On a table in the living room there is a gray ceramic bowl that catches the light each afternoon, contains it. This is the room we turned into the room of her dying, the hospital bed in the center, the medical equipment against the walls like personnel. In Maine, once, I rented a house hundreds of years old. One room had been the birthing room, I was told, and I sat in that room writing towards the bright new world I am always trying to write into. And while I could stop there, with those two recognitions of endings and beginnings, I’m thinking of yesterday’s afternoon of errands. My father and mother were in the backseat, my sister in the passenger seat, and I driving. It was like decades ago but everyone in the wrong places, as though time was simply about different arrangements of proximity. Sometimes someone is in front of you. Or they are beside. At other times they are behind you, or just elsewhere, inconsolably, as though time was about how well or badly you attended to the bodies around you. First, we went to the bakery. Then the hardware. The pharmacy, the grocery. Then the bank. ~Rick Barot “Of Errands”
For a time, my husband and I were the middle of the proverbial family sandwich – the meat and cheese with condiments while our aging parents were one slice of bread and our young children the other slice. It was such a full time of always being needed by someone somewhere somehow in some way that I barely can recall details of what those years were like.
Mothers with daughters sometimes note the irony of being in the throes of menopause while their pre-teen is adjusting to menarche – we pass on the fertility torch.
As I sort through boxes that have been stored away for over a decade from my mother and mother-in-law’s belongings to find things to help our son’s family get settled in their house, I realize that time could be measured in bowls and vases and casserole baking dishes. They are passed to the next generation for another lifetime of use. We start out being fed, then we become the provider, and wind up being fed ourselves in the end.
I want to forestall that time of becoming dependent again as long as possible. For now, I want to hold my grandchildren’s hands as I try to keep them safe in an unpredictable world. Someday, I may need them to help hold my hand once I lack the strength to walk unaided.
Turn turn turn – there is a season. Turn around and everyone has changed places, blessed to still walk alongside one another for as long as possible.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven… Ecclesiastes 3:1
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Who loves the rain And loves his home, And looks on life with quiet eyes, Him will I follow through the storm; And at his hearth-fire keep me warm; Nor hell nor heaven shall that soul surprise, Who loves the rain, And loves his home, And looks on life with quiet eyes. ~Frances Shaw, “Who loves the rain” from Look To the Rainbow of Grace
Now more than ever you can be generous toward each day that comes, young, to disappear forever, and yet remain unaging in the mind. Every day you have less reason not to give yourself away. ~Wendell Berry from “There is no going back”
On this day you were born, I thank God yet again for bringing you to earth so we could meet, raise three amazing children, and walk this journey together with pulse and breath and dreams.
The boy you were became the man you are: so blessed by God, needed by your family, church and community.
You give yourself away every day with such grace, loved by your children and grandchildren.
It was your quiet brown eyes I trusted first and just knew I’d follow you anywhere and I have.
In this journey together, we inhabit each other, however long may be the road we travel; you have become the air I breathe, refreshing, renewing, restoring~~ you are that necessary to me, and that beloved.
her father had needed her to dig the potatoes and load them into burlap bags
but here she is leaving her daughter
on the campus in the city time to go we go to the parking lot
old glasses thick graying hair she is wearing a man’s shirt has to get back to the job
we stand beside her Ford and it is here she undoes the buckle of the watch and holds it out to me
my father’s watch keeping good time for him and then for her
she says she knows I will need a watch to get to class we hug and she gets in
starts the car eases into traffic no wave
the metal of the back of the watch
is smooth to my thumb and it keeps for a moment a warmth from her skin. ~Marjorie Saiser from “She Gives Me the Watch off Her Arm” from I Have Nothing To Say About Fire
When I decided to attend college out of state, to a campus I had never seen before, my mother decided she couldn’t handle the goodbye in a strange place, so sent me on a two day drive with my dad. She was a very emotional person and he wasn’t, so he got the job of dropping me off.
It was a quiet car ride with only my dad and myself together. I think we both dreaded the upcoming parting moments.
When the moment came – my things scattered chaotically about my dorm room, marijuana smoke haze filling the dorm hallway and noise everywhere with loud music and the partings of students and parents – I looked at him with foreboding and desperation at this foreign environment to which I must learn to adapt. His eyes filled with tears — the first time in 18 years I had seen him cry — and he said “you know what you are here for,” hugged me tight and turned around and left.
