Friday, December 23, 2011

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Something old, something new.

Lee and I cooked homemade caramels yesterday afternoon.  Patiently I stirred , switching from left to right hand.  Periodically, Lee bent over to read the candy thermometer.  It smelled heavenly and burnt my finger when I scraped the spatula. Today the caramels were still in the glass pans, as smooth as troweled concrete and just as hard.   Except for a few fractures on the edges made by Lee's knife with the newly bent tip.  Drat!  What to do? Lee was loath to consign her 8x8 Pyrex to the trash; I hadn't planned to get her 8x8 Pyrex for Christmas!  We set the unyielding confection on a pan of boiling water to warm and finally peeled the now flexible candy and freed the pans.  Hurry!  A pizza cutter balked at rolling through the entire surface, but quick action with the poultry shears yielded shiny squares, promptly wrapped in waxed paper.  The candy looked great, but the wrapping pretty well screamed amateur.  Something new.

After that escapade, it was a relief to fall back upon the tried and true.  We experimented for several years with different sugar cookies before settling on a Harms' family recipe. With the help of Silpat, every tray of bells, candy canes, snowmen, and angels comes out perfectly. Those too hungry to wait for frosting now have to depend upon the fragility of reindeer horns, or Santa hats, or camel feet for their warm cookie fix.  From experience we bake one day and decorate the next, knowing from Christmases past that the fun factor drops like a stone as cookie baking and frosting enters into its third hour. Something old and familiar

Cookie frosting and sprinkling takes place after Ann gets off work and the kids are up from their naps.  Its Annie and Matt's anniversary, a memorable one with a zero at the end. On one of our zero anniversaries, I hauled mums somewhere northward in Iowa, listened to Clint Black on the radio and picked up a frozen shrimp cocktail at the HyVee in Shenandoah.  High times.  Ann and Matt take a similar tack, opting for a home cooked meal and basketball: in the midst of the Christmas season, they take a pass on the night out but celebrate nonetheless a momentous occasion: Josh's first steps.  Something new.

I made six loaves of apple bread this afternoon.  After frosting the cookies, my jeans threatened to stand by themselves.  Today I broke out the Hoe, Hoe, Hoe Christmas sweatshirt: I'll attempt to wash out the food coloring and powdered sugar and re-don my gay apparel once again on Christmas Eve.  The kids, gratifyingly, noted the trowels and carrots trimming the tree and the wellie clad scarecrow atop acting angelic.  Tomorrow I'll overdo on dairy, producing a cheeseball and cream cheese coffeecake or two.  Tradition!  Something old.

This past week I was happy to see my parent's little Manger scene laid out amid burgundy fabric and cedar branches even though they haven't trimmed a tree in years.  Much of our extended family will gather for wine and cheese and family prayer, reminding me of Grandpa and Grandma Hurst, who never attended this particular get together.  Annie was Grandma Nelson's first great-grand child to wed; I treasure the pictures from that ceremony and the memories of Christmas Eve visits to her home. After soup and crackers together to celebrate Grandpa H's Christmas Eve birthday and family communion at our candlelit church, we'd head north to the St. John's neighborhood. A burst of steam would escape the front door as we'd step in; the biggest pile of coats ever were flung willy nilly across her bed.  Every available corner, cushion and arm rest was occupied by some family member, local or just visiting.  Christmas Eve wasn't complete until we'd dropped by Bruce and Janice's commodious home to deliver apple bread, pick at the dainties laid out on the kitchen counter and pin our wishes on the Yule log smoldering in the huge hearth.  Happy ghosts of Christmases past.

Here's a Christmas Eve tradition new to you, I'll bet:  the annual Christmas Eve Hurst family greenhouse covering.  Yup, while other families are traveling, or finishing up their shopping, or wrapping presents or baking up a storm, this family tends to gather in the morning fog or frost to pull 30x100 or 22x100 sheets of 6 mil plastic over slippery metal frames.  Our early Christmas prayers are for calm winds; we are vocally grateful when blessed with a still morning.  There are worse ways to head into a holiday feast than to work up a decent sweat and complete a completely crucial task.  Family bonding anyone?  A tradition older than our greenhouse.

