Tricks and Treats and New Traditions

Although our annual Halloween traditions were different, we farm kids enjoyed trick-or-treating as much as our town friends who canvassed village streets until their bags overflowed. Our rural “neighborhood” was wide with houses often a mile apart. After our supper, Mom and Dad drove us to three or four houses where we knew exactly what would happen.

Halloween 1970 Costume Contest winners. My brother Steve is the scarecrow. My friends Jodie Hollenbeck-Charles, Tracy Catolica-Kline, and Leeanne Gillespie-Seaver, the playing cards in the back row, took 1st place.

The first stop: Merritt and Lorraine Harper’s farm. Lorraine, despite her diminutive size, demanded confidence and some type of trick for our treat. Lorraine found cartwheels, somersaults, or singing acceptable. Once she was satisfied with our performances, she and Merritt served us homemade cider (made with apples from their orchards) and donuts. Next stop: Maybelle and Harold Harper’s tidy brick ranch. Dear Maybelle always commented on each costume and documented the visit with a picture and a full-size Hersey bar.  

Besides our class parties filled with costumes, treats, and games, we often attended a hayride. During one memorable gathering, Esther Frisbie, in full witch regalia, cackled her way out of the woods, sat around a fire, and told scary stories. We were mesmerized by her acting ability, as this was so contrary to Esther’s cheerful, loving nature. One year we went into town to a Halloween parade at the Old El. We were so confident our costumes would sweep the costume contest, but we were quickly humbled by the creativity on display.

Our own kids loved the anticipation of Halloween, and it was the one time of the year I finished a sewing project. Once the days cooled, our daughters planned their costumes, prompting a trip to look at patterns, determining if this novice could figure out the project. As with any task, a firm deadline assures completion of the job, and the elementary Halloween parade was the motivating force.

Elizabeth 11 and Andrew 6 are ready to celebrate Halloween.

During these years, Dennis accompanied the kids around our neighborhood while I stayed home, passing out treats. Once the kids returned home, they emptied their bags and the bartering began: M&Ms for Snickers; five Smarties for a Tootsie Pop; Sweet tarts for licorice. They practiced and perfected their sales skills.

Many families celebrate Halloween differently today. The past few years we have had a dozen or so costumed, front porch visitors, down from over a hundred. Trunk-or-Treat events are popular as are the better-lit, bigger-house neighborhoods. Here streetlights guide the way; it’s easier to walk on sidewalks; and the potential exists for more treats.

I do understand it.

But I miss the days when our house filled with family, our home and neighborhood the destination of my rural nieces and nephews. I miss the row of pumpkins, carefully carved by our three children, glowing on the front porch, a welcoming signal to the little ghosts and witches set loose nearby.

It’s a good year to start some new traditions. Perhaps a nice dinner and viewing of “Hocus-Pocus”? Maybe participate in a community activity for our youth? But most likely (COVID permitting) we will document our few little visitors with a polaroid picture, demand a trick, and distribute a full-size Hersey bar.

It’s a Fine Life.

Beautiful Octobers

It’s hard to pick a favorite month, but I do love October. The cool nights, the fresh apples, the first frost. When we were children, October meant Dad was putting in long days harvesting the corn and filling the silos.

I could see the old barn and silo from my bedroom window. Before my dad died, the silo was taken down and the barn was refurbished. Renovating the barn, built by his grandparents, made my dad happy.

Sometimes Mom packed up our suppers, loaded us in the station wagon, and drove us to the field where Dad was working. Often, Dad was on the other side of the field, and we watched eagerly for his wave, signaling he saw us. He carefully guided the corn picker or combine, chopping the straight rows of corn he and Uncle John had planted that spring, working his way towards our end of the field.

An aerial view of our farm in the early 1970s. It is much the same today as my brothers carefully tend the animals and pastures.

Then we would settle on the hood of the car or perch on the rocks along the edge of the field and have dinner together. So happy to see us, he would talk about his day and ask us about our day at school. Dad’s gentle hand rested on the tops of our heads before he climbed back into the combine and we left for home. I remember Mom’s relief, hearing the tractor or combine after dark, announcing his return home on those harvest days. He entered the warmth of home, dirty, tired and ravenous, but always confident in the goodness of life, in what our fertile land could produce, and in the love of his family.

Here, my handsome dad gives our daughter Amanda a tractor ride. (Probably 1988) He just couldn’t imagine a better life than farming. He loved children and sharing farm life with them.

