What I do believe is an adage that has grown trite with wear: Everybody has a story. Manners were expected in my childhood, but not so much the patient peeling back of other people’s layers to understand behavior and find compassion. Continue reading
Oniontown Pastoral: Supporting Cast at Grandma’s House
When Cole and Killian arrived at Grandma Daffy’s house Saturday evening at 5:00, it was pouring down rain. Thunder and lightening were also in on the action, so the boys’ coveted dip in the splash pool seemed unlikely.
Our seven-year-old redhead and five-year-old sandy-brown were sulking. Fortunately, bad moods are no match for my wife. In no time she had them shrieking in the basement play zone, having sold them on some alternative amusement. I was whipping up a pot of Pop’s Famous Mac and Cheese and a batch of curly dogs, a trick I stole from Jacques Pepin, who slices wieners so they turn into circles when fried.
In other words, the spell that Grandma Daffy casts on our grandsons was working its magic. As an aside, my beloved obviously does not share her given name with a cartoon duck.
Everybody knows that grandchildren claim the divine right to name their elders. Killian couldn’t manage Kathy, but Daffy worked. And she was the lucky one. Her counterpart should have been Grandma Janine, but the best Killian could do was “Dramamine.” How would you like to be known as a motion sickness prophylactic? And due to an unfathomable utterance by Cole, our son Micah goes by “Gak,” which is the phonetic spelling of “upchuck.” Poor Uncle Gak.
But back to Grandma Daffy’s house. Nobody mentions that 402 Parkway Drive also belongs to Pop. No, when the subject of weeknight visits or sleepovers comes up, the venue is “Grandma Daffy’s.”
And it’s the truth. I’m the supporting cast for the queendom Kathy hath made, all aglow with virtuosity and improvisation. In the aforementioned basement, Kathy has a miniature, fully-appointed kitchen, where the wee chefs prepare gourmet meals. They also built a neighborhood out of cardboard appliance cartons and now hatch plots in their own row houses with secret entrances. A bit closer to heaven, our attic ceiling is lined with twinkly lights, so the boys can embark on make-believe adventures under the stars.
My own cooking has to be four-star to compete with such attractions. Mac and cheese is a favorite. It’s salty, savory and rich enough that when adults partake, I insist that they schedule angioplasty before serving them dessert.
Cole was finishing his third helping of my heart-stopping starch on that rainy Saturday when Kathy pointed out the window and said, “Hey, guys, look!”
The veil of clouds was rent in twain. The sun was out. Bellies full, the boys naturally ran out to trouble the chilly water.
The moment Cole’s lower lip turned blue and quivered, intrepid Gram filled two plastic tubs with steamy tap water and dumped them into the pool. The placebo effect was in full force. I could have warmed the waves as much with a dirty look, but who cared? Cole was giddy, belly flopping and slipping down a stubby plastic sliding board.
Before long my character in this play was called on stage. I was made for the part. Killian stepped out of the pool and into a breeze, which got his teeth clattering. He fetched a towel from the deck railing, and I spun him into a cocoon, set him in my lap and surrounded him with big Pop arms.
For somebody who never was all on fire to have children, let alone grandchildren, I’m stunned time and again to discover that the highlight of this man’s sixth decade is when Grandma Daffy and I have the boys over for an evening or all night long.
What the woman I now call “Daff” likes best is action—play in all of its gyrations and fascinations. What the man she calls “Pop” likes is when the boys lean into me as I read and tell stories. Best of all, I offer them a sustaining memory for when laps can no longer cradle them and assurances whispered into their ears won’t drive troubles away: Being embraced by a grandfather whose love alone could shelter them from a cold wind, but who doesn’t hesitate to use a beach towel warmed in the sun as well as a few kisses on top of their wet heads.
As if receiving a sacrament, I watch Daff give Cole and Killian a childhood that will leave her fingerprint on their souls. And with joy I await my cue and play my part, which is that of an extra. I look at their tender faces and think, “If for this moment alone I was born, I count this life a wonder. My portion of days runneth over.”
Oniontown Pastoral: Afternoon of the Gladdened Heart
If my blessing had a face, it would belong to a three-year-old as yet unpunished by disappointment. Time ages us all, but it’s toil that paints pale bruises under our eyes and sculpts wrinkles and jowls. Anyway, the darling cheeks of my blessing would be smeared with grass and mud. A mother would lick her thumb and go after the mess, but the child would twist loose before the job was done.
