Getting Away

Everyone needs some space—a reprieve from the people or routines that fill our days. I am reminded of this as all of us are spending more and more time sheltering in place.

This was one of my escape routes I took to seek some solitude.

When I was a child, I regularly sought time apart from my four little brothers. These were simple places: the coolness of the barn, the branches of the old maple, a favorite rock at the side of a field. All free and readily available to me. Once there, it didn’t take long to regain an appropriate attitude and some degree of affection for my every-present family. But I found such time necessary and still do.

My classroom of friends at Fulton Elementary School never spoke of vacations or spring break trips. Most of these children also lived on farms—or at least lived rurally with some chickens and pigs. My family’s livelihood depended on the careful monitoring, feeding, and watering of livestock and the timely preparation of the land for spring planting. Getting away was not realistic or expected.

A view of the river and bay at the cabin. I’ve had a lifetime of perfect getaways there.

But when I was in 5th grade, my parents planned a Spring Break trip to the Smokey Mountains. It was to involve lots of riding in the station wagon AND overnight stays in motels with indoor swimming pools. We were so excited we could hardly sleep. The morning of our departure, we crawled in the old Mercury (with a rumble seat in the back), tucked our new comic books carefully beside us, and eyed my mother’s tote bag filled with snacks and other tricks to distract us.

Little Steve about the time he broke his wrist. Our dad and the stockyard representative are in the back. We always looked forward to listening in on their conversations.

My brother Steve made one last run into the house to retrieve his pillow, fell from the top bunk, and broke his wrist badly, ending our trip before it even began. (It took several months for eleven-year-me to forgive him, and even then it was grudgingly, with attitude only a big, bossy sister can bestow.)

No major setbacks (or broken bones) enabled my husband and me to take our three children to the Smokey Mountains and Mammoth Cave when our youngest was five. We visited and toured both places and enjoyed the gorgeous mountain views from a condo we had rented. This was our first official vacation besides our annual cabin trek in July. On our way home, we asked our tired travelers their favorite part of the trip. As the children were pondering the question, I recalled the beautiful wildlife in the Smokey Mountains National Park, the purple and lavender sunrises from our balcony, the stalactites and stalagmites in the depths of the cave. There were so many wonderful moments to choose from.

Our oldest daughter piped up, “The best part was riding the go-carts!” to which her two younger siblings enthusiastically and unanimously agreed, “Yeah, that was the best!”

My husband and I looked at each other in disbelief. We sure didn’t have to travel hundreds of miles to ride go-carts and play miniature golf!

My new normal: reaching out to engage my high school students with my computer. I miss seeing them and worry about their well being.

This spring break adventure reinforced what my husband and I already knew: it doesn’t have to be a big expenditure or extensive travel to satisfy the need for a break and some much-needed time away. It can be as simple as pitching a tent beneath the stars in our backyard for an evening around a fire; turning off our electronics and playing old-fashioned board games with our children or grandchildren;  or spending the afternoon in the hammock lost in books.

I need to remember the simplicity of this during our continued confinement.

It’s a Fine Life

Below are two product ideas for your time of isolation. If you click on the image, it will take you to the item on Amazon. (A small percentage of any purchase you make helps defray the cost of this blog.)

Rack-O This game is a fantastic two person game, which is hard to find. My husband and I play it with our nine-year-old grandchildren. They enjoy it and stay with it. I recommend it.

Where the Crawdads Sing--if you haven’t read this book, consider it. If you lived next door to me, I would loan you my copy. It’s fiction written by a biologist: this means science and beautiful literary style. I am going to re-read it. It’s that good.

Exodus

(This piece first appeared last year in the South County News.)

Our backyard several summers ago, before the mole-plague.

We had an invasion of moles. Plague-like. Of Biblical proportions. As my husband walked the yard last spring, he learned they’ve assaulted the whole neighborhood. Now I’m not talking about a few little raised tunnels. Yes, those are annoying and unsightly, but they are nothing compared to what is generated by this current population. These must be massive moles, I’m talking behemoths, who leave behind fresh six-inch mounds that emerge in clusters.

