The bumble bee is working, flitting from flower to flower and slurping nectar. I’m drinking a cup of coffee and watching it work. You might say that makes me a supervisor, but the bumble bee knows what it’s doing and should never take direction from me. I’m not an apiarist, a botanist, a zoologist, a biologist, an entomologist. I’m not an -ist person. I’m an -er person, a reader, a writer, a photographer. So, I watch the bumble bee and take pictures because I’m going to write about it and my morning stroll around my gardens.
Finding the bumble bee on its nectar run delights me because I’ve stopped by the garden behind my shed to see what the rabbits noshed after I made my evening rounds yesterday. The rabbits like the leaves on my Asiatic lilies and have nibbled half of them back to the stalk. To a lesser extent, the rabbits also like my zinnias and dianthus. The lilies, pale yellow with dusky-red centers, bloomed profusely this year. I hope the lilies store enough energy through photosynthesis before the rabbits eat the rest of their leaves. (Yeah, I remember something from tenth-grade biology.)
I provide alternative food for the rabbits—my lawn is a mixture of grass, clover, wild strawberries, and dandelions, plus a few plants I’m unable to name. I’m thrilled when I see rabbits eating clover or dandelion leaves. But they still view my gardens as dessert trays.
Bees, butterflies, and other insects like clover and dandelions too. Dandelions are an import source of nectar to bees and other insects in the spring before flowers bloom. After learning how vital dandelions are to bees and other insects, I stopped digging them up.
Because bees and butterflies suffer from disappearing habitats, I plant flowers that provide nectar for them. Recently, I learned native plants are also important to caterpillars because they nibble on the leaves to store up the energy needed to become moths and butterflies. And, guess what? Birds need to eat those protein-rich caterpillars to store energy for laying eggs and raising their young. Now, when I notice my plant leaves have been gnawed, I see those “damaged” leaves as part of an important food chain.
While I’m planning more gardens for bees and butterflies, and begrudgingly, the rabbits, the bumble bee darts from yellow sundrops to flowering spearmint to tomato blossoms. I raise my coffee cup to the bumble bee and thank it for pollinating my tomatoes.
What I knew about mayflies: They’re called mayflies and they molt. I could’ve put my knowledge in a thimble and had room for War and Peace.
What I thought about mayflies: They’re creepy looking, and the exoskeletons they shed are even creepier. I could’ve imagined them starring in a B movie titled, Return of the Giant Mayflies.
Then in June my almost-ten-year-old granddaughter asked, “Why are they called mayflies? I never see them until June.”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “We’re going to have to look that up.” (My standard refrain to cover up my embarrassment because I can’t answer one of her questions about the natural world around me.)
But I had a theory: If mayflies arrive in here in June, perhaps they appear in May in other parts of the Midwest. I live at the western tip of Lake Superior. Everything in spring arrives late because around here winter doesn’t like to pack its bags and leave.
It turned out my theory had holes. In the United States, mayflies hatch anywhere from May to September. Hatching usually starts near the end of May but peaks in June or July, depending on latitude and the current year’s weather. The name mayfly may be a misnomer. But I like the name, so even if they don’t appear around here until June, I’m not starting a movement to rename them juneflies. (Besides there are beetles called June bugs.) Depending on geography, mayflies are also called shadflies, sandflies, dayflies, fishflies, and drakes.
I learned more about mayflies than their aliases. They’re fascinating and useful insects. This shouldn’t have surprised me because our ecosystem is like an intricately woven tapestry of nature. Pull on one thread and the effect ripples through the whole landscape. I was ignorant to assume their only purpose was to gross me out every June.
After mayflies become adults, they molt once. Every year I’d see their exoskeletons stuck to my screen doors, siding, plants, and deck furniture, and I’d cringe. Filmy, cracked, and devoid of color, exoskeletons are eerie. But after learning about mayflies, I look at their abandoned outwear and think about their amazing lives.
