Remember how you always said, “The early bird gets the worm.” And I would answer back, “I don’t like worms” because I wanted to sleep until noon. I thought you’d like to know that now I rarely sleep past 6:00 a.m.
Remember how you always said, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” And I would answer back, “I don’t care” because I wanted to watch the late movie on TV. I thought you’d like to know that now I usually fall asleep before 10:00 p.m.
Remember how you always said, “You can win more flies with honey than vinegar” when I was spitting mad and wanted to tell someone off. And I would answer back, “Vinegar is what she deserves” because I desired payback. I thought you’d like to know that now I believe honey is a better tonic.
Remember how you always said, “Turn the other cheek.” And I would answer back, “If I do, someone will just slap the other one” because I was hurt and didn’t want to forgive. I thought you’d like to know that now I try to practice the other-cheek philosophy.
Remember how you always said, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” You were a widow scrapping by on a waitress’s earnings. But I wanted things, so once I badgered you into buying me a troll doll and another time a delivery pizza that you couldn’t afford. I thought you’d like to know I’m sorry, and that fifty years later I still have the doll. And the pizza didn’t taste good that night because I regretted my behavior before it was delivered. Best of all, I became good at saving money. You’d be proud.
Remember how you always said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” That was good advice. And I thought you’d like to know that after years of practice, I’ve gotten better. I could be such a wiseass when I was a teenager.
Remember how you always said, “Never trust a man who doesn’t like animals.” I embraced that advice. Some of the men I dated weren’t the best, but they all loved animals. My husband loves dogs. We have two. And he is the best.
Remember how you always said, “Silence speaks volumes.” I didn’t understand what that meant, but I never asked you to explain because I wanted you to think I was smart. I thought you’d like to know that now I get it. But I also know you didn’t mean that I should always be silent because you spoke up when it mattered.
Remember how you always said, “Wear clean underwear every day in case you get in an accident.” I never answered back because it made sense. As I got older, I discovered that piece of wisdom was a great source of comedic mockery. But I thought you’d like to know that it’s still stellar advice. And I bet the mocking comedians change their underwear every day because their mother or nana told them to.
Your granddaughter who is wiser because you always took the time to say . . .
This morning I went outside to retrieve Tree Guy’s schnoz. I tried to pick it up but discovered it was frozen into the icy snow. I shouldn’t have been surprised. When I got out of bed at 6:30 this morning, it was 9° with a 9-mph wind. And if that were a mathematical story problem, the answer would be a windchill of -4°. (Don’t ask how this would change if one train was leaving Grand Central Station at 9:00 a.m., traveling at 60 mph, and another train was leaving Union Station at 10 a.m., traveling at 55 mph. I didn’t care when I was in school, and I still don’t care.)
I didn’t try to muscle the nose out of the snow. Increased force is usually the wrong answer to most problems. I found a stick and scrapped snow away from the sides of the nose. I tried to lift it again, but it wouldn’t budge. The nose appeared to be intact, so I decided against digging underneath it because it might break. Impatience is usually the wrong option for most situations.
I hoped the space I created along the sides of the nose would allow the sun’s warm rays to melt the snow from under it. On Tuesday the temperature is supposed to reach 41°. If the icy snow hasn’t released the nose by that evening, I’ll cover it with a bucket because it’s supposed to snow on Wednesday and Thursday.
Tree Guy doesn’t want his nose to be buried again. At this point in his life, he doesn’t appreciate history repeating itself.
This evening my husband walked into the house from the back yard, tapped his finger on the side of his nose and said, “I saw the nose. I saw the nose.”
I wanted to ask, “You saw Kovalyov’s nose?” But I didn’t. My husband doesn’t read Russian short stories.
So I said, “What?”
He grinned, a very big grin. “I saw the nose.” He used his silly voice. “I saw the nose.” He kept tapping the side of his nose.
Because I reread Gogol’s “The Nose” a few days ago, I pictured a gigantic schnoz dressed in uniform. But I knew my husband didn’t see Kovalyov’s nose because you couldn’t pay him to read Russian short stories.
So again I said, “What?” because I still didn’t know what he was talking about.
“The tree’s nose,” he said. “I can see it in the snow now.”
Turns out, I haven’t been the only one walking to the edge of our deck and looking over the side. I should’ve known. After all Tree Guy was my husband’s idea.
I couldn’t believe I thought about Kovalyov’s nose before thinking about Tree Guy’s nose. And I’d forgotten to look for it the last couple of days. I’ve been distracted, and it’s been cold.
