Homemade tree ornaments tell a story

Memories of simpler times

The other night I was with friends who were sharing memories of earlier Christmases.  Carolyn commented that she had recently found a box of homemade ornaments dating back to the early days of her marriage.   They were walnuts painted silver, filled with clay with a ribbon in the middle for hanging.   She got one out, fixed it up and put it on her tree this year for memories sake. 

I explained that at the first Christmas of our marriage, JoAnne and I did not have money for ornaments so we made all of ours to put on our rather sparse field-cut tree.  We made geometric cardboard ornaments and covered them with foil wrapping paper.  One was a cube, one was a tall 3D triangle, and the prize one was a dodecahedron.  Don't ask me how I made it.   But anyway, one by one they became shabby with use and were discarded, all but one - the dodecahedron.  Year after year I would hang it back on the tree in memory of our first Christmas.  It is still there, tucked in the back were people can't see that its paper is faded and coming loose after all these years.  

A project remembered

Another set of ornaments on our tree remind us of a fund-raising project we participated in.   I don't even remember the details.   JoAnne and I were overseas in the military at the time at a Navy base.  We were helping raise some funds by selling Christmas ornaments to other military families.   The catch was that the ornaments came as a flat unpainted wooden sheet.  The ornaments had to be carefully punched out of the sheet, the rough edges sanded off, and then painted attractively.   We purchased one of the sets that we painted and have treasured it ever since.  When we see them on our tree they remind us of a rewarding and unique chapter in our lives and the people we knew in that time frame.    

Let hobbies help with Christmas

Another way the we have home-made ornaments for our tree is because of JoAnne's needlepoint hobby.   She has always loved needlework, though she does not get to do as much of it as she would like.   These three ornaments were pieces she chose for needle point projects.   They incorporated a welcome new challenge because of the little beads involved.   But the end result was very practical; more  exquisite tree ornaments. 

Beautiful crafts from friends

Another category of homemade ornaments on our tree are the beautiful hand-crafted ornaments we have received as gifts from friends.   These have multiple advantages over department store theme packages that have to be re-purchased every year.  For one, they bring back memories of the friend who made them.   A friend named Elaine in our first church made this beautiful beaded bell.  When we see it on the tree we can remember to pray for her as she is now going through a difficult time.   A new friend of our family named Deb that we have just had the joy of meeting in the past couple years here at Copper Hill Church gave us the amazing 3-D crocheted angel figure.  It is so perfect, I could not believe it was hand-made.   In this way, our tree becomes a tapestry of friendship and memories.   To me, this is so much more meaningful than the stock theme tree décor one can purchase in a plastic case at a big box store.   Celebrating friendships and memories enriches the Christmas season so much.  Its another reason I love homemade ornaments on the tree.     

A gift from the conductor

One very special homemade ornament on our tree was given to JoAnne by the conductor of the hand-bell choir at Community Wesleyan in Kirkville, NY.    As pastor, I encouraged ministry leaders to thank members of their ministry team for their hard work.   It is an excellent leadership practice.  Well, Richard Filmer, director of the handbell choir of which JoAnne was member for several years went above and beyond and used his skill as a woodworker to saw out this exquisite triple bell for each choir member as their thank you gift.    It was difficult to make as it involved sawing in one direction; then holding the pieces together while turning the piece 90 degrees and sawing the pattern again.  Somehow the woodworking excellence that it took to make it speaks to me of the musical excellence that Richard always tried to bring out of the bell choir.   So this piece is special.  

Family times are times when knowledge is passed down

Chewing on a memory

Last week I took time for a walk up into the woods.   The woods that I normally walk is filled with beautiful stands of oak, but on this particular noontime walk I happen to notice that there were many smaller black birch trees scattered in the hilltop area where I had stopped to half sit, half lean against a loaded-pallet sized boulder to rest.   

I was suddenly taken back in my mind to a walk that I had taken with my family as a boy.  Occasionally we picnicked in a deep wide ravine which we called Tough Gully.  One day as we were hiking back up out of the gully from our picnic, my father pointed out a large black birch tree with branches hanging over into the field where we were walking.  He plucked some twigs and told us to chew them because they would taste like root beer.   I did.  

Now on this day, more than 50 years later, I suddenly remembered and I walked over to the nearest black birch and knocked down a twig from its 9 foot perch with my walking stick and began to chew it, and, sure enough, it tasted like root beer!    Thanks, Dad for the memory and the lesson.   I’m sure such demonstrations are one of the reasons I know what a black birch tree is today and how its twigs taste.   I snapped a picture of my twig with the tender bark gnawed away.  

