Happy Birthday Dad

Dad will turn 85 on February 9.

A year ago, I found a birthday card that read, Still rockin’ and rollin’ at 85! so I bought it and told Dad he better stick around to get it. I knew he would since I had spent my money on it.

It’s almost been a year since I started this blog and I’ll be giving him the card along with a manuscript of our Sundays with Dad stories.

Not long after Mom died in 2011, someone told me that once one spouse dies, the other usually follows within the next six months and I should prepare myself. I left that conversation in tears. Those early months were hard on him of course—on all of us—and we did fear losing him as well. But that usually didn’t apply to him.

In some ways, I think these stories have helped keep him going strong. When he came down with pneumonia a couple months ago he said, “Well, if the Lord wants to take me, I’m ready to go but I told Him I sure would like to stay around for a while because I have more stories to tell!”

Sharing his life and recording it has been great for us both. It hasn’t always been easy…..he really does remember every detail of every story and I have to keep moving him along. It takes time to get it down on paper and if I get something wrong I’m sure to get a call, “I like your story Deb….I just have a couple notes.”

After several months, we both started to wear out during our Sunday lunches and my husband began eating fast and disappearing to the third floor—well out of earshot. We eventually found a more natural rhythm and we worked when we could fit it in around his routines and my job. I have tried to stick to posting at least one story a week.

I think about how a person can even begin to pay back parents who have always done their best for their kids. Sharing the experiences of their lives and the wisdom gained is one way of honoring them and their love.

I didn’t go into this with any noble ambition—only that I didn’t want to lose my parents and their stories too. It has ended up being fulfilling for both Dad and me. He did let me know that by the time he does die he doesn’t expect to have a single secret left. Like the time we discovered we had both bought a brand of toilet paper that wouldn’t tear right. “Debbie,” he said. “Here’s what I do. You get a hold of the end of it and pull slightly. Look here, see the perforations?”

“Yeah, Dad. I see them.”

“You count up two squares and pull carefully, like this. (Rip.)  Look at that.”

Amazing. “You only use two squares of toilet paper….?”

“Yes.”

“That’s funny, Dad. Do you mind if I write that down….?”

Happy Birthday Dad

Sundays with Dad began at the Filling Station, Todd’s birthday 3.8.13. I wrote the story Dad told down on my napkin.

So Dad, I can tell you the first 40 years of your life are on paper—there’s so much that I and others never knew about you and Mom or had forgotten and will benefit from. Thanks for that.

Happy Birthday and welcome to your 86th year! Now we only have 45 years left to cover….

First Sundays with Dad post on Facebook 3.8.13

First Sundays with Dad story posted on Facebook 3.9.13

British Hospitality

There she was, standing on the deck of the ferry looking out over the White Cliffs of Dover, the sea air tossing her new French cut, when a kind Englishman noticed her and her three small  children.

20140105_174618_resized“I had made it across the ocean,” Dad remembered, “traveling for eleven days on the MS Berlin with no sickness. Dolores and Eddie both got so terribly seasick they had to stay up on deck for fresh air. They weren’t able to eat except to go down to the German sausage bar at night. They survived on that sausage. I did end up getting sick though when we crossed the channel from the mainland to England. I don’t think it was seasickness, I was just plain sick.

We’d been all over southern Europe by this time with Amsterdam, Berlin, Denmark, Norway and Sweden still ahead of us. I was down in the men’s room and this Englishman befriended Dolores. He saw her, started talking to her and she happened to mention to him that we were camping.

crossing channel mom

When he found this out he said, ‘Well, you’re not going to live like an American Indian in the Queen’s country! I’m in real estate and I have a vacant flat near my house in the West End I’m going to let you have while you’re in England.’ He didn’t know when he said this that Dolores’ family were descendants of the American Indian tribe known as the Ujamis.

By this time, I had made my way back up to the deck and introduced myself to him. He gave us his address in London where we should meet him after we got off the boat. He said he would probably be detained while going through customs so if we happened to miss him, we should go on to London and meet him there. His name was Mark Finley. He was an importer-exporter.

It did end up that we couldn’t find him when we got off the boat and we really were looking for him. So we loaded up the kids into the car and since I was still sick, Dolores had to do the driving. Now remember, this meant driving on the left side of the road and we were in a German car with the steering also on the left. That is kind of tricky to do. So we were on our way to London and we stopped at a couple places, doing our best to try and find somewhere to stay for the night but couldn’t find anything. Dolores drove all through the night in this unfamiliar place, on the left side of the road, in this German car, with three little kids and a sick husband.

How we ended up finding this guy after all those hours of driving I don’t know, but all of a sudden, there he was standing outside of a nice looking house with his landlady, just raving. “Where are they?” he ranted at her. “Why haven’t they come?!” we heard him say. It was clear he was upset but as we pulled up and he noticed us, immediately relieved.

He welcomed our family in and showed us the apartment he had told us about. I have to admit it really was nice not to have to pitch the tent and set up camp in the shape I was in. Instead, we made up camp on the apartment floor and the landlady brought us hot chocolate.

The next day, Mark Finely came driving up with a truck load of furniture—beds, a dining room table and chairs. He furnished this apartment for us. He mentioned Mom was welcome to stay on there at the apartment instead of camping with me. But I didn’t trust him. I got the feeling that his plans were different than ours”.

“So how long did we stay with this man?” I asked.

“Not long, a week or so. You all came with me on a couple of trips, we saw Westminster Abbey, Shakespeare’s house—Mom would take you to visit things while I did my work.

