Hope in the Darkness

These windows glow nightly in the village.

Each morning I pass this storefront on my way to work.

The streets of the village are nearly empty. It’s 6:30 A.M. and my thoughts are filled with lists and tasks waiting for me in the day ahead. I am already feeling pressured and pre-occupied instead of simply appreciating these quiet moments.

Then here it is, this lovely gift, radiating a beautiful, warming comfort.

I am thankful for this snippet of joy during this season of darkness. A reminder.

Vaccines are coming. Peace and calm will eventually return.

And our little hometown remains.

My heart is full.

Winter Storms

Our farm, winter of 1969. Dad and Uncle John worked hard to keep machinery working and pathways clear.

As we anticipate the eventual winter storms, I maintain a well-stocked pantry: I learned the importance of preparation from my mother who was raising four of the five of us when the blizzard of 1967 caught many in Michigan by surprise. My parents listened to the radio for most of their news during the 1960s: WKZO radio, AM 590. I can still hear the sports roundup music, Carl Collin’s voice for the noon farm reports, the advertising jingle for Be-Mo potato chips. I’m sure my mom was working in the kitchen and listening to the morning shows when it was announced that area schools were closing: Winds had increased and a blizzard had begun.

Mr. Jager, Fulton Elementary School’s principal, entered my second-grade classroom, announcing we would be going home. We shut our workbooks, pushed them into our desks, and found our boots and snow gear. The sky was dark, the snow coming sideways.

 I rode home with my grandmother, who taught fourth grade in my building. Her white Thunderbird thumped and bumped through the quickly drifting roads; as the wind howled and the snow swirled, I struggled to see the houses and farms on the familiar route towards home. Each time the wind gusts increased, all my landmarks disappeared. I wasn’t frightened, but I also didn’t converse with Grandma whose gloved hands tightly gripped the wheel.

Once safely home, the storm increased its rage. We were snowed in for a week. The wind blew for several days, forming huge drifts which swept upwards to the roof of the old garage, covering our back porch. From the front window we watched Dad work his way through the snow, cross the road, and enter the cattle barn to check the water and feed the animals. At that time, all the feeding was done inside and mostly by hand. The barn was cozy and warm with glossy-eyed steers jostling for position. Many days I accompanied Dad for evening chores, so I knew exactly what he was doing: He would remove his heavy coat, climb the inside silo chute, and shovel the silage to the wooden cart below. He then pushed the cart down the center aisle, filling the troughs as he went. He would repeat this process at least four or five times. I knew he was safe, but I was still relieved when the door closed, and he was back with us again.

An example of the drifts across local roads after a blizzard. During the blizzard of 1969, we were snowed in for a week.

Mom cooked and cooked, filling us with warm soups, casseroles, or scrambled eggs and toast.  She organized and patiently supervised our activities: We played lots of games, worked jigsaw puzzles, rediscovered toys, and read books. And when the winds finally subsided, we ventured out into a transformed world – a white wonderland full of opportunities for tunneling and discovery.

There have been other blizzards since, but none quite as memorable as that storm from my childhood. As long as my friends and family are off the roads, I do love a snowstorm and find comfort in my cupboard’s inventory. And as we watch the weather reports, I look forward to the gift of time to cook, care for my family and rediscover the beauty of a winter storm.

It’s a Fine Life

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Check out my first book, self-published on Amazon. It includes my first 20 columns featured in The South County News.

I have read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter several times since 4th grade. I still find it an amazing story.

A Year of New Experiences

As 2020 comes to a close, I am both relieved and re-invigorated. It has been a year of challenges and new learning.

Teaching virtually involves a new set of skills, skills I didn’t possess until I was forced to acquire them. I will emerge from this school year better in many ways and certainly much more appreciative when we can all safely return to physical classrooms.

I love this photo of the llama and the sheep flock. We used it as the front cover of the December edition of the South County News. Photo: Oswalt Family Farms

When Sue Moore died, I assumed the role of editor/publisher of the South County News. It was (and is) both humbling and inspiring. Humbling, because I didn’t have a clue how to do this: Inspiring because of this amazing team of people who tirelessly support me and our community effort.

