Cruise Director

Billy stood up from the restaurant table and tottered. I moved closer to my brother in case he started to fall. When his blood pressure dropped with a position change, he would often faint. Although both of my brothers had Parkinson’s, he had been diagnosed first and showed more symptoms. Casper, my other brother was already standing at the cashier, looking back to see what was holding us up.

This was a typical Friday night for me for several years.

Going out for a Friday night fish fry had once been an occasional treat. That changed a few years after my husband died. Because of Parkinson’s, my bachelor brothers started to need a little help. I began visiting them at the farm each Friday night to fill their pill boxes and pay bills. Those were the things they needed. But what they wanted was to go out for a Friday fish fry every single week.

I won’t lie, there were a few weeks here and there that I really wished I could stay home or do something else.

To add variety to my brothers Friday night experience, I tried to take them to different restaurants each week. I often invited one of my friends to join us. Some weeks one or both of my daughters joined us, too. When my sister Agnes and her husband Jim moved back to Wisconsin, they also became members of my Friday night fish fry club.

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Moments of Grace

The hostess politely inquired, “Would you like to dine inside the restaurant or out on the patio?” I hesitated because I dislike sitting in full sun. As if reading my mind, the hostess quickly put my fears to rest. “Most of the patio is in shade.”

 I confirmed my preference with a smile. “I’d love a table in the shade.”

A tall pergola shaded one half of the patio and most of the other half of the remaining area enjoyed the shade of a sapling tree. Placing a glass of water on the table, the hostess promised that a waiter would take my order after I had a chance to look at the menu. 

While waiting for my order to be filled, I glanced around. Flowerboxes placed on the top of the patio walls were full of flowers and herbs. Healthy vining plants cascaded their tendrils down and swayed in a gentle breeze.

I overheard one woman at a nearby table telling her companion, “I miss Phillip so much. Mornings are especially hard, but today something happened that made me feel better. From the kitchen window I saw a beautiful cardinal perched in the tree Phillip had planted before his illness. Seeing it gave me a feeling of peace. I felt like Phillip was there checking on me.”

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Sore Leaf

My sister Agnes followed me around the side of my house. Stopping and pointing dramatically at a towering bush beside the living room window, I exclaimed, “Look how big my Pinky-Winky hydrangea bush has grown. I’m glad I didn’t plant it right below the picture window. We wouldn’t be able to see out!”

Each time my sister and I visit each other, we walk through our respective yards showing how the flowers and bushes are doing. Moments before my big hydrangea reveal, we had examined double pink hollyhocks growing beneath the kitchen windows. As we inspect, we discuss what we see and like.

While walking through Agnes’ yard once, I remembered following my mother and her sister Theresa, who was home for her yearly visit, from flowerbed to flowerbed in our backyard on the farm during my childhood. Each year Mom and Daddy made a one weekend visit to visit Theresa, where they did the same thing at her home.

I’m not sure if all families talk and look at plants as much as my family has and still does. Our botanical interest goes beyond common backyard flowering plants. Even the weeds growing in the fields and along the road fascinate us. Most of my family members know many of them by their common names if not by their Latin genus and designation.

I remember walking through the yard with Agnes when I spotted a broadleaf-plantain growing alongside my driveway. My sister Agnes glanced down at it and commented, “When Casper, Rosie and I were little, we called that a sore leaf plant.”

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What’s It?

There’s always room for Jell-O!

My big family crowded around the kitchen table to eat supper, enjoying a chance to rest after a long afternoon of hayfield work. As we were cleaning our plates, Mom rose from her chair. Taking a few steps to the cupboard next to the sink, she picked up a 9 X13 cake pan and carried it to the table. It was time for the dessert I had watched her make earlier in the day!

Like watching a science experiment, first Mom dissolved strawberry Jell-O powder into a measured amount of boiling water. Then she chilled the red liquid with ice cubes. After slicing bananas into the liquid, Mom put the pan into the refrigerator. Before calling the family to eat, Mom had whipped sugar and cream from our cows into a thick, white cloud to frost the now jiggly dessert!