An interesting thing we learned was that a typical apartment building would be heated to about 68 degrees. Additional heat had to be provided by the tenant with small unit heaters.”

London Bridge

Playing London Bridge in front of London Bridge

“Did you ever hear from Mark Finely again?”

“Yes. He wrote to us. He was going on a trip to South America. He said he’d try to come to see us in the states if he could fit it in but he never made it. That was 1958. Years later, in ‘71, Mom and I went on a tour in Europe of industrialized housing and new towns. The first stop was England. When we were in London, we were walking around to see if we could find Mark Finley’s house. We remembered it was across from Hyde Park. The area looked familiar. Just then, a man in a wheel chair was being brought out of one of the houses to be put in a chauffeur driven limousine. We saw that it was Mark Finley and went over to greet him but his eyes told us he didn’t remember.”

A Spirited Boy

My brother Ed always knew when I was wearing a hat to hide my hair. He’d pull it off.

As kids, I’d ride on the back of his snow mobile across ice covered fields—into ditches, up over high mounds of snow at top speed—and not be afraid. In college, he’d drive me home on his motorcycle—90 miles, against the wind in pounding rain at night—I’d feel safe.

He used to laugh at the way I’d pose for pictures—turn head, lower chin, smile. He tried it himself. It gave him a double chin and a super high forehead.

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Joan, Georgine, Ed, John, and me doing the pose

He was named after Mom’s dad, Edward William Rahn—who loved baseball. Ed Rahn and some friends had gone to a game in Chicago during the summer of ‘51. They were on their way home when a truck was stopped along the highway—the driver changing a tire. The car Mom’s dad was in collided with the rear end of the truck. The trucker wasn’t hurt. The friends were injured but recovered. It was believed that Ed Rahn died instantly in the crash. He was 48 years old—one year after Mom and Dad’s wedding.

Mom never talked much about the accident but she’d tell me how her dad was great at taming a wild horse. She’d sit on the fence and watch, frightened by the brute force of the animal—awed by her father’s strength while he wrestled with it. Roping, wrapping and eventually calming and corralling it in. They were farm stock—stoic and strong.

After Mom’s dad died, her mom went on to buy a small house away from the farm, in town on Main Street. Years of gardening, canning and cooking for family and friends—lots of corn, beans and tomatoes along with slip-downs, dumplings and noodles, prepared her to get a job at the school cafeteria. She never talked to us about the accident—preferring to focus on life’s opportunities rather than her troubles. Her attitude was passed on to Mom and then to my brother, Ed. As our big brother, he was always good at leading the way.

Dad told me this story about Ed on the way to church last Sunday as I grabbed for a pen and paper out of the glove compartment….

“After the Christmas at Keikhever’s log cabin when Uncle Harry closed the fireplace flue at bedtime and nearly smoked us out, Ed told a couple of his buddies about it. Of course, they were immediately intrigued and wanted to see the cabin. So they saddled up three of the horses and Ed led them through the woods.

Follow me

Ed ready for trouble

One of them got the idea to go inside the cabin. It’s no surprise that while we were there, Ed had noticed there was a skylight. He told his friends he thought he knew a way in. Standing on his horse, he could reach the roof and he climbed his way up to the skylight. He was always good at taking things apart and putting them back together again so it was no problem for him to unhinge and re-hinge the skylight. He and his friends made it into the cabin and back out again without too much trouble. That is, until Roy, the property caretaker, showed up at our door.

Roy let me know someone had gotten into the log cabin and wondered if maybe our boys knew something about it. I told him I was sure they wouldn’t know anything because we had just spent Christmas there. But then Roy told me they had found a lot of huff prints in the snow all around the cabin. So I asked Ed if he knew anything about it—he didn’t even have to answer me. I could tell by the look on his face that he did. So I told Roy I would take care of it and he left.

Ed and I had a talk. I told him that this time he had gotten himself into something I could not just take care of. What they had done was breaking and entering. I told him I’d have to report it to the police. So that’s when I called a meeting at our house with the three boys and their fathers. I felt strongly that it was important the boys knew how serious what they had done was and that we needed to report it to the police. Forrest Robinson, the father of one of the boys, agreed with me. The other father looked aghast and said to me, ‘I am not going to report my son to the police!’

I called the police department and told them what had happened. They asked me to bring the boys in so they could talk with them. Ed, his friend Gary, Forrest and I went to the police department. We left the other son out because the father was so opposed.

The police took the boys into a room to talk to them. He told them what they had done was breaking and entering and a serious violation of the law. If they continued with that behavior, they’d probably end up at Wales Reformed School for boys, or when they were older, go to jail. Ed was different after that. Years later, we found out that the son who wasn’t turned in, got into some big trouble for robbery and ended up in jail.”

After Dad finished the story he looked at me and said, “I thought you could tell that story and include the scripture about the importance of disciplining children.”

“Okay.” So I looked it up….

“You mean the one that says, ‘Don’t be ornery like a horse or mule that needs bit and bridle to stay on track’ (Psalm 32:9)?”

“No, that’s not the one I was thinking of….”

How aboutTrain up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it’ (Proverbs 22:6).”

“Yes. That’s it.”

“It may have taken you a little while Dad, but I think that’s exactly what you did.”

A Soldier in the Distance

What I had once been driven to do through dance, using my physical and spiritual strength, I began to find through being still, with pen and paper. Movement of my soul.

I felt differently about writing after my brother died. Bring him back. Quick, someone get it down before we lose anyone else. A vehicle to make what’s temporal, timeless.

It’s maybe ironic that what moved me to write, also unmoved me and I packed it away for several years. Afraid.

