Beating the quarantine

I attended a concert this afternoon, and I think I saw that there were over 400 people there at one time or another.

Social distancing? Oh, there was plenty of that. I was in my own home here in Wisconsin. The performer, Eric Lewis, was in his own home in Tennessee. Each of the audience members was in his own home, scattered around the country. It was a live-streamed online concert, and ain’t technology grand? It would be much harder to survive this Covid-19, quarantine-yourself virus without it.

This streaming concert was part of a Monday-through-Friday schedule of virtual live activities hosted on the Facebook page of the Door Community Auditorium in Fish Creek, Wis., in the same county where I live. My musician husband George was one of the performers last week. Every day at 2 p.m., we music lovers gathered around our devices to watch other local musicians–Eric is local seasonally–perform in front of their iPads, rattling their virtual tip jars and smiling and chuckling with an audience they couldn’t see.

Earlier in the day there were morning meditations, tours of artists and their work, storytelling, and finally a dance session. There was something for everyone and it was all very joyous, the result of a community working together to rise above social isolation regulations, to share the need for connection. We’re like a community of meerkats, popping out of our burrows to wave and say hi, even if not in person.

Before we even knew about this series of online events, GeorgeGeorge had decided to do his own live concert on his FB page, sitting on a stool in our living room, in front of our fireplace with a crackling fire, and me in my ‘jammies in the chair next to him but well off camera. People were charmed by the idea, and his group of fans and neighbors and old Chicago friends showed up, online, to listen and leave comments and applause emoticons.

Our friend, musician and artist Jeanne Kuhns, started a daily “sing for my supper” offering at 5 p.m., cranking up her iPad to chat a bit with viewers and then sing one or two of her original tunes. She usually started with her cat Wrecks on her lap, purring and rubbing and doing his best to remind her that it was HIS suppertime, too, and he wasn’t inclined to wait until she’d sung for it. Jeanne plopped him down, gave him his Screen Shot 2020-04-02 at 6.45.01 PMbowl of kibble to keep him busy and quiet, then picked up her guitar for 15 minutes or so of entertainment.

Normally, George plays dinner music for the yacht club members on the first Friday of each month. Not happening this month. Oh wait–yes it is. He’s playing from our living room, and the yacht club emailed its members to tune in. The show must go on!

It’s not just entertainment that has taken up technology to reach out to sequestered audiences. Our cathedral streams daily and Sunday Masses, as do many individual parishes. Our pastor has offered “front-porch confessions” with privacy and social distancing guaranteed–not a use of technology, but definitely a use of creativity.

For me and George, this whole thing hasn’t changed our lifestyle a great deal because we’re retired, and we’re homebodies, so our daily schedule looks much the same as it ever did. He’s had some gigs cancelled, of course, and I can’t get to the quilt store. But, as one nun suggested for surviving this forced cloistered existence, we’ve followed a schedule and the days are done and gone before we realize it. Phone calls from friends, trips to curbside pickup at the grocery store, walks with the dog, time for prayer, time to cook and do chores, time for working on the things we like best.

“Remember,” I told George this morning, “when we used to get up in the morning and cheer when we realized we had nothing special on our calendar that particular day? Now we can do that every day!”

The trick, of course, is not to project; not to fearfully anticipate weeks or months ahead with nothing on our calendar, because too much of a good thing ceases to be a good thing. So, we focus on today as if it were our only day–and for all we know, it may be. No one is guaranteed anything but THIS day.

We take our precautions, we enjoy each other’s company, we call friends and neighbors who aren’t online to give them local news they can’t get from television, we email family–in other words, we do stay connected.

What we don’t do, and what we probably should do, is keep a journal. This is a historical time that hopefully will never be repeated. Fifty years from now people might be interested in how a country survived, or how their own ancestors survived and coped during this outrageously unexpected pandemic.

Posted in Covid-19, Music and musicians, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Cleaning Grandma’s house

Some of my fondest childhood memories include me, on my hands and knees, carefully cleaning the pipes beneath the bathroom sink in Grandma’s house, or scrubbing around the sink drain with an old toothbrush.

