Courage at Twilight: Be Still, My Soul

From my seat in the choir loft, I looked out upon a sea of 500 faces.  Panning slowly, I looked at the details of each face, especially the eyes.  And I could tell that all these people sitting in church on a Sunday morning were good people, wanting to do their duty to each other and to God and the Church.  Many couples sat beside each other, their children by their side, or alone where their children had grown.  A number of adults sat without partners.  Like mine, each face held a story of heartache and loss and grief, and joy.  I pondered how their stories are not part of mine, and how my story is not part of theirs.  We may cross paths from time to time, but we do not walk the same specific path together.  I experienced again the sensation that I would walk the remainder of my path alone.  The possibility remains that I might meet a compatible companion, who I now cannot imagine—it might happen.  But to flourish in this present moment I have to let go of that ephemeral possibility.  Several times I have worked hard to make a relationship happen, but these fabrications have always failed, painfully.  In this and other oceans of faces, good faces, I have found no face or soul to belong to.  And that is just as well.  I have written elsewhere about my setting out to find wildlife in nature, how the harder I search, the less I find.  I have learned that when I relax, and breathe, and labor faithfully without expectation, when I prepare myself and allow nature to arrive on her own terms, she and her creatures arrive, beavers and bullfrogs, muskrats and turtles, herons and kingfishers, wild iris and rose.  As with nature, so with natural relationships: I must relax, and breathe, and labor faithfully without expectation—I have to be prepared for the universe to arrive with her abundant blessings.  For the present, my job is to get used to being alone, to sacrifice and to love alone, to contribute alone, to maintain spiritual standards and practices alone, to be healthy and fit alone, to cook and eat gourmet meals alone, and to forego the pleasures and pains and joys of intimate companionship.  My opportunity is to learn the lessons of living from my particular life.  Your opportunity right now is to sing with the choir, I thought, emerging from my reverie.  To end the long church conference, the choir director led Mom and me and the choir in singing Be Still, My Soul, arranged by Mack Wilberg.  The women sang with one clear voice, to which the men added another, moving together into a pleasant perfect eight-part harmony.  A spirit of beauty washed over the ocean of faces.  After the benediction, Dad walked slowly beside me toward the exit, his arm heavily upon mine.  Stepping through the door, we saw that the snow had begun to fall, and remarked upon how beautiful it was, and how cold upon our bald heads.

(Pictured above, Utah’s Jordan River from my kayak.)

Courage at Twilight: The Good Sermon

Dad always has words of wisdom for me and for all his family: lots of words, and lots of wisdom.  When he says, “You know, Rog…” I know a sermon is coming, and I flinch and tighten and brace.  We are eternal beings of tremendous power.  We are not weak beings sent to earth to become powerful.  We are powerful beings sent to earth to learn humility and love.  Love is the greatest power in the universe.  By refusing earthly power and choosing kindness and humility and love, we demonstrate to God that we are worthy of the greater power he wants to give us in the eternities.  I have asked myself many times why I have this ungrateful selfish resistant reaction, when his words are so gentle and so profound and so true.  Yet, every time, I cringe.  God has given us the secret for knowing how to live in this mortality.  He has told us that we can put our trust in whatever leads us to do good, to be fair, to walk humbly.  Pursuing the spirit of goodness, we will find that God will share himself with us, will enlighten our minds, with strengthen our spirits, will fill us with hope and joy.  We can always trust impulses to do good.  I have been listening to Dad’s impromptu sermons for decades, and have been recoiling for just as long.  After a particularly good sermon to which I was particularly stiff, I doubled down to answer my own question.  And the answer came.  Putting my emotional walls up is a self-protection mechanism.  I do not need protection from the message or its delivery, for the messages are redeeming.  But I have discerned my problem: hearing Dad’s expositions hour upon hour, day after week, month after year, I often feel both tired and trapped.  Jesus said, “He that sent me is true.  I do nothing but what the Father has taught me.  I do always those things that please him.”  We can trust God the Father, for he is true.  We can trust Jesus the Beloved Son, for he does and says only what the Father instructs him to do.  I love the Father and the Son for being true and trustworthy and loving and good.  I love a good chocolate chip cookie, homemade, with butter, brown sugar, pecans, and Ghirardelli dark.  I can easily eat three or four or five, with ice cold milk, in one sitting.  In fact, just dispense with dinner and go right to the delectable dessert.  Dad’s teachings are similar to my cookies: rich, sweet, and satisfying.  But I am immersed in them constantly, whenever Dad and I are together.  Were I to forego dinner every evening, and be required to eat only the most delicious cookies instead, unable to seek other food, soon I would grow weary, reluctant, resisting, resentful, and even ill.  The analogy is imperfect, but simply put, I may have too much of a good thing.  Jesus knows us intimately and infinitely.  He ascended above all things.  He descended below all things.  He is in all things, and through all things, and round about all things.  This describes his atoning sacrifice, because of which he comprehends all things.  He knows us.  He is there for us, working within us, at every moment of our existence, wanting to bring us to him.  One day, Dad will be gone, his voice silenced but in my journals, where I have recorded his sermons and stories.  And my world will seem achingly empty and bereft.  I will miss his teaching above all things.  I think I’ll have another cookie.

(Image by pixel1 from Pixabay.)

Courage at Twilight: I Can’t Resist a Cookie

On our last voyage to the grocery store, Mom ensconced a flat of vanilla cream sandwich cookies in her full cart, and I watched them lustily as they made their way to the kitchen pantry.  The sugar and the fat are the problem: I am determined to stay unheavy and unfat and unflabby and to not come down with diabetes.  The first night I was valiant in resisting the temptation of sweet creamy crunch.  The second night I snuck two, which was allowable because my childhood allotment was three cookies so two could not possibly do me any harm.  The third night I carried off three to my bedroom, breaking off tiny nibbles to extend the pleasure.  Three was acceptable because the childhood allotment has long since taken on moral weight as the universally correct number of cookies for a human being to consume in one sitting.  The fourth night I lifted four, a guilty excess of the universe’s cookie threshold, and I knew I was in trouble.  If one could not stop at three, after all, when would one stop?  On the fifth day, I carried the half-consumed package to Mom and explained, “Mom, these cookies are causing way too much trouble.”  She looked worried.  “They are just too good, and I’m going to eat all of them if you don’t do something with them.”  That is the way it works for me: if I can resist buying them and bringing them home in the first place, I can abstain.  But once they are in the house, I am powerless.  Mom grinned and promised, “I will hide them from you.”  I swear, I will not hunt them down as my sisters and I might have done in decades past.  I felt instant relief that the exquisite cookies would tempt me no longer, and instant remorse for having to say good-bye.

Courage at Twilight: Resin Rose

I had seen around the house a transparent resin cube with an unfurled orange rose magically carved inside.  A cute knick-knack, I thought.  I have encountered such sculptures in souvenir shops, and wondered how they were done, by what computer-guided techniques and machines.  Mom saw me admiring the embedded rose, and announced proudly, “My daddy made that.  When he was a shop teacher at Brockbank junior high.”  I asked her how in the world he had done it.  “He said it was easy.  He used a rotary tool to drill up into the cube, making the petals and leaves, then brushed dye into the empty spaces.  We had dozens of these in our house when I was a girl.  This is the only one left.”  I admire the rose-in-the-cube every day now.  What I had judged cheap kitsch now was transformed into family treasure, blooming on my filing cabinet.  Tokens like these are to be cherished and admired and saved.

Courage at Twilight: A Bucket of Chocolate Fudge

Word circulated that a neighbor was moving and for the men of the church to report at the neighbors’ house on Saturday morning at 10.  Mark is a family practice physician who has treated Mom’s and Dad’s posterity for two decades since their retirement, and Julie has a PhD in nursing and works with sexual assault victims and law enforcement agencies.  While 20 other men grunted over boxes and furniture, Julie set me to work wrapping dozens of framed family photos in protecting plastic.  I started with a portrait of the young couple with their first child, a laughing toddler, and progressed through the family portraits as more children joined the family, which grew to a unit of ten souls, always smiling, huddled with mother and father, and growing again to welcome spouses and new laughing toddlers.  Seeing the photos brought me happiness for them.  But a part of me mourned that I will not have what they have—my family photos will be without father or without mother.  Though we are devoted to our children, we are inexorably apart.  I have delightful family photographs from earlier years as our family grew, but they are incomplete since 2015.  “It is what it is,” I commonly hear from people coping as best they can with their particular set of life circumstances.  I frequently acknowledge to my staff that “the facts are what they are”: I can choose only what to do with them.  A corner room in Mark’s and Julie’s house was piled high with items slated for the local Deseret Industries thrift store.  In one corner sat a sleek black 27-inch flat-screen television, in good condition.  I had been looking for just such a television for Primus, who had only an old gray 10-inch TV as deep as it is wide.  As a man picked up the television to cart it to the waiting truck, I quickly asked Julie, “May I give this television to my disabled friend who has practically nothing?” telling just enough of his story to convey the need.  Primus came to this earth with a form of muscular dystrophy that overdeveloped his brain’s left hemisphere and underdeveloped the right.  He is brilliant at absorbing and discussing books on history and politics and religion and biography, having read over 5,000 hefty books, but he cannot use a can opener.  And he is frequently bullied.  Primus met and befriended me one day, and we have enjoyed long discussions over pizza dinners since.  The nursing professor welcomed me to take the television for Primus.  And Primus was very happy to receive it.  I moved the tiny old TV, on which he has watched his movies for a decade—the characters’ heads must be all of an inch wide—and set up the “new” TV.  The DVD player began Robin Williams’ Jumanji in an instant improvement to Primus’ quality of entertainment life.  I walked Primus through the remote-control functions and left him to enjoy his movie.  In church the next week, Mark handed me a small tub of dark chocolate fudge and a card from Julie signed “With Gratitude” thanking me for wrapping their many family photos, so rightly precious to them, and I felt equally grateful for the enriching experience of helping and being helped.

The tiny old TV, next to a larger nonfunctioning derelict.

Ready for the big-screen!

