Furry Therapy

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A box of Kleenex sat beside him. He stroked her soft white head, dabbed his eyes, and apologized. “I’m sorry,” he said. “That’s okay,” I replied. I planned to sit there as long as he needed the fluffy comfort of my Therapy Dog and she appeared to be willing as well. I didn’t know his story. I didn’t feel it right to ask. I just knew this dog was fulfilling her mission of compassion.

She never talked. She just smiled, reached for the dog, and caressed her flat ears. When I’d first started visiting the center, I looked for people who were excited and extraverted; those who gave affirming feedback to my efforts. I learned quickly that the ones in the corner, perhaps even looking half-asleep, might be just as interested, just as in need, and just as responsive – in their own way.

He never said much. He just moved towards her in his wheelchair whenever he saw us coming. My Taffy dog seemed to understand his non-verbals and made her way towards him. He bent over and pressed his face against hers. It was as though they had their own conversation. I stood quietly and let it happen.

“She’s white! She’s white! My dog was white!” Tears edged out of the woman’s eyes. “Oh how I miss my dog. She’s white.” The tears were bittersweet. Sadness and joy. Taffy stood for a while, and then sat down patiently to accept the ongoing firm and friendly petting. “She’s white!”

I heard the shrieking first. Then I saw its source: crumpled little woman gesturing wildly. Taffy was not to lick people, but what was I suppose to do when some of these people delighted in such affection? “She kissed me!” Taffy was unperturbed by the uncontrolled motion. It almost seemed this stocky thick-furred dog related best in such situations.

“She likes me!” The troubled teenager got down on his knees and enveloped her in a hug. “Can she stay here?” We stayed. I assured him that indeed this dog did like him. Finally I had to leave. I gave the young man Taffy’s business card with her picture and bio that read:

English Cream Retriever. Hobbies – exploring open spaces, rescuing fruit that kids toss out of their lunches, and playing with her stuffed animals. Taffy has been a registered Therapy Dog since 2015. She volunteers at a nursing home and a healthcare center, and has even been at Denver International Airport. She endears herself to people by “talking” and teasing.

I never planned on having a Therapy Dog. My husband and I had planned to purchase a modest-sized RV and volunteer with Mennonite Disaster Service by following the aftermath of floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes. Then he died.

I never planned on Taffy being a Therapy Dog. She was the high-spirited, strong-willed pup who flunked Puppy School. But, little by little, she passed her off-leash work, Canine Good Citizen Basic and Advanced, and the evaluation and certification for Pet Partners.

I believe that just as humans are created by their Maker for a purpose, dogs are created by their Maker for a purpose, too: herding, retrieving, guarding, serving, sensing illnesses and distress, alerting, cuddling, hunting, sniffing for bomb threats or avalanche victims. I have a purpose. Taffy has a purpose.

“… on the sixth day, God created animals…….And God saw it was good…(Genesis 1)

(First published in the (Kansas) Country Register, February/March 2018)

Text and photo @Naomi Gaede Penner

Grade-schoolers are so much like…..Grade-schoolers: 1950s or 2016



My friend Lisa Friesen Collins started out as a grade school Crossing Guard and then moved on to be an Educational Assistant for a kindergarten class. She continues to entertain us with posts on Facebook, which many of us think are blog-worthy. Here are a few:

Life as a Crossing Guard isn’t boring that’s for sure. Take away the rude drivers and I’m left with interestingly fun kiddos. I have the group of boys who run or bike as fast as they can to get to their destination; the boy who moves slower then molasses on a winters’ morning, but talks non-stop as he strolls across the street; and then the group of girls who slow down so they miss the light – so they can talk with me a bit longer. I’ve gotten attached to these kids. I love it.

Today, this little boy, probably first grade, came walking up to the corner in full cover. I said, “Wow Batman, you look awesome!” He answered, “My mom said I needed a light jacket, but this works better and I have a hat and mask!” Off he headed down the hill, bat ears flapping and cape flying. (With his mom not far behind, half embarrassed and half in hysterics!) I love this job!

Life as an Educational Assistant isn’t boring either.

Did I really just have to tell some first-grade boys, “Do not lick the monkey bar poles”? Funny – but wouldn’t have been funny had I not caught them in time.

What a fun day, making Christmas ornaments with kindergarteners. “Ms. Lisa, you can never have too much glitter!” That is so true sweetie! Nothing like glitter and glue and 12 kindergartener hands “helping” me.

File this under “Only In A Colorado School.” My daughter relayed this note-worthy exchange in her science class:

  • Student: “Ms. ______, have you ever looked at a marijuana leaf under a micro scope?”
  • Teacher: “No, can’t say that I have.”
  • Student: “I could bring some in from home so we could all look at it.”
  • Teacher: “Um, I’m not sure that’s legal so let’s not, but thanks for offering.”

My daughter to me: “Well, we all know what goes on at their house!”

And then there was the school dance:

  • Mrs. Collins!!!! Did you hear about the school dance party?
  • Yes, I did. Are you going?
  • Yes! Are you?
  • I don’t know, are you asking me to go to the dance with you?
  • (Silent big-eyed stare.)
Um, I though you were married already cause your kinda old.