It’s not that I lacked for other activity. Like other kids my age, I wanted to play outside, fly kites, go to the library, hang out. But Grandma’s health wasn’t good, and a stroke had left one arm paralyzed. Grandpa was busy with what was considered “men’s jobs” so my cousin Karen and I were recruited to help out with Saturday chores.

Somehow, doing chores at Grandma’s was much different from working around my own house. For one thing, I didn’t have two pesky younger sisters to ride herd on during the process; instead, I had someone my own age, someone with two absent pesky younger brothers. We could work side by side, comfortable in our shared oldest-sibling status, commiserating with each other and sharing the secrets of the first-born.

Grandma, a meticulous housekeeper, first explained incleaning detail how we were to tackle each chore. We weren’t limited to one room in the house, but for some reason it’s the bathroom I remember. Maybe it was the small quarters that created the feeling of intimacy–and privacy. With two young teenagers in there, there wasn’t room for Grandma.

So, while I attacked the sink, Karen did the corners and baseboards with a rag, finger poked into it as instructed, ferreting out any errant dust mite that thought it might have found a place to hide. Although we were alone in there, Grandma would be inspecting later.

When the tub sparkled and the sink shone, when the toilet glistened as well as the ones on TV, when the rugs had been shaken and then replaced, and the towels rotated from the supply in the linen closet, Karen and I had time to dawdle. With the door shut, we were sure Grandma wouldn’t notice.

She did, of course. secretsShe must have. How could she have missed the murmur of young voices, rising in indignation at tales of woe or high-pitched with giggles engendered by the silliness teen girls have mastered so well. So, it was her wisdom that left us there for a while, bonding, enjoying the sense of freedom that came from thinking we were getting away with something.

I’d sit on the edge of the tub, Karen flipped down the lid on the toilet and sat there. We talked about boys, of course, daring to whisper the names of the ones who had caught our eyes. No one else would ever know–the boys above all–but saying our feelings aloud made them real and valid. We talked about what our parents let us do and what was forbidden, and what we’d do as soon as we were old enough to make up our own minds. We compared classes at school and which teachers just weren’t fair.

We loved those times. We didn’t appreciate the lessons we were learning–about keeping a house (almost an old-fashioned notion nowadays), about trusting someone else with feelings and dreams, about helping a grandmother who, at only 60 or so, looked extremely old in our eyes–and giving that help without expecting pay. Those Saturday mornings gave us purpose and prevented the aimless wandering that filled the hours of some of our friends.

Those mornings also built our self-esteem. It’s a word not bandied about so much in those days, but was, I think, innately better understood then than it is today, despite all the hype it now receives. We knew we were needed, and grandmawe knew that our abilities were appreciated enough that good performance was expected. We were a necessary part of the larger scheme of things–but allowed to be so in a way that still respected our young years. What a gift Grandma and our parents gave us.

I still clean toilets and scrub around the sink drain with an old toothbrush. Karen doesn’t join me, of course; as an adult, she lived a couple states away, tending her own house. Eight years ago, Karen beat me to heaven where she no doubt compares stories with Grandma. But I think of both of them often as I wipe down those pipes and poke my rag-wrapped finger into the corners. And I giggle, to myself, in memory of those young girls and the wise grandmother who gave us responsibility and space.

Posted in family, friendship, Memories, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Will you please answer me?

I have a solution for making parts of society run a whole lot smoother: answer your email.

On a professional level, that seems a no-brainer. If someone contacts you about a project they’re doing for you, or a service you’ve offered to them, not much progress can be made without your approval, your recognition of content or timelines or whatever is involved.

As a freelance writer, I have deadlines to meet, schedules to follow, authorization to obtain before the final project is finished. When I don’t hear back from the people I answer to, I’m stymied, especially if a second email yields no results. Usually I proceed on the assumption that no news is good news and usually I’m right. But nothing makes me angrier or more frustrated than to carefully let everyone know my plans, get no response and then later learn I have to switch everything around because they couldn’t be bothered to let me know about changes or conflicts on their end, things I could have worked with if I’d known.

“We need to make changes. I’ll get back to you.” “Call me.” “That won’t work.” How hard could it be to type that and hit send?email

While it’s imperative that there be clear, timely communication in the professional or business sphere, it’s true in the personal realm, too. No one likes sending an email, especially if comments or answers to questions are expected, and then hear nothing back. Emails DO get lost, so you always wonder if this is one of those times.

