My Visit to Grandma’s

When I was 13 my parents put me on a flight from Philadelphia to Boston. My paternal grandmother, recovering from a near fatal heart attack, needed a live-in caregiver at the summer cottage in Rockport, Massachusetts. My grandfather had died three years earlier.

When we learned of her need, there was an extended family discussion. The doctor said she needed someone with her for the next month.

Who would stay with Grandma? Who could go stay for a month?

Motif #1, Rockport Harbor

Motif #1, Rockport Harbor

Grandma insisted on going to Rockport when released from the hospital, and she did, all by herself, though she remained bed-ridden on doctor’s orders except for necessary short trips to the facility and the kitchen.

Shall we say Grandma was…just a tad stubborn, and her stubborn independence was a worry for the whole family. She wasn’t safe and shouldn’t be alone.

My cousin Gina would have been the most likely candidate, but Gina had married a MacDonald. Grandma – of the Campbell clan, the mortal enemy of the MacDonalds – had refused to bless Gina’s marriage to Norman, and would have nothing to do with either of them. Did I mention she was stubborn?

Partly by process of elimination and partly by reason of her grandson seizing the chance to live up the road from Old Garden Beach and the Headlands in my favorite place in the world, I boarded the plane and stayed the month in Rockport.

I took the train from Logan Airport to Rockport, suitcase in hand, walked the mile from the train station up Atlantic Avenue beside Rockport Harbor and turned left onto Harraden Avenue. It didn’t occur to me that it was odd for a 13 year-old to be on his own on his way to an onerous responsibility. Old Garden Beach, the Headlands, and nightly trips to Bearskin Neck and Tuck’s for ice cream were on my mind more than Grandma.

Grandma Stewart was in bed when I opened the picket fence gate and walked in the cottage’s unlocked door. We greeted each other with outspread arms, Grandma’s eyes big as saucers, flowing with tears.

“We’ll be safe,” she says. “I have a gun.” She points under the bed.

I pull out a revolutionary war rifle weighing about 10 pounds. There’s no ammunition. Just an old revolutionary war musket, like the ones the authors of the 2nd Amendment had in mind.

Revolutionary War rifle - requires only 13 steps to fire.

Revolutionary War rifle – requires only 13 steps to fire.

“Grandma,” I say, “I don’t see any bullets. Is it loaded?”

“I don’t think so,” she says. “It’s heavy. We’ll just hit ‘em with it!”

The rifle stayed under the bed long after my month playing long-distance nursemaid and body guard to Grandma from down at the beach during the day and from candy and ice cream shops on Bearskin Neck at night. I was the family hero.

Poor Grandma! Poor America! Wouldn’t the founding fathers be proud!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 5, 2015

Who Is Emily Hedges?

Emily Hedges

Emily Hedges

Emily’s not just any writer. She’s a good one!  Emily’s review of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s controversial sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, appeared on Views from the Edge on Thursday.

Parenting three adopted children with husband Joe, she carries a history of courageously outgrowing herself. Today she’s thriving at Dartmouth College, earning her master’s degree in creative writing and student-teaching basic writing to undergrads. Kay and I became friends the Hedges during their time here in Minnesota.

New Hampshire is politically hot right now in the run-up to the New Hampshire Presidential Primaries. Donald Trump is making it big.  So what happens when conservative parents from Oklahoma take over the television during a family visit in New Hampshire?

You may recognize yourself in this highly personal piece. She’s sensitive to her parents, although she no longer agrees with their conservative, apocalyptic view of the world. She constantly struggles with when to bite her tongue and when to speak up. Now that her children are old enough to be influenced by their beliefs, the stakes have never been higher.

Check back with Views from the Edge for her story Trumped.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 5, 2015.

Another Verse by Steve Shoemaker


Ora Conley had not liked
her middle name,
so she said, “I’m Ora Bee!”
It had a ring…
She was teased by kids, of course,
“Don’t sting! Don’t sting!”

She had ten kids of her own
and gave the same
name to her child number three,
“She’s Wilma Bee.”
Willie hated “Wilma,” but
she kept the “Bee”
and she passed it on to daughter
Nadja Bee.

