Category Archives: Writing

The Cigar Box

Snow fell softly. The old man pulled his threadbare wool coat a little tighter to ward off the cold. He reached up and scrunched his worn and tattered hat down until the brim was just above his gray wiry eyebrows. He shuffled up to the walkway and stopped to look at the old house. It was a white two story wood frame home with black shutters and an old slate roof. Paint was peeling in some places and the shutters had faded with age. The bushes in front needed trimming in the spring. The front porch was just as he remembered it – an old wood 2-seat swing still hung suspended by chains at one the end of the porch, and the vintage metal patio chair, that could use a coat of Rust Oleum, still sat in the same place. He could hear the squeaking of the porch swing somewhere in the cobwebs of his mind. His eyes closed as he remembered the sound. She was once with him on that swing. The corners of his mouth formed the start of a smile, but the image in his mind quickly faded away. The front door was freshly painted a festive red, different than the one he remembered. A holiday wreath hung below the porch light – just above the doorbell. A brass plaque on the door was etched with the last name of the woman he had tracked down – “McIntyre” – the current owner of his childhood home.

He looked down at his scuffed brown shoes and thought again about turning around and leaving. Too much time had passed. He knew he would never find the answers he was searching for, but he had come this far. Maybe it was still there, after all these years. He stuffed his hands in his coat pockets, shuffled up the walk, grabbed the black rot iron railing for support, slowly climbed the 3 wooden steps up to the porch, and stood in front of the freshly painted door. He stared at the doorbell for a moment, then pushed the button.

He heard footsteps on the other side of the door, then the muffled click of the deadbolt sliding back. The door opened and the woman smiled at the old man. “You must be Jim.” she said. “Please come in. I was so glad you called and told me your story about growing up in this house.” She opened the door and stepped aside as Jim nodded his thanks and entered his childhood home.

“I put on a pot of coffee, or I could make you some tea. You must be freezing. Here, let me take your coat.” Jim shrugged off his coat, removed his hat, and handed them to the woman who draped them over the familiar banister by the staircase leading upstairs. “Thank you.” he said. She led him down the short hall to the kitchen. Jim sat down at the small table and looked out the window at the backyard. It seemed smaller than he remembered, but the tree where a tire swing once hung, and provided hours of summer delight, was much larger now, and its canopy would certainly shade the once sunny yard where they had played.

“Would you like cream and sugar?” she asked as she placed a mug of coffee on the table in front of him. His memories of the past flickered away as he nodded yes. She turned and opened the refrigerator, picked up the carton of half & half, got the sugar off the counter, and put them on the table. She poured a mug of coffee for herself and then sat across from Jim.

“It must feel strange coming back to the house where you grew up. I’ve only lived here for a few years, having bought the place from the Gotliebs several years ago. She lost her husband and her kids moved her to a retirement center just off the town square. They didn’t need the headaches of owning another house, so they put it on the market and priced it to sell. I lucked out – right place, right time – and bought it after my husband and I divorced. I don’t have a lot of money to fix the things that need fixing, but I’ve tried to spruce it up where I can. “The door looks nice.” Jim said. “The place is smaller than I remember, but I feel like it was only yesterday that I played catch with my friends in the backyard, or sat on the on the front porch swing with…” Jim’s voice trailed off. His eyes watered. The woman noticed and reached across the table to put her hand on the old man’s arm. His hand was shaking as he picked up the mug to take a sip of his still black coffee.

“After the war dad got a job at the textile factory as an oiler for the machines, and used his GI Bill to buy this house. I was pretty young, but I remember it seemed old even then, and dad was always puttering with his projects around the house. There were other boys in the neighborhood that I played with – right out there in the backyard.” Jim said as he pointed out the window and took another sip of his coffee. “And there was a girl.” His fingers drummed softly on the sides of his mug. The woman listened quietly as Jim summoned the words to continue.

“Her name was Martha. She lived right next door. We all went to school together – not always in the same classroom, but we were pals and stuck together. The guys anyway. Martha always tried to hang around with us, but you know how that goes. We were young bucks and hadn’t seen the need to let a girl hang out with us. She was plucky and didn’t take to us saying ‘no’ to her. She’d just show up in the park when we were going to play ball, or at the drug store when we’d walk down to get a pop. I guess she wore us down, because Martha just became one of the guys – we never gave it a second thought. Well, I guess I did. There were a few times that Martha and I would sit on the porch steps as the other guys walked home after playing in the backyard. We just sat and talked until her mom yelled out their front door that it was time to come home for dinner.”

The woman got up from the table and refilled their coffee mugs. Jim smiled and thanked her. He wrapped his hands around the mug and let the warmth sooth his gnarled fingers. Moments of silence passed before Jim continued.

“By the time we were in high school my buddies started getting their driver’s licenses and finding girlfriends. Some played sports, others of us had to get jobs. I ended up working at the hardware store on the highway after school. We still hung out together – mostly on weekends – but on the way home from work I’d walk by Martha’s house. She would be sitting on her front stoop as I turned the corner and walked up the street. Even from a distance I could see her look in my direction – my heart would skip a beat when she smiled. As I got closer Martha would get up and meet me on the sidewalk in front of her house, take my hand in hers, and walk next door to my house where we would sit on the swing together. We’d just talk. We laughed a lot.”

