Party Line


Two longs and a short is for the Williams farm,
Two shorts and a long is for Abner and Sara, retired down the road,
A short and a long is for Aunt Bessie who lives nearby with her cat,
One long is for the Mitchell family of ten next door,
One short means it’s for me, alone since my son got married.

Most of the rings are for the Mitchells as four of their girls are over thirteen,
But when I pick up the receiver, it is Aunt Bessie’s voice I hear most,
As she likes to call the ladies from church and find out who’s sick,
Who’s not, and who’s maybe not going to make it through the week
To be sitting in their pew come Sunday.

Sara is usually listening on the line real quiet-like and I know that
Because I can hear her sniff every once in awhile
Due to her allergies, kind of a little snort which she tries to cover up
But it does no good as we know she’s there and everything we say
Will be spread to town by tomorrow anyways.

Which reminds me the Williams’ are having money troubles
Because the bank is calling them about their overdue loan payments
And the crops are poor this year so there is worry about foreclosure.
And if that wasn’t enough, the Mrs. has made a doctor’s appointment in the city
Because of a new lump she found just yesterday.

Wouldn’t you know one of the Mitchell girls was talking about running off
With that Howard boy but I can’t imagine how word got back to her daddy
Who has put the phone and the boy off-limits for the time being
Until summer is over and she can be sent to the city to be a nanny to a wealthy family
And maybe meet a rich city boy who will keep her occupied.

Of course we’ve all offered solutions for Abner’s hemorrhoids
And his itchy scalp, even when we aren’t asked for our opinion.
Then when the youngest Mitchell was refusing to sleep through the night
Aunt Bessie suggested a little blackberry cordial might help but
Mrs. Mitchell was properly horrified and hung up then and there.

Last night the phone rang one short ring, sometime after 1 AM,
I woke with my nerves all a-jangle, wondering what bad news I would hear,
Four other people were on the line listening for my bad news too.
When I heard my oldest boy back east shout  “Mama, it’s a girl, you’re a granny!”
My heart swelled and my tears flowed for this answer to my prayers.

In the morning, when I went to walk down the driveway to get the mail
There was a bright bouquet of pink dahlias from the Williams’ on my front porch,
A drawing colored up real nice from the Mitchell kids “to our favorite new granny”
And a still warm fresh loaf of bread from Sara waiting in the mailbox
Which made for a real fine party for Bessie and me sipping on her blackberry cordial.

Where’s the Party?


Fireworks on our farm's hill taken by Nate Gibson
Fireworks on our farm's hill taken by Nate Gibson

I  remember childhood summers as 3 months of full-out celebration– long lazy days stretching into nights that didn’t seem to really darken until 11 PM and bright birdsong mornings starting out at 4:30 AM.  Not only were there the brief family vacations at the beach or to visit cousins, but there was the Fourth of July, Daily Vacation Bible School, the county fair, family reunions, and of course and most importantly, my July birthday.  Yes, there were mundane chores to be done, a garden to tend, a barn to clean, berries to pick,  a lawn to mow and all that stuff, but my memories of summer are mostly about fluff and frolic.

So where are the summer parties now?  Who is out there celebrating without me?  Nothing seems to be spontaneous as it was when I was a child. Instead there is still the routine of going to work most days in the summer.

I’m finding myself in the midst of my 55th summer and I have to create celebrations if they are going to happen in my life.  Without that perspective, the bird song at 4:30 AM can feel more irritant than blessing and the long days often mean I fall asleep nodding over a book at 9 PM.  I want to treasure every, every minute of this precious time yet they flow through my fingers like so much water, faster and faster.

I realize there will be few “family” summers left as I watch my children grow into adults and spread their wings.  They may be on to their next adventure in future summers.  So each family ritual and experience together takes on special meaning and needs to be appreciated and remembered.

