Things That Go Boom in the Night Frighten Cabela

Last year COVID canceled the city-sponsored fireworks. Many people in our neighborhood bought fireworks and staged their own shows on the Fourth of July. In the twenty-four years I’ve lived here, the amateur firework shows have never been louder or lasted longer.

Boom, snap, crackle, and bang reverberated from after sunset until sometime after midnight. My twelve-year-old poodle, Cabela, distraught at the noise that wouldn’t end, trembled. I took her to the basement, her comfort spot when a thunderstorm or a few pre- or post-Fourth-of-July fireworks explode.

But she didn’t crawl into her kennel and curl up like she normally does. She slunk into the back of the basement next to my husband’s workbench, sat on his cushioned floor mat, and stared at the wall, waiting for the noise to stop. She had the demeanor of a shell-shocked soldier.

I stayed in the basement with her. I sat on the stool in front of the workbench. Eventually, she lay down, keeping her nose to the wall. I wondered, Does she think if she stays in the corner long enough the punishment will end?

It’s the middle of June, and the firework warmups have begun, a few pops here and there, mostly off in the distance. Cabela is a bit hard of hearing, so she doesn’t hear all of these early fireworks, and mercifully their duration is short. But the Fourth of July is coming. The booms will become closer, louder, and last longer. I wonder if this year’s Fourth will be a repeat of last year’s Fourth because even with her diminished hearing, she will hear them. My sweet, tender, stoic dog will be frightened and confused.

Neither one of us likes the Fourth of July anymore.

Two Rounds of Tomato Plants

Mother Nature gave us some warm days in the second half of May, but to keep us from getting smug, she tossed in some freezing weather with substantial winds off Lake Superior. I’ve lived in northern Wisconsin too long to plant flowers or tomato plants until the first weekend of June. This year was no different. I didn’t plant anything early, but I lost three tomato plants. Icy winds roared off Lake Superior, withering their leaves.

The tomato plants stood on my back deck, tucked up against the house, nestled among flowers and other plants waiting to be transplanted. I’d heard the weather forecast. I’d felt the frozen sandpaper winds off Lake Superior, bursting around the side of my house and over my roof. I should’ve moved my plants into the garage that night, but I was smug.

And my tomato plants paid the price. After two days of winds off the lake, temperatures below 40˚, and overcast skies, their baby-skin leaves curled over on themselves, attempting to cover up in the cold.

I touched one of the furled leaves, struck by how soft and thin it was. The leaves of my other plants were rough-hewn slabs in comparison. I apologized to the tomatoes and hoped they’d heal. But they didn’t.

I tossed them in the garbage, sorry they wouldn’t have a chance to share fruit with me.

I bought three more tomato plants. I pampered them, moving them into the garage at night and hauling them out during the day. On the first weekend of June, I planted my gardens. Hot-furnace winds blew out of the southwest, temperatures reached 96˚, and endless blue stretched across the sky.

Now, with a watering can in hand, I check my gardens several times a day, looking for drooping leaves, watering the thirsty, protecting my plantings from Mother Nature’s current mood—a heatwave.

I can’t be smug. I don’t want to start over with new plants.

Spur of the Moment

[Two Harbors, Minnesota, is 27 miles from Duluth, Minnesota. A drive along Scenic Highway 61 on the way to Two Harbors is filled with spectacular views of Lake Superior and its shoreline. Two Harbors snuggles up to the lake and offers a day’s worth or more of outside adventures, museums, and good food.]

May 21, 2021

If I don’t have plans for the weekend, Friday evening looms like a desert with me standing at the edge sans camel or water or compass. And since the pandemic started, my “plans” consist of shopping for people food or dog food, so I wander the shifting sands of the weekend looking for an oasis.

This Friday when my daughter-in-law arrives to pick up my grandkids, I ask if Clara, nine, may spend the night. Her mom agrees, and Clara agrees, performing a double-fist pump while jumping up and down.

Our official sleepover starts the moment her mother pulls out of the driveway with Clara’s three younger brothers. We walk the dogs. We pick up take-and-bake pizza. After supper I answer some emails, and Clara makes a necklace. After her beads are strung, I take out my jewelry-making supplies and attach a clasp to her necklace. Clara says, “Nana, it’s so quiet.” And it is. My husband’s gone to the driving range, so the TV is off, and her brothers are at home. “Does that bother you?” I ask. She answers, “No, it’s wonderful.” We laugh. I wonder if her double-fist pump had something to do with ditching her brothers for twenty-four hours.

