Hope for Ukraine

She was just a little girl when her parents told her, “We have to leave. The tzar is forcing us to leave our home. We will travel to America.”

Little Anna Barkman did not understand all the politics of the time. How the Mennonites were summoned by Catherine the Great to farm the land and produce wheat crops. How they grew so successful the next ruler shunned them.

Forced them to become refugees.

Anna only knew that the life she had led in the colony of Halbstadt (now called Molochansk) was ending. So she helped her parents pack up what little they could carry.

But before she set out to a new life, she wanted to preserve something of the old.

She sewed wheat kernels into the hem of her dress. The same variety of wheat her family and the other Mennonites had so successfully planted and harvested throughout the years.

Then little Anna Barkman followed her parents to the new land in America, to the Midwest, where the Mennonites would once again thrive.

Where freedom of religion was a promised right.

Once settled, Anna cut open the seams of her hem and handed those precious kernels to her father. He and the other Mennonites set about planting, nurturing and harvesting their crops.

The Mennonite settlements grew in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. Today, every variety of wheat that is planted and harvested in the Midwest still has its hybrid roots in that Turkey Red Hard Winter Wheat from what is now known as Ukraine.

The war is personal to me, because my ancestors are buried in the Ukraine. Their bones and personal dust still attest to the truth of who they were. Putin cannot steal their identities nor the legacy of their work.

They lived and propagated the doctrine of peace. They crafted quilts and made homemade jams. Buried their arms in yeasty dough and created smells and tastes that are still replicated by their great great grandchildren.

Some of their recipes are sold at the annual relief sale where all the proceeds go to missions.

I imagine this year much of the profits will go for humanitarian relief in Ukraine.

In these years of pandemic crises, I had not thought much about my ancestors or the cemetery where they are buried. Until Putin’s bombs highlighted their plight.

A stark reminder that we all come from refugee stock.

Last week, the Russian army occupied the very region where my ancestors lay. I have not heard if the staff of the Mennonite Center survived. If they did, I know they will continue the work of peace and love, reaching out to those in need.

No matter what happens, the legacy of my ancestors will survive. Every time I eat a piece of toast, I will think of little Anna and her foresight to bring the wheat kernels to America.

And I will hope that peace once again returns to Ukraine.

©2022 RJ Thesman – All Rights Reserved

The Mennonites are people of faith, basing their belief systems on the words of Jesus. Some of their strengths include an emphasis on missions and music. Before the pandemic, the 300 Mennonite Men’s Chorus presented regular concerts.

What Alzheimer’s Cannot Do – Part 3

Alzheimer’s cannot destroy our family ties.family quote

Dad was an introvert while Mom was the talker. They made a great team and even though Mom’s personality stays intact, she seems a bit more closed off since her beloved Hank graduated to heaven.

Yet … our family remains strong and devoted to one another. Mom is still and always will be the matriarch.

She comes from a long line of matriarchal women who raised their children with leather belts and switches from the trees. Women who knew how to kill a chicken, then strip its feathers and fry it to a golden brown.

Women who worked a job outside of home, shopped for the harvest crew and put a huge meal on the table so that hungry men found sustenance. Then woke early the next morning and did it all over again.

Women who fiercely protected their children, used every resource available and saved enough money so their kids could attend college without going into debt.

During this holiday season, we will drive Mom to the same farm where she raised us. I will buy a pecan pie and Cool Whip so she can have her favorite Thanksgiving treat.

She will sit at the table and occasionally speak. When she does, we will listen – even if it doesn’t quite make sense. Because she is the Mom, the grandmother and now – the great-grandmother.

And sometimes, as she sits in the recliner beside the fire, I will catch her with a look on her face and wonder, What is she thinking?

Is she homesick for heaven? Probably. Is she missing her husband, her mother, her grandmothers who taught her so much? Certainly.

Is she remembering those days when she fixed the entire Thanksgiving meal, then organized the clean-up crew, saved all the leftovers and planned how she would make the budget stretch so that every child had a special gift on Christmas? I would bet so.

