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.]
About 1892, Frank Youngquist left Stillwater to work as a blacksmith in Gordon for Musser-Sauntry, a logging company with interests in Minnesota and Wisconsin. In 1897, Rose Yost left her parents’ farm in Columbus, Minnesota, to work at the Smith Hotel in Gordon, owned by her sister and brother-in-law, Aggie and Jim Smith.
Frank, 32, handsome, brown-haired, and blue-eyed, met Rose, 29, pretty, dark-haired, and brown-eyed, at the Smith Hotel where he lived. They fell in love and married on September 21, 1898, in Hennepin County, which gave them an opportunity to visit family in Minnesota before returning to Gordon.
FRANK’S MINNESOTA CONNECTION
Before Frank’s and Rose’s lives intersected in Gordon, they grew up 32 miles from each other in Minnesota. Frank’s father, Johan Youngquist, came from Sweden to Minnesota in 1868, and settled in the Stillwater area. A year later Johan’s wife, Eva, arrived with their four young children, including 2-year-old Frank. They would have four more children.
Johan’s family probably emigrated because of economic hardships. Sweden’s rapid population growth in the 1800s diminished job opportunities and caused farmland shortages. Crop failures in 1868 and 1869 deepened economic woes, pushing more Swedes to seek opportunity in America. After reading letters from family, who spoke highly of their lives in Minnesota, many Swedes chose to settle there.
Johan, Eva, and their children prospered as laborers, farmers, blacksmiths, lumberjacks, and business people. The railroads and lumber industry provided plenty of opportunities for immigrants. Five of Frank’s seven siblings spent most of their lives in Minnesota, and his parents lived there until they died.
ROSE’S MINNESOTA CONNECTION
Rose’s parents, Yost Yost and Agatha Gassman, emigrated from Switzerland around 1854. Yost and Agatha, both Catholic, might have left Switzerland because of religious unrest during the 1800s. Yost lived in the Canton of Lucerne, which became embroiled in religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants after the Jesuits, reinstated by Pope Pius VII in 1814, returned to Switzerland.
Yost and Agatha married in Rochester, New York, in 1855. A year or two later, they moved to Columbus, Minnesota, to homestead 160 acres. They raised seven children, all born on their farm. One son became an engineer for the Great Northern Railway, working on the mail train out of St. Paul. The other son ran the farm when Yost retired. Their five daughters all married, but only one remained in Minnesota. Yost served as a town clerk and justice of the peace in Columbus. From 1864 to 1866, he served in the Minnesota Cavalry, Hatch’s Battalion, Company E, and was stationed on the Dakota-Minnesota frontier. He and Agatha are buried in St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery in Wyoming, Minnesota.
In 1910, after twelve years of marriage and four children, Frank and Rose, still living in Gordon, died a month apart, Frank, 44, on October 18, and Rose, 41, on November 17.
Frank lingered four months before dying of tuberculosis. He wished to be buried in Stillwater at the Fairview Cemetery with his father and two brothers. Frank had lived over half his life in Minnesota, and his mother and some family members still resided there. After Rose died from heart failure, she was buried next to Frank. Their children, George, 11, Elmer, 9, Leslie, 8, and Lola, 4, stayed in Gordon. Aggie and Jim Smith, Rose’s family, looked after them.
GEORGE’S COMFORTING TRADITION
Perhaps because of a mysterious, debilitating illness George had when he was about 1½, he was close to his parents. The illness left him unable to walk, so his father forged railings in his blacksmith shop and attached them to the walls of their home. Encouraged by his parents, George pulled himself up and held the railings. He regained strength and learned to walk again. However, as a young schoolboy, his illness left him unable to run and play with other children. To entertain George, Frank taught him blacksmithing skills after school. George cherished the time with his father. Thirty-some years later, a doctor told George that he had had polio.