And lastly, after much prodding from my mother, I published my first little book. And again, this was definitely a challenge involving a new skill set. My son Drew gave technical encouragement and support and my friend Leeanne Seaver gave some sage advice; and this collection of my first twenty “It’s a Fine Life” columns is now self-published on Amazon! And, the best news of all is that copies arrived in time to surprise my mom for the holidays.

Check it out!

Wishing you and yours health and happiness this holiday season!

It’s a Fine Life

Perfect Gifts

Some people just have a knack for gift giving. These folks understand how to select and beautifully wrap their unique finds. While I am certainly not a perfect gift giver, I have always enjoyed shopping for Christmas presents, which started in my early years in the little family-owned shops on Main Street.

During December, the stores in Vicksburg were open late every Wednesday night, and most of the village restaurants took advantage of the increased traffic and offered late suppers or desserts for the holiday shoppers. There were many downtown retailers during the 1960s and 1970s; most were family owned and staffed by the proprietors and their families. The village featured two pharmacies, two ladies’ dress shops, a department store, two hardware stores, and a satisfying mix of other gift, specialty and variety stores. Retail business was steady and reliable.

Doris-Lee Sweet Shop near the corner of Prairie and Main Streets. Dad loved the chocolate covered peanuts they carried. They welcomed me by name and helped me find something just right for my mother. Photo from the Vicksburg Historical Society collection.

In the December twilight, my mom parked the station wagon on Main Street: two of my brothers and I had an hour to shop before we were to return to the car to check in. Scott and Steve joined forces, and I set out on my own. To buy my gifts, I had saved money, a total of $20, and with that, I purchased presents for my four brothers, my parents, and my two grandmothers. The gifts were obviously nothing extravagant, but they took serious thought and budgeting.

Because we always tagged along with our parents as they frequented the various businesses, I knew each of the storekeepers. There was such a sense of security in that! And while I certainly didn’t spend much that day, they treated this 12-year-old customer with kindness each time I parted with my crumpled bills. I imagine my brothers had a similar experience during their separate expedition.

After returning home, we carefully wrapped our special finds, using miles and miles of tape, then we placed our little parcels in separate piles under the tree and counted the days until Christmas. I was as excited by the gifts I had found, as I was for the gifts I would receive.

This was the first Christmas I shopped on my own for my four little brothers.

While many families participate in gift-giving traditions, this holiday season will be different for most of us; many people are distancing from loved ones, will not be travelling and are facing hardships. And while we know this is temporary, it is still difficult.

Yes, physical gifts are nice, but this current situation has provided me much clarity: truly the most important gift is the time we can spend together. I recall my holiday celebrations throughout the years: the laughter, the tears, the conversations, and yes, even the disagreements. I will miss it all this year.

I am so thankful for my many memories with our friends and family.

Yes, of course there will be special presents under our tree, but never again will I take the perfect gift of togetherness for granted.

It’s a Fine Life.

After Thanksgiving, The Legendary Casserole

Thanksgiving Dinner takes careful planning.

During the sixties and seventies, Thanksgiving meals were carefully planned since groceries and retail stores were closed. In fact, it was difficult to find even a gas station open.

And as today, families gathered to share the holiday meal.

Our tablecloth-covered, china-laden dining room table stretched nearly the length of the room: we added three or four leaves to the massive old table, and a card table perched at the far end. Often, my parents invited older couples without children nearby to join us. And sometimes, when my grandmother was still alive, our Gaylord relatives came, raising everyone’s excitement level.

Thanksgiving Dinner offers many of our family’s favorite foods.

 We feasted, as many families do today, on traditional Thanksgiving foods: turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes with gravy, green bean casserole, and squash. Then the coffee and delicious pies emerged.

After dinner, my grandmother, the queen of frugality, pulled the turkey from the bone as my mother packed the other food, usually stashing the containers on the front porch – a major perk we northerners realize during the cold months. My dad and brothers sprawled in front of the television, mesmerized by the football games, occasionally snoozing in after-meal drowsiness.

It was a busy day, especially for my mother.

But the best part, the event we waited for all year, was not Black Friday outings or the huge Thanksgiving meal, but the incredible leftover casserole my mother served Friday night. Unlike the formality of Thanksgiving dinner, when it was time for Friday’s supper, this massive casserole sat on the stove, covered in foil, with the serving spoon stuffed inside. Pickles, olives, cranberry sauce remained in the jars, forks and jelly spoons submerged. Good dishes washed and shelved, we used paper plates and played games together with whoever was able to come.

