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.

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.

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.

Cold-Weather Book Buying during a Pandemic

Superior, WI, Monday, February 8, 2021, 7:00 p.m., -5˚F, Windchill -15˚

Cabela, 77 in human years, nestles on the right side of the couch. Ziva, 66 in human years, nestles on the left side. I’m 61, yep, in human years, and sitting at my desk, joining a virtual author chat hosted by Honest Dog Books in Bayfield, Wisconsin, an hour-and-a-half away.

Ziva (in front) and Cabela on a warm summer day in 2020.

It’s excessively cold outside, which explains why the dogs and I aren’t going for a walk. At our combined age of 204 years, our enthusiasm for walking at night in subzero temperatures has ebbed, so this evening we’re opting for warm intellectual stimulation.

We’re going to listen to two authors talk about their books set in immensely cold parts of the world, places that make the western tip of Lake Superior feel like a tropical vacation destination, even in winter. Miniature snowballs of marshmallows bob in a cup of hot cocoa warming my hands. On the couch the dogs remain curled up in heat-conserving positions. While other attendees join the author chat, I leave my seat to slip on a pair of thick wool socks over my flimsy book-themed socks.

Andrea Pitzer (Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World) lives in Washington, D.C., and Blair Braverman (Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube) lives in northeastern Wisconsin. Around another 140 people join the event. Miles and even time zones apart, we’re all together this evening listening to Pitzer talk about her narrative nonfiction book and Braverman talk about her memoir. Because both authors and the audience are having a good time, the authors, along with most of the audience, stay another fifteen minutes or so before calling it a night.

Superior, WI, Tuesday, February 9, 2021, 1:00 p.m., 3˚, Windchill -14˚

The polar vortex, having parked its big-mass front over much of the country, intends to overstay its welcome for at least another eight or nine days. In search of relief, I make plans to call Honest Dog Books and order both deep-freeze books from last night’s talk. (Books always make me feel better.) During this arctic cold front, I could read books set in warm locations, but I decide it takes daring to read books set in the Arctic where winter submerges itself in darkness. I’ll also need more hot cocoa, another pair of wool socks, and a flannel-backed quilt.

I could order the books via Honest Dog’s website, but I miss going into bookstores. I bypass technology, which allowed last night’s virtual gathering, considered futuristic when I was in high school, and call the bookstore.

“Is it okay if I order books by phone instead of using your website?” I ask.

“Oh yes, certainly,” the clerk answers.

I miss perusing locally-owned bookstores, places where the books I pile on the counter to buy become catalysts for conversation, places where clerks are as thrilled to talk about books as I am.

I order Icebound. And we discuss Pitzer’s research methods.

I order Ice Cube. It’s one of the clerk’s favorites.

I order The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. He wasn’t at last night’s author chat, but I’ve heard him talk about his book (another online experience). I don’t usually read young-adult novels, and I don’t read fantasy novels. But my pandemic-mode response to life has been to be more adventurous.

I order first one, then two, then three Valentine-themed packages of chocolates. The clerk and I chuckle each time I increase my chocolate order. (Chocolate also makes me feel better.)

The clerk and I talk for seventeen minutes. More than half our conversation is about books. After I hang up, I feel like I’ve had a near-small-bookstore experience. I smile.

Superior, WI, Thursday, February 11, 2021, 3:30 p.m., -1˚, Windchill -13˚

At three o’clock the mail arrives, and my nine-year-old granddaughter retrieves it.

“Nana,” she says, dashing up the stairs, “you got a package.”

My four grandkids, ages two-and-a-half to nine, know boxes arriving in the mail have potential.

As soon as I say, my books, the older grandkids lose interest.

I lift the books from the box and lay them on the kitchen table. The two-and-a-half-year-old, with the speed and dexterity of the Artful Dodger, seizes one and runs into the living room.

“This my book, Nana, this my book,” he says, with the cadence of a parrot.

“That’s Nana’s book,” I say.

“No, Nana, this my book. This my book, Nana.” He sits on the couch and looks at the cover.

He’s grabbed Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. I’m certainly not telling him the name of the book. In my mind I can hear his parrot-like repetition of the title. I can hear his parents ask me, What did you say to Charlie?

“That book doesn’t have pictures,” I say.

The mention of pictures redirects his attention, and he exchanges my book for a children’s book on the coffee table.

