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Flyover: Christmas in July

StuMelDePlane

Flyover: Christmas in July, or How Green is My Valley?

We live on one of many flight paths to Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia, although we are about two hours out (without traffic). I often look up from gardening, hear jets slowing down their engines as they gently decrease their altitude, and imagine the flight attendant’s or captain’s voice coming on saying “We’re beginning our approach to Dulles Airport serving the metropolitan Washington D.C. area, where the weather is …”

I sometimes look up and wave just for the sheer silliness of it, knowing no one up there can see me down here, but just because I love traveling and the places planes take me.

We also frequently see small planes flying over, sometimes dusting crops but more often, just sightseeing.

One day my husband said casually, “I’d love to be able to fly over our place and around the valley,” I made a mental note to check into such an adventure maybe for a Christmas gift for him. He’s gotten to the place in life where he doesn’t really need another drill or saw, so excursions and special events and family occasions are high on our family list of things to give to him. He’d been up in a small plane once before with our youngest daughter for a birthday present to her when the Shenandoah Valley Airport at Weyers Cave offered trial flying lessons for just $25.

ChristmasGift

 

Last Christmas this is what he got from me. The pilot, Don Shank, said there was easily room for 2-3 passengers and he had 30 years experience, including being a commercial pilot for Piedmont Air back when they still flew in and out of the above airport.

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We had a beautiful, restorative time.

But more than just checking out how big the neighbor’s new pond is, or being able to peek in at our old home and find to our delight the new owners are still planting a garden down the back hill there, I realized what the flyover reminded me of was feeling like I know so much of our community. This has been home now for over 45 years.

There’s where I went to college. (On the slight hill near the top left of the photo, right under the airplane support.)

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Yonder’s the brick office building that I’ve called home for 41 years. (Directly across from the lovely high rise grain towers.)

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We flew over our church since 1975.

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Above is where one daughter went to college. Below is where one went to the old high school and the other two sweated out middle school.

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Here are the rivers and valleys and hills that have threaded through and framed our views.  I don’t think it would have meant nearly as much to do a flyover of a new area or someplace I didn’t know. I glimpsed a little of why our pilot said he takes people up just for a hobby because he enjoys flying so much.

As a person who believes in God, my mind couldn’t help but soar even higher in the heavens and contemplate the perch God enjoys looking at our planet and even the larger universe. Being up there takes you to another place where problems are maybe positioned more in scale. I could not see any weeds in my garden! I couldn’t see my to do list, or the edges of our yard that hadn’t been trimmed.

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I knew the streets and boroughs of our fair city have problems a plenty, but nothing felt as immediate. Hopefully, the time above restores one’s soul for the problems below.

There was only one scene that marred our sweet flight and that was flashing red lights of a fire engine and rescue squad out in a nearby field, with what looked like the wing of a small airplane peeking out from under a tree. Could it be a plane wreck? The pilot thought so, which was sobering to all of us, and his wife had messages waiting for him on his cell as soon as we landed. She had heard news of a crash that happened just minutes before we took off. A father and son went down and the father pilot was airlifted to University of Virginia Medical Center, and thankfully survived although his recovery may take awhile. His son was treated and released at the local hospital. Their plane had not cleared trees at the end of a farm runway. I’m kind of glad I didn’t steal a shot of someone else’s misery.

I breathed some quiet prayers for those in the accident, recalling another small plane I had once been in with a load of teens heading to our Mennonite church youth convention in 1970 at Lake Junaluska, N.C. The pilot from our church taxied three times down the small local town’s airport runway in Blountstown, Fla. He was not getting up enough speed to clear the tall pines at the end. Wisely, he made the call to have us all get out, have his wife drive us to a larger airport 25 miles away in Mariana, Fla., meet him there with his plane, and then safely take off. Which we did.

There are inherent risks anytime we drive to town, or even head down or up the stairways in our homes. Somehow the risks seem bigger (even though the odds smaller) of having an accident when we go up in the air, and yes, I said my prayers.

I thanked the good Lord again for safety when we touched ground, for the beauty of creation; and after learning the people in the accident would be ok, thanked God for that too.

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Easy Zucchini Soufflé, or Zucchini Casserole

ZucchiniCasserole

Easy Zucchini Soufflé, or Zucchini Casserole

I have never raised zucchinis (always get plenty from everyone else) except for the years my daughter lived at home after college and she twisted our arms to raise a number of things she wanted to try.

