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Planting Apples Trees (A Veteran’s Day Offering)

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Blog Post #46

On this Veteran’s Day I ask the question: What is greatness?

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When I think about what makes someone great, I can’t help but think about planting apple trees. *John Chapman, AKA “Johnny Appleseed,”was the son of a Minuteman who fought at the Battle of Bunker (Breed’s) Hill. Chapman spent a lifetime planting and cultivating a tart variety of apples, called “spitters,” (because that’s what you’d do if you bit into one), but which made good cider. He purchased lands to homestead, planted fifty acres of trees on a parcel, then sold the land to settlers throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois. His travels took him over 100,000 square miles of wilderness, and by the time he died, he owned 1200 acres. Avid in his Swedenborg faith, he remained unmarried and chaste throughout his life, and was an advocate for all animal life.

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Apple Cultivars “Spitters”

It wasn’t in the planting of trees, or the harvesting of apples, his unusual rustic garb, or his travels that made Johnny Appleseed great. I believe his greatness was in his unselfish labors, in planting something good for others to enjoy at some future time (rather than hoarding the fruits of his effort for himself). The backbreaking work of clearing land, preparing, planting, and cultivating fruit-bearing trees was not a passive hobby. It required sweat and toil. It was a labor of love and a selfless sacrifice. That’s why I think of his planting of apple trees as greatness. When someone plants an apple tree, knowing they will not benefit from its shade, fruit, or beauty, that’s selflessness, and selflessness for the good of others is greatness.

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Those who serve our country know what it means to give selfless service. They often sacrifice family, health, convenience, personal time, and the fruits they may have planted in their homeland of America, leaving a bounty of the blessings of preserved freedoms for those at home to enjoy while they labor on foreign soil.

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My father, Joe Culotta, is at front left.

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My Uncle Albert Mascari is standing 4th from the left

My father’s generation—the World War II generation— was truly great. Most of their generation understood and strived to live lives of decency, courage, self-sacrifice, self-mastery, and fortitude. They laid their lives on the line for the good of their families and others, for the good of their nation, and for the good of the world. Many, like my father, stepped forward and volunteered to serve before the draft. They saw a need and rose to the occasion without coercion or intimidation. They gave all for their beliefs, and for a love of liberty, and they did it without complaining or whining.  They were a willing and hard-working generation, and they did so honestly and with humility.  Sure, there are those who bucked this standard, but they were comparatively few.

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My mother, Veneta Mascari, was asked by Henrite Product Corporation to join the war effort working as a draftswoman in 1944

Those of that generation who remained at home were great, too. They worked for the USO, and stocked the garners of liberty with their offerings, doing what they could: newspaper drives, rubber drives, sewing, cooking, entertaining troops, and giving what they had to give. My mother wrote to servicemen, and worked as a draftswoman for the war effort. These folks had love of country branded in their hearts, and that patriotism appeared in their music, movies, conversations, billboards, and by their home fires.

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Yes, there were evil folks in that generation, too. Yes, there were those who were lazy, self-serving and contemptible, and no, I’m not suggesting that their generation alone cornered the market on that which was great. There are many great men and women from generations prior to theirs, as well as after, and also today. There is much good in the world today.  While we are bombarded with the notion that society, in general, is tipping the scale in a direction away from decency and selflessness toward incivility and self-gratification, and there does appear to be more concern about who is “wrong” than what is right….And though the banks of meaningful conversation are overrun by a glib texting of words and tweets, and an inability to listen to or value what is precious to another, or to find the common ground that unites us as a people, and as members of humanity….And even if much of what we see and hear casts the pendulum as swinging away from civility…. Even though it is possible, even probable, that all of this is rooted in truth, I look around at my neighborhood, and am grateful to see an overwhelmingly quiet, industrious, respectful and generous body of people. These are good people who care about each other, and perform quiet acts of service for neighbors – neighbors they didn’t choose, but have embraced.

