A TOUCH OF FORGIVENESS – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.


The Methodist Church of Corydon, Iowa sits on the northeast corner of the intersection of North DeKalb and West Jackson streets. A steeple accentuates its grey-shingled roofline. Stained glass windows soften its red brick walls. A rose-shaped one distinguishes its front side. On which a thick, wooden door serves as the primary entrance to the church.

Standing at the door, I read, yet again, the note left on the kitchen table for me this morning. “Meet me at the parish office, 9:00 AM,” it says. Scribbled below the words is…Reverend M. E. Weston.

At  8:58 AM, I pull the door open. Step through it into the church lobby. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I find my way across the lobby. I pass an empty coat rack. Step around the bin for donated clothes. Go by the table on which a display of the Upper Room rests. Head up the stairs to the hallway that leads to sanctuary. Then stop at the door to the parish office.

At precisely 9:00 AM, I take a deep breath then knock on the door. It opens decisively. Leaving me standing face-to-face with Dad. Looking at him—formally dressed in a black suit, starched white shirt, and tie—I realize the man before me is the minister of the church, not dad.

“Mark Edward, I’ve been expecting you,” he says. “Please come in.” Pointing to a chair in front of a large desk, he tells me to sit there. As I settle in, he walks around the desk. Then seats himself in a large desk chair on rollers on the opposite side of the desk from me. Eyes on me, he leans forward. Puts his elbows on the desk. Intertwines his fingers and clasps his hands together.

“Mark Edward, is there something you need to tell me?” he says. Heart beating rapidly, breathing laboriously my eight year-old mind races madly. “What is it I need to tell him?” I wonder. Could it be my messy room? Not cleaning Major’s poop from the yard? The pranks I play on Pamela? Not lifting the lid when I pee?

“Come now, Mark Edward, tell me what you’ve done,” he says. My mind fills with an assortment of indiscretions. Could it be my not eating the Brussels sprouts Mom served at dinner last Sunday? Wearing my underwear for three straight days? Not doing my math homework? My head about to explode with possibilities, I silently pray, “Great God in heaven, tell me, please, what have I done?”

A calm settles over me. Me being here, in this office, with the minister of the church, I conclude that what he seeks from me must be church related. Focusing, I think about the times I misbehaved during the Sunday service? The time I was late to Sunday school because I was outside playing in the snow with my dog Major? Perhaps it is about me plugging up the toilet, or drinking the grape juice for communion?

Interrupting my church-related-list-running reverie, he says, “Tell me what you’ve done, there will be no punishment. Truthfulness is the path to forgiveness.” Oh, how at this moment I so need forgiveness. But for which of my many transgressions should I seek it?

Sitting here, before him, my mouth is suddenly dry. I lick my parched lips. The rubbing of tongue on lip triggers a memory of the candy bars—a maple flavored Bun and a Zagnut bar—I ate yesterday afternoon. Each cost me ten cents at the Rexall drug store, on the square, downtown.

Thoughts arise within me of the table in the church lobby on which copies of the Upper Room are for sale. How the booklet is the basis for the daily devotions of the women of the church and an integral part of their monthly Prayer Chain meeting. On the table is a small, square, wooden box with a hinged top and clasp. In has a one-inch slit. Through which each woman who takes an Upper Room, slides a dime.

Tears welling up in my eyes, I know what warrants me being here. Realization turns to words. “I took two dimes from the box,” I say. Tears cascading down my cheeks, I lean forward, face in hands, elbows on knees. A few seconds later, a hand touches my shoulder. I look up. There is Dad, with tears in his eyes.

On this trip to Heartland, the memory that greets my arrival involves two candy bars, a donation box, and the minister of the church. It is a lesson about truthfulness, confession’s soul cleansing affects, and the power of forgiveness. Me realizing that discomforts from being devious arise from my desire to be virtuous. That living truthfully requires I confront such discomforts, and by so doing diminish my devious nature.

On a deeper level, I have come to understand that the encounter in the parish office was about the roles each of us must play. That Dad is sometimes Dad; other times the minister of the church. That sometimes I am son, other times parishioner. That sometimes roles overlap. When they do, it takes great care to preserve the unique goodness of each role, while honoring the possibility of new roles emerging.

Moreover, I now recognize that inherent in each role we play, should we care to see it, is a lesson. In the case of Dad and me, the lesson is about coming forth from a place of love. Being resolute, yet yielding. Teaching while learning.

For these reasons, this time as I leave Heartland, my heart carries a newfound sense of gratitude for the way Dad’s hand on my shoulder planted seeds of love within me that to this day continue to blossom. With each bloom that comes forth I think of him. And of the meaningful moment we shared in the office of the minister of the church.

Mark Edward


Note: This is the 27th post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

 

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A MAJOR FEAST: Giving, Getting and Taking – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.

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On this Sunday morning in 1960, the parsonage of the Methodist Church of Corydon, Iowa is bustling with Christmas activity. There is a dinner to fix, 9:00 AM service to attend, presents to open, and a feast to consume. Dad, Mom, Pamela, and I are each doing our part.

As Pamela and I do our part, Major, my 175-pound, apricot colored mastiff watches us set the dinner table. Put a hand-carved nativity scene mid-table, atop a white tablecloth. Arrange four place settings, each with two forks, china plate, knife (blade toward the plate), two spoons, water goblet, and wine glass. Then add a rolled, bright red napkin exclamation point to each.

Then, in the kitchen, Major watches Mom prepare dinner. She is trying to have every dish ready, or nearly ready, before church, so after church finishing touches will make dinner ready for serving. On the stove, tomato soup simmers in a pot. Peeled potatoes boil in an 8-quart stockpot. Broth for gravy sits in a 2-quart saucepan. And green bean casserole bakes in the oven. With each stir that Mom gives a pot, the drool hanging from Major’s jowls lengthens.

Major’s eyes widen as Mom looks in the refrigerator at the salad bowl containing an apple, raisin, and whipped cream concoction. Then at the smaller bowls holding homemade pickles—cucumber, pepper, and melon. And a plate of neatly aligned deviled eggs, lightly sprinkled with paprika.

When Mom places three loaves of uncut, freshly baked bread—white, cinnamon swirl, and mixed-grain—on a wood platter on the counter, Major fidgets. When she places a big slab of butter on a dish next to the bread, drool streams from both sides of Major’s jowls.

