Springtime Tradition

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From Jane’s World

There wasn’t a path to follow, but he knew the way to go. Weaving through the woods, stepping over downed trees, and pushing aside dried-out brambles, he picked his way up the steep slope, where the earth was exposed to the sun, to a place sheltered by a rock outcropping.

The day was overcast, the sky the color of pewter, the wind moaning softly. It was a winter-jacket, stocking-cap, and pair-of-gloves Wisconsin early April day. Some would call it spring, based on the calendar; others would say it was still winter. But in this nook of the countryside, a tiny, hardy, violet-colored flower had miraculously pushed its way through the cold hard soil to beam its welcome.

Waiting for the pasque flowers to make their appearance on the Thompsons’ farm has been a decades-long tradition for Dane and his brother. Each April Dane would carry a pasque flower back home to his mom and place it in a miniature vase—an act of love repeated over years of living and farming on their land.

Eleven years ago, Dane began picking two flowers each year, drawing me into this time-honored spring tradition. Two years ago, while Alice, Dane’s mom, was still living in her nursing home bedroom, pasque flowers again sat on her windowsill, leaning toward the sunlight streaming into the room.

This April, later in the month than usual, Dane came over to my house with a brown vial holding two perfect pasque flowers. It always takes me by surprise, both the beauty of the flowers and the gesture.

While I associate pasque flowers with Dane and his mom, whenever I see a crabapple tree I think of my family home. My dad had planted three crabapple trees with dark pink flowers on the corner of our lot, one for each of us kids.

In 2006, when I signed the last paper for purchasing my first and only home here, I too bought and planted a tiny crabapple tree. Like the pasque flowers, it’s blooming late this year, in the middle of May. The once-skinny tree is now taller than I am when I stand on top of a ladder with my arms stretched skyward. The scent of the flowers is intoxicating, especially combined with the smell of the sweet blossoms on the apple tree next to it. Working at my desk, I can see both trees by glancing out the window over my left shoulder.

Springtime means flowers, budding leaves, rain, mud, and tradition. Gardens are started, hanging baskets of flowers are hung, and eventually the grass is mowed.

The donkeys escape their pasture for their own tradition of exploring why the grass looks greener on the other side. Louisa and the goats graze along the creek, happy to be out of their pen. The ducks and geese can be seen bathing and bobbing their heads up and down to the sound of the crickets and peepers.

This year’s pasque flowers still sit on my windowsill, although the petals have wilted and dropped. On the desk below them is a small vase stuffed with Sweet Williams, another tradition that’s as easy to keep as walking out my door.

As he carried only my featherweight pasque flowers down from the hillside this year, I’ll bet Dane's heart was heavy with thoughts of his mom. It’s one small tradition, but so full of love.

While the days grow longer, and the world gets crazier, may we all find solace in the simplicity of springtime traditions.

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Originally Published May 30th, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Connections

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From Jane’s World

When I first moved here, I’d often take a hike in the woods with my faithful yellow lab, Riley. Afterward, I’d curl up in an old wicker chair on the porch of the cabin I was renting. Soon Riley would be snoring at my feet and I’d start paging through the phone book I’d found on my doorstep. I was new to the area and hadn’t yet made any connections.

The year was 2000 and the phone book was organized by the area in which people lived. It was impossible as a newbie here to find the number of anyone I had met. I’d usually forgotten to ask where they lived, but even if I asked, I’d still be clueless. Locals gave directions that were useful only if you already knew where you were: “Over on Paterson's Road. You know, where all the goats are.”

I lived in that cabin without a phone for four years. Living without a phone made me realize the value of being connected—and just how disconnected I was. My friend, Pat Martin, thoughtfully stopped over with a Tracfone, explaining that she had lost hers, bought a replacement, and then found her old one. It still had lots of minutes left on it.

Days after our visit, I must have been feeling lonely because I decided to look up my last name in the phone book. In Milwaukee, where I had moved from, there had been pages upon pages of Schmidts. Here the Schmidts fit on two lines.

I decided I’d call both Schmidts to say hello. A man named Dick Schmidt answered one of those calls. It turns out he had owned (and was recently retired from) a car dealership in the Viroqua area. We had a great chat and I ended up meeting him at the Wellness Center where I worked part time. He gave me a T-shirt from his car dealership with our last name on it: Schmidt Motors.

Talking to Dick made me feel more connected, more at home living here. Many afternoons, I’d look through the phone book and learn something new about where I had come to roost. Even then, we had an abundance of massage therapists and chiropractors, not as many doctors, and lots of handymen and carpenters!

