Something Published: “Fritz Warms Up Our New Neighbors”

[This essay was published in Red Cedar Review, Volume XXIV in the fall of 2022. Red Cedar Review is published by the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire through its Barron County Campus. It’s a print- only journal, and its editors and staff consider art, prose, and poetry from northern Wisconsin residents. I decided to post this essay in honor of Thanksgiving because when I reflect on my childhood, I’m very thankful for our old farmhouse and our wonderful neighbors.]

The Old Farmhouse, late 1960s or early 70s

Wrapped in thin white clapboard, the two-story farmhouse built in 1907 was 57 years old when my parents, my two sisters, and I came to live there in October 1964. It looked older to my five-year-old mind, much older, in the way a person of thirty or forty seems very old to a small child. My parents sold their duplex in Milwaukee where rows of houses sat a handshake apart, fronted by sidewalks and busy streets lined with parked cars. They moved their dysfunctional marriage and children to a country road with a smattering of houses fronted by rural mailboxes and a narrow road, on which no one parked. From age five to seventeen, I lived there with my parents, two sisters, and a brother, born in 1967.

A week after we moved into our farmhouse, a knock rattled the front door that opened into our large kitchen, the kind where a farmer’s wife could cook a hearty meal to feed her husband, their children, and the farmhands all in one shift. Mom was working in the kitchen while my sisters and I played on the floor. She was twenty-four. Her face, scrubbed clean of makeup and her chestnut-brown hair pulled up into a pony tail, made her look far too young to be the mother of three small girls. She gave birth to me, the oldest, when she was eighteen.

Mom opened the old wooden door and on the other side of a modern aluminum screen door stood John Giese, Sr., whom we’d soon come to refer to as “Old Man Giese,” distinguishing him from his son, John Giese, Jr.

The Giese barn

Old Man Giese stood on our front stoop, clutching two dead chickens by their feet, one in each hand. He and his three grown children, John Jr., Mildred, and Leona, lived across the street in a white farmhouse as ordinary as ours. But the Giese farmhouse, surrounded by fields to be planted and harvested; by cows and chickens to be fed and tended; by cherry trees, blackberry bushes, and current bushes bearing fruit to be picked and preserved, appeared grand. Our farmhouse, surrounded by two acres of mowed grass then acres of overgrown farmland, looked tired. Giese’s bright red barn stood proud in contrast to our barn layered with various shades of washed out red, which made it appear mostly pink.

“Ma’am,” began the old gentleman, for although he wore a frayed cap and shabby blue denim overalls, he exuded a dignity the two dead chickens and his working clothes couldn’t erase. Old Man Giese was the first real farmer I ever met. My previous knowledge of farmers came from watching Mr. Green Jeans on Capitan Kangaroo, and in my five-year-old mind, Old Man Giese was the opposite of Mr. Green Jeans in every way.

Mom, a city girl, gawked at his welcoming gift of two dead chickens. She knew nothing about cleaning them.

Fritz sitting by our pinkish-colored barn, early 1970s, a couple of years before he passed away

“Your dog,” Old Man Giese continued, “killed my chickens.”

Fritz, our six-year-old German shepherd, lay on the family room floor and made no move to join the conversation.

“I’m so sorry,” Mom said. “Can I pay you for the chickens?”

“No, just keep the dog off my farm, ma’am.” Old Man Giese put his back to us. A lifeless chicken in each hand, he descended our front stairs and returned to his farm. He never called on us again, and a few years later he, too, would be dead, gone to join his wife who died before we arrived.

Mom, relieved she wouldn’t have to clean chickens but mortified Fritz might have killed them, shut the door and strode into the family room. “No chickens,” she yelled at Fritz. “Never again.” He understood and stayed away from the Giese farm, but he still ran loose, up and down the country roads, chasing female dogs in heat.

That evening at dinner, she told Dad, “At first I thought the chickens were an apology for his cows chomping on our lawn the morning after we moved in.” But the chickens had been an indictment, not an apology.

