What Did the Preacher Say?

Some must have been incredulous. Of all the sacred writings, the preacher chose as his sermon text the verse from the Book of Deuteronomy that begins, “One does not live by bread alone.” I am thinking of the penniless poor who gathered to hear what the wandering preacher would say to them.

In many Christian churches this past Sunday, the First Sunday of Lent, the story from Matthew’s Gospel was read in which Jesus quotes to Satan this same verse: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

On other occasions, the preacher’s own words, “Blessed are the poor,” must have caused unbelief or a wry smile or hilarity among those who had no bread and were on familiar terms with hunger. Or did they? Who knows better than the poor that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions?

Here is a brief poem about how this teaching may be received by any of us.

Not By Bread Alone

It is written, “One does not live
by bread alone…”
–Jesus of Nazareth

Those in want,
who have no bread,
cannot believe this

and others,
who have never
hungered, soon forget.

Which of these,
my dear Savior,
have I been today?


“Why, that’s today,” I said to myself. It was February 21, less than a week ago, and I was one hundred ninety-three years late for the wedding. Justine Friederike and Hermann Heinrich said their vows on February 21, 1821. As you might have guessed from their names, they lived in Germany or a part of Germany that was then Prussia. As it happened, the February 21 date was also the groom’s birthday. He was twenty-five years old on his wedding day, and the bride would be eighteen on the first of June.

Or maybe she had already turned eighteen the previous July.

Justine and Hermann were my great-great-grandparents. I have been looking on hoping to find out something about their lives. As one might expect, they have a great many descendants by now, and I found their names on a dozen family trees besides my own.

The records, however, have lots of troublesome discrepancies besides two different dates of Justine’s birth. In my family tree, her maiden name is Boeker, but in others it is Hanke, the same as her married name; in a few others, it is Noetzel. Two different sets of parents are given to Justine. I had to consider the very real possibility that there were two young women in the town at approximately the same time, both with the name Justine Friederike. But that can’t be right, either, as in all the records, Hermann Heinrich Hanke is named as her spouse.

The couple had several children; their firstborn, Christian, born in 1823, became my great-grandfather; Another son, Herman, born in 1825, eventually came to America and settled in California. Their daughter, also named Justine, was born in 1827, and their third  son,  Johann, was born in 1831.

Then, big news—to me, at least.  Whether Hermann passed away or the marriage ended in divorce, I do not know, but the records seem to show that Justine later married a man named Adam Noetzel. They, too, had several children:  Samuel, born in 1834; Charles, born in 1836, and Augusta, born in 1838.

The Noetzel family came to America in 1868 and settled in Wisconsin. Adam died the following year, and Justine died October 7, 1885. The Wisconsin Find-a-Grave Index names a Justine Friederike Hanke Noetzel and quotes from her obituary as follows:  “On Wednesday, at 11:45 P.M., Mrs. Justine Noetzel departed this life at the ripe old age of 83 years… Grandmother Noetzel was a kind old lady and was respected by all who knew her.”

Although I am not a genealogist, I am intrigued by the way genealogists must piece together little bits of information, weighing likelihoods when certainties are questioned. If the Justine Noetzel who is laid to rest in a cemetery in Wisconsin is the same person as in my family’s history, then Justine outlived two of her sons from her first marriage. Herman, we know, died in 1879. Christian, my great-grandfather, was no longer living in 1881. That was the year his widow Friederike came to America and settled in Nebraska. Did the two women know each other’s whereabouts? Did they exchange letters?

That’s how is, I think, with family history and perhaps with all history. From the obscure past, sometimes, a person may come into our awareness to capture our attention for a while. We pore over names and dates wishing we could ask, “What was life like, for you?” even while knowing we will never really know.

New Book

My next book will have a very few readers. That is because of the small number of copies: one, to be exact. It is to be called The Little Elephant’s Book of Quotations.

This is how it came about: my son and daughter-in-law in New York sent me a blank journal as a Christmas gift this year. In the past, my children and others have given me several such books. They seem to know the delight of pages pristine and waiting to be written upon.

Yes, I have a few of them. My journal with the Italian faux leather cover became a book of prayers. My small green book contains poems I hope someday to have memorized. The book with a fabric cover embroidered in flowers is now titled Words to Cherish, in which I keep and preserve nice things that are said to me. I am storing them up, I suppose, to get me through leaner times. After I am gone and my family members sort through my belongings, the book of words to cherish will surely give rise to amusement or perhaps incredulity. Now beside the others on the shelf will be the elephant book.

The heavy pulpy paper cover depicts in bas relief two whimsical elephants—a mother and baby—apparently having come down to the river to drink or to bathe. Open the book and you find the pages to be of the same rough-textured paper, in dusky deep colors of rose, purple, mauve, peach. A note that came with the book explains that the paper is actually made of elephant dung. Environmentalists are engaged in economic development as a way to help save the elephant population in Sri Lanka and to benefit the human population at the same time. Win-win.

