Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Conquering Fears & A New Start

After 8 years and 9 months, it was time.

Regular readers may have noticed that Life in the Shoe has always been pink.  Pink around the edges, pink in the middle, pink header.

I didn't change it, ever, because:
a) I like pink.
b) I don't enjoy fiddling around with wires in the attic of my blog or rusty water pipes down in the basement.
c) I had this terrible fear that if I changed the template of my blog, all my posts would disappear.

My children tried to talk me out of that last fear, which is about as effective as trying to logically talk anyone out of any fear.

"There is no way a garter snake is going to hurt you!!"

"Where did you come up with that particular connection?  I mean, that's like saying everything will disappear when you post another blog post.  It's just a normal thing to do on your blog."

They also tried not to laugh at me, but I did notice a few significant shared glances when the subject came up.

Finally I decided the time had come.  The end of 2013 was approaching.  2014 was going to begin.

I Googled how to back up a blog and sweated through that process.

Then, as you see, I faced my fears, told everyone around me to stop talking so I could concentrate, and changed the template.  It was a lot easier than I had expected.  And, as nearly as I can tell, all my posts are still there, even a few that probably ought to disappear.

My blogging friend Luci says that a post should have a point.  My point is that most of us have fears and most of those fears are not logical at all, but that doesn't lessen their size or import.

But the end of one year and the beginning of another is a good time to take a deep breath, Google the directions, and attack the most humiliating fear on your list.

Purple is quite pretty, don't you think?

Quote of the Day:
Emily: Can I talk now?
Me: No, I'm trying to think of a word.
Emily: What word are you trying to think of?

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Projects I've Been Working On

Lately I've had this urge to sew, which was always my mom's way of coping with life's tough transitions.  Sometimes I think she has more influence on our family from that side of the grave than she had from this one, but that is a subject for another day.

I have the sort of conscience--maybe from Mom??-- that sees sewing as play rather than work or medicine, so I feel like I can't sew until the other housework is done.

And is housework ever done??

But in a happy turn of events, I have two adult daughters at home who, when they're not employed otherwise, ask me to make a list of things that need to be done around the house.

I also make a list for the 14-year-old daughter who doesn't ask for it.  Yet.

And then I go sew with a free conscience.

Mom always seemed like she had a magnet inside for scrap fabric, and it would come to her, unbidden, from neighbors and relatives and sewing factories, and even, it seemed, stealing across the frozen cornfields in the dark of night, quietly slipping into her basement stash.

I have the same attraction for castoff fabric, and I get an unreasonable delight from finding ways to use it up.

Like these bags which I made from sack-like fabric pieces with one hemmed edge each.  They combined well, I thought, with the vintage Holly-Hobbie cutouts that showed up.  At least one bag is for the niece who likes all things repurposed, vintage, and quirky.

I'm tucking in a notebook from Thailand, knowing she would appreciate the unusual translated English as much as we did.

We should all remember to do this first.

I'm also on a roll with 50's dresses, with simple fitted bodices and a pleated or circle or gathered skirt.  In another happy turn of events, so are my daughters.

Back in the day, I'd make one of them a new dress, preferably Daisy Kingdom, featuring a full skirt and ruffles and a big white collar with ribbons.

"OOOhhhhhh, Moooommmm!!!"  they would say, and then they would twirl and exclaim, "OHH, it's a CAKE dress, because when I twirl and then go down, it poofs out like a cake!!"

A few years passed and I'd make them something.  "Um, Mom?  I don't know how to say this, and I don't want to hurt your feelings, but this is really kind of, I don't know....I think I'd rather you bought me clothes instead of trying to make them."

But now, oh happy day, my girls once again like me to sew for them.

Recently I sewed them each a dress. 

Somehow they all wear a size 8 even though they are three different heights, so it's easy to use one pattern for all three.  Except I never just pick a pattern and follow it.

I used the bodice pattern on the right below for all three dresses, altering the neckline as requested.  For Jenny on the left and Amy on the right (above) I used the pleated skirt on the left below.  Emily's dress has a full circle skirt.


I think this is called "popping your heel."

Am I blessed with lovely daughters or what?? she asked proudly.

Up close.  The polka dots and elephants came from Thailand.


While the girls posed, our friend Anna cleaned up the kitchen with Steven.

Emily's dress fabric was kind of an odd shifty material, and the circle skirt ended up hanging very unevenly.  So I had her stand on a tall stool in the kitchen while I re-measured and pinned the hem.

She felt dizzy, up that high, so Paul offered his services as a post while he read the comics.

It reminded me of that scene in The Yearling where the mom, played by Jane Wyman, Ronald Reagan's first wife, wants to pin the hem in her new dress so she has her husband, played by Gregory Peck, wear the dress and stand in the middle of the kitchen while she goes around and around, frowning and pinning, while the son looks on, smirking.  And it is utterly awfully obvious that Jane Wyman had never sewed a stitch in her life.

Somehow that made me feel good about myself.

Twenty years ago we were living in the North and drying all our laundry on indoor lines, so Mom used her salvaged fabric and made me a bunch of hangers with clothespins attached, to dry socks and such.

They were wonderful, and I used them until they fell apart, long after we had a dryer.  Then I made some more.

I got the idea to make some for the Smucker ladies at our Christmas dinner this Saturday, since we like to give each other small gifts.

Here are three.  I'll post a tutorial soon because they are pretty easy to make and surprisingly useful.

Smucker ladies: try to act surprised on Saturday.

Friday, December 20, 2013


Three things always surprise me about death and grief.

1. The humor.  I remember when my nephew Leonard died suddenly the grief and shock were like a suffocating cloud.

I didn't think I would laugh again for a very long time, if ever.  Yet down in Mom and Dad's basement in the days that followed we found the most idiotic things funny and collapsed in laughter.

Later I wondered, were our options down to a)laughing or b)going crazy?

With Mom's death, we experienced an entirely different sort of grief but again had these moments of stifled laughter behind the scenes.

None of us were on the ball like we should have been with getting Dad's suit cleaned before the funeral, which caused some complications, including calling back to the house right before the viewing for the stragglers to bring the right pair of pants, which turned out to have a rip in the seam in the seat.  My sister Rebecca has a purse that can handle any emergency like the time Ben and Zack crashed their bikes at a park in Salem and out came bandages and ointment, which is a whole other story, but in this case she magically produced a sewing kit.

There is nothing quite like huddling with your sister in the bathroom of a rented Evangelical Free church out in the country on a wild winter evening, stitching up your dad's pants so he can be presentable when all the relatives arrive.

Then there was the moment in the receiving line when my sister Margaret looked at the doorway and the first arriving crowds and exclaimed, "Why it's Aunt Ennie."  I turned to her and hissed, "Aunt Ennie is dead!" and suddenly I was laughing so hard I thought I would choke, and my sisters joined me, and we plopped down on the front pew and tried to look like we were crying.

It was actually my cousin Katie, Ennie's daughter who looks like her mom.

In Margaret's defense, it was hard to stay in touch with those aunts and uncles after we were grown and gone, and we all kind of lost track of who was still alive and who was gone.

Then there was another bathroom episode.

We had brought winter gear to wear to the burial and stowed it in the restroom.  I had a suitcase full of coats and gloves and scarves.  Others just had piles.

