Molasses Makin’

Romans 15:16  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” (ESV)

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     I began my teaching career with a “boat” of a car, a ‘66 Pontiac Catalina, v-8 engine. Designed for the smooth roads of civilization, she seemed to rebel against the bumper-jarring ride to Billy’s house. He’d invited me to see the fall sorghum molasses-making, and it seemed a fun outing for after school on Friday. As the bumps and potholes banged our heads against the windows, I thought surely this “boat” would soon dock in some gravel driveway in a little farming area. Surely.

      What had I gotten myself into? What was “City Girl” doing deep in the Kentucky mountains? I mean, other than a job?  In 1971 the universities pumped out way more teachers than jobs in which to place them, and the U.S. presently suffered a glut of baby boomer teachers. I really should be grateful to have snagged one – in a nice public, albeit rural, school. I guess the children were my “other than a job.” One soap-deprived angel arrived on the first day with a little hop in her step.

      “Look, Teacher! Shoes! Ah got shoes!”

       Once, when the electricity went out, my windowless classroom fell into complete darkness. I asked the children if they’d like to sing.

       “Oh, yes, Teacher! Let’s sing ‘The Old Rugged Cross.’” As the students gathered around my feet, I felt something, or someone stroking my leg.  The red-headed lad probably had never felt silky hose before, either on or off a woman’s leg.

    Though the ruddy, freckled faces of the children had won my heart, I constantly worried.

      How in the world will my $5,500 a year salary continue to support me? There’s no way possible to make it through this first year of teaching. No way. Each payday, two hundred forty-five dollars…

     Suddenly my Pontiac ran completely out of road. Now my worry took a different form. No more road? Maybe I shouldn’t have done this. Billy opened the car door and cheerfully directed me out into the woods.

      “ We wawk the rist o’the way, Teacher. The car’ll be jes’ fine.”

     Walk? With nothing but dense woods in front of us, it looked like the beginning of a hike. I could see my panty hose full of holes and runs after this. Half walking, half hobbling, I inwardly fretted. Why didn’t I change clothes and shoes? A branch flipped into my face as if to force me to pay attention. Then, a clearing.

      As my eyes adjusted to the sunlight I abruptly came back to the moment. A dozen yards in front of us, a horse, harnessed to a long bar, trudged around a muddy circle. His strained push crushed stalks of sugarcane while a bucket under the mill slowly filled with juice. I winced at the smells of mud and manure as they mingled with the woodsy aroma of the fire pit nearby. A huge vat on top of the fire held what seemed like a hundred gallons of boiling liquid. I wondered how those ragged men bent over, sweating and stirring, continuously skimming off the greenish foam. The men neither greeted us nor looked up from their work, but Billy pointed to his dad and said they’d keep at it until late into the night, when that batch would be ready to cool and jar.

    Further into the clearing we reached the house. On the outside it looked bigger than I’d expected. Wood siding, a fairly new door. Billy led me to the side entrance where the kitchen greeted us with a chill. Now, away from the fire, I felt the bite of fall. For through the kitchen blew a draft from the unfinished, cavernous house. Studs framed would-be rooms and almost no furniture graced the plywood floors. The barren kitchen housed few utensils, which make me wonder if meals were prepared at all during molasses-making. On the walls, unpainted shelves held jars, some filled, some waiting. Curtains partitioned off bedrooms.

     Then finally, the big reveal. Billy’s bed. A separate, walled room held the beginnings of a bathroom, and as he showed me he beamed with pride. The glory of the room was his bed, the white clawfoot bathtub. Here he slept, he said, away from the noise and the chilled air in the rest of the house. I stood amazed at what I saw, from the production outside to the provision inside. I saw hope. Hope thrived in Billy’s heart because he had a place to sleep – and his daddy was making molasses!

    My fretful thoughts now shamed me. I had a warm apartment in town. I slept in a nice bed. I drove where I needed to go. How could I worry about my salary?

      As my huge boat of a Catalina drove home so many years ago, I asked the Lord to make me thankful for that day, for that tour of molasses-making. I asked Him to keep me thankful for His care, and for a lasting hope that always lay right in my lap.

Dear Father, Thank you for stopping me in my complaint! You are my hope today and always!

“I Want a Love Like Mom and Dad Have”

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Good, they’re both home.

