Saturday, April 23, 2011

Our Own Histories

When we think of history we often go back centuries to some far off time and place and dig about to find what interests us.  However, if we look at our own lives, many of us have lived through amazing events in history.  Those who were alive during the Challenger Disaster, 9-11 or any number of the natural disasters that occur today have lived through some monumental history and each have thoughts and feelings about those life altering days.  We also have people in our lives and personal events that occur which can quietly slip away and be forgotten rather quickly in the fast paced world we live in.

One event from my own history is the establishment of an event in my community.  Over a decade ago, my good friend Sharen suggested we host a Cook-off in our community-filled with prizes, impartial judges, and award-winning recipes.  Under her impetus, we organized what became an annual event in our town for more than a decade.  A few years back, ideas changed and the Annual Cook-off became a thing of the past until recently I asked some of the young people I work with if they would be interested in having it again. They were excited about it and helped to organize and participant in it. As I walked into the building that evening, I was excited to see the tables all set and decorated with centerpieces that Sharen had made years ago and saved in the community closet for events like these.  But seeing these made me a bit melancholy since Sharen was not there this time . . . she had died quite unexpectedly of leukemia only a year ago. 

I took a deep breath and continued with the events of the evening.  We had added a new item this year to evening – live entertainment.  We had a young lady who composed her own music come and play her guitar and sing her songs for us. As I listened to her lyrics I could tell some of her own history as she sang of love, growing up, her sister and Oregon rain.  As I sat at one of the tables, listening to her songs I found myself staring at the centerpiece on my table.  It was comprised of three simple birds and painted eggs in a small aluminum bucket.  One of the ladies beside me saw me staring at it and mentioned that she had been looking at that all night and thought it was so cute.  She then asked me if I had made it. That question stunned me and I could only mumbled, “No, a good friend of mine did.” She again commented on how cute it was and the conversation ended.  I was just left there with that sentence hanging painfully in my mind.  I could have added so much more to my reply!  I could have added that the creator of the centerpiece was not just a good friend, but the best friend I ever had, I could have told her what an amazing person Sharen was, and how it was her idea to have these Cook-offs, and I could have mentioned that she died just a year ago this very week . . . I could have gone on and on an on but instead I just dug my fingernails into the palms of my hands to keep from crying.

This incident made me realize that all of us know people and participate in events that can be lost to common knowledge even within our lifetimes.  It motivated me to consistently take more time to write down my thoughts, feelings and ideas of what I experience that may seem mundane or that may be my own personal life-altering days. Everything seems so permanent but I have learned that situations can change rather unexpectedly and if memories are recorded in the pages of our own past they will remain, instead of fading quietly into the background noise of life.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Nothing Commonplace

In 1883, a 14-year-old young woman sailed from Bohemia to America with her family to make a new life. They lived in a sod hut on the treeless plains of Nebraska, which was a much different environment from their previous home. The extreme isolation and financial struggles that they endured in Nebraska, eventually led to her father’s suicide. Since his death was self-inflicted, he was not allowed a burial in the town’s Catholic cemetery. Instead, he was buried beside a road near their homestead.

This young woman worked hard on the family farm and as she grew older she was employed as a hired girl in the nearby town of Red Cloud. This gave her the opportunity to gain some academic learning, apprentice in more refined skills and meet more people. Eventually she fell in love with a man who worked on the railroads. They ran away together, she became pregnant and he quickly left her, so she returned to her families land near Red Cloud. Soon after, she met John Pavelka who was a tailor’s apprentice and also from Bohemia. He was a good man but not much of a farmer, as he had spent his years of schooling in New York City. After they were married, Anna ran the farm that she and her husband lived on and had eleven children as well. She spent her entire adult life on that farm and was not successful by any worldly means but she was a hard worker, a true friend and was loved and admired by all who knew her.

Anna is buried in a small cemetery in Nebraska just north of the town of Red Cloud. The small headstone simply reads “Anna Pavelka, 1869-1955.”  Her story is not one filled with adventure and fortune, only adoration for her children and pride in the farm she ran so efficiently.

