What Makes Me Laugh?

Ziva, the poodle paper shredder. It’s never funny at the time. But tragedy plus time equals comedy.

Bloganuary is asking. It’s the WordPress blog prompt for January 7, 2022.

Lots of things make me laugh, and lots of things make me chuckle or grin. So, I’m setting the bar higher: What makes me laugh so hard that I can hardly breathe, that tears trickled down my cheeks, that I cross my legs tight, that I can’t stop laughing because everything becomes hilarious?

Very little.

I’m not a curmudgeon. I like humor. I watch a lot of comedy. I like reading humor. Satire is my favorite. I’m currently watching Upstart Crow on Britbox. The show is a parody and satire of Shakespeare and history and modern times all mixed up into one delicious, sinful sundae topped with the works. I chuckle and marvel at the brilliant wordplay and acting, but I pay close attention to the rapid-fire exchange of dialogue and that probably stifles unhinged laughter on my part.

I can’t remember any recent bouts of uncontrollable laughter. But I remember some past episodes. When I was about fourteen, my mom and I had an argument, so I stormed upstairs and refused to eat supper. She made me come back downstairs. My parents were getting ready to go out, so it was just us kids at the table. I was crying, and my mom was yelling.

My sister picked up the plastic milk carton, which was almost empty, drank the milk, then sucked the air from the carton, causing it to collapse inward. She pulled the carton from her lips, and said, “Good to the last drop!” I had just taken a swig of milk. Laugher and milk erupted from my mouth, spraying the table and my siblings. We laughed so hard. Mom yelled at us to stop, but that made us laugh harder. My dad told her, “Leave the kids alone,” and we laughed ourselves out in peace.

When I was about nineteen, I took my first communion at the Presbyterian church my grandparents belonged to. My grandmother played the piano and organ at the church. Almost no one was married or buried without her accompanying the event. The solemnity of the minister’s words about communion paired with the crackers and grape juice started me laughing. The more I tried to suppress it, the more I laughed—it was my Chuckles the Clown moment. My laughter so shocked me that I’ve never taken communion again.

The following are memorable works that reduced me to jiggling jelly:

Bud Abbot and Lou Costello performing their “Who’s on First” routine.

Carol Burnett playing Scarlet O’Hara in a parody of the curtains-to-dress scene from Gone with the Wind. (Burnett’s show cracked me up. I consider it the best comedy/variety show ever televised.)

Harpo Marx cutting a piece of material from the dress of a snooty customer in The Big Store.

Harpo and Chico Marx packing and unpacking clothes in a scene from A Night in Casablanca.

The final scene of Moonstruck when all the characters are gathered at the kitchen table. The movie is a wonderfully told yarn that culminates in a grand punchline during breakfast.

Anything written by Patrick F. McManus, Dave Barry, P.G. Wodehouse (especially the stories with Jeeves and Wooster) and Erma Bombeck, the first writer to make me laugh uproariously. I started reading her column when I was in middle school. I recently reread some of her work. She’s timeless.

Laughter is indispensable, so thanks for asking, Bloganuary! I smiled and chuckled while writing my answer.

Nana Kitty

My nana died in 2003, but she still inspires me.

As a mother, Nana received mixed reviews from her children. But as a grandparent, Nana had a marvelous second act, a comeback. And isn’t that what being a grandparent is about? A do-over, a second chance, a revival?

Nana inspired me because she survived shit. Her father died of typhoid fever in 1921 when she was seven. He left behind seven children and a pregnant wife before the social safety nets of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Nana grew up poor and hungry. When she turned twenty-one in 1936, she voted for Roosevelt.

Nana Kitty is sitting on her mother’s lap. Mary and Joseph, Nana’s parents, would have two more children. But the eighth one was born after Joseph died from typhoid fever.

After she turned nine, she worked summers picking beans in the fields around West Bend, Wisconsin. When I was nine, I picked dandelions. Seven months after the stock market crash of 1929, she graduated from eighth grade. She yearned to go to high school, but her mother told her she had to work. Shortly before she retired from waitressing at sixty-eight, she applied to Milwaukee Area Technical College. She worked toward her GED, tutored students in math, and took college-level courses in English and psychology all at the same time. She was sixty-nine when she earned her GED. I was a college student.

