2013: A Year in Pictures (And a Few Words, Too)

This week, a picture is definitely worth a 1,000 words (to me, anyway). As you read this, the rush of Christmas is over, but as I write this, I am in still in the midst of one week to go before the big day. If you know me, you might guess that I haven’t wrapped a single present, haven’t touched the pile of Christmas cards I ordered a few weeks ago (in order to get them done with plenty of time, of course), and probably have a messy house. Yes, yes, and yes.

With that holiday crunch pressing, it gives me a sense of perspective to look back at the year and see all of the things that we’ve done. Here are some of the big events of our life that I chronicled in this column this year:

-Acting in my very first play, “Leaving Iowa,” and then again later on in the locally produced “Cinderella” silent movie.

Photo by Pete Keith of Laneboro Community Theater.

Photo by Pete Keith of Laneboro Community Theater.

-Raising our first bottle lamb. Our kids held him like a puppy, and now he’s big enough to ride. He survived and thrived. Jarred wants to eat him for Christmas, I’m not so sure.

IMG_1905

-A mother-daughter run together at the Fools Five, where my seven-year-old ran her very first race.

first race

-Missing my brother Mike Kramer in so many ways, big and small. Even in a crowded house on holidays, there is a feeling of someone missing. Thank you all again for your continued kindness and support for our family.

Mike at work: a talented pilot, doing a job he loved.

Mike at work: a talented pilot, doing a job he loved.

-Making the best of a hard summer with a fun campout for our son’s birthday, we slept under the stars and ate a hearty breakfast on the porch.

Summer breakfast on porch

-Raising my first set of meat birds successfully. I hauled them to get processed on my 35th birthday, and felt like it was a great way to start my next year of life.

chickensinpickup-1

-Celebrating a wedding in the family, my nephew Mark Manemann married Sheila McNallan. My son was the ring bearer.

mark and isaac

-Four kids dressing up for Halloween and having the requisite trick or treating night out on the town. (Spot stayed home.)

halloween 2013

-Celebrating Thanksgiving in Montana with my husband’s side of the family. We took our Christmas picture with his ’64 pickup that hasn’t made the trip to MN yet.

family photo 2013

Thank you for following our adventures over the course of the last two years. It’s still quite surreal and humbling to think that part of every paper is devoted to the tales of my family’s life each week. I don’t see most of you face to face, but I hear bits and pieces from family or friends. Every once in a while there is an “Oh, you’re Kathy’s (insert relation)? I like her column.” It’s really very kind and nice to hear. I never really know whose lives I might touch.

If you miss a week, want to reread something later on, or share it with someone else, you can find me online at http://www.kathyschronicles.com. All of the articles are there, just a few weeks after they come out in the paper (I’ve never been known as punctual). You can also follow Kathy’s Chronicles on facebook, and get updates of the articles as I put them on my website.

if you ever have comments or ideas to share with me, feel free to send an email to the paper, just include my name, and it will get to me. Or write a letter. Or call. Or send me a message on facebook.

Thank you for being part of the wonderful small town community that makes SE MN such a great place to call home. I couldn’t be happier to raise my family among so many good people. Wishing you all many blessings in 2014.

~Kathy

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12 Days of Christmas, Crammed into 7‏

Written December 2013.

Merry Christmas, everyone! I’d like to wish you something about visions of sugar plums, snow flakes gently falling, silent nights, all is calm, sleigh bells jingling…blah, blah, blah…but I’m just not seeing that at my house.

Here are my own “12 Days of Christmas.” Life is moving fast around here, so the reality is, I’m cramming 12 days worth of activities into just a week. So I guess it’s really…

“12 Days of Christmas, Crammed into 7”

(Go ahead a sing along to yourself…)

In seven days before Christmas, here’s life in this family…

12 Eggs a Day
11 Hungry Sheep
10 Loads of Laundry
9 PM Skate Time
8 Smart Carts to Build
7 Frozen Waterers
6:30 Cub Scouts
5 Christmas Trees!
4 Dozen Norwegian Cookies
3.5 Hours of Christmas Pageant
3 Dentist Visits
2.5 Hours on Bleachers
2 Trees Cut Down
and a Check-Up Before Insurance Changes.

12 Eggs a Day: Our young hens are just getting started on their production, and we now get about a dozen eggs a day. This makes enough for our family and enough to share with Mom who makes brunch for a crowd. By spring, we’ll be getting 40 a day. Hooeee!

11 Hungry Sheep: This really isn’t a surprise, but sheep are much easier in the summer. They just wander around and eat green stuff and they’re happy. This whole feeding hay bales business in the winter is so much more work. I wish they could just climb up in the hay mow and throw down a bale themselves.

