At a family party, we asked Mom how she and Dad met. She related how she met him at an Institute dance in late 1959. Institute is the name given by my Church for an organized opportunity for religious instruction and for social interaction, mostly for young single adult members of the Church. Mom was about 20 years old, a freshman at the University of Utah. She remembers, “He was standing there, leaning against a door frame, looking very cute in his navy-blue suit.” It was the suit he wore on his mission to Brazil (1956-1959), and was well used, but “still looked great.” Mom’s friend, Dolores, whispered to her, “That’s Nelson Baker.” Dad asked Mom to dance, and before the evening ended, asked for her phone number. The very next day he called her on the phone, and came to visit her at the bungalow-style house her father built for her mother in 1932. Mom and Dad went out a lot, to the movies, to dances, to visit with Dad’s mission friends, to the Frost Top for shakes and fries. Dad drove her every morning to the University of Utah, where they both graduated with bachelor degrees. “Your mom was very beautiful,” Dad boasted. Sitting in his music appreciation class one day, on the third floor of the David Gardner building, he looked out the window to see Mom standing on a street corner waiting for a bus, to go to her elevator job. Seeing her there filled his heart with sweet feelings. They married on April 5, 1962, in the Salt Lake Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and will celebrate this year their 60th wedding anniversary. Of course, they can get on each other’s nerves, but they are eternally devoted and kind to one another. Now, that’s love.
Dad contracted polio in the early 1940s—so we believe—a mild case. His left leg developed with smaller muscles and no ligament support in the arch of the foot. Without thick homemade orthotics, he walks with his ankle bone on the floor. Ouch. Still, with resolve and grit, he compensated and persevered, taking up jogging as a health-hobby. He typically ran seven miles during his lunch break at work, and often 20 miles on Saturdays, for two decades. He clocked 13 marathons, and one 50-mile ultra-marathon (“I never got tired!”). For years, his resting heart rate was about 35 bpm. In his eighth decade of life, however, even walking has become nearly impossible. And not just due to the weak leg and foot, or from age, but from post-polio syndrome. No matter his exercise level, he cannot seem to strengthen, but continues to deteriorate. The Mayo Clinic says post-polio syndrome is characterized by progressive muscle and joint weakness and pain (check), general fatigue and exhaustion with minimal activity (check), and muscle atrophy (check). I have to remember, as we go to the gym, to walk the fine line between strengthening and debilitation, between rejuvenation and exhaustion. The last time we left the gym, he clung to my arm and worried, “I don’t know if I can make it to the car, Rog.” But Dad has such determination (“I am a fighter!”), and together we understand his desire to push himself right to the edge, to do all he can do, without tumbling over the cliff.
(This blog, author, and essay have no relationship with, and do not represent the views of, the Mayo Clinic.)
Tonight’s dinner came frozen out of boxes and bags: breaded pollock; cheesy scalloped potatoes; mixed vegetables. And I am not at all embarrassed to announce that we loved it and ate our fill. Mom, Dad, and I sat at the dinner table—a family—conversing and looking forward to our after-dinner movie. I have taken pleasure in showing Mom and Dad some of my old favorites, like Nacho Libre (2006) (because it is so absurd and makes me laugh and Jack Black is brilliant) and George of the Jungle (1997) (because it is so absurd and makes me laugh and Brendan and Leslie make such a cute hopeful couple) and Chariots of Fire (1981) (because of integrity and grit and glory and love and the thrill and cheer of victory against the odds). During the Christmas holidays, we enjoyed Albert Finney’s Scrooge (1970) and George C. Scott’s A Christmas Carol (1984) and The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), always moved by the miracle of a changed heart. Tonight, we watched The Scarlet Pimpernel from 1982, chuckling at Percy Blakeney’s foppish façade, sad for the tragedies of the French Revolution, and happy for the happy ending. Missing Julia Child’s cookbook—I showed them Julie and Julia (2009), too—I baked a French chocolate soufflé during the movie, cutting the sugar with stevia-sweetened chocolate and mixing one part Splenda with one part sugar. I am always so pleased and relieved when my baking adventures end well. Pulling the jiggling masterpiece out of the oven, I felt quite over-the-moon giddy that the chocolate soufflé turned out perfectly, not quite a custard, not quite a cake, not quite a pudding—a pleasant satisfying piquing converging in-between of all three. And I relished the reward of Mom and Dad loving it and asking for more.
Dad announced his hips hurt when he slept, the mattress was too hard, and he was driving to R.C. Willey that very day to buy a memory foam mattress topper so he could sleep better. The topper came folded tightly in a box. We unwrapped and unfolded it, laying it out on the floor. It looked terrible, all lumpy and crimped and uneven. “Unfold on flat surface; allow to expand for 48 hours,” the instructions read. “Forty-eight hours!” Dad exclaimed. But by evening, the memory foam seemed evenly expanded, and we positioned it on the mattress and made the bed with pretty cotton flannel sheets that Mom liked. As Dad climbed into bed at 3:30 the next morning, after reading and munching (and napping) since 11:00 the night before, he sank quickly and comfortably into the three-inches of memory foam. Before long, though, he wanted to roll over, and found himself stuck in the conforming crater. To make matters worse, the flannel sheets grabbed at his cotton pajamas like Velcro. He could not move. Mustering all his strength, he pushed and pulled himself out of the foamy abyss. Instead of sore hips, that day he complained of intense pain in his chest between his ribs (left side) when he breathed. Doctors and EKGs and imaging and blood tests ruled out a heart attack or stroke or blood clots in his lungs—he had simply pulled some muscles, though it hurt like hell and felt like death knocking at his door. Back at home, he and Mom pulled off the “damned” memory foam topper, and it has sat on the floor in a crumpled heap since. Maybe I will try it on my bed.
(Photo from Amazon.com. Used pursuant to the Fair Use doctrine.)
Dad said to me one evening after dinner, as Mom and I bustled around with kitchen cleanup, “Rog, do you know how huggable your mother is? She is the most huggable person in the whole world.” He was too tired to stand just at that moment, and told Mom that if she ambled close to him, he would give her a hug. She rolled her eyes, and she ambled. “I need a hug,” Dad explained as he put his arms around her waist. She patted him reassuringly on the arm. “Rog,” Dad continued, “do you know you have the best mother in the whole world? Aren’t you just so lucky?” I do, I thought, and I am. Indeed. These occasional sweet expressions and displays of conjugal affection move me. Mom and Dad get on each other’s nerves on a daily basis, but they love each other and are devoted to one another. They cherish each other, and the family institution they have created. I need their example—the world needs their example. I need to believe marriage can work, and as they approach their 60th wedding anniversary, and as I see them work on their marriage every day, at being kind and patient and understanding, I can believe. The next time they snip at one another, I may remind them about their mutual huggability, and suggest Mom amble over in Dad’s direction.
Pictured above: Dad (86) and huggable Mom (82), with my sister and niece.
I try to leave work at 3:00 p.m. in order to arrive home at 4:00, ready to cook or shop or take Mom or Dad to a doctor appointment or do yardwork, knowing that I will go up to my home office and work remotely at night to catch up on work. Sometimes I do not get home until 5:00. Often, when I come through the door, I find Mom and Dad just starting to enjoy their “lunch” while watching NCIS. Dad has his onion with ham and Swiss sandwich. Mom enjoys leftovers with a Yoo-Hoo. Sometimes they bring home Burger King combo meals—Whoppers, French fries, and Diet Cokes. By the time they finish their lunch, I am ready for my dinner, having lunched at noon. Some days, I will find a snack and head upstairs to work or blog until it is time to cook and eat dinner, between 8:00 and 9:00. Other days, I just make a dinner for myself, often steamed vegetables and hard-boiled eggs, either swimming in olive oil and vinegar or mixed with melted butter and salt, or maybe a giant salad tossed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Some days I cook. Other days Dad cooks. Sometimes we heat up a can of Campbell’s soup and call it good. Having cooked for the family for 45 years, Mom is done with cooking. I don’t blame her. Now, Dad and I enjoy cooking for her.
