Scenes from an Italian Restaurant (with apologies to Billy Joel)

The years and life experiences had softened and rounded both her figure and personality …

St. Louis is thick with Italian restaurants, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. Within that range, on a scale from 1 to 10, I would have given this establishment a 7. Family owned, most of their menu selections created within the restaurant, you didn’t get the feeling that everything served there was loaded off a Sysco truck. It was situated along the service road of I-270, in an unpretentious strip mall, in a slowly declining part of town.

My first meal at that restaurant occurred decades ago. My office at the time was on that same service road. I had gone out for lunch with some co-workers and remember ordering the Chicken Spiedini. This is fairly remarkable since it’s a struggle to tell you what I had for lunch two days ago. Fast forward years later, Mrs. Poppy and myself now live just two miles from that same restaurant. It became part of our regular dining rotation when I wasn’t cooking. Most of the time I would get take-out after work, bringing it home for a relaxed dinner with Mrs. Poppy.

The hostess was a middle-aged woman, her given name was Karen, if I ever knew her surname it is long forgotten. She was nondescript in almost every way. The years and life experiences had softened and rounded both her figure and personality, but her eyes were bright, smiles offered generously, her laugh infectious. We had plenty of time to chat as my orders were prepared. She moved back to St. Louis from Florida to live with her mother after a divorce and a serious stroke left her unable to keep her job in the construction industry. She had connections with the family that owned the restaurant and her sister worked there as a bartender. A hostess job seemed the perfect solution to re-entering the workforce after her illness.

Cavatelli Primavera, Tortellini Alfredo, Cannelloni Bianco, Beef Sotto, and of course Chicken Spiedini were all alternately ordered then boxed for the journey home by Karen. We continued to chat during this process and along the way discovered a common interest … books and literature. She rattled off the names of some prominent and prolific authors, laughed and told me she read a lot of their works after her stroke, not because she was a big fan of theirs, but because the plots were so predictable she felt it helped her brain synapses reconnect. Over the years we debated the merits of various authors and traded paperbacks as my orders were prepared.

More often than not, when I returned home and unboxed the take-out, there would be a bonus package; a serving of cannoli or cheesecake, courtesy of Karen. I was particularly happy when it was cheesecake, because Mrs. Poppy is not fond of cheesecake, alleviating any guilt associated with eating the entire portion by myself.

I entered the restaurant after having been away for two or three weeks. Karen was not at her station. I didn’t think much about it and started to walk over to the bar to place my order when the owner hurried over and pressed a generous glass of wine in my hand. He told me that Karen had another stroke and this time it was fatal. It was a somber meal that night.

I continued to go to the restaurant and place my take-out orders at the bar. They had a dependable group of regulars. Conversation was never lacking. Discussions on weather and politics could be counted on. The state of Cardinal’s baseball was a staple of debate … but no one talked about books.

A few months ago, I returned to the restaurant only to find the lights out, the doors locked and a for sale sign in the window. I was not prepared for the emotions and memories that came over me as I drove away from that shuttered restaurant, and it had nothing to do with Chicken Spiedini.


As I mature get older, I am learning about the things that positively effect my quality of life. It’s not about the make of my car or the brand of my clothes. At least for me it is all about relationships.

I am blessed beyond measure to be part of a strong, loving and caring family, my wife, my daughters, my grandchildren. They are my foundation, the bedrock of my life.

I am privileged each week to do meaningful work alongside talented and dedicated co-workers. They and our vocations enrich my life in ways I’m sure I don’t truly understand or appreciate.

I am also learning the value of micro-relationships. The brief interactions with the check-out guy at the grocery store, when he notices my t-shirt and a 15 second conversation ensues about a shared interest.
And of course talking books with the hostess at an Italian restaurant.

Peace, Poppy

Thanks Billy for the title and a great song!

