Simplicity

Last summer in our ever-expanding garden.

There are many popular movements today, encouraging us to restructure, reduce and live uncluttered lives. Subscribers claim that the result of living a life of excess is time spent worrying and taking care of what we have; if we can clear our space and minds of the extras, we have more time for joy, and we experience more happiness.

I certainly have more than I need, and sometimes my belongings, and yes, my schedule, can cause me some stress.

Even little Zippy, our one-year-old Boston, has a box overflowing with toys and a regular supply of chews and small treats. He has more than enough, and I’ve been surprised by his reaction.

Here’s what happens: I give Zippy a special chew when I return from the grocery store. He sniffs it, takes it gently in his mouth and then hides it. He becomes obsessed with keeping it safe. He searches for just the right spot: behind a curtain, under a pillow, beside his bed. He fusses with it and scoots away, only to quickly change his mind. He then picks it up and begins the process again. While this does keep him occupied and distracted, and he avoids the occasional puppy-chewing-destruction, it seems hard for him to relax. He is continually worried about arranging it and keeping it safe.

According to my Google search, this behavior is common in dogs, and can be a result of several things, including instincts and stress. But here is a reason listed again and again: this behavior can occur when a dog has more than he needs. Bingo!

The more we have, the more we must take care of. Certainly, our families have needs: shelter, food, clothing, and a household budget that runs regularly in the black. These things are necessary for quality of life and security for our loved ones. The challenge is to achieve a balance between preparing for a rainy day and enjoying the moment. But most of us would agree that too many belongings and commitments can keep us stressed and obsessed.

For me, excessiveness is best demonstrated by our gardens. What started as an 8-by-4-feet perennial bed twenty-five years ago, is now a yard filled gardens that follow our fencing, grow under our trees, and occupy the ever-developing island beds. Each year, it seems, we divide plants, move plants, add plants, increasing and intensifying the work required. Yes, the lush foliage and beautiful blossoms are lovely, and we do enjoy them, but the gardens are hours of work, especially in the spring. While I don’t worry about our gardens like Zippy seems to fret about his bones, it does consume lots of our energy and time.

Simplicity. We are gradually adjusting to the idea of downsizing. Now that we are nearing retirement (and our knees and backs ache after an afternoon of pulling weeds or mulching) simplifying our outdoor space seems wise. This is an adjustment for me, and it is wrapped in the need to acknowledge and accept this human experience of aging.

We will divide perennials and give away some plants this year, and we will remove high maintenance plants. Perhaps some of the space in the existing gardens will be reseeded and rejoin the grassy yard. Maybe I won’t bring home as many new plants from the nurseries and greenhouses – but I fall for those colorful beauties’ siren songs every time.

Simplicity. I’m going to do my best to streamline our gardening life and relax a bit more.

I hope Zippy can relax a bit, too!

It’s a Fine Life.

Going with the flow

Despite occasional breakdowns, Dad spent many happy hours on this restored 1466.

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

One of the things growing up on a farm taught me was to “go with the flow.” It was a hard thing to master as an impatient kid full of energy and dreams, but this life lesson has served me well in my adult life.

My parents’ verbal commitments to us regarding family activities were always a bit tentative: “I think that will work out” or “We’ll see what we can do.” They were careful to only make promises they could keep, so their responses to our questions were sometimes frustratingly vague.

Here’s how things could go:

Perhaps we planned to see a Saturday movie matinee. We rarely went to movies, so the event was extremely exciting to us. Very few theaters operated in the Kalamazoo area, it was a 40-minute drive, and the outing was expensive, especially when purchasing the required popcorn for five kids.

It was a huge effort for my mother to get us all cleaned up and corralled in the car to arrive in time to secure seven adjacent seats in the theatre’s light, instead of stumbling around in the dark during the previews. But the hardest person to corral was our dad.

