Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bread Upon the Waters

Cast your bread upon the waters,
For you will find it after many days.
Ecclesiastes 11:1; New King James Version

Grandma and Grandpa Nelson lived on a farm about 12 miles away when I was growing up. We spent many Sunday afternoons there having a traditional Sunday dinner. In the summers when I was very young, my older brother Dale and I would spend several days at the farm "on vacation." Looking back, I realize the vacations were more for the benefit of my parents, but I remember the excitement of going to the farm with my little overnight suitcase.  

Farm vacations! That meant gathering eggs, playing in the barn and fields, helping slop the hogs, running up and down the lane, snapping and stringing beans, husking corn, picking tomatoes, and eating my grandma's delicious cooking (hands down, she was the best cook I knew growing up).

Usually at least once during our vacation, Dale and I would "go fishing." Even though a small creek (the "crick") ran through the fields, we did not fish there as the water was too shallow. Rather, we would trudge down the dusty lane to the main road (melodiously named "Hogback") and then walk a very short distance to where the creek ran under the road. The culvert had old concrete abutments on either side of the road, and the little bridge (as we called it) marked our fishing hole. From there, perhaps all of six or seven feet above the water, we would let down our lines in the vain hopes of catching a fish. In retrospect, it was something only young children would do, as only a child would believe in the impossibility of there being anything bigger than a minnow in the brackish, shallow water underneath the little bridge.

Our fishing lines were baling twine and safety pins. We occasionally made "poles" out of old sticks, but only to extend the reach of the baling twine, which had a maddening habit of floating on the water's surface. For bait, we used what was popularly called a "dough ball." Dough balls were wadded up pieces of bread, preferably the white, spongy stuff (and let's face it, we all ate the white spongy stuff back then), moistened with water until the bread could be kneaded and shaped around the open safety pin. Once we had the lines suitable baited, we would lower them over the side into the scummy, green water (no small feat given the nature of baling twine) and wait.

I don't remember how long the fishing expeditions lasted. 20 minutes? 30? Hogback was a quiet gravel road in those days, so two young children could sit along the roadside undisturbed for a whole morning. I doubt we lasted that long. The heat and the dust, let alone the boredom of no fish, probably drove us back down the lane to the cool dimness of the house before too much time elapsed.

In Ecclesiastes 11, we are admonished to cast our bread upon the waters and wait for the return. We cast our bread constantly on the waters in those days with little tangible return. We never caught a fish. In looking back, I wonder whether we even ever got a minnow nibble.

A number of translations and interpretations analyze Ecclesiastes 11 in trade and financial terms. The New International Bible is blunt:

Put your money into trade across the ocean.
      After a while you will earn something from it.
 Give shares of what you earn to a lot of people.
      After all, you don't know what great trouble 

might come on the land.

More than one writer has used that or a similar translation to say that Solomon (the presumed writer of Ecclesiastes) was giving us financial advice to invest broadly and diversify our holdings.

I'm not so convinced. Perhaps Solomon was thinking of economics. But he could have been thinking about fishing. My brother and I cast our bread upon the waters, watching our dough balls get stickier and slimier with each successive cast. As I noted, we never caught a fish, so our measurable returns were non-existent. But there were intangible returns beyond measure: water striders skating across the water, a tadpole or two, birds singing in the bushes. If we were really lucky, a dragonfly, all shimmer and elegance, would hover for a second or two before zipping away. 

My grandparents sold the farm in 1970 and moved to a "modern" ranch style home on the outskirts of a small village. The old farmhouse is long gone; the lane is now an access road to houses built back on what used to be the farm. It has all changed.

But the memories remain. Without even being aware of it, as a child I invested broadly in storing up the sights, the sounds, the smells, the sensations, and the flavors of my days. Even though Grandma Nelson has been dead for almost 30 years and it has been even longer since I sat at a table full of her cooking, I can still remember what her fried chicken and her homemade sweet pickles tasted like. In writing this post, I can feel again the heavy dust of the lane between my toes as we walked, the curiously smooth feel of a tadpole in my hands, the sun beating down on my shoulders as I tried to straighten the prickly baling twine enough that it would reach the water.

We cast our bread upon the waters in those days, wildly and improbably, hoping for just one fish. Half a century later, my bread has come back to me.


Jenny Woolf said...

that's an interesting post. I agree with you. It's one reason I think it's so important that kids don't spend their time doing school work or computer games.

see you there! said...

Another example of your beautiful writing. I wonder what memories the kids of today will store up and treasure.


Terri said...

But there were intangible returns beyond measure: water striders skating across the water, a tadpole or two, birds singing in the bushes. If we were really lucky, a dragonfly, all shimmer and elegance, would hover for a second or two before zipping away.

This is so beautiful. You truly need to be writing devotional books for women. This post reminded me of days spent with my grandparents and not so much the chicken as the chicken milk gravy on mashed potatoes.

Michelle DeRusha@Graceful said...

This is magnificent writing. The description, the memories -- I can feel the dust between MY toes...you brought me right back there with you.

And yes, those memories...bread cast into water and reborn in sweet memories.

Lovely! So grateful to have come by today... {and thank you for linking up!}