Montana Picnic

Emma carried the big, yellow Pyrex bowl filled with potato salad and covered with clean dish towel across the bit of pasture between her house and that of her daughter, Mary Ruth. Her ten year old granddaughter, Linda Louise, danced along beside her, proud to be going with grandma.

“Mother’s here,” called Helen who quickly put out her cigarette. It wouldn’t do for “Mom” to see her smoking.

Martha Ann looked up. Too small to be useful, but not too young to be interested, she saw her grandma hand the bowl to Uncle Hank and then lift the top wire and push down the middle wire of the barbed wire fence so she could come through.

“I’ll build you a gate, Mrs. Beall.”

“The day I can’t climb through a barbed wire fence, Hank,” she laughed.

But the next day, Hank cut the wire and put in a makeshift gate. A a year later, that section of the fence was wood with a gate that latched.

The late afternoon Montana light broke against the distant Beartooths. Martha Ann saw how the golden rays hit her grandmother’s white, white hair making a halo around the old woman’s face.

The potato salad was set on the table with everything else. Florence, Mrs. Beall’s oldest, arrived in her red Mercury with her youngest, Ed, and her teen-aged daughter, Harriet. Her oldest, John, had joined the service and was in Japan. He’d sent grandma gaudy silk pillow covers with Mt. Fuji embroidered on them.

“You still driving that old Merc, Sister?” asked Stocky, the husband of the youngest of the Beall girls. “How many miles on that thing?”

“It gets us there,” said Florence. Her husband had died the year before.

Mary Ruth was wearing Martha Ann’s favorite dress. It was chartreuse, with a beaded and embroidered pin that looked to Martha Ann like the Ford emblem on the front of the family car. She called it the “Tennessee Ernie Ford” dress and no one understood why, but it made sense in the logic of a five year old. Her little brother, Kirk, was trying on everybody’s hat.

“Hide your hats!” said his cousin Greg, learning Kirk was coming.

“Is the chicken ready? Why do you use that electric skillet?” asked Helen. “Frying that way adds a lot of fat.” Helen had recently been diagnosed with hypertension and high cholesterol. “I suppose you use lard?”

“Crisco,” Mary Ruth answered putting her lips together. 

“You should use corn oil. It’s low in cholesterol.”

“I suppose you use margarine, too?”

“Who made the pies?” asked Bill, Martha Ann’s dad. “Did you, Mrs. Beall?”

“No, Madylene made them.”

“Well, she’s done you proud. They look beautiful. You taught her well.”

Madylene’s youngest was still a baby, the next youngest, Lee, was almost three and fascinated with Martha Ann’s little brother, Kirk. Her two boys, Paul and Tom, were in Rapelje with their other grandparents.

Martha Ann was happy to get some red Jell-o with fruit cocktail in it and a chicken wing. The pie had been apple and raisin and everyone thought it was almost as good as grandma’s.

The meal was eaten, the sun sank lower, the paper plates went into the trash. Martha Ann stared a while at her cousin Harriet’s vivid, red and pointy fingernails and developed a life-long antipathy for the look (they scared her).

“I think I’d best go home,” said grandma to Mary Ruth, buttoning her pink sweater over her apron against the evening chill.

“David! Greg!” called Uncle Hank to his sons. “Go home with your grandma. See she gets home safe.”

“Can I go?” Linda asked Kelly, her mother.

“Sure. Maybe Martha Ann would like to go.”

Martha Ann was suddenly alert. These were BIG kids. Greg was 11 and so Linda was almost. “I’m only five,” she thought.

“Mom?” she looked at her mother who nodded.

They crossed the pasture through the tall grass. The grasshoppers leapt into the air with the crackling whir of summer.

“Goodnight, kids,” said grandma at the back door. “Thanks for seeing me home.” She held each grandchild against her ample bosom and kissed each on the head. “Now be good,” she said, sending them off.

The kids raced back across the pasture. Because she was too small to manage it herself, Greg held the wires of the fence, and Martha Ann went through. This had been the most grown-up adventure of her life so far and she couldn’t wait for more.

“You kids want Popsicles?” Mary Ruth called out the backdoor.

With grandma gone, everyone could smoke in peace. The grownups all sat in a circle in the backyard, their cigarettes glowing ends of day against the purple coming night. Stories, disputes, and laughter rose with the smoke and settled in the memories of all the children.

Deer in the Headlights

Ich Liebe die Schweiz but it might not be always mutual. Why? I look like a Swiss grandma but I can’t understand Swiss German. So when a young woman at the grocery store said, €%~€|#%\#}\%#|€%#.£^%!” To me yesterday because I had improperly brought apples to the cash register (no tag for weight) I could only stare at her. Sigh.

