Thursday, July 29, 2010


I haven’t heard a new story from my 91-year-old mother in quite a while. But today, when I visited, she had just had her hair freshly washed, set, and combed. There must have been something about feeling all spiffed up with no place to go that helped her remember another tale of growing up in Carlisle.

She had been looking out the window of their assisted living room when she spotted a small plane flying overhead. “A plane!” she said excitedly, a little like Tattoo on “Fantasy Island” used to shout to Mr. Roarke at the beginning of the show.

She scared the pitootie out of me, but my dad, who was fast asleep in his chair, didn’t move a muscle.

I turned around to look out the window, too. “Do you remember the first time you ever saw an airplane?” I asked, watching the plane fly out of sight.

She looked blank for just a minute. Then she got that faraway look in her eyes that I have come to recognize as ‘data bank retrieval.’ She had remembered something.

“We had planes flying overhead occasionally when I was a girl,” she said, “but I remember the time a plane landed in Ugstad’s field.”

“Where was Ugstad’s field?” I asked.

“Right between our farm and the Eide farm,” my mother said. “It was on our path to school.”

“Did you see it land?” I asked.

“No, it landed on the weekend,” she remembered, “but we walked right by it on Monday morning when we went to school. It must have been the early 1930s.”

“Why did it land in Ugstad’s field?”

“It had engine trouble, I guess. It was a big transport plane that carried cargo, flying from Minneapolis to Canada, and it had engine trouble over Carlisle. So it had to land in the field. Luckily it was spring and they hadn’t done any planting yet.”

Source: Wikipedia

“Did you walk over and see the plane?” I asked.

“Oh, everyone around Carlisle went to see the plane.” Then she got a sly look on her face. “But they did something kind of bad that made those airplane people angry.”

“What did they do?” I asked, surprised that the good Norwegian Lutheran farmers around Carlisle would purposely sabotage the plane.

“They all started writing their names on the tail of the airplane,” she laughed. “It was covered with names. I guess they all thought it would be fun to have their names flying around in the sky.”

“Did you write your name on the plane?” I asked.

“No, we were just school children. It was the older ones who wrote their names on the plane’s tail.”

“How do you know the airplane people were angry about the names?” I asked.

“The day the men came to fix the broken parts on the plane, my father walked out to the field to talk to them. He said they were hopping mad. They were repainting the tail so the names wouldn’t show,” she smiled. “Oh, they were mad all right.”

“Had your father put his name on the tail?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” my mother said quickly. “He wasn’t the ‘writey’ kind. He was quiet.” I thought about that one for awhile. It isn’t every day that you find out your grandfather wasn’t into graffiti.

“Well, that’s a story you haven’t told me before,” I said finally.

“I had forgotten it,” my mother said, that faraway look back in her eyes, gazing out the window. “It was a huge plane. Or maybe it wasn’t so big, but I thought it was big because I had never seen an airplane up close before.”

I looked over at my dad, hoping to verify some of her facts, but his eyes had been closed during my entire visit. I wasn’t sure if he was sleeping, because even though he’s sometimes half awake, he doesn’t have the energy to keep his eyes open.

I secretly hoped that he had been one of the young men in Carlisle who had written his name on the tail of that plane. I suppose I’ll ever know for sure, but I’d like to think my dad’s signature is on a vintage plane somewhere, hidden under a coat of paint.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


I am a list maker. Back when I was a productive member of pre-retirement society and had an actual job, I had a forever-and-ever-never-ending “To Do” list on my desk. I’d check tasks off as soon as I’d get them done—and sometimes, if I did a task that wasn’t even on my list, I would write it down post-completion for the sheer pleasure of checking it off.

Since I’m still a list-driven person, I recently decided to start a new list. This is in addition to my daily To-Do list, my grocery list, my Target list, my bucket list, my list of books to read, etc. The new list will be “Things to Ask God When I Get a Chance.”

I’ve already decided on the first question I plan to ask Him.

Normally, on a Wednesday morning, my back yard looks like this:

It’s a lovely back yard that rolls gently into the Methodist Church parking lot. It’s always nicely mowed and trimmed. We couldn’t ask for nicer neighbors than the Methodists. I’m not sure what all the tenets of their church entail, but evidently they believe in keeping their church grounds neat and tidy. I think that says something inherently good about Methodist-ism. However, this morning, a typical summer Wednesday, my back yard looked like this:

A parking lot.

