Babies, Books, and Bonding

So, Friday this week will be a big day for my family. My daughter and her husband are hosting a fish fry with fireworks. They will reveal the sex of our forthcoming grandchild, presumably via pink or blue explosions. I’m excited, of course, and anxious to know – not that it matters because I will love the child regardless of gender.

It has been eleven years since my daughter gave birth to our precious granddaughter, Jaycie. Jaycie expresses enthusiasm for becoming a sibling but also seems to be reserved. I’m sure she is constantly listening to her mother’s explanations of what is happening and trying to make sense of the whole reproductive process. Still, at 62, I can still barely wrap my own head around it.

So much hope is pinned on these little beings. I hope for this child’s health, well-being, happiness, security, self-esteem, education, safety, and a bright future. But I also hope for a close relationship, as I’ve had with Jaycie. There will never be another Jaycie. Her birth was life-changing not just for her mother but for her grandpa and me. 

There isn’t a day I don’t think of her a million times and talk to her in my head. And my husband, who never had children, never spent time around them, and was skeptical he could relate to a child, is putty in her hands. They share an exceptional bond that has been beautiful to watch. We had the great fortune of being very involved in the first four or five years of Jaycie’s upbringing. This meant the world to me because I worked full-time as a young mother and had to leave my daughter with babysitters and daycare centers. I missed her first steps, first words, and first tooth and wept every time I’d pick her up, and a caregiver would relate the news of her significant growth achievements. Being able to help watch Jaycie enabled me to experience what I missed with her mother. I got to be mother and grandmother at once; it was a golden time.

I already know that things with this new grandchild will be different. My daughter and her family live about an hour away. She and her husband are busy people with multiple jobs and large property to maintain. Jaycie is now in middle school and active in dance classes, 4-H, and raising pets. 

Our new grandchild will go to daycare during the day. I’m sure evenings and most weekends will be a flurry of activity for their family, making it challenging for Tom and me to have bonding time with the new baby.  

Even though I accept that things with this grandchild will be different, I still think about how we will grow close and how that might happen. I was very close to my grandparents. One set of grandparents lived nearby, and I saw them every week or so. The others lived in Iowa, and I only saw them about every three or four months. Even so, I felt a bond with them as well. My brothers and I grew close to our distant grandparents by staying with them for a week each summer – happy times about which I’ve previously written.

One way this new grandchild and I can bond is through books. So I will make sure this child always has books to enjoy. When I see him or her, I will always make a point to read a book. I will give a book for every birthday and holiday. And when my grandchild comes to my house, I will always have wonderful books available, and we will make trips to the library or local bookshop.

Sharing books has been among the many ways we’ve bonded with Jaycie. And a love of reading is a gift my family gave to me. My paternal grandparents gave me and my brothers our father’s and aunts’ old series sets of The Hardy Boys, The Box Car Children, and Nancy Drew mysteries. Summers were spent devouring these. And my maternal grandparents gave us an old set of encyclopedias which I loved combing through, reading about fantastical things. Mom always signed us up for the library’s summer reading program. And we also had the weekly ritual of my father reading us the comics page from the Sunday paper. I loved sitting on his lap, studying the comics, and listening to him do the characters’ voices.

Books spark imaginations and open doors to thinking, understanding, innovation, and possibilities. Planning for a baby, of course, requires purchasing diapers, outfitting nurseries, and lining up a pediatrician and childcare. But I think we also need to plan on providing books from day one in a child’s life. I suspect I will become close to this new grandchild in several unforeseen ways. But, yes, definitely, there will be books that bind us. There has to be.

In keeping with this month’s theme of babies, I’ve reviewed a series of books on a sibling relationship by Lori Nichols that you can read about under Recommended Reads. And under Activities, you will find a matching worksheet on animal baby names. I made some fascinating discoveries researching animal baby names which I plan to develop a manuscript about. For example, a baby platypus is called a puggle, and a baby puffin is called a puffling. What fun. Who knew? Enjoy!

Memories of Summers Past

School’s out! Let the fun begin! That’s how I always viewed summer vacation when I was a kid.

Growing up, my family didn’t always have extra money, so traveling to exciting destinations during summer break was a rare thing. Instead, most summers were spent at home, playing in the backyard, riding our bikes, watching cartoons, swimming, and going to girl scout camp or my brother’s softball games. The days were long and lazy, spent barefoot exploring outdoors from early morning until dark. We danced in the rain, chased fireflies at night, built forts, climbed trees, faithfully participated in the library’s summer reading program, and enjoyed picnics at the public park.

