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First Nest

I didn’t glance longingly back at my bedroom’s blue ceiling with the hundreds of silver stars two of my big sisters had lovingly stenciled across it. I just picked up the suitcase I’d packed and took it out to the car my brother had loaned me. The day to move out of my childhood home had finally arrived.

All I could think about was the one half of a dorm room that belonged to me for the next month, and for the month following that if I wanted. The hospital where I would be trained as a Nursing Assistant had run a nursing school and owned a nearby student nurse dormitory. I was fortunate to have a place to stay so close to study and hopefully work afterwards.

It felt great to store my belongings in my half of the furnished room. Though small, it was my new home. I decided where things went and how to spend my time there. There was a desk and lamp across from the narrow bed. Near the foot of the cot was a closet with a built-in dresser. A bathroom with showers was just down the hall. I hadn’t thought about food when I rented this little nest, but the dorm building did have a large kitchen on the first floor. I loved my new home.

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Grandma for Supper

I dropped down in my office chair and opened my email. Every day I looked forward to hearing from my daughter Tammie. Her messages never failed to be full of interesting observations and descriptions of life at grad school in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  My daughter’s undergrad school had been a short, two-hour drive from home. When she decided to earn a master’s degree in library science, she insisted on going to the University of Michigan as one of the best in the United States.

That afternoon, her message described an international foods night at her co-operative house. She said, “I loved trying all the different foods, but one of the drinks offered was rose water. Mom, I took one sip, but couldn’t finish it. The drink made me feel as though I was drinking Grammie!”

I laughed. It was understandable that she associated my Mom with roses.

Grammie wore dresses that were rose-colored, shared bouquets of roses from her flowerbed with us and always smelled like roses. My daughters loved her. With her love of roses, it was easy for my family to buy Mom Mother’s Day gifts. Each year we gave her rose-scented body lotion, rose-scented candles and rose bushes from the greenhouse to replace the ones our Wisconsin winters killed. The mere smell of roses made everyone think of her.

When Tammie and her sister were four and eight years of age, my husband and I were living on a farm. We occasionally invited my Mom to stay overnight with us after I took her for a day of shopping. I remembered how excited my daughters were when I told them that we were going to “have Grammie for supper.” They knew what I meant. It never occurred to us that ‘having Grammie for supper’ sounded cannibalistic.

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Smoke Mama

No matter where I sit next to a campfire, tendrils of smoke follow me.

I tore the flap off a cardboard box, folded it and placed it between two logs of wood. After placing several twigs above it and bigger branches above that, I ignited the cardboard. A small orange flame licked tentatively around the edges of the brown corrugated paper for several seconds before it completely became engulfed in eager, leaping flames. I glanced around. What would burn fast and quick to keep the fire going until the logs caught?

         Nearby, laid a pile of small scrub trees I’d cut down last fall, the reddened Christmas tree, a mound of grass raked from the lawn and a bundle of asparagus fern from the garden. I didn’t plan on using the Frazier fir, since I only wanted a small, respectable fire. From experience I knew the Christmas tree would burn too hot, fast with high, leaping flames.

My daughter Tammie joined me by the blaze. Watching me tuck sticks into the embers, she observed, “You really love playing with fire, don’t you?”

I grinned at her and admitted, “I’ve always enjoyed tending fires. When I was small my family burned all our household garbage except bottles, cans and kitchen scraps. It was big excitement for us to all stand around and watch stuff burn. If I got too close to the fire, my brothers and sisters told me that if I fell in and burned off my head, I’d have to wear a kettle to replace my head and that my new name would be little Miss Kettlehead.”

Tammie laughed, “That’s a weird thing to tell a kid.”

I nodded and agreed, “Yes, it is. But when I was a kid, it seemed to make sense.

Sitting down on a small barrel, I watched the fire. Flames licked at a pile of grass next to it. I had raked the grass up this spring. Too damp to ignite, the grass sent up a plume of thick, white smoke. A breeze swirled the smoke towards where Tammie and I were sitting. Coughing, I jumped to my feet.

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Frankenstein Dresses

Mom said she felt like sewing a dress for herself. I watched as she carefully laid a beautiful floral-print material on the kitchen table. The day before last, my family made one of our rare visits to Marshfield where she’d bought material and a new pattern.

