Pearls from Nana

Dear Nana,

Nana Kitty, circa 1940

Remember how you always said, “The early bird gets the worm.” And I would answer back, “I don’t like worms” because I wanted to sleep until noon. I thought you’d like to know that now I rarely sleep past 6:00 a.m.

Remember how you always said, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” And I would answer back, “I don’t care” because I wanted to watch the late movie on TV. I thought you’d like to know that now I usually fall asleep before 10:00 p.m.

Remember how you always said, “You can win more flies with honey than vinegar” when I was spitting mad and wanted to tell someone off. And I would answer back, “Vinegar is what she deserves” because I desired payback. I thought you’d like to know that now I believe honey is a better tonic.

Remember how you always said, “Turn the other cheek.” And I would answer back, “If I do, someone will just slap the other one” because I was hurt and didn’t want to forgive. I thought you’d like to know that now I try to practice the other-cheek philosophy.

Remember how you always said, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” You were a widow scrapping by on a waitress’s earnings. But I wanted things, so once I badgered you into buying me a troll doll and another time a delivery pizza that you couldn’t afford. I thought you’d like to know I’m sorry, and that fifty years later I still have the doll. And the pizza didn’t taste good that night because I regretted my behavior before it was delivered. Best of all, I became good at saving money. You’d be proud.

Remember how you always said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” That was good advice. And I thought you’d like to know that after years of practice, I’ve gotten better. I could be such a wiseass when I was a teenager.

Remember how you always said, “Never trust a man who doesn’t like animals.” I embraced that advice. Some of the men I dated weren’t the best, but they all loved animals. My husband loves dogs. We have two. And he is the best.

Remember how you always said, “Silence speaks volumes.” I didn’t understand what that meant, but I never asked you to explain because I wanted you to think I was smart. I thought you’d like to know that now I get it. But I also know you didn’t mean that I should always be silent because you spoke up when it mattered.

Remember how you always said, “Wear clean underwear every day in case you get in an accident.” I never answered back because it made sense. As I got older, I discovered that piece of wisdom was a great source of comedic mockery. But I thought you’d like to know that it’s still stellar advice. And I bet the mocking comedians change their underwear every day because their mother or nana told them to.

With love,

Your granddaughter who is wiser because you always took the time to say . . .

Being Five and Making Friends

I did some artwork.

I’ve been taking my five- and three-year-old grandsons to the library because it’s spring, which means it’s too cold, wet, and windy to play at the park.

Evan, the five-year-old, is into making friends. Last week he made a friend at the library and they played and played. They also ran around. I told them not to run, the other boy’s mother told them not to run, and the librarian told them not to run. So, yes, they had a good time. After we left the library, he told me all about his new friend. Numerous times during the afternoon he mentioned his new friend. When his dad came to pick him up, he told him about his new friend.

Today we went back to the library because it was cold, wet, and windy because it’s still spring. On our way into the children’s library, we picked up the craft project then sat at a table to color the paper Easter eggs. Evan hashed a couple streaks of color on one of his eggs and said, “I’ll do these at home. I’m going to make some new friends.”

And that’s what he did. He made friends with a boy, and they played for almost an hour until the boy had to leave with his mom. Then Evan made friends with a girl, and they played until we had to leave. Evan looked like Droopy, the cartoon basset hound. I told him we’d come back to the library tomorrow, and he could make more friends. He grinned.

That’s how it is when you’re five. You go to the park or the library and meet other kids. You play, then you’re friends. No one cares about your resume, your politics, your religion, your economic class, your ethnic background, your orientation, or any other element that grownups use to drive wedges between people.

The kids have it nailed: show up, smile, introduce yourself, play nice, have fun.

Mid April

So far April has been cold and snowy.

But Mr. Goldfinch’s drab gray feathers continue to give way to his yellow courting plumage.

This afternoon it’s 31 degrees with 17 mph winds, and, yes, there’s a windchill.

