Day 20—Earrings with a Back Problem

Today’s earrings are gold with amethyst gems. I accessorized them with a mask while shopping for winter boots for my grandkids. Every time I put on my mask or removed it, I was careful not to catch an earring on the elastic strap. I found boots for my grandkids and kept both earrings in place. It was a good day.

My husband bought these earrings for me in 1984 before we married. I like their old-fashioned style. I used to wear them a lot, but until today, I hadn’t worn them in years.

Shortly after he gave them to me, I found one on the floor behind the bar where I worked. I didn’t feel it slip from my ear. It was the second time I lost one. The first time I found both the earring and the back. This time I only found the earring. I put the earrings in my purse to keep them safe.

The next day I went to the jewelry store where my future husband bought the earrings. I told the jeweler that I loved the earrings but was afraid to wear them because the earrings kept falling out of my ears. I was angry because the backs kept falling off. They were supposed to keep the earrings in place.

Flimsy, cheaply-made backs too weak to grasp the posts were the problem. So, the jeweler sold me a pair of sturdy backs that gripped the posts like a macho handshake. He told me to wear them with all my post earrings. I told him I was glad I hadn’t lost an earring because of the cheaply-made backs. I told him the backs that came with the earrings should’ve stayed in place. I told him I didn’t think someone should have to buy backs after buying a pair of earrings that came with backs.

But I still use those sturdy backs on all my post earrings.

After my nana died in 2003, I was given her amethyst ring. I don’t remember seeing the ring in Nana’s jewelry box when I was young. My sisters and I were captivated by her jewelry when we were young. We’d hold a piece and she’d tell us its story. The gold wedding bands from her first marriage. A gold cross and chain. Rosary beads. Rings. Necklaces. Earrings. Nothing extravagant, but all with a memory she cherished. Stories told again and again.

I thought Nana inherited the amethyst ring from one of her sisters, but my sister thinks Nana bought the ring for herself because she loved amethyst and the color purple. Either way, the earrings and ring look like they were destined to be together.

I’ve been wearing the ring since last week, and twice my five-year-old grandson has said, “Nana, I really like your ring.”

“This ring belonged to my nana,” I told him.

“Really? That’s nice,” he said. We looked at the ring. It’s important to share stories.

When I saw him today, I should’ve asked him if he liked my matching earrings.

Day 13—My Diamond Studs Get Jackets

Earring jackets. The posts go through the small holes at the top.

Yesterday I wrote about my husband surprising me with diamond earrings for Christmas.

He had one more bit of jewelry magic up his sleeve. When he bought my earrings at Christmas, the salesperson told him about jackets for stud earrings. Yes, it’s the Northland. Winters are cold around here. Diamond earrings need jackets, don’t ya know.

My earrings got their jackets in March, when I had my birthday. March is plenty cold, so jackets were appropriate. When I opened them, he called them something so cute that I wish I could remember what it was, but it wasn’t jackets. He had substituted some other word.

I remember my oldest son called the grill a congrilla. And on warm summer days, he’d ask me, “Can we get Grandpa George and cook something on the congrilla?” If I had time, we’d get something from the store to grill then pick up his great-grandpa George. My son still loves to grill. Sometimes I still use the word congrilla for grill.

I remember my youngest son, when he was about five, would announce, “I’m thirty.”

“You’re thirty?” I’d ask.

“No, I’m thirty,” he’d say.

“Oh, you’re thirty,” I’d say.

“No, I’m thirty,” he’d say, getting frustrated and near tears.

“Oh, you’re thirsty,” I’d say.

“Yes!” he’d say, relieved his mother finally understood.

I know. I was bad. But he still talks to me.

When my grandkids ask me for a drink of water, I ask them if they’re thirty. “No,” they’ll say, “we’re not that old.” I laugh and give them water. They look at me like I’m the Madwoman of Chaillot.

