered that “Juano” rhymes with “guano,” which is bat poo. But don’t worry about Battersby. He gets his pals back by sneaking bites of their cheesecake—when they go out for dinner—and leaving his distinctive single tooth mark in their dessert. Juano’s favorite Maya Angelou quote: “I don’t trust any [monster] who doesn’t laugh.”

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Babbatte “Hang” de Vamp

Babbatte “Hang” de Vamp: Babbatte’s nickname, which she would gladly lose, comes from her childhood inability to say “fang.” “Listen, young lady,” her mother would say, “get back into that bathroom and brush and floss your fang.” Babbatte would insist that she already “bussed her hang,” the “f” sound being painful for little de Vamps, until they build up a callous on their lower lip. Hang wears ribbons on her ear and bats her eyelashes to make a point: “There’s a lot more to me than this pearly white fang!” Babbatte’s favorite Katherine Hepburn quote: “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”

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Kenneth “Ken” Knipmeier

Kenneth “Ken” Knipmeier: Everyone thinks “Ken’s” nickname is short for “Kenneth.” Not so. Ken grew up playing with his older sister Babs’ Ken dolls. When his friends played “snow wars” with G. I. Joes, Ken brought a Ken doll to the battle, insisting his Ken’s ski outfit would keep him warmer than the soldiers’ thin layer of olive and black camo. From childhood on, Ken always made it a point to follow his own instincts. Kenneth’s favorite Chinese proverb: “A wise [monster] makes his own decisions, an ignorant [monster] follows the public opinion.”

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Barbra “Babs” Knipmeier

Barbra “Babs” Knipmeier: The unusual spelling of Barbra’s first name can be blamed on singer Barbra Streisand, after whom she was named. From the time she could hold something and babble at it, she clutched a Barbie doll. For a short time, Barbra’s parents called her Barbie. At her first birthday party, however, Dad put on a bootleg Streisand’s Greatest Hits CD. When “[Monsters, monsters] who need [monsters], are the luckiest [monsters] in the world,” tears ran down Barbra’s cheeks. She wasn’t sad or hungry or poopy. She was verklempt. “Oh,” Mom said, remembering the singer’s nickname, “our little Babs is crying. My word, how sensitive she is!” During her rebellious teenage years, Babs was crazy for Madonna, but now considers her namesake the best female artist now living. Barbra’s favorite Barbra Streisand quote: “There is nothing more important in life than love.”

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Rosalyn “Ozzie” Hightower

Rosalyn “Ozzie” Hightower: How many monsters have nicknames because other monsters mess up their regular names? Rosalyn—born an identical twin—got stuck with “Ozzie” because her sister Jocelyn couldn’t say “Rozie.” Ozzie doesn’t hold a grudge, though, since she has other challenges to overcome. Even with all the odd appearances in the monster world, Ozzie, with eyes perched on arm-towers and baby in a pouch, gets teased by other monsters. She wears a smile because she refuses to be bummed out by smart remarks. And you’ll never hear a mean word come out of her mouth. Her baby’s name: Jillian. Her favorite Chinese proverb: “A bit of fragrance clings to the hand that gives flowers.”

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Jocelyn “Joey” Hightower (and Jack)

Jocelyn “Joey” Hightower: Jocelyn, born an identical twin, gave sister Rosalyn her nickname, but “Ozzie” returned the favor. Jocelyn’s parents chose her name because it rhymes with Rosalyn—sort of—and planned to call her “Josey,” but “Joey” was the best her sister could do. At first it was “Doughy,” so Jocelyn was at least grateful she escaped being thought of as a dinner roll. Joey is a brave marsupial in a sometimes unkind world, giving lippy monsters a little what-for when they talk smack, especially against Ozzie. She doesn’t go looking for trouble, but she doesn’t hide from it, either. Her baby’s name: Jack. Her favorite proverb: “One can easily judge the character of a [monster] by the way they treat [monsters] who can do nothing for them.”

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Boris “Chops” Pillosevic

Boris “Chops” Pillosevic: Of Serbian descent, Boris got his nickname not from his razor-sharp bottom canines, but from his cheerful, steady nerves in the face of danger and his favorite dish: lamb with a mint, yellow tomato, and sweet corn salsa. In high school, Chops won “The Guy You Want Most in Your Foxhole” Award. Today, he is an interior decorator. His favorite Charles Atlas quote: “Nobody picks on a strong [monster].”

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Nevena “Marigold” Pillosevic

Nevena “Marigold” Pillosevic: Sunny and cheerful by nature, Nevena’s nickname comes from her given name, which is Serbian for “marigold.” Lovely Nevena is easily surprised, which led to school classmates always jumping out from hiding places to scare her. “Ohhh,” she would squeal, then have a giggling fit. No longer in school, Marigold still can’t help watching out of the corners of her eyes for the next prank. Poor girl. Watchfulness is tiring, so she loves to nap, though she spends the rest of the afternoon yawning. Nevena’s favorite Chinese proverb: “You cannot prevent the [monsters] of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.”

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Retina “Lovey” Glover

Retina “Lovey” Glover: Retina’s nickname comes from many years ago. Her first love, Leonard Palmer, called her “Lovey” because her lips always seemed to be puckered for a kiss, and he couldn’t stop looking into her eyes, all three of them. The name fit then and still does today. If you ever need a monster to talk to, Lovey is the one. No matter your age, she’ll bounce you on one of her knees, kiss your cheek, wink three times, and give you a little hope. Lovey’s favorite Chinese proverb: “One joy scatters a hundred griefs.”

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Leonard “Lensie Poo” Palmer

Leonard “Lensie Poo” Palmer: Leonard’s nickname comes from many years ago. His first love, Retina Glover, called him “Lensie Poo” in a moment of awkwardness. He was so gushy with her, calling her “Lovey” and staring into her eyes, that she said the first cute thing that came into her mind: “Lensie Poo.” Once their circle of friends passed around this juicy gossip, Leonard—a bright, bookish kid—was forever after “Lensie Poo.” He was a little disappointed when, at a monster class reunion, Lovey confessed that nothing in particular was behind his nickname. But Lensie Poo worked with what he had been given, using his warm-and-fuzzy nickname was an ice breaker with strangers. Leonard’s favorite Spanish proverb: “Since we cannot get what we like, let us like what we can get.”

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Cyrus “Clopsy” Henson

Cyrus “Clopsy” Henson: Cyrus, Cyrus, Cyrus! It’s not easy for any monster to grow up perfectly round, but Cyrus’ early life was awkward, indeed, before he learned to roll. Until the age of four, Cyrus moved about the world by flipping himself forward like a pancake. Each time his big, wet eyeball hit sidewalks or hardwood floors, it sounded like a horse stepping in a mud puddle. “Clop. Clop. Clop” So, the other monsters declared, “Clopsy” it was. “Cy,” as his sister is kind enough to call him, doesn’t show his emotions easily. He is the strong, silent type. The only way you know that Cyrus is sad is when he leaves tear drops on his way from point A to point B. Cyrus’ favorite Chinese proverb: “The journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single [roll].”

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Sydney “Cookie” Henson

Sydney “Cookie” Henson: Not many youthful dreams come to pass. So it was with Sydney, who long ago aspired to be an actress. Roles for round, blue characters being rare, she was over-the moon about reading for the role of Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. “The part is mine,” she said, rolling home. Ah, Sydney. Years passed before she stopped complaining about that amiable oaf’s fame. “He is bulky, blue, and hairy,” she would say to anybody who would listen. “So spray paint him white and cast him as the Abominable Snowman!” Her family loved her a lot and told her, “You know, you’ll always be our ‘Cookie.’” The older she got, the more she understood that being her family’s Cookie is better than being a television star. Sydney’s favorite Chinese proverb: “Not until just before dawn do [monsters] sleep best; not until [monsters] get old do they become wise.”

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Rudolph “Rudy” Tuberski

Rudolph “Rudy” Tuberski: There’s absolutely nothing interesting about Rudolph’s nickname. Monsters with his name get called “Rudy,” and he’s fine with that. As any of his buds will tell you Rudy is a real meat-and-potatoes guy, very grounded, no-nonsense. His philosophy is simple: smile, laugh a lot, keep an eye out for your fellow monster, and don’t hog all the gravy in life. Rudolph’s favorite Charles Schultz quote: “Good grief, Charlie Brown!”

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Eartha “Yammy” Tuberski

Eartha “Yammy” Tuberski: Some monsters dislike their given names. Growing up, Eartha complained to her parents: “Eartha! Eartha! Where in the world did you get that name? It makes me sound like a clump of dirt.” In truth, Eartha was a great kid. Her parents were loving and gentle. And she did her chores, minded her manners, got good grades, and was about as happy and playful as the next monster. Still she couldn’t stop griping about her cloddish name. Patient as her parents were, her brother Rudy reached his breaking point. “Good grief,” he hollered one day, “will you quit your yammering.” Thereafter, in his youthful insensitivity, he called her “Yammer,” and in tender moments, “Yammy.” “Well,” Eartha thought, “at least Yammy sounds cheerful, kind of sweet.” When she introduces herself, monsters figure she is saying, “Tammy,” and, blessed with the wisdom of years, she doesn’t generally correct them. Eartha’s favorite Beatles song: “Let It Be”.

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The first-ever, formal portrait of Loxi “Picabo” Nessor

Loxi “Picabo” Nessor: In spite of Loxi’s endearing smile and welcoming blue eye, she is extremely shy. Her nickname has nothing to do with the old baby “I see you” game. She loves to water ski, but prefers snow, since for mysterious reasons she ends up under the waves rather than on top of them when water is the venue. Loxi watched so many hours of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary that friends started calling her “Picabo” after the winner of the Super G, Picabo Street. The cute handle embarrasses her, so she closes her eye and dips down her head when she hears it. Loxi’s favorite Rosanne Barr quote: “I’m mostly introspective and don’t talk to [other monsters]. I get into a real quiet, meditative place.”

It’s 11:10 as I sign off. Black Friday of 2014 is almost over. My nap has worn off, and the monsters and Cole are tucked in, the latter until tomorrow morning, the former until Sunday afternoon, when monsters and humans will sing, eat cake, and wish a happy baby many more.

Thanksgiving Letter to My Late Mother

Dear Mom:

November 8, 2014: your Christmas cactus is in full bloom. It may be my imagination, but every year the blossoms seem to show up a little earlier. We could now call your beloved old plant a Halloween cactus. How many holidays will pass before the pink flowers open up at Easter?

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Your matriarch of Christmas cacti

You know, Mom, you’ve been gone sixteen years, and I always figured that the older I got, the less I would miss you. Actually, the opposite seems to be true. The heaviness in my throat in this moment is greater than when I wrote you last year. The reason is your great-grandson Cole. I imagine the deep gladness you would know in holding him, talking to him as I do, sitting quietly as the minutes pass, watching him in ceaseless motion. You would say the same thing as we do: “He’s so busy.”

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Your busy great-grandson in his Halloween costume–grrrr!

Most Sundays we have family dinner, Mom. I’m not sure why as your son I didn’t insist on this practice years ago, but I didn’t. I’m sorry. People who say that they have no regrets in life probably aren’t looking closely enough. Anyway, after we finished eating, Cole got fussy. Had you been there and not been burdened with arthritis, you would have picked him up and walked around the house, talking to him. I can see you telling your great-grandson about this and that. The decades glow and soften in my mind: there you are, my late mother holding my beloved grandson. It’s nice to see you.

But since you aren’t here—not really—and weren’t there after dinner to occupy Cole, I did. Our first stop was your Christmas cactus. I told him a little about the plant, but before I knew it I was telling him about you. Of course, I said you would love him like crazy and other things you would expect. But as he looked on momentary peace at your plant, I told him that when his mother was a toddler, you peeled grapes for her. Peeling grapes: that’s love. “Your great-grandma would do the same for you,” I said, imagining you putting bits of the pulp into his mouth.

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Was Cole looking at that glow in the center, Mom, the light of forever?

Next stop: the photograph of you in your wedding dress. “My gosh, Cole,” I said, “look at how beautiful your Great-Grandma Coleman was.” I was focused on you and Cole, but was also aware of somebody looking over my shoulder and saying, “Oh, yeah! She was beautiful.”

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You are younger here, Mom, than both of my children are now. It’s hard to make the years stay in the right order.

Tours with tired babies last only so long, so that was about it. Elena, Matt, and Cole packed up and headed home. Tomorrow being Sunday, we’ll go through the same ritual, and most likely I’ll use the spatula from home. No kidding, Mom, every time I pick it up, I remember you. Maybe I’ll show Cole, tell him it was yours.

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Still my favorite spatula

I wish you could be with us. We would sit at the dining room table and look at pictures. This afternoon I was missing you, so I went upstairs and pulled out some albums. Time passed. Two photographs held me up a while: one of Elena and one of Micah. I could see Cole in both of them.

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That’s Elena, Mom. I caught her, promise. That’s also Cole’s face.

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Here’s Micah, Mom, foreshadowing his nephew’s two front teeth and swagger.

I said before you were beautiful, but I’ve become suspicious of time, reluctant to accept its authority over us, covetous of eternity. More must await us beyond this lovely, troubled land, where early we toddle on fair-skinned, sausage legs and late travel tentatively, afraid of the fall that might crack our aching bones. There must be more because you deserve to hold this child, to kiss his promise of red hair—however this can happen in the Eternal Calm and Splendor.

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Kathy used to raise monarchs, Mom, and Elena used to wear them. Wish you could have seen.

So, Mom, I’ll correct myself: you are beautiful. I don’t visit your grave often, with its pound or two of ash and bone the required number of feet below. Better: I exchange this earthly chronology for one I compose myself. I close my eyes. Now, you pass your hands over my children’s cheeks as you did decades ago and speak to them gently. Cole sits on your lap. You bounce him and lean forward to look at his round face. Like the rest of us, you get lost there.

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Cole on pumpkin carving day. We would have rinsed him off and handed him to you.

As you and I sit together, I hold your hand, still the softest I’ve ever known. Since this is my time, your knuckles and joints don’t blossom with arthritis—no pain. I’m looking at your skin and veins, Mom, and kissing your hand. Your eyes are closed. You hear me say, “You live.”

Love,

John

Rawhide, Love, and Happy Trails!

Dearly Beloved:

As the pastor of a small parish, I’m accustomed to what lots of ministers would consider a light wedding schedule. Well, in 2014 either “Trumpet Voluntary” is in the water or word is leaking out that my wedding homilies are pithy and I’ll give you your vows in nibbles so you don’t fumble them and the Lutheran service for marriage includes minimal fluff. If you’re not lighting candles or pouring colored sand or passing out roses or “there is love[ing],” I can get you hitched in fifteen minutes.

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Daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt: I officiated their nuptials in around twenty minutes ago on October 2, 2010. No fuss, no muss.

Whatever the reason, this coming Saturday will mark my eighth wedding of the season, with four out of town and this last one twenty miles from my doorstep. The “Rawhide” song is rollin’ through my head, not the Frankie Laine version, but the Blues Brothers’ rendition with John Belushi deadpanning “head ‘em up, move ‘em on, head ‘em up,” and grabbing a barely plausible whip hanging by the stage for a couple of rousing cracks and “haws!”

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, keep them vows a rollin’, rawhide . . . to Saxonburg, Pennsylvania. Rain and wind and weather . . . to Shippenville, Pennsylvania. Hell bent for [tether] . . . to Findley Lake, New York. Wishin’ my gal was by my side . . . to Columbiana, Ohio.

With some personal struggles making my horse gimpy in recent months, my trail time has often been taken up with wound licking and obsessing. The weddings themselves have all been joyful, even gleeful. No bridezillas, no fussy parents, no bizarre requests. Good stuff. But, sheesh, the back and forth, with miles of staring at concrete, provided the perfect venue for what Brother Lawrence called useless thoughts. Ugh! (I’m like a doggie that remedies an itch on its flank by chewing open a crater. It is possible to ruminate yourself raw.)

But last Saturday as I was driving through Ohio, minding my own business, the dying leaves got through to me. Trees lining the highway sang out every lovely cliché of autumn. It was as if creation cleared scales from my eyes, and I saw colors. Pandora’s “Zen Garden” station—serenity now!—had my ears calmed down. And as the miles unraveled, I traveled into thanksgiving. Turns out the space behind my chest that shelters laughter and tears also rents out a secret loft to a tenant who has become unkempt and dusty lately: gratitude.

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You get the idea–fall leaves along the road. (Credit: Albert Herring on Wikimedia Commons)

All the way to Columbiana I was whelmed in thanks. (Not overwhelmed, just pleasantly, peacefully whelmed.)

Thanks for Don and Janine Thompson, grandson Cole’s other grandparents. The little man spends a lot of time at their place, in part because they live a few doors up on the same street as Elena and Matt. Janine is always chasing the Cole-meister while full-time-mom Elena runs errands or takes an exit for some rest. I’ve seen with my eyes and felt in my bones their bottomless, gentle love for our boy. Knowing that he toddles around at Don and Janine’s house invites in me a cleansing breath. He is safe, spoken to with tenderness, and regarded with patience and generosity.

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Grandma Janine at Cole’s baptism

As a bonus, Cole is picking up a couple of fantastic lessons for life from his other grandparents.

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A big bonus at Grandma and Grandpa Thompson’s is cousin Shaylee, who loves Cole like crazy and comes to play.

1.) The Thompson house is trippy. Every time I drive by I chuckle a loving, admiring chuckle. It’s a typical ranch house, very well kept and attractive, but it has an addition on the roof that makes the place look like a thick letter “L” lying on its back. But here’s the thing: Don pretty much built the whole place himself. When the family needed more room, he added where he could. I dig that and am glad Cole is doing part of his growing up there because he can learn that what matters most isn’t the way a home is shaped on the outside, but the grace and care that fills the inside.

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Grandpa Don at Cole’s baptism

2.) Along these same lines, Matt told me that his dad painted his car or truck with, well, a paint brush. You can hardly tell. Every summer the Thompsons have a bodywork day when all the cars in the family get what they need. I love this! Don once told Matt never to buy a new car when you can fix an old one. He’s right. I want my little Cole-mobile to grow up believing that a car’s primary job is to roll him somewhere.

3.) Rounding a bend here: During Elena and Matt’s engagement, there was a brief point of tension between Elena and Janine. I don’t even know what it was about, but I know how it ended. They talked it out and learned from each other. So a mother-in-law genuinely listened to her perky whippersnapper future daughter-in-law, took a look within, and was vulnerable and open. Now, this is a woman I want in my grandson’s life! A healthy, wise presence.

4.) When you put together everything in the Thompson’s cool-beans household, you also get another piece of first-rate craftsmanship.

Thanks for Matt Thompson! Son-in-law Matt is like his old man: intelligent, thoughtful, conversant on an amazing number of topics, but at the same time doesn’t take up a lot of space. When he comes into a room, his countenance doesn’t shout, “Here I am!” It smiles, “There you are!” All of my neighbors once agreed—the men, too—that we want to marry Matt. This Renaissance Man could build aircraft carrier out of gravel, twigs, hair, and boogers, and, in fact, he and Elena bought what was essentially a 800-square-foot dog kennel, gutted the yuck out of it, and made it their home. Matt knows everything about inventor Nicola Tesla, including I believe the circumference of his nostrils, and quotes Carl Sagan all the time. He refurbished the 1980 electric Commuticar wife Kathy drives to work and once explained how the batteries charge and alternate their responsibilities. I listened politely as Charlie Brown’s teacher’s wha, wha, wha, ah, ah, wha, wha came out of his mouth.

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Matt and Cole: lucky man, lucky boy!

However, the fact that Matt Alan Thompson could perform brain surgery in the dark with balsa wood instruments is beside the point. He is a good man with a conscience and a large soul. Best of all, when he holds my grandson, he knows that he is in possession of a fragile blessing. I can tell. Matt’s thick hands loosen rusty bolts, but their grip on that baby is soft and kind. And he talks to Cole the same way he carries him.

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The 1980 Electric Commuticar, which the Coleman family dubbed the Goudalet because one person observed that it looks like a wedge of gouda cheese rolling down the street. It lay dormant for over twenty years, but Matt willed it back to life.

Well, enough about my son-in-law. He chose to marry my daughter, so my neighbors and I have to accept that we don’t stand a chance with him.

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Matt and baby Cole watching an old episode of “Cosmos”–no kidding!

With another forty minutes to go on Route 6, I seemed to herd other reasons for thanks ahead of me like doggies. Don’t try to understand ‘em, just rope and throw and brand ‘em. Right, then, just enjoy the yips of gratitude.

Thanks for Kathy, Elena, and Micah. I’ve fussed over them in other posts. I remain grateful.

Thanks for my church kids. Most Sundays they’re a mosh pit of rosy-cheeked silliness. We love each other.

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Austin sees Pastor John sit down with the kids to listen to music. Austin puts his Halloween costume in reverse and sits down on Pastor John’s lap. Pastor John looks like he is frowning, but he is not. His eyes are closed because he is sitting in God’s lap.

Thanks for my blogging friends. Beyond their sincere care for me and each other, I appreciate my fellow bloggers’ patience. We seem to understand and accept when one or another of us drops off the grid for a while because good vittles, love, [or] kissin’ has somehow gone a-missin’. They are unseen guests in my days—great company.

And thanks for the leaves. Gorgeous, yet in extremis. Their reality gives me hope. On the doorstep of dust, they sing their loudest. Do they see something we don’t? Maybe as they fall to earth, they know they’ll go on living high and wide.

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Wishing you glad trails, height and breadth and depth. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Rawhide, love, and happy trails!

John