But Mr. Goldfinch believes summer is coming–his feathers are more yellow today than yesterday.

Two to four inches of snow are predicted for Sunday night.

With her back to Mr. Goldfinch, Mrs. Goldfinch is waiting until he has all his yellow feathers.

Perhaps she’s not sure about summer’s arrival.

Tree Guy’s Nose Is Safe

The rescued schnoz, slightly damaged at the top

On March 29, I dug Three Guy’s nose out of the icy snow. It took me awhile because I worked like an archaeologist on a dinosaur dig, gently, slowly, never getting too close to the nose with my excavating tool. I’ve never wanted to be an archaeologist because it’s hot, dusty work, at least according to all the pictures and documentaries I’ve seen that depict archaeologists laboring in the field. I don’t even want to take a vacation and sit on a beach, in the sun, in the heat.

In high school, I read a book on zodiac signs. After reading that a Pisces was more likely to be found perusing a book on a park bench rather than at the beach tanning in the sun–which totally described me–I embraced astrology as science and read my horoscope daily.

Next, I read about Cancer, the sign of the boy I’d fell in love with when I was twelve. In high school I wrote his name, surrounded with hearts, all over the inside of my folders. We were supposed to be highly compatible water signs, but our upbringings gave us different views of the world, and neither of us budged. After high school I fell in love with a Scorpion, also a highly compatible match for a Pisces, but that romance failed because he fell in love with every pretty girl he saw. I kicked astrology to the curb.

Scraping ice pellets, layer by layer, away from Tree Guy’s nose, gave me time to think about random stuff, free-floating thoughts cobbled together by tenuous threads. I stopped periodically to check if I could lift the nose from its icy clutch. Nope, nope, nope. I kept scraping because a storm was coming and because small bits from the top of Tree Guy’s nose had already crumbled into the snow.

The day after the nose’s rescue

After I freed the nose, I placed it on my husband’s workbench, so it could dry out. It would need the coat of paint he’d suggested. Later that night the winds carried in rain, which morphed into ice, then converted to snow, enough for some area schools to cancel classes on Wednesday. After work my husband asked if I’d picked up the nose before the storm came. I gave him the update.

I don’t need to check for Tree Guy’s nose anymore—it’s safe. But every night before I go to bed and every morning after I wake up, I’ve been checking my phone for news about Ukraine. I want to read that Putin has called off his war. I imagine him waking up and finding his nose is missing. He’s dashing around the streets, looking for it, eager to repair his visage. I imagine he promises to be a good despot, if only someone will return his nose.

But life isn’t a story. Dictators don’t change or learn their lessons. Because sociopaths brood and lie and plot, then seek vengeance for perceived slights. Winning and power are their only divinities.

And in case you’re wondering, Putin is a Libra and Volodymyr Zelenskyy is an Aquarius, making them highly compatible air signs. But life ignores astrology.

Excavating Tree Guy’s Nose

[If you missed the earlier blogs: Tree Guy, Tree Guy Update, Tree Guy’s Nose Is Still Missing, and Another Tree Guy Update.]

Pictures of snow in March look like bad abstract art.

This morning I went outside to retrieve Tree Guy’s schnoz. I tried to pick it up but discovered it was frozen into the icy snow. I shouldn’t have been surprised. When I got out of bed at 6:30 this morning, it was 9° with a 9-mph wind. And if that were a mathematical story problem, the answer would be a windchill of -4°. (Don’t ask how this would change if one train was leaving Grand Central Station at 9:00 a.m., traveling at 60 mph, and another train was leaving Union Station at 10 a.m., traveling at 55 mph. I didn’t care when I was in school, and I still don’t care.)

I didn’t try to muscle the nose out of the snow. Increased force is usually the wrong answer to most problems. I found a stick and scrapped snow away from the sides of the nose. I tried to lift it again, but it wouldn’t budge. The nose appeared to be intact, so I decided against digging underneath it because it might break. Impatience is usually the wrong option for most situations.

