A Turtle’s Tale

Recently dog lovers everywhere celebrated National Dog Day on August 26th. My Facebook feed was plastered with photos of my friends’ and family’s dogs.  I no longer have a dog in my life, nor do I have cats, chickens, ducks, goldfish, or rabbits, as has been the case in the past. There have been so many beloved furry, feathery, and scaly friends. Some were so easy to love and bond with and were important members of our family. Others were more challenging at times, and then some passed through our lives very quickly. But all left an imprint on our hearts. 

Our decision not to have a dog or cat right now is based on many things happening with my husband and me. Pursuing some of our other interests gives us little time to be attentive to a pet’s needs.  So, for now, we have no dog to celebrate on National Dog Day. Seeing everyone’s pictures makes me remember what fun and comfort a dog can be, and we miss having that in our life.  But we are not a pet-less household.  In fact, if there was a National Turtle Day, we would be plastering photos of our dear pet Tootles all over Facebook.

I honestly never wanted a pet reptile, and I didn’t go looking for Tootles. She literally just showed up at our doorstep and seemed to need some help.  We own an old fishing cabin along the Illinois River. The house sits on the outskirts of Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge. For the ten years that we’ve owned the property, we have been blessed with countless incredible wildlife sightings.  About a year ago this month, we were at the cabin, and Tom and I were picking up sticks and sweeping leaves from our patio and sidewalk. I was just about to put my foot down on something small, bright green, and perfectly round when my inner voice screamed, ‘What the heck is that?’ Closer inspection revealed a very young red-eared slider turtle– perhaps only a day or so old. If I hadn’t been watching where I was walking, I would have crushed it. But, instead, I quickly picked it up and called Tom over to see.

Our cabin sits upon a steep hill overlooking the river. The journey down the slope would be pretty treacherous for a newborn turtle. It would have to pass through woods with fallen logs and rocks or pass through the mown part of the property with concrete steps and eventually a riprap terrace before reaching the beach before the lake. As I held the quarter-sized creature in my hand, I was doubtful it could safely make the journey without toppling over or becoming wedged between rocks. Plus, there are a fair amount of predators on the property that would quickly swoop up such a delectable meal. “There must have been a hatching from a nest around here,” Tom said. And we looked around to see if we could find any more baby turtles. But there were none. Was this one a lone survivor? Or simply the one that didn’t make it to the river?  We were unsure of what to do.  I thought about walking it down to the beach and letting it make its way to the river, and I just couldn’t do it.  I didn’t know what the mortality rate is for newborn turtles. All I could think was that I held a creature that was maybe one day old in my hand, and how could it survive all the treacheries of the world and make it into adulthood.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the importance of letting nature be what it is and not interfering, except for instance, when raccoons try to move into your garage.  But here I am, a hypocrite as I keep a tiny turtle from doing what it needs to do and what little turtles have done since the beginning of their existence.  I interfered. My human motherly side could not be reasoned with by my nature-loving let-it-be side.  So I put her in a container and hauled her home.

As soon as we got home, I headed to the pet store to purchase all the necessary supplies to set up a home for our new pet, which we named Tootles. Her full name is Tootle Lou Lerczak, in case you were wondering. Next, I began googling information on turtles. Keeping a turtle has taught me much.  I learned how to tell if a turtle is male or female, her species, what she would eat, how fast she would grow, that she needs warmth and light, and time to bask. I learned that turtle shells can shed in pieces as the body increases, and turtles can hiss if they don’t want to be picked up. That indoor turtles don’t hibernate in winter months but go through a semi-hibernating state called brumation.  I also learned that when Tootles is of reproductive age, she might possibly lay unfertilized eggs and try to bury them in her gravel.  Most surprising of all, I learned that in captivity, turtles can live longer than in the natural world, and Tootles could well live to be 20 or 30 years old.  If I took excellent care of this turtle, she could outlive me, so, therefore, we had to think about providing for her future in the event of our demise.  Anyone with common sense would have released her to the river and wished her well. But common sense has never been my strong suit.

Here we are a year later, on Tootle’s birthday week. She has gone from being the size of a quarter to the size of the palm of my hand, and by no means is she a lazy little lump that sits on a rock all day. In fact, she can be pretty lively. She swims and digs, moving gravel around here and there. She dives off her floating platform, tries to climb up the sides of the aquarium. She occasionally falls backward and can flip herself over. She watches us, and if we come up to her aquarium to visit, she floats toward us, begging for a piece of dried shrimp which she’ll take from our hands.  She loves to bask in the light of her heat lamp, splaying her legs, and turning, and fanning her feet in hilarious poses. She is curious about the world around her.  Often she stands on her hind legs, craning her out-stretched neck, and blinking her teeny little black eyes. 