Courage at Twilight: Vegetables Come in Threes

Though Dad is newly mobile at the grocery store, I stick with him to help open the produce bags and reach for the fresh produce in the higher bins.  “We don’t need cauliflower,” I mentioned.  “We have two at home already.  Same with spinach.”  I left him at the butcher counter, free to exercise his whims, and tooled through the aisles, quickly crossing items of my list.  Herbal tea.  Chicken stock.  Frozen peas.  Strawberry jam.  We met up at the check stand, where he told me that every time he stopped to look up at a shelf, another customer asked him, “Can I help you reach something?” or “Can I get something for you?”  While I thought about how many shelves are still inaccessible to persons in wheelchairs, he thought about the kindness and goodness of most of humanity.  Danny helped us bag our multitudinous groceries into the motley assortment of reusable sacks, and asked cheerfully, “Can I help you to your car?”  Seeing how happy he was to help, though I did not need his help, I said, “Sure, Danny.  Thank you very much.”  He took my cart while Mom and Dad leaned heavily on theirs, and began loading the bags into the faithful Suburban.  “You have a great day!” Danny cheered as he took off with our carts.  In the car, we remarked on Danny’s cheerfulness and friendliness.  He lived his life with a mental disability, but did not let it slow him down or darken his day.  We discussed how this Smith’s grocery store welcomed disabled employees, and how they shined and flourished there, brightening our day and easing our effort, adding to the pleasant environment at the store.  After I carried the reusable bags to the kitchen, Mom and I unloaded the groceries, and I noticed a new head of cauliflower and another carton of baby spinach.  It seems that at the Baker house vegetables come in threes.  Time to get cooking.

(Photo from Smith’s Facebook page, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)

Courage at Twilight: A Heroic Effort on a Sunday Morning

Arriving home from choir practice, I found Dad sitting on the edge of his bed in his undergarments.  I needed to leave immediately to get Mom to church on time, and I could not come back to get him right away because the choir was performing, and I was singing in the choir.  “You go ahead and take Mom to church,” Dad read my mind.  He seemed very tired, and without Mom to help him with his socks, and exhausted from yesterday’s long funeral, this Sunday seemed like a good day for him to rest.  Mom and I had been sitting in our customary pew for only ten minutes when Dad appeared in the aisle beside us, hunched over his cane.  Surprise understates my reaction—I was shocked.  Mom and I leapt up to allow him into the pew (we could never have climbed over him to join the choir), where he huffed and heaved to regain his breath.  He had walked to church with his cane in one hand and an umbrella in the other.  “I tried 100 times to get my socks on,” he whispered, a bit too loud, as the young men distributed the emblems of our Lord’s body and blood.  “I was collapsing—I wasn’t going to make it.”  That is when a teenager in white shirt and tie jumped from his car and grabbed Dad, walking with him to the church doors.  “You don’t really need my help,” the boy reassured as Dad leaned on him hard, “but I’ll just stay with you until we get into the church.”  The boy helped him past the doors and down the chapel aisle to our bench.  “I must have tried 20 times to get my socks over all of my toes,” he bemoaned.  “My knees are still hurting.”  After his breathing calmed, I reached over Mom and patted him on the knee, giving him a thumbs up sign.  He smiled and brightened at my recognition of his heroism.  “After you left, Rog, I realized how much I wanted to be in church.”  Yes, I say heroism.  Walking 50 feet to the mailbox is a major effort, taxing him for hours, and he had just walked 20 times that distance.  “I only have this much strength in a day,” he gestured a distance of two feet, “and I have totally used it all up.”  How many times have I decided ambivalently that I was too tired or discouraged to go to church?  And this old man, nearly lame from post-Polio—this old man, with a big heart full of love for his Savior and humanity—he wanted very badly to go to church and worship, and he defied his circumstance and went.

 

(Pictured above: a fairly typical church meetinghouse of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Image used under the Fair Use Doctrine.)

Courage at Twilight: Point and Fall

Mom and I left Dad at the kitchen table half-dressed, his suspenders dragging to the floor, to have his breakfast of Quaker granola (hardly sugar free, but he doesn’t care anymore) and to finish buttoning his white Sunday shirt. Always a suit and tie man, he has given up on ties, or rather on his shoulders, which he cannot raise to fold down his shirt collar, and on the collar button that cannot find the button hole under command of his trembling fingers.  We found him in pretty much the same state an hour later after choir practice, with ten minutes to get him ready for church.  “I’m slow, aren’t I?” he said to me with a grin.  “I know it.  I’m like a tortoise.”  Mom and I exhaled exasperated sighs.  “I’m slow but I’m steady.”  And that he is.  Steady in his love and acceptance and absence of judgment and discerning intellect and in his love of chocolate chips.  I rushed outside to sweep the snow off the faithful Suburban, to shovel and salt the driveway, and to turn the car on and turn up the heat setting and the fan, all in time for Mom and Dad to hop in, or rather to creep up and in.  The church meetinghouse is just around the corner, but we insist on seatbelts, even though Dad’s seatbelt clasp cannot find its latch for his stiffened hands and shoulders and back, and in frustration he let out an “Oh, for cripes’ sake!” which I have learned is a euphemism for “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” which I will not tell Dad, for he loves and reveres Jesus Christ, his Redeemer, his Savior, and has spent his life in Christ’s service, and he would never in a century take his dear Lord’s name in vain.  I stood by his car door, knowing not to shut the door for him, but merely close it to the mid-point so he could reach out and shut it himself.  In the men’s priesthood class after sacrament services, an ancient welcoming sympathetic man gestured Dad to a chair next to him.  I could tell that the chair looked a long way down as Dad turned to point his backside to the chair and joked to his friend, “Point and fall, Brother, point and fall.”  Having pointed, he allowed himself to fall into place, where he enjoyed the group’s discussion about exercising our particles of faith.

Courage at Twilight: Echoes of Anguish

Snow fell and temperatures plunged as I stood before the Planning Commission into the night instructing on the Utah laws of conditional uses and open and public meetings.  Brian and Avery had offered me their guest room should I decide to stay the night, sometime.  Well, sometime was tonight.  I texted Mom and Dad, and drove the three miles from City Hall to Brian’s apartment, which had been my apartment for the six years preceding his arrival, the apartment to which I moved when divorce drove me from my home.  The walls of that apartment watched six years of pain and coping and enduring and learning to live instead of aching to expire—of figuring out how to flourish.  Entering that home tonight and making my bed and eating and bathing and sleeping there felt surreally strange.  My little girl was nine years old when I moved out.  I told her mother that our divorce would rip the little girl’s heart out.  “She’ll be fine.”  No, she won’t be fine: this will tear her heart out.  “She’ll be fine….”  A young woman now, her little girl heart still yearns for reconciliation, and I am unable to tell her why it cannot be—she has lost those dreams, compelled to make her own.  Brian and Avery were so kind to me, with dinner and conversation, bedding and a towel, and snacks.  And little Lila rejoiced as I stepped through the door and hugged her and read books and played blocks and Hot Wheel cars and watched Mr. Rogers snorkel and tell the world why we need to protect our oceans, both for the exquisite ocean life, and for ourselves.   Driving the short distance to work the next morning, in ice and snow, I realized how much I preferred my one-hour commute with its biographies and histories and meditations over these familiar three miles with their echoes of anguish.

(Pictured above: my apartment, a blessing, built for the manager, but rented to me.)

Courage at Twilight: Getting the Socks Started

Every day at noon, Dad’s breakfast hour, he calls “Lucille!” for her to help him start his socks.  He can no longer reach his toes to start pulling on his socks.  When Mom was away one day, he called for with, “Hey, Rogie, will you help me get my socks started?  You mom’s not here.”  I scrunched the left sock up and covered his toes.  “I can get it from there,” letting me do only what he absolutely could not do for himself.  Next the right foot.  I have offered to help at other times—chagrined, he responds that he wants Mom do help him.  I understand.

(Image by bernswaelz from Pixabay.)

Courage at Twilight: A Motley Assortment

Home from the grocery store each week, I am appalled at the number of plastic grocery sacks that enjoy single-use lives of less than one hour, only to be discarded.  Sometimes the baggers put only one item in a bag.  At least we take them back to the grocery store to be recycled instead of sending them to the county dump.  Penn State says Americans throw away 100 billion plastic grocery bags per year!  “You know, Mom,” I ventured, “we could take reusable bags.”  She quickly warmed to the idea, and remembered her stack of such bags on a shelf in the garage, where they had sat for 20 years waiting to be useful.   Mom grabbed the stack and threw it in the back of the faithful suburban so we would not forget them the next time we shopped.  At the grocery store the following week, she filled my cart with the dozen sacks, a motley assortment, from Intermountain Hospitals, Public Broadcasting System (Mystery!), Utah Shakespearian Festival, Consumer Reports, and an old canvas bag from Dad’s employer Johnson & Johnson.  Several were small unmarked duffels, and one was printed with red hearts and an assortment of colorful cats and dogs.  These dozen bags held as much as thirty or forty plastic bags would have held, and were easier to carry.  “I’m so proud of us,” Mom crowed as we unloaded the groceries at home, having used not a single plastic grocery sack.  Back to the faithful Suburban I took the bags, ready for shopping next week and every week thereafter.

 

Courage at Twilight: Remember When?

“Remember when you spread the fertilizer on top of new snow and the whole yard turned yellow?” Dad asked me, chuckling.  Yes, I remembered.  Pushing the spreader through six inches of heavy wet snow took all my strength.  Dad had commented then that “It looks like a whole herd of deer peed in my yard!”  Yes, it did.  Now it was early March, and more snow was coming, and Dad wanted the lawn fertilized before the snow fell, and Mom asked if I could do it since Dad could not.  The day before, Dad had started up his riding mower, dropped the blade to the lowest setting, and set off around the yard sucking up pine needles and the thatch of dead grass.  “No problem,” I said, anxious to get back to my rising bread dough.  “It will only take me 15 minutes.”  Pouring the bag of yellow fertilizer into the drop spreader, dozens of hard chunks fell out, too hard to crumble with my fingers.  An hour later I was still wrestling with the smaller chunks that clogged the drop holes.  I repeatedly jolted the spreader to clear the apertures, spreading fertilizer in uneven spurts.  I delivered a frustrating report to Dad, and found him pounding fertilizer stones with a rubber mallet, reminding me of an older prisoner tasked for years with breaking rocks.  But these yellow rocks would not break.  “I think we should take this bag-full of hard chunks back to the store and ask for a new bag,” I suggested.  But he did not want the fight, and I remembered that it is his privilege to choose his battles, not mine.  So, I let the matter go, spread the fertilizer that would spread, dropped the bag of chunks in the garbage, and stomped into the kitchen, where I found the ciabatta dough fermenting nicely.  And I began to look forward to our dinner of homemade gorgonzola, ham, and tomato-cream pizza.