On the way down the hill from my walk I saw a young man walking up and I thought he might think it strange to see me chewing on a twig. So I explained what was going on.   He gave me the strangest look.

I wondered to myself.   Who in my family will know this little piece of forest lore when I am gone?  Not that it is an earthshaking or survival-crucial fact.   But how many other tidbits like it will fall forgotten when my generation passes? And how much practical info must have already fallen forgotten when the generations before us have gone on?   

I thought about how important it is to spend somewhat unstructured time with future generations.  For as things come up in life experience or in conversation, it is then that we in the older generation have an opportunity to pass on something that we have learned or that was passed on to us.  Some of it might be interesting trivia, like enjoying the root beer tastes of a black birch twig.  But something else more weighty that we share might someday become crucial for the emotional or spiritual or even physical survival of someone we love.    Chewing on the memory made me value all the more the time I get to spend with my daughter and son-in-law and grandchildren. 



A 1921 Truck

A few weeks ago I stopped by the Hartford County 4-H Fair to see the exhibit of one of the families in our congregation. Griffin and Connor were working hard and doing great with their animals. Their grandma, Carol, a former 4-H organizer, took me around and introduced me to some of her friends. I love fairs anyway as they bring back memories. I exhibited Guernsey cattle at the Steuben County Fair in Bath NY as a teenager, both in the 4-H and open division. Many nights, I also watched over all the cattle our farm sent to the fair—memories.  JoAnne and I dated at fairs.

While I was walking around at the Hartford 4-H Fair I came across another exhibit that I found fascinating. Bob Whittier was exhibiting his partially restored 1921 Republic truck.   I chatted with him for a while and learned, for example, that the original headlamps still work.   I also learned that the truck was the main source of transportation for the US military in WWI at which time they were called Liberty Trucks. He cranked up (literally) the engine and it purred. He plans further restoration of the roof.

A Maple Syrupy Memory

On the last day of our recent week of vacation, my wife and I stopped at a Maple Syrup Museum on Route 7 just north of Rutland, Vermont.  It was a fascinating stop for me as it brought back many childhood memories.   The museum contains many artifacts from the production of maple syrup in the late 19th and 20th centuries.  An entire wall mural was dedicated to telling the story of the production of syrup by the Native Americans of New England before settlers arrived.  This fascinating dimension of the history of the maple syrup industry was new to me and I was glad to see it featured prominently.  One of the most captivating displays was a hand-carved diorama depicting the gathering of maple sap using a team of horses and a sled with gathering tank on top.   In the same diorama is a representation of a sap-boiling shanty in the woods.  The first 3 pictures above are of this diorama.    The last two pictures are from an even bigger diorama depicting lumbering before tractor power.  The museum is a great stop for maple lovers and those who remember making syrup.

I have a very early childhood memory of assisting in the gathering of sap on the top of the hill above Twin Elms Farm.   Deep in the woods plot, there was an old shed devoted to boiling sap in the spring. My father and grandfather had traded the horses for a tractor the year I was born.   But, for the spring that I remember, it was too muddy in the woods to use the tractor for gathering sap.  Early tractors were not the behemoths we are used to today.    So my grandfather and father made arrangements to borrow a team of horses and use them to pull the sled and gathering tank.    I remember riding the sled with its metal gathering tank on top from the house up to the top of the hill and into the woods.   I recall the old wooden tank next to the boiling shed into which the gathered sap was dumped from the gathering tank.    I remember the old arch, as it was called, inside the shed.   It was simply two rows of concrete blocks, just wide enough apart to fit the large pans on the top.   The two pans were placed end to end on the arch.    The long slabs or poles of wood we burned were inserted into the arch underneath the pans at one end. The fire and heat traveled the length of the two pans– which must’ve been 10-12 feet — and the smoke exited through a stack at the far end.    The freshest sap was inserted in the pan nearest the chimney, the cooler one; the boiled-down syrup was removed from the first pan, the hotter one.   We did not use wooden buckets, as the diorama pictures, but galvanized metal ones instead.

