A Letter from Blue Grass: Rhubarb
June, 2013
Rev. Timothy Haut
Deep River Congregational Church

 

Life goes on in Blue Grass. The roses in the front yard just started to bloom and the peas are climbing high on the fence over past the clothesline. The bright-eyed dandelions in what passes for our lawn have given way to white buttons of clover, and the corn everywhere is rising! June is truly bustin' out all over. It does that, Timothy. It's like the world just can't hold in all that life that's been hiding in the ground during our long, cold season. And the kids feel it, too. Just a few more days of school, and it's a good thing. Every teacher knows that most self-respecting children can't sit still behind a desk in a hot classroom for very long at this time of year. It's like some kind of remote internal device has kicked on, and they're just being sucked outside. There is baseball to play, and bicycles to ride, and creeks to swim in, and strawberries to eat. And there's always something just over the horizon, or past the edges of the trees, that is calling, too.

There will be a few teary mothers at our high school graduation, watching those tall sons and lovely daughters march across the stage in the school auditorium dressed in their caps and gowns. These are the same young men and women who skinned their knees playing capture the flag in the dusk of summer afternoons, or whose idea of glory was to make themselves sick eating candy after going house-to-house on Halloween night. Now they can hardly wait to high-tail it out of a dumpy little town like Blue Grass in order to find fame and fortune in big cities, where they will go out to dinner and order French food and attend cocktail parties where they drink wine that doesn't come out of a box. They will become sophisticated and charming, meet wonderful people who work at banks instead of grain elevators and go to art galleries instead of the Methodist Church. And maybe someday, then, they will get in their car and come back to visit the folks in our little town and expect, when they walk down the street, that the farmers in their bad haircuts and the grandmother's in their hand-me-down dresses will stop and stare at them in awe at what lovely and important human beings they have become. I think that's what we all dreamed once upon a time, Timothy.

But maybe it's just as likely that those strong and good-looking boys and girls will head out to make their mark on the world and remember that it wasn't so bad growing up in Blue Grass, where your neighbors looked out for you and the whole town was your playground, where you could tell the time of year by the smell of the earth, and where sweet corn and watermelon were pretty much the food of the gods. I hope that's what they'll remember as they head on out to change the world. This year one of our graduates is Ben McCullough, grandson of our neighbors Harold and Ruby. He will be off to Iowa State University in the fall, and his grandparents are afraid. "He's going to get his head full of big ideas," Harold huffed over coffee the other day. I wanted to say, "I hope so, that's what you go to college for." But I kept my lip zipped. There's no use getting into it with that man. He had offered to put in a good word to see if he could get Ben a full-time job at the highway department, but Ben has grander visions: he has it in his mind to be a forensic scientist, an investment manager, or a rock star. Harold and Ruby just want him to be a good man who goes to the Methodist church and visits them on Sunday afternoons. All I can say is they better enjoy him while they can.

This weekend is the annual Blue Grass Rhubarb Festival. Rhubarb is a pretty big deal here in Blue Grass. Most of us have a patch out behind the garage or in front of the compost pit, and we've learned the basic recipes from our grandmothers, who brought their knowledge with them from Sweden and Germany. They were tough old women who knew that there wasn't anything you couldn't eat if you knew how to cook it. So June ushered in the season for stewed rhubarb, and rhubarb preserves, and strawberry rhubarb pie, and rhubarb custard. And they knew that although those bright red shafts poking up out of the garden were so sour you could barely stand it, they were also good for you. "One of the best things for constipation I know," my mother always insisted, and so we had it every June just to purge the system.

So when June rolls round every year, all the members of the Ladies Improvement Society at the Methodist Church make their favorite rhubarb dishes and sell them under a tent out in front of the church. There's always a tasting contest to see who can come up with the most unusual and tastiest rhubarb dish. Last year the winner was Verna Greenwald, who surprised everybody with rhubarb chili. Mabel Landauer was a little miffed that she didn't win with her rhubarb smoothies, because she thought everybody knew that the entries were supposed to be desserts. She told me she was working on deep fried rhubarb kebabs for this year's competition. We'll see. Of course there are other activities, too. There are the rhubarb based sports contests, like the rhubarb javelin throw and the rhubarb egg relay, where teams carry a raw egg on a rhubarb stalk down the length of Main St. A few years ago little Ben McCullough won the Rhubarb Festival Croquet match, using a rhubarb stalk instead of a mallet. And of course the day always culminates with a concert in front of the Legion Hall, which doesn't have anything to do with rhubarb at all except for the crowning of the Rhubarb Queen. I'm not sure how much an honor it is to be the Queen of the Laxative Vegetable, but maybe it's a half step better than being the Iowa Pork Queen at the State Fair each September. But I'm thankful for my little rhubarb patch anyway. It's a reminder to me that there is goodness in everything, if you just care to look for it. And when I pull my first rhubarb custard pie out of the oven, I feel like my mother is standing right beside me, her eyes closed with joy, knowing that we are sharing a little bit of heaven.