This is for the best. What catches my aging breath isn’t in the child’s face alone, but in the anointing of sweat, dirt and spit. And especially in what once annoyed me, but now returns as longing: Being pulled close by my mother, looked at with what only ancient Greek fully captures, agape, and gently tended.
The blessing was simple: Kathy and John Coleman’s grandsons, six and four, played in our muddy backyard. They filled milk jugs from the hose and made a pond behind our garage. Given enough time, they would have built a moat. As Cole and Killian troweled new layers of crud on their skin and jeans, son-in-law Matt and son Micah sunk posts in for a fence, and pregnant daughter Elena and Kathy kept an eye on the boys and talked. I sat on the steps, mindful of the sun. The shepherd’s pie I had labored over bubbled in the oven.
My efforts, I confess, were fortified by a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon. Having skipped lunch, I wasn’t drunk, but my heart was gladdened. In this condition, I watched with outsized pleasure Cole and Killian, whom Kathy and I hadn’t seen much during the Coronavirus pandemic, lose themselves in the possibilities and wonder of their grandparents’ yard. For good or ill, we adults had decided to loosen the restrictions within our family.
Many grandparents live far away from their grandchildren, an arrangement that would dig a ditch down the middle of our lives. As the weeks wore on, we saw the boys from six feet away. We didn’t hold their hands or kiss them on top of the head or pick them up. Kathy got weepy when the subject of being separated from Cole and Killian came up and crossed her arms in a hug that came up empty.
If having grandchildren were worship, then those boys perching on my lap and leaning into my chest would be Holy Communion. I never take for granted being Pop next to my wife’s Grandma Daffy and the good fortune of our adult children choosing to reside nearby.
So the blessing was mostly this: Peace in the family, laughter in the yard, grandsons who come near again. Every once in a while a gathering of minutes is so right as to seem otherworldly. Friend Jodi told me about a day long ago when she and her brother were fishing on calm water. Leaning back in his seat and looking at the sky, he said, “I feel sorry for anybody that’s not us right now.”
That’s one way of putting it—grace tells the seconds to hush and mercy is perfect air passing over your arms and face.
Man, was I happy. Who knows why, then, my late father joined me on the steps? He would have rolled his eyes at my glass of red restorative. He was a Schlitz man, not an alcoholic, but in leisure hours he could dent a case.
50 years ago I sat with Dad on Grandma and Grandpa Miller’s porch steps. No talk. The beers had gone down quickly, and Mom was mad that he had gotten a fat tongue before family dinner. He stared somewhere far off, beyond Horton Avenue. Dad was in the dog house for good reason, but I’ll never forget how licked he was. My parents weren’t made for each other, that’s all. Sad time stretched out in front of him–and Mom, too, I know–long loveless summers of little but getting by.
It was strange, but lovely, to recall my father’s saddened heart while the great-grandsons he never met ran carefree “in the sun that is young once only.” My unmerited joy rested Dad’s defeat on its shoulder and was the sweeter for it. Maybe this is why I thought of him. That could easily have been me decades ago, slack jawed and dazed on the in-laws’ steps, a son keeping vigil. Lucky is what I am.
The face of gladness is young, fresh with promise, but it’s not real without the streaks of earth and blades of grass. That’s how I know it belongs to me.
Oniontown Pastoral: I Mean to be Like Bill
Have you ever moved out of a home you loved? Before closing the door, you walked through the empty rooms. Your footsteps echoed. You could hear yourself breathe. Floating from space to space, you knew that you would never leave. Part of you must abide under the ceiling you stared at before getting up each morning and beside the wall you slid down to sit on the floor, crying over terrible news.
You finally drove away, though the weeks were off kilter until new walls became home again.
I find myself on such a road right now. In fact, I’m not going anywhere. St. John’s in Oniontown will be my pastoral perch for years to come—God willing and the creek don’t rise. A small house in Erie will remain the Coleman’s nest.
No, I’m talking about change. Hemispheres of my world are like the hollow home I once stood in, letting all it held and witnessed work joy and sorrow in me by turns.
It’s impossible to explain why certain passings bring on tears while others drift by like wispy clouds. Maybe the best we can do is acknowledge this reality and listen to each other.
