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…”

Little Spies Above

                                                  

The adult world held such fascination for me when we were children. Beyond our little rural haven, grown-ups had mysterious activities which involved staying up late, polishing dress shoes, and applying red lipstick. Sometimes, our parents included us (carefully scrubbed and dressed in outfits besides our play clothes) in summer picnics and outdoor events with their friends and their children.   Some we were related to, but most became as close to us as aunts and uncles as they celebrated our family’s joys and shared in our inevitable sorrows.  

Once there, our father and his friends pitched horseshoes, casually sipping from their brown long-neck bottles. Our mother sat with the other ladies, tending food and babies, laughing, and swinging their tanned, crossed legs. We children played on the perimeter of the various hosts’ yards, our mothers’ occasional shouts steering our frantic tag games to avoid the horse-shoe pits.

But usually, our parents left us behind on their Saturday night dates when they attended their “Potluck Club,” secretly known as the “Martini Club.”

This is about the age when our farmhouse spy operations began.

When it was our parents’ turn to host a monthly gathering, we children were tucked in carefully, probably an hour before our usual bedtime.   Once the guests arrived, the sounds and smells of the “Club” rose through the floor grate in our bedroom in the old house. (The three of us slept in separate twin beds in this room—a rustic farmhouse version of John, Michael, and Wendy’s nursery frequented by Peter Pan.) Oh, how hard it was to settle down to sleep with all the noises from the party below: bursts of raucous laughter, crisp card shuffling, and the clinks of ice dropping in highball glasses continually roused us from our attempts at rest.  

This grate was in the middle of the floor near the end of my bed. There were no heat vents in our bedroom, only this metal grid which allowed the warm air from the dining room to rise to the upper level.  Quietly, we slipped from our covers, crawling to the edges of the slatted opening. My brothers slowly pushed the square knob, sliding the thin metal rows, revealing the selections of party food on the buffet directly below. Our mother’s best dishes were neatly stacked, waiting for the cheese and crackers, party wieners, or savory meatballs displayed on various platters.  

I love this picture and my parents’ beautiful youth.

The three of us watched and listened, silently fascinated by the tops of the adult heads in our sight. We whispered together, solving the mystery of the out-of-view, familiar voices, belonging to so many of the important adults in our lives.   We stealthily slid pillows to the floor and rested our heads. Satisfied with our surveillance, we soon fell asleep, lulled by the comfort and knowledge of the adults’ happiness, a beautiful lullaby of the collective, contagious belief in the goodness of life rising from below.

It’s a Fine Life.

Hometown Rumblings

If you have ever spent much time in Vicksburg, Michigan, you know how frequently trains bisect our little hometown. Going in or out of the village, residents must regularly wait at a crossing. You can count on it. We have learned to accept this as it does us no good to complain.

Sometimes the trains gradually slow in the intersections; the boxcars and tankers inch forward a few feet, shift backwards a couple yards, then sigh and settle, blocking all traffic through town. Then everything must stop: buses filled with our school children, residents traveling to work or appointments, even emergency vehicles responding to a call. This type of waiting is both bothersome and stressful.

And during this last month, much-needed repairs have begun on several railroad crossings in and around the village, further complicating our travel.  But despite the continued detours, delays, and inconveniences, I remain incredibly fond of trains.

Here is the little depot where we caught the train to go our grandparents’ house. It has been lovingly cared for and now houses a charming museum. Photo by Leeanne Seaver.

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, a pot of chili simmering securely on top. When time permitted, the happy conductors could play Gin-Rummy, laughing happily together, puffing their fragrant pipes. At day’s end, they would crawl into tightly made bunks and be rocked to sleep by the gentle swaying of the rail cars.

When we were in elementary school, we occasionally traveled by train to our grandparents’ home on the eastern side of the state. My dad took us to the little station in Vicksburg, lugged our suitcases in, then helped the attendant check and stack them on the wooden cart.  My mother would buy our tickets from behind the glass window, and then we sat as patiently as we could on the wooden benches, our little legs swaying and swinging. Once safely aboard and tucked in our seats, we watched the Michigan countryside from the wide windows and ate endless 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.

Of course, times have changed, and while many goods are still shipped by rail, the passenger trains of my youth have long ago been salvaged or sit, quiet and empty, in the back of a city train yard. Our little brick station now happily houses a charming museum.

On these quiet autumn nights, the warning whistles of the late-night trains travel across Sunset Lake, always reminding me of the passage of time. I am thankful I am safe in my warm bed as those engineers and conductors ride and rumble towards home.

My heart is full.

It’s a Fine Life

School Picture Legacy

I survived school pictures, always held the second day of school and often an oppressive ninety degrees. My co-workers and I meet, sweaty and stressed, before school to have our annual shot for the high school yearbook and school IDs.

This event causes my palms to sweat and my blood pressure to rise. (Okay, I’ve never experienced permanently high blood pressure, but I suspect if there were a friendly volunteer with a cuff, checking staff in the waiting line, I would certainly register temporarily in the concern range)

My disdain for school pictures began long before middle age and the emergence of the extra chin that appears in a rushed photo.

It’s all about my tragic school-picture-legacy.

In kindergarten and 1st grade, I was nervous, concerned about remembering the envelope, remembering where to go, remembering to keep my special outfit clean. (typical, right?)

First Grade at Fulton Elementary School.

In second grade, my mom began a new pre-picture routine: washing my thick hair the night before and applying the amazing aqua-enhanced Dippidy-Do, so popular in the late 60s. She then wrapped my gooey locks around those pink foam rollers. (The pink rollers were an improvement from the torturous gray-mesh tubes with the pink pins in first grade. Those were ridiculously uncomfortable, and most of mine fell out during the restless pre-picture-night.) I guess most little girls with straight, lank hair were coaxed into those pink curlers–our moms surely envisioned their little Shirley Temple’s dimpled smile the next day.

Remember those black combs, gifts from the photography company our teachers passed out right before the big shoot? Well, in third grade, our poor substitute teacher, Mrs. Bach, distributed the combs, and my friend Larry passed mine to me.  (I don’t think I had ever used a comb, only a brush, as my hair was always so full of snarls.) I ran my fingers several times across the stiff plastic teeth. Then, I held the comb horizontally and began wrapping a long front portion of my hair around and around, pressing pieces between the teeth, resulting in a tight, huge chunk an inch or more above my eyebrows. (Why did I ever think this was a smart idea? I truly wasn’t an impulsive kid, and I tested well above average in IQ…)

I wiggled my head—no change. I tugged at it–no luck. I tried unrolling it–no movement.

I lowered my head and turned towards Donna. Quietly, trying not to panic or catch the eye of the teacher, I whispered, “Donna, do you have any scissors?”

Donna looked at me, puzzled, then gasped.

Mrs. Bach must have noticed our distraction. “Kathy, is there a problem?”

I slowly raised my head, revealing the new comb-sausage. “Oh….my…” she said, her eyes widening in surprise.

She tried unraveling the mess, gave up, and sent me to Mrs. Jager–our principal’s wife AND school secretary–to receive her scolds and her best attempt to remove the impossible tangles. (She ended up CUTTING it out of my hair.)

But my POSITIVELY WORST school picture experience happened in fourth grade. I stood in line behind my friends as they stepped forward for their pictures. The photographer–big voice, big glasses, big belly—gave each of my girlfriends a title: he announced Donna as Snow White, Dawn as Sleeping Beauty, and Darlene as Cinderella.

What little girl doesn’t dream of being such a famous princess?

I smiled, handed him my envelope, and wondered what name he would give me. I wasn’t sure what Disney princesses were left, but certainly he had a whole inventory of charming labels. I looked up at him and smiled sweetly.

“Well here she is…Mrs. Potato Head!” he trumpeted, laughing loudly.

Whaaaat? I quickly went from a princess-wannabee to a plain, little, freckle-faced spud.

This year, I handed the polo-clad photographer–also a middle-aged woman–my paperwork, pressed the top of my hand underneath my sweaty chin, and asked her if she could do anything about this…

“Yup,” she winked, “I know…I’ve got a couple tricks.”

And after her coaching and adjusting of my stance and head angle, she partially concealed the fullness of my mature mug.

So next year, I’m going to skip the annual school picture taking event (and the inevitable angst) altogether.  I am breaking the cycle. This current shot will remain in our annual yearbooks until I retire.

It’s a Fine Life.

Welcome, Sweet September

Tonight, the sound of marching band practice floats and rises, the notes nearly visible in the late summer air. Again, and again, the melodies scatter and settle in waves across our village.

High school athletes strut and sprint on the practice fields, as coaches’ whistles trill, corralling their spirited colts into organized teams.

Squirrels quicken their collecting, hummingbirds tighten their garden tours, and bullfrogs cease their courting calls. 

The new structure at Apple Knockers, the ice cream shop in town.

 September is here.

How is this possible? How did summer pass so quickly? How did we let it slip away?

Can you recall those endless days of your childhood?

Fifty years ago, a starchy Peter Pan collar, wool jumper, and new school shoes pinched as I left behind the freedom of June, July, and August. There were, of course, chores and expectations during those three months of bliss, but my brothers and I raced through our daily jobs, and soon the screen door slapped behind us. Our shady yard, fields, and woods quietly waited. Those childhood weeks brimmed with adventures: we built forts, we raced our bikes, we picked wild strawberries. In the peace of the woods, we discovered secret deer paths and salamanders in the leaves. On rainy days, our mother took us to town, where Mrs. Green patiently helped us select our library books. Or we stayed home, working puzzles and playing board games around the old kitchen table.  We spent the humid summer evenings peacefully protected from mosquitos on the old screen porch, reading or listening to Tiger Baseball while the annual cicada chorus intensified all around.

The steps to the old library entrance where dear Mrs. Green helped my brothers and me find our summer reading books. Photo by Leeanne Seaver

Our town pals enjoyed different things: summer recreation programs at the Old El, pick-up games at the school playground, swimming at the village beach. Some lucky friends traveled the interstates on family vacations, their fingers tracing the routes on road maps while billboards hawked the latest tourist attractions.  

But gradually, the Michigan evenings became cooler. We perused the JC Penney Back-to-School Catalog and took the annual school shopping trip. We selected our first-day outfits and tried on our shoes. We found our book bags and sharpened our pencils.

Yes, eventually, the season of freedom must end, and all children everywhere must wave goodbye to beautiful summer.

Farewell to dancing fireflies and bath-free summer nights—to cousins and staying up late.

Adieu to bike races and skinned-up knees—to cottages and travel campers.

Adios to Dixie Cups of Kool-Aid—to roasting hot dogs and tenting under the Michigan stars.

Flowers from our early September garden.

As this summer ends, let’s look forward to sweatshirts and an extra blanket at night. To cutting back our gardens and planning next year’s plantings. To watching the corn fields dry and the harvesting begin.

Let’s celebrate small-town Friday Nights: the gathering of our communities at the athletic fields and the crowd’s occasional roars, breaking the quiet of a village night.  

Let’s watch the maples display their fabulous fall frocks.

Let’s listen for the honks of the migrating geese.

And let’s welcome sweet September.

It’s a Fine Life.