Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Century plant

We've been watching as our desert plant has rather mysteriously started to sprout a stalk...from the middle of the plant.

We thought we had purchased an agave plant when we moved to our winter home in Mesa, Arizona, three years ago. It was just a little plant, but has sprawled out considerably in the last couple of years.

But recently, a chute came up out of the middle and has been very slowly working its way upward.

It's the oddest thing we've ever seen. I wanted my husband to cut off the chute because it looked so strange. But he was intrigued and said to let it grow and see what it becomes.

Then out of the chute came sprout-like buds. We didn't know if they would open, if they'd flower and bloom, or just what they would do. The whole plant was a mystery to us.

I asked around and it was my hairdresser who told me we probably have a century tree plant. She said if that's what it is, she heard it only blooms once a century.

Who knew?

What was once just a small ground plant that fit into a small brick circle has turned into this sprawled out and blooming thing that is sprouting a tree. Apparently, and the picture doesn't even capture the full height of it, it continues to grow.

A web search gave us a lot of information:
If ever there was a plant that had an identity crisis, it would be the Agave americana. This plant, commonly known by the nickname “century plant,” is also known by the incorrect name of American aloe. Century plants are native to Mexico, but are used as an ornamental plant all over the world and have become naturalized, growing wild in many places. A century plant does not, however, live for a century or take 100 years to bloom.
The century plant’s leaves spread out from a central core, resembling a rosette. The plant, which actually takes an average of 15 years to flower, does not look like much until it comes time for it to bloom. A large stalk, 15 to 40 feet (4.572 to 12.192 meters) high and as thick as a tree trunk, shoots up from the middle of the plant and produces hundreds of clustered white or yellow flowers. The blooms remain on the century plant for about a month before the stalk begins to wither and die, killing off the rest of the plant with it.

So I guess we have to wait fifteen years through its growing pains until we see blooms and lovely flowers. Hmmmm....

Life in the desert is interesting as we Midwesterners are learning all the time. It is a breathtaking and awesome part of the American landscape and makes us feel close to the earth as Native Americans cared for this land so beautifully for so long. The majestic mountains and the endless variety of cactus plants and desert blooms teach us that things endure for thousands of years without human interference.

Our century plant, like all plants, have a life of their own. If you care properly for them but let them grow on their own terms, it's amazing what living things of beauty they become.

Kind of like us, huh?

Friday, November 22, 2013


Like most people, at least people my age and older, I am remembering fifty years ago today, Friday, November 22, 1963. The day our President was killed.

There are many Facebook posts today from people recalling where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

I had just graduated from high school and was working as a secretary for a private detective agency on the 8th floor of the Pioneer Building in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota. I had returned from lunch and just settled in to resume my afternoon's work when I heard shouts coming from another floor of the building that the President had been shot.

Anyone who knows the wonderful, old and unique Pioneer Building can appreciate that offices were all designed around an open square, hollow in the middle, wrought iron railings around the open square, and a large clock on the floor that could be easily viewed from all sixteen floors. You could see people walking on the floors below you and across from you. The elevators had glass walls so you could see all the floors as you either ascended or descended.

So when I heard those shouts, they literally echoed through the building. People came out of their offices (outer doors were seldom closed) and radios were turned on loudly so all could hear the news.

I doubt any more work got done that day by anyone. It was such stunning news in what was really an innocent age, the era of Camelot.

The ensuing days were spent glued to the television set in our living room on Lincoln Avenue as Walter Cronkite spoke in hushed tones through the events following. We saw first-hand the drama of Lee Harvey Oswald's arrest and then as he was shot by Jack Ruby, a night club owner. And then the funeral, JFK being carried by horse-drawn caisson, First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, veiled in black, her young children at her side, little John-John saluting as his father's flag-draped coffin passed by.

I doubt that any fiction writer or movie producer could conjure up this dramatic plot; yet here it was, happening live and in our living rooms.

Everyone ruminates about what might have happened had this tragedy not have happened at all. A popular President, JFK would likely have been reelected. His work for civil rights may have been accelerated at a faster pace. Would Nixon have ever been elected; would Watergate have ever happened?

Would our age of innocence have continued?

After fifty years, I do believe we lost more than our beloved President.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Present and aware

A former co-worker and friend (albeit much younger), mother of a two year-old daughter and three month-old twin girls, has a chalkboard in her kitchen. I noticed it when I visited right after the twins were born.

She is a gifted writer and makes time for new posts to her blog, Fellow Passengers, in which she documents her journey as a young woman and mom. That she can find time to continue to write after the birth of her twins is something I completely understand. Writers need to write. They can no more not write than they can no longer breathe.

Aside from her beautiful writing, however, is the gift she has of inspiring others, me for one. Her posts stay with me for days as I find myself mentally dissecting her message, absorbing her words like a sponge.
In a recent post, she talked about being transformed by the verse from 1 Thessalonians she wrote on her chalkboard. She chose this verse as a sort of challenge to herself, and wrote that it seemed like the formula for living present and aware.

