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.

Living in the Moment on Dungeness Bay

Time is too precious to squander a single moment. With one week to spend with my three adult children, spouses and youngest grandchild, all I want to do is soak up their presence and savor this rare time together. My natural instincts are to write about the experience. To blog, share on Facebook and text friends. But I refrain. For a week I shun social media and focus purely on life as it happens. And it is sweet.

Reviving the concept of a family vacation, we are all gathered on the Olympic peninsula in Washington. Settling into a spacious house on the coast in Dungeness, we are surrounded by mountains, hiking trails, beaches, tide pools, wildlife and birds. It is the perfect setting for this assembly of active people intent on enjoying the outdoors.

Dungeness Bay Manor

The week is deliberately unstructured. Couples or individuals are free to choose their activities each day, and different groups form depending on interests. The only stipulation is that we all reconvene for dinner. There stories of the day's adventures are shared, and plans begin to form for the next day's outings.

Dinner on the deck

Hiking is high on the priority list, and there is one destination on everyone's must-do list – Hurricane Ridge. On a crystal clear day with mountains visible in all directions, we all hike Hurricane Hill. It is an easy, unhurried trek as we take in the colorful array of wildflowers along the trail, the rich green of the pine trees contrasting with the deep blue sky, and the snow covered peaks that surround us. Being flanked by family clinches the moment.

Hurricane Hill wildflowers
Maren atop Hurricane Hill
Family on Hurricane Hill

Our two boys have been harboring plans for a challenge hike, and head out early one morning to tackle a steep and rugged trail. In contrast, some of us girls decide on a day at Rialto Beach where we scramble between enormous rocks known as “stacks” and spend hours peering into tide pools.

Rialto Beach

Rich naturally gravitates to areas for birding opportunities, and spends a couple days exploring the majesty of Cape Flattery – the most northwestern point of the US.

Cape Flattery

A visit to the HOH Rain Forest is another popular choice. Those of us who make the longer trip to get there all agree it was well worth the drive. We revel in the green toned wilderness, where mosses drip from every available branch, pine trees tower overhead and tangled tree trunks form intricate patterns. An encounter with two imposing elk bucks hold up our hike while they graze lazily in the woodlands. We wait as long as it takes them to eat their fill.

HOH Rain Forest hike
Elk in rain forest
Rain forest hikers

Dungeness Spit is in our own back yard, which beckons for another all-family walk on its sandy shore.

Dungeness Spit
Family on Dungeness Spit

It is a week of making memories. A week of carefree vacation time with family. A week of sunshine and beautiful scenery. A week of activity. Best of all, I haven't missed a single moment.

 

The Quiet House

It happens every time.  The house feels waaaay too quiet.  I hear the ticking of the clock.  The hum of the washing machine oozes in from the laundry room.  My heart feels full yet empty.  I have just waved goodbye to the kids and grandkids.

Mya packed for DuluthThis time it was quite a blitz.  For starters, it was 5-year-old Mya’s turn for “Grammy Camp” and she spent four days with us in Duluth.  There is something very special about having grandchildren here on their own.  It invites getting to know them better.  It means they get my complete attention, without competition from siblings or parents.  It encourages doing fun activities together.  Mya’s visit was no exception.

Some things we repeated from big brother Ben’s visit.  A trip around the harbor on the Vista Star was a highlight, and Mya was especially taken with the whole cruise aspect.  “When will we go faster?” was her favorite question.  Mya and Rich on Vista StarMya and friends at the parkMya’s social side came out, and she quickly made friends wherever we went  Arriving in the driveway, she immediately asked to go play with the girls next door.  A trip to the playground quickly morphed into a game of hide and seek.  And a play date with my friend and her grandkids at Playfront Park was a big hit.

My favorite times were snuggling up to read, Mya pressed into my side eager to hear the same books night after night.  Kids all grow out of that stage eventually, but I never do.

Mya was joined by the rest of her family for an overnight stay at the end of the week.  The noise level increased more than three-fold with the addition of her two siblings, and the inevitable rivalries quickly resumed.  We packed in as much time outdoors as we could and even managed to see the steam train before they headed off to the cabin.