Nowadays, I no longer use Pat’s old Tracfone. I use a flip phone when I’m away from home, and still cherish my landline. I rarely have the luxury of paging through the phone book, preferring to read a good book when I have the chance. After 19 years of living here, I feel more connected. I work locally, shop locally, and attend local events. I have an exercise program on a local cable channel and teach in the community. I have good friends and neighbors and I date a local man.

Recently, I had to break out the phone book. I needed to call the Johnsons to see if they had time for Dane and me to stop by after taking my dogs for a hike. I dialed a wrong number and made a new, unexpected connection.

"Hi, it's Jane Schmidt. I'm wondering if Dane and I could stop over today after our hike with the pups?"

"Who?"

"Jane Schmidt."

"Oh, I exercise with you every day."

"Huh? Is this Donna?"

"No, this is Jan.* I had cataract surgery so I stopped coming to your class. Then I had heart surgery. I exercise with you on TV. I don't do that one, you know, where you cross your leg over."

"So this isn't Donna Johnson?"

"I won't do the ones where you lie down on the floor, but I do the other ones. When you say, ‘Get outside for a walk,’ I don't listen to you. I'm ninety-two and I shouldn't be outside walking in this weather. My husband had knee surgery in 2016."

"I'm glad you're exercising daily. It's important."

"At the funeral luncheon I don't know what happened but I fell, lost my balance. I broke my pelvis. I know all about exercising. My daughter doesn't like me driving and I'm not going to drive for an exercise class when I can stay home and exercise with you. I like your stories, but those birds of yours are too loud."

"I'll keep that in mind. Say, do you know the Johnsons? Because I really need to talk to them about an appointment today."

"Yes, that lady who exercises with you in that one video. I can keep up with her. I mean I'm not saying I can do better than her but I keep right up with her. I'm not going to do anything you do on the floor."

"The next video is all about back care."

"I said I won't go on the floor."

"You can do it in your bed!"

"I can't see you in my bed."

I laughed. "Okay, I need to find the Johnsons’ number and call them. Ron made my ring and now we're having Dane's made."

"Oh, congratulations. You're engaged?"

"No, no, just getting rings made with Michigan greenstones."

"I have green stones. I had gall bladder surgery..."

Twenty-two minutes later I hung up with a smile on my face. I told Jan I'd shout out to her in the next exercise video.

"Don't do that," she responded.

After saying goodbye to Jan, I located the correct number for the Johnsons, set a time to meet up with them, and headed out the door with Dane and my three pups.

Thankfully, these days the phone books are organized alphabetically. The 2018 Vernon Communications book has a whopping thirteen Schmidts listed, and Dick is still one of them.

It seems ages ago when I reached out to another Schmidt in order to feel connected. Whenever I have spare time, though, I call Jan—she said I can call anytime, just to connect.

* Jan isn’t her real name.

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Originally Published May 23rd, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Midlife

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From Jane’s World

Soon I won’t be sixty years old anymore.

For a few years, I was impatient to turn sixty, which made some people think I was crazy, because wanting to be older isn’t fashionable. But I like birthdays that end in zero. People celebrate them more—and I love celebrating.

The number sixty appeals to me visually: all round edges and curves, like a stone that has spent its entire life being washed over by horrific waves one day and lying there the next, giddily soaking up the sun. The outside is worn and battered but the inside is stronger, more solid.

Some say that sixty is the new fifty, because more people are active later in life than they used to be. Sixty still qualifies as part of midlife, although it’s hardly the middle—not too many people live to be 120. Who’d want to?

A quick google of the word midlife brings up numerous articles and research relating to adults realizing their own mortality, reckoning with how many more years they can be productive, or questioning whether they have been.

I do recognize my own mortality. After all, I venture into the woods almost daily for a hike with my pups, and each time I do, I silently greet all the deer ticks and know my time on earth is limited by their abundance.

As for reckoning with how many more years I can be productive: not many, if the ticks keep finding me. But I also dream of lying on my deck and reading all day. So in one sense, I’m not too worried about how many more years I can be productive. Bring on my unproductive years—I’m ready and willing! Meanwhile, is leading exercise classes considered productive? It sure is for the people who take them!

In various articles about midlife, the words stressful, restless, and discontented flash like neon signs. The word crisis often follows the word midlife, but so far it hasn’t for me. I’m having no more crises than normal. I haven’t sold the farm for an Airstream, although I do think about it. Nor have I embarked on any “extracurricular” activities. Just the thought of all that drama, sneaking around in a small town and having to lie to cover my tracks, makes me exhausted. Besides, when I ask Dane why he likes me, he insists it’s because I’m “kind.”

As for midlife and stressful, yep, I could put a check mark next to that one. Mostly I’m stressed about technology and how quickly it changes. I use a flip phone, have no desire to text, and I have no interest in owning a Smartphone. So far so good, but I worry about whether I can keep up with the ever-changing demands of advancing technology.