I hoped the space I created along the sides of the nose would allow the sun’s warm rays to melt the snow from under it. On Tuesday the temperature is supposed to reach 41°. If the icy snow hasn’t released the nose by that evening, I’ll cover it with a bucket because it’s supposed to snow on Wednesday and Thursday.

Tree Guy doesn’t want his nose to be buried again. At this point in his life, he doesn’t appreciate history repeating itself.

Another Tree Guy Update

Tree Guy

[If you missed the earlier blogs: Tree Guy, Tree Guy Update, and Tree Guy’s Nose Is Still Missing.]

This evening my husband walked into the house from the back yard, tapped his finger on the side of his nose and said, “I saw the nose. I saw the nose.”

I wanted to ask, “You saw Kovalyov’s nose?” But I didn’t. My husband doesn’t read Russian short stories.

So I said, “What?”

He grinned, a very big grin. “I saw the nose.” He used his silly voice. “I saw the nose.” He kept tapping the side of his nose.

Because I reread Gogol’s “The Nose” a few days ago, I pictured a gigantic schnoz dressed in uniform. But I knew my husband didn’t see Kovalyov’s nose because you couldn’t pay him to read Russian short stories.

So again I said, “What?” because I still didn’t know what he was talking about.

“The tree’s nose,” he said. “I can see it in the snow now.”

The blob in the center is the back side of Tree Guy’s nose.

Turns out, I haven’t been the only one walking to the edge of our deck and looking over the side. I should’ve known. After all Tree Guy was my husband’s idea.

I couldn’t believe I thought about Kovalyov’s nose before thinking about Tree Guy’s nose. And I’d forgotten to look for it the last couple of days. I’ve been distracted, and it’s been cold.

But neither of us went outside to retrieve the nose this evening. The wind was whipping, the temperature was below freezing, and the windchill was a single digit. I was sitting on my couch with a wool scarf wrapped around my neck. Neither of us wanted to climb on the unstable snow pile. Two days ago our grandson climbed that pile and got his foot stuck. When he yanked his foot up, his boot stayed–buried six inches down. I rescued the boot by digging it out of the snow with my bare hands.

Tomorrow I’ll save Tree Guy’s nose because more cold and snow are predicted next week. March wants to go out like a lion.

My husband will give the nose a fresh coat of paint if needed. Then he’ll reattach it to Tree Guy’s face. Like it had never been missing.

Tree Guy’s Nose Is Still Missing

[If you missed the earlier blogs: Tree Guy and Tree Guy Update.]

Tree Guy can’t smell a thing.

For the past week, the snow has been disappearing fast. So, for the past week, I’ve been looking for Tree Guy’s nose. Each day I look over the side of the deck, hoping that enough snow has melted to reveal his schnoz, but it’s still missing.

He doesn’t look bad without his nose, but he’d like it back. If I don’t find it, I’ve promised to buy him two hanging baskets of flowers, one for each ear. With colorful blooms gracing the sides of his face, no one will notice his nose is gone. It’s amazing what people will overlook if something glitzy captures their eye.

After work, I looked for his nose again. No luck. It was too cold today for snow to melt. The wind whipped at 38 mph—and that was the sustained number. The gusts were over 40 mph. The air temp was 35° and the windchill was 19°. Freezing rain, snow with blizzard-like conditions, power outages, and hazardous travel are predicted over the next couple days. Or what I like to call, Springtime in the Northland. March is fickle with an attitude, and I’ve lived here long enough to know that the springs of northern Wisconsin are not the springs of Milwaukee.

I’m beginning to think Tree Guy’s nose is a goner, but there is still snow around him, so maybe his nose is buried deeper than I thought. The mystery of it all makes me want to reread “The Nose” by Gogol. I keep imagining Kovalyov’s and Tree Guy’s noses calling an Uber and gallivanting around the city. The frigid air will make the noses run; hopefully, they have hankies.

Cabin fever has set in.

