On the road again

Maybe it’s been different for you, but we haven’t traveled much in the past two years.

Sure, there was a journey to northern Colorado in late June 2020 to inter my mother’s cremains. It was memorable for obvious emotional reasons and also because of thunderstorms, COVID restrictions, tire issues and bizarre birds that seemingly conspired against us; it could never be called a “leisure trip.”

Otherwise, we’ve largely remained in Minnesota since January 2020, having opted to follow travel advisories, adhere to work demands and keep up with our kids.

But a recent wedding compelled us to pack our bags and gas up the van for a real adventure: 10+ hours of driving across Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to arrive at a resort destination where the lovely daughter of dear family friends was marrying her faithful fiance.

Being a bit out of the habit, travel preparations required some thought. Umbrellas? Check. Snacks and drinks for the car? Check. Appropriate wedding wear? Check. Reading material? Loads. Did we forget anything?

Of course–that’s a given. For a short weekend though, we made do and layered up even if warmer coats and gloves would have been welcome at points along the way (dratted chilly “Marchember!”).

“Road food” has always been a thing for our family. By definition, that means a stash of edibles intended to keep snarky moods and boredom at bay (with variable success rates). Also guaranteed is at least one on-the-go lunch of mom-made PBJ sandwiches.

The first evening, we stopped for a meal at an IHOP outside of Wausau, Wis., while en route to our AmericInn destination.

We tucked into pancakes, omelettes, crispy hash browns and steaming coffee while taking in the view of Rib Mountain and the still-snow-covered slopes of Granite Peak ski area. Curiously, only two other tables were filled with patrons, momentarily making us question the spot’s legitimacy. However, a hard-working cook visible in the kitchen speedily turned out the welcome hot food.

With five hours yet to go the next day, we consumed the aforementioned PBJs. Still unsatisfied, we debated the pronunciation, ingredients and quality of the U.P.’s ubiquitous “pasties;” the two passengers decided a swing into Suzy’s Pasties was a must.

A cheerful, tidy woman (was it Suzy herself? We failed to ask.) came to the counter; unhelpfully for the uninitiated, the products were not displayed.

“Do you want coleslaw or gravy with that?” she inquired when we’d settled on a hot chicken pastie, priced at $7.50 and big enough that three of us could barely finish one.

Hmmm…

“What do you recommend?” I ventured, lacking insight into pastie protocol.

She shrugged. “I eat ’em all the time. Whatever you like.”

We chose coleslaw, thinking it seemed less likely to drip all over us while cruising across the Mackinac Bridge–and that was wise. Oh, and the bag of cheese curds we tossed in for good measure was tasty, too.

The wedding itself was lovely; the bride was beautiful, the moment meaningful, the embrace of friends fulfilling and the meal BOUNTIFUL. To top it off, we enjoyed fluffy wedding cake smothered in a cloud of almond-flavored frosting.

Retracing our steps on Sunday, we followed the advice of fellow travelers and alighted at the Swedish Pantry in Escanaba, Mich. The adorable red-and-white restaurant is a decades-old favorite of locals and tourists alike.

We, too, succumbed to its temptations; Swedish pancakes and meatballs, complete with lingonberry sauce, went down easy for one, while two of us shared the generously portioned spaghetti and meat sauce accompanied by homemade garlic toast.

And the fresh raspberry pie? Suffice to say not a crumb remained on the plate.

Guess it’s a good thing we haven’t road-tripped in awhile; my waistline can’t handle the miles.

Creativity counts

Songs of the early ’70s stick like syrup in the brain of this mid-’60s baby.

One piece sometimes repeating itself on my mind’s eternal soundtrack is “Everything is Beautiful,” a 1970 Grammy Award-winner by composer/musician Ray Stevens.

The lyrics pertinent to this and every moment are “everybody’s beautiful in their own way.” Stevens’ heartfelt crooning fit particularly well with the anti-war demonstrations and hippie vibe of that era, but its message carries truth across the years and continents.

