Saturday, April 30, 2011

Tornado News

I've been reading about the terrible tornadoes in the South, and all the damage, and the awful death toll.

It's haunting, and I wish I could do something, but it's all been sort of distant from my life, kind of like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. It didn't touch anyone I knew.

Then today I got a message from Amy, who is off in Montana being a nanny for Gospel Echoes' Crossroads Team.

Amy taught the high school at Shiloh Christian School in South Carolina for a year, about three years ago I think, or was it four? She had a student named Courtney.

After that year, Courtney and her family moved to Alabama. And just a few days ago, Courtney and her mom and step-dad were all killed by a tornado.

One child in the family survived, an 8-year-old girl who was injured and is in the hospital. I hoped she still had a dad back in South Carolina like Courtney, but no, Courtney's step-dad was the 8-year-old's father.

I can't get my mind around this one--losing your entire family, home, everything, in one fell swoop, at that age.

Amy assures me this girl has lots of nice aunts and grandmas and will be taken care of. Well, that's great, but what will this do to her soul? And how many others there must be with similar losses.

I really wish I could magically fix everything.

Wedding vs. Draft

Last night Ben and I were talking about the royal wedding and the NFL draft. Neither of us could understand what motivated the other.

Me: Well, it's a WEDDING, and it's so ROMANTIC, and it's just so amazing, and she was so pretty, and they rode in this open carriage...

Ben: [blank look]

Me: And I don't get the NFL draft.

Ben: Well, it's all about the best players, and which teams they go to, and I don't know, it's just fascinating.

Me: [blank look]

So I think it would behoove each of us not to judge the other, and to just enjoy what we enjoy and let others do likewise.

One sweet thing about the royal wedding is that it unites women all over the world. Emily referred me to the blog of a young man she knows, named Adam, who, like Barack Obama, is the child of a foreign student [who then absconded out of his child's life], and an American woman. Except Adam's dad was Yemeni, and after growing up in Virginia, Adam decided to look up his Yemeni family, and ended up living with them and teaching at the International High School where my nephew goes.

He has a blog, where he informs us that Yemeni women are all over this wedding and all the details, just like American women.

I think that's that very cool.

Quote of the Day:
"You'd think someone would have trimmed his eyebrows for this prestigious affair."
--Shelley the niece, of the hairy priest at Westminster Abbey

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Third Graders

Today I made my annual pilgrimage to Spring Creek Elementary and spoke to the third graders about Writing. The teacher, Mrs. Fischer, is a dedicated soul who has the children write tall tales and also observations of nature as though they were along on Lewis and Clark's expedition, all while she is under pressure to spend more time on "teaching to the test" and less on creative pursuits.

So I talked about ideas and re-writing and communication. Most kids listened with big round eyes and one asked me which of my six children is my favorite and a few whispered and punched their neighbors, but if I were an 8-year-old boy and this lady came to talk about Writing, I don't think I'd listen either.

Last night I heard a sermon from a former third-grader. The guy we thought we had booked for a week of revival meetings had something different on his calendar, so we fished in more local waters and will have 3 bishops from local congregations speak a night or two each.

So Steve Zehr from Tangent Mennonite spoke last evening about the majesty of Jesus, in such a way that we saw it for ourselves and gasped, and that is no small thing.

Steve was one of my third graders at Lake Creek, back in the day, a calm and confident little guy who was comfortable in his own skin and didn't have anything to prove, and who would set me straight if the occasion required but wasn't arrogant about it. Now and then he gave me a cupcake his mom had made, chocolate with a creamy filling.

I gather he's the same sort of bishop.

Back then, I didn't see him as a future preacher, much less someone who could get up front and inspire.

I don't take any credit for who and where he is today, but it is a relief to know that I didn't inadvertently discourage the potential out of him.

And it goes to show you never can tell what might happen with third graders.

Quote of the Day:
Jenny: We should have adopted Janane into our family!!
Janane: We would kill each other. We were just meant to be friends.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Moving Day

Something tells me the girls have seen too many beggars on street corners in Eugene. This was the result when they moved Cleo and her babies to their new digs in the carport today.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Minnesota Adventures

Fred and I left for OKC before 4 in the morning on Wednesday, he to pick up his truck and me to head to Minnesota. I had to drive since it was a rental car, but he listened well and I talked to stay awake. Bless his heart. He now knows more about the people in my life than he ever wanted to know.

Two easy hops and I was in Minnesota, where the rental car people told me the economy cars were all gone and I could have a minivan or an SUV. I fussed. Too much car for me. Just then someone came in dangling a set of keys. Ah ha! A real car after all. It was a Chrysler Sebring, red with black leather seats, which I would never have noticed on the street, but which drew respectful glances and comments from people like the grocery-store delivery guy.