We walk the dogs, again. We talk about our road trip to Two Harbors in the morning. We treat it like an adventure: rough out a few details but declare to take it as it comes.

After our walk, it’s bedtime. I read Clara a story; she reads me a story. Listening to her read is like stirring a teaspoon of farmer’s-market honey into a cup of hot, fragrant tea. I tuck her in, and she turns out the light. I join my husband in the family room. He’s seated closer to the bedroom door and hears Clara reading. She’s turned the light back on and is reading out loud, perhaps to the teddy bear she took with her to bed. As a child I used a flashlight to read when I was supposed to be sleeping. I let her be.

May 22, 2021

In the morning I’m up at six o’clock. Clara sleeps in. Afterall, she did some clandestine reading last night. She emerges from her room at nine o’clock.

After breakfast, we walk the dogs. They’ll have to stay home, so I tell Clara we owe them some fun before we hit the road. She’s all for this because we’ve been using my pedometer app to count steps.

We talk about the anticipated weather. The temperature will climb just above 50˚, the sun will hide behind clouds, and there’s a chance rain will drip from the sky. But we aren’t discouraged because Lake Superior isn’t slapping us with a wind off her icy waters. We embrace the weather as an opportunity for style choices in outerwear. She wears a blue animal-print, zip-up, hooded sweatshirt and carries an umbrella festooned with characters from Frozen. “Just in case it rains,” she says. To anchor the outfit, she slips on rain boots covered with retro-styled flowers, á la 1960s.

I wear a Pendleton rain jacket. Candy red with a green plaid lining, it whispers when I move. I pull a gray wool beanie on my head. I stash an umbrella in my backpack because rain or shine, we’re hiking. To anchor my outfit, I tie on comfortable old sneakers, so comfortable that bits of the soles have broken away.

After a cloud-covered drive along Lake Superior’s steel-blue waters, we arrive in Two Harbors and park by Agate Bay. We walk the trail near the shore. Clara’s intrigued by the curved cement seats facing the lake. Each seat has a small sign commemorating someone’s loved one. She stops at every seat, reads every sign, speaks every name out loud. Names of people lifted into the air and out over the rocks and rippling water.

She leads; I follow. We’re up and down narrow paths that lead to basalt covered shores then back to the trail in the forest. Eventually, we spill out onto a beach covered with water-worn rocks. Oliver, a golden retriever the color of copper, is swimming in the lake. His owner tosses a frisbee. He retrieves it, gives it back, sits, and smiles. He asks, “More, please?” His owner answers, “Just a couple more times.” Clara looks for agates and beach glass. I watch Oliver chase his frisbee. He gets more than a couple extra tosses. I knew he would. His smile serves him well. Clara slips a few rocks and some beach glass into her pocket. We decide to go to Burlington Beach. As we hike back to the parking lot, Oliver is still retrieving his frisbee from the lake.

Back at Agate Bay, I ask Clara if she wants to walk on the breakwall before we leave. She does. To our right an ore boat crouches at a dock in the bay. To our left another ore boat approaches then stops outside the bay. Its anchors groan as they drop into the lake to hold the boat in place while it waits its turn for a load of ore. Water shivers along the sides of the breakwall, and Clara says, “It’s colder out here.” I tell her that’s because Lake Superior is very cold. I tell her to walk on the side with the cable-wire fence.

We’re hungry but go to Burlington Beach. After we arrive, a van pulls up and a family fortified with metal detectors heads for the beach. Clara digs in the rocks with her hands and sifts through her quarry. Ten yards away, metal detectors hover over the beach. Clara shouts, “Look, Nana, a green piece of beach glass.” A detector bloops, chirps, and warbles like R2-D2. Clara digs another pit in the rocks. A man stoops, digs, and pulls something from the sand, holds it in his hand, shows it to another detectorist. Clara digs. Metal detectors hover. After pocketing a couple more pieces of beach glass, some granule-sized agates, and a few pretty rocks, Clara says, “I’m really hungry.” Me too. Treasure hunting is hungry work.

McDonald’s. It’s not adventurous, but we can socially distance. We order two small cheeseburgers and two McFlurries to eat in the car. I park and ask Clara to sit in the front passenger seat, so we can visit while eating. She’s not tall enough to ride in the front, so she’s delighted. I’m struck by how pleased she is to sit in the front seat of a vehicle parked at a fast-food restaurant and eat. We watch traffic cruise by, and we talk. Too sweet for me, I eat half my McFlurry and toss the rest. Clara savors hers long after we leave the parking lot, remarking from the back of the van, “This is really good, even all melted.”

