Trick or Treating with the Pig Farmer‏

Childhood Halloweens are pretty well etched into my memory, but the one that stands out in my mind is the year that my brother Mike dressed as a pig farmer and took us trick or treating. That was the infamous year of the Skeletor and Cactus Incident.

Normally, Mom drove us on a long winding loop “around the block,” about ten miles looping around to our neighbors out in the country. We spent most of the time in the car and made less stops in our night of trick or treating than kids living in town, but most neighbors loaded us with a treat bag, so we always hauled home heavy bags of candy by the end of the night. Just the same, every year we wondered if maybe kids in town were collecting more than us, and every year, Mom assured us that they indeed were not.

That particular year, I remember standing in the kitchen ready to go, probably waiting for Mom who was trying to get a few more things done. I’m guessing I was decked out in some combination of a costume and a winter coat, like most Minnesotan kids trick or treating.

Just off of the kitchen was our utility room, where everyone came in and out when doing chores. While I was impatiently waiting to go trick or treating, my brother Mike came in from doing chores in the hog barn. I think he was about a junior in high school at the time.

I don’t remember the particular conversation between Mike and Mom, but looking back, I’m guessing I was impatiently waiting in the kitchen to go trick or treating, and Mom had baby Victoria and about ten kids at home and a million things on her plate and didn’t know how to make it all happen. Mike offered to take us younger kids trick or treating.

I’m sure Mom was relieved, but to me, this immediately was a problem.

Mom ALWAYS took us trick or treating. How could Mike possibly do it the exact same right way that Mom did it? And what was his costume? Halloween only came once a year, this had to be done right.

Mike smiled and told me, “I’m going to be a pig farmer!”

He definitely looked every bit like a pig farmer. Mike, fresh from the hog barn, still had coveralls on and his olive green chore boots, commonly known as “shoot kickers,” well, something close to “shoot,” anyway. To keep warm, he might have thrown on top a green Pioneer Seed Corn hooded sweatshirt, full of holes and covered in grease.

Then he reached up above the cereal cupboard to the cabinet where we kept the garbage bags. He pulled out a gigantic black garbage sack, and said he was all ready to go and fill it up.

That’s when I began to protest. I was young, but old enough to know something embarrassing when I saw it.

“Oh no, Mike, you can’t wear that. It’s not a REAL costume. And you can’t take a garbage bag. That’s not a real trick or treating bag.” Halloween has to have a certain mystique, and that wasn’t what I had in mind.

Acceptable costumes came from our big cardboard box in the attic of musty-smelling costumes. Like the Gene Simmons Kiss mask that repeatedly tormented grandkids in later years (sorry, Jason). Or the homemade Indian costume made from a sheet. Or the stained ghost costume made from some other sheet. Or maybe one of Mom’s rumpled wigs from the era when wigs were the thing for a while.

Even one of those creepy masks that was supposed to look like a little kid or the disturbing red-nosed clown would be ok. Also acceptable was a vinyl store bought costume from Henry’s Variety, like my awesome Tweety Bird costume in kindergarten.

Now, those were REAL costumes. That’s how it was supposed to work.

My protests were fruitless. Mike knew he was a farmer, and that was that. Off we went, three young kids and our pig farmer big brother, off for a night of trick or treating in Mom’s Bonneville. In hindsight, my embarrassment about Mike’s chore clothes “costume” seems pretty pointless, considering almost every stop was at a neighboring farm.

Our first stop without exception was Grandma’s house, right next door. Grandma Kramer always had a beautiful yellow banana ready for every trick or treater that stopped by. Unfortunately, Grandma’s bananas often looked a little worse for the wear after getting banged around, scrunched, smushed during the night of trick or treating.

After Grandma’s, we made our way around the neighborhood. Mike stopped at all of our usual stops, and added in a few extras, too. Mike was a talker, and he was more than happy to spend an evening making little social calls at all the neighbors in the name of taking younger siblings trick or treating.

I remember being impressed by how easily he talked to everyone. As I kid I felt shy every time the door opened and I had to talk to a someone that I only saw a few times a year, but Mike loved every minute. Our routine that night became saying “trick or treat,” collecting candy, saying “thank you,” and then waiting, and waiting just a little bit more while Mike talked to the neighbors.

At Jerry and Mary Connelly’s house, we stopped in and collected our candy, said thanks, and then stood around and waited while Mike talked and talked. Which brings me, then, to the Skeletor and Cactus Incident.

That was the era when He-Man and Masters of the Universe were very cool, so my younger brother, Matthew, was dressed up as Skeletor, He Man’s evil nemesis. That Skeletor costume was one of those vinyl ones, the kind that made loud noises when you moved and often ripped by the end of the night.

This is just what the costume looked like.  Thank you, internet.

This is just what the costume looked like. Thank you, internet.

Matthew was maybe just four or five at the time, but he faithfully wore the cheap yellow Skeletor mask for hours. You can imagine the type of mask, it’s the kind that they now recommend you avoid because it impairs your vision.

Well, little Skeletor, standing there at Connellys and waiting quietly while Mike talked, shuffled and stumbled backwards, and landed right in Mary Connelly’s cactus plant collection. Real live fully intact cacti. Feeling shy and embarassed, he got up quickly and didn’t say a word about it, and probably worried that he wrecked one of the plants. And then we all waited a little longer while Mike talked a little more to our neighbors.

