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.

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.

The Winter’s Night, A Cocktail for the Season

This cocktail is a perfect blend of warmth and sweetness for the bitter cold. photo: Elizabeth Palat

As the snow falls, enjoy this delicious cocktail. Easy to make, it is the perfect winter drink to enjoy on a cold night. Shake and pour into a martini glass or serve over ice. It is sweet and warming either way. I keep the ingredients on hand all year long.

2 oz Bailey’s

2 oz Butterscotch Schnapps

1 T Half and Half

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This book was a gift from my friend, Krista. It is witty and full of delicious cocktail recipes.

I love using vintage glassware. These are not vintage, but they are beautiful.

Life Lessons

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

Mrs. Harmon is 3rd from the left. My grandma is second from the right. We received a solid education at Fulton Elementary School, and this gals were strict disciplinarians.

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

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!”

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 and our word choices. Our home was peaceful, and the harshest words spoken during my early years were things like “fiddlesticks!” or “shoot!”

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 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 wouldn’t have it. She squealed and pushed by us. Dad, who never uttered a profanity, completely lost his fatherly composure, and chased that pig around and around, yelling those forbidden words (and a few I had never heard before).

This is about the era of the farrowing-coops-summer.

But Mrs. Noble in 7th grade PE class delivered the best language lesson of all. We girls were in the middle of a heated dodge-ball 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.

“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

Several years ago, Dennis and I saw Mrs. Noble, who is now in her nineties and still active. I reminded her of her lesson. She just smiled.

As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

A collection of my first twenty columns from the South County News is now available on Amazon.

Hope in the Darkness

These windows glow nightly in the village.

Each morning I pass this storefront on my way to work.

The streets of the village are nearly empty. It’s 6:30 A.M. and my thoughts are filled with lists and tasks waiting for me in the day ahead. I am already feeling pressured and pre-occupied instead of simply appreciating these quiet moments.

Then here it is, this lovely gift, radiating a beautiful, warming comfort.

I am thankful for this snippet of joy during this season of darkness. A reminder.

Vaccines are coming. Peace and calm will eventually return.

And our little hometown remains.

My heart is full.

Winter Storms

Our farm, winter of 1969. Dad and Uncle John worked hard to keep machinery working and pathways clear.

As we anticipate the eventual winter storms, I maintain a well-stocked pantry: I learned the importance of preparation from my mother who was raising four of the five of us when the blizzard of 1967 caught many in Michigan by surprise. My parents listened to the radio for most of their news during the 1960s: WKZO radio, AM 590. I can still hear the sports roundup music, Carl Collin’s voice for the noon farm reports, the advertising jingle for Be-Mo potato chips. I’m sure my mom was working in the kitchen and listening to the morning shows when it was announced that area schools were closing: Winds had increased and a blizzard had begun.

Mr. Jager, Fulton Elementary School’s principal, entered my second-grade classroom, announcing we would be going home. We shut our workbooks, pushed them into our desks, and found our boots and snow gear. The sky was dark, the snow coming sideways.

 I rode home with my grandmother, who taught fourth grade in my building. Her white Thunderbird thumped and bumped through the quickly drifting roads; as the wind howled and the snow swirled, I struggled to see the houses and farms on the familiar route towards home. Each time the wind gusts increased, all my landmarks disappeared. I wasn’t frightened, but I also didn’t converse with Grandma whose gloved hands tightly gripped the wheel.

Once safely home, the storm increased its rage. We were snowed in for a week. The wind blew for several days, forming huge drifts which swept upwards to the roof of the old garage, covering our back porch. From the front window we watched Dad work his way through the snow, cross the road, and enter the cattle barn to check the water and feed the animals. At that time, all the feeding was done inside and mostly by hand. The barn was cozy and warm with glossy-eyed steers jostling for position. Many days I accompanied Dad for evening chores, so I knew exactly what he was doing: He would remove his heavy coat, climb the inside silo chute, and shovel the silage to the wooden cart below. He then pushed the cart down the center aisle, filling the troughs as he went. He would repeat this process at least four or five times. I knew he was safe, but I was still relieved when the door closed, and he was back with us again.

An example of the drifts across local roads after a blizzard. During the blizzard of 1969, we were snowed in for a week.

