Seal the Deal

Firm handshakes seal a deal, honor friends and family with enthusiasm, and greet new people with intention.

This is about the age when handshake practice began.

My brothers 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 handsome dad–even though he was sick, he still insisted on a firm handshake.

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.”

There’s not 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.

Brothers are greeted with hugs. Always.

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.

I confess 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.)

It’s a Fine Life

Thankful Thursday: Strong Women

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?

My dear cousin Jennifer, my mom, and I at a family wedding. My mom could teach the Dale Carnegie Course “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Her positivism is contagious.

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.

My daughters and I last August.

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.

Last summer with the Lake Effect Writers Guild,

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.

I am thankful for all these women.

It’s a Fine Life.

Monday Musings: Trains

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.

It’s a Fine Life.

Thankful Thursday: The Gifts of Spring

The magnolias are blossoming, the orioles are feeding, and the goslings are tagging along behind their parents. It appears that Spring is really here to stay.

An ornamental pear is flowering in our front yard.

Spring’s gifts are everywhere.

Hosta plants are reaching upward. This variety’s leaves are opening.

I love how the Brunnera plants naturalize and become a lovely spring ground cover.

A rose breasted gross beak made its appearance before I left for work this morning and tiny bunnies play around the woodpile, diving for cover when our calico cat begins her sneaky approach.

The days are finally longer.

Sweet Springs reminds me of all I have to be thankful for.

It’s a Fine Life.

Monday Musings: The Fall

Friday I tripped and fell like a tree–a five foot ten, slightly overweight, sixty-year-old tree. I broke my pinkie, scraped my knee, and messed up my face. (I look like I spent the weekend in some senior MMA tournament–battered and bruised)

How do these things happen so quickly? I was upright greeting a friend (ironically our favorite local attorney) one minute and was flat and hurt on the sidewalk the next.

I wish I could have a do-over. Wish I could press the rewind button and try it again. Wish I had kept my dang eyes on the sidewalk where I would have noticed the uneven piece of sidewalk before the toe of my shoe found it.

So, I guess the lesson is to pay attention to where I’m going and to appreciate the use of both hands when my left hand is eventually released from its cast.

And despite the inconvenience…

It’s still a fine life.

Exodus

(This piece will appear May’s South County News)

Our backyard several summers ago, before the mole-plague.

We had an invasion of moles. Plague-like. Of Biblical proportions. As my husband walked the yard last spring, he learned they’ve assaulted the whole neighborhood. Now I’m not talking about a few little raised tunnels. Yes, those are annoying and unsightly, but they are nothing compared to what is generated by this current population. These must be massive moles, I’m talking behemoths, who leave behind fresh six-inch mounds that emerge in clusters.

I imagine their intricate underground roadways and their complex, generational community: big grand-daddies smoke pipes in their fitted velour jackets, flexing their sturdy, pink feet in front of their fragrant moss fires; plump grandmothers squint from behind tiny gold-rimmed glasses, pinching their rose blossom noses, and adjust their tiny acorn lanterns; and children live contentedly several tunnels down, thankful for the plentiful earthworms and grubs that fill their pantries. Most certainly, the grandchildren stop on the way home from school for tea and biscuits. Such bliss and contentment exist beneath our carefully tended yard.

And so my husband began his research, his conferencing, his obsession with evicting these silent intruders. We’ve tried some things, including poison worms in the obvious mole-runs. No luck. We have looked at mole traps: some that look like miniature guillotines and several that have a center spear which pierces the unsuspecting intruder traveling home from a productive day of tunneling. While we are very irritated and frustrated by these pesky mammals, I find these methods too barbaric—and then there is a fat, furry body to deal with…

Eventually a co-worker told my husband about the Sonic Spike, claiming “It’s the best.” Then a neighbor gave testimony to this product. And so began a pilgrimage to the home-improvement store last summer.

(These are the spikes we purchased. If you click on the image, you can read about them on Amazon)

According to a twenty-something, gum-snapping clerk, they work. “Yeah, my grandparents tried them at the cottage and they were like gone. For real.” For real? Her smooth pony tail sways as she nods her head in agreement. Her innocence and enthusiasm complete the sale as my husband studies the box.   According to the box bylines, this solar-operated mole detractor emits a sound every minute or so which is so offensive to these determined critters that they actually “pull up stakes” and leave the infested yard.