Comments to kids today:

  1. No armpit tooting at school. I don’t care how funny it sounds, please stop.
  2. No, the field is not full of dog poo. Those are dirt clods from lawn aeration. (Explain what lawn aeration is. Repeated this at least 25 times.)
  3. STOP! No throwing dirt clods at each other! (Repeated this at least 25 times.)


And yet those cute, goofy, irritating, sometimes gross, kids fill my day with laughter and joy!

The above experiences are from 2015 and 2016, yet they are not that much different from Sharing Time in the kindergarten class in Valdez, Alaska, in 1954, as experienced by Anna Bortel:

“The children always surprised and delighted me with their revelations. One day, Penny shared. Her chair was next to mine, and she leaned against me, her blond curls tumbling upon her cherub face. ‘Go ahead,’ I whispered. Taking a deep breath, she asked her classmates, ‘Should three-year-olds still be wetting their pants?’ I stifled a laugh. Not a single child thought this was amusing and she and the other five-year-olds wrestled soberly with the issue; all the while she unconsciously reached over and played with the back of my hair. Then she turned to me, ‘Miss Bortel, what do you think?’ I felt the gentle spray of moisture on my face as she exhaled with each lisped word.

Another time, a boy explained that he awoke to find a longshoreman in bed with his mother. These small folks grappled with big issues, and unreservedly offered their opinions.

One fall day, a child carried a leaf to class and asked why the once green leaf was now yellow. Following a mini-lecture on frost, a boy piped up, ‘I hope Jack Frost doesn’t land on me and change my color.’ The earnest faces around me pondered that same thought.”

(Excerpt from ‘A’ is for Alaska: Teacher to the Territory, by Naomi Gaede Penner.)


  1. What were you like as a student? How are you still like that student?

2. What were your insecurities in school and/or weakness in specific subjects?

3. What games did you play at recess?

4. Who were your friends? Did you have many or few? What kind did you choose?

5. How can you connect to your child/grandchildren/special youngsters because of your    own experiences?

  • Note to educators and parents: the Reader’s Guides in the back of Naomi Gaede Penner’s Alaska books are perfect for book reports, grades 6 – 12.


(Published in The Country Register, Kansas, August/September 2016 issue)

All text is Copyright © Naomi Gaede-Penner. All Rights Reserved.

Harvest: From Kansas Wheat Fields to Alaska Tundra


Vintage combine - courtesy photo from Paul Penner, Past President of the National Association of Wheat Growers

Vintage Combine Photo:Vintage combine – courtesy photo from Paul Penner, Past President of the National Association of Wheat Growers

As a preschooler, harvest time on my Grandparent Leppke’s farm, outside Peabody, Kansas, was an annual ritual I never forgot, even when our family moved from Kansas wheat fields to Alaska tundra.

July brought golden-headed wheat and harvest time – and soaking humidity and 100 degree heat. The farmers waited, carefully watching for just the right time. For several days prior, Grandpa would drive out to each field, climb out of the his red 1951 Dodge truck, and walk out into the wheat. He’d snap a head or two from a stalk. In the palm of his hand, he’d rub the head in a circular motion to shell out the kernels and gently blow the chaff away. One by one he’d take each kernel into his mouth, biting his teeth against it, listening for a “pop” as he bit it in two. Even when the sound and feel were right, and even when the urge was to hurry and harvest, he’d combine a few bushels and take a coffee can full to the Co-op for a moisture test, hoping for less than 13 percent.

Family and friends worked together, returning to their home places if they had moved to the city. Even as a child, I could feel the adrenaline.

Grandpa, Dad, my older cousin, Dean, and young uncle Wilbur stumbled out of bed at 5:00 am. Before preparing equipment for the fields—greasing combine bearings, pumping gas into trucks, checking engine oil and checking for loose machinery belts—they downed thick, buttered slices of homemade bread and frosted cinnamon rolls, cereal and milk. After the dew dried, they climbed onto combines. A snack was taken to the field in the mornings, and then at noon, dinner was served there as well. At 4:00 pm, Grandma, Mom, and other full-skirted women relatives returned with “lunch,” carrying baskets of homemade cookies, cake, and donuts. Jars of tepid tea, ice already melted by the glaring sun, barely quenched the sweaty, straw-hatted workers’ thirst. And regardless of the Kansas summer heat, Grandpa preferred a jar of hot Postum, a “healthy” coffee substitute from the 1890s, made from powdered roasted grain.

Women weren’t merely servers of hospitality. They drove trucks alongside the combines, caught the reapings, and transported them to the grain Co-op in Aulne, four miles north of the farm. I sat beside Grandma on these runs. Hot, dry wind blew through the open windows, carrying dust, chaff, and occasional grasshoppers. All was well in my world as I sipped from a shared bottle of strawberry or orange soda pop.

 Exhausted, sweat-drenched men ended their day at 8:30 or 9:00 pm, when dew dampened the fields. Fried chicken or pork chops, mashed potatoes and gravy, creamed peas, sliced cucumbers in vinegar dressing, and peach pie were eaten in the near silence of numb fatigue. Windows that had been shut in the morning to fend off heat and dust were pushed up, inviting any breeze to bring whatever coolness the night had. Grandma and Mom finished washing dishes as hard-shelled June bugs clung scratchily to screens and crackled underfoot outdoors. Crickets chirped while everyone collapsed into bed and fell immediately into dreamless sleep, too tired even to dread the alarm coming in five or six hours.

