A family I knew

NOTE: This is one of a series — or rather a cluster — of posts that I am writing about my experiences at the ranch, not in any particular order. The first one was “Shooting Emma” and the second was “High, wide and handsome“.   

“Company, company! Where would we be without company?!”

— Sir John Middleton in Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility”

Up a little road from the ranch house, and then down a little road, less than ten minutes’ walk as I remember it, there sat a little farmhouse on the side of a hill facing west. It was one of several old farmhouses that long ago, before strip mining came to Ohio’s eastern hills, were the homes of independent farmers in the neighborhood, but were now the widely distributed holdings of the ranch property. The house had no running water (there was a natural spring outside, about twenty yards away), and it had no telephone. Its occupants were reached from the office of the ranch house by means of a citizens’ band radio. In this house, at the time I arrived in Ohio, lived David and Judy and their two daughters and their young son, a family that became very important to me over the year that I lived and worked at the ranch.   

I found myself more than once sitting at the table in Judy’s kitchen, taking refuge from the daily stress of the ranch house, trying to make sense out of what to me was an increasingly bizarre experience in my dealings with the ministry’s management. Judy somehow kept positive while listening sympathetically to my complaints about things down at the ranch house. She never, that I recall, contributed to the general murmurings of discontent — or the gossip — that pervaded the atmostphere of the ranch. And it wasn’t as though she was removed from it all. She worked in the kitchen of the ranch house, cooking huge meals — hundreds of pancakes or hot dogs or eggs — for dozens of camper kids and the staff, and cleaning up after them, which was more than a full time job. She often made sure there was a sheet cake on the counter, from which the wranglers could filch a slice between trails or other tasks. We had a young volunteer named Don who came to run the kitchen the summer I was there, but even with a person working full time, it still took the daily assistance of Judy and several other volunteers to keep the ranch house dining hall running smoothly.   

Judy, Joanna, Rebecca and the Small Man of God posing with Little Nemo, my car, 1991.

When she wasn’t working at the ranch house, Judy was homeschooling her daughters Rebecca and Joanna, whom she and David had brought to the ranch as young girls, and Jonathan, whom they had raised there since his birth. And when she wasn’t doing that, she was cooking meals for her own household, and canning preserves, hanging laundry, and making calligraphic posters for ranch events. All this, and she still had time to listen to my puny resentments with a smile. The refrigerator was a mosaic of faces of friends near and far, a photo gallery of people who had moved on but kept in touch. The shelf behind the kitchen table was lined with glass jars full of vegetables and fruits that Judy had preserved. I would say “put by”, but Judy didn’t use such rural colloquialisms. She was, I believe, a New Yorker by birth, and on one hot afternoon, while I sat in her kitchen enjoying some gespacho she had just made, she told me that she had been raised Jewish, had wandered to Buddhism as a young woman, and had finally found her spiritual home in the Church of Rome. She married David, an Irish Catholic, and I could see that the culture of peace, community, tolerance and service she wove around the family they raised together was made from the fabric of her broad spiritual journey.   

David was as rare as hens’ teeth. He mostly spent his days away from the madding crowd, gardening, splitting wood, praying, and having as little as possible to do with the ranch house. I sensed that like me, he had difficulty being around Uncle Bill, and I rarely saw him. I once sought him out in the woods where he was using a bow saw to cut rounds from a fallen tree for firewood, and he gave me encouragement over some matter that had clouded my vision, but that was one of the only times I remember speaking with him heart to heart.  

David and Judy had moved to the ranch from North Carolina in the ’80s, when Rebecca and Joanna were around 8 and 10. Their vision was not the same as Uncle Bill’s, but the ranch was large. I was frankly amazed that Judy’s smile and her generosity had weathered the ranch antics for so long. David and Judy were the kind of people that other people just wanted to be around. They embodied the idea of community. They were pioneers, and in some ways hold-overs, of a Catholic communal agrarian movement that had started in the 1960s and ’70s. The reason they had come to the ranch was because they had seen in its vastness and in Uncle Bill’s stated ecumenism the possibility of creating there the ideal Catholic community, centered around farming and traditional Church values. They lived in a kind of voluntary poverty at the ranch, using water drawn from the spring outside to cook and clean with. This lifestyle, and their attitude of hospitality to all who knocked upon their door, made them rather legendary among the local Catholic community that centered around a Franciscan university nearby. Catholic agrarianists who found their way to the university, where the movement was still alive and well, often were told the inspiring story of David and Judy, and how they happened to live not far from the city, and these seekers would end up driving up the long ranch driveway looking for these humble heros of the Church. We would direct them up the road past Ring pasture toward David and Judy’s house. I am not kidding about this; David and Judy have actually been written about several times before, and for years Judy was active in writing letters and articles for a magazine that celebrated and promoted the agrarian Catholic life. For the sake of their privacy, that’s all I’ll say about that. But for the academics and young students at the Franciscan university, David and Judy were the real McCoy. They were living the ideal.   

