All the stars were aligned. It was our turn to have our kids for Thanksgiving. Our daughter-in-law got the Friday after Thanksgiving off work, never a given for a doctor. The weather cooperated, no slick roads. Everything pointed to a family holiday. And then it didn’t.
As the COVID numbers raged higher and higher, we set our sights lower and lower. A big family gathering was no longer advised. The governor clamped down on the state, and we downsized to communing with just one family. And in the end, in the interest of protecting Rich’s post-operative health, we scaled back to the recommended single household. Ours.
It’s not the first time we haven’t gathered with our kids and their families. We’ve had off years, when all of them were dining with the in-laws. It happens, it’s only fair. But we always filled the void by getting together with friends – other childless parents. We had a fine time sharing the task of preparing all the traditional dishes and feasting shamelessly. I admit, Thanksgiving to me involves a crowded table – both the overabundance of food choices and the number of occupants surrounding it. They don’t have to be related to me.
We couldn’t share a table with others this year, but it didn’t mean we had to tough it out on our own. We still had the outdoors at our disposal, and made the most of it. Living across from the Lester-Amity trails, we invited friends to join us for a hike in the woods. The snow-covered trails lent a wintry feel, and we meandered happily among the pines as our boots crunched over the path. Respecting distances but in friendly proximity, my spirits lifted with the camaraderie.
Minnesotans that we are, we capped the afternoon with a visit out on the deck. Adirondack chairs fully separated, blankets at the ready and a touch of wine to celebrate.
A hastily arranged family Zoom call brought us all together virtually. Just seeing all their smiling faces brightened my day, and the inevitable chaos of trying to talk to 14 people at once regenerated that spirit of a family gathering. All three of our offspring were cocooned at home with just their spouses and children. We were hardly in this alone.
Everyone was making the most of a strange year. Karen and Matt were making home-made pizzas with their four children. Carl and Chelsea were serving up roast beef with the usual turkey trimmings for their two kids. Erik and Katie, both nursing colds, were basking in the pleasure of a turkey dinner being delivered by Katie’s mom. Not one us of was doing what we thought we’d be doing just a week or so ago.
Our 3-year-old granddaughter urged everyone to get their “ouchies” (vaccinations) soon so we could all be together again. Amen to that.
Although Rich offered to barbecue steak and salmon – our individual favorites – to spare me the work of a Thanksgiving dinner, I declined. We were on our own, but I still wanted that turkey smell. I still craved the side dishes. I really wanted the leftovers for Thanksgiving dinner revisited and turkey sandwiches.
By feeding only ourselves, the stress and drama of the turkey dinner evaporated. A turkey breast roasted in the oven and I puttered over the remaining trimmings. There were no table leaves to add, no large serving dishes to unearth from the pantry. We still laid out our wedding china and put the gravy in my mom’s silver gravy boat. I didn’t miss the last minute panic of getting everything done at once – when it was ready, we sat down to eat.
Candles glowed, as they do every night on our table, and we gave thanks for our many blessings. This year most of all we were thankful for our health, and for the medical teams that discovered and treated Rich’s heart condition. For bringing him back home to recover.
It was a quiet dinner and we did our best to linger, to draw it out and savor the occasion. It tasted like Thanksgiving even if it didn’t feel like it. Turkey for two. I hope this is the last time we do this.
It was a Baptism unlike all others. Planned for Easter Sunday, our grandson was to be baptized with both Carl and Chelsea’s families in full attendance. But it was quickly derailed by the arrival of COVID-19. As the months went by, the likelihood of gathering continued to dwindle, and baby Crosby quickly outgrew the heirloom gown he was going to wear (handmade for my dad 106 years ago). With his first birthday rapidly advancing, new plans were laid. And then re-planned with the ever-changing landscape of COVID.
Careful precautionary measures were put in place. The ceremony would take place outdoors, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Chelsea’s family would arrive a few days beforehand and celebrate the birthday and baptism together. Our family would stay afterwards, for a second round of festivities. We would only meet at the baptism, separated by distance and masks.
