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.)
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.
Tonight, I ready our home for the monthly meeting of the Lake Effect Writers Guild, and tomorrow I will light the candles and welcome my writer friends to my table. I love the preparations: the laying of the tablecloth, the polishing of the glassware, the arranging of each place.
There is something spiritual in this for me–a deliberate focusing on these relationships and an honoring of our friendship through the planning of this time together. I use my special things–table linens, my grandmother’s pressed glass, my parents’ china–and I think about each of my beautiful friends who will sit in the candlelight, enjoying a glass of wine and fellowship.
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.
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.
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
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)
Saying goodbye to my dad was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My mom, brothers, and I surrounded him as he left this life–it was gentle, quiet, and intimate.
We knew that he wasn’t going to get better, and he clearly was ready—tired of the physical pain and struggle he experienced in the last months of his life. He looked at me directly, took my hand, and spoke of this. I honor and respect that. He had lived a great life, maintaining and farming the land he loved. He and my mother had created a strong marriage and family, and he had enjoyed many, many friendships.
I know all these things, yet this passage into a life
without my dad is painful and hard to navigate.
But I am reminded of gratitude with words of wisdom from our dear Winnie the Pooh. “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” How true. I am lucky to have had such an amazing dad, to have been born into a family with such a commitment, and to have had my dad’s unconditional love and guidance for nearly sixty years.
As I walk the yard this Monday evening, the grass is suddenly greener and a few of my spring bulbs are blossoming.
The birds are “twitter-pating” and collecting nesting materials, I hear the spring peepers in the marsh on my way to the grocery, and we will sleep with our windows slightly open tonight.
No, we can’t put away the sweaters and wool socks yet, as by Wednesday they predict a high of forty-five here in Southwest Michigan, but it feels like we survived winter, that we’ve come out the other side of the darkness.
My northern Michigan family and friends are still waiting for a day like this. Know it is coming, dear ones!
He planted them, admired them, and appreciated them for the firewood he cut to heat our farmhouse. In our yard, we always had shady trees, planted by my great-grandparents in the early 1900’s. To the west of the house stood old, knobby pear trees—overgrown and shaggy—whose fruit bounced to the ground with the late summer winds, attracting all kinds of stinging insects. In the front and back yards, we had big maples which we climbed like monkeys, fearlessly scaling the highest branches. We read books in the branches, pretended to take naps, and gave my mother fits when she emerged from the house, realizing how high we had climbed.
“Expand! Expand! Expand!” was the farm lending mantra during the late sixties and early seventies, giving confidence to my parents who purchased an adjoining eighty-acre parcel just to the west of our home place. This acreage was divided neatly by fence-rows into four twenty-acre fields. My dad planned to remove the fence-rows, full of sumac and various determined seedlings, to accommodate the farm implements which were growing vigorously larger and larger with the ag-industry’s push for more production.
Dad bought a small used bulldozer and began his demolition work with enthusiasm. We could hear the bulldozer’s engine and the cracking of the fence-rows’ brush as we rode our bikes back and forth, monitoring his progress. Dreaming of running his corn planter smoothly down long rows the following spring, he uprooted trees, burned huge brush piles, and worked steadily to create a large field.
Once the dust settled, the smoke cleared, and the roaring bulldozer’s engine quieted, one tree stood alone in the middle of the huge, cleared field. I imagine it grew firmly in a fence row when my father and Uncle John were boys. It may have been an anchor for fencing, possibly a mark for a previous neighbor’s gate, or even a visual aid to help set a pattern for corn planting. It most certainly sheltered birds, housed squirrels, and supported the buzzards.
Somehow my dad’s grace allowed this old fellow to co-exist in our farm operation. It stood solidly in the middle of whatever my dad planted: corn, wheat, soybeans, even hay. Why did this one tree survive the bulldozer and chainsaw? I’m guessing my dad just couldn’t bring himself to cut that old gentleman down.