While pondering creativity and its many forms, Stevens’ tune popped up–because creativity and its manifestations are unique in each human.

Some people excel at knitting, sewing, embroidering, quilting and other types of intricate handiwork while others shine at carpentry, cooking or calligraphy.

Each of those creative outlets causes me to marvel because none of them (save for cooking) draws me in, and certainly not for pleasure. Having stumbled through the required sewing units of junior high home ec classes–and witnessed a classmate impale her thumb on a sewing machine needle–I have nothing to show for that instruction except the ability to thread a (manual) needle and accomplish basic button-sewing and mending tasks.

But being creative is a natural human impulse, and one soul’s trash is another’s treasure, as it goes.

Where one person crafts colorful quilts or expertly makes a burnished wood dresser, another composes music, dances, acts, pens poetry or draws.

Several months ago I was invited to join a virtual group of college friends. Aside from serving as a social connector, the sole purpose is to foster creativity and exploration. Each member possesses different strengths and has varying interests; we are asked to listen to one another with open minds and a willingness to occasionally step outside our personal comfort zones.

Therefore, it’s tough to admit that when one friend announced our March meeting, under her lead, would involve us painting with watercolor kits she had already ordered, paid for and had shipped to us, I swallowed hard.

Watercolors? Me? I’m the girl who only survived junior high art classes by the grace of generous Mrs. Callahan, who had the wisdom to grade according to effort rather than talent. (I have a misshapen clay pot and pathetic mug to prove it.)

But like it or not, my kit arrived lickety-split and I was locked in for an evening of painting. Bracing myself, I bought the two recommended brushes.

The night we met, I followed the provided pattern (ripe oranges dangling from healthy dark green leaves) as we virtually chatted and shared our progress. Our aptitude and pace varied, and none of our finished pieces appeared gallery-worthy.

Still, I forced myself to try, and I came away with a greater appreciation for quality art and those who produce it.

Lori Grafing, a friend and former longtime Worthington resident who is a talented artist well acquainted with watercolor brushes, recently had a painting chosen as the literal poster child for the 2022 Loring Park Art Festival–wow! I’m even more impressed with her achievement following my lumpy orange undertaking.

My personal creative flow comes in the form of words and music, so since this is National Poetry Month (only one of the many April “nationals”), I’m celebrating by perusing a few favorite poetry volumes.

Please, exercise your own creative interests soon–or consider stepping outside whatever box you’ve painted around yourself to try something new.

And since National Arbor Day occurs on April 29, enjoy the first two lines of the poem “Plant a Tree” by Lucy Larcom–a writer whose work has long outlived her physical life: “S/He who plants a tree/plants a hope.”

In the driver’s seat

On a rare late January day when the mercury had crept ever so slightly above 22 degrees, I decided to take the plunge and treat my winter-filthy van to a car wash.

My 23-year-old daughter happened to be along for the ride.

“You know, maybe I should wash my car too,” she said thoughtfully.

I helpfully inquired, “Is there anything that would fall off?”

“No,” she replied. “I mean, that front running light is taped on.”

As the comforting swish from the thick curtain of multi-colored dangling rags transformed the van from dingy gun metal back to its natural cordovan, we carefully ticked off any potential casualties a similar wash might cause to her aged Passat–the loose passenger-side mirror, the rear windshield wiper, that pesky running light–and determined it most likely could survive a cleansing experience.

Then we looked at each other and started laughing like maniacs.

I mean, is considering what might fall off your vehicle before undergoing routine cleaning a thing for anyone else?

Fortunately, our kids are fairly accustomed to having sub-par cars.

Sure, safety always comes first–but in our family that’s more likely to look like a 20-year-old Volvo with 187,000 miles on it instead of a brand-new ride.

Cool cars have long taken a back seat to educational expenses and experiences for us, and with two kids in graduate school and one still in college, that priority hasn’t yet shifted.

When one of our young adults is about to hit the road after a short weekend visit, it’s not uncommon for a parent to call out, “Do your tires need air? Better check.”

