Waiting for winter

Vicksburg’s Main Street several winters ago. Photo by Leeanne Seaver.

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

Oh, the arrival of winter weather: the steel-blue sky, the warmth of our home, the slowing of our daily pace. I love extra blankets and hot meals, snow on the trees, and the crunch of a snowpack under my boots or tires.

So far it hasn’t felt much like winter. We had a record number of 50-degree days in December. Golfers played a few rounds at local courses. The birds boycotted our feeders, and we even had extra time to winterize the garden – a task I thought we wouldn’t be able to complete this year.

I know this warm-weather-pattern can change – and change quickly. Winds over Lake Michigan often pick up, gathering moisture on the way, and then we are in a storm’s path. Sometimes the meteorologists predict lots of snow and nothing materializes; sometimes the meteorologists miss an approaching event and we are caught off guard. It’s our annual winter-weather-roulette-wheel, and it keeps us engaged and excited through the darkness and cold of the season.

It’s been the same throughout the generations. When we were children, there was simply nothing like the joy of a day free from school and the snow globe waiting for us once the winds ceased. We dug tunnels in the drifts, we cleared snow and ice skated on the pond, we lived every moment of those wonderful days. Our children also celebrated this gift of time and togetherness. They sledded down our driveway, built chunky, teetering snowmen, and organized tea parties.

Preparation for and anticipation of a winter storm is part of the season’s fun.

My friend Annette and I conduct a different kind of winter-storm pre-planning. A few years ago, we each compiled a “blizzard box,” containing things to enjoy if and when we were snowbound: chocolates, coffee, tea, a candle, a new paperback, even a bottle of a favorite wine. We gave each other a few special treats to look forward to, packed our containers, and waited for the first storm.

When a blizzard eventually arrived, I enjoyed both the contents of the box and the image of my dear friend reading her new book and sipping her coffee, wrapped in an afghan on her couch.

In my perfect-Pollyanna fantasy, everyone I love is safely home, and my family and friends live within walking distance of one another. We could gather and share rich soups and breads. We could have euchre tournaments or play board games. We could watch our children and grandchildren play in the snow from our frosty windows. When the kids come in, they could sit together around the kitchen table, their cheeks rosy, sipping hot chocolate and planning their next adventure. I know – it’s totally a Norman Rockwell or Hallmark movie scene, and it’s not how we live or probably would even want to live 365 days of the year.

But our winters are still enjoyable and memorable. Throughout the years, we have played games and shared meals with our neighbors, we have enjoyed our children’s sweet faces at the table, we have done our best to pause and enjoy a blizzard’s gift of time.

I hope we can do it again soon!

It’s a Fine Life

The most important gifts

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

We couldn’t wait to open the wrapped presents under our family’s Christmas tree in 1970.

My idea of giving and receiving gifts has changed over the years.

How we anticipated the coming Christmas holidays of our childhood! Like most kids in the 60s and 70s, my brothers and I studied the JCPenney toy catalogue carefully, fantasizing about the toy trains, racetracks and beautiful dolls. We played that familiar game of “If you could pick one thing on this page, what would you pick?”

We knew there would be some special surprises Christmas morning, always something thoughtfully selected for each one of us. Yes, we enjoyed giving gifts, but we sure loved the presents under the tree and our stockings filled with treats!

Our children loved the countdown to Christmas, too. They enjoyed finding special treasures for each other and helping with the baking and decorating. We shopped carefully for our children, trying to make our limited-gift-budget stretch to include some special presents for each of our children.

Today, we are fortunate to have reached a place in our lives where we have enough. We don’t need more things, and I find myself echoing what my mom used to say about gifts. “I don’t need anything, just time together.” I do enjoy giving gifts to my family and friends, but receiving gifts now seems unnecessary.

Several weeks ago, long-time community member Gayle Miller died, and her passing is both a loss and a reminder of what is important. Gayle was full of love, with an infectious smile and positive attitude. She and her husband Howard raised four children and were married for 65 years.

