Knitting Around the Christmas Tree

knittree

The solstice is a day and a half away. Yesterday I noticed that the winter sun was not inclined to travel very far away from the southern horizon. Night comes early and lingers longer. At this latitude, we get about half as much sunlight in winter as we do in summer–eight hours now compared to sixteen in early July.

It’s a good time for some sort of celebration, some ritual to bring light into the darkness. Cultures have been doing this for centuries, from pagan solstice observations to Roman Saturnalia to Hannukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa. I feel deeply connected to my upbringing this time of year. As a person of German Lutheran descent, there are certain traditions I keep, even though I am not a practicing Christian. The Christmas tree was a pagan invention adopted by Germans, and brought to this country by immigrants. I love having a tree in the house. It takes me straight back to childhood, and magic. The tree (a Douglas-fir cut down somewhere on the back forty) was taller than I was, and festooned with decorations and tinsel. It glowed in the darkened living room, and there were presents under it. Pure magic. The tree meant that Santa Claus was coming. Excitement bubbled in my brother and sister and me like fizzy pop.

These days I find myself a small tree and go through the whole ritual. I have shiny glass balls that I remember from my earliest Christmases (thanks for passing them down, Mom). They were blown and painted in Czechoslovakia and Japan. There are others that I have found over the years, all old and somewhat tarnished. I love them best. I have also collected bird and cone ornaments, for a forest theme. When I spend winter in the valley, I want to remember my summers high up in the alpine. Before bed, I light the Christmas tree and sit in the dark in my flannel jammies letting the magic of memory flow through me. Memories of family and holidays spent together. Memories of a few special gifts (Raggedy Ann sewn by mom and stuffed with her cut-up old nylon stockings, the blue bicycle, the boxed set of Dr. Doolittle books). Getting up in the pre-dawn dark with my brother to have a look at what Santa left in our stockings. The family potlucks with cousins, laughing so hard that root beer squirted out my nose. And Christmas mornings with my brother and sister’s children–the magic continues through another generation, and another.

The connection is also strong when I sit with my knitting on long winter evenings. My mom and gramma both taught me to knit, but it wasn’t until I spent time with my great-gramma Elisabeth Rayton that I finally got it. I’m not sure what she did, but I remember the light bulb coming on. At family gatherings, the genders automatically separated. Men out to the barn/shop and women in the house. None of my female relatives sat with idle hands for very long. There was knitting and talking, crocheting and talking, embroidery and talking, sock darning and talking. Something about handwork helped the talking flow. Kids ran between the groups of adults. If you needed Mom’s attention you had to be prepared to hear: “Just a minute while I finish this row.” She still says that.

Knitting reminds me of my beloved Gramma Mueller who was a part of my life for 52 years. She stopped knitting during the last two years of her life–her hands were so twisted and sore. I keep things she made for me out of yarn and thread and they’re like her hugs–warm and sturdy. Some of her knitting needles are in my collection. I may never be as skilled a knitter as her (or my mom or my sister), but the pleasure of rhythmic movement of my hands and yarn slipping through my fingers is surely a family trait. These winter evenings I sit knitting and admiring the Christmas tree until I can’t keep my eyes open. Winter can be a tough time, but here in my little house I have come to appreciate the stillness and dark. There is time to make things, notice magic, feel connected to all that was and all that is, and imagine what may be.

Remembering Grampa

Most mornings I get up to drink tea and write while sitting on my couch with a cat or two. This morning was no exception. Snow whirled past the window, and I looked at the birdhouses on the neighbor’s pine trees. Grampa made the birdhouses, and today was his birthday. So I spent some time holding him in my memory, as I often do.

Grampa Mueller was my mom’s father, and he was the steadiest male presence in my life. My earliest memories are of watching him milk the cow. He had a deliberate way of moving, and the cow trusted him as he fed her, washed her teats, and strapped on the milking machine. Grandkids could climb rails of the stall and reach out to stroke her warm flank. He showed us how to move around animals so they would know us and nobody would get hurt. The routine became familiar. When the milking was done, he released the cow from the stanchion, poured the milk into a stainless steel bucket, rinsed the milker at the standpipe outside the barn. We walked together back to the room in the garage where the milk was strained into a steel basin. Then we went into the house.

