It’s My Path. If you Follow, be Prepared…

I’ve been thinking about changing the name of my blog, but I can’t seem to find the right title to encompass all that I hope to accomplish by posting here. I’ve come to the conclusion that it really is Susan’s Path…no one else’s and unique to me.

I have a great fondness for metaphors. I envision all my readers following along as I go for a walk. A merry group of dwarfs following Snow White as she warbles and dances down the path? Err, no! Even if I’m known to sing to myself, no one would admit to knowing me as I dance down the sidewalk. How about the Pied Piper leading….oh…forgot he led the snakes, even if he does play a flute. Scratch that idea too.

Maybe this will be more like Gandalf walking at the forefront of a unlikely band of adventurers; some short, some tall, some handsome, some hairy, some happy and some grumpy? That sounds more likely. At least I’m gray, but I’m not so sure I possess the wisdom of the great wizard nor the devoted followers. Maybe if I fall into an abyss and come up glowing white? Not happening.

My path is not the “yellow brick road,” and it’s not always the “straight and narrow” either. It’s an up and down dirt road whose end I cannot see, but it promises to give me more experiences than I can ever imagine. It has those dreaded roundabouts I’ve come to hate in local traffic areas, where we all have to merge together and keep the same speed, make major decisions about our direction before we veer off into the unknown alone. At times, I find myself going in endless circles so I don’t have to take that exit and move on.

It has forks and convergent roads, and it has short cuts and dead ends. That dirt may be hard-packed and smooth, or it might be mucky, slippery, deep boot-sucking mud at times. And it may take me through dense forests, through fields of flowers or even the back yards of a subdivision.

That dirt may even turn to cement for brief moments while I enjoy the lights and sounds of the city, but it always leads be back to the country.

The most intriguing part of this walk through life is the people I meet along the way. They enrich my experience and give me stories I’d never have told without them. I’ve met the most interesting characters when I’ve taken a side road instead of the highway. When I make an unexpected turn, I find myself opening my mind to those who aren’t like me.

My stories reflect this path. One blog is a memorial to a loved relative, another is rambling thoughts (like today?), and yet others are my attempts at humor at the expense of my loveable redneck husband. I may be passionate about a cause and will try to get my message across this way, instead of crying out on other social media.

No matter the subject, the voice, or the emotion, I hope you follow along. I’ll try to make you think, to reflect on your own relationships, or chuckle at the silliness of which we are all guilty at times. And I promise to keep the metaphors to a minimum. Ok, I’m lying. I love them.

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I can write this now.

Grief.  It’s a long journey where everyone follows a different path.  It’ll be four months on December 2nd since Dad died.  December 2nd is his birthday.  He would’ve been 88.  Most of the time I’m ambivalent, feeling that I should be sadder than I am, because I seem to be doing fine.  But then a small trigger sets off a burst of sorrow.  It may last for a few seconds, or it may last for a full day. holding Dads hand

Tonight I was checking some photos on my laptop and came across a photo I took of me holding his hand on that last day in the nursing home.  It’s a good picture, the light plays across the folds and rolls of the sheet, and our two hands show a history no words can tell.  I noticed my thumbnail had a snag.  I meant to file that down, but when I received the phone call from my sister, telling me to “come now,” I forgot any list of things I had to do and drove from Missouri to Wisconsin amid a bath of tears.  I remember taking that photo, thinking at the time that I’d want that to help me remember.  I don’t need the help.

I arrived in time.  But in time for what?  Yes, Dad was still living, but he was weak and unconscious.  We surrounded him.  Mom was there, siblings, a few of his grandchildren, other close relatives coming and going.  We understood the outcome.  We’d been anticipating this day and our reaction to it for the past nine years, when he was first diagnosed with cognitive issues that led to Alzheimer’s disease.   We’d been carefully girding ourselves with the strength we knew we’d need.  I’m thankful for that part.  I know too many others who weren’t given that opportunity.

I had said my goodbyes repeatedly, each time I left him at the nursing home at the end of a weekend visit home.  He didn’t really know me anymore.  I’d try to wheel him away from the activity to spend some time with him. I might take him out to the garden, or just down the hall to a different sitting area.  At times he’d welcome the change of scenery, but other times he’d scowl and say, “No, I want to stay here.” I’d try to draw him out by telling him brief stories.  I’d avoid asking too many questions, because he’d get frustrated when he didn’t know the answers.  Later, his reply might be a closed-eye sigh and an “Uh huh.”  Then I’d wheel him back to the common area and park his chair.   I’d lean over and kiss him on the cheek and tell him, “I love you Dad.” Then I’d walk out quickly trying to hide my tears until I got in my van and melted.

