Last week, my sister-in-law sent me these photos from her Eerie Canal village of Spencerport, New York. Walking past Fairfield Cemetery in the center of town, she saw veterans placing flags on graves of the war dead. She knows I’m a big fan of her lovely little town, which has been a frequent Memorial Day destination for our family. This year, only my husband made the trip; he took advantage of the three-day weekend to spend some time with his Mom in nearby Rochester. I have pleasant memories of walking the old cemetery’s verdant paths with my furry companion, Kiko. It was good to see that Spencerport’s patriotic traditions live on.
The pictures remind me of our American tendency to temporarily lay aside our polarizing differences as Memorial Day approaches. Ever so briefly, we unite in honoring those who gave their lives in defense of our country. Around this time, we join together momentarily to acknowledge the brave men and women who paid the ultimate price.
It’s my ongoing prayer that we might keep this Memorial Day attitude alive all year long. Our military heroes deserve more than to be saluted perfunctorily on certain holidays. Let’s remember that their sacrifice was for our everyday freedoms, which should not be taken for granted. They died so that we may continue to pursue our dreams and live the lives we choose. They died so that we may be able to air our opinions and grievances without fear of bodily harm or imprisonment. Therefore, let’s honor their memory by trying to refrain from snap judgments and personal attacks. Let us not jump eagerly to accept just anything we want to believe. Let us take pains to discern the truth, even, and, indeed, especially, when it may lead us to change our minds. Let’s exercise some of that critical thinking we should have been taught in school. May we learn to recognize the sly manipulators among us, those who benefit from stirring up trouble and maximizing our differences. May we try to lecture, to talk at one another less, and to listen more comprehensively. May we practice kindness, and grow in wisdom. May we be guided toward common ground, toward a vantage point from which we might see some of our perceived differences evaporate like an early morning fog. If we make these efforts, we really might be able to work together toward that more perfect union. This great republic of ours is worth it. The sacrifice of our Memorial Day heroes begs us to do so. May they not have died in vain.
Long may our land be right with freedom’s holy light!
May the promise of Easter give you strength and courage to face the trials of this world. May it bring you inner assurance even during difficult times. May it inspire you to treat your neighbors (even the difficult ones) with kindness and love. May it guide you to find glimmers of light in the darkness, and beauty in the everyday. And may it give you a deep and abiding hope for the life to come, when trials, difficulties and darkness will be no more.
Christ is risen, Christ is living, dry your tears, be unafraid!
Death and darkness could not hold him, nor the tomb in which he lay.
Do not look among the dead for one who lives for evermore;
tell the world that Christ is risen, make it known he goes before.
If the Lord had never risen, we’d have nothing to believe;
but his promise can be trusted: “You will live, because I live.”
As we share the death of Adam, so in Christ we live again;
death has lost its sting and terror, Christ the Lord has come to reign.
Death has lost its old dominion, let the world rejoice and shout!
Christ, the firstborn of the living, gives us life and leads us out.
Let us thank our God, who causes hope to spring up from the ground.
Christ is risen, Christ is giving life eternal, life profound.
Words: Nicolas Martinez, 1960; trans. by Fred Kaan, 1972
Ash Wednesday is, indeed, about ashes. But it’s also about what lies beyond the ashes. On this day of the Christian calendar, we’re encouraged to confront and contemplate our mortality, our weakness, our tendency to get things wrong. But we’re not to stop there, wallowing in pity and self-loathing. Because we’re not left in the ashes, abandoned, alone and forlorn. Help is at hand, if we choose to accept it. God, our loving parent, our good shepherd, seeks us out. He calls us, his children, his lost lambs, by name. If we let him, he walks with us through debris and decay into a place where there are no ashes. We can’t imagine such a destination, or such a state of being. We certainly don’t deserve it. But that’s the magic and the beauty of the promise of grace.
This time last year, the darkness of Ash Wednesday felt especially pervasive, oppressive and heavy. Putin had just begun his attempted takeover of Ukraine. While the future was uncertain, it was clear that the situation would get worse before it began to improve. And the terrifying consequences would extend far beyond the boundaries of the Ukrainian state. The good news, so far, is that Russia’s tyrant didn’t get the quick victory that he had expected. The Ukrainians, defying all odds, have shown amazing grit and courage, forming an impressively effective ragtag force of small Davids battling the Russian Goliath. The bad news, of course, is that the destructive, deadly struggle continues, despite the fortitude of Ukraine and the support of the United States and many other countries.