That detached glove compartment preventing a shotgun passenger from riding in comfort? Eh, just sit in the back seat.

A friend borrowing our daughter’s car was shocked and disturbed to see the “check engine” light illuminated.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” our daughter told her cheerfully. “It’s always on.”

Recently, when a group exercise required participants to share an interesting fact, I overheard a teenager ruefully volunteer to his peers: “I drive a car that’s older than I am.”

Sixteen-year-old Sam, hold my root beer.

Until recently, when that aforementioned Volvo really did give up the ghost, our youngest two kids were both driving cars that were older than them–and they’re now 21 and 23.

In late 2012, we were seeking to buy a replacement for the 1998 van that had lost its right front wheel as I was cruising down I-90 at highway speeds. The car salesman looked at us appraisingly and said, “You guys hang onto your vehicles for awhile, it seems.”

Sure does seem that way, sir.

While at first glance some may question such a practice, we have discovered its advantages (besides paying the lowest possible license tab fees). For instance, we get terrific value from our AAA membership; for us, it’s more like making a small deposit and realizing a large annual return on investment.

And even though our two older kids now live and drive in the hearts of Minneapolis and St. Paul, their vehicles–one a 14-year-old two-door number with manual transmission and the other that 2000 Passat with a tape-secured running light and collapsed glove compartment–are unlikely to be carjacking targets.

In addition, they’ve become pros at checking air pressure in tires and making sure routine maintenance is performed.

With another round of graduations and full-time employment approaching, surely newer, sexier, more comfortable vehicles are on the horizon. (Hey, let me know if you have something reasonable for sale.)

Until then: Baby, you can drive my car–but–fair warning–you might not want to.

The “things” they left behind

Let’s start with a fact: I am not an animal-lover. I am definitely humane, but I’m no Betty White.

When I depart this earth (and may it please God, let me be like Betty in terms of extended health, productivity and longevity), friends and family will likely not send memorials in my name to animal shelters or pet rescue organizations–unless they don’t know me very well or wish to disrupt my eternal rest.

If you’re still reading, thanks for keeping an open mind. Certainly this position makes me an outlier but it’s hard to fight one’s intrinsic preferences. Gosh, 70% of U.S. households (amounting to about 90.5 million families) own at least one pet, according to the 2021-22 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association.

Even the current White House occupants are in the game, with pure-bred German Shepherd puppy Commander having joined the East Wing in late December and precocious tabby Willow an even more recent addition to the presidential pet brigade.

Pet-owners spend freely, too: the Insurance Information Institute (iii.org) notes that in 2021, $103.6 billion was spent on food, supplies, over-the-counter medications, veterinarian care, grooming and boarding for U.S. pets. That’s a whopping increase over the estimated $48.4 billion similarly forked over in 2010.

Perhaps you’ve begun an amateur psychoanalysis of me: “She must not have had a pet as a child, poor thing,” or “What’s wrong with her? What a witch!”

As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in between.

My family did indeed have pets, but even as a youngster I was not taken with them; a black cat named Mitten was on the scene for some years, my older brother cherished a series of rabbits and my elementary teacher mother provided shelter to numerous squeaking guinea pigs during school breaks from her classroom. I gave them all as wide a berth as was possible in our 1,500-square foot house.

(If you’d like to revisit this, I expounded on the same question in an April 2016 post entitled “Fur and feces.”)

Despite my personal predilections, count my household among the pet-owning majority. And despite the fact that the youngest of our children is now 21, three pets remain under our roof.

Snowflake and Blackberry, the feline sisters who are, yes, primarily white and black, are enjoying “retirement” as their 17th birthday approaches in just over a month.

At their most recent checkup, the enthusiastic veterinarian complimented us on their excellent overall health, given their advanced age.

“See?” I told my cat-loving daughter. “We are taking great care of them,” pointing out the average lifespan of domesticated cats is 12 to 18 years.

From my viewpoint, they’re lucky and spoiled; from hers, anything short of daily hour-long petting sessions and the chance to recline before a roaring fire on velvet cushions is cat abuse.