Sometimes the recipient is just too busy for a detailed response, or maybe they’re just not in the mood. I know that happens to me. But for heaven’s sake, at least acknowledge receipt. “Got it. I’ll get back to you” would suffice. Then make a note and DO get back to the sender.

We live in an age of instant communication, and we expect instant responses. Sometimes that’s a lot to expect, and sometimes it’s not even necessary. But there are times when a lot is riding on knowing the answers. No response COULD mean there’s trouble on the other end. It could mean your email server isn’t working properly. It could mean someone is sick or incapacitated. If you make a habit of not answering, no one will know for sure.

To not respond at all is just plain rude. It’s the equivalent of totally ignoring the comments of someone standing right in front of you. It’s easy to do when you’re not looking the person in the eye–and yes, I admit, I’ve done it. After this, I’ll mend my ways. I’ll try to remember that good manners apply to the digital age, too.

Posted in communication, emails, Human behavior, Lifestyle, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Good intentions and fun distractions

About five months ago I decided I was going to write a blog every week, just like I once wrote a column every week for the newspaper where I worked.

I was inspired by a monk friend, Eric Hollas, who posts one every Monday morning, just like clockwork. ( I know he’s a busy man, having important work to do for St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. I know he travels a lot, too, and also maintains the monastic schedule when he’s home.

Well, here I am, retired, no commitments except those I’ve volunteered for. How hard could a blog-a-week be? I’ve certainly got enough opinions about things, and enough to say when I happen to be with other people.

So, I wrote my blog, and then a week later I wrote another. That was five months ago. I haven’t written one since.

At first, I thought it was because I don’t do as much as I once did, me sewingno fodder for the mill. But come on. A writer should be able to find inspiration anywhere. No, that wasn’t the culprit that stilled the flow. The culprit was quilting.

Quilting is something I always said I’d never do. I’ve sewn apparel ever since I was in grade school, but all those putzy little pieces in a quilt didn’t look at all appealing. I won’t bore you with the details, but a couple years ago, a friend showed me an intriguing method I had to try, and I made my first quilt. This year I made two more. Then I discovered quilting videos.

I watch those videos with as much devotion and enjoyment as some people watch Masterpiece Theater. Quilting “daily deals” flow into my inbox and tempt me with possibilities. Every new thing I try only encourages me to ria's quilttry another one. I hardly have the patience to get through daily chores so I can head for the sewing machine and my latest projects.

Write about quilting, someone advised. Yes, but the writing would take up time when I could be sewing. You see the problem? I thought about writing–when I was making my Christmas place mats. I thought about writing as I worked on the quilt for my daughter for Christmas. I finally cast aside the blog-a-week idea as I worked on my Christmas table runner, and the Rudolph wall hanging, and the coasters, and the table toppers, and…

I’m writing now, though. Alas, it’s not a case of writer’s reform. Two weeks ago I had knee replacement surgery, which isn’t conducive to sitting at a sewing machine. Now I CAN’T sew. I have to go through endless therapy sessions before I can get back to all those quilting projects dancing in my head.

So, here I am, laptop on my lap, thinking and writing about good intentions and fun distractions, and a life with too many options. All in all, it’s not a bad problem to have, is it?

Posted in Blogging, Lifestyle, quilting, sewing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Getting my town back

What a difference a few hours makes. And if I didn’t know it before, I’d know it now: I’m definitely an introvert.

At 1:30, coming home from an after-Mass lunch, the streets were crawling with people and cars. Lots of “foreigners,” of course, people from elsewhere visiting this vacation destination. Double lanes of cars at the four-way stop, crowded streetdawdlers and gawkers on the bridge who obviously don’t live surrounded by water like we do, hurry-hurry, scurry-scurry, left turns from through lanes, sudden turns with no blinkers, shopping bags full of gewgaws in one hand, double-dip ice cream cones dripping in the other, kids whining and foot-dragging, cameras dangling, sunglasses hooked in I’m-so-cool shirts.

