Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Advice Column


Dear me. Will answering this question make me a preacher? Or a prognosticator? A sage? A voice crying in the wilderness? Or will it brand me indelibly as a grumpy cross old lady wrapped up in my 'back in the day' cobwebs and shaking my finger at the back of everyone who avoids me as a bore?

Fortunately, my sample size of great grandmas doesn't include any incredible bores. There's hope for me yet.

First thing to remember, great grandchildren-to-be, is how fortunate we will be to get to know each marvelous and amazing it will be for me to have held in my arms, whispered nonsense to, held hands with and tickled toes of not just your mommies or daddies, but your grandmas or grandpas....and now YOU! I didn't know my great grandparents: I couldn't even tell you the names of all of them, though I do have photos of some of them on the walls of my guest room. These great grandparents only figure in a few tales left behind by my Granny, who had the urge to write them down so her grandkids would hear them, and your great grandpa Blake's grandpa who told dozens of stories to his grandsons...then they remembered the funniest ones and told their kids, too.

So...maybe that's my very first bit of advice, even if it's not the most important or most useful: Tell your children stories...even when they don't ask to hear them. Take the pictures, go to the cemeteries, pass on the traditions. Build your family brick by brick and connect your past to your present. You have roots, kids, and they reach deep in the country you have come from, or your folks came from. I learned to love your great grandfather because he told stories of his town, his parents, his farm, his history...funny stories full of character and idiosyncrasy. I learned to know your Great Grandpa's family from afar...before I came to Atchison county to join them and grow roots here myself. You come from a long line of storytellers...

Travel. Travel cheap when you're young and pack sandwiches and cereal and milk and your one hot meal a day is cheap Chinese or cheap Mexican. Stop for historical markers and local museums and national parks and pose one or more family members in every picture. Climb trails and skip stones on lakes and toss pebbles into creeks and pick up rocks as souvenirs.

Then, later, see the great cities, go to the theater, eat good food, stay in a room with a view. Spend whatever is necessary to qualify as a splurge....every once in a while. What was magical to me...your great grandma...may be antiquated to you....but, believe me, high class never goes out of style.

Sigh. All this fun will come at a cost. And that cost, lovely kids, is work. Your grandparents will tell you how very hard they worked in rain forest heat and bone chilling winds building greenhouses and loading they awoke and fed their animals in their pajamas and muck boots long before the sun rose. And your parents will tell you they spent summer day after summer day getting up early to fill thousands of pots with mix while their friends were sleeping in until nine.

And I'm here to tell that it's TRUE, all TRUE! Yes, your grandparents worked hard with us building our business and learning the burden of responsibility: for years after the fact, they would awake from dreams in which the steers were out of feed or the well had pumped dry because a hydrant was left on. Your parents are learning all about sweat equity down in that dirt shed; today they're paid only with an afternoon free to swim or read in the cool shade, but before you know it, they will be logging hours on a time card and saving for a college car. Great-grands, whatever your career and your livelihood, you will have learned the dignity of working with your hands, the reward of working side by side with your family, and earned the right to tell those 'way back when' stories to future generations.

Finally, exercise your minds as well as your hearts and hands. Read. Read fantasy and history, mystery and adventure. Escape, enrich, enjoy. Read your Bibles for instruction, for counsel, for comfort, for encouragement. Read the stories you loved to your children....The Poky Little Puppy, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mike Mulligan's Steam Shovel, Hobo Dog, Winnie the Pooh. They are the common threads of your cultural heritage. My parents left a roomful of books three foot tall by 12 foot long by 6 foot wide, proof of a lifelong curiosity on a variety of subjects. Among these books are my grandfather's engineering text, my grandmother's poetry books, my father's Spanish dictionary and German Bible and my mother's botany book. I doubt that anyone else will ever read these volumes, but I will preserve them in hopes that you and your children will leaf through them, read the frontispieces and the notes in the margin, and comprehend the glorious debt of enrichment you owe your book loving ancestors.

Oh, great-grands...there is so much more! Play music...sing loud in church....plant lots of flowers.....use the right tools.....take lots of pictures.....and come play with your great grandparents often....


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

In Memoriam

His 84th birthday cake is still in the freezer. The Sunday we were to eat it with him, he was admitted to to the hospital after taking his third fall in less than 24 hours. Since then, we have have been waiting with him for what comes next. I've turned on the Big Ten network, on mute, where football players of the past are exhibiting highlight reel heroics. He likes football.

Mozart is the background music to the game. Over the past week, we've made our musical way through Bruckner symphonies, Brahms concertos, some Delius and Elgar and two somber symphonies of Vaughn Williams. Ben has contributed a six pack of Mozart hits, so this morning the Jupiter symphony accompanies Penn State and Wisconsin.

