Lamps and Legacies

The place has personality, stands its ground amidst Rochester’s gentrification. For years I’d drive by the green building, catching a glimpse of the Village Lamp Shop. “Let me tell you my story,” the window would say.
“Not today,” I’d reply. 
Fond of old things and stories, I at last resurrected a brass lamp that hadn’t worked in ages. It was a housewarming gift from Gram, my husband’s paternal grandmother. She brought it to our apartment in Bay City in winter 1970. I baked a pecan cake with caramel sauce for her, my father-in-law, and two younger brothers-in-law—our first guests as newlyweds.
I loved Gram. She was the first adult on Mel’s side of our marriage to speak a vote of confidence in me as a wife and homemaker. Gram and Gramps owned a lodge on Presque Isle where Gram served food she cooked and baked from scratch.
In her honor, I drove Gram’s lamp to the shop. It was high time to let her light shine within my home again.
Bill Beuthien, lamp maker
The shop’s doorbell introduced quirky to grand lights that hung on walls and from ceilings and sat on every possible surface. The floor creaked as a man walked toward me from the building’s hindmost room, backlit from a window like a scene from Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop.
I can’t remember which Beuthien brother I first met, third generation of their family business. Bill and Jim have since repaired most every lamp in my household—vintage and antique types that called my name. Orphans with unknown stories. They’ve come from Silver Quill in Warren, LaBelle Antiques in St. Claire Shores, and the Armada Flea Market.
Stories are inseparable from Bill and Jim’s vocation. “We believe in the styles and traditions of the past and are eager to expand upon them,” Bill said.
They hold BFA degrees from Northern Michigan University. Bill’s interest is illustration and design. Jim’s is metal smithing and sculpture.
I stopped by recently to see what the brothers have created with their castaways. Rescued parts lay stacked and strewn on workbenches where they learned the formal art of their craft at their father and grandfather’s elbows. There, they invented their Lampshade Lounge, “tabletop accent lamps with the retro edge.”
This legacy began with their grandfather in London, England in the early 1900’s. Eight-year-old James Weddell lit oil lamps on the Jewish Sabbath for one cent per household, including minor repairs. During World War II James made his way to Selfridge Air Force Base via the Royal Air Force. He decided then to start a new life in America with his wife and two daughters.
Dear Reader, this is by no means the whole story of the Dickensian character of the Village Lamp Shop. That you need to see and hear yourself. For old world craftsmanship and service, you’re welcome to stop by 139 Romeo Road.
But beware, a retro spaceship mounted atop a recycled tripod might catch your eye and provoke stories of your dad’s home movies.
And don’t forget to take the lamp that needs repair.

Home, Sweet Home

A 1972 Christmas gift from Mel's sister Mary

We met halfway in Grand Traverse Pie Company on Thursday, Cherie’s day off from the Orion Township Library. We’d skipped our annual reunion here at the farm the past two summers and determined to reconnect before 2017 blew in. One of my former poetry tribe, I had asked Cherie to bring one of her poems to read. I missed her voice.
            She was her same beautiful self—more gray strands in her long, wavy hair. We swapped whereabouts of my two girls and grandson and her two boys and three grandkids.  
            “The little ones keep me busy. I’m glad they live close by,” she said.
We talked about our Christmas plans. Since my California family flew in for my husband’s 70th and baby’s 40th birthday in November, my daughter and son-in-law need some serious R&R during Christmas vacation. There will be no orbit of departure for family gatherings and return to California after Christmas Day.
And for the Underwood patriarch and matriarch, it’s farm sweet farm December 25— unless our youngest and her husband decide to host. Their new house would be a cozy change in this cold snap. They’ve a fine fireplace. We don’t.
Cherie, on the other hand, is hosting a multitude for Christmas dinner. “I love it,” she said.
True. She mirrors my mother’s hospitality—the more the merrier, particularly Christmas dinner. In her Kentucky home one Christmas Eve, Mom bed and breakfasted her twenty-one offspring, five sons-in-law, and a granddaughter’s fiancé. I imagine Cherie’s lovely house much like that, all lit up and bursting at the seams.
After we had our fill of food and friendship, we pulled on our coats. I almost forgot to ask. “Cher, did you bring a poem to read?”
She smiled because she knows I adore her poetry. “No, there’s just too much going on with the kids and work to think about writing. I’m not complaining, for we’re all in a good place right now. Everyone’s healthy and content.”
We hugged and promised to meet again come summer. Her words settled into my mind while I drove to the grocery store. They hovered over me like a halo through the aisles and checkout and drive home.
“We’re in a good place right now” echoed like a prayer while I put away groceries, practiced my dulcimer, and watched a video of my grandson acting in his first school play. His laugh was like good medicine.
He’s in a good place right now and too young to know it, I mused. This is consolation between the vast gap in space and time between us.
This place where my husband and I stand is also good, for it is our home, a shelter from storms and misunderstandings. As Cherie and her husband, this is what we have worked for and have maintained with our entire mind and might.

