Fire update from Eugene (cough, cough)

We interrupt this series on our experiences under COVID-19 to bring you more apocalypse. The following is adapted from a note sent to former members of the Association of Personal Historians, who have stayed in touch since its closure. Members on the West Coast were asked to check in and let us know how they were faring as fires raged. This is Trena’s response from September 16, 2020.

By Trena Cleland

Last Monday night, Robert and I rode our bikes to a friendly Labor Day block party in a nearby neighborhood. There were musicians jamming, vendors selling boho-chic items such as pottery and jewelry, and a group of young girls making balloon animals for $1 each.

Weirdly, at about 8 p.m., it started smelling like a smoky campground. Oh, and look — there’s gray smoke coming over the trees way down the block. Whaaahhh? Like fog rolling in, the party turned from warm and summery to dusk/smoke.

It’s been like a nuclear winter since then — thick, dense smoke — with only infrequent dashes outside to pick a tomato or buy groceries. Each time, you come back smelling like you’ve been hanging out in an ashtray, and have to wash off the soot. I don’t like to touch anything outside — forget about the coronavirus, I’m talking about the dirty ash on the garden plants and the car door handle. N95 masks are de rigeur, not the pretty cloth masks that are my everyday pandemic wear. (I can’t believe I miss them!)

NASA image courtesy of the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS) project.

Fire-wise, we are well out of harm’s way, and feel very fortunate. The closest fire, the Holiday Farm fire, is about 30 miles east of us. Sadly, it is right along the forested wonderland/playground of the spectacular McKenzie River. Some small hamlets have been destroyed, along with magnificent nature. Someone forwarded a poem that says, “Do not forget that the ashes falling from the sky are all that remains of the pine and grass and thistle and bear and coyote and deer and mouse that could not escape.”

Not to mention that the smoke, while mostly trees, contains some percentage of immolated cars, buildings, tires, fuel, even burnt-up Christmas ornaments from Christmas Treasures, a year-round holiday store.

The Air Quality Index number in our neighborhood has routinely been above 500, which is the highest number on the AQI chart. 500 is beyond ‘very unhealthy,’ it’s ‘ hazardous.’ So, what’s beyond hazardous? Something tells me, if you have to ask, you’re already dead.

Robert wrote the following:

We are at day six of the epic Eugene smoke-in. As of today, the Holiday Farm fire is 6% contained. The slow progress is mainly due to highly inaccessible terrain, and an under-staffing of fire fighters. The fire is mostly burning on north and south fronts. The eastward and westward progression is minimal, which is really good because the cities of Eugene/Springfield lie due west of the fire location.

Our tap water now has a distinct ashy off-flavor. Our water supply is the McKenzie River, and it is the McKenzie watershed which is burning. EWEB (our local water and electric utility) has water and hydroelectric plants potentially in harm’s way, but so far, no imminent threat. Some good fire news, the historic Goodpasture wooden covered bridge, at the Leaburg reservoir, was saved from the flames.

For now, we are sheltering in place — a lockdown within a lockdown. What these last six days have reminded me most of are the ‘snow days’ of youth, when heavy Midwestern snowfall kept us home from school. Rob and I have baked, done arts and crafts, played Scrabble, and watched documentaries. The hope is that either wind and/or rain will arrive by Wednesday or Thursday to move away this dense fog of impenetrable smoke.

We’re so fortunate to have a well-insulated house, with good air circulation. Eugene also has many folks who camp out in parks and along the river year-round, and that’s just unimaginable, to think about their 24/7 immersion in smoke.

We already surmised that the COVID pandemic would lead to more homelessness, poverty, mental and physical illness, and closed businesses; and these fires will only amplify those trends up and down the West Coast. A cousin of Rob’s lost her home in the Boulder Creek fire near Santa Cruz about three weeks ago. Welcome to the rest of our lives, living with the impacts of this world-gone-awry.

Despite the gloomy feelings, I accept that the world is unfolding as it will, for reasons outside my understanding. World history is full of plagues and cataclysms, and it seems logical that our time should be no exception. Soon the fires will stop and the sun will be revealed and the air will clear up, as it always has. The wheel of life keeps turning around and around.

So, we’re trying to stay positive and keepin’ the faith, and are very grateful for our comfort and abundance.

On Thursday, September 18th, the rain came.

Trena Cleland, personal historian in Eugene, Oregon, with one of her books.

© 2020 Trena Cleland

Trena Cleland started her personal history business in 1998, and joined Association of Personal Historians that year. She has produced dozens of heirloom memoir books based on oral history interviews and coordinated many smaller legacy projects. She has also volunteered her time on several community history projects, documenting the lives of homeless seniors and women with HIV. She now lives and works in Eugene, Oregon.

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Me, Myself and I-solation

This post continues a series on our experiences under COVID-19, inspired by the realization that “we are all field collectors” in the effort to someday tell the story of what happened in 2020. Consider this an invitation to write your own stories of pandemic life, and to submit for publication on this blog–guidelines here.

By Melodee Leven Currier

I love being at home so being “quarantined” is just fine with me.  There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do all I want to do.  All the years I was a single mother and had to work, I just wanted to be home and now that I am — I love it.

Since we have been quarantined, I can’t turn on the television without hearing about the “new normal.”  However, my world is still running on the “old normal” which could be confused with the “new.”

Isolation is being at home doing what I enjoy – time to do what I want, when I want, alone or with my husband, and not have to fight crowds. This is a complete turnaround from when I was younger and loved crowds — the louder the better.  I’m sure that’s why I need hearing aids now.

Quarantine couldn’t have come at a better time actually because my husband is now able to work from home.  Before quarantine, he was traveling every other week and I dreaded the weeks he had to travel.  So having him work from home is a dream come true for me.  He also makes all our trips to the grocery and I haven’t had to step out of the house since forced isolation began.

