Thin Ice

Picture of Davel’s store that accompanied an article on the history of Stratford,Wisconsin, written by Kris Leonhardt for Marshfield News Herald. The large structure was build in 1920 and was destroyed by fire on November 15, 1959.

A classmate squeezed beside me into the school’s main entrance, chattering excitedly about the big fire the night before. We slowly started up the crowded steps towards our third-grade classroom on the second floor. As I listened to my friend, I looked at the beautiful black and white saddle shoes worn by the little girl ahead of us. They looked pretty and I wanted a pair, too.

         The whole school was buzzing. The atmosphere reminded me of when heavy snow was falling and we might be sent home early. The excitement and buzzing today wasn’t about a big snowfall, but about our small town’s largest grocery store burning down during the night. Everyone wanted to tell how they had found out or about seeing the disaster in progress.

         I had my own story. Last night my family and I had been enjoying a quiet Sunday evening together. The November night was cold and snow covered the ground outside, but my family and I were warm and cozy in the farmhouse. Unexpectedly, one of my big brothers burst into the house and breathlessly announced that Davel’s store was on fire. I felt shocked and frightened. How could that familiar store burn down? I’d been in it many times with Mom. That store was like my own home!

         Mom and Dad agreed they wanted to see the fire. It would be amazing because of how big the store was. Davel’s not only sold groceries, but shoes, hardware and household items. The building housed a theater, the post office, an agricultural office, bar and bowling alley. Several families lived in the top floor apartments.

         We hastily bundled up and drove the three miles into Stratford. The whole time I sat in the car’s backseat whining, “I’m scared. Don’t go too close to the fire.”

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A Gift

Mom’s Christmas afghan and my recipe story book.

Mom switched on the table lamp next to her upholstered rocking chair and sat down. She said, “Days start getting longer after December 21st, but for the first month each day’s change is only small chicken steps.” Turning to me, she ordered, “Turn on the lamp next to the davenport.” I chuckled. Her description of how slowly days became longer for the first month after the winter solstice always made me laugh.

Outside our warm, well-lit farmhouse, cold winter winds howled as they built snow drifts. I snuggled contentedly against the living room heat register. Mom opened a bag and pulled out a skein of yarn and a crochet hook. I watched with surprise. At fourteen years of age, I’d often seen Mom sew clothing for the family, but this was something new. Curious, I asked, “What are you making?”

Pulling a small, colorful crocheted block from the bag, Mom proudly explained, “This pattern is called a granny square.” I scooted to her side and took the square from her. It was made with four different colors. Mom happily stated, “I’m going to make a lot more like the one you’re holding and then stitch them together to make an afghan.”

Frowning, I repeated the foreign word, “Afghan?” I didn’t know it at the time, but for the rest of Mom’s life, “afghan” was a part of our family’s normal, everyday vocabulary. She made several afghans for each person in the family, as well as baby blankets, lace collars, slippers and more.

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Leaning Back

A cold, ice-particle-laden gust of wind swirled down the face of the hospital building, pushing so hard against my body I had to lean forward to make headway. Walking at my side was a coworker, Barb. She commented jokingly, “Here we are, walking through the tundra again.” Some of the ice particles melted on my face while others found their way under my neck scarf. I shivered and put my mitten-clad hand to my frosted forehead, wondering if it was possible to experience brain-freeze from a cold wind.

Barb complained, “Why in the world was this hospital built with a north-facing entrance? We always get a big downdraft in our face just as we get close to entering.”

Through gritted teeth I answered, “I don’t know what the engineers were thinking. But, at least on hot summer days, we get a welcome cool breeze.”

As Barb and I silently walked to the unit where we worked, I thought about Christmas, only two weeks away. I still had some Christmas cards to send, presents to wrap and cookies to bake. Our tree, usually put up a few days before Christmas, wasn’t even bought!

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Gift Season

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh were the gifts brought by the three kings.

Happy excitement coursed through my veins. I couldn’t put a finger on any one thing causing the elevated state of mind, but I knew all the contributing elements. I ticked them off in my mind. One, my family was gathered together in one room, a rare even. This happened only rarely since all my siblings were much older and seldom home together at the same time. Two, they were talking about the upcoming Christmas season. I shivered with delight. Three, we would celebrate the eve of Saint Nicholas in a few days. I looked forward to putting a letter to Saint Nicholas in my cereal bowl at bedtime. In the morning I’d find candy but no letter in it. At school, small brown bags of candy would be left on our desks while we played during the last recess of the day.

The biggest reason for my excitement was the weather. It was snowing. Earlier, I’d heard the grown-ups say this would be the first big storm of winter. My seven-year-old mind could scarcely take in all these wonderful blessings in my life.

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Giving Thanks

Sister Mary Micheline held up the classroom reward jar. I had finally earned a piece of candy. I slid out of my desk and slowly walked to the front of the room. Other second grade students in my class had frequently earned rewards from this jar since school had started this fall. The candy in the jar wasn’t just picked over, it was down to the last treat; one black licorice jelly bean…no one’s favorite candy.

Sister unscrewed the lid and held the jar out for me to reach in. I heard someone in the room snicker. Sister’s face was a map of winkles snuggly wrapper with a white wimple. A large black veil flowed from top of her head and down over her shoulders and back. Grasping the jelly bean, I pulled my arm out of the jar and looked up into the pale blue eyes of my elderly nun. I dutifully recited slowly, “Thank-you Sister Mary Micheline.”

Back at my desk, I looked down at the prize in the palm of my hand and for a second it blurred. In September and October, the jar held many desirable candies. Blinking, I thought, “Daddy loves licorice jelly beans.” Suddenly I felt so much better, I popped the black bean into my mouth. The sweet licorice taste made me feel as if my adored Daddy was sitting right next to me.

