Grandmas Are My New Laura Ingalls

The obvious hit me…why am I not reading rural pioneer life bedtime stories to my kids about their own great grandmas?

This week as I perched on a step ladder and worked on painting the posts on our porch before the bus pulled up and my little kids woke up from their naps, it hit me. It’s that very same time of year.

Something about the cool temperature, the smell of the air, and the afternoon sunshine all felt very familiar. It felt just like two years ago, when on a September afternoon, we first pulled into this yard that we now live in to check out a house for sale.

This house and that fall weather are always connected in my mind to my grandma, Olivia Siebenaler. When she passed away at age 98, we came to Minnesota from Montana to attend her services. During that same trip, we found what became our new home. I like to think she had a hand in it.

Thinking of my grandma reminded me of how she wrote a book for her family, filled with stories of her childhood and her life raising their 13 children. It’s been ages since I read her stories, and I’d love to sit down and read them again. And more importantly, I want to now read the stories to my own kids.

Olivia and Alex Siebenaler, my maternal grandparents.

Olivia and Alex Siebenaler, my maternal grandparents.

My husband’s grandma Grace also wrote a book of her stories growing up. The two women never met, but I have a feeling they would have enjoyed one another. Both had a simple rural upbringing: My grandma, Olivia Siebenaler, grew up in rural Southeast Minnesota, and my husband’s grandma, Grace Mosdal, grew up in Eastern Montana.

As I think of both women, they share many of the same pioneer character traits as Laura Ingalls Wilder, who is our current bedtime story favorite. I admire both grandmothers immensely.

And then the obvious hit me…why am I not reading rural pioneer life bedtime stories to my kids about their own great grandmas?

So, I have a new plan. Once we finish By the Shores of Silver Lake, we’re going to take a break from the Ingalls family and start reading Grandma Stories.

We’re going to start with Grandma Grace’s stories, since I have that book in my home already. I’m going to head up to the attic and unearth her binder of stories from the moving boxes. Then we’re going to settle in for the winter reading Grandma Grace’s stories at bedtime.

I think it will be an easy fit for my kids that are hooked on stories of pioneer life. Grace McCaskie Mosdal grew up on the prairie of Montana. Her adventuresome spirit, love of life, learning, and story-telling in many ways make her much like a Laura Ingalls in our own family. She had a story or joke to share with nearly any situation that arose.

My husband's grandparents, Grace and Thelmer Mosdal, in their hometown parade in Montana a few years ago.

My husband’s grandparents, Grace and Thelmer Mosdal, in their hometown parade in Montana a few years ago.

As a young lady, Grace spent her very first school teacher paycheck on a .22 rifle. Many years later, when my husband was a kid, she used that same rifle to shoot a bobcat off of a telephone pole near their yard. She dropped it dead with one shot. Did I mention Grace is a tiny woman who barely tops five feet and 100 pounds? Oh yes, and her cinnamon rolls are legendary.

Our kids need to know things like that.

I appreciate those stories more as I understand that time isn’t unlimited and things won’t always be as they currently are. These days Grace has dementia. She no longer has the same spark and ability to engage in lively conversation.

Letter writing also used to be one of her trademarks. She wrote letters and notes for everything. “Thank you for the thank you note”. Everything. Her letters were so commonplace that I didn’t save many of them. My two oldest kids each have a letter or two in their sock drawers from Grandma Grace.

By the time my two younger kids came along, her letter writing ended. My oldest is only seven, so the time span from letters being commonplace to no letters at all happened very quickly.

It makes me all the more thankful that she took the time to write down her stories when she did. She isn’t able to tell her stories any more, but this winter, I’ll read her stories out loud to our kids.

And someday, when the situation arises, my kids will be reminded of a story from one of their grandmas, and they will say, “That’s just like when Grandma…” and the stories of these pioneering ladies will go on, as our own personal Little House on the Prairie stories of our family.


