Saturday, March 26, 2011

Some Dirty Memories

I love dirt. I love the loamy, earthy scent of it and the friable feel it has in my hands. I can't remember a time when I didn't love that smell and if I could figure out a way to bottle it, I'd always carry some with me. Just a whiff of fresh turned earth and I'm back on the southern Minnesota plains where I was born and raised. In my mind I see that black soil, freshly furrowed, ready for planting. I know it's spring and most likely the violets are blooming in the farm's drain channel so I scoot over there to find the sweetly delicate blooms. They're so small it always takes me a while to spot them. After all, it isn't like they infuse the air with their scent. But step on one or pick one and that miniscule flower releases a fragrance so mesmerizing, it should belong to the grandest flower God ever put on this earth.

I am convinced that you can take the girl away from the farm but you can't take the farm away from the girl. Not even if she moves to Southern California. The soil where I live is pitiful and it's taken me years and years of ammending the crushed granite, impermeable clay into what looks like Minnesota loam. The results have been worth it. My small yard has produced eggplant, carrots, lettuce, green onions, parsley, jalapeno and green bell peppers, bush beans, potatoes and tomatoes.

Not in large quantities, mind you. But enough to help with the grocery budget. I grow my vegetables in weird places. Sometimes I plant lettuce or swiss chard among the flowers or alongside the bushes. Sometimes I grow bush beans along the concrete block wall that runs the width of my back yard. The potatoes grow in a very big green pot outside my back door and each fall, when the leaves die naturally, I dig up about five pounds of assorted small potatoes. The interesting thing? I never bought seed potatoes. I just planted those that began growing sprouts before we could eat them. I cut each potato--some red, some white, some yams, etc. into fifty-cent size pieces, making sure each piece had an eye. I didn't even wait till the piece dried a bit. I stuck them in the big green pot and let them do their thing. This is the fourth years they've reseeded themselves, or perhaps grown from tubers forgotten at harvest time.

Several years ago I bought two tomato plants from the nursery. The brown blight got to them and I had to destroy both plants. Yet somehow one of those tomatoes got left behind--or at least some seeds from a dropped tomato--and a big healthy plant came up last year and gave us tomatoes all summer and quite a bit of the winter. Now it's blooming again. I think it's morphed into a permanent tomato plant--the gift that just keeps on giving.

It's the same way with my large onions. Seeds planted at least five years ago keep producing more onions than ever. Each year I let a couple of those big onions go to seed and when the big puffy balls are ripe, the wind disperses those miniscule black seeds all around the garden area. The parsley I grew from seed two years ago has done the same thing. What didn't get picked went to seed and now I have parsley ready for use and it isn't even the end of March.

Add to all that, the fact that the orange tree still has at least a dozen summer fruit that have finally ripened and a whole army of walnut-size green oranges that will become next autumn's crop.  My Philippine mango tree is about 4 feet tall now. I started it from a seed that my husband's Filipina nurse insisted would grow. I planted 3 seeds. Two grew. One got so strong it shaded the other to death. Talk about survival of the fittest.

The odd thing about my garden is that nearly everything in it has come up on its own--self seeded from plants of the past. As you can imagine, what I call a garden doesn't resemble any garden you'd see anywhere else. There are no straight lines or furrows or clustered plants. It's strictly a hodgepodge--for wherever it comes up, is where it stays. In the beginning, I tried moving the plants so like-kind would all be together. I only made that mistake once. Whenever a seed plants itself, I have decided is the place it prefers. They absolutely hate being transplanted and for me to do so, meant the death of each seedling. And yes, it's true that there may be onions growing next to the ornamental plants or carrots along the sidewalk. I don't care. My yard; my life; my garden.