And sometimes – in the glow from the fire – I see in her the features of all the matriarchs before her and I know Alzheimer’s can never destroy those family ties.

That same strength has been shared with my siblings and I. We have attempted to pass it on to our children so that faith, determination and perseverance never diminishes throughout our generations.

In the Mennonite church, we used to sing, “Blessed be the tie that binds, our hearts in Christian love.” As I observe my mother throughout these waning years of her life, those family ties keep us bound together.

This brutal disease of Alzheimer’s can never destroy those ties.

©2015 RJ Thesman – Author of the Reverend G books http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh

Hope Creates Traditions

Most of us try to create traditions within our families. Reverend G and her son, Jacob, guarded the tradition of family dinner after church on Sunday. (I know this because she told me; i.e. fictional characters talking to the writer again  http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh).

For my son and me, one of our favorite traditions has revolved around May 5th, Cinco de Mayo. Cinco-de-Mayonshttp://www.mexonline.com/cinco-de-mayo.htm

We have no Hispanic heritage, but we both love Mexican food – so any chance to indulge seems like a good idea.

When my son was younger, I always made enchilada casserole for supper on May 5th. It lasted for several meals and grew spicier with each leftover warm-up. Through the years, I’ve tweaked the recipe so that it is now in the final stage of perfection – at least, we think so. I’m sharing the recipe with you below. Let me know what you think.

I wonder how many of our traditions revolve around food. In our family, food traditions include Christmas peppernuts from the Mennonites, Easter ham and Watergate salad, Thanksgiving zwiebach and pecan pie and the summer harvest monster cookies.

But the special part of our Cinco de Mayo celebration is that it’s usually just my son and me – no other family – no other friends. It’s nicer that way. More chips and salsa for each of us.

Rebecca’s Enchilada Casserole

In a large and deep casserole pan, spray a thin layer of extra virgin olive oil. This prevents the tortillas from sticking and helps you pretend you’re eating something healthy.

Tear up 9 corn tortillas (the small ones) and spread them across the bottom of the pan.

In a skillet, cook 1 pound of ground beef with ½ cup of onions. Sprinkle with red peppers (depending on how hot you like your Mexican food).

Drain off the grease and give it to the dog. He will drink lots of water b/c of the red peppers.

Add 2 small cans of green chiles, 1 can of cream of chicken soup, ½ jar of chunky salsa (the hotter, the better), 1 can of black beans (drained) and ¼ cup of milk. Cook on medium heat until bubbly, then turn off the heat.

Pour half of this mixture on top of the tortillas in the pan.

Cut up ½ of a Mexican Velveeta Cheese bar into small pieces and spread them on top of the soup mixture. You cannot substitute any other type of cheese or it will not taste like my casserole and I will not be responsible for the consequences.

Repeat with another layer of 9 torn up corn tortillas. Pour the rest of the soup mixture on top of these tortillas, then top with the rest of the Mexican Velveeta Cheese.

Cover with aluminum foil and bake in a 350° oven for 45 minutes.

Serve with chips and more salsa or guacamole. Sometimes I also make a side dish of Mexican rice which for me is just brown rice, the rest of the salsa and more green chiles.

And to make everyone really happy, serve ice cream for dessert. Reverend G likes Chunky Monkey. Enjoy!

©2015 RJ Thesman – Author of the Reverend G books http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh

Cemetery Wanderings

20140418_153338In one of the scenes in the 3rd Reverend G book, she wanders around a cemetery. Recently, I found myself doing the same thing.

Isn’t it odd how often life imitates art?

Since I was in my hometown for a book signing, I stopped at the cemetery to “visit” with Dad and all the other relatives. Yes, I know Dad isn’t really there, but this is the place that represents closure for me.

I don’t believe in talking to the dead, but I often ask God to talk to Dad and others for me. I imagine the group of saints sitting in chairs like the scene in “Our Town,” that great cloud of witnesses mentioned in Hebrews watching me as I roam among their graves.

I stopped in front of the gravestone that represents the woman who led me to Christ. “God, oh God – tell Matilda how much I appreciate her. She told me about Jesus and helped me understand how to become a Christian. What a wonderful woman she was!”