And why did I choose to make this gift a book of quotations? Elephants remember, is why. I think of the mother elephant lumbering through the jungle or forest imparting life lessons to her youngster. Surely it is the baby elephant that does not yet trust itself to remember and must take a few notes along the way. I imagine even that she or he could wish for just such a book as this, made of the most humble material there is, thereby to save a number of trees.

You can learn more about Pachyderm Paper at

Like the Stars of the Morning

The preschool class was done with their craft project. Now they settled down on the rug for storytime, Miss Jenny right in the middle with the book in her lap. She had decided at the beginning that Miss Jenny is easier to say than her other name, Mrs. Foreman.

One child noticed on Miss Jenny’s face a tiny sparkle, a leftover speck of glitter. She reached up to take it away. But another little girl stopped her. “Leave it there,” she said. “It looks good on her.”

Someone has a sparkling personality, we say. The older ones among us may refer to the time when we were nothing but a twinkle in our father’s eye. Our faces brighten when we receive good news.

In reading the gospels, I often think that Jesus draws disciples to himself with just such magnetism, and not with stern pronouncements. Like Zorba at the water’s edge teaching us to dance, he is able to communicate the joy of life.

Last week I visited a care home where lives a longtime friend who has recently had her ninety-fifth birthday. Words, thoughts, intentions—these things can fail us. She did not quite remember who I was. It did not matter, I told myself.

Then, just as I was leaving, I heard her say my name. The smile she gave me, a glimpse of her old self, has stayed with me over the past days. It came to mind again yesterday when my daughter Miss Jenny told me of a tiny glimmer of light that did not go unseen.


A young couple have a day in which to see Venice. They have saved and planned for this longer journey, and for months, one photograph—a street scene in Venice—has been for the young man, especially, an emblem of the future possible. He has always been drawn to envisioning. Now they are there, walking in Venice. Must-see tourist destinations seem less important to them than being together and present to their surroundings.

Once he thinks of the photograph and remarks to his wife that it really would be something if they should happen to come upon that place. Searching for one nameless bridge is impossible in the City of Bridges; they would not know in what part of the city to look.

Some hours later, to the wonderment of both, they turn a corner and he recognizes that small and ancient bridge. She takes a photograph of him standing on it. They will have the two photographs to place side by side—the same arches, canopies, roof lines—everything the same, the dream in the one; the actuality in the other. May it be so with all their great hopes and deepest desires, this son and daughter-in-law of mine; may they always arrive at where they have never been and be at home.

In Every Light

Castell’ Alfero, a town in northern Italy, is the ancestral home of the Avidano family. Its name means castle of iron, and it has—if not a Disneyland-type castle—a castle nonetheless, with an ancient tower above what is now the town hall. My husband has been telling me what he remembers from a long-ago visit to the place. Last month our daughter and her family, accompanied by our nephew, visited there. In the village they found a man who was able to direct them to the house where once had lived Dominic and Rosina Avidano, my husband’s grandparents.

“And if you like,” he said, “I can show you the house of Dominic’s grandfather as well.”

Although Dominic and Rosina left Castell’ Alfero for America in November of 1905, someone there still knows of them!

One of the functions of poetry—and by far not the only one—is as a keeper of stories or history or memories. “Castell’ Alfero” is the name I gave to a poem recently published. It is included in a book released in September from The Backwaters Press, called THE UNTIDY SEASON: An Anthology of Nebraska Women Poets. (Available at and Barnes &

Remember that I said poetry has many functions? Marilyn Dorf is another of the almost-ninety contributors to the book. She and I have been talking recently about imagination as another vital ingredient in poem-making—even those whose origin is something true.
When you come upon the book, look for Marilyn’s “Moon of the Buffalo Coming.”

Something true—and imagination—went into “Castell’ Alfero,” based on a story told to my mother-in-law by her mother-in-law nearly eighty years ago. The something true is the smallest hint a love story from a woman so self-effacing that none of her children knew even the day of her birthday. When finally a grandchild was born on August 12 she said,  “He is born on my birthday.” Her seventieth.

Castell’ Alfero

Remembering a story told to my mother-in-law
                 by her mother-in-law


The ancestors of my children
(on their father’s father’s side)
came from a Piemontese village
named for its castle of iron.
Castell’ Alfero—I should want
to see in every light those
tile roofs at the foot of the tall
stern tower, there in Piemonte,
at the feet of snowy mountains.


Rosina, imprisoned at nineteen
in the iron castle of an arranged
marriage, must have looked out
and past the moonlit vineyards.
“She lost four babies in Italy,” it
was later said among the others,
the eight who lived. The father,
Angelo Domenico Avidano, who
was no angel, it is true, provided
for his family nonetheless. He
heard talk of better prospects,
booked their passage for America.


In November, then, of the fifth
year into the century, Rosina
looked back for a last time to
Castell’Alfero’s rooftops, and
to the babies’ graves. First in
Hell’s Kitchen, then, when they
had saved enough, in Queens,
the family scrabbled for work.
Years passed. One day, when
Rosina sat quietly mending,
with only her daughter-in-law
nearby, she said for no reason,
“There was a boy from the next
farm over. I would meet him
in the hedgerow between our
families’ vineyards.” That was
all, and never to her daughters
did she say even so much as
this: that one love in a lifetime
lets a person see in every light.

