Going With the Flow

One of the things growing up on a farm taught me was to “go with the flow.” It was a hard thing to master as an impatient kid full of energy and dreams, but this life lesson has served me well in my adult life.

My parents’ verbal commitments to us regarding family activities were always a bit tentative: “I think that will work out” or “We’ll see what we can do.” They were careful to only make promises they could keep, so their responses to our questions were sometimes frustratingly vague.

Here’s how things could go:

Perhaps we planned to see a Saturday movie matinee. We rarely went to movies, so the event was extremely exciting to us. Very few theaters operated in the Kalamazoo area, it was a 40-minute drive, and the outing was expensive, especially when purchasing the required popcorn for five kids.

It was a huge effort for my mother to get us all cleaned up and corralled in the car to arrive in time to secure seven adjacent seats in the theatre’s light, instead of stumbling around in the dark during the previews. But the hardest person to corral was our dad.

We kids would be scrubbed, dressed, and fed, waiting and watching for Dad’s return from the fields or his chores in the barn. Sometimes Dad hustled in, showered, and met us in the car. He was good-natured and full of fun and energy, always ready for an adventure. But occasionally, Dad would step in the backdoor and yell, “Well, I’ve had a breakdown! Sorry, kids!”

The restored 1466. Despite the inevitable breakdowns, Dad spent many happy hours on this tractor. He had a radio attached to a fender and often planted corn into the evenings, listening to Tiger baseball games. Photo: Oswalt Family Farms.

Breakdowns meant everything had to stop ­– all plans cancelled – until the broken machinery could be repaired. If Dad and Uncle John could fix the equipment, breakdowns meant a call to the farm implement dealer for parts. But if the issue was beyond their tools and technical abilities, it meant an expensive service call.

Sometimes his shout in the backdoor was, “The tractor is stuck back on the marsh!” Sometimes it was the dreaded “The cattle are out! Get your boots on!” postponing any hope of an away-from-the-farm outing.

My brother Steve’s birthday, June 1, 1970. It is dark, but Dad made it in from planting corn to celebrate. His love of family was the only thing stronger than his love of work.

Ultimately, we learned acceptance of things beyond our control. We also learned to trust that eventually everything will work out. We did, at some point, go to the movies or visit our friends, just not on our original time frame. These periodic disappointments didn’t make me a pessimist; these small setbacks helped me learn to adjust and persevere.

Parenthood certainly demands flexibility and patience. How many times did we plan to join a holiday celebration when one of our children developed a fever or the flu? How many times did we think our savings account was growing only to need a home or car repair?

I rediscovered what I already knew: these things will pass and aren’t the end of the world.

Classroom teaching demands another layer of acceptance and patience when working with students of different backgrounds, abilities, and personalities.

And then, we’ve all been challenged by COVID-19 and the plasticity required to operate during a global pandemic.

I admit that the last year has tested my predilection for flexibility, but spring is here, some reserves remain in my tank and my resolve to persist remains.

It’s a Fine Life

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A collection of my first 20 “It’s a Fine Life” columns

Puppy Confessions

Like many families during the isolation of COVID, we found a puppy. And yes, he helped me get through the isolation of the shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, and he has helped me feel happier during the last year.

I’ve never been this attached to a pet. We always had dogs when we grew up on the farm. Our most memorable dogs were Cleo, a terrier mix, and Scuffy, a scrappy Cairn terrier. They were perfect farm dogs and spent most of their life outside; they kept the woodchuck and rodent population around the barns controlled and loved to tag along anywhere we kids went. They were great companions, and I was fond of them, but it was nothing like this love affair I have with my dear little Zippy. I am smitten with this little guy. Head-over-heels in love.

Meet Zippy, our one-year-old Boston terrier. Here he is a six months.

He is a frisky little Boston terrier, and while he isn’t quite the “little gentleman,” as the males of this breed are described, he is on his way to mastering good manners. Our family has a wonderful history with this breed. We raised our own children with a sweet-natured Boston terrier named Snuggles. Dennis grew up next to a woman who raised them, and he remembers their funny little faces and disposition. My grandparents had several Boston terriers when I was a little girl. The first was named Ike, in honor of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Unfortunately, Ike (the dog!) was a wanderer and was hit by a car; then Ike #2 arrived. I understand the wisdom of using the same name now that I am older. I often call Zippy by our first dog’s name (who has been dead 10 years) then our cat’s name, then our son’s name.

I’m sure many readers understand. I told our family doctor (and dear friend) that I think memory isn’t a problem if I realize I got it wrong. (I’m not sure he subscribes to my theory.)