“There were some days when I’d come around the corner and not see Martha on the front stoop. My heart wound sink, then I’d remember she had a dentist appointment or activity after school. One day, as I walked by her house on the way home, I saw an envelope propped up by the stoop. I slowed down and looked. Squinting, I walked closer. It had my name on it. I reached down and picked it up. I opened it as I walked up the steps to our front porch. Inside was a stick figure sketch of a boy and a girl, walking, and holding hands. I smiled, folded the paper up, and put it in my pocket. That night I went down to the basement and got one of my dad’s old cigar boxes that he used to keep screws and nails organized. I took it back upstairs and put the drawing in it. Every boy has a secret hiding place for a Playboy or a pack of cigarettes. Mine was behind a loose board in my bedroom closet. It wasn’t very big, but I never had a lot of contraband to hide. The cigar box fit in the small cubbyhole if I turned it on it’s side. The board fit snuggly over the opening to my secret compartment.

Over the next two years we were inseparable. The cigar box got filled with notes, drawings, trinkets, gum wrappers folded into silver hearts, theater tickets folded into airplanes, birthday cards, IOUs for a present when one of us had some extra money, a matchbook from a restaurant we went to, a fishing lure from a fun evening fishing off the public dock at the park, and a chapstick that had touched her lips. I had to use an oversized rubber band to keep the lid closed. Those years were the best years of my life.”

Jim grew quiet and the woman stood and said “Would you like a tour of the house? I don’t know what things are the same and what things may be different, but I’d like to know what you remember.” Jim nodded and got up to follow her. They walked down the hall, back to the front door, and turned to go into the living room. The front window looked out past the front porch to the sidewalk and street. “This is where our Christmas tree was placed.” Jim said. “I remember how big it looked with all the lights – those big bulbs we used to have. And the gifts under the tree.” He looked around, taking in the memories. The room had been painted a different color (and he wondered how many times, and how many colors, and he wondered if the floral wallpaper of his youth still remained under various coats of paint). The hardwood floor, cold on his young and always barefoot feet, was now hidden under the somewhat soiled and worn carpet. The woman saw him looking and offered an apology – new carpet was one of the things she wanted to get for the house. Maybe next year. If the car made it through another winter without needing repairs. Or new tires. The list is long, but carpet is on it. Jim smiled at the woman. She looked away.

To break the uncomfortable silence, Jim said “I remember the dining room being green. Dark green.” They walked back past the front door and looked around. It was much lighter now and the hardwood floor was still there and looked quite nice. Someone had had it refinished along the way. The woman sat at the dining room table and Jim sat, too. “Did you and Martha stay together? Did you get married? It seems from the way you’ve talked about her, that you two were meant to be.” His hands rested on the table, his fingers woven together, and he stared off into the distance as his mind wandered back in time.

“After I graduated from high school I got a job at the textile factory where dad worked. Martha enrolled at the community college and started taking classes to become a dental hygienist. We began making plans for the future when the letter arrived. I had been drafted into the Army. While this changed our plans, we decided to pack as much into our summer as we could before I had to report to Ft. Lewis for Basic Training. That summer we became more than friends, if you know what I mean. We just didn’t see the need to wait any longer, and knew the future could have risks if I was sent overseas (which I knew was more than certain). During that wonderful summer more than a few items were added to the cigar box which remained hidden in my closet.”

“I made it through Basic Training and went on to my AIT school that fall. My orders arrived after I graduated and I had a 3 week leave before I left for Vietnam. Martha and I knew we could get through the year apart and would just put our plans on hold until I got back.”

Jim’s eyes watered up with tears and he rubbed to clear his reddened eyes. His chin quivered as he tried to continue. “I was 2 months into my tour when the letter arrived from Martha’s mom through the Red Cross. Martha had died in a car accident on her way home from class.” Jim started to sob at the table. The woman got up and walked around the table to put her arm around his shaking shoulders. Tears ran down her cheeks, too. The old house was silent except for the anguished cries of the two who shared one’s pain.

The daylight had faded. The woman stood to turn on the dining room light, and dimmed it with the switch. “Jim, would you like to see the rest of the house? Your room? You came back for a reason, and I’m glad you’ve shared part of this journey with me. But there is more to see. Something to find.” Jim wiped his shirt sleeve across his eyes. The woman walked into the kitchen and came back with a box of Kleenex. Jim thanked her as he pulled a couple sheets out of the box and dabbed his eyes. “I would like to see my room” Jim told her. They got up from the table and walked back into the entryway. Jim started up the stairs and then turned to look back at the woman who was still standing by the front door at the bottom of the stairs. “Take your time, Jim. I’ll make some more coffee. Maybe I’ll see if I still have some brandy in the cupboard.” Jim nodded and turned back to go up the familiar stairs for the first time in so many years.

He walked by the first bedroom – his parent’s back then – with just a glance. Then past the small bathroom (which still looked very much like he remembered – no major upgrades – and the memories came flooding back). The next door was his old room. He stopped in the doorway and looked in. The floor, the window looking out over the backyard, and the electrical outlet below the window (one of only two in the room). Jim chuckled when he thought of all the gadgets he tried to plug in at once, and his dad yelling when a fuse blew – plunging the house into silent darkness. The room was a guest room now – not filled with all the “guy stuff” that filled this room years ago. He walked inside and sat on the edge of the bed. The closet door was in front of him. It was closed. A calendar hung on the door where his dartboard used to hang. He looked closer and saw the tiny holes, painted over, but still visible, where darts that missed the target stuck in the door. There were quite a few – he laughed when he remembered how bad he was with darts. His friends were even worse.

