April Showers

It is true that “April showers bring May flowers.” How we all look forward to those early daffodils, crocuses, and tulips. Their hopeful, fragile tips are stretching and surfacing in our gardens.

And our moods are lifted by the eventual sight of flowering shrubs and trees decorating yards, wildflowers adorning area roads, and dogwoods brightening edges of Michigan woods.

But when you live on a farm, April showers bring mud.

Mud on boots. Mud tracked into the house. Mud up the back steps. Mud clinging to clothes. Mud in the barnyards.

Everywhere mud, mud, mud!

Our dad was never afraid of mud. Both of our parents encouraged outdoor play and we never feared getting dirty. Here, Dad is about three years old.

In the early 1970s, our 4th grade class took a field trip to the “Conserv-A-Rama,” a program for elementary-aged kids where we learned about the water cycle and soil erosion.  Mr. Dick Bailey offered hands on activities, demonstrating these interesting ideas at the Kellogg Biological Station.

When we returned home, my brothers and I applied these concepts as we played in the mud around the barns, digging tiny trenches to connect the various puddles, watching water run from one miniature pond to another, imaging the eventual emptying into the sea.

We relished mud: the slurping of our boots as we trudged and explored; our boot prints filling with water behind us; our experimental handprints; the mud pies and cakes slapped and shaped in whatever container we could find; and our happy presentation of the sloppy creations to one another.

“Here you go! It’s delicious!” or “Happy birthday, brother! I baked this for you!”

At the end of the day, we were incredibly dirty and satisfied with our unsupervised adventures. After those April showers and our uninterrupted play, our mother met as at the back door, firmly directing us to remove our boots and outer layers.

Eventually, our parents included a “mudroom” when they renovated our farmhouse. After we children had been outside, or our dad came in from his farm work and chores, we each had spots to hang our coats and place our boots. This sure was a wise and practical addition.

After raising three children—and operating a daycare when our children were young—a mudroom would have been wonderful. Like most tri-levels built in the 1960s, after outside play, our children stepped into our kitchen, where I was usually busy with meal preparation. Our little ones kicked off their boots, their little faces grimy and full of joy.

Mudrooms are still popular today. These spaces are showcased in design magazines, and you can find pictures of them on home renovation websites.

I hope children who live in these featured homes in the glossy magazines get good and muddy.

Our great niece carrying on the mud play.

I hope they need and use a mudroom!  

There are things I miss about living on the farm: the quietness of the evenings and the sunrise over the fields. I miss the planting and harvesting traditions and living so close to the land.

And sometimes, yes, I even miss the mud.

It’s a Fine Life.

Americana’s Naked Truth

Young, enthusiastic, and giddy with a job which offered more than minimum wage AND included benefits, I wound my way on the country roads on my way to work. The sun rose optimistic in my rearview mirror—my 72 Catalina hugged the curves, floating over the bumps and potholes, her old head lights startling the occasional skunk or rabbit. I had landed my first teaching job—unheard of in 1982. My fellow Michigan State University graduates had moved to Texas or the West Coast, and bumper stickers read “The Last One Out of Michigan, Turn Out the Lights.”  I had applied to every school district in a one hour radius of our newly established home. One principal called, I interviewed, and he offered me the job.   I taught high school English in a paint-chipped, leaky classroom in a small, southwest Michigan district. I had five different professional outfits, two pairs of sensible pumps, a faux-leather briefcase, and a twenty-two-year-old’s optimism and innocence. And I struggled, too ashamed to ask for help, willing to take on more and more as the daily assignments and themes piled higher and higher on my desk. But “what a lucky break” and “it’s a great opportunity” and “just keep trying” constantly played in my head, blocking out the threatening clouds, fatigue and despair.

Yearbook Picture from my second year of teaching.

So, I cherished this thirty-minute drive through southwest Michigan, and as the year progressed—and my energy level and enthusiasm sagged—I cranked the AM station higher and savored the sights on the way. The same cars met me every morning, the same deer scavenged in the winter snow, the same trees began to bud, and the same little man waved at me every morning. I think I noticed him in early March—probably after we experienced the “spring forward”– standing by his garage in his little gray work suit, holding his little gray lunchbox, sipping coffee from his little metal coffee cup, his thermos upright on the ground. He tipped his cup at me. And then he was there every morning. I waved—he tipped. I smiled—he smiled. Oh how I loved rural America! Pretty soon I began to roll my window down and extend my hand in friendship, waving wildly as I passed—you see it was too early to sound the horn. If horn sounding had been acceptable, I would have toot-toot-tooted some cheerful tune for him. The smells of early spring, the sounds of the wind passing, all buoyed me as my little, reliable friend cheered me on. I told my co-workers about this little man. I pointed out the house to my husband.  I thought about pulling into my little man’s drive, saying hello, and sharing a morning cup with him.  What a great country!  It couldn’t get any better.

