In with the new…

The family — that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to. ~Dodie Smith

It is the week for taking personal inventory, isn’t it?

We are the only creatures who do this. Dogs live in the here and now, and while cats appear to hold more grudges, I doubt that they spend a lot of time beating themselves up about it. Only humans make mental checklists of their successes and failures as one year ends and a new one begins.  It’s kind of our thing. I read this week about a festival in Peru called Takanakuy, which translated, means “when the blood is boiling.”  It is an annual ritual that allows residents of the community to solve differences by beating the holy hell out of each other once a year on December 25th.

I read this and was fascinated. You can’t make this stuff up. Well. You could, but I didn’t. Google “takanakuy” if you don’t believe me.

On the day of the festival, men, women, and children gather in bullrings and engage in bare knuckle fist fighting refereed by local officials.  It is an indigenous tradition intended to really clear the air with family and friends before the new year begins.  There are only two important rules. You don’t kick an opponent when he or she is down. And once you’ve fought, you forgive and forget.  You hug it out and move on.

I guess that’s one way to settle scores. I can’t see it catching on here, but you never know.I suppose it depends on how many people you’ve had around at your house for the past week using your towels and eating all of your food and watching football and just generally being in your business.

They will all go home soon.  I promise.  And then, you will miss them. You will.  If you have young adults home visiting, they will have to go back to work. If you have college students, a new semester will begin. If you have kids home on Christmas break, they will eventually go back to school, too. And if you have grandchildren, you will clean up the mess their parents let them make in your house and be sad a week from now that there are no more sticky fingerprints to wipe off of anything.  You will take down the tree and pack Christmas away for another year. Then, you’ll collapse with a cup of tea or something stronger, proud that you didn’t punch anyone for anything.

So take a deep breath this week and count to ten. Or twenty. Or a hundred, if you must.  Count your blessings and love your dear ones.  Step away from the bullring.  You’ll be glad you did when a new year dawns, fresh and bright and full of promise.

Happy New Year!








It seemed like a simple enough question.

If you could only have ONE type of pie for Thanksgiving, what kind would you want? 

In asking it,  I hoped to reach a  pie consensus.  Instead, I got the following requests:

Pecan….no wait!   Pecan Fudge!!

Blueberry! Strawberry Rhubarb!

Pumpkin…no wait!  Jameson Pumpkin!

Frozen Peanut Butter! Cherry! Raspberry!

Pumpkin Cheesecake!!


I am hosting Thanksgiving dinner for twelve people.  I am pretty sure that if they had it their way, there would be twelve pies cooling in my back porch right now.

Clearly, we are pie zealots.   In fact,  if there was an organized religion we could all  join that had pie as one of its central guiding principles, we’d never miss a Sunday.  Our patron saint would be in an apron holding a rolling-pin.  There would be a smudgy spot of flour right in the middle of his forehead.  On Thanksgiving, we would light a pumpkin spice scented candle in his honor.

Okay, so maybe I’m overstating it.  But I do think that the world would be a kinder, gentler place if people baked more pies.

Cookies are a ridiculous waste of time.   Spending all that time dropping spoonfuls of dough onto cookie sheets and then waiting for each dozen to bake isn’t my idea of how to spend my life. Besides, about fifty percent of the cookies I bake are either too hard or too soft. And cakes are just kind of dumb and fluffy. How hard is it to open a box,  crack a couple of eggs, add oil and water and bake?  If I had a monkey, which I don’t, I could teach IT how to bake a cake.

But pies? From scratch?  Now pies take time, and effort, and creativity.  Every slice of pie is a flaky little fruit-filled wedge of love.

Last summer, I spent one glorious August afternoon picking wild blueberries with a dear friend. She was the perfect picking partner, and we spent hours squatting in an enormous bog picking some of the most beautiful berries I’ve ever seen.  I will remember that day for the rest of my life.  I froze a couple of bags of the berries, and this week when I made my blueberry pies, I thought of her and that day in the bog with the sunshine on our necks and was thankful for her friendship, the memory, and those berries.

On Thursday, once the dinner dishes are cleared, I will sit at the table that first belonged to my great-grandmother with most of  the most important people in my life eating my pies and be thankful for the noise and the laughter and those everyone-talking-at-once-between-bites moments  that never come often enough in any family.