Before leaving Two Harbors, we stop at the rooster—think Foghorn Leghorn of Looney Tunes, but taller, eight feet tall. The big red-and-white rooster stands on a wooden platform. Clara poses with him for a picture and notices cracks in his legs. Like a retired football player in his 50s, the rooster’s old injuries are flaring up. I tell Clara the rooster’s story. In 2003, he was kidnapped from his perch and thrown off a bridge, dropping twenty-some feet before splashing into a creek, broken in pieces. But in the end, like a Looney Tunes character, he was put back together. Airline mechanics from Duluth performed cartoon magic and mended his fiberglass body. But time will un-heal old wounds and cracks appear where he was fused together. Neither of us understand the act of hate.

We take the Scenic Highway home because we need to stop at a candy shop and a smokehouse. Sweets and smoked fish are the desserts of our road trip. We wear our masks and wait our turn to enter the shops, which allow only four people at a time. Clara selects the candy to be shared with her brothers. At the smokehouse, I select the fish to be shared with her family and my husband. We’ve enjoyed our road trip and want to share a piece of it with our people: On our trip, we thought of you and brought something for you.

We’re near the outskirts of Duluth, near the end of our road trip, when Clara says, “Nana, this has been the best sleepover ever.” I agree with her. It has been the oasis of my weekend.

Corrine’s New Shoes

[In 2019, this short story won an honorable mention in the Indianhead Writers’ Contest in Northern Wisconsin. In June 2020, it was published in Spring Thaw, a yearly journal published by Itasca Community College.]

Mesmerized, Corrine stared at the tiny moccasins made of white, orange, brown, black, and turquoise beads. If they hadn’t been attached to a small beaded disk, Corrine supposed she could’ve slipped them on the feet of her secondhand Barbie doll. Desire skulked in her brain. The tiny moccasins were displayed on the back counter in the classroom with other objects representing Native American culture, but Corrine only wanted the moccasins. She bent over the bubbler for a drink of water, her right hand pushing the button and her left hand resting on the counter dangerously close to the moccasins.

Mrs. Teasdale’s staccato voice interrupted her thoughts. Corrine returned to her desk, took out some unfinished work, and pretended to listen to her third-grade teacher. Her heart beat wildly and her lungs stuttered as she tried to breathe. Her right hand held a pencil poised above a worksheet. Her left hand rested on the pocket of her dingy hand-me-down dress where she could feel the tiny moccasins cocooned in its cotton folds.

Corrine shifted her head and looked at Nancy, the former owner of the tiny moccasins. Nancy worked diligently. As she moved her head from book to worksheet, her strawberry blond hair, cut in a sleek page boy and adorned with a small red bow, swayed. Shamed by Nancy’s swaying hair, Corrine pushed back her pale red mop, trying to hide its uneven ends. I might just keep those tiny moccasins, Corrine thought.

Scotty walked up to Nancy, rested his hand on her back, and whispered in her ear. Nancy rose from her seat and strode to the back counter. Corrine bent over her worksheet and fought the urge to watch Nancy discover her tiny moccasins were missing.

Corrine felt a draft as Nancy bolted by her on the way to Mrs. Teasdale’s desk. Corrine looked up and envied Nancy’s clean, stylish dress accessorized with patent leather shoes, pink anklets with lacy trim, and a sweater that didn’t look like an afterthought. Corrine tucked her feet as far under her chair as she could, hiding her baggy, white anklet socks and her soiled tennies. She certainly doesn’t need those damn moccasins.

Mrs. Teasdale moved to the front of the classroom and cleared her throat. Nancy stood next to her. A queen and her lady-in-waiting, Corrine thought.

“Children,” Mrs. Teasdale began, “Nancy’s small beaded moccasins seem to be missing.”

No seeming about it.

“Let’s all help Nancy look for her trinket,” Mrs. Teasdale continued.

Yes indeed, let’s. I’m going to be such a good looker. Corrine stood and joined the hunt.

Eighteen third graders scurried about the room, looking under, over, around, behind, underneath, and between. Minutes passed.

“Children,” Mrs. Teasdale said, “please return to your seats.”

Eighteen third graders moseyed back to their seats, their eyes darting this way and that, each one still hoping to find Nancy’s tiny moccasins. Corrine looked straight ahead on the way back to her seat.