When we got back into Mom’s car and started to head back out onto the gravel road, Matthew finally shared his predicament: the poor kid had cactus spines stuck in his back side. He had stoically stood there the whole time, and never said a word about it.

I clearly remember sitting in the dark night on the gravel road with just the dome light of the Bonneville for light. With a cumbersome shuffling of costumes and candy bags and coats, Mike laid Matthew across his lap and opened up the Skeletor costume. He then plucked the cactus spines out of Matthew’s poor little “biscuits,” as Mike called them. I felt so bad for Matthew. Cactus spines are tricky things, tiny and hard to see in low light, so it took a bit of doing for Mike to make Skeletor ready for more trick or treating again.

Imagine a costume just like this, with a few cactus spines added in the back.

Imagine a costume just like this, with a few cactus spines added in the back.

Cactus free, we rounded out the night. Just before heading up the hill back to our house, we made a stop at our aunt and uncle’s house, where Donna always had the cutest little paper Halloween bags ready for us, and always made us feel special. The last stop of the Halloween night was always Elsadie Hansgen, then we headed home.

I’m sure we ran into the house and gave Mom the full report of the highlights of the evening, while dumping out our candy into cake pans so we could see it better and sort through it all. Then came a little giddy gorging followed by hiding the cake pans of candy in our bedrooms so nobody else would steal the precious loot.

All in all, it was a fine Halloween.

Lessons learned? Never under estimate the pain tolerance of a little boy dressed as an action figure. And sometimes, the real super heroes come dressed in s*** kickers.

No photo exists of my long ago Halloween night with a pig farmer and Skeletor, so you have to use your imagination.  As a substitute, here are my kids this year: Iron Man, a Witch, Elmo and a Skeleton, Spot the dog as himself.

No photo exists of my long ago Halloween night with a pig farmer and Skeletor, so you have to use your imagination. As a substitute, here are my kids this year: Iron Man, a Witch, Elmo and a Skeleton, Spot the dog as himself.

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Back 40 Adventures

I do believe that to grow up properly, every kid needs to spend a little time on exploring adventures. My favorite playground growing up was our “Back 40:” about 240 acres or so of cropland, CRP, woods, rolling hills, ponds, and ravines on our farm.

Around 5th grade, my Saturday afternoon jobs were to vacuum the den and haul everyone’s clean clothes from the utility room up to the bedrooms upstairs. I particularly hated vacuuming the den. Usually, I made it an all day affair stalling to avoid the 15 minutes of vacuuming, and often enough, everyone tripped over the vacuum for a week because I never actually vacuumed.

My biggest motivation, though, to complete the torture of vacuuming for 15 whole minutes was going out exploring afterward. Once I had my afternoon jobs done, I was free to head outside.

I’d grab my jacket, and head upstairs to get my special survival gear fanny pack off the hook in my closet. My “survival pack” was a bright red fanny pack with the Kool Aid man on the front. I’d ordered it after carefully saving Kool Aid Points from the back of every drink packet all summer long.

Inside I had all the survival essentials: matches that I’d waterproofed in melted wax, a short candle, an emergency poncho, a jack knife from my brother, a lighter, fingernail clippers, a candy bar, a space blanket and even a toilet paper packet from an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) that came from one of my siblings in the military.

I’d tell my mom I was headed out exploring and promise to be back by supper. Then I’d call Sparky or Bandit or Buck to come along, and the dogs and I headed out on a walkabout to the back of the farm.

I’d round the corner at the silos, go past the yellow shed and hog unit, and past the windbreak. When I climbed over the gate, leaving the farm yard and entering the open fields, that marked the official start of exploring, just a girl and her dogs.

After a few trips, the dogs knew the routine, and eagerly took off ahead of me down the field lane, zig-zagging back and forth, following any scent trails that crossed their paths and marking their territory with a seemingly endless well of “marking spray.” I walked down the dirt path of the field lane and passed the corn, soybeans, and hay, and usually headed out toward the pond.

On the way to the pond I’d usually avoid the big stand of pine trees that my family planted before I was born. I was fairly sure someone would be hiding behind one of those trees. In hindsight, the possibility of a “bad guy” randomly waiting behind a pine tree on the back of our farm, ten miles from town seems awfully remote, but at the time they seemed dark and scary.

When I reached the pond, I’d throw a few rocks in, watch the splashes, and let the dogs walk in the mud and get a drink.

Most of the time, I’d then head to the woods. On the back end of the farm, past the pond, we had rolling tree-covered hills which connect to the Whitewater Valley. I’d crawl on my belly to get under the barbed wire fence, and then follow along animal trails.

I’d walk along logs, climb up steep hills, and make my way through thick underbrush. I’d flip over rocks to check out the bugs and dig in mud with sticks. I’d collect little treasures and sometimes find secret hideouts. I’d imagine where I would sleep if I was stranded out there all night, and what I would do to survive.

Periodically, when I hadn’t seen the dogs in a while, I’d whistle and call them back. They’d circle back within sight to check in, and head off again on their adventures. As long as I had the dogs along and my survival pack, I knew I was safe.