I had mentioned his death in a story that brought it all back to someone. Seeing the pain on that face was inexplicable. I froze like the icy snow in the story she later told me to encourage me on……

It was a snowstorm that pressed icy winds against the drafty old house, sending moans throughout its walls and floorboards. Cold air worked its way in through the window frames. Whirls of snow blew in the air and across the field to the west. By mid afternoon, what had seemed cozy earlier became confining for three little kids.

When the snow stopped and the sun peered through the thick grey quilt of a sky, reflecting a glistening bed of snow waiting to be jumped on, Mom quieted our rambunctious voices long enough to say, “Enough!! Get your snowsuits on.” Twenty minutes later we were out the door. Capped, zipped and booted.

We marched up the hill to the stone road behind the gate at the top of the driveway, laughing, thrilled to be in the fresh air and stomping through the deep drifts of snow. Mom was happy to have our energy released in a space large enough to contain it. Ed trudged on ahead while John and I fell backwards together into the soft white blanket and waved our arms and legs. “Eddie, look! Angels!” We called out but he was already busy making a fort. Preferring his project to ours, we made our way over to him and all worked together.

It wasn’t long though before the sun tucked itself back behind the weighty clouds and the wind started up again. Mom pulled our scarves up over our chins and was concerned by the ominous, sudden change in the wind’s direction. She gathered Johnny up in one arm and took hold of my mittened hand in the other. “Eddie!” She called through the wind. “Let’s go back.”

His dark eyelashes blinked away snow, “Okay,” he shouted. “I’ll lead the way!”

He led us back up the road. Our trip was quicker going than it was returning, as it often is. John tucked his head in Mom’s collar and I kept mine down out of the sleety wind as she guided my steps. “What if we don’t make it back,” someone asked as the wind was doing its best to push us the opposite direction we were headed.

“Come on, guys!” Ed shouted, looking on the road in the distance like a toy soldier.

As we neared the house, we could see the glass in the upper panel of the storm door rattling as the yellow light from the kitchen glowed against the darkening sky and filled the window like a lamp, beckoning us inside.

Ed was wrestling with the doorknob, his hands working hard inside icy mittens. With a swift kick of his sturdy little leg, the old door flew open and with frozen fingers and toes, we were all once again safe inside the womb of warmth we called home.

sledding!I think of Ed like that now, a soldier on the road in the distance….almost hearing his voice, “Guys look! Angels!”….guiding us towards the door so we can enter in, away from danger. All grief. The glow of the light against the darkness shines like a lamp, beckoning us onward.

Wonder

I could see Holy Hill, the highest point in our part of the state, from my bedroom window at the farm. It was like a beacon when surrounded by the setting sun. At Christmas time, I would lie in bed and look out at it, searching for Santa’s sleigh—my eyes devouring the black curtain of a sky filled with glittering stars. One time, I convinced myself that a string of light was actually him on his sleigh and on his way.

On Christmas Eve, my family would exchange the gifts my brothers, sister and I got for each other and our parents. We had a $5.00 limit. We’d shop at Grants at Ruby Isle, a strip mall that went up a couple miles from our house. Then we would have dinner before the Candlelight service at church and afterwards, set out cookies for Santa and sent to bed. But we wouldn’t sleep.

I can still remember those feelings of anticipation and excitement. I think now about all the traditions surrounding Christmas and long to keep them alive. Though traditions remain, feelings change.

The brilliance of the lights, the sparkle of the ornaments, the angelic sounds of the music all pay homage to the Holy One. It’s so easy to lose sight of that in the midst of things and though the decorations are merry and bright, our hearts may not be.

This past week, I woke up in the night wanting to recapture the way I felt about Christmas as a child and was unable to fall back to sleep. I was hungry for the spirit of Christmas that would run deep into my own spirit. I Googled the Real Meaning of Christmas to see what the Internet was saying about it and found what I was looking for—that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. To celebrate Him is to celebrate Life, Love and Forgiveness which leads to Joy and Peace in our hearts regardless of what’s going on around us. When we say Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays—which is pointing to the Holy day of Christ’s birth—that’s what we’re celebrating.

I want to make the cookies my mom made because the tastes remind me of my childhood and that time of great anticipation. I have saved some of the shiny but discolored glass ornament balls from the farm and still hang them because I remember my excitement when they came out of the attic. I will place one of my mom’s taped together Christmas Carol books on the piano because I want my heart to rejoice at the memory of the sound of her music and our voices singing as she played from it. But it’s so easy to focus on traditions and memories, get sentimental and then miss the real thing.

The baby lay in a manger—there were no quilts or a bed, there were no cookies. The cattle were lowing—there was no piano music. There was hay and the smell of animals, no ornaments or scent of pine. He came as Hope for a wounded world and this is how he entered into it. He is the Hope for wounded hearts if we let him in. We don’t need all the rest.

Mr. Kiekhever, who owned the farm we grew up on, hoped to one day build a house on the 10 acres where our farm house sat because you could see Holy Hill from it. He passed away before that happened and Mrs. Kiekhever never went ahead with the plan. Mom and Dad eventually bought the property and the farm house still sits there. I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Kiekhever saw Holy Hill as a reminder of Holiness, as a symbol of Hope and that’s why he wanted the view. We need reminders.

I’m not sure I’ll have time to make the cookies I really wanted to make this year in memory of Mom. I don’t know if I’ll get around to writing cards to those I love.Though our tree is up that may be the extent of my decorating. But I will take time to let Jesus fill my heart with his Love and Light—flowing in to be poured out for others. And once again, I will remember the true meaning of Christmas.