As part of Dad’s mobility strategy, on Friday I drove him to the county’s Dimple Dell recreation center to begin working out again. He had not gone to the gym since Covid-19 shut the country’s gyms down. We are always starting over in life, aren’t we? He is starting his gym workouts over at age 86! We both rode the stationary bicycles for 30 minutes—I read a book, while Dad looked at a blank television screen because the County can no longer afford satellite TV. Then Dad did his usual circuit, working out his biceps, chest, core, back, and legs. I worked on my core, mostly with planks, and my arms and chest. I think we will both be sore. Dad was pleased to see his old friend, Daniel, who struck up an ebullient conversation with Dad before moving on to chat cheerfully with the lady on the treadmill. Before starting our workout, I locked my wallet, phone, and keys in a keyed locker. Retrieving my belongings on our way out of the gym, Dad told me he is the reason the county purchased the lockers, because during one workout years ago, he watched a man walk by the open cubicles and swipe Dad’s key ring. Dad chased him down, called him out, and retrieved his keys with, “These are mine!” The man just kept on walking and got away. Walking to the car arm in arm with Dad, he commented weakly, “I feel pretty beat up, Rog.” But I could tell he also felt happy and satisfied, and was looking forward to next Friday. Me, too.
Mom announced it was time to bring in the pine wreaths and Christmas lights. Being the second week of January, I suppose she was right. The temperature dropped quickly as the sun dipped behind the Oquirrh mountains, and I got to work. I gently pulled the light strings off the bushes and rolled them into balls. Dad and I had wrapped each plug in black electrical wire. He was quite proud that the lights did not short out even once in six weeks of rain and melting snow. Now, I unwrapped the brittle black tape and rolled the strings into balls, stowing them in the light tote, consigned to the basement until next November. Coiling the extension cords came next. As I worked in a race with the fading daylight and growing cold, my angers and jealousies and heartaches crowded in upon my mind, shouting their false and hostile narratives. I did not feel strong enough to change my self-talk, and shifted tactics. I begin to sing, standing there on the busy street corner coiling lights. Not just any song, but a song that could chase away my dark thoughts and replace them with light and tenderness. I sang the beloved children’s primary song, I’m Trying To Be Like Jesus. I know only the first verse, so sang it again and again and again, shutting out the dark voices. I was able to finish my chores and enter the house with a smile. Here are the lyrics:
I’m trying to be like Jesus. I’m following in his ways.
I’m trying to do as he did in all that I do and say.
At times I am tempted to make a wrong choice,
But I try to listen as the still small voice whispers:
Love one another as Jesus loves you;
Try to show kindness in all that you do;
Be gentle and loving in deed and in thought,
For these are the things Jesus taught.
I awoke at eight—early or late?—on a Saturday, with no obligation but to live. I cooked Dad’s favorite apple-cinnamon oatmeal, with cream, for our breakfast, sweetened respectively with sugar for Mom, Splenda for Dad, and stevia extract for me. In the crock pot, I stirred the dry 15-bean soup mix, diced onion, minced garlic, ground chilis, leftover cubed ham, water, and the packet of smoke-and-ham flavored powder, and set it to simmering. Hyrum turned 20 this week. He is my sixth child, and dearly-beloved. So, I started baking a cake for his Saturday evening birthday party. And this was no hum-drum box-mix cake, but Mary Berry’s chocolate-orange mousse cake, and I hoped I could do the many-stepped recipe justice. After finishing the cake and washing, it seemed, half the kitchen’s bowls and mixing utensils, I needed to get out of the kitchen, out of the house, and out of my head. Nearby Bell Canyon beckoned. The trail’s snow was trampled down and icy, and I had forgotten my aspen-wood staff. As I slipped and tromped along, I began to ruminate, to puzzle over romance, over the panging hunger for romance, over the long absence from romance—I began to puzzle over love. A puzzle. Both uphill and downhill, the mountain trail presented many slippery slopes, and I stepped with care as I thought. An attractive woman passed me, planting her steel-tipped poles in the ice. She was smart to navigate the icy trail with poles. I was not so smart. I wanted to be there in the mountains, in the snow, in the crisp beauty—I was sincere and empty of guile—but I was un-smart in my own navigations. Always a puzzle. Hyrum and company, of course, loved the chocolate-orange mousse cake, and I was proud to have baked it. I am proud of him, no longer a little boy, but a man, a man of the best sort, a chocolate-orange mousse cake sort of a man.
Water covered the floor of the tiny half-bath, overflowing from the bowl. Dad had bailed and bailed to fill a five-gallon bucket, and had plunged and plunged until he was spent. “Don’t go in there,” he commanded Mom and me from his recliner. “I am going to fix it.” We acceded, but I drove to Lowe’s for a coiled plumbing snake. He tried and tried to feed the snake into the fixture, but it kept flopping incorrigibly out. Finally, he called to me, unable to rise from his knees, with nothing for leverage but the bowl. I wrapped my arms around his big chest and hoisted until he was vertical. “Dad, let me try,” I offered. “This is my home now, too, and I am part of the family.” He consented reluctantly from his convalescence. I struggled and struggled with that incorrigible splashing snake. The coil advanced no more than a few inches during 30 minutes of effort. I did not do anything Dad had not already done, but the water abruptly drained from the bowl, and I was able to pour in the five gallons of blackwater. How nice it was to flush and watch the water swirl down, rather than up and over the brim. We cleaned and disinfected the toilet and the floor, and then the bucket and even the snake. We both hope to never need that belligerent snake again, but have found a place for it in the garage, just in case.
(Reader, please do NOT bring up this episode with Dad. My life and happiness depend upon it.)
As a boy, Dad’s mother Dora prayed with him every night, saying, “Bless the cost and worn.” He thought it a good thing to ask God to bless the cost and worn, whoever they were—their situation sounded grim. Sometime later, Dad asked her, “Mother, who are the cost and worn?” She looked quizzical, confessing she did not know. They thought and thought and repeated the phrase together numerous times, eventually realizing they had meant to be asking in prayer for those who had “cause to mourn.” Of course, God knew their hearts, and what they meant to say, and who the cost and worn were—and doubtless He accepted their petition. Again as a little boy, Dad was asked in his church primary class to offer a prayer. He stood dutifully in front of the class and ventured, “Heavenly Father, help us to beat the Japs.” While one would never refer to the noble Japanese people in that fashion today, eighty years ago, in 1942, that very prayer was on the lips and minds of tens of millions of people. Even a seven-year-old boy felt the weight of the great conflict that was World War II, and asked his God to end it. I have heard many testimonials from young children who prayed to find something they had lost, and immediately seeing in their mind, or feeling an impression about, where the lost thing was, and finding it precisely there. I have felt tempted to pooh-pooh this puerile witness of the Divine. But then I remember that God loves little children (and wants us older folks to be like them)—He wants to bless them, and appreciates their simple supplications as much or more than my own more complex concerns. Children love and have faith and hope. And what sweeter exercise of faith could one encounter than a small child turning to God in momentary distress. An excellent pattern we would do well to emulate our whole life long. The next time I lose my car keys, I will pray to God to help me find them. Tonight, I will pray for the cost and worn.
