Saturday, December 28, 2013

Auld Lang Syne

To Matt, Josh & Lauren,

Christmas 2013 is nearly a week in the wake now and the deconstruction process has already begun.  It seems that the kitchen was just now kindled hot over and over as I worked my way through a long list of cookie recipes, but already the empty tins and Tupperware containers are piling on the cold stovetop, waiting to be put away on the basement shelves.  We’ve already gathered the gift bags and bows, smoothed out the tissue paper that could be salvaged and flattened the multitude of cardboard boxes that are destined for the recycling bin.  The strand of lights around the door is half-burned out and Daddy decided against trying to fix them this year, so we’ve turned them off and the house looks a little less cheery against the wind.  Next week, when you return to school, I’ll begin the process of taking down the mantle nativity and send the wise men back east, or south as it may be.  The Santas will give way to the snowmen and the tree boughs will sigh and bow to relinquish their troves.  

At the beginning of the month, as I was assembling the yearly magic, I realized that there are so many efforts involved in creating Christmas that you’re not aware of yet.  The dozens of cards to write and send. The gift buying for teachers and the bus driver and the mail lady.  The lights that Daddy strings along the bushes at the front of the house and the decorations that I haul out from the basement and set up late at night while you’re deep in sleep.  

It’s not really important at 8 years old to appreciate it all.  I’m just delighted and somewhat confounded that you still write wish lists to Santa and believe that our elf has nanny cams throughout the house so he can accurately recommend you to the naughty or nice list.  My plan is to keep you in the shoals of Christmas strain as long as I can.  

In time, you’ll each discover the full scope of how Christmas unfolds in a home.  Some aspects will be jealously guarded and carried on.  Perhaps it will be a cookie tradition.  No matter how many dozens I’ve made, there still must be a batch of butterscotch oatmeal for me and a tin of Great-Granny’s lace cookies for your Daddy.   

Other traditions will seem an ill-fit to your families and you’ll store them away in the boxes of faded memories, coming across them when digging deep into a back corner of recollection.  In your Grammy’s house, we weren’t allowed to decorate ANYTHING until December 14th because Uncle Jason’s birthday was the day before.  Now, our tradition is to start putting up lights on Thanksgiving weekend.  I wonder what indispensable part of our holidays will draw to a close in your homes?  The angel food cake on Christmas eve?  Santa’s red wrapping paper?  
Today, I want to write about a few specific boxes of decorations that I faithfully bring up from the basement each year.  The ones that have extra-special meaning and a family history behind them.  One day, they’ll be divided among your homes and I’m delighted to think of their stories continuing to flourish on the tender branches that you’ll be adding to the family tree.   


I keep most of my heritage treasures in the dining room.  Before you were born, I had spectacular dreams of turning that space into a museum of sorts, a place where I could display all my genealogy artifacts that I’ve collected over the years.  Then came triplets and the heirloom cherry table became a diaper changing station.  8 years later, it’s an art and Lego center, but I’ve managed to press my treasures around the edges of the room like a flower pinned flat between pages of a heavy book.  Some day I’ll write about the George & Martha plates from the mountains of central PA and the rounded glass cabinet from your Irish great-great-great aunt in Philadelphia.  But those are tales for another telling.  This letter is all about our Christmas antiquity.

The china cabinets are brimming with places to nestle all those shiny glass ornaments that have been handed down to me over the years.  Most of the brightly colored ones came from Granny Gunning when she was moving out of her house.  I group them by color:  blues with greens, reds with golds.  Granny showed me how to use an old wire to stack the pinks and silvers in a tree shape.  A lot of those balls have the old fashioned etching or flocking on them.  They’re starting to yellow and crackle, but I think when placed all together, they make a lovely display.  Granny also gave me a most special glass ball ornament.  Do you see that silver one lying on it’s side, sitting on the pink glass stand?  That belonged to your great-grandfather, Doc Gunning, when he was a child.  It’s coming up on 100 years old and is very heavy.  I wouldn’t dare try to hang it since it’s made of thick glass and the metal hanger is very loose. I handle that one with great care.

Bringing out these old pieces is like unlocking an old trunk for me.  Each December as I peel back the tissue paper, I get to revisit a little memory from my childhood and so often, one that is connected to my grandparents’ houses.  

After my Grandpa Durandetta passed away and we were cleaning out the attic crawlspaces, we reached the Christmas boxes.  A lot of things had missing or broken pieces or were just not salvageable.  Like the box of old fashioned C7 lights with the big, fat, colored bulbs.  I remember Grandpa stringing them on the bushes outside the front door and they would get so hot!  The wires were covered with a cotton braid and I always thought that was an accident waiting to happen.  But I couldn’t bear to see them thrown in the trash so I unscrewed the bulbs and later glued them into a wreath that I hang on the wall by the kitchen.  Likewise, I also rescued a box of tree ornaments that included Grandma’s yellow and gold masterpiece.  It used to be fashionable to take silk-covered balls and decorate them with elaborate stick pin and bead designs. I remember seeing it hang under her dining room chandelier each Christmas.  As a child, I fancied that it surely must have fallen from one of the wise men’s crowns.  