20131218_191656_resizedO Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light.

Revered John Henry Hopkins

Baling Hay

Before long, Assy had puppies. There were also several farm cats that had kittens—and then the kittens had kittens and their kittens had kittens. Mice weren’t too much of a problem at the farm. The horses were soon joined by sheep, followed by chickens, goats, rabbits and ducks.

Ed and John in the hay pile with Assy's puppies. Crew cuts = misbehaving

Ed and John with Assy’s puppies.

“Now that we had a tractor,” Dad said, “it always seemed we were loaded with rubbish and tree cuttings that we had to take to the dump along the railroad tracks off Brookfield Road. We thought we ought to really have a wagon to pull behind the tractor. I had noticed a used farm implement dealer just off of HWY 94 on my way back from Madison one day. So on a Saturday, the boys and I drove over to check it out. We found a pretty good farm wagon—the only problem was that the wooden tongue was pretty rotted. We bought it anyway and took the side roads home. On the way, we found another implement dealer and stopped to ask if he might have a tongue for our wagon. He didn’t—but, he did have a saw mill. He ended up cutting us a beautiful 6 x 8 inch wooden tongue and attached it to our wagon. Now we had a beautiful wagon! This became another toy for the kids of the neighborhood. Whereas before we had a bunch of kids on the tractor, now we had a whole neighborhood full of kids on the wagon.

To keep the horses fed, we were going back to Reinder’s regularly to buy baled hay and buckets of oats plus vitamins the salesman said we really should have for them. It wasn’t too long before Ed, John and I went back to Madison to the dealer we bought the wagon from, and asked about equipment to make our own hay. The dealer said he had exactly what we needed. We ended up buying a John Deere sickle-bar mower and an old New Holland baler and he delivered them to us. Now we were all set—we could make our own hay.

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Ed at the wheel with John on the baler

About this time, the church we attended, Faith United Church of Christ, became involved in a merger and we got involved with the church located in Milwaukee on 4th and Meinecke. We would drive in town to 4th and Meinecke every Sunday. One of the things I remember well were the breakfasts our church held after the Easter sunrise services. All the tables would be set up in the fellowship hall—members and families gathered around big platters of scrambled eggs. There were challenges with the merger but those breakfasts were great. Dolores eventually took on the music ministry which included playing their beautiful old pipe organ—the organ console was located in the balcony, where she also rehearsed the choir—and I taught the senior highs.

Sometime around then during the summer, the boys and I had succeeded in mowing, raking and baling our first hay crop.

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Kids in the field

Following that was the chore of picking up all the bales, stacking them in the wagon and putting them in the barn. I talked to my Sunday school class and asked my students how they’d like to help me pick up the hay out at our farm and they were all excited. I also got the guys from my office to help out. It must have looked interesting to the neighbors to see this large mix of African American teenagers and architects out picking up bales in our field. I remember one of my students was very strong. He would pick up two bales in each hand and throw them up on the wagon. We got the bales picked up pretty quickly and stored away in the barn for our first crop.

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Wagon full of hay bales

Now it was a piece of cake in the morning to go up into the second floor of the barn where the hay was stored and just simply kick out a bale to feed the horses.

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Senior Highs

On the side of barn facing the hayfield was a built up driveway to the upper level of the barn where the hay was stored. I found out all the kids had become quite adept at walking across the wooden beams in the barn and jumping into the stored hay beneath. Ed had built a hideout in the corner of the barn where the beams connected to the outside wall. You’d have to walk approximately 20 feet on a 10 inch wooden beam to get to it. So that’s where the neighborhood kids would gather. I didn’t find out until later that this adeptness with heights led to jumping out the second story sliding barn door we used to drop the bales down out of to feed the horses. So here all the kids are jumping from the second floor of the barn, landing beneath in the lose hay from the opened bales. Oh, those poor neighbors who had to watch all this.

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Ed’s innovation–a bridge

When the kids were running around they learned to duck under the barbed wired fence. One of Ed’s friends, Gary Robinson, didn’t duck quite far enough and caught the barb on his back, leaving a bloody injury. About then, his dad happened to come by and I was concerned about what he would say about it. All he said was, “Gary, if you can’t duck far enough, don’t go under it.” Then he got out a first aid kit from his car and patched him up.

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John helping Dad with two broken arms.

Anyway, I would distribute the oats and vitamins by pouring them out on the ground at a fence post near where the hay was dropped and I soon became aware of what was going on. Three of the horses are mares (Lady, Subi and Fleta) and one is a gelding (Sam) who was by far the biggest. I guess I just assumed the horses would sort of divide the food but that wasn’t Subi’s idea. She’d flatten her ears and the other horses, including Sam, would back away. Subi would eat all she wanted. To solve this problem I bought a halter for each of them and knotted short ropes at each of four fence posts.

When it was time for the oats and vitamins I’d attach the ropes to each horse. Now they each got their share. I’m sure this didn’t make Subi happy but it did the other three.

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Dad and Sam

I still can’t imagine what the Mitchells (our neighbors across the road) thought of my farming. We were always into something.

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Wiggles, Waggles and Peep Bo in the orchard

Peep Bo being sheered. The wool was used for the quilt that lays on  Dad's bed!

Wiggles being sheered. Mom had the wool made into a quilt that still lays on Dad’s bed.

I remember the time Mom ran to the store and left Ed in charge. It was snowing hard and he got the idea you should all to go to the Mitchell’s for a visit. You got your snowsuits and boots on and trudged over there together. On the way, John’s boots came off in the deep snow and he arrived there bare footed. You can imagine Mabel Mitchell’s reaction to that…and your Mother’s when she found out about it!”