But her current apartment-dwelling life doesn’t allow her to indulge them at her place, so for now they remain with…me.

So does Darwin, the smug bearded dragon our youngest son gleefully adopted approximately seven years, five months and 16 days ago. (Bearded dragons, I’ve recently learned, can live up to 15 years. The Guinness World Record for a pet beardie is 18 years, 237 days–so only another 10 to go???)

Off he (the son, not the beardie) went to college, leaving in his wake a contented Darwin basking under 90-degree artificial light in his 30-gallon glass tank.

When Darwin’s most recent shipment of live Dubia roaches arrived, the postal carrier left a slip for pickup, since the sub-zero temperatures weren’t conducive to the bugs’ survival–and Darwin prefers them squiggling.

The postal clerk to whom I gave the slip screwed up her face in disgust and begged a co-worker to handle the box boldly labeled “LIVE INSECTS.” Without blinking, I carried the package safely home, where it waited in relative warmth until my spouse was ready to open it and toss some “protein” Darwin’s way.

C’mon: Could there be a better mother than me? The kids are gone but the pets live on.

And at least my husband has no worry about me becoming a “furry.”

Fantasy by Folgers

If you’re over, say, 40, there’s a solid chance you’ve seen the Folgers coffee commercial, circa 1985-86, in which what can only be termed a “dream sequence” plays out in the course of a fantasy minute.

Here’s the scene: Impossibly handsome college kid Peter (depicted by actor Greg Wrangler, who IMDb indicates was propelled to career-length TV success on the strength of this ad) is inexplicably dropped off around 6 a.m. Christmas Day by someone in a Volkswagen Beetle with a dangerously snow-obscured rear window.

The front door of the family’s stately Colonial is wreath- and garland-bedecked, and the black welcome mat is somehow clear of the snow that covers all other surfaces, including the artfully flocked shrubbery.

Peter shoulders two bags and an armload of gifts, entering through the apparently unlocked door. Meanwhile, Peter’s blond younger sister, approximately seven, hears him and rushes down the stairs. Below, Peter has walked in (without removing his shoes, yet no snow muck appears on the polished wood floor) and flicked a switch that illuminates a Martha Stewart-approved Christmas tree, at the base of which rest an abundance of designer-wrapped packages.

Little sister hugs her adored older brother before announcing that everyone else is still asleep; he replies, “I know how to wake them up,” and a new can of Folgers is popped and a fresh pot brewed. Mom, dad and another sibling awaken with smiles and descend to embrace, sip and unwrap in style.

Like, really? A college student myself when this first aired, I recognized the ad for what it was: a beautiful dream that bore little resemblance to my reality.

But as a parent of three young adults, all of whom are currently either in college or graduate school, this Folgers fantasy now causes me to chortle and choke on my (non-Folgers) dark roast.

Let’s see…first, none of them comes home with only TWO bags in hand. Backpacks, overflowing laundry baskets, duffels, musical instruments, sports gear, multiple pairs of shoes and boots, maybe a paper sack with a few unwrapped gifts–it all takes multiple trips to unload, while the entryway becomes a melting mess.

“Hope there’s tape and wrapping paper,” I might hear, or, “I need to go shopping.”

NO ONE ever arrives at 6 a.m., though 9:42 p.m. has proven to be a prime time for entrance, too late for even straight caffeine to prop up the tired 50-something elders. (And what kept “Peter” till Christmas morning? Did he procrastinate on his final semester projects or party all night in the big city before heading home?)

Once settled, our kids find a lit tree or two–but in recent years, their parents have slacked on decor and waited for more motivated younger hands to pluck a few ornaments from storage boxes and hang in place.

Come Christmas morning, our “kids” are still sawing off visions of sugar plums till around 10 a.m., no matter how much fragrant java the hubby and I brew. On what planet does the college student arise before all others in the household?

