Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving's Layers

Tonight, Thanksgiving evening, that Spouse o' Mine and I are sitting by the fire.  Our adult kids plus a girlfriend are at another household, cooking up this evening's Thanksgiving dinner.

The two of us have begun reminiscing about Thanksgiving holidays.  This started because our son was concerned this morning that the turkey had not thawed.  That Spouse o' Mine reflected tonight, "That's not nearly so bad as when the turkey burned."  I looked at him.  A blank stare.  And then I laughed out loud.  There was a Thanksgiving years ago when he and my Mom were team-working with getting the turkey ready to serve.  Somehow in their rush, the grease from the turkey spilled into the oven and a small fire alighted.  It lit up the turkey, too.  Thank goodness no one was injured!  There was a bit of concern, but more laughs that afternoon than anything else.  A singed turkey, a wafting odor of smoke, and we all laughed.  Well...maybe not Mom.

Then there was the year way back when our kids were in grade school.  We were to have Thanksgiving for the family hordes at our house that year.  I was really looking forward to it!  We had all systems go the night before: turkey ready to roast, fruits and vegetables lining the fridge.  Before dawn the next morning I awoke to a serious stomach thing that would not permit me to move three feet from the toilet.  (OK, that was as delicate as I can be.)

I called my parents, all four of my siblings, and told them in a feeble voice, "It is not happening today."  They were disappointed, our kids were sad, that Spouse o' Mine probably hated the fact that he would have to nurse me back from death's doorstep that day.

Mere minutes after my five phone calls, I got a call from my brother Bob.  "Load the kids and the turkey and have Paul meet me at the airport at 11:00."

Seriously.  This explains (in part) why I am accused of being ultra-spontaneous.  At the drop of a hat, my brother Bob flew from Pryor Creek, OK to Stillwater in a Bonanza.  In the meantime, that Spouse o' Mine was roasting the turkey n our kitchen.  I spent all those minutes you-know-where, not caring at all WHERE Bob and my family were heading.

So that Spouse o' Mine loaded up three grade school kids, a roasted turkey, and met Bob at the local airport.  That Spouse o' Mine held the hot turkey in his lap the entire flight back to Pryor.  That's where my entire, extended family celebrated Thanksgiving that year. 

I was flat out on a sofa in a semi-finished basement, watching a Martha Stewart marathon all day long, in a pitiful way.

Maybe the funniest part of THAT sad holiday was a teacher's response to our son's written report of "My Family's Thanksgiving".  She sent me a note: "Graham certainly has a vivid imagination!"

I let it go.

This year, we fast-forward to now having adult children who are no longer reliant on us, but are every bit so enjoyable to be in the company of.  They and theirs are all in different dart-throws of the American map.  (And one son-in-law is Down Under, so THAT dart was a toughie this holiday.)  We met up in Bellingham, Washington, where son Graham lives.  The four adult kids present are doing Thanksgiving dinner.  I am totally loving the passing of the baton, even if it is just for this year. 

This year has been a bit sad for that Spouse o' Mine and me.  Both his parents, and mine, passed away within the past six months.  It is sad.  Being out here in the Pacific Northwest has been a bit of a salve, surrounded by our kids.  But something happened this afternoon.

Our VRBO house is on a lake, and high on a hill.  There are a kabillion steps to climb to get to the house.  This afternoon I was climbing the stairs (after our morning Thanksgiving 5K run, mind you), my arms were full of grocery bags and wet running clothes and wet running shoes.  Halfway up the stairs, my phone began ringing.  I tried hard to run up to the top of the stairs!  Hurry, I told myself.  It's probably Mom & Dad!, I told myself.

And that's when my heart broke into a million pieces.  It wasn't going to be Mom and Dad with their holiday phone call, all cheerful and laughter.


But we move forward. 

It IS a happy Thanksgiving. 

But we look back, as well. 



Thursday, November 02, 2017

Another Sweet Chapter of Life

I was twenty-four when we met. 