Headering Wheat - Oklahoma - Henry Gaede and Frank Janzen

Everyone worked anxiously with an eye to the sky, watching clouds, always vigilant for a weather change; for wind, rain, and hail are harvest’s bitter enemies. Days and nights blended together in fatigue. Depending on rain, muddy fields, and machinery breakdowns, harvest would last for three to four weeks.

Sunday was the only day of rest. No matter whether clouds boiled in the skies and threatened destruction, Grandpa and the other men put on crisp suits and ties, and Grandma and the women smoothed out wrinkles in their Sunday-best dresses to sit on hard pews in the motionless heat of un-air-conditioned buildings. Here, they lifted their voices to sing hymns, and then listened to sermons and prayed, always mindful of Who made the wheat grow and Who gave the harvest. I sat beside Grandma. Through these country church experiences that were mixed into the everydayness of life, my parents’ and grandparents’ trust in God soaked into me, watered deep by shared experiences, singing in harmony, putting coins in the offering plate, hearing familiar Bible stories, and echoing “Amens.”

Throughout my life, when our many moves threatened to unhinge my security, I revisited those early experiences, trying to find and feel those moments of stability, until eventually they became idealized.

Excerpt from “From Kansas Wheat Fields to Alaska Tundra: a Mennonite Family Finds Home.” Find and purchase Naomi’s Prescription for Adventure books, at www.prescriptionforadventure.com or by calling 303.506.6181.


Anna Bortel: A Teacher is Born – 3 (Bullies, Tragedies, and Inconveniences)


“With my ambivalent feelings about school, if anyone would have told me that I would become a school teacher, I wouldn’t have believed it. I didn’t care for school. To begin with, my older sister, Millie, was the studious one among us children, whereas my brother, David, and I were content to receive average grades. I did not like history or geography, but I did enjoy my classmates! Interestingly enough, as an adult, I enjoyed teaching geography and at home I constantly pulled out maps.”  Anna Bortel Church

School as an Inconvenience

At age five, Anna Bortel’s parents enrolled her in kindergarten on the campus of Bowling Green Normal school, a teacher-training school, now known as Bowling Green State University. Every afternoon, there was naptime on sundry colored pieces of carpet. “Why do we have to rest when we’re not tired?” She wondered.

Lying still was inconvenient when a myriad of other possibilities existed. Her eyes would run around the room as she waited for the slow clock hands to make twenty minutes pass. Then one day, she found a distraction: a silhouette. Jimmy, a rotund boy lay flat on his back with his legs outstretched. Sunlight streamed in from the windows and accentuated his high, round stomach. For the longest time, the mound remained absolutely still. Then he coughed. The shape heaved up and down, and the legs made sharp jumps. Time went by more quickly as she anticipated his next move.

School as a Tragedy

Anna frequently raised her hand when the teacher asked for a volunteer. One day this resulted in tragedy. It was her turn to clean the fish bowl that held a school of guppies, swimming merrily around in circles. Another student and Anna carefully carried the bowl to a dimly lit basement room. Brooms, mops, and cleaning supplies stood at their sides as they made their way towards a deep sink. Tipping the bowl on its side, they conscientiously held their hands over the lip as the water slowly flowed through their fingers.

When they refilled the bowl, Anna suddenly noticed in horror and exclaimed to my classmate, “There are only three fish left! What happened to the others?”

Sadly, they trudged back to the classroom. “What will we tell teacher?” Anna whispered. Tears filled her eyes. She felt sure she could never be trusted again.

Embarrassing Information Learned at School

One day when the Bortel family had guests for a noon meal, Anna seized the opportunity to share what she thought was a wonderful rhyme that a schoolmate had taught her. She proceeded to repeat,

Mary had an alarm clock

                        She swallowed it one day.

                        Now she’s taking castor oil

                        To pass the time away.

Grinning in delight, she looked around the table. No one laughed. Her parents looked down at the napkins on their laps, although muffled chuckles slipped out from their down-turned faces. Anna sensed something was wrong. Later, when they explained the purpose of taking castor oil, she understood her blunder.

 School and Bullies

Although Anna rode the school bus with David, and at times had stood behind him when fearful, she soon tackled life’s provocations on her own. For a number of days, she found herself confronted by Harry, a plump red-haired boy. Continuous wooden benches, worn smooth and shiny by years of transporting children, ran around the perimeter of the bus. Harry deliberately seated himself at the opposite end of the bench seat from where Anna always sat. Each school day, the scenario was the same. Harry smirked at Anna and gathered up all the force of his stout body. Planting his feet firmly on the floor and pushing off from the bench’s end, he would come blasting towards her. She braced herself, turned her back, and clung to the seat, hoping her fingers wouldn’t get stuck in the gum, commonly disposed of beneath it. Chortling, he would slam into Anna, pushing her toward the front of the bus.

