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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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”
Twenty-six years ago today 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 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, and returning home forgiven.
Dying was the hardest of all as no amount of muscle or smarts 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 was yet undone was up to us to finish for you.
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“Hold on,” she said, “I’ll just run out and get him. The weather here’s so good, he took the chance To do a bit of weeding.”
So I saw him Down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig, Touching, inspecting, separating one Stalk from the other, gently pulling up Everything not tapered, frail and leafless, Pleased to feel each little weed-root break, But rueful also . . .
Then found myself listening to The amplified grave ticking of hall clocks Where the phone lay unattended in a calm Of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums . . .
And found myself then thinking: if it were nowadays, This is how Death would summon Everyman.
Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.
May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord, with Thy saints forever, for Thou art kind. Eternal rest give to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.
Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine, cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.
In my father’s near daily letters home to my mother during WWII, month after month after month, he would say, over and over while apologizing for the repetition:
“I will come home to you, I will return, I will not let this change me, we will be joined again…”
This was his way of convincing himself even as he carried the dead and dying after island battles: men he knew well and the enemy he did not know. He knew they were never returning to the home they died protecting and to those who loved them.
He shared little of battle in his letters as each letter was reviewed and signed off by a censor before being sealed and sent. This story made it through:
“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.”
(for my father Henry Polis on Memorial Day)
It was only a part of what we knew about you- serving three long years in the South Pacific, spoken of obliquely only if asked about, but never really answered.
We knew you were a Marine battalion leader at age 21, knew you spent too many nights without sleep, unsure if you or your men would see the dawn only to dread what the next day would bring.
We knew you lost buddies and your innocence; found unaccustomed strength in a mama’s boy who once cried too easily and later almost never.
Somehow life had prepared you for this: pulling your daddy out of taverns when you were ten watching him beat your mama until finally getting big enough to stand in the way so he stopped.
Then Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian beaches bitterly bloodsoaked battles won, to be restored and renewed as vacation resorts.
We let you go without knowing your full story– even Mom didn’t ask. You could not share the depth of horror and fear you felt.
It was not shame that kept you silent; simply no need to revisit the pain of remembrance. It was done, finished, you had done your duty.
So as we again set flowers and flag on your grave, reunited with Mom after years apart, I regret so many questions unasked of your sacrifice beyond imagining.
Sleep well, Dad, with Mom now by your side. I rejoice you have wakened to a renewed dawn, an eternal light Lux Aeterna.
The sunlight now lay over the valley perfectly still. I went over to the graveyard beside the church and found them under the old cedars… I am finding it a little hard to say that I felt them resting there, but I did…
I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated with presences and absences, presences of absences, the living and the dead. The world as it is would always be a reminder of the world that was, and of the world that is to come. ~Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow
Today, as always during the last weekend of May, we have a family reunion where most turn up missing. A handful of the living come together with a slew of the no-longer-living. Some, who have been caught napping for a century or more, are no-shows.
It is always on this day of cemetery visiting that I feel keenly the presence of their absence: the great greats I never knew, a great aunt who kept so many secrets, my alcoholic grandfather (who I remember as a very old man) who died of sudden cardiac arrest at the age I am now, my grandmother from whom I inherited inherent messiness and the love of things that bloom, my parents who divorced for ten years late in life, yet reunited long enough for their ashes to rest together for eternity.
These givers of my genes rest here in this beautiful place above Puget Sound, the Cascade Mountains with shining snow beside them. It is a peaceful spot to lay one’s dust for eternity.
It is good, as one of the still-for-now living, to approach these plots of grass with a wary weariness of the aging. But for the grace of God, there will I be sooner than I wish to be. There, thanks to the grace of God, will I one day be an absent presence for my children and grandchildren to ponder if they keep up this annual tradition of the cemetery-visit.
The world as it is…remembers the world that was.
The world to come calls us home in its time, where we all will be present and accounted for — our reunion celebration where we pray no one is missing.
All in good time. All in good time.
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When I lay my head in my mother’s lap I think how day hides the stars, the way I lay hidden once, waiting inside my mother’s singing to herself. And I remember how she carried me on her back between home and the kindergarten, once each morning and once each afternoon.
I don’t know what my mother’s thinking.
When my son lays his head in my lap, I wonder: Do his father’s kisses keep his father’s worries from becoming his? I think Dear God, and remember there are stars we haven’t heard from yet: They have so far to arrive. Amen, I think, and I feel almost comforted.
I’ve no idea what my child is thinking.