Courage at Twilight: Cave Diving

My local congregation announced a church dance near Valentine’s Day, for adults.  I serve on the committee that plans and executes our church activities.  Mostly the chair couple does the planning, and I help set up and take down.  “I’ll be there to help you set up for the dance,” I offered to the chairman.  “But I will not be attending.”  He did not quite know what to make of me, so I explained.  “As an older single man, I will not feel comfortable at a romantic dance for married couples.”  And I was not about to spend the evening standing against the wall like a terrified teen.  I have wondered how I ought to describe myself in conversations like these, and “older single man” seemed accurate and adequate.  “Middle-aged divorced man,” would have done fine, too, but sounded stiff and stilted.  For several hours I helped the committee set up chairs and tables and decorate and string high lines from which we hung glow sticks and vinyl records (the theme was “dancing through the decades,” with a playlist of old classics to match).  When 7:30 rolled around, I could not help but think of who had come to the dance, and whether they were having fun—I hoped so.  Mom and Dad and I enjoyed a dinner of steamed buttered vegetables—cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini, butternut squash—while we watched Jimmy Chin’s documentary about the Thai youth soccer team stranded for two weeks without food miles inside an inundated cave, their oxygen dwindling, and about the group of middle-aged unmarried men, the best in the world at their solitary sport, who focused their feelings and faculties and did the impossible and brought every boy out alive.

(Image from thetimes.co.uk, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)

Courage at Twilight: Grandpa Wally’s Whiskers

“My daddy had a thick black beard,” Mom recalled when I apologized for my three-day scruff, though he did not let it grow long.  As a child, she loved sitting on her father’s lap and rubbing her soft little hands on the prickly stubble of his weekend beard.  I learned this because she said to me one Saturday afternoon, “Come here—I’ll show you what I used to do to my daddy when I was a little girl.”  Then she rubbed her soft old hands on my prickly weekend stubble.  I shave on days one and three because on day two there isn’t quite enough to comfortably shave.  I wore a full salt-and-pepper beard to Brian’s college graduation.  But I looked old and heavy and worn in all the photos.  So, I decided to lose weight and lose the beard.  One less beard and 40 less pounds later, I feel better and look younger (relative).  Besides, I could no longer endure the never-ending itching against the pillow.  And I cannot imagine a woman wanting to kiss a man’s lip hair, so I shave my lip on principle.  I shaved my beard one time because a coworker said it looked like an armpit.  Nope—no more beards for me.  I think we will not make a habit of Mom rubbing her hands on my whiskery face.  But she blows me a kiss every night as I wander up to bed and she finishes the nightly news.  “Hey Baby,” she calls.  “I sure love you.”  And I blow her a kiss back.

Pictured above: Wallace “Wally” Bawden c. 1962.

 

The Baker clan c. 1986 with a bearded Yours Truly.

Courage at Twilight: Motorized Shopping

After Luana’s chewing out, Dad agreed to use a motorized shopping cart at the grocery store. He took to it naturally, like a soaring eagle riding an updraft above the wilderness far below—a bit too dramatic?  He took to it naturally, like an earthworm in moist dirt.  Instantly my stress levels have fallen off, since I do not have to worry from moment to moment when his strength will give out and when I might find him splayed on the floor in the cold cereal aisle waiting for an ambulance.  And his own distress has diminished, being able now to enjoy the shopping experience.  In fact, he may be enjoying it too much.  While I use my shopping list to target exactly what groceries we need, he glides leisurely down each aisle dropping into his basket whatever tickles his whim.  In checkout lane, Luana stated more bluntly than she meant, “I see you obeyed my orders.”  He smiled up at her from the driver seat and changed the subject: “Aren’t these eggplants beautiful?”  Dad rode his cart all the way to the car door, happy and with a little energy left, instead of the customary staggering and leaning against me and gasping, “I’m not going to make it, Rog.”  Life just got better for us both.  The only problem is that we have a month’s supply of fresh spinach.  But I am not complaining about the chocolate pudding cups he snuck past Mom, or the yogurt pretzels she snuck past Dad.

Courage at Twilight: Handyman Gabe

Gabe came over on Saturday just as I was rolling out the pie crust dough for quiche shells. He watched me roll the dough onto the rolling pin, unroll it over the quiche pan, and tuck the dough carefully down into the pan.  “I want to bake!” he declared.  “I want to bake banana chocolate chip muffins—with you, Uncle Roger!” like we had done once before.  “I get the bananas!”  No matter how cheerily bright his eyes shone, I could not pivot to baking with him after spending an hour mixing and shaping the dough, and preparing the quiche mix.  And the raw shells had to go into the preheated oven, right now, for seven minutes filled with aluminum foil and ceramic baking beads, and three more minutes without.  He retrieved a green mixing bowl and placed it on the counter, letting me know he was ready.  “Nope,” I begged off, empty of patience and tact.  “I’m not starting another baking project.”  Gabe looked crestfallen.  “But look at all this extra pie dough,” I offered him a ray of hope.  “We can make cinnamon pie-crust cookies.”  I showed him how to roll some of the buttery dough into a ball, press the ball onto the cookie sheet, and poke a depression into the cookie with his thumb, followed with a spoonful of Dad’s cinnamon-Splenda mix.  Gabe was a pro, and soon had most of the dough formed into cookies, which we baked after the quiche shells came out slightly browned, partially baked—they would compete their bake with the ham, cheese, egg, and cream filling.  When I had arranged the hot finished cookies on a plate, Gabe ran up expectantly for one.  “Nope,” I stopped him.  “Before you eat a cookie, you need to take this plate and serve everyone else a cookie.”  The four-year-old, surprised by this important responsibility, took the plate first to Mom, then to Dad—Gabe’s great-grandparents—inviting them to take and taste one of his cookies.  He looked enormously proud and pleased.  The cookies were quickly consumed, and he brought me the empty plate, wearing a big smile.  “Good job,” I praised.  “Now, come with me—I have another job for you.”  Dad had purchased a new showerhead, and had asked me to install it.  Gabe carried the crescent wrench up the stairs into the bathroom, while I talked him through how to change a showerhead.  I removed the broken showerhead and hose, and told him they needed to be thrown away.  “Can I throw them away?!” he asked hopefully.  The deed happily done, I hoisted Gabe up in my left arm, joining my right hand with his small hands to thread on the new showerhead, over a strip of Teflon tape wrapped tight.  “Turn it good and tight,” I instructed, and he did.  I turned the water on, and Gabe pressed his face against the glass where the water pounded.  “Now, go tell Grandpa.”  Gabe raced down the stairs and reported to Dad that the he had thrown Dad’s old showerhead away and put the new one on—and it worked!  I felt pleased at his sense of accomplishment.  “What are we going to do with the rest of the pie dough?” I asked him.  “Do you want to make a strawberry pie?”  He nodded eagerly, and I helped him shape and roll the dough.  His dad helped him spoon strawberry jam into the center of the circle, then bring one side of the dough over the jam to form a semicircular turnover.  I sealed the edges with fork tines, and slid Gabe’s pie into the oven.  When the turnover came out, nicely browned, Gabe glowed.  He let his pie cool, then cut it and took pieces to Mom and Dad, and Sarah and Tracy, who raved and praised, much to Gabe’s delight.  “You did a lot today, Gabe,” I reminded.  “You made cinnamon pie crust cookies, you put on a new showerhead for Grandpa, and you baked a strawberry pie!”  “Thank you, Uncle Roger,” he sighed, self-satisfied, knowing he had learned important new skills.  “Next time,” I offered, “let’s bake banana chocolate-chip muffins.”

(Pictured above: Gabe’s strawberry pie.)

Courage at Twilight: The Permanence of Canes

Dad’s aluminum cane is covered with blue-and-white flowers.  Its use around the house is no longer optional.  I thought he might like a more “manly” or “classy” cane, and suggested we procure a genteel wood cane.  “I don’t think so,” he declined.  Later in the evening he explained, “In my own mind, a wooden cane embodies permanence, and I am not ready for this to be permanent.”  I suddenly understood, and apologized, not having meant to suggest his permanent need, only the enjoyment of something refined.  Thus esteemed, he acknowledged that he is not likely to turn back the clock and not need his cane.  I admire his courage to look the future in the face, to stare hard at its reality.  I admire his long fight for a flourishing life.  His fighting spirit has not dimmed.  He will win the prize—indeed, has already won.

(Image by julianuc from Pixabay.)

Courage at Twilight: Grandpa Darwin

My children’s other grandfather is dying from his fourth attack of cancer. Tumors like softballs stud his chest and torso.  Prior cancers removed his lower jaw and all but a thin fold of vocal cord.  Family group texts to my children kept me informed of his worsening condition and of the many tender family visits from his eight children and thirty-six grandchildren and twenty-eight great-grandchildren.  Though I have not been his son-in-law for six years, I love and respect the man, and I knew it would be right for me to say good-bye.  Sitting at his bedside, we fist-bumped and we talked and reminisced and we shared our hopes for our families’ futures.  He expressed his love and admiration for my seven wonderful children.  I conveyed Mom’s and Dad’s expression of love and admiration and respect—“Right back at ‘em,” he chimed.  He told me stories of his early life, like when he was a little boy and he and his cousins laid on their grandmother’s down-tic mattress listening to her tell stories of their Mormon pioneer ancestors.  “She was barely 4-foot 10-inches tall,” he marveled.  “We loved her.  But you didn’t want to make her mad!” like when the children tried to ride the sheep.  When I asked what he most looked forward to on the other side, he listed reunions with his father, Charles, who died by train in the shunting yard in 1961, and his mother, Jessie, who died of a stroke the year I married (1988), and many other family members, like his brother Kay, who died of the hardships of homelessness.  I told him I felt very sorry that things had not worked out for his daughter and me, but that I loved him.  “You are family,” he assured me in exhausted whispers, “and I love you.”  He squeezed my hand hard, then let me know he was so tired and needed to sleep for a while.  He stopped eating five days ago—he made it to March 1—everyone has said good-bye—I have said good-bye and god speed.

Courage at Twilight: Beginning to Forget

The photographic mind of my 86-year-old father is slowing its shutter speed, narrowing its F-stop, and the images emerging are beginning to blur. I am accustomed to him telling me the details of prominent lives based on his reading over many decades, the names, dates, relationships, events, places, and joys and tragedies.  Stories still flow, but the names occasionally disappear or bungle.  I always allow a long, respectful pause before supplying a name, if I know it.  And when he insists on Middlesex County College (in New Jersey) instead of Salt Lake Community College (in Utah), I do not correct.  What would be the point—to remind him of his and all humanity’s persistent deterioration?  To try (in vain) to appear as smart as him?  That would be cruel and arrogant of me.  On each occasion when I do supply a name, I find that he is the one that originally supplied me with the name.  So much of what I know comes from him telling me neverendingly about his readings and experiences.  When he is gone, I will feel bereft of my teacher.  I am reading a great deal in an attempt to open my brain on my own, but I observe with chagrin that the names and dates and events already do not stay in my memory—they have fled almost by the time I finish the book.  What do remain inside me are the impressions, emotions rolled up with images my brain has supplied, and admiration and love for the humanity of each person I read about.  While I may not be a useful repository of information, yet I trust my soul has stretched and grown by bringing those people into myself.  These I never forget.

(Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay.)

Courage at Twilight: Baby Henry

The tiny boy in my hands is a perfectly proportionate finely-featured human being in miniature.  His eyes are shifting from newborn gray to paternal blue.  His hair is growing from newborn black to maternal chestnut: lots of it, and curly.  And I am holding him, baby Henry, the child of my child.  In January.  Holding him feels natural—I know the moving parts and the comforting positions, and where he needs support.  At three weeks old, he looked into my eyes—he really did—and gazed at me for a good long time—he really did—and a not-gas-bubble smile began to play in the corner of his moving mouth on one side while he gazed—it really did.  Somehow the world seems good and whole when holding a newborn.  The problems melt away, and love flows.  And I speak in gibberish the infant can understand because the sounds come from a smiling face and a lilting voice and dancing eyes, and those little ears take in the sounds and smiles and glints of light and love.  Until three weeks ago I had one grandchild, the source of my greatest joy.  Now Henry is here, and the stable of my heart has grown to make ample room for him in the manger, and will make more room in April, and more in October, and yet more….

(Above: Henry on a quilt sewn by his aunt Laura.)

Henry on a blanket crocheted by his great-aunt Carolyn.

 

Henry with his wonderful parents John and Alleigh.

 

Yours truly holding the sleeping baby Henry.

Courage at Twilight: Flicker

I have seen the Red-shafted Northern Flicker flash her orange primary underfeathers, and her white backside button, as she torpedo-dove from her hole in the snag.  I have heard the Flicker’s sad cry, piercing and irresistible.  I have watched the Flicker stand cantilevered on the trunk to feed her clamorous young.  But I have never heard the machine-gun rap of her beak on deadwood, as I did today, echoing through Dimple Dell.  But there she was, high in the dead cottonwood.  I know the bird better now, and love her more.

 

 

(Images from Birdsofafeather.org and Newsweek.com, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)

Courage at Twilight: The Lights Is Always On

I pulled into the driveway after 11:00 p.m. on a Wednesday, commuting the long hour after a long City Council meeting.  The garage light shone through the door’s glass panes.  How convenient, I could have thought.  I would not have to gather my things and make my way to the house door in the dark.  Instead, I thought about how Mom had been thinking of me that day and that night, and how she had made a point of turning on the light for me, to make my path bright and easy.  And I thought about Mom and Dad sitting me down first thing every night to ask me about my day, in the process teaching me the consideration of asking them about their day—now, I try to ask them first.  And I thought about how they answer the phone every day to listen to one of their beloved daughters, the troubles and worries and defeats and victories.  And I remembered how Mom was there when I had my tonsils removed (1968), and my appendix removed (1982), gangrenous and tight, and my knee reconstructed and my leg immobilized for six weeks (during the dark ages of 1983), and my hernias patched (2012) and how in their 80s they brought me home to recover from my last surgery (2019), along with a pot of homemade chicken-vegetable soup.  And I remember how Mom gathered us on Monday nights after fried pork chops to teach us a new church song, posterboard prompts held high, and Dad expounded his lifetime of scriptural insights, which bless me deeply every day, and how we ended with donuts or ice cream or rice pudding or little bowls of M&Ms.  And I ponder their devotion and sacrifice and how they deserve my devotion and sacrifice.  So, when I saw the garage light on, I jolted with the sudden but not-surprising awareness that their light has always been on for me.

(Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay )

Courage at Twilight: Joyce Kilmer’s Trees

Joyce Kilmer - Wikipedia

Mom poked her head shyly into my home office and asked, “Have you heard of Joyce Kilmer?”  I had not.  “Well, I thought you might like to make a post about him sometime.”  As I listened to her story, I thought, Indeed, I would.  She held up a piece choir music, Kilmer’s 1913 poem “Trees” set to song in 1922.  In the late 1960s, Mom sang with a group of church ladies who called themselves the Singing Mothers (“a stupid name” Mom lamented) from congregations all over New Jersey.  They rehearsed in the Piscataway church building, the Hightstown high school building, and elsewhere in northern and central Jersey.  Mom sometimes dragged me and baby Megan along to rehearsals, though I was too young to remember.  During one rehearsal, Megan had a slight fever, from a cold, and Mom had put a bottle of children’s aspirin in her purse.  These were the days before Tylenol (acetaminophen) and Motrin (ibuprofen)—aspirin was the fever-reducing miracle medicine of the time—and before child-proof caps.  The baby pawed through Mom’s purse, opened the aspirin bottle, and chewed up the whole bottleful of aspirin.  Mom rushed Megan to the hospital where nurses pumped the baby’s stomach.  On occasion, our Church held conferences in Manhattan, and for one conference the Singing Mothers were invited to sing.  Mom hopped on the train to New York City and joined in the performance of Joyce Kilmer’s and Oscar Rasbach’s “Trees.”  While some consider “Trees” overly sentimental, the poem became popular and beloved across America.  An American poet, Joyce Kilmer earned a one-paragraph entry in World Book Encyclopedia (1990 ed.).  New Brunswick, New Jersey, where Kilmer was born, and where Dad later worked for Johnson and Johnson for 30 years, boasts a Joyce Kilmer Avenue.  Kilmer died in 1918 in France in The Great War, by a sniper’s bullet.

TREES

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Alfred Joyce Kilmer – Rutgers University Alumni Association

 

(Images from Wikipedia and Rutgers University.  Used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)

Courage at Twilight: My Parents’ Prayers

The Bible teaches that God knows what we will pray for before we pray. The value of prayer, therefore, cannot be to inform God of our desires and thoughts and needs, for he already knows them.  Rather, the value must come in the act of turning our hearts heavenward, expressing our needs either in fury or humility, mustering gratitude for blessings in spite of adversities, and exerting faith in the impossible and unknown.  Still, prayer has never come easily to me.  My scattered thoughts bounce off the walls of my brain until my short patience is spent.  Based on the example of the Lord’s Prayer, I do manage to acknowledge God and express love and respect for him, and I thank him for bringing his kingdom to the earth and allowing me to be a small part of slowly building it.  Then I launch into what I want and what I need, which usually devolves into begging on behalf of my children and family for their growth and well-being.  Emerging from my bedroom to brush my teeth one night, I heard Mom talking to herself in her bedroom.  But then I overheard some of her words: “Roger is not feeling well.  Please bless him to sleep soundly.  Please bless him to get better.  Please bless him to be able to go to choir practice and to church tomorrow.”  I had already decided I did not want to go to choir practice or to church, but to sleep and rest.  But now someone sweet and loving was beseeching God on my behalf, and I could not allow laziness and apathy to prevail over her sincere prayer.  So, I willed myself to get out of bed and be the answer to her prayers, and I confess to asking God to helping me answer her prayers on his behalf.  Against expectations, I ended up enjoying choir and church, and feeling a little better.  When Dad awakes after his late-night reading, he shuffles to his sofa, covers himself with a quilt Mom sewed, closes his eyes, and points his heart and mind and silent words to God in prayer, and he stays there until he feels he has been heard and answered.  I have walked in on him a time or two, thinking he had dozed, but he looked at me and exclaimed, “Rog!  Come in!  I was just talking with Jesus.”  I have come to believe that prayer is not delusional or wasted effort, but rather a powerful expression of the hope of faith, and the necessary exercise of the muscles of faith, faith that works change within us and nudges us toward goodness, love, and light.  Given that, I keep at it.  Maybe prayer will come naturally to me someday.  Maybe this essay is my prayer.

(Image by reenablack from Pixabay)

Courage at Twilight: Just One-Half Hour

Comfort-eating has taken sinister hold of me.  I seem powerless to resist.  I conquered hunger a year ago, imposing discipline, and losing 40 pounds.  With 10 pounds still to go, I moved, and hunger pounced on me and conquered.  Fasting had been a key element to my success, not for the diminished calories but for learning not to be afraid of hunger.  And there is an element of religious spiritual practice, looking to the Divine to consecrate my fast to help me obtain personal spiritual objectives.  After shopping for the evening’s boeuf bourguignon—I had company coming—and approaching the end of my day’s fast, I determined to spend one-half hour walking in nature, in the Dell.  Stepping through the trail’s new snow, I felt lean, my belly taut and my mind exhilaratingly clear and controlled.  I had forgotten my walking stick, again, but found an old one leaning against a tree trunk, and helped myself.  I relished being alone in nature in the crisp air as occasional flakes fell.  My 15-minute turn-around timer sounded—the apricot brioche was done rising.  “Bike up!” announced a cheerful woman on an expensive mountain bike with enormously “fat” tires, perfect for riding in snow, sand, and mud.  She wore all the right gear, head to toe, for the weather, including goggles.  “Have fun!” I called after her.  A leash-less blue pit bull approached me, its owner explaining, “she’s gentle.”  Being a city attorney who sees dozens of dog-bite cases a year, I become irritated when owners do not leash their dogs, and I countered, “You may know she’s gentle, but no one else on this trail knows it.”  He muttered something about me knowing it now, and a little voice chided me for introducing darkness into the world and for failing to share light, to impart goodness, to lift another.  The voice continued the instruction: even when irritation might be justified, choose to be kind in spite of the justification.  Alright, I will, I promised, chastened.  I can’t fix it this time, but I will do better the next.  Immediately a huge black Labrador trotted toward me, his owner 50 yards behind.  Another leash-less dog! I whined to myself, but to the owner I gave a friendly “Good morning!”  The face that barely looked up at me was so sad and downtrodden and depressed—I was glad he had his dog-friend with him on a walk in the Dell in the snow, and I was glad I had not further darkened his day.  I set the walking stick against the tree trunk for the next forgetful hiker.  Climbing to the parking lot, two morbidly obese men with disheveled beards smoking cigarettes wearing greasy ball caps sauntered down the trail, obviously father and son, following their remote-control Hummers.  “That looks fun!” I called cheerfully.  “Good times,” Dad hissed past his cigarette.  And I could see that father and son, indeed, were creating a good time, together.  Half a day of cooking later, the boeuf bourguignon, stewed with red wine and beef stock, topped with braised shallots and sautéed mushrooms, triumphed, enjoyed by Mom and Dad, and by Solange and Ana, my two Brazilian friends, who thought the meal marvelous, and who listened with genuine interest as Dad and Mom told story after story about the family and Brazil.