Once I plucked a little white daisy-like flower with a yellow center, and had a sick feeling in my stomach seeing that it began to “bleed” after I picked it. Slightly afraid I’d done something bad, I told Mom about it later, and learned first hand about the blood root flower.

Another time, I brought home a dried out weed with a large swollen round bulge near the top. That’s when my brother, Greg, taught me about wax worms. I believe we later smashed open the bulge on the weed to check out the wormy contents inside.

Mostly, I just wandered…because I could. That was the era when I loved books about dogs and the outdoors, and read through everything I could get my hands on by Jim Kjelgaard, the author of Big Red. In elementary school, I spent a lot of time doing what other people wanted. Out exploring, though, I had independence. I could wander anywhere I wanted as long as I stayed on our land.

I loved the smell of wet dirt and damp fall air. I liked the sound of the wind rustling through the trees. I crunched on crispy old leaves and felt the soft squish of thick piles of pine needles on the ground. I loved the thrill of being off alone on an adventure, relying on myself to remember my paths and get back home again before suppertime.

Pine cones, bark, and little branches: the latest treasures collected from my own kids' exploring adventures.

Pine cones, bark, and little branches: the latest treasures collected from my own kids’ exploring adventures.

I was always struck by the world apart from our house. Inside our house was all the business and busyness of life, projects, things to do, TV, noise, people. Outside exploring, the world was nothing but wide open fields, woods, and quiet.

As a kid, my Saturday afternoon exploring was the favorite part of my week, and I couldn’t imagine what kids did in town when they didn’t have their own farm to explore. When looking at my watch told me I needed to head back in time for supper at six, I always felt a little sad that my exploring was done for the week.

I think that little explorer in me is partly what lead me to head to Bozeman, Montana for college, to Seville, Spain to study abroad, and to still have a need for new adventures. The explorer in me is also what sent my kids outside today to go play in what I jokingly call our “Back Four,” the windbreak of tall pine trees on the east side of our land. I’m fairly certain that trees, dirt, and burdocks are essentials for learning.

Round Beads in the Nose: A Full Circle Moment

It seems that I’ve passed on a genetic predisposition to shove beads in one’s nose. Don’t ask why. I can’t explain it.

A few weeks ago, I had one of those full circle moments as a parent. At bedtime, I tucked in my three-year-old son, and very plainly told him to stay put until morning. About ten minutes later, he crept out of his bedroom and into the hall.

“What are you doing?” I whispered in my accusing, angry voice.

He timidly whispered back, “I want you to get these out of my nose.” And in the darkened hallway, I saw his little nostrils flared wide with a colorful pony bead wedged in each nostril.

Exhibit A: A shiny round pony bead.  Perfect for making into necklaces, bracelets, and ideally sized for a preschooler's nose.

Exhibit A: A shiny round pony bead. Perfect for making into necklaces, bracelets, and ideally sized for a preschooler’s nose.

In my head I screamed, but on the outside I was all calm business. I placed my fingers high on the outside of his nose and made a swiping pass down, and the bead on the right side popped out. The bead on the left side remained. It was a toughie, but at least it was visible.

We went into the bathroom for more light, and with a little finagling, I hooked my fingernail onto the bead and pulled it out. Then I asked how many beads he put in there. “Two.” I arched his head back like a Pez dispenser to point his nostrils into the light to confirm his statement. It checked out. He was in the clear.

After that we had a little conversation. I played the responsible, concerned parent. I painted a very grim picture of the dangers of shoving beads in one’s nose. Such dangers included (but were not limited to) trips to the emergency room, large probes held by doctors, suffocation, and death.

I used my low, quiet, deadly serious voice. He listened with big blue eyes staring at me from behind his curly eye lashes. I believe the message sunk in, but time will tell.

And then I sent him back to bed, airways unobstructed.

All in all, I can’t say I’m surprised. This little boy’s eternal quest is to figure out how to make round pegs fit in square holes. He is his engineer father’s son, the little boy who rigs up three makeshift tow straps to pull all varieties of things behind his trike (including his sister on her ride-on car).

He’s forever creating contraptions. One of my favorites is a “fishing pole” he procured from a Lincoln log, a length of ribbon, a full roll of Scotch tape, and a bolt snap hook.

So, a few beads in the nose? Not so very surprising. He saw two cylindrical beads, and his sleepy builder’s mind created the connection that his nostrils looked roughly the same size. Apparently, the first bead went in with success. Having a second nostril available, he saw his project through to completion.

Exhibit B: One highly experimental three-year-old.  Excels in finding new and creative uses for ordinary objects.

Exhibit B: One highly experimental three-year-old. Excels in finding new and creative uses for ordinary objects.

Oh yes, I’m also not surprised because, well, I did the same thing as a preschooler. Except I ONLY put beads in one nostril.

And that little serious speech I gave about the dangers of beads in noses? Stolen straight from my mother.

In my head, however, we had an entirely different sort of conversation. That’s the place where the responsible parent gets to play out all of the less responsible reactions to predicaments like beads in the nose at bedtime.

“I know! You just see those colorful things and want to shove them in your nose?! I don’t know why either, but I get it. I did the exact same thing when I was your age! Ha ha ha! Oh wow, I was in big trouble. You’ll outgrow it soon. I did.”

All of those over-used parenting phrases also popped into my head, “Wait until you have kids,” “What goes around comes around,” “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” You get the picture.