We refer to Tootles as our daughter, and both agree we can’t imagine life without her. It turns out that we are turtle people, and in this for the long haul, much to our surprise.  If we should die or be unable to provide care for her, we plan to have her go live with her sister (my daughter) and her niece (my granddaughter). If she can’t be with them, then a dear friend of ours runs a nature center with a large aquarium with an 18-year-old turtle that may one day be gone or open to a friendship with a lively young gal.  One thing is for sure.  Wherever Tootles winds up, she’s sure to turn someone’s life around.

The Sounds of Summer

It’s hard to believe, but summer is almost over.  Some of the trees and shrubs in my backyard have already started to shed their leaves. And soon, kids will be returning to school.  I knew it was coming.  I just haven’t wanted to accept it. Another season in my life has too quickly gone.

Although I love autumn, I’m always a little sad when summer comes to an end. Winter arrives so soon. And there will be months of longing for green grass and trees, the yellows, pinks, and oranges of my flowers, and the purples and reds of my eggplants and tomatoes.

What I perhaps miss most on those seemingly endless winter days are the sounds of summer evenings. For me, nothing is sweeter than the croaking of frogs and toads; the hissing of cicadas; the whistling of lacewings; the cricketing of crickets; and the creaking of nighthawks. These are all sounds I memorized after years of country living.  I slept with the bedroom windows cracked open most nights for close to thirty years, from late May to early October. And the sweet sounds of summer serenaded me into my dreams. Now, living in the city, I don’t sleep with my windows open at night, as I used to.  

The paradox, of course, is that you can be saddened by the end of one season and yet so excited to see another one ushered in. Our beloved farm stands will soon stop offering produce, making way for gloriously colored pumpkins and gourds. Next, the local garden center will start selling mums.  And then will come, the sounds of fall – the wind rustling through dried crunchy leaves, the sounds of farm machinery harvesting in nearby fields, and thousands upon thousands of migrating geese.

Even the sounds of students returning to school are there to delight me during this transition from summer to fall.  As I pick the last vegetables in my garden, I hear the high school marching band playing just blocks away.  Students are practicing their songs for the homecoming parade and chilly evening football games.

So, once again, I’ll take the changing season as though it were a necessary pill.  It is a time to absorb and be grateful for precious things like colors, smells, and sounds. I encourage everyone to take some time to sit outside in the evening, or go for a walk around dusk. Listen for these magic songs of the summer nights. Seasons must come and go, the world must spin, and time must march on. Perhaps the sounds of summer nights are meant to be recorded in our minds, bolstering us for the cold grey nights ahead and keeping us looking ever forward.

To Bee or Not to Bee

When I was young, my parents owned a vacant lot next to our home. My brothers and I, along with other neighborhood children, used the space as our private park.  There, we played kickball, baseball, and chased fireflies.  When my brothers were older, they raced go-carts around the perimeter. 

Our neighbor, “Jim,” told my dad that a school in town was replacing their football goal posts. He thought it would be fun to put the old ones up on the lot so we kids could play football.  So they did.

One summer evening, my brothers and I were playing, and I wandered over to a goal post. There was a small hole in the pole where I could hear some high-pitched buzzing, whining, and whispering coming from the spot.  I was 8 or 9 and very naïve. I think I still believed fairies like Tinkerbell were possibilities. Though I knew the sound was not human, I wished it was from something magical.  I stuck my finger in the hole and felt something crawling on my finger. Panicked, I quickly pulled out my finger and what ensued was nothing short of a nightmare.

Instantly bee after bee came pouring out of the hole and began stinging my face, neck, arms, and chest. I tried to cover my eyes and run, but couldn’t see where I was going.  I screamed for all I was worth.  It was supper hour, and Mom was indoors cooking. Dad was in the backyard working. Everyone heard my screams and my brothers ran for help.

Dad started running for me, yelling to Mom, “Get the hose!”  The stinging continued, and I was never so afraid in all my life. I kept running and swatting, as Dad ran to me.  He took off his t-shirt, and began batting the bees, wiping them off me and covering my head.  Then he picked me up and ran—making, himself the new target, and taking the stings.  When we reached the house, Mom was ready with the garden hose turned on at full force.  She aimed and blasted away our attackers. 

Injured and sopping wet, we made it into the house, where Mom proceeded to nurse our wounds.  She carefully inspected us and found no stingers meaning our attackers had not been bees but likely wasps or hornets.  If a bee stings, their stinger gets stuck in your skin, and when it tries to extract its stinger, its abdomen comes apart, killing the bee. Wasps don’t do this and can sting repeatedly.

Mom made a paste of baking soda and water and applied it to our welts, as we sat in total shock. My little brothers watched with curious and frightened eyes.  Fortunately, Dad and I weren’t allergic to stings. Otherwise I would not be able to share this story.