I had traveled from Cairo, Egypt, with a brief stop in Oklahoma to catch my breath, and then on west, to Los Angeles, Honolulu, New Zealand, and finally: Australia.

I was a newlywed of six months when we met.

I was nervous, absolutely exhausted, possessing a vanity only a 24-year old would possess, that I should be perfectly dressed in fresh clothes, make-up on, hair perfect.  Lipstick, makeup, smile on my face, song in my heart.

In reality, I had been up and traveling way too many hours and days, (the last leg, 36 hours),  was scared and I sure didn't look as nice as I had hoped.  I might have even smelled a little ripe after all that travel.

We were collected from the airport in the dark, and driven another two hours inland from Brisbane.  We ended up at a darker-than-dark farm in Queensland, Australia, where the stars shone brighter than any I have ever seen.  They must have been mere miles from earth.

My newlywed, that Spouse o' Mine, took me in through the front door of this farmhouse, and that's where I met her: my mother-in-law.  She was beautiful, with her silver - not grey, but silver-white hair, and a welcoming, yet somewhat tentative smile.  No doubt she was sizing up the person who had convinced her son to stay in the States after his stint in college, rather than to return home to kith and kin of Australia.

I could smell beautiful food wafting from the kitchen, and we immediately were ushered in to a large family dinner - brothers, inlaws, grandkids.  (33 years later, and I still remember the roast beef dinner she served.)  I was absolutely numb.  Numb from nerves.  Numb from jetlag.  Numb from just being twenty-four and so out of my element I could not see straight.

Immediately after dessert I excused myself to go to bed.  And I slept for many, many hours.  When I awakened, I could hear all sorts of birds outside, like jungle birds.  I could hear such happy voices downstairs in the kitchen.  I smelled wonderful things from the kitchen...

I headed downstairs, and joined the throng of conversation which always moved from meal-to-meal, tea time-to-tea time, out into the fields of cotton, over to the orange trees, and then the almond trees, checking the chooks (chickens), and just enjoying each other.

From that morning on, I built a relationship with Louise, my mother-in-law. 

She grew up poor in the Depression in South Dakota.  She knew things, she learned things, and she was savvy.  When she and my father-in-law emigrated to Australia, she surely utilized all her skills and common sense, because their move from Point A to Point B was a brilliant success.

Being, as I laughingly call them, "dark Lutherans", one would never know by talking to them, what a terrific life change this move had been for them.  I did not know them in their South Dakota years, but their farm years at Brookvale were, according to them, immeasurably better.  Still, they had the good and bad years that track every farmer anywhere in this world.  But to go out, and pick an orange for breakfast?  And that Spouse o' Mine points out, "not having to break ice in -25ยบ weather" was certainly a perk.

Louise was an avid golfer.  I think this allowed her a social vent away from the farm.  Louise took me out golfing (the first day I was coherent after jet lag).  I was not so much into the game.  Looking back, I am sorry to say that I was probably downright boring and Louise must have been second-guessing her son's choice in life partners.  But, you know what?  She and I shared a love of cooking, and I pored over her cookbooks and index card recipes.  We had a good time over that.

A year later saw my being hired by TWA, as a flight attendant.  Many, many facets went into this new job (a weekly commute from Detroit to JFK was one), but an awesome perk was the travel afforded to both me, and that Spouse o' Mine.  We could fly to Australia: me, for free, and he, for for ~ $25.00!!!  Remember: this was when trips to Australia were a once-a decade, or so, thing.

The next trip we took to visit my inlaws, we had two very young daughters in tow, and I was on maternity leave from TWA with our third pregnancy.  Still at the farm, our daughters met their grandparents and experienced oranges on the trees, kangaroos in the yard, a mouse plague, and much more.  This trip was enriching to me.  Louise shared so much maternal and pregnancy wisdom and experience with me.  Plus, I had never experienced a kid puking before, but there went daughter Claire, two years old, spewing all over the place, and Gma Louise, calmly getting a bucket and mop.  And I was stage left, gagging with morning sickness, which, "down under" happened to be evening sickness".  Lovely.

