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.
[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.]
“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?”
“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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”]
[Author’s note: In 2019, my grandkids and I celebrated the first day of summer with a day trip to Two Harbors. Originally published on Perfect Duluth Day Blog on May 11, 2020.]
At 7:30 a.m., my daughter-in-law launches three-over-the-moon-excited explorers into my house. My grandkids and I eat a hardy voyagers’ breakfast of eggs, sausage, and fruit. After cleaning the kitchen, I prepare to leave home with them for a day-long jaunt. I stow hats, jackets, and spare clothes in a canvas bag and drape Evan’s blanket across the top. Almost three years old, it’s his first adventure with us, but he’s not going without his fluffy fleece blankie.
It’s the first day of summer. Warm spring days near the shores of Lake Superior were scarce this year, and even though the first day of summer delivers sunshine, it’s miserly with warmth. I live four city blocks from Lake Superior, and while I can imagine living closer to it, I can’t imagine living farther from it. Most adventure days with my grandkids involve the lake, even if it only provides scenic backdrop.
“Can we bring our adventure bags?” Michael asks. He’s six, a seasoned explorer like his sister Clara, almost eight.
“Can I have a ’venture bag?” Evan asks.
“Sure,” I say. He beams. If his siblings have it, he wants it.
Clara’s and Michael’s bags are too big for Evan, so I fetch a small cloth bag. I sift through postcards and choose some Minnesota ones. I add a toy and a book and present the bag to Evan. He slips one handle over his left shoulder and the other handle over his right shoulder. The bag rests against his chest, like a breastplate of medieval armor worn by a knight.
“I have a ’venture bag,” he crows. He belongs.
“Yes, you do.” I validate his initiation into our group of explorers. He doesn’t know his bag lacks plastic binoculars, a cheap compass-whistle gadget, auto bingo, and maps.
We arrive just before the Two Harbors Lighthouse Museum opens. It’s easier to shepherd three excited children through thin crowds.
To reach the lighthouse grounds, we pass through the gift shop. My grandkids scout toys and trinkets while I buy our tickets.
Beyond the gift shop, we enter a pilothouse that once perched atop the Frontenac. Built in 1923, the iron ore boat was wrecked in 1979 during a blinding snowstorm when she hit a reef near Pellet Island. The pilothouse overlooks Lake Superior, but she’s anchored to land and keeps watch over the same expanse of lake day after day, year after year. She witnesses Lake Superior’s moods, from calm ripples lit by clear skies to crashing waves darkened by angry churning clouds.
My grandkids take turns at the wooden wheel and steer a nonexistent boat to nowhere, but they covet the wheel more than anything else in the pilothouse. When it’s not their turn at the wheel, they each stare at the radar screen, which no longer sends or receives signals. Artifact by artifact they circle inside the pilothouse, and wait for another turn at the helm. I don’t come from a family of sailors, so I’ve never waited for a ship to return safely to harbor. But as my grandkids explore the pilothouse, my thoughts are with sailors who work dangerous jobs. State-of-the-art communications, radar, and forecasting make their jobs safer, but Lake Superior is a daunting adversary when storms crisscross her waters.
While my little seafaring urchins quibble about whose turn it is to steer, I envision the crew who used the equipment in this pilothouse for the last time. I see them alternating between reading instruments and watching a swirling snowstorm. Today the wheel is chained to a brass rail, so young sailors, like mine, can’t go wild at the helm. In 1979, the wheel turned freely, but that didn’t help the crew keep the Frontenac from slamming onto a rocky reef, making her hull howl and shudder as it buckled.
Lake Superior is a boneyard of vessels and sailors. Clear across the lake to the east lies the Edmund Fitzgerald. She was seized by waves, which broke her. She sank with her crew. Up the shore is Pellet Island near Silver Bay where the Frontenac struck a reef. She met her demise, but her crew survived. She’d landed on rocks, which held her up.
“Who wants to see the lighthouse?” I ask. I’m answered by a chorus of “me, me, me.”
We trek up the slope and climb the gray wooden steps to the lighthouse. Clara and Michael scale the tower stairs, more interested in looking out the slit windows than at the displays. When they reach the ladder gallery, the porthole windows give them a bird’s-eye view of the green, gently sloping grounds. “Can we play outside?” they ask. The inside of the lighthouse doesn’t capture their fancy like the inside of the pilothouse did.
