A Basement Dungeon Getaway

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Written  in January 2014.

Someday when I retire, I’m going to flee for part of every winter and head to a sandy beach. I’m going to sit and tan my wrinkled skin, feet in the sand amid turquoise waters, a book in one hand and a drink with an tiny umbrella in the other.

That longing for sun and sand happens to me every year, especially when I see all sorts of decent Minnesotans fleeing southward to sun in the dead of winter. My brother’s family just got back from an island hopping cruise in the Caribbean. A friend on facebook just posted that she was heading off to “paradise” with her husband.

Right now, though, we’re pretty much staying put right here. The pay I get from staying at home with kids is the intangible kind which pays in the long run, but doesn’t really work for buying plane tickets.

And really, who needs a sandy beach when you’ve got a basement dungeon full of 98-year-old spider webs? Last night, that’s just where Jarred and I spent a romantic evening.

Normally, on a Sunday night after the kids go to bed, a grand night is watching a movie on the couch and still getting to bed at a decent time. Last night, my big plan consisted of cleaning up the kitchen and then just heading straight to bed. But my husband kindly invited me down to the basement, where he planned to saw into water pipes to work on the boiler that’s been a persistent problem this winter.

I was elated.

Our basement is standard old farmhouse basement fare: It’s best feature is a cement floor. It also sports limestone brick walls, dim lighting, long strands of cob webs, a creepy back room containing an old tank, and a bonus outhouse-like “bathroom” stall with a hole in the floor where a toilet used to be. Bugs and spiders thrive year-round in our basement sanctuary.

Usually, my use of the basement consists of making a bee line to grab a paint can and darting back up stairs as fast as possible. Or sometimes, I dart downstairs with a flash light in hand, go to the “control center” in the dungeon, stand on the wood block step, and flip whatever circuit breaker blew and then dart back upstairs again.

In my mental plans, I want to clean up the basement and arrange it into less of a storage hodge podge. When I go down there, my main thought, though, is just to get back upstairs as soon as possible.

I did agree to go downstairs last night because I was asked to moved anything on the floor that shouldn’t sit in two inches of water, on the off chance that the pipe sawing and repair turned a little ugly.

I couldn’t think of any valuable and water soluble items off hand, but I did know it shouldn’t all get wet down there.

The first thing I did when I went downstairs to help was slip on my boots.  And spill hundreds of parts.

In the process of adjusting my boot, I knocked over and spilled Jarred’s container of hundreds of neatly sorted solderless connectors.

In non-technical terms, solderless connectors are blue, yellow, and red little plastic thingeys about the size of a noodle. They roll really nicely across a cement floor. I spent the first ten minutes of my “helping” picking those thingeys up and resorting them.

By the way, I did an excellent job sorting and no dead bugs accidentally made their way into the compartments.

I then directed my efforts toward moving things around in the basement, which doesn’t involve any plumbing or soldering. I came across my boxes of Christmas plates, the white china ones with holly leaves that have been abandoned for the last few years.

After shoving my boxes of Christmas plates around, knowing I still had no space for them in the kitchen, I had a Eureka moment: the basement cabinets.

Down in the basement are a set of the original wooden kitchen cupboards, almost 100 years old. Right now they look a little worse for the wear after sitting lonely in a damp basement for 35 years or so, but with glass doors on top and original hardware, I really like them. And behind the latches, the glass-doored cabinets stay relatively bug-free.

While Jarred fired up the Sawzall and cut some pipes, I unpacked my Christmas china and put it in the cabinets. My packing material of choice was newspaper (actually, the St. Charles Press) dated 2010. I remembered that when I packed those plates, I was pregnant with my little girl who is now almost three. At the time, we had our little log house for sale in Montana and we planned on buying a place in Osseo, Wisconsin.

Later we sold that house, the Osseo deal didn’t work, we rented a house for a year, and finally moved to our house in MN, where the plates sat in the basement for almost two years. It was like opening a Christmas plate time capsule of years gone by.

And somehow, the basement now seems a little less like a dungeon with nice plates on display behind glass cabinet doors. Or maybe a nicer dungeon at the very least.

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By the end of the evening we had unpacked Christmas china and a boiler that no longer sent the hot water down the drain instead of into our pipes to heat our house. In the process, the basement never flooded, not even a teeny bit.

While those vacations on sunny beaches are the kind where people wish they’d never end, the very best part of our basement dungeon getaway was the get away from the basement when the project was done. No, I didn’t need seven days and six nights to feel like I’d had my fill. And, there’s no need to “ooh” and “ah” over basement dungeon getaway photos. However, you might say “eew” and “eh…”

The silver lining in a night spent in the basement: plates finally unpacked after years spent in boxes.

The real silver lining is a boiler repair, but that’s not very pretty. Instead, just imagine the children’s book with Mike Mulligan in the basement of the new town hall looking happy and satisfied while Mary Anne the boiler pleasantly keeps the meetings warm. It’s like that.

The silver lining in a night spent in the basement: plates finally unpacked after years spent in boxes.  The real silver lining is a boiler repair, but that's not very pretty.  Instead, just imagine the children's book with Mike Mulligan in the basement of the new town hall looking happy and satisfied while Mary Anne the boiler pleasantly keeps the meetings warm.  It's like that.

Whether your getaway is on the beach or in the basement, wishing you warmth and coziness as the Polar Vortex once again heads our way… Stay warm, everyone!

