Category Archives: Family News

Chestnuts, Roasting on an Open Fire

Well, not exactly an open fire. Or roasting, really. Or chestnuts, to be completely truthful.

It all started on a quiet Saturday. Nobody was away on an overnight, nobody had friends over, nobody had meetings or other engagements out of the house.

Kathy and I opened the day in prayer, asking God specifically that He would help the day to be a fun relational day, and that the attitudes of the kids would reflect the fact that we like being together as a family. At breakfast, as I tickled and laughed with the children, David asked me, “Why are you being like this, Daddy? Usually you don’t act like this. I have been a bit preoccupied many recent Saturdays with work and other responsibilities. Time to have some silly family togetherness.

Around 2 pm, I inveigled everyone into a walk around the lake near our house; although it started to drizzle, we had a good time. As we left the park, I noticed two large chestnut trees, having recently dropped hundreds of their glossy mahogany-colored fruit and their prickly husks.

The First Lake Expedition
This crew, however, was not particularly prickly about being photographed.

Apparently none of us know the actual words to ‘Chestnuts, Roasting on an Open Fire’, but that didn’t stop us from bellowing out the few lines we did know, on the way home. Following my lead, the children have learned to compensate with volume for a lack of musical talent. Never having roasted chestnuts over any heat source, let alone an open fire, I decided to sponsor an expedition back to the park to harvest the chestnuts.

We gathered bags and bags of them, to the evident dismay of a rather scruffy-looking squirrel, which seemed intent on eating them all. We did him a favor — overdose by chestnuts is probably a painful way to pass from this world. Arriving home, I did a quick search for chestnut recipes online, and we began to prepare a batch of the nuts for roasting on a cookie tray.

Bags o' Nuts
Don’t they just look too good to eat! Our mouths were watering …

Kathy was on the phone with her mom, who was very impressed with our foray into the world of Christmas lore. Unfortunately, she had never actually tasted roast chestnuts, and was not a good source of information on the topic.

I immediately thought of my Mom, who grew up at least part of the time on a farm. She used to tell us stories about the many old-fashioned Christmas traditions they enjoyed. I figured her generation probably had more in common with Little House on the Prairie than the hustle and bustle of this modern age. “After all,” I figured, “she’s old — she probably knows about this stuff.” We got her on the phone.

“Nope,” she answered. “I’ve never even tasted them.” I guess all that old-time Christmas nostalgia is a crock. She compounded my disappointment by mocking me: “Also, watch out for those poison chestnuts. They’re just like mushrooms, you know.”

I rolled my eyes, which had little effect, over the phone. “We saw a squirrel eating them, Mom. Shows what you know.”

Prickly Girl
For some reason, we all wanted to show Kathy (who didn’t go nut-gathering) the prickly husks.

Mom was quick with an answer to that. “Ah, but as everyone knows, squirrels can tolerate a much higher level of toxicity than humans.” She’s a hoot, my Mom is. I laughed patronizingly and hung up, threatening her with some of our culinary efforts when she next visits.

Except that this time, she was right.

Prodded by a feeling of unease (that I have come to recognize is from the Holy Spirit), I did a little more research online. As it turns out, Sweet American chestnuts were nearly obliterated in the United States by the dreaded Chestnut Blight, so that most American chestnut trees were wiped out by 1940. Apparently the blight continues, and so even chestnut trees that have grown up since 1940 are often killed by the blight fungus before they reach maturity. Chestnuts eaten today in this country are almost entirely imported. The chestnuts we harvested so gleefully are from an unrelated horse-chestnut tree, toxic to humans (but not, strangely enough, to deer or squirrels).

Don't put those in your mouths, kids!
Fortunately, most of us, no longer toddlers, are past the ‘put everything in your mouth’ stage.

I’m told that the horse-chestnuts have a very bitter taste, which may have limited the number we would have eaten, but I felt we had a narrow escape. As I read on one website: “Chestnut poisoning is rarely fatal, but typically causes vomiting, loss of coordination, stupor, and occasionally, paralysis.”

As I read on another website:

Horse chestnut trees do not produce the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” that Nat King Cole croons about every Christmas. The edible chestnut grows on the European sweet, or Spanish, chestnut. The ones we buy for the holidays are most likely imported from Italy.

Horse chestnuts contain a bitter poison called aesculin. Even though we see squirrels going after them, horse chestnuts are toxic for humans.

I’m thinking of a new Christmas Carol, adapted for modern times:

Aesculus, baking on an aluminum cookie sheet,
Drizzly mist, falling on your ears
Yuletide carols, being sung out of tune
and folks without raincoats, standing in the rain.

