Friday, October 26, 2012

God Doesn't Make Junk

The old school bus was filled with teenagers talking, singing, and laughing. If the weather was warm, the windows were opened and arms went out. It usually took a few moments of gleeful shouting back and forth, but eventually the arms were organized and choreographed to a rhythmic flapping up and down in unison, making the bus look like a large, boxy yellow bird flying up the canyon. 

We were on our way to Camp St. Malo, in Allenspark, Colorado. Driving up highway 7, we were going into the Rocky Mountains and were surrounded by breathtaking scenery. Those of us who actually stopped to take a breath now and then, looked out the windows and were in awe.  I'll never forget my first time riding on the bus to Camp St. Malo. I was one of the quiet ones, a little anxious about a new experience, and I spent much of the ride looking out the window. Our family didn't travel much at all, even to go into the mountains for a day, so the idea of spending a weekend in the hills was attractive enough that I let my parents talk me into going on a Catholic retreat weekend for high school students. Not that I minded much, not really. I wasn't old enough to rebel and throw out family traditions and beliefs. 

Catholic traditions permeated our lives, growing up in Wyoming and Colorado. We refrained from eating meat on Fridays and gave up candy for Lent. We went to Mass every week, said the rosary, and stood in line for the confessional at least once a month. The latter was often confusing for me as I couldn't always remember what I might have done wrong. However, as guilt flows as freely through a Catholic household as holy water at a shrine, I knew I had to have done something wrong and often made up my sins. I recited them solemnly to the priest, whom I could hear, but not see, and received a mild scolding and several Our Fathers and Hail Marys to say for penance. 

The retreat was a totally new experience for me. We didn't have classes filled with rigid doctrine that we had to memorize. Instead, we had other teenagers and young adults talking to us about what it meant to them to be Catholic. These talks were funny, warm, and touching. We had discussion groups about topics that were relevant to us. We hugged a lot. We sang Kumbaya and enjoyed it. 

The camp was run by a Catholic priest, Fr. Bob Jerrard. I recognized him at our first evening prayers as the man who drove the bus. He was a gentle man who always looked as though he had just woken up from a long winter's nap. His hair, gray streaks in brown, was left in whatever place the last breeze had arranged it. He didn't wear clerics, preferring blue work shirts or flannel shirts worn with blue jeans. He often had tools in his hands. His was a full time job, not only as the spiritual director, but as maintenance man as well. This was his camp and he took care of it.

Fr. Jerrard didn't talk a lot. I think he was too busy making sure everything was running right. His talk to us the first night had little to do with spirituality and a lot to do with what could and could not go down the toilets. He was the most unusual priest I had ever met. Fr. Jerrard gave one important talk on Saturday evening when we had a candlelight service at the Chapel on the Rock. This small church had been built on the rock and of the rock, in the 1930s. I've never yet seen a cathedral that could match its beauty. 

There, in the cold stone church, we listened to Fr. Bob talk to us about just how much God loves and values us. After all, he would say, God made us and God doesn't make junk. It was a simple message. Lighting our candles at the end of the service and walking back across the valley in a long line of candles, in the dark, under the stars to the old lodge building, it was easy to believe.

On Sunday, after Mass, we hugged and cried and promised to keep in touch with our new friends. Then we boarded the bus again, put our arms out the windows, and the boxy yellow bird flew down the mountain.

That was nearly 40 years ago and much has changed. In the 1980s, the old lodge building was declared to be a fire hazard. Fr. Bob was transferred out of the camp and into a parish in Denver. The archdiocese had the old lodge torn down and a new retreat and conference center for adults was built to take its place. 

The direction of the church has changed, too, from the progressive enthusiasm and ideals of Vatican II to become conservative, rigid, and dogmatic. There's not much I recognize in the church anymore. By the time Fr. Jerrard died from a brain tumor in 2004 at the age of 64, we had said our goodbyes to the Catholic church. Spirituality remains an important part of our lives, organized religion does not. Ironically, it was not the old lodge building that caught fire, but the new retreat center that burned to the ground this week. 

