Sunday, October 30, 2011


29 years ago tonight we had our first date.

That's the statistic for the day.

Now for a story about a romantic Oregon farmer. I spoke at a women's retreat up in the mountains an hour and a half northwest of here on Friday and Saturday. One young woman there is married to a grass-seed-and-clover farmer who heard about the retreat and said, "Oh--Smucker? That's where we send our screenings." That would be Steve the BIL who turns the offscourings of grass seed cleaning into pellets for cattle feed.

Anyway, when this young couple was dating, the guy, who sacked seed for the family warehouse, took the stencil maker for the bags and punched in "I love you Mary" and inked it on duct tape and wrapped the tape around a water bottle and gave it to his girlfriend.

Anyone who has sacked seed will appreciate that romantic gesture, I think.

As for that anniversary, today in church I was thinking, if I would have known what I was in for, would I do it over again?

That's not really a fair question, is it? It wasn't the date or the guy that made things hard or easy since then, although we have certainly had our tough times. Life just finds ways to be hard whether you say yes or no to the nice tall freckled guy.

But I'm glad I said yes.

Quote of the Day, in which Mrs. Smucker thinks it's good she didn't have a premonition of this when she agreed to that first date.
Emily: You put SUGAR on your CEREAL??
Paul: Yes.
[Too-long too-loud discussion/argument on whether or not sugar is bad for you]
Emily: Just don't come running to me when you're sick and dying and on your deathbed!
Paul: Do I tend to do that?
Emily: What? Be sick and die or come running to me?
[etc. etc.]

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

My Cold

I have a cold.

When other people have colds I tend to say, Oh that's too bad, and I tend to think, Well, it's just a cold, get on with your life.

If I remember right, I haven't had a real full-blown cold for a long time. I've spent the last couple of winters swallowing vitamins and cod liver oil and echinacea, and when others in the family got sick I sliced raw garlic into my salads despite the family's protests and plowed through like James Bond piloting that plane through the flames in Tomorrow Never Dies, which I once watched on a plane, never fear, I don't watch JB on my own time.

I also haven't had a full-blown flu since that horrible bout with swine flu a few years ago.


I came home from Minnesota and Emily had a cold that made her look like she was weeping miserably for a couple of days, and it was bad but she said it's not as bad as feeling sick all over.

I took my vitamins and was sure I'd be fine.

But I caught her cold and oh mei zeit I am sorry for ever not feeling sorry enough for you if you ever told me you had a cold.

I feel like someone dumped acid in my eyes, stuffed styrofoam up my nose, pushed me down the stairs, attacked me with the forklift, and ran me through the spin cycle on the washer. I glance at the light and my eye gets all prickly and gushes forth tears that stream down my cheek. My chest is slathered in Vicks but I can't smell it. I cut up pieces of an old flannel sheet for handkerchiefs, since Kleenexes are just too savage for my raw nose.

I spend a lot of time in bed and can't muster up the courage to do a load of laundry.

I can think of only one good result of this and that is that when I'm not lying down I can usually work on the computer, and I did a bunch of work on my next book and also planning for the writing class I'm starting to teach next week.

You're probably thinking, It's just a cold, why don't you get on with your life? I guess colds are much more dramatic and portentious when they're your own and not someone else's.

Quote of the Day:
"I came to the conclusion that if things are difficult, that's not an abnormality. That's just normal."
--Mike G., a friend from church

Friday, October 21, 2011

Old Pictures

After posting the other day about Matt's surgery in 1991, I dug out some old pictures of the occasion, just for fun.

You can see them here.

The Dakotas

I'm not sure why I find South Dakota so interesting. Both of the Dakotas, actually. It has always seemed to me that people from there are friendly, tough, practical, and unpretentious in a way that makes people from other parts of the country seem a bit sissified in comparison.

Some of my perception is due to random snapshot experiences. Like the time we were driving to Minnesota and stopped at a cafe in a tiny town for breakfast. I looked over the newspapers for sale at the front counter and asked the cashier if they had any with national news. She paused. "Well," she said, "as national as we get out here."