Each summer, a special treat was to spend a week staying with each set of grandparents. When visiting my maternal grandparents, who lived nearby, my brothers and I were given a week to be their sole guests. And when visiting my paternal grandparents, who lived a few hours away in Iowa, all three of us kids went for the same week’s visit. I would say that most summer “vacation trips” for my brothers and me were spent in this way.

At our grandparent’s houses, we didn’t exactly do anything super extraordinary like go to movies or waterparks (which didn’t exist at the time.)  We just lived alongside them and participated in their daily rituals, which were slightly different from our routines at home. The excitement for us was imagining living in another town, among other people, in different ways. Also, being our grandparents’ shadows for those weeks meant we heard about their childhood stories and how life had changed.

We were exposed to some of their older ways of living too. Like mowing the grass with an old-fashioned, motorless push mower, picking and canning fruits and vegetables from the garden, grandpa stuffing a smoking pipe with cherry tobacco, and grandma always wearing an apron when preparing food. Today’s children might find these things boring. Still, when I was young, it was magical and mysterious, and I looked forward to time with them every year. I think it’s important to give children opportunities to stay with family or even friends to be exposed to how others live, see new places, and imagine themselves in life beyond childhood as their parent’s pets.

My grandparents have been gone for decades now, and I’d give anything to step back to those simpler days and their sweet lives. Recently, my husband and I took a trip to South Dakota, and on the way, we passed through the town where my Grandfather and Grandmother Johnson had lived – my Dad’s boyhood home.

I made a quick detour from the highway bypassing the town and turned down a hazy but familiar old road – “Wildwood Drive.” Some things had changed on this street, but much of it was still recognizable. As I drew nearer and nearer to my grandparent’s old house, my heart raced, and tears began to form. I half expected to see my family waiting for me as if I was returning from a long trip.

At last, there it was. And I nearly missed it because things didn’t look quite right. The row of privet hedges that once surrounded the borders of their property had been removed. The grand old lilac bush at the corner of the house was gone—the flower beds filled with pink and purple petunias no longer bloomed along the foundation. Grandpa’s old Suburban wasn’t sitting in the driveway. The old awnings had disappeared from all the windows. And Grandma’s little concrete donkey pulling a cart no longer sat in the side yard.

Even more shocking was that the house had shrunk. It was only a fraction of the size of the old home that had once loomed larger than life in my mind – a home that could hold up to 13 people for a Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, the home that I was looking at was an imposter house that had sneakily taken the place of something special and sacred — a magic place that seemed to have evaporated. I was in total disbelief. The feeling that the past had been better and things should never have changed washed over me. Sometimes, it is hard to reconcile a beautiful beloved past with the reality of the present and to realize the power that LOVE has in shaping our memories and defining our truths.

As I turned the car back toward the highway, I took a long last look at 423 Wildwood Drive. The house that was there was simply a placeholder – an artifact of another time. The place I’d hoped to see no longer existed. But it’s safely being cared for in my mind, along with beautiful memories of my precious childhood summers.

And so it goes — we grow up and grow older. People and things we love change and eventually go away. But the happy news is that summer keeps returning, and new grandchildren are born for grandparents waiting with open arms every day.

For this month’s Recommended Reads, check out: The Frank Show, written and illustrated by David Mackintosh (Harper Collins/2012.) I recently discovered this book about a boy that has to take his grandfather to school for show and tell with the class, and he feels his grandfather is very dull, but boy does he get a surprise. It’s laugh-out-loud funny. And for some simple summer fun with the kids, use my Summer Fun Checklist found on the Activities page.

Hidden in Lilac Memories

Every May, I’m delighted by the return of blooming lilacs, one of my favorite flowers. Since I was a child, this flower has tugged at my heart.

I first learned about lilacs while walking home from elementary school, where there was a lilac bush next to the sidewalk near one house on my route. I remember picking a few branches of flowers from it and a woman coming out of the house asking me what I was doing. Hanging my head, I told her I was picking flowers for my Mom for Mother’s Day. I honestly hadn’t considered that I was stealing. I just knew I loved the lilacs’ lavender color and heavenly scent. I could only imagine my mother’s delight at receiving them as a Mother’s Day gift.

To my relief, the woman wasn’t angry. Instead, she said, “Just a minute,” and disappeared. I was sure my goose was cooked. But she came back out with some scissors and, to my surprise, helped me by cutting the lilac stems and making a lovely bouquet. I apologized for trying to take them and thanked her for allowing me to have some. After that, I knew never again to pull such a stunt. When I got home, I presented the bouquet to Mom, who immediately asked where I’d gotten the flowers. I told her a lady let me have them, and her suspicious stare tainted the special moment I had hoped for. A lesson hard learned.