20131210_171014_resized_1So, we ended up getting a great deal for that $75/month rent. The Kiekavers were a wonderful family and before long, Dad was helping Lolly Linnley, the Keikhevers’ daughter who lived at the farm past the castle at the end of the stone road, rein her horses in. We had a lot of good times together. Though the barn is now gone, our house on Gebhardt Road still stands. Ed eventually lived there with his wife Georgine and their two sons Christopher and Michael—that’s another story. Now Chris, along with his wife Lisa and their son Eddie live there.

Today, it’s hard to imagine a five year old walking alone on a mile-long stone road through the woods but that’s how I often got home from kindergarten. For my birthday in 1st grade, my parents invited my class over for a picnic. We walked on that road together from Brookfield Elementary to the farm with our teacher Miss Miller. I heard that after Mr. Kiekhever died, the nuns moved into the castle and it became a home for unwed mothers.

As life would have it, I was invited to an event at the castle for work last week. I found out that In the 80s it was bought and renovated by Don and Kate Wilson. It felt a little like I had stepped through time as I walked up the front walk. Memories of swimming in the pool that was once off to the left came back along with the old tennis courts where new homes now stood.

The coach house to the right of the drive, where our babysitter Fern lived, had been a mini replica of the castle, but it was gone.

I remembered there was also a log cabin, long forgotten, that sat deep in the woods. We spent one family Christmas there with Mom’s family. Someone later bought, renovated and added on to it.

Did Santa come?

Johnnie and me, “Did Santa come?”

As I remember the golden fields and sound of my brothers voices yelling in the fresh air I can’t help but think how blessed we were by our time on the farm. It’s funny to think now that the kids on the school bus would laugh at me when I got off at the farm house. To avoid it, I began getting off at the stop by the subdivision a half mile down the road and walking home. I wonder how often, like the kids then, we overlook God’s beauty and miss His miracles which surround us every day.

“We were….eyewitnesses of His majesty.” 2 Peter 1:16. NKJV, from Max Luxado, Blessings for a Day, December 14

Always with You

We gathered at my parents’ condo like we were setting up camp back in the days of our family travels—spending days and nights together. Joanie and I shared the pullout couch in Mom’s office until our emotions grew too large for us both to fit there and I moved to the couch in the living room. We never knew that we would have the chance to care for Mom like she had always cared for us. Her children, nursed in her arms, giving us life and all she had to give. Now she was depending on us to supply her fundamental needs. Does it sound strange to say this was a gift?

The week had started out with Mom’s inspiration—Morning Buns. Her sudden burst of energy provided a morning walk to the store that Sunday with Dad. She had always enjoyed shopping and no less on this day. After breakfast she settled into the chair in the corner of their bedroom. This was where she was most comfortable. “The chair suits my back,” she would say. It was soft and deep but very difficult to get out of. That she could, spoke of her determination to stay strong. The chair was surrounded by the books she loved—the Bible Dad had rebound for her with the two pages from Proverbs missing. She had put the worn thin pages in a safe place—so safe in fact, that they missed the rebinding. She could never bear to part with her beloved book again so they remained loose inside. Behind the chair, was a grocery bag packed full of letters and cards from the many people whose lives she had touched, counseled and loved over the years.

No one knew at the time that the day’s devotion Mom read that morning contained the first scripture she had ever memorized. I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me. (John 10:14).  It was the scripture Reverend Bernwirth had read to her the Sunday she was baptized—a brave ten-year-old recovered from pneumonia and destined to be used by her Shepherd to love others throughout her life and work.

Samsung 062713a 116It also included verses 27 and 28 from that chapter. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they shall never perish. I’m sure these words along with the devotion’s text (I am with you, I am with you, I am with you. Heaven’s bells continually peal with that promise), must have deeply comforted Mom that morning.

“You go on to church,” she told Dad. “I thought I could go with you today but I’m not feeling quite up to it now. It must have been the walk. You go. I’ll be fine.”  I can imagine her smiling up at him, inhaling a whiff of his Old Spice aftershave as he would give her a kiss.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. Go and pray.” She may have added.

“Okay, darling,” that he could do for her. “I love you. I’ll hurry home.”

I think of her reflecting on their past 12 hours together—the chili and football game the night before, the fresh air of their morning walk, the pleasure of a little shopping and the stunning colors of the produce so beautifully displayed around them. I wonder if the unexpected energy she experienced had given her any hope that she might be getting better. Many things we take for granted had been taken from her. Her fingers hurt when she played the Chopin Etudes, Debussey, hymns and improvisations we loved to hear but she didn’t stop. Music had been such a big part of her life—she wasn’t willing to let that go too. Hospice had told her she wouldn’t be able to leave the house alone once she signed the papers confirming their care, not even for a walk. There would be no more driving, her independence was coming to an end. She had flinched at that, I had seen it.

I know she would have preferred to go to church with Dad that morning. Instead, she reflected on how God’s magnificence surrounded her. Quietness is the classroom where you learn to hear My voice,* she continued to read from her little orange-covered book. That was the place she was most comfortable now. She had told me that.

In earlier days, Mom and I loved to shop together. She was shopping when she was getting ready to give birth to me. Among the racks of a department store, her knees had buckled and people gathered around her wondering what was wrong. A baby—she was getting ready to have a baby. And so this is where I prepared to make my entrance into the world, amongst the whiff of new fabrics and the sense of excitement a new purchase can bring. I wasn’t born in the store but it wasn’t too long after that. So it was my mom, as well as her mother before her, who are partially responsible that I love to shop.

