River to Skate Away On

Becky at 5 with new skates
Becky at 5 Years with New Skates

Like most children growing up in Northern Michigan in the Fifties and Sixties, I learned to ice skate. I wasn’t talented, since my ankles were rather weak, but I enjoyed the activity. The holiday season transports me back through the years to the ice ponds of my youth. The current temperatures here in Texas have even stayed low enough to help the temporary rink at the corner stay frozen, and I enjoy watching the skaters from my second-floor perch.

In childhood, we often skated to music at the large ice rink in a neighboring town. Memories of frozen toes and the song “Sugar Shack” surface when I think of those years. Before the climate started to change (and before we knew it would turn into a crisis), a winter recreational area called Silver Valley, in the Huron National Forest situated near my hometown, offered toboggan runs, skiing, and frozen ponds for skaters. Being a cautious child, skating was the only thing I wanted to try, and I remember the rinks being much too crowded for my taste.

Log Warming Shelter at Silver Valley

Even closer to home, we had several other options. My clearest recollection is the time my dad shoveled the snow off a large area of ice on the creek behind our house. My mother was prone to worry, so the creek was a place she often warned her children to avoid during the other seasons, for fear we would slip into the water. With that same fear in the back of my mind, the idea of skating on that frozen version still seemed scary to me. I imagined the snapping turtles, snakes and minnows underneath the crust just waiting for me to fall through. My brother and sister agreed to try nature’s ice, along with a group of neighbor kids. Who was I to chicken out, so I finally agreed and followed my father toward the creek.

The surface was a bit bumpy, but I was just hitting my stride when I heard Dad yelp in surprise. My worst fear had come true, and he’d fallen through the ice! With a pounding heart I skated his direction, near the bank. As it turned out, his one leg had gone through just to the knee. He said it was a mushy spot in the ice caused by some trickling water entering the creek. Not sure if it was from a natural spring or some type of city pipe. That was all I needed, and I hung up my skates for the day!

One year, my dad made an ice rink right in our back yard. Just as he would come home from work in the warm seasons and turn on the hose to water the flowers, that winter, my father often got out the hose to add more water to form a new layer on our rink. That was also a little bumpy, I remember, but it was fun to skate in our yard and quite a novelty to share with our neighbors. I asked him about that, years later, and he admitted it was a lot of extra work, but he knew we liked it, and he hated to give it up once he got started.

1961 – Big Sister, Terri, and Becky  Skating in Yard

I couldn’t possibly write about ice skating without including one of my favorite songs, “River,” by Joni Mitchell. Sad but lovely.

Lonely Road

This time of year, especially during a cold snap here in Texas, I often think back to my harrowing trip when I moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. My story, “Lonely Road,” was first published in U.P. Reader in 2017. I hope you enjoy it!

Lonely Road

“It probably won’t snow much,” he assured me. His voice was confident, but concern flashed in his eyes behind wire rimmed glasses. Was that worry connected to the driving conditions or to the direction we were taking our relationship? I sat on a bench outside the mom-and-pop restaurant in Munising and quickly exchanged shoes for fur-lined boots.

Since we had no good way to communicate on the road, before cell phones, we agreed ahead of time to meet there for lunch. The waitress had alerted us to some messy weather on our intended route along the lakeshore, at the same time she offered dessert of apple or raspberry pie.

I was moving from downstate Michigan to join him in the Upper Peninsula city of Marquette, where we planned to give our marriage another try. He waited for a large logging truck to pass, waved a little salute, and then carefully pulled his dark Jeep and the trailer that carried my belongings onto the road.  I followed in my small, silver car and watched the first flurries of the season begin to decorate the landscape.

While I drove, I focused on our future together and hoped we had made a good decision. Typically a nervous winter motorist, I tried to push away any anxiety about slippery roads.  Fewer vehicles shared the two-lane highway with each mile, and the area became increasingly remote.  Pine and bare hardwood trees were thick, and homes or businesses became scarce.  The few towns and villages we passed were each marked by a lone stoplight or blinker. The flakes fell faster, blown by escalating winds.  For better concentration, I turned Van Morrison down a bit and switched my fan onto high for more heat.  Rarely catching sight of the Jeep through the thickening white, I reduced my speed to keep the car from sliding.

When I passed the first snowplow, I was relieved the county was prepared for the early blizzard.  Even so, they seemed to be having trouble staying ahead of the swiftly falling snow.  I fought the wheel to hold my course and regretted that my vehicle was so light.