When I was a child, the tree was regal and handsome—his trunk thick and healthy, branches strong and many, and leaves lush and green. He became our favorite “secret spot.” Some breezy summer days, my mom would give us permission to pack our lunch and eat wherever we wanted. The tree wasn’t far—probably a quarter mile up the road on our bikes, then a quick hike through the field to picnic beneath his branches. It was cool in his shade, and around his base my dad had piled many loads of stones we gradually picked from the surrounding field.
I’m now a tree gal—influenced, I’m sure, by my dad’s passion for them: I admire the lone Gingko tree on the empty lot north of the bank, whose history is now forgotten; I am amazed by the massive beech tree on the east side of the Sunset Lake, whose totem pole trunk is carved with bark faces; and I notice the local tulip tree population, whose teacup blossoms grace their cool springtime arms.
And every time I visit my mother, I salute the tree, that tough old veteran, a reminder of my past and my dad’s impractical, sentimental side.
We are vintage gals. Sisters of the heart. Friends who love the hunt for vintage treasures. Several times a year we have an adventure. We hit the resale and antique shops, visit a micro-brewery or two, and enjoy our friendship. On these days, I don’t think there are three happier women anywhere on the planet.
How these adventures began:
Annette and I began our junking tours ten years ago by paying for a day-long bus trip. We paid nearly $200: this fee included a bagged lunch and breakfast, coffee and on-board cocktails, dinner at a nice restaurant, and arranged visits at antique malls and shops. We loved the time together, and we were treated like queens. It was awesome! The following year, we again handed over our $200 and went along for the all-included jaunt. But when the third summer approached, we decided the two of us could manage this without the bus service. And we did–less the cocktail sipping during drive time. And by the fifth year, Krista joined us.
How we plan our day:
I often do the planning and drive. I guess I like doing that (perhaps it’s the bossy big sister in me) and my friends don’t seem to mind. While we enjoy our traveling conversation, road time is not where we want to spend the majority of our day. Southwest Michigan has many wonderful antique malls and shops–so we can create a 2 1/2 to 3 hour loop, and within that route we can visit multiple villages or outlying antique stores. If we take the adventure in the late summer, farm stands (and pies) wait at roadside.
Wonderful micro-breweries and distilleries which serve a delicious meals are also plentiful in our area. No Vintage Sister adventure is complete without brew sampling and sharing delicious foods together.
Also, many small towns feature unique little cafes and restaurants (which feel rather upscale without an upscale price). Their menus feature local produce, meats, breads, desserts, and wines. All three of us are foodies, and we love trying some new flavors and combinations.
What it costs:
Granola bars, nuts, and water. ($5)
Lunch at a brewery ($20-30)
Supper at a brewery or local restaurant ($20-40)
Vintage and Antique Treasures: We might spend whatever is in our budget that day, but we have saved probably $125 from the cost of the bus trips Annette and I began with ten years ago.
But by far, the best deal is the time spent together.
What we look for and find:
We each collect and admire different things, which is part of what makes these times together so much fun. Krista is a true artist and art teacher. She sees color and possibility in items I often overlook. Annette is a master gardener and also very artistic–her tastes run towards rusty metals and unique architectural pieces, which I have never considered before.
I have started collecting, using, and gifting these vintage vanity trays. I first realized their potential at a niece’s wedding where each table was decorated with these lovely old trays, filled with tiny clear vases, small blossoms, and sparking votive holders. The effect was stunning. I can usually find them for $10-15 at resale or antique shops. They are imperfect–dinged and worn–but who isn’t? These imperfections add character.
If you want to try decorating with a tray and don’t have time to vintage shop, there are beautiful new vanity trays available on Amazon.
The research is clear: supportive relationships contribute positively to our longevity and overall sense well-being. We are simply happier when we have “people” and times with our people to put on our calendars. We all need activities to look forward to. This can be created in many ways: service groups, hobby groups, clubs, or sports groups are a few ideas.
Summer is nearly here, and I have a new route in mind for our next adventure. (I do welcome a suggestion from you, dear reader, if you frequent a vintage or antique shop!)
We haven’t yet set the next date, but I will have the tank filled, cooler packed, and a heart full of happiness.
It’s a Fine Life.
