Friday, January 30, 2015

Places Matter

The past two weeks absorbed me in family events both turbulent and sorrowful, but now I have time to ruminate on various matters again. My mother's family buried another uncle last week, the 'baby' of her family, who at the age of 75 still seemed quite young. Fortunately, my sister and I could attend the funeral and the gathering of a portion of the family afterward. These two events occurred in the same town all the brothers and sisters called home, and in which the family homeplace still stands.

As we walked down the hill to the cemetery behind the church, we passed the graves of numerous family members. My grandparents are there; my mother's brother Charles and her sister Belle; her brothers-in-law Howard and Grant; my cousins C.G. and Jeff; my great-uncle Raymond and his wife Nell. And now my uncle Jim. It's a fitting location for them all, because my great-grandfather gave the land for the first church there and my grandfather built the current church. They all lie in land that belonged to our family for generations. This is the right place for them to be.

The modest church building overlooks the cemetery. The graves themselves lie in rows that descend down a steepish hill, and the whole area is surrounded by trees. In the January bleakness, I could see my uncles' houses and the homeplace quite clearly across the way. When I have visited in warmer seasons, the trees and underbrush enclosed the cemetery and created a quiet, peaceful, verdant spot away from everything.

I have always said that I wanted to be buried right along with the rest of the Sanders family in that cemetery. I don't know if that is actually what will happen, chiefly because my children don't associate as closely to that part of the world as I do, and I want them to be able to visit my final spot! But it would be somehow comforting to know that I was there with so many people that I loved and that loved me. It is a place that has always mattered to me and always will.

The other significant place for me in that part of the world is the family homeplace. It is actually the second house built on that foundation, the first one having burned completely one bitter March day when my mother was 7 or 8 years old. Only a very few pieces of furniture and my grandfather's violin were saved. For all of the cousins (and a couple of the brothers and sisters), however, the existing house is the only one we've ever known. My grandfather and his friends and relatives scrambled to raise this house out of the ashes of the previous one, using the same foundation and taking the timber from trees on the property. The siding on that house is amazingly thick! No insulation has ever been added. When my uncles have had to replace or add windows, just cutting through the walls has been a challenge. It is a solid house.

The homeplace matters to me because it holds an untold wealth of memories. My parents took us back there every single summer for one, sometimes two, weeks of vacation. Every single summer, from the time I was a year old until I was married. Cousins and aunts and uncles swarmed over the area. We picked blackberries under the guidance of Aunt Edith, who had long ago scoped out all the best locations. We listened to endless variations of stories about the Sanders Ghost and other spine-tingling tales. We clambered all over those hills, played in the creek, helped crank the freezer to make ice cream, got into trouble, and generally shared those yearly gatherings as fully as we could. One summer, all the uncles and cousins helped roof my Uncle Jay's new house across the road! Anyone who could wield a hammer and climb a ladder had the opportunity to help out. If I walked around behind his house even now, I could point out where I worked diligently on that plywood.

My grandparents' house is the epicenter of the family. Lately the gatherings have been for saying goodbyes to loved ones instead of vacations, and a certain melancholy hangs over the house a little now. There are just so many memories. My oldest uncle doesn't come back there any more because it is just too hard to think about who is not there and who won't be there again. I understand that. I miss them all, too. But the last few times I've been back to the house, I have been comforted rather than saddened. I have slept in the bedroom that my grandmother slept in. I have washed the dishes at the sink she used and looked out the window at the view she saw every day (which happens to be the church and the graveyard). I have eaten in her dining room and drunk the water from the original well, still being used. Although some other things are different, the house still looks out over the same mountains that my grandparents saw every day. I am happy when I am in this house.

When I consider how many places my husband and I have lived, I can't point to any particular one that has remained 'home' for me. I don't anticipate staying in our current home once we retire completely. My grandmother Harrison's wonderful house in Portsmouth fell prey to the need for connecting I-264 to the downtown tunnel (which nearly broke my heart in 1971). My children most likely regard my parents' house as their 'homeplace'. So the place that anchors me, the place that feels like the one spot on earth where I have roots, remains that very modest, simple farmhouse back in Macon County. It's a place that matters.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Canning Choreography

Gazing at all the snow lying on the ground and watching the temperature dip into the below zero range last night, I found myself thinking of my parents' vegetable garden. Yes, I travelled back to those warm August days when everything ripened quickly and we had more fresh vegetables than we knew how to use. The garden covered a generous portion of ground, and featured tomatoes, beans (both pole and bush), squash, okra, corn, collards, Hanover greens, potatoes, and sometimes cantaloupes. Those were delicious days!