This old syrup shanty on the hill was deserted before many years had passed.    After that, my father continued boiling sap on a smaller scale in a single pan over a smaller arch.   I remember helping and  trying to keep it clean and light colored.    I have many other memories that go with the traditions of maple syrup making at Twin Elms Farm too.   I remember loving to drink the sap straight from the tree.   I would go down to the maple tree in the front lawn and tip the sap bucket to get a drink.   There was just a hint of delicious flavored sweetness.

After the sap had been boiled down in the pans over the arches, my mom would “finish off” the syrup over the kitchen stove.    I don’t remember seeing it happen, but I was told that sometimes this released so much moisture that the wallpaper had come loose.   She poured milk into the syrup to help boil out the impurities.    I sometimes tasted the creamy, foamy skimmings, though I don’t think Mom approved of that.    I remember each year we would have a contest at stirring maple sugar.   Mom would boil down some syrup even further until it was just the right consistency for making sugar candy.  I think it was right when it would spin a hair from the spoon.     Then she would ladle it into bowls and we would begin stirring our bowlful.   The faster you stirred, the lighter colored and finer textured your sugar would be.   That was the goal.    Of course, the most delightful part was eating it.   I preferred eating it while it was soft and still do.   JoAnne learned about stirring maple sugar while she was dating me. She learned to love eating it too and still does, much more than me. I bought her some at the museum.

At the Vermont museum they had taste samples of different grades of maple syrup.  I checked them out!    I remember during maple syrup season on the farm, once in a while, Mom would serve us a small dish of maple syrup for dessert– nothing with it — just served to eat with the spoon.   I loved it and I still can eat maple syrup by itself.    Mom also prepared syrup for us to pour on snow if the weather made snow available.  This was also a delightful candy treat. We called it wax.

The museum had maple cream to sample also, which is the most delicious stuff ever, but correspondingly expensive.     As we left the museum, JoAnne and I just wanted to find a restaurant that served pancakes with the real thing—maple syrup—for a topping!  At home, we never ate pancakes any other way.

A family memory

Family memories are often attached to old vehicles
Family memories are often attached to old vehicles

This antique Packard belongs to Steve, a neighbor of mine.   It reminds me of a story my Mom used to tell.  When she was a girl, probably a young teen, she was taught to drive a car in order to help on the farm.  He father instructed her how to pull hay up into the mow with it.  I think it was a Maxwell.   Cars in the 1920’s, the era this car is from, were often put to work on the farm.  I’ve heard stories (I can’t remember where) of a rear tire being removed from an old car and a belt somehow put on to drive a saw.  Steve found an original engine for this car in another old Packard that had been used as a tractor.   Much of the interior work on this car is leather.  Steve pointed out that many parts were hand-made, not mass-produced in that era.


Dating at the Fair


Keeping a tradition

One of the first dates I asked JoAnne to go on was to the Steuben County Fair.  We remember eating spaghetti at an Italian stand where I learned how to twirl spaghetti on my fork against a spoon rather than cut it up.   After that, one of our annual dates was a trip to the New York State Fair.   While we lived in Syracuse, we kept this tradition going by visiting the fair annually.   We love ogling all the exhibits.  JoAnne seeks out the needlework shows since that is one of her hobbies.  I love the farm animal and farm equipment exhibits because of my farm upbringing.    Both of us enjoy historical and travel exhibits and some vendors exhibits, though there are always more of these latter type than anyone can handle.   We admit, we missed our traditional trip to the NYS Fair this year.   But when we heard about the Big E, an exposition for all six New England states, we jumped at the chance to go.   Maybe this would be much like the Fair. 

The Big E

JoAnne and I arrived through gate 10 in the late morning on Friday, Sept. 27.   It was about the only day we were free to go.  But the weather was perfect and it was the day the big horses were showing –perfect for me.   We start with the nearest farm building which today houses an eclectic collection of alpacas, goats, and sheep.   We ask a question or two of an alpaca keeper and go through the wool exhibit too.   Outside is the butter sculpture.  Now there is a memory— Continue reading “Dating at the Fair”

A Thanksgiving Tribute to My Mom

November 20th, my Mom, Dorothy I. Jones, went to be with her Savior.  She had turned 90 in August.  Though she had been declining for months as a consequence of slow congestive heart failure, the end happened quite suddenly and unexpectedly.  I’ve been working on this Thanksgiving tribute to Mom for a couple days.  Also, here’s a link to her obituary.