Everybody knows, some stomach ache and stupor
help to make the season memorable
tiny tots, with vomiting and paralysis
will find it hard to sleep tonight.

… but I don’t want to give away the whole song. I contacted Freddy Cole (Nat’s younger brother) about singing it for me; so far, he hasn’t returned my call.

Project 365, Day 279

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A Thousand Generations

This is a post I wrote back in May, that has been simmering in my subconscious. Finally, with Kathy away at camp, it has a chance to see the light of the blogosphere. It is hard to live with a blog-hog, but somehow I manage. :)


It is the weekend before Memorial Day, and I am about to celebrate my fifteenth anniversary with my beloved. Hard to believe that we have been married for so long, and yet in some ways I feel as though we have always been husband and wife. We had hoped to spend four or five days alone in a fancy bed-and-breakfast (well, OK, in our own home) devoid of the scampering feet of our five children. My parents had agreed to take the kids from Wednesday evening through Sunday … I had arranged to take both days off from work — what plans we had! Alas, it was not to be.

My Grandma holding Sarah
‘Great’ Grandma with Sarah (June, 2003)

My Grandma’s death on Tuesday changed all that, and instead of snuggling down with my sweetie, I flew to the east coast to attend my grandmother’s funeral. We scurried around finding a rather expensive last-minute airline ticket for me, but a blow was struck for democracy when I arranged an inexpensive rental car and hotel reservation through Hotwire, my favorite source for rental car bargains.

My sister and cousin Kristi
Sister Posie and cousin Kristi, thick as thieves, as always.

One of the defining characteristics of my grandmother was her propensity for bargain-shopping, so it seemed appropriate to get a good deal when attending her funeral. I only wish US Air would have cooperated.

More cousins
Strange to discover that both cousins Kevin and Kurt are in the Telecom business these days, like me. Makes you want to rush out and buy a cellphone, doesn’t it?

I traveled to Baltimore with my parents, and, after crossing into Pennsylvania, we stayed overnight in York. Mom and Dad had a bit of an adventure at their hotel, and so we departed more hurriedly than we had intended, heading for the Harrsiburg area without a single Peppermint Patty to cheer our way. Enjoying a delicious luncheon at my aunt and uncle’s home and meeting up with my siblings and my uncle David’s family, we arrived at the church a good 90 minutes before the funeral.

My beloved Grandma
Grandma was very fond of her great-grandchildren, even scruffy ones.

Less than two weeks ago, I had the sorrowful duty of attending a memorial service for six fallen soldiers from the Stryker Brigade at Fort Lewis, killed in Iraq by an explosive device in the road. One of the soldiers was a friend from our church, who had attended our Small Group Bible Study and our Sunday School class. He had married just five months before being deployed, and our church family spent the last several weeks in deep sorrow, struggling to find ways to console his widow, Emily.

David and Grandma play cars
In the year that Grandma lived with my folks, David used to play cars with her for hours. It isn’t every day your leg can serve as a superhighway.

As I sat in the church before the memorial service, I was struck by the contrast between this death of my grandmother and the deaths of the young soldiers. Although we feel a sense of loss at Grandma’s home-going, it is mixed with gladness, as we celebrate her long and faithful life, and her ‘promotion’ to Heaven and a new body. I couldn’t seem to find a silver lining in the loss of those six young warriors.

Jason's Memorial Service
The final roll call for the six soldiers who died was very poignant, as each soldier’s name was repeated three times without answer. “Sergeant Harkins. Sergeant Jason Harkins. Sergeant Jason R. Harkins!”

  • At 92, my grandmother’s life was lived and her work was finished; at an average age of 23, the soldier’s lives were cut off before much of their promise was even dreamed.
  • Grandma’s eternal destiny in Heaven seems about as certain as you can get, this side of the grave; for several of the young men, their lack of faith in Jesus does not bode well for their fate.
  • Grandma outlived her husband, nearly all of her peers, and two of her daughters; those soldiers were survived by mothers and brothers and (in several cases) wives.
  • Grandma’s death crept upon her slowly and gradually, while the soldiers were cut off in the instant of a sudden treacherous explosion.
  • Grandma’s death was in some sense a relief from pain and decline, while the bitterness of the soldiers deaths still stings sharply.

Cousin Jon Mark and his family
My cousin Jon Mark has the most joyful, infectious laugh of anyone I know. Hard to believe it of a man who looks so respectable in a suit, but Jon Mark is one of the craziest of a crazy bunch.

