Riding the bus

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

One of our good friends, Tim Miller, has passed away. He had been part of our lives for over fifty years. He was a groomsman in our wedding, and Dennis was one of his attendants when he and Linda were married. Over the years, our families shared times of both joy and sorrow. We didn’t always speak regularly, but the comfort in the love we had for each other was always there.  

Saturday, a few of his friends gathered at the Hide-a-Way to watch the Michigan, Ohio State game and to reminisce and share a few stories.

I joined the table near the end of their time together. The conversation focused on Tim and our many memories.

“My uncle once told me life is like riding on a bus,” our friend Kip shared. Kip said he wasn’t sure what his uncle meant and asked him to clarify. “Well, it’s like you are riding on a bus. Some people are on your bus in the seat next to you for your whole life. Some people ride for a few years before they step off. Some get off and even get back on.”

I like that. Yes, some people travel next to us for many years. Some join the trip for just a few miles. And we might have friends return to the ride—even after decades. And if we are lucky, we add riders throughout our whole lives.

Everyone adds richness with their conversation, insights, and time.

Throughout his life, Tim rode many buses.

Sometimes his rides were short, but man, he was a prolific bus patron: family, friends, Vicksburg High School classmates, Olivet College teammates and fellow students, co-workers, community members, University of Michigan tailgaters.

I don’t know how he collected the fare or had the time to have so many rides.  And he always left something every time he hopped off at a bus stop: sometimes a joke, usually a smile, and our rides aways ended with “I love you.”

He was a character. He was always a character.

In high school, he was a member of our select extra-curricular vocal group: The Choraliers. Our choral director, Cinda Cramer, built a few numbers around his charisma and distinct personality. During one song, we marched around him, singing and smiling, as he marched in place. In another, he stepped forward and gave a short speech. The audience loved this big red-headed leprechaun with a ready smile and obvious charm. He had the moms and dads, the grandmas and grandpas mesmerized. He was the main event.

I attended nearly all his wrestling matches when he was a senior. He wrestled heavy weight, so his match was always the last of the evening. It was a much-anticipated competition. And again, he could steal the show.  In the middle of one strenuous, grueling period, Tim, lovingly referred to as “Dancing Bear,” looked up at the crowd and smiled as he pinned his opponent. He was that guy. And we loved him.

Yes, this bus ride, our unique life journey is important. As I mourn our friend’s passing, I am reminded our ride doesn’t last forever and to not only enjoy the ride, but to make a difference when traveling on a new bus or rejoining a route I’ve been on before.

It’s a Fine Life

A New Appreciation

I didn’t grow up with a fascination for or love of cars. For my family, automobiles served to get us from one place to another. Vehicles were taken care of—oil changed, tires rotated, annual tune-ups—but we didn’t spend time washing and waxing our various rides.

Grandma was the exception–she loved cars, especially her Thunderbirds.

Folks rarely ate in their cars in those days. There were no built-in cup holders or fast-food drive-throughs. People ate at home and seldom even snacked in their cars. When traveling, the families I knew packed a cooler or picnic hamper and stopped at rest areas or roadside parks to enjoy some fresh air and a meal.

The first car I remember was a 1963 Falcon. It was blue with some very modest tail fins. We slid back and forth on the slippery back seat as our parents navigated the roads and turns to town. There were no seat belts or car seats. I remember a contraption that held our busiest brother in place between my parents in the front seat. I doubt it was designed for safety—just for the sanity of parents with active children. After the Falcon came a series of station wagons with a fold-down bench seat which accommodated our growing family.

I grew up with friends who had some nice cars: Scotty had a sporty red car and obsessively polished and cared for it; Sue drove a Volkswagen “Thing” during her senior year; and Rick drove a Corvette which certainly stood out in the student parking lot.

It felt different riding in those cars — they were flashy and got lots of attention from other motorists.

Most of us, if we were lucky enough to have access to some wheels, drove old cars or trucks: my friend Leeanne drove a VW hatchback we regularly had to push to start; our friend Anne drove a huge Checker sedan that filled a space and a half in any parking lot; and my brothers and I drove my grandmother’s hand-me-down Impala. We were thrilled to have it. In fact, the pea-green 4-door we referred to as “the green bomb” got me through college.  

Here Scott, Steve, and I are heading to band camp, summer of 1976. We are leaning against our family’s 3rd station wagon.

