A Letter from Blue Grass: What Love Does
Rev. Timothy Haut
Deep River Congregational Church
Life goes on in Blue Grass, where winter has us locked up tight. It's been nothing but snow and cold since Christmas, and it's easy to get weary of it about this time. The old groundhog didn't even give us much hope. But this is Iowa, and winter is what makes us tough and strong and sets us to dreaming about Springtime. It's supposed to get below zero again tonight, and in the morning even the squirrels will be reluctant to come out and check out the bird feeders. But your Uncle Arnold will pull on his wool long-johns and bundle up in his overcoat and go out and fill them up with sunflower seeds and scatter some on the ground under the kitchen window, because he knows how much I love to watch the cardinals and chickadees in the snow. And I'll get the coffee perking on the stove, and maybe I'll bake a batch of cinnamon rolls, because that's how much I love that old man, stubborn as he is.
I know that Valentine's Day is coming, which always puts the pressure on an old farmer like Arnold. As you know, he's not exactly the romantic type. He'll probably manage a card and a bunch of flowers, probably carnations. Once he let the old impulses fly and ordered a dozen roses before he knew what the price was—you know that they always hike up the price of those things right before the holidays. He couldn't even smile when he gave them to me—told me he could have filled up the car with gas and gone down to the Eagle Market and bought us a steak for the same money he spent for flowers, and you couldn't even eat them. Still, it meant something. He's always been an old German who doesn't exactly know how to say the words, "I love you." So I wait for the words to come out of hiding in the things he does to tell me that I matter to him.
For instance, last night we were sitting in the living room watching the Hawkeyes play Ohio State. Iowa fans aren't used to having a basketball team in the top ten in the country, so Arnold was ready for a good night. I don't much care for basketball myself; it seems like a lot of running back and forth to me, and God only knows, Timothy, that when they say that there are three minutes left in the game, it'll be a half hour at least before the game ends. But Arnold likes me to sit with him while we watch, so I put on my bathrobe and pulled out a magazine that usually has some good gossip about movie stars in it and settled in for the duration. It was close for a half, but then Iowa started to slip. Ohio State went ahead, and Arnold started getting up and pacing around the living room, making several trips to the kitchen and the bathroom in hopes that his leaving the room would change the Hawkeyes luck. But it didn't, and finally he turned off the TV and sat down next to me in the quiet of the living room and put his old weather-beaten hand over mine. That made it hard to turn the pages in my magazine, but I was startled by this little unexpected gesture. Then he stood up and went over to the record player and put on Willie Nelson for me. "You are always on my mind," he sang, and I mean Arnold. "What about the Hawkeyes?" I asked. "They're losing," he shrugged. "And they don't make me cinnamon buns in the morning."
So this is what I think, Timothy. Love is everywhere around us, hundreds and hundreds of instances of it all the time, and we mostly just don't pay enough attention. We wait for the grand gestures and half expect the world to be like an old-fashioned movie. Donald Lohmiller, of course, decided that he wanted to be like one of those old movie stars. Last Valentine's Day he decided to sweep his girlfriend, Leona Shaefer, off her feet. She had always talked about how she was waiting to meet someone as handsome and sophisticated as George Clooney or Patrick Dempsey, the rugged type with a sensitive heart. So Donald figured he already had the rugged part down and he needed to come up with something really sensitive to prove to Leona that he was the one great love of her life. He thought about painting his proposal on the railroad overpass down by Montpelier, but he figured that it would take too long for her to drive that way, and that she might miss it if they were going too fast. So he came up with an alternative. On Valentine's Day in the morning he tied up one of his black angus cattle in Leona's front yard, and painted a message on its side: "I love you Leona. No bull." He couldn't figure out why she was laughing so hard, but he figured it didn't matter because she agreed to marry him anyway.
Timothy, if we wait too long for grand gestures, fireworks, and violin music, we miss the marvels that unfold around us on a daily basis. Marlene, the new waitress down at the White Way Café, has strung hearts in all the windows and has been leaving those little candy hearts in the saucers of all the old men who come down there for their morning coffee klatch. She calls them Sweetheart and Honey and Sugar, even though she's forty years younger than most of them. She pats them on the hand and fills up their coffee cups free, and you'd think they'd won a million dollars they're so happy. Especially Bob Torgeson, an old bachelor who lives by himself down by the feed and grain, who never says a word because he stutters so bad. Until yesterday, when she poured him a second cup of coffee and he suddenly began reciting Shakespeare to her: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day ?/
Thou art more lovely and more temperate . . . "
And there's young Rodney Kutschner, who has to dress up and go to the Methodist Church every Sunday because his parents make him. They hope that maybe a little something will rub off on him there, because he always gets an attitude when they ask him to pick up his room or go to bed at 9 o'clock when he's playing his favorite video game. They were not surprised when, after the morning service, he headed over to the serving table to grab a handful of cookies during the coffee hour, but they were stunned when he took those cookies over to his Aunt Margaret who was sitting by herself in a chair at the other end of the room. "They're for you, Aunt Margaret," he said, oblivious to the fact that she has been trying out the Paleo Diet and avoiding all carbohydrates since the first of the year. Out of sheer love, she ate them all.