There is no official recipe for the day-after casserole. Many families assemble a similar dish. One of my friends said at her house they call it “glop.” That sure doesn’t sound appetizing to me, but trust me, this dish is delicious no matter what it is called. My family talks about it all year, and the kids suggest more than ask, “We are having the casserole, right?” Well, of course!

The ingredients include leftover turkey, dressing, potatoes, and gravy. Add cream of mushroom soup, sour cream, and perhaps a purchased jar of turkey gravy. Layer it all in a big, greased roasting pan, cover it loosely in foil, and bake at 350 until heated through. Sprinkle french fried onions on top and bake for probably 10 minutes more. Add some salt and pepper to taste, and you have my mother’s family-famous leftover casserole.

Caleb and Chloe finishing Thanksgiving Dinner last year.

I am now decades from the Thanksgivings of my childhood. Eventually girlfriends or boyfriends, fiancés, spouses, and the next generation joined the circle. And now, as it should be, each of my dear brothers has developed traditions in his own home. But after my family gathers around the holiday table, and as I pull the turkey meat from the bone, I will remember those wonderful days.

And I will look forward to the generational tradition of another day of togetherness and the legendary casserole.

It’s a Fine Life.

Tricks and Treats and New Traditions

Although our annual Halloween traditions were different, we farm kids enjoyed trick-or-treating as much as our town friends who canvassed village streets until their bags overflowed. Our rural “neighborhood” was wide with houses often a mile apart. After our supper, Mom and Dad drove us to three or four houses where we knew exactly what would happen.

Halloween 1970 Costume Contest winners. My brother Steve is the scarecrow. My friends Jodie Hollenbeck-Charles, Tracy Catolica-Kline, and Leeanne Gillespie-Seaver, the playing cards in the back row, took 1st place.

The first stop: Merritt and Lorraine Harper’s farm. Lorraine, despite her diminutive size, demanded confidence and some type of trick for our treat. Lorraine found cartwheels, somersaults, or singing acceptable. Once she was satisfied with our performances, she and Merritt served us homemade cider (made with apples from their orchards) and donuts. Next stop: Maybelle and Harold Harper’s tidy brick ranch. Dear Maybelle always commented on each costume and documented the visit with a picture and a full-size Hersey bar.  

Besides our class parties filled with costumes, treats, and games, we often attended a hayride. During one memorable gathering, Esther Frisbie, in full witch regalia, cackled her way out of the woods, sat around a fire, and told scary stories. We were mesmerized by her acting ability, as this was so contrary to Esther’s cheerful, loving nature. One year we went into town to a Halloween parade at the Old El. We were so confident our costumes would sweep the costume contest, but we were quickly humbled by the creativity on display.

Our own kids loved the anticipation of Halloween, and it was the one time of the year I finished a sewing project. Once the days cooled, our daughters planned their costumes, prompting a trip to look at patterns, determining if this novice could figure out the project. As with any task, a firm deadline assures completion of the job, and the elementary Halloween parade was the motivating force.

Elizabeth 11 and Andrew 6 are ready to celebrate Halloween.

During these years, Dennis accompanied the kids around our neighborhood while I stayed home, passing out treats. Once the kids returned home, they emptied their bags and the bartering began: M&Ms for Snickers; five Smarties for a Tootsie Pop; Sweet tarts for licorice. They practiced and perfected their sales skills.

Many families celebrate Halloween differently today. The past few years we have had a dozen or so costumed, front porch visitors, down from over a hundred. Trunk-or-Treat events are popular as are the better-lit, bigger-house neighborhoods. Here streetlights guide the way; it’s easier to walk on sidewalks; and the potential exists for more treats.

I do understand it.

But I miss the days when our house filled with family, our home and neighborhood the destination of my rural nieces and nephews. I miss the row of pumpkins, carefully carved by our three children, glowing on the front porch, a welcoming signal to the little ghosts and witches set loose nearby.

It’s a good year to start some new traditions. Perhaps a nice dinner and viewing of “Hocus-Pocus”? Maybe participate in a community activity for our youth? But most likely (COVID permitting) we will document our few little visitors with a polaroid picture, demand a trick, and distribute a full-size Hersey bar.