Nadja kept her middle name
just for family:
one odd name would do for school,
thank you very
much… “My Dad was reading
Her daughter naturally was
her Marla Bee.

Grace Olivia Bee carries
on the fame…


– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, January 20, 2014,

Photo is of Grace Olivia Bee at age 11, grand daughter of Nadja Bee, great-great-grand daughter to Ora Bee, and grand daughter of Nadja’s husband. That would be Steve, who loves bees.




Our Family Bush

We go back to the Mayflower,
but to a murderer found there.
No property or position,
no wealth, no fame, or profession.

No beauties seen now or then,
but we managed to have children.

– Verse by Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, July 26, 2014


Verse – Stimulus and Response

eight adults were at the party
all were sharing air and stories
three were couples two were singles
married folks heard few surprises
tales were old though some were funny

one would listen as their partner
heard a second use a keyword
and would know the family legend
for the thousandth time told retold
the same pauses the same laughter

the same pride that in our family
there was such an odd character

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, December 7, 2013

The Socks in the Kitchen Sink

Dirty sock washing

Dirty sock washing

She was washing her socks in the kitchen sink next to the hors d’oeuvres and the punch bowl after the ice skating party.

Marguerite was a bit different. Brilliant. Socially challenged. Single. The church group of singles and young marrieds was her closest thing to family. The family was used to the quirks, except for the newly married minister’s wife who’d never seen anything like this.

“What are you doing?”

“Washing my socks.”


“They’re wet.”

Recognizing that Marguerite was clueless, the 22-year-old minister’s wife quietly moved the splattered dish of hors d’oeuvres and the punch bowl to the long table nearby and saved her comments for later. Sometimes you have to stuff a sock in your mouth. Without room for every kind, a church is not a church.

Disclaimer: The picture is not from the church and it’s not Marguerite. It’s staged…I think.

The Prenuptial Dinner


Describing  the prenuptial dinner in Bend, Oregon calls to mind my niece’s twinkle-in-the-eye declaration after her first experience with Japanese Sushi (raw fish): “It was,” you might say, “an experience!” The memorable “experience” was the company more than the food.

Scene 1

The room in the back of the Middle Eastern restaurant in cosmopolitan downtown Bend, Oregon was hard to find, but well-prepared for the 16 family members.

We introduce ourselves to Bonnie, the bride’s mother, and Mike, the bride’s second step-father. The next 25 minutes is a tag-team Bonnie and Mike monologue. We learn all the places they have lived, why they are now moving from Maryland – on the Chesapeake Bay – to Texas, Bonnie’s ancestral home. They have put their house on the market…and their boat with a listing price higher than the market value of our house in Minnesota. Third marriage for both Mike and Bonnie. No interest in knowing anything about us. Monologue. Texas monologue. The first taste of what is to come.

Scene 2 

The bride’s 65 year-old gregarious Uncle Billy Bob (“Uncle Bill”) – married to the bride’s Aunt Frances – makes his grand entrance. Uncle Bill is very large – 6’4” 280 lbs. of massive  proportions wearing a khaki work shirt tucked into suspendered khaki work pants hiked up high above his waistline and a tractor hat.

Uncle Bill’s voice is as loud as his body is big. He is a commanding presence. We’d met the night before when the families were gathering from Oregon, New York, Texas, and Minnesota. He’s been told I’m a minister.

“Have s seat,” he says, glad to see me, pulling a chair from the long table and slapping it with his hand like a command from a drill sergeant. “So you’re a minister. What kind?”

Uncle Bill and Gordon

“Yes sir. Presbyterian,” I say, wondering where this is leading.

“Well, lemme tell ya a story,” says Uncle Bill. “Ma Granddaddy was a Hah Babtist. He married my Grandmomma who was a Hah Church of Chrast.”

“What’s ‘high’ mean?” I ask.

Uncle Bill’s face tells me he’s astonished by my ignorance, a man of the cloth and all that. “Well, sir, there are Hah Babtists and Low Babtists; Hah Church of Chrast and Low Church of Chrast. ‘Hah’ means ‘mine is the only way.’ So my Grandaddy and Grandmomma’s son, ma Daddy, was a heathen. He married a Hah Babtist.

