Sunday, February 14, 2016

Letter from Harrisburg: The Comfort of the Familiar

The familiar between our adventures
By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
FEB. 14, 2016

Women’s Retreat was at the same house this year, just north of Newport. I slept on the blue pull-out bed with my head lower than my feet because I always forget to sleep in the other direction, and I paid for it with a stiff neck. Rachel was the first one up on Saturday, and she made the first pot of coffee. Breakfast was eggs and ham rolled and baked in tortillas, followed by shopping at the outlet mall in Lincoln City. Again.

This annual gathering of church women is so predictable that my daughter emailed me from Thailand:

“I hope you’re having fun at the ladies retreat. Some day maybe I’ll get to go to one of those. Make sure to make lots of false teeth jokes at Sharon.”

A few years ago, ­Sharon left her laptop on the ­table, open to her Facebook account, so I posted a silly notice on her behalf that she had lost her dentures. One of the teenage girls back in Harrisburg read it before church (“Oh dear! Poor Sharon!”) and went to Sunday school and shared this concern with the youth girls’ class, and they all prayed earnestly that the teeth would be found, when of course they were in the unsuspecting Sharon’s mouth the whole time.

We recalled this and much more in our hours of chatter around the ­living room and sitting in the hot tub, late at night with the stars coming out above us as the storm moved on. Just like always.

Then, when my ­social batteries were fully ­re-charg­ed, I was just as happy to go home, where I knew the tea would taste exactly right, the oak tree across the road would stand between me and the pink sky when I raised the shade in the morning, and Paul in his blue recliner would be surrounded by piles of seed-warehouse paperwork and the day’s newspaper.

The first daffodil of the season was in a vase on the kitchen counter when I walked in the door. This, too, is a long-standing tradition. How do the ­daffodils know to coordinate their blooming with women’s ­retreat, I wonder, and how does Jenny always remember to have the first one on the counter when I come home?

Maybe they both know the magic of tradition, the power of welcome, and the comfort of the familiar.

“By the end, I just wanted to come home,” 16-year-old Jenny said of her two-week trip during Christmas break. She had flown to Washington, D.C., where her ­oldest brother, Matt, lives, and the two of them wandered around D.C., south to an aunt’s, and north to a cousin’s. “It was fun, and oh Mom, you would have loved all the historical stuff we saw. But it was so nice to come home.”

“Do you consider yourself a go-er or a stay-er?” my ­daughter Emily asked me last week, and I didn’t know how to answer.

At her age, I was a traveler, moving to Oregon from the Midwest at age 19, living in the wild north of Ontario, Canada, after our marriage, and traveling to Africa and the Middle East and Mexico some years later.

My mom, back on the farm in Minnesota, wrote countless letters to her wandering children. The wrens are back at the feeder, she would say. At sewing circle, they quilted the ­Burgoyne Surrounded quilt she pieced for the Mennonite Relief Sale. The deer and pheasants are eating the leftover corn in the fields. Olaf the neighbor stopped in. And the old rooster thinks the one-eared cat is his girlfriend, and they walk around the barn ­together.

Hers was a small life, I thought, circumscribed by Dad and the farm and church activities and the weather. She was happy with the coziness of the wood stove, the sewing machine, the whistling teakettle signaling time for a cup of mint tea.

Now, like her, I find joy in the cozy and ­familiar.

Our son Ben feeds the cats on the porch ­in the morning and laughs at their predictability — Count Olaf ­always launches herself 3 feet up the glass patio door before Ben opens it, and Cinnpurrella runs inside, circles a few chair legs, and runs back out.

At church, I can count on the elderly gentleman who tearfully praises my husband’s sermons. Muddy Creek rises with ­winter rains. The neighbors to the south clear brush and burn it when it isn’t raining. Tony at the Harrisburg Pharmacy will always dispense ­kindness along with antibiotics and asthma inhalers. My friend Arlene will assure me that I’m normal, and Rachel will remind me that my children will all be OK.

“Your mother was so content where she was,” a friend of hers told me on a recent visit. She looked a bit wistful, and so did I, because we both knew that, in a strange paradox, Mom’s happiness with her narrow sphere made it possible for her to influence a much wider world, through endless letters to her scattered family and the truckloads of quilts and comforters that warmed faraway grandchildren and people she never knew, through an Amish-Mennonite ministry providing food and blankets to the impoverished in Eastern Europe.

And Mom always ­welcomed us home.

Sometimes you need to go to exciting places and do amazing things, and sometimes you need to be the solid launch pad that lets someone else take off for far places and great accomplishments.

Matt, the Navy engineer, comes home at least twice a year and says that this is the only place where the trees are the right shade of green. He has always wanted to go to Mars. NASA is taking applications for the next batch of astronauts, who may or may not go to Mars, he tells me, and he plans to apply.

These grapevines need to be pruned before spring, I think, pushing the tough branches aside to reach for a just-opened daffodil. The camellia bush that nearly froze to death in the cold snap two years ago is miraculously putting out buds just outside my office window. Maybe a mint-oil spray will ­discourage the spiders that always fill the sewing-­room window with cobwebs.

As I take care of the details of our lives, I pray for the high school daughter planning an ambitious future. I pray for all my college kids to find their way and for the daughter in Thailand and the firefighting son to be safe. And I pray for the son who wants to go to Mars, that my personal desperate cautions would not keep him on Earth if God’s calling is for him to go elsewhere.

Then I wipe out the refrigerator, arrange a bouquet, and am grateful for this vocation of making a place that they all want to come back to because it’s warm and safe and familiar. I thank God that I get to be here, waiting, the ­teakettle whistling, to welcome them home.


  1. I love this perspective! Recently I've felt myself chafing at the smallness of my world. Laundry, meals, cleaning, and mostly caring for my infant daughter. I used to be the college student who studied amazing things, the teacher who made creative lesson plans, and the church-goer who handled many responsibilities. Now I read voraciously and do crosswords (both can be quietly done while baby naps) to keep my mind alive. But once upon a time someone was a launching pad for me, and I loved going home. I hope to create the same gift for my daughter, and to be able to recognize the smallness of my world as an open door instead of a barred entrance.

  2. I really appreciated this post and reading it in the RG.
    Sue R.

    You might enjoy this poem that extols the simple things:

    I Have Found Such Joy
    I have found such joy in simple things;
    A plain, clean room, a nut-brown loaf of bread,
    A cup of milk, a kettle as it sings,
    The shelter of a roof above my head.
    And in a leaf-laced square along the floor,
    Where yellow sunlight glimmers through the door.

    I have found such joy in things that fill
    My quiet days: a curtain's blowing grace,
    A potted plant upon my windowsill,
    A rose, fresh-cut and placed within a vase;
    A table cleared, a lamp beside a chair,
    And books I long have loved beside me there.

    Oh, I have found such joys I wish I might
    Tell every woman who goes seeking far
    For some elusive, feverish delight,
    That very close to home the great joys are:
    The elemental things--old as the race,
    Yet never, through the ages, commonplace.
    --Grace Noll Crowell

  3. I really like this post. It reminds me of "in whatsoever state I am, to be content", but not in a passive way. This is to be content because I am fulfilling my purpose in the larger scheme of things, whatever state that is. :) Also, I think ladies'retreat sounds wonderful!