Category Archives: Childhood Memories, perhaps embellished

Any resemblance to events and characters from my childhood is somewhat intentional.

A Tail of Five Goats part 1

I’m still not exactly sure why I thought Emily should have a pet goat. She loved the outdoors and she loved animals, and our home bordered an overgrown hillside that needed some gnawing.  The idea of a goat blossomed as Christmas approached when Emily was 11. I dropped lots of hints about the virtues of goats to Becky and the kids for a few weeks. They weren’t exactly enthusiastic, but I was pretty sure that a goat would capture their hearts.  They didn’t think that I would actually get one, and that was rather motivating. But I had other motives, as well.

A dad doesn’t want his child to miss out on something good or interesting or challenging that he had experienced as a child. I think back to when my dad purchased Rumples for us.  Rumples was a large, mostly white, ill-tempered billy goat with impressive horns.  We had missed out on an agrarian childhood like Dad’s, and he hoped Rumples would help. I remember having mixed feelings about the beast. It was fun to have an animal unlike any of my classmates, but he was an escape artist, and my brother Joe and I had to catch and drag him by his horns up the hill and into his pen.  It took both of us pulling with all our might to get him to budge. One time he escaped and butted our baby sister Mary unceremoniously onto her diapered derriere. That was the last straw. Rumples was gone the next day.

Twenty years later, I was the dad thinking about getting a goat for the good of his kids.  What’s the deal with that?  You would think that Rumples had inoculated me, but as I mulled things over, I realized that the problem was not that Rumples was a goat.  He was just the wrong sort of goat.  I could do better for my kids.  Each generation enjoys an opportunity to improve.

Another explanation is that I just like it when something a bit unusual is added to a situation.  I like finding out what might happen. As a boy, I liked those chemistry kits that had the little warning signs about mixing certain substances. Clearly, the makers of the kits were using reverse psychology. Tell a little boy that it’s dangerous to stir A into B in a test tube, and he’s certain to do it. Thankfully, no one was nearby the time A plus B began to boil, and I chucked it out the window.

Sometimes we can just nudge things along just a bit by adding unusual ingredients.  My older children still remember the pomegranate omelet I made for them 20 years ago.   It’s a good thing to create happy family memories, and adding a some pomegranate seeds or a goat to nearly any situation improves the chance that something memorable will happen. Just imagine a goat with you in at the office. The average goat can easily perch on file cabinets, while sampling the ficus tree, while making droll comments, while processing large numbers of confidential documents.

The fun began on a rainy Christmas morning.  We were cozy and warm with Becky’s homemade rolls in our tummies, a fire in the fireplace, the second chapter of Luke’s gospel read, and a pile of packages under the tree. The brothers opened a few more presents than Emily, because her big present was hidden outside, chewing on shrubberies. The blessed moment finally came, and I presented Emily with Gretchen, a lovely brown nanny goat with an apparently sweet disposition. I had hoped to find a nanny goat without horns, but Gretchen had such a fetching personality that she won me over.  The real clincher was that she was a sturdy, mature goat who would not only be a wonderful companion and landscaper, but she would be able to help Emily with her paper route.  She would be the ideal pack goat.

I couldn’t have been more pleased. Becky was rolling her eyes a bit, but she was a good sport about the whole thing.  It was Christmas.  Emily was genuinely surprised and doting on Gretchen, and she thought the paper route idea would be worth a try.  She grabbed her raincoat and boots,  and we loaded Gretchen with hefty bags of Christmas edition newspapers.

Halfway up Seville Drive, Gretchen was handling the load nicely, and Emily was coaxing her along.  I was trailing  along behind, happily enjoying a dream come true. Emily had a truly useful and companionable goat.

The moment was short lived.  The customers’ flowers were becoming an irresistible distraction. Emily was yanking on Gretchen’s lead, trying to keep her on task. I ran to the rescue and helped drag Gretchen home. Visions of Rumples danced in my wee little head.

So Gretchen would not be a pack goat. Emily finished her route, and we consoled each other. She still had a delightful companion goat who would eat poison oak on the hill.

It was just a couple of days later when I had to admit defeat.  Gretchen tested her horns on Emily’s little brother Joey, and it was Rumples all over again.

As I was arranging Gretchen’s return to the farm in Half Moon Bay, I  remembered that the problem was fundamentally one of choosing the wrong goat. What Emily really needed was a little goat without horns that could be trained and properly socialized. I reassured her that she didn’t need to give up on having a pet goat. We drove down to the farm,  and traded Gretchen in for little Heidi and Bridget, a darling pair of Nubian sisters who were just four months old and ready for some proper training. They had adorable, floppy ears and no horns, and I figured that they would tame the wilderness twice as fast as Gretchen. A win-win situation. 