Circle back about thirty years, and I clearly remember sitting on the pink carpet of my bedroom, playing with the mustard-colored Tupperware container full of beads. I believe I had the light off because I wasn’t supposed to have those beads in my room in the first place. It was during my crafting era of making everyone “beautiful” plastic bead necklaces strung on dental floss.

I sifted the beads through my fingers. And as I felt them, I just had the irresistible urge to put them in my nose. The first one I put in came out easily, but the next time (or two) I wasn’t as lucky. It was not my greatest preschool experiment.

Mom was not pleased one bit to find beads wedged in my nose. I heard a lecture about dangers including (but not limited to) trips to the emergency room, large probes held by doctors, suffocation, and death.

The lecture worked. I resisted poking things in my nose from then on. I do recall a time or two when I held a bead or a pea up to my nostril, um, just checking for size. But fearing the anger of my mom and an ER trip, my self-control won out.

So, there you have it. I was one of those kids that wanted to shove things in my nose. And I still turned into a fairly respectable adult. I never developed a snorting habit with strong substances or anything sinister like that. Nope, I just resisted the inexplicable urge, and then soon enough, the urge faded away. Hopefully the lecture does the trick for my three-year-old, too.

Someday when he gets a little older, big enough to fully appreciate the irony and humor of it all, I’ll tell him how I, too, once shoved beads in my nose.

You are just like your mom! Someday, you’ll probably fish beads out of your own child’s nose, too.

Then, give your child Grandma’s lecture.

Full circle.

Booby Traps, Sparklers and Ten New Year’s Countdowns

Nothing says “welcome, make yourselves at home” like a loud explosion in your face when you need to use the bathroom.  

Now that we’re a good halfway into January, I feel like I’m finally ready for the new year.  The round of sickness that plagued our house over Christmas vacation seems to be done.  (Although I hesitate to say things like that, because it sometimes comes back to haunt me.)

It turns out I won the game of “It Strep or Is It a Virus.”  My mommy senses predicted correctly and we got a lovely bottle of pink amoxicillin for my six-year-old as our prize.  A few days after starting antibiotics she finally started perking up.  Now she’s back to her normal self, dancing around the house while singing random songs and correcting her younger siblings about the proper way to do things.

We rang in the New Year at our house with several of my brothers and sisters and their families.  It was sort of an impromptu affair.  My sister from Rochester helped make the night with a heroic last-minute venture to three stores to find noise makers and shiny hats for the occasion.

Kids and even a few adults helped decorate our dining room by coloring "2013" signs.

Kids and even a few adults helped decorate our dining room by coloring “2013” signs.

Something about the New Year festivities sparked a memory in my husband that he had a box of fireworks out in his shop.  Two years ago, in Montana, we sold fireworks at our gas station.  What remained of those were the relatively safe (or boring, depending on your perspective) sparklers and exploding booby traps.  Yep, we had a hundred sparklers and approximately 800 (not a typo) of those exploding things on strings.  You know the kind.  Pull on each end of the string, and in the middle, the little skinny tube of something slightly explosive suddenly goes BANG!

Hearing an exploding booby trap again brought back a flood of memories (or maybe I should say “flashbacks”) from childhood.  Thanks to my brother, we grew up with booby traps tied on the bathroom and bedroom doors, hooked onto the old-fashioned hook and eye latches.  The door opened a few inches, just enough to make you think all is normal, and then POW!  An explosion, right at eye level, right when you need to pee.

And coincidentally, just before most guests arrived, my husband installed a new hook and eye latch on the door of our downstairs bathroom.  Then he quietly rigged up the bathroom with a booby trap.  We forgot about it until my niece opened the bathroom door.  BANG!  It was a total surprise, so mission accomplished, sort of.  I was hoping it would’ve been one of my brothers, but booby traps aren’t selective.

That’s our level of skill as hosts–a little hospitality mixed with a little juvenile delinquency.  While we did finally install a lock so people could comfortably use the bathroom without fear of someone accidentally walking in on them, I believe we negated the comfort level with booby traps.  Nothing says “welcome, make yourselves at home” like a loud explosion in your face when you need to use the bathroom.

We made up for it, though, with repeated New Year’s countdowns.

With lots of younger kids that can’t make it to midnight, we opted to do our own countdown around 8:00.  Through the magic of Youtube, we found the London 2013 New Year’s countdown on the internet.  We turned it on, and watched an enormous countdown clock next to Big Ben counting down the seconds, and then saw fabulous blasts of pyrotechnics for another five or ten minutes.  Regardless of the actual time here in MN, it looked like a New Year’s celebration, and that’s all that mattered.

Once we got to zero, 15 people in silly hats filled the house with the sound of those annoying noisemakers.  It was wonderful.

Noisemakers (1)

These noisemakers got a good workout with round after round of New Year countdowns.

In fact, the countdown was enough fun that we did it again about three minutes later.  You can do that if your New Year’s comes from the internet.  And then we did it again.  And again.  Why do that very best part of New Year’s only once a year?

Around 10:00, the “late partyers” had another round of New Year’s countdowns.  Turns out, even the sixth time around it’s still fun to obnoxiously blow noisemakers in your brother’s face.  It really doesn’t matter if you’re six or thirty-four, that sort of thing just reverts everyone to their kid state for a few minutes.  And hey, isn’t that what the New Year is for?  Starting over new and fresh and excited for a new year?