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We have neighbors who took the trouble to build a counter on which they freely give away lemons and limes in season.We have neighbors who bring us delicious persimmons, peaches, and plums – sharing their bounty with others. We have neighbors who create marvelous light displays for others to enjoy during the holidays. We have neighbors who overwhelmed us with their kindness when death reached our doors. We have neighbors who anonymously leave flowers, notes, and gifts on our doorstep. We have neighbors who take in our mail, and return our garbage cans without our asking. We have neighbors who are decent, kind and serve others. We have “great” neighbors; we have “Johnny Appleseed” sorts of neighbors. I hope we may be found in every way equal to our neighbors in these selfless acts of  goodness.

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9-11 “Tribute in Light” Memorial

We are all the same, really. From my perspective, 9-11 gave proof of that. When 9-11 happened, for a small moment in time, the people of America laid aside personal biases and agendas, and became one in charity and in patriotism – linking arms, hearts, and minds to comfort the downtrodden, provide aide to the suffering, and preserve what was most dear to us all.  For a moment, we as a unified nation assumed the attributes of the greatest generation.  In most scenarios, we saw others the way we saw ourselves – vulnerable, hopeful, and in many ways, equal. We cared about each other because someone from without was threatening our way of life and our very lives in a very real and tangible way.

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Abraham Lincoln

In Abraham Lincoln’s famous Address, which he delivered to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on January 27, 1838, titled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” he said these words:

“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”

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Daguerreotype of Abraham Lincoln taken in 1846

During the 1858 Senatorial campaign, Lincoln also said:

“Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as a heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors.”

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Believed to be the last known surviving apple tree planted in Nova, Ohio by John Chapman 

It’s not too late to plant apple trees instead of “the seeds of despotism” for the next generation…to leave a positive legacy for our children – for our posterity – of hope that feeds the body and soul with the fruit of goodness, kindness, truthfulness, respect, tolerance, faith, and love. It’s not too late to live for others.

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“John Chapman: He lived for others.” 1774-1845  (What a great epithet!)

“Surely God would not have created such a being as man, with an ability to grasp the infinite, to exist only for a day! No, no, man was made for immortality.” (Abraham Lincoln, 1858 Senatorial campaign)

End Piece

© November 11, 2016

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, dear friends, for reading.

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The Volunteer

Blog Post #41

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Mojave Desert

This year, our otherwise fruitful garden looks more like the Mojave Desert. After much deliberating, my husband, Brad, chose not to plant his favored vegetable garden because of the amount of water it would require during a time of serious drought. Reluctantly, he sacrificed his annual indulgence of thick, red, juicy slices of homegrown garden tomatoes to go on his homemade bread spread with a generous layer of homemade basil pesto. We still have the bread and pesto, but let’s face it—eating a grocery store tomato is like biting into a bar of soap. I was sad when he told me his plans, because I know how he looks forward to this summer delicacy each year, often eating his healthy, tomato-y treat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all in the same day!

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A few months ago, our grandson, Max, came to do some yardwork and weed the neglected garden plot. As I was showing him what he needed to pull-up, we found a small tomato plant had pushed its way up through the soil and was competing with the weeds for sun and for the gentle showers that were the gift of Kind Providence throughout the winter and spring. I put a stake in the ground next to the little volunteer tomato plant to identify it, and told Max to pull up everything but the tomato. I was excited to show it to Brad when he got home from work!  However, it’s hard to beat “Nature’s Son” when it comes to anything having to do with the natural world. He had spotted it long before I did.