In our new neighborhood, Fritz had committed the first faux pas, setting the standard by which my family’s behavior could be explained. When my parents fought in the middle of warm summer nights, their shouts crawling in and out of open windows, the neighbors could say, What do you expect? Their dog kills chickens. When my sisters and I threw apples at passing cars, but the parents of two older, well-behaved children, from down the road got a visit from the police, their parents could say, They can’t control their dog either. When Dad sped down the country road or set off cherry bombs in our yard, the neighbors could say, What do you expect from a man who lets his dog ignore good-neighbor etiquette?

Our existence in the neighborhood was like a hoppy beer—an acquired taste. Some people come to love the taste of hops, but others can’t force it past their taste buds. Most of the families up and down our sparsely populated road came to accept us, and we were welcomed into their homes and yards. Only two families never warmed to us, not bad considering our parents’ occasional nocturnal fights, dad’s shenanigans, and our string of dogs that never stayed home.

Dad, despite his bad-boy-James-Dean manner, was handsome and charming. An excellent mechanic, he was always willing to lend a hand to neighbors and offer them a beer. Mom was hard-working and friendly, and if she borrowed a cup of sugar or a roll of toilet paper, she always repaid her debt. My siblings and I stopped throwing apples at cars, and we behaved ourselves so no one had to call the police on us again. We were polite or Mom would’ve walloped us or grounded us for life, depending on the prevailing winds of her mood that day. Most of the neighbors decided we were okay.

And the Gieses? They didn’t hold Fritz’s chicken incident against us. After all, their cows had grazed in our front yard the day after we’d moved in. Old Man Giese and his son fixed their fence, and the cows stayed home. Fritz defied fences, but he obeyed Mom’s command and stayed out of their yard and away from the chickens, easy for him because they didn’t own dogs. To prove there were no hard feelings, when my siblings and I were old enough to cross the road, the Gieses gave us an open invitation to play in their yard, to eat fruit from specific trees and bushes, and to cross their fields in winter to ice skate on the frozen river running through their property.

None of Old Man Giese’s children had youngsters of their own. Looking back, I believe they enjoyed seeing us run through their yard, roll down the hill by their barn, and eat the fruit they grew. I believe they smiled when they heard our voices on the winter wind, echoing through the trees as we skated on the frozen waters just behind their fields. And I wonder what they thought, when as a teenager, I sat on a large tree stump near the barn and talked to their cows, who gathered by the fence, eager for gossip about my teenage troubles.

[I want to thank the editors and staff of Red Cedar Review for selecting my essay for their Fall 2022 issue. The ending of this essay is slightly different from the version that appears in their 2022 issue. I added the last two sentences because I felt the ending was too abrupt. As a writer, I often see ways to improve something I’ve written, even after it has gone to press.]

Campy Halloween Skeletons Settle in Harbor Springs, Michigan

Bogey

Bogey, my mother’s dog, loves Lake Michigan, so this afternoon I took him to Harbor Springs, a small summer town snuggled up along the eastern shore of the lake. It’s Bogey’s favorite place to walk. He knows when he is going to Harbor. The only place he loves more is a pet store, where he tries to shoplift anything he can fit into his mouth.

First, we stopped at his favorite clothing store. He got lots of hugs from a woman who works there, but she was out of dog treats. He kept holding up his paw and pleading, but only received another hug and another apology. He was clearly disappointed, reminding me of a little boy who tells his great-aunt, “But I wanted a toy train, not fuzzy footie pajamas.”

After we left the store, Bogey enjoyed his water-view walk. He sniffed the grass, did his business, and watched a pair of ducks swim along a beach. Dogs get over disappointment quickly.