I do love this month, the beauty of these fall days, and all the memories they hold. Anne of Green Gables said it best: “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”

It’s a Fine Life.

Boston Terrier Legacy

Yesterday, my mom stopped for a visit, bearing a special gift: this picture of her dad holding his beloved Boston Terrier, Bubbles. The first thing I notice is how young my grandfather looks. He was eighty when I was born, so I never knew him as a middle-aged man. The second thing I notice is the size of Bubbles and his ears!

Here, my grandfather, Henry W. Axford, poses with Bubbles.

My Axford grandparents enjoyed Bostons–at that time referred to as Boston Bull Terriers. When I was a little girl in the sixties, they had a handsome little black-and-white fellow named Ike, in honor of Dwight D. Eisenhower. When Ike (the dog) died, they found another young male whom they also named Ike. (The older I get, the more I realize the wisdom of this move.)

The Boston love skipped a generation. When my brothers and I were growing up on the farm, we had two great dogs: Cleo and Scuffy, neither of which were Bostons. Cleo was a West Highland Terrier mix and Scuffy was a Cairn Terrier. They were tough farm dogs, faithfully pulling woodchucks from their dens and skillfully limiting the rat population in the barns. Their temperament and build were perfect for farm life, and they lived long, active lives.

When Dennis and I established our own family and we were prepared for a dog, we decided on a Boston. I had such pleasant memories of Ike, and one of Dennis’s neighbors had raised Bostons. We recalled their sweet, friendly demeanor and their sleek, tidy coats.

Here our six-year-old son Andrew holds Snuggles in 1998. She was a cherished member of our family.

After some searching, we found Snuggles. She was a special part of our family for over thirteen years. She was tender-hearted and so wonderful with the children. I still miss her gentle spirit.

After ten years without a Boston-in-the-house, during the isolation of COVID, we decided it was time for another one of these wonderful dogs. Friends located a breeder, and Zippy entered our lives.

Here is Zippy in May. I love those little floppy ears, but in true Boston form, at six months, they now are perfectly erect.

We are happily settled with our little gentleman. He is outgoing, full of mischief, and perfect for our family and stage of life. He helped me survive the loneliness of the virus quarantine, and I am totally smitten with him.

I’m glad I inherited this Boston-love legacy.

It’s a Fine Life.

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There are many Boston Terrier themed masks to choose from. I like so many things about this mask.

How cute are these!

My grandkids (ten-year-olds) love these kits.

School Days

By Kathleen Oswalt-Forsythe

Grandma’s picture. I think she is probably around 13 or 14 years old. She attended a one-room-schoolhouse near their farm in rural Climax, then attended Battle Creek Central High School, graduating at 16 years old.

Nostalgia and I are long-time friends. Growing up the fourth generation on a family farm, I eagerly welcomed this constant companion. Reminders of the previous generations and their hard work were visible daily: the hay barn’s hand-hewn beams, the old horse collar in the shop, the field stone foundations. My great-grandparents planted two pear trees to the west of the farmhouse in 1908. From my bedroom window, I could watch those knobby branches drop their fall fruit, twiggy fingers wiggling in the breeze.

Vicksburg High School graduating class of 1922. My grandfather’s picture is upper left. He and several of his classmates attended rural one-room-schools before attending high school.

The childhood faces of my father, uncle, and their neighbors smile from their annual school picture on the steps of the Harper School – a charming old black-and-white photo in my album. Dad’s one-room-schoolhouse days were part of our growing-up-folklore: the mile walk to school, the tag and softball games at recess; the neighborhood’s contribution to salary and firewood. It all sounded magical to me.

Students pose on the steps of Harper School, sometime in the 1940s. Dad is middle row left and Uncle John is front row, second from left. Dad had fond memories of his time here, but he experienced lots of stress going into town to start school. That transition was hard for him.

When I started kindergarten, I rode to Fulton Elementary School with my grandmother – our 4th grade teacher – in her white Thunderbird. I couldn’t see over the dashboard, so I watched the trees click by or traced the powerlines as we drove the six miles to school. I loved being with her – my striking grandmother in her little tweed suits with the lapel pins, her suntan hose, and her spectator pumps. After parking, she opened the car’s heavy door for me, saying, “Have a good day, dolly.” I assumed everyone’s school experience was as wonderful as mine; the only way it could possibly be better would be going to “country school.”

My kindergarten class at Fulton Elementary School. Such sweet little faces. Larry Shook and I got in trouble the first day because we didn’t leave the teeter-totter for circle time when Mrs. Bowman played the piano. Somehow I missed those directions, but I sure remembered them after that!

Last spring, a frank discussion with my mother-in-law about her one-room-schoolhouse experience revealed a different narrative. She had attended several one-room-schools in rural Illinois before going to high school in a larger town. My mother-in-law is smart, loves numbers, and remembers everything. I’m sure she was a sharp and thorough student, quickly finishing anything her teacher assigned. But when she finished one year and entered a different “country school,” she learned that her teacher had not introduced her to important math concepts, leaving her terribly unprepared for the next year’s expectations. “I was angry. I had lots of work to do to catch up.” Catch up she certainly did, but it was disappointing and stressful for her.

So those really weren’t the “good old days” for many students. Isolation and lack of support in outlying areas created gaps in student learning I hadn’t considered. Today, teachers plan and team at grade level, following curriculum that guarantees students’ exposure to the most important standards. Also, in the 1940s and ‘50s, many students didn’t go beyond the 8th grade. Many students today are eligible for and receive much needed services and supports, also helping more students complete their schooling.

I will always enjoy looking at those charming school photos or seeing the old structures on Sunday drives, but I am also reminded of the historical and continued need for equity and opportunity for all students.

It’s a Fine Life

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My dad and I enjoyed this story. The main character is a teacher in the rural west.

In fourth grade, my grandmother read these books to our class as we rested our heads on our cool desks after recess. I just loved them and imagined being Laura.

If you haven’t read this book, do. It is amazing.

Batchawana Bay Blues

Today, I am missing the cabin, our old family place on beautiful Batchawana Bay on the Canadian Lake Superior Shore.

Batchawana Bay, Ontario. One of my favorite places in the world.

Normally, we would be packing our coolers, stuffing our suitcases, and buying extra mosquito repellent and sunscreen. Last week we would have had the oil changed, car serviced, and the tires checked.

But not this year. The Corona-virus and our nation’s inability to control its spread have closed the Canadian Border to us.

I certainly understand this decision, but oh how I will miss the old place, that lovely bay, and the uninterrupted time together.

A view from our place of the Batchawana River and Bay.

We are off the technology grid. Our phones have no service. The cottage is without wifi or any internet connection.

We relax. We talk, play games, cook, read, nap–there is no set pace and minimal expectations.

And then there is the beauty of this place.

The cool breeze from the big lake.

The crystal clear water.

The night stars on the velvet sky.

But above all there are the memories. The times we spent as children, with our children, and now our grandchildren.

I have the Batchawana Blues.

It’s a Fine Life.

The Descendants

In a sandy bank, along the road to the old home place lives a prosperous and prolific woodchuck family. Members of their clan have lived there as long as I can remember, chewing the grasses and wild strawberries along the gravelly edges of the pavement.

Sunrise along the road.

The original burrow has been passed down through the years, starting with a great-great grandfather who warned his heirs of the dangers of moving away, encouraging them to dig beneath the protective walnut tree. He stressed the merits of staying in the same neighborhood and remaining vigilant of the cars, trucks, and tractors that rumble by.

But, oh, the arrogance of youth.

Some grandchildren met their maker under the decks of my brothers’ homes; a son came to a sudden end along the perimeter of the vegetable garden, while a stubborn sister was silenced homesteading beneath the old stone walls of the hay barn.

The west side of one of the old barns.

They should have listened to the wisdom of their elders.

Late summer I see the offspring every time I visit my mother. They are plump and healthy looking, scuddling into the grasses as I pass.

There was a prosperous colony there before I was born, and their descendants will likely thrive long after I am gone.

Their persistence and tenacity from generation to generation make me smile.

It’s a Fine Life

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I have always loved reading animal stories and imagining their life. My mother used to read “Peter Rabbit” to me. I read from a similar collection to our grandchildren at bedtime. Timeless little tales.

This was my favorite book as a child. I think it was in the book-of-the-month club my mom subscribed to. The little squirrel lives for a time in a dollhouse. What child hasn’t imagined that?

A Bunny Tail

Dennis and I watched a darling little rabbit hippity-hop around the edges of the garden early this morning. Nervous he is not; nervous he definitely should be. He appears to be the only one left of his brood, his siblings obviously the victims of the ever-ready bunny hunters: coyotes, fox, hawks, or cats. As the hour progressed, he became bolder and bolder, venturing into the center of the yard to savor clover blossoms or leaping randomly to try out his newly discovered, athletic abilities.

One of the older rabbits who roam the neighborhood.

Taking my camera from its case I quietly slipped out the front door and through the picket gate to attempt a picture. No chance. He slipped back under the daylily canopies and the cool shadows of the hydrangea.

I am concerned about him; this is no McGregor’s garden, but our old calico cat (still surprisingly stealth at seventeen) has caused a quick end to many a young bunny, and the hawks, who often hide in the pine branches, would love a savory snack of this tiny one.

Jinx, while now an old cat, she is still amazing quick and agile.

Young Cottontail has made it to lunchtime, and he fearlessly nibbles the grass at the back of the yard. The squirrels (who could use a few more predators in my opinion) chase each other up and down the locust tree; they are cocky, plump buggers–nothing like sweet Peter and his gentle grazing and gazing.

Fearlessly, obliviously, joyfully he investigates our yard. His youthful exuberance has made our day.

I fear his cavalier hours on earth will probably be brief, but despite the hazards

The July garden.

It’s a Fine Life.  

Cottage Care: Love Over Logic

For a week or so each summer, we are lucky enough to have a place to go to beat the heat and get away. It has always been the highlight of our family’s year.

When we were kids, the station wagon strained with the five of us children, a grandmother, two dogs, sleeping bags, fishing gear, and all kinds of caged energy and excitement. Once my dad’s tanned arm draped the driver’s side door, my mom’s sunglasses adorned her face, and we had wiggled into our places, we launched, listening to Ernie Harwell or the gravelly voice of Merle Haggard. Inching along, we left the humid world of corn fields and wheat stubble; just past Mt. Pleasant, the air began to thin and the lovely smell of northern pine forests began. 

A late 1970s photo of our family place.

Our old log cabin sits on a river and protected sandy bay on the Lake Superior Canadian shore. Our maternal grandparents purchased the vacant property in the late 1930s, and our families have enjoyed it ever since.

Currently, many third and fourth generation cottage owners struggle to maintain, finance, and agree on what to do with older aging properties. So far, the nine families involved have worked things out pretty well, but caring for an aging vacation home is an exercise in love, not logic.

Our grandchildren are the fourth generation of young ones whose lips turn blue in the clear, icy water, whose little eyes faithfully watch their bobbers, whose necks are lined with black fly and mosquito bites. I realize how fortunate we are.

My cousins and I were the second generation of children to play on the beach.

Yes, times have changed. On many lakes in in our area, cottages have been sold, demolished, and replaced with gorgeous year-round-homes. The modest vacation dwellings that remain look out of place, hidden in the shadows of their fine, fresh neighbors.

It’s hard to imagine a new place. Would I miss the mustiness? The brown bats that flutter in the rafters? The snap of the mousetraps once lights are out?

Absolutely not.

But I would miss the wash tubs nailed on the sagging exterior, the familiar creak of the steps and floorboards, the sweet smell of my grandmother’s spices in the old kitchen cupboard.

When I was a toddler, my grandmother bathed me one of these old washtubs. I remember how cold it was but how loved I felt.

Family cottages are a nostalgic journey through the years: the cast-off dishes and jigsaw puzzles, the old record players and scratched vinyl. All reminders of our history.

At the cabin, I feel a connectedness to the past and an appreciation for the dear ones no longer here: my dad and grandfather’s favorite chair sits in the shady window, my uncle’s tools hang in the boathouse, my grandmother’s bread pans wait on a shelf.

We will miss the old place this year, but she will welcome our return next summer after we tame this pandemic.

A favorite view of the river as it empties into the bay.

And the discussions and plans for our family place will continue.

At least for now.

It’s a Fine Life.

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We bought one of these in a “tourist shop” when the kids were little. They had a blast swinging at mosquitos.

We bought one of these in a “tourist trap” when the kids were little. They had a blast swinging at mosquitoes.

Our kids also loved Mad-Lib books and had fun with them while traveling.

Always a cabin favorite: jigsaw puzzles.

Puppy Love

I’ve fallen in love again–I’m totally smitten, head-over-heels, crazy-punch-drunk in love with this little fellow: Zippy, our twelve week old Boston Terrier.

Sleeping Zippy. I love this picture.

For the last year, Dennis and I talked about another dog, and Snuggles (our first Boston we loved for many years) had paved a perfect path for another little short-haired darling.

With the shuttering of schools and many businesses, I am now working from home. I suddenly have the appropriate time to properly train and socialize a dog, and we starting looking. With the help of friends, we located a breeder, and now this rambunctious rascal is helping me survive the sadness of social distancing.

According to health experts, pets provide us many health benefits. I have visited many credible online resources and the psychological and physical benefit claims are pretty amazing.

On every site, increased activity is stated as a health benefit. Hmmmm. So far, I can’t say this is true for me. Yes, as soon as he starts sniffing, I am whisking him to the backyard for prompt pottying, but I find I spend much of my morning in pure-puppy-bliss just sitting on my couch with my little fellow tucked next to me. If I had a rocking chair, I swear I would be rocking him like a baby. I know that sounds crazy, but the serotonin release that comes from holding this little guy is similar to how I felt when rocking our babies. (AND the good news is that I am much more rested!)

This is our favorite activity

Stated again and again in the research is how pets bring joy and help to lessen loneliness. Yes, how lonely I have been during this time apart from my family, my friends, my co-workers, my students, and my community. I do feel better since Zippy entered my life. Definitely. He follows me around the house. He helps me pull weeds in the garden. He sleeps at my feet as I work and write. And he sniffs the flowers and watches the birds at the feeders, reminding me of the beauty around me.

(Here’s an odd claim that makes me laugh from the AKC website: having a dog makes you more attractive. Whaaat? Now that’s a stretch, a huge stretch, especially since I haven’t had an appointment with my hair dresser since early March.)

I think we are both lucky to have found each other, and I predict a great future for this relationship.

When Donny sang in 1972 “And they call it Puppy Love. ” I thought he was singing to me about my 7th grade crush. But, when I change the lyrics in the next section, he is crooning to sixty-something me about this love affair with Zippy.

“Oh I guess they’ll never know, how this old heart really feels, and why I love him so.”

Puppy Love.

It’s a Fine Life.

By Kathleen Oswalt Forsythe © May 18, 2020

Zippy is bringing me so much joy during this time of isolation and social distancing.

A Recommended Training Book

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Some of Zippy’s Favorite Chews

Hope for the Future

Checking my Fitbit, I circle the track near our elementary school a few more times; the Little League Fields are still, the concession stand boarded, the dugouts empty. One baseball-capped woman throws a Frisbee over and over to her golden lab, who races again and again, back and forth, back and forth. The playground is childless, swing set seats hang on idle chains, the wind rippling the soccer field.

My friend Leeanne and I walk down the center of Main Street; town is eerily quiet. In the silence we notice the paint peeling around a storefront window and a squirrel’s high wire act. We hear a woodpecker, his persistence admirable,  drilling high in an oak.

I feel this emptiness, grieve the loss of the togetherness and community we have always enjoyed in my hometown. I am off-balance, out-of-sync, persistently fragile.

Then three weeks ago, my husband spotted a bald eagle soaring above the neighborhood and lake. High in the sky, the signature white head came into view each time he circled our direction.

Photo by Frank Cone from Pexels
During the 1960s and 70s, the Bald Eagle joined the endangered species list, its numbers dropping dangerously low from loss of habitat and use of DDT.

What an inspiring, powerful symbol of resilience and survival–just what I need to think about during this time of isolation and struggle.

As we sat around our dinner table sharing lunch and dinner during the summer months of our childhood, my dad reported regularly about the wildlife he saw while planting corn, cultivating the fields, raking hay, or completing one of the many jobs he and my uncle were responsible for.

Dad loved the woods, the wildlife, the fawns he would gently move to the side of the fields he was working. He respected the barn snakes, teaching us to never hurt them, that they controlled the rodents and other pests. He cherished the rare sightings of the many birds we now regularly see: Sand Hill Cranes, Blue Herons, Canadian Geese all were unusual, and he made continual note of them. But he never spotted an eagle; how pleased and encouraged he would be by the solitary figure perched in the tree across the lake.

Photo by Frank Cone from Pexels
Through careful protection and conservation, the species is again thriving.

We too will survive this time of endangerment, and someday soon we will tell of the challenges and of our recovery.

And of our continued hope for the future.

It’s a Fine Life.

By Kathleen Oswalt-Forsythe © May 8, 2020

Some Stories of Survival and Overcoming Hardship

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The amazing story of the US Rowing Team and the 1936 Olympic Race. It is one of my son’s favorite books.

I just finished reading this fictional story of homesteading in Alaska during the 1970s. The main character’s resilience and survival of not only the wilderness but an abusive situation is inspiring.

Another amazing survival story. I respect the author’s passion for becoming educated against all kinds of odds.