Working out at a gym is an intentionally intimate practice: listen to your breath; stretch your muscles; raise your heart rate; push yourself. It’s necessary, this self-care, to be able to walk and lift with confidence, to sleep well, to control weight. Despite the focus on oneself, exercise is, however, done amid people arriving, leaving, working, playing—living.
“How is your son doing?”
“You must be excited about your up-coming trip.”
“Did you have a good Christmas with your daughter?”
The other morning through floor to ceiling windows from my perch on an exercise bike, I witnessed a cutting from life to remind me of a line from Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
“All these lives,” she said. “All the stories we never know (125).”
Cars lined up diagonally in two rows in a parking lot. Vehicles rolled along a four lane street lined with small businesses. Directly across the lot was a building under renovation. Over successive months workers had replaced the roof and the exterior walls of the long neglected building, their work slowly transforming what had been a run down bar into a coffee shop.
On that particular chilly morning — during the hiatus between Christmas and New Years when people go to work or shop — three men were working on siding on the north wall of the building.
Two burly men stood on an orange boom lift platform: the man with a nail gun wore a lime green hoodie under a navy jacket; the other man with a hammer wore a brown hooded jacket. One man was slim and had a short blond beard; his lime colored hood flashed against the bland siding, a bright contrast next to the brown jacketed man, whose dark face, framed by his thick jacket hood, appeared weathered, his body heavy. The men’s foggy exhalations floated into the icy air.
Below beside a red pick up truck and a stack of siding was a worker in a red jacket who was sending boards up via a vertical lift to the two men.
The rhythmic placement of siding beginning at the parking lot with the red jacketed man had suddenly stopped three boards down from the roof’s edge. The two workers on the high platform turned and stood facing the parking lot below. The darker, larger man in the brown jacket lit a cigarette and leaned forward, his right hand gesturing as he smoked with it, his left arm folded across the platform’s railing, his body bent as if a great weight had fallen upon his back.
The lime green hooded man placed his left hand on his companion’s shoulder and leaned slightly toward him. He then moved and rested his arm across the brown man’s shoulders. The darker man raised his left hand to his eyes as if to wipe them. His shoulders convulsed with sobs. He kept wiping his face. The finished cigarette dropped to the ground below. The two men stood side to side, a suspended silence holding them together until they parted. They lightly punched each others’ shoulders. They looked down at the red jacketed man who reached for and sent up another board.
They took the board, lifted it into place, aligning and nailing it. Another board rose toward them.
The exercise cycle has a timer. I had been cycling for twenty-four minutes. Yoga class was next.
Our bay window this December does not sparkle with the usual Christmas tree. Our mantel is not festooned with greenery and candles. The Santa Claus collection remains in its plastic tub along with silk poinsettias and ceramic angels. Between our Thanksgiving and Christmas travels there is only enough time and energy for best choices. What, we asked ourselves, would we display? A poinsettia, reindeer dolls, a wood sculpture of Gabriel blowing his horn, a winter painting, a small sculpted crèche puzzle, and a stuffed quintet of Old Saint Nicks.
Thus inspired we asked ourselves: What if our holiday moments could also be trimmed—to a few precious memories—what would they be? Revealing an economy associated with aging, the longevity of generations, and faithful practice, we chose these four events
A large orange given out on Christmas Eve at a rural Presbyterian church. Oranges in Herb’s Kansas childhood were a rare and delicious treat. This must have also been true for my father and mother, for an orange was always at the bottom of my Christmas stocking, along with some walnuts to crack. Our children also received an easy to peel orange or tangerine in their stockings on Christmas morning. One year a grandchild asked, Why do you always put tangerines in our stockings when we can just go into the kitchen and get one? It’s not exactly about the fruit, we answered.