I imagine their intricate underground roadways and their complex, generational community: big grand-daddies smoke pipes in their fitted velour jackets, flexing their sturdy, pink feet in front of their fragrant moss fires; plump grandmothers squint from behind tiny gold-rimmed glasses, pinching their rose blossom noses, and adjust their tiny acorn lanterns; and children live contentedly several tunnels down, thankful for the plentiful earthworms and grubs that fill their pantries. Most certainly, the grandchildren stop on the way home from school for tea and biscuits. Such bliss and contentment exist beneath our carefully tended yard.

And so my husband began his research, his conferencing, his obsession with evicting these silent intruders. We’ve tried some things, including poison worms in the obvious mole-runs. No luck. We have looked at mole traps: some that look like miniature guillotines and several that have a center spear which pierces the unsuspecting intruder traveling home from a productive day of tunneling. While we are very irritated and frustrated by these pesky mammals, I find these methods too barbaric—and then there is a fat, furry body to deal with…

Eventually a co-worker told my husband about the Sonic Spike, claiming “It’s the best.” Then a neighbor gave testimony to this product. And so began a pilgrimage to the home-improvement store last summer.

(These are similar to the spikes we purchased. If you click on the image, you can read about them on Amazon)

According to a twenty-something, gum-snapping clerk, they work. “Yeah, my grandparents tried them at the cottage and they were like gone. For real.” For real? Her smooth pony tail sways as she nods her head in agreement. Her innocence and enthusiasm complete the sale as my husband studies the box.   According to the box bylines, this solar-operated mole detractor emits a sound every minute or so which is so offensive to these determined critters that they actually “pull up stakes” and leave the infested yard.

It must rattle their little mole ears. Make them clench their little mole paws. Make them pack their little suitcases full of grubs and worms they have collected and become little transient moles, seeking refuge from such mole-ear-piercing torture.

What would make me leave my home? My neighborhood where we raised our children? I can’t imagine what would be so annoying or terrifying to make me take my family, pack the old minivan and leave. Permanently. Never-to-return.

Our backyard, currently free of the mole mounds.

It appears that the Sonic Spike is working. It is now mid-April, and their exit seems complete. Led by some Moses Mole, the clan has entered the promised yard of an unsuspecting neighbor.

I pray their exodus is complete.

It’s a Fine Life.

Our End of the Rainbow

March brings some green back to our lives: hints of the lawn emerge from under the snow, crocus and daffodil leaves reach through the crusty cold, and St Patrick’s Day revelers sport their emerald apparel mid-month—always a late winter pick-me-up.

As children, we loved the idea of a pot of gold hidden by some tricky Leprechauns. When we spotted rainbows, we were excited by the prospect of unexpected loot. Could we outfox a Leprechaun? And what we would do with all that gold? Put in a swimming pool? Travel to Disney World? Buy a new car? As quickly as we spotted a rainbow’s beautiful arch, we could summon those dreams.

But of course, I now know we can only see rainbows from a distance and there is really no end. If we were to keep searching for the gold, the riches are forever illusive, much like an endless search for self.

One of the pastures on the family farm.

In our insular farm world, my parents taught my brothers and me to be satisfied and happy with what we had; we always had enough, and I know now how lucky we were.  This appreciation was to include the food on our plate, the shoes on our feet, and the family and friends around our table. Yes, it was acceptable to dream, and certainly we were encouraged to set goals for ourselves, but our parents insisted that every day was a day to appreciate and enjoy.

Such gratitude was easy to achieve as a child, but as an adult, I find this is a much harder practice. It’s not what our consumer-driven society wants us to believe. To be satisfied, advertising images entice us to buy this car, wear these clothes, or live in this area of the country. These things will make us happy. But the grass is not greener elsewhere.

There isn’t a better place to live in the world, than a small southwest Michigan town. A few hours’ drive in any direction feels like we have entered a different world: the excitement and cultural experiences in Chicago; the renaissance and renewed pride of Detroit; or the gorgeous shorelines of the Great Lakes. We enjoy outstanding public and private colleges and universities, beautiful hardwood forests, and rich, productive farmland.

This rainbow appeared over our cousins’ dairy barn the morning after their precious mother died–such a beautiful sign of love and hope.

Truly, we live at the end of the rainbow.  