I have struggled with my belief in God over the years, and it's hard to reconcile that image of a loving God with the realities of this world. I am sure I will continue to struggle with this and that's okay with me. I don't think any God would want a blind follower who didn't think and struggle with their beliefs. 

There are times, however, when I am in the mountains, or outside under the stars, when I picture a gentle man with windblown hair and a flannel shirt, and I can hear him clearly, reminding me that “God doesn't make junk.”

Then, it's easy to believe.

Love Notes

It was an old box, hidden underneath a cabinet, with a light covering of dust on the lid that made me sneeze when I pulled it out from its hiding place. We were going through stacks of papers and other odd bits of household compost, determined to clear out and clean the house. We never know what we're going to find when we do this. In one box, we found cancelled checks from 1981. In a stack of papers, I found the class photograph from my first year of teaching
This box was one that had been forgotten for a long time. There was even an old smell to it and I suspected the cardboard had gotten wet at least once over the years it sat hidden in the corner. More than likely, the contents would be ruined and we'd have to throw it all away. I was curious enough to want to look through it before tossing it. Maybe I'd find a treasure or two. I found much more than that. Thankfully, the contents had been placed in a plastic bag inside the box so it would be protected from any water damage. I reached in an pulled out a letter. It was dated 1979, the year we were married. I pulled out several more and realized this box contained all the cards and letters that had been given to us at our wedding. 

I sat, mesmerized, reading notes from friends and relatives, many of whom had died years ago. I could hear their voices again as I read what they had written to us. It was magical.  Underneath the cards was a stack of letters Chris had written to me while we were dating. Love letters. Chris and I met while we were applying for the same job. He was the lucky one. I got the job.

Because it required that I attend a summer long training in California, we parted two months after we met and we really got to know each other through our letters. Without email or cell phones, and only one telephone - a pay phone - in the building where I stayed that summer, we had to put our trust in the US Postal Service. 

Recently, I learned my grandparents also got to know each other through their letters. They met in 1917, right before my grandfather, Walter Myers, left to join the Navy, during WWI. I'm learning a lot more about that time because my cousin, Sandy, has been putting together our family history for years. A month ago, she gave us a copy of my grandfather's WWI diary, which she had transcribed and put into book form. It's such a treasure! So is Sandy. 

Walter wrote in his diary every single day. He also wrote lots and lots of letters home to his parents, his relatives, and to any number of young ladies. These he dutifully reports in the diary: "Wrote to Margaret, Leota, Father, Warren, Aunty, Evelyn, Elizabeth, and Florence." One of those young ladies was 20 year old Leota Bradford. As time passes in his diary, those particular letters get more and more attention: "Wrote a good 12 page letter to Leota today and a short one home." 

By the end of the diary, they are spending time together whenever Walter has leave. Of course, this would be at the family's house. There are a few wonderful, racy comments such as: "Staid up till one am and had a real good time. Tried to sneak up to the bedroom but were caught." One entry was in a different handwriting. It is so delightful that I must include all of it. As Sandy did when she transcribed this, I am keeping the original spelling and punctuation. 

"I just finished reading this diary of Walter's. You knave little diary. He did not want me to so while he was playing piano I excused myself and came out here and read it at lightning speed, but I sure found out a lot. 
Well, we came to Clyde to my home this evening. We sure made some quarrels. We turned our backs to each other. And just wouldn't speak. Then he wanted me to kiss and make up on the train. But I wouldn't do it ha! ha! 
Walter is just an awful cold lover. Tonight we are going to stay up just a teeny little while. I hope he isn't in the old navy very long. - Leota 

Another entry by Walter follows, "We staid up till one A.M. Went out to farm where Leota beat me in shooting father's .25 stevens. 