Make New Friends, but Keep the Old

Last Monday when I took my nearly twenty-year-old sewing machine to be tuned and cleaned, I looked at a new machine that was the same brand but a step and a half up from the one I own. I’m not sure I would’ve considered buying a newer model if there hadn’t been a pandemic.

The finished quilt top: I will machine quilt it and bind it, then give it to my sister-in-law. My next project will be another T-shirt quilt.

When the lockdowns happened in the spring of 2020, being able to quilt kept me sane. I was home alone during the week because my husband worked in a business that was deemed essential, and I couldn’t see my children and grandchildren because we all stayed in our own bubbles. With all the death and uncertainty, dicing up fabric and sewing it back together was familiar and calmed my nerves. I could quilt without leaving the house because I have a sizable stash of fabric. I made a T-shirt quilt, two lap quilts, and two wall hangings and gave them to family and friends. I made a throw pillow and gave it to my dogs for their stuffed chair. I wanted a second machine because if there’s another lockdown, and something happens to one of them, I would be able to keep quilting.

The new model had features that would make machine quilting and appliquéing easier, helping me expand my quilting skills. But I wanted to sleep on it, so I left my old machine for a tune up and postponed buying the new one. Long ago, I made a rule for myself: All big purchases could only be made after I slept on it for a night. Over the years there were many purchases I never made but very few regrets about the ones I did make.

When I woke up on Tuesday morning, I was still enthusiastic about the new machine, so after lunch I went back to the store and bought it. When I returned home, I unboxed it and put it on my antique dining room table, which I use for sewing. (Don’t shudder. The table isn’t dainty.) The new machine looked especially modern and sleek on the old oak surface. It stood among a cutting mat, rulers, a rotary cutter, and fabric, becoming a part of the quilting landscape. I turned my back on it and did some writing, cleaning, and cooking. I stayed out of the dining room and away from the new machine. My old one sat in a shop, waiting in a queue for service, unaware it had been replaced. Regret seeped into my psyche. My old machine and I had pieced many quilts together: quilts for family and friends; quilts to welcome new babies into the world. By suppertime I stood in the kitchen and cried, wishing I had waited two nights instead of one.

Would I actually do more machine quilting or appliquéing just because I bought a new sewing machine? For the rest of the evening, I left it untouched. I kept picturing my old one sitting on the technician’s workbench. When it came home, I’d have to store it in a closet instead of returning it to the oak table because I knew it would become the spare.

On Wednesday I woke up at 4:30 in the morning and thought about the new machine with deepening regret. I decided to hide it in a dark corner of the closet and shut the door. An absurd idea. So, I set a goal for Wednesday: make friends with the new machine by making a quilt. I have a closet full of fabric and quilt kits that I’ve purchased over the years since I started quilting in 1994. I never had a sleep-on-it rule for buying fabric.

I selected a package of precut strips because I had a simple pattern for a Jelly Roll Race Quilt that would allow me to use all the strips to create a quilt that was quick and easy. (At the speed I sew, I should call it a Jelly Roll Stroll Quilt.)

I sewed a test strip with two short scraps. The new machine sewed a perfect quarter-inch seam. An essential feature. Then I sewed my strips together making one long strip. The new machine has a bigger work surface, making it easier to sew fabric together. A solid improvement. The redesigned quarter-inch foot did a better job of keeping the fabric in place as it passed through the feed dogs, so I didn’t have to keep repositioning it. A welcome timesaver.

Best of all, the new machine sounds like my old one because underneath its modern, sleek exterior, it has the same motor and frame as the old one, which I’d used for almost twenty years. Hopefully, I can use the new one just as long. I’ve got a lot of fabric in the closet.

The first quilt off the new machine will be a gift for my sister-in-law. The package of precut strips was originally purchased by her sister Jen who passed away from cancer in 2018 before she could sew them into a quilt. Jen gave me the strips before she died because she knew I liked to quilt. I’m piecing together the gift from Jen as a gift to her sister, connecting the past to the future while listening to the old familiar rhythm coming from the inside of the new sewing machine.

