Thursday, March 23, 2017

Weighted Blankets and Warm Stories

"Stories happen to those who tell them," a mentor of mine once said.

I can't recall why I was listening to this podcast a while back, but what the instructor said about comedic dialogue is true for stories as well: You never cut off the conversation, the possibility, the story, with a No.

You just keep going and see where it takes you.

For my newspaper column in January I wrote about my fabric obsession and stash.  I had a voice speaking into one ear, "Seriously, you want the world to know how crazy you are?" and another voice in the other ear, "Deadline deadline DEADLINE!"

I met the deadline.

Through that column, I've found a sisterhood--women who write or call or pull me aside at speaking events and confide that they are Just Like Me! Imagine! And we giggle together and talk about sewing and cottons and scraps and patterns and always our shocking stash.

Last week I spoke at a Rotary Club in Springfield.  Afterwards, an older woman told me that her son's wife had passed away, and her son, going through her things, was dumbfounded at the huge quantity of quilt fabric, patterns, and supplies.  Why would she collect such a pile? "I sent him a copy of your article," the woman said, "and he told me, 'Now I understand.'"

A 77-year-old woman named Edith emailed me and said she makes weighted blankets for autistic children, and she would take any fabric pieces over a yard in size that I'd want to donate.

I asked more questions.  These blankets are sewn in a 6-inch grid, and each square contains a measured amount of Fiberfill and heavy plastic beads.  There's something magic about that warmth and weight that helps special-needs children sleep better.

I said I would love to donate to her cause, and rounded up two grocery bags full of fabrics--some colorful wovens and some flannels--all appropriate for children.

Today she came to pick it up.  A friend named Carrie who's started helping her sew came along, and also the friend's sister Donna from Alaska.

Edith was delighted.  I told her not to feel obligated to take it all if some pieces won't work for her, but she was thrilled with all of them.
It was so fun to see Edith digging and admiring.

More digging.
And more digging.  I like the movement in this picture.
Then we sat down and talked.

I forget how many blankets Edith and her helpers have already made, but they have a list of 60 families waiting for one.  She hears so many testimonials, such as the mom who reported that her 5-year-old slept through the night for the first time ever when he got his blanket. And that's what keeps her going and sewing.

"I don't waste a thing," she said proudly. "If there's leftover fabric, I use it for pillowcases for kids in the hospital. If the pieces are too small for pillowcases, I use them for the--oh, what do you call that?--the edge trim on the pillowcase.  And the really small scraps I give to another group and they make quilts for veterans."

She grinned.

I had prickles on the back of my neck, because sometimes God reaches down and gives me a little touch of Mom.  "That is EXACTLY the kind of thing my mom would do," I told Edith.  "She would just love you."

[After Edith left, Emily, who had come bustling through on her way to class, said, "Did you think about how much Edith's voice sounded like Grandma Yoder?"

She was right.  Then I really had prickles on my neck.]

But we are still visiting in the living room, telling more stories.

Donna had sat quietly smiling through our conversation.  So I turned to her and asked where in Alaska she was from. "Wrangell. It's an island off the panhandle," she said. "It's 26 miles long, with about 12 miles of paved road, and it's closer to Seattle than Anchorage. We're part of the world's second largest rain forest."

It's always interesting to hear what takes people to Alaska, so I asked her.

"We grew up there. Our family's been there forever."

"Oh! You're native Alaskans!"

"Yes. Well, Alaska Natives."

So that's how you say it. Tlingit, to be exact, it turns out.

How fascinating is that.  So then the sisters talked about totems and beadwork and growing up on the island, where people worked in either logging or fishing.

See, if you keep turning life's pages, you keep getting more of the story, which circled around to another story about sewing, which was as heartwarming as a weighted blanket.

When Carrie and Donna were young, a family from Oregon had come to the island to work as commercial fishermen, but they were desperately poor--so poor that the father and two sons had only one pair of shoes between them, and whoever needed them least that day went without, in the snow and cold.  And sometimes the second-grade boy clomped around in these men's shoes with his little stick legs.

The family was also too proud to accept gifts, which was incomprehensible to the people on the island who took care of each other and had always shared what was needed.

The family had two daughters who were Donna's friends. Their mom sewed feed-sack dresses for them by hand.

One day Donna had an idea.  She had wandered around the back rooms of the Presbyterian church, much like my children in their day explored the furnace rooms and balconies of Sheridan Mennonite when we went there for special meetings, and in a closet in an upstairs Sunday school room, Donna had seen a sewing machine.

She asked her mom if she could have it. Her mom sent her to the pastor's wife.  The pastor's wife had no idea the machine even existed and finally said, Yes, she could have it.

The machine was almost too heavy to carry, but she lugged it to her friends' home on the fishing boat. Was it because the mom saw her as a personal friend that she accepted it? I don't know, but the mom ended up with a little sewing business. People would bring pants and things to mend, and she would also cut patterns from paper sacks and sew dresses. It gave her a dignified way to help support her family.

At the end of that year, the family went back to Oregon.  I don't know what became of the sewing machine or the friends.

But I loved the story.