I wish I could remember what my husband called the earring jackets because his word was better. But he only said it once. It didn’t become part of an Abbot and Costello routine between us. So, the word is in my brain, but the pathway to retrieve it is permanently corrupted. But the imagine of him presenting me with the elegant jackets for my Christmas earrings remains. And so does the moment of humor, even without remembering the funny word.

Belt Safari

[Note: I wrote the rough draft for this essay last August. This August I dusted it off and polished it up because the event still makes me smile. And because sometimes, I procrastinate!]

I pull on my shorts and turn to grab the belt from the blue jeans I wore yesterday.

Empty belt loops stare at me.

I look on the floor, under the bed, and on the hook in the bathroom. No belt. I search the living room and my closet. No belt. I rummage through a load of clothes in the washing machine. No belt. I’m now looking in places I know I won’t find it, but I’m desperate. It’s my favorite belt, and it’s reversible—brown on one side, black on the other, an accessory with dual functionality.

I’m shocked that I can’t find it. It’s not one of those wide belts from the 1980s, resembling a four-lane highway, but it’s still forty inches long and three-quarters of an inch wide—bigger than the earring I lost for two months, then found in the bottom of the dishwasher. I don’t look for my belt in the dishwasher.

I wonder: Is my brain short-circuiting? Am I in a science-fiction movie? Did my grandkids put it somewhere?

I can’t blame my grandkids because I was wearing the belt yesterday when their mom picked them up. But I want to; it would be easier. When I was a child, anything my parents couldn’t find was blamed on my siblings and me. Convinced we usurped the item and lost it, they yelled, “Find it, right now.” While this was occasionally true about the kitchen scissors or pencils or the clean clothes we hid in my sister’s closet because we hadn’t folded them, it wasn’t true about some things my parents couldn’t find—like random pieces of mail from the stack by the phone. But unable to find my belt, which has vanished, I understand my parents’ belief that the unexplained disappearance of an object must involve children.

My grandsons, Evan, almost four, and, Charlie, almost two, arrive. The belt search must wait. I tell myself, Go about your day and the belt will reveal itself. I hope it doesn’t take two months like my earring. I’m still not looking in the dishwasher.

Distracted by busy toddlers, I forget about the belt, for the most part. Still, in brief interludes, I search where I’ve already searched. The absurdity of looking again and again on the floor, under the bed, and on the hook in the bathroom isn’t lost on me. I even look in the belt loops of pants I didn’t wear yesterday. There’s a line I won’t cross—I don’t look in the dishwasher. If I had time, I’d have a meltdown, but Evan and Charlie provide too many diversions.

“Look at this, Nana,” Evan says.

“Hi, Nana,” Charlie says.

“Can you read me a story?”

“Eat, eat.”

“Can you put new batteries in my train?”

“Di-dy.” Charlie’s pooped his diaper.

“Nana, I hafta go potty.”

“Outside?”

“Can I watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse?”

“Me thirsty.”

Variations of these conversations go on all morning and into the afternoon. When Charlie takes a nap, my work load is halved, and I wonder about my belt.

“Evan, help Nana look for her belt.”

“Okay, where is it?” he asks.

“It’s lost.”

“Why?”

“Because I can’t find it.”

“Why?”

Evan’s interested in finding the belt, but he’s asking why a lot more than he’s looking. I open my junk drawer, find a small pen flashlight, and turn it on.

“Evan, take the flashlight and look under the couch and behind the couch for my belt.” I know he won’t find it, but I hope to slow his jabbering, so I can concentrate on finding my belt.

He accepts the flashlight like he’s Luke Skywalker and I’m Obi Wan Kenobi, and I’ve handed him a light saber. (Flashlights fascinated my siblings and me when we were little, and thinking about it, I remember my parents looking for those too.) Evan wields the light in corners, under furniture, and in closets. He keeps asking, “Why did you lose your belt, Nana?” He’s looking for my belt in places where it won’t be found. But the belt has inexplicably vanished, so maybe it’ll turn up in a place that defies logic.

While Evan is brandishing the penlight, I retrace my steps from last night, hoping to jog my memory. Nothing comes to mind.