On Second Thought

For the first time, a poem of mine has been tweaked and polished and mulled over and re-worked until it became a new one altogether. To see the earlier version, go to the May 4, 2013 entry, called “A Poet-Lady Thinks About Her Work.”

It all began before daybreak one morning at this time of year. As I stood in the church’s doorway I saw the street lamps in the fog all down the street. The halo of a street lamp has another name, nimbus, and I thoroughly enjoyed rolling the word around in my mind as I worked on this fall poem.

Now, as you will see, it is not longer serious or somber, my nimbus poem. Yesterday I gave it a new name.

What Happens When Preachers Write Poems

From the big doors at the top of the church steps
I look out into the dark, and breathe the mild air
made even softer by wet leaves. All down the street
is a row of lights and the enormous nimbus of each,
those nearer appearing caught in the branches
of the stateliest of trees.

At first I take it as illustrative
of what a poet does: words written, stepping out
from one illumination into the next, all bearing
the weight of their etymologies. Later, though,
it comes down to delight, as God watches over
each of us making our way home in the dark.
Then, “Really? Illustrative?”says God.

In Dazzling Apparel

People who have more than one pet sometimes say they have a zoo. There actually is a small zoo about an hour’s drive from where I live. It began some years ago when a family acquired a zebra.

One Sunday afternoon at this time of year a friend and I were on our way home from a church gathering. We stopped so that I could take a picture over the pasture fence—of the zebra with a donkey at its side.

Then my life changed, with the news that my sister in Chicago had a medical emergency. I sat beside her hospital bed and, as she slept through most of those several difficult days, I distracted myself  by writing “The Zebra’s Friend.” It was my first attempt at the syllabic form, which has an equal number of syllables to the line. A poem that looks like free verse may have a structure not obvious to the reader but helpful to the poet.

“The Zebra’s Friend” appears in a small chapbook with the same name, published in 2008. I chose it as the title poem–not that it was my best among the poems I had written by then. I thought the book’s title needed to be visually interesting. This was before I began to notice animal prints and zebra stripes everywhere!

If you enjoy reading the poem, go back to the home page of this website and click on About This Book, to see the accompanying photograph and a sampler from the book. You may press the play button to hear my voice reading the poems listed there.

More importantly, today, tell yourself that you are who you are. And smile.

The Zebra’s Friend

The zebra grazing beneath
some trees in a pasture not
far from Monroe, Nebraska
cares little that he is an
object of curiosity
to motorists passing by.
Long ago he decided–
and his faithful companion
the short-legged donkey in
all solid colors agrees–
we are who we are, whether
clad in ordinariness or
in more dazzling apparel.

Sign Up for Emails

My entries in this blog, which I call My Journal, are posted neither regularly nor very often. Once each month or so I write a new essay. I never intended to write a daily blog. Recently, however, it occurred to me that My Journal might have more readers if I sent out notices.

I have managed to overcome my natural shyness from time to time by urging my Facebook friends to go to  Still, it feels—and may actually be—rather prideful on my part. “Here comes Mary again, telling us all that she is a writer.”

So now I am building my list of subscribers. If you have enjoyed these essays, please go to the contact page or send me an email. Each time I post a new entry, I will send you an email to let you know. Of course, you may un-suscribe at any time, and your email address will not be used for any other purpose.

With my sincere thanks,


A Preacher Back in Church

For the past couple of Sundays my husband, who is a pastor, has been back preaching.  Raymond has been through a major health crisis this summer. He is so happy to be back in church. He is warmly welcomed, and I rejoice to see him in his accustomed place.

However, at two of the churches he serves, he is not yet able to climb the steps. I, Mary, his sidekick, helpmeet, and backup person, am for the time being leading worship and preaching. It has been four and a half years since December of 2008 when I retired from the ministry. I wondered how it would feel to return to the pulpit—and stand there and look upon the faces of my beloved brothers and sisters.

I think that joy is essential to any calling. Having concluded long ago that I am suited more to writing than to speaking, I am surprised and delighted that God has given me this joy once again.

Here is the first poem of mine ever published; it appeared in the September/October 2004 issue of Nebraska Life and is included in my chapbook The Zebra’s Friend. The poem speaks of the holy task of preaching.

A Preacher In Church

Like shining pennies tossed into a well,
along with wishes, blessings, and my prayers,
the words of good-news gospel that I tell—
I see them just before they disappear
beneath the surface, out of hearing’s way,
beyond the farthest reaches of recall,
where, like the coins of passersby, they stay
well-hidden, as though never heard at all.
Yet now and then I see the Spirit’s light
in understanding deeper than my own
upon your faces—faith made sight,
a flash of recognition. This alone
is quite enough to keep me standing here
with pennies every Sabbath all these years.