Hometown Rumblings

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.

Here is the little depot where we caught the train to go our grandparents’ house. It has been lovingly cared for and now houses a charming museum. Photo by Leeanne Seaver.

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 and seated.

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.

My heart is full.

It’s a Fine Life

School Picture Legacy

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 concern range)

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?)

First Grade at Fulton Elementary School.

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 my hair.)

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 famous princess?

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, laughing loudly.

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 tricks.”

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.

It’s a Fine Life.

Welcome, Sweet September

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 organized teams.

Squirrels quicken their collecting, hummingbirds tighten their garden tours, and bullfrogs cease their courting calls. 

The new structure at Apple Knockers, the ice cream shop in town.

 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 around.

The steps to the old library entrance where dear Mrs. Green helped my brothers and me find our summer reading books. Photo by Leeanne Seaver

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 travel campers.

Adios to Dixie Cups of Kool-Aid—to roasting hot dogs and tenting under the Michigan stars.

Flowers from our early September garden.

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.

And let’s welcome sweet September.

It’s a Fine Life.

Nana Camp

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.

Nana Camp involved several meals out. Here they are at Red Robin, which offers several gluten-free options.

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.

We love stopping for soft-serve in Borcula, Michigan. They love the caramel sundaes and playing around with the wooden cut-outs. It doesn’t take much to make little ones happy!

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.

The first Nana Camp List they generated.

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.

This list is much more detailed.

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.)

Uncle Drew taught them to play Rack-o. It’s a great game for an eight-year-old, involving taking turns, thinking ahead, and logic.

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.

The lemonade stand.

My Heart is Full.

It’s a Fine Life.

Our Fledgling Summer

Our grandchildren, eight-year-old twins, made these pictures for me: they know so many ways to my heart.

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.

We have enjoyed our backyard so much this summer.

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.

Even Blue Jay fledglings have attitude!

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.

My heart is full.

It’s a Fine Life.

Cabin Time

A view of the river.

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.

Five generations have walked this path to the sandy beach.

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 love this shot of the old kitchen window: the enameled lids, the reflection of the river, the old timbers. I remember my grandmother’s sweet face in that window as she watched me play.

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.

Sunset on the beach is pretty close to heaven.

How lucky I am.

How lucky we are to have another year in this place.

My heart is full.

It’s a Fine Life.

Pedaling to Freedom

My current cruiser, a gift from our children several years ago. (I hate to admit this, but there are cobwebs in the spokes…)

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.

My first grade picture–April of that year I got my bike.

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.)

It’s a Fine Life

Ashes to Ashes

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.

The old barn built by our great-grandparents in the early 1900’s. My parents had the barn refurbished a few years ago.

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.

Such a sweet picture of my dad and his little brother John.

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.

Dog Lessons

Nala lives in Arizona and couldn’t get enough of our cool Michigan grass.

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.

Happy, happy Nala after lots of fetch.

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.

Well, yes, nap when tired is another lesson…

It’s a Fine Life.

Full-Service Lament

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.  

I suspect many of you would be, too.  

It’s a Fine Life