For instance, it seems like every public bathroom I use is equipped with an automatic sink, toilet flusher, and paper towel dispenser. Am I the only one who stands in front of the sink and towel dispenser looking like I’m conducting an orchestra? My confidence level drops a few notches as I leave bathrooms while wiping my hands on my jeans. As for the automatic toilet flusher, I stand, turn, and am about to zip up when the toilet makes an exaggerated flushing sound, startling me into an involuntary yelp.

Don’t get me started on automatic phone systems. I revert to age six every time I call information for a number. When the robotic lady ends her spiel, I yell, “Blah, blah, blah” in my best Cruella de Vil impersonation. The lady comes back on, saying, “I couldn’t understand your request. Please hold for an operator.” Yay, it worked, I win: I get to talk to a real person.

Recently I bought a new computer out of necessity because my old one had crashed. The kind man at Vernon Communications was able to save all my pictures, columns, and work files. He claimed my old computer was a dinosaur. I didn’t have the heart to tell him about my landline and lack of a television for cable channels.

Other than that, so far, I like getting older. I’m not crazy about my face sagging, my hair thinning, thighs thickening, or still working a maddening amount of hours weekly. But I feel lucky that I enjoy what I do and that I have enough time for playing.

Turning sixty wasn’t all I’d hoped it would be. There were no fireworks or grand celebrations, and only a few cards. I didn’t even have a cake. When I hit seventy, my next big zero, I plan on shifting into low gear on my work schedule. And having more cake!


Originally Published May 16th, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Shocking!

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From Jane’s World

Moses, my three-legged wonder dog, touched the electric fence around my donkeys’ pasture only once.

Raime, my beloved border collie, got stung by the electric fence more times than I can count. He’d run up to the fence barking at the donkeys, trying to herd them, and accidentally nip it.

Téte, the hound dog from hell, has hit the fence running—twice. The first time she ran into it full speed, she ran crying to the front door and sat there looking miserable. The second time, she howled all the way up the road to where Maurice had his trailer parked, and stayed there. When I found her on his step, the look on her face said, “No, you horrible people, I’m not going back to that horrible house, ever.” I had to go get her leash and drag her back home. She hasn’t touched the fence again.

Rock star Finnegan has never touched the electric fence, as far as I know. Maybe he learned from watching his elders.

Ruben, my new Mexican rescue puppy, had his first encounter a few days after we adopted him. Until yesterday, that is. I was sitting at my desk typing when I heard a gosh-awful mixture of squealing and howling. As I jumped up, it turned into an even louder, more painful sounding, high-pitched wail.

I ran to the door and opened it. Ruben skidded in, looking at his butt, his tail between his legs. It didn’t take me long to figure out what had happened. He must have tried to get into the pasture and gotten the shock of his life.

I sat down on the couch and Ruben snuggled into my lap, trembling, his head on my chest. “Poor sweet baby, did that mean old fence get you?” I crooned as I petted him softly. It took nearly a half hour to reassure Ruben that he was okay and the fence was a meanie. Perhaps that will be his last encounter with electricity. I felt awful for him.

We all learn differently.

A friend shared with me a story about her first trip to Culver’s in Viroqua when her family moved here from the Chicago area. She and her husband, after a full day of moving with two small children, decided to drive to town for ice cream. There was a farm with cows next to Culver’s at the time and they wandered over to have a peek.

While my friend was holding one child, the other yelped and started crying. She set the first child down and went to comfort the crying child. As she was doing so, the other one yelped and began to cry. With no idea what was going on she tried to comfort the two crying children. Ice cream was melting all over their hands and hers, and her own cone was now on the ground. She reached back and grabbed the fence to steady herself—and immediately understood what had happened!

I was over forty years old when I had my first encounter with an electric fence. My first impression has lingered.

Maybe it was a joke, a cruel one at that, but Rick had told me to “just go over the fence.” He was a new friend and I was thrilled to be invited over to his farm to meet his cows up close and personal. I’d had the pleasure of numerous cows licking my hand with their thick bumpy tongues at the State Fair but never had the opportunity to meet a cow in a field where it lived. I was beyond excited.

Rick stepped over the fence and, like a gentleman, waited for me. I followed and put one leg over, screamed bloody murder, and looked to see what had tried to kill me. Rick doubled over with laughter, perhaps noticing my short legs for the first time. I, on the other hand, had my hands pressed to my wet crotch, tears stinging my eyes, looking—well, shocked.

I was reminded of this the other day when I came home and Dane, who had been working on some repairs at my house, greeted me at the car with a lopsided grin. “Your fence is working,” he said. “It’s really hot.”

After a good laugh, I quipped: “Shocking!"