The smile faded away as he recalled another letter he received in Vietnam, three months before he could come home. His dad had lost his job when the textile factory had suddenly shut down. He had found another opportunity, but they had to sell the house and move across the state. Money was tight and they had to move quickly. Before he could write back to tell his dad about the cigar box in his closet, the house had been sold, the movers had boxed up their things, and his dad had relocated for his new job.

So many years had passed, and the house had changed hands how many times? He wondered if someone had discovered his secret hiding place and found the cigar box – his only remaining connection to Martha. She was still the only woman who had ever captured his heart. Hearing his name called out by the First Sergeant at mail call had always been a high point in his day while “in country” and away from home. Letters from Martha warmed his lonely nights. The day his name was called, and the letter arrived from Martha’s mom, everything changed. Too far away to help, too far away to grieve, and too busy in Vietnam to even cry. He kept his promise to Martha – to keep his head down and come home in one piece – but it was never even considered that he would come home to shattered dreams. Jim never found his footing. He wandered from one job to the next after leaving the service. He stumbled from one relationship to another – never finding again what he once had and lost. It was this lonely journey that brought him back here. To this house. This room.

Jim stood up slowly. His legs stiff. Tired of wandering. He moved forward and approached the closet door. His boney hand grasped the old glass doorknob. Firmly. With long lost determination he turned the knob and pulled the door open slowly. The closet was dark and smelled faintly of mothballs. He reached forward for the string that used to hang from the bare light bulb. It was still there. He gave it a tug, but the bulb was burned out. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his cellphone, pushed the home button, turned around, and used the soft light to illuminate the wall just above the door. As a boy he had to stand on a box to reach the board, but today his fingers found the edge of the wood where it stuck out just enough to get a grip with his fingernails. He pulled and the board moved. Another tug and the board fell to the floor. Jim closed his eyes and said a prayer to a god he had given up on many years ago – maybe he pleaded, maybe he bargained, maybe he just yelled at god to make this right. He kept his eyes closed as he reached over his head and into the cubbyhole. His fingers touched the cigar box then lifted it out of his secret hiding place (which evidently had served its purpose well for over 50 years). He sat down on the floor of the closet and wept as he removed the rubber band that had grown brittle with age. The lid sprung open exposing a box chocked full of a lost love’s treasured mementos.

“Jim? Are you ok?” The woman came into the bedroom carrying a tray and saw him sitting in the closet. “I thought you might need some light – I brought a flashlight. And some brandy. Can I join you?” She saw a genuine smile crawl across the old man’s face. “Yes, I’d like that, very much.”

For the next hour or two, and the better part of a bottle of brandy, the two new friends sat together on the floor in the dark closet, lit only with a flashlight, and went through all the simple contents of the box – each having a story – and celebrated one life lost, and another life found.

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Hammering words into shapes

I feel that tiny creative crevice – buried somewhere deep inside my turbulent and overactive mind – laboring to reignite idle synapses, long covered in dust, and thick with cobwebs from neglect and lack of activity. It comes slowly. Fleeting thoughts are grabbed out of thin air before they are lost in the blink of an eye. Like a blacksmith pounding on the glowing tip of an almost molten iron shank, an idea is painstakingly hammered into a recognizable shape – words into a sentence, sentences into paragraphs. Written and rewritten until the ring of hammer striking steel sings with a melody that pleases the blacksmith’s ear.

Bubble Ministry

I will be meeting Megan and the kids at Minnehaha Falls later today. I stuck a bottle of bubbles in my backpack. When I went to Bolivia I was on a work project high in the Andean Altiplano. We worked side by side with some of the indigenous Amyran people. Their families would come watch. One day I saw this little girl watching me. She probably was confused by this sweaty, dirty white guy working with adobe blocks. She was very shy and always looked away when I waved at her. 


During a break I ran back to my bunk and grabbed a bottle of bubbles from my duffle bag. I sat down on a pile of dirt, not too far from the little girl, and opened up the bottle. I started blowing bubbles and watched as her eyes followed them floating on the gentle breeze. It took a few minutes before our eyes connected, but then I watched a tentative smile spread across her face. Some of my teammates slowed down their work and watched. They began “catching” the floating bubbles. She giggled. 

The little girl had one land on her and laughed when it popped at her touch. I waved her over and she turned away – but not for long. I offered her the bottle and wand. Her mom whispered in her ear. She got up slowly. Unsure. But curious. One step, then another. I held them out again. A smile grew bright and her eyes twinkled as she drew close and hesitantly sat next to me on the pile of dirt. The team slowly got back to their tasks on site, but the little Amyran girl and I blew bubbles in the Andes Mountains on a crystal clear day. That is a moment I will never forget, and I’m sure I will be telling Sawyer that story later today. Bubble Ministry at its best.

Candle Crumbs

Yesterday we watched our grandkids (Sawyer and Ruby) so their mom and dad could sneak out for a brew and some time away from the chaos of parenting two toddlers. Seeing the smiling faces of Nana and Papa come through the door is usually the promise of laps, hugs, stories, and assorted antics. 