It also drove very smoothly and quietly on the country roads, so much so that while I was heading away from the airport wanting to get to the hospital to see Dad as soon as possible, I passed a pickup truck and just like THAT saw flashing lights in my mirror. Oh. Great.

Here's my license, I told the polite young officer, but I don't know about insurance papers since it's a rental car. He wondered where I was headed. I told him, emphasizing the dad in the hospital and that I had just flown in to see him.

He let me off with a verbal warning. I was to watch my speed and not go 69 in a 55 zone again.

Whew. I'm sure it was the dad in the hospital that did it.

I picked up Mom and we went to the hospital, where Dad looked impossibly tiny* and frail under those hospital covers. But he was eager to go home, and later that evening the doctor released him.

*Dad: "I've held steady right at a hundred pounds for the last 20 years."

The next few days Dad gained strength by the hour, from lying down to sitting to standing to walking. And eating. And talking louder and louder. By Saturday he could holler his noontime prayer as loud as ever, and I knew we were on solid ground.

However, on Thursday, before he was really up and around, Marcus came in the house after he did the chores and told us he's pretty sure Dad's one nanny goat is in labor.
Dad: Huh?? She is?? Oh, but it's too early.
Marcus: Well, I'm sure she is.
I went to the barn with Marcus. There in the first pen was a big white nanny goat, and the signs were obvious. I thought, Oh great, like my life doesn't have enough drama.

I said I would check her every half hour.

First check: calm goat. Small amounts of fluid.

Second check: same.

I asked Dad how long a goat's labor is. He said, "Oh I can't really say. It can vary a lot."

Well, that was helpful. I wished really bad for Google.

Third check: I heard the goat bleating desperately before I ever got to the barn. I rushed in, turned on the light, and hurried to the pen. She was standing there hollering for help in that deep, helpless,frustrated way that only a woman who's been through a tough labor really knows, and I felt a rush of the most profound empathy and sisterhood that I've ever felt with a non-human animal.

There under her tail was a small, dark lump. I'm sure Paul or Dad would have said, "Just wait a little; let's give her some time," but with that constant bleating, and the way she looked at me, there was no waiting for me.

I opened the gate, hurried into the pen, and got to work. A little nose was out, and two little hooves. I broke the slimy sac around the hooves and started pulling, first one, then the other, then the rest of the head.

I waited a bit, and the baby didn't move. Thankfully an ear flicked, so I knew it was alive. I pulled a bit more. When a human baby's head and shoulders are out, the rest comes slipping out with no more trouble. Not with this baby.

I pulled it out further, about halfway, and waited for the nanny to push. She still couldn't move it. So I pulled the rest of it out and laid it on the straw, a big, beautiful, black and white mass of goat and slime and glop.

The nanny's relief was immediate, and I could empathize with that, too. She turned around and started licking. At the back.

"No, no, the face!" I told her. She didn't pay attention.

What would James Herriot do? I grabbed a handful of straw and began working on the nose and mouth, cleaning and scraping. Soon there was a series of snorts and shakes and sneezes as the baby came alive.

The mom just licked and licked, relieved and happy and full of love.

It was amazing. I stood there in the shadowy barn and tried to take in what had just happened. The pride, the joy, the wonder. No wonder James Herriot never got tired of the miracle of birth.

Then, as the curious barn cats came by and peered between the slats of the fence to see for themselves, I wiped my sticky hands on straw, pulled my phone from my pocket, sent exultant texts to my family and took dark blurry pictures.

I thought I really should go to the cafeteria and bring the nanny some tea and toast like the nurses used to do for me at the Dryden Hospital when I had a baby in the middle of the night. But the nanny had plenty of hay and water, so I left it at that.

The nanny showed no signs of having a second kid, so after watching for a while I went inside, where Dad seemed happy with the news but not as impressed with my feat as I thought he should.

But the next day he made his first trek out to the barn, and the sight of that cute little kidlet energized him more than all our care in the house.

I found out that when goats have only one baby, it tends to be pretty big, and to get stuck in transit.

And I was very happy that I could be there for that goat--and for Dad--when they needed me.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Oklahoma photos

Two gracious families hosted me in Prague/Paden--
Lawrence and Erna Dueck. ..
(with Samuel, Sheryl, and Tracey)

and Edwin and Irma Loewen
(with Regina and Randy)

Good times at Margaret's house--My cousin Truman's wife Laura, DIL Margaret, daughter Loretta, (me), and DIL Joan.
Truman and Laura

Loraine, Fred, me, at a cafe in Weatherford.
The place where my dad grew up. He says he and his brother Toby slept in the upper left bedroom, behind that balcony rail.