Other Thanksgivings will come to mind, too.  The ones when there was always a custard pie for my grandfather, baked by my grandmother.  Holidays when it was me coming home,  not my grown kids.   I’ll look at the faces around my table and remember the babies that the set of young adult cousins there used to be.  And for another year,  I will be grateful that all five of them are happy, healthy, and whole.

The faces at my table will remind me that time passes.  That chairs left empty by the passing of one generation in a family are filled by the next, and then the next.  That life is a circle.  Like a pie.

It takes some effort to bake a pie, raise a kid, make a marriage last.  When one has been blessed with the gifts of family and health and enough of what’s important in life, it is easy to take all of it for granted.  My prayer today is that I never do.

Some day, hopefully a long time from now, someone will write my eulogy. I hope when the time comes, that I will be remembered for more good things, than bad. But if they can’t think of anything else to say, this would be enough:

“She was grateful for her many blessings.  Oh,  and that woman could bake one helluva pie.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Mud vacation and marbles

From 2015…

In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt. ~Margaret Atwood

Last week, as I sat in the porch for the first time since October,  I watched the neighbor kids splash through the puddles in the woods and listened to their giggling as they successfully crossed a big log in single file. It was one of those squishy March days that kids love and as I watched them play, I was suddenly transported back to my own March days of puddle splashing and marble trading during Mud Vacation.  The fact that the school buses that brought the kids from the country couldn’t make it through the thick muck of unpaved roads for a week or so every Spring meant a break for all of us once the snow melted.

Our north end neighborhood back then was full to overflowing with kids who burst from doorways every March, feral and free. We could be found waiting to take turns on the rope swing that hung from the tree in the Erickson family’s backyard or riding our bikes from the top of Hospital Hill all the way to King School and back. We walked down the old railroad grade behind the high school and came too close to the river swollen with runoff more often than our parents knew. We played in the shoulder-tall grass behind the Kolu family’s house, constructing mazes until our moms called us in for supper, round burrs stuck to our socks.  We started each day clean and ended it dirty, the way kids should.  We scraped our knees on the Dead-end running for home base and slammed every back door in the neighborhood too loudly and stood in kitchens we knew as well as our own gulping down grape Kool-Aid that someone’s mother had made.

When my own two kids were young, I’d tell them stories about “mud vacation” and they’d look at me like I’d lost my marbles. They did their own growing up on paved city streets in a middle-sized town on the prairie. Their own, much windier, memories are happy ones even though the idea that school would be canceled due to mud and not blizzards is a foreign one.  March blizzards or floods on the prairie, they understood. But mud having that much power over something as important as school?  Really?

Yes, Really.  Lovely, lovely mud.

Those neighbor kids I remember are scattered far and wide these days. A lot of them are grandparents now.  Last week, one of them mentioned a game of marbles on her Facebook page which of course, got us ALL talking about marbles in the way that old friends who don’t see each other very often are prone to do when a topic like marbles comes up.  We are grateful that while our marble bags have been missing for quite some time, that the “marbles” that matter are mostly all still there most days.

It just takes the smell of fresh mud, the happy sound of kids at play in March, or the mention of marbles between old friends who remember it all to remind us what we had before all the different roads we chose to travel in life were paved.

Safe travels

When our babies were small, my sister and I never flew anywhere together.

There was a good reason for this. We were each other’s back up in the event that one of us didn’t survive those years of child-rearing. We had enough of our grandmother’s fear of flying in us not to tempt fate. And so, during those years my sister flew, and I flew, but we never flew together.

The only exception was in 1993 when we left our two toddler sons with their fathers and boarded a flight to Korea to bring my daughter home. We decided that the Good Lord would not send the two of us on such an important mission only to let the plane crash on the way.

I am the queen of magical thinking when it comes to airplanes. During take-offs, for example, I revert back to my Catholic upbringing and imagine an army of really strong angels lifting the plane off the ground. During landings, I imagine the plane floating like a paper airplane toward Earth until it magically finds the sweet spot where it is supposed to land.

This type of delusional…er…magical thinking is what has allowed me, through the years, to travel by air. It’s why, whenever one of my kids is on a plane, I need them to let me know when they’re about to take off. If I don’t text “safe travels” to my daughter every time, how will the angels know when to spring into action? And so, I do. Every time.