 

 

Sandy and the Accidental Cat

Sandy and I weren’t next door neighbors, at least not in the traditional sense. His property adjoins the rear of my lot at a ninety degree angle. If I walk to the back half of my yard, I can see his house. My first encounter with Sandy occurred not long after we moved in. A tree in my back yard yielded to gravity and fell across the lawn. I was doing my best to cut it into manageable sized pieces with the tools I had on hand, when Sandy strolled over with a chainsaw and an antique logging tool I had only seen in photos.

He stood about 5′ 8″, thin and wiry, bowed legs protruding from a pair baggy shorts. From beneath a Cardinal’s baseball cap, escaping tufts of hair gave a clue has to how he had acquired his nickname.

“Hey, neighbor,” he called out with an accent associated with the Northeast, “Want a hand?”

“Great,” I thought to myself, “Just what I need.” But it didn’t take long to figure out Sandy knew a lot more about cutting up trees than I did, and despite the large gap in our ages, I’m pretty sure he could have worked me into the ground. After our logging labors were over, we retreated to the small deck at the back of his house for conversation and a few congratulatory beers.

Turns out Sandy had been a navigator in the Air Force, flying bombing missions during WWII and later the Korean conflict. He regaled me with stories of his adventures both wartime and peacetime; like the time his crew decided a flight departing from Alaska would be the perfect opportunity to test the bomb bays capabilities for keeping  a load of King Crab legs frozen until they arrived at their home base in Texas … maybe not illegal, but certainly not regulation. Imagine the scene when the bomb bay doors were opened after landing and hundreds of King Crab legs spilled out onto the hot Texas tarmac. There were a lot of happy (and surfeited) airmen that day.

Turns out Sandy also had a fondness for cats. There were no less than 8 to 10 cats sauntering about his property. Sandy was not sentimental enough to give the cats names, he just referred to them based on their coloring and markings. “That calico over there, she just had kittens, I think that orange one is hers and maybe the white one with back feet.”

Sandy’s clowder of cats (yes, I had had to look that up), grew over the years and they started migrating north to our back porch, among them a nondescript grey tabby, that had recently given birth to a litter of kittens.

In the spirit of full disclosure, we are a family of softies. Mrs. Poppy is well known for her habit of escorting insects out of the house rather than squish them. The exceptions being mosquitos, roaches and brown recluse spiders (God have mercy on their little buggy souls).

However “soft” our family might be, that didn’t mean we wanted a crew of feral cats camping out in our backyard. We had to figure out a solution and taking them to an agency where they might be euthanized was not an option.

A little research yielded what seemed to be the perfect solution. St. Louis County had a free (with the help of my tax dollars)  service where they would lend you a live-trap and when you caught the feral cats and brought them in, any kittens or cats they deemed adoptable would be put up for adoption. Older cats would be neutered and returned to you or placed with farmers or someone who might have need of a mouser. Sign me up!

They gave me more details as I filled out the government paperwork. Adult cats who were neutered, while they were under anesthesia would have the top of one of their ears cut off as a means of identification in the future. I answered a series of questions, the last one being … “Any adult cats that we neuter, do you want us to return them to your property or place them elsewhere?”

“Somewhere else,” I quickly replied.

It took several trips to catch and deliver all the cats. I turned the trap in with the last load of felines and returned home feeling smug and smart.


“There’s a cat on the back porch that looks like that grey cat except it’s missing part of one ear, ” Mrs. Poppy tells me three weeks later.

Kismet … there are times when you just have to give in to fate. Through typical government inefficiency, we now have a cat. We could no longer keep calling her, “that grey cat,” so she became “Mrs. G.”

Her ribs are no longer showing and she now has a heated cat-house during the winter months. Mrs. G is a fierce hunter, she is not big but is incredibly fast, her grey coat allows her to become almost invisible in the dusk. To show her appreciation for food and housing, we are regularly gifted with her kills on the front or back door mat. Mice, voles, birds, even small squirrels. To these creatures she must appear as the T-Rex of Elizabeth Avenue.


Sandy is gone.