But more than being just present, which seems to be a popular catchword these days, the real challenge is translating being present into everyday real life. Putting into practice what being present and aware really means. She writes:
"If I’m present in my happiness, I want to filter that happiness into some sort of creative act later. If I’m sad, I want to remember that other people get sad too so I don’t feel so alone. If I’m angry, I want to figure out how to curb it without damaging anyone or anything around me."
Powerful words, these.   
But if you put into practice being present and aware, you bring your lessons into the community, into the lives of others, using your experience for the good.
Easy to be joyful when things go well. A bit harder when your health is threatened, your budget doesn't cover all the bills, when your plans go awry. Easy to pray continually when you're not overwhelmed and exhausted. Easy to give thanks in all circumstances except when you've received a cancer diagnosis, or when you lose a loved one; when things don't quite go your way.

The most profound lesson in my friend's blog was that you learn not to do it alone. You ask for help when you need it. She is learning to do this and is discovering she is richer for it.
That is the real lesson for me, too. Independent and stubborn and determined to do it myself, I am not good at this. I love giving to others. In fact, I was visiting my friend that late summer day, the day I saw her chalkboard, as another neighbor and I were bringing dinner to her family right after the birth of their twins.

That's easy. Easy, and joyful, and I get a good feeling.
But accepting help? That's another matter entirely. And asking for help? Really? Gee, I can't quite remember actually doing that lately.
Living present and aware is an exchange process. Both giving and receiving are necessary elements of human life. It makes the journey for us fellow travelers so much easier.

More joyful. More able to give thanks in all circumstances.
Dedicated to Rachel and her blog, Fellow Passengers:

Monday, September 30, 2013

Evening star

The Danish American Center in Minneapolis recently held its annual meeting. Being relatively new to this organization, I attended for the first time.
Danes love to sing, so we opened the meeting with a folksy-type song and ended with another, each written by a Danish composer.

The first song talked about oats. Sung from the oat's perspective, the lyrics spoke of all the things the oats see (sun, wind, rain) and the many uses oats have. It was snappy and fun to sing.
The second called Evening Star (printed above) was written in 1861. It had an easy melody for me, a non-singer and reader of music, to follow.

But it was the words that really spoke to me. They stuck in my head and I had to borrow a songbook from the center so I could copy this particular song.

Danish people see the beauty and prose in all of nature. Thinking you might enjoy the lessons in this lovely song, I share the words with you here.

" Evening star up yonder, Teach me like you to wander 
Willing and obediently, The path that God ordained for me.
Evening star up yonder!
Teach me, gentle flowers, To wait for springtime showers
In this winter world to grow, Green and strong beneath the snow.
Teach me, gentle flowers!
Teach me, lonely heather, Where songbirds nest together,
Though my life should seem unblest, To keep a song within my breast.
Teach me, lonely heather.
Mighty ocean, teach me, To do the task that needs me,
And reflect as days depart, Heaven's peace within my heart.
Mighty ocean, teach me!
Shady lanes, refreshing, Teach me to be a blessing
To some weary soul each day, Friends or foes who pass my way.
Shady lanes, refreshing!
Evening sun, descending, Teach me, when life is ending,
Night shall pass and I, like you, Shall rise again where life is new.
Teach me, sun descending! "
As the seasons change, now from summer to autumn, and the days grow shorter, nature is a wonder and can teach us so much. Each season has its purpose and its beauty. We can learn, as the song tells us, from the ocean, the heather, the sun and the shady lane.

When I once commented that there wasn't anything I liked about winter, a friend very poetically told me it was such a beautiful season, with all the trees and flowers and earth enjoying a peaceful rest, quietly readying themselves to burst forth and be alive again.
I've never looked at it quite the same since.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Orange socks

Perhaps every family has a strange wedding tradition. Or perhaps not.

But ours, the Steffen family, has such a tradition.

The men in the wedding party wear orange socks. Yes, orange.

To understand it, you have to go way back to my 1965 wedding, the first wedding in our family. And you have to understand my Dad, who had the most wonderful sense of humor I have ever known in anyone. He lived to tease the six of us kids and went on to tease the heck out of his grandkids as well. To them, he was "Boppa" and they adored him.

So as I was dressing for my wedding in 1965, nervous and frantically telling everyone in my house to hurry up and get ready, I passed my parents' bedroom to see my beloved Dad dressed in his suit, pulling on orange work socks. I'm sure he was posed this way just waiting for me to pass by to see him.

Of course, I freaked. YOU ARE NOT WEARING THOSE SOCKS, I'm sure I screamed. To which he simply casually replied, "Why not?"

This, I am quite certain, put me right over the edge and I went running for Mom to plead with him to change his socks.

It was a joke all along. A word of advice: You do not joke with a bride an hour before her wedding.