But this year I set out one plant because she gave me an extra one she had and of course it is flourishing. So now I’m facing the great zucchini question of every gardener: what to do with them.

I do like them roasted in the oven and on the grill; I also enjoy them sliced and coated with crumbs and fried; they also do fine n breads, brownies, cakes, and pancakes. The pancakes have been my favorites.

But I ate a squash (yellow) casserole last year that was so delicious that I thought well, I’ll try a zucchini casserole recipe. Which, of many, to pick?

Esther H. Shank’s Mennonite Country-Style Recipes & Kitchen Secrets to the rescue. Esther, who wrote an endorsement for my own cookbook, Whatever Happened to Dinner, compiled her rich resource initially for her own daughters to learn all the basics of cooking, and includes more than 1,000 recipes.

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Doris opens her card as Steve and Neal look on.

I made this dish for a recent staff lunch celebrating the 88th birthday of our office janitor, Doris. Yes, you read right, she’s 88 and going strong, which I wrote about last year over on Mennobytes.

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The theme was recipes for summer. The ice cream cake featured a piano with “88” keys–not quite.

There was only one spoonful left of zucchini casserole so I couldn’t shoot artful photos of the dish, but at any potluck when there is only one spoonful left, you know people enjoyed it. And a number of folks commented on how good it was. Sweet music to a cook’s ears.

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Without further ado, here’s Esther’s recipe, adapted slightly. With all the eggs in this recipe and the cheese, and the buoyancy added by the bread crumbs, I like the exoticism of calling it Zucchini Soufflé.

But call it whatever you want. Assembly is super easy!

Favorite Zucchini Casserole or Zucchini Soufflé

Shredding

3 cups shredded raw zucchini (I leave the peelings on for more nutrition)

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1 ½ cups dry bread crumbs (I used Stove Top Stuffing that has some herbs and flavoring in it)
1 envelope onion soup mix
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon crushed basil leaves
4 eggs lightly beaten
1/3 cup milk
1 cup shredded Swiss cheese (reserve half)
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese (reserve half)

MixingTogether

Combine all ingredients and pour into greased 2 quart casserole or 8-inch square baking dish. Sprinkle reserved cheeses over top.

Bake at 350 degrees for 40-45 minutes.

Yield: 6-8 servings

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Adapted from Mennonite Country-Style Recipes and Kitchen Secrets, Esther H. Shank, Herald Press, 1987.

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Amish Wedding Nothings (or Knee Patches/Elephant Ears)

 

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On summer holidays like Memorial Day, July 4, and Labor Day, many times I would treat my family to a batch of Funnel Cakes because of the long lazy morning when we didn’t have to go anywhere. The children looked forward to those summer holidays when no one got them out of bed, and norms for healthy breakfasts were thrown out the window. We pretended we were at the county fair or a lawn party indulging in deep fat fried pastries dribbled with powdered or other sugared toppings—without paying $3 a pop. (Earlier I shared the funnel cake recipe we made for Stuart’s 60th birthday.)

This July 4 weekend I made a similar type “treat” that is frequently found at Amish weddings, I’m told, depending on where you live, and northern Indiana apparently is one of those areas (where I grew up).

I got this recipe from Lovina Eicher, with whom I work (from a distance) in my job at MennoMedia/Herald Press, and was privileged to visit in her home last fall.

Lovina’s second oldest daughter, Susan, is getting married this summer and Lovina is pondering making these for an extra treat at Susan’s wedding and because it a family tradition that Lovina kept at her own wedding. Lovina hasn’t made the final decision yet, but I also wanted to test them for the cookbook we’re working on with Lovina.

If it was my daughter getting married, I don’t think I would have time to fry Amish Nothings on the day of the wedding, and these are the most delicious when eaten fresh. But then, I’ve never been to or cooked for an Amish wedding, but I know that in addition to all the foods made ahead of the day, there are various cooks or crews assigned to make “the mashed potatoes” or “the dressing” or making the barbecue or fried chicken the day OF the wedding—so I imagine it could work if they had an Amish crew doing nothing but “nothings.” After all, the Amish are famous for raising barns in a day. The community strength of “we can do this” is part of what increases the fascination, respect and admiration for these faithful Christians.