I shuddered. “Let’s get home,” I told George, and we made a beeline.

empty streetThree hours later, I drove home from a photo assignment, traveling the same route as earlier. A car here and there and no wait at the corner, parking places empty, fresh air instead of exhaust fumes, not a pedestrian in sight. Sigh-worthy peace. My town reclaimed.

The difference, of course, is that it’s Sunday afternoon and the glut of vacationers has dissolved. They’re all out on the expressways, racing pell-mell, speed limits expresswayignored, back to Milwaukee or Madison or Chicago or wherever they escape from. They’ll be back next weekend, but until then, I won’t miss them. At least the crush is down to the weekends; with school approaching, the weekday visitors are dwindling. Thank goodness.

That’s how I know I’m an introvert. I recently posted a picture on Facebook of the small Michigan town where my sisters live that swells like a sore tooth to three and four or more times its size in the summer. I posted it as a warning: approach at your own risk.

But then someone commented that they love that kind of busyness, the hustle-bustle, the activity. At first I was surprised, but then I remembered that extroverts are energized by that kind of cheek-by-jowl lifestyle. We introverts are not. As the old saying goes, “Introverts aren’t party poopers; we just just poop out at parties.” I do enjoy visitors one at a time, here and there, in a quiet conversation or two. It’s the faceless horde I can’t abide.

I know I’ve got a lot of nerve complaining about tourists. The businesses here depend on guitaristthem because we don’t see much of them in the winter. The small towns toward the tip of our peninsula who make their money in the summer all but close down in the off season. Even my husband, a professional guitarist, is much busier in the summer thanks to that influx of Door County wannabes.

But, when we’re being really honest, even the ones who love the crowded festivals and throngs of visitors admit they look forward to the quiet season when the tourists all go home and we get our county back. They, too, enjoy finding a seat in their restaurantfavorite restaurant once again, taking a walk down the road without the sound of cars beating a path to the next attraction, finding nature and nothing but nature on a walk in the state parks. Musicians find time to gather together and listen to each other, something they miss out on in the summer when they’re playing their own gigs.

So, yes, for me it’s a love-hate relationship with the throngs that are wooed so assiduously by our chamber of commerce and the visitor center. They get in our way, but they fill our coffers. And sometimes they’re just fun to watch. That’s a nice, introverted sport I’ve resigned myself to enjoying.

Posted in escape from tourists, Lifestyle, Reflection, tourism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The storyteller

My grandmother didn’t bake cookies or play games with me because she couldn’t. But she could and did tell the most wonderful oral stories.

That’s quite different from someone who writes out their stories. grandmaI know, because I’ve tried it both ways. With writing, you have the luxury of stopping mid-sentence and thinking about what comes next. You can change your mind, erase whole paragraphs, and start over. An oral story must flow, one idea to the next, each one permanent once it’s been pronounced. I think the oral version is harder, so, even though Grandma died 56 years ago, I look back in admiration at the worlds she created, first for her children, then her grandchildren.

Grandma’s stories were peopled with friends for my cousin Karen and me. Some of the characters were handed down from the stories she’d told my mother, others were new additions. Some of them were little morality plays, like the little girl whose bed ran away because she never wanted to go to sleep and her bed felt unloved and unwanted. Or the one about Mr. White and Mr. Brown, whose treatment of their families proved that skin color is no guarantee of virtue. Grandma obviously had no tolerance for bigotry.

The special stories were about freckle-faced Freddy who lived with his grandparents, and his friend, Tommy Hawn, an Indian boy who lived in a wigwam. My cousin Karen and I could visit them only by kissing the special magic wishing stone that summoned our horses for a thrilling ride into another world. We selfishly insisted those stories be only for us, so she invented other characters and settings for my sisters and for the neighborhood kids who wanted their turns with the storyteller.

There were the good brownies who lived in the woods and shared their magic with us, and the bad ones who lived under a bridge and threw stones. There was also a family of bears who lived in a tree, and who sometimes invited us to stay for lunch. Sometimes, she told stories from her childhood which was as far removed from ours as the magical places she invented.

Grandma had been raised in poverty, one of 8 or 10 kids, seldom owning shoes, hunting for food–once bringing home an owl because that’s all they could find–running wild and free in the woods, and having to deal with a father who liked his black-haired children but not the red-headed ones.