So, let me fast-forward.  Three decades.  Yes.  It seems unimaginable, but yes, three decades have swept through my life with dear Louise.  We wrote letters to each other before email.  We called each other, too.  I quit TWA to become a stay-at-home Mom about the same time my inlaws retired from the farm.  They began visiting us in the States, rather than us heading down there.  They had time and money, we had no time and little money.  Win-win.

Louise and I shared a love of cooking, as I mentioned.  We also had a love of quilting and other handiworks.  After our initial golf game, which was kind of a bust, we never had a dull moment together.  Conversation with Louise was always bright, often funny, but also often political or religious.  She was on the top of her game in all things newsworthy.

This snippet of my life with my mother-in-law is a mere facet of her life.  She shared her life with two other daughters-in-law in Australia, and no doubt their relationships and experiences with Louise are different, and closer.  I love and embrace the mother-in-law I was given.  She was always encouraging, never judging, and - you know the best? 

I will always hear her little laugh.  A little laugh which will be the lace coaster to our tea time conversations.

Thank you, Louise.

Louise Eleanore Olson Armstrong.
April 15, 1930-June 25, 2017
Highfields, Queensland, Australia.

1 Corinthians, 13:4-7
Love is patient. love is kind.  Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

My Mom

Growing up, Mom always had a story, an observation, a lesson for us five kids.

"Your great-grandmother was one of Oklahoma Territory's first female doctors.  We still have her medical bag somewhere in the family.  I think it still has morphine in it."

"Run perpendicular to where the crocodile is chasing you, because they cannot turn 90* angles." 

"There's this tiny voice within you", she told me. "That little voice tells you good from bad, right from wrong. You have to listen to that little voice.  Each time you do something wrong, or bad, that little voice gets a little softer.  Each time you ignore that little voice, it becomes smaller and smaller.  Hardened criminals can't hear their little voices anymore..."  Well, I sure did not want to be a hardened criminal.  Mom put the fear into me of losing my conscience and landing in jail one day.  I was probably five. 

"Just know that there is always someone around you - probably someone you least suspect - who secretly admires you and the way you live your life.  It might be another kid; it might be someone younger than you who looks up to you; it might even be an adult!  But you must set a good example all the time, because you just never know who is watching you with admiration." 

"I found a dress that I think is just YOU!"
"Oh!  What's it like?"
"Well, it's olive drab..."

Upon high school graduation and entering college - the day before I left for college, my Mom said, "Your father and I have raised you up to know right from wrong, good from bad.  We've taught you how to live the Christian life.  And so now we are done, and the rest is up to you."   

Recently one of my special conversations with Mom came back to visit.  When I was a young adult, Mom explained how it comes to be, sometimes, when an older person passes away.  "Their stomach shrinks to a small size, and they cease taking food.  They do not feel hunger.  This is Nature's way, and the way God intended.  They stop taking liquids.  Again, this is Nature's way.  Their last sense to go is usually their hearing.  Isn't that interesting?  They can still hear our voices.  That is comforting."

A few days before my sister died, years ago, I asked my Mom, in anguish and with something like anger, "Why do people say that we'll see her in heaven, when I know all our earthly beings will be absent?!"  Mom looked off and said quietly, "There will be a little something in each other that we will recognize."  I hold this to be true.  That was the comfort I needed then, and the comfort I cling to now.

 Mom passed away this week, six months after my Dad, her husband of 67 years, passed away.  I think there is no real mystery in this.  I think this is a sweet circle of life, and there are very, very few of us that get to join this group of lucky stars, the ones who lose a love, pine a short time and then they, too, are off to enjoy that peace which passeth all understanding, on the comet-tail of their worldly partner. 