Berry-Stained Fingers and Firefly Nights

If I could freeze time, I would capture these summer evenings.
Evening is when everyone in our house becomes alive.  With no central air, we flee outside to soak up whatever breeze we can glean from the humid air.  Pretenses of work inside get turned off for the day, or at least paused momentarily.  Supper is on the porch, usually something off of the grill with fresh fruit and veggies on the side.  We tame the hungry beast in our bellies and fill our eyes with long, straight rows of corn fields.
After supper, already outside, our kids naturally drift to the yard and we follow.  Our evenings, from after supper until dark, slip by all too quickly in the slow, easy way of a summer evening in the country with kids.   Weeding and checking the garden, heading to our windbreak to pick black raspberries, shirtless kids climbing Maple the Maple (yep, they came up with that all by themselves), sweaty ponytails, berry juice dribbles on our baby’s belly, making grassy nests for the snoozing baby chicks, sand scooping and flinging, legs pedalling bikes with increasing strength and confidence, “race ya” barefoot running across wide open lawn…these things fills our evenings.

Bandit the chick snuggled into a soft grass nest made by her 6-year-old caretaker.

Then as the evening cools, the sun sinks behind the trees and the fireflies emerge.  We run on firefly time.  After catching a satisfying amount of fireflies, we head into the house for the evening, often capping off the night with a bowl of ice cream.  After that, we shoo the kids upstairs to the claw foot tub to wash off the sweaty heads and dirty feet.  They put on the bare minimum for pj’s, and migrate to the sun room, turning the ceiling fan on high and throwing open the windows to catch the breeze.
Lately, our kids settle down for a bedtime story from the unwieldy, thick yellow book of The Complete Collection of Curious George.  Jockeying over position on the guest bed (just a mattress on the floor, but oh so cozy), trying to be close, but not so close that we get sweaty, and taking in a little monkey’s adventures with my little monkeys caps off the evening before goodnight hugs and kisses.
Last evening was a rarity in that I actually had two kids in bed before the sun went down.   Our tired baby girl went to bed early since she passed on her afternoon nap, and then I tucked into bed her almost three-year-old brother, who got into a patch of nettles and wanted to call it an evening.  After a full day of holding kids and nursing, I then headed outside to the windbreak all by myself to pick black cap raspberries.
As I left the house, I caught a glimpse of the sunset between the thick pine trees, so I walked to the road to get a better view.  I stood alone on the warm pavement looking out into slowly fading pink-orange sky and rich green corn fields.  After a strong wind all day, I was struck by the sudden calm and utter quiet.  Just before nine at night, there was not a car on our road, and the world seemed at peace.

I headed to the windbreak where the bushes are covered in berries: deep purple and red against verdant green leaves.  It’s the kind of lushness that you drink in and store away to pull out in the dead of winter. The gnats stayed away long enough to pick a big night time snack that I meant to share, but it didn’t quite happen.  I meandered past the neighbor’s sheep who are industriously munching away the overgrown weeds on our land.  In the fading light, too dim by then to pull weeds in the garden, I did a little side saddle hop over electric fence.

When I looked out, the fireflies were everywhere, a profusion of gentle blinking of warm lights across our entire yard.  I don’t know if it’s a particularly good year for fireflies, or if they’re always like this, but they’e magical to me all over again.  Fireflies don’t live in Montana, so I haven’t seen them much in the last 14 years.  Standing in the fading light, throwing berries in my mouth by the handful, contented sheep busy munching, life just felt surreal.  All by myself (also magical), the soft glimmering of fireflies blinked in such an abundance that it looked like the kind of scene from a Holywood movie depicting an imaginary glittering land, only this is all the better because it is real.
And that’s the reality that I want to live in for the summer.  Right now I can’t tell you about the latest of the news headlines, and I don’t really care.  I know that terrorists, wars, arguing over politics, and discussions about the economy and who is to blame will all be there waiting for me whenever I feel like going back to them.
What I do know is that this is summertime, and we are in the midst of the golden years of childhood in our home.  I feel completely blessed to look across the yard and see four small children playing together, inventing games, and watching out for their baby sister.  I also know this doesn’t last.  As quickly as our lives became bustling with children, they are just as quickly going to grow up.  Thirty years from now when my kids grown and long gone, I won’t care one bit about the stresses and messes inherent in the life of a family. Those things fade away. Summer nights of seeing my children grow and flourish amongst berries, fireflies, and running under the sheets on the clothesline are the things I want to etch in my mind.
So, the latest headlines will have to wait.  I’ve got four little kids that aren’t going to be little forever and warm summer days that will quickly fade into fall.  We’ve got a whole lot of living to squeeze into our endless summer days that are all too short.
Written July 2, 2012.

© 2012

For Richer or Poorer: A Love Affair with the Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written June 11, 2012.
© 2012