“It appears Nancy’s trinket has gone missing,” Mrs. Teasdale said. “I don’t like to think one of you would take something that wasn’t yours. Nancy’s grandmother gave her that trinket.”

A sob escaped from Nancy. Corrine looked at her. Tears trickled down Nancy’s daintily-freckled face. Maybe she does need those moccasins. She hadn’t anticipated Nancy would care about something so small when she had so much.

“I’m going to wait until 2:30,” Mrs. Teasdale said, “and if Nancy’s trinket isn’t back, I’m going to search desks and pockets.”

Corrine looked at the teacher who scanned the room meeting each student’s eye. The teacher stared at her longer than anyone else. Corrine looked down. Her cheeks burned red, highlighting the large clumsy freckles splattered across her face. I want those moccasins, she thought.

“Get back to work, class,” Mrs. Teasdale said. Nancy picked up her pencil; it quivered in her hand. Corrine picked up her book and pretended to read. She worked on an exit plan.

At lunchtime Mrs. Teasdale lined the students up in the hall. She marched them to the lunchroom, watching them with a keen eye. Corrine saw Mrs. Teasdale whisper furtively with the playground monitor, who turned her bird-like face and gawked at Corrine.

Sitting alone, Corrine ate her peanut butter sandwich and apple. No sense going hungry just because she was holding stolen goods. She didn’t know what kind of supper would be waiting that night. She watched Nancy open her Barbie lunch box. Nancy nibbled on her sandwich and put it back. She ate a section of her peeled orange and put it back. She picked up a package of Twinkies but put it back. She’s really upset about those tiny moccasins, Corrine thought. She put her empty baggie and apple core inside her brown paper bag and considered asking Nancy for her Twinkies. Well, maybe the moccasins are enough.

 At recess Nancy didn’t play. She sat on the edge of a large concrete planter. Girls from their class sat next to her or stood in front of her. Corrine stood behind some of the girls. It was important to appear sympathetic, but she kept turning to watch the boys play kickball. When the bell rang, Nancy rose and, flanked by girls on each side, she walked back into the school. Corrine tagged along.

When she entered the classroom, Nancy started to cry again. Girls rushed to her side, but Mrs. Teasdale cut them short, “Children, take your seats.”

Such drama, Corrine thought.

“I’d really hoped when we returned from lunch, Nancy’s trinket would be on the back counter,” Mrs. Teasdale said.

Hope in one hand and spit in the other and see which one fills up first, Corrine thought, modifying and censoring one of her father’s favorite sayings.

“How would one of you feel if someone took a present your grandmother gave you?” Mrs. Teasdale said. Her eyes bore down on Corrine.

Just when did you think someone was supposed to put it back? Looking at me isn’t going to make it reappear. She gave Mrs. Teasdale her best I’m-listening-to-everything-you-say-because-you’re-such-a-wonderful-teacher look.

“Remember, if Nancy’s trinket isn’t back by 2:30, I’m going to search pockets and desks,” Mrs. Teasdale said. “Get your reading books out.”

Nancy read Charlotte’s Web. Her eyes were red from crying, but Corrine knew she wasn’t crying because the farmer wanted to butcher Wilbur. Those moccasins must mean a lot to Nancy. I love my grandmother too.

Corrine read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Mike Teavee, the last of the spoiled, greedy children, was expelled from the factory. Only Charlie, kind and honest, was left. Mr. Wonka pronounced Charlie his new heir. How nice, Corrine thought, a whole candy factory! Her fingers traced the tiny moccasins in her pocket.

At two o’clock, Mrs. Teasdale announced it was time for afternoon recess. Desktops clattered as books were put away. The children, waiting to be dismissed, simmered in their seats. Corrine had decided. She walked up to the teacher and spoke quietly.

“Mrs. Teasdale, instead of going out for recess, I’d like to stay in and look for Nancy’s trinket.” Corrine’s hands, interlaced, rested on her dress. She could feel the tiny moccasins against the inside of her wrist.

“Why, Corrine, that’s very nice of you,” Mrs. Teasdale said, arching an eyebrow.

And why is that so surprising? Corrine thought.

“Okay, children, we are going out for recess. But Corrine has offered to stay inside and look for Nancy’s trinket.”

All of the children looked at Corrine. Scotty elbowed the boy next to him. They looked at one another and smirked.

Corrine glared at Mrs. Teasdale and then looked at Nancy.