One of the two toilets was obviously malfunctioning so we didn't use that.  After the burial, when we were back in the bathroom shedding our layers and getting ready for the lunch, my cousin Anna Fern's voice came from the remaining stall.  "Is it safe to flush this?  It doesn't look too good."

I thought it would be ok.

She flushed.

Suddenly she made an alarmed noise as the water rose higher and higher.  We snatched the plunger from the other stall and first she shoved and then I did, but it did no good.

The water began to spread across the floor as we all grabbed armfuls of boots, coats, and trailing scarves off the floor and fled.

Anna Fern had the presence of mind to grab large wads of paper towels out of the garbage and throw them onto the pool to keep it contained.

It was funny in a terrible, what-else-could-go-wrong sort of way.

Later I saw a man walk by with his hands full of cleaning supplies.  I said, "Are you the. . . pastor?"  He said yes.  I said, "Are you heading for that mess in the bathroom??"

He said, "I found when I took this job in September that if you pastor a country church, you do a lot of things that were never on your job description."

Which brings me to surprise 2.  How kind everyone is.

The pastor cleaning up the ladies' restroom.  My friend Anita inviting me over for tea so I could debrief from the emotional highs and lows of the last weeks.

My columnist friend Bob Welch wrote in his column that my mom had died and he encouraged people to email me.  They did, in droves.  Perfect strangers who just wanted to be kind.

People texted, called, offered to help pay for plane tickets, sent flowers, brought food, sent cards, gave me hugs, prayed for us, posted sympathies on Facebook, and gave me lots of grace.

It was astonishing.

3. The uniqueness of grief.

Losing Mom was very different from losing my nephew which was very different from losing Paul's dad or my friend Marilyn.

Much of the grief for Mom was before she passed.  Much of the pain over the years was from that terrible helplessness and inability to make it all better as she lost one ability after another.

One leg of Mom's black nylons somehow came home in our suitcase. It is full of runs and holes.   Mom was always frugal, so when one leg of a pair of pantyhose got a run, she cut off the good leg and saved it.

This worked pretty well when she could see and think ok and throw out the salvaged legs as they also developed holes.

As she got older, it didn't work so well. Dressing up to go somewhere involved a long and frustrating process of digging blindly through tangled black hosiery and trying to find a pair that matched and were still good.

I would have loved to go buy her half a dozen new pairs of black stockings that she could put on with confidence after we threw out all the old ones.

She very emphatically didn't want me involved in this.

Now, I wonder a lot of things, about this issue and many more.  Was preserving her independence really the important thing?  Should I have been more pushy?  Was there a magic way I could have made this stocking issue easier for her without making her feel like I was taking over?  Was it all about me being the rescuer?  Did it matter, really?

Or do I think about stockings because I know I could have rescued her from that inconvenience?  Because I most certainly couldn't rescue her sight, her hearing, her health, or her mind.

And that was truly painful.

 "Everyone grieves in their own way," says Anita.  "It's ok."

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Laying to Rest Isn't Easy

"I am happy that Dorcas's mom is in Heaven," said a friend who stopped in the other day, to Paul.  "But I'm sad that there won't be more stories about her."

I wasn't in on this conversation because I was taking a nap.  In my dreams I heard this voice that wasn't any of my girls but I didn't wake up enough to come see what was going on.

It turned out to be my old friend Judy, who was supposed to meet someone at Uncle James's down the road, but they weren't there, so she came here to use the phone and also talked with Paul for a few minutes.  It says something about my completely exhausted state that I didn't recognize Judy's voice and slept through the conversation.

Getting old is complicated, and so is dying.  Losing someone and laying them to rest is never convenient, and it is phenomenally exhausting in body, soul, and spirit.

So I have been staying home and sleeping a lot.

"How was your trip to Minnesota?" people ask.  "And the funeral?"

When you lose someone you love, you wish the world would slow down, hush, turn gentle and nice.  You want the weather to be sunny and the roads clear and the volume turned way down on the airport announcements from the chief of police of the Port of Portland telling you to watch for unattended baggage, and all the chatty folks to, at the very least, not ask you any questions that require thought.

You want the world to come give you a hug and a cup of tea.  That's all.  You want someone else to figure out rides.  You don't want the phone to ring unless it's your friend Jean saying she's bringing supper.

The world does not cooperate, so you go through your days in a fog, tense and weepy, with jarring noises on the ear and grating, glaring, sights and decisions shoved at you.

And when the weather is terrible, it feels like you just do not have what it takes to handle this.  You just don't.  But you have to.

On the flight to Minnesota, with Paul and I and Jenny and Steven, I got on Paul's computer and checked road and weather conditions for the 2-hour drive to Mom and Dad's house.

Ice. Snow.  Cold.  Wind. Storms.  Warning!  Stay home!

Overwhelmed, I posted a prayer request on Facebook.

My friend Esther, who happens to be Jewish, sent me this:
"When encountering water, one should say that the Baal Shem says that it is a sign of blessing." -HaYom Yom Tevet 21"
Of course snow and ice are the least pleasant forms of water and are making getting where you need to be scary and difficult, but I would like to believe that this is G-d's way of showing that He is showering you with grace and blessing in the middle of a Minnesota winter and this time of hard change for your family.

By the time we landed and got the car, it was after midnight and all the fast food places on Highway 55 were closed.  We stopped at a Holiday gas station and found not only nutritious food but a gray-haired and soft-spoken African-American employee who asked if we belonged to a particular religion and then proceeded to ask if Mennonite was similar to Beachy Amish.  I almost fainted.  Nobody has ever heard of the Beachy Amish, much less, as it turned out, attended some of their services in Pennsylvania.  He also knew all about Dorcas in the Bible and connected her story with Psalm 41 ( Blessed is he that considereth the poor: . . . The Lord will preserve him, and keep him alive;).

We told him why we were in the area, where we were headed, and my fears.  He reminded us of Psalm 91 and the angel of the Lord encamping around those that fear him.

That felt like a blessing as well.  We set forth and, while the roads weren't nice, they weren't awful either, and the real snow didn't start falling until we were about 5 miles from Dad's at about 2 a.m.

It was good to be with family the next day, although Dad, who shifted into low gear about 20 years ago and steadily plowed forward since then, seemed like he'd suddenly lost all energy, ambition, and gumption.

The weather got worse, the wind kicked the snow into drifts on that bleak back road from Dad's lane out to Highway 4, and the temperature dropped to below zero.

A number of vanloads of relatives from around the Midwest cancelled their plans to come.
Headed to the viewing--Steven, Jenny, Dad

We stood at the viewing and hugged friends and relatives and ducked into the anteroom to take phone calls from family members missing flights and trying to find rides from the airport.

One of the last loads to arrive that night was my brother Phil, his son Zack, and our cousin Merlin.  They got stuck in a snowdrift about half a mile from Dad's and couldn't rouse anyone on the phone until finally Marcus answered and went out in his tractor to rescue them.

The road still hadn't been plowed in the morning.

Meanwhile, whoever does these things behind the scenes had tried to dig the grave, first pushing away the snow and then attempting to cut slabs of frozen dirt with concrete saws.  But the saws didn't reach down deep enough, so they set up some sort of canopy and heated it with a propane heater for four or five hours until it thawed enough to dig.

