Monday, November 18, 2013

Over the River and Through the Woods...

...........may be the beginning of the iconic Thanksgiving song, but when I was growing up, we got up even before all the moms and grandmas putting the turkeys in the oven and drove south through the Illinois prairie in darkness so far from morning that we could not even see the silhouettes of barns and silos. Gradually, as we got south of Kankakee, the lights of the farm houses would glow dimly across the bare ground and I would picture the cooks in their robes and slippers warming ovens and wrestling the birds from the refrigerator, then heading back for a quick nap before rolling out dough for rolls and pies after breakfast. There were no fast food restaurants or quick trips or other convenience stores back then so we looked out the windows and listened to our stomachs growl, making do with whatever my mother had packed. The fields were empty of grain and quite often cleanly plowed and put to bed for the winter, but I wasn't a farmer then and could be mistaken.

Our destination was usually Hannibal where my aunt and uncle and cousins would host Thanksgiving dinner, weather permitting. But I also remember eating with my cousins on Granny's back porch, with steam condensing on the louvered windows and the little succulents lining the sills in glazed pots of various shapes.  Grandpa would say grace and we'd load our plates with canned beans and frozen corn and pies from fruit of Grandpa's orchard; sweet potatoes and red skinned potatoes from his garden; not just traditional meats, but maybe some squirrel or rabbit pieces unrecognizable in its gravy brought to mind the platters and pots of the Pilgrims' did the risk of finding some buckshot with your teeth....We ate off real plates: play, whether active football or armchair football, had to wait until all the dishes were done. By hand. Washing was my dad's job; he didn't trust anyone else to clean sufficiently, but all of us ladies would dry. It was certainly more fun to do dishes with the chatter of the Renken women than with just my sister at home! Granny and Grandpa's house was a drafty thing ,but the kitchen was a mere alley and all the humidity from the ovens, the dishes, the pots on the stove and the quantities of chatter made getting out of doors a refreshing relief. Later, while some of the menfolk watched football, we'd play 'Hearts' or 'Spades' and have to suck it up when we were firmly trounced by any of the adults. We learned at a young age that if one was going to play with the grownups, one had to pay the price. No quarter!!

My father would bring his clarinet and uncle Terry, the music director at Hannibal, would bring out a stack of music for them to try out.  After a while, I was recruited to make a woodwind trio.  It was terrifying for the first year or so as I struggled to keep my place and not embarrass my father by getting lost.  Uncle Terry was always kind, but then I'm sure he was used to it!  

Usually we went out to get our Christmas tree over Thanksgiving as well.  The pastures of central Missouri were fertile fields as far as cedar trees were concerned.  If the weather had been just right, the needles would still be green and not the reddish brown hue the cedars would wear through the winter.  Our old cars had commodious trunks, so the luggage would ride in the back seat with Laura and me while the freshly cut cedar was bent and fitted carefully into the trunk. We might not have been comfortable, but we enjoyed the fragrance all the way back to Illinois with the additional anticipation of putting up the tree in a week or so after it soaked up water and unfolded in the garage.

By the time I was in college, the Renken family Thanksgiving had settled comfortably at Aunt Anne's and Uncle Tony's gracious home in Columbia.  Each family brought its special dish, eagerly anticipated from the previous Thanksgiving, up to and including the baked beans which provoked a friendly rivalry about whose beans were the best beans.  I would never take sides or pretend to judge...Who eats baked beans on Thanksgiving?  I knew I liked my mother's the best!  Rather, fill up on stuffing and rolls and cranberries and broccoli salad and try to carve out a bit of room for pie.   The tables were always set with creative place cards and the weather always seemed to be just right for a leafy afternoon stroll those years. 

When our kids were little, we reprised the pitch black early morning drives south, packing something to drink and a few donuts from home.  Lee, Ann, and then Ben were the only grandkids/great grand kids in the family then and were spoiled commensurately with new books or toys and full and complete access to the pinball machine downstairs and the hot tub on the back patio.  My younger cousins played football and shot baskets with them.  They played cards with their Granny, just like Laura and I had done a generation before.  I can assure you, she was much less cutthroat than some of the other family members!

