Flowers in a Summer of Pandemic Lull and Surge

Lake Michigan

July 27, 2021. I left my home on the western shores of Lake Superior to visit my mom on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. It’s a nine-hour trip across northern Wisconsin, through the Upper Peninsula, and over the Mackinac Bridge.

The delta variant, snaking its way around the South, hadn’t seemed to arrive in the North.

My last trip to Mom’s was three weeks earlier. My next trip was supposed to be at Christmas when snow and ice bloom and high winds roar off the lake.

I decided to visit again because the pandemic canceled last year’s Christmas plans. And I’m not hopeful about this year’s plans.

I came by myself, leaving my husband and dogs at home. I wanted to spend time alone with Mom. We shared stories, ate Indian and Thai takeout, and walked her dog along Lake Michigan in warm, Technicolor evenings.

And I took pictures of flowers, lots of pictures. The characteristics of light in the Harbor Springs-Petoskey-Charlevoix area are different than the characteristics of light in the Duluth-Superior area. I wonder if it’s because the sky reflects the different colors of the two lakes. I wonder if it’s because the latitude of Petoskey is slightly over 43 degrees, and the latitude at the western tip of Lake Superior is about 46.6 degrees. Doesn’t sound like much, but that’s a difference of 207 miles. Whatever the reason, I get a Land-of-Oz feeling when the sun is shining at Mom’s.

Flowers are everywhere in Harbor Springs, Petoskey, and Charlevoix–in yards, in front of shops, along city streets, hanging from lamp posts. Flowers greet residents and welcome tourists with vibrant oranges, blues, reds, pinks, purples, yellows, whites, and greens.

Some gardeners plant only two or three colors together, but many mix all the the colors together and it works. If I tried to dress in the same array of colors, people might call me eccentric.

A friend and I once noticed how nature can toss together a salad of greens (lime, forest, army, olive, sage, emerald, fern, pea, mint) and throw them across the landscape and none of them will clash.

In the mornings, Mom and I ran her errands and went for rides. When she entered shops, I spent little time inside with her. I’d go back outside and take pictures of flowers, lots of pictures.

The vaccination rate for her county is about 61% for people who’ve had at least one shot. The recommendation has been for unvaccinated people to wear masks. Less than almost no one wore a mask. Statistically, about 39% of the people should’ve been wearing masks.

I know some math.

I provide daycare for my grandkids.

My grandkids are too young to get vaccinated.

I wore a mask and stayed away from people.

I ate takeout.

And I took pictures of flowers, lots of pictures.

Sunday Afternoon at Brighton Beach

Sunday, August 8, Duluth, Minnesota

I take my grandkids to Brighton Beach once or twice a summer. It’s one of the beaches we visit every year. Today I take them because it’s the last day Brighton Beach will be open to the public for a year, maybe two. The Lakewalk will be extended, Brighton Beach Road will be relocated, and the shoreline will be restored. I wonder how much it will change. I hope “restoring the shoreline” doesn’t mean depositing wide swaths of immense jagged rocks on the beach that become a barrier which hinders kids from pitching stones in the water and from gamboling on the ancient lava formations along the shore.

Charlie, who’s almost three, has never been to Brighton Beach. Evan, who’s almost five, says he’s never been there. I remind him that I took him last summer. When I turn on Brighton Beach Road, he says, “Oh yeah, I’ve been here.” Clara and Michael, ten and eight, are seasoned visitors.

It’s a grey, breezy day (code for sustained winds of 16 mph). But it’s 64 degrees, so we don’t have to worry about hypothermia.

After parking and unbuckling, the kids pour out of the van and run toward the shore. Before they disperse, I bark a request, “Everyone up on that smooth rock. I want a picture of you all together.” A few clicks later, they’re off in four different directions. I stick with Charlie. I don’t want him to fall off a bank of rock and into the water.

“Charlie,” I say, “let’s throw rocks in Lake Superior and fill it up.”

“We can’t fill that up,” he says. Sometimes my dry wit is too parched for him.

