The Birthday Blessing

November is the birth month of  both my mother and my father, who is now deceased. Last week the family was missing him and reminiscing about the birthday rituals in our past… The story of the birthday blessing needed to be refreshed, and here it is. 

 

It was 1961. Sunday mornings were undoubtedly stressful for the mom – how could they not be with four little boys to dress. It would be comparable to the circus act where the man balancing spinning plates on the tops of poles, would have to keep rushing back to give the first plate another spin before he got the last plate up and balanced. A completely dressed child would spill something on his shirt, an uncomfortable shoe would be kicked off and forgotten, a squabble would break out and hair would be mussed up, someone would discover a missing button, or perhaps escape outside and find some dirt. Fortunately the oldest, a girl, had learned to dress herself pretty well and even helped with the boys on occasion. It was somewhat safer when all were in the car, but even then… who would get to sit in the front seat on the way to church?

The small white church on the corner lot was where the family had worshiped for the last two generations. Mom and Dad had met there when they were teens. For decades life had revolved around the weddings, funerals, potlucks in the church basement and “youth group” activities. The wide “foyer” (such a funny word) was up a flight of cement steps and through double doors. The bathrooms and classrooms and kitchen were down the stairs to the left. Coats were hung on rods on the long wall which was bisected by another set of double doors with glass panes. These doors were often shut to guard the sacred quiet of prayer or teaching, but were wide open if service had not yet started.

Inside the sanctuary were two sections of wooden pews (another funny word for long benches with arms at the ends). A wide center aisle and narrower side aisles led up to the front of the church where the organ was on the far left next to another door going to the basement, and the piano on the far right. The raised stage was small, only having room for a podium for the speaker, and a short half wall behind which the choir sat. A door on the right side of the stage opened to a small room, where the pastor supposedly constructed his sermons, but most of the children knew it as the place where they waited nervously for their part to come in the Christmas program.

Most Sundays the children would enter, walk up to one of the first pews on the right and slide into place on the smooth wood. They would sit, not still, but sit, as the Sunday school superintendent (often their grandfather) would open the service with a welcome and some songs from the small chorus book. Their mother was often playing piano or organ. Their friends were usually sitting close by so the whispering and giggling would start. Big sister often got to sit with her best friend, but the boys needed to be monitored a little more closely.

Reading scripture was always a part of the opening. Better yet were the times when the “super” would give the Bible reference and have everyone compete to see who could find it first and get to read the scripture out loud. Announcements were given, an offering was taken (often by their father who was an usher), and then, “Who has had a birthday this week?” The honored ones were invited up to the front where a birthday offering was put in the little wooden church bank – coins to equal the age.  A jar full of new pencils would be brought out, if the birthday child was old enough to choose one for themselves. Then the congregation would be led in the birthday blessing.

“Many happy returns, on this, the day of thy birth

May blessing and sunshine be given,

And may the dear Father prepare you on earth,

For a beautiful birthday in heaven.”

It was memorized. There were no bulletins, no screens with words, no theater lighting or electric instruments. There were only families together with their God, doing Sunday school and church, worshiping, fellow-shipping, having birthdays and feeling blessed. And for those younger people, the words were said with little idea how meaningful they would become as time progressed.

 

#AtoZChallenge: My Favorite Things R

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The Namekagon, although in a different season than my story.

Rivers

I’m not sure where rivers come from, someplace hidden, but I know that if it were not for them, there would be no lakes and maybe even no oceans.  I hold them to be a little less scary, most of them having at least two shores visible, sometimes more if there is an island in the middle. They seem to be self-cleaning if left alone. Sometimes they become shallow enough that the bottom can be seen and there is no fearsome, endless descent as in the sea. Another wonderful thing about them is their motion, always on their way to something and wanting to take you along, which is mostly a good thing. Sometimes not.

We were visiting our hometown for a family reunion and one of our bonding activities was a river trip. The Namekagon runs past our town in its own valley, one of the nation’s Wild River Refuges, and we have often gone down sections of it in boats, canoes, kayaks and inner tubes. This time I was in a short, one person kayak, which because of its lack of length and directionality, was more like a teacup floating along on the current.