10 Loads of Laundry: This was my goal for the week. The reality: I think I washed about four and folded maybe two. The whole trip to Montana thing really did throw me off, although I cavalierly assume every time that I can just suck up the exhaustion and get right back in the groove of life again. January…now that will be the time that life gets all in order. I’m sure of it. Probably.

9 PM Skate Time: My second grader has a skating party on Friday night from 7-9 PM. I don’t even go out that late anymore. The thought of driving to Harmony at that time of night so she can repeatedly trip and fall on the skating rink and then cry in frustration because she’s learning to skate two hours past her usual bedtime…let’s just say I’m more of a Sunday afternoon skate kind of girl.

8 Smart Carts to Build: My husband, Jarred, is swamped in the month of December with eight Smart Carts to build. Smart Carts are cart with a box that can hold feed or small animals (like litters of pigs), with a scale for weighing whatever is in the box. Normally, he gets orders of one or two at a time. He recently redesigned the carts to simplify the construction, but eight at once is sort of a beautiful burden.

7 Frozen Waterers: Jarred also designed a new low-maintenance winter-proof chicken waterer, but he hasn’t had time to finish it yet (see above). In the mean time, we deal with frozen water for the chickens, which means watering twice a day. If I could just teach the chickens to enjoy ice cubes, life would be much easier.

6:30 Cub Scouts: I realize there is no 6:30 in the song, but this is just one of the events in our week of something going on every single night. In the busiest month of the year, we let our six-year-old join cub scouts. He’s pretty excited about obeying the law of the pack.

Wielding a saw, ready for some serious tree cutting business.

Wielding a saw, ready for some serious tree cutting business.

5 CHRISTMAS TREES! That’s the total in our house these days. We cut down a big old beauty from Van Normans’s Tree Farm, and then each of our kids also has their own little artificial tree that they set up, too. But wait, we also have one in the toy room. That makes six. For song purposes, though, we’ll just stick with five. It’s more glorious sounding that way.

 Part of our Christmas tree cutting crew at Van Norman's.

Part of our Christmas tree cutting crew at Van Norman’s.

4 Dozen Norwegian Cookies. First of all, I would like to state that I am not a single drop Norwegian. I am primarily Luxembourger. However, I married into the Norske culture, so when surrounded by Norwegians, learn Norwegian things. Last Saturday night, I spent a wild night of three hours rolling out four dozen Berlinerkranzer cookies for the Norwegian Festival at church. My kids looked at the cookies and said, “Where’s the frosting and sprinkles?” I told them in my serious low voice “There was no Betty Crocker frosting on the cold, frozen fjords of Norway. These are the stark cookies of a rugged, independent people.” And then they asked, “Could we just put sprinkles on them anyway?” They’re only part Norwegian, after all.

3.5 Hours of Christmas Pageant. I love nothing more than seeing little kids dressed up like sheep and wisemen singing “Silent Night,” but as anyone who’s ever helped with a Christmas program knows, those cute little programs don’t just happen by themselves. It took an hour of practice and some tasty brunch to keep everyone’s energy up for the hour-long church service. All told, three and a half hours…plenty of opportunity for practicing patience.

A shepherd, a disgusted sheep and a donkey waiting for the Christmas Play.  The donkey is spitting at the sheep, as donkeys often do.

A shepherd, a disgusted sheep and a donkey waiting for the Christmas Play. The donkey is spitting at the sheep, as donkeys often do.

3 Dentist Visits. Of course, I scheduled these visits back in June, when December seemed forever away and easy…

2.5 Hours on Bleachers. (Yes, this song goes on and on, just like real life.) Last night at school we enjoyed the delights of another holiday performance for 2.5 hours. The first hour was pleasant. Then my two-year-old daughter in a long red holiday dress wanted to leap off the bleachers in exhausted boredom. Not tripping and getting a bloody nose: a Christmas miracle.

2 Trees Cut Down: The highlight of my week was heading out in the frigid cold to Van Norman’s Tree Farm. I grew up just a few miles from there, and even got a plane ride from Willis Van Norman as a kid. I think this was the first time in about 20 years, though, that I’ve been out to their place. It was great to see a former neighbor. Heading there felt like the real Minnesotan tree hunting experience: trees, farm fields, and quiet.

And A Check-Up Before Insurance Changes: I figured the simple thing would be to get a routine check-up before the end of the year. I incorrectly assumed it would be quick. Ninety minutes later, I walked out. That made me a half-hour late to our kids’ dentist appointments (see above). I’m quite healthy, but that routine checkup gave me high blood pressure.

Bonus alternative song ending: And a Frozen In-Floor Heating System. (That’s for my husband, who’s enjoying that in his shop while he’s out their welding.)