Dear Reader, wherever you find yourself Christmas Day, I pray you are in a good place, your home sweet home, or another’s. Preferably, before a blazing fire.

Praise the Christmas Cast

The blessed Nativity at the Underwood's house

Praise the angel Gabriel for his glad tidings to Zacharias in the Temple of the Lord. Praise the witnesses who perceived a vision upon the old priest’s face, his tongue held mute with disbelief.

Praise Elisabeth’s withered womb quickened by the Holy Ghost to conceive and bear a son named John who would turn the hearts of the fathers to their children.

Praise Gabriel’s message to the virgin, Mary. Praise her submission to God’s word. Praise the babe who leapt within Elisabeth’s womb at the sound of Mary’s salutation.

Praise the innkeeper who gave Mary’s baby sleep in a manger. Praise the shepherds abiding in the field, and the angel who said Fear not.

Praise the multitude of heavenly hosts who sang, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. Praise the Star of Bethlehem that led the wise men to the Christ child.

Praise the Gospel of Luke, a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us. Praise the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us.

Praise Martin Luther for lighting his Christmas tree with candles. Praise Johann Sebastian Bach for his Christmas Oratorio, and George Frideric Handel for The Messiah.

Praise community choirs for singing Oh, Come Let Us Adore Him. Praise stringed and wind instruments, the pipe organ, and Christmas Eve midnight mass.

Praise The Salvation Army’s brass bands and red kettles that span from San Francisco to Boston. Praise the hands that feed the needy Christmas dinner.

Praise Charles Dickens for Ebenezer Scrooge and Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Praise Frank Capra for George Bailey and Clarence Oddbody.

Praise perennial church bells and family tables calling us to communion. Praise children dressed as the Christmas cast, wooly sheep bleating and donkeys braying on stage.

Praise the blessed nativity, God with us, always. Praise the Light Who comes to us when we sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Green Eggs & Handel's Messiah

Green eggs from our Olive Eggers
Our five new hens are Easter Eggers and Olive Eggers. Thus, we’re gathering blue and green eggs these days. Katy, our neighbor, exchanged the pullets for our old girls. What a deal. For a reasonable cost, she drove two hours to purchase and deliver our new flock, and left with the menopausal.
The novelty of green eggs is delicious when served a la Dr. Seuss. “I do so love green eggs and ham!” Add a slice of sourdough toast a la lavender jelly for a taste of sweet, fragrant summer. “Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly,” goes the old English lullaby while I sip a steamy cup of Earl Grey.
Ten years ago I knew nothing of green eggs and raising hens. Twenty years ago I knew nil about growing lavender and cooking with it. In Future’s dark sphere, I could not foresee our firstborn’s imminent passing, nor the people and their roles in building my dream of a lavender farm. Each in their own season, they’ve appeared like falling stars, their light showing me the way, their voices full of comfort and joy.
Andy, our handyman, often spoke fondly of his hens, roosters, and chicks. I accepted his offer to visit his barnyard for a lesson on hen husbandry. His birds answered his whistle and came running from all directions. They knew a gentleman when they heard one.
“Andy, you remind me of Uncle Herm and his chickens when I was a kid,” I said.
He heard the desire of my heart. “You can raise hens, too, Iris.”
Andy built our henhouse. I bought six layers, the most congenial girls we’ve had the past four years. Alas, I’ve never mastered a whistle like Andy’s.
Sometime afterward, Andy carried a heavy box into my kitchen. “I thought you might be interested in Uncle Lee’s collection of classical records,” he said.
Even though our vintage stereo didn’t work, I gladly accepted Andy’s gift. He thought the world of his late uncle, so I was honored to receive Uncle Lee’s music. I tucked the box away for safe keeping until our budget allowed a new phonograph—until I could sit and listen to superb recordings.
In the fullness of time, my youngest daughter answered my need Thanksgiving Day while gathered for dinner. After a year as Project Manager for Shinola’s new product category, the sales launch was the next day in Detroit. And she would be there.
I avoid Black Friday shopping, but this was a big event Mel and I must attend. “What’s the cost?” I asked.
She replied.
My mind rationalized and reasoned.
The following morning Mel and I placed a boxwood wreath on my father’s grave, then our firstborn’s. We drove downtown, hugged our daughter, and bought the turntable.
Dear Reader, last night Mel carried Uncle Lee’s box of records from the basement upstairs.