A stand of Oregon Grape

Courage at Twilight: Cheese Monger

In our class at church, the coordinator asked the men for two volunteers to work a shift at the church dairy.  No one raised their hand.  But after church I was able to clear my calendar, and signed up.  Gordon, a retired orthopedic surgeon, picked me up the next morning and we drove to the dairy processing plant of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah.  The plant is one of 18 facilities on Welfare Square that produce 143 food items, including peanut butter, powdered milk, honey, beef, canned fruit, cheese, bread, pasta, and staples (wheat, rice, oats).  These products stock the shelves of about 129 Bishops’ Storehouses and are available at no cost to needy Church members and others.  Gordon and I were assigned to work in the cheese plant.  Forty-pound blocks of cheese, aged in the cooler for a month, slid across rollers and through slicing harps.  The result: 40 one-pound blocks of cheddar ready to be packaged in plastic, labeled, weighed, stamped with expiration date and batch number, and rolled up the conveyor belt to yours truly, decked out in blue hair net, yellow face covering, and black gloves.  Frequent volunteers, Scott and Kent instructed me in my job: loading 20 blocks into each box, running the boxes through the tape machine, and stacking the boxes on a pallet.  Each pallet held five rows of 18 boxes, or 1,800 cheese blocks.  We filled four pallets, for over 7,000 one-pound blocks of cheese in one day—3.5 tons!  The dairy receives about 128,000 gallons (1.1 million pounds) of milk every week, which is bottled as well as transformed into chocolate milk, cheddar cheese, sour cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, powdered milk, hot cocoa mix, and butter, all made there at the modern, gleaming, clean facility.  The Church’s “Welfare” program came into being when Church members were unemployed and hungry during the Great Depression, as a way for the Church to take care of its own rather than turning to government assistance.  The whole program is funded by the financial contributions of Church members, who also clock millions of volunteer hours a year (like my five hours today).  I grabbed and boxed blocks of cheese as quickly as I could to keep up with the conveyor flow.  After several hours of packing thousands of cheese blocks into boxes in a 40-degree room, my shoulders and back grew fatigued and sore from the repetitive reaching and lifting.  I welcomed two breaks fueled with cheese remnants and chocolate milk.  After our shift, the volunteers were permitted to purchase dairy items at market cost—you better believe I brought home a gallon of the amazing chocolate milk, plus five pounds of butter to feed my baking habit.  Leaving the dairy, I felt exultant.  I learned yet again how joy comes from working to help others.  And how proud I felt to be a small part of the ambitious Welfare Square endeavor to help humankind.

(Pictured above: dairy products I purchased after working at the Church’s dairy processing plant.)

 

Dairy plant poster.

 

40-pound blocks of cheddar cheese.

 

The finished one-pound package.

 

A full pallet.

 

Yours truly, incognito.

Courage at Twilight: Valley of Fire

She announced early in February that she was taking the children camping in Nevada where the sun shone warm and the sky vibrated blue and the sandstone grottos would shelter their tent in shimmering desert solitude and beauty.  How wonderful and fun, I thought, but she announced this trip was for her and the children and I was not invited.  So they went camping and I went to work those gray snowy foggy days in February.  The still sandstone dunes radiated rainbow stripes of pinks and rusts and creams with occasional dripping springs and mystic hoodoos and ancient cryptic bat woman petroglyphs and piles of petrified wood and iron-spiked barrel cacti and mellow bighorn sheep and scurrying blue-throated lizards and deep trails of rust-red sand.  These filled and enthused the returning children, who told me brightly all about their wonderful fun adventure, not knowing anything was the matter.  It is February again, and they are there.

(Pictured above: Elephant Rock in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada)

Courage at Twilight: Almonds by the Pound

I am not doing well.  Of course, that sentence is so vague as to mean nothing at all.  Let me see if I can rephrase.  I am feeling acute prolonged distress on account of continuous daily events like watching my father exert all his earthly energies merely to rise from a chair and stumble on the verge of forward falling with each step as he crosses a room and knowing that one fall with a blow to the head or a broken leg or hip would take him from his home and land him in a hospital or assisted living whence he might not return and knowing the finances and the absence of long-term care insurance and that the needs for the little that is left, the needs, the needs, come constantly and persistently and if Mom and Dad are long-term hurt or long-term sick and cannot stay home the bills would take their home from them for we likely would have to sell the home, the home, and then where would our family be? and I can’t even think or ask When will this end? because the only end is a sad and tragic end which I abhor and eschew and don’t ever want ever and so we endure together and we make the best of things which often is pretty excellent though always under pall.  I know I am not doing very well because I am writing in hysterical stream-of-consciousness and I swear frequently under my breath and I am consuming large quantities of lemon-yogurt-covered almonds and milk-chocolate-covered almonds and colorful crunchy Jordan almonds and feel a general awfulness inside and out and the frequent need to sit in a dark quiet room in my recliner under a soft fleece throw.

 

(Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay.)

Courage at Twilight: First-Generation MRI

MRI machines are everywhere today.  Not so in the early 1980s.  Johnson & Johnson, for which Dad worked as international legal counsel, owned the company that developed magnetic resonance imaging.  The technology opened up a new world of medical diagnosis and treatment.  But sale of the technology to other countries was severely restricted by the U.S. government, both to protect American technology from theft and to prevent abusive repurposing of American technology.  A Chinese medical institution approached J&J about purchasing an MRI machine for its hospital, and the question of whether J&J could do it came to Dad.  He consulted with U.S. customs and security officials, who determined the only way to safety (and legally) sell the MRI machine, even for a legitimate medical purpose, was to first dip the machine’s complex circuit boards in clear epoxy, allowing the machine to function but not be reverse engineered.  “Do you still want the machine, even encased in epoxy?” Dad inquired.  “If the machine malfunctions, it cannot be repaired.”  When the Chinese insisted, J&J prepared and delivered the machine, complete with its innards frozen in a block of plastic, with U.S. government approval.  With today’s ubiquitous MRI procedures, such measures may seem clumsy.  But industrial espionage was and remains a major economic and national security threat.  Hopefully that first-generation MRI machine helped the Chinese hospital and its doctors and patients for a good long time.

 

(Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay.)

Courage at Twilight: Yellow Roses

Valentine’s Day is not my favorite holiday: too many painful memories and unrealized dreams.  Though many couples are successful, for me, at 57, the intimate romantic logical vulnerable safe knitting together of two lives seems like an impossibility.  The fabric feels always dangerously close to fraying.  But Mom and Dad have made it work for 63 years, including their courtship.  To celebrate the day, they teetered to the chocolate cottage down the street and bought each other some goodies—for Dad, a box of sugar-free chocolate cherries—for Mom, a one-pound log of rocky road!  Dad also brought home two dozen yellow roses for Mom, her favorite color.  Mom called me at work to wish me a happy Valentine’s Day and to invite me to go to dinner with them. “This is your romantic day,” I demurred.  “You and Dad should enjoy dinner for two.  I’d be a third wheel.”  “Nonsense,” she rebuffed.  “We’d love to have you with us.  We’re a family!”  In the end, I proved useful, carrying plates and drinks and silverware, helping Dad into and out of his seat.  A cheerful vibrant pony-tailed server about my age waited on us.  I could not help but wonder about her circumstances.  Ever friendly, Mom asked her if she had children.  “I have six!” the woman enthused.  Her oldest is serving our Church as a missionary in Costa Rica.  Several of my children served such two-year missions, in Oklahoma, Florida, California, and Mozambique (in Portuguese-speaking southeast Africa).  We had that in common.  I do not know if she is married, but she was waiting tables, and I was being waited upon, and I was with my parents, and we were surrounded by scores of listening people.  Enjoying our meals, Dad reminisced about when his mother worked as a waitress and janitor.  She worked at night cleaning the Kearns building downtown Salt Lake City during World War II.  As a seven-year-old, Dad would accompany her and empty the waste baskets.  The foreman arrived to give Dora her pay.  Dad informed the man he had worked too, and where was his pay?  Without meanness, the man picked up a pencil from a desk and handed it to Dad: “Here’s your pay, little man.”  Dad had thought it “chintzy” pay for the work.  Not to be chintzy in turn, he left a nice tip for the cheerful vibrant mother of six.  “She has a family to support.”  Walking slowly to the car, Mom thanked me for taking her and Dad to dinner.  “I should be thanking you,” I answered.  “Thank you for including me in your Valentine’s Day.”  Back at home, I climbed the stairs to my home office.  On my laptop rested a yellow chocolate rose lollipop, with a ribbon bow, a gift from my vibrant cheerful mother.

Courage at Twilight: Wild Asparagus

Dad stood hunched over the kitchen sink snapping the bases off the thick asparagus stalks, tossing them in the pan.  I cannot see asparagus without remembering the walk through the woods to the grassy field between the forest and the highway in New Jersey where the wild asparagus grew.  Mom carried the basket.  We children searched randomly for the thin green three-foot monoliths and snapped the stalks at the base and laid them tenderly in her basket.  Mom had trained our eye.  And I cannot remember that asparagus field without remembering the thick blackberry thickets along the same highway in New Jersey where we picked blackberries by the bucketful and took them home to boil with sugar and pectin, straining out the infinitude of stony seeds, pouring deep purple goo into pint jars, topping each with a quarter-inch of hot paraffin wax to seal the jars against pathogens.  That black blackberry jam tasted so delicious on crispy English muffins toasted brown in the broiler.  And I cannot remember that blackberry jam without remembering the asparagus walk and how we came home covered in ticks and never again took that wild asparagus walk.  I still love blackberry jam.

(Image above by Christian Bueltemann from Pixabay.)

Wild asparagus in long and spindly:

(Image by DianaRuff from Pixabay.)