At breakfast one morning, Anna told herself that this would be the last day for such humiliation. When Harry climbed onto the bus, she glared at him. He smirked. She prepared herself as he launched himself towards her. The human cannon ball gained speed. Anna’s heart throbbed in her ears. After the impact, Anna jumped up, grabbed his stringy red hair with one hand and pounded on his head with the other. His freckled face contorted in surprise. He winced. Anna turned red and breathless. When she finally released her grip, he meekly retreated to his spot near the back of the bus. Anna never had trouble with him again.

For years, Anna did have trouble with a guilty conscience for giving him such a beating, even though her take-charge spirit would come in handy when she beat on uncooperative oil stove fuel lines as a school teacher in Alaska.


Anna Bortel: A Teacher is Born – 2

Chapter Two

Anna wagon

David, Anna, Millie Bortel

When Anna was four, her parents built a house on an acre of ground on Napoleon Road, at the southeast edge of town. They felt this would be a better place to raise their three children. Anna cherished the two-story, yellow frame house with a broad porch across the front and shutterless windows. This house with four bedrooms, an attic, a basement, and a two-car garage was built for $5,000 in 1927.

House - doc size

House on Napoleon Road

Delicate white-flowered spirea bushes clumped beside the house and all along the front and side yards. In the springtime, Anna would scamper across the driveway and out by the ditch to pick white and pink- flowering spring beauties. The sprawling green lawn was a wonderful place to play, and after supper on pleasant summer evenings, David, Millie, and Anna would beg their mother to wait to do dishes so they could play baseball while it was still light. Each time, their mother would tolerantly agree; then, instead of waiting for their help, she would wash and dry the dishes before the lengthening day’s-end shadows pushed the children back into the house.

Millie and Anna shared a bedroom upstairs. Their father had used his decorating skills and painted a double oak bed with pink enamel. Going beyond the basics, he put decals on the headboard, with a fluffy, white rabbit over Anna’s side and a bushy-tailed squirrel over Millie’s. In this bed, the sisters would talk about the day’s events, laugh, and share their hopes. Before snuggling under the soft blankets, Millie would say to Anna, “If I’ve said or done anything to you that is wrong today, please forgive me.” In return, Anna would ask her sister’s forgiveness. Even at these young ages, they practiced the principle of “Do not let the sun go down upon your wrath.” Before saying “good night,” they would take out their treasured chewing gum and deposit the wads on their individual flat bedposts.

Their brother’s room held an air of mystery. David’s edict of “NO TRESPASSING BY SISTERS” set the stage for their fascination. Anna would put her eye to the keyhole in the door of his room. Trains dominated his attention. Railroad timetables and paperwork, made out by brakemen in a real train caboose, lay fastidiously sorted on his desk in his make-believe railroad office. He’d collected these treasures from his friends, the railroad men who stopped on the pullout near the Bortel house, while waiting for another train to pass. Anna’s eyes moved to the wall by his bed where he had a special light switch. David had fixed a block signal, such as one would see at a railroad station, on the airing deck outside his second-story room. The train engineers were aware of his block signal with red, amber, and green lights, and when a train clattered by at night, awakening David, he would flick the switch on and off and the engineers would “toot” back a greeting.

When David was thirteen, an congenial engineer invited him to put a big locomotive into action. The family sat around the dinner table listening spellbound as he elaborated on the grand event.

“I pulled 100 cars!” he burst out. “The crew was amazed when I released the air brakes, backed to take up the slack, and put on the sanders and started forward.” The baked chicken and mashed potatoes sat untouched on his plate as he continued. “Firing up the boilers came natural to me.”

Along with his room, David also put his bike off-limits to his sisters. One summer when he spent two weeks on Uncle Newman’s farm, Anna decided it would be her golden opportunity to learn how to ride a bike. David would not have to know she’d borrowed his. Up and down the hard-packed graveled driveway she practiced. After some tumbles, and fighting the frame bar that extended from the seat to the handlebars, she felt brave enough to venture out onto the road. Traffic was not heavy on the paved road and she relished the feel of wind playing in her short bobbed hair.

After she accomplished her goal, her father heard the stuck-in-a-rut tune of “Won’t you please get Millie and me a bike?” One afternoon while helping her mother can cherries in the basement, her father’s voice boomed down the stairs, “Come quick! Look at this Blue Racer!”

They flew up the steps, thinking there must be a snake outside. But, instead, there was a beautiful new blue bicycle!   Anna jumped up and down, hugged her father, and shouted, “A bike! A bike!” No more riding David’s boy’s bike anymore. She and Millie had a wonderful girl’s bike.


 When the corn stood ripe in the field with golden-brown silk, Anna and two neighbor children decided to try their hand at roll-your-own cigarettes.

“I can find matches and newspaper in the kitchen,” Anna volunteered. “Then let’s climb up on the building behind the garage.”

They took along newspaper, and carefully formed cigarettes with corn silk from the adjoining cornfield. Furtively, they lit their clumsy rolls, coughed and sputtered.

“Anna! Come down at once.” Anna’s father’s firm voice interrupted their concentration.

The children looked at each other in astonishment. How did he know they were up there? Smashing out cigarettes, they climbed quickly off the hot, rough roof. Instead of delivering the anticipated lecture on smoking, they heard about the concern over fire and the safety of the buildings. This was the beginning and ending of Anna’s smoking habit.