It’s a Fine Life.

Beautiful Octobers

It’s hard to pick a favorite month, but I do love October. The cool nights, the fresh apples, the first frost. When we were children, October meant Dad was putting in long days harvesting the corn and filling the silos.

I could see the old barn and silo from my bedroom window. Before my dad died, the silo was taken down and the barn was refurbished. Renovating the barn, built by his grandparents, made my dad happy.

Sometimes Mom packed up our suppers, loaded us in the station wagon, and drove us to the field where Dad was working. Often, Dad was on the other side of the field, and we watched eagerly for his wave, signaling he saw us. He carefully guided the corn picker or combine, chopping the straight rows of corn he and Uncle John had planted that spring, working his way towards our end of the field.

An aerial view of our farm in the early 1970s. It is much the same today as my brothers carefully tend the animals and pastures.

Then we would settle on the hood of the car or perch on the rocks along the edge of the field and have dinner together. So happy to see us, he would talk about his day and ask us about our day at school. Dad’s gentle hand rested on the tops of our heads before he climbed back into the combine and we left for home. I remember Mom’s relief, hearing the tractor or combine after dark, announcing his return home on those harvest days. He entered the warmth of home, dirty, tired and ravenous, but always confident in the goodness of life, in what our fertile land could produce, and in the love of his family.

Here, my handsome dad gives our daughter Amanda a tractor ride. (Probably 1988) He just couldn’t imagine a better life than farming. He loved children and sharing farm life with them.

I do love this month, the beauty of these fall days, and all the memories they hold. Anne of Green Gables said it best: “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”

It’s a Fine Life.

Boston Terrier Legacy

Yesterday, my mom stopped for a visit, bearing a special gift: this picture of her dad holding his beloved Boston Terrier, Bubbles. The first thing I notice is how young my grandfather looks. He was eighty when I was born, so I never knew him as a middle-aged man. The second thing I notice is the size of Bubbles and his ears!

Here, my grandfather, Henry W. Axford, poses with Bubbles.

My Axford grandparents enjoyed Bostons–at that time referred to as Boston Bull Terriers. When I was a little girl in the sixties, they had a handsome little black-and-white fellow named Ike, in honor of Dwight D. Eisenhower. When Ike (the dog) died, they found another young male whom they also named Ike. (The older I get, the more I realize the wisdom of this move.)

The Boston love skipped a generation. When my brothers and I were growing up on the farm, we had two great dogs: Cleo and Scuffy, neither of which were Bostons. Cleo was a West Highland Terrier mix and Scuffy was a Cairn Terrier. They were tough farm dogs, faithfully pulling woodchucks from their dens and skillfully limiting the rat population in the barns. Their temperament and build were perfect for farm life, and they lived long, active lives.

When Dennis and I established our own family and we were prepared for a dog, we decided on a Boston. I had such pleasant memories of Ike, and one of Dennis’s neighbors had raised Bostons. We recalled their sweet, friendly demeanor and their sleek, tidy coats.

Here our six-year-old son Andrew holds Snuggles in 1998. She was a cherished member of our family.

After some searching, we found Snuggles. She was a special part of our family for over thirteen years. She was tender-hearted and so wonderful with the children. I still miss her gentle spirit.

After ten years without a Boston-in-the-house, during the isolation of COVID, we decided it was time for another one of these wonderful dogs. Friends located a breeder, and Zippy entered our lives.

Here is Zippy in May. I love those little floppy ears, but in true Boston form, at six months, they now are perfectly erect.

We are happily settled with our little gentleman. He is outgoing, full of mischief, and perfect for our family and stage of life. He helped me survive the loneliness of the virus quarantine, and I am totally smitten with him.

I’m glad I inherited this Boston-love legacy.

It’s a Fine Life.

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There are many Boston Terrier themed masks to choose from. I like so many things about this mask.

How cute are these!

My grandkids (ten-year-olds) love these kits.

School Days

By Kathleen Oswalt-Forsythe

Grandma’s picture. I think she is probably around 13 or 14 years old. She attended a one-room-schoolhouse near their farm in rural Climax, then attended Battle Creek Central High School, graduating at 16 years old.

