A Girl Named Al and the Other Regulars

A Girl Named Al and the Other Regulars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sherlock Holmes resting after a trip to the dog park

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

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

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

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

Al’s Mohawk, the ridge in the ridgeback

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

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

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

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

John and Al, dog park pals

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Oniontown Pastoral: The Hope of the World

Oniontown Pastoral: The Hope of the World

Events have conspired lately to make me emotional. In addition to the world’s brutish, rude, ignorant disposition, several situations have left my heartstrings frayed—and given me hope.

First of all, grandson Cole started kindergarten after Labor Day. Most went well, but one factor has befouled his new adventure. His bus driver has been—Lord, preserve me from cursing—insensitive. The maiden voyage was great, but on the second day, Cole cried on the bus, upset about not being with his mother and brother. The driver said that he needed to stop crying, that hers wasn’t a sad bus but a happy bus. Whether she elaborated I don’t know, but the rookie student thought that she was going to pull over and kick him off the bus. He was terrified. How would he get home? He would be lost.

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

Who knows what really happened? The point is, any adult with a splash of empathy can imagine a beloved five-year-old in such an inexcusable situation. Something in the bus driver’s delivery or manner conveyed the opposite of comfort and encouragement. Thankfully embarking this morning was more calm. A fifth grade girl has buddied up with him. Also, as he explained to Mom, “If I don’t cry, the driver won’t holler at me.” There must be a growth lesson somewhere in this kerfuffle, but at the moment I can’t help wanting to fix a wagon or two.

Cole’s bus woes have nothing to do with hope, except for that sport of a fifth-grader who took my little Red under wing. No, aches, pains and bullies come along, and we have to learn to shuck, jive and endure even as we dab our cheeks.

But two other vignettes soothe my spirit and speak of possibilities. The first is a picture of—surprise—Cole, who heard his mother’s smartphone chime with an Amber alert. She explained that a child in northwestern Pennsylvania was missing and in danger. Son Micah, who was visiting at the time, sent me a photograph of Cole’s response. He headed to the backyard, climbed his fort and scanned the landscape for any sign of a lost girl. Looking in one direction, then another, he believed the kid might be nearby, within reach. Maybe he could find her. Maybe he could help.

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

And so he did! My kindergartener’s chances were slim, but from my perch his effort was in the service of hope. What if we all ascended our forts and glanced around? Who knows? Anyway, my grandson’s odds of succeeding were certainly greater than mine of hitting the Powerball Jackpot, which wife Kathy and I give an occasional go.

I thought of Cole this past week while visiting one of St. John’s eldest members in a nursing home. Lloyd is in his nineties and all but deaf. Conversation requires nose to nose shouting, and even then he is often lost. Each time I show up, more time passes before he recognizes me.

“Lloyd has a great story,” I hollered, looking back at wife Kathy, who had come to Oniontown with me that day. “He actually saw the flag go up on Iwo Jima.”

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

His expression was blank. Then, as I stood to leave, he said, “I’ve got a story.”

Ahoy! I sat back down and leaned in, anticipating his beloved World War II tale. But for the first time ever, he needed my help. As we looked into each other’s eyes, I wished the old plot out of him. Boatswain on a landing craft, he conveyed soldiers to that costly assault. When Lloyd faded, I drew close and fixed on his pupils, as if to say, “Push, brother! I’m listening.” And it was a birthing of sorts.

He stared back at me and rummaged for the essentials: soldiers getting shot in the water; the captain telling everyone back on the staging ship to point binoculars toward Mount Suribachi; Marines putting shoulders to the flagpole; the stars and stripes snapping out into the wind.

Then and there I remembered that Cole also searched for a lost soul. His was young, mine was old and full of days, both were adrift.

Hope makes its home on perilous seas, where the mere prospect of safe harbor is enough to give a tenderhearted kindergartener and his grandfather cause to cry. In fact, wherever one set of eyes looks out for others desperate for rescue and communion, hope survives.

Nothing can drown hope, and honest to God, that brings me to tears.