We were surprised to notice Bridget getting swollen around the middle. I feared the worst. The goats were eating everything under the sun, and the poor little thing must be getting bloated.  I even saw them chewing on eucalyptus bark, poison oak, and toyon leaves. Poor Bridget must be sick.

But her energy level was fine. She and Heidi were learning how to escape everything I built to keep them in. They were growing fast, Heidi especially tall, and Bridget especially round. Becky suggested the impossible.  Could a goat be pregnant at the age of four months?

Little Billy was born a couple months later. Our neighbor noticed something weird looking coming out by Bridget’s tail and gave me a call. I got Emily out of school, and she raced home in time to be the midwife for a lovely little Billy goat. Becky immediately realized the implications of adding a little male goat to the herd. The fun was just beginning, but that’s another story.


When I was a Child, not Dancing during Revival Week

I Corinthians 13:11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.

Reverend William Portune was a white-haired, wiry, and fiery evangelist who visited Pacifica once a year during the week before Easter.   He dressed all in black, except for a small patch of white peeking through a strange rectangle in his collar.   We eagerly anticipated Easter vacation because there was no school.   At best, we had mixed feelings about having revival services with Brother Portune speaking every evening from Sunday through Good Friday.  But, there was the Easter egg hunt to look forward to on Saturday morning, and the revival services promised to bring a stimulating balance of conviction and entertainment.

Brother Portune was a holiness preacher.  We could count on him to deliver a vigorous sermon each night, challenging us to consider our great need for salvation and sanctification.   There were opportunities for all of us to experience either or both works of grace, since the potential for a fall from grace was also available to all.   Previous experiences of grace did not preclude us from additional experiences, due to the likelihood of a return to sin in between.

I knew of one lady, Mrs. Mabel Higgins, who testified to receiving both salvation and sanctification during the first service she attended at our church.   She was now efficiently credentialed, but we would have all been glad if she had continued to make some spiritual progress thereafter.

I don’t remember ever thinking that Miss Stetson or my parents or Mr. and Mrs. Cather might fall from grace.  They were steady.   On the other hand, I knew for certain i was sinful, and that my brother and sisters and the Cather girls were sinful.   Our sins were pretty obvious.   Joe and I teased the girls too much, and we delayed doing our chores, and we punched each other, and we were beginning to have thoughts we were not sure we should  have.

I also knew the girls were sinful.   They would fuss and fight, and they would tell on us in various despicable ways.   I was really annoyed when they would whine, just loud enough for Mom to hear, “David, stop it!” especially when I was doing something nice and funny that they should have been able to appreciate.    Joe and I never told on people.  It was against our manly code of honor.   We would commiserate with each other and reinforce the code with the simple summary statement, “Girls fuss!”

I had prayed for salvation many times.  Sanctification, a somewhat more solid condition characterized by a holy life, didn’t really seem like a good fit.   I don’t remember praying for it, despite Brother Portune’s annual urging.   It seemed more reasonable and less presumptuous to just renew my prayers for salvation.   Easter revival services provided a good opportunity for me to receive the first work of grace again, as needed.  I also can distinctly remember realizing my need for salvation during scary car rides on the more dangerous roads in the area, Sharp Park and “Devil’s Slide.”

I remember fighting with Joe in the back seat of the car on a curvy road, and Dad took his eyes off the road long enough to stare back us and scare us sufficiently to cause an immediate mini revival service right there in the back seat.  Joe and I begged Dad to pay attention to his driving, and we replaced our punching with praying.   We knew we were not ready to meet our Maker.

The real highlight of the revival services was not the preaching or the prayer time.   It was the dancing.   It was a blessed irony that in our Holiness church, which frowned on all secular dance, dancing was not only allowed during revival services, it was strongly encouraged.  Brother Portune challenged us to dance as an authentication of our sanctification.  People could even dance with each other, as long as the partners were of the same gender.   At any time, especially during the song service, Brother Portune would rouse himself or be roused, jump up out his seat on the stage, and lead the faithful in marching and dancing to the Lord.

The requirement to dance seemed another reason not to seek the second work of grace.   The last thing I wanted to do was to dance in church, and it seemed safer to aspire to a lesser spiritual condition in order to reduce the pressure to dance.   Joe and I never discussed this, but I think he had reached this same conclusion.    If Joe had gotten sanctified and taken up dancing, maybe it would have become more palatable for me.    The fact that my Dad seemed to dance only with great moderation under the urging of Brother Portune was reassuring.   I knew that my Dad was a saint, and if he only danced slightly, then surely God wouldn’t expect much of Joe and me.