Candlelight services on Christmas Eve. The singing of Silent Night with candles held high expresses reverence and love, the light’s reflections merging faces, holding them in holiness. We anticipate this vision every Christmas Eve. You may recall that in 1914 an unofficial Christmas truce occurred along the Western Front. Following the truce, German Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch recalled: “How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”. A candlelight service acts as a truce in our own discordant lives. To hold the candle aloft and sing is a truly simple act, void of complications, bursting with spiritual and historical significance.
Baking Cookies. Every December Herb bakes dozens of cookies, their aromas of chocolate, fruit, and nuts sweetening our home. The cookies go to our loved ones and to shut ins. He was inspired by his Aunt Marianne who baked in her farm kitchen over a hundred dozen cookies every year until she couldn’t. Her cookies were delivered to the local nursing home, the church, and the homes of friends and family. The other day I walked into the house to the delicious aroma of almond biscotti and oatmeal raisin cookies. The baking had begun, and so had allusions to bright woolen mittens, hot chocolate, jingle bells, and caroling. Cookies and caroling go together. The caroling might be off key but the cookies will be yummy.
Making gifts. One year we worked together to make eight crèches. I drew the patterns of tiny people and animals, Herb cut out the forms with his jig saw, and I painted them. Because we ran out of time, we never finished one for ourselves. An unfinished crèche awaits assembly in a drawer in my studio. It would be good to assemble the unfinished pieces, repeat the act of attention to symbols and meaning.
Although imagination was necessary, our hands made these memories of the heart. We like what Rabbi Johnathan Sacks says about optimism and hope: “Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that we can make things better.” [quoted in TheBulwark.com, requoted in The Week, December 13, 2019.]
We lean on ancient prophesies, impatient with their centennial evolutions, our hands making tiny contributions, the results usually invisible, except in our imagination or as confirmed in history. Civilization improves at an erratic and sluggish pace, requires courage and ingenuity, depends upon intentional living, reason and faith. To participate we must suspend fears. Disrupters have always existed. Consider these: Isaiah, Jesus of Nazareth, Genghis Kahn, King Henry VIII, Mahatma Gandhi. Which ones worked toward a peaceable kingdom, acting not for themselves but under a higher authority for others? It is within that hope for a peaceable kingdom that our hands work.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.
In the 1960’s European automakers introduced the VW beetle to Americans. Automakers were introducing economy cars Iike the Ford Falcon and Chevy Corvair to compete with gas guzzlers like my father’s Oldsmobile. The general opinion at the time was if a vehicle used less gas, it would not only cost less to drive but emit less CO2.
Smog was a problem visible from my parent’s home above San Francisco Bay. When the air was still, a gray pall hung heavily over the Bay Area. Because smog was a concern in cities, scientists were investigating the contribution of CO2 and human activity upon air quality and climate change. Most of the chatter at the time wasn’t about climate change and extinctions but about smog, air quality, and dependence upon foreign oil.
That my boyfriend drove a cute yellow VW bug hardly qualified me as an activist. Greenpeace was seven years away. Conversations about conservation were mild compared to today’s discussions—rising seas, reducing bird populations, gasping lungs, raging mega fires, critical food production, and corporate irresponsibility. Nevertheless, I had adopted a progressive attitude toward conservation, even though I was uninformed about climate science.
During a break between semesters, I naively brought up with my father the issue of industrial pollution and our country’s dependency upon gas and oil. “What are we going to do about this?” Which truthfully meant what was he going to do?
My father seemed like an important man, connected to influential people. Surely he could do something. My flattering but futile challenge must have amused him.
He lowered his newspaper just enough to peer at me above the headlines. “I’ll leave that problem for your generation to solve,” he answered.
Decades later I was perched on a stool in a daughter’s kitchen when she launched into a worry session about climate change. “What are we going to do?” Suddenly my father’s response was resonantly present, like the Spirit of Missed Opportunity.
Indeed what are we going to do? The planet is indeed heating up, the problem recklessly compounding, the problem outrunning us.
Listening to this daughter’s rant, I suggested we do something manageable.
She looked at me expectantly.