“And God, here’s Lydia’s shell. She taught Sunday School when I was little. Tell her thank you, please. She was a sweet reminder of your love.”

The tune of “Thank you for Giving to the Lord” by Ray Boltz filtered through my soul.

“And God – here are Dan and Alma – neighbors who flew to heaven just eight weeks apart. They loved each other and they loved you.”

My father-in-law, Jake. “Tell him, God, how much I loved him. I miss him.”

The grandparents and great grandparents I never knew. “Do they know about me, God? Are they proud of me? Are you?”

So many babies’ graves. In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, so many little ones lived only one or two days. Was it SIDS or a childhood illness, something simple like the croup that we can cure so easily now with antibiotics?

I imagined God watching over his heavenly nursery and loving each baby.

Then I knelt before Dad’s stone and brushed some of winter’s dust from his name. A few tears, a soul hurt. “The family will be together soon, Dad – at the farm. I loved being a country girl. Mom is in assisted living now. She has Alzheimer’s, and she still misses you. We all do.20140418_152813_1

“Do you know, Dad, that I’m a published author now? Has God told you about my books? Some of your life and your journey is in those books. Those years of dementia, as you struggled to communicate with us and then just stopped talking – I used those experiences in my plots. I wanted caregivers to be encouraged, to know they are doing holy work, caring for their loved ones. Ah, Dad – I miss you so much.”

A wind blows through the trees, rippling the cedars that border this Mennonite cemetery. All alone in this place of legacy and influential lives, I sing that old Easter hymn, “Lo in the grave He lay, Jesus my Savior. Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord…He arose. He arose. Hallelujah Christ arose.”

As I leave the cemetery, I add my own hallelujahs, anticipating the day when those graves will open, the bodies of those saints will join their souls in heaven – and I, thank you Jesus, I will be close behind them.

©2014 RJ Thesman – “Intermission for Reverend G” – http://amzn.to/1l4oGoo

Mom’s Unchanging Smile

One of her long-time friends visited Mom in the assisted living facility. This was a friend who attended church with us and served with Mom on several committees.

When her friend entered the room, Mom looked up and smiled – as if she remembered the years of service together, the sharing of Mennonite foods and the fellowship in a crowded sanctuary.

The smile remained fixed even as Mom’s eyes registered surprise.old woman

The three of us chatted about the weather. Mom repeated the same phrase several times, “So cold now. The ice…that’s what you have to be careful of.”

The friend and I reminisced about another friend who had recently graduated to heaven. We talked about family and generations of connections, the folks who traveled a distance for the funeral, the nice service, the beautiful music.

Mom’s smile remained in the same upturned pose. She seemed a world away.

The friend asked about Mom’s activities. “Do you like the food here?”

“Oh, yes. Wonderful food. I think I’m getting fat.”

We all laughed. My slender mother has never struggled with her weight. Her only weight gains over the years were the pregnancies of her three children and even then, she gained a mere eight pounds.

Mom’s smile widened. She seemed to enjoy the echoes of our laughter even though she may not have comprehended the humor. It’s odd how a smile conveys a compliant spirit even as memory hides behind walls of dementia-covered plaque.

Then a break in the conversation – one of those lulls where no one knows what to say because every appropriate subject has been covered.

Mom filled in the gaps with the same statement as before. “The ice…you have to be careful of ice.”

The friend reached for her coat and found her gloves tucked into her pockets. She hugged Mom good-bye, then hugged me. Her whisper touched my cheek with the slight smell of peppermint gum. “I’ll pray for your mother, for all of you. Alzheimer’s is a such a terrible disease.”

“Thank you. We appreciate that.”

As she left, Mom’s smile began to fade as her eyes widened. “Who was that?” she asked.

“Your friend from church. You used to be in the same Sunday School class. You met every week and served in the women’s ministry. She was a good friend.”

“I see,” said Mom, but her eyes registered no remembrance.

Then she turned toward the winter-frosted window and smiled.

