Oniontown Pastoral: Too Late Smart, Too Soon Old

Oniontown Pastoral: Too Late Smart, Too Soon Old

Driving from Erie to Oniontown and back a few times per week, I have lots of time on my hands. I listen to podcasts that help me prepare sermons. Over my nearly seven years as pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, I’ve spent hundreds of hours on audiobooks, mostly biographies of United States Presidents. A month ago I met my goal of covering all of them—provided they are safely under the sod. When my brain needs to rest, Jussi Bjorling or Bach or Elizabeth Cotton takes the dashboard stage. Now and then, it’s just silence.

The common denominator is listening, which leads to thinking, even when James Buchanan is messing the country up before Lincoln takes the oath or Cotton strums her gentle guitar left-handed, upside down. My ears are open, mouth is usually shut, mind flirts with this idea or that and heart often migrates to my sleeve.

The other day, when the only sounds were the engine’s mumble and tires sighing on the road, longing came over me. Of all the exegesis, literature and music I take in and treasure, what I want to hear most is silent as soil.

I miss my Mom. I miss my Dad. Grandparents and aunts and uncles, too. But miss is a milquetoast word. My belly had the blues and my eyeballs were heavy. Dear God, let me ask them questions and receive their stories.

My dad: Nice look.

When folks say they have no regrets, I keep my own counsel. Regrets? You better believe I have them. A full accounting will have to wait for another day.

As retirement inches toward me, I realize in my blood, bones and tears how much I love my late elders and how starved I am for their company. Three or four decades ago it never occurred to me what a sacred use of time it would have been to sit close to, say, my mother or my Aunt Mart in their last years and gather the fullness of their lives up into embrace. But something always seemed pressing—a pleasure to chase down, a duty to meet. If only I had known that the biographies I needed far more than Andrews Jackson or Johnson were Grandmas Miller and Coleman. And if Uncle Kenny were alive, I’d have bottles of Koehler Lager on ice and a pack of Lucky Strikes at the ready. He and I would clink those glass bombers, and I’d gladly sit still for what he’d have to say.

Grandpa Miller: I’d like to ask him, “Um, Gramp, what were you thinking?”

Fortunately, my regret comes without recrimination. A parishioner of mine passed along to me a great saying one of his elders told him: “Too late smart. Too soon old.” Back when the voices I incline my ear toward in memory were talking, I had better things to do. That’s the sad truth. I know too much about human frailty and foolishness to punish myself. Anyway, those lovely faces—all the more dear to me for their wrinkles and jowls—would say, “Oh, John, don’t you worry.”

Aunt Mart: Does this look like an elder who would have you worry?

They’d probably also encourage me to relax, for heaven’s sake. I’m trying. For one thing, wise and vigilant advice from childhood no longer works for me: I now talk to strangers.

People asking, “How you doing?” don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. My recent responses are as follows: “Vertical,” “I think I’ll pull through,” or “Any better I’d be twins.” That last one is stolen, but I can’t remember from where.

Strangers having a casual conversation in public had better keep their voices down when I’m near. Just yesterday wife Kathy and I were in a toiletries store, and two young women were teasing a third that she thrusts her hip to one side when shifting her weight—like she was trying to look glamorous or cool or whatever. It was all in fun. After paying, I stopped and said to the glam girl, “You know, they’re just jealous because they didn’t go to finishing school.” A moment’s repartee ensued, which granted us the healthy exercise of laughter.

My mother: Speaking of glam.

Best of all, during a recent heat wave, the dew point was 73 degrees, which is considered miserable. I was walking to my car and spotted a couple older than I making slow progress toward the store. They looked to be slogging under water, the man leaning hard on his walker.

“So, is it hot enough for you?” I said. Not exactly original but it earned a response.

The guy kept on walking, but looked over his shoulder at me: “No! In fact, I’m going home to put on a sweater.”

I thought immediately, “Lord, he sounds just like Dad.” For a minute the late Denny Coleman was near, and my soul felt light all the way home.   

Oniontown Pastoral: One Morning Before Heading South

A guy who seems always to be at Country Fair didn’t look himself. He had lost a lot of weight and kept hiking up his drooping sweatpants. On this chilly morning, a red fleece blanket tied around his neck in cape fashion and a Pittsburgh Steelers stocking cap were his only warmth. Continue reading

Oniontown Pastoral: Trip to El Salvador, Part One

My drink finished, I notice the cool air on my arms and the silence, which is congested with circumstance, with the way things are, with roundabouts, blossoms and souls getting by on what they’ve got. That’s what we all do, I suppose. Continue reading

Oniontown Pastoral: Going Visiting

Oniontown Pastoral: Going Visiting My career in visitation began over 50 years ago with Mrs. Gillespie, who lived across the backyard. Johnny’s perch was a red metal step stool beside the kitchen counter. His usual was strawberry Nesquik. Who knows, … Continue reading

Oniontown Pastoral: The Orphan’s Question: Where Is Love?