Mom exclaimed to me one day, “I’m so proud of myself. I made out all the bills! I don’t owe anybody anything!” “That’s wonderful,” I responded. “I’m proud of you, too.” I could imagine how liberating it would feel for her to have no financial obligations in a particular moment in time. She had sat down with a stack of paper bills—utilities, doctors, magazines, insurance companies, credit cards—and written out a check to each one, sealing each check in an envelope with a stamp. Worried understandably about mail theft from her mailbox, she drove the stack of sealed envelopes to Help U Mail, a few miles away. With her exclamation, I began thinking about the fascinating dynamics of generational change. When I began living on my own six years ago, I decided I did not want to deal with paper bills, checks, check registers, and mail, and set up online accounts with automatic deductions for all of my bills: rent, power, gas, internet, gym, insurance. This made life so much easier, and I never looked back. I could conveniently check balances on my bank app and utility apps, managing my money on my computer and even on my phone. My grandfather Wallace, on the other hand, paid his bills, after pay day, by cashing his pay check at the bank, and driving around the Salt Lake Valley to each utility company and government office to pay in person and in cash. When Mom was a young girl, Wallace often took her with him on these rounds. Similarly, my grandfather Owen was acknowledged by the city clerk to be the most faithful child support payer in Salt Lake City. Unlike the other “dead beats,” he paid his obligation in cash every week at the City-County building, and was happy to do it. Then the bank draft (aka check) became a banking tool for the common man, and my grandfathers wrote out checks and put them in the mail, no longer needing to pay the bills in cash. And now, my children do everything on their smart phones, from ordering retail products and restaurant take-out, to paying bills, to purchasing air fare, to managing stock investments, to shopping for engagement rings. The entire world culture changes in a single generation.
(Pictured above: Salt Lake City Hall, formerly known as the Salt Lake City-County building. Source: gardner.utah.edu. Used pursuant to the Fair Use doctrine.)
“I got bit by the booster,” I texted my boss the Mayor when I asked to be excused from her staff meeting. I had put off getting my Covid-19 booster vaccination (shot #3) because I missed two days of work each with the first two shots, with fever, aches, and chills. (My aged parents had no adverse reaction to any of their Covid shots!) Knowing I might get sick, I needed to plan around Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, Steven’s visit in early December, Laura’s visit in mid-December for Caleb’s wedding, and Jeanette’s post-Christmas visit, not to mention weekly City Council meetings. I thought I had escaped Continue reading
During my first five months living with Mom and Dad and commuting to and from Sandy and Tooele, from August 1 to January 1, I have enjoyed listening to many amazing books, which have enriched my life tremendously, and have made the time and expense of commuting a blessing in disguise. I have enjoyed sharing these books with Mom and Dad and my children, sometimes just some stories, sometimes the books themselves. I looking forward to “reading” many more. How abundant good books make the world.
- Hidden Figures (Margot Lee Shetterly, 2016)
- How Will You Measure Your Life? (Clayton Christensen, 2012)
- Beyond the One-Hundredth Meridian (Wallace Stegner, 1953)
- How To Win Friends and Influence People (Dale Carnegie, 1936)
- Alexander Hamilton (Ron Chernow, 2004)
- Becoming (Michelle Obama, 2018)
- Amos Fortune: Free Man (Elizabeth Yates, 1950)
- The Truths We Hold: An American Journey (Kamala Harris, 2019)
- The Pioneers (David McCullough, 2019)
- The Great Bridge (David McCullough, 1972)
- Searching for Joy (C.S. Lewis, 1955)
- The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (C.S. Lewis, 1941)
- Simply Jesus (N.T. Wright, 2010)
Mom, Dad, and I were blessed to have family visiting as we turned the calendar to 2022. My sister Jeanette and ten-year-old niece Amy. My oldest son Brian and his wife Avery and my two-year-old granddaughter Lila. My son John and his wife Alleigh, expecting their first baby next month. Others stopping by and video calling. We splurged a bit on our New Year’s Eve dinner: Jeanette and I cooked sautéed bay scallops topped with a reduction of butter, drippings, and white wine, plus linguini alfredo and garlic bread. And we allowed ourselves bowls of ice cream with crumbled Oreo cookies and M&Ms and brownie bits and caramel syrup and whipped cream, because we could and because it was New Year’s Eve and we were celebrating. Earlier in the day we took the girls to the park to sled in the new snow. On our first run, Lila sat with me in the toboggan, and as we crested the little hill she stiffened and grabbed my legs and I put my arms around her to help her feel safe, though I am sure the sled felt like a roller coaster toppling over the cantilevered edge of the ride. At the bottom of the short hill she announced, “Out!” and spent the rest of the outing tromping happily in the snow and riding the swings and sliding down the slides, wearing her great-grandmother’s stocking cap. And at home Lila carried around my Olaf and Winnie the Pooh and Little Growler the lion, calling “Papa Roger!” in her little bird voice, the prettiest sound I have ever heard, right up there with the house finches and cardinals and black-capped chickadees singing in the snowy spruce trees. And after dinner we played Telestrations and Apples to Apples and laughed and told stories and watched a funny movie. Life is simply better with good food and good friends and fun games. Life is better with family.
Dad thought stuffed bell peppers would be a nice dinner for Mom and me. And he did not want me “slaving away” in the kitchen, as he put it. So, he began to thaw the ground beef, cook the rice, cut and seed the green bell peppers, and mix in the seasonings. Mom had given him two recipes for stuffed peppers, but they conflicted in critical respects, and caused some confusion in the kitchen. Short on produce, Mom and I drove to the grocery store with our yellow-legal-pad shopping list, the items organized according to their location in the store and our usual circuit. Home two hours later, we found Dad slaving away over his peppers, understandably utterly worn out. But when they emerged from the oven 30 minutes later, the cheese crispy on top, the stuffed green bell peppers were beautiful and wonderfully delicious. Thanks for dinner, Dad.
My ten-year-old hot-desert-weather Arizona niece Amy came to visit for the New Year holiday week, bringing my sister Jeanette with her. The night their airplane arrived (actually one o’clock in the morning), a dark wall of low purple clouds dumped six inches of new powder on the valley, just in time for Amy to take us sledding. Jeanette had dug their winter clothing out of her attic and checked a suitcase-full on the flight, so the girls were prepared. Continue reading
A number of years ago, Tooele City, where I have worked for 28 years, began to host craft workshops for the locals. A color flyer showed the projects, often holiday themed, and we could order them online. On the appointed evening, we gathered to collect our crafts, mostly preassembled, to paint and decorate them. Several times I took one of my children for a crafting date—Hyrum made a small sledge. I have made snowmen, scare crows, pumpkins, pilgrims, and Easter bunnies. Often more than 50 people would come—and I was always the only man there! Covid-19 shut the program down temporarily, but then it resumed, with the public picking up their projects from city hall, and taking them home to finish. This Christmas season, I ordered a winter village scene (pictured above), which my daughter Laura and I painted during her short trip from Houston. Mom ordered a wood block nativity set (pictured below). These crafts have been an important activity for me, for the chance to socialize with nice people, and to exercise what little artistic inclination I have—not to mention having fun holiday decorations to exhibit on the front porch or on the dining room table. I appreciate my town for providing this enriching quality-of-life activity, and for finding a way around a pandemic to keep the program going.
Dad found some of his toes beginning to rise above the others, rubbing painfully against the tops of his shoes. The podiatrist promised simply, “I can fix that.” The next week he poked into the sides of Dad’s toes with a tiny scalpel and nicked the toe tendons, to release some of their tension so the toes would drop back into place. Dad felt great when he came home, and wanted to go to the gym and to the grocery store. I implored him to sit down and elevate his foot, and placed an ice pack on his foot hoping to prevent and reduce the swelling and pain I knew was coming. “Dad,” I remonstrated, “if you don’t take it easy today, you are going to pay for it tomorrow.” And he paid, in the coinage of pain. And Mom and I paid, too, because it was our job to take care of him. Our gentle Dad turned into a cantankerous papa bear. I barked back that I would be very unhappy if he did not take care of his toes and they became infected and had to be amputated. Perhaps I reacted too harshly, but I needed to get his attention so he would contribute to his own care and healing. He apologized later, and began following the doctor’s orders (that is, Mom’s and my orders). Actually, though, he healed quite well, despite diabetes, and I let go my fear of amputation and all it would mean for his mobility. Now, weeks later, the snow is deep and we are taking granddaughter Amy sledding.