Perfection takes another hit in the kitchen, where this year a daydreaming assistant (who shall remain nameless) managed to sprinkle a full complement of Lawry’s seasoned salt, onion and garlic powder–all intended for the Chex mix pan–into the kettle of wassail heating on the stovetop. Good thing that sous chef wasn’t also in charge of the coffee!

Still, it was a merry Christmas, even without picture-perfect garlands and glamorous decorations. There’s only one thing Folgers got right in that memorable mid-’80s ad: steaming black coffee is a holiday necessity.

Holiday time

Two days before Thanksgiving, I walked into KwikTrip to pay for gas and pick up milk and a banana or two.

A joyous instrumental version of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” was reverberating throughout the convenience store at top volume; I appreciated its classical flair and skillful symphonic arrangement.

Nevertheless, the sound was jarring. Turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie had yet to be gobbled in our household. We hadn’t taken turns expressing our thoughts of gratitude around the table. My front porch was still festooned with a rustic basket, gourds and an orange-tinged wreath.

Whatever happened to “…raise the song of harvest home?”

Rushing the season is nothing new, and for those of us who find change challenging, there’s always a bit of reluctance and resistance to switching out seasonal decor and charging ahead to the next holiday highlight. But space to enjoy the moment as it unfolds before leaping on to the next best thing would be welcome.

Honestly, playing Christmas tunes prior to Thanksgiving is like buying a first-anniversary card for a couple on their wedding day. One thing at a time, people!

At a recent church service, the minister opened her sermon with reflections about time and the general sense of acceleration that is encouraged by the commercial and retail industries.

We’ve all experienced that creep and have likely groaned occasionally in response to ads for back-to-school shopping in early July, Valentine’s Day cards and candies up for grabs on Jan.2, Easter goods displayed long before Fat Tuesday and swimsuits and s’mores ingredients on the shelves before we Minnesotans have even powered down our furnaces.

Sure, Christians are called to prepare the way of the Lord–but isn’t that what Advent is for? And while secular celebrants are eager to welcome Santa Claus, plant an elf on a shelf and catch every Hallmark movie and latest celebrity holiday special, one would think four weeks of that would be satisfying enough.

Hearing a fellow fitness class participant cheerily proclaim over two weeks ago that she was completely DONE with her gift-buying for the year nearly made me drop my weights.

Of course, matching recipients to the right gifts has never been my forte, and thus my procrastination in that department is more easily justified. This year, worries about supply chain issues and delivery delays are prompting people to click sooner and more often.

To that I say: SHOP LOCAL. Your local stores remain well-stocked with clothing, candles, crafts, books, appliances, essential (and cooking) oils, seasonings, electronics, decor and more. Granted, online shopping has its place, and harried parents, mobility-challenged adults and stretched-to-the-max workers might say it’s the only way to get it done–but cruising those computer keys and falling down the black hole of website after website and deal after online deal take time, too.

Visiting brick-and-mortar shops near you is one means of slowing down the season, connecting with other living souls, assessing for yourself what the items actually look and feel like and, in some cases, scoring free gift-wrapping–a move that might ultimately save you a little time.

Go ahead and bake those cookies, rock out to Rudolph, indulge in seasonal sweets, attend every concert you like and decorate to your heart’s content. Just remember to enjoy each moment, however you choose to spend it–because being present is the best present you can give yourself and those you care about.

After all, it’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Fashion forward, fanny back

Haute couture has never been my style.

Then again, I avoid the Vermont Country Store muumuu look whenever possible.

But, truth be told, my husband and I are the type of people who hang on to stuff–like clothing–long after others have let go.

For instance, when one of our three kids needed an outfit for a middle- or high school ’80s theme day and their classmates were rigging Flashdance ensembles from Shopko sales rack finds, we simply walked to a closet and pulled out a t-shirt from the Who’s 1982 “Farewell Tour.”

Protests ensued while we contended this, like original Coke, was the “real thing.” They typically caved and wore the garment. Despite being met with peers’ skepticism, they reluctantly admitted teachers of a certain age admired the shirt and praised their good taste.