Courage at Twilight: Fig and Date Bread

Burt Brothers called to tell us what the repair would cost. We had worried the cost would be higher.  When I poured the windshield wiper fluid in the reservoir the afternoon before, the fluid gushed out onto the driveway.  I struggled to remove the heavy battery so I could see the reservoir and its tubing, and found both tubes (to front and rear wipers) broken in the same place.  I left small pieces of my finger behind reinstalling the battery.  The service project the next morning had caught my eye on Facebook, on the page I follow about the Jordan River, where I kayak and cycle.  But the event appeared to not catch many other eyes, for only two volunteers came, plus the Jordan River Commission Executive Director, who dispensed gloves, trash bags, and garbage pincers.  Our goal was to bag all the garbage at the river-side park before the wind blew it into the river.  I have kayaked around huge floating masses of flotsam on the river, some growing their own vegetation.  The Director thanked me for coming, dispensed some tips about good kayak launches for avoiding dams and portages, and handed me trail mix and fruit snacks.  Returning home, Mom and Dad and I drove two cars to drop off Dad’s faithful Suburban at the garage to repair the tubes, and we continued on in Mom’s trusty Legacy to the grocery store for the weekly shopping.  I felt happy as we arrived at Smith’s, but left the store an anxiety-ridden wreck.  I lost Dad in the store—he was not sitting at the deli where I usually find him when I have finished shopping.  I found him with Mom funneling into Luana’s check-out line—she is their favorite checker, and she always orders me to “take good care of them.”  “I’ll do my best,” I always promise.  Dad began trembling behind his cart—“I’m not going to make it, Rog,” he said.  “I need to sit down—now.”  Luana sent a bagger running for a chair he could not find, while another bagger drove up with a motorized cart onto which Dad collapsed.  “Nelson,” Luana chided (partly on my behalf, since she could get away with it), “the next time you come, you either will use this motorized cart, or you will not come at all!”  Dad nodded and smiled sheepishly, relieved just to be sitting.  He took to the cart naturally, motoring easily to the car.  Unloading the week’s groceries, Burt Brothers called to say Dad’s car was already fixed.  With Dad sitting in his recliner eating his onion and Swiss on multi-grain bread, Mom and I raced off to retrieve the faithful Suburban, good as new, and for a fair price, before the store closed at 5:00.  Mom crowed that she and I were the heroes of the day for retrieving the repaired Suburban.  We celebrated with pizza, salad, and Paul Hollywood’s beautiful fig and date bread.

Courage at Twilight: Three Old Cars and a Pocket Watch

Dad went to his father Owen’s house soon after Owen died.  Living so many years alone, Owen had accumulated hordes of stuff which filled the house in choking piles and stacks.  Dad emptied and cleaned the house, taking truck load after truck load to the dump.  He felt that cleaning the house was a way to give his father deserved dignity after death.  Owen’s brothers had told Dad that the house and everything in it belong to them, not to Owen or his children.  Dad had acceded without argument, and had asked if it were acceptable for him to clean the house, to which they agreed.  Owen did not have a will, so Dad appointed himself personal representative of the paltry estate.  Owen had a small life insurance policy, the proceeds of which Dad gave to his mother to pay delinquent utility bills.  Owen had owned three old cars.  Probate law at the time allowed for the disposition of one car without going through probate.  Dad spoke with the clerk of the probate court, explained that Owen’s only assets consisted of these three junk cars, and asked if he really needed to go through probate court to get rid of them.  After a moment’s reflection, the kindly court clerk suggested the law could be read to allow for disposition of all three cars without involving probate, so long as the cars were disposed of one at a time.  So, dad quietly sold the cars.   A new law student, Dad mentioned this procedure to a law professor, who thought it a novel legal interpretation.  Owen’s horse Bomber and prize-winning bull terriers had long since been sold.  Left to Dad was Owen’s 1907 Elgin pocket watch.  I have seen and held that watch—it is a work of art.  Left to us now of Owen are the photos and the stories, which I am grateful to have.  Though grandpa Owen died three years before I was born, I love him through those stories and photos.

 

 

Courage at Twilight: A Single Tear

I sat on the edge of Mom’s bed. She was 35 years old.  And I was 10.  A single tear coursed slowly down her cheek as she confided to me in that quiet private place that her father had died.  My grandfather Wallace.  We had lived with Wallace and Dorothy a scant two years earlier, where I started 3rd grade while we waited three months for our lagging visas.  Dad had been “called” by our church to “serve” as a “mission president” in Brazil.  Translation: Mom and Dad had been invited to work on a volunteer basis leading a group of younger volunteer proselyting missionaries sharing the Gospel of Jesus, as representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Dad took a three-year leave of absence from a generous Johnson and Johnson, and Mom and Dad and three young children, including me, made the long voyage to São Paulo, Brazil.  It was October 1972.  We left behind the tear-stained face of grandpa Wallace, locked in mortal battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.  Dorothy had tried every healing remedy she heard of, including a grape juice diet—after two weeks, her sick husband threw the offered juice across the kitchen in disgust.  Wallace fought hard to stay alive until Mom returned home to Utah, and he almost made it.  He passed away in April 1975, and we returned in July.  Mom did not travel to the funeral, deciding instead to dedicate herself to the mission and to her young family, which then included a new baby.  As I sat on the edge of Mom’s bed and watched the lone tear drip down her face, I felt the peaceful warm elixir of great sadness mixed with great hope, the sadness of love and loss, and the hope of healing in Jesus and the promised reunion of resurrection.  During his 62 years, Wally (as his friends called him) had organized the construction of church buildings by church members, had led a congregation of thousands as a lay minister, had driven a milk truck and school bus and hay wagon, had picked tomatoes and peas and sugar beets for church welfare storehouses, had been “daddy” to my mommy.  Though I last saw his face when I was eight years old, I do not remember his tears of knowing good-bye, but rather his gentle playfulness, his chicken coops and carrot rows and hand-pumped well, and his scruffy smile at me upon his lap.

Pictured above: my grandpa Wally in 1962.

 

My family preparing to leave for Brazil in 1972.

 

My grandma Dorothy in 1962.

Courage at Twilight: A Can of Stew

Dad’s father, Owen, retired early from Utah Oil Company. He lived in his parents’ home, an old, run down, small shack of a shelter.  He paid rent to his siblings.  The house had few amenities.  It had no water heater, so he bathed in cold water.  The stove did not work, so he cooked on a hot plate.  Only the top oven element worked, so he baked under the broiler.  The toilet water tank was broken, so he flushed by pouring water from a bucket into the bowl.  He had no clothes washer or dryer.  The heat for the house came from a coal boiler, which worked only after building a fire hot enough to burn the coal—often, the house had no heat.  Owen lived alone.  He made all his own meals, which included no fresh vegetables or fruits.  He washed his underclothing and socks in a bucket of cold sudsy water agitated with a toilet plunger; his shirts he took to the dry cleaner.  In his early 20s, Dad visited his father one afternoon, and Owen asked if Dad had any money with him.  Yes, Dad said, some.  Father asked son to go to Safeway, please, and buy him a can of stew, confessing he had not eaten for three days, for he had no money.  He had eaten only oatmeal for days before that, until the oats ran out, and he had not eaten anything since.  When he did have money for food, his staple diet consisted of bacon and eggs and canned goods.  (Where were Owen’s well-to-do brothers? I wondered with a trace of anger.)  As a result of these privations and habits, Owen’s health deteriorated.  One afternoon, he called Dad to take him to the hospital—he felt very poorly—where the doctor ordered a chest x-ray.  “Take a deep breath and hold,” the radiology nurse instructed.  Owen growled back, “What the hell do you think I’m here for?!”  He was at the hospital because he could not do exactly what the nurse wanted him to do: breathe deeply.  He felt he could hardly breathe at all.  Dad got his father settled in the hospital that night, and told him he would be back the next morning to check on him.  Ten minutes after arriving at home, the hospital called: his father, Owen, was dead.  Owen was only 59.  Owen’s father, Nelson, died at age 62, also of heart disease.  Dad and his brother Bill sat in the hospital room with their father’s body, late into the evening.  They both felt a spirit presence in the room, and commented softly to each other about it—somehow, they knew their father had stayed with them in that room in their grief.  In a moment, they sensed that Owen had left to go where the spirits of all good, humble, broken men and women go.  After graduate school, Dad took up jogging, and ate nutritious foods, so he would not have to die at age 60 of heart disease.  Now, at age 86, he remarked to me sadly, “I feel sorry for my father.”  I shudder to remember that I am the same age as Owen when he died.  How grateful and fortunate I am to have my father still alive, still a pillar of strength and love for the family.

Pictured above: My grandfather Owen with Dad (b. 1935; this photo c. 1939)

 

My grandfather Owen Nelson Baker, Sr. (1901-1960)

 

My great-grandfather, Nelson Baker (1871-1933)

Courage at Twilight: A Thousand Wednesdays

Almost every Wednesday night for the past 27 years I have spent attending city meetings: City Council, Planning Commission, Redevelopment Agency, Building Authority, and Water District.  This calculates to about 1,350 Wednesday meeting nights.  This schedule shifted my mental paradigm from a Sunday-to-Saturday week to a Wednesday-to-Wednesday week.  I planned my work weeks around Wednesdays, preparing resolutions, ordinances, staff reports, memoranda, and exhibits in time for meeting deadlines, and presenting them to the elected and appointed city officials.  I have worked for 5 elected Mayors, 25 elected City Councilpersons, and dozens of Planning Commissioners.  In my early days, officials with big egos kept the city staff hostage in contentious discussions until long after midnight.  And one Mayor cruelly insisted on having staff meeting with his department heads the next morning at 7:00 a.m.  My hour-long commute during those years contributed to growing exhaustion and anxiety.  City Council meetings now begin at 5:30 p.m., enabling us to conduct most of our informal discussions prior to the business meeting at 7:00, instead of after—most weeks I can leave by 9:00 p.m.  Arriving at home around 10:00, Mom and Dad ask me for meeting reports.  The biggest crowd I ever saw at a City Council meeting was when the Council considered an ordinance to prohibit pit bull dogs—while pit bulls can be sweet, bad owners make some of them bad and dangerous dogs.  Furious pit bull enthusiasts packed the Council chambers and lashed out at the proposal—and the Council backed down.  The smallest attendance I have seen at a City Council meeting was, well, zero.  Even the annual budget meetings draw scant crowds, unless a tax increase is proposed.  In hundreds of closed-door meetings, I have advised and strategized and wrangled with the Council about difficult litigation, property acquisition, and personnel matters.  I have long since adjusted to spending every Wednesday evening at work, standing before the City Council presenting policy proposals, providing training, and introducing agenda items, sometimes with angry eyes boring into my back, sometimes with verbal jousts with those on the dais.  All in a Wednesday week’s work.  One day I will have Wednesday nights off, and won’t know what to do with myself.  Just kidding—I always have plenty of projects to do.

