Kindness Rocks

It was the kind of activity that transcended ages.  Crossed cultural boundaries.  Steeped in good will.  The perfect activity for our visiting Czech family.

Surprisingly, it came as part of our farm share.  Our CSA farmer, Heather-Marie from Rising Phoenix Community Farm, does a lot more than provide us with bountiful fresh organic veggies all summer long.  She focuses on the community aspect as well.  Once a month she hosts social events for all the families that she feeds.  This time it was the Kindness Rocks Project.

Gathering on a warm summer afternoon at Hartley Nature Center, we found picnic tables laden with rocks and a supply of paints, paint pens and Mod Podge.  The idea was to paint the rocks with inspirational messages or pictures.  While I struggled to come up with designs, the girls dug in and swiftly produced colorful rocks with fun sayings.  Although we encouraged them to paint some Czech sayings, with a little help from their mom they turned out catchy English phrases and cute illustrations.  Soon the table tops filled with colorful rocks, created by young and old alike.

Pavla and girls painting rocks Rich and HeatherMarie painting rocks

The art project was fun, but it was only the beginning.  Next came the Kindness part.  Megan Murphy is the creator of this national movement, which “encourages people to leave rocks painted with inspiring messages along the path of life.”  The idea is that one message just might change someone’s whole day.  Our next step would be to find homes for our rocks.

I had thought we might scatter them during our travels and adventures over the next few weeks of their visit.  But forgetfulness meant the rocks were all still waiting in the garage on the last night of their stay.  An excursion was immediately organized, so that we could complete the mission.Kindness Rocks

Judging by the enthusiasm of the effort, the joy in clambering over giant rocks, the appeal in depositing the messages in secret hidey holes, this part of the project was a highlight of their stay.  The rock pile soon diminished, creating a rich repository of inspiration for future visitors.  Pavla translated the girls’ words for us: “Better than a playground.”

Bibi with Kindness Rocks Elenka with Kindness RocksBibi and Elenka hiding rocks

I had thought some rocks might make their way back to the Czech Republic to await being found there.  But it was far too much fun to plant them on the shores of Lake Superior.  Leaving the world with a little more kindness was the perfect finale to a wonderful visit.

Molly and Rich with Pavla and girls

 

Putting the Family back in Camping

The texts flew fast and furiously between family members. As the week wore on, the frequency intensified.

“Does someone have an extra sleeping bag we can use?”

“Anyone bringing bags?” Response: “I’m bringing trash bags.” Clarification: “Uh…the game bags?”

“Here’s a link to a spreadsheet to sign up for group meals. Each family will cook one breakfast or dinner.”  We could count on Carl to get us organized.

“S’mores! I’ll bring that stuff!”  Erik had his priorities.

“We’re running out of room. We travel with the kitchen sink these days.” That from Karen, mother of four.

“I think the whole point of car camping is to bring way too much stuff.” Little did we know just what Carl meant by that comment.

It was the first family camping trip since we took our kids to the Boundary Waters 15 years ago. That outing numbered 5 family members and required just two small tents. For this camp-out the same offspring spawned a total count of 9 adults, 7 kids and 2 dogs, including our Czech daughter, Pavla, and her two daughters.

Emanating from Ostrava, Duluth, the Twin Cities and Milwaukee we converged on Great River Bluffs State Park. Filling four campsites with six tents, we gathered to spend two days together in the great outdoors.

Camping with kids ranging from 3 months old to 11 years was pretty brave – especially when it was a first-time experience for all of those kiddos.  Even the adults faced some challenges.  Karen surprised everyone by cheerfully forgoing her careful hair styling for the weekend.  Pavla agreed to the trip thinking we meant sleeping in “campers.”  Despite the snafu in translation, she and her girls quickly adapted to the more primitive tenting conditions.

Anticipating this weekend, I’m certain we all envisioned sunny warm days and crisp cool nights. In reality, we arrived in high heat and humidity under ominous clouds, and barely got our tents up before the monsoon-like rains descended. At the same time, Rich and I discovered that a tent, two sleeping bags and sleep mats were still sitting on the floor of our garage at home. It was an easy decision to scuttle our dinner cookout and nestle into the nearest pizzeria for the duration. A quick detour via Walmart solved the missing tent problem.

