Friday, December 31, 2010

A Few Points of Clarification

After my recent confession I feel that I need to clarify a few points. Weak and imperfect as I am, and miscommunication of what I've written being a distinct possibility, (all fault being my own) here goes.

Let me first and foremost declare that outside of Christ I am nothing, can do nothing, and have no hope whatsoever. He saved me, dead in the trespasses and sins in which I once walked, following the course of this world, a child of wrath, not because of works done by me in righteousness, but because of his own great love and bountifully rich mercy toward me. God saved me from death, from bondage to sin, from an eternity in hell, to be made alive in Christ, raised up with Him and seated with Him in glory. (Eph. 2: 1-7) To quote a friend, "(1) I did not deserve it and (2) I did not deserve it and (3) I still do not deserve it."

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

To Be Honest…

There are some topics about which I don't write here simply because they cut too close to the heart, and I don't want to sound as if I'm complaining or being negative. Yet there are things through which we are living now, circumstances which seem to dominate our lives, through which God will ultimately be glorified. But if I've said nothing, how will anyone know? What follows is not a complaint, nor is it a masked plea for money- really. I've waited until I'm in a good mood to write this in an attempt to keep the negativity at bay.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

My Baby is a Teenager

Thirteen years ago my baby boy was born. Thirteen years.


My other four children have each passed, at three year intervals, into their teens. But each of them had younger siblings who were coming up behind them. Isaac is the youngest of my children, the last of our crew to accomplish each milestone, the baby with whom each passage is a last for me. Along the way with the rest of the kids some milestones were lost in the flurry of activity which was our life. Pausing momentarily to celebrate each child's accomplishments was the most we could muster for many occasions. Every child is equally precious, but not every child has had equal time when it came to their day in the sun.


Nathaniel's thirteenth birthday was a day shared with all of his siblings around him; Isaac had Erin at home, and phone calls from the brother and sisters who are living away, (Rebekah's call was on Skype). I'm struggling at the moment to remember what Nathaniel's party might have been like, but all I can accomplish, by doing the math, is figuring that we must have been in Florida- only 9 months into our time there, and therefore couldn't have yet known many kids well enough to have over for a party. (Fill me in on the details if you can, First Son.) I'm pretty sure that we wouldn't have been quite as comfortable allowing the kids the free-ish rein to do their own thing and then watch a movie as we did for Isaac and his friends last night. The guys began with games in the basement, moved quickly to pizza when I brought it home, then cake, stories about Isaac, and a movie. (Isaac ran the remote during the movie and fast-forwarded through the scene which he had deemed- on his own judgment- too racy for the guys to watch.)


I had assumed that by this stage in the game of rearing five children, I'd have more of what resembles an "act" together and be better at the celebrations which predictably come around year after year. Yet, I don't. I had hoped that with the decrease in craziness, I might have more time to plan for parties and birthdays and simple focus on each of my priceless children. And here I find myself, days before the birthday, scrambling to figure out what we are going to do. These days which are the same date each year, focused on those dearest to my heart, still seem to sneak up on me and surprise me from a blind corner of the calendar. Time is flying by and I am a poorly organized person, a combination loaded for defeat in birthday party planning.


We had a friend in Grove City who would decorate the whole house the week before the birthday of one of her children, in anticipation of the day, with signs and banners, balloons and gifts. In Florida, many birthdays were closer in resemblance to carnivals, with the rental of giant bounce houses and inflatable slides, huge party games, a magician or another sort of live entertainment, and enough food to feed a small village in Ethiopia for a month. I have neither the forethought for the first, nor the finances for the second kind of festivity.


There was one family tradition about which we learned while living in Florida that we have been able to incorporate into our birthday celebrations for our children and has been a blessing for us, and, I hope, them as well. Once everyone is around the table, or at least in the room, and focused on the birthday boy or girl, we ask everyone to share a memory or something special that they appreciate about him or her. While this is fun and even enlightening at times, there has come a deeper blessing from it than I originally anticipated. We have always tried to emphasize character over stuff; love and fellowship over gadgets and things. While many gifts which have been unwrapped at the birthday parties have gone on to be played with for a time, and then broken, lost, or simply fallen out of use, the gift of loving and kind words will never fade. As my children have grown more autonomous in their friendships and the time they spend with friends isn't always in my presence, it is neat to hear the stories and memories that are shared. To hear what their friends remember most fondly about them, or what is seen in their character, is a gift to my children which they will cherish long after the candles are blown out and the wrapping paper is gone.