All light-hearted Christmas griping aside, may your Christmas be a wonderful one. May your belly be full of delicious food and your heart full of the spirit of Christmas (the silent night kind, not the stuck at a traffic light kind)…and your eyes not too sleepy from staying up too late wrapping presents or being out on the town “spreading good cheer,” yes, that’s what I’ll call it. Happy holidays, everyone! Wishing you all the best.

The Best Gift Ever

After a 2,000 mile Thanksgiving road trip, followed by a week of post-road trip utter exhaustion, we’re in full speed Christmas mode at our house. Mounds of boots by the door: check. Christmas tree cut down: check. Christmas Program at church: check.

Bundling up our kids to head out the door after church, our pastor stopped me and asked if I would mind being one of the volunteers to write about “My Best Christmas Gift Ever” for an advent season devotional. I agreed, with mixed thoughts of “that sounds interesting” and “why did I just take on another project.”

Sitting in the van on the way to my mom’s house after the three and a half hour marathon of the kids’ Christmas program practicing and performance, I felt more than a little fried as I tried to ponder my best Christmas gift ever.

Nothing really jumped out from my memory.

Perhaps my favorite gift ever was my Cabbage Patch Doll in first grade. It was the one I longingly stared at week after week at the hardware store in Plainview. I dreamed about getting to hold the doll in my arms. On Christmas morning, it was the first present I opened, and it was indeed the very doll I’d wanted.

Mahala Sibyl (yes, that was the name the doll had) was a great present and very memorable, probably because stared at her week after week in the store. I don’t know, though, if that was my BEST gift ever.

Then I realized the present that meant the most to me was not a Christmas present, but an unexpected birthday gift from my younger brother.

When we were kids, our grandma used to give us five dollars every year on our birthdays. My younger brother Matthew has his birthday two days before mine. The year that he was about six, he brought his crisp five dollar bill from Grandma along on a shopping trip to Rochester, ready to spend it the day after his birthday.

The day after his birthday, of course, also happens to be the day before my birthday. I remember being at the mall that day, looking at a little display of rings on the counter, on sale two for $5.

I wandered away then, knowing that I wasn’t really going to get them. Then I saw my mom helping my little brother with something at the counter, and I tried not to pay attention too much, although I knew what was happening.

Later my mom whispered to me, “Matthew just spent all of his birthday money on two rings for you for your birthday,” confirming what I already suspected.

We always had everything we needed, but as little kids, we rarely had money of our own. The five dollar bill from Grandma was often our entire cash earnings for the year. At nine, I fully understood the generosity of getting a gift that came from Matthew’s birthday money for the year.

On my birthday, I opened up a little box with two sparkling rings, one looked like a diamond, and the other was aquamarine. They were the same two rings I’d pointed out to my mom, but never expected to get. The rings tarnished over time, but I kept them safe in my jewelry box for years, and occasionally wore them even in high school. I think I still have them in my old jewelry box up in my mom’s attic.

Of all the gifts I’ve received over the years, it was the unexpected generosity and thoughtfulness of a little boy that meant the most to me. Matthew didn’t make a big deal about giving me a present, he just did it. And he never complained about not having money left over to spend on himself. That just the kind of person he was, and still is today. Even as a kid, that made a big impression on me.

That was my best gift ever.

Heading full speed into Christmas, I’m trying to keep all of this in my head.

My favorite present ever came from a generous little brother, and when asked “What was your best Christmas gift ever?”, nothing to me really stood out.

And maybe that is the most significant thing of all about Christmas: the lasting memories of Christmas weren’t about any specific gift. My memories are of the feelings that surround of Christmas:
-the excitement of decorating the tree,
-the secrecy of wrapping presents,
-the magic of the lights turning off in the church on Christmas Eve for the play,
-the anticipation on Christmas morning,
-the nervous excitement sitting in the crowded living room at Grandma’s house on Christmas Day.

Any one of those thoughts triggers story after story in my head about Christmas time. It’s not the presents, but the whole Christmas package that makes me so excited to celebrate Christmas with my own kids.

I’m writing this to remind myself as much as anyone. In my head, it’s easy to get stuck on needing to buy x, y, and z for my kids for Christmas to be “just right.”

In reality, the best gifts are getting to decorate gingerbread houses with cousins in Montana, cutting down a Christmas tree with family in Minnesota, and getting to hold a new baby cousin. That’s what they’ll remember.

So when Christmas morning rolls around, we’ll be up bright and early to open presents, but the best gifts we’re getting this year are nothing that can be wrapped and put under a tree.

Getting to hold a new baby cousin...one of the best gifts ever.  Welcome to the world, Gabriella! Congratulations to Steve and April Kramer.

Getting to hold a new baby cousin…one of the best gifts ever. Welcome to the world, Gabriella! Congratulations to Steve and April Kramer.