Nobody slept well. Little bodies wiggled. Bugs bugged them. Night fears erupted. Young ones rose with the sun.  Even those of us without youthful charges struggled in the heat. But it’s camping. It’s all part of the experience.

Although morning brought soggy conditions and stifling humidity, the group mustered on. Wads of mud collected on our shoes as we hiked. Bug spray permeated our pours. Clothing collected grime. A legion of lawn chairs drifted between campsites for meals.  Pavla learned a new saying, “like herding cats.” And smiles persisted.Family camping breakfastA trip to the beach on the Mississippi River soothed our sweaty bodies and itchy bug bites.  Ice cream cones on the return trip sealed the pleasure.  Big kids blew bubbles for little kids.  Erik and Katie gained favored status by sharing their new puppy.  A reluctant campfire finally caught and lulled us with its mesmerizing glow.  I basked in the revelation that my only requirement for the weekend was to sit, visit, play and drink in the presence of my family.Family camping swimmingFamily camping bubblesThe fact that the World Cup finals were scheduled for 10am Sunday morning gave little pause for concern to the sports enthusiasts in the family. At the appointed hour, those lawn chairs made their final pilgrimage to Carl and Chelsea’s tent site. A flat screen TV running off the car battery grabbed the local broadcast signal and game snacks graced the picnic table. Game on!  Although I chose an alternate activity, walking the dogs with the moms and kids, I had to admire the ingenuity.Family camping World Cup gameFamily camping hikingTexts flew once again on the way home and signaling safe arrivals.  Judging by the frequency of the term “great camping weekend” I’d say it was a success.  I hope it’s not another 15 years before we do this again.Hoeg Family Camping

 

Like having lunch with my Mom

Sitting in the comfortable living room of the large colonial house I feel right at home. The decor has changed little since I visited as a little girl. The woman sitting next to me is still tall, gracious, warm and exceedingly sharp. The afternoon flies by in her company.

I don’t know how it started, really. I think the bond was forged shortly after Mom passed away. Mrs. B – I still can’t bring myself to call her Monica – was Mom’s oldest friend, dating back to their childhood in the UP. She was a constant in Mom’s life. And now in mine.

My trips to the Cities are frequently tailored around this detour to Roseville. The script rarely varies. I arrive late morning, and conversation begins simultaneously with our fervent hugs. Despite her almost-92 years, Mrs. B remembers everything from our last visit and we hungrily catch up on family news. From there we move on to current events, politics, history and the erudite selection of books she has most recently read. I note the fascinating titles to add to my own reading list. We pause long enough for Mrs. B to serve homemade soup, salad with her own dressing and coconut bread. And continue visiting over our shared meal.

It is a rare opportunity to spend time with someone who knows not only me, but my family from way back. She knows my history better than I do. She understands my roots. She has memories of my Mom that are still new to me. I relish the feeling. It is like having lunch with my Mom.

I am constantly in awe of Mrs. B’s clear and insightful mind. A seasoned mother and grandmother, she is in tune with the times and has decided opinions and insights on those roles that we now share. Her values remain unchanged, but she has lived enough to flex with the times. She is not shy about sharing her honest opinions, and I treasure her wisdom.

Michael with Mrs B

On this visit I bring along Michael, the newest addition to our collection of grandchildren at 9 weeks old. It is a sweet juxtaposition of ages. I can tell Mrs. B is anxious to hold him. Her next baby generation has yet to arrive. But her skills haven’t faded. She is able to coax a smile from him, and she has sage advice when Michael struggles with tummy troubles. Of course, it works. Mom was not well enough to hold her great-grandchildren. So I endeavor to conjure memories of her with my children as babies.

Michael smilingMom was my biggest cheerleader.  She consistently urged me on and taught me to believe in myself.  It was Mom’s lifelong encouragement that gave me the confidence to follow my dream of writing.  She was gone by the time my first story was published.  But Mrs. B not only read it, she took out a subscription to Lake Superior Magazine to keep up with my work.  Predictably, today she asks “How’s the writing going?”  And listens intently.

The afternoon slips away far too quickly.  Even as I drive away I think of many more things to talk about. And ponder not only what she said but her life example.

Six years since Mom passed away, and longer still since Alzheimer’s claimed her mind, I have her dear friend to continue to connect me with her.  I am already eagerly anticipating our next visit.

Molly and Mrs B

Grammy, would you please?

