Archive | February 2015

Minor Characters in Our Life Stories

In last week’s blog post I wrote about the Sunday dinners of my childhood. To keep the story short, I left out one of the minor characters in those dinners, Eva Frankson. I’ve been thinking about her ever since.

Eva lived with Grandma. My grandma had a small house across the street from the west side park in Cambridge. The house had a large eat-in kitchen, a living room, one bedroom downstairs and one bedroom up in the attic. The bathroom was downstairs – a room large enough to hold Grandma’s loom where she wove rag rugs. (That’s another story.) Eva had the bedroom in the attic.

Eva worked as a waitress in one of the restaurants on Main Street. Grandma had worked in the same restaurant, and I guess that is where they met each other.

Grandma - Eva - waitresses

Waitresses of the Cottage Restaurant in Cambridge, about 1950. My grandma is on the left. Eva is on the right. I don’t know the three in the middle.

When I was in grade school, sometimes I would go to my grandma’s after school instead of taking the bus home, and I’d wait for my mom to come home from work in Madison to pick me up. Grandma and I usually spent the time putting together picture puzzles. We both loved to do puzzles. I remember listening together, very quietly, to hear Eva come in the front door after her walk home from work at the restaurant. If she was really tired, she’d stop in the living room before climbing upstairs to her room. Eva would compliment us on our progress on the puzzle, and then she and Grandma would talk a little bit about the day. But mostly Eva just sat down and rested. She was tired. After a few minutes she’d climb the stairs to her room.

Eva and Grandma with their cats. Eva never liked to have her picture taken - that's why she's hiding behind her cat.

Eva and Grandma with their cats. Eva never liked to have her picture taken – that’s why she’s hiding behind her cat.

Whenever Mom invited Grandma to go anywhere with us, she often invited Eva to join us. Once they both rode with us all the way to Wheaton, Illinois to visit my sister Nancy in college. It was pretty crowded in the car with Mom and Dad, Grandma, Eva, Danny, and me. I remember I sat on Eva’s lap for the whole car ride of almost three hours. I’ll admit, I got tired of sitting still. But as I look back on the trip 60 years later, I guess Eva probably got even more tired of holding me, although she never complained.

Eva never said much about anything. She was always pleasant, but very quiet. I once asked Mom about whether or not Eva had any relatives. Mom said that her parents had given her away when she was a little girl. Someone had been visiting them, and they had commented on what a nice little girl she was. The parents said they could have her if they wanted her. So they took her home with them. I guess that’s all Mom knew about the story.

The one person Eva occasionally talked about was John. Another time I asked Mom who John was. She said that although Eva had never married, she had a son named John. He had been killed in a farming accident when he was 13. I never learned any more details.

Eva was a quiet, extra person in my life. Kind of like a bonus family member – another  grandma, but not quite the same. She was part of the Sunday dinner family. After Grandma died, Mom helped Eva find another place to live and continued to include her in many of our family activities.

Eva w coffeeWhen I was in college, I came to the realization one day that my brother Danny had grown from a subtly rebellious teenager into a kind and caring young man. It was the day I learned that Danny had become the person that Eva could call upon for help whenever she needed strong young muscles to move something heavy, or a creative problem-solver to fix something. Danny was always there to help her. I guess Eva’s quiet presence in our lives had enriched Danny’s life as well as mine.

I’m glad last week’s blog post prompted me to remember and be thankful for Eva, one of the many “minor characters” who has enriched my life story.

Dinnertime

Abbey Hungry 05-12-08

Abbey used to let us know when she was really hungry by bringing us her metal dish – and dropping it on the kitchen floor, making a clatter capable of waking the neighbors.

I guess today is a good day to talk about dinnertime. It’s Mardi Gras – Fat Tuesday – a time of feasting the day before beginning a forty-day fast for Lent. Mim and I are planning to go out for a musical feast tonight – an organ recital by Thomas Trotter (a fantastic organist from England) at the Overture Center in Madison. We’ll probably stop at Culver’s for a cheeseburger and fries on our way there. If the flavor-of-the-day is really good, we might splurge on a small dish of custard – but only if it’s a really good flavor. The real feast of the evening will be musical.