What I want to tell you first is trivial to the universe. The blonde horse I named Onslow is missing in action. For a few years he occupied a yard along Route 19 all by his lonesome. He shared space with a comrade named Sandy for a while, then suddenly was gone, along with eight or ten other horses in an adjoining pasture. Two horses still roam the field, but Onslow and the others belonged to a person who took them to another location.
The fenced-in half acre or so my friend haunted is forlorn, especially in March, when the landscape sleeps. I visited him once and couldn’t get him to come close. Will I ever run my hand between his eyes and down his nose? Probably not.
At the same time Onslow departed, a parishioner died, leaving a deserted room in many Oniontown hearts. His name was Bill, and he was my buddy. I’ve never met a man who had such a huge presence and yet expected so little attention or recognition. He liked my “Report from Oniontown” and even watched for Onslow when his travels took him down Route 19. He said Onslow out of the corner of his mouth, then busted out that great smile. His belly laugh, it was the best sauce ever.
But the last thing Bill would want me to do is pace the bare floors, my footfall a sad tick tock. He was about moving on in good time and taking hold of each day’s possibilities.
“Well, sure, Bill,” I said. The house was quiet.
Then one afternoon he showed up at church and told me that he had a lady friend. I was overjoyed. As anybody who has lost a beloved and found another knows, it wasn’t that Bill was forgetting about Connie. He just had more living to do.
“Her name is Tye,” he said, “and she’s a great lady.”
What a joy it was to watch St. John’s and Bill’s family welcome Tye into the fold.
Those two did everything together, but as I learned after Bill’s death, they were cleared eyed. He was 80 and had all kinds of systems breaking down.
“I was hoping for a year, but we got a year and a half,” Tye said with a smile. It wasn’t enough, though. It never is.
Early on, Bill told her, “I don’t know how long we have, but we’re gonna give ‘er hell.”
I trust God knew what he meant. What they got was 18 months of heaven.
When I go by Bill’s house on Mercer Road, I remember that he’ll never again show up at my office for some chin wagging.
He would tell me not to fuss, so I’ll move on. None of us knows what will happen tomorrow, especially given how the world is spinning today. Onslow sure didn’t receive notice of his relocation.
So I mean to be like Bill, to give ‘er hell until the last moment, to close the door of the empty house behind me and light out for a new one, my spirit of good cheer and heart ready for more portions of love.
Oniontown Pastoral: Morning with the Colemans
So, what sounds like a Lilliputian giving the raspberries to Gulliver mixed up with a playing card flapping against bicycle spokes? Give up? It’s my wife Kathy’s electric toothbrush at 6:30 a.m. She adds virtuosity to her performances by opening and closing her mouth, as we are all wont to do when brushing our teeth. Imagine, then, the melody I’ve described modulated by “wow ooh wow ooh wow.”
Welcome to my morning routine, which may be of interest because life with the Colemans consists of the unremarkable interrupted by outbursts of the curious. See, the man who descends upon Oniontown thrice weekly packs in a full day of observation and contemplation before he is fully conscious. If you happen upon St. John’s Lutheran Church—and by all means, please do—the pastor occasionally rubbing his temples may appear amiable, but a little odd. If you squander five minutes reading what follows, you’ll understand why.
Kathy’s Crest-with-flouride recital comes after her alarm goes off. The enthusiastic beeps don’t bother me. What does give me pause is my wife’s violent start every time the snooze expires. I’m not exaggerating. It’s like the darling beside me—both of us savoring the warm haze of waking—is being suddenly tased or jolted by a cattle prod. “But honey,” I don’t say, “you know those beeps are coming. What’s the deal?” I’ve resigned myself to this quirk, but one of these days I’m due for an elbow to the chops.
I’ve also gotten used to Kathy kibitzing with herself as she finishes getting ready for eight hours of oncology nurse work. Half the time I can only surmise the conversation from inflection. Example: “Where are my glasses?” “But you put them right here.” (This, by the way, is preposterous, as she never sets things down where she thinks. I know this from having chased many a wild goose from room to room, only to hear, “Oh, never mind, it’s right here in my purse,” followed by laughter. She can explain in epic length and exhaustive detail why her, say, nail clippers should have been on the arm of the couch. What can I say? “Hmm.”)
It’s also obvious when she is kissing foxhound Sherlock Holmes on the snout and whispering sweet nothings. “How’s my boy? Is he my good little boy?”