This year will be sparse on wrapped gifts, birthday and Christmas alike. I pray that the gifts of love and words of blessing will fill our hearts and the time which we spend together will build special memories for each of us. I cherish each of my children and hope that their memories will be as thin as mine on the details and the stuff, and full instead of the love which we share.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Lazy J

I'm not entirely sure what has prompted this memory, but it surfaces now and then, so I'll share it here. My memory for the years and specific dates of things that happened when I was growing up is rather fuzzy. There was a period of two years, maybe only one and a half, during which I spent almost every weekend in heaven.

Well, not literally in heaven, mind you, but as close as a pre-teen girl growing up in Texas could get; on a ranch surrounded by horses. My entire life I have loved horses. When I discovered that I could draw, it was horses that appeared on my pages. Many of my homework assignments had bright little steeds cantering up and down the margins of the notebook paper. I knew precisely where the horse books, fiction and non-fiction, could be found in the school library, and those were the books that I checked out- repeatedly. One summer my parents rented a pony for my exclusive use from a nearby farm, and though I wasn't allowed to move into his stall, that pony made for a fabulous summertime. I swooned over photos and posters of horses the way other girls were swooning over Donny Osmond. My favorite smells even involved horses. Burying my face in a horse's neck and mane and breathing deeply; the smells of saddle leather; even shoveling a stall conjured vibrant, familiar, "horsey" scents. The softest and best sensation in my memory is stroking a horse's nose. The places right in the center and on the sides of a horse's muzzle are the silkiest things I've ever touched. And then there are the sounds. Hoof beats of every speed; the creak of leather as I settled into the saddle; the clinking of the metal bit as a horse tossed his head; gentle nickering; all music to this Texas girl.

My desire to spend more time with horses inspired my Mom to find an outlet for me. She discovered that a distant relative owned a ranch outside of town and rented horses for an hour at a time to city folks who wanted to go for a ride. We made the half-hour drive one Saturday morning to the Lazy J Ranch and met our cousin Randy for the first time. (On a side note, my memory of Randy has him looking exactly like Matthew McConaughey. There always seemed to be plenty of pretty and giggly girls who knew nothing about horses coming out to the ranch each weekend.) For a mere $4 one could purchase the ride of a horse throughout the many wonders of the pasture beyond the corral. (I'm being facetious here- it was the most boring acreage in north Central Texas, and that's saying something! However, from the back of a horse, those acres were my favorite place to be…) I can't remember the name of the broken down, sway-backed, black mare onto which Randy first put me, but the ride was calm and sedate. Not quite what I'd had in mind, but cautiously safe for my first ride. In the days and weeks after my first ride, as Randy grew more confident with my riding skills, I came to know many of the other horses. Highpockets, a tall, rangy bay, was quite a fun ride, and therefore not always available. There was a brown thoroughbred mare, whose name I forget, which I rode on a number of occasions. She was a safer choice and yet fun as well. The quieter horses (meaning, boring) were the last requested by the regular customers, and I had to get there early, or wait for hours if I wanted to be choosy. That was fine with me, because I stayed all day long. While I wasn't riding I learned to muck out the stalls and groom and feed the boarded horses. I paid my $4 for one hour of riding and worked like a slave for the rest of the day- for free. Yet I'd have paid them for that privilege too, I loved it so.

