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Our family had an ice fishing house many years ago. I’m giving a lot of credit here by using the word “house”. It was actually a little tar paper shack, big enough to fit a couple of folding camp stools and a small wood-burning stove which surrounded a hole in the floor, which surrounded a hole drilled into the ice. Even as a kid, I loved to fish, but I loved to drive the snowmobile more, and would go like the wind, staying close to shore and avoiding the spot where the creek met the lake. That spot never quite froze all the way over. I stayed close to shore not because I was told to, but because being on a frozen lake has always given me the heebie-jeebies. In case you didn’t know, even solidly frozen ice on a lake can creak and groan like an old Farm Woman attempting to get out of bed on a cold winter’s morning. My fears also stem from the time that a family friend went ice fishing and the car broke through the ice. Knowing that his car was going down, he tossed his son through the window to safety. Thankfully, all of them survived, but I often wondered if the son, who became one of my best childhood friends, fueled those fears with stories of the adventure. He certainly had earned the bragging rights! I don’t remember if we actually saw the car as it was pulled out of the frozen lake or if I heard the story so many times that it became part of my own memories, but each time I sat in that dark little tar paper shack, I waited to fall through the ice, or at the very least, trip and fall through the hole into the icy water. I even have a hard time watching the iceberg scene in the Titanic movie. You know the one where the frost-covered Leonardo DiCaprio slips off the ‘berg into his cold and watery grave while professing undying love. Heebie-jeebies. These days, things are a lot different in the world of ice fishing. Tar paper shacks are far less common, having been replaced by portable tents or even better, mobile fish houses on wheels, complete with kitchens, couches, and satellite TVs. No half-frozen bologna sandwiches and thermos jugs filled with lukewarm coffee for the modern fisherman or woman. One could probably live for days in a setup like that, but not me. I wouldn’t be able to sleep a wink, waiting for the groaning cracking ice to give way. My vivid imagination hasn’t changed much over the years. It is either that or an anxiety disorder. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. HE has started ice fishing this year with a small portable fish house. Of course he chose to start this winter, when I have had foot surgery and am stuck at home in front of the warm fire with nothing to do except worry that he is not home exactly when I think he should be home. The rewards of this worry are delicious, though. There is nothing that tastes quite as good as fresh fish caught in icy cold water. Perhaps next year I will join him and face my fears head-on.

Pictures by Dave Donnelly, photographer and fisherman extraordinaire.
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There isn’t much to do on a Saturday night in a small town, but every so often in our small town there was a wedding dance at the old arena. Since everybody knew everybody around here, the dances were often advertised in the paper and we all went to help the happy couple celebrate. Our arena was a huge cavernous old building that housed a gymnasium and bleachers, the local library and the police station. The gym was used for basketball and roller skating as well as junior proms and wedding dances. When I was 17, a good-looking young man asked me on a date to one of those dances, and I was very eager to go. He must not have been quite as eager as I was, because he was late. Very late. So late, in fact, that I left without him, angry, hurt, and determined to go by myself and have nothing to do with him ever again. When he finally caught up with me, full of apologies and excuses, I kept my nose in the air, arms crossed over my chest, and pouted. For some strange reason, I thought of that long-ago dance last Saturday night, when I was lucky enough to spend the evening with my grandson Max, who is nearly three. After a Curious George marathon he took a bath in a tub filled with soap and cars, which he appropriately calls the “car wash”. I thought he would settle down and go to sleep, but he grabbed his harmonica instead and started to play. He took me by the hand and we danced and stomped around the living room with the exuberance that only a young boy and an old grandmother can have. We held hands and twirled until we fell on the couch, laughing. Once we (me more than him) caught our breath, we started all over again. I didn’t care that the curtains were open and that the neighbors, who might not see the small boy, would wonder why an old woman was stomping and twirling around the living room playing a harmonica. To be honest, neither of us even knows how to play the harmonica, but we made lively music and for a few glorious moments, time stood still. Sometimes, time can be an enemy and sometimes, time can be a friend. It can tear down old arenas until they are no more than memories. It can give you many minutes or hours or days with those you love but can it also turn 17 year-olds into grandmothers in what seems like only the blink of an eye. At that long-ago wedding celebration, I finally stopped pouting and agreed to have just one dance with that good-looking young man. As we walked to the dance floor, the music slowed. Time was my enemy at that moment, because I wanted that dance to go on for ever and always. I guess in a way, it did. HE was a really good dancer, and still is. I hope we’re both around to dance at Max’s wedding. I might even play the harmonica.