A Resource: Clicking the image will take you to Amazon.
Here is a book I’ve read about longevity and happiness. It was quick and easy to read, helping me appreciate the value and importance of relationships. I recommend it.
My gardens have been continually changing since I started them over twenty years ago. What began with five spindly plants from one of those ten-dollar-mail-order offers has morphed into a backyard surrounded by perennial beds and ornamental bushes.
I didn’t follow any grand plan. I just started buying what I liked–sometimes on clearance at big box stores. Sometimes I set aside enough from our monthly budget that I was able to go to our lovely nursery in town to select a new hydrangea or other foundation-building shrub. And sometimes, my dad would leave a surprise plant or bush on our front porch as he was an avid flower and vegetable gardener. So I would say my love of flower gardening and the various projects grew at a slow pace for about fifteen years.
Our garden has grown significantly over the last five years. Our back yard is surrounded by a picket fence, designed and built by my husband. Within the last year, he has moved river rock around the house and is edging the beds with metal. My husband’s involvement in the landscaping and gardening has been a shift for me. By adding his muscle, I have had toadjustto the addition of his opinions. I am used to making most gardening decisions. And while I have been occasionally reluctant, the end result has been very satisfying.
I don’t know how many ton of river rocks my husband has placed around the house. I was skeptical at first, but I now love how tidy everything looks AND we are having fewer problems with mice in the house. Perhaps there is a connection…
After this picture was taken, we trimmed the bushes and repainted the house and fence. We had a wedding in the yard last summer. (that’s a future blog entry…) We are looking forward to this summer when we can just enjoy the yard and gardens.
For the last two summers, this has been Dennis’s special project: a zinnia bed near the road. And again, I wasn’t sure about it. (You would think I’d learn!) Guess what? It is stunning in August.
So, all in all, the change has been worth it: a much improved yard and major projects are completed. And yes, I’m learning to make gardening adjustments!
We no longer go to the old farmhouse for holidays—it is too
much for my mother and has been for several years. I hosted our immediate family
again for Thanksgiving this year, our first major holiday since my dad’s death,
and my tears brined our turkey.
I was doing well: setting the tables, preparing the meal, enjoying
our home filled with our children and grandchildren, but then I stepped on the
cat’s tail, she howled, and I cried.
This grief jumps from around corners and invades the quiet moments of my life. It startles me, catching me without my security system set securely around my heart. Like today—the first delicious snow day of the school year. This gift of eight hours of unscheduled time smiles at me.
The house is mine.
The day is mine.
I sit with my coffee, admiring the beautiful, wet snow smothering
the bird feeders, flocking the pines, blanketing the lawn, and I miss my dad.
I am a magpie when it comes to drink mixology. My friends think I create our special drinks for our monthly gatherings, but the truth is, I am a shameless copy-cat. If Dennis and I go to a restaurant, for instance, I will usually order the seasonal drink special. I often take pictures of the ingredients, and I’m not above asking the bartender about the liquid ratios. (Flattery can get a gal just about anything she wants…) The part I don’t duplicate is the drink name–I always give my “designer drinks” a signature name: the Spring Fling, Summer’s Last Kiss, and the Snow Day are just a few. It has become a tradition and something my friends look forward to.
So when my friend Krista gave me Tim Federle’s Tequila Mockingbird last year as a hostess gift, it was very appropriate. (It is not unusual to receive a hostess gift from my girlfriends–I think we were all raised by mothers who read Miss Manners and Heloise’s Helpful Hints.) I thanked her and set the book aside–probably placing it on my bedside nightstand. I had never seen the book before, and it was several weeks before I began reading it. I have thoroughly enjoyed it and have appreciated revisiting it throughout the year. Not only are there some delightful cocktail recipes (“One Flew over the Cosmo’s Nest” is a tasty riff on the classic Cosmo and an easy place to start), but there are witty and smart plot summaries and character discussion. Federle’s writing is full of puns and playful word choice.
I recommend it! It will bring a smile to your face and encourage you to create something special for your glass! And, of course, it makes a fantastic host or hostess gift for a future gathering.