Well, the rest of my younger sisters and my brother saw the humor in it. So much so, and possessing a much better sense of calm and humor than me, that for their weddings, they insisted Dad wear orange socks.

Thus, a tradition was born.

This is my daughter, Kristie, and husband Rich, proudly sporting his orange socks on their wedding day.

I have to give credit to the men who marry into this family of ours. Some of them knew Dad; some did not.

But they all have agreed to go along with this tradition to honor my Dad. And they have had a lot of fun doing it.

We celebrated another wedding in our family over the weekend, this time in Hawaii where my sister's youngest, Mac, married Ren Chang, an Oahu native.

I regret I could not attend. What a picture-book setting and what a perfectly lovely couple.

And, of course, the men in the wedding party wearing, what else?

Pictured are the groom, Mac, in the middle; nephew Josh on the left, whose groomsmen also wore orange socks when he married Heidi ten years ago; and my niece Madeline's husband, Eric, who followed this tradition for their own wedding three years ago.

The last wedding for Dad to sport his orange socks was my son, Steve's wedding to Julie in 2001. We continue to honor him; some would think in this strange way, but always he is at the center of the tradition and we remember how he would laugh and show off his socks.

He also always carried a small flask of spirits in an inner pocket of his jacket to every wedding, to "calm his nerves." So far, we've only followed the orange socks-rule.

When my then five-year-old granddaughter was in a dance recital recently and my son was participating in a father-daughter dance with her on stage, it was such a special occasion that he felt compelled to adopt his own orange-socks tradition.

The little dancer and her proud Daddy.

Dad is gone now, but the tradition lives on and he will always be remembered. Strange how these things start.

If you haven't adopted your own family wedding tradition, you might consider starting. However outlandish, however not understood by anyone outside your family, it will be yours and will warm your heart.

Just as the sight of orange socks warms ours.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Lost or well spent?

My last post, Laying Low, was about being off my foot following surgery.

Little did I know I would continue to lay low for the last three weeks. I will spare you the details of getting sick right after surgery with bronchitis and coughing my insides out ever since. Oh yes, at the same time, my husband got pneumonia so he was also down for the count.

Suffice it to say it has not been pleasant. I have heard the old people's joke: If we didn't go to the doctor, we wouldn't go anywhere.

So not funny. Doctor visits have been the total extent of our last three weeks' outings.

I'm not done whining. In the last three weeks, I have missed:
  • My fifty-year high school class reunion
  • An entire week of residential Danish Folk Camp
  • My granddaughter's annual back-to-school party
  • Three consecutive Sundays at church

The "Kolac" seller. A folk artist
makes these cute figures
with wooden shoes in South Bohemia.
While I was laying low, however, I got an email from a person seeking a recommendation for a tour to the Czech Republic through a tour group, Czech and Slovak Heritage Tours that they were considering. We had taken this very tour in 2004 and had agreed to be listed as a reference. Over the years, I have answered many such inquiries.

So I wrote some positive comments, highly recommending the tour and noting some highlights of our trip, and hit send. That is usually the end of it.

But not this time.

The inquirer wrote back saying she appreciated the recommendation and then told me a bit about herself and her husband and why they were considering this trip. They had to sign up quickly as the tour was only a couple weeks away.

Laying low, as you recall, I had plenty of time on my hands to respond to that email. She wrote back, commenting on my email, telling me more about herself, her family, twin grandchildren, their farm life in a small Iowa town, etc.

What a lovely person, I thought. So I wrote back again. She wrote back. I wrote back. She wrote back. I wrote back. We are not talking one-line emails here. We are talking pages.

You have no doubt heard about online dating. Often leading to successful relationships, often lifetime commitments. Well, if a lasting, online true friendship can be formed as well, I believe we have done that.

She and her husband are off to the Czech Republic now. How I miss our daily communication. But we are meeting when she returns. I can hardly wait.

So were three weeks of time and events all lost in laying low? Not hardly. I consider it time well spent. There is usually more than one way to look at most everything, and often unexpected blessings come if you're open to them.

And having found this new treasured friend, you'll be glad to know I am no longer whining.


You might want to check out this website: http://czechheritage.com

Friday, August 16, 2013

Laying low

I am recovering from foot surgery four days ago. Laying low, you might say. It is not fun.

Not that I am in pain, because I'm not. I'm grateful for that. But the worst thing in the world for me is to follow the doctor's orders to stay off my foot and keep it elevated with ice.

Stay off my foot? Me? Seriously?

It's harder work than work. I need a chill pill about now. A person can only take so much sitting in a chair with your foot elevated. Tired of reading. Tired of knitting. Poor me.

Ever have days when you're your own worst enemy? Well, I started out the day that way. Then I read a Facebook post from a friend I know with cancer. Yesterday's doctor visit for her did not go as well as she anticipated when she got the most recent scan report that showed cancer activity. Just when she was hoping to hear there was no activity whatsoever.