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Originally Published May 9th, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

We Can Try

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From Jane’s World

Three times a week, as I drive Highway 14 from Viroqua to Richland Center, I pass a large billboard with three words on it. There’s no advertisement, endorsements, nonprofit, or charity associated with it. Only the words “Call Your Mom.”

Depending on the day, those three simple words can make my shoulders slump forward while my hands clench the wheel or make me sit up straighter and sing out loud to the music playing on the radio.

When was the last time you called your mom?

Calling your mom or other family members isn’t always easy. Sometimes you have to clear your schedule for thirty minutes to allow time for an uninterrupted conversation. You may need to be prepared to leave a message for the thousandth time, or make the decision to just hang up if no one answers. Or you might have to wait endlessly and inconvenience someone who has to go find your relative and then remind them how to hold the phone and to say hello.

I think of friends whose parents have died, are in hospice, or who they are estranged from. Calling your mom can be impossible, no matter how badly you’d like to talk to her.

Dane told me recently he’d give anything to be able to call and talk to his mom. Dane’s mom died two years ago. Dane had given up calling her at the nursing home because the phone confused her. Instead he went to see her every day after work. Luckily, it was only a fifteen-minute drive.

As an adult I learned, even after the most difficult phone calls with my mom, to try to end them with the words “I love you.” Tomorrow may be different; my mom may die or I may get hit by one of those monster trucks while driving down Highway 14.

As I passed the sign this week, I thought of all the different places I’ve had to call my mom in the past few months: first her apartment; then, after her fall, the hospital, followed by a “holding place” where she had to wait three days before being admitted to a care center to recover; the creepy care center itself; and finally her new assisted-living home.

My sister, Jill, who has Alzheimer’s, doesn’t have her own phone and I’ve decided I won’t call anymore. The staff at her memory care center has to take the phone to her and guide her through the process. Our conversation is limited by Jill’s inability to recognize my voice on the phone. I’ve decided mailing short notes is a better option, even if someone has to read them to her. Everyone loves getting mail!

As for calling my daughter, who is married, works full-time, and has two children at home, both with chronic illness, I try to be satisfied leaving a message if she doesn’t answer.

For now I try to drive home to see my family each week I’m able. I’d thought once my mom was settled maybe monthly visits would work, along with weekly phone calls, but talking to her on the phone has become as challenging as talking to my sister. I need to be there in person for both of them. Being able to visit my daughter during those trips is a bonus.

When I talk to my friends about going home on the weekends, they respond by saying I’m a good daughter, mother, or sister. Hearing those words makes me cringe.

No, I’m not! I caused my mom a lot of stress when I was a wild child. I’m certainly not in the running for world’s best mom. And my sister and I were never close and are about as different as night and day.

But they are my family, and I try. No matter what, I love them.

Is blood thicker than water? I’m not sure, but I do know that I will protect them, defend them, and care for them as well as I can, and love them as long as we live.

I’d like to be sitting straighter and singing out loud every time I pass that billboard. But I won’t be, because life isn’t always easy. It’s hard to work to make a living and still have time for the important things, like family.

Call your mom if you can. Call your sister or your brother. Send a card for Mother’s Day. We may not be the best parent, child, or sibling, but we can try.

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Originally Published May 2nd, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Dreaming of Color

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From Jane’s World

I’ve lived over half of my life surrounded by “renter white” walls. I started dreaming of color around thirteen years ago, the day I purchased my own home.

During this period, as a single woman, I was interested in attracting a companion. I studied feng shui and the Law of Attraction, and I read a book called If the Buddha Dated: A Handbook for Finding Love on a Spiritual Path.

I was anything but enlightened when I drove to Nelson Agricenter in Viroqua and asked Loann, the paint department manager, to mix me up the brightest fuchsia paint possible. I told her I’d learned that by painting my bedroom walls a hot deep pink color I would attract a partner. Loann merely nodded when she handed me my paint, leaving me to think perhaps I’d shared too much information.

I painted my bedroom and waited. After six months I drove back to Nelson’s and informed Loann that nothing had happened other than I was dead tired. Even with my eyes closed that wild fuchsia seeped through and brought me sleepless nights, but no partner. I was ready to switch the color to something more calming and conducive to a good night’s sleep. I choose a dusty pale blue and slept soundly,  alone.

Back then my motto was “Paint is cheap!” Whenever I needed a boost in my spirits or a change in my life, I’d paint. Loann soon knew me by my first name, and my walls became a canvas for color after color.

But things change, and by the time I had attracted a lifetime partner (rich spicy orange—who knew?!) paint was no longer cheap and Loann had retired.