Lined up side by side, all of the children followed Mrs. Teasdale out of the room. Nancy was the last one in the girls’ line. She turned back, and her hair swirled like a square dancer’s skirt. She glanced at Corrine who stood in the center of the room. Scotty, who’d lined up next to Nancy, took hold of her hand as they left the classroom.

Corrine was alone. She turned around, slowly taking in the room. On her second turn, she spotted the cabinet doors under the counter that once held the tiny moccasins. The plumbing for the sink was inside those doors. She opened the cabinet and looked at the pipe running from the sink into the back wall. The scant half-inch gap between the pipe and the wall cinched it. She slid her hand into her pocket and pulled out Nancy’s trinket. Corrine had enjoyed owning the tiny moccasins. She looked at them one last time. Her Barbie would have to go barefoot.

She slipped Nancy’s trinket into the slender gap next to the pipe and closed the cabinet door.

After recess, when Mrs. Teasdale led her students back into the classroom, Corrine was standing in the center of the room.

“Did you find them?” Mrs. Teasdale asked.

“No,” Corrine answered. She crossed her arms across her chest. Her dress pockets were turned inside out, waving like two white flags.

An Electric Clock Outdoes Sliced Bread by a Country Mile

[I was inspired to write this account about my grandfather, George, after reading one of Chris Marcotte’s blogs at chrismarcottewrites. Chris writes about the history of the everyday lives of people, bringing their stories to life in a way that lets the reader connect to people in the past. She incorporates information from newspapers in her blog. After reading Chris’s article, “The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread,” I remembered both my grandpa’s dislike of store-bought bread and his admiration for an electric clock.]

Grandpa George would never have uttered the phrase “the best thing since sliced bread.” Detesting store-bought bread, he’d have thought it was a poor standard by which to measure some new technology that impressed him. I can imagine a conversation with a customer at his gas station going something like this:

George’s Standard Oil Station, circa 1930s. He owned and ran this station from 1928 until 1979.

Customer: Heard you and Olive bought one of those new color TVs. The best thing since sliced bread. Wouldn’t you say, George?

George: You’re setting the bar pretty low. Sliced bread isn’t a second best to anything.

Fortunately, Grandma Olive baked a good loaf of bread. Over George and Olive’s forty-five years of marriage, they had, at one time or another, one foster son, three children, George’s brother, Olive’s parents, their daughter and her children, and me living with them. Olive baked a lot of bread.

George’s first auto garage with gas pumps, circa 1920s

George, born in 1899, might’ve been old fashioned about his bread, but he welcomed other technology. In 1913, when George was fourteen, the first car arrived in his hometown. He’d learned blacksmithing, so he shod horses before he changed car tires. But, by 1920, George knew cars were his future. He and his cousin Frank embraced innovation and opened an auto garage with gas pumps, a business George owned and ran until 1979.

George appreciated smaller innovations too. In the early 1950s, a relative, who was dear to George, gave him an electric clock, the first one he ever had in his house. The clock hung on the wall in the living room where he watched his TV. He not only cherished the clock because of the giver, but he relied on it. He checked his pocket watch against the electric clock daily, believing it was more reliable than the mechanical clocks in his home.

George and the first electric clock in his home. Excited by this new technology, he had the moment preserved with a photograph.

Like most of us, George both praised and disparaged new advancements. He gave a thumbs up to cars, gas pumps, TV, electric clocks, a modern kitchen, washing machines, and planes (taking a trip to Italy in his 70s), but he gave a thumbs down to sliced bread. And he didn’t like store-bought desserts either, for which I’m grateful. During the three years I lived with my grandparents, I enjoyed scrumptious homemade cookies; divine chocolate cakes; pies baked with fresh fruit; light, heavenly angel food cake; and moss cake, a rich, nutty confection made with the egg yolks leftover from making the angel food cake.

Because of my grandparents’ influence, I make my own desserts. But I don’t bake bread. Sorry, Grandpa!

Art On!

Clara, my nine-year old granddaughter, has wanted to be an artist, then a scientist, then an artist who is also a scientist. Michael, my seven-year-old grandson, once stated he wanted to be a doctor.

Last week things changed. On Tuesday, Clara wanted to be a scientist. But on Wednesday, she decided to be a fashion designer, and Michael announced he wanted to be an artist.

I didn’t ask questions like, What’s your day job going to be? Or make statements like, I guess you’ll need to learn the phrase, Do you want fries with that?

