Sunday, August 29, 2010

In Perpetuity

I don't know how long forever is, but I know it is longer than my lifetime, or my children's lifetimes, or their children's lifetimes. Forever is how long descendants of Staeblers and Goodells will be able to visit the Michigan farm that has been in my family for 98 years and counting.

Last week I left my not-so-big house and my not-so-big garden and my singular life with my cat, and went to a gathering on the many-acred ancestral home with some 140 people who share my bloodline or are related by love to those who do. The occasion was the celebration of my father's brother's 100th birthday. In attendance with Uncle Donald were my 94-year-old mother and my 92-year-old aunt--the three remaining children and their spouses of my grandparents, Ella Louisa Lucretia Goodell and Albert John Staebler. Joining me were my two sisters and all seven of our first cousins; along with a multitude of spouses, children, and grandchildren and various and sundry leaves on other branches of the family tree. 100 years separated the oldest and youngest in attendance. If I ever felt--and I have--that my family consisted only of the thirteen descendants and partners of my parents, I have been blessed with the realization that I belong to a much larger clan. Forever. In perpetuity.

My Uncle Donald gave the clan a gift without price. It was given a dozen years ago, but it is a forever gift. Rather than lose the place on the mid-west map where all of the family have spent precious time over the decades and about which we have heard hundreds of stories, he assured its perpetuity by selling the farm--its land and buildings and the stuff of their lives (he is a lifelong packrat)--to Washtenaw County at a less-than-premium price. The other farms that dotted Plymouth Road during my childhood, have been sold to developers who raped the corn and hay fields, razed the buildings that supported the farms and large families of the past, subdivided the acres, and replaced it all with out-of-place brick mansions with huge lawns to house the small families of the 21st century. But the Crick-'n-the-Back Farm will remain as an historical site and a demonstration farm, with community gardens and a museum of the clever implements that were used in the last century to support family and livelihood. The restored big red barn, the silo, the pig and horse barns, the milk house, the tractor shed, and hopefully the farm house will all remain for future generations of our family, and be shared with all who come. In perpetuity.

The farm and its original family of eight represent a microcosm of American cultural history from the turn of the century. The first children were born at home, the later ones in the hospital. They ran a self-sustaining farm--the boys working outside, and the girls in the house, because that's how it was then. All six children graduated from college, an amazing accomplishment. They experienced the second world war as soldiers, an overseas nurse, supporters of the war effort at home...and a pacifist--perhaps a family emotionally divided by political differences, though that is a story I do not know because they are also a family that doesn't talk about what they consider hard or unpleasant stuff. The extended family not overseas during the war lived, at least for a time, together on the farm; keeping it running by day and huddling around the radio for war news by night. My aunt Helen experienced the death of a spouse at an early age, followed by discrimination when she was turned down for nursing school by the major Michigan universities because she had been married. They held onto the farm through the great depression, eventually having to reinvent the farm from dairy to beef cattle in order to keep it alive. The farm still supported cattle and crops when an interstate was cut through the back fields of land farmed by my still-living uncle and his family before the advent of the automobile. They saw the post-war migration of grown children to points around the country and moved with the fast-moving times into the age of electricity, the space age, and the technology age. Though Ella and Albert and the five of six children who married all celebrated 50th wedding anniversaries, descendants have married for life--the first about to reach the 50-year mark; divorced and remarried, or not; been open, or not, about being gay; had children, or not, some raising them alone and some blending families; and eschewed racial barriers in marriage and adoption.

Though the Staebler name through the direct descendants of Ella and Albert, at least via the culturally established path of the male line, will die with my first born cousin, the family--and the family farm--will remain. ...

... In perpetuity. And I remain proud to be Gretchen Helen Staebler, a member of an amazing family.

Value of prime location land between Ann Arbor and Detroit? Millions. Value of an ancestral home and a vanished way of life preserved for all time? Priceless. Thank you, Uncle Donald, for your determination, foresight, creativity, and love of family. Your life and that of your parents and your siblings--Lloyd, Helen, George, Ruth, and Melvyn--will remain in the hearts of your family forever.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Out on a Limb

As I sat under the spreading branches of my dogwood tree one humid evening last week with a glass of Cabernet, a book, and the can of mosquito repellent, the enormous cracking sound of a falling tree or a breaking limb split the thick air. Not knowing where it was coming from, I instinctively leaped from my chair and sprinted for the deck--taking my wine glass with me (I have my priorities). Just as I arrived at what I prayed was safety, I turned to see a large branch from the top of a tree next door and two branches it took out on its descent explode onto the roof of the neighbor’s garage, breaking several window panes in the door. And so, I have been thinking this week about going out on a limb and risk-taking.