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Greetings from Frostbite Farm, MN‏

Written January 2014.

Something about a -50 windchill on this Monday morning makes all other thoughts that don’t concern cold and survival just evaporate.

When we got up this morning, something wasn’t working properly with our heat. That means the upstairs is currently 48 degrees, and downstairs the thermostat reads a balmy 58 degrees. My husband figured out the problem, and the house is getting warmer again, but it’s a slow process.

In the mean time, I layered up the kids and wrapped them up in blankets, and at the moment, they are very content sitting and watching movies. We have a wall-mounted fan heater in the kitchen, and currently, the dog and the two young kids are vying for the cozy warm space right against that heater. Somehow, the dog is winning.

My two-year-old and our dog, hanging out in their favorite cozy place by the heater.

My two-year-old and our dog, hanging out in their favorite cozy place by the heater.

In the kitchen, the crock pot is cooking a chicken, venison steaks are thawing for lunch, a pot of beans simmer on the back stove, and I turned the oven on to make it warm enough for bread to rise. We are a long way from any danger of freezing, but something in that visceral cavewoman part of my head sees the cold outside and starts thinking I better start cooking, so we don’t just all freeze or starve to death. I know logically that we are indeed not freezing to death, but that doesn’t matter.

I just have to keep cooking anyway.

Last night before I went to bed, I thought, “It’s going to be cold, I better put some beans in a pot to soak overnight, so they can cook in the morning.”

And then I realized where all of this is coming from. In my head are the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter that I read to my kids earlier this fall. Most specifically, the October Blizzard chapter stands out, when they lived in a one-room tar paper claim shanty out on the open prairie.

While I didn’t realize it last night, that feeling like I better put some beans out to soak overnight with oncoming cold came straight from Caroline Ingalls in the blizzard chapter. ” ‘I’m glad I put beans to soak last night,’ said Ma. . . .Now and then she spooned up a few beans and blew on them. When their skins split and curled, she drained the soda water from the kettle and filled it again with hot water. She put in the bit of fat pork. ‘There’s nothing like good hot bean soup on a cold day,’ said Pa.”

I agree with Pa. If I could talk to him, I’d give him a good old Minnesotan “You betcha.” Our two-year-old didn’t really touch her pancake for breakfast, but she ate three warm, steamy servings of pinto beans doused in butter, salt, pepper, and cheese. Beans are cold weather food. You betcha.

On this blustery day, my mind drifts to the stories of extreme cold and hardship from the Ingalls family, “She put more wood in the stove and broke the ice in the water pail to fill the teakettle. The water pail was less than half-full. They must be sparing of water for nobody could get to the well in that storm. But the snow on the floor was clean. Laura scooped it into the washbasin and set it on the stove to melt, for washing in.”

There’s nothing like a little Laura Ingalls to add some perspective to hardship. Our pipes upstairs froze overnight, but all in all, it’s not so bad. We still have heat and running water downstairs.

This morning I’m frustrated that our dishwasher isn’t working because one of its water lines froze up, which means washing the mound of dirty dishes by hand. I really hate washing dishes. That is nothing, though, compared to waking up in a shanty with snow on the floor, let alone looking at that snow and thinking, “Oh good, now I can have water for washing.” No, life is pretty cushy by that comparison.

However, I actually did break ice in the water pail this morning. Granted, the water pail was in the unheated shed where the chickens live, and it’s the same thing we’ve been doing since the temperature went below freezing.

In another chapter of the same book, Pa tells his girls to stay in bed until he scoops the snow pile off of the top of their quilts. As for us, I dressed my kids in layers, but their day of “winter hardship” includes hanging out on a couch with cuddly blankets, holding my smart phone. On my phone they’re watching a movie on Netflix, essentially holding a little personal TV right in the palm of their hands. But wait, my husband also has a smart phone, so sometimes they have two different movies playing at once. And sometimes my older son then turns on our laptop and plays a game on that.

I think I’d be happier if it was the electronic devices that froze up on cold days.

On the positive side of this cold day, my kids sufficiently warmed up enough to decide they wanted snow ice cream. They went outside and collected a bowl of clean snow. Then while I worked in the other room, my seven-year-old and six-year-old worked in the kitchen mixing snow, cream, sugar, and vanilla together until it tasted like ice cream.

I was impressed. They made something that tasted like ice cream with no help from me, didn’t make a colossal mess in the kitchen, and did it all while keeping peace with a very opinionated two-year-old who desperately wanted to add in her own personal touch to the final product. That’s no small feat.

Maybe tonight we’ll make an apple pie for supper and top it with a little snow ice cream. A little extra heat in the house from the oven, smell of baking apples and cinnamon…that sounds like a perfectly good way to end a perfectly frigid day. While it’s not beans, I think Pa Ingalls would approve.

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.

Community: Blessed Be the Tie that Binds

Written August 26, 2013.

On the surface, I just bought a few cool drinks at The Fremont Store and watched the Gladiolus Days Parade while my kids loaded up bags with candy.  It was just typical summer stuff.

But The Fremont Store isn’t just any store.  It’s the country store where my grandparents bought groceries when my mom was a little girl, and it still looks almost exactly the same as it did back then.  And the parade wasn’t just any parade, because it’s is my hometown parade.  It’s the parade I watched surrounded by my family on the curb; the parade where my mom and three of her grandkids were actually in the parade itself.

 The Fremont Store: Our stop for a cool drink and a little slice of community history.