While I love to cook and eat an exotic French meal, I often opt for a salad for dinner. The raw vegetables are good for my gut. But mine is no ordinary salad. Dad says my salads are the most gorgeous salads ever made. Of course, I use the standard lettuce, celery, cucumber, carrot, and tomato. Then I add diced apples, raisins, roasted mixed nuts, avocado, slices of hard-boiled egg, and ground flax. (I leave out bell peppers and onions.) Toss it all with salt, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil, and I have a wonderful (and large) bowl of salad for dinner. I always make extra, offering some to Mom and Dad. I even prefer this tasty salad over a good burger and fries. It is so full of wonderful complementary colors, flavors, and textures. I can eat as much of it as I want. And after eating, I don’t feel like I have swallowed a hamburger bowling ball.
We moved our Baker extended family Christmas Eve party to December 23 this year. My (former) wife and I began the tradition in 1992 when we lived with my paternal grandmother Dora, in the basement of her little house, after our return from Portugal, where I had been a Fulbright student. We enjoyed a simple “shepherd’s meal,” with bread and cheese and nuts and fruits and cold meat. We recounted the birth of the baby Jesus, and we sang Christmas carols. Dora, a cute 83 years old, dressed up as Mother Mary and held on her lap my two-year old son Brian. This year Brian brought his two-year-old Lila as we continued the tradition with Mom and Dad and our extended family of Baker siblings and their posterities. We moved the party from December 24 to December 23 to add Dad’s birthday to the Christ-child celebration. We had planned the move for last year to celebrate Dad’s 85th birthday, but Covid-19 dictated otherwise. So, we rescheduled for 86. But Dad would not allow us to celebrate his birthday at the party. Though December 23, this party, he insisted, was to celebrate the birth of Jesus, not the birth of Dad. He grudgingly allowed a few gifts, but focused on his Savior, and on another notable birth, also on December 23, the 1805 birth of Joseph Smith, the founding prophet who established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to whom the Father and the Son appeared in 1820. Those two birthdays counted, Dad said, not his. We rebuffed him with a respectful, “Yeah, whatever” and added Dad’s birthday to the trifecta celebration. Card tables and folding chairs accommodated the crowd, which passed by the kitchen island for plates of ham, scalloped potatoes, and my French glazed carrots and parsnips touched with ginger. And Sarah’s perfect homemade whole-wheat bread. We sang Christmas carols and rounds and hymns. We played a matching game with carol names and lyrics. We played again our indispensable traditional “Left-Right” game in which the group sits in a circle, each person with a wrapped gift, and passes the gifts to the left or to the rights as those words appear in the story Mom narrated about the “Wright” family, with laughter and chaos and flying wrapping paper—one never knew what gift one would receive. And Brian read the Birth story in Luke 2. And Dad blessed us again with his Christmas message of love for his Savior and love for his family and how the two inseparably embrace. The time came for everyone to disperse from whence they came, and Mom, Dad, and I felt content and happy and relieved that the Christmas Eve Birthday party—our 29th annual—had been a success, having celebrated the births of Jesus, Joseph, and Dad: quite our favorite trio.
(Pictured above: a family service project with Mom and Dad.)
My thoughts and feelings on Christmas are bittersweet. Since divorcing seven Christmases ago, the season brings sadness and uncertainty and a nagging sense of failure, along with the traditional excitement and joy and love. I ruminate on knotty questions: Do I pull my children away from their mother? Will their mother pull our children away from me? How do I plan? What activities do I undertake? How do I think about gifts and meals and parties? My seven children are mostly grown and gone, but orbit back frequently. They are my life’s joy. At Hannah’s holiday choir concert with the Millennial Choirs and Orchestra, six of my seven children were present, with their spouses and granddaughter Lila, even Caleb and Edie on the night before their wedding. I am grateful for such times—they become joyful memories. The children’s mother and I are peaceable, both devoted to the success and happiness of our children. We have found ways to share the Christmas celebration together, to not pull the children apart, but to give them the best broken-family experience we know how. “Broken family” is the 20th Century’s nomenclature for our family status, but I loathe the label. We are still a family, and there is nothing broken about us, just different, a bit challenging, like in all families. We are doing our very best for the family, for the children. So, I try to set sadness aside, and work to find ways to give and to enrich, to find ways to remember Jesus, our loving Savior and Redeemer, who gave us the example of giving and forgiving. I look for ways to celebrate Christmas. So, I watched the children open their gifts, enjoyed the traditional strawberry waffles, talked and plunked the guitar, and played card games and board games and laughed. And Hannah affirmed in a letter, “I love you so very much Daddy! I am so blessed to have you as my father.” Ways to celebrate Christmas.
Some days are unabashedly victorious and joyful. They need make no excuse for their happiness, and deserve their delight. One recent glorious day was my son Caleb’s wedding day. He and his wife Edie found each other after years of mutual adventures shared by family and friends: rock climbing, kayaking, canyoneering, hiking, mountain biking, and missionary service. My heart believes in them individually and as a couple, that they can be happy together for the long haul through life. Caleb’s mother and I joined peaceably in the celebration of our son’s hope and happiness. Not long ago he was a chubby grinning toddler—now he is a giant with as big a heart. Mom and Dad, 86 and 82, were able to attend the wedding ceremony, pushed in wheelchairs by my sister Sarah and her husband Tracy. The marriage was solemnized in the Jordan River Temple, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and we took hurried pictures in a sunny 25-degrees. The wheelchairs were wonderful tools for access and ability, and at the same time ominous portents of things to come. My thoughts about marriage are tender and wounded and fearful and hopeful. I want so badly for the marriages of my children, especially, and my friends and neighbors—everyone—to succeed, to be joyful even, knowing the disruption and agony of that particular failure. What matters today is that Caleb and Edie are happy together, and they are determined to work with each other and for each other to keep it that way. I feel so very happy for them. And how content I am that Caleb’s still-living grandfathers and grandmother could join in the celebration, from the wheelchairs that made that joining possible and even comfortable. Here’s to good days.
Mom’s and Dad’s open kitchen, dining, and family area has ten windows, facing east, which let in the wonderful morning sunlight as the sun peaks over the 11,000-foot-tall mountain peaks of the Wasatch range. Sitting at the kitchen table, we watched a doe mule deer with her three yearling fawns stepping through the back yard snow. When dark descends, Mom shuts out prying eyes by reaching her wooden yardstick over the chairs and sofas to push shut the thick plantation blinds. In the early morning, preparing my breakfast and lunch for the day, I open the blinds so that Mom and Dad are greeted by sunlight as they begin their day.
(Yep, it’s a birthday–Dad’s 86th!)
Sandy, Utah, where Mom, Dad, and I live, offers fall bulk garbage pickup days in November. On these days, the city’s whole population, it seems, puts their junk on the curb for the city crews to haul away. Looking up the street before the pickup day, I saw grills, wheelbarrows, mattresses, bed frames, bicycles, benches, logs, pipes, boxes, bins, water heaters, microwave ovens, and most anything else you can imagine. Mom and Dad do not accumulate much junk, so the items I placed on the curb comprised only six iron T-posts. Metal scrappers scoured the city in their beat-up pick-up trucks, picking out metal items from the piles. I went to sleep, with huge piles on the street, and awoke to find all the metal gone—only the plastic and wood items remained for the city to haul off. A good result, I suppose, with the metals being recycled instead of dumped in the landfill. One neighbor removed dozens of rotting railroad ties from his landscaping and mounded them on the street. I was appalled at the enormous pile, but the city’s front-end-loader made quick work of it. While amazed at the waste of numerous seemingly good items being thrown away, still I appreciated the city for helping people de-junk and de-clutter and otherwise clean up their properties, contributing to the community’s aesthetic and reducing public nuisances. I admire a local government that encourages its residents to be clean and tidy, following up with heavy equipment and trucks—lots of them.