I also rescued a tiny vintage German angel and a blue plastic Jewelbrite from the box of ornaments that was headed to the trash.  A few years ago while I was browsing through a thrift store, I found a whole bag of the bright prisms….red, yellow and blue….and, of course, I had to buy them to go along with the single one I had from Grandma’s house.  Today, I hang them on the curtain in the window and they sparkle just like they did back in the 1960s. 

And what retro Christmas display would be complete without one of those ceramic trees with the plastic light-up bulbs?  Imagine my delight, while on a trip back to Grove City this summer to visit family, coming into possession of one of those trees that belonged to your Great Grandma Frisk!  I recall her having one on the kitchen windowsill and knew that my mom was now using it at her breakfast nook.  But I didn’t know there was a spare in the closet that no one had spoken for.  Today it’s on the little table just below the bulb wreath, casting about its cheer for another era to enjoy.  Grandma would be tickled, I’m sure.  

Over the years, Grammy has been handing down decorations to me as well.  When we first got married, she made sure I had a box full of ornaments for our tree and when she and Grandpa moved off the farm, she gave me a lot of the decorations that she no longer had room for.  See the Santa with the silky beard?  He’s the oldest and most special one I have.  My great-grandpa Frisk gave him to me on my first Christmas in 1974.  If you look back at old pictures of our trees, you’ll see him hanging on a center branch.   And those rainbow foil balls?  Grammy always hung one on our dining room chandelier.  I found these ones at a thrift store and had to add them to my collection.  

In the 1970s and 80s, it was popular for ladies to take ceramics classes and make holiday decorations.  One of Grammy’s friends made us that gaudy Frosty with his light-up rainbow belly.  We always kept him on the secretary desk near the front door and I was delighted when Grammy turned him over to me.  The elves came from the same lady and I remember them standing on the piano like little staring bookends, watching me practice my lessons.  

See the frosted reindeer ornament?  Grammy bought that set the year Uncle Jason was born.  And the little plastic trumpeting angels?  Those are some of the earliest ornaments that I remember hanging on the tree.  I’m sure I was allowed to handle them since they’re pretty much indestructible.  Today, I hang them alongside the Jewelbrites on the curtain.  And along the kitchen windowsill, I set up the stained glass nativity panels.  I was probably about your age when I made them and can still remember trying to decide which colors to use on the wise men’s robes. 

There’s one last collection of ornaments that I want you to know about.  They’ve all been purchased by me sometime in the last ten years.  They didn’t belong to anyone in the family tree and I don’t have any specific stories or memories to share about them.  Once I finish acquiring them, they’ll represent the 4 major heritages of your family tree: British, Northern Irish, Italian and Swedish.  As of now, I have 2 branches covered. 

The straw ornaments are traditional Swedish crafts.  Look carefully and you’ll see an angel, a pinecone, a heart and a bell.  I love that your Great-Grandpa Frisk was a farmer and spent so much time in the fields, among the stubble and folds of the earth.  Bended straw is a perfect nod to his Swedish roots.  

And the beautiful bauble ornaments are from Italy where artisans are famous for their skill in glassmaking.  There are ribboned blue and green hearts and gold candies with tassels and filigree.  I love that your Great-Great-Grandpa Durandetta was a quarryman and spent so many years cutting through the sandstone ridges of central PA, culling heavy blocks that found their way into some of the state’s most beautiful architecture.  Ornamental glass is a perfect nod to his Italian craftsman roots.  

By next year, I hope to have the collection complete with a set of tartan cloth ornaments to weave you in to your Atkinson Northern Irish roots and a set of Royal Doulton teacups to toast your Gunning British lineage.  

The best part of gathering these artifacts and memories, these stories of those gone on for you who have just begun, is that there is always more to discover, always another memento to stumble upon or a photograph that shakes a forgotten memory loose.  I love to think of the future and imagine where it will lead each of us.  But sometimes even more, I relish thinking on our past, honoring its significance in the construction of our family’s identity and remembering the beautiful, inimitable, vanward journey we’ve joined.  

Should auld acquaintance be forgot 
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear, 
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet
for auld lang syne.  

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Yes, Rest for the Weary

Everywhere I turn lately, it seems that I'm running into frazzled, weary, beat down, torn up, worn out Moms.  In the line at the grocery store with the kiddie cart end stuffed with preschoolers and a newborn stuffed on top of the boxes of Cheerios and Quaker oatmeal packets.  In a Facebook post that's become the only safe place for venting and slinging rotten eggs at the wall.  In the mirror at 5:45AM as I give myself a sharp pep talk about hopping on the hamster wheel one more time.  

