Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Rhubarb

My first picture taken with my mother

I picked the first of my rhubarb on Saturday.  I think it was early this year due to the short, mild winter we had.  I cooked it up into sauce, set some aside for us and then took a container over to my neighbor John who really likes the stuff.   I was glad some of it was ready.  It was Mother's Day weekend and it brought back some special memories for me, especially of my mom.

I love rhubarb, so you can imagine my delight when I discovered a small patch of it after we moved into our little parsonage three summers ago.  It sits back behind the garage so it was several days before I even noticed it.  One day I decided to take a stroll around the yard and voila, there it was!  I could hardly wait for Larry to come home to share my find with him. 

Growing up, there was a row of rhubarb that popped through the soil every spring in the far corner of our back yard.  My parents purchased their home when I was five years old, and I don't ever remember a time when the rhubarb wasn't there.  I can't begin to imagine how much I must have eaten over the years, the desserts, the jam, the sauce served in little bowls still warm off the stove or as a topping over vanilla ice cream.  I never tired of it.

My mom loved her kitchen and could bake most anything , but of everything she concocted, her pies were the best.  Her crust was melt-in-the-mouth perfection which she would first roll out into a perfect circle and would then bake to a golden brown, the filling bubbling through the narrow slits she'd cut into the top.  They were all wonderful, the apple, the peach, the cherry, the blackberry.  She made a mincemeat in a ten-inch pie pan every Thanksgiving, with a light sprinkling of sugar over the top crust.  It was exquisite, I've never had better.  But of all the pies she made, my absolute favorite was the strawberry-rhubarb.

Frances Lea Marvin, my mom!

My first year away at school was especially lonely for me.  I was in South Carolina,  nine-hundred miles away from home and terribly homesick.  But someone who was traveling through from New York came to my room one day bearing gifts from my mother.  In the first container was a dress she had made, a green one to match my red hair.  And in the other container, much to my delight,  was a strawberry-rhubarb pie.  There would be more packages.  Each birthday she would send a new dress, every one of them green.  And if she knew of someone coming my way,  I'd get a hand-delivered strawberry-rhubarb pie.

My sister Dawn and brother Rex visiting me my junior year.  Take note of the green dress!

When Larry pastored in Pennsylvania, one of the members had some at her place and insisted we help ourselves to all we wanted.  And I did, making my share of rhubarb sauce and rhubarb crisp and rhubarb pie, just like my mom had.   And like her, I'd make sure to freeze some so it would be on hand during the winter months. But eventually we left the north land and headed to the far south where rhubarb refuses to grow.

I missed my rhubarb,  but occasionally one of the grocery stores would bring it in and I'd pay a ridiculous amount of money to buy enough for a couple of pies.  One time Larry flew home to see his ailing mother in New York.  He had a surprise for me when I picked him up at the airport a week later, a carry on full of rhubarb. 

Now back to this past Saturday.  Early that evening I decided to go see my octogenarian friend Rena and check out the seedlings she's been growing to put in her garden.  I  spent several minutes in her little greenhouse admiring the young plants and walking around her backyard to see where everything would eventually go.  Then suddenly she raised her hand and pointed to the far fence which bordered her property.  "Do you see what I have growing there?" she asked.   My mouth dropped open.  The entire length of the wall was nothing but rhubarb!  Then she pointed to the right of where we were standing and there was more yet.  I had never seen so much rhubarb growing in one place in my entire life!  "Do you like rhubarb?"  she wanted to know.

Some of Rena's rhubarb

The next morning I got up early and cut up what I had brought from Rena's house.  She had insisted I take some and to help myself anytime I'd like more.  So I made what I had into sauce, filling a couple more containers full.  I delivered them that afternoon after church.   I think my mom would have been pleased.  It was, after all, Mother's Day.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Albert

Larry will never forget the first time he saw him.  We were pastoring in Herrickville,  a farming community in Northeast Pennsylvania.  I've written a bit about our early years in Bradford County, a beautiful little chunk of God's creation made up of dirt roads and green vistas.  He was traversing one of those very roads when he came upon a lone figure dwarfed in a large trench coat, wearing a crumpled hat and carrying a gas can.  Larry pulled over to ask if he could give him a ride somewhere.  He was met with a toothless grin as the gentleman slid in beside him.  He introduced himself as Albert.    