We set out for the funeral a little before nine on Thursday morning, Paul and me, Dad, Emily, and Jenny in our rental car.  The cold wind was beyond bitter.  Emily said, "I didn't know it COULD get this cold."

Down the road at the crest of a slight rise, the snow was drifted over the road for about 100 feet.  Paul was sure he could make it through if he made a run for it.  Twenty feet in, we realized there was a car stuck on the other end of the drift.  Paul immediately slowed down, and then we were stuck.

So in my black dress and my boots borrowed from my 7-year-old nephew Nolan, I got out into that deep snow and obscene wind and pushed.  So did Emily and Jenny and the people from the other stuck car.  Paul needed to drive because the rental car did weird things, kicking out of gear when the wheels spun.

We got out, not without excruciating misery to pantyhosed legs.

Then we didn't know which roads to take, what was plowed and what wasn't.

We finally made it.

My normal self would have thought, "This will make a great story."  My mourning self thought, "I can't handle this.  I just cannot handle this."

But I did anyhow, because we are not given a choice.

The service was warm and nice, and my nieces gave the most amazing tributes ever to their grandma.  Janet told how Mom would write her letters, even in the last year or two, telling how busy she was, raking leaves and washing windows, and "how badly Grandpa needed a haircut."

We laughed.  So very typical and true.

Did I mention Mom was 93?

Because of the cold, the committal was held at the church and then only a few close family scuttled to the restrooms and donned many layers of clothes and went to the cemetery and efficiently laid Mom to rest.
At the burial
She would have been happy about that.  She would not have been pleased that her passing caused so much bother.

She would also have pushed that car out of the snowdrift with far less fuss than I made.

There were plenty more complications that I did not feel able to handle but did anyhow, because I am my mother's daughter and I learned from her that you do what you have to do.

Looking down Dad's lane. The little rainbow/light is a sundog, caused by ice crystals high in the atmosphere.
But now I am home and all I want to do is sleep and sew.  I cook hot dogs for supper which is far below my normal cooking standards, and then I sew a dress and mend a skirt and cut out a bathrobe and finger my pretty cotton fabrics and plan projects.

Mom and I were in some ways very different and it wasn't until recent years that I felt I really received her blessing in certain areas of my life.  But she too turned to sewing to get through the toughest phases of her life.  And maybe that is a strange place to find comfort but it works for me.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A New Stage of Life

To say that the last two weeks have been full of change, transition, stress, action, travel, and people is being very understated with the truth.

So, to go way back to November 26, incidentally my dad's 97th birthday, which he spent in the hospital with his third bladder blockage but recovered from ok...that was the day Amanda arrived.

And the next day Nevin arrived.

Yes, after waiting for years while my children's friends and cousins obligingly grew up, dated, married, and had babies, in which I kept busy with praying, making mental lists, hand-wringing, and the occasional nudge or caution, two of my children, Amy and Ben, are dating.

Or maybe courting. We don't try to fit any particular mold or model here, but suffice it to say that Ben is pursuing a young woman in a determined and Christian manner, and Amy is likewise being pursued by a young man, and things had come to the point where it was time for them to come to the Smuckers for a holiday.
Matt flew in from DC for the occasion, but Emily wasn't able to work it out to come home from SMBI, so she was the only one missing, which was very sad.

But, oh, what detailed preparations beforehand, what excitement, what lists, what baking, what scrubbing of bathrooms, what buying of name-brand breakfast cereal, what hauling of embarrassing excess belongings out of the back hallway, what stuffing of them into the unused playhouse outside!

Not wanting awkward early-morning collisions while going to and from our small upstairs bathroom via a narrow hallway, I had my generous friend and next-door neighbor, Anita, over for tea and she agreed to keep all the guys at her house for the duration so the girls could have the upstairs to themselves.

The guests were here for about a week.  Wednesday evening we had our big Thanksgiving dinner, and from Thursday to Saturday we were out at the coast in a cozy rented house a short walk from the beach.  The weather, in answer to Jenny's prayers, was warm and calm, and the days were full of hiking up mountains, walking on the beach, eating, games, and much discussion.

Amanda & Ben in an ice cream shop
I thought this should be Amy & Nevin's official Facebook photo
Well, maybe this would work better.

Which brings me to a very new angle of this very new phase.  My children are used to being written about.  Sometimes they read what I write and often they don't.  They are very blase about it all.  I have a pretty good feel for what's ok to say and what isn't, and if I write something that's not ok, they tell me, and I do a quick edit.  Or I pay a bribe.

I do not have this easy relationship with the significant others, so I find my head full of stories and my writing process going like this:

Oh, it was so interesting how this all came about. . . but I guess that's not for public consumption.

The first day or so. . . oh wait, better not go there.

It was so funny when. . . oops, better not go there either.

I was so impressed by . . . hmmm, probably shouldn't say that.

But then Jenny insisted that. . . oh, never mind.

But when I told Emily about it on the phone, she figured that . . . never mind that either.


I will say this: Amanda and Nevin are both astonishingly nice, Godly, kind, smart, helpful, hardworking, responsible, mature, and a list of other adjectives as well.

And I can't tell you how blessed that makes me feel.

Resting in the shelter after the hike up Cape Perpetua: Jenny, Matt, Nevin, Amy, Amanda, Ben, and Steven

Despite the newness of our interactions, the time was surprisingly fun and relaxed, thanks to the admirable adaptability of the visitors.  Amanda worked with me in the kitchen a lot, especially on Wednesday, making Thanksgiving dinner while Ben still had classes, and she slipped into the role like she had done it for years.

Matt left for the airport early on Saturday morning and we came home from the coast later in the day.  While Jenny and Steven and I put coolers and leftovers away, the two couples went off by themselves for the evening, away--no doubt to their vast relief--from watchful parents and teenage siblings who always seemed to be everywhere at once.

On the beach, Paul demonstrated to the young people that you can still be romantic this far into the story.

Hiking on the slick rocks at Alsea Falls

 We walked over the long bridge at Waldport, and I may or may not have quietly hummed "Go-o-o-in' to the cha-a-a-pel. . ." as I took these shots.  It was that pretty arched opening, that's all.


Paul, Steven, and Matt.  If you want to play Settlers of Catan with Smucker men, you have to place your arms and elbows and hands in a certain position.  It's a requirement.

Nevin, Amy, and Jenny played Take One.

Sunday morning I woke up at 5:30 and decided to get up to prepare my Sunday school lesson and Sunday dinner and all the other things best done alone and quiet.

My sister Rebecca called me.  My mom had just passed away, back in the nursing home in Minnesota, very swiftly and peacefully and quietly.

And just that quickly can life completely change.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Letter from Harrisburg: Happy Endings

This column was published last Sunday, the day of my mother's passing.  You might well wonder how I feel about "happy endings" in light of this.  She lived a long, full life, she was eager to go be with Jesus, and she had a peaceful passing.  I call that a very happy ending.  The sorrow is all ours, and even that is tempered by the joy of knowing she is where she wanted to be.
Thank you for all the prayers over the past week.

Letter from Harrisburg

All stories should end with ‘happily ever after’

I think every story ought to turn out right in the end. The characters suffer, the plot twists, sharp obstacles rise in the path, but a good story works it all out beautifully by the final page. 
Some of us read “Pride and Prejudice” at least once a year, just to make sure Elizabeth still ends up with Mr. Darcy. I re-read Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books when I’m sick with the flu, thrilled each time that Valancy really leaves her old life behind and acquires her blue castle for keeps.