Not long after the incident, the goalposts disappeared.  I never again stuck my finger in holes, and whenever a wasp or bee was near, I gave them a wide berth and sought cover.

At mid-life, I became a Master Gardener. One member of my Master Gardener group was an old beekeeper who also ran a Beginning Beekeepers Club.  Glen would come to our meetings and talk about bees. Then, he invited us to his farm to learn more about beekeeping.  I was curious but apprehensive.

I told Glen my story about the stinging incident.  He didn’t think I’d been stung by bees but some other insect. He encouraged me to learn more about honeybees and explained that bees and wasps react for specific reasons. By learning more about bees and their behavior, I could be better prepared and more appreciative of them.  Glen was old and had a happy, calm demeanor.  If he could be positive and fearless about bees, maybe I could learn to be so too. 

I attended the meeting at his house, and he made beekeeping seem so easy. With just a little smoke, and slow, gentle handling, the bees were utterly docile as he pulled the honey-filled frames from the hive.  I wrestled in facing my fear of bees and all things that sting. But, I appreciated these little hard-working pollinators and wanted to know more.

Seven years passed. My husband and I were newly retired. I mentioned the idea of us becoming beekeepers.  At first, he balked and suggested we should research it for a year or so and then decide.  I soon saw a notice in the paper inviting people to an informational meeting about beekeeping.  I thought, why not?  We wouldn’t be committing; just researching.  So we went.  It was fascinating listening to enthusiastic beekeepers sharing wondrous tales, and we saw that they were participating in something magical.  At the end of the meeting, the Bee Club president announced they would be taking orders for packages of bees for the spring.  People were rushing to fill out their orders.

We went home and talked about it. It’s now or never, I said. Why wait? So we called the club president to place our order, and within a month, we were beekeepers.

Four years later, we still love this pastime and the other beekeepers we meet. We gather loads of honey, share it with family and friends, and have sold some at a fall harvest event. I also make candles and lip balm from the wax.  In partnership with our local park district, we’ve established a community apiary and have plans to offer public education opportunities about beekeeping and the importance of pollinators.

It all started with some stings and a need to face my fear.  I still get stung from time to time. But honestly, it’s okay.  I forgive my bees, because overall, they make our lives so much sweeter.

(There are a great many books on honeybees and beekeeping, but for a beautiful and moving story, I recommend the children’s book Honeybee: The Life of Apis Mellifera by Candace Fleming. Illustrated by Eric Rohmann. You can read more about it under Recommended Reads. I’ve also provided a bee craft activity for children under the Activities section of this blog.)

Wonder Lake

Last weekend at a family fish fry, I was cozied up next to my granddaughter, hearing about her summer camp exploits. Her fun times in water– swimming and kayaking kept popping up in the conversation.  She reminded me so much of her mother about the same age and all the fun she once had in a farm pond at a summer bible camp she attended.  Whether it’s a pond, a creek, a swimming pool, or a river, it seems everyone in our family is drawn to water.

Both my husband and I formed deep emotional attachments to lakes when we were children. Tom grew up in Chicago, where his family lived in a bungalow, on a street full of bungalows, in a town filled with pavement, buildings, and very little green space.  Friends of his family owned a cabin on a lake – Wonder Lake, a few hours north of the city. For several years his family vacationed there.  His days at Wonder Lake left lasting impressions that influenced many of his life choices.  At Wonder Lake, there were no skyscrapers in the distance, just beautiful and abundant trees offering shady canopies. He got to witness sunrises and sunsets for the first time and spend hours splashing and playing in the water, swimming like a fish with the fishes and feeling the slippery moss on rocks as it squished between his toes. There was no constant hum of traffic, but instead the songs of birds, frogs, insects, wind, rain, and the rustling of leaves.  Nighttime was for chasing fireflies and listening to cicadas’ songs.  Wonder Lake was a place to feel free and explore mysteries of the natural world.

 It’s no coincidence, I think, that when Tom grew up, he fled the city, seeking a career in environmental preservation.  Soon after that, he bought a canoe, and to this day, my wandering boy loves to sneak off in early morning hours or late afternoons to lose himself in the Illinois River backwaters.

In my own family, there was also a beloved lake – Lake Warren.  My cousins had a home on this lake, and every summer invited the extended family to come for swimming, fishing, and cookouts.  Many times these fun-filled days concluded with a sunset boat ride around the lake. As my cousin Max steered the boat, my brothers and I dragged our fingers across the water, making tiny ripples on its surface. Friendly families sitting out on their lawns and decks waved as we cruised by. I remember the smell and shimmer of the lake, and its peace fills me still.

