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…

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.

Following the Elephant Tracks

There used to be loads of blackberries on this trail. I remember a year when we picked two full ice cream buckets full. Today we each carry a bucket in hopeful anticipation, but it seems to be overkill. Where are the berries?

I’m at the cabin, with my sister Betsy and her husband Bill visiting from New York. Deciding to hike the nearby trails in Suomi Hills, I see a good opportunity to take stock of the berry status. Normally we pick blackberries over Labor Day weekend, but just in case we tote buckets on this foray.

The trail is overgrown with high grass and thick foliage. The well worn path in my memory has disappeared, but is still navigable. The side growth is equally dense, packed with tall bushes, ferns and vegetation that is not blackberry vines.

Betsy blackberry picking Long past the point where I once found the first blackberries, I spot some. Sparsely intermingled with the other plants, they are far from abundant. The vines we do find are anything but ripe. They range from green immaturity to pinkish red “getting there.” We call them vines with plenty of potential. Just now, they hold only one or two fully ripe blackberries ready to fall from the grasp of the vine. And we claim them. Oddly, others look past their prime. They have either lost their berries already or literally withered on the vine into hard brown dried up knobs. Our harvest is meager.

Bill blackberry pickingThe hike turns into a stroll. A search for the berries. Eyes scanning the undergrowth, we seek out our treasure. Farther along the path, the blackberry presence multiplies. More ripe berries per vine, more vines per square yard. Hope is renewed.  Venturing into the brush to reach the more succulent fruit, the persistent thorns tear at our clothing and skin. We are ill clad for this endeavor. Sweaters and fleece are prime targets, catching on the least of the prickers. Exposed skin below our shorts take the brunt of the sharp barbs, bearing scratches in all directions. But still we pursue those berries just beyond our reach.

Molly Betsy Bill w blackberriesIn the deep thickets, there is evidence of those who have preceded us. They leave behind large swaths of trampled vegetation in their efforts to reach the berries beyond reach from the trail. I call them elephant tracks. Making no effort to walk with care, these foragers leave destruction in their path. Unkindly, I am convinced the culprits are of the human variety. Berry pickers with no consideration for nature. I dismiss the possibility that it could be animals on the same hunt.

These blatant paths lead to more blackberries, I’m certain. And I make a mental note to pack my hiking pants and a windbreaker for my next trip to the cabin a week hence. Because I will be back. Hopefully my timing will coincide with the next round of ripening. And I will be fully equipped to reach the farthest berries. When I follow the elephant tracks.

Our sweet reward

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.