About a week ago, we had a family seafood extravaganza which was a late Christmas celebration of sorts, and along with some great food, enjoyed some rather balmy temperatures. For those of you who don’t live in the Minnesota, “balmy” in January means 32 degrees above zero or thereabouts. The type of weather where one might just wear a sweatshirt and jeans, with a few show-offs wearing shorts and flip-flops. Back when I lived in the deep south, 32 degrees or thereabouts meant parkas and long underwear. On gorgeous days like these, I open the door to the coop and let the girls out to the covered chicken run if they choose, and a few of them do love to scratch in the snow. I haven’t let them free range in the yard this winter, because due to milder than usual temperatures, there have been hungry eagles flying around the neighborhood who are looking for dinner. I tossed the shrimp and crab leg remnants into a large feeding dish, along with a few other goodies. Chickens love seafood, picking and scratching at the crab legs, trying to get at any remnant of meat. It not only gives them some extra calcium, it gives them something to do during the long winter besides pick at each other. Just as the old saying goes, if you don’t like the weather around here, just give it another week or so. Today, with those sweet warm memories in mind, Old Man Winter blew in with temperatures that we haven’t felt in a year. It is the glacial, biting type of cold that takes my breath away and sends me to my bed, cowering under the electric blanket, watching reruns of Law and Order: SVU and surrounded by seed catalogues. Barney the Chihuahua agrees with me and stays burrowed under the covers, coming out only occasionally to look out the window to make sure there are no squirrels or bluejays at the bird feeder. Before I can enjoy this warm oasis however, I must care for the chickens. During the coldest days of winter, I have a heat lamp or two on a timer and keep the coop door closed. The water bowl is plugged in to keep it from freezing, and I change the water daily, adding a little apple cider vinegar to ward off disease. Today, when I went to feed and water them, I discovered that the girls must have had an extravaganza of their own. Perhaps I should say eggstravaganza. Crab leg shells were strewn from one end of the coop to the other, and they had managed to uncover and tear apart an entire bale of straw, making it calf deep and difficult for me to navigate around the coop. Hidden under the straw were frozen crab legs that when stepped on, made a crunching sound under my boots which sounded and felt almost like crunching eggshells. Wait a minute….those WERE eggshells! Instead of laying in their nice warm nesting boxes, the chickens had buried eggs here and there, under the deep straw. I stepped on several of these half-frozen land mines as I searched for hidden eggs, kind of like a crazy Easter egg hunt, Farm Woman style. To top it off, they tipped over the water bucket while my back was turned, causing me to have to trek back across the frozen tundra to the house to get more. Figuring the cost of the extra electricity for heat lamps and heated water bowls, combined with the price of feed, I could probably give up chicken farming and be able to afford to eat crab legs every day if I wanted to. Instead, I will head out there tomorrow and see what the chickens have been up to. Perhaps I’ll even get there before the eggs freeze.