The old and new in Oklahoma.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Invitation to Concert

Ben is singing in a choir concert this Friday night at 7pm at the Albany First Assembly of God.

Rumors are it will be well worth your while to go.

Here's an article about it in the Democrat-Herald.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Looking for Dad's Past

My dad grew up on a farm near Thomas, Oklahoma, one of many farms in the area that the Amish bought from enterprising folks, mostly bachelors, who had snapped them up in the Oklahoma Land Run, lived there the prescribed time, then sold them to a new wave of immigrants.

(That era is full of interesting stories with a memorable detail or two, like my brother's friend Charles who tells how his grandfather came to the area to claim his free quarter-section and brought along his older-single sister, who had a wooden leg, and she claimed the land next to his and lived in a dugout. No one quite knows--did she have horses and farm her own land? Or did she cook and clean for the brother and he farmed for her? The assumption is that the wooden leg meant she would never get married.)

On Monday and Tuesday of my visit to Oklahoma, I explored Dad's old home area for the first time in my life.

And in a very odd twist of fate, I got a series of calls and texts telling me that Dad was sick, he was taken to the doctor, he was in the hospital, and it did not look good.

So I was walking around the old Amish cemetery with my cousin Truman and his wife Laura, trying to follow the river of fascinating information about all my dead relatives, knowing that my dad might soon be joining them on the other side.

And he might never know I had been here. I texted my brother Marcus and asked him to please tell Dad where I was. It felt very important to me.

In among calls from Minnesota I got a frantic call from home. "MOM! Cleo had her kittens! Four of them! On a pile of fabric! In the sewing room!!!"

The dry grass crunched under our feet in the old cemetery, and I was introduced to one relative after another until the information simply flew past me into the endless wind. There was a Weirich woman from Oregon who was someone's first wife, and there was poor "Crippled Malindy" who lived with one of the relatives, and Aunt Lyddie and Uncle Amos, and far, far too many gravestones that included the word "infant."

It was much happier over at Margaret's house. I had known her only online, but she is married to Truman's son so of course I had to look her up. She lives in the house that Uncle Amos and Aunt Lyddie lived in. We had tea and coffee and scones at her kitchen table with Margaret's mother-in-law and sisters-in-law while children dashed in and out and dangled a rubber snake that nearly gave me a heart attack.

Margaret was one of several women I had gotten to know online and then met in person on this trip. A recurring theme in our conversations was the limits of blogging, and all the pieces of your life that cannot be displayed online. It's funny. You read someone's blog and feel like you know them. Logically, you know there is much they can't say, but you don't know what it is until you meet in person and see that yes, this is someone I can trust, and then out it comes.

Fred and Loraine and I had supper at Truman and Laura's, with their children and grandchildren in the house that was already old when it was moved onto the property in 1904. They treated us like royalty and Truman filled my head with facts and statistics and local lore, and gave me papers and pamphlets, including one by an old man who used to help my dad's family with threshing, and when I gave it to Dad later, he was delighted.

But that's getting ahead of the story.

Meanwhile I was worried sick about Dad, and the reports didn't sound good. And I got more frantic phone calls from home. "MOM!!" Cleo actually had another kitten, and we didn't see it because it rolled off the pile of fabric she's on, and onto the floor!!"

Another call: "MOM!! Cleo had SIX kittens, and there was another one on the floor that we didn't see, and it still has the placenta attached, and it's alive but it feels cold!!"

I walked the girls through moving Cleo and clan to a basket, providing her with food and water and a litter box nearby, cleaning the poor little kitten, warming it up with a rice bag, and encouraging it to drink.

Loraine didn't think the kitty would make it. In her experience, once they're cold, that's it.

On Tuesday Fred and I went out to the farm where Dad grew up. Dad was never much of a storyteller, but I had a vague set of remembered stories that included wheat fields, a country school with Native American kids, horses, and a dog.

There was the house, now sitting empty, on top of a small rise. Behind it was the windmill and then a small building that Fred guessed to be "the proverbial woodshed" and I figured was the summer kitchen. Further out was an old barn, obviously from Dad's day, and in front of it a large round concrete water tank about three feet high. "1930" was inscribed on the top edge. Dad was 14 then.

Strangely, in the middle of that drought-stricken, abandoned homestead, with no livestock nearby, the tank was full of clear, clean water. And here and there in the sparkling water, stems of water lilies grew up toward the sunshine.

"Maybe there's a natural spring underneath," I ventured. Fred looked dubious.

I took pictures and prayed that I could share this experience with Dad before he died.