Recently I headed to Nelson’s again for the best deal in town, their annual “Buy one gallon and get one free” paint sale. I had decided it was time to honor my longtime dream of having the outside of my house painted the colors of chicory and Queen Anne’s lace. For years I had been telling anyone who’d listen that I felt every prison, every teenager’s room, and every couples’ counseling office should be painted those colors. If they were, I’d claim, there would be less fighting, less sassiness, and more loving. By using those colors on my own home I’d be promoting peace and a deep sense of wellness in my neighborhood, not to mention providing a much needed burst of color! I already knew my donkeys, pig, goats, ducks, geese, cats, and dogs would benefit from all that good feng shuiness.

As luck would have it, Loann, disguised as a cowboy, had come out of retirement to help with the biggest sale of the year. I asked Loann more questions than I should have on such a busy day, and had her look up my past colors in her computer to make a few updates.

I hovered around the paint counter for so long I began to sweat. Finally I started making my color choices, but soon it became more difficult. Somewhere along the way, I’d decided it was time to repaint every room inside the house too.

I had ten gallons of paint in my shopping cart but that was only enough for the exterior of my home. I needed at least ten more gallons for the interior, but the limit was ten on the two-for-one deal.

I waited and caught Loann’s attention. “Loann, Dane and I don’t live together. He has a farm in Readstown eleven miles from me. He does stay over a couple of days a week though.”

Loann glared at me, her mouth open, her fake mustache twitching.

I continued, “We have separate money. I mean, he works and I work. I mean, his money is his and mine is mine. Would he be able to get, with his money, but not for his house, ten more gallons of paint? I mean, you know, they’d really be for my house.”

Once again, too much information. More glaring and twitching, but she nodded yes. A small screech of joy escaped me, startling the people who by then had gathered around the paint counter to listen. I practically ran to the checkout counter with my ten gallons of exterior paint.

In the car I called Dane. “Hi babe, I need you. I mean you need to come to town. You’ll need your wallet. I’ll pay you back.”

“What?”

“Loann said you could buy five gallons of paint and then get five free to use for my house. You don’t need to live with me.”

“What?”

“Today. The sale ends today. Okay? It’s all ready and set aside. It’s interior eggshell paint. I can bring it back for the colors later. Thanks, babe. Hurry!”

A colorful month later I notice I’m more cheerful, and my neighbors all wave gaily when they pass by. And after eleven years of dating, Dane and I have had rings made for each other (thank you, spicy orange!) out of Michigan greenstones. I’m happy to say I no longer dream of color—I’m surrounded by it!


Originally Published April 25th, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Home

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From Jane’s World

I’ve often heard the saying, “Home is where the heart is,” but is it?

Last weekend my family worked like oversized ants and in five hours moved my mom’s belongings from the apartment she’d lived in for the past three years into her new assisted-living home. While Mom was spending her last day in a dungeon-like care center where she’d been receiving rehab for a broken arm, the result of a fall, we hung her pictures and shower curtain, folded her afghan over her lift chair, carried in her red loveseat, washed her bed linens and made her bed, watered her plants and arranged them, and organized her drawers. We also bought fresh fruit, cleaned off her toaster, made sure she had peanut butter, and placed a bouquet of flowers in her favorite vase on the kitchen table.

We were excited for Mom. She would have a lovely apartment with three nutritious, home-cooked meals a day, and if she needed help, any at all, she could push a button on a cord around her neck and the friendly, professional staff would assist her.

After getting Mom settled, I was surprised when the staff invited us to stay for a fish and shrimp dinner. We dined at round polished wood tables decked in white linens and flowers, with Mom and 19 other folks who live in the facility. My heart swelled to have found such a wonderful home for her.

Mom mentioned she wasn’t happy to have to dine with a bunch of old people. Trying for levity, I pointed out that she was 92 and might well be the oldest. “I am not!” she scowled. My heart deflated as she declared the soup cold and asked to go back to her room. Mom was tired and wanted to go to bed. As I tucked her in we practiced using the call button. I kissed her good-night, turned off the light, and closed the door to her new home.

Weeks earlier, my niece had moved her mom—my sister, Jill—into her new home at a memory care facility in Waterford, Wisconsin. Sam took a lot of care to move Jill’s family photos and favorite keepsakes. Jill, who suffers from early Alzheimer's, had been living independently in a home she had owned for 16 years. Falling, confusion, and forgetfulness made it unsafe for her to remain there.

The morning after we moved my mom, Dane and I drove to Waterford to visit Jill. She came out to greet us wearing a long, bright blue skirt and a slim gray sweater that matched her thick, wavy gray hair. “How did you do that?!” Jill cried, coming toward me with open arms. “How did you surprise me?”

Sitting hip to hip on the couch in one of the many sitting rooms, I handed Jill a copy of my book, Finnegan’s Springtime Guide. She held it upside down, studying it intently as I pointed to sandhill cranes, bluebells, and marsh marigolds. Jill clapped for the flowers.

