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.


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.


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…

View original post 1,050 more words

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.

Can you Eat A Chili Dog While Driving?

One thing about rednecks is they think they’re invincible. (The old, “Hold my beer, watch this,” comes to mind, but that’s not what I mean today—that’s a whole other story.) I’m talking about the constant urge to multitask while driving. Well, okay, so that’s probably a 21st Century human thing, but Jeff takes it to a new art form. From our first date, I could’ve told you he likes to talk on the phone and drive. He took more than three calls in a five-mile drive.

Whenever we leave the state, I try to drive at least the first 100 miles to ensure he gets all his calls out of his system and then falls asleep. (Crap, now he’ll know!) That way, I know I won’t be hitting the imaginary passenger-side brake or flicking my head to the side to urge him to change lanes or turn when he’s in mid-conversation. If I’m driving, I know he won’t be looking up phone numbers, writing notes, taking drinks of his soda, hitting the radio or gesturing if he doesn’t like the caller, all while driving on the interstate. And he won’t be eating at the wheel either.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll eat a sandwich or a few fries at the wheel. I’m sure we all do when the need arises. But I at least try to keep the meal simple and driver-friendly. No tacos, two-handed sloppy burgers or anything requiring a utensil. And no salads.

Yes, Jeff will try to eat healthy by eating a salad occasionally. Unfortunately, he’ll try to devour it while steering with his knee and navigating to his next appointment. “Honey, it’s not so healthy when you have an accident because you’re eating a salad.” Eating greens may keep you around longer, unless you have a fender bender while trying to fork a tomato. Yes, it has happened.

He is talented. I’ll give him that. Remember when you first learned to ride a bike? “Look Ma, no hands!” That’s what I think drives Jeff—and others, myself included–to drive and multitask like this. He’s determined to prove he can do it. That, and it’s the old, “but I can make good time” argument. You wouldn’t think that’d make sense here. The standard view of a redneck would be someone who moves at a slower pace through life. Jeff has never moved slowly. Perhaps that’s why I thought he was in a closet so long? He moves too fast. Add that to eating at the wheel, and it doesn’t bode well.

The day we decided to take a road trip to Hannibal comes to mind. It was a cool fall morning, and I’d taken the day off work so we could spend some quality time together. I downed a bowl of cereal and grabbed a bag of snacks and jackets while Jeff sent his crews off to work that morning. Hannibal is a two-hour drive from our home. We planned to take a leisurely drive, visit relatives and check out a tourist site or two before returning home that day. But, as usual, we left the house later than we planned.

Now, I’ve learned over 17 years that Jeff always has at least three stops to make on our way out of town. He’ll go by the gas station, the bank, or whatever before we ever leave St. Louis. And he invariably stops for something to eat. That morning, he was more grumpy than usual and short with me. He was hungry. I should’ve known and prepared—I now would bring him breakfast. I get a little testy when my stomach growls too, but Jeff? Well, you know. I know you know.

We pulled into the McDonald’s drive-thru at 10:40am, hoping he could get a breakfast sandwich. “Sorry sir, we stop serving that at 10:30,” said the box.

“Grrr…,” I heard from the left side of the truck. “Where else can I get breakfast? I need breakfast!”

“It’s a little late, so I’m not sure. You don’t want anything else?”

“No! I need breakfast.”

We drove another mile and saw a Sonic sign and decided to try that. Jeff pulled the truck into the drive-thru lane and asked again about breakfast. “We’re sorry sir….blah, blah,” we heard. I asked him, “You just need something. Is there anything else you’d like?”

He leaned over and said, “Ok, give me a chili dog and a large soda, and a cup of coffee” and he pulled around to the car-hop delivery spot. The wait seemed longer, only because he wasn’t happy. At this point, I was thinking, “How is he going to eat that and drive?” A girl brought out a soda, my coffee and a bag and took his money. He drove away, digging in the bag as he turned out onto the road. He handed me the coffee and the tray with the chili dog.

“Damn, there’s no fork in here!” He did a 180 (yes he can do them on land handily as well) and went back around the Sonic lot, past the order box and back to the delivery door. “Hey!” he yelled out the window and waved. Someone saw him and came out with a quizzical look. “Can I get a fork or something please?!”

With a spork (you know, the spoon thing with short tines) in hand, we finally set off for our road trip. “Are you going to pull over and eat that?” I asked hopefully. (OK, it was sarcastically, but I’m the one writing the story here.) Jeff grumbled as he pulled into another lane and stopped at a light. He took the chili dog tray from me and tore the paper from it.

He held the steering wheel with his knee and stabbed the thing with the spork as if it were a fish ready to flop back into the water from the bank. He thought he was about to take a big spork-ful into his mouth. You could see the gleam in his eye, but the dog wasn’t cooperating. Remember readers, the chili dogs at Sonic that early in the day aren’t usually hot and quite ready to eat. In fact this one was a little tough yet. Instead of cutting apart at the spot where it was stabbed, it stayed intact. When Jeff pulled back on the utensil, it instead flung pieces of chili and chili-soaked bun all over the steering wheel, the dash, the windshield and his lap. What could I do? I spit out my mouthful of coffee, laughing.

