Presidential — and other — Funerals

This evening I have been watching the arrival ceremony for President Ford’s funeral in Washington. I do not watch much TV, but I like to watch these grand events. So much that happens in the US is cheap, stupid, and tawdry, but the military does put on grand presidential funerals, full of ritual, tradition, dignity, and respect. I was a sophomore in college in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. We were glued to the TV for days, watching the reports of the assassination, the squalid shooting of Oswald, and finally, the dignified funeral processions and ceremonies. When Lyndon Johnson died, I was angry about the Viet Nam war, but I watched. Anguished, I watched Martin Luther King’s funeral and then Robert Kennedy’s. Richard Nixon was an awkward man, uneasy in public appearances. He gets a lot of bad press, but I admired his intelligence, though not his paranoia. I watched his funeral in memory of my Grandfather Parsons, who admired him. I am not a Reagan admirer–all show and often asleep at his post–but his funeral was grand. Someone had an eye for camera angles and shots that caught the dignity and beauty of the settings. I greatly enjoyed Corretta Scott King’s funeral, watching all seven hours on C-span; it was full of rip-roaring oratory, music, and beautifully dressed women with magnificent hats. Ford’s selection of a more modest funeral fits him. Tears welled up as I watched Mrs. Ford, graceful and dignified at 88, moving through the ceremonial parts. I particularly like the word “repose”; it is so dignified. The families of the service men and women participating as honor guards, bandsmen, casket bearers, and so on, must be immensely proud.

So far, Rummy has not shown up. Woodward’s interview of President Ford was most interesting; he thought both Rummy and Cheney had gone too far in pushing the war in Iraq. I wish we had more men of common sense and modesty like Ford running our government, instead of too many politicians who use their positions to grab wealth and power.

Reflecting on the other events of the day, I am appalled that Saddam was hanged, which could not have happened without American acquiescence, especially since his incarceration and trial took place in American protected areas. Saddam was an evil man, but no more evil than countless other dictators and rulers the US supports or has supported. Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo states my view much better than I can. As President Ford pointed out to Woodward, the whole situation in Iraq could have been handed with diplomacy and non-violent methods. I do not believe in executions, for dictators or ordinary criminals. We cannot have Peace on Earth while humans lust for vengeance and revenge.

Father Riner

One summer day in 1999, I decided to clean the upstairs closet where I had deposited boxes of my mother’s papers, as well as stored my college clothing from the early 1960’s and other treasures. The closet runs the depth of the house–22 feet–and is four feet deep; it holds LOTs of stuff. After my mother died in 1996, my father divided her papers and possessions, rather randomly, and gave some to each of the three children. My brother is the music teacher, but I ended up with her organ and piano music. However, I set the box of music aside and dragged out several boxes of old letters. As I examined each paper, slowly working my way through the large box, I came upon a large manila envelope from my great-aunt Mattie Lewis Grubbs in Kansas, postmarked 1974. Inside were two large cardboard pages, pasted front and back with newspaper clippings. I drew them out and casually read through to see if I recognized any names. Grubbs was the most familiar name, but what caught my eye was the yellowed obituary for “Father Riner,” which was centered on one page. Daniel Riner was born in 1796 in Harper’s Ferry, Berkeley County, Virginia and died in 1885 in Burr Oak, Jewell County, Kansas. The name tugged at the edge of my memory; my grandmother’s maiden name was Hazel Lewis and my grandfather was Ralph Parsons. The name “Riner” was not familiar—and yet, it was.

I laid the page aside and walked downstairs to find the Kansas trip pictures. I had taken my mother to Kansas in 1992, where we visited her cousins in Jewell County. We visited Formosa, the town where she was born in 1918 and Randall, the town where she grew up, as well as Burr Oak, where her mother Hazel was born in 1895 and where her grandfather Calvin Lewis had homesteaded in 1871 after the Civil War. We also visited the homesites of her father’s family, the Parsons. We visited several family cemeteries and I had taken pictures of the gravestones. Rummaging through the pictures, I found the one I was seeking: the gravestone of Mary Riner Clayton [1838-1889]—the grandmother of my grandmother Hazel Lewis. I took the picture and ran up the stairs to compare it with the news clippings. I could hardly believe what I saw. Daniel Riner had to be the father of Mary Riner. The room absolutely spun as I realized I had found the obituary of my grandmother’s great-grandfather—six generations from Daniel to me. I began to read the rest of the obits and down in the right hand corner of the page was an obit for Mary Riner Clayton, who died five years after her father. After I searched through my desk, I found the family tree I had written down on the Kansas trip. It did not go back to Daniel, but did identify my grandparents’ brothers and sisters, many of whose graves and former homes we had visited.