But then, the lightning bolts of reality grounded me. The first day of April, I hummed along, anticipating spring break, extra sleep, and a much-needed reprieve from my teenage students. My hourly lesson plans scrolled through my head. Everything seemed in order. I followed the curve, and my little friend’s house was in sight. I extended my hand, turned to smile, and there he was—naked—just standing there, slack-bellied and expressionless against his garage. No coffee cup, no thermos, no little gray uniform.  A fuzzy, electricity slithered down my spine to my toes. I gripped the wheel. I looked straight ahead. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be. Not my little friend. Maybe he was wearing a nude colored jumpsuit. Did they make such things? Maybe they changed the color of his work clothes. Did they make flesh colored work clothes?

I think there was— probably still is—something in my face which must invite such behaviors. “You have an open face,” a friend once told me. ”People will tell you things.”  (This friend is a retired psychiatric nurse—that should have been my first clue that this face could result in such behaviors from strange men.) I had been flashed several times while a student in East Lansing. I had lived above a thirty-something flasher when I student taught in Battle Creek. And now I had been flashed by this little man, tarnishing my Mayberry countryside.

I knew that appearances aren’t always what they seem. People can surprise you. It was like the time my brothers and I were part of the Buckaroo Rodeo Show in the sixties.  Sleepy-eyed, we watched the show every Saturday morning in our pajamas. From our couch, we admired Buck’s cowboy accent, his confident smile, the way he spoke to the “Buckaroos” in his audience. One Saturday my mom and dad dropped us off at the television studio in our new cowboy boots and crisp western outfits to be a part of Buck’s young audience. We perched on small bleachers, smiling when the cue card said “SMILE,” clapping when the cue card said “CLAP.” And when the television camera was off, Buck snarled, telling his stunned Buckaroos to “Shut up!” and I heard him say to the woman applying his make-up, “God, I hate kids.” Suddenly Buck’s smile wasn’t quite so sweet—his buckskin costume not quite so genuine. I wrapped a protective arm around my youngest brother, checking to make sure my other brothers were within my reach. So you see, I should have been skeptical of my pastoral drive and the little man. I should have somehow seen the truth coming.  But I didn’t.

Today, I still enjoy the backroads, but I am not nearly as innocent.

I survived my first teaching placement, receiving a glowing evaluation and an invitation for another year of the same. A new suit and boots made their way into my closet, and I changed my morning route. I finished my year traveling different roads, but my new path wasn’t nearly as sweet.  The red-wing blackbirds trilled along the ditch banks, as the spring uncovered the litter decorating the sumacs and cattails. The red barn sported fresh paint and a neat paddock, but behind the white picket fence, the lone farmhouse’s curtains were drawn tight.

It’s a Fine Life.

A Dream Fulfilled

I contracted pony fever in fourth grade. It simmered and rose throughout the weeks, kindled by my dad’s stories of his boyhood. He and my Uncle John grew up on our farm with gentle draft horses and a beloved pony named Major, a favorite character in Dad’s tales of their childhood adventures.

My infection reached a critical level one evening when our new neighbors, the Wickies, rode the mile to our farm on horseback for a visit. Each of the four kids (ages five to fourteen) had a pony. And while they weren’t wearing fringed western gear like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and they didn’t talk like the cowboys in the movies, those kids sure seemed like they knew what they were doing.

After a short conversation—and several pony parades—the Wickies smiled down at my brothers and me, waved, and turned their obedient steeds towards home.

They were living the best life I could imagine.

My quest for a horse-fever-cure began then in earnest.

I read my mom’s childhood novels by Marguerite Henry, checked numerous books out of our school library, and certainly dropped countless hints and suggestions about horses. 

My life just wasn’t complete. I needed a pony.

One Sunday in early spring we headed home from church. Dad had chores to do that day and had stayed home. As we pulled into our driveway, Mom said, “Kids, look at your dad!”

I peered over the station wagon’s backseat and there, in the driveway, was my dad, leading a beautiful brown pony.

This is Buttons in the pasture beside the house.

We tumbled from the car and ran towards Dad.

“Woah, woah, woah.,” Dad directed. “You need to come slowly. And DON’T stand behind him.”

We crept quietly forward and stood beside Dad.

“Is he ours?” I asked.