Ich bin nicht ein Dumbkopf….

I did a bit better at the airport when the clerk selling overpriced salads told me to order from his colleague because his shift was over. He didn’t speak Swiss German, but so-called high German.

I have actually studied German for three years with Rosetta Stone and yesterday — my first back in Switzerland in 11 years — proved its value at least in the development of the passive language skills, reading comprehension and listening. The problem is I have never tried speaking German.

We are staying  in a converted 18th century barn owned by expat-Australians. It’s absolutely stunning — as are the owners. It is in the village of Obfelden in Canton Zurich a few minutes by foot from the village in which my ancestors lived. The house reminds me very much of my little stone house in Descanso. The living room floor tiles came from an old church! The floor is heated.

Living Room Floor

From our window we can see the total romance of the Swiss countryside — and the Rigi, a mountain loved and painted and described in poetry during the Romantic period.  Eight or ten sheep graze in a small field below us, the cheery sound of their bells says “Switzerland.”

For dinner I had Appenzeller cheese and truly good bread and one of the apples of shame. 😬 Breakfast? Yoghurt from Swiss milk and strawberries… And coffee but no Dusty to share it with.

Today we will be taking it easy. Lois has gone back to bed. I will go out soon to see where the Wanderweg sign outside the front door points and leads. At least my tiny Swiss German vocabulary in the Zurich dialect is Gruezi! = Hello.

Outside the Front Door




If you think humans communicate primarily in words, well, you’re mistaken. For most of the 200,000 years we’ve been around, we’ve communicated with things. In a way, words are one of the things we’ve devised to speed up communication. Enduring words are found on “things.”

Long ago (1959) my mom tried to communicate with me with this thing. This thing is an old trunk (duh). When I first met it, it was in my grandmother’s cellar and it was filled with books. Cool books, too. My mom’s books from an earlier, more dreamy, period of her life. One of those books had a huge impact on my life, and I wrote about it here. As time passed, the trunk came to our house and my mom started trying to figure out what to “do” with it. She thought of using it as a planter and had a custom metal box made to sit in the top instead of the old and broken wooden one (I don’t even know where that metal box went — but here’s the wooden one, where it’s been for well over 100 years). She got some Formby’s (the furniture refinisher of the day) and cleaned all the paper covering off the outside. She tried to repair the hinges in the back (they are still broken — unscrewed from the old wood, permanently, I’m afraid).

This thing. “You’ll inherit your grandmother’s sewing machine and the trunk.”

“What,” I thought, “will I do with that? I’m a world traveler, not an acquirer of stuff!!!”

Everyone acquires stuff, and this is my stuff now. I don’t know exactly what my mom was trying to say with the trunk. I know she felt it was important. I know she believed it belonged to my grandmother’s grandmother, one Phoebe Copenbarger. It could have come with my grandmother’s father’s mother, a Stober. My grandmother had HER Stober grandmother’s first name (Harriet).

All this leads to the question — who WERE these people and why should they matter to me? They didn’t matter to me much. All of that was so long ago, a dim past and memories that even my mother didn’t have…

My mom was convinced, however, and often said, “It came with Phoebe Copenbarger from the old country.” She didn’t even know what “old country.”

But I do…

Now that I’m writing a novel that is a VERY fictionalized account of the actual people in the actual old country I look at this trunk and wonder what influence it’s had on my life. My mom was interested in her “roots.” We went chasing after them when I was a kid. It was a lot more difficult back in the 60s to find out anything (and, in a way more interesting since it could involve travel and going to newspaper offices and libraries, not just sitting in front of a lap top and typing something in a search bar). Her work actually added something to the known facts of these obscure people. On a distant second cousin with whom I used to work has posted photos of our family that she got from my mom. Phoebe is the VERY old lady in the lower right corner…


So, the trunk. It could have come from the “old country” but Phoebe didn’t. She came from Virginia. The “old country” was four or five generations away from Phoebe. She is the daughter of the last person in my ancestry to have the name “Snavely” or “Schneebeli” — the name of a family from Affoltern am Albis, many of whom emigrated in the mid-18th century from Switzerland and the Alsace. I don’t think it’s very likely that the trunk came with the Schneebelis.


The hand-painted lithograph in the lid doesn’t say much — but my experience studying and writing about Godey’s Lady’s Book, and looking at thousands of images throughout the 19th century, puts it in the early-mid 1800s. Phoebe Copenbarger could have used it — but where. Maybe just to come west. I will never really know. I am sure, however, that when my grandmother, grandfather and their little family came west from Iowa to Montana in the early 1900s, grandma used the trunk.

I wish I knew the true story of this trunk. In any case (ha ha) it’s gone from being an annoying burden to tote around for the sake of “family” to an interesting relic that has been, maybe this whole time, trying to tell me something.

Learning About Schneebeli…and Religion and Pilgram Marpec

I’m researching and writing about Anabaptists in the early 16th century. (BTW, they didn’t call themselves “Ana”baptists, “ana” meaning “twice” — they believed in baptism of believers, grown up people who could choose for themselves. They were — in their own eyes — baptists. Infant baptism was not baptism at all.) I’m reading the work of a lesser known Anabaptist leader, Pilgram Marpeck, who seems to have sought and maintained a clear line between fanatic spiritualism and what was called “magisterial Christianity.” In those days (and now) there was a tension, and much disputing, about the role of the Holy Spirit in the salvation of man and the role of the Gospel. As a whole, Anabaptists shunned any government office as they refused to bear arms, take oaths or obey laws that went counter to their conscience and the law of God. There were fierce schisms; some groups were all about the gospel and the rules, and others were all about the holy spirit in the heart of man. They argued this to the point of murdering each other.

My guy, Pilgram Marpeck was a talented mining engineer who worked for a couple of governments in the Imperial Free Cities such as Strasbourg. The more I learn about him the more I like him. On the spirit vs. gospel question, Marpeck took the line that the spirit awakened man to the true meaning of the gospel; the rules and the spirit worked together.

It’s very difficult reading deeply into the reformation period. It was bloody and cruel and narrow minded and bigoted — in the name of God, so I was happy to find this man who seems to have been a man of God and a man who understood the needs of the people on earth for whom he was a leader.

On the question of whether or not Christians should be government leaders, he wrote (and this hits home for today, I think).

“There are many rulers, many temporal and spiritual tyrants who while appearing to be Christian, violate, judge and condemn…They rule before [they have known] patience distress and suffering even though tribulation has to precede glory. They become powerful before they have humbled themselves, they rule and govern before they serve, they condemn and judge before they have judged themselves.”

I was raised Baptist. My mother was raised by a Mennonite mother and a dad who? I do not know what my grandfather believed. But my grandmother descended directly from the culture about which I’m reading. It’s difficult for me to remove my own biases from the texts I’m looking over, but I have a new understanding of how dire things were for the small communities of people who attended “the church of the wood” because they had to hide. They weren’t good people either, necessarily; not at all. They were as narrow-minded and unkind as the deacons that threw me out of church back when I was 18. Apparently they were about the law and I was about the spirit, back then.

In looking at the religious struggles of the 16th century, I realized that the first thing I had to do was jump from HERE, 2014, the RESULT of the turmoil in which they lived (and a world of comparative religious freedom) to a world and people who had grown up with ONE religion that was both temporal and eternal master, that defined the culture, that essentially unified that world for a thousand years. The Catholic church. (Which, while writing Martin of Gfenn I came to like very much for many different reasons — anyway, I’d live in the 13th century rather than the 16th any day…).

With all I’ve been learning, I get very agitated when I read an article (diatribe?) about protecting the constitution of the United States, and I learn the article is written by a Fundamentalist Christian whose cry is no different from the cry of the Zürich reformers who were the FIRST to execute fellow protestants. So much of the foundation of this nation came not from the Iroquois or George Washington or the Enlightenment philosophers, but from the RECENT experiences of immigrants who had taken that journey just so no one could tell them how to pray. My ancestors arrived in 1735. A large number of those people settled in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York. There were enough of them that when the cry went up for a new nation the answering cry had to have been, “Fine. On one condition. We want religious freedom. We do not want the government and lawmakers to have anything to say about how we worship or how we pray or what we believe.”

My ancestor — Hans Kaspar Schneebeli — and his cousin came without papers. I don’t know if it was a bureaucratic oversight (hard to imagine because even in the 18th century, the Swiss kept track) or they ran away. They were told that if they went back to Zürich, they would be arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. Their family in Switzerland was worried, but Hans Kaspar Schneebeli wrote back, “It’s all right. I’m not coming back. Here I don’t have to lift my hat to any man.”

This man lost his wife, his daughter and one son on the voyage. He — the son of a well-to-do innkeeper in Canton Zürich, was completely broke by the time he and his family got to England and the ocean going vessel that would bring them to America. As indentured servants, he and his son worked off their passage and the passage of the family members who had died enroute.