Beware of brainstorms.  It seemed like a fun idea at the time.  Little did I know where it would lead.

Grammy with kids in slipper jammies

After my annual sewing spree making slipper jammies for my four grandchildren last Christmas, I decided to make a matching pair for Isabel’s baby doll.  With a little ingenuity, I was able to create a miniature version which delighted little Isabel.  End of story.  Or so I thought.Isabel and Baby in jammies“Grammy, Bear is really cold.”  This was Ben, Isabel’s older brother.  “He has to stay under the covers in my bed all the time.  Do you think you could make some slipper jammies for him?”

How could I refuse?  I have to admit, my heart soared.  Here was something I – and probably only I – could do for Ben.  And for Bear.  “Of course!” was the only answer.  Complete with a ribbed collar and tail-hole, Bear was soon warm and cozy.

Ben with Bear in jammies

By that time, I knew it would not end there.  I had already bought another zipper.  “Grammy, what about Kitty?  Could he have slipper jammies?”  Big sister Mya.  I was unfazed but after several hours of wrangling with tracing paper and pins, Kitty proved to exceed my design capabilities.

“Mya, we have to talk.”  This was serious face-to-face conversation.  “Kitty isn’t so sure about slipper jammies.  I tried really hard, but she asked me if I could make them for Puppy instead.”  Uncertainty crossed her face, but to my relief she agreed.  “I think Puppy needs four slipper feet, don’t you?” I suggested.  “Oh yes!”  I was saved.

Mya with Puppy in jammiesAt eight weeks old, I doubt Michael has expectations just yet.  But if cousin Maren gets wind of these developments, I see another creative slipper jammy session in my future.

Which all leads to the next logical question.  Will they expect new matching slipper jammies for their friends next Christmas, just like theirs?  I’ve saved the patterns just in case…

Taking in the Local Color

If it hadn’t been for the pizza, I would have missed the concert. It was a chilly night in Llano, when we wandered down to the tiny pizza joint just down the road. The sign boasted mesquite fired pizza, and sure enough there was the wood fire oven out back, with a small window for placing orders. Most of the seating was outdoors, but on that night we made our way inside where it was warm. Rough wooden tables filled the small room. Paper plates and paper towels for napkins were in an alcove. We had barely retrieved our wine bottle from its paper bag when two steaming pizza boxes arrived.

Rich at Pizza placephoto apr 07, 7 07 31 pm

It was the kind of place where conversation easily overlapped between the close tables, and we learned that this was the weekend for Fiddle Fest. A concert was scheduled for that evening. My antennae went up. While I may not be a devotee of fiddle music, I can’t resist an opportunity to take in unique local offerings. Rich was unenthused, so I made my own way over to the town square. There I found an old time movie theater complete with the glass box office window, and a real stage inside.

Fiddle Fest in Llano

For my $10 I got two and a half hours of high energy music. The bulk of the evening featured a young fiddler who jammed with an older musician who used to play with his father. They each had their own guitarist – which seemed to be a common pairing. I’ve never seen fingers move so fast or notes fly so quickly. The two fiddlers reveled in trading the lead back and forth with just the mere suggestion of a nod, each seeking to outdo the other. It was foot stomping, leg jiggling kind of music – impossible to sit still while listening. Where else but in a Texas could I do that?

The following day delivered another dose of local color – literally. Bluebonnets and other wildflowers graced the roadside for most of our cycling. The pinnacle of bluebonnet viewing is on the Willow City Loop, 13 miles of narrow twisty rolling road that winds through private farmland. Cycling is one of the best ways to enjoy the views and the wildflowers. Just as we arrived at the start of the loop, the morning’s dark clouds broke, the sun came out and we had clear sunny skies for our sightseeing.

We could tell when we got to the best patch of bluebonnets by all the cars parked on the side of the road. Soon we too ventured into the blooms for the classic photo shots.

img_8370BluebonnetsMolly and Rich in bluebonnets

There were plenty of other cyclists out on day rides, and it was little surprise that they chose this loop for their route.

Cyclists on Willow City Loop

For our finale in Fredericksburg that evening, we chose to eat outside on the patio at the Silver Creek Beer Garden. The sun was warm on our backs as it dropped, and the cold bottles of cider really hit the spot after a long day of cycling. Two country singers belted out tunes as we consumed hearty meals and relaxed our tired bodies. We were in no hurry to move on. We had yet more local color to take in.