“Father Riner” married Mary “Polly” Starry in Berkeley County, Virginia [now WV] in 1826 and in 1829 they moved with her parents, Daniel and Hannah Smith Starry, and some siblings, to Warren County, Indiana, where Daniel Riner received a land patent and they raised a family of nine children. In 1850, the family moved fifty miles northwest to Iroquois County, Illinois where by 1867 Daniel owned 520 acres of land. Tragedy began to strike a few years after the move to Illinois as TB infected the families crowded in small cabins. The third son, Samuel, died in 1857, age 20. Then Mary Starry Riner died in 1861, followed a few months later in 1862 by the second son Daniel, age 29. Daughter Elizabeth Riner Kennison Kizer died in 1872, leaving a family of children. The oldest Riner son, Jacob, having served as a lieutenant in Company M, 9th Illinois Cavalry and having resigned six months later due to ill health, moved his family to Lebette County, Kansas in 1868, where his wife died in 1870, and he died in 1874, leaving three underage orphans who were cared for by their older brothers. Daniel Riner married his sister-in-law Rhoda Starry in 1862 and she died in 1867. Afterwards, he married Penny Wilcox in 1867 and divorced her several years later. On the 1880 Census, Daniel is living in Onarga with his granddaughter Martha Drake Duncan, next door to John W. Grubb, the grandfather of Mattie Lewis Grubb’s husband Homer Grubbs. Around 1883, the surviving children brought Daniel to Burr Oak, Kansas, where he lived with his youngest daughter Susannah Riner Skeels and her husband Robert. Daniel died in 1885 and the family took his body back to Onarga, Illinois where he is buried next to his first two wives, Mary and Rhoda Starry. The five surviving Riner children all died in Burr Oak: Mary Riner Clayton in 1889; Susannah Riner Skeels in 1892; Roseanna Riner Pangbourn in 1893; Hannah Riner Drake in 1899; and William Riner in 1907.

My grandmother Hazel had talked often of Onarga and a couple of years later, well into my genealogy research, when I finally looked up Onarga on the map, I had another head-spinning moment. Many times on my way home from visiting son Jim in Madison, Wisconsin, where he was in graduate school from 1993-2001, I had left I-39 and driven across Illinois on Highway 24, coming out north of Lafayette, Indiana and driving on down I-65 to home. Highway 24 goes through Iroquois County, Illinois. About two miles north of Onarga, the road jogs north and then goes through Watseka, the county seat. Every time I took this not-short-cut, I would wonder why, but I was drawn to drive across that stretch of land again and again. Years later, I understood. Unknowingly, I had been driving through the farms my family settled in 1850-1855. Onarga is directly east of Peoria on the eastern border of Illinois. To travel to Burr Oak in Jewell County, Kansas, one would go due west, dropping south a slight angle of less than fifty miles….i.e. point the oxen west and start out. Today the route to Burr Oak takes one on Highway 36 which is 20 miles south of the Nebraska border and runs parallel to the northern border of Kansas. Burr Oak, Kansas is twenty miles from Red Cloud, Nebraska, home of Willa Cather and the setting for some of her novels.