I’d usually cry for the first half-hour of my six-hour trip home.  Then I’d get caught up in dealing with traffic and navigating my way through Chicago.  I’d usually well up a few more times while driving, as I thought about the conversations we could no longer have.  I had always wished I could converse more eloquently and listen more, but I have learned to write to express my thoughts.  I always wondered if other people had conversations with their fathers like people did in movies. Were people really able to share feelings like that, and I’m just a schmuck whose stilted attempts felt more like a halting bus, lurching and swerving with each stop—the passengers holding on, so they don’t topple into the windshield?  Or am I normal; do we all have difficulty expressing our true feelings to our loved ones?

And here I am, writing again.  I need to do this.  I haven’t been able to write about Dad since I finished the obituary for the funeral home.  I wrote it the day I received word he had pneumonia.  My heart told me it was time.  Since then, I kept tucking my thoughts away; I enjoyed the memories others shared and left it at that.  I couldn’t participate in the funeral by doing even a reading.  My brother, Ron, asked me, “Are you sure?”  I just couldn’t.

2017 has been a hard year, and we’ve lost more than a few members from our family.  I wrote two pieces about men I lost after Dad died.  I even read one as a eulogy for a friend’s funeral.  But I couldn’t send my thoughts to my keyboard about Dad until now.  I have cards I meant to send to others who I know are hurting, but I’ve yet to address them.  I keep holding back.  I’ve been functioning at work and at home, somewhat.

It’s time to challenge myself and work to bring my life back to a happier state.  I told a couple friends the other day that I realized I’m depressed.  It’s not a major depression, but it’s there.   I feel it hanging on the back of my coat as I walk out the door.  I feel it holding me to my recliner under a blanket, obsessively reading one “feel good” novel after another instead of tackling my sewing projects.  I’m indecisive—more than normal—and I can’t make up my mind either.

I understand that grief is a process.  I’ll work my way through it, but I also understand it will never completely leave.  As I watch those I care about go through more extremes than I am, I feel guilty.  How can I be grieving so much for my dad who lived a very full life, while one of my friends is reeling from the sudden loss of her fifty-something husband?  I think of my cousins who lost their dads, spouses or brothers–some way too young.  I think of my mom, aunts and uncles who are hit by loss repeatedly now.  How can they stand it?  Some have felt this for decades, and for others of us it’s still fresh.

We each take our own pathway.  We each deal with our losses in a different way, but none is honestly more keen than another.  Sometimes it takes suffering to make us acknowledge the suffering of others.  To those who’ve lost their parent so much earlier, I owe an apology.  I always sympathized their losses.  But I could never know how deep their sorrow when they lost their dads too soon.  But I know the void I feel, even if I was able to inch up to it over the course of a decade instead of being pushed into its depths abruptly.  It’s still deep and dark. I’ll eventually climb out and then occasionallypeer down into it from the edge.

Others have been here.  And others will be on this path at some point.  It’s the path of life, not just grief.  I understand that now.  I do.

Loren, This Pickle’s For You

By Susan Dempsey       Sept. 28, 2017

Loren, one of my many first cousins, died last night after a long battle with debilitating Loren at heathers weddingillness that started when he was young.  He was 62, and he’d suffered, especially the past couple years, with a crumbling spine and all its effects on his struggling physique. I tell you about his illness, not to garner pity, but to set the stage to tell you about his inimitable personality. Loren was a positive force in this world, and I wouldn’t doubt he’s a strong one in the next as well.

First a little background:  My mom’s large family is centered around the small rural burg of Arkdale, Wisconsin, no more than a slowed-down-speed-limit curve on Highway 21 that includes the Old Mill bar, the local post office, a Lions park and the Trinity Lutheran Church amongst a few homes and old buildings.  It’s surrounded by farms and sand-bottomed woods.  Most of my aunts and uncles settled in or near that unincorporated town, many as farmers, and a few in nearby towns.  Loren’s parents, Uncle Helmer and Aunt Myrt, stayed in Arkdale and raised their family on their farm. His family has been, and continues to be, active in church, the Lions and other civic organizations. They, like the rest of this large Norwegian/Danish farm family, work hard every day, yet they love to play and laugh together. When our grandparents were alive we gathered at their farm.  Later, we gathered for annual family reunions at area parks, committed to stay in touch as our family grew exponentially and morphed along with the modern world.

Loren was first diagnosed with arthritis when he was very young, and as he grew so did his characteristic gait.  But it wasn’t the first thing you noticed about him.  You’d note his low-key manner of speaking and way of greeting strangers that usually included a generous amount of ribbing as well as a warm welcome.  He loved to tell and hear jokes, and he had a keen wit that could deliver a zinger when you least expected it. He’d remember your name after one visit, and he’d greet you the next time by name.  Any guests I brought with me to family functions throughout the years came away with the feeling of inclusion, in large part because of Loren. They’d remember him easily when I’d ask—not an easy feat considering the multitudes to whom they were subjected.

