June is the green smoothie of summer months; so many shades of green, and everything is juicy with growth. Flag Day was yesterday; an opportunity to muse upon the history of our Stars and Stripes, from Betsy Ross’s stitchery to the addition of stars from the original thirteen. I remember the poem about Barbara Fritchie who challenged Stonewall Jackson during the Civil War: “’Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare your country’s flag.’ she said.” * And the statue of Iwo Jima where Marines lifted the flag with their last ounce of strength. We often of take our flag for granted; we probably shouldn’t.
The Summer Solstice is a week away and since we are a Finnish-American community —also imminent is the Finnish Summer Festival of Juhannus. Farmers are between first and second cutting of hay. Cows, if they are lucky, are dotting green fields of forage instead of being shut into long, lighted barns to be fed and milked by robotic minions delegated via the farmer’s computer. I say this with two minds, for many of the mechanical and technical advances have made farming a bit easier. But I still think animals should to be freed to be animals whenever possible; they need to be outside just as humans need to be outside.
My theories in this direction were tested last summer when our neighbor’s chickens free-ranged themselves right into our lawn and gardens — and window sills! When they began roosting on the sills instead of going home at night, we had to ask for intervention. It was late fall, and their feet could freeze if left out like that. Also, they were really annoying our cats who wanted to sit on that same window sill. But I still think free range is healthier.
Father’s Day is Sunday, so, of course, that and the chickens, trigger stories of my father. He liked chickens, so we had chickens —– lots of chickens. Chickens are very low on my list of esteemed animals, but I still had to gather eggs, and once/year, help with culling them. This is a process whereby one goes into the chicken house at night, when they are —- ostensibly, asleep and calm —- and check which ones weren’t laying well. Further description would be TMI!! I was assigned to carry out the ones who wouldn’t be staying. That was probably my least favorite chore! The chickens objected to being disturbed and there was a great deal of flapping, squawking, and – on my part — sneezing. If you’ve never held a chicken upside down by its feet, you’ve missed one of life’s more trying experiences — probably for the chicken too.
My father was born in 1895 and was in his late 40s when I was born. Coming from an era when children’s desires were not paramount in family life, he had firm ideas about obedience, good manners and quality work. It also would never have occurred to him that my attitude toward chickens mattered. My much-older siblings insisted he had mellowed by the time I came along. Hmmm…..! My father and I disagreed often, but being realistic, I mostly kept my mouth shut to avoid exercises in futility.
Even in the midst my teenage annoyance, I knew my father loved me. I never felt that being a late-in-life child made me unwanted. He would play Candyland with me when I was small, and later, Chinese Checkers. He took me along when he walked the fields, and talked to me about farming. He was involved in community and farm advocacy groups, so my being part of 4-H and Girl Scouts was fine with him. He wasn’t a musician, but he encouraged my lessons and involvement in All-county, All-state, and high school plays. Like all of us, he was a complicated mix of faults and virtues. If there was a generational gap between 1895 and 1942 — it was to be expected.
If my sister-in-law, Tootie, was alive and reading this, she would say — as she often said when my sister, Betty, and I spoke of Dad’s unbending attitudes and thunderous pronouncements —– “I can’t believe this. Your father has always been a perfect gentleman when I’ve been around.” “Well, yeah! You weren’t his kid, Tootie!!” But she was also right. My father had very good manners except when he was highly irritated at which point, he was very, very loud. Naturally, he was never irritated or thunderous when all the family members, including inlaws, were assembled; for him, those were good times.
Because my older siblings walked — for a while — to a one-room school house, Dad actively worked to achieve a central school —- and buses, and reminded me of this when I’d rather have ridden in a friend’s car. He also considered that one should be appropriately dressed; something of a problem when short skirts were in. One of our favorite photos, found after his death, was a picture of Dad standing in the middle of a potato field, next to a create of potatoes, —- in a white shirt and tie. It amused all of us because it was SO DAD! He wore short sleeves only on the hottest of summer days, and the idea of wearing shorts would have appalled him. On Sundays, he was in church, in white shirt and tie, and he was a good and cooperative neighbor. While I think there were unnecessary growing pains in the process, all five of us grew to respect others, to care about our world and to be responsible and competent about our work.
