Little Spies Above

                                                  

The adult world held such fascination for me when we were children. Beyond our little rural haven, grown-ups had mysterious activities which involved staying up late, polishing dress shoes, and applying red lipstick. Sometimes, our parents included us (carefully scrubbed and dressed in outfits besides our play clothes) in summer picnics and outdoor events with their friends and their children.   Some we were related to, but most became as close to us as aunts and uncles as they celebrated our family’s joys and shared in our inevitable sorrows.  

Once there, our father and his friends pitched horseshoes, casually sipping from their brown long-neck bottles. Our mother sat with the other ladies, tending food and babies, laughing, and swinging their tanned, crossed legs. We children played on the perimeter of the various hosts’ yards, our mothers’ occasional shouts steering our frantic tag games to avoid the horse-shoe pits.

But usually, our parents left us behind on their Saturday night dates when they attended their “Potluck Club,” secretly known as the “Martini Club.”

This is about the age when our farmhouse spy operations began.

When it was our parents’ turn to host a monthly gathering, we children were tucked in carefully, probably an hour before our usual bedtime.   Once the guests arrived, the sounds and smells of the “Club” rose through the floor grate in our bedroom in the old house. (The three of us slept in separate twin beds in this room—a rustic farmhouse version of John, Michael, and Wendy’s nursery frequented by Peter Pan.) Oh, how hard it was to settle down to sleep with all the noises from the party below: bursts of raucous laughter, crisp card shuffling, and the clinks of ice dropping in highball glasses continually roused us from our attempts at rest.  

This grate was in the middle of the floor near the end of my bed. There were no heat vents in our bedroom, only this metal grid which allowed the warm air from the dining room to rise to the upper level.  Quietly, we slipped from our covers, crawling to the edges of the slatted opening. My brothers slowly pushed the square knob, sliding the thin metal rows, revealing the selections of party food on the buffet directly below. Our mother’s best dishes were neatly stacked, waiting for the cheese and crackers, party wieners, or savory meatballs displayed on various platters.  

I love this picture and my parents’ beautiful youth.

The three of us watched and listened, silently fascinated by the tops of the adult heads in our sight. We whispered together, solving the mystery of the out-of-view, familiar voices, belonging to so many of the important adults in our lives.   We stealthily slid pillows to the floor and rested our heads. Satisfied with our surveillance, we soon fell asleep, lulled by the comfort and knowledge of the adults’ happiness, a beautiful lullaby of the collective, contagious belief in the goodness of life rising from below.

It’s a Fine Life.

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

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.

Thankful Thursday: Practicing What I Preach

Just thinking about the cabin brings me joy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a Fine Life.

Monday Musings: The Gardening Blues

Brunnera and fragrant hyacinths from tonight’s garden. The blue is so vivid that I can see the flowers from the window above my kitchen sink.

I love this plant–Brunnera–which I introduced to my garden probably ten years ago. The foliage is a lovely green (some varieties have a variegated green) and if I water a bit during a dry spell, the green lasts through the summer. Besides the daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips, the Brunnera blossoms are one of the first in the spring garden.

They began blossoming this weekend–somewhat like a forget-me-not, but the blue is even more vivid. The flowers will last for about two weeks and then fade.

Brunnera is a excellent choice for a shade garden.

They naturalize beautifully, and their offspring have moved to other shady areas of my garden. They are not aggressive and make a beautiful ground cover. They are so quiet and polite that I often forget about them until they bloom.

I am not bothered by deer as we live in the middle of a small subdivision, but several horticulture websites indicate they are deer resistant. If you have some shade in your garden, I recommend them.

They can be purchased at most local nurseries and are even available on Amazon.

It’s a Fine Life.

My Hometown

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom. Innocence. Simplicity.

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

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

How can it be that fifty years have passed?

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

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

It’s a Fine Life.

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

Thankful Thursday: The Wisdom of Winnie-the-Pooh

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. 

Dad in one of his favorite places–the cab of a tractor.

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.

Yes, Pooh, I am lucky, so very lucky.

Thankful Thursday.

Monday Musings: Spring is here!

We made it! Spring has arrived!

As I walk the yard this Monday evening, the grass is suddenly greener and a few of my spring bulbs are blossoming.

Hallelujah!

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!

It’s a Fine Life

Grace

My dad was a tree guy.

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.

Two old trees stand vigil along the road. When I was a child, there were three, and my brothers and I played and built forts beneath them. (all photos courtesy of Oswalt Family Farms)

“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.

The Angus are pastured on part of the field my dad cleared. While you see many cottonwood trees here, the year before my dad died, he was working daily to clear the dead and damaged trees from this area.

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.

Here is the old tree, still surviving and enduring the winter, as the Angus move around him.

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.

It’s a Fine Life.