Like many others, I enjoy a good reflective hour or two at the end of a year. This year, though, I can’t seem to process in my usual style. “Well, that happened and then that, and now it’s suddenly over and I will tie a bow neatly on it and get on with the next year.” Without a doubt we have been recipients of great mercy and kindness this year. We have not gotten what we deserved and we have gotten more than we deserved, and a few things we do not feel like we deserved at all. That’s normal enough. It simply feels more obvious when one is looking into a past that doesn’t make sense and a future that is hazy with unknowns. Again, this seems a silly way to try to explain the feel of the past year (isn’t it always this way?), but I am trying to express the vague hunger, the unease of a world that is shaken out of ordinary into unrelenting weirdness. It’s a sort of mourning for things we love that are dying, and a desperate hope that they will be restored to us at some point, but not having any certainty of it.
I wish I could say that I soared gracefully through the “impossible” situations of 2020, but it was more like slogging one foot in front of the other. The mud required hip waders this year, and it is still sucking on my boots, to be honest. Moving this year turned out to be shockingly hard. I can play a cheerful Pollyanna pretty well, especially when someone else is being annoyingly grumpy, but this summer I found a latent strain of wimpiness that I didn’t know was in me. The joy of the Lord is strength, and what do you know? — it has little to do with outward circumstances and depends more on pegging everything on what it actually true. I have a separate post on that for the year-end wrap-up.
I thought I might as well post my Christmas letter this year, written in November. To those of you who got a copy in the mail, please forgive the repetition and skip down to the photos, if you wish.
November 19, 2020
It’s a sunshiny day, a brilliant gift in November. I caught the little girls outside, barefooted, and quickly assured them that it isn’t that warm! In fact, we have had 2 snowfalls already here in northwest Pennsylvania. The children are thrilled with the prospect of more snow at our new house, and I too find it much more cheering than the mud-brown that our recent winters have been.
It has been a year, hasn’t it? When we say, “The Lord has sustained us,” it carries more meaning than it does when times are untroubled. The same goes for, “The Lord willing, we will do this or that…” It feels like a lovely bonus this year when plans do work out. Through all of the upheaval, we have Great Faithfulness to rely on utterly.
Our 2020 started with normal life on the farm, tending a few pigs and chickens, doing our daily schoolwork, crocheting endless reams of yarn into hats and scarves, and making as much pottery as I had heart for after the busy Christmas season. In February my brother Kenny and his family came to help us butcher our pigs. The guys slaughtered and skinned them, letting them hang for a day while they took all the older children skiing. The next day we made whole hog sausage, scrapple, and lard, all of which turned out exceptionally well and made us feel like good homesteaders.
Gabriel and Alex did ski patrol at Blue Knob whenever there was enough snow on the slopes to open them. They put in lots of effort to pass all the training requirements and Alex was thrilled to be able to assist on a few mountain rescues. He wrote an essay that won a scholarship to Young Adult Patroller camp in Vermont. This was going to be one of his graduation hurrahs.
Unfortunately, the weekend of the camp, Gabriel was in the hospital with a perforated bowel, and Alex had to catch a ride with an elderly patroller who drove extremely carefully for 12 hours. When they got to Vermont, they discovered that the event was cancelled that very day because of Covid lockdown. They had supper, slept there one night, and travelled home again the next day. Alex calls it “That Time I Went to Vermont for Supper.”
Gabriel healed up without any surgery or further problems and came home the day before lockdown. I had laid in a stock of bulk foods at the beginning of the year, and we had all that meat in our freezers. We hunkered down hard and ate a lot of sourdough.
In early March we had made an offer on a 1930’s era fixer-upper in northwestern Pennsylvania. Our choice of location was influenced by a school close to Erie with a nurse-anesthetist program that Gabriel is hoping to get into in the future. Our offer sat on the table while real estate stalled entirely. Meanwhile, our farm was listed on Zillow, and we showed it at least a dozen times. Lots of people were interested in a place with an established orchard, stocked pond, barn, etc, but seemed nervous about the economy, with good reason.
After two months, we got a closing date on the property in Conneaut Lake, and in the third week of May we took the family north in my dad’s old motorhome to start renovations. The house was structurally sound, but not configured like we needed it for our family. We opened up the main living area, reframed the interior walls, tore out floor coverings and drop ceilings, and removed two spiral staircases. We tried to salvage/repurpose as much as we could from the demolition. Fortunately, there is a large shop on the property where we could store our salvaged lumber, hardware, etc. After a week, we went back home to Bedford County so that Gabriel and Alex could work, and we could start packing up the house.
That was when my dad got sick and ended up in the hospital with Covid19 (June 1). It was a very serious illness, and we were not sure he was going to survive, but by the mercy of God, he came home from rehab the week before we had to move (August 1).