When our kids earned their drivers’ licenses, we provided an old car built like a tank, a bright yellow 1976 Catalina. Eventually, the heavy passenger door stopped latching and would swing open when rounding corners. Our son, filled with pre-teen angst, crouched in the back seat and demanded his sisters drop him off at the middle school at least a block away. In mock elections, the “yellow boat” won “class clunker” two years in a row. As you can imagine, I was not sympathetic.

Today, I am still very frugal and practical about cars. I drive a 2011 Impala. It’s in great shape, and I plan to keep it until it drops.

Even now, l don’t desire an expensive or even new car, but I have begun to appreciate automobiles, especially models from the past.

I used to dread or avoid downtown Vicksburg during the Old Car Festival. It is usually hot and humid, and I wondered how people could be so interested in these cars with sweat rolling down their faces and backs. And sitting by one’s collectable car all day in that heat? Unimaginable.

So, it has taken me a while to understand this commitment. Several years ago, we visited the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend. I entered with a good attitude because it was something my husband really wanted to do. I planned to appear interested in the hours it would take to walk and look at cars. I knew we would pause at every vehicle—read every plaque and sign.

But I loved it. The vehicles were stunning and painstakingly restored; the exteriors were flawless, the interiors pristine. Several exhibits presented prototypes and explained ground-breaking innovations and the extensive testing involved. That visit helped me understand auto enthusiasts’ passion for beautiful designs and engineering.

Last weekend, I attended Vicksburg’s Old Car Festival; I had my hat, water bottle, and new-found appreciation ready!

It’s a Fine Life

Hospitality

Don’t we love neighbors welcoming us into their home? A server greeting us by name at our favorite restaurant? A friend approaching with a hug and smile?

The importance of hospitality and making everyone feel welcome is important and something my brothers and I learned at an early age.

My parents always taught us that how we treat people is important. That we never know the impact we might have on another person. That everyone is worthy of respect and, if the timing was right, a seat at our family’s table.

Helen loves to serve food and drink from her play kitchen.

If someone stopped by to see us around supper time, my parents always extended a dinner invitation. There was never a whispered exchange or hesitation, it was a given, an automatic offer. We always seemed to have enough, and no one ever went away hungry.

My mother also believed in always having coffee and baked goods available—homemade was best, but store-bought cookies would do in a pinch—in case someone “stopped around.” Yes, people used to just “stop around,” especially on Sunday afternoons.

Often these were individuals from church, but sometimes they might be acquaintances we knew very casually. Occasionally, folks stopped with a station-wagon full of children—and maybe a dog—and we kids would spend a couple hours playing in the yard or showing them new piglets or some other farm curiosity.

This taught us a couple things: the importance of preparedness and including everyone in our activities.

No matter, how busy they were, my parents always made people feel welcome in their home.

I was lucky to have many people in my life who helped me feel valued and included.

The first time I had dinner at my future in-laws, Dad Forsythe insisted I call him Del, and said, ”Now I’ll fix you your first drink, but after that, you just help yourself.” I never required a second – his first was usually so stout my nose tingled. He was as generous with his pours as he was with his affection.

If I am making, for example, toast, and my husband is around, I always ask if he wants a piece, even though I know his answer will likely be “no thanks.” He rarely eats toast, and even though he has refused the offer time after time, the importance of this ask is etched in some part of my brain.

As I grew up, I learned that in other families, hospitality sometimes involved different food and drink, often determined by family customs and traditions.

And as we all reached adulthood and were raising children of our own, the stop-around-offerings at the farmhouse changed and began to include a beer or glass of wine, cheese and crackers, or even the occasional chips and salsa.

As I watch our two-year-old granddaughter stirring up some soup in her play kitchen, I see she is learning and practicing hosting skills early.

“Well, hi, Nana,” she says, “want some coffee?”

Or she talks to her doll or stuffed animals, “How ‘bout some pasta? Come in. Sit down.”

Oh, how I love that—the youngest generation practicing hospitality!

Jake and Vicki, servers at Rise N Dine, help make everyone feel welcome. It’s the Cheers of breakfast joints.

It’s a Fine Life.  

Spring Cleaning

Open the windows! Air the quilts! Wash the baseboards!

It’s that time of year for cleaning house and welcoming sweet spring.

Today, the wind has died, and we are burning the twigs and branches that dropped during the cold months, pulling old leaves out of fence corners, raking the remains of winter away. It feels good.

We remember several spring-cleaning jobs during our childhood.

Here’s the first three of us–Steve, Scott and I. Our attempts at spring cleaning were high energy and short-lived.

