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My Day with Kay

 In order to set the stage for this story, first you must understand the setting and the two central characters. Ephrata, my father-in-law and me.

Ephrata is a train town, and the Grant county seat since it's been there the longest. It's not like Seattle and not like Spokane; the exact center of Washington state is dry and dusty and reminds me of Nevada with two key substitutions: delete the casinos and add in the farmland. Ever since they dammed the Columbia River, irrigation makes for great farmland. They grow apples and potatoes, asparagus and corn, pears and grapes. This is the setting where my husband was raised. 

My father in law was raised in a large family in southeast Idaho, not too far from Idaho Falls, Yellowstone and Grand Teton. He's one of 13 children. There are some overarching results of his humble childhood. 

  1. A person must never waste food.
  2. A person must never overspend. 
  3. A humorous remark is worth its weight in gold.
Once you understand these operating procedures, you're good. His precision with numbers is a fun fact. He worked as a meter reader for many years, and grew to love the symmetry of a number like 1771 or 876543, etc. (For birthdays, he'll often go to the bank and withdraw brand new currency if it's available, so that he can send crispy bills to grandkids in sequential order.) When it was time for his son to leave home and make his way on his own, he wrote something like this on the college application: "I'd sell my soul for my son to have a chance to go to college." My husband was awarded a scholarship, certainly based on merit but perhaps also based on need. Kay never had the opportunity for higher learning or a mission. He served in the Air Force. I never realized until recently, how much it hurts to let that big boy leave home. I imagine it is one of the greatest joys and sorrows of his life, that he gave his son a chance to have a better life, but it meant sending him away and not seeing him much for the next twenty five years.

Now we introduce my favorite character: me. ;) Years ago I was a church music snob. My favorite color was red, Mary's least favorite color, a detail which went unnoticed until recently after her passing (see Mary's Blankets). I grew up in the city and ultimately married the son of the country boy. I didn't major in music in college, but was certain I was really good at it. At church I'd enjoyed playing piano and picking the songs, waving my arm at the congregation as chorister, you name it. If there was a job in the music ministry, I'd done it (see here for a post about church music, or here for a post about ward choir).

When Norm and I were newlyweds, the first time that my in-laws Kay and Mary came to town, they sat with us in church. During the opening song, from across the pew I noticed a booming baritone voice. There were a few irregularities: the volume, the tone and the tempo. For all my musical training, I hadn't yet learned to sing with my heart. I'm ashamed to admit that I couldn't see this at first, and was put off by the singing. In the early years, I'd duck my head in shame, pretending to look for something under the seats at church. You guys, I'm not making this up. I honest to goodness thought it wasn't cool to sit next to such a unique singer. Well, years passed and eventually I grew accustomed to his style. Even my neighbors in our ward in Lehi came to appreciate his visits to town, because the church music was much better and more interesting when he was around. Slowly I learned to accept, then appreciate and ultimately respect the differences between his singing and mine. He never cared if the people nearby noticed. He wasn't doing it for them, he was singing to worship and praise God. He didn't mind when people commented, "Wow, that's some voice." He took it as a great compliment and carried on with the song of his heart. He was content with what he had and chose to offer praise in the best way he knew how. He still does that today, but the days of sitting with him at church are few and far between, as the years have diminished his ability to travel.

The following song is a perfect tribute to him. With All the Power of Heart and Tongue. Words by Isaac Watts and written in the early 1700's. I love this musical arrangement by Rob Gardner. (Don't tell the people in SLC, but arrangement #79 in the green church hymnbook is super lame.)


  1. 1. With all the pow’r of heart and tongue,

    I’ll praise my Maker in my song.

    Angels shall hear the notes I’ll raise,

    Approve the song, and join the praise.

  2. 2. I’ll sing thy truth and mercy, Lord;

    I’ll sing the wonders of thy word.

    Not all thy works and names below

    So much thy pow’r and glory show.

  3. 3. Amidst a thousand snares I stand,

    Upheld and guided by thy hand.

    Thy words my fainting soul revive

    And keep my dying faith alive.

Okay, now we're familiar with the setting and the characters. Recently I went to spend a few days with my father in law, mainly to keep him company and help sort through Mary's things. Her collection of dolphin figurines is extensive. She loved sea creatures, and every time a birthday or anniversary or Christmas rolled around, people would give her dolphins. In later years, she started getting sick of them and asked people to switch to sea horses instead. So her room had dozens of sea horses too. It was my privilege to dust off some of her favorite treasures last weekend. Norm's two sisters are Liz and Nancy, and they've become some of my dearest friends. I've known them for over twenty years now, and am grateful for their love and acceptance all these years. We've never lived in the same state or even in the same city. But now the heavy burden of sorting and organizing, dividing and distributing is on their shoulders. I went to see if I could lighten the load just a tad.