He parked the pickup behind his parents sedans already in the driveway. I’ll remember the code when I get to the door. With only a two-day break before second semester started, it seemed right to surprise them. Climbing out of the truck, moist grass welcomed his feet. One easy hop took him up the three steps to the door.

Yes! 9158. Music, ever so faint, leaked from inside, hurrying him in. In the quiet front hall, a familiar warmness flowed over him. So good to be home. He hung his coat on the stair rail and headed in the direction his nose usually pointed him. Mom’s famous soup! The almost intoxicating aroma intensified the closer he got to the kitchen. And the music swelled too. They’re home alright.

You’re just too good to be true….Can’t take my eyes off of you.

You feel like heaven to touch, I want to hold you so much,

You’re just too good to be true, can’t take my eyes off of you.”

The moment seemed sacred, them not knowing he stood watching. His dad swayed his mom to the song as if nothing else existed. She smiled up at him, totally engrossed in his embrace, until he twirled her around and she caught sight of her youngest son in the doorway.

“Uh, hi, Dad, Mom… sorry to barge in, but it is only five, and I didn’t think I’d be… but, dang it, you told me last year to start knocking… I’m sorry… I forgot.”

“Hey, hey, Bud, no problem!” John hugged his boy and then dropped into the closest chair, grinning. “We’re decent, aren’t we? Good to see you, Son! Come on in, sit down…what brings you all the way from Virginia?”

As the three chatted about “the latest” in the tiny den by the kitchen, Jay soaked in his surroundings. This was the life he left behind almost four years ago. Why would he just now see it? They’d always shown love for each other. So why the lump in his throat just now? Could it be the non-breakup, break up he’d just been texted last week? Could it be the series of divorces he’d heard about lately? Or maybe he’d talked to enough girls now- dated enough- to find only a few who said their parents truly liked each other.

“Mom, Dad, I hope I have a marriage like yours. You guys make it look easy to be happy…”

Can there be a higher compliment than this? One of my sixty-something friends shared this story while we chatted over coffee. Her son had toasted a similar version at their 40th wedding anniversary party. Then she said this:

“Our kids are jealous of us. They see us kiss in the kitchen, dance in every room, and laugh wherever we are. They wonder out loud when will it be their turn!”

Growing older isn’t on anyone’s bucket list. But it happens to most of us. And it presents a double challenge. Is my purpose in life bigger than my age, and am I in love with my mate?

Do you have that marriage? Did your parents have that marriage? Who do you know with that marriage? I can’t wait to hear about it!

Summer Break

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Brutal Wisconsin Winters packed an exhilarating punch around the holidays; but by spring they grated on my nerves. The overcast skies of March and the ever-increasing dirty gray slush made spring seem a figment of our imaginations; and even April could spitefully spew out another snowstorm.

Our high school sat on the other side of a super highway, which ran parallel to our street. School days we’d walk right, to the end of our block, cross over to where on the left a large tunnel took us under the highway to school. As far north as our city, the sky was often dark when entering the lighted tunnel in the morning. It was dark again when we returned in the late afternoon. This darkness marked our winter.

The school, normally part of the view from our living room picture window, hid in winter behind gargantuan heaps of snow. Reliable, persistent snowplows pushed the snow into the wide median month after month until the school disappeared. The snow on our side stayed white, but on the highway side, cars and semi-trucks caused strata-like layers of ugly dirt-  black snow on the bottom gradually turned white about six feet up.

Then, finally, change! Snow piles began to shrink. Almost overnight the longed-for melt formed ponds. Ponds to ford whenever we walked or drove anywhere. A bother? Not at first. Water meant spring!

Would spring really change its mind and come to Wisconsin?

School changed too. Pressure. Life became increasingly serious, and busy, and hard. With theatre rehearsals, projects, and finals, April daylight hung around for the chilly walk home. I would hurry through the parking lot, down the sidewalk, to the tunnel where a month ago my breath would freeze in the scarf over my face, chapping my lips. But now, with the scarf draped under my collar, I would emerge jogging from the tunnel, deftly avoiding the lake in our road.

Then up the driveway, warm house, hot supper, homework, and sleep. Only to begin all over again.

The next day proved warmer and longer. And the next one warmer still. (This week will the wool scarf stay home?) And, finally, Flowers!- the intoxicating aroma of glorious lilacs. Tulips popped up, albeit late for Easter. Hydrangea, rhubarb, with all sorts of flowering bushes, filling my head with perfume akin to- well – a spring day in Wisconsin.

