Tuesday, April 26, 2011

If I Had a Hammer

I use a screwdriver every day. It adds the necessary 4-6 inches I need to lift the latches on the irrigator. I look up over the top of my glasses to focus on the hose clamps that keep the latches in place. I get real irritated if the screwdriver is not in its accustomed place on the seat of the step stool.

This is a comfortingly familiar looking screwdriver. It is a medium long regular with a grooved black and green handle. Some company has been making screwdrivers with virtually the same handle for at least two generations. I know this because, aside from the opaque rather than translucent composite material of the handle, my father has screwdrivers of the same pattern in his tool shed to this day. I know my screwdriver is nothing fancy; I would be happier if the blade were tarnished and matte rather than shiny and chrome. But I love my tools and want them in their place, even as they must be tough and perform in less than ideal conditions and storage.

I derive from a family of work benches and tool boxes. My mom's father was a woodworker with an entire wall in his basement devoted to cabinets, cubby holes, and mysterious tools, old but oiled. There were chisels and files and planes that were works of wood worker's art in themselves. I know now that he had a lathe and router and bandsaw because those tools now reside in my father's shop. I was fascinated by the row upon row of baby food jars full of tiny little unknown items; they reminded me of nothing so much as my mother's spice rack and I thought of the contents in the same way....a pinch of that, a bit of this, to make the finished product just right. My grandfather's creations are sturdy, but even more, they feel and look warm. The way he finished the wood makes its beauty more than skin deep: 'Age cannot wither her...' as Shakespeare so aptly says and the maple desk I use every day is ample evidence.

My other grandfather's shop was steeped in the fumes of the small engines he utilized in his orchard and garden. His pith helmet and post office blue shirt and shorts bespoke his job before retirement, but work with his tiller and various push mowers left oil stains and grease stains to such an extent that he changed into these work clothes in the morning and changed out when he headed back to the house for suppertime. Saws and hoes were sharpened before use, but the shed served another purpose: the fishing poles lived in the shed and buckets for worms often stood outside the door of the garage ready to head to the pond. My folks inherited Grandpa's old tiller, but they passed his garden cart on to me. It is nothing fancy: just a home made rounded tub like an old washing machine on wheels and a u shaped tube for a handle. I've replaced the wheels on it twice, but I'm sure those are not the first nor the last it will need. The galvanizing is in pretty good shape on the outside, but I've treated the interior with Rustoleum. That in itself is part of my gene pool. My dad was a stickler about metal....I think I spent most of my childhood stained the rust red hue of Rustoleum, either sticking to myself, looking like I'd been in a BB gunfight, or reeking of the gasoline it took to clean the splatters off. We were an anti oxidation family.

Tools were a big deal back then. My day had his toolbox tools, but that was just the beginning. He had one room in our house devoted to ham radio equipment and his guns. The tools he used for loading shells were fastened to the lip of his quarter sawn oak desk. The mysteries of the radio equipment were beyond us, but I loved to watch him solder and noted with curiosity the myriad of little resistors and other colorful parts with wires poking out like insect legs. The ham shack was a place of lights, dials, beeps, whines, and scratchy voices fading in and out of the ether. Often we would fall asleep to the sounds of Morse code or the verbal shorthand hams use to exchange information.

When we moved to the farm, the tools for the job got a home in the little building behind the carport. Laura and I were apprenticed as carpenter's and mechanic's helpers, a job with a certain amount of pressure. I never wanted to look stupid or forgetful, so I seldom asked twice what I was supposed to be looking for in the tool shed. What quaking of knees and breaking out of sweat when I could not figure out what item or part I was supposed to be bringing back to my father in the alloted amount of time! I don't know what life lesson I learned from the experience, but I did learn the distinctions between screw drivers, bolts, nuts, sockets, wrenches, etc. Elementary as it seems now, this part of my vocabulary would never have developed without the pressure exerted by these tool runs. When you're young, you don't know whether you'll have a life of the mind, work with your hands, or some combination of the two. It doesn't hurt to prepare for each eventuality.

I have a little tool box of my very own. Blake bought me a nice little wooden box for a birthday present a year or two ago. It would never survive a harvest season and the rough treatment it would receive in the front or back of our old pickups. But I have a little set of sockets, a set of wrenches, a tape measure, screwdrivers, and other absolute essentials. I always know where they are, the principal reason for a tool box. I keep the rain gauges there over the winter and a stash of hose washers, as well as the deck screws I use to hang picture frames on my plaster walls. These tools have a good home.

The tools I use the most don't have a box of their own at all. The trowels, garden gloves, hand hoe, pruners and like live in a cheap blue plastic bucket on the back porch, ready at a moment's notice to head out to the yard. The bucket is convenient, small enough to move everywhere but large enough to hold the essentials. If I don't carry the bucket, I have a dreadful absent minded tendency to set my pruners, trowel, or precious hand hoe down somewhere in the yard, mayhap to be hauled to the compost heap or stick pile and lost forever....

