A constant memorial to Albert Newman


Driving north on US23, my husband passed a sign between Ossineke and Alpena. You are now crossing the 45th Parallel, Halfway between the Equator and the North Pole.

            “Dad would point to that sign when he drove us to Gram and Gramp’s on Grand Lake,” Mel said. “Perhaps that planted the seed of my love for geography.”

            I imagined us crossing the 45th Parallel line, our car a speck amongst millions of vehicles on America’s highways—one reason we chose the road less traveled to Cheboygan.

We also preferred the old route with stately homes in small towns with attractions that provoked Mel’s childhood memories. Pinconning’s vacant Deer Acres Fun Park, for instance.

“Yeah, Dad stopped there. And the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox Park. But someone’s taken them down.”

“And your dad probably stopped for ice cream.”

Mel grinned at another seed his father planted.

We dined on enchilada and chili relleno in Alpena—checked in to our hotel in charming Cheboygan before nightfall.

“Thanks for taking this trip with me,” I said. “The last time Al and I talked, he said, ‘I love Mel.’ And I said, ‘Al, you love everybody.’”

My husband first met Al Newman four summers ago during my fiftieth high school reunion for my graduating class of 1967. There, we met Al’s wife Denise. Sitting under a pavilion within Stony Creek Metropark, we talked for hours with fellow classmates and their spouses.

Two Octobers later, Mel and I met Al and Denise in Mackinac City before we toured Mackinac Island with other friends. Again, we recalled our past and present families as time permitted.

From Vietnam’s jungles to his prison ministry, occupation as an upholsterer, and the joys and trials of parenthood, Al and Denise kept us in fits of laughter and tears.

As we promised, we phoned or emailed one another until a good friend notified me of Al’s passing last month. I called Denise and made travel arrangements.

On the beautiful Saturday morning of September 18, Cheboygan’s Northshore Community Church filled with folk honoring the life and times of Albert Newman. Of all blessings, Mel and I met his son Albert, and Denise found a moment alone with us.

After a fellow Vietnam vet presented Denise with the American flag, their Pastor spoke the concluding words. “Al loved the language of Scripture, and he loved to eat. He anticipated the Supper of the Lamb together with fellow Christians.”

When we stood to leave the sanctuary, the woman to my left turned to me. “Pardon me. Are you related to Al?”

Iris O'Brien and Albert Newman, senior prom 1967

“No. We dated our senior year in high school. He stood by my side through my parents’ divorce, and broke up with me before I left for college. We met again at our 50th class reunion.”

Dear Reader, I imagine Al ascending above the equator, poles, and parallels of Earth into infinite realms of our Heavenly Father. And I’m watching the signs.

I, too, anticipate the Supper of the Lamb.                                                                

The apple didn't fall far from the tree


(L-R) Hunter, the Pie Lady's right hand, and Ruth, the Pie Lady

The other senses may be enjoyed in all their beauty when one is alone. but taste is largely social. Diane Ackerman

“You were the pickiest eater,” my father once said when I served him spaghetti at my family table. He spoke in reference to his five daughters. I’m number two.

Justifiably, my father expected his children’s gratitude for the forty-five hours he stood on his feet barbering each week to feed, clothe, and shelter us. Even when Mom cooked beef tongue and liver with onions.

“Eewww,” chimed my sisters and me in agreement to the “gross” thing on the platter, or the “stinky” meat in Mom’s frying pan. We would rather devour her hamburger gravy on mashed potatoes.

A former farm girl who cooked for her family of seven from age eleven until World War II, my mother mastered every dish her palate approved.

Chop Suey and Italian spaghetti, for starters. From allspice to turmeric, my mother’s spice rack sparkled like a queen’s jewels. She knew how to perfectly use them.

My sisters and I loved “spaghetti night” because it meant entertainment by our baby sister who sucked the noodles into her mouth. Even Dad laughed.

An Irishman who preferred meat and potatoes, my father barely tolerated spaghetti. And he vowed in Guam’s trenches to never eat a mouthful of rice again.

Furthermore, Dad could not countenance a casserole of any kind. His meat and potatoes must be served in separate bowls.

Such restrictions tested my mother’s culinary creative streak. Employing an alternative, she cooked Italian spaghetti or Chop Suey on Dad’s bowling night. My older sister’s raving reviews spread to her boy-friends who just happened to drop in on Dad’s bowling night. For Mom usually concluded dinner with dessert. Apple pie her specialty.

                Incidentally, Dad “never met a pie he didn’t like,” particularly Mom’s pies in season.

“I could fill this kitchen with fried pies I packed in your father’s lunch bucket,” Mom once said with her hands wrapped around her coffee cup.

I suspect that’s one reason why my father latched onto Sadie McCoy when she met him at the Williamson, West Virginia train station upon his return from World War II.

