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.

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Happiness Is…

Written October 14, 2013.

Some days, my cup is half empty. All I see are messes, everything grates on my nerves, and I just wish it was bedtime.

It’s those times when I wistfully remember the simplicity of life before kids and daydream about that far off future when we have the freedom of being empty nesters, of days when kids aren’t constantly pulling on my arm yelling “Mom!”.

But the truth is, happiness isn’t when a long off “finally” day arrives. Happiness doesn’t come when everything is finally perfect, because perfect doesn’t exist.

Happiness is the million little things that happen every single day. This is happiness for me, last Sunday:

Happiness is…

-Waking up to a window view of sun shining on orange leaves fluttering in the wind.

-Happiness is kids that dress themselves without being asked a second time.

-A hug and an “I love you, Mom” after helping my four-year-old with his shoes.

-Getting ready to yell at him for messing around on the way out the door, but stopping in my tracks when he says, “I’m looking for my little Bible book.”

-Happiness is hearing your two-year-old chatting on and on with the ladies at church about her sparkly red shoes and plans to be Elmo for Halloween.

-Happiness is starving after a long morning at church, and heading to Grandma’s house where brunch is all ready and waiting when we arrive.

-Happiness is bacon.

-Happiness is a warm cup of tea and a few handfuls peanut M&Ms.

-Happiness is laying down on a soft bed with a tired toddler who needs a nap. Happiness is taking a Sunday nap of my own, too.

-Happiness is a little boy who rediscovered his special collection of linked key chains that had been lost at grandma’s for a week.

-Happiness is when he figures out how to hook a key chain to his belt loop, and repeatedly tells me the rest of the day, “Look, Mom, I haven’t lost my chains because I hooked it on!”

-Happiness is getting out of the house for a walk to the city park with my family.

-Happiness is my little boy pedaling his trike through dry leaves on the way.

Happiness is riding your tricycle through the crunchy dried leaves.

Happiness is riding your tricycle through the crunchy dried leaves.

-Happiness is the sound of crunching leaves that remind me of Coach Arnold and the cross country season back in high school.

-Happiness running into a group of boys at the park that seemed like they came right out of Mayberry: holding nets and pails, wading in the creek to catch crayfish.

-Happiness is hearing the boys describe how they will use the crayfish as bait for trapping season later on.

-Happiness is seeing kids that know how to play outside in a creek.

-Happiness is remembering catching a crayfish as a kid with my brother Mike down at Black Bill’s cabin on the North Branch of the Whitewater River.

-Happiness is hearing about childhood crayfish boils from my Tennessee-born sister-in-law.

And, happiness is…

-Cousins making a train while sliding down the slide.

-Two six-year-old cousins making a secret world under the lilac bush at the park.

-A two-year-old yelling “Hi!” under the highway bridge walking home from the park, and then saying “it echoes.”

-An afternoon of blue sky, sunshine, and crisp fall air.

-The rustling sound wind blowing through the dry leaves of a corn field.

-Watching my adult brother ride a little girl’s bike to the park because that’s what’s in Grandma’s garage, and why not.

-Watching my husband take a turn on the little girl’s bike on the ride back from the park.

Happiness is a husband who will happily ride a little pink bike home from a Sunday afternoon at the city park.

-Watching cool kids stare in disbelief and teenage disgust at the man riding a girl’s bike.

-A mountain of mini pumpkin gourds shared from my sister’s garden.

-Laughter from hearing another sister ate one of the gourds last year.

-Happiness is eating chicken and gravy and cream puff dessert made by my mom.

-Two-year-old and three-year-old cousins having a discussion at suppertime. “I’m three.” “You too little to ride bus.”

-Happiness is seeing my younger brother rediscover his long-lost RC airplane.

-Happiness is reading a book, and then hearing “read it again, Mom.”

-Seeing my 2nd grader absorbed in the Fleet Farm Toyland catalog. And happiness is being grown up enough to resist the urge to snatch the catalog and look at it myself.

-Happiness is remembering the smell of ink and paper of the Sears Christmas catalogs as a kid.

-My seven-year-old daughter’s giggle of delight at bedtime realizing the upcoming week of school is just three days long.

-My two-year-old girl’s delight at catching a lady bug and watching it crawl across her hand (even though she wasn’t brushing her teeth like I asked).

-Happiness is that same little girl darting across the hallway to yell “Mom, we need more ‘washcoffs’ ” while standing with no clothes on and holding a glass vase with a lady bug inside.