This year I plan on doing what my dad always did after we moved to California. I do not remember that he ever bought seeds once we lived here. Dad always planted the vegetable refuse. Nothing ever got thrown out. The carrot or potato skins went into the compost pile as did the egg shells and coffee grounds. Often times if we'd sit down to a cantelope so sweet we'd all marvel at its taste, dad would grab the seeds out of the refuse bowl, wash and dry the seeds, then plant them. He did the same with anything else that we deemed the best we'd ever eaten. Most of the time, veggies appeared as though by magic as dad spread the compost around his garden. Seeds that should have died in the composting process managed to put down roots and grow into all manner of squash or tomatoes or beans.

Strangely enough, I have two bush bean plants in my back yard right now. They are in bloom and while I won't get many beans from two plants, it will be enough for me now that I'm alone. I planted bush beans two years ago. They did not do well. Somehow two plants managed to come up in a completely different part of the yard than from where I originally planted them. My husband always told everyone that I had a green thumb the size of the Jolly Green Giant. After years of growing many different plants, I came to agree with him. A plant fresh from the nursery would say "grows to 4 feet" but once I got my hands on it, Jim would have to get a ladder to trim back the tops.

I take no blame. I believe the difference is years and years of trying to get my soil to look and smell like "real" soil. The kind I grew up with. The project has been a great success. I can now dig anywhere in my yard and bring up shovels of black, loamy, friable soil with earthworms squiggling through it. What a pleasure. To be outside on a soft, sunny day, garden trowel in hand, digging in that wonderful dirt always makes me happy. I've often been asked why I don't wear garden gloves. I laugh. Gloves shut down my connection to the soil. We never wore gloves when gardening. We touched the soil, inhaled its pungency, let it run through our fingers, thankful that once again we'd have enough fresh vegetables to feed our family all summer and enough left for mom to can for the winter.

Oft times, when the wind is just right, there comes a scent of warm hayfields and fresh wheat where none exist. It lasts no longer than the blink of an eye. Other times, I catch the scent of rain drawing near and realize my green empire will be taken care of without my turning on a spigot. Every so often I see myself as the blond-headed child I was, searching the drainage ditch for violets or walking the width of the wheat field just to get to the two apple trees dad had left to grow there or pleading with dad to pick a huge bunch of lilacs from the four giant bushes that grew alongside the roadway. Violets and lilacs. My two favorite flowers in all the world. Remembrances of my past.

Tomorrow it will be exactly one year since my husband unexpectedly graduated to Heaven. You either know or can imagine what this past year has been like for me. My children and friends have been great comfort, but it is a pen pal from the Iraq War who inspired me to get up and start moving. He said something like, "It is time now for me to get back to normal, everyday activities. I'm making a choice to help myself get well. I'm going to get back to the land. I'm going to plant a garden and grow my own food."

When I read that email, something inside rose up in me and I felt a tingling run through my own soul. When I was a child, everyone had a garden--whether they lived in town or on a farm. Our parents called them Victory Gardens and what with food and nearly every commodity rationed, producing anything for the dinner table was a necessity. That is the rationale I grew up with. But because of my dear war-weary friend's comment, I realized that I too, would find my own well-being in getting back to the land I have so long loved. It will be my healing place.

Copyright 2011 by Sandra L. Keith
All photos are the property of the author and may not be used without permission

Sunday, March 13, 2011

It All Began With A Bug

Whether June bugs are good to eat or not, I don't
remember. I've just been told I ate one.

I have a queasy stomach. I don't know if I was born with it or if it developed over time, but I definitely know it's there. I mean, I can be craving eggs, only to crack one open, find a bloody spot, and into the garbage it goes. I end up eating a bowl of cereal. That's just one example of the kind of fussy tummy I'm talking about.

I rather think my squeamish stomach grew into being as I myself grew. My mother always told the story of how she found me sitting behind a chair in the living room, crunching on something with all of my four tiny teeth. Now you have to understand that my mom was the June Cleaver of her time, always cleaning the house, me, and everything else that touched her world. So when she found me chomping on this big brown thing, she hurried to get it out of my mouth.