My biggest complaint with all this is — my hair.  I religiously get my hair cut and colored every four weeks.  It’s been five weeks now since I got it done last and I colored it today.  I pray the salons open back up before I have to color it again.  And if they don’t open soon, I’m going to look like the Wild Woman from Borneo.

Facebook friends complain vehemently about having to stay home. I don’t understand.  After I have my coffee and get dressed, hopefully before noon, I first do all the things I need to do — laundry, dishes, computer work, make bread and make sure we have enough toilet paper.  The rest of the day I spend watching mindless TV, meditating and pursuing other interests, such as reading and writing.

Things are getting even more interesting lately with announcements of online entertainment such as tours of museums and cities, staycation ideas, Broadway shows and more, seriously upgrading my daily schedule.

Just one thing — I still haven’t had time to fit in that jigsaw puzzle everyone is talking about.  Maybe tomorrow…

© 2020 Melodee Currier

Melodee Currier left corporate America in 2008 where she was an intellectual property paralegal. Since then she has devoted her time to writing and has had five eBooks ( and numerous articles published on a wide variety of topics.  Her articles can be read on her website  Mel is an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told.

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Covid-19 Made a Slacker Out of Me

This post continues a series on our experiences under COVID-19, inspired by the realization that “we are all field collectors” in the effort to someday tell the story of what happened in 2020. Consider this an invitation to write your own stories of pandemic life, and to submit for publication on this blog–guidelines here.

By Kurt Baumann

It’s amazing how something so small could have a big impact. Without a pen, you can’t write or sign anything. Lose your car keys, you can’t drive anywhere.  If you’re infected with a virus, a tiny micro-organism, your body can get sick or even die.

Covid-19 has made a big impact. Besides its threat of death, it’s stirred up fear on a global level. With no cure in sight, the United States, our state included, have made many changes, to its regular routine, to prevent it from spreading. Besides wearing face masks, inventing “social distancing” (a fancy term for having people to stand at least six feet apart from each other),  and having businesses, public health offices, and libraries close to prevent crowds from gathering.

With no libraries to check out books from, I must have renewed the books I checked out, back in March, many times. Without public access, personal computers deny people a way to the internet or a way type up documents. I can’t visit my mother because of the stay -at home-order. No monthly gatherings are at my church.  Grocery stores are open, but they require masks and disinfected carts. Nothing in my old familiar routine seems to exist anymore.

 Covid-19 has killed the concept of initiative–but it has introduced me to a whole new life.

Kurt Baumann practices his slacking.

I have become a slacker, an idler, a lazy bum who does nothing all day. The term goes back to the nineteenth century, when the largest irrigation canal was built in the Sudanese. Workers, protesting labor conditions, deliberately slowed down their progress earning them the name “slacker.” It has become a label for people for who evade military service and young people who have no drive.

Now I have an excuse not to do anything. I wake up and lie in bed all day long. If I don’t nap, I watch as the hours pass on the clock, as the sunlight of day passes to darkness of night. Each day seems the same. If it wasn’t for a full bladder that makes me go to the bathroom, I wouldn’t get off my mattress at all. Convid-19 has given me an excuse not to do anything. Before it came along, I had no excuse at all.

I don’t shower or dress. Since I stay in my apartment, anyway, I can walk around naked. If I put on any clothes, it’s the same ones I wore three or four days in a row. Cutting down doing on my laundry saves me money, by not putting any change my apartment’s coin-operated washer and dryer. With the stay at home order in effect, no one comes to visit me, I don’t have to vacuum, clean dishes, take out garbage, or work on that book I told people I’d write.  If I go outside at all, it’s to go to my apartment foyer, pick up my newspaper, and do the crossword puzzles and other games.

I’m ashamed to admit that I’m not a total slacker. If I get hungry, I have to grocery shop for food. Since I have Diabetes, I have to take my medication. If my skin gets itchy, I have to take a bath. Can you blame a person for wanting to go the Post Office to see if anything came for them? Guilt can be a problem, though. It makes me notice how dirty my apartment is and do the chores, so I vacuum, clean the dishes, do laundry, take out garbage, and do the laundry. It also makes me do research for that book I told people I’d write.

At least I don’t have to feel guilty that I’m in a minority. This quarantine has produced other slackers. People used to slaving during working hours, living from paycheck to paycheck, and having their children in schools. The ones who have gone stir crazy and have taken to protesting at their state capitols holding signs with sayings like: “My Life is Greater Than Your Fears”

As I conclude, I would like to say that I’m grateful for an incentive provide for me by the leader of my writer’s group. I didn’t have a reason to write before, but with technology that makes meetings possible, during quarantine, I had one—and something to write about. I looked deep within myself and came up with this article. I would like to close by saying “Thank you.”

©  2020 Kurt Baumann

Since 1983, Kurt Baumann has lived in Beaver Dam involved in his community theater, church, and contributer to his local newspaper. After working a variety of jobs for most of his life, he has retired to do some writing. He has written one book: The Written Works of Kurt Baumann.

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The Pandemic Could Not Have Come at a Better Time

This post continues a series on our experiences under COVID-19, inspired by the realization that “we are all field collectors” in the effort to someday tell the story of what happened in 2020. I’m sure we will long remember this time, as the world divides into memories of “The Before Times” and experiences “Since COVID.” Consider this an invitation to write your own stories of pandemic life, and to submit for publication on this blog–guidelines here.

By Patricia LaPointe

Nearly a year ago I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. That, along with other pre-existing chronic physical problems, made it very clear that I would need to isolate myself from the outside world to avoid succumbing to the virus.

The Parkinson’s had already been responsible for many limitations occurring in my life, in my environment. Because of issue with balance, I began needing to use a walker. I had made the difficult decision to stop driving. I was surprised to find how many things I had done all my life, had accomplished on my own, were now done only with help from others. Who knew how difficult it would become to reach into cabinets for dishes, bowls, and pans or complete minor cleaning tasks?