 Anna thrived on relationships and social life. She and her best friend, Betty Smith, played house with their dolls beneath the back porch. Other days, they shaped mud into pies, and decorated them with ripe red seeds from the asparagus bed. Mud felt good between their toes, too. On very hot days, the tar would come up on the asphalt road in front of Anna’s house, and they’d take off their shoes to squash the tar bubbles with their big toes.   After amusing themselves for a while, they’d go to Anna’s house where her mother would clean their feet with old rags and turpentine. In late summer, the two girls would scratch their legs and arms climbing the prickly thorn apple tree. The bumps and bruises didn’t thwart Anna’s explorations and adventures.


 Growing up in the Depression did not adversely affect the Bortel family, but made an impression in other ways. For example, it wasn’t uncommon to hear a rap at their back door. Anna would peer out the window and see a “hobo.” Her father tried to explain the “Depression,” and why men were out of work. The Bortel house, 500 feet from the New York Central Railroad tracks, seemed to be marked as a charitable stop. This was no surprise. Mildred Bortel would always offer the strangers a tasty plate of leftover meat, potatoes, and a thick piece of homemade bread. The ragged men with despairing eyes would slump on the cement step between the house and the garage, and quickly and quietly fill their empty stomachs.

One time as Anna stood curiously, but safely behind David, she noticed a hobo’s toes poking out of his shoes that were tied onto his feet with frayed cords.  “Wait here on the steps,” Mildred instructed the tattered man.

Within a few moments, she was back with an extra pair of her husband’s footwear. Truly, she took to heart and demonstrated, Matthew 25:35, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me. . .” Before she sent the men on their way, she would hand them Christian literature as food for their souls; sometimes a religious magazine, a Sunday School paper, or a story tract.

Excerpts from “’A’ is for Alaska: Teacher to the Territory” and “’A’ is for Anaktuvuk: Teacher to the Nunamiut Eskimos.” 

All text is Copyright © Naomi Gaede-Penner. All Rights Reserved.  All photos are Copyright@Anna Bortel Church. All rights Reserved. 



Anna Bortel: A Teacher is Born


Chapter One

            On May 10, 1923, a warm spring day with blooming white spirea bushes and fragrant purple lilacs, Anna Marie Bortel was born to Clifford and Myrtle Crosby Bortel in Grand Rapids, Ohio, a small, quiet river town. On that day, Clifford, who worked as an exterior and interior decorator, was wallpapering in a farmhouse across the Maumee River. With his wife’s imminent delivery due date, he made an unplanned trip home for lunch in his black Model T Ford. Myrtle, tall and usually slender, was indeed heavy with child, but showed no symptoms of the grand event. Clifford hastily downed a bologna sandwich, cranked up the Ford, and sped back to wallpapering.

The wallpaper paste was barely mixed when he received a phone call. “Come home right away!” urged Myrtle. “I’ll call Dr. Drake and my mother.”

Clifford hopped into his Model T and careened into the driveway in less than the anticipated twenty minutes of driving time. As was the custom in those days, rather than rushing to the hospital, Dr. Drake made a house call, and around 3:00 PM, ushered Anna into this wonderful world.

“Her name is Anna Marie,” the new child’s mother matter-of-factly informed Dr. Drake. Grandma Anna Crosby proudly held her namesake in her arms.

After assisting in this miracle of birth, Grandma Crosby took Anna’s three-year-old brother, David, and sixteen month-old sister, Mildred, home with her to allow the new mother to regain her strength and concentrate on her newborn’s needs. Actually, Mildred, already pensive and shy, posed no problem, but David, an explosion of energy, would have depleted the new mother’s energy reserve.


            During these times, bread sold for 9¢ a pound and milk for 56¢ a gallon. A new Ford cost $295. Gas to run it was 22¢ a gallon. Whooping cough and tetanus vaccines came into existence; however, they must not have been widely used since later all three children contracted whooping cough.

President Harding held office and just that year he had pounded a ceremonial spike into the ground to complete the Alaskan Interior rail line. Weakened by the tour to Alaska, yet ill for only a week, the fifty-seven-year-old president shocked the nation when he died on August 2, 1923.   Subsequently, Vice-President Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as President of the United States, a nation whose population had grown to 111,947,000.


            Living with an older brother and sister had its hazards. One day while talking on the phone, Myrtle heard a clinking sound coming from baby Anna’s mouth.

“Helen, I will need to call you back,” she said, quickly concluding her conversation. Normally a soft-spoken woman, Myrtle sternly inquired, “What’s going on here?” She then spotted the open button box. Upon investigation, she discovered that David and Millie had fed the baby, buttons.

“Anna likes them,” explained David, his brown eyes wide. Millie patted Anna’s stomach with her pudgy hands. And, so in this and other less risky ways, they enjoyed caring for their bald-headed baby sister.

When Anna was six months old, her father was offered a partnership by Mr. Long, an elderly man who owned a wallpaper and paint store in Bowling Green, a larger town about sixteen miles east of Grand Rapids. Consequently, the family left their little town with its beautiful dam and old flourmill, and purchased a home on North Prospect Street, about a mile north of the store. The Grand Rapids house was rented for $2.00 a month; later when Clifford raised the rent to $2.50, the renters moved out.

Excerpts from “’A’ is for Alaska: Teacher to the Territory” and “’A’ is for Anaktuvuk: Teacher to the Nunamiut Eskimos.”