There was one horse which was not often requested by regular customers. Peanuts, a deep bay cross between a Welsh Pony and a Quarter Horse with a stiffly standing black mane and a white stripe down his nose, became my favorite horse. Peanuts had the stubbornness of a mule, and if he wasn't ready for a ride, nothing would move him. Many a customer would howl for Randy's help to get the little guy going, only to request another mount when nothing of their own effort worked. There were times when I'd arrive and Peanuts would already be out with another rider, so I'd sit by and wait. Before long, a lone rider would come early into the corral saying that their friend's horse was in the middle of the pasture and wouldn't move. Randy would hop up onto the nearest horse and ride out to rescue the marooned customer. He'd lead them back in, help the poor fellow or lady off, and look my way. "Show them how it's done Barbie!" he'd call, and I'd run over, jump into the saddle, and spur Peanuts into a quick canter around the corral. There was no magic to it, I just knew this little horse, and he knew me. The hours we spent in the pasture were filled with imagination, and an occasional jackrabbit to chase as well. When I rode to a certain point in the pasture, along a little rise, if the sun was sliding lower in the sky and the shadows grew long, our combined shadow looked like a Spanish Conquistador, with Peanut's legs lengthened and his valiantly arched neck emphasized… One weekend Peanuts' saddle broke, Randy left it in the tack room, and I was allowed to ride Peanuts all weekend on my own, bareback, since he was "unrentable" without a saddle. I adored that little horse.

I not only rode Randy's horses, but was privileged to ride some of the boarders' horses as well. A woman named Joann boarded her mare Sharlee and Sharlee's filly, Shandy, at the ranch. Many horses are named with a combination of the Sire's and the Dam's names. When Joann had Sharlee bred to Randy's stallion named King, she decided that "Shar-King" would sound more like a burger joint than a fine, purebred Quarter Horse, so she named Shandy after my cousin Randy. Shandy was a high-spirited, finely-tuned two year-old mare with a deep brown coat, dappled a bit across her rump. What a beauty. After Joann had her "broken" by a professional Wrangler, she still needed to learn her "manners". Joann was a bit too old to climb into the saddle of such a flighty mare, so she asked the fearless girl who groomed her every weekend to give it a go. Shandy was a whole new experience after riding the rental horses. If her hooves ever really touched the ground, I didn't feel it. I spent hours in the saddle teaching Shandy to neck-rein, back up, smoothly transition from walk, to trot, to canter, and back again, and generally behave like a lady.

Then there was the Blacksmith's stallion, Tres Bar, (Trey Bar). A big and powerful Quarter Horse, Tres Bar wore a spectacularly bright chestnut coat. Though he was as light on his hooves as Shandy, there was a strength beneath the saddle which I hadn't experienced with the mare. Riding Tres Bar was like sitting on a thundercloud before it breaks into storm; with a current of electrical expectation conveyed through the reins to my hands. Though he was powerful, he was also mannerly, his strength held in check by a gentleness which spoke to careful and consistent training. They may have been mad to put me into his saddle and send me off, but I loved the few rides which I was allowed on this magnificent animal. I'd take him into an unused pasture, with no other riders in view, and put him through his Rodeo paces. We'd gallop and slide to a stop, pivot in place, and curl around imaginary barrels. There was no jarring to his trot, and his canter was as smooth as floating, but to gallop Tres Bar brought a thrill of adrenalin at the imminent danger as we took flight down the bare dirt track between the pastures. This was when, hanging on for life, I felt like an afterthought on his giant back, with my hands grasping his mane as well as the reins the steel pistons of his legs drove us forward, his hooves pounded the dirt and his rhythmic breath sounded like a freight train. Those few moments stretched to feel like a lifetime, and yet were over in a flash.

On rare occasions now, 30 years distant from those blissful rides, something will trigger these memories, and I can hear the creak of saddle leather, smell the musky, warm scents, and almost feel that nameless elation of riding these horses which live in my memory. The days of going out to the Lazy J Ranch ended with our move to San Antonio. I've been able to ride friends' horses, and have had an occasional rental ride here and there in the years since. Yet never have I felt again the joy that I knew at the Lazy J. Randy's horses and the others which I rode there weren't mine, certainly. They were as close as I would ever come though, to feeling as free on horseback as if I were on my own horse. I've not been blessed with the privilege of owning a horse, and likely never will. But God gave me a year on horseback which will forever be mine to recall with gratitude.

(And, for the record, unless it's the year 1979 and you are Randy Jones, I won't respond to the name "Barbie".)

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Thanksgiving Weekend, 2010

December has arrived in a blustery, rainy gust of weather. In recent years it seems that this final month of the year arrives rather quickly, though the months preceding it are no shorter than before. Why then am I surprised that we are already facing the final hurrah of the year? In ten days we will celebrate Isaac's birthday, we will then decorate the house for the Christmas season, Kate and Rebekah will arrive home for the holiday, and before we know it, it'll be time to adjust to a new number for the calendar year.


