Ashes to Ashes

My dad was a storyteller, and the five of us children were always a ready, enthusiastic audience. Through these stories, he helped to create a sense of place for us and a feeling of being part of the story of our farm and of our family.

The old barn built by our great-grandparents in the early 1900’s. My parents had the barn refurbished a few years ago.

He told stories of his boyhood, of country school, and of his grandparents, but my favorite stories were of the adventures he and his little brother John had growing up on the family farm on which we lived.

He and John had a pony of their very own, a pony who changed names as their Uncle Jimmy moved up in the Army Ranks during WWII. The boys listened to the radio for their news and learned of Uncle Jimmy’s experiences through letters he wrote to the family. The pony began as Lieutenant, then moved to Sergeant, and ended as Major. And the summer before Uncle Jimmy came home from the war, Dad and Uncle John packed up their tent, sleeping bags, and campfire provisions; they headed through the pasture and cornfields to set-up camp on a rise at the eastern border of the farm.

According to my dad’s legends, this rise was once the shore of a lake where years ago Native Americans lived, fished, and hunted the woods–a place where arrow-heads could be found. The boys set up camp, set a fire, cooked their supper, and slept beneath the Michigan stars.

I loved that story and imagined those sweet, young brothers cooking their hot dogs and listening to the sounds of the night insects and animals around them as their fire’s embers glowed and faded to the gray of a January sky. I considered those brothers walking the same lane and road, sitting in the same cool barn, climbing the same maple trees as my brothers and I.

Such a sweet picture of my dad and his little brother John.

When my dad died last summer, we buried most of my dad’s cremains in the village cemetery, but each of us–including my dear Uncle John–received a small plastic bag of his ashes. Uncle John told me he knew just where he would put his portion–on that small rise of their boyhood camps.

But I still have my bag of his ashes tucked safely in my top dresser drawer. I still struggle with where to place them: in the river where he taught me to fish, patiently baiting my hook and untangling my snags time after time? On the edge of the fields where we took coffee and cookies to him when he worked the ground he loved? Under a lovely hydrangea bush he gave me after a family wedding?

These memories and the story of my dad, of our place in time, and our love for one-another will never end.

It’s a Fine Life.

Good friends of ours gave us this book when our children were small. Set in the rural 1940’s, it tells a beautiful story of the love of place and of family.

Dog Lessons

Nala lives in Arizona and couldn’t get enough of our cool Michigan grass.

I need to live like Nala, our two-year-old lab-pit mix grand-dog. She spent a month with us last summer, enjoying every second of her dog-day. Her needs are simple—food, water, giving and receiving affection—and she has reminded me of some important aspects of life.

If I’m not hungry, leave food alone. (she doesn’t mindlessly snack, she simply eats when she is hungry) I think I used to practice this, but her sleek coat and well-muscled body convince me to return to the lower-calorie habit.

Happy, happy Nala after lots of fetch.

Love the people in my life unconditionally. (she doesn’t hold back—she licks and rubs us as if she will never see us again.) I find nothing easy about unconditional love. We let each other down. We say and do hurtful things–intentionally and unintentionally. Nala prompts me to let it go and simply love, And she broadens her affections to include visitors, neighbors, or anyone she sees me greet happily. My people truly become her people, too–another challenge and reminder.

Stop whatever I’m doing and welcome my family and friends home. (even if she’s napping, Nala gets up and joyfully welcomes us home each time we enter the front door) She wags her tail and looks me in the eyes, convincing me that I matter to her. For that moment I am the center of her little world. I want my friends and family to feel my affection as simply and completely as this, to feel the joy of coming home.

I hope she comes again this summer. I need a few more dog lessons.

Well, yes, nap when tired is another lesson…

It’s a Fine Life.

Full-Service Lament

I miss full-service gas stations—where I could swing our old Chevy in, roll down the window, and greet a reliable mechanic. He would cheerfully fill my tank, wash the windshield, and even check and add motor oil if needed. When I tell my students about the way it “used to be,” they look at me like I have two heads.

Anywhere we traveled fifty years ago, there were dependable, staffed stations. If our engine started making a noise, or if we suspected a tire was going flat, we could coast off the highway where a mechanic was usually on duty. Back in the day, there were even mom-and-pop stations at rural intersections with a pump and small store for bread and other essentials. If folks ran out of gas after hours, they could knock loudly on the shop door, and eventually the drowsy owners (who lived above or behind) would answer.

While there were many full-service stations around the village, our family relied on Fred Hiemstra, who owned and operated the Shell Station on the corner of South Michigan and Prairie Streets. Fred also ran a towing service, and I remember how he hoisted himself into his tow-truck, which began rolling before he even closed the door. Always ready to help, he was like an uncle to many of us.  He took care of our cars, hauled a few vehicles out of the snowbanks or the ditches, and usually did not share that information with our parents. We sure appreciated him.

When I was about ten, my brothers and I perched in our station wagon at the top of the lift in Fred’s shop while he changed the oil. We looked out the windows, gripping the door tightly, and surveyed his garage: tool chests, racks of tires, and the garage floor sat nearly ten feet below. By some miracle, we managed to stay in the car and not fall to the oily concrete. Perhaps my mother was in the car? Perhaps she was in the waiting room taking a break from the five of us? Or perhaps my dad casually chatted below as Fred released the plug and the dirty oil ran from the pan? I don’t remember.

Like many business owners and tradesmen in town, Fred was also a volunteer fire-fighter. When the alarm sounded, tools were set aside, sales calls ended abruptly, and hardware customers had to wait, as these dedicated folks dropped everything and attended house fires, car accidents, or other emergencies.  Fred’s equipment, hanging in his shop, was a comforting reminder of the many people in our community who cared and could take care of us.

There is still a place for a full-service station—where we could pull in and smile at the mechanic. We wouldn’t risk spilling gas on clothes, windshields would be clean, and oil levels would always be within range. Of course we would pay more, but I would be a loyal, rewards-card-carrying customer, thankful for one more connection with another person in our hometown.  

I suspect many of you would be, too.  

It’s a Fine Life