In last year’s Ash Wednesday post, I wrote about a Ukrainian woman who was interviewed as she sheltered with her children and others in a ravaged space in downtown Kyiv. As she spoke, her infant daughter slept soundly in her arms. The baby, she said, was a vital source of hope to her and to those around her. The child offered living, breathing proof of ongoing goodness in the evils of a war-torn world. I think of that child and her family now. Have they survived? Is that baby a chattering toddler now, walking boldly with her mother and siblings through the rubble? I pray that she is, and that she continues to be a bright light in the shadows of the ruins.
The promise of Ash Wednesday is like the promise of a new baby. It reminds us not to underestimate the power and persistence of love. Let’s reach out for the hand that leads us through the ashes toward a renewal beyond the reach of death. And toward that unimaginable, but glorious, other side.
Until today, the homemade clothespin nativity that shelters beneath our little alpine trees in the dining room has included only Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and one shepherd. (Sparkly arctic critters happen to fit in with the high-tech “white sheet as snow” decor.)
The three wise men from the East, along with their flamboyantly curly-haired camel, have been waiting patiently in the background since Advent began in early December.
And now, on the sixth of January, known in the Christian calendar as Epiphany, the long journey of the Magi is complete. They join the Holy Family and pay their tribute to the infant messiah. Their participation in the Biblical nativity narrative is indicative of this important message: God sent his son to be a savior not only for the Hebrew people, but for all the nations. For all of us. For all God’s children.
So in our house, we don’t take the Christmas decorations down until well after January 6th. To do so, it seems, would represent an attempt to symbolically stifle the powerful message of God’s love for all. (It also happens that I’m never ready at this point to begin the laborious process of un-decorating. And it would be inhospitable to kick the Magi out immediately after their arrival.)
On this last day of Christmas, I’ll continue to enjoy the look and lights of the season. They’ll be no boxing up for a while yet.
May the spirit of Christmas sustain, strengthen and bless us all year long. And may it remind us to treat our brothers and sisters near and far, like the family they are.
Back when you were a kid, playing childhood games in the neighborhood, was there someone who yelled “NO FAIR!” when they didn’t win? Usually there was at least one child who absolutely couldn’t abide a loss. Not at High-Ho Cheerio, or Candy Land, or Freeze Tag, or Kickball. Not even Tic Tac Toe. No game was too trivial not to be contested. I recall gently asking one such wailing child, “Do you really think it’s only fair if you win every single time? It wouldn’t be fair, see, if I won every single time, would it? ” My reasoning fell on deaf ears. He continued howling NO FAIR through the tears. Apparently the concept of fairness was created only for him; it did not extend to others.
Such kids have now grown up, or at least grown older. Many are running in tomorrow’s midterm election. Over half of Americans will find one or more candidates on their ballots who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. Don’t waste your vote on such persons.
Two years ago, I wrote that one presidential candidate lived by another threadbare childhood taunt: “I’m not! You are!” Or “I didn’t! You did!” It matters not whatever wrong thing he has done. When confronted with the wrong-doing, the process is simply to deny, deny, and deny. Forcefully. Loudly. Repeatedly. And to turn the accusation back on an opponent. For bullies, it works surprisingly well.
But it didn’t work in the 2020 election. The bully lost.
And what did he do then? He did exactly what he’d been saying he would do: proclaim his personal doctrine of unfairness. Forcefully. Loudly. Repeatedly. His cries were amplified by various media outlets. His followers were hoodwinked. On January 6, 2021, they assembled at our Capitol in order to undo an election they had been told was illegitimate. Because their candidate declared NO FAIR, some brought weapons, zip ties, and wore body armor. They broke through barricades, windows and doors. Most of them had been strident supporters of “law and order,” yet they viciously attacked the police who were there to defend our democratic systems. They roamed the hallways of the Capitol, chanting violent threats against duly elected representatives of both parties. They did it because their leader, their hero, had told them, and continued to tell them, over and over, that it was NO FAIR. What terrible vengeance would have taken place if our lawmakers had not been whisked to safety, with only a very few moments to spare?