So….for this summer my family has crammed as much in as we can in celebration of the season:

We just spent some time in the hayfields bringing in the bales with friends–our little crew of seven–sweating and itchy and exhausted, but the sight and smell of several hundred hay bales, grown on our own land, harvested without being rained on and piled in the barn is sweet indeed.   Weekly we are out on the softball field in church league,  yelling encouragement and high-fiving each other, hooting at the good hits and the bad, the great catches and the near misses, and getting dirty and sprained, and as happy to lose as to win.  We had a wonderful July 4 barbeque with good friends culminating in the fireworks show on our farm’s hill overlooking miles of valley around us, appreciating everyone else’s backyard displays as well as our own.  We are now able to sing hymns in church in four part harmony, and last night our children helped lead the singing last night in an evening “campfire church” for over fifty fellow worshipers on our hill.  In a couple weeks, we’ll take to the beach for three days of playing in the sand, roasting hot dogs. reading good books, and playing board games.  We’ll try to make the trek down to Seattle by train to spend the day watching the Mariners play (and likely lose). One change this year is we won’t be returning back to the Lynden fair with our horses–due to “off the farm” work and school schedules, we couldn’t muster the necessary round-the-clock crew after seventeen years of being there to display our little part of small town agricultural pursuits.

Yet the real party happens right here every day in small ways without any special planning.  It doesn’t require money or special food or traveling beyond our own soil.  It is the smiles and good laughs we share together, and the hugs for kids taller than I am. It’s adult conversations with the new adults in our family–no longer adolescents.  It’s finding delight in fresh cherries from our own trees, currants and berries from our own bushes, greens from the garden, flowers for the table from the yard.  It is the Haflingers in the field that come right up to us to enjoy rubs and scratches and follow us like puppies. It is babysitting for toddlers who remind us of the old days of having small children, and who give us a glimpse of future grandparenthood.  It is good friends coming from far away to ride our horses and learn farm skills. It is an early morning walk in the woods or a late evening stroll over the hills. It is daily contact with aging parents who no longer hear well or feel well but nevertheless share of themselves in the ways they are able.  It is the awesome power of an evening sunset filled with hope and the calming promise of a new day somewhere else in this world of ours.

Some days may not look or feel like there’s a party happening, but that is only because I haven’t searched hard enough.  The party is here, sparklers and all, even if only in my own mind.




Campfire church photos by Bette VanderHaak
Campfire church photos by Bette VanderHaak


A Cure for a Case of the Nerves

“Wait until you see what is waiting for you in the next exam room…”

My clinic nurse was barely able to contain a smirk.  This meant one thing to a doctor in training:  the next patient must be a “train wreck”, with so many things wrong that I would never graze the surface during my brief visit.  I was running 30 minutes behind, so I took a deep breath.

As I opened the exam room door, I was greeted heartily by the Wentworths, who both stood up when I entered.  This couple in their eighties appeared to have stepped out of a 1920’s bandbox, some sixty years after their attire would have been the height of fashion.

Mr. Wentworth wore a wide lapel pinstripe three piece suit, with suspenders, a starched white shirt and paisley bow tie.  He held a derby hat in one hand and his wing tip shoes were spit polished shiny.  His wife was in a high necked lace blouse and woolen skirt, with a fur collar jacket clasped in front with a large brooch.  She wore a felt hat over her perfectly coiffed white curls,  set off by pheasant feathers pointing jauntily from one side.  Her gloved hands clasped a purse and a closed lace parasol.  I invited them to sit.

“Doctor, we are so glad to meet you.  Our neighbor told us we must switch doctors since you’ve taken such good care of her!  In fact we drove clear across town to come here!”  Mrs. Wentworth gushed.  “We had a little trouble finding your clinic and it took awhile to find parking, but here we are!  Isn’t that right, Charles?”  She reached over and patted her husband’s knee with her gloved hand.  He smiled and nodded agreeably and clasped her hand in his.

“How can I be of help today? “  I began, thinking how sweet they looked together.

“Well, Doctor, you see, it’s my nerves.   I just have such a difficult time with my nerves.  Isn’t that right, Charles?”  He smiled and nodded again agreeably and gave her hand a squeeze.   “It just seems to be getting worse and worse…”

“Tell me more about how your nerves affect you, “ I asked, jotting notes quickly.

“For instance, while Charles was driving here today, I was just such aflutter about whether we would be able to find you, and whether we would find a parking spot, or whether we would miss our appointment altogether.  We even got up an hour earlier to get ready.  Even so, I managed to tell Charles to turn right when he should have turned left and so we ended up lost.  I thought my heart would beat right out of my chest, I was so worried!  But I got us turned around and back on the right track.  And here we are!!   Isn’t that right, Charles?”   He had dozed off, head nodding.