The blessings of togetherness will have to wait until New Year's this year.  The good news is a plethora of weddings beginning with Brett and Shelby's...ready made New Year's Eve party!!  The bad news is waiting for Ben and Kenzie to be in Tarkio.  More good news:  stretching out the days of celebration nearly to the lauded dozen of song and tradition.  Ample opportunity for a houseful of guests filling the table with conversation and the rooms with laughter.  Having company will make deconstructing the tree less melancholy. The New Year will be upon us with its unpredictable mix of ups and downs. We can consider ourselves fortunate: there are already a couple of celebrations built in.  With our family, church, jobs and friends, we are the lucky Mr. Magoo Ebenezer for us!  Our ghosts of Christmas past are loving ones and while we laugh over the dry Christmas when the cow fell into the well, or the cold Christmas with the power out, the inedible chocolate pies and the obnoxiously loud toys gifted and re-gifted to families with youngsters, out of sight but not out of mind are parents, grandparents and friends whose absence is most acute when we are most together.

How trite is the trope that Christmas is for children?  'Yet in the dark streets shineth the Everlasting Light'.  The Kids Korner kids donned white gloves for the finale of their program, then the audience oohed and aahed when the gym lights dimmed and the white gloves fluoresced under the blue light.  The music played 'Silent Night' and the children's gloves danced the lyrics in sign language.  But tears came to my eyes when I watched my grandchildren mouth the old familiar verse as they made the motions with grace surprising for four year olds.  Out of the mouths of babes. Something new.

I don't know which year in particular births this memory:  it is a crunchy Christmas Eve and we are on our way back from Grandma Nelson's.  It must be can only be this frigid with snow on the ground.  Besides, we are all five in the pickup so route B is hazardous.  This is before the days of crew cabs.  Lee would have been straddling the gear shift scrunched next to her dad with Annie squished in the middle sharing her seat belt.  Ben was on my lap with my two arms around him.The defrost roars in a vain attempt to keep up with all that breathing.  Back in those days, KMA's programming on Christmas Eve consisted of replays of various school Christmas concerts.  Orient-Maxwell, Carson-Macedonia, Red Oak, Clarinda, Lewis Central....fuzzy tapes of middling quality featuring soprano voices in carols familiar and foreign.  The kids were  sleepy and quiet.  Orion blazed brighter than the pickup lights.  The road was dark and silent but for our passing.  Our little family headed to its warm home and beds with thoughts of Bethlehem and the Babe in Mom and Dad's heads.  This night is imprinted on my heart.  It comes to mind every Christmas Eve as I turn down the fire and turn out the tree lights.  Something so old.  Come ye, Lord Jesus.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Hard Labor

Monday afternoon I was threading my needle and preparing to sew candy canes onto Abbie's costume for the preschool Christmas program when she pulled herself up next to me on a tall stool and asked, 'Grandma, can I help?'  One of the blessings of grandparent-hood is the ability to say, 'sure, I wish you would!'  Unfortunately, with a sharp needle as a tool and an index finger already bleeding, I was forced to decline Abbie's generous offer and received a crestfallen countenance in response.  I hated to break her helpful 4 year old heart, but was buoyed yet again by her willing spirit.  For any parent, or grandparent, or teacher, or any other adult, rejoices to hear the request: 'Can I help?'  