At any rate, I enjoyed making these and sharing them with our neighbors since our kids were not home. If you love pie dough, you’ll love these, because that’s basically what it is: deep fat fried pie dough with sugar on top, very similar to “Elephant Ear” pastries made at lawn parties here in Virginia. I may have not rolled them as thin as I should have, looking at another photo of this delicacy. It reminds me of the little rolled up scraps of dough my mother used from pie baking, adding melted butter and cinnamon sugar and rolling them up for little pie dough cinnamon rolls. This treat is about making memories and keeping family traditions!

Amish Wedding Nothings

(The first item on each list is exactly the way the recipe was given to me, which Lovina got of course from her own mother; the additions in ( ) came from online sources that gave some exact quantities, along with the step-by-step directions. Thank you very much, Internet.)

3 large “cook spoons” of heavy cream (3/4 cup cream)
1 egg well beaten
Flour (2 cups)
Sugar (for topping only)

Shortening (for cooking)

FreerangeEgg

Free-range egg

Beat egg and stir in cream, salt, and enough flour to make elastic dough.

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Make 6 or 7 balls out of the dough.

Smallerballs

Roll out each ball of dough very flat and thin, about 1/16″.

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Cut three-inch or so slits, one above the other, in the middle of the circles.

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Heat shortening in a large kettle over high heat (or use an electric frying pan with a temperature control.) When the shortening is 365 degrees F, try testing a piece of dough to see if it cooks or sizzles; put the rolled out “Nothing” into the kettle or fry pan (fry one at a time, unless you have a huge kettle). Turn each piece over with two forks or large spatula once it turns golden on the bottom. Remove from oil and place on plate covered with paper towels to drain.

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Sprinkle powder sugar over top while warm. Stack all the nothings on top of each other to serve.

P.S. We tried these with plain white sugar, powdered sugar, cinnamon powdered sugar, and white sugar with cinnamon. All go well with milk or coffee!

Source www.recipelink.com from The Amish Cook: Recollections and Recipes from an Old Oder Family—compiled by Lovina’s mother, Elizabeth Coblentz.

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To follow Lovina’s weekly column online, sign up here, under “Subscribe.”

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If you would like to see Lovina’s weekly column, “Lovina’s Amish Kitchen” published in a local newspaper, send me an editor’s name and name of paper you think might be interested. We’ll be happy to contact them!

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If you are on Facebook, Lovina has a growing following, nearing 3,000! Sign up here!

 

You Know You’re Really a Senior When …

FernPath

Some idle musings …

  • When did all the hair on my arms disappear? I mean ALL of it.
  • When did the blue lines on my legs way outnumber the few random sprouts of hair still on my legs?
  • When did date night mean being happy you can afford the coupon special at Hardees?
  • When did insurance companies wanting to sell you Part A or Part B begin thinking you were dumb enough to send name, birth date and spouses name on an open Return Card through the mail—no envelope. Why not include the social security number too? Oh, and why does applying for Medicare feel harder than any, any college class you ever took?
  • When did you start getting on so many mailing lists for old people products? Oh wait, it might have been when buying those zippered compression stockings for your hub from Dream Products (and yes the zippers help!)
  • When did owning two Senior passes to all of the National Parks in the U.S. seem like a mixed blessing?StuartEast
  • When did a 15 minute hike up to a Shenandoah National Park overlook—which ended in NOT being able to do the one rock scramble that was there because you were afraid of hurting yourself, and your spouse was already recovering from surgery, so you wimped out—feel like an accomplishment anyway because you didn’t HAVE to do it to feel happy.

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    After the rock fail: happy that I had the good sense not to try it that day. Another time!

Getting older is not for wusses.

I once wrote a book called You Know You’re a Mother When filled with all the sleepless nights, disasters and triumphs of early parenting. Exactly the stage two of my daughters are in now.

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Back then I was the one to mostly get up with them in the middle of the night because of breastfeeding. Now my husband is the one to get up three to four times because of pain or not being able to sleep.

Not fun however your sleepless nights come.

But as Madeleine L’Engle put it so beautifully, “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”

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Unless of course there’s dementia. My heart and prayers go out to a friend who just found out that his mother’s second husband has pretty severe dementia and his mother had been hiding it from the whole family until she ended up in the hospital from the stress of being a caregiver at her age.

Getting older is truly not for wusses.

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What can you add to the fun list of things that you’ve discovered about aging, starting with the words “When did …” ? I might do a follow up on this blog or in my column, Another Way.

Or, what stories do you have from the less-fun list of why getting older takes strong women and men?

