A Palouse Farmgirl

My mother, Elna Schmitz Polis, was born 103 years ago today in the lonely isolation of a Palouse wheat and lentil farm in eastern Washington. She drew her first breath in a two story white house located down a long poplar-lined lane and nestled in a draw between the undulating hills.

She attended a one room school house until 8th grade, located a mile away in the rural countryside, then moved in with her grandmother “in town” in Rosalia to attend high school, seeing her parents only a couple times a month.

It was a childhood which accustomed her to solitude and creative play inside her mind and heart – her only sibling, an older brother, was busy helping their father on the farm. All her life and especially in her later years, she would prefer the quiet of her own thoughts over the bustle of a room full of activities and conversation.

Her childhood was filled with exploration of the rolling hills, the barns and buildings where her father built and repaired farm equipment, and the chilly cellar where the fresh eggs were stored after she reached under cranky hens to gather them. She sat in the cool breeze of the picketed yard, watching the huge windmill turn and creak next to the house. She helped her weary mother feed farm crews who came for harvest time and then settled in the screened porch listening to the adults talk about lentil prices and bushel production. She woke to the mourning dove call in the mornings and heard the coyote yips and howls at night.

She nearly died at the age of 13 from a ruptured appendix, before antibiotics were an option. That near-miss seemed to haunt her life-long, filling her with worry that it was a mistake that she survived that episode at all. Yet she thrived despite the anxiety, and ended up, much to her surprise, living a long life full of family and faith, letting go at age 88 after fracturing a femur, breaking her will to continue to live.

As a young woman, she was ready to leave the wheat farm behind for college, devoting herself to the skills of speech, and the creativity of acting and directing in drama, later teaching rural high school students, including a future Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Carolyn Kizer. She loved words and the power and beauty they wielded.

Marrying my father was a brave and impulsive act, traveling by train to the east coast only a week before he shipped out for almost 3 years to the South Pacific to fight as a Marine in WWII. She must have wondered about the man who returned from war changed and undoubtedly scarred in ways she could not see or touch. They worked it out mostly in silence, as rocky as it must have been at times. Her episode of Graves’ disease, before I was born, must have been agonizing, as her storm of thyroid overactivity resulted in months of sleepless full time panic. Only thyroid removal saved her, but even radical surgeries take their toll. Their marriage never fully recovered.

In their reconciliation after a painful divorce years later, I finally could see the devotion and mutual respect between life companions who had found shared purpose and love.

As a wife and mother, she rediscovered her calling as a steward of the land and a tireless steward of her family, gardening and harvesting fruits, vegetables and us children. When I think of my mother, I most often think of her tending us children in the middle of the night whenever we were ill; her over-vigilance was undoubtedly due to her worry we might die in childhood as she almost did.

She never did stop worrying until the last few months. As she became more dependent on others in her physical decline, she gave up the control she thought she had to maintain through her “worry energy” and became much more accepting about the control the Lord maintains over all we are and will become.

I know from where my shyness comes, my preference for birdsongs rather than radio music, my love of naps, and my tendency to be serious and straight-laced with a twinkle in my eye. This is my German Palouse side–immersing in the quietness of solitude, thrilling to the sight of the spring wheat flowing like a green ocean wave in the breeze and appreciating the warmth of rich soil held in my hands. From that heritage came my mother and it is the legacy she left with me. I am forever grateful for her unconditional love and her willingness to share the sunshine and warmth of her nest whenever we felt the need to fly back home and shelter, overprotected but safe nonetheless, under her wings.

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The Heart in Exile

Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,

between “green thread”
and “broccoli,” you find
that you have penciled “sunlight.”

Resting on the page, the word
is beautiful. It touches you
as if you had a friend

and sunlight were a present
he had sent from someplace distant
as this morning—to cheer you up,


and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing


that also needs accomplishing.
Do you remember?
that time and light are kinds

of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder


or a safe spare tire?
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue,


but today you get a telegram
from the heart in exile,
proclaiming that the kingdom


still exists,
the king and queen alive,
still speaking to their children,

—to any one among them
who can find the time
to sit out in the sun and listen.

~Tony Hoagland “The Word” from Sweet Ruin

When I moved from Washington state to California for college, daily sunshine was a new experience for me, having grown up in the cloudy Pacific Northwest. At first I was nearly giddy with the new reality of not having to wear jackets with hoods or (horrors!) carry an umbrella. It was like being let out of gray prison into the land of puppies and rainbows – like the old Wizard of Oz B&W film becoming technicolor when Dorothy’s house lands in Oz and she opens the door to her new home.

But then I realized strings of sunny days were doing something to my head. Previously, I was dependent on rainy days to stay inside and hit the books, curled up in a quiet corner, content to be cerebral rather than exercising the rest of my muscles. If there was a sunny day in Washington, then I was compelled outside to enjoy what few hours were offered up by the skies. Real gray life happened the rest of the time when I could buckle down and get some work done.