Howard is a poet. He writes poems for family events like weddings, anniversaries, graduations, and birthdays, and he wrote lovely poems for Gayle throughout their courtship and marriage. The Miller family included one of Howard’s poems to Gayle in her funeral folder. He penned it in response to her questions about what he wanted for his birthday. Within his poem, he lists the most important gifts Gayle gave him each day:

The gift of Love
The gift of Understanding
The gift of Patience
The gift of Knowledge
The gift of Beauty
The gift of Faith
The gift of Cooking
The gift of Caring
The gift of Time
The gift of Tolerance
The gift of Attention
The gift of Mercy
The gift of Money Planning
The gift of a Touch
The gift of a Kiss
The gift of a Wink
The gift of a Nod
The Gift of a Thank You

Howard’s lines are a beautiful testament and reinforcement of what really matters. The most important gifts we can give one another can’t be found in a store or for sale on Amazon.

The most important gifts gently nurture others.

The most important gifts strengthen our relationships.

The most important gifts demonstrate our commitment to those we love.

It’s a Fine Life.

A time for gratitude

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

Photo by Leeanne Seaver.

November. The days are shorter, the nights dark and cold. October’s autumn leaves still grasp the branches, but soon they will let go, tugged and torn in the cold winds and rains.

Winter is quickly approaching.

It is a time for gathering in and taking stock of our warm gear and pantries. A time for cozy socks and good books. A time for appreciating the comforts of home.

When I was a child, November meant the harvesting was done, and Dad was more rested and available. He worked often at his desk, tallying accounts, paying bills, and planning for the next spring. Some years I imagine there was some extra in the farm accounts, and some years I’m sure there wasn’t enough.

We children were oblivious to any struggles.

During late afternoons, my brothers and I worked on our homework, colored, or worked puzzles around the kitchen table as the sky darkened. Mom suggested, monitored, and encouraged our activities while she cooked. Our stomachs rumbled and growled as the delicious smells of dinner swirled through the room.

Most nights we sat together for supper around the old kitchen table, talking about our day, enjoying our mother’s meal. I can still see the dishes, the food, my brothers’ faces. I can still hear my parents’ laughter or the scrape of the silverware on plates. During the cold months, when Dad’s field work was done, there was no rushing through dinner.

Sometimes during this time, Dad taught us a card game and played with us. Occasionally, we tackled a board game, or we retreated to a comfortable chair or couch to read.

Television viewing choices were very limited in the late 60s, so we usually created our own entertainment. We built things, we worked on crafts, we sorted and organized our toys.

I don’t remember ever being bored.

It was a simple time. A gentle time. A time I recall with appreciation and affection.

I know now how lucky I am.

I am grateful for the times together and hold close the memories of my loved ones no longer on this earth. Some part of each special person remains in me: a kind word spoken, a laugh shared, a tender touch when I needed it most.

I am thankful for food in my cupboards, casseroles bubbling in the oven, dark coffee warming my morning mug.

I am thankful for our warm home, for the good health of the people I love most, for the holidays that quickly approach.

I hope during November, we can all slow down, spend time with those most dear, and remember to find joy in the place each one of us calls home.

It’s a fine life.

Managing the past

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

I am a keeper of memories: great-grandmother’s canning jars, Aunt Ethel’s china, grandma’s gingerbread cookie cutters. Labeled containers stand in our basement holding newspaper-wrapped tidbits from times past: bits and pieces of childhood tea sets; a great-aunt’s christening gown; elaborate, empty perfume bottles.

When my grandmother died twenty years ago, I was the designated recipient of an old trunk filled with mementos from her life. She trusted that I would know what to keep and what to discard: What to share and what to keep private.

Her parents’ courtship letters fill a brown lunch bag. Sympathy cards sent after my grandfather’s death sleep silently in a shirt box. Her childhood and college scrapbooks crumble and wait. Faces I recognize, and many I can’t identify, are suspended in sepia and black-and white photographs.

I haven’t begun archiving, digitizing and sharing the pieces of my family’s history.

And soon my husband and I will be the caretakers of his family’s past, as his mother, the last of her generation, died in January.

It is emotional. It is cumbersome. It is overwhelming.

I need to get started.

Many of our friends find themselves in the same situation: the responsibility and care of a family’s history which continues to grow through the decades.

There are the obvious generational differences. Our children operate electronically. They take massive amounts of pictures – beautiful pictures – with their cell phones. These photos don’t take up physical space. A few are printed, but most are stored digitally.