Nana lived by one of her favorite maxims, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” On a low-come wage, she saved change until she and her first husband had enough money to move from their low-income neighborhood and buy their own home, the smallest house in a middle-class neighborhood. She wanted her children to have a better life than she had. She was widowed at forty-seven, but she worked hard to keep her house and pay off the mortgage.

Nana inspired me because she loved each of her seven grandchildren, which included my three cousins, with a passion. She forgave our mistakes and bad behavior and defended us against our common enemies—the parents. To her each of us was special and beautiful and interesting. She gave us lots of hugs, kisses, and Cracker Jacks. She played Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button? and Cat’s Cradle with us. She told us stories and sang to us. She danced with us in her kitchen. She loved Bobby Darin and 50s rock-n-roll. Her favorite dance was The Twist, which she danced at my wedding.

Nana always had time for a phone call. I memorized her number before anyone else’s. If I called and was upset, she listened. I once tested the limits of Nana’s ability to listen by following her around her house, describing the scene-by-scene detail of a movie I’d watched and loved. Like a typical ten-year-old, I thought every detail of a story was significant. At some point, I realized I was boring her and that she kept leaving rooms, hoping I wouldn’t follow. I began testing her limits. I waited for her to say, enough already. If she had, I wouldn’t have blamed her. But she didn’t. I’d love to say I have the same patience with my grandchildren when they prattle on about a movie or video game, but I don’t. I find a way to change the subject. But I didn’t admire Nana because she could do what I could do. I admired her because she could do what I couldn’t do.

Nana Kitty helping my sister and me (far left) with a puzzle. My cousin watches.

Nana loved me even when I behaved like a brat. When I was about eight, I wanted her to buy me a troll doll from a drugstore. I whined and cajoled and dropped a few tears until she folded. She took me back into the store and bought me the doll. She wasn’t happy. She couldn’t afford to be frivolous with her money. She bought us Cracker Jacks because they cost a quarter. The troll doll cost over a dollar. “You’d better not lose that doll,” she snapped. After we walked back to her house, I asked her for a comb and a few bobby pins. I spent the rest of the afternoon rearranging the troll’s purple hair in one hairdo after another. Nana was no longer angry with me. Over the years, I would tell her, “I still have the troll doll with the purple hair.” I wish I could still tell her I have it.

I live by many of Nana’s favorite sayings. (Although I didn’t warm to some of them until I was older.)

1. The early bird gets the worm. (I told her I didn’t want worms.)

2. Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. (I was a night owl.)

3. Silence is golden.

4. You win more flies with honey than vinegar. (I told her I didn’t want to be nice to people who were mean to me.)

5. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.

6. A penny saved is a penny earned. (I’ve learned to be a better saver.)

7. Waste not, want not.

Nana’s birthday is January 22. If she were alive, she’d be 107 years old. Funny thing—sometimes, for a moment, I think, I should call Nana. And then I remember, she’s gone. So, I talk to her without a phone.

[Written in response to #bloganuary prompt #6: Who is someone that inspires you and why? For more information click on: Bloganuary.]

Christmas in Michigan–Christmas Day, Past and Present

December 25, 2021

Christmas Day Past—

My sisters, my brother, and I enjoy a visit from St. Nick. (I’m holding the present.) The cat was not a present. He was a stray we adopted and named George, after our grandpa.

After the longest night of the year loosened its grip and gave way to Christmas morning, my siblings and I had to wait for my parents to get up before opening gifts. Sometimes we snuck downstairs to peek at the tree surrounded by wrapped boxes then snuck back upstairs. This made waiting more difficult, but we knew that to open even one present before they got up would rob them of the joy of seeing our rapturous faces as we opened our gifts. We also knew we’d be in BIG trouble. It was always a late night for them. “The bundle of toys” they brought home in sacks needed to be wrapped and ribboned and tagged times four.

We were fortunate that Christmas morning never disappointed—not even the year my mother told me before Christmas that she couldn’t find Charlie McCarthy, the ventriloquist’s dummy I’d asked Santa for. She and I had to suspend our willing suspension of disbelief regarding Santa for that conversation. Turns out lots of aspiring ventriloquists had asked Santa for a Charlie McCarthy doll. My mother told me she’d try to get me one after Christmas. But even before Christmas morning, my shiny dream of becoming a ventriloquist lost its luster. I told her to forget Charlie.