My sweet, sweet mother.  "I know we do not say this nearly enough, but your father and I love you.  Goodnight."  

My Mom:
Helene Merlene Webster, August 30, 1928-October 16, 2017, aged 89.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Speaking of, and to...

I am looking at an old photograph of A.M. Van Valkenburgh.  He was my great-grandfather.

Father of fourteen Van Valkenburgh children.  That's a lot of kids and responsibility.  And he seemed to do well in that responsibility department; all the fourteen seemed to grow up and become really, REALLY fine and upstanding citizens, all over the U.S. of A.

Years ago, my book club posed a question:

With whom would you like to visit, any time, any era?

Well - that is such a far-reaching query.  But here I go:

Obviously, I would like to have a chat with Great Grandfather A.M..  I'm not even sure what I would ask him. I would ask how he managed to successfully rear fourteen kids to be independent and happy.  (I think they all were ?)

I would love to talk with the first Van Valkenburghs to the New World, ca. 1678 or so.  They planted themselves into what is now Manhattan, I think.  Even more precise, that which is now 5th Avenue?

Beethoven.  I want to know what was in his head.  He was a genius.  There were things floating around in his head, and he put those things into music.

I would love to talk to all of the surviving US Presidents, if I could chit-chat with complete assuredness that only he and I would be privy to our conversations. I would love to have chats, but I would hate to think that down the line, I might be subpoenaed regarding a recipe or a Middle East provocation.

I would love to visit with Anne Lamott.  She's still living.  Noam Chomsky.  He's still living.  Michelle Obama.  She's still living.  I'm not sure I have the mental wherewithal to keep up with the three aforementioned, and I would probably stutter about, but I would still like to have a chat.  I think I would LOVE to visit with each of the First Ladies, come to think of it.  All of them.

Who else?  I don't know.  Maybe some Mother Teresa nuns.

Oh!  I know!  Mahatma Ghandi!  Yes!

And Sir Edmund Hilary.  He would be good for a few hours, to be sure.

I can go on and on...  


Thursday, June 29, 2017

June. June?!

I am already partway through summer.  This is a good thing.  Rural summer things:

I came home from an extended stay out of town.  That Spouse o' Mine has also been away.  It appears that we have been having Coon Parties in our yard in our absence.  Lots and lots of coon scat on the lawn.  So, I called neighbor Joe and borrowed his live trap.  Last night, I brought our two cats in, and set the trap out by my grotto pond.  I peered out the window t 9:00 pm, and... I had trapped an animal!!
   This was an angry, semi-wild cat.  I immediately let him go, reminding him that even HE has a job description in this neck of the woods, and that is to keep the rodent and bunny population down.

I re-set the trap, and later in the evening, I looked out and WHOA!!  I got me a coon!  No photo of it.  And, it had to wait till dawn to be released many miles down the road.  In the morning I threw a blanket over the cage, gently carried it out to my car, and drove several miles in the pouring rain and lightning, and set the little coon free, right by a new little creek and lots and lots of woods. Be happy, little fella.

This is interesting:
It looks like maybe a sparrow overtook a bluebird nest out in our pine trees.  Sad for the bluebird mother.  I am eager to see what transpires in the weeks to come.

Another "Nature's Way" moment from this morning happened out by our front gate, high in the treetop. I saw some very agitated robins flitting on the tree limbs.  I knew there was a nest near there somewhere, because earlier in the morning I saw a robin with a worm in her mouth, waiting for me to go by before she headed to the hidden nest.  But this behavior by several robins made me curious.  What was going on?  I looked high in the tree, and I saw a baby bird lying on its back on a tree limb.  It was way too young to be flying - it was barely covered in feathers.  I walked around the tree to get a another look at a better angle.  But...then I saw no baby bird.  Only a big ol' thick snake.  The snake was eating the baby robins in the nest.  Poor momma robin.

Nature's Way is pretty tough. Not for the timid and faint-hearted, to be sure.

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