I never knew my grandfather. Walter died at age 56 of a heart attack, five years before I was born. Through his diary, I feel like I am getting to know him, just a little bit. I did know my grandmother. Leota Bradford Myers died the day after her 97th birthday in December of 1995. She was always full of life. She loved people, her book clubs, playing piano, and eating desserts. 

We lived across the country from her and didn't see her much. She did write, however. We received cards for every holiday, including Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving, and the 4th of July. One of her Christmas cards was still in my box. I found it as I went through the wedding cards and my old love letters from Chris. 

It's awfully hard to focus on cleaning when you have a box of treasures such as this. I gave up and made myself a cup of tea. I found a comfortable place on the floor and started reading all those letters from 34 years ago. Among the letters I also found a neatly folded piece of brown paper. I opened it and saw the JUST MARRIED sign that our friends had taped onto our car after our wedding. I smiled, folded it back up, and put it back into the box. 

Eventually it all went into a much nicer box that has its place of honor in our china cabinet, but at that moment, I just sat and continued reading, holding all those memories in my hands and in my heart. 

It doesn't suprise me that my grandparents could fall in love through their letters. We did, too. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Mall Adventures

We were only shopping for socks. The lure of the mall, however, offered to transform this ordinary sock shopping trip into a wonderful afternoon mother-daughter outing. It wouldn't hurt just to walk through, would it?

I miss the old Lakeside Mall. Anchored by Montgomery Wards on the west end, and Target on the east, the mall made up the largest part of the unincorporated town of Lakeside, Colorado. The rest of the town consists of Lakeside Amusement Park and nine houses, all along Sheridan Blvd, between 44th avenue and the Amusement Park parking lot. The 2010 census lists the population as 8.

Once many of the stores in the mall went out of business, they brought in all sorts of groups in an attempt to stay profitable. Opening the doors from the Target store into the mall, we would never know what we would find. One day, the space might be populated by tables filled with comic books and baseball cards. Another day, it was an antique mart.

On this memorable sock shopping trip, there were birds. Birdcages with birds were on tables, in some places stacked two or three high. The tables went the entire length of the mall. We saw bunches of budgies, canaries, finches, and a plethora of pigeons and parrots. As my daughter and I love birds, we spent a happy afternoon wandering through the displays.

At the end of the mall, there was a space where a large store had been. The space was far from empty, however. Chairs had been set up and people were sitting and watching as a man in the front of the room pointed to a particularly nice, large birdcage. We decided to wander in. Perhaps the man was a bird expert, lecturing on the care and feeding of cockatiels or African Greys.

As we entered the room, a nice lady gave us a piece of paper with a number on it. It was a clue. The man up front was not lecturing. We watched as several nice cages were auctioned off, and then . . . a small double cage was brought out. I was impressed. It was made mostly of wood with wire doors and the two cages were side by side. This couldn't have been meant for birds! In fact, wouldn't it be just perfect for the two small bunnies we had just adopted?

The bidding started at the ridiculously low price of $5. I held up my card. How could I pass up a deal like this? The auctioneer looked around, searching for someone else to raise the price. After what seemed a long time, a large bored looking man raised his card. The bid was up to $10 now. I didn't hesitate. My card went up - $15 for the double cage. The auctioneer glanced around again, looking expectantly at the bored man, with no result. Going once, twice . . .  SOLD to the mother/daughter team in the back of the room.

I couldn't believe my luck! Most of the cages had gone for prices upwards of $50; a particularly nice one having gone for over $300. Birdcages were not cheap. Of course, this cage didn't look like a typical birdcage, but then, we were buying it for our rabbits.

I brought my number to the table and paid the same nice lady who had given us the cards. Then we went to pick up our purchase. Funny, it looked a lot smaller from the back of the room. They agreed to hold it there while I pulled the car up close to the door. Then we managed to push, drag, and half carry it out the door, down the hall, and out of the mall, to where the car was waiting.

