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: 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?”
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.
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.
It Is a Wonderful Life
Jimmy Stewart made his annual visit to the Coleman house this past week. “I’m maxed out on Christmas music,” wife Kathy said. “Let’s put on It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Funny thing, she intended to sew at the dining room table and wouldn’t actually be watching. No matter. Like millions of Americans, she has the movie memorized.
As my official evening hour of loafing had arrived, I hit the play button, planning to watch for a while then move on to another diversion.
Alas, the sewing machine added its voice to George Bailey’s dreams of adventure and achievement, and I fell under a joyful spell. Some might call the fullness in my chest “the Christmas spirit.”
Although George and Clarence’s story always brings tears, the sewing machine’s song, with its long hums and short rests, was mostly responsible for my heart finding its Advent sweet spot.
Kathy owns a twenty-year-old Necchi, which she refuses to part with because it’s made out of metal and, unlike the newer plastic models, doesn’t slide all over the dining room table when running. My late mother used a Singer that emerged from a wooden table with wings. My wife steps on a floor peddle, while Mom sent the needle into motion by leaning her knee against a bar that swung down.
What I wouldn’t give to have that old cherry-stained warhorse close by. (I refer to the Singer, of course, not Mom.)
How many nights have I fallen asleep to the low vibrato of Kathy making a baby blanket or Mom churning out one of her scooter skirts? Why do I find such comfort in the music of a sewing machine?
Probably for the same reason that breathing in the scent of pizzelles polishes smooth a day’s rough edges. The same reason a square of Mom’s homemade cinnamon candy forty years ago could make me forget how awkward I was with girls. Or running my fingers over the Christmas pillows Kathy made for a coworker just last night reminded me that light shines in the darkness.
I still can’t hold a sheet of red or green construction paper without seeing “MERRY CHRISTMAS” cutout letters taped to the balusters at 2225 Wagner Avenue. Nor can I look at a decorated mantle without finding myself sitting beside sister Cindy on one of our beds in the small hours of Christmas morning and pulling balled-up socks and Tootsie Rolls out of our knit stockings.
The sound of a sewing machine on a December evening—the Frazier fir’s scent a blessing—retrieves from memory’s attic a box of scratched and smudged albums: Johnny Mathis, Barbra Streisand, Andy Williams and Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. Oh, and Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby.
Christmases past and the timeless sewing machine, together with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed and the whole cast singing “Auld Lang Syne,” even brought a generous snow on Christmas Eve from the sky of my imagination.
I won’t lie, Bedford Falls showering George Bailey with affection and cash got me choked up—never fails.
“It is a wonderful life,” I thought, winking toward heaven with George to congratulate Clarence on his wings.
From my chair in the living room, lit only by tree lights and movie credits, I watched my beautiful wife making presents out of fabric and thread and could honestly say that life is wonderful.
Still, 2017 marks my fifty-seventh winter, and I’ve heard over the decades a dark carol that I ought to sing right now. Wonderful doesn’t mean perfect. Wonderful has no choice but to harmonize with sorrowful.
I miss my folks more each year. My family is far flung. In my work, some loved one is always $8000 short or far worse. And much of what I hold most dear about humanity is up against a legion of Mr. Potters.
But if you ask me, any Christmas Spirit worth listening for has a bass line heavy with hurt. Saying “it’s a wonderful life” without longing in your heart sounds thin and contrived.
This is why every “Merry Christmas” I say is both a greeting and a prayer. Merriment is scarce for some folks—maybe even for you this year.
If the season is a burden or your grief is raw, this “Merry Christmas” is for you: “God, please lay the Christ Child in a manger under my troubled friend’s tree.”
Christmas Time Is (Still) Here
Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” playing in my ear buds is barely overcoming the percussive assault on Starbucks’ speakers—over which my beloved baristas have no control. The Mother Ship picks, I guess.
Our Advent binge on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Blue Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Christmas Time Is Here” and “The Christmas Song” and “Please Come Home for Christmas” and “What Christmas Means to Me” and “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” has lots of folks hung over as of December 26th.
Not me. Music of the Nativity will decorate the Coleman house until the Epiphany, our idea being that it’s impolite to close down the celebration before the magi have arrived with their gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The tree is lovely. Leave it up. The songs are soothing. Keep listening.
Honestly, though, my reason for lingering in the yuletide has more to do with what has filled my soul’s stocking lately than with the Christian calendar. Over my fifty-four gift-giving seasons (good grief!), my thoughts have turned from what I hope to receive to what I’m fortunate to have. Much as I loved the packages I opened on Christmas day, never have I cared less about what would be in them.
A man would be greedy to expect more from his portion of years than I have right now. This understanding settled upon me as I lay in bed some nights ago while wife Kathy made doll clothes at the dining room table. Her sewing machine hums and whirs regularly in our Parkway Drive home, but hearing it embraced by the warm promise of sleep returned me to Wagner Avenue, where I grew up.
A sewing machine’s singing, like other music, is sweetened by rests. The gift being stitched together breathes, as does the whole dwelling.
My mother made her own skirts and alterations to our family’s clothes. It never occurred to me before that the sound of a sewing machine holds for me what was loving and healthy on Wagner Avenue.
As I opened my eyes a crack to taste the hallway’s dim light and groaned at a throb of bursitis in my shoulder, the joy and affection that fed me long ago kept company with current blessings.
The Colemans are housed, fed, clothed, adequately employed, and reasonably healthy. In other words, we’re all okay at the moment.
Most of our life-stealing troubles have passed away or at least gone on hiatus.
Like many Americans, I wouldn’t protest if somebody threw unexpected fists-full of cash at me, but, thank goodness, money and possessions aren’t obsessions.
I’ve known the gladness of being a husband, father, grandfather, friend, and pastor. The people closest to me tolerate my shortcomings.
After thirty-two years, I love my wife more than ever.
I believe in a God of grace and mercy.
In the quiet between Kathy’s stitches, such unmerited gifts hemmed me in, behind and before. “Enough,” I thought, “much more than enough. More than plenty.”
But there was still more. There was Christmas day. Daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt donated immunizations and medicine in my name for Third World children. They thought about who I am and came up with that idea.
Son Micah made us close our eyes. After a minute, he told us to look. On our laps rested stockings. With 2015 being tight, we told the kids we would be skipping this tradition temporarily. “It’s not much,” Micah said, “but we’ve got to have stockings on Christmas.” Mary Janes never tasted so good.
Grandson Cole handed each of us a homemade ornament made out of some baked flour concoction. Like the others, mine bore a few smears of watercolor. “Cole paint that,” he said. Three words and earthly elements: a sacrament stirred in my chest.
When everybody headed home, Kathy said over and over again, “I had so much fun. That was the best Christmas.”
Just one more: Cole and I sat on the couch and shared peach pie a la mode. I got to watch him open his mouth for every bite as the Grinch and his rein-dog trumpeted their way back into Whoville to pass out gifts and share roast beast.
I’ve memorized all the kids’ Christmas shows. These days I would rather stay with my grandson’s eyes—merry and bright!—until I know them both by heart.