Mom cooked and cooked, filling us with warm soups, casseroles, or scrambled eggs and toast.  She organized and patiently supervised our activities: We played lots of games, worked jigsaw puzzles, rediscovered toys, and read books. And when the winds finally subsided, we ventured out into a transformed world – a white wonderland full of opportunities for tunneling and discovery.

There have been other blizzards since, but none quite as memorable as that storm from my childhood. As long as my friends and family are off the roads, I do love a snowstorm and find comfort in my cupboard’s inventory. And as we watch the weather reports, I look forward to the gift of time to cook, care for my family and rediscover the beauty of a winter storm.

It’s a Fine Life

As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Check out my first book, self-published on Amazon. It includes my first 20 columns featured in The South County News.

I have read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter several times since 4th grade. I still find it an amazing story.

A Year of New Experiences

As 2020 comes to a close, I am both relieved and re-invigorated. It has been a year of challenges and new learning.

Teaching virtually involves a new set of skills, skills I didn’t possess until I was forced to acquire them. I will emerge from this school year better in many ways and certainly much more appreciative when we can all safely return to physical classrooms.

I love this photo of the llama and the sheep flock. We used it as the front cover of the December edition of the South County News. Photo: Oswalt Family Farms

When Sue Moore died, I assumed the role of editor/publisher of the South County News. It was (and is) both humbling and inspiring. Humbling, because I didn’t have a clue how to do this: Inspiring because of this amazing team of people who tirelessly support me and our community effort.

And lastly, after much prodding from my mother, I published my first little book. And again, this was definitely a challenge involving a new skill set. My son Drew gave technical encouragement and support and my friend Leeanne Seaver gave some sage advice; and this collection of my first twenty “It’s a Fine Life” columns is now self-published on Amazon! And, the best news of all is that copies arrived in time to surprise my mom for the holidays.

Check it out!

Wishing you and yours health and happiness this holiday season!

It’s a Fine Life

Perfect Gifts

Some people just have a knack for gift giving. These folks understand how to select and beautifully wrap their unique finds. While I am certainly not a perfect gift giver, I have always enjoyed shopping for Christmas presents, which started in my early years in the little family-owned shops on Main Street.

During December, the stores in Vicksburg were open late every Wednesday night, and most of the village restaurants took advantage of the increased traffic and offered late suppers or desserts for the holiday shoppers. There were many downtown retailers during the 1960s and 1970s; most were family owned and staffed by the proprietors and their families. The village featured two pharmacies, two ladies’ dress shops, a department store, two hardware stores, and a satisfying mix of other gift, specialty and variety stores. Retail business was steady and reliable.

Doris-Lee Sweet Shop near the corner of Prairie and Main Streets. Dad loved the chocolate covered peanuts they carried. They welcomed me by name and helped me find something just right for my mother. Photo from the Vicksburg Historical Society collection.

In the December twilight, my mom parked the station wagon on Main Street: two of my brothers and I had an hour to shop before we were to return to the car to check in. Scott and Steve joined forces, and I set out on my own. To buy my gifts, I had saved money, a total of $20, and with that, I purchased presents for my four brothers, my parents, and my two grandmothers. The gifts were obviously nothing extravagant, but they took serious thought and budgeting.

Because we always tagged along with our parents as they frequented the various businesses, I knew each of the storekeepers. There was such a sense of security in that! And while I certainly didn’t spend much that day, they treated this 12-year-old customer with kindness each time I parted with my crumpled bills. I imagine my brothers had a similar experience during their separate expedition.

After returning home, we carefully wrapped our special finds, using miles and miles of tape, then we placed our little parcels in separate piles under the tree and counted the days until Christmas. I was as excited by the gifts I had found, as I was for the gifts I would receive.

This was the first Christmas I shopped on my own for my four little brothers.

While many families participate in gift-giving traditions, this holiday season will be different for most of us; many people are distancing from loved ones, will not be travelling and are facing hardships. And while we know this is temporary, it is still difficult.

Yes, physical gifts are nice, but this current situation has provided me much clarity: truly the most important gift is the time we can spend together. I recall my holiday celebrations throughout the years: the laughter, the tears, the conversations, and yes, even the disagreements. I will miss it all this year.

I am so thankful for my many memories with our friends and family.

Yes, of course there will be special presents under our tree, but never again will I take the perfect gift of togetherness for granted.

It’s a Fine Life.