But neither of us went outside to retrieve the nose this evening. The wind was whipping, the temperature was below freezing, and the windchill was a single digit. I was sitting on my couch with a wool scarf wrapped around my neck. Neither of us wanted to climb on the unstable snow pile. Two days ago our grandson climbed that pile and got his foot stuck. When he yanked his foot up, his boot stayed–buried six inches down. I rescued the boot by digging it out of the snow with my bare hands.
Tomorrow I’ll save Tree Guy’s nose because more cold and snow are predicted next week. March wants to go out like a lion.
My husband will give the nose a fresh coat of paint if needed. Then he’ll reattach it to Tree Guy’s face. Like it had never been missing.
Last Monday when I took my nearly twenty-year-old sewing machine to be tuned and cleaned, I looked at a new machine that was the same brand but a step and a half up from the one I own. I’m not sure I would’ve considered buying a newer model if there hadn’t been a pandemic.
When the lockdowns happened in the spring of 2020, being able to quilt kept me sane. I was home alone during the week because my husband worked in a business that was deemed essential, and I couldn’t see my children and grandchildren because we all stayed in our own bubbles. With all the death and uncertainty, dicing up fabric and sewing it back together was familiar and calmed my nerves. I could quilt without leaving the house because I have a sizable stash of fabric. I made a T-shirt quilt, two lap quilts, and two wall hangings and gave them to family and friends. I made a throw pillow and gave it to my dogs for their stuffed chair. I wanted a second machine because if there’s another lockdown, and something happens to one of them, I would be able to keep quilting.
The new model had features that would make machine quilting and appliquéing easier, helping me expand my quilting skills. But I wanted to sleep on it, so I left my old machine for a tune up and postponed buying the new one. Long ago, I made a rule for myself: All big purchases could only be made after I slept on it for a night. Over the years there were many purchases I never made but very few regrets about the ones I did make.
When I woke up on Tuesday morning, I was still enthusiastic about the new machine, so after lunch I went back to the store and bought it. When I returned home, I unboxed it and put it on my antique dining room table, which I use for sewing. (Don’t shudder. The table isn’t dainty.) The new machine looked especially modern and sleek on the old oak surface. It stood among a cutting mat, rulers, a rotary cutter, and fabric, becoming a part of the quilting landscape. I turned my back on it and did some writing, cleaning, and cooking. I stayed out of the dining room and away from the new machine. My old one sat in a shop, waiting in a queue for service, unaware it had been replaced. Regret seeped into my psyche. My old machine and I had pieced many quilts together: quilts for family and friends; quilts to welcome new babies into the world. By suppertime I stood in the kitchen and cried, wishing I had waited two nights instead of one.
Would I actually do more machine quilting or appliquéing just because I bought a new sewing machine? For the rest of the evening, I left it untouched. I kept picturing my old one sitting on the technician’s workbench. When it came home, I’d have to store it in a closet instead of returning it to the oak table because I knew it would become the spare.
On Wednesday I woke up at 4:30 in the morning and thought about the new machine with deepening regret. I decided to hide it in a dark corner of the closet and shut the door. An absurd idea. So, I set a goal for Wednesday: make friends with the new machine by making a quilt. I have a closet full of fabric and quilt kits that I’ve purchased over the years since I started quilting in 1994. I never had a sleep-on-it rule for buying fabric.
I selected a package of precut strips because I had a simple pattern for a Jelly Roll Race Quilt that would allow me to use all the strips to create a quilt that was quick and easy. (At the speed I sew, I should call it a Jelly Roll Stroll Quilt.)
I sewed a test strip with two short scraps. The new machine sewed a perfect quarter-inch seam. An essential feature. Then I sewed my strips together making one long strip. The new machine has a bigger work surface, making it easier to sew fabric together. A solid improvement. The redesigned quarter-inch foot did a better job of keeping the fabric in place as it passed through the feed dogs, so I didn’t have to keep repositioning it. A welcome timesaver.
Best of all, the new machine sounds like my old one because underneath its modern, sleek exterior, it has the same motor and frame as the old one, which I’d used for almost twenty years. Hopefully, I can use the new one just as long. I’ve got a lot of fabric in the closet.