After fifteen minutes of looking everywhere but the family room where Charlie is sleeping, Evan’s fascination with his light saber wanes, and I can’t think of anywhere else to look. We pass the rest of his brother’s naptime with books, blocks, and Evan’s occasional, “Why did you lose your belt, Nana?”

When Charlie wakes up, he’s surly. The three of us go outside because fresh air improves Charlie’s mood. We walk across the deck, descend the stairs, and traipse across the grass on our way to get toys from the shed.

I spot a long, brown entity stretched out tip to tail in the grass, sunning itself under the warm afternoon July sky after last night’s cool rain.

“My belt,” I shout.

“Where, Nana?” Evan asks.

“There.” I point. “Sunning itself like a snake in the grass.”

Similar to video replay, it comes back to me, what I couldn’t conjure up earlier when I tried.

I dozed off last night while watching TV, and when I rose to go to bed, my dog decided she wanted to go potty. But I had to go first. When I finished, I pulled up my jeans but didn’t zip or button them or buckle my belt. I was tired and figured I’d just have to undo it again in a couple of minutes. I went outside with the dog, who piddled, then I went back inside to bed, but not before my belt slithered onto the grass.

“Why is it in the grass?” Evan asks.

“It fell out of my belt loops last night when I took the dog outside.”

“Why did it fall out?”

I explain.

“Nana, was your belt really a snake in the grass?” he asks.

“Yes, a sneaky snake sunning itself so it could dry off because it spent all night in the rain.”

“But was it really a snake?”

“No,” I say, “but do you think it’s fun to pretend it’s a snake?”

“Yes.” His face grins in all directions. He asks me to tell him the story again. He wants all the details. He’s sorting out what happened and why. I’m not sure what Evan learns from my experience, but he never laughs at me or asks me why I didn’t buckle my belt or zip and button my pants.

I learned I should buckle my belt when I leave the house. And, I maintained some dignity—I never looked in the dishwasher.

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.]

Refracted

Split Rock Lighthouse stands along the western shore of Lake Superior, atop a soaring cliff. Dressed in cream-colored brick and elegant trim more fitting for a grand house in a genteel neighborhood, it once worked as a watchman holding a luminous light, warning ships about rocky shores at its feet.

My grandchildren at Split Rock Lighthouse, late October 2017

It’s a crisp late-October morning. The last day of the season before the lighthouse shutters for the year. From an expansive autumn-blue sky, sunshine washes the landscape in gold. The temperature wanders just north of forty-five degrees. The air breathes softly.

My granddaughter, six, and grandson, four, are with me. It’s their first visit to the lighthouse. Because it’s a weekday and almost the last day the lighthouse will entertain visitors for the year, we are nearly alone on the grounds.

We climb the twisting steps of the lighthouse, just the three of us. We are quiet, and with nothing to arrest my attention, other than the shuffle of feet on the stairs, I travel decades back in time.

My father, my sisters, and I climb the stairs. My father has come to see the Fresnel lens, and we are his pupils. Some of his words wend down the tower: France, prisms, refraction, illumination, fog, storms. But his lesser words are swallowed by the voices of other tourists. His face points up toward the lens; my sisters and I are in tow behind him.

My granddaughter leads the way, followed by my grandson, then me. I’m the caboose, better, I think, to catch them if they slip. I’m not interested in touting the wonders of the Fresnel lens. I leave them to their thoughts as they ascend the stairs, and I return to mine.

At twelve, I’m content to let my father’s explanations about the lens waft past my ears. I imagine the lightkeeper climbing the stairs during a howling storm to ensure the beacon shines across roiling waves of the frigid lake. I fancy the lightkeeper manning the signal house to ensure the horn bellows over icy waters while dense fog unfurls across an eerily still lake. I remember my father’s words about Lake Superior, mostly spoken to my frightened mother as he would fly us over a corner of the lake, “You’ll die of hypothermia before you’ll drown.” I ponder the number of sailors the lighthouse spared from freezing to death before they could drown.