Several years ago, Tom and I learned that a friend’s river cabin was up for sale.  We had visited it only once, but the place had such a pull that we knew we had to make it ours. We successfully acquired it, and it has been our “Wonder Lake” place ever since. The cabin was built in 1950 by a World War II veteran who used it as a base for duck hunting and fishing. For three generations, he and his family escaped there to relax and make memories. The house is a 3-season cabin, meaning there is no central heating – only a fireplace to warm up.  So we only use it from April through October when temperatures are warm enough that the plumbing doesn’t freeze. 

Unlike the previous owners, we don’t have huge gatherings of family and friends there. It is more of a creative space that we use to escape the world’s noise and indulge ourselves in writing, painting, and reading.  It is one of the few places we can easily and quickly access where life’s chaos cannot interfere. We can sit and watch migratory warblers and waterfowl, deer, fox, opossums, raccoons, coyotes, and otters in quiet seclusion. In late fall, we’ve set up chairs and counted hundreds of monarch butterflies heading south for the winter.  And in flood season, we monitor water height and watch what the waves deposit on the beach.  Often we find old medicine bottles and pottery sherds from the 1800s.  Neighbors tell of finding prehistoric artifacts, which we have yet to discover.

If we aren’t at our lake cabin, it seems we are vacationing to other bodies of water. There have been countless sacred times walking Lake Michigan shores collecting sea glass, agates, and searching for Petosky stones. And along the Atlantic and Gulf shores, we’ve delighted in shell hunting and finding horseshoe crabs, ghost crabs, and beautifully weathered driftwood that we drag home and don’t know what to do with, but keep because it is our connection to a special place.  In the past, at separate times, before we ever even knew one another, Tom and I both found wedding rings on beaches.  We can well imagine the trauma their owners experienced at losing their rings to the waves, as Tom lost his wedding ring to Lake Michigan just months after we were married.  It felt like losing a piece of our hearts. To comfort ourselves, we tell each other that a part of us will always live there, and so we must return every few years to revisit the beach where the ring was last seen.

You would think I have enough beautiful memories of lake magic to last me the rest of my life, but no. I’m an Aquarian. The water still calls. And I’m sure there will always be more to discover.

For this week’s book review, I have chosen Kate Messner’s  Over and Under the Pond, which you can check out under Recommended Reads.  Also, see my Wildlife at the Pond, a children’s worksheet, under Activities.

Burning Wishes

This 4th of July weekend, I had an incredibly proud parent moment or day, actually.  My daughter Kate never ceases to amaze me.  She is a very busy and focused woman raising my beautiful granddaughter, being a health department nurse overseeing infectious disease care (including COVID), working part-time as a prison nurse, and running a burgeoning bakery business on the side. As if that weren’t enough, she is a gardener, cares for pets, leads a Girl Scout troop, and recently joined her local community action group. I can barely find the time to do the handful of things I do each week and struggle to understand how she manages so much. And yet I remember that long ago, I too had that kind of drive and energy and could stretch out a day like nobody’s business. 

The huge thing she’s done that thrills me is starting an arts organization.  Kate and her family live in a very remote, rural, and underserved part of Illinois. She was raised as a country girl and continues to love country life.  But she was also raised by parents who enjoyed traveling and appreciated and made time for the arts.  When she was growing up, it was simply routine for us to take her to art museums, historic sites, and cultural events. As a result, she was exposed to a broad range of arts and history experiences. I cherish memories of her wide eyes taking in such things as Renaissance Fairs, galleries of the Chicago Art Institute, the blooming landscapes of botanical gardens, Ice Capades, and Native American Pow Wows. She even learned about the music of her parent’s generation while attending a concert of “The Monkeys,” who performed at Six Flags. 

I also am drawn to the arts and majored in art in college. I’ve painted, drawn, photographed, made jewelry, sewn, knit, crocheted, molded clay, and more throughout my life.  I was an event coordinator in my museum work and often brought Katie to work with me on days of events.  I suspect that her exposure to all this as a child was also absorbed and valued.

So my little girl, who is now 35, said to me, “I have this burning wish to find out if anyone else around me would like to have more of the arts in their lives.”  This was a big heart-swelling moment for me. She was not content to just privately dabble in the arts on her own. She desires a connection to other creative souls – for learning and growing more of that essential part of her being. 

So she began researching arts organizations in other communities, studying their mission statements, who they serve, where their funding comes from, and what kinds of activities they offer.  She created a Facebook page for an art group and began seeking input from interested parties.  She contacted her local community government and pitched her idea. After months of knocking on doors, she was invited to join the Action Brown County (ABC) Committee in planning a 4th of July event. The event would include an opportunity for her to explore public interest in arts activities. She decided to focus on art for young children. Through the support of volunteers, the ABC, and a grant from the Two Rivers Arts Council and Illinois Arts Council, she was able to co-host her first art event.  And by golly, it was like watching Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams when he heard a voice say, “If you build it, they will come.”

