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!
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:
Ye Thankful People, Come”
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.
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.
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.
felt safe. I felt loved.
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.
favorite lines from the old hymn speak of security and comfort:
is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin.”
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.
winter preparations help me again remember that despite our ups and downs in
this journey of life, I have much to be thankful for.
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.
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.
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.
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
“Well, hello, Gordon. So… what can we pick out for Bonnie
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
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
“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?”
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!”
“We helped Dad pick it out!”
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…”
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
But usually, our parents left us behind on their Saturday
night dates when they attended their “Potluck Club,” secretly known as the “Martini
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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?)
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
Squirrels quicken their collecting, hummingbirds tighten
their garden tours, and bullfrogs cease their courting calls.
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
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
Adios to Dixie Cups of Kool-Aid—to roasting hot dogs and tenting
under the Michigan stars.
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.
The third annual Nana Camp is a wrap. These are summer days the twins and I look forward to all year. We make wish lists of what we want to do and revise them throughout the winter and spring months.
I wish I could tell you I created this tradition on my own, but I shamelessly copied this idea. Three years ago, one of my sophomore students, Madeline, wrote about “Camp Kalamazoo,” a summer week her grandmother has been offering for years to any grandchild out of diapers. (This seems to be the only restriction.)
Madeline, her siblings, and all her cousins spend a week with their grandmother every summer. Madeline wrote about camping out in her sleeping bag on the family room floor, playing the same games with her cousins, watching the same movies every summer, and eating the same foods. Her grandma always has crafts planned, and a visit to the beach is one of the big events. This time is something that all of the grandchildren look forward to–EVEN THE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS.
That got my attention. Wanting to spend a week at your grandma’s house when you are sixteen? This is an amazing accomplishment and one I want to copy.
So, in the summer of 2017, we started Nana Camp. The first summer, the twins were six and they were content with my ideas. We completed some crafts, ran through the sprinkler, watched some Netflix, went for ice cream–you get the idea.
The ideas for activities have grown over the years. Here is Caleb and Chloe’s list for 2018. I love the use of the big marker and the creative spelling.
Caleb created the list this year: he used the back of an envelope and A PEN! It involved lots of concentration and is proudly clipped to our refrigerator door.
No, we didn’t complete everything on the list, but they did have a lemonade stand, something the kids have been talking about all three summers. (We live in a quiet neighborhood, so the successful sale was the result of our generous neighbors AND some marketing by Nana.)
I always give them input on food–even when they come for a night throughout the school year. Their requests are surprisingly simple. “Beans, Nana, hot beans.” How funny. “Definitely your oatmeal.” (We call it Nana Oatmeal: slow-cook oats, raisins, coconut, vanilla, and, of course, brown sugar.) They always love to help prepare fruit and salads, and if we go shopping for a cook-out, they each get to select a bag of potato chips to share. (I think grandparents are allowed to do this–this NEVER happened with our own kids.)
We did play games, they read lots of books, they watched several shows, and they helped Papa with jobs. They DID NOT sleep in, but I’m predicting, if I am lucky enough to have their participation in Nana Camp when they are teenagers, they will.
I encourage starting this tradition with your grandchildren. (One of my friends and his wife plan all kinds of adventures with their nieces and nephews, and from his feedback and smile when he talks about it, it is something they all look forward to. So that’s another idea.)
The twins are coming for Labor Day Weekend. Perhaps we can work to cross off a few items that remain on the Nana Camp list, but I expect we will also start a new list for next year.
Our three kids started teasing me a decade ago. “What is this, Mom? You turn fifty and some bird-watching-switch flips?”
Well, yes, the joy of bird-watching seems to increase with age, but I’ve always enjoyed birds. I guess they have forgotten that while they sat completing their homework around the kitchen table, I washed dishes and watched the birds at the feeder from the window above the sink.
But what I think truly happens with age, is that we slow down to notice the world around us–we are no longer in such a race to get from one activity to another.
We pause. We listen. We appreciate the moments.
This summer has been a summer of fledglings at our feeders. Perhaps they were always visible at our feeder or in our backyard, but this is the first summer we have noticed them.
Nuthatches coaxing their young down the bark of the birch.
Young cardinal males, with their little spike-hats, perching hesitantly on a shepherd’s hook.
Oriole young fluttering their wings as they slurp the grape jelly.
Pudgy blue jays smirking from the backs of lawn chairs.
Tiny wrens hopping the pickets, escaping the confines of their tiny house.
Life and beauty is all around. I’m so glad that we quieted our pace to appreciate it.
I have just returned from my annual trek to our family retreat,
a camp on the northern shore of Lake Superior.
The place never seems to change. Sagging a bit, the old log
cabin sits with a beautiful view of the river. Brown, tannin-colored water flows
slowly to the bay, past the dock where the pike and bass glide between the
water lilies and beneath the logs, teasing our young ones.
Our eight-year-old twins learn patience as they watch their
bobbers, finding such joy with even a bite or the landing of the smallest fish.
They grin with delight, excitedly holding their catch for a quick photo, then
gently release their prize into the murky water below the dock.
We spend late afternoons at the sandy, Lake Superior beach,
and our little ones engage in timeless activities: jumping the waves, building
castles, collecting driftwood.
Black fly bites line their hairlines.
New sprays of freckles span their noses.
We are disconnected from all technology. In the evenings,
three generations play games around the table, read books under the old lamps, and
make S’mores around an evening fire.
Our grandchildren are the fourth generation of children
whose toes have dipped hesitantly in the frigid Lake Superior water, whose
fingers have pried loose a shiny stone, whose sweet voices have risen in the cathedral
of pines and birches, their joy a hymn to the summer stars and skies.
I am thankful to those who came before, those who made this
place of retreat possible for us.
I feel their presence everywhere:
My grandparents’ warbly whistles.
My uncle’s craftsmanship and commitment
My dad’s energy and laughter.
I am thankful for this legacy for our family, for the time
together, for this opportunity to regenerate.
How lucky I am.
How lucky we are to have another year in this place.