The Yellow Lady Slipper
Lake Agassiz was an ancient glacial lake of the Pleistocene which covered much of present day northern Minnesota, northeastern North Dakota, and southern Manitoba. In Lake of the Woods County it receded leaving a pristine lake and two million acres of wilderness, swamps, marshes and peat-bog between the U.S. and Canada. To some, the land might look uniform—a cold cauldron of mud and water delivering up seasonal batches of mosquitoes. Geologists help us define the differences for the undiscerning eye. A swamp is lowland flooded seasonally and dominated by trees. A marsh is wetland composed more of grasses. And a bog supports a peculiar environment of sphagnum moss, heath, and slowly decaying plant matter called peat, all of which essentially float on water.
Our farm had fields cleared of timber and brush, pastures with groves of poplar and birch, and a few acres of swamp filled with a dense undergrowth of willow, hazel, and bracken. One spring as I splashed through the brush looking for cowslips, I happened upon one of North America’s rare orchids: the delicate Yellow Lady Slipper, who is fond of keeping her feet wet. This delicate, slipper-shaped blossom is surrounded by variegated burgundy petals and thrives in a hostile environment. She resists most attempts to be tamed, so is rarely seen. When found, she causes you to stare: such an elegant beauty in such an unexpected place.
As my mother did housework she often sang hymns, her quiet soprano fading in and out as she moved through the three rooms of our house. There was one song I hated: “Softly and Tenderly.” Maybe hate is not quite right. Maybe it’s more accurate to say it gave me an anxious ache, like when your favorite dog is going to die and not even a veterinarian can save it.
See on the portals he’s waiting and watching. Come home, come ho-o-ome. Ye who are weary, come home. Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling, O sinner, come home. It works well in three-part harmony, and the “ho-o-ome” part can be bent and slid around until it, too, comes on home. I recently heard it sung in what was, to me, a strange modern context — the wedding ceremony. It was nicely done as a duet accompanied by guitar and cello — not your normal sentimental There-Is-Love wedding fare. Although I rather liked it, it still had the power to make me sad. I think this young couple was trying to say that as much as they desire to come home to one another and to their children, if they ever have them, the chances of making Perfect-Home-That-Never-Fails are pretty slim, and yet, lingering beneath protective layers of jaded culture and cynicism, we can’t shed scraps of longing for a place where we could lie down naked, unashamed, safe, and loved. They meant, I think, to acknowledge Jesus, who promised that one day those deep longings will be granted in a way you hardly dared dream possible — that He really is the Father, the Home-keeper, who invites you in to stay with a warmth as strong as the scent of your mother’s cinnamon rolls fresh from the oven.
However, back then, when Mom sang this haunting song as she kneaded bread dough, it made me think she was going to answer Jesus at any minute, and when she mused about having it sung at her funeral it confirmed my alarm. There had already been one parent’s funeral and I hoped never to hear of another. She and I, and my little brother, Randy, and step-father lived in a shotgun house in northern Minnesota with more babies on the way. I didn’t know what Jesus was talking about.
Mom inadvertently fed my fears one day when I was seven years old. It was noon and she was making hot dogs for lunch, and had sent me on an errand to the old granary where we kept our freezer. While I was gone she dropped a glass jar full of ketchup. It shattered and spread in a bright puddle across the floor. Looking at the red mess, she suddenly thought, “I can’t let this go to waste!” and she lay face down beside it. When I returned all I saw was my mother dead from a head injury.
She sat up faster than I could stop screaming, instantly realizing how reckless her thought had been. Her apology and consolations were also instant, though it took me awhile to get over the terror. I have no reason to condemn her for this, or think I would have been wiser at her age because I played some pretty questionable jokes on my kids, too — like releasing a garter snake under the bathroom door when my son was inside. Bad, I know. After something like that, you inevitably feel things you can’t understand or voice as a child. I felt them — shame for being vulnerable to a trick and anger because I fell so hard for it. Beneath it was the unbearable thought of losing her, and the apparent tenuous nature of life around me.