Our friends Beth and Dee helped us find a breeder, and last May, Zippy, tiny and frightened, arrived. At first, he cried in the night. My maternal, new-baby instincts kicked in: I scooped him out of his little kennel, wrapped him in a blanket, and held him until he went back to sleep. This went on for several weeks, until our middle-of-the-night sessions ended when he started waking up two or even three times a night. So yes, just like one of our babies, he cried it out for a night and has slept peacefully ever since.

“Prince Zippy” last summer. He has a great life, and I am just crazy about him.

Our grown children call him “Prince Zippy,” which gives you a further glimpse of his quality of life at our house. Zippy and I have a great morning routine. I pour my first cup of coffee and let him outside. Then he snuggles in beside me on the couch, and we watch the morning news. When I leave for work, he is asleep, tucked under a blanket, and his sweet little face appears at the window when I pull in the driveway at the end of the day.

We all like Zippy. Here is Dennis talking with him in our backyard last summer. What a life!

So yes, I confess. I have become one of those sappy, indulgent pet owners. And in spite of my previous attitude towards such people, this relationship is wonderful.

It’s a Fine Life

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My first twenty columns in the South County News.

Valentine’s Day Treasures

Grocery shopping, I pass the display of pink, red, and white construction paper and doilies, and I am reminded of my time at Fulton Elementary School and our Valentine’s Day celebrations during my early years.

Those little plaid dresses and jumpers were nearly a little girl’s 3rd grade uniform. The little boys wore plaid button-down shirts and jeans.

In kindergarten and first grade we made these open envelopes out of big pieces of construction paper. We glued the sides with globs of Elmer’s glue, and with our little blunt-nosed scissors we learned to cut out various-shaped hearts which we used to decorate our mail slots. We wrote our names in thick letters with chunky red Crayola crayons, and taped our envelopes carefully to the sides of our desks. During the Valentine’s Day party, we played mail carrier, delivering our carefully signed cards, merrily depositing our missives in each classmate’s pouch. During second and third grades, we advanced to cheerfully decorated cereal boxes. In fourth grade, we had finally arrived: construction-paper-covered shoe boxes!

The Valentine’s Day preparations took several evenings seriously concentrating at our kitchen table, studying the mimeographed class list and my little box of cards. I made special selections for my closest friends, Donna, Darlene, and Dawn, and even more studied decisions for the boys. NOTHING could say “I Love You” or even “Would You Be My Valentine?”  No way. I wanted no misunderstandings. It took intense scrutiny for Jimmy who regularly passed me the timeless “Do you love me? ____yes or ___no?” to which I always responded with my own addition: “I like you as a friend.” I examined the cards and class list again and again until I was satisfied.

The same 25 schoolmates traveled with me from kindergarten through all our primary grades. The same 25 children in little plaid dresses or little plaid shirts and jeans excitedly passed out our carefully addressed cards. Then we sat and opened the tiny envelopes, smiling at each other, occasionally blushing by something extra sweet.

We played our usual games: bingo, hangman, and seven-up. One year we even had a piñata. Usually, our teacher gave us a little box of conversation hearts, and we spent time sorting and eating those chalky treats. The ever-prepared “room mothers” supplied us with lots of sugar: chocolate cupcakes with white frosting dotted with red hots, red Kool-Aid punch, popcorn balls. I bet our poor teachers had to “put their feet up” when they got home.

I love to collect vintage valentines.

I kept those sweet Valentines I had received close to me for many years. When I was sick or even cleaning my room, I often sat and looked through my little box of cards.  Today, when my girlfriends and I vintage shop, I look for and often purchase a few little Valentines signed so carefully in thick pencil by a child fifty years ago; I remember and appreciate the anticipation and effort it involved.

And I wonder if there is still a faded, covered shoe box of Valentines from those dear ones of my past hidden in the closet of my childhood bedroom? When I take my mother’s Valentine to her this year, I will check. I sure hope those treasures are still there.

It’s a Fine Life.

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I enjoy reading Wendel Berry’s novels. This is a beautiful story of love and loss.

If you are looking for a book series and haven’t read Jan Karon’s Mitford series, give the first one a try. Set in a small town, the books are tender and uplifting. My mom reads the whole series over and over.

A bound collection of my first twenty columns in The South County News.

The Winter’s Night, A Cocktail for the Season

This cocktail is a perfect blend of warmth and sweetness for the bitter cold. photo: Elizabeth Palat

As the snow falls, enjoy this delicious cocktail. Easy to make, it is the perfect winter drink to enjoy on a cold night. Shake and pour into a martini glass or serve over ice. It is sweet and warming either way. I keep the ingredients on hand all year long.