So college days started out euphoric and ended up depressing – I tried studying in dark carrels in the library but I still knew there was sunshine going to waste. I tried studying outside on the college lawn but the distraction of all the activity around me was too great. I finally learned to apportion my “out-in-the-sun” hours from my study hours so I wasn’t feeling robbed of either. I decided to take a sun bath like I take a water bath – just enough to feel transformed and cleansed.

I owned a rainy heart in exile so moving back to the northwest after college was easy; I longed for strings of cloudy days so I could be productive guilt-free again. To this day, I only dose myself with sunbeams in moderation as if I was still worried there won’t be enough sun to last another day.

But there is, there always is.

You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here

You Are My Sunshine

My father climbs into the silo.
He has come, rung by rung,
up the wooden trail that scales
that tall belly of cement.

It’s winter, twenty below zero,
He can hear the wind overhead.
The silage beneath his boots
is so frozen it has no smell.

My father takes up a pick-ax
and chops away a layer of silage.
He works neatly, counter-clockwise
under a yellow light,

then lifts the chunks with a pitchfork
and throws them down the chute.
They break as they fall
and rattle far below.

His breath comes out in clouds,
his fingers begin to ache, but
he skims off another layer
where the frost is forming

and begins to sing, “You are my
sunshine, my only sunshine.”
~Joyce Sutphen, “Silo Solo” from First Words

Farmers gotta be tough. There is no taking a day off from chores. The critters need to eat and their beds cleaned even during the coldest and hottest days. Farmers rise before the sun and go to bed long after the sun sets.

I come from a long line of farmers on both sides – my mother was the daughter of wheat farmers and my father was the son of subsistence stump farmers who had to supplement their income with outside jobs as a cook and in lumber mills. Both my parents went to college; their parents wanted something better for them than they had. Both my parents had professions but still chose to live on a farm – daily milkings, crops in the garden and fields, raising animals for meat.

My husband’s story is similar, though his parents didn’t graduate from college. Dan milked cows with his dad and as a before-school job in the mornings.

We still chose to live on a farm to raise our children and commit to the daily work, no matter the weather, on sunlit days and blowing snow days and gray muddy days. And now, when our grandchildren visit, we introduce them to the routine and rhythms of farm life, the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows, and through it all, we are grateful for the values that follow through the generations of farming people.

And our favorite song to sing to our grandchildren is “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” as it is the sun that sustains our days and its promise of return that sustains our nights.

You’ll never know, dears, how much we love you.
Please don’t take our sunshine away.

Thirty Years Ago

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Dear Ben,

It was gray and drizzly the November 15 you were born thirty years ago, very much like today’s gray drizzle.

November is too often like that–there are times during this darkening month when we’re never really certain we’ll see the sun again.  The sky is gray, the mountain is all but invisible behind the clouds, the air hangs heavy with mist, woods and fields are all shadowy.  The morning light starts late and the evening takes over early.

Yet you changed November for us that day.  You brought sunshine to our lives once again.  You smiled almost from the first day, always responding, always watching, ready to engage with your new family.  You were a delight from that first moment we saw you and have been a light in our lives and so many other lives ever since.

And you married another bright light and now you shine together.

I know this is your favorite kind of weather because you were born to it–you’ve always loved the misty fog, the drizzle, the chill winds, the hunkering down and waiting for brighter days to come.

November 15 was, and each year it still is, that brighter day.

Love,

Mom and Dad

 

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Abiding

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Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
~Henry Lyte, from the hymn “Abide with Me”

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Forgive me if I forget
with the birdsong and the day’s
last glow folding into the hands
of the trees, forgive me the few
syllables of the autumn crickets,
the year’s last firefly winking
like a penny in the shoulder’s weeds,
if I forget the hour, if I forget
the day as the evening star
pours out its whiskey over the gravel
and asphalt I’ve walked
for years alone, if I startle
when you put your hand in mine,
if I wonder how long your light
has taken to reach me here.
~Jake Adam York “Abide”

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On my tiniest days,
when I am no more
than a dew drop
on the fingertip of a glass blade,
as transient as life feels,
we will walk hand in hand,
alongside
~abiding~
in Him whose Light reaches out
even to our depths.

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Bringing Sunlight to November

Ben and Hilary Gibson
Ben and Hilary Gibson

It was gray and drizzly the day you were born.   November is too often like that–there are times during this darkening month when we’re never really certain we’ll see the sun again.  The sky is gray, the mountain is all but invisible behind the clouds, the air hangs heavy with mist, woods and fields are all shadowy.  The morning light starts late and the evening takes over early.

Yet you changed November for us that day.  You brought sunshine to our lives.  You smiled almost from the first day, always responding, always watching, ready to engage with your new family.  You were a delight from that first moment we saw you and have been a light in our lives and so many other lives ever since.

I know this is your favorite kind of weather because you were born to it–you’ve always loved the misty fog, the drizzle, the chill winds, the hunkering down and waiting for brighter days to come.

November 15 was, and each year it still is, that brighter day.

Love,

Mom and Dad

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank

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American Gothic!