I’ve no idea if my fancies about a lightkeeper’s duties are accurate, but I measure life as a lightkeeper’s daughter against life with my father.

Sometimes my father is a martinet. My siblings and I endeavor to read his barometric pressure and side-step his thunderclouds. We learned early to listen carefully.

He’s an extraordinary mechanic. His hands tinker, build, tune, modify, rig, experiment, adapt. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, planes, appliances. All engineering feats, great and small, captivate him. He wants us to be enthralled. But my fascination is for the people who lived and worked at the lighthouse on the prodigious cliff. I crave the stories of people. Lake Superior, which, if it had the chance, would freeze me to death before swallowing me, enchants me. My father doesn’t notice my attention has wandered because he’s hammering the tour guide with his knowledge of the brilliant lens.

“Oh, wow,” my grandson says, exhaling the words as a brief, but reverent Gregorian chant. He’s caught his first glimpse of the Fresnel lens gleaming in sunlight spilling through the windows. He stops and stares. The echo of his chant swirls around the tower.

Years ago, my father expressed his amazement of the lens with descriptions of its design and function. My grandson captures his admiration in two words. But at this moment, although they’ll never meet, they’re tethered together across four generations, both of them mesmerized by a triumph of engineering designed to mitigate the angry moods of the lake. I see my father through the eyes of my grandson’s wonderment, and he becomes a curious four-year-old boy, instead of an ill-tempered adult. And I ponder what he might have said about the enormous, glistening lens had he seen it as a four-year-old boy. Their shared veneration softens prickly memories of my father. I can’t picture him as a little boy and be angry with him at the same time.

With the massive lens above me, I stand at the top of the lighthouse, peering out at Lake Superior and hear my father’s voice, She’ll freeze you before she’ll drown you.

I know, I answer, but, still, I love her.

Spur of the Moment

[Two Harbors, Minnesota, is 27 miles from Duluth, Minnesota. A drive along Scenic Highway 61 on the way to Two Harbors is filled with spectacular views of Lake Superior and its shoreline. Two Harbors snuggles up to the lake and offers a day’s worth or more of outside adventures, museums, and good food.]

May 21, 2021

If I don’t have plans for the weekend, Friday evening looms like a desert with me standing at the edge sans camel or water or compass. And since the pandemic started, my “plans” consist of shopping for people food or dog food, so I wander the shifting sands of the weekend looking for an oasis.

This Friday when my daughter-in-law arrives to pick up my grandkids, I ask if Clara, nine, may spend the night. Her mom agrees, and Clara agrees, performing a double-fist pump while jumping up and down.

Our official sleepover starts the moment her mother pulls out of the driveway with Clara’s three younger brothers. We walk the dogs. We pick up take-and-bake pizza. After supper I answer some emails, and Clara makes a necklace. After her beads are strung, I take out my jewelry-making supplies and attach a clasp to her necklace. Clara says, “Nana, it’s so quiet.” And it is. My husband’s gone to the driving range, so the TV is off, and her brothers are at home. “Does that bother you?” I ask. She answers, “No, it’s wonderful.” We laugh. I wonder if her double-fist pump had something to do with ditching her brothers for twenty-four hours.

We walk the dogs, again. We talk about our road trip to Two Harbors in the morning. We treat it like an adventure: rough out a few details but declare to take it as it comes.

After our walk, it’s bedtime. I read Clara a story; she reads me a story. Listening to her read is like stirring a teaspoon of farmer’s-market honey into a cup of hot, fragrant tea. I tuck her in, and she turns out the light. I join my husband in the family room. He’s seated closer to the bedroom door and hears Clara reading. She’s turned the light back on and is reading out loud, perhaps to the teddy bear she took with her to bed. As a child I used a flashlight to read when I was supposed to be sleeping. I let her be.

May 22, 2021

In the morning I’m up at six o’clock. Clara sleeps in. Afterall, she did some clandestine reading last night. She emerges from her room at nine o’clock.