Altogether between 65 and 100 people visited the little arts tent at the Mt. Sterling Summer Bash. Children could create firecracker paintings by stamping or spraying watercolors. The event could be likened to a salad of colorful, messy, and delightful ingredients, and the little ones who came couldn’t consume enough. Parents also seemed to enjoy the crafts and offered many thank-yous. Then, as quickly as it began, it ended.  It was a stellar day.

I volunteered for her at the event, and at one point, when things were humming at the height of the afternoon, I stepped back to watch the buzz. The bright yellow “art tent” was filled with happy, bouncy children spraying paint, flinging glitter, and grinning from ear to ear. Their paintings were strung on lines around the tent, airing to dry. All the colorful works and busy moving children made the scene look like a living kaleidoscope.  A little voice in my head said, “She has done such a wonderful thing.”

So parents, grandparents, and teachers… keep buying those crayons and paints. Keep taking your kids to events. Let them be messy and explore. Let them get lost in the colors, sounds, and textures of their young lives. Expose them to the big swirly, dancing, color wheel of life and watch what they do with it. It just might come back to serve your family’s community someday, and you too will feel the massive swelling of the heart.

Sticks, Stones, Dirt, and Bones Are All the Things You Need

Photo by Helena Lopez (https://www.pexels.com)

When I was a child, my brothers and I had plenty of lovely toys to play with, yet we weren’t overwhelmed by too many playthings. What we had was beloved and became well-worn.  But just as much as we loved our toys, we loved natural things that we used in outdoor play and perhaps used these things just as much.

I grew up in the 60s and 70s, long before video games, cell phones, and computers. It was a simpler time in so many ways. During summer vacations, we woke each morning with play in mind. The minute we finished our breakfast cereal, we were out the door, and there we remained, only coming back indoors for bathroom breaks and meals.  Sometimes after supper, we even went out and played some more until dusk.

So what could be so entertaining, you might ask? We entertained ourselves with our imaginations and the natural world. We climbed in trees and pretended we were in towers or were animals living in the trees. We made little forts and villages with rocks and sticks.  We drew pictures in the dirt. We collected found treasures like quartz and crinoid stems from gravel, as well as any animal bones, feathers, or broken bird eggshells we could examine. We had sword fights with sticks, jumped in puddles, rolled down hillsides, made clover chains, and caught butterflies, caterpillars, and fireflies in jars and nets.  We ate mulberries and stole grapes from the neighbor’s grape arbor.  We chased, somersaulted, jumped, kart-wheeled, biked, swam, camped, and laid on our backs, searching clouds for animal shapes.  You’d think we would run out of things to do outside. But the truth is there was never enough time to do all we wanted. The days were too short.

In my former employment, I had the opportunity to teach many children about fun and games of the past. In Native American cultures during prehistoric and historical times, children had few toys. Still, they played lots of games, many of which improved physical skills like hand-eye coordination.

One toy, commonly used, was Ring and Pin. It came in many forms, but basically, one or more rings (made of leather, wood, or bone) were attached to some string (sinew.)  The opposite end of the string was attached to a pointed stick. The objective in playing ring and pin is to swing the string and spear the ring with the pointy stick. As an adult, threading needles or even spearing animals would require similar hand-eye coordination, so in a way, playing ring and pin helped sharpen those skills.

Native American children also played lots of running games like chunkey and stickball in which balls or flat round stones were rolled or hurled at goalposts, much like in Lacrosse. Little boys also played target practice with bows and arrows. And little girls mimicked mothering with dolls made from leather and adorned with beads, horsehair, or tiny shells. 

Native American children also enjoyed stories told to them by the adults in their families. These stories often were oral histories of family origins, relationships, brave acts, or significant lessons kept alive by word of mouth. Adults told the stories many times until children memorized them. Since early Native Americans didn’t use any forms of writing, oral traditions were the only way to keep stories alive.   Other types of stories explained hard-to-understand phenomena in the world or spiritual and cultural beliefs.

When European arrived in North America, they brought with them their ways of playing too.  Little girls likewise played with dolls, and little boys played with slingshots. They played dice games, stick games, card games, ball games, string games, and marble games. One toy similar to the Native American ring and pin was Cup & Ball.  A small cup had a string attached to one side and at the opposite end of the string was a small ball. The objective was to toss the string and scoop the ball into the cup. 

Another simple game was “Jack Straws.”  It can be played in different ways. The most common way is like “pick-up-sticks.” Straws are dumped onto a surface and players are to remove the straws from the pile, one at a time, without causing other straws to tumble. An alternate way to use Jack Straws is for a player to place one straw on the back of their hand, toss it into the air, then try to catch it with one hand. If they catch the straw, then the player next places two straws on the back of their hand, tosses, and catches them.  Every time they catch the straws, they add more straws to the back of their hand in the next attempt.  If the straws fall to the ground, the player must begin again, with only one straw on the back of their hand.