In this election, the original candidate of NO FAIR is not on the ballot. But his minions, his sycophants are. Bullies always have their cowardly, opportunistic hangers-on, those who seek to ride their long coattails to a measure of their own glory and power. They repeat and repeat the claim of unfairness. Ever more forcefully. Ever more loudly.
Don’t fall for it.
A vote for one of these election deniers is a vote against democracy. Ironically, it’s a vote for unfairness.
I ask you, much as I asked that whining child many years ago: Is an election fair only when your candidate wins? Imagine a system rigged so that the other candidate always wins. Would that be fair?
And if you claim that your vote will be cast solely on the need for change because of inflation, or high gas prices, consider this: does your candidate have a plan to fix things? When the party line is NO FAIR, there is little room for workable public policy.
Every year as summer deepens and July 4th comes and goes, my mind drifts back to some of my earliest memories. Over the Independence Day weekend in the early to mid-60s, my parents and I would join my mother’s side of the family in central Kentucky. July 4th would find us, not at my grandparents’ house in town, but, as we said, “up to the river.”
My maternal grandmother Nora spent her girlhood years, as well as much of her married life, on a rise overlooking the Rolling Fork River. Portions of the original log cabin on the site remained and had been incorporated into the white frame structure likely built in the mid-nineteenth century. Dates and details are lacking; my family tends to pass along the stories of the past haphazardly and in shattered, scattered fragments, so that the puzzle always remains incomplete. The photographic record is even more insubstantial. A couple of photos, above, from the 70s, show the farm, with its buildings, at a distance. I took some pictures of the house in 1986 (below) when it was in sad disrepair, after years of sitting vacant, shortly before demolition. I’ve been able to find no images that show it as the center of a thriving farm, and a happy, busy family home.
But I have memories of a time when it was exactly that. In those childhood days, my mother’s oldest brother Leland farmed the land by the river. By then, my grandparents had moved into the Queen Anne farmhouse on the Springfield Road in Lebanon that I remember with great fondness. Leland was the only one of my mother’s four siblings to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps as a farmer. He raised tobacco and Black Angus cattle. There were pigs, some sheep, and chickens, as well. When Leland and his wife Dessie moved into the old house in the 1940s, it lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. The structure was unassuming but relatively spacious. There was a wide staircase off the front entrance that led to several sizable bedrooms on the second floor. My grandmother and her two sisters, Alpha and Maude, had shared one room as little girls. Another was for her three brothers, Thomas, Clarence and George. My aunt and uncle, in the later years that I look back on, lived primarily on the first floor, using the upper rooms for storage. I vaguely remember, in one cozy downstairs space, an enormous brick or stone fireplace. It was suitable for a pioneer cabin, large enough to roast an entire side of beef. In a first floor bedroom, there was a narrow cupboard that could be locked with a heavy wooden bolt. It opened to reveal a slim staircase winding up to a single chamber, separate from the other bedrooms on the second floor. According to my mother, this was a feature common to rural homes of the time. An itinerant worker, or any stranger passing through, could be given a bed for the night, safely shut away from the rest of the family. A practical solution for extending hospitality to those we don’t know well enough to trust completely.
In my memories, certainly the farm at the river was nothing if not hospitable. While I can no longer picture the house and its grounds clearly in my mind, those fuzzy images nevertheless conjure a powerful sense of belonging. I’m not sure if I ever spent a night in that old house, but I passed enough time inside and around it, in the company of loved ones, to recognize it as a place that breathed the breath of home. It was our place. Not in the sense of ownership, but of affinity, of kinship.
And in this sense, the river was our river, a well-loved member of the family. The highlight of July 4th, for that young me, was the time we spent splashing in the water and wandering the banks. From the house, it was a pleasant walk, down the hill, across the road, and through part of a field. Geodes and arrowheads were there among the smooth stones of the banks, for those with the patience to look. I loved the tiny gray-green frogs that hopped about among the rocks. For the most part, the river near the farm was fairly shallow, but there were deeper spots suitable for swimming, and for the thrill of plunging into the water from a rope swing. Rumors of blue holes of unfathomable depths abounded. I was probably in second or third grade before I saw the ocean. “Going to the beach” was a foreign concept to me until I was a teenager. Our family had no need for the ocean. We were river people.