From the 1930s until 1979, because George never forgot his parents’ love and kindness, he drove 120 miles from Gordon to Fairview Cemetery in Stillwater, Minnesota, to visit their graves either on or near every Memorial Day. By the time George and his family arrived, any Memorial Day services were over. But in the hushed cemetery with spring unfurling, George remembered his parents.
Whenever George had company, he always bid farewell to his visitors by saying, “Come again now.” Perhaps, each year when he left the cemetery, he imagined his parents telling him, “Come again now.” And he did until he lost his eyesight in the winter of 1979, two-and-a-half years before he passed away just shy of his 82nd birthday.
[This short story appeared in Talking Stick 29: Insights in 2020. The fiction judge selected it for an honorable mention.]
“It’s 72,” I say, after peeking at the thermometer outside the backdoor. I write the temp on the chalkboard hanging by the window overlooking Grandpa Harold’s gigantic garden.
“Needs to be 74 by one o’clock,” Grandma Cora says, “otherwise it’s too cold for swimming.” She wipes her nose and shoves a hanky back into her apron pocket, putting an exclamation point on her words.
And if it reaches 74 after that, she won’t take us because she’s got to can and freeze stuff that comes out of Grandpa’s garden. He gives her updates every morning. Yesterday, he said, “Cora, there’s peas need shelling.” This morning he said, “Cora, the beans need picking.”
Between all that canning and freezing, she’s baking bread, cookies, cakes, and pies. Grandpa doesn’t like store-bought bread, and I think he declared a law that his meals must end with dessert. Then, she’s got to cook supper before Grandpa gets home from the gas station he owns.
A week ago, instead of filling his plane with skydivers, Dad loaded up Christina and me and flew us to our grandparents. Mom had surgery the week before and almost died. To save her the doctors cut her open from her navel to her private parts. Being my sister’s nine and I’m ten, no one told us any of that, but they didn’t have to because we did some eavesdropping. Grandma met us at the small airport near her home. Dad stashed our luggage into her station wagon and said, “You girls behave yourselves.” As Grandma drove away, I watched Dad start his pre-flight check before he flew back home.
We’ve been here a week now and Grandma has us trapped in her routine. We eat breakfast and do the dishes. We eat lunch and do the dishes. We eat supper and do the dishes. Between meals we play outside or walk to the IGA and buy penny candy when Grandpa gives us each a dime. If the temp’s warm enough by one o’clock, Grandma takes us swimming. After, she has to hustle to get her chores done and supper cooking.
Today, our thermometer watching started while we set the table for lunch.
“You’re going to let all the flies in,” Grandma says. “You don’t need to check the temperature every five minutes. It’s either going to be 74, or not.”
She’s got a point, but it doesn’t stop us.
Grandma goes to church every Sunday and plays the organ and leads the choir. Dad says that she’s a God-fearing, praying woman. I believe she prays every day the temp won’t reach 74. Christina and I aren’t church going, but we pray for rising temps.
The firehouse siren wails, telling us it’s noon.
The backdoor opens. “Cora, I just came from the garden. The raspberries need picking too.” Grandpa’s home for lunch.
“It’s 73,” Christina says and writes the temp on the chalkboard.
Grandma’s shoulders sag, and she sighs.
After lunch, before we can check the temp again, Grandma sends us to the basement with old newspapers, which Grandpa burns in a small stove. When I come up the stairs, I see Grandma’s butt holding the backdoor open, and it looks like she’s messing with the thermometer. Behind me Christina belches and startles her.
“That was quick,” Grandma says smoothing her silver-gray hair. She’s acting like she always hangs out the backdoor to fix her hair. Her fingers are wet. I say nothing, but I know the temp has dropped. We aren’t going swimming.
Then the phone rings, and Grandma leaves the kitchen to answer it.
I wait until she’s all wrapped in her call and open the backdoor. It’s 70 degrees. I place my thumb on the thermometer and watch the red line rise. It hits 75. I go back inside and help Christina finish the dishes. Grandma returns to the kitchen.
Five minutes before one, I hang up my dishtowel and check the temp.
“It’s 75.” I grin.