“Text your handyman to remind him we need the hinges he forgot to leave last week.” A total reversal of topic, but it would produce a practical result.
Chuckling, she sent the text, although she didn’t give up easily. My dodge had had only a temporary effect. She pressed on until I, like my father, said, “Let’s hope the grandchildren will be able to enact solutions.”
The infamous rhetorical dodge.
We fill four closets with clothes, most of them non-essential, many of them made from Textiles contributing to chemical pollution.
When purchasing our vehicles, we prefer power to economy.
We use gas powered yard equipment.
We use plastic.
We depend on the grid. We like our electronics, our internet connection, our iPhones, our fancy appliances.
The only things we have done to offset climate change are plant trees, carry our own reusable water bottles and bags, compost kitchen and yard trash, use LED lighting, and turn off our lights.
What and who are we waiting for? Corporations? Government? Neighbors? Friends? Grandchildren?
I’m stuck at the opinion stage and “What can we do?”
Anything. Something. Plant more trees. Turn off the lights. Consume less. Install solar. Buy a hybrid or electronic vehicle.
And nag the grandkids: “You gotta do something! Don’t copy us.” We knew we had inherited the earth and all its blessings, but have done virtually nothing, except consume.
Having just returned from a family reunion, I am taking time out to reflect on belonging.
Every three years descendants of Ronald and Alice Jeffery of Crab Orchard, Nebraska, gather for a reunion, an event officially repeated since 1983, although unofficially held when, beginning in 1940, my father drove my family from San Francisco to the Jeffery farm in Nebraska. The early reunions of my childhood cling to our memories as exciting and joyous occasions with sleep overs, picnics, fried chicken and corn on the cob, baseball on the lawn, hay loft shenanigans, Grandpa’s teasing, Grandma’s lessons on self-sufficiency, hide and seek in rows of corn, and our disobedient climbing to the top of the windmill or chasing the pigs.
The first official Jeffery reunion was held on the grounds of Crab Orchard’s Methodist Church. Reunions were held every two years until 9 years ago when it was decided thereafter reunions would be held every three years. When family numbers tripled exponentially, the necessity of meeting at a place catering to reunions convinced us to hold every subsequent reunion at YMCA of the Rockies outside of Estes Park, Colorado, near Rocky Mountain National Park, and where large reunion lodges can be rented and different age groups can choose from many activities.
Each reunion is organized by a small committee of volunteers selected on the last evening of each reunion. My family branch has organized three Jeffery reunions: in South Dakota’s Custer, at Kentucky Dam Village State Park, and at the Outer Banks in North Carolina. The Jeffery family reunion has also been held in Indian Cave, Nebraska; Ouray, Colorado; Fort Flagler State Park, Washington; Snow Mountain YMCA, Colorado; Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; Eugene Mahoney State Park, Nebraska; Whalen, Minnesota, at a resort along biking trails; and Winter Park, Colorado.
The senior men like reminiscing about when they couldn’t see their neighbors’ rooftops, an out of sight but not out of mind community. Our grandparents and their siblings lived and worked large farms in sections, their neighbors a mile distant in every direction. When someone needed help with threshing or building a barn or pulling a vehicle out of the mud, or caring for children, people showed up. The land was large but the community was tight.
Ronald and Alice Jeffery** had five children, who then produced 18 children, who then contributed an average of three children with their spouses which equals approximately 54 offspring, who then averaged three children per to yield approximately 162 children who are now developing their families. The first generation has now passed. The second generation (mine) has lost two members. The third generation, which has begun grand-parenting, now organizes the reunions, which vary in size from 80 to 150 people. Don’t worry if you can’t follow my fuzzy math.* I have trouble counting them when they are in the same room with me.