I retrieve my book and place it on my bookshelf. By six o’clock the grandkids will be gone. By seven o’clock, I’m planning on hot cocoa, a quilt, one of those deep-freeze books, and at least one piece of the Valentine-themed chocolates from my hidden stash.

[Check out Honest Dog’s upcoming author chats at http://honestdogbooks.com/events/]

Do Drop a Line

“Sometimes a letter is better than a phone call. It’s nice to get something besides bills and junk mail.” –A wise woman, age 95

Texting and emailing are fast, but let’s write someone a letter. If we text and don’t get an immediate response, we believe we’re being ignored.

If we email and don’t get a nearly immediate response, we believe we’re being ignored.

If we write a letter and don’t get a reasonably-timed response, we think the other person is busy. It takes time to write a letter, address an envelope, put a stamp on it, and drop it in a mailbox—it might be weeks before we believe we’re being ignored.

Let’s write someone a letter. We’ll write to someone we don’t see because of the pandemic. Or someone we haven’t talked to in a long time. Or someone who lives down the block but we don’t see because of the pandemic. Or someone who lives in assisted living or a nursing home whom we’re not allowed to see because of the pandemic.

The pandemic has shrunk our worlds. Maybe we don’t have much to say in a letter. Yet, we can say something, almost anything. Remember our 95-year-old wise woman, It’s nice to get something besides bills and junk mail.

On the table, our blank piece of stationery resembles a wide-open prairie unbroken by forests or mountains. We grab a pen and write words, our tracks across our prairie. Perhaps our minds become as blank as the endless prairie sky on a still day. We need to look down, think small, see the individual prairie grasses and flowers.

We can write about

  • our dog who scratches its back on the cedar bush when it’s outside.
  • our cat who’s playing with our pen while we’re writing.
  • the green beans growing in our garden.
  • the rabbits who ate our tulip blossoms.
  • rearranging our furniture. (This counts as an indoor workout during the pandemic.)
  • our four-year-old grandson who told his mother, “Well, if you don’t look in my room, it’s nice and tidy,” when she asked him if it was clean.
  • the book we read, the TV show we watched, the movie we streamed. (But we’ll play nice and avoid spoiler alerts.)
  • unexpected objects we found when cleaning our drawers and closets. (Eventually, we’re all bored enough to pandemic clean.)
  • finishing the sweater we started knitting five years ago.
  • the 1,000-piece jigsaw we completed in a week.
  • the spicy chili we made that makes our eyes water but clears our sinuses.
  • our winning streak at Yahtzee.
  • our favorite sports team.

We can grumble about

  • the weather. It’s expected. We want to know if it’s hot, cold, rainy, snowy, windy, or foggy. Honestly, we do. (It gives us permission to fill up some of our prairie land on our paper with our weather report.)
  • work, spouses, children, parents, pets, anything. We want to know we aren’t the only ones who don’t have a Brady Bunch life. Thankfully, handwritten letters don’t live in cyberspace.
  • the upcoming forecast. If we still have space on our page to fill, we can end with more weather. (It’s not the same as complaining about our current weather because this is forecasted weather.)
  • our favorite sports team.

We can describe the setting in which we’re writing our letter:

  • the waning daylight or the full moon shining outside our window,
  • the sleeping children down the hall or the dog curled up by our side,
  • the falling snow or the drenching rain,
  • the orchid that bloomed yesterday or the Christmas cactus that’s fading,
  • the Irish folk music or Madam Butterfly springing from our radio.

In our letter we can thank

  • a parent, a sibling, a child, a relative for some kindness, past or present.
  • a friend who’s always there for us.
  • the former neighbors who welcomed us into their homes when we were children.
  • our eleventh-grade teacher who believed we could write.

If our letters aren’t that interesting, we’ll take comfort because even if we’re boring someone paragraph by paragraph, they can’t interrupt us. But they’ll read our letters because they came from us, and we wrote to them. Our ho-hum letters ease the pressure on them to entertain us with subtle wit and scintillating stories. And we’ll read their letters because they wrote to us and answered our letters.

We’ll write letters because we’ve run out of drawers, cupboards, and closets to clean.

[This essay was inspired by my friend, Phyllis, who turned 95 years old on January 31, 2021. She also inspired the title. I send her cards and letters, and when she thanked me the day after her birthday, she said, “Sometimes a letter is better than a phone call. It’s nice to get something besides bills and junk mail.”]