Nearby on the counter are two jars of jam (one rhubarb-strawberry, the other cherry), a jar of crabapple jelly, and one of peach preserves. Beside them are a cherry pie, apple pie, and a platter of homemade cookies, assorted bars, fudge, and two types of divinity. An 8-pound smoked ham sits in a pan on the other side of the counter. When Major see it, splat! His drool hits the floor.

Table set and meal as ready as can be, we head to church. Dad drives. Mom sits beside him, fiddling with her hair. Pamela and I in the backseat, dreaming of what awaits us after church. Major at home.

At the church, Dad, stands in the narthex, greeting parishioners. Mom, Pamela, and I stand beside him. I hear Dad thank the Milners for the eggs they gave our family. Tell Mrs. Gargin how much we appreciate her cinnamon bread. I see Dad embrace Dr. Gramel for giving us a ham.

My ears perk up when Mom gives Francine a hug of thanks for the gift of dill pickles and strawberry-rhubarb jam and inquires about her niece, and my pal, Julie. Next, a thanks for a bushel of apples, follows a thanks for bread and fresh milk, and a thanks for a cherry pie.

On it goes as Dad walks down the aisle to the altar. A nod here, a wink there, acknowledge the generosity of particular parishioner. While during the sermon, Dad, shares God’s word, I look around. People smile, some laugh, and a few cry—as they receive Dad’s gift.

Riding home, warmness pervades the car that has yet to warm up. We speak no words. Giving and getting occupy my thoughts.

Once home, the warmness of the car carries Pamela and me into the living room. There a Christmas tree (a gift) stands guard over a pile packages. Pamela and I sit on the floor, Dad on the couch. Dutifully waiting for Mom to join us, we listen to her bang and clang, open and close, in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on dinner.

Mom’s ear-piercingly-loud “OH NO!” shatters our reverie. We dash to the kitchen. There, Mom stands over Major. Lying on his bed in the kitchen corner, a ham-bone is by his side. Belly swollen, breathing labored, the source of Major’s misery is the 8-pound ham that is now inside him.

A memory about a Christmas long ago waits my arrival at Heartland. It reminds me that a gift’s true value resides not in the item, but in the spirit in which it is given. That personal labor adds value to a gift. As does giving a gift freely with no expectation. That a gift’s value increases when the getter partakes of it joyfully and the giver expresses thanks genuinely. How value grows exponentially when the warmth that a gift generates in the hearts of the receiver and giver warms the hearts people around both.

As for Major, well, miserable Major teaches me a lesson about taking. That some people take because of lust or greed, others take to fulfill what they lack or need. Sometimes, as is the case with Major, people take because of alienation. Regardless of reason, taking breaks trust. Mom leaving the ham on the countertop is an act of trust. Major eating it, broke the trust. I will think twice before doing so again. As this trip to Heartland reminds me, there is a place at the table, part to play, and gifts to receive for every member of our family except Major. Having none, he takes the ham.

Over the years, I have come to see Christmas not as an event but a way of living. That generous gifts of belonging, supporting, and love are what generate the warmth that knows no time or season. Nurturing faith, hope, charity in myself nurtures the same in others. Doing what I can, where I am, with what I have is always my greatest gift.

That day, as I sit at the dinner table, the events of the morning sit with me. I think of each bite as a gift, every morsel the fruit of someone’s labor. How the abundance before me, is, even with no ham, nonetheless major feast. A moan from the kitchen reminds me that I have what I need, no need to take more.

Mark

PS. In the year ahead, I will give freely of my gifts and express gratitude for my abundance.


Note: This is the 26nd post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

COURAGE TO DO THE UNTHINKABLE – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.

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God put me on this earth to explore every nook and cranny of Corydon, Iowa. I take this charge quite seriously. To understand just how serious, consider the many nooks and assorted crannies that I have explored since arriving here two and a half years ago.

I now know the Wayne County Courthouse from its full-length urinals in the basement to the bells in its cupola. The Corydon State Bank, where the townspeople keep their money, I frequent its safe. Next to the bank is the dairy that processes the milk that farmers draw from their cows in its big vats and pasteurizers. Churches, I have been in all 10 of them, some, dozens of times. Movie Theatre, I know the secret entrance out back. The Times Republican, its editor stocks a candy bowl just for me. And the 600 or so houses that protect their occupants from the elements, and each other, well I reckon that I have been in at least 250 of them, maybe more.

Every day, as I go about exploring Corydon, I pass by the water tower. Most days, as I go by, I gaze at it and wonder what my hometown looks like from up there. What nooks and crannies might I see from there that I have yet to explore?

The water tower is by far Corydon’s tallest structure. From tower’s base to the tip of the lightening rod that adorns its top, the span is 130 feet. Its big cylindrical tank—with City of Corydon painted on its side— holds 750,000 gallons of water. It rests on four steel-beam legs. Each leg angles slightly outward, it foot embedded in cement. On one leg, a ladder leads up to a narrow walkway that encircles the tank.

The tower pulls water from the Wayne County reservoir, seven miles away. Hydrostatic pressure pushes water from the tank to the sinks, toilets, and tubs of the homes and establishments that connect to Corydon’s water main. During the day, as the townspeople do their business, the water level of the tower falls. At night a pump fills it back up so it is ready for another day.

Today is the day that my friend John and I decide to climb the tower. I go first. Left foot on rung, I eagerly grab a crosspiece with my right hand. Up I go. Right foot on a different rung, my left hand on another crosspiece, upwards I climb toward the tank and walkway. What a proud explorer of nooks and crannies am I. The evenly spaced rungs and crosspieces make for steady climbing but the steep angle of the tower’s legs demands much effort. Right foot, left hand, and left foot, right hand upward I climb. My legs, arms, and hands ache with fatigue. I use the little strength that remains to pull myself up onto the walkway. Perched there, I reach down to help John get up here.

John safely by my side, I take a moment to look out at Corydon. I see the United Methodist Church where Dad ministers to his flock, the elementary school that I attend, and the parsonage in which we live. Slowly my eyes scan backwards from the parsonage to the library and finally to ground below. There, sitting at the base of the tower, my dog Major, a 185-pound mastiff, looks like a tiny chihuahua. On the nearby sidewalk, a lady carrying shopping bags looks about the size of an infant.

I feel vulnerable in a way I have never felt before. My heart races wildly, my head spins, and stomach rumbles. I turn white. Fear overtakes me. A gust of wind could blow us off the walkway. Tears flow freely. “God, please God help me get down from here,” reverberates in my head. I wish I had never climbed up here. What was I thinking?