There was a rhythm of life at Gramma and Grampa’s house. They were both farmers and the children of farmers. In those days, it was possible to milk a few cows, butcher your own meat at home, raise chickens, and grow a big garden on a forty acre stump farm. Grampa was a logger too. He went to work in the dark most days, and ran a big high lead yarder for Weyerhaeuser. He smoked a curved meerschaum pipe, and his name on the crew was “Sherlock”.

That place out in the Willapa Hills was a paradise for my siblings, cousins, and me. We ran and played in the woods, waded in the creek, gathered eggs in the chicken house, took off our muddy boots at the back door. Grampa was patient with us, explaining all manner of things. But he could also be stern. He was big and angular, with a deep voice. None of us ever wanted to do anything to make him chew us out. If he told us to clean up the tools we borrowed to build canals and dams, we knew we had better do it. And put them right back where they came from.

If he had a favorite grandkid, it was hard to tell. He was fair and generous with all of us. Each kid got a chance to ride on the back of the tractor. When we were big enough to learn to drive the tractor, he taught us one by one. He taught us many things, skills and values that I carry with me still.

Grampa was the grandson of German immigrants who came to Washington via Hawaii in the late 1800s. In 2001, a couple months after he died, I went to Kauai. I saw the Lutheran church outside Lihue that the German community built. There were Muellers in the cemetery. I saw the homes on the edge of the sugarcane fields that they built, and immediately knew where Grampa’s carpentry came from. Stout, square, practical.

After retiring from the woods in the early 1970s, Grampa turned his attention to the farm. He grew hay and grain, and managed a herd of Hereford cattle. His mother’s family had been horticulturists and he had an interest in fruit trees. The orchard had apple trees that he’d grafted, berries, and grapes. He ran a small sawmill. As the oldest granddaughter, I got the first cedar chest he made from wood he milled. He made them for all the granddaughters and daughters. Years passed, and Grampa slowly slowed down. He stopped growing grain, and sold the Herefords. More time was spent woodworking, tinkering with machinery, and reading. He knew all the neighbors. For years, he kept a daily journal of happenings and weather observations. He was well-known as a storyteller.

There was a large supply of lumber from the sawmill. He planed some of it down and made birdhouses. A lot of birdhouses. He got the plans from somewhere. Every other fencepost along the hayfield had a birdhouse. He made big houses for owls. He made classic bluebird boxes and little wren houses. Some of these were painted, some were finished with oil. These were given away in droves.

I have four of them, made from cedar milled on the place. The two on the pine tree are painted cream with red roofs. Every spring I watch the tree swallows return. They swoop around the boxes. She lands, takes a look. What do you think, she asks him. I like it if you like it, he says. I don’t know, she says. Maybe we should look around some more. The flying and swooping continues, and pretty soon it appears that the boxes have families. I try to remember to clean out the boxes before the birds come back.

Grampa would be pleased, and I smile to think of him. I plant my garden, and think of him. I hike up a trail, and ask him to watch over my shoulder while I lead a big project. Sure thing, Bug, he says. And I feel as steady as a rock, knowing Grampa’s sense and strength are mine. Sometimes I look at my hands and see that they are smaller versions of his–square palms, long straight fingers. I’m not the only one. My cousin Matt has his blue eyes. My cousin Lori has his straight nose and wide smile. My brother has his height. There is something of him in all of us.

I had a Grampa for forty-one years. I’m so glad it was him.

Clarence Henry Mueller
January 19, 1913 — October 25, 2001

Kin

Kin are one’s blood relatives. Kin also can be similar in one or more ways. Alike.