It all sounded as safe as possible, combined with staying in an AirBnB where we could retreat to our own space. But soon even those arrangements increased in risk. Rich’s recent open heart surgery put him in a new class of vulnerability. In his weakened condition, was it wise to drive to Milwaukee, where the COVID rates were far higher than home? Should we be gathering with family, even at a distance?
I didn’t want to face the decision. Forging ahead, I poured my heart into creating a new baptismal gown for Crosby. I chose sturdier (and warmer) wedding gown satin in place of Dad’s delicate fabric. Replicating the inset lace took some googling for instructions, but I relished recreating the slanted lace decoration on the skirt, then added it to the sleeves for good measure. Sewing fed my soul and was a welcome diversion from coronary woes.
As the date approached, so did apprehension, but holding it at bay in favor of family unity we made the journey. As if to smile with favor on the plans, God delivered a beautiful morning for the baptism – brisk November air with deep blue skies mirrored in Lake Michigan’s waters, sunshine radiating limited warmth and infinite light.
Well bundled to ward off the chill and masked against COVID, the baptism proceeded. No church would have been more sacred. No ceremony more holy. No congregation more thankful to be present. We all bore witness to God’s love and acceptance.
The ceremony complete, we moved to Carl and Chelsea’s front yard where the sun lingered and so did we. It lasted long enough to savor the morning and its significance among those we love.
Soon afterward, the weather turned windy, wet and stormy as if to close the chapter on the baptism. Rich and I retreated to the seclusion of our AirBnB, where he rested and remained segregated from the rest of the clan. But as the afternoon waned, I returned briefly for one more occasion – Crosby’s first birthday. Documented with pictures and a full report for Rich.
We have all been inspired to inventiveness throughout this year of COVID. It’s not over yet, and we will continue to be challenged to find ways to celebrate yet remain safe. Surely this was one for the family history books.
I almost didn’t answer my phone. It was a Duluth number, one I didn’t recognize. My rule of thumb is to ignore unknown calls. My finger advanced toward the Decline button, then hesitated. I pressed Answer.
“This is the emergency room at Essentia. We have your husband here.”
What? Isn’t he here, at home?
“Don’t worry. He fell while trail running. He’s okay.”
Hastily I tossed his warm sweater and wind pants in a bag and flew out the door, assuming I was going to bring him home. But the nurse and I were both wrong. He wasn’t okay, and I didn’t bring him home for another 13 days. I soon became a passenger on a trip I didn’t want to take.
Rich looked at me sheepishly when I walked into the room in the ER. “I blacked out while running, and came to nauseous and groveling on the ground.” Immediately, my mind went back three weeks, when he returned home after crashing his bike on the North Shore.
“My helmet is toast,” he said slowly. “I think I have a concussion.”
Naturally I linked the two events. So did Rich, and the medical staff in that little room nodded. Tests were ordered and they kept him overnight to confirm the results.
“I’m not buying that concussion story.” This was the new hospitalist the next morning. “That wouldn’t cause you to black out.”
More tests, this time focused on the heart, confirming her suspicions. Rich had known for years that he had mitro valve prolapse, a non-threatening deformity that never impacted his health – until now. It had deteriorated to the extent that there was significant backflow between the ventricles and his heart was greatly enlarged as a result of compensating for the problem for a long time. His heart output was diminished to half what it should be and he had irregular heartbeats.
For a man who has pursued active sports almost daily and kept himself in good shape throughout his life, this was a blow. He went from a fit athlete to a hospital patient with a bad heart, right before my very eyes. But it got worse.
“The valve is in such bad shape, we are not sure it can be repaired. We will need to do open heart surgery in order to see its condition and change course to a replacement if need be.”
The very words Open Heart Surgery conjured terror in my own heart, and I wasn’t even the one facing it. I had plenty of bedside time to come to grips with the sudden change in Rich’s life – and therefore my life – while kept captive in the hospital over the weekend. Although they offered to let him go home to wait, it came with a stiff warning.
“If you have another incident like you did on the trail, your heart may not start again.”
It was enough to keep him under watchful eyes and a heart monitor in his hospital bed.