Over the Missouri and Across the Plains to Grandmother’s House We Go

At night, I sometimes love South Dakota. The majority of the tacky tourist signs have no lights, so they just fade away. . . .It’s nothing but empty highway surrounded by wide open prairie under a starry black sky. 

Thanksgiving for us means loading up our van and heading 950 miles west to Broadview, Montana. Instead of making the trip in two days, we crank it out in one long blur of a night. We load up the kids, luggage, snacks and coffee, and hop on I-90 west.

The kids get “comfy,” which means arguing about foot placement, head space, blankets, heat, and noise, then laugh giddily, yell in tired frustration, listen to several rounds of “shh….it’s time to go to sleep,” and then finally drifting off one by one to a mediocre at best night of sleep in the van.

And then we drive, and drive, and drive…over the Missouri River and across the plains, to grandmother’s house we go.

It’s a long way from SE Minnesota to SE Montana, but we make this trek at least twice a year to see family. Our trek used to start in Montana and end in Minnesota, and for the last year and a half since moving into our new home, we’ve swapped starting points.

As exhausting as it is to make an over-the-road trucker trek with four kids in tow, there is also something exciting about it all. Our home is now in Minnesota, but heading to Montana feels like heading home. After living there for about 12 years, I just get excited when we start heading west. I love the change of scenery, wide open spaces, and the fresh perspective that comes from time hitting the road.

Granted, sometimes that excitement is pretty covered over in exhaustion of packing up a family of six to be gone for a week.

It’s a never ending packing list, combined with four anxious kids that keep asking “Why can’t we just leave NOW?!”, completely oblivious to the fact that we can’t just let the supper dishes and milk sit out on the table for a week or so until we get back.

And by the time we pull in to Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Montana, we’re mostly just a shell of our usual selves: fried, edgy, tired.

In the midst of the all-night road trip, though, there is a period of “golden hours” that I really do love.

The golden hours are when we hit South Dakota. Now, if you’ve ever driven across South Dakota, you’d probably agree with me that it’s generally not a state to be excited about. On I-90, it’s a 400-mile stretch of grass land at varying elevations, interrupted with an excessive amount of road signs suggesting you visit a reptile garden, or a pioneer something or other, or a drug store-turned tourist attraction.

At night, though, I sometimes love South Dakota. The majority of the tacky tourist signs have no lights, so they just fade away. It’s nothing but a long stretch of mostly straight highway. At 2 AM, the traffic is almost non-existent. Driving along at the 75 mph speed limit, I sometimes go six minutes before I see a car on either side of the highway. And while the kids and my husband sleep, it’s nothing but empty highway surrounded by wide open prairie under a starry black sky. It’s so peaceful.

That’s when I love South Dakota. It’s when I think I’d be quite content to have a house plunked out in the middle of all that nothingness, where as far as you look, you can’t see a single light but your own headlights.

South Dakota at 2 AM is my thinking time. Driving along at night is one of the few times that I am completely alone with my thoughts. Nobody else is there (awake, anyway), and there are no other distractions to fill my head.

Almost invariably, it makes me think of the very first time I headed west to go to college. Just barely 20, I loaded up my Buick that I bought from money earned working the night shifts over several summers at Lakeside Foods. I drove alone to Bozeman, Montana to start my junior year of college.

When the Buick and I arrived safe and sound in Bozeman, I didn’t know a single person in the state of Montana.

It’s amazing to me to ponder how that trip out west for college started a whole sequence of events that lead me to the point of today. College, marriage, and four kids later, we now make treks to Montana as a family of six.

As I drive along, my head sorts through six months of life since our last trip. If I had some sort of device to convert mental thoughts to words on a computer, I’d have about six weeks of articles all completed. As it is though, by the time the night ends, my mind is fried and I can’t remember all the thoughts I had in my head.

Maybe my mind is slightly fried because we’ve had five cases of strep throat at our house in the last ten days.

The bad news: five of us had strep throat in the last ten days, just before a big road trip.  The good news: my daughter has great imagination and coordination to arrange empty medicine syringes to look like rockets, telling me "One, two, three...blast off!"

The bad news: five of us had strep throat in the last ten days, just before a big road trip. The good news: my daughter has great imagination and coordination to arrange empty medicine syringes to look like rockets, telling me “One, two, three…blast off!”

In the time before I get too tired and switch off driving with my husband, I’m thankful for the fullness of my life. I can’t say I’m thankful for strep throat, but I’m grateful that the sickness in my house is an easy fix with basic antibiotics.

And on this nearly thousand mile road trip, I’m thankful for clear roads, no deer on the highway, and most of all, the families that continually give us a wonderful reason to make road trips back and forth to Montana and Minnesota. I hope you all have a wonderful holiday.

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.