....and I hate it when I can't find my tools.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

That Old Time Religion

In the little white church I grew up in, we got two pieces of frond pinned into the shape of a cross on Palm Sunday. To a child who observed the Methodist children spilling from their church waving long green fronds, our crosses, browning at the edges with the straight pin threatening to stick you through your springtime frock, it seemed a little chintzy (does anyone but my family use that term to mean 'cheap'?) But our little white Lutheran church was focused on Scripture and I can well understand now the symbolism linking the Palms of the Sunday at the beginning of Holy Week with the Cross of Good Friday. Our hearts were prepared by the liturgical calendar, from the pre Lenten Sundays, through Ash Wednesday and the Wednesday night services of Lent. We attended the Lord's supper service on Maundy Thursday though I don't remember attending the traditional watch services of Good Friday of the bigger church in Jefferson City.

The church was so beautiful on Easter Sunday. Those were still the days of new Easter dresses for little girls (Laura and I got to wear new dresses our grandmother had sewn for the first time on Easter morn), festive hats for grandmothers for sure and corsages for all the ladies. Pastor's vestments and the altar cloths were gleaming white brocade. I'm sure we had cold Easter morns, but I can only remember sunlight warming the pews in the hues of the stained glass borders of the frosted Gothic windows. Our church was old but dignified with white painted altar, pulpit and Baptismal font and stamped tin ceilings. The pews were finished with type of reddish black varnish the consistency of just overcooked taffy. The slightest increase in the temperature made one's coat, dress, or bare skin adhere and leave an imprint. We were strongly adjured not to wiggle during church; I am sure the constant sucking sound of skin and pew separating was distracting to serious worshippers!

After the somber minor keys of Lent, the Easter hymns lifted the spirit even before the congregation started singing. I didn't remember at first, but today my favorite hymn came back to me word for word: 'I Know that My Redeemer Lives'. Church was packed and everyone sang loudly if not tunefully. Our organ boomed from the choir loft above over the heads of the congregation, milking every chord and foot note. It took stamina to sing all those verses when our organist played at such a dignified tempo.

We spent this Palm Sunday service watching Alissa receive her confirmation. I listened with interest as each child's Bible verse was recited aloud. I chose a verse from Isaiah for my confirmation; it was meaningful to me then, but I would have a difficult time choosing just one now! Our confirmation instruction took place in our old Sunday school building for three hours Saturday mornings. I don't remember now whether it was every Saturday or not, but I do recall taking it all very seriously. Our pastor was a young man in his thirties; my father, who served as treasurer of the church and choir director at different times, thought his sermons lacked intellectual vigor. But our church education was old school in a way that had vanished from the public schools at least a generation before. We answered questions posed to us about doctrine and the catechism; we were tested and graded; we were expected to memorize the creeds, the books of the Bible, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, the differences between Catholic and Protestant, the answers to the doctrinal questions of Luther's small catechism. We recited our memorized answers in front of the class. Like I said, no one teaches that way anymore. But it sticks with you!

We had a children's choir led by a lovely silver haired woman with an accent named Mrs. Karr. She had a trained soprano voice and much patience. Once a summer she invited all the kids to her home to swim in her swimming pool.....quite a treat! I rode in her Cadillac one time as well..another memorable experience for a girl raised in Dodge Darts and Volkswagens.

Our Baptist Easter hymns are second to none for joy and energy. With no Easter stations on XM playing the tunes weeks ahead of the celebration, we don't hear or sing some of these hymns much as I'd like to. While our Easter services lead from joyful noise to joyful noise, it still seems a shame to restrict "Low in the Grave He Lay" to but one Sunday a year. So many songs, so little time!!!

Years ago our church had Sunrise service Easter morn as early as the sun rose, especially in years when Daylight Savings time had not yet taken effect. We would quietly crawl from bed, donning the minimum of finery, and head for town. No one was completely awake and the skies were still gray. Typically, the air would bear a chill. The church would be dim and those gathered would murmur among themselves bringing to mind the women heading to the tomb that first Easter morn. We were part of the wonder, the first that day to hear the marvelous news in the Scripture that 'He is not here'. Without the fanfare and celebration of the later Easter service, we latter disciples bonded over the centuries with those first visitors who could not yet rejoice because they did not yet understand what had taken place. What a wonderful experience that sunrise service was....prayerful and hopeful.

The baking supplies are gathered for the Easter morning coffeecakes. The eggs will be boiled and dyed, later to be hidden, lost and found....or lost. We will have to work this Easter morning, but not until we meet again in the morning hours to see the empty tomb. 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.'

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Ask Sherwin Williams

What's your favorite color? Because I spend a lot of time with pre schoolers, I am strongly attuned to color. Since the time he could express a preference, Gabe, for example, has unanimously favored orange. None of us can truly think of a reason not to indulge this favoritism; not only that, but orange is a popular color in little boys' clothing. As a result, Gabe can wear his favorite color from top to bottom and layer upon layer day after day.

The little girls, not surprisingly, prefer apparel on the red side of the spectrum. Whether I purchase dresses, tees, leggings, socks or jammies, I try to keep the balance of pink and purple equal between Lizzie and Abbie. Some times one prefers one and the other the other, but I make no attempt to keep the switches straight. The only problem with pinks and purples is their propensity to show dirt: these girls get right down to their work and play and pastels pay the price.