Bread for the Journey coverOver the past few days I’ve been reading about “the meal that makes us family and friends” in the book Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith by Henri J. M. Nouwen. The reflection for February 15 in this daily devotional book started with these words:

We all need to eat and drink to stay alive. But having a meal is more than eating and drinking. It is celebrating the gifts of life we share. A meal together is one of the most intimate and sacred human events. Around the table we become vulnerable, filling one another’s plates and cups and encouraging one another to eat and drink. Much more happens at a meal than satisfying hunger and quenching thirst. Around the table we become family, friends, community, yes, a body.

During most of my growing up years, Sunday dinner, eaten about 1:00 p.m., was the most special meal of the week. My mom usually put a roast in the oven before we left for Sunday school so that it would be almost ready when we got home from church, between 12:15 and 12:30. Mom had the potatoes peeled and waiting in the pressure cooker.  She turned the burner on to start the potatoes and grabbed a package of our own garden vegetables from the freezer, either corn or green beans. While the potatoes and vegetables were cooking Mom made gravy, and last of all she mashed the potatoes. My job was to bake some refrigerator rolls and set the table. Then the whole family gathered around the table, Danny and I said the “Come, Lord Jesus” prayer, and we ate and talked and laughed together. Often my Grandma Kenseth joined us for this meal. The meal ended with a dessert of homemade cookies, cake, or pie – and always ice cream.

What made this meal so special every week was that it was the only meal we all ate together. My dad was usually in the barn milking cows when the rest of us ate breakfast, and also when we ate supper. On weekdays, my dad was the only one home at noon. My mom was at work in Madison, and Danny and I were in school. Sunday dinner was the special time to eat together.  Besides sharing the meal, it was also a time for the whole family to be involved in conversation. I guess those Sunday dinners were pretty instrumental in forming our identity as a family.

In 1973, when I first met Mim and she invited me to share her apartment with her until I could find an apartment of my own in Chicago, Mim and I went out for dinner at the Buffalo Ice Cream Parlor (for cheeseburgers and hot fudge sundaes) to get to know each other a little, and to clarify our expectations as roommates. One of the rules Mim insisted on is that we eat meals together whenever possible, and that we would share equally in the cost of all groceries. I think Mim’s concerns were mostly about not wanting to keep track of which food belonged to each of us. But as Nouwen suggests, “Around the table we become family, friends, community, yes, a body.” Maybe Mim had an inkling of how important it is to share mealtime.

Mim and me, ready to sit down for Easter dinner in the dining room of our apartment in Chicago. We’re still dressed up from church.

Sharing meal time provides an opportunity for developing relationships better than almost any other activity. I was surprised to learn that this is true even for business meals. When I worked for Northwest Industries in Chicago I frequently had to travel on business. During those years I ate plenty of restaurant meals alone. I usually went to the restaurant with a notebook to outline plans and draft reports while I ate. But whenever I went out to dinner with a business associate instead of eating alone, I found that I got to know the person beyond the business context. By “celebrating the gifts of life we share” together over a meal, a genuine friendship usually developed. Meal time truly was a special time, even on business.

Twenty-some years later when Mim and I turned our farmhouse in Cambridge into Country Comforts Bed & Breakfast, we made the decision to have all our guests eat breakfast together around the dining room table. As our guests ate, we stayed in the dining room to refill coffee cups and to be sure food was passed around the table, and also to encourage conversation among all the guests. (We usually had four to eight guests at a time.)  One morning, near the end of breakfast, I remember a young man said, “I was dreading this breakfast – having to eat together with strangers, but I’m really enjoying it. I feel like we’re all friends.”

B&B Guests at breakfast

B&B guests at breakfast in our farmhouse

When we changed Country Comforts B&B into Country Comforts Assisted Living, we changed from sharing our breakfast time to sharing all meal times except breakfast. Mim and I and our residents all like to start our day at different times, so we each eat breakfast on our own. But lunch and dinner are always shared meals. I think that is a big part of what transforms our residents from being strangers living under the same roof into becoming caring family members of the Country Comforts family.