I believe that nothing good ever happened that didn’t start with a risk: falling in love, marriage, babies, buying a house, moving, new jobs. They are all risks--but they aren't necessarily going out on a limb. Until I reached early mid-life, I stayed on the thick and sturdy branches nearest the trunk of my tree. Even moving across the country, after marrying at the proper age, was not out-of-the-ordinary in my family tree. My parents moved across the country at a young age. In fact, my mother moved by herself before they were married, when my father joined the army at the beginning of WWII. And my older sister moved east while I was still in high school. That was a strong and well-known branch. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I stepped out on all the safe limbs.

And then I turned 40, and my strongest limb succumbed to the disease that had been slowly, invisibly growing deep in its core. I did the only thing I felt I could do, I cut it off to save the tree. I ended my marriage. This was not on the family tree. It was the beginning of a time of stepping onto new limbs and exploring life farther from the trunk.

I am fascinated by spiders. Not only do they make their own homes, but they build bridges and branches to go with them. They build their spindly-looking homes and connect them with a tenuous strand to something sturdy and strong. And sometimes the bridges and branches break, or are destroyed by outside forces. And the spider picks itself up and builds new ones. What is your trunk, your strength? What keeps you tethered to safety when you go out on a limb? Mine is my trust in a faithful God, the One who is More. More than me, more than my risk-taking, more than my fear. And the embodiment of God in my life is my friends. I have faith that they will be there to hold me up if my branches are threatened. And, like it or not, they also push me out onto limbs.

My favorite story in the news this week was the Jet  Blue flight attendant who, in effect said, “Take this job and shove it.” But he didn’t mean it; he "loves his job" and he hopes to get it back (good luck with that). Allegedly, deploying the emergency chute down which he took his departure, could have caused injury; but his most egregious crime was that he broke the code of conduct that says the customer is always right, even when they aren’t. He broke the rule on his familiar tree in order to make a statement about--again alleged--rudeness. I pruned some branches in the garden this weekend, branches that I was having to duck under. I noticed again that, whereas I used to make the cut well up the larger part of the branch in order to get all the offending smaller branches gone in one fell swoop, if I just cut one of the smaller ones, enough weight is removed that the rest of it bounces up and out of the way of my head. I really do not need to cut the whole thing off. As I pruned, several platitudes and proverbs fluttered through my mind: "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" vs. "cutting off the offending part"; and the reverse, piling on offenses until reaching "the straw that broke the proverbial back."

Earlier in the summer, I noticed caterpillar tents in a branch over my driveway. Rather than kill them with chemicals, I cut off the branches they were occupying and stuffed them into the yard waste can. When I put the container out at the curb later in the week, I discovered that they had hatched. Then I killed them with chemicals. I didn't feel good about it. My friends know that I don't let go of relationships easily. I prefer to cut off the offending part, and hang on to the good parts. But there comes a time when I have to cut off the whole thing--or, rather, the other person cuts off the whole thing, and I have to figure out how to let go of what is already gone. I don't feel good about it.

I have mentioned before that I stepped out on a really flimsy limb this summer, one that didn't feel safe at all. I subscribed to an online dating site. There are so many of them, and this is probably not the place to discuss them, but I can't resist mentioning an unsolicited something I saw. I read an ad for a dating site called ChristianMingle. (I was fascinated by the name only.) I also saw a site that portends to review Christian dating sites. They do not recommend ChristianMingle because they make "h o m o s e x u a l" matches (that's how they wrote it). And they don't recommend EHarmony because although they don't make  "h o m o s e x u a l" matches, the creators of the site say it's because they don't have experience in such matches and they want their matches to be successful, not because it is  "s i n f u l." But I digress. I subscribed to Match and am so relieved that my three months is finally over. I was ready to head back to the tree trunk after the first month. However, it now seems there might be a side branch to explore. And that is what happens when you go out on a limb. It doesn't necessarily break. In fact, it usually doesn't break. It almost always leads to something else and something else and something else. It is the nature of trees.

I heard two interesting things on NPR this morning on the way to my coffee shop booth. The first was the last line of a story. I don't even know what they were talking about. "We do the right thing when it’s easy to do the right thing." Going out on unfamiliar limbs is not the easy thing, but it is often the right thing. And the other was a brief story that tickled me about some kids renting out their backyard treehouse. Now that is going out on a limb.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Well-behaved women rarely make history." In my 40s and 50s, I have stepped onto many limbs and, some would say, I have not been well-behaved. I have strayed from several of the branches on my family tree. The only history I am making is my own, but it will inevitably influence the lives of others. I can only hope in a positive way.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

In the Gardens of God

I spent last weekend near Asheville in the mountain-side home of my son and daughter-in-law. You can see the sunrises, sunsets, and stars from there. You can see out from there. I grew up on the side of a hill (we call them hills in Washington, to distinguish from the snowcaps). Living in  bottom-dwelling towns for all my adulthood, I miss being able to look up to land masses that are taller than I am, and down to those lower. Coming up over the rise on I-40, where one gets the first view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, always makes my spirit soar. And I feel how deep down it has sunk while I was away. I spent a day hiking and cooling my feet in the river in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Just the name gives me goosebumps. But it wasn't always so.