I remember the story of hope from the Old Testament—the rainbow’s appearance, a symbol that the storms of this life will eventually pass. And today, the message of the rainbow has also come to symbolize acceptance and inclusiveness for so many.

Yes, a rainbow’s beauty remains magical today. And even with the scientific understanding of their formation, rainbows still amaze and surprise us, sometimes at the times when we need an emotional lift the most.

The reality is that we will always face challenges in this life, but these storms also come with the reassurance of many more rainbows.

It’s a Fine Life

Dish Stories

I do love to set a table—to use special pieces from my family’s history, to polish the glassware, to arrange a fresh bouquet. I love the feel of these old treasures—the gloss of my parents’ wedding china, the raised pattern on my grandmother’s pressed glass, the textures of vintage tablecloths and napkins.

My grandmother loved her stemware and dishes. She passed this affection (and dishes) forward to my cousin Sherry and me.

Our buffet is filled with random bits of my family’s generational ware, and each time I set the table with these icons of the past, or wash them gently after a special dinner with friends, or store them carefully for the next gathering, they remind me of my people and the hands that touched them. I imagine the stories these dishes could tell.

When we were growing up, teenage girls had things called “hope chests,” trunks or nice wooden boxes which held objects to be used when we set-up housekeeping someday. When I was a teen, I had an old metal trunk which held a tissue-wrapped set of my Great Aunt Ethel’s china and a few pieces of Depression Glass.  

My maternal grandmother (2nd from right) and her five sisters. She also loved entertaining and using beautiful dishware.

This custom has changed, and while some of our children do get married, many do not. But those chests did serve a purpose, as most of our children eventually leave home and need many household things.

What families today use are Rubbermaid Totes instead of cedar chests—a place for parents to toss extra dish towels, the pots and pans that work their way to the backs of crowded kitchen cupboards, that old coffee maker that still works, and maybe a waffle iron which never made its way out of the box.

My beautiful parents on their wedding day.

My husband and I selected our dishes and various housewares several months before our June wedding. I was so very excited as we entered Gilmore’s and met briefly with a salesclerk. She gave us a clipboard and off we went–me glowing in excitement and my husband-to-be checking his watch and growing more and more impatient by the moment. This is a guy whose refrigerator contained four items: eggs, cheese, bread, and milk. He used one plate at a time, washed it, and put it away. Setting the perfect table was not even on his distant horizon. He didn’t care, and he has never found it important.

Preparing for a special dinner at our house. My parents’ wedding china and my grandma’s pressed glass are so lovely.

Nearly forty years later, we still use the dishes we picked out that day: “Matchmaker” by Noritake. Most of the plates have survived three kids, two grandkids, regular family meals, and countless loads through the dishwasher. Most of the bowls didn’t make it, but the chipped ones that remain remember fondly the servings of steamy oatmeal, thick stews, and hot fudge sundaes.  

These dishes have been with us through our seasons: they were charming in the early spring of our marriage; they were reliable during the joyful summer season of child rearing, little league games, and homework around the table; and they are thankful and gracious in our autumn.

And despite the fading colors and imperfections, these dishes–and this life journey–is still the pattern I would choose today.

It’s a Fine Life

Sentimental Valentines

I can’t see pink, red, and white construction paper and doilies without remembering my time at Fulton Elementary School and how we (and young children everywhere) prepared for the annual Valentine’s Day celebrations during those years.

My second grade school picture. Mrs. Harmon was our teacher that year. I still remember her chuckle and occasional laugh,

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 learned to cut out various-shaped hearts which we then used to decorate our mail slots. We eventually wrote our names with a chunky red Crayola Crayon, and taped our envelope carefully to the side of our desk. During the Valentine’s Party, we played mail carrier, delivering our carefully signed cards, merrily depositing our missives in each classmate’s pouch. By second and third grades, we had moved up to cheerfully decorated cereal boxes. Fourth grade we had finally arrived: construction-paper-covered shoe boxes.

