Managing the Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I need to get started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a Fine Life.

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

Summer’s End

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenn and I, playwrights and sleuths.

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

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

A meeting of a few cousins last summer.

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

It’s a Fine Life

A Place in My Garden and My Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a Fine Life.

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

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

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

Language Lessons

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

I learned to love books at Fulton Elementary. Mrs. Bragg sweetly greeted us when we entered the tiny library, about the size of a modern walk-in closet. We started with those high-interest biographies: presidents, explorers, Native American leaders and famous cowboys. My grandmother, our 4th grade teacher, read aloud “The Little House on the Prairie” after recess. We listened quietly at our desks, resting our heads on our sweaty arms, and imagined being Laura’s schoolmates. We were all “country kids,” familiar with the damp of the woodlands, the sway of tall grasses, and the sounds of the different animals and insects at night Laura so richly described.  

In middle school, real academics began. We studied grammar and learned to dissect sentences. I loved sharpening my pencil and diagramming sentence after sentence in Mrs. LaFrance’s classroom. We read stories and discussed them as a class, further cementing my fondness for literature.

Informal language instruction also happened during this time.

My initiation into unsavory language started in second grade, after Mrs. Harmon sharply commanded, “Jimmy! You come up here! I’m going to paddle you!”

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

Horrified by Jimmy’s situation, I looked up at Mrs. Harmon, looked back at Jimmy who was slowly getting up from his desk, and looked over to my friend Donna. I whispered, “What did he do?”

Donna shrugged her shoulders and said, “Oh, he swore.”

“What’s swearing?” I asked, completed stumped. Donna shook her head and went back to solving her math problems.

My mom clarified things for me when I got home. My parents were strict about how we spoke to one another. The harshest words allowed were things like “fiddlesticks!” or “shoot!”

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

During the hot summer before fifth grade, my dad had farrowing coops – individual shelters for sows and their piglets – in a field around the house. We soon had an infestation of rats under the little houses, and we kids spent several Saturdays helping Dad move the coops and eliminate the rats. But the most memorable event of that summer involved trying to catch a sow who had escaped. My brothers and I did the best we could, trying to help Dad get her back in her pen, but each time Dad circled that old sow back around, and we tried to direct her to her waiting pen, she refused, squealed and pushed by us. Eventually, Dad lost his fatherly composure and chased that pig around and around, yelling those forbidden words – and a few I had never heard before!

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

We girls were in the middle of a heated dodgeball game. Balls were slamming, girls were ducking, and the worst-of-words were flying. The sound of Mrs. Noble’s whistle rose above the noise. She motioned us over, and we circled around her. She stood, statuesque and strong, and we waited, sweaty and out-of-breath, for her sentencing.

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

“Girls, Girls, Girls!” she said. “You must use those words sparingly. Save them for when you REALLY need them!”

Her advice stuck and has served me well in my professional relationships, but it is in my personal life where its practice is most helpful. Like using strong spices, if I sprinkle those words only when necessary, my message is heightened, highly efficient and effective.

Thanks, Mrs. Noble.

It’s a Fine Life.

As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

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.

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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.