The summer remains a blur of stresses we would rather not face again. Gabriel’s work transferred him to the northwest PA hospitals in the end of June. We had planned for the children and I to carry on with the remodel while he put in his three shifts a week. In the end, I decided to stay in Bedford County, try to support Mom as best I could, and focus on packing. Needless to say, the house was far from ready by our August 1 deadline when the new owners wanted to move to our farm. We simply unloaded our household stuff in the shop and kept right on with the camping, air mattresses, folding chairs, incomplete bathroom situation. As we finished rooms, we rooted through our stack of belongings and brought in the appropriate furnishings. Some of us did better with this set-up than others. I can give some good tips for how not to move, if anyone is interested.
We have lived here almost four months now, and the house feels like home. We ran out of steam and quit before we did the kitchen, having left the biggest project until last. It is functional, and for now that is good enough. We have hit our stride with school again, and last week we celebrated finishing first quarter in the books.
In October we took a week to travel to North Carolina, see family, (so many cousins in one place!) and celebrate our 19th anniversary at Myrtle Beach. It was just the sort of trip we needed, and a few days after we got home, my brother Nate and his family came to our house for a few days, so we got to host guests and show them our favorite places around here.
Next week our firstborn turns 18! At some point during the mad rush this summer, Alex finished his school credits and got his diploma. We managed a graduation celebration with friends two days before we moved, and it poured rain the whole evening. It has been a hard year for him, with changing jobs twice, trying to make new friends, having so many plans cancelled, etc. He has been spending a lot of hours in the shop where there is a pneumatic lift installed, tinkering with the dirt bike, go-cart, his trusty little Kia that finally got fatal hiccups, and the Volvo that replaced it.
Gregory is working through tenth grade this year, nose in books a great deal of the time. He has set up his forge in a lean-to and beaten out a bunch of useful things like towel holders and hooks for the house. As of this week, he is happy to be driving on a learner’s permit. As soon as he is able to drive, he’ll be going to the lake to fish every chance he gets.
Olivia is 13, and has learned to do laundry with excellence this year. It has been a great blessing to delegate this chore to her and know that she will be responsible to get it done. She has a servant heart, and a great need to keep her hands busy. Her favorite creative outlet is sewing, knitting, or crocheting: anything with textiles and fibers.
Rita remains our dreamy, outdoorsy, adventure girl. She started up a new series of places to play here, including teepees of sticks in the woods, on the creek bank, and even in the basement. Her favorite school subject is science, and she begs Gregory to teach her all he knows about skinning animals or filleting fish.
Addy is baking a treat for supper as I write this. What she lacks in finesse is made up in enthusiasm. I just heard the unmistakable splat of an egg on the floor, but she is always willing to clean up her messes. This year she no longer felt like a little child. We were surprised at her endurance in the long days of work. In typical youngest child fashion, she keeps us all cracked up at her ability to mimic accents and quote entire lines from books and movies.
Gabriel has been working a stat travel nurse position for UPMC. This means they move him every 6 weeks to places that are understaffed. It also means that he gets into some stressful situations, especially with the recent surge of Covid19 in our region. At his current hospital, ICU nurses are being assigned 3 to 4 patients per shift. Seeing so much suffering and death, he is absolutely exhausted after those 12 hour shifts. We have gotten our shop cleared of the household things so that he can organize his power tools and install heat for wintertime projects. The woodcarving hand tools are in the basement where he can carve spoons and bowls. Our property has a lot of young trees, having been recently logged, but there are plenty of greenwood options. Of course, the house projects are ever with us, but we need a break, so we are taking one.
I have been occupied with turning this house into a home. Decorating is not my strong suit, but I have been trying for “cozy cottage” and it feels good to me now. We have a considerably bigger house to work with, which is nice! I have a studio room in the basement with a large sink, windows, and lots of shelving for my pottery. It is nice to be able to work at things without going outside the house, even though I miss my lovely pottery shed. Having taken a six month break, I am really enjoying getting back into maker-mode. The Etsy shop should have some stock soon.
This letter has taken a rather large space. It has been a full year, in a weird, constricted sort of way. We have flourished and we have suffered. It felt like we were rubber bands, stretching as far as possible, then shrinking back down repeatedly. Sometimes we feel like we might need fresh elastic, but I doubt anyone is ending the year unchanged. With all the social distancing, loneliness, and uncertainty in our world, it felt important to connect and make sure our friends get our new address so that we for sure receive our Christmas letters and photos.
We pray for endurance, for peace, for justice in our world. Even when all seems chaos and confusion, we remember that Jesus came to make the crooked straight and the rough places plain.
Hallelujah for that solid fact, and for the hope that is before us!
Lots of love and blessings to all! Gabriel, Dorcas and family
And here is the picture you didn’t get with your letter, but one that seems appropriate. (Photo credits to Gabe’s sister, Ruby.)