Oniontown Pastoral: Tomatoes and Corn

Oniontown Pastoral: Tomatoes and Corn

Late this August afternoon I have an appointment at the kitchen counter and stove with a basket of homegrown tomatoes. Preservation is my assignment. Wife Kathy’s crop is coming in hot and heavy, and we have an agreement. She sows, weeds, frets and reaps, and I cook up and put up. I get the better end of the deal. “Boy, there’s nothing as satisfying and medicinal as getting my hands in the soil,” is something I’ve never come close to thinking, let alone saying. But put a ripe northwestern Pennsylvania tomato in front of me, and nothing short of love rises in my chest.

The taste alone is swoon-worthy, but together with corn on the cob, tomatoes grown in local dirt feed this pastor’s soul more than his body. For the past few weeks, since Kathy walked through the back door with the first glossy red-orange jewel of the season nestled in the setting of her fingers, I’ve mulled over the meaning of tomatoes and corn.

That garden gem my wife held was petite, of the plum variety. We split four humble slices, and I honestly can’t remember what else we had for dinner that evening. The flavor made me feel as though I was enjoying once again the meals and picnics that now live only in family albums, the photographs black and white or the unearthly tones of Instamatics.

The tomatoes of my childhood were sliced and adorned with a dollop of Hellman’s mayonnaise. A frequent accompaniment included corn on the cob and boiled potatoes. The salt and butter we laid on would have present-day nutritionists staging interventions.

Mom cut her corn off the cob and ate it over smashed potatoes—polite and tidy. Dad contended with his right out of the pot, and decades later I can summon the spectacle, the wonder of the sight. He seemed annoyed with the corn, as though it had done something that rubbed him the wrong way, and he meant to show those kernels in no uncertain terms who was boss.

Manners were observed around the Coleman table and on relatives’ patios, so there were never smacking sounds or slack-mouthed chomping. Ah, but Dad’s singleness of purpose, eyebrows drawn down as if his whole face were lending force to the chewing, and the crimson glimmer of his lips from all that butter and salt fill me with a son’s quirky pride: “Look at my dad have a go at that cob of corn!” I want to say. “Isn’t that something to behold?”

Kathy’s small corn crop

Within a few weeks I’ll be cheering Kathy when her first ready corn comes marching through the back door. She planted a raised bed of it on a whim, and the growth has been steady. We’ll get at least a few meals out of the experiment.

My wife’s crop won’t taste like the stuff Dad attacked and Mom mixed with her potatoes. The family palate of my youth called for what I now realize were plump, starchy kernels that owed most of their savor to what got slathered and sprinkled on them. Over time Kathy has converted me to sweet corn, which doesn’t demand the full, heart-clogging, blood pressure raising treatment, though that doesn’t make me cut back. In my case, excess in its many expressions is hereditary.

Some things last forever, but I try to relax about what doesn’t. “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth.” I left tomato and mayonnaise on white bread behind at my childhood home on Wagner Avenue. Now whole grain and sharp cheddar cheese join what’s always been the same: fat slices of a Big Boy and Hellman’s and too much salt. And the ears I shuck for Sunday dinners aren’t deep yellow like they used to be.

But no worries. As long as tomatoes and corn are on the table, the past is preserved. I can stop and appreciate my dad’s enthusiasm. I can see—as in this moment—Mom in her sleeveless blouse, sitting beside me. She had a large vaccination scar on her shoulder. I had almost forgotten.

Tomatoes just as Mom would have eaten them

As far as I know, Mom never cooked down tomatoes and froze them in plastic bags, which is what I’ll be doing soon. She was a canner who considered stewed tomatoes vegetable enough for any meal.

Before leaving for work this morning, Kathy said that she expects to smell tomatoes bubbling away when she gets home. The steam, rich and sweet, will cloud my glasses and set me to dreaming of a table with a place for every family at a feast that has no end.

Oniontown Pastoral: An Old Friend with a New Name

Oniontown Pastoral: An Old Friend with a New Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right, Onslow.”

“But what’s his name really?”