My favorite! The headstone reads: RIP Summer 2022

Next, we headed back to Main Street, where I noticed boney visitors who’d stopped by Harbor Springs dressed for Halloween. Bogey had to wait for me while I walked up and down the sidewalks and photographed twenty-seven snappily-dressed skeletons. I know I didn’t get pictures of all the skeletons, but I had fun trying to find as many as I could. Excitement lurked on every block and around every corner. Costumed skeletons have become a Harbor Springs Halloween tradition. And this year there are seventy-five skeletons creaking about.

Tonight the wind howls off Lake Michigan, and it’s raining in spurts. In the hours before dawn, snow is expected before turning back to rain. The National Weather Service has issued a wind advisory. And I wonder how the skeletons will stay warm in all this weather–they don’t have any meat on their bones.

An Autumn Stroll with Ziva and Bogey

Ziva (my dog) and Bogey (my mom’s dog)

Crisp autumn days are my favorite time to walk my dogs. I watch the shifting scenes of autumn: trees turning shades of red, orange, and yellow; leaves dropping gently to the ground—then days of high melodrama when howling winds and heavy rains come to rip the once-vibrant leaves from their stems, stripping the trees bare.

As the rich autumn shades—all warm hues on the color wheel—replace the cool hues of green, autumn wraps me in nostalgia, carrying me back in time to my youth. I’m warmed by memories of raking leaves into circular paths resembling the yellow brick road; of walking through the woods with oak, hickory, and maple trees awash in fall colors; of gathering acorns and hickory nuts while a blanket of dried leaves crunched under my feet.

I’ve been in Petoskey, Michigan, since Tuesday, and I’ve been walking Ziva, my dog who came with me, and Bogey, my mother’s dog. Petoskey, nestled on the eastern side of Lake Michigan, is beautiful anytime of the year, but October is my favorite time to visit. The weather, scenery, and vegetation are a blend of southeast Wisconsin, where I grew up, and northwest Wisconsin, where I live by Lake Superior. Coming here is like returning to the fields and woods of my youth, while almost feeling like I haven’t left home because Lake Michigan keeps me from missing Lake Superior.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, sunshine, warm breezes, and fall colors filled the days, and the dogs, my sister, and I walked the country roads in my mother’s neighborhood. My sister went home yesterday, but I’m still here with my mom and the dogs. Today, the rain and wind arrived, pulling autumn-colored leaves from the trees. The dogs and I still walked, but we timed our strolls between shifts of rain. Bogey has a raincoat, but Ziva would rather get wet than wear one. I could’ve carried an umbrella, but the strong winds would have turned it inside out.

On our second walk of the day, I had the dogs pose by a vignette of pumpkins, squash, mums, and hay bales arranged by one of my mom’s neighbors. I’m going to have a 5 x 7-inch photo made and frame it, a reminder of a gray but lovely autumn day when two big-hearted dogs kindly let me take their picture on a blustery day.

Shetland Island Dreams versus Boxing Squirrels

Ziva Baby

The evening walk, once a sixteen-block jaunt with my dogs, has become a stroll around the block. That’s all fourteen-year-old Cabela can handle. Her hips and left rear leg slow her down; although, she occasionally dashes across the yard or gallops along the property line in moments that my father would’ve called, “Old enough to know better, but young enough to do it anyway.” My father lived by those words, with mixed results for the people around him.

For Ziva, our walks are too short. But she’s a go-along-to-get-along kind of dog. When she walks with her sister, she adopts Cabela’s slow pace, and like Cabela, she smells all the grass. The two of them have a favorite spot to sniff in the neighbor’s yard, a spot worthy of serious, laborious inspection each time we walk by it. The spot looks normal, but obviously it smells delightful and contains a message they are both hoping to decode. I understand because when lilacs are in bloom, I sometimes stop along other people’s yards and inhale their aroma. The scent of lilacs is my favorite flower smell. I muse about nature having assigned each flower its own perfume.