There is a magic moment in a child's life when he knows he is no longer a baby and believes he is equal in many respects to mommy and daddy. ( This belief is apparent during daylight hours, but disappears inconveniently after 10 o'clock at night.)  Kids don't mind making their beds, will put their dishes in the sink, might attempt to put their clothes away, and even go through the motions of picking up toys.  I can remember this stage, because my vision of a clean room was so diametrically opposed to that of my father.  Unfortunately, this stage doesn't last.  All parents know there is an inverse relationship between a child's age and his willingness to be a useful contributor to the household and society past some critical point, probably not long after first grade.  Not surprisingly, this may also coincide with the Biblical age of accountability 

(Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. Genesis 3:17). Toil is one of those words that sounds ugly, invoking sludge, mud, repetition , brain numbing, Sisyphean and even pointless labor.  It contrasts, at least to me, with the word 'work', which implies movement to a goal, an accomplishment, something of value and worth.  The good news is that most children do not recognize the nuanced differences between the words, 'toil' and 'work'.  The bad news is that, the older they get, they most certainly realize that 'toil' is not only hard, but also the only kind of work they are given.

This long muse is a result of powers way above the level of parental intervention.  The United States government wishes to take the burden of taskmaster off the shoulders of moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas as far as farm work is concerned.  No more of that nasty toil, dirt, grime, heat, cold, and other character building adjectives.  Nothing should be too hard for 'the children'.

I could regale you with tales from my childhood.  My father was in charge of hard, hard work and my sister and I kept our feelings to ourselves whenever he called us out and assigned us our chores.   I learned  to complete a task and maintain a stoic, if not cheerful, expression at the same age I learned the meaning of the word. Even while working on our own, we assumed our parents were omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, just like the Trinity, as far as work was concerned.  Unlike cleaning our room, we took our farm work quite seriously.  I do not remember ever attempting to 'slide by' on any assignment my parents gave me, though their memories may differ.  

In many cases, working FOR our parents meant working WITH our parents.  That's how Blake grew up and that has been the experience for all three of our children.  It is difficult to feel picked on or punished when working alongside your father, grandfather, mother or grandmother.  Our greenhouse business has been the incubator for more than one work ethic.  When we first began building, there would be a kid on one end of the string making the straight line for posts.  There would be a kid fetching tools.  Or a kid holding the ladder.  Early on, covering a greenhouse was a family affair....even the youngest was heavy enough to sit on a corner of plastic and keep the wind from getting underneath.  Everyone took turns filling pots with potting mix; everyone was expected to help carry pots and flats.  The cardinal rule was: no bathroom break, no coffee break, no lunch break, until your plants or seeds are watered in.  Not all work is life or death, but some is.

When kids work, its not just about productivity or the bottom line.  One of Grandpa H.'s favorite aphorisms still holds true:'A boy is a boy; two boys is half a boy, and three boys is no boy at all!'  No, kids work for a host of reasons, very few pecuniary.  Moms and dads "take a kid to work" to keep them out of trouble; to teach by example; and, to spend time together.  The hardworking dad at our place confessed more than once that he recruited his kids' help because he liked the company, not just because they were "good help".

On weekend mornings in the spring, its hard to keep track of all the kids at the greenhouse.  Aaron is old enough now to be commandeered by his daddy to help feed pots or trays into the dirt machine, or help at the transplanter,   He's eight; he's spent parts of every spring of his life in these structures, crawling through the potting mix, untagging tagged flats, watering constructively and destructively moment to moment.  When his kindergarten class came to visit,  Aaron was the proud in-house expert.  I am proud of his knowledge and of his parents for starting him out right.  The younger kids will be almost five: too young to really work, but they will still push buttons on and off, help tag sporadically, push carts along the sidewalk, and plant the occasional flat of petunias or impatiens.  What they will mostly do, and quite responsibly, is take care of themselves and each other.  They'll amuse themselves, secure in the knowledge that they are on home turf and mom, dad, uncle, aunt, cousins, and grandparents are all within shouting distance.  

