The following is the second installment of the book entitled ‘The Migration’ and I will post five book pages at a time if there is any interest shown. Thank you to Karlos Van De Bestness for requesting this second installment. The first entry was made on January 7 2015 (‘I tossed out a few words’). This obviously picks up mid-stream.
This fixation with migration is behind why and how stories were handed down from my grandfather to my father, who took them to heart; and then entrusted them with me. His instructional sessions—as he called them—were not just about birds. He also told me about the migratory patterns of other creatures in the animal kingdom, but more significantly, he taught me why relocation is important, even essential. I first started learning about these journeys when I was quite young; soon after one glorious morning when I saw a magnificent flock of geese like I had never seen before and have not seen since.
On the fifth day of every month, my father called me onto the front porch to tell me the story—that’s what he called it—the story. The story was bigger and more distinguished than his instructional sessions and most of the time parts of those sessions would find their way into the story anyway. He said he told the story because he wanted to be sure I knew it so well I could tell it to my children without missing a word. I was five years old when he first said that. I could comprehend most of the story because my father seasoned it with sentences that I could understand and marinated it in words I hungered to know…but the idea of someday having children of my own…well that was still a mystery to me.
He said his father told him the story every day for forty years—an exaggeration, I’m sure—but now that I’m older I understand why he stretched the truth; it seemed like I heard it every day for forty years too.
Human nature is human nature and with exaggeration being what it is, some stories get stretched quite tightly over time. Not so with the story my father told—the story about migration and our family history, starting with my grandfather—because he took our family heritage very seriously and insisted that it remain intact and truthful.
“That was by design,” my father said almost every time he told it. Actually, what he said was “Son, don’t try to weave a rug where there ain’t no fabric.” He had a way of simplifying things so I could understand—when I was five. Somehow, as I grew older, it became more difficult to understand and even more complex. “That’s part of migration, just part of you learning about you, where you’ve been, where you’re going.” My father explained it that way each time I asked him why this was.
Many families have traditions they observe and pass down from generation to generation. My grandparents were quite poor and uneducated, not necessarily an enviable situation in North Carolina around the turn of the twentieth century. I say that to say this…our traditions had to be plain, simple, and especially, dirt-cheap. Free was even better than dirt-cheap, and the story my father told me was free but he always reminded me that the price had already been paid and now the telling and listening was free. He said he got that concept from the bible. Even though he wasn’t necessarily religious, he certainly used what he called ‘the God book’ as a guideline for living. Mom usually corrected him and said it was the ‘good book’, but he laughed and said, “Good…God…He’s a good God with a good book, woman, what’s the difference?” Her quiet chuckle made the house feel warmer on the coldest of cold Carolina mornings.
Biblical names were a common thread in our family’s history because my grandmother’s father, Obadiah, was a Baptist preacher who, as the story goes, could belch out words of hellfire and damnation with the best of them. My other great-grandfather was Pentecostal, and although he wasn’t a preacher, he knew every verse in the Bible where the Holy Spirit did something awesome.
One Sunday morning—and my father said this is as true as anything you’ll ever hear in church—my great-grandfather, Obadiah, actually started a fire in the pulpit using only his words and pounding his Bible. He loved to preach from the Old Testament because—and this is exactly what my father told me—“that’s the part of the Bible where God really flexes his muscle.” Of course, I got my name from the Old Testament because my mother wanted me to be like Gideon, a “mighty man of valor”…as the Bible calls him.
I have to admit the story of how I got my name was confusing to me at first because it had a whole bunch of Midianites and Amelekites lying in the valley; the Bible says they were “as numerous as locusts.” Now, growing up on a farm, I had heard my grandfather and father talk many times about swarms of locusts so I knew they weren’t something we wanted feeding on the crops. I didn’t know what Midianites and Amelekites were and in fact, some folks probably don’t know even now. Mom said I had to learn about them because I would understand the world better if I knew how they acted. I figured if they were lying in the valley they couldn’t be too trustworthy. Anyway, it seems that Gideon was threshing wheat in the winepress, hiding underground, when the Angel of the Lord called him a “mighty man of valor.” Well, it was a mystery to me for a long time why the Angel of the Lord would call him that when he was not doing much more than hiding from the enemy. Honestly, I suppose that part is still a mystery and probably explains some of my internal conflicts over the years.
We lived on a modest farm in a gracious house facing a small cornfield that produced enough corn to feed our family and the farm animals and sometimes a neighbor or traveler who had fallen on hard times. Our little house was warm and had sentimental value but otherwise was not worth much. Sometimes, while pacing around inside the house, my father would stop, and using his eyes as punctuation, said emphatically, “everybody falls on hard times once in a blue moon and when it happens, and it will happen,” with this pause, he pointed his finger at me and then glanced at each of my sisters, “it’s a good thing if you have been a giving friend.”
Most times this was the start of a lecture of some sort, and he started out with the same thought he had just expressed. It was not a written or spoken rule, but once he was this far into the discussion, it seemed best if no one left the room.
“Hard times will hit everyone, and they help build character. It can be good character, and you become stronger or bad character and in weakness even the best people can turn bitter and devious. When these difficult times hit, and mark my words they will hit, it is good to know your neighbor has enough corn in the field to help out or your field is fertile and your heart is full, and you will be generous and compassionate.” This sort of lecture held our little house together more so than did the wood and nails, cement and rounded stones used to construct it. When he was done with his lecture, he bowed his head and with closed eyes said, “Amen!” I guess I never really figured out if he was talking to my sisters and me and God happened to be in the room, or if he was talking to God and we were all in the room. It was the “Amen” at the end that confused me. I knew he never finished with “Amen” when he was talking to me alone so I suspect he was praying the whole time and kept his eyes open, in case I did try to sneak out of the room.