My other childhood recollection of lilacs is associated with my Grandma and Grandpa Johnson’s house. There used to be a lilac bush outside my grandfather’s bedroom, located between the house and the neighbor’s fence. I remember that we had gone to see my grandparents for a Sunday dinner, and afterward, my brothers and I went out to play. I don’t know if we were playing hide and seek or not, but I remember finding the lilac bush outside grandpa’s bedroom to be the perfect place to hide. The bush branches formed a perfect arch-shaped canopy, and I could crawl beneath them and hide, smelling the fragrant scent of lilacs. The lilac cave became a favorite hiding place on several visits. But, my Mom eventually panicked at not being able to see where her children were disappearing and told us not to crawl under the bushes anymore.

Last month I read a sweet children’s book about a girl that was upset with her family and wanted to run away. So she marched out of the house and headed straight for a lilac bush and hid beneath it. She decided it was a perfect hiding place and would live there, so set to work building herself a little shelter. After a while, she missed her family and forgave them for upsetting her, inviting them to come live with her in her magical space. Reading this story felt as though someone had observed my childhood and written about it.

I often wanted to have my very own space to go as a kid. I think my Dad recognized this need in all three of his kids.

Within five years of each other’s ages, three children sometimes made for lots of chaos and squabbles about sharing, tattling, and general competition for attention. Dad would bring home big appliance boxes for us to play in several times. The best were refrigerator boxes – 3 of them – one for myself and each of my brothers. I remember cutting windows into them and decorating the outsides with our crayons.

We set them up on the patio and made a little neighborhood with each box as “our house.” I loved that I had my own space, all dark and quiet and smooth, and I didn’t have to let anyone else in it if I didn’t want to. So I would lay in it and try to imagine it as my home and what it would be like to sleep in it all night. 

The need for children to have their own private space is important. Perhaps in these early years, they imagine their futures and life on their own. Hence parents who recognize this make tree houses, playhouses, pillow forts, and pup tents available.

For the four years that I babysat my granddaughter Jaycie, we built many “forts.” Every cushion from the couch, assorted pillows, blankets, and dining room chairs was used. She would delightedly crawl inside and easily spend 2 to 3 hours playing, reading, napping, and sometimes even eating lunch in the blanket fort. Being an indulgent grandmother, I, of course, complied.

I am no longer that child that hid beneath the lilacs, but I do still need to escape frequently to a hiding place. Even though I have a whole house to dwell in, I tend to retreat to the basement, where I have a room all to myself that I use as a studio. I can get lost in the paints and pens, papers and clay, and reacquainted with my inner 4-year-old self. I like the child in me and enjoy playing with her. Sometimes she even has moments of clarity while she doodles and creates, solving the problems of her day and eventually emerging from the basement a little more centered and happy. This month’s Recommended Read is, Under the Lilacs by E. B. Goodale, published by Houghton Mifflin, 2020.

Spring in My Heart

Finally, SPRING crept in. Like light shining through the space beneath a door, her finger-like rays snuck into my wintering mind and began to coax me away from my cold, dark mental state.

April is always such a mixed-up time weather-wise. It always feels like too many days of knock-you-down wind, alternating with days of rain. But peppered here and there are always a few days of sunshine with temperatures between the high 40s and 60s. People stop wearing coats and start wearing flip-flops. Even the teen boys at the skateboard park start going shirtless while I still wear my turtleneck sweaters. How are they not all freezing? I think they are all silly, but then I pull back from such thoughts. I remember that they have Spring in their hearts. They are moving toward the sunshine, refusing to allow winter to consume their entire year. I was once like that — a high school girl wanting to wear shorts and go barefoot, walking to school with sandals when it was maybe too soon to wear them and feeling cold, but telling myself, “It will be much warmer by noon. You can do this.”

Yesterday was one of those days. The sun finally came out, and temps were in the fifties. The grass was an irresistible green, and the leaves called, “come gather us.” So I spent the entire day outdoors. I picked up sticks, raked leaves, pulled dead vegetation from the flower beds, sat, rested, closed my eyes, and listened to the birds. It was heaven.

I fought tears when I lifted big wet clumps of leaves from my flower beds and discovered my sweet flower friends sprouted beneath their covers, waiting for me to let in their sun. Finding them all was like attending a joyful family reunion. I transplanted most of my plants from the farm we sold when we bought our house in town two years ago. Hostas, Daffodils, Coral Bells, Foxglove, Daylilies, Poppies, Grape Hyacinth, Lavender, and more had been waiting for me. I saw that the Quince bush, lilacs, and my neighbor’s magnolia tree were loaded with buds. The memory of their sweet smells filled me with anticipation. Several birds came close as I sat near the feeder when I rested. There were chickadees, dark-eyed juncos, house finches, a goldfinch, cardinals, a crow, and at the end of the block, I heard a pair of Barred Owls talking to one another. There was a party going on in the world, and I finally showed up.