The Fremont Store: Our stop for a cool drink and a little slice of community history.

Those two events brought to mind the importance of a connection to community and family, and the phrase “the ties that bind” popped into my head.

Wondering where the phrase “ties that bind” came from, I headed to the internet.  I found John Fawcett, a Baptist pastor in the 1700s, wrote a hymn titled “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.”  According to Wikipedia, he apparently wrote the hymn to commemorate a time in his own life, when instead of moving to take a higher paid position elsewhere, he chose to remain in the community already lived.  Reading the lyrics of the hymn, Fawcett expressed more elegantly than I can some of the thoughts I had in my head.

I’m not going to reprint the whole hymn and make people’s eyes glaze over, but I will give you a snippet.  To me, these lines exemplify what it is to be connected with others in the community:

Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,
Our comforts and our cares.
We share each other’s woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.

Even though everyone has their own personalities, agendas, and political leanings, in so many ways we all want the same things.  When things are good, we celebrate one another’s accomplishments, and when times are tough, the burden is shared by many.  That is community.

The Fremont Store 
I saw it in The Fremont Store last Friday.  We really just pulled in to the store on a whim on our way to the Mississippi after after my daughter asked, “Can we stop at that really old store?”  Since we hadn’t been there in a year, I altered my route to make the stop.

I snapped a picture of my kids on the porch front of the little country store, standing in their swimming suits ready for a day at the river.  I told them my mom went to that store as a kid, and the store looks pretty much the same as when their grandma was a girl.  Every time I go there, I can’t believe the store really exists.  It feels like stepping back in time.

I let each of my kids pick out a cool drink from the cooler and then we paid.  If you’ve been to the store, you know that means I pushed the button to open the cash drawer, and made the change myself.

Instead of moving along on our way, we talked for a few minutes to Martha Johnson.  In no time flat, she made the family connection that Barbie Baer, who lives just down the road, is my aunt.

While standing there, my little daughter held up her fingers to show that she is two.  I laughed in disbelief when Martha counted out her own age on her hands.  I guessed 70-something, was impressed that she continued to 80, and then she finally stopped at 97. Wow.

I left the store with a cool drink and such a huge sense of awe about that woman who’s 97, still sharp and telling stories and running a quiet store in the country.  She mentioned in passing, “People today say things are bad.  They don’t know what they’re talking about.”  If anyone can be an authority on knowing about good and bad, I’d say it’s a 97-year-old.   That cool lady made my day.  I need to stop in Fremont more often.

The Parade
On Sunday the whole town of St. Charles looked alive and bustling as we headed into town to see the parade.  Passing the fire station, we saw all the trucks lined up, sparkling clean and shining in the sun and decked out with gladiolus flowers.  For some reason, seeing that sight just flooded me with a sense pride for the town.  Knowing that the fire fighters in St. Charles are all volunteers made the sight all the more impressive.  Trucks look immaculate in the parade, and more importantly, fires are put out, because people take time out of their busy lives to serve the community.

After watching the parade, I have to say the best part of the parade was seeing my mom dressed in character as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother riding on the library float. Yes, I am entirely biased.

My mom, Mary Kramer, waving her magic wand during the Gladiolus Days parade.

My mom, Mary Kramer, waving her magic wand during the Gladiolus Days parade.

First of all, I’ve never seen my mom in a costume before.  Ever.  But just to do something different, when the library held a character costume contest, she decided to dress up.  I headed up to her attic and unearthed my long-unused homecoming attendant crown for the cause.  A great dress find in the clearance rack and some dollar store sparkles and fluff completed her costume.  And lo and behold, my mom the librarian won the “13 and over” category for her costume, thus earning her a place on the library float for the parade.

Prior to this year, the last parade float she rode was in the 1950’s when she was an attendant for Lewiston Heartland Days.  Yes, it’s been a while.  My mom had a huge smile as she waved her magic wand to the parade crowd.  Her favorite parts were all of the people spotting her and saying “Hi, Mary!” as she rode past, and seeing the sheer number of people along the entire parade route.

I also watched two nieces go by with their sports teams, and a nephew pounding the bass drum.  There’s a comfortable familiarity in watching a parade that I marched in when I was in school, and seeing family doing the same.

After the parade my family headed to my mom’s house.  There I noticed her Reader’s Digest magazine folded open to an article that caught my eye.  The article described a study that questioned children’s knowledge of their family history.  In the study, they found children who scored highest in resilency also knew the most facts about their families (such as where the grandparents grew up, or where the mom went to high school).  They suggested that knowing those facts signified a strong connection with family, an inter-generational connectedness that helps children face the onslaught of life’s troubles.  Knowing some history gives them a place in the world.

Reading that article just felt like a confirmation of what I already believed.  The connections of family, and by extension, being connected to a community, give all of us a resilience to handle the trials of life.

Following that line of thought, it’s good to dress up like a fairy godmother and wave to friends in the local parade.  And retelling “remember when Grandma dressed up” during subsequent years of Gladiolus Days will actually help make the grandkids more resillient in life.  There really is magic in that fairy wand…it’s a tie that binds.

Remembering my Brother: A Few Mike Stories

Written July 1, 2013.

If I could rewind time back to two weeks ago, I would. Two weeks ago, the family gathered for our typical Sunday brunch at my mom’s house. My brother, Mike, made a comment about how nice it was that we all get together every week, and how generally speaking, Republican or Democrat, we all get along, even if we don’t all agree on politics. I joked, “Yep, we still all like to eat bacon together.”