Some days, when Cabela is sound asleep and doesn’t hear us, Ziva and I sneak out of the house for a longer walk. I crook my finger at Ziva in a follow-me motion as I whisper, “Want to go for a walk?” She always does. Without Cabela, she poodle prances swiftly along the road, her butt sashaying like she’s a model in high heels striding down a runway. Sometimes I ask, “Ziva Baby, do you have a hamburger to go with that shake?” She ignores the question, and tells me to keep up. When we return, Cabela is usually sleeping in the same spot she was before we left and has no idea we’ve been gone. I’m thankful because I don’t want her to feel like a junior high dog whose friends ditched her.

A few nights ago, when we returned from our around-the-block walk, which turned into a twice-around-the-block walk to avoid some people with a dog, Cabela was tired. I let go of Ziva’s leash so she could trot up the stairs along side the house, and I walked with Cabela, letting her take her time.

Ziva reached the last landing and spotted three squirrels and a bunny in the back yard. She took off like a middling horse out of the starting gate. (Ziva might walk fast, but she’s a jogger not a sprinter.) She treed the squirrels and sent the bunny scurrying into the neighbor’s yard. She came within inches of one of the squirrels but made no attempt to grab it. She has come close to catching squirrels before, but she doesn’t want one. She enjoys harassing them. She stretched up along the tree trunk and gave a couple of quick barks.

If Ziva caught a squirrel, I picture it curling its front paw into a fist and pummeling her on the nose. She would cry and run to hide behind my legs. Ziva is a brave knight in the face of danger that she believes won’t come to pass. For all other occasions, she’s a damsel in distress hiding behind my skirts. If you invited Ziva to go bungy jumping, she’d tag along—but only to watch you jump. And I would be standing next to Ziva. Neither of us are too adventurous.

But next year I’m going to the Shetland Islands. This is an adventure for me. The Shetland Islands are so far north of Scotland that on most maps, the Islands are denoted with their name and an arrow pointing north—as in “Yeah, they’re up there somewhere.” I fell in love with their stark, stunning scenery while watching Shetland, a mystery series named after the Islands. My desire to visit the Islands became so strong that I thought about it every night before I drifted off to sleep and ever morning when I woke. Then COVID hit, and my dream drifted away. But the yearning is back, so I’m making concrete plans.

I’m nervous about going, about being so far away from home, about travel arrangements being garbled. But, when I start thinking this way, I’ll remind myself that being punched in the nose by squirrel can’t hurt worse than giving up on a dream.

The Yearly Teeth Cleaning: A Reflection on the Passing of Time

Cabela and Ziva stand by the door of the vet’s exam room. Tired, they sway on their feet like a couple of soldiers who’ve just returned from a lengthy skirmish at the front. Cabela has been through more, and she struggles to keep her butt in the air and her back paws planted on the smooth, slick floor. They look at me, their superior officer, and wait to be told, “At ease, girls, dismissed.” I look at the vet, this is her briefing, so my dogs and I wait.

They haven’t really come from a battle, but from having their teeth cleaned. They were anesthetized and x-rayed. Neither of them had to have teeth pulled.

Cabela in shorts

My dogs watch me watching the vet. We all seem to know the drill. Be quiet, listen, nod. The more efficiently we can do this, the quicker we can go home, Cabela and Ziva because they’re worn out, me because I want to cry. My dogs are 14 and 11½ years old. These days the sand trickles faster through the hourglass.

Cabela had a benign cyst, the size of a small rubber ball, removed from her left hindquarter. She has a two-and-a-half-inch incision and a dozen stitches. The vet says Cabela shouldn’t lick her incision. I head off any discussion of her having to wear a cone: “I have a pair of shorts she can wear.” Medical treatment with dignity.

I wonder if I’ll have Cabela, the oldest one, put under anesthesia for a nonemergency surgery again, or perhaps any surgery. The older she gets, the riskier surgical procedures become. Today I worried—more than in the past—that one of my dogs might not wake up. I chose the option to have the vet call after each dog’s teeth cleaning was done instead of waiting until they were both done.