Today I am sore and achy from a day of yard work, but I’ve always thought that this kind of achiness is the best soreness you can have. Today will be another glorious sunshiny day, and I intend to seize it. Indoor activities will have to wait for another time. Today, the sun, birds, flowers, and air are calling me, and it’s time to let Spring back into my heart.

For this month’s recommended read, I’ve selected Zee Grows a Tree by Elizabeth Rusch, illustrated by Will Hillenbrand. Under the Activities section, you’ll find directions for making a Spring Breeze Pinwheel with your little ones.

(Book Review)

Spring Fling Writing Contest

Just recently I’ve begun to enter writing contests for children’s picture book writers. I love the challenge each contest presents because of the word limit restrictions. The following is my entry for the 2022 Spring Fling Writing Contest hosted by Kaitlyn Sanchez and Ciara O’Neal.

In Spring There Were Wings

by Julie Lerczak

For five long years, Lily lived beneath the water –first as an egg, nestled among the lotus.

Then she developed into her nymph body.

But Lily would transform many more times.

Every spring her body began to feel tight and cramped.

Then, a split formed along her spine, and a new body pushed its way out.  

Changing was frightening at first, but such a relief when she could stretch out.

Lily felt more changes coming. But this time she needed more than a stretch of the legs.

She crept from the water, up a cattail stalk.

CRAAAACCCK, went her back and out spilled her new improved body with two giant eyes, four glistening wings, and a long blue abdomen. 

It was her finest metamorphosis!  

Her wings began to twitch then beat rapidly.

She leaped into the air, ready to explore the world… a dragonfly, at last.

On the Wings of Spring

Everyone seems to identify different heralds for the changing seasons. For instance, many people feel spring has arrived when they sight their first Robin. For others, spring may be marked by the first budding trees or blooming crocus. For me, it’s when hundreds of thousands of snow geese make their annual visit to the Illinois River Valley.

I became an Illinois River Valley resident about 30 years ago when  I came to the region for a job. Quickly, I fell in love with the rural scenery of the area. But the wildlife and the river itself have really captured my heart and have given me a strong sense of place. Now when I think of seasons, I instantly, think of what happens in a river valley as a flyway for migratory birds. Near where I live there is a network of backwater lakes connected to the Illinois River and such habitats are major draws for migratory birds. These sites include The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Emiquon Refuge and Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, and the State of Illinois’s Anderson Lake and Banner Marsh — all located between Peoria and Havana, Illinois. Here one can find American White Pelicans, Tundra Swans, Canada Geese, Snow Geese, occasional Sandhill Cranes, Egrets, Herons, Coots, Grebes, Bitterns, about twenty species of ducks, and another twenty or so species of shorebirds. I’m sure I’m missing some kind of birds group here. The list goes on and on.

Of all of the spring migrators, the most dramatic arrivals are the Snow Geese that stream in flocks numbering in the tens of thousands. They arrive over a 3 or 4 week period between February and March coming from their southerly wintering grounds which range from North Carolina to Mexico. While Snow Geese follow one of four major flyways (The Pacific, Mississippi, Central, or Atlantic flyways) the ones I see follow the Central or Mississippi Flyways and they are probably returning from the Gulf of Mexico. Skein after skein gathers in farm fields to rest and nibble on scattered corn kernels that litter the fields. Then as if all had reservations to be at a specific location at one particular time, they take off and head for the backwater lakes for more feasting and resting. En masse, they crowd the waters – a wall-to-wall reunion of squeaky honkers. This year counts in our region have been estimated between 500,000 to one million. This congregating area is perhaps one of their last few resting points before making the final push home to their spring mating grounds in Canada’s northern tundra. 

Sometimes I can hear the flocks flying over my house at night. If I step out into the dark, I can spot the fine white lines of their V-formations as they trace through the sky. How they see and know where to go is part of their mystique. Like other birds, they have magnetic receptors behind their eyes that help orient them North and South. It’s also believed they use the sun’s position and constellation patterns as maps for their journey. These tools allow birds to navigate established flight paths used for generation after generation over thousands of years.

What I like best about my spring heralds are their massive numbers. Yet despite there being so many, the majority of Midwesterners have never seen or heard of them. That’s because the geese follow the river flyways so closely; people in the heartland, who aren’t near rivers, don’t get to see or enjoy them. Traveling individually or in small flocks, they could be easily missed. But being larger birds traveling in huge groups, they stand out. Of course, many other bird species travel in numbers just as great, perhaps even higher (such as starlings, warblers, and ducks). Still, their smaller sizes make them disappear in the vast skies.