Adult son Micah stirs at about the same time as his mother. Here you might picture a sloth creeping across a tree branch, except without that dopey grin. His fifteen minutes from feet on the floor to banging the backdoor shut wouldn’t be worth mentioning except for a recent addition to his musical repertoire, measures of which crawl under his door and reach my head, still on the pillow.
“Mongolian throat singing.” I’m not kidding. Briefly, then: a Mongolian guy runs a bow across the two strings of a rustic cello and, in the case of the recording Micah shared with me, croons a toe-tapping number called “Praise of Genghis Khan.” I’m sorry. I want to be and generally am artistically adventurous. My boy is besoothed by Batzorig Vaanchig’s mellifluence, but what I hear is a man trying to clear his respiratory system from sinus to glottis to lung. Think a human being waking up to discover himself turned into a didgeridoo.
One sunrise last week I heard the exotic singing and sent Micah this text message, and I quote: “Ommmm weee weeee ommmmm.”
His response: “Oooooooaaahhhhhaaawewoooyayaya.”
How could I not be moved?
Once Kathy and Micah are gone, I listen to the neighborhood out my window, opened a crack even in cold weather. My favorite sound is rainfall, best of all accompanied by God’s throat clearing thunder. At such moments gratitude visits. Life is not too shabby at present. I appreciate that.
One challenge awaits me before I head to my writing perch or to Oniontown. Sherlock Holmes must get out—absolutely must. He sleeps on the living room couch and looks in the dim light like bagpipes in disarray. Most dogs are eager to get outside and sniff for anything that has transpired overnight, but not our sleuth. He grumbles his own style of throat singing to register his displeasure.
If you see me massaging my temples, as I mentioned, it’s probably because the Coleman’s spindly-legged pal has been obstinate. Like lots of you, my days are wondrous and fascinating, right up until I get out of bed. Even then, more often than not, I find myself singing to God, over and over: “Wow ooh wow ooh wow.”
Oniontown Pastoral: Boy, Could That Kid Jump!
This was almost 50 years ago. We were playing baseball on Wagner Avenue, home plate and bases drawn onto the pavement with chalk.
“I’m Johnny Bench,” I hollered.
The other boys renamed themselves until Tommy was the only one left. He reached into his back pocket, thumbed through bubble gum cards and said, “I’m Tom Seaver.”
That’s how it was. My friends and I watched sports on television until we couldn’t contain ourselves, then ran outside to the stadium of our imaginations. We were both crowd and announcer. We cheered our home runs and cried out our alter egos after touchdowns. I can hear lanky Paul’s “Billy Joe DuPree” from the end zone, marked by a great maple in front of my house. He roared “Joe,” that one syllable so rambunctious and giddy that it still gives me a shot of adrenaline.
With a pause and deep breath I run the highlight reels from hundreds of pickup games with their line drives, swishes and spirals.
When nobody else could play, I shot hoops in a neighbor’s driveway. More often I grabbed a football and the cap to one of my mother’s hairspray cans to use for a tee and booted field goals over a telephone wire. For hours, as dusk eased toward darkness or sleet stung my cheeks, my name was Jan Stenerud, the Kansas City Chief who kicked soccer style before anyone else.
“Time let me hail and climb golden in the heydays of his eyes,” Dylan Thomas wrote of childhood in the poem “Fern Hill.” Wagner Avenue was the home field of my heydays, back when “I was green and carefree.”
I loved every win and loss, every bruise and dream. I loved Stenerud and Bench, “Sudden Sam” McDowell, Erie’s own Freddie Biletnikoff, LeRoy Kelly and “Pistol Pete” Maravich. And I especially loved John Havlicek.
I say “loved” advisedly. I never met these athletes, but they sprinted and shot through my seasons constantly. Their names alone revive my spirit.
So this morning when I read that John Havlicek died, “No!” came from down deep, involuntarily, not as lusty as lanky Paul’s “Joe” but plenty loud over a first cup of coffee.
I wasn’t yet four years old when Havlicek deflected a pass with five seconds left to preserve a Boston Celtics’ playoff victory. Even fans too young to remember the play have heard announcer Johnny Most’s legendary call. “Havlicek steals the ball!” he shouted. “Over to Sam Jones. Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! It’s all over! Johnny Havlicek is being mobbed by the fans!”