My father didn’t give me anything but those parting words, but they still ring in my ears every day whenever I am feeling somewhat desperate, even now fifty years later.
It was a rough start at college for me, homesick as I was, in an unsupportive unstructured dorm environment. I came home at Thanksgiving that quarter and didn’t return until the following fall. But I finished strong and never looked back. You can’t go home again, not really.
Now I know what I am here for.
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We will grieve not, rather find Strength in what remains behind; In the primal sympathy Which having been must ever be;
Thanks to the human heart by which we live, Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears, To me the meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears. ~William Wordsworth from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”
Nearly twenty-seven years ago we watched at your bedside as you labored, readying yourself to die and we could not help except to be there while we watched you move farther away from us.
This dying, the hardest work you had ever done:
harder than handling the plow behind a team of draft horses, harder than confronting a broken, alcoholic and abusive father, harder than slashing brambles and branches to clear the woods, harder than digging out stumps, cementing foundations, building roofs, harder than shipping out, leaving behind a new wife after only a week of marriage, harder than leading a battalion of men to battle on Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa, harder than returning home so changed there were no words, harder than returning to school, working long hours to support family, harder than running a farm with only muscle and will power, harder than coping with an ill wife, infertility, job conflict, discontent, harder than building your own pool, your own garage, your own house, harder than your marriage ending, a second wife dying of cancer, and returning home asking for forgiveness.
Dying was the hardest of all as no amount of muscle or smarts or determination could stop it crushing you, taking away the strength you relied on for 73 years.
So as you lay helpless, moaning, struggling to breathe, we knew your hard work was complete and what you left undone was up to us to finish for you.
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“Vixi duellis nuper idoneus Et militavi non sine glori” (translation) Recently I lived suitable for warfare, and I soldiered not without glory.
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday, We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning, We shall have what to do after firing. But today, Today we have naming of parts. Japonica Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens, And today we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel, Which in your case you have not got. The branches Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures, Which in our case we have not got.
This is the safety-catch, which is always released With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easily If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see Any of them using their finger.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers: They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt, And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance, Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards, For today we have naming of parts. ~Henry Reed “Naming of Parts”(1942)
“Naming of Parts” was a well-known British anti-war poem I memorized for debate class in high school in 1970, reciting it for interpretive reading competitions.
Below is a portion of a 1944 letter sent home to my mother from my father as he served as a Marine company officer in the South Pacific from January 1943 – fall 1945. After he returned home, physically uninjured, I had never seen him with a gun in his hands, and wasn’t aware he even had kept a gun after leaving the Marines. One day, in the early 1970’s, one of our farm’s beef animals was injured so my father, for the first time in thirty years, pulled out a gun from its hiding place to put down the suffering animal. I never saw the gun again and believe my father disposed of it soon after – firing that gun after so many years was too much for him.
“You mentioned a story of Navy landing craft taking the Marines into Tarawa. It reminded me of something which impressed me a great deal and something I’m sure I’ll never forget.
So you’ll understand what I mean I’ll try to start with an explanation. In training – close order drill- etc. there is a command that is given always when the men form in the morning – various times during the day– after firing– and always before a formation is dismissed. The command is INSPECTION – ARMS. On the command of EXECUTION- ARMS each man opens the bolt of his rifle. It is supposed to be done in unison so you hear just one sound as the bolts are opened. Usually it is pretty good and sounds O.K.
Just to show you how the morale of the men going to the <Tarawa> beach was – and how much it impressed me — we were on our way in – I was forward, watching the beach thru a little slit in the ramp – the men were crouched in the bottom of the boat, just waiting. You see- we enter the landing boats with unloaded rifles and wait till it’s advisable before loading. When we got about to the right distance in my estimation I turned around and said – LOAD and LOCK – I didn’t realize it, but every man had been crouching with his hand on the operating handle and when I said that — SLAM! — every bolt was open at once – I’ve never heard it done better – and those men meant business when they loaded those rifles.