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Hobble Creek Canyon, Springville, Utah

I’m not sure why I thought I could see it first. Eons ago, when we were dating, Brad would be driving up Hobble Creek Canyon in Utah at forty miles per hour, and would point to a mountainside from here to the North Pole, exclaiming, “See those deer on the side hill?” I’d strain my eyes in the general direction he pointed. I saw the mountain all right; I saw trees in abundance, but no deer. Squinting like an utterly bewildered four-year-old intently focused on the night sky at the end of her dad’s pointed finger as she tried to locate Cassiopeia, I’d say with frustration, “WHERE?”  To which he’d once again point in the general direction of Lake Erie and cry, “Those little white things—on the side hill!” “NO! I don’t see them!” I’d cry, desperate, now.  “There!” he’d announce with greater intensity and heightened pitch. Again, I’d stare wild-eyed at the mountain looking for the white things, with one eye wandering (like ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody) toward the road—since someone needed to look at it. Finally, after whizzing by that blur of mountainside, he’d back up the Ford Bronco and pull to the side of the road.

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Old Ford Bronco similar to the one Brad drove

After ten more minutes of straining, at last, I could see the teeny-tiny, spots that were deer way off in the distance, their little white tails sticking up in alarm—as if they knew Mr. Telescope Eyes had caught them in the act of bathing. I marveled each time this happened. (I came to realize his eyes were sharp enough and trained enough to spy those bitty camouflaged specks of deer on the mountain while watching the road at the same time. I don’t know how he did it, but he did it dozens and dozens of times.)

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Lone mule deer on side hill. Imagine trying to locate this deer with the state of Vermont between you and the mountainside.

And I thought he hadn’t seen the little tomato plant….

The Volunteer

 

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The Volunteer

 

As I washed dishes, I watched the little tomato plant from the kitchen window. Moved by its courageous efforts, I went out to admire its deepening red fruit. It stood there, alone, but triumphant in that deserted garden—a monument to the strength and tenacity of a lone, little seed. The thing that most touched me was that this little plant had volunteered. It hadn’t been carefully coddled as a seedling, nor had it been transplanted like a start from a nursery. Someone else had not made the decision. It had sprung up of its own accord, against the odds, amidst neglect, and among weeds that were strangers and competitors of all it required to thrive. Not only did the little tomato plant forge onward and upward, alone in the world, it spread its leaves out and gathered in the rays of the sun, amassing strength and power to benefit its fledgling roots, asking nothing of anyone, and defying naysayers. That would be enough to admire, but that’s not all. This little volunteer is producing fruit. I counted twenty-eight tomatoes in various stages of development on its branches last evening. It volunteered in order to bless others—in a sense, the ultimate sacrifice: to give its life for its friends.

 

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A second volunteer

As I walked back toward the house with my camera in hand, pondering the little tomato plant, I noticed another volunteer. Bedecked in brightly colored regalia, it called to me to notice its offering—that of beauty and cheer. I smiled as I crouched down to take its picture. Living up to its name, little Johnny Jump-up had done just that. I realize some consider this little viola a weed because it springs up readily all over the place and with very little assistance. I see it as one of those volunteers who, tiny as it is, spreads its exuberance and optimism in the least likely places—growing just as well in topsoil as in cracks in the cement. I welcome its offering and praise its purple badge of courage for forging ahead –smiling in the face of the danger presented by its location in the sidewalk.

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I walked through the rest of the yard and was surprised to discover other characters who had long been there, but whose alter egos I hadn’t discovered before.

The Encroacher

 

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The Encroacher

All along the walls of our backyard are encroachers—vines that began growing in someone else’s yard, then gradually, stealthily, snuck-up on ours. They have now climbed and spread their leafy tentacles over the wall. Repeatedly we’ve cut them back, but without regard for our wishes, they continue to march over the wall like another wave of infantry ready for combat on the field of battle. They are determined, and ruthless, weakening the fence on the east until it has taken to leaning, and creeping onto and over the ground on the south. They care not for what we think, or what we want. I resent their pushiness. It’s not as if they’re volunteers—springing up from the ground from a forgotten seed like our little tomato.  No, they’re well-established old-timers—“The Good Ol’ Boys” of the plant world—who, with their cronies, push their network of intolerant “plantism” into our yard where they’re completely unwanted.