Joanna and her buddy Prairie King (a.k.a. "PK"). Photo by Amber MacPherson used by permission.

For me, David was a bit of a puzzle. When these visitors came, I saw a different David than the one that seemed so invisible most of the time. He would sit and talk excitedly for hours into the night with his fellow Catholics, many of whom arrived at his house complete strangers and left friends for life. I was not Catholic, and while David was generous to me in many specific ways, he saved his most enthusiastic fraternal energies for those who shared his Catholic agrarian vision. I only mention that in order to paint the full picture of the gratitude I felt when David accompanied Uncle Bill to the hospital while I was laid up with the pericarditis. I had agreed with myself that when next I saw Uncle Bill I would apologize to him for nearly a year of bad attitude; when Bill strode in — his cowboy hat undoffed — my courage almost failed me, but then I saw David coming in right behind him with a friendly, calm smile, his billed cap in hand and his wisps of red hair tousled, and my spirit was buoyed up again. I’ll never forget that moment. I spoke my peace to the chief, owned my part of the dissonance. Bill nodded and grinned in his way, a way that made me fear the leverage I was giving him (with good reason, as it turned out). But behind Bill, saying not a word, sat David, and his presence there made all the difference. David was my witness that I had done true, and his quiet support in that moment made it possible for me to go through with it. I imagine that that was a small and even forgettable moment in David’s life, but it was a large one in mine. We sometimes become angels.  

While I was there David built a small chapel not far from the house, with Uncle Bill’s acquiescence if not his blessing. A cardinal or bishop came out from the city to bless it, or consecrate it — I don’t know the liturgical term. I know it was an exciting moment in the life of David and Judy’s dream.  

One of my warmest memories of the little house over the hill was late in the fall (I think), when George and I and several others of the staff joined Judy and Rebecca and Joanna, and maybe even little Jonathan, around the table for a reading of Hamlet. Copies of the script were handed out as we sat in the dining room, and we all were assigned one or more parts. The mayhem and laughter was a release that we all needed. It was a chaos of un-Bardly illiterature. Lines were botched, or skipped, or said by the wrong person, or spoken with outrageous accents. I think we recorded it all, too. The wind howled outside while we howled within. As the little house enfolded us in our merry enterprise, all the stresses of the summer drifted away.   

No, we didn't take every single picture in front of my Bug, but I've lost most of my ranch pictures. Judy and her kids were at the center of the extended ranch community. Here most of the full-time staff of summer 1991 takes a break. Back row left to right: Jonathan on my shoulders, Judy, Bonnie, George, Joanna, Mary (a.k.a. "Myrrh"). Middle row: Geo, wearing my hat, Rebecca, crouching tiger. Front row: Julie, Amy, Mary McD, Fiona.

Rebecca and Joanna, at 17 and 15 years old, were bursting with intellectual fervor and youthful zaniness, almost unable to contain the boil of ideas in their heads. They were funny, bright and beautiful, and I felt priveleged being in the house when the family was gathered. Bonnie, one of the full-time, year round staff who was like an aunt to Rebecca and Joanna, bought them an old upright piano as a surprise for Christmas the year I was there, and we delivered it to the little happy house one frosty morning in the back of a pickup truck. Bonnie and Judy and David and George (and several others of us) led the girls off the porch and out to the gravel driveway, our hands covering their eyes. Thus “blindfolded”, they erupted into an impromptu reenactment of a blindfold scene from Return of the Jedi:   

Joanna: Han!   

Rebecca: Luke!   

Joanna: Are you all right?   

Rebecca: Fine. Together again, huh?   

Joanna: Wouldn’t miss it.   

Rebecca: How are we doing?   

Joanna: The same as always.   

Rebecca: That bad, huh?   

When not lines from the Star Wars movies, they recited lines of classic poetry or other literature. I couldn’t keep up with them, being by comparison ill-read and slow. Judy once told me that she had set out to raise “Renaissance women” out of them, and I believe she achieved her goal. 