They warned us, didn't they?  All those soft wrinkly ladies in pink sweaters sitting in the church pews ahead of us, leaning over our swaddled joy on the first day we braved the outside world with our newborns.  They told us we had just embarked on the hardest job the world has ever known while smiling warm beams of admiration down onto our children.  So how hard could it be if we'd someday end up in our own pink sweaters, sweetly cooing back at the gurgling fruit of another woman's womb?  If it really were worse than any of the jobs listed HEREwouldn't the little old church ladies be fleeing in horror at the memory of their own mothering years?  

It couldn't be that bad. We've all reasoned it that way.  For the first few enthralling hours in the hospital gown when we actually cared that our hair looked unbrushed in front of the camera.  When the baby was content to be snuggled in the crook of our arm, sleeping with the strength of Rip Van Winkle.  

Then came the first hunger pang and the first cry for attention and the first gas bubble that wouldn't budge and the first rage against a wet diaper.  And suddenly the dream of walking down the enchanted, fairy-dusted path of motherhood became the very real terror of trying to escape the licking flames of a forest fire.  No amount of organizing or list making or extra-hand recruiting has proven effective against the furnace of a child's demands.  It's no coincidence we're called mummies.  A body remains but every fiber is desiccated, dried out and brittle.   And none of this takes into account the marriage or the job or the extended family concerns and don't get me started on the hormonal pranks that the body flings at us entirely unannounced.  

I think of the old adage; Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  

If that's true, then why on earth does anyone have a second child?  And what about those crazy people who have three, four or five?  Who on earth puts themselves through it again?  

Something else has to be going on here.  

And as much as I know the answer, I need reminded of it time and time and time and time and time and time and time......again.  And then again.  And, well, you get the idea.  

Grace is going on.  All over the place.  Because God loves life.  Life that includes us and our children (and husbands and bosses and neighbors and parents.....) and where there's life He makes a pocket of supply for it.  Like the air bubble inside the eggshell that the chick breathes in as it's pecking into the world.  Someday in Heaven we'll be inundated with it, but for now He sends it like raindrops at every turn.

When we wanted into the club and our prayers begged for an open womb.  
Now that we want out of the club (for a little while anyway) and our prayers beg for a few hours of peace.
The miracle baby and the kind friend who invites the kids for a playdate?  His grace.

When we feared that the bloodwork might break our heart.
Or we fear that another night of scrubbing vomit at 3AM might cause a mental break down.
The clean report and the body's production of adrenaline?  His grace.

When we celebrated the first full day of school with a cup of tea and a morning of flipping through home decorating magazines.
Or the day we know we'll grieve the empty nest over a pitcher of margaritas with our fellow gray-haired confidantes.  
The anticipation of spring and the anticipation of autumn?  All His grace.  

It's unearned.  It's definitely undeserved.  And it's unending.  And I think the fact that there are sweet old ladies in pink sweaters everywhere I look is one of the truest testimonies that grace is, in fact, real. 

This parenting thing has the power to chew you up and spit you out.  Daily, sometimes by the minute, I'm so thankful that God gets the last word and His power is all about beauty for ashes, rescue for the lost, rest for the weary.  


I find that I can get through some of the hardest hours of the day if I have something to hum.  Anything to keep my thoughts focused on the Lord instead of the clamor going on around me.  Often, I'll take a favorite Scripture and find a melody in it and sometimes it turns itself into a song.  Recently, I've been having a lot of trouble with muscle pains in my legs and so Isaiah 40:31 became my mantra.  I paired it with my favorite verse, John 10:10, and came up with this short song.  Perhaps you can find a way to hum it, too, and keep it with you during those most challenging times of the day when being a mom really is the hardest job in the world.  

There are wings for the broken, 
when she's fallen to the floor.  
And they wrap themselves around her 
as she's resting in the Lord.

There are bones for the weary, 
when her legs can stand no more.
And they're sent for her to lean upon 
as she's hoping in the Lord.

There is blood for the fading, 
strong to drive death from the door.
And it floods her with abundant life 
once she's trusting in the Lord.



Friday, October 18, 2013

A Callus and a Kindness

To Lauren

The last few weeks have been tough ones around the coop and I’m so proud of how you’ve handled the sudden loss of our two hens, including your sweet Lily.  Perhaps it’s because we’re fresh off the passing of your great-grandmother and all the conversations we’ve had about leaving the labors of life and entering the joys of rest are still at the front of your mind.  Maybe it’s because you and your brothers are still prenticing the jagged and indiscriminate edges of death, not fully aware of how deep a mourning lament can lacerate the heart.  In any case, you’ve dealt with the unexpected deaths of two chickens, something I’ve been trying to prepare you for since we brought home those fuzzy handfuls on your 7th birthday, far more gracefully than I expected.  