So, what has this got to do with the pandemic? It was about the time the virus started to threaten the lives of so many that I was facing a major decision. I, along with my husband, have lived in a large, two story, four- bedroom home, in a suburb of Chicago for nineteen years.

The bedrooms are all on the second floor. I was having difficulty climbing the stairs. We needed to decide whether we would move or remodel the house to fit my needs. One day we would decide selling would be best. The next day we would think it might be best to move.

The increasing pandemic with its threats to my health shifted our focus. We spent hours thinking what we could do to keep me safe. Any decision about moving or remodeling were quickly put on the back burner. I must admit I was relieved.

The answer to the question of keeping me safe was right in front of us. We have a single floor condo in Southern Wisconsin. It is in a much less congested area and would limit my exposure to the virus far more than staying in Illinois.

We have been at the condo since March. Now the only decision we need to make is when will it be safe enough to return to our home. But, when we get there, we will still have to make the other, life-changing decision. Someday, there will hopefully be an end to the pandemic. To Parkinson’s, not so much.

©  2020 Patricia LaPointe

Pat’s work has been published in several Durham Editing and E-books anthologies as well as in Story Circle Anthologies. She has facilitated women’s writing groups online and on site. She is the editor of the “Changes In Life” monthly newsletter for women.




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A Changed World  

This post continues a series on our experiences under COVID-19, inspired by the realization that “we are all field collectors” in the effort to someday tell the story of what happened in 2020. The essays I post here are drawn from First Monday, First Person salons since last spring. I’m sure we all experienced a memorable series of events as the world changed last March, as Kaye did. Consider this an invitation to write your own stories of pandemic life, and to submit for publication on this blog–guidelines here.

By Kaye Ketterer

There is a Schwinn tricycle in my basement that has not been ridden for a couple months now. It was purchased for our Elena and every time she came to our house, she rode it. In bad weather she would ride it in our basement garage.

There is a child’s car seat in our car that has sat empty since March 8th.

There are child’s toys in our living room that have not been played with for months. There is also a stroller that is empty with no child to put in it and take for a stroll.

It has been since March 8thwhen I last was with our Elena. On that day we took her swimming at the YMCA. She loved to swim back and forth between Paul & me while she told us “I’m a good swimmer!” We said goodbye to her after swimming and explained that we were going to see her Auntie Sobha in Washington DC. Elena replied, “You’ll get to fly on an airplane”. I explained to her that we were driving our car to Washington DC and we’d talk with her several times while we visited Sobha.

Little did we know that the world would change so drastically, and we would not see Elena in person for over three months! Some days I felt my heart being torn apart from missing her so much.

As the days passed, we kept to a routine to give us a plan and a bit of security knowing what we had to do next. We took stock of all the books we had that we had not read and put them aside. I planned to sew aprons and cloth baskets and ordered material online at my favorite fabric store that utilized curb side pickup. We made a list of small and not so small projects we wanted to do around our house. One big project we had begun before visiting our daughter was tearing up our bathroom. We had arranged for a plumber to install a new bathtub and a person to install new tile beginning the end of March. Our son advised that we not have anyone come into our house, so we postponed the bathroom work.

So began our days of social distancing, staying quarantined at home and wearing a mask whenever we went to a drive through coffee shop, or a bit of grocery shopping. Paul & I started each day after breakfast with a walk of about two miles. We would come home and play three games of our travel size “Sequence”. It is a favorite game we always take with us when we travel, so it has lots of memories attached to it. The rest of the morning I would sew or prepare cards to send to my friends and relatives. After lunch we would take a short nap, then up again to read for a bit. Every day at 3:00pm I played my accordion or piano and at 4:00pm I would do an exercise routine and at 4:30pm I would read while Paul watched Jeopardy.

At times, I felt adjusted and OK with my “new world”. Other times I hit a new low that left me sinking in sadness for a world I did not like. I wondered about all the children and families who did not have the life I did and what they were able to do. I knew the challenges my son and his wife faced with Elena while trying to work from home and take care of her. With childcare centers closed, what were the children doing and how were they being cared for? With hardly any positive, honest leadership from our government both state and national, I felt we were doomed!!

Not seeing Elena was the hardest of all. We faced time with Elena every day and she always wanted me to read her a few books. I did video myself several times reading to her and sent it to her so she could see it as many times as she wished. We got used to telling each other about our day and talking about the animals we would see in our neighborhoods. Sometimes Elena would take the phone from her parents and tell us to play hide and seek. She would put the phone in her dresser drawer and say “SHHH” to us and then open the drawer and say, “I found you!” It was fun seeing how she created things to do with us through FaceTime, but she would eventually say, “We have to say goodbye,” and my sadness would seep in again.

And then George Floyd was killed, and protests began demanding change. Justifiable protests that need a real, response of action, not just congressional hearings, and lip service! My oh my, why can’t we just get simple things accomplished in our country?! It seems like an easy solution to make things just in our culture. For a start, simply reduce the military budget and everyone could have health insurance and public schools could be better funded. There are a few legislators that get it, but there are more legislators that enjoy their abundant life and don’t get it. So, to ease my frustration, I continue to call and email my state and federal officials, even though I’m not sure it has any impact at all.

In my personal life, I continue to walk every morning and play three games of Sequence with Paul. Our bathroom is scheduled for a new tub on July 14, with new tile being installed beginning on July 15. I am fortunate and my life goes on. We are seeing Elena a few times each week now. We are seeing her parents as well and it feels almost normal when we’re with them. It is summer and being with Elena picking cucumbers or peppers or watching her in her “summer pool” is the best! Yet with the Fall looming and knowing public schools may return to in-person learning gives me a lot of anxiety for my son and daughter-in-law as well as Elena going to 4-year-old kindergarten.

It seems things in our country are a mess and they aren’t getting any better. I hang on to a small ray of hope for the future, yet I am cynical. Money and power mean more to some than keeping people healthy and safe. Where will we end up? How do we get ourselves out of this mess? I am beyond angry and sad. Who can help us? Who really cares?