The several hours passed quickly and the kids ran to the door when a refreshed mom and dad came in from the garage. Mike lit the grill for some awesome looking pork chops and Megan busied herself in the kitchen preparing the rest of the menu. The kids were munching on some fruit to tie them over until the “later than routine” dinner could be served. Sawyer kept an eye on Mike as he got the coals going. A gust of wind whipped across the deck and glowing embers swirled around for a moment. Sawyer watched intently as the sparks danced in the air before being blown away on the breeze. 

A moment later Mike came back into the kitchen to get the pork chops and saw Sawyer watching the grill. “It’s breezy out there” Mike said. Sawyer smiled and said “I know! I saw all the candle crumbs flying in the air!”

Candle crumbs. The perfect words to describe what he saw. A 3-1/2 year old who already knows how to use his words to tell a story. 

Muddy Hands

I don’t like working in the dirt. Or weeding. Or mowing. It brings back memories of being a kid and not being able to play with my friends after school until the weeding in front of our house, under the evergreen shrubs, where the mosquitoes were thick, was done. Then done again – done until it was done to dad’s expectations. If I forgot to mow, dad would huff out the door after dinner and I’d have to listen to the mower, through my open bedroom window, going back and forth across the lawn as the sun began to set. I had let him down. Again. And he knew how to make me feel very small. 

I really didn’t have a real lawn until we moved to our home in Eden Prairie. Our small, shady yard in Newark, Ohio could be mowed with an electric lawn mower. And a short power cord. The kids were too small to help, so it was just a matter of keeping whatever was green in our yard short enough to look groomed for the neighborhood. Our condo in California was part of an association so our minuscule landscaped “yard” and assorted bushes were well maintained by a pickup truck gang of undocumented day laborers. That worked for me – I had better things to do with my time. 

By the time we moved back to the Midwest and bought our home in Eden Prairie our kids were old enough to need some money and our thick growing grass provided a great summer opportunity for the kids to earn their allowances. Three daughters, well spaced out in age, provided years of domestic yard help. I mowed, too. Occasionally. When I had to. There were times I enjoyed it when we first moved back and I was in pretty good shape, but as the years passed, and I gained weight, whatever “fun” I got out of mowing quickly faded away. Thankfully, our neighbor had a grandson who was starting to mow yards, and the transition after Kayla went off to college in Duluth meant our yard had uninterrupted 3rd party care. And it still does to this day. Once Nik goes off to college I will have to figure out a new plan. 

For the last few years the two flower beds in front of our house have literally gone to seed. A few stubborn flowers still poke up through the thick weeds, and the Hosta plants are like cock roaches – they could survive a nuclear winter. But the rest of the beds looked like the overgrown space between two abandoned tenement buildings on the south side of Chicago. I finally decided that the front of the house was “our space” and if I wanted it to look nice I’d have to get in the dirt and get my hands muddy. Veloice could do more to make it look nice if I got dirty and weeded, edged, pulled out old roots, raked out the old rocks, and spread 11 bags of cedar chip mulch to give her something promising to work with. 

Yesterday I went out and got started and this morning I was out the door and in the dirt without reading the Sunday paper, watching the morning shows, or having a 2nd cup of coffee. As I sit here writing this, while taking a break and drinking some tea, with still muddy hands pecking away on my iPhone, I realize this has actually been enjoyable. Not only doing something together with Veloice that completes a long unfinished project that led to much frustration, but I was amazed at how good I felt bending, digging, sweating, lifting, raking, and sweeping – even with my shirt off in the sun and not worrying about a fat belly anymore. Down 62 pounds and in great shape after daily walks and occasional bike rides has given me a new sense of enjoying physical work. Seeing the results with two pretty flower beds that have transformed the front of our home brings satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. For once I’m proud of the dirt under my fingernails and what Veloice and I completed together. 

When Nik goes off to college, maybe I’ll have to buy a used lawnmower and make that a part of my new summer routine. The sound of a lawnmower no longer reminds me of my dad grudgingly finishing my unfinished chore, and muddy hands no longer remind me of those mosquito infested evergreens that had to be weeded before I could go out and play. Muddy hands and dirty fingernails simply mean I found my way through the weeds back to the basics of what’s really important. 

Jacob’s Story

 

“Mosha! Mosha! Where have you gone? You’re always running off. I think you’re more trouble than you’re worth! Mosha, where are you?” Jacob wrapped his scarf around his neck and left the warmth of his fire to go search for his missing lamb. The night air was cold and he felt even colder when he left the glow of the campfire. The rest of the flock was gathered together and resting from the day’s journey. Hopefully, they would stay put allowing Jacob time to look for Mosha.

Mosha was Jacob’s favorite lamb. She seemed to have a mind of her own, always looking to go her own way – never one to be content with staying with the rest of the flock. Mosha reminded Jacob of himself. There were so many things that he would like to do, but it was his father’s flock that he had to tend. With no brothers, it was up to Jacob to care for the animals now that his father was too old to care for them himself. Mosha never seemed to tire. There was always something over the next hill that would catch her attention and off she would go. Sometimes Jacob thought about letting her go – “what’s one lamb?” If he could get the rest of the flock safely to Bethlehem he would sell them for a small profit and return home to his father’s praise. The money would see them through the winter and provide enough to buy some young animals in the spring to start another flock. Jacob was a shepherd like his father. He knew nothing else.