My mother was good at buying gifts on behalf of Santa. Every year a smorgasbord awaited under our tree. We each received an outfit and a pair of pajamas. I loved going back to school after the holidays dressed in new clothes. And climbing into bed on Christmas night in a new pair of soft pajamas that were still fuzzy because they hadn’t been washed dozens of times was divine. We each received a special toy or two that we’d asked Santa for. He also brought us board games, art projects, and books. Santa wanted us to stay busy during Christmas break.

We had to open our gifts slowly because my father didn’t want to miss a single Kodak moment. He liked to take photos. When he got a Polaroid camera, we had near instant photo results, but this slowed down the gift opening because we were thrilled by watching ourselves materialize before our eyes.

Each of us had a spot on the floor to pile our gifts as we opened them. After all the gifts were opened, I felt like a princess with a pile of riches. I also felt guilty. The gifts my parents received took up little room on the coffee table in front of them, such a small cache of swag. But worst of all they hadn’t received one toy or game or art project. I’d contemplate all they’d given me in the name of Santa, then look at the gift I’d given them—always something handmade at school. A Christmas tree constructed from a toilet paper roll and cotton balls. An imprint of my hand in plaster of paris. A silhouette of my profile. A Styrofoam ball decorated with ribbon and sequins to hang on the tree. I didn’t buy my parents gifts until I turned sixteen and had a job and a driver’s license. It wasn’t until I was a parent that I understood it was more fun to see my children opening gifts, and that I treasured the gifts they made for me more than anything that came from a store.

Christmas Day Present—

On this Christmas morning the youngest one among us is 23. No one snuck out of bed to look at wrapped presents under the tree. (Maybe because they were stacked on a desk.) I got up early because my dogs wanted to go outside. No one was in a hurry to see what Santa brought. We ate breakfast and visited. My sister and one of her sons went to Mass at ten o’clock. No one minded. Waiting wouldn’t short-circuit our wiring. We didn’t open gifts until eleven-thirty.

My mother is still good at buying gifts, but no one pretended they were from Santa. I loved the warm shirt she bought me. I’m of the age where any object meant to keep me warm in the frozen North makes my heart toasty. She gave me a humorous book that pokes fun of British mysteries. I love humor and British mysteries. (Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village by Maureen Johnson & Jay Cooper)

My nephew, distributing gifts off the desk. Bogey, before he gets his pink flamingo.

No one got toys—except Bogey, my mother’s seven-year-old poodle. My husband and I bought him a stuffed pink flamingo. He played with it and played with it, shaking it by the leg, tossing it in the air, and making it squeal. I think he looked at the gifts in front of us humans and felt sorry for us because not one of us had a stuffed toy with a squeaker. He’s too young to understand that not one of us wanted a squeaking flamingo. But we sure enjoyed watching him play with his new toy.

[Words in quotes are a nod to “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”]

Christmas in Michigan—A Tale of Two Eves

December 24, 2021, 10:30 p.m.

Christmas tree, 1966

The night before Christmas, when I was a child, I would gaze out a small rectangular window and scan the sky for Santa’s sleigh. I watched ’til I spotted a red flashing light tracking far above the snow-covered earth. I would declare it was Rudolph leading Santa’s sleigh. (But I knew it was an airplane “so lively and quick” headed to Billy Mitchell Airport ten miles away.) Pretending that Santa’s reindeer would soon be “prancing and pawing” on the roof, I’d snuggle under the covers and close my eyes. Sleep was elusive because visions of Christmas morning danced in my head.

In Michigan this Christmas Eve, before I drifted off to sleep, I read The Quiller Memorandum, a spy thriller from 1965. Quiller, a British agent, brings Nazis to justice and prevents Hitler-loving neo-Nazis from starting a war. None of the characters had twinkling eyes or merry dimples. Not a one “was chubby and plump” or “a right jolly old elf.” It didn’t matter—sleep wasn’t elusive. Because neither the Nazi-chasing agent nor visions of Christmas morning danced through my head.

Although, the idea of people idolizing a person with totalitarian aspirations, should give me something to dread.

