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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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Devil Winds

Devil winds can’t be seen unless they pick up dust, drying hay or water, but you sure can feel the sassy little things if they decide to rearrange your hair.

Rain drops speckled the office window. I stared at my dreary wind-and-rain swept yard with a hot mug of tea in hand. As more and more rain fell, the drops formed rivulets and trickled down out of sight. The smell of bacon from breakfast still hung in the air. Tammie, sitting in the office recliner was working online. I could hear the soft tappity-tap of her keyboard.

Taking a sip of the hot drink, I savored its comforting warmth and taste. I complained, “March is such an unsettling month.”

Looking up from her computer, my daughter asked, “I forget, did the month come in like a lion or a lamb this year?”

Turning to face my daughter, I exclaimed, “That’s what’s wrong with March and spring in general. It has such extreme weather from one day to the next and sometimes from one hour to the next.”

Nodding, Tammie wistfully commented, “When I left the house more often, it was hard to know how to dress on spring mornings. If I left the house without a jacket because it was hot, by the time I returned home in the afternoon, I’d be shivering because it was snowing and there were two inches of slush on the sidewalk.”

I added, laughing, “I’ll bet you left home other mornings bundled up against freezing temperatures and within hours, you wanted to know if there was some way to take off your coat and heavy sweater while caught in a traffic jam.”

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Making the Rounds

The unexpected feeling came over me suddenly. I went to stand at my office window. Surveying the blanket of wet snow lying heavily on the flowerbed along the driveway, I cupped my cold hands around a mug of hot tea. Until now, I hadn’t given a thought to the plants and bulbs in my yard since the first major frost in September.

A mix of curiosity and desire, along with a deep, longing to see things growing in the yard where now everything looked dead and frozen filled me. I wanted to know if the daffodils, crocus and grape hyacinths in the flowerbed were going to come up and blossom this spring. Would the herbs I’d planted near the trees along the south driveway flourish or wither this summer?

What triggered my unfulfilled gardener symptoms? I suspected the warm, forty-degree days Wisconsin enjoyed the last week of February. That, and the combination of a snow-covered yard, below-zero days and a five-month respite from gardening gets to the best of us. My mind wanted to jump back into digging in the ground, even though the weather and my body were signaling the desire was at least two months premature.

I complained to my daughter Tammie, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way yet. We’re still at least a full month away from “Making the Rounds” weather!”

Raising one eyebrow, Tammie questioned, “What’s ‘making the rounds weather’?”

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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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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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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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