Through the miracle of the Internet you can binge watch the 36-second clip, which is what I’ve been doing for hours. My favorite part is when Most says, “Johnny Havlicek.” I’d heard “Hondo” before, but never “Johnny,” a nickname that’s sweet to my ears.
“I’m Johnny Bench,” I once claimed, and that was half true. To grown ups in the old neighborhood, I was “Johnny Coleman.” Time was easy then, with folks visiting on front porches, nobody glancing at a wristwatch or smartphone. “Johnny” could be the title for a blessed chapter in my life.
In 2019 I’m “Pastor John” at St. John’s in Oniontown and “Pop” to my grandsons in Erie, but I never gave up being Johnny. I can’t pass a football field without sizing up the goalposts and wondering if my leg is as good as I recall. And I can tell instantly whether a basketball hoop is regulation. In high school I could dunk with two hands, the generous thighs my mother passed down to me perfect for jumping if not for nice-fitting blue jeans.
Between these sentences, my chin is parked on my knuckles. Hondo is gone. His teammate Jo Jo White, whose jumper had a hiccup I copied, and Hal Greer, who served up the ball that Havlicek famously stole, both died in 2018.
My heydays’ players are migrating into eternity. With each obituary I settle into the truth. The maple marking our end zone has been cut down. The neighbor’s garage looks lonely without the half-moon backboard and hoop. The wire I used for goalposts is there, though Mom’s hairspray caps are nowhere to be found.
To borrow from the poet, time lets us “play and be golden,” but it never breaks stride. The good news is, visiting the old Wagner Avenue behind closed eyes is more filled with gratitude each time I do it. I was lucky.
Johnny Coleman had a great leg, after all. And, boy, could that kid jump.
Oniontown Pastoral: A Time in Germany
When wife Kathy and I traveled to Berlin in March, my old wristwatch went with us. This was risky, as the second hand had broken free from its post. My digital Timex Ironman would have been the logical choice, but there was something poetic about a second hand napping as if in a hammock slung between 5 and 7. Anyway, it served faithfully for decades and deserved one cushy foreign assignment before its retirement.
Kathy and I had been in the land of oompah bands and lederhosen—we encountered neither—for less than a week when I determined that Deutschland was more foreign to my watch than to me, the greatest distance between Germany and Pennsylvania being Central European Time’s five-hour lead on Eastern Standard Time. The human condition “auf Deutsch” and “in English” is about the same.
Of course, appearances insist otherwise. For example, scads of Berliners dress in solid black: fedoras, scarves, leather jackets, dungarees and boots, all black. A citizen strolling down Oniontown Road so attired would draw glances, while in the German capital you could go a whole afternoon without seeing America’s color “du jour,” pink.
And holy skinny cow! The percentage of Germans who look undernourished roughly corresponds to Americans like me who ought to give their forks a rest.
Other trifles jump out. Unsweetened iced tea, my go-to beverage, is practically anathema. Pharmacies sell medicine, never cosmetics and school supplies.
The most curious difference between the Federal Republic of Germany and the United States of America may be each country’s cemeteries. In 2010 Stars and Stripes reported what our friend and host Claudia explained to us: “Under German law families lease grave sites for a specific period of time, usually 15 to 30 years. And, if a family is unable or unavailable to renew the lease, the grave’s contents are removed and the grave site reverts to state ownership and may be reused.”
Tombstones over a century old are rare—which was disappointing news. Kathy and I wanted to visit the grave of Johann Specht, my great-great-great-great grandfather who was born in 1767, but contented ourselves with following narrow roads to Gross Köthel, the village where he abided his 66 years. We also checked out Schröedershof, birthplace of my great-great-great grandmother Magdalena Peters Specht in 1816. She immigrated to the U.S. and died in North East, Pennsylvania, about 15 minutes from my front stoop.
Soon I’ll look for Magdalena’s resting place, but I won’t be wearing my old watch. The minute hand has now fallen off, which doesn’t count for much when you’re musing about ancestors, but here in the present, a quarter of an hour either way matters.
I’ve decided to hang the languishing timepiece on the wall beside my desk as a reminder of Germany.
Standing in the places my great-greats called home and wondering at crumbling stone buildings that they might have known, I didn’t cry or even get choked up. Still, these villages felt vaguely familiar, as if presences who have always loved me patted my hand, like my mother did when I was worried.