My poor-me-pity-party turned around on a dime.

Sometimes we need to pause and give thanks for whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. There are always more blessings, more reasons to be grateful, more sunshine than clouds, and more love than we even have a right to expect.

And the encouragement from others my friend received and the kudos for her courage were heartwarming. If she can keep her head high and her hopes up, my puny little dribbles of temporary, passing, slight discomfort make me ashamed. I will heal.

And I will focus my prayers and thoughts on her healing, as well. It's definitely time better spent.

Dedicated to Barb with my very best wishes for a complete recovery.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Go little album

Go little album, far and near,
To all my friends I hold so dear,
And ask them each to write a page,
That I may read in my old age.

So begins my mother's autograph book from Robert E. Simon Junior High, New York City, 1939.

My aforementioned project of going through my mom's old photo albums, along with reorganizing my own, found me rediscovering her old autograph book. What a treasure!

I vaguely remember having such a book in grade school, but I think it's safe to say they are now extinct. The annual signing of high school year books took their place in later years. I'm not sure what the custom is now, but I hope it's not Facebook or Twitter.

I sometimes re-read my high school yearbook, with messages from former classmates. Entire pages were reserved for my best friends. But I especially love the messages saying, Never forget me. I'll always remember you." And I actually haven't a single clue who wrote it, although the author signed his or her name.

Back to my mom's autograph book. There were some really amusing rhymes back then. And many of the entries were signed: Your fellow Grad-U-8.

May you dive into the sea of ambition,
And rise with a bump of wisdom on your head.
Down by the river, carved on a tree,
Are three little words:
Don't forget me.
When you grow up and have a house,
Just give a thought of this big louse.
I wish I was the little cup,
From which you drink your tea.
And every time you took a sip,
I'd get a kiss from thee.
Then there's one that's not so nice:
Roses are red, violets are blue.
I have a bull dog that looks like you.
Although it is signed: "Your friend, Dorothy. Yours till you have traffic jam for breakfast."
But this one has to take the prize. My mom went on to have a set of twins!
I wish you luck, I wish you joy.
I wish you first a baby boy,
And when his hair begins to curl,
I wish you then a baby girl.
And when her hair is straight as pins,
I wish you then a set of twins.

Some writers were artistic and either wrote upside down, around the page, or drew musical notes (Never B-flat. Always B-sharp.)
I'm guessing this is actually a caricature of my mom.
Such an innocent time....sigh. 

I'm keeping Mom's autograph book handy. When life seems complicated, the world complex, and everything beyond my understanding,  I'll board a time machine and go back to 1939 for awhile. It makes everything look so much better.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Unveiling Nelly

Nelly Gustafson was born in 1851 in Sweden. She died in 1934, so I couldn't have actually known her.

But I feel like I do.

Nelly was a midwife in Lindström, Minnesota in the early 1900s. She graduated from Lund University in Lund, Sweden in 1870 and came first to Philadelphia where she practiced for several years. Then, hearing about the large Swedish population in Minnesota, she came to Lindström to settle with her three children around 1903. She set up her practice here, delivering babies for a fee of three dollars, or five dollars, or whatever the person could afford.

I became acquainted with Nelly when I became director of the Chisago County Historical Society in 1994. Since we didn't have a museum at the time, we had several large display cases in the lobby of the Government Center in nearby Center City. It was my job to keep them filled with interesting exhibits.

We had been gifted Nelly's midwife kit, a fairly good-sized wooden box full of rather crude instruments. The kit contained bottles with dried-up medicinal fluids, old cotton and gauze, various forceps, scalpels and assorted and sundry items needed to safely bring a new life into the world in the early 1900s.

This kit was well cared for and well organized. It was clearly a collection of tools of a professional. And I was going to display it. Over the ensuing years, I would rotate this display many times, handling this valuable artifact totally in awe of it being in my care.

I became immediately enthralled with this pioneer woman of our county, bringing to our early population a learned and professional approach to midwifery, all the while raising children on her own. (It has been said she was married to a scoundrel in Sweden.)

Nelly has been a hero of mine ever since. And now she is permanently on display at our own Chisago Lakes library in the form of a bronze statue, unveiled this past week in a ceremony and reception with a crowd of over 150.

The statue was painstakingly crafted by sculptor, Ian Dudley. I cannot say emphatically enough how fortunate we are to have this expert artist in our own local area. Ian doesn't go to work until he has thoroughly researched his subject. In this case, it included a trip to Sweden where he met people who knew the family and shared old photographs, letters and stories.

Once back home, Ian began the process which he described in a talk preceding the unveiling. I had no idea it involved so many phases, beginning with a scale model. His knowledge of the way to present the most minute detail and his use of various metals and materials was mind-boggling to me.

Well, at last, the moment had arrived for the official unveiling.

