Immortalized

I don’t know the women who crocheted this lace doily and antimacassar, but I think I understand something about them.

A century ago, maybe she saw a doily pattern with a wheat motif in a magazine and made it on a lark—the same impulse that has led me to make a quilted pin cushion, add a mosaic to a small box, decorate a shirt with reverse embroidery, and so many other projects. I was curious about the process and making stuff is fun. Most of the time I’m only trying to please myself, so it doesn’t matter if my creative ventures are one-and-done. 

Whoever made the antimacassar might have been more invested. Perhaps she spent weeks one winter, creating the elaborate design, a piece she’d be proud of. She could have spread a towel across the back of a chair to keep off her husband’s macassar hair oil when he leaned back for a snooze. Instead, she made something pretty. I understand the impulse—if you’re going to see it every day, why not have something pleasing? Maybe detailed crochet was her art form, like pottery and quilting are mine. 

When I told a friend about a minor project to machine embroider some muslin towels, she said, “You’re so creative.” I balked, “There are so many people who are wildly creative and talented. I’m a dabbler.” She insisted, “Say yes. And thank you.” My friend is right about me, but sometimes it’s hard to own this urge. Easy to downplay or dismiss creativity that’s expressed everyday things. 

I squint into the future and imagine someone picking up a quilt or ceramic bowl I’ve made. She or he might find a different purpose for it—cut the quilt into placemats, hammer the bowl into bits for a mosaic, or some other project I can’t even imagine. If my things get repurposed, I won’t feel disrespected at all. They were fun to make. They pleased me. They don’t have to last or be cherished like museum pieces. Maybe like me, this future creator will wonder about the person who originated it.

In the pottery studio, when I spread the doily and antimacassar onto clay and transfer the lacy patterns with a rolling pin, I’ll admire the craftsmanship, patience, and skill needed to make them. Those women and their work will be acknowledged and celebrated in mine. Immortalized.

A dish I made with another doily

Beyond Peshtigo

The Great Chicago Fire began October 8, 1871. More than 100,000 residents were left homeless and 300 lost their lives. Help flowed in nationally and internationally to rebuild the city.

North of Chicago, the largest and deadliest forest fire in United States history took place the same day in Peshtigo, Wisconsin. Over 1,200,000 acres (1,875 square miles) burned. The number of people killed can only be estimated because church and government records burned in the fire. Some of the 1,500 to 2,500 men, women and children would never be identified. The fires were so intense that some victims were totally incinerated. 

Many of the Peshtigo fire victims were immigrant farmers and small-town dwellers. Belgian and German settlers bought acres of cheap land to farm only to discover thick forests covered the area. Along with the railroads and timber industry, farmers slashed through the trees and left much wood on the ground. It was not unusual to see several small fires burning. Even ships in Green Bay and Lake Michigan experienced visibility problems from smoke. In 1871 drought dried fields and wood waste. October 8 a cold front moved in and whipped flames from many small fires into a giant firestorm with temperatures of about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

People who hid in their wells or storm cellars died. People who tried to outrun the flames in their wagons or buggies died. Some burned, some suffocated. Others drowned while seeking refuge in rivers or ponds. The flames formed a tornado of fire that tossed buildings into the air. Peshtigo was burned to the ground with only two buildings remaining. Fires burned on both side of Green Bay touching Marinette and stopping short of Sturgeon Bay.

The Belgian Heritage Center remembers the fire each October and the dramatic impact it had on its community. Thick wooded lands were transformed into barren acres. Wooden farmhouses were replaced by red brick buildings. Roadside chapels stood near many homes. 

My Belgian ancestors lived in the Peshtigo fire area. This year I find a strange comfort in the reality that awful fires are not a modern experience but have devastated parts of our country before. Instead of seeing our current wildfires as one more sign that we are heading toward doom, history is reminding me that there can be more living on the other side of disaster. Learning from the disaster to make the rebuilding smarter is the challenge.

Roadblock

A screeching, beeping monster clawed a mountain of dirt from my front yard, pirouetting in a repetitive mechanical dance.

In a surprising moment of consideration, the monster’s keepers preserved my ratty, overgrown boulevard garden, which fringed the gaping hole where sidewalk used to be. As if that garden is worth the care they gave it! They didn’t know I’d gladly be rid of the hosta and daylilies.

Workers in neon green coveralls appeared waist deep in the front yard. Urban prairie dogs. Do they like standing in holes, dirty and damp? Being where the rest of us don’t go? Searching for a pipe—hidden—but not exactly a treasure. 

