Wednesday, May 17, 2017

May Column--Moms, Fear, and Courage

Mom passed on fear — and courage

By Dorcas Smucker
Register-Guard columnist
MAY 14, 2017

Between the apple orchard and the road, one part of our hedge was never weeded or trimmed last year, being of less importance than harvest and guests and graduations. By this past April, the hedge was straggly and overgrown, elbow-deep in tall grass and thistles. When two warm days arrived last week, my resolve outweighed my fear, and I waded in with trimmers, a rake, leather gloves, a wheelbarrow and determination.

Blackberry vines dragging through the weeds made me jump nervously. Rustling leaves made me flinch. I thumped my tools and stomped firmly to warn any residents that I was coming. Then I reached in, over and over: holding my breath, clutching a handful of weeds, and bravely yanking up and out, holding the clump at arm’s length and shaking it, just in case.

As I cautiously attacked that jungle for an hour and then another, I thought about mothers and daughters, and how my mother so thoroughly passed her single irrational fear on to me.

I was a little Amish girl in Iowa, maybe 4 years old, standing with my sister on the sidewalk. We were dressed up and wearing our navy-blue bonnets as we waited for Mom to come and load us into the buggy. I looked down and saw a garter snake lying along the edge of the walk.

I recall not knowing how to respond to this.

And then Mom came outside and showed me.

“She taught you far too well,” my husband says now, when I want him to clear a path ahead of me through tall grass or shiver at garden hoses half-hidden under hostas.

That obscene fear of snakes, in Iowa and then Ohio, where black snakes abounded, and then a farm in Minnesota that held granite rocks and garter snakes by the hundreds, was unfortunate at best and life-threatening at worst.

We had a routine. Mom, pulling weeds or picking beans in the garden, suddenly would shriek, “Hock!” — the Pennsylvania German word for hoe. While she kept an eye on the snake from a safe distance, we scattered to find a hoe and then ran to deliver it to Mom.

Then, with a shudder across her shoulders, Mom would step forward and chop the snake into pieces. Farm life was earthy and raw, abundant in life and death and practicalities. You did what needed to be done.

We used to say that instead of listening to the serpent and eating the forbidden fruit, Eve in the Garden of Eden should have had Mom’s good sense and yelled for the hock. The world would have been so much better off.

Now I wonder: Why were we afraid of snakes and only snakes? We three sisters, following Mom’s example, had no fears at all of spiders, mice, cows, rats, dogs, bugs, bats or anything else.

My sister Rebecca met her future husband at a summer project in Los Angeles. In one of their first conversations, she and Rod were leaning against the wall of the cafeteria. Rod said, “Hey, there’s a spider on the wall above you,” thinking she would freak out and he could rescue her by killing the spider. Instead, Rebecca turned and looked, calmly smacked the spider with her hand and kept on talking.

Rod thought, “Wow, she really is a farm girl.”

Maybe Mom wasn’t so wise in teaching us her worst fear, but she also taught us that you laugh at your fears and keep going.

She nearly had a heart attack the day she was picking green beans and found a snake twined up the stalk when she swept aside the leaves. We all went into hysterics the time a snake got into the utility room.

Afterwards, we retold the stories and howled. And we kept on picking beans and doing everything else the farm required.

Mom was always up for adventure as long as the work was done. We lived near a typical Minnesota lake, undeveloped and reedy, maybe 40 acres in size. One spring Mom announced that we should walk clear around the lake after the ice was gone but before the snakes came out of hibernation. “How about this Sunday afternoon?” she said. We said we’d join her, my sisters Rebecca and Margaret, and I. It would take an hour or so, we figured, hiking through the woods and bare cornfields around the edge.

After church and Sunday dinner, we started off. We hadn’t even reached the lake before Mom saw a garter snake crawling into the ditch.

Oh dear.

If Mom considered quitting, it wasn’t for long. We had a goal, and a miscalculation on hibernation dates wasn’t going to stop us.

Down a field lane, through some trees, and there was a creek we hadn’t accounted for. Margaret found a downed branch to help us cross it.

We soon found that Lake Whitney, which appeared from our house like a simple oval, not only had creeks on the other side, but arms extending into the neighbors’ property, swampy appendages, and hands and fingers swollen with melted snow. Surely after rounding this slough we would be headed back to the road, we said, but then another watery obstacle appeared.

Cold and wet, our boots heavy with mud, always watching for snakes, we trudged on.

Finally, we reached a familiar field within sight of the road. Half of the field was flooded, with a fence running through. We girls took the long route around the water, but Mom, unconquered, marched straight through, grinning, hanging onto the fence, lifting her boots high, step by splashing step, her dress streaming with muddy water.

At last, we all reached home.