[Words in quotes are a nod to “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”]

Christmas in Michigan—The Yipping

December 24, 2021, 9:00 p.m.

Cabela–not worried about roving bands of coyotes

All the light was behind me. A Christmas wreath strung with white lights and pinecones hung from the peak of the garage. Amber warmth from incandescent lights glowed through the living room windows.

In front of me darkness swallowed my poodles because their black and brown fur coats worked like camouflage against the snowless ground. I strained to keep an eye on each of them, and wished they were white poodles. Then I wondered if white poodles would disappear against snow-covered ground.

Loud yips came from over the distant hill. It sounded like dozens of puppies. But I knew it wasn’t. I thought about a kennel of huskies clamoring for food. But I knew there were no mushers in the neighborhood. I thought about the starving wolves in White Fang that stalk two mushers and their sled dogs, picking them off until only one man survives. But I knew that wolves need more territory than my mother’s neighborhood, even with its scattered woods and fields, could provide. Besides, wolves howl, bark, and growl. They don’t yip like a bunch of puppies.

The yips rose and fell in volume but didn’t stop. They didn’t come closer, but they didn’t retreat. I called my dogs and we went inside.

I told my mom about the yipping.

“Those are coyotes,” she said. “We have a lot of them this year.”

My mother lives on a golf course in a rural setting. I wondered if the coyotes used the cart path to move between the areas of woods and fields while hunting. Coyotes are exceedingly carnivorous. Besides wildlife they sometimes eat cats and dogs. My domesticated, spoiled, wimpy canines would be an easy meal for coyotes. But coyotes are wary of humans and avoid us. Which is good because I’m domesticated, spoiled, and wimpy.

Christmas in Michigan—And It Snows

December 23, 2021, 8:00 p.m.

Ziva rests after our snowy walk.

I wanted a white Christmas, and a couple of hours after dinner, I got my wish. It snowed. I walked my dogs, partly to work out the kinks from our nine-and-a-half-hour drive to Petoskey but mostly because it was snowing. My poodles sniffed the brown grass along the road while falling snow, lit by an occasional streetlight, dusted the wooly curls on their heads, backs, and tails.

I always want a white Christmas. Fresh snow opens a gate in my memory, and I wander into the backyard of my childhood. I remember snowmen, snow forts, snowball fights, snow angels, and sledding. I remember catching snowflakes on my tongue and staring at six-pointed and six-sided flakes that landed on my clothes. Amazed by the intricate designs of something so tiny, I admired each flake because I knew its design would never be repeated. A snowflake might have a doppelgänger, but never a clone. On Smithsonian’s STEMvisions Blog, Alex Stempien writes, “. . . scientists estimate that there are up to 10158 snowflake possibilities. (That’s 1070 times more designs than there are atoms in the universe!).” I wonder how much paper it would take to write out those numbers.

After the first snowfall of winter, my siblings and I scampered into the closet under the stairs and resurrected snow pants, hats, mittens, and scarves from cardboard boxes. If the temperatures dropped and the wind nipped, we wore knitted ski masks with three holes, one for the mouth and two for the eyes, the kind bank robbers wore in the movies. We played for hours in the snow until we were soaked from the outside by snow and from the inside by perspiration. If wicking winter clothing was available in the 1960s, we didn’t own any.

My grandchildren enjoy the snow.

I felt sorry for adults because they didn’t get to play in the snow. I promised myself I would never be that old, but it happened anyway. When my children played in the snow, I remembered that promise. When my grandchildren play in the snow, I think about that promise, but I’m not melancholy or envious. Watching children in the snow rekindles happy memories of my childhood. These days my idea of fun in the snow involves shoveling, walking, and snowshoeing.

After my dogs and I finished our walk, I brushed snow off their heads, backs, and tails. I stomped my boots on the brick walkway and brushed snow off my hat and coat. Happy and invigorated, we entered the back hallway. I called to my mother and thanked her for arranging the snowfall. She answered, “You’re welcome.”

December 24, 2021, Christmas Eve Day

By morning three to four inches of snow blanketed the ground. In my head Bing Crosby sang “White Christmas” and stage doors slid open, revealing snow, snow, snow, snow. Crosby and Rosemary Clooney then Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen embraced and kissed.

Cabela on Christmas Eve Day before the snow melted.