Gasping for air, I whisper to John, “Let’s go.” Sliding over the walkway, heading down, I realize that no one can help us. No one knows we are here.

As my foot touches the first rung, my leg goes rubbery. I pause to collect my thoughts. My hand, on the crosspiece, is sweaty. “What if I lose my grip?” I ask myself. Gripping the crosspiece extra tightly with one hand—while blocking thoughts of slipping from my mind—I wipe my other hand on my pants.

One rung and one crosspiece, I pause to breathe deeply and exhale slowly. Then another rung, another crosspiece, another deep breath, and another slow exhale. Rung by rung, breath by breath I make my way down the water tower. A proud explorer of nooks and crannies no more, I am a disappointment to myself but a conqueror of my fear.

On this trip to Heartland, a memory of a terrifying moment on the water tower greets me. It is a vivid reminder about facing and overcoming fear. How, up on the walkway, when fear set in and I had no choice but to find my way down. To do so, I had to regulate myself. I held on, breathed deeply, silenced my mind, and did what I had to do…rung after rung. As I did, I discovered an inner-strength I never knew I had and an explorer’s pride that I had in abundance.

Going deeper, I now understand that the lesson of the water tower is also about comfort. That new learning only happens outside my comfort zone. How, on the walkway, when I was uncomfortable, I learned a valuable lesson about fear. That, by facing my fear and taking a step, I became stronger and more self-reliant.

Now, I also understand that sometimes I take risks and other times risks find me. In a risky situation I often must take a step, or leap, of faith, sometimes to save, help, or improve myself or, perhaps, someone else. When I do, I find the courage to do the unthinkable.

Mark 


Note: This is the 20th post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

HANGING IN THE BALANCE – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.

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Aunt Francine, Aunt Francine…Mark Edward is coming,” yells Julie as she runs from her upstairs bedroom to the first floor living room of her Aunt’s house. I, oblivious to the goings-on inside, pedal my bicycle straight through the puddles that dot the lane that perpendicularly connects Francine’s house with Highway 2 west of Corydon, Iowa.

Inside, Julie looking out the living room window, her Aunt looking over her shoulder, says, “Look at him!  All arms, legs, and feet…a knight charging to save the damsel.” I, pedaling up the lane, wet from the rain on this gray day, have a pack on my back. I feel like a rode hard, put up wet mule. In the pack, wrapped in plastic, are quilting materials for the project that Mom and Francine are doing on behalf of the Women’s Circle of the United Methodist Church.

Though unsophisticated in the ways of women, I realize my trip here is about more than the delivery of materials for the project. It is a mere contrivance that brings Julie and me together. I am okay with this…but certainly do not say so to Mom. Being with Julie, even in contrived circumstances, is something I enjoy.

Julie, a city girl, here to live with her Aunt, makes me think about things I never think about. I, a small town boy, who loves the outdoors, am proud to show Julie a world she never dreamt of seeing. When together—thinking and showing—we run, laugh, have fun, and sometimes shed some tears. The thought of being with Julie this afternoon excites me.

After leaning my bike against the front step, I reach to knock on the door to the house. Before knuckles hit wood, the door swings opens. Opposite me stands Miss Francine, with Julie—jeans, plaid blouse, ringlets, and bauble—by her side. Pulling me in, out of the rain, Francine hands me a towel. Then says, “Julie, please take Mark Edward’s pack up to my sewing room, then join us in the kitchen.”

I feel a strange, dark foreboding as Francine leads me to the kitchen. While she piles fresh baked chocolate chip cookies on a plate and pours three glasses of milk, I wonder what the foreboding might mean. When Julie sits down beside me, poof, the dark thoughts evaporate.

As I munch a cookie, Francine thanks me for trekking out here in the rain. I say, “No problem, it’s a fun adventure.” When she asks about Mom, Dad, and Pamela. I put my second cookie back on the plate then provide a terse summary about Mom and Dad…not Pamela. Francine, sensing my discomfort, starts talking about what she and Julie have been up to. Finished with the second cookie, now munching on a third, I hear about their shopping trip to Centerville, a movie matinee last Sunday in Corydon, and the usual gardening, sewing, cooking, and cleaning stuff, that women do, about which I have little interest. Nothing to say, and no room for a fourth cookie, I look at Julie.

“Let’s go play in the barn,” says Julie. At that, I offer up my best thank-you-for-the cookies to Miss Francine, finish my milk, stand, then head to the back door. There, Julie waits for me, umbrella in hand.

As Julie and I walk side-by-side toward the barn, she reaches high to hold the umbrella over us. The barn, having seen better days, still works. Its four sides and a hip roof adequately protect the livestock from the wind and keep the dirt floor and a hayloft dry. An intense rain, quick series of lightning flashes, and thunder rumbles announce our arrival. The pungent smell of livestock, manure, and hay welcomes us as we step through the door into the barn.

Julie, city-girl-cautious where she steps, proceeds to show me around. A roost of chickens there, two milk cows through here, a group of hogs over there, and…. Oh, no, a dead cat, from the looks of her, a mother. My first thought is about the foreboding I felt earlier. I, at once, am sad, awestruck, and relieved.

Julie, a tear in her eye, wanting to care for the cat starts to kneel down. Before her knees touch the ground, a soft, delicate meow sifts down from the loft causing Julie to pause. Another meow follows, and yet another. Julie stands up. I spring to the ladder and start climbing. She hangs back, apprehensive…I note curiously.

In the loft, 25 feet above, the meows pull me to a litter of five orange, tan, and black balls of fluff—kittens. “Julie, over here,” I say as she crosses the ladder’s crest. “They miss their mother.” Julie walks ever so cautiously along the loft’s edge.

Lightning, a clap of thunder, a scream, suddenly, there is no Julie. I go to the edge. Afraid, I force myself to look over. There, a few feet below, upside down, hem of her left pants leg impaled on a large, rusty, four-sided nail, hangs Julie, unconscious. Loose arms and limp hair dangling downward, if she moves, surely the hem or nail will give way, reuniting Julie with her beloved bauble, next to the dead cat, on the hardpan floor more than 25 feet below. Acting, not thinking, with both hands I reach over the loft’s edge, grab Julie’s ankle with strength from I know not where, pulling her up and over the edge.

Sitting on the floor of the loft, sweat drenched, my heart beats faster than it has ever beaten before. Julie’s near lifeless head rests on my lap; her limp body leans on my dirty pants leg. Looking at her pale, clammy skin and watching her shallow breathing, I think about the apprehension she felt about coming up here. I ponder the foreboding I felt earlier. Must this have happened? Minutes pass, her eyelids flutter. Seconds pass, an exhale follows.