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Oniontown Pastoral The Orphan’s Question: Where Is Love? Kathy’s breaths of sleep come and go. Awake at dawn, I’m in a high school choir concert 45 years ago, a musical’s lyrics forming behind my closed lips: Where is love? Does … Continue reading

A Letter to My Grandsons’ Mother

A Letter to My Grandsons’ Mother

August 4, 2021

Dear Elena:

You probably don’t need me to tell you any of this. On the other hand, it could be helpful to read what your best and most centered self already knows. Daily life on our convulsing, nervous planet shouts down the best messages we can give ourselves. So I’m here to whisper back.

For the record, then, I’m glad you called. In 45 minutes, I’ll sit in your van with the boys in Dr. Weber’s parking lot. You’re right, getting your bones cracked while Cole, Killian and Gavin whirl like maelstroms around the waiting room is a disaster in the making. And like I told you, the doctor’s office is five minutes away—nothing. 

But I have more to tell you this morning. What I’ll now say has been fermenting for weeks, but correspondence that isn’t urgent doesn’t always make it to paper. Though we don’t have an emergency, you and others who will read over your shoulder might find what follows medicinal, if slightly bitter. 

In case you’re not aware, you and Matt are raising children under duress. This is no exaggeration. No, bombs aren’t reducing your house to splinters and dust, as in some cursed lands. No, your comings and goings aren’t under Big Brother’s surveillance. You can speak as you wish without fear of ending up in the Gulag. 

Still, as comfortable and affluent as our material circumstances are at present, you face challenges that ought not be dismissed with a snort and “suck it up.”

When you and your brother were young, Mom and I had much less to fret over than you do. No pandemic was looming, with one wave crashing on the shore before another rolls back. We had few educational decisions to make. You and Micah went to public schools. Homeschooling and remote learning weren’t as common as they are now. And, by the way, the social and political climate in America is infinitely more venomous and vengeful than it was in the 1990s. 

You and Matt brought these into the world. You’ve got them. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Begin again: I’m back from Dr. Weber’s parking lot. When Pop feeds Gavin bits of hash browns and gets used by Cole and Killian as a bongo drum in an air conditioned mini van for 20 minutes, I call that a blessing.

I can still recognize blessings, Elena. Out my hut window, your mother’s sunflowers sway in the breeze as if to a hymn, descants over scores of blossoms near the ground—flowers I can’t name. Simple joy is what I now behold.

But hardly anything is simple anymore. Children’s carseats now have expiration dates. Tiny screens are here to stay, but they anesthetize little brains? How long is too long? And, panning the camera for a global look, our climate is, like parents right now, under duress. 

Ah, but millions of Americans believe that scientific findings are jokes being played on the gullible, which points to what may be the most disorienting fog you have to walk through. As a society, we no longer have a firm ground of accepted factual knowledge and agreed upon standards of personal conduct to stand upon.

Just now, a yellow finch flew across the backyard to a sunflower. You know, Mom pointed out to me yesterday that those bright birds have a flight path like a wave. It’s true. 

The trouble is, as civilization stands, a neighbor could claim that the two finches at this moment making waves and pecking at seeds are not finches, but vultures. The hyperbole is only slight.

The finches’ seeds of choice, grown by your mother.

So, my wondrous daughter—of whom I’m more proud than you can imagine—this is what you and Matt are up against. The words humans use to communicate flop about like fish on the sand because they no longer mean anything. Folks decide definitions by agenda or whim, dictionaries be damned. And statements that in your childhood would have been self-evident are now ridiculed with impunity.

I did warn you that this medicine was bitter, but there are other truths I have to share that are sweet.

Hear this: Since you were a child, your heart has flown in graceful waves like the yellow finch. At the same time, your soul is earnest, built on a stony foundation of wisdom, sincerity, bravery and compassion. You must understand that what I describe as if in a poem is the real you, the you who is raising our boys.

Lately you and Matt—he is a pretty good sort in his own right—have been struggling to decide on Cole’s schooling arrangements for the fall. You want to get it right, don’t you?

Rest easy, Elena. What matters most in however many years we’re granted is that we try. As a mother you try so hard that some days you ache inside, don’t you? Everybody who loves you sees this.

Take it from your old man, even the flowers and winged waves I watch between sentences aren’t as lovely as you brushing the hair from my grandsons’ foreheads or pulling one of them aside to whisper rather than shout, to tend them day by day as they grow into the men you dream they might be.

Yes, you are a mother whose light yields to no worldly darkness. Believe me.

Love,

Dad

Oniontown Pastoral: Supporting Cast at Grandma’s House

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. 

Killian, Cole and Gavin, who will be joining Grandma Daffy’s Magic Queendom someday soon. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

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. 