Examples of other vintage items still in my possession are a varsity band shirt from my senior year of high school (eons ago) and a couple pairs of jeans from eighth and ninth grade.

Fashion has taken a turn for the retro–or maybe I have just crossed the threshold to the age when everything old is new again.

A major household move last year forced us to confront our packrat tendencies. Egged on by our two pandemic-penned college-aged young adults, I boldly donated or tossed belongings to which I’d stubbornly clung for decades.

Out with the ragged bath towels! Gone were several dozen plastic souvenir cups, some of which dated to the early ’70s (don’t worry, we checked; they were worth nothing on eBay)! Banished to the trash were socks with worn-out toes or heels!

Lightening the load almost started to feel restorative; we whittled away at drawers and piles, realizing it meant less clutter and weight in the long run.

But what fresh hell was this? I’d no sooner clipped dated shoulder pads from the ’90s blazers and blouses I opted to keep when J Lo or Kim Kardashian was seen stepping out with visibly enhanced shoulders.

And the second I reluctantly donated my high-waisted ’80s jeans (Did they fit? A separate question!), the low-slung skinny-legged denim I’d fairly recently acquired was suddenly declared passe…and, wouldn’t you know, it was all about “mom jeans” (is that term a compliment or an insult?) once more.

Among my most regrettable “gotta go” actions concerned fanny packs. For years we had acquired them, in various fabrics (usually cheap synthetics) and colors, often as promotional giveaways from medical centers, fishing gear companies and the like.

“Mom, you are NEVER going to use those,” asserted my daughter, her voice firm and assured. “They’re ugly and you look totally dorky.”

With a sigh and a few backward glances, I launched the entire pile, adjustable straps dangling like menacing snakes, into a plastic bag destined for Goodwill.

Then, walking through the Mall of America in mid-July, I almost hyperventilated.

“I have to get out of here,” I whispered to my daughter, who was sporting….a new leather fanny pack that is apparently all the rage.

In the department store aisles were racks of bell-bottomed pants, “mom” jeans, tiered “prairie” skirts, peasant blouses, platform sandals, tie-dyed t-shirts and sundresses with wide ruffled straps.

“I already survived the ’70s,” I justified.

Seeing the styles I had so recently been urged to toss reemerge as major fashion statements was too much; the industry taunted me, daring me to have a second go.

Be assured no one will persuade me to part with another article of clothing, no matter how out of date it appears to be–because it’s certain that in fashion, what goes around comes around.

On the bench with Lois

Thief.

The pandemic, that is, which robbed everyone of something. Over 610,000 Americans (and counting) lost everything–their lives–due to COVID. And though Lois Gruis, who died at age 93 on Jan. 21, 2021, did not necessarily succumb as a direct result of COVID, the virus nevertheless cheated her out of a full-fledged farewell, which a person who spent over 70 years teaching kids surely deserves.

While a service for Lois took place, it’s guaranteed dozens more would have paid their respects in person had attendance not been limited. After all, Lois was a weekly presence in the lives of well over 1,000 music students for large chunks of their formative years since she first began teaching piano lessons in the late 1940s.

Whether in the Iowa towns of Sioux City, Orange City, Sibley and Sheldon, or the Minnesota hamlets of Worthington and Rushmore, Lois spent countless hours seated next to aspiring pianists and organists between the ages of 4 to 18.

“Lois will pound,” she sometimes declared while trying to force a student to stick with a steady beat–and pound she would, employing a pencil against the wood of her spinet.

Driven by a desire to instill in her students not only keyboard skills but also the same passion for music she deeply harbored, Lois patiently and persistently instructed.

She excelled at teaching the fundamentals but was able to take higher achievers to the next level. A church musician/organist herself, Lois prioritized hymn playing for her piano and organ students–and she believed in performing, urging participation in recitals, National Federation of Music Clubs contests, Worthington Piano Teachers Association festivals and Christmas gigs at Pioneer Village.