Clara’s Art
Clara’s Art

Fashion design is a form of art, so Clara hasn’t strayed far. She loves to draw and create art using different media: colored pencils, paint, stickers, beads, sequins, sticks, leaves, fabric. (I’ll stop the list here, or I’ll exceed my word limit.) Michael loves art too and is becoming more experimental and playful.

During Wednesday’s art-at-my-kitchen-table time, Clara drew portraits of people wearing masks. COVID is part of our lives, so I wasn’t surprised to see masks show up in her artwork.

Clara’s Art

“Look, Nana,” she said, holding up the first portrait.

“Very nice and colorful,” I said.

She drew another portrait of a person with a mask, then another.

“Look, at these, Nana.”

“Nice. I like the designs on the masks.”

“Thanks.” She wiggled in her seat and grinned. “I’m going to be a fashion designer and design masks and hats.”

“Your designs will turn masks and hats into art people can wear,” I said. She liked this idea.

Michael’s Art
Michael’s Art

She began drawing people wearing colorful hats but no masks, and said, “It’s easier to draw people wearing masks because drawing a mouth is hard.” I agreed with her, mouths are hard.

Michael drew one portrait, then used stencils to create an intergalactic scene and whimsical hodge-podge. Much of his artwork is scenic.

Michael’s Art

Evan, my four-year-old grandson, is into drawing beings that look like creatures. He’s discovered he likes colored pencils over crayons because his older siblings use them. He drew a doleful creature with a frazzled mouth, then left the table to play with toys.

Evan’s Art

I babysit my grandkids three days a week, and when they’re here, we make time for art. Whether it’s a drawing project or a project involving supplies and the hot glue gun, the grandkids enjoy creating.

Next week or next month, my grandkids may have new career choices, but we’ll still have art-at-my-kitchen-table time. Art develops imagination, spatial awareness, and problem-solving skills. But best of all, their faces are full of joy when they hold up their artwork and say, “Look at this, Nana.”

Art-on!

Requiem for a Paperback

The book is dead, nestled among dried leaves and small pine cones, partially covered by the branches of a pine tree nearly sweeping the ground. Sun-bleached pages catch the light and bounce it like a beacon.

Broken open along the spine, its pages swollen by last week’s rain and snow are baked dry. Two pages fused together, blown vertical and dried by the wind, stand perpendicular to the ground, a gravestone for the book.

I walk past, but stop. I turn, and look. I debate.

The front of the book is mangled, its cover rolled under itself. A splotch of sky-blue color entices me to retrace my steps. I want to know its name, but I don’t want to touch the book. It’s a corpse.

I’m walking my dogs, so I juggle leashes and mittens, remove my phone from my pocket, and snap several pictures, like I do in cemeteries to record family grave markers.

Who did the book belong to? How did it end up on the ground? Did someone finish it before it was lost?

I crouch down next to the book, thankful it’s not mine.

Centered on the top of the left page, I read, Ken Follett.

I’ve read some of his books: Triple, Hornet Flight, Night Over Water, and Eye of the Needle—one of my favorite books. The snippet of sky blue on the cover tells me it’s not The Eye of the Needle. The blue is too cheerful, matching none of the cover art I’ve ever seen for that book.

My dogs stand at the end of their leashes while I stare at the book. Still crouching, I contemplate turning the book to read its title.

I let it go.

I stand, leaving it in peace, its fused pages standing perpendicular to the ground, a gravestone for the book.

Fluffy Writing for Those Times I Need a Break (But Still Want to Write)

[“Fluffy Writing” appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog on March 26, 2021.]

Writing is fun and frustrating. The lists for what make it either fun or frustrating are almost as varied and numerous as the people who write. (I read a lot of essays written by writers about the ups and downs of writing.)

My writing buddies, Ziva and Cabela

Sometimes I wrestle with a short story or an essay for days or weeks (or months). I wrangle with voice, tense, point of view, structure, characters, dialogue, and a bunch of other writing concepts. Finally, when I feel I’ve pinned the piece to the mat, I set it aside for a while. At this point, I’m not ready for another match with a new story or essay idea that’s been patiently waiting on the sidelines.

I want to keep writing, but if I’ve struggled with a piece, I need a break. I need to watch a good movie, laugh with friends, binge watch British TV shows. And, I need to write fluffy! (Sometimes I even need to write fluffy during an epic clash with a story or an essay.)

