Courtin’ Onions for a Fantastic Friday

Courtin’ Onions for a Fantastic Friday

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAMy parents, Harlan and Dorothea Stratton, were married on this date in 1951. Their marriage was not what either of them envisioned when they made their vows. But their love was true and their devotion to one another never wavered. In honor of them and the beginning of Vidalia onion season, please enjoy today’s Fantastic Friday offering.

Courtin’ Onions
So then, you shall know them by their fruits.
Matthew 7: 20

The first sweet Vidalia onions of the season appeared in our grocery store this week. Their presence brought to mind a chapter of the first book I wrote…the one about my father that led to an agent but not to a contract. Not for this book, at least. So today, in honor of Father’s Day and sweet Vidalias, enjoy this chapter from the unpublished manuscript. It’s much longer than my usual posts, but the timing is perfect. This story takes place right after Mom, my sister, brother, and I meet with the undertaker and decided to purchase plaid boxers for Dad to wear at his funeral…under his suit, of course.

The underwear dilemma successfully resolved, a multitude of decisions rushed in to fill the vacuum created in its wake. What kind of casket? The farm scene one, of course. How sturdy a vault? “The cheapest one,” we chorused, all remembering Dad’s comment at the same funeral home when selecting his father’s final resting place over thirty years before. “Why buy the most expensive vault, guaranteed to last who knows how many years? They’re just gonna’ bury the thing, for Pete’s sake,” Dad declared, leaving little doubt where he sat on the issue.

We honored his wishes and soothed our own frugal souls, sticking to the bargain basement model. We chose the bulletin with the windmill and the Scriptures about endurance and rising up to walk. Some controversy arose concerning the music for the service. We kids wanted The Old Gray Mare, I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad, and Sioux City Sioux, but Mom held out for more traditional fare, allowing Dad’s Passenger Seat Top Forty a brief airing during the luncheon after the service and internment.

Great-uncle Burnell, a former plumber and pipe layer whose memory contained a map of the entire underground terrain of Nevada, Iowa, where Dad was to be buried, was on the phone. He assured us that he was consulting with the cemetery crew concerning the exact location of Dad’s future digs.

“Say,” he hollered over the phone, after describing in detail the precise drainage characteristics and soil qualities of the earth Dad would displace. His raspy voice grated across the wires like gravel, “Anybody told Willie ‘bout Harlan bein’ dead? Want me ta go over and do it?”

Mom held her hand over the mouthpiece and whispered, “Burnell wants to know if he should go tell Willie. What do you think?” She hesitated. Burnell had a heart of pure gold, but when in the presence of strong emotion he lacked skill in the tact department, and his best intentions were sometimes misinterpreted.

“Tell him that you and I are going to see Willie,” John advised Mom. “Tell him you want to visit Willie yourself.”

Willie New was a shadowy figure from our parents’ past, one of the people they often spoke of but rarely saw. Once Dad and Mom left Nevada, the small central Iowa town where they lived for the first three years of their marriage, Willie hovered around the edges of their lives, seldom making an actual appearance. Willie and Dad met when both were young men farming near Nevada. They shared a love for cattle that bonded their friendship. Each was his parents’ only child, so each filled for the other the empty space in their lives. Willie filled that space amply, for he was a big guy. Standing beside Dad, grinning proudly from his place of honor as best man, Willie is the only person in my parents’ wedding party whose cubic footage topped the groom’s. Holding the ring and passing it on was as close as Willie ever came to a wedding band, and his bachelor life suited him just fine.

On trips to Nevada, Dad and Willie occasionally visited, though Willie didn’t like crowds too much. Mostly Willie kept in touch through the sending of an annual Christmas card, but we learned more about him via the grapevine gossip Dad’s two elderly aunts passed along from time to time.

“Tell Harlan,” Aunt Ginnie’s voice gained volume when talking long distance in an effort to push the words along the miles of wire. “Tell Harlan Willie’s building himself a little house in town. He don’t think it’s safe for him to live on the home place alone, now that his parents is gone.”

“Harlan,” Aunt Gladys wrote in Dad’s birthday card, “Willie New, your old friend, he just found out he’s got the diabetes, just like you. Hit him awful bad, he’s not doing a bit good, and he just don’t get out much anymore. He’s still livin’ in that new house he built, and someone comes in to check on him. I heard it at church circle and thought I’d better tell you. Sorry the news isn’t any better from down here, but we’re all getting old, you know.”