That night was pretty darn frigid, but we had several packages of sparklers to burn up, so we threw on our coats and headed out to the porch for some good old-fashioned “might poke someone’s eye with a glowing hot burning, sparking stick” fun.  Sparklers don’t improve with age, and some of them literally lost their spark, but we lit them off just the same, and it was very festive.

In the smoky haze that encircled us in the freezing air, my sister joked, “Well, at least it will keep the mosquitoes away.”  A few minutes later, my brother came outside and walked into the smoky cloud and made the same joke.  Obviously, great minds think alike.

Post sparklers, some people headed home and the rest went inside.  Back in the house I discovered, much to my dismay, that the auto-play of endless “Auld Lang Syne” songs had now switched to the Korean version of the song.  Terrible.  I switched it to Meatloaf, always a family crowd-pleaser.

At 11:00 as the New Year rang in over on the east coast, the last of us watched the ball drop in New York.  We hoped to see our sister, who made the trip to NYC with her husband for her “bucket list” New Year’s Eve moment.  An hour or so earlier, we all stood in the kitchen talking to her on speaker phone, as she stood in Times Square.  The wonders of modern life are pretty cool sometimes.

At our crazy New Year’s bash, all of our party-goers left our house before midnight.

When midnight rolled around, my husband and I laughed at hosting a New Year’s party, but celebrating the true New Year with just the two of us.  We stood amid a delightful mess of forgotten noisemakers and empty cups, and flipped through channels looking for one last countdown.  Thank goodness La Crosse had a wimpy fireworks display on live feed, along with some local commentators, “Oh ya, folks, and here we are, in da new year! You betcha”.  After celebrating about ten New Year’s countdowns in the evening, I felt properly ready to welcome in 2013.

The final highlight of the evening?  My brother took 144 booby traps, planning to rig up Mom’s house before she got home from her New Year’s celebration that night.  Yep, that guy that’s married and has a toddler is still my brother.  That made my night.  We’re awful sometimes.

I’m guessing it didn’t happen, because my mother never told horrific stories of nearly having a heart attack time and time again upon arriving home that night.  And now, I blew his cover.  But maybe not.

You never know when the explosions are coming, Mom.  You just have to continually open every door with caution.  And as everyone knows, it’s not the actual explosion that’s the big deal, it’s the worry that you might be next.  It’s the never knowing.  Is this the day?  That’s the real beauty of those things, the mental torture.  No, wait.  Maybe it’s not Mom.  Maybe someone else in the family will get the booby traps.  Open that cabinet door and…BANG!  Happy New Year, indeed.

Snowmobile Gas, Scraped Ceilings, and Pine Needles: What Christmas Memories are Made Of

I can’t remember the last time I went out and helped cut down a Christmas tree. By my estimation, it’s been about twenty years.

While that hardly seems possible, my mental tally confirms that all-too-big number. However, this past weekend I rectified that tree-cutting deficiency. We went out to Saratoga and hunted down a trophy worthy of mounting in the living room. It stands over eight feet tall, just shy of scraping the nine foot ceilings in our living room, and our children decorated it beautifully. Well, to be more accurate, they thoroughly decorated the bottom four feet with slightly smashed ornaments that they made last year, but I think it’s perfect.

That tree-cutting event brought back some of my very favorite Christmas tree hunting memories. One tree in particular stands out in my memory. The behemoth. The one that scraped the sparkly textured ceiling, causing Mom to scream and yell in horror. I was six years old at the time, and it was GRAND.

Kathy age six, circa 1984, in front of the behemoth tree on Christmas morning.

Kathy age six, circa 1984, in front of the behemoth tree on Christmas morning.

Snowmobile Gas
The tree came from the back of our farm. That year it was snowy, so we fired up our snowmobiles for the tree hunt. That alone made the tree hunting wonderful. Our snowmobiles, which we always referred to by their given names, the Panther and El Tigre, were the tree hunting vehicles. I rode in the Cat Cutter, hooked onto the back of one of the snowmobiles. The Cat Cutter was a magnificent 1970’s snowcoach that hooked on the back of a snowmobile, meant for hauling an extra kid or two. We would usually wedge in at least three of us. I knew back then that the Cat Cutter was the essence of cool. I loved hopping in and getting rides, and I still remember the tiger print fabric on the inside.

So we rode out in snowmobiles to the back of the farm. We parked in front of the towering evergreen trees. I remember struggling to plow my short legs through the deep snow to get closer to the trees. Then, like brothers and sisters are supposed to do, a good half dozen of my older siblings proceeded to argue and discuss which tree top would make the best Christmas tree. At six, I had no voting power, so I mostly stayed quiet.

Settling on a good tree, one of my brothers (either David or Mike) climbed up the giant evergreen while carrying the hand saw, and slowly lopped off the top. I remember watching the tree top wiggle and shake, and finally, seeing the awesome crash of the tree top falling to the ground. TIMBER! It was fabulous.

If I remember correctly, on this particular year, we misjudged the height of the tree top from our vantage point on the ground, and the first one that he lopped off was way too short. I recall some choice angry words over who was to blame for the short tree snafu. Somehow, while standing hot and sweaty in the cold snow, it didn’t sound appealing to my brother to climb another tree, perch in branches, and wield a saw to lop off another magical Christmas memory. Nonetheless, he climbed up another tree and sawed off another tree top.