-Happiness is my six-year-old son at bedtime saying “I just can’t ever hug you enough, Mom.”

-Happiness is stumbling across family videos after the kids went to bed.

-Happiness is watching those videos and feeling thankful that we no longer have melted carpet from a curious toddler with an iron.

When Life Hands You a Puffball…‏

Written October 7, 2013.

If I look out in the sheep pasture and see something strange on the ground, generally speaking, “maybe we could eat that” isn’t the first thought that comes to mind.

However, there are exceptions to every rule. Last Saturday happened to be one of those exceptions.

Freckles the sheep helps show off the puff ball discovery in the pasture.  (When did sheep and puff balls enter my life?!)

Freckles the sheep helps show off the puff ball discovery in the pasture. (When did sheep and puff balls enter my life?!)

We originally set out for the Great Apple Harvest of 2013. With four long-established apples trees on the back corner of our land, I had happy visions of bags full of apples. I would bake them into all sorts of things that would fill our house with the aroma of fall and make everyone swoon with homey contentment.

As it turned out, the apple harvest was pretty much just that: AN apple. Okay, realistically we maybe found 30. And, they certainly were, um, “organic.” Of the 30 apples, Asian beetles and bees inhabited at least half. I could almost hear the bugs drooling in sheer ecstasy, “Oh…I’m living in a house made of food…nom nom nom….”

A few weeks ago, my husband mentioned it was time to pick the apples. At that point, I really was in denial about fall setting in, and I told him I just wasn’t ready for apple picking. Funny thing, apple picking isn’t really like making a dentist appointment, where you pick the time that works for you, and maybe put it off for a month if things just don’t fit in the schedule.

By the time we moseyed back to pick our apples, we found most of them on the ground, already turning into compost. I had visions of apple sauce, apple butter, apple pies… Compost is all well and good, but nobody comes into a house and says “ooh, is that compost you’re making ?” and if they do, it’s probably not a compliment.

After strike one on the wimpy apple harvest, I thought “Hey, we’ll just add the last of the rhubarb, and make apple rhubarb pie!”

A few weeks ago, we discovered that the rhubarb rejuvenated itself and we had a whole new crop of crisp stalks ready for the picking. When I saw it that day, I just wasn’t ready to tackle a pile of rhubarb, and figured I’d come back another day. (Are you noticing a theme?)

And…strike two, rhubarb. Thank you to the goats and/or sheep who escaped and munched off my last good batch of rhubarb for the season. All we found were a few trampled stalks and some telling raisin-like droppings. Why, goats and sheep, why?

They didn’t even add brown sugar or oatmeal. It couldn’t have tasted good. It’s also apparently slightly toxic for them, according to the internet. I never noticed any animals with ill effects, so they must have all eaten just a little, sharing nicely. Polite sheep and goats. That’s the silver lining.

The other silver lining? Tomatoes! With no killing frost, our tomato plants are troupers. They are out there in the weed patch garden, just making tomatoes like crazy. My husband and a collection of kids picked off the last of the tomato bounty. It is a beautiful sight to behold.

Tomatoes, glorious tomatoes!  Doesn't it look so farm-y with the barn in the background?

Tomatoes, glorious tomatoes! To me it looks like a little slice of country heaven with the barn in the background…

Our best harvest of all, though, happened to be the one thing we had no plans of finding. A day or two ago, looking out across the yard, I thought an ice cream pail must have blown into the sheep’s pasture. On closer inspection, I discovered a volleyball-sized mushroom that I swear just showed up overnight. A puffball!

Way back in the recesses of my mind is a memory of one time coming home from the Fall Festival at St. Aloysius with a giant puffball mushroom that my mom then fried and we ate. It was such an oddity that it stuck in my head.

Heading online once again, I checked various websites to find out about our amazing pasture fungal growth. Turns out, if the inside is creamy white and uniformly smooth with no gills, it is indeed edible.

Oh yes, we are in puffball heaven. We hunted down five puffballs total. That makes four more puffballs than we could ever really consume in a reasonable amount of time.

The Great Puff Ball Harvest of 2013.  Holy puff balls!

The Great Puff Ball Harvest of 2013. Holy puff balls!

And that’s kind of how it is in life. Sometimes, you think it’s apples that you’re going to find, but it’s really puffballs. And puffballs aren’t apples, but they are pretty amazing.