In terms of entertaining stories, pioneer children didn’t usually have access to many books. Books were expensive luxuries. Families often read together at the end of a day, gathered around a fire. A parent would read aloud from the bible or another cherished.  Stories told for entertainment, and educational purposes often included Aesop’s Fables.  This collection of ancient Greek stories (attributed to a Greek slave named Aesop who lived between 620 -524 B.C.) uses animal characters to teach important lessons that reinforce good choices and moral behavior.

I can’t argue that playtime in the past was better than how kids play today. In all honesty, I’ve been highly entertained and educated by toys and books that my daughter and granddaughter have grown up using. I also can’t deny the delight they (or I) experienced watching Sesame Street and Disney movies or playing electronic games.  Life changes and we roll with the times.  But I will say that sometimes it’s good to revisit the ways of the past. Left without the tantalizing playthings we rely on today, what kind of games and amusements might we invent?   If you have kids and a place for them to play outdoors, turn them loose and watch.  I’m pretty sure their excellent little minds will come up with something wonderfully creative, all on their own.

Be sure to check out the “Activities” section of my blog, on how to make Some Simply Simple Toys.

In Praise of Childlike Abandon

Last weekend I had the great pleasure of going on a 3 day getaway to St. Louis, MO, with my daughter and granddaughter.   We only live a couple of hours from St. Louis, and the city has much to offer in the way of museums, shopping, art, and history. 

We got to visit St. Louis Arch and marvel at its construction. Additionally  we enjoyed the history museum beneath the arch, which has terrific exhibits on the St. Louis area being the gateway to westward expansion.  The museum, run by the National Park Service, offered children study booklets to use in the exhibits that help them focus on important content. My granddaughter and her mother worked together to find the answers and fill out the book. Afterward, Jaycie was “sworn-in” as a Jr. National Park Service Ranger, which she took very seriously.  Little did the ranger know that she adores animals and wild places and would love nothing better than to one day work for the National Park Service. After receiving her badge, she turned to me and said, “I really do promise to protect the parks and leave only footsteps, Grandma.” I could see it happening and felt my heart swell.

Next, we headed for The City Museum, another memorable and happy experience.  The old 5 stories downtown building has been converted into a children’s museum that encourages play and imagination.  The developers have cleverly and uniquely designed playscapes using rescued architectural elements and incorporated numerous hidden staircases, slides, tunnels, towers, caves, ramps, and more for visitors to explore. Fantasy faces of dragons, gargoyles, whales, lions, and mysterious creatures are found throughout the place. What tickled me the most here was seeing children crawling in and out of all sorts of holes. Anything goes here. 

At one point, I sat awhile to rest while watching my daughter and granddaughter enter the mouth of a gigantic white whale. They disappeared into the belly of the whale and 15 minutes later came out in a part of the museum I wasn’t expecting to see them exit from.  While I watched visitors walking by the whale, three small girls stood beside the whale, then got down on their tummies and wiggled into a very narrow space beneath the whale’s belly.  Oh, no! They shouldn’t be in there. They’ll get hurt or lost, I thought. Then I saw two bigger boys do the same.  And a few seconds later, a parent. Apparently, this was part of the plan, and everyone knew but me.  If there was an opening, you were allowed to go in and explore. Eventually, everyone crawled back out, sweaty and smiling.

At The City Museum, kids are completely free to be kids. They can be wild, loud, climb, spin, run, crawl, touch and investigate. You don’t see staff or parents shooshing them or saying don’t touch, or no, you can’t do that. Here it was okay to be inquisitive and express yourself.

On the second day of our trip, we visited the new St. Louis Aquarium. There we had great fun touching starfish, sea anemones, stingrays, and little minnows that kissed our fingers. Schools of fish, rays, and sharks swam over our heads. Jellyfish danced inches from our faces. An octopus tried to hide by pressing itself into a corner. And little eel heads popped in and out of the sand.

Lastly, we went to the Missouri Botanical Garden, a place we’ve been visiting since my daughter was little. I love that both the girls enjoy walking through gardens, smelling every flower, and taking pictures. We enjoyed the tropical plants of the Climatron, likely the closest we will ever get to a rainforest. And our time in the Japanese Garden, feeding gigantic koi, Canada geese, and turtles, was also great fun.