I love to hear people’s stories, leading family members to agree that I have a sign on my forehead: “Tell me the most intimate details of your life.” It’s fascinating, the invisible threads running through the life stories of everyday people, the strokes of luck, the miraculous connections, the accumulated wisdom.

I enjoy telling stories as well, especially to children, who for some reason prefer ones they’ve already heard. Trevin the young nephew has asked me dozens of times for the Chiclet story, a cautionary tale from my childhood in which I stole one of the pieces of gum my aunt sent my sister for her birthday. I was found out because Mom saw me surreptitiously chewing, and thus I learned that the eyes of both Mom and the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good, and so I never stole again.

That’s why people like me love the Christmas story. The world is dark and God is silent, and then suddenly there are angels singing of good news and a poor young virgin giving birth and “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

Something deep inside connects to a story, to characters and the forces that affect them, to despair turning to impossible hope, to the good guy showing up at last, and to a resolution that makes us close the book and smile and fall asleep.

We look at our own lives, with all our mistakes and frustrations, and we long for resolution for this story as well, for the loose ends to be tied into a neat bow and for meaning and purpose behind the strange turns in the plot.

I always thought everyone loved stories as much as I did, since even the most oblivious people in church perked up when the pastor’s sermon switched from theory and theology to an illustration or story. At family gatherings, relatives of all ages gather around the storytellers, reliving Aunt Allene’s suspense as the old seed truck with its worn-out fan belt growls up Interstate 5 and then — disaster — the belt snaps near Cottage Grove and Allene climbs the fence and despite many perils finally makes it to Harrisburg with the load of seed.

Some time ago, when a generous benefactor offered to pay for me to take an online course in short story writing from Stanford University’s prestigious Continuing Studies department, I found that not everyone in the world likes stories as I had always defined them.

Happy to learn of dialogue, setting and structure, I signed up, bought the textbooks, and dug in. Most of the required reading was “collected short stories” by highly-recommended authors.

I soon found that I had stepped into a sophisticated literary universe where “stories” consisted of vague, dark, hopeless descriptions of people trapped in creepy situations. Nothing ever really happened, nothing changed, and while the words stopped after a while, the stories were never completed.

In the online discussions, the other students, mostly lawyers and scientists and such, discussed the stories’ complexity and depth in ponderous detail, as though they actually qualified as good stories. Even a rural Mennonite mom doesn’t like to appear naïve and unenlightened, so I used my considerable acting skills and contributed an occasional comment.

However, I soon saw the silliness of such pretensions and decided to be what and who I was, a lover of simple stories from the hearts of ordinary people. I learned what I could from the course and then happily left that alien world to itself.

Life had enough vague and dark qualities. A story, I decided, ought to provide an alternative where joy was good and love was real and every event eventually had meaning.

The Bible, while containing poetry and deep theology, is essentially a story, resonating with believers like me because we relate to its all-too-human characters and its assurance that mysterious and meaningful purposes lie behind every event of our lives. Maybe we’re naïve, but in daily challenges and hard times of grief and pain, we reach for a community of faith that assures us of redemption for the past and hope for better things ahead.

“Now remember what you were, my friends, when God called you,” writes Paul the apostle in First Corinthians. “From the human point of view few of you were wise or powerful or of high social standing. God purposely chose what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise.”

So Christmas comes and simple people like me repeat the improbable story of long years of waiting and then a Roman census and a child born and angels announcing peace on Earth. 

Our children act it out in too-large bathrobes under dangling makeshift stars while we weep at its beauty and laugh with its joy. The story rings true in our hearts and so we believe and find, not that seeing is believing but that believing is seeing.

Then we cry harder because our own story includes many wrong turns and dilemmas, but here is forgiveness and peace, and we know we don’t deserve the gift but there it is.  We sing “Joy to the World” because we are full of hope that everything will come out right in the end, just like it ought to.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

A Conversation

We are safely home after laying my mom to rest, and there's lots I want to write someday about all that.  But instead I'll write about something else: a conversation I had today that I can't get out of my mind.

I was signed up to sell books from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today at the Lane Library League fundraiser at the fairgrounds.  I wasn't up to spending the day there, between just being back from the funeral and also the snowy roads.  Paul offered to drive me in if I want to go, and there were specific authors I wanted to see, so off we went and I was there for about an hour.

A slender gray-haired woman came up to me.  Here's the conversation as best as I can reconstruct it:

She said, "Oh, I wanted to talk to you.  There's something I just don't understand.  I so enjoy your articles and what you write about the Mennonites.  I'm Unitarian-slash-Buddhist myself, but I'm interested in other religions, so I went to this lecture at the U of O about Mennonites, and it seems there's quite a variety. . .?"

I said, "Yes.  There's a huge variety of churches, all under the Anabaptist umbrella."

She said"Yes.  Well, there was this incident, and I just don't understand it.  We were down at the 5th St. Market one Saturday, and this group of Mennonites was singing.  It was just beautiful.  We just love music like that, even though we're not Christian.  And there was just this sense of community, with families in the group, and just how they sang.  It was lovely and we stood there listening to it.

And then while we were listening, this Mennonite man came up to my husband and began to talk to him and asked him what he believed and began to talk about their beliefs.  My husband said he's not interested, but the man just kept on talking.  And we wanted to listen to the music, but he just wouldn't stop talking.  I've read your books, and it just doesn't seem like something you would do, to be that aggressive."

She paused.  I sensed that she also wanted to say, "or that disgustingly rude," but as a Buddhist she didn't want to let it upset her.

I'm not sure what I said then.

She said, "I didn't realize you folks did that.  I know the Quakers don't proselytize.  I didn't think you did either.  But this man, he just wouldn't leave my husband alone.  And we just wanted to hear the music.  He just wouldn't stop talking."

I finally said, "We do believe in sharing our faith.  But usually we try to do it through how we live our lives and being open to people who ask questions, and being friends."

I sounded pretty lame, really, like I'd get an F in any Personal Evangelism class.

She said, "But how do you explain. . .?"

I said, "Well, in any religion you will have people who are really passionate and really aggressive about trying to persuade others to change their beliefs."

She said, "Yeah, I guess so.  But it just didn't seem like something a Mennonite would do."

Her husband joined her at my table.  She turned to him, "I was just asking her about. . ."  and he nodded and said, "Oh.  Yeah.  That man. . ."

They thanked me and left, still looking troubled and confused.

I am feeling somewhat troubled and confused myself.  On the one hand, any discussion of Witnessing or Personal Evangelism makes me feel like a failure because I am frankly terrible at approaching strangers and explaining the Gospel to them.

Also, if this man's behavior is so not typical of Mennonites, does it mean we've carried the "Stille in die Land" thing way too far?

However, would Jesus have had a choir sing beautifully to draw people into the marketplace and then talked so aggressively to curious listeners that they couldn't listen to the music and left feeling upset and disappointed and a bit violated?

What do you think?

I think she and I are both trying to make sense of that incident.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Mom's Passing

Yesterday morning my mom went to be with Jesus.  She was 93 years old and passed very peacefully.

We leave tomorrow morning for the funeral which will be on Thursday morning.