Mom and John headed to Nevada, to that new house of Willie’s, to tell an old man that the friend of his youth was dead. They were somber as they left on the errand, unsure of how Willie, in his own fragile state of health, would handle the news. When they returned from the mission, the smiles on their faces told me a story was in the works.

“How’d Willie take the news?” Jill and I waited impatiently as they entered the kitchen and sat down before answering.

Mom was chuckling as she began to talk. “Well, we told Willie, and he was quiet for awhile as you’d expect. Then he said, ‘Dorothy, I don’t think I’ll come to the funeral. I don’t get around real good, and I don’t like crowds much. Maybe Dick Suttle, he helps me with my shoppin’, ya know, can bring me to the funeral home. I’d like to see Harlan one more time.’ I told him that was a good plan, and I understood that he couldn’t come to the funeral. Then we talked for a bit, and you’ll never guess what Willie said.”

John sat on a tall stool at the kitchen island, the grin on his face assuring us that the best was yet to come. “Willie’s quite a talker, you know, very smooth…” he began.

Mom interrupted, not willing to let John steal her thunder. “Willie said, ‘Dorothy, you took care of Harlan all those years. He couldn’t have asked for a better wife. You got nothing to be ashamed of, ya know that?’ I told him I knew that, and then he said…I just can’t believe he said this…”

“He made her quite an offer. You want me to tell ‘em what it was?” John nudged the story along.

“Alright, John, let me finish,” Mom snapped. “Willie said, ‘Dorothy,’ in that high nasal voice of his, ‘Dorothy, you get lonely, you can come live with me. I got a whole apartment in the basement. You could live down there and come up here and take care of me. You could even drive that Cadillac I got sittin’ in the garage out there.’”

Jill and I looked at one another, and I wondered if she was having as hard a time as I was imagining our frugal mother steering a blatantly extravagant Cadillac around Nevada, Iowa. Jill burst out, “I certainly hope you told him no.” Apparently the horror of Mom jumping out of the frying pan of Dad’s convalescence into the fire of Willie’s failing health took precedence over the Cadillac vision for her.

“Told you it was quite an offer,” John teased.

“Of course I told him no, but I had to do it nicely. ‘Willie,’ I said, ‘I’ve spent most of my life raising kids and caring for a sick husband. I believe I need a break. I’ve had enough sickness, don’t you think?’”

“Let him down real easy, didn’t she?” John baited her. “He was a little disappointed, but I think he’ll recover.”

“John, let me finish this story. Willie said, ‘Dorothy, you’re right. You don’t need no more sickness. I understand.’ I told him I would visit him now and then. I think that helped.”

“Don’t you ever, ever say yes to an offer like that,” Jill lectured Mom. “You deserve your own life now.”

“Don’t worry, Jill, I have no intention of tying myself down. I made myself perfectly clear.”

Willie, however, was not so easily discouraged. He made it to the funeral home for visitation, shuffling along behind his walker, across the long room to where Dad lay in the casket with the farm scene decorating the shiny satin underside of the lid. Willie looked at the carved wooden cow held in lifeless hands and bowed his head for a long time. “Dorothy,” he shook himself out of the past he had shared with his friend and spoke as she came up beside him, “ya done good. He woulda liked that.”

“Thanks for coming, Willie. It means a lot.” Mom shook his hand and hovered over him as he shuffled out of the room and down the stairs outside.

“Mom,” we teased her when she returned, “quit leading the poor man on.”

“Would you three just stop for once,” she retorted and huffed off to talk to Uncle Burnell and Aunt Ginnie.

A month or two later, Mom called and said, “You’ll never guess who stopped by.” I didn’t even try. “Willie New!”

“How in the world did Willie get to Boone? He can’t drive can he?”

“No, Dick Suttle brought him over.”

“What for?” I was getting curious.

“He likes to shop at Peoples’ Clothing downtown. They carry work clothes in big and tall sizes. Willie said he gets most of his clothes there.”

“So he stopped in to say hi when they were done. That’s nice.” The visit was starting to make a little more sense. “Did he and Dick stay long?”