“You both still drive?”  I asked hesitantly.

“Oh, no, Doctor, not me!  I’ve never driven!  Charles has always been the chauffeur in our family.   He is such an excellent driver.  Isn’t that right, Charles?”   She nudged him with her elbow as he had started to snore softly.  “Oh my, I guess I did wake him up a bit early today.   But Doctor, it’s gotten so he has to be reminded about where to turn and when to stop, even in our neighborhood when we drive to the store.  So I make sure I tell him exactly what to do, and he usually does just fine.  Charles, wake up!  I’m talking about you!”

Mr. Wentworth opened his eyes, blinking, and gave his wife another pleasant smile.

“Mr. Wentworth, how did the drive go for you today? “  I was curious how he would respond.   He turned his gaze to me, and my heart sank, knowing the truth from the empty way he looked at me.  He would not have a clue.

“Oh, it was fine, just fine,  thank you for asking, “  he offered good naturedly.

“Mr. Wentworth, can you tell me who the President is right now? “  I asked.  Mrs. Wentworth flashed a puzzled look at me.

“Why of course, it is Mr. Coolidge, “ he replied confidently.

After arranging a ride home for the Wentworths, I called the Department of Motor Vehicle Licensing, letting them know I was sending them a drivers’ license that needed rescinding.

Predictably, Mrs. Wentworth’s nerves got much better.

The Pursuit of Happiness


July 4 is not just the birthday of our independence as the United States of America.  It is the day we declared to the world that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  No one had ever said it out loud before.  Historically there had been many a treatise written and wars won and lost about the right to live, and the right to freedom, but the right to pursue happiness?  Unprecedented– and so typically, utterly American…

Declaring it is one thing.  Making it so is quite another matter.  Happiness eludes the pursuit for most.

As famous American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, born on July 4, wrote:

“Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

We Americans pay a steep price in our noisy and pushy pursuit of happiness.  Perhaps it is the larger mortgage for that bigger house, the wider flat screen TV, the perfect antidepressant medication or recreational substance, or the tank of gas that will carry us just a little farther down the road in our big trucks, RVs and SUVs.   We try to buy our way to happiness with our charge cards maxed out and find ourselves in a deeper debt pit, putting our life and liberty in serious jeopardy.

There can be no true happiness until we ensure all Americans, indeed all world citizens, are given their best chance at Life itself–free of disease, of starvation, of homelessness, of genocide.

There can be no true happiness until we ensure all Americans, indeed all world citizens, know the freedom of true liberty– free of tyranny, of oppression and poverty, of war and destruction.

Happiness is not purchased with plastic, but is bought through individual personal sacrifice, making sure others have what they need before we ourselves rest easy.  It is the selfish pursuit of selflessness.  And that is exactly why it is so elusive because inalienable rights don’t come naturally–they must be fought for, daily.

Much blood has been shed by Americans to guarantee Life and Liberty for others, including citizens of other countries.  Has the price paid through the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of lives resulted in more happiness for the rest of us?  Perhaps we have it backward, as Hawthorne suggests.  We can’t pursue happiness;  it will find us when we least expect it.

Happiness won’t be found in the fireworks that will be blown up today, or the food consumed, or the free flowing alcohol.    It will be in the quiet moment of realization that we are truly blessed by this incredible place to live and be free, given opportunity to raise our children in such a place, and that we need to work harder than ever to make it even better.  At that moment, in a silent prayer of thanks to the Creator addressed in our Declaration of Independence, can we know the Happiness that pursues us when we live in a spirit of gratitude and sacrifice.

It touches us, like a butterfly, in a moment of grace.

And only then, can we make it so.

Declaration of Independence


Perhaps day early fireworks
Combusting in spontaneous eruption at dawn.
A pop, then silence
A crack, then several more—

Stirred from spooning pallid oatmeal,
I look up from the morning comics
To see the ancient Spitzenburg tree of life
Falling irrevocably split and splintered.

I wonder: hit by lightening? Absurd.
The sky is azure liquid lit.
Perhaps I hear anticipated echoes of dream-like resonance
Of midnight explosion of sulfured flowers and raining sparks.