Your prayers are appreciated.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Books: News, Giveaway, Sale

A few weeks ago I offered Tea and Trouble on Kindle for free, for two days.  The idea is to get more publicity, ratchet up your rankings on Amazon, and just have fun.

The whole thing went a little bit crazy, with friends linking it on Facebook, and then friends of friends, and to my astonishment the ranking on Amazon went up and up and UP, from down in the multi thousands to the hundreds, then into the top 100 free Kindle books, then all the way up to 20.

Just to explain the rankings: the #1 book is the one that's selling the best.  The ranking doesn't tell you how many sold, only how it's doing in relation to other books.

Afterwards I went hunting for actual numbers and found that over 10,000 copies had been downloaded, including 72 in the U.K.

Utterly astonishing, and also a very cool loaves-and-fishes moment for me, that I was able to give away so many copies of something that I really had only one of, if that makes any sense.

The promo also helped with sales of both the ebook and the paper copy, and resulted in a bunch more reviews, so it was all good.

To those of you who helped out: THANK YOU.

Soon after, this accurate peek into my life appeared in the Sunday comics and made my children guffaw:

It's time for the annual book giveaway, something I've come to enjoy a lot.

If you're new here, here's the deal:

You send me an email at dorcassmucker@gmail.com and tell me of someone who needs some love and encouragement in the form of one of my books. Tell me their name and address, a bit of their story, and which book I should send them.

The titles: Ordinary Days, Upstairs the Peasants are Revolting, Downstairs the Queen is Knitting, Tea and Trouble Brewing

I mail them a book for free.

[Disclaimer, just in case: I reserve the right to say no, just in case this somehow gets weird.]

Please don't nominate yourself. . . but that would never occur to you anyway.  Special consideration goes to moms going through a hard time this holiday season due to grief, health issues, financial issues, family troubles, and so on.

Like I said, this has been a lot of fun in the past, so don't be hesitant to nominate someone.

And, lastly, a Christmas special:

I'm offering a set of all four titles for $40, including postage.  (Regular price: $51)  If you pick them up at my door, the price is $35.

This offer is good only in the USA.  And it ends December 11th, since I like to send them by media mail and it can take two weeks to get there.

If you're from outside the USA, you can buy them for $35 plus shipping costs.

To order: send me a note and a check at 31148 Substation Drive, Harrisburg, OR  97446.

All of you have been a blessing to me, and I hope your holiday season is blessed in return.

Quote of the Day:
"Alway curious about the seemingly austere Amish/Mennonite life, Mrs. smucker presentation was a delightful encounter, a glimpse into a life that is rich rather than austere."
--Starla Lago, an Amazon reviewer

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dividing and Conquering

We are facing the prospect of making decisions about my parents' things.  While both Mom and Dad are still living and in surprisingly good health, the time has come to make some changes and this will mean the emptying, selling, distributing, cleaning, and deciding process that so many of you have been through.

Because of two destructive fires in the past, we don't have huge amounts of heirlooms.  However, there are still lots of things some of us will want: quilt tops, pretty dishes, dressers, books, and so on.

And oh so many things none of us will want, which will be a challenge all its own. Let's just say I didn't pull my hoarding tendencies out of thin air.

This is my question for all my experienced, expert friends: What's the most equitable and practical way to divide stuff between six children?  And a bunch of grandchildren?

I've heard of families who used a sticker system, others who assigned values and tried to divide it equally, others who took turns choosing and then turned the grandchildren loose when the children were done.

I'd love to hear from you.  What works?  What doesn't work?  What almost worked for you and would have if you tweaked it a bit?

Leave your ideas in the comments or message me privately at dorcassmucker@gmail.com


Quote of the Day:
Background: Emily is a very cautious driver who likes to stay under the speed limit.  Unlike some others in the family.
Around the dinner table, we discuss near-misses in the past--
Me: Emily, you should tell that story of when you were passing the combine on 99 and didn't look in your mirrors...
Steven: Are you sure the combine didn't pass you?

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

One More Day!

I'm extending grace and mercy to everyone who's a procrastinator like me:

The Tea and Trouble ebook is free for one more day!

Thursday, Nov. 7.

Right here.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Free Tea & Trouble on Kindle

This Wednesday, November 6th, is a free-promo day for the Kindle version of Tea and Trouble Brewing.

You can find it here.

Here's the whole address:


You can help in this publicity stunt by downloading it on Wednesday, linking it on your blog or Fb page, tweeting about it, and calling your mom to tell her about it.

Thanks in advance for helping nudge the numbers on Amazon!

Quote of the Day:
We had grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for supper.  As you may have caught on, we are big on random facts.  Hence this conversation:
Jenny: Sandwiches were named after the Earl of Sandwich.
Me: Sideburns were named after Mr. Burnsides.
Jenny: General Burnsides.
Ben: General Ambrose Burnsides.
Jenny: General Ambrose E! Burnsides.
Ben: Now you're just making it up.
Jenny: No, seriously, I'm not.
Me: Oh for goodness sakes, you just can't ever trump anyone else with information in this house.
Ben: Sadly, I wasn't able to pull out his mother's maiden name.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Letter from Harrisburg

