Friday, December 09, 2011

Faith Works 12-24-11 & 12-31-11

Faith Works 12-24-11 & Faith Works 12-31-11

Jeff Gill

 

The Tree on the Porch

___

 

Grandma's hospital bed had been in the front room for two years now.

 

When she got to the point that she couldn't make the steep stairway to the second floor, Mom made up the front room for her, and got a better pair of drapes to keep out the cold and the light. Grandma slept mostly, even during the day. You could hear the psst of the oxygen even upstairs at night, every half-minute or so.

 

They'd put the TV in the kitchen, and tried the first year to wedge the Christmas tree in next to the dinette, sticking out into the opening to the front room. After the umpteenth person had brushed against it, knocking ornaments to the floor, Mom had said that was it, and the tree went out on the side porch.

 

Actually, it was kind of cool, and his friends liked the look of it, lights glowing, as you drove by in the busy alley alongside the narrow house. You could see it clearly through the big window behind the dinette, which was where they ate when it wasn't a meal over the sink, and Grandma could see a bit of it out the narrow window opposite her bed. The side door opened into the kitchen, and they rarely used it, mostly coming in the long hallway from the back into the other end of the kitchen. That was now the tree door, getting the most use when for twenty-five days they dashed out to plug in the tree each evening and the last person to bed dashed out to unplug it.

 

The three of them made it through the year fairly well, with Grandma's social security and Mom's job, but it was never easy. At Christmastime, Mom always went down to the Salvation Army and signed up for an Angel Tree gift package for him, but he was getting kind of old for that.

 

He'd gotten some good clothes and a few fun little toys, even one year a bike that he rode way past where the frame really suited him. Other times you could tell that either the people who'd picked his card hadn't read it, or (he figured) were older people who didn't know what a nine or ten or eleven year old boy would like, putting a stuffed bunny or craft set in with the sensible clothes.

 

Most of his friends at school had experience with Angel Tree gifts, and the ones with older brothers and sisters had ruefully pointed out that as you got to twelve and thirteen or fourteen, you generally got a gift card if you were lucky (because it didn't get picked, they guessed) or a bottle of cologne you'd never heard of. The game cartridges were usually not for a game he or his friends had, but you could trade them in downtown.

 

Mom was pretty smart about watching at Dollar General or Big Lots for the fall months, and she could usually pull out something kind of cool to add to the Christmas pile: a gadget to take apart and put back together, a radio control car in an odd color, or a dvd they'd watch together, joking about the bad acting. To tell the truth, those gifts he liked best because they came from her, not that they were better than what came from the nameless people who got his name off the Angel Tree.

 

Grandma, when she talked more, would tell him that when she was a girl there was no gift under the tree, but an orange in the stocking and a new toothbrush hanging from a branch with red ribbon. Mom would whisper to him "that wasn't her, that was her mother, your great-grandmother; she got toys and such just like you did, just no batteries." He'd saved up some money, and got her a tube of body lotion and silk flower in a vase from Big Lots; Mom thought that was wonderful he wanted to do that with his money, but warned him "don't feel bad if she doesn't react much when you give it to her. She knows, it's just hard for her to show much. Feelings are hard work for her with all the medications and all."

 

It looked to be a good Christmas, with a pie in the freezer they'd been given at the food pantry, and a little turkey that came with the Angel Tree gifts. He wondered what they were, but not too much. Expecting too much just led to disappointment, he'd figured that much out. They were together, the tree on the porch, the bird in the oven.

 

And he had a package for Mom. It wasn't much, but it was something, and he knew she'd love it. It might even be a pleasant surprise. She could use some joy this Christmas, and he wanted to give that to her.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio. Tell him a Christmas story at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

 

 

 

*  *  *

Faith Works 12-31-11

Jeff Gill

December 31, 1945

George hung up the phone and looked up at the picture of his father.

Just beneath it was the cross-stitch his mother had made for him of his dad's favorite quote – 'All you can take with you is that which you give away.'

He looked past them to the window, where the snow was still falling outside. The building whose owner had just been speaking to him was sifting into invisibility behind the mist and growing dark.

Potter wanted him to know they had "found something of interest to both of them." It was the much-searched for $8,000, in an envelope left in a deposit slip rack. A good-hearted customer had discovered the crumpled packet and turned it in to a teller; they had given $50 of it to the finder, which he was sure George would approve of.

