“Thy wife shall be as a fruitful
vine by the sides of thine house;
thy children like olive plants
round about thy table.”
Summers in Michigan, Dad rented rows in a community garden. The farmer tilled, Dad planted, another watered, we weeded and God gave the increase. Mama spent many days in a steamy kitchen putting up that increase in canning jars. We carried jars from the storeroom in the basement, washed them in hot soapy water, then later carried them filled, back down, arranging them in rows on the storeroom shelves.
I loved the garden, especially the corn rows, so long the ends seemed to meet and touch. The corn stalks were tall enough to make shady lanes to run down. I’m afraid Kent and I weren’t much help. We played happily in the magical green aisles, chasing each other up and back until we tired. Then we sat in the delicious shade and played in the sandy dirt. Dad checked the corn often, and when he found it just right, we picked bushels to take home to feed to the Magic Seal pressure canner.
You may think that there were only two times when Jesus fed the multitude (Matthew 14:14 and Matt.15:32), but there you would be wrong! Multitudes were fed at our house on a regular basis (often seeming like a miracle to us.) On a summer evening a Volkswagen busload of cousins might turn in the drive. Mama would send one of us for a couple of jars of tomatoes and corn from the basement to add to the soup, along with a few potatoes and everyone would be fed!
A warm Sunday afternoon would bring a carload or two of church friends, lured to the country by the promise of fresh air, and maybe a slice of icy watermelon Dad had tied a rope to and lowered down into the river to cool; or maybe a bowl of sweet ice cream fresh from the cranker.
We saw pictures of the starving children in Ethiopia. We worried about them and prayed for them, although we could not know what starving was. We did our part by collecting for UNICEF every October. With our little milk cartons we went door to door asking the neighbors to give for the hungry. “The hungry” were not us. We had plenty to eat always.
Mama raised chickens one year. She hated chickens. We children thought the chickens were great. We liked to feed them and gather the eggs. Mama despised them. She thought they stank. They were a nuisance. They further would not oblige her by laying their eggs in the nesting boxes. Shortly following an episode in which little brother Fred, was chased and pecked by a mean old rooster, Kent and I were sent out to gather eggs. Finding only three in the nest boxes, we filled our basket with pearly whites from the woods.
Mama’s cake batter was ruined by a horrible stinky rotten egg. That was the last straw. Mama made those feathers fly! She chased those hens down and she wrung necks until she’d exhausted herself. She and Dad spent all that evening cleaning chickens and Mama spent all the next day canning chicken, on the bone in half gallon Mason jars.
Many a hungry multitude was fed Texas style chicken and dumplings at our table that winter. Sickly friends were resuscitated with bowls of hearty chicken noodle soup from Mama’s stores. On winter days when the snow was too deep for us to walk home from school for lunch, we carried hot chicken soup in our lunch box thermoses.
Often Mama rummaged up meals for strangers that Dad picked up and carried home. One night late in a snow storm, Dad came in with a family he had found in a broken down vehicle by the side of the road. The family had a infant, a little girl with a head grotesquely misshapen. She had encephalitis, water on the brain. They were hungry, cold, terrified, trying desperately to get the baby to a hospital. After warming them and feeding them, Dad took them on into the city. We never heard from them afterwards and often wondered if the baby lived.
Traveling evangelists and preachers often found a chair at our table as well. I especially recall one from Texas, with a lovely southern drawl, who spent an afternoon picnicking with us at the tree farm. Mama had fixed her specialty, fried chicken. We feasted on chicken, beans, bread and butter, potato salad, corn on the cob, all washed down with fresh cold milk. For dessert there were ice cream cones filled with chocolate pudding and decorated with sprinkles.
Kent and I polished off our puddings and then helped ourselves to a second one before running off to explore. The adults were busy talking about Texas, where Mama and Dad had lived when they first married. Kent and I went back and listened for a while, then ate a third cone. All was well until the preacher went to get his dessert. “Oh, no,” he croaked, peering into the box, “The puddings are all gone! I was so looking forward to eating me one! Why, I could jeeeeest bawl!”
“I could jeeeeest bawl!” became our family’s by-line for any disappointment in life. It helped us laugh through rough spots we faced now and then, and to keep our chins up.
My parents taught us that hospitality is more than elaborate dinner parties with fancy centerpieces and place settings or family holiday meals when the aunts, uncles and cousins crowded in, or even pretty candlelit teas with friends. Real hospitality is opening the door to a wounded life and comforting that heart with a generous hand. It is the giving up of your chair at the table to some lonely, road weary man down on his luck. It is opening your heart and your house and your hands to someone who will not or cannot reciprocate, purely for his benefit and despite your own needs.
When I picture family in my mind, love and laughter, caring and sharing, garden, kitchen and the dinner table are all a part of that picture. Every night at supper, Dad read aloud a chapter of the Bible before we ate. Many times he read his favorite, Psalm 128, about Mama, his fruitful vine and all of us, his little olive shoots growing strong and happy round about his table.
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