We are a big family now with bits and pieces of family connections near and far.  In years past, turkey was followed close by with farming as we strove to bring in the last wet corn or the last frosty beans or to finish up running anhydrous on a particular field before rain, or snow, or freeze shut down field work. We have offered Thanksgiving on still chill days after covering a greenhouse in ideal conditions and celebrating our grand good fortune with a big beef steak.  When we partake of this particular type of Thanksgiving meal, we echo our forebears in a small way, praising God for every measure heaped atop survival, for allowing us to approach the long winter season without fear and with a great hope and anticipation.  We count our blessings in so many ways on Thanksgiving Day: by the weight of the turkey in the oven, by the number of plates on the tables, cars in the driveway, pies on the counter, frequent flyer miles....but none so sublime, so intangible, so righteous, as the gift of giving thanks itself before, during and after the day itself has past.  

This year it is our turn to hit the road, to cross the brown prairies bare of crops, to join the other travelers following their own personal GPS like homing pigeons of the past.  Traveling east this year to cook, to hug, to celebrate, to count our blessings.

Thanksgiving has always been our movable feast


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Shall We Dance

"We've just been introduced,
I do not know you well, 
But when the music started 
Something drew me to your side." Anna, The King and I

There is no record of this, no photograph, no video, and probably no one remembers this but me, but our first dance was a polka, at the Wisconsin State Fair. There was an accordion, and lederhosen, and yes, in the immortal words, beer was involved. Probably, it being Wisconsin,and 1976, Miller HighLife.

It wasn't a pretty polka. But it was a determined polka. We clenched the bit in our teeth and ran with it, to the delight , I am certain, of anyone paying attention and the detriment of my bare feet (I wore was the 70s...did I point that out?).

"Or perchance,
When the last little star has left the sky,
Shall we still be together
With our arms around each other
And shall you be my new romance?

On the clear understanding
That this kind of thing can happen,
Shall we dance?
Shall we dance?
Shall we Dance? "

  For fully half the human population, these are magic words. Hearing them sung, this weekend, by a chanteuse in the spotlight with a baby grand not 15 feet in front of our table, made me close my eyes and reflect on romance, music....and the continuing compromises between husbands and wives. Because I love to most women do...and moving across a dance floor in psychic harmony to beloved melodies is high on my list of romantic idylls. But...even a man with an equal appreciation of the music has a separate means of expressing it, i.e., seated with toe tapping the maximum physical expression.

 Over the years we have been presented with a wide range of opportunities to dance.  We did some square dancing here in Tarkio not long after we were married; we've ushered in many a newlywed from elegant country club settings to the low ceilinged friendly confines of Tarkio Community Building.  We  were unable to resist the temptation to be great pretenders above our social station when we danced at the Washington Hilton to the mellow trombone of Eric Felten and his big band with all the trimmings.  At one point, we tried to improve our lot with a dance class in Maryville: the erstwhile goal some semblance of competency at a waltz (for wedding reception purposes) and an irrational desire to swing dance and trip the light fantastic.

That effort enjoyed a modicum of success, to the extent we have settled on a modified two step that serves us quite nicely for a wide range of tempos and styles from the American songbook to George Strait.    We can indulge our love of music and exhibit our approval of the band without major embarrassment. Its too bad Blake and I are part of the generation that never learned the civilized pleasures of real dance; I envy our kids who seem to have a foot in dance worlds of the far past and present and our parents who came to dance as a normal natural part of a happy culture. But we still 'step out' to share the exuberant spirit of any number of wedding celebrations, carrying on the tradition of our parents before and setting an free spirited example for any kids around whose feet can't hold still.

 Counting our first polkas, we've been dancing for more than 35 years.  When we dance, we stand near eye to eye.  He steers so I don't back into some other dancers. We don't try anything too fancy, but we aren't bound by petty convention, either. 

 In dancing, in life, as partners, as a team, we have a sensible compromise:
  I don't try to teach him new steps...... and he doesn't tell me to sit down....