Some people are like rhubarb, too. They look pretty on the outside, but they're pretty sour when you get a real taste of them. Carl Zimmer was one of those people. He grew up on a farm over in Wilton Junction, and was a handsome young man with a shock of dark, black hair and piercing eyes that made the young girls go woozy when he winked at them across the room. He was a young man of long legs and big shoulders, the captain of the football team, and a natural leader. And he knew it, which made him cocky enough to think he didn't need to hang around in a town like Blue Grass, either. He went off to join the Army, and before long he was a sergeant giving all kinds of orders to men who didn't dare challenge him. That worked as long as he was in the service, but eventually he came home, moved to Blue Grass, got a job as a trooper with the Iowa Highway Patrol, and got married to Angie Swanson, who also had long legs and big shoulders and was as much a match for Carl as anyone around. All the years of their marriage, they maintained something of a truce. He let her raise the kids and take care of the house, but he made sure everybody knew that he ruled the roost. He seemed to be the one to decide which people in town were worth bothering with. When it was necessary to have one of those idiots come over to fix the plumbing or install new electrical outlets, his job was to stand behind them to tell them how to do the job, and later, to find reasons why he should not pay the full bill. He loved to expound on all subjects, including politics, morals (especially those of his children), sports, the editorials in the local paper, the cultural sewer into which the world was descending, and, of course, religion. Though he had strong beliefs, he didn't feel it necessary or desirable to attend the church where Angie sang in the choir every Sunday, because the place was full of hypocrites and Rev. Metcalf, though not a fool like the others, was probably a wimp.

But this all changed a few months ago, when Carl came back from the Veteran's Hospital in Iowa City after his annual physical. It took a little while to coax it out of him, but Angie knew something was wrong. He had suddenly become quiet, anxious, thoughtful. She found him up early the next morning, standing at the kitchen window, staring at the chickadees on the feeder. He didn't even realize that she had come into the room, and he turned in surprise when she touched him on the shoulder. There were tears in his eye. Prostate cancer, he told her, softly.

This, of course, is not the worst of news. There are many who carry that burden, many who must face the later years of their lives knowing that some part of their body's architecture or engineering will not hold up forever. Often it is a humbling thing, and some of us handle this reality better than others. Angie held Carl's hand and felt the tide turning inside him. "What will we do?" she asked him, still used to the fact that he always had an answer. He cleared his throat and rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand, then reached for the telephone on the kitchen wall. "What's the number of that minister of yours?" he asked.

Rev. Metcalf was surprised as the phone rang as he sat at the breakfast table and he heard Carl Zimmer's voice on the other end of the line. Rev. Metcalf muttered his greeting and offered a comment on the weather. Carl didn't have time for chit-chat. "Reverend, I need you to get in touch with the Lord for me. I've got cancer and I need your help." The minister was surprised and wasn't sure what to say. "Shall we put you on our prayer list?" he offered.

Carl barged ahead. "I remember there was a story in the Bible about a soldier whose servant was sick. Sent a message to Jesus. You don't have to come, just say the word, and my friend will be healed. So you tell the Lord, please: Only say the word, and Carl will be healed."
"Well, maybe we should get together, and talk . . . " Rev. Metcalf said as graciously as he could.

"Not necessary," Carl interrupted. "You should know the drill. You're a pretty good man. Only say the word."

Well, that was last winter. And Timothy, I'm not saying I understand how miracles work. But this is one. Since then Carl has been coming to church on Sundays, sitting right next to his wife. He even sings the hymns. Laughs at the jokes in the sermons, even when they're not so funny. Holds Angie's hand when they walk to the car. Hugs his kids. He's nice to the neighbors, even Harold McCullough who tests us all. Angie said that he's stopped reading the newspaper in the morning. Instead, he takes his coffee and goes out on the back porch to watch the sun come up. He's planting a big garden this spring, mostly flowers. This weekend he's picking rhubarb and making cobbler for the Ladies Improvement Society food booth. And he's still got cancer.

Timothy, I don't understand a lot about the mystery of the universe, or even religion for that matter. There are a lot of things in this world that don't seem fair or just. That tornado down in Oklahoma for example. Or those people at the race in Boston who lost their legs. Or sweet little babies starving right in their mothers' arms. Or cancer. Or children who are born into a world where nobody loves them. Or even the Cubs. We pray for them all. We pray for them in church every Sunday of the world. I pray for them before I go to bed at night, and sometimes when I'm standing outside on a beautiful day in June, with the sun warm on my back, I just shake my head and ask the Lord why I've got it so good and these others don't. I want to say with Carl, Lord, just say the word, and they will all be healed.

But I'm afraid to say that. I'm afraid my faith is too small. And that if I dared to pray such a thing, and then nothing happened, I would stop believing altogether. But then, there's Carl. He prayed, simple as the soldier in the Bible. And he's still got cancer. But, I wonder, who's to say that he didn't get healed? Who's to say that in this mysterious, puzzling, uncertain world Love isn't always healing us?

All the world is full of rhubarb, and today Arnold and I are turning it into my mother's pie. That's a miracle, too. So, Timothy, if you can't get back here to Blue Grass for the festival this weekend, I hope you can find yourself a big enough bunch to make yourself a pie. Say a prayer for Carl when you eat it, nd I know it will be a blessing. Keep us in your prayers as we keep you in ours.

Love,
Aunt Tillie