After an afternoon at the river in those old days, we’d head back up the hill for one of my aunt’s delicious meals. Now we’d refer to all the ingredients as locally sourced. Back then we just said home grown. There would be country ham or fried chicken, green beans, tomatoes, sweet onion slices, probably potato salad. Cornbread, always. My favorite dish was what we referred to as fried corn, which is fresh corn, straight from the field, cut from the cob and cooked on the stove in bacon grease or butter with a little milk and a bit of flour. It’s the luscious essence of summer on a plate.
Seems like we’d savor these festive summer meals outside, where we could gaze down on the river. We typically gathered in the front yard, seated in an assortment of metal garden chairs and webbed lawn chairs. The entire farm was a land of enchantment for me as a kid. In addition to the river, there was so much to explore and experience: my aunt’s extensive vegetable and flower gardens, an ancient grape arbor, a number of outbuildings, including the big barn, several ramshackle sheds, and a spring house cut into the side of a hill, still an effective outdoor source of refrigeration. There was the wildly overgrown remains of a one-room schoolhouse that my great-grandfather had built so his children could be taught year-round. Of course there was a privy, still in use after a bathroom was added to the house in the 50s. The ever-present threat of snakes added an element of the exotic.
The significance of our annual “4th up to the River” celebration is suggested by the existence of the photo above. It’s the extremely rare, posed family picture, and it’s nearly complete. Taken at the farm on July 4th, 1964, it includes my mother, her parents, her sister and three brothers, as well as four of the five siblings’ spouses. Only my Uncle Edwin’s wife, Betsy, is missing; she must have been the photographer. I’m in front with my parents, and my cousin, the son of my mother’s sister Jessie, stands in the center back. He is twelve years my senior. I don’t remember ever paying much attention to the absence of cousins about my age. I do remember enjoying the company, and the unique personalities, of everyone in this photo. As I recall, they did their best to keep me amused. Maybe I was akin to the dog who appears to consider itself a human; maybe I didn’t notice that I was the odd one out. I only know that despite my small size, I was never made to feel lesser. I was not talked down to or treated like a precious princess, it seems, but more or less as an equal. I learned to take humorous, good-hearted teasing as a compliment.
The older I get, the more I treasure my memories of those golden days with dear family up at the river. As I look back on that part of my childhood, glimpsed through the haze of decades, I feel again the abiding solace of knowing that I’m loved, knowing I belong, knowing I’m not alone. May the sacred ties of family, of friendship, and of place, beautifully entwined together to create the idea of home–may they never break, but stretch and expand. My daughter is another only child who was often surrounded by adults during her formative years. I pray that she carries with her a cache of cherished recollections that provide her with a similar sense of contentment and assurance.
Fifty-eight years after that family photo was taken, only my mother, my cousin and I remain here on earth. I pray that our future holds for us a reunion on the banks of another river, one glorious beyond imagination, in our true home.
Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod,
with its crystal tide forever flowing by the throne of God?
Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river,
gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.
On this 4th of July, and every day, let us remember that true patriotic duty is expressed not by proclaiming our great country to be flawless, but to recognize and work together to strengthen her weaknesses. May we open our minds, our eyes, ears, and hearts so that we may know the truth when we encounter it, even when it pains us to do so. Only then can we protect and nurture the principles upon which our republic was founded.
Long may our land be bright with freedom’s holy light!
words: Samuel F. Smith, 1832; Music: Thesaurus Musicus, 1744
We did something this spring that has become very out of character, in recent years, for us. We threw a party. An actual gathering, not on Zoom. With real people, at our house. Well, outside.
For many years, we hosted a neighborhood party in early December to kick off the holiday season. Covid put an end to that. About a year ago, my husband decided we should try something totally different: an outdoor concert party, with a live appearance by one of our favorite groups. I didn’t share his enthusiasm at first. I wasn’t sure we were up to the challenge. In fact, I was fairly certain that we weren’t. But I agreed wholeheartedly with his musical choice: the husband and wife folk duo, Robin and Linda Williams.