I'll never know 
What made it so exciting. 
Why all at once my heart took flight. I only know when he 
Began to dance with me
 I could have danced, danced, 
danced All night!
Eliza, My Fair Lady


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Role Models

Millie is frustrated.
Wild animal tracks have been spotted near the school and she is afraid the little children are in harm's way. She also thinks her family isn't treating the situation with the seriousness it deserves. As part of that family, I'd say she's probably correct in that assessment: there is a deeply serious vein running through the family tree, but one has to dig through quite a bit you-know-what to get to the root of it.
But this is Millie. She's not wringing her hands dithering; nope, she's on the phone, calling on her network, and making something happen.
In my opinion, no sensible wild critter would DARE lurk near anyone's munchkins, knowing Millie is around. There's a force field, and being a great grandma has not diminished its clout.

Back in the day, I was a newly wed, rookie farm wife, with the willingness to help of a five year old and just about the same level of expertise. The learning curve was steep, and like Sisyphus, I felt I spent as much time going down as I did climbing up. Blessedly, there was a sympathetic soul nearby with seemingly endless time to drink coffee and help me settle in.....and it wasn't my husband! Nope, it was my mother in law, and I can't imagine any young wife joining a family/family business has ever enjoyed a more open armed, open door, open relationship with her husband's mom
She taught me to wallpaper, reupholstered my grandma's handmedown couch, coached me through chicken butchering, shared meals, and helped me find a home at church. I was invited to play bridge every once in a while, build floats for parades, and begin a decades long tour at vacation Bible school.
There have always been projects erupting in her house. Perhaps its a grandchild or great grand child's quilt. Perhaps a costume, or a dress for a wedding party, or a kennel of Pound Puppies, or a dozen pillow case dresses for missions. If there isn't a sewing machine on the table and a thicket of pins in the armrest of the couch, there's a stack of newspaper articles and photographs to testify to a love of family lore and community history. These works in progress are all the evidence I need of what it takes to continue a life well lived: service, work, and curiosity drive the engines of body and mind and keep the machinery well oiled.
An open door and open mind attracts all kinds of characters; itinerant sales folk find ham sandwiches if hunger pangs strike. Millie has more than one piece of ruined upholstery to show for her warm hospitality. There are lots of contestants, but only one winner in the 'favorite'aunt category (sorry, Aunt Debbie!) and this Grandma Millie is everyone's confidant. As each generation of babies becomes toddlers, then rambunctious grade schoolers, then uncertain junior high athletes, varsity cheerleaders, linemen, forwards, FFA presidents, leads in the school play, and graduates in robes and tassels, Grandma and Papa have worn their butts smooth on Tarkio High bleachers and their voices raw screaming 'Go Big Red' and offering helpful suggestions to the officials on the scene. It can be a full time job.
It isn't easy having a big heart; your family doesn't end with your kin. Loving all these years leaves scars only God knows and those who grieve along and share the burden willingly. Prayers are sent up and prayers are answered, not only in heaven, but even day by day in real time on earth. When that happy result occurs, I am convinced angels join in the on earth is not an equation, but we should embrace our gift horses whenever we can.....
And my mother in law takes her joys on a daily basis....her priorities are clear; life, love, and laughter trump order, and everything can wait for tomorrow if there are grandkids to cuddle. Just another lesson to live by: Appreciate the past, and deal with the present one layer at a time.
This is what I know, my kids know, and my grandkids will remember: "I love my rooster, My rooster loves me" , Kkkkkkk-Katy, beautiful Katy, you're the only ggggirl I adore.." , or, all together now, " I live in Montana; I wear a bandana! My spurs are of silver, my pony is gray..." These are the tunes my babies heard, bundled in blankets and encompassed, enfolded in generous, ever open, untiring and ever lovin' arms.
To offer unconditional love unto the third and fourth generation? Is that not Biblical in its scope? Are we not blessed, every one, to bask in that home spun glow for more than our allotted three score and ten?

Just what I am thankful for today ....and I am not alone.....