These experiences, which were planned for my granddaughter, were just as enjoyable for her mother and me. We had the opportunity to explore things in ways that weren’t available when we were children. I was reminded of the importance of occasionally stepping out of adulthood to see things with new eyes and allow my imagination to carry me for a time. All these things – crawling through tunnels, spinning like a top, petting stingrays, and walking through miniature rainforests was invigorating. I came home feeling that my world had expanded. I also came back regretting all the times I said no to my daughter when it may not have been essential. Sometimes boundaries just have to be pushed, and curious things must be tested. It’s the only way to grow.

For an excellent laugh, check out this week’s recommended read, 17 THINGS I’M NOT ALLOWED TO DO ANYMORE, by Jenny Offill.  It’s laugh-out-loud funny and completely captures the inquisitive nature of a child.

Grandma’s Gifts

This week my book review (under Recommended Reads) is  When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree by Jamie L.B. Deenihan.  I really loved this book, which got me thinking about my own grandmothers and what they gave me.  While I received many material gifts from them that I enjoyed throughout my time with them, it is the intangible gifts that I cherish the most.

Both my grandmothers were excellent cooks, and their cooking styles were radically different from one another.  What they had in common, though, was the ability to cook without reading recipes. All their recipes were in their heads. They also both taught me that some of the very best dishes required considerable patience to prepare.  Often the things family loved eating the most had the most love put in them.  Even if my grandmothers were hot, tired, and over-worked, they still put effort into making things people loved because they loved those people. That is what made cooking fun for them.

My Grandmother Johnson made fabulous fruit pies that were utterly beautiful to look at.  Her crusts were works of art, bubbled high and golden brown, sprinkled with sugar, and decorated artistically with little slits and designs.  There were no instant desserts in her kitchen. Things were prepared the old-fashioned way.  My brothers and I  helped pick the fruit. I even got to help run the cherry pitter if we picked cherries, but Grandma alone did the rest, adding her magic touch. 

My Grandmother Knapp had a way with fowl. She made excellent chicken casseroles, baked chicken, roast duck, and goose. She also hunted and fished and had probably learned about raising chickens from her grandmother.  If Grandma couldn’t buy it, she raised it, hunted, or caught it. No one went hungry if she had anything to say about it. This behavior likely stemmed from childhood trauma. She’d grown up in a family of ten that experienced a horrible period of poverty and hunger. Grandma could remember being hungry at a young age and frequently was fed popcorn for supper. Her hair began to fall out, and she was ill, so her parents sent her to her grandparents to recover. (Each of the children experienced health issues from time to time and were sent to live with relatives.) My Great Grandparents had a farm where my grandmother could get plenty of milk, eggs, vegetables, and whatever else they had.  She had intense gratitude for her grandparents because she felt safe and rescued by them.

My grandmothers were also gardeners, so I was always raised knowing the joy of growing your own food and putting it on the table.  To this day, I too garden, although now on a smaller scale.  But I swear there is no better salad than the one I make from our own herbs and vegetables.  I am indebted to them, and my mother too, for involving me in meal preparation and gardening — gifts I have relied on my entire adult life.

My grandmothers shared other gifts too.  Grandmother Johnson was very industrious and crafty. She made quilts from flour sacks and hooked rugs for her home. On summer vacations, she would have me practice making latch-hook rugs. This was another gift of self-sufficiency. I learned I could make the things I needed and feel great satisfaction in doing so.

I saw my Grandmother Knapp pretty much every week because she lived close by. One of my favorite gifts that she gave me was the gift of time. I was the only girl in my family and the only girl in a neighborhood of boys. I played many “boy” games and was a bit of a rough and tumble kid. Sometimes though, I just really needed to be a girl and felt like the odd one out.  My grandmother saw this. When she visited on Saturdays, she would take me with her to yard sales, auctions, and running errands. She became my confidant and shared stories of when she was a girl.  She treated me as her equal. Not as a child. We would go out for lunches at Wong’s Chinese Restaurant and drink tea. And best of all, when driving home, we would roll down the car windows, let the wind wildly blow our hair, crank up the radio and sing at the top of our lungs.  She taught me to feel free.

Resourcefulness, the gift of time, and knowing family will love you and do their best for you are just some of the precious gifts my grandmothers gave me.  I can only hope that I give my own granddaughter such priceless gifts.

Sacred Seconds

Well, it’s official. School is out.  And at our house, that means our precious granddaughter, Jaycie, comes to stay for her first week of summer vacation.  We really live for this time because there are so few opportunities for her to stay over during the school year. While she only lives an hour away, it seems the older she gets, the busier she gets with pets, chores, dance classes, girl scouts, and so forth.  Though we frequently speak on the phone, it’s simply not the same as having her beside us. When she is here, we can memorize her facial expressions and beautiful chestnut color hair. We can see the bright light in her crystal blue eyes.  And we can feel the electricity in the air from her endless energy. 