I doubt Grandma ever made it to high school, but she read and studied on her own. She raised her own children to know about manners and etiquette and the proper way to do things. She was a seamstress, for which I will be forever grateful, because I think I got her sewing gene. I also have her button box.

Grandma’s health wasn’t good, so by the time I was 5 years old she’d already had strokes and heart attacks, was diabetic and was paralyzed in her left arm. Sounds awful, and my mother tells me about times when Grandma hated that useless arm. But I remember a woman who, despite it all, whistled in the kitchen and laughed a lot, who taught me to love toads and frogs, animals, horses, and all things in nature–and who filled my head with wonderful, magical people and places.

Summertime was usually storytelling time. swingIn the winter we were in school, but in the summer we could run next door if Grandma was on her porch swing, a sign that she was feeling well enough to be up. Almost the first words out of my mouth when I dashed up those porch steps was, “Tell me a story.” I’d sit beside her, helping push that swing that never stopped moving, and listen to her spin her tales.

Grandma died when she was 64 and I was 15. I still pray for her every day. I often pray on the rosary that once was hers and that she promised me I could have. She told me that when she got to heaven, she’d get a farm stocked with all kinds of animals, but especially horses. Then, when I got there some day, we could live together. I accepted the reality of that without question. I still do.

Later, I would tell stories of my own to the neighborhood kids, and eventually to my own children–but they were never anything like Grandma’s. The talent to spin a story right on the spot is a special talent, an art of its own, a largely lost art in our Western world. I like to think it passed to me obliquely, and that’s why I’m a writer. But nothing I’ve written has ever been as special as the stories she could tell.

Posted in family, lost arts, Memories, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Parlee voo, to you

One of my favorite childhood memories is the year I spoke French. I’d never done it before, and I haven’t done it since, but thanks to an imaginative grandmother I was able to impress one of the neighborhood kids.

My grandmother was French-Canadian. When she moved to the town where I grew up, she and her family attended “the French church,” the same church where I was baptized many years later. When my mother was a girl, she waited after Mass on Sunday mornings while my grandmother visited with the other women, all of them speaking French and my mother not understanding a single word.

Unfortunately, my mother wasn’t bilingual. Her father was from Sweden, so I suppose it was easier to use a common-denominator language for the family–English. Grandma didn’t forget her French, though. Every now and then I’d ask her to talk to me in that musical language and I, already in love with words, listened enviously. Looking back, I think it strange that I never asked Grandpa to speak Swedish. To this day, I feel no affinity for the Swedish culture, even though I’m technically one-quarter Swedish.

My grandparents lived next door to us, so I spent as much time playing in their yard as in my own. I remember the day when I was back there with Grandma, hiding from the boy across the street who had a crush on me and tried following me everywhere. There were times when I crushed him right back, but those times came and went, every other year or so, and this was a year when his attentions were definitely an irritant. So, I wanted to prove to him that he just wasn’t in my league.

french“Grandma, when Roy comes back here, you speak French to me, and I’ll pretend to answer in French,” I suggested. I suppose some grandmothers would have been aghast at such a scheme, but my grandma was always up for some fun.

And so, Grandma talked in French–I never did find out what she was saying–and I rattled off gibberish in response. Roy, right on cue, stood there with his mouth open, totally impressed that his “girlfriend” was bilingual and smarter than he had realized. I think I almost had myself convinced. What a triumphant moment that was!

The tables were turned, however, when I married a Ukrainian man whose family speaks Ukrainian when they’re around their mother, and I haven’t a clue what the conversations are about. I assume no one is speaking gibberish.

I haven’t seen Roy in close to 50 years, but I wonder–does he still think I know how to speak French?

Posted in Humor, Memories, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Bye, bye, Bernice

I felt a little strange, hauling my wagon to the neighbor’s and filling it with things from her garden that appealed to me. It wasn’t stealing. This was Bernice’s lovingly tended yard, and Bernice is gone.

She’s not dead, but she won’t be here any more. Her son nervously allowed her to stay here alone for 20 years or so, at her feisty insistence, wagonloaduntil finally she took a fall a few weeks ago and injured herself enough that she can’t be alone. At age 90, she’d held out for independence long beyond what most people do.