Weeks later, cars still charge up to the roadblock in disbelief, apparently thinking, You can’t stop me, I’ll get through. Some seem to contemplate launching à la Thelma and Louise over the one-foot precipice into the scraped dirt and escaping, only to accept reality, veer into a nearby parking lot, and cut through the alley. Back on their way.

That’s how this summer, or really this whole year, has felt because of COVID. We’ve hurried toward the life we wanted, only to see—again—not here, not now. Go around, adapt, try again.

At night it’s peaceful. No clattering buses driving by. No thumping bass from passing cars or snatches of song from cyclists.

Silent orange hazard lights blink like fireflies.

Summer of Just Enough

In a recent yoga class, the teacher suggested a meditation on the idea of enough. Not scrimping but having what you need. The opposite of greedy excess. Just enough. I’ve been thinking about that often in this odd summer of highs and lows.

In June, much of what I’d longed for during the long, oppressive COVID winter seemed within reach. 

Summer’s simple pleasures beckoned. Sunup at 5:30, sunset after 9:00. Walking early. Flowers everywhere. I’d plant my vegetable garden, visit the farmers market, and go to the beach.

Even better, I could be with family and friends easily, outdoors. Take a modest driving vacation.

I could contemplate more ambitious plans like visiting my siblings and extended family in Ohio and Wisconsin after two years apart because of COVID.

We had the joy of our younger son’s June wedding and the afterglow of our older son’s May wedding.

So many good things!

As June turned to July, those big helpings of happiness were tempered by sobering swallows of reality. High temperatures and humidity smothered the Twin Cities for weeks on end. Walking and gardening became chores I scheduled for early morning or close to sunset when the air was cooler and the breeze picked up a little. 

Cosmos and zinnias are hanging in there despite drought.

The beach, farmers market, and outdoor gatherings with family, book group, and my writers’ groups remained carefree and fun despite the weather.

July’s high heat and drought shrank Minnehaha Creek and crisped lawns. Hazy smoky air from western and northern wildfires shrouded the Twin Cities. What have we done to the climate? Why aren’t we doing something about it??

Less visible but equally scary was the delta variant’s arrival. “Maybe we’ll need to wear masks again,” became “Damn. We have to mask up.” With that realization came the sludge of past fears and present worries about risk. Ugh. 

While driving to see family in Wisconsin and Ohio, I’ve been masked and careful. Hugging them and talking naturally—in person, like pre-COVID—has felt so good. I’m so grateful we’re all still here.

Wisconsin prairie

As August swings into September, the weather has moderated a bit, but distant wildfires are still burning and the delta variant is more widespread. My worries about climate and health persist and I consider: have the summer’s highs outweighed the lows? Have they been enough? For me, yes. It’s hard to argue with the joy of happily married sons, the addition of wonderful daughters-in-law, or the pleasure of sharing a good meal with the family I’ve missed. All’s not right with the world, but my portion of well-being is enough.

Ohio porch

Quilting My Way Out of COVID

In February, I started planning a queen-size bed quilt. I waited until after the holidays so I’d have a big time-consuming project to help me get through the long uncertain months while COVID still raged. Who knew when I’d be vaccinated or when we’d be safe? 

I’d grown accustomed to the restrictions. Aside from grocery store clerks, the only people we saw were our sons and only for a few minutes. When they visited, they hovered near the front door never taking off their winter jackets—all of us masked. With everyone else, it was phone calls or Zoom visits.

Time was heavy on my hands. Cutting and arranging little strips of color one square at a time was how I’d keep sane until spring when we could see friends and family outside. 

At one level, I was immersing myself in a creative process involving color and texture—a visual challenge that has always attracted me. But part of the appeal this time was creating order, making sense of something when so many things outside my four walls didn’t make sense. Day by day I completed squares and made visible progress when the sense of progress out in the big world was tenuous. 

As March gave way to April, more people became vaccinated, including me. Winter eased up and I could be outside with friends again. In May and June, I began cautiously approaching a more normal life: seeing vaccinated friends, gardening, walking, and socializing.

I had less need of my quilting project, but it wasn’t finished. Like COVID, the project had lasted too long. I was so ready to be done. 

During the past week as I quilted the pieced top, batting, and back, I became intimately familiar with every inch and all the places where a seam wandered or a square didn’t align. But as my dad used to say when my husband fretted about a home repair’s small imperfection, “A guy riding by on a motorcycle probably wouldn’t even notice that.” 

If you’d asked me a week ago, I would have said the best thing about this quilt is that it’s DONE. 

Today, I’m again pleased with the cheerful colors. 

The quilt project served its purpose and its history will fade with time. A year from now, I hope only pleasure in the quilt’s color and pattern remains vivid.