See, that is how it works, with both fabric and stories. One thing leads to another, people connect, and windows open into faraway lives.

And the fabric I bought at a garage sale in 2005 and never turned into a dress for Jenny can now help an anxious little child sleep better at night.

Isn't that amazing?
Here's me and Edith. I'm holding a weighted blanket she brought to show me.
She's holding fabric.
We are happy.

Spring Morning

Hello there, spring morning,
Sunshine and sheep,
Small blossoms borning
While I was asleep.
Hello there, hope, 
glowing and new.
In darkness and rain
You silently grew. 

Good news, Winter,
Your pregnancy's past.
Thanks for your labor.
Goodbye, at last.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Newspaper Column--Hens and Befuddled Moms

A hen’s simple life provides an oasis in a complicated world

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
MARCH 12, 2017

I love my flock of hens for many reasons, but especially this: They dispatch spiders with one decisive peck, a refreshing demonstration when one’s head is full of ideas and tasks and choices spidering chaotically in all directions.

One hen, named Dorothy, roosts in the back corner of the carport, on a coil of rope on a shelf behind a bicycle. After dark, I put on my old coat, step around the bike, grab her left wing, pull her out and carry her to the henhouse. She is warm and fluffy, and she almost purrs in a deep rumbling cluck that I can feel in my hands.

Then I open the door of the dark henhouse and set her inside, where the other hens scold her in quiet annoyance from the roost. They sound like us, when Paul and I just have fallen asleep and the college kid who was up late, studying upstairs, decides to make a quesadilla for a snack. Every bump and slam carries into the bedroom because it is an old house, the fir beams all interconnected somehow, and creaking floors and clanked skillets reverberate everywhere.

Hoping to remedy this, we are redoing our tiny bedroom, borrowing a few square feet from the office and adding insulation on the wall next to the kitchen.

Five of our six children are in college, and the sixth tutors at a university overseas. We didn’t plan or particularly encourage this, but, as our oldest son said, “If you sack seed for nine summers you’re motivated to go to college so you never have to sack seed again.”

“The Smucker warehouse must be doing awfully well,” my neighbor lady commented.

“Trust me,” I said. “The kids pay for college themselves.” Mostly debt-free, I should have added. In the interest of saving money, three of them live at home and commute.

This means that not only are midnight snacks prepared for all to hear, but the conversations in our kitchen, over morning coffee or while washing dishes after dinner, careen from heat transfer and Roman history to Socratic methods and math instructors at Linn-Benton. “Can you calculate how long this mug will keep my tea hot if the water is boiling but it’s 44 degrees outside?” the communication major asks the smoldering combustion researcher.

Lately, the conversation often circles around to two subjects that the kids enjoy but that make me feel slow and lagging in intellect and sophistication.

First is the idea of fixed vs. growth mindset, best explained by my daughter Jenny.

“Someone with a fixed mindset believes that their qualities, such as intelligence or talents, are fixed traits, whereas a person with a growth mindset sees them as areas where they can grow.”

A growth mindset is good, I am told, which motivated me to take a basket-making class and read up on construction and colors when it would have been much easier to sit down with a cup of tea and a well-worn copy of L.M. Montgomery’s “A Tangled Web.”

I’m still confused about the second subject the kids discuss: the Myers-Briggs personality types, an evaluation method with a possibility of 16 different results, indicated by a four-letter acronym apiece.

They say I’m an INFP, which seems to mean I’m a disorganized person who is easily overwhelmed, thinks too much and needs time alone to survive. And I live among noisy, practical and logical people who, in the words of a young friend, sort of drag me along in their wake, as opposed to me steering the boat.

In their pursuit of lofty thoughts and complicated lives, the kids love and indulge me in my quest for simplicity and rest, and they think I am sweet and lovable, which nice, but it’s also how I treat my chickens.

But, like my hens who figured out how to clear the gate even after we clipped their wings, I am determined to choose a growth mindset and keep learning. The remodeling project requires narrow choices among far too many options. I’ve lived through at least six eras in home decorating. I want to be up-to-date but not a fad-follower, and I don’t want to choose the equivalent of geese with blue bows around their necks.

“You need to watch ‘Fixer Upper!’ ” my friends told me. I looked it up online. It’s a show about, naturally, fixing up older houses, and the prevailing great idea is accent walls covered in shiplap, a type of rough board with interlocking edges.

Hmmm. I inspected the doorway where Paul had cut into the wall under the stairs, and there I saw the ends of rough boards with interlocking edges.

Our bedroom was covered in 106-year-old shiplap, back behind the drywall and five layers of wallpaper!

I shared this astonishing discovery with Paul. He said, “Before we go tearing the Sheetrock off every wall in the house, we’re going to expose one wall in the bedroom. And you’re going to help, so you know how much work is involved.”

How did he know exactly what I was thinking?

So I helped pry off the accumulations of the years, and I learned about pulling out nails and how much dust a piece of broken drywall produces and how Paul’s great-grandma pasted on a thin sheet of cotton fabric to anchor the first layer of wallpaper.