2 oz Bailey’s

2 oz Butterscotch Schnapps

1 T Half and Half

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This book was a gift from my friend, Krista. It is witty and full of delicious cocktail recipes.

I love using vintage glassware. These are not vintage, but they are beautiful.

Life Lessons

I am a lover of language. Read continually. Write often. I’ve had many excellent teachers—both formal and informal– through the years, who have helped improve my skills.

Mrs. Harmon is 3rd from the left. My grandma is second from the right. We received a solid education at Fulton Elementary School, and this gals were strict disciplinarians.

I learned to love books at Fulton Elementary. Mrs. Bragg sweetly greeted us when we entered the tiny library, the size of a modern walk-in closet. We started with those high-interest biographies: presidents, explorers, Native American leaders and famous cowboys. My grandmother, our 4th grade teacher, read aloud The Little House on the Prairie after recess. We listened quietly at our desks, resting our heads on our sweaty arms, and imagined being Laura’s schoolmates. We were all “county kids,” familiar with the damp of the woodlands, the sway of tall grasses, and the sounds of different animals and insects at night Laura so richly described.  

In middle school, real academics began. We studied grammar and learned to dissect sentences. I loved sharpening my pencil and diagramming sentence after sentence in Mrs. LaFrance’s classroom. We read stories and discussed them as a class, further cementing my fondness for literature.

My initiation into unsavory language started in second grade, after Mrs. Harmon sharply commanded, “Jimmy! You come up here! I’m going to paddle you!”

Horrified by Jimmy’s situation, I looked up at Mrs. Harmon, looked back at Jimmy who was slowly getting up from his desk, and looked over to my friend Donna. I whispered, “What did he do?”

Donna shrugged her shoulders and said, “Oh, he swore.”

“What’s swearing?” I asked, completed stumped. Donna shook her head and went back to solving her math problems.

My mom clarified things for me when I got home. My parents were strict about how we spoke to one another and our word choices. Our home was peaceful, and the harshest words spoken during my early years were things like “fiddlesticks!” or “shoot!”

During the hot summer before fifth grade, my dad had farrowing coops (individual shelters for sows and their piglets) in a field around the house. We soon had an infestation of rats under the little houses, and we spent several Saturdays helping Dad move the coops and eliminate the rats. But the most memorable event of that summer involved trying to catch a sow who had escaped. My brothers and I did the best we could, trying to help Dad get her back in her pen, but each time Dad circled that old sow back around, and we tried to direct her to her waiting pen, she wouldn’t have it. She squealed and pushed by us. Dad, who never uttered a profanity, completely lost his fatherly composure, and chased that pig around and around, yelling those forbidden words (and a few I had never heard before).

This is about the era of the farrowing-coops-summer.

But Mrs. Noble in 7th grade PE class delivered the best language lesson of all. We girls were in the middle of a heated dodge-ball game. Balls were slamming, girls were ducking, and the worst-of-words were flying. The sound of Mrs. Noble’s whistle rose above the noise. She motioned us over, and we circled around her. She stood, statuesque and strong, and we waited, sweaty and out-of-breath, for her sentencing.

“Girls, Girls, Girls!” she said. “You must use those words sparingly. Save them for when you really need them!”

Her advice stuck and has served me well in my professional relationships. But it is in my personal life where its practice is most helpful. Like using strong spices, if I sprinkle those words only when necessary, my message is heightened, highly efficient and effective.

 Thanks, Mrs. Noble.

It’s a Fine Life

Several years ago, Dennis and I saw Mrs. Noble, who is now in her nineties and still active. I reminded her of her lesson. She just smiled.

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A collection of my first twenty columns from the South County News is now available on Amazon.

Hope in the Darkness

These windows glow nightly in the village.

Each morning I pass this storefront on my way to work.

The streets of the village are nearly empty. It’s 6:30 A.M. and my thoughts are filled with lists and tasks waiting for me in the day ahead. I am already feeling pressured and pre-occupied instead of simply appreciating these quiet moments.

Then here it is, this lovely gift, radiating a beautiful, warming comfort.

I am thankful for this snippet of joy during this season of darkness. A reminder.

Vaccines are coming. Peace and calm will eventually return.

And our little hometown remains.

My heart is full.

Winter Storms

Our farm, winter of 1969. Dad and Uncle John worked hard to keep machinery working and pathways clear.