“What happened?” asks Julie. As the rain patters on the metal roof, I answer her question. Quietly, we decompress. The enormity of Julie’s near death sits silently with us. The meows of the motherless kittens’ are the only punctuation.

“Mark, I want to tell you something,” says Julie. “Promise me you won’t tell a single soul. Not even Aunt Francine.” When I promise, she tells me that her parents are divorcing. Her mother, wanting to straighten out her life, sent Julie to live with Francine for the summer. When Julie goes home it will be to a new house—a new life.

“Dad is not always nice to my Mom…” Julie says. When she leaves it at that, I remember Mom talking about a neighbor family in which the dad was “not nice to the mom”. Their two children are my friends. We talk. I understand what not nice entails.

“I fear for my Mother, “ Julie says. “ I’ve heard nothing from her since I got here.” Here, Julie is safe from the situation back home. Soon she must return there. She will be vulnerable. And I will be here, unable to protect her. I fear for Julie. As I do, I realize that Julie has a special place in my heart.

As I walk home, the rain stops. The wheels in my head are turning faster than those of my bicycle. Over my shoulder, I glimpse back at Julie, in an open doorway, watching me walk down the lane. When I turn left on Highway 2, back to Corydon, I am alone.

On this trip to Heartland, the memory that awaits me is about contrivances, kittens, and the near death of my  friend. The memory reminds me to share my feelings. When I do not share my feelings contrivances occur, such as the get-together for Julie and me. Likewise with my foreboding, Julie’s apprehension, and the incident in the barn. What difference might giving voice to them have made?  As for our exchange in the loft, I never share it with anyone. I am confident Julie did not either. What risks did we take?

Now looking back, I see that each of us deals with big issues. For me it was my sister Pamela, for Julie her parents. Many of us chose to keep our big issues secret. When we do, our lives hang in the balance. And sometimes, as with Julie, we end up hanging by a hem.


Note: This is the 19th post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

MY LIVING QUILT: STITCHED WITH LOVE – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.

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Going west on Highway 2, Mom turns onto the gravel lane that leads to the split-level house that sits on the acreage where Francine lives. Lately, Mom is spending lots of time with Francine. Most times, Pamela joins them. Sometimes, as is the case today, I come along.

The ladies of the United Methodist Church of Corydon, Iowa are committed to delivering 15 quilts to the Bidwell Riverside Center by month’s end. Mildred, as Mildred is wont to do, directs the effort. In typical Mildred fashion, she has 35 quilters and 6 alternates, each assigned to one of 15 teams. With each team sewing one quilt.

Mom and Francine are on the same team. The tone-on-tone quilt they are sewing, as Mildred reminds them every day, is behind schedule. Eager to silence Mildred, Mom and Francine plan to get their quilt back on track this afternoon. I tagged along so I can spend the afternoon at the reservoir directly south of Francine’s place.

I help Mom and Pamela unload the sewing supplies and quilt from the car. Inside the house, I fidget while she and Francine discuss blocks, batting, borders, and bindings. When they spread out their quilt and start threading needles, I can barely contain myself. At the moment they start talking about Mildred, my fidgeting gets the better of me. I say, “Mom, may I please go—now?”

Having accepted, and reciprocated, Mom’s “I love you,” I make a dutiful son’s “promise to be safe” then head to the back door. Where, as I attempt to make my grand escape, Julie, Francine’s niece from Ontario, captures me. In one breath she says, “What’re you doing? Where are you going? Can I come along? Let’s go!” So we do.

Walking down the lane with Julie, I realize that anyone seeing us would have reason to chuckle. Here is Julie, in blue plaid denim shorts, red-and white blouse, and ringlets struggling to keep up with my lankiness, cutoff jeans, and buzz cut. Back at the house, Julie’s Aunt Francine and Mom are peeking out a window. I see them and they are not chuckling. Instead, their smiles say, “Mission accomplished.”

Across the highway, a trail runs parallel to the eastern edge of the reservoir. Walking along it, I proudly point to the tadpoles in a backwater pool. Further on, when we encounter a muskrat swimming along the shoreline, I explain to Julie that its narrow eyes, sloped ears, and webbed rear feet make it maneuverable and fast. When the trail, turning southeasterly, goes into the woods, I show her a hawk, perched on limb that is waiting for his lunch.

As we walk, Julie takes cautious steps. She does her best not to get dirty. All eyes and ears, she humors me when I hold forth on various plants and animals. Never once does she ask where am I taking her. If she had, I would say, “To my fort.”

At the edge of the woods, rests the Corydon cemetery. Near its far end, in the woods, is my fort. Following the trail through the woods will get us there but takes longer than does cutting through the cemetery. So although the cemetery makes me feel creepy, eager to show Julie my fort, I opt for the cemetery route.

Stepping into the cemetery, I walk faster knowing that if Julie were not with me I would, as I usually do, run, not walk past the stones and monuments. Walking fast I look to my right and then my left sides. Whoa, Julie where are you? I look back. There, Julie stands, solemnly looking at a stone—Glen “Bill” Hayhurst 1870-1949 and Eva Marie Hayhurst 1873-1959.

I walk back to Julie. Stand by her for a minute. Then, say, “What’re you thinking?”

Touching the stone, Julie says, “Who is here? What’s their story?” As she runs her index finger across the inscription, I tell Julie what I know about Mrs. Hayhurst. Dad visited her when she was ill, and had her service when she died. That she was a church lady, Mildred gave the eulogy at her funeral, and Aunt Francine and Mom served dinner afterwards.

Julie goes from stone to stone. She stops at one. Touches it. Reverently runs her finger across the name inscribed on it. As she does, I see she silently speaks the name Then stops at another stone, and another. I am puzzled. Sensing this, she says, “Lest they be forgotten, I’m giving life to the memory of each person here.” Bewildered, I wonder what the heck this means?

When Julie stops at Mary Alice Robertson 1939-1952, Beloved Daughter. I think about my sister Pamela. She will be 13, Mary Alice’s age, this coming October. Pamela’s seizures are coming more often. Each shakes her fragile existence.

Heading on to the fort, thoughts about life, death, fragility, nature, and Pamela pulsate through my head. Once there, I proudly show off my fort—a three-sided lean-to structure, fire-pit, and perimeter fence replete with booby-traps and snares. I invite Julie to sit by the pit. I offer her half of my somewhat smooshed snickers bar and a swig of water from the canteen. As Julie, take itty-bitty bites of her half of the bar, she says, “So, Mark Edward, what happens when people die?”