Between two unknowns, I live my life. Between my mother’s hopes, older than I am by coming before me. And my child’s wishes, older than I am by outliving me. And what’s it like? Is it a door, and a good-bye on either side? A window, and eternity on either side? Yes, and a little singing between two great rests. ~Li-Young Lee The Hammock
I’ve become the window bridging four generations, waiting for the door to reopen:
I remember my grandmother’s soft hands smoothing my hair when I was upset. I still see her tears when she said goodbye.
I remember my father carrying me on his shoulders when my legs grew weary and my patience short. I still feel his final breath as he finally gave up his struggle.
I remember my children needing me for nearly everything. Now, living so far away, I give so little as they soothe and comfort my grandchildren when I cannot.
I wonder what my grandmother, my father, my children, my grandchildren were thinking. I can only imagine, stuck as I am between the closed pandemic door and the someday-open window.
Once again I am the one in need: praying life and hugs might happen again.
Soon. Soon and very soon. I can almost hear the singing between us.
To pull the metal splinter from my palm my father recited a story in a low voice. I watched his lovely face and not the blade. Before the story ended, he’d removed the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.
I can’t remember the tale, but hear his voice still, a well of dark water, a prayer. And I recall his hands, two measures of tenderness he laid against my face, the flames of discipline he raised above my head.
Had you entered that afternoon you would have thought you saw a man planting something in a boy’s palm, a silver tear, a tiny flame. Had you followed that boy you would have arrived here, where I bend over my wife’s right hand.
Look how I shave her thumbnail down so carefully she feels no pain. Watch as I lift the splinter out. I was seven when my father took my hand like this, and I did not hold that shard between my fingers and think, Metal that will bury me, christen it Little Assassin, Ore Going Deep for My Heart. And I did not lift up my wound and cry, Death visited here! I did what a child does when he’s given something to keep. I kissed my father. ~Li-Young Lee, “The Gift” from Rose
I did, without ever wanting to, remove my own children’s splinter, lanced a boil, immobilized a broken arm, pulled together sliced skin, cleaned many dirty wounds. It felt like I crossed the line between mommy and doctor. But someone had to do it, and a four hour wait in the emergency room didn’t seem warranted.
My own children learned to cope with hurt made worse by someone they trusted to be comforter.
I dealt with inflicting pain, temporary though it may be, to flesh that arose from my flesh. It hurt as much as if it were my own wound needing cleansing, not theirs.
Our wounds are His – He is constantly feeling our pain as He performs healing surgeries in our lives, not because He wants to but because He must, to save us from our own destruction. Too often we yell and kick and protest in our distress, making it all that much more difficult for both of us.
If only we can come to acknowledge His intervention is our salvage: our tears to flow in relief, not anguish, we cling to His protection rather than pushing Him away, we kiss Him in gratitude as we are restored again and yet again.
I wanted a horse. This was long after we sold the work horses, and I was feeling
restless on the farm. I got up early to help my father milk the cows, talking
a blue streak about TV cowboys he never had time to see and trying to
convince him that a horse wouldn’t cost so much and that I’d do all the work.
He listened while he leaned his head against the flank of a Holstein, pulling
the last line of warm milk into the stainless bucket. He kept listening
while the milk-machine pumped like an engine, and the black and silver cups fell off and
dangled down, clanging like bells when he stepped away, balancing the heavy milker
against the vacuum hose and the leather belt. I knew he didn’t want the trouble
of a horse, but I also knew there was nothing else I wanted the way I wanted a horse—
another way of saying I wanted to ride into the sunset and (maybe)
never come back—I think he knew that too. We’ll see, he said, we’ll see what we can do. ~Joyce Sutphen “What Every Girl Wants”
I once was a skinny freckled eleven year old girl who wanted nothing more than to have her own horse. Every inch of my bedroom wall had posters of horses, all my shelves were filled with horse books and horse figurines and my bed was piled with stuffed horses. I suffered an extremely serious case of horse fever.
I had learned to ride my big sister’s horse while my sister was off to college, but the little mare had pushed down a hot wire to get into a field of spring oats which resulted in a terrible case of colic and had to be put down. I was inconsolable until I set my mind to buy another horse. We had only a small shed, not a real barn, and no actual fences other than the electric hot wire. Though I was earning money as best I could picking berries and babysitting, I was a long way away from the $150 it would take to buy a trained horse back in 1965. I pestered my father about my dreams of another horse, and since he was the one to dig the hole for my sister’s horse to be buried, he was not enthusiastic. “We’ll see,” he said. “We will see what we can do.”
So I dreamed my horsey dreams, mostly about golden horses with long white manes, hoping one day those dreams might come true.