Puffball pie, anyone? Just kidding. We did eat them sauteed with onions in plenty of butter. On top of our Saturday night pot roast they tasted utterly delicious. (That’s just how Martha Stewart would say it.)

And for dessert, we did manage to whip up a fabulous apple rhubarb crumb pie with the last pickings of the season.

Pot roast with wild mushroom and apple rhubarb crumb pie. Not bad for some stuff we found laying in the yard.

A side note:
Completely unrelated to anything about puffballs, on Sunday all of my sisters and I attended Les Miserables at Rochester Civic Theater. Ordinarily, sisters getting together isn’t that big of a deal, but there are six of us, so it does become a big deal. By our best count, it’s been 18 years since we last did anything together with just the six of us sisters together. That makes this newest photo of the six of us all the more special.

The six sisters together: Karen, Deb, Mel, Kathy, Vicki and Sues.  For the record, I also have seven brothers. : )

The six sisters together: Karen, Deb, Mel, Kathy, Vicki and Sues. For the record, I also have seven brothers. : )

Neglect: The Latest Innovation in Gardening

Written June 3, 2013.

My kids are highly innovative horticulturists, despite a lack of any formal training.

Last week I wrote about a few of my researched plans for the garden this year, but who needs to read books or chit chat with gardening pros when you have kids around?  This week I learned a new planting technique from my kids that’s sure to take the gardening world by storm.

Regretfully, I do not have any photos of my wonderful sprouted seed packets in the plastic bag.  I was so moved that I forgot to grab my camera to record the amazing new gardening technique.  My daughter, however, is quite happy to apply her advanced gardening techniques to a variety of plants.

Regretfully, I do not have any photos of my wonderful sprouted seed packets in the plastic bag. I was so moved that I forgot to grab my camera to record the amazing new gardening technique. My daughter, however, is quite happy to apply her advanced gardening techniques to a variety of plants.

I call our new technique “sprouting in the seed packet.”  And if you are one of those people that sees something about gardening and just groans because you have absolutely no interest, you can still read this, I assure you.

Step One: Plant a few rows of seeds just before bedtime.  Crucial procedure: Lay plastic grocery bag containing 6-8 seed packets on the grass next to the garden.   Then, when it’s time to go in, ask kids to “bring the stuff in.”  Do not verify completion of assigned task.

Immediately engage your mind with a million other projects that need attention.  A few distraction options: a sink full of dishes, a cracker smashed onto the living room carpet, a pile of dirt left on the floor in the bathroom, four wild and tired kids upstairs dancing on the extra bed instead of putting on pajamas.

Step Two: Apply rain, lots of rain.  Repeated rainfall intermixed with cold and wind for seemingly weeks on end works best.  Forlornly look at garden from living room window.

Step Three: Realize June arrived and the garden really needs to be planted.  Realize also that the plastic bag of full of seed packets disappeared.  Wander over to check out the garden and discover the plastic bag laying in the grass near the garden.  (It will be in the exact location where you left it weeks before.)

Step Four: Cautiously peer into bag.  Observe mass of congealed paper seed packets, adhered together in an amorphous mix of paper goo, melting ink, and myriad sprouting seeds of several varieties.  (Hanging head in gardening shame is appropriate at this point.)

Step Five: Haul bag of sprouting seed packets and paper goo to porch.  Set bag on porch with good intentions for something, but you are not sure quite what.  Let bag rest on porch for 1-2 days.

Step Six: Relocate said bag to kitchen window where it is sure to get some “proper attention.”  Allow to mature here for an additional 2-3 days.

Step Seven:  After supper, when the wind picks up and it’s sure to storm again, it’s cold, and it’s nearly bedtime, you have found the optimal time to care for the sprouted seeds.

Step Eight: Sift through sprouted seedlings and shredded packets, separating plant species, more or less.  Dig haphazard holes and rows to plant seeds.

Step Nine:  Allow children to plant seedlings.  What lacks in care will be made up for with zeal and enthusiasm.

Step Ten:  Rest.  Tomorrow is another day, with more plants to kill (oops) I mean grow.

While this technique of sprouting seeds while still in the packet may seem laborious and cumbersome, in actuality, it is quite carefree.  The technique presents several advantages over conventional seed planting:

1.  Easy Open Packets.  How many times have you fumbled with the pesky paper seed packet, trying to open it ever so carefully?  When seeds are allowed to germinate while still in the seed packet, the spouted seeds will actually burst open the packet for you.  Now that’s convenient, very convenient.