We cruised the country roads and Fred showed me where he had stayed the summer he was 20, with our cousin Joni and his family. There was Uncle Clarence's Amos's place, and this great-uncle's and that second cousin's. We passed old farmhouses where the wind blew through the windows, and then we stopped in to see our second cousin Bob Yoder, who was outside working on equipment. Not welding like he normally would, he said. It was too windy out here. I was surprised to see this nice Oklahoman in a red do-rag, but I kept my curiosity to myself and smiled politely while he and Fred chatted and the wild wind blew grit into my teeth.

In the car, I asked Fred. He looked exasperated. "It wasn't a do-rag. It's standard welding clothes, like a leather jacket."


Messages from Marcus indicated that Dad was stable, maybe improving slightly. So was the last kitty, according to texts from the girls.

Fred and I had lunch in Weatherford with Loraine, and then we hung around town and Fred bought gifts for the children and we bought Braum's ice cream, an Okie specialty, and then we went back to Corn and I made a hot dish for supper. Loraine's family came by that evening and I had to keep stepping outside to take calls from Paul, who was changing my tickets so I could fly to Minnesota early the next morning instead of home to Oregon later in the day as planned.

So that is what I did, and that is why I never got the photographs of downtown Corn and its fascinating emptiness that I had planned to shoot at sunrise. Someday I hope to go back, before the town is gone.

Saturday, April 09, 2011


My brother Fred went to Oklahoma in the late 70s, when he was 20, to work for Aunt Lyddie's husband Amos on their ranch near the town of Thomas, west of Oklahoma City and north of Interstate 40. Then he followed the wheat harvest for years and had lots of other adventures and somehow ended up in Corn, as far south of I40 as Thomas is north.

I think it was six years ago that he married Loraine who was also from Corn. They live in Loraine's grandma's old house.

Corn sits in the middle of rolling wheat fields. As you follow the highway west, you suddenly come upon a steel grain bin that says "Welcome to Corn," at the top of a small rise, and when you see that warm welcome you can't see a blessed thing of any town, and it looks like Corn consists of this grain bin. Which is oddly creepy, like it's a taste of things to come.

Because Corn is disappearing. Or dying. It was started as a settlement of staunch Mennonites of the Loewen and Friesen varieties. There's still a big Mennonite Brethren church in the middle of town. In its heyday Corn had over 500 people and served a wide swath of rural area.

Then the farmers started moving to towns, and the population got older, and young people moved away, and the ones that stayed didn't have the big families of longer ago.

So now you get this feeling of a beautiful, close-knit community that is on its way out.

The feed mill is gone and the metal bins are all rusty. The bank is closed, the hardware store, the grocery store, the insurance place. This is the first year that there's no public school in town. The Baptist church is down to about seven old people. The newspaper closed down when the publisher got too old.

We walked to the south end of town where there's town on one side of the street and fields on the other. The wheat fields look green, but Fred and Loraine said this drought is the worst since even before the 30s, and there's no way to save this wheat crop. If the stalks form heads at all, they will be empty. Maybe they can cut it for straw, Fred said, but not today. It would all blow into the next county.

The town is dotted with too many real estate signs. The dilapidated house across the street, along with the generous lot, could probably be bought for $8000, said Fred.

And yet, it's a wonderful town. The nursing home is huge and modern and said to be the best in the state. And Corn Academy at the other end of town, a Christian boarding school, the second oldest of its kind in the country, is going strong.

And the people are warm and friendly and midwestern. As we walked down the street in the summery wind, we had to stop and chat with everyone. We stopped by Loraine's sister's and saw the new puppies. The guy way down the street in his wheelchair was discussed, along with what people say about his new wife. There was a sense of camaraderie that seemed unusual even for the Midwest.

(Or maybe it was just Fred and Loraine, and who they are.)

Fred and Loraine seemed to know who lives in each house, what they're up to, what's happening with the house if it's empty.

Their neighbor talked about the most efficient way to water the lawn and came by with a loaf of fresh bread.

Fred told me about the neighbor on the other side, an incongruous transplant from the East Coast who fancies herself far above her Republican neighbors and insists on buying "green" products on her daily trips to Walmart, 13 miles away. She hauls out two big trash cans, full, every week, says Fred, and feeds canned cat food to the roving tom cat.

But I'm sure that if she got the flu, Loraine would take her some hot soup.

So life goes on in Corn, and old people go to the nursing home, and neighbors watch out for each other, and the wind blows and blows, like it's trying to blow that little town right off the prairie, like it had never been there in the first place.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Oklahoma Winds

The wind blew the whole time I was in Oklahoma.