My husband and I went into town to shop. The temperatures rose above forty degrees. By noon, about half the snow had melted. By late afternoon when I walked the dogs, most of the snow was gone. The brown landscape had reemerged. There would be no Hollywood magic—no white Christmas. The next snowfall would arrive two days after Christmas morning. But in my heart, I carried the snowfall from the day before Christmas Eve.

Christmas in Michigan—The Trip Over

Bogey

December 23, 2021

My husband, our two dogs, and I missed Christmas in Michigan last year because of the pandemic. This year with our vaccines and boosters completed, we decided to make the nine-and-a-half-hour drive to spend Christmas in Petoskey with my mother and her dog, Bogey. As a bonus, my sister and two nephews came too. We were a gathering of six, well, nine with the dogs. And we count the dogs.

We have two dogs: Cabela, 13½, and Ziva, 11. A few years ago, my husband and I agreed not to board Cabela anymore because of her age and stiffening hindquarters. And if we weren’t boarding Cabela, we couldn’t board Ziva. She doesn’t like being without a family member unless she’s at home. And she’s never liked kennels. She a bit claustrophobic—a condition I understand. We had been fortunate to have a place to board Cabela and Ziva where there was a spacious double-run kennel they could share because the door between their two sides could be left open. Ziva tolerated this because she could be with Cabela. Once, after feeding the dogs, one of the staff forgot to reopen the door between the two kennels. Ziva remedied the problem by chewing the latch and opening the door herself. So, the dogs go to Michigan with us—Cabela because of her age and Ziva because she would be traumatized if we left her at the kennel without Cabela.

Nine and a half hours in a car with two dogs isn’t without its trials; although, it’s easier than when I made the trip with my two young sons. My dogs don’t argue with each other in the backseat or sass my husband or me. Well, maybe Ziva does because we’re not sure what she says when she’s talking. My dogs can’t ask, “How much longer?” or “How come we can’t fly?” even if they look like they’re thinking it.

Ziva gets car sick sometimes; my children didn’t. I prepped the van by layering the floor with towels and car blankets and stashing paper towel in the back. On the trip over, Ziva threw up three times, but only small amounts. Neither dog eats breakfast before we leave for Michigan. Cabela won’t eat that early in the morning, and Ziva, concerned we’ll leave without her, isn’t about to put her face in a dish of food. She keeps her eyes wide open and follows us while we pack and load the van.

Ziva needs at least four or five potty stops. Something about riding in a vehicle makes her want to piddle—me too, but if I’m honest almost anything makes me want to go. When Ziva has to go, she puts her front paws on the center counsel of van and noses my arm or my husband’s arm. We stop at gas stations with green space where we can walk the dogs. Cabela won’t always piddle because even at 13½, she has bladder stamina that most people of a certain age, like me, envy. I remember when I was young and could ride eight hours from Milwaukee to Gordon, Wisconsin, without going to the bathroom. One of my sons liked to stop a lot to go potty, but it wasn’t due to a weak bladder. He just wanted an excuse to get out of the car because he hated long rides. Once, on a trip to northern Illinois, I pulled into every rest stop along I-94, so he could “go to the bathroom.” It added at least a half hour to the trip, but after every stop his mood improved. He was the one who was miffed because we didn’t fly.

Ziva

After we arrived at my mother’s house, we put the dogs inside so we could unpack the van. Ziva cried and cried until my husband and I finished unloading the van and took our coats and boots off. Then she curled up on my mother’s couch and went to sleep, finally convinced we wouldn’t leave her. Cabela was already snuggled up in an upholstered chair. She wasn’t worried we would leave her. Bogey slept by the kitchen table. My sister and nephews would arrive the next day on Christmas Eve.

Cabala

My mother, my husband, and I sat around the kitchen table and ate lamb curry takeout, a scrumptious beginning to our Christmas visit. Still, I gazed out the kitchen windows at the brown fields and leafless trees and hoped for snow.

Dear Minnesota: The Story of Yost Yost

[This article was originally published in May 2021 by Minnesota PBS on their website Moving Lives Minnesota: Stories of Origin and Immigration.]

