Family reunion breeds conviviality, thank heavens

Residents of our little village must have wondered what in heaven’s name was going on Sunday at Church Sweet Home.

We clanged the gong, a.k.a. rang the church bell, at least four times that day as we toured folks through our restoration project, a church converted into a home.

The tourists? Tyler’s extended family. We hosted the family reunion of the maternal side of his family, which meets every year at rotating locations. This year was his mother’s turn, and we offered to have her host it at our house.

So 48 folks showed up from North Carolina, South Dakota, Nebraska, Illinois and as far away as Hawaii.

It was raucous and beautiful and strange. After a year and half of staying away from people, we mingled unmasked in the house, in the garage and in the yard; dipped spoons into communal potato salad and baked beans; and breathed the same air. How familiar and weird. I loved it.

As I sat in a lawn chair in the yard surveying the crowd, I wondered if the Methodists who used to occupy our church building ever had a picnic here. The scene reminded me of Georges Seurat’s iconic work, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884 (an oil painting in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago). “Bedlam,” “scandal,” and “hilarity” were among the epithets used to describe what is now considered Seurat’s greatest work, according to the Art Institute. We reunion-ers didn’t have a lake or parasols, but we did have a dog and ladies in hats. No bedlam here (though a six-year-old hanging onto the bell pull was lifted off the ground at one point in the bell-ringing, to my great surprise!).

Besides tours for the adults (and some inquisitive childrenI just love second graders), Tyler manned the grill for lunch, and we offered sidewalk chalk and a bubble machine for the kids.

We also provided a photo opportunities. We offered folks the chance to dress up as Jacob Blair IV, Tyler’s great-great-great-grandfather, and I also took a photo of the whole Blair clan from the belfry window. It was fun.

I even chose a quote about family for the church sign.

Sunday’s gathering is exactly the type of event for which the church was originally designeda large group of people meeting for fellowship and in love. I am so grateful we can gather again safely.

Fruitful Labor tells sweet story about a centenarian I know well

She lived on this earth almost as long at the old Methodist church we turned into our home.

Grandma was born in 1915, about 24 years after the construction of the building that would one day become Church Sweet Home.

She passed away in 2019 at age 104.

I was given the diaries she kept from 1985 to 2009, her retirement years, and I spent several weeks last year sifting through the entries to write a biography (it was not unlike sifting through the detritus left in the church to create our home). And today is launch day!

Fruitful Labor: How to Live to 104 Gracefully, Gratefully describes my grandmother’s life, her faith and her labor, usually related to gardening and making pies (more about her pies here). The title, Fruitful Labor, comes from a verse in the first chapter of Philippians in reference to life here on earth. Here’s the book synopsis:

Laura Wallgren (1915-2019) was a farmer’s wife, a devoted Christian and a talented quilter. Living a simple life among the rolling hills of New York Mills, Minnesota, Grandma Laura was plain speaking, spunky and a little bit vain. She also was one of those rare Americans who lived to 104. Can you imagine? Even she couldn’t imagine. The centenarian said more than once she didn’t know why she had lived so long. But the answer may be found among her twenty-five years of diary entries documenting family, good food, the weather and gratitude for all of it.

Revealing a retirement story that unfolds in a small town in the mid-1980s to 2009, Wallgren’s journals feel like an anthropological study of a Central Minnesota widow. The diaries are a quilt of sorts, detailing the dash between the years of birth and death. From the threads, Wallgren’s granddaughter Monica Lee coaxes stories of her grandmother’s appreciation for fresh fruits and vegetables, an accident in which Wallgren breaks her neck at age 84, and a touching account of a daughter-in-law’s battle with cancer. Each day is its own unique block, yet knitted together, patterns emerge, colors coordinate and a beautiful tapestry of family love and personal perseverance emerges.

A charming tale of family ties, over-the-top gardening and persisting despite the brutal Minnesota winters and the volume of grief only a 104-year-old experiences, this heartfelt portrait of a Midwestern centenarian who carries on with grit and humor is like a Wallgren family recipe for fresh strawberry pie (recipe not included).

Fruitful Labor has been available since December, but I waited to officially launch it until I could send copies to my cousins, Grandma’s grandchildren, to whom the book is dedicated. I put this book together with them in mind. Paging through Grandma’s diaries these past few months made me feel so close to her, and I wanted them to feel the same. We all are clear evidence of Grandma’s presence on earth, and now this book is another way she lives on.

Whether or not you like pie or knew my grandmother, you might enjoy this little book (and pick up a few tips for longevity, the first being if you’re gonna eat pie, you should make it from scratch). You can get Fruitful Labor everywhere there’s wifi. Fruitful Labor is available on Amazon as both a paperback and Kindle version, and it’s priced to share:


Wine is sunlight, held together by water

Our story so far: While my husband was working on the big and noisy work of constructing an adjoining garage on the church we converted into a home, I was working on smaller and quieter projects.

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I also unpacked box after box of cookware and serving ware. Cast iron, stainless steel, non-stick, porcelain. Crystal, ceramic, glass, bamboo. Oval, round, rectangular, decorative. All the large, fancy and heavy pieces we didn’t bring with us in the RV but couldn’t bear to part with were now unpacked and homes found. When we entertained, I pulled out a butter knife with quiet satisfaction. Such an inconsequential but lovely flourish I could offer guests once again. For the butter. Which was served in a ceramic butter dish instead of a Tupperware one. This small thing made me happy.