“Yup, his name’s Buttons,” my dad replied.

I stroked Buttons’ brown face and touched his whiskered, gray-velvet nose as he swished his tail and stomped his feet.

“Okay, come on, let’s go,” Dad said.

My dad was always casual and brief in delivering instruction; he subscribed to the theory that it was best for children to just “figure things out.” He quickly showed us how to put on the blanket and cinch the saddle. This was after he removed the saddle’s stirrups explaining he didn’t want us to “have our feet caught” if we fell off the pony.  

Then Dad helped me into the saddle, led us into the back yard, and set us loose.

Now, even though I had read everything I could find about horses, I had never really been on a horse. 

I had ridden the ponies that circled endlessly at the county fair.

When I was four, I sat in front of my dad on his horse, Monty Boy, as he slowly walked around the pasture.

But Monty Boy had been gone since I was five, and carnival pony rides don’t really prepare a girl for independent riding.

So, without stirrups and previous practice, I bounced off Buttons every time he moved to a trot. After every fall, I scrambled to my feet and my brothers and I cornered and grabbed Buttons’ reins. Dad was nowhere in sight–busy with his work and unavailable. He must have assumed we were happily and skillfully riding our new pony.  

To add another insult, at day’s end, Buttons bit me as I gently removed his bridle, leaving a painful purple imprint of his teeth just above my knee.

I love this picture of Dad and three of my four brothers. This is about the time of Buttons and our pony mis-advertures. This was my brother Steve’s birthday on June 1. Dad would have been working in the fields all day.

I never did “figure out” and master riding—or overcome my fear of being bitten or thrown from my longed-for steed. It turned out that Buttons was gifted at brushing off his young riders and viciously biting whenever my dad wasn’t in his sight, which was most of the time.

I don’t think we kids complained or asked for help. I’m not sure Dad ever fully realized our difficulties.

I never succeeded in making Buttons behave. I confess, I am an equestrian flunky. My illness cured.

But I will never forget that day: the thrill of my dream fulfilled, the sight of that beautiful pony, and the happiness in my sweet dad’s smile.

It’s a Fine Life

Managing the Past

I am a keeper of memories: great-grandmother’s canning jars, Aunt Ethel’s china, grandma’s gingerbread cookie cutters. Labeled containers stand in our basement holding newspaper-wrapped tidbits from times past: bits and pieces of childhood tea sets; a great-aunt’s christening gown; elaborate, empty perfume bottles.

When my grandmother died twenty years ago, I was the designated recipient of an old trunk filled with mementos from her life. She trusted that I would know what to keep and what to discard: What to share and what to keep private.

Her parents’ courtship letters fill a brown lunch bag. Sympathy cards sent after my grandfather’s death sleep silently in a shirt box. Her childhood and college scrapbooks crumble and wait. Faces I recognize, and many I can’t identify, are suspended in sepia and black-and white photographs.

Several photos and a letter from Grandma’s trunk. She gave me the carved necklace before she died.

I haven’t begun archiving, digitizing and sharing the pieces of my family’s history.

And soon my husband and I will be the caretakers of his family’s past, as his mother, the last of her generation, died in January.

It is emotional. It is cumbersome. It is overwhelming.

I need to get started.

Many of our friends find themselves in the same situation: the responsibility and care of a family’s history which continues to grow through the decades.

There are the obvious generational differences. Our children operate electronically. They take massive amounts of pictures – beautiful pictures – with their cell phones. These photos don’t take up physical space. A few are printed, but most are stored digitally.

That’s just not how I operate. I like something I can see. Touch. I like a calendar. An old-school planner.

I inherited my love of dishes from this gal: my Grandmother Oswalt.

When it is this next generation’s turn to take the baton of family treasures, they will not want most of it.

I can respect that, but I sure don’t understand it.

My thirty-somethings and most of their friends are minimalists, as evidenced by the lovely, discarded china and crystal at my favorite resale shop. I long to adopt the odd Haviland plates or the Jadeite coffee mugs that find themselves abandoned on the back wall’s clearance shelf. I wish to carefully launder and display the hand-embroidered pillowcases and dresser scarves tangled at the thrift store.

I will be the last in my family willing to use and store impractical treasures: dishes or glassware that can’t be quickly microwaved or run through the dishwasher; trinkets and figurines that need regular dusting; uncomfortable Victorian chairs with lovely carved frames.

My best friends also confess similar attachments. Several months ago, one of our friends put a picture of an unwanted set of Candlewick glass plates in our group text messages. She was going through her stepmother’s belongings, didn’t want the set to go to Goodwill, and hoped one of us would re-home them.

