Like a Tree

Reluctant to step out of the house, I scanned the dark, dreary backyard. Thick, gray clouds hung low in the sky. Pine trees along the backside of my yard were a dull, unremarkable green. In the flowerbed along the driveway, the recent frost damage was all too evident. The hydrangeas, once covered with pink blossoms, now had brown, frost damaged leaves.

Pulling on a jacket and zipping it halfway up, I stepped out on the back deck. A cold wind whipped around the corner of the house and tried to get inside my coat. The sudden chill was an unwelcome surprise. I zipped the jacket all the way up to my neck. Picking up a lawn rake, I walked around the corner of the house. The only deciduous tree in the center of the yard glowed like a huge, organic light bulb against the background of the drab yard. Half of the maple’s orange-yellow leaves littered the ground, the other half still clung to the branches.

Using the rake to clear a small area on the leaf-smothered lawn, I found what I expected. Close to the grass were red leaves that were the first to fall. The store had called this tree a sunset maple when purchased. But I have been disappointed almost every year since Arnie planted it. The sunset red leaves seldom light up its branches in autumn.

The tree is like a cantankerous person with a mind of its own. The leaves stubbornly don’t usually change colors until all other trees in the area have not only changed colors, but also dropped their leaves.

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Nighty-Night

The phone rang just as I had my hand on the door knob to step out of the house. A friend I seldom see anymore was on the line. We talked and caught up with each other’s lives.

As we got ready to say, ‘good-bye’, my friend asked, “What sort of plans do you have for the rest of today?”

I admitted, “I’m putting my garden to bed for the winter. If I get everything done that I want to, I’ll be a muddy mess by the time I come back into the house,”

 With the call over, I pulled on my gardening coat and wrapped a scarf around my neck. Picking up a pair of garden sheers, I left the house. Walking across the lawn towards the garden, I thought about the phrase, ‘putting my garden to bed’. It reminded me how I had I hated bedtime as a child, and how Mom had struggled to get me settled.

When my family started to pray our nightly rosary, I knew my evening was over. Immediately after, Mom insisted I put on my nighty, brush my teeth and use the bathroom to prevent a cold, middle of the night trip downstairs in the dark. As I unhappily trudged up the stairs, Daddy would cheerfully call out from his favorite chair in the living room, “Nighty-night. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

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Night Shift

Arnie’s 1966 navy Impala pulled into the driveway. Slipping into a jacket, I picked up my purse and ran out the back door of my rent-a-room house. A crisp fall wind swirled colorful leaves from the tree overhead through the air.  In the car, Arnie greeted me with a kiss. Before backing out of the driveway, he asked, “How was your first day working for Saint Joseph’s Hospital?”

“Amazing. I got to see a baby born!” I excitedly responded. “The mother had medical problems, so it was a high-risk pregnancy. Evelyn and I got to observe everything from start to finish.”

“Evelyn?” my boyfriend questioned.

“I wasn’t the only new employee to start working on the obstetrics unit today.” I explained, “Evelyn is older and has worked on other units at the hospital in the past.”

My boyfriend and I had met in June, the same month I moved to Wausau to work at Hospital North. We soon began seeing each other each day. Between his job and visiting me, Arnie was driving over 100 miles a day. By September we knew we were headed for marriage, so I applied for a job at Saint Joseph’s Hospital and we both moved to Marshfield. Arnie found a rooming house for himself, while I rented a bedroom from Alma, a widow who lived two blocks from the hospital. My first day of work was on September 29th, 1969.

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Armchair Gardener

Encouraged by the lovely fall afternoon weather, I wandered outside to inspect the flowerbed alongside the driveway. The first thing I saw was a small, innocent looking vine pushing up through the new layer of mulch. “Ack” I yelled into my silent, empty yard, and scolded, “You stupid, stupid weed! Don’t you know mulch is supposed to smother you?”

My body posture was tense as I leaned over to yank the little sucker out of the ground, root and all. A second later, I triumphantly held the weed up over my head. It had a five-inch white root and a twelve-inch vine. I loudly announced, “Ah-ha, that takes care of you!”

I had recently watched New Zealand’s All Blacks Rugby team do a goose-bump inducing Maori war cry, called haka before one of their games. Their yelling and intimidating posturing was impressive. In my mind, I was doing an American version of the haka to intimidate the nasty, unwelcome, but irrepressible bindweeds. Leaning over the flowerbed, I spotted dozens of other bindweeds that needed to be pulled up.

Bindweeds look cute when they’re small, but if they are not pulled up by the roots, they will take over the flowerbed. They wrap themselves around, through and over the top of any neighboring plants, strangling them with an abundance of triangular leaves and white flowers resembling small morning glory blossoms.

Leaning over, I began to pull the all the weeds within reach. I mumbled to myself, “One blessing is that they pull out easily because of the mulch.”