The vet explains Ziva has bone loss in her jaw, but she still has enough bone to avoid having teeth pulled. This time. Cabela has bone loss too, but less than Ziva’s.

The vet relays all this to me and shows me x-rays from this year and last year.

I trust the vet—I don’t need to see the pictures. But I don’t say this. I stand at attention, and pull myself up as tall as I can, perhaps to make up for my dogs who sag under the lingering effects of anesthesia.

The vet clicks an icon, and ghostly black-and-white images of Ziva’s teeth parade across the computer screen. I feign deep interest, but I want to go home. My dogs’ noses are nearly touching the exam room door, willing it to open.

The vet wants to explain the medical stuff—like a fourth root on one of Ziva’s molars that she hadn’t seen before. She sent the x-rays to a veterinary dentist for a consultation. I tell her that’s fine. I knew her before she was a vet, and she’s been our vet for over twenty years. She’s doing her job, taking time with us, treating us with respect.

She asks if I have any other questions, and I don’t. She can’t tell me how long Cabela and Ziva will live. She can’t tell me how long I have before I sit in front of doctors who explain age-related medical stuff to me.

I watch my dogs and see my future.

We’re Cool Here in the Mornings Now

Cabela, standing; Ziva resting

This morning Cabela pranced around the yard. Perhaps she was inviting her sister, Ziva, to play. Perhaps she was inviting me to throw a ball. The midsummer morning felt like a beautiful autumn day—cool, breezy, and invigorating, but warm enough to avoid an extra layer of clothes. At fourteen years old, Cabela is headed into her winter, but this morning she was a lovely autumn day, enjoying a frolic before her winter arrives. Something in the cool, breezy weather tapped into her memory of younger days. I wonder how many frolics she has left.

Ziva didn’t want to play, and it’s too risky for Cabela to play fetch. If she didn’t have four legs, she would need a walker, so I took them for a stroll. Cabela meandered from one blade of grass to another. A couple of years ago, she stopped strutting in front of me on our walks and looking over her shoulder as if to ask, “What’s taking you so long?” Now she dawdles behind me and moves when she’s good and ready as if to say, “What’s your hurry?”

I’m headed into the autumn of my years. The cool, breezy weather made me feel like prancing too, so I wore my blue jeans with holes in the knees. Perhaps at sixty-three, I shouldn’t because young people wear ripped jeans. But I feel like a summer day from my youth when I wear them. Since my twenties I’ve always had a pair of jeans with torn knees. I’ve never bought them that way. My jeans had to earn their holes by hanging in there with me day after day, year after year.

I hope Cabela walks with me through another winter and into another fall. I hope, if I need to live in a nursing home one day, I’ll have a pair of holey jeans to take with me.

Happy Birthday, Cabela!

Cabela, December 2020

Today is Cabela’s birthday. She’s 14 years old. In dog years that’s about 83—if I calculate it based on the new formula. When I was young, I would’ve multiplied her age by 7, and she would’ve been 98. But today Cabela’s age is calculated using new math. She likes that.

Her full name is Cabela Grace. She was named after Cabela’s, the outdoor and sporting goods store, because we bought her near the store. Once, when she was a puppy— and having the crazies—she ran into the wall instead of down the hall. I added Grace to her name. She has many nicknames: Snickerdoodle, Range Rover, Ichabod, Sneaky Pete, Kadiddlehopper, and Our Bell or Bell, but never Bella.

When my son comes to visit, she likes to have a silent moment with him. He puts his face near hers, and she looks at him intently. Sometimes my son speaks to her, and sometimes it’s just a wordless exchange. He was the one who picked her up out of a small pen and held her. She nuzzled under his chin. He asked us to take her home. So, we did because who can resist an eighteen-year-old boy who adores a chocolate standard poodle puppy. I believe Cabela remembers her first snuggle with him. I will argue with any animal psychologist who says this couldn’t be possible.