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Some of you follow both the Another Way newspaper column online and my blog (thank you, thank you). So you may have already read my series on Growing Older with more serious content, plus you can also download a PDF of the series.     

 

3 Biggest Surprises in Orie O. Miller Biography

Writer Wednesday
Part III – 3 Biggest Surprises in Orie O. Miller biography

I’m finally sharing the last of my posts on John E. Sharp’s remarkable biography, My Calling to Fulfill: The Orie O. Miller Story (Herald Press, 2015). I’m impressed with anyone who can spend a couple of years digging into the details and minutia of the long life of a person and not even be related to them—and write it so entertainingly (there’s a plot, there are characters).
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Biographer John Sharp, singing at the Orie Miller Hall of Nations dedication at Eastern Mennonite University.

In the case of Orie O., there’s also a life history so important to not only the Mennonite church but the wider body of Christians and history itself. Orie’s thinking, service and witness were so advanced for his time (career spanning his 20’s to 70s—the most productive decades in perfect chronology with the corresponding years of the 1920s to 1970s). He left huge footsteps all across the 20th century.

Family issues. And there are some colossal surprises. Some we might expect out of the family life of any great (or average) person—where kids grow up to follow a way different than their parents. The books talks about how hard it is to be the child of a great figure, whether because the parent neglected or short changed his or her offspring, or because kids often feel that way even if they weren’t.

Sharp as biographer does not shy away from the departure of Orie’s first born child and only daughter, Lois, from Mennonite/Anabaptist ways as she grew up to love and marry an Episcopalian, Dan Beach. That may not seem like a big deal now. Many of us have done the same thing. Ahem. But to Mennonites of that time, Lois’s choices were a serious leave-taking from the faith of her father and mother.

Born only 13 months after Orie and Elta married, Lois waited six years for a sibling, Albert, and ended with four brothers. I was surprised to learn that Elta left three-year-old Lois with grandparents for a semester. Both Orie and Elta thought they would both be called to mission work overseas, so while Orie was overseas one spring, she prepared herself with Bible and mission courses at Bethany Bible College (Church of the Brethren) in Chicago, attending at the same time as a sister-in-law, Ruth. In any event, Lois and the other Miller children got used to their father being away for months at a time, on far-flung journeys to dozens of countries, all in the name of church work—mostly volunteer.

As a student at Goshen College where her father and grandfather were well known and highly respected, Lois was reprimanded for not only not wearing a typical Mennonite bonnet of the day, but “a hat with feathers” (p. 197). Orie would later say and be quoted by many regarding his only daughter, “Wherever we drew the line, she was outside of it.”

So Orie was human as a parent. Welcome to the club. Sharp writes that Orie and Elta eventually adjusted well to their Episcopalian son-in-law. Orie was likely much more suited than many Mennonites of that time to adjust to wider circles of faith because of his own ecumenical work and understandings.

Critics. A second surprise was learning that Orie was not so loved and respected by Mennonite leaders here in Virginia. Two of his bigger detractors were Ernest Gehman and George Brunk I. This was back in the days of Civilian Public Service, a joint program of the government and church widely lauded by many in the church as a helpful way to channel those conscientiously opposed to war into alternative service programs “doing work of national importance,” my father being one.

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Dr. Ernest Gehman

The Virginia critics were worried that liberalism was creeping into the church’s traditional peace stance through this program. There was a showdown in 1942 right here in Harrisonburg which Sharp covers in much detail, while World War II raged. There was concern that secular pacifism by non-Christians and non-Mennonites was influencing the historic non-resistance of Mennonites. Orie countered that the Civilian Public Service program instead did much to teach a new generation of young people the historic non-resistance of Anabaptist Christians, in a church that had begun to leave its moorings on that issue.

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Note which Ernest Gehman sent to me after our interview.

As a college journalism student at EMU, I had the opportunity to interview Ernest Gehman many years later, who was an innovative thinker of the time. He was known not only as a Bible scholar but also an inventor and strong proponent of the probability of intelligent life on other planets and visiting UFOs. That Dr. Gehman opposed Orie Miller was a surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been. His second wife, Margaret Gehman, was the most dedicated volunteer at our Mennonite Media office for many years after Ernest died, where she earned nothing but our deepest respect.

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Ernest and his wife Margaret, right, enjoying some artwork at EMU with art professor Stanley Kauffman, left. Margaret was an artist also, along with being a P.E. professor!