I was glad that I had taken the opportunity to attend my grandmother’s birthday party in November, 2005; I felt as though I had said “Goodbye” to her then. I hope I’ll always remember her sitting in the sun in Steve and Sue’s driveway, surrounded by generations of her descendants, enthroned in their love, smiling upon us all from the vantage point of 91 years of life.

Grandma's Memorial Display
Grandma’s pictorial display, complete with her fishing hat.

It was good to have a little time to look at the display Steve and others had assembled, commemorating and highlighting some of the events of Grandma’s life. In a side room, Grandma’s body was laid out in her casket so that we could pay our respects to her ‘in person’ as it were. I was prepared for a strong, sorrowful reaction to seeing her body, but my response was actually very matter-of-fact; my heart seemed to know that wasn’t my Grandma – it was only the body in which she lived for a long time, and which had finally been exchanged for a better model.

A Tree of Grandchildren
A Tree of Grandchildren

All three of my Grandma’s surviving children were present, and eleven out of the thirteen grandchildren attended as well, some bringing their entire families. I wish I could have brought my sweet wife and children, but we couldn’t afford it, having recently spent all our frequent-flyer miles (and then some).

Two brothers enjoying a good story
Uncle David always seems to have great stories involving strange hand motions.

The memorial service focused on the difference Grandma’s faith had made over the course of her life; I was particularly touched by letters from some of the six foster children that Grandma had helped to raise, after her older four kids were out of the house. I was challenged with the hope that I might finish as well as my Grandma did, who loved the Lord with all her heart, from the day she trusted Jesus until the day she died.

Jon and Emily
Cousin Jon amazed us all with his tricks with cutlery and witty banter.

The graveside service was brief, and we all returned to the church for a fellowship meal. As friends and acquaintances from Grandma’s church drifted homeward, and the family was left more or less alone, the atmosphere quickly turned festive. Our family doesn’t get many chances to assemble together, and we were eager to catch up on news and retell old jokes. As I circulated from table to table, I was struck by the legacy that my Grandma leaves behind – a whole family that loves Jesus – three surviving sons (two daughters already with Jesus), thirteen grandchildren, 29 great-grandchildren and a great-great-grandson! All of these hearts and souls and more were changed forever because Grandma said ‘Yes’ to the Lord when she was 17 years old, and because she said ‘Yes’ to Grandpa’s proposal of marriage when she was 22. I tremble even now as I think of the long-term ripples from the choices I make so blithely (even insouciantly?) today.

DJ and family
Cousin DJ’s family sure has grown up fast!

Toward the end of the evening, my cousin Kevin pointed out that we (as a whole family) are unlikely to assemble together again, unless we take specific steps to make it happen. We are spread all over the map and we don’t stay in touch as well as we would like. I mentioned this to my Dad, who suggested a family reunion out in Washington once the Retreat Center is built. The idea was well-received, but I think it will still take some pushing to make it happen. A large part of the family is still in Pennsylvania, and airfare isn’t cheap, these days.

Steve and Sue
My uncle Steve and his bride, who faithfully and sacrificially cared for Grandma in these last years of her life.

As we laughed and joked together so naturally, I felt profoundly thankful for the blessing that God has given to me by putting me in this family. It is very good to be reminded that I am rooted in a lineage that has been loving God for at least four or five generations, and that I can count on His love for myself and for my family.

Let the storytelling begin

Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. (Deuteronomy 7:9)

Grandpa's Gravestone
Grandpa preceded Grandma in death by 13 years; what fun it must be for him to show her around Heaven!

Only 995 generations to go … I can hardly wait to see what God continues to do in our family, as we say ‘Yes’ to our King!

Family at the Graveside
A small part of the whole family at the graveside service

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The Cousins are Coming!

The Cousins are Coming! One if by land, two if by sea.

Okay, they aren’t exactly British.
And they weren’t coming to fight.
And they didn’t arrive anywhere near midnight.

But they did come from far away (Norway) and they certainly went over land and sea on their way here.

Oh never mind.

In other words, Tim’s brother’s wife and children flew in yesterday. On their way to see the grandparents, they stopped by our house for dinner.

See, that doesn’t sound anywhere near as intriguing and creative as a good American Revolutionary battle cry. Sigh. I’m trying here folks.

We worked hard getting the house spiffied (is that even a word) up for company. The kids were motivated and excited to work – for the first 20 minutes. After that I resorted to bribery (popsicles), cash and threats. In varying degrees. To be used as necessary.

welcome sign

Sarah, David and Daniel made this beautiful sign.