To her way of telling the story it was a June bug--a large brown beetle common to Minnesota summers. This particular bug, however, had morphed into the size of a silver dollar--or so the story went--and I was enjoying the crunch to the point where I refused to give it up. Yet mom persisted and out came every wing, feeler, body part, and leg. She said I cried when she took my tasty treat away. I remember not. I was less than two years old.

Do you see where I'm going with this story? In my dad's house we girls had to try three bites of everything that went on the table--bar none. If after tasting we decided we didn't like it, we were never forced to eat it ever again. Dad broke that rule for nothing. For the most part, mom never overruled him. Except for the oysters. Dad adored oyster stew and on occasion he'd bring the slimy creatures home from the grocery store and make his own version of the seafood soup. Mom said that I'd eat all the crispy crackers poured atop the warm bowl of cream but when the oyster went in my mouth, I spit it out and handed it to her.

"But mommy, it tastes like a fawogg," is what she insists I said. I don't know. I was still in a high chair according to her. To my remembrance, I'd never been fed a frog, but no telling what I may have put in my own mouth. My folks were fishermen and we spent a lot of time around Minnesota's abundant lakes with their abundant froggy inhabitants. And even though dad didn't excuse me from the three bite rule in our house, mom did. If they battled it out behind my back, I never knew about it. I also never ate another oyster. At least not until I was an adult and discovered them fried. That changed everything.

As best I can remember, I always trusted what my parents put before me to eat. As WWII was on and everything was rationed, we mostly ate from our farm. Dad raised pigs and chickens and alternated his field crops between corn and wheat. What we didn't have, he bartered with farmer friends in exchange, thus bringing beef or milk into our pantry. When the shelves were nearly bare, he'd take to the woods, bringing home pheasant or rabbit or deer or squirrel or quail.

Of course we always had chicken and eggs. My friends perpetually suggested that I must hate chicken because we ate so much of it. My sisters and I always replied "No." We all loved it. Mom fixed it so many different ways, who could ever tire of it? Then there were the pigs. Dad would do the butchering, my aunt would do the rendering, and mom would have basement shelves filled with canned pork, lard, head cheese, and blood sausage. Trust me. If I ate the latter two I mentioned, I don't remember. Once I understood what they were, I refused to touch them. But dad relished them. Good ole German stock that he was, he never wasted anything. I suspect that nothing was ever thrown away in the Old Country and that tradition had been passed down to him.

I have to admit that dad made the best pork sausage I've ever eaten. I think it was his family recipe brought over from Germany. Every spice just tingled in my mouth. We ate it with greedy delight. I well remember the day I came home from school and found him washing a sink full of what looked like long, slimy, white worms. I couldn't figure out what it was so I asked dad. "Pig intestines," he answered. I was horrified. "What for?" I questioned. "For the sausage," he answered. My tummy lurched. I asked again, "Are you gonna put the sausage inside those guts?" He nodded his head yes and then explained. "It's what people have been doing ever since time began. All sausage is put into natural casings."

Throw up time. But wait. I loved that sausage. I'd have to figure a way to get rid of the gut casing. From then on, young as I was, I used my dinner knife to slit the casing and pull  it all off so I could eat the meat. Dad just chuckled. And since I was the most outspoken of us girls, I didn't mind telling him why I wasn't going to eat the casing. "I'm not putting anything in my mouth that used to have poop in it," I said firmly. Mom gave me a knowing look. Dad warned me not to get sassy. I let the subject drop.

Dad never cooked. So when he did should have been a warning, but I never picked up on it. Every so often he'd come home at lunch time and begin stirring up something that smelled so good I was immediately drawn to the kitchen. "What are you making, daddy?" I'd ask. He'd keep stirring and answer with, "Brains." I'd ask if I could have some too and when they were done we'd both sit down and lick our plates clean. Potatoes and brains and spices. So good. I don't remember how many years I did that. I do remember that I was in grade school the day truth dawned on me.