Today, the Methodists had a memorial service for a wonderful 61-year-old retired teacher and basketball coach who fought a losing battle with cancer. The church was full of neighbors, relatives, friends, fellow teachers, former students and team members. . . hundreds of people who came to pay their respects to his family.

Sometimes we were rolling on the floor, laughing at some of the stories friends and family shared about this unique man. And sometimes, we needed Kleenexes or handkerchiefs—or a surreptitious sleeve—to handle our emotions. There’s such a fine line between laughing and crying, and occasionally we were doing both at the same time.

So back to my list.

I’m no dummy; I realize that there may not be a “question and answer” period at the Pearly Gates. And I certainly don’t want to be disrespectful of the heavenly in-processing system. But just in case there is an opportunity, I’m starting my list of questions.

So here is Question Number 1 on my list for God:

If, on one hand, there are people praying in a heart-felt way to spare the life of a productive, younger man who is the rock of his family and community; and, on the other hand, a different group of people are praying in a heart-felt way to help an elderly man pass away quietly and with dignity—well, why does it go the opposite way?

I’m not questioning God's wisdom; I just want to understand something that seems so incredibly unfair as I’m looking at it from my lowly perch here on earth.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


On Monday morning, I decided to do the four-mile route on the Central Lakes Trail that runs just a few blocks from my house. It’s a wonderful trail and I’ve written about my hikes on the trail over and over again. But what I haven’t mentioned is trail etiquette: what is the polite way to interact with other people on the trail?

Volumes have been written about trail etiquette in general—the golden-rule, common-sense advice for being a good trail sharer like: stay to the right, leave your *!#&**! cell phone at home, bikers yield to hikers, etc.

I thought it might be helpful if I shared my ten years of trail-walking experience in offering proper trail greetings to your fellow trail users.

Rule 1: A single hiker meeting another single hiker raises one hand in greeting (to show that you aren’t carrying a weapon), smiles slightly, and says, “Hi” or “Morning.” It is not necessary to say the entire “Good morning” greeting. Three syllables are w-a-a-y overkill and make people feel a little creeped out. One or two syllables are plenty.

Rule 2: A single hiker meeting a runner needs to evaluate clothing before deciding on a greeting. If the runner is wearing mesh shorts, a tank top with a number on it, and a Timex Personal Trainer heart rate monitor, you might as well save your breath. The runner is probably already on mile number 19 and his or her glazed eyes don’t really see you anyway. Just stay as far to the right as possible and try not to get hit by flying sweat.

Rule 3: A single hiker meeting a runner who is 40 pounds overweight and wearing a pair of “mom” or "dad" shorts, huffing and puffing red-faced along at 3 miles per hour, should greet the runner warmly. Smile, encourage, give a thumbs up, and say, “Way to go!”

Rule 4: A single hiker meeting bikers wearing racing spandex and aerodynamic helmets while riding Litespeed Carbon bikes should be very cautious. The hiker should just get as far to the edge of the trail as possible and stay out of their way. These bikers don’t want to say “hi” to you. In fact, they really just wish you would stay the heck off their trail. You are only a blur in their peripheral vision, so do not—I repeat, do not—attempt to make friends.

Rule 5: A single hiker meeting a biker dressed in khaki cargo shorts and a sweaty 1984 Rolling Stones tee-shirt should raise one hand in greeting (again to show that you are not carrying a weapon) and say, “Hi.” The biker will always say “hi” but may or may not return the wave, depending upon how skillful he or she is at riding the bike. For some amateur bikers, a hand off the handlebars can result in a serious, death-defying swerve. Do not take it personally if the hand-lift greeting is not returned.

Rule 6: A single hiker meeting a dog-walker evaluates the situation based on the size and aggressiveness of the dog. Large dogs with sharp teeth straining against leashes are not a good risk. Stay as far right as possible. Do not raise your hand in greeting as the large dog may think your hand is lunch. Do not fall for the old line, “Slasher just wants to make friends,” that many vicious-dog owners use to lull unsuspecting hikers into a state of trust. Slasher does not want to be your friend. Slasher wants to take a chunk out of your leg.