The house (ahem, please don’t go into my bedroom) looked wonderful by the end of the afternoon. We did dishes, put away books, carried out trash and recycling, worked through the heaping piles of laundry and just generally picked up. Rachel mopped the kitchen floor for me (and only charged $1.50). All of the children cleaned their rooms.

At no charge. Aren’t they sweet.

rachel's sign

Rachel and Joshua were holding this sign outside when the cousins drove up. Talk about good timing!

Elizabeth admired the house and pretended that it always looks this fresh and clean. Ah, have I said before what wonderful sisters-in-law I have? She even turned a blind eye to the vacuum cleaner in the corner, still slightly smoking from excessive use (that’s what happens when you only vacuum once a month). I’m telling you, I love this woman!

After a few minutes of visiting and casual chit chat, Joshua and Timothy started right in on a game of Thurn and Taxis.

timothy and joshua

True gamers through and through!

The girls went outside to swing and talk. Rebecca is a gifted story teller and Rachel a gifted chatter (chatterer?) so I can only imagine the sweet conversation they enjoyed. Rachel and Joshua both e-mail Rebecca regularly so they easily picked up their cousin/friendship.

sarah, rachel, rebecca

Rachel and Rebecca talk, share and laugh while Sarah listens.

The younger boys went upstairs to Daniel’s room. They said they were reading Magic Treehouse books to David but this is what I saw when I went to check on them.

david, samuel and daniel

Hmmm, this is not exactly how I read a book but then I’m boring that way. Looks a wee bit more like wrestling than reading.

We had salad and pizza for dinner. It turns out Papa John’s is different from Papa Murphy’s although they both do sell pizza. Thankfully the restaurants are relatively close by so, hypothetically speaking, if you sent your husband to Papa M’s but then proceed to order pizza from Papa J’s, it doesn’t cost him too much time driving around trying to find some pizzas ordered for “Tim.”

Hypothetically speaking.

After dinner the girls served everyone ice cream and then washed all the dishes. Thanks, Rachel and Rebecca!! The 3 Musketeers went out looking for mischief in the garage and the rest of us played a game of Puerto Rico. At one point the desperadoes came through, no doubt looking for gold.

our distinguished visitors

Armed and dangerous??

The evening went by much too quickly and it was soon time for the Cousins to say goodbye. We didn’t have time to finish the game but counted up our points and named a victor. To keep Tim happy (after all he did write that great post on gaming this week), we let him win our game of Puerto Rico.

That’s not exactly true.

We want Tim to be happy – true.
He won the Puerto Rico game – true.
We let him win – false.

Well, it was almost true.

Have I mentioned recently that I really love this game? It’s my current favorite. Well, it was until Tim beat us all this evening. I’m consoling myself with the fact that the game ended early and there was still a chance I could have pulled ahead and beaten everyone. Ha, ha, ha, ha. Oops. That didn’t sound as sweet and genteel as I meant it to be. Stream of conscious blogging can be dangerous.

And I’m one of the non-competitive people in the family. Heh, heh.

smile, you win

Ever the humble, gracious winner.

I hope we have hours of game playing ahead of us next week. Tim will be home (no doubt brushing up on his Puerto Rico skills when he’s not working) while the children and I head off to camp. One of the fun things about the week of camp is gathering friends and family for games. Of course, with the Burts in Thailand we’ll be missing our favorite gaming friends. How can we possibly have day camp without them?? Daniel and Rachel are going to be especially sad without their ‘best friends forever’ staying right down the road. It just doesn’t seem right.

The only thing to do is play lots of games in their honor. Tina, I promise to win as much as possible. That’s the kind of friend I am.

Project 365 – Day 193

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Victims of Anti-Crime

Some people go away on vacation and come home to find their home has been vandalized, robbed, or even destroyed. Those people have it easy.

We returned home from the airport and piled the suitcases by the front door, children staggering sleepily up the stairs or sitting dazed on the bottom step, until a passing Daddy can carry them off to bed. We started the standard triage process on the accumulated mail, and then discovered we were the victims of a heinous anti-crime.

Luggage for seven
Thirteen checked pieces plus eight carry-on bags makes quite a pile for tomorrow!