I’ve developed some fluff strategies:

  • I write about humorous events. I’ve written about losing a belt and the odd way I found it, learning to use my new pressure cooker, my fear of reading at open mics, a takeout order gone awry, and a chaotic art project with my four grandkids. There’s often humor lurking beneath the mundane. I don’t worry if my writing is funny or not; I just enjoy writing about something that amused me.
  • I write outside my typical style. My writing tends to be unadorned. But sometimes I yearn to write something flowery, jacked up on purple prose (but hopefully, I draw the line at a pale shade of lilac). I splash on too many metaphors, adverbs, and adjectives, like cheap perfume. These pieces often sound old fashioned. In this vein, I wrote a flash essay about visiting Split Rock Lighthouse in the 1970s with my father and again in 2017 with my grandchildren. Editors keep declining it, but one of my readers said it’s one of his favorites. (His friend told me to ditch some of the adverbs and adjectives, so I cut one adjective.) I wrote an essay about my tulip buds being eaten by rabbits during the pandemic spring of 2020. And, I wrote an essay about trying to write and take care of four grandchildren thirty hours a week. Both essays are a lilac shade. But I like them because they capture how I felt.
  • I write about writing. I always have something to say about writing. I’ve covered writing titles, avoiding household chores so I can write, wondering if I’m a real writer, writer’s block during the pandemic, and a rebellious character in a story who refused to follow my plot. Right now, I’m writing this essay (and I have more rough drafts about writing saved in a file).
  • I ask myself what if questions. One of my relatives said of my dog, “Ziva is such a cat.” Her accurate assessment of my dog’s personality made me wonder, Could I write a story about a dog that behaves like a cat? It’s not a fine literary story or even a literary story or maybe even a story, but when I read it, it reminds me of my relative and my dog, both of whom I love. I wrote my only historical fiction story based on my great-grandfather’s parents by asking, What if a certain event hadn’t happened?
  • I wrote a spoof on romance stories. At least I think it’s more spoof than satire or parody. I don’t consider myself a writer of spoof, satire, or parody, but it’s fun to try. I smile more when I try to write humor. Smiling relieves tension, and that’s the point of my fluffy writing interludes.
  • I write for or about my grandchildren. I enjoy this for the same reason I like taking pictures of them, reading to them, or walking down the street with them. Or doing anything with them.
  • I write for my blog, which prefers light, fluffy pieces and always accepts my work. It’s nice to know I won’t be getting a rejection letter.

For me fluffy writing is like a good walk, a session of yoga, and a good night’s sleep. It gets my blood flowing, centers my being, and energizes me. It’s like watching episodes of a Keeping Up Appearances, a British sitcom, after watching the lives of characters unravel on Upstairs, Downstairs, a British drama. It’s like topping a healthy sweet potato casserole with large sugary marshmallows.

And now, fluff break is over. Time to wrestle with the next story idea that’s been waiting for its match.

Butterfly Story

[Author’s note: In the summer of 2019, I took care of my grandkids, and we went to the Superior Public Library once or twice a week. During the summer of 2020, the pandemic and social distancing kept us at home and playing outside.]

Three grandkids, five days a week, seven hours a day, and a limited budget summed up my summer days in 2019. Anything free was good, so when the Superior Public Library hosted a free presentation about monarch butterflies, I took Clara, almost eight; Michael, six; and Evan, almost three.

The presenter discussed butterflies and their stages of life. Clara who loves nature, absorbed every word. Later, she remarked, “That was a really good presentation.” Michael listened intently, too. But Evan scampered from chair to chair. Finally, I took his hand and retreated to the Children’s Library with him.

Before the butterfly talk, Clara and her brother, Michael, spotted plastic cups lined up on the table. Each cup’s rim supported a chrysalis suspended from a stick.

“Nana, can we take one home?” Clara asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Your mom has a lot on her plate with school and work.”

I didn’t know the presenter would be giving away flying insects. Vibrant colors and eye-catching patterns aside, a butterfly is a flying insect.

“Can we keep it at your house?” Clara is the Princess of Plan-B Solutions.

“No, what if it emerges when I’m sleeping?” I imagined the butterfly carousing through my house and dive-bombing my head in the morning while I drank coffee.

“Monarchs move slowly after they emerge,” the presenter said, “and the chrysalis will turn nearly black before the butterfly emerges, so you’ll be prepared.” The presenter wasn’t siding with me—he had cups and cups of future butterflies to pass along.

Clara looked wistful and dejected at the same time. I couldn’t tell her I was afraid to look a butterfly in the eye. It could’ve been worse—she liked spiders too. If the presentation had been about spiders, we might have been offered a spider’s egg sac.

“Okay,” I said, “we’ll keep it at my house.”