William Riner and his wife Jenny Lewis Riner were the first of Daniel Riner’s children to arrive in Burr Oak, coming in 1872. By 1882, Daniel’s daughters Roseanna Riner Pangbourn and Hannah Riner Drake had arrived with their husbands and children. The youngest daughter Susannah and her husband Robert Richland Skeels came in 1872, left in 1874, and returned in 1881. Mary Riner Hunt Clayton, my great-great grandmother, and her second husband Ben Clayton homesteaded in Franklin and Coffey Counties in Kansas in 1868, and later settled in Yates Center in Woodson County. Ben Clayton’s obit was on that cardboard sheet, as was that of George Fry, first husband of my great-grandmother Belle Hunt Fry Lewis. Ben and George died within a few months of each other in 1883-84. Their widows, Belle and Mary, mother and daughter, along with Belle’s two small daughters, soon moved to Burr Oak to be with Mary’s family. Thus, the five surviving children of Father Riner were living in Burr Oak in late 1884 when a family portrait was taken showing the white-haired patriarch surrounded by his four daughters and one surviving son.

In the spring of 1871, after his wife and son died, my great-grandfather Calvin Lewis, and his older brother Tom, left their home in Onarga, Iroquois County, Illinois and homesteaded in Burr Oak, Kansas. They were the third homesteaders in Burr Oak. The first winter they lived in a dugout along the creek, afraid to build a fire because the Indians would stuff grass in the stovepipe. In the fall of 1872, Calvin’s brother William Lewis and his wife Phebe Brown Lewis, Calvin’s sister Jenny and her husband William Riner [son of Daniel] and their mother Lydia Patton Lewis, along with their aunt Elizabeth Lewis Miller and her sons Thomas Miller and Washington Miller, came to Burr Oak from Onarga in a wagon train and settled on farms near Calvin and Thomas Lewis. William Riner, Calvin Lewis, Thomas Lewis, and William Lewis, along with other Riner cousins, had all served in Company M, 9th Illinois Calvary in the Civil War, fighting engagements along the Mississippi. Thomas and William Lewis were captured and spent 18 months in Andersonville Prison. After the War, the younger generation was looking for land and many families from Onarga saw their children leave to pioneer in Kansas and the West.

My great-grandmother Belle Lewis’s obit was not on those sheets and I later wrote to the Kansas historical society for a copy. Whoever wrote Belle Lewis’s obit, when she died in 1938, did not know the story of the second Lewis-Riner marriage. Of course, it took me several years to piece it together. In 1878, having homesteaded a few years in Burr Oak, Calvin Lewis married Sue Biggs. After having two sons, James and Earl, Sue died in childbirth with her third child in 1883, widowing Calvin Lewis for the second time. His sister Jenny Lewis Riner raised one son and Tom Lewis and his wife Lydia took the other. Belle’s obit states that she met Calvin while visiting her brothers in Iowa in 1886. Well……not really. On the 1870 Census in Onarga, Illinois, Calvin and his first wife Tillie Denning, and their daughter Hattie, are living next door to Daniel Riner. Belle, Daniel’s granddaughter, was born in 1861 in Onarga, and obviously would have known her grandfather’s next door neighbor when she was a child. Her family moved to Kansas in 1868, but since her uncle William Riner married Calvin’s youngest sister Jenny Lewis in 1867, the families clearly knew each other quite well. There were only several hundred people in Onarga in 1870. Odd how the stories are forgotten or confused by later generations. The U.S. Census is an excellent means of straightening out misconstrued family chronology.

When I took my mother to visit in Kansas, we visited the Burr Oak Cemetery, which is set on a hillside southeast of town. Over the years, evergreens have grown to surround the graves. It is a lovely place, a windswept hillside on the prairie. We visited Great-grandmother Belle’s grave, and that of her mother Mary nearby, and saw the tall monument erected for Belle’s brother Daniel who was electrocuted while serving in the Army in 1907. I still think about the visit to that cemetery where I heard the friendly spirits of the family call to me that day. A few dozen people buried in that cemetery are blood kin and I felt at home there, surrounded by many loved ones. I heard their call and pondered on it for some years, until the day I found Father Riner’s obit. Discovering Father Riner was a life changing moment for me. Within a few days I had bought a genealogy program and begun a serious family genealogy research project. I have traced many family lines, but the Lewis-Riner line that met in Onarga, Illinois about 1853 and pioneered in Burr Oak, Kansas in 1871 is especially dear to my heart. I hope the family spirits who called to me that day approve my bringing forth their stories for yet another generation to read.

