It takes a village

The Main Street of our childhood. Photo courtesy of Vicksburg Historical Society.

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

It takes a village: I know it’s an overused phrase, but it sure is true. And never is it more apparent than as our graduates receive their high school diplomas. Each senior represents the hopes and dreams—and sometimes desperate prayers—of family, friends, and teachers.

Some students are skilled navigators, easily sailing through their teenage years, but some of them lose direction, flounder and capsize. And sometimes, adults in their lives catch them, turn them upright, and steer them back on course.

All those efforts can be exhausting, and sometimes it’s an all-hands-on-deck community effort.

There is a sense of security in our small towns, something we too often dismiss.

When we were growing up, there was a collective of care, and my friends and I were oblivious to this safety net as we worked our way through school. Our village was thriving in the 1970s, and many of my classmates’ parents owned or worked in the many downtown businesses. There were numerous watchful eyes on us and our occasional risky adventures. None of us thought about it. These dear folks knew our names—most importantly, knew our parents and how to reach them—and they pulled and guided us through our most vulnerable years with invisible strings of care.

Mr. Batek surveyed Main Street from the hardware store; Mrs. Royal showed never-ending-patience at Hill’s Pharmacy; Mrs. Jensen styled our hair at the Beauty Fountain; Mr. and Mrs. Fleming commanded our attention at Lakeshore Lanes; Fred Hiemstra assisted us at his service station; and Otto and Nancy Decker kept a bird’s-eye-view of our comings and goings from their second-story-perch at the ambulance service. I’m sure I’ve forgotten others because there were so many of our parents around the village. This list doesn’t include teachers and support staff or medical personnel in offices around town, and these are parents from just our graduating class of 1977!

We took this familiarity for granted—we never thought about – but our small town’s attention was there, and it helped.

While there were many shuttered storefronts during our children’s teenage years, our kids still received the watchful eyes of their elders. There were parents who kept them in sight as they rode bikes and played back and forth at our neighbors’ homes. As in my childhood, these moms and dads helped steer some wayward attitudes and behaviors. They bandaged knees. They quietly monitored.

And the surveillance continued once they started driving. Our daughter tells of our sister-in-law simply pointing at her older sister who was driving too quickly through town. No call was necessary. Behavior corrected.

I sense a recommitment and recognition of the importance of this sense of community—an appreciation of familiarity and the importance of long-term relationships in our lives.

Special events are returning, stores and services are opening and re-opening, and there is a renewed interest in supporting local. We are taking more care and pride in the villages we call home.

And as in generations before, families and friends watch and applaud our graduates with our pride and love for them tied firmly to our hearts.

It’s a Fine Life.

May Day surprises

Grape hyacinths are a May Day bouquet choice. Photo by Leeanne Seaver.

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

When we were in early elementary school, my friends and I sat cross-legged, watching the sixth graders sing and wrap ribbons around a makeshift pole in the tiny Fulton Elementary School gymnasium. Our patient music teacher, Mrs. Morley, played some brisk, cheerful numbers on an old upright piano, and smiling, ponytailed girls and embarrassed, blushing boys ducked and wrapped and circled in time to the music, singing their springtime song.

It was the first time I had heard of a Maypole, and we were mesmerized by the spectacle of this May Day Drama. It seemed so intricate — the boys circling one way, the girls the other. And how I loved the ribbons—long and many colored.

At our house, ribbons were special. I had two satin ribbons — white and pink — carefully tucked in my dresser drawer, that my mother tied in my hair for church or holidays.

I loved the sight of those endless May Day ribbons — oh, to be old enough to join in this dance!

I had no idea this tradition existed: May Day to me was all about flowers and “surprising” my mother and grandmothers with little May Day bouquets.