I know it happens.  Often.  Sometimes after a period of warning and worrying and sometimes inexplicably just an hour after you last saw them scratching happily in the straw.  Growing up on the farm, I don’t have any memories of chickens up-and-dying except for those “third year” cycles when the layers were winding down their production and we set about the second phase of their serviceable life.   Butchering season is a part of farm life.   It’s a cycle of raising to raze, always done with a quiet reverence and gratitude, as a farmer understands that someone must have the arm strength to lift the curtain and heart strength to lower it as each act draws down.  

Grandpa gently scolded me when I told him that we had named our chicks.  “Remember, Jen.  They have scales on their legs.”  It was his way of cautioning that it would add a burden to the letting go when the time came.  Of course, he was right.  And of course, I went ahead and named my Barred Rocks anyway.  Willa and Guinivere after 2 of my literary heroes. And you named your Wyandottes Lacey and Lily because you like to call things by pretty names.  And the boys picked Gloria and Rebecca and Penny and Charlotte.  And we all lived happily ever after until Willa and Lacey crowed and you had your first taste of letting go.  

That was hard, but there was comfort in knowing that the roos were going to good homes and we dealt with those disappointments by giving extra treats to our remaining girls.  Lily quickly became the sweetheart of the coop, demuring to bully Charlotte, offering a wing of protection to Gloria when she found herself at the bottom of the pecking order.  Even allowing us to strap her into a harness and walk her about the yard on a leash. She was the perfect hen for you because she was such a reflection of your spirit.  Sweet and easy-going.  Never pushing to the front of the line but letting others go ahead of you.  A whatever makes you happy, Mom kind of attitude.  

Perhaps that’s why I was so crestfallen when I went to the coop last week and found Lily dead, a mere 5 days after Penny also met a sudden and unexpected end.  No signs of trauma or illness.  No breaches in the fencing where a fox or raccoon might have entered the yard.  Just another hen to bury and another child’s heart to bruise.  

I called Grammy the night after Penny died to tell her the news and her words were reflective and sensible.  She told me of the time when we had taken in two newborn calves whose mothers had abandoned them at the farm next door.  Mr. Douglas was helping Grandpa load the bellowing youngsters into the farm truck for the short drive up the hill while Grammy stood with Mrs. Douglas at the barn door, bemoaning the plight of the young orphans.  As she complained about the sorrow of it all, Dorothy righted her perspective.  “Yes, Carol.  But better a loss in the barn than a loss in the house.”  I vaguely remember Mrs. Douglas with her bun of graying hair wrapped hastily at the nape of her neck and I can imagine her giving a young farmer’s wife that sage advice.  Yes, better an empty nest box than an empty place at the table.  Even in this world of boutique chicken husbandry, there must be a callus that keeps the heart in check.  

Less than a week later, I made another call to tell Grammy that, astonishingly, a second hen had died.  We’d gone 18 months without as much as a sneeze and now 2 girls were gone in the span of a hand.  I choked back tears when I had to tell her that it was gentle Lily and she asked how you were taking the news.  

“Good as can be expected, I suppose.  I just feel so bad.  First her rooster and now her only hen.”  There was far more indignation crowding out my words than I had realized.  

Grammy asked if she could talk with you and I called you to the room, thinking you would hear the same story about Mrs. Douglas and the calves and how we have to maintain the balance of emotions when engaging in the duties of raising farm animals.  

But Grammy had another story to share, one I hadn’t heard before.  And because of the wonders of FaceTime, the three of us sat together on our couches 100 miles apart and I learned why Grammy always thinks of her grandfather when she sees a patch of daffodils.  


“Lauren, dear, I’m so sorry to hear that your Lily died.  She really was a special hen, wasn’t she?”  You nodded and I glanced over to see if the tears were returning.  

“I remember seeing the video of you walking her around the yard on that leash and the funny pictures of you reading to her in the garden, too.  I’m sure it’s very hard to think of her being gone now, isn’t it?”  

With that question, there was no more holding back the sorrow and it slipped down your cheek before you could wipe it away.  

“I remember feeling sad many times after I lost a special pet, too.  When I was a little girl, my grandfather always buried our pets at one edge of the backyard.  I can still remember the corn crib and then the start of the forest further back.  I bet your mom knows the spot.”  

You looked up at me and I nodded.  (I was tempted to tell you that there was also a big cage with 2 raccoons named Pierre and Nanette right there, too, but that’s a tale for another telling.)  

Grammy continued.  “And do you know what my grandpa always did to mark the place where he had buried the animal?”  

You shook your head but mentioned that we had placed large slices of the fallen oak tree on top of the graves that we dug behind the fence.  

“Well, my grandpa would place a big rock on top to mark them, too.  But before that, he would put some daffodil bulbs in the dirt and cover them up.  That way, the next spring, there would be a bright spot in the yard and it helped us to remember the happy times we had with our pets instead of the sadness of their death.”  

Grammy paused for a moment to let you consider the possibility that there might be a time when you could remember Lily without feeling the heaviness of loss.  What a perfect story to lift your spirits!  And what an important example of the tenderness that must undergird even an old farmer’s heart.