He sat there while the light turned green, with this half-naked hot dog hanging from half a bun, covered with chili and bobbing up and down obscenely. I pointed and laughed some more, only harder. He cursed under his breath, rolled down the window and chucked the whole thing outside into the ditch. “Hey! That’s littering,” I scolded. “Who cares, the damn birds will eat it,” Jeff growled. (Really, he growled.) He took the one napkin they gave him and tried to wipe the chili off the wheel. I was near tears at this point. I couldn’t stop laughing.

Jeff turned the radio up to try to drown out my laughing. I was snorting and crying, I was laughing so hard. He glowered at me and stared ahead. When I’d been laughing five more minutes without stopping, I could see the sides of his mouth starting to crack. He was trying not to smile as he drove down the highway. I giggled. I wiped my eyes. I laughed and chuckled.

Finally, he cracked, but he didn’t want me to think that he thought it was funny too. As he started to fully grin, he looked sideways at me and said quietly as he chuckled himself, “bitch.”

Barge Right On Ahead!

It was our second date, and Jeff suggested we take his boat out for a ride on the Mississippi River. I’ve always loved taking to the water, but I admit I was nervous about Old Man River. I grew up with lakes surrounding me, and I learned to fear the currents of swift rivers. I’m no speed freak. I’m more comfortable in a row boat or canoe than behind the wheel of a boat skimming and bouncing through waves. So when we hooked up to his runabout, I wasn’t sure what to expect—from the river or the old man.

Just who was this guy, and how would he deal with the inevitable trials that I’d learned are part of boating? It seems no matter how prepared a boater is, a floating vessel with a motor that runs only occasionally is prime for challenges. Would Jeff be the kind of guy who would cuss, throw and kick things? I figured it wouldn’t be long before I knew. We’d not more than backed the trailer down the ramp when Jeff leaned over to unhook the rope from the bow. The contents of his shirt pocket spilled into the shallow water.

“There goes my wallet!” he shouted. So I jumped in and started pulling credit cards and receipts out of the water and gravel. First thing learned? Jeff has no wallet. He carries a bundle of cards, license, bills and receipts in his shirt pocket instead. No leather, no money clip, not even a rubber band around it. Second thing? So far, not a swear word was uttered. He just chuckled as he let me pick up the cards while he guided the boat off the trailer and around the dock to get out of the way of waiting boaters at the ramp. Who IS this guy?

Once we had the truck and trailer parked and supplies for the day stowed aboard, my date attempted to start the motor. I stood on the dock and watched (“OK, now we’ll see the real temper,” I thought.) A few adjustments, a sheepish smile, an “I just got this boat,” and a spray or two of starting fluid, and we were off. We chugged down the slough to the main channel while making small talk.

This was my first boat trip on the Mississippi. As we left the closed-in mud and tree-lined slough, I saw the horizon open up onto a wide expanse of churning water dotted with boats, wave runners and passing barges. Jeff, half standing and half sitting on the back of the driver’s seat, pointed the bow north and grabbed the throttle to speed up. As he pushed the lever forward, the box that attached it to the side wall came off in his hand. He looked down. He glanced at me. “Oh shit!” He tried to put it back on the wall with one hand. That didn’t work. He looked at me. He looked back at the throttle. I grabbed the wheel of the boat so he was free to handle the handle. After slowing the boat to a troll speed, he found a couple wire ties and reattached the box to the wall. “That’ll do for now,” he said as he showered down on it again, and we took off upstream once more.

I said something, and he turned to me to answer when the wind caught his cap and sailed it out over the water. “My hat!” he yelled and made a quick 180-degree turn. I hung on as the boat tilted into the turn and yelled back, “It needed washing anyway!” It was a well-worn baseball cap that he wore every day onto worksites, and it showed. He inched the boat close, and I reached out and pulled it from the water.

We cruised upriver to a shore side restaurant where we enjoyed a late lunch before heading back out onto the river. Jeff kept up the conversation as he maneuvered the boat through the traffic. It dawned on me that he’s the guy who turns to talk to you as he drives. I listened and nodded while I kept an eye on the river ahead. This water highway gave me a case of the nerves, so I was determined to watch for danger even if he had no worries. (Now that I think back, that could very well be the theme of our entire life together!)

Jeff was now enjoying the ride, and he was trying to impress me with conversation. He was facing me now more than he was ahead. For the life of me, I had no idea what he was saying, as I realized we were gaining on a long barge in the middle of the channel ahead of us. The tow boat at the back of the monstrous floating train was throwing up a wake that looked to be about ten feet high, and we were heading straight at the wall of water from the side.

