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.
Do you remember your first bike? Mine was a Schwinn, nearly full-size. (No little bikes for the first three of us children. I’m not sure those pint-sized bikes were even available in the 1960’s.) I still remember the day: my seventh birthday. My mom asked me to go get the milk from the front porch. (Our reliable Roloff Dairy Milkman delivered eight gallons of milk, two pounds of butter, and a quart of cream each week.) I reluctantly left my cereal bowl, trudged slowly through the old house, and tugged open our stubborn front door. I stepped towards the milk crate, and there she was: a beautiful blue bike, complete with a bell, basket, and handle-bar streamers. My mom and dad stood behind me, smiling in the doorway. I was so surprised, stunned, SPEECHLESS.
I had entered the world of a “big kid.” I thought it would be seamless, but it took weeks and several serious crashes–which I survived with minor scrapes and teeth intact–for me to get the balance right, to smoothly pedal, to brake without tipping over. It became a nightly ritual in the grassy front yard: my dad clomping along in his work boots, holding my bike seat with his right hand, steadying my handlebars with his left. Dad ran along again and again, coaching and inspiring me—wobbly and terrified—until I finally broke free of the support and fear, bounced down the hill, and pedaled up the road.
Once my brothers Scott and Steve received and mastered their
own bikes, we spent hours riding up and down the street. We had to stay within
sight of the house, which meant we could travel to my grandmother’s driveway to
the west, and to the east, we could journey about a quarter mile to a culvert
where the gravel road began.
Oh, the joy and the freedom of bike riding–pedaling hard, then coasting, then pedaling hard again. As soon as our breakfast was finished, we lifted our abandoned bikes from the grass (where they had been slumbering since the night before) and began cruising. It seems like those childhood days were perfect: the robin-egg sky, the fluffy cotton-clouds, the cool breeze beneath the roadside trees. And the anticipation of filling my Dixie Cup again and again with icy red Kool-Aid, our generation’s childhood classic. Eventually, with our mother’s permission, we could pedal around the country block, go visit our cousins and neighbors, or travel several miles to buy ice-cold pop at Keeney’s, the closest mom-and-pop store.
We gradually “souped up” our bikes–buying glittery banana seats and flags from the selection in Gambles–and even convinced our parents to allow us to ride in the summer parade. Dad tossed our bikes in the bed of the pick-up where we rode to town, decorated our bikes with red-white-and-blue streamers, and joined the group of town kids in the slow processional down Main Street.
Biking was fantastic. It was freeing. It was one of the best parts of our childhood summers.
Let’s brush off the bikes and pedal hard, loosening the ache in our knees. Let’s cruise the village, rallying to the convenience store for a frosty Orange Crush. Let’s leave our adult responsibilities at home, feeling once again the freedom and joy of summer.
(I confess, I have never adjusted to wearing a bike helmet, introduced and encouraged during our adulthood. I know I should, and I know it is important. But I just love cruising down a hill with the wind ruffling my hair, not feeling the sweat trickling beneath a helmet. I did wear one when we were raising our children, and I’m sure if I ever bike with our grandchildren, they will insist I wear one. And, of course I will oblige.)
My dad was a storyteller, and the five of us children were always a ready, enthusiastic audience. Through these stories, he helped to create a sense of place for us and a feeling of being part of the story of our farm and of our family.
He told stories of his boyhood, of country school, and of his grandparents, but my favorite stories were of the adventures he and his little brother John had growing up on the family farm on which we lived.
He and John had a pony of their very own, a pony who changed names as their Uncle Jimmy moved up in the Army Ranks during WWII. The boys listened to the radio for their news and learned of Uncle Jimmy’s experiences through letters he wrote to the family. The pony began as Lieutenant, then moved to Sergeant, and ended as Major. And the summer before Uncle Jimmy came home from the war, Dad and Uncle John packed up their tent, sleeping bags, and campfire provisions; they headed through the pasture and cornfields to set-up camp on a rise at the eastern border of the farm.
According to my dad’s legends, this rise was once the shore of a lake where years ago Native Americans lived, fished, and hunted the woods–a place where arrow-heads could be found. The boys set up camp, set a fire, cooked their supper, and slept beneath the Michigan stars.
I loved that story and imagined those sweet, young brothers cooking their hot dogs and listening to the sounds of the night insects and animals around them as their fire’s embers glowed and faded to the gray of a January sky. I considered those brothers walking the same lane and road, sitting in the same cool barn, climbing the same maple trees as my brothers and I.
When my dad died last summer, we buried most of my dad’s cremains in the village cemetery, but each of us–including my dear Uncle John–received a small plastic bag of his ashes. Uncle John told me he knew just where he would put his portion–on that small rise of their boyhood camps.
But I still have my bag of his ashes tucked safely in my top dresser drawer. I still struggle with where to place them: in the river where he taught me to fish, patiently baiting my hook and untangling my snags time after time? On the edge of the fields where we took coffee and cookies to him when he worked the ground he loved? Under a lovely hydrangea bush he gave me after a family wedding?