Motivation came in the form of treats earned by a magical “points” system Lois tracked in students’ lesson notebooks.

“Got 15 orange,” she’d say at lesson’s end, and the eager kid could then grab a handful of gummy bears, small cookies or a candy cane from glass jars in her kitchen cupboard labeled with certain point values.

One word encapsulating Lois is “intrepid.” Knowing Lois in the moment, it wasn’t possible to immediately detect all the obstacles she’d faced in her life, ranging from time as a divorced single parent to being an adult college student to overcoming numerous health issues to worrying about a beloved grandchild with unique health issues, who did indeed precede her in death.

But Lois was the last person to ever back down or give up. Could a teenaged piano student whose high school schedule only allowed for a 9:30 p.m. lesson be accommodated? You bet–and if the student didn’t pull the plug, the lesson might last past 10:30 p.m.

Blizzard conditions prevailing on the day of a contest in Sheldon or recital in Rushmore? Drive carefully and get to the church on time, because–make no mistake–Lois would be there long before everyone else, ready to greet each attendee with a warm, red-lipped smile and clear “I’m so glad to see you.”

A hallmark of Lois was her acceptance of all comers. She never turned down a potential student if she could possibly squeeze one in, and her proteges came from all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. From each one she demanded similar attentiveness and discipline; it was impossible to tell her “no” when it came to agreeing to music festival or recital participation.

Several families whose children Lois taught rallied to purchase a bench, located on the western side of Olson Park, in her memory. No keyboard is nearby, but it’s a fitting memorial to one who spent so many hours of her life perched at a bench, pouring out her heart and skill into future generations.

Her music lives on.

Strangers in the night

Exchanging glances in the night with a stranger sure sounds potentially romantic.

But when that stranger is a furry bandit who has nefarious plans in mind, the reality is more “Night of the Living Dead” than “Enchanted.”

Then again, didn’t Giselle encounter enormous New York rats along with plenty of perky doves?

Despite being located in an established residential neighborhood well within the city limits, our new locale is surrounded by an abundance of foliage. Our backyard abuts a city park that is extremely quiet after dark, while our front yard lies across the street from a wooded area adjacent to a golf course.

Ina Garten couldn’t write a more perfect recipe for unexpected wildlife visits, even if aided by frequent sips of her giant Cosmopolitan.

“Oh, yah, you’ll see lots of animals around here,” warned an observant, early-rising neighbor of German descent.

“I’ve seen foxes and a three-legged deer traipsing through here many a time.”

Being more of a night owl than a lark, it shouldn’t have been surprising that my own critter contacts would occur after nightfall rather than at dawn.

Around 10:30 p.m. in the frigid winter, I opted to cart a bucket of kitchen scraps to the compost bin outside our lower level back door. Scooting downstairs in my slippers and robe, I slipped out the door…just in time to startle an opossum rooting among the frosty carrot and potato peelings it had scattered on the ground after knocking off the bin’s lid.

My shocked scream sent the creature waddling into the darkness while a stiff breeze simultaneously slammed shut the basement door. I was left standing in the cold, locked away from light and warmth, but relieved to find my cellphone in a pocket so I could call my spouse to “LET ME IN!!”

An appealing array of birds–chickadees, cardinals, goldfinches and woodpeckers–arrived with the spring. Soon my husband had hung feeders from our deck railing, delighting not only our feathered friends but plenty of persistent squirrels.

Forgetting to heed the months-old advice of our neighbor, we were watching a suspenseful Netflix show after enjoying a dinner of grilled salmon, leaving the grill uncovered while it cooled.

A clatter stirred us from our couch potato perches, and we ran to the door in time to spot a sizeable raccoon who had overturned a garbage can containing bird seed. He briskly scurried down the 12 deck steps to the grass, leaving a trail of scattered seed in his wake.

We shook our heads, covered the grill securely, moved the seed stock to the garage and tried to settle down once more before the TV.

On a leisurely walk at dusk last week, accompanied by our college son newly returned for the summer, we noticed what we thought was a cat crossing the street less than 50 feet before us.

