Valentine’s Day Treasures

Grocery shopping, I pass the display of pink, red, and white construction paper and doilies, and I am reminded of my time at Fulton Elementary School and our Valentine’s Day celebrations during my early years.

Those little plaid dresses and jumpers were nearly a little girl’s 3rd grade uniform. The little boys wore plaid button-down shirts and jeans.

In kindergarten and first grade we made these open envelopes out of big pieces of construction paper. We glued the sides with globs of Elmer’s glue, and with our little blunt-nosed scissors we learned to cut out various-shaped hearts which we used to decorate our mail slots. We wrote our names in thick letters with chunky red Crayola crayons, and taped our envelopes carefully to the sides of our desks. During the Valentine’s Day party, we played mail carrier, delivering our carefully signed cards, merrily depositing our missives in each classmate’s pouch. During second and third grades, we advanced to cheerfully decorated cereal boxes. In fourth grade, we had finally arrived: construction-paper-covered shoe boxes!

The Valentine’s Day preparations took several evenings seriously concentrating at our kitchen table, studying the mimeographed class list and my little box of cards. I made special selections for my closest friends, Donna, Darlene, and Dawn, and even more studied decisions for the boys. NOTHING could say “I Love You” or even “Would You Be My Valentine?”  No way. I wanted no misunderstandings. It took intense scrutiny for Jimmy who regularly passed me the timeless “Do you love me? ____yes or ___no?” to which I always responded with my own addition: “I like you as a friend.” I examined the cards and class list again and again until I was satisfied.

The same 25 schoolmates traveled with me from kindergarten through all our primary grades. The same 25 children in little plaid dresses or little plaid shirts and jeans excitedly passed out our carefully addressed cards. Then we sat and opened the tiny envelopes, smiling at each other, occasionally blushing by something extra sweet.

We played our usual games: bingo, hangman, and seven-up. One year we even had a piñata. Usually, our teacher gave us a little box of conversation hearts, and we spent time sorting and eating those chalky treats. The ever-prepared “room mothers” supplied us with lots of sugar: chocolate cupcakes with white frosting dotted with red hots, red Kool-Aid punch, popcorn balls. I bet our poor teachers had to “put their feet up” when they got home.

I love to collect vintage valentines.

I kept those sweet Valentines I had received close to me for many years. When I was sick or even cleaning my room, I often sat and looked through my little box of cards.  Today, when my girlfriends and I vintage shop, I look for and often purchase a few little Valentines signed so carefully in thick pencil by a child fifty years ago; I remember and appreciate the anticipation and effort it involved.

And I wonder if there is still a faded, covered shoe box of Valentines from those dear ones of my past hidden in the closet of my childhood bedroom? When I take my mother’s Valentine to her this year, I will check. I sure hope those treasures are still there.

It’s a Fine Life.

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I enjoy reading Wendel Berry’s novels. This is a beautiful story of love and loss.

If you are looking for a book series and haven’t read Jan Karon’s Mitford series, give the first one a try. Set in a small town, the books are tender and uplifting. My mom reads the whole series over and over.

A bound collection of my first twenty columns in The South County News.

The Winter’s Night, A Cocktail for the Season

This cocktail is a perfect blend of warmth and sweetness for the bitter cold. photo: Elizabeth Palat

As the snow falls, enjoy this delicious cocktail. Easy to make, it is the perfect winter drink to enjoy on a cold night. Shake and pour into a martini glass or serve over ice. It is sweet and warming either way. I keep the ingredients on hand all year long.

2 oz Bailey’s

2 oz Butterscotch Schnapps

1 T Half and Half

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This book was a gift from my friend, Krista. It is witty and full of delicious cocktail recipes.

I love using vintage glassware. These are not vintage, but they are beautiful.

Life Lessons

I am a lover of language. Read continually. Write often. I’ve had many excellent teachers—both formal and informal– through the years, who have helped improve my skills.

Mrs. Harmon is 3rd from the left. My grandma is second from the right. We received a solid education at Fulton Elementary School, and this gals were strict disciplinarians.

I learned to love books at Fulton Elementary. Mrs. Bragg sweetly greeted us when we entered the tiny library, the size of a modern walk-in closet. We started with those high-interest biographies: presidents, explorers, Native American leaders and famous cowboys. My grandmother, our 4th grade teacher, read aloud The Little House on the Prairie after recess. We listened quietly at our desks, resting our heads on our sweaty arms, and imagined being Laura’s schoolmates. We were all “county kids,” familiar with the damp of the woodlands, the sway of tall grasses, and the sounds of different animals and insects at night Laura so richly described.  

In middle school, real academics began. We studied grammar and learned to dissect sentences. I loved sharpening my pencil and diagramming sentence after sentence in Mrs. LaFrance’s classroom. We read stories and discussed them as a class, further cementing my fondness for literature.

My initiation into unsavory language started in second grade, after Mrs. Harmon sharply commanded, “Jimmy! You come up here! I’m going to paddle you!”

Horrified by Jimmy’s situation, I looked up at Mrs. Harmon, looked back at Jimmy who was slowly getting up from his desk, and looked over to my friend Donna. I whispered, “What did he do?”

Donna shrugged her shoulders and said, “Oh, he swore.”

“What’s swearing?” I asked, completed stumped. Donna shook her head and went back to solving her math problems.

My mom clarified things for me when I got home. My parents were strict about how we spoke to one another and our word choices. Our home was peaceful, and the harshest words spoken during my early years were things like “fiddlesticks!” or “shoot!”

During the hot summer before fifth grade, my dad had farrowing coops (individual shelters for sows and their piglets) in a field around the house. We soon had an infestation of rats under the little houses, and we spent several Saturdays helping Dad move the coops and eliminate the rats. But the most memorable event of that summer involved trying to catch a sow who had escaped. My brothers and I did the best we could, trying to help Dad get her back in her pen, but each time Dad circled that old sow back around, and we tried to direct her to her waiting pen, she wouldn’t have it. She squealed and pushed by us. Dad, who never uttered a profanity, completely lost his fatherly composure, and chased that pig around and around, yelling those forbidden words (and a few I had never heard before).

This is about the era of the farrowing-coops-summer.

But Mrs. Noble in 7th grade PE class delivered the best language lesson of all. We girls were in the middle of a heated dodge-ball game. Balls were slamming, girls were ducking, and the worst-of-words were flying. The sound of Mrs. Noble’s whistle rose above the noise. She motioned us over, and we circled around her. She stood, statuesque and strong, and we waited, sweaty and out-of-breath, for her sentencing.

“Girls, Girls, Girls!” she said. “You must use those words sparingly. Save them for when you really need them!”

Her advice stuck and has served me well in my professional relationships. But it is in my personal life where its practice is most helpful. Like using strong spices, if I sprinkle those words only when necessary, my message is heightened, highly efficient and effective.

 Thanks, Mrs. Noble.

It’s a Fine Life

Several years ago, Dennis and I saw Mrs. Noble, who is now in her nineties and still active. I reminded her of her lesson. She just smiled.

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A collection of my first twenty columns from the South County News is now available on Amazon.

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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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.