Hallelujah! This year we celebrate Christmas with green eggs and ham while Handel’s Messiah spins on our new turntable, a limited edition. Unlimited comfort and joy.

Ruth's Poetry Box

A Christmas gift lost and found

Ruth’s poetry box showed up last month when I organized my study’s closet. There it was, forlorn beside Dad’s strongbox, hidden under bins and loose piles of memorabilia we recently inherited from my in-law’s household. Those photos, certificates, and post cards tell too much family history to let them go. You could call my closet a vault of history and memories.
             You must know the poetry box is mine, a Christmas gift from my youngest daughter. It does not belong in the vault. Praise God! I declare it is not yet a keepsake left behind! While I breathe Earth’s air, Ruth’s present is a living thing and belongs in our living room under the table between our two reclining pink chairs that Ruth dislikes.
While Christmas decorating a few years ago, I stowed the box away in the closet and forgot about it. You see, my mother-in-law’s ceramic Mr. & Mrs. Clause take the box’s place until New Year’s Day.
I read Ruth’s quatrain inscribed in graceful calligraphy on the box’s lid.
The poetry box…
the window
to our
            I appreciated anew her insightful invitation to contribute our verses to the box, and regretted I had misplaced it. How many windows of our souls had we missed while the gift languished in the land of the deceased? Just how long have I had Ruth’s marvelous present and not used it for the purpose she intended? I turned the box over.  
Merry Christmas
I love you  RU
            The power of poetry had its way. I opened the lid. It seemed the several pieces of paper leapt with joy at the light in my eyes. I read all the poems, mostly brief. My California daughter submitted the first verse in February 2000. The last submission I wrote December 23, 2009.
    It is Christmastime
    And I forage for
    Traces still stained
    In my home and memory
    To carry with me
    In my celebrations.
             Unable to recall our whereabouts for Christmas 1999, I turned to my journals and found my Christmas entries.  “What a marvelous day with the Juets!”
Yes, I remembered our French guests, the mirth and baguettes and Nutella for breakfast—Christmas caroling with our dear, adopted Juet sisters. They hosted Kelly, my California daughter, when she studied at The Alliance Française, Paris.
The Juets came for Christmas when our family needed them, and they needed us.  We comforted one other in the abundance of our waste places.
            There’s no mention of Ruth’s poetry box in my journal. Yet, I remember unwrapping the gift, felt the longing and promise my daughter inspired within it.
            Dear Reader, I wait for that desire and promise to be fulfilled with Ruth's poetry box. I pray for it, deposit another window to my soul inside—invest in understanding and amity. It does not come without a price.
The Babe, the son of Mary, guides our way.

A Cup of Cold Water

My firstborn and me, July 1971, at Gramma Rosie's pool

And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward. 
St. Matthew 10: 42

On those long, summer days of childhood, nothing could call me indoors until Mom hollered for dinner. Even on those blistering, itchy, humid vacations in Kentucky, I felt no thirst. Play was my drink until that sweaty glass of cold milk appeared on the table. Then, sudden thirst had its fill.
            Mom served my sisters and me Twin Pines delivered in the milk chute. The dairy industry thrived on the likes of us O’Brien girls—four glasses each a day, times five. Mom worried over the bill.

She was skeptical of the chlorine smell from our city faucets, and frowned at the rotten egg odor from Kentucky wells. I wager she would shake her head today at our modern fetish for bottled H2O.
A genuine southerner, Mom’s water was iced tea with a teaspoon of sugar. She’d savor the dregs like they were some magic potion for inner peace. “Now, don’t you touch my tea,” she’d say to my sisters and me. It was a test of obedience I dared challenge only once.
Unlike the typical southerner, Mom never bought Pepsi or Coca-Cola. On special occasions, she permitted us a glass of icy, slightly sweetened Lipton or Red Rose. Thus, I didn’t develop a taste for unflavored water.
It was after my travail of labor and delivery in childbirth when I gladly accepted a cold cup of water. The first swallow was heaven to my parched mouth and throat. My firstborn’s cry and the nurse’s white uniform remain connected with that quenching drink. It felt like she’d saved my life.
Yet, it’s difficult to change a camel’s habits. In caring for my infant and household, I forgot to drink. Alas, my attempt to breastfeed failed due to inexperience and lack of support. Four years later, I found La Leche League and prepared for my second child.
Although I couldn’t embrace some of their ideas, I found La Leche companionship and knowledge as necessary as Sunday morning worship service. The women helped me overcome my challenges and handicaps with the will and skill to successfully breastfeed my two younger daughters. The group was like the nurse who gave me a cup of cold water when I needed it.
Dear Reader, as my firstborn’s birthday approaches, I meditate upon the nurse’s vocation and kindness, how good health and encouragement come from what seems a small, insignificant thing. Since our daughter passed, I see my barren landscape of loss grows greener from cups of cold water given by God’s disciples. With each cup, they save my life again.
As St. Augustine wrote: “Does not a certain flame rise up as if from that cold water which even inflames the cold breasts of men to perform acts of mercy in the hope of heavenly reward?”

The Ages of Faith

My friend Debra on a visit to the farm 2014

A fragrant night when crabapple trees bloomed outside the Detroit Public Library, a young woman named Debra walked to the podium in the Fine Arts room. My husband and I sat in the audience beside the Loggia’s seven arches.
A new member of Detroit Women Writers, their Annual Spring Readings was the first DWW event I attended. Preoccupied with excitement, I overlooked the Pewabic tiles of the Loggia, unaware the seven arches portrayed Shakespeare’s seven ages of man.
Debra’s voice was like a lullaby. With each turn of phrase and description of her Jewish grandmother, she expressed my affection for my Holiness Pentecostal granny. As Debra heard her grandmother say, “Well, I’ll be!” in approval of her éclairs, so I heard Granny say, “Don’t skin my cake!” when we grandkids scooped up a finger of frosting.
Never had I felt such kinship with a perfect stranger. Debra’s was the only reading I remember of the five winners that spring evening.
I felt honored and unworthy to sit amongst such accomplished women. Yet, Debra’s reflections inspired faith to believe I could also write beautiful words about my granny. With practice and study, perhaps I would have courage and merit to stand before my colleagues and read a memoir.
The ensuing seventeen years, Debra and I have read our stories and poems within critique groups. I’ve studied her writer’s voice, learned from her command of the English language. We’ve shared family histories and sharpened each other’s spirit and will.
We’ve aged gracefully in our empty nests. I’ve read my winning poems and feature stories to guests of the Annual Spring Readings. Debra and her husband have combined their art forms and produced “Picture a Conversation” to stimulate dialogue and goodwill within groups. Her vision is crisp and viable, necessary in a culture obsessed with non-verbal communication.
This week, Debra drove out for the day.  She brought baked apples to top off my quiche and spinach salad. We sat at the kitchen table five luxurious hours, our hearts open to one another. Ever her wise self, she spoke of learning from hardship, of its purpose. We spoke the same language of loss and gain within generations.
In nonchalance she said, “Eliot and Elizabeth are going to have a baby.”
           I jumped from my seat and hugged her. “You’re going to be a grandmother! How could you hold such great news?”
           “I’m practicing self-control. I’ll need it when the baby comes. They live only seven miles away.” She waved a hand in mock dismissal. “Who wants a mewling infant, anyway?”
           I smiled. “You sound like Shakespeare.”
           “It’s intentional, but I left out the puking.”
           “I appreciate that.”
           Dear Reader, I recalled where we first met in the Fine Arts room, the Loggia to our side. My writer’s mind and heart were young and tender, hungry for someone like Debra to befriend.
           In our fifth age, we face uncertainty with courage. As she emailed the next day—“The more years I spend on this earth, faith is the only answer.”