Yost Yost, my great-great-grandfather, was born in Nottwil, Switzerland, on November 19, 1829. At the time his double name was a common practice by Swiss parents. Yost’s father, Jacob Yost, was a nail maker and taught his son the trade. Yost, too, made nails before emigrating in 1854. But after he arrived in America and settled in Rochester, New York, he became a blacksmith.

Seated: Agatha and Yost Yost; Standing left to right: Mary,
Aggie, Josephine, Anna, Joseph, Rose, and John

On July 16, 1855, Yost married Agatha Gassman in Rochester, New York. She’d arrived in New York City in January 1855. She was born in Switzerland, but her birth year is a mystery. It has been listed as 1820, 1823, 1825, and 1827. I can only guess why so many different birth years appear on documents clearly referring to the Agatha Gassman who married Yost Yost. Perhaps vanity tempted her to misrepresent her age. Perhaps others made mistakes and recorded her birth year incorrectly.

In the fall of 1856, the availability of land enticed Yost and Agatha to move to Columbus, Minnesota. Yost used his blacksmithing skills during the winter of 1856-57 to support himself and Agatha, pregnant with their first child, Maria, born in April 1857. They had six more children: Josephine, Joseph, John, Agatha, Anna, and Rose.

In the spring of 1857, Yost and Agatha attained land and built a log house. They were successful farmers, and their farm grew to 440 acres. They ground their own flour, sewed their own clothes, and made their own tallow candles. According to family lore, when they bought their first kerosene lamp, they proclaimed it was “real progress.” In spring and fall, Yost walked from Columbus to St. Paul, a distance of 50 miles, to buy supplies they couldn’t produce. After a road was built, he drove a wagon to make the trip.

In August 1864, Yost, 34, enlisted in the Minnesota Cavalry, Hatch’s Battalion, Company E, serving until his honorable discharge in May 1866. I wonder how Agatha coped on a farm with five children, ages 1 to 7, while he served in the military. But he was granted at least one furlough during his enlistment. He was stationed on the Dakota-Minnesota frontier about 50 miles northwest of Mankato. According to a family history written by his grandson Fred, Yost “stopped a cannonball with his leg.” However, Yost’s military records tell a different story. In 1886, Yost applied for an invalid pension because of an injury he received near Fort Ridgely in June 1865. While out on patrol, his horse threw him, and he injured his back. It never completely healed, and as he aged, he developed rheumatism in his spine. How did an injury from tumbling off a horse become a story about being hit by a cannonball? Perhaps Yost was trying to impress his grandchildren. Perhaps once, when asked why he limped, he joked about getting hit by a cannonball, and that became the story.

While living in Columbus, Yost served as a town clerk, a justice of the peace, and a supervisor. The Compendium of History and Biography of Central and Northern Minnesota by George Ogle and Company, published in 1904, states, “Yost has resided in Anoka county for nearly half a century, and he has formed a wide acquaintance and is held in the highest esteem as an agriculturist and worthy citizen.” Yost became a naturalized citizen of the United States on March 23, 1897.

As Yost aged, his back injury made farming difficult. He retired, and his sons, John and Joseph, ran the farm. Yost died on November 3, 1906, just short of his 77th birthday. Agatha died on September 20, 1913. They’re buried at St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery in Wyoming, Minnesota.

[More Moving Lives posts written by other writers can be read at Moving Lives Minnesota: Stories of Origin and Immigration.]

Two Old Dogs Before Dawn

[Sunday, December 19, 2021]

Frosty Cabela

Cabela’s nose is to the ground. I stand at the bottom of the deck. Our rabbit-in-residence streaks at warp speed across our backyard into the neighbor’s yard. Lately, I’ve been going outside with Cabela in the morning, and the rabbit is usually eating breakfast, nibbling at vegetation visible through a thin layer of snow.

Each morning I wonder if this time Cabela will spot the rabbit and give chase. (She hasn’t yet.) This morning she doesn’t see it because she’s sniffing the ground. She doesn’t hear it because she’s nearly deaf. But after it has kicked up snow, she smells it, points her nose to the sky, and inhales short snorts of frigid air. Even if she saw it, she’d have no hope of catching it—the rabbit possesses afterburners for hind legs and Cabela possesses thirteen-and-a-half-year-old hindquarters. We also have an electric dog fence.

