In Memory

Door County, WI: Sunsets are earlier. Black-eyed Susan dominates gardens as hydrangea fade. Squirrels fearlessly dart across sidewalks, decks and paths to grab early acorns. Field mice and chipmunks are in the same race for food stores.

Trees are beginning to change. Yellowing leaves increase in numbers each day. Kids still run on beaches and play wherever a swing set is not closed. Young people gather with cases of beer, many without masks. More cautious folks crowd outdoor dining places. Multi-generational families wander about as if it were August 1, not September 1. COVID has changed the normal rhythms of summer while Mother Nature delivers heat and humidity where houses didn’t need air conditioning ten years earlier. Lake Michigan pushes beyond its all-time high water mark, devouring docks and houses’ front yards.

When it already feels as if the stars are out of synch, COVID has taken the fathers of three friends or relatives. Three members of the Greatest Generation, living in three different states, in congregate facilities for three very different reasons. Friends and family called them Jim, Dom, and Marlin. They had eleven adult children among them plus almost four dozen grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Two were veterans and one farmed his entire life. Family photos show them joking with great, tall grandsons, sitting with the newest grandbaby resting on an arm, in wheelchairs by Christmas trees. These were men who loved and were loved.

Thanks to COVID, they died comforted by staff members as their families were mostly kept away. In the heat of August, sons and daughters mourned the once strong fathers who built businesses, walked fields, fixed tractors, painted houses, taught them to throw a ball, sang next to them in church, made the final journey of life without endangering family.

The Greatest Generation is disappearing as COVID ignites within our communities. They fought for our country’s freedom, raised families, built the cars and houses and machines of the 20th century USA, fed the world. In turn COVID has left us unable to protect them, not even gather for proper farewells.

As summer sneaks away, as our elderly pass in the settings meant to keep them safe, as our days of small social gatherings and playing games outdoors with our grandchildren are numbered, COVID is like the spreading black-eyed Susan which left unchecked threatens to obliterate the beauty of other blooms.

In honor of James Armstrong, Dominic St. Peter, and Marlin Hunt. With sympathy to their families and to all who have lost loved ones to this pandemic. Friends, please help friends stay healthy and strong.

Black-eyed Susan

When it Comes to Downsizing, Fire is Not the Answer

Have you read “How to Get Rid of Stuff: The Survey Says…”?

Published on Next Avenue, the article features an interview with David J. Ekerdt, author of Downsizing: Confronting Our Possessions in Later Life.

Although I’m too busy confronting my own mountain of stuff to read Ekerdt’s book, the article brought me face-to-face with my own struggle to take control of my possessions.

One line in particular stood out to me. It referred to the “magical thinking” approach to downsizing, which can be summed up as wishing a fire would “take care of” all one’s possessions.

I’ve been guilty of such thinking. In fact, more than a decade ago, I fantasized about this exact thing with my friend Maery Rose.

Last week my fantasy almost came true.

That’s when I came home from a socially distanced visit with my aunt Caroline to a smoke-filled bedroom.  

It started because of my hair.

I haven’t had it cut or colored since the pandemic began, and it’s been driving me crazy. I wanted to give it a bit of TLC from all angles, so I plugged in a curling iron in my bedroom, where I could adjust the mirrored bifold doors of my closet to get a 360-degree view of my hair.

Though I didn’t love what I saw, a figured a few quick curls just before walking out the door would get me to “good enough.”

But in the middle of making those curls, I got distracted by a call and forgot to turn the curling iron off. What’s worse, while I was gone, it slipped from the radiator onto my bed, where I had a pile of clothes I’d been debating about whether to keep or giveaway.

By the time I returned home, the curling iron had burned through the clothes, as well as a treasured handmade afghan, my down comforter and my sheets. Even my mattress was beginning to burn.

I’m lucky I came home when I did. The damage could have been much worse. And while I certainly hope I never accidentally set another thing on fire, there’s one positive that came out of that day: I’m finally, after years of talking about doing so, letting go of those things that don’t fit my future self.

In fact, in the week since the fire, I’ve donated two carloads of boxes and filled my dining room with dozens more.

And thanks to this tweet by Angela Giles Klocke, I’m able to see some humor in the fact that the universe had to light a fire in my bed in order for me to finally take downsizing seriously.

Inspired by Angela, I’m now cross-stitching my own aphorism: “Home Is Where We Unplug Curling Irons So We Don’t Burn Down the House!”

Angela is right, it does have a nice ring to it, one I hope will keep both my home and hers fire-free from now on.

July 4th Weekend 2020

Some things feel normal this holiday weekend. Humidity and heat blanket parts of the nation. Corn is knee high in many fields. Red, white and blue bunting decorates front porches, small shops, and grocery cases where the traditional hamburgers and hot dogs are on special for cookouts. Someone in the neighborhood is shooting off illegal fireworks. The little kids are decorating their trikes and bikes for an exciting ride down the block with families standing at the curb wearing patriotic t-shirts and waving small flags.

That’s where holiday normal stops. No big parades, no gigantic firework displays, no large gatherings in a park with multiple grills and coolers full of shared drinks or food. Kids don’t wander from their front stoop as siblings ride down the street. Social distancing keeps everyone from huddling in groups to catch up on life. Adults, with masks in a  pocket, are trying to put aside their worries for a few hours.