After cutting the Jell-O as she would cut a cake, Mom used a spatula to lift out squares for each member of the family. The portion set on my plate, quivered. Remembering a Jell-O commercial on our recently acquired television, I sang, “J-E-L-L-O!”

Mom smiled and reminisced, “I made Jell-O for the first time when Casper was a toddler.” I glanced over at my eldest brother sitting at the end of the table and tried to picture my adult brother as a toddler.

Continuing, Mom described his surprise and reaction. “When I set the Jell-O in front of Casper, he noticed it jiggling. Alarmed, he kept his eyes on it as he stood up in his highchair and frantically questioned, “What’s it? What’s it?”

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Secondhand Embarrassment

One evening after school, I walked into my family’s living room and to my great astonishment, found Jim, my brother-in-law, setting up his television for us to watch. He informed me that he and my sister Agnes and their baby, David, were moving away so they wouldn’t be needing it. “Moving?” I questioned.

Jim kept working on the backside of the second-hand television he was giving us. “Yep,” he answered absent-mindedly, “I’ve reenlisted in the army.”

Being a typical ten-year-old, I never read the front page of the newspaper, or listened to radio news. But that didn’t stop me from knowing something bad was going on. I had heard grownups talk in quiet tones about something called “the Berlin wall crisis.” Being an intelligent kid, I knew that Berlin was a European city located in Germany, the homeland of my grandparents. Just what was going on, I didn’t know.

Trying not to think about my sister moving away, I made a point to learn what shows were available, what days they were on and whether Mom would let me watch them or not. We had only one channel and I wasn’t allowed to turn the television on before 6:30 in the evening. One thing I discovered about watching television was that I needed to turn some knobs to make the picture stop rolling.

My only experience with televisions to that point was occasionally being able to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings while visiting my neighborhood cousins. One memorable afternoon after ice skating on their pond, we watched ‘Zorro’, the masked man with a swift blade who avenged all wrongs.

I loved watching television shows but something weird happened to me very often when they were on. No one else watching with me ever seemed to have the same problem. One evening while watching Mr. Ed the talking horse, the weird thing happened. The show was about Wilbur doing something really stupid because of his horse. Wilbur didn’t want his wife or neighbors to find out what he was doing. As an inevitable confrontation approached, intense anxiety and embarrassment filled me. Feeling like I was going to explode, and not wanting to see the end of the show, I jumped to my feet and raced out of the house.

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Screamed Windows

When Daddy finished the evening milking chores, he went straight to the bathroom to wash up and shave as he always did. During the summer when Daddy was done milking, the sun was still high in the sky. But not today. The house felt unusually dark and shadowed. The air was heavy and humid, as if the world was waiting for something to happen.

I felt restless and uneasy, so I followed Daddy into the bathroom and sat on the edge of the bathtub to watch him lather his face. I chattered to him about my day. He listened with a nod and smile, then wet his special whisker brush and energetically dabbed it on the disk of shaving soap on the bottom of a coffee mug. After spreading the resulting white foam on his whisker stubble, he turned and grinned at me.

There was a flash of lightning. The bathroom light momentarily dimmed. I startled to my feet. Seconds later, a crash of thunder made me press against Daddy. He said, “It’s okay, just a little thunder and lightning.”

Mom nodded, sat forward in her chair, and called, “Kids, it’s time to pray the rosary.” To Daddy she said, “We’ll pray that the storm doesn’t do damage.”

When Daddy’s whiskers were gone and the smell of cows washed away, we went to join Mom in the living room. As he sat down in his favorite chair, he said to Mom, “The storm is moving in fast. I hope it doesn’t bring wind that flattens the oat fields.”