Sharing a meal with our Country Comforts family

Sharing a meal with our Country Comforts family

Today’s reading from Nouwen says, “The table is one of the most intimate places in our lives. It is there that we give ourselves to one another…. We invite our friends to become part of our lives. We want them to be nurtured by the same food and drink that nurture us.”

I’m glad Nouwen’s book prompted me to think about meal time. Whether we’re feasting for Fat Tuesday or eating more modest meals throughout Lent, it’s good to remember that “A meal together is one of the most intimate and sacred human events…. Much more happens at a meal than satisfying hunger and quenching thirst.”

Our extended family gathered around our extended table for Thanksgiving dinner in Chicago, 1984.

Oh, the Conflicted Month of February

The merry, merry month of May

The merry, merry month of May

Oh, how I long for the “Merry, Merry Month of May.” But first I must struggle through the conflicted month of February, and then March and April.

I’m tired of winter. There I’ve said it. But huge piles of snow and sub-zero wind chills just represent the most obvious burdens of February. It’s the time of year I have to get serious about catching up on all the accounting for our business. I have to enter hundreds of transactions into QuickBooks. All the scraps of paper that I’ve just shoved into file folders all year long now have to be organized, analyzed, and keyed into the computer – one of my least favorite activities. About one full week of misery is what it takes to do the accounting for the year, at least to clean up our record-keeping to the point that I can turn everything over to a real accountant to figure our taxes.

Snowy Patio ChairI can remember when February was one of my favorite months. I remember one really special morning in February. I don’t think I was old enough to be in school yet. My mom did something really special for me. She took a heart-shaped cookie cutter and pressed it into a slice of bread. Then she pulled off the bread outside the cutter – which included all the hard crust I didn’t like – leaving behind a heart-shaped slice of bread. She buttered the bread heart and topped it off with her home-made strawberry jam. Paired with a cup of hot chocolate that was the best mid-morning snack I’ve ever had in my life.

bread valentineMy favorite holiday celebration in grade school every year was Valentine’s Day. We always had a party in the afternoon of Valentine’s Day, but we began preparations for the party about a week ahead of time. We covered a great big box (about 2’ x 2’ x 2’) with white paper. The teacher cut a slot on top of the box. Then we all cut out the fanciest red hearts we could imagine and pasted them all over the box. This became the valentine box. Day by day for the week leading up to Valentine’s Day we brought valentines for everyone in the class and dropped them into the box. For our party, the teacher would select a few students to be the mailmen. They opened the box and delivered the valentines to everyone. It was so much fun to carefully open every envelope and see what valentine each classmate had selected for me.

valentine - dogs sipping sodaIt had also been fun to spend hours at home over the week leading up to this party selecting which valentine I would give to each of my classmates. In the earliest grades, my mom bought me a book of valentines that were printed and perforated on heavy paper. I would carefully punch out each valentine, trying really hard not to tear it. When I was in the middle grades, my mom was working at a job in Madison, and she could afford to buy me the more expensive package of valentines that I didn’t need to punch out. I still like to look at the packages of valentines at dollar stores to see how closely today’s valentines resemble the ones I remember giving and receiving.

Another fun thing I remember doing for Valentine’s Day was pooling funds with my brother Danny to buy a beautiful heart-shaped box of chocolates for our mom. Of course, she always shared the chocolates with us, which made the surprise gift for her even better.

Valentine Candy Box 3So February is both a terrible month for me – I’m sick and tired of winter and I have to spend days doing the accounting I hate to do; and a joyful month for me – a time filled with happy childhood memories. It’s a conflicted month.

On that note, I think I’ll put on my down-filled winter jacket and ear muffs, put Floey’s pretty blue coat on her, and go for a short walk. Some fresh air will feel good, even if it’s cold air. Maybe I’ll make some hot chocolate when we come back.

Floey playing in snow

 

Better Than Counting Sheep

Counting SheepOne night last week I couldn’t sleep. I’d taken a Sudafed for some head congestion, and my body just wouldn’t let me drift off to sleep. So, I tried to heed the advice I’d received from a friend and shared on Facebook a week or two ago – use the time to talk with God.