Grammy continued.  “And you know, by the time I was all grown up, there was a long row of daffodils along that whole side of the yard.  Every spring, it was the most beautiful place on the farm.”  

Glancing over at you, I caught the slightest upward turn at the corner of your lips and I knew that we’d be looking through the bulb catalog soon. You’ve endured a little hardening and now you can hem it in with plans to color the dark.     

I’m writing this story down in hopes that someday you’ll see the gift, this forwarding of our lives.  In this instance, a recollection of two old farmers, long time departed, who still teach wisdom about the callus and the kindness needed for life on the land.   
Love you, Mom

Monday, September 23, 2013

First Farms : Grandpa's dance

To Matt, Josh & Lauren:

Your Grammy has a phrase she repeats anytime I launch into another of my farmgirl-inspired pursuits.  Whether it’s going through the scrap lumber at Home Depot to build a bean trellis or completely freaking out your Daddy with a glass aquarium full of Monarch caterpillars on the kitchen counter each June, she just rolls her eyes and says, “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.”  
And she’s right.  I’ve lived here in the south-eastern PA suburbs now for nearly 15 years.  But my country roots still run deep and it doesn’t take more than a quick glance around the house to see where they’ve crept back up to the surface.  The seeds we plant every spring and the recipes I’m teaching you how to bake; the barbed wire wreath that hangs in the family room and the hand-stitched quilts I lay on your beds during the coldest winter spells; the birds we watch in the dining room nestbox and the bees we admire as they pollinate along the sunflower fence.  All of these touchstones, and so many, many more, can be traced back to some element of my years on the farm.  
Farms, actually.    
You see, I was such a very blessed baby because on the day I was born, there were 3 farms in our family.  The two near Curwensville had largely been put to pasture by the time I came along.  Great-Grandma Louise Durandetta and Great-Grandma Jennie Long, both long widowed, still lived in their weathered houses that creaked and leaned like an old farmer’s knees after a long day in the field.  By the time I could walk through them, the barns were mostly empty expect for the beef cows that Great Uncle Alex fed in the bottom level at Grandma Durandetta’s place.  
The third farm was a 2-hour drive west to the outskirts of Grove City, PA.  Grammy grew up there (yes, that’s where Daddy and I went to college and met) and I spent many happy stretches of summer on the Frisk farm when she would take Uncle Jason and me back home for a visit.  That farm was still busy and full of animals of every shape and size throughout my whole childhood.  Grandpa Frisk was forever coming home from the swap meet with a new goat or pen of roller pigeons.  There were cows and roosters and peacocks and endless dogs and cats.  I rode my first pony, Cocoa, there when I was just a toddler and I can remember feeling enthralled by the rows of purple and blue ribbons that Great-Grandpa Harry Frisk had won for showing his quarterhorses.  
Now you might think that having 3 farms to visit was a pretty good way to spend a childhood.  But your Grammy and Grandpa wanted just a little more for their children.  After all, visiting a farm is like licking the spoon after mom’s done mixing the cake batter.  Growing up on a farm is like getting to eat the whole cake.  And so in 1978, when I was just halfway through my 4th year and Uncle Jason wasn’t quite a year old yet, we moved from our little house on Filbert Street in Curwensville to our very own farm on a winding country road that didn’t even have a name.  We had 65 acres and a big barn and a spring house and a wide front porch and an old pear tree all to ourselves.   Oh, what a slice of heaven it was!  And so began the years of me having my cake and eating it, too.  
For the next 18 years, I explored every inch of those fields and hewn boards until the last year of college when Daddy came with a diamond and swept me off to our little apartment in the suburbs of Pittsburgh.  It might have marked the end of my living on the farm, but not the end of my loving the farm life. Even in our cramped spaces, I always found ways to keep those roots alive.  Little things like planting the gebera seeds from Grammy's garden to big things like finally convincing Daddy that we really could have chickens in our cul-de-sac backyard.  
Don’t get me wrong.  I’m very content with the little town you’re growing up in.  Perkasie is a wonderful place to call home and a perfect distance between the bright blare of the city and the quiet rustle of dried corn stalks.  In many ways, you’re going to live an even better life than I did because you’ll have a sure footing in both these worlds.   It took me awhile to adjust, but I’m very comfortable now living on a street of 1/2 acre yards and Wednesday morning trash collection.  However, there’s simply no getting the country out of me and so there are many years ahead for telling you about the dark, spooky root cellar where Grammy used to hide our Christmas presents or Grandpa Frisk’s bear skin rug that used to give me nightmares when I dreamed it was coming back to life.  I haven’t yet told you about the fun we used to have with the party line phone at Grandma Long’s house or the gobs and gobs of Concord grapes we used to pick in Grandma Durandetta’s side yard each fall.  
I often wonder, Would I really pick up and move to a farm now, if given the chance?  Could I jump at the opportunity to give you the same rich experiences that I delighted in for nearly 2 decades?  The answer is a surprising and saddening “probably not.”  (Daddy is heaving a sigh of relief as he reads that.)  As much as I would absolutely love to raise bona fide farmkids, I know it’s not a life that’s so carelessly chosen.  And I think we can safely say that your Daddy would never be happy in bib overalls and muck boots!   But rather than lamenting that my children won’t have the same deeply rooted country life that I did, I’ve decided to do what every good mother does from time to time:  pull out the pen and start reminiscing up a cake so that you’ll have plenty of spoons to lick.  
Where shall I start?  Perhaps at the beginning...  