It seems that we erred on the side of long on the second go round, but we didn’t fully know that until later.

Task accomplished, my brothers jerked the starter cords a few times to fire up the snowmobiles, filling the cold winter air with the sound of revving engines and the smell of snowmobile gas. I do love that smell. To me, the scent of snowmobile gas, like the scent of wood smoke, is the smell of a good time.

We piled back on the snowmobiles and I climbed into the Cat Cutter. Flashes of the ride back to the house forever etched themselves in my memory: cold, crisp air that burned in my nose when I sucked in, red cheeks, wiping my runny nose on my mittens, a fine spray of snow blowing into my face, ducking my head out of the wind, holding out my mitten-covered hands to catch the snow, and the smell of snowmobile gas and the sound of engines through it all.

Runny nose?  Cold?  Snow spray in the face?  As an adult it doesn’t sound all that appealing. As a kid, though, I was a little Minnesotan girl in winter heaven. I was six years old, out with my brothers and sisters on a Christmas tree mission, riding home on snowmobiles and dragging a tree after cutting it down and watching it fall. I knew it was one of the most glorious moments of my life, one of those moments so spectacular that I couldn’t believe it was real, and I didn’t want it to end.

Scraped Ceilings
That wonderful tree, like the Grinch’s heart, seemingly grew several sizes. We arrived home and after stuffing, tugging, and pushing, they crammed the tree through the front door, and then SCRAAAAAPE! A long scratch, forever commemorating that year’s tree, gouged into Mom’s sparkly textured ceiling. Mom’s ensuing yelling? Yep, I still remember that, too. As horrifying as wrecking Mom’s ceiling was, oh man, that tree was ever so grand.

They perched the tree under the peak of our vaulted ceiling, and it nearly touched the peak when upright, soaring over twice as tall as most of the people in my family at the time. It filled a gigantic area in our gigantic living room, and of course, it was all the more glorious to my six-year-old perspective.

My sister, Sues, took a Christmas morning picture of me in front of that tree. In the picture I’m sitting in blue rose pajamas. I remember not liking those pajamas that mom made for one of my older brothers, and I remember thinking that my hair was messy, so I didn’t want my picture taken. But now I look back at that, and I love it. In the background is an astonishing mound of Christmas presents. If we got something, it usually came to us at Christmas time. We didn’t get birthday presents, so that was the one gift time of the year. With a dozen siblings, most still living at home at the time, Christmas day was huge.

That year was also the year of The Cabbage Patch Kid baby. THE one, that I longingly looked at every time we went into the hardware store in Plainview.

On Christmas morning, I was the first one awake. I sifted through the wrapped boxes and pulled out what I thought was my Cabbage Patch. I set it aside on the couch, ready to be opened as soon as I had the green light go ahead when everyone else got out of bed. After patiently waiting through the Today Show, everyone finally came downstairs, and I finally got to open my doll. Like a six-year-old dreams, it was just the one that I’d wanted. I finally could hold it in my arms. I think it’s still floating around in the toy box at my mom’s house, and my six-year-old daughter now occasionally plays with it.

Of all my childhood Christmases, that is probably the Christmas I remember the best: At six, I was at the peak of believing in all the magic of Christmas. We rode out on snowmobiles to get a gigantic tree that forever scratched the ceiling, and Santa brought the very doll that I’d longingly wanted for months.

kathy tree 2012

Kathy, circa 2012, sawing a few lumberjack swipes at this year’s tree with her family in the background.

Pine Needles
With my own kids, I don’t know what memories will forever etch into their hearts. I don’t know yet what they’ll look back on and laughingly tell stories about when they’re grown up. I do know, though, that Christmas this year is special. It is our first Christmas in our new house, the house we are going to live in “forever”, and we have four young kids who believe in the magic of Santa and the wonder of Christmas. I think heading out and sawing down our tree is a good start on the holiday. Timber!

Shiny Red Bicycle Adventures

As a kid, I remember wanting so badly to finally be an adult and do whatever I wanted.  Like every kid, I knew that adulthood would be the life equivalent of a sweepstakes shopping spree:  go anywhere, do anything, any time, and nobody says no.  Ever.  Because you are an adult, and adults don’t answer to anyone.

No one tells grown ups what to do.  Nobody even tells them when to go to bed.

Grown ups could just hop on their bikes anytime and ride anywhere they want.  Without even asking.  Except, they don’t want to, because they’re old, and they don’t even like to have fun anymore.

Shiny and red, this little lady loves a nice, smooth stretch of paved bike trail.

And now, firmly wedged in the grown up phase of my life, I sit here wishing somebody made sure I went to bed at a good time every night, because part of me is still a reckless kid.  When the actual kids go to bed in our house, suddenly I feel unleashed.  And then I stay up way too late doing things far less productive than I imagined when I wistfully dreamed of that “after the kids go to bed” time of day.

On the plus side, as a grown up, I do always get to pick my own bedtime stories.  Riding my bike, though, is a different story.  I don’t need to explain to anyone that a mom with four kids (ages six and under) doesn’t just hop on her bike and head off for parts unknown at any given time.  So much for that Grown Ups Just Do Whatever They Want notion.