That Sunday, Father’s Day, I asked for Mike’s advice about our 110 new chicks, the ones that he and his family helped with when the chicks arrived earlier in the month. Later that day, Mike and his daughter, Katie, went out to our place where they sorted through some things that they had stored in our shed, getting ready for a garage sale. It was just an ordinary day.

Since the 19th of June when we lost Mike, life has been anything but ordinary.

Last Sunday after brunch, instead of hanging out at Grandma’s, we all spent the evening at Mike’s visitation. Our family met with an amazing gathering of friends, neighbors, and extended family. Mike’s longtime friends from his AGR fraternity at the U of M showed up, neighbors from growing up on the farm, first cousins that we hadn’t seen in years, former teachers…

While we stood there at the funeral home, I kept wishing that gathering of friends and family happened under different circumstances. It would have been one of Mike’s favorite days. Mike loved getting together, talking and telling stories.

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

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

In honor of Mike’s love of a good story, I’d like to share a couple of stories about Mike himself. These are just a few of the many stories that my brother, David, and I shared during Mike’s eulogy last week.

This first story is one that Mike told just a few weeks ago over Sunday brunch.

The Bee on the Bus
One day when Mike was in kindergarten, he brought a special bag of rocks to school for show and tell. He collected the rocks from a visit to Lucy and Tom’s cabin (our aunt and uncle). That day on the kindergarten bus, there was a bee, and the little girls on the bus were all screaming.

Mike sprang into action. He grabbed the only thing he had, his bag of rocks for show and tell. Swinging the bag of rocks with all his kindergarten might, he busted the window on the bus.

He also killed the bee. And in the end, he never did get in trouble about the window.

Rosewood
In 2001, during my summer break from college, my brother, Mike, offered me a job that turned into one of my most valuable learning experiences.

I spent that summer working at Rosewood, a family-style home for adults with disabilities that Mike and his wife, Tricia, founded in Clear Lake, WI. Tricia’s older sister, Rose, has Down’s Syndrome, and Tricia has always been passionate about caring for people with disabilities. At the time, Mike and Tricia did not yet have Rose in their care (as they do now), but they named the home they created in her honor, Rosewood.

Mike with Rose.

Mike with his sister-in-law, Rose.

My summer job working at Rosewood was a gift for me in several ways. At the time I was a single college student, with no one to worry about but myself. While I was at Rosewood, though, I felt like the house mom, even though all the ladies I cared for were quite a bit older than me. I spent my days planning and cooking nutritious meals, making sure everyone was clean and well cared for, helped provide lots of hands-on activities for the ladies, all the while trying to care for them in a way that was respectful.

Summed up, what I learned was the basis for selfless giving that I needed later on as a mother.

On Sundays while I worked at Rosewood, I always brought the ladies to church. I usually sat just behind Mike and Tricia and their new baby, Katie. Mike often was the reader, standing in front of the church. One of my favorite parts of that summer was being “on the job” and getting to hold my sweet, smiley little niece during church.

That summer also gave me the opportunity to see my brother, Mike, from an adult perspective.

When Mike and Tricia moved to Clear Lake, WI to farm, they knew no one in that area and were looked at as a bit of a curiosity, being a young couple just starting to farm and completely unknown to anyone in the community. During the summer I worked at Rosewood, just a few years after they moved to that area, I was impressed to see that Mike and Tricia were obviously well-liked and respected people in the community.

In my brother, Mike, I saw a capable man who got things done. In the short span of a few years in Wisconsin, Mike and Tricia established both a farm and a home for adults with disabilities, and also provided foster care. I also got to see my brother as a dad, one with a burp cloth over his shoulder who could work out tummy bubbles and get a fussy baby to sleep.

Mike was that same capable boy who killed the bee on the bus with his bag of rocks, all grown up, and still taking care of people and getting amazing things done.

And now, he is missed.

To be honest, I really didn’t feel like writing anything today. It’s hard to sort through the multitude of thoughts and emotions in my head and heart, let alone put anything down on paper. I’m writing today, though, for Mike. He always liked to read the stories in my weekly column. I can’t bring him back; the best I can do is simply share a small part of why he meant so much to so many people.

In the last week, the phrase “it takes a village” came to my mind. I know that the expression usually ends with “to raise a child,” but I’m seeing over and over that it also takes a village to get through a loss like this.

While much of the news reports negativity, I would like to report that I see a world full of kind, loving people in the midst of this sadness. Friends, neighbors, and even complete strangers have come forward with helping hands and kind words. Thank you so much.

Mike leaves behind his wife, Tricia, his daughter, Katie (12), his son, Daniel (9), and Rose, Tricia’s sister with disabilities who is a part of their family.

Mike Kramer's family: Daniel (9), wife, Tricia, Rose, Katie (12), Mike.  Mike passed away in a helicopter accident on June 19. (photo from Tricia Kramer)

Mike Kramer’s family: Daniel (9), wife, Tricia, Rose, Katie (12), Mike. Mike passed away in a helicopter accident on June 19. (photo from Tricia Kramer)

Many people ask if there is a way they can help. One way you can help is by donating to the benefit that we (the siblings) set up to help pay for future college costs for Katie and Daniel and for Rose’s ongoing care:

Katie and Daniel Kramer and Rose Benefit
Merchants Bank
1130 Whitewater Ave
St. Charles, MN 55972

Donations can also be made online:
http://www.youcaring.com/mikekramer

Thank you again for all of your support.