First Farms:  Neno & Louise Durandetta

I have two early memories of farm life, mostly fuzzy snippets of memories really, as I must have been just a preschooler at the time of each.  

In the first, I'm with my Grandpa Wayne Durandetta at his mother's barn which was just a short walk down the lane from his house on Bloomington Hill. (We pass those houses when we’re headed up to go fishing at the Dam.)  Though the farm was largely retired by then, my great-uncle still kept a herd of cows there and since the barn was a stone's throw from Grandpa's house, he regularly went down to feed them.  On this particular day, Grandpa allowed me to follow him onto the barn floor and watch him push the hay flakes down to the cattle stanchions below. I can still hear the lowing and cud-chewing sounds as the cows worked through their feed but I was too afraid to get close enough to the chutes to actually see them.  I do remember watching Grandpa straddle the holes in the floor as he dropped the hay down into what seemed a hundred foot abyss.  I watched with my heart pounding as he leaped from one beam to the next with the pitchfork in his grasp and thought how he must surely be the bravest man in the world.  

Grandpa and his brother, Alex, were well acquainted with that barn and every pasture and dell on the wide expanse of their land.  Decades earlier when they were just teenagers, they had convinced their father, Neno, to buy the farm for them so that they could work it after school.  (Uncle Alex did go on to have a dairy farm of his own.  Grandpa went on to be a teacher and eventually a school administrator.)   Both Neno and Louise had immigrated from Italy in the late 1800s and Neno made his living, as did many Northern Italians who settled in central PA, in the stone quarries.  So sandstone runs through the Durandetta bloodline, much more so than grain.  But Grandpa and his brother saw an opportunity to carve out an honest life on a good piece of land and eventually Neno joined them when the quarry work became too taxing.

Neno died much too young in 1949, just shy of his 60th birthday.  Grandma Louise went on to live another 30 years after that, relying on her determined and independent will to see her through the widow’s ache and the advancing pallium of old age.  

It was near the end of that old age when I went with my Grandpa up on the barn floor to watch him feed the cows.  And although I have dozens of clear memories of time spent in Grandma Louise’s house and around the yard, I only have that single memory of being in the barn.  

This past summer, during our visit back to the mountains, I called up my Dad’s cousin who has lived on the farm since Grandma Louise passed away.  Yes, he said, I was more than welcome to come visit and spend as much time walking around the property as I’d like. And so I set off with your Grammy in tow on an unseasonably cool, bright July afternoon to see if it might be possible to wind back a moment, to discover if it was a real memory or just a memory of a story or a photograph, as so many of our earliest recollections really are.  

We pulled up to the bottom of the barn bridge and walked up the grassy slope to the heavy wooden doors.  One side had been blown off during a winter storm and was fixed tight.  Together we tugged on the other side and it creaked as the pulleys scraped across the metal track at the top, eventually giving way enough for us to walk through.  

In my memory, the hay chutes were to the left, along the loft wall.  I was surprised and confused when I realized that the floor was solid and there were no holes to speak of.  I peered over the half wall, thinking they might be further back, but the floor was covered with a full layer of loose hay. No evidence of chutes there either.  I moved to the right side wall and checked there, but that side of the floor was empty except for a few rusty oil drums and an old riding mower that was parked along the loft wall.  For a moment, I despaired that perhaps my sure memory of watching Grandpa’s brazen dance along the barn beams had been nothing but a figment of a child’s wild dreaming.  

And then I caught sight of the pitchfork.

It was stabbed into a stack of hay at the back of the barn floor.  I walked toward it and suddenly, there were the chutes, just as I had remembered seeing them some 35 years before.  There were more than I remember, perhaps a dozen running along the back wall of the barn.  It was simultaneously thrilling and paralyzing to stand at the edge of those holes.  I felt small again and fearful even though I could see to the bottom, a drop of less than 10 feet.  Still formidable but not the crevasse I had imagined as a child.  I took a step onto the beam that Grandpa had so elegantly bounded onto and found that my feet felt like cement.  Grammy had to come over and give me her hand before I could manage to step back onto the plank floor.  

We spent an hour or so walking through the different parts of the barn.  There were other familiar nooks like a trap door and granary bins and I was delighted to see barn swallows and their mud nests up close again.  (They were one of my favorites on our own farm as they used to sit on the telephone wire outside my bedroom window and chatter me awake in the morning.)  I took dozens of pictures and wished there were a way to capture the aroma...a tumaceous mixture of hay and manure and age.  No matter how old I grow, I know that my brain will always recognize that singular smell.  (And I consider it a pity that your own noses get pinched whenever we drive past a freshly fertilized field.)  