My father planted 100 tomato plants every year, two rows of 50 plants. He had developed an elegant and efficient system of supports that interconnected all the plants along each row. (We never had floppy tomato plants.) This efficient technique, of course, meant that all 100 of the plants produced ripe tomatoes in abundance at the same time (or nearly so). Such conditions meant 'all hands on deck' to can tomatoes!

My parents had worked out an impeccably precise method of getting the tomatoes from the garden to the kitchen to the canning jars, and it remains a thing of beauty to me as I remember their system. The success of canning night depended on each of us doing our allotted tasks quickly and without mistakes or complaints.

Our portion of the procedure, as the children at the lower end of the production line, involved picking the tomatoes. We filled bag after bag after bag, sometimes sneaking a deliciously ripened, red, sun-warmed tomato to eat right there in the garden. Bringing the bags to the kitchen, we unloaded them under the watchful eye of our mother. She looked over our choices, then washed the tomatoes and put them in a scalding water bath to remove the skins. We hovered in the background, handing her utensils or anything else she needed, and doing whatever she told us to do. She was in command in the kitchen!

A gleaming array of sterilized quart jars already stood ready to receive the tomatoes. These had been prepared whilst we were picking the tomatoes. My mother quickly cut the skinned tomatoes into chunks and packed the jars to her satisfaction. She took out the sterilized rings and lids from their own scalding water bath and expertly sealed up the jars. Then one of us put the jars into a wire canning basket and took the basket out to the garage.

All of this activity occurred during the hottest part of the summer, and we didn't have any air conditioning, so my father set up the pressure canner in our garage, using our Coleman camping stove as the heat source. We carried out the basket full of sealed tomato jars and handed it over to my father. He always made me think of Hephaestus, at work in front of his furnace. Daddy put the basket into the pressure canner, closed down the canner, and began to watch the pressure increase so he could time the process. Did I mention how hot the weather was? My father was drenched in perspiration--it just rolled down his face and soaked his T-shirt--and he just grinned and bore it. Once this basket full of jars finished sealing properly, one of us carried it back into the kitchen. Mother (or one of us) removed the completed jars and loaded up another set. The assembly line in the kitchen had continued whilst one batch of jars sealed in the pressure canner.

Finally, the last jars of tomatoes finished sealing and my father turned off the Coleman stove. My mother had already cleaned up the pots and pans she had used in the kitchen and restored order. We had set the cooling jars off to the side to prevent their damage, and I think my brother usually helped my father empty the pressure canner (a remarkably heavy device). All of us were very glad to sit down and have glasses of ice water or iced tea and let our big fan draw the evening breeze through the house. What a day!

The average 'yield' of my parents' tomato patch during the canning rush was 35 quarts of tomatoes. We had, of course, been eating tomatoes as soon as the first ones ripened, and we would continue to eat whatever the vines produced for the rest of the summer, but the rush was over. These quarts of tomatoes stood on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet all winter long, in company with many, many quarts of green beans, and this meant that once a week from autumn until tomatoes began to ripen the next summer, we could have a meal that featured those lovely, delicious tomatoes. All the hard work paid off wonderfully.

Many years have passed since my parents kept their garden and orchestrated the canning process, but I can almost taste those tomatoes even now. And the memory of their finely-tuned choreography always brings a smile!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Thank You, Mr. Ferris

One of the best birthday presents I ever received came from my son Alexander, when he was five years old. I remember it every time I drive past Navy Pier on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive. I particularly recalled it last night when we drove home from Chicago Shakespeare Rep. Before I tell you what that present was, let me tell you why I am thankful to George Ferris.

In Virginia Beach, Virginia, there once was a small amusement park right on the oceanfront, called Seaside. By today's mega-amusement park standards, it was pretty simple. But by the standards of a 6-year-old in the early 1960's, it was fabulous. All the rides were tailored for my age group! Even the bumper cars were not forbidding. Our visits to the beach very frequently ended with time spent at Seaside.  (It was demolished long ago to make way for hotels on the oceanfront, alas.)