I don’t remember how I got close enough to the willows on the bank to get caught in them, but it was a place where the current quickened and was strong as it bent around a corner. Leaning a bit to avoid getting hit in the face, I lowered the edge of the teacup enough on the upriver side to allow the flow into the boat – the death knell of staying upright on the water.  We, the teacup and I, flipped.

There are only split seconds in which to discover whether you will stand or swim, hang onto the boat or onto the paddle. It is exciting, so much so that you may not even notice injuries incurred on the rocky river bottom. I stood, a little more than waist high, in the cold, swift and amazingly strong stream, choosing to hold onto my boat. Like a sail catching the wind, the kayak caught the water and only the overhanging branches kept us from going quickly downstream. It took an adrenalin rush for me to wrestle the boat upright and walk it to more shallow water where I could empty it.

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Whoa, turn around. I think Mom’s in trouble …
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Oh never mind, she’s wet but she’s alive.

By this time, others were aware of my predicament and were watching for my paddle to float past. We regrouped and continued our trip.

I remember this incident because it is the only time I have capsized (unless there is another that I have truly forgotten). I remember it because of the large bruise, scrape and painful lump on my shin that took a couple months to heal. I remember it because of the miracle of going back and finding my camera, catching the sun and glinting among the rocks on the bottom. I dried it out and it still worked, sort of. I remember it because of all the gorgeous pictures on the digital card that I still have and enjoy.

The river meant no harm. We just had an experience together.

When has nature given you an adrenalin rush experience?

Legacy: A Horse Called Ghost

Love, whether or animals or people, involves risk.  Let me amend that, love involves the certainty of pain and eventual loss, always. Because we know that, every moment that we spend with each other or with a “quasi-human” pet should be filled with awareness and appreciation of life. Over a lifespan, the love we enjoy far outweighs the pain of separation. It leaves us enriched, more experienced, and better able to process what we know will come.

For some reason many of us as children were fascinated by the idea of sitting on a horse. Our mothers set us up on the horse of our choice on the carousel.  Maybe we got to ride a real pony around in a circle at the fair. We read Black Beauty, and watched My Friend Flicka. I did all these things. So did my children.

For many of us the fascination wears off. We discover that real horses are bigger than we thought, and stronger than we knew, and less inclined to be caught and gently led, let alone ridden.  But for some, like my daughter Julia, the dream goes on, and if horse ownership is denied for lack of money, time or any other practical reason, the dream builds pressure until it explodes.  And so, a horse entered the life of our family and had effects that are still in operation today.

Julia, her sister Esther, and I had ridden and worked at a small stable in northern Wisconsin for several summers when the owner brought in a new string of horses she had bought in Minnesota. They had to be ridden a lot and carefully gauged for their trustworthiness before any of the “dudes” were put on them. The owner, Miss Lolly, had one that was her favorite – a nearly white quarter horse mare she called Ghost.  She rode her most of the time but occasionally one of her better outriders were asked if they wanted to try her. That was the summer Julia fell in love with Ghost.  The next year she bought her, one payment at a time, with her own money.

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Julie and Ghost in their first parade, Hayward, Wisconsin.

Logistically, it was crazy. We had moved to Florida and had no place for a horse. So Ghost lived in Wisconsin on Lolly’s farm and she and Julia continued to work together in the summer. But the time came when school and work made the summer trips up north shorter and Julia missed her horse. It was time for Ghost to come to Florida.

We knew little to nothing about trailering a horse over that distance. Our borrowed one-horse trailer was hitched behind a mini-van, of all things, and I have pictures of our travel arrangement that make me wonder how we ever made it. The roughly 30 hour trip had one overnight, as I recall, and lots of stops where we would check on Ghost’s water and hay.  Only once did we actually take her out of the trailer briefly and let her walk around at a country exit off the interstate. I think we were worried we wouldn’t be able to get her back in.