By "blew" I mean, every flag straight out from the pole, the car changing lanes on Interstate 40 if I tried to read a text from home, my flared skirt blowing lots of regions it had never been before while I tried to buy gas in Weatherford.

Thank goodness I wore a slip.

"This is a normal landing for Oklahoma City," said the guy beside me on the plane as we jerked and rocked downward and I felt as queasy as I've ever felt on a big plane. He was nonchalant about the landing, and about everything else in life, I gathered. I chose that seat because the plane was almost full and because he was holding a baby and had a little boy beside him. As I was getting settled he started talking to the lady behind me who was also holding a baby.

Twins! And they couldn't sit in the same row because there aren't enough oxygen masks. So I sat there and held the baby a bit and rummaged in his blue backpack for the cheerios that he couldn't reach.

The calm and smiling dad told me they had had trouble conceiving and the first child was the result of a "scientific experiment" in which they had been told they would almost certainly have multiple babies. But they had only one, and figured finances and biological limitations meant they were done. And two years later Mrs. was unexpectedly pregnant. With identical twins.

"You can be anyone you want on a plane," said Lisa, my brother's wife's nephew's sweet wife who reads Life in the Shoe (Hi Lisa!). "I could be a doctor or anything I want on a plane. People always tell you these wild stories of what they do and I don't believe half of what they say."

Maybe like the guy who told me one time how he won and lost a quarter-million dollars.

But not like the young dad. He had evidence for his stories crawling all over his lap.

The sun shone and the wind blew as I left OKC and headed east toward Prague. . . pronounced like it rhymes with "plague," but evidently named for the original because they have a kolache festival coming up.

I had expected vast wheat fields but instead saw lots of rolling land with scruffy brush and trees, all in a rather bleak brown with a slight tinge of green and the occasional surprising purple-flowered tree. Redbud, someone told me. The state tree.

Years ago Paul was on the missions committee so we would visit the mission in Mexico near the Jagueyes (or something) colony, a big bunch of Mennonites whose history divided from ours centuries ago, winding through Russia and Canada and Low German, as opposed to our Alsace and Ohio and Pennsylvania Dutch.

A bunch of these Mennonites came to Oklahoma in the last 30-ish years, and an offshoot of this group, now affiliated with Bible Mennonite Alliance, asked me to come speak for their annual Ladies' Day.

So I drove to Prague and then the back ways to Edwin and Irma Loewen's house, but first I went too far, and the road dipped down and went right through a little creek, then I found the right house, where I had a tour of their parakeet business--thousands of birds in re-configured semi trailers--and slept in the bedroom of the pretty, feminine teenage daughter who had a camo-and-pink hat on the wall and also a hunting rifle.

Saturday was spent at the "Ladies' Day" at the church which drew a hundred ladies from Oklahoma and Kansas, from Beachy Amish to Charity to varieties I can't remember. I recognized my childhood friend Joyce whom I hadn't seen in about 35 years, and saw old friends of Mom's, and people I had known only online.

It was a wonderful audience who listened well, especially Jewel who sat in the front row and whose laughter at my stories was like a B-12 shot of courage. I spoke four times which normally kills my voice but this time it stayed strong. Then the ladies had a chance to tell their own stories during the testimony time, from Margaret who didn't get flowers for her anniversary after all, but then she got a van instead, to little "Amanda" who had to grow up way too fast when she had a baby at 13.

I stayed at Erna Dueck's house that evening, and after supper she and I took a long rambling walk out in the pasture and the summery air, down cow paths and across the creek and around the bull and over cow pies and through the brushy woods. And we talked nonstop and laughed a lot and it was the best possible unwinding after a day of being up front.

Sunday I taught the ladies' Sunday school class, from teenagers to grandmas, and had lunch with a wonderful young family, the Ungers, whose 7-year-old daughter showed me her new pink and yellow room and talked about sporangium at the dinner table.

And then I got in my rental car and bucked the wind all the way to Fred and Loraine's house in Corn, the nicest depressing town in the country.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011


Someone told me recently that they prefer that I post travelogues as they're happening rather than all after the fact. I have been down in windy Oklahoma with lots of relatives to see and things to write about but very little time to do so. Meanwhile my dad is in the hospital in Minnesota with a bowel blockage and a few other issues, so instead of flying home tomorrow I'm going to see my folks. And I got a series of frantic phone calls today because Jenny's cat had six kittens in the sewing room ten days ahead of her due date according to Jenny the midwife. Among lots of other adventures I finally got to meet Margaret, my cousin Truman's son Freeman's wife, whom I have known online for a while. She says, Quote of the Day: "Let us be thankful for never a dull moment!"