Wide arms. But the biggest surprise I found tucked away in this volume is how Orie, in the 1950s, was fine with including a mosque for Muslims in a school launched by a Mennonite mission agency. Why had I never heard this?! Amazing. Back in 1926, Orie was appointed founding editor of Missionary Messenger, the mouthpiece magazine of Eastern Mennonite Missions, (which Orie also served in various board capacities). At Orie’s and others’ urging, EMM entered Somalia in 1953 to do mission work and when they built a secondary school, “Somali authorities asked Mennonites to include a mosque for the students, since 96-97 percent of Somalis were Muslim.”

Orie’s response? Hershey Leaman, according to an interview with Sharp, quoted Orie’s logic as “Well, yes, these people are Muslims. They’ve chosen to be Muslims. Why shouldn’t they have a place of worship? Look, if we are interested in those people hearing our witness, observing our lives, hearing how we approach God, then we also need to listen to them” (p. 316).

The matter was approved by the EMM board, long the most conservative of Mennonite mission boards.

I was struck by Leaman’s phrasing of Orie’s response, seeing this incident as an example of Orie’s missiology: you approach people respectfully … with care and love. “If they don’t have education, they should have education. If they don’t have adequate health care, they should have adequate health care. And if they don’t have a place of worship, they should have a place of worship” (p. 316).

A mosque in a Mennonite school in Somalia in the 50s! David W. Shenk, one of the long time mission workers in Somalia and numerous other heavily Muslim areas, is still one of Herald Press’s most prolific, successful, and faithful authors on topics of extending and receiving hospitality to and from Muslims—wherever we live. Shenk’s series of books, A Muslim and Christian in Dialogue, Journeys of the Muslim Nation and the Christian Church, and the award-winning Christian. Muslim. Friend: Twelve Paths to Real Relationship are a tribute to devout Christian faith that can flourish even in conversation and relationship with brothers and sisters of the Abrahamic household of faith. (And of course here we’re discussing those Muslims who are devout but not radicalized.)

Truly Orie was a man ahead of his times—a man for all times. Thank you John Sharp, the project committee, and MCC who supported and made possible the writing and publishing of this remarkable history.

Here are the other two parts to this review:
Part I – My Connections to the Orie Miller story.
Part II – Orie O. Miller’s World Wide Reach.

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If Orie was still alive and active in the church, I’m wondering, “What Would Orie Do?” (regarding so many issues). Your thoughts about issues and outreach he’d engage in?

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Who are today’s Orie’s? And they don’t have to be Mennonite. You might recall that I too “departed” from being a card-carrying Mennonite. :-) 

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How have you found your calling?

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My signed copy of My Calling to Fulfill.

 

Marriage at 40 years: A low-key wedding anniversary celebration

Our 40th wedding anniversary dinner was especially serendipitous since it was unplanned by me.

Our children all came home for my husband’s smallish retirement party the Saturday night before, for which I did enjoy cooking, (with a catered main dish of pork barbecue). I did not want to throw a big party because it seemed like we’d just done that for Stuart’s 60th birthday, (a post, by the way, which continues to be one of my most viewed posts. Apparently a lot of people search for 60th birthday party ideas!)

Our anniversary was the next day on Sunday, and an older gentleman from our church, who was transitioning from an independent apartment in the lovely facilities at Sunnyside Retirement Community (Presbyterian) to assisted living, invited my whole house church group to have Sunday dinner with him at Highlands (named of course for Presbyterian Scottish roots).

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Jim Gilkeson, left, enjoying a buffet lunch with his guests at Highlands apartments.

I jumped at the chance—knowing my children and grandchildren would be here on our actual 40th anniversary and wanting to have a special meal with them but not feeling the finances for that, if you get my drift. (Our own daughters had already ponied up with their lovely gift of generous funds for a romantic anniversary getaway sometime soon, but I doubted they wanted us to use that to buy them lunch.) And I was definitely not wanting to cook—and while our daughters and sons-in-law cook very well, with little ones and Sunday morning stress, and needing to travel a distance to homes later …. well, Mr. Jim’s invitation was so perfect. When I told him our whole family would be visiting that Sunday, would he want them too? He smiled and graciously included them.

I was particularly overwhelmed by Jim’s invitation because he and his wife Emily go way back to our very beginning days at Trinity.

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Photo from a surprise bridal shower, 1976, with Emily sitting next to me at the gift table, and fiance Stuart (with a bad case of hat hair from his work helmet, but he had to dress casually because of the surprise, which he was in on).