Perched like a queen on top of the hill, my paternal grandmother lived within sight of my bedroom window. I loved walking to her house — quail hid in tall grass at the end of her driveway, a pussy willow bush awaited the pinch of my fingers, and gravel crunched delightfully under my shoes. Up her driveway was the only place I was allowed to walk alone, and my grandma’s smile — and sometimes a raspberry-filled Archway cookie — waited.

My maternal grandmother moved to a home around the corner from our farm after my grandfather died. By the time she moved, I was old enough to ride a bike over to see her and to drop off the customary nosegay. This grandmother kept us busy with crafts, made homemade bread and jam, and often tucked money in our pocket.

What a childhood we had!

Flowers can be scarce in Michigan on May 1st — some years we have heavy snows the first and even second weeks of April, and frosts can nip tender flowers or cold weather can even delay buds. Some years it was a challenge to gather enough blooms. My tiny bouquets were mostly wild purple violets, perhaps crabapple tree blossoms, sometimes sweet lily-of-the-valley, and, of course, brilliant yellow dandelions, which quickly wilted in my hands.

My brothers were never interested in leaving flowers on our grandmas’ doorsteps, knocking sharply, and running to hide behind a nearby tree. If it had involved rigging water-balloons above their doorways, they would have been all in! But I enjoyed it and remember our grandmothers exclaiming “My, what a surprise!” and my excitement and pleasure.

When they were young, our children carried on this tradition and delivered a few little bouquets around our neighborhood, and our grandchildren enjoyed presenting me with a bright yellow bouquet.

Oh, how I love a dandelion bouquet collected by sweet little hands! Don’t you?

It’s a Fine Life.

April showers

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

It is true that “April showers bring May flowers.” How we all look forward to those early daffodils, crocuses, and tulips. Their hopeful, fragile tips are stretching and surfacing in our gardens.

And our moods are lifted by the eventual sight of flowering shrubs and trees decorating yards, wildflowers adorning area roads, and dogwoods brightening edges of Michigan woods.
But when you live on a farm, April showers bring mud.

Mud on boots. Mud tracked into the house. Mud up the back steps. Mud clinging to clothes. Mud in the barnyards.

Everywhere mud, mud, mud!

In the late 1960s, our 4th grade class took a field trip to the “Conserv-A-Rama,” a program for elementary-aged kids where we learned about the water cycle and soil erosion. Mr. Dick Bailey offered hands on activities, demonstrating these interesting ideas at the Kellogg Biological Station.

When we returned home, my brothers and I applied these concepts as we played in the mud around the barns, digging tiny trenches to connect the various puddles, watching water run from one miniature pond to another, imaging the eventual emptying into the sea.

We relished mud: the slurping of our boots as we trudged and explored; our boot prints filling with water behind us; our experimental handprints; the mud pies and cakes slapped and shaped in whatever container we could find; and our happy presentation of the sloppy creations to one another.

“Here you go! It’s delicious!” or “Happy birthday, brother! I baked this for you!”

At the end of the day, we were incredibly dirty and satisfied with our unsupervised adventures. After those April showers and our uninterrupted play, our mother met as at the back door, firmly directing us to remove our boots and outer layers.

Eventually, our parents included a “mudroom” when they renovated our farmhouse. After we children had been outside, or our dad came in from his farm work and chores, we each had spots to hang our coats and place our boots. This sure was a wise and practical addition.

After raising three children—and operating a daycare when our children were young – a mudroom would have been wonderful. Like most tri-levels built in the 1960s, after outside play, our children stepped into our kitchen, where I was usually busy with meal preparation. Our little ones kicked off their boots, their little faces grimy and full of joy.

Mudrooms are still popular today. These spaces are showcased in design magazines, and you can find pictures of them on home renovation websites.

I hope children who live in these featured homes in the glossy magazines get good and muddy.

I hope they need and use a mudroom!

There are things I miss about living on the farm: the quietness of the evenings and the sunrise over the fields. I miss the planting and harvesting traditions and living so close to the land.

And sometimes, yes, I even miss the mud.

It’s a Fine Life.