And Emily Peterson, who has been feeling very much alone since her husband Carl passed away last fall, decided to go out to eat with her friend Verna Phelps. Cabin fever really starts to set in after a month or two of an Iowa winter, so they decided to drive to Muscatine and go to Salvatore's Ristorante, where they have a fireplace and wine bottles hanging from the ceiling, and where they could order authentic fettucine alfredo or ravioli that's not from a can with Chef Boyardee on the front, and maybe where they could get a little sip of chianti on the side to warm away their loneliness. Vera says that Emily was into her second glass of vino when she spotted a young couple across the room making goo-goo eyes at each other. She called the waiter over and gave her a fifty dollar bill to pay for their meal and asked for a piece of paper to write a note. She took out a pen and wrote, "Enjoy your dinner, and may you find as much joy in your life as I had with my Carl for 42 years. Love each other." She said an expensive evening with Verna Phelps never felt so good.
And Verna herself knows about love. Every day she drives over the nursing home in Walcott to sit with her friend Helen Sanderson, who is confined to bed now and doesn't have much to say to anyone. Verna sits in a chair next to her and reads her articles from the paper or a chapter from the Secret Diaries of Miranda Cheever or Scandal in Spring. Last year she tried to read Fifty Shades of Grey to poor Helen, but she got so distracted by the nurses' aides standing around the door that she left the book in the lobby on her way out. I asked her why she kept going over there, even when Helen no longer could even recognize her or respond in conversation, and she shrugged at me and smiled. "She's been my friend since I was a little girl. I love her."
And then there is Harold McCullough down the street. His wife Ruby puts up with a lot, and I think Harold knows it. The two of them got into an argument at the breakfast table. It could have been about politics, a subject about which Harold feels he is an expert and in which he is about as conservative as they come. But it could just as well have been about the color of the towels in the bathroom (he prefers blue) or the fact that the toast that morning was slightly overdone. In any case, Harold got up from the table, pulled on his coat and cap and marched out the door, got in the car, and drove down to the White Way Café, announcing that he was going to get some real breakfast.
An hour later, when he got back home he thought it was strange that Ruby's car was missing from the garage. When he walked through the kitchen, he noticed an envelope propped up against the butter dish. It was one of those long envelopes, official-looking, and it had his name written neatly across the front. "Harold R. McCullough," it said, in a way that seemed somewhat formal to him. He picked it up, held it in his hand for a moment, and set it back down on the table. He realized that he was scared to open it. The words of the morning's argument with Ruby trickled back through his memory, and not only that, but also all the little petty complaints and criticisms that seemed to have characterized their relationship for the past week or two. He wondered what might be in that envelope. Maybe it was a "Dear John" letter. Maybe she had met another man at her bowling league on Tuesday nights, one who liked burnt toast. Maybe she was fed up and was going to go to a lawyer to ask for a divorce. Maybe she was taking the checkbook and finding an apartment in Davenport where she could put out pink towels in the bathroom. Maybe she was just saying good-bye and disappearing from his life forever. All of this ran through his mind for the next hour, two hours, all morning. Noon came and Ruby still was not home, and he still had not opened that letter. By three in the afternoon he couldn't stand it any longer and ripped the envelope open. Inside, in Ruby's neat handwriting learned in penmanship class in the fourth grade, was a message:
I have gone to see my sister, who has invited me to lunch. There is bologna in the refrigerator, and leftover macaroni and cheese if you want to heat it up. Maybe this will give you some time to cool down. You are a pill. I haven't forgotten our discussion this morning, if you can call it that. When I get back, we WILL talk. Count on it. Maybe you could work on an apology. You make me crazy. See you later.
That afternoon when she got home, there were purple irises on the kitchen table, her favorite, and a long white envelope addressed to Ruby J. McCullough. Inside was a note, which Ruby said was nobody's business but hers. But I know it was love.
Wherever love is, no matter how little it seems, or painful, or kind, or helpless, or difficult, or insufficient, something happens. What we do for love is to change the climate of the world around us. When we love, no matter how, it is a holy thing. It is the salt that gives life its taste and preserves us from utter destruction. And it is the light that shines like stars in the darkness. It's what makes all of our winters tolerable, makes us believe that Spring is a thing we carry inside of us. And this is the amazing thing: it is not a rare commodity, not something reserved for the very beautiful and the very lucky. There is love all around us, if we look for it.
I know I don't have to wait till Valentine's Day to find it. And when Valentine's Day does come, I hope I won't find a cow in the front yard, just an old hand on mine, and Willie Nelson on the radio, and maybe a cardinal at the feeder. Let some love loose in your world Timothy. And keep us in your prayers as we keep you in ours.