The days were long leading up to that big surgery. Rich didn’t feel all that bad, he just knew he was in bad shape. It was scary knowing just what they were about to do to him. The best times were when someone asked him about birding. Word spread quickly, all about his photography and “his owls.” Rich’s face would light up and his mood lifted when he recounted following the baby owlets throughout the spring and summer. It was like seeing the old Rich return for the moment.
The day of the big surgery came and I was allowed to come before visitor hours to be with him beforehand. Inevitably, it was delayed, leaving us hours to kill with that hanging over us, out of things to say to one another in the heavy waiting. Then suddenly, “It’s time.”
To this point we had discouraged our children from coming. Due to COVID, patients were allowed only one visitor a day, and that was me. We tried to tell them there was no need to come, but they knew better and Karen arrived in town before they wheeled Rich into surgery. We met up in the parking lot entryway, where she handed me a large steaming hot latte and a bag lunch. Despite a negative COVID test, she was masked and backed away to visit, console and support me from a social distance. Even when I retreated to the waiting room, just knowing she was there was a great comfort.
I received multiple updates throughout the surgery, learning that they had to replace the valve and best of all hearing it was going well. I passed them along to the kids, both to keep them informed and to occupy my time, to feel useful. The final report was in person from the surgeon, who delivered a glowing report – the surgery went without a hitch and Rich was doing really well. That news brought huge relief and joy, and I texted it out to the kids with a thankful heart. But in no way did it prepare me for what came next.
At 5:45pm I was informed that I could go see Rich in the ICU. I eagerly but nervously rode the elevator to the highly controlled floor where I had to be buzzed into his area then ushered into his room. There I found him encumbered with tubes, needles, IV lines, monitors, machines and collection bags. “Doing great” didn’t look great to me at all. It took all my fortitude to believe those words as I sidled up to his bed, hoping I wouldn’t bump something I shouldn’t. But the nurse’s quiet manner as she moved around checking, adjusting and explaining in a hushed voice reassured me. I spoke to Rich and slipped my hand into his, my squeeze answered by his in return. It spoke more than words.
We spent almost five days in the ICU, an eternity. I was amazed at how I could wile away the hours and days in a bedside chair. There was a constant parade of doctors, RNs, nurse practioners, aides, surgeons, chaplains who came to talk to us. I took on the role of notetaker, trying to capture every instruction, every warning, every bit of encouragement they had to offer, then try to understand it. Rich made it a point to get everyone’s name, and to thank them. He even thanked those who administered IVs, who poked him, who interrupted his rest yet again.
“I’m just glad to be here. Not to be undergoing all this, but to be here where you can take care of it all. Fix what’s wrong with me.”
On the home front, the kids had organized a rota, driving long distances to take turns being there for us. I would arrive home at the end of each long day to find a hot dinner waiting, and a willing ear when I poured out my day’s anguish. They made sure I got outside, running with me in the early mornings or taking dark headlamp walks at night.
Day by day Rich shed the tubes, his IVs and even got up to walk. But the monitors continued to beep and buzz, drawing scrutiny by everyone who came in the room. Soon we were hit by another unforeseen pronouncement.
“You’re going to need a pacemaker and defibrillator. Now.”
Although the new valve was doing its work, the heart was damaged enough to need help. The pacemaker would ensure a regular heartbeat, and the defibrillator would come into play should his heart stop again. The logic was there, but it carried an emotional toll.
“My heart can’t do its work on its own any more,” Rich lamented.
This time they assured us it was a routine procedure – not even called a surgery. The device was implanted in his left chest and connected to his heart with two wires. I caught up with him in the hall as they wheeled him to his new room, and already he was conversing easily.
From there, Rich made rapid progress and was out the door in just two more days. The moment we arrived home was emotionally charged and Rich shed tears as he climbed the 27 steps up to our front door – returning to a home he wondered if he would ever see again. Being able to hear his owls hooting outside, watch his beloved birds at the feeders and sleep in his own bed again next to me.
His journey – our journey – is hardly over. Recovery is hard work, and the fatigue that comes with healing is unfamiliar to a normally healthy person. But we are all thankful that he’s here with us. Thankful that he fell where he could be helped to safety. Thankful that the medical team discovered the underlying problem. Thankful for each and every person who cared for him in the hospital. Thankful for the support of friends and family. And thankful for modern medicine and technology.