“Mosha! Come back here.” Jacob knew he couldn’t leave Mosha behind, so he set off to find her.  The moon was full and the sky was bright. The countryside was lit up by the nighttime glow. Jacob paused to look around for Mosha but she was nowhere in sight. He continued up the hill and hoped she hadn’t strayed too far. He needed his sleep, too. It had been a long day and he wanted to get back to the flock and the warmth of his fire. Tomorrow he would take the flock into Bethlehem where they would be sold. Caesar had ordered all people to return to their home villages to register for a census and the marketplace would be busy. It was a great opportunity to sell their flock of 30 lambs. But the thought of selling Mosha brought tears to Jacob’s eyes.

As Jacob continued up the hillside he remembered the day Mosha had been born. There was something different about Mosha from that very first day – something special in her eyes that Jacob never saw in the other lambs of the flock.  They quickly became friends and Mosha followed Jacob everywhere he went. Mosha was full of mischief, always getting into trouble, but whenever Jacob’s father would get angry at her, Jacob could always find an excuse for her behavior.

The gravel crunched under Jacob’s sandals as he walked up the path toward the top of the hill.  The stars were brilliant in the night sky, but the chill was taking its toll on Jacob.  He could see his breath with every step he took. From the top he hoped he would see Mosha chomping on some grass or the leaves of a bush. One glance at Jacob’s expression of disgust and Mosha would realize she was in trouble – but would she quickly return to the flock or decide it was time to “play” and run the other way? Jacob was in no mood to put up with Mosha’s antics tonight.  She had better come quietly!

Jacob made it to the top of the rise and stopped to look around. Off in the distance was the village of Bethlehem.  The lights still twinkled in the marketplace and in some of the homes.  The activity would continue into the early hours of the morning, but from here Jacob could only see the lights – not one sound carried the distance to his hilltop. In the silence he listened for Mosha. He could see clearly in every direction, but unless Mosha was moving she would be lost in the night shadows.  After watching carefully for several minutes there was still no sign of Mosha.  Jacob sat down to rest.

“Baaa! Baaaaa!” The sound floated through Jacob’s brain for a moment before he slowly opened his eyes. For a minute he stared quietly at the lamb standing on the path in front of him. “Baaaa.”  Jacob shook his head, realizing he had drifted off to sleep. Mosha was standing in front of him.

“Mosha! Where have you been? Come on, we have to get back to the flock and I want to get warmed up by the fire.”  Jacob turned and started to walk down the path back toward their campsite.  “I could have been sound asleep right now, but you had to go wander off again. Was it worth it? Did you find what you were looking for? Just one more night – tomorrow you will be someone else’s problem…” Jacob stopped. His tears were back at the thought of tomorrow. He would sell the flock and Mosha would belong to someone else. Jacob wiped his eyes and turned to look at Mosha. To his surprise, Mosha was still standing quietly at the top of the hill looking down the path at Jacob. “Mosha, we’re going back to the fire – now! Come on!” Mosha stood looking patiently at her master. Jacob was in no mood for this. He looked around and picked up a stick that was lying by the path. “NOW, Mosha!” Mosha turned and walked the other way, out of sight. Jacob dropped the stick and ran back up the path.

Once Jacob made it back up to the top of the rise he saw Mosha trotting down the path. Where was she going? He chased after her, but her trot was steady and it was apparent that she was not going to let Jacob catch up to her. Finally, at the bottom of the hill, Mosha stopped dead in her tracks, and turned back to look at Jacob. “This is not a game, Mosha. We have to get back to the camp – come on.” But Mosha stood in silence, looking over Jacob’s shoulder, back toward the top of the hill.

The crunching sound of hooves on gravel caught Jacob’s ear. He quickly turned and stared in astonishment as a rider came over the hill. First one, then another, and then a third! The men were dressed like kings, in robes that were colorful – even in the moonlight. From the packs they carried, it was apparent they had journeyed from afar. They were riding camels whose steps were slow and sure under the burdens they bore. Jacob stood in amazement as they approached.

“Young man! What village is that ahead of us?” asked the second rider.

“It is Bethlehem, sir” Jacob responded. “Where did you come from?”

The lead rider replied, “We are Magi from lands to the east. We are looking for the one who has been born king of the Jews. According to the prophets, this child would be born in Bethlehem and we have followed a star to this village.”

Jacob turned and looked back at Mosha, who stood there, knowingly, looking back at Jacob.  What did she know about all of this? The riders thanked Jacob for his information and slowly moved on down the path to the village below.

“Is THAT where you’ve been? You look like you’ve been up to something.” Mosha cocked her head as she listened to Jacob, then turned and started walking back down the path toward Bethlehem. “Mosha! We can’t leave the flock! We’ve been gone too long already!” but Mosha continued down the path, oblivious to Jacob’s pleas. Then Jacob followed her, slowly at first, but gathering speed as the two of them began to run down the path toward the village below. Boy following lamb, running in the moonlight, wondering what event had happened on this cold, winter’s night in the town of Bethlehem. Could the Magi have been right? Was a child born that would become the king of the Jews? Where would they find him? He must be in the biggest building in town. There would be many people gathered – wealthy people who had come to pay their respects. How could they get in? How could they even get close? Surely a poor shepherd boy would not be allowed to get near a newborn king!