The first quilt off the new machine will be a gift for my sister-in-law. The package of precut strips was originally purchased by her sister Jen who passed away from cancer in 2018 before she could sew them into a quilt. Jen gave me the strips before she died because she knew I liked to quilt. I’m piecing together the gift from Jen as a gift to her sister, connecting the past to the future while listening to the old familiar rhythm coming from the inside of the new sewing machine.
My new machine and I are going to be friends. But I will keep my old one. Perhaps each one of my grandchildren would like to sew a quilt, and my old machine will make new friends. I know where they can find some fabric.
[To find the instructions for making a Jelly Roll Race Quilt, click here. To read about one of my pandemic quilts, click here.]
“Nana, be careful. You almost stepped on me,” Charlie, my three-year-old grandson, said.
“I’m trying not to, but you’re walking willy-nilly around the kitchen while I’m cooking breakfast.”
“No, I’m not,” he said. “I’m thinking.”
I stopped to watch as he paced the length of the kitchen and back. The top half of his little body leaned forward, his eyes focused on the floor, and his hands pushed against the sides of his hips. Damn. He was indeed thinking. I didn’t ask him for his thoughts. He kept pacing, and I kept making breakfast.
The next day we were back in the kitchen. I walked past Charlie and he started to twirl around. I did that as a child, spinning and spinning until I could barely stand. During one of his rotations, he smacked his hand on the chair.
“Watch where you’re going,” he said, rubbing his hand.
My three-year-old grandson often mimics phrases he has picked up from adults or his older siblings. I love it when he quips, “That’s not how my day goes” after I ask him a question or make a request. At his age it’s funny, but in a few years, he’ll be accused of being a smart aleck when he imitates adults.
“I didn’t bump your hand. You hit it on the chair while you were spinning around.”
“No, I didn’t,” he said. “I was thinking.”
I wanted to tell him he needs to pay attention while he’s thinking. I didn’t because I would be standing on the San Andreas Fault as I said it. This past week I’ve come close to putting peanut butter in the fridge, dirty dishtowels in the recycling bin, and regular milk in my other grandson’s cereal. He’s lactose intolerant. If someone had asked me “What ARE you doing?” My only defense would’ve been—“I’m thinking!”
My problem? I spend a lot of time thinking about writing while I’m doing mundane activities. It’s worse when I’m working on a specific story or essay. I’m surprised that the kitchen scissors don’t end up in the toothbrush holder and my toothbrush doesn’t end up in the junk drawer.
At the end of January, I had a seismic-thinking episode. I was sitting at my computer writing a story but had to stop because Cabela, my senior dog, needed to see the vet for a shot. It was a subzero day with lots of windchill, so I went outside, unplugged the extension cord from the outside outlet, then started the van. Because it’s tough to unplug the cord from the tank heater cord, I decided I’d do that just before I left.
Five minutes later I was ready to go. I noted the extension cord was still plugged into the tank heater. I planned to unplug it, but first I loaded both dogs in the van and placed my purse on the front seat. Then I got in the driver’s seat and drove off. I was writing in my head. My hands might have left the keyboard, but my brain was still at the computer.
Cabela was a good patient. We were soon back home, and I was writing again. A few hours later, I took out the garbage and noticed only one cord on the driveway. Someone had pilfered one of our extension cords. But that was ridiculous, why not take both of them. Maybe an unselfish thief? Couldn’t be. Perhaps my husband had driven off with the cord plugged into his tank heater. I doubted it. He’s not a writer, so he’s never thinking about a story. I must have driven off with the missing cord hanging from my van. The more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t remember having unplugged it from the tank heater. The more I thought about it, the more I knew it was my mistake.
My husband was going to think I was crazy. He was going to ask, “How can you not unplug the extension cord?” It would be a rhetorical question because he knows I’m capable of such things. He was going to be upset about his missing extension cord. But he was going to be more freaked out about me being okay. I was freaked out about being okay—I’m at that age.
My only excuse would’ve been “I was thinking.” His retort would’ve been “Yeah, but not about what you were doing.”
It had been hours since I’d been to the vets. But I got in the van and went to look for the cord. I drove less than eighty feet. Curled up at the corner of our lot, where the street intersects with the avenue, was our yellow extension cord sunning itself.
I stopped the van and retrieved it. I looked around to see if anyone was watching. I gave thanks for the kind person who had picked up the cord, coiled it, and set it on the corner. Then I hoped it wasn’t one of our neighbors who would ask my husband, “Was that your extension cord in the road the other day?”
I wasn’t going to tell my husband. But I called a friend and confessed because I needed to tell someone.