The second thing people would notice, and perhaps one of the first things they’d recall, was his long red, recently turning whiter, beard.  When I first quizzed my husband which cousin was Loren, he asked, “the one with the ZZ Top beard?”  Yes, that was Loren.  He was the bearded one in the souped-up, bumper-stickered electric wheelchair with one of a variety of hats perched on his head and perhaps a camouflaged or Green Bay Packer shirt.  As long as he was mobile, he was in the thick of things.

When he collapsed with severe back pain and landed in the hospital about 18 months ago, he endured surgery and therapy but was paralyzed.  Family and friends went into action to raise funds to assist him and his new wife, Peg, with the mounting bills.  Everyone in the community and beyond pitched in, many noting times when Loren had helped them.  But what amazed many was his unbeatable spirit.  He continued to smile and enjoy visitors when allowed.  He would still joke with family and have great conversations with friends who stopped by to check on him.  And he continuously expressed his thanks.  This man, who had served as a coach or a mentor to youth, was an active Luther League member and the first vice president and “tail twister” of the local Lions Club, was reaping what he had sown in the expressions of caring he received.

Loren could thank the devil for putting a log in his path because he knew he had someone with him in his UTV with a chain saw to make good use of it as bonfire wood. His positive outlook and creative spirit made him the mastermind behind the antics and crazy creations of his brother and cousins too.  He helped plan and create things like racing lawn mowers or even a Frankenstein-ish hillbilly-mobile from an old minivan, just to entertain family at our annual reunions.  The last time I saw him was at our reunion in August, where everyone greeted him with hugs—we were so happy to see him there again! During the past year, whenever someone visited his bedside, his eyes would light up and he’d thank them for coming. And he’d usually joke with them still.

That was Loren, always kidding.  But once, a few years ago, he told me something that stuck with me as a new way of looking at life.  It was during my parents’ anniversary party, and we’d just served dinner.  He called me over as I passed by his table and said, “Sue, the food is really good, but you forgot the pickles.”  At first, I thought he was kidding as usual, but when I laughed he continued, “You always have to have pickles.”  I walked away thinking, “Really? All this planning for the party, and that’s what he noticed?”

Now I look back, and I realize that short conversation always stayed with me for a reason.  Why would a pickle tray be so important? It’s a condiment—a second thought, isn’t it?  Or is it? Any self-respecting gathering in rural America should include a pickle tray.  It’s a display of artisan craft, as these are usually home grown and canned varieties of sweet and savory tidbits that provide the crunch and burst of flavor that many entrees miss.  This is the added detail that shows the dedication and love of both the cook and the party host.  They are a form of sharing our heritage with every meal, as pickles have been around for centuries and often provided the only form of flavorful green during hard winters.  They are love.  How can you not be positive if you’re eating sweet bread and butter pickles made by one of your favorite aunts?

Loren was right.  There should always be pickles at a party.

As I sit here two states away from Arkdale, knowing that I can’t join my family this weekend as they celebrate Loren’s life, his spirit and his energy, I felt I needed to share this.  It’s cathartic for me to write pieces like this, but I also hope it helps others remember.  And while you visit, share stories, listen to the service, I’ll be here.  But I know that the lunch after the service at the Trinity Lutheran Church will include tables laden with great sandwiches and casseroles, but most importantly, it’ll include a pickle tray.

May you all who attend choose a pickle for your plate and say a toast to Loren with it.  “Loren, this pickle’s for you!”  May we always remember to enjoy every moment and thank God for every sweet or salty taste he offers us, until we join Loren at that big party, where I’m sure there will be some fantastic pickles.

 

Aunt Viola, a Memory Cherished, and a Sound Now Missed.

As I received another message from a sibling about another of my aunts who left us, it hit me harder than I would’ve expected. I always thought it would become easier as I grew older, to say goodbye to loved ones who’ve left this world. But it’s not. It’s more like a sharp jab at a tender, bruised spot on my heart. You know, when someone hits you on a bruise that’s not quite healed? Like that, only deeper. Some people tell me they feel numb to that pain after a while, but I feel quite the opposite.

Perhaps the growing ache in my sentimental bones is due to the fact that I come from a large family, yet a close one. Mom is one of eleven, and Dad is one of six. These were prolific farm families who produced a multitude of cousins with whom we’ve shared our childhood, adolescence and even our young adulthood. We’ve always enjoyed each other’s company and rallied around one another in lighter times as well as in dark ones. Our aunts and uncles hold our past and history, but even more, they are part of the Greatest Generation. They’ve seen so much more than we have, endured more, worked through more, and guided us through more than we can fathom. To think that my own generation is next in line to lead our offspring is daunting at best. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we’ve just started out in this world. I have silver hair and most of us have grandchildren already.

