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Two Steps at a Time

Hurrying, I grabbed the moving box containing bathroom toiletries and bounded up the staircase in our new house, two steps at a time. Undaunted by the effort, I immediately began to put them into a cupboard. At the moment, the house my husband Arnie and I had bought was a hollow shell. All the rooms were empty. None of them showed that they now belonged to us. Turning this house into a beloved, cozy home for our little family, was up to me.

With the recklessness of youth, I never questioned if I was able do something or not. In addition to being a homemaker, I worked outside of the home as a Certified Nursing Assistant. When male patients worried that I wasn’t big or strong enough to get them up for a walk after surgery, I’d laugh and say, “I’m a farm girl. I can carry two bales of hay the full length of a barn with no problem.” My busy, active life was all as easy as running up a staircase two steps at a time.

I started to get hints that I wouldn’t always be young and physically strong in my mid-thirty’s. Arthritis began to make my hands ache and after sitting for a while my feet and hips would be very stiff and sore. No problem. I just barreled through life ignoring these minor discomforts. If I had stopped to think about it, I would have recognized that my twinges and aches sounded very much like the twinges and aches my elderly mother had described. It was hard to take Mom seriously though. When she had a bad day, she just limped and laugh it off with a complaint of, “Oh, my aching pinfeathers!”

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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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Hand-Me-Downs

When I saw the garage sale sign, I pulled over to the curb. Children’s toys littered the lawn around the open garage door. In the yard behind the house, I spotted a swing-set. I thought to myself, “This place looks like the perfect place for me to shop.” Inside the garage I spotted several tables heaped with household items and clothing. Across the back of the garage was a rack of children’s clothing.

After a few minutes of looking through the sale items, I realized that the family putting on the sale had daughters just a year or two older than mine. I picked out several items of clothing that my growing daughters needed. Everything was in good condition and clean. Feeling like I’d found a buried treasure, I rushed to pay for them. If I had bought the same items in a store, I wouldn’t have been able to afford them. The woman took the money from me with a big smile. It was a win-win situation. She needed the money and I needed the clothes.

Being the youngest child of my family, I grew up familiar with the concept of secondhand clothing, otherwise known as hand-me-downs. When I became a mother, I quickly realized that with children constantly changing size until their teenaged years, it makes sense to reuse clothing. The minute I take my garage sale purchases home, I put them in the washer and add soap. That instantly makes the secondhand clothing stop belonging to someone else.

One of the small dresses I took over with my “soap and water ownership” method that afternoon was so cute, I put it on my youngest daughter while it was still warm from the dryer. My husband happened to come home just then and suggested, “Let’s take the girls out for a fish fry.”

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Thin Crust

The water was only lukewarm when I opened the shower door and reached in to feel it. I shrugged, guessing I hadn’t turned the water valve open far enough to get the heat I wanted. Pushing the valve further open, I stepped under the disappointing cascade of water and warily waited for the much hotter water to begin pelting my skin. Moments passed as I cold shampooed my hair. The shower stubbornly stayed a constant lukewarm temperature. An alarm began to go off in the responsible, homeowner, adult portion of my mind, “What’s wrong with the hot water heater?”

Refreshed by the shower despite its unsatisfying water quality, I quickly forgot about running to the basement to check the water heater. That act of responsibility reentered my mind several hours later as I cleaned the kitchen counters and the kitchen faucet gave an abundance of hot water for me to rinse a dish cloth. I sighed with relief, “There’s nothing to worry about. The hot water heater is fine.”

The next morning, I got up and washed my face as usual. The water from the tap was only just warm, but I attributed that to not having let the water run long enough. With water pipes snaking through the walls of a house up to a second-floor bathroom, it isn’t reasonable to expect instant hot water.

An hour later when I turned on the kitchen faucet, not a single drop of water came out. Deep in the plumbing below the counter I heard, “glurp”, the sound of a pipe choking on an air bubble.

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Please Don’t

My sister Mary laid on the bed we shared, reading a book. She giggled as she read and turned the pages. I snuggled close to her on the mattress and looked at the page she was reading. To my disgust, there were no pictures of Donald Duck or any other cartoon character on it. Annoyed that I was breathing in her face, Mary sat up and threw down her book. I glanced at the book’s name. It was, “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” by Jean Kerr. My opinion of Mary’s cartoonless book skyrocketed as I thought, “What a funny title! Who would try eating Daisies? They smell like they’d taste bitter.”

Agnes and Rosie, my two older sisters had moved out of the house and were recently married. Their old bedroom, with its blue ceiling dotted with silver stars, was now my bedroom to share with Mary. She was sixteen-years to my nine years of age, so I annoyed her on a regular basis. Despite that, she was mostly patient with me.

Mary suggested, “Let’s go for a bike ride.” I jumped to accept her invitation. Who knew how long would it be before she was the next sister to move out of the house and get married? As it was, she already didn’t want to ride bike very often any more.

When Mary and I pedaled back into the yard, she wanted to go back to reading. Finding a shady spot for a lawn chair, my sister opened the book and disappeared into it.  