I loved that line.

Or the time Jenny and I rode the bus home from Minnesota and I talked with a few Dakota grandmas for a couple of hundred miles, and then one of them got off the bus and got picked up by a wholesome, smiling teenage farm boy in a pickup truck with a trailer behind who hugged his grandma and hoisted in her luggage and seemed a world apart from the slouching, miserable-looking, black-clad high school crowd that crosses the street by WinCo in Eugene.

Then of course there was my nephew who died in South Dakota, and his crowd of friends who came to his viewing and hugged the family and freely conversed with this West Coast aunt like they wanted to know how I fit into Leonard's life and like I was worth getting to know.

And then there's the mystique of the South Dakota Farm Boy as the Ideal Man, as discussed by Emily and Hillary way back in early 2006.

So I have a bit of an idealized picture of Dakotans. But I didn't know if I could ever live there.

My nephew had been very good friends with a family in South Dakota--Tim and Katie Faber, I'll call them--and their many young-adult children. When Leonard died, the Fabers were "there" for his family in intensely supportive and ongoing ways.

Some time ago the Fabers moved to a ranch in western South Dakota where they raise hay. I'm not sure if they also have cattle and sheep, but I know others in the area do. [They also put llamas out with the sheep to chase off coyotes which I find intriguing.] While I was at Mom and Dad's last week, my brother Marcus and SIL Anna went to visit Fabers for the weekend.

They came home with lots of stories about life in western South Dakota. It's rugged but not Badlands country exactly, Marcus said, and not all prairie either. Basically ranch country with buttes here and there. There are two public high schools to choose from, he said. One is 30 miles from the ranch and the other 35. The bus from the one school goes as far as 50 miles away to pick up students.

If a part breaks down on a John Deere baler, you have three John Deere dealers to choose from to get the part, but they are all about 85 miles away. So do you spend the day making a 170-mile round trip, or do you order the part and wait for it to be delivered the next day?

Tim and Katie took Marcus and Anna to a Norwegian supper at a small Lutheran church, some 60 miles away. About 200 people showed up, most likely from all directions and distances, and they all seemed to revel in the chance to talk with "neighbors" like this.

"It would take a special person to live in a place like that," I said.

"How so?" Marcus asked.

"You'd have to be ok with not being connected with people," I said. "I mean, driving through Montana and North Dakota, I'd see these houses sitting there alone in miles and miles of countryside and I thought, I don't know if I'd have it in me to live there, so far from other people."

Marcus disagreed with me. "You wouldn't believe how connected those people are with their neighbors, even if the neighbors are five or ten miles away. They really watch out for each other. If someone is making a run to the grocery store, they call each other up to see if they need anything. Someone called up Katie to see if she needed groceries, and she said she needs lettuce, and the next morning there were two heads of lettuce on the front seat of the truck. If someone is having a hard time, the neighbors help them out. People make you feel valuable, and they talk with you. On our way out there we stopped and ate at a little cafe before we went on to the ranch, and there was only one other customer, and she struck up a conversation with us and wanted to know all about us and told us about her work as an EMT."

"In fact," Marcus said, "I really think people are more connected in that part of South Dakota than they are in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania."

Wow. Maybe I could live in South Dakota after all.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

20 Years Ago

Twenty years ago today we almost lost our son.

We were living in the wilds of Northwestern Ontario, on an Indian reserve of some 800 people. Paul taught at the little Christian school. Matt was 5, Amy 3, and Emily 1.

A child on the reserve belongs to everyone and this was especially true of our children who were stared at and gushed over and discussed and kissed everywhere they went. People loved Emily's big blue eyes and Amy's charm, but they seemed especially fascinated by Matt with his red hair and his way of going up to anyone, anywhere, and talking their ears off whether they spoke English or not. "Matchoo," people would murmur with a twinkle in their eyes. "Matchoo, Matchoo," and they would shake their heads. They couldn't understand him, but they loved him.

"Emmity-go-genes," the old people would say as they grinned indulgently at our crew. "Little white kids." And when Matt sat by the aisle in church, old men shuffling up to their seats would reach out and reverently touch his hair as they passed.