These memories and the story of my dad, of our place in time, and our love for one-another will never end.
It’s a Fine Life.
Good friends of ours gave us this book when our children were small. Set in the rural 1940’s, it tells a beautiful story of the love of place and of family.
I need to live like Nala, our two-year-old lab-pit mix grand-dog. She spent a month with us last summer, enjoying every second of her dog-day. Her needs are simple—food, water, giving and receiving affection—and she has reminded me of some important aspects of life.
If I’m not hungry, leave food alone. (she doesn’t mindlessly snack, she simply eats when she is hungry) I think I used to practice this, but her sleek coat and well-muscled body convince me to return to the lower-calorie habit.
Love the people in my life unconditionally. (she doesn’t hold back—she licks and rubs us as if she will never see us again.) I find nothing easy about unconditional love. We let each other down. We say and do hurtful things–intentionally and unintentionally. Nala prompts me to let it go and simply love, And she broadens her affections to include visitors, neighbors, or anyone she sees me greet happily. My people truly become her people, too–another challenge and reminder.
Stop whatever I’m doing and welcome my family and friends home. (even if she’s napping, Nala gets up and joyfully welcomes us home each time we enter the front door) She wags her tail and looks me in the eyes, convincing me that I matter to her. For that moment I am the center of her little world. I want my friends and family to feel my affection as simply and completely as this, to feel the joy of coming home.
I hope she comes again this summer. I need a few more dog lessons.
I miss full-service gas stations—where I could swing our old
Chevy in, roll down the window, and greet a reliable mechanic. He would
cheerfully fill my tank, wash the windshield, and even check and add motor oil
if needed. When I tell my students about the way it “used to be,” they look at
me like I have two heads.
Anywhere we traveled fifty years ago, there were dependable, staffed stations. If our engine started making a noise, or if we suspected a tire was going flat, we could coast off the highway where a mechanic was usually on duty. Back in the day, there were even mom-and-pop stations at rural intersections with a pump and small store for bread and other essentials. If folks ran out of gas after hours, they could knock loudly on the shop door, and eventually the drowsy owners (who lived above or behind) would answer.
While there were many full-service stations around the
village, our family relied on Fred Hiemstra, who owned and operated the Shell
Station on the corner of South Michigan and Prairie Streets. Fred also ran a
towing service, and I remember how he hoisted himself into his tow-truck, which
began rolling before he even closed the door. Always ready to help, he was like
an uncle to many of us. He took care of
our cars, hauled a few vehicles out of the snowbanks or the ditches, and usually
did not share that information with our parents. We sure appreciated him.
When I was about ten, my brothers and I perched in our station wagon at the top of the lift in Fred’s shop while he changed the oil. We looked out the windows, gripping the door tightly, and surveyed his garage: tool chests, racks of tires, and the garage floor sat nearly ten feet below. By some miracle, we managed to stay in the car and not fall to the oily concrete. Perhaps my mother was in the car? Perhaps she was in the waiting room taking a break from the five of us? Or perhaps my dad casually chatted below as Fred released the plug and the dirty oil ran from the pan? I don’t remember.
Like many business owners and tradesmen in town, Fred was also a volunteer fire-fighter. When the alarm sounded, tools were set aside, sales calls ended abruptly, and hardware customers had to wait, as these dedicated folks dropped everything and attended house fires, car accidents, or other emergencies. Fred’s equipment, hanging in his shop, was a comforting reminder of the many people in our community who cared and could take care of us.
There is still a place for a full-service station—where we
could pull in and smile at the mechanic. We wouldn’t risk spilling gas on clothes,
windshields would be clean, and oil levels would always be within range. Of course we would pay more, but I would
be a loyal, rewards-card-carrying customer, thankful for one more connection
with another person in our hometown.
A bird died today—it broke its neck in frantic midflight
against our living room window. From the shadow’s small silhouette, pattern,
and quickness, I thought the fatal thud was a hummingbird. But when I looked
through the windowpanes, a tiny wren lay inert on the concrete, her cheerful
song forever silenced. I examined her
brown, compact body, contemplating her life and purpose.
How many bugs had she snatched from the bushes? How often
had I heard her morning song? How many years had she returned to our yard after
the darkness of winter?
Her end came so suddenly, so abruptly, so unexpectedly.
Where was she going in such careless hurry? Were her fledglings waiting for
her, their tiny beaks open, wings fluttering in anticipation of breakfast? Was
her mate still waiting outside the nest in their desperate tag-team to feed
their brood? Her stillness rings in the morning air.
Sometimes I am so distracted and mindless in my flights, forgetting that life on this
earth is not forever. The sunrises and sunsets paint the sky, and often I am
too preoccupied by tasks and responsibilities that I forget to pause and
breathe in the moments.