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Cruise Director

Billy stood up from the restaurant table and tottered. I moved closer to my brother in case he started to fall. When his blood pressure dropped with a position change, he would often faint. Although both of my brothers had Parkinson’s, he had been diagnosed first and showed more symptoms. Casper, my other brother was already standing at the cashier, looking back to see what was holding us up.

This was a typical Friday night for me for several years.

Going out for a Friday night fish fry had once been an occasional treat. That changed a few years after my husband died. Because of Parkinson’s, my bachelor brothers started to need a little help. I began visiting them at the farm each Friday night to fill their pill boxes and pay bills. Those were the things they needed. But what they wanted was to go out for a Friday fish fry every single week.

I won’t lie, there were a few weeks here and there that I really wished I could stay home or do something else.

To add variety to my brothers Friday night experience, I tried to take them to different restaurants each week. I often invited one of my friends to join us. Some weeks one or both of my daughters joined us, too. When my sister Agnes and her husband Jim moved back to Wisconsin, they also became members of my Friday night fish fry club.

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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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Sore Leaf

My sister Agnes followed me around the side of my house. Stopping and pointing dramatically at a towering bush beside the living room window, I exclaimed, “Look how big my Pinky-Winky hydrangea bush has grown. I’m glad I didn’t plant it right below the picture window. We wouldn’t be able to see out!”

Each time my sister and I visit each other, we walk through our respective yards showing how the flowers and bushes are doing. Moments before my big hydrangea reveal, we had examined double pink hollyhocks growing beneath the kitchen windows. As we inspect, we discuss what we see and like.

While walking through Agnes’ yard once, I remembered following my mother and her sister Theresa, who was home for her yearly visit, from flowerbed to flowerbed in our backyard on the farm during my childhood. Each year Mom and Daddy made a one weekend visit to visit Theresa, where they did the same thing at her home.

I’m not sure if all families talk and look at plants as much as my family has and still does. Our botanical interest goes beyond common backyard flowering plants. Even the weeds growing in the fields and along the road fascinate us. Most of my family members know many of them by their common names if not by their Latin genus and designation.

I remember walking through the yard with Agnes when I spotted a broadleaf-plantain growing alongside my driveway. My sister Agnes glanced down at it and commented, “When Casper, Rosie and I were little, we called that a sore leaf plant.”

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Secondhand Embarrassment

One evening after school, I walked into my family’s living room and to my great astonishment, found Jim, my brother-in-law, setting up his television for us to watch. He informed me that he and my sister Agnes and their baby, David, were moving away so they wouldn’t be needing it. “Moving?” I questioned.

Jim kept working on the backside of the second-hand television he was giving us. “Yep,” he answered absent-mindedly, “I’ve reenlisted in the army.”

Being a typical ten-year-old, I never read the front page of the newspaper, or listened to radio news. But that didn’t stop me from knowing something bad was going on. I had heard grownups talk in quiet tones about something called “the Berlin wall crisis.” Being an intelligent kid, I knew that Berlin was a European city located in Germany, the homeland of my grandparents. Just what was going on, I didn’t know.

Trying not to think about my sister moving away, I made a point to learn what shows were available, what days they were on and whether Mom would let me watch them or not. We had only one channel and I wasn’t allowed to turn the television on before 6:30 in the evening. One thing I discovered about watching television was that I needed to turn some knobs to make the picture stop rolling.

My only experience with televisions to that point was occasionally being able to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings while visiting my neighborhood cousins. One memorable afternoon after ice skating on their pond, we watched ‘Zorro’, the masked man with a swift blade who avenged all wrongs.

I loved watching television shows but something weird happened to me very often when they were on. No one else watching with me ever seemed to have the same problem. One evening while watching Mr. Ed the talking horse, the weird thing happened. The show was about Wilbur doing something really stupid because of his horse. Wilbur didn’t want his wife or neighbors to find out what he was doing. As an inevitable confrontation approached, intense anxiety and embarrassment filled me. Feeling like I was going to explode, and not wanting to see the end of the show, I jumped to my feet and raced out of the house.

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Screamed Windows

When Daddy finished the evening milking chores, he went straight to the bathroom to wash up and shave as he always did. During the summer when Daddy was done milking, the sun was still high in the sky. But not today. The house felt unusually dark and shadowed. The air was heavy and humid, as if the world was waiting for something to happen.

I felt restless and uneasy, so I followed Daddy into the bathroom and sat on the edge of the bathtub to watch him lather his face. I chattered to him about my day. He listened with a nod and smile, then wet his special whisker brush and energetically dabbed it on the disk of shaving soap on the bottom of a coffee mug. After spreading the resulting white foam on his whisker stubble, he turned and grinned at me.

There was a flash of lightning. The bathroom light momentarily dimmed. I startled to my feet. Seconds later, a crash of thunder made me press against Daddy. He said, “It’s okay, just a little thunder and lightning.”

Mom nodded, sat forward in her chair, and called, “Kids, it’s time to pray the rosary.” To Daddy she said, “We’ll pray that the storm doesn’t do damage.”

When Daddy’s whiskers were gone and the smell of cows washed away, we went to join Mom in the living room. As he sat down in his favorite chair, he said to Mom, “The storm is moving in fast. I hope it doesn’t bring wind that flattens the oat fields.”

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