Mayflies are adults for only one or two days, and on rare occasions three days, accounts vary. They begin life in the water as fertilized eggs. After they hatch they’re called nymphs and spend about a year (depending on the species) lounging at the bottom of riverbeds and lake bottoms. While not as beautiful as the water nymphs of Greek mythology known for protecting gods and humans who were in peril, the mayfly nymphs are important. They help clean water by eating algae and detritus. And scientists use the number of mayfly larvae present in a river or lake as a bioindicator to gauge the water’s health. So mayfly nymphs can protect humans by informing us if our water quality is in jeopardy–if we’re smart enough to listen.
Before mayflies leave their water homes, they shed their nymph skins, so they can take flight for the first time. At this point they’re called duns (or subimagos). After coming to the water’s surface, they rest and dry their wings. Waterfowl and fish dine on some of them. The duns that survive the predators fly away from the water and molt one last time, becoming adults called spinners (or imagos).
After emerging from the watery homes of their adolescence, mayflies have only one concern–to mate and produce eggs. They don’t have functioning mouths so they can’t eat. As adults they don’t have to worry about finding food or feeding their young. They don’t have to worry about a career path or a mortgage. They don’t have to worry about saving for retirement or signing up for Medicare. As adults they molt, mate, lay eggs if they’re female, and die, all in a day or two.
Of course, a mayfly’s adult life isn’t completely worry free. If spinners are to achieve their one adult ambition–reproduction–they must avoid becoming fresh meat for fish and birds. They also need to conserve energy for mating and laying eggs. This explains why the mayflies I see on my screen door or deck are so impervious to me: It’s risky for them to use up energy by fleeing from me.
After molting, adult males return to an imaginary dance floor above the water. Flying up and forward, then floating down, they beckon the female spinners to dance with them. The spinners pair up and mate in midair. All this looks nothing like my first seventh-grade dance, where boys and girls stood on opposite sides of the gym and gawked at each other. [WatchBBC’s Beautiful Video Clip About Mayfliesto see the mayfly mating ritual.]
After the circle-of-life dance, the females descend to the water to lay fertilized eggs. Some females become food for fish before they deposit their eggs. In my research, I learned fly fishers use tied flies resembling duns then spinners during mayfly season. But many females do deposit their eggs, which drift to the bottom of a river or lake. Then most females die, but a few manage to mate again and lay another batch of eggs because they have extra energy reserves, most likely because of what they ate as larvae. (But I like to imagine they have extra energy because they danced a slow waltz instead of a hot-footed jig during their first tango with a male spinner.) Two weeks later the eggs hatch into nymphs.
Before my mayfly education, when I saw mayflies clinging to my door or siding or deck furniture, I left them alone. I didn’t touch them because they creeped me out. Now I can say I leave them alone because I understand they’re saving energy for their big dance. Now, I can appreciate mayflies for purifying rivers and lakes, for working as bioindicators, and for being part of the food chain. Now, I can answer my granddaughter’s question about why mayflies seem to be misnamed.
We need to cherish mayflies and protect them, and if their numbers decrease in our lakes and rivers, we need to figure out why.
After a Saturday fling with a paddle board on Superior Bay, I was smitten. Within an hour of finishing my lesson, I wanted one. I experienced this same love-at-first-try feeling forty years ago when I cross-country skied for the first time and rushed out to buy skis. I used those skis for years.
Before my lesson, a friend said, “Paddle boarding is Zen-like.” It’s true. After the instructor taught us some paddle strokes, I danced on the water, moving the board in lose turns and tight turns (which are rad). The rest of the world dropped away, until the instructor snapped my Zen-like focus, when he said, “If synchronized paddle boarding ever becomes an Olympic sport, I want to be on the team.” At first, I thought he was joking, but after I played around for an hour on a board, I believe he was serious. After all, I relished skimming across the water, making the board do what I wanted it to do.
The last stroke we learned helped us pull up to the dock sideways. The instructor called it parallel parking. I went to the dock early, so I could practice without other paddlers in the way. Success on my first try!