I have observed varied paternal parenting. My elder brothers were different from each other, as was my brother-in-law. Kerm has been a fine role model for our sons, and for 4-H-ers from Pennsylvania to the Catskills to Chemung County. He was especially adept when our boys were toddlers (not my favorite age!); he would help them build block castles and “Brrruuum, Brrruuum” along with their Matchbox cars. He took his turns supervising baths and reading to them at bedtime. He taught them practical life skills. Our adult sons have also been participatory with the kids in their lives. They have parented well, mostly avoiding mistakes that we, their parents, made.
Some men seem to consider that their responsibility for children ends at conception. I think that one isn’t much of a father without participation in raising the kids. For this and various other reasons, role models sometimes appear outside the family. My paternal grandfather died when my father was three, so an uncle stepped in as a male role model for my father and his sibling. To all who have provided fathering; actual dads, step-dads, coaches, club leaders, pastors, teachers, older friends —– Happy Father’s Day.
We all make some poor choices along the way that sometimes impact a family. In “Finding Your Roots” on PBS, people often have very little information about their families. I am always awe-struck by discovered experiences, as research is done, information that has never been shared in family history—- some too painful perhaps, and some because forebearers were unhappy with their choices.
But our choices —- wise or unwise — can be lessons in our growing. When we ignore or pretend something never happened, or wallow in guilty silence, isn’t that dishonest as well as a waste of precious time and energy? A quotation from Higher Dimensions** says: “If you erase all themistakes of your past you could also erase all the wisdom of your present. Remember, the lesson, not the disappointment.” Even truly bad experiences that have created trauma — if they have made us people who can help others through hard times —- that is something good flowing from what felt all bad. Family secrets, when hidden, usually lead to emotional trauma, passed down through the generations. It is always good to be the one who breaks the cycle, changing a foolish course to a wise path.
As we move into summer, I’m remembering books. My school vacation time always included books. They may not be quite as effective role models as people, but they offer a door to many worlds and encourage some interesting side paths.
One of the first I remember reading during summer vacation would be the Burgess Bird Book by Thornton Burgess —- full of stories about creatures I could see around me. I now have a complete set of those stories, great for ages five to twelve — and even now, I occasionally pull one out, and laugh over Peter Rabbit’s curiosity. When I was in junior high, I read a lot of biographies —-those orange-covered books in the school libraries of the 1950s —- Martha Washington, Jane Addams, Dorothea Dix, Thomas Jefferson, etc. In high school, I moved on to longer stories like Jane Eyre, The Yearling, Gene Stratton Porter books and Gone With The Wind. I was late in discovering C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkien and George McDonald, so I enjoyed them right along with our boys. Now, in my ancient years, I’ve moved into what the bookstore calls “cozy mysteries” by Miranda James, and some not-so-cozy ones, by Robert Parker.
I also like non-fiction from Gladys Taber, Pat Leimbach, Diane Ackerman, and more current writers like Fannie Flagg, Michele Obama, or Janet Evanovich. My summers still hold the usual tasks; jelly-making, canning and keeping weeds at bay. But there was and always will be, time for enchanted hours of reading.
Mid-June is for savoring, like one of those juicy smoothies (though in honesty, I’d prefer mine to be chocolate!). It is time for absorbing the sunshine, admiring the green leaves —- so many shapes and textures—- stopping to smell the flowers, whether they are roses or buttercups, and taking time to reminisce about other summers. We are all, within ourselves, a collection of good —-maybe even great —-stories. Go back over them, share them, and enjoy the memories.
Carol writes from her home in Spencer. She may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
*””Barbara Fritche” by John Greenleaf Whittier — American Quaker poet and abolitionist. 1807-1892
**Higher Dimensions —ON PBS