But…that arched back…that ringed tail…that was no cat! Another–or maybe the same–industrious mask-faced raccoon was on the prowl.

Twisting his short neck towards us, the raccoon wasted no time in plotting an escape as we hastened our steps. In seconds he flattened his form and scuttled through the curbside sewer slot, a space no more than five inches high.

EWWWWWWWWWW!!!!

Earl the Raccoon, as we dubbed him, is blithely wending his way through the sewer system, emerging at will to seek bird seed and salmon skin wherever he senses sustenance.

With images of Stephen King’s clown Pennywise from “It” in mind, I now intend to stick to the sidewalk–and might reconsider my habits after dark.

Mondale and the Cowans

When Walter F. Mondale died on April 19 at the age of 93, the numerous in-depth news articles and repeated MPR updates about his passing were only one measure of how widely he was revered.

A glance at social media feeds was enough: Pictures of Mondale with people of all kinds—some at large receptions, others gripped in one-on-one handshakes for official endorsements—revealed that identifying with Minnesota’s great statesman was a THING.

Alas, no photo exists of me with Mondale, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a connection.

We were, in fact, family.

That’s something my late mother Barbara, one of Mondale’s adoring second cousins, never let us forget.

“Theodore and Claribel Mondale sat here many times,” she reminded, running her hand over the age-smoothed round oak table, circa-1900, inherited from her parents.

“Be sure to keep it in the family,” mom exhorted.

It’s not a highly popular name these days, but there are lots of men on the Cowan branch of my family tree bearing “Walter” as either a first or middle name, including my maternal grandfather, his firstborn son and my cousin Walt.

Like Mondale, they were all named for the same ancestor, the Walter Cowan my maternal grandfather had in common with his first cousin–Mondale’s mother, Claribel (Cowan) Mondale.

As Mondale moved up the political power ranks, the Cowan clan would have burst with pride for their famous relative, were that something Scottish Presbyterians did.

But since dour Scots are known more for their reticence and reserved reactions, it was mostly my mother—a lifelong elementary school teacher–who rarely hesitated to let people know of her tie to the distinguished Minnesota senator and attorney general, U.S. vice president and respected American diplomat.

“Mondale is my second cousin,” she readily volunteered whenever his name happened to arise in a discussion of state/federal politics, history or policy.

The one critique Mondale endured at the hands of the Cowans concerned a tendency in his campaigning, particularly within Minnesota, to broadcast his Norwegian roots.

“He’s half Cowan,” my mom would fairly hiss after seeing newspaper photos of him enthusiastically downing lutefisk and lefse at a campaign stop in some rural Lutheran church, perhaps failing to fully appreciate how many more potential voters were of Scandinavian descent.

“His great-grandfather came here from Scotland.”

She never let HIM forget their relationship either, and it’s a testament to Mondale’s patience and gracious, gentlemanly character that he frequently sent short but personal notes in response to her flood of family news, clippings and over-sharing updates. That continued until her death in early 2020, when upon learning of her passing he penned a thoughtful note of sympathy—and, somewhat to my disbelief, said he would miss hearing from her.

Maybe it was her drive to draw attention to the familial Mondale link that led me to hold back. Over the years, my husband and I were lucky enough on several occasions to be in the same place as Mondale—at receptions, meetings, even one special 90th birthday celebration for a mutual friend.

Fritz was always the star, typically surrounded by people trying to catch his attention, secure his endorsement or rub a bit of charisma from his coattails. Sometimes we would quietly greet him, allowing others to vie for the photo, the long conversation, the political benefit.

Hence, I have no picture to post of myself or my husband—nor, more regrettably, of my mother and her brothers—with Mondale. Instead, we are left with the knowledge of our common heritage, the tangible evidence of Cowan family heirlooms and a warm sense of pride that someone with whom we share a bloodline commendably represented our state and nation for decades, with intelligence and integrity to spare.

Hang onto your photos; we’ll just be sure to keep him in the family.

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