Perhaps next summer I’ll take you down to Grandma Louise’s farm.  Cousin Glen said we were welcome anytime.  I have lots more corners I want to revisit and we could check to see if the snakes are still living among the orange tiger lilies.  But that’s a tale for another telling...

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Letting Go Days

September snuck in last weekend while I was busy sorting through the fall clothing bins, determining which shirts no longer covered their assigned tummies and which pants failed to hide an acceptable margin of ankle and sock.  It crept in unnoticed somewhere between the flurry of pencil box assembly and the hourly stalking of the school website as 3 anxious children and 1 eager mother waited on a teacher’s name that would set the next nine months in motion. 
It was a good summer.  Great, actually.  Yet different.  Full of late-waking days when I’d come downstairs to find the kids eating Cheerios in the living room while watching old Looney Tune shows.  And late-lingering nights of pressing marshmallows onto sticks around the campfire at Grammy’s house or watching from the comfort of a nearby bench as our now-tall-enough offspring rode the boardwalk rides by themselves.   They went tubing in the bay and strode into the breakers with their boogie boards, this year without a single request for us to accompany them into the water.   They cast their own lines when fishing with Grandpa at the lake and at the riding stables, raced to climb on a giant Fresian mare that gave me pause, without so much as a blink.  

The difference, I’ve come to realize as I look back over the last few months, is that I’m a lot less necessary in ways I’ve been very necessary before.  And isn’t it funny that I feel both happy and sad about that realization?  Happy that I can reclaim a little of the space in my brain and body that has been designated to 24/7  child rearing for the last 8 years.  And sad that the sweet clinging leaves of this season are already starting to yellow.  As a mother of triplets, I’ve always quietly grieved the fleet passing of each stage, knowing that I wouldn’t have the chance to revisit or revise it on a second swing through. And that’s why I relish the moments when just a little bit of neediness resurfaces. 
This was also the summer of learning to ride our bikes.  Without the training wheels.  I say that with a cringe because not too many 8 year-olds haven’t checked that off their can-do lists.  And it was getting kind of embarrassing to have 3 in the same house who still rode around on glorified tricycles.  Which is why I insisted that by the time the school bus pulled up, we would be self-sufficient on our bikes.  
We nearly reached our goal.  2 of the kids mastered their skills within a week.  I was actually surprised at how quickly they picked it up and how few scrapes were required before they could confidently ride around the cul-de-sac on their own.  But anyone who has spent any amount of time with our family knows which child has yet to spread his wings down the street. In typical fashion, Josh must figure everything out in his head long before he decides to transfer that knowledge to his body.  It’s been that way from the day we brought him home in a flailing blue bundle.  I imagine it will likely be that way as we’re packing him up for college. 
On that covert September day, sunny and blue-skied with the sound of cricket white noise fanning about the yard, I decided to give it one more try. Perhaps like a baby wren who spends days at the edge of the nest and then suddenly and simply flies away, Josh might also simply pedal off as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do.  I cajoled him outside with the promise of a popsicle should he make a strong effort on his bike, agreeing to keep a constant hand on his shoulder as we circled around the end of the street.  As he took those tentative strides on the pedals and wobbled too close to the mailboxes across the street, he looked back, eyes wide and worried that my hand wasn’t where I had promised it would be.  Dragging his feet along the pavement, he brought the bike to an inelegant stop.  

“Mom, is your hand on me?  I’m not ready for the letting go day.”  His eyes searched mine for assurance, unwilling to make another attempt until he fully trusted that I would be his safety net. 
“Yes, sweetheart.  My hand is on your shoulder.  I’ll help you to keep going straight.”  I had to resist the urge to make a ridiculous scene by scooping him into my arms like I would have when, as a toddler, he melted my heart every time he asked, "Mommy, will you always be wif me?"  
I settled instead for a deep inhale of happiness, realizing that my time as necessary presence in their lives hadn’t wound so far down.  We pedaled on for a few more minutes and ended with a confident smile at the top of the driveway.  Josh ran off to pick his popsicle and I lingered behind.  Perhaps the next time I’d set my third fledgling free.  