I am not one to dig up past mistakes, there are so many of them, I’m content to let sleeping mistakes be. I don’t need zombie mistakes shuffling and drooling behind me, besides I have new mistakes to make tomorrow.

But I am not without regrets. Most of those regrets are relational. Times where I could have been more patient, times where I chose to stir things up, rather than be a peacemaker. Times where I could have taken 10 minutes out of my “busy” schedule to spend with someone who needed some company.

Sandy could not cook, he lived off of frozen dinners and prepared foods. I knew that. After major holidays, I would take him some of our leftovers … but only occasionally.

Sandy appeared on his deck as I mowed the back yard. I would occasionally walk over after mowing and talk baseball and politics … but only occasionally, most of the time I was too “busy.”


The chain on the back porch screen door pulls shut with a sound unique to old houses and old screen doors, Mrs. G hears the sound and comes running. I settle on the top step of the stairs leading down to the driveway. She rubs up against my ankles and I reach down and scratch behind her ears.
It is time well spent.

A Kind of Hush …

I closed the door softly as I stepped onto the front porch. Nature had dialed down the volume across my little world and I didn’t want to be intrusive or irreverent. In the distance came the sound of someone scraping ice and snow from their windshield. further yet and also unseen, was the drone of a prop-plane struggling to gain altitude. The weather must have forced a change in flight patterns.

My brain somehow made the leap from a snowy January night in Ferguson to 1967 and the summer of love, when Herman’s Hermits released what was to be their final top 10 hit, “There’s a Kind of Hush All Over the World.”

The hush in front of me didn’t extend “All Over the World,” it was real … though not at all what Herman’s Hermits were crooning about. I gave my head a little shake to dislodge the potential earworm. Nothing against the song, but I didn’t want it running through my brain for the rest of the night.

I had the luxury of no longer having to drive or work in the snowstorm, I could take it all in from the security of my front porch. If I lived in Minnesota, I might not feel this way, but here in the heartland snowstorms are not so common as to not have a certain magical quality about them.

Slow down, God tells us, I have provided the perfect excuse to calm yourself, you couldn’t hurry if you wanted to. Listen as I quiet your world. Watch as I soften the light of the street lamps and headlights. Breath deep as my snow filters and cleanses the air around you.

It is a night for meditation. A night for turning off the TV and computer. A night for opening a book and curling your fingers around a mug of hot cocoa, or a mug of hot cocoa with a splash of brandy if you are so inclined.

In this part of the country the snow will be gone in a few days. Cars will once again race up and down the streets. The pace of life will pick up, we will once again become frantic over trivialities. The sounds of honking horns and sirens will once again pollute the airwaves, but for tonight … enjoy the hush.

Poppy

 

Five-Legged Dogs and Getting Small (a Resolution)

 

Within hours of the event, dozens of fingers hammering on dozens of telegraph keys sent the news of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination to all the major cities across America and Europe. Away from major metropolitan areas the news traveled more slowly. Even a major event on the scope of a presidential assassination  took days and even weeks to arrive in more remote locations.

Today we are bombarded with news and pseudo news almost instantaneously, and we feel slighted if there is not video to accompany it. To say that the news and reporting businesses have changed could be the understatement of the decade. These organizations must now survive on clicks, rather than traditional advertising. There is no time for fact checking, proofreading or in-depth research. To survive in that business, you need to be out there first and be just a little more sensational than your competition. Accuracy be damned, there is another story coming in the next 10 minutes and by tomorrow we will have moved on to another crisis, real or imagined.

Atrocities and absurdities, events from around the globe … things that I have no ability to affect, change or cure. If I allow myself, I can be overwhelmed by stories that are less than news, stories that at their core are nothing more than schoolyard name-calling, except the participants are elected officials, not children.

I can muster up all the righteous indignation and outrage that I want, stew over perceived stupidity, create posts on Facebook and other social media outlets, only to raise my blood pressure and offer no solutions, comfort or aid to anyone over stories that may not even be accurate or based on half-truths. To say that something is this or that does not make it so. To publish it online does not bolster its accuracy, honesty, or credibility.

