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This Little Light

Long ago in another life, I worked in a fairly large medical facility. Most of the people I worked the closest with were smart and educated women, and we all worked well together doing what we did best: Taking care of the sickest of the sick.  Penny Sue, our housekeeper,  was sweet, kind, and did her job well. She was also not the brightest candle in the box, if you know what I mean. Does that sound condescending? In the stupidity of my youth, I could be rather condescending, and I am almost too ashamed to admit it. Doctor Handyman was a generation older than most,  called us “Honey” or “Sugar”, and was always just a little too familiar as he made his daily rounds.  It seemed he was always squeezing an elbow or patting a knee, and it wasn’t a comfortable feeling. In fact, it gave me the creeps.  I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, and we rolled our eyes and pretended  to be extra busy when he was there so we wouldn’t have to sit next to him as we wrote in our charts. It was easier to hide than it was to confront the discomfort. On one particular day that I will never forget, we were all busy taking care of patients and Penny Sue was sitting at the counter, spraying disinfectant and wiping it down. I didn’t see it happen,  but I heard a yell and a rather loud slap, so I ran into the hallway. Dr. Handyman, red-faced and angry, stomped off and headed down to administration. Penny Sue, also red-faced, told us what happened through her tears. The good doctor had taken a seat beside her, reached out, and grabbed her leg. She told him to stop, and when he didn’t immediately, she slapped him. Certain she would lose her job, Penny Sue wondered how she would manage to pay her bills. One by one, we comforted her. One by one, we told her our stories. We would stand beside her and tell the stories, and we assured her that there is strength in numbers.  She wondered why nobody had said anything before. Nobody.  I can’t speak for the others, but I couldn’t even begin to give her an answer and silently asked myself the same question.  I don’t know what was said in administration that day, but I can tell you that Penny Sue continued to work and continued to do it well…even better…than before. It seemed that she worked with a confidence that we had never seen or perhaps never noticed. Dr. Handyman was a little more subdued when he made his daily rounds, called us by name, and never touched any of us again. I have thought of this story often over the last several weeks, especially when I hear others ask the same question that Penny Sue did that day.  I learned a  good lesson from this and have carried it with me all these years: Sometimes the brightest candle in the box isn’t the one that you might think, but even if the light is small, it will help you find your way along the path that you were always meant to follow.  Speak up, friends, and I will stand beside you. 


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My friend Suzanne is not the best cook and has set off the smoke alarm more often than she cares to admit. Wanting to impress a new beau she was dating, she squeezed a store-bought frozen lasagna into a baking pan, covered it with extra cheese, and passed it off as her own when he came over for dinner to meet her children for the first time. I know this fact to be true, because  I helped her by leaning on that frozen brick until it melted enough to smoosh into the pan.  It was kind of like fitting a square peg into a round hole, but lots of melted mozzarella cheese can cover up even the biggest of little white lies. That old deception came to my mind this week when the White House press secretary shared a picture of a chocolate pecan pie on social media, stating that she made it for her family’s Thanksgiving dinner. The internet trolls and bullies started in immediately, with faceless people insisting that she couldn’t have made that pie because the crust was just too perfect, and that since she “lies about everything else” that she must be lying about this, also. Some even threw in a little fat shaming while they were at it. They started hashtagging words like #PieGate, #conspiracy, or even #pielies. If you don’t know about hashtagging, it highlights your statements so everyone in the world of the internet and Twitter can see your words in all their glory. I’ll bet their mothers are mighty proud. Now, I don’t tweet or twitter nor do I like to get involved in political arguments with strangers and/or friends and/or relatives, but I just had to put in my two cent’s worth about pies, lies, and cooking during this season of peace, love, and Baby Jesus. STOP IT.  There. I said it in two words. Three,  if I add the word PLEASE. Even if you don’t agree with someone’s politics, religion, eating habits,  or what they consider to be homemade, you don’t have to voice your opinion, especially if it isn’t nice. Maybe she bought the pie. Maybe she didn’t. Maybe her crust always turns out soggy like mine does, and she buys the refrigerated kind and just makes the filling. Maybe she always makes perfect pies as a family tradition.  Maybe she just unthaws a whole pie and covers it with whipped cream to hide the freezer burn, orders her turkey from the local deli, and makes mashed potatoes from a box before bowing her head to give thanks. Keeping your eyes on your own plate and your piehole shut will help with this whole peace-on-earth-good-will-to-men thing that is supposed to happen this time of year. I will now step down off my box of refrigerated pie crusts and get on with the rest of my day, which will be spent binge-watching Hallmark Christmas movies and eating leftovers. Oh, I almost forgot to finish Suzanne’s story: Her youngest daughter spilled the beans before the dessert was even served that evening. Her husband still laughs about how she tried to impress him and how much he was flattered by it. Although they live far away, I will almost bet that the smoke alarm went off during their holiday dinner and that they bought their pies at the local grocery store. #peacebeginswithyou #loveoneanother #allpieisgoodpie 