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Ghost with the new filly Fea.

She made it to Florida and to Springrock Farm where she spent a number of years with J.C. Barnhill watching over her.  Julie’s regular trips to care for Ghost benefited the horse but also furthered Julie’s interest as she learned how to trim hooves, care for horse teeth, and feed and exercise horses.  One of the biggest surprises was when it was discovered that Ghost had come to Florida in foal.  Rocker, a pretty paint colt was added to the family.  Several years later Ghost was bred to Barnhill’s thoroughbred stallion, Officer, and had a filly.  Julie named her Fea, and although she came out brown, she soon was the spitting image of her mom.  The family was a herd of three.

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Left to right: Fea, Rocker and Mama Ghost in festive dress.

The family spent time at several other properties as the years unfolded, always necessitating Julie to travel daily to watch over, feed and ride. They were her charges, her dependents. Her knowledge and interest in veterinary care of large animals increased and ultimately led her to enter the DVM program at UF, Gainesville.  Ghost and the family moved to a small farm there for four years.  The next move was to Jacksonville, FL where Dr. Julia began her job with Jacksonville Equine.  At the small boarding pasture where her herd now lived, Dr. J. had to deal with Ghost’s problems of advancing age, especially weight loss and inability to compete with other horses for feed.  The last few months were a triumph for Ghost and Dr. J. as Ghost was healthy, energetic and looking well nourished.  Only a few weeks ago Dr. J. and some friends took her on a trail ride with Rocker and Fea and all did well.

We’ve all heard of the benefits of having pets. There Is even more to a long term, committed relationship to the care and welfare of an animal. It is much like parenting, in that patience is learned, along with so many other skills. Love is practiced through good times and bad. Faithfulness has its demands for both owner and animal. Those demands, decisions and courses of action can be stressful and sudden.

A week ago Ghost had a medical emergency, colic, another name for equine bowel obstruction. It could not be resolved with initial treatment and Dr. J. took her quickly to the UF vet hospital for diagnosis and ultimately, surgery. Given every chance, Ghost was still unable to survive. She has been laid to rest in a quiet corner of her pasture and will not be forgotten.

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Ghost, may you be in pastures where the grass is always green and fresh…

A Striking Story

There are many things I don’t care pretend to understand, one of them being how messages travel through the air to our various devices. One of my irrational fears is that the air around us will one day be as crowded with planes, drones, internet chatter and streaming movies as our highways have become crowded with cars and trucks. The changes in my lifetime are highlighted by this story that my mom told me this week.

It started with a discussion about the holes that the husband is always cutting in our doors and walls to balance the air flows in the house.  Mom remembered a door in the farmhouse I grew up in.  She had to stuff paper, cloth, whatever she could find, in the cracks around it to keep the breeze out.  Dad eventually paneled over the door which was the best solution to the problem.  The door was in the corner of our living room and that corner was where our first TV sat.  It rested on a square table, designed for it, with a cut out to keep the bottom of the TV from overheating.

As mom recalls, we were among the first in our rural neighborhood to even have a TV.  We would not have had it except for Uncle Bob and Aunt Irene from the “big city”.  Uncle Bob was an artist working for Western Printing illustrating children’s books.  They were not rich but it seemed so to us.  They took real vacations and brought their speedboat up to the lake near our farm where we all learned to water ski.  Uncle Bob liked new cars and traded up frequently.  They had a dog of recognizable breed and a house in the suburbs.

They were also generous and passed things along to our family (Dad was Aunt Irene’s little brother). In the early 1950’s one of the hand me downs was a used TV.  They got a new model and in those days no one would have thought they needed two so they brought us the old one.  It was such a miracle, that pictures could come from hundreds of miles away into our living room. We gave no thought to them looking like they had been filmed outdoors on a snowy day.  To make out anything at all on the screen was fascinating to us.