I think both Tom and I are different people when Jaycie comes to stay. We become excited kids again, going for hikes in the woods, discovering plants, rocks, and animals. We invent games, eat anything we want, stay up late watching movies, craft together, joke, and just bask in each other’s love.  We’ve cherished watching her grow from that inquisitive infant that would crawl into the kitchen cabinets, and dump out all of my pots and pans, to the brilliant little ten year old she is now. She can tease, show sarcasm, make up big fantasy stories, and report on all the facts she’s learned from watching David Attenborough nature documentaries.  She’s still a sweet and precocious little girl but on the cusp of being a savvy and determined teenager ready to take on the world. She is in that in-between stage where she still believes in magic and yet knows that sometimes life can become dark and scary, especially this last year with the trials of Covid-19.

On one day of her visit, we went through various projects that I discovered on Pinterest.  Having a grandchild is the perfect excuse to explore some simple crafts that you wouldn’t usually see a 61-year -old woman doing.  We learned about making nature mandalas, “nature crowns,” and “nature bracelets” and made dragonflies from maple seeds.  First, we started with an early morning walk to the park just a block away. We brought along a plastic bag for collecting interesting leaves, flowers, and sticks and tried to find as many diversely shaped and colored specimens as possible.  Along the way, we stopped for some birdwatching and to investigate a creek.

Back home, we dumped out our treasures and picked our favorite things for making into mandalas.  Our intention was to make the mandalas on the front lawn, leaving them for passersby to enjoy as they walked or drove by our house.  Because we live near the park, we see a good deal of foot traffic past our house, as an endless stream of walkers, with and without dogs, and families on bikes, head for the public greenspace. We were sure they would love our mandalas, which more or less are art for art’s sake and made as temporary creations to enjoy for the day.  But sadly, by the time we got back from our walk, it began to rain, so our mandalas had to grace the dining room table. We both became so quiet while making these and later remarked how relaxing and enjoyable it had been to create them.

Next, we moved onto “nature crowns” and “nature bracelets. Admittedly we both are too old for such activities. Yet, we had fun pretending we were wild women from the woods crafting our regalia. It’s good, no matter how old you are, to remember how wonderful a playful child-like imagination can feel. To make these crafts, all you need is scissors, cardstock, double stick tape, and an assortment of flowers and leaves.

Then lastly, we made the dragonflies from the maple seeds that littered my backyard.  We painted the seeds happy pastel colors, then glued them to sticks to make dragonfly bodies. We made dragonflies perch on house plants, placed them on sticks in bouquets, and glued some onto paper in collages.

Before you know it, lunchtime had come. Our morning ended, leaving us deeply satisfied with the entire process of going for a walk, seeking nature treasures, and making wonderful creations to celebrate our special time together. I think Jaycie enjoyed herself, and I know it was good medicine for me. Our dear girl has gone back home now. Still, the maple seed dragonfly perched on one of my succulent plants continues to make me smile. And I look forward to new adventures and each sacred second of her next visit.

No Place Like Home

A little over a year ago, my husband and I left our sweet little country home to move to the city of Macomb, IL.  While it has been quite an adjustment moving from a wide-open space and constant companionship with wildlife, we are adapting reasonably well to our new house and urban environment. We are fortunate in our comforts. Still, after all this time, I find myself thinking of our old place as “home.”  I wonder when does that feeling go away? And what exactly is “home?”

For animals, home begins with the perfect habitat – a combination of food, shelter, water, and space. When they find a place with those elements in the right quantities for their species, they carve out their living space and do the best that they can.  It’s as simple as that. You would think that would be true for people as well.  But I think there is one more element necessary to make a habitat feel like home…time.   It is time and perhaps a bit of habit and toughing it out that makes the change in feeling that we’re home. 

My latest book review, under Recommended  Reads, deals with just this very topic. Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler is the sweet story of a family under duress that must make a home out of a shack. The child telling the story is skeptical that a ramshackle structure could ever be “home.”  But by the end of the book, we see that it is time spent in the home… loving, enduring, repairing, and just living that transforms the space into “home.”

Perhaps it is true for all beings.  For a woodchuck, it is crawling into its den, time and again, escaping  the wind, rain, or snow and curling up into a warm little ball – safe from the outer world.  For a bird, it is flying home to its nest, day after day of chasing down insects and dodging watchful hawks, then nestling upon a small clutch of eggs that hold its hope for the future. And for me, it will likely be, coming home after a hundred hectic days, to the house lit by the glow of a living room lamp, where my husband waits for me as he reads a book. I will walk through the door, past rooms filled with their eclectic mix of him and me, our families, our past, and our present. He will hug me, and we’ll fall into chatter about how our days were spent.  Tired and glad to at last be cozy on the couch, that’s when I will no longer think of the old house and know I’ve come “home” to where I belong.