Dog Lessons

Nala lives in Arizona and couldn’t get enough of our cool Michigan grass.

I need to live like Nala, our two-year-old lab-pit mix grand-dog. She spent a month with us last summer, enjoying every second of her dog-day. Her needs are simple—food, water, giving and receiving affection—and she has reminded me of some important aspects of life.

If I’m not hungry, leave food alone. (she doesn’t mindlessly snack, she simply eats when she is hungry) I think I used to practice this, but her sleek coat and well-muscled body convince me to return to the lower-calorie habit.

Happy, happy Nala after lots of fetch.

Love the people in my life unconditionally. (she doesn’t hold back—she licks and rubs us as if she will never see us again.) I find nothing easy about unconditional love. We let each other down. We say and do hurtful things–intentionally and unintentionally. Nala prompts me to let it go and simply love, And she broadens her affections to include visitors, neighbors, or anyone she sees me greet happily. My people truly become her people, too–another challenge and reminder.

Stop whatever I’m doing and welcome my family and friends home. (even if she’s napping, Nala gets up and joyfully welcomes us home each time we enter the front door) She wags her tail and looks me in the eyes, convincing me that I matter to her. For that moment I am the center of her little world. I want my friends and family to feel my affection as simply and completely as this, to feel the joy of coming home.

I hope she comes again this summer. I need a few more dog lessons.

Well, yes, nap when tired is another lesson…

It’s a Fine Life.

Full-Service Lament

I miss full-service gas stations—where I could swing our old Chevy in, roll down the window, and greet a reliable mechanic. He would cheerfully fill my tank, wash the windshield, and even check and add motor oil if needed. When I tell my students about the way it “used to be,” they look at me like I have two heads.

Anywhere we traveled fifty years ago, there were dependable, staffed stations. If our engine started making a noise, or if we suspected a tire was going flat, we could coast off the highway where a mechanic was usually on duty. Back in the day, there were even mom-and-pop stations at rural intersections with a pump and small store for bread and other essentials. If folks ran out of gas after hours, they could knock loudly on the shop door, and eventually the drowsy owners (who lived above or behind) would answer.

While there were many full-service stations around the village, our family relied on Fred Hiemstra, who owned and operated the Shell Station on the corner of South Michigan and Prairie Streets. Fred also ran a towing service, and I remember how he hoisted himself into his tow-truck, which began rolling before he even closed the door. Always ready to help, he was like an uncle to many of us.  He took care of our cars, hauled a few vehicles out of the snowbanks or the ditches, and usually did not share that information with our parents. We sure appreciated him.

When I was about ten, my brothers and I perched in our station wagon at the top of the lift in Fred’s shop while he changed the oil. We looked out the windows, gripping the door tightly, and surveyed his garage: tool chests, racks of tires, and the garage floor sat nearly ten feet below. By some miracle, we managed to stay in the car and not fall to the oily concrete. Perhaps my mother was in the car? Perhaps she was in the waiting room taking a break from the five of us? Or perhaps my dad casually chatted below as Fred released the plug and the dirty oil ran from the pan? I don’t remember.

Like many business owners and tradesmen in town, Fred was also a volunteer fire-fighter. When the alarm sounded, tools were set aside, sales calls ended abruptly, and hardware customers had to wait, as these dedicated folks dropped everything and attended house fires, car accidents, or other emergencies.  Fred’s equipment, hanging in his shop, was a comforting reminder of the many people in our community who cared and could take care of us.

There is still a place for a full-service station—where we could pull in and smile at the mechanic. We wouldn’t risk spilling gas on clothes, windshields would be clean, and oil levels would always be within range. Of course we would pay more, but I would be a loyal, rewards-card-carrying customer, thankful for one more connection with another person in our hometown.  

I suspect many of you would be, too.  

It’s a Fine Life

Eulogy for Jenny Wren

A bird died today—it broke its neck in frantic midflight against our living room window. From the shadow’s small silhouette, pattern, and quickness, I thought the fatal thud was a hummingbird. But when I looked through the windowpanes, a tiny wren lay inert on the concrete, her cheerful song forever silenced.  I examined her brown, compact body, contemplating her life and purpose.

How many bugs had she snatched from the bushes? How often had I heard her morning song? How many years had she returned to our yard after the darkness of winter?

A pair of wrens currently nests in this house.

Her end came so suddenly, so abruptly, so unexpectedly. Where was she going in such careless hurry? Were her fledglings waiting for her, their tiny beaks open, wings fluttering in anticipation of breakfast? Was her mate still waiting outside the nest in their desperate tag-team to feed their brood? Her stillness rings in the morning air.

Sometimes I am so distracted and mindless in my flights, forgetting that life on this earth is not forever. The sunrises and sunsets paint the sky, and often I am too preoccupied by tasks and responsibilities that I forget to pause and breathe in the moments.