When Grandma would come to visit, we would help her unload her suitcases and boxes of baked treats containing tins layered carefully with cookies and fudge placed between sheets of wax paper. Then she would head straight to the nearest mall—Mayfair when we lived on the farm and Capital Court when we were in town. I still have dreams about girls’ dress departments and being surrounded by circular rods filled with ruffled satin and lace, or heading up and down escalators that lead to shoe departments. Mom would always stop at the candy counter for caramels and cashews before we began. I was too excited to eat, my eyes darting and head jerking from one thing to the next, dazed by all the new possibilities. My husband says that one of these days I’ll sprain my neck.

In the last months of Mom’s life, I began going overboard buying new clothes for her to wear. She had lost so much weight, nothing fit and this had bothered her. Anyone who knew Mom remembers her impeccable style. I went to the shop we had most recently been to together. It was a fun trip where everything she tried on looked perfect. We left with several bags and it had perked us both up. That’s what it was always about. We cheered ourselves up shopping. It’s a superficial thing, I know that—a false promise of hope for a new beginning by looking differently. It only a short time before you want something else but its an escape. I learned how to hide a new purchase on a shelf out of sight until the right time presented itself. “Is that something new……?” Todd would ask me. “I don’t remember seeing that before…….?”

“Why no—I’ve had this for a while….,” I’d respond.

So during Mom’s last months I bought her more than she needed. I later found the things in her drawers with their price tags still on. It was upsetting to be reminded of so I quickly gave them away. I know the things she did wear lifted her spirits a little and that was something small I could do. I also know I was trying to hold on to her.

“Please don’t get me any more, Debbie,” I didn’t want to hear those words. “I’m not like that now. I’m different. I’ve changed. I don’t care about clothes.”

Mom had let that go. There was no place for anything superficial in her life now. For me, more than the awareness that I should let the empty endeavors go myself, it was the beginning of my acceptance that I would have to let Mom go. God had given us this precious woman as our mother and as Dad’s wife on this earth but this great gift wasn’t ours to keep. Ultimately, she belonged to Him.

20131207_163432I needed to hear the words in my heart, I am with you, I am with you, I am with you, and I read them and reread them from that little book on the page dated October 30. It was time to return the great gift to the One we had received it from and not try to hold on to it. To be able to return a gift of love to the giver is the greatest gift of all.

Mom’s devotion: Jesus Calling by Sarah Young

Horsing Around

I liked riding with Dad. I preferred sitting behind him on the horse and looking up at the stars to being in the saddle myself. I wish I could say I was a daring horseback rider but National Velvet was on my bookshelf not in my blood. Dad said he could always tell when I had ridden because he’d have to retrain the horse. I never rode Sam, Lady was nice, Subi was slow, Fleta had a mind of her own and they all had their way with me. While my brothers were helping Dad around the farm, I was off making imaginary castles in the tall, golden grass carpet of a field behind the barn. When Ed and John were mowing it with their friends, I was busy organizing my friends into neighborhood productions—using any available garage, the roof over a big sandbox in the play-yard, or my friend’s backyard patio as a stage.

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Ed and me with our sheep Wiggles and Waggles in the play-yard. (Bruflats house in distance.)

Anyway, since we had all these horses, Dad thought we should have something for them to pull. He noticed a two wheel cart for sale at one of the neighbor’s farms.

“I thought that might be a good way to start to train them,” Dad said as he remembered the old cart. “A guy named Landsberg had a shop on the corner of Bluemound and Barker Road and he sold lots of horse equipment. I bought a harness and whatever else I needed to hook up a horse.

Dad leading Lady

Dad leading Lady

The first time I hooked Lady up we were behind the barn at the top of the field. When she heard the noise on her heels, she took off, trying to get away from it. She raced down the field to our property fence and managed to turn around, then came running back up and headed west towards Bruflats. I don’t know how she got that cart to turn with her, going as fast as she was, but she did. When she was heading back towards me, I stood right in front of her, waved my arms and finally got her to stop—which I was very grateful for. Oh, she was scared.

Ed and his friend Gary Robinson pulling us in the two wheel cart

The two wheel cart

I suppose this was a clue I shouldn’t have tried to train that horse but I kept at it until I thought I had succeeded. I hooked her up to take her over to Paul Mitchel’s farm across the road to share my achievement with Paul and his family. When the calves in the pasture saw me leading Lady down the Mitchels’ long driveway, they got excited and came running towards us. This startled Lady and with a full gallop she headed straight for a station wagon parked in front of the Mitchels’ house. Lady swerved to miss it but the side of the wagon hit the back of the car and broke the wheel off the cart. I was thrown over the top of the station wagon and landed on the hood. Paul was standing there with a veterinarian who owned the car—both of them with their mouths hanging wide open. I said I wanted to show him how I had trained the horse. The vet said I had a little work yet to do.

Meanwhile, Lady ran through their electric fence and out into the field, pulling the broken harness behind. I went after her, grabbed her mane like I often did to jump on her bareback, and pulled but realized both of my wrists were sprained so I led her back on foot. I stopped to talk to Paul and the Vet and told them I would check with my insurance company to see if I could get some help to cover all the damage we had done. When I called the company I asked my agent if they covered horse damage to cars. He said it was the first time he’d been asked about such a thing but thought maybe it would fall under general liability. I think I did end up getting a little money to help fix the damage we had done to the vet’s station wagon. The rest was up to me.