My Aunt Viola passed away at 90 years old. She will be missed, not only because she was the living matriarch of my mom’s family, but also because she represents the fortitude of the true American farmer’s wife. She was one of the quieter ones of her sisters, but she still had fun and enjoyed the silliness they shared. But I’d often see her watching and smiling from the side of the room more than jumping into the middle of their dance. She had a strength about her, and sometimes a stern look for anyone she thought was out of line.

Vi and Clarence owned and ran a dairy farm for more than 25 years, then they decided to become school bus drivers. I often wonder if it was more challenging to herd and milk cattle or to shepherd kids aboard a bus while driving down the highway in snowy weather. After two and a half decades of farming in central Wisconsin, battling cold winters, soggy springs, sweltering summers and dry falls, who wouldn’t think you’d retire and move somewhere balmy and quiet? No. Instead they drove children to and from school each day for 18 years. Their Lutheran upbringing and work ethic told them they weren’t finished.

Not that they didn’t relax in their “spare” time, but Aunt Vi was known for her gardening, cooking, canning and baking as well as volunteering at the local VFW and Community Club. You need only pick up a copy of an old Trinity Lutheran Ladies Cookbook to see contributions with Viola York listed numerous times. She, my mom, and their sisters, were members of the local organizations and took turns as the leaders. What good Norwegian Lutherans don’t do that, after all?

There were eight sisters in the beginning, and Vi was the second oldest. While others among them were more outgoing and spontaneous, Vi was the depth. While on a long drive just after learning of her death, I realized that Viola was like the viola in a string orchestra. She wasn’t like the violin always in the front rows, with the highest soprano notes who usually plays the melody. No, she’s always been like the somewhat stronger, deeper viola who plays the alto harmonies and occasionally hits the melody during a few strains of music. Viola music is written most often in an alto clef, so it’s not meant to be played in the same octaves as others. It’s an instrument that is a little sturdier, it’s strings are tougher and it takes them a second longer to produce sound when a bow is drawn across them. So too, was Aunt Vi. She was not quick to react, but when needed she spoke out clearly so all knew where she stood. As I said, lower, softer, mellower yet stronger.

Aunt Vi, we know you’re now reunited with Uncle Clarence and with Cousin Donnie in heaven. You’re being greeted with open arms by sisters Caroline, Ginny and Verna and brothers Norm and Roy. They’ve been waiting, and now you’ve joined them in awaiting the rest of us. Meanwhile, we sit here thinking about how much we miss you–all of you–and how much more shallow life feels because we’ve lost that alto voice that bolsters us. One of my favorite hymns sounds best in that alto range, and I’ll think of you whenever I sing it.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I’m found.
I was blind, but now I see.

Godspeed, Aunt Vi, ‘til we meet again.

Susie

Happy Fourth? A Redneck Adventure on the River

The Fourth of July conjures many happy memories of years past, but one year—during Jeff’s “boat phase” we embarked on an adventure that is unforgettable—as much as I try.

My favorite redneck went through a time where he seemed to collect boats, starting with the 27-foot cuddy cabin Cobalt he purchased two days before our wedding. Had I known about that purchase, it may have given me fair warning, I suppose. But that set the stage for a growing collection of floating vessels of different shapes and sizes that reached its peak when he owned said cruiser above, plus a 16-foot runabout, two wave runners, an aluminum canoe, a gutted 43-foot houseboat and a 26-foot Chiquita Banana—all at one time. (Seven total, all except one of which is now gone. We kept the $75 canoe.)

The last of these was an ugly yellow, circa-early ‘70s cabin cruiser that was actually named “The Chiquita.” It was my least favorite of the collection and the one to which Jeff seemed most drawn. He picked it up as a salvage deal when doing some hauling for a local marina. (When someone says “free boat,” Jeff listens.) The exterior upholstery was in decent shape, even if the interior was old, musty-smelling harvest gold plaid and shag carpet, with dark plastic “wood” cabinets and even a head. Captain Jeff worked on the single engine and had assured me that the inboard motor was fully functioning. The others have stories of their own, but this one boat was the catalyst of the most infamous Dempsey Fourth of July ever.

You may know (from a previous story at least) that the Mississippi both awes and scares me. Jeff had been trying to convince me that a cruise up the river to St. Louis to watch the fireworks from our boat would be the epitome of a patriotic and fun adventure. We could bring friends, we could pack some great food and enjoy the entire day on the boat, and cruise back afterward—at night. The return night cruise was my greatest fear, but I needn’t have worried about that. No, that was one worry I needn’t have wasted.

I tell you this tale now, as I believe all statute of limitations have been exceeded. I’d say the names were changed to protect the innocent, but the characters already know who they are, and at least one has been urging me to write this story since my first blog. So there we were; planning a day on the river to celebrate Independence Day, inviting friends to join us, preparing plenty of food, scrubbing the poop deck (what is that anyway?), icing the beer and fueling up the trucks and boats.