“What?” Grandma says.
We look at each other—eyeball to eyeball—a cheater’s standoff.
After we get home from swimming, Grandma picks beans and cooks supper. We stay out of her way.
Shortly after five, Grandpa comes home. “Cora, I told you the raspberries needed picking.”
“Christina and I are doing that after supper,” I say. “We begged Grandma to let you teach us how to pick them.”
Grandma and I look at each other—eyeball to eyeball—a liar’s agreement.
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.]
At the end of the 1946 romantic comedy, Cluny Brown, Adam Belinski, animated by a flash of insight, tells Cluny, “I’m going to write a bestseller, a murder mystery.” Belinski and Cluny agree the victim must be a rich man because it’s pointless to murder a poor man, and Cluny asks, “Who killed him? Who did it?”
“For 365 pages, I will not know myself,” replies Belinski, “but when, on page 366, it finally comes out, will I be surprised and so will millions of others!”
The first time I heard Belinski tell Cluny he’d write a mystery without knowing who committed the murder until the last page, I laughed. Ridiculous, I thought. Of course, he’ll have to know who the murderer is when he starts writing his book.
But I wasn’t a writer then.
Before I started writing, I heard authors talk about their characters as if they had a say in the storyline. Interviews often went something like this:
Interviewer: Why does your character go to Oslo, connect with Norwegian relatives, and paint fjords instead of going to Paris to create haute couture and stroll along the Seine with a Parisian lover?
Author: Well, at first the character was going to Paris, taking the fashion world by storm, and meeting a soulmate, but when I tried to write it that way, the character steadfastly refused to get on a plane to Charles de Gaulle Airport.
I’d listen to authors talk about characters and wonder, Do authors actually talk to their characters? Do characters visit authors in a dream? Is this some type of mystical, mysterious, transcendental, existential enigma? Then I’d conclude, Characters might talk to real writers, but I’ll bet mine will never talk to me.
And then one did.
I was writing a story, and my character needed to do the right thing after doing the wrong thing. Our conversation went like this:
Me: Time to do the right thing.
My Refusing to Be Reformed Character (MRBRC): Nope, don’t want to.
Me: But your doing the right thing is the whole point of the story.
MRBRC: Tough cowhides. I see no point in it.
Me: Readers won’t like you if you don’t.
MRBRC: I don’t care. I’d much rather be memorable and get my way.
Me: Can’t you be memorable and do the right thing?
MRBRC: Seriously? How droll.
Me: But what about my story?
MRBRC: Excuse me? It’s my story. It’s about me, not you.
I gave up. My character did the wrong thing, and she wasn’t sorry. And to solidify her position, she mocked the other characters.
I finished the story and sent it to a local contest in northern Wisconsin. The story earned an honorable mention. The first judge wrote, “This story is professional. It can give the reader a look into the mind of an underprivileged child and how envy and poverty come together to affect behavior.”
The second judge wrote, “A vivid portrait of a girl who would rather steal than earn. Sadly, there are real people like that. I didn’t like her.” This judge said I developed the story well, but added that she hoped the girl didn’t grow up “nurturing her self-pity.”
Well, me too. I’ve hope for my character’s future, and even with her faults, I still like her. Would my story have placed first or second if the character had done the right thing? I don’t know, but I’ll never rewrite her storyline. In the end, I empathized with my character’s choice.
And I realized something. The first judge read my story as a commentary on poverty. The second judge talked about my character as if she were a real girl, who’d grow up to be an adult. My character, unlikeable but memorable, got under the second judge’s skin. My character’s defiance makes the story resonate more than her compliance would’ve. I can hear her gloat.
Since the debate with my I’m-going-to-do-the-wrong-thing-no-matter-what-you-say character, I’ve had other characters argue with me. I understand now what writers mean when they say characters speak to them, so if a character wants to discuss something with me, I listen.
I still laugh at the end of Cluny Brown but for a new reason—I get the inside joke. The script writers were poking fun at the writing process.
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.