Despite my need for solitude and quiet, I cook dinner every night and hope the kids all come home to eat it together. I ask about classes and classmates, I tell them to invite their friends over, and I do my best to understand the discussions on philosophy and trigonometry and music, because that is what a mom does.

Then I go visit my chickens. Among too much to ponder and process, they live in a separate little universe where life is simple and straightforward.

For one thing, their conversations are easy to understand. They discuss eggs, feed, the endless rain and the annoying Dorothy. Did I bring any vegetable scraps for them, they ask. Yes yes yes! And they race for the cabbage leaves and carrot peelings. Thank you, thank you! I laid an egg just for you, a brown one, they tell me proudly.

My hens are not terribly intelligent, I’m afraid, but it’s nice to feel like the smartest person in the room. Instead of thinking logically, they flap their wings and run off, screeching, if I rattle the feed bag too loudly. Probably they are ESFPs, totally in the moment and guided by the emotions of the group. I find this comforting.

Mostly, they are of a fixed, rather than a growth mindset. Despite learning to escape their field, they can’t figure out that to get to the feed trays, they must either fly back over the fence or enter the front door of the hen house. So they stand by the fence, clucking hungrily, but run off when I try to gently shoo them inside.

This is a problem, but it makes me feel sensible by comparison, and in the overall whirl of my life, this issue is small and manageable. In fact, the worst complication happened the other morning when I threw on a skirt and coat over my pajamas and ran out to feed them. One skinny Leghorn was outside, and I tried to corral her with a leaf rake, which did not go well. I looked up, briefly, and saw that a white pickup truck was parked on the road, and the man inside was taking photos. This troubled me on at least two levels, maybe three or four. Then he waved and drove off, the hen was eventually lured back inside, and I chose not to worry about the potential photos.

Hens don’t worry about weight or fashion or propriety. They find great joy in eating, and sometimes they follow me out to the mailbox with their plump hindquarters rocking happily back and forth. They don’t worry about Myers-Briggs tests, fixed or growth mindsets, or whether an all-white room will look out of date a year from now.

I know God had his reasons for making them chickens and for making me a sometimes-befuddled mom of a large brood of humans. At the end of the day, though, I am grateful that this is my calling, that life is all interconnected like the ribs of an old farmhouse, and that even in the dark I am held and carried home like a warm and contentedly clucking hen.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

A Few Random Thoughts

Just a few things I jotted down last evening...
On my mind:
1. I have a daughter who, if she is ever preparing for a wedding, wants to register at St. Vincent de Paul or an independently-owned thrift store.
2. It's an odd thing to be 54 and finally figure out that someone lied to you when you were 8 or 9, and all your life you've acted as though this thing were true, and it isn't and never was.
3. Last night we were with the other pastor's kids. Middle names were discussed.
Paul: I'll bet you don't know my middle name!
Little kid, confidently: 'Postle!
4. We took up the carpet in our bedroom, and there was old floral linoleum, and under the linoleum was a lovely fir floor, which Paul has been sanding down to perfect levelness and consistency.
5. Yesterday morning I threw on a few garments over my pajamas and ran out to feed the chickens. One was out and I tried to corral it with a leaf rake, which did not go well. And then I looked up and a white pickup truck was parked on the road, and the man inside was taking photos. This bothers me on at least two levels, maybe three or four. [Then he waved and drove off.]
6. Today I got a handwritten fan letter from a young man going to college in Iowa. Imagine.
7. This year, the SAD hit just as the daffodils started blooming, which is a very odd way to do things.
8. I think we should all give other people permission to tell their stories even if it makes us look bad. This is an easy thing for me to say, since I am generally the storyteller. I hope I'd feel the same if my kids told a story that made me look bad [or dumb or mean or unfair], since we all know that examples of such would be easy to find. And I am all about telling one's story honestly, which is why, when Paul got ordained, I told him that I'm willing to be embarrassed for the sake of a good illustration. But Telling in any form usually involves tough choices between Honesty and Honor, Healing and Pleasing, Speaking Out and Horrifying Somebody.
9. It rains a lot in the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
ETA: By special request, I came up with a tenth item:
10: It is March and so far I've kept my New Years resolution of not buying fabric. It has caused me pain and has required fierce resolve and avoidance of Certain Shops, but it has been done.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

February Column--On Visiting Old Uncles

Like squares of a quilt, family members make up who we are

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
FEB. 12, 2017

You’ll probably come see me when I’m in a box,” Uncle Johnny told me on the phone a few years ago.

At 93 years old, he is a bit melancholy but also funny, loyal and loving, and a slightly off brand of Amish, since he calls me on a cellphone.

I said, “I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I’m coming to see you before you’re in a box.”

I live in Oregon. Uncle Johnny lives in central Kansas, which is not on the route to anywhere I go.

When I was little, my 18 aunts and uncles were fun to visit except when I couldn’t use a hair dryer on my long wet hair or pawed fruitlessly for the light switch in the dark bedroom at Aunt Ennie’s before remembering she was Old Order Amish.

Back then, the relatives were mostly irrelevant, and my grandpa was only a strange old man with dementia and a white beard.