Our friends, Lesley and Tommy, plus their kids, joined us. Tommy invited another couple on their boat as well. They pulled their jet-powered bass boat, and we pulled The Chiquita to a nearby marina on the Meramec River, within cruising minutes from the mouth where it empties into the Mississippi. From there we planned to have our mini-regatta cruise upriver to an anchoring spot in front of the Gateway Arch grounds, the site of the annual VP Fair, a three-day extravaganza of air shows, music, crowds and fireworks.
Backing down the boat ramp and launching the boats was easy and quick. Jeff gave me the keys and had me pull his truck and the trailer back up onto the lot while he held the boat. I could do that, as it didn’t require me backing up with the trailer attached. Lesley and the kids planned to ride on the Chiquita with us, while Tommy commandeered his own boat with the other couple aboard. This plan worked best for Lesley and Tommy. This way Les could enjoy her day a little more relaxed, and Tommy could pretend he was in control of his day.

We took off from the dock, cruised down river, and soon found ourselves in the main channel of the Mississippi. It was a bright, beautiful, blue-sky day full of promise. As we cruised northward, we realized there weren’t any barges on the river that day. “Hmmm, must be the holiday,” I thought. The water was swift, but calm. But 20 minutes later, barges appeared from nowhere and seemed to be surrounding us on both sides, going in both directions. The water was churning like a washing machine, and we had one tow boat honking at us to get out of the way. We learned later that river traffic had been stopped for one of the air shows above, so the impatient river captains were swarming their loaded cargo away from the banks to get on their way in a hurry. The cruise upstream was slower than we thought, but we had all day. No worries.

Jeff had his hands full, but he needed a beer. So Lesley and I, in our usual fashion, broke out the snacks and drinks. While this boat was ugly, it did have a table, cup holders and benches on the back deck behind the captain to enjoy the sunshine while having a bite to eat. We watched the traffic around us and occasionally tried to talk to Tommy on the other boat. He was on his way to enjoying his Fourth like any good redneck, with beer in hand. While we couldn’t hear anything he said, he was animatedly working to impress the other couple, a co-worker and his girlfriend. Tommy wasn’t alone with his drink, but he was definitely already having fun.

We were just a couple miles upstream, and we’d just finished settling in with the veggies and dip, crackers and cheese, when we heard a sudden higher pitch coming from the motor. Jeff whipped his head around to look at the rear, then went through the gears of the boat. “We’ve lost a gear on the out drive,” he shouted over the engine and the barge traffic noise. “I think we can keep going,” he continued. “Nope, I’ve got nothin’ but reverse!” I felt the bile rising in my throat. “Now what do we do?” I asked as I looked around at the surrounding vessels in the middle of the channel. I imagined us drifting into an oncoming barge, meeting a wet and violent demise.

He yelled over to Tommy, who pulled alongside to discuss our options—our two captains in conference to strategize. They discussed the option of having Tommy’s smaller boat tow ours the rest of the way upstream to our destination. Luckily, they decided that wasn’t wise, and we turned around to go back. We tied a tow rope between the boats, and Tommy led the way back downstream. “At least we’ll be going with the current,” I said optimistically, as I gobbled a chip and some dip, washed down with a swig of my beer. The bass boat rode low on the water, and The Chiquita floated higher, but it seemed to be working. We slowly rode southward. At least the barges seemed to recognize the situation and now gave us a wide berth.

We could see the mouth of the Meramec coming close when the bass boat sputtered and died. Tommy jumped up, swayed a little as he got to his engine and tried to restart it. “Damn it, we’re out of fuel!” he yelled. All I could think was, we were going to drift past the mouth of the Meramec and we’ll never be able to regain it upstream. We’re dead in the water and we may end up in Cape Girardeau, 100 miles downstream! “Quick! Jeff, throw out our anchor,” I yelled. I figured that’d keep us in place until we could figure out what to do next. Wrong! The anchor did seem to hold us in place, but as the swift Mississippi current flowed past us, it was pulling Tommy’s bass boat downward. “HEY! You’re gonna’ swamp me! Shit!”

“Jeff, cut the anchor rope!”

“Who cares about the damn anchor! Cut it or he’s going under!”

“Hand me a knife!” Jeff hollered as he scrambled over the bow of the boat and reached down to the anchor rope. He managed to cut it away, Tommy’s boat bounced up out of the water and righted itself, and we were adrift again.

“Hey look, there’s someone coming this way from the Meramec!” We all stood up and waved all arms frantically at the oncoming boat. Luck, and the code of the water helped. They saw us in distress and pulled up to give us a hand. The runabout, filled with a family on their way out for the day, returned to the Meramec and towed both our boats upstream to the Meramec marina. Once we arrived at the dock, we all thanked them profusely and offered them money for fuel, which they refused as they smiled, shook their heads and cruised back down the river.