My new machine and I are going to be friends. But I will keep my old one. Perhaps each one of my grandchildren would like to sew a quilt, and my old machine will make new friends. I know where they can find some fabric.

[To find the instructions for making a Jelly Roll Race Quilt, click here. To read about one of my pandemic quilts, click here.]

I’m Thinking

The Thinker

“Nana, be careful. You almost stepped on me,” Charlie, my three-year-old grandson, said.

“I’m trying not to, but you’re walking willy-nilly around the kitchen while I’m cooking breakfast.”

“No, I’m not,” he said. “I’m thinking.”

I stopped to watch as he paced the length of the kitchen and back. The top half of his little body leaned forward, his eyes focused on the floor, and his hands pushed against the sides of his hips. Damn. He was indeed thinking. I didn’t ask him for his thoughts. He kept pacing, and I kept making breakfast.

The next day we were back in the kitchen. I walked past Charlie and he started to twirl around. I did that as a child, spinning and spinning until I could barely stand. During one of his rotations, he smacked his hand on the chair.

“Watch where you’re going,” he said, rubbing his hand.

My three-year-old grandson often mimics phrases he has picked up from adults or his older siblings. I love it when he quips, “That’s not how my day goes” after I ask him a question or make a request. At his age it’s funny, but in a few years, he’ll be accused of being a smart aleck when he imitates adults.

“I didn’t bump your hand. You hit it on the chair while you were spinning around.”

“No, I didn’t,” he said. “I was thinking.”

I wanted to tell him he needs to pay attention while he’s thinking. I didn’t because I would be standing on the San Andreas Fault as I said it. This past week I’ve come close to putting peanut butter in the fridge, dirty dishtowels in the recycling bin, and regular milk in my other grandson’s cereal. He’s lactose intolerant. If someone had asked me “What ARE you doing?”  My only defense would’ve been—“I’m thinking!”

My problem? I spend a lot of time thinking about writing while I’m doing mundane activities. It’s worse when I’m working on a specific story or essay. I’m surprised that the kitchen scissors don’t end up in the toothbrush holder and my toothbrush doesn’t end up in the junk drawer.

Cabela has many talents, but she’s not good at babysitting me.

At the end of January, I had a seismic-thinking episode. I was sitting at my computer writing a story but had to stop because Cabela, my senior dog, needed to see the vet for a shot. It was a subzero day with lots of windchill, so I went outside, unplugged the extension cord from the outside outlet, then started the van. Because it’s tough to unplug the cord from the tank heater cord, I decided I’d do that just before I left.

Five minutes later I was ready to go. I noted the extension cord was still plugged into the tank heater. I planned to unplug it, but first I loaded both dogs in the van and placed my purse on the front seat. Then I got in the driver’s seat and drove off. I was writing in my head. My hands might have left the keyboard, but my brain was still at the computer.

Cabela was a good patient. We were soon back home, and I was writing again. A few hours later, I took out the garbage and noticed only one cord on the driveway. Someone had pilfered one of our extension cords. But that was ridiculous, why not take both of them. Maybe an unselfish thief? Couldn’t be. Perhaps my husband had driven off with the cord plugged into his tank heater. I doubted it. He’s not a writer, so he’s never thinking about a story. I must have driven off with the missing cord hanging from my van. The more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t remember having unplugged it from the tank heater. The more I thought about it, the more I knew it was my mistake.

My husband was going to think I was crazy. He was going to ask, “How can you not unplug the extension cord?” It would be a rhetorical question because he knows I’m capable of such things. He was going to be upset about his missing extension cord. But he was going to be more freaked out about me being okay. I was freaked out about being okay—I’m at that age.

My only excuse would’ve been “I was thinking.” His retort would’ve been “Yeah, but not about what you were doing.”