Cabela was born on a farm an hour west of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. The couple who owned the farm raised dogs. Emmet raised Labradors, and Ruth raised standard poodles. They did not raise labradoodles. Hunters often bought Emmet’s Labradors. But sometimes a hunter bought one of Ruth’s poodles. Some hunters are smarter than others. Cabela would’ve made a good hunting dog. As a puppy she pointed at birds, had a soft mouth, and loved being outside in any kind of weather.

Ziva, Cabela’s half sister; same father, different mothers; December 2019

If Cabela were a literary character, she would be Bartleby the Scrivener. She’s stubborn and if she could speak, her catch phrase would be “I would prefer not to.” She prefers not to enter the vet’s examination room, but she does and she’s good and the vet loves her. She prefers not to stop eating her sister’s dog food, but she’ll stop if I take the dish away. She prefers not to move if she’s settled into a spot, but if I pick her up, she’ll go along with it.

The vet once told me that Cabela had the heart rate of an athlete. “That’s because she is an athlete,” I said. Cabela used to do hot laps around the house when she got excited about a dog, a car, or a delivery truck that passed by. She’d run like a greyhound, circling the house four or five times. Or she would approach our pine tree and launch herself six feet into the air along the tree’s trunk. When she played fetch, we had to lob the ball up into the air, so it would bounce off the ground because she liked to leap up and catch it in her mouth. But like all athletes, the laps became fewer and slower and the leaps up the side of the tree become shorter and shorter. And last summer my husband and I decided we had to toss the ball low to the ground. Her old hips have sidelined her. She likes her walks short and her naps long.

Cabela has a signature look. She’ll give us the puppiest puppy eyes, raising one eyebrow, then the other, alternating them up and down, slowly, melting our hearts. This is how she asks to go outside or for a walk or a ride or for supper or a treat.

She’s a daddy’s girl. She’s a loving girl. She kind to her sister, Ziva, and she loves our grandchildren. She’s a good dog. And that’s what we should all hope to be at our best.

Today’s My Ideal Day

[Bloganuary wants to know. It’s the WordPress blog prompt for January 13, 2022.]

Senior Dog

Today was my ideal day. I took what it gave me because thinking about what my “most ideal day looks like” would’ve taken more creative energy than I wanted to spend. Besides, no day is ideal. I cherish the days my sons were born, but labor was tough. I have fond memories of my wedding. But I spent seven hours with over a hundred people, and I had to talk to all of them. Lovely people, but I’m an introvert—I was exhausted.

So today had its blessings—

My senior dog didn’t wake me at 4:00 a.m. to go outside. Once or twice a week she knocks on my door. She wants to go outside and pee. She doesn’t have opposable thumbs, so I get out of bed and turn the doorknobs for her. But this morning she let me sleep.

I wrote a shitty first draft of an essay this morning. When I started to slow down and think too much about finding the perfect word or writing a better sentence, I went all Anne Lamott on myself: Write don’t revise, get the thoughts on paper—all the thoughts, on the paper, now! Regardless of spelling, grammar, punctuation. Without care for lyricism or flow or insight. When I finished, I had almost 1,300 words. I can’t have more than 500 for the piece I want to submit. But I’ve got a chunk of wood to carve into a sculptured essay. (I hope.) I saved the file, feeling a little smug about all the crap I had on my shitty draft. I gave myself permission to not think about the essay until tomorrow.

I talked to a friend, my mother, my sister, and my nephew. Four conversations with people I love, but who don’t live in my house. I talked to a clerk at Honest Dog Books and ordered a book. The bookstore is an hour and a half away, but sometimes I order books from there because the clerk remembers me. The staff writes a note to me and tosses in a couple of paper bookmarks when they ship my order. The book I ordered is being shipped to my nephew. He’s getting an autographed copy of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. She visited Bayfield, Wisconsin, this summer, wandered into Honest Dog, and signed some of her books that were on the shelves. My copy of Writing Down the Bones is unsigned. But no day is perfect, not even an ideal day.