Then came the next challenge. We tried turning the cage side-ways and upside-down, attempting to force it into the trunk, then the back seat. I briefly considered tying it to the top of the car, but realized quickly we could never lift it that high. A mostly wood cage weighs a lot more than a mostly wire cage.  During our struggle, numerous other birdcage buyers made their way out the door and loaded up their cars, trucks, and vans, without a hitch. Eventually, the auctioneer came out as well. I think he felt sorry for us. He stopped, looked at what we were trying to do, and offered wise advice.

“You're never gonna get that thing in there, you know.”

I told him I had figured that out already, but we had to get it home somehow. He shook his head and asked how far we had to go. Fortunately, it was just a matter of a mile or so. He shook his head again and asked if we had any rope. I pulled out several long pieces of heavy rope, a gift from my father-inlaw, and handed it to him. This seemed to cheer him up.

Together, we managed to get the back edge of the cage wedged into the trunk. This left most of the cage hanging precariously over the side, but with the rope securing the top of the trunk against the cage, maybe we could make it a mile or so.

He shook his head again.

I don't think he believed we were really going to try it, but we did. We made it home and I proudly showed off my bargains to my husband. Chris didn't say much, but I could tell he was impressed by the way he raised his eyebrows. We took the cage down and hauled it into the laundry room. After much fussing and fiddling, I had it cleaned and filled with new litter, ready for the baby bunnies to move in to their new home. I was exhausted, but proud.

The new cage worked beautifully . . . for two whole weeks. It's amazing how quickly bunnies grow.

Feathers and Wings

There are wings on the floor, dozens of them. I grab the broom and sweep them, quickly and unceremoniously, out the door. The miller moth migration had come through our house and garden and my studio. I never really mind that they choose to pay us a visit during their journey. Like thunderstorm season and the season of hot dry days and grape popsicles, miller moth season was a regular part of my childhood.

I enjoyed catching the moths in my cupped hands, letting them crawl around in the small cave I had created for them out of my fingers, and feeling their wings as they tried to fly away. Out of all the insects I loved, these were my favorites. Daddy-long-legs might be easier to catch and Lady bugs were prettier by far, but when the miller moths came through, there were hundreds of them, thousands of them! They were everywhere!

Not all my family shares my enthusiasm for the insect world. In some cases, I agree with them. I've had a few run ins with stink bugs and earwigs make me cringe. I was relaxing in the bath one evening when I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye. It was a beetle, dog paddling towards my right ear. It's amazing how quickly one can go from being totally relaxed to jumping up, as stiff as a board, out of the water. I can't imagine how the beetle felt.

One thing we all enjoy are spider webs. Most years we will have a cat's head spider build a beautifully designed orb web in our shed. One year, the web was over a foot in diameter. Every morning and evening we would go and check on the web. “He's got a wasp,” my son would report. Catching a meal often left gaping holes in the spider's handiwork. We would be in awe the next morning when we found the web repaired as if nothing had happened.

Lately, we've inadvertently provided an entire spider habitat. Our daughter left her winter boots on the front patio and there is now a lovely funnel web going down into one of them. As far as I can tell, it's a little brown barn spider in there. He'll have to move out before winter, but for now, it's a cozy place to live.

Fortunately, I'm not bothered by all our insect visitors because my studio seems to be one of their favorite places to hang out. The miller moths especially loved it, evidenced by the number of wings left on the floor. Perhaps some of them were partying a little too much?

As I sweep the wings out the door and into the yard which already has chicken feathers and goose feathers strewn about, I startle my geese and they fly off the stumps that serve as the studio's front porch. My geese often keep me company while I'm in the studio. Barnyard geese cannot fly. They think they can, however, and they sometimes even get airborne for as much as six or seven feet, though never more than a foot off the ground. The younger ones try now and then, running as fast as they can downhill, and flapping their wings. I haven't the heart to tell them it won't work.