The opportunity to see these large flocks reminds me of historical accounts of Passenger Pigeons. Early explorers and settlers described the massive flocks of Passenger Pigeons as being so great that they could take days or several hours to pass overhead. Sadly, now Passenger Pigeons are extinct – the result of over-hunting, and this is magical phenomenon is one we can never experience. 

Snow Geese are actually a problem species for Canada these days, as their populations have risen. The result is that their large numbers have caused incredible destruction to Tundra vegetation. Efforts to cull their population with hunting have proven to be ineffective. With a million eyes in every flock, watching for predators, it is nearly impossible for hunters or natural predators to draw close enough to significantly reduce their numbers.

Despite being a conservation challenge, seeing Snow Geese in large numbers is still a thrill and an opportunity to witness something natural at its peak of survival. But, it’s something we shouldn’t always count on being here. Just as millions of Passenger Pigeons, Carolina Parakeets, or American Bison once pulsed upon this land, we may one day find that Snow Geese too could disappear. Making time to drive to backwaters and flyways during migration season is a magnificent gift you can give yourself, your family, or your friends. It’s a wild goose chase you’ll never forget or regret.

This month under Recommended Reads I review How Do Birds Find Their Way? By Roma Gann — an older, but excellent children’s book offering insights into bird migration.  And for a little fun while teaching children about bird migration, check out my Activities section. There you’ll find instructions on how to make a Snow Goose Mobile.

What is Love?

It’s February already. The month we celebrate Valentine’s Day and everyone we love. Suppose I were to ask a hundred different people to describe what they feel love is. In that case, I’d probably get a hundred or more different answers. And yet, despite these different responses, the feeling we each get when receiving or performing loving acts is the same… an overwhelming sense of warmth, love, affection, and connection to one another. Not only do those we love matter to us, but WE too matter when we are with them.

When we are children, we feel and see love when we are cuddled, teased, and pleased by the people around us. Love secures and encourages us to grow. As teens and adults, we experience the flutters, blushes, and attraction of physical love, making us feel beautiful and significant, propelling us. And when we grow old, love becomes the comforting intangible treasure that we cling to with gratitude, as it emboldens us to accept what lies beyond this life on earth.  It seems that Love is a moving force, always driving us forward. 

I see and feel love in the most minor and subtle things – like when my husband says, “I’ll cook dinner for us tonight.” Or when we go for a walk, and he silently extends his arm, reaching for my hand. I feel love when my daughter calls me, and even if there isn’t much to say, love hangs in the air between us. And I feel love when my granddaughter hugs her Papa and me when it’s time to leave from a visit, and she holds on tight, not wanting to let go. We feel what we mean to her, and we hope she knows how powerful our love for her is too.

There are a gazillion ways to see and express our love for one another and this world. Love is packed somewhere in every day. But unfortunately, our world has become very good at ignoring it and focusing on the saddest, most tragic, or heinous incidents in humanity. Some days I read headlines and within seconds am overcome by story after story of unbelievable acts of hatred and depravity. Sometimes these horrible truths sink deeply into my brain, and I find myself becoming more negative, skeptical, or just plain angry.

To not be consumed or changed by the anti-love stories the world hurls at us, I think we must instead make ourselves ask, where is the love? Why don’t people know love? Who and what fails them? How can anyone survive in a world without love? I know I can’t. I want to wake up in the morning with a heart that asks, “What will I love today?” I am reminded of Mr. Rogers’ story about his mother telling him, as a child, that in a world filled with dark and scary things, “look for the helpers.” So I guess “look for the love” would be a similar strategy.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone did this? So, I have this idea. What would happen if I made up my mind to anchor every day of this month on the word LOVE. What if every day of February, and heck every month after that, for the rest of my life, began by asking myself, “What will I love today?” 

I could make this the first step of each day, like taking a vitamin, and giving it just as much importance as showering, getting dressed, and waking to be part of the world. I could keep a notebook, jotting down where I’ve found examples of love, or note my efforts to express love — a record of love accountability. If I made a conscious effort to look for love every day and review it before going to bed at night, I might sleep better and learn to walk in love more and more throughout each day. My awareness of “love” would be increased and hard-wired into my brain. If I mirrored that to others, they might want to join me.

What is love? Love is a cornucopia of feelings, and our interpretation of love changes with time. Love is also in our actions, choices, and how we perceive things. My challenge to you all is to hang your days on LOVE. Carve out a minute for awareness of love every day, and keep moving toward it. We have nothing to lose.

This month’s Recommended Read is The Love Letter by Anika Aldamuy Denise (Harper Collins, 2019), a sweet story about the domino effect of love actions.