Rule 7: A single hiker meeting a dog-walker with a three-pound toy dog of any breed, especially if the dog-walker is over the age of 60, should be prepared to stop and talk for at least 15 minutes. If you think you can sneak by with a simple hand wave and “Morning,” think again. The word “morning” will trigger an entire conversation about the afore-mentioned morning including the temperature, the day’s forecast, what we all had for breakfast—which somehow leads to everyone sharing their cholesterol numbers, both their systolic and diastolic blood pressure numbers, what surgeries they have had, and what type of medication they are on. Unless you want to spend another 15 minutes talking, do not even mention the dog.

Rule 8: A single hiker meeting a child biking on the trail must unfortunately just keep walking without greeting or waving or doing anything that might be interpreted as child accosting. Sometimes I wish it were 1963 again and grandmas walking along the trail could smile at kids without being viewed as pedophiles.

So there you go. Rules for hikers. If you find yourself in an etiquette quandary out there on the trail, don’t say you haven’t been told.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Tom and I mostly stumbled our way through parenthood. From 1975 through 1999, from the time our first child was born until the last child left home to go to college, we were pretty much faking it. I’m not even being modest; we had no idea what we were doing.

We never read a book on how we should raise our children. Come to think of it, there weren’t that many child-rearing books out there when our kids were small. Even if there had been, we wouldn't have been able to afford them anyway.

We often said the wrong things when we should have been offering wise parental counsel. We occasionally fed them junk food instead of healthy food. We were sometimes lenient when we should have been tough—and sometimes got all hard-nosed and pissy about things that didn’t matter. Sometimes we put too much pressure on them to do better—and other times we didn’t give them enough credit for what they had already done.

They wore hand-me-down clothes from their cousins (thank God for those clothes!). I had to work, so they were shuffled off to day care on a regular basis. We dragged them to church every Sunday and insisted they be home in time for dinner at night. They got very little sympathy when they were sick, so they learned not to be sick very often. Sometimes our parental patience was so thin we could hold it up to the light and see through it.

But despite Tom’s and my amateurish efforts at parenthood, we ended up with three good kids. And those three good kids, through their own efforts, became three fine adults.

Our family keeps growing. On Saturday at 5 o’clock mass, the kids all got together and baptized Luke, the newest member of my son and daughter-in-law’s family. Aunt Shannon was honored to be the godmother, new cousin Tommy and his mom and dad were there, and Tom and I cheered them on from 1,700 miles away.

But when Tom and I saw this picture, we couldn’t help but be grateful that despite all of our stumbling and bumbling as parents, we have been rewarded with these eight beautiful people:
Which brings up an important question: How can parenting be so humbling—while at the same time make us feel so proud?

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Imagine coming home from a three-day absence and finding a yard full of this:
The Youth Mission Group at our church is having a fund raiser for a trip to Mexico this summer, and for a fee, anyone can “Flock” someone's yard. The sign our our door said, “Congratulations! You’ve been FLOCKED!”

Who would do such a thing to two mild-mannered, community-minded, God-fearing senior citizens like Tom and myself? Who would look at a bin full of pink flamingos and think, “Let’s flock those geezers!”?

The culprits?
You know who you are! (And most likely, it was the short, blond one’s idea.)

You’d better watch out—Tom and I are famous for our devious plots to get even! We may be old, but we have many, many tricks up our sleeves—and we have friends in low places. Be afraid—be very afraid . . . heh, heh, heh . . .

Friday, July 16, 2010


My sister-in-law Phil has rented the same cabin on Grace Lake, east of Bemidji, Minnesota, for 25 years. For the past few years, she has been desperate enough for company that she has encouraged Tom and me to join her at the lake for a couple of days. This year, because Tom chose Alaska over Grace Lake (no accounting for taste), I ventured off to Bemidji by myself to keep Phil company.

A little background: Tom comes from a family of 12 children, born between 1928 and 1951. Phil is No. 1 child and Tom is No. 8. Using your deductive math skills, you can figure out Phil’s age without me telling you exactly ('discretion' being my middle name).