As we anticipate the eventual winter storms, I maintain a well-stocked pantry: I learned the importance of preparation from my mother who was raising four of the five of us when the blizzard of 1967 caught many in Michigan by surprise. My parents listened to the radio for most of their news during the 1960s: WKZO radio, AM 590. I can still hear the sports roundup music, Carl Collin’s voice for the noon farm reports, the advertising jingle for Be-Mo potato chips. I’m sure my mom was working in the kitchen and listening to the morning shows when it was announced that area schools were closing: Winds had increased and a blizzard had begun.

Mr. Jager, Fulton Elementary School’s principal, entered my second-grade classroom, announcing we would be going home. We shut our workbooks, pushed them into our desks, and found our boots and snow gear. The sky was dark, the snow coming sideways.

 I rode home with my grandmother, who taught fourth grade in my building. Her white Thunderbird thumped and bumped through the quickly drifting roads; as the wind howled and the snow swirled, I struggled to see the houses and farms on the familiar route towards home. Each time the wind gusts increased, all my landmarks disappeared. I wasn’t frightened, but I also didn’t converse with Grandma whose gloved hands tightly gripped the wheel.

Once safely home, the storm increased its rage. We were snowed in for a week. The wind blew for several days, forming huge drifts which swept upwards to the roof of the old garage, covering our back porch. From the front window we watched Dad work his way through the snow, cross the road, and enter the cattle barn to check the water and feed the animals. At that time, all the feeding was done inside and mostly by hand. The barn was cozy and warm with glossy-eyed steers jostling for position. Many days I accompanied Dad for evening chores, so I knew exactly what he was doing: He would remove his heavy coat, climb the inside silo chute, and shovel the silage to the wooden cart below. He then pushed the cart down the center aisle, filling the troughs as he went. He would repeat this process at least four or five times. I knew he was safe, but I was still relieved when the door closed, and he was back with us again.

An example of the drifts across local roads after a blizzard. During the blizzard of 1969, we were snowed in for a week.

Mom cooked and cooked, filling us with warm soups, casseroles, or scrambled eggs and toast.  She organized and patiently supervised our activities: We played lots of games, worked jigsaw puzzles, rediscovered toys, and read books. And when the winds finally subsided, we ventured out into a transformed world – a white wonderland full of opportunities for tunneling and discovery.

There have been other blizzards since, but none quite as memorable as that storm from my childhood. As long as my friends and family are off the roads, I do love a snowstorm and find comfort in my cupboard’s inventory. And as we watch the weather reports, I look forward to the gift of time to cook, care for my family and rediscover the beauty of a winter storm.

It’s a Fine Life

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I have read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter several times since 4th grade. I still find it an amazing story.

A Year of New Experiences

As 2020 comes to a close, I am both relieved and re-invigorated. It has been a year of challenges and new learning.

Teaching virtually involves a new set of skills, skills I didn’t possess until I was forced to acquire them. I will emerge from this school year better in many ways and certainly much more appreciative when we can all safely return to physical classrooms.

I love this photo of the llama and the sheep flock. We used it as the front cover of the December edition of the South County News. Photo: Oswalt Family Farms

When Sue Moore died, I assumed the role of editor/publisher of the South County News. It was (and is) both humbling and inspiring. Humbling, because I didn’t have a clue how to do this: Inspiring because of this amazing team of people who tirelessly support me and our community effort.

And lastly, after much prodding from my mother, I published my first little book. And again, this was definitely a challenge involving a new skill set. My son Drew gave technical encouragement and support and my friend Leeanne Seaver gave some sage advice; and this collection of my first twenty “It’s a Fine Life” columns is now self-published on Amazon! And, the best news of all is that copies arrived in time to surprise my mom for the holidays.

Check it out!

Wishing you and yours health and happiness this holiday season!

It’s a Fine Life

Perfect Gifts

Some people just have a knack for gift giving. These folks understand how to select and beautifully wrap their unique finds. While I am certainly not a perfect gift giver, I have always enjoyed shopping for Christmas presents, which started in my early years in the little family-owned shops on Main Street.

During December, the stores in Vicksburg were open late every Wednesday night, and most of the village restaurants took advantage of the increased traffic and offered late suppers or desserts for the holiday shoppers. There were many downtown retailers during the 1960s and 1970s; most were family owned and staffed by the proprietors and their families. The village featured two pharmacies, two ladies’ dress shops, a department store, two hardware stores, and a satisfying mix of other gift, specialty and variety stores. Retail business was steady and reliable.