Thank you‏

Written on June 23, 2013 for my weekly column in the local paper

To all my readers,

Many of you know that we lost my brother, Mike Kramer, in a helicopter accident this past week.  We are all working through the unexpected loss.  Instead of writing an article for the paper this week, I’m helping my family compile “Mike  Stories” for his eulogy.  We all have great memories of Mike as a kid, a young man, and we are so proud of the man he became as a husband and father.  I could fill a full newspaper with great stories, and still it wouldn’t be enough.

Through all of this I’m once again reminded that we live in a great community.  Thank you for the outpouring of kindness and support that you shared with my family: visits, kind words and hugs while running errands, gifts of food, and so much more.  I know that Mike felt blessed to have his family in the community of St. Charles.

Thank you.

Sincerely,
Kathy Kramer Mosdal

Putting a Little Spring in our Step

I do believe it takes living with -30 wind chills and knee deep snow to fully appreciate the first 70 degree days of spring. Minnesotans get it.

Our Saturday of soaking in 70 degrees prompted the biggest flurry of outdoor projects we’ve had in a long time, and made what was quite possibly, our favorite day this year. Sometimes, days slip by and I wonder what I accomplished, but then there are days like last Saturday, where we suck every last drop out of the day and knock out more projects than ever seemed possible.

It all started a few nights before. I woke up at 2 AM, not able to sleep with a long list of spring projects in my head. Of course, it made me mad to be awake. No kids are up crying or puking, so why am I awake thinking about putting the sleds away? Finally, I just got out of bed wrote down a spring to-do list. The stupid sleds then stopped plaguing me, and I got back to sleep.

Saturday morning, with sunny skies and a predicted high in the 70s, felt like the perfect time to start checking things off that list. It also helped that we had a pressing project to complete: the day before we picked up 55 shrubs and trees from the Soil & Water Conservation District.

The first project of the day was a chicken run. Our chickens spent the winter in the shed across from our house, and judging by their impatient squawking, they were quite ready to have a little more room to stretch out their wings. Our shed already had a little hinged chicken door, so my husband spent the morning using some old fence panels to build a little access route from their contained pen to the chicken door. By lunchtime, a rooster and his harem strolled around the yard snatching up shoots of green grass and and a few bugs.

I think I’ve written this before, but I’ll say it again because it still takes me by surprise: I completely love watching chickens wander around in the yard. I never imagined having any interest in chickens, but I’m becoming quite taken with them. There is something hypnotic and soothing about watching them go about their industrious business of hunting bugs and grass shoots. Sitting on the porch and seeing chickens wander in the yard just gives me that feeling that all is well. I rank it up there with watching bonfires and snow falls. I can’t quite explain it, but I do like those buggers, and their eggs.

Chicken access to outside? Check.

Our chickens enjoyed their new freedom outside.

Our chickens enjoyed their new freedom outside.

Before lunch, my birthday boy (who turned six on Saturday), cleared our sleds off of the porch making room for our summer porch table. Sleds away? Check.

He then helped haul the table legs upstairs from the basement, and by lunchtime, we had our first outside lunch of the season on our porch. That table is a freebie find from the curb during Citywide Clean-up last year, and it provided countless outdoor meals and project space last summer. After a winter packed away, seeing the table again made our porch feel like it’s open for summer business. Porch table set up? Check.

Our 6-year-old celebrated his birthday playing outside with his little brother.  He later helped set up our table in this spot.

Our 6-year-old celebrated his birthday playing outside with his little brother. He later helped set up our table in this spot.

We ate our first watermelon of the season outside on the porch at lunchtime. Granted, we needed jackets on in the breeze, but as Minnesotans with cabin fever, we felt completely happy to finally be outside.

After lunch, our three-year-old with glazed eyes and our inconsolable two-year-old both told me they weren’t at all tired. I went against their, uh, logic and tucked them in for a nap. That gave me three hours to work outside. That, my friends, is a little slice of heaven.

My husband, my oldest daughter and I spent the afternoon putting 25 June berry shrubs in the ground, along with 30 spruce trees.

To the untrained eye, those little spruce trees just look like an ordinary line of saplings, but they are in fact our Christmas Tree Farm. Some day when our kids are teenagers, we’ll go tree hunting right in our yard at Christmas time. Our kids will saw the tree down and drag it into the living room, leaving needles everywhere.

Then we’ll say to our oldest son, “Remember when we planted those trees on your sixth birthday? Look how big they are now!” And then we’ll repeat that again the next year and the next. It’s a long term plan, but I’m excited already. Who wouldn’t like to have their very own tree farm?

Someday, these little saplings will be Christmas trees in our living room.

Someday, these little saplings will be Christmas trees in our living room.

Working outside on a gorgeous day, doing something completely out of the usual routine…I had a blast. Maybe it felt fun because I didn’t do the hole-digging part, but best of all is the excitement of imagining what eventually will become of our afternoon’s labor. Someday we’ll have Christmas trees, and some day we’ll gobble up June berries by the handful. I can’t wait. Berry bushes and spruce trees planted? Check. Check.