All text is Copyright © Naomi Gaede-Penner. All Rights Reserved.

You’ll Find Her in the Garden

Mom and Windmill

Mom with a windmill reminder of her Kansas farm roots.


I can see my mother in the garden, with red bow in her silver, knotted hair; hoe in hand, her skirt fluttering in the gentle breeze. A garden hose stretches taut along the dusty driveway to the garden where potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, and frilly leaf lettuce have optimal growing conditions. Root crops grow well in Alaska’s sandy soil. However, even with fertile silt and a tall fence to keep out salad-seeking moose, the vegetables must mature quickly; the frost-free season between early June and mid to late August is much too short to unhurriedly bask in the midnight sun.

Ruby Leppke Gaede’s roots originated in the wheat fields of Kansas, where she was accustomed to sticky summer heat, waving fields of grain, and a sun that leisurely settled at the end of the plains. What a shock to transplant her to Alaska, where she’d followed my father with his medical practice in 1955.

GGaede w Mark in Garden by Hospt naomi80-R1-E023

Grandma Agnes Gaede/Mark Gaede in the Garden by the Tanana (Alaska) Native Services Hospital

In the village of Tanana, along the Yukon River, she staked out a garden. Sweet peas in a myriad of brilliant colors intertwined in the wire fence surrounding the garden. Potatoes, cabbage and carrots sprouted within these confines. She tried tomatoes. The Athabascan Indians laughed! The abbreviated summer culminated her hopes in an early harvest, and she was left with green tomatoes and frost-wilted vines.

A brief year’s relocation to California in 1960, allowed her warm weather crops to flourished. Her appetite for fresh produce extended to the peach and mulberry trees in our backyard, as well as the plethora of fruit stands in the San Joaquin Valley. After years of Alaska canned fruit and vegetables, she was in the Land of Milk and Honey, or at least of watermelons, apricots, and plums.

In 1961, my father accepted an offer on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. This time, she settled onto an 80-acre homestead. After hand-clearing 10 acres with my father for an airstrip, Mom planted a garden. The contest was not only with the diminished growing season, but also with the ever-encroaching grass, chickweed, horsetails, and other persistent natural vegetation.

Garden beside by chicken coop

Moose-protected Garden near the Chicken Coop on our Gaede-80 Homestead

The gardening tradition sprung forth in her children. My mother stored seed potatoes beneath the basement stairs. In spring they’d go wild, sprouting like octopus.   Mom would cut the potatoes into chunks, each with an “eye.” Mark, my little brother, fascinated by this basic level of horticulture, would tag along after her. He’d grab some potatoes, then enthusiastically and randomly dig holes around the driveway, much like an Alaskan Johnny Appleseed. Potato plants sprouted in the oddest locations, which was a source of delight for Mark.

Even when a plant yielded massive potatoes in the favorite cat litter area, Mom forbade him from ever planting there again.

Over the years, my sister, Ruth, has remained on the homestead. At one time, she had a designer garden with burgundy, periwinkle, and white Bachelor Buttons playing in the fence; and strawberries growing in careful rows. Delicate purple Violas bookended the lacey carrot-topped rows. She tried peas, which scarcely developed peas in the pods before the Alaskan growing season skidded to a halt.

It’s been twenty-five years since Mom died. The rotted log fence around the garden has long ago been dismantled. My siblings nudge me into reality. Mishal corrects the facts, telling me that in the beginning Mom didn’t wear skirts; instead, she tucked blue jeans into tall, black rubber boots, and wore rubber gloves. Mark says that carrots weren’t always plump and crisp, and that radishes were wormy.

Nevertheless, sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I see my mother chopping the chickweed, pulling closed the cauliflower leaves, and thinning out the carrots – in a billowy skirt and a red bow in her hair.

Cabbage in wheel barrow

A fact: Mom DID grow huge cabbage — enough for many servings of borscht!


(Adapted from first printing in The Peninsula Clarion, May 2001.)

(Published in The Country Register, Kansas, May/June 2016 issue)

All text is Copyright © Naomi Gaede-Penner. All Rights Reserved.






The Power of One: You + Me = We

Naomi and Mark climbing at Death Valley

Naomi and Mark climbing at Death Valley

Between first grade and sixth grades, I changed schools five times; only once was I without a friend. In Anchorage, Alaska, I’d walk through the door and tell my mother, “Mary and I painted on easels,” or “We saved our silver crayon for special coloring.” In Tanana, along the Yukon River, Sally and I baked oatmeal-raisin cookies. In Tulare, California, Linda and I incessantly colored “stained glass” designs we randomly scribbled and after school rode our bikes with streamers flying on the handlebars. In Soldotna, Alaska, Karen and I tunneled in tall grass along the beach bluffs.

In Browning, Montana, I sat alone in class. No one would be coming to my house after school; no one to whisper to in the clarinet section. That was the year I stopped eating and I learned to cry without making a sound, in the bathroom stalls.

As an adult, I climbed my first of Colorado’s 53 mountains over 14,000 feet. Courtney was my guide and inspiration. I followed her deliberate zigzag traverse to the summit. “Just three steps this way– and stop to breathe,” she said. I couldn’t have done it alone.