My Sunporch Room

The summer of 2006 was a disaster. Max’s left hip prosthesis came apart on June 6. After a trip to the ER and minor surgery to push the ball back into the socket, he was fitted for a brace and spent the next six weeks on crutches. No sooner had he healed than on July 23 he pivoted at the car wash and the hip popped out again. Another trip to the ER, surgery, and back to the brace and crutches. On August 9, the ball and socket were replaced successfully; after six weeks of healing he was off of crutches and back in the swirl of life again.

When Max and I were married in 1987, and he moved into my house, he claimed the sunporch as his room. Here his recliner, TV, and piles of stuff “lived” for 18 years. But, the large new TV never fit well in the room and it was too crowded when visitors came. He certainly does not intend to receive visitors from anyplace but his recliner. Thus, as he struggled with the hip issues last summer, one day he suggested we flip the rooms, meaning he and his recliner/TV would move into the much larger living room, while my computer and I would move out to the sunporch. I had to let go of one of my mother’s rules, “no recliners in the living room,” but we do not keep a formal household, so I let it go.

Well…what a mess. We hired some former students to help and they whirled around moving things faster than we could point to where to place them. It took me several days to sort things out, but once we were settled, we were very pleased. I dragged up the French Doors, original to this 1920ish house, from the basement, covered with dust and mold. After washing them in the front yard, I managed to hang them—they are quite heavy. Before I bought this house in 1984, the previous owners had pasted bamboo on the glass and used the room as a bedroom. Half the bamboo had fallen off and the glue had crystallized to a deep golden color. However, the glue chipped right off with a razor blade. I got enough off to allow light to pass, though the job needs a final finish and several panes must be replaced. The doors block the noise of the TV and the scent of visitors—giving me a safe place from the headachy perfume and laundry detergent scent visiting people wear.

As we sorted out the furniture, I decided to put my particular treasures in this room—the sunporch. The tall oak bookcase that stood in the kitchen of the Fair Acres house where I raised my children now stands along the inner wall, along with a temporary metal bookcase—until I can dig the oak bookcases out of the storage unit. Along the same wall is my china cabinet, filled with my treasures, none of which would gain any $$$ on Antiques Road Show. The Edison record player is centered along the east wall, as I don’t mind partially blocking the view of the street. Next to it are small bookcases from my children’s grandparent’s home, also loaded with pictures and treasures. Other particular treasures are an antique oak washstand that belonged to friends of my parents, Bill and Jane Thompson; my grandparents’ library table, which I use as a desk; and a small bookcase my father made for me when I was in college. A couple more book cases, my apricot colored recliner, Aunt Francie’s apricot velvet chairs, plus my glass desk and computer fill up the room. The three walls of windows, eleven in total, keep the room from feeling too crowded. Obviously, I prefer things to be “visually stimulating”….i.e. cluttered.

Right now, it is past midnight. The half moon is shining through the branches of the largest silver maple tree, out the window to my left. I would never see such a lovely sight or see the glorious pink and gold sunset I saw today or watch Friend squirrel if I were still in a corner of the living room. It was a mutually beneficial move.

Books — Libraries — Reading

I love books. I love to read. I love the feel of a book in my hand; I love to find an author who draws me into his or her created world. My books are my life-long friends. I give away the books I do not much care for, but keep the ones I like, even if I never read them again. They sit on my shelves, reminding me of the pleasure they gave. They are my friends, guardians and supporters of my personal and intellectual journey. Rooms lined with books are my favorites. Back in the 1990’s, Max and I took my mother to Boston where we toured the home of John and Abigail Adams. I was entranced by his library, located in a small building attached to the house. It was one large room, two stories high, with a staircase and narrow walkway to attain the second tier. Imagine the effort to gather such a library in 1780. I do not expect to achieve the dream of having such a room in my home, but I thought his was one of the most wonderful rooms I had ever seen. It was clearly a working library and study, not a collection gathered to impress. I have always loved libraries, but am eternally put off by my early memories of the library dragons, the prim, usually elderly ladies who guarded books from the “unwashed” such as me. Perhaps it was my eclectic choices which put them on guard. Fortunately, librarians are much more friendly nowadays. Being able to purchase my choices–love!!–allows me to chose without commentary from others, a freedom I grasp with relief.