©2013 RJ Thesman – “The Unraveling of Reverend G” – http://amzn.to/11QATC1

The Secret to Our Family Peppernuts

When a family is dealing with Alzheimer’s, holiday memories often center around the good times and particularly – food. One of my favorite memories is making peppernuts with Mom.Peppernuts

The smell of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon merged together with enough flour to break my arm when I stirred the giant bowl full of dough. We started on the peppernuts right after Thanksgiving when the kitchen was the warmest room in the house and the Oklahoma winds howled around the window frames.

Mom added the ingredients while I stirred, again and again. More cups of flour – practically an entire sack full. The recipe called for a “stiff dough” – no definite measurements.

But Mom knew exactly when to quit adding flour as she pinched off a piece of the dough and handed it to me. “Not too sticky,” she said. “You have to be able to roll it into a tiny ball.” Even now, I know exactly when to stop adding ingredients and begin making those tiny Christmas treats.

Peppernuts (“pfeffernusse” in the traditional Mennonite German lingo) are a phenomenon that traveled with my ancestors to America. With the traditional Christmas spices, including pepper, they taste great with coffee or tea. And with time, they harden into tiny bits of yumminess that will last for years in a glass jar.

Each family seems to have its own recipe. Some add anise, to give a distinctive licorice flavor while others focus on more of the spiciness. Our family was the latter as we doubled the spices for each single recipe.

It takes an entire day to make peppernuts, but that is one of the secrets to their flavor. Those of us who make them know the time and effort required. So they are a gift of not only taste but also of quality.

I often make mine while listening to Christmas albums and revel not only in the music but also in the memories of family life. Dad, sitting in his recliner, his head turned to catch every note from the violins on the stereo. Mom with her wooden spoon in hand, directing the work in the kitchen. My siblings sprawled next to the Christmas tree, reading books or dreaming about the presents soon to be bought and wrapped.

After the peppernuts baked, we stored them in giant jars. Then as Christmas neared, we transferred them to smaller jars and wrapped colorful bows around the lids. The mailman, the piano teacher, the school teacher, friends and other family all received peppernuts every year.

And now…I bake my peppernuts and think about the past…about the changing of seasons and the traditions that still endure.

The secret to our family peppernuts? Double the spices and triple the love.

©2013 RJ Thesman – “The Unraveling of Reverend G” – http://amzn.to/11QATC1

Worship Visited

On the last day of our Sabbatical weekend in Yoder, Kansas, we rise to worship and spend a few hours with the local body of believers.

Amish horse and buggyWe are invited to the Journey Mennonite Church – a group of Christ-followers who share some of the Amish beliefs and ancestral beginnings. Simple values. The Bible as its guidebook. Friendly folks who shake our hands and treat us like family.

The church is an old structure, repurposed for more contemporary worship. We wear our blue jeans and T-shirts, comfy shoes and no one cares. So different from the traditions of my past. I like it. I know that even Reverend G would feel welcome here.

This modern group of believers includes many young families, and they keep the children with them in worship. I love that. The children learn how to pray and how to serve. The young ones are in charge of passing red buckets for the offering.

This is a sad day for this body as they say good-bye to a pastor. He is leaving to tend to family dynamics in another state. A brave man, committed to God’s will. A valiant church, willing to send him away.

God will fill the gap, send another to minister to these sheep, to ease their grieving hearts.

God also fills the gap in me as we worship together. First, we sing the contemporary praises with guitar and voice, then we move into a couple of hymns. My soul gasps as the words of one of my favorite hymns project onto the wall.

“When peace like a river attendeth my soul. When sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well. It is well with my soul.”

As the chorus builds, the guitar is silenced and we sing in the six-part harmony of my youth. Worship comes easy within such beauty. The blending voices of young couples, us graying folks and the next generation – all together in one spirit praise God that all is well.

I raise my hands even as my throat fills with tears. The Alpha and Omega of my soul is in this place.  Worship swells in abundance as the chords build a crescendo within this aging building.

And I know that wherever I am, whether on sabbatical in the small town of Yoder or on ministry duty in the busy-ness of Kansas City – it is indeed well with my soul.