We did have one neighboring farmer who had television and he showed my Dad how to get a better signal from the one broadcasting network 240 miles away in Minneapolis.  As I pictured it from Mom’s description, it was a uni-directional array of poles and wires in the field behind our house, designed to “suck in” Ed Sullivan and Lawrence Welk from the sky. Other factors frequently interfered and kept picture quality down but that didn’t keep our family from hosting others to come and experience the wonders of television.

My hands on memories of TV watching came later.  A new station originating only 90 miles away in Duluth gave us options, but that also meant upgrading our so called “antenna” in the field.  We graduated to a tall pole mounted on the side of the house with a grid of rods that could be rotated in any direction.  One of us kids would station ourselves to watch the TV while another would go outside and turn the antenna and a third would relay messages back and forth.

“Stop!”

“No, go back, it was better before!”

“Are you still turning?”

“We’re getting nothing now, turn some more!”

“Wait, I saw something!”

The flat, plastic coated, double wire, had to be stripped and the exposed copper threads were twisted around two screws in the back of the tv.  That, the on/off switch and a dial with no more than 10 positions for channels, was as complicated as it got.

As exciting as it was to watch shows like “Sky King”, “Roy Rogers”, “Rin Tin Tin” and “Robin Hood”, our real excitement came one day out of a clear blue sky.  Our antenna towered above our house which sat in a clearing surrounded by forest and fields.  I suppose because it bore a remarkable resemblance to a lightning rod, nature mistook it for one and sent a bolt of lightning its way.  Electrical conduction being what it is the lightning zoomed down the wires and into the house, where it burned a hole in the bottom of our TV and scared us half to death.  We could have been electrocuted.

But it was the start of the television era for us and we were hooked.  Oddly enough, I don’t remember the lightning strike making a bit of difference in our TV watching habits. After the TV was repaired, we just sat a little further away.

Learning through the 2015 A to Z Challenge

There are two aspects to what I’ve learned. The first is about the value of a writing challenge. Without the challenge I probably wouldn’t have learned that I can write six times a week for four weeks on my blog without dying, not even close. It’s this kind of discipline that I will have to ascribe to if I ever want to write, oh, a book perhaps… You don’t know until you try, and now I know I can do this and probably more.

The second thing of note came through the theme I chose, that of recording family stories. Memory alone can not be relied upon to preserve a record of meaningful events. Some things have to be written down in a record or they will be forgotten or remembered wrongly/imperfectly. Reflecting on things as they happen also helps cement events and lessons learned in one’s mind. That’s why this reflection I’m doing now on the challenge is helping me. I’m giving what I’ve learned some structure and planning how to use it in the future.

And speaking of the future, one realization that makes me sad is that I do not remember ever sitting down and having a one on one conversation with any of my four brothers when we were young. I find that really strange, since we enjoy talking with each other now. We lived our lives watching each other but I can’t recall the challenges they went through growing up, nor do I think I shared my ups and downs with them. We were only two years apart from each other. Was that difference so much that we couldn’t identify, or was I just too busy and wrapped up in myself to notice them. Now I am eager to record some of our conversations, the subjects of them and what we thought. I’m sure this will prove interesting in the future as our thinking evolves and we ourselves change and grow (old).

And of course it goes without saying that I respect and am thankful for the community of writers that I’ve met, whether seasoned in the craft or new to it. What we do together and for each other is important. Thank you all.

To all of you who moderated, administered the rules and checked up on us – you did such a good job!  It really helped to know that you were watching and reading, as well as doing your own writing.  You rock!

A to Z Family Stories: Z for Zed, Zeph and Zech

They are all biblical characters. Zedekiah was a king of the country of Judah and the other two, Zephania and Zechariah,were prophets delivering messages from God to his people – they have books of the Bible named after them. My brothers and I knew who these guys were so when the minister told us to look up Zedekiah 5:14 we did not panic trying to find it. It was a trick.

Soon after she found herself with a small tribe of children to read to, my mother found a children’s version of the Bible and read it to us every night at bedtime. I say it was a child’s version but I call it that only because it was more story centered and spoke our language. I don’t remember any parts that required scholarly understanding. It was a thick book, with an occasional illustration. It was opened only after we all had our jammies on and were ready to be tucked in, sitting on our beds. She would sit in her chair and open the book to the bookmarked page. We were transfixed. She would always stop right at the good part before something was going to happen.