The Gifts

When I was a kid, I really, really, REALLY wanted an Easy Bake Oven for Christmas. Everybody had one. That is, everybody but me. Mom thought they were silly and extravagant, and said, “You can bake all the cakes you want, right here in our REAL oven, and NOT from a mix!”. It just wasn’t the same as watching that little cake rise magically, just from the heat of a light bulb. Yum! Well, to be honest, the cakes weren’t all that yum, but they were magical, anyway. A year or two later, my parents did get me the much-wanted Thingmaker Creepy Crawlers toy, in which we mixed up oozy and brightly colored Plastigoop, poured it in molds, and placed it on an electric hot plate where it baked and hardened into rubbery bugs. My sister and I had a set called Fun Flowers that made…you guessed it….very groovy flowers, and one called Fright Factory that made scary stuff like fake scars and skeletons. To this day, I can think back and almost smell the hot chemical plastic odor. It was totally fun, and I only got a few burns and blisters on my hands from trying to remove the bugs from the molds too early. These days, nothing like that would ever be approved for children to use, but we really did have hours of fun, just like it said on the Creepy Crawlers box. I dressed my wounds with another of my usual stocking stuffers: A box of Band Aids. To this day, I think the only reason I got Creepy Crawlers was because my dad was a Biology teacher and thought it might be en educational toy. A year or two later, Mattel came up with another great idea called Incredible Edibles, which were like Creepy Crawlers, except instead of plain old rubbery plastic, an edible rubbery plastic called Gobbletygoop was squirted into the mold and baked to yummy perfection. I really, really, REALLY wanted an Incredible Edibles set. Mom thought it was silly and extravagant, and said. “Who wants to eat that junk anyway? It can’t possibly be good for you!” She was right. Incredible Edibles tasted like a sweetened rubber eraser and stuck to my teeth. I know this because many of my friends got Incredible Edibles that year, and they shared. I wouldn’t doubt it one bit if we glowed in the in the dark after eating it, too. Mom was right. A generation later, which happened more quickly than I ever thought it would, my daughter asked for an Easy Bake Oven for Christmas. She really, really, REALLY wanted one. Yes, they still made them, and in fact, the Easy Bake Oven has been one of the #1 selling toys of all time, no thanks to my family. You are probably thinking that I ran out and got her one right away to make up for the one I didn’t get. It’s kind of strange, but somehow, no matter how you mix our genetic Gobbletygook and no matter how long it takes us to get done, we turn into our parents. I told her that she could make all the cakes she wanted, right in our kitchen in a REAL oven. I could almost bet that her kids won’t find one under the Christmas tree, either.

My Christmas decorating is minimal, at best. Our tree is filled with lights and ornaments that were gifted to us through the years as well as three generations worth of handmade beauties. Beauty being in the eye of the beholder, of course. My favorite ornament is not one that hangs on the tree, though. Many years ago, my daughter’s school project was a Santa Claus made out of a bleach bottle, cut in half with a glued-on felt hat, glued-on felt smile, and googly eyes. He has had a place of honor in my home each and every year, much to the consternation of my daughter. I don’t know if it was accidentally or on purpose, but my little artist created Santa’s yarn hair longer on one side than the other, which makes him look like he either has a mullet or was once kicked out of a 90’s hair band. Sometimes I hang Bleach Bottle Santa on the front door, sometimes I hang him in a window, and sometimes my daughter hides him where he can’t be found. This year, I took a picture of Bleach Bottle Santa and posted it on Facebook for all the world to see. I think her response was a very Grinch-like “Ugh!”. I have been hoping in 20+ Christmases, he would begin to grow on her, because really, around here, it’s not Christmas until Bleach Bottle Santa comes out of the box. He was there the year that HE and SHE picked out a Christmas tree so huge that there wasn’t room around the dining room table and a few of us were stabbed in the back by pine branches all during Christmas dinner. He was there when I turned on the air conditioning so I could have a fire in the fireplace in our Florida home. He was there the year my mother died just before Christmas when nobody felt much holiday spirit, but Christmas came anyway, and along with it, the joy and the celebration of a life well-lived. In what seems like the blink of an eye, he has presided over middle-school crushes, boyfriends, fiance, husband, and baby. Just another quick blink of an eye, and that baby has turned into a very busy little boy, who came over to help us decorate our tree yesterday. Bleach Bottle Santa was safely out of his reach, this year hung on a nail in my kitchen. I checked right after they left, just to make sure SHE hadn’t taken Santa and dumped him in the recycle bin. Thankfully, he was right where he was supposed to be. Maybe, just maybe, she is finally starting to appreciate him. It could be that the house was once again a little too quiet, or maybe it was the blinking Christmas lights reflecting on his googly eyes, but I swear that as I looked up, Bleach Bottle Santa gave me a wink. He thinks so, too, and we all know that Santa knows everything. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