Nostalgia and I are long-time friends. Growing up the fourth generation on a family farm, I eagerly welcomed this constant companion. Reminders of the previous generations and their hard work were visible daily: the hay barn’s hand-hewn beams, the old horse collar in the shop, the field stone foundations. My great-grandparents planted two pear trees to the west of the farmhouse in 1908. From my bedroom window, I could watch those knobby branches drop their fall fruit, twiggy fingers wiggling in the breeze.

Vicksburg High School graduating class of 1922. My grandfather’s picture is upper left. He and several of his classmates attended rural one-room-schools before attending high school.

The childhood faces of my father, uncle, and their neighbors smile from their annual school picture on the steps of the Harper School – a charming old black-and-white photo in my album. Dad’s one-room-schoolhouse days were part of our growing-up-folklore: the mile walk to school, the tag and softball games at recess; the neighborhood’s contribution to salary and firewood. It all sounded magical to me.

Students pose on the steps of Harper School, sometime in the 1940s. Dad is middle row left and Uncle John is front row, second from left. Dad had fond memories of his time here, but he experienced lots of stress going into town to start school. That transition was hard for him.

When I started kindergarten, I rode to Fulton Elementary School with my grandmother – our 4th grade teacher – in her white Thunderbird. I couldn’t see over the dashboard, so I watched the trees click by or traced the powerlines as we drove the six miles to school. I loved being with her – my striking grandmother in her little tweed suits with the lapel pins, her suntan hose, and her spectator pumps. After parking, she opened the car’s heavy door for me, saying, “Have a good day, dolly.” I assumed everyone’s school experience was as wonderful as mine; the only way it could possibly be better would be going to “country school.”

My kindergarten class at Fulton Elementary School. Such sweet little faces. Larry Shook and I got in trouble the first day because we didn’t leave the teeter-totter for circle time when Mrs. Bowman played the piano. Somehow I missed those directions, but I sure remembered them after that!

Last spring, a frank discussion with my mother-in-law about her one-room-schoolhouse experience revealed a different narrative. She had attended several one-room-schools in rural Illinois before going to high school in a larger town. My mother-in-law is smart, loves numbers, and remembers everything. I’m sure she was a sharp and thorough student, quickly finishing anything her teacher assigned. But when she finished one year and entered a different “country school,” she learned that her teacher had not introduced her to important math concepts, leaving her terribly unprepared for the next year’s expectations. “I was angry. I had lots of work to do to catch up.” Catch up she certainly did, but it was disappointing and stressful for her.

So those really weren’t the “good old days” for many students. Isolation and lack of support in outlying areas created gaps in student learning I hadn’t considered. Today, teachers plan and team at grade level, following curriculum that guarantees students’ exposure to the most important standards. Also, in the 1940s and ‘50s, many students didn’t go beyond the 8th grade. Many students today are eligible for and receive much needed services and supports, also helping more students complete their schooling.

I will always enjoy looking at those charming school photos or seeing the old structures on Sunday drives, but I am also reminded of the historical and continued need for equity and opportunity for all students.

It’s a Fine Life

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My dad and I enjoyed this story. The main character is a teacher in the rural west.

In fourth grade, my grandmother read these books to our class as we rested our heads on our cool desks after recess. I just loved them and imagined being Laura.

If you haven’t read this book, do. It is amazing.

Batchawana Bay Blues

Today, I am missing the cabin, our old family place on beautiful Batchawana Bay on the Canadian Lake Superior Shore.

Batchawana Bay, Ontario. One of my favorite places in the world.

Normally, we would be packing our coolers, stuffing our suitcases, and buying extra mosquito repellent and sunscreen. Last week we would have had the oil changed, car serviced, and the tires checked.

But not this year. The Corona-virus and our nation’s inability to control its spread have closed the Canadian Border to us.

I certainly understand this decision, but oh how I will miss the old place, that lovely bay, and the uninterrupted time together.

A view from our place of the Batchawana River and Bay.

We are off the technology grid. Our phones have no service. The cottage is without wifi or any internet connection.

We relax. We talk, play games, cook, read, nap–there is no set pace and minimal expectations.

And then there is the beauty of this place.

The cool breeze from the big lake.

The crystal clear water.

The night stars on the velvet sky.

But above all there are the memories. The times we spent as children, with our children, and now our grandchildren.

I have the Batchawana Blues.

It’s a Fine Life.