All seven of us considered them. None of us needs them. One of us now houses them.

So, I realize that I am not alone, and while that is a comfort, I am searching for the right mix, the correct volume of save or release.

Place cards from our wedding, my grandparents’ crystal pitcher, old silver plate, figurines. Just a fraction of my sentimental holdings.

Perhaps there’s an enrichment course taught by an old gal like me? Someone who appreciates the past but knows how to manage the future? Someone who has also struggled with the whispers from a task undone?

And someone who won’t judge these invisible tethers around my heart?

It’s a Fine Life.

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I have discovered a new author: Erica Bauermeister. She had me at the first paragraph of this book with an amazing extended metaphor that continues for several paragraphs. Rich text. Beautifully written.

Summer’s End

Summer ends and fall begins, signaling a change in our routines and an end to the freedom of summer.

When we were children, summer meant that at some point, we would spend time with our cousins. Besides my brothers, my cousins were my first friends, and we all looked forward to being together.

We saw our cousins who lived nearby frequently during the summer. Most of our play was outdoors. Our mothers insisted that we go “run around outside,” and that was always okay with us.

We had big shady yards for wiffleball, croquet, and tag. We had lofts in our barns for straw-fort-building, and the various family farms offered countless secret places for hide-and-go-seek. We loved to play survival scenarios, pretending to hunt and forage for our food, building lean-to branch cabins for shelter. Somehow we avoided the poison ivy that I’m sure lurked in the shade.

My cousins, Amy and Jennifer, and I played together on the beach at the family cabin.

Our up north cousins we saw less frequently, but our closeness today was nurtured by overnight stays and time together at our grandparents’ home and the family cabin.

Jenn and I, playwrights and sleuths.

My cousin Jennifer and I wrote plays–mostly about pioneers and Pilgrims–and tried to entice our brothers to practice and perform them. (In hindsight, I think Jenn and I had watched too many Shirley Temple movies.) Our scripts were detailed, and the rehearsals proved frustrating–mostly for the persnickety-sister- directors–and I don’t think one of creations ever made it to the stage.

We then moved our skills to crime solving. We used magnifying glasses and flour for footprints, trying to figure out what was getting into Grandma’s chickens or who had been walking in the garden. We were confident, persistent sleuths.

A meeting of a few cousins last summer.

I loved my cousins in childhood, but I love them even more in adulthood. I didn’t think that was possible. And although our time together is less frequent, it is definitely memorable.

It’s a Fine Life

A Place in My Garden and My Heart

I have struggled for nearly three years to figure out what to do with my small portion of my dad’s ashes, and I think I have finally come up with something that will be a loving reminder of my dad and perhaps some closure.

Dad and I three years ago at my daughter’s wedding in our gardens. This is about six weeks before Dad died. I love how my friend and professional photographer, Tony Lindeman, captured the love Dad and I had for each other.

Dad and I both loved coffee. You could say we were coffee addicts. We shared a cup together–with cream–whenever we had a chance. If I stopped out to see him, he would ask, “You have time for a cup?” I always had time–or made time–to be with him. He was good at and enjoyed conversation, was interested in everything and everyone, and was open-minded, shockingly so for a small town man who lived in the same house and farmed the same ground his whole life.

We also shared a passion for gardening, and he enjoyed touring our gardens to see what I had been up to. He gifted me many plants over the years. I sometimes came home from work and a lovely hosta or unique grass sat in a pot waiting patiently for me by the front door. I always knew who left it there: my dear dad.

I knew I wanted to place his ashes in the garden somewhere, but I also wanted to know where they were in case we ever moved. I also wanted to honor him in some visible way. What I have come up with is going to work perfectly for me.

I purchased a memorial Peace Pole. The images are beautiful and the words are perfect: “A Life Well lived” and “Forever Loved.” Both are so true. And I found a small metal coffee thermos and placed his ashes inside. I will bury the thermos under the pole, I will always know where they are, and I can take them with me if we ever move. This is a comfort to me.

I am satisfied with the pole and thermos of Dad’s ashes, and it combines two of our loves: coffee and gardening.

It is close to the table where I have my morning coffee and watch the birds. And, as always, I remember my dad and this love we shared for coffee, gardening, and each other.

It’s a Fine Life.

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I enjoy Wendell Berry’s fiction. All of his stories and books are set in the fictional town of Port William and cover the same farm families over many generations. They are beautifully and sensitively written. This is a great one to start with: Hannah Coulter

Here is an example of a Peace Pole. Yes, they are pricey. But they are fiberglass and should hold up to the Michigan weather for many years. They are available at many garden centers and online.