The results of all this reproduction is clearly remarkable. Although primarily white Protestants —Our ancestors immigrated in 1840 to America from Methodist John Wesley’s Cornwall, England—we are also Jewish and Catholic mixed with a couple of wanna be agnostics and atheists. We are farmers, photographers, business managers, professors, teachers, nurses, linemen, forest fighters, accountants, engineers, chemists, clerks, bankers, entrepreneurs, contractors, biologists, physicians, artists, factory workers, writers, social workers, CFO’s, technology engineers, software writers, buyers, musicians, financiers, machinists, armed service personnel, and more. We are scattered from shore to shore, sometimes living overseas. Yet we are capable and willing to blend together for this reunion,
When I drove into the YMCA complex last week, I was alone but not for long. I parked my car, walked to the Administration Building, and looked for my people. There they were, checking in at our reunion table: my people with warm welcome hugs, directions to our lodgings, and dinner plans. Imagine 80 people in a lodge dining area, seeing each other for the first time in three years, lining up for hot dogs and hamburgers, tomatoes, potato salad, and watermelon. A four month old baby, the youngest, lies on the floor on a blanket under a suspended mobile. The gaggle is joyful. A three-year-old throws a quick tantrum when he loses sight of his family. Laughter flies. Greetings flow. There is enough food for seconds. The mountain sunset pinks the sky. A group gathers around a fire pit. Children chase one another. Cousins watch the evening sky from the front porch. Inside women surround one table, men another. I overhear the men discussing weather, floods, soybeans, finances. The women talk about their grandchildren, their homes, hair, travel. Before long everyone is teasing one another. It is a generous three hours before everyone retires.
Over the three days, amid our play activities, we learn all this: A cousin has been diagnosed with ALS, just like her sister and an aunt. We wonder if it is genetic. She encourages us; she doesn’t want us to be sad or worried. We check on one another: How is the paralyzed brother doing? How is the widowed cousin doing? A cousin’s service dog, presiding faithfully near his master, has apparently saved his master three times from epileptic seizures. A cousin prepares to move to a retirement community. My brother talks of why or why not to move from California’s Yosemite forest to Idaho. A cousin summarizes his long range plan to remain on his farm. We hear about Arizona winters, Nebraska floods, gardens, hearing aids. We praise the talents of grandchildren, their future plans, their unique personalities.
A cousin has moved from Colorado to Oregon to craft a new chapter in her life, possibly her final chapter, to be near her sons and their families. I say, “You are writing a new story.” She corrects me, “I’m not writing the story.” She faithfully follows the Lord’s direction for her life. She wants to emphasize this truth. She has always encouraged me in my own faith life, she being the more devout, me the more practical, slightly askew follower of faith, occasionally thinking, Really?
When I mention how hard my son works, that there aren’t enough doctors, that he tells me doctors are becoming disillusioned, my cousin’s daughter, a nurse at Mayo, speaks up and reinforces this point of view. There will not be enough medical practitioners in the future.
A group goes on a day hike. Another group goes rock climbing. Some men go on a fly fishing tour. Others hang out at the craft center. Cousins of my generation circle each morning at ten to share about our lives, what is happening, what might happen. We gravitate to memories of our early reunions on the farm when we were children, stories about our grand-parents, filling in blank spots. We played on the discarded farm implements in the woods. We took baths in a common tub. At Christmas everyone received a silver dollar. Cats weren’t allowed in the house. We drank water from a common dipper in an enamel pail, the water pumped from a well in the yard. Grandma cared for everyone in the years of tragedy. The affection and cohesion of those early years is like honey, sweet and tactile.
I open a bottle of wine one night with my niece, her husband, and my sister-in-law. Our stories fall into a comfortable space; we are the only ones who can understand them, no matter how many times we tell them to our friends, even our children.