When I came home, my husband, who was golfing when I left for my lesson, looked at me and said, “Well, you certainly dressed for the part.”
“Yes, I did. It was wonderful!” Dress for the job you want, and I wanted to be a paddle boarder. I wore new quick-drying clothes and a new white baseball cap to protect my scalp from sunburn. I’d mastered paddle-board-causal couture. I told him I wanted a paddle board. He thought that was fine—I think my outfit convinced him. I returned to North Shore SUP, where I’d taken my lesson, and paid for a new board, which came with groovy accessories. (I’m allowed to say rad and groovy because I’m old enough.)
The next day I picked up my board and another lesson. Because I bought an inflatable board, I learned how to inflate it, deflate it, and carry it. I learned how to attach the seat, the leash, and the fin. The seat lets me to use the board like a kayak. The leash keeps us together if the board dumps me. The fin, shaped like a dolphin’s, helps the board track in water. My board has a dolphin fin—how warm and fuzzy is that? I watched the TV show Flipper as child, and I can still sing some of the lyrics from the theme song.
I’m not athletic or graceful or fast. When it comes to persuading my brain and muscles to work together, my learning curve resembles Mt. Everest. I was six when my father removed the training wheels from my bike and attempted to teach me to ride. He gripped the seat and ran behind me, but as soon as he let go, I tipped over. After a half-hour he gave up, but I practiced for days, eventually learning to balance on two wheels.
But I could stand and balance on a paddle board the first time I tried.
I tried out for cheerleading, but lousy cartwheel skills doomed me. So, I thought I’d try out for pom poms. I was always two beats behind, and the dance steps confused my feet. I didn’t show up for tryouts.
But I’m graceful on a paddle board. And cartwheel skills don’t matter.
I was sixteen the first time I roller skated. I buffed the floors with my behind more than I skated. But I kept going to the rink, and eventually, I spent most of the time upright. I was seventeen the first and only time I downhill skied. I never made it down the hill without falling. I lacked the strength to coerce my legs to snowplough. I skied so fast that I’d lose my balance, fall over, and ride my butt down the slope. My mitten got caught in the tow rope, and if an alert operator hadn’t shut it down, I’d have broken my arm.
But I’m strong when I paddle board. And there are no snowy hills or tow ropes.
Other paddlers asked, “Have you fallen off the board yet?” Getting wet seemed to be a rite of passage. “No,” I’d say, until last Sunday when I lost my balance. I went under, but my life jacket thrust me to the surface like a cork popping from a champagne bottle. The leash kept me tethered to the board, the strap on my sunglasses held, and my friend rescued my white hat. I remounted my board, though not nimbly, and stood up. My quick-drying clothes dripped, but felt light—the right outfit for the job.
I stowed my gear and said goodbye to my friend. I couldn’t wait to text my paddle-boarding sister with the good news: “I fell off my board today!”
Initiation’s over—I’m a full-fledged paddle boarder. And my waterproof Timex is still ticking.
[North Shore SUP is located on Barker’s Island in Superior, Wisconsin, on Superior Bay, a natural harbor on Lake Superior. Friendly and encouraging, the owners work to make everyone’s paddle boarding experience a joy. They give lessons, rent paddle boards, and host other paddle boarding events and outings. For more information visit them on Facebook and their website.]
I’ve fallen in love. My heart’s desire is a two-by-three-foot rag rug. It’s striped with crisp aqua greens and purple-tinged blues ranging from pale grey to dark cobalt. It’s a star-crossed love affair. Not because my husband doesn’t like the colors, he does, but because even though the rug won’t clash with our kitchen décor, it also won’t blend with it. “This is gorgeous,” I say, “but it doesn’t go with our kitchen.”
Still, the rug captivates my heart. My husband and I are in a home décor shop in Harbor Springs, Michigan, only a few blocks from the shores of Lake Michigan. We came to visit my mother who lives in Petoskey. Trying to be helpful, my husband points out other rugs. I spurn each one—too thin, too thick, too big, too small. And when a rug has the correct specs and compliments our kitchen décor, I say, “Too boring.”