A man couldn’t be afraid with men like that behind him. ~ Marine Captain Henry Polis(age 22)in a 1944 letter home about the Battle of Tarawa (November 1943)
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Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself. ~C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity
Whether bunker or cottage or palace, when I seek shelter, safety or simplicity, it is not enough. I am not a dwelling for God until His remodel project is finished~
He puts down His chisel, hammer and saw, sees what He has salvaged from the junk heap, looks me over and declares it good.
My father’s treehouse is twenty seven years old this summer, lonesome and empty high up in the black walnut tree in our front yard. It remains a constant reminder of my father’s own abandoned Swiss Family Robinson dreams.
Over the years, it has been the setting for a local children’s TV show, laser tag wars, sleep overs and tea parties, even my writer’s retreat with a deck side view of the Cascades to the east, the Canadian Coastal Range to the north and Puget Sound to the west. Now it is a sad shell no longer considered safe to visit, as the support branches in its century-old tree are weakening with age and time. It is on our list of farm restoration projects, but other falling down buildings must be prioritized first.
My father’s dream began in February 1995 when our sons were 8 and 6 years old and our daughter just 2. We had plenty of recycled lumber on our old farm and an idea about what to build. My dad, retired from his desk job and having recently survived a lymphoma diagnosis and treatment, had many previous daunting building projects to his credit, and a few in his mind that he was yet to get to. He was eager to see what he could construct for his grandkids by spring time. He doodled out some sketches of what might work in the tree, and contemplated the physics of a 73 year old man scaling a tree vs. building it on the ground and hoisting it up mostly completed. I got more nervous the more I thought about it and hoped we could consider a project less risky, and praying the weather wouldn’t clear enough for construction to start any time soon.
The weather did clear just as my father’s health faded. His cancer relapsed and he was sidelined with a series of doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations and treatment courses. He hung on to that hope of getting the treehouse going by summer, still thinking it through in his mind, still evaluating what he would need to buy to supplement the materials already gathered and piled beneath the tree. In the mean time he lost physical strength day by day.
I decided his dream needed to proceed as he fought his battle, so I borrowed library books on treehouses, and hired two college age brothers who lived down the road to get things started. I figured if my dad got well enough to build again, at least the risky stuff could be already done by the young guys. These brothers took their job very seriously. They pored over the books, took my dad’s plans, worked through the details and started in. They shinnied up the tree, put up pulleys on the high branches and placed the beams, hoisting them by pulling on the ropes with their car bumper. It was working great until the car bumper came off.
I kept my dad updated with photos and stories. It was a diversion for him, but the far off look in his eye told me he wasn’t going to be building anything in this world ever again. He was gone by July. The treehouse was completed a month later. It was everything my dad had dreamed of, and more. It had a deck surrounded by a protective railing, a trap door, and staircase up the trunk. We had an open tree celebration and had 15 friends and neighbors up there at once. I’m sure dad was sipping lemonade with us as well, enjoying the view.
Now all these years later, the treehouse is tilting on its foundation as the main weight-bearing branch is weakening with age. We’ve declared it condemned, not wanting to risk an accident. As I look out my front window, it remains a daily reminder of past dreams fulfilled and those yet unfulfilled. Much like my father’s body, the old walnut tree is weakening, hanging on by the roots, but its muscle strength is failing. It will, inevitably come down in one of our frequent fierce windstorms, just as its nearby partner did a few years ago.
The treehouse dream branched out in another way. One of the construction team brothers decided to try building his own as a place to live in his woods, using a Douglas Fir tree as the center support and creating an octagon, two stories, 30 feet off the ground. He worked on it for two years and moved in, later marrying someone who decided a treehouse was just fine with her, and for 20+ years, they’ve been raising five children there. The treehouse kids are old enough to come work for me on our farm, a full circle feeling for me. This next generation is carrying on a Swiss Family Robinson dream that began in my father’s mind and our front yard.
I still have a whole list full of dreams myself, some realized and some deferred by time, resources and the limits of my imagination. I feel the clock ticking too, knowing that the years and the seasons slip by me faster and faster as I near the age my father was when he first learned he had cancer. It would be a blessing to me to see others live out the dreams I have held so close.
Like my father, I will some day teeter in the wind like our old tree, barely hanging on. When ready to fall to the ground, I’ll reach out with my branches and hand off my dreams too. The time will have come to let them go. Thank you, Dad, for handing me yours.