Like the wren, our flight on this earth is brief and there is always the possibility that it might end as swiftly. For me, I find comfort in knowing that we have a chance to impact the future with more than our DNA.   Jazz musician Greg Adams suggests, “There is no such thing as a ‘self-made’ man or woman. We are made up of thousands of others. Everyone who has ever done a kind deed for us, or spoken a word of encouragement to us, has entered the make-up of our character and of our thoughts, as well as our success.”

How true. I remember the people who have helped me along the way, who have listened, who have encouraged me.

Lorraine and Merritt Harper, neighbors and retired farmers, who welcomed me for lemonade and cookies when I spontaneously arrived at their door, announcing confidently, “Hi, I was just out on my bike and thought I would stop by.”  They gave me their full, uninterrupted attention as we sat at their tiny kitchen table. They smiled at me, listening to my 10-year-old ideas and adventures.  How important and loved I felt. My choir teacher, Cinda Cramer, who encouraged fragile, awkward high school students to persist and take risks. My friends and I felt valued and noticed, something all teenagers so desperately need.

I believe we impact the future by spending time with grandchildren. I still remember how loved I felt by my grandmothers.

We can’t, of course, always recall the details, but such care and kindness become a part of us and what we find important. These wonderful people are gone from this earth, yet their influence remains in me and in all the other people their positive energy touched.

Opportunities for encouragement and helping others are all around. All we need to do is make the effort.

I pause and remember, respecting the brief life of Jenny Wren.

It’s a Fine Life

We have two pairs of wrens nesting in similar boxes in our yard. I love their sweet songs–and their occasional scolding of our calico cat!

Playing Favorites

I love this shot of my parents’ garden with the farmhouse in the background. Photo by Seavercreative.com

“What is the favorite flower in your garden?” an acquaintance asked last fall. Our beds are filled with many perennials, ornamental bushes, and foundational plants. I am not a master gardener, but I do love to garden and the challenge to find just the right place for each plant. I don’t remember why this question was raised; perhaps he was wondering why anyone would want the trouble of tending a flower garden. And when I think about it, that’s probably logical. Flower gardens don’t produce greens or vegetables for the table, and they need continual weeding and trimming. To many people they must seem like senseless, impractical work.

As I scrolled through the lovely flower images in my summer memories, my immediate answer to his query was day lilies. I have probably twenty different kinds of lilies. They naturalize quickly, making division and replanting (or gifting) possible. Within five years, a lily can be divided several times. I seemed confident with my answer. “I think it would have to be a day lily.”

Cheerful daisies. Photo provided by Seavercreative.com

Then I thought about the cheerful daisies. They also take root quickly and can fill a space with light and bloom. I started with two little pots from the garden club plant sale five years ago, and we now have over twenty square feet of daisies in all areas of the yard. They are hardy and disease resistant.  So, maybe I need to change my answer…

But then, how about our coral bells? Oh, they are so lovely with their little rounded base and fragrant, delicate blossoms so coveted by the hummingbirds and the bees. And each year there are new hybrids with different-colored or different-shaped leaves which call sweetly to me when shopping at the local greenhouses. There are varieties which flourish in full sun as well as many varieties I have tucked throughout the shady areas of our beds.

And how could I forget about all our easy-going hosta plants?

Wait a minute. Do the ornamental grasses count? They are hardy and add a different kind of interest…

And how I love my different varieties of hydrangeas…

Our three flowers. How could there be a favorite?

I looked at my acquaintance and realized he is obviously not a gardener. He isn’t attached to a garden and its unexpected moods and whims. He’s never scrambled to help plants survive in a summer drought or discussed “the new weed in town” with a gardening friend over a cup of tea.

Asking a gardener to pick a favorite flower is like asking a parent to pick a favorite child.

Impossible.

It’s a Fine Life.

If you want to attract orioles to your yard, there is nothing easier than these grape jelly feeders. The orange color seems to attract them, and the cups are easy to fill and clean up.

Seal the Deal

Firm handshakes seal a deal, honor friends and family with enthusiasm, and greet new people with intention.

This is about the age when handshake practice began.

My brothers and I were taught early to greet people with a smile and a steady handshake. I remember lining up behind my little brothers, taking turns shaking Dad’s hand until he was satisfied. He would soundly correct us and have us try it again (this is surprising and demonstrates my father’s belief in the importance of a solid-shake because he rarely got worked up about anything.)

My handsome dad–even though he was sick, he still insisted on a firm handshake.

My dad’s grip was crushing—even when he died at 83. He would grab on to a hand and place his other hand on the person’s shoulder. He would look them in the eyes and greet people with enthusiasm. People anticipated his greeting and spoke to me of it after his funeral. “I looked forward to seeing your dad. I always felt like I was the only person in the room when I saw him.”