To myself I vowed to always unplug both ends of the extension cord before starting the van. Promising myself to stop composing stories in my head while doing routine stuff would be futile.
No one has mentioned the cord to me or my husband. I haven’t mentioned it to my husband, and he doesn’t read my blog. And if he somehow gets wind of this story, I’m going to say, “I was thinking. Charlie gets it.”
My mother carried the first Little Critter books by Mercer Mayer into our house. She loved Mayer’s stories and drawings, and she thought Just Go to Bed was hysterical. By the time my second son was four years old, we had eighteen Little Critter books.
Last week my grandson Evan, five, discovered Little Critter books are filled with humorous illustrations. After looking at the pictures in one of the books, he handed it to me and said, “Can you read this to me? It’s funny.”
While I read the book, Evan discovered irony. He laughed at the words Little Critter said and pointed out that Critter’s words didn’t match what he was doing in the pictures. “These are really funny books,” he said. I admired his ability to grasp the gap between what was being said and what was happening. So much of life is like that, and it’s not always amusing.
Evan enjoyed the books even more when I told him that most of them had belonged to his dad when he was a little boy, and a few of them had belonged to his uncle. Now, before I can read one of the stories to him, he asks who the book belonged to, his dad or his uncle. Most of the books have an inscription with a name and date on the inside cover. But some don’t, and it makes me sad that I forgot to inscribe on them.
After reading all eighteen Little Critter books to my grandsons in a marathon session, Evan asked if more books had been written. We did some research, and bought Just Fishing with Grandma (2003), Just a Little Music (2010), What a Bad Dream (1992), and Grandma, Grandpa, and Me (2007).
Minutes after the mail carrier delivered the books, my grandsons each grabbed two and scampered up on the couch. Evan looked at each book, silently studying each page. Charlie looked at each book, voicing his own dialogue for each picture.
I thought about my boys when they were young and how they loved new books. I remembered reading to each of them every night before went to bed.
After my grandsons finished previewing the new books, I read to them. Evan pointed out Little Critter’s small ironies. Charlie looked at one of the other books, while I read. He always feels the need to “read” a different book while I’m reading to him.
When I finished reading the books, I inscribed their names and February 2022 on the inside of each cover.
My mother-in-law, Audrey Smith, loved learning about her ancestors. During her 60s and 70s, she took genealogy classes, but in her early 80s, early dementia slowed her down. Then a broken femur required surgery and an extended stay at a nursing home. Audrey balked at being in the nursing home. To help her pass the days, I interviewed her about her life. When she returned home, we continued working on her life story, and we used her genealogy research to add stories about her ancestors.
One of Audrey’s favorite relatives was her paternal great-grandmother, Malene Fylling, née Tenfjord. Audrey remembered her great-grandma as “the sweetest old lady” who was always happy to see her. When Audrey traveled with her parents from Superior, Wisconsin, to Crookston, Minnesota, Malene doted on her, giving her cookies, asking her questions, and telling her stories. When Audrey and her parents traveled to Crookston for Christmas, they ate lutefisk cooked by Malene. Audrey’s great-grandparents had a large house, so they put their Christmas tree in the middle of the living room. After dinner the family held hands, circled around the tree, and sang Norwegian and English songs, blending their old world with their new world.
Malene was born in Geiranger, Norway, on September 14, 1863. She had an eighth-grade education. On May 7, 1886, she married John Fylling. They had seven children in Norway, but a daughter died before they emigrated. I wonder what it was like for Malene to know that after she left Norway, she could never again visit her deceased daughter’s grave. After they settled in Crookston, Minnesota, she and John had two more children.
In June 1903, Malene, John, and their six children, ages 16, 12, 10, 7, 3, and 8 months, arrived in Quebec, Canada, on the SS Bavarian, a steamship owned by the Allan Line. Steamships were faster and more comfortable than sail ships, but imagine making a transatlantic crossing with six children. From Quebec they traveled to Winnipeg and applied for permission to enter the United States. Their destination was Crookston, Minnesota, where John’s brother, Ole Fylling, lived. Ole wrote to Malene and John about opportunities in Crookston. For Malene and John, having family in Minnesota eased the pain of leaving their families behind. By 1920, both Malene and John were naturalized citizens.