After breakfast, we walk the dogs. They’ll have to stay home, so I tell Clara we owe them some fun before we hit the road. She’s all for this because we’ve been using my pedometer app to count steps.

We talk about the anticipated weather. The temperature will climb just above 50˚, the sun will hide behind clouds, and there’s a chance rain will drip from the sky. But we aren’t discouraged because Lake Superior isn’t slapping us with a wind off her icy waters. We embrace the weather as an opportunity for style choices in outerwear. She wears a blue animal-print, zip-up, hooded sweatshirt and carries an umbrella festooned with characters from Frozen. “Just in case it rains,” she says. To anchor the outfit, she slips on rain boots covered with retro-styled flowers, á la 1960s.

I wear a Pendleton rain jacket. Candy red with a green plaid lining, it whispers when I move. I pull a gray wool beanie on my head. I stash an umbrella in my backpack because rain or shine, we’re hiking. To anchor my outfit, I tie on comfortable old sneakers, so comfortable that bits of the soles have broken away.

After a cloud-covered drive along Lake Superior’s steel-blue waters, we arrive in Two Harbors and park by Agate Bay. We walk the trail near the shore. Clara’s intrigued by the curved cement seats facing the lake. Each seat has a small sign commemorating someone’s loved one. She stops at every seat, reads every sign, speaks every name out loud. Names of people lifted into the air and out over the rocks and rippling water.

She leads; I follow. We’re up and down narrow paths that lead to basalt covered shores then back to the trail in the forest. Eventually, we spill out onto a beach covered with water-worn rocks. Oliver, a golden retriever the color of copper, is swimming in the lake. His owner tosses a frisbee. He retrieves it, gives it back, sits, and smiles. He asks, “More, please?” His owner answers, “Just a couple more times.” Clara looks for agates and beach glass. I watch Oliver chase his frisbee. He gets more than a couple extra tosses. I knew he would. His smile serves him well. Clara slips a few rocks and some beach glass into her pocket. We decide to go to Burlington Beach. As we hike back to the parking lot, Oliver is still retrieving his frisbee from the lake.

Back at Agate Bay, I ask Clara if she wants to walk on the breakwall before we leave. She does. To our right an ore boat crouches at a dock in the bay. To our left another ore boat approaches then stops outside the bay. Its anchors groan as they drop into the lake to hold the boat in place while it waits its turn for a load of ore. Water shivers along the sides of the breakwall, and Clara says, “It’s colder out here.” I tell her that’s because Lake Superior is very cold. I tell her to walk on the side with the cable-wire fence.

We’re hungry but go to Burlington Beach. After we arrive, a van pulls up and a family fortified with metal detectors heads for the beach. Clara digs in the rocks with her hands and sifts through her quarry. Ten yards away, metal detectors hover over the beach. Clara shouts, “Look, Nana, a green piece of beach glass.” A detector bloops, chirps, and warbles like R2-D2. Clara digs another pit in the rocks. A man stoops, digs, and pulls something from the sand, holds it in his hand, shows it to another detectorist. Clara digs. Metal detectors hover. After pocketing a couple more pieces of beach glass, some granule-sized agates, and a few pretty rocks, Clara says, “I’m really hungry.” Me too. Treasure hunting is hungry work.

McDonald’s. It’s not adventurous, but we can socially distance. We order two small cheeseburgers and two McFlurries to eat in the car. I park and ask Clara to sit in the front passenger seat, so we can visit while eating. She’s not tall enough to ride in the front, so she’s delighted. I’m struck by how pleased she is to sit in the front seat of a vehicle parked at a fast-food restaurant and eat. We watch traffic cruise by, and we talk. Too sweet for me, I eat half my McFlurry and toss the rest. Clara savors hers long after we leave the parking lot, remarking from the back of the van, “This is really good, even all melted.”