Doris-Lee Sweet Shop near the corner of Prairie and Main Streets. Dad loved the chocolate covered peanuts they carried. They welcomed me by name and helped me find something just right for my mother. Photo from the Vicksburg Historical Society collection.

In the December twilight, my mom parked the station wagon on Main Street: two of my brothers and I had an hour to shop before we were to return to the car to check in. Scott and Steve joined forces, and I set out on my own. To buy my gifts, I had saved money, a total of $20, and with that, I purchased presents for my four brothers, my parents, and my two grandmothers. The gifts were obviously nothing extravagant, but they took serious thought and budgeting.

Because we always tagged along with our parents as they frequented the various businesses, I knew each of the storekeepers. There was such a sense of security in that! And while I certainly didn’t spend much that day, they treated this 12-year-old customer with kindness each time I parted with my crumpled bills. I imagine my brothers had a similar experience during their separate expedition.

After returning home, we carefully wrapped our special finds, using miles and miles of tape, then we placed our little parcels in separate piles under the tree and counted the days until Christmas. I was as excited by the gifts I had found, as I was for the gifts I would receive.

This was the first Christmas I shopped on my own for my four little brothers.

While many families participate in gift-giving traditions, this holiday season will be different for most of us; many people are distancing from loved ones, will not be travelling and are facing hardships. And while we know this is temporary, it is still difficult.

Yes, physical gifts are nice, but this current situation has provided me much clarity: truly the most important gift is the time we can spend together. I recall my holiday celebrations throughout the years: the laughter, the tears, the conversations, and yes, even the disagreements. I will miss it all this year.

I am so thankful for my many memories with our friends and family.

Yes, of course there will be special presents under our tree, but never again will I take the perfect gift of togetherness for granted.

It’s a Fine Life.

After Thanksgiving, The Legendary Casserole

Thanksgiving Dinner takes careful planning.

During the sixties and seventies, Thanksgiving meals were carefully planned since groceries and retail stores were closed. In fact, it was difficult to find even a gas station open.

And as today, families gathered to share the holiday meal.

Our tablecloth-covered, china-laden dining room table stretched nearly the length of the room: we added three or four leaves to the massive old table, and a card table perched at the far end. Often, my parents invited older couples without children nearby to join us. And sometimes, when my grandmother was still alive, our Gaylord relatives came, raising everyone’s excitement level.

Thanksgiving Dinner offers many of our family’s favorite foods.

 We feasted, as many families do today, on traditional Thanksgiving foods: turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes with gravy, green bean casserole, and squash. Then the coffee and delicious pies emerged.

After dinner, my grandmother, the queen of frugality, pulled the turkey from the bone as my mother packed the other food, usually stashing the containers on the front porch – a major perk we northerners realize during the cold months. My dad and brothers sprawled in front of the television, mesmerized by the football games, occasionally snoozing in after-meal drowsiness.

It was a busy day, especially for my mother.

But the best part, the event we waited for all year, was not Black Friday outings or the huge Thanksgiving meal, but the incredible leftover casserole my mother served Friday night. Unlike the formality of Thanksgiving dinner, when it was time for Friday’s supper, this massive casserole sat on the stove, covered in foil, with the serving spoon stuffed inside. Pickles, olives, cranberry sauce remained in the jars, forks and jelly spoons submerged. Good dishes washed and shelved, we used paper plates and played games together with whoever was able to come.

There is no official recipe for the day-after casserole. Many families assemble a similar dish. One of my friends said at her house they call it “glop.” That sure doesn’t sound appetizing to me, but trust me, this dish is delicious no matter what it is called. My family talks about it all year, and the kids suggest more than ask, “We are having the casserole, right?” Well, of course!

The ingredients include leftover turkey, dressing, potatoes, and gravy. Add cream of mushroom soup, sour cream, and perhaps a purchased jar of turkey gravy. Layer it all in a big, greased roasting pan, cover it loosely in foil, and bake at 350 until heated through. Sprinkle french fried onions on top and bake for probably 10 minutes more. Add some salt and pepper to taste, and you have my mother’s family-famous leftover casserole.

Caleb and Chloe finishing Thanksgiving Dinner last year.

I am now decades from the Thanksgivings of my childhood. Eventually girlfriends or boyfriends, fiancés, spouses, and the next generation joined the circle. And now, as it should be, each of my dear brothers has developed traditions in his own home. But after my family gathers around the holiday table, and as I pull the turkey meat from the bone, I will remember those wonderful days.

And I will look forward to the generational tradition of another day of togetherness and the legendary casserole.

It’s a Fine Life.