I discovered their music during a hot, humid New Jersey summer of intense study as I was preparing for my general exams as a grad student. One Sunday night, back in my New Grad College room after yet another long day at my art library carrel, I tuned into the college radio station, WPRB, and heard the unmistakable sound of home. Not my midtown Atlanta home. This went far deeper, back to something elemental and essential. It took me back to my maternal grandparents’ beloved farm among the rolling hills of central Kentucky. It summoned the rugged landscapes of the Appalachians and the Cumberland Gap. It stretched back to colonial Virginia. And back across the Atlantic to England, Scotland and Ireland. It echoed the footsteps of my ancestors as they progressed farther west in a new land after making their way from Europe. It was the sound of my roots.
I became a regular listener to the weekly local show that often featured the Williamses, which was called “Music You Can’t Hear on the Radio.”* The pair is known for their original compositions and for new takes on age-old traditional classics. Their voices are richly, warmly unique, and their harmonies sublime. Each is a skilled instrumentalist, with Linda on banjo, Robin on harmonica, and both on guitars. Fiddles, mandolins and the occasional dobro round out the sound when they’re accompanied by other artists. There’s an easy give and take between the two as they alternate vocals.
Robin and Linda’s songs are vivid with a sense of place. They call forth hills and hollows, mountains and prairies, small towns and family farms longed for by city folk who were forced to leave them behind. They sing of heartache, longing, love and joy during hard-scrabble times. They root for the underdog. They empathize with those who are down on their luck. With a few colorful details, they tell memorable tales that speak to universal themes. They’re masters of the evocative, haunting lyric, as well as the nicely phrased, comically insightful observation. Though some songs are suffused with melancholy, they’re never maudlin. Many overflow with a rollicking zest for life in all its messy glory.
I recently found my first recording of music by Robin and Linda. This was before the internet and smart devices, so I’d written off and ordered a cassette tape that first summer, through June Appal Recordings. It’s Dixie Highway Sign, recorded in 1979. With the advent of CDs and streaming services, I’d boxed up my old tapes, and hadn’t seen them in years. But I couldn’t forget the cover photo, and there it was again: a smiling young couple, Robin in a black cowboy hat, Linda with a mane of curly hair, and Peter Ostroushko, who joined them on this album, standing behind the two, looking studious. In the background is a lush green landscape. The plastic case was cracked, just as I remembered. Would it still play? I was hesitant to try. But after digging out my old boom box from the basement, I popped the cassette in and pushed Play. The title track is from the perspective of a trucker, reveling in the challenges of the drive, while missing his southern home. The exuberant, familiar fiddle opening was as bright and buoyant as when I first heard it in 1987. Amazing, considering how much use this little tape has seen.
Not long after I met H, I heard that Robin and Linda would be playing in Philadelphia, about an hour away. I didn’t expect their music to resonate with him. As a boy from Rochester, New York, he lacks ties to the Appalachians and the heartland of which they so often sing. But he feigned enthusiasm, because back then, at least, the pleasure of my company was worth it. He told me recently that one of our friends, a banjo-playing fellow engineering student, had encouraged him to bow out. “You won’t like that music,” he said. “Let me take her to the show.” After that offer, there was no way that H wasn’t going to accompany me. So we went to Philadelphia, and saw Robin and Linda in person at The Cherry Tree Music Co-Op. An intimate, chapel-like venue, located inside St. Mary’s Church, it hosted folk artists from 1975 – 2003. The live performance cemented my appreciation of the Williamses’ music. Apparently, it did the same for H. For over thirty years now, we’ve been fans. Our daughter has grown to love them, as well. Other interests have come and gone, but our affinity for the music of Robin and Linda has been a constant. For me, their songs will always prompt treasured “memories that glisten and shine” (to quote from Dixie Highway Sign) and visions of my old Kentucky home.
*Despite the title of the WPRB show, Robin and Linda were, and are, quite often heard on the radio. They’ve been frequent guests on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, from 1975 on. They appeared in the 2006 Robert Altman-directed movie of the same name.
More later about our concert party with Robin and Linda!
A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.