2.  Eliminates Gardeners’ Biggest Question: Will it Grow?  With the “sprout in the packet” technique, you know the answer is YES!  You most assuredly chose hardy seed stock.  When left in the rain for a few weeks, seeds can germinate in the seed packet, even while in a plastic bag.  Now carefully peel away the gooey paper, pick up those delicate little seedlings with teeny fragile roots, and plant with confidence! You are growing things already!  Germinating seeds in dirt is so old-fashioned.

3.  Companion Planting is a Breeze.  Master gardeners devote entire books to companion plantings, sharing which plant thrives best when planted near another.  The sprout in the packet technique, however, allows for spontaneous combinations of plant species.  No more stressing over “proper” companion plantings, it’s already been done right there in the bag!  Spinach mixed with radishes will surely be a garden hit.  They’re already growing together in the bag, right?

While “sprouting in the seed packet” is our most innovative gardening technique this year, I can assure you that my children do not rest after that sort of success.

Truly, I could go on and on about innovative gardening methods generated by my children, but I’d hate to brag too much.  I didn’t even tell you about the merits of removing pepper plants from their plastic containers, digging a shallow grave for them in the flower bed, stacking the plants in a pig pile, and then allowing the roots to “sun” for a few days.  The results are nothing short of spectacular.

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!

A Clothesline Romance

One of my favorite memories is crawling in bed on a summer night, hair still damp from a Saturday night bath, and diving in between cool, crisp cotton sheets that smell like grass and sunshine, fresh from the clothesline.

I remember giggling as I felt the breeze blowing in from the window, looking out at the gently swaying leaves of our gigantic trees that made a canopy of shade in the summertime, and hugging my favorite blankie while I inhaled its every well-worn inch. It smelled so incredibly good after hanging outside all afternoon.

Everything felt so clean and fresh and good, and all was right with the world. They say that scent is one of the strongest triggers of memories, and every time I smell sheets fresh from the clothesline, it brings back that time.

One of my very favorite photos ever, my little girl in her “prairie girl” dress playing in the sheets, her brother in the background.

I love clotheslines. The sight of crisp sheets, sunning in the breeze, gives me a feeling of utter contentment.

So many of my memories growing up are linked directly to the clothesline on the side of our house. It was, of course, a magnificent clothesline. The horizontal metal pole on one end grew directly into a huge pine tree, hugged deeply by bark on top and bottom. A pine tree helping support the clothesline? Absolutely amazing to me as a child. That horizontal clothesline crossbar was strong enough that we used the bar for gymnastic feats of near-Olympic caliber while Mom pinned up towels on the lines.

Also amazing was the fact that my mom actually grew clothes pins. Whenever an old clothes pin broke, she chucked the broken one into the day lilies by the side of the house, always telling us that the long, thick leaves were new clothes pins growing. I never actually saw those leaves “flower” into clothes pins, but sometimes I even threw in extras, just to help Mom grow more. She was always running out of clothes pins, after all.

The best thing about the clothesline as a kid was running full speed through the rows of towels and sheets, shoving them up in the air as we ran underneath. Crispy, stiff towels brushed on my cheeks as I went past and sheets billowed up to catch the breeze just long enough to dash through. Sometimes we even drove the 4-wheeler under the clothesline to have the same effect.

clothes line diapers

I remember wishing I could be a sheet on the wash line, waving up and down and snapping in the breeze. It seemed like that had to be a sheet’s very favorite time, getting to hang out on the line to dance and play in sunshine. I also wished I could be the grapevines that spiraled and curled along the wires of my grandma’s clothesline, racing to grow to the other end.

.On the business side, I clearly remember Mom’s mad dashes to the line and her yelling, “My towels!” when the first big rain drops rapped against the windows. Out the porch door and around the corner she’d race to the clothesline, trying to save everything from needing a trip to the dryer.

And woe to the puppy that pulled clean towels off the line. A very good swatting with those towels, if done properly, only took one time to cure Buster (we had several Busters growing up) of pulling things off the line.

Today when I hear of housing developments with restrictive covenants not allowing a clothesline, it simply feels like an abomination and an assault to my sensibilities. I understand that in a row of perfect houses, hanging out towels is far too “redneck” to be acceptable. Maybe it’s not so much redneck, though, as far too human.