It seems that no matter what time I’d get up in the morning and glance across the way out my bedroom window, Bernice would be there before me. In the winter she cleared her own driveway–with a shovel. In the summer she mowed the lawn, tended her gardens and raked endless piles of winged maple tree seeds. In the fall, she tackled leaves. Her lawn looked like a neat green carpet while the rest of ours were littered with fallout from wind, rain and the sometimes messiness of nature.

Bernice was alone, but never lonely. We didn’t hop back and forth to each other’s houses because she had too many things she liked to do. Until her fall, she was still kneeling in her garden, tackling weeds, staking up flowers, trying new ways to grow things in pots. Her shed, which our mobile home park residents need for storage in lieu of a garage or a basement, had been insulated and fitted with heat for the winter and air-conditioning in the summer. This was “Bernice’s Studio,” as the sign on the door proclaimed. Bernice was an oil painter.

I discovered that shortly after we moved here, nine years ago. I was walking the dog, and Bernice was working in her yard. Like my beagles, I’m a chatty soul, so I stopped to introduce myself. I discovered Bernice was chatty, too, and that’s how we visited with each other, once a week or so, as we did our outside things. This first time, I asked about the statuesattractive little shed. With its windows and a windowed door, it didn’t look like the utilitarian structures in the rest of the neighborhood.

“Come and see,” she said, obviously very pleased to show off this special place. Tubes of paint, stacks of canvases, prepared slabs of wood, pots of brushes, and a radio on the shelf–a little den of creativity. The tour in this small space was short, so she invited me into her house–along with the dog.

“Of course she can come in,” Bernice responded to my worries about bringing Lady into her home. That alone endeared her to me. Love my dog, you’re a friend for life.

The walls of her home were full of her bright, primary color paintings. A little stool was festooned with painted flowers, a milk can sported the same cheery decorations. She had painted a saw that once belonged to her late husband, and it hung where she could see it from her TV chair. Some projects were destined to be gifts for family or friends; some had been commissioned by those who appreciated her talents.

One day, when I caught her on her knees, tugging away at a persistent weed, I commented that her body was obviously in better shape than mine.

“My knees won’t allow me to do things like that,” I said.

“Mine don’t like it, either,” she said, her words colored with an accent that hinted of Southern roots. “You just have to keep moving.” Her smile carved out a generous place amid the lines of years that tracked across her face. Bright, birdlike eyes sparked with humor, as if the discomforts of age were a kind of joke and she was determined to laugh.

I once invited her to hear George play on a Wednesday evening at some event or other, but she squashed that idea.

“That’s church night,” she said. “Nothing gets in the way of that.” She was active in one of the local Baptist churches, with a faith that I suspect was as fierce as her independence. She also hinted more than once at a very pragmatic faith, one that knew God cared for her, but didn’t expect him to give her any special favors.

That’s why I suspect that while she was vocal about this move into her son’s home, this end to her life on her own, she was probably courageously resigned to this next phase of her life. While she may not be thrilled about trekking with them to Florida during the winter months and then back to their home an hour away from here in the summer, she refuses to accept the alternative.

Before they left the last time, her son invited a few of the neighbors to take what they wanted from the yard. I learned about it second hand, and was sorry that I hadn’t had a chance for a last goodbye. George was, I think, less than enthused about raiding Bernice’s yard, like scavengers come to pick he bones of a friend.

But I think Bernice would be happy to know that the people who cared about her, who openly enjoyed her beautiful yard, who appreciated her example of how to tend a home and to grow old gracefully in it, would be the beneficiaries of the things she loved.

So, George and I pulled our wagon over there last evening. I took a huge pot of marigolds and one of dahlias (one of her experiments), and an empty one that I just liked. I found some little solar-powered lights that she had scattered along the edges of her gardens and a couple whimsical statues.

But, unexplainably, what I like best of all is a tiny ceramic owl, maybe an inch high, that I found in the soil of one of the pots. To me it was a little treasure that could have been easily overlooked, its presence there a mystery since it would have been dwarfed by anything planted in that large pot. It had special meaning to Bernice, I was sure.