“I’m not as scared as I was before,” Rich says. “I know I still have heart problems, but now I have my own personal paramedic team in my chest.”
I can already see that I’m going to have one heck of a time holding him back from skiing before long. Watch out, Rich. I’m moving from the passenger side into the driver’s seat.
Was it more of a gift for Karen, or for us? For her birthday, our daughter was given a weekend away, to indulge in her own desires without the constant demands of four little ones while her husband Matt held down the fort. As hosts, we were the happy recipients of this generosity.
Karen’s phone pinged with a notification early in the day of her departure. “Northern half of Minnesota approaching peak fall color,” it said. “Good timing!” she texted us. The search for color was on.
Saturday morning arrived along with thick fog. Undaunted, Karen and I set out for a walk up Seven Bridges Road and across Hawk Ridge to take in the view. But there wasn’t one. But that didn’t stop us from enjoying the close range colors bordering the road, and the mother/daughter walk and talk time.
Extending our route to include Amity Coffee, we sipped our hot drinks on the final stretch to home.
Our next outing was an afternoon bike ride. Ignoring the dark clouds and nascent raindrops as we loaded the bikes on the car, Karen and I doggedly held to our plan. Rich’s recent fall from his bike prevented him from joining us, but his pitying look told us he didn’t envy our stubbornness.
By the time we started our ride on the Munger Trail in Carlton, the rain had stopped. The trail conditions were wet but we rejoiced in our good fortune and set our wheels in motion. Heading back toward Duluth, we whizzed along the long gradual descent, trying not to think about the uphills it meant on our return trip.
Just as we were about to turn onto highway 23 for a loop route, the rain resumed. Rather than endure road spray from cars, we chose to turn around and cycle back through the same tunnel of color on the trail, splashed by raindrops. The temperature was mild and it wasn’t enough to soak us through. Not as nice as a sunny day, but a good adventure none the less. So far, weather 0 colors 10.
Sunday promised clear skies, and I knew Karen had her heart set on seeing the North Shore colors – just as every other leaf peeper did. But we were determined to beat them. Rising early, the three of us set off before the traffic and headed to Tettegouche State Park. Driving inland, we hiked into Tettegouche Camp on Micmac Lake from the back side of the park. There we could take in the colors without crowds.
The only thing that remained was an overlook. For that, Karen and I climbed Mt. Baldy. We discovered that it provided not only a view of Micmac Lake, but also Nicado Lake on the opposite side. Surrounded by endless views of blazing fall color.
We finished our hike in good time, beating the rush back to Duluth yet catching the best of the colors. At their peak.
Karen returned to her little charges rejuvenated and fulfilled. I finished the weekend on a high as well. Thank you, Matt!
“This is not the year to try to make things normal.”
That was in response to the unpleasant task of uninviting our friends to our annual Labor Day gathering at the cabin. Todd and Susan and family have never missed in 30 years, but the Same Time Next Year event was not meant to be this year. The feeling was mutual. Mingling two family circles was not wise.
These COVID times have certainly limited our connection with such friends. The ability to travel together, invite friends over for dinner and host them at our cabin suddenly evaporated. Fortunately, in its wake we still have family – the silver lining. Having extended our circle to include all our children and grandchildren back in late May, our greatest opportunities for socializing have centered around spending time with these loved ones.
Minus our friends, Labor Day weekend became a full family gathering. We still numbered eight adults and six children ranging in age from 9 months to 10 years. Thankfully, the weather allowed us to spend most of our time outdoors, sparing us from a juggling act in the cramped space of our modest cabin.
I love nothing more than being surrounded by all my children and their kids. I’m so grateful for the closeness of our bonds, and the fact that they all still enjoy one another and choose to spend time together. And yet, I’m conflicted. So many people and so little time to talk. I want quality visiting time with the adults, yet easily cave to the insistent pleas to join the little ones in their play, or read to them.
In the end, what lingers are memories of precious moments. Spontaneous snippets of time that fill my heart.
Little Michael’s infatuation with riding a tiny trike. Despite his limited vocabulary he easily cajoles several of us to join him. Time and time again down the little hill. He insists. Points to illustrate his instructions. I laugh so hard my stomach hurts.