(Photo from Sandy City, Utah, website.)
Every six weeks, Mom gets her hair cut. Jen, a daughter of a neighbor up the street, is the beautician who cuts Mom’s hair. During the warm months of spring, summer, and fall, Jen comes to Mom’s house to cut her hair. Mom sits in a camp chair in the garage while Jen works her magic, and Jen sweeps up afterward. During the colder months, Mom sits at the kitchen table while Jen carefully snips here and there. Mom’s hair cut is not fancy, but is cute, and matches her fun personality. Once flaxen brown, Mom’s hair is now the prettiest white. Attending Mom’s community orchestra concerts, before Covid shut down public events, my children and I always looked for grandma’s white hair at her violin stand, proud of her for being talented and engaged and happy. Dad has always been fond Mom’s hair beautiful. A few years ago, he told me of coming back to bed on a winter morning and observing tenderly his wife’s white hair as she lay sleeping. Some time after, I wrote this short poem, entitled “Morning”: Warm sun in winter / hurtles white-capped / peaks and rushes through / wide windows / to halt and hover / over a head of tousled white / hair, aged, peaceful / upon her pillow.
(Pictured above: Mom and Dad after receiving their first Covid-19 vaccinations.)
The stairs to the basement have become more and more difficult for Mom and Dad to go up and down the stairs to the basement. Each step is a labor, descending a focused effort not to slip or fall, and ascending a herculean effort to climb. Their trips to the basement to retrieve canned goods or to put their DVDs back on the bookshelves have dwindled to a minimum. Mom piles clean folded sheets and cans of fruit and NCIS DVDs and rolls of toilet paper on the top stair, allowing sufficient accumulation to warrant the long trip to the cool dark basement. I see these stacks as my cue to take the trip myself, putting things in their places. The routine has become a game Mom and I play, with her piling the items neatly on the stair, and me running them downstairs to their nooks and shelves and cupboards. I don’t mind—I like putting things away neatly in their places. And we do not even need to coordinate—the task is simple and understood by us both, with not another word said. Speaking of which, it is time for the next season of NCIS.
One of the first French meals I cooked for Mom and Dad was Julia Child’s potato-leek soup. This very simple soup is so hearty and delicious, and the texture thick and creamy. In one big pot I boiled cubed potatoes, rings of carrots, and sliced leeks, yellow onions, and green onions, with a spot of butter, a shake of pepper, a sifting of salt, and a spray of aromatic herbs: thyme, bay leaf, parsley. With the vegetables soft, it was time to puree them in their juices with a wand blender, adding cream to the perfectly pureed consistency. Chopped spinach and sautéed mushrooms were the last to join in, adding color, flavor, and nutrients. The soup turned out perfectly. Mom, Dad, and I enjoyed every delectable sip from the spoon, together with bites of crunchy buttered sourdough toast. Thanks Julia!
I knew I needed a break. And a good place to take one was at Harvey’s house, four hours distant, in the small isolated town of Enterprise. I consider Harvey the hero of my book Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road. Actually, my seven children are the principal heroes and heroines. But Harvey is the non-family member that joins them on the podium. During his long and colorful life, Harvey was a tanner of hides, a seeker of nature’s healing ways, a modern mountain man living in remote hills and attending rendezvous, and a friend to American Indians, earning from them the name Many Feathers. Harvey invited me one day to an Indian sweat ceremony, where I languished for three painful hours while also reveling in Indian song and story. And at the end I smoked the peace pipe handed me by a Navajo Sun Chief, to offer my sacrificial prayer of smoke from burning sage. Harvey is 84 now, and I wanted to see him. So, I waved farewell to Mom and Dad and made the voyage. Skinny and bent, Harvey puttered with me around his house and yard, feeding his prize pigeons and meat rabbits, frying up potatoes and sausages in his black iron skillet, and telling stories about the old days. After a long day, I slept in the bunk house he built, warmed by the flame in the pot-belly stove. Before I knew it, I was waving good-bye to Harvey and Mary and driving the long miles home to Mom and Dad, but feeling renewed from my time with my friend.
Near midnight, I lay in bed watching the snow fall outside the window, lit up by the strings of white lights on the eves. Just inside, Olaf, Winnie the Pooh, and Little Growler also watched the pretty sight. Morning brought the realization of the night’s big snow fall. A week before, three inches had settled. Before Dad and I got to the task of shoveling, our neighbor Terry plowed the snow off our driveway and sidewalks with his snow blower. But this snow fall was a full 12 inches of heavy new powder. I had not used Dad’s new snow blower before, but the pictorial instructions on the machine showed me how to prime, choke, and start the engine. The beast of a machine ground eagerly into the drifts, throwing a twenty-foot comet tail. My affection for the machine grew as it helped me with the enormous job, and I began thinking of it, perhaps appropriate to the season, as my Friendly Beast. The Beast and I sliced off a foot-width of snow at a time, passing back and forth a hundred times. The snow near the street sat on inches of slush, which stuck in the tines and snow chute. Twenty years ago, I met an elderly church volunteer who had severed his fingers cleaning out a clogged snow chute. With the memory of his bandaged stubs still fresh, I used a broom handle to ream out the chute, then plowed on. Just then Kevin’s car slid and stuck in the unplowed ruts in the road. “I’m stuck!” he shouted to me from his open window. I brought two shovels, and we cleared the ice from behind the tires. I had him back up slowly, careful not to spin the wheels, and he then was able to roll forward. He waved gratefully as he drove away, and I went back to the Beast. After two hours, the Beast and I finally finished the job. Dad came out, all bundled up, to wave and watch, then we went into the house for mugs of mint truffle hot cocoa mix.
Hannah came home with me for the evening, and to spend the night. After a dinner of soup and toast, I invited her to pick a movie to watch with Mom and Dad. She went to their movie archive—three basement bookshelves lined with DVDs and even VHS tapes—and came back with Hidden Figures, the story of the critical contributions made by three Black women to NASA’s nascent space flight program and to launching the first American astronaut into earth orbit in 1962. That astronaut, John Glen, asked human computer and mathematician Katherine Johnson to recheck the new IBM computer’s go/no-go capsule re-entry calculations. Mary Jackson broke through glass ceilings to help engineer the orbit capsule. Dorothy Vaughan, a FORTRAM computer language expert, became NASA’s first Black supervisor. I have seen the movie several times, and always find it inspiring. These women, and many others, were both heroines and pioneers. My favorite movie moment is when NASA Director Al Harrison, in a meeting with the nation’s top brass, transfers from his white hand to Ms. Johnson’s brown hand the stick of chalk, a baton, a metaphor for so many necessary human equity advances, including civil rights and women’s rights. The book is high on my reading list, and I look forward to reading more about NASA’s remarkable hidden figures.
The Olympic games played on the television all day Saturday. I was getting ready to bake cheesy onion bread with Gabe. He wanted to do everything: measure out the flour, dump in the salt, even pour in the Guinness. We pressed and pounded the dough and set it to proof in the lightbulb-warm oven. Gabe and I laid on the floor in front of the TV building castles with the wood blocks. As castle architect, he instructed me on exactly where to place each block, and where not to. Just then Olympic wrestling came on the TV. We watched the twisting and grunting, looked at each other, and launched into our own wrestling and tickling free for all. Needing a break, we wandered outside to find Grandpa (Dad) fertilizing and watering his plants and flowers. Gabe just had to get in on that action, though he preferred watering the landscaping boulders. When the rocks were clean, he turned the hose on us.