It happened the day mom came into the kitchen while dad was cooking up his specialty. She wrinkled up her nose, looked right at me, gave a shudder and said in a disgusted voice, "I just don't know how you can eat that stuff." I looked at her and answered with, "But mommy, it's so good." She wrinkled her nose again, so far up it stretched her mouth into a scary face. "But it's brains," she shuddered. A little bit of light went on inside of my head. I pointed to my forehead and asked, "You mean--brains?" She nodded yes. I looked at dad and said accusingly, "Are we eating people's brains? Where did you get them? Are they from dead people at the hospital? I'm not going to eat them anymore!" Dad looked over at mom and commented. "Well, Toots (that's what he always called her), I hope you're happy. Sandy liked them till you stuck your nose in." Then he looked at me. "They're cow brains." I didn't care. I would never eat them again.

Although mom always did the grocery shopping, there were times when dad would make a run by the butcher shop and my middle sister and I would tag along. Mom would never give in to letting us buy any treats but dad was an easy mark. In those days, nearly every butcher counter had giant-sized jars sitting atop the meat case and inside those jars were assorted goodies. The biggest jars held something called pickled pig's feet. We were quite small when dad started us out munching on them. They were pickled, crunchy, and we could walk around holding them with a napkin and chomp on them at will. They lasted a long, long time. Every time we saw that jar, we'd beg dad to buy them for us. He always did.

I went on for many years, happily scarfing down pickled pig's feet. Then came the day dad and I had been out running errands and we stopped by a grocery store in a nearby town. We went to the meat case and while dad was talking to the butcher, I was scouting out the jars atop the case. One really large jar held at least a dozen whole pig's feet, hoof to knee. I stood in horror, tugging at dad's sleeve. He looked down and I said, "Dad, what's that?" and pointed to the jar. He told me it was pickled pig's feet. I disagreed. "No, dad, they can't be. They have hooves." He said, "I know. The ones we get usually have the hooves cut off and the legs cut into smaller pieces, but that's what you've been eating all these years.

Throw up time.

By the end of my grade school years, I'd grown older and wiser. I decided that my dad had always been honest with me, always explaining exactly what I'd been eating. My problem had been not taking things at face value. I determined that from here on, I'd believe everything my folks said. That was why, that one Saturday afternoon when it was Mom's turn to have the Bridge Club over for lunch and cards and I asked her what everything was, she went through the menu with me. Finger sandwiches filled with ham, home made pickles, green salad with garden tomatoes, and sliced watermelon. It all looked so good. Then mom reached into the refrigerator and pulled out this scrumtious looking green pie with clouds of whipped cream all around the top edge. My mouth began watering. "Oohh," I asked, "what's that?"

"Grasshopper pie," she said.

Oh, no, the three bite rule. I ran to my room and hid.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Desert Magic

In any year, with just the right amount of water at just the right time, even the
ordinarily barren foothills leading toward the desert, burst into unimaginable beauty.

 Jim and I were mountain people. We loved the pine-scented highlands, the glacially-carved tarns hidden here and there, skies so blue they oft bordered on purple, the enticing aroma of evening campfires and the skimpy beauty of haze headed skyward. Our children are mountain people too. Snowy mountains. They live to plunge down white slopes on skiis or snowboards, bundled to within an inch of their lives, goggles over their eyes and muffs on their ears and scarves around their necks. So what if it's snowing? All the more adventure. At least for a while. My grandchildren prefer the beach. Accompanied by a surf or body board. Never mind the sand or the many salty swollows accidentally imbibed or even the fact that a shark was spotted just off the coast last week. They ignore the blazing summer sun, endure squinting eyes, and insist they had a ball.

I've personally always believed that God preferred the desert. Just look at the facts. He made so much of it and then dumped it all over the planet--sometimes in huge blobs, sometimes in small caches. It's a land where creatures hide almost all day and hunt by night; where mountains tinted purple grace the horizon, appearing to be only a mile away, yet take hours to reach; where cacti with sharp, deadly spines produce flowers whose petals are as delicate as butterfly wings. Deserts are notorious for scorpions, rattlesnakes, fuzzy tarantulas, pack rats, and coyotes.

Which land would you like to visit?