We kids would be scrubbed, dressed, and fed, waiting and watching for Dad’s return from the fields or his chores in the barn. Sometimes Dad hustled in, showered, and met us in the car. He was good-natured and full of fun and energy, always ready for an adventure. But occasionally, Dad would step in the backdoor and yell, “Well, I’ve had a breakdown! Sorry, kids!”

Breakdowns meant everything had to stop – all plans cancelled – until the broken machinery could be repaired. If Dad and Uncle John could fix the equipment, breakdowns meant a call to the farm implement dealer for parts. But if the issue was beyond their tools and technical abilities, it meant an expensive service call.

Sometimes his shout in the backdoor was, “The tractor is stuck back on the marsh!” Sometimes it was the dreaded “The cattle are out! Get your boots on!” postponing any hope of an away-from-the-farm outing.

Ultimately, we learned acceptance of things beyond our control. We also learned to trust that eventually everything will work out. We did, at some point, go to the movies or visit our friends, just not on our original time frame. These periodic disappointments didn’t make me a pessimist; these small setbacks helped me learn to adjust and persevere.

Parenthood certainly demands flexibility and patience. How many times did we plan to join a holiday celebration when one of our children developed a fever or the flu? How many times did we think our savings account was growing only to need a home or car repair?

I rediscovered what I already knew: these things will pass and aren’t the end of the world.

Classroom teaching demands another layer of acceptance and patience when working with students of different backgrounds, abilities, and personalities.

And then, we’ve all been challenged by COVID-19 and the plasticity required to operate during a global pandemic.

I admit that the last year has tested my predilection for flexibility, but spring is here, some reserves remain in my tank and my resolve to persist remains.

It’s a Fine Life

Puppy confessions

Zippy the Boston terrier.

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

Like many families during the isolation of COVID, we found a puppy. And yes, he helped me get through the isolation of the shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, and he has helped me feel happier during the last year.

I’ve never been this attached to a pet. We always had dogs when we grew up on the farm. Our most memorable dogs were Cleo, a terrier mix, and Scuffy, a scrappy Cairn terrier. They were perfect farm dogs and spent most of their life outside; they kept the woodchuck and rodent population around the barns controlled and loved to tag along anywhere we kids went. They were great companions, and I was fond of them, but it was nothing like this love affair I have with my dear little Zippy. I am smitten with this little guy. Head-over-heels in love.

He is a frisky little Boston terrier, and while he isn’t quite the “little gentleman,” as the males of this breed are described, he is on his way to mastering good manners. Our family has a wonderful history with this breed. We raised our own children with a sweet-natured Boston terrier named Snuggles. Dennis grew up next to a woman who raised them, and he remembers their funny little faces and disposition. My grandparents had several Boston terriers when I was a little girl. The first was named Ike, in honor of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Unfortunately, Ike (the dog!) was a wanderer and was hit by a car; then Ike #2 arrived. I understand the wisdom of using the same name now that I am older. I often call Zippy by our first dog’s name (who has been dead 10 years) then our cat’s name, then our son’s name.

I’m sure many readers understand. I told our family doctor (and dear friend) that I think memory isn’t a problem if I realize I got it wrong. (I’m not sure he subscribes to my theory.)

Our friends Beth and Dee helped us find a breeder, and last May, Zippy, tiny and frightened, arrived. At first, he cried in the night. My maternal, new-baby instincts kicked in: I scooped him out of his little kennel, wrapped him in a blanket, and held him until he went back to sleep. This went on for several weeks, until our middle-of-the-night sessions ended when he started waking up two or even three times a night. So yes, just like one of our babies, he cried it out for a night and has slept peacefully ever since.

Our grown children call him “Prince Zippy,” which gives you a further glimpse of his quality of life at our house. Zippy and I have a great morning routine. I pour my first cup of coffee and let him outside. Then he snuggles in beside me on the couch, and we watch the morning news. When I leave for work, he is asleep, tucked under a blanket, and his sweet little face appears at the window when I pull in the driveway at the end of the day.

So yes, I confess. I have become one of those sappy, indulgent pet owners. And in spite of my previous attitude towards such people, this relationship is wonderful.