My only interest when we visited downtown Marshfield was the candy, toy and pet sections at Woolworth’s or Ben Franklin’s. I tried hard to be patient as Mom slowly studied the McCall pattern book before picking out what she wanted. She knew how I felt by my frequent sighs, moans and occasional question, “Can we leave this store pretty soon?”

Most of the tissue paper pattern pieces were pinned to the material when Mom stopped what she was doing and stood quietly. After a moment she spoke as if talking to herself, “The neckline isn’t exactly what I want. Also, I want the sleeves to be longer.” Pulling pattern pieces from other pattern envelopes, Mom began pinning those onto the material to replace the original neckline.

I was just a little kid, but I couldn’t figure out how Mom was going to get everything to fit together without puckers in the cobbled together material. Remembering my long wait for her in the fabric store, I felt restless and decided to go outside for a while.

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Discontented

Some problems can be changed by the way we think about them. But there is no solution for the problem of wispy baby fine hair except a perm.

My neighborhood cousins and I were together under the tall trees in front of their farmhouse. Donna sat on the swing, slowly pushing herself side to side. I stood with one leg up over the seat of my bike. Barb and Alice sat on the front porch steps. A cool breeze smelling of lilacs gently fluttered through the yard. We sniffed and sighed appreciatively. Life was good. In the back of my mind I felt contentment because I knew here were only a few more weeks left before school let out for summer vacation.

         The topic that early Saturday afternoon was the middle names we were given at birth. To my great surprise, my young cousins had middle names I recognized as belonging to their older relatives. I didn’t know if I should envy them or feel sorry for them. My middle name, Marie, sounded like plain old vanilla in a world of exotic flavors.

         I didn’t like my first name that much either. Kathy? It had such a babyish sound to it. I imagined that if I could change my name, I’d pick Victoria. To me, that name sounded beautiful and graceful. A person with that name would be confident and proud.

Ruefully, I thought, “A person named Victoria would probably have curly hair, too.” I hated my floppy, baby fine hair. I wondered, “Why couldn’t I have been born with curly hair like Shirley Temple?”

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April Showers

Hepatica, the quintessential May flower.

Daylight woke me, but I laid in bed for a long-time daydreaming. The cozy household sounds and the smell of freshly baked bread drifted up from downstairs. Hunger finally made me roll out of bed, get dressed and leave my second story bedroom. When I wandered into the kitchen, Mom turned to exclaim, “Well, you finally decided to get up!”

Slathering a thick layer of butter on a slice of homemade bread, I sat down at the kitchen table. Spring sunshine poured through the nearby window onto the chair I chose and the surrounding floor. The chair’s red vinyl seat felt very warm. I wiggled my toes on the heated flooring. As I ate the bread, I looked out the kitchen window at the lawn. Last week it had been dotted with piles of snow. Today it was starting to turn green.

Last Saturday I’d helped Daddy make small trenches in the yard to speed-up mud puddle drainage. Popping the last of the bread into my mouth, I licked a bit of butter off my fingers before asking, “Mom, I’d like to make a May altar. Do you think May flowers have started to bloom? We’ve had lots of April showers.”

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Instinctive Scientist

I didn’t bring the poinsettia plant in from the deck one night when we had frost. It lost every single leaf. Knowing it would try to make a comeback, I put it in an upstairs bedroom and watered it. When the first leaves came out, I was very happy. It seems to be happy, too. It has decided to blossom for me in February.

Mom opened the oven door and placed a pan of raw cookies inside. I felt the oven breathe heat into the room. I was sitting nearby at the head of the kitchen table. I reached into a bowl on the table and pulled out a handful of peanuts in the shell. As I shelled them, I popped the pale-colored peanuts into my mouth. They were unsalted.

I stated, “I want salt.” Mom turned from cleaning the cupboard and handed me a salt shaker. Shelling more nuts, I discovered the salt refused to stick to the dry peanuts. I licked them and tried again. This time the salt stuck. An idea popped into my mind. I would shell a bunch of nuts, wet them with water, put them on a small pan and shake salt over them. Then, I’d ask Mom to put the pan in the oven. She wouldn’t let me do it myself, because I was only six-years-old.