Ben’s excitement and determination to master the art of rowing – a prerequisite to learning to pilot the little fishing boat and motor. Taught by none other than Dartmouth oarsman, Grandpa. The grin on his face when he succeeds. The invitation to be his passenger on his training runs.
Happy hour sprawled across the deck and beyond. Little fingers picking out only the green veggie straws. Adults with their favorite beverages. Two Elsa princesses in attendance. The cacophony of conversation swirling around me.
Pontoon rides. Wondering if we are over our weight limit. Redistributing passengers to keep the front afloat. Admonishing Grandpa when he exceeds cruising speed. Ogling cabins on the shore.
Carrying on the home-made ice cream tradition. Will it freeze this year? Yes! Best Oreo Mint ice cream ever.
The list goes on. Introducing young ones to the sauna, the “warm room.” 3-year-old Maren swimming in the lake with me, immune to the cold water. Baby Crosby army crawling across the lawn. Watching my kids parenting their kids, aunts and uncles spoiling them.
We certainly missed our friends. But I am thankful that to date COVID has allowed us to still come together as a family. Even more than normal.
The year was 1985. It was our first year back in Minnesota, and with one child in tow we eagerly headed Up North for our first family vacation on Lake Wabana. We rented the same little cabin Rich had frequented as a little boy, and I instantly fell in love with it as well. It became our summer getaway for the next five years.
The cabin came with a small rowboat, and we brought our prized motor to power it – a full 1.5 hp, with a rope on top that Rich would wind around and around then pull to start the motor. It was our locomotion for the week.
That year we took our first long boat excursion. Wabana is part of a chain of lakes, and our goal was to reach the Joyce Estate on Trout Lake, two lakes and two streams away. It required starting early in the morning on a day with little wind and no chance of rain. At our speed, it was an all-day adventure.
We pulled off the trip successfully, and it became an annual pilgrimage. Even when we bought our own cabin where we had a much bigger boat and motor and a family of five, we would trailer our boat over to Wabana and repeat the trip. Still a favorite cabin activity.
Today Rich and I rise with the sun and set out to relive history. The big boat has been replaced by a grandchild friendly pontoon boat, so we hitch up our little 12’ boat and a 3 hp motor. Arriving at the boat launch on Wabana, I strain to find the lake. The lingering overnight chill is robbing the lake of its warmth, and a thick fog lies over the still water. I am bundled in three layers and a jacket and I pull up my hood to ward off the light wind. This is not how I remember setting out.
As we motor away from the landing, a tall figure materializes in the mist. A lone paddle boarder is plying the waters, ghost-like as he crosses the bay then silently disappears. We struggle to find the opening to the first stream. Not daring to lose sight of the shoreline, we cling to the water’s edge until a bright sign jumps out at us. “Slow No Wake” it warns. That wasn’t there before, but we are thankful for the gaudy entry post.
Motoring up the narrow stream is easy with our tiny boat and motor. A merganser mom approaches with her brood of five chicks. Rich, ever the bird photographer pulls over and stops. Only when she is opposite us does mom see us, and she quickly prods her family into a frenzied sprint to get by. We laugh as we watch their heads wobble with the rhythm of their rapid strokes. No time to get that photo. The mental image was enough.
Little Trout Lake is shrouded in fog. Despite its small size, we cannot see across. But we’re not looking there yet – a mama loon with her well grown chick distract us and we follow. Just beyond, a splash reveals three otters. That mama hisses as us and leads her two young away. They dunk and reappear trying to get away. The little ones imitate mom with baby hisses. Always looking behind, swimming to safety.
Despite grousing about the fog, and how we could have had a nice sunny day if we’d waited a few hours before setting out, I had to admit these were special moments we would have missed.
Another No Wake sign leads us to the next stream and on into Trout Lake. The fog refuses to lift, and the Joyce Estate lies on the far shore – somewhere out there. Relying on distant memories and dead reckoning, Rich leaves the comfort of the barely visible coastline and strikes out across the lake. One small boat plowing through deep mist. When a small point with tall pines gradually emerges from the fog Rich exclaims, “That’s it! It’s the peninsula with the sauna!” Sure enough, it’s where we were meant to be. Finding the beach where we used to swim with the kids, we secure the boat and start down the trail. Hiking back in time.