 Obituary for Dorothy I. Jones


I’m thankful for our phone conversations

When I think of my Mom, one of the first blessings that comes to mind is our phone conversations.  The chain of them began when I was a freshman at the University of Rochester.  Late at night I would sit at the hallway telephone and talk to Mom.  Our conversations have never been short and that habit goes back to that year too.   Recent years I would get on my cell phone while sitting in my big chair and converse.  It was not unusual to be an hour on the phone.   We covered a lot of subjects; family news, farm news, church news and upcoming schedules.  But Mom also talked about Bible verses she was studying or teaching from, articles or books she had read, things from gardening in the summer and feeding birds in the winter, and even news items of note—she loved Paul Harvey especially.   I will miss those conversations.

I’m thankful for her prayers

Another great blessing from my Mom was her prayer life.   Continue reading “A Thanksgiving Tribute to My Mom”

Arkport Class reunion

Great evening!  Lots of laughs!  Cousin Ken Isaman is a great emcee and stand-up comedian and gets lots of help from our class.  He and Shirley Kilbury Chapman did a superb job organizing our 45th class reunion of Arkport Central class of 1966 at Club 57 near Hornell, NY.   JoAnne went with me and knew many of my classmates since she spent childhood summers in Arkport at her grandparent’s house and as children several of my friends sometimes went to her grandparents to play with her older brother, Joe.    It’s a shame how much one forgets, but getting together helps refresh the memory.  For example,  I remembered that Bev Morgan was a key player in the class auction preparations (sophomore year, I think) and also a member of our Youth for Christ Club but I totally forgot that Roger Griffin played trombone too along with John Callahan and I.   Ken distributed gag gifts.  Mine was a skeleton puzzle.  He said it was fitting for the class science brain and besides, I probably didn’t have any skeletons in my closet so now I could have one!  It was a great evening and I’m looking forward to the next reunion in five years. 

Christmas Joys

Christmas at Gramdma's

What brings joy at Christmas?   It’s not just one thing.  It’s a combination of many.

Family get-togethers

We started the season early, heading out to Keely’s and Mark’s  in mid December as they go West for Christmas.    Their large townhouse was elegantly decorated and it was so good to spend time with them; exchanging gifts, playing games and going to see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Then there is my annual birthday dinner; always a joyous time with friends from church who come to help me celebrate another year with a big dinner.   We also try to drive down to Bath and Haskinville, NY too.  That way we can touch base with JoAnne’s side of the family and also attend the big extended family Christmas celebration at my Mom’s house.  I think there were just shy of 30 people in Mom’s house this year.    There is always a program at that Christmas celebration, which JoAnne discovered is very Victorian.

Special movies with just the right touch Continue reading “Christmas Joys”

Corn Maze Fun

Fall is a great time for family fun.  On our recent two day trip to Keely’s and Mark’s house, we took time for a couple typical fall activities.   The most fun one was a big surprise to me.  I thought I was just going along but ended up really enjoying it.   Life often works that way doesn’t it.  It’s one of the reasons God gives us friends and family to push us a little out of our ruts. 

Back to the story—we went through a huge corn maze.  And we had the pick of days for it too – a sunny fall beauty in the Connecticut countryside with autumn colored roadside hedges, pumpkin fields and grazing cattle.  Looking at the map of the field, however, I just knew they used modern technology to cut it.   Inquiring, I found out I was correct; a GPS was used to mark the cuts.  I never did find out exactly what the paths were originally cut with, though I confirmed my observations that they were cut some time before so that they could be made smoother.  In this maze were hidden posts that we needed to find.   Doing a crayon rubbing of the emblem on the top of the post proved that you found it.  This made it more of a puzzle as you found yourself guessing where they would have hidden the thematic posts; traversing unlikely parts of the maze; and generally getting about twice as much exercise as you had planned–which is probably a good thing.

We also went apple picking. The trees were the new size – only about twice as tall as I am so most of the branches I could reach.  I knew I would love that and the rest of the crew had to drag me away before I filled the car and spent too much money.  Orchard-ripe Mac’s are just too good.  Keely, Mark and JoAnne were happy to pick a half a bag apiece.  But I filled three and…well, I might still be there if JoAnne hadn’t warned me that I didn’t have that much money. 

I’m always encouraging couples and families to find activities to do together besides watching movies or TV; activities that prompt conversations and laughter, that create memories to cherish and talk about later.   Such times help to bond us together in loving families.   Apple picking and solving corn mazes together are two are great examples I can personally recommend.