Like the wren, our flight on this earth is brief and there
is always the possibility that it might end as swiftly. For me, I find comfort
in knowing that we have a chance to impact the future with more than our DNA. Jazz
musician Greg Adams suggests, “There is no such thing as a ‘self-made’ man or
woman. We are made up of thousands of others. Everyone who has ever done a kind
deed for us, or spoken a word of encouragement to us, has entered the make-up
of our character and of our thoughts, as well as our success.”
How true. I remember the people who have helped me along the
way, who have listened, who have encouraged me.
Lorraine and Merritt Harper, neighbors and retired farmers, who welcomed me for lemonade and cookies when I spontaneously arrived at their door, announcing confidently, “Hi, I was just out on my bike and thought I would stop by.” They gave me their full, uninterrupted attention as we sat at their tiny kitchen table. They smiled at me, listening to my 10-year-old ideas and adventures. How important and loved I felt. My choir teacher, Cinda Cramer, who encouraged fragile, awkward high school students to persist and take risks. My friends and I felt valued and noticed, something all teenagers so desperately need.
We can’t, of course, always recall the details, but such
care and kindness become a part of us and what we find important. These
wonderful people are gone from this earth, yet their influence remains in me
and in all the other people their positive energy touched.
Opportunities for encouragement and helping others are all
around. All we need to do is make the effort.
I pause and remember, respecting the brief life of Jenny
It’s a Fine Life
We have two pairs of wrens nesting in similar boxes in our yard. I love their sweet songs–and their occasional scolding of our calico cat!
handshakes seal a deal, honor friends and family with enthusiasm, and greet new
people with intention.
and I were taught early to greet people with a smile and a steady handshake. I
remember lining up behind my little brothers, taking turns shaking Dad’s hand
until he was satisfied. He would soundly correct us and have us try it again (this
is surprising and demonstrates my father’s belief in the importance of a solid-shake
because he rarely got worked up about anything.)
My dad’s grip was crushing—even when he died at 83. He would grab on to a hand and place his other hand on the person’s shoulder. He would look them in the eyes and greet people with enthusiasm. People anticipated his greeting and spoke to me of it after his funeral. “I looked forward to seeing your dad. I always felt like I was the only person in the room when I saw him.”
much worse than a weak handshake—those people who just touch the last third of
your fingers with their thumb and first finger and release your hand before
you’ve had a chance to commit. These handshakes are so much worse than the
sweaty-shake which leaves you discretely running your right hand down your
skirt or pants when the sweaty-palm-owner turns the other way.
For a good portion of my life I’ve been a hugger, but in the last few years I’ve re-introduced the handshake when I meet someone new. It’s sometimes uncomfortable in our paranoid, germophobic society: hand sanitizing wipes are stationed near the carts at grocery stores and hand sanitizing wall dispensers wait every few feet in hospitals. My girlfriends have fragrant, travel-sized hand sanitizer in purses and my high school students have them clipped to their monstrous backpacks.
that during cold and flu season I am reluctant to extend my hand and offer a
friendly greeting. (I do shake hands firmly, its’ true, but I often follow with
a secret-squirt of hand sanitizer.)
Where would we be without the many wonderful women in our lives who have helped us along the way, who have taught us important lessons, and who have pushed us to be better?
Where would we be without our mothers? My mom, the most influential person in my life, embraces every day and remains positive even in difficult times. She raised the five of us to be kind and to always treat people with dignity. She made everyone feel welcome in our home. We “always had room for one more” at the supper table, on a trip to the cabin, or even around a game board. She definitely has strong opinions and believes in making a difference in our community.
How about daughters and granddaughters? Mine push me to be a better person. They call me out on antiquated attitudes. They help me slow down and savor the moments. They are beautiful and compassionate, and my life is so much better because of them.
And where would we be without our girlfriends? I have been blessed by so many wonderful friendships throughout my life–cousins, schoolmates, adult friendships–each relationship has helped me feel rich and whole.
If you have ever spent much time in Vicksburg, Michigan, you know how frequently trains pass through our little hometown. Going in or out of the village, we must regularly wait at a crossing. A few years ago, my friend Sue Moore heard me complain about it. She suggested that this is something positive–that more trains mean the economy is doing well. Well, I do my best to be patient and remember her optimism–but I’m not always successful.
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; at day’s end, the tired workers would crawl into tightly-made bunks and be rocked to sleep by the gentle swaying of the rail cars.
When I was in elementary school, we occasionally traveled by train to our grandparents’ home on the other side of the state. We watched the Michigan countryside from the windows and ate snacks which magically appeared from my mother’s bottomless tote bag. My amazing mother–our personal Mary Poppins–kept the five of us happily occupied and seated.
With the warmer nights, the sound of the late-night-trains travels to me across Sunset Lake. I am thankful that I am safe in my warm bed and think about those engineers and conductors sounding the whistles as they ride and rumble towards home.