A fresh blanket of snow covered the backyard. Opening the living room curtains, I admired ice crystals sparkling like diamonds in the snow. As my eyes adjusted to the bright, March morning sunlight, I noticed that the pristine covering had already been marred by animal tracks. Going from window to window in my house, I tried to make sense of what had gone on following the snowfall.
Pulling on boots and a jacket, I went outside to take a closer look. Like an Arthur Murray student, I studied the tracks in the driveway nearest to the back door. One track belonged to a rabbit and the other to a deer. Their steps appeared quick, quick, slow, quick, quick, slow. The two were obviously dancing the tango.
Another set of footprints belonged to a large dog with warm feet. The prints were deep and defined. I could tell he stopped to sniff here and there as he passed through the yard.
The rest of the yard was covered with hundreds of rabbit tracks. In some places one hundred bunnies had followed the same trail. The snow was thoroughly trampled. The shelter of the woodshed and underside of the deck next to the house were the most popular places in the yard for the local long-earred crowd.
Blustery cold winds blew clouds of snow across the playground. Happy to be out of the classroom for recess, my classmates and I burst out of the school building ready to play. I stopped and realized it was too windy for jump ropes or kick balls. What games could we play?
The mittens Mom had fastened to my coat so I wouldn’t lose them, and a large cotton headscarf tied tightly under the chin kept me toasty warm.
The snow wouldn’t stick together, so we couldn’t throw snowballs or make a snowman. I shrugged. Our teacher wouldn’t let us do either of those things anyway. Sister Florence gloomily scolded, “A hard snowball can take out a person’s eye if you hit them in the face!” Making a snowman was completely out of the question since our playground was the church parking lot.
A classmate named Jimmy found a perfect place to slide on the far end of our play area, a stretch of gently sloped blacktop covered in packed snow. Yelling at the top of their lungs, several of the boys took turns running to that spot and suddenly stopped to slide. I watched with interest. Before long, the slide looked like a dark, shiny ribbon of glass.
Everyone on the playground wanted to take a turn sliding on the ice. True to our grade school training, instead of fighting, we formed a line so everyone could take a turn at our homemade carnival ride. With shrieks of laughter, some of us fell into nearby snow piles. We tumbled and rolled in our bulky woolen coats, landing unhurt and unconcerned.
Encouraged by the sunshine and blue skies, I pulled on a jacket and left the house to take an afternoon walk around the yard. Melting patches of ice in the driveway made each step a gamble. Not wanting to fall, I stepped off into the soggy snow covering the grass. Snowbanks pushed into tall mounds by a plow along my drive were surrounded by puddles of water.
Suspiciously, I scolded Mother Nature, “It looks like spring, but I know better. You can’t fool me. I wasn’t born yesterday. We will still get a lot of cold weather and snow in Wisconsin before winter is over.”
Enjoying the fresh air, I walked from my driveway to the nearby bridge. Although the weather was warm this week, it looked as though we were still a long way from having the river ice break up. Just in the short distance that I could see downstream before the river curved out of sight, were at least a dozen large branches broken off trees along the water. Shaking my head, I wondered if all those branches would cause a log jam in the river during the spring melt.
An ice storm during the winter had coated every highline wire, twig and branch with heavy sheaths of ice. The weight broke several branches from the pine trees in my yard. Until today I had only seen the damage from the living room windows. Since the afternoon was so pleasant, today I would take a closer look at the carnage.
Several broken branches had landed on top of one another along the tree line. The jumble of large, sturdy logs reminded me of a giant game of pick-up-sticks. I wondered if I could cut them up with my small battery-powered chainsaw. I doubtfully eyed the forked branches that would surely hook onto each other and make them doubly hard to saw. A tug on one of the branches showed that the branches were still frozen to the ground.
Some of the cards in my recipe file have yellowed with age and are speckled with splattered batter. Pulling a very old recipe card out, I held it up for my daughter to see, explaining to Tammie, “Look at this one. I think this is my oldest recipe and probably from my grandmother Franziska. Before emigrating from Germany to the United States, Franziska had worked as a housekeeper for a rich family. Maybe the recipe was something she made in that household.”
My daughter took the card from my hand and wondered, “Why do you think that?”
I explained, “Mom told me the gravy in this recipe was called a roux. I don’t think her German family would have normally used that French word. Mom was making this recipe in 1935, early in her marriage. Surely, it must be something that Franziska taught her to make.”
Handing the card back to me, Tammie chuckled, “I love the goofy name your family gave the stew. “Tell me the story again.”
Laughing, I explained, “I’m going to tell it to you the way I see it in my imagination. Mom married Daddy in the fall of 1934. By the following summer she was pregnant with my brother Casper. They had lived in the small Altmann farmhouse with Daddy’s parents through the winter. When spring arrived, Daddy’s parents moved to Stratford. What a relief it must have been for Mom to finally be alone with her husband.