My book club recently read Anna Quindlen’s How Reading Changed My Life. She writes about her love of reading—the title is self-explanatory. When I was teaching high school, it was hard for me to deal with students who walked in and announced “I hate to read.” I thought: you are an idiot!! However, I generally made a bland response about how I loved to read or rolled my eyes. The same students frequently commented on my breadth of knowledge: “How did you know that?” one would ask, seemingly astonished. How, indeed! I read it in a book.

My father loved books, as did his father. One of my treasured photographs is of my Shafer grandparents in “the library” of their home, seated by the library table. That table now sits next to me, holding my work as I read and write at the computer. My father collected books all of his life; when he was an impoverished young minister, he tended to forget his children needed shoes in his haste to purchase some much-desired book. When he died, it took his grandson Jim four months to sort and catalogue the books. It was a daunting task, as thousands of books were stored on all three levels of his condo. Some were given to the Grace Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio; others were divided among the children and grandchildren; the bulk are stored in Salem–the Latin, Greek, and philosophy—waiting for Jim to have a study of his own. 

My mother also loved to read and was an avid patron of libraries, preferring not to have a large personal collection. She did have several bookcases of much-loved books. Her treasured collection of books about John and Abigail Adams is now shelved in my living room, as are her Gladys Tabor, Stillmeadow books. A few of her beloved books from childhood also now sit on my bookshelves.

Our home was not “filled with books,” as my father had a study in our home, lined floor to ceiling with bookshelves, while other rooms contained no book shelves but perhaps a few books stacked here and there. Books were all around and we children were encouraged to read and to use the library. No, we were expected to read and to use the library. Reading was more important than sports, games, entertainment—and certainly more important than TV, which we were not allowed to watch very often. I cannot even remember where the TV was in our house when I was 16—oh…yes, out on the side porch. Some of my favorite times as a child were visits to my grandmother, Hazel Parsons, who would take me to the Highland Branch of the Louisville Public Library and allow me to browse and then help me carry home stacks of my selections. One time, after I had selected a stack, taken them home, and read all day, we returned the next day for more. The librarian sourly commented that perhaps I needed to select more difficult books. In my teaching career, as we teachers struggled to encourage students to read—and I read hundreds of those “lying” book reports in which the student clearly had NOT read the book or had read only parts—I would remember that librarian’s remark. She certainly had never read any research about how children learn to read or about the stages of reading development. But then, those were the days when the library dragons guarded their treasures from scruffy little kids such as me.

My house is filled with books. Upstairs the window seats in the dormer windows are lined with book shelves; there, I have all the 35 cent paperback novels, many important literary works, that I bought in college. Hundreds of books I have bought in the past 45 years, a cookbook collection, and my children’s books line the large upstairs bedroom, one wall of our living room, a shelf in the dining area, and the book cases along the non-window wall of the sun porch. Lots of magazines are stacked around, too. I do not go to the library very often now, as books covered with scent or the smell of candles or Glade or similar things give me a headache. Mostly, I buy what I want to read—and I recycle. I have some books I read again and again. Every few years, I re-read all of Jane Austen’s novels. I also read through the 37 book cycle of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series—again and again. E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books are another set of favorites to re-read. I plan to start re-reading all of my books about Thomas Merton again, as my book club is going to read The Seven Story Mountain this spring. I have all of his journals, many of his books, and many critical books. I haven’t read the Merton books for twenty years—and am anticipating the pleasure of re-reading from a more mature viewpoint. Right now, our Brown Bag study group at church is reading a book of Merton’s writings about nature. His poet’s eye sees to the heart of things.

The other night Max’s grandson Ethan’s oldest son, great-grandson Rhett, age 4 1/2, asked me to “read books.” Soon he and his brother Riley, age 3, were sitting on my knee or leaning against my legs as I read: Winnie the Pooh, Dumbo, Morty and Mickey, and The Tawny Scrawny Lion. I had not read those Little Golden books to little boys for some 35 years, but the words came back almost as if I had them memorized. The same thing happened each year on Dr Seuss Day at school [March 2—Read Across America] when my seniors enjoyed The Cat in the Hat, One Fish-Two Fish, Green Eggs and Ham, among others. I could almost chant those books I have read them so many times. I am looking forward to reading to the “Greats” again—Max has six great-grandchildren; the oldest is Rhett. A small body, pressed close as one reads aloud, is one of life’s most wonderful tactile experiences.