Mom agreed to my request and placed the nuts on a small, metal syrup-can lid that she used to test cookies. A few minutes later when she took them out, she instructed, “Wait until they’re cool.”

I grabbed a hot peanut when she wasn’t looking. To my dismay, it was chewy. As if knowing what I’d done, Mom chuckled, “When the nuts are cool, they’ll be crunchy again.” She was right. My roasted, salted peanuts were delicious and I felt clever.

Figuring out on my own how to salt and roast peanuts was the start of my life-long career as an instinctive scientist.

One day when I was eight, I opened my brother Casper’s bedside table drawer to look at the fascinating things he kept in there. There were springs, sprockets, batteries, tubes of industrial strength bubble material, bulbs, coins, bits of wire and string. I began to put the things that fascinated me the most on the table top, end to end. When I placed a wire against the end of a battery and a small bulb against the other end of the wire, I saw a flash of light in the bulb. Flashlights had already been invented, but I was excited to realize I was a re-inventor.

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Left is Right

My first grade teacher was a very pretty young nun who reminded me of a nun statue my family had in the living room at home.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the teacher. She was the prettiest and youngest nun I had ever laid eyes on. Although this was my first day of first grade, I was used to seeing the sisters who taught at my parish school. Every Sunday morning when my family went to Mass, we sat two pews behind them.

Since this was our first day of school, most of our parents personally delivered us to the classroom. After they left and the class, with the exception of one sobbing student, settled down. Sister Donna passed out sheets of paper with simple pictures on them. She instructed, “Children, get out your crayons and color the ball and teddy bear.” It was exciting to finally be in school like my big brothers and sisters. Using broad strokes, I colored the ball blue and the teddy bear brown.

Several days into the school year, Sister Donna passed out lined paper for us to practice printing alphabet letters. The papers had widely spaced solid blue lines. Not as easy to see, between the blue lines were faint, light-green, dotted lines. Sister drew lines on the blackboard mimicking the lines on our papers.

Grasping chalk in her right hand, Sister Donna glanced over her shoulder at the class to make sure everyone was looking. “Watch closely,” she demanded, “so you know what needs to be done.” After printing the letters on the black surface, she made a quick tour through the room to make sure the students understood what she wanted.

Satisfied with what she saw, Sister happily complemented, “Very good! Practice printing the letters over and over until they are neat and easy to read. Make the capital ‘A’ look like a tall tent that touches the top blue line and the bottom blue line. Make the lower case ‘a’ nice and round like an apple that sits on the bottom blue line and is no taller than the green dotted line. While you’re working on that, I’ll come around to everyone and help.”  

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Directionless

My sixth-grade class milled about noisily in the back of the room, whispering and giggling. None of us were eager for the start of our afternoon classes. Sister stood leaning against the teacher’s desk in front of the room watching us. She finally barked impatiently, “Recess is over, class. Sit down and be quiet!” I knew that tone of voice and instantly obeyed, as did most of the class. True to form, the last students to sit down and be quiet were two boys. As long as I’d known them, since first grade, they stood out as incapable of being quiet or of staying seated for more than a few minutes.

         Waiting until the only sound in the room was the occasional clank of the heat registers, Sister picked up a paper from her desk and slowly walked back and forth in the front of the room, grilling the class. “What is the first thing you do when you begin an assignment?”

One student volunteered, “Put on our thinking caps?”

Sisters black veil swished back and forth as she emphatically shook her head and tossed out hints, “We ask you to do it at the top of the page, along with the date. It’s one of the first things you were taught to do in first grade. It helps your teacher grade papers.”

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Rodent Public Relations

After stepping into the dusty, cobwebbed kitchen I stood still and looked around. I loved snooping around in this house. Doves cooed and fluttered their wings upstairs. My brother Casper had turned the front bedroom into a dovecote. The wonderful, earthy smell of freshly stored oats filled the air. Through the doorway into the living room I saw mounds of plump, golden oat seeds. The dust floating in the sunbeams from this harvest didn’t bother me.

My family had lived in this house until eleven years ago when they built a new farmhouse the year before I was born. Daddy used the old house as his granary. Last week our neighbor Mark had combined our oat field. Before storing the grain in the living room and downstairs bedroom, Daddy had nailed planks over the door between the living room and kitchen, up to my height, to prevent the seeds from spilling into the kitchen.

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