Tuesday morning at 5:30am my phone trembles and clangs. I stumble out of bed, dress, and drive to the main family lodge. At 6am I’m to meet my brother, sister-in-law, niece and her husband. We volunteered to make breakfast for everyone. Rich, my cousin-in-law, has been up since 5 and has made the first pot of coffee. I’ve arrived ahead of my clan, who are, they say later, knocking on my door trying to rouse me, certain that I’ve slept through my alarm. I’m grateful for the coffee and Rich’s early morning silence. I begin pulling out skillets and pans. John flips pancakes on two griddles. Eileen and I bake 16 pounds of bacon and scramble six dozen eggs. Burt and Sharon cut up bananas and melons. Sharon lays out condiments, paper plates and bowls, cereal, yogurt, milk, syrup, and blueberries. She keeps the three carafes of coffee flowing. Ten hikers show up before seven. By 9am, everyone has been fed and Burt is scrubbing pots and pans.
The reunion is exactly as it was envisioned: it’s not a vacation, it is a reunion. It lasts three days and keeps us bonded, reminding us that we were and are loved, supported and supporting, accepted and accepting. In the meantime we are free to wear ourselves out wading through mountain streams, zip lining, or hiking. I took long walks and hung out in the art and craft center, quietly making earrings and necklaces. There is something for everyone to do. The anchor, however, is belonging.
* Any accurate accounting of our numbers might take awhile. When five of us tried to count the second generation cousins our totals disagreed: Fourteen! No, Sixteen! I think it’s eighteen. Wait, did you count Pam and Ronny? We’ve lost two. Exactly who are we counting? Start over. Let’s see. It’s eighteen! Eighteen! Are you sure? Yes. Wait. There were…and then…
** Dorothy Ann Rinne Hahn has written a complete history of our Jeffery family beginning in Cornwall, England. She will share this document within the family after she revises it with recent suggestions by family members.
The reunion photo of all 2019 attendees was taken by professional photographer Erika Trout Thompson, daughter of my cousin Wayne Trout and his wife Shirley.
In the summer of 1983 after I completed my masters degree, I decided to celebrate by taking my children on a westward camping tour. I bought a used pop up camper and borrowed a camper’s atlas. Between the green areas marking national parks and the homes of relatives, the trip could be done cheaply as long as we avoided lodging at places with nice beds and bathrooms. A campground with showers was a premium find, although almost any lake or river would do.
Between Kentucky and Colorado, water was abundant and clear. However, when we left Colorado, we entered long stretches of hot highway passing through dry land spotted with sage brush and scraggly junipers.
“Let’s find a river and cool off before lunch,” I suggested during a monotonous morning of driving.
The map showed an area near the highway where the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado River, passed through a state park. Anticipating a cool dip, we left the main highway. Asphalt soon narrowed to a dusty gravel road that stopped at a parking area identified as Green River State Park. There was a primitive toilet sheathed in wood slats and covered with a vented tin roof. A hand pump stood near a couple of picnic tables. A few cottonwood trees indicated the presence of water nearby.
When we walked to the river, we found a muddy ditch.
“A river? That isn’t a river!”
“And it sure isn’t green!”
“It’s the Mud River.”
“Well, at one time it must have been green,” I suggested. Mentally I speculated that ranchers had dammed the river and reduced its flow. Summer sun had evaporated what water remained.
We tried washing our hands and faces at the pump. A gush of water burst forth after energetic pumping then seized. We resorted to our five gallon water jug, made some punch, and ate sandwiches before retracing our path down the road to the highway and continuing on.
As a mother with two teenage girls and a preteen son, I had plenty of experience soothing disappointments. Any six week adventure with my crew was bound to present some difficulties. Outwardly I reframed disappointments with optimistic possibilities. “Mountains ahead!…Look! A US Forestry sign!…Just wait until you see the Grand Canyon!…Yosemite is awesome!” Inwardly, however, I questioned myself. Had I too hopefully entered into this trip?
Caught up in the newness of each day and its surprises, everyone so far had been a good sport. Another side tour to a mud hole might cause my cooperating kids to rebel.