It must rattle their little mole ears. Make them clench their little mole paws. Make them pack their little suitcases full of grubs and worms they have collected and become little transient moles, seeking refuge from such mole-ear-piercing torture.

What would make me leave my home? My neighborhood where we raised our children? I can’t imagine what would be so annoying or terrifying to make me take my family, pack the old minivan and leave. Permanently. Never-to-return.

Our backyard, currently free of the mole mounds.

It appears that the Sonic Spike is working. It is now mid-April, and their exit seems complete. Led by some Moses Mole, the clan has entered the promised yard of an unsuspecting neighbor.

I pray their exodus is complete.

It’s a Fine Life.

Thankful Thursday: Practicing What I Preach

Just thinking about the cabin brings me joy.

For several years I’ve read about Gratitude Journals, have talked with my students, friends, and family about this, and have practiced this strategy very casually—meaning I never actually write things down.

Here’s what I know: focused writing has the ability to reap many positive benefits. It can improve our sense of well-being, increase our feelings of satisfaction and happiness, even elevate the quality of our life and longevity. Who wouldn’t appreciate these outcomes?

I love to write, love to brainstorm ideas for writing pieces, love to read and revise, so I am not intimidated by a blank page. And I am usually a contented, happy person—I’m that glass-half-full friend who will offer some positive comment (and, unfortunately, an occasional platitude) that didn’t seem annoying (to me at least) until it hangs in the air above someone else’s cloud of sadness or frustration.

But the research on the benefits of this activity is so clear, that I’m committing to gratitude writing  at the end of each day.

I found this book, Three Moments a Day, to help me begin. The book’s setup seems very manageable: a quote appears on the left page, and spaces for three things “that brought me joy” appear on the right. (no need to fill a whole page, just create a list)

Joy, for me, is usually simple things that I pause and notice. Sunshine on my face, coffee with my mom, a child’s laughter. When things aren’t going well in my life or for people that I love, I try to find ways to slow down and to recognize some event or interaction that I can appreciate or be thankful for.

Sometimes it’s hard to find—especially during crisis or some kind of loss—but I have found that if I think about gratitude long enough, something positive—however small—will bubble to the top. Perhaps joy might be a bit strong—but if I substitute , “three things from today that I am thankful for”—I think it will work, even if I am not feeling particularly joyful.

I encourage you to buy a journal, find a spare notebook, or even use an index card to start the experiment with me: discovering (or rediscovering) joy through gratitude.

It’s a Fine Life.

May Day

Daisies appear in our Michigan gardens in later May. Photo by seavercreative.com

When we were in first grade, my friends and I sat cross-legged, watching the sixth graders sing and wrap ribbons around a makeshift pole in the tiny Fulton Elementary School gymnasium. Our patient music teacher, Mrs. Morley, played some brisk, cheerful number on the old upright piano, and the smiling, pony-tailed girls and the embarrassed, blushing boys ducked and wrapped and circled in time to the music as they sang their springtime song. It was the first time I had heard of a Maypole, and we were mesmerized by this May-Day-Drama. It seemed so intricate—the boys circling one way, the girls the other. And how I loved those May Day ribbons, and how I longed to be old enough to join in this dance.

I had no idea this tradition existed: May Day to me was all about flowers and “surprising” my mother and grandmother with little May Day nosegays.

A lovely cottage garden in June.
Photo by seavercreative.com

Flowers can be scarce in Michigan on May 1st. Some years we have heavy snows the first or second week of April. Spring frosts can nip tender flowers, and cold weather can delay even the buds.  Some years it was a challenge to gather enough blooms. My tiny bouquets were mostly wild purple violets, perhaps crab-apple blossoms, sometimes sweet Lily-of-the-Valley, and, of course, brilliant yellow dandelions, which quickly wilted in my little hands.

Perched like a queen on top of the hill, my grandmother lived within sight of my bedroom window.  I loved walking to her house—quail hid in the tall grass at the end of her driveway, a pussy willow bush awaited the pinch of my fingers, and the gravel crunched delightfully under my shoes. Up her driveway was the only place I was allowed to walk alone, and my grandma’s smile—and sometimes a raspberry-filled Archway cookie–waited.