With every bit of my half of the candy bar in my mouth, I struggle to swallow. Unable to answer, I shuffle my feet. A few tense moments later, eyes looking downward, I say, “Excuse me.” Then go sit at the gigantic base of a nearby elm tree. I think of the dead people I know—Grandma Weston, Mrs. Baines, Dr. Lindsey, and my neighbor Mrs. Baker. I recall my dog Mitzi, killed by a truck. And, of course I think about Pamela, as I so often do, around whom death seems to hover. Tears well up in my eyes, once flowing, they do not want to stop.

I am not sure how long I sit here deep in thought before I realize that Julie is sitting beside me, her arm intertwined with mine, her chin resting on my shoulder. After sitting this way for quite some time, Julie breaks the silence. She says, “I’m sorry about all of this. Are you ok?” To which I softly reply, “Yep.” Julie, unconvinced, says, “Hey, Mark Edward, why don’t you take me swimming tomorrow?”

With this my yep becomes a YEP, and she, little Julie, pulls me up by my arm, then says, “We need to go home.” And, looking me straight in the eyes, she shoves me against the giant elm—hard—and starts running toward her Aunt Francine’s place. I race after her.

On this trip to Heartland memories of a young friend, our walk in the woods, and the time we spend in the Corydon cemetery greet me. It reminds me how I share my active, carefree, and natural side with her. And she shares her sensitive, sympathetic, and empathic side with me. We help each other go deeper—into nature and ourselves. Individually we are different, together complete. Much as the blocks, batting, borders, and bindings come together in the quilt Mom and Francine are making.

As I revisit this memory, I understand that Julie’s wonderings in the cemetery force me to go deep inside myself to a raw place I have never been. What I touch there helps me become more complete. That completeness, as I later learn, is what helps me handle the challenge that awaits Pamela and I. It is the thread that holds the quilt of my life together.

Mark 


Note: This is the 17th post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

MARK EDWARD MEETS HIS MATCH – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.

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Even at the tender age of ten, I have been to more than my fair share of potluck dinners hosted by the good ladies of the United Methodist Church of Corydon Iowa. I have eaten enough of their deviled eggs, meatloaf, seven-bean salads, and Jell-O with grapes to last a lifetime. This Sunday, as I sit here, next to my mother and sister Pamela, at yet another potluck dinner, with yet another plate full of potluck food, up walks Francine.

“May we join you?” Francine asks. A tray with two plates of food, two glasses of tea, and two side dishes, with a chocolate chip cookie on one and on the other a piece of apple pie is in her hands. The food is common fare here. What stands next to Francine—actually slightly hidden—is a dish unlike like any I have ever seen here before.

“This is Julie,” Francine says to my mother. “She’s my sister’s daughter. You know, the smart one in North Ontario that I’ve told you about.” Eyes suddenly downward, I sit uncharacteristically straight, still, and silent. Each mouthful of potluck food I carefully chew 23 times (even the Jell-O). I know, because I count each bite.

When Francine says, “Julie is staying with us this summer.” I think about the acreage east of town, near the railroad overpass on Highway 2, just north of the reservoir. Two milk cows, a hutch of chickens, a garden with several rows of sweet corn, a split level house, and a couple with no children.

I try my best to be inconspicuous, not to fidget or look up, but cannot stop myself. Ever so discretely a peek at Julie I sneak. Ringlets and eyes greener than the peas in the salad greet my blue eyes. Confused, curious, and intrigued I look downward and chew my food. Each bite 23 times, I know, I count.

My ears perk up when Francine says, “Murrell, I was wondering…” My chewing slows when she says, “If you could ask Mark Edward…” Then speeds up when she says, “He’s such a nice boy…” When she says, “To look after Julie while she’s here in Corydon?” I gag!

My Mother, as only a mother can do, senses my discomfort. She puts her hand on my knee. A gesture, that thank God the tablecloth hides, tells me to not say a word. Mother says, “Francine, Julie is such a nice girl. Thanks for asking. I will talk with Mark Edward tonight. I’ll call you tomorrow.” With that, Mother and Francine take up other topics. Pamela grins. My chewing resumes.

As I chew, I consider taking another peek at Julie, but am too mortified to move. Somehow, my eyes, perhaps controlled by a puppet master somewhere, look up and my head turns. There, in a red cardigan, over a white shirt and blue shorts, a big red bauble holding up her ponytail, sits Julie, listening to Aunt Francine and my mother prattle on. Noticing a beauty mark on her left cheek, I wonder whether she has freckles? As I start to look more closely, Julie’s turning head causes me to stop. Her soft, sweet smile makes me look away.

At home, Mother says nothing to me about Francine’s request and I do not bring it up. To be sure it does not, I head to my tree house, where I spend the rest of the afternoon—alone. There I eat two apples and read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. When I get to the part about Becky Thatcher and Tom, I read it twice. Trying to understand their relationship. Over dinner, I am silent. I go to bed before it is time to do so. When Pamela comes by my bedroom to read with me, I pretend to sleep but watch her through my barely open eyes.

A week later, Mother, Dad, several families from the congregation, Pamela, and I are at Francine’s acreage for a barbeque, bonfire, and songfest. Remembering Francine’s request of Mother, my senses are on high alert as I step out of the car. During dinner, I stay close to Pamela. As Francine lights the fire, I hang in the shadows. When the songfest begins I join the kids to play hide and seek. Julie is “it”. I run to the north side of the barn, beside the haystack, near the creek that flows to the reservoir—there I hide.

Near the house, Kumbaya fans the flames of the bonfire. Laughing kids run to keep away from Julie so as to not become “it”. Here by the barn, my back on the soft moist grass, looking to the Moon and stars, safe in the dark, I wait for Dad’s call to go home. Fanning the bonfire, We Shall Not be Moved reminds me how much Dad loves to sing and be with his flock. I worry, and should.

Plop! A pair of plaid denim Toughskin pants sits down beside my head. A pair of Buster-Browns follows, after that a plaid Toughskin jacket. Then comes a whisper. “Great place, Mark Edward. They’ll never find us here,” says Julie. When she stretches out beside me, my heart is beating so loud I fear the nearby barn will rattle.

When Julie asks, “What are you thinking?” “S-t-a-a-a stars,” sneaks out my mouth. Thank you God, she says nothing more, just lies here, next to me, looking at the stars.