And if you’re looking for a “love” project to share with your children, check out my activities page for how to make a colorful Valentine Heart Suncatcher

Moving Forward

It’s been a bit challenging for me to write my first post for the New Year.  After a bitter battle with returning breast cancer, my mother slipped away from us on December 28th.  The hole she has left behind is massive, and for now, it is hard to imagine moving past the pain of losing her.  Yet I know somehow I will.

So how to begin the New Year, focus on my writing, and think about writing for children is the task at hand.  One thing that came to mind as I mulled over the possibilities was to write about how my husband and I end each year and begin the New Year by writing and reviewing the last 364 days. 

Throughout the year, Tom and I make our daily and weekly notes of appointments, travel, birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc., in our little pocket calendars.  We also both keep journals.  And we both are active in social media and our blogs.  Each of these avenues presents opportunities to record happenings in our lives, from mundane to extraordinary and unexpected occurrences. 

Finally, when December 31st rolls around, we set aside some time to scan over the year’s calendar entries, Facebook, Blog posts, and journals and make a list of the monthly highlights.  Either on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, we sit down with a glass of wine and read each other’s Year-in-Review lists.  It’s always a happy and reflective experience.

We started this tradition about 6 years ago when we were snowbound in our home and had no desire to be out in public celebrating New Year’s Day.  The process was enjoyable, so we decided to make it an annual tradition.  Several things make the Year-in-Review such fun.

1.) Looking at everything you’ve done over the year really shows you how much you can accomplish and how fast time flies.

2.) You have a record of triumphs, failures, surprises, sad events, and other important turning points.

3.) Small events or happenings that might otherwise be forgotten are there to remind us of life’s daily sweetness.  e.g., “Today I picked eggplant from the garden, and tonight we will enjoy eggplant parmesan.  Or “Today I sat on the porch, and a hummingbird hovered in front of me, pondering the feeder hanging near where I sat.”

4.) Sometimes, we remember events differently.  Often this makes for some laughter, as my husband and I recount the same incident perceived in radically different ways.  However, we also find we fill in the blanks with each other’s accounts, enhancing the other.

5.) Reflecting on all that has occurred builds our gratitude for each day.

6.) Reviewing the year together strengthens our bond to one another and makes us happy to be partners in our life’s journeys.

It strikes me that such an activity would be a good thing for families to adopt.  Why not keep a family journal, where someone in the family or several people could write quick notes about each day?

There will be many days when not much happens.  And there may be other days where so much excitement happens that everyone wants to put down an entry.  A family could also make it into a privileged game.  Each week, someone is designated to be the memory keeper and writes something down for the days in that week.  Then on New Year’s Eve, make some popcorn and hot cider and sit down to read the Year-In-Review together.  Enjoy the memories of what you’ve shared together.  Both good and bad times will make you even stronger as a family.

Admittedly I did not want to participate in our Year-In-Review this year.  My mother’s passing left me feeling too sad to go through the process.  My grief over losing her and my memory of all her struggles seemed to overshadow everything.  But my husband encouraged me to try anyway, so I did.  And much to my surprise, it helped me.  While the calendar and journal entries documented my mother’s sad decline, they also showed me something else.  I saw that peppered throughout the year; there was still beauty.  There were still pleasant surprises and kind acts from friends, family, and neighbors.  There were still magnificent sunrises and sunsets, changing seasons, growing seeds, and singing birds.  Of course, life is sometimes harsh, bumpy, even nightmarish.  We all take our turns walking through dark valleys.  But life is also always beautiful around this.  We can return to beauty while we grieve.  And we can hope for and believe in better days. I believe my mother would want her family and friends to have such hope and live as much as possible with grateful hearts for all life’s wonders.

This month, my Recommended Read for Children is an older children’s book about entering a new calendar year:  The Stars Will Still Shine by Cynthia Rylant. I have found the sweet and simple lyrical words to be a comfort at this time in my life. In fact, any family looking past difficult times and trying to move forward in this New Year will appreciate the book which reminds us to be joyful for all the world’s beauty that still surrounds us.

A Seasonal Gift

It’s funny how our ideas on the best things in life change as we age. When I was a little girl, the best thing in my life was Christmas time. My Decembers were filled with anticipation for celebratory things like decorating the Christmas tree, family gatherings, sledding parties, and exchanging Christmas gifts.

But things have changed. While I still enjoy the sparkle and giving traditions of the season, I have discovered other enjoyments that I treasure during this time of year. My December thoughts now turn to the landscape and the hidden gifts within. My hungry eyes drink in scenes of fleeting natural beauty, and I ponder the miracles of their making, such as frosty fog or the intricate details of a snowflake. 

Winter months where I live on the flat, “tablelands” of Illinois can be pretty stark-looking. But I’ve learned that the barren appearance of the landscape can be deceiving.  All is not as it seems. There are treasures to be found.

