Person or Persons of Interest

By Faith Ellestad

Australia had come to the Milwaukee Zoo in the summer of 1984, and there was no way our kids were going to miss the opportunity to see the koala. As it was on loan for only a brief interval, our window of opportunity was closing quickly. Time was of the essence.  We needed to secure vacation days, arrange for dog care, find some money and attempt to work out a plan that would fulfill everyone’s expectations.  Our family trips generally included a weather component, and this one was no exception.  We managed to choose the hottest day of the year to date for our trip.

Locked in by vacation requests, we couldn’t capriciously wait for cooler weather, so attired in our lightest summer wear, we headed south.  Anticipation grew as the boys read the “X miles to Milwaukee County Zoo“ road signs. About 25 miles from the zoo, we passed the town of Delafield where I noted a McDonalds atop a hill, and my husband noted the car was running a little hot.  I decided I could wait til we got to the Zoo to use the restroom, and he decided that it would be prudent to turn off the AC   and put less stress on the engine.  Windows wide open, we cruised into the Zoo parking lot, purchased our tickets and headed straight to the Koala exhibit.

There we joined a line of hot, sweaty patrons, moving slowly in the nearly-hundred-degree heat. Eventually we made it to the rather steamy exhibit window and discovered what was taking so long.  Koalas, unlike humans, are unwilling to risk dehydration or heatstroke for the sake of an educational experience. They were keeping themselves well insulated within the canopy of leafy branches that was their temporary home, barely visible to the naked eye.  But we held our ground, staked our claim and waited stubbornly until eventually one of the adorable marsupials decided to move just within viewing range. I suspect he had been still so long he’d gotten a cramp in his little leg and needed to stretch, luckily for us. We had a brief but satisfactory view of an entire koala, and were ready to move on in search of cold sodas

Lordy it was hot!  After draining our beverages, crunching all the ice, and rubbing the cold wet cups on our foreheads, we resumed our tour.  First up, restrooms, then to the zoo map to plan our route.  Hippos, of course, reptiles, miscellaneous exhibits along the way, and a request by our older son to visit the Big Cat exhibit where the white tiger, a recent addition to the zoo lineup, was housed. 

Before taking on yet another jaunt, we needed sustenance.  You can’t go to the zoo and not have a hot dog.  We did pass on the cotton candy, though, due to the likelihood of inciting a swarm of bees which were lying in wait around the trash cans for just such an opportunity.  It was now late afternoon, and the temperature had risen above 100 degrees. Everyone agreed that a visit to the aviary and a quick detour to view the white tiger would round out our day, meshing nicely with closing time.  The aviary was blessedly cool, and we tarried there a little longer than we’d planned, purchasing, to the boys’ delight, a second round of sodas from a welcoming vending machine.  When it came time for the visit to the Big Cat exhibit, the six year-old suddenly demurred.  He did not want to go there.  He was hot, tired and anxious.  Ultimately, his dad and brother made the toasty trek to the tiger environs while we rested in the relative comfort of the bird house. 

Soon they were back and we immediately headed for the car. Still mindful of overheating the engine, we opted to leave the AC off and allow the breeze from the open windows to cool us off naturally as we headed onto the highway back toward home.  At first, all went well, but soon, the engine began to run hot.  We pulled off on a frontage road to allow it to cool down, and started out again.  We were about twenty miles out of Milwaukee, when the engine began to chug, and then to steam.  Once more, we pulled off to let it cool down, and started the drive again.  But the car was barely moving at all by this point. Blessedly, as the engine temperature passed the red zone, we noted the Delafield exit right in front of us, took the off-ramp, and lurched slowly into a service station at the edge of town.  A mechanic there told us the thermostat was fried, there was no way to fix it at that hour, and no way that car would get us back to Madison. My spouse negotiated with him order a part, do the repair, and let us know when it was ready. A few days at least.

Ah, this was a bit of a pickle, as a condiment lover might opine. There were, of course, no cell phones back then, we had used all but three dollars and some loose change at the zoo, and it appeared to be about closing time in Delafield.  8 pm seemed early to us, but then we were city folk.  All we could find open was a convenience store, fortunately air-conditioned, where we huddled while figuring out what to do.  Ultimately, we realized our only option was to call my mother-in-law in Madison for help.  She graciously agreed to come down and pick us up, but it would take a while.  Our plan to sit tight in the quickie-mart until she arrived was short-lived when we were brusquely informed that the store was closing in 5 minutes.  Did we want to make any last-minute purchases?  Yes.  We bought a mini-snack and comic book for each of the boys, leaving us with less than a dime for emergencies, and went outside in search of a spot to settle in and wait for our rescuer. 