It had been hours since I’d been to the vets. But I got in the van and went to look for the cord. I drove less than eighty feet. Curled up at the corner of our lot, where the street intersects with the avenue, was our yellow extension cord sunning itself.

I stopped the van and retrieved it. I looked around to see if anyone was watching. I gave thanks for the kind person who had picked up the cord, coiled it, and set it on the corner. Then I hoped it wasn’t one of our neighbors who would ask my husband, “Was that your extension cord in the road the other day?”

I wasn’t going to tell my husband. But I called a friend and confessed because I needed to tell someone.

To myself I vowed to always unplug both ends of the extension cord before starting the van. Promising myself to stop composing stories in my head while doing routine stuff would be futile.

No one has mentioned the cord to me or my husband. I haven’t mentioned it to my husband, and he doesn’t read my blog. And if he somehow gets wind of this story, I’m going to say, “I was thinking. Charlie gets it.”

Yet Another Frozen February Day

Normally, my dogs want to be outside with my grandchildren. But this was the position they took yesterday.

February has been cold. Yesterday was no exception. But when I asked my five- and three-year-old grandsons, Evan and Charlie, if they wanted to go outside, they were enthusiastic. It was snowing lightly, painting the already thick layer of snow with a fresh coat. The outside world looked enchanted—the kind of magic I remember from my childhood.

The temperature was in the low 20s, the winds about 11 m.p.h., and the windchill about 10°. The weather app on my phone doesn’t use the term windchill—the app and many weather channels now refer to windchill as “feels like.” Good for them, but I use the term windchill, and even the chill part of that sounds like a cover-up. Wind-polar-frozen-vortex-shatter-your-skin gets closer to the truth. “Feels like” is too nice. Think about it: That fabric “feels like” silk. The warm sun “feels like” gold. She “feels like” singing rainbows. “Feels like” is also used to soften a blow: She “feels like” crying—when what she really wants to do is throw a howling tantrum. (Just so you know, I’m not against all change. Unlike some people, I had no problem accepting Pluto being downgraded from a planet to a dwarf planet.)

After I bundled up my grandsons, I offered each one a scarf. Charlie wanted a one. He always does. Evan never wants one to start with, but sometimes, like yesterday, he changes his mind after being outside for a bit. I wish I would’ve taken a picture of them. Bundled up children are cuter than kittens curled up in a wicker basket. Plus, I could’ve shown off the scarves that I’d knitted. I don’t know how to knit anything else.

After sledding down the side hill for a while, Evan opened the back door and asked, “Nana, can we take the picnic table off the deck and put it on the big pile of snow?” It’s a small plastic table designed for preschoolers.

I said yes, but I didn’t ask why. It was a reasonable request, much more reasonable than last week when Charlie asked if he and Evan could go outside and play with the squirt guns. When I told him no, he didn’t think “It’s too cold outside” was a good explanation, and he wanted to debate the issue.

After my grandsons had been outside for an hour, nature flipped the switch on its wind machine from low to high. That’s how it happens—a flipped switch. You can stand outside and experience the exact moment the wind kicks up from fluttering to roaring. The sustained winds were 28 m.p.h. with gusts of 38 m.p.h. The temperature dropped to the low teens. The WINDCHILL dropped to 8° below. I love my weather app—so much detail. Remember when you called the phone company, and all you got were the time and temperature?

The weather details convinced me it was time to get my grandkids inside to avoid hypothermia or being hit by a falling branch from one of the trees in the backyard. Neither one of them wanted to come in, so I sweetened the deal by offering hot chocolate. Of course, it worked.

When they were taking off their outerwear, Evan stared at Charlie’s face and asked, “Are my cheeks as red as Charlie’s?” He was concerned.

I smiled and said, “Yes, your cheeks are as sweet and rosy as Charlie’s.”

Evan grinned. Something his nana described as sweet and rosy couldn’t be bad.

Outside the wind had the final word as it wailed, its breath bending tree branches back and forth to their breaking points.