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Secondhand Memories

Grandpa Jacob Altmann Senior with Mary and Betty and Casper in the background.

One of my sisters reminisced, “Grandpa kept a pint jar filled with hard candies on a shelf by the door. Whenever we visited him, he’d give us a candy.”

Another sister chimed-in, “I remember going to his apartment in the garage that summer after he died. I took one of the candies from the jar and it was chewy!”

Younger than my sisters by more than a decade, I volunteered, “I remember Grandpa falling when he came into our house. I was standing in the kitchen watching Daddy hold the door open for him.”

“You couldn’t possibly remember that!” scoffed one of my older brothers. “You were just barely two-years-old, too little to remember. What you do remember, is what we’ve told you.”

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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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(I’m) The Beast

The two, peanut butter-loaded mouse traps that I put in the brick farmhouse’s old-fashioned back porch last night were nowhere to be seen. Arnie, my husband was in the house. I yelled, “Honey, did you get rid of the mouse traps I put out here yesterday?”

Arnie’s bellowed answer, “No I didn’t” made me closely examine the green indoor-outdoor carpet. The traps were gone, and there wasn’t even an oily smear left behind on the artificial grass.

Yesterday, I’d noticed chew marks on the outdoor toys stored in a box below one of the porch windows. Today, the toys looked even worse. I assumed mice were doing the damage. Our farmhouse had a long history of rodent visitors.  

My husband stepped into the porch with a half-eaten sandwich in his hands. He looked in the toy box and exclaimed, “Mice can’t do that kind of damage! I think a rat has been getting into the porch.”

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All About Me, Me, Me!

A band from the days country western music had a genuine country western sound!

Potatoes on the oven rack beside the roasting pan were not soft in the center yet. Poking a fork into the browning chuck roast revealed juicy meat that would melt-in-our-mouths after another hour of slow baking. While closing the oven door, the kitchen light dimmed for a few moments. Tossing the potholders onto a counter next to the stove, I left the kitchen.

My husband Arnie was in our Quonset shed working on one of his special projects. I knew that when he used the welder, the power it drew made the lights in the house dim for a few seconds. Curious to see his work and needing to tell him supper would be ready soon gave me a good reason to leave the house. The chilly morning had turned into a pleasantly warm spring afternoon.

The Quonset shed was one hundred yards from the house, but I took the scenic route that took me around the house, past a flowerbed, a bed of chives and rhubarb. A radio in the shed was tuned to a country western music station could be heard all over the yard.

Arnie had just finished laying down a new bead with the welder and pushed up his eye shield to inspect the work. Spotting me at the door of the shed, he smiled and took off his welding gloves and helmet. He proudly questioned, What do you think?”, motioning to the metal frame he’d made.

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April Showers

I peered out of our family car’s mud-splashed backseat window. A passing milk truck had showered our car with a gritty mixture of mud, water, gravel and ice crystals shortly after we’d pulled out of our farmyard. Dirty snowbanks slumped in the roadside ditches. Brilliant sunshine and 40-degree springtime air was making them melt. I was amazed at how much the huge banks had already shrunk. Their sodden mess filled the ditches, so the melt water had nowhere to go but on the road, making it look like a mucky cow yard.

Arriving at my school, Daddy drove into the parking lot where dozens of other parents were dropping their children off. The blacktop lot, covered with a thick layer of hard ice all winter, was now covered with slush. I stomped my way to the school door, taking delight in the way my footsteps splashed. It didn’t matter to me that my brown stockings were getting drenched.

I had noticed that there were times when I arrived at school and found the building filled with the air of excitement and happy expectations. This especially was felt on snowy winter mornings. The halls buzzed with quiet murmurs of, “Do you think they’ll call off school and send us home early?” Hope, happiness and exhilaration could almost be smelled, touched, tasted.  Today, the excitement was due to the sudden arrival of spring weather during the weekend.

Sister Florence had put up a new bulletin board in my classroom over the weekend. Amid clouds of colorful flowers cut-out from construction paper, it proclaimed, “April showers bring May flowers!”  One of my classmates proudly offered Sister a bouquet of pussy willow twigs. Her wrinkled face was transformed by a big smile as she accepted the gift with genuine delight. Everyone was ready for spring.

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March 31st Auction

I pulled into the driveway, stopped the car and got out. Wind blew down my open jacket collar, making me shiver. Despite the afternoon sunshine, the early March afternoon had a sharp bite to it. Patches of melting snowdrifts dotted the yard. I shrugged, thinking, “The air is chilly, like inside an old-time refrigerator, but as soon as the snow finishes melting, it’ll feel warmer.” Pulling the mailbox open, I found several envelopes. Among them was the monthly letter from my elderly friend.

Saving the letter for later when I could sit down and slowly read it, I began preparing supper for the family. Having prepped our meal the night before, my husband Arnie, our two children and I were able to sit down to eat lasagna a mere hour later. Arnie came to the table and glanced at the mail I’d brought in from the roadside mailbox. He chuckled, “I see your boyfriend wrote to you again.”  

“Yes!” I admitted with a demure smile. “It isn’t every day a gal has a sweet old boy writing to her all the time, telling about his life 70 years ago in the very house she lives in!” After serving everyone, I sat down to rest and enjoy my meal with the family.