©  2020 Kaye Ketterer

Kaye lives in Monona, Wisconsin, and keeps her country roots close to her heart. Along with writing, her interests include music, traveling, children, and the elderly.

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This post continues a series on our experiences under COVID-19, inspired by the realization that “we are all field collectors” in the effort to someday tell the story of what happened in 2020. The essays I post here are drawn from First Monday, First Person salons since last spring. I’m sure we all experienced a memorable series of events as the world changed last March, as Kay did. Consider this an invitation to write your own stories of pandemic life, and to submit for publication on this blog–guidelines here.

By Kay Frazier

No chirp welcomed me. No little light flashed in its eyes as I approached. Indeed, my car was dead. In the middle of “Stay at Home”, Covid-19 pandemic in Wisconsin, my car was dead.

I was scheduled to meet a friend in fifteen minutes at Blain’s Farm and Fleet three miles away, to pick up a mask from her and my drive-through order from Farm and Fleet. First things first. I called my friend, telling her “Vicky, my car is dead. I’ll be walking to Farm and Fleet. I’ll call you when I get there.”

The weather was crisp and dry. I hadn’t had a good hike in several days and my route took me mostly past empty industrial business parking lots. No problem observing the 6–foot distancing, since I only encountered one other person on the hike.  I got to Farm and Fleet’s drive-through and told the attendant, “My car is dead, so this is a walk-through.” (She didn’t laugh, either. Do I need to work on my delivery of the punch line?)

I accepted the bag, walked to a more visible spot on the sidewalk, and called my friend.  She arrived, driving her car, and we exchanged bags – her bag for me with a mask and a few carrots and mine for her with cookies, old dish towels, elastic and thread to make more masks. She asked if I wanted a ride back, but I declined, partly because I wanted the hike and partly because my friend is 79, with several health issues and I wanted to help limit her exposure.

The hike back was pleasant and uneventful; I saw no people, but I did see a number of birds, squirrels, daffodils, and other spring flowers. Now, what to do about the car? Let it sit until a more opportune time? My friend had recommended that I check to see if I carried emergency roadside assistance on my car insurance. I didn’t think so. However, checking into that, I did and it was at no additional cost to me. Hmm. Should I chance an in-person encounter in what had been one of my safe zones?

Yes!  Fifteen minutes later, I called the service, Jack Rabbit. A young man, Chad – well, young to me – and his wife came. I flagged them down from the parking lot outside my underground parking. She stayed in the car, dealing with business on the phone, while he attempted to apply electric shock to my car. First, there was the matter of reaching the battery, which is situated by the right rear headlight of the hatchback. Having no electricity or key entry available, the hatchback door would not unlock. He was going to climb over the back seats until I pointed out that “They do fold down and there’s the buttons to do that.” I paced anxiously the prescribed six feet away. Chad finally managed to reach the starting battery and apply the electric shock.

No luck, only a warning from his system. He tried an alternate possibility through something under the front hood of the car. Again, no luck, only a warning from his system. He turned to me and said, “Sorry, Miss Kay, but your starting battery is dead and needs to be replaced. I think you have Smartkey. The battery costs about two hundred dollars. If you pay for it at X auto parts store, I’d be willing to pick it up and install it for X$. Just let them know at the store that Chad and Erica will be picking it up. I’ve worked with them before, so it shouldn’t be any problem.”

“Thanks, I’ll let you know,” I replied. I called the auto parts store and found what appeared to be the right battery. It was a little over two hundred dollars. It was in stock. Do I let the car sit or do I run up another bill on a credit card?

Within an hour, I called Jack Rabbit, the emergency roadside assistance. “Chad, let’s do it.” We arranged for him to come at 9 AM the next morning, with a confirmation call at 8 AM.

I called the auto parts store again.

“ Hi. I need a starting battery for a 2009 Toyota Prius with smart key.”

“Sure… got it. I can’t hold it till tomorrow morning unless you pay for it now. Can you give me your credit card info?” I relinquished it.

Robin, the clerk, came back. “Sorry, phone charge system doesn’t seem to be working; you’ll need to go online and order it. Here’s the part number.”

“Ok. Thanks.”

I turned on my laptop. One and one-half pages of security updates to be applied, even though I had just turned it on a day or two ago. It was now 5:30 pm. At 6:45 pm, the updates were finished and I ordered the part the clerk had told me I needed. It looked like the right part. The pickup process, according to the online information, required that I show up with driver’s license and credit card used.

I called the store again. “How late are you open and when do you open in the morning? I just ordered a part for my car. It looks like I have to come in in person, but Chad was going to pick it up for me and install it. I can’t get there because my car is dead. Can you put a note on the part to that effect?”

“7:30 pm tonight, 7:30 AM in the morning. I’ll put your name on the reserved part, but I can’t put a note about Chad and Erica picking it up. If they have your name and the part information, though, it’ll be okay.” Cheviah reassured me.

The next morning, at 8 AM, I called Chad from the road service. “I bought the part and it’s at X, waiting for you. Here’s the order number, in case they give you any problems picking it up. Could you please double-check and make sure I got the right part?”

Twenty minutes later, I got a call from Chad. “Miss Kay, I’ve been on the phone with Toyota and everyone else I could think of since I talked to you. I can’t confirm you have smartkey access. Even knowing the year and the VIN number of the car, Toyota couldn’t confirm that you have smarkey access and that this is the correct part. I’m pretty sure it is, though.”

“Okay, let’s do it.”

At 9 AM, I got the call. He was here with the part. “Chad, give me two minutes and  I’ll be downstairs and open the door to the underground parking.”

I grabbed shoes, went downstairs, and opened the garage door expecting to see Chad waiting in his car for the door to open. No car, no Chad in sight. The door closed. I opened it. The door closed. I opened it. The door closed. Finally, I opened the door, peeked a little further out and saw Chad’s car headed out of the outdoor parking lot. I quickly called on my phone, gasping, “I see your car, turn around” and started wildly waving my hand.