Courage at Twilight: A Lawyer Not A Spy

“You know, that reminds me of something strange….”  Dad worked in the international legal department of Johnson & Johnson from 1965 through 1998.  His responsibilities included knowing what products could and could not be shipped to and from many countries, from Columbia to China, Brazil to Scotland, Tobago to Iran.  Continue reading

Courage at Twilight: Pianos

My daughter Hannah came to stay the night with Mom and Dad and me. We baked mince pies and banana chocolate chip muffins; we watched an episode of the delightful new All Creatures Great and Small; we birthday shopped around the valley; she played Mom’s baby grand piano.  When she began to play on Friday evening, Mom and Dad both quietly stood from their family room recliners and shuffled into the living room to hear her play, so beautifully, Clair de Lune, by Claude Debussy.  Her touch and phrasing added to the piece’s natural sublimity.  After baking on Saturday morning, Hannah played piano variations of our Church’s sacred hymns.  Dad, stepping down the stairs in time to give her a good-bye hug, praised her: “I heard and loved every single note you played: so pretty.”  I took piano lessons until I was 17, mastering Debussy’s Girl with the Flaxen Hair, another of history’s most beautiful compositions.  Practicing on the New Jersey baby grand was sometimes painful for the other family members as I struggled hundreds of times through difficult passages.  Hannah’s mother found a 1911 upright grand, which had survived a fire and been dropped on a corner, for $500, and I plunked its keys for over 20 years.  On that piano I dreamed up dozens of lullabies: gifts to my children.  I have told the story of their composition elsewhere on this blog.  Living now with Mom and Dad, for some reason I do not play the piano.  Perhaps the thought of creating music is a gray shadow of older years when my heart carried music.  Perhaps I have lost my touch and talent.  Perhaps I am emotionally empty.  But one evening Mom asked me to play.  I felt somewhat startled, both at the thought of playing, and at realizing I had not played for six months.  I sat down with my lullaby book and played and sang the old songs that opened my heart then and now.

Pictured above: Yours Truly playing the piano in about 1986.

Pictured below: Hannah and Lila recently playing Mom’s baby grand.  My grandmother Dorothy played the piano, as does Mom.  If Lila learns, she will be the fifth generation of pianists in the family.

Courage at Twilight: Skiing

Utah boasts the “greatest snow on earth.” I hear people avow it.  They come from all over the country and the world to ski Utah’s slopes, some moving here.  My first ski adventure was in New Jersey, in 60-degree weather, in freezing rain, and I fell when my skis slid into a mud patch oozing up through the slush.  An inauspicious beginning, as they.  I never skied again, sticking instead to the plastic sled at the neighborhood park.  But several of my children have taught themselves to ski and snowboard, and they love the slopes.  Dad told me he tried skiing once, in the early 1950s, with a group of friends.  One friend lent him a pair of jumping skis—very long, very wide, and grooved on the bottom—made for skiing straight down and off the ramp.  Beginning his descent, he found he could not turn, of course.  As he quickly picked up speed, he knew the only safe course was to not crash.  A voice belched from the loudspeakers mounted on poles along the slope.  “Skier, you need to slow down.”  Dad heard the instruction, but did not know how to comply.  Moving really fast now, the voice became urgent: “Slow down!  Slow down!  Slow down!”  Dad would have liked nothing more than to obey the order, but was powerless against the jumping skis and gravity and ice.  Finally, the voice frantically appealed to everyone else at the Solitude resort.  “Watch out for that skier!  Get out of his way!  Let him through!  MOVE!!”  The skiers standing in line for the ski lift looked up and separated as Dad sped through.  The throngs trudging from the parking lot to the lodge looked up and scrambled as Dad zoomed through, past the lodge, and across the sparsely occupied parking lot, where a short rise on the far side finally slowed him enough for him to topple safely sideways and end the harrowing run.  He felt so relieved and grateful he had not hurt anyone and had not died crashing into a building or a car.  Dad never skied again.  He, too, became an enthusiast of the plastic sled.

 

(Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay.)

Courage at Twilight: Staff Meeting Funnies

I have worked 29 years for the same local government employer, both as a criminal prosecutor (two years) and civil attorney (27 years).  Since my appointment as city attorney in 1995, my prosecutors and I have chuckled together at misspellings and grammatical errors in police reports and witness statements.  Spell check contributes to the humor by suggesting incorrect words based off deficient spelling.  I began keeping a list of these comic faux pas.  For years, in my weekly staff meetings, I have “required” (actually merely invited) my staff of four to bring to the meeting their “funnies” for the week.  Inevitably, one of us has a funny to share.  Some are zanier than others; many elicit guffaws and giggles.  I will share some of my favorites with you here, drawn from my 20-page single-spaced collection.  I am not poking fun at my law enforcement colleagues, for whom I have great and enduring respect and appreciation, but am simply finding light-hearted humor in humanity’s frequent communication gaffes.  Today I gave Mom an updated copy of the full list, and could hear her laughing for an hour from her recliner.  I hope you, too, find them amusing.

  • The suspect put a leach on the dog.  (leash)
  • The officer explained the rabies vacation requirements for dogs.  (vaccination)
  • The suspect placed his feet in the potion as instructed.  (position)
  • The officer performed Satanized Field Sobriety Tests on the subject.  (standardized)
  • The suspect’s dog attacked the Minitour Pinscher.  (Miniature)
  • The officer activated his eminency lights and initiated a traffic stop.  (emergency)
  • Refer the suspect for charges of untheorized control of a motor vehicle.  (unauthorized)
  • Refer the suspect for charges of assault on peach officer.  (peace officer)
  • The detective was fluid in Spanish.  (fluent)
  • The suspect did not loose concussions from falling on his head.  (lose consciousness)
  • The suspect stole the change despiser from the till.  (dispenser)
  • The officer saw her in the car huffing from a can of arousal duster.  (aerosol)
  • While the officer was exciting his vehicle, the suspect excited the home.  (exited)
  • The suspects were yelling back and forth searing at each other.  (swearing)
  • The suspect had preciously mixed a drink.  (previously)
  • The suspect was a heavy guy with black bear driving in a red Honda.  (beard)
  • The suspect stated he had smoked a bowel full of marijuana.  (bowl-full)
  • The dog was loose and wondering outside.  (wandering)
  • The officer notified the city reprehensive.  (representative)
  • The witness said there was a costumer in the store.  (customer)
  • The defendant is to enter an impatient drug treatment program.  (in-patient)
  • The suspect singed the citation.  (signed)
  • The wittiness was later identified.  (witness)

(Image by Jupi Lu from Pixabay.)

Courage at Twilight: Quotidian

Quotidian: a word embracing that collection of ordinary and mundane activities and events which one experiences on a routine or daily basis.

“Here you are!” Mom exclaimed as I entered the house after work and sat with her and Dad in the family room.  “Tell me about your day?” I invited.  Mom recounted how, the day being cold but sunny and bright, she and Dad had decided to run some errands.  She drove her Subaru with Dad to pick up her newest needlepoint from the dry cleaner where it had been blocked, then to take it and three other newly-blocked needlepoints to the frame shop and selected frames—they’ll be done in about a month—then to the Burger King drive-through for Impossible burgers and fries and Diet Cokes, and while waiting for their food watching as police officers from three patrol cars placed a man in handcuffs and searched his car in the Burger King parking lot, then came home and fell into their recliners to watch NCIS and eat their Impossible burger meals.  “We’re pooped!” she exclaimed.  Mom then reminisced about Lynn Freeman from her University of Utah days who was a good friend and who had dwarfism and who was on the university swim team and who became a first-rate painter—I have admired his two paintings on their walls for five decades—Lynn gave her one painting as a wedding gift in 1962.  I told them a bit about my work day, and the new book I’m “reading” during my commute: Leadership, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, about the qualities that made Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson such pivotal leaders in American history, being connected in a line of admiration and mentorship back to George Washington.  As stood to go to my rooms, Mom told me they had just ten minutes left of the last episode of the last year of 18 years of NCIS.  She owns all 18 seasons on DVD.

Pictured above: Still Life, by Lynn Freeman.

Pictured below: Scene of Old Park City, by Lynn Freeman.

Courage at Twilight: A Questionable Vote

I managed to keep my job today.  A subdivision plat came before the City Council for its approval.  Dissatisfied with the particulars, the Council voted against it.  This plat comprised one piece of a larger development plan already approved by the City, and was simply the first platted phase.  But the Council thought the first phase should contain some of the master plan’s promised amenities instead of consisting only of residential lots.  “Did the Council just deny approval?” I whispered to the Mayor.  The Council had, she confirmed.  Even as the frantic developer raised his hand to object, I gently intervened to express my sympathy for their concerns, but reminded the Council of their prior approval of the development master plan, and of the law in Utah that requires approval of subdivision plats if they comply with City ordinances (which this plat did), and that the Council, actually, was required to approve this plat.  I explained that their rejection of the plat certainly would be challenged by the developer, and that the City would lose the challenge.  I walked the Council through the proper parliamentary procedure to approve a motion to reconsider the prior rejection, then to present a motion to approve the plat.  All of this I said with a sort of frozen apologetic smile.  Actually, I was tensely walking a long legal tightrope: in general, elected officials do not appreciate being told in public that their vote is questionable, or that they are required to vote contrary to their inclinations.  What’s worse, this whole exchange was broadcast to the world on Facebook Live.  To my great and immediate relief, all the Council members thanked me for helping them understand the law and for walking them through the corrective process.  Driving my hour-long commute late that night, listening to the Chernow’s Hamilton, I felt so grateful to be working with reasonable, intelligent, ethical people—and to have kept my job.  Mom and Dad were equally grateful, and relieved, when I recounted to them the event.

(Pictured above: 1844 Town Plat of Nauvoo, Illinois, by Joseph Smith, Jr.  Source: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Used pursuant to the Fair Use doctrine.)

Courage at Twilight: Sleds and Toboggans

On Christmas Eve 1941, Dora shooed Nelson (barely turned 6) and his siblings, Louise (7) and Bill (4) up to bed: “Santa will not come until after you are in your beds asleep.” After sleeping for some time, Nelson awoke and, thinking it was morning, woke his siblings: “It’s Christmas morning,” he whispered.  “It’s time to go downstairs.”  In fact, Nelson had awoken after being asleep for a very short time, perhaps one-half hour.  The children stepped quietly down the stairs to see the presents Santa had left for them under the Christmas tree.  Instead, they saw their mother putting presents under the tree.  The main object they observed was a new Flexible Flyer sled.  Dora turned from the tree and saw the children spying from the stairs.  “You get back upstairs and go to sleep!” she bellowed.  When morning had really come, the children came down the stairs to see their new sled.  Christmas night had brought new snow, which the morning’s cars had packed down on the Millcreek Canyon road.  Dora bundled the children up and drove them to the top of a straight portion of the inclined road.  She instructed the children that she would drive to the bottom of the hill and signal when they could safely launch.  From the bottom of the hill, after the several cars had passed, she waved at the children, and they took turns flying down the icy road on their new sled.  Whichever child had sledded down would pull the sled back up the road.  Bill, being small, had the benefit of sliding down on each run and being pulled back up the hill by his older sister or brother.  Sometimes a car would begin to drive up the road after the sled run had begun, and the rider would have to steer off the road to avoid the car.  Thirty years later, Mom and Dad bought a Flexible Flyer for my siblings and me, and we passed many shrill happy hours racing down the hill at Johnson Park, in Piscataway, New Jersey.  Whether sitting or prone, we could twist the cross-bar to navigate handily around tree trunks, though once Dad took us down the hill on an old wood toboggan that did not steer well and he crashed us into a tree.  We all tumbled off, thrilled with the adventure and mishap, but sad for the cracked toboggan.