My brothers were never interested in leaving flowers on Grandma’s doorstep, knocking sharply, and running to hide behind a nearby tree. (If it had involved rigging water-balloons above her doorway they would have been all in.) I remember my grandmother’s exclamation (loud enough so that I could hear it around the side of her garage) “What is this!” and my excitement in surprising her.

My bouquets for my grandmother never contained anything this lovely.
Photo by seavercreative.com

I didn’t pass this tradition on to my own children, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps, as a society, we aren’t as comfortable running on property uninvited—even if the homeowner might be a relative or close neighbor. Perhaps, there are more things children are involved in today. Or perhaps, I simply forgot.

But I just might encourage my grandchildren to embrace this forgotten practice. Oh how I love a dandelion bouquet collected by sweet little hands. Don’t you?

It’s a Fine Life.

Thankful Thursday: Conveniences

Today I am thankful for three specific things: working indoor plumbing, helpful neighbors, and my handy-man husband.

Last Sunday, the pump in our basement sprang a leak and began spewing water into the basement. So for twenty-four hours, we were without water in the house: that means no showers, laundry, or functioning toilet. (Working plumbing is something I just take for granted. It’s only when I don’t have it that I realize its convenience and importance.)

My happy handy-man last summer at a family wedding.
Photo by AnthonyLindemanPhotography

I am thankful for neighbors who offered their shower facilities–which we gladly accepted.

I am also thankful for my handy-man husband who stopped the leak before significant damage occurred, diagnosed the problem, and fixed the pump.

Life is normal again.

Thankful Thursday.

My Hometown

Winter on Main Street in my hometown, Vicksburg, Michigan.
All photos by seavercreative.com

It’s a fine life. It’s true.  No, it isn’t exactly Mayberry, but living in Vicksburg, Michigan is mighty fine. We are surrounded by rich farmland, small lakes, and carefully tended hardwoods. We grumble about the winter weather, but we love hunkering down for a snowstorm which closes schools, brings neighbors together, and encourages family dinners.

No, it’s not perfect, but with the blessed arrival of warmer weather, life in our village is close to it.

One of the first blossoms of spring, captured by my dear friend, Leeanne Seaver

Dear Spring is here, and she’s always worth the wait.  She unpacks her unique fragrances, early flowers, and blissfully longer days. She calls to us, inviting us to shed our warm coats and our thick sweaters. We enter her sweet season, squinting and yawning from our winter hibernation. The red-winged blackbirds trill in my yard, and I watch for the bluebirds’ return to the boxes in our neighborhood. Soon my neighbor’s children will chirp happily, riding their bikes, running in their yard, and learning to work it out as all children must do. Twenty-five years ago, those were the cheerful voices of our children. Kickball, soccer, and tag games flattened our grassy yard, while the sandbox and playsets occupied the shady corners.

My four brothers and I grew up on our family farm, with the daily “you kids need to get outside” directive from our mother. Once outside, we played enthusiastically, exploring the fields and woods without much—if any–supervision. We spent our summers finding frogs in the reeds of the ditches, collecting fire flies in the June grass, and building straw forts in the old hay barn. Exhausted by day’s end, we slumped drowsily in old lawn chairs on the screen porch, listening to Ernie Harwell.

Freedom. Innocence. Simplicity.

It’s hard to explain my emotions when I see our empty elementary school.

We attended Fulton Elementary School, which still stands, abandoned and neglected. The same swing sets and concrete tiles stand vigil, alone and aging in the wild grass. I imagine the echoes of my friends’ laughter in the old hallways, the swish of the jump rope at recess, and the savory smell of Mrs. Harrison’s school lunch as it seeped under classroom doorways. Here I made my first friends, learned the playground rules, and raced through the math workbooks to re-enter the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder or Anna Sewell’s National Velvet.

How can it be that fifty years have passed?

Each changing season reminds me of this fast-forward of time and nudges me to slow my pace, to put away my technology, and to reconnect with the people I care about. I am determined to take a break this spring and to be thankful for simple things–the crocus’s stretch towards the sun, the warming of the sweet earth, the swans’ parades on Sunset Lake.

And to appreciate the most important things: family, friends, and our little hometown.

It’s a Fine Life.

(This column first appeared in the April edition of the South County News. You can follow them at southcountynews.org)