Thursday, August 25, 2011

Slow Down for Frogs

I heard on the news this week that the New York State Parks and Recreation Department has posted some frog crossing signs over near Rochester in a couple of their parks. They want people to slow down for the little guy. It's raising quite a controversy with us being in a recession and all. People can't quite figure out why money is being spent to save a few measly frogs when there's much bigger issues to deal with. I don't have a clue as to how many of these hundred-dollar signs are actually in place, but I think it's rather nice that someone in Albany is concerned enough to try to keep the little amphibian from being crushed beneath the wheels of somebody's SUV. And what does it matter if they're only an inch or two long and kinda hard to see, meaning they're likely to get flattened anyway. Those who came up with this wonderful idea should get a big slap on the back for effort.

It's not that I have anything personal against frogs. No, quite the opposite. Every stage of my life has stories and therefore memories tied to the humble creature, and they start when I was just a girl living by the old Genessee Canal in Western New York. The canal hadn't been in use since the late 1800s, but for my brothers and I it was a place to search for lizards and snakes under rocks and pieces of sheet metal. The water was long gone, but the Fitzgeralds, just three neighbors down, had a wonderful little bog in their part of the canal with a short path that led down to that magical green pool full of frogs' eggs and tadpoles. I still remember my mom trying to keep us away from there, but to me it was absolutely one of the coolest places in the world. Most of the canal has since been filled in, but when I go home and stand on the bank, I remember how a good part of my childhood is tied to that place.

I became Miss Marcy the Frog Lady in the seventies. It was during my college years and I was working as the children's director at a camp in Western New York during the summers. I discovered early on that Circle C Ranch was chock-full of frogs and toads so decided to take advantage of the large population and incorporate them into my program. The campers with their counselors had to spend one afternoon of the week hunting down as many as they could, and that night at chapel the most exceptional ones were honored. Not a week went by when some nervous specimen being held up for a couple hundred kids and counselors didn't let loose and pee down my arm, but it was all in fun and in the four years I worked there, not one succumbed to death by children.  Each was always released and more often than not refound by the next group of campers. It was during those years that people started gifting me with frog paraphernalia. I guess they just assumed I liked them, and I suppose I did. I've since gotten rid of most my collection, but I still have the set of five instrument-playing ceramic croakers that Larry bought for me out of the country store my last summer there. We met at that camp and he proposed to me under a tree somewhere on the property. A couple of them are chipped now so I keep them in a box with other memorabilia. Occasionally I pull them out and smile, remembering.

My sister Dawn was attending college in Ohio the year I got married.  Always the prankster,  she snuck a large frog into the cafeteria and dropped it into the tea dispenser.  A couple of days later Dawn was eating her lunch when she heard a girl's scream and the sound of a breaking glass.  "There's a frog in the tea dispenser!" she cried.  The thing had swum up to the glass just as that poor girl was pouring her drink. The school never found out that my sister was the culprit, and perhaps she thought the whole incident had been long forgotten.  Not so.  Recently while reading through her alumni magazine she came across a page entitled, Favorite Dining Hall Memories. You guessed it.  Someone had written:  "The day they found the frog in the tea dispenser."

I saw some of the biggest toads ever while visiting the Atlantic Coast in Costa Rica. Those giants would come out by the dozens at dusk and fill the paths, seemingly oblivious to the pedestrians all around them. The street outside our first home in Honduras was sometimes filled with a much smaller variety that could squeeze its way under our screen door to check out the premises. Eventually we moved to the mission house on the other side of town. It was a two-story building and we lived on the second floor. One morning Fawn had just walked into the bathroom and proceeded to scream. She pointed to the wall where the toilet sat. There, filling up most of the bowl, was a rather portly toad having a leisurely morning swim. At first we were convinced it had to be a prank. But then it happened again, and the missionaries who followed had the occasional visitor in the same commode. We have yet to come up with a logical explanation.

A favorite picture of my grandson Tyler sits in a blue frame on a low table in the dining room. He is probably around four-years old, riding his first two-wheeler. If you look closely you will see a toad with suction-like feet clinging to and peering over the the handle bars. This particular fellow lived outside our bathroom window and would venture out and take a climb up the wall each afternoon. He and Tyler seemed to take a liking to each other, but after that bike ride he disappeared and never came back. Can't imagine why.

Tyler giving his little friend a ride
Now back to those signs. I'm thinking that maybe there's somebody in the Parks Department that really has a liking for frogs. Perhaps they lived by an old canal or pond and have memories of times gone by skimming frogs' eggs off the surface or carrying a big old granddaddy covered with warts off to school in a shoebox for show 'n tell. After all, remembering those special moments and places of our past are a gift, especially when we see the thread that ties them all together.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Peg and "Chal" (A Tribute)

There is a large stack of  letters and journals sitting on the desk beside me as I write, all from the same person I should add.  I gathered them together shortly after receiving the call from California  that our writer friend was gone, that her heart had suddenly given out.  I couldn't quite believe it.  Some people you expect to always be there and she was one of them.  A couple of days later I went into the attic,  pulled two heavy boxes full of letters out to the center of the room and began to sort.  I found several addressed with her familiar handwriting, most in blue airmail envelopes.  Next to my mother, she had been our most prolific correspondent while we were living in Central America.  I put them in order the best I could, carried them down to my front porch and began to read.