Unlike many simplified versions for children, this Bible did not leave out anything. The good, bad and ugly were all there. The stories portrayed God’s nature, but more vividly they portrayed the nature of people who were always trying to “one up” God. There was drama, mystery, romance, and beauty. When we finished the last page, we would start over again on page one and we didn’t mind. I don’t remember when the cover fell off, but it did. When I learned to read I was sometimes allowed to read to us all at night – but more often than not, it meant I could read by myself and not have to wait to find out how the story ended. And read it I did. It gave me an overview of people and events that is still the bedrock of my biblical knowledge today.

The book was still around when I started my own family and the tradition continued. By this time it was looking pretty ragged and I began to hunt for a new one, but could not find the exact edition. We taped it together and kept reading. I looked for it today and am pretty sure I do not have it. I think it might have gone with one of my daughters when they moved out. But I will not forget it because it was a joy and a blessing to our whole family and a very valuable part of my childhood.

The challenge is over! I have the start of a book for my family, and ideas for more stories that didn’t fit in with the alphabet theme.  How valuable is that!!  What value did you find in the A to Z this year?

A to Z Family Stories: Y for Youth Camp

A lot of our social life as kids revolved around our neighborhood and our church. Every summer, soon after school was out, we headed to church camp for a week. We saved our own money to pay our way, and hopefully some extra to spend at the snack bar. We planned our wardrobes, we bought a new swimsuit and towel, we studied the list of things to take, we anticipated who else would be there. It was a big deal for us and one of the highlights of the summer.

Camp was not the same as it is today. We rarely paid more than $30 for a week of food and lodging. There was no technology involved, no speed boats pulling skiers, no backpacking into the wilderness. We spent time with our counselors and teachers, we did simple team sports, swam and played in the water, had campfires, memorized Bible verses, and learned to work together.

We were usually housed in cabins with rows of bunk beds. The military atmosphere was accentuated with inspections every morning while we were in chapel. The white glove test was used to see if we had dusted, there were demerits for any little piece of trash under a bed, clothing had to be in the proper place – the results were announced and the first place token was given to one cabin each day.

When bells were sounded for meals, there was always a scramble to see which team could get all their members lined up first at the mess hall. The winning team got to enter first. We sat at long tables together with our team and were also judged on our manners. There were choruses of “get your elbows off the table, Uncle Don” sung by campers whenever we caught one of our counselors or pastors. At the end of the meal we passed our plates and tableware to one end of the table where dish washing took place – and we washed the dishes. The team with the best attitude and behavior would find the award on their table at the next meal. I don’t remember much about the food, but none of us starved. We were always hungry.

After classes and lunch there would always be a “down time” when we would have to stay in our cabins and rest. We could study for our classes, read our Bibles, or if we were really ambitious we could memorize scripture from a list that we were given. When we were ready, we would recite the verse to our counselor and be given credit, and of course there were prizes for that too. As the hour for resting was nearly up we would start getting ready for the active games and swimming which would take most of the afternoon. The afternoon was also the time for the snack bar to open. In those days there were not drink machines and fast food places at every corner. Most of us didn’t get to have a Coke or other soft drink very often so it was a treat to spend our money on something to drink and a candy bar.

I think the pastors and adults who volunteered for camp duty really enjoyed working with us. The younger ones played ball and swam, the older ones had conversations and taught classes. They joked and played games with us. We had our favorites that we played pranks on and teased. Underwear was seen flying from the flag pole on occasion.

The more serious part of the day was our evening service. We always wore our favorite dresses and tried to look our best. I remember how fun it was to trade outfits with friends and wear something different. We sang songs that were contemporary then but seem almost classic now. There were no screens, there weren’t even songbooks. We learned songs either by repeating them or from a huge poster book that would be held up high in the front of the room. The first time I ever heard the song “How Great Thou Art” was at youth camp and I can almost see the illustrations that were in that book. One page had the stars and planets with the words “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds thy hands have made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder. Thy power throughout the universe displayed.” Our imaginations were stirred by the messages given by the pastors, the skits performed by our counselors, and the invitations to know God better. Young people can make decisions that set the course for the rest of their lives. Many of those decisions were made at camp and they were good ones.