We all held our collective breath as Ian humbly stood by the covered sculpture, his hand poised and ready to remove the orange parachute-like covering.  Neighbors greeted neighbors as the crowd gathered around. Folks were ready, cameras in hand. You could feel the expectant air as we all tried to get as close as possible for the very best view.

Finally, the parachute covering was dramatically lifted!

And then Nelly came back to life...well, in a respectful manner of speaking.

Isn't she just so elegant? 

I present to you, Mrs. Nelly Gustafson, on her way to deliver the town's next baby, riding in her carriage with the real-to-life naugahyde foot guard. So beautiful!

Following the official unveiling, a reception was held in the library featuring Swedish open-faced tea sandwiches and luscious desserts made by local caterer extraordinaire, Jon Ekstrom.

And as we enjoyed the Swedish refreshments, we were serenaded by the Twin Cities Nyckelharpalag, one of twenty groups in the Twin Cities (with thousands of groups in Sweden and about 175 in the US).

What is a nyckelharpa, you say?

Well, I just happen to know because the group distributed a card with its history and the composition of the instrument. Suffice it to say, it is a Swedish key fiddle. It looks like this:

The Twin Cities Nyckelharpalag

So there you have it. A wonderful evening, filled with everything that makes a small town great: neighbors, friends, a ceremony, music, food, local library, and beautiful summer weather.

Everything perfect to greet Nelly again. And she is most welcome here.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Opening the flood gate

I have started tackling one of the many things on my retirement To Do List. This resembles a bucket list, only a very practical one. Achievable, too, if you actually do it.

It is my photo project. It is daunting, to say the least.

It started with taking a box of loose photos belonging to my Mom, who passed 18 months ago. It's the last remaining task to wind up her affairs, which puts it all-too-neatly into a compartment, which seems sad and unfair for a person's life.

Going through her photos, dividing them among family members, was a sharp and sad reminder that she is gone. Many long, deep sighs went into sorting through the pictures, a flood gate of memories opening up, reliving so many good times -  of Mom, and all of us as a family. Missing her all over again; riding another wave of grief.

I was once given a card with this saying on it. So true, isn't it?

Well, I finished. Everything is in envelopes ready to give to my sisters, my brother, and even some cousins. The big box is empty.

Of course, this only served to remind me that my own photos needed attention.

Ordinarily a fairly well-organized person, subscribing to the notion, "A place for everything and everything in its place," somehow I fail miserably when it comes to photos.

In this case, it has meant jamming photos and keepsakes into a bedroom blanket chest that has never stored a blanket. The day of reckoning came when my own collection of my Mom's recently-sorted  photos would no longer fit into the chest. That, or I could no longer close the chest.

So...I got a banker's box, took a bunch of old file folders and labeled them in five-year time spans. Then I unloaded the full contents of the chest and started sorting.

Because I am doing this in my media center (also known as the bedroom), I needed to stick with the task or not be able to go to bed to sleep at night. I shifted piles to the floor for a few nights, then worked more speedily as I have an aversion to messes. Well, messes that I have to constantly look at.

Okay, the photos are now in their five-year-time-span folders. And now I don't know what to do with them.  Photo albums? Scan them all (we're talking thousands)? Sort by time period? Event? Make scrapbooks? What to do?

Until I figure out how to keep them all (or even whether I keep them all), all those beautiful photos and related memorabilia are in a banker's box, in five-year-time-span folders, awaiting further action. On top of the blanket chest.

But until I decide, I will savor all the memories my photos hold.

In nothing else am I rich. In nothing else am I poor.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Changing the world

Last week I had the honor and privilege of presenting a scholarship award to a graduating senior at St. Paul (Minnesota) Central High School. Each year our class awards $5,000 scholarships to anywhere from ten to thirteen well-deserving students, all of whom we feel are worthy of that extra financial boost to make their dream of a post-secondary education become a reality.

This year we had thirteen scholarship recipients. Twelve of them were presented by another committee member. But I presented the thirteenth - a special award given in honor of my very dear friend and colleague, Laura Singher Turner.

Laura was a classmate in high school. Being a graduating class of over 600, she was someone I knew by name and face, but I didn't really know her as a person. After both of us played a small part in organizing our 40th class reunion, she invited me to continue being involved by joining the Scholarship Committee. I wisely took her up on it.

From then on, we became great friends, talking on the phone at least three times a week, meeting for lunches, and sharing scholarship duties, as well as our personal lives.

Laura took her scholarship committee role very seriously. Over the twenty years of our efforts resulting in over 100 student awards, Laura followed every single student personally.  She was the students' main point of contact for dispersion of their funds and so answered their questions, listened to their concerns and sometimes mini-crises, met them at computer stores to purchase a laptop, went to their homes if they needed an immediate check, got to know their families, and was often invited to attend their graduations and open houses.

The students loved her. They loved her emails of encouragement and wrote back of their progress and achievements, all of which she proudly shared with all of us committee members. In short, she was their Den Mother - or, quite literally, since she was Jewish, their Jewish Mother!