We needed to get the boats on the trailers and out of the water. Jeff managed, after backing down deeper into the water than normal, to get ours onto the trailer by floating it, although a little crooked, up to the crank stop. We sat on the boats for a little while, as we had plenty of snacks and drinks, and the kids wanted to enjoy the water a little. Tommy stewed in his juice, while the other couple disappeared quickly. After much discussion between them, Lesley backed her truck and trailer down the ramp, although a little curb action was involved. (She, unlike me, has no fear.) Jeff and wobbly Tommy hooked up the bass boat onto his trailer. Lesley and Tommy left for home before us.

Jeff and I started down the road toward home. We took a right turn at a traffic light. Then Jeff said, “Uh, oh!” I looked in the side mirror to see the boat and trailer drifting to the right, away from the back of the truck. It had come off the hitch. He pulled off the road and got out quickly to re-hook the trailer and check all the safety chains.

“Good thing for those chains,” he said as he climbed back into the truck cab.

We did make it home that night, but we didn’t make it to the fireworks at the Arch. Instead, we collapsed on the couch in front of the television, watching them on the local station.

“Let’s not do that again,” I said, laughing. “Awe, come on. I can have it fixed in no time,” Jeff replied, smiling. He knew, without more thought, The Chiquita was destined for someone else, not us. Since that time, I have had other episodes on boats with Jeff, and they rarely were successful. In fact, we’ve decided that I bring a curse on any boat he owns, if I set foot aboard. The reason why we still have the canoe is that it hasn’t failed us—even though he and I can’t seem to paddle in the same direction together. But that’s another story.

———————————————————————————————————

Years have gone by, so now I can see the humor in this story. But our friend, Tommy, is gone. He and Lesley broke up a couple years later, and he and Jeff became closer friends. Tommy gave us many reasons to laugh along the way, and finally, a reason to grieve. I like to think he can read this from the great beyond and shake his head, and laugh along with us. Happy Fourth to you Tom!

The Junk Man Cometh

I believe we are all frugal in our own way. The color of satisfaction lines the second-hand coat you find for next to nothing. It’s the reason why women shop the clearance racks, why I and my friends get excited for estate sales, why Pinterest has its followers and why Jeff wants to be a junk man.
If you look into the heart of a Redneck, you’ll see the stuff of a hoarder who recycles. My man stashes away car parts like a chipmunk hides his nuts–err, sorry Mom–like a dog buries his bones. He may not always remember exactly where it is, but there will come a project that requires that one piece of metal he already owns. That Redneck’s soul thrives on taking items beyond repair and re-designing them in ways that make other Rednecks envious.
Our cold winters—Jeff’s off season—fed his obsession by allowing him time to think of ways to benefit from picking up the junk of others. A few years ago, it hit its peak when he decided he’d try to barter with a few people who needed their junk hauled. He’d remove a trailer full if he could keep “the good stuff.” And he soon had more “good stuff” than we had room to store. He even borrowed a semi trailer from a friend to store what he thought we might sell at yard sales in the spring. Little did I know that I’d be enlisted as the yard sale queen, nor did I believe the number of smelly chairs and couches that could fit in a semi. (Jeff, you see, has very little sense of smell after years of breathing paint and other fumes in his garage.)
We didn’t get rich from selling junk. No, we didn’t even pay for the gas to cover hauling his loaded trailer back to the house. But we did collect a few items to use around the house. A lamp here, a patio set there, a desk without the keyboard tray, or a few old photos of someone else’s family. And it kept Jeff busy and happy. I’d come home from work and hear, “Hey Honey, come down and check out what I brought home today!” I’d grin and bear it, because I have one of those re-use-it genes too.
So today, when we were enjoying lunch with a friend, I smiled as Jeff told us his dumpster diving story. It had been raining all week, and since business is slow with this weather, he took one of his trucks to our neighbor’s shop for its required inspections. Jeff enjoys being able to circumvent the system and walk through the shop entrance like one of the guys instead of going to the service desk. While he sat in the shop office waiting—no sterile waiting room with old magazines and a TV tuned to CNN for this guy—he looked around a bit.
In a nearby trash can, he spotted the top of an umbrella that appeared in serviceable condition. “It only had one spot at the top with a slight bend in it,” he explained. So he started rearranging the other trash in the vessel to maneuver his prize out without dumping yesterday’s lunch or the morning’s stale donuts in the process. As he pondered his find, he noted the two construction workers standing outside watching him, chuckling between themselves and shaking their heads. He looked up and grinned, holding up his hands as if to say, “So?”
He pulled the umbrella from the can like Mary Poppins would from her valise and proceeded to open it. (Yes, inside.) His satisfied smile didn’t last long though, as just after he had it opened fully, the handle broke in two, and the top fell off onto the ground. The two workers outside roared with laughter, when he just shrugged, tossed the pieces back into the can and walked out into the rain.
I guess some junk is just that.