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Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call, and slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices? ~Robert Hayden “Those Winter Sundays”
As a child growing up, I was oblivious to the sacrifices my parents made to keep the house warm, place food on the table, teaching us the importance of being steadfast, to crack the door of opportunity open, so we could walk through to a better life and we did.
It was no small offering to keep dry seasoned fire and stove wood always at the doorstep, to milk the cows twice a day, to grow and preserve fruits and vegetables months in advance, to raise and care for livestock, to read books together every night, to sit with us over homework and drive us to 4H, Cub Scouts and Camp Fire, to music lessons and sports, to sit together for meals, and never miss a Sunday to worship God.
This was their love, so often invisible, too often imperfect, yet its encompassing warmth splintered and broke the grip of cold that can overwhelm and freeze a family’s heart and soul.
What did I know? What did I know? Too little then, so much more now yet still – never enough.
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Who has not considered Mary And who her praise would dim, But what of humble Joseph Is there no song for him?
If Joseph had not driven Straight nails through honest wood If Joseph had not cherished His Mary as he should;
If Joseph had not proved him A sire both kind and wise Would he have drawn with favor The Child’s all-probing eyes?
Would Christ have prayed, ‘Our Father’ Or cried that name in death Unless he first had honored Joseph of Nazareth ? ~Luci Shaw “Joseph The Carpenter”
It was from Joseph first I learned of love. Like me he was dismayed. How easily he could have turned me from his house; but, unafraid, he put me not away from him (O God-sent angel, pray for him). Thus through his love was Love obeyed.
The Child’s first cry came like a bell: God’s Word aloud, God’s Word in deed. The angel spoke: so it befell, and Joseph with me in my need. O Child whose father came from heaven, to you another gift was given, your earthly father chosen well.
With Joseph I was always warmed and cherished. Even in the stable I knew that I would not be harmed. And, though above the angels swarmed, man’s love it was that made me able to bear God’s love, wild, formidable, to bear God’s will, through me performed. ~Madeleine L’Engle O Sapientia in A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation edited by Luci Shaw
The hero of the story this season is the man in the background.
He is the adoptive father who does the right thing rather than what he has legal right to do, who listens to his dreams and believes, who leads the way over dusty roads to be counted, who searches valiantly for a suitable place to stay, who does whatever he can to assist her labor, who stands tall over a vulnerable mother and infant while the poor and curious pour out of the hills, the wise and foreign appear bringing gifts, who takes his family to safety when the innocents are slaughtered.
He is only a carpenter, not born for heroics, but steps up when called. He is a humble man teaching his son a living, until his son leaves to save the dying. He is strong and obedient, a tree bowing low to give up his fruit.
This man Joseph is the Chosen father, the best Abba a God could hope for.
When Joseph was an old man, an old man was he He courted Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee
Joseph and Mary were walking one day Here is apples and cherries so fair to behold
Mary said to Joseph, so meek and so mild: Joseph, gather me some cherries, for I am with child
Then Joseph flew in anger, in anger he flew Let the father of the baby gather cherries for you!
Well, the cherry-tree bowed low down, bowed down to the ground, And Mary gathered cherries while Joseph stood down.
Then Joseph took Mary all on his right knee, Crying, “Lord, have mercy for what I have done.”
When Joseph was an old man, an old man was he, He courted Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee.
Don’t be afraid To take Mary as your wife For the child in her Is of the Spirit Don’t be afraid To take Mary as your wife For the child in her Is of the Spirit Don’t be afraid
[Chorus] She will bear a son And you shall call this one “Jesus” She will bear a son And you shall call this one “Jesus”
My father taught me how to eat breakfast those mornings when it was my turn to help him milk the cows. I loved rising up from
the darkness and coming quietly down the stairs while the others were still sleeping. I’d take a bowl from the cupboard, a spoon
from the drawer, and slip into the pantry where he was already eating spoonfuls of cornflakes covered with mashed strawberries
from our own strawberry fields forever. Didn’t talk much—except to mention how good the strawberries tasted or the way
those clouds hung over the hay barn roof. Simple—that’s how we started up the day. ~Joyce Sutphen, “Breakfast” from First Words, Red Dragonfly.