That’s just not how I operate. I like something I can see. Touch. I like a calendar. An old-school planner.
When it is this next generation’s turn to take the baton of family treasures, they will not want most of it.
I can respect that, but I sure don’t understand it.

My thirty-somethings and most of their friends are minimalists, as evidenced by the lovely, discarded china and crystal at my favorite resale shop. I long to adopt the odd Haviland plates or the Jadeite coffee mugs that find themselves abandoned on the back wall’s clearance shelf. I wish to carefully launder and display the hand-embroidered pillowcases and dresser scarves tangled at the thrift store.

I will be the last in my family willing to use and store impractical treasures: dishes or glassware that can’t be quickly microwaved or run through the dishwasher; trinkets and figurines that need regular dusting; uncomfortable Victorian chairs with lovely carved frames.

My best friends also confess similar attachments. Several months ago, one of our friends put a picture of an unwanted set of Candlewick glass plates in our group text messages. She was going through her stepmother’s belongings, didn’t want the set to go to Goodwill, and hoped one of us would re-home them.

All seven of us considered them. None of us needs them. One of us now houses them.
So, I realize that I am not alone, and while that is a comfort, I am searching for the right mix, the correct volume of save or release.

Perhaps there’s an enrichment course taught by an old gal like me? Someone who appreciates the past but knows how to manage the future? Someone who has also struggled with the whispers from a task undone?

And someone who won’t judge these invisible tethers around my heart?

It’s a fine life.

Returning to school

Children and staff return to classrooms this fall, brimming with edgy excitement. As I begin another year of teaching, you would think the nervousness would subside; after all, I’ve been instructing in a high school classroom for over twenty years. But each year, I am as excited and nervous as I was every fall as a student.

At summer’s end, we stuffed our tanned feet in new school shoes, and fresh-smelling and well-scrubbed from our Sunday-night-baths, my brothers and I climbed the steps of the bus and perched on the “jumper seat,” the first-row bench at the front of the bus. At the next stop, we moved to a seat somewhere behind us. This was an efficient system, as it saved time.

We chugged down the dusty backroads to Fulton Elementary School with one of three bus drivers: Mrs. Bailey, Mrs. Gorsline, or Mrs. Lewis. They kept us safe and seated. They knew our parents and our names, and they anticipated problems before they started. They could look up at their slanted mirror, see their charges behind them and correct behaviors with just an eyebrow. As a person who works with young people (and have raised three kids of my own) I now recognize this as a spectacular skill: Those women never raised their voices – they just controlled us with careful, continual surveillance. (There was also the unspoken threat of a phone call home, to which this generation’s parents said, “If you get in trouble at school, you will be in ten times more trouble when you get home!” I’m sure that contributed to the effectiveness of the raised-eyebrow discipline strategy.)

I loved school – every part of school – which is probably why I became a teacher.

The squeak of freshly waxed floors. A new teacher smiling at the door. The desks with a compartment for belongings. The world map hanging on the board and the excitement of learning. I loved a sharp pencil and a crisp sheet of paper. I loved a book and the quiet turning and shuffling of pages. I loved the smell and colors of a new box of crayons with all their tips intact. I loved the light coming in our classroom windows and the playground waiting beyond the double doors.

Our elementary didn’t have a cafeteria, so we lined up to pick up our school lunch or the bottle of cold milk. We then returned to our classrooms to eat as quickly as we could, then we busted free for recess.

Mrs. Cree and Mrs. Brookings kept careful watch on the playground, breaking up inevitable skirmishes, suggesting activities, and dispersing various balls for team activities.

Our friends with older siblings taught us the accepted games and rules. We learned to jump rope and the timeless rhymes. We learned to slide up and sit on the concrete tiles, to hang upside down on the monkey bars, to play hopscotch and tether ball. We kept tiny magnifying glasses in our desks and took popsicle sticks out to experiment with wood burning. We were successful, but Mrs. Cree wisely brought that activity to a quick end.

Much has stayed the same. Children today continue to play games at recess, and in our districts, the playgrounds offer multiple climbing structures and many areas for games. Children also learn the rules and how to play and work together, and, I hope, at least a few are future teachers who will love returning to school each year.

It’s a fine life.