Jonathan, who I think was seven years old, was usually outside hiding in a bunny hutch or chasing sheep, but when he was around I would hear David refer to him as “Small Man of God”. Once Jonathan and another, slightly older boy who had come with his parents to live on the ranch accidentally chased the sheep into the stables through the lower gate, which often remained open. It was a quiet moment when perhaps several trails were out, and I was up near the ranch house when I heard the worried bleating and sensed the alarm of the few horses that were tied to the rail in the stable. I saw this dirty cloud of sheep fume into the lower stable, which I knew they woudn’t do on their own.  Next I saw that Jonathan and Nathan were in there — Absolutely Forbidden without adult supervision — and I ran over and hollared at them to come up and out of there. They obeyed, nervously shouting back that the sheep “had gotten into the stables”. I went down, shooed the sheep back out and then came up to talk to the boys. They were worried. I think I would have presented a pretty grumpy spectre to them on the best of days, and they knew they were guilty. I knelt down to look at them on their level, and Nathan started chattering about what happened — all fabrication and dissembling. I interrupted and told them they weren’t in trouble. I wasn’t mad. Nothing bad was going to happen. They shushed. I told them I needed to hear them tell me what really happened, and they said they had been chasing the sheep, and then the sheep started going toward the stable, and they tried to head them off but only ended up making them run into the stables faster, and they thought they should get them out, which is the only reason they went into the stables. I wanted to laugh but instead tried to balanced a look of stern authority with genuine respect for their little drama. I thanked them for telling me the truth and reminded them that they were Absolutely Forbidden to go in the stables by themselves. Then I tousled their little heads and ran them off. 

Often one of the features of my visits, and the happy price of a slice of pie and some conversation and fellowship, was a trip to the spring with empty milk jugs, which I would fill up with the coldest, freshest water — a favor the family was extremely grateful for, since this was their neverending chore. Sometimes Rebecca would come with me, and we would sit next to the spring while the jugs filled and chew on sprigs of spearmint, but more often she opted out, since she’d filled them herself a crillion times. On those occasions I went alone and enjoyed the quiet. The family needed so little, and I owed them so much. Carrying the water was the only way I could show them my love. Once during winter when David hurt his back, I went over and chopped some of the wood he had collected by the front porch. The family allowed me to share their Christmas Day celebration with them that year, and I also remember one time when Judy made latkas, the traditional Jewish potato pancakes, and we ate them with applesauce after Judy covered her hair with a cloth and said a Hebrew prayer.   

Jonathan in the rabbit hutch, ca. 1991.

The first time I saw the the Aurora Borealis, the only time I have ever seen them, Rebecca and Joanna and I were walking along the road to their house after a darkness rich with the smells of hay and the bleating of sheep had descended on a long day of work. So far south, the “Northern Lights” were not phenomenally bright, but we paused to admire the green and violet strands at the zenith of the night sky. The sisters had seen them before. I have never forgotten that sight. The moment remains in my memory as one when I knew that everything was sufficient. 

The little family seemed eternally part of the ranch to someone like me, who only came for a year, but looking back I see how lucky I was to have been there when I was, because David and Judy (and Jonathan) left a few years after I did and established their own homestead not far away. Rebecca and Joanna had gone off to college, first at the nearby Franciscan university and then further afield. Both became and remain teachers (though Rebecca has returned, literally, to the soil of eastern Ohio and is also raising organic crops in a sustainable farm operation with her husband). They had served the ranch as camp counselors and wranglers — before they were 15 they knew every inch of the trails and the characteristics of each member of the herd (here’s a photo you’ve seen before of Rebecca) — and logged hundreds or maybe thousands of hours in the ranch house kitchen as well. Along with Judy, they had been an enormous benefit to the daily operations of the ranch house. I can’t imagine the ranch without them and I would venture to say it has never been the same since they left. For me, the little house just over the hill was the thing that kept ranch life from being untenable. More than that, it was a house and home to which the journey itself, for its own sake, was always worth it.

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4 Responses to “A family I knew”


  1. 1 Louis April 14, 2010 at 10:06

    What a wonderfully told remembrance, Matt. Thank you. I especially enjoyed the story of Jonathan and Nathan. When I read the part about you wanting to laugh, I envisioned you like this (starts @ 1:48)

    I had no idea one could see the aurora borealis from that far south. All my years in Bellingham and Vancouver, and I never saw it..met a lot of people from Alaska, the Yukon and Alberta who did though!..

    How many is a crillion?

    • 2 jstwndrng April 14, 2010 at 10:21

      That’s it exactly. Except I think I was younger than Hugh. Maybe not.

      Rebecca’s response to this post was to wonder why they never see the AB there anymore. I don’t think it was ever a very common occurance.

      1 crillion = 1,000 kajillion


  1. 1 Old as cut nails (the education of a wrangler) « Just Wondering Trackback on May 13, 2010 at 09:25
  2. 2 Horse « Just Wondering Trackback on July 15, 2010 at 16:01

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