Before leaving Two Harbors, we stop at the rooster—think Foghorn Leghorn of Looney Tunes, but taller, eight feet tall. The big red-and-white rooster stands on a wooden platform. Clara poses with him for a picture and notices cracks in his legs. Like a retired football player in his 50s, the rooster’s old injuries are flaring up. I tell Clara the rooster’s story. In 2003, he was kidnapped from his perch and thrown off a bridge, dropping twenty-some feet before splashing into a creek, broken in pieces. But in the end, like a Looney Tunes character, he was put back together. Airline mechanics from Duluth performed cartoon magic and mended his fiberglass body. But time will un-heal old wounds and cracks appear where he was fused together. Neither of us understand the act of hate.

We take the Scenic Highway home because we need to stop at a candy shop and a smokehouse. Sweets and smoked fish are the desserts of our road trip. We wear our masks and wait our turn to enter the shops, which allow only four people at a time. Clara selects the candy to be shared with her brothers. At the smokehouse, I select the fish to be shared with her family and my husband. We’ve enjoyed our road trip and want to share a piece of it with our people: On our trip, we thought of you and brought something for you.

We’re near the outskirts of Duluth, near the end of our road trip, when Clara says, “Nana, this has been the best sleepover ever.” I agree with her. It has been the oasis of my weekend.

Art On!

Clara, my nine-year old granddaughter, has wanted to be an artist, then a scientist, then an artist who is also a scientist. Michael, my seven-year-old grandson, once stated he wanted to be a doctor.

Last week things changed. On Tuesday, Clara wanted to be a scientist. But on Wednesday, she decided to be a fashion designer, and Michael announced he wanted to be an artist.

I didn’t ask questions like, What’s your day job going to be? Or make statements like, I guess you’ll need to learn the phrase, Do you want fries with that?

Clara’s Art
Clara’s Art

Fashion design is a form of art, so Clara hasn’t strayed far. She loves to draw and create art using different media: colored pencils, paint, stickers, beads, sequins, sticks, leaves, fabric. (I’ll stop the list here, or I’ll exceed my word limit.) Michael loves art too and is becoming more experimental and playful.

During Wednesday’s art-at-my-kitchen-table time, Clara drew portraits of people wearing masks. COVID is part of our lives, so I wasn’t surprised to see masks show up in her artwork.

Clara’s Art

“Look, Nana,” she said, holding up the first portrait.

“Very nice and colorful,” I said.

She drew another portrait of a person with a mask, then another.

“Look, at these, Nana.”

“Nice. I like the designs on the masks.”

“Thanks.” She wiggled in her seat and grinned. “I’m going to be a fashion designer and design masks and hats.”

“Your designs will turn masks and hats into art people can wear,” I said. She liked this idea.

Michael’s Art
Michael’s Art

She began drawing people wearing colorful hats but no masks, and said, “It’s easier to draw people wearing masks because drawing a mouth is hard.” I agreed with her, mouths are hard.

Michael drew one portrait, then used stencils to create an intergalactic scene and whimsical hodge-podge. Much of his artwork is scenic.

Michael’s Art

Evan, my four-year-old grandson, is into drawing beings that look like creatures. He’s discovered he likes colored pencils over crayons because his older siblings use them. He drew a doleful creature with a frazzled mouth, then left the table to play with toys.

Evan’s Art

I babysit my grandkids three days a week, and when they’re here, we make time for art. Whether it’s a drawing project or a project involving supplies and the hot glue gun, the grandkids enjoy creating.

Next week or next month, my grandkids may have new career choices, but we’ll still have art-at-my-kitchen-table time. Art develops imagination, spatial awareness, and problem-solving skills. But best of all, their faces are full of joy when they hold up their artwork and say, “Look at this, Nana.”

Art-on!

Butterfly Story

[Author’s note: In the summer of 2019, I took care of my grandkids, and we went to the Superior Public Library once or twice a week. During the summer of 2020, the pandemic and social distancing kept us at home and playing outside.]