There have been many books written by recent generations of church going youth that talk of their alienation from faith, how they became burned out when life didn’t live up to their expectations, how God seemed distant and hypocrisy was everywhere. I do understand how that can happen, but I don’t have a story like that. I wasn’t taught to have unrealistic expectations of Christian life. I knew there would be easy times and hard times and that I would have to grow by experiencing failure and trying again, and that God would be there to help me in one form or another. Love was there, and I felt it. I am thankful.

Did you attend any kind of summer camp as a child? Did it influence you in any direction?

A to Z Family Stories: X as in Excel

Whenever we get to know someone well we usually notice something about them that they do in an excellent way – an area in which they excel. These traits or skills come out in the stories we tell, but this post is a way for me to focus on them, and flesh out some of the characters in our family memories. Someday a new generation will want to know where they got their love of music, or why they long to start their own business, why they are so good at playing Scrabble or knitting. Whether these things are passed along through genes or through good teaching, they link us to the past and they give us something to pour into the future.

I have many pictures like this.  If he sat still, he couldn't stay awake. Hard worker.
I have many pictures like this. If he sat still, he couldn’t stay awake. Hard worker.

My immediate family consists of my parents and four brothers. I will start with my dad, and there is no wondering what he contributed. Dad was and still is, king of the work ethic. I never saw him sitting around with no purpose. In fact he worked so hard and continuously that on the occasions he did sit down he usually fell asleep from exhaustion. Even in play, Dad was active and engaged. He modeled that so well that all of us children value honest, hard work and feel obliged to be producers, not just consumers. And hard work does pay off. Thank you Dad.

Mom worked hard as well, but somehow in the midst of all that was required in raising a family of five, she found time to read. She finished high school by correspondence course, and went on to follow her interests in history, theology, psychology and literature. She still reads more than I do and loves to hear what others are reading. Books and the ideas in them are interesting to her and she has worked hard to pass that along. One of her most memorable challenges to her children and grandchildren was to pay $25 to anyone who finished reading “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People” by Stephen Covey. We are very responsive to bribes and I think nearly everyone read the book.

I was the eldest child and it was probably the perfectionist bent common to the firstborn that made me very competitive academically. I was good at tests and ended up being valedictorian of my class. I loved music and my exposure to church music and piano lessons gave me a medium level of skill in those areas. I was a fair actress and loved being in plays. I was handy at home and can remember being the babysitter when my parents went out. I rushed to get the dishes all washed, the kitchen cleaned up and finished by washing the floor with the dishwater! I read a lot and it was “Cherry Ames, Student Nurse” that made me think that was what I wanted to be.

My brother Ron, the oldest of the boys, was a big thinker and ardent optimist. One of his early goals, which he was sure he could accomplish, was to ride his bike down our hill with five ice cream cones in each hand. Not a very useful goal, but bursting with self-confidence. He was mechanically inclined at an early age, and also loved wood shop in high school. One of his projects was to make a copy of a spinning wheel for my Mom which was beautiful, and probably would have worked if anyone had known how to spin. He has always loved to engage people in conversation. I was always envious of how all the old ladies in the neighborhood thought he was such a charming kid.

Robert was next and he was/is the performer of the family. His ability to let loose, and become a character without inhibition always surprised my Mom. It led to him being emcee of public school functions, a singer and a drum major for the school band. He was a DJ for the local radio station while in high school and went on to establish a mobile DJ service for dances and weddings. To the family he is Bobino, or chef Jean Clauded Pierre (I might have that wrong, but it’s some Frenchy name) who shows up at family gatherings with all the ingredients for fabulous muffins and a great time in the kitchen.

My absolute favorite pic of my middle two brothers.  So cute I could hug them.  And I did.
My absolute favorite pic of my middle two brothers. So cute I could hug them. And I did.

Gary, boy number three, was the sensitive, helper type. He would do anything for anyone in need and had no trouble finding projects. All the boys were athletically inclined and great at sports in high school, but Gary especially was a basketball star, starting on the varsity team as a freshman. Being a good helper meant he was good at picking up skills and today he does all kinds of carpentry and has a custom tile business.

All of my brothers work for themselves in their own businesses, but it was Dennis the youngest, who really exhibited entrepreneurial skills early in life. He was a cute kid and could talk people into buying ridiculous things from him. He set up a roadside stand and was always selling something – seashells that we picked from the beach in Florida, huge, yellowing cucumbers from the late garden, and of course lemonade. He was the organizer of the neighborhood, always planning things for himself and his friends to do. Sometimes Mom would tell him he couldn’t do something, but never one to worry, he would just tweak the plan until he could get it to work.

So, for the record, these are some of the ways my family has excelled. I love to name and celebrate their exceptional qualities. I can also see these traits being picked up by the next generation as they get educated, start to work, and raise families of their own. I am grateful for my family and the blessings that God has given us.

Yeah, we were pretty cute. Just sayin'...
Yeah, we were pretty cute. Just sayin’…

What exceptional qualities do you recognize in those closest to you? How could you affirm/bless by acknowledging them?

A to Z Family Stories: W for Wisconsin Winters

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I am under my usual three or four blankets, listening to the transistor radio I bought with money from my first real job. It is too early to be up, still pitch black and I can tell it’s cold. I am hoping to hear that school is canceled – for the whole day, which it will be if the temperature gets below -30 degrees F. Somehow, someone figured it would be okay for kids to stand out waiting for the bus if it was only -29 degrees. It’s not that the cold bothers me that much either, I just don’t want to go to school. Finally, the weather guy says it is -32 and starts listing the area schools and organizations that will not be asking people to come out. My school is among them. I am glad.

Cold. Long. Cold and long. And very cold for a long time, six months almost. On mornings like the one above, most smart people stayed home and concentrated on staying warm. Those who had to go to work would put their cars in a garage or have a contraption attached to their oil pan that could be plugged in to keep the oil warm enough to circulate. Antifreeze was a given. Tires would be frozen with a flat side. Those who hadn’t prepared might find their water pipes frozen. I remember having to remove ice from the cows watering cups in the barn, and often the large water tanks would have an electric heater attached. Weather like this was hard on the animals but if they were in the barn, their bodies supplied enough heat to keep them safe. Cold nights meant we got to take a quart canning jar filled with hot, hot water up to put at the foot of our bed under the covers.

And the snow. Some years there was snow in November. Some years it never melted until spring and the banks along the roads were higher than the cars making intersections dangerous. We never had to hire someone to plow our driveway at the farm because Dad always had either a tractor with a bucket or a bulldozer to do the job. He would push the snow back as far as he could knowing the piles would get larger and larger as winter moved on. They were snow mountains to us kids and a never ending source of fun. Winter forts could take hours to build. We would cut blocks of snow or roll snow balls if the weather made the snow sticky. Our forts not only had walls, but they had tunnels as well. We would hollow out holes big enough for several of us to crawl inside.

Winter clothes, everyone had them. Mothers knit scarves and for the younger kids, mittens connected with a long string threaded through the sleeves of our coats. Mittens were always getting lost, and soggy wet. Babies had snowsuits and as they outgrew them the “hand me down” would go to the next younger one. Boots were worn over shoes and thick socks. Our house had an unheated hallway where all of this winter gear hung on a row of hooks – sometimes the wet things froze and were icy the next time we got into them. There was panic on mornings when we saw the school bus coming before we had everything on.

One of my favorite winter coats was beautiful tan wool with a soft raccoon fur collar. I remember it because one night our dog cornered a skunk by the house and it saturated everything we had with it’s odor, including our sense of smell. I wore it to school that morning and it wasn’t until everyone started asking where the skunk was that I figured out it was me. I had to call mom to take me home. The wool and the fur in the coat held that smell for a long time.