Back in 1915 David Gage Joyce gained ownership of 4,500 acres of land, almost completely surrounding Trout Lake. He began construction of the Joyce Estate on this spot two years later – a large private family resort with an expansive lodge, a number of guest cabins, butler and maid cabins, a two-story sauna, a 9-hole golf course, seaplane hangar, boat house and other amenities surrounded by beautiful gardens. In 1973, at the end of an era, the Joyce Estate was acquired by the Nature Conservancy and transferred to the U.S. Forest Service a year later.
On our first visit in 1985, nearly all the original buildings were still standing. Some were in disrepair, others still in quite good condition. The grounds were covered in brush and raspberry bushes, and we had to bushwhack our way into the old cabins to peer inside. It felt like a secret find, our own private fantasyland to explore.
Today, the Forest Service has torn down the crumbling buildings, stabilized the lodge, one guest cabin and the sauna, cleared out all the brush and mowed the grounds. It is preserved for visitors, accessibly only by hiking trail or boat, and includes a rustic campsite.
Once again, we peer into the buildings, walk gingerly inside where it looks safe and try to imagine the lifestyle of those who spent their summers here. I also see my children poking around, exclaiming over their finds, eager for a picnic on the beach. Waves of memories.
By the time we make our rounds and launch the little boat, the fog has finally lifted. As we reach the opposite shore, the clouds see fit to part and the sun comes out. It has turned into the warm sunny day that was promised. The return trip reveals all the sights we missed on the way over, and we putter along digging up visions of how it used to be 35 years ago.
Today, we’re back to just the two of us. And we have twice the horsepower. Times have changed. But not that much. We’re already planning to do this again next year.
Rhythmically dipping my paddle into the water on alternate sides of my kayak, I slide away from the dock. No need to hurry, no interest in exerting myself, I slip out only a few hundred yards, lay my paddle across the kayak and just float. Drifting in the calm water I take a deep breath and watch the sunset play across the slight ripples from distant boats, rocking gently as they pass. There are no clouds to generate a spectacular sunset in the sky. Instead the show takes place on the lake, reflecting the oranges then pinks of the disappearing light.
Two nearby loons begin to call, each eerie cry echoing in the woods beyond the shore. More loons take up the song, taking turns calling and answering. Soon the rounds circle the lake, die out then start up again. Mesmerizing. Enchanting. I drink in the scene, freeing all outside thoughts from my crowded mind, just being.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus, this has been my get-away. My source of sanity in a world we no longer recognize. The quiet connections with nature soothe my soul, restore peace to my heart as I focus on what hasn’t changed. COVID-19 ceases to invade my thoughts here. And social distancing requires no effort in our remote little cabin. It’s life as usual up here.
We started coming in mid-May, our 30th spring opening since we bought the place. It brought a sense of normalcy to those early days of sheltering.
We are privileged to have this little haven. Our children grew up coming here, building family memories, escaping our busy suburban world back home, focusing on the simple joys of life and nature. This summer “escape” has a whole different meaning.
Even before opening up, we created an online Cabin Calendar. Each of our three children immediately signed up for one or more weeks at the cabin as well as long weekends for their families. We sandwiched our stays on weekdays between their visits, and before we knew it the cabin was fully booked. My heart was as full as that schedule. The cabin has never seen so much love and activity in one season.
In contrast to my placid sunset, the laughs, squabbles and squeals of delight fill the air as our grandchildren swim, learn to kayak, plead for another boat ride and sneak another s’more when Mom’s not looking. Our kids find time to read, ride bikes, go for hikes in the woods. I can’t resist the urge to make extra trips up to the cabin to join them, to relish time together – another silver lining of the virus.
Part of me relishes this slowing down. Staying local instead of taking far-flung vacations. Squeezing into the cabin with our growing family, or hiding away up there by ourselves. One day we will all travel again, seek adventure in new places, indulge ourselves in lavish resorts or wilderness camping. For me right now, it’s enough to float in the middle of the lake, feeling no urgency to move. Retreating from the world.
I had a reliable source, and the news was alarming. I heard that Bunny and Giraffie were trying to share the same set of slipper jammies. And it wasn’t going well.
It started with making Grammy Jammies for my grandchildren each Christmas, their numbers now climbing to six. My oldest grandson, Ben, talked me into making jammies for his Bear. And it took off from there. Next was Mya’s Puppy. Last Christmas Isabel’s Bunny joined the jammie parade, and Maren’s baby doll.
“Jammies for Giraffie might be a good birthday present for Isabel,” my daughter advised. But what better project to tackle during my coronavirus sheltering time? The key was that both “friends” were JellyCat animals and shared the same shape – soft pear-shaped bodies, scrawny arms and big fluffy feet. It took several tries to get it right for Bunny, but I finally perfected the pattern. After 10 years of making slipper jammies, I had bags full of fleece scraps and I even scrounged up a few unused zippers. I was in business.
With extra time on my hands, it felt good to pull out my sewing machine, thread it up and make something from nothing. Sewing opens so many creative opportunities – designing the garment, choosing the fabric, picking coordinating ribbing, placing the print on each pattern piece. As my machine hummed, so did I.
My thoughts turned to the book I recently finished reading. I picked up The Murmur of Bees quite by accident in the early days of the invasion of COVID-19. When the spread of the virus was still news, I was surprised and fascinated to find that the book was set in Mexico in 1918, in the heart of the devastation wrought by the Spanish flu. It was history I did not know well, but it had an eerily familiar strain.
The family in the book fled from their home near town and relocated to another hacienda further away, where they rode out the worst of the pandemic. Mom couldn’t settle herself, and it was her young son who figured out why she was so distraught. He convinced his dad to return to their home, pack up her sewing machine, material and tools and bring them to her. She was puzzled and angry at their curious actions. Until she threaded her machine and began sewing. With each garment she sewed, a sliver of peace was restored. She was grounded at last, in the productive and creative endeavor of sewing.
I felt the same way. When Giraffie’s jammies were done, I needed another project. I decided little brother Michael needed a stuffed animal friend. Obsessed with the idea, I scoured the internet for a free pattern for a fleece animal. More scraps to cut up, excess stuffing that needed a home, and a load of fun later I had a soft little puppy for Michael. It was such a hit, that I couldn’t stop there. Five grandchildren later, I had a whole litter of pups and kitties!
There’s something inherently rewarding about using only what I have on hand. Taking bits and pieces and ending up with a little critter that will delight a child. There are many ways this pandemic has forced us to simplify life. To do without. To make do with what we have and forego what now feels like frivolous shopping.
Sewing returns me to my roots. My mom taught me to sew long before I took Home Ec classes in junior high. She made all my clothes until I took over, then sewed for my own children. By now when I sit down in front of my machine, innate skills take over. My hands know how to guide the fabric, my eyes gauge the seam, my foot regulates the speed. I reap the rewards of familiarity, of falling back on something soothing and rewarding. I feel Mom’s presence as I follow in her footsteps. I imagine she too would sew her way through this pandemic.
I hear that Bunny and Giraffie are friends again. And my daughter’s whispers, “Michael has taken to a Jellycat puppy recently.” I can already hear the whir of my sewing machine.
I am snug in bed thinking about getting up but not actually doing so quite yet. From the other room, I hear my phone ring. At 6am it can only be one person – either that or something terrible has happened. Sure enough, it’s Rich.
“Get dressed right away! You have to come over here and see this! One of the owlets is on the ground!” Even in my groggy state I know right where he is, and exactly what he is talking about.
For the past three months, Rich has been visiting “his owls.” It took him a dozen wintry searches for the mating Great Horned Owls, triangulating their hooting, and looking for them in the trees. But it all paid off when he found their nest. It is in the woods less than 10 minutes by foot from our house. In late winter he watched Mom Owl on the nest and Dad Owl hunting for food. When they produced three baby owlets, you’d think Rich had new grandkids! He visited them on a regular basis, reporting back their progress and how fast they were growing.When the coronavirus hit and we took to sheltering in place, Rich’s vigil escalated. What else was there to do? He began checking on them multiple times a day. Whenever things got dull, he’d head out into the woods again. Or any time he heard a crow attack – a sure sign they were pestering the owls – he returned to the scene to make sure his owlets were still okay. I kidded him that he spent more time with them than with me.