When my heartbeat stabilizes, I dig deep for the courage to test my mouth, saying, “That’s the Big Dipper.” Proudly pointing to a seven-star configuration in the northern sky and showing how it indicates Polaris, the North Star. Glancing at Julie, who is looking at the Dipper, a moonbeam illuminates four freckles on her nose. I imagine they point to her beauty mark, much like the Dipper points to Polaris. When I say something about her freckles, she says, “No way! I don’t have freckles!”

“Olly, olly, oxen free,” yells a voice by the house. Hearing this, Julie pulls my left ear—hard. Then she jumps up, and starts running. Without thinking, I jump up and give chase. She is fast, real fast, but I am faster. Soon we are running side by side. The bonfire blazing, house rapidly approaching, I stretch out my legs to pull ahead of Julie. As I do, I call her “Freckles.” Safe base in sight, this race is mine. Then suddenly, not knowing why, I ease up…ever so slightly. Julie pulls even with me. Side by side we run. When I intentionally ease up, Julie pulls ahead. I let her beat me to the base. Game over. Night done. Time to go home. Think about the race I gave to Julie. I have met my match.

The memory that awaits me in Heartland is about being stirred up. Realizing that some people come into my life for that purpose. Their presence helps me question who I am becoming. Forces me to face the unknown. Do things—like throw a footrace—I never ever would have done otherwise. The memory admonishes me to be open to others, especially those who may, at first, stir me up. They bring balance to my life, the anima, in the case of Julie, to my animus.

On a deeper level, my memory of Julie is about seeing. Francine sees qualities in me that I do not see that she sees will benefit Julie. My Mother sees Julie’s refined, empathetic, and deep thinking nature as a nice match for my active and carefreeness. I, with the help of the moon, see the freckles that Julie refuses to see. Julie sees that she is faster than me, but I know better. I see that one, very special girl, who by pulling my ear, helps me view the races I run differently. Sometimes, life is funny like that.

Mark 


Note: This is the 16th post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

AMAZING GRACE – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.

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Plop! Pride and Prejudice slowly twists and turns in the air before hitting the oak floor of the living room. Thud! Pamela collapses like a deflated balloon. Shaking and quivering, she lies on the floor near the book that she had been reading.

“Mark Edward, get the stick,” Mom yells, as she goes to Pamela’s side. Dropping my glove and ball, the world slows down as I head to the kitchen. There, in the corner of the countertop, under the cabinet, in a coffee mug rests the stick. Two tongue depressors, wrapped in cotton, swathed with gauze, and covered with surgical tape.

Stick in hand, I enter the living room. Pamela is on the floor. A soft beam of light streaming through the window caresses her convulsing body. A hymn we sang at church last Sunday comes to mind—Amazing Grace.amazing grace 1Mom, kneeling by Pamela’s side, wedges the stick between Pamela’s clinched teeth. Then places a small pillow under Pamela’s head and wipes the perspiration from her colorless face. “Pamela, you’ll be okay,” Mom says. “God’s grace surrounds you.”

On the side opposite Mom, I kneel next to Pamela. Sluggish tears roll down my face. I place Pamela’s jerking left hand between my hands. Every ounce of healing energy that I can muster I send through my hands to my big sister. Taking a long slow look at Mom’s face and then at my shaking and quivering sister, I know that, “Things are not all right.”

Dad is on his way here from the church. Doctor Smith just left the hospital and should soon be here. In the meantime, Pamela’s precious life rests in our hands. Pamela—unconscious, her eyes rolled up in their sockets, teeth clinching the stick, and pink blouse wet with sweat—is in her private hell. Mom is in the hell that mothers dread—a beloved child in peril. God, please grant them your Mercy.

“Stay strong for Pamela,” I say to myself. “No hell for me, remain positive for Mom.” Pulling myself together, I think about last night, Pamela and I sitting on the front step, in the moonlight, listening to the Twins—Red Sox game. Pamela was full of life as her Twins beat my Sox 5-3. In the moonlight she talks smack to me. I draw strength from that memory and my faith.amazing grace 2With renewed strength, I thank God for the ladies of the United Methodist Church of Corydon Iowa. Undoubtedly, they are busily responding to our situation—prayer chain active, meal service ready, and blue-hair Bertha eager to care for me.

Remaining strong, I think about the many seizures that Pamela has previously survived. The stick with its special place in the kitchen, Mom and I with our rapid response routine, and the church ladies on perpetual high alert are evidence of this fact. Born with a brain defect, pressure builds and seizures happen, as Pamela grows older. Their frequency and severity are increasing. The seizure today is the worst yet.

Mom, Dad, and I do what we can to help prevent Pamela from having more seizures. We see that she gets the rest and quiet she needs, and help her live the “normal” life that she deserves. In this effort, Mom carries the largest load. She manages the house, prepares meals, coordinates doctor visits, organizes medicines, and handles all sorts of mother-daughter stuff. Dad cares for his flock, of which we are part, and does it well. I do my part by being quiet within our home and active outside it. Some days I play with neighborhood kids. Other days, I visit church members such as Bertha, Bennie, and his brother Fred. Every weekday, I deliver newspapers to the townsfolk. Whatever time I have left scouts, art lessons, choir, and little league consume. At home, Pamela and I talk, tease each other, read, play cards and board games, and practise the piano.

At this moment, kneeling by Pamela who is convulsing on the floor, waiting for Dad and Doctor Smith to arrive, I would give my life to have her made whole, and joyful as she was last night on the porch. At that instant, a faint whisper from within says that the carefree times are on the wane for Pamela and I. I should take advantage of the time we have, and keep the stick nearby.

On this trip to Heartland the vivid memory that greets me is a reminder of a tragic moment when loving hands fight to keep a precious daughter and sister alive. A poignant remembrance of how life and death coexist while Pamela clinches the too-often used stick between her teeth. A time when love of a mother, father, brother, and the ladies of the United Methodist Church pulls Pamela through, one more time.

Here in Heartland, the deeper nature of my existence is visible. I see each event of the day, from book plop to seizure and stick, in slow motion. Every role—daughter, sister, brother, mother, and father—reflects a deep connectedness to the others. Life and death are there too. In God’s grace, we save Pamela’s life while Death organizes our lives.amazing grace 3

Mark


Note: This is the 13th post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

THE SPECIAL PROJECT – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us. 