“Yay.” Clara celebrated with a double fist pump. Michael grinned.

After the presentation we took the chrysalis home, and I set it on my kitchen table. Each time Clara, Michael, and Evan came over, we checked the chrysalis for any sign of blackness.

A few weeks later, instead of greeting me with good morning, my husband said, “That butterfly flew out of its cup while I was eating breakfast. Scared the heck out of me.”

“What did you do with it?” I asked.

“I put the cup in front of it, and it walked back in the cup,” he said. “I put a piece of paper toweling over the cup.” I remembered the presenter saying a newly emerged butterfly moved slowly.

An hour later while I ate breakfast, the butterfly knocked the paper towel off the cup and flew down to the floor. I screamed. My heart thumped. I used my husband’s cup technique. The butterfly walked into the cup, which I took outside and placed on the patio table.

Fifteen minutes later, my grandkids arrived. They dashed up the side stairs and onto the deck. I went outside to greet them. The butterfly, still on the patio table, basked in the sun.

“Look,” I said, “the monarch hatched.”

Beating wings interrupted their oohs and aahs as the butterfly took flight up and over the roof of the house.

“Our butterfly waited to see you before it flew away,” I said.

Clara nodded knowingly.

“Yeah, it really did,” Michael said.

In the weeks that followed, every time Clara, Michael, Evan, and I saw a monarch butterfly in my yard, I said, “Look, it’s our butterfly.”

One day, Clara, my little naturalist, set me straight. “You know, Nana, there are more monarchs around here than just ours!”

[I orignally wrote this story in 2019 for my grandkids and included picutres of them and the butterfly with the story. I printed a copy for each them and stapled the pages together. They each enjoyed having their own “book” about our butterfly experience.]

Charlie’s Directorial Debut

“Nana, where are you?” Charlie, two-and-a-half, calls out from the living room.

“I’m in the kitchen.” I’m surprised he doesn’t see me because the kitchen and the living room have a semi-open design.

“Nana, where are you?” he repeats.

I assume he didn’t hear me. “I’m right here.” I turn around and realize he isn’t talking to me.

He’s holding a Little People person by a Little People house. It’s the Little People person who’s calling into the house, looking for his nana.

Charlie’s playacting, but he’s borrowing from real life. If he doesn’t see me immediately when he arrives in the morning, he yells, “Nana, where are you?”

Next, the Little People person, still peering into the Little People house, asks, “Where are you, puppy, where are you?”

I’m drawn into Charlie’s world of make-believe. I search through the bin of figures, looking for the Little People dog. I can’t find him. But I find the Little People sheep. “Here’s a sheep for your farm,” I say. Behind him is a Little People barn.

Charlie grabs the sheep, laughs, and says, “Puppy!” He’s willing to suspend reality in his theatrical world. I roll with him. He returns to his production company where he’s a scriptwriter, a director, and an actor playing all the parts. I sit on the floor, a few feet away from him, like an extra in a movie. He takes no notice of me.

He’s on to the next scene. “This is my bed,” he says, laying the Little People person, who represents him, on a lime-green bed in the second-story bedroom of the plastic house. He picks up two other Little People and brings them face to face. Imitating smooching sounds, he refers to them as Mom and Dad. How sweet.

Next, he says, “Bupba’s back,” signaling his grandpa has entered the scene. Then he picks up a small red toy—Spiderman has joined the show, saying, “Grab your ee-ee.” Not wanting to interrupt a director’s creative process, I don’t ask what motivates Spiderman’s concern for a blankie.

After a few minutes, I rise off the floor and return to the kitchen, leaving Charlie immersed in his playacting. His world of dialogue, actors, and shifting scenes continues for another twenty minutes.

I’m glad I saved some of the toys his dad and uncle played with when they were boys.

Before we had grandkids, my husband, when cleaning the basement, would ask, “Can we get rid of these old toys?”

“No,” I’d say.

“What are you saving them for?”

“Grandkids”

“What if we don’t have grandkids?” he’d ask.

“What if we do?”

And we do—four of them, ages nine, seven, four, and two-and-a-half. And they all play with the toys I saved. This morning two-and-a-half-year-old Charlie has morphed them into his world.

In about ten years, the dialogue with my husband will start anew. He will ask, Can we get rid of these old toys?

No, I will answer.

What are you saving them for?

Great-grandkids.

What if we don’t have great-grandkids? he’ll ask.

What if we do?

Already, I imagine them on my living room floor, directing their own Little People productions.