Learning their nocturnal habits, Rich began refining his timing. Early morning when the owlets were being fed before sleeping, or evenings when they were becoming active again were the best time to see them. He even lured me over one evening, and I succumbed to the cuteness factor, staying to watch the three sets of owl eyes peer down at me from their branches high in the tree. They really were hard to resist. I went back a few nights later.
This morning the urgency in his voice propels me out the door. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity!” he claims. I’m not a birder, but I know better than to disappoint one. Trotting over to the nesting area, I spot Rich’s red jacket in the woods. Creeping up next to him, he points out the owlet – just 40 yards away, perched on a broken tree branch just a couple feet off the ground. It’s one thing seeing an owl up high in a tree. It’s another to observe it at eye level.
“I found him on the path. He was being hassled by the crows and was vulnerable in the open space, so I flushed him into the woods. Mom and Dad are up in the trees trying to protect him. I’m doing the same on the ground.” We creep a little closer, all the while being watched by those gold rimmed eyes.
This owlet is not so little any more. He’s over a foot tall, and has already mastered short flights between trees. Silently I peer at this fluffy white wonder, little horns already forming atop his head, signature owl eyes staring back at me. Even lacking any affinity for birding, I can’t help but be entranced.
The owlet clearly is not in any hurry to move. He perches motionless except for his pivoting head and blinking eyes. Rich hunkers down for the long haul, watching, protecting, his camera shutter pulsing rapidly. But I eventually reach my limit and turn to go. Alarmed, the owlet puffs up and flexes his wings, in defense against this blue jacketed stranger who suddenly feels threatening. His display reveals brown and black feathers, and he lowers his head to glare at me. As soon as he realizes I am retreating, he resumes his stationary pose.
I certainly didn’t expect to run out of the house at 6am this morning. Nor would I have chosen to spend my first waking minutes “birding.” But this is one of those times when it was worth heeding that wake-up call from my resident birder. It was a hoot.
All photos by Rich Hoeg. More photos, videos and details can be found on his blog, 365DaysOfBirds.
The plan was to meet up at Banning State Park for a social distancing hike. I was already out of the car when the Kennedy clan – my daughter and her family – spilled out of their minivan. The older three children clustered near the back of the van, collecting hats and gloves for the hike. They had been well versed in the rules. Stay six feet apart. No hugs. Don’t touch.
But 2-year-old Michael looked up and saw me. That’s all it took. He put one foot in front of the other, then began to run – right to me. Almost. Two feet in front of me he stopped. Looked up and waited with that big grin of his. It took all my self-control not to scoop him up and give him a big squeeze and bury my face in his ticklish neck. Poor Michael, he must have wondered what was up with his Grammy. Poor Grammy, her heart ached.
Once on the trail, things improved. The big kids ran ahead, fascinated by the old Quarry structures and the rock formations along the river. There were plenty of side trails to explore, walking sticks to test, river banks to climb. Little Michael kept up as fast as his little feet could carry him. If I couldn’t get close to the kids, being able to watch them in the outdoors was nearly as good. We tried hard to keep our distance. Dancing around one another on opposite sides of the trail, as kids ran back and forth. I did my best to imagine it was just a normal family hike in the woods. The roar of the water flowing over rapids, discovering a lingering frozen waterfall, the carpet of pine needles and the kids’ giggles helped me hold the illusion. Breathing deeply, I took in the spring air, kicked up dead leaves and stood on big rocks. Grounded by nature.These strange times call for creative solutions. This was far better than our last in-person encounter, which consisted of waving through the window and leaving chocolate chip cookies on the doorstep. And it was more successful than our attempt at 4-way virtual family charades when we had a lot of laughs but couldn’t get a word in edgewise. We will keep trying, any way we can to be “with” family.
The truth is, I don’t really want to get good at this social distancing thing. I totally believe in the value of doing it, the necessity of these awkward practices. And I will do my part. But the next time little Michael reaches up for a hug, I just might not be able to hold back.