For me, the Valentines preparations took several evenings seriously concentrating at the kitchen table, studying the class list and my little box of cards. I made special selections for my closest friends: Donna, Darlene, Dawn, Theresa, Dianna. Even more studied decisions for the boys–Larry, Robby, Chip—nothing could say “I Love You” or even “Would You Be My Valentine?”  No way. I wanted nothing to be misunderstood. Even more scrutiny for Jimmy who since 1st grade regularly passed 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 went over the cards and list again and again until I was satisfied.

The same twenty-five schoolmates traveled with me from Kindergarten, to First Grade, then Second. The same twenty-five children in little plaid dresses or little plaid shirts and jeans excitedly passed out their 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, Hang Man, Seven-up. One year we even had a pinata. Usually our teachers 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-aide punch, popcorn balls. I bet our poor teachers had to “put their feet up” when they got home. (If only educators had known about red dye and its effects on behavior back then…)

Our teachers at Fulton Elementary School. My grandmother, who taught 4th grade, is second from the right. They were all fair, no-nonsense teachers. My friends and I received a solid education and strict discipline, if we needed it.

I loved all the Charlie Brown specials, but “Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown” broke my heart. I always felt so sorry for Charlie Brown: his empty mailbox, his painful crush on the little red-haired girl, his predictable disappointment. I always hoped for the best for him: suddenly the Peanuts Gang would be kind. Perhaps this year would be different. His mailbox would be full. No more “You’re a blockhead, Charlie Brown.” At their Valentine’s party, the gang would surround his desk, shouting “You’re a great guy, Charlie Brown!” Sadly, that never happened. 

I kept those sweet valentines 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, and I remember and appreciate the anticipation and effort it involved.

Part of my vintage card collection.

 And I wouldn’t be surprised if there is still a faded, covered shoe box of Valentines from these dear ones of my past tucked in the closet of my childhood bedroom. When I take my mother’s Valentine to her this year in the old farmhouse, I’ll have to remember to check: I sure hope it’s still there.

It’s a Fine Life

Winter

Today the house is quiet. The holiday frenzy is done, the children have gone home, and the “undecorating” is nearly finished. I have stripped the guest beds, filled the birdfeeders, and assessed the leftovers in the refrigerator. Winter is here. 

As the quiet cold creeps into our yards, our village, our lives, we begin to fully appreciate our hearth and home.  Edith Sitwell states “Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.” So true. It is the season of comforting foods and candlelight warming the walls at night: it is a season of beauty with frosty mornings and cardinals searching for seeds in the snow. It is a season for trips to the library and mugs of hot coffee.

We watch the weather reports, the doppler radar, the thermometer drop, anticipating a storm’s approach, and, as always, I recall those beautiful days of my childhood. 

Dad was always one for adventures, and if it included a bit of risk, I think he found it even more enjoyable. Four years old, I stand on the seat of our Falcon, looking out the back window. The snow, powdery and light, joins the exhaust in plumes behind the car as my mother tows my dad on his skis. Holding the taut rope, he swoops out into the fields along the gravel roads, somehow managing to miss posts and ditches, avoiding a tremendous wipe out on the icy roads. I hold my breath as my own Jean Claude Killee disappears and reappears in the clouds of powder. I think that only happened once, as my mother’s common sense must have beat out Dad’s ever-ready adrenaline and appreciation of an adoring audience.

Many times my brothers and I listened excitedly to WKZO Radio, AM 590, so convinced school would be cancelled. We waited and waited through the long list of districts, fingers crossed, toes crossed, breath held, as the announcer neared the end of the alphabet and the V’s approached. “Union City, Vestaburg, Vicksburg…all closed today.” Oh the joy, the squeals, the ecstasy of the hours of freedom and adventures ahead.

Our farm, always a ready playground, included a sledding hill behind our grandmother’s house. It was a long, long hike through the stubble of a cornfield, so often our dad would tie the toboggan to the back of the tractor and toss our saucers and sleds in the tractor’s bucket. We would ride the toboggan or perch on a tractor fender, and my dad would join us for several hours of exhausting fun: quick slides down and long climbs back up the slope. Sometimes we even had a little fire to warm our hands or a thermos of hot chocolate to enjoy, but usually we just climbed and slid and climbed again until we were sweaty and limp at the hill’s bottom.

My town friends had other snow-day offerings: hockey and skating on the mill pond, sledding at “the hill,” and friends within walking distance to join in the fun.