Much of the time, my shiny red bicycle sits patiently waiting in our shed.  Sometimes I take it for a spin around the yard for a few times until one of my kids needs something urgent, like help with tying my kitchen utensils to the back of a toy tractor to make a trailer.

On Saturday, however, something magical happened.  My kindergartner had a birthday party to attend at the city park in Lanesboro, MN.  Suddenly, I was stuck for an hour and a half in the town that everyone else in the world drives to for scenic bike rides.  Eureka!

Minivans, in addition to being great kid haulers, are exceptional shiny red bike haulers.  I loaded up my red-headed boy and my red bike, and we headed to town.  I dropped him off in the capable hands of several sets of parents, where the birthday girl’s dad informed me that in addition to lots of playground time, he would be filling the kids with all sorts of sugar before sending them home.  I told him that sounded perfect, and I went back to unload my bike.

I hopped on my bike, and suddenly, I was free.  No, FREE!

Turning after the cool restaurant with the colorful chairs, then heading over the old railroad bridge, I was off on the trail all by myself.  Well, by myself, along with every other person who, like me, wanted to cram in as much outside time as possible on a nice Saturday in late October.

The only thing missing was a shiny silver bike bell to ring.  I have an overwhelming desire to come up behind others on the trail and give them a friendly but affirmative bring! bring! as I pass.  In fact, I’d ring my bike bell all the time until I’d either annoyed everyone or my thumb got too sore from bring-bring-ing.  Yes, I’m like that.  Maybe Santa will bring me my bike bell, but I digress.

Someday, you will be mine, shiny bike bell.

I pedaled down the narrow paved trail, a mini highway of happy bikers.  A canopy of trees formed an arch over the path, the branches now mostly naked without their leaves.  Passing by a family stopping for a snack, I asked the dad to take my picture.  I needed a photo of myself, the mom on her freedom ride.  Apparently, though, this bike ride was meant to be private.  Something was wrong with my stupid smart phone, and while it courteously made clicking noises indicating pictures being taken, no photos remained in the memory.  I guess the day was for my eyes only.

I came to an intersection with a gravel road,  and looking down the road, saw the Root River crossing below a cement bridge.  I pedaled over, and looked down at the water.  In the last month, I twice paddled under that bridge in a canoe, first with friends and then my family.  Now I stood on top of that bridge on my bike.  Not bad for a stay-at-home mom.

I headed back down the trail, smiling to myself as I overheard a conversation with heavy Minnesotan accents, “Oh, I doon’t know how you can watch a cat eat a mouse.” “Well, ya, but that’s what cats dooo.” (I do believe he should have added the obligatory “don’t cha know” for emphasis.)

After a few more minutes on the trail, I turned around and went back to the gravel road.  Too many friendly folks on the trail smiling and saying “hi” as I passed actually became a social burden, and I wanted some solitude.

I turned onto the gravel road and instantly felt better.  For a crazy minute I actually wondered if it was ok to be on the gravel road, since nobody else was doing it.  Then I felt ridiculous for thinking that.  I used to spend hour upon hour riding my bike around gravel roads, tooling around home here in SE MN, and then later in Montana.

That was back when I was that adult that hopped on my bike and rode anywhere I wanted, without needing to ask.  I’d regularly hop on my bike and ride for a few hours, quietly pedaling along, discovering new back roads and all sorts of things that I never noticed in a car.  That “no time constraint, no destination,  no problem” kind of bike riding came to a halt, though, with our first baby.

I have no regrets with my current life.  In fact, I quite like it.  But I certainly do appreciate all the more a long bike ride all by myself.  It’s a small epiphany to rediscover something I love that I haven’t done for a long, long time.

After my ride, I returned to the city park to find a happy boy on the swings.  I gave him a few pushes, then we picked up his candy-filled goody bag and headed home, both of us sucking on candy and feeling quite content with the afternoon.

All told, my excursion was only two hours away from our house, with commuting time.  But as I pulled into our driveway again, the enormous mental break made me feel like I’d been gone for a full day, a world away.  I came home hungry and happy, excited to cook and then devour a steak and potatoes meal with baked apples and ice cream for dessert.

What I didn’t really understand as a kid is that adults still have to listen to all sorts of people, and you are never your own boss, even when you are your own boss.  On the bright side, I used to be sure that adults barely even liked to have fun, but I am more and more pleased to realize I was completely wrong.  There is no automatic shut-off valve on the fun pipe of life.

An adventure on a shiny red bicycle will always bring great joy.    Brrring! Brrring!

For Richer or Poorer: A Love Affair with the Library

The true glory of the public library is that everyone who goes there is rich, but it has nothing to do with money.

When we lived in Montana, one of the most anticipated days of the week was Thursday. That was the day we took my husband’s grandparents to the weekly Senior Citizens’ Dinner at the Community Center.  And twice a month, when we pulled into the parking lot for the Thursday noon meal, our kids would spot a large bus and excitedly shout, “Jerry’s here! Jerry’s here!”

Jerry, of course, is the librarian/bus driver for the Infomobile that makes regular Thursday stops in Broadview, Montana.  Jerry is a kind, soft-spoken man nearing retirement age, but for my kids, Jerry and his book mobile were greeted with the excitement of spotting a rock star.