In eliminating clotheslines in the quest for perfectly tidy yards, we lose a part of our humanity. Towels, sheets, and jeans on the line at our neighbor’s house provide very concrete evidence that there is, quite literally, dirty laundry in that home. We are human. We all have it. It’s hard to maintain the pretense of perfection if slightly tattered towels are out there for the world to see. When did it become unacceptable to be human, a real human with laundry drying in the breeze?

At our new house here out in the country one of the things I loved right away is the long, ample clothesline that definitely means business. Laundry business. It’s a little crooked and needs to be shored up, but in the mean time, the line hangs low enough in some places that our kids can reach it and help hang up clothes. Lots of chores around the house hold no interest, but hanging up things on the line is pretty much always a fun job.

cloth diapers clothes line

Three kids helping hang diapers in the sunshine. (Helpfulness like this just has to be photographed.)

What endears me to clotheslines is the very visual evidence of a family’s life inside a home. Driving past a farm with clothes out on the line, it’s such a signal of life, industry, and a busily humming family inside that home. A line of clean clothes hanging up to dry says that someone’s working hard to keep life peacefully in order. There’s a Puritan practicality and work ethic appeal in a row of clothes out on the line.

What I feel like when I hang clothes on the line.   (artist unknown)

Not only does life feel industrious and in order, but a trip out to the clothesline for ten minutes really feels like adult recess. Ten minutes to soak up vitamin D out in the sunshine and wind all by myself is heaven. Sometimes in a busy day of completing my mental to-do list, I don’t even step outside the house until I haul out a load of laundry.

Then, when I step outside, it’s a wonderful paradigm shift. Away from the noise of busy kids, all is quiet, and breeze, warm sun, and birds suddenly fill my senses. All of the stress of things to do in the house disappear for a little while in the simple, quiet rhythm of grabbing items from a basket and hanging them on the line. I value that in my rinse-and-repeat world of being a mom.  

And when the load of laundry is all up on the line, it’s such a pleasing sight that I usually take a few steps back and just stare at the line for a little bit. A nicely pinned up row of sheets or towels gives me a momentary sense that life is all in order. Well, at least part of it, anyway.

Using a clothesline is so nice that sometimes I let the towels enjoy a full two days out there, or even three. Yes, let’s just call that intentional. I’m doing the towels a favor. Unlike my mom, I often don’t dart outside when the rain starts, so sometimes the towels even get an extra rinse with soft rainwater. Purely deliberate, of course.

When I was in high school, old enough to dream about my life as an adult, I sometimes imagined one day looking out of my kitchen window to see kids playing outside and sheets drying in the breeze on the wash line. And today, I have four little kids running full speed through my sheets, hiding between the towels, and accidentally tugging my clean things off of the lines.

And as I yell, “My towels!” to get my kids to slow down a bit, they have no idea how utterly happy the whole scene makes me.  

© 2012

That Sprinkler in Your Lawn Just Might be a Rattlesnake

 “Dear Dad, Thanks for chopping the head off the snake. I love you.” 

If snakes give you nightmares, better just stop reading right now. Never mind, you probably can’t help yourself.  It’s like unexpectedly coming across a gigantic bug. You can’t hardly stand to look at it, but you also can’t stand to not take a look, either.

First of all, many thanks to the little fox snake sitting on our basement steps recently as my daughter went downstairs to get some dog food. Without you, you darn snake, I might not have snakes on my mind.

In the last few years, I’ve had entirely more contact with snakes that I’ve ever wanted. Growing up, my childhood was blissfully snake free. I knew we had rattlesnakes in SE Minnesota, but I only ever saw them behind aquarium glass at Whitewater State Park. And even with the glass between us, I still wondered if maybe the snake could somehow get out. I can recall only two other snake sightings in my entire childhood out in the country, and those snakes weren’t rattlers.

Rattlesnake Adventures

Broadview Montana rattlesnakes

Mosdal Road in Broadview, Montana. Population: two grandparents, and a few pesky rattlesnakes.

Where we now live Minnesota, there was a bounty paid for rattlesnakes many years ago.  The numbers declined sharply and now the timber rattlesnake is listed as a threatened species. In Montana, by contrast, the western rattlesnake is alive, well, and quite bountiful.

My first run-in with a rattlesnake happened the summer of 2003, shortly after we moved to our trailer house on my husband’s grandparents’ farm in Broadview, Montana. I sat out on the front steps one evening, just after our five nieces and nephews left our house after a visit to play in our yard. As I sat there on that quiet night, I heard the sprinkler running by our house… but hey, wait a minute…we don’t have a sprinkler.