Those times revealed a lot about Benjamin Daniels. When he had his children as an attentive congregation he was transformed into a back roads preacher who waved an imaginary bible, pounded on an imaginary pulpit and lifted his voice so it carried from the room all the way across the corn fields where it was sifted like flour. I never knew whether he had the ambition to preach or if he was envious of my grandfather but either way, he would have done well if only he had the confidence and assurance—or as the bible calls it, the anointing.
The house wasn’t much to look at—either the one we lived in or the one where the livestock lived—but lots of love and the aroma of fresh baked bread or apple pie filled that house. My two youngest sisters, Esther and Sarah, did most of the baking because they didn’t yet have the ‘squeeze-strength’ to milk the cow…but they could sure put together a sweet smelling cinnamon apple pie. The girls were about a year and a half apart in age and—in heart—were about as close as sisters could be.
My other sister, Rachel, was the oldest of the girls and worked in the field and kept fresh fruit and vegetables on our table almost the whole year round. Rachel was a year and a half older than Esther and a year younger than me. Don’t worry about the math; just trust me, that’s how it was. All of my sisters were devout girls who read the bible daily and prayed with fervency that I had never seen and have not seen since. When those three girls got together it was with expectancy that God would answer their prayers expediently. I was convinced that God shuffled His priorities on more than one occasion when He knew the Daniels girls were banding together. Of course, Rachel, Esther, and Sarah all knew the significance of their names as they related to the Bible and none of them ever questioned why they were named as they were. They simply knew that they were living proof of the words in Ecclesiastes that “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”
When the girls were still quite young, my mother made what I considered to be a very odd request of them. As each of my sisters turned six, our mother sat down with the birthday girl, and together they selected ‘life verses’ from a section of the bible that related to her name. The verses were then embroidered on a burlap sack that was hung over their beds. I remember the words my mother spoke when the empty sacks were nailed onto the wall.
“Each time you look up from your bed, each time you stand in front of this lowly piece of burlap; I want you to consider the beauty of emptiness.”
None of the girls understood what our mother meant by “the beauty of emptiness.” At six, that was difficult to comprehend and as the oldest, when they asked me, I felt that I should know; but all I could tell my sisters is what I was being told by my father, “You will know when you know.” He always told me that when questions burned a hole in my heart. He was right of course, and somehow the timing seemed perfect when I finally understood. It made me feel smart in the presence of my sisters when I repeated words my father had taught me.
My mother chose burlap sacks as wall decorations because they were plentiful and once emptied of grain could be washed, dried and then dyed almost any color desired. Rachel selected purple, mauve really, and once she had the first sack hanging on the wall over her headboard it was as if she couldn’t stop; by the time Sarah picked her first sack Rachel had four of her own. On the first old piece of burlap were these words from Psalm 149:
1 Praise ye the LORD. Sing unto the LORD a new song, and his praise in the congregation of saints.
2 Let Israel rejoice in him that made him: let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.
3 Let them praise his name in the dance: let them sing praises unto him with the timbrel and harp.
4 For the LORD taketh pleasure in his people: he will beautify the meek with salvation.
Of course, the verses were actually selected by our mother and at six; each of my sisters was easily persuaded to accept what was given to her. Ultimately, they were lifetime verses selected by our mother, the one who knew what she had prayed and had unreservedly trusted that God would show His faithfulness in blessing her daughters with a fulfilled life.
Although our mother did the sewing and embroidery work on Rachel’s first burlap ‘beauty of emptiness’, Rachel was quick to learn how to clean and dye, embroider and sew the burlap sacks that followed. Since they were dyed at different times the sacks were slightly different shades of mauve, but this, Rachel said, made each unique and special. All four of her burlap sacks were embroidered with twine, scarlet in color, highlighted in indigo.
Of course, Rachel, an aspiring dancer, was partial to verses that referred to her passion. Her dream of someday becoming a ballet dancer was rekindled each time she read the words she had so meticulously embroidered onto her second common piece of burlap, a reminder of her beauty of emptiness. Her fingers had carefully labored over the words of the Psalmist in Psalm thirty:
10 Hear, O LORD, and have mercy upon me: LORD, be thou my helper.
11 Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness;
12 To the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O LORD, my God, I will give thanks unto thee forever.
Rachel spent hours at her spinning wheel, a homemade contraption made by our father using mostly barn wood and the metal bands from old wine barrels. He knew she would spend lots of uninterrupted time on the spinning wheel so he built a wheel that turned with some, but only a little effort. A foot pump, designed to help strengthen her legs and thus further prepare her for her dream of dancing, was placed especially for Rachel the tallest of my sisters. Spinning cotton was very meaningful to her because her handiwork, her scarlet thread and indigo thread were always going to be intertwined in the burlap sack, her ‘beauty of emptiness’; and of course, those of her sisters. Esther and Sarah were happy to relinquish the spinning wheel duties to Rachel, and neither showed any desire to make their own twine, so she happily did it for them.
Esther is the only one whose name is actually a book of the bible so it seemed that her choice of a scripture would be simple, yet it was more difficult for her to decide than either Rachel or Sarah. She finally decided on a passage from the Psalms and these verses became her lifetime scriptures. Esther was the most stubborn of all the girls and even at a young age she knew what ‘sounded right’ for her. It turned out that nothing in the book of Esther hit her just right and as hard as our mother tried to convince her to stay within her namesake, she was not interested.
Later this morning I will make a real Blog entry. I am still learning what a Blog is so bear with me. Time for a cup of Ghiradelli chocolate…