You might be surprised if I told you how beautiful the desert is at the right time of year. Spring and Fall, it is a magical place unseen by many and known to few. Especially following a winter of inches and inches of well-spaced rains. Come about March or April, what had once seemed flat, brown, dusty, dirty, and barren turns into scenic postcards created by our Heavenly Father and free for the taking. Flower seeds that have lain barren for more than a few years, when watered at the right time, and in the right amounts, suddenly begin pushing up tiny green leaves that grow into large plants displaying  a painter's palette of color gone mad. White, yellow, pink, purple, rose, orange and red. Spiny cactus show off magenta flowers, untouchable because the spines protect them from hands who'd like to pluck to take home.

It is a show to behold. But it lasts only a few weeks. Flowers called "Goldfields" carpet hillsides nearly as far as the eye can see. So does the California poppy, a beguiling orange flower, so plain in itself, yet showing off such majesty when thousands band together that it nearly takes the breath away. So colorful is the desert floor, one no longer notices the dun-hued mountains forming the backdrop or the many  lizards doing some kind of reptilian push-ups on sun-warmed rocks, or the song birds making melody atop a red-flamed ocotillo or a nearly invisible coyote slinking between gray-leaved bushes.

It was at our own desert, about a two hour drive from home, that I truly discovered the beauty of God's favorite place. I've been across the Mojave countless times, always found it boring (in any weather) and oft wondered why on earth anyone would want to visit or heaven forbid, live there. It always seemed just so much of nothing. Then came the first year our son had gone off to college in a state an airline flight away. I was sad to my bones. He'd been home for Easter and had already gone back. I'd taken to my bed, crying. Jim tried and tried to get me to perk up but to no avail. I still missed my oldest child to the point of depression. But Jim was not one to give up.

"Do you want to go for a ride?" he said.  I answered, "no." "Want to drive up to see your folks?" The same answer. "Would you like to go out for lunch?" Same answer. So it went, on and off for a couple hours while I lay in bed feeling ever so sorry for myself. Jim approached me again, "Would you like to drive out to the desert and see the flowers?" I shook my head no. "Come on, Sandy, you love flowers. I know you'll feel better if you get out of bed and get outdoors. You always enjoy yourself when you're out with nature."

He had me there. So I did as he suggested and although I'm not crazy about the long drive to the desert, I always enjoyed being with my husband, and I began to feel my mood lift a bit. When we finally reached Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, we didn't even have to stop at the Visitor Center to inquire where the flowers were blooming the best. We just followed the line of cars. We had to park in a quite illegal spot so I could get out to take photos, but I didn't care. I was dumb-struck. I'd lived in California since I was sixteen. I'd been to the springtime desert more than a few times. But I'd never seen it like this.

I felt as though God had put on a spectacle just for me. Flowers everywhere, all kinds, all colors, spreading off into the horizon, over every nob and down every swale. I felt surrounded by beauty. And love. It was nearly too much to take in. Creeks seldom seen had sprung forth, their gentle bubbling over sand and rock teasing the air with a soothing song; gentle breezes cooling the back of my neck and pestering my hair out of place; a silly roadrunner passed by, looking for all the world as if it were trying to make the Olympic track team. Or outrun Wiley Coyote. Comic relief for an intense day.

Jim stood quietly beside me. His arm wrapped tight around my shoulder. His wisdom had worked. He knew me better than I knew myself. He leaned down and kissed my forehead. He always had to lean down. He was six feet tall; I am barely over five feet. We always looked like the giant and the midget but we cared not. I put my camera down, noticing I'd already shot a full roll of thirty-six and was sorry I'd not brought more film with me. "Want to walk up Palm Canyon?" he asked. I considered that a great idea. Wild sheep lived up there and visitors often spotted them hiding out in the rocky ledges. I guess they were on vacation that day. We saw naught but birds and bugs and bees.