He showed up for church the following Sunday with his wife Jeanette and their son Joey who was probably twelve at the time.  Albert was scrawny,  I don't think he weighed much over a hundred and twenty pounds.  His son, however, looked nothing like his father.  He was big for his age, favoring more his mother who was a bit on the plump side.  They settled in and we began to see a lot of them.  Jeanette was intelligent and pleasant.  But we soon discovered that Albert was a different matter altogether.  He was slow, simple.   And at times difficult.  He wanted to play softball, for example, so joined the church team but would curse every time he missed the ball.  He found it difficult to control his emotions and was easily offended, much like a child on the verge of puberty.  In spite his lack of certain social graces, most in the church were patient with him. There were a few, however, who complained about him, tired of his poor manners.  Thinking back,  I might have been one of them.

Then came Father's Day.  Larry had asked his Sunday school class to write down and then share something they had learned from their dads.  During the course of the discussion,  Albert said he had learned nothing from his father because he'd never known him.  He proceeded to tell his story, about being birthed out of an illicit family relationship.   When Larry later told me what Albert had said that morning, I felt so sad for him, for the childhood he must have had. 

There were still some episodes with Albert after that, at one point he even left the church for awhile.  But Larry was always attentive towards the family,  and after paying them a few visits, we saw them once again back in the pews. I remember well the time they invited us into their home for a meal,  so proud that they were able to extend hospitality to the pastor and his family.  Larry happened to take a  picture of Albert in his kitchen that day.  He looked a bit frazzled, but I know that he was trying the best he could to express his gratitude to us for caring about him, making him feel important. 

Albert in his kitchen the day he and Jeanette invited us for dinner

Albert had been given the important job of counting heads on Wednesday evenings when we ran our children's program, and Jeanette was helping pretty regularly in the nursery.  It was also on a Wednesday evening in early December that we would see them for the last time.  As they headed out the church door for home that night, Albert turned to Larry and told him how glad he was that he took the time to pick him up on the road that day. 

The phone call came during dinner the next night.  Albert's house was on fire.  As Larry pulled up to the property, he saw no sign of the family among the crowd that had gathered there. It wouldn't be until the fire was extinguished that the horrible, gruesome discovery was made. There were three bodies in the garage, so badly burned they were unrecognizable.  An investigation would later reveal the truth.  They'd all been murdered.  The place had been doused with gasoline and set ablaze to cover the crime.

It was sometime afterwards that Larry sat down with the man who would spend the rest of his life in prison for their murders. He had asked for the preacher to come, wanting in some way to explain how an ordinary day had turned so tragic.  Ironically, Albert had considered him to be one of his closest friends.  But it was a female companion, also a so-called friend,  who suddenly snapped and pulled the trigger, killing Joey first and then his parents.  I can't imagine the shock, then the unimaginable horror of that moment when Albert and Jeanette heard the blast and saw their son fall to the ground.  He was, after all, everything to them.  It was his being that gave them both purpose.  So as horrible as those next moments were,  when those final shots rang through the air,  I do believe that God was showing mercy to Albert and Jeanette.

There was a memorial service for the three of them and the church was packed.   I think they would have been surprised but pleased to see how many people had come to pay their respects.  I was in Herrickville a couple of months ago and passed the place where their home used to sit.  All traces of the house are gone,  nothing there to remind us that a very simple man and his family died on that bit of ground almost thirty years ago.

But Albert never really went away,  I've seen him many times since,  pretty much everywhere I've lived. He looks different and his circumstances have changed, but it's him.  He can be difficult and sometimes demands more of me than what I have or feel like giving.  And his story often makes me uncomfortable,  it's so different from my own.  It's then that God speaks to my spirit.  "Except by my grace," he whispers, "that could be your story."  

Jeanette, Joey and Albert in 1983, a year before they died