“I was raised Hah Baptist, like ma Momma. Now here’s where the story begins…….”

The waiter interrupts by putting a large platter of hummus and Lebanese pita bread in the middle of the wide table. Billy Bob looks at it. He’s hungry. He’s never seen anything like this. He’s wondering what it is and what to do with it. “Frances!” he calls out to the other side of the room. Frances, who’s recovering from hip surgery, walks to where we’re sitting. “What’s this?” “I don’t know,” says Frances, “I’ll ask Bonnie, maybe she’ll know,” and walks across the room to Bonnie and Mike.

“Now, as I was startin’ to say…you take Frances and me. I was a Hah Babtist; Frances was a Hah Church o’ Chrast.  Now I’m a Low Babtist and she’s a Low Church o’ Chrast.”

Frances returns from the other side of the room.  “It’s chick peas,” says Frances. “Well, I’ll be,” says Uncle Bill, pulling the whole platter in front of him from the middle of the table where others could share it. “Now, what do I do with it?” Before Frances can answer, the large serving spoon is filled with hummus in Uncle Bill’s mouth. “You take the bread and dip it in the chick peas,” says Frances. “Where’s the bread?” “It’s right there,” says Francis, “it’s Middle Eastern.”

“Now the story gets really interesting,” he says. “This is where it begins.”

I’m thinking to myself it’s been 20 minutes and all I’ve said was “What’s high mean?” Uncle Bill doesn’t seem to notice or care. He’s reeled in a minister. Ministers are supposed to be nice people who listen. They just smile, nod, and show interest. This is a monologue by a Texas story-teller with a captive audience.

“I go to my Babtist church and Frances goes to her Church o’ Chrast church. Been doing it for 35 years. Now my minister went off to the Holy Land, I guess they call it and went to the seminar. And you know what the other students told him about why they was at the seminar? Money! They was there for the money. What kinda minister’d you say you was?”

“Presbyterian,” I repeat, “and we’re required to go to seminary in order to be ordained. For us it’s not about money. No one gets more money by going to seminary. Every candidate for ministry goes to seminary because we want our ministers to learn the original biblical languages – Hebrew and Greek – and spend three years in graduate school before serving a congregation.”

“How big was your church?” asks Bill. What was the biggest?”


“See that’s what I mean? Now we’re just a little church o’ 35 people. We pay our minister $1500 a month which seems pretty dang good to me.”

Apparently Bill has concluded that his audience is a money-grubber, although he never says so. He’s Low Babtist; I’m Presbyterian. I’m sipping a vodka martini; he’s drinking lemonade-iced-tea. He’s livin’ the low life; I’m living the hah life.

Scene 3

I’m thinking to myself,

“Funny how Hah (the only way OR the superior way, religion, culture, accent) manages to find an open door even when we think we’ve locked it behind us. High just re-defines itself according to whatever ways my life seems superior to Billy Bob’s or Billy Bob’s seems to him to be superior to mine.”

I poke fun at Billy Bob’sTexas drawl and monologue and laugh at his call across the room to Frances to rescue him in a Middle Eastern restaurant which is stranger to him than the money-grubbing Presbyterian “seminar” graduate from Minnesota. Each of us has managed to place himself on the perch of Hah looking down at the Low.

But there’s something about the two of us sitting there sipping our different drinks, eating the hummus and pita bread, that unifies us. We kind of like each other…maybe the way opposites are attracted to each other, if for no other reason than that they’re interesting.

“Now lemme tell ya another story… As I was startin’ to say…”

“Bill, I’m sorry, I need to catch up with my wife. It’s been a pleasure.”

“You bet. We got a w h o l e evening to get acquainted. We’ve got plenty o’ time.”

Scene 4

As we sit down for the meal, I sit at one end of the long table of 16 people with Kay on the left and Frances to my right. Uncle Bill sits to France’s right.

At the opposite end of the table sits my son Doug with his partner and two of the bride’s relatives, all now living in New York City. They’re on their second bottle of wine, having a great time, as the waiter brings the entrees to our end of the table. Doug flashes a wave to his Dad.

Uncle Bill turns to the head of our table and asks the money-grubbing Presbyterian minister from the seminar, “Would you say the blessing’ for our end of the table?” I offer the blessing on behalf of all the hah and low Baptists, Church of Christ, and Presbyterian people at our end of the table – thankful for new food and friends, for family, and for grace bigger than any of our highs – thankful, you might say, for “the experience.”

Why is pop culture fascinated with the end of the world?

Minnesota Public Radio’s Public Insight Journalism asked the question after release of the film Seeking a Friend for the End of the Earth. Here’s how I responded.

Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death makes the case that our culture is death-denying.

One could argue that our fascination with end of the world films and stories is an entertaining and objectified way of dealing with one’s own personal destiny. Every death is “The end of the world.” The end of the world writ large on the planetary screen moves the issue into the world of fiction, fantasy and myth from which, like all cultures before ours, we create meaning in the midst of time.

There are other reasons for our fascination, of course. Supreme among them, in my view, is the dualism and the violence that saturate Western culture: God/Satan, Good/Evil, Moral/Immoral, Saved/Damned, Blessed/Cursed.

It is this misreading of ancient Jewish and Christian texts that makes the will to power the central theme of our time. The late Japanese Christian theologian Kosuke Koyama said that all “sin” has the same root. It is the claim of “exceptionalism.” Under the banner of nationalist exceptionalism’s shameless stealing of the metaphor of “the city set on a hill” away from its proper setting in Jesus’ nonviolent Sermon on the Mount, we assume Western Culture and the U.S.A. to be the Golden City and the agent of divine will. The exercise of that fallacious conviction results in wars of foreign intervention, occupation, and “pre-emptive strikes” in the name of national security.

We have become a national security state. The “end of the world” fascination in our time is heightened by the knowledge that global destruction – nuclear night – is entirely possible. We fear it. We know it. Yet we are also a culture addicted to entertainment where our worst nightmares get projected onto a movie or television screen where we know that what we’re watching is fiction. The fiction is almost always a high-tech version of the old racist and xenophobic dualism my generation grew up on: cowboys and Indians.

Beneath the question of why our culture is fascinated with end of the world is human nature itself. We human beings, like all other animals, are mortal. We may be exceptional in that we are (more) conscious and self-conscious, but first and last, we are animals. We are born. We live. We die.

As conscious animals, we are capable of great feats. We are also, so far as we know, the only animal capable of self-deception, denial, illusion, and species suicide. The denial of death is the great denial, and immortality is the human species’ great illusion.

The fact of death looms over life for each of us existentially and for the species itself from the beginning and in the middle, not just at the end.  Death is our shared destiny. Death is extinction. Our fascination with the end of the world is a strange Molotov cocktail comprised of all of the ingredients of the human condition, most especially the spiritual terror of annihilation, and the illusion of winning. It is the ongoing legacy of the biblical myth of Cain, humanity’s “first-born” who kills his brother Abel, the myth that describes our time and place in history.

If, like in the movie, you had only three weeks left before the end of the world… What would you do?

I’d do what I’m doing now only more consciously. I’d continue to write each morning. I’d do my best to live gratefully, attending to beauty in nature and in art (classical music and paintings) and to family and friends. I’d pray more thoughtfully. I’d walk my dogs more joyfully, stop yelling at them for barking, and find a place on the North Shore to look out to the horizon of Lake Superior. I’d eat lobster and Dungeness crab with lots of hot butter and salt, rib-eye steaks, garlic mashed potatoes. I would avoid Brussels sprouts! I’d end each meal with a Maine blueberry pie, flan, or Graeter’s ice cream, and a Makers Mark Manhattan.  Then I’d settle down on the couch next to the love of my life, Kay, by the fireplace, turn off the news, see if we can make a little fire of our own, get anchored again in the Sermon on the Mount, and return to sources of joy and laughter in the poems of Hafiz. I’d give up being intentional/purposive. I’d live in the moment.

Dust to Dust, Muscles to Mush

Ash Wednesday: Muscles to Mush

Gordon C. Stewart. MPR commentary. Feb. 17, 2010. (The family had vacationed in theKatie in Costa Rica jungle of Costa Rica at step-daughter Katherine’s request after a diagnosis of terminal cancer.)

Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.  It’s an Ash Wednesday kind of week. It puts me in mind of another Ash Wednesday, two years ago:

“You want to go down to the waterfall?  Come on – I’ll show you a shortcut!”  The invitation comes from Ryan somebody-or-other, who lives next to Las Aguas, our home deep in the jungle ofCosta Rica.  We’re having fun now.  We’re on vacation!  At 65, shortcuts sound good.

Ryan leads the way to a steep and narrow jungle trail.  “Hang onto the rope with your left hand. The railing on your right is only there in case you lose your balance.”  The blue rope is thin and slack.  The railing is two inch round bamboo.  Ryan – in his mid-30s and fit as a fiddle – leads the way down the steep ravine, followed by Chris, Kay and Katherine.  I bring up the rear. I tell myself that I’m last because this way I get to protect Katherine in case she falls or needs me.  Everyone else knows that I’m last in line because I’m like an old tortoise trying to climb down stairs.

The “shortcut” — this great adventure we’re all enjoying — is steep, 60 degrees or so.  My legs, whose only regular exercise is climbing the stairs in our house or the one step up into the chancel on Sunday mornings, are turning to jelly.  By the time we climb down 75 jungle steps,  Katherine, whose fingers are either numb or painful these days because of her chemo, declares something uncharacteristic of her: “I don’t think I can do this.”  I don’t think I can either.

Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, muscles to mush.

I’m thinking that we’re going to have to go back up this trail.  I’m thinking that we should turn around now while we can.  I’m thinking about Katherine’s hands, her cancer, her exhaustion, and how badly she wants to do everything that has brought us here, to this trail.   “It’s not far,” Ryan assures us.  But like George Bush, Ryan is from Texas.  “Sure!” I mutter to myself.  “Sure it’s just a little farther.  Even if it was a mistake, we have to stay the course.”  There’s no turning back now.  I wonder if everyone fromTexas stretches the truth.

Sure enough, it turns out we are only halfway there. But we trust Ryan and keep climbing down to the falls, Katherine ahead of me, the helper tortoise, sliding and slipping downward and sideways, leaving several cracked bamboo railings as a reminder that I’d been there.

At the falls Ryan and Chris, both as agile as the Costa Rican howler monkeys that swing in the trees, scale the falls to perch on a ledge with the waterfall cascading over their bodies.  “Just one little slip of the foot from death” is what I’m thinking, trying to remember when my body was well-toned.  Kay takes her camera and has a field day.  Katherine and I hang out, breathe, and agree that it’s beautiful — and that it would be a lot more beautiful if someone sent a helicopter or just beamed us up.

The way back to Las Aguas is easier, perhaps because it isn’t a shortcut.  This other trail takes no more time than the shortcut, and it’s much easier on the thighs, the hands and the brain.

I conclude that shortcuts aren’t all they’re cracked up to be – like stimulating the economy by depleting the national bank account. Like giving ourselves quick fix tax rebates so we can spend the receipts and leave the long-term debt for our grandchildren.

By the time we get home, our legs have turned to mush.  It reminds me of Ash Wednesday, when the sign of the cross is made on one’s forehead with ashes.  Dust to dust.  Ashes to ashes.  Muscle to mush. For us Christians, there is no shortcut through this season, no Easter without Lent.

In the hours following our return to Las Aguas, Kay assures me that some soreness is a good thing.  I’m tired, woefully out of shape, sore, and a likely candidate for a heart attack, which, as Kay reminds me, means … I’m not dead.  While the dust and ashes that I am still have some muscle left, the soreness reminds me that I’m alive.

Someday everything that I now claim to be my self will turn to mush.  The pain will go away.  On the jungle floor below the falls, the waterfall will wash over us and carry what’s left downriver to wherever the river goes. Then there’ll be no shortcuts and no illusions of time.  Just the long river into eternity.