I put on a white turtleneck, a red winter-themed sweater, and a pair of garnet earrings someone gifted me. A couple of weeks ago, I decided I needed to stop wearing the same three turtlenecks my mother bought me in 2003. So, each day I find something in my closet that I haven’t worn for a while and I wear it. I do this even if I don’t leave the house, which is most days. Turns out I like dressing up a little to stay home. Reminds me of my nana wearing a house dress to do her laundry and scrub her floors. I did neither of those chores today. Those aren’t ideal-day activities.

I went to two coffee shops. Not to meet anyone. I don’t go inside places without a mask. I won’t eat or drink coffee in public spaces—I’m not removing the mask. I dropped off bookmarks and hung posters to advertise a writing contest. I bought two cupcakes to go in the first coffee shop, one for me and one for my husband. I ate mine as soon as I got home. I bought a mocha coffee to go in the second coffee shop. It paired nicely with my cupcake.

Wally

Wally, the brilliant squirrel who hacks my birdfeeders, stopped by to eat. He stood on the baffle, meant to keep him out of the feeder, and feasted on seeds. I washed dishes because it gave me an excuse to watch him steal bird food. Washing dishes isn’t ideal, but neither is looking at dirty dishes.

My senior dog needed to go to the vet for a shot. She’s had to go for a series of them. She wants to leave before we get in the door. But she’s always gracious to the vet and the assistants, who are kind and gentle with her and always say how much they love her.

I decided not to cook supper tonight. Leftovers are wonderful. But I made mashed potatoes for tomorrow’s homemade ham-and-bean soup that I’ll make in the morning.

Something I wrote yesterday made someone feel better. My husband loved the cupcake I brought home for him. My dogs enjoyed their evening walk.

It’s late and the house is quiet. I’m the only one up. The wind is howling outside, but I’m snug in my winter-themed sweater.

It wasn’t a perfect day, but it was my ideal day.

Christmas in Michigan–Christmas Day, Past and Present

December 25, 2021

Christmas Day Past—

My sisters, my brother, and I enjoy a visit from St. Nick. (I’m holding the present.) The cat was not a present. He was a stray we adopted and named George, after our grandpa.

After the longest night of the year loosened its grip and gave way to Christmas morning, my siblings and I had to wait for my parents to get up before opening gifts. Sometimes we snuck downstairs to peek at the tree surrounded by wrapped boxes then snuck back upstairs. This made waiting more difficult, but we knew that to open even one present before they got up would rob them of the joy of seeing our rapturous faces as we opened our gifts. We also knew we’d be in BIG trouble. It was always a late night for them. “The bundle of toys” they brought home in sacks needed to be wrapped and ribboned and tagged times four.

We were fortunate that Christmas morning never disappointed—not even the year my mother told me before Christmas that she couldn’t find Charlie McCarthy, the ventriloquist’s dummy I’d asked Santa for. She and I had to suspend our willing suspension of disbelief regarding Santa for that conversation. Turns out lots of aspiring ventriloquists had asked Santa for a Charlie McCarthy doll. My mother told me she’d try to get me one after Christmas. But even before Christmas morning, my shiny dream of becoming a ventriloquist lost its luster. I told her to forget Charlie.

My mother was good at buying gifts on behalf of Santa. Every year a smorgasbord awaited under our tree. We each received an outfit and a pair of pajamas. I loved going back to school after the holidays dressed in new clothes. And climbing into bed on Christmas night in a new pair of soft pajamas that were still fuzzy because they hadn’t been washed dozens of times was divine. We each received a special toy or two that we’d asked Santa for. He also brought us board games, art projects, and books. Santa wanted us to stay busy during Christmas break.