The rented cabin sits about 20 feet from the shoreline of this clean little lake. I suppose nowadays, there would be lakeshore zoning laws that would make this illegal, but back when the cabin was built (in the 1940s?), people could build their cabins wherever they wanted. And whoever built this cabin wanted to be able to put his or her toes in the water while sitting on the front deck.

I look forward to coming to Grace Lake because of:

1)The incredible sunsets . . .

2)The simple, lovely meals that magically keep appearing on the table through no effort of my own . . .

3)Surprises like an egret taking a leisurely morning stroll along the shore, or a bald eagle landing on the dock to eat its breakfast . . .

(Unfortunately, when I opened the door to take a picture of the eagle, it got scared and flew away. Its breakfast was later consumed by three 47-pound crows.)

4)Phil’s stories about my husband’s family (and you know how I love a good story) . . .

5)Lazy, leisurely days where the tempo of the day is set by the sound of the water lapping the shoreline . . .

6)The security of the county sheriff living in the house next door . . .

7)Violence confined to the occasional swatting of a bottle fly that finds its way inside the cabin. . .

I've always dreamed of living on the water, so I am grateful for family and friends who are willing to share their water with the water-less people in their lives.

“Amazing Grace” reads a sign in one of the neighbors’ yards as Phil and I go for an afternoon stroll along the lake. Grace Lake—I really do feel like I “was lost but now am found” as I sit on the dock with my feet in the water.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


So, out of the kindness of my heart, I opened my home for the summer to a house guest who is not exactly related to me—and it turns out she has some habits that are a little annoying.

First, she snores. I didn’t really notice the snoring until Tom left for his Alaska fishing trip and the house got really, really quiet. “Zzzzzzz-thweeee. Zzzzzzz-thweeeee,” she breathes in and out, in and out. ‘Get your adenoids checked,’ I think crossly and move to another room.

Second, everybody knows that the worn-out, rust-colored chair in the living room is mine. It’s got all my important stuff around it: the book I’m reading, my crossword puzzle, my flash drive. It’s my chair. Everybody knows it . . .

Everybody, that is, except my house guest. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into the living room in the past month to find her sacked out in my chair. Sprawled all over it. And she doesn’t make a move to vacate it, even when I glare at her. “What?” her body language silently challenges, acting all innocent. “What’s your problem???”

Third, I’m a modest person who needs her own space and privacy. My house guest doesn’t have a modest bone in her body. She just bops on into my bedroom any time she feels like it. She’s even opened the bathroom door when I’m getting out of the shower. Oh, there’s always a reason—she needs a drink of water, she just wants to socialize—always a flimsy reason.

You’ve probably figured it out by now. Poppy, the foster cat, is back for a few months while daughter Shannon spends the summer in Arizona.

So here she is (Poppy, not Shannon), shedding in my chair, napping on my bed, lapping water off the shower floor, and snoring.

And absolutely refusing to let me feel lonesome when Tom is 2,000 miles away, off on his adventures.

Poppy and Friends in 2009

(File photo necessary because Tom packed the camera when he went to Alaska to take pictures of the alleged 400-pound halibut and alleged 35-pound salmon that he plans to catch.)

Monday, July 12, 2010


Tom is away for a week, fulfilling one of the dreams on his personal bucket list: fishing in Alaska. Halibut, salmon—he plans to bring home coolers full of it. So I’m on my own for a few days, which means I hang around my folks’ assisted living facility a little more than necessary.

“Tell me a story, Mom,” I said this morning when I went over to visit. Sometimes I sound like I’m around five years old. She looked at me over the top of her glasses. For some reason, they don’t stay up on her 91-year-old nose as well as they used to.

“A story about what?” she asked. I shrugged. I didn’t care. I just wanted to hear a story.

“Maybe about when you were a teacher,” I suggested. My mother taught in a one-room school house, District 111 in Oscar Township, from 1939 to 1941. “Didn’t you tell me a story a l-o-n-g time ago about a student who had trouble passing a test . . .” My voice trailed off because I could see that her memory had been triggered.

“Eugene Johnson,” she said. “That boy’s name was Eugene Johnson. I don’t know whatever happened to him.” She stared out the window a minute, thinking.

“It was the State Boards,” my mother continued. “All the eighth graders had to take the State Boards and we teachers worried and worried about whether our students would pass. Eugene was always absent from school, and I knew he wouldn’t be able to pass his State Boards at the end of the school year.”