In the house, Mom put us to work—her tiny fleet of Merry Maids—and we began in earnest, doing our best to channel that unlimited energy of childhood: I held a can of Pledge, sprayed a rag and attacked furniture; another washed woodwork with soapy water and a sponge; one of us squirted windows as high as could be reached and circled the panes with an old towel; the busiest brother ran the vacuum, cleaning behind and under chairs and couches; and the youngest picked up and put away toys.

While we were proud of our work, it was a short-lived, sweaty work session, lasting probably 30 frenzied minutes, before we lost enthusiasm and focus and were released to play outside.

On the farm, the barns and pens also needed spring cleaning. Old straw and manure were hauled away and fresh straw added. This was something we also helped with. Dad ran the “loader tractor,” a reliable John Deere with a front-end loading bucket, used for nearly every barnyard task. We tossed down fresh bales of straw from the upper barn story, cut away the twine holding the bales together, and worked to “shake down new bedding.” Dad loaded our manure spreader and applied its contents on the corn fields, adding important nutrients to the soil for the upcoming growing season. Like everything on a farm, tasks and activities cycle with the seasons.

The old barn before its renovation.

Today, my house-cleaning enthusiasm is inconsistent: sometimes I determinedly open cupboards and closets and begin sorting and tossing; sometimes I arm myself with a long-handled duster to eliminate spiders who silently squat in corners with their quickly-spun webs; and sometimes I go to the basement to straighten the stored history of our life together—occasionally even parting with things I thought I needed to save.  

I personally need some occasional spring cleaning, although as I age, I realize it’s not quite as easy as the Sunday-night-baths of our childhood, where we scrubbed our grimy selves clean and watched the murky bathwater circle and swirl down the drain.

It’s harder to let go of the dirt—the old grudges, the unproductive attitudes I harbor, the dust and filth that keep me from realizing my best self and life. Occasionally I need to push myself, to accept a different point of view, to consider and recognize I might not always be right.

We recently traveled some distance from home and stayed in a lovely Airbnb for nearly a week. We got away from the routines and responsibilities of every day, and we entered a different space, full of new sights and experiences.

We tried new foods. We rested. And we listened, clarified, and re-aligned our priorities.

We de-cluttered and did some relationship spring cleaning—recommitting and planning for our future.

It was an opportunity to refresh. To rejuvenate. To spring-clean.

It’s a Fine Life

An April Fool’s joke-for-the-decades

Today, I fell hard for an April Fool’s joke from my friend Leeanne. I should have known better, since she is forever known to me as “the rascal.” But, as all great April Fool’s Day jokes, it was timely and believable.

Leeanne’s prank brought to mind an April Fool’s joke-for-the-decades, played on my dad by his life-long-friend and neighbor, Bob Harper.

When we grew up in rural Kalamazoo County in the 1960s and early 1970s, many of the people who lived around us were farming the same ground as their parents and even grandparents had. And in addition to grains, many farmers also produced livestock: pigs, sheep, and/or cattle.

This picture of our parents in the lambing barn was taken just a few years after the legendary April Fool’s joke.

The farm directly to our west was owned by Bob and Nancy Harper–and like our family, Bob’s parents and grandparents had also worked the same ground.

Bob and his sister Liz, and our dad and Uncle John, grew up together and were as close as cousins. Bob and Nancy were like an aunt and uncle to us, and their home was one of those places we knew could be a shelter or an emergency call or stop if we ever needed one.

During those years, Bob and Nancy had developed a registered Yorkshire hog business; their work in genetics and bloodlines was reputable in the state and region, and they produced much sought-after breeding stock.

Dad and Bob had invested in some animals together–I think they bought several outstanding boars and sows to introduce another superior bloodline in the Harper’s registered herd. Dad was feeding and caring for these new animals in one of our barns, and those animals had sired some pigs that were ready for other producers to buy.

Bob and Dad were the best of friends, and I’m sure many of their regular conversations over a cup of coffee were about the potential profit they could make on these animals housed in our barn. Maybe they even got their pencils out and did some calculating.

And on April 1, some of those animals were ready for new homes.

In the early evening, as our freshly fed and showered Dad was settling in his chair to read and relax after a day of work, Bob called.

“Gordon, someone wants to come down and look at one of the boars you have. He’s really interested in buying one. Can you get them ready?”

Dad took his livestock seriously. He was on the livestock judging team in high school and at Michigan State University. He always took pride in caring for our animals, providing quality feed and shelter. He wanted to present those animals in the best way possible.

In my mother’s retelling, “He raced to the barn, cleaned up the pens a bit, and waited.”

And waited. And waited.