They also discussed us on the village radio. It's hard to explain the role of the local station on the reserve, not that there were any non-local stations to choose from. Everything was announced and discussed there. The time Paul took the kids out canoeing when the ice was breaking up--that got discussed on the radio. And when the other teacher's parents came to visit, the neighbor lady went on the radio and said everybody be careful driving down this way, there are two old people visiting. His parents were actually in their 40s.

We had electricity and phones at Round Lake but it still felt very isolated. During most of the year the only way in and out was by plane. The exception was from January to March, when you could bump your way out some 25 miles of bush road pushed over the frozen ground.

There was a nursing station on the reserve, and a small grocery store. The nearest doctor was some 175 miles away in Pickle Lake. The nearest hospital roughly 300 miles away. The nearest big grocery store some 400 miles.

That fall of 1991 Matthew got sick. We seemed to get sick an awful lot, so this wasn't such a big deal. He had a stomach ache for a few days and just didn't feel good. Then one night he vomited off and on all night, so I took him to the nurses in the morning. They said it's just a virus and his stomach hurts from all the vomiting.

He got a bit better but I was still concerned. Then a few nights later he woke up screaming. We took him to bed with us and he was in terrible pain and his abdomen was as hard as a board. What on earth? Finally he fell asleep and as soon as we could I laid him on a big sled and hauled him to the nursing station.

Something was obviously wrong, they said. Something had ruptured inside, but it didn't seem like appendicitis. They started an IV and said he needs to be flown out for surgery. So while they called in the air ambulance from Sioux Lookout, 300 miles away, we made hasty plans, finally deciding that Paul would fly out with him and I would stay home with the girls.

An old van drove us to the airstrip and the big sleek ambulance plane landed. They loaded Matt's stretcher inside and I tearfully told him goodbye, with that ghastly knot in the pit of my stomach that you feel when you don't know if your child will live or die.

They flew off.

Someone took us back home. I tried to do housework, and people came by all day, offering their support. The radio station announced updates whenever I got a call from Paul.

Meanwhile Paul and Matt were taken to the hospital in Sioux Lookout. Matt was evaluated. Yes, he needs surgery, although they still didn't know what for. The lone surgeon was out fishing. The policemen couldn't get their boat motor started to go fetch him.

They called the Dryden hospital. The one surgeon there was out moose hunting.

They would take him to Thunder Bay.

At 9:00 that night he went into surgery. The radio announcer told the whole village to stay awake until they knew if little Matthew Smucker would be ok.

At 10:30 I got the call that Matt was out of surgery and he would be fine. I fell to pieces from sheer relief and gratitude. Our friend Lucy Day was less sentimental. She grabbed the phone and called the radio station. They announced the news and told everyone they can go to bed now.

So we all did.

The trouble had been a Meckel's diverticulum, a little tube or pouch on the small intestine, left over from before he was born, that had a bit of stomach tissue in it. This developed an ulcer and eventually burst through the intestinal wall.

He would probably have died without the surgery, said the doctor. And, he said, looking a bit puzzled, often these cases bleed heavily before surgery but for some reason Matt's didn't.

Two weeks later, we had a blizzard and the planes couldn't fly.

So despite the ordeal we saw God's hand all over it and knew He still had a purpose for Matt's life.

Matt was in the Thunder Bay hospital for a week. The mission pilot flew me and the girls out a few days later. We hung out at the hospital and watched Matt recover.

And 20 years later Matt is all grown up with a scar across his belly button to remind him of the time he got to live and not die.

Quote of the Day:
"It hurts so bad and I'm so hungry but they won't let me eat and I told the doctor I want a hamburger but they won't let me have one."
--Matt's teary words to me when I got to the hospital which of course made me cry as well. We got him a hamburger before we left Thunder Bay a week later. Maybe this deprivation is what makes him so fond of Wendy's Baconators

Minnesota Musings

We set a new record, Caleb and Grandma and I, door to door from here to my folks' in 26 hours. Let's just say that when you have a determined 19-year-old driver, Montana roads at night, and 3 Monster energy drinks for the driver, you cover a lot of ground in a short time.