I took the little owl home, cleaned it up, and mushrooms:owlput it on my kitchen windowsill at the end of a line of small wooden mushrooms painted by my artist-mother, who died last year just short of 95 years of age. So, as I do dishes, I see, side by the side, the simple reminders of two creative ladies who were special in my life for very different reasons.

Bernice, minus a bit of her independence, has had to change her lifestyle and accept a home with others. But I hope that somewhere, even in a tiny corner, she has a place and the ability to paint a picture, plant a flower, say a prayer. I’ll miss her, but a few reminders of her will be scattered in my yard and home, treasured by me because they were treasured by her.

Posted in friendship, gardening, getting older, Reflection, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Those draggin’ hems

When I was 5 years old, my mother started teaching me to embroider.

I must have had a natural aptitude for it, because I didn’t mind the perseverance it took to master the stitches, and complained only a little, I think, at having to wear a thimble. Where my mother found a thimble to fit a 5-year-old’s finger, I can’t imagine. Now, when I’m shoving needles through heavy fabric, I’m glad she insisted. So is my finger.

Ria & Justin matching

Matching outfits for Maria & Justin

After embroidering came hemming, and sewing on buttons, and hand-sewing simple things like doll blankets. I don’t remember the first time I was allowed to use her sewing machine, but I’m sure it was a red-letter day for me. In the seventh grade, under the tutelage of my mom, I made myself an Easter outfit out of a horrid green fabric I’d never choose now. But I wore it with pride.

When I was 19 I bought a sewing machine of my very own, and for me, that was truly coming of age, instead of that first legal bottle of beer that others looked forward to. That machine accompanied me to college, where, along with the buildings for my classes, I learned the location of

Maria 1st comm.1983

Maria’s two-piece First Communion dress

the closest fabric store. I used that machine until 1998, when I bought the mildly computerized machine I’m still using.

Now, I look around me and wonder whatever happened to sewing skills, and why they’re not valued like they once were. It seems to me that they should be taught to children along with other basic skills, like making simple meals, running a vacuum or a lawn mower, doing small electrical jobs in the home, balancing a check book. (Or would that be swiping a debit card today?)

When I was at the hospital recently, I noticed that nearly every nurse and nursing assistant wore pants that were dragging on the floor, a detail that subtracted

george shirt

My musician husband in his music-print shirt

substantially from their professional image. I see men on the altar at church whose pants gather like scrunchies around their ankles, or whose short-sleeved shirts end below their elbows like little kids in their daddy’s clothes. I notice because I’m a sewer. All of those things could be remedied with a needle and thread, a job that’s not difficult, even without a sewing machine.

I know there are women out there who sew, but most of it these days is crafts of one sort or another, or quilts. Apparel sewing has fallen by the wayside. It’s easy to figure that out by

tillie's pillow

A homemade dog bed for Tillie

walking into a fabric store where once we could find fabric of all kinds for all purposes. Now, half the store is quilting cotton, half is fleece, with maybe a row or two of other choices for nicer apparel.

I complained about that at Hancock Fabrics on one of my last visits before they went out of business.

“If we get the good fabric in, it just sits there, and we have to eventually sell it at a loss,” the clerk said.

Part of the reason, I think, is that women haven’t learned to sew. Another fault is sky-high prices for fabric and patterns. And yet more blame can be placed on the big-box


My flannel shirt for cold Wisconsin winters


stores. At one time, women saved money by sewing for their families. Nowadays, you can get clothes at WalMart and Target for a fraction of the cost of buying your own fabric. You also get a fraction of the quality but that doesn’t seem to matter. You used to be able to get less expensive fabric at Walmart, but more and more of those store locations are switching to pre-cuts of one or two yards, fine for quilting, not so fine for clothing.


An apron from a pattern gifted by a friend

Last week I needed a supply of 5/8-inch buttons in various colors to have on hand for sewing shirts for me and husband because there’s no place to buy buttons here in Sturgeon Bay. I had to drive 50 miles to Green Bay to a JoAnn Fabrics store. I walked in and stopped dead, sure that I was in the wrong place. Instead of row after row of fabric bolts, there was row after row of craft supplies in one half of the store–and most of those didn’t involve sewing. Sequins, glitter, glue, picture frames, styrofoam forms, lamp shades, artificial flowers, unfinished wooden boxes–and a whole wall full of fleece in Green Bay Packer designs and colors. Of course.