I didn’t want him to jerk the boat, so I calmly nodded again and said, “Barge.” To which he nodded and kept talking. So I sat up straighter, and I said loudly, “Barge!” He nodded again. I guess he thought I was agreeing with whatever he was saying (good little date?). What was he saying anyway? I had no idea, but I now started to feel the panic rising. I stood up in the boat (Yes, Dad, I’m sorry, you always told me to never stand up in a moving boat, but I did.) I pointed emphatically at the now looming wall of water and yelled, “BARGE!!!!” He finally followed my gesture and turned his head around. “Oh, THAT barge!” He swung us around in another 180 degree turn, tipping us inward and away from the wake just in time as I clung to the edge of the seat fighting the g-forces, trying to sit back down before I was tossed into the water and swallowed whole by the Old Man.

The boat leveled out, and he turned back the other way again. (I may not have known this guy well, but he sure liked half-circle turns.) Once I regained my composure, we both laughed as we followed the river back to the slough where we put in just a few hours before. I was relieved when we slowed below wake speed. But the boat didn’t just slow down, it sputtered and stopped. Now what?

I asked, “Did we run out of gas?” Jeff replied, “No way, the gauge says we have a quarter tank yet.” He checked a couple things and tried to start it again. It wouldn’t start. He went to the back and opened the gas tank and said, “Yep, we’re out of gas.” I could see his face turning red as the steam inside rose. Yet he didn’t completely blow. A woman in another boat came to our rescue just then and towed us the last length back to the boat ramp. He could have let his pride get in the way, but he didn’t. He thanked her very sweetly and offered her money for gas.

Now I guess you’re wondering, “When did he lose it?” Oh, he has….many times since that date, but I knew then that if he really needed to watch his manners he would. Even a redneck can hold his temper when trying to impress a new woman in his life. I matter enough to him that he’d care about how he appeared in my eyes. While he may lose his temper–and yes, he does throw things and cuss–on the truly important matters, he comes through with flying redneck colors.

What IS a Redneck Anyway?

While our friends will tell you there was never a closet where Jeff hid his redneck self, I realize the term “redneck” means different things to different people. It depends on where you live, your personal politics AND the characters with whom you surround yourself. Historically it’s been used in a variety of ways, but one thing is constant–these aren’t “ruling class” folks.

The term “redneck” has been around much longer than Jeff Foxworthy’s comedy (although we all know he made the redneck popular). Most tend to believe it’s an American stereotype that once referred to the red necks earned by poor, Southern farmers who worked in the sun. But not so! The Scots seem to have the earliest claim as they called the rebels rising against Cromwell rednecks in the 1640s. Supposedly those immigrants brought the moniker with them to America.

Redneck has also described Roman Catholics in Northern England, coal miners in the early 20th century, and even factions of Southern Democrats around the turn of that century too. (I know, you thought they were Republicans.)

Urban progressives might say a redneck is a bigot against modern ways and liberal political views. Yet, Ed Abbey, an environmental activist from the 1970s, used the term to mobilize rural folks in an essay, “In Defense of the Redneck,” and coined the bumper sticker, “Rednecks for Wilderness.” You mean there are people who aren’t surrounded by cement who care about trees?

As a transplant to Missouri from the North, I once saw a redneck as a backwoods lout who refused to see the light of modern civilization and its benefits. (Insert choir music) Some may think I’ve regressed, but I think I’ve grown. Today my view is different, I suppose due to the fact that I married Jeff and exposed myself to a whole new culture. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy Classical music, finer hotels and good wine, and my politics are still more left than right.

So how do I describe a redneck today? Many Southern rednecks are fond of the term and proudly proclaim themselves as such. It’s a guy who rebels against authority, he embraces the simpler things in life and places his priorities on working hard and playing harder. He (or she!) may not have a lot of money, a well-appointed home or a manicured lawn, but he can make-do with whatever he’s given. He lives in what we affectionately refer to as a “project-rich environment.” That may be a garage (and sometimes a back yard) full of guys, trucks and parts, muddy boots by the door and a fridge full of Milwaukee’s Best Light to facilitate the creative process.

My type of redneck (aka Jefferson Lee Dempsey) likes having guns, hunts for food as much as for sport, and he loves being able to say that he “outfoxed” the “Man” by making his place more self-sufficient. He cuts and splits wood to help defray the cost of fuel or electricity, and he may even devise homemade alternative energy sources. (You know…solar panels made from beer cans!) He should own stock in a duct tape manufacturer as well as tools, with which he can fix almost anything given a few months or years.

He grew up on Rock music but loves Bluegrass as well as Country, both old and new. (His favorite of all time is David Allan Coe’s You Never Even Called Me By My Name, yet he’ll quote Alice’s Restaurant too.) His man cave is his shop. His main source of recreation is taking to the trails with wheels not a backpack, to play with his buddies.

He sees “politically correct” as a diversionary tactic by those who refuse to acknowledge our differences as well as our responsibilities. “The trouble with our society today…” he starts to say, and I may cringe, but I’ll listen. We’ve agreed that we aren’t going to change each other’s minds on politics much, but we’ve learned to open ourselves to more points of view.

Most important though, is that he can laugh at himself. Guess that’s why I love him the way I do. And I guarantee you that many of the stories I’ll share here will start with Jeff telling me, “Hey, did you tell them about the time…?”