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Six Months

The snow came a little early this year. It wasn’t the coming early part that bothered me so much, it was the staying. We often have an early snow, but it usually melts, giving me plenty of time to finish my end-of-fall chores. This year, I had finished hauling the furniture off one deck and put the flower and vegetable beds to bed by covering them with straw. I hauled some broken branches to the burn pile and folded and stacked all the tomato cages. I cleaned out the coop, piling a lot of fresh straw on the dirt floor for insulation.  I left the front deck alone, the planters filled with flowers and the barbecue grill ready to go, hoping for a few more days of fall. Besides, I was tired. When that first snow fell, I knew it would last only a day or two, so didn’t worry about it. Boy, was I wrong. On top of the snow, it rained. The seat cushions became crunchy and froze to the chairs. The geraniums were still green and incased in ice.  The citronella candle had to be chipped of the table.  Yesterday, as HE and I hauled the things through the snow to the shed, I came to the realization that if the snow stays until the end of April, as it often does, we will be having one of those six-months-of-winter years. Yes, I know I live in Minnesota. No, I’m not whining, at least not too much. Yes, I know that it is usually five and a half months anyway,  but some of us who are more compulsive tend to keep track. When I got to contemplating long winters, I thought about a long-ago Memorial Day storm of my childhood, when we were snowbound at our cabin, located at the bottom of a fairly steep hill. Back then, it was an exciting adventure, but these days I can’t even think about it because something like that might make it  a SEVEN month winter, and that is just plain wrong. 

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Showing off my drawers

Every household in every state and even in every country has a junk drawer. I’ll be the first to admit that ours is probably worse than most. Cleaning it out is usually a project done on a cold day in January every couple of years, and I think I am running little behind schedule. It is hard to keep a junk drawer neat, because one is always adding stuff and then rummaging around looking for other stuff that probably isn’t in there anyway. I couldn’t open mine the other day when I was searching for the dull scissors.  I couldn’t find the sharp scissors, which are usually in a special scissors holder attached to the wall and I was hoping that someone hadn’t put them THERE.  Anyhow, I had to stick my hand into that jammed-up dark drawer in which there could have any number of objects that could poke me and draw blood.  That drawer holds everything except scissors or the kitchen sink, but even that might be there if I dig deep enough. I thought I would share with you the top ten most useless items that I found: 1) Coupons for cough and cold medicines which  expired in 2013.  2) Rubber bands that are apparently dry rotted, as the two I tried to use snapped apart and kind of crumbled in my hands.  3) A rawhide dog chewy of unknown age, partially chewed. 4) Seventeen loose batteries of assorted sizes.  I might be exaggerating a little here…wait…no…I’m not. 5) Two packages of fresh batteries that were purchased because I couldn’t remember if we needed batteries or not. (These made the useless list because we didn’t need any). 6) Several of those little packages of salt, pepper, and ketchup from long-ago takeout food. One of the ketchup packages is sticky and I think another is empty, but I don’t want to explore any further right now without biohazard gloves.  7) Two flat head screwdrivers, deemed useless because they were buried at the bottom of the drawer where I couldn’t find them and I gave up and used a butter knife. 8) One old butter knife with a broken tip. 9) A broken pedometer or two…wait…or three. I must have worn them out. Thanks for believing me on that little white lie.  10) Gravy-splattered directions on how to fold cloth napkins into different shapes for festive family meals. Note: I have no cloth napkins. If I did and they were folded into fancy shapes for a festive family meal, I would never hear the end of it, just like the time I tried to make Thanksgiving more festive by  accessorizing the turkey with blue cheese stuffed pears and sugared grapes a`la Martha Stewart.  I should really tackle that drawer today, but I am too busy looking for the scissors. Besides, it’s not a cold day in January yet. 

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The Gales of November

“‚ÄčDoes any one know where the love of God goes, when the waves turn the minutes to hours?” ~ Gordon Lightfoot