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Tailored For Function

My Dad held my one-year-old daughter Tammie on his lap with the familiar ease of a man who had raised seven children. She squirmed, so he slid her down between his knees, giving her a chance to practice standing while being fully supported. Sitting down on the couch across from him, I realized that no one had ever held Tammie that way before.

Tammie has TAR syndrome. (thrombocytopenia with Absent Radius) This is a rare birth defect. TAR causes low blood platelet levels which can cause bruising and bleeding. Radius bones in the arms are always missing, but the hands are fully formed. My daughter’s arms are elbow length. One syndrome challenge that we needed help with were her knees. They didn’t seem to have joints.  

My husband sat down beside me and said, “Our doctor told us that if Tammie is ever to walk, she needs surgery on both of her knees.”

Nodding, I added, “He also said there isn’t a local doctor who can do the type of surgery needed. We’re taking Tammie to see a doctor at the Mayo Clinic next week.”

The three-hour drive to Rochester, Minnesota to the famous Mayo Clinic required us to leave home before daybreak on an overcast, early spring morning. Once there, Arnie and I were asked if we would allow interns to be present for Tammie’s exam because, “We don’t see many children with TAR syndrome.” During his exam the doctor demonstrated to several students how neither of her knees were functional.

That year Tammie had surgery on both knees and was fitted with cumbersome, full-length leg braces that were cable-connected to a belt buckled around her waist. She took her first steps when she was two and a half years old. Arnie and I weren’t sure if she started walking because of the braces or in spite of the braces.

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Baby Trainer

The dreams began near the end of my pregnancy. Each night there was a baby, not necessarily my baby, but someone’s baby assigned to me. Each night I’d forget all about the infant. Each night in my dreams there were fires, floods and other natural disasters threaten our wellbeing. However, I never once remembered to pick up the baby when I ran out of the slumberland house to save myself. 

One night I took the baby given to me and laid it in a crib in the upstairs bedroom of my childhood’s farmhouse. I immediately forgot all about the little one. A few days passed before dreamland me suddenly remembered. Filled with great apprehension, I raced to the crib and peeked in. Somehow, inexplicably, the neglected baby had multiplied to become three or four smaller babies.

I didn’t need to visit a psychiatrist to figure out why I was having these dreams. Eight years earlier, when I was twenty years old, my husband Arnie and I had had a baby daughter. Christy was born with a rare birth defect and was very sick. To make the situation scarier, I had never taken care of a baby before, not even babysat for one. The idea of taking Christy home scared me. I loved her, but didn’t want to take care of her.

I took my daughter home two different times, but she had to readmit to the hospital after only a day or two because of her ill health. The experience made me fearful of childcare. I was ashamed of how I wanted a healthy baby, not the sick one I’d given birth to. Christy died at two months of age on April 2nd, 1971. My guilty feelings began to grow. I felt like a bad mother.

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I’ve Got Rhythm

The “oompah-pah-pah” of the polka band’s tuba announced the small-town music festival long before my husband Arnie had parked our car. The music festival with all day baseball games and carnival rides drew folks from a wide radius in Central Wisconsin. Following the music, we discovered that half of the huge beer tent was devoted to the band and a make-shift dance floor. The band was playing the “She’s Too Fat for Me Polka” and a large crowd of energetic dancers filled the floor.  

Moments later, Arnie and I waded through the large crowd gathered around the wood-plank beer bar. Several of Arnie’s high school classmates were leaning against a section where a clear glass pitcher had only enough golden pilsner for Arnie’s glass. One of the young men held the pitcher high over his head and bellowed for a refill over the din of the crowd.

One of the young men said, “Kathy can dance with me while we wait for more beer!” My heart sank. I’d never learned to dance while growing up in the Stratford area.  However, most of the young people who lived between Auburndale and Stevens Point where Arnie had grown-up, had their polka and waltz moves down pat.

Feeling the stiffness of my body, the young man shouted over the music, “Just relax and go with the beat.” I hopped when he skipped. He bobbed when I skipped. The couples around us flowed gracefully with synchronized steps and twirls. Getting a firmer grip on me, my partner instructed, “Follow my lead.” Horrified and embarrassed, I felt like a fully loaded H & S gravity box, being pulled around a wet corn field, by a 1949 model M John Deere tractor.

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Digging Ditches

The logs I had put in the furnace several hours earlier were now just a pile of ash with a small bed of red coal glowing beneath. Grabbing wood from a nearby pile, I loaded the firebox until no more would fit. Small tongues of orange flame licked the raw edges of the bottom pieces. The fire was beautiful and smelled wonderfully. Taking a deep breath, I stood silently, not moving, just listening. The fire crackled. I heard my two daughters talking in the living room above. Flicker, my tuxedo cat, meowed and rubbed against my leg. The stress of my busy day disappeared. Feeling refreshed, I closed the furnace door and sprinted up the stairway.

 My house is very old. I suspect part of it was built during the 1890’s. My history-loving daughter Tammie and I enjoyed some of the house’s quirky signs of previous inhabitants. We particularly liked the permanent kitty footprints in the basement. I’ve always pictured the farmer who had built the house, getting mad at the cat for messing up his wet cement.

In the mid 1990’s, I came home from work one day to discover my husband Arnie had ripped the back porch off our house. He was using a rented backhoe. When I asked what he was doing, he said he was digging a basement for the large entryway he planned to build in place of the porch.  

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