But Charlie tries. For forty minutes, he picks rocks, shoves them in his pockets, walks to the water’s edge, and with lopsided degrees of accuracy, throws them in the water. Normally, he smiles and laughs easily, but absorbed by this task, his face scrunches with seriousness the whole time.

Clara, Michael, and Evan run and leap from one smooth lava formation to another. I yell, “Not so close to the water” and “slow down.” The wind and roar of the waves hitting the shore make it difficult for them to hear me. They toss a few rocks, but they’ve outgrown the thrill of flinging rocks in the water.

Clara and Michael comb through rocks on the beach, looking for agates. Evan keeps walking on the rock formations. My head is on a swivel as I watch all three of them while watching Charlie throw rocks, making sure he doesn’t fall in the water with one of his tosses.

There are three kids at the beach, around seven to nine years old. Evan’s been watching them, following them while keeping some distance. The next time I look up to locate each grandkid, I see the three kids forming a follow-the-leader line. Evan watches and at the last moment, he joins in as the caboose. A few minutes later, he’s talking with one of the kids.

Later, before we leave, Evan says, “I was making friends.” He’s almost five and he misses friends. There are no kids his age in his neighborhood. He remembers daycare and having friends before the pandemic. “Yes, you made friends,” I say. “That’s nice.” But he’s forlorn. He knows the new friendships are fleeting.

Shortly before we leave, Clara and Michael return to the rocky outcroppings. Clara stands near the edge and flirts with the surf breaking on the rocky shore, letting the water spray her but scurrying backwards when bigger waves break.

Michael runs and leaps along the rugged terrain. I stuff the urge to yell at him to stop. I’ve already issued too many warnings: “Slow down! Don’t get too close to the edge! Stay out of that puddle of water—you’ll soak your feet!”

My admonishment about the deep puddle of water was given to Evan right after one of his new friends walked through it with his tennis shoes while his dad watched. That dad must’ve thought I was hampering my grandkid’s fun. But when you watch kids who aren’t your own, the stakes are higher.

After forty-five minutes at the beach, I gather up my mostly-dry grandkids and we get in the van. “I suppose you’re all too cold for ice cream,” I say. None of them are too cold for ice cream. It’s a delicious way to end the afternoon.

[For more information about the plans for Brighton Beach: WDIO News: Story about Brighton Beach closing.]

Come Again Now

[“Come Again Now” was published Minnesota’s PBS Stations on their webpage Moving Lives Minnesota: Stories of Origin and Immigration on April 17, 2021.]

FRANK AND ROSE MEET

Frank and Rose Youngquist, wedding photo, September 1898

            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.

TRAGEDY STRIKES

            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

George Youngquist with his wife Olive and Frank, their first child, circa 1940

            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.

[More Moving Lives posts written by other writers can be read at Moving Lives Minnesota: Stories of Origin and Immigration.]

Rag Rug Art

Croc Art

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.

Sippy Cup Art

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.

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

[“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.

Bailey, shortly after coming to live with us. January 2006

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.

Buffy decided Bailey could stay. Buffy, who was fourteen, would lay near Bailey, but wouldn’t play with her. Winter 2006

*****

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.

Bailey wearing the Swarovski crystal collar my mother bought her. Summer 2007

“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.

Bailey (R) loved dogs. Buffy never played with her. But after Buffy died in 2008, we bought Cabela (L), a chocolate standard poodle. Baily was overjoyed when we brought Cabela home. Bailey pranced and smiled, as if to say, “You brought me a puppy, thank you, thank you, thank you!” She and Cabela played immediately. September 2008

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.]

An Electric Clock Outdoes Sliced Bread by a Country Mile

[I was inspired to write this account about my grandfather, George, after reading one of Chris Marcotte’s blogs at chrismarcottewrites. Chris writes about the history of the everyday lives of people, bringing their stories to life in a way that lets the reader connect to people in the past. She incorporates information from newspapers in her blog. After reading Chris’s article, “The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread,” I remembered both my grandpa’s dislike of store-bought bread and his admiration for an electric clock.]