Economic hardship motivated Malene and John to immigrate to America. During the second half of the 1800s, Norway’s economy deteriorated. Steamships made it easier for Europeans to immigrate but also caused widespread unemployment among Norway’s shipbuilders, dockhands, and sailors. Farmers, who never had an easy time in Norway, were undercut by low-priced grain from Europe because of cheap transportation. Audrey often said, “The Norwegians had nothing but rocks.” She heard this repeatedly from her Norwegian relatives, who told her how difficult farming was in Norway.
Malene was forty when she came to Minnesota, but she learned to speak English. Her status on the U.S. Census was always “wife” and “homemaker.” She didn’t need to work outside the home that she and John owned by 1910. John worked as a carpenter and later had a small grocery store. After John died in 1937 at seventy-three, one of his sons ran the store. Another son and a son-in-law owned a creamery. Their youngest daughter became a bookkeeper and worked for the public school system then at her brother’s creamery. At a time when marriage was the usual occupation for women, their daughters married well and had comfortable lives. Malene and John’s dreams of a better life in Minnesota, for themselves and their children became reality.
Malene stayed in the family home after John’s death but later lived with one of her daughters in Crookston. She died in 1960 at ninety-seven. Her funeral was held at Trinity Lutheran Church, and she was buried with family at Oakdale Cemetery in Crookston.
Years later Malene and John’s home was either razed or moved (along with other homes) because the Red Lake River, which ran behind their home, flooded so often. “Imagine living on the bank of a river—a good-sized river—and watching those kids,” Audrey said—shuddering as she pictured Malene raising children near the river. But, Malene never lost any of her children to the river. Her census status as “wife” and “homemaker” may not be exciting family history, but Malene was an important force in the lives of three generations of children, most of whom made Minnesota their permanent home.
When I finished interviewing Audrey, I organized and typed up her stories. She had loads of wonderful photographs of her ancestors and family, so I was able to scan photos and add them to the book I made for her. When I finished, I took my file to a local printing shop, and they printed it on 8 ½ x 11 paper and spiral bound it. It was 257 pages. When I presented it to my mother-in-law, she thumbed through it, then looked up at me with tears in her eyes. “I can’t believe you did all this for me,” she said.
“It was fun working with you on this,” I answered. What I should have told her was that she’d been the best mother-in-law a daughter-in-law could have. But neither of us were good with sentimental speeches. And we were both already choking back tears. A year later she passed away, about a month before her 87th birthday. When she started taking all those genealogy classes, it had been her dream to write a family history. I have so many fond memories of Audrey, but working with her to complete her book is my fondest memory.
When I take my grandkids for a walk, they stroll and run along the city sidewalks, and with a child’s imagination, they turn each walk into an adventure. On an outing last October, they each picked a small bouquet of dandelions, Indian paintbrushes, and tiny yellow flowers from lawns overdue for a trim.
After we returned home, I put each child’s bouquet in its own bud vase and placed them around my kitchen. My five-year-old grandson had a prolific bouquet, so his vase stood on the kitchen table. By the next afternoon, the dandelions and Indian paintbrushes boarded themselves up like roadside stands at the end of the season, and the tiny yellow flowers discarded their petals like ticket stubs after a rock concert. I tossed the bouquets.
A couple of days later my sister sent me a large yellow, orange, and red autumn-themed bouquet of flowers, a mix of daisies, a rose, and a sunflower. I placed it on the kitchen table.
Two days later my grandkids returned to visit. My five-year-old grandson walked by the large bouquet on my kitchen table, paused, then said, “I guess my flowers really grew.”
I gave him the facts—his flowers had died and were thrown in the garbage; these flowers were from my sister. He moved on and played with blocks on the living room floor.
Later I told my sister about his belief that his flowers had grown into the bouquet she’d sent. She hoped I hadn’t told him the truth, but I had. I’d been the Grinch before his heart grew, Scrooge before the Christmas ghosts visited, Joe Friday with the cold, hard facts.
Instead of entering my grandson’s world where it was possible for a handful of tiny flowers to grow into a substantial bouquet of large flowers, I used words like died and garbage. I’d become the eight-year-old neighbor boy who told me and my sister when we were five and four years old that there was no Santa Claus. I can still see him standing at the side of his house telling us Santa wasn’t real. My sister and I argued with him, but he clung to his story. We tried to believe after that, but we couldn’t—not even when our mother assured us the boy was wrong and Santa was real.
But if I’d gone along with Evan’s belief that his flowers had grown, he would’ve bragged to his older siblings, who would’ve set him straight.