Three grandkids, five days a week, seven hours a day, and a limited budget summed up my summer days in 2019. Anything free was good, so when the Superior Public Library hosted a free presentation about monarch butterflies, I took Clara, almost eight; Michael, six; and Evan, almost three.

The presenter discussed butterflies and their stages of life. Clara who loves nature, absorbed every word. Later, she remarked, “That was a really good presentation.” Michael listened intently, too. But Evan scampered from chair to chair. Finally, I took his hand and retreated to the Children’s Library with him.

Before the butterfly talk, Clara and her brother, Michael, spotted plastic cups lined up on the table. Each cup’s rim supported a chrysalis suspended from a stick.

“Nana, can we take one home?” Clara asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Your mom has a lot on her plate with school and work.”

I didn’t know the presenter would be giving away flying insects. Vibrant colors and eye-catching patterns aside, a butterfly is a flying insect.

“Can we keep it at your house?” Clara is the Princess of Plan-B Solutions.

“No, what if it emerges when I’m sleeping?” I imagined the butterfly carousing through my house and dive-bombing my head in the morning while I drank coffee.

“Monarchs move slowly after they emerge,” the presenter said, “and the chrysalis will turn nearly black before the butterfly emerges, so you’ll be prepared.” The presenter wasn’t siding with me—he had cups and cups of future butterflies to pass along.

Clara looked wistful and dejected at the same time. I couldn’t tell her I was afraid to look a butterfly in the eye. It could’ve been worse—she liked spiders too. If the presentation had been about spiders, we might have been offered a spider’s egg sac.

“Okay,” I said, “we’ll keep it at my house.”

“Yay.” Clara celebrated with a double fist pump. Michael grinned.

After the presentation we took the chrysalis home, and I set it on my kitchen table. Each time Clara, Michael, and Evan came over, we checked the chrysalis for any sign of blackness.

A few weeks later, instead of greeting me with good morning, my husband said, “That butterfly flew out of its cup while I was eating breakfast. Scared the heck out of me.”

“What did you do with it?” I asked.

“I put the cup in front of it, and it walked back in the cup,” he said. “I put a piece of paper toweling over the cup.” I remembered the presenter saying a newly emerged butterfly moved slowly.

An hour later while I ate breakfast, the butterfly knocked the paper towel off the cup and flew down to the floor. I screamed. My heart thumped. I used my husband’s cup technique. The butterfly walked into the cup, which I took outside and placed on the patio table.

Fifteen minutes later, my grandkids arrived. They dashed up the side stairs and onto the deck. I went outside to greet them. The butterfly, still on the patio table, basked in the sun.

“Look,” I said, “the monarch hatched.”

Beating wings interrupted their oohs and aahs as the butterfly took flight up and over the roof of the house.

“Our butterfly waited to see you before it flew away,” I said.

Clara nodded knowingly.

“Yeah, it really did,” Michael said.

In the weeks that followed, every time Clara, Michael, Evan, and I saw a monarch butterfly in my yard, I said, “Look, it’s our butterfly.”

One day, Clara, my little naturalist, set me straight. “You know, Nana, there are more monarchs around here than just ours!”

[I orignally wrote this story in 2019 for my grandkids and included picutres of them and the butterfly with the story. I printed a copy for each them and stapled the pages together. They each enjoyed having their own “book” about our butterfly experience.]

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.

Cold-Weather Book Buying during a Pandemic

Superior, WI, Monday, February 8, 2021, 7:00 p.m., -5˚F, Windchill -15˚

Cabela, 77 in human years, nestles on the right side of the couch. Ziva, 66 in human years, nestles on the left side. I’m 61, yep, in human years, and sitting at my desk, joining a virtual author chat hosted by Honest Dog Books in Bayfield, Wisconsin, an hour-and-a-half away.

Ziva (in front) and Cabela on a warm summer day in 2020.

It’s excessively cold outside, which explains why the dogs and I aren’t going for a walk. At our combined age of 204 years, our enthusiasm for walking at night in subzero temperatures has ebbed, so this evening we’re opting for warm intellectual stimulation.