Anti-crime has never really caught on. I first read about it in a Terry Pratchett book, or perhaps it was Douglas Adams — whoever it was, he gave a few examples:

  • Breaking and decorating — the victim’s home is violated with new furniture, wallpaper, artwork, or whatever.
  • Whitemailing — the victim (usually a mob boss or other unsavory character) is extorted under threat that his good deeds will be revealed to his fellow criminals

Apparently the point of anti-crime is not just that a good deed be done, but rather that it be done in a way to produce maximum outrage or humiliation in the heart of the victim.

In any case, the ‘criminals’ used a variant of ‘breaking and decorating’ on us, and replaced our old, unattractive and barely-operable sinks with new, shiny sinks and faucets, leaving their jeering placards behind as evidence. As soon as we find out who it was, we’ll retaliate in kind, perhaps whitemailing them mercilessly … :)

New sink and cool faucet
Kathy has long wanted a better faucet, especially since our old one had been making ominous screeching noises when we turned it on and off.

In any case, it is good to be home.

They even hit the bathroom!
Even the little red bathroom was not deemed sacrosanct. You can imagine our outrage!

Tim (Kathy was too tired to write, and is, even now, nearly asleep in Cream Puff)

Project 365, Day 184

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Just One More Day

Tomorrow is the last day of the epic Michigan Vacation of ’07, which is very sad. Kathy showed me a few photos of today’s excursion to the pool … as you can see, they are holding up well in the midst of their sorrow.

Grandad the Sea Monster
David loses a game of ‘Sharks and Minnows’

It will be good to have everyone safely home, assuming that the snafu with seating assignments on the flight home is resolved. If not, some members of the family may become more intimate with the Cincinnati airport than they prefer.

Sarah and Grace
Sarah finds a kindred spirit

It is always nice to be reminded of the many friends we have left scattered around the country as we have moved from place to place. Over the course of this vacation, Kathy and the kids had the opportunity to visit with four families: Russ and Nancy (three boys, two girls), Amy and Bill (two boys, two girls), Bruce and Laura (three girls) and Dave and Jen (two boys and a girl). It has been fun to stay in touch with each of them, off and on, over the years.

Daniel plays Settlers of Catan with a worthy opponent
Daniel plays Settlers of Catan with a worthy opponent

What a delightful treat to fellowship with old friends and their growing families! Even so, several old friends were out of town or otherwise busy; it is often hard to make time for friends without neglecting family.

Dave and Jen
Dave and Jen haven’t aged a bit in the seven years since we saw them last!

David the Marshmallow
David was a little too wiggly for precision roasting, anyway.

David apparently convinced the older boys that he was a marshmallow in urgent need of roasting, but this innocent misunderstanding was eventually cleared up. It reminds me of the two main schools of marshmallow-roasting thought, which are as follows:

  • The ‘golden-brown’ school:

    This philosophical position requires the patience of Job, as the marshmallow is gently toasted, evenly on all sides, rotated high above the coals. Some maintain that this is the only proper way to eat a marshmallow, and that it results in a uniformly warm interior, melting the chocolate in a s’more with great efficiency. Golden-brown roasters view disciples of the opposing school of thought as barbarians, and will snootily discard a marshmallow with even the slightest evidence of charring.

  • David really loves marshmallows

  • The ‘flaming blob of goo’ school:

    A system of thought firmly held by many young boys, this roasting method involves plunging the marshmallow into the hottest part of the fire as quickly as possible, and then waving it about wildly to extinguish the flames. Adherents of this school hold that a marshmallow without a thick carbonized shell is no marshmallow at all, and that golden-brown toasting is for sissies.

Grandad steals a hug
Sarah enjoys her Grandad

A little-known advantage of being a pastor’s kid is found in some rather surprising perquisites. One hot day after they returned from upstate Michigan, Kathy’s Dad made a phone call:

Kathy’s Dad: “Hello, Del? How are you doing? Good, glad to hear it. Say, I was thinking of making a pastoral call on your pool today, and I wondered if that would be convenient?”

Rachel and Sarah recover from the water-park

As the son of an Army Chaplain, I thought I’d heard all the ecclesiastic angles, but this was a new one for me. Apparently Kathy’s Dad felt that calling it ‘baptism research’ was a little too deceptive, but it worked like a charm, and the whole family was invited over for a pool party. I guess being a pastor isn’t all late night hospital visits and last-resort marital counseling.

David takes the plunge

Tomorrow my family will say their goodbyes and head for home, glad to have enjoyed such a fun vacation and sorry to leave. Hopefully we can persuade Mamie and Grandad to come and visit us soon.

Thank you, Mamie and Grandad, for your kindness to our family!

Project 365, Day 183

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