Well all have our rituals. I have learned not to mess with what works.

I know mothers who are perfectly content miles above the ground. I have noticed them during turbulence. They do not even bother to look up from their magazines! I am in awe of those types of mothers.  They go with the flow, and do not worry about what they cannot control. Moms who feel no need to pester angels about airplanes or anything else, where their grown children are concerned.

I am not one of them. I need those angels.

Just ask my children.


You know you’ve reached the end of the line on winter weather and/or grocery shopping  when you throw a mini-tantrum at the self-checkout at Super One and you’re not a toddler.  I did that today.  I do not say this with any sense of pride, believe me. It was not my finest moment.

The tough thing about having a hissy-fit over technology at the self-checkout is that once you’ve accepted that the machine hates your guts, and you put everything BACK in your cart and huff away saying, “Nope. Nope. NOPE!” loudly to no one in particular, you end up at the back of a different line.

Another customer witnessed this sad display of mine. She was already in a line where actual human beings were checking customers through.  “Rough day?” she asked. “It’s good I don’t say everything that pops into my head.” She smiled. “I know. I’m right there with you. I hate those things, too.” I do not know who this woman is, but she saved me.

Thanks to her, by the time I set my groceries on the belt, I was back to being relatively nice to other people. My cashier was about my age and as she scanned my items, I told her how much I appreciated that she was an actual human being. She said, “Thanks so much for saying that. Five minutes ago we had a little scene here and I am really wondering about humanity.”

As I’d been shopping, I’d noticed the trio of young men she began to tell me about. I recall thinking they were an obnoxious, vulgar trio as they sauntered from one aisle to the next spewing profanity. Bad words. Ugly words. You know that word that got your mouth washed out with Irish Spring if you said it around your mother back when you were a kid?  Yup. That one. F-bombs and S-bombs were raining down all over the store within earshot of  little old ladies and young moms with toddlers strapped into carts.

They continued the bombing run all the way to the cashier. Exasperated, she gave them the look of death that mothers around the world are known for. Instead of shutting their mouths or being ashamed, one of the young men stood inches away from her ear and shouted the same words directly at her. “It’s like he was just daring me to do something!” she said.

As she finished ringing me up, we commiserated about the state of our current culture. How it is possible that three young men would think that behavior like that was funny or appropriate? We wondered why not one man in the store had thought to walk up to the three and put a stop to what they were doing. When you are a woman of a certain age, you pick your battles. With technology, and with foul-mouthed strangers, too.

But here’s the thing. Sometimes, on a Sunday morning before a snow storm in March you get lucky, and women you don’t know save you. They tell you that despite all evidence to the contrary, that it’s all going to be okay. That we are going to be okay.

And you kind of believe it.

Again, and again, and again

There’s nothing sillier than a five-year old. When mine were that age, every bodily function was an absolute hoot. They watched that big purple dinosaur and sang “I love you/you love me/we’re a happy family.” Five is the year my son learned how to put a VCR tape in by himself. That winter, he got the stomach flu and binge watched “The Little Engine That Could” like his own daily affirmation until he quit barfing. In addition to the little engine, he was obsessed with space aliens. My daughter, by comparison, was obsessed with all things pink. Pink bedroom walls, pink shoes, pink, pink, pink. Five was still being tucked in at night. It was fluorescent orange macaroni and cheese from the blue box and learning to ride a bike without training wheels. Five was kindergarten. It was Mrs. “Ostrich” for one, and Miss Polly for the other.

Do you remember your own kids at five?  Or fourteen? What about eighteen or twenty-one? It all runs together once they’re gone until someone or something reminds you of who they were.

I was reminded of Five this morning. A young woman I know teaches busy, silly, loud, barf-y five-year olds. She creates magic with construction paper, glitter, and a special paste in a huge white tub that smells like wintergreen. When she isn’t teaching them, she is herding them like a mother Mallard. Kindergarten teachers are required to herd. I think there’s probably a herding clause in the contract. When she isn’t teaching or herding, sometimes being a kindergarten teacher makes her cry.  Sometimes, it’s the complete silence and cooperation of ducklings during a school “lock down” that does it.