Sure, said George. He was surprised how little excitement he felt at the return of the prodigal deposit, although he was amused at Potter's generosity with George's money. For a moment, he thought about asking "If I had found $10,000 of yours, and had given $20 as a reward, would you have been fine with that?" But he just added "Thank you for thinking of that, Mr. Potter."

There was a peculiar tone to the rest of the call, though. Potter sounded positively wistful, asking him about his children's Christmas day, and how the aftermath of that already fading Christmas eve had gone, with half of Bedford Falls crowded into his house on Sycamore Street.

It was true that the hall carpet was essentially ruined, but he didn't tell Potter that.

Harry had left yesterday for Pensacola, where he would be training new pilots. "Watch out for that Potter," he said at the train station, adding "he's got something he wants to prove, and you're in the way of it."

So it was with an extra sense of unease George had heard the words "Why don't you and that charming family come over to my house for dinner tonight, and toast a new year, and the prosperity of peace?"

There was silence on both sides of the line, long enough to punctuate with a couple of Potter's carefully controlled wheezes, just enough sound to indicate listening silence.

"I'll have to check with Mary first, Mr. Potter; to tell you the truth, things have been so busy I'm not sure what our plans at home might be."

"Of course, of course my boy, you do that; wouldn't want to upset the missus. Just give me all call when you get home out here to Beech Grove."

Potter's father had begun a large rambling Georgian home on a knoll well out of town, and built barns and a pond and trails for horseback riding around the wooded acreage. It was along those, everyone knew, that a young Potter Junior had been thrown by a spooked horse, and been paralyzed ever since. There were stories about a young woman and a broken engagement, but all that was before George was even born.

The current Mr. Potter had added wings and grey stone and a high iron fence, but the few who had been on the grounds reported back food that was excellent, cooked in Continental style by a chef who it was rumored spoke no English. George said "I will certainly call as soon as I get home."

"Excellent, excellent. George, we have much to talk about. My best to your Mary," followed by a decisive clunk.

Should he go out there, he wondered? Should he even mention the invitation to Mary? She would wince and shake her head, but then say sternly, "We ought to say yes, if only to find out what he's up to."

And just how would it be, with his children, no doubt in danger of breaking a priceless object at every turn, sitting there about to say things they'd heard at home? There was no way it would be a pleasant evening.

Yet there was something in the old man's voice, or in that silence as he chose not to wheedle or plead ingratiatingly, as was his usual style. Something *was* up, that's for sure.

George reached for his hat, and thought "at the very least, I'll have a story for Harry the next time he calls." And then stopped and read for the millionth time those words of his father, neatly stitched by his mother - 'All you can take with you is that which you give away.'

Well, I'll always have this evening then, thought George.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him a story of a new year at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow Knapsack @Twitter. 

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Faith Works 12-17

Faith Works 12-17-11

Jeff Gill

 

Walking down the sidewalk, hand in hand

___

 

Christmas eve, and in a light snow, they pulled up to the church.

 

It was such a joy to see the lights shining through stained glass, the full parking lot, the children's heads bobbing in the basement windows. He had helped dig that basement out fifty years ago, one coffee can at a time to start, crawling beneath the sanctuary. Now it just seemed to everyone there had always been a fellowship hall below the church, including them.

 

He picked his way across the asphalt carefully, recalling when it had been gravel. Safer, when his step was surer, but it certainly helped keep the carpets! Opening the car door, she swiveled to get out, as he opened up the walker.

 

They made their way to the elevator, another thing that wasn't part of the building when he'd been a trustee; she'd been president of the women's fellowship when they raised the money to put it in, one pie at a time.

 

In a way, there were no secrets between them. He knew about the early marriage she'd had that no one else who knew her even suspected; she knew how he wept each year watching "It's a Wonderful Life," not at the end of the movie when the basket full of money comes in, but when Clarence tells George that Harry Bailey didn't save the troopship from an enemy fighter crashing into it, because George wasn't there to save Harry.

 

He was a quartermaster's mate during the war (no further label needed for them as to what war), and piloted an LST across the Pacific. It had no name, just a number, even though she displaced 5,000 tons, more than many cocky ships that cruised past her with a name on the stern. They had names for their ship, but few worth repeating, or remembering. She'd heard them all, though.

 

She'd also heard him tell of when a Japanese Betty drilled into the starboard bow, not quite sinking the nameless Landing Ship Tank, but killing hundreds of soldiers who were helplessly waiting, and never landed on their island. She'd gotten letters from him out of Evansville where the ship was built, from Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he joked about how joining the Navy meant seeing the world, but the Midwest first (they were drilling on a mockup LST constructed in a vast building deep within the encampment, for security).