God and I started out by talking about all the things I was grateful for that day. Mim and I were up at Christmas Mountain for a few days, and we’d had a nice, restful day together. After about half an hour of thinking about the events of the day and all the good things that came to mind, I was still wide awake. I guess God wanted us to talk a while longer.

The next topic that came up was all the heroes in my life – or the people on “God’s Guest List” for my life, to use author Debbie Macomber’s phrase. I spent most of the night remembering lots of people who had impacted my life in a very positive way. This was kind of like counting sheep, only each sheep was a person in my life that I was thankful for.

Of course, I started with my mom. Without a doubt, she was the kindest, most loving person I have known in my life. You know that, because I’ve written about her a lot in my blog.

Elsie at PresHouse

Mom worked at the Presbyterian Student Center at UW during most of my growing up years.

Then I thought about my sister Nancy. She was 11 years older than me, so she was almost like a second mom. She was truly my hero when I was a child. She started teaching me to play the piano before I was in school. When she went away to college she subscribed to a bi-monthly children’s daily devotional guide for me to get me in the habit of reading my Bible and praying every morning before getting out of bed.

Nancy-Marian-Danny going to church

Nancy, Danny, and me ready for church.

The next person who came to mind was Mrs. Knoblauch, my first grade teacher. I had lots of good teachers as I grew up in Cambridge, but Mrs. Knoblauch was the one who got me off to a good start in school. The day I remember best in first grade was a blustery day in the fall. When I was out in the playground after lunch, a speck of dirt or a falling leaf blew into my eye. It hurt and my eye wouldn’t stop watering. Every day when we returned to the classroom from the playground after lunch, we would sit at our desks while Mrs. Knoblauch read us a story to quiet us down. That day, she looked at my eye first to be sure I would be okay, and then had me sit on her lap while she read the story to the class. I knew she loved me and would take care of me.

Then I thought about all my grade school, junior high, and high school teachers. Some made the list of heroes, some didn’t. Same for college professors.

I was still wide awake, so I went back to thinking more about my family. My brother Danny and my dad both made the heroes list, people that I admired and who had a positive impact on my life.

Danny is only two years older than me – so we were close enough in age to fight with each other about almost anything. We still disagree on many things, but we’ve learned not to fight most of the time. What I admire most about him is that he inherited our mom’s commitment to being kind and helpful to almost everyone. Probably the most valuable thing I learned from Danny is how to fight when it’s necessary to fight, and how to get along without fighting when that’s the best thing to do.

Working up the soil for his last garden

My dad still drove his tractor until about a month before he died, at age 87.

The earliest memory I have of my dad is riding on the tractor with him. I would sit on his lap and watch his hands on the steering wheel, especially that little gadget that was a ball-like wooden handle that enabled him to control the steering wheel with just one hand, even on bumpy fields. (I vaguely remember these gadgets were considered unsafe, so he eventually had to take it off. I know it wasn’t on the steering wheel when I started driving the tractor a few years later.) I guess the most valuable thing I learned from my dad is that you need to take responsibility for getting things done, regardless of the obstacles that may come your way. If the hay needs to be baled and the hay baler is broken, you figure out how to fix the hay baler. You don’t wait for someone else to do it.

Mim head and sky

Mim – my best friend for 42 years and counting …

I continued to think about all the people who have been positive influences in my life – throughout my career, in my social life, and in my spiritual life. Mim certainly was on the list, along with people who have lived with us (and their families), my aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, classmates, fellow church members, … and, of course, my dogs.

I was able to keep “counting sheep” for several hours, feeling more and more grateful for all the people who have helped me become who I am today. Since you readers don’t have most of a night-time to review all these people with me, I’ll simply say, God and I had a nice, long conversation. Thanks to one sleepless night, I am more appreciative than ever of the many people who have touched my life.

Patti-Margaret-Holly-Edith cropped

Patti (left) and her sister Edith (right) were among our many delightful assisted living residents. Edith’s daughter Margaret and granddaughter Holly joined “God’s guest list” for Mim and me when Edith first became a member of our assisted living family.