Weather near Lake Superior is famously extreme and can change drastically without warning.  A perky voice on the radio suggested Marquette would receive only a dusting, and I expected to be out of the worst of it before long.  Although the clock read early afternoon, the sky was a deep leaden-gray.  A pickup with darkened headlights passed me, and I flashed mine, hoping they got the message. I stared ahead and followed imprints of tires that shifted with each gust.  Time slowed to a crawl.

The Jeep must have been well ahead of me, since I hadn’t seen it in quite a while. My fingers gripped the steering wheel too tightly, going numb, and I tried to relax them.  I shifted by body forward in an attempt to see the road more clearly through the effects of the howling wind.

Any expectation of heat for my toes long abandoned, I diverted all warm air toward the defroster to retain a clear view.  My wipers laboriously worked to clear the expanse of glass, but to no avail.  Ice began to form on the blades, and portions of my windshield became opaque.

I followed what seemed to be a single vehicle track, at times, and avoided the disappearing ditches. I wondered occasionally if I was even on the right side of the road in that tunnel of white.  Minutes felt like hours.  Although my teeth chattered from the cold, I detected droplets of sweat trickling between my breasts. Heart pounding in my ears, I knew pulling off the road was a magnet for trouble, but finally felt there was no choice.

In the stilled car, I turned on my emergency flashers and wondered how he fared.  His Jeep with four-wheel drive was more suited for the weather, but hauled that unfamiliar trailer.  Through the span of thick whiteness, I saw a barely visible, blinking light moving toward me.  Another plow, I guessed, and prayed its driver could see my vehicle where it sat.  In relief, I determined it was well on the opposite side, as it crawled closer.  When it stopped across from my snow-covered car, the driver cranked down his window and motioned for me to do the same.

“Broken down, ma’am?” the ruddy-faced man hollered.

“No. I can’t see where I’m going,” I called back.

“Good,” I was surprised to hear him respond, over the sounds of the gale.  “There’s a place back a bit, from the way you came. A parking lot to get off the road.”

“Didn’t see it,” I responded, shaking my head in the negative.

“Turn around, and I’ll lead you there,” he yelled and rolled the glass closed before I could answer.

My whole body vibrated from cold and fear. I searched both ways through the whiteout for any oncoming traffic and held my breath.  The car struggled for traction and finally completed a slow u-turn, while I joined the giant machine in a wintry parade.  After a mile or two, the driver reached his arm out the window and pointed a gloved hand to the left.  I spied a parking lot that held several cars covered in white, tooted my horn in thanks, and turned.

Through deep drifts exposing few traces of recent activity, I drove close to the building.  After my engine was quieted, I first heard a loud ringing in my ears, followed by silence only the insulation of thick snow and ice can provide.  I grabbed my hat and gloves from the seat and started the short trek up to what the dilapidated, crooked sign announced as the ‘Tioga Tavern.’

At a small table near the dancing fire, I took off my gloves and held a cup of coffee for comfort, more than anything else.  I assured the welcoming bartender that I wasn’t interested in something to eat. His eyes seemed curious about my situation, but he didn’t ask. Peanut shells embellished the floor, and a silent, old-fashioned jukebox rested on the other side of the scarred, wooden dance floor.  It must have been quite the hot spot on a Saturday night.

Not sure what to do next, I waited for the adrenaline to subside and willed the weather to clear.  I hated making him worry, but knew he might be driving on toward Marquette without realizing my absence.  I also feared he may have slid off the road and needed help. If I called the police, would they look for someone missing in the storm?

Besides the bartender, the only inhabitants that stormy afternoon were a few ancient men in flannel shirts and suspenders, who played some sort of a card game at a table, and several talkative couples at the bar.  While I sipped the hot, bitter liquid and argued with my inner self over what action to take, I heard a jingle from the door. A burst of cold air followed a laughing, young couple into the room.  They climbed onto stools at the bar and ordered hot chocolates fortified by peppermint schnapps. After they took turns visiting the restroom, they settled in to sample their drinks.

“Man, it’s nasty out,” the young man said to the bartender.  “Would you believe, we passed a crazy guy walkin’, back there! He was tryin’ to find a woman’s car. Said she might’ve gone in the ditch, and he needed to walk so he wouldn’t miss her.”

“I wonder…” started the man behind the bar, glancing my direction.

Jolted by their words, I took a deep breath and joined them. “Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but overhear.  Can you tell me what the man looked like?” I asked the newcomers.

“Hard to tell under all that winter gear, but he seemed to have a reddish beard,” the young man answered.

“He wore glasses,” his female companion said, “They were kinda frosting over.”