“That’s the funny part, Jolene. Willie didn’t even come in. The doorbell rang and I opened the door, and there he was, holding an onion in his hand.”

“Did you say ‘an onion’?”

“Yes,” Mom laughed. “He stood there holding the onion. ‘Sweet Vidalia,’ Willie explained. ‘I buy ‘em in ten pound bags every spring and take them ‘round to all my friends. They’re a real sweet onion. This’uns for you, Dorothy.’ I really didn’t know what to say,” Mom went on.

“Sounds like he was making a move, Mom,” I couldn’t resist. “Did you invite him in?”

“Good grief, Jolene. He said he couldn’t stay, he just wanted to give me the onion.”

“You know what that sounds like to me?” I asked.


“I think that was a courtin’ onion…”


“Well, Mom, some men give flowers, some give candy, but Willie has it all over them. He brought you an onion. You better be careful or someday he might bring you the whole ten pound bag.”

“Would you please stop?”

I couldn’t wait to share the story with Hiram and the kids when I got off the phone. Then, I called my brother and my sister.

“Smooth, that man is smooth,” John boomed over the line.

“An onion? An actual onion?” Jill double checked the facts.

“Not just any onion,” I corrected. “A Sweet Vidalia.” We laughed until we cried imagining Willie at the door, paying homage to my mother, recognizing and honoring her faithfulness with the humblest of gifts. A rose by any other name could never have smelled as sweet.

When sweet onions are in season, I only buy the Sweet Vidalias. I pass up the red onions, the Walla Walla Sweets, and the Colorado Sweets, and head straight for the courtin’ onions.

“Courtin’ onions are in,” I call and tell my mother when I first see them in the store.

“Jolene.” The one word is tinged with impatience as I exasperate her again.

I can’t find words to tell her what those onions and Willie’s offering of them means to me. “We are known by our fruits,” Jesus said, and as I look at my mother’s life, I know that is true. She finished school, raised three kids, taught for thirty-eight years, and through it all cared for her husband, never thinking of walking away. The strain of it nearly broke her a few times, and she was too stubborn to seek or to accept help, too proud to admit weakness, too determined to do it all alone. But, the mistakes she made were covered by her devotion to a righteous cause and her absolute commitment to the promises she made in her wedding vows. God knew her heart and, when her duties were done, honored her with a fruit that matched her character, delivered by a messenger who knew her worth.

The fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; but if possible, I would like to enter into that exalted list one more: a Sweet Vidalia onion, hearty and healthful, its zippy bite tempered by sweetness, its flavor permeating whatever dish it graces. Its presence there stands, at least for me, as a perfect reminder of my mother’s extraordinary and fruitful life.

Photo Source

What My Mamma Taught Me for this Fantastic Friday

What My Mamma Taught Me for this Fantastic Friday

2 days until Mother's Day and 7 lessons from Mom that have made a difference in my life...and I hope in my daughter's life, too.What could be better on the Fantastic Friday before Mother’s Day than a look back at this post from 2013. These 7 lessons taught to me by Dorothea Lorraine Hess Stratton are ones that have made a huge difference in the way I live. Thanks, Mom!

My mom raised 3 kids and taught school for 38 years. She’s a mom and a teacher through and through…still asking if I get enough protein and correcting my grammar during our Tuesday visits. The older I get, the more I appreciate the life lessons she taught and is still teaching me. In honor of Mother’s Day, I’m passing along some of those lessons to you.

Lesson #1: A strong family will be a constant support throughout life.

Dorothy Wayne's kids

As a teenager, Mom babysat many of her nieces and nephews. Those nieces and nephews open their homes to her whenever we travel back for funerals or reunions. Their love and respect for her is a touching tribute to her influence on their lives.

Lesson #2: Every woman should get an education so she can support herself.

Teacher Dorothy

Mom’s 4 year college graduation

Dorothy Masters

Mom’s Masters in Education Graduation

Mom went back to school to finish her 4 year degree after Dad was diagnosed with MS in the late 1950s. She went on for her Master’s Degree in the mid 1960s. Our lives would have been very different had she not pursued those degrees.

Lesson #3: Some school pictures should never see the light of day.

Teacher Dorothy 7

Thanks to this lesson, some of mine never will.