A frantic search through the trash turns up nothing but lessons

Maybe, I admitted afterwards, calming my knotted insides with a cup of tea, it wasn’t my job to root, rubber-gloved, through the garbage. Maybe Ben’s college degree and future career did not depend on that missing clear plastic textbook wrapper with its elusive password, after all. Maybe it was up to him to find a way through this little crisis. Maybe it wasn’t mine to fix.
But unfortunately, I didn’t realize that until later.
I used to think that by the time I had four children in their 20s, the house would be mostly quiet. I would have time to make quilts, and we could get by with a single pizza for dinner.
Instead, my independent and adventuresome offspring still go and come in such random patterns that, when people ask how many still live at home, I have to stop and count. Off they go to a few months of Bible school, to a year’s volunteer work in other countries, to college. Then home again for a few months and off on the next quest.
At the moment, five of my six live at home. The best thing about this is their lively company, especially the entertaining repartee, such as:
“You should sing on the radio,” Ben says after hearing Steven sing cheerfully.
“Why?” Steven says.
“So we could change stations,” Ben says.
Or this:
“People with British accents are taken much more seriously than people with Southern accents,” Emily says.
“Yes,” Jenny says. “Unless they’re people with Southern accents and a gun.”
“Somebody, put the ketchup in something attractive,” I say while preparing Sunday dinner.
“Here, Steven, open wide,” Emily says.
I laugh at them and think indulgent motherly thoughts about what astonishingly bright children we’ve been blessed with, so gifted and quick.
And then in the next minute they make me frightened and frantic, because they are all making adult decisions, and they insist on being independent and self-assured in this as well. As opposed to the obvious and wise alternative: asking me what they should do, taking careful notes with a yellow pencil and saying, “Yes, Mom. Absolutely,” as they humbly follow each bulleted point.
I think the boys ought to cut their hair and the girls should eat more nutritious snacks. I want this one to get a better job and that one to send in his Bible school application. I take note of nice, well-behaved, potential future in-laws and make weighted suggestions.
Even though, in reality, none of it is mine to manipulate.
Twenty-year-old Ben spent a year volunteering in the big city of Toronto, and came home in September, just in time to begin another year at Linn-Benton Community College.
As a future engineer, his textbooks are enormous and expensive. Physics for Scientists and Engineers A Strategic Approach Third Edition came in the mail one day and Ben tore the 5-pound book out of its package. The next day, he discovered that the wrapper was supposed to contain a little paper with a password to a corresponding website, crucial to the course.
And he had, of course, ripped off the plastic wrapper and tossed it away. Buying another password would cost more than $60.
What I wonder now is, why did I snatch at this problem as mine to fix and completely obsess about it? Maybe because he is a poor student, fresh off the mission field.
Ben and I pawed through the clean and paper-filled office garbage and the slightly slimy kitchen wastebaskets with no success. I reached around him without asking and scrolled down the Amazon page on his laptop, looking for information, and then insisted that he call his instructor and ask for advice.
Ben calmly said he didn’t think that was necessary and listed his reasons. I thought he was foolish and stubborn, and I hoped savagely that his sweet little girlfriend would see this infuriating side of him before he ever proposed to her.
Then, desperate, we donned protective gloves and dug through the days-old trash in the barrel outside, picking through old meat wrappers and soggy tissues and far worse.
We didn’t find it.
My husband tried to slip an occasional word of advice to me into this frantic quest: “Let it go. Let him worry about it. It isn’t your problem.”
Of course, he was right, which I didn’t admit until the search was over and I saw that I was obsessed beyond all rational reason.
How embarrassing.
I have been teaching a Sunday school class in which we study women of the Bible. The parallels to us, today, are astonishing, especially that recurring resolve: “Nothing is happening here, so I need to take action. This is entirely mine to fix.”
The childless Abraham and Sarah in the book of Genesis were solemnly promised a son but were still infertile, so, after years of waiting, Sarah got the bright and improbable notion that Abraham could have a child with the servant girl and all would be well. The servant did have a son, but all was very much not well, and the generations to follow paid dearly for her manipulation.
Their daughter-in-law, Rebekah, was determined that her second-born son, Jacob, would receive the ceremonial blessing and used trickery, scheming and outright lies to make it happen. She paid for it by sending Jacob away for his own safety, never seeing him again.
“Dear me, can’t you see this would have worked out if you had just trusted God and waited a bit longer?” I say to these long-ago women as I study the lesson at the kitchen table on Sunday mornings.
But Scripture has a way of speaking right back at me. What about trying to rescue Ben from his own carelessness? Or the probing questions I ask the kids who don’t talk enough? Or all the hints, tinged with accusation, that I toss their way, knowing it’s theirs to figure out but also utterly certain that things won’t work out unless I step in.
“Be quiet. Trust me. Wait. Just enjoy them — your gifts from me.” That’s what I hear from God when they’re all asleep and I sit with a pot of tea and my Bible in the early quiet.
All right then. If you say so. After all, Ben figured out a way to get that crucial password without any help from me.
On the way to church, Steven, who is not into arson or smoking, has a match dangling from his mouth. Emily asks, logically, “Why do you have a match in your mouth?”
Steven mumbles, “ I’m gonna set the church on fire. On fire for God.”
After church, the match is still there. I think, “Oh please!” and other admonishing motherly things I want to say, but I don’t say them.
Emily says, “You setting the church on fire?”
“Nope,” Steven says. “Just looking striking.”
I laugh, which is, in the end, the best response to these remarkable young adults of mine — far better than anxious manipulating, endless hinting or digging through garbage for something that was never mine to find.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Wild Long-Ago Halloween

I don't celebrate Halloween, and never have.  Too dark and evil and full of death for my taste.  I can't even handle a costumed Grim Reaper with a plastic scythe wandering around Costco like I saw today.

However, there was that one Halloween many years ago. . .

I think it was the year I was back home after teaching in Oregon.  My little sister Margaret was probably 14, and I had determined to make it a fun year for her, hopefully undoing some of the damage I inflicted in earlier years [don't ask.]  So we had lots of crazy adventures, like going to see "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" at the college I attended and dragging Mom to "The Sound of Music" at Atwater High School for the one and only musical of her life.

One fall day we were all eating supper together and suddenly realized it was Halloween.  Hey!  one of us said, We should do something!

Margaret and I pondered this.  A prank?  A joke of some kind?  Certainly dressing up.  We loved to dress up in costume.  And surprising someone.  Maybe Marcus and Anna, our brother and his wife, who lived just up the road.

Yes, definitely Marcus and Anna.

We thought some more and then at the same time we looked at each other and said, "AMISH!!"

Instantly we were buzzing with plans while Mom chuckled in spite of herself and said, "Ach, girls."

After supper we raided Mom and Dad's closet for the Old Order outfits they kept on hand to wear to Amish funerals.

Margaret dressed up in Mom's Amish dress and her schatz and hals-duch, a mass of pins and polyester.  She wore jet-black hose and Mom's black shoes and bonnet and as I recall an old pair of cat-eye glasses.  She even found an ancient black purse.

She looked an absolute sight.

I wore Dad's white Sunday shirt and his gray mutza suit and his black church shoes and his black hat.  I was also an absolute sight.

Except I looked too girlish.

So I smeared Vaseline all over my jaw and Margaret helped me press coffee grounds onto it and suddenly I was transformed into a young Amishman with a good start on his beard.

Mom was amazed.  "Du gooksht vee's Chonnys' boova," she said.  "You look like Johnny's boys."  Our cousins.

She also said, "Margaret, don't you hold Lenny on your lap, with all those pins."

We drove down the road to Marcus and Anna's and knocked at the door.  Anna opened it.

Margaret in her big black bonnet opened the big black purse, held it out, and said, "Trick or treat!"

Anna made an exclamation of some kind and then she started laughing.  She laughed and laughed and bent over and laughed some more.  Marcus came up behind her to see what was going on and he simply howled.

They managed to invite us inside, where we sat primly on the couch while Marcus and Anna collapsed into chairs and laughed and laughed like I've never seen them laugh before or since.

Marcus played along and asked us questions and we pretended to be an old married couple with eight children.  Margaret said our oldest son just got a job in town, and I hung my head and said, Dad-like, "Ya, mir gleiches net,"  [Yeah, we don't like it...] and Marcus laughed so hard he nearly passed out.

Little Annette stood around looking bewildered and Lenny sat on someone's lap--not Margaret's--and couldn't figure out what was going on.

We rode this horse as far as it could take us, all with straight faces on our part, and then when Marcus and Anna were exhausted from laughing we got up to go home.

Anna offered to find some candy to put in our black purse.

We went home and even Mom and Dad had to laugh at us, and then we carefully returned our clothes to Mom and Dad's closet and washed the beard off my chin.

Every Halloween, we remember.

This morning I got a text from Margaret: Shall we dress up Amish 2nite?
I responded: Ha ha I was just thinking about that!
She said: And I wd love 2 see u in a coffee beard.

When I was in Minnesota in September I got to see one of "Chonny's boova," Truman, who is a bit older than me.  He was a visiting speaker at the church there and came to see Mom.  I'll let you judge whether or not we still look alike.  These days his beard is more ashes than coffee grounds.

A crazy sister memory is worth more than a sackful of Halloween candy any day.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I Am Not a Teenager

Hello Internet world. This is Emily, Dorcas Smucker's middle child, hijacking her mother's blog in order to set the record straight on one important(ish) matter.

While reading the comments on this blog and on my mother's posts on Facebook, I frequently hear myself and my siblings collectively referred to as "teenagers."