I grabbed my gloves, headed to the door, and opened to the wailing blizzard.  Like frozen sand, it stung my eyes and I raised my hands to protect them.  Peering beyond the expanse of the parking lot, I saw a hooded figure in a heavy winter coat adorned by patches of white. He trudged alongside the road with his head bent against the icy onslaught.

Wild laughter of reprieve bubbled up from inside, and I yelled against the wind. I ran toward him through peaks and valleys of snow, like in a dream where movement is almost impossible.  Since he didn’t see or hear me, his head remained down as he plodded determinedly ahead.  When he finally sensed movement, his head jerked up to meet my familiar face. He veered off what was probably the shoulder of the road and headed toward me. Finally close enough, I leapt at him, and he caught me in his arms.

“Are you okay?” he asked, in a voice nearly stolen by the wind.

“Now I am,” I answered, so sure our life would be good.

I solemnly looked toward his eyes.  He gazed back, removed his mitten, and tenderly touched my cheek.

In the many years spent together, we often traveled that same isolated stretch of highway. The sign for the Tioga Tavern still hung lopsidedly from the front of the building. No matter the season, the windows remained dark, and no visitors were seen approaching its door. Had that warm building and the helpful people within been real, or were they figments of my imagination? I may never again feel the complete certainty about anything as I did on that day.

Heikki Lunta and Story Publication!

fantasy Heikki Lunta (2)

For many years, I lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I wasn’t a native “Yooper,” however, and never heard of “Heikki Lunta” while living in the Lower Peninsula. In the past, people had come to the U.P. from many different countries to work in the copper mines. There’s still an especially recognizable Finnish influence in many areas.

Finland
Finland

When I first heard of Heikki Lunta, I assumed that it was a mythological Finnish goddess or god. I was on the right track, but not quite right. Ukko is a god of weather, and Vellamo is a goddess of storms. There was no supreme being specifically for snow, which seems surprising, given that’s such a snowy part of the world.

Fast forward to 1970. As the story goes, U.P. promoters for an upcoming snowmobile race were concerned because not much snow had yet fallen that winter. A record was aired on a local radio station in which the singers pleaded with “Heikki Lunta,” a snow god of sorts, to send more of the white stuff. The whole idea took off, or “snowballed,” you might say.

Heikki Lunta sign (2)

These days, businesses like this one on the right often put up signs asking that deity for more snow. By spring, there are sometimes signs asking him to stop! At least one town in the Upper Peninsula has named its yearly winter festival after Heikki Lunta.

What does all of this have to do with my story being published, you might ask. Now living in Texas, I’m struck with the fact that many of the children here (and sometimes the adults) wish dearly that it would snow!

A few winters back, we did get a pretty healthy dusting, here in the North Dallas suburbs. My two youngest granddaughters were thrilled, and my daughter let them stay home from school to play in the snow. That’s the day my idea for a meeting of reality and myth, in “Welcome to Texas, Heikki Lunta” was conceived. I’m thrilled to report that my fictional story for kids and families, alike, now appears in U.P. Reader #3.UP Reader #3

Texas snowman
Texas Snowman

cowgirl boots b&w

All That Glitters

sillhouette valentines

Valentine’s Day always made me nervous as a kid. What if none of my classmates gave me cards? Would the little boy who I had a “crush” on bring me one? A certain year that comes to mind must have been when I was in 3rd or 4th grade. Teachers at that time in our small Michigan town didn’t allow an entire afternoon of fun and games on that particular holiday. We waited in agony until almost the end of the school day to pass out our cards. With relief, I saw a reasonable number of valentines being deposited into my decorated shoe box and hoped that those I had given out were well-received.

I was a “walker,” living just a block from my school, and took a few extra minutes in the cloak room to look over my “haul” before putting on my coat and boots to head home. A little boy who had signed his valentine to me with just the initials “T.F.” sidled up close and said that he wanted to give me something else. He held out his hand, as did I. Into it he placed a golden ring with a clear stone that sparkled like glass. I’d been given rings by boys, before, remembering several that had purple or red stones and appeared to have come from the local “dime store.”

 

This one seemed different, somehow, and I remember feeling kind of troubled by it. Sticking the ring into my coat pocket, I became rather speechless and doubt that I even said “thanks.” Arriving home, I put the valentine box on our dining room table so Mom could see my cards. It took me until that evening to get up my nerve and show her the ring. “This looks real,” Mom said. I didn’t even know what she meant. After asking who it was from, she went to our black telephone in the hallway and took out the phone directory, skimming her finger until she arrived at the “F’s.”

Mom returned to where I stood by the table in just a few minutes with a mysterious look on her face. She gently explained that I wouldn’t be able to keep the ring, since it was a diamond my classmate had taken out of his mother’s jewelry box! I felt very silly, but I suppose it was T.F. who really should have been feeling embarrassed. His mother suggested that I just bring it back to school the next day and evidently wasn’t overly concerned. If memory serves me right, she was no longer married to the boy’s father and may not have been all that attached to this particular reminder of the past. I looked the ring over one last time, and my mom placed it in an envelope for me to deliver back to “my admirer” the next day.

This wasn’t to be the last ring that I would give back to a boy or man over the years, but I HAVE managed to hang on to a few!          ~Becky

couple on bikes

 

 

Broken Bubbles

Noma_bubble_lights

The rear compartment of my father’s station wagon often carried mysterious cargo. During much of my childhood, he worked as a sales representative for a “sundries” company selling most things that drug stores carried, other than the actual medications…stationery, sunglasses, toys, personal care products, and many handy helpers for the household.

Dad traveled from our home in Northern Lower Michigan to client stores all over the state, taking orders. The back of his trusty station wagon was typically used to carry product samples meant to show the buyers, or sometimes he also brought “returns” with him that needed to be sent back to the company in Detroit. We often got a peek at the exciting goodies in there, and once in a while even got to keep something small, in the case of a discontinuation or some similar situation.

christmas-station-wagon
Our station wagons were usually much plainer than this ‘snazzy’ model!

One very cold December, I remember that Dad ended up with a package of Noma bubble lights in his car. Christmas was quickly approaching, and he would have to hang onto them until after the holiday. They were meant to be used indoors, and he was afraid that the liquid in the bulbs might freeze and break the glass if he left them outdoors in the car. One thing led to another, and to my delight, they eventually ended up on our Christmas tree!

bubble lights vintage

In my mind, they were magical, with many different colors of bubbling liquid that made the surrounding ornaments shimmer. Our tree seemed almost alive. Some of the bulbs didn’t bubble very well, and my parents were too busy with other things to fool with them and discover that they needed to be almost perfectly upright to work effectively. I didn’t care and absolutely loved them. After the holiday, those lights disappeared from our lives.

Many years and Christmases passed, and as an adult with a tree of my own, I never again came across those types of Christmas lights. The year that my mother died, the leaves were already starting to turn color near my home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I was still married at the time, and my husband was teaching at a university quite some distance from our town, which required him being gone during the week. Even with my new job as a preschool director and our home and dog to care for, I had way too much time on my hands to think and feel sad about Mom’s passing. I needed a project!

The project that I decided upon that autumn was to re-style our Christmas tree with new lights and ornaments with an overall vintage appeal. My first thought was BUBBLE LIGHTS. I searched far and wide and finally found some through Ace Hardware that needed to be ordered. My husband also surprised me by bringing some others home one weekend that he had found “downstate.” We ended up with two different types, but that worked out fine and looked lovely with the old-fashioned style of ornaments I had bought at various shops. The tree was beautiful and offered me that sense of connection with the past and my childhood just when it was most needed. Those decorations were enjoyed for many years.bubble lights plain

One fall a few years ago my world turned upside down, and I left my home and that life behind. At the time, bubble lights or any kind of Christmas decorations weren’t exactly uppermost in my mind. They remained in the house, hidden away in the little storage space under the stairs. I honestly don’t know if those beauties ever again saw the light of day. They didn’t appear to be on the tree when “First Dog” and I made a visit (in spirit:) last Christmas, and I’m guessing that they’ve been forgotten or dumped. Kind of sad.

A small, pre-lit Christmas tree in my current home nicely shows off a few new vintage-style ornaments and several that were salvaged from my past only because they happened to be packed in with other things. I’ve recently been yearning for the look and feel of those bubble lights, again, but the size of this current model will definitely not support them. I saw an ad the other day for a single bubble night-light and was tempted, but shoved the idea aside in my mind, since I was getting ready to go out-of-town for the holiday. To my utmost surprise, one of those very lights, fashioned in red, was proudly bubbling away in the room when I reached my destination. Might be fate or life trying to tell me something? Not sure, but I think that a bubble night-light is on my shopping list for next season. Something to look forward to…small but special.

If you’re celebrating, have a safe and pleasant holiday. I hope that each and every one of you will experience a healthy, productive and happy 2019!   ~Becky

 

 

Only Sweaters Required: a Thanksgiving Story

autumn joy green shows full plant more                                                                                                                Unknown to the woman and man, it was to be their last good Thanksgiving. While she sifted through cookbooks for new side dish and dessert recipes, he planned the main course. Menu was written, shopping list compiled, and ingredients purchased.

