Paper Reindeer at the Ladies’ Aid

One of the skills in the “things I never particularly wanted to know” category that I’ve learned over this cold, snowy winter is the art of building fires in the wood-burning stove. Among the refinements I’ve figured out is that when you use old paper bags, tax returns, and bank statements for fire-starting, the pieces ignite more readily if you first tear them into pieces.

The other day, as I squatted in front of the stove solemnly tearing paper with utterly irrelevant precision into halves and quarters and eighths, I was reminded of my mother.

What I remembered was a specific occasion, possibly a baby shower but more likely a meeting of our Methodist Church Ladies’ Aid Society. In either case, it was a sedate afternoon party for women, with a few little girls along by default. We were expected to remain quiet, well-behaved, and in the background. In exchange we got refreshments—most likely watery punch and homemade cake—and the chance to listen in on grownup conversations. Continue reading

Categories: Family, Living Consciously, Remembering When | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The Heart Rate-Boosting Exercise of Tidying Up

Tidying up. It’s a concept I strongly favor—well, at least theoretically. I have to admit I haven’t gotten around to reading Marie Kondo’s book yet, though I do practice a couple of ideas gleaned from it in a second-hand way.

One of the reasons I haven’t read it yet, I suspect, is the title. Oh, don’t get me wrong—I think The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a terrific title. “Magic,” of course, implies that change might be as easy as waving your wand or wiggling your nose. Then there’s “tidying up,” which is such a non-threatening concept. It sounds so doable, so manageable, so much less overwhelming than the huge, where-do-I-start tasks implied by “cleaning up” or “clearing out.” I’m just afraid that the process actually described inside the book might not be so simple and might involve actual effort.

I like the idea of “tidying up” as a dainty, leisurely, lady-of-the-manor phrase. It implies merely a little adjusting or patting into place. Just straighten a couple of pillows over here, pick up a coffee cup (Limoges or Wedgewood, presumably) over there, pinch the dried blossoms off of the begonia, and all is order and serenity.

In reality, of course, “tidying up” is what you suddenly feel a need to do if you get a text from a friend: “On my way, 10 min?”, or you suddenly realize you invited people for dinner at 6:00 rather than 6:30, or you glance out the window and see your in-laws’ car in the driveway.

The ensuing process is something like this:

Cram dirty dishes into the dishwasher, regardless of whether the ones already in there are dirty or clean. Continue reading

Categories: Just For Fun, Living Consciously | Tags: | 2 Comments

Great-great Grandma and the Treasure Nuts

The unshelled pecans, dumped out of my bucket, scattered across the snow-covered compost pile. Also known as the “stuff critters gobble up before it has a chance to decompose” pile. Stale or not, pecans in January would probably be a treat for the mice and voles lucky enough to discover them during the night.

For someone whose mind is warped just slightly in the right direction, it would be easy to imagine the conversations they might have.

“Oh, my gosh! These could be the treasure nuts!”

“You mean the ones in the stories? The ones that ever-so-many-times-great grandma supposedly discovered inside the house all those years ago?”

“Nah. Can’t be. Nobody believes that old legend, anyway.”

“But they taste so good! And they’re huge. They’re just like the description in the rhyme.”

“Nuts galore inside the house; round and sweet and big as a mouse. Quick and quiet, stash them away; treasure for eating another day.”

“But that rhyme is just made up. And even if it might be true, it’s ancient. No way these could be the same nuts. The two-legged giants in the house would have found them ages and ages ago.”

“Well, they didn’t. Besides, who cares? Nuts in the winter are nuts in the winter. Let’s get them back home before that nasty big raccoon gets them.”

At this point, someone with too much imagination might be feeling a little bit embarrassed. If that someone knew the complete story of the treasure nuts.

There’s no reason for embarrassment, really. It’s only been mumble-mumble years (Technically—not that anyone is counting—it might be a double-digit number greater than the ages of half my grandkids but less than the ages of their parents.) since said person bought her new pair of cross-country ski boots. This was just before we had several dry winters in a row with hardly enough snow for cross-country skiing. By the time there was snow again, cross-country skiing had lost its appeal. Since then the brand-new boots have sat forgotten in a corner of the closet, in their brand-new box, unopened—at least by human hands.

But eventually, even someone who doesn’t pay much attention to the finer details of housekeeping has to clean out her closet. She might decide those unworn ski boots need to go. And inside the box, she just might find ever-so-many-times-great grandma mouse’s long-ago stash.

Then, after she got over being embarrassed and dumped out the pecans for ever-so-many-times-great grandma’s descendants, she might start to feel guilty. Because she might remember the end of the legend.

“These are so good. Should we sneak inside and look for more?”

“Are you crazy? Remember how the stories end. Ever-so-many-times-great grandma went inside one last time, and something bad happened. She was never seen again.”

Categories: Wild Things | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

Did I Sign Up For This?

Even though so many of our New Year’s resolutions get tossed out the door before we even take down the Christmas lights, January is still a time of beginnings. Fresh starts. Clearing out of clutter. Reorganizing. Building new habits.

Well, I’m doing all of that. And I hate it. My whole life needs to be reshaped, but not in a way I initiated or would have chosen.

My beloved partner of 14 years was hospitalized in early October for a severe infection. After a series of complications that included dramatically severe reactions to medications and a high-risk surgery, in mid-November he died.

So my reboot for this new year means adjusting my days around the huge empty space where he used to be. The man I woke up with, hiked with, enjoyed deep conversations with, and worked crossword puzzles with (I did names, puns, and references from classic fiction; he handled geography, science, and French.), is gone.

Gone too soon. This active, younger-than-his years man left so much unfinished. Research projects not completed, students not graduated, grandchildren not grown, trips not taken, and so many conversations and experiences not shared. He left behind memories, stories, sadness—and a whole house full of artifacts of his life.

One of them is this school picture from first grade. That sweet, tentative smile and the vulnerability of those eyes behind the big glasses just melts my heart. I want to reach back in time, scoop that innocent darling child up onto my lap, wrap my arms around him, and tell him some things he couldn’t know back then. This is what I would say:

“You are going to have such a wonderful life. You will grow up to be a man of honor and integrity that people trust and respect. You will have a long, fulfilling career doing work that you love. You will travel to many of the fascinating places you are just beginning to learn about. You will be a learner and a teacher, helping shape the lives and work of people all over the world. Of course you will have hard times and disappointments and pain; everyone does. You will also have much happiness. Many, many people will learn from you and love you and be grateful for your part in their lives. Your life will be rich and full, and the things you do will make the world a better place.”

The long-ago photograph of an endearing little boy captures just one moment in a full life. Then, too, his painful last weeks were just one tiny segment of that life. The distance between the lovable child he was and the beloved wise elder he became was a long, rich path.

I’m so grateful that I was able to walk part of that path with him. This new beginning of a new path that I’m coping with now is hard. I didn’t want this transition I’ve been handed. There are so many painful moments: I find the stub of a play we attended in the pocket of a coat he’ll never wear again. I pick up a page of unfinished research notes in his handwriting. I walk by myself on a trail where we held hands the last time I was there. It’s all hard. It all hurts.

And it’s all a fair exchange. This difficult life change wasn’t really forced on me at all. I chose it, as one of the inevitable possible consequences of choosing to share life and love with someone else. No one made me take the risk to open my heart. I did it myself. I would do it again. The past 14 years of partnership, conversation, laughter, and love were worth it.

Categories: Family, Loss and Healing | 16 Comments

Deciding Made Easy, In One Easy Lesson

For two or three months now, a green plastic bottle cap has been collecting dust in my car. Along with a few pennies and a couple of mints, it sits in the flat little compartment by the cup holder that is probably meant to hold parking-meter change.

The cap is from a bottle of Sprite, I think. Since as an infrequent soda-sipper I don’t pay much attention to the finer points of bottle cap design, I’m not sure about this. Besides, I didn’t get this cap by personally emptying the bottle it came from. It’s in my car because it was a gift.

I received it from my five-year-old grandson when he taught me how to flip a bottle cap so he could defeat me in—er, challenge me to a cap-flipping contest. He demonstrated exactly how to tuck the end of your thumb under your curled forefinger, balance the cap on top, and flick up your thumb to send the cap into the air. It also would work with a coin, he explained.