Just before supper, we whipped up two pumpkin pies for my son’s special request birthday meal. My six-year-old birthday boy shaped and crimped one pie crust all by himself, and his big sister did the other one. While we accomplished a lot outside, our kitchen looked like we’d had a bomb go off. Ignoring the mess for the short term, we headed back outside to cap off the afternoon with supper on the porch.

And for birthday dessert, we ate warm pie topped with ice cream. Birthday supper? Check.

Our three-year-old told us the day was the best birthday of his whole life.

I laughed. No, it was not his birthday. It was his brother’s. But I had to agree, it was one of the best birthdays ever.

Happy spring, everyone! I hope you all enjoyed last weekend’s sunshine as much as we did.

Chariots of Fool’s Five

While I usually run alone, on Sunday I ran the Fool’s Five with my favorite running partner: my daughter.

Starting my count at 7th grade cross country, I’ve been a runner for 23 years. After high school, running became a mostly solitary adventure.

I like that about running. I don’t need a team to play. I just go out and do it. A few times a year, though, I like to stand on a starting line with hundreds or thousands of other people, run in a race, and collect a new t-shirt.

I have to admit, standing on a starting line often gets me choked up. It feels like checking in with the world. Days and years can blur together like a string of run-on sentences. Races, though, are like little exclamation points in life.

On the starting line, I wear a race number that often has my age printed on it for identification. Sometimes seeing my age in print surprises me because I seldom think about the number. Here I am: 34, female.

Seeing the number printed out often leads me tally up the rest of my life, too: eight zip codes, four kids, eleven years since college. It’s an easy way to mark time.

As for the Fool’s Five, it’s been sixteen years since I stood on the starting line in Lewiston. Sixteen years ago, I wore my Fool’s Five t-shirt to my last month of classes at RCTC, then wore that shirt a few months later in the dorms at Montana State.

Seven years ago at this time, I was nowhere near the Fool’s Five, but I was running. I still lived in Montana, about 950 miles west of Lewiston, MN. I had a brand new running stroller and a brand new two-month old baby girl to put in it for our very first run together. I dressed her in her “running suit” from a baby shower, teeny sunglasses and tiny baseball cap. I tucked her in with a cushioned head support and wrapped her in what is now her favorite blankie.

My daughter at two months, out for her very first "run" in 2006.

My daughter at two months, out for her very first “run” in 2006.

On the first quarter-mile, I walked the stroller cautiously over the big, jagged rocks of the gravel road where we lived. I was pretty sure bouncing over rocks that size would give her a case of Shaken Baby Syndrome. After waiting a long time for a baby, oh man, I certainly wasn’t going to turn her brain to mush by bouncing her stroller over those big rocks.

Once we reached the county line, the gravel ended, and I took off running on the smooth hard-packed dirt, just me and my new little running partner offspring. She rolled along napping in the sunshine and not even once did she careen over an embankment, despite my fears.

Freedom to run AND a happy baby? It was a little slice of heaven on a dirt road in Big Sky Country. I wondered back then if taking her running as a baby would influence her as she got older.

And now, this year, I had that same little girl pestering me to go online and register us for the Fool’s Five. We decided to do the one-mile together. It would be her very first race, and she was too excited to sleep the night before the run.

For whatever reason, the opening title sequence of Chariots of Fire came to mind, so I played the scene for her online. We watched the guys gloriously running barefooted on the beach in white t-shirts and shorts with THAT song playing in the background. I told her we were going to run just like they said in the movie, “with hope in our hearts, and wings on our heels.” Yep, we were running for the pure joy of being able to run.

We arrived at the race a little later than planned after bottle-feeding our new lamb. In addition to the wings on her heels, my daughter ran with some butterflies in her stomach, nervous that she’d miss the race. Hand in hand we weaved through the crowd, collected our race numbers after a computer glitch, and ran to the starting line.

When we showed up at the starting line, the front runners were already off and running, and I lifted her up high over my head to give her a quick view of the massive crowd of people all running together. Look at all those people! Cool, Mom!

Normally, I’d run for time in a race. This race, though, was all about a little girl running her first mile. We held hands for about half of the race, partly for security to weave through the crowds of people, and partly because it was just nice to be together, just the two of us.

We suffered a little setback early-on when we had a “Collision with Greatness.” After not running this race in years, I forgot that we needed to watch out for the lead runners heading back to the finish. Skirting too close to the right side of the street, my daughter got a hard elbow smack by the second or third place runner on his final sprint to the finish.

I take responsibility for that one. On his part, I know it was purely accidental. He probably didn’t even seen her. I understand when you’re running full speed, kicking in to the finish, you get tunnel vision. She got tears in her eyes and we walked for a minute or two, then she took off running again. Good to go.

The rest of the mile, she ran like a champ, and I don’t know who was more proud at the finish line, her or me.

My daughter, now seven, giving two thumbs up during the Fool's Five race.

My daughter, now seven, giving two thumbs up during the Fool’s Five race.

I have no idea what our time was, and I don’t care. We had a blast. We ran, weaved around people, she got clocked by a fast guy, and she finished the race with a tired, thirsty body and a big sense of accomplishment.

“Mom, I want to wear my race shirt to school tomorrow. I can’t wait to tell my gym teacher. Do you think the people watching could see that I was running really hard at the finish?” Yes, I definitely do.

Say it with me: “At this time last year…”

You certainly heard someone say it this past week.  Maybe you even said it yourself.

Looking out at our sea of snowy white, below zero wind chills, seemingly endless Monday snowfalls, you probably took comfort in A) Your winter escape trip to a warm, sunny location or B) That memory of what our area looked like just one year ago at this very time.