Keeping warm was and is still a science in progress. My earliest memories are of an oil burning stove in our living room. It sat on a protective mat of some kind (??) and had a stove pipe going up into a chimney. Mom or Dad would turn open a valve on the oil line and we would wait a minute until there was oil in the chamber, then light a match and drop it in. We spent a lot of time close to the stove. Windows that were away from the heat would get ice on the inside from humidity and our curtains would get frozen into the glass.

We also had a wood cook stove to warm the kitchen. The wood pile was most often outside under the snow. We would pile sticks of wood on our sleds and carry it up to dry next to the stove. It was not our favorite chore.

There is a lot more that could be said about Wisconsin winters and much of it is good and beautiful. I wish everyone could experience the felt safety and awe of watching a white-out blizzard from a warm, snug house. I wish I could adequately describe the way new snow glistens on the morning after, or the way light and shadows look completely different when the sun is low in the sky all day long. Snow really does crunch underfoot. The woods are really quiet when there are no leaves rustling and all the animals (almost all) are asleep. But it is cold, and extreme, and white, and beautiful in it’s own way for a very long time, and there are some who choose it for exactly those reasons (and some who tolerate it in spite of, just sayin’…)

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A to Z Family Stories: V for Vera

My  mother wanted this wonderful lady included in our family stories to make sure we remembered her contributions. She didn’t come into the family until most of us children were past the age of spending a lot of time with a grandparent.  We knew her a little from seeing her at church and hearing about her at school – although none of us had her as a teacher.  She did so much for my grandfather and helped him in a difficult time of life when he suffered from Parkinson’s. She was there when he died. 

V for Vera

The Olsons were a Swedish family with nine girls (I know !!) – Esther, Hilda, Agnes, Ellen, Sigrid, Hilma, Bertha, Elvira, and Nina. Elvira Constance Olson or Vera, as she was known, was the next to the youngest of the nine. As the family got older and the girls married, the town became full of related families, the Petersons, the Johnsons, the Goruds, a regular Scandinavian mash-up. Swedish people always had the coffee pot on whenever guests arrived and probably even when there weren’t guests. Coffee at 10 and 2, like high tea, included bread, cheese, donuts, cookies, pickles… a real spread. It was hospitality and just what proper people did. It’s one of the pleasant things we remember about Vera.

Vera and John Boone at a family reunion around 1975.
Vera and John Boone at a family reunion around 1975.

Vera was 59 and Grandpa was 69 when they married. She was his third wife. Vera had been single until then, perhaps because she was the one who had been “elected” to care for the parents until they died. She was a teacher in an outlying country school until education was consolidated in town. She taught second grade for many years. She was a successful, independent woman who had her own house, her own car and her own money. Grandpa moved in with her at her house in town after their marriage. Even though farming was not her usual aspiration, she did go out to the farm with Grandpa and helped take care of that house too as it was being maintained by a bachelor who needed help of that kind.

Grandpa and Vera were well matched socially. They loved being with others and often got together for rousing games (crazy eights, ha ha). Grandpa loved to participate in fun and Vera’s family seemed to enjoy him. Vera was a fisher woman and it was also something others in her family did so Grandpa learned to add himself to the boat.

My memories of Vera were often in the setting of church. She was one of those ladies who dressed smartly and wore hats well. Mom helped to distribute the household after both Grandpa and Vera died. She was given one of Vera’s hats.

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a “smart” looking hat, although years in the attic have made their mark.

She also remembers finding a small cedar chest full of doilies, tablecloths and linens of all kinds, again accompaniments to the coffee klutch way of life. I grew up knowing that term, coffee klatch, but was never sure where it came from or what it meant until researching this post. I found it had a German derivation having something to do with gossip, which I would alter somewhat in this case. Swedish hospitality, especially for Vera and her family was just sharing life and knowing each other, as all close families should.