Laura Singher Turner

Sadly, we lost our friend and colleague very suddenly a month ago. Our program, our high school, our students, indeed our world, is less without her. We're not sure how to go on as she was truly irreplaceable, but we're trying very hard, as she would push us to do.

So we had our award ceremony as part of the school's "Senior Honors Night" last week where all scholarship awards are given and recognized. Laura's husband, sister and brother-in-law attended. We carried on, but were all acutely aware of her absence.

The special award I presented was the Laura Turner Scholarship Award. It was given to the student who best represented the ideals of equality and social justice Laura worked so hard to promote. Indeed, as applications from students were received, she always had her eye out for that student who wished to right all society's wrongs and change the world. And then she advocated strongly for that student.

We feel she led us in choosing just the right person, a lovely young woman headed to Hamline University majoring in social activism and nonprofit management. I'll be interested in following her as her mentor.

We all thank Laura for the great legacy she left for us, and the impact she had on the lives of countless young scholars.  She changed the world for them.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Fifty, you say?

Fifty!  Fifty years!

Fifty is half of a hundred. Fifty is a half-century. Fifty is a ridiculous number. Fifty is scary.

No, I am not turning fifty. That happened long ago and it was scary enough.

Yes, this is the year of my fiftieth high school class reunion. Ridiculously unbelievable.

Last week, I spent a day at my Alma mater, St. Paul (Minnesota) Central High School. Being a member of the Class of '63 Scholarship Committee, formed right after our 30th reunion to lend a helping hand to college-aspiring students in need, about 8 of us interviewed 22 well-deserving high school seniors who qualified out of 150 initial applications for a face-to-face interview. Of those 22, our task was to select 13 of them for a $5,000 scholarship award each.

Believe me, this was tough. Recounting their academic experiences, as well as their community involvement and their future goals, they made me feel like I've lived under a rock for the past 50 years. They are smart, mature, driven, and know where they're going. This in spite of the fact that some are helping to support their families.

That certainly wasn't me as a high school senior. A far cry from it, in fact.

I was the first to arrive that day, so I had time to get settled in and then watch out the second story window as the students began to arrive for the school day. Some were dropped off in cars, some emerged from an orange school bus, some were simply walking, others roller-blading, Heading toward school for another routine, perhaps ordinary, perhaps memorable, day.

St. Paul Central, ca. 1920. But it actually looked the same in 1963.
Today, it has been renovated and looks nothing like this.
Some original rooms (the assembly hall, the band room) remain the same.

As I watched them, it was me coming up those many steps infamous to Central (steps that I once sprinted up daily and now take me an eternity to mount one-step-at-a-time) to begin another school day.

Perhaps I took the Special (a direct bus) from the corner of Cleveland and Lincoln; perhaps I walked all the way to save bus fare for spending money; perhaps Mary Kay got her mother's car and drove me; perhaps Rosie's boyfriend, Bob, drove us. But it was, in my mind, clearly yesterday.

Nostalgia took over. All of a sudden, the bell was ringing and I was bustling through the hallways to get to my locker, to get to my next class on third floor on time, and, most important, to meet up with Mary Kay to pass last hour's notes between us.

No, not class notes.  Notes we wrote to each other during class, notes that contained urgent and vital information: What was she wearing Saturday night? Who was that seen with Jane at Sandy's Drive-In after school yesterday? What did my mother say when Mike brought me home an hour after curfew? Should we meet at Merriam Park library tonight and tell our moms we have research to do there? Sharing the drama of our teenage lives in notes.

As I listened to the students we were interviewing, it was difficult to imagine their life when compared to mine; indeed, all of ours in the Class of '63. It was a different time, to be sure.

And as a high school senior, had someone mentioned I would be involved in later years discerning who was most worthy of a college scholarship; that I would be attending my fiftieth class reunion this coming August, I'd have been totally mystified at what they were saying.

As we ended our day of interviews and selected the thirteen, with some agreement, a little disagreement and always negotiation, we all agreed wholeheartedly on one thing:

The world is in good hands with these remarkable individuals. Let them go forth and lead.

But a universal truth prevails: Their fifty years will go by quickly.

Monday, April 15, 2013

It's spring somewhere

We are still in Arizona, enjoying the desert in full bloom. Our Prickly Pear cactus has the most beautiful yellow buds that flower during the day, then close at night to go to sleep.

The breezes are warm as the temperatures climb to the upper 80s. We enjoy our coffee on the deck in the morning and our evening strolls.

We are from Minnesota. We spend winters here and most years are packing to head home about now.

But not this year.

It has not been a kind Minnesota winter, and that's the kindest words you'll hear Minnesotans say. It's mid-April and they are fed up. As well they should be.

It's a cruel trick of Mother Nature this year, the winter with no end. I feel for my fellow Minnesotans and I'm not gloating, nor did I write the first paragraph in a mean spirit.

