Sunday, September 17, 2017

Merry Hearts and Good Medicine

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Are you smiling yet?  Just a bit?  I am, because my photo albums turn up gem after gem just like these from the man of dozens of funny voices and a hundred funny faces. Ryan has no shame before a camera; selfies like the ones above will appear, unadvertised and unannounced, on phones and cameras left unattended.  On any given day, Lee is liable to say, in her most threatening voice, “HON--EY!”  when her husband refuses to be serious or takes a gag a step too far…
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...or laugh, stating, “That’s why I married you….”
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 Laughter expands at an increasing rate. Good humor smooths the grind of hard work….kinda like a cold beer at the end of the day.  
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Comedy loves company.  And the camera is happy to record.  Every funny face, every antic, every delighted grin by kids of every age….
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But if Ryan is the Big Kahuna of Humor in the family, Josh is a close second at six going on seven. More than happy to dress funny, not dress at all, to ham it up for the camera...or apparently just for practice… one never knows who will mug for the camera: sweet huggable little boy Josh...or wild woolly rubber lipped sight gagging show-off steal-the-show Josh.
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Holy Scripture spells it out in the book of Proverbs, King James version, like this:

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.”

George Bernard Shaw condenses all these pictures into these few words:


Thanks be for the merry hearts that make our happy family more heavenly….

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Just One of Those Very Good Days

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It’s been a fine fallish evening with folks in black and orange cheering on the junior high boys on a long grass field at a small town school.  Dust from the gravel road clouds the home team’s sidelines on a stiff northwesterly breeze.  Yesterday’s weird orange wildfire fueled light has yielded to a textbook fall blue with wind driven whitetail clouds. Despite the cool temperatures, it feels like a corn drying day, like the husks are bleaching and corn is denting as our lips cry for chapstick and we pull our Wolves sweatshirts over our Wolves t-shirts, warding off a chill that is really still a month away.  
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After a win, we stop for supper like football families usually do...tonight at the Joy Wok where we know Matt and Lizzie, in the Dodge Ram and 26’ trailer, will park as easily as Ann’s minivan with two sets of grandparents and a very hungry six year old.  “Oh I love this place!”, or words similar is what Josh has to say, even though he expressed doubts about “eating Chinese” moments before.  And, sure enough, the notion of instant Chinese buffet has occurred to more than one EA sports family as the Joy Wok fills table by table and the cooks bring fresh ribs and wontons and coconut shrimp.  Josh and Lizzie go back for more; we watch Josh to see what he thinks of his Sweet Sour Sauced bananas….


They disappear without a trace.  Who says little kids are unadventurous eaters.


Matt talks about their new home in progress.  Ann worries about two different business trips to Canada or Washington, D.C.  Millie continues the ongoing saga of the lone chicken.  Blake is on his phone to Ben concerning a notorious case. As Ann left us off at home, a big white moon lit the path to the back door.  We turned on the late West Coast feed of the Cardinals-San Diego and settled into our comfy chairs. I download the pictures from another year’s first football game.


Then I heard Frank Sinatra....


See, back in 1966, he had a hit with a song titled ‘It Was a Very Good Year.’  And that is the phrase I heard, not the lyrics, (look ‘em up and you’ll see what I mean  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydcUaTpiHgQ )
but the slow almost plaintive melody, the conversational phrasing, and the contemplative resolution of each stanza with, “It Was a Very Good Year.”
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Why did Sinatra’s melody come to mind? Because tomorrow is one of those very good days:  Aaron’s 14th birthday!  This evening I threw my arm around his tall (and getting taller!)  shoulders and asked him what kind of doughnuts he prefers. Preschool doughnut delivery is our tradition and if Ann can scare up a candle, we will sing and even make Aaron blow it out first thing.  It was a very good evening when Annie and Matt brought over a small package for Ben to open years ago; it contained a box of Uncle Ben’s rice, a play-on-words gift that was a little too cute and too smart for these dumbfounded grandparents-to-be.  Once we came to our senses, it was all glorious excitement not just for our sake, but for our kids and the thrilling adventure that was to be.


If I were to catalog memorable days, certainly the births of our babies and the stories we tell of those days would be on the list.  But as memorable are the days we learned they were anticipated, that they existed, and were going to be loved all those days before we met them.  I cried when they stepped out in faith and were baptized in their church...and when they said their wedding vows in front of loved ones and friends.  Those were also very good days….
On the one hand are these landmark days that fill us to overflowing, make us fall to our knees, they are so overwhelming. On the other hand are wonderful times built of seemingly mundane moments that grab us by the throat, demanding our attention with little building blocks of joy, if we but notice them and measure their small happiness-es.

How could I ever choose a single best day from all these memorable, all these wonderful, all these miraculous, days?

Sunday, September 3, 2017

A Heart Healthy Diet

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Are you hungry?  I’m not, having consumed a generous helping of Spanish rice and Italian sausage, enhanced with sauteed onion and a pepper fresh from the garden.  I limited the pepper contribution after the aroma cleared my nose as I sliced it; that sensation made me think my long green pepper was a Garden Salsa, classified medium hot. Spice is nice, but too hot is not!


But tomorrow is Saturday, and even though there are no cartoons in my future, I’ll roll out of bed just a little jollier knowing there’s a Mrs. Peters’ coffeecake on the counter to accompany the first cup of coffee.  It’s a simple dish, the kind of cake you can make anytime with what’s in your cupboard: two eggs, some milk, sugar, oleo, flour, baking powder and cinnamon. That’s one reason this coffeecake is one of my favorite recipes. Another is its provenance: I copied the recipe word for word from my mom’s card, right down to the admonition to use a toothpick to check for doneness because it’s a terrible flop if it’s not.  She got it from my godmother, my mom and dad’s landlady when they moved to Lemont, Illinois for my dad’s first job out of college.  My godmother and her husband, Emil, were German.  Mrs. Peters was a wonderful cook and a generous lady, sending birthday cards with five dollar bills, the most money I ever had to spend.  Their house was cozy, piled high with rugs and afghans and pillows, but its most captivating feature was the cuckoo clock that hung in the hallway.  My sister and I watched that clock like hawks, enthralled by the little bird popping out of his door on the hour.


The only downside of Mrs. Peters’ coffeecake is what pan to use...my mom cooked it in a 9”square pan and never seemed to have that dreaded ‘flop’.  I struggled for years with a slightly smaller Pyrex square, but finally settled on a fairly large pottery pie plate….and it makes for a prettier presentation!

Though Mrs. Peters is long gone, her legacy continues up here in northwest Missouri, far away from Lemont and her native land.


My father basted almost everything he grilled with a sauce of Worcestershire, butter and onion.  He’d call in from the garage door to my mom when he was ready to sauce up the burgers or chicken or steak. The only exception was barbequed chicken, a painstaking production requiring multitudinous bastings with the mixture of ketchup, the ubiquitous Worcestershire, and butter. It was a special meal whenever my dad grilled. My mom made a dish she called “Boccherini ala Romano’ that I loved.  Made with round steak, green peppers, ham steak, and mozzarella cheese layered and baked in the long Corningware pan with the blue flowers, it doesn’t really sound like something that would appeal to a youngster, but the meats would be super tender, the pepper added zest, and no kid turns down an opportunity to string mozzarella from plate to fork to mouth.  I cannot find a recipe with that name after all these years, but perhaps that moniker was a creation of my father’s inventive mind…
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It isn’t just what we cook but who we cook with that makes our food memorable.  Putting up sweet corn, or processing chickens, or canning tomatoes or freezing apple pies, are jobs that beg for company, for conversation, for storytelling, commiserating, and handing down of traditions.  I used to peel bucket after bucket of little apples in Millie’s old kitchen while she rolled out pie dough amid a cloud of flour and spice on her kitchen table.  Now, I peel buckets of apples at Lee’s sink while she rolls out dough on her kitchen counter.  The pies are stacked and frozen, close at hand for a funeral dinner, or a 4-H food stand, or just a homemade dessert during harvest.
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Grandma Hurst would always help with corn, standing or sitting, slicing with her knife toward her and huffing for breath as she worked.
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I think of Millie’s dinner rolls, the first item on everyone’s plate during the holidays, a food I never cook...and never will...because her rolls are better than anyone else’s.  Several years back, she gave all the “girls” a tutorial on her dough...a kind gesture, but we all know that kind of cooking is more art than science, more earned than learned.
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Apple bread is what I bring for all occasions.  The recipe is super easy...if you don’t mind peeling...and is another one of those plug and play breads that cooks for an hour every time and...almost always...comes out of the pan cleanly.  It can be bread...or dessert.  It can be frozen. It can even pretend to be a “healthy” treat!  I don’t know how many loaves I’ve made through the years, or how many times I’ve given away the recipe, but I hope it gives as much pleasure in the eating as I have had in the making and baking.