By the time we returned to the trailhead and walked back to our car, the light was beginning to wane. I stood amidst the flower fields, making small circles as I surveyed the 180 degree majesty of the desert that day. Nearly everyone was gone now and we had this perfect place to ourselves. "I'm not depressed anymore," I yelled over to Jim. He smiled that ear to ear grin that was only his. "I'm so glad you brought me here." He smiled again. I skipped over to where he stood by the car and gave him a kiss. "Thank you for doing this for me" I said. He nodded. "I knew you'd like it."

"Today is the first time I've really understood why God loves the desert," I said--so loud that anyone left alongside the road could have heard it. Jim grinned. "It's really beautiful, isn't it?  He looked at his watch. "Want to catch a bite before we start home?" he asked. "Yep," I replied. "All this happiness has made me really hungry. Do you think Borrego Springs has a decent place to eat?" He smiled and gave me a big hug. "Guess we'll find out," he said.

They did. We ate. Jim drove home. Inside, my heart was singing. I still missed my first-born. But I had gleaned insight today into something I'd not previously understood about the Lord. I thought about it on the long drive back to San Diego. The mountains are beautiful every time of year. So is the Pacific Ocean. Only the desert puts on a spectacle by God's decree. In my heart, I considered today a Command Performance created just for me. How fortunate were those who'd gotten in on my ticket.

"Do not remember the former things, Nor consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing, Now it shall spring forth; Shall you not know it? I will even make a road in the wilderness and rivers in the desert." Isaiah 43:18,19

Copyright by Sandra L Keith 2011  All rights reserved.
All photos are property of the author and may not be reproduced without permission

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Knitting Socks--The Story Behind The Story

On the back of this photo, Jim wrote in big letters:

Have you noticed that nearly every story has another story behind it?  So it is with my tale on learning to knit socks. I led you to believe that my seeing a link on a yarn site was what triggered Jim's and my desire to do something for our troops over in the "big sandbox." My part would be learning to knit the socks. Truthfully, the longing to "be there" for our military stems from something far more heart tugging than that. It is a story that goes back in years. Let me share it with you.

When Jim was sixteen, he decided to join the Navy, but the Bell Bottomed guys said, "No thanks, you're too young. Come back when you're eighteen."  He told me he went home in tears, only to be told by his mom that she wasn't surprised the Navy thad turned him down. "They don't take cry babies," she said.

Undaunted, Jim discovered that he could join at seventeen if he had parental permission, so when he turned "the magic age," he and his parents headed off to the recruiting office and signed on the dotted lines. A four-year hitch active duty in the Navy; three years inactive to follow. It was the time of the Korean War. Yet Jim was happy and so were his folks. Their three oldest were now all serving, the oldest daughter in the WAVES, the middle son in the Army, Jim in the Navy. And all in Korea.

Jim's first duty station was aboard the USS Whiteside, an attack cargo carrier that earned four battlestars during the Korean War. The Whiteside traveled back and forth between Treasure Island near San Francisco and Sasebo and Yokosuka, Japan, carrying supplies to be dispersed to the troops fighting in Korea.

Over the more than fifty years Jim and I were married, he mentioned from time to time that his parents had not been letter writers, and that he'd not once received mail from home during his deployment. Every so often he'd tell me how hurt he'd been that it seemed no one cared enough to contact him. He also told me that he'd devised a way to make a point at home. He had a buddy take the above photo. On the back, in big letters, Jim wrote NO MAIL and sent the letter off to California. 

No go. His parents still didn't write and to this day I've never figured out why. They were great parents and top-notch people. Perhaps they didn't realize how much their three oldest children wished to hear from them. Perhaps they were more involved in raising the two young ones still at home. Since they are long gone, there is no way to know. And since Jim never questioned them about it, he never knew either.