Jim and Emily and their family were in our house church then and although we’ve been in different groups over the years, for the last 17 years I’ve been in a group with Jim—and with Emily until she died in 2007 after wrenching years with Alzheimer’s. The evening they finally shared her Alzheimer’s diagnosis with our house church group, even though we’d all been diagnosing it ourselves, I broke down in the loudest wail of sorrow I’ve ever left out in a group. It was devastating, but Emily, dear one that she was, consoled me at that point by saying, “It will be all right.”

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Foreground: Emily Gilkeson, right, chats with fellow house church members Polly Taylor and Ted Allen, while the new bride and groom whisper sweet somethings at the reception in the background of Trinity’s “Yoke” Room. 

They lived close to our church, so Emily and Jim hid our car during the wedding and made sure no one went overboard in decking it out for our honeymoon getaway. Not living close to my own parents, Emily was like a mother figure for me in the faith. For our wedding present, they collected funds from other house church members to build a small porch and steps for our mobile home, which were not in good shape at the time; Jim has always been all about “safety first.”

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Posing after the ceremony with pastor Don Allen. For many years, Don’s main clerical robe was one made by Emily Gilkeson. 

I am so proud and happy to share this family photo flanked by Jim and our pastor emeritus Don Allen—who founded Trinity Presbyterian Church.

JimDonFamily2Edited

Front row, l to r: Jim Gilkeson, Doreen, Don Allen (pastor emeritus); Second row, Brian, Michelle, Jon, Sam, Tanya, Stuart, Melodie.

We were only missing two of the grandsons, whose parents felt the children would enjoy themselves more having lunch with their other grandmother Jeannie who lives nearby, and then trundled off to naps. (To say nothing of their parents enjoying their lunch more! All parents of two children two years and younger will understand that.)

And yes, we will have an anniversary trip coming up. Or two. One this summer, one next summer. If marriage teaches us anything, it is the need to stay flexible. We did not want or need a big party, coinciding as it did with my husband’s retirement. And anyone who knows me knows I have a big travel bug, always itching just under the surface. We have enjoyed many adventures together and I hope for many more to come.

For now, sitting down to dinner—and later sitting down for an anniversary serenade by the little ones—made a great anniversary.

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James, age 2 1/2 years teaching little brother Henry, 5 months, how to play the piano. That’s James’ hand on Henry’s! 

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Do you have a mentor in the faith–besides your own parents? I could name many more–different ones at different times.  

 

 

When Should You Retire?

My husband retired last week from 30 years of working in one place. Well, almost 30 years. My husband began retirement a little early because 30 years of standing and walking on the cement floors of a warehouse for 8-12 hours a day, day after day, many times six days a week, sometimes seven, and all of them tedious—have worn out his body. Things are breaking down.

MerillatFactory

I remember our excitement when he got this job at Merillat. He had gone through a year and a half of too-frequent job changes after a five-year stint at another wood working factory, Padgett Manufacturing. Some of those were new opportunities that came along, some didn’t work out. All of them a huge step up from his first job out of high school—working in one of the many poultry plants in this Shenandoah Valley Poultry Capital of Virginia. Merillat makes high quality kitchen cabinets, and had pre-employment testing, training, and perks—company trips to amusement parks for the families, company picnics with nice door prizes like bicycles (one daughter won one), TVs, grills, Christmas banquets at ski resorts, Christmas parties for the kiddos with Santa and nice gifts/gift certificates. All these little niceties now long ago disbanded, a victim of company hard times. They even stopped giving rocking chairs to longtime workers who retired.

Merillat Cabinets (now Masco Corporation) opened a new plant in Mt. Jackson, Va. in 1986, one of more than a dozen Merillat plants across the U.S. at its height. The housing crisis of 2007-08 and accompanying recession led to half of those plants closing, one sad shut down after another. Earlier recessions had also taken their toll. The Mt. Jackson plant itself had over 500 employees in its heyday, down to perhaps 300 today. Each wave of layoffs and plant closings sent tremors through the ranks at the plant; no job was safe. Would my husband’s be next? He greatly feared for his job many, many times.

MerillatTruck

My husband used to tell our daughters, “Stay in school and do your best. You don’t want to end up in a job like mine.” I think they would have stayed in school without that fair warning—college graduates all and one graduate degree among them. All working office jobs in their chosen fields. Like mommy.