When I make my very favorite recipe, it is almost a reverential experience.  That’s because the cream cheese coffeecake is such a special occasion dish that I almost always make it for Christmas and Easter mornings.  Unlike many of my go-to baked goods, this one requires time and planning: each cake needs five eggs and yeast and sixteen ounces of cream cheese.  The dough must be mixed and then chilled for at least 2 hours.  The eggs must be separated. The cream cheese has to be softened. The dough is split and rolled thin; then the filling is spread, the second layer rolled and carefully laid atop and the two crusts crimped together and trimmed. Then the cake has to rise.  Maybe I’ll raise it on the range top with the oven warming, but often I put a dish towel over the pan and set it on the radiator in the kitchen.  The last little bit of dough I flatten into a cross….for Easter...or a star for Christmas.  And then wash the top with a bit of egg white and bake.  Through the years, baking cream cheese coffeecakes for the family..or Easter breakfast at church...has tended to be a late night task, lending a peaceful and prayerful atmosphere to the warm kitchen. As offerings go, it is small, but it is cooking for the very best reason: as a gift.


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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Gonna Take a Sentimental Journey



Tomorrow Blake and I...and Laura and Mark...will tee off at the Tarkio Golf course once again for the CommuniTee Golf tournament.  I don't know how many CommuniTees we've played in; we never remember our score, but we remember the laughter, the camaraderie, and the satisfaction that comes from having a good time in support of our hospital, our county, our people.

The hospital golf tournament is always around our anniversary.  So, sometimes we play golf to celebrate.  Oftentimes, there is a county Farm Bureau Annual meeting on August 26 or 27th.  That gives Blake a chance to tell his audience that he promised to take me out for our anniversary....(laughter from the folks of Ray..or Nodaway...or some other home away from home in Missouri).
I don't know how many years we've shared our anniversary with our Farm Bureau friends and neighbors across the state.

But isn't that a hallmark of a long marriage...one with decades of anniversaries?  The layer upon layer of events and memories: cakes and candles, births, weddings, storms, droughts, photographs, vacations, graduations, jobs?  The trivial...The dramatic....?

Last week the lawnmower belt broke...and the air conditioner leaked water down from the third floor to the living room on the first. I don't know how many lawnmowers we've repaired..or how many air conditioners...or how many times a roof has leaked...Refrigerators can be counted on one hand, but washing machines and dryers? That's another story for a family so close to soil and potting soil.

Our first television was a repo from a Nigerian college student.   Our first computer was a TRS-80 from Radio Shack. We've outlasted several cell phone companies.  The combined mileage of our six Dodge diesel pickups is not the distance to the sun...but its a big number.

Our marriage has been built with paper backs and self tapping screws, PVC pipe and 3/4 inch garden hose, patching tape and Tums and coffee cups and baseball caps.  Long days, long nights, long talks and long trips bind us.  He fixes broke stuff.  I find lost stuff.

There's no way to condense all this time to its essence.   Choosing this anniversary over any other one implies an emphasis that isn't really necessary.  On the other hand, forty is a serious number, and perhaps indulging a bit of sentimentality will be forgiven...and maybe even celebrated.

So...here goes...for Blake, my friend and partner, for all these years and more....



Friday, August 25, 2017

A Man of Few Words



‘Talk less; smile more’, sings Aaron Burr to Alexander Hamilton.  And there are nights I meet my pillow with the melody in my ear wishing I had followed that advice.  


I do take to heart the admonition in James chapter 3:  “7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind,8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.But just when a sin of omission would be the proper choice, (Talk less! Smile more!) is when I find all kinds of words to say….repetitive words, superfluous words, and the ever popular foot in one’s mouth words.   Oh, blessed Father, please keep me from offering advice unless someone truly asks for it.  


For the most part,  my parents led by deeds, not words.  We were expected to pitch in during any family task; we were expected to get up on time and take care of ourselves. I know we gave out good night hugs but I don’t remember anyone coming to wake us. We were expected to tell the truth, behave at school, and clean our plates.  Some of those tasks were easier than others; when I was young, I didn’t always get around to my chores.  I didn’t think it was laziness on my part so much as forgetfulness...a distinction without difference in my father’s opinion.  But my mother and father always cleaned up together after a meal; we  attended church and Sunday school together; we finished our work before we played, and somehow, though it wasn’t a topic discussed over supper, we knew our parents saved for everything they purchased.  They practiced without preaching, bringing to mind 1 John 3:18:”Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”


All that aside, I can tell you two very specific instances that my father spoke to me very seriously, and, in doing so, set the course for my life.


During high school, I spent all my spare time playing music: giving lessons, playing in jazz band, playing in the pit orchestra for productions.  And I was encouraged by my director...and friends...to pursue a career that included music. But my father had a strong opinion on the subject and what he told me had the solid ring of truth.  He reminded me that one needs more than practice, more than talent, to be a musician: it is a profession that requires, if not genius, then passion...a single-minded devotion to perfection that very few people can sustain.  And I wasn’t one of them. Like him, he said, I could love music...and enjoy it as an avocation all my life.  Better, said he, to choose a profession that would undoubtedly serve mankind..one so encompassing of the various threads of knowledge that a person would find it not just rewarding, but also fascinating, whatever contribution he made.  