As Mosha and Jacob drew closer to Bethlehem they began to pass small buildings along the road.  Mosha trotted along as if she knew where she was going. Jacob followed. Turning off the main road, Mosha walked between two small buildings. One appeared to be a small home and the other was an inn.  Peering through the window Jacob could see that several of the travelers were still sitting at a table drinking wine and talking with each other.  Did they know about a king being born? “Where are you going, Mosha? Town is that way.” Jacob said as he pointed back toward the main road. “We need to look for a crowd in order to find the baby. Come on, let’s go!”  But Mosha turned and walked toward the back of the inn.

There was little light and Jacob felt his way along the side of the inn until he found himself standing in an open area behind the building* He was afraid of making noise, sure the innkeeper would take him for a robber. What would a young boy be doing outside at this time of night unless he was up to no good! In the distance Jacob could see a faint light coming from another building. The stable. “Mosha,” Jacob whispered, “come here! There’s nobody back there except the animals that belong to those staying at the inn!” But Mosha persisted and Jacob ran up the pathway to follow the lamb.

Mosha stopped at the entrance to the cave. The candlelight spilled out from the entry way and illuminated the area in front of the stable. As Jacob walked up toward the stable he saw the Magi’s camels standing off to the side, tethered to a tree. Jacob stood next to Mosha in silence. Neither knew what to do next. Slowly, the lamb took one step forward, then another. Jacob stood still, his feet frozen to the ground. At the doorway, Mosha stopped and looked inside. She turned and looked at Jacob, as if to tell him everything would be alright, then walked into the stable and out of Jacob’s sight.

“This is not a place for a king to be born. What trouble has Mosha gotten us into now?” thought Jacob. “But the Magi’s camels are here. Could this really be the place they were looking for?”  Jacob slowly walked toward the entrance to the stable.

Inside the stable was a small gathering of people and animals. The Magi, dressed in their magnificent robes, had gathered around a manger full of straw.  Next to the manger a young woman was kneeling and another man was standing with his hand on her shoulder – all were looking intently into the manger. Mosha had made her way to the manger and she, too, was gazing at whatever, or whoever, was there. The woman looked up at the boy and a smile formed on her lips. “Come in, young man. You are welcome here.” His eyes never left the manger as he walked over to the huddled group of people. Laying on the straw, wrapped in an old cloth, was a newborn child. He was asleep. He did not look like a king.

Jacob stood in silence looking at the newborn child.  There was a peace and serenity in his face that Jacob had never seen before.  There was something special about this child – of that he was sure.  The Magi broke the silence as they presented his mother with gifts they had brought from their countries: gold, frankincense and myrrh.  They told the child’s parents how they had traveled to Jerusalem and met with King Herod as they searched for the child whose birth had been foretold by the prophets. Their journey led them to Bethlehem where they have found this child.  They knelt to worship the one who would become king. With glad hearts they could return to their countries. The Magi bid farewell and departed.

“What is his name?” Jacob asked.

“Jesus” said his mother.

In the comer of the stable a donkey became restless and the noise awakened the sleeping child. He did not cry, but he looked at each of the faces that were looking at him. Jacob laughed. “He’s so little!” His mother picked Jesus up and began to sing softly to her child. Jacob reached out his finger and the child squeezed it with his hand. Mosha came closer and put her nose up against the child’s head, nestled in the crook of his mother’s arm. The moment Mosha’s nose touched the little child a soft glow radiated all around, coming from Mosha! Jacob was startled at first, but watched with awe as Mosha’s fur became as white as new fallen snow! It glowed in the dim light of the stable. The lamb seemed unmoved by the change, in fact, Jacob was sure Mosha was aware of the change and even seemed to understand. Before long the child had fallen back to sleep and his mother laid him back in the manger. By now, Mosha was laying at Jacob’s feet. The father, his name was Joseph, told Jacob of the things that had occurred during the last 9 months. Jacob listened intently, hardly believing his ears. He watched the child’s mother, Mary, as Joseph continued with the story. There was a peace about Mary. A calmness. Love. No wonder God had chosen this woman to bear such a gift to the world!

“He really is the Messiah, isn’t he?” Jacob asked the child’s mother. “The one that the prophets said would come?”

“Yes. He is.” she answered softly.

“Mosha knew that you were here. She was the reason I came. I don’t have anything to give to you, but maybe he would like this…” Jacob took off his scarf and laid it over the sleeping child. “It will help keep him warm.”  Mary smiled at Jacob and he realized he felt warm for the first time since he left his campfire.

“I have to get back to my flock” Jacob said, “if they are still there!”

“Thank you for coming, Jacob. And for bringing your lamb.” Mary said.

“My lamb brought me!” Jacob answered. “Mosha. come on. We really have to go. Good-by little one. Good-by Mary, Joseph. Like the Magi, I’m glad we found you tonight.”

“Jacob, go and tell others what you have seen here this night,” said Mary. Her smile was as warm as the candles that provided the glow in the stable.