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Aching Pinfeathers

Outside our cozy, warm house, a cold fall drizzle was turning freshly fallen leaves into a slick mat under the trees. I flopped down onto the linoleum living room floor beside the heat register and began to read a comic book.  

Mom put our supper in the oven to bake before she stepped into the living room. My brother Billy, who had been lounging in her upholstered rocking chair, got up so she could sit down. I observed his respectful behavior and felt pleased and content.

Mom snuggled into her comfy chair commenting happily, “Seeing the rain makes me thankful I worked all day yesterday getting my yard work done! But, ach…do I ever have sore muscles!” Her flowerbeds spanned our farmyard from one end to the other. In my mind’s eye, I saw how pretty they had been all summer. Yesterday Mom had removed all their frost-deadened leaves and stalks.

The comic book before me was about Scrooge McDuck, Donald Duck, his nephews Hewy, Dewy and Louie on a search for a great hidden treasure in Egypt. Scrooge’s greatest nemesis, the Beagle Boys, ‘caught wind’ of their find and boarded the ship the ducks were taking back to Duckburg. Beagle boy number 176-617 held Scrooge upside down by his legs and demanded the treasure. He snarled, “Hand it over, you rich pig-of-a-duck!” A jewel suddenly dropped from Scrooges blue frock coat. The Beagle brothers, in true pirate manner, made the ducks walk the plank.

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First Frost

Mom and I walked briskly away from our farmyard buildings. Mom wore a brown plaid jacket and carried a large wicker hamper. The hamper fascinated me. I had a foggy memory of it coming into our household years before, filled with large bunches of dark purple grapes. Since then, it has been lined with fresh newspaper each year and used to carry mushrooms we picked.

Warm afternoon sunshine reassured me we’d have many more warm days before winter. Last night had been very chilly, reminding me of the beastly cold winter nights to come. Shaking off thoughts of both cold weather and my fifth-grade schoolroom confinement earlier in the day, I skipped and gamboled alongside Mom as we walked down the cow lane between fields. I was excited to go with her to our neighbor’s back forty to pick mushrooms.

Stumps of trees cut down years before dotted a small portion of our neighbor’s field. Thousands of small mushrooms grew around each trunk and along the deteriorating roots radiating from them. The small, newly emerged mushrooms are called buttons. They grew quickly from one day to the next. The mature mushrooms had light colored caps with dark brown gills underneath and looked like small umbrellas. Big or small, they all tasted wonderful when Mom sliced and fried them in bacon grease. 

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God’s Time

The radio in Mom’s kitchen was tuned to a music station, just as it had always been from morning to night during my growing up years. Although in my early fifties, when I visited Mom, I still felt like I was a child, cradled in a time capsule. The many years which had passed since my childhood had taken their toll on her, though. Mom’s vision was gone and she needed my help to bathe, change her bedding and pay bills.

After I had washed and set Mom’s hair that afternoon, she settled down in her rocking chair. I sat nearby at the dining room table to pay her bills. With soft music playing in the background, Mom suddenly commented, “Tonight…we switch back to God’s time.”  

I looked up from the check I was writing. The dour manner in which she’d pronounced, ‘God’s time’ made me want to laugh.

A number of questions swarmed through my mind. Was Mom biblically opposed to day light savings time? I’d never gotten that impression as a child. Maybe Mom was repeating something she’d heard her own mother once say. My stern grandmother Franzeska, had been born in 1867. Although I’d never met her, things I’d heard made me wonder if she was a rather humorless person.

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My Inner Sanctum

The farmhouse screen door slammed loudly behind me. Clutching the newspaper I’d collected from the mailbox a few moments before, I announced, “The News Herald is here. I’m gonna read the funnies before anyone else!”

My commandeering the paper was possible because it was only three in the afternoon. Other than my Mom, the rest of my family were out and about taking care of their business. Opening the oven door, Mom took out a pan of cookies and slid them on the kitchen table to cool. She said, “You had better hurry and read it fast. Your brother will be home soon.”

The sweet smell of cookies made my mouth water. I snatched one to enjoy while reading. The song on our ever-playing kitchen radio was, “Charlie Brown” by the Coasters. It had a jazzy sound. I loved the way one of the band members would periodically question in a deep voice, “Why’s everybody always picking on me?”

Sunshine coming through the living room’s oversized window, bathed the gray linoleum floor. I dropped down in that warm, bright patch and spread the paper out in front of me. The back page of the paper was covered with familiar cartoons. Reading them was like catching up with extended members of my family. Continue reading

Doctor Grass

The familiar chugging sound of Daddy’s Surge vacuum milker engine started in the barn while I was getting a drink of water from the well. Feeling secure because I knew Daddy and my brother were nearby, I turned the well faucet for more water. The late summer afternoon was hot, so pouring water over my legs and arms felt good.

Crossing the driveway between the well and the milk house, I peeked in. The milk house’s back door and barn door were open, so I could see all the way into where the cows were. Their warm, earthy smell wafted out. I loved being in the barn, but decided to wait until the chores were almost done. The sticky heat and flies took all the fun out of being in there this time of year.

It was so warm that afternoon, even the cats didn’t want to be in the barn. Old, gray Mama cat was stretched out on the grassy lawn between the milk house and the barn hill. Gutsy, her orange kitten and Squirmy, her black kitten played nearby. While rubbing Gutzy’s belly, I looked up and noticed Mama cat chewing on a blade of grass.

At nine years of age, I knew that cows ate grass and cats ate kitchen scraps and milk squeezed from the milk can filter. It wasn’t normal for cats to eat grass. Jumping to my feet, I ran across the yard to the house and found Mom. I exclaimed, “Mom! Mama cat is eating grass. What’s wrong with her?” Continue reading