In fall 1965, the local radio station KGY’s Saturday morning horse news program announced their “Win a Horse” contest. I knew I had to try. The prize was a weanling bay colt, part Appaloosa, part Thoroughbred, and the contest was only open to youth ages 9 to 16 years old. All I had to do was write a 250 word or less essay on “Why I Should Have a Horse”. I worked and worked on my essay, crafting the right words and putting all my heart into it, hoping the judges would see me as a worthy potential owner. My parents took me to visit the five month old colt named “Prankster”, a fuzzy engaging little fellow who was getting plenty of attention from all the children coming to visit him, and that visit made me even more determined.
When I read these words now, I realize there is nothing quite like the passion of an eleven year old girl:
“Why I Should Have a Horse”
When God created the horse, He made one of the best creatures in the world. Horses are a part of me. I love them and want to win Prankster for the reasons which follow:
To begin with, I’m young enough to have the time to spend with the colt. My older sister had a horse when she was in high school and her school activities kept her too busy to really enjoy the horse. I’ll have time to give Prankster the love and training needed.
Another reason is that I’m shy. When I was younger I found it hard to talk to anybody except my family. When my sister got the horse I soon became a more friendly person. When her horse recently died (about when Prankster was born), I became very sad. If I could win that colt, I couldn’t begin to describe my happiness.
Also I believe I should have a horse because it would be a good experience to learn how to be patient and responsible while teaching Prankster the same thing.
When we went to see Prankster, I was invited into the stall to brush him. I was never so thrilled in my life! The way he stood there so majestically, it told me he would be a wonderful horse.
If I should win him, I would be the happiest girl alive. I would work hard to train him with love and understanding. If I could only get the wonderful smell and joy of horses back in our barn!
I mailed in my essay and waited.
Fifty five years ago on this day, November 27, 1965, my mother and I listened to the local horse program that was always featured on the radio at 8 AM on Saturday mornings. They said they had over 300 essays to choose from, and it was very difficult for them to decide who the colt should go to. I knew then I didn’t have a chance. They had several consolation prizes for 2nd through 4th place, so they read several clever poems and heartfelt essays, all written by teenagers. My heart was sinking by the minute.
The winning essay was next. The first sentence sounded very familiar to me, but it wasn’t until several sentences later that we realized they were reading my essay, not someone else’s. My mom was speechless, trying to absorb the hazards of her little girl owning a young untrained horse. I woke up my dad, who was sick in bed with an early season flu. He opened one eye, looked at me, and said, “I guess I better get a fence up today, right?” Somehow, fueled by the excitement of a daughter whose one wish had just come true, he pulled himself together and put up a wood corral that afternoon, despite feeling so miserable.
That little bay colt came home to live with me the next day. Over the next few months he and I did learn together, as I checked out horse training books from the library, and joined a 4H group with helpful leaders to guide me. I made plenty of mistakes along the way, learning from each one, including those that left behind scars I still bear. Prankster was a typical adolescent gelding who lived up to his name — full of mischief with a sense of humor and a penchant for finding trouble, but he was mine and that was all that mattered.
That and a dad who saw what he needed to do for his passionate kid. I’ll never forget.
My father did field work with horses when he was young and honestly — he hated every moment of it. He badly wanted a tractor though his father could never afford one, so the draft horses were their meal ticket, swerving around the large stumps on a farm that would never produce enough to sustain the family.
My father wanted more when he grew up. For him, it wasn’t about the rhythms of the seasons or his relationship with the horses, or the romance of the soil turning over to be planted. It was hard sweaty frustrating often futile work.
He didn’t welcome my interest in horses but he still supported me. He loaned me the seed money that got us started with a small breeding herd of Haflinger horses and he had advice for us when we asked but not unless we asked. He built stalls in our barn and fashioned hefty metal stall closures and helped in whatever way he could with the handy skills he had learned growing up on a farm that never could succeed.
As a child, I had stumbled after my dad in the figurative furrows he plowed ahead of me, always leading me to pursue something better. He reminded me regularly that I could do whatever I set my mind to, like setting the wing of the plow and eyeing the straight line, mapping the course ahead. And I did, largely because of his encouragement during the 60’s when most girls didn’t hear that from their daddies. Instead it was usually angry bored moms who became the voices who pushed their daughters to dig deeper and plow stronger. Not my mom.
My dad’s encouragemnt still echoes in my mind. He gave me momentum in the furrow. He is still there behind me, ready to steady me when I stumble.
I’m glad he led me down his plow line, and all these years later, he still follows me and isn’t going away.