But first, we needed to have a grand adventure. Kay and I started out before sunrise. The day I arrived, the air was thick and hazy with smoke from wildfires all around California and the northwest. During the night a storm blew in and I commented that 'It smells like rain.' He gently corrected, 'It smells like the possibility of rain.' That seems really poetic. I'll have to think on that for a minute later.

Before seeing some grand sights, we made a stop in George. This is George, Washington, home of the cheapest gas for miles around. If you go inside and pay with cash, the price is even lower.

We were heading to Frenchman's Coulee. I don't read maps very well or very often, so I really can't tell you much about how we got there. I can tell you that parking within the lines is very important to my father in law. He was gracious enough to loan me one of his rigs that weekend, and after seeing my first attempt at parking, he humorously remarked, "Well, at least you got it within the lines." I chuckled. I view things like stop signs and parking stalls as suggestions, not rigid instructions. He couldn't see a few key details which had impacted my parking the previous night. It's super dark out in the sticks; I'd been driving on a two-lane country road which is not my norm; I'd been awake for like 20 hours and was kinda tired, AND there was no backup camera. In my defense, I soon realized he was greatly concerned about the possibility of denting, so I quickly offered to move it. He said, "You think you can back it up okay?" I said, "Sure," and promptly drove it around the lot and out to a dirt area where there were NO painted lines. A perfect compromise. I said, "At least I borrowed the pickup and not your new one, right?" I'm realizing now that he was genuinely concerned about safety. Not just about the safety of the truck, but about the safety of the driver. I couldn't see that at first. I guess there were invisible details that both of us missed.

We listened to some great tunes while we drove. I asked about all his favorites: Patsy Cline, Marty Robbins, and Hank Snow; he said that Floyd Kramer on piano is pretty good, also Chet Atkins on guitar. I asked about vinyl, and he commented that finding the right record in a stack was a lot of trouble. It would be easier if they were in alphabetical order. Just for kicks, if you want to hear two novelty songs that are super funny, check out Sweet Violets by Dinah Shore, and Wolf Creek Pass by CW McCall.

I learned a lot about the past that day, by asking good questions and listening. Norm did a similar field trip with his dad back in August. The following two photos are from a day with better weather and blue skies. If you look closely on the second one, you see the cliffs where rock climbers like to camp and practice.

We talked about what we might do for Sunday dinner and settled on baked beans and Green Bean Casserole, the one with water chestnuts and french fried onions on top. He's learning to cook now, and brainstormed about renaming the kitchen. He's not sure it's safe, so he named it Ptomaine Gulch. I'm super proud to report that one night he made steak AND potato salad, and both were delicious. I think his cooking skills are better than he realizes, even though sometimes it is difficult to want to cook for only one person.

Part of the local dialect: Soap Lake is pronounced So Plake. You don't understand him neither; we need to gas up the car; we was goin... Maybe normal people don't notice the tiny nuance in language, but remember how I've lived in a lot of weird places? This is my thing, I LOVE to tune in to accents and inflection of voice. On the front door of the house is a sign: Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape. "It's from your weddin,' because your mama was fussin and fussin," about all the little details. I think I almost laughed out loud. I'd always thought that Mary put that sign on the front door. I think I messed up the magnets when I was looking at it, but he fixed them later.

But I've digressed. We saw the most cool things. First a hint of fall. Happy day, summer won't last forever! I even wore a sweater that day.

I love fall because it's a time of harvest. One of the most important things on my WA bucket list was buying a box of apples. I love apples and especially the smell of a fresh apple that hasn't spent half its life in transit. To pick my own apples from a huge barrel at the foot of an amazing orchard, well, that's a miracle and certainly doesn't happen very often in my world. Kay was concerned that we'd have too many, but I promised that we'd either eat or give away every last apple that I bought. I kept my word, and had a wonderful time making deliveries to a few good friends of the family.

I love this old tree. It stands out in this landscape.

It reminds me of one of my Favorite poems ever. Good Timber is by Douglas Malloch, and it applies to some of the great men I know. I mean this as high praise. You really need to go read that poem.

Kay is kinda camera shy. But I am so glad for my day with my father in law, for driving in the countryside, for enjoying the quiet of the river, for teaching me about the possibility of rain. Maybe when I said it smells like rain, he thought, "Well, you're not from here, but that's a good guess." Or maybe since he's super old and better at weather prediction, he knew that it might rain, but it might not. Maybe he knows that when you make an assumption about stuff, well... You know what they say about that. 

I'm learning that I haven't learned all there is to learn. I still have lots to learn about music, definitely more to learn about driving pickup trucks, lots to learn about walking a mile in somebody's shoes. I guess my day with Kay helped me understand things better, but since I still have a handful of questions, I'm sure I'll return before long to see if I can hear the answers. Learning to see things clearly is the process of a lifetime. Learning to hear the unspoken is too. Learning to appreciate the beauty around you, and learning to praise God through song, those are both good gifts. My time in Ephrata last weekend taught me about all these things.


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