I married and moved far away. Paul and I were busy and sometimes overwhelmed with running a business, raising six children and pastoring a church. Gradually the aunts and uncles grew old and passed on, which was sad but a normal part of life.

Why do we wait until we’re 50 to ask about family history, the past, who your parents and grandparents used to be, and how this connects with you today? This is followed by the shocking truth that your aunts and uncles are the only people with access to this precious stash of information, and most of them are gone.

Why does it take us this long to understand that our forebears’ lives were much like ours — marriage, raising a family, earning a living? Love, laughter, conscience and commitment — all through almost impossible challenges.

Two years ago, I went to visit my one remaining aunt, Vina, Mom’s sister, in Iowa. I listened to her stories, took pages of notes and laughed until I was in tears. And I understood my mom a lot better.

Last month, Paul and I flew to Indiana, where I spoke at a women’s retreat, and then we flew to Wichita and drove over the flat Kansas prairie to Hutchinson and the tidy home of Johnny, my dad’s youngest brother and the only uncle I have left.

“Now you’ll be coming around the west side of the house,” he told me on the phone. “Come in the north garage door and then go in the west door and there’s a door to the basement. Your room is west of the kitchen.”

At 2 a.m. we slipped in the north door, just as he said, past the buggy in the garage, and down to our welcoming bedroom in the basement.

I grew up in Minnesota around farmers who referred to the four points of the compass rather than right and left. But Johnny was probably the most direction-oriented man I’ve ever seen.

“There’s room for that on the west side,” he said when I was putting milk in the refrigerator.

Aunt Bertha has been gone for a couple of years, and Johnny still grieves deeply for her. He was 18 when he asked Bertha for a date, he told us. She turned him down.

Her dad said, “What’d you do that for? You’re 16 now!” Her mom said, “Oh, if he really wants you, he’ll be back.”

He did, and he was.

“We had a good life together,” Johnny says. “I loved her very much.”

My dad was away in Civilian Public Service when Johnny and Bertha were dating. Johnny got the farm deferment, and he and his dad, John A. Senior (not to be confused with the family’s John T. Yoder or John E. Yoder or John C. Yoder or John Earl Yoder or Johnny Junior) did the work of three or four men.

In addition, John A. had been ordained bishop, which meant he had to travel to other churches to hold communion services. One weekend he was gone to eastern Oklahoma. “Meet me at the bus stop in Weatherford at 2 Monday morning,” he told Johnny.

Johnny and Bertha went on a date that night, and Johnny didn’t bother going to bed. He took the horse and buggy to town and waited in front of the grocery store where Bill Evans, the policeman, was parked, leaning back in his seat, with his hat over his eyes, looking sound asleep.

The bus came and it was full of Army boys. “But no Dad.” The second bus was also full of Army boys. And no Dad.

So Johnny untied the horse and went home. The next morning, he got up at 5 to do chores. There was John A. at the kitchen table. “Where were you?” Johnny said. “Where were you?” said his dad.

His dad had been on the third bus.

Bill Evans, still snoozing in his car, woke up and said, “Hop in. I’ll drive you home.”

Suddenly Bill said, “I can’t take you any further. I have just enough gas to get back to town.”

So my grandpa, who had just spend the weekend away at the thankless task of helping a church, and who faced another week of endless physical labor on the farm, gathered his things and walked the three miles home.

“He was all about peace and love,” Johnny said. “Other bishops would lay down the law, but Dad would give people a chance. And Dad let ’em go if they wanted to leave the Amish and go to the Mennonite church.”

Peace and love carried a high price. Mose Yoder, an uncle, was drafted in World War I. Since there were no provisions for conscientious objectors, he was in the camps with the “Army boys.” It was difficult — a few COs died in similar situations. “But then,” Johnny said, “the Army boys started getting sick, one after the other, and pretty soon almost all of them were down, but Mose never got sick. He would go around and take care of the others, bring them water, clean up after them, and even clean up their puke. And he won their respect. Things went much better after that, and he was put in charge of the CO boys.”

Before we caught our flight home, Johnny gave me a packet of letters my dad had sent from Paraguay in the 1940s, the careful writing on fragile, almost weightless paper.

We flew home to Oregon with the priceless letters in my purse, feeling richer and wiser. My strange old grandpa also had known a pastor’s weariness, and yet he left a legacy of kindness, dedication and peace. Surely that was why my dad had always insisted, whenever I was upset at someone, that I figure out why they might feel and act as they did.

It was possible for a marriage to stay loving and joyful for some 70 years. Posting an insightful meme about peace and love online is a very different thing from mopping up your enemies’ vomit. And when you go visit your elderly uncle, you will learn that if you know which way is north, you can always find your way back home.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Why I'm Grateful to Mrs. Olson

Someone posted a picture on Facebook the other day that made a memory erupt from the past.

It was my sixth-grade teacher and her husband.  Mr. and Mrs. Olson.  I'm sure they have first names, but you know how it is with teachers--they're always and forever Mr. or Miss or Mrs. 

I am forever grateful to Mrs. Olson.

At that stage of my life there were many things that were wrong.  In my little world, I had no clue how to define a problem and find a solution.  And making a fuss was absolutely not ok.