“Trigger.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trigger (the stallion formerly known as Onslow)

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

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

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

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

Oniontown Pastoral: Why I Kiss My Wife’s Hand

Oniontown Pastoral: Why I Kiss My Wife’s Hand

I know what you’re expecting: Here comes another edition of “Now, Pastor John Will Warm the Cockles of My Heart.” Well, sisters and brothers, think again.

This morning as I drove Kathy to work, I did, indeed, kiss her hand, but what were once pecks meant to say, “Sure do love you” have evolved into lips reluctant to pull away, lips that would say, “Sure do need you.” My gesture used to be mostly an offering, a reminder, but in this season of civilization, I’m drawing succor and forbearance from the woman who has tried to understand and abide me for 36 years.

So, to the kiss in question: at a red light, I held her hand to my lips, closed my eyes and breathed in and out. A woman driving by apparently saw and smiled. An hour ago Kathy sent me a message: “You made her day.”

Maybe so, but I’d like to explain to this stranger that I am romantic, a real sweetie pie, but what she witnessed was much less an amorous husband and more a man crouched on his roof during a flash flood, tree branches and neighborhood “disjecta membra” swept away by the current.

The water punishing my home’s foundation at present is not only the erosion of the societal expectations Americans have historically honored—imperfectly and inconsistently, to be sure—but also the delight some of my fellow citizens seem to take in dancing on the grave of noble behavior.

I’m not talking about high-minded philosophy or fervent religious belief, but about the simple words that rolled off the tongues of my elders:

  • Honesty is the best policy.
  • If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
  • Mind your manners.
  • How would you feel if somebody did that to you?
  • People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
  • Say “please” and “thank you.”
  • You can run, but you can’t hide.
  • Don’t hit below the belt.
  • Don’t pee on my foot and tell me it’s raining.
  • Play by the rules.

You can add dozens of sayings to my list, and, of course, there are exceptions to any adage. For example, some situations demand an unvarnished truth that isn’t nice, maybe quite stern, but no provocation warrants cruelty.

I’ve long ago stopped harrumphing about folks chewing with their mouths open and yawning with noisy abandon in public, two trifles that drove my father to distraction. Why bother fishing a plastic straw out of a tsunami?

What I can’t stop mourning, however, are the standards of thought, speech and conduct that I grew up with being moment by moment trodden under foot. Worse, when I see one person rejoicing in the misfortune of another or insisting that a clearly documented fact is actually false or constantly and proudly acting out in ways that would put a preschooler in timeout, I’m both pained and drained.

If you think I’ve got one public figure in mind, you can relax—or clench up, as you please. My scolding finger is pointed at millions, and I’m done apologizing for it. When our mothers told us to behave ourselves, who among them would have overlooked sucker punching a friend on the playground or equivocating with one arm elbow-deep in the cookie jar? Not mine, God rest her, that’s for sure. In her generation, actions that now don’t even raise an eyebrow might send children to bed without dinner.

Much merriment is had these days at the expense of sensitive souls like myself who aren’t ashamed of tears shed because the beliefs we embrace are sailing into the horizon of this flat earth.

Last night’s news reported that binge drinking among senior citizens is on the rise. Why? Nestled in the list of feeble theories was “social change.” Yeah, no kidding. Millions of people over 65—and many considerably under—no longer recognize their native land. I’m not referring to hot button issues, but simply the scurvy, sinister way folks treat and address each other.

Forgive me. I realize not a single heart cockle has been warmed, but an amiable Oniontown pastor must on rare occasion be given leave to share thoughts that let a chilly draft into the bed chamber.

Most days, kissing Kathy’s hand provides all the solace I need. Her skin, so familiar and dear after nearly 40 years as a couple, reminds me of how much grace and blessing crowd around me in this life.

Once in a great while, though, I have to pull my lips away and speak. Today is thus.

Oniontown Pastoral: Lost a Hemisphere Away from Home

Oniontown Pastoral: Lost a Hemisphere Away from Home

The scene played out in real time, but I watch it again in slow motion.

I started my Tuesday by voting at Edison Elementary School in Erie and afterwards in the parking lot happened upon a man my age—a campaign volunteer—saying to a boy, perhaps seven, “Didn’t you know there’s no school today?”