This past week with Thanksgiving was full to the brim with activity, family, and wonderful food. Perhaps the time flies quicker that way. Kate came home Tuesday, and Wednesday Jim and Isaac made the long drive to get Bekah. We only had her here for four days, but we made the most of our time with all of the girls under one roof. Thanksgiving day we cooked up a feast, with each of the kids assigned certain recipes or tasks to complete. I think that this was the easiest Thanksgiving feast we've ever prepared, and it must be because we were sharing the work and not rushed about the timing. The girls chose which pies they could not live without, and each prepared their favorites. Erin loves the Cranberry Streusel pie, Bekah had to have traditional pumpkin, and Kate made another perfect Pecan Pie.


Naptime followed our meal, and then the cleaning up. We had an invitation to join friends for dessert, so we packed up the pies and drove across town for a nice evening visit. Erin and Isaac learned to play pool while Bekah played Rummicube and Kate shot a few photos. Blessed ending to a full day.


Friday we slept in- no Black Friday shopping for us! Sitting here now, I'm asking the kids what exactly we did do on Friday, and we're coming up blank… It must have been calm and relaxing all day. Imagine that. Oh, we did have a bonfire in the evening for Bekah and friends. Marshmallows were toasted; a movie was watched.


Saturday was another blessedly full day for us. Last year we invited Jim's cousins to come over the Saturday after Thanksgiving and join us for pie and leftovers transformed into soup. We had so much fun then, and multiplied that fun with seeing them at the wedding and Fourth of July party over the summer that we repeated the invitation. This time we asked the Nelsons to come along as well because, while they aren't actually related to us, they might as well be. Mark and Brooke and their four boys live with cousin Ginger in what is affectionately known among the extended family as "the Group Home". Since they have been there long before our re-connection with Ginger and the Carlton gang, they have been part of our every visit and our kids, Isaac especially, have enjoyed having someone their own age to hang out with.


So the morning was spent making three kinds of soup and more pie- can't have enough pie! At the appointed hour Ginger, Gladys and Alexys arrived with homemade rolls, salad, and approximately 700 deviled eggs, (give or take a few hundred). When the Nelsons arrived we settled in for our feast. Every chair was filled, every bowl used, and the conversations and laughter flowed. Our dining room was filled to capacity as was the kitchen table, and once we were all seated there weren't any objections to placement at the "kids table". Once we finished our meal the Dads and kids went outside to shoot the potato gun, to which the Nelson boys added a twist. Shoot the potato straight up into the air and see who can catch it when it comes back down. It would take a Nelson to dream that one up. Those of us who stayed inside enjoyed a quieter visit with a bottle of zinfandel.


Before long the kids came back inside to thaw out and dig into the pies. Then they played ping pong, foosball, air hockey, and darts in the basement. The noises coming from downstairs testified to the general fun being had, with occasional exclamations, and once a cry of, "Cease fire, cease fire!" After the sun went down- which is still far earlier than I'm used to- the guys all suited up for a game of airsoft outdoors. Like I said, Isaac really enjoys this gang! We sent them out with the simple instruction to not aim for the face.


Meanwhile, back in the house, Jim brought out some old family photos which he'd come across and we passed them around as Gladys and Ginger helped us identify who was who in each picture. This prompted storytelling which the girls enjoyed immensely. Tracing family resemblances in the pictures, figuring out relationships, which generation was which, and stories of those who live now only in the photos and memories made for a very interesting and entertaining end to the day.


As far as I'm concerned, this is a tradition to keep. The family gathers at Ginger's for New Year's, will be gathering at Angie and Guy's for the Fourth of July, and we will welcome any who will join us for Thanksgiving Saturday.


Sunday was a quieter end to the weekend for me as I drove Bekah back to Hyde Park after church. Four hours each way made for a long time in the car, but I took along some sermons on cd to keep my mind occupied and the drive was an easy one. For her next trip home she'll try taking the train at least to Philadelphia, if not all the way to Lancaster. School has now resumed at Kelly Academy after a week's break. Back to it then!