By the time I was four years old, my family owned several Guernsey and Jersey dairy cows who my father milked by hand twice a day. My mother pasteurized the milk on our wood stove and we grew up drinking the best milk on earth, as well as enjoying home-made butter and ice cream.
One of my fondest memories is getting up early with my dad, before he needed to be at school teaching FFA agriculture students (Future Farmers of America). I would eat breakfast with him and then walk out into the foggy fall mornings with our dog to bring in the cows for milking. He would boost me up on top of a very bony-backed chestnut and white patchwork cow while he washed her udder and set to work milking.
I would sometimes sing songs from up there on my perch and my dad would whistle since he didn’t sing.
I can still hear the rhythmic sound of the milk squirting into the stainless steel bucket – the high-pitched metallic whoosh initially and then a more gurgling low wet sound as the bucket filled up. I can see my dad’s capped forehead resting against the flank of the cow as he leaned into the muscular work of squeezing the udder teats, each in turn. I can hear the cow’s chewing her breakfast of alfalfa and grain as I balanced on her prominent spine feeling her smooth hair over her ribs. The barn cats circulated around us, mewing, attracted by the warm milky fragrance in the air.
Those were preciously simple starts to the day for me and my father, whose thoughts he didn’t articulate nor I could ever quite discern. But I did know I wasn’t only his daughter on mornings like that – I was one of his future farmers of America he dedicated his life to teaching.
Dad, even without you saying much, those were mornings when my every sense was awakened. I’ve never forgotten that- the best start to the day.
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You are alive. It needn’t have been so. It wasn’t so once, and will not be forever. But it is so now.
And what is it like: to be alive in this one place of all places anywhere where life is? Live a day of it and see. Take any day and LIVE IT. Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter.
It is your birthday and there are many presents to open. The world is to be opened. It is the first day because it has never been before and the last day because it will never be again.
When I was very young, I would trace my finger over the long scar that curved along the front of my mother’s neck and ask her what happened. She would tell me her thyroid gland had been overworking so she had to have it removed before I was born. That’s all she had to say about that and I never thought to ask more. Somehow I knew, just as my knowing my father would not talk about his experience as a Marine in WWII, my mother was hiding more than her big scar under high collars or a pearl necklace.
Hers was a deeper scar I couldn’t see or touch.
However, my older sister – about five at the time – remembers my mother’s illness. Mom was a little over thirty when her hands began to tremble, her pulse raced and she was irritable with trouble sleeping. My parents were hoping for a second child, but unable to get pregnant. Once her doctor diagnosed thyrotoxicosis , Mom had the option to try a new medication that had been recently developed – propylthiouracil – meant to suppress the function of overactive thyroid glands.
It didn’t work for her and she felt worse. It caused more side effects and my mother’s symptoms grew so severe, she was unable to leave her bedroom due to severe anxiety and paranoia made worse by insomnia. My paternal grandmother came to help since my father needed to continue to work to support the family but there was little that could be done other than sedation to ease my mother’s symptoms. My sister recalls not seeing Mom for days, unnerved by the wailing she heard from the bedroom. From her description, I now wonder if Mom was experiencing the beginning of thyroid “storm” (extremely high thyroid levels) which is potentially life-threatening with severe physical and emotional side effects.
After Mom was hospitalized and her entire thyroid was removed, she was placed on thyroid hormone supplements to take daily for the rest of her life. It took months for her to recover and feel somewhat normal again. Her eventual hormonal stability resolved her infertility as well as most of her other symptoms. She remained chronically anxious and had heart palpitations and insomnia the rest of her life, like a residual stain on her sense of well-being, although she lived another 55 years. The trauma of how her illness affected my dad and sister was never fully resolved. They all suffered. I can understand why those months remained as hidden as my mom’s surgical scar.
I was born about two years later – the second baby they never expected could happen. My brother was born 20 months after me.
From my family’s suffering came the solace of new life.
So I nearly wasn’t.
I’m reminded on each birthday: I needn’t have been here yet by the grace of God I am. I need to BE ALIVE and LIVE THIS DAY because it will never be again.
This is a truth for us all to cling to.
Each day is a gift to be opened and savored. Each day a first day, a last day, a great day – a birthday of amazing grace.
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