It isn't that my husband talk about the subject a lot. He didn't. Yet over the years he mentioned it enough that I knew it was a long standing wound in his heart. So when Jim and I sat down and put our heads together, deciding what we could do for our men and women in uniform that would be feasible, Jim came up with sending them mail. His standard soapbox theme was "Everyone in the service should get mail. Lots and lots of mail. So much mail that they never feel as alone and forgotten as he had." Then he would tell me about going to every single mail call aboard ship, always waiting to hear his name. "We'd all be on deck, Sandy, hoping for mail that day. When everything was passed out, there were those of us still standing there empty-handed. The hurt in those guys eyes is something almost unexplainable. I've never forgotten it." I knew it was true. I also knew that what he'd seen in their eyes, they had seen in his.

That drove me all the harder to find troop names so we could write them. . We realized we couldn't send letters or boxes addressed "To Any Sailor or Soldier or Airman". Not since Vietnam. That is when I accidentally discovered Soldier's Angels. But we could only adopt one troop at a time. So we did. But I kept looking for other ways. Then one day I came across a link to There it was. All kinds of names, all sorts of men and women wanting someone to write to. Who knew how many "Jims" were out there? So I signed up.

At that time, anysoldier was new; there was no cost to get names; I could ask for up to five a day. So I did. Every day, like clockwork, Jim and I adopted five troops who sounded lonely. When letters and emails began coming back to us, I told Jim I was just plain out of things to write about. Anysoldier's rules stated no talk of war; no politics; no sad stories of your own; keep everything upbeat. I did that for a couple of weeks. By then I was tired of talking about the weather, which flowers were in bloom, what new recipe I'd tried, or did we think the hometown ball team would win. Since we replied to every letter, card or email, I had to find some new subjects.

One night I asked Jim, "What on earth do I talk about?" He thought for a moment and said, "Just write to them like they are part of our family. Just be yourself. Be chatty. Let them know what's going on. We have adopted them into our family now. Write them as such."

That's exactly what we did. We continued like that for nearly three years. Over all that time we received thousands of letters and emails (I have proof) and made some of the best friends we mostly never met. As requests came in, whether for warm socks, wool hats or scarves, I contacted my church, my friends' churches, and assorted organizations for help. Everyone came through and in the blink of an eye, my computer room became known as "The Soldier Room." Friends had donated so many things, there was barely one small path through the maze. I did knit all the socks myself, but had four others knitting hats, scarves, and helmet liners to military specs I'd found online. And even though we constantly told our adopted family that many others were helping us because they had wanted to do something for our military for a long time but didn't know how, we were the ones who received what came to be boxes and boxes of letters and cards.

As Jim's Parkinson's disease progressed and all but a few of our adopted troops were home, I let up a bit, though I had no intention of quitting. Somebody else made that decision for me. One day I signed on to in order to request some new names and was told I was banned. Whether I didn't give them enough money or took too many names, I do not know. I wrote the site's founder and asked for an explanation, but never got one. I told them I'd written to every single person we'd adopted and could prove it. They seemed to care not. Every so often I sign on, just to see if I've been unbanned. So far, no good.

By that time, I knew Jim was winding down in health and as I wanted to spend every minute I could with him, I chose not to follow through. At least a dozen of our original adopted military stayed in touch. I knew when they were once-again deploying and went back into letter writing as best I had time for. If I had my druthers, I would still be writing our loved ones in the desert. I'm alone now; I have time. I would love to carry on that which meant so much to Jim. Everytime we received a letter or an email, I'd read it to him and watch that happy smile spread across his still-handsome face. He knew someone had had a great mail call. It made him genuinally happy to have encouraged another's heart. His goal was to let them know they were important to us; that we cared about them; that we prayed for them each day.

In all, Jim and I adopted close to 2,500 troops. Not all wrote back. Many did. All the letters, etc. are saved, because they came from family whose names I still know.  I remember well what some of those letters said: "Just think, if Jim had gotten a lot of mail when he was in the Navy, we would never have met." And this: "I don't always open your letters when I get them. I save them until a time when I'm really down and depressed. That's when I take the latest one out of my pocket and read it." And this: "We were in a battle and the guy in front of me was hit and I should have been next because I was right behind him, but the bullets fell short and rolled down a small incline. It's times like that that you know someone is watching over you. Thank you for praying for me."