I had two favorite rides. One was the carousel, with wonderful carved wooden horses and original band organ. We never left without riding it at least once. My other favorite ride was the Ferris wheel. This sat perpendicular to the oceanfront, so that as you rode up and around and down you looked straight out over the Atlantic. In retrospect, I don't think it was very tall or very fancy at all, but it had managed to survive hurricanes and those seats did swing deliciously jiggly as we went around. I loved it when the wheel's operator would stop the wheel to let folks on or off and my seat would be at the top of the wheel. We swung gently back and forth SO high, looking far away out to sea. Oh my, how I loved that experience!

With that background in mind, you can understand why I am a sucker for Ferris wheel rides. (I dote on carousels, too, but that's another post...) I ride them whenever the opportunity presents itself. Of course, one doesn't come across Ferris wheels too frequently. Most of my experiences since Seaside have been at county and state fairs. I saw a few in India, but those looked far too rickety for my taste and I had to pass them by. I have ridden on the Ferris wheel in Paris twice, once in 2000 when it sat at the edge of the Place de la Concorde, in line with the Champs Elysees, and once in 2013 at the end of the Tour de France, when the wheel sat close to the Louvre and overlooked the race. Pretty impressive view over the City of Light, and a recommended treat, by the way. I haven't yet ridden the London Eye, but next time I'm there, I will.

For a long time, my favorite time on a Ferris wheel came when my children, my sister, and I were at the Lake County Fair, north of Chicago. My sister took my daughter and older son to look at the pigs and sheep and so forth, but my youngest son was tired of walking and we had just spied the Ferris wheel. There were only a handful of folks riding it, because we were at the fair on a weekday. Once we bought our tickets and the operator settled us into our seats, we were off on what proved to be a magical adventure. How many times do people usually go around on a typical Ferris wheel ride? Three? Four? Well, Alexander and I hit the jackpot. We ended up being the only people on the wheel, and the operator asked me as we passed him once if we would like to ride a long time. Oh boy! Of course I said yes (Alexander was always agreeable!), and we kept going. He and I made a game out of counting our revolutions. Our final total? We circled around for 25 full trips. Truly. Twenty-five times. It was amazing. My sister and other children had returned from the pigs and sheep and just stood there watching our final turns. Alexander and I were pretty darn happy with our day at the fair.

Just a couple of years later I received that special birthday present. My husband and children bustled me into our car, telling me we were going to celebrate my birthday. Sounded good to me! We drove south on Lake Shore Drive, which is always entertaining, and drew closer to downtown Chicago. Suddenly we were turning toward Navy Pier. Those of you who know me, know that I am not a fan of Navy Pier. I can't understand why people spend time there. I only go when we attend a performance at Chicago Shakespeare Rep. So I was feeling a little puzzled about this birthday celebration. We parked the car and climbed out and up to the top of the 'outdoor entertainment' area at the pier. What do you think occupies that spot? A giant Ferris wheel, in glorious splendor, which overlooks the entire Chicago lakeshore and downtown Chicago. My spirits rose. My husband told me that Alexander had arranged for him to bring all of us to the Ferris wheel and take a ride to celebrate my birthday! Alexander just beamed with happiness, and I would have done cartwheels if nature had permitted that activity! The Chicago wheel was fairly new and I hadn't managed to put together a field trip to ride it. What a great surprise! The gondola cars for this wheel are completely enclosed, so we could turn around and look at everything to our heart's content. The ride moves very slowly, too, so that even though we only completed one revolution (not 25!), we had plenty of time to see and enjoy everything around us.  It was a magical afternoon, all because of that magical little boy's understanding of what his mother would love to do.

The first Ferris wheel was part of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, by the way. How fitting that a massive wheel now adorns the lakefront. Alexander and I will go for a ride again when we can take my little grand twins for their first Ferris wheel experience.  And perhaps I need to check out the Ferris wheels at the Kane County and Lake County fairs next summer, too! You never know what adventures could lie ahead.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Thoughts About Bucket Lists

Since this is the usual time of year when everyone makes lists of what they want to accomplish in the coming months, or what they want to stop doing, or where they want to travel, or whatever, I thought I would compose my own 'bucket list'. This proved difficult.

 On the one hand, I always have plenty of places in mind to visit or books to read or interesting things to do. But the trouble is, these fluctuate tremendously from week to week, and I really don't want to have to keep track of a list! Those of you who know me best understand that I am the queen of flexibility and spontaneity when it comes to travel or finding something to do. (What I usually need is a partner...)