My father and I played a lot of Mozart in our day. Mozart and the clarinet are a match made in heaven. We played duets, stopping to repeat a phrase not for missed notes or a muffed accidental, but for style points....for playing too loud, for attacking too harshly, for not playing sweetly enough."One can never," he would say, "play Mozart too sweetly."

Not this side of heaven.

This is the man who taught me to practice, who led by example, whether the lesson was scraping rust with a wire brush and painting Rustoleum....preservation.....or keeping my chin down so my clarinet profile didn't resemble George Washington....perseverance....or picking up and putting away....well, maybe it took years for that lesson to stick.

"He was square with the world; he took good care of his tools."

He could make almost anything function.... ham radios, color televisions, non-destructive nuclear test equipment. The fixes were not always pretty, but they used what was at hand and they were constructed to endure the ages. Over built, in engineer speak.

What my father joined together, it was darned hard to put asunder.

He was the disciplinarian of our family. When I was very young, punishment meant standing in the kitchen facing the dryer.  Words carried more pain than the rare swat with the paint stick.  Our parents let us grow up and therefore we did, but on the few occasions he offered counsel or warning, I took his judgments seriously and pondered the implications.

He told me my marriage to Blake was for once and for all...there would be no "coming home".  His word was bond; the pledge he and my mother made to each other lasted through health and sickness, good times and bad, and only the grave separates them now.

My father was a most unpretentious polymath.  He read the German Abendpost weekly and the Spanish version of the National Geographic monthly and watched Spanish soap operas.  There was a planetarium in the milking parlor and all his older great grandchildren had the opportunity to look through the telescope. He loved wood and utilized an assortment of antique rough and ready tools to build book shelves, computer desks, and a customized dining table to accommodate the growing family.  He seldom sat still and always had a project on the work bench.  He knew every facet of Civil War history, was a lifetime member of the ARRL; he used to commute to Jefferson City on his motorcycle and check in with my mother every day on his mobile radio...  W0NWG to W0NWH. He and my mom developed their own photographs for years and shot targets at the gun range.

He fueled the curiosity of his grandchildren and great grandchildren; in photo after photo, he is holding forth, hands in the air, explaining something to one or more kids.  We didn't read at the supper table when I was young: we listened as my father expounded on one subject or another.  We even listened to him when the tornado warnings blew and the sky glowed lurid green, my mother fell deathly silent and I wondered whether the grand piano would hold us all down if the house blew away around us.

He had a wicked sense of humor...and I would constantly flounder trying to come up with a suitably witty reply. My sister and I longed for a horse and saved our nickels and dimes and birthday money for years in hopes of owning one.  When we moved to Missouri to a farm where we could keep one, my father's counter-offer was the purchase of a long horned Hereford we had named Brownie.  Soon, our quixotic dream of galloping the fields was replaced by the less romantic reality of a cow calf pair.  

He was upright, faithful, argumentative, obstinate, and a loving  companion to my mother for all his life.  I shall miss listening to him, working with him,  learning from him, and playing music with him.  

"Now lettest Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word,
For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared
Before the face of all peoples."

Rest, faithful servant.  I look to the time when we shall plant together in the Lord's garden and play sweet music together in His orchestra.

C. John Renken, Jr.
May 14, 1933- May 27, 2017 

Sunday, May 7, 2017

"An' a One, an' a Two!"....or...."Wunnerful, Wunnerful!"

Safe to say, Gabe and Abbie have never heard of Lawrence Welk.  

Lots of reasons that would be true.  First and foremost, they are just turning ten years old.  Tomorrow.  And even though Mr. Welk's musical variety show aired new shows for more than thirty years and still plays on Saturday nights on PBS, Gabe and Abbie didn't sit down together after supper with their parents or grandparents to watch ladies in chiffon and puffy sleeves sing.  Nor did they enjoy ragtime piano or develop a distinct antipathy to Irish tenors.  There is lots of music on television, but these days shows like 'The Voice' or 'America's Got Talent', or even 'American Idol' intersperse a little music with a lot of talk.

By the way, Gabe and Abbie love to watch 'The Voice' and 'Dancing with the Stars' with their mom...when their dad is at harvest.....

So what exactly is the interface between Gabe Harms, Abbie Harms, and a bandleader born in North Dakota more than a century before them?

Just this: their Grandma Julie. I did watch Lawrence Welk with my parents...and my grandparents, and somehow, after all these years, my feelings about Gabe and Abbie...their births, their lives thus far, and the fact that they are turning ten tomorrow brought to mind Mr. Welk with his long baton, facing the camera as it panned out from the orchestra.....

"An' a one...(That's John Gabriel)...., an' a two..."(And here comes Abigail Louise)...

....And aren't they "Wunnerful, Wunnerful"??

Happy Birthday and lots of love, Gabe and Abbie....

Have your daddy find you 'The Lawrence Welk Show' sometime just for fun....