Friday, May 20, 2016

Reverend and rattlesnakes invade the Treehouse


Southern Baptist minister Reverend Walter assures me he is not one of those Pentecostal preachers who handles rattlesnakes to prove God’s protection. He handles them for a different reason.

This week the Treehouse was honored with a visit from the pastor of a Baptist church in Georgia. Walter, as he asked me to call him, and his wife Wanna were taking their granddaughter Lily on an East Coast odyssey. Lily is home-schooled, and Walter thought they could enhance her learning with visits to the Shenandoah Valley, where many of the Civil War skirmishes took place, and Gettysburg, where Robert E. Lee was defeated in the conflict that took more lives than any other battle of the war.

Lily got to see a little of Boston, where the Yankees claim to have been America’s first settlers. We southerners know, of course, that Virginia’s Jamestown colony was established eleven years before the pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock. But the Baptists’ GPS was set for farther north, and on Monday evening they arrived at Fern Forest.

Lily is ten, a quiet and polite girl with long, snowy-blonde hair. She didn’t seem to mind cozying into the tiny treehouse with grandparents. Walter and Wanna have nine grandkids, and Lily must have soaked up the rare opportunity for some one-on-two time with them.

When I was Lily’s age, my family attended a Southern Baptist church in Northern Virginia, and I’ve always regarded ministers with respectful reverence. At the breakfast table the morning after their first night’s stay, H and I joined hands with them as the reverend blessed the food and the Treehouse as well as H and me for hosting them. It was an impressive grace that made me believe the minister is in the right line of business.

But Walter wasn’t always a pastor. In the early years of their marriage, he and Wanna opened a country store in rural Georgia. One of their best-selling items was rattlesnake, which Walter says is a delicacy in the south.

“Tastes like chicken,” he said.

Walter sold them by the foot, having blown off their heads with a shotgun. In his preacher voice, he recounted some tall tales about dealing in snakes. In one case, he cut off the snake’s head before picking it up. When the headless stump struck his forearm as if lunging for a bite, he quickly learned that a headless snake can still be a live snake with snake-like instincts.

On another occasion a fellow brought in a limp rattler to sell to Walter, who would buy them cheap and sell them for a profit to someone else. He was busy that day and after paying the man, he quickly put the serpent in the chest freezer. Later, when a customer came in to purchase a snake for his supper, Walter lifted open the freezer lid to find the rattler stretched vertical, its ghastly head reaching up for Walter’s hand. He jerked back before he realized that the snake had only been stunned when the man had brought it in and had frozen solid as it tried to push open the freezer lid. 

Lily said she has never tasted rattlesnake. Neither have I. I wonder, however, if Southern Baptists say grace before digging into a tasty meal of fried rattler.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Treehouse guests teach what to count on


            Whatever happened to that old school custom of family first? My three brothers live in Virginia, Florida and Arizona. Rarely do they visit me in Vermont. If I’m lucky, I see them once a year when I travel to them, but at least we’re in touch through email. For Fern Forest Treehouse guests Robinson and Carleigh, however, family is their rock.

Rob’s mother came to New York from the Dominican Republic when she was seventeen. He still has relatives in the Dominican, most of whom don’t speak a word of English. (By the way—baseball is BIG in the Dominican with exported stars like Red Sox David Ortiz, who learned to speak English pretty well.) Spanish was Rob’s first language, which comes in handy when he meets with Hispanic clients in his job as insurance agent and financial consultant in Providence.

Carleigh’s dad moved from Italy to the U.S. with his family when he was nine. He taught her to love everything Italian. During college she spent a semester in Italy and was nearly fluent when the term ended. She and Rob met when they were students at Providence College. Other than the language of their parents, they had a lot in common. They went bowling. They fell in love.

            Carleigh, a willowy brunette, lives with her folks in Connecticut and is finishing up her undergrad degree, after which she plans to study psychiatric nursing. When we asked why she chose such a challenging profession, she said, “I’m calm. And I like helping people.”

Rob is strapping and compact with the dark handsomeness of his native island. After college he stayed in Providence for work, but he and Carleigh get together on weekends. Last weekend they drove to Vermont to stay in our Treehouse. Lucky for us.

            These two make no bones about being first generation Americans. Carleigh wants to learn Spanish so she can talk with Rob’s grandmother and aunt. I joked that if they get married, their children have the opportunity to be tri-lingual, but at twenty-three, they haven’t thought that far ahead. Whatever they decide, though, family will be at the forefront. Carleigh’s parents were in Burlington for the weekend to pick up her sister, a student at UVM, and twice she and Rob drove an hour from Fern Forest to meet up with them, Friday night for dinner and Saturday afternoon for lunch. They seemed happy to do it.

            “We wanted to see a little of Burlington anyway,” Carleigh said.

            Maybe commitment to family wears off after living in this country for centuries. My ancestors came from Germany in the mid-18th century and settled with other Germans in Maryland. After a few years they all loaded up their Conestoga wagons and drove south into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where they bought farmland. Farm families stayed together out of necessity. No one in the Valley owned slaves, and sons and daughters worked alongside fathers and mothers to eke a living out of the land. They were proud of their work, proud of their heritage, and proud of their families.

            But things changed. Young people went off to college and found work in cities. Because of distance, families broke apart. Carleigh and Rob reminded me of the way things used to be—the way they’re supposed to be. They also reminded me that in spite of the bickering and accusations among candidates during this election year, the future is hopeful. As Rob says, the stock market is due for another rough ride, but not to worry. The outlook always gets better again.

What helps during those downturns? One thing we can always count on—family.