Civic duty

Back when the high school had a lawn and a canopy of large trees instead of a parking lot, we’d walk there and wait for the big yellow school bus to arrive, swatting at deer flies and each other with beach towels. Ours was the generation whose mothers never asked whether we wanted to participate in an activity. We just got signed up if they thought it would be good for us. Like it was their civic duty, or something. Every summer, that meant swimming lessons.

Summer vacation is always longer for moms than it is for kids. All the stinky tennis shoes at the door and the grape soda rings on the kitchen counters sent them over the edge. By the middle of July, our moms were seriously over it and just wanted some peace. Handing us a towel and pointing toward the bus gave them a few blessed hours without any whining or doors slamming. Swimming lessons were a win-win. Moms got their houses back and kids learned how not to drown. And so, from every house in the neighborhood, off we were sent to freeze our behinds in Deer Lake and learn to swim.

Next weekend, in my home town, families will gather. Friends will, too. There will be music and dancing, jingle dresses and drumming. Beer will be spilled. Bingo will be called. Fleas will be marketed. Carnival rides will squeak. The church ladies will serve lovely, comforting foods like turkey, wild rice hot dish, and homemade pie in church basements. There will be a parade, rain or shine. Fireworks will explode in the night sky. The Wild Rice Festival exists only because of careful planning and whole lot of hard work. Money raised by the Lions during the three-day festival goes directly back into the community for projects like the swimming program. It was true when I was a kid riding the bus to lessons; it’s still true today.

And so, if you are one of those kids from long ago who also didn’t drown, thank a Lion for that. Then, buy a button because you might just win some cash. Eat more than one burger. Play Bingo. Throw caution to the wind and go a little nuts. It’s the Rice Festival, after all!

Do it for the moms who are ready for school to start already. The ones scrubbing purple rings off their counter tops and muttering as they trip over shoes in the hall. Really. Just do it. So their kids don’t drown. I think it’s your civic duty. Or something.

It’s a win-win no matter how you cut it.





Lake news

The mama chipmunk didn’t know what in the heck to do. She had come around the corner of the house with her kid, and suddenly there was a dog between them and the only two trees they could reach.

It was early morning at the cabin when I saw her make the decision that separated her from her tiny brown baby.  The dog was in the yard doing what dogs do, and by the time  mama chirped “Run! Quick! To the tree!” to the baby, the dog had seen them both. Most of the time, Lilly ignores the chipmunks at the cabin. She isn’t much of a hunter, and even if she was, trying to chase a chipmunk while tethered to a tree is pretty futile. Unfortunately, the baby had climbed a tree well within beagle-range and the mama was frantic. She chirped. The dog snuffled at the base of the tree. The baby circled the trunk looking for mom.  I called to the dog and put her back in the porch. The chipmunk crisis was averted.

Later in the day, a pair of adult loons on the river began their panicked tremolo call when a boat full of curious fishermen came too close. The male dove beneath the water and surfaced several yards away. Then the female did the same, leaving their black puff-ball baby bobbing and tweeting in the bull rushes alone. They cried out and flapped their great wings as the river churned around them. Suddenly, a large bald eagle swooped down upon the trio in an attempt to snatch the baby.  Luckily, for the loons, the eagle’s talons came up empty. A second attempt was no more successful and finally, the predatory bird gave up and moved on.

It’s tough to be the parent of a small and helpless creature. Whether we are covered in fur, or feathers, or just skin, we know this. We do our best to keep them safe. Sometimes, we can. Sometimes, we can’t.

I am spending a lot of time at the cabin this month. We have internet, but no cable television which means no cable news. This is a very good thing. I highly recommend this way of life. Besides, if I want to understand the news of families separated, all I need to do is look up in the tree where the chipmunks have found each other  or out to the river, where life for a family of loons has resumed.

I watch the beagle at the end of a leash that keeps her from causing too much mayhem in lives of other living creatures.

And I scan the tree line across the lake for signs of the eagle, too.

Real news

From 2017…

The Loon Whisperer

He doesn’t know he’s a hummingbird.  At least, that’s what I think.