About ten years ago, just 3 days before Christmas, a friend, who shares a love for birding, reported seeing a Snowy Owl on top of a telephone pole on her drive to work. When my husband and I learned this, we tore out the driveway. Then, we followed her directions to the site where this great creature was last seen.

The day was cold, foggy, and a bit drizzly. Visibility was not good. As we drove down the country highway and I looked out across the fields and the long line of telephone poles, I thought locating the owl would be like finding a needle in a haystack. It could have flown off anywhere since the hour it was first spotted, and our chances of seeing it were slim.  But then suddenly, there she was. High atop a pole, watching cars pass by. We held our breath as we slowed down the vehicle. We couldn’t stop because there was traffic behind us. So we drove a short distance and turned around to head back. We pulled off onto the shoulder of the road, where we could take a closer look. But when we got closer, the owl grew wary and took off, gliding over a field –disappearing into the fog. 

The entire experience lasted perhaps only a minute or two. But it was a minute of complete mystical magic. We had been given a tremendous gift – the opportunity to come face to face with a visitor from the Arctic reaches of our continent — a brave and beautiful creature, driven on a thousand-mile mission for a lemming — an animal that no doubt had also laid eyes upon polar bears, arctic foxes, and the dancing northern lights of the Aurora Borealis.  All other traditional thoughts of the Christmas season went out of my head at that point, and Decembers have never been the same since. What we experienced that day touched me profoundly and helped me realize that there are so many magnificent everyday gifts surrounding us.

Since that incredible first sighting, I have been privileged to have two other Snowy Owl sightings over the years. So, for me, December now marks the beginning of a 4 month-long quest to find Snowy Owls.

My husband and I go for drives in the country, scanning the ground for white lumps, which our spotting scope often reveals are plastic shopping bags littering the countryside.  We also check out the tops of every telephone pole and fence post.  So many times, we’ve raced to a place where a snowy owl has been spotted, and then we can never locate it. Often we return home and learn that someone else was in the same place and photographed it just minutes before or after we were there.  Snowy Owls are the elusive pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

It has been about six years now since I’ve seen one. And though I am frustrated that I haven’t seen one in a while, I know I will have the privilege again. Diligence will pay off. In the meantime, while I search, I will enjoy other precious December gifts.  There will be snow buntings eating grain spilled along the roadsides, bald eagles perched high in naked trees, and prairie grasses preserved in crystal. These are just some of the wonders the season gifts to us. We only need to train our eyes and minds to receive them before they disappear.

Turkey Terror

One of the things I’ve always loved about driving across the Illinois countryside is seeing large flocks of wild turkeys in spring and fall.  When I was a girl, turkeys were the stuff of legends. We read about them at school associated with the pilgrim’s thanksgiving stories, and the turkey was special meat served just once or twice a year at Thanksgiving or Christmas time. I never saw wild flocks of them when we drove through rural areas to my grandparent’s homes.  Turkey populations were possibly threatened or in decline at that time, as were the bald eagle and whitetail deer. But since then, conservation efforts have helped them to make a comeback. 

People’s views on eating turkey have also changed. It is now favored as a low-fat, heart-healthy eating option. People eat turkey meat all year long, but roasting an entire large turkey is still a holiday tradition.

Seeing flocks of turkeys grazing in fields always transports my mind to another time. I try to imagine living long ago as a pioneer. What must it have been like when the head male in the family proudly dragged home the large bird, tossing it at his wife to dress for supper?  I know from having turkey-hunting friends that there is more to hunting a turkey than pointing and shooting. Turkey hunters rise early and are in the woods by sunrise, hidden by their camouflaged gear, near turkey roosts in trees that the hunters staked out and observed months in advance.

Turkey hunting is only permitted at short and very specific times of the year. Hence, hunters have limited opportunities to take them. And the weather is often a challenging factor on these hunts. While some hunters may take a turkey in optimal conditions, fickle November and February are often rainy, snowy, windy, or sleeting, affecting their abilities and success.  Nevertheless, determined hunters pursue the great birds by hiding silently, waiting, and enduring whatever conditions until the turkeys descend from the trees to begin their day. One friend told me of waiting for turkeys to wake and having one fly out of a tree at high speed, knocking him over. He said it was like having a 40-pound bowling ball hurled at you.

Spring-time turkey hunting is possibly trickier as male turkeys gather up their harems for mating season and can be pretty protective. Their large bodies can be quite formidable, and their spurs can do some damage if they are feeling overly defensive.  A male turkey won’t hesitate to chase a perceived threat.