Our nation is reeling from a school shooting. Again. I’ve written about this topic too many times. Again, and again. I’ve written about it as I’ve inched closer to my own retirement. I’ve written about it as my daughter, the middle school teacher and her friend, the kindergarten teacher, have graduated from college and started their own teaching careers. I have loved being a teacher since the first day I stood at the front of my own classroom. This was over thirty years ago. Back then, the idea that teachers and students would have to be trained to prepare for “active shooter” situations would have been as unfathomable as being required to prepare for an invasion of little green men from Mars.  And yet, here we are. On planet Earth. In the United States of America. In the year 2018.

Here we are.  Again.





Great Men

My grandmother always said that she felt 18 years old “on the inside” her whole life. Even when she was 80, she still said this.  I don’t know what age I am on the inside. It’s interesting to think about, though. All I know for sure is that even though I’m at the age where most of my friends are already grandparents, and my hair is silver, and I’m starting to ponder things like retirement, whenever I see an obituary of someone my age, I always think, “too young.”

It happened again yesterday. We were next door neighbors when our kids were small. He was a carpenter and stone mason who worked with his hands his whole life in the same community where he was born. When our house needed a new roof, he roofed it. His sons played in our backyard and shot thousands of baskets in their driveway. Thump. Thump. Thump.  His middle son, Jordan, and our son are still close. This makes my heart glad. It’s a big, lonely, world without good friends.

He and his wife raised three sons. That’s a lot of groceries and gallons of milk and football cleats to replace. It’s a lot of scout badges to earn and pinewood derby cars to race. It’s hours and hours (and hours!) of sitting on hard bleachers in stuffy gyms and frigid football stands. His sons went to college where all three continued their athletic careers. This meant more stuffy gyms and cold football stadiums. Two have advanced degrees now. His oldest son is married, with a son of his own. All three sons are young men who would make any father proud.

Lately, it seems that society’s definition of what makes a man “great” has changed. The bar seems pretty low. This is particularly true if you turn on the news or spend even ten minutes listening to the bleating of a politician, professional athlete, or television personality. They’re all wrong.

It’s hard work for a man to be truly great. Really hard work. This is because men learn how to be men from watching their fathers. If their fathers are kind, they are kind. If their fathers work hard, they will work hard, too. The measure of a man is not what he leaves behind, but who.

Great men know this and live it every day.

They don’t need to shout it from the rooftops.

For Jordan…..Love, Ben’s Mom.


I have cold feet.

I should add that I do not live in a home without heat.  And that I have plenty of socks.  I’m wearing two pairs right now.  Along with slippers.  Really, really ugly ones.  Slippers that, had I seen them in the store, would not have even warranted a second glance from me.  Slippers that, in a final, desperate act of trying to get her father to buy me a “nice” Christmas gift,  my sweet daughter proclaimed to be the WORST PAIR OF SLIPPERS she had ever seen.    I believe that her exact words to her father were, “Mom will NEVER wear those!  GROSS!”

I am wearing them right now.   They are warm and fuzzy and have leopard spots with shocking pink fleece on the inside. They come all the way up to the top of my calves.  They are a testament to what is possible given some imagination and enough polyester in the world of high fashion. They stand as proof that sometimes, old husbands know more about their wives than their young fashion forward daughters think they do.

Because of my perpetually cold feet, I shy away from most wintertime outside activities.   I watched part of the televised broadcast of the high school hockey games played  on Lake Pokegama last Saturday.  The temperatures plummeted throughout the day and at one point, the broadcasters reported that the wind was blowing at 35 mph during the second game.   At various times, whiteout conditions on the lake made it hard for the players to see the puck.  Even so, the games went on.  No complaining. No postponing them.  Kids up here are used to the cold, after all.  And I am pretty sure that at least for the players from the northern teams, skating on a lake is no big deal even in twenty below wind chills.  Watching this confirmed what I have always known about myself.  I would have made a terrible Hockey Mom.

I must have been a lot tougher when I was a kid.  I remember the skating rinks in a town too small for an actual  high school hockey program.   My friends and I spent many hours there every winter.  Each evening after dinner,  as we walked toward the city park with ice skates slung over our shoulders,  we could see the floodlights in the distance and hear the soft clack of sticks and thump of frozen pucks hitting the wooden surround of the hockey rink.   Boys of all ages gathered there, learning the game from men in the community who donated time, talent and equipment during those years.  Proof that while composite hockey sticks, fancy pads, and indoor rinks may enhance hockey programs, they do not make hockey players.  Passion does.