He came in, parked near my car, pulled out his equipment, and spent the next hour or so taking out the old battery and installing the new, while I decided to get some exercise, by briskly walking laps in the underground parking lot of my condo building.

Finally he said, “Okay, Miss Kay, see if you can start the car. The car alarm might sound.”

I sat down in the driver’s seat. Now, I saw one of the lights on the dashboard lit. Hope was high.

Yes, it started up fine – after I remembered I needed to put my foot on the brake while starting the car. (In my defense, I hadn’t driven the car in 1 ½  weeks.) No alarm sounded.

Still anxious, I requested “Will you follow me out the garage? I want to make sure it actually moves.”

“Sure, Miss Kay, and then you can pay me,” Chad obligingly replied.

My car and I emerged, triumphant, from the dim light of the underground parking to the bright sun light of a new day. I breathed the air of Freedom, paid Chad and thanked him, and waved as he left. I embarked on two hours of joyously jaunting fifty miles, taking care of five errands over hill and dale in various parts of Dane County. I laughed at the outside temperature gauge, now stating the temperature in degrees Celsius, instead of Fahrenheit.

Oh, and the alarm – it did go off, after I returned the car to my building’s underground parking and walked away. Somehow, I did get that resolved. And the next day, when I drove for groceries, the temperature was now, once again, magically noted in Fahrenheit.

©  2020 Kay Frazier

Kay has been writing in various forms since a child, beginning in elementary school with creating and telling fantasy stories to a captive audience on the long ride of a rural school bus. She has had published a scattering of poems and articles and has given a few church talks. So far, though, the only money she has received was a dime from Bobby in the seventh grade for writing a story for him in English class. (I wasn’t pulled in later by the teacher; I don’t think he was, either.) Ten cents bought a lot of penny candy at the small neighborhood grocery store. However, for now, shared enjoyment or a new perspective is enough. Kay also enjoys hiking, biking, singing, reading (of course!), swimming (with friends), some social justice activities and the small adventures to be found in everyday life.

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A Vacation of Highs and Lows

This post begins a series on our experiences under COVID-19, inspired by the realization that “we are all field collectors” in the effort to someday tell the story of what happened in 2020. The essays I post here are drawn from First Monday, First Person salons since last spring. I’m sure we all experienced a memorable series of events as the world changed last March, as Ellen did. Consider this an invitation to write your own stories of pandemic life, and to submit for publication on this blog–guidelines here.

By Ellen Magee


My long-awaited trip to visit friends and family on the West Coast started on a cold, dark Wisconsin morning.  Retired, on a fixed income, this was a real splurge for me.  After the direct flight to Seattle, with nary a glitch, my brother Sam picked me up and took me to the phantasmagorical maze of shops at Pike Place by the harbor.  In spite of a steady rain, we were in a celebratory mood.

We met my cousin and his wife later at an upscale ethnic restaurant.  Having arrived first,  my cousin greeted us, “Great to see you!  But better not hug since the virus is spreading.”  During dinner, I processed the discussion of COVID 19, and sensed a strange culture shock since until then the virus had been, for us in Wisconsin, far away in China.

3/2 to 3/6/20

While with Sam, we did the things we both love: hiking to beautiful places, “forest bathing” in the rainforest, and exploring eateries, shops and galleries.  Much of the time we just enjoyed quiet companionship in his cozy home at the foot of the Olympic Mountains.


Sam drove me back to SeaTac for my flight on to San Francisco.  He offered me hand sanitizer and cough drops for my travels. I rendezvoused at the SF Airport with a long-time college buddy, Mary, who flew in from Los Angeles for our college mini-reunion.  After sanitizing the steering wheel, we climbed into her rental car and headed south to Moss Beach, the home of my second college buddy, Jamie.  Jamie set us up in a near-by motel for the night. Mary handed me a stack of letters she had saved from our correspondence in the 70’s which brought back both the fun of our hijinks as well as the insanity of our drug and alcohol abuse.

Western College Class of ’74 reunion, Ferndale, CA, (author far right).


Fun, fun and more fun!  In addition to Jamie,we now had Hannah from Oakland, also Class of 74, and the four of us set out for our road-trip to the Redwoods.  Druggies from the 70’s were high on life in our 60’s — and sober!  We found the quaint B & B we had reserved for two nights. We pulled out old yearbooks, laughed and hooted, and finally settled down for the night.



After a large breakfast at the town bar, we headed for The Avenue of the Giant Redwoods. Since experiencing the redwoods was my bucket list goal, it took patience on my part to let my friends wander “The Lost Coast” on the way.  I admit it did provide gorgeous seascapes.  The energy of the giant Redwoods was a spirit thing for me, and I hated to leave,  but it was a group decision to head back to town.  Tired and happy, we were getting ready to watch “Reefer Madness” on TV when there was a loud, clattering bang. Being a midwesterner, it took me some moments to realize we were having an earthquake! After a minute or so of chandelier-swinging and wall-rattling, it was quiet.  We learned later it was a 6.8 quake with it’s epicenter in a town we had driven through on the Lost Coast a few hours before.


We got going early heading back to Moss Beach.  Jamie’s accommodations this time were a room in the Lighthouse Hostel overlooking the Pacific — a room for 4 with bunk beds.  Perched on the top of a squeaking bunk, my dismounts were funny enough to get us laughing and screaming again, just like when we were 18.  That night I was somewhat concerned with my cough. My sense was it was seasonal allergies, but I had to use yoga techniques to keep from coughing constantly.