The boy’s face pinched and widened in the universal prelude to tears, which instantly washed down his cheeks. Looking up at the cinderblock sky, he cried, “I’m lost!”

Cinderblock sky

The situation was obvious. He had been dropped off by a parent—his mother, I later learned—who didn’t know that school was closed on Election Day. When he found the doors locked, she had already driven away.

As I approached the boy, he said again, “I’m lost!”

His circumstance was not dire. The campaign guy and I realized this, but the little man understood only that he was adrift. He was skinny, cropped black hair fortified with gel and half-pint knapsack snug against his back. English wasn’t coming easy.

Surely somebody would be in the school office. The three of us headed toward the building—imposing brick, the kind that scrapes off skin when you brush up against it.

“You’re not alone,” I said, my hand on his shoulder. “We’re with you, and I’ll stay here all day if I have to, until your mom comes to pick you up.” I was telling the truth, certain that the St. John’s Lutheran family would excuse my tardiness.

Understanding folks worship under this cross

Long story short, we tracked down the kid’s older brother, also a student. They were from Nepal, he explained, and lived in the Horan Apartments, rough projects a couple blocks away.

“Namaste,” the campaign guy said in a nod to their native country. Meaning: “I bow to the sacred within you.”

The boys returned the greeting and added the customary sign of hands pressed together before their chests. I joined in.

Namaste. (Credit: Anandajoti on Wikimedia Commons)

Just then, a woman supervising a youth program in the school passed by and recognized at once the quandary: neighborhood children who unexpectedly need minding. “Happens all the time,” she said, whisking the boys away with her. And that was that.

“All shall be well,” early Renaissance mystic Julian of Norwich said, “and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” This from a survivor of the Black Death! In fact, I agree with her, in the long run.

The trouble is, perspective comes with age. For a Nepalese kid dropped off in a parking lot a hemisphere away from home, there is only the short run. Even for adults, fear answers aphorisms by running its nails on a chalkboard.

In my early teens I got turned around briefly in the Pennsylvania woods on a mountain called Baldy, and the panic was exquisite. “All manner of thing shall be well,” indeed, but my chest still echoes with shouts for help into treetops.

So the Nepalese boy’s wet face stays with me along with his skyward glance and words: “I’m lost.”

Strange thing, I’m in no rush to get rid of him. As a matter of fact, his abiding presence is far more valuable to me than my assurance and assistance were to him.

Seriously, he got some comfort from this Oniontown pastor, but the campaign guy could have handled the trouble with ease. On the other hand, what I got from the boy has ended up being wisdom masquerading as bother. (Hanging around all day with a trembling kid would have gotten old in a hurry.)

Of course, not all truth goes down smooth. Sometimes edification burns like a shot of bourbon.

The Nepalese boy speaks for half the world, if you ask me. In my line of work, folks often say in a thousand different ways, “I’m lost.”

Somehow or other I let them know, “Me, too.”

Whether in Oniontown or Erie or across the Atlantic Ocean, I assume that everybody is lost or knows full well what it feels like. Who among us hasn’t been suddenly deserted outside our own rough brick school or atop a Baldy or, worst of all, in our hearts? Tears wait patiently, one memory below the surface.

For this reason, the finally-found boy is my companion, reminding me of how lost plenty of us are. Maybe I’m wrong, but there can be no harm in having three good words at the ready: “You’re not alone.”

I’m telling the truth.

Not alone–two trees in Oniontown.

Hanging on and Letting Go

Hanging on and Letting Go

The photograph of Mom and Dad may as well have fluttered into my hands from a cloudless sky. They were a couple of kids, younger than my own Elena and Micah, now 30 and 27. There’s no “Dolly and Denny” followed by a date. My guess, late 1947, their first apartment, no children yet. Mom is seated, Dad standing over her shoulder, passing her hair through his fingertips. Their expressions are carefree, Mona Lisa smiles on them both. The moment is unutterably tender, the future still a blue heaven of hope.