The small wooden steps curving along the tower wall are perfectly sized for children, and Evan confidently ascends placing one foot above the other. After reaching the top, he triumphantly descends by sitting on his butt, scooching to the edge of each step, and lowering himself to the next step. At the bottom of the stairs, he raises his hands above his head, then slaps them on his thighs and says, “Again!” He’s enamored with the pint-sized stairs, but it doesn’t take much to coax him outside.
My grandkids scamper up and down the grassy slope, and I’m grateful for the combination of wrought iron and chain-link fencing surrounding the grounds. The sun sits higher in the sky, and we’re no longer alone. I suggest we toss rocks into the lake.
We amble down the trail to smooth rock formations hugging the shore. Like nimble-footed mountain goats, Clara and Michael climb the formations and pitch rocks into Lake Superior. They gather rocks for Evan, who stands close to me. He throws them, but most fall short of the lake. For a quarter-hour, my grandkids toss rocks into a lake that will spit them back up during her next temper tantrum. I worry one of them will slip and fall off the rocky mounds.
“Who wants to go to Burlington Beach?
“I do,” says Clara.
“Me too,” says Michael.
“Me too,” echoes Evan. If his siblings are going, he’s going.
Burlington Beach has a gentle slope to the water’s edge.
In the time it takes to drive to Burlington Beach, which is under a quarter-hour, Lake Superior changes her mind. She pulls a shade of gray over the morning’s blue sky and dials up the wind machine. The four of us stand on layers of pebbles and stones. The wind infiltrates my clothing, and I wonder how long I’ll have to stand on this beach and freeze while my grandkids toss stones. Michael’s teeth are chattering. And Evan, tilting forward, braces himself against the wind, which has carried off his voice. Clara burrows her hands into her jacket pockets and speaks for them, “Nana, it’s really cold.
Back in the van, they ask about our picnic lunch. The gray skies and gnawing wind don’t speak of picnics.
“We’ll have a picnic in the van,” I say.
“Yay, yay, yay,” they cheer.
I drive to the big white rooster that welcomed us to Two Harbors several hours ago and park the van. We eat and talk about the day’s adventure. The cold temperatures and gusty winds have clipped our plans, but our memories of today are already warm.
Almost every night I take my dogs for a second walk, sometime between the end of Wheel of Fortune and nine o’clock. During our winter walks, the cold air is warmed by Christmas lights strung on houses, trees, and bushes. I never tire of seeing the lights sparkle on a cold winter’s evening. From a house with a single lit wreath to a house with strings of lights illuminating every possible structure, tree, and shrub, I love them all.
This year, because of the pandemic, I expected to see fewer Christmas lights. I based this on my experience around Halloween, having noticed fewer Halloween lights and decorations, in keeping with fewer trick-or-treaters.
Christmas lights remind me of my childhood Christmases in the 1960s and 70s. Our house was a busy place. Both my parents worked and had four children born within eight years. But at Christmas my mother created magic in our living room and dining room, which flowed together as one long rectangle.
She strung multicolored C7 lights and hung old fashioned ornaments on a Christmas tree she chose for its perfect shape, fullness, and generous size. She stopped using tinsel sometime before I was old enough to remember, but I have a picture of my sister and I sitting in front of a Christmas tree festooned in the silver stuff. My mother said with a dog and two toddlers, tinsel was everywhere.
She framed the big picture window in the living room with a string of pastel lights sheathed in plastic opaque icicles. In the corner of the dining room, we had a built-in, floor-to-ceiling hutch. She created a winter wonderland on the part of the hutch meant for serving trays, first laying out fresh boughs of pine, then weaving twinkle lights through the boughs, and finally spraying the arrangement with canned snow.
The lights made the rooms glow because before she decorated, she cleaned and polished every surface. Humble and old, those rooms in our 1907 farmhouse shone with warmth and welcome.
And when the schools closed for Christmas vacation, my siblings and I spent many hours in those rooms. We played a version of twenty questions in front of the Christmas tree. Taking turns, one of us would silently pick an ornament, and the rest of us would start asking questions, trying to guess the ornament. We lifted wrapped presents from under the tree, shaking them, attempting to guess what our faraway relatives had sent us.