We certainly did not want to join the dancing,  but we delighted in watching it from the pews.     Usually, the form the dance took was a sort of hybrid between a parade and a line dance.   The dancers could choose their individual moves, but more often than not, they moved together in a circle around the chapel.   Miss Stetson’s dance seemed pure.   Her face was radiant, her eyes lifted up, and her right hand, cupped open toward heaven, pumped gently above her, as she glided gracefully around the chapel.

The best dance I remember was when Brother Portune took both of Mr. Cather’s hands in his, and the evangelist and the pastor  spun about together on the stage above the prayer altars.   Brother Portune was probably twice as old as Mr. Cather, but he was adequately lithe and very enthusiastic.   Mr. Cather was pretty enthusiastic, but he also looked liked he might be feeling just a little silly.    We understood his dilemma.   As the church pastor, he had to cooperate with the traveling evangelist, but we knew there was no need to worry that we’d be pressured to dance during the other 51 weeks of the year.

My mom was off the hook, occupied either with the piano or an infant or both.   I was usually the first in line for babysitting duties, so with a bit of luck, I could be holding a baby sister while mom played the piano, and I would be adequately honorable, though not dancing.   Joe escaped a lot of scrutiny by passively supervising me.  These were important jobs that perhaps gave us some jewels in our heavenly crowns, even though we never danced.

Cheryl Cather was an interesting example for us younger children.  She was a few years older and had a boyfriend named Bob Brooks.   We were pretty sure that they may have done some unauthorized kissing, but Cheryl still seemed a little more inclined toward sanctification and some corresponding dancing during revival week.   It was hard to know what to make of it.

My younger sisters and their friends, Yvonne, Cindy, and Brenda Cather, were known to join the line dance most evenings.   They were a little more free-spirited than Joe and I, plus they were probably more likely to succumb to the pressure to join in without realizing the theological implications.   I enjoyed seeing them dance, and I’m fairly sure that I never teased them about it later.   I felt a twinge of conscience for not dancing, and I certainly did not want to inhibit their spiritual development.    There was much to be considered.

There came a year when we heard that Reverend Portune would not be up to making the trip out to California for Revival Week, and I think we were genuinely disappointed.  While we liked the idea of more free time during Easter vacation, we knew that something good had been lost.    The lack of services every night gave the adults, and especially my Mom, more time to put into the Easter egg hunt on Saturday morning and more preparation for the Good Friday and Easter services.   We began to think more about neighbors from our community, and we began inviting other children to come to the Easter egg hunt.   More people from our community would attend better prepared Easter Sunday services.   The Good Friday service became a cooperative service involving several small local churches, even some Baptists with their strange ideas about the eternal security of the believers.

Secular dancing is still generally frowned upon in our denomination, and I don’t remember much, if any, sacred dancing happening again in our little chapel, except perhaps an occasional few moments of blessing led by Lois Stetson and another saint or two.   A couple of ancient gentlemen, Brother John Fairly and Brother James McRobbie, joined our gathering in the following years, and they were comfortable with shouting out praises and marching about.

My Dad was actually a very enthusiastic dancer in the privacy of our home, and especially under the influence of the gospel music of the Bill Gaither Trio.   We loved watching him dance, wearing Mom’s white plush bathrobe, to the Gaither classic “Get All Excited.”    It was the real thing, but a little too wild for church.  We never doubted that he really did “get all excited . . . that Jesus Christ is still the King of Kings,” and it was a relief to know that he could let us in on some of his excitement, but would not be acting goofy in public.

I still am a bit uncomfortable in my skin during church services.   The songs that are designed to inspire physical displays such as hand raising feel manipulative.  “I stand, I stand, in awe of You” always makes me think of all the passages where the awe of the Almighty leads one to adopt a more lowly posture.   A newer song, “The Stand” has  a general lack of clarity and seems intended primarily to inspire standing and raising of arms.   I suppose that I should want to do these things.

At present, I’m content to follow my Dad’s example, keeping my behavior in public worship rather understated, while slipping into more freedom in the privacy of my own home.   My children enjoy mimicking my dancing, and they did all they could to convince me to dance at my niece’s wedding reception.  Not too long after I hit the dance floor and showed a few of my better moves, they were encouraging me to sit back down.   My grown children follow Christ, and are able to hold their own while dancing at wedding receptions, but they do not participate in sacred dance, as far as I know.  It’s really quite intriguing.