The house Agnes, my mom, shared with Jake, my daddy, wasn’t as big or grand as her childhood home. The summer day was hot, but Agnes had the front porch and the back porch doors open to allow a breeze from the cooler backyard to pass through the kitchen warmed by the hot wood stove.
Agnes glanced out into the yard from where she was standing at the kitchen sink deboning a cooked chicken. She wasn’t feeling very well. She smiled, daydreaming about the baby she would give birth to in December. If it was a boy, she wanted to name him Casper after her brother. If it was a girl, Jake wanted to name her Agnes. She wrinkled her nose. It would feel strange naming a baby after herself.
Setting the meat aside, Agnes retrieved three large kohlrabies from the back porch that she had picked from the garden earlier that morning. After peeling and slicing them, she put them in a kettle and held the kettle under the tap, grateful for the cold well water piped to the kitchen.
Once the kettle of kohlrabi was on the wood stove to heat, Agnes sat down at the table in the corner of the kitchen to rest. The sound of birds singing, chickens clucking, and cows mooing came through the open doors. Then she heard Jake’s team of horses coming closer; their harnesses jingling and their hooves pounding on the dry earth in the lane. A few minutes later Jake stepped into the kitchen. Browned by the sun, his brow glistened with sweat. Wiping his forehead, he informed Agnes, “I still have more hay to mow, but stopped to water the horses, and myself.”
I scanned the hundreds of spices and other baking ingredients in mom’s kitchen cupboard and wondered what a scientist would want in her laboratory. Reaching up, I took down the cinnamon box and tapped some into a shot glass. I had two more shot glasses to fill and several doll-sized teacups. I regretted not having more scientific looking equipment, but that couldn’t be helped.
Slowly and methodically, small samples of baking soda, salt, the entire contents of a cherry flavored Kool-Aid packet, sugar, tap water and vinegar filled the various small containers. Several trips to the laboratory (living room) moved the supplies where I planned to experiment.
Satisfied that I had everything I needed, I sank down onto the floor next to the child-sized kitchen cupboard that Daddy had made for my big sisters when they were little. The off-white cupboard with small clusters of flowers painted on each cabinet door and the shelves painted red, didn’t look much like a laboratory for a scientist, but it would do. Empty paint-by-number vials would serve as test tubes.
Hosting imaginary tea parties didn’t interest me when I was nine years old. I wanted to grow up to be a scientist. I wanted to be someone who did experiments and discovered amazing things. For the next hour I happily mixed various powders and liquids in the small vials.
My final experiment for the afternoon had me tapping Kool-Aid powder, salt, sugar, and flour into one of the little vials. Topping it off with several drops of vinegar, I snapped its airtight cap on and began to shake it. Suddenly the little capsule’s top blew open and red Kool-Aid splattered everywhere. Amazed, I sat with my mouth hanging open for a few moments. I had just discovered chemicals that exploded!
Mom was nowhere to be seen, but I smelled beef roasting in the oven when I peeked into the kitchen. On the counter next to the stove was a quart jar of mushrooms. Mom canned many jars of them during the fall. When the jars were cool, we placed them on shelves in the basement root cellar. It looked as though mushrooms were on the menu for tonight.
Last autumn Mom and I had picked the mushrooms we were going to have for supper. We had walked down the hill behind our farm buildings. Once we reached our back 40, we crossed over into the neighbor’s cow pasture, which was dotted with the stumps of trees cut down many years before. Each fall, mushrooms grew thickly around those stumps.
We picked mushrooms many times during the week or two that they were in season, each time we filled the wicker picnic-sized basket my mother carried. We never felt chilly as we walked back uphill to the farmyard despite having the wind in our face. I loved the way mom looked in her brown-plaid wool shirt jacket with the basket on her arm and her gray curly hair. I felt like all was well in the world when I was with her.
The aroma of roasting beef evoked images of slices of tender, browned roast on my supper plate, topped with creamy mushroom gravy. My mouth watered. I loved mushrooms. Unfortunately, my brother didn’t share my love of mushrooms. Billy wouldn’t complain at the supper table, because that would be rude to Mom about the food she prepared. He would just quietly pass the gravy bowl to the person sitting next to him. When not at the table though, Billy had often called mushrooms, “slimy toadstools.”
Usually everyone in my family ate and liked all that was set before us. For Billy to be repulsed by mushrooms seemed strange to me.
My two-year old daughter reached with both hands for the baby bottle. Sitting down on her bed, I opened the book to begin reading her night-time story. Instead of reading, I lowered the book and said, “Niki, you’re such a grown-up girl! You don’t need diapers anymore and now you’ve even started to sleep in a big girl bed!”