Ode to Aunt Ginny, May 30, 2015

May 30, 2015

“Please don’t squeeze my Charmin, don’t squeeze her so tight…”

Aunt Ginny and Uncle Garland, 1978

Aunt Ginny and Uncle Garland, 1978

I still remember Uncle Garland singing that chorus at many family events. We all enjoyed it, but we all knew he sang it for Aunt Ginny. You could see the twinkle in his eyes.

What is it about her that he so loved? And what is it about her that so many of us cherish?

Virginia Pedersen Chaffee is my mom’s sister, her closest sibling in age, just a year and a half her senior. Plus they were best friends. In fact, Ginny and Gar introduced her to Dad. They were a foursome.

Some of my fondest memories of visiting Arkdale included staying at the Chaffee household overnight. Everyone there was always so busy. Aunt Ginny saw to that. She kept everyone going to get accomplished all that needed to be done around their farm.

She worked alongside Garland, cooked, and cleaned, but she also corralled her brood to keep them on task. She taught them how to work and how to have fun. If you know any of my cousins, Diana, Jerry, Nancy, Linda or Carol, then you know this is true. They are all hard-working, honest people who love to have fun.

As one of the Pedersen girls, Ginny has been known to kick up her heels with her sisters and brothers. She, Mom and her other siblings have always been known to get the giggles when they’re together. It’s one of my favorite things about them, and it’s infectious. But she–as is Mom—was shy when first meeting others. I remember one dinner at my former in-laws’ home when I thought she, another aunt (I think it was Care), and Mom were different people entirely. They were so very quiet, I could hardly believe it!

But perhaps she and her sisters had so much fun together because they felt so safe with one another, which was fostered by their parents, Hans and Hilda. While they may have had a few sibling disagreementa—as anyone with siblings does–they have always known that their love for one another is constant and strong. Their bonds have stood the test of time, of laughter and joy, of divergent paths and crossing lines, and of tragedy and grief.

Ginny lost Garland much too soon; more than 25 years ago. Yet she did not allow her grief to consume her or to keep her from sharing her bounteous love with her family. Instead she upheld all that the two of them built together. She continued to work around her home to keep it shining and productive. She was always working–until her physical being would no longer allow her to mow the grass, chop the wood, plant and water and weed, then harvest the garden, cook the meals, bake the cakes, clean the house, work in the community or volunteer at the Lutheran church.

In their later years, she, Aunt Care and Mom spent so much time with Dad chauffeuring them around that they became known as “Fred and his Harem.” They laughed about that. Dad always enjoyed their company, and he knew the joy Mom has sharing in her sisters’ lives. He may not remember much about that time now, but I know he still holds a special place in his heart for Aunt Ginny.

She’s always been easy to love, easy to hug. And now we find it hard to only hold her in our hearts and in our prayers instead of in our arms. She’ll live on in her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, of course. But she’ll also live on in good works, in her contributions to her church and community. But even more, she’ll live in our laughter together, and in our connected family. We have been given a legacy to keep our connection strong. In her name, as well as in the names of those who’ve gone before her, we will.

Meanwhile, we can all hear the last phrase of that song being sung from the heavens as Uncle Garland welcomes her and holds her again,

“She’s soft and she’s gentle, and sweet as can be,
And if Ginny needs Squeezin’, just leave that to me!”

Please Allow me to Introduce Myself: I am my Mother

MOM in TexasHappy Mother’s Day

Susan's Path

How many middle-aged women have had the epiphany that they’ve become their mother? And how many have come to realize that’s not such a bad thing? When I was a teenager, I’d have been horrified at the prospect, yet I now find myself both relieved and pleased that I am certainly my mother’s daughter. (Ok, you can skim over the fact that I’ve admitted I’m middle-aged, that’s another subject.)

So who is my mother? Esther Helen Pedersen Stevens was born in 1930, the middle child of eleven children who blessed Hans and Hilda Pedersen, Norwegian and Danish Lutheran farmers. Their home in Arkdale, Wisconsin was a sandy patch of corn, hay fields, vegetable and flower gardens the family shared with dairy cattle, chickens and pets. She and her siblings were all born in the farmhouse that had belonged to Grandma’s adoptive parents, the Olsens. They weathered the Great Depression as…

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Please Allow me to Introduce Myself: I am my Mother

How many middle-aged women have had the epiphany that they’ve become their mother? And how many have come to realize that’s not such a bad thing? When I was a teenager, I’d have been horrified at the prospect, yet I now find myself both relieved and pleased that I am certainly my mother’s daughter. (Ok, you can skim over the fact that I’ve admitted I’m middle-aged, that’s another subject.)

So who is my mother? Esther Helen Pedersen Stevens was born in 1930, the middle child of eleven children who blessed Hans and Hilda Pedersen, Norwegian and Danish Lutheran farmers. Their home in Arkdale, Wisconsin was a sandy patch of corn, hay fields, vegetable and flower gardens the family shared with dairy cattle, chickens and pets. She and her siblings were all born in the farmhouse that had belonged to Grandma’s adoptive parents, the Olsens. They weathered the Great Depression as many farm families did; raising their own food and making do with what was available, fixing what broke and creating items they needed.