Winter came and I found a sleigh with red velvet seats called a cutter for a horse to pull. By this time I had broken Subi. It was great to work with her because the snow was deep so she was more manageable. I bought a toboggan and I’d put a rope from the toboggan to the horn of the saddle on the horse I was riding and I could pull you kids. I’d get Subi out there and she’d be so tired from the deep snow I wouldn’t have to worry about controlling her. I also came across a buckboard which I bought and I eventually found a buggy for sale and bought that too. I had several country school jobs at that time which kept me out on the country roads. It was easy to find these old horse-drawn things and they were all pretty cheap mostly because there wasn’t a big market for them. Subi was great to pull with her sore hoofs—she never tried to run away. Lady was too spooked and the others were too skittish.

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Subi and buggy alongside the farmhouse

I should mention we had a couple acres of grass to cut. I well remember the first time I was going to cut it with my little push mower from the city. I decided to go to Reinder’s and bought a used power mower which worked for a while. Then one day Ed, John and I were out looking for something that would cut faster and found the Ford dealer on HWY 100. They had a dandy 1948 Ford tractor. They also had a 60 inch mower to attach to it. We bought them both and this made what was a chore a ball. The boys would fight over who was going to cut the grass. The tractor was unique because the left main wheel was a farm tread and the right main wheel was a golf course tread. So we always knew which tractor was ours.”

Fast way to cut the grass

John on the Ford tractor mowing with friends

Horse Stories!

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Dad’s love of horses goes way back

One day at the farm, a young neighbor girl stopped by and knocked on our door with a question……

Dad starts his story as the rain pounds on the roof of the car and the wind rattles the windows. It’s Sunday after church and we’re sitting in his car outside my house. There had been tornado warnings and sirens on our way to church. I was feeling like the weather. I start to get out of the car and Dad says, “Wait a minute. I’ll come around with the umbrella.”

“I’m fine Dad. It’s only water.”

“Well, I don’t want to let you go when you’re feeling like this. Stay there. Let me pull the car over to the curb.” The gutters are gushing with rain water so Dad was letting me out in the middle of the street. We sit in silence. “I have a thought,” he says as he parks the car. “Why don’t you write about not having a story? Or….you could tell them you realize there’s so much more you want to write about before you get into the story you just wrote.”

“I don’t know about that Dad…..”

“Yeah well, I don’t’ know about that either. Okay, then how about this?” he clears his throat and starts in.

“…….One day at the farm, a young neighbor girl stopped by and knocked on our door with a question. The young neighbor girl told me she wanted to have a horse but needed one close enough to ride because she didn’t drive yet. She asked if we’d board her horse for her. I thought that sounded like fun so we did. It was white. I didn’t really understand the horse’s temperament nor did I check into it as much as I should have. It managed to get out of the fence I had put up and Mom went to retrieve her. She put a lead rope on the horse’s halter and was leading her back when it started getting balky. The horse kicked at Mom who was pregnant with Joanie at the time. Mom managed to get her leg up fast enough so that the horse ended up kicking her thigh and not her stomach. After that, I told the young lady to take her horse somewhere else. We got rid of the horse but the idea of horses stayed. There’s your story!”

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Easter Sunday with a barn waiting for horses.

“But how did we get our horses, Dad? Tell me about that.” The rain was not letting up anyway.

“You want more horse stories?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, one of my clients and I had been talking about our mutual interest in horses. He had a stable and asked if I wanted to go for a ride. So we went, he saddled up a couple horses and we rode.This is when I decided I wanted a horse for the farm. I let him know and it wasn’t too long after that when he called to tell me he found a horse he thought would be perfect for me. We set a date to go take a look. It was a brown mare and was fairly old—10 to 12 years. He said she was gentle and you kids could ride it. I told him it sounded perfect and when I found out it was 100 bucks I told him he had himself a deal.

So we named our first horse Lady. We all enjoyed having her. Of course I had to also buy a saddle, bridle, blanket, a grooming brush and some baled hay along with other miscellaneous things. It wasn’t long after that, that somebody told me about another horse. Ed and I went to look at it and bought that one too. I rented a horse trailer and we went to pick it up. I tied her in the trailer—apparently not very well because as we were coming down Bluemound Road the trailer started bumping around. I pulled over and here the horse is looking at me. She’d gotten lose in the trailer and turned herself around so she could see out. I tied her back up and finished our trip home. Joanie was born by this time and we all went up to look at the new horse Ed and I had bought. We wanted to name her and Joanie, who was not quite two years old, pointed at the horse and said “Subi Sa.” We thought that was a good name for her so that’s what we called her—Subi Sa—Subi for short. We didn’t know enough about horses at the time to know she had sore hoofs.

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Friends riding horses

Lady had gotten out on several occasions so I realized I had to get better fencing. I started looking into electric fences. I went to Sears and Roebuck and bought a fence charger, a bunch of insulators and some barb wire. I figured out how to put it all together—stretched the barb wire around the pasture and rigged up the electric part and attached the electric fence. So now we had two horses kept reasonably well and staying where they belonged with the electric fence. Although there were times that our neighbor Mabel Mitchel called from across the road and said, “Bill, will you come get your horses? They’re in our cornfield and eating all our sweet corn.” Or a call from the police department saying, “I think one of your horses is downtown Brookfield. Will you come and get her?”

Somehow we heard about another horse that was also the type we were looking for—it was also $100. She was another mare but much younger.This was the time when your Mom was singing at the Skylight. She was in Iolanthe and somebody came up with the idea to name the horse after one of the characters—a fairy called Fleta. Now we had three horses. Sometime after that we got a call from a person who had a gelding. He was larger than the mares and also had a lot more spunk. We ended up buying him too so now we had four horses, four saddles, four bridles and four kids. We had to name this horse and I have no idea where the name came from but we called him Sam. So that’s how we ended up with four horses and I never paid more than $150 for any of them. They were either old and tired or so full of pep and vinegar that nobody else wanted to ride them.