Technically, we only have two teenagers in this house. Steven, who will turn 19 in a week, and Jenny, who is 14.

However, Steven is an adult who has finished high school and is making his own life decisions. That makes Jenny the only one still in the "teenager" stage of life. The other five of us are college age or older.

Of course it's not that big of a deal to be misperceived as a teenager when it's only been four years since I was one. But the shift between being a child under parental authority and being a functioning adult is one of the most significant changes a modern youth goes through, and it is slightly irritating to be constantly placed on the other side of that divide.

To set the record straight, let me briefly summarize the differences between 18-year-old Emily and 23-year-old Emily.

When I was eighteen, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had never lived away from my parents. I could drive, but I was uncomfortable behind the wheel. I knew virtually no one outside of my small Mennonite community. I was scared to do "grown up" things like go to the bank and apply for a job.

Now, at 23, I have picked a career goal and am working toward it. Though I currently live with my parents, I've lived away from home quite a bit, and amassed a vast circle of diverse acquaintances. (And by diverse, I mean that one of them ended up being an accomplice to a murder and had to flee the country.) I know who I am and where I am headed in life, unlike the 18-year-old who didn't have a clue.

The sad truth is, this blog is no longer a blog about a houseful of teenagers. It's a blog about a houseful of 20-somethings with one teenager thrown in the mix.

At this stage of live, instead of spouting phrases like "you're grounded!" and "what time are you going to be home?", the author of this blog is more likely to say, "Oh! He's a single man of great fortune, Emily. He MUST be in want of a wife."

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Romance: Real and Pretend

Jenny has been reading Francine Rivers's Mark of the Lion series.  Emily and Jenny were discussing the characters and plot lines of the first book.

Jenny: It says Marcus smiled sardonically.
Emily: So you know she'll end up with him.

A few questions for you gentle readers who do not live in a novel:

1. Have you ever seen a real guy smile "sardonically?"

2. Do you even know what "sardonically" means?

3. If you do, and he did, did you immediately know he was The One?

Just f.y.i., Merriam-Webster says that sardonically means "disdainfully or skeptically humorous :  derisively mocking."

The guys I've seen with such a smile were either far too full of themselves to be impressive or trying to be something they weren't, or both.

Francine Rivers is a good writer.  She should know better.

Or is it just the nature of escapist books that you have to have a few cliches?

If a guy strides into the room, you know he'll be important later on.

In Lucy Maud Montgomery's books, the right guy always has curly hair.  And he likes cats, which works in real life I admit.

"His muscular frame filled the doorway."

If both characters are convinced they're not worthy of the other, watch out. 

"He could feel her quickened pulse as her heart pounded violently."

"His eyes bored deep into her soul."

I'm asking my fine daughters for examples here, which you may have guessed.

In our many conversations about courtship and finding The Right One, smiling sardonically never comes up.

Which should tell us all something.

Quote of the Day:
Me: I need some ideas for cliche lines from romance novels.
Emily: Gazing at her intently, he pulled out his hearing aids and laid them aside.
Emily: I just wanted something you could relate to.

Sunday, October 20, 2013


When I was eight years old we got our first car.

It was a very big deal.  I believe it was a brown Pontiac that Dad bought for something like $50.  Seeing Dad behind the wheel of the car for the first time was also a very big deal.

We then had a succession of cars because they kept dying, being old and used when we bought them, and also they kept getting smashed up since they didn't stop when Dad pulled on the steering wheel and shouted "WHOA!"

I'm sort of kidding there--not sure he ever did that, but he didn't have an easy transition from horses and buggies to cars.

I still remember the radios in those old cars.  They had these cool buttons, like a row of Chiclets, that you could push in and pretend you were controlling the car--push the right button and the car eases to the right, and so on.

Kind of like this:

We didn't play the radio because Dad had disconnected it and removed the antenna.  It was ok for us to have a car now (painted black) but the radio was too much.

Some years later Dad got a bit sloppy and only removed the antenna, a little glitch we found easy to overcome, so then he also pulled the fuse out of the little fuse box.

On snowy school mornings my sister and I would go out in the obscene cold and practically stand on our heads in that frigid car and reach way in deep and under the steering column and pop the fuse back in and then sit there and shiver while we tried to get the right news station to tell us whether or not we were having school.  Since we went to a public high school, despite being Beachy Amish.

Then there was also the infamous episode where Rebecca and I decided this radio nonsense is for the BIRDS and we ARE going to find out what's on the news tonight so tomorrow in Current Events we won't sit there like dumb bumps on a log when everyone else earns points for being up on the news.

So we got in the car and drove a safe distance down the road.

It so happened that that night the news was about Hugh Hefner being in trouble for something or other.  We dutifully recorded this and the next day in class we, in our cape dresses and white coverings, shot up our hands and informed the class what had transpired over at the Playboy empire.

[Yes. Just in case you ever found me intimidating or anything.]

I'll bet Mr. Hall told that story at parties for years.

In later years the rules relaxed enough that Mom would keep a small pair of scissors in the glove compartment.  On long trips, she would quietly open her window, slip out the scissors, insert one blade in the antenna crater, and happily be entertained for a while.

Today, I can listen to the radio all I want.  I could, if I wished, push those cool Chiclet buttons and twist those big silver knobs to the right station and the right volume.

Except, in a cruel twist of fate, I can't.  I've figured out just enough to sort of get by in my Kia, but in any of the children's cars I ride in silence.

Because modern car radios look like this:


They consist of a small rectangular area surrounded by tiny silver or black buttons with eensy-weensy lettering.  Some of these tiny buttons have mysterious symbols.  They make absolutely no sense.

The only way I could figure out any of them would be to lie on the seat, eye level with the buttons so I could look at them through my bifocals, and give myself about half an hour to push around and experiment.

I cannot do any of this while I'm driving.  I've tried pushing and poking and feeling around blindly all the way to Albany and then giving up in disgust.

In fact, once I borrowed Amy's car to go to the airport and drove most of the way to Portland listening to a scratchy station because I couldn't figure out how to change it, adjust it, or even turn it off.

It is a conspiracy, I tell you.  When I tell people like Steven my frustrations, they laugh with kind amusement.  They are IN and I am OUT, sweet old person that I am.  There must be a whole universe of wireless information out there that only the under-30s will ever know, because the rest of us can't figure out our radios.

I want that old Pontiac radio with a CD player, installed in my Kia.  For Christmas.  Please??

Quote of the Day:
"My one beef with pork is that it's just so fatty."

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Limits of Nostalgia

Over on Pinterest you can find endless ideas for chalkboard paint.  Anything, it seems, can be turned into a black chalkable surface: benches, wine glasses, walls, cupboard doors, trays, and jar lids.  Even little chalkboards.

Some of the ideas are really cute, and I might try a few some day, such as the painted file cabinet.

However.  I have my limits, and my theory is that only a white-board-and-dry-erase-marker generation could go this crazy for black chalkboards.

I went to school and also taught for three years to the tune of clicking and scraping chalk.  I associate chalkboards with white dust on my hands, with erasers that became so loaded with dust they left a white swath behind, with standing on the steps after school like a real pioneer schoolmarm and clapping erasers while the dust blew off in the wind, with that unique chalk-dusty smell that was wonderful on the first day of school but by the end of April, when you were up at the board with a 12-year-old boy who had just come in from a hard game of softball on a hot day and couldn't figure out 3-digit multiplication, the combined smell of chalk and everything else made you want to haul in a pressure washer with soap and bleach, and hose down the board, the boy, yourself, the whole room.