Timeless snow play. Our little girls, 6 and 4, after a January snow.

These times with our own children included snow play with neighbor children, cup after cup of hot chocolate with graham crackers, and piles of wet snow gear–the damp wool mittens and hats, the incense of our home on those wonderful days.

It’s a Fine Life.


Holiday Joy

Christmas 1971. Soon we would be headed north for some serious fun.


When we were children, we approached the holidays with such impatience–it seemed like school would never end. The school bus continued to pick us up and drop us off, the presents began to appear under the tree, and our mother’s cookie baking and candy making began. Christmas and the holidays meant many things to us: gifts, special foods, free time, snow. But by far, the best part of the holidays was traveling north to spend time after Christmas with our cousins in Gaylord. 

We cousins are all close in age, and our times together have always been concentrated, special, and full of activities. There are nine of us total–all within ten years of each other. And while we do have cousins in our area, and we did enjoy spending time with them, it never involved overnights or long weekends together. This type of uninterrupted time encourages a closeness, built from common memories of people and places.  

So after the Christmas commotion settled at our house, we packed up the old station wagon and headed nearly straight north, our excitement growing with each mile. The old Mercury was stuffed with sleeping bags, winter boots, snowmobile suits, hats and gloves, special  gifts, the five of us kids, a grandmother, and all kinds of energy. Dad piloted slippery roads, drifted roads, or even icy roads until we spilled out of the car, tumbling into the warmth and love of our aunt and uncle’s house. From then on it was full-speed fun. 

Our Auntie Bea and Uncle Henry at a family wedding in Gaylord. They always, always, always opened their home to us and cared for us as if we were their own children.

My Uncle Henry promoted activity. We always needed to be busy–or at least look busy–and all of us were expected to participate in whatever he had in mind. His winter ideas usually involved snowmobiling, sledding, and, of course, my least favorite–hockey. Hockey was fun when we were little, but as our brothers grew larger and larger, the speed and collisions became more and more treacherous. (And of course there were no helmets or pads back in the 1970s.) Jennifer, Amy, and I eventually began to quietly slip away to the girls’ bedroom when we anticipated an approaching game, but Uncle Henry would call us by name and insist we come ou t. “Jennifer! Amy! Kathy! Come on! Get your skates on. Everybody out!!

I don’t recall I suffered any serious injuries, but as the play became more and more intense, we girls retreated to the sides, retrieving the puck or passing it back into play as needed. 

Our Auntie Bea and my mother were free of any sporting drafts, and they cooked, washed dishes, drank pots of coffee, and laughed and laughed and laughed.

How wonderful these times were, how quickly they passed,  and how I miss the innocence of those days.

My father and uncle are no longer physically among us, but our memories of their love and this time together is a legacy that continues in all of us.

My heart is full.

It’s a Fine Life.

Snowstorm Sanity: A Blizzard Box

I’ll be watching the weather this week, knowing the Blizzard Box is all set!

As long as the people I love are safely off any hazardous roads (and we have and keep our power), I love a heavy winter snow. Usually, we know in advance of an incoming storm and the meteorologists’ predicted precipitation levels. (Okay, sometimes we get all excited and the anticipated snowfall goes north or south of us, so I do understand some level of skepticism.)

But, when we do have a blizzard in Southwest Michigan, we are generally snowed in for at least two days. Schools are closed, our neighborhood road is plugged, and we are home with a wonderful gift of time.

Once the storms and winds subside, there is lots of shoveling and clearing work to be done. My husband likes to remind me of this when I am hoping–and sometimes even praying--for a snow day. I don’t worry about that inconvenience as he does his own planning by filling the snowblower’s gas tank, checking the generator, and salting the sidewalks.

When we were children, our mother listened to WKZO radio, following carefully the lists of school cancellations. Often we were getting ready for school before the district closing was announced. She would call upstairs to us, “Hey kids, school is closed! Come on down!” I think she was always as excited as we were on those wonderful days.

When our children were young, we loved those days, too. The kids stayed in their pajamas, played games, and watched movies. I usually put a pot of soup together, and we often napped and relaxed. We were able to slow down and simply enjoy the time together.

My friend Annette and I started this “Blizzard Box” tradition probably five years ago. I think we were trying to turn our winter blues into something more positive. This weekend, I’m planning ahead for an inevitable snowstorm and assembling another box. I recommend it, and here’s what we do:

First, plan and purchase items well before a storm appears on Doppler radar. Find a box and fill it with special indulgences: chocolates, coffee, a bottle of good wine (or spirits), a recommended book, a new nail color and file, a DVD, a scented candle–you get the idea. These should be things that help you feel like you are pampering yourself. We found a boot box is a good size, but as my husband suggests, the bigger the container, the more goodies you can fill it with. (Gosh, he is a smart guy!) Put it somewhere safe BUT easily accessible to you. (You need to remember where you put it–more and more challenging for me, especially during the busy holiday season!)

Then when the storm hits, you can smile, let some stew bubble away, and open your Blizzard Box.

And you might just find you will look forward to the next winter storm!

It’s a Fine Life

Gathering In

As the bitter cold approaches, we anticipate both the beauty and challenges of a Michigan winter. I savor this time before the December storms, and during most Sunday afternoons, I enjoy fixing foods of comfort for my family (and freezer): soups, stews, and casseroles are the usual offerings. Today, I put on an old, friendly sweater, and as I watch the chili bubble on the stove, I am reminded of a hymn which has woven its way throughout the years of my life:

When we were children, my dad filled this old silo with corn silage from the surrounding fields. Before my dad died, my parents had the barn renovated and the silo taken down.

“Come, Ye Thankful People, Come”

Fifty years ago, my little brothers and I sat in a church pew between my parents the Sunday before Thanksgiving. It was warm in the church, and we snuggled in, doing our best to sit quietly during the endless announcements. Hearing the hymn’s familiar refrain, we stood, cheerfully lifting our voices, joining the warbly, gray-haired sopranos and the stolid, resonate basses standing around us.

I thought of the ears of corn drying in the old corncrib and remembered the shafts of golden wheat that had rippled the fields in July. By the Thanksgiving holiday, the harvesting was done, and my dad and uncle’s combine and corn-picker were dozing lazily in the implement shed.

The renovated barn in the background. I love this shot with the sunrise coming up behind the barn.

As we ploughed our way through all the verses, I was flooded with happiness: singing with my family, remembering our bounty, and anticipating the smells and tastes of my mother’s Sunday pot roast simmering in the oven.

I felt safe. I felt loved.

I really didn’t have a word for these feelings, but I know now, what I experienced (and still experience) this time of year is called gratitude.

My favorite lines from the old hymn speak of security and comfort:

“All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin.”

Yes, we are all gathering and planning for the bitter isolation of winter. Service technicians (or handy homeowners) have checked thermostats and changed furnace filters. Firewood has been cut, dried, and neatly stacked. Additional canned goods have muscled their way into our cupboards. A few extra cereal boxes stand side-by-side in our pantries.

These winter preparations help me again remember that despite our ups and downs in this journey of life, I have much to be thankful for.

My parents always protected us and cared for us with such gentleness.

Today, I am many decades from those Thanksgiving Sundays and many years from keeping our own children content and quiet, but in November, this overwhelming sense of gratitude remains. I know now, of course, that my parents weren’t without concerns during our childhood; many Thanksgivings they were worried about a loved one’s illness, falling farm commodity prices, or other stressful events outside of their control. But they protected us and kept us safe.

Caleb’s Thanksgiving picture from three years ago.

As we plan for this holiday season, it is my hope that we notice and reach out to those who are struggling, that we appreciate and share what we have, and that we gather in and shelter one another from the storms.

It’s a Fine Life.

A Hometown Surprise

Wrapped in scarves, encased in our woolen coats, snow pants and winter boots, and filled with holiday excitement, my brothers and I–three little stair steps–scurried after my father, clomping into the Hat & Gown Dress Shop on the Main Street of my childhood. Two days before Christmas, and we were running errands with our father, secretly finding special gifts for our mother.

Main Street today. We could do all of our holiday shopping here when we were children.

Everything we needed could be found in my sweet little hometown in the 1960s. While I don’t imagine business was “booming,” retailers and shop keepers seemed happy and optimistic—stocking their stores with necessities and enticements for community residents. Unlike most small Michigan towns today, our business district was diverse: a Dancers Department Store for my dad’s ties or socks; two hardware stores for hammers or seeds or shovels; two ladies dress shops, for the mothers and grandmothers; a Zenith sales and repair shop, where my parents purchased our first color television set; and a dime store, for notions and handy household goods.

The late afternoon sky was darkening, and in my memory, the village was snow covered and bustling with holiday activities.

The bells on the shop door jingled. We entered a welcoming warmth and stomped snow off our boots, our fingers itchy and icy in our mittens. Our rosy cheeks tingled. Removing his cap, my tall, handsome father approached the clerk behind the counter. She looked up and straightened her hair, smiling at him.

Doris Hayward and Ilah Hayward–friends, sisters-in-law, and owners of The Hat and Gown Dress Shop where we shopped with our father that Christmas.

“Well, hello, Gordon. So… what can we pick out for Bonnie today?”

I was thinking of perfume—my little brothers, Scott and Steve, gazed at the earrings carousel. We turned to our dad for guidance. 

“The kids have some things in mind, and, um, well, I am thinking of a robe and new nightie.”

My mother wore soft flannel nighties, great for wearing in a cold farmhouse with single-pane windows, with an old fuel oil furnace that rumbled from the basement, with four young children scattered in bedrooms who often required middle-of-the-night reassurances. Her fluffy chenille robe and fuzzy slippers were her morning oatmeal-making, bacon-and-egg frying uniform. And as the school bus pulled away, she stood in the doorway, wrapped in her robe, and waved goodbye to us every morning. There was no doubt the woman deserved a closet full of cozy nightwear.

“Well, sure. We have a rack of nighties and robes along the wall, but we also have some special nighties you might be interested in.”

“Well, hmmm, ahhh, we could take a look at those,” my dad suggested. We nodded in agreement. Something special for mom!

Behind the glass counter, from the highest shelf, the saleswoman selected slender, brown boxes, each containing—what I later realized–beautiful, sheer negligées. We had no idea of what such colorful, TINY nighties implied, or any inkling of the look I’m sure my mother gave my dad when she realized what our holiday shopping trip involved. We just thought they were simply exquisite, like the beautiful, mysterious scarves worn by exotic women in the National Geographic Magazines piled by our couch. Our mother would be amazed by the frothy beauty–a special nightie.

The clerk held us captive, opening each box carefully, unwrapping the prize, and lifting it gently in the air. Pinkies delicately out, pinching the tiny straps tightly, she flicked her wrists and the filmy frock floated gently downward, fluttering to the counter in front of our little pink noses. Today’s delights were holiday colors: green, black, and a glorious Christmas red.

“What do you think, kids? Which one?” my dad asked, grinning down at us.

“THE RED ONE!” we shouted, jumping up and down delightedly.

The clerk smiled broadly at my dad. “How about I wrap this up for you?”

“Thanks!”

The east side of Main Street. The Hat and Gown Dress Shop is visible, near the intersection with Prairie Street.

We hugged our little packages and tumbled into the car. We pressed our hands to the whirled frost, making tiny peep holes, looking out at the Christmas lights and Christmas trees as Dad drove us slowly down Main Street towards the country roads that led to our mother, baby brother, and the safety and love of home.

In the midst of the package ripping, warm hugs, and many surprises, my father gave my mother her beautifully wrapped gift Christmas morning. We children paused in our own activities.

“You’re gonna love it!”

“It’s special!”

“We helped Dad pick it out!”

Baby Danny stayed home while the three of us went holiday shopping with our dad.

Awaiting the unveiling, the three of us gathered elbow to elbow around my mother, who sat holding our baby brother Danny. She carefully unwrapped the beautiful package, folding the paper to use again, winding the ribbon around her hand to add to her ribbon box. She gently lifted the lid and pulled aside the tissue paper. We looked down at it, longing to reach into the box ourselves to stroke its loveliness.

“Oh…my…thank you kids,” she stammered.

She did not lift the special nightie out of the box. She cradled Danny on her other knee, kissed us each on the head, and looked towards my laughing father. “Well, that is quite a surprise…”