It was a hard night, but I felt fine in the morning and was able to calm my cough. Mary headed for the airport to turn in the car and fly home to LA.  Jamie was scheduled to work that afternoon, so Hannah and I took her car and tooled around her Oakland neighborhood.  Going across the Bay, we saw the Grand Princess cruise ship quarantined near port. Hannah knew I love Nature so we found a park. We drove around quite a while until Hannah found what she was looking for:  a parking space near a bench, where she could sit. “To make sure nobody tries to break into my car!”  I saw a few captive birds near a polluted pond, and went back to sit down. I discovered the natural beauty:  people of all hues and languages peacefully coexisting.

Hannah was kind enough to drive me to my next stop, Sacramento.  I was welcomed by my niece’s ex, Pat, his partner Lori and their kids.  My niece teaches school and wasn’t available until the weekend.  It was a beautiful home with mature redwoods, but there was stress.  Pat was scheduled to present a paper in Sweden the next week and Lori also had a business trip.  They were counting on their older neighbor to stay with the children in their absence, but she had decided she needed to quarantine.  Later in the day that concern became moot as both the Sweden and out of state events were cancelled due to COVID 19 travel restrictions.


My niece, Kat, picked me and the children up after school Friday to spend the weekend with her and her partner.  There were all kinds of events scheduled for that weekend so it was a juggling act with me there.  I thought if they were too busy, I might return to Pat and Lori’s. Then, one by one, events were cancelled and even whether school would continue after the weekend was up in the air.  We spent the next few days all together at home, catching up, cooking and reading. Frankly, I was happy just to be soaking up warm sun by the pool. Kat did have to report for school Monday, but the kid’s were going to finish their year online.


Kat dropped me off at the Sacramento airport on her way to work on a rainy, cool Monday. I picked up my rental car and headed South to San Francisco and Route 1.  Jamie, my Moss Beach friend met me for an early lunch at one of her favorite eateries.  It was take-out only, but the outdoor area overlooked the Pacific with early morning surfers- and the sun came out.  We talked about COVID 19 precautions I needed to take on the road, to the extent that even stopping to take a bathroom break felt like a life or death gamble that day. When I saw a place open for take-out food service, I stocked up to keep my stops to a minimum.  The drive that first day on hairpin curves, with little between me and the cliffs high above the Pacific, was both terrifying and euphoric. Each curve opened up to a more spectacular view of the sparkling Pacific.  I exclaimed to myself, “Oh my God!  Wow!  WOW!! Just WOW!!!”  I stopped at Big Sur. The lady running the tourist shop where I used the facilities was lamenting to a friend what the newest travel restrictions would do to her business.  This only added to my anxiety.  When the hills leveled off I could see beach after beach full of elephant seals, but I was too anxious to stop at the viewing area.  I stopped at a Motel 6 after ten hours of driving, ate a wilted sandwich and went to bed.

Amazing California Route 1!


I woke up in better spirits.  I would see Mary in LA this evening!  I found a cute little carry-out deli and stocked up for the day.  Without much thought, I started up my navigator to book it to LA.  I was also talking to my travel agent in Madison to move up my flight to tomorrow. I cut away from the coast and drove through the most beautiful emerald hills- on St. Patrick’s Day no less. Gradually the geography became flat and brown.  I noticed a few oil derricks, then many and then I was bathing in a forest of them! I drove through stretches of vegetable fields, under a crop duster, and suddenly, up into mountains and snow! Then the descent into LA.  My friend Mary picked me up wearing a face mask and coughing.  She had tried to get tested but having no fever was told to go home.  We were both relieved that I was heading home the next morning, as she was hoping to to work from home.


The LA airport was all business and orderly lines.  The plane was about a third full.  Someone behind and across the isle from me wore a hooded, full-body Pink Panther suit, but otherwise the flight back to Madison was uneventful.  We arrived in Madison to a balmy 40 degrees. The airport was eerily empty as was the street in front.  I had just barely squeaked home under the wire.

© 2020 Ellen Magee

Ellen lives in Madison with her husband and animals too numerous to mention.  She is a retired social worker.  Her family includes her son, two step-sons and their assorted kids.  She keeps busy during COVID by writing racial justice-themed letters to decision makers and editors, mentoring people in substance abuse recovery, dancing, kayaking and e-biking.  Her goal in retirement is to cultivate her friendships.

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Sew What!

This post continues a series on “objects” inspired by Martie McNabb’s Show & Tales events. In writing, the concrete will always have more power than the abstract, because with concrete words come images. Let Faith’s words bring images to your mind… and consider this an invitation to write your own “object lessons”–stories inspired by and focused on the things that have meaning for us, because we know their story.

By Faith Ellestad

What on earth was the matter with me, I wondered, as I stood shivering on the sidewalk in front of the Technical College, in a too-light jacket, waiting for my friend to arrive. I should have been home watching “The Waltons” as I did every Thursday evening, not preparing to begin a course in “Intermediate Knit Dress.”  What hadI been thinking?  Just the term “intermediate” which suggested some proficiency, should have given me pause. To date, my total sewing experience consisted of hemming two large red cloth rectangles into what passed for curtains in our first apartment. They beat hanging a sheet in the window, but barely.

Oh, if only my husband hadn’t been working nights, and I wasn’t pregnant and anxious, I would never have agreed to this class. But Nancy had caught me in a vulnerable moment, so too late now. John-Boy and Mary Ellen were just going to have to deal with life on their own for eight weeks while I attempted to attain a domestic art, of which my marriage resumé was currently devoid.

Genetically, I should have been predisposed to sewing competence.  My mother was an excellent seamstress.  I remember her making dresses for my sister and me and little sport coats for my brothers, even doll clothes for beloved vinyl babies. Mom took great satisfaction from her creativity.  I considered my sister a sewing savant.  She’d find a yard or two of material, eyeball it, and create a skirt or shorts without even using a pattern. My two recently acquired sisters-in-law could zip up a set of ruffled curtains or cushion cover seemingly without effort or angst.  I simply hadn’t inherited the arts and craft gene.  Yes, I had agreed with Nancy that a course in “Intermediate knit dress” could be just the springboard we needed to catapult ourselves into the realm of fashion design, but in reality, this sewing class rated very low on my interest scale and somewhere between daunting and minefield in terms of potential for success.