Grandma Maxine with Faith’s younger son

Well, as there were no benches or little parks nearby, we eventually seated ourselves on some low cement walls surrounding the town square.  Almost immediately, we became, apparently, the most interesting thing to ever occur in Delafield on a Friday night.  People began driving around the square in their cars staring at us, some making several loops in case they missed something the first time around.  A group of several adults gathered in a tight knot across the square, gawking at the strangers.  Little kids pointed at us.  We began to feel more and more  awkward and unwelcome as time passed, at least we parents did; the boys, immersed in their comic books, didn’t seem similarly affected. It appeared that Delafield, at least back in the 80’s was a very close-knit community, and they knew interlopers when they saw them.  We couldn’t have been more conspicuous had we been green and sporting antennae.  Look. Aliens. 

We had nowhere to go, so just alternately stood and sat for over an hour in full view of the curious citizens of greater Delafield, until, finally, blessedly, a blue Buick Century hove into sight, driven by my husband’s mom, accompanied by his Uncle Bof.  The kids were delighted to see Grandma and ride in her relatively new car, which held five fairly comfortably.  Of course, there were actually six of us, but so grateful to be out of the public eye and thankful to our rescuers, no one complained as we squeezed ourselves in.  I buckled my younger son onto my lap to make space, and without a single wave goodbye to the curious town-folk of Delafield, we headed back to Madison, in smooth, reliable, air-conditioned comfort.  I suppose they were disappointed when the persons of interest were rounded up and taken away, but oh, well, we were a one-time only spectacle.  Too bad for them.

Thank you in memoriam, Maxine and Uncle Bob.  I don’t know what we would have done without you that crazy night.

You might think I’d have come up with a plan in case such a thing ever happened again, but I haven’t. The optimist in me says we’ll just figure it out. Brave thought, now that we have cell phones and credit cards.  Oh, yes, and a new car.

© 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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Happily Ever Older, by Moira Welsh

By Sarah White

I met some neighbors for beers last weekend. The topic turned to where we might live when we could no longer manage our old two-story homes or afford the property taxes in our gentrifying neighborhood. One had been motorcycling in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, and proposed her idea. “I see all these closed motel-supper clubs. We should buy one, rehab the units for efficiency apartments, and run the supper club for income to support us.” The idea aligned with something I’ve been thinking about—the hippie commune reimagined with senior care included.

I’ve been interested in what becomes of us in old age since I first began to sense my mother’s increasing fragility. Three years of serving as her aide de camp in assisted living before she died only intensified my concern: How are we preparing for the wave of Baby Boomers who will sooner or later need care? We have re-imagined every life stage we’ve encountered: can we revolutionize this one, too? From this mindset, I was delighted to discover Happily Ever Older: Revolutionary Approaches to Long-Term Care by Moira Welsh.

This may seem like an odd choice to review for a blog focused on true life stories. But look at it this way: Our decisions as individuals, in groups, and as societies, create the context for our life stories. What we decide about how and where we live our last chapters impacts everything about those stories. Our degree of hope or despair about the conditions we are likely to live in at the end affect us long before we move into that assisted living facility.

Moira Welsh profiles eight initiatives—call them projects, or thought leaders, or prototypes—held together with a common thread of hope and a common focus on dementia. She writes in her introduction, “The focus of my research turned toward people with memory loss, although the intention was not to overlook stories of those who are frail but still mentally sharp. In many ways, it is in the field of dementia care where innovation is happening.” (While I resent that the lion’s share of government funding for aging research has gone to dementia studies, starving research on the cognitively-healthy elderly, I believe that when the frailest among us are well cared for, everyone is likely to be well cared for. So okay, let’s see what’s up with dementia care in assisted living.)

Moira Welsh is an investigative reporter at the Toronto Star who has spent nearly two decades writing about nursing homes.  Her book is curiously personal; her own problems concerning her aging parents’ wellbeing threads through it. If a reader doesn’t bring her own backstory of worry, Welsh’s personal story provides a ready-made one. But most of us do have concerns about an elder or two, and of course there’s always future-you to worry about. As a child-free person, it’s on me to plan my last chapter.

Welsh’s book grew out of writing about the Butterfly Effect, and that is the topic of the first chapter. This approach, which began in the UK and is spreading across the globe, lives the promise of person-centered care. It’s a culture shift that replaces the institution as the primary metaphor with a home-like model where boundaries and barriers are removed. Routines are relaxed, feelings are prioritized, and “herding” of people from one place or activity to another is replaced with freedom and flexibility. All good, so far!

Chapter Two cover Dr. Bill Thomas’s work with The Eden Alternative and the Greenhouse Project, similar initiatives that focus on de-institutionalizing eldercare. I’ve been following Dr. Thomas’s work in anti-ageism for some time, and was pleased to see the work he and his colleagues are doing accurately represented.

Subsequent chapters examine various approaches to making dementia care more humane, with some interesting probing of the ethics of creating “fake” environments like an idealized 1950s town square to help the memory-challenged feel more at home. A chapter explores the uses of virtual reality in senior care settings, where the confluence of technology and Boomer buying power is driving some fascinating developments. These include virtual exposure to natural environments that people could not otherwise access. This is music to my ears. (See this article I wrote for Next Avenue earlier this year.)

As a person of white privilege, I am squarely in the target of the senior care industry. We are the people paying the assisted living facilities—not the elderly poor, who are often nonwhite, and whose care is provided by family, often at great personal cost to women. Cyberpunk author William Gibson famously said, ““The future is already here–it’s just not evenly distributed.” Let’s hope the future that is already here, described in Happily Ever Older, is distributed with greater equity than now exists.

But now, back to the problem of facility and program design. What would YOU like your penultimate resting place to be like?

Me, I’m moving to the Northwood Retirement Lodge and having a Brandy Old Fashioned before supper. You’ll find me under the taxidermy moose head, enjoying the view of “the land of sky-blue waters.”

©  2021 Sarah White

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Reality Check

Photo courtesy of https://unsplash.com/@dnnsbrndl

By Paul Johnson

Got a call from an old colleague the other day.

We hadn’t talked on the phone for some time. A couple of years back, he and his wife moved to Arizona, where they had wintered a time or two. They liked it. We’ve been keeping in touch via email. That’s the way it’s done in the early 21st century.

We exchanged the usual pleasantries. Then we got down to business. I knew he had something serious on his mind. Otherwise, why not just get on the gmail?

“Paul,” he said, “I’m wondering how you talk to someone with Alzheimer’s. I saw your note about Bob and I’m sure you saw the email about Pat and I was wondering what you’re doing about that. I’ve got this friend, too, who has Alzheimer’s, and I just don’t know really how to talk to him or what to do.”

“Well, J– ,” I started to say.

“I guess I really want to know, ‘What would Paul do?’” he said, buttering me up.

I thought to myself, I’m not Jesus, but I was flattered that Joe was asking.

Serious questions. We’d faced them before. More than we like. But at our age, we’re gonna be asking these kinds of questions a lot more.

In Pat’s case, I had already acted. Pat was another colleague. Her luck is about to run out. The doctors gave her months to live. And we know how that goes. It’s just a guess. It could stretch to a year. It might be days. All we really know is that her time is running out.

Someone sent a note around on the email chain of former colleagues asking people to contribute to a compilation of memories of Pat. It would be given to her family to for Pat to peruse in her final days. Thoughtful. Compassionate. Something her family could look back at after she’s gone and savor the legacy, know that Pat was respected and loved by those who worked with her. Very nice idea.

I spurned it.

I decided to just write a personal note to Pat. With my own personal, private feelings. I had mailed it before Joe called. I didn’t need to conform to this compilation idea. I’m gonna do it my way. How arrogant.

I told Joe what I had done to satisfy my own selfish notions of how to communicate to someone who’s about pass on to the next dimension. And I said the compilation is a sweet idea. And perhaps to save face I said there is no reason one couldn’t do both. He kindly agreed and said he had already sent his contribution to the compilation. Time was of the essence.

But Joe was really calling about Bob and his friend with Alzheimer’s. He had already done what he could for Pat.

The question now was, really, what we could do about our friends whose reality no longer meshes with the reality we see — the reality we think they should see? How do we talk to them? How do we converse? How do we connect? Can we connect?

In Bob’s case, things seemed to go to hell in a hurry, but as in most things, it was a long time coming.

He and his wife of more than a half-century moved to assisted living, after holding out on their own for way too long, in our opinion, with Bob taking care of Joanie, who was physically frail and mentally tenuous. Truer love there never was. But Bob was exhausted by the time they moved. And apparently worse.

Days after the move, Bob fell. Broke some ribs. Next day. Joanie fell. Broken hip. I’m told it is usually the hip that breaks, causing the fall. Bob’s ribs healed. Joanie hip didn’t.

In a week or so, Joanie’s dead. Bob’s daughter says he had a breakdown, just like that. He’s now in a different reality.

He’s in memory care. He’s happy. He might not know who you are, his daughter says.

I talked to Bob the day before Joe called. He sounds chipper. His voice is good. He says he remembers me. To be honest, I’m not sure he did. We talk. He says, “I was wondering how you’ve been.” He talks about Joanie. He asks about my wife, but he’s not sure of her name. He remembers things about her, but he was having trouble thinking of her name. I mention some other people we worked with. He recalls some, he asks me to clue him in a little better on others. Steer him to that memory.

Then he tells me some stories. Don’t know how factual they are. They seem a little weird, but possible. He’s got the same chuckle. I can picture the impish grin that goes with it. He struggles to get some of the details out, pausing to try to recall, perhaps hoping I can help him fill in the blanks. I don’t know. Never will. He’s glad I called. We agreed I will visit when the weather is nicer and we can sit outside. Covid is still on my mind, even though the memory care people say everybody’s vaccinated and they take precautions. Bob always liked to be outside. We’ll get together when it’s warm enough to be outdoors for an extended period.

I relate some of this to Joe.

He relates his dilemma with his friend. And it IS a dilemma. There’s no good answer. Joe’s 2,000 miles away from his friend. His friend has no business living alone. His wife is dead. He misses her. Another friend reports he has taken up smoking again. Burn marks around the house. There’s the dementia. Or is it Alzheimer’s? There’s a difference, we understand. We just don’t understand enough.

Joe’s friend is still driving. His friend’s daughter has put a tracking device on his car so she can always find it. She’s aware of it all. Dad doesn’t want to move. Gets ornery at any such suggestion.

Joe’s wondering, how can he get through to his friend? Can he get through to his friend? They share a love of cars. Is that something that can help ground his friend? Maybe open some door where he will agree with his daughter that he should move out of that house, before it becomes a 9-1-1 call?

I got nothing. There are no good answers. There are no universal answers. What seems to be working for Bob ain’t the answer for Joe’s friend, who will literally fight it.

So Joe and I moved on to other topics, agreeing that all we can really do is try to connect with our friends whose reality no longer matches reality as we see it. And hope they can be safe and happy until their days run out. They’re living too, with their own version of reality.

©  2021 Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife Diana. His version of reality is that he is mostly retired after spending much of his adult working life in newsrooms and corporate communications shops.

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A Girl Scout Troop’s Adventures Abroad in 1949: Part 3 of 3

Come along as Barb Gilbertson experiences the “branching point” of a lifetime. To read Part 1, click here. To read Part 2, click here.

By Barb Gilbertson

Ten days on board a ship!  What a beginning to our three-and-one-half-month adventure.

The SS Samaria had been a luxury liner but was converted to a troop ship during World War II, and then after the war converted back–somewhat.  We slept in a dormitory type room…15 in one room!…but what did we know and what did we care? We were young and healthy and thrilled to be on this trip.

We loved the food, the attention of the waiters, the other young people on board, the movies, the tea on deck, playing shuffleboard etc….all in between our studying currency of the countries we were to visit, French idioms, etc.

We thought it hilarious when during a bit of inclement weather the tea cups slid off the cart on which they were piled..out on deck…right into the ocean!  We were not similarly amused when the same storm produced within some of us that dreaded malady “seasickness”.  However it was short lived.

We were met at Tilbury Docks, where we disembarked, by our pen pals from the Girl Guide Troop from Faversham, Kent. We spent some days in their homes, two of us to a home, and then camped with them nearby and then on to London where we stayed in the Girl Guide Hostel.  

We were escorted around by another group of Guides, seeing all the London sights: Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, St. Paul’s Cathedral..which in 1949 was still surrounded by rubble from bombings, the changing of the guard, the Tower of London, London Bridge etc. At this time the current Queen Elizabeth was Princess Elizabeth, her father, the King, still alive. We got to have a glimpse of her on a trip to Buxton when she and Prince Philip were being driven through the city and waving at the people…including us!  This was all very heady stuff for high school girls from the United States.

Lady Baden Powell

One of the most exciting things that happened  for us while in London was going to the apartment of Lady Baden Powell, the widow of Lord Baden Powell, the founder of Boy Scouting; she herself having started the Girl Guide movement.  We 12, along with various BBC radio people all squeezed into her elegant apartment to be interviewed and to have tea.  Because her husband had been knighted, she was granted housing for life in Hampton Court Palace.

Then across the channel to the continent and the remainder of our trip in Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, France and Germany…camping or staying in hostels and always interacting with Girl Guides from each place.  In Adelboden, Switzerland we stayed for 10 days in the International Girl Scout Chalet along with girls from several other countries.

In Brussels–the girl in the big hat is Ginette, our inspiration.
the Girl Guide Chalet Adelboden, Switzerland.

Once our indefatigable leader Emily got started, she took six more groups to Europe in the ensuing years.  I was on the first two and they shaped the rest of my life.   How very glad I was that I joined Senior Girl Scout Troop One as a Freshman in high school.

©  2021  Barbara Gilbertson

Barbara Gilbertson grew up on the East Coast; met her husband on a trip to Alaska visiting a Girl Scout buddy.  He was from Eau Claire, Wisconsin so that explains the past 41 years in Wisconsin. But prior to that they lived in Minnesota, New York, New Jersey and Alaska..again. Barb holds an Associate Degree from Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York. Widowed since 2009 after 52 great years, she continues to travel, most often by ship and train.

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A Girl Scout Troop’s Adventures Abroad in 1949: Part 2 of 3

Come along as Barb Gilbertson experiences the “branching point” of a lifetime. To read Part 1, click here.

By Barbara Gilbertson

“You know, Bill…she will never be the same” …my mother said to my father as they assembled with hundreds of relatives, friends and interested townspeople from nearby Manchester, Connecticut in the Hartford Railroad Station to bid goodbye to the ten Senior Girl Scouts and their two leaders who, after two years of preparation, were taking a train to Montreal where they would board a Cunard White Star Liner–the SS Samaria, recently converted back to a luxury liner from having been utilized as a troopship.  The date was June 10, 1949.

Senior Girl Scouts at Hartford leaving for Europe 1949
Senior Girl Scouts at Hartford leaving for Europe 1949

We girls had worked tirelessly for two years to earn the necessary $550 for the three-and- one-half-month trip that would take us to England, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Germany and France.  Most of our fathers earned $2000 to $3000 a YEAR so $550 was a considerable sum, and of course, none of their mothers went out to work. We Girl Scouts picked apples, potatoes, tobacco; washed woodwork, washed dishes, had bazaars, big spaghetti dinners, sold cookies and BABYSAT.  Babysitting rated were 25 cents before midnight; 50 cents after.  So, by June of 1949 we were ready to go.

This all started two years earlier when our leader Emily took us on a two-week hiking trip on the Long Trail in Vermont, part of the Appalachian Trail. We slept in lean-tos or under the stars.  I was 14 that summer.  We had with us a Girl Guide from Belgium, who had been the tent mate of one of our members at an International Girl Scout Encampment in Pennsylvania just prior to our trip. Artie was the delegate from Connecticut; Ginette was the delegate from Belgium. Artie invited her to come along on our hiking trip.  Ginette was 17 and an absolutely delightful young woman with whom we all fell in love.

Girls sleeping under the stars, somewhere on the Appalachian Trail

About halfway through the trip at one of our nightly campfires she suggested that we think about making a trip to Europe.  She would help us.  The more she talked, the more excited we got about the possibility so once home, Emily called a meeting of all our parents and presented the idea.  Would they let us go?  Every parent thought it was a wonderful opportunity if we could raise the money.  Thus began the two years of preparation and finally our departure date had arrived.

We were a phenomenon and quite well known all over town. It was only four years since World War II had ended; no one in our town was traveling anywhere!  

We got out of school two weeks early and returned two weeks late.  We lived with families (to whom we had been sending CARE packages) or camped with Girl Guides from other countries and spent one week at the wonderful Girl Scout/Guide Chalet in Adelboden, Switzerland.  We observed war devastation in London, particularly and some in Germany.  We did stay a few days in the International Student House in Paris just before we caught the same ship back home from Le Havre.

©  2021  Barbara Gilbertson

Barbara Gilbertson grew up on the East Coast; met her husband on a trip to Alaska visiting a Girl Scout buddy.  He was from Eau Claire, Wisconsin so that explains the past 41 years in Wisconsin. But prior to that they lived in Minnesota, New York, New Jersey and Alaska..again. Barb holds an Associate Degree from Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York. Widowed since 2009 after 52 great years, she continues to travel, most often by ship and train.

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A Girl Scout Troop’s Adventures Abroad in 1949: Part 1 of 3

For the next three weeks, come along as Barb Gilbertson experiences the “branching point” of a lifetime.

What are branching points? The events that leave your life forever changed. A branching point may come about by choice or by chance; it may seem terrible at the time but turn out to be the beginning of a wonderful new phase. In my memoir writing workshops, I emphasize branching points because that’s where “the plump fish of memory are lurking,” to quote James Birren. Where there’s a branch there’s a good story–one that reveals something about your character.

When asked to write on a branching point, Barb shared these stories with the participants in “Remember to Write”, sponsored by the Monona Senior Center in Spring 2021.

By Barbara Gilbertson

I was just starting high school and heard about a Senior Girl Scout troop that met on Monday nights at the Congregational Church. Should I join? I had loved being a Girl Scout…but in high school? I decided to give it a try. It was a decision that would affect my whole life and for which I would always be thankful. Every week I hiked the mile up to the meeting of Troop One and then back home…for the next four years!

Our leader Emily was a dynamic 37 year old woman who loved to hike and camp and she had a car…a Model T Ford named Henrietta that transported us many times to the beginning of a hiking trail. None of our parents were hikers or tent campers and many did not own cars. This was all new and exciting stuff.

Emily with her car, “Henrietta,” adventuring in Appalachia, 1940

In upcoming posts, follow along as scouting takes Barb and her friends to Europe, thanks to “Manchester’s Extraordinary Scout Leader” Emily!

In Brussels, Barb’s troop visited the famous “Mannekin Pis” statue (look closely above the girls.)

©  2021  Barbara Gilbertson

Barbara Gilbertson grew up on the East Coast; met her husband on a trip to Alaska visiting a Girl Scout buddy.  He was from Eau Claire, Wisconsin so that explains the past 41 years in Wisconsin. But prior to that they lived in Minnesota, New York, New Jersey and Alaska..again. Barb holds an Associate Degree from Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York. Widowed since 2009 after 52 great years, she continues to travel, most often by ship and train.

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Did You Say Something?

By Patricia LaPointe

It started during my childhood.

“Mom, Dad, look. I got all A’s this term!”  Silence and a blank stare or a quick change of subject, often to something I hadn’t done right.

I loved to write.  Mom said it was a waste of time, adding “What makes you think anyone will want to read what you write?” I would have preferred the blank stare or change of subject.

I hid my writing.

Pat LaPointe, high school graduation portrait

After my husband, children and I moved three hundred miles from my parents’ home, I decided I would finally go to college. In spite of raising four young children, I received all A’s and made the dean’s list nearly every term. After trying several times to talk about this several times on long distance calls with Mom, only to be met with silence, I gave up mentioning it.

I hid my scholarly achievements, kind of…..

Because on a whim, I decided to send a copy of my grade report to my parents. No response. Sometime later, I asked Dad if they ever received it. He said yes, it’s on the end table in the living room. I didn’t ask if they read it. Why add insult to injury?

There were no congratulations when I graduated college or when I was accepted into a Ph.D. program.

All through my college years I had discussed classes and teachers with my children. They would remember to ask me what grades I got on exams or what new projects I was working on.

While was in graduate school, my daughters spent a lot of time with my mom and sister. Without first asking me, my mom and sister would take them shopping for clothes. If I acted surprised and perhaps a little angry, Mom said “Well you’re too busy with whatever…!” I was not.

Soon, I began to get the same disinterested response from my daughters as I had from my parents: silence and a change of subject. When I published my first book, it too was not acknowledged by my daughters, parents or siblings.

Again, I hid my writing.

I could understand my parents’ reaction. They had not gone to college or had careers. It was difficult for them to accept that I’d be so different. But, to this day, I do not know what my Mom and sister may have told my children that would have made them respond in this way.

I continued to hide who I am from them.

Last week, I met my grandson’s girlfriend, Maggie, for the first time. She is getting her first job as a social worker. I was surprised to learn that she knew about my earlier career as a psychotherapist. We sat with my two daughters, Julie and Samantha at Julie’s kitchen table as we talked. Minutes after we began sharing our experiences discussing clients and best places to work, Julie, in a huff, rose from her chair slamming it noisily into the table, and busied herself filling her dishwasher. Samantha joined her there and they began discussing their plans for the day, in voices louder than mine and Maggie’s.

Apparently, Maggie hadn’t yet been told such conversations were not permitted when my daughters were present. I have no doubt that Maggie and I will never speak about this again in my daughters’ presence.

©  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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Join me and Story Circle Network for “Refresh Your Expressive Writing Skills”, 4 Thursday afternoons in June

I have a new workshop offered by Story Circle Network starting June 3rd, titled “Refresh Your Expressive Writing Skills.” We’ll talk about writing effective sentences and paragraphs, review the most common grammar problems, and brush up on essay writing skills.

Does that sound dry, dull, deadly? Fear not, I will do my utmost to make grammar as fascinating as life itself. We’ll be studying some short essays published on Brevity as examples, and creating our own work to share in class.

For a preview of what might be touched on, check out these posts from the last few weeks. I’ve been posting a few writing tips along with essays written by participants in a previous version of this workshop, “Basic Writing Refresher” offered by Madison College last fall. You can find those posts here.

If you are interested in signing up for the upcoming workshop, click here.

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Expressive Writing: Part 3 of 3

I have a new workshop offered by Story Circle Network starting June 3rd, titled “Refresh Your Expressive Writing Skills.” We’ll talk about writing effective sentences and paragraphs, review the most common grammar problems, and brush up on essay writing skills.

As a warm-up, I’m offering a tip or two and publishing an essay by a participant in a previous version of this workshop, “Basic Writing Refresher” offered by Madison College last fall.

Week 3 Effective Writing Tips from Sarah

Here are a few common errors I see as an editor that don’t have to do with sentence- or paragraph-level mistakes. These are problems with a writer’s thinking, not technical craft, that are particularly relevant to writing reminiscence essays.

Muddy message: This problem is as common as the common cold—and often presents as two story ideas wound together, trying to find their way into two separate essays. The easiest way to spot this problem is to try summarizing what you’ve written in outline form. Often you will find two ideas that are quite sound–they just need to be clearly separate, not one muddy melding.

Unclear timeline: A writer must control the reader’s experience so that each action and reaction of the story is clear in relation to the overall timespan covered. All the details in an essay must cohere, moving the reader from one bit of information to the next. To signal time order, use words like before, next, later, first, second, third, when, while, then, finally

The always and once: Attempting to put memories in writing brings up the difference between those that set a stage, and those that contain action. “We always ice-skated in winter,” is a stage-setter. You can create a perfectly agreeable musing on the sensory pleasures of ice skating in winter without ever introducing a story element, but readers typically expect somebody to explicitly DO SOMETHING, something out of the ordinary, remarkable, something that complicates the “always” and requires a response. That’s what makes story. “Once, while we were ice skating, my brother fell in and I decided not to save him, since he was so mean to me.” Now that is a “once” that follows “setting the stage” with real action, with much at stake!

Sarah Nankivil wrote the following essay in response to the the prompt: Write a how-to article.

Travel to Thailand

By Sarah Nankivil

If you’re looking for a travel adventure, consider the former country of Siam, now known as Thailand. It’s no longer a 3-month journey like in the movie classic The King and I–it’s just a quick flight up and over the North Pole and down to the opposite side of earth. The flight may seem long, but with several meals, your own tv screen, and a spa-like atmosphere, 17 hours later you may be wondering “so soon, already?!?”

Thailand is extremely affordable, especially when compared to Europe. On average you should budget around $70 per day for hotel, food and transportation. Street food is Thailand’s treasure, offering unique experiences like fish ball noodle soup, chive and fish dumplings, satay, and Thai-style deep fried donuts for $2-$5 per meal.

Thailand is a land of smiles, perhaps because its population is 83% Bhuddist. The followers of Buddhism don’t acknowledge a supreme god; instead they focus on achieving enlightenment, a state of inner peace and wisdom. The universal language is eye contact, and a smile. If you say hello in Thai, “swa-ti-kah,” then be prepared to be immediately swept away in a lightning round of 21 questions–probably with someone younger, either currently or recently in school, who is delighted to practice their English and hear about an American’s experience in their country. Being older and perhaps maternal-looking, I discovered a smile made me a conversation magnet, always starting with the “ so what you do in Thailand ?!?”

Learn a few key phrases before traveling for what is important to you BUT install the Google Translate app on your cell phone. Hello, goodbye, please and thank you are essential, and can be customized for your own needs, like, “kafae kab khrim pord (coffee with cream please)”.

Technology will make everything easier, creating a more positive experience. You will want to have cellular service, by buying a SIM card abroad for around $20 or purchasing an international service plan for around $70 a month. Some very useful apps include Google Translate, something for currency exchanges, Grab for food, and Uber for local transportation. Use Rome2Rio for transportation options city to city, Trip Advisor for what to do, and Airbnb for places to stay.

Once there, ask locals or other tourists what they would recommend for places to visit or eat and things to do. But consider one person may give a donkey ride a one star for their unruly behavior, while someone else may give the same experience five stars for being fun, festive, and unique, so be sure to read the reviews behind the ratings.

Before making travel plans check out www.travel.state.gov for current safety conditions abroad. Remember to enjoy the process and make the journey part of the adventure.

©  2021 Sarah Nankivil

Sarah Nankivil is an accounting professional spending more time with numbers than words.  But even numbers have a story to tell, and can be an inspiration.  She is a graduate of UW Madison, lives in Mount Horeb, and spends as much time as possible exploring by foot, bicycle or horseback, locally and across the globe.

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Expressive Writing: Part 2 of 3

I have a new workshop offered by Story Circle Network starting June 3rd, titled “Refresh Your Expressive Writing Skills.” We’ll talk about writing effective sentences and paragraphs, review the most common grammar problems, and brush up on essay writing skills.

As a warm-up, I’m offering a tip or two and publishing an essay by a participant in a previous version of this workshop, “Basic Writing Refresher” offered by Madison College last fall.

Week 2 Effective Writing Tips from Sarah

Sentence skills! Who thinks about them? And yet, how confident are you in your sentence-craft?

Here are a few of the most common errors I see, as an editor:

Failure to use parallel sentence structure: Parallelism is when words or sections of a sentence that are similar in function have similar grammatical forms. By balancing the items in a pair or a series so that they have the same kind of structure, you will make the sentence clearer and easier to read. Sentences that are not parallel are awkward to read and sometimes unclear. Nonparallel: My job includes checking the inventory, initialing the orders, and to call the suppliers. Parallel: My job includes checking the inventory, initialing the orders, and calling suppliers.

Fragments: Every sentence must have a subject and a verb and must express a complete thought. A word group that lacks these must-haves is a fragment. There are several kinds: Dependent-word fragments lack a complete thought. Example: “Jane walked all over the neighborhood. Trying to find her cat.” Easily fixed by joining the two sentences with a comma.

Run-ons: A run-on is two complete thoughts that are run together with no sign given to mark the break between them. Some run-ons have no punctuation at all. These are called fused sentences. Example: “The car stopped suddenly I spilled soda all over my shirt.” Easily fixed by adding a few connecting words –“The car stoped so suddenly that…”

Other run-ons have a comma, but a comma alone is not enough to connect two complete thoughts. These are called comma splices. Example: Joe told everyone to be quiet, his favorite show was on. Easily fixed, using one of three common tweaks:

  • Use a period and capital letter.
  • Use a comma plus a joining word (such as but, or, and, so, yet).
  • Use a semi-colon.

A final tip: To turn on your “sentence sense,” read what you’ve written aloud! This activates your natural language skills that come from speaking English.

Lorriann wrote the following essay in response to the same assignment as Betty Merkes’ essay last week: Write a personal essay drawn from life experience.

Networks

By Loriann Knapton

Author’s note: The essay reflects my thoughts and my mom’s memories of similar newspaper columns in her hometown paper. The Jen Kvidt and Martinius Kvidt families are real people and relatives of my mother’s. I created names of columns and other people, and imagined the events mentioned, to illustrate how these local news items were crafted.

Long before Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter were born; before Email, Messenger, or the World Wide Web were conceived, there existed critical social networks for the masses. These networks were as popular, as reliable, (or not), and as critical to sustaining human connection as any social media platform today. People called it the local newspaper.

Unlike major city newspapers, which focused mainly on national and state news with perhaps a society page with funeral and wedding notices tossed in, the rural weekly included news of specific interest to the community. Current local farm market prices, local disasters such as a barn fire or car accident, the baseball score of the American Legion baseball game, information on an upcoming church social or 4-H meeting, obituaries, hospital admissions and police reports often completed the bulk of the weekly paper. While some national and state news headlines might be printed, the primary purpose of the local rural weekly was to update community members on local events.

For example, in my Mother’s hometown, a small farming community in northern Minnesota, a column entitled, “Local Happenings” or something similar, (the titles sometimes changed depending on how creative the columnist was feeling that week.) was a beloved staple of the weekly newspaper. The columns were the first thing everyone turned to when the paper arrived in Wednesday’s mail with its content often the highlight of conversation at the dinner table on Wednesday evening.  

Far more popular than the weekly headlines or world events, the local news column was written by a community member, usually an older local farm wife with no children at home, to which people would submit their items of interest in the hope that their “news” would find its place in the local happenings section of the weekly. “Mr. and Mrs. Jens Nelson, visited the home of Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Kvidt last Saturday night for supper,” one paragraph might read, “after a delicious meal of swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes, and Alma Nelson’s blue ribbon lingonberry pie, the men beat the women at whist two games out of three.” Other important information included notations on births such as “Mr. and Mrs. Alden Johnson welcomed a healthy baby girl on Thursday November 12, a much welcome addition after five boys. Mother and baby came home from the hospital last Thursday and are doing well”; engagements, “William Johnson and Lillian Nelson are delighted to announce their upcoming nuptials planned for later next spring after the crops are in.” or family visits from out of town such as, “Mr. and Mrs. Martinius Kvidt, hosted their daughter Anna and son-in-law Peter, all the way from Fargo, last weekend to help Martinius celebrate his 78th birthday. A special dinner was served for eight guests on Saturday night, including Mr. Kvidt’s favorite poppy seed cake.”

The local news column found in small town newspapers everywhere was an edited version of daily life. It kept isolated rural neighbors in touch by allowing them to focus on something outside of the grind of daily farm life while helping them celebrate the simple joys of living. The column kept neighbors up to date with each other’s lives, provided diversions from long summer days, and even longer cold winter nights, and gave folks something to contemplate, celebrate, or criticize, depending on their perspective.

In this writer’s humble opinion, Twitter and Facebook have nothing on “Local Happenings” or the rural weekly. In fact, technology aside, today’s instantaneous social media may not even be as effective. Because these days the ability to contemplate, celebrate, and criticize is available with one simple quick click. No thought or editor required.  

©  2021 Loriann Knapton

Loriann Knapton recently retired from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction where she served as a child nutrition consultant and trainer. Although unpublished, she has been none the less a writer all of her life, starting with silly rhymes and short stories in grade school and moving on to countless poems, personal essays and eulogies for family members and friends.  In retirement she is delighted to finally have the time to work on completing a memoir of growing up on the “wrong side of the tracks” in the 1960s with a disabled dad. 

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