And glass wine glasses! Oh, the simple joy of a real wine glass. For many months while we had traveled in the RV, I drank wine from plastic glasses unless I dined out (and, believe me, I appreciated using glass when I had the opportunity). Glass glasses were so much more civilized, sophisticated and aesthetically pleasing than plasticware. I unpacked all but one of our glass wine glasses intact and stowed them in the cabinets of our new beverage bar. A few days into the garage construction project, my parents paid us a visit, and my clever father installed a plethora of cabinet organizers, including the stemware holding rack that turned my wine glasses from functional pieces into art.

stemware rack
My new stemware rack in use.

I was still surrounded by boxes when Mom and Dad arrived, but with their help over the course of seventy-two hours, we made much progress. They arrived bearing news: “When we drove by Home Depot,” Dad said, “they had a sign that said, ‘Tyler and Monica, We Miss You!’”

Oh, ha, ha. Yes, our visits to the store had reduced in frequency but had in no way come to an end (shortly after Mom and Dad left, I ended up making two trips to Home Depot in a single morning).

When I offered Mom a drink and recited the options, she said, “Oh, your aunt will be pleased. She thought your beverage bar only offered coffee, beer and wine, and she doesn’t drink any of those, but I didn’t know you had water, too.” Indeed, the DrinkPod had been installed and dispensed filtered water in three temperatures: cold, room temperature and hot. Mother learned its ease of operation and helped fulfill drink requests for the remainder of her visit.

My parents also came bearing delicious gifts of harvest: Fresh buttercup squash from their Minnesota garden, two kinds of apples from Dad’s orchard, honey from their property they rented out on the plains of North Dakota, jars of homemade applesauce, homemade chokecherry jelly, and real maple syrup collected and cooked by the pastor who had once confirmed me in church.

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Today’s headline is a quote from Galileo Galilei, the 17th century Italian scientist who discovered Jupiter had moons revolving around it, among many other physical and astronomic observations. He was twice accused of heresy by the church. And apparently he was a fan of wine, which he, alas, most likely drank out of a vessel made of something other than glass.

Tomorrow: Dad does a jig. Read about it here.

Be not forgetful of hospitality for by it some have entertained angels unaware

Our story so far: Bit by bit, we moved the essentials into the old church we renovated into our home.

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Tyler made a huge vat of spaghetti for dinner, our first opportunity to entertain—truly entertain, during which drinks were offered and we sat in chairs around a table—in the church, now our home. As usual, he made enough for an army even though it was just my stepdaughter and her husband (my granddaughter was eating solid food, but certainly not spaghetti). So we recycled the leftover sauce over spinach lasagna roll-ups when his mother and her significant other joined us for dinner a couple of days later. It made me so happy to sit around the table, mostly relaxed, enjoying the company of family.

candles at the table
My autumn centerpiece. The candles smell like toasted marshmallows.

The next night, Tyler cousin and her husband joined us for dinner. This couple graciously hosted us in their yard during the lingering weeks it took us to close on the church the autumn before. His cousin brought me a gift: Miniature decorative pumpkins she’d picked out of her patch that afternoon; I tucked them around my impromptu tray of candles to create a seasonal centerpiece. Instead of sitting around the table, we dined casually at the tongue of the island, where the hanging seeded-glass pendants splashed light over us as we enjoyed steak and each other’s company.

Family, food and fellowship—exactly what I imagined we would be doing in our new home.

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Today’s headline comes from Hebrews 13:2.

Tomorrow: Chapter 41 opens. And we’re back where we began. Read about it here.

Visitors from afar

Our story so far: The drywallers began work on the 126-year-old Methodist church we were turning into our dream home.

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Just as walls were taking shape, my parents who lived in Minnesota came for a visit.

I almost always brought home A’s from school, but better than any report card was showing my parents around the church. Finally, they could see in three-dimensions all we had been describing, lo, these many months.

The day after walking through our future home the first time, I asked my parents what they thought.

“Well,” my mother said, “we think you’ve come a long way in five months. But you have a long way to go.”

My 70something father is an avid woodworker, and he had contributed beautiful built-in bookshelves to both of my last two houses (alas, the bookcases are still there, even if I’m not) so naturally, he lent a hand to the church reconstruction project while he was here.

This is one of the balcony columns that required special attention. Doesn’t Dad do nice work?

Tyler wanted something tougher than drywall wrapping the two pillars holding up the balcony. Those posts will be in a high-traffic area near bar stools that may get backed into the posts on exuberant occasion. Dad agreed to wrap the pillars with vinyl board (think of the material in PVC pipes, only flat). He and I traipsed around Home Depot together to find the right stuff and delivered it to the church, where Dad spent one morning measuring twice and cutting once to make our pillars look as clean and nearly finished as our walls.

The three of us, Mom and Dad and I, also paid a visit to the impressive showroom where I found the Lighting Savant (and lot of distinctive light fixtures). Mom and Dad needed some advice and some pendant fixtures for their kitchen. They found both—the Lighting Savant was just as helpful to them as he had been to me.

A successful visit all the way around.

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Tomorrow: Tyler gets busy outside. Read about it here.