It’s 6:30 a.m. and dark. First light will come shortly after 7:00, followed by sunrise just before 8:00. It’s 11 degrees, the wind is 9 m.p.h., and the feels-like temperature is 0 degrees. I don’t want to be outside. I’m sleepy, and I haven’t had any coffee. But the rabbit is entertaining.

Because of the electric fence, I should be able to put Cabela’s collar on her, let her outside, and wait at the door for her to return. But Cabela has taken to barking at things that I can’t see, and perhaps she can’t see. She’s eighty-five in human years. In a skewed aging process, Cabela entered our home as a puppy but is now twenty-three years older than me. Routines have changed, and allowances have been made. But at 6:30 in the morning, I don’t expect my neighbors to give Cabela a pass if she decides to bark at nothing.

I wear a mid-calf-length coat and a knit hat with a gold pom-pom. My feet shilly-shally in a pair of oversized, old sneakers my husband keeps by the back door. My hands are shoved in my pockets. Under the coat, I wear an ankle-length flannel nightgown, which, unfortunately, isn’t completely covered by the coat. I think about my nana who would walk outside in her nightgown and housecoat in the morning if she needed something. She lived on a city block in Milwaukee and, as a little girl, I thought she shouldn’t go outside in nightclothes where the neighbors could see her. Nana believed in ladylike behavior and good manners, so I concluded that old people, like babies, must be allowed outside in their pajamas.

Cabela saunters to the side of the house, scheming to enter the front yard. I block her path and point toward the back door. She still understands hand signals. She turns and canters to the deck and climbs the stairs.

One day last week every time she went outside, she stationed herself in the front corner of our yard and looked across the street. She barked then paused, barked then paused, again and again, as if to say, “Hey, is anyone there?” or “Hey, I’m over here!” Each time I had to go outside, walk up to her, and touch her to get her attention. I couldn’t see anything, but each time I went to get her, I stared across the street longer and longer, looking for a person or an animal. Once I looked to see if smoke was coming out of the house or garage across the street. I wondered if she was hallucinating.

Sometimes Cabela is in her own world. She awakes from a nap and stands, head bowed, as if she’s trying to remember why she got up. She’ll stand, motionless. Sometimes I bend down, rest my cheek against hers, and murmur, “Do you want to go outside? Do you need a drink of water? Are you okay?” She doesn’t respond to my questions. She moves only after she has made a decision about something that I’m not privy to.

To keep Cabela from barking, I’ve started going outside with her in the early morning hours. I shamelessly throw my coat on over my nightgown. She’s already waited for me to pee so she can go outside to pee. She makes it clear that she doesn’t want to wait for me to get dressed. I’m not being unladylike; I’m channeling my nana.

Once outside I stay close to Cabela. We’re two senior citizens starting our day, grateful to be together, and happy to be alive. But only one of us is thankful that it’s too dark for the neighbors to see her outfit.

Naptime, Cabela, foreground, and Ziva, background
Cabela looks at Lake Michigan
Cabela waits for a ride

Bird Feeder Trilogy

Wednesday, November 24—

Charlie, September 2021

Charlie, my three-year-old grandchild, was cranky, and I was becoming cranky. I crossed my arms, looked at him, and said, “How about you and Nana take a timeout together?”

“Okay.” He agreed because he knows it’s not a real timeout if I’m joining him. I picked him up and carried him to the family room to begin our detention. On the way he wrapped his arms around my neck and snuggled his head on my shoulder, aah Charlie-Bear hugs.

Charlie and I needed a quiet place to gather serenity (and avoid tears). We knelt on the couch, rested our elbows on the back cushions, and watched the chickadees zip back and forth from the trees to the bird feeder. Our crankiness dissolved. Before long I heard Charlie’s five-year-old brother, Evan, ask, “What are you looking at?”

“The chickadees,” I said. Evan joined us on the couch, and we watched the chickadees dart to and from the feeder. Evan asked lots of questions—he always does. But he asked with a soft, reverent voice.

Next, their ten- and eight-year-old siblings, Clara and Michael, found us and asked, “What are you doing?” Funny how each child became aware that Charlie and I were missing from the front room and in turn abandoned their toys to find us.