On the other hand, a 'bucket list' seems both self-indulgent and confining, and makes me say "so what?" when I ponder ticking off each item on the list. The kinds of things most people seem to put on such lists don't impress me as something really important if one is looking back on a lifetime.

Then it hit me. I already have a 'bucket list' that I need to live up to every single day. If I can keep up with the items on this list, I won't be ashamed to look back on my life and I won't be sorry for my children and grandchildren to reflect on who I was, or who I tried to be.

That's my new resolve.

What is this list? Oh, it's been around for millennia. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, this list is known as the Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue. I know. How simplistic and out-of-touch could I be? But the more I think about this, the more I see these guidelines as the absolute foundation for a person's life. They form a blueprint for us that really can't be surpassed. Let's consider this briefly.

In the First Commandment, God speaks to us directly and tells us two important things: God is ours and God has no equal. Everything does begin with that. It's both utterly simple and utterly complex, and we have the example of so many witnesses to show us that starting from this first commandment forms one's entire life. God exists and we should put God first. I think that if I just kept this commandment faithfully for the rest of my life, I would be too busy for any laziness or despair.

The Second and Third Commandments also concern God and our responses to the revelations of the First. I must try not to take God's name in vain. This is such an easy thing to forget, and we use God's name so cavalierly. When I stop and think about why I shouldn't take God's name in vain, I am (as the British say) gob-smacked at my audacity. Do I use God's name to condemn someone or someone's actions? That's a tremendous abuse of God's power and authority. How dare I! Or if I use God's name in a frivolous and vain comment, I am more or less trashing God. Oh boy. Not very smart, either.

Honoring the Sabbath grows increasingly counter-cultural, doesn't it? I always disliked having my children's baseball games played on Sundays, and fortunately those times were few, but once we came home from church and had a meal together, Sunday really wasn't very holy. I grew up in an era when most stores were closed on Sundays, and most restaurants, too, and no one would consider going to the movies on Sundays when I was very young. I remember one of my Sunday School teachers telling me that she (a talented seamstress) never sewed on Sundays. Another teacher told me that when she was in school, if she hadn't finished her homework by bedtime on Saturday, she wasn't allowed to finish it on Sunday. Period. Quite a difference between then and now, isn't it? Here's another commandment that I could focus on for the rest of my life! How to keep the Sabbath holy. What a challenge.

The Fourth Commandment asks me to honor my father and mother. So many of us have to wrestle with the challenges of caring for and honoring our parents as they age. And many of us have already said farewell to both parents, leaving us bereft of their presence. I now find myself trying to honor their memories by being the kind of daughter they hoped I would be and guiding my children and grandchildren to be the kinds of people their great-grandparents were.

The remaining commandments remind us of basic behaviors that keep our society together.

We should not kill. There are so many ways we kill in addition to homicide. I must try to remember those other categories and support respect for life in everything.

We must not commit adultery. Oh, the temptations our culture throws at us! And the encouragement it gives us to break the bonds of marriage and commitment. I must try to remember the subtle and insidious ways that adultery can enter our lives and close my heart and mind to them.

We must not steal. And who hasn't been tempted with that? Once again, there are so many things we might steal that aren't material things. Someone's reputation, by spreading hurtful stories? I must keep careful watch on this one, too.

We must not bear false witness (usually described as lying). Don't we do this almost without thinking sometimes? And don't we treasure friends whom we know never slander or lie? A good item for anyone's 'bucket list'.

The last two commandments enjoin us not to covet anything that belongs to our neighbor, neither his wife nor his servants nor his possessions. Oh my. That sometimes feels like the entire basis for every advertisement we see. We want what everyone else has. We are encouraged to want what everyone else has. Actually, to covet goes even further. Coveting means to desire something inordinately that belongs to another. Doe this seem to lie behind every war ever fought (and every war being fought now)? So I have my work cut out for me here as well. And truly, I am beginning to feel like giving away so many of the things I have accumulated in my life. But I have to resist the constant bombardment of our culture to find happiness in possessions.

Now that I've laid out this ancient bucket list, I feel ridiculously audacious. And yet, if I try to conform my life to these standards, I believe my baby steps will lead me to even greater adventures than zip-lining in Costa Rica or cruising to Antarctica. I'm going to be busy!