Grandpa George would never have uttered the phrase “the best thing since sliced bread.” Detesting store-bought bread, he’d have thought it was a poor standard by which to measure some new technology that impressed him. I can imagine a conversation with a customer at his gas station going something like this:

George’s Standard Oil Station, circa 1930s. He owned and ran this station from 1928 until 1979.

Customer: Heard you and Olive bought one of those new color TVs. The best thing since sliced bread. Wouldn’t you say, George?

George: You’re setting the bar pretty low. Sliced bread isn’t a second best to anything.

Fortunately, Grandma Olive baked a good loaf of bread. Over George and Olive’s forty-five years of marriage, they had, at one time or another, one foster son, three children, George’s brother, Olive’s parents, their daughter and her children, and me living with them. Olive baked a lot of bread.

George’s first auto garage with gas pumps, circa 1920s

George, born in 1899, might’ve been old fashioned about his bread, but he welcomed other technology. In 1913, when George was fourteen, the first car arrived in his hometown. He’d learned blacksmithing, so he shod horses before he changed car tires. But, by 1920, George knew cars were his future. He and his cousin Frank embraced innovation and opened an auto garage with gas pumps, a business George owned and ran until 1979.

George appreciated smaller innovations too. In the early 1950s, a relative, who was dear to George, gave him an electric clock, the first one he ever had in his house. The clock hung on the wall in the living room where he watched his TV. He not only cherished the clock because of the giver, but he relied on it. He checked his pocket watch against the electric clock daily, believing it was more reliable than the mechanical clocks in his home.

George and the first electric clock in his home. Excited by this new technology, he had the moment preserved with a photograph.

Like most of us, George both praised and disparaged new advancements. He gave a thumbs up to cars, gas pumps, TV, electric clocks, a modern kitchen, washing machines, and planes (taking a trip to Italy in his 70s), but he gave a thumbs down to sliced bread. And he didn’t like store-bought desserts either, for which I’m grateful. During the three years I lived with my grandparents, I enjoyed scrumptious homemade cookies; divine chocolate cakes; pies baked with fresh fruit; light, heavenly angel food cake; and moss cake, a rich, nutty confection made with the egg yolks leftover from making the angel food cake.

Because of my grandparents’ influence, I make my own desserts. But I don’t bake bread. Sorry, Grandpa!

Charlie’s Directorial Debut

“Nana, where are you?” Charlie, two-and-a-half, calls out from the living room.

“I’m in the kitchen.” I’m surprised he doesn’t see me because the kitchen and the living room have a semi-open design.

“Nana, where are you?” he repeats.

I assume he didn’t hear me. “I’m right here.” I turn around and realize he isn’t talking to me.

He’s holding a Little People person by a Little People house. It’s the Little People person who’s calling into the house, looking for his nana.

Charlie’s playacting, but he’s borrowing from real life. If he doesn’t see me immediately when he arrives in the morning, he yells, “Nana, where are you?”

Next, the Little People person, still peering into the Little People house, asks, “Where are you, puppy, where are you?”

I’m drawn into Charlie’s world of make-believe. I search through the bin of figures, looking for the Little People dog. I can’t find him. But I find the Little People sheep. “Here’s a sheep for your farm,” I say. Behind him is a Little People barn.

Charlie grabs the sheep, laughs, and says, “Puppy!” He’s willing to suspend reality in his theatrical world. I roll with him. He returns to his production company where he’s a scriptwriter, a director, and an actor playing all the parts. I sit on the floor, a few feet away from him, like an extra in a movie. He takes no notice of me.

He’s on to the next scene. “This is my bed,” he says, laying the Little People person, who represents him, on a lime-green bed in the second-story bedroom of the plastic house. He picks up two other Little People and brings them face to face. Imitating smooching sounds, he refers to them as Mom and Dad. How sweet.

Next, he says, “Bupba’s back,” signaling his grandpa has entered the scene. Then he picks up a small red toy—Spiderman has joined the show, saying, “Grab your ee-ee.” Not wanting to interrupt a director’s creative process, I don’t ask what motivates Spiderman’s concern for a blankie.