I know I’m taking the bold rug home with me because it’s a color wheel for Lake Michigan. When we drove to Petoskey on July 3, the water in Little Bay de Noc, fed by Lake Michigan, was aqua green, the color of tropical ocean waters lapping at sandy beaches, the color of the aqua green in the rug I’m holding in my arms. As my husband drove along the curve of the bay, he said, “It looks like a tropical beach.” If I’d taken pictures of the water that day and omitted the deciduous and coniferous trees of the Upper Peninsula, I could’ve posted the pictures and claimed I was at a Caribbean resort. In a couple of days when we return to Wisconsin, the skies will be cloudy and grey, and the water, reflecting the sky, will mimic the deep purplish-blue color on my new rug.
I adore the rug because it reminds me of trips to Petoskey to see my mother. The first time I went was in 1992. Since, I’ve made the trip with my sons; a beloved friend, who passed away in 2018; my husband; and alone. The rug is a memory of my visits to Petoskey on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan.
Two days after laying the rug on the kitchen floor, my grandson sheds his Crocs on the corner of it. The rug and purple Crocs become art on my floor. I take a picture with my cellphone and text it to family and friends with the caption, Croc Art.
A few days later, my youngest grandson either drops or tosses a sippy cup from his highchair. Serendipity. I take another picture and text it to family and friends with the caption, Sippy Cup Art.
Yesterday my dog lay down on the rug. Another picture. Another round of texts with the caption, Poodle Art.
It’s a game now with two rules. One, I don’t put objects on the rug—I have to notice something that ends up on it. With four grandkids, who visit often, and my two dogs, I never have to wait long. Two, I decide if an object on the rug is art-worthy. (Poodle Art was an iffy choice, but I don’t need much encouragement to take pictures of my dogs.)
The rug, like Lake Michigan, color shifts in different lighting. It makes me smile. It feels good under my bare feet. And it lays near the backdoor, so it doesn’t provoke envy from the mossy-colored rag rug in front of the sink.
Before the pandemic, I wouldn’t have taken up with a nonconforming accessory, even if the colors enchanted me. But after a year and a half of strange events, I’m going with what moves my heart.
[Author’s notes:Alas, my cellphone camera doesn’t capture the vibrancy of the rug. My mother lives within view of Lake Michigan, and I live a few blocks from Lake Superior. When we visit each other, we enjoy each other’s Great Lake. Vote for your favorite picture by clicking on “Leave a reply” and casting your vote in the comment box. I purchased the rag rug at Finishing Touch in Harbor Springs, Michigan, at 237 East Main Street.]
[“Puppy by Impulse” was published in June 2021 by Itasca Community College, Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in their annual magazine Spring Thaw.]
“Standard poodles, black, males and females, eight weeks, available January 2, $300.” My husband started reading these ads to me after a vacation to Tucson where he’d met my father’s three standard poodles, Tyrone, Lady and Gabby. After a second visit to Tucson and meeting Daisy, my father’s newest poodle, my husband’s reading of the ads intensified. The colors and prices varied, but not his need to inform me that somewhere nearby, someone was selling poodles. My husband, who loves dogs, wanted one.
I ignored him.
“That’s cheap,” he said, “a real bargain.”
“We have Buffy. I don’t want two dogs.”
“Buffy would have a buddy,” he said. In the past at this point, my husband had always said: I’m not saying we should get one right now. I’m just reading the ad. He was off script.
“Ha,” I said. “You mean our dog who wags her tail when she meets another dog, then tries to bite it when it gets close?”
“I’m sure she’d be nice to a puppy,” he said.
“Buffy is almost fourteen. She doesn’t want a puppy.”
I left the room and thought about canceling the newspaper.
We stayed home New Year’s Eve because our youngest son played hockey, and we were on a budget. My husband moped.
“I’m probably the only one stuck at home,” he said.