Lesson #4: Sewing = an inexpensive wardrobe

Dorothy pantsuit

Once you know how to sew, you can also be your own polyester fashion statement. And don’t forget, some of the best buys are found in the remnant bin.

Lesson #5: The library is an excellent place to hang out


Carnegie Library from my childhood, now a Fine Arts Center.

Mom checked out a lot of books and taught her kids to love to read. This photo is a little ironic since I’m selling my books in about the same spot where we checked them out for free when I was a kid.

Lesson #6: Teaching Is More than a Job


Mom and me at the party thrown by my co-workers when I left teaching.

Teaching is not just a way to support your family. It’s a way to inspire a new generation and help them realize their own potential.

Lesson #7: True love never fails

Dorothy Harlan 86

Mom cared for Dad at home from 1959 when he was diagnosed with MS until 1983 when he required nursing home care. Once he moved to the nursing home, Mom visited him daily, unless she was visiting her kids and grandkids, from 1983 until his death in 1997.

Every now and then someone asks why I drive 45 miles to visit Mom Tuesday after Tuesday. The answer is simple. It’s what my mamma taught me.

Love bears all things,
hopes all things,
believes all things,
endures all things.
Love never fails.

1 Corinthians 13:7–8

Ten Ways Grandparenting Is Different from Parenting

Ten Ways Grandparenting Is Different from Parenting

Grandparenting is different from parenting in many wonderful ways. Here are ten of them.Our youngest grandchild turned 1 last weekend, and that momentous event got me to thinking about the differences between parenting my own kids and grandparenting their kids. Here are the top ten things that came to mind.

10. Parents make sure their little ones eat healthy food at every meal. Grandparents introduce them to things like pie, cookies, and ice cream.

9.  Parents connect every buckle, clip, and button of car seats, high chairs, safety gates, and strollers with astonishing speed and deftness. Grandparents require repeated demonstrations of how to connect everything and still make a mess of the process. Every. Single. Time.

8.  Parents get very tired of reading the same board books to their babies and toddlers over and over and over. Grandparents never do.

7.  Parents spend hours scraping stickers off of walls, baseboards, furniture, and windows. Grandparents spend hours finding the perfect stickers for their grandkids to plaster on every wall, baseboard, piece of furniture, and window they can reach.

6.  Parents steer clear of craft projects that require glitter. Grandparents love to do glitter projects with the grands. Always at the grands’ house, of course.

5.  Parents buy educational and useful presents for their kids. Grandparents purchase whatever they couldn’t afford to buy their kids back in the day.

4.  Parents see their children’s first four years through a fog of sleep deprivation. Grandparents see their grandchildren’s first four years through a cloud of indescribable, goofy, and subjective love.

3.  Parents have constants knot in their stomachs trying to protect their kids and keep them safe from themselves. Grandparents have constant smiles on their faces because they know that even though children can’t be kept completely safe from themselves, they will learn from their mistakes.

2.  Busy parents pray for their children on the fly. Grandparents have time to pray for their kids and grandkids every day. So they do.

1.  Parents love their children’s cuddles and the feel of a small, soft hand in theirs. Grandparents deeply cherish cuddling with the grands on the couch and walking down the street holding their sweet, trusting hands because they know these moments will pass, never to be experienced again.

Grandparents, what do you have to add to the list? Leave a comment.

Top Ten Treasures to Pass Along to the Grands

Top Ten Treasures to Pass Along to the Grands

The treasures I hope to pass along to my grandchildren aren't silver and gold. They are treasures of the heart passed on to me from my grandparents.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about Mom’s parents, Vernon and Josephine Hess. Because my paternal grandma died before I was born and my paternal grandpa died when I was 8, Grandpa and Grandma Hess were the only grandparents present throughout my childhood. Their style was more hands-off than hands-on, perhaps because they didn’t have enough hands or time to be actively involved in the lives of 39 grandchildren. Even so, I hope to pass down to my grandchildren many of the heart treasures they passed down to all of their grandkids. Here’s my top ten list.

10. Playing cards. My grandparents didn’t play many board games, but they loved playing cards. Our grandson will old enough to appreciate the finer points of Go Fish! From there, we will move onto Crazy Eights, Old Maid, Uno, Skippo, Hearts, Cribbage, and Shangai Rummy. Once his younger cousins can join the fun, we’ll add Nertz to the mix, too.