Slowly, it dawned on Dad that it was April 1st. He eventually came back across the street to the house, and I’m sure he and our mom shared a good laugh.

Bob never called him to say “Gotcha–April Fools!”

Well, they had over forty years of friendship behind them at that point.

It just wasn’t necessary.

Leeanne and I over 50 years ago.

It’s a Fine Life

Everyday Joy

I started an apprenticeship in “joy-finding” from the moment I was born. My parents taught us to appreciate each day. To be thankful for simple things. To be satisfied. My parents were not people who delayed happiness. They didn’t wish the hours away. They trained us to pause and to notice beauty in everyday moments.

A bluebird, feathers fluffed and ruffling, perched on a fence post.

A doe and twin fawns standing silently in a field’s mist.

A newborn calf on knobby, wobbly legs, nursing for the first time.

I wish we could all look at the fresh morning snow with the same joy as our little Helen. Look at that face!

Treasures—beautiful, preserved vignettes—cut from the long-running films of our early life. Colored slides I can scroll through, select, and savor at any time.

A new calf and cow on the pasture. New life never ceases to inspire and bring joy.

Even during my father’s difficult final days, he found joy in togetherness. In the changing seasons. In the touch of my hand in his.

I am good at finding similar delight in my life today. I know I am lucky to have studied with such skilled joy-finding masters. If I find my mood sagging, I know I can summon those early lessons. I can live in the moment. I can pause and seize a snippet of happiness.

Sometimes I feel it in my chest. A warming. A blossoming. It sometimes brings tears. Sometimes, soaring lightness.

New lambs, safe and warm in the lambing barn.

My husband’s blue eyes and smile as he comes in the kitchen door.

The taste of a sun-warmed tomato, the soil rubbed from its ruby skin.

My grandbaby’s tiny head on my shoulder, her breath tickling my neck.

Tiny moments. Common moments.

I am so thankful that my sister-in-law Sheryl captured this moment of my Dad sharing a moment with our grandchildren, Caleb and Chloe. This is one of my favorite photos ever and an image I have stored in my mind to return to again and again.

Everyday Joy.  

Resilience

Throughout my life, I have encountered many models of resilience: people who demonstrated making “the best of a situation.” People who were somehow able to pick themselves up and keep moving, even when things were difficult. People who could see beyond the crisis or problem they were facing. Merriam-Webster defines resilience as “the ability to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.” It is something we learn from our own life experiences and by watching how important people in our lives react and behave.

Our reliable, day-to-day example is our mother. She is unflappable. Unstoppable. She sees situations and people in their best light. She is our Mary Poppins — always offering a “spoonful of sugar” to help with some bitter medicine. I can hear her voice when I feel discouraged or am trying to push through something hard.

Many of my former students were remarkably resilient, despite their circumstances; I imagine that family and friends also modeled persistence for them.

The more I learn about our family’s past, the more I realize how lucky we are that resilience became part of our legacy.

Our grandmother (far right) and her five sisters.

My maternal grandmother was raised in rural Kansas. When she was in elementary school, her mother died, leaving my grandmother and her five sisters with their father who was unable to care for them. The reason for this inability is unclear. What is clear, is that my grandmother and her sisters eventually moved to town where they were surrounded and loved by aunts, uncles, and cousins. The sisters — Ethel, Eula, Mabel, Maxine, Helen (my grandmother), and Agnes were taken in and raised by these families.

And the sisters eventually thrived.

Gever Tulley, writer, educator and speaker, pushes in on acquiring resilience. “Persistence and resilience only come from having been given the chance to work through difficult problems.” For my grandmother and her sisters, this opportunity existed.

How fortunate that these supports were in place! How wonderful were these aunts and uncles! The love and compassion shown the sisters at this vulnerable time provided a haven and fostered their self-esteem. They survived a traumatic life event, and thankfully, they had the unfailing support of extended family.

And because they received uninterrupted love and care, they bounced back.

Another picture of the six sisters. Our grandmother is second from the right.

During their early adult years, the sisters relied on one another. They helped each other financially; when they had some extra money, they sent it to a sister. When one of them wanted to attend college or receive additional training, they helped by sharing housing or providing assistance of some kind.

They learned that life was good, that things would work out, that they could count on each other.

They learned perseverance.

Despite the loss of her mother and her original family structure, my grandmother was full of love and optimism. She learned frugality and how to make do with less, but she also believed in the future and the opportunities it would hold.  

My cousins Jennifer and Amy and I with our grandmother, Christmas 1977.

For most of us, there have been people in our lives who helped us with their words, generous acts, and examples.