As Jacob and Mosha left the stable, they walked together in silence. The night sky had started to brighten in the east. As Jacob and Mosha arrived at the top of the hill, they turned to look back at the village they had left only an hour before. The sky was filled with stars, but one shown more brightly than all the rest. This one appeared to hang over Bethlehem as a jewel in the sky. Hadn’t the Magi said they had followed a star? Had this star pointed the way during their long journey?  In the twilight, Jacob could see the village below. A few lights still twinkled from small windows, though not a sound could be heard from below. Jacob felt the cold again and put his hand out for Mosha who was lying by his side. When Jacob looked toward his friend, Mosha’s fur was still luminescent! She glowed with a soft radiance. He recalled the stable. A warmth flowed through Jacob as he remembered.

“Thanks, Mosha. You knew, didn’t you?” Mosha put her head in Jacob’s lap as they looked together at Bethlehem below. “I’m not sure what we saw tonight, Mosha, but I think we were supposed to be there. I’m not sure what a poor shepherd and a lamb could have to do with the birth of a king, and I guess we will never know the answer, but I know we were supposed to be in that stable, and hear the story that Joseph and Mary told us. Mosha, you can help me lead the rest of the flock to Bethlehem tomorrow, but I’m not going to sell you at the market. You’re coming home with me.”

Jacob and Mosha got up and walked over the hill, back to their flock.  Mosha never lost her glow, neither did Jacob.

Hershey

If you are lucky, your life will include a dog.

I’ve had more than a few cross my path and I remember picking out each one. While maybe not up there with saying “I do” to your best friend on your wedding day, or watching your life change in the delivery room as your wife brings your child into the world, picking out a furry puppy from a lively litter – all vying for your attention – is a moment that will become a lasting memory as the years drift along. Life is made up of moments and the best of them include a dog – maybe not always in the center of the action, but certainly close by.

I grew up with a black poodle named Mimi. Dad was against getting a dog but relented when mom convinced him that poodles didn’t shed (and we convinced him that we would be responsible for taking care of her). Mimi kept her bargain by not shedding, but she ultimately became dad’s dog. When I left home to join the service I missed my dog but my life was soon filled with new adventures and the newfound freedom of being a young independent adult. I met Veloice after returning from Vietnam and we moved to Colorado to start our lives together. A year later we got married. College, work, and friends filled our days. Apartments grew in size as did our young family when Megan arrived just before my graduation in 1977. We relocated to Illinois for my first real job and four years later were transferred to Ohio where we bought our first home on Kibler Avenue. Within weeks of moving in and unpacking the boxes we decided to get our first dog and found a miniature black poodle that we creatively named Bucky (for the Buckeye state). Emily was born and we became a family of five – funny how a dog quickly becomes an equal part of the family, but they do. As I leaf through old photograph albums of our family’s early years, when the kids were small and we were taking snapshots of every mundane event, Bucky is somewhere in the shot. 

After 6 years in Ohio we moved to California for a couple of years then relocated to Minnesota. Veloice got pregnant again and Kayla joined our family. Bucky was slowing down and starting to show his age. Veloice and I discussed how hard it would be to not have a dog if something happened to Bucky and we started to look for another dog. We found a female apricot poodle that was a little older and fell in love with her at first sight. We named her Chelsea and brought her home. While Bucky may have felt threatened at first, he sure got a second wind having a young lady in the house and began to thrive in our new family of seven. During those wonderful years our family of 3 kids (whose ages covered a 15 year spread) and 2 dogs under one roof filled the house with endless laughter.

Megan went off to college in 1995. Bucky’s health slowly deteriorated and we sadly decided the time had come. I simply couldn’t take him to the vet and watched as he left our driveway for the last time with Veloice and Emily. I still regret not being there. We bought a tree and planted it in the front yard. Bucky’s ashes were buried in the soil and his collar was hung on a branch of the spindly little Maple tree.FullSizeRender (13)

Emily headed off to college in 2000 and the house seemed so much emptier. My dad finally succumbed to Alzheimer’s in 2002 and several months later I noticed blood in Chelsea’s urine. I took her to the vet for tests and was informed that she was quite sick. Veloice rushed over to say goodbye and this time I stayed while Chelsea gently passed away in my arms as I cried and thanked her for being such a good dog. I wish my dad could have passed as easily as Chelsea – I sometimes wonder why we are kinder to our pets during this last stage of life than we are with our own family members. Chelsea was cremated and her ashes were also buried under the growing Maple tree. Her collar was hung on a branch next to Bucky’s.FullSizeRender

For the first time in about 20 years we were suddenly without a dog. Veloice went online that night and searched for a chocolate brown poodle. She found a breeder south of the Twin Cities that had some older puppies for sale. We drove down the next day to take a look. There were dogs and puppies everywhere and we were directed to a pen with the group of puppies that were for sale. I watched each of the puppies – some more animated than others – and waited for that special connection to get made. Little noses poked through the chicken wire. Tongues licked. Bigger pups climbed over smaller ones to get a better look at the humans who could be their ticket out. My eyes kept going back to one who wasn’t trying quite as hard. She was a cute puppy with very good poodle traits and I think she was checking me out as much as I was checking her out. The connection was made, the transaction completed, and we walked out to the van with the newest member of our family. On the ride home we settled on the name “Hershey” for obvious reasons and I remember laying on the floor with her when we first got home and telling her “You don’t know it yet, but you just won the lottery!” Our home felt complete again.

Of course a new puppy quickly gets everyone’s attention and we were delighted when our oldest daughter, Megan, convinced Mike that they should get a puppy, too. Or maybe it was Mike who did the convincing? About a year later they went down to the same breeder and came home with another cute chocolate poodle named Bailey – and she happened to be related to Hershey which explained all the embarrassing sniffing and joyous barking when they first got together!