There was no fancy, heated ice arena with concessions stands.   Instead, a small, cramped cinder block building with wooden benches  served as the warming house.  When we couldn’t take the cold any longer, we’d wobble inside for a brief respite from the crystalline air that burned our nostrils and frosted our eyelashes nearly closed.  The memory scent of wet wool mittens, sweat, wood smoke, and adolescence merge and define for me that place and time during the winters of my youth.

We girls did not play hockey and as such, were relegated to the smaller, oval rink where we huddled together visiting and skating while the younger kids  played  games of Crack the Whip and Tag.  The rinks provided a gathering place for teenagers just a few blocks away from the watchful eyes of adults.  It was our main source of entertainment and possessed just the right amount of danger and romance for us before we were old enough to drive to places more dangerously romantic.  Like Grand Rapids, for example.

If I close my eyes, I still remember one skater perfectly.  I see her skating alone, spinning in perfect circles…a dark haired, graceful girl on an oval of  dark ice banked by snow that sparkles with diamond dust.  She leaps and skates on one foot, the other leg held parallel to the ice, arms outstretched…weaving and aloof, deep in thought.   She has the  posture of a dancer or gifted athlete and is silent and sure.  The rest of us  watch her, enthralled by her gift. We all know how to skate, but she is different. She is an Ice Skater.  We were  girls who’d grown up learning to love the cold by leaning into it.  Did her gift allow her to hear a song that none of the rest of us could hear?

I pull my chair closer to the fire and think about the gifts we are given throughout our lives.  The ones we don’t go looking for.  Like slippers.  And memories.  I think of  a girl I knew once who skated to her own melody on silver blades. The woman she is today.   We are still friends.  The fact that this is true is just one more gift that keeps me warm.

Fair weather

The chickadees are out of hiding after our recent cold snap here in the woods. It’s good to see them filling up on suet and seed in anticipation of the next cold front. They are polite little birds who wait their turns and cause no drama, from what I can see.  An enormous woodpecker arrived to see what was on the menu yesterday, and the tiny birds with black caps took to the balsam a few yards away to wait until he’d had his fill.

I can’t say the same for the rotund gray squirrel who, at the moment, is trying to steal one of the balls of suet. I tap on the window to scare him away from the feeders, and he glares with small piggish eyes, sticks out his tiny pink tongue at me, and keeps working. Humans don’t have the market cornered when it comes to being greedy.

There are deer tracks around the raised garden box we filled with cracked corn, too. They are filling up with whatever they can find during their respite from sub-zero temps that make the snow squeak, the trees crack, and the ice on the lake rumble.

In other news, by the time this goes to print, Minnesotans will either be celebrating with “SKOL!” or uttering a different S word where the Vikings are concerned. I’m the fairest of fair weather Vikings fans. During the regular season, if they win, great. If they lose, I’m always glad I was doing something else on Sunday afternoons. I know a lot of super fans who paint their faces purple and gold and wear jerseys on game days even if they are just watching it on T.V.  Actual humans who can recite statistics about the players on the field. I am not one of those people. I’m okay with that.

I hope they win today, though. It would be nice to see the home team play in our spanking new stadium. I hope it snows a great deal in the Twin Cities right before Super Bowl Sunday, too. I think the rest of the world needs to see how people in a state like Minnesota throw a party in February. The first things they’ll notice is that we have trouble zipper merging on the freeway because we are just too darn nice to budge in line. We say “Uff-da” and play “Duck-duck-gray duck”and eat a lot of hot dish and bars.

We are sensible people who bundle up and never travel without a winter survival kit and jumper cables. We learn to ski, skate, drive snowmobiles, and ice fish when we’re kids so that when our parents tell us to “go outside” we have something to do. As adults, we do a lot of hunkering down in the winter. In fact, we can hunker like nobody’s business. It’s in our D.N.A.

But sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get a January thaw. We peel off a couple of layers of clothing and re-fill the bird feeders. We check the propane tank level in the yard or haul in another armful of wood for the stove. We make wild rice soup and get out the Top the Tater for our potato chips.

And if we’re lucky, on a particular Sunday, even die-hard fair weather fans like me watch the Vikings play for a spot in the Super Bowl.

Because win or lose, it’s nice being a Minnesotan.