We walked the hallway to her room, which she calls “my house.” I asked Jill how she was doing; as always, she replied, “Oh, not so good, but how are you? Tell me about what you do.” I commented on her newly manicured nails. She sat up straighter, crossed her arms, and told me she was a model and that “They do that here.” Enjoying the moment, I snapped a few pictures and we shared a few laughs.

When it was time to leave, we stopped at the front door and I told Jill I’d be back next weekend to visit. I asked if there was anything she’d like me to bring her. “You,” she answered. “Just you.” The attendant kept my sister from following me out. Jill’s eyes were red and wet with tears. They matched mine.

Before heading home, we visited my mom again. She was sitting in her chair after a sleepless first night in her new home. She wasn’t happy with the way we’d arranged her apartment. There were too many pictures on her wall, and she’d had to eat breakfast with those people whom she couldn’t even understand. When I asked what they’d served for breakfast she replied, “A cold hamburger.”

I moved plants and rearranged knickknacks, tried to locate her glasses, and talked with Mom while she ate her lunch in her room, of turkey, mashed potatoes, and green beans. But mostly I listened to how horrible everything was there. After all, it wasn’t the home she had left when she had her fall.

Finally, exhausted, I kissed her goodbye and told her I’d be back next weekend. “Lock my door,” she said. “Why do they keep leaving my door open? I want it locked.”

On the way out I stopped in the kitchen and asked what they had served for breakfast. “Homemade blueberry muffins, eggs, hash browns, and fresh fruit. Your mom ate well.”

Turning onto County Road SS, the last leg of this whirlwind weekend trip, Dane and I were greeted by a flock of turkeys and more deer grazing in the cornfield than I could count. We passed my friend’s house and in her front yard were two sandhill cranes. Smiling, I knew my home is where my heart is. But sometimes it’s only where you hang your hat.

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Originally Published April 18th, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Finnegan, the Escape Artist!

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From Jane’s World

Finnegan, my 13-pound rat terrier mix, isn’t allowed to run free when I’m not home because I don’t want him getting dognapped. So I’m shocked when I pull into the driveway and see Finn sitting on the front porch.

Still in my car, I wave my finger at him, saying, “Didn’t your Papa put you in your kennel this morning?” Finnegan can’t hear me but he stands and wiggles every inch of his body with glee.

Finnegan’s outdoor kennel contains two big doghouses stuffed with straw on top of old yoga mats, and sports an open-sided roofed structure in the middle to provide shelter from sun and rain, along with his water and food bowl. We’ve made it as comfortable as we can, and we tie the gate shut to keep him inside it while we’re away.

Later that evening Dane calls and I tell him Finnegan was sitting on the step when I came home. Dane insists he locked Finn in and tied the gate with binder twine as usual. When I go out to do chores that night I take a close look at the scene of the crime. The gate is ajar and the twine is on the ground. Dane must have forgotten to tie it shut.

***

Mom's not home. It’s just Papa, Téte and me. Oh no, Papa’s packing up his computer and calling my name. Now he’s picking me up and...I know what this means. If Mom's not home and Papa has to leave, I’ll have to go in the kennel—but my sister, Téte, won’t. It’s so unfair. I’m gonna run away.

***

My work day ended early. I’m excited to get home and have time to chill out before chores. Pulling into the driveway I spot Finnegan sitting on the porch again, right where he was the last time. “Why, you scamp! What are you doing outside your kennel again?” Finn's body betrays his guilt: his head hangs and his eyes look up at me like a child caught writing with crayons on the bedroom wall.

Téte comes barreling over to greet me, but Finn stays put and watches me walk to the kennel. He knows I’m trying to find out how he managed to get out. I walk along the fence looking for holes he may have dug to crawl out, but I can’t find any. The gate is open again, about the width of a four-legged, 16-pound Houdini. The binder twine is lying on the ground nearby. I leave it there, with the other piece of twine, to show Dane when he comes over.

***

Mom’s looking at the fence. She seems kinda mad but also curious. Maybe she’s looking for new holes I dug. I’m a good hole digger! But today I had other things on my mind...like leaving my kennel and hanging out on the porch with Téte, who never even has to even go into the kennel. I should have run away when I had the chance.

***

“Are you sure you’re tying the twine tightly when you put Finn in the kennel?”

“Of course I am. I always tie a square knot so it’s easier for you to get open.”

“Weird—Finnegan was on the porch again when I came home and I can’t find any new holes. We have rocks on top of all the ones he’s dug before.”

“Well, I know I’ve been careful about securing the gate with the twine.”

“So have I!”