My family are my kin, by blood and by temperament. We share lineage, stories, places. Most of us are introverts, meaning we process our experiences internally and require some measure of solitude to remain on an even keel. That said, we enjoy each other’s company. We currently have few of the tensions and melt-downs that other families report. We’ve shared highs and lows, births and deaths, illnesses, upheavals, and celebrations. We have our rituals and traditions that continue to evolve as the years pass. I believe it’s a good thing to have kin for company on the path of life.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, that path pointed to the ocean. My idea. It’s been too long since I felt the sea air on my face. And as my niece Sydney pointed out, landlocked people need to make the pilgrimage. I am separated from the Pacific by one mountain range. My niece Tessa, who lives in Wyoming, is separated by two mountain ranges. When we piled out of the truck, we discovered the weather to be benevolent–surprisingly warm and not very windy.

When I was growing up, I could never understand images of the beach as a place to lie in the sun and go swimming. Those must be California beaches. Or Hawaii or the Atlantic coast. The north Pacific hits the long gray beaches of Washington with booming surf and cold water. I remember my sister and I being led by the hand into knee-deep waves and screaming at the top of our childish lungs at the numbing cold water trying to suck our feet out to the deep water. Of course when that wave receded, we were ready to scream for the next one.

In Washington, you go to the beach in rubber boots and a warm coat with a hood. That’s on a nice day. If it’s really pleasant, you might take off your boots and roll up your pant legs. In a storm, you want full rain gear, and dry clothes waiting for your return.

I’m struck by the horizontality of the place. In a visual composition, vertical elements draw the eye upward and may indicate strength and stability. Diagonal elements suggest movement and energy. Those are the shapes of forest and mountains. At the beach, all shapes stretch to the horizon. It’s flat and spacious. The water is out there, tossing and heaving, but it stays on that horizontal plane. The air and sky are just as restless, with the breeze coming onshore during the day. Clouds change in a constant sweeping dance.

Katie is ten, the youngest niece. She runs on the beach in a bright red coat, investigating every interesting-looking thing. What’s on the beach catches my attention too. So often I walk with my eyes down, scanning for details and clues in the story of what happens in a place. Katie’s hands are full of shells and a gull feather. We see razor clam shells stuck in the sand, the occasional broken sand dollar. There is surprisingly little human flotsam and jetsam. I look all the clumps of seagrass and find this one with a bit of fishing net caught in it.

We find molted Dungeness crab shells. We find claws and other scattered arthropod bits. I observe an eyeball on a stalk attached to the front of a shell. Jellyfish have been deposited in round blobs of goo in the sand.

My brother and I walk south toward the sun until he complains that his nose is numb. His terrier mix dog Gus is running in big exuberant circles around us. The wind is poking its cold fingers under my hat. I’m content to turn back. The world feels a lot different with the wind at our backs. I would be content to stay for hours. Something about the long expanse of beach calls me to walk and walk. After all, it’s flat. No hills to climb, so it feels like I could walk forever. I wonder what’s ahead. But it’s Christmas Eve…

We approach a flock of sandpipers feeding where the tide has recently gone out. They know we are near. The dog can’t stand it and lopes toward them. They rise, and the five of us watch silently as the birds lift and wheel in a perfect oblong mass. Many birds are one bird. I wish we had passed by without disturbing them. It’s winter and they need all the energy they gather from their food to survive. But a bit of my heart flies with them, and I savor the moment of beauty with my kin.

Another Christmas has come and gone, and I am back where a mountain range separates me from the Pacific Ocean. Going back to my native ground reminds me of the last trip my brother and I took with our dad. He took us to Ruby Beach. I had just turned twenty, and Michael was seventeen (the same age as Tessa is now). Dad was 46. My brother and I ran on the beach, chasing waves and being chased by them. Dad walked steadily, watching his offspring and thinking his own thoughts. We were reuniting after several years of separation. That day shines in my memory like the sun on the ground garnets in the sand at Ruby Beach. I rode home happy, my tangled hair sticky with salt. Two months later, Dad’s heart stopped and my stunned siblings and I stood in a cemetery covered in gray volcanic ash accepting the condolences of family and friends. Our story had taken an abrupt turn. But now I feel it coming full circle as my brother and I walk steady side by side on the beach, watching these amazing young kin play with the waves.