Many years later, I prepared to visit Rebecca at her home in Yemen. It was my first trip to the Middle East, and I would be traveling alone. Some of my friends and family thought I was crazy. “But, aren’t you afraid?” a perplexed friend asked.

“Of course I’m afraid,” I said. “But I want to see my sister.”

My neighbor, Simone, found a large bull snake in her pasture, just down the road from the end of our hedge. I shuddered at the picture she posted online, but I still went back to weeding the hedge, because the job wasn’t finished.

Mothers might teach us fear, but they also teach us courage. There’s work to do and adventure to take, and it’s our calling to accept. If we do, the stories are ours to tell. So we follow them into the swamp, the garden, the hedge, the vague dangers deep in tall grass, armed with rubber boots and rakes and laughter.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Perfection, the Remodel Project, and Being Happy With In Between

I am learning this:

If you force a choice between perfection or nothing, you'll usually get nothing.

I can put off tasks for just like ever, fearing to begin because I won't do it RIGHT.

Such was the case of our bedroom, that little room in the back corner of this old farmhouse. It was still decorated in mauve and green. It's not like I had time to redecorate every other year, but still. It needed a redo.  And redo's involve Decisions. And Change. And Shopping, that horrifying task.  And worst, Maybe Getting It All Wrong.

But I was slapped into action by The Flopping Elbows. We had a small bed in that small room, and I sleep with a large husband with long arms who swims in his dreams, and leads zumba classes, and wins the American Ninja Warrior challenge.

So there was less and less sleep for me.

The husband likes solutions, and fixing, and diving into projects like eagles swoop down from great heights at the leaping trout in Clear Lake.

If we knocked out part of a wall and moved the doorway, we would gain enough extra square feet to move the dresser over there and get a bigger bed, he said.

So we did.

This meant that I had to make a long, long, list of decisions. EEP.  And I had to think about colors. Gaaaaah. And I had to shop.  Noooooooo!!!

And I might get it wrong.

Those blogger/Instagram/Pinterest people who have what is called an "effortless sense of style" in decorating--how do they do it? How do they choose that arrangement? Those neutrals or colors? That basket?

I asked for ideas.

A number of readers weighed in, and gradually I got a sense of what I would try.  As much as possible, we would take things back to their 100-year-old basics. And I would go for plain wood and lots of white.

Slowly, I would add color. It didn't all have to be polished and perfect when the last nail was pounded in. I could do it little by little.

I could even use my old, too-small spread until I found something I liked better. Imagine that.

We moved back in, and I love it.

I'm going to show you pictures even though it isn't finished, and even though adorning and coordinating a room are not my strengths at all.

But guess what: I let go of perfection, and I find the room restful and welcoming.

The result is neither perfection nor nothing, but something in between, and that feels like a big accomplishment to me.

This is the original floor that was under a carpet and a layer of linoleum.
I love it. Paul finished it exactly right.
The dresser is one he had someone make for me several years ago.
My mom crocheted the rug.
One bifold closet door still needs to be attached.
Why does that lady have a fan by her bed? Maybe she is Of That Age.
The laundry hamper was Mom's. The wastebasket is one of Dad's old milk buckets.
The handle still clanks just like it used to long ago.
Another of Mom's rugs is on the left. It is one of the few colors in the room, so far.
The corner of the sheet is hanging out.

I found this light fixture at a garage sale for $5.
It fits right in, I think.
That's the original ceiling.

This is my little Eck [corner] in the area under the stairs. I want to have my Bible and prayer times there.
Right now it holds an old school desk of Amy's, but I think I want something different.
It also holds a few decorative things that haven't found a home yet.
Do you see the shiplap?

On Saturday, Paul cut that hole in the wall and then crawled under the house and shoved a wire up inside the wall.
He is very brave.
I crouched over there and grabbed the wire when it appeared, and pulled it through.
That didn't take so much bravery.
I think the chair was Emily's. I can't decide if I like it and need it in that corner, or not.

The lamp is one of Mom's old jars, filled with wooden spools of thread.
Should I get cream-colored curtains? Do all the whites have to match?
I found these for $2 at a garage sale.
It was a cheap way to test the color-waters before I invest in serious curtains.

The nightstand was another garage sale find. I decided to use it for a little while
before I put in the work of painting it.
Sadly, it's too tall.
But I'll use it until I find something better.
Paul's construction tools are still on top of the dresser.

So there is the result of Paul's hard work and my going ahead with decisions and choices even though
I didn't know what I was doing.
Also, that lump in the bathroom is a pile of pajamas and personal things I took off the hook behind the door
so they wouldn't show in the photo.
And then I forgot to shut the door.

Remember: if you insist on perfection, you'll get nothing.
At least if you're like me.