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!

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…

First Love

 

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I remember his last name. But I will just call him Danny. We lived in South Dakota and I assume he had been around all along in the 4th and 5th grades. But we didn’t talk until 6th grade when during the first week of school he commented on my handwriting. I said I liked having nice handwriting- and he said he did too, but guys weren’t supposed to be into that sort of thing.

He noticed my handwriting! He had me. From then on my thoughts strayed to Danny. As a student first, and a girl second, my thoughts stayed on his character– his good grades and wrinkled brow when writing so neatly. But especially I noticed his books with machine-stitched cloth covers. Book covers no red-blooded boy would carry.

But did I say my thoughts “stayed” in the realm of character? That wouldn’t be completely true. As a girl, I noticed the curls around his ears, the smell of Tide as he walked by my desk, and the tightness of his chin when he spoke. All of that created a funny feeling in my stomach. But it only lasted a few seconds.

Three “Danny” events from the 6th grade stand out. First, he confessed on a walk home from school one spring day that my valentine had been the only one with a sucker in it. I guess I needed to know that.

Second, he asked if I’d stop by his house with an armload of his cloth-covered books, while he stayed after for sports. Only a block or so from the school, this caused no anxiety in me at all. He just asked me to do a small favor and I would do it. That I would meet his mother and see inside the front door did interest me some.

When I rang the doorbell, she came, all smiles. I couldn’t help my blurt. “Hi, Mrs. ‘Smith.’ I really like the book covers you made for Danny. They are nice.”

“Thank, you, Dear. I am amazed he carries them, being such a boy boy. You are a sweet girl. Thanks for bringing his books.

Oh, boy. That was cool. His house smelled clean, like him. On the way home I pondered. Would I marry Danny? Or would I marry someone handsome and charming and smart like him? Next year we would be in junior high. Would he even remember me?

The third incident happened the first week of summer vacation. He rode over on his bike and found me in the yard. “How about a bike ride?”he asked.

“Okay.”

Now you may wonder if I went inside to either ask permission or tell my mom the plan. To that I can only say, life was so different in 1961. During summer, parents saw their children at meals. In between existed a whole world of exploring and play. If a child didn’t return for the next meal, or couldn’t be found with a little help from neighbors in an hour, then concern might make its entrance. But summer independence had long been familiar territory by 6th grade. We felt safe because, except for the rare freak occurrence, we were.

To get back to Danny, little kid cartwheels, adolescent fireworks, and grownup picket-fence images jumbled around in my head. Was this a date? Was this a date!?

On the bike ride we saw parts of the town unfamiliar. In a more country area the chain came off my bike. Laying his down, he put it back on expertly and wiped his greasy hands on the grass. There it was, that jaw thing again. He seemed to clench his teeth when in thought or stress. Could he be sorry he did this?

He led, I followed. Almost no talk.

After about an hour I found myself back in my front yard. He threw up his hand and away he rode. As I got off my bike, a bit breathless from trying to keep up and riding for so long, I felt a mixture of emotions. Pride that just possibly this had been my first date, and confusion about what he might be thinking right now. What did all this mean? Had I acted stupid on our ride? (How could ten words be construed as stupid?) Had he crushed himself with remorse over his nerve to do this? Had he stirred up feelings in both of us that neither could do anything about? Or did these emotions bring us up short? Get real. This is the summer after 6th grade.

In a month, my dad brought news that we were moving to a new state. I would begin junior high in a faraway school.

Danny had just become history. Funny, I still remember his last name.

Do you recall the whole name of a special boy in your past?

Safe, summer independence for kids has been gone a long time.

When did it go?