At twilight we sat on the couch in the sparkle of the pastel icicles, staring out the picture window into a farmer’s field and the woods beyond, talking about we wanted Santa to bring. When my mom bought a used upright piano and put it along a bare wall in the dining room, I played Christmas carols and my siblings and I sung, our small voices combing as one rejoicing sound.
On Christmas night my siblings and I sat around the dining room table, playing with board games and art supplies we received every year. Christmas lights shimmered and music played on the stereo. The relatives, who’d joined us for dinner, had all gone home, and the dishes had been washed and put away.
I remember those Christmas-light days as peaceful and other worldly, a respite from our hectic childhood days. Twinkling lights on a tree or a house or a city light post carry me back to the magic my mother created.
Although I expected to see fewer Christmas lights this year, I was amazed by the number of people who decorated their homes for the holidays. Walking my dogs up and down the streets has turned into a warm hug from Christmas Past, a wonderful gift in this year of uncertainty and anxiety.
“Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” ― Kurt Vonnegut
Because of the pandemic, I provide daycare three days a week for my grandchildren, ages nine, seven, four, and two. In addition, I serve up homeschool lessons for the oldest two and a dash of preschool curriculum for the four-year-old. My favorite lessons involve artwork. It’s their favorite too.
Many of our art projects are prompted by ideas from the internet. But Thanksgiving and childhood memories about bringing toilet paper rolls to school for art class inspire our latest project: Toilet Paper Roll Turkeys.
In art-teacher mode, I whip up a model paper roll turkey to inspire my three oldest grandchildren. (Two-year-old Charlie will be happy to play on the floor with an empty roll.) With pride, I text pictures of my model turkey to family and friends. They ooh and aah appropriately, much in the manner of a proud parent attaching a child’s work to the front of the refrigerator.
Before the grandchildren decorate their turkeys, I cover each roll with brown construction paper. On the day of our class, I sprinkle the table with scissors, glue, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, construction paper, stick-on faux gems, glitter foam sheets, popsicle sticks, and stickers. They eye the smorgasbord of craft supplies, eagerly waiting for permission to dig in.
I place my turkey on the table. “You can use this as a model, but decorate your turkeys any way you want. If you want to add googly eyes or something heavier, like pipe cleaners, to your turkey, I’ll hot glue it on so it stays.” My glue gun is heating up on the kitchen counter.
“I know,” Clara says. She’s nine years old and likes me to know that she already knows plenty. She also loves arts and crafts.
Michael, the seven-year-old, digs through the supplies and grabs a sheet of Caribbean-blue glitter foam.
“I don’t want to make a turkey,” Evan says. “Can I just cut and glue paper?”
“Sure,” I say. Evan’s four, and today decorating a paper roll to look like a turkey isn’t his thing.
Charlie is playing on the living room floor with his plain paper roll and toy cars.
Clara and Michael sift through the craft supplies searching for the perfect ingredients to bring their turkey visions to life. Clara chatters about her plans, sharing every artistic decision out loud. Michael’s hands do his talking as he grabs a pair of scissors, uncaps the glue, and adorns his paper roll. Evan cuts and glues random chunks of colored construction paper, but he’s stealing glances of Clara and Michael dressing their turkeys.
Evan yields to temptation. “Can I make a turkey?”
“Sure,” I answer, handing him the third brown-papered roll. He reaches into the supplies and gathers his fixings. I hand him a box of sparkly stickers because his little hands can manage them. He’s smitten with the googly eyes and amasses them in different colors.
Meanwhile, I’m slinging my hot glue gun, attaching googly eyes and wings and tail feathers fashioned out of pipe cleaners for Clara and Michael.
Evan’s ready to have his turkey’s eyes glued on. He points to a spot; I glue on an eye. He gets another eye, points to another spot, I glue. This cycle is repeated five times, and he’s on his way for a sixth eye. “Enough eyes,” I say. Past experience with four-year-old children and art supplies tells me if I let him, he’ll have dozens of eyes on his turkey. It will be creepy, but even scarier our googly-eye stock will be seriously diminished. “It’s time to decorate your turkey with some other art supplies.”
