We never knew what was coming next. That never stopped us from having fun.

I’m quizzing Jean Nichols on how she managed to raise her tribe of kids living in Humboldt County California, where Redwood trees outnumber businesses.

She pauses, smiles, tilts a perfectly coiffed, silver head, then tells story after story of how the family managed: operating a small construction business and filling in with what they could — raising pigs for the table, pulling fish from Humboldt Bay, and even picking wild asparagus from alongside the road. In case you didn’t know, this is the harvesting technique: place your 8 year old son on the hood of the car with an open pocket knife. Drive slowly down the road, close to the drainage ditch, eyes peeled for spikey greens. When he bangs on the hood, stop so he can slide off, cut stalks, deliver them to the passenger, and hop back on the hood. My husband,  who was that 8 year old, assures me it’s great fun.

This is the stuff of family legend: How The Nichols Survived and Thrived. It’s such a different story than my family, who faced equally tight circumstances, but solved the problem differently. We knuckled down. We economized. We sought enrichment. Jean’s family did all that, but they also had fun. Serious fun, travelling to Lake Tahoe, Mexico, and even Canada once.

“How did you manage to take so many vacations?” I asked. After all, this was before the notion of putting your trip on a credit card. You actually paid as you went, or saved in advance.  “We just got in the camper and went,” Jean tells me. She loves art, sun-bathing, and fine dining, but doesn’t mind whipping up a meal of biscuits and gravy when called upon. Camping was just fine by her.

She and her husband Bud ratcheted their “just go” concept up a thousand notches when they moved to Africa. They had never visited, but heard from a missionary friend that there was a need for builders. They spent ten years in Malawi, amassing a globe-full of friends and a lot more trips in the camper.

This year Jean celebrates her 75th birthday. She’s back in Humboldt County once again, surrounded by family, parlaying her resources into a joyful life. Jean is the definition of faith to me: she never knew what was coming next, but that never stopped her from stepping forth, reaching, out, and savoring the wild asparagus.

Happy Birthday Jean. It’s an honor to know you.


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