Mom had married again when I was 18 months old, and soon after, my first brother, Randy, was born. Wally Block, her husband, had worked in the gold mines of Lead, South Dakota, for two years, saving for a down-payment on the 160 acres of land where we now lived. It was close to where he grew up, and included a barn that could keep eight dairy cows, an old granary, a tiny milk-house built over the well, a single-seat outhouse, and a three-room house. This was where our family grew from four to eight in less than six years. It was where Mom reconsidered her childhood decision to “have a lot of fun” before she took a serious look at the Christian faith. The years of her late teens and twenties weren’t full of the amusement and pleasure she’d dreamed of; rather, they had become a crucible of suffering. Desiring forgiveness for her mistakes real or imagined, in need of comfort, and utterly spent in body and heart, she answered Jesus’ call to the weary. The melody and words of “Softly and Tenderly” captured a reality she knew well, and she came home to Jesus, who understands how you can be so tired from your life you can’t imagine taking another step, and can’t think how to rectify things gone wrong. She found a deeper reason for hope, but that didn’t mean she was taking off for the next life quite yet, but at the time I wasn’t so sure.
My spiritual journey in the direction of home was not like my mother’s. Hers was a sudden turning and more about being extruded into belief by her circumstances. Mine began when I was four years old — the age I first remember becoming aware of God. I loved him even then, and my answering has been a long walk in his direction, unfolding gradually through the years. That journey took me through a paradox that clung to my childhood home. How could it have held such happiness and yet filled me with dis-ease? How could I be both proud of it and ashamed? I couldn’t wait to grow up and leave — but when I left, I missed something so desperately, I often went back looking for it. When I visited my family as an adult during college and the early years of marriage, Mom was overjoyed to see me, but Dad met me with familiar cold stares and snide comments.
Things can get twisted in your head — all the stuff children are hardwired to want in a father: strength, love, acceptance, protection. It’s confusing when they’re absent, like maybe you misread the cues or maybe they’re there but you, you wretch, simply didn’t deserve them and got passed over. There’s no doubt Wally was a big, strong man who genuinely loved his wife and other children, which made it more confusing. I couldn’t believe I was left out of the circle. I wanted to believe he was a gruff, tough farmer, yes, but, also someone who deep-down loved me, and later, my husband and three children. It had to be my mistake, my misperception if he seemed cruel. The truth was that the ground shifted when I was near him and I became unsure of myself, tightening up, feeling little surges of adrenaline asking, do you need to be running or fighting here? I couldn’t have sorted this out alone, and I have others to thank for chipping away my pretense: my mother, my husband, and even my eight year old daughter, who once delivered such an insightful observation about how Dad treated us, it first made me angry, and then I cried. We were in the car on the eight-hour drive back to our home when she leaned over the back seat and asked, “How come Grandpa doesn’t like us?” My immediate response was to defend him, “Oh, he does. It’s just his way with kids. You know he’s kind of crotchety.” Everyone was silent. Then Denis said, gently, “No. He pushes our kids away, and they stand aside as he pulls the other grandchildren onto his lap to hold and kiss them while our kids stand nearby watching.”
Now, years later, I see more clearly how — the farm, the geography, my family, neighbors, even my step-father — gave both gifts and wounds. They led me to a richer, stronger love for all of life and to the confidence that I am cherished by a God Who is, of all things, a faithful and loving Father to His children.
This may smell of rank cheese to those of us who have been wounded by life. I get it, because I was obviously tricked even by my own perceptions. Cynicism protects a person, keeps them insulated from desires that can’t be fulfilled anyway. But here’s another paradox I’ve accepted: although I’m suspicious of the happy ending, I’m also secretly very attracted to it. I want Spider Man to rescue the girl on the train to hell, I want Harry Potter to marry Hermione, and I want Gandalf to rise from the flaming pit, gorgeously alive again. I actually believe that in a most resplendent and cosmic sense there is a story about real life that is true, that Jesus is at the vortex and that one day, as St. Julian of Norwich, the twelfth-century mystic, puts it: “all things will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”
At the same time, I’d be a liar if I pretended the way home was either quick or easy.