Later that day we stopped for gas at a truck stop. A couple of vehicles were the only signs of civilization. A gritty wind blew from the south, our shorts flapped against our thighs, and our hair whipped across our faces. Inside the establishment we discovered pay showers. Each of the two showers was on a timer with a coin slot. A quarter provided a five minute spray of lukewarm water.
The showers were behind a lockable door. A noisy venting fan in the ceiling switched on with the lights. Stingy vinyl shower curtains hung from rods, but the prefab showers looked clean.
“I’m getting our towels and some soap. We are going to take showers!” I announced. I imagine they rolled their eyes at each other. I didn’t stop to see their reactions. Children are free to have their own conversations between each other without a parent listening. Besides, I was determined to demonstrate how refreshing a pay shower could be.
Like ducklings following Mother Duck, they fell in line, at first reluctant, then timid, until finally splashing and laughing and asking for more quarters.
The five minute blessings of soap and water at a truck stop had washed away more than sweat and dust. Our doubts had disappeared.
Somewhere beyond the rugged, salmon colored horizon line was our destination for the day, a place we had only seen in National Geographic and heard about from others. Finally, the highway began to twist until we were climbing switch backs toward the cooler regions of Mesa Verde.
The Green River’s mud and the truck stop’s showers are mostly a forgotten layer today. If I were to ask my adult children about that day, they might say, it didn’t happen that way. Nevertheless, I’m sticking to the story.
At home in Kentucky a small pond burbles next to the deck. We water plants every summer morning, take generous showers, and drink freely from faucets. We can be at Barren River Lake in only forty minutes. We vacation in the North Carolina Mountains near the French Broad River and its tributaries. We have arranged ourselves around the soothing sound of water. We experience a trusting and secure relationship with water. In our imaginations rivers are resources of refreshment, lined with cooling trees.
On that camping trip, we learned otherwise.
I like to think we were acting on faith, exercising a pattern of hope. We believed in the possibility of flowing water. When we found mud instead, we pushed on. We weren’t free of doubt, but we also didn’t cave in and turn back.
On Mesa Verde that night, cool breezes brushed at the trees around our campsite. A slight drizzle fell at dusk. We slipped into sleep. In the morning, sunshine and chilled air awakened us. After a breakfast of cereal and fruit, we toured the ancient ruins of people from the past who had carved a life out of the mesa’s cliffs and wet springs, safely above the unyielding dry land to the east.
It’s no surprise that in literature and song we find Justice flows like a river. We hunger and thirst for righteousness. We’ve got peace like a river. We’ve got joy like a fountain. Love like the ocean.
Today is Mother’s Day. I am with a daughter and her family, embraced in familiar routines, cocooned by my own motherhood with its myriad and layered roles, its history, even its unknowns.
There was a time when Mother’s Day caused me heartache, when I could not free myself of the grief of losing my own mother to tragedy eight days before I turned thirteen. For many years I did not go to church on Mother’s Day for fear of publicly sobbing, uncontrollable grief rising like a geyser to flood everyone around me and spoil the occasion. It was a selfish reaction, I believe, for my children loved me and showered me with understanding affection while I quietly went to the garden to trim roses and plant petunias.
Indeed, the cure for my inability to live comfortably with loss was the continued growth of my children’s adult lives, their voluminous selves, their developing families, the absolute repetition of nurturing love, its intensity, its familiarity. A simple blessing unfolding over and over.
I once feared I would die young and never see this unfolding. But that did not happen. I have lived and am still vibrant at 75 years old. I can attend college graduations and may even live to feel a great grand-child in my arms. This gift of life overwhelms me at times, welling up in my heart and radiating out in silly ways, dancing while cooking, humming while weeding, sometimes causing me to want to reach out and hug people unawares. How can I tell a friend this? That suddenly I want to embrace her and tell her how happy I’ve become!
Frankly, my experience is both ordinary and extraordinary. It will certainly resonate with others. What if we mothers and grandmothers would suddenly be thrown together in a great song fest of gratitude, dancing and embracing each other and our loved ones. Oh what a celebration that would be!