My favorite pool picture from 2020: Kathy made suds, Cole blasted himself in the face with the hose, while Killian looked on.

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.”    

A vase of flowers from Daff’s garden. She wrought the wonders, and the author arranged them.

A Deep Breath and I’m Good Again

A Deep Breath and I’m Good Again

“It’s hell being nuts, Pastor,” Ray said over coffee. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.”

My friend’s mental illness has been lifelong and ferocious. Hardly a day passes without one of his demons exacting misery. As I’ve mentioned in previous reports, we talk on the phone daily, usually more than once. Our conversations skip like records. He craves tobacco. He’s paranoid. He’s confused. Pray for him.

One of my many places for prayer over the years. I think of Ray and plenty of others and sit with what is.

Occasionally he comes out with a revelation. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.” If anybody else said this, you’d think he was joking about boozy one-night stands, but not Ray. Every day at 8:53 or shortly thereafter, my cell phone rings—or, I should say, quacks. I’ve recently given Ray his own ringtone so that I don’t rush to answer, not out of insensitivity, but realism. He’ll call back in 20 minutes.

Just as he has no idea what his alarm clock will bring, neither can I predict the stability of the voice on the other end of the line.

“I really want to smoke bad this morning, Pastor.” That’s a common complaint.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” I think, “smoke already!” No, I don’t advocate bad habits, but obsessing might be as carcinogenic as tar and as addictive as nicotine. My annoyance doesn’t linger like it used to, though. A deep breath and I’m good again.

Friendship with Ray is an exercise in forbearance, but it comes with rewards, chief among them is that loving him precisely as he is nudges me into loving others as they are and, no kidding, accepting life as it is.

The latest beneficiary of John’s love fest is the Coleman’s foxhound Sherlock Holmes. The facts are these. Sherlock, as I have noted in the past, is loud. If you could hear him carry on when I get home from work, your guts would quiver. Hollering won’t change this. Ignoring him won’t change this. Filet mignon won’t change this.

Now, I can boil over, or I can remember what Ray taught me: You can’t—or, I insist, shouldn’t—train people or dogs to be something that they’re not. That’s pointless and unfair. Either track down what’s lovable or start kicking friends and pets out of your pack.

Obviously I’m not talking about, say, a woman staying with an abusive man because, oh bother, he can’t change. There are limits.

But if your foxhound goes nuts on the way to the dog park, sounding off with his head hanging out the window, you have choices. That is to say, I have choices. 1.) Stop taking Sherlock to the dog park. 2.) Roar shut up until a sore throat sets in. 3.) Bark along with him. Only one of these makes since. Once the spirit takes over, the chats I have with my sleuthhound are almost as instructive as the ones I have with Ray.

Sherlock’s vocabulary is stunted, but adequate. He’s got ruff, whoop and whimper as well as several variations. Wimper is phonetically impaired, but you get the idea. We drive by pedestrians, who grin or go slack jawed. Some must wonder, “Was that driver barking like the dog?” Why, yes, he was. The performance also includes an intimate exchange. “Rah, rah, roo,” Sherlock often says, undoubtedly meaning, “I love you.” So I respond, “Rah, rah, roo, roo.” “I love you, too.”

At the dog park with one of my friends, Alpine.

After dashing, frolicking and indiscreet sniffing, he hops in the backseat for the five minutes home. Tired into silence, he who sheds fiercely puts his paws on the console, thrusts his head beside mine and slobbers.

Nobody has ever accused me of being tidy, so my gearshift panel is a commotion of dog hair, dust and coffee stains. Thanks to Sherlock, this dry slurry is now cemented in place by K-9 shellac. The dog has a surplus of spit, especially after playtime, and when he pants, that paddle-shaped tongue flings the slime everywhere.

I could get grouchy, but what’s the use? Scolding will never subdue saliva glands. Neither will admonition make a troubled soul wait until 9:00 a.m. to call.

I have some experience with neuroses, so I can confide in you this blasphemy. Prayer won’t still Sherlock’s thrill of the chase or cure Ray’s ceaseless mind. It’s more blessed, if you ask me, to bay with the dog or answer the phone saying, “So who did you wake up to today? If he’s giving you trouble, let’s talk a while. Then I’ll bend God’s ear for you both.”

Sherlock Holmes with grandson Cole. And while I’m on a roll, I not a fan of asking children to be something that they’re not, either.

 

Oniontown Pastoral: I Mean to be Like Bill

Oniontown Pastoral: I Mean to be Like Bill

A dining room I left behind

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.

Godspeed, Onslow.

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.

Bill’s wife Connie passed in 2017 after a long illness. He grieved as his St. John’s family expected, but kept active. “The evenings are tough,” he told me.

“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.

May God rest you, Bill. (Credit: Sherry Lesnett)

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.