The Fighters

 

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The Fighters

In the yard, there’s an old, cement fountain bowl that my father made four decades ago, but cast aside because it wasn’t perfectly round in shape. (I say cast aside, not threw away. There’s a difference. My parents were of the depression era mindset that you don’t throw things away.) In time, my mother filled that old fountain with dirt and planted it with succulent plants and cacti. It sat for years in the corner of the yard on the kitchen side.

When Brad and I moved home a decade after my mother’s passing, I relegated the failing fountain succulent planter to the opposite end of the yard, filled it with fresh dirt and planted it with a variety of pretty flowers and greenery. It looked beautiful that first season, but the drought and heat took their toll and all of the plants died. I thought.

I found that each spring, drought or not, up pop these lovely little purple dwarf flowers  (Nierembergia Caerula) in a corner of the ring. They pay no heed to their location on the nether side of the yard, near the basketball court where they’re bound to get pounded at times, and where water comes in small increments—especially in that old cement bowl. They stand up shouting for respect—respect for their resilience, for their determination to survive, and for their beauty. And deservedly so. They’ve fought root and stem for their right to survive and I applaud their perseverance and admire their beauty!

The Pleasers

 

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The Pleaser

My artichoke plants have really worked hard to please. It isn’t their fault that they were planted in the middle of an ant metropolis, or that they were planted just when we were learning how expensive water is in our community, or how serious the drought had become. And it certainly isn’t their fault that their husbandmen were inexperienced with artichokes and did not know how to take better care of them so their fruit would be moist and tender. They have given their all to produce. They’ve grown to enormous proportions, producing more than twenty artichokes on a single plant. They are amazing! Unfortunately, they are tough to eat, even when picked young. Artichokes can be a labor-intensive dish to prepare (the way my mother taught me is labor intensive, but delicious). After trying to cultivate, harvest and prepare them several years in a row, I have now retired our artichoke plants.

But they are Pleasers. Brad cuts them down to the ground, and they immediately begin growing back with large and flourishing leaves. Soon more artichokes appear. I look at them and sigh. Right now, with the dynamics of our lives, I don’t have the time, energy or patience to wrestle with those tough, spiky, ant-beridden buds only to be disappointed by their toughness. Being the pleasers they are, they don’t give up there. No! After growing to the size of softballs, the buds open up their pointed petals, and begin to produce the most beautiful, soft to the touch, lavender flowers related to the thistle family. Showy? Yes! Worth the wait? Absolutely! They found a way to please—if not epicuriously, then by appealing to one’s sense of mystery, beauty and art.

The Old Stalwart

 

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The Old Stalwart

Walking back toward the house, I stopped and contemplated the great, old Peruvian Peppertree casting its cooling shade umbrella-like over the patio. For close to fifty years it has stood firm and immovable, enduring years of plenty, and years of neglect (during which time my elderly father mourned the loss of my mother), as well as undergoing hefty pruning over the decades. The Old Stalwart created a beautiful canopy for our eldest daughter’s wedding reception twenty years ago, and now, protects my father’s great-grandchildren who play under its branches from the searing rays of the sun. With quiet dignity, it stands apart, a giant beacon of hope, strength, and endurance.  It is both mighty, and serene. It is friend, and grandfather, and it is beautiful to me—like an old friend.

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Each time I walk through the yard—even though relentlessly affected by drought, or maybe because of it—I see our garden in a new way. Mother Nature’s creations are not wimpy, or cowering, but endure with a strength and resilience that demand respect and inspire awe.

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Stopping once more to gaze with admiration at The Volunteer, I am flooded with gratitude to that little tomato plant. I wonder if the seedlings from which it sprang have infused within their DNA the hours of tender-loving nurturing and care Brad gave their parent plants, and are returning the favor in kind. I think Brad will relish every single bite of those precious few tomatoes this year, and they will be the sweetest, most precious ever because they were freely offered!