9.  Love of house plants. Specifically geraniums. Do a Gravel Road website search of “geraniums” for more information.

8.  Love for the land. My grandparents were farmers who loved the land. 6 of their 8 children were farmers. We were “town kids” and loved spending time on the farms with our cousins. Because my son is a farmer, I hope my grandparents’ love for the land survives for another generation.

7.  Good money management. Grandpa and Grandma raised 8 kids during the Great Depression. Grandma was a gifted money manager. My mom inherited the skill from her, my siblings and I inherited it from her, and hopefully it will be passed along to the grands, too.

6.  Strong work ethic. My memories of Grandpa and Grandma all revolve around work. After he retired, Grandpa still helped my uncles on their farms. Grandma was constantly cooking, cleaning, and quilting. The only big whoo-ha of the week was watching Lawrence Welk on Saturday night.

5.  Love of cooking. As was mentioned before, Grandma spent a lot of time cooking. And she was a fantastic cook. May of the recipes on this blog originated with her. My grandson and I usually do some kind of “cooking” during weekend visits. Pretty soon, the other grands will join the fun, too.

4.  Family history. My grandparents and parents constantly told stories about their growing up years, and stories about their parents and grandparents. My mother even wrote stories about growing up in the depression. My sister illustrates them, puts them in book form, and gives one to Mom each Christmas. She also gives Mom’s great-grands sets of the books when they are born. The stories I wrote for my kids about growing up with a dad in a wheelchair were what nudged me into a writing career. I hope my kids and grands treasure our family stories and add their own to the narrative.

3.  Sense of belonging. Though my grandparents didn’t have lots of time to spend with each individual grandchild, they made it very clear that we belonged to them. All my life, being part of their family has been a deep sense of security. What better gift can I give my grands than the same sense of security and belonging?

2.  Family love. Unconditional. Unending. All-encompassing. Love that sees not only who a person is in the present, but sees future potential. What a precious gift to pass along to a new generation.

1.  Memories of Grandpa and Grandma’s house. My grandparents’ house in town is still standing. I could walk in today and identify where Grandma’s sewing machine stood, where Grandpa sat in the kitchen nook and scraped his grapefruit rind clean, where Grandma hid the red hots, and the exact spot where the bed with a mattress so soft we always slid to the middle stood, where the board games were stored in the coat closet, and where Grandma stored extra pajamas for her grandkids, who sometimes stayed overnight unexpectedly, in the bottom drawer of a dresser in the hallway. Though I haven’t been in the house for 33 years, those memories and many more, are clear and vivid in my mind. When my grandchildren turn 50, then 60, and older, I hope their memories of Papoo and Grammy Jo’s house remain crystal clear and timeless treasures in their hearts.

What do you hope to pass along to your grands? Leave a comment.


Top 10 Ways to Say I Love You

Top 10 Ways to Say I Love You

Even if our mailbox doesn't contain any Valentine's Day cards this week, people have said "I love you" in these ten ways.

Valentine’s Day will soon be here. I have a stack of cards ready. One for the Man of Steel, others for our kids and grandkids, and one for Mom. Whether or not any cards arrive for me, the people in my life have already said “I love you” to me and others in the following wonderful ways.

10. My sister and her husband invited us to spend a week in Phoenix with them during the dead of winter.

9.  My kids announced plans for a 60th birthday party for the Man of Steel next month without prompting from me.

8.  God provided a way through a process I’ve been trying to navigate for a couple years.

7.  My sweet, shy one-year-old granddaughter smiled when we played peek-a-boo.

6.  My brother mentioned how much help it is when I pick up library books for Mom and take her to appointments.

5.  During a weekend with our daughter-in-law, the meals she prepared were all dairy-free.

4.  When I told Mom I loved her, she said, “I know.”

3.  A friend sent a Valentine ecard.

2.  The Man of Steel slept in the guest room for a week so I wouldn’t catch influenza from him.

1.  When it was time for Papoo and Grammy Jo to go home at the end of our last visit, our three-year-old grandson cried and said, “I don’t want you to go.”

How has someone said “I love you” to you this week? Leave a comment.