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Under Cover Cats

Tammie preferred living in dorms during her college and grad school years. Although the convenience and location worked for her, it also meant that she couldn’t have a pet. “Unless,” my daughter pointed out to me one day, “The pet can breathe under water for more than five minutes.”

I cynically commented, “Well, that rules out a cat. But we could get you a nice, colorful Beta fish, though.”

My daughter exclaimed emphatically, “No! I want a cuddly kitty like the ones I grew up with.”

During the last four years of higher education, Tammie spent countless hours wishfully staring at shelter cat pictures on a computer screen.

One day, shortly before Tammie graduated, she was home for a visit. Her sister Niki commented, “A stray cat has been hanging around our house for the last few weeks. Anne and Jon named her Buttons. Last weekend she crawled under our back deck and gave birth to a litter of six kittens. It was cold and raining, so I ended up taking the mother cat and kittens into the house.”

Tammie snapped to attention. She announced, “I’ll take two of the kittens off your hands. By the time they’re old enough to leave Buttons, I’ll be in the apartment I’ve rented and working as a librarian.”

Niki’s children fell in love with Button’s babies and gave them names. They didn’t want to give any of them up, but two kittens went to a farm family and were never heard from again. The children were allowed to keep two. One was gray, and hilariously named ‘Moldy Cheese’ while the black and white one was called ‘Salt and Pepper’. Tammie took the orange and white cat named ‘Macaroni and Cheese’ and a gray tabby they named ‘Carla’ after they heard Tammie say that was the name of the library director at her new job.

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Chuckle Berries

“Mom?” Tammie questioned. “Do you think you can get up and walk around for a while?”

         I looked sadly up at my daughter’s concerned face from where I lay on a cot in the corner of my living room. I’d had a total knee replacement three days earlier. Sick of how painful my leg felt, I complained, “Since my leg hurts even while laying down, I may just as well be up walking!”

Like a good little nurse, Tammie had come home for a few weeks to make sure I was well hydrated, exercised and comforted as I recovered from surgery. She placed the walker next to the cot and I pushed off the mattress with both hands and my good leg. My daughter suggested, “Let’s go out on the deck. It’s in the shade now and the weather is really nice.”

After taking a few steps, my surgical leg really didn’t feel that much worse, so I felt encouraged. Stepping out into the fresh air, I took a deep breath and sighed with satisfaction, “This was a good idea.” I settled down onto a deck chair. A lovely Goldilocks breeze ruffled my bedhead hair.

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Getting the Job Done.

I pressed lightly on the gas. The trailer hitched to my SUV inched backward. After a few feet, it became apparent that the trailer was veering too close to the house. Fighting the impulse to crank the steering wheel in the direction I wanted the trailer to go, I cranked it in the opposite direction. Overdoing the wheel turning, the trailer went the direction I wanted, but too much. It quickly jackknifed.

Grunting with disgust, I slammed on the brakes and eased forward. With the car and trailer straightened, I tried once again to back the trailer towards the coal chute. After much rocking back and forth, I finally placed my trailer, loaded with six tons of wood pellets close enough to the chute.

Getting out of the car I mentally prepared myself for the job ahead. Fortunately, many years before, my late husband had installed a coal chute in place of a basement window to make it easier to throw winter fuel into our basement. It was hard work throwing 300 forty-pound wood pellet bags into the basement, but I’d done it before.

Slowly and steadily I worked, tossing the heavy bags into the chute. When the pile of bags in the basement grew too large for more, I went to the basement to stack them on pallets along the walls. After a few hours all six tons were in the basement. The only help I needed was stacking the last two or three tons.

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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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Going Home

Seeing the movie, Wizard of Oz for the first time, the flying monkeys scared me and when the hot air balloon lifted off without Dorothy in it, my stomach tied itself in knots. Glenda, the good witch of the north’s cure for the change in plans was to made Dorothy to click the heels of her ruby slippers together three times and repeat, “There’s no place like home…there’s no place like home.”

There really is no place like the home where we first begin to record memories. The feeling of safety, the fascinating newness we found there and all the first experiences of our lives are filed in a nostalgia bin that we carry with us for the rest of our days.

Few people spend their entire lives in the same house they were brought up in. Some families move frequently and most people move when they reach adulthood. Fanciful memories of our first home makes us remember the rooms as larger, stairway banisters as longer, closets as doorways to Narnian adventures and all food served as gourmet quality.

My daughter moved her big family to a bigger home three years after she was widowed. The house came with several acres of land and was in a more convenient location. None of that mattered to the children.

My grandchildren were not happy about having to move. In their eyes, the small home they lived in, sitting on only one acre of land, was a beautiful, desirable place to live, far beyond anything a new house could offer.

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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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