“Was he absent because he had to help his father with the farm work,” I asked, “or was he sick?”

“Oh, he had health problems,” my mother said. “I don’t remember what was the matter with him, but he had to stay home a lot. His father was a singer and his mother was an organist. Eugene was an accordion player. My, he could play that accordion! His father was handsome, unusually handsome, and Eugene’s sister Marjory was just as beautiful as her father was handsome.”

“But Eugene had trouble making it to school,” I prompted, trying to get her back to the story. She seemed a little fixated on how handsome Eugene’s father had been.

“He missed so much school that year that I was certain he wouldn’t pass his State Boards,” my mother shook her head. “But when I got the scores back, he had passed. I couldn’t believe it.”

“I suppose Eugene was pretty happy,” I said.

“I don’t remember if Eugene was happy,” my mother laughed, “but everywhere I went that whole summer after school was out, there was Eugene’s handsome father telling everybody what a wonderful teacher I was—how I was one in a million—how I was such a great teacher that Eugene had passed his State Boards.” She shook her head. “I was embarrassed, but he kept telling everyone.”

She sat in her chair for a minute or two. “I still don’t know how Eugene managed to pass his State Boards” she said. “But I do know that I had nothing to do with it. He was just lucky. But that father kept bragging about me. My, he was handsome.”

My mother sat in her chair, thinking.

“We teachers used to really worry about the State Boards. We heard that when Mabel [my father’s oldest sister] was teaching in Carlisle [around 1933], she was living at home. Several mornings in a row, Olga [Mabel’s mother] went upstairs to wake her for school and found her crying into her pillow. ‘Are you pregnant?’ Olga had finally asked. That got Mabel to sit straight up in bed and demand, with her eyes snapping, ‘Mama, what kind of a boyfriend do you think I have??!?’ It turned out that she was crying every morning because she was so worried about her students taking the State Boards.”

We laughed at the mental picture of my very prim and proper aunt Mabel sitting up in bed and scolding her mother. My dad opened his eyes when he heard my mother and me laughing. “Do you remember hearing that story about Mabel?” I asked my dad.

He slowly closed his eyes again. “I don’t remember any more,” he whispered. And he went back to sleep.

Friday, July 02, 2010



I have been retired for one year, five months, and two days. Why I should start worrying now, of all times, is beyond me. But that’s exactly what I’ve started doing.



Looking at the (gasp!!) want ads.

Worrying that I’m not productive enough to justify the 388 cubic feet of oxygen I am inhaling on a daily basis.

Up until now, I’ve enjoyed the retirement freedom of self-scheduling. Only people with 32 years of appointment/planning books based on breaking a day down into 15-minute increments would understand how liberating self-scheduling is. It’s the luxury of not having to be in a certain classroom at 7:55 a.m. or in a particular meeting at 3 p.m. or at an appointment with a struggling student at 4:10 p.m . . . The luxury of using the bathroom whenever you feel the need rather than at 7:52 a.m., 11:57 a.m., and 4:13 p.m.

But now I’m worrying about things as insignificant as—well, as insignificant as blurring my clothing lines. In the past, my work clothes were definitely my work clothes and my non-work clothes were definitely my non-work clothes. Last weekend, I looked down at my shirt as I sat in church and realized that it was the same shirt I wore when I swept out the garage the week before. When did that happen? When did my wardrobe become just one big shapeless, all-purpose, one-shirt-fits-all-occasions blob?

Is this the dreaded “retirement letdown” that I’ve heard other people talk about? Is this the lack of “meaning, fulfillment, and challenges” that the retirement experts warn about?

Or is it just constipation?

Or a misunderstanding with a vital ally?

Or an in-between-projects ennui (I’ve always wanted to use that crossword puzzle word in a sentence.)

Or lack of Vitamin D or iron or riboflavin in my diet?

Or loneliness for my family that lives 1,700 miles away?

Or sadness at seeing my parents growing more frail by the day?

Or mourning for the worn-out elastic on my favorite sweat pants?

Whatever it is, I need to get ahold of myself before I do something irrational—like update my resume.

I need a project or a cause or a crusade! I need to regain that just-retired joie de la vie—joy of life—that I had in abundance one year, five months, and two days ago!