I was a little Beachy-Amish girl in Minnesota at Grove City School, on the top floor of the old elementary school with its brick walls and high ceilings.  I wore a large white cap and simple dresses among dozens of Lutherans in jeans. [We were known in the community as Mennonites, for some reason, but in truth were much closer to Amish.]

 I was also an avid reader, plowing through shelves of books in the classroom library, from Freddie the Pig to Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Most of the time, I got along fine with everyone, and they were kind.  But I always felt Different.

We would file down the long flights of stairs to the cafeteria for lunch, at which time Mrs. Larson and Mrs Knutson [most Minnesota names end in -son] would take over, watching over the lunchroom and the play time afterwards.  Usually we walked a block or two to the playground, but in really terrible weather by Minnesota standards we played in the "small gym." Usually several games were going at once, circle games or shooting baskets or jumping rope.

One day one of the girls in my grade decided to tease me by grabbing the hem of my dress and yanking it up.  It took me by surprise.  She laughed and laughed.

The other girls started doing the same thing.  There I'd be, waiting on my turn to shoot, and suddenly, WHOOSH, and the more they saw the more they laughed.

Day after day.

Why was it that I didn't have the skills to make them stop, to tell Mrs. Larson, to stand up to them?  Why did I feel like somehow I deserved this treatment just because I existed and was Different? Or that I would ruin any chance of acceptance and friendship if I made a fuss?

I would giggle nervously and try to tuck my skirt between my knees.  I'd go sit on the bleachers between turns, embarrassed and confused.  If I tried to hold my skirt down at the sides, they jerked it up at the back or front.

Nothing worked very well or very long. Yank, laughter, boys turning and looking.

It was awful.

Maybe I could get out of the noon play time somehow.  One day I offered to come back to the classroom after lunch and clean the chalkboard erasers.  Mrs. Olson said yes.  Wonderful.

The next day I came up with another excuse.  I think it was something like coming back to work on my math.

Ummm, ok.

It was about the third time I stayed in the classroom that Mrs. Olson said, just straight out, "Why don't you want to go play over lunch?"

"Uh, well, I don't know..."

She was not ok with that.  What a beautiful thing it was to have someone in my life recognize a problem and ask me about it in straight-out concise words and to insist on an honest answer.

So I told her about the girls pulling up my dress, feeling relieved but also terrible for tattling.

She said, "Who did this?"

I didn't want to tell her.

She got out a pen and paper.  "Tell me the names of everyone who did this to you."

She meant it.

I started listing.  She wrote down name after name.

"Anyone else? Did Vickie?"

"Well, only once I think."

She wrote "Vickie" in a determined hand.

She didn't say much more, but I could tell she was a woman on a mission.

Pretty soon everyone came back up the stairs, grabbed a quick drink at the fountain, and came back in the classroom laughing and wiping their mouths.

I sat waiting, knowing that the earth was about to shift on its axis, or at least that something in my strange little world was changing in ways I had never experienced before. 

Mrs. Olson stood at the front of the classroom.  She held up the paper and said, "Debbie, Vickie, Deanna,. . ." She read off the entire list.  "All of you go to the principal's office.  I want to talk to you."

They got up and left.  Dear God, what had I done?

They came back a few minutes later, grinning a bit sheepishly.

I thought, "I am going to Get It."

None of them looked at me.  Nor did they glance at each other and Look at me.

The next day we went to play in the gym and no one pulled up my dress. No one ever did that again. And no one ever said a word to me about what had happened. 

I still felt different, but mostly people were kind.

At the end of the year, we voted on all kinds of categories, and then Mrs. Olson gave us awards.  I got the Smartest Girl award.  And then to my utter astonishment, Mrs. Olson said I had tied with Tammy Ellingson for "Prettiest Clothes" but she gave Tammy the award since I already had an award and she didn't.

My awful little Amish dresses had tied for Prettiest Clothes!

So that was a nice ending to sixth grade.  But the best thing about sixth grade was the new and glorious experience of having someone notice that I had a problem, insist that I speak it out loud, and advocate for me when I needed it most.

I will always be grateful to Mrs. Olson.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

A Newly-Repurposed Book And Other News

I took the long, scenic, and rocky route to publishing my books.  "Ordinary Days" was self-published way back in 2003 when print on demand was a new thing.  Then it was picked up and re-published by Good Books, who went on to also publish Upstairs the Peasants are Revolting and Downstairs the Queen is Knitting.

Good Books decided not to pick up the fourth book, so I self-published the next two.

Then Goods went bankrupt and fell off the face of the Earth for a year before they were bought out by Skyhorse Publishing in New York City.

Recently Skyhorse decided to re-publish my first three titles under one cover.  I think that is an awful lot of Mrs. Smucker's Attempts At Squeezing Profound Meaning From Daily Life to read and digest at one go, but it isn't my decision to make.

And who am I to fuss if they want to get more mileage out of those titles?

So Sunlight Through Dusty Windows should be out this fall. Special thanks to my sister Rebecca who came up with the name.

If you have one or two of the first three titles and want to complete your set, I am in possession of the only remaining copies of them, and when they're gone, they're gone.