When I was younger, you see, I knew how to fly. For some reason, it had to be a secret, although I'm not sure why. Perhaps because others wouldn't understand. I never went too high. It was more like hovering, really. I would go along, about six inches above the ground, never thinking anything about it. When I was older, I realized it had only been a dream, but as a young child, dreams are just as real as anything we do while we're awake, and I knew, quietly and confidently, I could fly anytime I wanted.

The studio is swept and the broom hanging on the nail by the door. I walk back to the house, walking on tattered wings and feathers shed by molting geese. Miller moth season is over and soon again will start the season of visits from our grandchildren. Someday, I'll have to teach them how to catch moths in their hands and make caves for them with their fingers. We'll find the spider webs and see if we can see the funny cat's head spider, hiding in the corner. They'll find lady bugs, roly-polys, caterpillars, and probably a few stink bugs, too.

Maybe someday, I'll even tell them about flying.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Dinosaurs in the Window Wells

It's raining again and I'm sitting by the open window of our dining room, listening to the large drops falling on the metal window shade. It almost sounds like it's hailing. Hail would not be good. It would be normal for Colorado at this time of year, but it wouldn't be good for our garden.

When we moved to Colorado, my Dad got so excited that he bought raincoats and rain boots for all of us kids. We grew out of them before we had the chance to wear them. Actually, we wore them once. One morning as we were getting ready to walk to school, it started raining. Mom pulled out all the rain gear and  we dutifully put it on.

The "storm" lasted ten minutes and we were dry and uncomfortable by the time we arrived at school. We also looked ridiculous. I was so embarrassed that I never wore a raincoat again, not even in a heavy downpour.

I love thunderstorms. Maybe it's because I've spent most of my life living in semi-arid and high desert climates, but rainstorms are a treat. Spending my first school years in Wyoming, rain was something that happened exactly twice in five years. At least, that's what I remember. When it did rain, really rain, it didn't stop for several days. The ground was hard and not used to having to soak up so much water, so it didn't.

The water level rose higher than the sidewalk, then crept up on our lawns, closer and closer to our front door. We watched it, got the sand bags out, and started making plans to build an ark. Before we got too far on our plans, the rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and within thirty minutes, everything was as dry as it had always been.

Of course, sometimes we would get something that started out as rain, but finished as snow. That's when we had dinosaurs in the window wells. They didn't start out as dinosaurs. They started out as salamanders and horny toads and other little creatures of the high desert that I loved to catch and bring home as pets.

My mother always told me the same thing. I could keep them as long as they stayed in the window well. She told me this from the other side of the screen door. We were rarely allowed inside the house during the spring and summer so I rarely spoke to my mother without a screen door between us. She was adamant about my pets, too. They weren't allowed inside, either.

My critters went in the window well and promptly disappeared underground. I was not deterred. The next day, I'd be out hunting again, bringing home another pet or two. Maybe this one would have taken such a liking to me that it would stay above ground and come out to visit with me every morning. It didn't happen, unless it rained. When it rained, all the little desert creatures in Wyoming came up above the ground to see it for themselves. I think they were looking for an ark and didn't want to be left behind. There is something about a desert rain storm that does that to you.

So, the rain came and the lizards, salamanders, and horny toads came up in the window well. Then the rain turned to snow. The window wells were somewhat protected from the snow but not from the cold. When I went out the next morning, there were all of my pets, frozen solid and looking like a dinosaur display at the natural history museum.

I don't go out hunting for salamanders and horny toads anymore. I only bring home sensible animals like chickens, ducks, geese, goats, and the occasional donkey. My husband is mostly patient with me. He has, however, put his foot down from time to time about my pets. Which made it all the more satisfying when he came running in one day with a large garter snake in one hand and a grin on his face. "Can we keep it?"

He was serious! I looked at him and remembered all my days of bringing home lizards and salamanders. How could I say no? I told him we could keep it as long as it stayed on the front porch.

That's only because we don't have any window wells.
© 2011 Terri Reinhart