There is hope, Minnesota. Spring must come. And when it does, it will be even more special. Those sights and smells will be appreciated even more after suffering through a very long seven months.

We have not been gone so long that we've forgotten. Those days that drag on and on and on and you just long to see green grass, open windows, and commence with spring cleaning and washing up golf clubs, pumping air into those bike tires, sorting fishing tackle.

Ahhhh, spring. It will come to Minnesota.  And when Minnesotans are enjoying those fresh breezes, tulips popping out of the ground, picnics and outdoor baseball games, Arizonans will be suffocating in the heat, broiling under the hot, intense sun, and getting cabin fever from sitting inside their air-conditioned hot-boxes, paying obscene electric bills to stay cool.

So take comfort, Minnesota. Spring is coming. I promise. We'll be there to celebrate it with you.

Monday, April 1, 2013

April fool

Well, it's April 1...April Fool's Day.

Yesterday was the day I felt like a fool. Guests for Easter Sunday dinner, I decided to try some new recipes.

Never, ever do that.

I was looking online for crockpot, or slow cooker, recipes so that we could go to church and have dinner cooking itself.  I found several ham recipes and several scalloped potato recipes that made it difficult to even choose between them. They all sounded great.

I chose a ham recipe that called for maple syrup and pineapple juice. It was reported to be the best ham ever!

Using half the time called for in the recipe, it was overcooked and dry, and had lost its color. The only thing that saved it was spooning the juices from the crockpot over the sliced ham on your plate.

On to the scalloped potatoes.  The recipe I selected called for a cheese sauce. Now who could go wrong with a cheese sauce?  It cooked up beautifully, so rich and creamy. Poured over the thinly sliced potatoes, it looked great going into the crockpot. Smelled good, too.

The result was awful. The sauce turned into paste, the potatoes turned brown, and again, using half the time called for, they were way overdone.

I had made a Jell-O salad in individual molds. That's about as artistic as I get. No matter what I tried (yes, the warm cloth over the molds, letting them set out at room temperature, running a hot knife around the edges), they would not unmold. I finally shook them out and they ended up looking like little blobs on a leaf of lettuce.

As our guests thanked us and said everything was delicious, I felt like the April Fool.

Thankfully, the deviled eggs turned out (it took 16 eggs to get 10 perfect ones), and the dessert was to die for...angel food cake with a can of crushed pineapple, frosted with whipped cream, topped with coconut.

Maybe our friends will just remember the dessert.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Unexpected wonders

It's the greatest thing to discover something new when you're not expecting it.  That happened just last week.

Granddaughter Heidi and husband, Chris, came from Las Vegas to Mesa for their annual President's Day weekend visit. Besides loving to be with them for three wonderful days, we try to experience some new adventure each time.

One year it was Saguaro National Park and the Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson; last year Tortilla Flats, nestled in the Tonto National Forest/Superstition Mountain Range and from there, Goldfield Ghost Town. Heidi memorialized our adventures with photo albums for us, and we frequently re-live them through the colorful pages.

Two years ago, it rained all weekend so our "adventure" consisted of discovering new places to shop. Gallant Chris dropped us off at the store's doorway as he braved the elements to park the car and sprint inside dripping wet. Once inside, we explored everything there was to see, then ventured to the next indoor place.

But we've been rewarded with perfect weather weekends ever since. This year was the best and even allowed us to eat a steak dinner out on our new deck.

This year's "adventure" was a drive to Globe, a town in a higher elevation about 45 miles east of Mesa. The drive itself was the adventure since the highway is bordered by shimmering rock and steep mountain hills.

Just outside Globe, we saw a roadside sign, Tonto National Monument. Our curiosity aroused, we decided to check it out.

Turning left and up the mountain road about 17 miles, we came to the site. Looking down, you could see the valley; looking up, the beautiful mountainous hills. And there in the hills were two cave dwellings, an upper one and a lower one. As we later learned, the caves were home to the ancient Hohokam (550 A.D.) and later the Salado Indians (1150) who built small villages in the hills.

Both dwellings, upper and lower, can be toured today. Three of us (admittedly, I stayed behind) toured the lower dwelling. It was a steep half-mile walk to get there, but worth the effort, reported my fellow travelers.

Photo by Chris Tertipes

Inside you could see various rooms. Though primitive, they contained doorways and wooden beams protruding through stone openings. The walls still miraculously contain markings. Touching a marking leads to an instant reprimand by a nearby guide, as my husband can attest.

The caves were carefully chosen so the morning sun warmed it in the winter and the shade offered cool protection from the summer sun.

Aside from the surprise discovery of the monument itself and the beautiful scenery, it was fascinating to learn more about the lives of the Salado (meaning salty) and their everyday lives. Men would hunt in the pre-dawn hours, bringing home a rabbit, perhaps even a wood rat, to skin and cook. Later they would set quartzite stones in mortars of clay and desert soil to construct a new room. Women would don sandals of woven yucca leaves and go the desert hillside where, carrying a gathering basket and a crude pole, they would harvest fruit from the saguaro.