You can email me at for particulars.

I'm also hoping to publish a sixth collection of newspaper columns this year and have many ideas for other new books but no promises or commitments.

Yesterday when I spoke to the Women In Touch at the First Baptist Church in Eugene, one woman told me I really should write a cookbook featuring all the food I write about.  That made me laugh, because me writing a cookbook is kind of like me writing a book on parenting, which I never thought I would do until recently when my young friend Esta suggested it and also about 5 people in a month's time asked me for parenting advice, which always made me want to whirl around to see if they were actually talking to someone behind me.

If those ideas get off the ground, they could both be titled The Cheap Easy Way to Cook/Parent When You Have No Clue What You're Doing And All The Other Cooks/Parents Intimidate You To Death So You Pretend A Lot.

I also keep dropping ideas in my Novel Notes file, but this novel is yet to be written because I am stuck in a Fixed Mindset.  Over on Jenny's blog you can read about that concept.  But I hope to have a Growth Mindset on the novel-writing subject someday, especially since I keep running into these amazing tidbits, like my friend SC who, it turns out, once had a date with an Amish guy and went to the singing in his buggy which involved details that I won't disclose here (watch for them in my novel of course!). And then on our sisters' WhatsApp discussion today there was mention of a squished piece of bread falling out of someone's Bible after communion, which carried Lots of Deeper Implications.

So as you can see there is no lack for morsels to include in that novel when I finally overcome my terror and just write it.

Which brings us to the Sparrow Nest, my writing cabin, which is slowly taking shape but didn't make much progress during the coldest part of the winter because Paul kept finding warmer things to do, and which seems like it will have just the right magic to make a novel come to pass.

So on we march, with giant scoops of gratitude for everyone who has encouraged me and actually read my writings over the last 16 years.

Quote of the Day:
I'll quote myself this time, because I felt so clever.
One night Jenny had fried fish and cooked macaroni & cheese for supper, and being of various schedules, we ate as we showed up in the kitchen.
Paul showed up last, looked around, and said, "Is there anybody left to eat besides me?"
I said, "I didn't realize we were under siege."

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Visiting Uncle Johnny

I used to read The Story About Ping to the children.  Ping was a duck who had "two sisters and three brothers and eleven aunts and seven uncles and forty-two cousins."

I had two sisters and three brothers and nine aunts and nine uncles (if you count spouses too) and I think fifty-two cousins.

It's odd.  When you’re little, aunts and uncles are just part of the landscape of your life, drifting in and out of importance, fun to imitate and discuss, and enjoyable to visit, but you only visit them when Mom and Dad take--or drag--you along.  Or they come to visit you, and you observe that your mom and dad are subtly different people when they are with their siblings.

Then you start a family and live far away, and aunts and uncles get old and die, but you are busy with your life so it's sad but you move on.

Suddenly you wake up and realize that you have lots of questions about family history, the past, and who your parents used to be, and the only people with access to this repository of information and stories are your aunts and uncles, and almost all of them are gone.

A few years ago, I resolved that even though I lived in Oregon and had a busy life, I was going to visit my remaining aunt and uncle, Mom's sister Vina in Iowa and Dad's brother Johnny in Kansas.

Two years ago, I spoke at a ladies' retreat in Illinois. Afterwards, Paul and I drove to Iowa and spent a few days with Aunt Vina.  She told stories while I took notes the best I could while laughing til I cried.

I asked her deep and hard questions as well, and left with a new understanding of my mom.

But I still needed to visit Uncle Johnny in Kansas, a difficult assignment when you live in Oregon.

“You’ll probably come see me when I’m in a box,” he told me during one of our phone conversations. Johnny can be a bit melancholy.

And yes, he talks on the phone despite being Amish.  He also zips around during the week on a tractor.  I think he’s New Order, but I’m not sure.  The Amish church in Hutchinson, Kansas, has always played by its own rules.

When we planned this trip, we had events on two consecutive weekends—the INSPIRE ladies’ retreat in Indiana and the BMA Ministers’ Weekend in Delaware.  But what should we do in between?

“Let’s visit Uncle Johnny.”

So we did.

“Now when you come in the driveway, you’ll be coming around the west side of the house,” he told me on the phone.  “There’s a yard light on the north side.  You can park there, right on the grass, it’s ok.  Come in the north garage door and then go in the west door and there’s a door to the basement.  Your room is west of the kitchen.  Ich hap da fridge aw kschtekt fa eich. [I lit the fridge for you.]”

Got it.

The sign on the door said, “Johnny’s Econo Lodge.” He hosts a lot of guests.

I grew up in Minnesota, so I was used to farmers who orient themselves around the four points of the compass rather than right and left.  “Go north on Highway 4 out of Grove City, then west on 3, and north again on 532nd Avenue.” That sort of thing.

But Kansas was even more of a perfect grid than Minnesota, with no lakes to mess up the graph-paper lines, and Johnny was probably the most direction-oriented guy I’ve ever seen.

“The east one!” he said, when I wasn’t sure which of two switches was for the living room light.  “There’s room for that on the west side,” when I was putting the milk in the fridge.