No signs of spring around here, where the road signs are still up to their necks in snow.

No signs of spring around here, where the road signs are still up to their necks in snow.

Cue that springtime bird-chirping music.   Let your mind drift back to last year at this time, with record highs, sunshine, and green grass.

Last year at this time…
-Day lilies peeked out of the ground.
-Crocuses were blooming.
-Snow blowers already had a layer of dust on them.
-The sound of lawnmowers filled neighborhoods.
-Spring lambs played outside on green grass.
-Kids ditched their snow pants and boots, wearing shorts when they played outside.
-First sunburns arrived extra early on MN winter white skin.

The memory of last year at this time is permanently planted in my mind, too, but for other reasons.  March 25th marks one year in our home in Minnesota.

One year ago we said our goodbyes to our family and friends in Montana and pulled out onto the highway, moving out of my husband’s hometown.  We drove all night.  One year ago we showed up at Mom’s house just in time for Sunday brunch.  Surprise!  Nobody in Minnesota knew we were coming that day.

One year ago, on that warm, sunny, blue sky Sunday afternoon we pulled into the yard of our new home and I said to our kids, “We’re home!”  It had been six months since I’d seen that house, so it was like seeing it again for the first time.

March 2012: Tree climbing weather, no jacket required.  Our son climbed "Maple the Maple" for the first time at our new house.

March 2012: Tree climbing weather, no jacket required. Our son climbed “Maple the Maple” for the first time at our new house.

That afternoon one year ago, a lawn full of our kids and their cousins christened our new home by playing in the yard for the first time.  My brother-in-law spent the afternoon mowing our lawn that already looked overgrown at the end of March.

One year ago, I walked around our new house in dazed amazement.  In an exhausted stupor from driving through the night, I took in walls freshly painted by my family, beds set up, and furniture already arranged.  Our family here put in countless hours while we were still back in Montana.

I remember people asking me where I wanted things, but I really didn’t have any answers.  The whole scene felt surreal.  After years of searching for “the place,” and months of headaches with realty arrangements and banks, we finally arrived to stay at our new home.  One year ago on that day, I didn’t roll on the grass, or kiss the ground, but I certainly felt like it.

A year into our new home, we still love it here.  We are thankful for the many neighbors and new friends who welcomed us into the community, and made it easy to be a part of our new hometown.

A few days ago, my husband said he was once again struck by it all as he walked back from the barn one evening after feeding the goats.  Yes, we have goats now, that’s another story.  Looking across the quiet yard in the country, seeing a warm house with a snow-covered landscape all around, all silent and peaceful at dusk, it struck him all over again how much he loves where we live.

We both agreed, though, as pretty as the snow is, we’d love to look out across the green grass that greeted us one year ago at this time.  The groundhog said spring should be here by now, right?

On a related note, as winter (hopefully) wraps up, I just want to say thank you to everyone that drives snow plows, helping keep the roads clear this winter.  While all Minnesotans love to discuss and sometimes grumble about how bad the roads are in the winter, the truth is, I’m usually amazed by how bad the roads are NOT.  As tired as we all are of winter, I’m guessing snow plow operators are just as tired, if not more, of our hefty late winter snows.  Thank you for what you do.

I’m thankful that when a snowfall comes along, or when the wind picks up and makes new drifts, I never wonder if the roads will be taken care of, it’s just done.  I can’t tell you how many times I saw or heard a big orange snow plow going past our house this winter.

Thanks for those before dawn snow plow runs that got the road clear for my sister to get work at Mayo early in the morning so she can be the nurse during someone’s surgery. Thank you for making Minnesota winters easier and safer for all of us.

And finally, happy birthday, Mom!  Thanks for all of the Sunday meals!  Love you.  Kathy (AKA “Number 10”)

Written March 28, 2013

The Beauty of a Snow Day (I Just Hope Winter is Almost Over)

Via my seven-year-old daughter, I relived that delicious, wonderful freedom of an unexpected day off.  Ah, the glorious power of mother nature.

Written March 2013

Hello again, everyone!  I’m happy to be writing again after taking some time off during the winter doldrums.  Right now the knee-deep snow in our yard suggests that winter may never end, but I’m not fooled.  Winter, you are on the way out, old man.  Longer evenings, more daylight…  Spring really is on the way, and I am so excited.

In the time while I’ve been off “on vacation,” busy life continued.  Here are a few of the highlights of our life during the interim:

Leaving Tennessee: My brother and his family moved from Tennessee back to our hometown in Minnesota.  They happened to move in on the coldest night of the year.  Our extended family turned out in big numbers to help, unloading two packed-full trailers in -25 wind chills.  Frigid weather, but lots of family…welcome to Minnesota, y’all!  Amazingly, that makes three of us siblings (and our families) moving back to MN from other states in one year’s time.

Leaving Iowa: I am an ACTRESS!  Well, kind of.  I performed in my very first play, “Leaving Iowa,” with the Lanesboro Community Theatre.  For that brief time, I was Jessie, the overly talkative waitress with a little attitude.

Jessie the Waitress. Photo by Pete Keith of Laneboro Community Theater.

Jessie the Waitress.   Photo by Pete Keith of Lanesboro Community Theater.

I had a blast.