Vacations in my childhood were spent camping at or taking day trips to Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens (which could be viewed from the deck of my home). We hiked and picnicked and picked huckleberries. We canoed on Spirit Lake (at St. Helens). I attended Olympic and Cascade mountains backpacking sessions of Girl Scout camp. I rode my bike up and down the freaking hill we lived on and wished I lived on a city street in the flatlands like regular people did. We also took vacations to the GSMNP, my mother's childhood playground. My sisters and I teased her mercilessly about the hills she called mountains every time we went. Afterall, there is no permanent snow cap and you do not have to be a mountaineer to climb to the top of anything; and one can drive to Clingman's Dome, the tallest point in the park, for goodness sake. How can that be called a mountain? And then, after seven years of young adulthood in the hills of southwest Virginia, my young family moved to Mississippi. And I got my comeuppance for my provincialism. I learned not only to appreciate, but to love the Appalachian Mountains.

My mother used to say something to the effect (tweaked by me) that one can experience the face and grandeur of God in the majestic mountains, dense forests, and alpine meadows of the Pacific Northwest, but one dwells within God’s soul in the calm, accessible beauty of the Blue Ridge. It is true. Due to the accident of birth to a mother who grew up in the shadow of the Appalachians and a father who fulfilled his dream to “get on his [Michigan cornfield] tractor and go west until he got to the ocean,” I have had the privilege of knowing both the face and the soul of God. Next to my two beautiful children, it is the greatest gift of my life.

I am back this weekend from the southeast garden of God to my own garden. This week I have enjoyed the summer's new generation of birds coming to the feeder; they look so inexperienced and unsure of what they are supposed to do and what they are supposed to be afraid of. They make me laugh. I harvested the last of the sunflowers, drying now to feed them as they grow older and the days grow shorter and colder. And it has finally rained. Good, multi-day, soil-soaking rains. And when it's not raining, it is so humid it might as well be. The crab grass in my lawn is finally filling in the dried out spots and crowding out the plethora of other lawn weeds. The cosmos fell over from the unaccustomed moisture keeping their roots from being cemented into the ground and had to be tied up. In spite of the rain, though, it has come to my attention that the garden is not really thriving. The banana tree continues to produce new leaves, but it’s not gaining the height I expected it to. There are many hostas and ferns, but they have not grown large and lush, as I expected them to. The cosmos are barely blooming, though the stalks are healthy; the shade annuals are not much bigger than they were two months ago. Only the marigolds and vinca--and the grape tomatoes--are doing well. It is a drought year. We all experience those years. But I have concentrated so hard these past three years on quantity in my gardens, that perhaps I have overlooked quality. I water and weed and deadhead, but I wonder if I am missing something in the care and pampering of my plants. For one thing, I don't fertilize as I should; but what else should I be doing? Or do I just have too much expectation?

I asked someone last week how she was doing, and I received a litany of what she was doing. In the garden and in life we continue to think that if there is just enough on the menu, we can ignore the quality; if we keep busy and keep checking off the items on our to-do lists, we can avoid looking at how we are doing in our personal garden. We can skip the self-care fertilizer. Yes, there was a drought this summer and too much heat. And sometimes in our lives--as in the garden--survival is all we can manage. Just keep our heads above ground and get through. But at what point do we have to go deeper? At what point do we have to go deeper, in spite of our busyness or our drought? At what point do we need to pull out the plants that aren't blooming but whose healthy stalks are shadowing other plants that might bloom if they could get out of the shadow?

My children grew up on suburban streets. As I caught fireflies in a jar and pinned toads in the beam of a flashlight with my grandson, Max, and his mom and dad last weekend; as we looked at the stars and watched lightening flashing between the clouds in the dark skies over the mountains, I felt so glad for Max's childhood, and I wished that my children could have known that kind of play. But their father and I, in our love for the gardens of God, took them to places beyond their suburban homes. We planted a love of the dwelling place of the face and the soul of God into their bloom. I am growing my own garden in the city, for now; and they have returned to the gardens of God, beloved by their mother and grandmother: Emma to the Pacific Northwest, and Nicholas to the Blue Ridge. I guess I did okay after all.