Sunday, September 11, 2016
LETTER FROM HARRISBURG
Abundance follows man of austerity
By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
SEPT. 11, 2016
My hens didn’t start laying until my dad arrived.
I got them the night before Easter, given away by Coastal Farm and then hauled home, along with a sack of feed, by my husband, Paul, who knew I wanted to raise chickens again.
So the 15 chicks prospered and grew large, stepping around the field by the henhouse with a quiet but determined gait that reminded me of Amish ladies working in the kitchen before a wedding. If I named the hens after the particular Amish cousins they each resembled, I will not admit that here.
But they didn’t lay eggs. It was time, even reading the charts generously skewed toward the far end of the timetable. I found one egg in a nest one day and the kids found one in the field.
“Come on, ladies,” I said. “Please. It’s time. You really need to start laying.”
They ignored me, even when I spoke Pennsylvania German.
Then my 99-year-old Dad came from Minnesota for a six-week visit. This is the third summer he has done so.
Dad always has advocated moderation, simplicity and austerity. “Too much” was one of the worst sins, in his opinion. Too many crackers in your split pea soup, too much of Mom’s homemade bread, too much talking — all brought on his darkest frowns and his deep “Ach. That’s enough. Don’t go to extremes.”
You certainly didn’t need another new dress, and deprivation was far better than excess.
Today, Dad still refuses second helpings and new socks, and he has a pair of shoes he bought secondhand in 1964. He weighs about 100 pounds.
Yet, when he showed up at our house, things suddenly went wild with abundance.
A day after his arrival, he went out and visited the hens. I don’t know what he said, but that afternoon six eggs lay in the nests. It was the beginning of a flood of eggs that we have fried, hardboiled, used in baking, and given away, and still they accumulate in ever-larger baskets on the kitchen counter. I even had a disturbing dream one night that I went in the henhouse and hundreds of eggs lay all over the floor, the straw bale, everywhere.
Last summer the blackberries at all my favorite picking spots were sparse and hard. Was it that little bit of rain in July or was it some magic from Dad? He and his cane thumped determinedly to the bushes at the edge of various cousins’ fields, and the berries were huge and sweet and plentiful. I baked pies and cobblers, froze berries in sandwich bags, and even made blackberry jam and jelly for the first time.
Dad’s new book went a bit crazy, too. During his previous two visits, he spent hours on the living room couch with a padded lap desk across his knees, writing out his life story with pen and paper.
He chose the title: “A Chirp From the Grass Roots.” I let him tell his story on his own terms even though it seemed sparse on all the interesting details, in keeping with his life philosophy of eschewing excess.
I found a printer and ordered enough copies to supply his grandchildren, nieces and nephews, then I also made it available on Amazon.com as an e-book.
The book immediately sold so well I ordered a second printing and will soon need a third. Former students wanted copies, and perfect strangers, and even a woman from Sweden who saw it on social media. It’s painful enough to check the Amazon rankings when you’re a fragile author, but to find that your dad’s book is vastly outselling yours is far harder to accept graciously.
How does he do it, he of the careful salvaging of the good half of a wrinkled apple and repurposing of AARP envelopes?
Even the cats took up the mood of lavish abundance when he came. A cautious silvery stray cat appeared at our house some time ago. He never let us get close or pick him up, but he would sneak nervously across the porch and grab some food when the other cats had finished eating.
The children named him Herbie Furbie.
Then Dad arrived, and Herbie not only made himself comfortably at home, he also had a litter of five kittens under the porch.
Yesterday, two black kittens showed up as well, scampering stiff-legged under the picnic table. I have no idea where they came from.
Then the grapes ripened. Seedless and green, with a tough skin and sweet, slippery inside, these are meant for fresh eating, but they hung from the vine in such numerous clusters that we couldn’t have begun to eat them all.
Dad offered to pick them so I could make juice. It was a wonderful idea, except for the fact that I was organizing an all-day women’s retreat at church. But keeping Dad busy is a good thing, so out he went with a bucket looped on one of my husband’s belts across his shoulder, a rose trimmer, and his gray trilby hat.
I washed jars, assembled the steamer and prepared my speech.
The night before the retreat, I canned nine quarts of juice. The morning of, I got up early and did five more. More grapes sat waiting when I got home, so I filled 10 more jars.
Dad hollered, “This is just the tip of the iceberg!” and kept picking.
I filled every empty quart jar I had in the pantry plus pickle jars and jam jars and spaghetti sauce jars. I found a box of jars in storage, washed out the dust and spiders, and filled them with juice.
Buckets of steamed, limp grape skins went to the chickens. To make more eggs.
“I think this is about half of them,” Dad announced proudly. He kept picking, coming inside to rest between buckets, but always grabbing his cane and marching back out.
Thankfully, my friend Shannon needed grapes, so Dad and I filled two boxes and a 5-gallon bucket one morning and I dropped them off, feeling relieved.
That afternoon, Dad came in with two more buckets full. “I just found a really good cluster!” So I once again assembled the steamer, poured the grapes in a dishpan to wash, and bought two boxes of jars from my friend Sharon.
One could logically argue, I suppose, that nature is no more to be manipulated or influenced than a 99-year-old man who is used to doing things his own way.
But I like to think that there has been just a bit of magic in my summer, a fun collision of events, an unpredictable agency conspiring on his behalf.
Also, the pears are dropping from the tree in such quantities as I’ve never seen in 16 years at this house.