It’s hard business, this letting go.  And practice makes me anything but perfect.  It doesn’t matter if it’s off the diving board or off to a friend’s house for a sleepover.  It doesn’t even matter if it’s something right here at home within the boundaries of my purview. Seeing them pour their own milk or make their own beds is a simultaneously thrilling and wounding experience for me, one which I must daily choose to treat as a treasured privilege.  
And so the letting go days come faster and faster.  This year there was no hesitating at the drop off line on the first day of school and I’m no longer allowed to walk the ballplayer to the field.  A quick hug through the van door is the new threshold for goodbyes.  I’m quite sure they’ll never know what balm their goodnight hugs and kisses are these days.  
As I work through this ebb and flow job of mothering, there’s one day that anchors me to peace.  And it’s actually a day that I’ll never have to face.  Because no matter how much raising up is accomplished, no matter how much turning loose  has to be accepted, there will never come a day when they’re on their own.  I might be a thousand miles and an insurmountable mountain away, but their Heavenly Father will have never taken His hand off their shoulder.  They’ll never look back in fear and not find His sure grip on the framework of their lives.  He will be guiding and shielding and quickening their every move, trailblazing the straight way forward as they learn to pedal deeper into His ever-present love.  Mom may not be with them, but Dad always will be.  
And that’s what eases my mother’s heart these September days...knowing that I’m not letting go of my most precious gifts but rather daily delivering them into even greater Hands than my own. Hands that know how to develop the incredible talents they posses and cross their paths with the extraordinary experiences He has planned.  He alone knows what magnificent lives they are designed to lead and the amazing people they are to become.  
I can say these things with confidence as I, too, still often look back and see His hand right there where He promised it would be, the gentle and tireless upholder of all my days.          
The LORD is the one who is going ahead of you. 
He will be with you. 
He won't abandon you or leave you. 
So don't be afraid or terrified.

- Deuteronomy 31:8

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Comfort of Rust

Once a season, when the gardens are producing at full tilt and the blooms are at their showiest, I usually take a walk with my camera and snap pictures of each pretty flower, each delicate tendril and each piece of fruit that is destined for our summer salad bowl.  I love to capture those vibrant colors and hearty pickings.  For a gardener, having that little digital brag book makes the thankless months of toiling in freezing and soggy weather worth it.  

As I was going for my annual stroll, snapping pictures of bright lilies and hairy tomato vines, I realized that although I relish capturing the beauty of a squash blossom, it would be gone hours later, folded by the heat of the sun.  And the magenta petunias would succumb to the beetles within a day.  And even the perfectly twirled cucumber tendril would straighten into a strand of mundane greenery by the next morning.  

As much as I enjoy them, their season lasts but a wink and soon it will be on to the fall’s pulling up and tearing down in preparation for the shriveling creep into winter slumber.   

But alongside the thrill of blazing color and stunning intricacy, there is another side to my gardens.  A side that’s easily overlooked.  Not terribly eye-catching.  Won’t win a photo contest and never finds itself in a frame on the wall.  But it’s the part of the garden that comforts me the most.  Anchors me through the drab, waiting months of early spring and late fall.  Casts a smile across my face as I think of the long line of green thumbs I come from and the newest rank of gardeners I’m working to grow. 

The side of my gardens that comforts me most is covered with rust.  Weathered to weary gray.  Acquiesced to a mantle of moss or a ring of flaking paint.  It’s the side of the gardens that doesn’t flare luminous like a firework on a heavy July night, but rather pulls in a deep sigh and stands firm through another season of raining and blistering and freezing.  It’s the side of my gardens that I know will be there, no matter how far behind I fall as I strain to weed and fertilize and prune the aesthetic, as each year it adds another ring to its bandwidth of senescence.   

So instead of a usual post that highlights the prettiest blossoms and freshest fruits, I’m putting the spotlight instead on the underbelly of my garden, the part that, in many ways, brings me the greatest joy and comforts me to my roots.  
The climbing beans are working their way up the teepees that Mom and I built when I first started gardening. 

This pitchfork from my Grandpa Frisk's farm is now used to toss straw into the chicken coop.

These stakes belonged to my grandfather-in-law, Pop Atkinson,  and were used in his city garden.

I love the old cages that Pop Atkinson used with his tomatoes.  I have 8 of them
and wish I could find more. 

I drove over 4 hours to buy this old tub that I found online.  It's now a mint and annual container.  

  This is the groundhog trap I use to battle various garden intruders.
Grandpa Frisk used it for years on the farm in western PA.  

This wheel  is from an old wooden wheelbarrow that I was given last spring by an elderly family member.
I love the hammered metal's patina.  

This milk can came from my Grandpa Frisk's farm.
The lid still has the farm's delivery route number painted on top of it.  

I found this old door at an architectural salvage yard.   It's now a potting table on the side of the shed.
It's hinged so it can fold down during the winter and then prop up for use in the spring.  

I also bought this old screen door at the salvage yard with the idea of turning it into a morning glory trellis.
Like a lot of projects around the yard, it's still waiting patiently to be tackled.

This John Deere thermometer hangs on the chicken coop.
It came from my Grandpa Frisk's coop where I first remember gathering eggs. 

This was my grandfather's milking stool.
Now it's used by the kids when they visit with the hens.
This pile of wood came from a tree that we cut down to make room for the coop.
It's been waiting nearly two years now for someone to come and chop it up.  

He has made everything beautiful in its time. – Ecclesiastes 3:11