Johnny’s granddaughter Kimmy said it’s not just him—this is how Kansans are.

At 93, Johnny is still Dad’s little brother and his only living sibling.  The two send long letters back and forth, and when they’re together, like at Dad’s 100th birthday party, they can’t hear each other but still communicate just fine.

They both remember names, dates, and events with unbelievable accuracy and detail.  Johnny is more a natural storyteller than Dad, but both of their tales come bubbling from a deep well of memory, spinning off into lists of facts about who moved to Indiana in 1957 and who went to Garnett, Kansas; who was ordained bishop, and when, births and baptisms and marriages and deaths, interspersed with unexpected details. Lydia was a widow who married Levi Knepp. Their daughter Sarah married a Schweitzer named Manual Zehr, and their daughter Lydiann married Joe Helmuth.

Schweitzer??  Is that a “Swiss Amish”? I’m not sure and didn’t have a chance to ask.

Johnny and Dad both have clear memories of their school days in Oklahoma and the odd mixture of cultures—Amish, white American, and Native American—a Cheyenne/Arapaho mix.  “The Dutchman, the White Man, and the True American, we called ourselves,” Johnny told me.  “The Amish and Indian girls were alike because they always wore dresses and wore their hair in long braids.”

When they exchanged names for Christmas, the Amish kids liked it when the Indian kids got their names because they would actually have money to buy gifts, thanks to the government stipends they got. When Johnny was 7 or 8 years old, Richard Tallbull Bearhead had his name and gave him a little cast-iron car.  He still has it.

Cousin Freeman's daughter Kayla modeled the shawl.
Johnny also brought out an embroidered, tasseled shawl he got from an Indian man.  “Maybe he’ll do the Indian dance,” said Kimmy.  “He still knows how.”

To my disappointment, he didn’t indulge us.

Bertha has been gone for a couple of years now, and you can tell that Johnny still grieves deeply for her. He was 18 when he asked Bertha for a date.  She turned him down.

Her dad said,  “What’d you do that for? You’re 16 now!”

Her mom said, “Oh, if he really wants you, he’ll be back.”

He did, and he was.

My dad was away in CPS during that time.  Johnny had gotten the farm deferment, and he and his dad, John A, Senior, worked like horses, doing the work of three or four men.

In addition, John A. had been ordained bishop, which meant he had to travel to other churches to hold communion services.  One weekend he was gone to eastern Oklahoma.  “Meet me at the bus stop in Weatherford at 2:00 Monday morning,” he said.

Johnny and Bertha went on a date which must have gone late, because Johnny didn’t bother going to bed.  He took the horse and buggy to town and tied them up behind the grocery store, then waited out front.  Bill Evans, the policeman, was parked in front of the store.  He was leaned back in his seat, with his hat over his eyes, looking sound asleep.

The bus came and it was full of army boys.  “But no Dad.”

He waited some more.  After a while another bus came.  This one was also full of army boys. And no Dad.

What now?  He asked around.  No, they weren’t expecting a third bus.

So Johnny untied the horse, headed for home, and went to bed.

The next morning he got up at 5:00 to do chores. 

[I can’t see how he could have gotten more than an hour of sleep.]

He came downstairs and there was John A at the kitchen table.  “Where were you?” Johnny said.  “Where were YOU?” said his dad.

A third bus had arrived after Johnny left.  His dad was on it.

Bill Evans, who was somehow aware of everything that had transpired despite seemingly snoozing in his car all night, told John A. that his son had been there, parked behind the store, but he left after the second bus came.

Bill said, “Hop in.  I’ll drive you home.”

Three miles from home, Bill looked at his gas gauge. “I can’t take you any further.  I have just enough gas to get back to town.”

John A said he could give him some gas from the tank at the farm, but Bill refused. “I’m not supposed to do that.”

So Bill went back to town and the tired bishop who had just spend the weekend away at the thankless task of helping a church with communion, and who faced another week of endless physical labor on the farm, gathered his things and walked the three miles home.

“He was all about peace and love,” Johnny says.  Other bishops would lay down the law, but John would give people a chance.  A man in the church who was good at leading singing “had a problem with tobacco. Other people said, ‘He shouldn’t have any responsibilities in church.’ But Dad went and talked to him. ‘We’ll keep you on as song leader, and you see if you can’t do something about that habit in the next year.’ And Dad let ‘em go if they wanted to leave the Amish and go to the Mennonite church.”

Not all bishops are that gracious when people want to leave the church.

Then it was time for a joke.  “I never quit smoking,” Johnny told us, looking serious.

We thought, “WHAT?!”

“I never started either,” he said, and laughed and laughed.

Believing in peace and love carried a higher price then than now.  Mose Yoder—was he Johnny and Dad’s cousin or was he Bertha’s uncle? I can’t remember—was drafted in World War I.  Years later, he would sit at “Bendick Dawdy’s” and tell stories.  Since there were no provisions for conscientious objectors, he was in the camps with the “army boys.”  It was really tough.  Johnny didn’t give details, but I know there were Anabaptist CO’s who died in similar situations.   But then the army boys started getting sick, one after the other, and pretty soon almost all of them were down, but Mose never got sick.  He would go around and take care of the others, bring them water, clean up after them, and even clean up their puke.  And thus he won their respect. Things went much better after that, and he was put in charge of the CO boys.

This is why it’s good to visit elderly aunts and uncles.  You get a glimpse of the “great cloud of witnesses” in your past.  And you start to understand that posting a Peace and Love meme on Facebook is a very different thing than cleaning up your enemies’ vomit.

Like Dad, Johnny is fascinated with how life cycles around and comes full circle. After World War II, Dad worked with MCC, Mennonite Central Committee, helping to settle Mennonite refugees in Paraguay.  Among their many other projects, MCC has a portable meat canner staffed by volunteers who take it around to different farming communities and process meat to be sent to places like tuberculosis hospitals in North Korea.  The canner came to Kansas last year, and the young men in charge of it stayed at Johnny’s Econo Lodge.  Two of the young men were from Paraguay, grandchildren of the Mennonites my dad had helped out in 1947.

How cool is that?

No wonder I’m fascinated with stories, connections, and history.
Uncle Johnny's horses, the Kansas sun and wind, Paul's shadow, and me.
Quote of the Day:
“I look at Kim Jong Un and I think, he’s like five years older than me and he’s dictator of a country! What am I doing with my life?!”
--Johnny’s zippy granddaughter Kimmy Yoder

Kimmy talks with her hands. Like I do. So
it must be a Yoder thing.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Two Indiana Incidents

Two things about Indiana before we fly on to Kansas:

After the retreat on Saturday wound down, Paul took me out to eat at Das Dutchman's Essen Haus which features not only good food and bustling waitresses in kappa but also bottles of Amish peanut butter spread, right at your table.

I had already ordered the buffet before I discovered this.  Had I known, I might have simply ordered a plate of bread or buns and stuffed myself with homemade bread covered with the sticky goodness known as Amish peanut butter, and left happy and satisfied.

Do you not know what I'm talking about, you poor neglected worldly person?

Amish peanut butter spread is a mixture of creamy peanut butter, marshmallow creme, corn syrup, fairy dust, and the sweet nectar of magic flowers grown in the gentle shade of grandmotherly trees. It is served at the noon meal on Sundays, when church is finally over and the backless benches are set on little sawhorsey racks and cleverly transformed into tables spread with plates of bread and pickles and bologna and bowls of peanut butter. All the moms sit around the table.  You are so hungry and you stand behind your mom because she is the mom and you are the kid, just like all kids over toddler age stand behind their moms, and she spreads a slice of bread with Amish peanut butter spread and folds it in half and hands it back to you, and you bite into the sweet softness of it and everything in the world is ok for that moment. Everything.

If you are really young and stupid, you tear off the bread crusts and toss them under the table, thinking your mom will never know it was you.  But she will know. And she will Look at you like Jesus looked at Peter after the rooster crowed.

Like Peter, you will go out and weep bitterly, and repent, and not do that again.

And two moms down, Voll Edna calmly smears peanut butter on bread and places a SLICE OF BOLOGNA on top, plus maybe a few pickles, which is schantlich and dreadful, and she hands it back to her son Robert, who is your age and just so gross, probably because he's a boy.

But even these bumps in the path of the Sunday meal smooth out into joy and satisfaction when your mom hands you a second piece of bread spread with Amish peanut butter.

Because it is just that magical.

You missed out, you poor Englisch child.

Paul went to the Essen Haus gift shop and bought me a bottle to bring home.  In theory I am avoiding simple carbs because they make me gain weight and make my asthma worse, but Amish peanut butter doesn't count.  It makes everything all better. Everything.

The second story is one that someone asked me to tell but I was waiting for permission, which I got.  

Ladies' retreats are like icebergs in that everything you see up above is gleaming in the sunshine and just floating in the ocean, calm and stately, but the truth is that down below, out of sight, a lot is going on--jagged edges and swift currents and pockets of darkness.

As I mentioned in my last post, Judy Beachy had the idea for the retreat and has been one of the main organizers and visionaries for it.  She is a tall and lovely and gregarious woman who set the mood for the entire retreat and put us all at ease.

But I got to see just a bit of the currents under the iceberg, so to speak.

Saturday morning I came downstairs from the blessed little hideaway in a Sunday school room that they had prepared for me.  The first session was to start in five minutes and there was Judy, rushing down the hall with a frantic look on her face.  Have I seen --I think it was Verba-- she asked. something wrong?


"I forgot to wear a slip, and you can see LINES, and I have to be up there in five minutes!"

She was wearing a stretchy knit skirt, and we all know how knit skirts can behave.

I said, "You can wear mine!"

"Don't you need it?"

"I have a corduroy skirt. I just wore a slip to keep it from skritching on my pantyhose. I'm sure it won't show through."

We ducked into a prayer room.  I shimmied out of my half slip and she shimmied into it. 

Three minutes later she strode across the stage, smooth and smiling, and called us all together to worship.

I do love it when I get to see behind the scenes.

Saving the day is nice too.