My daughter would like me to make a little progress in my dancing prior to a potential father/daughter dance at her wedding someday.  It would be fun to sneak in some dance lessons without anyone knowing.   My family would be amazed to see Emily and me moving gracefully together across the floor together on her special day.  I’d enjoy setting the bar really high for her groom.   Maybe in such a glorious moment, my inhibitions will fade, and I’ll discover some delightful integration of  the secular and sacred in my life.  Maybe I’ll just be alive, loving my daughter, knowing the delight of my wife and children, and feeling the smiles of my Dad and of my Heavenly Father.

When I was a Child at Prayer Meeting

I Corinthians 13:11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.

Mrs. Harold Grose was an impressive lady. She was a determined and devout keeper of order during church services, and she was glad to mention to anyone who would listen that she was related to President Richard Milhous Nixon. Her mother was a Milhourichard-nixon-1s. Mrs. Milhous visited once and spoke to the youth about the dangers of drugs. Afterward, one of our regular teachers warned my Dad that having a speaker like Mrs. Milhous “will make the children want to take drugs.” I was blessed to be too young to attend the talk, but hearing these comments certainly made me wonder what I’d missed.

Mrs. Harold Grose devoted herself to the daunting but essential task of supervising my brother and me, plus our sisters and the Cather girls as we kneeled at the altar for Wednesday night prayer. Mr. Harrold Grose,  Mr. and Mrs. Cather, the saintly and serene Miss Lois Stetson, and Mom and Dad kneeled with us for prayer time following the customary congregational singing and special numbers brought by faithful saints who were either musically inclined or wished that they were.

The formidable Mrs. Harold Grose took her post each Wednesday directly behind the children, squinting fiercely through her outdated cat-eye glasses. She squinted to convey that eyes must be kept closed during prayer. We had already learned to squint during prayer and were able to snatch glimpses of her squinting at us.  There was much squinting.

Mr. Harold Grose was a short, smiling man who looked up at MeanOlePetehis great wife with admiration and was gentle with all of us. His unwavering affection for his robust wife confirms the truth that love is a commitment. I enjoyed watching them together, so unlike each other, and yet so united. She wore a simple and harshly modest floral dress with a grey cardigan, sturdy nylons, and square, black shoes.  She pulled her long, grey hair severely into a bun. She was tall and reminded my brother Joe of a cab-over Peterbuilt truck.

An adult observer would have expected her to strike fear in the hearts of children. Denominationally speaking, Harold and Mrs. Harold were Friends, and taken as a pair, they were friendly enough. They invited us to their little apartment for dessert one time. That was nice. But on her own, the formidable Mrs. Harold was not a friend like the One who said, “Let the little children come unto me.”

I should have been afraid of her, I suppose. The “little girls,” my youngest sisters and Cindy Cather, were.  To the older and wiser children, Mrs. Harold Grose became a wonderful source of entertainment and challenge each Wednesday night. We may not have prayed as much as we would have without her, but we certainly did enjoy our prayer time more. I am forever in her debt.

Laughter can be tough to resist even when permitted, but forbidden laughter is a force to be reckoned with. Mrs. Harold Grose certainly did not believe that children should find anything amusing during prayer meeting, and the more disapproval she conveyed, the more hilarious she became. And how could we actually fear someone who also had a deep need to sing solos at church, using a massive vibrato rivaled only by massive breathiness!

Mrs. Harold Grose was amusing in all settings, but her solos helped her become one of the great heroes of my childhood.  As she moved mightily onto the platform in preparation for a solo, her severe glory would be transformed behind a radiant smile.   She beamed benevolently down from the chapel stage as my mother, the pianist, played the introduction.  Our anticipation of her singing would reach a fevered pitch. It was amazing to consider the sounds that would reverberate forth. Mrs. Harold Grose would break out into song, and our little hearts overflowed with delight.

My parents were extraordinarily restrained at these times. Mom would just endure. She was able to accompany little kids with no sense of rhythm or tune, and she was certainly up to the challenge of Mrs. Harold Grose. Dad’s mouth would turn up slightly at the corners, his nostrils would flare, and we knew he was expending some energy remaining dignified. He would completely crack up at home later, when my sister Becca did reenactments of the blessed solos.

I don’t know if Dad could have held it together during prayer meetings if he had faced the same pressures we faced.  There we were, kneeling at the altar, still recovering from the soaring solos of Mrs. Harold Grose and squirming under the force of her righteous peeking. Various adults, and perhaps even a child or two, were calling out in earnest prayer.  I remember the strong conviction that I should be able to focus on prayer. Perhaps we had just sung the wonderful song of commitment, “I Surrender All” or we may have been considering our need for repentance. Perhaps we were reminded of a loved one or friend with “an unspoken request” and were filled with curiosity about a problem that could not be spoken. I had never needed to bring an unspoken burden for the gathered saints to bear.  Such times filled me with earnest curiosity and concern.