So..I got a scholarship that paid for clarinet lessons and enrolled in the College of Agriculture.  My piece of the ag pie may have been a small one, but it has never been boring.


That was vocation.  His second piece of advice was issued after Blake and I were engaged.  I was coming down the stairs into the basement of their house in Jeff City when he turned to me and said: “After you are married, you cannot come back home.”  That wasn’t all the conversation, but that short admonition told me I was on my own, a grownup, and responsible for my own life from here on out.  I guess Blake and I thought at the time that we were grownup, and neither set of parents told us we were foolish, but I always remembered and took to heart the gravity of that exchange.


I cannot imagine better advice than that which yields four decades of happy marriage and satisfying work!


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Monday, August 21, 2017

Last Words on Summer

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Not only did we record another first day of school this week...the kids with their fresh and summery faces, their brand new clean soled tennis shoes a whole size larger than in May, and an invisible vibrancy and energy that screams ‘New Year!’ like it was neon….but this weekend we finish the triple crown of our August birthdays. Levi: August 10, Ben: August 15, and Matt, August 20.  After a summer with sadness in the shadows, a trio of celebrations is as welcome as wearing brand new Under Armour in your school colors.
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I texted Matt this morning to ask him what he wanted for his birthday. “A roof,”was the wry answer accompanied by an eye rolling emoji.  It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what the Schlueters will remember about the summer of ‘17….
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My TimeHop is chock full of politicians pressing flesh at the State Fair, kids with book bags on their back porches and early morning shots of dew dripping mums marching row by row.  Iconic August. TimeHop becomes time stopped when five years ago comes up on the screen.  There’s Levi, with wires and tubes attached and his tiny fist around his daddy’s finger.  Five years ago on his dad’s birthday, he could breathe without the oxygen tube stuck up his nose.  The camera captures what looks like a sly little smile, a realization that he is the apple of his parents’ eyes, that this whole early appearance was concocted just so he could get two more weeks of love here on earth.
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And there is Ben’s birthday celebration...a genuine laugh after all the tension, anxiety, and care of the week before. A cake, a candle, and a UVA baseball….
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Believe me, Levi will hear plenty of tales about his adventurous first year crisscrossing the country like a gypsy. He has always been a kid with lots of get up and go; maybe it was imprinted on him along I-64.
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We are people that keep our memories alive in pictures and in stories.  What cannot be proven...or disproven….in photos will certainly be embellished orally.  Blake was born behind curtains on a segregated floor of a Florida hospital; Lee with a big old forceps scratch on her little nose in the midst of an epic snowmelt and late winter flood. Everyone in the neighborhood knew we went to the hospital that 4th of July evening before Ann was born; we still talk about the rain that fell July 3 that blistering hot year and gave us a corn crop. Her baby gift from my parents was a Weber grill that we used for the next twenty years.  The men of Hurst farms were building the grain bin by our house when Ben made his first moves toward birth.  I was doing the dishes when Blake came in to tell me we were making his dad really nervous with our relaxed notion of when to go to the hospital. Ben was delivered by Doc Niedermeyer mere moments after he reassured me he was “going to set a broken arm and then we’d have a baby.”  We did...and I'll always wonder whose kid determined Ben’s arrival was 5:25…..
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Lee had her ‘Be’, short for baby, a handy word to know when a real ‘Be’ showed up at her house not long after she started talking.  Ann would scream bloody murder if we stayed up past 10:30 to watch Johnny Carson after the news. Ben wouldn’t eat orange things.  Actually, there were quite a few things Ben wouldn’t eat...potatoes and eggs for example...which took some of the main mom staples off the menu.

But I cannot tell you any stories about my babyhood.  My mom and dad took lots of pictures of visits, of birthdays, of dress up and play and travel and just the day-to-day life that new parents record with their first born.  I remember rubbing balloons on our hair and hanging them on the wall; I remember the concrete chickens in my godmother’s yard.   I remember when my dad got appendicitis and watching him play baseball at Argonne.  I remember the giant spiders at the cabin at the Lake of the Ozarks and finding marbles in the bare dirt of our subdivision yard.  But the only stories my folks told me about when I was very young were that I broke my baby teeth once on the hard maple of our dining room chairs and again on the tile floor of the kitchen.  
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Which is why this post is about everyone else’s birthdays...or birth days...but not mine!