It was a shotgun house. I heard Mom and my step-dad call it that when they described it to friends. When I asked what that meant, Wally said, “you call it a shotgun house because you can stand at the back door with a rifle and shoot straight south and out the front door without hitting a thing inside. Get it? The rooms are all in a row.” I never understood. Had someone done this? Had someone needed to fire a gun through our house?
The house was old. Between the faded cedar shingles on the outside and the wallboard on the inside were hand-hewn virgin, tamarack logs. If our old log house had been the site of a pioneer gun battle, I reasoned, there might be guns hidden in the walls. Or buried in the cellar. Or quite possibly, the attic, I told my brother as we lay on the living room floor staring up at the square door-hole in the ceiling.
The three rooms of the house were all the same size. The back door opened into the kitchen, directly from the outside. No entry hall. No mudroom. In the corner by the door our boots, hats, and mittens were mounded into a cardboard box. Hooks on the wall held our coats. The east wall of the kitchen had a counter with open shelves above and below. Mom made curtains to hang in front of them; I remember the cotton fabric with dancing fruit and vegetables: long bananas and fat tomatoes with smiling faces and twiggy legs spun across the colorful fabric. These were post-WWII years when food was more abundant then it had been during the Great Depression and designers reminded consumers of this with dancing food on everything from cookie jars to dresses. Against the opposite wall, our bright yellow, Formica and chrome table was folded into a small rectangle. For every meal it was pushed to the middle of the room and opened up so we could squeeze the matching chairs around it. This was the only hint that we lived in the 1950s; the rest of the kitchen offered no evidence of modernity. The five-gallon Red Wing crock of drinking water on the counter with its tin dipper hanging on the lip, the enormous wood cookstove with upper warming ovens, and the slop bucket for kitchen scraps and bathroom emergencies made you think of a much earlier time. Or of poverty, which it was, in our case.
If you walked seven normal steps straight from the back door and through the kitchen you arrived at the doorway to the living room. The wood stove that heated the house dominated that room from where it sat along the inside wall. A few pieces of worn furniture crowded the remaining walls. Conversation with company was not possible here. If you sat on the couch, you couldn’t see the person sitting in the rocking chair opposite unless you leaned to one side or the other to look around the stove — which was why Mom invited most visitors to sit at the kitchen table where she could serve coffee and offer them whatever confection she pulled out of the oven that day. She baked cakes, pies, sweet rolls, and cookies as easily as one could lay down money at a bakery. At the kitchen table, everyone could look at one another without neck strain, and Dad could keep an eye on the yard to make sure we kids weren’t breaking hay bales in the stack, draining the gas out of the tractor, or strolling about the pasture in a new pair of slippers, which is maybe why I only ever had that one pair.
The living room also had the only closet in the house, added by Uncle Peter, who was a carpenter, because Mom was desperate for storage. It jutted into the room, taking up more precious space, but it hid hanging clothes and Sunday shoes for eight people. The closet was a place I knew well since cleaning it was my chore from about as far back as I could remember. In Mom’s ongoing battle against chaos and dirt, every Saturday I was assigned to scramble in under the clothing to re-hang anything that had fallen, pick up dirty clothes, sweep out the floor with a whisk broom, and rearrange the shoes. I hated the job, but once in a while it yielded an unexpected advantage. There were few hiding places in our house, but here behind the curtained doorway, in the dark, I sometimes found things hidden or forgotten: a roll of unexploded pistol caps for Randy’s gun, a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer coloring book, a tiny plastic purse with pennies inside. Once I reached behind Dad’s Wellingtons and found a dead bat.
Copyright © Margie L. Haack