 

Then the long silence, the fears, and then a letter cryptical in wording, and even so half blacked out by a Navy censor. But she could tell something had happened, something changed. He told her all about it when he came home, once. And wept at that scene in the movie.

 

They had no secrets. He hadn't told her how bad the doctor had said the congestive heart failure was getting, but she knew; she hadn't told him that she suspected the breast cancer might be back, but he knew she'd asked if he could take her to the doctor, "after the holidays."

 

When the elevator got to the sanctuary floor, it stopped with a thump, and the door slowly slid open, revealing the Christmas decorations and the line of children now waiting to enter, holding small battery-powered candles. They both smiled, having spend hours (years?) on their knees with irons, paper towels, and wax paper cleaning candle wax out of the carpet after Christmas.

 

Their pew was marked, in a way, with a cushion that always sat there. New custodians would bring it to the office on Monday (once), and it would go back to her spot. Both hips had been replaced "back when they used hickory and pot metal" she joked, and the doctor had gently said it probably wouldn't be a good idea to go under anesthetic again.

 

No children had ever been raised in their home, "God had other plans for us" they both quickly answered whenever someone would ask. But here at church, they had helped raised hundreds (thousands?) over the years, and it was a family reunion more than anyone knew when everyone came together for Christmas Eve.

 

They had no secrets, but few knew all their sorrows; everyone knew, though, about  the joy they shared, with each other, and in being at worship. They smiled, and a light shone round about them, and no one was afraid to sit next to them.

 

It was Christmas Eve, and they were at home.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; if you think you know who this story is about, I'm sure you're right, all of you! Tell him your story of Christmas joy at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Knapsack 12-15

Notes From My Knapsack 12-15-11

Jeff Gill

 

Just south of Granville

___

 

There is something about this time of year that makes you think about times gone by, the "auld lang syne" of pioneers and predecessors. The nutmeg and allspice and cloves we use so infrequently the rest of the year mingle with cinnamon and maple to create a memory-rich atmosphere with but a single whiff of seasonal scent.

 

Some of these memories are ones we can only know second-hand, but are often no less vivid for their distance. I think it right and meet for us to reflect at Christmastide on how the holiday preparations once felt, and looked, and smelled.

 

In 1881, N.N. Hill wrote a history of Licking County, Ohio, and he included as part of the book a lengthy reminiscence where "Samuel Park, esq., of Marshall, Illinois, a former resident of Union township in this county, writes:

 

"I was born in Union township, November 21, 1810, and at four weeks old, in midwinter, was taken into a green beech cabin, without floor, door, or chimney, which, however, was soon made comfortable by the industry of my, then, young parents. Nor did I enjoy the luxury of a nice baby-crib set on rockers. I was cradled in a sugar-trough, and often lulled to sleep by the notes of the owl and the howl of the wolf. But, even then, the sweeter songsters of the forest, such as the mocking bird, the nightingale and the whip-poor-will, sang just as sweetly from our wild forest surroundings, as they do now from the fancy groves of our finest villas. The attempt to resurrect and place upon record the history of our pioneer fathers and mothers, has caused me to live much of my life over again. The scenes and associations of my youth have many of them been brought vividly before my mind, as in other years.

 

The old fashioned log cabin with puncheon floor, clapboard door,

wooden chimney, warmed by a massive log fire at one end,

and lighted by oiled paper windows;

the chimney corners hung full of jerk;

the rich, juicy, fresh venison, broiled on the end of a sharp stick;

the noble wild turkey, roasted for Thanksgiving and Christmas;

the occasional feast upon a fat coon or opossum;

the johnnycake, baked on a board;

the rich and healthy coffee and tea;

the product of the garden, the field and the forest,

and made doubly palatable by rich cream and maple sugar.

 

The pleasant social gathering of our fathers and mothers around the cheerful log fire,

relating the incidents and anecdotes of their lives;

the hilarity sometimes produced by the exhilarating effects of egg-nog or warm toddy;

the happy associations of the young folks;

the trippings to the charming notes of the violin;

the cabin-raisings, the log-rollings, the corn-huskings, the wood-choppings, flax-pullings;

the sentimental songs;

the jumping, hopping, wrestling and foot-racing exercises of the young men;

the quilting parties of the ladies; the buzz of the spinning-wheel in the cabin;

the whack, whack of the flaxbreak at the barn;

the guns, the dogs and the chase;

all, all of these have been brought freshly to our mind,

and we are in a great degree permitted to live over again

the happy days of our innocence and youth;

and that, too, with the most happy reminiscences of those youthful associations.