It’s a Fine Life.

Valentine’s Day treasures

An assortment of vintage valentines.

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

Grocery shopping, I pass the display of pink, red, and white construction paper and doilies, and I am reminded of my time at Fulton Elementary School and our Valentine’s Day celebrations during my early years.

In kindergarten and first grade we made these open envelopes out of big pieces of construction paper. We glued the sides with globs of Elmer’s glue, and with our little blunt-nosed scissors we learned to cut out various-shaped hearts which we used to decorate our mail slots. We wrote our names in thick letters with chunky red Crayola crayons, and taped our envelopes carefully to the sides of our desks. During the Valentine’s Day party, we played mail carrier, delivering our carefully signed cards, merrily depositing our missives in each classmate’s pouch. During second and third grades, we advanced to cheerfully decorated cereal boxes. In fourth grade, we had finally arrived: construction-paper-covered shoe boxes!

The Valentine’s Day preparations took several evenings seriously concentrating at our kitchen table, studying the mimeographed class list and my little box of cards. I made special selections for my closest friends, Donna, Darlene, and Dawn, and even more studied decisions for the boys. NOTHING could say “I Love You” or even “Would You Be My Valentine?”  No way. I wanted no misunderstandings. It took intense scrutiny for Jimmy who regularly passed me the timeless “Do you love me? ____yes or ___no?” to which I always responded with my own addition: “I like you as a friend.” I examined the cards and class list again and again until I was satisfied.

The same 25 schoolmates traveled with me from kindergarten through all our primary grades. The same 25 children in little plaid dresses or little plaid shirts and jeans excitedly passed out our carefully addressed cards. Then we sat and opened the tiny envelopes, smiling at each other, occasionally blushing by something extra sweet.

We played our usual games: bingo, hangman, and seven-up. One year we even had a piñata. Usually, our teacher gave us a little box of conversation hearts, and we spent time sorting and eating those chalky treats. The ever-prepared “room mothers” supplied us with lots of sugar: chocolate cupcakes with white frosting dotted with red hots, red Kool-Aid punch, popcorn balls. I bet our poor teachers had to “put their feet up” when they got home.

I kept those sweet Valentines I had received close to me for many years. When I was sick or even cleaning my room, I often sat and looked through my little box of cards.  Today, when my girlfriends and I vintage shop, I look for and often purchase a few little Valentines signed so carefully in thick pencil by a child fifty years ago; I remember and appreciate the anticipation and effort it involved.

And I wonder if there is still a faded, covered shoe box of Valentines from those dear ones of my past hidden in the closet of my childhood bedroom? When I take my mother’s Valentine to her this year, I will check. I sure hope those treasures are still there.

It’s a Fine Life.

Winter storms

The Blizzard of 1967 resulted in huge drifts, closing schools and roads for several days.

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

As we anticipate the eventual winter storms, I maintain a well-stocked pantry: I learned the importance of preparation from my mother who was raising four of the five of us when the blizzard of 1967 caught many in Michigan by surprise. My parents listened to the radio for most of their news during the 1960s: WKZO radio, AM 590. I can still hear the sports roundup music, Carl Collin’s voice for the noon farm reports, the advertising jingle for Be-Mo potato chips. I’m sure my mom was working in the kitchen and listening to the morning shows when it was announced that area schools were closing: Winds had increased and a blizzard had begun.

Mr. Jager, Fulton Elementary School’s principal, entered my second-grade classroom, announcing we would be going home. We shut our workbooks, pushed them into our desks, and found our boots and snow gear. The sky was dark, the snow coming sideways.

I rode home with my grandmother, who taught fourth grade in my building. Her white Thunderbird thumped and bumped through the quickly drifting roads; as the wind howled and the snow swirled, I struggled to see the houses and farms on the familiar route towards home. Each time the wind gusts increased, all my landmarks disappeared. I wasn’t frightened, but I also didn’t converse with Grandma whose gloved hands tightly gripped the wheel.