Since our apple trees didn’t produce this year, I drove north on our backroads through farmland and orchards to Hilltop Farm with pie on my mind.

                “I have one caramel apple pie left,” Ruth, the Pie Lady said.

                “Oh my goodness! Caramel apple?” I cried.

                Ruth smiled. “Yes, and we also have caramel apples for sale.”

                “Thank you, but I’m on a mission for pie to celebrate autumn and my heritage. Caramel apple is perfect. I think my husband will like it, too.”

                Dear Reader, my father was right. I am a picky eater. What I don’t grow and preserve myself, I try to buy organically and locally grown, prepared by folk like the Pie Lady.

               If my father were here today, I’d say, “You know Dad, apple number two didn’t fall far from the tree.”





The communion of congenial conversation and coffee


Loppy, so named for his lopsided ear

The Daubenmeyers across the road came to mind yesterday while I picked raspberries. 

The family with three boys and one married daughter.

The dad who transferred thousands of files from my old Mac to new PC.

The mom who homeschools and works part time.

Why hadn’t I heard the boys in their swimming pool this summer, pitch breaks in howls of laughter? Had they outgrown such fun in the four years since I carried raspberries to their back door?

So I gave Amanda, the mom, a call. “Sure!” she said, “We’d love raspberries. And you can meet my sister-in-law, Laura. 7:30 is good.”

                With my husband visiting his Presque Isle relatives, I prepared a stir fry dinner—leftover lamb kabobs, homegrown bell pepper, onion, and golden crookneck squash sautéed in olive oil.

                In the pleasant atmosphere of low humidity and anticipation of good company, I walked the short distance to the Daubenmeyer’s backoor. “Anybody home?”

                Amanda appeared. “Thanks for the raspberries! Would you like some cherry tomatoes? Our one plant went crazy!” Amanda said.

                I set the bag of raspberries on the kitchen counter and followed Amanda outside. There I met their cat, Loppy, lounging under the patio table.

Loppy in his favorite place and pose

“He was in bad shape when we found him,” Jason, the dad, said.

Loppy lifted his beautiful eyes to us. I fell in love with my thousandth cat. “He looks healthy to me,” I said.

Then Loppy stood on his lean legs. The poor kitty had obviously suffered some rough times.

Amanda led me to the main attraction in their vegetable garden. Indeed, a plant on steroids. We filled a “to go” container in minutes.

“There’s Laura!” Amanda said, looking toward the only house visible.

“I’m glad to meet you at last!” Laura said.

I nodded. “Likewise! I hear you’re one of Amanda’s favorite sisters-in-law.”

In the chill of September’s first nightfall, we three mothers sat around a table Jason had made large enough to seat their extended family.

Several times in the communion of our congenial conversation, I almost excused myself for my final farm chore of the day: closing the henhouse chute. Yet, I decided to linger and listen to Amanda’s wedding and Laura’s grandmother stories.

Amanda shivered. “Would you like some coffee to warm up?”

“Yes!” Laura replied.

“Half a cup should do it,” I said.

Inside, Jason emptied their raspberries into a glass container while Amanda brewed coffee. I understood the meaning of Laura’s expectant smile as Amanda placed coffee toppings on the table.

 A shaker of cinnamon, can of sweet whipping cream, and half and half.

Later, I stepped off the Daubenmeyer’s lighted driveway onto our dark, dirt road. Arms outstretched, I blindly wandered into the tree line and fought my way through the brush to my driveway.

Dear Reader, the black sky alight with constellations, I walked downhill, secured the henhouse, and said, “Good-night, girls.”

If I visit the Daubenmeyers after dinner again, I’ll take a flashlight. And a shaker of Ghirardelli cocoa to taste-test with Amanda’s coffee.

To appreciate a fine tomato

Mel's delicious, yellow tomatoes

One remarkable summer day of 1967, Uncle Tab said, “Come help tie up toma’das.”

An unemployed high school graduate on a visit to Kentucky relatives, I gladly followed. For time alone with my youngest uncle meant a diversion from discouragement. I could count on his stories about kinfolk and our birthplace to lift my spirit.

                A previous year, I’d helped Uncle Tab string pole beans in an outbuilding. Might’ve been the farm’s disused smokehouse. There I first observed the dance of his large hands stringing and snapping beans.

“I like my beans full,” Uncle Tab had said, meaning he preferred large kernels. “Your mommy likes hers small.”

After his day’s work in the coal mines, he led me behind the farmhouse to his large tomato patch. He held long strips of old, white bed sheets, the sway in his shoulders steady and sure. I admired his confidence.

“Tie ‘em like this before the stems get too heavy,” he said, looped the cloth under a stem with yellow blossoms and developing fruit. He then knotted the tie to a stake.