But amidst these pleasant reflections there are some sad thoughts.

These revered fathers and mothers have all passed away;

more than half of our youthful associates are numbered among the dead,

and those that are left have lost the vigor and elasticity of youth

and are blossoming for the grave.

The school children of to-day greet us as grandparents,

and we, too, must soon be numbered with the dead."

 

And Hill concludes this section by simply adding: "It is pleasant to record the fact that Mr. Park is yet living in Marshall, Illinois."

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; it is pleasant to record the fact that Mr. Gill is yet living in Granville, Ohio. Tell him your favorite seasonal scent at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Faith Works 12-10

Faith Works 12-10-11

Jeff Gill

 

A Simple Twist of Wire

___

 

Every year about this time, I think of them.

 

In a modern American home, you find the approach of the commemoration of Our Lord and Savior's birth coming when days get short, and nights lengthen to where they start shortly after lunch. This time of year, darkness wraps itself around you like a cheap rain poncho in the wind. You gotta do something, and that something is go to [insert big box store name here] and shop for Christmas lights.

 

They come in green wire or white wire, the latter a prayerful hope for a proverbial White Christmas, with tree-colored wire for wrapping around, well, trees, both indoor and outdoor.

 

They are white or multi-colored, and now they're LED or old-fashioned: although for me, an old-fashioned Christmas light is a bulb the size of what you plant as tulips, a proper bulb. (Of incandescents and CFLs we will not speak.) I'm told there are those who shop for all blue bulbs or other such specialty displays, but those are further back in the towering aisles than I ever get. Green wire, white wire, white bulbs or multicolor, LED or regular – all confusing enough for me.

 

Especially when there are 50 light, 100 light, 150 light strands, even 250 to 500 of 'em. There are probably 1000 light strings back with the blue bulbs. Each January, when the lights come down after Epiphany, some have died, some are flaring with a manic intensity that bodes ill for us all, and others are fine, but the blue spruce insists on growing, so more are needed.

 

Each year, I stow and toss and make notes for what I need next December 6 (St. Nicholas' Day, as Epiphany is January 6, a tidy frame for d├ęcor rituals in our house). And each year I struggle to remember what my note from eleven months previously was getting at.

 

So it's the odd year that I don't end buying a few more boxes or reels of Christmas lights. They have to be unsealed from their secure packaging which insulated them from the shocks and strife of being shipped across oceans, dropped on docksides, heaved into trains, and tumbled from trucks into loading zones before being carefully shelved by the guy down the street in his blue or red or orange apron.

 

You slit or gnaw the tape off the plastic or cardboard, and get down to the strings of lights themselves, but there's one last step. The twist ties.

 

This is when I think about them. If you open up enough boxes, even of outwardly identical lights, you start to realize that the twist ties are where you see the mark of an individual, actual person, someone in China, because yes, they all (as far as I can tell) come from the People's Republic of China now. Somewhere along the Huangpu or Yangtze Rivers, or up Suzhou Creek (as far as I can tell online, most of these lights are coming out of the Shanghai area), there's a vast factory in the middle of a sea of vast factories. Last summer, or earlier, the shop floor retooled to turn out the pre-tangled strands of Christmas tree wire, and throngs of basic laborers stood along lines to place bulbs in sockets and wind handfuls of seasonal joy into proper lengths after the outlets are snapped into place.

 

All of this among dozens of boxes or reels looks exactly identical across the packages, with a monotonous, almost inhuman sameness. You think only of machines and an acres-wide roof in a desolate landscape.

 

But then I get to the twist ties. They're always a little bit different. Year by year, you sense the encroachment of the bean counters, with less and less excess on the ties that are themselves snipped off a no doubt large reel, a few inches at a time. The work of squeezing the bundle of 150 or 250 lights tightly enough, then anchoring it in place with a flick of the wrist, a spin of the fingertips. It can't be terribly rewarding work, and I suspect is the lowest job on the totem pole.

 

Still I see in each box the particular mark of a fellow human being, the loop or knot or bow last touched literally around the world, next unwound by me, here in Ohio. What do they think of us, and what we're doing with these things? What does it mean to them?

 

I think of them, as persons, and I say a prayer, and touch an infinitesimal part of their lives, in contact with mine.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he no doubt will need just one more trip for lights. Tell him where you come into contact with "the other" this Christmas season at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.