Because of Anna’s strong character, she drew the attention of a young girl in Red Cloud, who name was Willa – Willa Cather to be exact. As Willa observed Anna’s daily life she took note and in later years, turned Anna’s seemingly uneventful life into the much-loved American novel, My Antonia. The character of Antonia in Willa Cather’s book in real life was Anna Sadilek Pavelka.

Anna teaches all of us the great lesson that no one is commonplace and that everyone can offer something to the world by the life they live. She also opens our minds to the fact that history is everywhere around us and sometimes we just need to take a deeper look to find it. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

In Exchange for a Homemade Apple Pie

My husband recently met some older folks in a nearby city and invited me to come back with him for a visit.  He suggested I make a homemade apple pie for them in exchange for an evening hearing about their lives.  As we approached their home it was growing dark but we found our way to the driveway and to the back porch, where they had the light on because they knew we were coming.  Their house showed signs of wear but as we were welcomed into the dimly lit kitchen, they greeted us warmly, and looked delighted at the pie I offered them. They promptly invited us to come in and talk with them.

The older fellow had been an ocean fisherman for decades.  He told tales of sailing out so far that he could not see land.  He described being on his boat alone and carefully watching storm patterns.  He had a twinkle in his eye when he told of his son and then ten years later his daughter, meeting him on the dock after school and spending the afternoons and evenings out on the boat with him.  Ocean fishing was seasonal, so to make ends meet he had a job closer to home in the winter months.  He worked at a nearby factory where he watched seeds on a conveyer belt and picked out any foreign objects as they passed by.  I could not help but think of how tedious that job would be, especially after fishing the ocean for months being tossed on the unpredictable waves.

The couple talked about the house we were visiting in that evening and stories of the very room we sat in.  This had been the old fellows house in his growing up years.  He told us that the room behind us had been where he, his parents and brother all slept.  Then the small room to the left of where we were seated had been the quarters of the four hired men who helped work their land.  This kind man had been born about a block up the street at the location of the original homestead.  The land he had lived on his entire life had been given to his great grandfather by the United States government during the time they gave 640 acres to anyone willing to live on and farm the land.  What a heritage.

I found that he was a fisherman from the beginning as he shared stories of fishing in the creek that ran near the place we were.  As a boy, one of his jobs was to catch the baby mice that ran out from under the haystacks in the middle of the field.  As the stacks were being moved, he was right there to grab the mice by the tail after which he put them in a jar.  Later on, when the haying was done, he and his cousins would go to the stream that twisted through the family land, carrying their fishing poles and mice, still scurrying about in a glass, to catch some fish.  They attached these small, live mice onto their fishing poles with rubber bands and used them to catch bass.  I had never heard of this fishing technique or of anyone being able to catch a mouse by the tail with bare hands.

This old fisherman had a respect for the land and what it could realistically produce.  He told of fishing most morning in the creek near their home with his grandfather in the summer.  He described that every day they would catch two bass, whether they caught them early in the day or if it took all day long, they always caught two and then went home.  He said after years of this practice, he finally realized why his grandfather only let him catch two a day. It was because if they caught more than that, the creek would be fished out and they would loose that supply of protein to their diet.  During the depression when these bass were their main source of protein, they sometimes supplemented their diet with spam.

Because of his life on the waters, this aged fisherman learned to appreciate the checks and balances of nature.  He learned that paper mills upstream could pollute their creek water although miles away.  He learned that he had to sail out into the ocean further and further each year to be able to catch as many fish as he had the previous year because they areas closer to the shore were being fished out and the increase in pollutants found in the water had killed off some of the fish.  He also learned to use what was available to him and his family, when it was obtainable; to save whatever they could for leaner times.

That day had been a busy one for me and I ended up spending a lot of my time making the apple pie I gave our new friends.  I do not regret it however, as it was worth every minute because of the lively stories I heard in return and the witnessing of history before my eyes.