Going Bald

I wiped my lips with the napkin, put it down on the empty plate and asked my friend, who was sitting across from me in the booth, “Would you like to go shopping with me this afternoon?”

My friend finished chewing an ice cube before she questioned, “Where do you plan to shop?”

Looking up from studying the meal receipt, I named one of the local resale stores I like to visit. I saw the slightest frown on my friend’s face before she hesitantly admitted, “I don’t know if I feel very interested in buying used clothing.”

Shrugging, I pointed out, “I don’t have a problem with used clothing. Everything in my closet at home is used. Most of the clothing at the resale store is newer than the stuff I own. When I take clothing home, I wash it. Then those things truly, completely belong to me by the rights of soap and water.”

Leaning forward, my friend asked skeptically, “Don’t you think the clothes that end up in a resale shop are poor-quality rejects?”

Shaking my head, I pondered, “I think there are several reasons why clothing and household items end up in resale stores. The people who owned the stuff were sick of it, or due to weight gain or loss, the clothing no longer fit. I’ve found lots of clothing with expensive name brands that I could never afford brand new. These things fit, are clean and have no rips or snags. Once in a while you will find something that is defective in some small way. Overall, shopping at resale stores is like going on a treasure hunt. You never know what fantastic thing you’ll find.”

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Even though the picture on the box shows fruit in the cereal, that doesn’t mean there really is fruit in the box!

Pulling to a stop at an intersection, I picked up a map laying on the passenger seat to examine it. From the backseat, my eight-year-old daughter questioned loudly, “Are we there yet?”

I glanced back at Niki and her four-year-old sister, Tammie.  Slightly annoyed, I answered, “I’ve never been to your classmate’s house before. The map shows that we should be nearly there.” Putting the map down, I turned to the left and drove half a mile. A house on the left had more than one car in the driveway. The bleak, overcast fall afternoon made the yard look cold and forbidding. Thinking out loud, I questioned, “Is this the right place?”

Tonight was the first Girl Scout meeting at the new volunteer leader’s house. We got out of the car and walked toward it. All the uncertainty I felt disappeared when the backdoor opened and we were warmly welcomed.

One evening several months later when I picked Niki up from a Girl Scout activity, her troop leader said, “We’re planning an overnight trip to Camp Sacuguaya. I need a few mothers to chaperone and help make meals. Can you help out with this?”

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Bird Woman

I felt Daddy’s comforting assurances that he was all right when I had my unusual meeting with the owl. How many people have a pheasant peeking in at them in the basement when they are feeling scared and alone after losing their husband? If Arnie was trying to cheer me up, it worked!

I welcomed the warm safety of being alone in my car and driving home.  I was done crying, but my emotions felt raw. Two hours earlier, Mom had called to say Daddy had died. Since it was ten at night and our two small children were already in bed, my husband Arnie and I decided he would stay home with the children while I went to the hospital alone to be with Mom.    

The late May midnight sky was awash with stars. A light sweater provided all I needed for comfort. The open garage door welcomed me when I pulled into the driveway. With the ease of habit, I drove into the small building and turned off the car engine. Taking my time, I walked out and stopped on the driveway to take a slow, deep breath. The rich, earthy smell of grass cut earlier in the day, freshly worked garden soil, and the sweet scent of blossoming lilacs made reminded me of my farmer father.

It was hard to imagine Daddy being dead. I yearned to be with him one last time. Was everything right with him now that he had left behind his sick, aging body?

A year ago, Daddy and I had walked in the orchard on his farm. He’d told me, “Kathy, I’m ready to die.”

I was 31 years old. Death was a frightening, unwanted thing to me.

Daddy, who was 78, answered my protest by gently pointing out, “I don’t feel well anymore and I’m lonely. Many of my friends have already died.”

As I stood remembering this on the driveway, some unidentified instinct prompted me to look up. Just as I tipped my head back, a huge bird silently swooped low over my head, then soared up to land on the house’s chimney. By the light of the star-studded night sky, I could easily recognize the bird. The long-eared owl looked down at me and hooted three times.

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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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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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Copy Cats

Children are natural copy cats. They want to do what the grown-ups do.
Kathy in 1952 or 53. Tammie in 1984.

I glanced around at the cluttered kitchen and leaned against the counter dejectedly, feeling tired and depressed. Making meals should be so much easier now that the kitchen remodeling was finally finished. I had double the cupboard space and countertops. This is what I had wanted and waited for. What was wrong with me that I felt so unexcited about my good fortune? Was the summer heat getting to me?

Making meals and cleaning up after them had been hard for the last several weeks. The stove was disconnected. The sink had no running water. All the things I normally kept in the kitchen were stacked higgeledy-piggledy in the dining room. Until a few weeks ago, the prospect of finding places to put everything in the new cupboards sounded like fun. Now I felt I lacked the energy to do the job.

My husband Arnie walked into the kitchen just then and saw me leaning on the counter looking miserable. He asked, “What’s wrong? I thought you’d have half the kitchen put to order by now.”

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Frozen Heart

I forcefully jammed the blade of my shovel into the pine needles. Ground frozen solid under the light snow cover, stopped the metal tool from going any deeper. Spotting a pine branch that had broken off the tree during a fall storm, I sadly told my daughter Tammie, “Maybe the ground under the branch isn’t frozen.”

My guess was correct. After moving the branch aside, the shovel bit into the earth. This time large tree roots three inches under the surface stopped me from digging any deeper.

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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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2020 Vision

Mom took the casserole she’d made the night before out of the refrigerator and placed it on the counter. It looked beautifully creamy and was topped with slightly browned, buttery bread crumbs. Half of it had been eaten. She encouraged, “Taste it.”

I reached into the silverware drawer and selected a fork. The mouthful I scooped up contained shrimp and a filet of fish in a thick, white sauce that tasted of lemon and pepper. I spotted bright slices of carrots and celery. The taste was exciting and exotic, probably owing to the plentiful presence of shrimp. “I’ve got to have the recipe for this!” I enthused.

On the following Thursday, I bought the ingredients needed to make the seafood casserole. Friday was my day off. I spent the afternoon painstakingly following the recipe. By the time my husband came home from work, it was ready to come out of the oven. I set the table and placed bread and butter between our plates and a trivet in the center of the small kitchen table in our mobile home. Carefully using oven mitts, I took the hot dish out of the oven and placed it on the trivet. I proudly announced, “Our supper is ready, Arnie. Come and eat.”

My young husband came and stood behind the chair at his place but didn’t sit down. He stared at the dish in the center of the table. Looking grumpy, Arnie questioned, “What did you make for supper?”

Taking a deep breath of shrimp-scented kitchen air, I explained, “Mom made this dish recently. It has shrimp in it and tastes really good. Try some.”

Seething, Arnie pointed out in a tightly controlled voice, “All I want and expect is a decent supper after working all day. I will not eat seafood casserole.” Picking up a slice of bread, he savagely slapped butter on it. Then he stalked angrily into the living room, all of eight feet away, and sank down on the sofa to glare at me as he stuffed the bread into his mouth. Devastated, I cried.

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