I am thankful for these people who taught us resilience.

It’s a Fine Life.  

Peace

My brother Steve sent this view from the family farm this morning.

The ice is glistening on the branches.

The fields are frosted and cold.

The sun begins her rise.

It brings me a sense of peace. Of calm. Of comfort. My sweet brother often sends me a picture of the sunrise from somewhere on the farm–wherever he happens to be when he greets the new day.

How lucky I am.

I needed to see that view this morning.

To remember the stability and love of family.

The reliability of the rich soil.

The predictability of the seasons.

Comfort.

Peace.

And the hope of a new day.

It’s a Fine Life

Mr. Schutter: His legacy

Teachers have always been important to young people and the communities they serve. Strong educators are vital to our country and the overall health of our democracy. There are many studies that show significant academic growth when students receive skilled, specific instruction in the classroom, and when teachers are clear in communicating what they want students to learn. Our school districts invest in training, helping classroom teachers learn, practice and implement important instructional methods which help students.  

Academic growth and the techniques employed to foster student achievement are, of course, important. But exceptional teachers not only spur academic growth, they also leave an impact on their students, providing direction for their lives, positively affecting relationships, career choices, and even their character.

These teachers leave a legacy.

For many former Vicksburg High School students and athletes, one such person was Mr. Paul Schutter, former math teacher, track and football coach and long-time community member. Mr. Schutter passed away last month, and his family and friends are being reminded of the exemplary legacy of this kind, gentle man.

A yearbook picture which shows his delightful sense of humor. He and his coaching friends shared this jacket for their yearbook pictures.

Mr. Schutter was a servant in his commitment to organizations and others. His funeral home page is filled with comments from former students, neighbors, co-workers, and lifelong friends. These comments emphatically speak of the words of encouragement he gave them and the excellence he firmly demanded both in the classroom and on the playing fields. They speak of his innovation and creativity as a teacher. They speak of his good, fun-loving nature.

There was never a doubt about the depth of his commitment and love for his family. He and Marilyn were married for over 65 years. They created a loving, stable home for their three children, a haven where their children’s friends always felt embraced. They eventually welcomed many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Mr. Schutter also lived a life of faith. He daily “walked the walk” of humility and compassion. He showed up. He spoke carefully. He lived with intention. He was a blessing to many people, and, in turn, he was blessed in his relationships with his family, friends, and community.

One of his granddaughters, Danielle, shared with me how amazed she was by all the kind words and stories about her grandpa. “He just had the best life. You couldn’t even write a story about a better life than my grandpa had.”

Mr. Schutter in the classroom. He kept a careful, close eye on all of us.

His example of a well-lived life is a gift for everyone he leaves behind, a comfort for all of us who loved him.

How lucky we were to know him. To cross paths with him in our lifetime. To witness his ready smile and twinkle in his eyes. To feel his strong handshake or firm hand on our shoulder. To receive his guidance when we needed it.

A quote by Colin Powell tells us that “Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty and persistence.” By all measures, Mr. Schutter’s long, fruitful life reflects success.

Thank you, Mr. Schutter, for the many lives you touched and your life of integrity.

Thank you for your legacy.

It’s a Fine Life

The lost is found

I thought I had lost her, but today I found her tucked in a little box in my top dresser door.

This tiny ornament.

I’m sure she doesn’t look like much to most people. She’s very small, a bit faded, and starting to crack. But she is a symbol of how special I was to my grandmother.

My grandmother never spoke those words—I doubt she spoke words of affection to any of her eight grandchildren. That just wasn’t her way.

She wasn’t a traditional grandmother who baked cookies or babysat. She was often gone on trips or wintering in Florida during her retirement. She didn’t appear especially sentimental.

But when I was a child, I often went up the hill to her house to decorate her Christmas tree. She didn’t like wrapping presents or decorating. I did, so I was enlisted. Each year when she opened the ornament box, she would pick up this little angel and say, “This little angel decorated the first gift I ever received from you.” It always gave me pause. It always made me feel loved.

Here is our grandmother listening to our daughter Amanda read.

When my grandmother died, I found the little angel when we were going through her belongings. Grandmother hadn’t put up a tree in many years, but the tiny ornament remained. I took the little angel home, looked at her from time, and eventually forgot where I put her.

Now she’s back on our tree where she belongs, reminding me of the importance of grandparents. Of how their words and actions last well beyond their lifetime.

It reminds me to be intentional and to speak of my love to my own grandchildren.

Even if I think they aren’t listening.

It’s a Fine Life