About a decade ago, I learned first-hand about turkey aggression.  My husband and I enjoyed a small flock of fifteen wild turkeys that started passing through our little farm.  Sometimes they came very near the house, inspecting our flower beds and fire pit area. I could stand just a few feet away watching them from the kitchen window, amazed at their size and lack of fear in a human habitation area.  While the flock eventually moved on and stopped coming around, three of the young turkeys – a male and two females, decided to remain in the woods near our home. They frequently hung out with our neighbor’s free-ranging chickens across the road. We all found this amusing and the neighbor, a hunter, was quite happy to welcome them to the chicken yard. 

What was most amusing is that our neighbor had a few dogs that ruled the neighborhood, and the dogs accepted the turkeys and vice versa. Soon when the dogs chased cars down the road, these turkeys learned the trick, and they too could be seen chasing vehicles coming down the road. “Those turkeys think they are dogs!” I said to my husband. But those turkeys weren’t chasing cars for fun. Instead, they grew up on our road and regarded the area as their territory.

When mating season rolled around about a year later, the male turkey became possessive and protective of his tiny harem.  He was determined to see that no one came within 200 feet of them.  I couldn’t go out to retrieve letters from the mailbox without him barreling down on me, chasing me back into the house. I was alarmed by how fast a speeding turkey can move.  I got so nervous about getting the mail that I would watch out the window for a while, making sure the coast was clear before venturing outside. Ultimately, when turkeys lurked, I drove my car to the mailbox, grabbing the mail from my window. 

The little gang of turkey toughs then decided to claim our yard as part of their territory.  They would wander over to graze around our patio area in the early morning, then jump up on the roof over the kitchen. They would walk around the roof from one side of the house to the other. If you exited out the back door, they could hear you open the back door and would run across the roof, then come fluttering down after you if you tried to step out of the house. We literally had to run to our cars for safety.  The situation was rapidly becoming unbearable. I had never imagined being challenged going in and out of my home at will by a threatening wild animal.

One day, I got home from work, and my husband had not yet arrived home.  When I pulled into the driveway, I had a lot on my mind and forgot about the turkey situation.  I parked the car, grabbed my purse, and was about to open the door, when suddenly, out of nowhere, there staring back at me was the threatening male turkey. “You go home!” I shouted at him, but he just kept standing there staring. I could not open the door without it touching him, and he could easily have pinned me into the car.  So I just sat there.  I honked the horn a few times, trying to scare him, to no avail.  I then thought, surely these creatures with brains the size of a pea have short attention spans and would wander off, bored in a few minutes.  So, I laid back my car seat to be out of his sight, and I decided to be real still, so he would think I’d gone away and he’d go home.  I laid there for 20 minutes! And when I sat back up, there was his face, looking at me through the window!  He was a turkey not to be reckoned with.

‘This is nuts!  Be a woman. Use your superior brain and shoo him off!’ I said to myself.  I looked around me for something – my MacGyver moment.  In the back of my SUV, I had a sheet of foam core that I’d purchased for a project. I would use it as a shield. I took a deep breath and slowly opened my door, sliding the foam core between myself and the turkey. As I got out, I pressed the foam core up against him so that all he could see was the mass of white, and I kept pushing him away. I had to turn a bit, then walked backward toward the house, holding the foam core up to block him. He was puzzled but kept advancing, like a bull determined to gore a matador with a red cape. I yelled and cussed at him, but he was undeterred. At last, I made it to the door and managed to slip into the house with a racing heart. 

This aggressive turkey nonsense could not go on much longer. So, I started googling how to hunt a turkey and where and how to get a hunting license. I even went so far as to read about how to pluck and dress a turkey.  Fall turkey hunting season would soon arrive, and Thanksgiving was not far away.  I began to form a plan. Then I came home from work one day, ready to do battle, and there simply were no more turkeys.  I never knew for sure what happened, but I strongly suspect that while I was at work, my neighbor, who had welcomed them into the chicken yard, took matters into his own hands. He was perhaps home, happily preparing them for his Thanksgiving dinner.

You would think I might dislike turkeys after these experiences, but I don’t. I still thrill at seeing them. Now, I’m just a little bit wiser and more respectful of their intelligence, habits, and stealth abilities. Benjamin Franklin suggested a turkey would be the perfect national symbol of strength.  He likely had seen them in action to come up with this notion. Frankly, Mr. Franklin, I know where you were coming from. But in the end, I’m happy we instead bestowed that honor on the Bald Eagle. And I am quite pleased to eat turkey on Thanksgiving and throughout the year!

This week’s Recommended Read for little ones is Turkey Trouble written by Wendi Silvano and illustrated by Lee Harper.  And for some holiday fun, under the Activities section of the blog, you will find a Find the Lurking Turkeys challenge and A Thanksgiving Turkey Coloring Sheet.