Millie's house this time exhibits her love of blue, though we all still remember the previous red wallpaper and the earthtones of the 70s in the old family room. Blake and I lived with some really strange color schemes in our first little house. The main room was carpeted with the kind of carpet once prevalent in kitchens and baths. The tiled pattern and brown and yellow palette inspired me to paint the plywood cabinets a bright buttercup yellow: the perfect accompaniment to my harvest gold range. This was the same house with fake rosewood paneling in one of the rooms. And I painted the mud room a particularly brilliant blue that no one would consider anything but obnoxious. I wanted bright.....

I don't know why I struggle with color. My parents have such a knack! The kitchen in their old farm house was dark with a sloping low ceiling like some Irish croft. One expected it to smell of peat. But the crumbling walls of the dining room were paneled in a peculiar but rich hickory grain that sported just the barest hint of blue gray. I've never seen anything like it. Their bedroom set of mismatched Eastlake furniture belied its ranch housing with walls of the deepest jade, a daring choice. Their current bedroom is painted in the richest rose, a hue I have come no closer to than a paint chip. I find colors I love: in the sky of a 19th century print, a square on a fake "Oriental" rug, a glaze on a piece of pottery. But there is a schism between eye and brain when I must make the final decision and say, 'Eureka! that's it! That's a match!'

This is all a long introduction to a great toy courtesy of Sherwin-Williams. Ann and Matt are going to have their house painted this spring and have decided to honor tradition by choosing to make their old house a Victorian Painted Lady. They have books; they've surfed the 'net, then they discovered a tool for exterior color schemes that is positively addicting. What style house have you? You can pick it! Colonial, ranch, Victorian, Craftsman, even French Country or Spanish Colonial. Voila! A pristine white house appears on your monitor with a full mosaic of color to choose from. Pick one hue and a pair of computer chosen coordinating colors joins it. Click and drag and you can create a scheme from mild to wild. It is the perfect tool for a color dunce like me and gives a family endless choices for democracy in action. Aaron created a 'haunted house' of black and brown and another of two bright oranges. Blake's idea of a paint scheme is as rigidly traditional as a maitre'de: black roof, white house. Because it is fun, and I'm not the one with the burden of a decision, I have sent the Schlueter family more choices than they probably want; they will be forced to pick their paint or be inundated with more ideas than they can handle.

Or....choose a different scheme for each wall!

I'm so helpful! That's why they'll "ask Sherwin Williams....

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Why You Do the Things You Do

I'm home just a half hour before dark, but its the best half hour of the day, now that the wind has diminished and the streets of Tarkio are busy with moms and babies in strollers and little children wearing their brand new flip flops. The grass has greened but remains in that limbo state between spring and mowing. There's not really any time to embark on a major project, so I take down one of the garden flags. It happens to be the fall flag....I boycotted celebrating winter after last year, but now the spring flag with butterflies and hyacinths gently lifts a corner on the settling evening breeze. It is so dry that the garden debris I lift into the back of the pickup is light and fluffy; I'll knit in some willow branches to keep the whole mess in one piece until I get out to the farm. This isn't real work; it is an opportunity to exhale and step lightly and stroll slowly watching the pearly evening light fade away from the sycamore heights.

Work happened for enough hours today. Work isn't really the burden; worry is. While I lie awake at night worrying about bugs, a chronic and not irrational concern, bigger troubles await, unbeknownst. The current mantra; "it is what it is" is nothing if not insufficient and "its always something" can hardly be described as more positive or specific. Ah, yes, it is only flowers; how serious can one be? How on earth can one get wrapped up in psychic angst about things as ephemeral and giddy as the lilies of the field? Can a person whose work a day routine could be described as pick em up, set em down, move em here, roll em there and finally, don't let em die, really be taken seriously when feet grow fungus, necks get burnt, shoulders ache and insomnia lurks? To quote Jerry Jeff, 'why do they rope for their money?'

I have purposefully chosen pictures of the kids when they were younger to accentuate the wonder I feel about their existence at all. Captured in an eyeblink of the shutter, they are still instantly recognizable and immediately charming. Ann appeared late this afternoon with Aaron and Josh in tow, ready to pick up Lizzie. Lizzie and Abbie and Gabe were at "work" with Lee and me down in the dirt shed. Abbie and Lizzie had taken their turns putting trays on the conveyor. Gabe, topped with John Deere green, took charge of the wheel stock, manning the skid steer, the golf cart and the immovable 4 wheeler in succession. Aaron and Gabe stacked two by two cardboard Ball plant boxes. Lizzie filled a dozen pots with rocks.

And Josh smiled, blissfully, with slobber dripping from his fist. He is little, but he knows he has me as long as he smiles.

It may be I work for less than the proverbial peanuts (though a well timed Snickers ice cream bar is good incentive); it may be I "rope" for the past smiles of children now grown and the present rewards of grins as toothless as Josh and Aaron's and as irrepressible as giggles of the soon to be four year olds.

'If I have faith to move mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.'

Memo to self: there are days I feel like nothing, I accomplish little, or perhaps I actively make things worse. But.....look above. I do have love.