He would’ve come back and asked, “Nana, did my flowers really grow big?”
If I’d said, “Yes, they did,” he would’ve doubted me, weighing what I said against what his siblings said, just like my sister and I weighed what my mother said about Santa against what the boy next door said.
If I’d said, “No, they didn’t,” he would’ve asked, “Then why did you say they did?”
But I still felt bad—I’d squelched a magical moment for him and replaced it with reality.
But the five-year-old wasn’t done. A couple of weeks later, he asked me, “Nana, did my flowers at least get big before they died and you threw them away?”
With the Grinch, Scrooge, and Joe Friday as my wingmen, I explained, “The type of flowers you picked don’t get any bigger than when you picked them. But they’re beautiful flowers and an important part of nature even if they’re small.”
However, if he ever asks me if Santa is real, I’m going to lie through my teeth and say, “Yes, he is.”
My nana, Katherine Karius Stern Stamper, wore dresses and stockings. Born January 22, 1915, she didn’t believe in pants, declaring ladies didn’t wear them. In the mid-1970s, my mother (her daughter) bought her a coordinating outfit consisting of a pair of pants and a short-sleeve shirt. She informed my mother she wouldn’t wear it. My mother told her to just wear it at home. Soon Nana began wearing the pants and matching shirt in public. It became her favorite outfit. She looked adorable in it, and she knew it.
Nana still wore plenty of dresses and skirts.
Before she sat on the park bench, where someone snapped this picture, she would’ve dressed in her tiny pink bathroom, a fascinating place to me because of its laundry chute and the intricately embroidered scene of an English cottage and garden that hung on the wall. My sisters and I surreptitiously tossed toys down the chute, then skedaddled to the basement to retrieve them from the laundry basket until Nana said, “Stop the shenanigans!” The embroidered scene was a gift from her oldest sister Margaret. Nana didn’t do crafts; although in her sixties, she took a watercolor class and painted flowers and butterflies—but not convincingly.
Because my sisters and I visited Nana, who lived in Milwaukee, for three or four days at a time, I often watched her get-gussied-up-to-meet-the-world routine. We were allowed to wander in and out of the bathroom while she got ready.
First, Nana put on white, ordinary undergarments. She spent her money, but never frivolously, on fashion the public could see, not on fancy underwear that never showed from beneath her clothes.
Next, she slipped bobby pins from her pin-curled hair and brushed the tight coils into luscious waves of Nice’n Easy-dyed tresses, replicating the reddish-brown color from her youth. She pulled her white turtleneck over her loose curls then used her fingers to reshape them. She had sensitivities to most makeup, but she powdered her face to cover up a faded scar on her cheek. When she was a young woman, she’d been in a car accident and was cut by a piece of glass.
With care she rolled her pantyhose over her feet, easing them up her legs to avoid causing a runner. As part of a school assignment, I once asked her, “What’s the greatest invention of your lifetime?” Without a moment’s reflection, she answered, “Pantyhose.” Having used a garter belt the first time I wore nylons at my fourth-grade Christmas concert, I knew her answer wasn’t frivolous. Nearly finished she stepped into her skirt and fastened it at her back.
Finally, she looked into the mirror. Holding a tube of lipstick in her hand, she applied a shade between pink and red to her lips. She never left the house without lipstick. Face powder was the only other makeup she wore. But she needed none. Her high cheekbones, arched eyebrows, cocoa-brown eyes, and flawless complexion were of the quality that described a beautiful lady in a nineteenth-century novel.
Her last act before emerging from the bathroom was to blot her lips with a square of toilet paper, which she’d saved from the end of the roll. She was a child of the Great Depression. She called it tissue paper because she had sensibilities about what she termed “potty talk.” She folded the white square in half, parted her lips and placed the tissue between them, then pressed them together. She opened the tissue and admired the pink shaped lips she left behind. The best ones she stored on a shelf in the linen closet, small squares of vanity resting behind a closed door.
Smelling of soap, face powder, and freshly applied lipstick, Nana emerged–a butterfly from the cocoon of her snug, pink bathroom. She was ready for an outing.
We might go to Sherman Park to play, the same park my mother and her brother played at when they were children. She pushed us on the swings and sang “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Nearly a mile-and-a-half from Nana’s house, the park was a long walk for small children, so she splurged on bus fare.