Nevertheless, here we were, Nancy and I, on this crisp, October evening, preparing to hone our skills. She exuded enthusiasm, excited to be adding a new knit dress to her wardrobe. I, on the other hand, just hoped to avoid complete humiliation. As we entered the classroom, we were greeted by three rows of gleaming black, rather fierce looking console sewing machines, twelve in all, plenty of equipment for the nine intermediate-level (I assumed) students and me. Our instructor introduced herself and suggested we each select a “sewing station.”  I settled in at the back-left station and watched with some dismay as Nancy abandoned me for a position front row center, far, far away.

This course was no-nonsense.  There were syllabi and everything.  Week one, re-acquaint yourself with the machine. Week two, practice seam techniques. (News to me.  I thought sewing seams was the technique.)  Week three: work with a pattern, and so forth, all the way to week eight, model and critique.

After the syllabus overview, we were instructed to thread our machines, insert bobbins, and sew a straight line in a piece of scrap material.  Having observed my mother in years past, I felt uncharacteristically capable as I threaded the machine, winding the thread around wheels and through levers and ultimately into the needle, leaving a nice tail, as demonstrated.  I slid open a little chrome door, popped in a bobbin, slid the door closed and inserted some fabric under the needle.  I pressed the power lever with my knee and voila.   Nothing happened.  I pressed harder. The material whipped through the machine and shot cleanly out the back unmarred by a single stitch. Certainly not the result I had anticipated.

Amy, the student next to me, noticed my look of consternation.

“Check your bobbin,” she suggested.

Obviously, she had been discreetly observing me.

“Oh.” I replied. “Right.”

I slid the little door open and extracted the bobbin.  I had forgotten to load it with thread.  My brief flirtation with confidence ended then.  I carefully added thread, replaced the bobbin, and prepared to try again.

Place material, flip needle down onto material, press power lever, watch material disappear briskly into the bowels of the machine. The little feet that were supposed to engage and move it along weren’t doing their job.  Stop. Flip up needle, tug at material in embarrassing attempt to get it back. Swear softly. Accept more help from Amy, who was trying unsuccessfully not to look amused.  She showed me how to reverse the machine, and pointed out that my thread had dislodged itself from the needle, so the material was just tangling up in the bobbin, again not forming the neat row of tidy stitches I was by this time desperate to achieve.  Damn bobbins.

By the time I had gotten the machine properly set up for a third try, class was over.  Homework was assigned. We were to go to a fabric store, select a pattern, and choose some knit material. Next week we would be pinning and cutting patterns out of tissue paper instead of practicing sewing seams since everyone, according to our instructor, seemed pretty comfortable with that skill. (Hello?)


A couple days before our next class, I went shopping for a maternity pattern and fabric.  In the bargain bin I found a piece of print polyester that I assumed would qualify as a knit. The royal blue background was emblazoned with a Pennsylvania Dutch pattern of little red and white men and women in breeches and dirndls as you might see in an illustration of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates. It was really cheap, so I bought a few yards and some matching thread.  I was ready for week two.

After week one’s series of unfortunate events, week two seemed almost too easy.  We traced patterns onto tissue paper, cut and pinned pieces to the real patterns.  There was a demonstration of how to cut according to the material’s weave. Kind of like carving a corned beef.  At last I was learning technique.

Week three was the start of real business. We were asked to pair up and take each other’s measurements prior to cutting out our dress patterns. My partner was Martha, a very sweet woman just a little older than me who mentioned repeatedly that she hadn’t been able to lose her post-pregnancy weight.  Being pregnant myself, I should have found this upsetting, but she was so nice, and clearly so self-conscious, that I felt sorry for her.  I was easy to measure since I would be making a tent with sleeves, but Martha had in mind a sheath-style dress which required much more attention to detail.  As I began to measure, she began to cry.  I really wanted her to feel better about herself, so I did what I thought was a kindness.  I knocked an inch off each of her measurements as I reported them.  She was much happier by the time we cut out our dress pieces.

The following week we basted our garments.  My machine was giving me trouble, losing power and then surging, which made about every fifth stitch pucker.  I was losing heart and interest. I could tell by the look of my dress I would never actually wear it, but Martha’s material was a really attractive gold knit.  She was eager for the next class which included trying on our semi-finished creations.

After a week off for Thanksgiving, we reconvened the following Thursday. Everyone brought their garment, basted and ready to try. When my turn came, I was able to showcase a strangely shaped poncho in an especially garish, yet patriotically colored print.  People were either kind or speechless, maybe both. I didn’t ask for a critique. Martha was in the back of the room struggling to put on her dress which seemed tighter than a sausage casing. I watched, horrified, as Martha became weepy, thinking she had gained weight over Thanksgiving and I realized the awful mistake of my perceived kind gesture as our instructor helped her wriggle out, suggesting they might be able to adjust the seams and “add a little to the back”.

Of course I should have admitted my folly, but I felt so guilty and stupid, I stayed silent.  When after an eternity, class finally ended, I rolled up my dress, stuck it in my bag, and, feeling really sick, fled as fast as I possibly could, never to return.  I don’t know if Martha was able to repair the damage, I didn’t ask Nancy  and she kindly never brought it up


Years later while preparing to move, I unearthed that dreadful garment with the guilt still rolled up inside, and flung it into a Goodwill box, where someone probably, stunned by its hideousness, tossed it in the rag pile. Good riddance! I never did learn to sew, but I assure you the hair shirt I created for myself fit even tighter than Martha’s dress.

© 2020 Faith Ellestad

Faith has been writing to amuse her family since she was old enough to print letters to her grandparents. Now retired, she has the opportunity (and with Covid restrictions, the time) to share some personal stories, and in the process, discover more about herself.  Faith and her husband live with two elderly cats in Madison, Wisconsin. They are the parents of two great sons and a loving daughter in law.