Steven and I pulled the black garbage bags off the high closet shelf. Each bag held a section of the Christmas tree. Boxes of ornaments and lights followed. My brother Steven was visiting for the week from North Carolina, visiting his beloved, elderly parents. We spread and fluffed the wire branches, wound bright tinsel ropes, strung strings of white lights, and hung red baubles and ornaments. Many of the ornaments were homemade, some decades ago in our New Jersey childhood home. Ornaments made from the lids of frozen orange juice cans, punched with nails in patterns, and painted by little children. Steven was two years old when I left home for a university 2,200 miles away. How does an adult brother have a meaningful relationship with a distant two-year-old in the 1980s when long-distance calls cost as much as mortgage payments? He doesn’t. But I am in my late 50s now, and he in his early 40s, and the ages no longer matter. We are brothers, sons of common parents, and we are friends. Steve laughed as he hung a particular ancient ornament, a humble thing belonging only on our family tree. We turned the lights on with pleasure, and stood back and looked at the Christmas tree with pleasure. And Mom’s and Dad’s faces lit up with love and smiles to see their little boy all grown up into the best kind of man.
Dad lamented that his scalp hurt, and asked Mom and me to find a better shampoo that would be soothing to his head. Back in the day, when I had hair, I liked Pantene 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner. It softened and smoothed my hair and skin. So, Mom and I brought home a bottle from the grocery store for Dad to try. Within a few days, he beamed at how much he liked the new shampoo, remarking that his scalp no longer burned or stung. (I suspect any shampoo-conditioner combo would have worked.) The following week, at the grocery store, Mom told me to put five bottles in the shopping cart. Only two sat on the shelf. But now we know what works, and will add it routinely to the shopping list.
Mom enjoys her breakfast sitting in her recliner: a bowl of dry Quaker granola, a glass of cold milk, and a tall glass of hot unsweetened mint tea. She asked me once to buy more mint tea at the grocery store. Along with her standard mint, I brought home a variety of other herbal teas, including berry blends and lemon ginger. But she did not care for them, and opted loyally for her favorite: mint. Both spearmint and peppermint sit on her cupboard shelf. I took the other blends to work, where I enjoy the berry and lemon-ginger flavors, sweetened, of course, while sitting at my desk. But Mom likes her stimulating mint tea unsweetened. “Ah, this is so good!” she sighs in satisfaction as she sips. I am growing mint in my Aerogarden. After six months of growth, I cut much of the mint off, dried it in a warm oven, ground it in my parsley grinder, wrapped it in cheese cloth, stuffed the cloth into the tea infuser, and steeped it in just-boiled water. Six months of plant growth made a single tea bag, a weak one at that, and I supplemented with a commercial tea bag from the box. But I think Mom is right: hot mint tea is simply wonderful.
Dad, this morning: “I was sitting here remembering an odd experience. When I was a missionary in Brazil in 1956, my missionary companion [missionaries work in twos] rented a room in a house, where we lived. He got up in the night to use the bathroom, and when he turned on the bathroom light, the walls and the floor were covered with skittering cockroaches, and my companion screamed and woke everyone in the house up!” Dad is a storyteller, and when I hear, “I remember when…” I know a story is coming, and I had better just plant my feet in the floor for a few minutes. His stories are always touching or funny, even after a dozen tellings. I have typed up every story I have ever heard Dad tell about his life (and Mom’s stories, too). “I was allergic to flea bites. The bites would swell in great red mounds. The itching was terrible, and I scratched the bites with a wire brush—better the pain than the itch. I got good at catching fleas. Once I wrote a letter to my mom out of dead fleas. I stuck them to scotch tape, forming the shapes of the letters with the fleas, then taped them to the paper. I don’t know how I survived it—I poured a can of DDT in my bed so I could sleep without being eaten alive by fleas, with the sheet tucked up tight under my chin so I wouldn’t breathe in the power. The DDT killed the fleas, and I’m surprised it didn’t kill me.” Thirty years later, as a young church missionary in Portugal, I suffered from bed bug bites—the bugs crept out of their hiding places at night while I slept, and bit the backs of my hands dozens of times. Every morning I awoke with fresh and painful red bites. I did not know yet of Dad’s mission pesticide story. As if reenacting it, I bought a can of Raid and sprayed all the wooden joints and slats of my bed and sprayed under the mattress and on sheets. Fearing illness, or worse, I did all the spraying in the morning, hoping the bed bugs would be dead, and the poison dissipated, by bedtime. It seemed to work. And I have my own cockroach story: as a ten-year-old in Brazil, I reached up to open a high closet cupboard, and out poured dozens of two-inch cockroaches landing all over my head and face and shoulders. Shiver. I still cannot stand the sight of a cockroach. I look forward to Dad’s next stories, which likely will be told today.
Pictured above: Dad (far left) and his mission colleagues in Brazil, circa 1958.
“Rog?” Dad called eagerly as he stumbled through the door from mowing up the leaves. “Have you started cooking dinner yet?” Remembering a prior conversation about the possibility of spaghetti, I had pulled a package of meatballs from the freezer to thaw. With two minutes left on my stationary bike ride, I panted, “I got the meatballs out, just in case, but I have not started dinner.” He told me his idea for dinner, emphasizing it was just an idea—he wanted me to know he was not vested in the idea. “We could grill bratwurst, and warm a can of pork and beans and a can of stewed whole tomatoes,” he offered. This particular random combination of dishes had never occurred to me, but I consider that it had not only occurred to him, but sounded good to him. So, I concurred, suggesting we add steamed spinach to the menu, since we had accidentally added a third bag of spinach to the two bought the week prior. The brats browned up nicely on the indoor electric grill (with a power cord borrowed from an electric skillet, since my cord was thoroughly grilled with the previous brats). After asking God to bless the food for our nourishment and strength, we dug into to the eclectic gathering of food. And I enjoyed it. Remembering childhood dinners of pork and beans mixed with sliced frankfurters, I sliced my bratwurst into the beans, and felt at home. “Didn’t we have a great dinner, Lucille?” Dad crowed. Yes, we did.
On possibly the last warm day of the quickly-coming winter, the Jordan River tugged at me to bring my kayak and glide. My solitary jaunts on the Jordan have brought a mystical connection with nature. On this paddle, my brother Steven joined me, in town for a visit, and we set off with our boats racked on my green Subaru. Mom and Dad sat in camp chairs in the driveway, wrapped in winter coats, waiving as we pulled away. Continue reading
Though the float was up in the toilet tank, the water kept jetting into the tank and spilling down the overflow tube. The flapper was fine. The float was fine. So, the problem must be the fill valve. Until we could fix it, though, we would have to turn the water off to the toilet. But my brother was coming to visit, and the running toilet was in the guest bathroom. The time to fix it was now. Lowe’s had a good selection of fill valve assemblies. I chose the Fluidmaster 400H-002-P10 Universal Fill Valve because the box boasted of a three-minute YouTube video on exactly how to replace this exact part, and I knew I would need that video. Dad and I watched the video, twice. I thought maybe I might possibly succeed in replacing the fill valve, guided by both the written instructions and illustrations, and the video. Like preparing to cook a new recipe, I gathered all my ingredients, or rather parts and tools, and plunged into the project. To my utter relief, the repair went flawlessly. Within minutes, the new fill valve was installed and working perfectly. Why am I always so surprised when I manage to fix something I have never fixed before? I did fix my own washing machine switch, after all, thanks again to YouTube. Mom and Dad were pleased that the repair had been so quick (10 minutes) and inexpensive ($14), did not involve an extended delay or a costly plumber, did not prompt any swearing, and that Steve would not have reach behind the bowl to turn the water on and off with every use.