There was also the obligatory quilting fabrics, which I do buy plenty of for shirts and for my own quilts. And in one aisle, I finally found buttons, the poorest selection of buttons I’ve ever seen. I was disappointed, because although I can

kay's purse

A purse for my sister

and do buy fabric online, buttons are hard to find.

I have spent hours and hours of enjoyment at my sewing machine, making clothing for myself and my family. That’s my choice, and I don’t expect that every woman should become a seamstress. We all have our own “hobbies.”

But I’ve also spent many hours hemming pants and dresses, sewing on buttons and repairing seams to prolong the life of various garments, trying to be a good steward of the things in our home. I’m a little surprised that fewer and fewer women these days take an interest, or take pride, in that kind of activity.

As a Benedictine oblate, one of my favorite maxims of St. Benedict is that the tools of the monastery should be treated with the same respect as the vessels on the altar, since they’re all used in doing the work God has set for us. I see sewing, at least the basic kind, as not merely a hobby for those inclined, but as a basic, respected skill, a tool used in making a home.

And, if you haven’t experienced it for yourself, I have embroiderto say that there’s a real sense of accomplishment when you’ve hemmed a pair of pants for yourself or a family member and you know they’ll look “put together” when they walk out the door–much like the accomplishment in having a neat and clean home, a well-tended garden, or a hard-earned paycheck.

Thank you, Mom, for persevering with my 5-year-old self to give me a life skill I can enjoy and be proud of.

Posted in Benedictine, Lifestyle, lost arts, sewing, Social commentary, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Hoarding or tossing the gravel in life

(This originally appeared 10 years ago in my newspaper column. I no longer live in that town, and I no longer have that scooter. But gravel can be found in all places and times, so this is just as pertinent now as then.)

As I backed my scooter out of the garage, pushing with my feet, they kept slipping on the loose sand and gravel that had accumulated over the winter.
The words of a biker friend from Ohio immediately came to mind. “Be careful about the road surface in the spring,” he said. “That loose gravel will send your bike sprawling faster than anything.”

With that in mind, I watched the road carefully as I took off on my first ride of the season, turning corners and accelerating with care. In a car, I never would have noticed that gravel. I noticed it now.

Most of it is still there, and will be until the city crews have a chance to finish the street sweeping. They’ll scoop up and dispose of all of winter’s detritus, so helpful a few months ago, so unnecessary now.

Leftover “stuff” can play havoc with lives in more choiceways than one–and not all physical. I’ve never forgotten a little bit of wisdom I found in a book during Morning Prayer one day. It said that the ancient spiritual writers warned about “morning demons,” those trials, troubles and grievances from the day before that could poison the new day.

Some people wake up with hurtful conversations still replaying in their mind; with slights from coworkers or family members still playing in their emotional theater.
Leave the old stuff behind and start afresh, the writers advised. It doesn’t mean simply sweeping things under the rug. Some things deserve to be remembered, as a caution if nothing else. But they don’t have to determine what kind of day we’ll have today.

At the same time, I know people who anticipate their demons. A friend who recently applied for a new job, which gave him an employment possibility he hadn’t had until then, was really down in the dumps when I talked with him.

“I might not get it,” he said. “Then where will I apply?”

I told him to be happy for the opportunity, and let the results take care of itself when it happened. Or, if he’s going to play what-if, tell himself that he could just as easily be the one who’s hired.

Some people won’t try new things because they might not work; they won’t get excited about new plans because of anticipated roadblocks. They’re the people who are glum on Saturday morning because they have only two days before they have to go to work again on Monday.

And believe it or not, I’ve actually heard someone grumbling about summer because “it’s so short and winter will be here before we know it.”

My oft-quoted favorite saying comes into play here: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.” Unpleasant things have happened in the past, and they will undoubtedly happen in the future. But so did happy things, and so they will again. I choose to focus on those.

“It’s my choice whether I’m going to be happy or sad,” I told a friend recently. “It all depends on what I choose to focus on.”

So, I’m watchful of the loose gravel. But the ride is good nevertheless, and I know it will be smoother eventually. That’s today’s gift.

Posted in hope, Lifestyle, Reflection, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments