The celebration of Christmas often is overshadowed by memories of those who are gone.

As we make our way through life, we realize that others who shared the path were called away. Some walked a long distance with us, but others were taken early for reasons we cannot comprehend.

Joe Kreger is an Oklahoma rancher. He raises Beefmaster cattle, along the Salt Fork of the Cimarron River, in a countryside that is noted for its unforgiving heat, unpredictable rainfall and bitter winter cold. Joe and his wife have known great misfortune. They lost both their daughters in a car accident, in 1985; in the 1990s, the river began to flood, destroying much of their land. Joe coped by picking up a short pencil, in the feed truck, jotting down his feelings on scraps of paper and then transcribing his views of life into verse.

His poems show his ability to celebrate the best of life and cope with the worst. His poems can make me laugh or cry. The governor of Oklahoma named him "Poet Laureate" to the shock of the learned scholars, at a certain university, with an overrated football team. Joe took his earthy verse several steps further, in the years that followed, and shared his poetic views of rural life and determination with audiences across the region.

He has faced hardship and personal loss, and how he has dealt with it can be a lesson to us all. I asked him about the inspiration for a poem called "Windbreak." In his Oklahoma drawl, he spins his story in trademark style: .

"Well, I was out feedin' cows one evenin', tryin' to get done before dark and I was goin' in my bale yard. As I pulled past that little white house up there on that old bald hill where I raised my family, I just glanced at that big row of pine trees on the north side of the house and it just brought back a flood of old memories. Each one of those trees had been a livin' Christmas tree, with a balled up root and we'd had it in the livin' room and our little kids had played around each one of those as a Christmas tree and then we would take 'em out and plant 'em. I hadn't thought about it for a long time, but the sight of those trees out there swayin' in that old raw December wind kind of took me back and I wrote that poem (Windbreak) that evenin.'".

I asked him how he dealt with the memories of his daughters and life on the ranch, wanting to know how he dealt with loss. He replied, "As I reminisce back at these times, it's a good experience, it's a warm experience, perhaps a little sentimental, but not necessarily sad. These memories are a treasure. I don't want to live in the past, but I sure enjoy visitin' once in a while."

Of the hundreds he's written, "Windbreak" is his favorite poem: "I've got a warm spot in my heart when I think about that."

"Windbreak".

By Joe Kreger.

On a hill above the Salt Fork,.

swayin' in the winter breeze, .

On the north side of a white frame house, .

stands a row of big pine trees.

Austrian pines, so massive,.

the loveliest of their kind,.

But, oh, what vivid memories .

this windbreak brings to mind.

For each member of this column.

at one time used to be.

the center piece of the holidays,.

a living Christmas Tree.

With roots once balled in burlap, .

standing in a cast iron pot, .

each tree remains a symbol.

of the joy that it once brought.

Little hands once decorated.

each bushy, dark green branch, .

but that was in another day,.

in a different circumstance.

Small feet danced around each tree.

in the farmhouse living room.

Now those trees protect that house.

as they stand in winter's gloom.

Tinsel and festive Christmas lights.

adorned each needled bough,.

and an angel graced the apex .

where a screech owl perches now.

Two little girls hugged Christmas dolls.

and squealed aloud in joy.

and guarded each Christmas treasure.

from a grabby baby boy.

The little boy is grown now,.

and the girls have passed away.

to another life on Another Shore,.

and the pine trees stand and sway.

Witnesses of three decades,.

they stand against the wind.

with roots sunk deep in sandy soil.

Their branches whip and bend.

Unaware of things to come.

or events that time unfolds,.

they guard the white frame farmhouse.

and the memories that it holds.

Copyright, 2000, Joe Kreger .

All rights reserved.

Kreger's books, tapes and CDs are available by calling 1-800-535-2342, ext. 220.

For speaking engagements, call 816-452-3513.

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