Pictured above: the Baker Flexible Flyer, still in use after 50 years.

Courage at Twilight: Lemon Cupcakes with Kids

Two loaves of bread were rising—different recipes—and the oven was preheating to 425. My son Brian had brought his family for a weekend visit; he and Avery are both delightful adults.  And of course, my granddaughter Lila is one of the great joys of my advancing life.  Gabe (age 3) had come over to play with Lila (age 2) for a couple of hours.  After playing Legos and blocks and hide-and-seek for a while, he importuned, “Can we bake?”  I already had two bakes going, and did not think I could handle a third.  But Gabe asked so sweetly and sincerely that I could not say no.  “Okay,” I said seriously, “but we can’t make two cupcake recipes—we can’t make real cupcakes from my recipe book and your cupcakes from your imagination.  If we’re going to bake cupcakes, we’re going to follow the recipe.”  Sensing my resolve, he nodded his consent.  He and Lila sat on bar stools at the kitchen island.  They each measured out and poured into the bowl the various ingredients, with my hands guiding theirs: flour, sugar, lemon zest, baking powder, milk, melted butter, and eggs—Gabe cracked the eggs expertly, with not a speck of shell escaping.  He did politely insist on one imagination ingredient, which actually mixed in perfectly: colored confectionary sprinkles.  Gabe and I held the mixer together, but Lila declined, not liking loud machines like vacuum cleaners and blenders and electric beaters.  But they wanted to be, and were, involved in every step, including licking the beaters and spoons.  Mom and Dad looked on in amusement and adoration.  After the children placed the cupcake liners into the tin cups, we carefully dolloped the batter into the liners and slipped the tray into 350 degrees.  While the cupcakes baked, we mixed the icing, made from a lot of powdered sugar, a little milk, and the juice of one lemon.  How proud the children were of their iced cupcakes, excitedly licking the tangy icing off the multi-color cakes before biting in.  Mom and Dad and I enjoyed our cupcake, too.  An hour prior, I had thought I did not have the energy or patience to bake cupcakes with two little children while simultaneously baking break.  With the cupcakes done and decorated, and devoured, I realized that the increased tenderness I felt for them, and my lifted happy spirits, would have gone tragically unexperienced had I demurred.  As it is, I will always remember baking lemon cupcakes with Lila and Gabe, and I hope they will remember baking lemon cupcakes with me.

Courage at Twilight: A “New” Bicycle

Dad and his sister Louise and brother Bill had been telling their mother, Dora, that they wanted a bicycle for Christmas.  Other children in the neighborhood had bicycles, but Dad’s family did not have a bicycle, so they asked their mother for one.  Dora acquired an old bicycle for their Christmas, but she told them they could not ride it until they painted it, because she did not want anyone to know that it was used.  They rode it anyway that very Christmas day.  But later they did paint the bicycle from a small can of bright red paint.  The man at the paint store told them to stir and stir and stir the paint, which they did obediently for a long time.  With the children’s paint job, the bicycle still did not look new—but it certainly was red.  Soon after they started riding the bicycle, something punctured an innertube, and the tire went flat.  The children walked the bicycle to the service station and asked the attendant how to pump up a bike tire.  The man took the nozzle of the air compressor and showed them how to push it onto the stem of the inner tube that poked out from the rim.  But he neglected to tell them how long to pump the air.  When the man left, they put the compressor nozzle on the stem and simply held it there, air pumping all the while.  They held the nozzle in place until the tire suddenly exploded.  Dejected, they walked the bicycle home and told their mother that the tire blew up.  “What do you mean the tire blew up?” she barked.  Of course, she helped them find another tube for the tire.  Dad taught Bill how to ride the bicycle, but he did not think to teach Bill how to stop the bicycle.  Dad got Bill going down the inclined street, and Bill rode faster and faster on his right-angle approach to the busiest road in town: State Street.  “How do I stop?  How do I stop?!” Bill began hollering.  Fortunately, Bill rode into a fence and fell over, unhurt, instead of riding out into certain death on State Street.

(Pictured above, right to left: Dad, Louise, Bill, circa 1950.)

Courage at Twilight: Dreaded Haircuts

     

Dad took me to a barber for a hair cut when I was a little boy.  I felt terrified, for reasons long forgotten, and cried and cried and cried, until Dad gave up and took me home.  I am sure he felt thoroughly frustrated, though he did not punish me.  Well, perhaps he did.  From that day on, Dad cut my hair, with scissors and electric clippers.  Inevitably, the clippers nipped painfully at my ears and the scissors caught and pulled my hair and the cut hair went down my back and stuck to my face and the whole experience was humiliating misery.  I came to dread getting my hair cut, but having pitched a fit, I could not really complain.  All through junior high school and high school Dad cut my hair.  I wanted cool hair, like the popular kids, parted down the middle, and long (it was the late 70s after all)—and I did NOT want Dad, or anyone, cutting my hair.  Of course, not being the cool kid but wanting cool long hair so badly translated into an ungovernable mop, with its occasional mediocre hair days.  When my brother Steven came to visit before Christmas, he noticed the steel sheers on my desk.  “I know those scissors!” he exclaimed.  How could you possibly know those scissors, I thought.  I have been using them for decades; they have been my truest and sharpest scissors.  “Dad cut our hair with those scissors!”  Somehow, I had unwittingly inherited them, using them for all my paper cutting needs.  “Don’t you remember how our hair always got caught and pulled in the hinge?”  Oh yes, I remember.  Looking back these decades, Dad was quite a skillful barber.  He did a great job on an insecure adolescent who wanted to look a certain way and feel a certain way but did not know to even begin approaching the subject successfully.  So, not knowing how else to go about it, I submitted to Dad’s haircuts.  Steven, younger and feistier, was not so tolerant, and soon left home for his haircuts.  Now, of course, I am bald and the whole matter is moot.  Just put the clippers on #2.

Me, circa 1980.

 

Me in 2021

Courage at Twilight: Cleansed and Renewed

Every conscientious parent knows what it is like to feel exhausted and empty from continual grinding parenting, whether you’ve one child or ten. I remember feeling mind-numbingly tired, and seeing the dinner dishes still needing to be washed, and washing them, and it is close to midnight, and the baby is sick and crying and throwing up.  And I am worried to death about the baby, and about my children having friends and finding God for themselves and learning to drive, and about the $200 million lawsuit waiting for me the next morning, and every morning, for years, and though the claims are specious, I still have to fight like my life depends upon it, for years and years.  And somehow we make it through, and suddenly we are attending high school graduations and weddings and birthday parties for pure little grandchildren just learning to smile and to walk and to talk, and the children are moving away.  I have raised seven children—and, of course, parents are never done being parents to their children.  My mother raised six children, at the time of this 2022 writing aged 57 to 41, and at age 82 she has not stopped being a mother.  Observing her children struggle with the challenges of parenthood, Mom related to me one late night in New Jersey, when she was still doing her household chores.  The television was on, broadcasting a PBS symphony orchestra concert, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony #1.  The beauty of the music and the performance—the first movement—suddenly gripped her and washed through her, and she wept and wept as the music played beautifully on.  She has forgotten the particular pains and worries of that day, but does remember that life was hard, and that she was feeling tired and overwhelmed and discouraged.  But after this experience of being moved by music, she felt cleansed, renewed, strengthened, happier, and better able to carry on.  The loads remained just as heavy and tiresome, but her ability to carry them had increased.  Perhaps nothing is more important for a child than having parents who know how to renew their energy and strength so that they can again put on the parental yolk and redouble their efforts on behalf of those children.  And in the meantime, crank up the Mahler.

(Pictured above: the Baker family, circa 1969, with yours truly at the keyboard.)

(Pictured below: a more recent gathering of the Baker clan.)

Courage at Twilight: Columbian Drug Cartels

“That reminds me of something,” Dad chuckled.  For many years, Johnson & Johnson’s companies in Central and South America were Dad’s responsibility.  He had to know each country’s peculiar manufacturing, corporate, and import/export laws, and advise company officials on staying within those laws.  J&J subsidiaries in the various countries manufactured many products, which were shipped between countries in locked and sealed steel shipping containers.  On one occasion, a J&J subsidiary in Mexico received a shipment from a J&J subsidiary in Columbia.  Shipments from Columbia were subject to strict procedures, which included inspections of the shipping containers, and container locks and seals.  If a container arrived with a broken seal, company representatives were to summon police authorities prior to unlocking and opening the container.  Upon breaking the seal on one shipping container from Columbia, unlocking the lock, and opening the container, J&J personnel found a large shipment of cocaine, along with the legitimately imported hospital and pharmaceutical supplies.  The subsidiary general manager called Dad with a frantic, “What do I do?”  Dad first instructed him that the drug cartels had bigger and more guns than J&J security, to leave the container unlocked, without guard, and to move all company personnel as far from the container as possible in case cartel agents came to collect their property.  Dad then instructed him to call federal law enforcement, state law enforcement, and local law enforcement, to inform them of the situation, and to arrange for all three police agencies to arrive at the same time to investigate.  The general manager did exactly so, and the police agencies arrived simultaneously, removing the cocaine without incident.  Dad learned later that the cartels had developed a mechanism and method to lift and remove shipping container doors as a unit without breaking the door seals, adding to or removing drugs from the shipments, and replacing the container doors, leaving the seals intact and with no indication of the containers having been disturbed.  Something had apparently gone awry with this particular shipment.  Dad’s protocol kept company personnel safe, protected Johnson & Johnson’s legal standing, deprived the cartel of its drugs, and minimized the potential for corruption by involving three competing police agencies.

(Photo by Guillaume Bolduc on Unsplash.)