Taffy watching the deer.

Taffy watching the deer.

Twice a day, I walk my English Cream Retriever. On a mild day, the time goes quickly. I observe Taffy sit and survey the deer, cock her head and watch the cows, or pounce on a vole hole. But on days when the wind howls and I know I’ll need long johns and a wool scarf, I’m not eager to go out. (Taffy already has her thick white fur coat on and earflaps down.) I text Melissa. She’ll meet us! Her long-legged Vizsla bounds towards Taffy. They race up and down the hills. Melissa and I talk about good books, places we’ve explored, and how we should have worn snowshoes. Forty-five minutes later we smilingly tell each other what a great walk it was. Alone, I might have turned back.

Working together on a wall quilt.

Working together on a wall quilt.

Anyone who has quilted knows how time progresses more quickly, and with more pleasure, when more than one person engages in the process. “Look how much we got done!”

When my grand boy relocated from Canada to Colorado, his parents wanted him involved in Drama Camp, Lego Camp, and Vacation Bible School. He is outgoing and social, yet he protested loudly, “But I don’t have a friend.” No one.

"Proving up" an 80-acre Alaska homestead.

“Proving up” an 80-acre Alaska homestead.

In a letter to my father’s parents in California, my mom wrote on January 13, 1963, “We wanted to work on the homestead Wed morn but didn’t have the courage to go out in the bitter cold, we did however go out yesterday in the heavy fog… the snow is getting deep enough that it really bogs us down, we cut and trimmed 12 trees, even got a fire going after sprinkling on some gas.”

It took my parents three winters to clear an airstrip, nearly a half-mile long. Imagine if only one of them had been working? Six years? Would one have given up in the hip-deep snow? In the below zero temperatures? One and one equal two; and two makes “we.”

Not alone.  The power of more than one.

Not alone. The power of more than one.

If you’re not an extroverted person who gleefully assesses a group of people like a bee views a patch of clover, “we” doesn’t have to be a group. One come-along-side person is all the encouragement we need. One is a powerful number.

This article was first printed in “The Country Register” (Kansas), Jan/Feb 2016 issue.  i

Find and purchase Naomi’s Prescription for Adventure books, at www.prescriptionforadventure.com. Follow her on Facebook (Prescription for Adventure.)

Bah Humbug: Christmas Letters


Our Christmas picture with our Christmas letter

Jennifer was promoted to CEO…Jim’s latest iPhone app swept the nation… after we sailed on our yacht for three months in the Caribbean, we took our private jet … had to return because, Jayden, age 14, was enrolling at Yale… Mia, is at the top….

 “I was sick most of January, and then in February, I had a cough I couldn’t get rid of. As if that wasn’t enough, I got pink eye, and then a hang nail wouldn’t heal, …I got the flu – and the bathroom was never the same…”

Although Christmas Letters are not as common now as years ago, the mention of Christmas letters makes some people roll their eyes. Indeed Christmas Letters get a bad rap. Today, people typically send e-cards with snowflakes that appear at the click of a snowman, or Shutterfly and Costco cards with photos and a brief sentiment.

My son and his wife send calendars with photos on each monthly page – a story of their year that brings smiles to eager recipients.

Dave and Judi create a one-page collage of around-the-year photos. Family warmth and laughter wafts off the page.

Myra, succinctly describes her family’s year with a half-page of word pictures: Kansas Reflections – 2008: Small town festivals…Chiggers…Wheat fields in every direction…Pond with canoe rides, croaking frogs and wandering turtles…Wimpy garden..,Laughing grandchildren. I anticipate receiving her mini-stories and always wish for more.

The first Christmas Letter I have of my mother’s is from 1958, when my parents, Elmer and Ruby Gaede, served under Public Health Services in Tanana, Alaska. The typed and carbon-copied letter has a section for each month, and was sent to family members in Kansas, Oklahoma, and California.



“The first week in January, Ruby’s face and hands healed from burns received from an oven explosion. Mark had monkey-ed with the oven knob, it was his way of celebrating is second birthday.

Elmer went on a caribou hunt with the village chief using our plane. They returned with one caribou.

Our coldest temperature thus far was 52 below.

One day, just after take-off Elmer noticed one plane ski was hanging straight down. We all expected a crash on landing but God intervened and upon stalling the plane on landing the disabled ski came up so he landed safely.”

I followed suit, designing my own Christmas Letters. Like a time capsule, I am reminded that that year my husband completed his master’s degree in civil engineering and went to work for Penner Construction. I graduated with a teaching degree. Our Peke-a-poo that looked liked a Golden Retriever, turned two. We moved into our first house. We had our first child.

Decades later, I have a history of our family, not an in-depth memoir, but certainly the primary experiences we’ve shared, along with documented memories.

My eyes light up, not roll when Christmas Letters start to arrive in my street-side mailbox.

I am inspired when I read about someone –

  • leading a Bible Study in a women’s prison.
  • helping with a meat-canning relief project.
  • using his or her experience and skills to rebuild after a flood or tornado disaster.
  • volunteering in an inner-city thrift shop.
  • keeping the faith in the midst of loss, fear, and the unknown.

I am motivated to explore new places when someone describes –

  • a good-deal off-season trip to Iceland.
  • hiking in Death Valley during the winter months.
  • taking a train through the Canadian Rockies in autumn.