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“Freely ye have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8)

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Einstein Quote

The True Measure of a Man

End Piece

© June 3, 2016

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, dear Friends, for reading.


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The True Measure of a Man

Blog Post #2


“Till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me.”
Job 27:5

My father just celebrated his 91st birthday, which has spurred me to reflect on his remarkable life. Not until recently did it occur to me how truly remarkable many of his life choices were. As a child, I was oblivious to his strong will, drive, and determination. But with each passing year, his focused effort, tenacity, self-initiated learning and dedication to family set an example even a child could not miss. 

From humble beginnings, he saw his deficiencies and worked diligently to overcome them. His mother withdrew all of her children from school when her own mother died. Because of this, Daddy became two years behind his grade school classmates, putting him in an awkward position. Because he was older and stronger than the other kids in his grade, he was a defender of the younger kids against bullies and got into scrapes to protect them.


After failing to complete an assignment during the second grade, his teacher made him stay after school to memorize the poem he hadn’t prepared earlier. He not only memorized the poem, but still recites it today: 


 “It Couldn’t Be Done” by Edgar Albert Guest

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done,
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he [started] right in with [a powerful] grin….
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it!


(I have written it the way he always recites it, which is slightly different from the original.)

That was the beginning of a long and deliberate exercise in committing to memory everything from facts and figures to complicated family pedigrees.

Moving to Italy with his family at age thirteen, he spent three years in Sicily—never attending a day of school during that time. Circumstances bordering on the miraculous made it possible for him to leave Italy prior to WWII, where he was being tracked for entry into the Italian Navy. He was a U.S. citizen and did not want to serve a fascist country. Patriotic to the core, he has always been an advocate for America.

Fast forward to 1942—World War II. Daddy enlisted, and was stationed in Bermuda with the Naval Air Corps, serving in the North Atlantic Theater as a Photographer’s Mate 2nd class, and an aerial gunner. 

My Father

One of his buddies bet Daddy fifty cents that he would take up smoking before the end of the war. Guess who won the fifty cents! He never took up the habit. The dollar amount was less important than the principle involved. His iron will and the inner drive to win the bet did the trick. He also abstained from swearing and drinking—deliberate choices. It never occurred to me how remarkable this was until I was much older. 

Equally astonishing was how he spent his free time. When his navy pals were carousing in bars, you’ll never guess where Daddy was! He was in the library memorizing poetry such as Poe’s Raven. He had quite a repertoire when I was a child. On our outings, he recited poetry and sang opera arias that I also grew to love. 

He tells the story of when he was scheduled for a routine air patrol at night. A specified number of  hours in the air had to be logged by a deadline each month if he wanted to receive more pay; this particular flight would accomplish that. When the time for the flight arrived, he found his buddy—who was also scheduled for the flight—totally inebriated. Rather than leave his friend for the better pay, he helped him get home, cleaned up, and to bed, only to find out in the morning that all men on the flight they missed were never seen or heard of again. 

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I have always felt the significance of this story, and the impact on Daddy’s life, and on mine! Now that I’m older, I realize how critical his choices and preparation were to the outcome. 

After the war, he set high standards of fidelity, hard work, and dedication to family for which I’ll always be grateful. Earning two college degrees without first having a high school education was a feat of sheer determination. Married to our mother for nearly fifty years before her passing, he was devoted to her and to our family. We knew where he stood because his feet were firmly rooted in living what he believed, and because he shared his convictions with us through word and deed.

My father often qualifies his stories about the war with the fact that he never saw any real “action” during the four years of his service. But in my mind, his “actions” in the navy, in marriage, and in life in general are noteworthy—deserving a medal for strength of character, compassion, faithfulness, generosity, love, and courage. He has always walked a path of individual integrity, and in doing so, has often stood alone. 

That makes him a true hero to me.

© Copyright April 7, 2014