There, less than 10 feet from the front steps, right where some of my favorite kiddos played moments before, was a rattlesnake busily shaking its tail. I don’t remember the specific method my husband, Jarred, used to get rid of it, but I believe it involved a shovel, some chopping motion, and then a garbage can.

Rattlesnakes around the Broadview, MT area are a common sight. While I was teaching at the school there, the elementary teachers one day nervously came in from the playground reporting that they’d found a baby rattler on the playground. Locals there say the babies are particularly dangerous because when they bite, they don’t hold back, and will use their full supply of venom when they strike. I believe our janitor at school had a small, slithery extra duty that day in addition to sweeping the floors.

As for me, I had several more encounters with rattlesnakes while we lived in our trailer. Every summer we’d find at least one rattlesnake, and some years three or four, right by our house. Standard practice is grabbing the nearest hoe or shovel: they are not a threatened species in MT. My brother-in-law, a Montana native, wisely advises, “How do you know when a rattlesnake is dead? When the shovel breaks.” I can’t say I personally ever had the guts to kill a rattlesnake with a shovel, but I did squish one with a strategically placed Buick tire once or twice.

When we moved out of our trailer house in the country, I excitedly hoped we’d see far less snakes living in our new little log house on the edge of town. As “luck” would have it, that didn’t exactly happen. Playing outside one day on the side of the house, we found a rattlesnake just off our front steps. Just as we saw it, my then three-year-old daughter came around the house.

Nothing made my heart sink more than seeing my daughter no more than 15 feet from me, with a rattlesnake in the middle between us. Fearing that my little girl would get scared of the snake and instinctively run toward me, and inadvertently run closer to the snake, I screamed her name and yelled at her to stop. It’s a tough balance to convey urgency, but not panic, when every fiber in me is terrified because my daughter is within striking distance of a venomous snake.

Luckily, she did as she was told, and her dad came to the rescue and killed the rattlesnake. He then dumped the snake in the garbage can. It continued to involuntarily coil and twist its body around for long enough afterward that I had to go inside because I couldn’t stand hearing the sound of a dead snake’s body twisting around in the garbage. The thought still makes me cringe.

Rattlesnake snakes often travel in breeding pairs, and just a few days after the near run-in with our daughter, we found another rattler by the back steps. Jarred added it to our collection in the garbage can. We just really didn’t have any room for that kind of wildlife in our yard with two toddlers out and about.

Rattlesnake encounter

The side of our house, where kids, the dog, and a rattlesnake hung out.

Just this spring while unpacking, I came across a Father’s Day card from that year, a card I’d completely forgotten about. On the card was a special message to Dad that I transcribed for our daughter, “Dear Dad, Thanks for chopping the head off the snake. I love you.

Now that’s a card that not every dad gets on his special day from his little girl.

I’d like to say that this is the extent of my snake tales to tell, unfortunately, it is not. While snakes completely freak me out, it is sort of therapeutic writing snake tales, much like describing a bad dream to someone makes the dream not so scary. I actually don’t have room in this week’s column to tell my um, “favorite” snake tale. That story will have to wait until another time, which probably makes you either say “Ooooh!” or “Eeeeew!” depending on your feelings about animals with no legs. I’ll give you a teaser line though: Bull snakes can climb walls!

Which brings me back to the present, when my now six-year-old girl discovered a little coiled snake sitting on the steps as she came back up from the basement. An internet search led me to the “Snakes and Lizards of Minnesota” pamphlet available online from the Department of Natural Resources. There I learned by looking at photos, and reading utterly helpful but not terribly comforting information about snakes, that our home visitor was likely the Western Fox Snake. Mystery solved.

Unfortunately, I kept reading and found this entirely unsettling tidbit, “This snake is frequently encountered in people’s homes, especially homes with stone foundations.” Care to venture a guess on what our foundation is made of? I really do not enjoy snakes, and I would prefer ignorance on the issue, thinking that this snake just made a horrible mistake, not a preferential habitat selection at our house.

Jarred scooped up the little guy in a plastic garbage bag and he relocated it behind his shop. It obviously wasn’t a rattler, and if it wants to catch some mice, we aren’t going to get in its way. We aren’t just indiscriminate snake killers, for the record.

Just the same, it is a snake, and apparently the kind that likes houses. Sometimes I hate the internet and the information it so easily provides. I just didn’t want to know that.