There’s not much worse than a weak handshake—those people who just touch the last third of your fingers with their thumb and first finger and release your hand before you’ve had a chance to commit. These handshakes are so much worse than the sweaty-shake which leaves you discretely running your right hand down your skirt or pants when the sweaty-palm-owner turns the other way.

Brothers are greeted with hugs. Always.

For a good portion of my life I’ve been a hugger, but in the last few years I’ve re-introduced the handshake when I meet someone new. It’s sometimes uncomfortable in our paranoid, germophobic society: hand sanitizing wipes are stationed near the carts at grocery stores and hand sanitizing wall dispensers wait every few feet in hospitals. My girlfriends have fragrant, travel-sized hand sanitizer in purses and my high school students have them clipped to their monstrous backpacks.

I confess that during cold and flu season I am reluctant to extend my hand and offer a friendly greeting. (I do shake hands firmly, its’ true, but I often follow with a secret-squirt of hand sanitizer.)

It’s a Fine Life

Thankful Thursday: Strong Women

Where would we be without the many wonderful women in our lives who have helped us along the way, who have taught us important lessons, and who have pushed us to be better?

My dear cousin Jennifer, my mom, and I at a family wedding. My mom could teach the Dale Carnegie Course “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Her positivism is contagious.

Where would we be without our mothers? My mom, the most influential person in my life, embraces every day and remains positive even in difficult times. She raised the five of us to be kind and to always treat people with dignity. She made everyone feel welcome in our home. We “always had room for one more” at the supper table, on a trip to the cabin, or even around a game board. She definitely has strong opinions and believes in making a difference in our community.

My daughters and I last August.

How about daughters and granddaughters? Mine push me to be a better person. They call me out on antiquated attitudes. They help me slow down and savor the moments. They are beautiful and compassionate, and my life is so much better because of them.

Last summer with the Lake Effect Writers Guild,

And where would we be without our girlfriends? I have been blessed by so many wonderful friendships throughout my life–cousins, schoolmates, adult friendships–each relationship has helped me feel rich and whole.

I am thankful for all these women.

It’s a Fine Life.

Monday Musings: Trains

If you have ever spent much time in Vicksburg, Michigan, you know how frequently trains pass through our little hometown. Going in or out of the village, we must regularly wait at a crossing. A few years ago, my friend Sue Moore heard me complain about it. She suggested that this is something positive–that more trains mean the economy is doing well. Well, I do my best to be patient and remember her optimism–but I’m not always successful.

When we waited as children, we loved counting cars and watching for the caboose which occupied the end of many trains. My mom would beep her horn as it passed, and my brothers and I would wave at a conductor, often standing and smoking at the back of the caboose. To me, that seemed a fantastic life–traveling cross country with a cheery, red car to sleep in. I imagined the engineers warming themselves around a cozy coal stove; at day’s end, the tired workers would crawl into tightly-made bunks and be rocked to sleep by the gentle swaying of the rail cars.

When I was in elementary school, we occasionally traveled by train to our grandparents’ home on the other side of the state. We watched the Michigan countryside from the windows and ate snacks which magically appeared from my mother’s bottomless tote bag. My amazing mother–our personal Mary Poppins–kept the five of us happily occupied and seated.

With the warmer nights, the sound of the late-night-trains travels to me across Sunset Lake. I am thankful that I am safe in my warm bed and think about those engineers and conductors sounding the whistles as they ride and rumble towards home.

It’s a Fine Life.

Thankful Thursday: The Gifts of Spring

The magnolias are blossoming, the orioles are feeding, and the goslings are tagging along behind their parents. It appears that Spring is really here to stay.

An ornamental pear is flowering in our front yard.

Spring’s gifts are everywhere.

Hosta plants are reaching upward. This variety’s leaves are opening.

I love how the Brunnera plants naturalize and become a lovely spring ground cover.

A rose breasted gross beak made its appearance before I left for work this morning and tiny bunnies play around the woodpile, diving for cover when our calico cat begins her sneaky approach.

The days are finally longer.

Sweet Springs reminds me of all I have to be thankful for.

It’s a Fine Life.

Monday Musings: The Fall

Friday I tripped and fell like a tree–a five foot ten, slightly overweight, sixty-year-old tree. I broke my pinkie, scraped my knee, and messed up my face. (I look like I spent the weekend in some senior MMA tournament–battered and bruised)

How do these things happen so quickly? I was upright greeting a friend (ironically our favorite local attorney) one minute and was flat and hurt on the sidewalk the next.

I wish I could have a do-over. Wish I could press the rewind button and try it again. Wish I had kept my dang eyes on the sidewalk where I would have noticed the uneven piece of sidewalk before the toe of my shoe found it.

So, I guess the lesson is to pay attention to where I’m going and to appreciate the use of both hands when my left hand is eventually released from its cast.

And despite the inconvenience…

It’s still a fine life.

Exodus

(This piece will appear May’s 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 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.