“I ran into John and his son at the video store. He and his wife aren’t going out either.” John’s son played hockey with our son.
“There’s nothing on TV.” The remote was getting a workout.
“Do you want to watch the movie I rented?” I asked. “It’s an action flick.”
“No,” he answered, “I’m going to bed.” It was before midnight.
On New Year’s Day, he was still moping—disconcerting to me because moping wasn’t his style. He’s a wake-up-cheery kind of guy. Heck, he’s a cheery-all-the-time kind of guy. I wondered if not getting a puppy was more upsetting than spending New Year’s Eve at home.
“Where’s the ad about the $300 poodles?” I asked. Did I just say that?
My forty-seven-year-old husband leapt out of his funk and found the ad. Yup, I’d said it.
His sudden mini-midlife crisis, which addled my reasoning, seemed like it could be cured by buying a puppy. Better a puppy than an expensive red sports car. Besides, I knew he’d never settle for a sports car, not if he could have a poodle.
“If you call now,” he said, “maybe you can see the puppies tomorrow and get first pick.”
I backpedaled. “I’m just going to ask the breeder some questions.”
That statement swiftly morphed into We’re getting a puppy! by my husband and sons. Even I caught puppy fever, but my excitement burned bright like a shooting star then fizzled into a blackhole. But after raising their hopes, I couldn’t bring myself to tell my husband and sons I had second thoughts about a puppy. I forgot our anniversary once—wasn’t a problem. But if I changed my mind about the puppy—that was possibly husband-gets-a-new truck territory in order to get myself out of the doghouse. Despite having an English degree, I still had enough financial savvy to understand a puppy was the cheaper option.
My teenage sons, Josh and Tim, had never asked for a dog, as we’d always had one, but they’d never had a puppy. Jelly Bean, a coal-black German shepherd-Labrador retriever, was two when our first child was born. And Buffy, a small terrier-poodle mix, was two when we adopted her. I imagined my sons giving me the stink eye at future family gatherings as they reminisced about the puppy they were promised but never got. I pictured the day each son would bring home his future wife who’d look at me as if saying, So, you’re the reason my fiancé has trust issues. I kept my puppy misgivings to myself and called the breeder.
“We can see the puppies tomorrow,” I said, after getting off the phone. “They have five females and five males. They’re all black.” We decided to get a female.
“What are we going to name it?” Josh asked.
“Pearl,” I said. I was the sponsor of the okay-we’ll-get-a-puppy crazies, and I knew I’d be the primary caregiver, so I claimed naming rights.
“No way,” Josh said.
“Black pearls are lustrous and beautiful,” I said. “And no matter which dog we pick, it’s going to be black.”
“That’s a dumb name,” Tim said.
“I’m not going to stand outside and yell Pearl,” my husband said. “You have to think about what it’s going to sound like to yell the name out loud.”
I had. “It’s a strong one-syllable word, the kind of name dog trainers recommend.”
“Pearl is an old-lady name,” Tim argued.
“Poodles are sophisticated,” I countered. “I can picture one wearing pearls.”
Every name my husband and sons suggested, I rejected, and they refused to call the puppy Pearl.
“How about Bailey?” I asked. I prepared for another round of rejections, but they liked it. Now, we had a name for the puppy, which I still didn’t want.
The next day my sons and I went to look at the poodles that were priced at three times the amount my husband and I would’ve spent going out on New Year’s Eve. My teenage sons were we are willing to get in a car and drive 180 miles with our mom excited. My husband was it isn’t fair I have to work and can’t go with disappointed. I was why did I open my big mouth remorseful.
With the prudence of a settler heading west in a covered wagon, I packed the SUV with a borrowed crate, old towels, a couple of blankets, a roll of paper toweling, a garbage bag, a dish, and some water.
“Now remember,” I told my sons, “we’re going to look. If things don’t seem right, we aren’t just getting a puppy anyway.”
“Okay,” they said.
“I mean it,” I said. “The place could be a dump. We can’t get a dog from a bad home. Who knows what kind of problems we’d have?”
“Okay,” they said. It was the okay spoken by a child who isn’t listening, a child who knows whatever is being said will have no bearing on what’s going to happen.
“The dogs could be mangy and unfriendly, even vicious,” I said.
“Okay,” they said, dragging out each syllable.
Yeah, right. Too late. I’d set the act of buying a puppy in motion, and like a runaway train hurtling down a mountain, I couldn’t stop it. No one goes to look at a litter of puppies and walks away empty-handed. It’s Einstein’s lesser-known theory of puppy relativity. Still, I hoped to avoid getting a puppy. The 90-mile trip to northern Minnesota gave me time to stew in a pot of regret. Potty training. Accidents. Chewing. Walks in all kinds of weather. Grooming. Vet bills. Obedience training.
Ninety miles later, we arrived at the breeder’s home. It wasn’t looking good. As I pulled into the driveway, a picturesque family farm materialized before me. The fields draped with fresh white snow evoked visions of horse-drawn sleighs filled with laughing people and proud poodles out for a jaunt on a crisp winter’s day. I could even hear the darn bells jingling. A cheerful clapboard farmhouse sat on the western edge of the field. The only part missing was an artist with an easel capturing all that scenic beauty on a canvas, for which some wealthy city dweller would gladly pay top dollar and hang on the wall of an ostentatious, 4,000-square-foot, seldom-used “cabin.”
I hoped the inside of the house could save me. Nope. No improvement there. Three big, affectionate dogs greeted us, not a whisper of a growl or a moan of discontentment among them. A regal silver standard poodle, who turned out to be the proud father, gently placed his paws on Josh’s shoulders and licked his face. The dogs were clean and neatly groomed. The breeder said, “Sit,” and three furry butts hit the floor.
I surveyed the room and realized it belonged to the dogs. Outdated but clean, well-preserved linoleum covered the floor. Big double-hung windows lined the walls, giving the dogs panoramic views of the farm. Cozy, plump dog beds bordered the wall opposite the door. And, a short breezeway led to the main house where the dogs spent time with their people. The dogs were cared for and loved.
An ample, sturdy-built kennel occupied the corner of the room. Mother poodle, happy to have a reason to escape her ten busy pups, hopped over a short barrier and came to greet us. Her puppies, each a jet-black ball of wiggles, jumped against the barrier. “Hey, Mom, where you going?” they squealed.
My last hope rested with the puppies. Perhaps they would cower in fear or show signs of hostility. The puppies let me down. Turned loose for our inspection, they ran to us with wagging tails. Both boys crouched down to play with the yipping, wriggling, nipping puppies. The only problem was choosing one. Our soon-to-be puppy solved the problem—she picked Josh. She scrambled into his arms and licked his face. “This one,” he said.
I paid the breeder, and Josh strode out of the house holding our new puppy like a trophy. After letting her piddle, we put her in the crate in the back of the SUV and started for home.
“Something stinks like crap,” Tim said. We were just twenty miles down the road.
I stopped. Our puppy had pooped in the crate. While I cleaned it, the boys walked her, and she dutifully piddled. I put her back in the crate and drove on.
“It stinks like crap again,” Tim said. We’d only gone another twenty miles, but our puppy had pooped again.
“Nerves,” we said.
Once more, I cleaned the crate and the boys walked our puppy, who piddled. I started to put her in the crate.
“I’ll hold her,” Tim said.
Another twenty miles and I heard retching.
“Mom, she threw up,” Tim said.
I pulled over and looked at my son, who was wearing his hockey warm-up suit. Vomit covered his lap. He tried to keep it from dripping on the floor. I braced for the snarky words I knew were coming and heard him say, “Poor little girl. You’re just a little baby, aren’t you?” He continued to coo at our puppy.
I wanted to ask, Who are you and what have you done with my fifteen-year-old son? But I didn’t. At that moment I knew my reserved, grumpy teenager still had his soft heart. Trying to keep the tears in my eyes, I grabbed some paper towel and silently cleaned puppy vomit off my son and the seat. Josh walked our puppy, who piddled again.
“Maybe we should put her back in the kennel,” I said, thinking she couldn’t have much left in her to excrete.
“I’ll hold her,” Tim said. I grabbed the blanket, folded it, placed it in his lap, and put our puppy on it.
We made it home without any more messes. Josh carried our puppy into the house and put her on the kitchen floor. She did a circle dance, squatted, and piddled. Tail wagging, she pranced over to greet my husband, who bent down and scratched the ears of his little bargain.
And what a bargain she was. Our next trip was to the pet store for all the necessities: puppy food, treats, a stylish collar and leash, a dog bed, cuddly toys, and teething bones. Trips to the vet, puppy-socialization class, and obedience training followed. But rather than an expensive bargain, I soon began to think of Bailey as an investment in love, paying unlimited dividends.
[Bailey became ill in February 2011 and passed away. Cabela looked for her for days. In April 2011, we bought Ziva, a blue standard poodle. Ziva and Cabela became friends.]
Split Rock Lighthouse stands along the western shore of Lake Superior, atop a soaring cliff. Dressed in cream-colored brick and elegant trim more fitting for a grand house in a genteel neighborhood, it once worked as a watchman holding a luminous light, warning ships about rocky shores at its feet.
It’s a crisp late-October morning. The last day of the season before the lighthouse shutters for the year. From an expansive autumn-blue sky, sunshine washes the landscape in gold. The temperature wanders just north of forty-five degrees. The air breathes softly.
My granddaughter, six, and grandson, four, are with me. It’s their first visit to the lighthouse. Because it’s a weekday and almost the last day the lighthouse will entertain visitors for the year, we are nearly alone on the grounds.
We climb the twisting steps of the lighthouse, just the three of us. We are quiet, and with nothing to arrest my attention, other than the shuffle of feet on the stairs, I travel decades back in time.
My father, my sisters, and I climb the stairs. My father has come to see the Fresnel lens, and we are his pupils. Some of his words wend down the tower: France, prisms, refraction, illumination, fog, storms. But his lesser words are swallowed by the voices of other tourists. His face points up toward the lens; my sisters and I are in tow behind him.
My granddaughter leads the way, followed by my grandson, then me. I’m the caboose, better, I think, to catch them if they slip. I’m not interested in touting the wonders of the Fresnel lens. I leave them to their thoughts as they ascend the stairs, and I return to mine.
At twelve, I’m content to let my father’s explanations about the lens waft past my ears. I imagine the lightkeeper climbing the stairs during a howling storm to ensure the beacon shines across roiling waves of the frigid lake. I fancy the lightkeeper manning the signal house to ensure the horn bellows over icy waters while dense fog unfurls across an eerily still lake. I remember my father’s words about Lake Superior, mostly spoken to my frightened mother as he would fly us over a corner of the lake, “You’ll die of hypothermia before you’ll drown.” I ponder the number of sailors the lighthouse spared from freezing to death before they could drown.
I’ve no idea if my fancies about a lightkeeper’s duties are accurate, but I measure life as a lightkeeper’s daughter against life with my father.
Sometimes my father is a martinet. My siblings and I endeavor to read his barometric pressure and side-step his thunderclouds. We learned early to listen carefully.
He’s an extraordinary mechanic. His hands tinker, build, tune, modify, rig, experiment, adapt. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, planes, appliances. All engineering feats, great and small, captivate him. He wants us to be enthralled. But my fascination is for the people who lived and worked at the lighthouse on the prodigious cliff. I crave the stories of people. Lake Superior, which, if it had the chance, would freeze me to death before swallowing me, enchants me. My father doesn’t notice my attention has wandered because he’s hammering the tour guide with his knowledge of the brilliant lens.
“Oh, wow,” my grandson says, exhaling the words as a brief, but reverent Gregorian chant. He’s caught his first glimpse of the Fresnel lens gleaming in sunlight spilling through the windows. He stops and stares. The echo of his chant swirls around the tower.
Years ago, my father expressed his amazement of the lens with descriptions of its design and function. My grandson captures his admiration in two words. But at this moment, although they’ll never meet, they’re tethered together across four generations, both of them mesmerized by a triumph of engineering designed to mitigate the angry moods of the lake. I see my father through the eyes of my grandson’s wonderment, and he becomes a curious four-year-old boy, instead of an ill-tempered adult. And I ponder what he might have said about the enormous, glistening lens had he seen it as a four-year-old boy. Their shared veneration softens prickly memories of my father. I can’t picture him as a little boy and be angry with him at the same time.
With the massive lens above me, I stand at the top of the lighthouse, peering out at Lake Superior and hear my father’s voice, She’ll freeze you before she’ll drown you.
In the movie, Cluny Brown, once it becomes clear Elizabeth will marry Lady Carmel’s son, Lady Carmel tells her they will have a long talk in the morning, “especially about the gardens because they’re all planned three years ahead.” Gardens are the marquee headliner in their upcoming talk—not wedding plans or financial settlements or living arrangements.
The movie is set in England just before World War II consumes Europe. Lord and Lady Carmel have an English estate in the countryside. Their gardens are immense and sumptuous, the kind that need planning and a bevy of gardeners. Even the shore along their lake is landscaped. Lady Carmel probably has a rose named after her. She probably enters a flower arrangement every year in the village garden show and, no doubt, wins.
Lady Carmel would’ve been disappointed to have me as a daughter-in-law. My idea of planning gardens? Go to the farmer’s market, see what’s being offered, and decide if I have a place to plant it. This is an ongoing slice of my summer, with the heaviest impromptu gardening happening between the end of May and the middle of June.
My gardens present a challenge—I need plants that can stand the shade. I have lots of shade: complete shade, almost all shade, mostly almost all shade, some sun but still a lot of shade, and a few good hours of morning sun then lots of shade. I need plants with sunglasses, wide brimmed hats, and slathers of sunblock on their leaves, begging to be lodged in shade.
I’m giddy when I discover flora that blooms in the shade. Last weekend as I paid a vendor at the farmer’s market for a hanging basket and some painted rocks, I spotted a plant at the back of her stand. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing to a pot with a dowel to which a picture was taped.
The vendor rattled off a name, which I promptly forgot. “Does it like shade?” I asked.
“It loves shade,” she said.
“Complete shade?” I needed her to know the sunlessness of my empty garden spot.
“It doesn’t care if it ever sees the sun,” she said.
“Does it bloom?” I asked because most plants seem to want some sun if they’re going to bloom.
“Yes, it gets lots of little heart-shaped flowers.”
“I’ll take it.” My feet tapped eight to the bar.
I imagined Lady Carmel standing next to me, saying, We can’t buy that. It’s not on the three-year plan.
Lighten up, Lady Carmel, I’d say. Do you know how hard it is to find a plant that loves shade and blooms?
Near the beginning of Cluny Brown, Lord Carmel tells a house guest that the gardens are Lady Carmel’s empire. He figuratively implies the sun never sets on the grounds that she rules. My gardens are like a small unincorporated township. But Lady Carmel and I would both agree that no matter the size, our gardens are our dominions.
Every morning, afternoon, and evening, I tour my gardens, meandering around my house then behind the shed where a small, full-sun planting bed exists, my only one. I gauge the needs of my flowers and plants, pulling a few weeds, deadheading, and watering the thirsty.
My gardens are humble, but they’re mine, and like Lady Carmel, I feel rather noble after returning from a tour of my blossoms and greenery.
I do have a three-year plan now, but it involves the garden spaces, not the plants in the them. This year I’m getting new vinyl-clad basement windows. Next year I’m having the stucco around the foundation fixed. The following year I’m increasing the size of my gardens and having new borders installed. Lady Carmel might think there’s hope for me, but I will still buy my plants on the fly.
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.
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.
[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.