The five of us sat in the darkened family room, stared outside into the dimming afternoon, and watched the chickadees dash in and out to grab seeds. I pointed to a red-breasted nuthatch cavorting on the branch of a pine tree near the feeder. Sometimes it hung upside down, and sometimes it hung right-side up in its frenzied search for food lurking in the bark.

The five of us were still and spoke in muted tones, sated with the joy of watching small birds eat supper. Timeouts are good for everyone.

Saturday, November 27—

Chickadee and Goldfinches

It was cold outside, but there was no snow. I noticed small birds, including chickadees, goldfinches, and cardinals pecking at the ground and at tree branches and trunks, foraging for creepy crawlies, good sources of protein to nourish them through the winter.

A few chickadees swooped in and out to grab black oil sunflower seeds from the feeders outside my kitchen window, but only two or three chickadees at a time. In warmer months, I often see five or more doing touch-and-go landings at the feeder. Once the ground is covered in a thick, white batting of snow, the chickadees will dive bomb my feeders again. No matter how cold and snowy it gets, I keep their feeders clean and stocked.

A pair of goldfinches visited. Their yellow feathers, like the leaves and grass, have faded to brown. In the winter when a male goldfinch isn’t breeding, his brilliant yellow coloring turns a drab brown. A female goldfinch’s color fades too, but even in mating season, she’s never as flashy as her male partner. Mr. and Mrs. Goldfinch foraged on the ground and in the trees, but they also grabbed seeds from the feeders.

Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal dropped by. Mr. Cardinal was sporting his flashy red jacket. Unlike the male goldfinch whose colors fade in the winter, the male cardinal often turns a brighter red. Mrs. Cardinal was a shade of greyish-brown with a few red-feather highlights, a lipstick-orange beak, and a red-tinged mohawk. She’s always a combination of understated beauty and bold attitude.

Mr. Cardinal snuck up on the bird feeder. He started in the garden, poking his beak in the ground. He lifted his head, turned it left, then right. Looking, poking, looking, poking, in a nervous cha-cha-cha. After every couple of poke-and-look moves, he hopped a little closer to the feeders. Finally, a craving for sunflower seeds overtook him, and he flapped his wings. Lifting himself from the ground for a short flight, he landed on the tray of the red feeder. I snapped a picture of him eating and texted it to my family. My sister responded, “I like how the red bird goes to the red bird feeder.” I had the same thought when I took the picture.

Stopping by the kitchen window, I watched him fill up with seeds. Mrs. Cardinal, cloistered in a nearby cedar tree, watched him too. Cardinals usually mate for life, and she was looking out for her man. After all, he stands watch when she builds their nest.

Sunday, November 28—

Today a grey squirrel ate lunch and dinner from the bird feeder at the side of my house. The feeder, shaped like a craftsman style home, is designed to thwart squirrels. Wally “The Hack” didn’t get the memo.

I like to think Wally “The Hack” is “Flying” Wally, who, this summer, mastered leaping from one shepherd’s hook to another shepherd’s hook from which my bird feeders hang. After his leap, he would shimmy down the pole, sit on the feeder’s tray, and munch sunflower seeds. I put the plant hanger away for the winter, so if this is Wally, he has adapted.

Wally (it has to be him) figured out he needed to climb up the back of the wooden post then sit on top of the feeder. Next, he hung upside down, grabbed seeds from the tray, sat up, then ate his morsel before repeating his moves. He had learned that if he tried to eat from the front of the feeder, his weight dropped a bar and obstructed his access to the seeds. (Other squirrels still try to get seeds out of the front of the feeder.)

I sat on the couch and watched him, and he watched me watching him. He gave off a vibe of bravado and triumph—his pilfering of each seed, a boast. I left him alone and the chickadees left him alone. They flew to the ground to grab spilled seeds then darted back to the pine tree.

I wanted to open the window and yell, “Leave the seed for the birds,” but I admired Wally’s problem-solving skills, so I let him eat. I hope he doesn’t learn to hack my wi-fi and order his own sunflower seeds.

[Local birder Rich Hoeg has a wonderful website with beautiful pictures. He loves to photograph and write about owls, but also posts gorgeous pictures of other birds: 365 Days of Birds.]

[For pictures of beautiful birds from around the world, click here. To enjoy Michael Sammut’s blog about birds, click here.]