The retaining wall that keeps the yard from flowing downhill into the park and down to the creek, is now growing back upwards, visibly straighter and better grounded than it was before.
In his poem “Mending Wall”, Robert Frost suggested that the wall dividing his property and the neighbor’s property is constantly falling down and requiring mending. He gets together with his neighbor and they replace the fallen stones, mending the wall between them. And then the neighbor says the oft-quoted line, “Good fences make good neighbours.” Ironically, the neighbor is not saying that having a wall between them makes them better neighbors. He is saying that their friendship is built on mending the wall together.
And so it is with me and number two son as we labor together to straighten the foundation stones and replace all the heavy stone bricks that we had to remove to get to them. It is hard work, slowed by heavy bricks, one arthritic back, multiple rainy days, cold weather, and fatigue. But slowly we have problem-solved together, discussed the state of the world, and mended the wall. We have also mended our working relationship as father and son. A good wall makes a stronger family in the Frostian sense.
And so, I have come to see how life imitates art, and work begets poetry. A little sunshine creeps back into the picture when you engage in a little rebuilding.
Mom had breakfast ready and on the table. Eggs and bacon on stoneware plates, one for
Val and one for Daddy Kyle. She was a
great cook and loved to stuff her small family with what she made. That was probably the reason she was
watching over a second pan-full of sizzling bacon.
“Your father isn’t ready yet?” asked Mom, left eyebrow
“Oh, he had to change his pants again for some reason.”
“That man can find more excuses for dragging his feet than…”
“Mom? Is something
the matter with Daddy?”
“What do you mean?”
“Last night I thought he was crying in the machine shed.”
“Well, you know your Daddy Kyle. He loves his machinery, and that big old
combine is broken down again.”
“It shouldn’t be.
It’s only two years old.”
Mom looked at her with unreadable eyes. Was she mad?
“He says he can fix it.
He says the problem is just mechanical and you know how handy he is with
“Sure.” He did love that combine. Maybe that was what made him sad. He
loved Valerie and he was always sad when she was sick too.
Valerie gobbled eggs and bacon. It was good, but even better eaten fast so
you could enjoy those bacon burps for the next half hour.
“You eat like you’re starving. I wish I could eat like that, Val, and stay
as thin as you do.”
“Mom, I’m only eleven.
I’m not supposed to be a fatty at my age.”
“I thought you were ten, dear. Where does the time go?”
Valerie was still thinking about yesterday, the holiday Monday…
and why did so many people have to feel sad?
“Do you know what makes Ray Zeffer so sad, Mom?”
“Ray Zeffer? What
brings that up?”
“He and Danny Murphy walked me all the way home last night
from town. He’s such a gentleman. But he always seems sad.”
“Well, I would guess that losing your father the way he did,
such a short time ago… well, it might have something to do with it. I know his mother, Donna Zeffer, is sad a lot
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“And there was a brother that died… older brother… Bobby, I think. His family has been through a lot.”
Valerie buttered a piece of toast and then sipped her milk
from the mug that Grandpa Larry had given her years ago. The mug had a big red heart on the side of
“I didn’t know about the brother. Younger or older?”
“Definitely older. More than ten years ago.”
“What was more than ten years ago?” asked Daddy Kyle as he
came in to breakfast.
“Valerie was wondering about Ray Zeffer because he and the
Murphy boy walked her home from town last night. How long ago did Bobby Zeffer die, Kyle?”
“Oh, at least sixteen years ago. But what’s this about boys walking Valerie
home last night?”
Uh-oh. Dad radar had
picked up a boy-alert… a potential boyfriend/trouble/rock salt alert.
“Danny and Ray were just being gentlemen,” said
Valerie. “They wanted to make sure I got
“And they didn’t have anything but your safety on their
little minds?” Kyle asked with a skeptical smirk.
“I suppose now you want to shoot Ray?” asked Valerie.
“Who said anything about shooting Ray?” asked Mom.
“Dad did. He wanted
to shoot Pidney and Danny last night, and now he wants to shoot Ray!”
scolding stare could wither flowers that were otherwise in full bloom.
“I was just kidding around!” said Daddy in a defensive voice
that sounded a lot like a little boy who’d been caught pulling his sister’s
hair. “I wouldn’t really shoot
anybody… It’s a dad thing.”
“I’m sure it is,” said Mom.
“But let’s not joke about that anymore.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He was
thoroughly chastised, and Valerie marveled at how Mom could make him so
instantly repentant, like a Baptist preacher preaching Hellfire or something.
“The bus is here, Princess,” said Daddy Kyle while peering
out the window.
it really was. Valerie had to
hustle. The old yellow bus driven by
Milo Volker was waiting at the end of the Clarkes’ lane, and he wouldn’t linger
if she didn’t show up fast. Still, it
made her grin to see the look of relief on her Daddy’s face as he realized the
dangerous conversation was at an end.
Valerie was thinking about chores when she wandered out to
the machine shed. She hadn’t gone into
the house yet for a reason. Feed the
chickens and check for eggs. Put fresh
water in the water bottles. God, she
hated Mr. Boofoo chickens! …Err… un-cool
chickens. The ones that were going to
peck at her for checking their nests were all Mrs. But the other part fit. Lingering outside meant she didn’t have to
march out to the chicken house immediately.
She’d get it done… just not
As she wandered into the machine shed, she saw her Daddy
there, leaning up against the combine.
The engine housing was up and various parts were laid out on the white
concrete floor in a very careful rainbow of different size pieces, bolts, and
screws. Kyle was leaning up against the
combine with a paper in his hands. He
stared at it with red eyes. Had he been
crying or something? It looked like a
bill, this paper that seemed to be making him sad. Then, he suddenly wadded the thing up into a
ball and pitched it across the shed. It
plinked off the corrugated tin wall and banked directly into the empty barrel
there. Two points! But it did not make him happy. Then he noticed Val was watching him.
“Oh, hi, Princess.
You are looking lovely tonight.”
His face was happier by a mile and a quarter, but the redness of his
eyes still showed.
“Is something wrong, Daddy?”
“Of course not. You
haven’t done your chicken chores, though, huh?”
“Well, not yet… I
will go in a minute. I wanted to talk to
“Oh? What about?”
That was the thing.
What about? She didn’t really
have a what about. She just sensed that
she needed to talk to him.
“You know how everyone thinks Pidney Breslow is going to be
a great football player this year?”
“Yeah. The big goof
is just a freshman and he’s already made the varsity team. What about him?”
She had to say something fast… but that usually meant saying
something stupid because she couldn’t think
“Do you think he would make a good boyfriend for me?”
“You are ten, Princess.
He’s fifteen or sixteen, isn’t he?”
“I’m eleven. Mom is
younger than you are.”
“Only by two years.
Not as big a deal.”
“You don’t like Pidney?”
“I like him fine.
But you are ten. Any boy who
thinks he’s going to be your boyfriend will have to get past two bear traps,
some electric fencing, and my shotgun loaded with rock salt.”
“Why rock salt?”
“It won’t kill him, but it will sting like hell.”
“Besides, don’t Pidney and that girl Mary Phillips already
have a thing going on? They are always
“They are best friends.
They live next door to each other.
More like brother and sister.”
Kyle laughed. “Pid’s
a red-blooded American boy. They may say
friends to each other, but when they
are alone together, well… Dagwood
Phillips needs to have some rock salt in his
shotgun for that.”
“Nobody’s gonna shoot Pidney are they? I mean, I think I am in love with him.” There may have been a look of terror on
Valerie’s face at that point. She
really wasn’t sure.
“No, Princess. No
one is really going to shoot him. It’s
just a joke that fathers say whenever they are thinking about their daughters
and young men. Besides, I never figured
I’d have to shoot Pid anyway. I always
reckoned it was more likely to be somebody like that Murphy brat.”
“You’d shoot Danny?”
She wasn’t sure how she felt about that one.
Kyle laughed. He
walked over to his daughter, put his big greasy hand on her neck and gently
pulled her face up next to his heart.
“I love you, Princess.
I would never intentionally do something to break your heart. But I will do everything I can to protect
your heart from being broken. Just try
not to like the boys I might have to shoot for something, okay?”
He said that last with a laugh that told her he loved her and was only playing with her. Daddy was her real handsome Prince.
I had been promising my daughter for a while that we would build the gingerbread train. I was looking forward to it as an art project. She was impatient to eat it. So, on December 27th, I was finally feeling well enough to do the deed.
So, we prepared the work space on the kitchen table. We laid out the items that we could use for assembly. I made my daughter promise to stop eating elements of the train before we could actually put it together.
I started decorating the Christmas trees that go into the baggage car. My daughter ate several of the sugar-ball decorations.
The baggage car was assembled first. I call it the baggage car because even though it is in the tender position for a steam train if we called it that, that would mean that the engine burned Christmas trees instead of coal. My daughter snuck a few more decorations as we argued about that.
It was encouraging that the first part came together without looking too incredibly terrible.
My daughter decorated a majority of the engine and only ate a few more of the decorations while doing it. This was no small thing given how much she loves to eat gumdrops.
It ended up looking vaguely like the picture on the box. We had a great deal of fun making it. And the last time I checked, portions of it still were uneaten… something I am confident won’t be the case for much longer.
The last couple of years we have started a new Christmas tradition, making a gingerbread house together. Of course, any Christmas tradition for my kids is a new one. We were Jehovah’s Witnesses up until recent years when the Brotherhood left us behind. You probably know already that it is against their religion to celebrate traditional holidays like Christmas. And I bear them no ill will for anything, but their ways are really not my ways anymore. So, since we are having our fourth Christmas mini-tradition, I prepared by finding gingerbread kits on sale at Walmart. I am not Scrooge anymore, but I still need to cut costs for poverty reasons.
I scored this one for only $5 because the Christmas rush is ending and they are trying to sell out the goodies that are growing old on the shelf. My daughter the Princess saw this and immediately declared she was looking forward to biting the head off Charlie Brown.
I responded to her somewhat-unexpectedly hostile comment against a cartoon character I love and identify with by showing her the back of the box.
The Charlie Brown figure will be the cardboard cut-out from the back of the box. The only candy figure is Snoopy. Of course, she then promised to decapitate and then cannibalize Snoopy. The girl ordinarily likes cartoons, so I don’t fully understand the double meaning behind her ravenousness.
As an added challenge to our artistical gustatory creativeness I also scored this gingerbread train, seen here pulling across the tracks at the Toonerville train station. All aboard! That won’t last long if we get it made this year. Of course it will fossilize if we try to save it for next year.
That, then, is the evil plan for Christmas that we are probably not supposed to be celebrating. But we will not roast in Hell for executing this evil plan. Jehovah’s people don’t believe in Hell.
The Rowan Public Library has a storm sewer drain near the parking area on the west side of the building. How do you prevent cars from parking on top of it and risking significant damage to two different things? The librarian’s solution? Make a rock garden around it so that only extremely stupid people would still consider parking there. And what better summer activity than to invite kids and senior citizens to come in and paint the rocks for decoration’s sake.
The goofy spotted frog and the Star Wars rebel flying goose are the rocks that I chose to paint. You can see that I had more fun than I did artistic epiphanies. But that is the thing about art. Bob Ross says that it can bring good things to your heart. And it does even more so when you share it with kids and other people.
So I had a relatively good time just painting rocks for fun and cracking simple, stupid jokes to make little kids laugh.
Mom had fun painting flowers and smiling suns on a rock next to her good friend Annie and Annie’s great grandson. You see them in this picture taken by the little boy’s grandmother.
And my daughter really got invested in the zen experience of putting paint on rocks. She took the longest of anybody to finish her second rock. And, of course, her little dragon-obsessed creation was easily the best one of the day.
Superman has his Fortress of Solitude. Batman has his Batcave. Every Superhero needs a place of his own to reflect on the trials and struggles of the never-ending battle for truth and justice and the American way. I achieved another dawn today, waking up at sunrise on Grandpa Aldrich’s farm place. It is for me a place of safety and quietude where I can rest and regenerate, plan, plot, and create the story of my life.
It is a place far older than me, a family farm that has been in the family for more than 100 years. It connects me to the past and the people who’ve come before me, not only the family I have known and loved, but those who came before them that were gone before I was born.
It is possible that it is unwise to reveal my secret lair and my connections to such an important place. Will my enemies take advantage of the fact? No, probably not. Most of my enemies are ignorant people who do not read, and so, will never uncover this secret I have now shared with you.