There have been strange goings-on in the coop this winter. I had to move two hens into a separate fenced area to protect them from the others. Luckily, I have a large coop, or that would be next to impossible. Chickens follow a pecking order, and these two were definitely at the bottom. I don’t usually like to mess with Mother Nature’s grand plan, but the murderous ladies were beating them up and keeping them from water and nourishment. I even fussed at my rooster, (appropriately named A Boy Named Sue because he was supposed to be a girl), because it is his job to protect ALL of his women, not just the young and fluffy ones. He was the only roo in a coop full of hens, and let’s just say he was a busy, busy boy. He was friendly and not at all aggressive, unless you count the one time he killed Big Boy, who was his father. I was pretty sad over that, because I really liked Big Boy. That loss is why I now separate the chickens when I need to. The pen has been working well, containing one black and white speckled hen who is about six years old and somewhat senile and her companion, a skinny yellow little hen who is two. She’s skinny because nobody would let her eat. The two seem to get along well and love the extra food I give them plus have plenty of room to move around. One evening, I let myself into the isolation area only to find one black and white speckled senile hen and one RED hen. Pecking at my ankles outside the pen as if to say “Here I am!” was the skinny yellow chicken. I have no earthly idea how they managed to switch, but I moved everyone back to where they were supposed to be and told them to stay put. Yes, I talk to my chickens. No, you needn’t call the mental health hotline. This is normal behavior for a chicken owner, especially one who is probably on the short side of normal to begin with. A day later, I found A Boy Named Sue dead on the dirt floor, right under the roost. Besides starvation and murder, winter can be hard on chickens, too, and it seems that I lose a couple each year if for no other reason than they just give up and die. In Sue’s case, though, the scenario was different. I don’t know how I could have missed him at first, because he was very tall and weighed at least 12 pounds. What I did notice was a rather large pile of straw under the roost, which hadn’t been there before. I approached the area with caution, because you just never know. Prodding the straw pile with my foot, I realized it had feathers and knew right away it was Sue. Apparently, the hens had attempted to hide the body by covering it with straw. You may think that I read too many murder mysteries and/or watch too many true crime shows on TV, and perhaps that is true because the winters can get pretty long around here. I bagged the corpse in a leftover feed sack after I examined him for injuries and found none. There will be no autopsy, and he will receive a proper burial later. He didn’t appear to be sick, but one never knows when it comes to chickens. I suspect, having watched A Boy Named Sue chase the ladies all over the yard last summer and fall, that they just got tired of his unwanted advances and did away with him. It has been done before in a made-for-TV-movie that I saw once, only with humans and not chickens. Even though the hens seem a little happier, I won’t cast any more suspicion on them. For now, the mystery will remain unsolved.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. ~Maya Angelou

Somewhere up there, or wherever heaven may be, there is a special place for nurses. I would like to think it is a quiet, restful place, with unlimited backrubs for sore muscles and gentle hands to massage tired feet, but if I know nurses, they will probably still be caring for everyone else. Instead of having to eat cold hospital cafeteria meatloaf, though, there is hot food and time to finish a meal. There is chocolate, and plenty of it. Chocolate is medicinal, you know. Just ask a nurse. There are no answering machines or voice mails asking us…no, make that BEGGING us to come in to work because the hospital is once again short-staffed. There is no such thing as guilt in that special place. Guilt over ignoring the answering machine or caller ID because there is just not enough left in you to pull another shift. Guilt over leaving our families on holidays or not having the time to care for patients the way we would want to be cared for ourselves. There is coffee, and by coffee, I mean good, freshly made coffee, not the stuff that has been sitting in the bottom of the pot for the last six hours that we drank anyway because there was no time to make a fresh pot. Coffee is medicinal, also. The coffee can be consumed wherever we want to drink it, not where the hospital inspectors determine that coffee drinking is allowed, such as the nurses’ break room, which is a place that few nurses ever have the time to visit. There are no mandatory meetings scheduled for 9 a.m. when we just got off at 7 following three 12-hour night shifts. There are no call buttons. There are bathrooms, and time to use them. There is definitely no paperwork. There are no confused, combative, or drunk patients, and everyone says “thank you”. There are no relatives whose neighbor’s daughter is in nursing school and said it should be done this way. The front row seats in this heaven are reserved for the special nurses. They are the nurses who inspired and taught us. They are the nurses who made us laugh when all we wanted to do is cry. They are the nurses who hugged us when there was nothing to laugh about. They are the nurses who mentored and encouraged others to become nurses, so we might someday have someone to take care of us. The world lost one of those special nurses a few days ago. I hope it is a long, long time before any more of us get to that special place, but if you happen to get there before I do, you might find her front row, center. Then again, she will probably be around there somewhere, doing what she loved best, and doing what she was always meant to do.

In memory of Jeanne Gillson Steele, RN

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