***

Over the next two weeks, three more times I come home to find Finnegan not where he is supposed to be. Each time I examine the kennel like Nancy Drew and question Dane. As usual, Téte, who must know what Finnegan is doing, isn’t talking.

***

I’m in trouble now. I saw Papa studying the ropes by the gate on my kennel. He picked them up and is taking them into the house to show Mom. They’re gonna be so mad at me, I’ll be grounded for the rest of my life. Téte, that brat, will be gloating and laughing at me. I’m gonna hide in the basement.

***

On a Sunday afternoon I’m in my office writing when the front door opens. Dane is calling for me to come and see what he has. When I walk into the kitchen he shows me five pieces of twine—the exact number of times Finnegan has managed to escape his kennel! Smiling, Dane points out his perfect square knot in all five of them. I’m trying to wrap my head around how the knot can still be tied when Dane turns the bundle over to reveal the frayed ends of the twine. Finnegan chews through them!

Laughing at Finnegan's ingenuity and our slowness to catch on, and cracking jokes about the quality and quantity of fiber in Finn’s diet, we call for him.

***

I hear Mom and Papa calling me. They sound cheerful, not angry. Maybe I should go and see them. It’s kinda dark in the basement and I miss Téte, even though I’m still jealous of her freedom.

***

“Finnegan, there you are. Come here you smart, smart dog you! You sure had us baffled at how you keep getting out of the kennel. We’ve been worried that you’ll get dognapped or even run away. Thank goodness you’re here. We love you so much, we want you to be safe and sound until we get home.”


Tonight, when I snuggled between Mom and Papa under their blanket, Téte jumped up on the bed and just about broke my head, as usual. Only this time I didn’t get mad. I overheard Mom and Papa talking. Tomorrow Téte will have to come in the kennel with me to keep me company! I’m glad I have a family that cares about me and wants me to be safe. Sweet dreams!



Originally Published April 11th, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Puppyhood

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From Jane’s World

There is no middle ground: Either you don’t have a clue there’s a five-month-old puppy in the house, or you’re made fully aware of his presence.

Ruben is a mutt from Mexico who found his way to my home and heart over a month ago. There is no turning back for Ruben or for me.

The first week, Ruben had to adjust to the snow, cold, and car rides. The base of his life before Wisconsin was sand; the surround, sunshine with warm rains. Ruben’s mid-sized brown- and black-streaked paws also had to adjust to ice. His favorite place to sleep in the house was over the heating vents.

Car rides to the Kickapoo Valley Reserve for hiking with his new friends, Téte and Finnegan, were full of adventure. Not big enough to jump into the car like his buddies, he’d stand with his front paws inside the car, waiting for a lift. Once in the backseat he’d copy Finn and stand gazing forward out the front window, wondering, I suppose, How are we moving and where are we going?

Ruben has had three vet appointments for an overall wellness check and subsequent vaccinations. He’s slowly starting to recognize Dr. Bass and Terri as the dog-bone/peanut-butter-on-a-spoon people. Not a bad way to know your doctor and her associate. The fact that Ruben had to have all his shots again in the United States was a bit frustrating. But now he’s been declared a healthy puppy with strong back legs. He’s already gained five pounds of pure muscle and at least two inches in height for a lean, not-so-mean, still in that floppy stage puppy.

Since day one Ruben has slept in his box straight through the night, not waking the family until morning. His appetite is bigger than that of any dog I’ve ever known, so much that I thought about naming him Hoover. He goes around the house like a powerful vacuum cleaner, sucking anything edible into his mouth. It’s not becoming, but it does save me housekeeping time.

When Ruben and Finnegan, rat terror extraordinaire, decide to play, everyone this side of Highway SS knows it. They race back and forth, leaping onto the couch, Ruben using the fireplace mantel as his personal launching pad, tearing around a trunk I use as a coffee table, then up into a chair, over its back, and around again. Their squeals and growls proclaim a type of happiness only true dog lovers can appreciate.

Téte, big ol’ hound dog gal, takes a different approach to playing. She lies down and tolerates Ruben biting her tail, her legs, her ears, anything he can fit partly into his mouth, until she starts a low, playful guttural noise and starts to bite back. It looks like a version of Jaws. Both of them snap and clack their teeth and occasionally startle me when I hear a real cry ring out. All this time Téte barely moves, lying there on her back or side and just using her paws and mouth. Ruben already idolizes Téte—which, if you remember how naughty Téte can be, is frightening.

Gone are my days of tranquil Epsom salt and lavender oil baths. Ruben comes in and stands on his hind legs, his two front paws hanging over the edge of the tub, and obsessively licks any body part he can reach. Téte seems to egg him on in this disturbing game, while good-boy Finnegan uses the opportunity to take a nap on the couch. Closing the bathroom door isn’t an option because Ruben is too young yet to understand my deep low “No” through the door as his paws scratch on the wood, trying to get in.