Twice a month we had a routine of climbing up the tall bus steps, heaving a bulging bag of books to return on his counter, and heading to the long bottom row of the bus shelves where all the children’s books are stowed.  Our two-year-old even knew the routine, and would make his selections and plunk the books up on the counter on our stack to check out.

After watching her siblings read books, our baby heads to the shelf to find a book, too. Just over a year, she loves “reading” a good book.

Next, our kids eagerly watched Jerry scan the books, making them officially “beep,” stamp them all with a date, and most fun of all, when the books were all stamped, the kids presented their hands.  If they asked nicely using “please,” which Jerry sometimes reminded them, they received a highly sought after date stamp on their hands.

Then we loaded up our once again bulging bag of books, climbed down the steps that are waist-high on small kids, and headed home.  A library bag full of new books to read feels like amazing wealth.  Usually, the next step involved dumping out the books all over the living room floor to fully check out the new selections. I’ve even on occasion seen a kid or two happily roll in the book pile, like the familiar movie scene of rolling in a pile of money after a big night in Vegas.  (Please don’t tell the library that my kids roll in books.)

After that, we’d pile on the couch, settle book selection disputes, and read as many of the new books as we could before it became obvious that afternoon nap time had arrived. Thursday Infomobile library days were always good days at our house.

Libraries to me are amazing places.  I’ve frequented libraries enough to know how just they work, but it still amazes me every time I visit that I can just pick any book I want, have as many books as I want, and take them all home.  For FREE.  No matter how many times I go to the library, there is always a little fleeting moment in my mind where I feel like this whole public library system can’t be for real.  It’s a little moment of awe.  Isn’t the librarian going to chide me and say I can’t really have all of these books?  As I grab the bag of books and walk away, isn’t someone going to stop me and ask me for some cash or a credit card in exchange for all this book bounty?  I really get to just walk in and take these books home, for nothing?

The true glory of the public library is that everyone who goes there is rich, but it has nothing to do with money.  Simply enter the doors, and everyone has full, complete access to everything inside.  In an age of tightened budgets, many libraries are forced to reduce hours and cut staff, but they still remain available to all, with free books, free computer access, free magazines to read (with no guilt of speed-reading an article in the store checkout line), free DVD rentals, and on and on.  The library provides wealth in knowledge beyond compare, and it doesn’t cost a single dime.

What an amazing equalizer to live in a country where personal income has no bearing on one’s access to a world of information via public libraries.  I’m particularly awestruck by the New York City Public Library.  I’ve only seen it in pictures, and it’s an impressive beauty to behold.  Made of stone with columns rising up in the front, and intricate gold inlays in the ceiling, it looks more like the European cathedrals I’ve toured than a library. What really strikes me is wondering what it would be like to be a child growing up in the projects, walking into that place of awe, and getting to check out books there just like everyone else.  What would that feel like?  What kind of impact does that have on a child to have that library access?

Libraries and books resonate deeply with me.  I often heard my mom tell stories of how poor she was growing up as the oldest of 13, but almost always in the same breath, were stories of how she’s always loved books, had a library card, and always had a book (or three) to read.  In books and their opportunity to learn, she always had wealth.  And now, my mom is a librarian, her dream job.

For me as a kid, walking out of the library on a summer afternoon with a gluttonous armload of books gave me a giddy feeling of utter abundance and richness.  Settling in with a book on a summer evening and not going to bed until the sun started to come up in the sky was not an uncommon activity in our house growing up.  Getting lost in a book feels like the essence of summer.

A quiet Sunday afternoon, relaxing in the sun room and enjoying a new book from the library.

The glory of a summer trip to the library hit me all over again last Saturday.  We haven’t been to a library in two months with the busyness of settling into a new house and a new routine.  Visiting a new library for the first time after not visiting any library at all for two months made the whole experience new again for my kids.

Instead of their usual library mode of assertively choosing books off of the shelf, they were cautiously asking, “Mom, can I get this one?”  “Is this one ok?” “Can I have this one, too?”  I realized my kids were in their “store mode,” where they tentatively ask for something and then expect to hear “no” as the response.  When I recognized what was going on, I reminded my six- and five-year-olds that books in libraries are free, and they can in fact choose any books they like.

And that’s why I love the library.  As a parent, saying “no” and setting limits to unending requests when we’re out and about is big part of my job.  Saying no means we don’t come home with a van full of popsicles and trinkets on every trip to town, but on the negative side, sometimes I feel like my main job title is Chief Rejector of All Requests.

I love that the library is the one place where, when I walk in with my kids, I get to say “yes.”  They don’t get to fling books off of the shelves or swing from light fixtures, but when it comes to picking out any book that strikes their fancy, the answer is a big, fat “YES!”

And best of all is what happens with the books at home.  Just this morning, our five-year-old boy was conspicuously absent from our breakfast table.  I looked into the living room and I didn’t find him in front of the tv, so I yelled upstairs.  From long down the hallway in the sun room upstairs, I heard the boy who hadn’t even eaten breakfast yet, lost in another world yell, “I’m just looking at this book.  Is it lunch time already?”  And in that moment of morning breakfast melee, I was deeply pleased that my son who never misses a meal was oblivious to time and hunger because of reading a book.  That’s my boy.

Written June 11, 2012.
© 2012