There would be no passing my fingers over Johann’s name carved in stone, but I still hoped to touch the font in which my great-great-great grandfather, also Johann, was baptized in 1811. No such luck. The church was locked, and worship was being held down the cobblestone street in an auxiliary building. Peeking in the window, Claudia, Kathy and I saw the pastor in a black suit preaching to a handful of elderly congregants. (America isn’t the only country with empty pews.)
You might think our trip was a letdown, but Kathy and I loved Germany and most of all commiserating with Claudia. The thing is, joy and disappointment travel hand in hand.
We saw the villages, but not the graves. We saw the church, but not the font. We saw the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Martin and Katie Luther’s home and other sites, but dragged along with us tickling coughs that persist to this very moment.
The world is thus, here and abroad. I refuse to let perfect be the enemy of wonderful. Yesterday and today are at once poetic and broken, like my old watch, now able to remind me only that hours are passing away.
It’s still right twice a day, but the third hand must eventually lose its grip. When it does I’ll pray to visit Johann and Magdalena in glory and hope that great-great-great-great grandchildren searching for my grave will feel me pat them on the hand.
Hanging on and Letting Go
The photograph of Mom and Dad may as well have fluttered into my hands from a cloudless sky. They were a couple of kids, younger than my own Elena and Micah, now 30 and 27. There’s no “Dolly and Denny” followed by a date. My guess, late 1947, their first apartment, no children yet. Mom is seated, Dad standing over her shoulder, passing her hair through his fingertips. Their expressions are carefree, Mona Lisa smiles on them both. The moment is unutterably tender, the future still a blue heaven of hope.
Mom died in 1998, arthritis remedies having given more punishment than relief. The burden of divorce pained her sense of self in like fashion. I miss how she tucked my long hair behind my ear when I was a teenager.
Dad lived to be 85, but insisted in his last years that he was 88. “Is my mother still alive?” he asked now and then, anguished and embarrassed. “But she couldn’t be, could she? I just can’t remember.” He taught me to hold doors open and pay respects.
Dad’s possessions have slept in my basement since 2012–picture albums and a rattle of keepsakes. I could say that they’ve collected dust because I’m lazy or that I’ve been passive aggressive toward wife Kathy’s pleas to decide what to hang onto and what to let go of. The truth is, I didn’t want to stare into those boxes of memory and visit again with those whose absence still hurts my chest if I think of them for long.
But once the first lid was off, the choices were obvious. Dad was meticulous in documenting the mundane and daily: scores of various views of his living room and dining room and bedroom, populated only by furniture and lamps; multiples of the same snowbirds lounging beside the same Palm Bay swimming pool.
Sorting was easy. The keepers went beside me on the couch: a boyish Navy portrait: nameless relatives gone on to glory before my time; a former residence, front yard and stoop. There weren’t many of Mom, which shouldn’t be a surprise. After twenty-something years with her, Dad quickly remarried. In an instant, “Dolly and Denny” turned to “Denny and Mary.” I hold no grudge on this account. My parents simply weren’t suited to each other. Their pursed, tired expressions on and off camera often spoke to me of disappointment that wore a rut into their souls.
After separating in the mid-1970s, they both knew joy in life, but it’s hard to describe them as happy people. Their union yielded four fine children, but also a mournful descant that sounded beyond nuptial vows to the end of their days.
This, then, is how I remember my parents: two people with much to celebrate, but who often swam up upstream emotionally. For decades now I’ve thought of them with warmth, but more than a little sadness.
Such sentiments–not enough to bring tears, but plenty to clutch at the throat–stayed with me for the hours I sorted through what was dear to Dad–hanging on and letting go. Then, suddenly, that picture.
One of my siblings told me that Mom and Dad were happy for their first eight years together. As the youngest of four, though, my memories are of a tense, distant relationship.
It’s naive to infer too much from one photograph, but I know my parents’ faces well enough to detect fakery. In this one moment, on this one day, my mother and father were glad to be together. Whatever went wrong was still some ways off.
Mom was fussy about her hair, but here it was loosely pulled back. Dad held the ponytail, gently, playfully. Beautiful. That’s the only word for it. They were both so beautiful, and to find them this way moves my soul the way an excellent port wine warms the throat.
Eventually I’ll stop carrying Dolly and Denny everywhere with me, setting them to my left while working, on this coffee shop table now and on my desk at St. John’s in Oniontown, where I stare at them, then out at the pine trees and corn stubble and red barn. After 57 years it is as if I’ve recovered a treasure I never knew was lost.
I want to take these two kids into my arms, watch them together, hear their voices again. They did once love each other, after all. I’ll hang on to this truth for the rest of my life, even as it hangs on to me.
Oniontown Pastoral: A Foxhound’s Grievances with the Polar Vortex
The Coleman’s foxhound Sherlock Holmes didn’t care much for the polar vortex that punched millions of Americans in the throat recently. I’ll get to his complaints shortly, but first the national news, which was no laughing matter.
ABC’s David Muir put the weather’s death toll at 26. Among them was University of Iowa freshman Gerald Belz, who was found unconscious not far from his dormitory in the middle of the night and later passed in the hospital.
A simple walk to my car the other day now makes my heart break for the kid. I was underdressed, shame on me. Panic rushed through my chest when I thought for an instant that my keys were on the kitchen table in the locked house. Imagine Gerald’s fear.
Of course, America’s unwelcomed guest punished most folks less severely. Cameron, Wisconsin, Fire Department Chief Mitch Hansen’s face was all over the media, his beard sporting icicles from fighting a house fire in winds that felt like minus 50. God bless all professions that demand such grit as well as unfortunates who lack a permanent address.
Before starting pastoral work in Oniontown three-plus years ago I wouldn’t have given much thought to how farmers fare in sub-zero temperatures. Now I have parishioners who have no choice but to bundle up and stride into the gale. Dave, for example, spends many hours out in the elements tending his cattle and got knocked flat during the cold spell by an overprotective cow for trying to put a coat on her newborn calf—some thanks! St. John’s members also include a dairy farmer and a handful of others whose horses and chickens don’t distinguish between shirtsleeve and Carhartt seasons.
The animals themselves appear stoic enough as I drive past their fields, but not so my dog, whose temperature-related grievances are trifles compared to loss of life. Still, I’ve long believed that any undeserved pain merits loving regard. And Sherlock, after all, can’t be comforted by the knowledge that some humans and beasts have it worse than he does.
- The Coleman foxhound’s overarching problem is his breeding. Functionally, Sherlock is a lean, 70-pound snout with heart and lungs. He is engineered to dash about maniacally, registering all comings and goings—especially the goings—of the local animal population.
- Sadly, the polar vortex complicates giving his nature free reign. Turns out Sherlock’s paws are sensitive to the cold. Within a minute of stomping about in the snow, he is on eggshells, favoring first one paw, then another. He looks around, flummoxed and defeated. Sniffing expeditions and mad dashes at the two-acre dog park near our house are out of the question.
- Even if Mr. Holmes’ podiatric constitution were rugged, his humans would be idiotic to go hypothermic just so he can receive communiqués from the neighborhood’s critters and run off surplus energy. In any case, he howls and flings himself about when wife Kathy tries to put numbing salve on his paws. His brilliance in olfactory matters is cancelled out by his anemic powers of deduction. “Mother loves me,” Sherlock doesn’t stop to think. “Mother is taking me outside. Mother wants to put goop on my paws. The goop will probably help. I should sit still.” Oh well.
I’m giving my dog’s burdens light-hearted treatment here, but his breed combined with his weakness may have led to his arrival in the Coleman house.
He and I were out for a walk some weeks ago when a man in a pickup truck stopped and rolled down his window: “Is that a foxhound?”
“Yes,” I said, “he sure is.”
“He looks really good,” he said, “I have 25 of them. Where did you get him? A shelter?”
“Right. He was a stray, but somebody worked with him. He can sit, stay, all that.”
“You know,” the guy speculated, “he might not have been a good hunter. The owner might have just dumped him at the side of the road.”
I’ve returned to the stranger’s words again and again ever since, my heart breaking each time, even at the possibility.
My pal is a great hunter, he just can’t stand the cold: Bred for a great purpose, but foiled by one flaw. Throw in human cruelty, and you’ve got tragedy.
Yes, somebody is always lost in the cold. Some perish. The only remedy is to throw open our doors when we can for love’s sake and say, “Come on in. It’s warm in here. You can call this place ‘home.’”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
But I’ll be quiet, look at the ornaments up close and receive the Christmas spirit—which is to say, wipe away tears.