We’re going to listen to two authors talk about their books set in immensely cold parts of the world, places that make the western tip of Lake Superior feel like a tropical vacation destination, even in winter. Miniature snowballs of marshmallows bob in a cup of hot cocoa warming my hands. On the couch the dogs remain curled up in heat-conserving positions. While other attendees join the author chat, I leave my seat to slip on a pair of thick wool socks over my flimsy book-themed socks.

Andrea Pitzer (Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World) lives in Washington, D.C., and Blair Braverman (Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube) lives in northeastern Wisconsin. Around another 140 people join the event. Miles and even time zones apart, we’re all together this evening listening to Pitzer talk about her narrative nonfiction book and Braverman talk about her memoir. Because both authors and the audience are having a good time, the authors, along with most of the audience, stay another fifteen minutes or so before calling it a night.

Superior, WI, Tuesday, February 9, 2021, 1:00 p.m., 3˚, Windchill -14˚

The polar vortex, having parked its big-mass front over much of the country, intends to overstay its welcome for at least another eight or nine days. In search of relief, I make plans to call Honest Dog Books and order both deep-freeze books from last night’s talk. (Books always make me feel better.) During this arctic cold front, I could read books set in warm locations, but I decide it takes daring to read books set in the Arctic where winter submerges itself in darkness. I’ll also need more hot cocoa, another pair of wool socks, and a flannel-backed quilt.

I could order the books via Honest Dog’s website, but I miss going into bookstores. I bypass technology, which allowed last night’s virtual gathering, considered futuristic when I was in high school, and call the bookstore.

“Is it okay if I order books by phone instead of using your website?” I ask.

“Oh yes, certainly,” the clerk answers.

I miss perusing locally-owned bookstores, places where the books I pile on the counter to buy become catalysts for conversation, places where clerks are as thrilled to talk about books as I am.

I order Icebound. And we discuss Pitzer’s research methods.

I order Ice Cube. It’s one of the clerk’s favorites.

I order The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. He wasn’t at last night’s author chat, but I’ve heard him talk about his book (another online experience). I don’t usually read young-adult novels, and I don’t read fantasy novels. But my pandemic-mode response to life has been to be more adventurous.

I order first one, then two, then three Valentine-themed packages of chocolates. The clerk and I chuckle each time I increase my chocolate order. (Chocolate also makes me feel better.)

The clerk and I talk for seventeen minutes. More than half our conversation is about books. After I hang up, I feel like I’ve had a near-small-bookstore experience. I smile.

Superior, WI, Thursday, February 11, 2021, 3:30 p.m., -1˚, Windchill -13˚

At three o’clock the mail arrives, and my nine-year-old granddaughter retrieves it.

“Nana,” she says, dashing up the stairs, “you got a package.”

My four grandkids, ages two-and-a-half to nine, know boxes arriving in the mail have potential.

As soon as I say, my books, the older grandkids lose interest.

I lift the books from the box and lay them on the kitchen table. The two-and-a-half-year-old, with the speed and dexterity of the Artful Dodger, seizes one and runs into the living room.

“This my book, Nana, this my book,” he says, with the cadence of a parrot.

“That’s Nana’s book,” I say.

“No, Nana, this my book. This my book, Nana.” He sits on the couch and looks at the cover.

He’s grabbed Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. I’m certainly not telling him the name of the book. In my mind I can hear his parrot-like repetition of the title. I can hear his parents ask me, What did you say to Charlie?

“That book doesn’t have pictures,” I say.

The mention of pictures redirects his attention, and he exchanges my book for a children’s book on the coffee table.

I retrieve my book and place it on my bookshelf. By six o’clock the grandkids will be gone. By seven o’clock, I’m planning on hot cocoa, a quilt, one of those deep-freeze books, and at least one piece of the Valentine-themed chocolates from my hidden stash.

[Check out Honest Dog’s upcoming author chats at http://honestdogbooks.com/events/]