Here is my book I self-published last year of my first twenty columns in the South County News. I learned so much putting it together, and I am happy to have the columns in one spot.

Language Lessons

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

I learned to love books at Fulton Elementary. Mrs. Bragg sweetly greeted us when we entered the tiny library, about 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 “country kids,” familiar with the damp of the woodlands, the sway of tall grasses, and the sounds of the 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.

Informal language instruction also happened during this time.

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!”

Our teacher’s at Fulton Elementary School in the early 1970s. They were strict and firm in their discipline. Mrs. Harmon, 3rd from left, made this very clear in our 2nd grade classroom.

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. The harshest words allowed were things like “fiddlesticks!” or “shoot!”

This is the summer of the legendary farrowing-coop adventures and Dad’s uncharacteristic language lesson.

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 kids 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 refused, squealed and pushed by us. Eventually, Dad lost his fatherly composure and chased that pig around and around, yelling those forbidden words – and a few I had never heard before!

But Mrs. Noble in 7th grade PE class delivered the best language lesson of all.

We girls were in the middle of a heated dodgeball 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.

I remembered Mrs. Noble’s language lesson because it was so different from any other adult’s message during our teenage years. She taught so much more than PE.

“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.

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I am working to organize family photos and am trying this system for 4 x 6 pictures.

This year, my friend Paula gave me long gardening gloves for my birthday. I don’t know how I ever gardened without them. There are many choices online.

Here is a book of my first 20 It’s a Fine Life column found in the South County News. Self-publishing was a challenge and I learned so much during this project.

Simplicity

There are many popular movements today, encouraging us to restructure, reduce and live uncluttered lives. Subscribers claim that the result of living a life of excess is time spent worrying and taking care of what we have; if we can clear our space and minds of the extras, we have more time for joy, and we experience more happiness.

My sweet little Zippy last July in the backyard. He loves the gardens. His ears are straight up now, in true Boston style.

I certainly have more than I need, and sometimes my belongings, and yes, my schedule, can cause me some stress.

Even little Zippy, our one-year-old Boston, has a box overflowing with toys and a regular supply of chews and small treats. He has more than enough, and I’ve been surprised by his reaction.

Here’s what happens: I give Zippy a special chew when I return from the grocery store. He sniffs it, takes it gently in his mouth and then hides it. He becomes obsessed with keeping it safe. He searches for just the right spot: behind a curtain, under a pillow, beside his bed. He fusses with it and scoots away, only to quickly change his mind. He then picks it up and begins the process again. While this does keep him occupied and distracted, and he avoids the occasional puppy-chewing-destruction, it seems hard for him to relax. He is continually worried about arranging it and keeping it safe.

According to my Google search, this behavior is common in dogs, and can be a result of several things, including instincts and stress. But here is a reason listed again and again: this behavior can occur when a dog has more than he needs. Bingo!

The more we have, the more we must take care of. Certainly, our families have needs: shelter, food, clothing, and a household budget that runs regularly in the black. These things are necessary for quality of life and security for our loved ones. The challenge is to achieve a balance between preparing for a rainy day and enjoying the moment. But most of us would agree that too many belongings and commitments can keep us stressed and obsessed.

For me, excessiveness is best demonstrated by our gardens. What started as an 8-by-4-feet perennial bed twenty-five years ago, is now a yard filled gardens that follow our fencing, grow under our trees, and occupy the ever-developing island beds. Each year, it seems, we divide plants, move plants, add plants, increasing and intensifying the work required. Yes, the lush foliage and beautiful blossoms are lovely, and we do enjoy them, but the gardens are hours of work, especially in the spring. While I don’t worry about our gardens like Zippy seems to fret about his bones, it does consume lots of our energy and time.

Part of our gardens in July. We are starting to consider downsizing a bit.

Simplicity. We are gradually adjusting to the idea of downsizing. Now that we are nearing retirement (and our knees and backs ache after an afternoon of pulling weeds or mulching) simplifying our outdoor space seems wise. This is an adjustment for me, and it is wrapped in the need to acknowledge and accept this human experience of aging.

We will divide perennials and give away some plants this year, and we will remove high maintenance plants. Perhaps some of the space in the existing gardens will be reseeded and rejoin the grassy yard. Maybe I won’t bring home as many new plants from the nurseries and greenhouses – but I fall for those colorful beauties’ siren songs every time.

Simplicity. I’m going to do my best to streamline our gardening life and relax a bit more.

I hope Zippy can relax a bit, too!

It’s a Fine Life.

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.