Once safely home, the storm increased its rage. We were snowed in for a week. The wind blew for several days, forming huge drifts which swept upwards to the roof of the old garage, covering our back porch. From the front window we watched Dad work his way through the snow, cross the road, and enter the cattle barn to check the water and feed the animals. At that time, all the feeding was done inside and mostly by hand. The barn was cozy and warm with glossy-eyed steers jostling for position. Many days I accompanied Dad for evening chores, so I knew exactly what he was doing: He would remove his heavy coat, climb the inside silo chute, and shovel the silage to the wooden cart below. He then pushed the cart down the center aisle, filling the troughs as he went. He would repeat this process at least four or five times. I knew he was safe, but I was still relieved when the door closed, and he was back with us again.

Mom cooked and cooked, filling us with warm soups, casseroles, or scrambled eggs and toast. She organized and patiently supervised our activities: We played lots of games, worked jigsaw puzzles, rediscovered toys, and read books. And when the winds finally subsided, we ventured out into a transformed world – a white wonderland full of opportunities for tunneling and discovery.

There have been other blizzards since, but none quite as memorable as that storm from my childhood. As long as my friends and family are off the roads, I do love a snowstorm and find comfort in my cupboard’s inventory. And as we watch the weather reports, I look forward to the gift of time to cook, care for my family and rediscover the beauty of a winter storm.

It’s a Fine Life

After the turkey, the legendary casserole

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

During the sixties and seventies, Thanksgiving meals were carefully planned since groceries and retail stores were closed. In fact, it was difficult to find even a gas station open.

And as today, families gathered to share the holiday meal.

Our tablecloth-covered, china-laden dining room table stretched nearly the length of the room: we added three or four leaves to the massive old table, and a card table perched at the far end. Often, my parents invited older couples without children nearby to join us. And sometimes, when my grandmother was still alive, our Gaylord relatives came, raising everyone’s excitement level.

We feasted, as many families do today, on traditional Thanksgiving foods: turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes with gravy, green bean casserole, and squash. Then the coffee and delicious pies emerged.

After dinner, my grandmother, the queen of frugality, pulled the turkey from the bone as my mother packed the other food, usually stashing the containers on the front porch – a major perk we northerners realize during the cold months. My dad and brothers sprawled in front of the television, mesmerized by the football games, occasionally snoozing in after-meal drowsiness.

It was a busy day, especially for my mother.

But the best part, the event we waited for all year, was not Black Friday outings or the huge Thanksgiving meal, but the incredible leftover casserole my mother served Friday night. Unlike the formality of Thanksgiving dinner, when it was time for Friday’s supper, this massive casserole sat on the stove, covered in foil, with the serving spoon stuffed inside. Pickles, olives, cranberry sauce remained in the jars, forks and jelly spoons submerged. Good dishes washed and shelved, we used paper plates and played games together with whoever was able to come.

There is no official recipe for the day-after casserole. Many families assemble a similar dish. One of my friends said at her house they call it “glop.” That sure doesn’t sound appetizing to me, but trust me, this dish is delicious no matter what it is called. My family talks about it all year, and the kids suggest more than ask, “We are having the casserole, right?” Well, of course!

The ingredients include leftover turkey, dressing, potatoes, and gravy. Add cream of mushroom soup, sour cream, and perhaps a purchased jar of turkey gravy. Layer it all in a big, greased roasting pan, cover it loosely in foil, and bake at 350 until heated through. Sprinkle french fried onions on top and bake for probably 10 minutes more. Add some salt and pepper to taste, and you have my mother’s family-famous leftover casserole.

I am now decades from the Thanksgivings of my childhood. Eventually girlfriends or boyfriends, fiancés, spouses, and the next generation joined the circle. And now, as it should be, each of my dear brothers has developed traditions in his own home. But after my family gathers around the holiday table, and as I pull the turkey meat from the bone, I will remember those wonderful days.

And I will look forward to the generational tradition of another day of togetherness and the legendary casserole.

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.