We had to open our gifts slowly because my father didn’t want to miss a single Kodak moment. He liked to take photos. When he got a Polaroid camera, we had near instant photo results, but this slowed down the gift opening because we were thrilled by watching ourselves materialize before our eyes.

Each of us had a spot on the floor to pile our gifts as we opened them. After all the gifts were opened, I felt like a princess with a pile of riches. I also felt guilty. The gifts my parents received took up little room on the coffee table in front of them, such a small cache of swag. But worst of all they hadn’t received one toy or game or art project. I’d contemplate all they’d given me in the name of Santa, then look at the gift I’d given them—always something handmade at school. A Christmas tree constructed from a toilet paper roll and cotton balls. An imprint of my hand in plaster of paris. A silhouette of my profile. A Styrofoam ball decorated with ribbon and sequins to hang on the tree. I didn’t buy my parents gifts until I turned sixteen and had a job and a driver’s license. It wasn’t until I was a parent that I understood it was more fun to see my children opening gifts, and that I treasured the gifts they made for me more than anything that came from a store.

Christmas Day Present—

On this Christmas morning the youngest one among us is 23. No one snuck out of bed to look at wrapped presents under the tree. (Maybe because they were stacked on a desk.) I got up early because my dogs wanted to go outside. No one was in a hurry to see what Santa brought. We ate breakfast and visited. My sister and one of her sons went to Mass at ten o’clock. No one minded. Waiting wouldn’t short-circuit our wiring. We didn’t open gifts until eleven-thirty.

My mother is still good at buying gifts, but no one pretended they were from Santa. I loved the warm shirt she bought me. I’m of the age where any object meant to keep me warm in the frozen North makes my heart toasty. She gave me a humorous book that pokes fun of British mysteries. I love humor and British mysteries. (Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village by Maureen Johnson & Jay Cooper)

My nephew, distributing gifts off the desk. Bogey, before he gets his pink flamingo.

No one got toys—except Bogey, my mother’s seven-year-old poodle. My husband and I bought him a stuffed pink flamingo. He played with it and played with it, shaking it by the leg, tossing it in the air, and making it squeal. I think he looked at the gifts in front of us humans and felt sorry for us because not one of us had a stuffed toy with a squeaker. He’s too young to understand that not one of us wanted a squeaking flamingo. But we sure enjoyed watching him play with his new toy.

[Words in quotes are a nod to “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”]

Christmas in Michigan—The Yipping

December 24, 2021, 9:00 p.m.

Cabela–not worried about roving bands of coyotes

All the light was behind me. A Christmas wreath strung with white lights and pinecones hung from the peak of the garage. Amber warmth from incandescent lights glowed through the living room windows.

In front of me darkness swallowed my poodles because their black and brown fur coats worked like camouflage against the snowless ground. I strained to keep an eye on each of them, and wished they were white poodles. Then I wondered if white poodles would disappear against snow-covered ground.

Loud yips came from over the distant hill. It sounded like dozens of puppies. But I knew it wasn’t. I thought about a kennel of huskies clamoring for food. But I knew there were no mushers in the neighborhood. I thought about the starving wolves in White Fang that stalk two mushers and their sled dogs, picking them off until only one man survives. But I knew that wolves need more territory than my mother’s neighborhood, even with its scattered woods and fields, could provide. Besides, wolves howl, bark, and growl. They don’t yip like a bunch of puppies.

The yips rose and fell in volume but didn’t stop. They didn’t come closer, but they didn’t retreat. I called my dogs and we went inside.

I told my mom about the yipping.

“Those are coyotes,” she said. “We have a lot of them this year.”

My mother lives on a golf course in a rural setting. I wondered if the coyotes used the cart path to move between the areas of woods and fields while hunting. Coyotes are exceedingly carnivorous. Besides wildlife they sometimes eat cats and dogs. My domesticated, spoiled, wimpy canines would be an easy meal for coyotes. But coyotes are wary of humans and avoid us. Which is good because I’m domesticated, spoiled, and wimpy.