Nevertheless, the other evening I managed to drift off in the tub for a moment, until I heard the sound of water being slurped. When I opened my eyes, Ruben’s and Téte’s velvety black ears were hanging forward, their tongues in the water, and Monkey Butt—world’s greatest all-black cat adopted from the Driftless Humane Society—was perched on the ledge, maneuvering to get his tongue close enough to the water’s edge for his own drink. The sight of six eyes and three different-sized pink tongues was too stimulating for me to return to my tubby-time nirvana, and out I got—only to have all three animals start licking my legs as I hopped from foot to foot, swatting at them and yelping “No!” through my laughter.

Puppyhood is full of rewards, such as late-night and early-morning cuddles, when Ruben snuggles into my chest, lays his head on my shoulder, and falls deeply asleep; or when he gets the zoomies when we’re all out hiking and makes us all giggle at his crazy antics. But maybe the best reward ever is when I’m typing a story while the three mutts are playing hard, and then it gets so quiet I worry they are into something—and I find them all fast asleep on the couch.

Like I was saying, you either know you have a new puppy in the house or you don’t. But either way, Ruben is here to stay.


Originally Published April 4th, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Falling

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From Jane’s World

Mom is slumped in a hospital bed that seems all wrong for her tender body. The bed curves forward in a cruel smile. I try pulling her up so her head rests on the pillow. Her body is weak from disuse and she’s unable to help me. After the third attempt she is too tired to try again, nor does she care. I pull her wheelchair closer to the bed and sit in it to hold her thin, warm hand.

The room is stifling hot. No sunlight penetrates the curtain that separates my mom from her roommate, whose bed is near the window. My mom lies on her back, her eyes closed, her hands tucked into the waistband of her sweatpants, her mouth constantly moving as she drifts off to sleep. Next to the bed is an end table with a lamp I can’t turn on. The dark is pressing in on us.

I find an aide in the hall who tells me she needs to help someone else but comes into my mom's room to have a look anyway. She finds the lamp unplugged but no outlet to plug it into. My stomach sinks further till I fear it will fall out between my legs.

Mom broke her arm in a fall and now she’s in a care center. She wants to be anywhere but here. I and the rest of the family want her to be anywhere but here. But it’s a done deal. The place we'd like Mom to be has refused to admit her, saying they can’t do anything more for her than the care center she is currently at.

It’s a nice way of saying that the last time my mom fell and went there, she refused to do the physical therapy. When they tried to make her do it, she told anyone and everyone where to go. Now she is blacklisted there, and she is busy telling everyone at the current rehab place where they can go. She’s not suggesting anywhere pleasant.

Mom, age 92, lived independently in her own apartment with her own furnishings. But she caught her walker on a throw rug, fell, and broke her dominant arm. If she can’t use that arm, she can’t push her walker. She doesn’t have the strength (or balance) for a cane, and lying in bed telling everyone where they can go has made her lose the strength she once had.

Getting old isn’t easy. I’m also learning it’s not kind. The rehab center is full of overworked and underpaid help. If my mom wants assistance to the bathroom, she needs clairvoyance to predict her situation at least thirty minutes in advance. Therefore Mom, who until this incident lived alone and managed all her calls of nature perfectly well, is now in diapers.

I try to stay positive to encourage Mom to do her physical therapy, but it isn’t working. Lying in bed, pretty much helpless, she can still wear me down. One minute, she claims she does everything they tell her to do; the next, the social worker or the therapist is pulling me aside to say, “She refuses to do anything we ask.”

Part of me wants to scream, “She’s 92! Let her do whatever she damn pleases.” The other part of me yells back, “Darn it, Mom, please, do your therapy so we can get you home.”

But there’s the problem. At the age of 92, after lying in a bed for over 5 weeks and not doing the therapy they prescribe, will she ever be able to live independently again?

Probably not. And I can feel my heart break in a thousand pieces as I return her to the care center after her one-month check-up after the fall.

“Don’t take me back there, Janie. I hate it there. Take me home. I’ll kill myself if you take me back there.”

There’s no way to pacify her, but I try. “Mom, the doctor said you can go ahead and put weight on your arm. If you work with the physical therapist to get stronger, you’ll be able to go home,” I lie.

I don’t think all the therapy in the world will make up for the days of being sedentary. The stress of her fall and hospitalization, followed by the trauma of being in the care center, has played havoc with her razor-sharp mind. Or maybe she hit her head when she fell. The initial examination revealed no head trauma, but who really knows? She was alone when she fell and pushed the help button on her wrist.

Getting old isn’t easy. I wish it was at least humane.


Originally Published March 28th, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout