Governor’s Island Magic

By Ellen Magee

If the number and size of the Mendota Mental Health grounds’ effigy mounds are any indication, Governor’s Island and the Mendota lakeshore surrounding it for miles was sacred ground to the early inhabitants of the area. I have my own reasons for considering this land to be sacred or magical.

Governor’s Island is not an island any more. The first white man taking ownership of the island was Governor Farwell. In 1858, Governor Farwell gave it and miles of lakeshore land to the State of Wisconsin for the first state hospital for “the insane”. In the 1860s a land bridge was built to connected the island to the grounds of Mendota State Hospital.

In this time of COVID, I often drive to Governor’s Island with our dog, Snowball, in the hatchback. We cross busy Northport Drive onto Troy Drive until we turn left at the Mendota Mental Health grounds. Cinder Lane is the second left, just past the speed bump. I always slow down after that turn and look closely to see if there are any deer loitering in the woods. A sighting is rare in the summer, but during the winter several can usually be seen lying in the snow in the woods or, if it’s dusk, moving across the road in a small herd. Sometimes Snowball stands on his hind legs to watch them, but never makes a sound as they walk by.

The parking lot is straight ahead, not far, and the road turns into a dirt lane before you get there. On weekends in summer the small lot is full of cars and in winter, large trucks hauling trailers or fishing shanties. Snowball and I prefer weekdays. Then we usually have the place to ourselves. In summer there might be one car, often someone else with a dog. In winter there are sometimes a couple of trucks with trailers for hauling 4×4 vehicles. It is a popular ice fishing area and you can see the fishing shanties spread out over the huge area of the frozen North end of Lake Mendota. Each afternoon, about the time we arrive, the fisherpeople load up their equipment on sleds and head back to their trucks on their 4x4s.

 If it’s icy I will have attached my ice gripper spikes. In winter I just wrap my scarf around my face for warmth, rather than wearing a COVID mask. Besides, we hardly see anyone walking after mid January.

Snowball blasts out of the car like he doesn’t know I will grab his leash before he gets far. If there is nobody in sight, I let him run off-leash. He trots around with his nose to the ground and leads the way to the trail. The trail is less than a mile long, but Snowball’s forays into the woods make his run about double. Snowball is an American Eskimo, and in the winter he is in his element. Once he gets on the trail, he starts out running full speed for five or ten seconds, then he flips onto his back and wiggles around in the snow for a few seconds, turns over, takes a bite of snow, and takes off again. These antics never get old; for him or for the entertainment value. Recently, someone built a snow figure near the start of the path and each time we walk, it’s more yellow. If Snowball smells a particularly fresh patch of yellow snow, he will roll in it, making a doggie angel. Soon after arriving he does his business.

At the beginning of the path one day, before the ground was snow covered, Snowball came running out of the woods with a big white bone with some red stuff still on it and dropped it at my feet. I ungratefully threw it back into the brush and to my surprise, Snowball never went looking for it again.

There is one place where the path forks to the right down to a narrow peninsula and Snowball barrels down the hill full speed. In the summer there is a little cove on the shore side where the water is perfect for Snowball’s dip. He runs into the water until it’s up to his chin and then sits down to cool off. He doesn’t like the big waves, although he has gradually gotten braver. He has a very thick set of two coats that insulate him winter and summer. When he’s done with his dip, he prances out and shakes, looking like a skinny chihuahua. If you know where to look in the hollow of one of the trees, there is a fairy bed of lashed sticks, a milkweed pod pillow and pretty abalone shells. There are duck blinds down at the end of this little peninsula in the fall. In the winter the wind chill can be pretty intense and I often skip that path, but not Snowball!.

As we progress back up along the main path, Lake Mendota is more visible. The path winds along the top of a bluff with the lake below on the right and dense thickets on the left of the path. In the summer there are often people sitting at the foot of the bluffs or in boats fishing. The city skyline is visible across the lake. As we walk around the island, the city-scape of course changes, which I find a bit disorienting. Walking back around the other side of the island, when the lake is open, I look for eagles up in the trees. When there are more people in the summer, we often get a tip, “There were eagles back there”, (pointing). Although I have only seen an eagle once, I always look, when I get to that area.

In the winter I try to spot the woodpecker we can hear, and once in a while I glimpse a cardinal or nuthatch. Winter is fun when we can see animal tracks and scat in the snow: usually deer and rabbits. Snowball typically appears quite anxious if he can’t see me. But on Governor’s Island he sometimes disappears into the brush until he hears me call his name–the magic of Governor’s Island.

I had an interesting experience this year around New Year’s. The lake was still open except for about six yards of ice out from the shore. There were a lot of geese, swans, and ducks congregating as they bulked up for migration. It was pandemonium near the parking lot. As the bird calls lessened on my walk, I heard a distinct whistle and thought, hum I’ve heard of whistling swans, it must be the swans. I could also detect a faint tinkling sound. I heard the calls again as I returned to the parking lot.

I came back several days later and the parking lot area was silent. The majority of the birds were gone, except some stragglers far out into the lake. After our walk, on our way back to the parking lot, I heard the whistling and tinkling sounds again, very nearby on the right. Not a bird in sight. I walked closer to the water to make sure I hadn’t missed a bird behind the bushes, and that’s when I realized the ice itself was making the sounds. Pure magic!

© 2021 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 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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Me and Marching Bands

By Sarah White

Forward Marching Band at the Orton Park Festival, August 2021, Madison Wisconsin

In the 1960s, a high school stood behind our house in Carmel, Indiana, separated from our yard by a chain link fence. Beyond the fence was the high school parking lot, and beyond that a building that was constantly being expanded to hold the bulging Baby Boom. Its paved surfaces waited for me like open roads. I learned to roller skate, bicycle, skate-board, and eventually drive there.

Up and down that parking lot flowed life. Crowds came to football games on October nights. Families came to pageants at Christmas. Early spring snow locked the fans in the stadium many a time during the boys’ basketball tourney. But the most intrusive element of the school’s life on ours was the marching band.

Every year in early summer, the Carmel High School Marching Greyhound Band started practicing for the Indiana State Fair Band Day competition held in August. Thirty or forty teens drilled in that parking lot. Each year, the band would learn a three-minute show piece and marching routine designed to win the competition. They would practice every morning, going over the piece of music while marching the show routine, the sound dopplering back and forth. When they added two-a-day rehearsals by midsummer, the approaching and retreating music accompanied our supper as we ate on our screened back porch.

Shouts echoed across our back fence from the band director, Mr. Loveall, through his ever-present megaphone: “Come on, don’t be a Mickey Mouse band! March 8 to 5!  Guide down your lines!  Take it from Letter B!”  Band music is the only type of live music performance where the players don’t have to worry about being too loud.  This barrage of sound was maybe 20 yards from our back door. 

After dinner I’d join my friends, a pack of half a dozen little girls from Audubon Drive. In summer 1962 I was the most recent one to master riding a bicycle—I would have been about five years old. We’d pedal around to the high school parking lot where the band was practicing. That summer, we had a mission.

Back then, majorettes—ours were known as the Carmel Coquettes—carried pompons made of tissue paper streamers. These shed strips as the girls practiced their synchronized gestures. With the perfect faith of children, we believed we could make our own pompons if we just collected enough of the fallen tissue strips. To catch them, we would circle on our bikes at one end of the parking lot and wait for the band to pass. Then, like birds after crumbs, we would dart in to pick up tissue fragments, leaning around the handlebars of our bicycles until the band reversed and approached again.

One day I failed to notice the band returning. Abandoned by the other little girls, I was suddenly engulfed, swallowed by a pattern without a space in it for me. Trombones jutted, trumpets blared, drums banged, and the sousaphones’ huge toothless mouths gaped at me. I howled with fear and embarrassment. There was my little blue bike and me, drowning in a scary noisy sea.

First the Coquettes and then the rows of instruments passed. The way I remember it, they actually went through me as if my bike and I were made of air, not steel and flesh. Not an eye turned left or right; not a hand reached down to steady me; somehow their marching feet varied from the designated pattern the minimum necessary to return to formation as soon they passed the obstacle that was me.

Why not stop and comfort a crying child? Because theirs was a serious business. In the middle of the 20th century, a high school marching band was the most visible manifestation of school spirit and carried the burden of the whole town’s pride. They had their eyes on the prize and that was winning the State Fair competition.

Had the drum major who led the band even noticed me? If he had, what could he have done? A band doesn’t turn on a dime. On the other hand, what kind of person doesn’t notice a marching band coming? I only know I haven’t changed. If one thing holds my attention nothing else can break through.

I have recently discovered the activist marching band movement, where former marchers piratically riff on the regimentation of traditional marching bands. They tend to be community-based and collectively-organized. They turn out for protests and street fairs. They dress in thrift-shop uniform bits and pieces. They make music, and out of music make a community, and out of that, bring a measure of joy to the angry business of protest. Their brassy volume demands our attention–just like the high school bands do, but for a very different goal.

When Portland, Oregon’s March Fourth Marching Band played a local summer music festival, they had me at first squeal. Dancing to their raucous brass sound, my early childhood trauma of being run over by a marching band was finally healed.

Our Madison, Wisconsin version, the Forward Marching Band, formed in 2011 in response to the epic protests surrounding our newly-elected governor’s regressive agenda. I seek them out and the spectacle never fails to delight me.  If I knew how to play a band instrument, by golly I think I’d join them.

(©  2021  Sarah White

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 Only One Shoe

By Patricia LaPointe

You awaken to see the alarm clock with its bright red numbers. It’s 2:00 AM. You walk the halls  and check each of your daughters’ rooms to be sure they’ve all returned home. One daughter is missing. You begin to worry, but remember she said she might be at Brian’s apartment.

As you return to your bed, the phone rings.

“Mom, an accident. Brian’s hurt. I only found his shoe…At the hospital…they won’t let me see him” your daughter, gasping for breath as she speaks.

You tell her to sit in the waiting room. You’ll be there soon.

As you drive to the hospital you wonder if your child was also hurt. You’re angry with yourself for not asking.

At the hospital, your daughter rushes to you. “Mom, we had a fight. He ran away. Hit by a car. I only found his shoe. They won’t let me see him.” She is hugging his shoe. You’re grateful that she doesn’t seem harmed.

A nurse takes you to his room. There are no sounds coming from the monitors still attached to his body. You look closer. It appears his neck is broken. Someone enters the room with a large black bag.

Your daughter runs to you when you return to the waiting room.

“Where is he? Is he OK? Did you talk to him? I have to go to him. I need to tell him I’m sorry.”

Before you can answer, you see out of the corner of your eye, a large black bag being wheeled down the hall. You grab your daughter and try to move her away from looking in that direction. No eighteen-year-old girl needs to see that.

It’s too late. She turns just as the black bag is passing by.

“Mom, that’s not him. It can’t be him. I have to tell him I’m sorry.”

Someone brings a bag with Brian’s belongings: a leather jacket and one shoe.

 She is trying to run into the hall. You hold her back. She collapses, sobbing, on to the floor.

These are the last sounds she makes for the next three days as she lies in bed wearing Brian’s jacket and holding onto his shoe, much as she held her stuffed animals when she was younger.

At the wake, Brian’s parents angrily demand your daughter tell them how it happened. What were you arguing about? Why didn’t you stop him from running away?

You hear their questions and move to stand beside her. She tries to speak but is sobbing and shaking.

You understand their need to know these details, perhaps to have closure. So, you answer their questions, knowing that for your daughter, closure may never come.

©  2021 Patricia LaPointe

Pat LaPointe, editor of Changes in Life, a monthly online women’s newsletter, is contributing editor of the anthology, The Woman I’ve Become: 37 Women Share Their Journeys from Toxic Relationships to Self-Empowerment. In addition, she conducts writing workshops for women — both online and onsite. Pat’s essays and short stories have been published widely. Currently, Pat is completing her first novel, forthcoming late 2021.

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Wednesdays

By Mona Jean Harley

Wednesday, March 17, 2021. I am feeling such nostalgia and wonder today as I reflect on the significance of Wednesday connections today and throughout the years. I’m working from home today, the one day per week I still work remotely during this COVID-19 pandemic. It is reminiscent of every day that I worked from home starting almost exactly one year ago, through the end of last school year. It was quite a different experience last spring to do school social work from my grown daughter’s bedroom! Years ago on Wednesdays I would play with my then young daughter in that same bedroom, and later my son would join us, when I worked part time and was home on Wednesdays. When my daughter began Kindergarten I started to volunteer in her classroom on Wednesdays, and then 4 years later I started volunteering in my son’s classroom on Wednesdays, too. During my part-time years I took a yoga class from a neighborhood yogi on Wednesdays and also an exercise class at the Y. As the kids exited elementary school and I had more quiet time on Wednesdays, I tried taking time to journal or read by the fire on chilly days, and on the breezy porch in milder weather.

I’m reminded today of another Wednesday ritual I experienced years ago, in the late ’80s. My husband and I had just moved to Madison, Wisconsin to attend graduate school, leaving our families in Indiana where we had both grown up. I remember our first apartment off of Fish Hatchery Road. On Wednesdays I had one class in the morning, then I would take the bus home. In nice weather I would get off the bus on the north side of the Beltline, walk along Fish Hatchery Road over the Beltline to our apartment, rather than spending an extra tweny minutes on the Madison Metro winding around endless frontage roads! On one of my parents’ first visits to Madison I recall my dad exclaiming that he had never seen so many roads that led to nowhere!

Upon arriving at our apartment either by foot or by bus, I would eagerly get the mail, and like clockwork, there would be a letter from Alan’s mom. She would write about the weather, church activities, her siblings who lived close by, and her second grade students. I would read the letter a second time before I picked out just the right stationery, sat down at the table, and would write a reply.

Writing letters has always been a joy of mine, the action of writing, the feel and the beauty of the perfect card or paper. When I was young one of my Christmas gifts every year from my grandma was a box of stationery. I recall Betsy Clark & Holly Hobbie notecards, and round paper stationery covered in little woodland creatures with words in a spiral stating, “We all plan to write when we get around to it, now I can do it, I’ve got a round tuit!” And in the very center of the paper was a little brown wooden coin that had the letters “t-u-i-t.” I thought that was so clever! I enjoyed writing my letter on the plain side of that stationery, in a dizzying spiral pattern. I would always save the last beautiful notecard or piece of stationery as a way to treasure the special gifts from Grandma.

My mother-in-law Dorothy talking with me on a Wednesday

Those Wednesday letters from my mother-in-law in the late 1980s transformed years later into Wednesday phone calls from her, my friend. She would still tell me about the weather, church activities, her siblings who lived close by, and sometimes stories about her former second grade students. But now she also wanted to hear stories about her two grandchildren, and she would delight in their antics.

She and I would enjoy sharing the simple life pleasures we were experiencing, with our common sensibilities growing through the years. I knew the kinds of things that would delight her…the first crocus peeking out from melting snow, an evening stroll in the light of the full moon, making her mother’s delicious bran muffins, receiving a letter or card from me.

Just today on this Wednesday, I sat down to play the piano. I opened a book of Bach music and was sight reading many compositions. I started playing a Musette, quickly realizing that I had memorized this as a teenager. The notes were rolling off of my fingers much more smoothly and fluidly than with any of the other pieces I was playing. I felt a sense of excitement and wonder that I still knew so many measures by heart, after all of these years. A sudden urge to text Dorothy, my dear second mom, leaped into my mind. In an instant I could imagine her excitement when she heard the ping from the text message, then her warm smile growing across her face as she read my text about the music that I still knew by heart, after all of these years.

In the next moment I remembered the reality that she had passed away two years ago next Wednesday, yet I knew by heart the love that we would always feel for each other.

© 2021 Mona Jean Harley

Mona Jean Harley was delighted to stumble across the “First Monday First Person” writing group in Madison Wisconsin in the fall of 2018, which has been a perfect space to become more fully inspired in writing and in paying attention to life.” Noticing connections as she experiences life is expressed in her living and writing.

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Braided Essay: Silverwood Park Responds to Dane County Parks Hours, Rules, & Information

By Sarah White

In my writing, I’ve begun to play around with patterns; one is the Braided Essay, a form that invites the weaving of a personal narrative with outside information that takes on more resonance as the essay unfolds. The following is an attempt written for a recent class I took with CreativeNonfiction.org titled “I to Eye: Integrating Research Into the Personal Essay.” In that class, I focused on writing about Silverwood Park, one of the most recent in the Dane County, Wisconsin parks system, where I have been volunteering since last July.

This is my land, my Silver Wood. If your heart is hurting, if your soul is troubled, I offer my comfort. If you are bored, I’ll divert you. If you have been too sedentary, let me put you in motion. Recreation is what I’m here for. Plus education and agriculture—aspects you won’t find in many of the 26 parks in the Dane County system. I have over 200 acres of farmland and 100 acres of woods, bordering a small lake. About half of my forest has been restored to native-only understory plants, thanks to the volunteers who groom me. I am shapely, thanks to the glaciers that passed this way, full of slopes and glades. Because I drape myself over a high ridge, I am breezy and cool, even on the hottest days. You can see for miles from my brow. Join me here and experience my welcome.

Dane County Parks Hours, Rules & Information

Report an Incident or Emergency

To contact the police, call 911 (Emergency) or (608) 255-2345 (Madison Police non-emergency dispatch). You can also report park related issues or incidents to the Dane County Parks Office (608) 224-3730.

If your visit to Silverwood Park coincides with an emergency of an existential nature, please do not call the Madison Police or Dane County Parks. Park-related existential crises are best reported to a licensed therapist. Or, for that matter, any sort of healer. If you are drawn to see nature as spiritual, a Wiccan priestess or  forest bathing guide might be particularly helpful. I hope you find help well-matched to the nature and severity of your incident or emergency.

Park Admission

Visiting and hiking in Dane County Parks is free. Some activities require a reservation or a permit.

Have you ever really thought about admission and permission? If you admit you need to be here, I permit you to come. But in exchange for that transformative letting-in, you must restrict your actions to only what we allow, the county park system and I. See Noise and Personal Conduct.

Permission is something we think about a lot here, I and my Friends of Silverwood Park. My land was deeded to the county by the last family to farm me. Irene Silverwood, the last in the line, placed a restriction on that deed: I must serve agricultural education. When you visit, you might find growers practicing innovative techniques like permaculture and agroforestry, designed not just to be sustainable but to actually regenerate the vitality my soil once had. You might find a summer camp run by the Edgerton schools. In all seasons people come to my flanks to hike or ride horses or ski, to canoe or kayak or fish, and to see what’s growing.

Noise and Personal Conduct

The use of any sound amplification device, loudspeaker, generator, or other device that produces excessively loud or unusual noise is strictly prohibited, unless a permit has been obtained and it is allowed on a particular property. No noisy, drunken, or disorderly person shall be permitted to remain on Dane County property. It’s illegal to deface, destroy, or vandalize any county property or natural growth. All controlled substances and paraphernalia, identified in Chapter 161, WI State Statutes, shall be prohibited from use or possession.

While you’re here, shhhh. And please, don’t use controlled substances. Yes, I know my parking lot is a known site for opioid sales and use. There’s Narcan in the first aid kit located in the North Shed. It’s a good thing Farmer John is a retired emergency room nurse. Most days, he’s at the park working on the perennial beds and pollinator prairies. He’ll be happy to show you how to administer the Narcan.

But really, I’m sorry if you’re that sad. Have you considered letting me heal you? Forest therapy is a real thing. In Japan, it’s called shinrin-yoku. It means taking in, using all of your senses, the forest atmosphere. Immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of my forest. If you come sit with me, I’ll show you how.

Refuse

No commercial or household waste is allowed. All litter, debris, and trailer refuse must be removed or placed in areas or containers provided.

You might be tempted to read that “refuse” as meaning “not willing.” Please don’t refuse to manage your refuse. Your household trash doesn’t belong here. While I do not want your waste or garden debris, I am quite willing to accept your emotional baggage. Please feel free to leave behind the concerns, grief, fear, and anger that you carried in. Even so, please keep your personal conduct from making work for other people or harming my land.

I have thrived for millennia without “Parks Hours, Rules & Information.” I was home to woolly mammoths and mastodon 7,000 years ago. Paleo Indians gave way to Mound builders on my watch. Ho Chunk would still be returning to harvest rice from my marshes if Norwegian and Yankee settlers hadn’t come along. George Silverwood bought me in 1849 as uncultivated prairie and savanna. He thought that meant he owned me, and could give me his name. But thanks to his grandson’s wife’s gift, today I belong to all of you. Let’s agree to get along here. The Wiccan Rede will do just fine for our rules. “And it harm none, do as ye will.”

© 2021 Sarah White

I’ll be teaching about the Braided Essay, among other ways to “play with patterns,” in my class in Creative Writing through Madison College, starting September 10. Find registration information on my Upcoming Workshops page, here.

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Practice Makes Perfect

By Faith Ellestad

Faith, Graduate, Class of 1971

College just wasn’t my thing. Come to think of it, neither was high school. My brother, one year older, was a focused, stellar student and valedictorian of his high school class. An unenthusiastic student and younger sister, I was under no delusion that I could compete with his accomplishments. Instead, I strove for mediocrity, and in that endeavor, I earned high honors.

Obviously my attitude, combined with my lack of maturity, did not prepare me well for the start of my college career. In fact, I had passively ignored most of the college application process. Eventually, my parents sat me down in front of a blank application and insisted I fill it out or start applying for a job immediately. Filling out a form for something in the distant future seemed much easier than looking for work, so I complied. Apparently, my facility with essay writing was better than I realized and to my dismay, I received a letter of acceptance to UW Whitewater. I had hoped that I could attend the local community college with my friends, but that was not to be.

At the end of August,1965, I said goodbye to my friends and was summarily shipped off to school. Knowing no one and stuck with a socially gifted and suave roommate whom I barely saw, I felt lonely and awkward. My deliberate and prolonged avoidance of study skills had left me at quite a disadvantage in class, so I sought solace in campus activities, excelling in three areas; no sleep, no study and no sense. By the end of first semester, I was on probation. I swore to my unhappy parents that next semester would be much better, and that I had learned from my mistakes. Nose to the grindstone and all that. However, over winter break, I had met my first serious boyfriend and made the rather unfortunate choice to pursue romance over scholarship.

Shortly after the start of second semester, I was sent home with the curse of college freshmen, mono. A week later I returned to school, again swearing my fealty to the pursuit of education. Not a quick study in the “learn from your mistakes” department, I promptly took up my old ways, and what I thought would be a hilarious, nose thumbing disregard of dorm rules turned out to be my downfall. My boyfriend and I had decided to take the screen off my window and allow him and a friend to climb into my room. My new roommate and I would help them in, and share a beer before they climbed back out. Naturally, someone tattled, and we were caught. I would have been expelled immediately, had I not seen the Dorm Assistant, sneak her own boyfriend into her room on more than one occasion. I was able to use that helpful information to save my ass from the humiliation of parent notification. But still, I didn’t study as I had promised, and at the end of the semester, I was notified that I’d flunked out.

Now, I would have to tell my parents. I tried to think of a way to explain this to them without sounding as though it was any big deal, but in my panicked state, I did not choose the most soothing terminology in my call home.

“Hello?’

“Hi, Mom?”

“Hello, Faith, how are you?” Mom replied.

“Uh, well, I’m calling to tell you I’m in a bit of trouble,” I explained shakily.

 “What? Oh, how could you! Jim, Jim, come take the phone! “she shrieked. “Faith is in trouble. How could she do this to us!”

Hmm, this wasn’t going the way I had visualized. Mom had immediately decided I was pregnant. Maybe I could have phrased things a mite differently.

Dad came on the line.

“Faith, it’s Dad.” (Oh, really?) “You’d better tell me what’s going on. What kind of trouble? Your mother is terribly upset.”

“Well, it’s not that bad,” I said. “Its just that I won’t be going back to Whitewater. I sort of flunked out”. I thought it was best not to mention that I was almost kicked out.

“Charlotte, it’s not that kind of trouble. She just had poor grades, and didn’t pass probation.” Dad’s explanation made my news almost palatable to Mom.

“Oh. Well she could have said that.”

Lesson learned. I’m a good student l when I have to be.

I spent much of the ensuing summer talking my way into the local college I had wanted to attend in the first place. That first semester, despite my initial resolve, I ended up spending the majority of my time in the student lounge majoring in Canasta. It takes a lot of practice to learn to play Canasta well. But that didn’t help my dismal GPA, and I was let go.

 I thought it might be wise to find a job before mentioning this debacle to my parents. Having learned that words matter, I chose them carefully when the time came. I explained that I didn’t feel mature enough to continue, and wanted to work for a while before I tried again. They were intelligent people and read between the lines, but aside from disapproving sighs and pursed lips, they didn’t say too much while I toiled diligently as a hospital aide for the rest of the year.

The semester following my educational break, I managed to talk myself into the UW, thanks to an excellent reference from my boss. This time I meant business. I would finally buckle down, study every day, go to the library and become the student I knew I could be. Except, I had roommate trouble, I had to drop my Spanish classes because I couldn’t locate them, and the library was pretty close to the Kollege Klub, where my brother hung out. Oops, another flunk-out.

My furious mother decided to take matters into her own hands and, ignoring my protests, enrolled me in Edgewood College the following semester. Normally, I would not have qualified, but she knew the poet-in residence there which was apparently enough to get me in. I hated it, and Edgewood did not like me much, either. We parted company after that first semester, but this time, I hadn’t quite flunked out, and was able to negotiate a year’s leave with continued probation so I might have a way back in if I so chose.

I was getting pretty good, I felt, at breaking the news to my parents. This would be at least the fourth incident, maybe the fifth. I didn’t even feel particularly out of breath or sweaty, now, when I started my lame explanations. They did not seem terribly surprised, either. But just to be on the safe side, before dropping out this time, I applied for a job teaching Head Start. What a relief when I was hired, and able to tell my parents I was still eligible (barely) to return to Edgewood, which I could now pay for myself.

That year, I turned twenty-three, and over the winter, had met my future spouse. A couple of years of low-paying, difficult jobs, and the thought of actually having a future were the catalysts I needed to finally complete my degree. So, after fulfilling my contract with Head Start, I engineered my return to Edgewood. The final year was a tough slog since Edgewood and I did not share a religious or life philosophy. But I persevered, got married, student taught, and graduated, Class of 1971.

As I marched on stage in my cap and gown, fighting my customary stress-induced migraine, I glimpsed my parents standing next to my husband in the audience.

All of us were sporting expressions not of ebullience, but relief that this long, painful ordeal was finally over.

Actually, Mom and Dad looked older than I remembered.

© 2021 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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My Mother’s Rug

By Kaye Ketterer

Round and round she walks while saying, “come on Mua Mua, follow me. Stay on the track.” This is often a scene when my granddaughter Elena is at my house. She uses the braided rug in my piano room as a track and walks around and around the circle until she tires.

Elena doesn’t know that the rug she walks on was made by my mother some fifty years ago. It almost didn’t survive living in a damp basement for close to twenty years and then a few years more stuffed in a box kept in storage.

I never thought much about the rug until I was cleaning out my parents’ house after my dad went into a nursing home and my mother was moving into an independent living apartment. My brother was in the process of buying our family farm from my parents and he wanted to rent the farmhouse, so it was important that everything be cleared out. I remember working in the basement and finding a shoe box full of negatives, probably from every picture my parents ever took with their camera. I also found toys and games from my childhood, lots of house plants, books, and furniture. In one room there was this big box and when I opened it there was the wool braided rug my mother had made many years ago. It wasn’t in good shape. My thoughts went from “throw it away”, to “oh take it and see if any of it can be salvaged”. I went with the latter.

I’m not sure why my mother made a wool braided rug. She was very talented and had saved many wool coats to cut up and use for this rug. It would have been so much easier to buy new material, but not my mother. She cut the old coats and jackets and even my cousin’s air force uniform into 2-inch strips and rolled them into a round tube-like snake and then sewed the seam of the snake. I remember her cutting up old nylons into strips to fill this snake, so it was a very even tube. Then when she had three “snakes” all sewn, she braided them together. When the three-strand braid became really long, my mother began using a heavy rug thread to connect the three strands of braid, carefully fashioning a round rug. I remember when the rug became too big to work on while sitting in a chair. She moved it to the floor of our dining room and would sit on the floor sewing and braiding it.

Besides the Air Force uniform from my cousin making up the rug, I remember the green and black plaid wool jacket my Dad wore, and many brown wool coats and a light brown wool suit my mother had from her younger days. All these pieces of clothing were saved and went into the rug. The rug seemed to get big very quickly, although for my mother it probably seemed like years! It was finally very round and probably 8X10 feet and was given a home on the wood floor of our dining room in our old farm house. Our dining room was big, so it wasn’t under the table, but off to the side where my mother had a few chairs, and it was a nice sitting nook.

This rug had and still has depth and quality. It isn’t flat like a store-bought rug. It holds up to its age and workmanship. I never thought I would have it in my home, but it brings warmth and love to me and my family. My parents built a new house in 1984 and had mostly carpet in the house, so it was sensible to pack it away, although the basement probably wasn’t the best place for it to be kept. When I finally inspected it and saw the work that went into it, I knew I had to keep it and use it. The rug got aired outside a lot, I re-connected many of the braided strips, and sometimes even now I have to sew them together again!

Just recently I noticed one of the wool strips was really worn and coming apart. I got down on the floor and mended it but also saw many places where the wool strips are becoming threadbare. It made me a little sad, but also grateful for having the rug for almost twenty-five years. I never expected this rug to last forever, and I know my mother is incredibly happy knowing I have enjoyed it and it is seen and commented on by people who visit my home. Mother, you did good work!

 

©  2021 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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My Father: The Farmer In His Dell

By Kurt Baumann

People familiar with Sherlock Holmes stories may not know that he had a brother. Only devoted fans know his brother, Mycroft, seven years older than Sherlock, had superior powers of deduction, but was unsuited for detective work because he had no ambition or energy. The only exercise he got was when he walked from his apartment to the government offices where he worked, stayed at the London club he helped found, the Diogenes Club, from five o’clock until twenty of eight, and then went back home—a routine he seldom changed.

Everybody has a circle they live in, from when they wake up through a regular routine during the day to when they go to sleep. This circle includes a status quo of activities whether job, school, or trying to find a way to stay alive to get through the day, involving a regular crowd of people they know, that are part of their status, and ones they avoid.

My father’s dell, or circle, was land of I-forget-how-many acres and a herd of I-forget-how-many dairy cows. It was the world to him. As long as he was on that farm, he was in control. When he left it, the world was in charge of him and he was handicapped. The fact that my grandfather owned it and his brother, my uncle, would probably inherit it made no difference. He was the self-appointed foreman.

Not The Farm, but a landscape like it, image courtesy of Wisconsin Public Radio, altered in Photoshop

My father was born, lived, and died a farmer. Whether he worked as a heavy equipment operator or other jobs, whether he owned his own business, whether he lived with my mother, during their marriage, his children in their Wausau ranch-style house or apartment instead of his family’s century farm made no difference. He was a farmer born and bred. It was his life and his soul. His farmer’s soul would remain intact.

It’s hard to picture my father when he wasn’t working or living on The Farm. Sometimes he mentioned things he did before his marriage. Once he took a road trip to (I think) Arizona as part of a job on a work crew and had to stay in a fleabag hotel. When he met my mother at the wedding of Normie Doggs, the Polka King, he was working for a construction company becoming an expert in heavy equipment, earning the nickname “The Spider.” I didn’t know how he came by that tag until his funeral. It seems that he could bend his leg, step on a bulldozer, and pulling himself up like a spider.

When he went into his own business, he designed a business card that had two ends of a twenty dollar bill on one side and his name, nickname, and address on the other. Regrettably, he was a better heavy equipment operator than he was a businessman and his business went under.

For him, The Farm, as we all referred to it, was the only place that he felt at home.  When his life would become too complicated, it was the only place he could retreat into. It would become his priority, his obsession, taking the place of supporting a wife and three children, rent, and whatever bills that needed paying. Since he was the oldest, he felt entitled to The Farm when my grandfather died. To challenge his unstable, abusive nature would be a mistake.  No amount of begging or nagging on my mother’s part would dissuade him. His farmer’s soul remained intact.

Every morning, during summers, before the sun came up, he’d rise, prodding me to do likewise and at end of the day when the sun went down, he’d drive himself and me back to our home. It was dark when we got up and dark when we finished.

Chores in the morning and evening included milking the cows. The herd knew the routine and would be at the barn by milking time, when my job was to help herd them in, fasten the tethers when they were in their stalls, and scrape the dirt and manure from the floor. After the morning chores were done, we’d go back to our home in Theresa, have breakfast, and go back to The Farm.    

During the day there was planting corn, harvesting hay bales, and unloading them. There would be picking stones in the field to for crops to grow. Work filled the days and my father felt it was more important for me do that than enjoy myself reading books or spending time at the Library.

Dad outlived his father, his brother, and bought out his sister’s shares of The Farm and achieved his dream of owning it. There is a saying that goes: “Be careful what you wish for—you might get it.” Besides money, my father had sacrificed everything to get The Farm—including a wife and three kids who wanted nothing more to do with him. His volatile, abusive nature which he had used had driven the people who cared about him away.

The barn which had housed at least forty dairy cows was empty, though he did try to keep one. The roads were overrun with weeds, and the machinery and vehicles were old. He was the owner and sole occupant of The Farm. In the end, he had to parcel it off in an auction acre by acre, leaving only the house that he and generations of his family grew up in. Eight years after that he would have to sell that too.

He spent the remaining years of his life living in an upstairs apartment in Iron Ridge, Wisconsin. He died alone and no one knew of his death until they smelled his rotting corpse from his apartment. He may not have lived on The Farm—but he died with the soul of a farmer.

©  2021 Kurt Baumann

Since 1983, Kurt Baumann has lived in Beaver Dam involved in his community theater, church, and contributor 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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Truth Or Lie?

By Marlene B. Samuels

“Mom, what happened to your breast?” the girl asked periodically when she was a child. She became ever more persistent as she was maturing and gaining a natural awareness of her own female attributes.

“The S.S. guards caught me stealing food,” her mother answered each time, without the slightest variation. “They beat me viciously and Dorothea Bintz — the most sadistic S.S. woman of them all — got me right across my left breast with a pry-bar. It severed my nipple and part of that breast.”

Decades passed. Her mother died far too young, her brutal truths buried with her.

My parents in Germany, post liberation. 1946.
My mother often hid the top part of her body in photos, a subconscious self-protective stance.  

The girl, about the same age as her mother had been when she died, visited her brother, four years older than she. Her brother was their mother’s confidant. Always, the girl envied their special relationship.

“You know about Mom, right?” he asked her during their visit.

“So what, exactly, about mom are you referring to?”

“That she was experimented on in the camps. That’s the reason she was missing part of her left breast.”

The girl gasped. “Are you sure? I don’t believe it. Why didn’t I ever hear about it?”

“Maybe she didn’t want you to know,” he said. “Why do you think she was so deformed? Any way, what did she tell you happened to her?” the girl’s brother asked.

“That she was beaten by that sadistic S.S. guard, Bintz. She caught Mom stealing food when the women inmates were unloading a supply barge.”

“You do realize Mom lied to you, right?” the brother asked.

The girl suddenly felt sick to her stomach, as though she might vomit. She was simultaneously shocked and devastated. But then a new feeling emerged: anger. She was furious that her mother had lied to her for so many years. The girl began to share those new feelings with her brother.

He remained quiet for a few minutes, enveloped by a calmness with which she was unfamiliar.

“I have three children and you have two, right? So what would you have told your kids if you had endured such inhumanity, such unbelievable atrocities? Do you think, for one second, you would have told them truth?” he asked.

“Never! Not in a million years!” she said, recognizing yet another feeling was emerging—new understanding.

© 2021 Marlene B. Samuels

Marlene Samuels earned her Ph.D. from University of Chicago where she serves on the Advisory Council to the Graduate School, Social Sciences Division. A research sociologist and instructor, Marlene is conducting research, with partner Pat LaPointe, for their anthology about female-to-female relational aggression. Marlene edited and coauthored The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival, is author of When Digital Isn’t Real: Fact Finding Off-Line for Serious Writers, and is completing her book, Ask Mr. Hitler: A Memoir Told In Short Story. Marlene’s essays and stories have been published widely including in Lilith Magazine, Our Echo, Story Circle Network Anthologies, Iowa Summer Writers’ Anthology and others. Marlene divides her time between Chicago and Sun Valley, Idaho with her amazing, emotionally-supportive Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Ted and George. 

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Leila, Lost and Found

 By Mary Ellen Gambutti

In 1957, at age six, I learned from my adoptive parents about the “lost ones” whom I might never meet. My worry and wondering peaked at forty with anxiety that would only be quelled by knowing. 

On a September 1993 morning flight between Lehigh Valley and Greenville-Spartanburg airports, I gazed out my window at a new chapter. I’d soon be reunited with Leila, the mother who gave me life. My pulse quickened as the escalator glided down to the baggage carousel, where I spotted my welcoming party. A woman beamed and waved. Karen, my half-sister, called my name in the drawl I recognized from our phone calls since my search bore fruit. After I’d contacted Karen, Leila reluctantly admitted her forty-year-old secret that was me. Yes, she had given birth to a girl when her firstborn was two. The nuns in St. Francis hospital would take care of her baby, and find her a good home. She named the newborn after her sister-in-law, Ruth, and her sister, Ann.

My heart pounded as I stepped off grinning. When I’d spoken with Leila by phone, she seemed sweetly joyful, and Karen assured me ‘Momma’ wanted the reunion. The “lost ones” I’d conjured, imagined since childhood, resembled me more closely than my welcoming group, and a sense of unreality overtook me. Karen introduced me to Barbara, my slender niece; nephews, Josh—a tall, burley middle-schooler–and Daniel, his affable elder brother. They hugged me warmly in turn.

Karen looped her left arm under her mother’s right elbow in support. “This is Momma, Leila Grace.” Leila had insisted on standing from her wheelchair. She smiled at me. The large woman was my mother, too. I’d heard her Gospel songs in the womb, felt her inflections; the laughter that rocked her, her fury, and tears, and her tentative touch before the nurse swaddled and took me away. Emotion filled her moist, puffy eyes. Was it a recollection? Regret? Or pang of pride? The panic and anxiety I’d likely inherited? I took charge of our feelings and wrapped my arms around her. “Hello, Momma! So good to see you!” She yielded to my warmth, and murmured something, not meant for me, but for the gods. Her natural affection couldn’t replace a lifetime of nurturing by my adoptive mother. She had dared not hope the infant she’d left behind would return to her one day.

At Karen’s home an hour later, my sister prepared a simple meal for us all. I chatted with Leila as she rested in the recliner, her left leg prosthesis showing below her blue pastel pants. The cruel red streak of her dialysis shunt scar was visible below the right sleeve of her floral cotton blouse. Her salt and pepper hair was cut short and tightly permed for the occasion, while Momma chittered happily in a high, soft voice like a gentle bird. We squeezed together at the kitchen table and tucked into fried chicken, biscuits, gravy, green beans, sweet tea, and store-bought apple pie. Our feast, prepared in generosity, was a celebration of family love. 

From left: Mary Ellen, Leila, Karen.
We are all the same height: 5’7″

After dinner, we perused photo albums and found a few pictures of Leila in her twenties and thirties, aunts and uncles I’d never know, and Karen’s children as they grew up. None of my father–maybe Leila recognized him in me—maybe there was a secret photo stashed away.

Karen and I talked long into the night from twin beds, and she shared stories that connected us. Leila had left her with her mother and father until her brother and his wife took her in. “Momma would come and go.” Karen moved in with her father in her teens, and she married young. 

Several months before our reunion, Karen had driven to Texas to assess Leila’s living situation. Her husband of thirty-seven years had been dead for two years. The daughter she had with him, our young half-sister, Susan—was epileptic, and drowned when she was sixteen in a San Antonio creek. Alone and in poor health, Leila had stepped on an insulin needle. First her foot, then her leg were amputated. Karen brought her back to South Carolina after her rehabilitation. Was it synchronicity, or the pull of souls that brought us together at that moment?

Taken at Antioch cemetery. lFrom left: my half-sister, Karen, cousins Lawrence and Helen, and Leila, my birth mother.

Karen, Leila, and I began to bond during our first reunion in Greenville, South Carolina, the place where we all were born. Momma took her walker, and we moved among the many antique gravestones of our ancestors in Antioch, Standing Springs, and Rocky Creek churchyards. I was determined to learn the truth of my identity, my heritage, and to find my maternal family. My pre-internet quest and discovery, laid the groundwork for finding my paternal family through DNA testing four years ago.

Leila felt she wasn’t able to keep me. Her parents were taking care of Karen, and their livelihood of tenant farming and mill work just sustained them. Leila Grace Cox passed away one year after our reunion. I’m so glad I found her, and the love I lost.

© 2021 Mary Ellen Gambutti

Mary Ellen writes about her life as an adopted Air Force daughter, her reunion with her biological family, her gardening career, and her survival of brain trauma at mid-life. Her stories have appeared in these and other literary journals: The Remembered Arts Journal, Modern Creative Life, Halcyon Days, Memoir Magazine, Borrowed Solace, mac(ro)mic, The Drabble, and Portland Metrozine. Her memoir is in progress. More: http://linktr.ee/SCMel

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