The gales of November came early this year, turning Lake Superior into an angry ocean, with breakers reaching two stories high and causing damage up and down the coastline. They also came early on October 9, 1927, when the mighty lake claimed my grandfather and two of his friends, who were trying to launch a small fishing boat while at a family picnic at a friend’s cottage. Although the wind probably wasn’t quite as strong as the November gales, the waves were making the launch difficult, and an especially large one swamped the boat, tipping it over.  Hampered by heavy wool clothing and coupled with a strong undertow, the men didn’t stand a chance.  According to the newspaper articles and the Coast Guard’s log book, they drowned in front of their families and in four feet of water. The descendents of these long-ago friends gathered at this small cottage, named Camp Wasa after the owner’s home in Finland. Strangely enough, it remains in the same family after all these years, and I am thankful for the kindness of this family  who shared it with us for a special afternoon. Even stranger is the fact that the cottage remains in unrestored condition, right down to the furniture, the outhouse, and the log book which contains a hand-written account of the tragedy. As I toured the small camp, I imagined my grandfather drinking coffee at the table and my grandmother with my two-year-old mother on her hip, putting the finishing touches on a picnic lunch. I touched a lot of objects that afternoon, for some reason needing to feel the same things that perhaps he touched all those years ago.  Nine children were left fatherless that day, and although my mother had few, if any, memories of her father, she never quite forgave him for getting in that boat.  Ninety years later,  we remembered them, at exactly the same time and in the same place.  I wondered why they even attempted to go fishing that day. As someone rang a bell rang three times and a bagpiper played “Going Home”,  I watched the waves crash upon shore and pulled my jacket tightly around me, feeling chilled to the bone.  Even though the weather was sunny, the wind was probably every bit as cold as it was that day. Lake Superior takes a bit of the land  back every year,  so the sandy beach was probably a lot larger then.   I pictured those nine carefree children playing in the sand under their mothers’ watchful eyes, neither children nor mothers imagining  what was ahead. The elderly owner, looking out  over the water and then at his deck and stairs, wondered aloud if they would be standing after November. Even Camp Wasa might be taken someday, he said, half to himself. He knows Superior and her gales, and we heard later that the storms of a week ago took the deck, stairs, and roof of the cottage. We tossed flowers into the waves that day, some of us bundled up, some of us  barefoot in the cold sand. Those waves of ninety years ago turned the minutes to hours to years to generations, and yet, in the grand scheme of things,  it was just in the blink of an eye. I would like to think that those three young men were with us that October day, perhaps sad at what they missed, but happy that we remembered them. 

In memory of William Holm, Lennert Villberg, and Alfred Westerlund 

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Creepy Crawlers

A lot of you are dreading the end of a beautiful Minnesota fall and the beginning of a long (hopefully not too long ) winter. For the first time, I am ready for it. I don’t hate the snow and cold, but I don’t love it, either. What I am most looking forward to is the freezing demise of all the Japanese beetles and flies around here. There are a gazillion of them, and I am not kidding. At first there were just a few beetles  around the doors of my breezeway, which I might mention was rebuilt tight as a drum a few years ago, so we have no earthly idea how they are getting in.  Those few were easily shooed outside and the remaining orange menaces were sucked up into the vacuum cleaner. Then the flies came, accompanied by more of  their beetle friends, and they all decided that  my home would be the place for their last hurrah. Both species seem to be at the end of their life cycle, sluggishly crawling over the walls and windows, and then, well, for lack of a better explanation, they drop like flies. Every day, I sweep up the dead and dying from under the windows as well as from all the windowsills. I read somewhere that some scientific genius imported the beetles from Japan as a predator to a pest of the soybean crop. Once the soybeans are harvested, the beetles have nowhere to go except here. The flies have always been around, but it is time to roll up the welcome mat. Of course, with my usual luck, we have had company. Each day, I casually swept up the flies and beetles from around their feet, apologizing and somewhat embarrassed, as if it were my fault.  Today, as I cooked the last of the fall tomatoes because the fruit flies have arrived to join the party, I felt a crawling sensation up the middle of my back. You guessed it…a Japanese beetle, most likely planning revenge for all of his little buddies that I vacuumed up this week. Hurry up, winter! Even though it is not yet Halloween, I’m ready for these black and orange creepy crawlers to be gone!

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Superhero Grandma

There is an unfinished portrait of me that hangs in our dining room. It was painted by my father, who was a great dad  but definitely not a great portrait artist. I have written of this angry-looking alien baby before, and would never have mentioned her ever again, if it weren’t for my four-year-old grandson Max. Max has been having some bad dreams  lately. Pretty typical for that age, but not fun. One would think this scary-looking portrait that hangs on my wall as a joke would be the stuff that nightmares were made of, but once I told him it was me, Max began to laugh. Every time he looked, he laughed some more. I told him that the scary baby was really a Superhero Grandma, and she could really kick some butt. Four-year-old boys like superheroes, and they also like words such as “butt” and “poopy head”, which he quickly learned is not an appropriate name to call someone at day care. Grandmothers really are superheroes, you know.  One of mine was a widow with three young  children who managed to feed and clothe them during the depression years by cleaning and taking in other people’s  laundry. My grandfather had a life insurance policy but cashed it in two weeks before he died to buy a new furnace for their home. My other grandmother raised five sons, which should elevate her to superhero status without a word being mentioned about how they moved every few years to follow my grandfather’s work. I have few hardships, unlike those strong women before me, but I can change into a Superhero Grandma when help is needed.  I mixed a few kid-safe essential oils with water in a spray bottle and labelled it “Happy Dreams Spray”.  I hope it works. If not, I will pound a nail into the wall of  Max’s bedroom and hang that portrait over his bed. That baby is scary enough to chase away even the worst bad dreams.

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