The Pleasures of Retirement

Staring out the window one recent sunny winter day, I watched one of “our” squirrels drag a large, green hedgeapple, three times the size of his head, up the maple tree outside my window. He had to go up backwards—tail first—and then ease the hedge apple across a branch and around the trunk. Several rests were necessary before he finally came around to a branch parallel to me, where he sat and then proceeded to eat his hedgeapple: chomp, chomp, chomp, littering the ground with seeds. Friend squirrel
likes this particular branch about 15 feet from my window. Today he snoozed a while, tail curled across his back, sitting in the angle of the limb and trunk, protected from the wind.

I write in my sunroom, an enclosed porch with windows on three sides. Seated at my computer, I face north, looking into the pine tree and walnut tree just outside the window. A swathe of sky is visible if I raise my eyes slightly. To my left is the back yard which slopes 100 yards or so down to Brock Creek, a typical rock-strewn, tree-arched Indiana creek about ten feet wide and one-two feet deep. Four magnificent old silver maple trees, 30 feet from the house, form a semi-circle around the back of the house. In the summer, the branches of the two inner trees create a majestic green cathedral in the yard. When the wind blows hard or when storms come, I stand at the windows and speak to the trees: “Stay with me old friends. It is not time to go.” A large sugar maple sits in the center of the yard 30 feet farther, halfway to the creek. Beyond it are four large rocks–small boulders–which were dug up when the 18 foot deep water line was dug through the yard. A workman kindly asked if I would like the stones arranged in the yard and then moved them with his crane. A tall old evergreen–50-60 feet–sits off-center at the bottom of the yard, along with two smaller pines which Max and I planted 15 years ago.

Our house is situated half way up a small ridge. The creek flows at the bottom of our yard, on the west side of the house. The school’s football field and practice fields lie along the creek. The middle school sits partly up the next ridge with the high school and hospital in a line along that ridge. Along the creek are sycamores, the hedgeapple tree, a locust tree, and several unknown berry trees, among others. The creek is straight along our yard, but curves around our neighbors’ yards to the north. I wonder if Indians used to camp in the bend. Directly across the creek is the football practice field and beyond that is the elementary school. I hear the class bells ring and the shrieks of the children at recess. In the fall and spring, I hear the band practicing, particularly the drums. As the team drills, the smack of helmets and the coaches’ instructions echo
across the creek. If I turn and look slightly left, I see, across the creek, the middle school to the south of the elementary school and the roof of the local hospital. Helicopters arriving at the hospital usually circle to the north of me and land noisily on the pad. Farther beyond, out of sight behind the middle school is Salem High School, where I spent 28 years teaching Senior English, as well as some Junior English classes most years, and one year each of some sophomore and freshman English classes.

Reading and writing at my computer, I watch the creek and yard. The other day a ground hog made a stealthy tour of the yard before disappearing into the bank of the creek. Some days a heron-like bird, bluish gray, walks in the creek. The squirrels chase each other around the yard and trees, often coming up on the deck. On lucky days, cardinals land in the bushes or a woodpecker climbs the trunk of the tree. Small flocks of birds feed in the lawn and a few times I have seen a hawk swooping through the trees. This morning, five turkey vultures were circling the trees, two houses north. The neighborhood cats cross the yard on trips. Max has seen deer on several occasions, but I have not. We live on the edge of town and before the school bought the farm land behind us a couple of years ago, we could see cows in the field. I miss the cows.

I like to watch the rain and snow. My students used to sit in the classroom, starring at the rain or snow. Why, I wonder, do we watch so intently? I also like to watch the sky and clouds. I find myself listening to the rain or wind, and am irked when I hear the trucks gearing down on the highway a block away to the east. No matter what time of year, the sunsets are lovely, though the winter ones with pink and golden clouds seen through the stark black branches of the trees are the most beautiful. In the summer,
Max sits for hours on the deck or under the trees, surrounded by the holy space, soaking in the peaceful scene.