But from their dad they learned to keep one foot in the hard-scrabble life of a factory worker whose days were made or ruined at the whim of sometimes hard or inept bosses and lately, computer systems.

His biggest issue was simply never really being able to plan his weekends unless reserved as much as a year in advance, (submitting vacation plans in January)—because the company could require them to work on any given Saturday or Sunday unless they had off the Friday before or the Monday after. So if we were invited to a 2 p.m. Saturday wedding in June that we didn’t know about in January, if he ended up needing to work, too bad.

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Like coal miners or field hands, the drudgery and back breaking work was made lighter by the camaraderie of coworkers; some of the guys became good, long time friends. They shared in-jokes, bad jokes, gossip, too short of breaks, fishing trips while camping overnight along rivers, and occasional birthday parties or helping each other out moving, cutting wood, or other projects.

In these later years, they were so short staffed that the company began working them overtime at whim rather than hiring and then letting go workers—sometimes 50, 60 and 70 hours a week. When you’re in your late 50s and on your feet all day except for brief 10 minute breaks and one 20 minute lunch period, that would wear almost anyone down. Arthritis from injuries sustained when you were a kid come back to haunt you, make you stiff, hobble you. It takes a minute to stand up, get out of a chair or out of bed. In this last year, my husband’s ankles were so stiff he went to a podiatrist and then an orthopedic specialist who recommended therapy—which has been somewhat successful and brought him relief and more agility.

He could tolerate a normal eight hour day—and his supervisor these last years, female, was an angel who often had him sitting down to run something they call a hiester—like a fork lift. But if he was on his feet all day—the next day he walked like a very old man. The last Wednesday of his last week he worked nine hours, all on his feet, and in the next morning he was hobbling like a 90 year old—at least until his bones and joints got moving again. It was definitely time to retire.

Two years ago when he first started scheming whether he could take early retirement at age 62— he began counting down the days. At first it seemed like a forever sentence—would he make it? Would the day ever come?

A week before he quit, he started saying “This whole thing is just surreal—is that the right word? Unreal? They’re talking about whether they will be working Saturday, and I don’t even have to think about it.” He’d say, “If I’m this close to tears now, what do you think my last day is going to be like?

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He took several of his four vacation weeks in these last months, and worked one final long week. On Friday his colleagues surprised him with a beautiful pecan rocking chair (shown above) with all their signatures on the bottom, plus a card they’d signed.

RockingChairLoading

Stuart and his coworker load out the rocking chair they gave him.

We were both tremendously moved: these coworkers—none of them rich or they wouldn’t be working there—had come together to bless him with a sweet token of their respect and good wishes for a proper send off.

On his final day he took a customary “walk around” the entire shipping department where he worked, chatting with coworkers, saying goodbye, amid jokes and comments like they wished it was themselves leaving or retiring, and Stuart saying, “I’ll miss you guys but I won’t miss this place.” To me, at home, he added, “I just feel so sorry for the ones who are still there.”

My hat is off to all those millions who sweat and freeze in shops or outdoors in working conditions that seldom offer a comfortable temperature, using their bodies to bring home a paycheck (well, make that a direct deposit into a bank account).

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So, he survived 30 years and wore the “Plant Start Up Survivor” T-shirt on his last day of work for his last walk around. We are thrilled he made it.

So what he is going to do next?? Have some surgery, of course, to fix a torn rotator cuff.

Meanwhile, he’s begun wiring the “barn” or large storage building we had built five years ago and never had the time to electrify. But that’s another blog post—what he pushed for us to do as a sort of retirement present to himself. Coming up soon! And yes, of course we hope to travel. We’ll be freer to visit the grandchildren, with another one on the way this summer! I hope to continue working a few more years. Eventually he may look for part time work, or volunteer, or who knows? He enjoys working with his hands and coming up with creative and useful projects to weld, build, or repurpose. He will enjoy a lot more flexibility of schedule and hopefully, suppleness of his joints.

So far he feels like a kid left out of school on summer vacation. And I feel about 50 percent less stressed. No more lunches to pack for 4 a.m. departures.

LastMorningWorkLUnch

Happy retirement, honey!

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How do you know when it is time to retire? What is your best advice for retirement?

***

Did you ever leave a job you thought you hated–and end up missing it?

What do you remember your mother or father telling you about working, jobs, education? Or what did you learn from your parents about the same?

***

Any advice for me as I continue working?

***

For a book I helped edit a few years ago, check out Reinventing Aging.

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