Abraham Lincoln once asked this question to a group of religious leaders who had come to petition him, “How many legs does a dog have if you call his tail a leg? ” He answered his own question with this response, “Four. Saying that a tail is a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”

Mimsy and I go for a walk on this last day of 2018. Like all Japanese Chin, she has a fine tail, it arches over her back with long feathery plumes.. FoxNews or CNN (not to mention even less reputable news feeds) can call it anything they want, but it is just a tail and Mimsy will never have more than four legs.

Here is my prayer and resolution for this coming year.

Lord, make me small, contract my world. Help me to focus on the people that I can look in the eye or shake their hand, from family members to those checking out my purchases at the grocery store. I will do my best to not overreact to some half-baked story before all the facts are in. I will try to expend my energies not on Putin, U.S. politicians or political correctness absurdities, but on mustering patience with co-workers when I’m not feeling particularly patient. Remind me to offer a smile and a “How’s it going” to a stranger. Give me the wisdom to speak words of encouragement rather than words of outrage, words of healing and not division. Help me to listen to a neighbor’s opinion, rather than offer mine unasked for. Make me small.

Poppy … wishing you a very happy New Year. Let’s get small!

 

Two Funerals, a Cold Rain and the Great Ledger

I cranked the thermostat up a notch. It was not freezing, the temperature was in the lower 40’s, but after several days of persistent rain, an unwelcome guest, the dampness, was starting to creep in. Our 1890 house has many charms, but energy efficiency is not one of them.

Mimsy and I set out for our final stroll of the night. Neither of us pleased to be out in the weather, but it had to be done. We walked down the sidewalk as the cars traveling up and down Elizabeth Avenue created a spray and swooshing sound unique to tires on wet roads.

Mimsy had her mind on the scents contained within the piles of damp leaves along our route, my mind was on two funerals confronting us this week. We humans have a habit of attributing deaths that happen close to major holidays as somehow more tragic than those happening on a date with nothing more important than Fire Prevention Safety Week on the calendar. It’s not true, but hey, that’s what we humans do.

As Mimsy was busy sniffing, I thought of the two people recently deceased. One, a former co-worker, a woman only slightly older than myself. She had the gift of selfless giving and attending the needs of others before herself.  She will be missed. The other person … well, I feel sorry for the minister asked to give the eulogy.

Funerals seem to come often these days. It goes with the territory, I suppose. As Christians we have the head knowledge that we are not saved by our works or inner goodness, but as the tendrils of dampness find a way to sneak into my house, thoughts of doubt and insecurity sneak into my mind. What have I done?  Have I made a difference? Have I contributed to the great ledger? Will I, in some small fashion, leave the world a better place? Why am I even here?

It’s a safe bet you will never see my portrait on the cover of Time magazine as Man of the Year or read the announcement that Poppy has just won the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor I would kill for. (sorry, couldn’t resist)

There will never be any fanfare over any action of mine, angels will not suddenly appear, singing a heavenly chorus above my head. (this is for the best as it would scare the crap out of Mimsy and myself)

I am as far from a celebrity or public figure as is possible. My sphere of influence is limited to my family, co-workers, neighbors, the check-out people at the grocery store ( because I’m there every other day). If I am to make any sort of difference, to contribute to the great ledger, it is with these people. Fortunately they are just as ordinary, just as flawed as I am.

I would love to be a veritable cornucopia of the fruits of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control … but I am not that guy. My best hope is to let a little of God’s grace show through, maybe just a touch of patience as the lady in front of me at the checkout line slowly and thoroughly searches through her purse to find the pennies needed to pay for her purchase with exact change.