We have a pair of piliated woodpeckers who arrived in our woods a week ago. They are enormous. Imagine two black chihuahuas with wings and red mohawks.  I am fairly certain they are married because they sit in separate trees and squawk loudly at each other when they aren’t gorging themselves on my suet.

Most days, the one little hummer we have perches on top of the tall shepherd’s hook surveying his kingdom until one of them arrives to eat. Then, he moves to a nearby branch to watch. He seems particularly infatuated with Mrs. Woodpecker. He does not know that he doesn’t stand a chance with her.  It is clear that while she is often annoyed with her partner, she married for keeps.

In other news, we have a major tick problem around here. Lilly the beagle…

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Tree people

Dendrochronology (or tree-ring dating) is the scientific method of dating tree rings (also called growth rings) to the exact year they were formed in order to analyze atmospheric conditions during different periods in history. (Wikipedia)

June. Lovely June.

Thanks to all the new growth, the dead trees that litter our five acres like an enormous set of Pick-up Sticks in March are hidden in June. The big one that split during a particularly nasty thunderstorm last year and fell only part way down before it hung up on a smaller tree next to it doesn’t drive me nuts. The big log that points like an arrow toward the lake has a soft carpet of bright green moss in June. Yesterday, I watched two chubby gray squirrels square off on top of it like Sumo wrestlers. Or maybe they were dancing a jig. In June, anything is possible.

I was a June bride. I stepped off an airplane from Seoul with our son in June. Our daughter has a June birthday.  I get up earlier, sometimes even before the sun does, in June. I go to bed earlier, too, so I can beat the sun the next morning, and the next. I measure the weeks in June by when the grass needs cutting. I tell myself that planning for next’s years courses can wait, because it can. And then, I read books I am not obligated to highlight and plan lessons around.

As a family, we celebrated two different college graduations in May. Two others completed their first year of college. The rest of the trees in our forest are hard at work nurturing their own seedlings or just working hard doing what they do to contribute to society. All of us older trees are happy to see their growth. This is what we all hoped for back when we were wiping their sticky Popsicle faces and telling them to walk, not run, on the boat dock so many Junes ago. One is preparing for a move and new adventures in Chicago. Another is planning a September wedding of fairly epic proportions. Life is good in the woods.

Years ago, we had to have one of the few elm trees on our property cut down near the driveway. After the trunk was hauled away, I looked at the stump to count the growth rings. Something had altered the tree’s growth pattern when it was just a sapling because instead of circles, a heart had formed where rings should have been. A perfect heart.

In June, I think about that tree a lot as I count the growth rings in all the tree people I love.

Not fussy, not fancy

The best time to make friends is before you need them.

-Ethel Barrymore

A handful of us met months ago to decide on a place and a time. Then, we formed a group for the class of ’78 on Facebook and added everyone we could think of to it. We agreed that we’d keep our reunion simple, and that’s exactly what we’ve done. Simple, after forty years, is good. Nobody has the energy for fancy.

The thing about being out of high school this long is that fancy, fussy, affairs seem like more work than fun. This is probably because when we think of “fun” now, the first thing that comes to mind is retirement. We just really want to see old friends, eat potluck, drink a beer and head uptown afterwards for the street dance at the Rice Festival. We will laugh a lot, tear up a little, drink another beer or two and call it a night. Let’s be honest. By this time, that’s about as much fun as any of us can handle.

And so, we are planning. Sort of. Gone are the days when we called the parents of classmates for mailing addresses so that we could send out invitations. Gone are the times when we hired caterers and D.J.’s, collected money, and made up fancy booklets with cute sayings and contact information. We are pretty much over trying to impress anyone with our reunion planning skills. Now, we are just winging it and hoping people show up.

It’s the craziest thing, Time. The life that seemed to stretch to infinity the night we graduated from high school has moved much more quickly than any of us anticipated it would. In four decades, we’ve already lost too many of the sweet souls we once called classmates and friends. They’ll be there, in the stars above us and the stories we tell.

So that’s the scoop. A few of us came together to (sort of) plan a class reunion. It won’t be fussy and it won’t fancy, and on July 7th we might find ourselves with a whole lot of extra potato salad, but that’s fine. We’re not worried in the slightest.

After all, potlucks….reunions…old friendships… generally work out just fine.

In the motherhood

With what price we pay for the glory of motherhood.

-Isadora Duncan

It is Mother’s Day, the holiday when social media erupts with photos and heartfelt expressions of love and gratitude for mothers. All day I scrolled through my news feed and saw moms celebrating their special day. Some posed at brunches with their perfectly manicured fingers delicately grasping the stems of champagne glasses. Others balanced in fishing boats as they smiled and held up the first walleyes of the season. There were pictures of first-time moms with small, sweet babies in their arms and pictures of moms with decades of experience. There were memorials and tributes from daughters missing moms who’ve passed away.

So many women. Each one beautiful and unique, celebrated today for who she is, or who she was, to the women I know and love.  We do that in real life, too, when we gather. We always end up talking about our moms.

My mother was a teenager when she had me. I was twice her age by the time we adopted our first child.  As such, I was fortunate to have had a whole lot of time to grow up and experience life before I became a mom. It didn’t make any difference. I was just as unprepared to be a mother as she was. She would argue this fact with me, but it’s true.

Nothing can prepare you for motherhood. You think you know what becoming a mother means until you actually become one. It’s nobody’s fault that we don’t have a clue what we’re signing up for. How could anyone ever adequately describe such a heart-bursting love sundae topped with worry and sheer dread sprinkles to someone who hasn’t yet experienced the joys and fears of motherhood?

And if they could, would it matter?

Ask any mother if she would do it again. Love this hard, I mean. Ask the one at the table with the linen napkins, or the one in the boat with the stringer of walleyes. Ask your sister or best friend. Ask your Auntie or the lady next door who raised ten to adulthood without losing a single one. Ask your own mom if you still can.  Would you do it again?

Of course, she will say.

Of course.

Happy Mother’s Day.


The pile

It’s amazing, the stuff you uncover, if you just start digging.

Here’s the thing about owning a cabin that’s been in the family for generations. The generations who preceded your own leave, but their stuff doesn’t. Roughly ten percent of what they’ve left behind is stuff you, your siblings, or your cousins actually want. Sometimes, it takes years of moving that musty, dusty, ninety percent pile around from room to room before you suddenly realize that while you may own the cabin, the pile owns you.

I had a sale last weekend. Here’s just some of what I learned:

1. Getting ready for a sale is like opening a store that you only plan to run for two days. You need to collect your inventory. Then, you need to price the items and display them. You need signs. It’s a lot of work.

2. Your customers arrive before you’ve had your coffee or arranged your pile.

3. Most of those customers are retired couples.

4. Retired men are very chatty and always want to look at your “tools” even if they aren’t for sale. When they buy something, they ask if you can break a twenty. Their wives roll their eyes. Retired women come prepared to do business with quarters and dollar bills. They are professionals.

5. If you mistakenly set fishing rods that aren’t for sale against the outside of the garage while you’re looking for something else, a retired man will invariably try to buy them. Every time.

6. It is always better to put a price on an item than a FREE sign, particularly on the first day of a two-day sale, even if what you’re trying to give away is junk. The word “free” makes people suspicious on the first day. By the second day, people realize there’s no catch.

7. A very faded avocado green chair will be just the ticket for someone. Even if it smells a little mousey. As it is loaded into the back of a truck, you’re sure you hear your late grandmother whisper, “what took you so long? Ish!”

8. People will by almost anything for a quarter except a puzzle in a box that has already been opened. I think there’s some profound universal truth in this. I’m still trying to figure out what it is.

9. There are still at least four people in the world who still watch VCR tapes and one who uses an adding machine with a little paper roll attached to it. But the atlas and the encyclopedias on CD’s? I couldn’t give those puppies away.

10. There’s no better feeling than packing up what’s left after a sale and immediately driving to a magical place where an attendant punches your ticket and helps you separate the items for recycling.

I own a cabin.  A pile in the cabin owned me.

And then I had a sale.