While Dad was reading late one night, a spider emerged from under the sofa, walked slowly toward him, stopped, and stood tall on its front legs, looking up at him, as if challenging, Here I am. What are you going to do about it? Dad knew there was nothing he could do about it—he could never heave himself out of his recliner and catch the spider before it dodged away. Victorious, the spider sauntered nonchalantly back to its hideout under the sofa. A couple of weeks later, another spider scampered across the kitchen floor, near where Dad was standing at the sink scrubbing a pot. This spider, too, looked up at him with a challenge, but Dad simply stomped on it. Dad felt bad, preferring to let these fascinating creatures live—but not in the house. When Dad was a teenager, his father Owen staked out a 40-acre mining claim in the Nevada desert, and occasionally took his two sons to camp in the desert and work the claim. They imagined striking it rich with gold as they dug their holes in the hill. Owen had welded steel plates to the old truck’s undercarriage, allowing him to bowl through sage brush undamaged. After making camp one afternoon on a low flat sandy arroyo, with blue skies overhead, they began to hear a strange rumbling, and looked up to see a wall of muddy water rushing down the dry stream bed. They lurched from their bed rolls and made it with the donkey to higher ground just in time to see their camp entirely washed away. The torrent ended as quickly as it began, and the boys set off down the muddy channel to recover what gear they could find. Here was the stove, and the aluminum plates. And there was the pistol barrel sticking up from the mud and sand. Dad came to a narrow gorge across which a stout plank had once been placed. He was halfway across when an enormous tarantula climbed on the other end of the plank and started to walk toward him. They both stopped and looked at each other for a moment. “I think the tarantula was asking me, Are you going to let me cross, or what? Dad back up and off the plank, and the tarantula recommenced its slow crossing. He watched the tarantula amble off into the desert, and then crossed the gully in the other direction. Since the two recent faceoffs in the house, Mom brought in pest control to spray for spiders—they simply do not belong in the house. But that tarantula was king of the dessert.
(I encountered this migrating tarantula while mountain biking in Settlement Canyon, Tooele, Utah.)
At my apartment, my children always asked me after dinner, “Are the dishes in the dishwasher clean or dirty?” At Mom’s house, that is the wrong question. Either the dishwasher is empty or dirty. Clean dishes are never allowed to remain in the appliance. She empties the dishwasher immediately upon the cycle ending, despite the scalding steamy dishes. So, when my children asked Mom if the dishes in the dishwasher are clean or dirty, she replies, “If there are dishes in the dishwasher, Dear, they are dirty.”
Some people love change. The newness of changed circumstances stimulates and excites them. Others loathe change, which can frighten and overwhelm. I tend toward the latter, though I am reconciled to the truth that change is both inevitable and frequent. One reality on which both groups agree is that change disrupts. Our perspective tells us whether that disruption is good or bad, positive or negative, welcome or to be shunned. I also have learned the truth that change gives us the opportunity to reexamine who we are, what we do, and why we do it. Why do I wash the laundry on Mondays and eat an enormous salad on Thursdays and only vacuum once a month? Why did I eat my solitary dinners in front of the television? Changed circumstances provide an opportunity to revise routines, and to discern and maintain the essential while escaping from old ruts. Living with Mom and Dad, after six years alone, I no longer eat my dinner in front of the television screen—instead, I sit at the kitchen table and talk with Mom and Dad about the day. Two habits I am working to strengthen are prayer to the Divine and time reading holy Writ. Though I recognize the supernal value of both, I have always struggled to follow spiritual habits, maintaining discipline with stubborn irregularity. My recent move disrupted all of my routines, from the side of the bed I curl up on to my practice of prayer. I sense how important it is for me not to lose whatever little discipline I had harnessed before. My success has been spotty. But I will keep working at it. For example, I read today about the Word in John chapter 1.
(Photo: Slickrock country in Moab, Utah.)
An excellent church sermon, on the subject of serving humankind in small and simple ways, prompted me to visit the service clearinghouse JustServe.org. I browsed through hundreds of worthy service opportunities—everything from being pen pals with prison inmates to assembling hygiene kits to indexing gravestone photographs to tutoring young people in English and Math—and settled on a small and simple project I felt I could handle. The project was to make greeting cards with the message You Are Loved decorating the inside. I have made cards from pressed leaves and flower petals since my Grandmother Dorothy taught me decades ago. Against her office walls leaned four-foot-tall stacks of heavy books pressing thousands of slowly drying leaves and petals. The card-making process involves gluing pressed flowers and other decorations, like paper butterflies, to wax paper, gluing colored tissue paper to that, drying, ironing to melt the wax into the tissue, cutting, and folding. Into the card I insert a blank paper bifold, on which I write a personal message for upcoming birthdays and anniversaries. I love making cards because, while far from being an artist, I can make something beautiful to brighten someone’s day. Equally important, making cards connects me to memories of my dear grandmother. (For more photos and detailed instructions, see my essays Cards of Leaves and Petals and Grandma’s Pressed-Leaf Greeting Cards.) My sisters have supplied me with abundant pressed leaves and flowers (from Carolyn) and paper cutouts of birds and butterflies (from Megan). At the extended family Thanksgiving celebration, after our dinner, I enlisted family members to decorate the card inserts with colored markers, including the message You Are Loved. I explained that the cards would be included in kits delivered to refugees around the world. Upon opening the kits, the recipients will be greeted with the generic but safe and loving message: You Are Loved. With those refugees in mind, my family members, from my two-year-old granddaughter Lila to my octogenarian parents, enjoyed personalizing their cards. Only after Mom and I delivered the cards to Lifting Hands International, did I realize that today is Giving Tuesday. That coincidence brought me happiness. Thoughts of refugees being cheered, even if momentarily, by a loving personalized artistic message, brought me happiness. In fact, I find that helping others always brings happiness. Why don’t I do it more often? To be sure, our service was among the smallest and simplest—no grant accomplishment. But every good deed, no matter how miniscule, even when unnoticed, contributes to the world’s goodness, of which there can never be too much. I wonder what small and simple gift of service you may enjoy offering others? After making 60 labor-intensive cards, I need a break from card-making. But I am sure I will make more, maybe for Giving Tuesday 2022. Perhaps sooner.
Roger Baker is a career municipal attorney and hobby writer. He is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road and A Time and A Season. Rabbit Lane tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human spirit. A Time and A Season gathers Roger’s poems from 2015-2020, together with the stories of their births. The books are available in print and for Kindle at Amazon. See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.
Alone with Mom and Dad on Thanksgiving, I determined to make a nice meal (that was not a turkey), and found my courage to try Julia Child’s recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon (beef stewed in red wine). The recipe had intimidated me for a long time, because of the expensive ingredients (quality cut of beef, bottle of Bordeaux) and the many involved steps that have to come together. Boil and brown the bacon sticks. Brown the beef cubes. Sauté the sliced carrots and onions. Pour in the red wine and broth. Simmer in the oven for three hours while sautéing small whole onions and quartered mushrooms to add later. “Do not crowd the mushrooms,” Julia charged. The last step was to boil the wine and broth down to a thick gravy to pour over the platter of beef, bacon, onions, carrots, and mushrooms. To my wonder and delight, the meal was a smashing succulent success. I felt quite proud of myself as the three of us chewed with delighted mmmms and ahhhhs. How disappointing to get full so fast! I will not prepare this dish often, but the four-hour cook time was worth the happy result as we quietly concluded our Thanksgiving Day with our meal of French Boeuf Bourguignon.