So, we felt keenly the power of conviction and the needs all around,  and we were aware that truly, “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer!”  Yet this conviction, at times, was no match for the power of Mrs. Harold Grose, perched behind us.  We would imagine the hilarious thought that someone like her could be sitting behind us, squinting purposefully, and maybe wagging her finger at the little girls, Rachel, Mary, and Cindy. The little ones felt more awe for Mrs. Harold Grose, but as the prayer time would extend, they would fidget, and she would feel compelled to wag. In moments of weakness, I would steal a squint at Joe, kneeling next to me. Hopefully he would be praying, and I might be able to resume my prayers; but often our squints would meet, and the power of forbidden laughter would boil in our bellies.

Mrs. Harold was tremendously funny, but we didn’t dare laugh.  We would clamp our jaws shut and pinch our forearms, trying to ward off the laughter. Once Joe and I had achieved this crescendo of hilarity, the unthinkable might happen.   We might, with the slightest provocation, explode with laughter, and in the worst of cases, the shock waves and spittle might blast the backside of a devout adult kneeling at the upper altar. Dreading this possibility did not always prevent it.

The adults were kneeling there, just inches in front of our bowed heads, and the more I realized the horror of blasting hilarious saliva toward the backs of the saints, and the more I thought of Mrs. Harold Grose’ outrage at such an event, and the more I realized that Joe might be thinking the same unthinkable thoughts, the more likely the outburst. The only thing for it was to move my nicely folded hands from the altar and clamp them over my mouth.  Next, I had to look down. But then, in looking down, I might catch a glimpse of her square, black shoes and perhaps a long shin hair protruding from her nylons.

There really was no escape, except perhaps for the sudden conclusion of the service.  At times, an adult, perhaps feeling pity for the children, perhaps remembering something about to burn in the oven, or perhaps waging their own battle with inappropriate hilarity, would break out with an obviously closing song.  We were saved. Our little faces would be radiant with Christian delight, and perhaps a tear could be seen in the corner of our eyes. It was a relief to sing out enthusiastically. Miss Stetson would be radiant, certain that we had all been deeply blessed. Which, of course, was true.

On the evening of our most calamitous prayer meeting outburst, I was not rescued by a closing song. Becca and Yvonne Cather pulled off something improbable and daring that put Joe and me over the brink. I don’t know what distracted Mrs. Harold Grose from her usual vigilance. Perhaps the little girls were really fidgeting and forgetting to squint down at the far end of the altar. Perhaps Mrs. Harold Grose allowed herself to slip briefly into prayer. Whatever it was, Becca and Yvonne were watching her and seized their opportunity. I heard someone shifting softly to my right and away from the altar. I peeked. Becca and Yvonne were making a break for it, crawling quickly and quietly right under the pew where Mrs. Harrold Grose was perched.  They squirmed past her undetected and crawled back several rows before popping up, grinning broadly. This development was too good to keep to myself.  I locked my jaws tightly and nudged Joe. We noticed Mrs. Harold Grose noticing us, and then we saw her look of horror as her eyes moved to the empty spots just vacated by the girls. We burst forth like a pair of volcanos. Prayer meeting adjourned early and without an inspiring song.

I don’t remember Dad saying anything to us after the meeting, and I avoided Miss Stetson’s gentle glance. Mrs. Harold Grose never mentioned the episode. Her enforcement of prayer meeting etiquette depended entirely on the awe her subjects felt for her. I don’t recall her ever actually scolding us or causing our parents to punish us for our misdeeds. I’m sure my Dad felt a certain sympathy. He would have known that we were struggling under her disapproving eyes. He is a man who thinks like a man, but he delights in children.Happy Holstein

Sometimes he told us funny stories of older ladies who helped him enjoy church with his brothers when they were small.  Our favorite story was of “The Holstein Lady,” who always wore a large black dress with an exceptionally large white collar. Dancing during worship was a regular practice, and Dad reported that the Holstein Lady danced in delicate little circles and had a friend who danced by pumping a chair up and down over his head. I hope to meet these folks someday. Perhaps they will be dancing to Mrs. Harold Grose’ much improved singing, with Mom enthusiastically finding all the keys on a truly grand piano. And Dad will be with Miss Stetson, and Harold, and the Cathers, and with the rest of us children, openly delighting in our delight. And our Heavenly Father will lift his gracious, smiling face toward us and grant us all His perfect peace.  We won’t need squinting or scolding any more.

Let the little children come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.  – Jesus-