Bunny Tails

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

We are without air conditioning during this summer’s heat and humidity. Last year our aging condenser unit showed some suspicious symptoms, and this spring the old guy coughed a bit and expired with a groan. We are not scheduled for installation until the end of August because the company’s schedule is booked tight. I’ll be a puddle by then, but I am trying to keep my sweaty chin up and not complain.

When did I get so soft? I do realize this is a luxury, not a necessity.

We didn’t have air conditioning when I was young. On hot, muggy nights, my brothers and I camped on the living room floor of the farmhouse, sleeping on top of our thick sleeping bags, our flushed faces turned towards any available fan.

Occasionally, we hauled our mattresses to the screen porch which wraps around the front of the old house. Those were my favorite nights of the summer. We were exhausted after a summer’s day full of outside adventures and fell asleep listening to the spring peepers, crickets, or cicadas. It was cool by the middle of the night, and we woke early to the sun’s warmth.

This summer, we beat the heat by spending more of our early morning and evenings in our backyard, watching the birds. And most recently, we are entertained by the antics of young bunnies.

The bunny population is plentiful this summer. A friend shared a picture of rabbit destruction in her garden where an invasion of these gentle brown creatures destroyed her many hosta plants. All that remains of these lush beauties are little green sticks, the center hosta-leaf veins which reach upwards like pipe cleaners, the leaves nibbled neatly along each center.

According to the National Geographic and DNR websites, our brand of rabbit, the eastern cottontail, is plentiful throughout much of the United States. They are an important part of a healthy food chain, but they certainly aren’t healthy for area gardens! Cottontails like the plentiful vegetation found along forest edges and, of course, cultivated gardens. They feed mostly at dawn and twilight, can live as long as three years, and spend their lives within a two-to-three-acre area. But most of these young ones will die within the first month of life as they are a ready meal for hawks, owls, coyotes, raccoons and cats.

I see bunnies everywhere when I walk through the neighborhood or drive into town. Those little ones live a brief but certainly joyful life, frolicking, jumping, and teasing one another. They test various grasses and plants along our garden’s edge, and some of the reckless ones venture into the yard to eat the clover blossoms.

I hold my breath as an adorable Peter Rabbit, not more than four inches long, darts out to sample something in the grass and test his athletic jumping ability. Oh, he is innocent. Charming. Beautiful. In the morning light, his ears are golden and glowing. He is fearless.

I hope that Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail are sipping their blackberry tea in the safety of their burrow, and that Peter can beat the odds and make it home to flop on the floor with his tummy full.

My fingers are crossed.

It’s a Fine Life.

Language lessons

Mrs. Noble, Physical Education teacher extraordinaire.

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

I am a lover of language. Read continually. Write often. Throughout my life, I’ve had many excellent teachers – formal and informal – who have helped improve my skills.

I learned to love books at Fulton Elementary. Mrs. Bragg sweetly greeted us when we entered the tiny library, about the size of a modern walk-in closet. We started with those high-interest biographies: presidents, explorers, Native American leaders and famous cowboys. My grandmother, our 4th grade teacher, read aloud “The Little House on the Prairie” after recess. We listened quietly at our desks, resting our heads on our sweaty arms, and imagined being Laura’s schoolmates. We were all “country kids,” familiar with the damp of the woodlands, the sway of tall grasses, and the sounds of the different animals and insects at night Laura so richly described.

In middle school, real academics began. We studied grammar and learned to dissect sentences. I loved sharpening my pencil and diagramming sentence after sentence in Mrs. LaFrance’s classroom. We read stories and discussed them as a class, further cementing my fondness for literature.

Informal language instruction also happened during this time.

My initiation into unsavory language started in second grade, after Mrs. Harmon sharply commanded, “Jimmy! You come up here! I’m going to paddle you!”

Horrified by Jimmy’s situation, I looked up at Mrs. Harmon, looked back at Jimmy who was slowly getting up from his desk, and looked over to my friend Donna. I whispered, “What did he do?”

Donna shrugged her shoulders and said, “Oh, he swore.”

“What’s swearing?” I asked, completed stumped. Donna shook her head and went back to solving her math problems.

My mom clarified things for me when I got home. My parents were strict about how we spoke to one another. The harshest words allowed were things like “fiddlesticks!” or “shoot!”

During the hot summer before fifth grade, my dad had farrowing coops – individual shelters for sows and their piglets – in a field around the house. We soon had an infestation of rats under the little houses, and we kids spent several Saturdays helping Dad move the coops and eliminate the rats. But the most memorable event of that summer involved trying to catch a sow who had escaped. My brothers and I did the best we could, trying to help Dad get her back in her pen, but each time Dad circled that old sow back around, and we tried to direct her to her waiting pen, she refused, squealed and pushed by us. Eventually, Dad lost his fatherly composure and chased that pig around and around, yelling those forbidden words – and a few I had never heard before!

But Mrs. Noble in 7th grade PE class delivered the best language lesson of all.

We girls were in the middle of a heated dodgeball game. Balls were slamming, girls were ducking, and the worst-of-words were flying. The sound of Mrs. Noble’s whistle rose above the noise. She motioned us over, and we circled around her. She stood, statuesque and strong, and we waited, sweaty and out-of-breath, for her sentencing.

“Girls, Girls, Girls!” she said. “You must use those words sparingly. Save them for when you REALLY need them!”

Her advice stuck and has served me well in my professional relationships, but it is in my personal life where its practice is most helpful. Like using strong spices, if I sprinkle those words only when necessary, my message is heightened, highly efficient and effective.

Thanks, Mrs. Noble.

It’s a Fine Life.

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.