Row after row, we rescued his harvest from rotting on the ground. “Now, that’s too tight,” he’d say. Or, “That’s just right.” And, “I like my toma’das big, and so does Alma Leigh.”

A marvelous cook, immaculate housekeeper, and incomparable clotheshorse, Aunt Alma Leigh loathed dirt and perspiration. She therefore left all garden chores to her husband.

As if he’d reserved his most significant revelation for the last tie, Uncle Tab smiled and whispered, “After seven years, our mines finally made some good money.”

Fifty-one years later, upon our last meal with Uncle Tab and Aunt Alma Leigh in Lexington, he took my husband and me for a drive in his golf cart. He stopped by a row of tomato plants five-feet tall and laughed like a boy.

“Mel, pull some toma’das for dinner. Get the biggest, ripest ones.”

That night, Uncle Tab served us chicken and dumplings and sliced tomatoes—the largest, meatiest, juiciest, tastiest tomatoes we’ve had the pleasure to consume.

This summer, Mel completed his second year gardening for varieties to equal Uncle Tab’s. It’s not that I dislike dirt and perspiration. On the contrary! I still plant garlic cloves in October and pull the bulbs in July or August.

Truth is, I think something genetic is awry with common red tomato varieties. For four summers now they’ve refused to ripen, hogging valuable real estate, time, compost, and fertilizer.

“Let’s give them one more summer. I’ll grow more yellow varieties next spring,” Mel reasoned last year.

Because Uncle Tab exampled patience and appreciated a fine tomato, I complied only to throw up my hands this week. “Feed those pathetic red tomatoes to the hens! I’m not canning another jar!”

Dear Reader, all is not lost. Aside from one misshaped into a heart, our yellow tomatoes resemble the size and flavor of Uncle Tab’s reds.  

“Next year, I’m planting more yellow tomato plants,” Mel vowed. 

The toma’da will tell.

Picnic Memories

Children feed our hens during the church picnic

I knew Mom and my Kentucky relatives planned another picnic when she boiled eggs and potatoes on a Saturday. That provoked mixed feelings as a child.

                A day at Wildwood Park meant loading up Mom’s potato salad, fried chicken, chocolate cake, and sweet tea bright and early Sunday morning. After a long drive from Warren to Holly, my sisters and I splashed and played on the beach with our cousins. Then Mom hollered for us to come and eat. Then we played and ate again until the cake disappeared.

A picnic also meant I’d miss Mrs. Urban’s Sunday school class and reciting my memory verse. That meant missing another star by my name on the teacher’s chart.

But Dad and many uncles worked Saturdays, so we picnicked on Sundays with what seemed most of Michigan’s population.

Without a doubt, those glorious, sunburned days running back and forth from the beach to Mom’s chocolate cake redeemed the lessons lost in Sunday school.

For Sabbath mornings with fellow classmates and the Holy Scriptures far outnumbered the Saturday mornings my mother hand-blended potato salad in her white metal dishpan rimmed in red.

My favorite memory verse Mrs. Urban assigned my class remains Romans 8:28. Therefore, I knew God would work out a family picnic for my good because I loved Him and was called according to His purpose. Whatever that purpose might be.

This knowledge, one portion of my inheritance as a believer in God’s Word, granted confidence in the revelation of His purpose. Meanwhile, family picnics and reunions fell by the wayside as relatives passed or moved out of state.

I grew eager to plow my hands through a gigantic bowl of sliced hardboiled eggs, boiled potatoes, celery and olives, chopped carrots and onion blended with Hellman’s mayonnaise, sour cream, and buttermilk. Finished with Morton’s Nature’s Seasons.

In the perfect dispensation of opportunity to fulfill my heart’s desire, our pastor’s wife announced several months ago, “We’re planning to resume our potluck picnic this summer. We’ll keep you posted on the date and location.”

I turned to my husband with absolute assurance in our purpose. “We have the location.”

After months of planning and preparation for 50-60 guests, this past Saturday I carried a punch bowl filled with Mom’s potato salad downhill to our pavilion.

Megan Schwetz of Living Grace Church packs up goodies to take home

In good time and humor, the pastor’s wife, daughter, and two other women arranged the bounty of food on four tables. I recalled reunions and picnics of my childhood: fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, greasy beans with onion, new potatoes and gravy, blackberry cobbler, and jugs of sweet iced tea, for instance.

The pastor’s wife rang the dinner bell I’d fastened to the wall fourteen years ago. Sixty-one guests fell silent to the unexpected clatter.

Dear Reader, a year ago I had no vision of the blessed moment when Pastor Tom asked the Lord’s blessing upon our feast.

Our home is no Wildwood Park, yet childhood laughter while feeding hens and running in sprays of our lopsided sprinkler provoked no less joy.