When I write Christmas letters, I reflect on the past year.

  • What am I grateful for?
  • What attitude or behavior do I need to change for the coming year?
  • Can I find humor in situations I took too seriously?
  • Is there something in my life that might inspire or comfort someone else?

When I spy a Christmas Letter in my stack of mail. I make myself a cup of tea, turn on the fireplace, and anticipate a visit with a friend. I’m not disgusted when the only time I hear from someone is at Christmas; I’m thrilled by decades of Christmas Letter connectivity.

My mother’s last Christmas letter closed with a handwritten note: Lovingly, Ruby G. unless God does a miracle-healing, this will be my last Christmas letter.

The Christmas photo that accompanied my mother’s 1958 Christmas letter became the cover for my second book, “From Kansas Wheat Fields to Alaska Tundra: a Mennonite Family Finds Home.”

KS Wheat Fields-AK Tundra Book Cover

The Christmas Letters of Past, Present, and Future have added up in good ways – both sent and received.

This article was first printed in “The Country Register” (Kansas), Dec 2015/ Jan 2016 issue.)

Find and purchase  Prescription for Adventure books, at www.prescriptionforadventure.com or by calling 303.506.6181.  Follow  Prescription for Adventure Facebook.


Field Trips from Kansas Wheat Fields to Alaska Tundra

“We’re going on a field trip!” I announced breathlessly to my mother. I was a fifth-grader with braces on my teeth, too-short bangs, and long brown braids. After attending school in a small Alaska village and on a Montana Indian reservation, I was now in Tulare, California, at Wilson Elementary. School. The field trip was to a lumber mill.

So, what is a field trip? A field trip is an outing by a group of people away from their normal environment. The purpose is usually observation or participation for education.

This is my 2015 calendar of field trips and what I learned, or anticipate learning:

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree

California: Joshua Tree National Park (March)

A lizard can wear two different kinds of camo at once, and blend into both the sunny and the shady part of a rock. There really is a San Andreas Fault. Palm Springs can be 90 degrees and at the top of the tramway behind and above it, 50 degrees – with snow.

Santa's House at the North Pole

Santa’s House at the North Pole

Alaska: Business trip with drive to/from Anchorage/Fairbanks (early May)

I’ve been to Fairbanks many times, but never to North Pole, only 20 miles away. Yes, there is Santa’s House. No, there is not much open outside tourist season.

A long haul from Toronto to Denver.

A long haul from Toronto to Denver.

Michigan to Colorado: Relocating family members from Canada (late May)

I can still drive a stick-shifting 4-Runner. I wanted to see more of Iowa, but it rained most of the way. I did notice white barns with large cupolas on top. I need to research the “why” of this repeated size and design.

WWII Bunkers

WWII Bunkers

Alaska: Dutch Harbor/Unalaska in the Aleutian Chain (August)

I have never explored this part of Alaska, located in “The Deadliest Catch” waters. I will prepare for 40 degrees with wind and rain. Besides Pearl Harbor, it was one of the few US locations to be bombed by the Japanese in WWII. I anticipate seeing military and Aleut sites and artifacts,


'A' is for Alaska: Teacher to the Nunamiut Eskimos -- Anna Bortel's story.

‘A’ is for Alaska: Teacher to the Nunamiut Eskimos — Anna Bortel’s story.

Kansas: Newton (Faith and Life Bookstore – September 17, Hillsboro – September 18)

People who live in this area may not consider this to be “field trip.” For me, it’s a step back in time to re-experience where my Mennonite parents’ people re-created home in America. At Tabor College, I will be presenting slides and reading from my book, “’A is for Anaktuvuk: Teacher to the Nunamiut Eskimos.” This teacher took a very big “field trip” – and changed Alaska history.


Alaska Marine Highway ferry

Alaska Marine Highway ferry

Washington: Bellingham to Alaska: Skagway (October)

On a no-frills Alaska Marine Highway ferry, I want to learn about the WWII Aleut Relocation camps near Juneau, where the US government sent people from Alaska’s Aleutian Chain; Sheldon Jackson’s establishment of an early Alaska educational system; and the Gold Rush at Skagway.

Rocky Mt Mennonite  Relief Sale

Rocky Mt Mennonite Relief Sale

Colorado: Rocky Ford – Mennonite Relief Sale (October)

I love the excitement of the live and silent auctions, quilt sales, eating as much pie and ice cream as I can hold, buying German sausage, and stuffing myself with Mennonite New Year’s fritters; all with the good conscience that the proceeds go towards relief, development and peace work around the world. The “educational” part is seeing purchasable crafts that empower artisans in developing countries and hearing what the Mennonite Central Committee is doing to help people develop a sustainable lifestyle.

After my fifth-grade field trip, I returned home bubbling over about my first-time bus ride, the over-look platforms alongside the machines, and the smell of wood. Wood shavings and chips spilled out of my jacket pocket.

5th grader

5th grader

  1. What field trips have you taken in 2015?
  2. What did you experience? Return home chattering about? Gather in your pockets?
  3. What field trips are you contemplating? What is holding you back?

(This article was first published in the Kansas “The Country Register,” Aug/Sept 2015 issue.)