Molly and MarenIt was a quick changeover, then we welcomed Carl and Chelsea with baby Maren for the weekend.  In comparison to three active youngsters, Maren’s happy chirping and babbling were mere background sounds.  We easily slipped into the schedule of a 5-month-old which naturally afforded plenty of downtime – welcomed by her parents and this Grammy after my recent camp gig.  Playing with Maren on her quilt was plenty of entertainment.

Still very portable, we took Maren on several hikes and to the Park Point Art Fair.  As we crossed the Aerial Bridge, bells began clanging, the gate went down and we discovered we were the second to last car to get across.  Quickly ditching the car, we scurried to the canal to watch a classic ore boat come through the bridge – a first for not only Maren but Chelsea as well!  There is no Duluth experience better than being up close to a passing ore boat.Carl Chelsea and Maren at the bridge

By now, these are all memories.  The house is our own again.  It’s a grandparent’s prerogative to enjoy the young ones, spoil them, love them to bits then send them home with their parents.  But the echoes of laughter, squabbles, babble and imaginative play still linger in these rooms, leaving this house much too quiet.

The Grammy Gift

Carl and Chelsea with Maren

The request was for help, but the gift was all mine. Seeking to extend the time before they sent their first born to day care, my son Carl and his wife Chelsea asked if I would be interested in watching her for a week or more. I will admit to hesitating. How would I feel in a city where I knew no one, cooped up with a baby all day? Fortunately, I put my selfish reservations aside and agreed to a week.

At three months old, baby Maren was a compact bundle of smiles. Still small enough to be held and carried with ease yet old enough to have developed a personality, she captured my heart immediately. She still slept a lot, but when awake she had a lot to say and took in all that was going on around her. I melted each time she looked right at me and smiled or “talked” to me.

Smiling Maren

Settling in with Carl and Chelsea for that week reinforced what it means to be a Grammy. Freed of all responsibilities save caring for Maren, I had the luxury of embracing that single focus. No job to juggle, no parenting anguish, no chores to do, no outside commitments to meet. Just love, cuddle, play, feed and change. And it easily filled each day. I went to bed each night looking forward to more. That experience is one we just can't have as parents.

Molly and Maren

There is a lot to be said for having extended solo time with a grandchild. Each day was ours to navigate together. There was a certain ease in managing on our own. And I only had to share with Grandpa. For the most part Maren was all mine for the day.

Did I feel cooped up? Hardly. Maren was all the entertainment I needed. Besides, we went out for a walk with the stroller almost every day. We walked to Brueggers for bagels, a tradition harking back to my own kids. We visited a park and hiked its trails.

It's not like this is my first grandchild. I've had plenty of practice with my daughter Karen's three children. But I never had this total immersion before. Now I wonder why. Now I know better.

,Grammy with 4 grandkids

I've already signed up to watch the next one. It's the Grammy gift that gives so much more in return.

 

Grammy Jammies times 4

The tradition was reborn six years ago. Just as I made matching pajamas for my own children each year for Christmas, I began sewing slipper jammies for my first grandchild. As each new addition enters the fold, I increase production. The top sizes grow larger each year, and I wonder how long the oldest will still want to wear footie jammies. But I’m tickled that at age 6 1/2, my Grammy jammies are still popular.

Grammy with Kennedy grandkidsAs I commenced sewing for this seventh round, a new grandchild was on the way. Soon a cousin would join the three siblings. It seemed unlikely that the baby would arrive by Christmas, but it would be a shame to exclude her from the tradition merely for making an early entrance. Hence the first Grammy bunting was delivered.
Grammy JammiesAlthough even this newborn size swamps little Maren it feels good to see her initiated into the tradition. And should she grow quickly, I eked out one more set with proper footies for her in a 3 month size.
Grammy and Maren in buntingBy now I know this sewing pattern really well and have it in every possible size. I’ll be making my Grammy jammies as long as the babies keep coming. If the current trend continues, that will keep me busy for quite a while.