Also, at the crucial moment when you were trying to teach decimal-dividing to fidgety sixth graders, suddenly every piece of chalk in the room would be down to bare nubbins and you wouldn't have any more in your desk drawer.

I say "you."  But maybe it was just "me.

Those of us who have experienced stuff first-hand have our limits on how excited we get about it on Pinterest.  Chalkboards, Amish stuff, manual typewriters, milk buckets, rotary dial phones, and ticking alarm clocks.

I wonder which of our things will be displayed on our grandchildren's mantels and end tables as vintage treasures.  Clear plastic bathroom soap dispensers?  HP Officejet printers?  Tupperware Fix-n-Mix bowls?  Styrofoam drumstick trays?

And: What will they wish I'd saved for them that I toss in the trash now with cavalier disdain?

Quotes of the Day:
Me: So, when they gave that history at the Mennonite Home dinner, did they have it right about Frank and Annie and all that?
Grandma: 'Bertha' said they did NOT get it right!  It wasn't just Frank that did all the work!  Loras Neuschwander would go up there a lot with his cat.
Amy: With. . .his. . .cat??
Me: Caterpillar!  Big earthmoving machine!
Amy: Ah.
*     *     *
Ben: Where's Stevie?
Emily: I wonder.
*     *     *
Me: [getting Sunday dinner ready] Someone put ketchup in something attractive.
Emily: [gets out ketchup bottle] Here, Steven, open wide.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Letter from Harrisburg

Here's today's LFH, which I'm posting here in its entirety since it's getting harder to access the RG website without paying.

Making a big change not exactly a piece of cake

I ran into a relative on a recent Saturday night. He was my late cousin Sylvia’s grandson, Floyd, a congenial Mennonite pastor from Iowa who flew to Oregon to officiate at a wedding we attended. I found him at the reception and caught up on family news from the Midwest.
I was one of 48 grandchildren on the Yoder side. Floyd was one of probably 500 great-great-grandchildren.
While we chatted, a young server came by and set a piece of cake in front of him. Floyd was happy to see he’d gotten a corner piece with lots of swirly white icing.
“Most people don’t like the corner pieces,” he said. “But I love all that frosting.”
He paused.
“I get that love of sweets from the Yoders, you know. I remember visiting Barbara — your grandma, my great-great — and someone served her a banana. She peeled it and then she sprinkled sugar on it before she ate it.”
We laughed. Barbara was unforgettable.
“And how old was she when she died?” Floyd said. “A hundred and … ?”
“Four,” I said. “Or actually two months shy of it.”
We talked some more and then I went home, leaving Floyd to enjoy his cake in peace, and prepared for church the next day and treated myself to a high-protein, low-carb snack of celery sticks and natural peanut butter.
My grandma almost reached 104 years old, and my parents are well into their 90s, on a typical Midwestern-Amish diet.
I was taught to sprinkle sugar on my oatmeal for breakfast and on the sliced tomatoes we ate daily in late summer along with sliced cucumbers mixed with cream and onions and, yes, a dash of sugar. Most meals were followed by cake or pie or pudding. As a teenager, I baked thousands of oatmeal or chocolate chip cookies for the family.
My mom still loves cinnamon rolls for breakfast and a dessert after supper.
I have carried on many of the family traditions — although I prefer salt on tomatoes — and added a few of my own.
I enjoy baking and always felt that the cookie dough in the mixing bowl was much better than the finished cookies, so I would indulge in just one more spoonful as I filled another cookie sheet.
Any combination of peanut butter and chocolate is my idea of heaven on Earth. I make a fresh blueberry pie that, I am proud to say, my brother-in-law Chad from Pennsylvania claimed would be worth driving out to Oregon for. I’ve made three-layer pumpkin cakes for Thanksgiving dinners and innumerable chocolate Crazy Cakes for church potlucks and layered cream-cheese-and-pudding desserts for guests.
My husband’s family wasn’t much different from mine. His great-grandma, Annie, who from pictures and stories seemed to be a plump, cheerful, hearty woman, was known as “Corn Candy Grandma” because she always carried corn candy in the hidden pockets of her full, plain dresses and handed it out to the youngsters.
Last week my husband and I attended a fundraiser dinner at the Mennonite Home in Albany. Since the ambitious patriarch of the clan, Frank Kropf, instigated the nursing home’s beginning, they invited his descendants to contribute to building a new development in the next few years.
Each of our place mats was printed with a brief history and a picture of Frank and Annie, and we were served a delicious dinner from the Kropf Cookbook. In the center of the table, in honor of Annie, corn candy was liberally sprinkled around a basket of mums.
I took some of the corn candy home for the children. It lay on the kitchen counter for two days.
I didn’t eat the candy because I am trying to improve my eating habits, a difficult undertaking for anyone, but for someone of Amish or Mennonite extraction, I’m convinced that it’s three times as hard.
In fact, we like to keep pretty much everything the same as it’s always been. As the old joke says: How many Mennonites does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: “Change?”
An alternate answer is: “Eight. One to change the bulb and seven to make the meal.”
This is the trouble with changing. It goes against habit, tradition, custom and what worked for everyone else. It is said that we do the work of changing our ways only when the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same.
I had always thought I would live to be as old as Grandma Barbara, having inherited much of her constitution, including her low blood pressure.
Besides, there was so much to get done in life, it would take me at least a hundred years to do half of it.
But I was half her age and feeling old and tired. Too often, I sounded like the letters my aunts used to write, about aches and vitamins and going to the chiropractor.
True, I had enough responsibilities to exhaust anyone, but getting through the day shouldn’t feel like wading knee-deep in peanut butter.
I don’t mind consequences when they happen to other people. In fact, it’s possible that I have looked heavenward and thanked God when one of my teenagers finally got the traffic ticket they richly deserved.
The consequences in my own life were harder to face, but finally I admitted that the traditional Amish-Mennonite diet wasn’t working for me. “Just omit white flour and sugar,” a dieting friend said, as though it were that easy.
My sister-in-law Laura, deep into a slow, sensible weight-loss program, had a different approach.
It was all about waiting a few hours between meals and eating fats and carbohydrates separately, she said.
And, most importantly, it was about replacing the bad stuff with something better — lots of good proteins and plenty of vegetables. And not going hungry.
That was the key information I had needed all those times I indulged in sugary goodies and knew I shouldn’t. I had only seen what I shouldn’t do. I hadn’t looked at something positive I could eat instead.
So I followed her advice. Almost a month in, I do not see dramatic changes, only a gradual sense of things improving.
Someday, I hope to develop the temperance that will let me indulge in a single corn candy without grabbing a handful. For now, I abstain entirely.
Meanwhile, I find this true of necessary changes: I go into it thinking it will mean missing out on everything, sitting out in the cold while everyone else celebrates.
But the reality is quite different. I can still attend the wedding, visit with the cousin, hug the bride and laugh at the groomsmen’s speeches.
The only real difference is eating a bit more fruit instead of that piece of cake, and I discover that I am both proud of my own strength of will and happy for my cousin, who is still young enough to enjoy the corner piece.