Poppy

 

 

The Unrecorded Prayer and a Thankful Heart

At the time we didn’t know it would be Dad’s last Thanksgiving. We gathered around the dining room table, patiently waiting as Mom scurried back and forth from the kitchen, retrieving some item she thought we would need. Finally everyone settled and we bowed our heads. There was no question who would offer the grace. At 98, Dad was very much the patriarch and spiritual leader of the family. As he started his prayer, I realized too late that I should be recording the moment. I fumbled for my phone, but then stopped.

There are times I regret not capturing that fragment of time, but perhaps it is for the best. It was too sacred a moment to be sullied by technology.

I can’t recall any of the specific words, only the emotion.

Ray Agnew was unencumbered by any vanity. More than anyone I’ve known, he had a servant’s heart. Every deed, every action was done to further the kingdom of God, never to seek recognition for himself.

The words he spoke were plain. The meaning profound. Simple words. Words of love for everyone gathered at the table. Sincere words of appreciation for the food before us, spoken from one who had lived through times when food was not bountiful. And of course words of thanksgiving to his Savior, always ending the same way … “in Jesus name.”

Though I did not record the moment, it is clear in my mind. Dad sitting back as Mom fussed over the food, his shirt slightly crumpled, softened by a hundred washings. Hair thin, but not given over entirely to grey. A slight smile on his face as he viewed Lillie Bell unnecessarily worrying over some small detail.

When it comes to parents, I have an embarrassment of riches. This is our first Thanksgiving without Mom. Dad has been gone for several years. Technically I am the patriarch of our little family. If I’m totally honest, I feel like an imposter, but I am a thankful imposter none the less.

Donald Trump is a Jerk and Why I’m Voting Republican

I pray for forgiveness of sins done and undone and this is why I’m writing this post. I don’t know that I will change anyone’s mind, but I don’t want the regrets of not giving it my best shot.

Let’s get something out of the way right now, God is neither a Republican or Democrat, in fact he’s not even an American. I hope that doesn’t shock you too much ( I still hold to the hope that he prefers the Cardinals over the Cubs, but have not been able to find any evidence of that in Holy Scriptures). While God may be neither Republican or Democrat, I believe that he loves every human everywhere as his child and values the sanctity of the life he has given us all..

The political landscape is as divisive as I have ever seen. Civility is not just missing, a stake has been driven through her heart. The hot topics (generally) are not ones of foreign policy or financial philosophies  but social issues; immigration, gender identity, LGBT adoption rights, healthcare, religious freedom act, gun control, etc. These are all important and very emotional issues.

I find it ironic that we are living in an era where by most measures we are more sensitive than any other point in time. We agonize over using plastic straws for fear that they may end up in the ocean inserted into a sea turtle’s nostril. We debate safe spaces for students at universities where they can gather to avoid a speaker or event that may offend them. We have raised the level of awareness for animal rights but yet we are willing to stop the beating heart of an unborn human baby, to suck him or her from the safety of it’s mother’s womb or dismember it all under the name of “reproductive health.”

But … but … but that’s just one issue among many you say.

Yes, but it’s the only issue that at it’s core is a matter of life and death.

I am hesitant to mention Nazis because that is so overdone, but imagine a defense of the Nazi party based on the argument that extermination of the Jews was just one plank in their platform. Any reasonable person would find that argument repugnant and indefensible.

Every year in America the Democratic party salutes as over 300,000 babies are violently torn from their mother’s wombs. That’s harsh you say … but the Democratic Party has made abortion a major plank in their platform and chooses their judges and candidates accordingly.

I wish this were not true. Neither Republicans or Democrats hold a monopoly on good policy ideas, but I will not sell out my principles for legislation that will benefit me financially or provide some measure of convenience when there are matters of life and death at stake.

Imagine a country where we truly embraced the sanctity of life from the beginning  until death, across every social, economic, religious and racial strata. I believe this has to start with the most innocent and helpless among us.

Yes, Donald Trump can be a real jerk, offensive and abrasive, but I have no other choice than to vote Republican this Tuesday.

Addendum, 11-15-18:

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” …Elie Wiesel