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Dancing in the Moonlight

My sister Mary sat on one end of the davenport reading a thick book. I sat at the other end, twiddling my thumbs. We hadn’t had a new comic book in the house for over a week and I was sick of rereading our collection of old ones. The heat and humidity of the day had zapped all my energy.

Taking a break from household chores, Mom walked into the living room and sat down in her upholstered rocking chair. Picking up a crochet pattern book from the table next to her chair, she fanned her sweat-glistened face and requested, “Kathy, open the windows wider.”

I went to the first window. As I leaned over to slide the aluminum frame up a blast of backyard heat, smelling like cooked lawn, hit me in the face. I gasped, “I don’t think having the windows open wider is going to cool us off. It’s hotter outside than in the house!”

Mom sighed, “I hope it cools off tonight so we can sleep.” She shrugged and picked up her crochet hook, pulled string from a spool on the floor and checked directions in the book. Then she began to make the small, hooked needle in her hand dart rapidly in and out of loops. Before long, a lacy doily began to take shape.

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Walking in the Dark

I wanted to play in the barn where Daddy and my brother were milking cows, but nighttime darkness held our farmyard in its grip. Closing the backdoor of our farmhouse, I found my sister Betty and demanded, “I want you to take me to the barn.”

My thirteen-year-old sister looked up from a comic book and answered in a huff, “You’re eight years old. Go to the barn by yourself and quit being such a big baby!”

I returned to the backdoor again. The yard was very dark, even with the yard light turned on, a single light bulb on top of a pole between the barn and house. Freshly fallen snowflakes sparkled in its light. A shadow moved. Panic made me freeze in place and wonder, “Is that a wild animal? Will it attack and kill me if I go out there?”

Common sense made me reason, there weren’t wild animals in our yard during the day. Then I realized the moving shadow was just a tree branch swaying in the wind. I really, really wanted to be in the barn! Throwing all caution to the wind, I ran as fast as I could, screaming all the way to the barn’s entryway, the milk house.

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A Bit Longer

Mom stirred the contents of a kettle on the stove, then turning to face me, she scolded reproachfully, “You should get up earlier in the morning. It’s ten o’clock.”

Clumsily cutting myself a thick slice of freshly baked homemade bread, I protested, “I was awake earlier. I just didn’t come downstairs right away.” As a small child I had never liked taking naps or going to bed at night. Now, at age ten, nothing had changed. Every night I put off going to bed for as long as Mom’s patience held out. Predictably, in the mornings I never wanted to get up when everyone else did.

Watching me slather a generous smear of butter onto the soft, slightly warm bread, she advised, “I know you’re hungry, but don’t ruin your appetite. In an hour and a half Daddy will be done with his mid-morning chores and we’ll be having dinner.”

My mouth was full, so I nodded and turned to leave. When I stepped out the back door of the farmhouse, sunshine blinded me. Chewing the last bite of bread, I listened to a red winged black bird’s distinctive call and the bawl of a calf in the barn.  

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Remembering Grammie

Instead of getting brighter, as the morning progressed, the sky darkened and thunder growled ominously in the distance. Looking out the kitchen window, the overwhelming greenness worried me. When I was 23 years old, the air had appeared greenish before a tornado picked up one end of my mobile home. Realizing that an earlier rain shower had enhanced the vivid color of the new maple tree leaves and a freshly mowed lawn, I relaxed. Weepy, blue clouds on the horizon suggested more rain was on the way.

My daughter Tammie joined me at the window, commenting, “This would be a good morning to have a sleep-in. I love lying in bed, listening to distant thunder and the patter of rain on the roof.”

Putting my arm around her shoulders, I reminisced, “Grammie Altmann loved nighttime thunder storms and rain. She said lying in bed listening to them made her feel cozy and happy. Do you remember that her birthday was today, the 15th of June?”

Nodding, Tammie acknowledged, “Yes, I know. If she were alive, this would be her 117th birthday. Grandpa Jacob’s birthday in July would have been his 118th.”

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