It was great living at the farm.  I could get rid of my tensions from architecture by hanging out at the barn.The west side of the barn was much older than the east side and it was made out of field stone.The east side was made out of poured concrete. One of the things I loved to do was go home from the office and stack up a bunch of newspapers, set up targets and shoot my 22. Other times I’d come home from work and surprise you kids—I’d saddle up an extra horse and ride over to Brookfield Elementary to pick you up after school. I’d wait for you to come out—Ed and John would get on one and you’d climb on the back of mine. Joanie was not in school yet and still had this to look forward to.

There was a stone road that connected our house to the Kiekaver’s Estate (they owned the farm we rented). It went through their property up to their residence—or the castle as we called it. One of the times I was taking the horses to pick you all up, I was riding through the stone road and ran into a group of nuns. They were from a home for unwed mothers. I stopped to talk to them and one of the older nuns said to the younger nun, “Don’t you like horses?”

“Yes!” the young nun exclaimed.

I asked her if she’d like to go for a ride and she said, “Yes!” So she pulled up her habit and revealed her knee length green stockings. I don’t know if it’s typical for nuns to have knee length green stockings but anyway, this one did.

There, how’s that for a story?”

“Really good Dad….Thanks.” I smile and lean over and give him a kiss.  He drives me up to the back door and I prepare to make a dash for it.  “I’ll figure out what I’m doing with all this…..slow and steady the turtle won the race, right?”

“You can’t rush it, Debbie. Take your time.”

Grace Under Fire

The Island’s charm captures you as you make the final stretch down the winding road before the ferry dock. The call of the gulls echoing through the air is its serenade to you, “All is well..…”.

Dad had the cabin on Washington Island completed in 2000. It stood looking out across the water as a stunning representation of 50 years of marriage.

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It was also the perfect place to celebrate those 50 years. My parents began making plans to have the members of their wedding party, family and a few close friends take the ferry ride and stay for the weekend.

Samsung 062713a 193Everyone was excited—no more tents!

Samsung 033While Dad was busy with the design and construction of the cabin, Mom took charge of the interior furnishings—complimenting the line of Dad’s design with durable elegance. She wasn’t expecting to discover that she needed eye surgery that would call for two weeks of healing time lying face down in a special chair. Though upset by the news and suddenly concerned about the condition of her eyes, she got through it one day at a time. But then there was a bout with shingles, followed by the loss of her younger brother Joel—leaving her as the sole member of her immediate family. Too sick to attend his funeral, she was already sad, sad, sad when the next news arrived—her cancer had returned.

With Dad’s support, together they decided to go ahead with their anniversary plans.

When in doubt, plan a party. Mom had the most delicious assortment of cakes made by a baker on the Island for the event. A good family friend/musician named Julian was invited to play and along with his band filled the celebration with music—everyone dined at Bitter’s Inn, dancing and singing well into the night. Mom took the stage briefly and shared her latest news with those she dearly loved saying, “But that’s not why we’re here. We are here to celebrate and that’s what we’re going to do!” And that’s what we did.

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Mom directed church choirs and worship for decades and the Sunday morning following the anniversary party was no different. We all received our assignments for the service which Mom put together that took place at the cabin. It was followed by a breakfast including freshly made Island bagels delivered still warm that morning. There was plenty of coffee and the world’s best fresh air and glittering sunshine.

To paint the full picture, fast forward seven years. Mom and Dad took a trip to New York to get away and see some shows. Mom wanted to visit Brooklyn Tabernacle while they were there because she had been using their choir music for years so they took the subway to Brooklyn before their flight home on Sunday. They listened to Jim Cymbala preach and heard the choir which was led and conducted by his wife Carol. Someone told them about Tabernacle’s Learning Center and after the service they went across the street to visit. Though it began with a small number, it was now serving well over a 1000 students gaining skills in reading, writing, math and computers with many achieving their GEDs.

Mom saw a great need to strengthen the connection between her church and its community. A learning center at Eastbrook would be an opportunity to do that. The year following their New York trip, she was asked by the senior pastor to help train a new staff member for city ministry. Mom thought a trip to Brooklyn would be helpful. The staff member arranged for the two of them to stay with a Russian family that he was working with through his foreign missions.

It was important for the trip that they travel light so Mom flew to Brooklyn several weeks later with nothing more than a backpack. She ignored the pain in her ribs and shortness of breath which the doctors couldn’t explain and kept dismissing. She and the staff member used the train to get around the city and the young man’s eyes would light up when they experienced anything Russian. It became apparent to Mom pretty quickly that the young man’s interest was foreign missions not city ministry.

Mom commented later she really didn’t know how she was able to go up and down all those subways steps. She did it one step at a time.

The learning center Mom founded at Eastbrook

The learning center Mom founded at Eastbrook

Shortly after her trip they discovered the cancer had indeed returned and this time it had metastasized.

Mom’s will to live was strong. She looked to her faith for guidance through each and every twist and turn. She longed to know Jesus intimately and went deep. What followed next would be her greatest trial of all….the loss of her 54 year old son to an unexpected heart attack.

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The first moonrise I ever saw was on the Island. It amazed me how it looked like a path across the water leading right into Heaven….its metaphor calling to you, “Follow Me….”

But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark…. Philippians 3:13-14 KJV