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A little house with a big porch sits at the end of a dirt lane. Its lane connects to a gravel road that runs south from Highway 2 west of Corydon, Iowa. A leftward-lilting barn and disheveled tool shed, with metal roofs that match the roof of the house, a garden, and chicken hutch. Cornfields surround this acreage that Bennie and Fred call home.

Pedaling my bicycle down the lane, a brood of Plymouth Rock chickens cackle and scurry to avoid the wheels of my bicycle. A cool easterly breeze, uncharacteristic for early July, makes my morning ride bearable. The chickens are smart to get their business done early. They will be roosting when I mount-up for the four and three-quarter-mile trek trip back home.

Sitting on the porch in over-stuffed chairs that desperately need some stuffing, Bennie and Fred nod their greetings as I put down my bicycle. As I walk toward the porch stoop, empty beer cans are scattered about. Catching Bennie’s eye, I place my left index finger to the side of my nose then breathe sharply out my right nostril. A slimy mass shoots forth. Bennie’s approving grin reveals a gap where two lower teeth ought. My proud smile showcases my missing front tooth. Fred, watching our exchange, uses a cloth to wipe sweat from his baldhead

“Get on up here. We saved you a seat,” Bennie says in a voice made phlegmy by the plug in his cheek. Today, like every day except Sunday, a half-inch thick piece of rope holds up his spotted and greased stained hammer hook jeans. The shirt and jeans he wears have seen too many days since their last washing. I dare not think about his socks and underwear.

Splat a stream of Fred’s spittle hits the nearby earth. For someone sitting as far up on the porch as is Fred that is a mighty skillful feat. Pushing a box in my direction, Fred points. His way of saying, “Sit”, which I do. Duly ensconced on the porch, we commence whittling. A rough-cut whistle is the object of my attention. Silence hangs over us.

Bennie and Fred belong to Dad’s church. They attend Sunday services once or twice a month, usually arriving late and leaving early. Their Sunday outfit is clean hammer hook jeans and shirt with the same shoes they wear every other day. Church dinners and potluck suppers, they never miss, always early, staying late. They were born, grew up, and lived on the acreage for most of 60 years except during the war. Fred saw action in the Pacific and Bennie served stateside, someplace in Texas, I think. Bennie is the oldest brother. Fred is the quiet one, has been since the war.

I am not exactly sure how or when Bennie, Fred, and I first connected. I do know that with no family but themselves, they took a quick fancy to me. I am always welcome at their place. When they attend church, afterwards they always tell Dad—never Mom—I am their “special project” and they are my “tutors”. Dad smiles reverently, but I can tell he is worried.

When times are dull in town, or Pamela needs some extra peace and quiet at home, I pedal out here for tutoring. Last time, in addition to roughing out the whistle, I learned how to blow my nose without a handkerchief or sleeve. The time before that sitting on the porch, we shot horseflies with a 22-caliber rifle. Fred is a much better shot than Bennie and I. One time, Fred made a quarter disappear in his ear.

Today, after some serious whittling, we break for lunch. Fried eggs, cheese, and pickle on Wonder Bread sandwiches. Mine with milk, beer with theirs. I am careful to chew each bite 20 times, as I am supposed to do. When done with the dishes, back to the porch we go. With the air now stultifying, we settle down to some serious whittling. After a while, backward goes Bennie’s head. His mouth drops open. Asleep, one rumble, then another, and another rolls out.

Fred smiles. I smile back. He motions for me to come near. I slide the box toward his chair. He holds out his unkempt right hand. Moving his index finger to and fro, he motions for me to “pull it”. I always try to do what I am told to do, so I do pull his finger. Instantly there is a loud “PFFFTT”. Then Fred, grinning proudly, waves his hand in front of his nose. Seconds later I understand why. I learn my lesson.

On this trip to my Heartland, memories of a bygone era greet me. They help me recall summer days with unlocked doors, trusted neighbors, and parents who let their young son pedal out to hang with two men on their acreage. Of a community that knows Bennie and Fred, despite their rough appearances and boorish behaviors, will protect and care for me at a time I need both.

Many a lesson I did learn from Bennie and Fred on the front porch of their house at the end of a dirt road. The deepest and most enduring of which is the importance of bringing a gentle heart and playful soul to the lives of others. While Dad never once asks about my times at the acreage, I have no doubts he knew the lessons I would learn there.

Mark


Note: This is the eleventh post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

OUR LIFE, A MASTERPIECE – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.

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Northwest of the town square, past the bank, water tower, and United Methodist Church a modest, two story white house rests on a corner lot. My friend John’s aunt lives here. On the west side of the house, an enclosed stairway leads to a second floor apartment. With eager anticipation, John and I climb the steep stair steps.

At the precise moment our feet touch the top step, a “C’mon in boys, there’s work to do” greets us.

Waving us in, fussing with his wavy white hair, cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth, a leprechaun-like man scurries about the room. On its far side sits an easel. Near it, stretched canvases sit blank and ready to go. Further away stacks of paintings—trees, rocks, stately elk, and snow capped mountains—await completion. Scattered about, on wooden crates, are several half empty coffee mugs. An unhealthy amount of milky tan-colored scum floats in each. By the easel bunches of tubes of paint, brushes of every possible size, and three paint-pocked palettes of differing hues are ready to go. A not quite vacant bottle of amber liquid completes the bohemian décor of the apartment turned makeshift, winter studio of Dave Stirling, Corydon’s finest artist.

Even though Mr. Stirling grew up here, Bugscuffle Ranch Studio on the Horseshoe Park side of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado has been his home since 1915. He is the park’s one and only artist in residence. At the ranch, most days (and many evenings), he holds court, often playing the piano as he spins tales and charms potential patrons. Holding court leaves Mr. Stirling little time to paint. So most of the paintings he sells there, he paints here, sometimes with our help.

Perched on wooden crates, John and I are ready to go. Mr. Stirling tucks a fresh-lit cigarette between his lips, grabs a brush, mushes it into some purple paint, points to the canvas on the easel, hands me the brush, and says, “Mark, paint a letter…any letter.” Leaping off the crate, to the canvas I go. With a bold stroke, S is the letter I paint.

“Now John, you paint a letter, any letter,” says Mr. Stirling. John puts a precise P on the canvas. While we return to our perches, proud of our contributions to the effort, the maestro adds his strokes to ours. A horizon appears. Stepping back, he asks for our guidance. We offer critique, he considers, then adds more strokes—brown ones, ochre too—a tree springs to life in the foreground. Splotches of blue, dabs of white become a blue sky with billowy clouds in the background. After more strokes, and an extra bit of critique, we stop. Twisted, leafless trees on a mountainside under a blue cloud-filled sky. A signature—Stirling—in the lower left corner completes the painting.

