Category Archives: It’s a Fine Life

It’s a Fine Life – School Days

My dad and uncle join classmates on the steps of Harper School.

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

Nostalgia and I are long-time friends. Growing up the fourth generation on a family farm, I eagerly welcomed this constant companion. Reminders of the previous generations and their hard work were visible daily: the hay barn’s hand-hewn beams, the old horse collar in the shop, the field stone foundations. My grandparents planted two pear trees to the west of the farmhouse in 1908. From my bedroom window, I could watch those knobby branches drop their fall fruit, twiggy fingers wiggling in the breeze.

The childhood faces of my father, uncle, and their neighbors smile from their annual school picture on the steps of the Harper School – a charming old black-and-white photo in my album. Dad’s one-room-schoolhouse days were part of our growing-up-folklore: the mile walk to school, the tag and softball games at recess; the neighborhood’s contribution to salary and firewood. It all sounded magical to me.

When I started kindergarten, I rode to Fulton Elementary School with my grandmother – our 4th grade teacher – in her white Thunderbird. I couldn’t see over the dashboard, so I watched the trees click by or traced the powerlines as we drove the six miles to school. I loved being with her – my striking grandmother in her little tweed suits with the lapel pins, her suntan hose, and her spectator pumps. After parking, she opened the car’s heavy door for me, saying, “Have a good day, dolly.” I assumed everyone’s school experience was as wonderful as mine; the only way it could possibly be better would be going to “country school.”

Last spring, a frank discussion with my mother-in-law about her one-room-schoolhouse experience revealed a different narrative. She had attended several one-room-schools in rural Illinois before going to high school in a larger town. My mother-in-law is smart, loves numbers, and remembers everything. I’m sure she was a sharp and thorough student, quickly finishing anything her teacher assigned. But when she finished one year and entered a different “country school,” she learned that her teacher had not introduced her to important math concepts, leaving her terribly unprepared for the next year’s expectations. “I was angry. I had lots of work to do to catch up.” Catch up she certainly did, but it was disappointing and stressful for her.

So those really weren’t the “good old days” for many students. Isolation and lack of support in outlying areas created gaps in student learning I hadn’t considered. Today, teachers plan and team at grade level, following curriculum that guarantees students’ exposure to the most important standards. Also, in the 1940s and ‘50s, many students didn’t go beyond the 8th grade. Many students today are eligible for and receive much needed services and supports, also helping more students complete their schooling.

I will always enjoy looking at those charming school photos or seeing the old structures on Sunday drives, but I am also reminded of the historical and continued need for equity and opportunity for all students.

It’s a Fine Life

Cottage care: love over logic

An old cabin on our property’s shoreline.

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

For a week or so each summer, we are lucky enough to have a place to go to beat the heat and get away. It has always been the highlight of our family’s year.

When we were kids, the station wagon strained with the five of us children, a grandmother, two dogs, sleeping bags, fishing gear, and all kinds of caged energy and excitement. Once my dad’s tanned arm draped the driver’s side door, my mom’s sunglasses adorned her face, and we had wiggled into our places, we launched, listening to Ernie Harwell or the gravely voice of Merle Haggard. Inching along, we left the humid world of corn fields and wheat stubble; just past Mt. Pleasant, the air began to thin and the lovely smell of northern pine forests began.

Our old log cabin sits on a river and protected sandy bay on the Lake Superior Canadian shore. Our maternal grandparents purchased the vacant property in the late 1930s, and our families have enjoyed it ever since.

Currently, many third- and fourth-generation cottage owners struggle to maintain, finance, and agree on what to do with older aging properties. So far, the nine families involved have worked things out pretty well, but caring for an aging vacation home is an exercise in love, not logic.

Our grandchildren are the fourth generation of young ones whose lips turn blue in the clear, icy water, whose little eyes faithfully watch their bobbers, whose necks are lined with black fly and mosquito bites. I realize how fortunate we are.

Yes, times have changed. On many lakes in South County, cottages have been sold, demolished, and replaced with gorgeous year-round-homes. The modest vacation dwellings that remain look out of place, hidden in the shadows of their fine, fresh neighbors.

It’s hard to imagine a new place. Would I miss the mustiness? The brown bats that flutter in the rafters? The snap of the mousetraps once lights are out?

Absolutely not.

But I would miss the wash tubs nailed on the sagging exterior, the familiar creak of the steps and floorboards, the sweet smell of my grandmother’s spices in the old kitchen cupboard.

Family cottages are a nostalgic journey through the years: the cast-off dishes and jigsaw puzzles, the old record players and scratched vinyl. All reminders of our history.

At the cabin, I feel a connectedness to the past and an appreciation for the dear ones no longer here: My dad and grandfather’s favorite chair sits in the shady window, my uncle’s tools hang in the boathouse, my grandmother’s bread pans wait on a shelf.

We will miss the old place this year, but she will welcome our return next summer after we tame this pandemic.

And the discussions and plans for our family place will continue.

At least for now.

It’s a Fine Life.