I wanted my baby girl’s babyhood to last longer, but after a week of internal debate, finally had to reluctantly admit that Niki was too old to be still having a bottle at bedtime. One reason I was reluctant to take her bottle away, was because she didn’t use a pacifier nor had a special blanket. Would bedtime be too hard and comfortless without the soothing bottle?
Niki basked in my compliments. She bit the bottle’s nipple and smiled. She knew she was a big girl and was happy that I recognized that.
Before reading the bedtime story, I leaned forward and shared in a low, confidential tone, “Did you know that big girls don’t use bottles?” My daughter nodded, but I wasn’t sure she understood.
For the next three days, I told Niki from time to time that big girls don’t use bottles. On the morning of the fourth day, I took a large, brown paper grocery store bag and used a black magic marker to write on one side, “Hide this in the garage.”
That afternoon as I prepared the evening meal, I opened the bag I’d prepared and told Niki that she was a big girl who didn’t need baby bottles anymore. All of her bottles were on the counter and I had Niki stand on a chair to help me throw them into the brown paper bag. Rolling the top of the bag closed and taping it shut with masking tape, I said, “Come and help me throw these bottles away.”
I opened the back porch door and stood facing Niki. I instructed, “Help me throw the bottles away.” Together, we swung the bag back and forth and at the count of three, let it sail out the door to land on the back lawn.
When Arnie arrived home for supper, he found the bag and hid it in the garage.
I like naming things but the ones for inanimate objects don’t always stick. When I first brought home a dark blue Equinox in 2013, I started to call the car, the Blue Ox. Other than being blue, big and sturdy, I wasn’t really feeling the name, so there was no follow through.
On the other hand, the gray Dynasty I drove for many years eventually gained the name of The Old Gray Mare. That car was dependable and loved.
Years later Arnie and I bought a Buick Rendezvous to celebrate having paid off our house mortgage. This was the most expensive car we ever bought, and it was equipped with all sorts of special amenities. I began to call it my Yuppie Yacht because I felt like a young, rich and successful person when driving it. That name stuck.
I was recently watching a HGTV show where a woman had her kitchen remodeled. The designer did something I thought was risky. Without consulting the homeowner, she ordered a bright pink gas stove. Fortunately, the homeowner was delighted and gave the appliance an elegant, Victorian name.
Naming the stove struck a chord in me since I had recently bought a new gas range. I asked my daughter, “What would be a good name for my new stove?”
Tammie quickly responded, “Name it Calcifer after the fire demon in the movie, Howl’s Moving Castle.”
Tears rolled down my seven-year-old daughter’s cheeks. I looked up from wrapping the toy to beg, “Tammie, please don’t cry. I know you want this toy for yourself, but yesterday when we bought your friend’s birthday present, you knew it wasn’t for you. Besides, you have several of your own Pretty Pony toys in the toy box.”
A sob caught in Tammie’s throat as she complained, “But, none of mine glow in the dark like this one does.”
Fastening tape to the pink wrapping paper to hold it in place, I thoughtfully enthused, “This gift is a very, very special gift. It probably will be the best present your friend will get for her birthday this year. Do you know why?”
My little daughter stopped crying and looked at me in surprise to ask, “Why?”
“Because the very best gift you can ever give is the one you love and really, really want for yourself. This is especially true when you give the gift without letting anyone know how badly you want it for yourself.”
Tammie was silent for a few moments before saying, “Okay.”
“You’re such a good little girl.” I complemented my daughter. “I have a feeling Santa’s going to give you a glow-in-the-dark Pretty Ponies this year.”
When I first entered motherhood, I had no idea I needed a class titled, Motherhood Philosophy 101. No one gave me a listing of job skills I would need. My initial concern had been merely to share my faith with the children, to keep them fed, bathed, clothed and obedient.
Sweeping his hand across the map of the United States, the television meteorologist expounded on how frigid temperatures and precipitation were producing snow storms in Washington and Oregon. He stated, “These storms are moving east. By Tuesday night, when the weather system gets here, southern Wisconsin will get mostly rain and possibly an inch of snow. In northern Wisconsin, the rain will quickly turn into snow with accumulations up to a foot.”
Looking up from texting on my phone, I responded like a Charlie Brown adult, “Wah-wah-WAH-wah.” Hearing about the impending storm was getting old. I’d heard this forecast over and over for the last two days. It was only about 32 degrees Fahrenheit outside, leaving a few patches of snow here and there in the yard. We probably wouldn’t get much more than a thin sheet of ice.
Rain didn’t begin falling until late Tuesday afternoon. Once nightfall came, I pulled the living room curtains shut, blocking the cold, darkness from entering my warm, brightly lit house, forgetting all about the weather.
By Wednesday afternoon every surface outdoors, trees, highline wires and roads were coated in a thick layer of ice. Carefully inching across my icy back deck, I slowly walked like a penguin out to the mail box. Seeing the birdfeeders empty, I returned to the house for a bucket of seeds.