Saguaro cactus in bloom

Later, during midday, this would be boiled to make jams or syrup.

I was most fascinated by the arts and crafts of the Salado. Beautiful decorated clay pots, pottery bowls, woven goods (woven primarily by men) and baskets, as well as inlaid turquoise jewelry, reaffirmed my belief that all peoples have an appreciation for artforms and creativity. Some of the preserved artifacts were displayed in the Visitor's Center and included an exquisite piece of lace.

Grandpa and Heidi return from the lower cave.
Saguaro cactus plants in background.

So next time you see a road sign that gives you even a twinge of curiosity....go explore! We were glad we did.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Nothing better

As I write this, I am watching the most beautiful Arizona sunset outside our living room window with palm trees in the foreground. We hear the news reports of frigid, sub-zero temps back home and are grateful to be in the warmth and beauty of the Southwest where we can be active and enjoy our retirement life. There is nothing better.

 Cactus in bloom (2012)

But I am lonesome for my children and family back home in Minnesota. While we enjoy being here in the sun, we often wish we could jump in the car and just drive across town to see them. There would be nothing better.

We had a voice memo from our five year old granddaughter this morning. I didn't even know there was such a thing as a voice memo, but there it was, appearing on the phone. So I pressed on the message bar, and voile---on came her sweet little voice.

"Hi, Grandma and Grandpa. I'm selling Girl Scout cookies. How many would you like?"

Now, wait a minute. How did she know we'd be such an easy mark and buy some in the first place? Well, of course, we would. This is her first year in Daisies, the beginner group of Girl Scouts.

We called her back and placed our order. Forty dollars worth. Never mind that we're easy targets, this little girl is a super-sales professional. When we were done ordering, or so we thought, she asked if we would consider buying some cookies to send to soldiers overseas.

Think about it for a moment.

Who, I ask you....WHO would say no to that? Certainly not us.  Turns out for every box of cookies sold to U.S. troops serving our country overseas, the Girl Scout association will arrange for shipping them. It warmed my heart to order two boxes, honoring our brave troops in the tiniest way. Nothing better than that patriotic feeling.

Then I find out our order of two boxes for the soldiers put our granddaughter at the level of sales needed for this mission to earn a badge. So it was a win-win: we felt good and she was excited and proud to have accomplished the requirement needed for her badge. Boy, there's nothing better.

How often have you experienced a "nothing better" moment?

A "nothing better" moment for Granddaughter Jessica.

My "nothing better" moment comes each time I am together with my children and their wonderful spouses, my granddaughters three and great-granddaughter one. I want the time to stand still as I take in the pure joy of being with them. The time will pass too quickly and the occasion will always come to an ultimate end, as I suppose it must.

But my heart will be overflowing. Love, pride, gratitude and joy will fill it to the brim.

Above everything else, there is nothing better.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Freezing in Arizona

Now I know I will not get any sympathy from my fellow Minnesotans; that is, unless you planned a winter get-away week in sunny Phoenix, paying a premium for your airline tickets.

But here I go anyway: It is freezing in Arizona.

No amount of whining can get an ounce of sympathy from my brother-in-law. But we are setting records here in Arizona, a state totally unprepared for freezing water pipes and outdoor pools, and homes lacking cold-weather insulation. People just don't have down jackets and ear muffs at the ready in their closets.

This is an area where over 2,000 jailed inmates are housed in a tent sans heat and air conditioning. It is literally, a tent. It's called Tent City, set up back in 1993 after Maricopa County's infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio refused to release any incarcerated inmates due to jail overcrowding. Tent City has stun fences around the perimeter, facial recognition computer software for inmate identification. K-9 units and patrol deputies.

Tent City

Sheriff Arpaio thinks if our troops in Afghanistan have rough and meager accommodations, well, then so should our law-breakers, by gosh. It was reported on last night's news broadcast that Sheriff Arpaio, a seemingly heartless guy, softened and ordered hot chicken soup for the fellows for dinner. He tried to arrange for hot cocoa as well but wasn't able to. Not sure I get that, but there you are.

So here on our block, plants and varieties of cacti are covered in blankets and sheets.

Our neighbor's cactus plants covered for protection.

On a morning drive, my husband and I saw huge bougainvillea trees covered as well. Their beautiful red blooms grace even our freeway landscape. The covered ones were, of course, at a private home, not the freeway.

This freeze has great cause for concern for local citrus groves and peach growers who are in danger of losing their entire harvest. They are busy around the clock trying to save the fruits (pun intended) of their labor by watering the ground around the trees first, some even resorting to spraying from a helicopter.
Well, the good news is, as my friend Evie in Minnesota pointed out, this abrupt climate change will last only several more days - not months, as Minnesota is accustomed to enduring.
But that is the whole point: Arizona is definitely NOT accustomed!