After a few minutes, I rise off the floor and return to the kitchen, leaving Charlie immersed in his playacting. His world of dialogue, actors, and shifting scenes continues for another twenty minutes.

I’m glad I saved some of the toys his dad and uncle played with when they were boys.

Before we had grandkids, my husband, when cleaning the basement, would ask, “Can we get rid of these old toys?”

“No,” I’d say.

“What are you saving them for?”

“Grandkids”

“What if we don’t have grandkids?” he’d ask.

“What if we do?”

And we do—four of them, ages nine, seven, four, and two-and-a-half. And they all play with the toys I saved. This morning two-and-a-half-year-old Charlie has morphed them into his world.

In about ten years, the dialogue with my husband will start anew. He will ask, Can we get rid of these old toys?

No, I will answer.

What are you saving them for?

Great-grandkids.

What if we don’t have great-grandkids? he’ll ask.

What if we do?

Already, I imagine them on my living room floor, directing their own Little People productions.

Bungy Jumping with an Electric Pressure Cooker

My sister bought an electric pressure cooker two weeks ago. She cooked sweet potato curry, steel-cut oats, and polenta. “Yum, yum, and yum,” she said.

A couple of years ago, my husband wanted one. I didn’t. I liked cooking the old-fashioned way.

But my sister’s been sharing her excitement about cooking with it, along with photos of her pressure-cooked meals. She tells me it cooks fast.

My closed mind cracks. I babysit grandchildren and write. On days my grandchildren are with me, I cook breakfast and lunch, so I’ve no interest in spending more time cooking supper. On days my grandchildren aren’t with me, I catch up on my writing and don’t want to stop to cook supper.

“It was on sale and with my membership discount, I paid $60 for it,” my sister says.

“Could I get one for that price? Could you order it for me? I’ll send you a check.”

Fifteen minutes later, she texts me a picture of the completed order with Merry Christmas written across it, so nice.

Monday morning, I tell my husband my sister bought me an electric pressure cooker and it’s being delivered today. He’s excited. We hope it arrives early enough to use it to cook supper because we bought ingredients to make green chili soup.

My green chili soup looks just like the photo in the recipe magazine.

It arrives at 4:00 p.m. Plenty of time.

I call my sister to thank her and get some beginner’s advice. “This appliance has more buttons than the jet you fly.”

“I don’t think so,” she says. She’s a pilot who flies people around in a private jet.

She answers my questions and hangs up.

A moment later my text alert chirps. She’s sent me a picture of the flight deck in the Falcon 900 she flies, with the caption, Pressure cooker on steroids. I concede because the instrument panel looks like someone took hundreds of buttons from the cookers and pasted them all over the inside of the cockpit.

I read the warnings and instructions provided in the two slim manuals. My sister has forewarned me the instructions need backup. She’s watched YouTube videos about using pressure cookers, so I watch a couple of short videos on getting started with the kitchen appliance that’s going to revolutionize my cooking time.

I call my sister, again.

“Hello, pressure-cooker hotline. How may I assist you today?”

“Did you do the test with the three cups of water?” I ask.

“Oh, yes,” she answers.

So, I do the water test and successfully cook three cups of water in my cooker. Next up, green chili soup.

The first step is to sauté the meat. I add one tablespoon of oil, push the sauté button, and add the meat. The meat is cooking, but it’s definitely not sauteing.

I’m nervous. I imagine the soup having to be scooped into the garbage as inedible. I once told a woman who complimented a meal I cooked for ten, marveling at how it all came together, “Cooking for dinner guests is my idea of bungy jumping.”

Turns out I was supposed to add the meat when the digital display said, Hot. Because I didn’t, the pot didn’t heat up properly. I shouldn’t have skipped the chart about the cooking options when I read the instructions. It’s not an irredeemable mistake. I make another jump at it, following the instructions, and sauté the next batch of meat with better results.