I always secretly wanted to be in a play in high school, but I didn’t have the guts to try out.  I’m so thankful for community theater which makes it “never too late” to try something new.  I’m also thankful for meeting such a fun group of people in the cast and crew.  About ten of the 26 cast members were first time actors, so I got to experience the thrill (and butterflies) of the new experience right alongside many of my fellow cast members.

Truthfully, just walking into the audition almost took more guts than what I thought I had, but I am so thankful I summoned up the courage to do it.  I felt butterflies in my stomach for the first time in perhaps years, and I’m thankful for that, too.  I know I’m still alive and kicking.

Living in Minnesota: Most recently, what’s on my mind is the joy of a good, old-fashioned snow day. I realize a snow day for many parents means a stressful scrambling to figure out alternative plans while kids have no school and parents still need to head to work.  In that regard, I’m grateful for a work day that occurs right in our home.  Snow days just mean our two school age kids are home to play all day with our two younger children.

I will admit, though, on a recent snow day, I didn’t exactly start out the day with jolly good cheer.

Just before 6 AM, I checked online and then left a note in the bathroom for our kids announcing the two-hour school delay.  I headed back to bed hoping for a few more minutes of sleep after a restless night.  I got up for the day at 8:00, after a rare morning of sleeping in.  (Ten years ago, I never would have called 8 AM “sleeping in,” but my perspective has changed a bit.) And still, I was exhausted and crabby.  Four rambunctious kids, housebound in a snowstorm, didn’t sound very appealing.  I was not exactly in fine parenting mode, that I know.

However, I unexpectedly came downstairs to find hot coffee, a homemade quiche, AND a cherry pie, baked in the oven by my husband, Jarred, and his four willing helpers.  Warm food, good coffee, and kids so excited to surprise me jump-started my attitude adjustment.

After breakfast I checked school closings again online and discovered school switched from delayed to the big “C.”  CLOSED.

I beckoned my first grader to come upstairs and read the announcement on the computer screen.  She double-checked with me to be sure.  Then she was gone.

A few seconds later, I heard the rapid thuds of excited steps down the stairs and the triumphant yell: “NO SCHOOOOOL!!”

In an instant, my surly attitude evaporated.

I was a kid again, sitting in front of the radio listening to school closings.  I was pondering the likelihood of a cancellation, weighing the odds by the number and proximity of the other school closings.  “Ooh, good! Dover-Eyota’s cancelled!!  That HAS to mean we’re closed, too!” I remember the agonizing wait for the announcer to work down to the “S” portion of the list.  “St. Ansgar, closed! They’re always closed, so that doesn’t count.  But ooh, we’re next!”  And finally, the words I longed to hear, “St. Charles, closed!”

Via my seven-year-old daughter, I relived that delicious, wonderful freedom of an unexpected day off.  Ah, the glorious power of mother nature.  A big whopper of a storm, so powerful that even school didn’t stand a chance.  The joy of a full day to relish and squander greedily.  A snow day is indeed glorious.

The decibel level of my kids told me that they felt just as excited as I did when I was little.  One of the best things about being a parent is getting to see that some things never change.

Just before lunch, the snow ended and I poked my head outside.  Inside was mess, melee, and noise.  Outside, the world was silent and bright with deep, powdery snow on the windless day.  It reminded me of Bozeman, Montana, where I went to college.  Bozeman is nestled in a sheltering valley between mountain ranges, so time after time I saw a gentle snowfall pile up six inches of powdery snow, followed by a bright, windless, pleasant winter day.  It was a Bozeman kind of day.

Riding on a sled over knee deep snow.

Riding on a sled over knee deep snow.

I rounded up the kids and we headed outside into the powdery goodness.  I remember that as a little kid, the snow always seemed so deep.  Looking at our 23-month-old wading in snow over her knees, it suddenly made sense why the snow used to be so much deeper when I was young.

The kids meandered through the yard, playing on the snow-covered wood pile and pulling each other around in the sled.  They slid down the only hill in our yard: the piled mound of plowed snow.  Fluffy with new snow on top, with a frozen sheet of ice covering hard-packed snow beneath, the mound is just right for sliding and MN-style surfing.

Building a secret fort in the wood pile.

Building a secret fort in the wood pile.

I pushed our kids in the tree swings, their feet kicking up sprays of white powder with every arc.  Under a big snow-covered oak tree, watching smoke curl up from the wood burner, surrounded in a powdery quiet blanket interrupted only by the sound of kids in play, all felt right with the world.

IMG_1811

Eventually, we headed inside and heated up some leftovers for lunch. And for dessert, snow cream.

Snow cream is a simple ice cream-like delicacy that I never heard of in all my snowy Minnesotan upbringing.  Ironically, I learned about the treat from my North Carolinian roommate in college, who had a giddy excitement over snow the first year we both went to Montana State.  The fresh powder from a new snowfall is ideal snow for making snow cream.

Ice cream made from snow.

Ice cream made from snow.

SNOW CREAM
bowl of snow–6-8 cups
1/2-3/4 cup cream or milk
4 T. sugar
1 t. vanilla

Stir together until it looks like soft serve ice cream, and eat immediately!  I provided measurements for people who like exactness, but in all honesty, I don’t measure anything.  I just sprinkle sugar, drizzle in cream, add a dash of vanilla and then stir and tweak as needed.  Chocolate syrup is also a great addition.

So, if we happen to get yet another snowfall this March, take some of that four-letter “s” word, and go make yourself something yummy.  Enjoy!