Every troop we became pen pals with came home. Some were wounded in body, some in mind, some in spirit. But they all came home alive. I give thanks to the God of the Bible. The One Jim and I served during our lifetime together. To ensure each troop was prayed for by name, we made a list; Jim took half and I took half. Every troop and his unit were prayed for regularly--whether they themselves were believers or not. Even today, with Jim gone nearly a year, I still receive an odd email, asking me if I remember them. Of course I do. How can one forget family?

In all those years, Jim and I were blessed with many forever friends we never would have known otherwise.  About a dozen eventually found their way to our home, all with family in tow. What fun to actually meet them and have time to sit and chat. What Jim and I had started as something small that we could do by ourselves,  eventually came to involve dozens of friends, family, and retailers. There were others who simply gave us money for the postage, which had now risen substantially. Who could have guessed that Jim's desire to do unto others that which he wished had been done unto him would become a major entity in itself?  Many years ago, the Lord looked down from heaven and saw the sadness of a young sailor who received no mail. And in His time, he turned it into a blessing, both for our troops--and for Jim. All things really do work together for good.

Jim's duty aboard the USS Whiteside was the boiler room. I expect that came later
than this photo. He often talked about having to scrape and paint,
scrape and paint. Looks suspiciously like that's what he'd been doing when this
photo was taken.

Copyright 2011 by Sandra L Keith

Photos are the property of the author and may not be reproduced without permission. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Because my dad came from sturdy farmer lineage, my parents always had a garden. They had a big garden at our farm, where my dad's assorted relatives--who had no where else to go lived--and a small one in town, where we lived. The two habitations were naught but five miles apart. An easy bicycle ride. At least that's what my dad thought when he'd send my middle sister and me out to the farm to weed the garden. We were thankful mom took care of the town garden--mostly because my sister and I hated weeding detail. It was such a dirty job. It was during times like this that we wondered why mom never had any boys. Three girls, the baby five years younger than me and too little to do any work. She just sat around looking cute. We two oldest sat around looking dirty. What rotten luck.

I was eight and my sister was seven when dad deemed us fit to rid the farm garden of its undesirable inhabitants. "Now this is how you do it," he said. "Grab the weed by the bottom of the clump, give a good pull to get out all the roots, then shake off all the dirt so the weed can't grow back." Like terminators my sister and I set out to destroy every intruder in sight. "We have to get every single one," I said, "or dad will make us come back and finish the job." So we pulled and shook and then piled them in an unused part of the field, just outside the  garden gate, where the sun was brightest and hottest. How we delighted in knowing they would die a slow, drink-less death.

Then the most mysterious thing happened. A few weeks later, dad sent us out to weed again. "Impossible," I thought. We pulled them all and killed them good in the hot sun. But my dad wasn't one to be argued with. Nor sassed either unless you didn't value your life anymore. So out to the farm my sister and I biked. What we discovered was both a mystery and horrifying at the same time. The weeds were back. In full glory. I was highly suspicious that dad had replanted them. Yet the more I thought about that, the more I considered that I'd been reading too many Nancy Drew books--my favorite genre around that age.

I decided the only way I'd know if I was right or wrong would be to walk over to that hot, hot, hot, corner of the field  where we'd tossed the last weeds.  To my surprise, there they were, a good size pile of parchment-looking, dried up dead things--right where we had so gleefully left them.

"It's no use," we informed dad. "We did like you said, but they came back. They were all over the place again."  That's when dad sat us down and explained about bird-dropped seeds and wind-blown seeds. "You have to keep at it," he said, "or they'll take all the water and our lettuce, corn, strawberries, spinach, carrots, beets and tomatoes won't grow."

So it wasn't a mystery after all. So much for trying to be like Nancy Drew. I was so disappointed knowing it was the stupid wind. The stupid birds. The whole stupid garden! I'd be weeding for the rest of my life. And dirty too. Rotten knowledge for a kid to own.

Copyright 2011 by Sandra L. Keith