Mom died in 1998, arthritis remedies having given more punishment than relief. The burden of divorce pained her sense of self in like fashion. I miss how she tucked my long hair behind my ear when I was a teenager.

When I had hair to tuck behind an ear.

Dad lived to be 85, but insisted in his last years that he was 88. “Is my mother still alive?” he asked now and then, anguished and embarrassed. “But she couldn’t be, could she? I just can’t remember.” He taught me to hold doors open and pay respects.

Dad’s possessions have slept in my basement since 2012–picture albums and a rattle of keepsakes. I could say that they’ve collected dust because I’m lazy or that I’ve been passive aggressive toward wife Kathy’s pleas to decide what to hang onto and what to let go of. The truth is, I didn’t want to stare into those boxes of memory and visit again with those whose absence still hurts my chest if I think of them for long.

But once the first lid was off, the choices were obvious. Dad was meticulous in documenting the mundane and daily: scores of various views of his living room and dining room and bedroom, populated only by furniture and lamps; multiples of the same snowbirds lounging beside the same Palm Bay swimming pool.

Sorting was easy. The keepers went beside me on the couch: a boyish Navy portrait: nameless relatives gone on to glory before my time; a former residence, front yard and stoop. There weren’t many of Mom, which shouldn’t be a surprise. After twenty-something years with her, Dad quickly remarried. In an instant, “Dolly and Denny” turned to “Denny and Mary.” I hold no grudge on this account. My parents simply weren’t suited to each other. Their pursed, tired expressions on and off camera often spoke to me of disappointment that wore a rut into their souls.

Gone on to glory. Nameless. Not pleased.

After separating in the mid-1970s, they both knew joy in life, but it’s hard to describe them as happy people. Their union yielded four fine children, but also a mournful descant that sounded beyond nuptial vows to the end of their days.

This, then, is how I remember my parents: two people with much to celebrate, but who often swam up upstream emotionally. For decades now I’ve thought of them with warmth, but more than a little sadness.

Such sentiments–not enough to bring tears, but plenty to clutch at the throat–stayed with me for the hours I sorted through what was dear to Dad–hanging on and letting go. Then, suddenly, that picture. 

Mom and Dad

One of my siblings told me that Mom and Dad were happy for their first eight years together. As the youngest of four, though, my memories are of a tense, distant relationship.

It’s naive to infer too much from one photograph, but I know my parents’ faces well enough to detect fakery. In this one moment, on this one day, my mother and father were glad to be together. Whatever went wrong was still some ways off.

Mom was fussy about her hair, but here it was loosely pulled back. Dad held the ponytail, gently, playfully. Beautiful. That’s the only word for it. They were both so beautiful, and to find them this way moves my soul the way an excellent port wine warms the throat.

Eventually I’ll stop carrying Dolly and Denny everywhere with me, setting them to my left while working, on this coffee shop table now and on my desk at St. John’s in Oniontown, where I stare at them, then out at the pine trees and corn stubble and red barn. After 57 years it is as if I’ve recovered a treasure I never knew was lost.

I want to take these two kids into my arms, watch them together, hear their voices again. They did once love each other, after all. I’ll hang on to this truth for the rest of my life, even as it hangs on to me.

Oniontown Pastoral: A Foxhound’s Grievances with the Polar Vortex

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.

Fire Chief Mitch Hansen (Credit: Bimbo Gifford on Facebook)

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.

My Oniontown license plate before the polar vortex tested its toughness

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.

Sherlock Holmes, waiting patiently for his breakfast

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.’”

Home. A place to sleep. A warm blanket.

Oniontown Pastoral: Introducing Foxhound Sherlock Holmes

Oniontown Pastoral: Introducing Foxhound Sherlock Holmes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oniontown Pastoral: Thanks for the Christmas Spirit, Uncle Bim

Oniontown Pastoral:

Thanks for the Christmas Spirit, Uncle Bim

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

Uncle Bim and his wife Mabel

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

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

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

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

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

Pick that one!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncle Bim’s matchstick cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t forget me, Bill.

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

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

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

My mother’s starch and thread

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