Dad at going-on-95 tends his garden, picks apples, milks the goat, cuts wood with the chain saw, and a lot more. He has a few ongoing health issues related to his setback in April, but on my sister's advice I got some apple cider vinegar and he's on a regimen of a few tablespoons a day in a glass of water. Some people might fuss at drinking vinegar but it fits right in with Dad's philosophy that if it tastes terrible, it's probably good for you. Hence the broccoli in his oatmeal, for one minor example.

Dad has the most astonishing memory. He can pull up names and dates like his brain is Google with a high-speed connection. I'm happy to say that he's 14 pages into writing the story of his two years in Paraguay with MCC back when the Mennonite refugees were coming there from Russia. I read his story--so far--one night. He and a few other MCC volunteers took a freighter to Paraguay (actually they landed in Buenos Aires) and Dad was seasick the entire 28-day journey. Another one of the 8 or so passengers was a French guy who was involved in the movie industry, but unfortunately that was one name Dad couldn't recall.

My favorite story was how he was invited to a "tea party," a fancy affair where the MCC guys and two doctors and a few others were brainstorming about possible medical projects. Now Dad, growing up Amish in Oklahoma, was not accustomed to tea parties. They offered the options of sugar, lemon, and milk for your tea, so Dad put in all three. And, he said, it made cheese. He drank it, of course. See that previous paragraph about eating gross foods.

Mom's memory is still good for being 91, but names escape her all the time. It's very frustrating, because she has always loved to recount stories of people she worked for and all the hundreds of friends and relatives she knows, but she starts to tell a story and the name is just gone.

But there was one episode where Mom's memory was better than Dad's and mine. They had missed their grandson Jason's birthday. Oh dear. So Mom told Dad to buy a "grandson" birthday card when he went to town. Unfortunately he got a "granddaughter" card, which will be fine for Janet later this month but won't do for Jason. I was going to go to Paynesville to do my email at the library so I told her I'd pick up a card for her.

After I used the library I put my computer in the car, locked it, and went over to Twice's Nice, the cool second-hand store across from the library. And there was a whole box of cards. Bingo! I found a nice one and paid the very discounted price and went home and triumphantly gave it to Mom. She looked confused instead of pleased. "But," she said, "this one is for a granddaughter too!" She was right. What was I thinking???

On Monday I took Mom to Willmar for groceries and she picked out her own card.

Meanwhile with great effort I had managed to unlock the battleship a.k.a Pontiac doors except for the back door on the driver's side. The little knob simply wouldn't budge. I gathered, and Dad affirmed this, that those doors pretty much never get locked. I don't think the keys get pulled very often either.

You gotta love Minnesota.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


I was cleaning off some SD cards and putting the pictures on cd's for storage so I needed to label them. "Spring 2011. Jr. Convention. Kittens. Oklahoma. MN. Etc." Another one: "Summer 2011. Cats. Bible Memory Camp. Etc."

"Etc." can mean a lot of things. A close-up of a pansy in the flower bed. A shot of orange dots on the ceiling. Trish's kids on the trampoline. Jenny and Janane's artfully arranged Converse shoes. A pretty cake. Etc.

* * *
Tomorrow I'm off on another visit to my parents in Minnesota. Caleb the 19-year-old nephew from Wisconsin has been out here working for about 4 months and was going to drive home by himself. So I suggested going along as far as Minnesota so I could help drive. And then Paul's mom decided to go along too.

So we leave early tomorrow morning and drive "straight through." It used to take us 32 hours from here to Minnesota but I think Caleb thinks we can do it in less than that. I have a feeling we will all three have some stories to tell our friends when the trip is over.

* * *
I read a moving post by a blogger named Jessica Derstine, on miscarriage.


I look around and wonder.
How my mind would feel right now.
How my body would be changed.
How my days would play out.

I look around and wonder.
Why does no one talk about this.
Why does everyone ignore it.
Why does it feel so alone.

I look around and wonder.
How many mama's feel the same.
How many babies are not here.
How many times they are missed.

I look around and wonder.
If I'll ever understand.
If I'll ever be here again.
If I'll ever forget.

And she adds: Why does no one talk about the babies that they lose.

While I am very grateful I've never had a miscarriage, I often feel inadequate in comforting or supporting women who have. This helped me understand what they feel.

* * *
This writing tip was on a recent Willamette Writers email. I thought it was really simple but profound.
Playwright, screenwriter, director David Mamet presents the foundation of storytelling this way:

· Once upon a time -
· And then one day -
· Just when everything was going so well -
· When at the last minute -
· And then everyone -

If you can complete these sentences, you have the outlines of a tight, beginning-middle-end story. Let's work it out for a film you probably are familiar with, E.T.

· Once upon a time -- there was a lonely boy.
· And then one day -- he met a stranded alien.
· Just when everything was going so well -- the alien said, "E.T. go home."
· When at the last minute -- the boy revived E.T., rescued him from scientists, and helped him catch his spaceship.
· And then everyone -- was sadder but wiser, learning that love is letting go.

(by Charles Deemer)
* * *
Quote of the Day:
"Mom? Five minutes with Dorcas and already you're crying?"
--my friend "Jill's" daughter "Alice," after church one Sunday this summer. When "Jill" and I get together we cut to the emotional chase immediately.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

October column

Today's column is about education and learning and wisdom. I'll let you decide whether or not the bribes were worth it.

Here's the story.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


Today I was working on my column for October, having gotten my deadline extended just a bit by my new editor who has yet to get used to my procrastinating ways. After I finished the column, I posted this on Facebook:

"Writing is expensive. No, not Writers Digest magazine or online classes, but paying Jenny $5 to let me put in that paragraph about her making apple crisp and I think the orange-pop-on-the-ceiling story about Steven will set me back at least $10. Yes, I'm desperate.

A lady named Valerie Martin commented: "Trying to decide if it's free-market capitalism or extortion. :o)"

And Katie Troyer said:
You are going to end up in the Poor House.

So I thought maybe I should explain how this works in this household.

I have a policy that I don't write about the children in my newspaper column without their permission, and they have veto power over anything I write about them. This would be much easier if I always worked on the column two weeks ahead of the deadline, or if they never did anything they didn't want the world to know about. [On the other hand, what on earth would I write about if they were that well-behaved??]

But when I'm down to the wire with my deadline and sitting here furiously typing, with everyone else off to school, and with my hair uncombed, and a wild look in my eyes like the ghost of the butcher's first wife in Fiddler On the Roof, well I am way beyond considering the tender feelings of the poor little Smucker darlings. I've just GOT TO GET THIS DONE NOW!!!!!!!!!!!

That's how I was today, with the Looming Deadline at noon.

But then I had a moment of sanity, remembering how wrong things have gone with a recent column or two, and I reconsidered.

See, I had written this very accurate paragraph about how Jenny made apple crisp the other day and fussed almost the entire time.

But oh, the dilemma, because if you have a third of the article pinned on this example, you have to rework the whole stinkin' thing if the child says you can't use that story.

I called her up at school.
Me: Hey, Jenny. I wrote about you in my article and I want to know if it's ok. Here, I'll read it to you. [read read read]
Jenny: No, Mom!
Me: But it's true, isn't it?
Jenny: Well, yeah, but I don't want people to know that about me!
Me: How much will you charge?
Jenny: Five dollars!
Me: Deal!

Now I'll let you decide if that's bribery, extortion, or good old American capitalism.

Another example I used was Steven's exploding can of orange pop. I told him this last night. He said, "Moooooooommmmm...!" I could hear the abacus beads clicking in his head and as mentioned above I thought sure this was going to cost me a good $10. But he settled for $7.

I'm still making a slight profit, and I can probably file these under Expenses when I do my taxes.

I also mentioned Paul's mom in the article, so I emailed her those paragraphs for approval, and she didn't charge me a thing.