On the way home, we’d stop at St. John de Nepomuc Catholic Church. In the 1960s and early ’70s, its doors were always unlocked. Nana led us into the church lit only by sunlight filtering through the stained-glass windows and candles burning near the alter. Like ducklings we followed her, imitating her moves. She would genuflect and make the sign of the cross before entering a pew, and we would genuflect and make the sign of the cross before entering the pew. She knelt on the kneeler; we knelt on the kneeler. She prayed, we prayed. I never asked Nana what she prayed about. I figured she prayed for her dead husband and her dead nephew, for she often talked about them. I prayed about whatever was bothering me that week. Catholicism, God, and Baby Jesus were very important to her. My sisters and I weren’t Catholic. My mother left the Church to marry a Presbyterian, but we didn’t practice Presbyterianism either. Nana neither asked about our church-going habits nor tried to convert us to Catholicism, and my mother never fussed about our side trips into St. John’s.
We might go to the grocery store. On the way there, my sister and I took turns pulling our little sister in a wagon. Nana never learned to drive. She walked or rode the city bus. On the way home, she pulled the wagon containing our sister and a bag of groceries, and my sister and I each carried another bag. On a hot summer day, the city became an urban desert. Heat rose off the concrete and choked the air as our small caravan traveled along the city blocks. Burdened with a sack of groceries and oppressed by the temperature, I spit like an angry camel: “It’s too hot. Can’t we rest? Why can’t the groceries ride in the wagon and Suzanne walk?” Nana wouldn’t stop or put my sister out of the wagon. She ignored me until I drove her crazy, then she’d snap, “Be quiet!” Nana never told anyone to shut up, a phrase she considered too rude, even for the devil.
If we were lucky, we went to George Webb’s for a hamburger, a rare treat on her tight budget. We always wanted to sit at the counter because the stools spun around, but Nana never let us. There were four of us. “Counters,” she said, “are for customers who eat alone.” She held different jobs over the years, but from my earliest memory until she retired, she worked as a waitress in a series of small diners and restaurants. Her last job was at the Perkins Pancake House on Wisconsin Avenue. She worked there for thirteen years, retiring when she was sixty-eight. The family who owned the restaurant adored her.
On our outings people often complimented “her beautiful children.” She always thanked them, and never corrected them, and neither did we. It was fun to share an inside joke with her. Later on, she would tell my mother how many times that day someone had assumed she was our mother instead of our nana.
She never told people how old she was, but if someone was tactless enough to ask, she’d say, “A lady never tells her age.” Today, if she were still alive, she’d be 107 years old. I like to think that if she’d lived that long, instead of being cryptic about her age, she would brag about it while wearing a pair of pants and asking how we all survived the toilet paper shortage during the big pandemic.
[Bloganuary wants to know. It’s the WordPress blog prompt for January 21, 2022.]
I’d pick a summer day in 1950 when my mother was ten and her brother was eight. They lived in Milwaukee in a middle-class neighborhood about ten blocks from A.O. Smith, a large manufacturing plant.
The sun would shine, the temperature would be 75°, and the breeze would be slight.
I’d go out to play with my mother, her brother, and their friends. We’d run down the sidewalks on our way to Sherman Park or maybe Washington Park. We’d ride the bus at least one way because Washington Park is two-and-a-half miles from their house. At the parks we’d swim, play baseball, and swing. If we saved bus fare, we’d buy a treat at the concession stand.
Maybe we’d stay home and play games of tag through the front yards, up and down the block. Or games of cops and robbers or army, escaping through backyards by climbing fences or slipping through gates. Or games of hide-and-seek, hoping not to be the first one found.
We’d sit on the front stoop of someone’s house and drink a cold lemonade squeezed from lemons and sweetened with sugar.
Refreshed, we’d play hopscotch or jacks or marbles. If someone ran home to grab a section of clothesline, we’d jump rope and chant, “Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear” or “I’m a Little Dutch Girl” or “I Went Downtown.”
I’d know all the games and songs because an older child teaches a younger child. Ever notice that we don’t learn these from our parents?
We’d call each other by our childhood nicknames, squabble about the rules of games, laugh at our silly antics.
Maybe we’d go home with skinned knees or elbows, wouldn’t matter because we’d spent the day together. We’d eat our dinner and wash the dishes. We’d sit on the floor in front the radio and listen to Jack Benny, The Lone Ranger, or The Green Hornet.
If I could travel back in time, I’d pick that warm summer day in 1950 and play with my mother and her brother because Oh, what larks! to play with your mother and your favorite uncle when they were children.