Yet there it lies in dew-damp still,
Hollowed trunk emptied out like brittle bone broken,
Giving away in gasping expectancy
Of winter windstorms to come.

Perchance I can be patched together
With baling twine and superglue,
To hatch more of Thomas Jefferson’s apple favorites,
Sweet declaration to fuel his raison d’etre.

Instead chose rotting in fragile finale without encore,
Shattered sans wind, lightening or tire swing
Simply coming for to carry me home
Before winter rips me in half, pulling me up by the roots.

Bed Spreading


When I glanced out the  window and saw the large shavings truck pull up to our barn to dump its load in the shavings shed, you’d have thought it was the Second Coming.  I could almost hear the trumpet sound and the heavens sing.  It was that welcome and long anticipated.

We’re in the middle of a wood shavings shortage in the northwest and have been for over a year.  Even pellet stoves are going wanting. Here we are in the land of the evergreens, of thousands of acres of woodlands, and in the old days, a saw mill on every corner.  Many factors have threatened the lumber industry in our part of the country: less expensive lumber coming down from Canada, the spotted owl and the Endangered Species Act, and most recently, a new housing slump because of the economic down turn.  The mills shut down for extended times so the shavings stockpiles have evaporated quickly.  In addition, the mills have decided that their own shavings can convert to pretty decent fuel for steam powered machinery, so they are keeping it and burning it themselves, when previously, it went to whoever would haul it away–free.

No more.

I always try to plan ahead for when I’ll need my next truckload of shavings for bedding the horse stalls.  A two week lead time used to work pretty well, and by the time I’m scooping my last wheelbarrow load to haul to the barn, the truck will drive in ready to dump the next mountain for me, usually lasting about 2-3 months, depending on the time of year and how many horses we have.

I called in early December, knowing I’d need more shavings soon, but hadn’t run out yet.  The local friendly shavings guy said he was out of the business.  It’s not looking good, I was told.  Orders were backing up and the stockpiles were gone.  They were totally dependent on the mills starting back up after Christmas and I was totally dependent on them.

Meantime I was starting to be very careful in my stall cleaning strategy.  No more wasteful scooping of shavings and poop–I needed to filter out the good shavings as best I could.  It easily doubled the cleaning time, this “panning for poop” approach.  But I stretched the shavings I had another week or so.

Then I had to go buy baled shavings at the feed store to tide me over.  This is an outrageously expensive way to go–easily 6x the cost of bulk shavings hauled in by truck.   Pretty soon, even the baled shavings were sold out and none anticipated any time soon.  Then we resorted to straw bedding–a truly desperate measure.  Cleaning straw beds in horse stalls is one of the most difficult jobs as the horse manure just sinks to the bottom of the straw bed and has to be searched out like so many brown Easter eggs.    Straw makes Haflingers happy though–it is like a constant brunch underfoot.

So I was near despair and so were all my local horsey friends.  Then my ship came in from British Columbia today.  Yes, it is costing 150% more than it did when I last had a truckload hauled in a year ago.  But it is sweet fluffy shavings and it made my day.

When I came home tonight, it was pure joy to put on my muck boots and head to the barn.  I started in on the cleaning process and realized that two months of scrimping had left these dirt floor stalls in a sad and mired state.  They are not damp, but they are in dire need of a deep clean that I cannot even begin to do–it will take weeks to dig out all the old stuff so the new bed can be spread.  All I could really do was put on a coating of fresh clean shavings tonight on top of the layers, knowing full well they will be mixed up thoroughly and spoiled by the morning.  However, over time, I will manage to get back to the clean beds I once had.

We can tend to accumulate a lot of muck in our lives, never really doing a deep clean when it is needed.  We get pretty used to sleeping in it, eating in it and not even noticing it after awhile.  But the day when fresh new clean stuff arrives in our lives, how do we react?  Just put it on top of the muck and hope no one will notice what is still underneath?  Abandon the old stalls and build new ones, ready for a fresh start?  Or dig down and really get rid of the old dirt, working as long as it takes to remove it?  What an amazing thing to have a chance to clean it all up!

All I know is that I celebrate that there is still renewal that can come into my life when I least expect it or deserve it.  I can start again and hope for the best.   There is nothing like a sweet fresh bed to rest in.