How, you may or may not wonder, does a person get to a grandparentish stage in life without ever having learned the proper way to flip a coin? Continue reading

Categories: Family, Odds and Ends, Remembering When | 3 Comments

Required Reading

I am always baffled by articles suggesting ways parents can encourage their children to read more: Designate a family reading period and set a timer. Enroll in library summer reading programs. Have them tell you about what they read. Read the same books you want them to read and then discuss them.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I think encouraging children to read is wonderful. If more people spent more time reading more books, the world would be a better place. Especially for authors and optometrists. But in my family, the challenge wasn’t to get children to read, it was to get them to stop reading long enough to do other stuff like chores and homework and practicing the piano.

So it isn’t the goal of encouraging reading that I don’t understand; just the strategies. Continue reading

Categories: Remembering When, Words for Nerds | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Missed Congeniality

“It’s a relief to have a meal with a young woman who isn’t scared to death,” the Very Minor Celebrity who was visiting our very small college told me. “The girl I sat beside at lunch was so nervous her hands were shaking, and the peas kept falling off her fork.”

It’s not that the Very Minor Celebrity was such a scary guy. True, his self-assured presence and trained actor’s voice, not to mention his advanced age (he had to be almost 30) gave him a sophistication that was more than a little intimidating. But the real reason the poor girl couldn’t eat her peas wasn’t his presence but the reason for his visit. She was one of the contestants hoping to be chosen to represent our school in the Miss South Dakota pageant and potentially have a shot at becoming Miss America 1970. He was one of the judges.

Even though I was perfectly calm enough to eat my peas in peace, I was also participating in the pageant. Continue reading

Categories: Fashion, Living Consciously, Remembering When | Tags: , | Leave a comment

From Size 10 to Size 6—Overnight!

Yes, a dramatic overnight transformation from size 10 to size 6 really is possible. I’ve done it myself. Truly. When I was in high school, I wore a size 10. Suddenly, a few years later, I became a size 6. Even now, weighing around (mumble, mumble) pounds more than I did then, I wear a size 6.

The reason for this has little to do with my actual size, nor the size of any other adult female person. It’s because sizing standards changed.

For a long time—pretty much ever since people started making fabric and shaping it into clothes, probably—making clothes that actually fit meant measuring one person at a time and cutting the garment to match. The first attempts to standardize women’s clothing sizes in the United States came in the 1930’s and 1940’s, thanks in large part to catalog businesses like Sears Roebuck wanting to help customers order garments that that might actually fit them. In 1958, the National Bureau of Standards came up with an official standard. After a couple of decades of various revisions, adaptations, and increasing disregard by manufacturers and retailers, in 1983 the Department of Commerce tossed its measuring tapes into a corner and gave up trying to maintain standard sizes for women’s clothes.

Thousands of women have done the same. Continue reading

Categories: Fashion | Tags: | Leave a comment

Double-check your Language

In the car with three small children, headed for Storybook Island on a sunny afternoon, I had a moment of grandmotherly concern. “I need to stop and double-check that we have sunscreen,” I told the kids as I pulled over. I looked in the bag; the sunscreen was there; I resumed driving.

After a thoughtful pause, the not-quite-four-year-old piped up from the back seat. “Aren’t you going to double-check?”

“I did,” I told her. “I looked, and I found the sunscreen.”

“But doesn’t ‘double-check’ mean you look twice?”

Well, duh. Of course it does. Or at least it should, if you pay literal attention to the word instead of the way we use it. I didn’t really double-check; I only single-checked. It takes a clever grandchild (no bragging involved, of course) to notice that.

Which leads a reasonably clever grandmother to start thinking about some of the other words we use without paying much attention to their literal meaning.

Such as: Continue reading

Categories: Words for Nerds | 3 Comments

What Does “Adult” Mean?

As a child, I used to think there was a portal to adulthood that everyone passed through at some point—on their 21st birthday, maybe, or when they graduated from high school or college, or at some other magical milestone that I would reach someday. On the other side of that portal would be “the answers.” The confidence, wisdom, and grownup status to know, in pretty much all circumstances, what to do and how to do it.

By now I know better. If such a portal exists, I haven’t found it yet.

Oh, I know what “adult” means in the legal sense. It refers to someone who is old enough to legally vote, buy alcohol, enter into contracts, serve on juries, and do other grownup stuff like get tattoos or piercings without needing anyone’s permission. Continue reading

Categories: Living Consciously | Tags: | 2 Comments

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