As we bask in the glory of our masterpiece, Mr. Stirling regales us with stories of his childhood in Corydon, the circuitous journey that took him to Bugscuffle Ranch, people he met along the way, and his life as an artist (and tourist attraction). His words become brush strokes, his life a canvas, experiences a palette. The stories he tells and pictures he paints depict the joys and sorrows of a man living the life he wants to live within the boundaries of our hometown and the national park but outside norms and mores of each.

We are born a blank canvas that is ours to paint. Using a full palette we paint our lives with the colors and hues we select and the textures, contrasts, and shades we experience. The combination of paints and brush strokes create different effects on our canvases. For instance, bold brush strokes and bright colors bring passion and drama. Broad strokes and earth tones portray purpose, steadfastness—one’s lifework. Not surprisingly the wide range of colors and brush strokes—including John’s P and my S—Mr. Stirling uses are wholly consistent with the unrestrained way he lives.

In my Heartland there are many characters, some bolder and more colorful than others. Their artistry is evident in the beauty they extract from the ordinariness of everyday life. The way they live inspires and guides the strokes, texturing, and shading of my life. On my life’s canvas there is a bold S stroke honoring Mr. Stirling, a reminder that talent can fill a canvas with beautiful images, but it takes a little flare and a dash of audacity to bring the images to life.

Mark


Note: This is the sixth post in the Heartland Series. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

 

WHERE MEMORIES ARE BORN – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.

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After reading the four previous posts, I expect you have questions about where the boyhood memories recounted in the posts take place, and so you should. You have very little information about where I spent my boyhood. You are in the dark, with no context for what you read. My bad, not fair to you.

I spent my boyhood in Corydon, the smack-dab-center of Wayne County, the fifth-least populous of Iowa’s 99 counties. Wayne County is the midpoint of Iowa’s ten southernmost counties that abut Missouri. At Corydon’s middle—where highways 2 and 14 intersect—sits a red brick courthouse surrounded by a town square.

The busy-ness of Corydon’s town square derives from its midway location. The proud occupants of the square include two banks, four bars, a pool hall, a café, five-and-dime, Murphy’s Clothing, two drug stores (each with a soda fountain), Chevrolet dealership, Hughes Appliance, and the Times Republican newspaper. Each establishment benefits from Corydon’s location. The residents of Corydon, who would rather shop on the square than shop in faraway Chariton or Des Moines, do their best to keep the local establishments profitable.

Of all establishments in Corydon, the hands-down most popular is the movie theatre that sits on the square’s Northwest corner. Its 25-cent Saturday matinees are a mainstay of my friends and I. As are its dinner-ruining milk duds, junior mints, and buttered popcorn that our weekly allowances buy and mothers despise. The theatre’s Friday night features are a well-liked destination for the town’s teens that date, as is the Dairy Queen across the square. Both attract teens from the nearby and much smaller towns of Cambria, Millerton, and Seymour.

Churches are the most common and frequented establishments in Corydon. There are plenty. The limestone-faced First Christian Church, occupying the square’s Northeast corner, has two standing room only services every Sunday. One block over, the white clapboard First Baptist Church has a weekly Sunday service and mandatory Wednesday hymn sing. A block from there, to the East, sits Victory Baptist, its impressive rose shaped stained glass window complemented by a large bed of red roses. Northwest of the square, near the movie theatre is the United Methodist Church that Dad serves. And there are still more churches—Assembly of God, Dunkard Brethren, First Lutheran, Jesus Christ of LDS, Mount Olive Christian, and Corydon Bible—here and there about town. All totaled, Corydon has 10 churches. For a town of 1,533 people, 10 seem about right to me. There are, however, God-fearing folks here who disagree.

Intersecting streets and adjoining sidewalks delineate Corydon. Stately elm and maple trees and occasional patches of flowers punctuate the well-to-do areas. Families of variously sized and shaped people occupy houses of various sizes and shapes. The amounts and types of furniture, clothes, appliances, cars, and toys that each family puts in and around their house are used to determine the family’s place in the town’s unrecorded, but well understood social hierarchy. Making a family’s place in the hierarchy readily visible from the street.

Crushed cinder alleys wind behind and between the houses. The alleys afford a different view of life in Corydon. Back here the hierarchical concerns of the street subside. The hopes, dreams, and sorrows of the town folk, not seen from the street, are as visible as the laundry they hang on their clotheslines.

The difference between street and alley views is apparent in the behaviors of the women who run each household. Gardening is a common task. Between house and alley, the women tend their gardens—rows of sweet corn, green beans, tomatoes, mounds of squash, and a few marigolds—in relative seclusion. The women get dirty, sweaty, windblown, and sunburnt. The loose-fitting cotton dresses and sturdy shoes they wear here, they never wear elsewhere. However, here in the secluded practicality of the alleyway it does not matter.

So when I stop to chat with a woman who is gardening, it is okay that she invites me to come sit with her in the cool shade. There she makes the to-be-expected excuses for her disheveled appearance. I politely offer up my best had-not-noticed. She talks about her husband’s work, kids or grand kids, and inquires about my Mom, Dad, sisters, and dog Major. A bit later, fresh lemonade and cookies miraculously appear. Between sips and bites we talk about my most recent adventure. She feigns genuine interest. Cool, relaxed, and fed I offer up a thank-you-ma’am, then head for home.

Scenarios like this one happen every day because behind and between the houses, along the alleyways convention and decorum are suspended. Everywhere else—on the square, at church, in the theatre, and on the street-side of our houses—hierarchy and status are full force. This is why John, Julie, Dennis, Donnie, and Cindy—my friends from families of varying rank and status—and I play in the ally spaces. And play we do!

Some days we play hide-and-seek in an untended garden. Other days we seek treasures in a compost heap, trash bin, or coal chute. Often we climb trees and pick apples. We save rolling around in mud, a favorite activity, for rainy days. The nearby vacant lot is our ball field. Our time together forges status-transcending friendships and teaches us about fairness, equality, and genuine carefree joy.

The memories you read about in previous posts in the Heartland series, and will read about in future ones, are born in the town-square establishments, churches, streets, and alleyways of Corydon Iowa. I make memories with the people I encounter there. I am proud to spend my boyhood here. It is part of who I am and who I am becoming. Trips to Heartland insure I never forget this.

Mark


Note: This is the fifth post in the Heartland Series. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.