Fall weather in their northern location was typical. Rain and winds had brought down most of the yellow and orange leaves. Halloween delivered a few lazy flurries. Beyond the French doors, the Autumn Joy plants in the garden provided a natural tracking device for the unyielding progression of the season. Summer buds of green turned to pink flower heads, which every day bled into a darker tone of red. Seeing the perennials had already turned a deep shade of crimson, the couple regretted that hope of a warm day had surely passed.

autumn joy red

Thanksgiving dawn was hopeful. Temperatures outside continued to rise, and the baking oven warmed their home from within. Eat outdoors on Thanksgiving? Unheard of for that location! In smiling agreement, they readied the terrace: swept leaves from the table and chairs, added a tablecloth, lit the chiminea. Only sweaters required.

Dinner was savory and dessert was sweet. Red wine matched  the Autumn Joy’s blooms. Reflecting on a few remaining leaves, the sun began its descent beyond the tops of trees. Slight breeze, crackling fire, and easy conversation. Sundown lowered the temperature, moving them closer to the fire, while shrugging into jackets. When the addition of a new log was insufficient, they finally relinquished their claim on that remarkable Thanksgiving dinner.

The view from frosty French doors the following morning offered a scene of white. A weather front had produced heavy snows, and autumn changed to winter overnight. The world had turned cold and stark, with sharp edges of ice. Shrouded in a pale cloak, the Autumn Joy had given in to the ravages of the seasons. Winter would remain, and wishes otherwise would go unanswered.

Sedum Autumn Joy Herbstfreude in winter snow with grasses & Rudbeckia seed-heads

Magic from that day is gone, but not forgotten. The warmth of their world is remembered. No longer sharing that kitchen, that terrace, that garden, the memory still connects them.

~ Becky ~ 2018

Ding Dong School: before Mister Rogers & Sesame Street

Miss Frances Ding Dong School
“Miss Frances”

The day after Labor Day was always the first day of school in Michigan. One of my earliest memories is of my older sister, Terri, heading out for school the year I must have been four. I can see myself sitting in the bay window of our living room, and she alerted me that she was leaving for school, but mentioned how “lucky” I was that I got to stay home and watch “Ding Dong School” on television.

It all seemed rather dubious to me, since I WAS looking forward to kindergarten the next year, but it was kind of her to make the attempt. My mother looked on and seemed to be trying to gauge my response. I suppose it was hard for me to face summer’s end and be the only child remaining at home, since my younger brother was not yet born.

I DID love the show, however, and since we only had clear reception of one network in our little town in Northern, Lower Michigan, I was lucky that it ran on NBC through 1956 (followed by syndication for some years after). The presenter, Dr. Frances Horwich, known to the young viewers as our teacher, “Miss Frances,” had a calm, soothing voice that seemed to be aimed directly at me. The show always began with her ringing the large school bell, of course. She read books to us, presented various types of interesting lessons, and demonstrated art projects. Children often sent their drawings and other works in to the show, and Miss Frances would sometimes share those, as well.

a suitcase with a surprise

Sources reveal that she was an experienced educator, but had very little familiarity with working in front of the camera. From a kid’s point of view, the show felt very natural and real, as if I was actually there in her classroom. Due to the show’s popularity, many different types of products carrying the “Ding Dong School” name became available, like finger paints, balloons, valentines, and records. I don’t remember having any of those, but we did own some of the “Golden Books,” such as these shown. Titles often focused on family, community, and the use of imagination in play.

The Big Coal Truck

My afternoon kindergarten the following year paled in comparison, naturally. With a large room full of actual children and no helpers that I can remember, I’m sure that our teacher had her hands too full to give us much individualized attention. I kind of missed those mornings spent at home in our sunny living room, with my mom nearby and Miss Frances talking to me out of the black-and-white television like I was the only kid in the world. Little did I know at the time that my future would also find me as a teacher in the classroom with young children.

When Ebay was still a novelty, I often looked up collectibles that interested me. One day, I saw some of Frances Horwich’s personal items related to the show up for auction, following her death, such as a custom-made chair with her name on it, her collection of school bells, and awards that she had received. I did some research and learned that she and her husband had no children, so I suppose there was no one in particular to leave these types of things in a will. At first this seemed very sad, that her belongings would simply go to the highest unknown bidders on the Internet. After giving this some more thought, however, I realized how insignificant “things” really are and how many thousands of individuals, like myself, remembered this woman for providing them with a pleasant first education experience. That seemed much more important, in the grand scheme of things.

~Becky