I suppose I need to go back to where this story begins.   It started when we moved to the tiny little community of North Rome, Pennsylvania to pastor the youth.  Pastor Brentlinger had been taking care of two churches, but with the one at North Rome suddenly taking off, he gave Larry the added responsibility of pastoring the other.  We put a lot of miles on our car during those first few years in Bradford County, traveling twice from North Rome to Herrickville each Sunday and at least one other time during the week.  In the meantime that little church which seemed to be plopped down in the middle of nowhere was filling up with young families who were soon asking for a full-time minister. Larry said yes and  the church bought an old farm house to use as a parsonage.

Herrickville is real country, and we went from living on a paved road to dirt.  As a matter of fact, most of our people lived on back roads just like ours.  It's even documented that our mailman had the longest section of dirt roads in the entire state of Pennsylvania.  That's why the first couple of times I saw Peg and her husband  Charles sitting in the back pew, I was taken back a bit.  I had no clue as to who they were, I just knew they looked slightly out of place, for sure not Herrickville people. I can't say it was just the clothes; after all, our people knew how to dress up nice for Sunday service.  They just didn't quite look like back-road type folk.  Turns out I was right, they weren't.  They were  Philadelphians who had bought a second home in the country, and for the past several years they had traveled up every weekend to remodel the place in anticipation of Charles' retirement which was just a few years off.

Larry and I became somewhat acquainted with the Bayers while still living at North Rome. But the friendship with this couple went to a whole new level when that old farmhouse I mentioned had to be gutted and remodeled.  Since most of the work to be done fell on Larry, he was making trips to Herrickville almost daily, trying to get the new parsonage ready for our family.  By this time Peg had pretty much moved into what had become a quaint little country cottage while Charles continued to work in Philadelphia, still traveling up on the weekends.  She felt sorry for the young pastor who came day after day to work on the old farmhouse that she could see from her property on the hill and decided that she would like to do something special for him.  She'd feed him lunch.  And she did, everyday.

By the time we moved into the new parsonage, Peg and Larry had become close friends, and it didn't take me long to realize what a gift I had received in this new neighbor.  She was generous, hospitable, an animal lover (she never had fewer than three dogs) and hilariously funny with an amazing wit.  That's what I loved most about her letters through the years I think.   I could just hear her Philadelphia accent as she would recount an event or encounter with someone and turn it into the most delightful read imaginable.  But she had known pain as well. She lost her youngest son to a horrible accident when he was a teenager, and for a time her life seemed to spiral out of control.  I believe their decision to leave Philadelphia came out of this tragedy.  She didn't even stand five feet tall, but that didn't keep her from taking on some huge challenges.  She became an advocate for women in crisis, sponsoring and mentoring several over the years.  It would take a multitude of paragraphs to tell all the stories of those early years in Herrickville, so many of them involving her. 

When we made the decision to leave the pastorate and go to Honduras it was hard on all of us.  We were extremely close to the people in our church, and the pain was intense. Looking back, I still believe it was one of the hardest times for us as a family.  Peg and Charles insisted we stay with them our last few days in Herrickville, our house having been emptied.  There is no place I would have rather been during that last week.

Several months later,  after completing a year of language school,  we arrived in Honduras.  I was seven months pregnant.  Peg and Charles were mortified at my being in a strange land without family, so they wrote informing us that they were making plans to come for a few weeks around the time the baby was due to help out wherever needed.  Honduras was politically volatile in the 80's and their family and friends thought they were absolutely crazy, objecting strongly and trying to convince them not to go.  It didn't work.  They got their wills in order and they came.  I have a copy of the journal she kept during those weeks.  Her writing is wonderful,  full of both humor and reflection on the country, the Burkes and on "Chal," always her favorite subject.  Charles always needed to be in control of a situation, kind of like the title of the old sitcom, "Charles in Charge."  But in Honduras things never go according to plan, and Peg (or Margaret as he called her), wrote about their wonderful and at times scary misadventures with humor and sarcasm.  I laughed all the way through and then cried as she ended her last day with this: "What more can I say about our dear friends and how much this trip has deepened our intimacy and caring?  As the elephant said to the mouse: 'Ours' is a strange and beautiful relationship."

Peg and Charles would eventually leave Herrickville.  They never thought they would have grandchildren, but their son Bob married a girl in California and had started a family.  They were both ready for the new adventure of grandparenting and moved to the West Coast.  We never saw them again though we continued to write and speak occasionally on the phone. 

Peg pursued her writing, something I'd always encouraged her to do,  becoming a member of some writing groups and publishing some short works, a novel and eventually her memoirs.  The last letter we got from her was a little over a year ago.  She wrote,  "We shared so much.  I'm especially reminded because I finished my memoir, This Old House, my story of our lives in Bradford County....You guys played major roles, and I sent you three chapters."  She went on to talk about Charles who was suffering from dementia and how she was caring for him.  "Well-meaning friends advised me to put him in a nursing home, but I couldn't do it.  It would be abandoning him and he'd know it.  For sixty years he was a loving husband, and felt responsible for my care.  He provided a good life for me....I've done everything I can to make him comfortable in his situation but I'm eighty-six and I'm worn out....I try to explain that I'm physically incapable of lifting or dressing him, but he thinks I'm mean.  He said, "We married to care for each other in sickness and health."  My response was, "Our vows didn't say that in my sickness I was to take care of you in yours...."  And always the wit, she ends this part of her letter with this.  "As soon as Chal awakes, he starts calling, "Margaret," which goes on all day.  I'm going to change my name."

Not too long after we received that phone call, we got another informing us that on the day of Peg's Memorial service Charles breathed his last.  I can't help but feel that Peg would have had something to say about that too.