A farm, or a greenhouse, admittedly, can be a dangerous place.  So is the rest of the world.  But whatever rules and regs are imposed upon small businesses and family farms will not make them safer than the schools, playgrounds, shopping centers and parking lots kids frequent.  All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy, the nursery rhyme says, but the lesson our kids learned early and often was to never let on, or speak the fateful words: 'I'm bored!'  Working with adults builds ties that bind closer than gifts or treats.  The kids "own" their accomplishments; they know what Dad and Mom do for a living, and have a sense of how difficult it can be. If you spend your weekend holding sheetrock on your head, or straddling the metal framework of the  endwall of a greenhouse 16' feet in the air,  or watering the same 3000' sq.ft. of tomatoes that you watered the day before, you truly appreciate Sunday afternoon off.  And you will also know, for a fact, that you have accomplished something tangible.  These are lessons taught by life, by moms and dads who seem heartless and tone deaf, to kids who will suffer these torments, silently or no.  These same tales of hard work and "hardship" will pass into family legend, to be resurrected for the edification and example of the next generation of kids drug away from the cartoons to hold the tape measure or fetch the socket set.  

 Why do kids work with their folks?  

'What's bred in the bone...'

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Day by Day

 When I am deeply engrossed in a good book, I struggle to focus on the tasks at hand, to remember where I am and what I should be doing, to separate myself from the reality of the world in my mind.  It is a mixed blessing to lose oneself in an alternate creation.  More than once I have carried the feeling of loss and exhaustion from an emotionally taxing tale into my oh-so-prosaic and predictable work-a-day world.  Irrational?  Of course.  As time passes, I gradually regain my footing during the day and sleep without dreams at night.....

The text in late October was from Kenzie.  With her characteristic blend of dedication and enthusiasm, she sent out a call for companions to join her in a reading equivalent of an eight hundred meter race: read the Bible in 90 days.  Why an eight hundred?  No time to stop; not much time to slack off.  Not a marathon; not a sprint.  A commitment with rewards unmeasured, but known.

Impulsively, I answered right back.  Yep, I said, I'll take this on.  I took it as a direct hint, something louder than the still voice after the whirlwind.  Ok, Kenzie, I'll join you.......and everyone you jostled with the notion.  Here's the website; here's the app.  Pick your version; pick your reminders, or not.  Here's God talking to you, right on your iphone.  Just in case His own holy Book isn't close enough.....

Forgive me if you find this conversation irreverent. With excitement and a sense of adventure and anticipation I dove into the familiar words of Genesis 1.  I played with several translations before settling.  I tinkered with the website's features,watching each chapter check off electronically as it was completed. 

Genesis flew by.I was there among the people listening raptly by fires under the stars.  These are not written words; these are spoken tales, handed down from generation to generation.  Exodus: tyranny, slavery,origin of a people wandering from land to land. Here was all the drama of great literature: testing, trials, blessing and ingratitude, crime and punishment, the eternal and ongoing struggle of a virtual and literal wilderness.  

As the days wear on, I find myself falling into the rhythm.  I read in the car, while I heat water in the microwave, while coffee is brewing, while I wait for the car to fill with gas.  The Bible is habit forming in the finest sense. The cadence carries one forward, even if the words consist of names so unfamiliar they might be people or they might be places.  The rules of Jewish law and sacrifice roll off the tongue of the reader, wave upon wave, long distance breakers past to present.  

And not just history.  Passion, loyalty, love, betrayal.  Hope.  War.  Strength. All the agony and ecstasy of humanity's paradise lost. Kings and queens, prophets and seers, blood and glory and heroes wage epic battles on the pages of the Old Testament long before Shakespeare was a glimmer. Reading Job, I found myself constantly bookmarking some of the loveliest, most muscular poetry in literature.  

I am yet but forty percent through my 90 day pilgrimage.  It is a journey of discovery and re-discovery.  We are accustomed to our Bible in anecdotes, but  it gains additional mystery and power read page by page.  The rigid and artificial schedule has unexpectedly led to a lyrical, vivid and lively reading experience.  Is it disrespectful to have both a Facebook and a Bible app on the same screen?  Not when God's word leads you to read Psalms........rather than checking your status.....