And what in the world now blanketed our yard? A soft green carpet.

Like the bright sun sliding out from behind a cloud, grass signaled the end of school. Finals passed, ceremonies done, good byes said all around, my neighborhood friends came to our yard to celebrate. Tumbling and rolling, leaping and turning cartwheels, we giggled in sheer wonder! Lying on our backs, those snow angels forgotten, grass angels stared up at the sky as if we hadn’t seen it for ages. We hadn’t.

I pushed my face into the grass trying to feel the tickle of its blades in my nostrils. Then I’d sit Indian style and grab the grass under my nails and between my fingers, as if it might disappear.

Spring here, and in a few short weeks we’d have summer— hot, exhilarating summer.

Summer, oh, how I’ve missed you!

Gone are thoughts of papers and tests and grades.

Gone are thoughts of work, and hurry, and push.

It’s time to rest and just be.

So stay, Summer.

Stay just for me…

How I Became a U.S. Citizen and Reagan Became President

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My family moved from Canada in 1957 just before I entered the third grade. On that first morning of school when my teacher randomly asked me to lead in the Pledge of Allegiance,  I had no idea what she meant. But I obediently walked to the front. When the children placed their hands on their hearts, I followed. Then, without another option, I simply opened my mouth. At that instant the class recited the pledge!

Now, at 31, a college graduate, a teacher, the wife of an American, and the mother of two American babies, I typed a letter to my then senator, Jesse Helms. How else could I vote for Ronald Reagan?

Here is my letter, written in the winter of 1980.

Dear Honorable Senator Helms,

Thank you for your service to our great state of North Carolina. I request your office to expedite the process of my naturalization to become a citizen of the United States. Would you please consider my request before the Novermber election?  It is with great excitement I hope to help elect Ronald Reagan as president.

In May my reply came from the circuit court. What could have taken years actually began to unfold. I was to report on the morning of July 4th, 1980, to be examined and sworn in with a large group of aliens. Oh, boy, oh boy. I hired a babysitter and hoped my hubby could get there by the time of the ceremony, 2:00 pm.

Dressed in a blue print cotton sundress with white sandals and hose (We wore hose year round when we dressed up…), I climbed the steps of the stately granite courthouse. Names echoed along the hallway as I waited for mine to be called. Finally, a bespeckled man ushered me into a an office. Could I name the three branches of the American government? Who was our first president? Did I understand that I would be asked in front of many witnesses to renounce the country of my birth? Did I know that my answer in the affirmative would grant my citizenship today?

I swallowed hard and took a breath. Relatives lived in Canada. It’s where I visited every summer. But American public school and college provided my education. America had given me my husband. America collected my FICA withholdings in promise to return them back in the form of Social Security checks some day.This should be a no-brainer.

But Renounce is a big word. Did I understand what that meant?

Well, it meant that I could vote for Ronald Reagan, the man we needed in Washington. I smiled and said, “I do.”

In the next hour the courtroom filled. It hummed with a low cacophony of many languages, as over a hundred onlookers stood shoulder to shoulder in the back. Where was that husband of mine? From the middle of the room, I began to worry. What if something went wrong with the babies? What if he couldn’t find parking? The air conditioner struggled to keep up with the need. We all sweated the rainbow of odors from around the world. Would my sundress get me through?  Yet, I felt blessed. This happened to be July 4th- a holiday within a holiday. And the ceremony began.

The judge’s speech, a bit long for the heat, charged us to be involved citizens. Then I gathered the nerve to turn around. There he stood, sleeves rolled up, crammed into the crowd. I guessed he’d jogged from blocks away. But he had made it.

Then, as the clerk read our names, each person stood. Such variety of color and style. Older Asian men, young European women, Middle Eastern students, Indian grandmothers, eager, all eyes glistened. Then as we stood in unison, the clerk instructed us to raise our right hand. Affirmations prompting I wills and I dos made a kind of choir. Our song proclaimed to the world that the United States of America now held first place as the country we call home.

Hubby and I drove home in separate cars, the babies had had a great 4th, and with my help, Ronald Reagan did become president that year.

So here’s my charge to you on this 4th of July, 2014.

1. Don’t take your citizenship for granted. Vote.

2. Remember that citizenship in Heaven means we renounce the world. Yes, that’s something to think about.

3. Love your colorful neighbors all the time. Be color grateful as much as color blind.