We took two drives in two days, Mom, Dad, and me—I drove the faithful Suburban. The first day we drove into the hills, into the gated neighborhoods with the big houses, which grew bigger and fancier with altitude. Several houses were enormous, of the 20,000 square-foot variety, with turrets and weather vanes and wrought iron fences and security cameras. One resembled an English country mansion estate. We felt distinctly uncomfortable at the thought of all the money poured into these lavish houses. We are not wealthy people, and did not know how to relate to such wealth. The next day we drove across the valley to find Mom’s maternal grandparents’ house. We found it in a rundown part of town, with century-old match-box houses, tiny, unkempt, honest, 20 little houses crammed into a single mansion lot. I remember visiting great-grandpa James Evans—I was four. He scooped Neapolitan ice cream into cones from his top-loaded deep freeze. He walked stooped with age, humble but dignified, showing me his little cherry orchard with the concrete ditches ladling irrigation water to each dwarf tree. More than 50 years after that visit, I snapped a photo of his little old house. Around the corner was the Pleasant Green church where my grandfather Wallace first met my grandmother Dorothy. He was a guest minister, and she played the organ. After church, Wally asked Dorothy if he could drive her home, and she accepted. After he dropped her off, she got a ride back to the church so she could take her car home. I snapped a photo of the church, and we drove away from history and memory back into our comfortable present, far across the valley.
Above: the Church where Wally met Dorothy.
Monument to the Pleasant Green church.
While I cooked dinner, Dad dressed in his gray winter coat and his pom-pommed snow hat and stumbled outside with a bag of rolled up strings of Christmas lights and a hot glue gun, a bag of glue sticks in his pocket. The temperature dipped into the low 30s. I wondered at the hot glue gun, thinking hot glue would not work well in cold temperatures. After near an hour, I thought I had better check on him, to make sure he wasn’t collapsed and freezing. But there he was, painstakingly gluing the light string to the brick every six inches. He was nearly finished, gluing the last six feet to the wall. “I didn’t think the hot glue would work on cold brick,” I commented. “Actually, the glue works better in the cold, because it sets faster, and I can move on to the next spot.” Just then he let out an “Argghh!!” as he pressed a fingertip into a dollop of hot glue. “I seem to be gluing my fingers as much as the lights!” he cursed. I reached in and held down each newly glued spot until the glue hardened, while he moved ahead to the next. I dipped my finger into the hot glue myself, and I rubbed furiously against the cold brick to wipe the burning glue off. “I see what you mean,” I commiserated. With the last section in place, we extricated ourselves from the tangled bushes and stood back to observe. “You did a great job, Dad,” I complimented. The white LED lights climbed one end of the brick wall, ran along its adorned top, and ended at the base of the other end. The next day we wrapped red and green and amber lights around the boxwood bushes. “Let’s get your mom,” Dad enthused as the sun sank and the cold set in. Mom was duly impressed, “You men did a great job with the lights!” Every evening, Dad flips a switch by the front door, contended at the cheery beauty at the corner of the front yard.
I feel so anxious in the grocery store with Mom and Dad. In the produce section, I assess the fruits and vegetables with one eye even as I monitor Dad’s quickly waning strength with the other, tense and ready to catch him if he slumps. While Dad waits exhausted and uncomfortable at a deli table, I rush from aisle to aisle scratching items off the shopping list. I cannot suggest he stay home, and should not. This is his life, and he enjoys grocery shopping. If he wants to come with me, he should come. It is healthy for him to get out of the house, to see the abundant beautiful produce, to get excited about beer-battered cod and grilled bratwurst and baking salmon on Sunday. But he pays a steep price over and above the grocery bill. “I’m done, Rog,” he whispered as we stood in the check-out lane. “I hope I can make it to the car.” Back at home, I carry eight plastic shopping bags in each hand, thanks to the handles Connor made on his 3D printer. Mom and I put the groceries away, and stuff the plastic grocery sacks into a larger bag to be recycled. Wiped out and grateful, they sink into their recliners with their books and newspapers—or the TV remote—and their snacks and drinks. This is a perfect time for me again to urge Dad, captive to fatigue and comfort, to hydrate.
(Grocery bag carriers printed by my son-in-law, Connor.)
In a prolonged moment of self-doubt about my abilities and contributions, I remarked to my brother Steven about my “stupid little blog posts.” He quickly chided me, gently, and urged me to have compassion for myself. He assured me my stories are beautiful and real, and he loves reading them. My four sisters have given me similar encouragement. So, I trek daily ahead. Mom has commented to me, pleased, but humble, “Your blog posts are kind of like my biography.” She is right. In fact, I tag every post with “Memoir.” I am telling a story, painting vignettes, writing a family memoir, slowly, one day at a time. All the stories are true and real, and I hope they approach the kind praise of “beautiful.” Many of the world’s stories are dark and painful—still, they can be instructive and even revelatory. But, except for confessing my mistakes (like, not investigating a bang! in Mom’s bathroom when she lost consciousness in the shower on a Sunday morning before church), I choose to tell stories that are both real and redeeming. Steven is right to encourage me to have compassion for my own story. I wondered today, Why is the First Great Commandment to love God with all our heart? It cannot be that God needs the fickle adulation of seven billion squabbling humans. Rather, I believe that by loving God, we discover the capacity and desire to love others, including ourselves. So, I will try to believe in myself. I certainly believe in Mom and Dad: their lives and characters make telling heartening stories an easy exercise. Mom and Dad are endearing in their quotidian lives, smiling at each other across the distance between recliners, patting the backs of each other’s hands, reminding each other to take their medicine and to put in their hearing aids. They exemplify. They edify. They love and they struggle. They serve with such generosity. They are virtuous. They have value, and their stories deserve to be preserved. I am so grateful for Mom and Dad. I am telling their stories, and learning to love them more deeply day after day.
After having a new roof put on the house, and the old attic fan removed, Mom called an electrician to pull the absent fan’s switch and wiring. The job took three hours, for some reason, and involved no electrical parts. But the bill seemed exorbitant, and I believed the electrician had taken advantage of my aged parents. And so, contrary to my peacemaking avoidant nature, I called the company to complain, or rather, to “inquire.” The intransigent manager rebuffed my suggestion we had been overbilled, offering an incoherent rambling justification—and I gave up the fight. I reported the conversation to Dad who, to my surprise, grew cross. Pointing to himself, he proclaimed, “I will decide which battles I want to fight and which battles I do not want to fight.” The implication was perfectly clear: I was not to intervene uninvited in his affairs. Fair enough, I thought. I do not mean to fight his battles, and I do not want to fight his battles. In fact, I abhor contention, and have a hard enough time fighting my own battles. I appease and apologize to my adversary even as I timidly brandish the sword. I did explain to Dad, however, and trying not to sound defensive, that I am here to help him and Mom—that is my purpose—and that I intend to say something when I see people taking advantage of them. Loath to fight, yet I will defend my family. Neither of us said another word about the subject. But I sensed the boundaries had shifted and resettled, appropriately.
In the last several weeks, Mom and Dad have gone several places without me: to the dentist, to the audiologist, to the dermatologist to have a bothersome cyst removed, to the grocery store, to the post office. I felt a bit glum being deprived of the opportunity to be useful and helpful, so show how needed I am, and to earn my keep. But I arrested myself with a self-deprecating, How silly of you! If Mom and Dad want to go places by themselves, and can do so safely, why shouldn’t they? They do not need a third wheel on every outing. In fact, any opportunity for them to be independent is healthy. They do want to be unnecessarily dependent upon me, and do not want that either. I should not try to soothe my sense of self-importance by inserting myself where I am not necessary. Despite some lingering worries about their safety on the road, I am happy to see them go off on their own to do this or that. I am not jealous. If I am available, I can offer to go along, just to make the outing a bit easier. In the meantime, it is fun to see them drive off to Burger King for Impossible Whoppers, fries, and diet Cokes.
(Image from NY Daily News. Used pursuant to the Fair Use doctrine.)