Charlie appears, his tiny fingers clutching the table. His eyes, barely rising above the table’s edge, scan the goods. He says, “Nana,” which covers a lot of ground. I hand him another plain paper roll and he scurries back to the living room floor.
After the turkeys are complete, I’m amazed by the personality of each one. The spiced-up creations made by my grandchildren eclipse my bland turkey.
Clara’s turkey is attired for Mardi Gras. Its twirled red, orange, and yellow pipe-cleaner tail and wings are combined with a sparkling red belt and a yellow hat topped with a red glittery foam feather embellished with a faux lilac-colored gem. Her turkey is ready to strut down Bourbon Street.
Michael’s turkey, with glittery blue wings sporting shimmering purple and neon green spots and glittery blue legs, looks like a butterfly. “Very nice,” I tell him. I don’t question his color choices. I imagine his turkey as a butterkey or a turkfly wanting to flit from clover to clover. Perhaps it’s masquerading to avoid the axe and being placed on a platter at the dinner table.
Evan’s turkey is the most unique, in the way only a four-year-old can interpret a turkey. Asymmetrical, it’s a Picasso turkey. Its eyes look up and down, left and right, none of them aligned. Both its wings protrude from the right side, something Evan insisted on when I asked him if he was sure. A green foam airplane sticker flies from the left of its forehead to the right. Its beak is a mauve foam saxophone sticker. Its mouth is a glittery green J and its feet are two sparkling raspberry-colored F’s. Evan has channeled Picasso, whom he knows nothing about. But maybe Picasso channeled four-year-old artists.
As each turkey is finished, I place it on the ledge of my kitchen window. The turkeys, including mine, strike impressive poses. Throughout the day, as the grandchildren wander through the kitchen, one of them will stop and admire the turkeys, always with special attention paid to his or her own creation. Evan asks, more than once, “Can I hold my turkey?” I hand it to him, he holds it, then hands it back to be returned to the flock on the ledge.
Vonnegut’s advice, “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow,” rings true. And his conclusion, “You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something,” shines on the faces of my grandchildren. They’ve created something.
I look at my turkey and remember the peace I felt while making it. And even though it’s ordinary next to my grandchildren’s turkeys, I feel joy because Vonnegut is right—I’ve created something.
My sister bought an electric pressure cooker two weeks ago. She cooked sweet potato curry, steel-cut oats, and polenta. “Yum, yum, and yum,” she said.
A couple of years ago, my husband wanted one. I didn’t. I liked cooking the old-fashioned way.
But my sister’s been sharing her excitement about cooking with it, along with photos of her pressure-cooked meals. She tells me it cooks fast.
My closed mind cracks. I babysit grandchildren and write. On days my grandchildren are with me, I cook breakfast and lunch, so I’ve no interest in spending more time cooking supper. On days my grandchildren aren’t with me, I catch up on my writing and don’t want to stop to cook supper.
“It was on sale and with my membership discount, I paid $60 for it,” my sister says.
“Could I get one for that price? Could you order it for me? I’ll send you a check.”
Fifteen minutes later, she texts me a picture of the completed order with Merry Christmas written across it, so nice.
Monday morning, I tell my husband my sister bought me an electric pressure cooker and it’s being delivered today. He’s excited. We hope it arrives early enough to use it to cook supper because we bought ingredients to make green chili soup.
It arrives at 4:00 p.m. Plenty of time.
I call my sister to thank her and get some beginner’s advice. “This appliance has more buttons than the jet you fly.”
“I don’t think so,” she says. She’s a pilot who flies people around in a private jet.
She answers my questions and hangs up.
A moment later my text alert chirps. She’s sent me a picture of the flight deck in the Falcon 900 she flies, with the caption, Pressure cooker on steroids. I concede because the instrument panel looks like someone took hundreds of buttons from the cookers and pasted them all over the inside of the cockpit.
I read the warnings and instructions provided in the two slim manuals. My sister has forewarned me the instructions need backup. She’s watched YouTube videos about using pressure cookers, so I watch a couple of short videos on getting started with the kitchen appliance that’s going to revolutionize my cooking time.
I call my sister, again.
“Hello, pressure-cooker hotline. How may I assist you today?”
“Did you do the test with the three cups of water?” I ask.
“Oh, yes,” she answers.
So, I do the water test and successfully cook three cups of water in my cooker. Next up, green chili soup.
The first step is to sauté the meat. I add one tablespoon of oil, push the sauté button, and add the meat. The meat is cooking, but it’s definitely not sauteing.
I’m nervous. I imagine the soup having to be scooped into the garbage as inedible. I once told a woman who complimented a meal I cooked for ten, marveling at how it all came together, “Cooking for dinner guests is my idea of bungy jumping.”
Turns out I was supposed to add the meat when the digital display said, Hot. Because I didn’t, the pot didn’t heat up properly. I shouldn’t have skipped the chart about the cooking options when I read the instructions. It’s not an irredeemable mistake. I make another jump at it, following the instructions, and sauté the next batch of meat with better results.
Before I start the pressure-cooking stage, I call my sister again.
“Yes,” she says, drawing the word out in a bemused manner, teasing me.
“This isn’t the professional hotline greeting I received earlier.” We both laugh.
“I’m making corn on the cob in my cooker,” she says.
“You’re light years ahead of me.”
“No, only a week and a half,” she counters.
“Remember, when I finally got an answering machine, and one of the family said, ‘I can’t believe the Waltons got an answering machine’?”
“Good point,” she says.
“I put all the ingredients in the pot before I push the pressure-cooker button, right?” I realized, considering how a pressure cooker works, it’s a dumb question, but the sauté phase left me in need of hand-holding.
“Oh, yes,” she answers, “and secure the lid too.”
I add the rest of the ingredients, secure the lid, and select the correct settings. I must wait thirty minutes to find out if this is going to be a thrilling bungy jump.
I wash dishes while I wait and realize I haven’t stopped once to stir, add ingredients, or adjust the heat. I chop cilantro and slice radishes for garnishes without interruption. The cooker is self-sufficient. I’m ecstatic. I actually have time to join my husband in the family room.
“It smells really good,” he says.
The cooker chimes. I quick release the pressure and wait for the float valve to descend, indicating it’s safe to remove the lid. I hold my breath for the final yank of my bungy jump.
The spicy smell of the tomatillo-based broth swirls out of the cooker. The green chili soup looks like the photo in the recipe magazine. Taste buds are sated.
After dinner I peruse the internet for Indian curry recipes. I’ve never had curry, but I’m in a daring mood. My cooker and I are taking our next bungy jump this weekend, and for an extra thrill we’ll be cooking a batch of rice a few hours before we whip up the curry
My nana, a petite woman, had merry eyes and a high-wattage smile. Her face was framed with large curls of chestnut brown hair. She played games with us and sang to us. She took us to parks and pushed us on swings. She turned on the radio in her kitchen and danced with us, her moves livelier than the orange and yellow pattern prancing across her linoleum floor. Occasionally, we walked ten blocks with her to the grocery store, and she kindly let us carry the bags of groceries back to her house, all ten blocks.
Sometimes she bought us Cracker Jacks. Nana was a widow on an egg-and-toast budget, and she counted her pennies like Silas Marner, but Cracker Jacks were cheap and came with a toy surprise. For Nana, who worked as a waitress at a pancake joint in downtown Milwaukee, it was a bargain.
Nana was a reader but rarely read to us. Instead she regaled us with stories, and like all story tellers, she retold them, like her Cracker Jack story. So, when she gave us Cracker Jacks, she gave us the story too.
I can close my eyes, smell the sweet and salty Cracker Jacks, and recall Nana and myself sitting on her front stoop . . .
As she starts her story, I open my box.
“One day, when I was a little girl,” Nana says, “my brother Jake brought me some Cracker Jacks.”
I start nibbling caramel corn.
“I sat on our front steps, eating my treat,” she says.
I tip my box, letting caramel corn and peanuts fill my left hand, which I have cupped into bowl.
“I savored each piece,” she says. “But my brother could’ve done more for us than bring us Cracker Jacks now and then. He only gave my mother a dollar a week.”
When she was a child, Nana’s family became Tobacco Road poor. Her father died of typhoid fever. He left behind seven children and a pregnant widow, who donned a black dress and never recovered from her grief. Shortly after her father died, a representative from the West Bend Aluminum Company, where he’d worked, delivered a life insurance check to his widow. It was a lot of money, but not enough to care for the family long term. Nana’s mother handed the check to Jake, her oldest son. He wanted to buy a gas station. It was 1922. He told his mother, “I can support the family. The automobile is on the rise. Our family will be on the rise.” Jake was half right. He made lots of money, but only he rose. Jake broke his promise to help the family. Instead he bought crisp white shirts, snazzy suits, and a new car. He lavishly courted girls. When he landed a beauty from a well-to-do family, he bought a grand house and fancy furniture.
I squeeze the short sides of my box, creating a circular opening at the top. I peer into it.
“It took me a good part of the morning to eat those Cracker Jacks,” Nana says.
I tilt my box to the left and look, then tilt it to the right and look.
“Finally,” she continues, “the only thing left was my toy surprise.”
I set my box on the stoop next to me. With my free hand, I grab the bottom of my T-shirt, pulling it out and up, forming a cloth bowl. I dump the Cracker Jacks from my left hand into my T-shirt bowl.
“Slowly, I opened the toy package,” Nana says. “It was a diamond ring! I’d never seen anything so sparkly. It fit my finger perfectly.”
I grab my Cracker Jacks and pour some of them into my T-shirt bowl. I look in the box again and see the package that holds my toy surprise.
“I went to play,” she says. “I felt like a princess.”
I hold off retrieving my toy surprise and start nibbling again. My favorite part of the story is coming. It involves Mean Mildred.
“Mildred,” Nana says, pressing her lips together before spitting out the name, “noticed my diamond ring and asked to see it.”
I put a piece of caramel corn on my tongue. I don’t chew. The caramel coating melts in my mouth.
“I didn’t want to, but I took off my ring and let Mildred see it,” she says. “That r-a-t ran off with it!”
In Nana’s world, calling someone a rat is so bad that when she calls Mildred a rat, she says she has to spell it. I wonder if this is because Nana is Catholic. My mother was Catholic but married a Presbyterian, so we’re not much of anything.
“Why didn’t you keep the ring on your finger and just let her look at it?” I’ve asked this question many times. I pick a Spanish peanut out of my T-shirt bowl and rub it between my thumb and finger to remove the red skin.
“I never thought she’d steal it,” Nana says. “The r-a-t refused to give it back.”
I ask the same question I asked the first time I heard this story, “Why didn’t you tell your mom or her mom?
“Her family was rich and important.”
“But it was your ring.” I say this every time—I know my part in the telling of the story.
“No one was going to care about my troubles. I was poor and lived on the wrong side of town in an old log house,” Nana says. “That house had no bathroom, no electricity, and no running water.”
Each time Nana tells this story, I want it to end differently. In my version Mean Mildred’s mother marches Mildred to Nana’s house and makes her daughter return the ring.
Nana starts another story, and I reach for my toy surprise at the bottom of my box.
When I was young, I believed Nana’s story about the diamond ring. I was joyful when she found the ring in her box, sad when Mean Mildred stole it, and angry when Nana was powerless to get it back.
As I grew older, I came to doubt Nana’s story. All the rings I’d ever found in my Cracker Jacks were made of cheap metal and plastic gems. I wanted to ask, “How could a real diamond ring get inside a box of Cracker Jacks?” But didn’t. I wanted to tell her, “You were so young—you just thought it was a diamond ring.” But I didn’t.
I didn’t because half a century later, she still mourned the loss of her ring. The unspoken part of her story was her life might have been different if she hadn’t lost her “diamond” ring. For Nana that moment stamped a lifetime of struggles in concrete: going hungry, picking beans in the fields when she was nine, being told she couldn’t go to high school, marrying a man who became an alcoholic and couldn’t hold a steady job. But Nana survived. She scrimped and saved and bought the smallest house in a middle-class neighborhood. She worked in the cafeteria at a Catholic school to pay for a proper education for her two children. She put meals on the table and paid the mortgage while her husband drank and was, at times, out of work.
In 2012 Cracker Jacks celebrated their 100th anniversary of toy surprises by giving away thirty winning tokens that could be traded in for real diamond rings valued at $1,000 each. But Nana had passed away. If she’d been alive, she’d have said, “That’s nothing! When I was a girl, I found a real diamond ring in my Cracker Jacks!” And, she’d have told her story again.