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The Power of a Thing, Or, The Tea Cart Goes Away

This post continues a series on “objects” inspired by Martie McNabb’s Show & Tales events. In writing, the concrete will always have more power than the abstract, because with concrete words come images. Let my words bring images to your mind… and consider this an invitation to write your own “object lessons”–stories inspired by and focused on the things that have meaning for us, because we know their story.


By Sarah White

It is 28 inches long, 18 inches wide, and 26 inches high. It has big wheels at one end and little wheels on the end of legs at the other. Two rounded, drop-down panels can pop up to turn it into a table. A handle folds away at the end with the legs. It is of a style popular in the early 20thcentury—Japonerie. Vaguely Asian scenes are embossed on the drop-down panels. When it was produced in the 1920s, it was designed to live in a formal parlor and be wheeled into position for tea service.


When I first met the tea cart, it was in my Aunt Flosh’s home. She was an elderly bon vivant whose career in publishing in New York City had ended when she retired back to Muncie, Indiana, but she continued to entertain, and the tea cart surely saw use as a cocktail serving station when little girls were not around.

I coveted it and hoped someday it would be mine, like the delicate Czechoslovakian tea set that had probably been purchased at the same time.

Both items date from a time in my father’s life when dysfunction emerged from the primordial muck of family dynamics, took the form of what we came to call The Lovely Things, and stayed. The story, in a nutshell, goes like this: My father’s mother died when he was 6, after painful years suffering from an undiagnosed and worsening brain tumor. She left six motherless children ranging in age from toddler to teen.

My father’s father remarried. The new wife had two daughters of her own, older than the father’s children, about to be launched in society (and in Muncie in the 1920s, that was still something the better families did.)  The stepmother was glamorous. Where the children’s mother had lived frugally as their father established his law practice, the stepmother entered the scene as their father became more prosperous. He indulged her with many purchased of Lovely Things—a Haviland china dinner service, Revere candlesticks, coffee service and silverware, the tea cart and other furniture.

Think of those children, growing up with pain and frugality, to be replaced by an acquisitive woman who focused her attention on her own daughters, who were lovely, and ignored the stepchildren, who were plain. The Lovely Things became invested with all that hurt, totems destined to carry it forward.

My aunt Flosh serving little me at a holiday dinner. The table is set with some of the Lovely Things.


When the stepmother died many years later, she made a list of who was to have which. Over the ensuing decades the Lovely Things were distributed and redistributed. Each time the story was told again.

My Aunt Flosh came into possession of the tea cart. It drifted down from pride-of-place in her living room to serving as a plant stand in the breezeway, but she made room for it in her tiny apartment at the Westminster Home, and that says something about the persistent power of the Lovely Things. My mother received it after her death.

The tea cart came to me in 1992 when my mother closed out her Indiana home a few years after my father died. Preparing for her move to Florida, she sent a list of the Lovely Things to me, my siblings, and our cousins descended from the original Whites of Muncie. I, of course, claimed the tea cart. I got the Czechoslavakian tea set and Haviland china too, but they went into boxes and have only come out a few times for special events. The tea cart has lived in my dining room for 28 years.

I grew from covetous, to neutral, to resentment about it, over the years. Once gained, the things we want seldom hold the power they had when they were shimmering desires. But could I part with it? Wouldn’t I have to find a White descendant who wanted it, and pass it along with a retelling of the story of the Lovely Things?

My siblings and cousins said “no thanks.” Finally enough people have died that the legend has lost its power. I’m backing away from the computer right now and taking it to the thrift store for donation.

© 2020 Sarah White

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This post continues a series on “objects”, inspired by Martie McNabb’s Show & Tales events. In writing, the concrete will always have more power than the abstract, because with concrete words come images. Let John’s words bring images to your mind… and consider this an invitation to write your own “object lessons”–stories inspired by and focused on the things that have meaning for us, because we know their story.

By John Pfender

It’s surprising how it can be the little things that make such strong memories. I remember my brother and I, as small kids, running across the wide open lawn at our summer cottage and out onto the long pier that stretched out into the wide, turquoise blue water of the St. Clair River.  At this moment it was not the passing proud freighters or endless pleasure craft that attracted our attention, but the hope of river minnows. Our running steps slapped against the deck boards and stopped abruptly as we knelt and pulled the rope tied to the railing.

Up came the minnow net through the crystal clear water, towards our expectant faces and excited voices. The net was teeming with many small silvery minnows gathered to nibble the flour paste off the cotton netting.  We pulled the net clear of the water and brought it to rest upon the catwalk. We also hauled up the old steel minnow bucket, peppered with holes to let the river water in, and opened its creaky lid to accept its new prisoners.  The minnows in the net flashed the colors of the rainbow: patches of red, green, blue and orange against shiny silver sides and white bellies. Excited voices went silent as we stared at the beauty.

Our concentration broke as the minnows started to gasp for air, their almost-transparent lips and liquid eyes seemingly staring up at us. Dad came out in his white shirt and khaki pants, preceded by the smell of his cigar. We all looked together, then quickly dumped the minnows back into the river–bypassing the waiting pail. The minnows regained themselves then in small groups darted back into the deep river.

As a parent, I think part of the reason the memory of those brilliantly-colored minnows is so strong is that such minnows no longer live in our river. They have been replaced by newcomers from other continents. My children are entranced nonetheless by the large, ugly imposters that make their way these days into the old minnow net.  It is bittersweet to hear them exclaim with wonder: “Look Dad, aren’t they great?”

© 2020 John Pfender

John Pfender lives in Madison, Wisconsin where he likes to putter around the garden and old house, read, play the accordion and write the occasional memoir for his children and grand kids. He spends time each summer at the family’s ancestral cottage in the St. Clair Flats on the Michigan-Ontario border.

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