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COLLARS IN A TREE

My hair has turned gray and the pages of the calendar seem to flutter to the ground like leaves in a stiff fall breeze. The spindly little Maple tree that we planted so many years ago is now a stately shade tree in our front yard. Its full leafy canopy is a colorful autumn tribute to Bucky and Chelsea – that broomstick of a tree was fertilized with love when we placed their ashes in its care. Every spring, when the snow finally gives way to a greening lawn, Hershey and I walk over to the tree and look for the two collars that still hang on their neighboring branches. Well, actually, the tree limbs have grown around the collars so only the buckles and tags remain visible today. But they are still there, and while Hershey sniffs around the trunk of the tree I spend a few minutes thinking about all the special moments that became enduring memories with our two family pups. Remembering always brings a smile, and usually a tear or two, when I recall their similarities and their differences, but mostly their unconditional love that got us through so many ups and downs over the years as furry companions and full-fledged family members. I’m afraid it won’t be too long before a third collar is placed in the tree and I feel a lump in my throat when I think of that day with knowing dread. For now, with Hershey at my side, we’ll keep looking for ways to make new memories while we still have time – the tree will just have to wait a little longer for that last collar.img_4759

 

BOAT DAYS

The dull metallic thunk of the trailer tongue falling into place on top of the hitch ball, followed by the jangle of the chains securing the trailer to the Nissan, were familiar sounds that foretold the start of another day on the lake. I stopped for a moment and listened carefully. It didn’t take long before I heard the excited whimpering and sniffing on the other side of the door going from the garage into the kitchen. Hershey had lost much of her hearing these past couple of years, but the sounds of the trailer being hooked up were still registering and immediately put a youthful spring back into her step. I put my hand on the knob and turned it, opening the door slowly, but Hershey was already through the narrow opening and out into the garage – pacing back and forth along the length of the boat. Shaking with anticipation, she watched as I finished connecting the lights and threw the life preservers, towels, and the boat bag with water and snacks, into the back of the Nissan. Over the past few years, since the kids had all grown up and left home, it was usually just Hershey and me taking the boat over to Lake Minnetonka. She had become my boat buddy and I looked forward to our time on the lake together as much as she did. I picked her up and put her on the passenger seat, walked around the vehicle and got in, turned the ignition key, put it in drive, and slowly pulled out of the driveway.

It was a 20 minute drive over to Grays Bay and Hershey knew the boat launch routine by heart. Once the boat was off the trailer and tied up to the dock, we parked the vehicle and walked back to the boat. Hershey would stay by my side until we got close to the pier, then she would run ahead, straight to our boat (even if there were others tied up to the dock), hop onto a seat in the bow, and wait for me to get us underway. We would cruise slowly through Grays Bay, then make our way into Wayzata Bay, where – once past the “No Wake” buoys – I’d crack the throttle and yell “YeeHa!” With Hershey’s ears flying in the breeze, and her pink tongue visible in her happy dog grin, we were throwing a wake, jumping waves, and heading out into Main Bay at full tilt with the pirate flag on the stern snapping in the wind.FullSizeRender (12)IMG_4649

Our first stop was always the beach in Maxwell Bay because the overhanging branches offered some shade from the hot summer sun. Once the bow of the boat slid to a stop on the sandy shore, Hershey would jump from her perch in front and run up and down the shore – sometimes in the sand and other times in the shallow water. While not the water bug that our other dogs were, Hershey nevertheless loved being at the lake. Sometimes our lazy days would include floating in the tube together – soaking up the sun while enjoying the cool water. Once back in the boat we’d share a snack and she’d lap up some cold water from my Thermos.IMG_4593FullSizeRender (2)

I’d crank up tunes on the radio and we’d stretch out to relax while the boat gently rocked with the waves lapping up to the shore. Sometimes we’d spend time playing with any passengers who may have joined us for some time on the lake. Regardless of the day’s activities, it’s hard to not enjoy an afternoon on the boat with your dog.IMG_4650IMG_4651img_4601

WAITING

There are times, of course, when Veloice and I have places to go – to the store, maybe a movie, or out for an evening with some friends. There have been times when I’ve taken off for a week or two on a motorcycle trip out west with Larry and Mike, or over to Oshkosh for a week of camping with my Vietnam buddies during the air show. And there are the normal days when Veloice is working her shift at the hospital. The reasons for being away may vary, but Hershey always knows when one of us (or both of us) are gone and her world is not right. There is a window to the right of our front door that has a view of the front yard and the road in front of our house. Hershey sits by the door looking out the window for hours on end if one of us is away. If we are coming home after dark I always make the turn and come up our street slowly. The small light in the foyer is usually on making Hershey’s silhouette in the window clearly visible. Once she recognizes our car you can see her get up quickly and run into the living room where she will sit, head cocked – listening – and watch the door to the garage with growing anticipation. Once we walk into the kitchen we are met with a loud and exuberant greeting as if we had been gone for years. There is no joy better for Hershey than knowing we are all home together and her world is right once again.IMG_4756img_4780

 

 

 

 

ALWAYS AROUND

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TRAVEL

 

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SEASONS

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CAMPING

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GRAND KIDS

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MISC

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