We’re a country with deep problems. Some days the news is so discombobulating that sleep is evasive. More of our citizens have died of COVID-19 than we lost in WWI, twice as many as lost in Vietnam. Inequality is a hard truth digging into long held assumptions about US as a land of equal opportunity. Money and power are in the hands of too few with too many lacking access to food, healthcare, jobs, housing.

Halfway through 2020, many of us are tired and seriously challenged to find uplifting themes. With global economies and a global pandemic, there are virtually no nations sailing in smooth waters. There are many friends and family to grieve, much to repair, more to build afresh, and not enough resources to address all the needs.

On this July 4th 2020 weekend, I wish you all health, safety, and the strength to invest in citizen engagement through what will be long, tough months. Please be kind to each other, seek common ground, and vote when the opportunity arises.

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A Larger Force

Healthy exercise respecting social distance in the neighborhood appeared difficult with a cluster of kids playing soccer, family groups stretching across walks and streets, dog walking people following the direction of their pets. We drove to the quiet side of a nature preserve where trails are seldom used on weekends. One car stood empty in the parking lot. Parents with a preschool child exited a different car.

We waited for them, but as shoe tying and other preparations continued we made our way to the trail map. The youngster, possibly unaware of social distancing, ran to join us and told her parents that she wanted to be lifted to read the map. Offering her their hands, they assured her they knew the way. We backed away as the child threw a hissy complete with screaming, stomping, and slapping. The right trail choice was any that would create space from the unhappy kid.

As grandparents we’ve learned about giving young children time to make wise choices instead of forcing action on them. Children of privilege are supported in making choices many times daily from choosing to wear clothes to daycare through patient questioning of resistance at bedtime twelve hours later. Family, friends, complete strangers, might be expected to wait while a child tests the limits or can’t choose. It takes a village after all.

Then comes COVID-19—no negotiations, no children making choices, no endangering strangers by ignoring social distance guidelines. The village has been forced into change.

From closed schools, to prohibited playgrounds that look the same as open playgrounds, to stores asking only one family member do household chores; parenting has pivoted in answer to the dual wham of pandemic and economic storms. Parental instincts to keep things normal for the kids are strained as jobs are lost, employers demand long work hours in the family’s home, distance learning replaces classrooms, and being homebound stretches. Hugs of grandparents, cousins and close friends disappeared with no known date of return. Parents have had little time to concentrate on adapting to new burdens, to problem solve, to explore their personal fears or worries.

Experts say our kids experience anxiety of this crisis just like adults. Some will lose a loved one or friend. The soundtrack of childhood has been interrupted to never play in quite the same way. COVID-19 is drawing new lines on the future maps of kids’ adulthood. Our six-year-old family member misses her classmates, her neighborhood friends, going places with her parents. She understands that the sickness means she can’t ride her bike with other kids, climb or swing at the park, be physically present with her friends. The sickness is beyond her parents’ control. She can make good decisions about a snack or activity, but bigger forces now set the limits beyond the front door.

Technology gives us time to talk, play games, be with family. A plate or two on the table and tiny faces on a screen may be how we celebrate this spring’s holiday and holy day traditions with those we love. Better than no connection, a card or a phone call. COVID-19 denies us the powerful comfort of each other’s warmth, smell, physical presence whether around the dining table, at a special event, at a hospital bedside. Some of us will stay healthy. Some of us will die in the company of strangers. No screaming, stomping or slapping can change what we have to keep doing. We will gather to celebrate or grieve in the future. God willing.

Stay home. Stay safe. Keep others safe. May your holy day traditions provide comfort.

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The Family Tree

The Bayside Tavern in Fish Creek, Wisconsin has two buck burgers on Mondays during the off season. There’s a choice in seating– high tops, low tables, tiny booths for two, or stools at the bar. Narrow windows keep the inside dim. It is the place to go before the community Christmas tree is lit across the street, before the high school musical, to watch the Packers or Badgers or Brewers play. Maybe the Bears or Cubs for those brave enough to wear such jerseys. If you are a local, or a seasonal local, they probably know your name.

My Dad preferred a booth and ordered fried onions on his burger. He had haunts in Door County including the best places for good food. He knew the parents of people important in the community—the Catholic priest, the sheriff, a few bar owners.

So it was at the Bayside that my cousin Jeff Frisque and I met for lunch, the first time we had ever talked to one another except at family funerals. We connected through Facebook where many of the cousins have friended each other. Taking a risk, Jeff and I moved from responding to postings to trying a direct message.  Jeff’s father and one aunt are the last living siblings.

In my book, The High Cost of Flowers, the eldest sibling comes to the realization that to have the kind of extended family you want can require effort. And as the elders age, the responsibility passes to the children to do something, or to walk away. My husband and I are the elders of our families. That sounds easier to me than embracing the concept of adult orphans. We value the small circles of those connected to us by birth or marriage. Along with those we love, we have developed new traditions to stay close.

The Bayside Tavern might become a comfortable setting for weaving together the grandchildren of Michael Frisque. In his prime he spent many hours in bars, but I don’t know if he ever sat at this one. I didn’t know my grandfather well enough to say how he felt about his children and grandchildren. None of that was important in sharing lunch with my cousin Jeff.

Jeff is known locally for building and restoring exquisite log homes. We share love for Door County. We both showed up with spouses, a sign of how we value our families and would go to great extremes to protect them. We are not members of the same political parties although we may share a few beliefs. I think we are both tender-hearted about the right stuff. We both love or admire each other’s fathers. We walked away with each other’s email addresses and telephone numbers.

We also both like burgers at the Bayside. Mark that on the family tree.

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