Silver Creek Beer Garden

A Family History Lesson

The newspaper headline jumped out at me, and the logo in the accompanying picture clinched it.  I had to go see the new visiting exhibit at The Depot about the Erie Mining Company, and my sister Susie had to accompany me.  No arguments there, we stood in front of the display the very next afternoon.

My dad, Dick Brewer, spent his whole career as a mining engineer at Pickands Mather.  Those were household words in our family, and they brought us from Michigan’s UP to Duluth when I was only two years old.  What I didn’t know was that Pickands Mather spawned Erie Mining to process taconite into pellets. That’s just one of the things I learned in the museum.

It took some searching to find the exhibit. No wonder, it merely consisted of a four-sided billboard, a railroad inspection car and a large logo.  Disappointing at first, once we took the time to read and absorb the material, it was actually quite informative.  Especially for two sisters who were only little girls during Dad’s tenure at P/M.

When we discovered that the Hoyt Lakes iron mine and processing plant along with the private railroad that connected it to Taconite Harbor were opened in 1957, a light bulb went on.  That’s the year Dad was transferred to Duluth, no doubt to support the new mine.  The fact that he spent two years working in Hoyt Lakes, commuting two hours from Duluth each way, suddenly fell into perspective.  Although the exhibit focused entirely on mine operations and the processing that turned the ore into taconite pellets, we finally had the bigger picture.  These were the benefactors of Dad’s mining engineering expertise.

I well remember ore boats bearing the P/M symbol passing under the Aerial Bridge.  I had a poster of ore boat smokestacks next to my childhood bed, and knew the one for Dad’s company.  The museum wasn’t focused on the shipping aspect of the business, so I turned to Wikipedia to help me out.  The Pickands Mather Company had the second largest shipping fleet on the Great Lakes around 1920, which was later spun off to become Interlake Steamship Company.  At that time, P/M was also the second largest iron mining company in the U.S.

I always had a sweet spot for Pickands Mather.  Not only did it support our family, but it paid my way through college by virtue of a generous scholarship program.  As a high school senior, I traveled to the corporate office in Cleveland and first learned the meaning of a “corner office” when I met the executives as a scholarship recipient.

Both of my grandfathers were superintendents of mines.  So it’s in the blood, although the legacy ended with my dad.  The afternoon was time well spent.  Thanks, Erie Mining, for the family history lesson.

 

Move over Laptop

Sewing slipper jammiesSometimes the writer has to take a backseat to being a Grammy.  My office space allotment has ample room for my laptop and was designed with plenty of surface area for spreading out notes and research materials.  It just does not accommodate a sewing machine and yards of material without a bit of compromise.  So when my inner Grammy takes over, the laptop gets shoved aside.

It’s well known in this space that I have an annual appointment with the sewing machine and piles of fuzzy fleece.  What started as a single pair of slipper jammies, also known as Grammy jammies, has multiplied into four such outfits fitting little bodies from 10 months to 7 years.  And next year already promises to push the total to five.  No matter what the number, I press on and rue the day when the older grandchildren start opting out of such cozy comforts.

It feels a bit like an assembly line.  Cut, cut, cut.  Sew, sew, sew.  A zipper here, a cuff there.  Gripper feet for all.  The outside world hardly exists.  All I see is red fleece, goofy reindeer faces and a needle bouncing up and down in rapid motion.  I cannot rest until the last piece is in place.  The final stitch sewn.  It is a labor of love.  When I am finished, they come to life – four little visitors inhabiting my couch.I am lucky this year.  I found Christmas fleece, which has become a rare commodity.  That means an early delivery so that the kiddos can wear them for the run up to the holiday season.  When I produced the customary cloth gift bags last weekend, the older ones already knew what must be inside.  Kids sure learn fast.Ben, Mya and Isabel in their Grammy Jammies

I had to entrust the final pair to the US Mail.  Through the marvels of FaceTime I was able to watch Maren rip through the packaging to reveal her very own Grammy jammies.  A style show ensued.Maren models Grammy Jammies

My task complete for now, the laptop has been restored to its place of honor.  With this little interlude behind me, my writing resumes.  Bits of fuzz and pins linger in my workspace.  I smile, looking forward to Christmas when all four grandchildren will pile into our house – in their matching togs.