Before I start the pressure-cooking stage, I call my sister again.

“Yes,” she says, drawing the word out in a bemused manner, teasing me.

“This isn’t the professional hotline greeting I received earlier.” We both laugh.

“I’m making corn on the cob in my cooker,” she says.

“You’re light years ahead of me.”

“No, only a week and a half,” she counters.

“Remember, when I finally got an answering machine, and one of the family said, ‘I can’t believe the Waltons got an answering machine’?”

“Good point,” she says.

“I put all the ingredients in the pot before I push the pressure-cooker button, right?” I realized, considering how a pressure cooker works, it’s a dumb question, but the sauté phase left me in need of hand-holding.

“Oh, yes,” she answers, “and secure the lid too.”

I add the rest of the ingredients, secure the lid, and select the correct settings. I must wait thirty minutes to find out if this is going to be a thrilling bungy jump.

I wash dishes while I wait and realize I haven’t stopped once to stir, add ingredients, or adjust the heat. I chop cilantro and slice radishes for garnishes without interruption. The cooker is self-sufficient. I’m ecstatic. I actually have time to join my husband in the family room.

“It smells really good,” he says.

The cooker chimes. I quick release the pressure and wait for the float valve to descend, indicating it’s safe to remove the lid. I hold my breath for the final yank of my bungy jump.

The spicy smell of the tomatillo-based broth swirls out of the cooker. The green chili soup looks like the photo in the recipe magazine. Taste buds are sated.

After dinner I peruse the internet for Indian curry recipes. I’ve never had curry, but I’m in a daring mood. My cooker and I are taking our next bungy jump this weekend, and for an extra thrill we’ll be cooking a batch of rice a few hours before we whip up the curry

A Cracker Jack of a Story

[“A Cracker Jack of a Story” earned an honorable mention in the Indianhead Writers’ 2019 Contest for nonfiction. It was published in the anthology Many Waters: St. Croix Writers Stories and Poems in October 2020]

Nana Kitty

My nana, a petite woman, had merry eyes and a high-wattage smile. Her face was framed with large curls of chestnut brown hair. She played games with us and sang to us. She took us to parks and pushed us on swings. She turned on the radio in her kitchen and danced with us, her moves livelier than the orange and yellow pattern prancing across her linoleum floor. Occasionally, we walked ten blocks with her to the grocery store, and she kindly let us carry the bags of groceries back to her house, all ten blocks.

Sometimes she bought us Cracker Jacks. Nana was a widow on an egg-and-toast budget, and she counted her pennies like Silas Marner, but Cracker Jacks were cheap and came with a toy surprise. For Nana, who worked as a waitress at a pancake joint in downtown Milwaukee, it was a bargain.

Nana was a reader but rarely read to us. Instead she regaled us with stories, and like all story tellers, she retold them, like her Cracker Jack story. So, when she gave us Cracker Jacks, she gave us the story too.

I can close my eyes, smell the sweet and salty Cracker Jacks, and recall Nana and myself sitting on her front stoop . . .

As she starts her story, I open my box.

“One day, when I was a little girl,” Nana says, “my brother Jake brought me some Cracker Jacks.”

I start nibbling caramel corn.

“I sat on our front steps, eating my treat,” she says.

I tip my box, letting caramel corn and peanuts fill my left hand, which I have cupped into bowl.

“I savored each piece,” she says. But my brother could’ve done more for us than bring us Cracker Jacks now and then. He only gave my mother a dollar a week.”

*****

When she was a child, Nana’s family became Tobacco Road poor. Her father died of typhoid fever. He left behind seven children and a pregnant widow, who donned a black dress and never recovered from her grief. Shortly after her father died, a representative from the West Bend Aluminum Company, where he’d worked, delivered a life insurance check to his widow. It was a lot of money, but not enough to care for the family long term. Nana’s mother handed the check to Jake, her oldest son. He wanted to buy a gas station. It was 1922. He told his mother, “I can support the family. The automobile is on the rise. Our family will be on the rise.” Jake was half right. He made lots of money, but only he rose. Jake broke his promise to help the family. Instead he bought crisp white shirts, snazzy suits, and a new car. He lavishly courted girls. When he landed a beauty from a well-to-do family, he bought a grand house and fancy furniture.

******

I squeeze the short sides of my box, creating a circular opening at the top. I peer into it.

“It took me a good part of the morning to eat those Cracker Jacks,” Nana says.

I tilt my box to the left and look, then tilt it to the right and look.

“Finally,” she continues, “the only thing left was my toy surprise.”

I set my box on the stoop next to me. With my free hand, I grab the bottom of my T-shirt, pulling it out and up, forming a cloth bowl. I dump the Cracker Jacks from my left hand into my T-shirt bowl.

“Slowly, I opened the toy package,” Nana says. “It was a diamond ring! I’d never seen anything so sparkly. It fit my finger perfectly.”

I grab my Cracker Jacks and pour some of them into my T-shirt bowl. I look in the box again and see the package that holds my toy surprise.

“I went to play,” she says. “I felt like a princess.”

I hold off retrieving my toy surprise and start nibbling again. My favorite part of the story is coming. It involves Mean Mildred.

“Mildred,” Nana says, pressing her lips together before spitting out the name, “noticed my diamond ring and asked to see it.”

I put a piece of caramel corn on my tongue. I don’t chew. The caramel coating melts in my mouth.

“I didn’t want to, but I took off my ring and let Mildred see it,” she says. “That r-a-t ran off with it!”

In Nana’s world, calling someone a rat is so bad that when she calls Mildred a rat, she says she has to spell it. I wonder if this is because Nana is Catholic. My mother was Catholic but married a Presbyterian, so we’re not much of anything.

“Why didn’t you keep the ring on your finger and just let her look at it?” I’ve asked this question many times. I pick a Spanish peanut out of my T-shirt bowl and rub it between my thumb and finger to remove the red skin.

“I never thought she’d steal it,” Nana says. “The r-a-t refused to give it back.”

I ask the same question I asked the first time I heard this story, “Why didn’t you tell your mom or her mom?

“Her family was rich and important.”

“But it was your ring.” I say this every time—I know my part in the telling of the story.

“No one was going to care about my troubles. I was poor and lived on the wrong side of town in an old log house,” Nana says. “That house had no bathroom, no electricity, and no running water.”

Each time Nana tells this story, I want it to end differently. In my version Mean Mildred’s mother marches Mildred to Nana’s house and makes her daughter return the ring.

Nana starts another story, and I reach for my toy surprise at the bottom of my box.

*****

When I was young, I believed Nana’s story about the diamond ring. I was joyful when she found the ring in her box, sad when Mean Mildred stole it, and angry when Nana was powerless to get it back.

As I grew older, I came to doubt Nana’s story. All the rings I’d ever found in my Cracker Jacks were made of cheap metal and plastic gems. I wanted to ask, “How could a real diamond ring get inside a box of Cracker Jacks?” But didn’t. I wanted to tell her, “You were so young—you just thought it was a diamond ring.” But I didn’t.

I didn’t because half a century later, she still mourned the loss of her ring. The unspoken part of her story was her life might have been different if she hadn’t lost her “diamond” ring. For Nana that moment stamped a lifetime of struggles in concrete: going hungry, picking beans in the fields when she was nine, being told she couldn’t go to high school, marrying a man who became an alcoholic and couldn’t hold a steady job. But Nana survived. She scrimped and saved and bought the smallest house in a middle-class neighborhood. She worked in the cafeteria at a Catholic school to pay for a proper education for her two children. She put meals on the table and paid the mortgage while her husband drank and was, at times, out of work.

In 2012 Cracker Jacks celebrated their 100th anniversary of toy surprises by giving away thirty winning tokens that could be traded in for real diamond rings valued at $1,000 each. But Nana had passed away. If she’d been alive, she’d have said, “That’s nothing! When I was a girl, I found a real diamond ring in my Cracker Jacks!” And, she’d have told her story again.