Grandpa worked the farm while Grandma fed and clothed them all. He was boisterous and fun-loving and she was quiet and shy. Mom inherited parts of each their personalities. She is introverted until she becomes acquainted with people, but if she’s among family she blossoms into a funny girl who loves to laugh and dance. (She and her sisters were notorious for dressing up in Grandpa’s clothes, giggling and dancing at parties.) Mom is musical. Some of her sisters learned the piano or other instruments, but she never had a lesson. She can’t read music, yet she plays the piano by ear. She is a smart lady who earned a high school diploma at a time and place many didn’t, as did all the Pedersen children. After graduation she worked in a doctor’s office.

Mom met Dad when she was 19 years old, and they married a few short weeks later. They had just moved to Minnesota when Dad received orders to report to active duty, so they repacked their home and returned to Arkdale. Mom stayed with Grandpa and Grandma while Dad was gone. She gave birth to my first sibling, Fred, Jr., while Dad crawled amongst fox holes near Korea’s 39th parallel. He sent letters home, never hinting of the danger he faced because he knew she worried. She and family took a plethora of pictures of little Freddie and wrote letters.

When Dad returned they moved 200 miles from home, and Mom was soon pregnant again with Ron. Polio struck both her and Dad, and they were quarantined while Grandma Stevens kept Fred. Mom told me nurses would walk down the corridor, closing all the doors whenever someone died on the ward. But they both recovered and returned home.

Ron was followed by Debbie, and then five years later came me and then brother Jeff. Our family was then complete. They bought a new home, and Dad worked while Mom watched over her brood. She managed to keep us fed and clothed on a limited budget, while serving as counselor, referee and sometimes warden.

In those earlier days, Mom would cook and clean, sew and paint. One of my earliest memories is sleepily wandering into the kitchen to find her on her hands and knees, hair tied up in bandana and arms working a scrub brush through a sudsy puddle. When she spotted me, she pointed toward the door and firmly said, “Out!” I backed up and sat in the bucket. She shook her head and fished me out and changed me. Seems she was always rescuing me like that. Another time she pulled me down from the neighbor’s slide where I was dangling when my sweater caught on the way down.

She baked bread each week. She’d hand me a lump of bread dough to knead and place into my own little pan. She baked angel food cakes. I recall them sitting upside down over a beer bottle on the counter to cool. She baked rhubarb pies. She braised beef pot roast with horseradish, just like Grandma made. She would let us help her make applesauce using a colander I now have, all five of us taking turns squishing the apple pulp through it into the bowl. At Christmas she’d cover the kitchen table with newspaper and mix colorful bowls of frosting and let us have at it with the stacks and stacks of sugar cookies she’d mixed, rolled, cut out and baked.

She took classes to become a keypuncher when business computers occupied entire rooms, and she returned to work when we were all in school. When the older kids were off on their own, Jeff and I would come home for lunch and after school on our own. I know she worried, but she was just a phone call away. I remember calling her whenever we fought, or to complain about the list of chores she left us to do, or to ask questions about the recipe we were trying for dinner. She taught us both how to bake cakes and pies and cook for the family.

Dad was always her back-up, but she was the one who disciplined us first. She commanded respect, even when we all surpassed her in height. She worried and loved us through our teenage angst, our failures, our anxiety, our broken hearts, our experimentation and our smart mouths. And we didn’t make it easy for her. One of her favorites to me when I gave her grief was, “I hope you have a daughter just like you!”

She is our heart, our compassion, our sense of fairness and our sense of humor. She’s the role model that I’ve tried to emulate. I once thought that a college degree and a great career would make me all I needed to be. I now know better.

I now know just how much she worked to allow us to be ourselves. When we camped on vacations, she worked tirelessly packing, prepping and throughout the trip. I still love to camp, but I do wish Mom could join us camping (I think she prefers hotels.) so I could wait on her this time.

I love to sew when I have a chance. I enjoy baking and cooking, but maybe not so much the cleaning, even if she did teach me the proper ways. I’ve baked bread, pies and cookies, and I still use the colander a few times each year for my own applesauce. I’ve gone back to school as my family’s needs changed, and I’ve worked at making a home.

I once called Mom after my own teenage daughter snapped back at me as any 15-year-old can do, just to tell her that I in fact do have a daughter just like me. She laughed, of course.

I believe I’ve gained her sense of humor as well as her compassion, her sentimentality, her music and her song. I only hope I also have the strength she’s shown in recent years, as much as she possessed earlier, only I didn’t realize it.

And I fervently hope my children see me as I now see my Mom. I can only hope that I am my mother.