Thursday, April 24, 2014


A special interest of mine is the backgrounds of each of us that make us who we are.

Our backgrounds include the many factors that shape us from birth and even before. 

Circumstances in the world or in our family life can have defining influence over us from the moment we draw breath.

The role of backgrounds on personality comes to mind as news of the passing of two old friends from my home area reached me this spring. 

The women lived within a few miles of each other. They probably didn't know each other although my family knew both of them.

The first woman was a member of our church. She was a mother of a family like ours in that it was a big family. Ages of the children were in a range comparable to ours. 

It was a country church. Families know each other when the household count in a church, as it was with us, is small.

This was pre-Facebook and so it was a different social era altogether. Without social media, as used today, there was quite limited knowledge of the other church families.

Much of what we knew about each each other came from the weekly times in the pews and the activities that laced church life together between the Sundays, such as picnics, women’s circle meetings or baseball games.

Summer field season and long isolating winters could reduce chances for socializing. And by habit rural folks kept their lives as private as much as possible.

There were always happenings in families learned through visits and phone visits. News circulates as it will where families are close-knit through a sharing of religion or common livelihood or way of life.

Snippets of gossip made the rounds as well. We're a curious lot, most of us, with an avidity for the juicy morsel. A bit of gossip makes our own life more interesting as the spotlight is shone, for good or for gain, on someone else.

Mom liked the church woman remembered here. She 
probably didn't say it in so many words but in the way she waited to have a word with this woman after church or something in her voice when she said her name. 

This was good enough for me. I adopted as likable those who Mom liked, and she was one who saw likable traits in most people, finding the decent and the admirable in them.

As my discernment grew I began making assessments from my own observations. This was about the time I realized I could read weariness in this woman. 

It wasn’t the weary aspect of languor or boredom but of stamina pushed to the limit. It was as if the urgency of work, whether of the farm life or her large family, taxed her strength. 

Sunday after Sunday there was about her, in her face and in her clasped hands, a demeanor I could never give words to. It struck me she came to church using it as a reservoir from which to draw for the week ahead. 

Along with the tired strain detected in her it was her long red hair I noticed next. 

There were redheads among us so the red hair alone didn’t distinguish her from the rest. It was its length that set her apart. 

The long hair looked old fashioned to my eyes becoming aware of fashions and tends.

Always ready to approve the modern I wondered that she didn't care to update her appearance. With the confidence of youth the opinion I held was strong. A new hairdo was an easy thing she could do.

It could show us she was more than the farm woman who arrived with husband and kids each week to church.

It took her recent obituary to let me see her fully as if for the first time. 

Her mother's maiden name was given in the write-up. It was an Irish-sounding name. It suggested that our old friend from church had an Irish heritage. 

The woman's Irish background was there all along in her bright long hair. It framed her life as it framed her slender form and was part of her. Backgrounds are our stories. Sometimes they wait a lifetime to be shared.

The second woman wasn’t a fellow church member. She was our neighbor. She lived across the road.

As with the first woman, this woman was more or less noted by me when young. 

As you get older you start paying attention to some women and men. You come to admire them for the strengths or other values they show as you yourself get tested as you go through life. 

In particular I’m drawn to those who have depth of authenticity. There’s an absolute lack of pretension about them. They have humility in their nature. 

It makes them very open and real about matters concerning them and others. It keeps them faithful to the core as they live out their life experiences. 

These are the qualities I came to note in our former neighbor. She had courage that bucked her up through her difficulties which, for a period in her life, were many. 

She had a beaming countenance. She never seemed to remove it. It wasn't wiped off when the moment passed or turned into a frown.  

This outward expression of a happy spirit may have hid personal hurts but it also put the misfortunes in their place. It certainly disarmed those of us treated to the warmth of her smile.

She was the family breadwinner. Her job kept her on her feet. She must have come home from her shift tired and aching to sit awhile and rest.

She was never too tired or forgetful, on any occasion, to light up when she saw you. 

She was sunshine to me. This was the effect she had on people. She was the relaxed presence of an unperturbed soul.

She moved away when I was in my teens. She somewhat slipped from my mind. I married and moved away and there were many busy years raising our family.

When my dad died a few years ago she wrote a thoughtful sympathy note. With her address on the envelope to work with I wrote and then visited her. 

Her new home was the farm where she grew up. It was her parents' farm and she had returned to live out her years in this old place. 

I learned this on the first visit. She was so happy to be back home with its fondly remembered times. There were more visits. I enjoyed seeing my old but new-found friend. 

She told about growing up, an only child, surrounded by the love of her parents and aunts, uncles and cousins who farmed adjacent farms.

A secure start to life, through this early showering of love upon her by extended family, was the background against which she grew up and matured. 

She used it as a gift to make others feel secure in the exposure of her expansive response to life.

In the ease of familiar surroundings her retirement years were like a reward for her constancy. The constancy was the childlike simplicity which informed her first years and kept her step light all through life.

These two women may be thought unexceptional. They lived quiet country lives.They didn’t make the news. It didn't trouble them that they weren't at the center of things.

They didn’t win trophies or run for office. They didn’t ask for attention or demand respect or think to be popular at the cost of principle. Their way was the course they hewed from the truth of who they were.

They were good people, enduring friends and exceptional mentors. Their backgrounds colored their lives and invested their personalities with meaning. 

These two, with little in common, had in common the positive effect of their lives on their rural neighborhood. Without emphasis or hubbub they put all that made them up into the building of their community. 

Providing backgrounds to their local scene during their lifetimes they shine as the heroes they are.  

Ro Giencke - April 24, 2014


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