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Fishing with Grampy at Turtle Lake

June 2, 2020

It is warm today, nearly 85 degrees, and my thoughts have turned to the cooler air at Turtle Lake in northern Wisconsin, where I spent summers with my Granny and Grampy. It is about the time of year we’d load up the car and head north to the lake for a few weeks of swimming and fishing. I remember my first time fishing with Grampy and learning about just where those fried perch came from that Granny made so well.

***

First off, we needed worms. Down slope from the vegetable garden in the shade behind the garage and near the fish shack was a patch of dirt, its shape a perfect rectangle, like an unplanted flower bed. Nourished with coffee grounds, egg shells and vegetable peelings, the earth of the bed was loamy and black and cool to the touch. Grampy had turned the earth with his pitchfork so many times you could sift the dirt through your fingers without encountering lumps or clods. This was the worm bed.  We used the pitchfork to unearth the fat earthworms. They wriggled and twisted, objecting to their exposure to unaccustomed daylight. I plucked them up, one by one, and placed them gently into a half-pound coffee can along with a few crumbles of damp earth.

Before we set out with our long cane poles, Grampy produced a slim canister of peppery-smelling chewing tobacco. “Time for a pinch of gladiola blossom,” he said, in a voice at once rumbly with phlegm and high-pitched with old age. He never spat tobacco on the ground. There was a soup can handy on the pier for that. He walked beside me down the hill to the lake, limping a little because of his bum hip.

The lake glittered in the sunlight, and tall grasses lined the shore a few yards from the weathered wood of the dock. An old wooden barrel sat on one corner of the platform at the end of the dock. This was Grampy’s barrel, the place he always sat to fish. I sat on the edge of the platform with my legs dangling toward the water. The sun was warm on my back, and insects droned in the afternoon air.

Before we could begin fishing, I needed to thread a worm onto the hook tied to the end of the fishing line. The hook was huge. Grampy told me that its size made it easier to attach a worm, that it was the perfect size for a beginner. I struggled with the task, nearly gagging at the slimy feel of the desperately wiggling worm. My first attempts failed – the worms fell off almost immediately. Eventually, I figured out that you have to skewer the worm multiple times to get it wound around the shaft of the hook. I was horrified, but also eager to please Grampy. I wanted to catch fish with him, and this was the only way to go about it.

We sat for a long time, casting our hooks, watching the bobbers in hopes they would dip into the water. When the bobber gets pulled under, that means you have a fish. I lost a few fish along with the worms, but eventually I caught a perch that was big enough to keep. Later, Granny would fry it up for us for supper, along with the fish Grampy brought in.

Before that, though, the fish needed cleaning. This was more stressful than hooking worms, but Grampy said if I was to be a fisherman, I needed to see how fish are prepared for cooking. It’s important to know how food gets on the table, he said.

After we’d caught enough, we brought the pail of fish to the cleaning table behind the storage shed. There, I learned that you first have to stun the fish by giving it a solid whack on the head to make it stay still. Then, you had to slice the belly open with a sharp fish knife, and scoop out the guts. The guts get thrown into a tin pail under the cleaning table, and it would later be emptied back into the lake. It wasn’t long before the smooth wooden surface of the table was slick with fish slime and guts. Finally, we had to cut off the head, and toss the body into a pan of cool rinse water. Grampy didn’t filet the fish. At supper, we’d eat carefully to avoid the bones.

***

The house at the lake was sold after my grandparents died, and I no longer fish. I am happy, though, that I spent those afternoons fishing with Grampy, helping food get to the table for supper. I’ve learned how to fry a perch, and I look forward to many fish dinners here this summer, grateful for the fishermen who caught and cleaned the fish for our meals.

Impermanence

May 20, 2020

It began with a little porcelain cat. The white cat with black patches – all 2.5 inches of it – rests on its haunches, looking over its shoulder at the viewer. A green base suggests that the cat is seated on a patch of grass.  On its bottom, my grandmother penciled “I am 80,” along with the date 1981, the year she handed over the cat to me.

I am fond of the little Staffordshire cat. Granny gave it to me when she, like the cat, was eighty years old. It was a time IMG_0192 when she was busy distributing her possessions among the grandchildren. She knew I liked cats, so it became mine. I liked it, but I loved that it was a true and thoughtful gift. This gift was genuine in spirit, and it resembled in no way the usual one-dollar bills given to each grandchild at Christmas and on birthdays.

Unfortunately, once the little figurine took up residence on a shelf in my dining room, other cats began to join it. “Oh, you collect cats!” people remarked when they saw it. And the cat collection began. I now have chalk-ware cats, cast-iron cats, pewter cats, blown-glass cats, and dozens of additional porcelain cats, none of which I have purchased for myself. The shelves in the glass-fronted cabinet in the dining room and in the pair of built-in corner cupboards are crowded not with dishes, but with cats.

When the overabundance of cat figurines became obvious, people began giving me pictures of cats to hang on my walls. There are embroidered pictures, there are paintings, and there are etchings. There are also cat-themed objects. There are small sofa pillows and fuzzy blanket throws with alarming cat images staring out at the viewer. There are three stuffed cats. There are plaques with vaguely clever cat sayings, along the lines of “Dogs have masters – Cats have staff,” and “This is a mouse-free zone.” I have displayed none of these objets d’art, but they keep coming in. I wish the influx would stop.

The little kitty from my grandmother has been all but lost in the crowd of feline representations that infest my house. My family and friends have no idea that I care for only one cat — the porcelain kitty given to me by Granny on its, and her eightieth  birthday. I doubt I would regret the loss of any other figurine or artifact. I don’t worry about them or their eventual fates. I do worry about Granny’s kitty, though. If it were to break or disappear, I know I would be heartbroken.

It seems wrong, somehow, to be so attached to an object. What are things, after all, if not encumbrances? In Walden, Henry David Thoreau remarked about a neighbor’s farm that the land owned the farmer more than the farmer owned the land. Might the same be said of my little figurine? After all, I do keep it safely tucked away in a cupboard where I can look at it, but am not tempted to touch it. I dust it rarely and with trepidation, lest it break. Protecting it has become more important than enjoying it. But why do I wish to keep it from harm?

The little Staffordshire cat is a token of sorts. It represents giving in love and receiving in joy. The token is not necessary for Granny’s love to be remembered, however. Whether the cat exists or not should be irrelevant. I will remember my Granny Wagner in all her aspects even if all the things she left me are lost. Is it a character flaw that makes me so attached to a little porcelain figurine, to the memory that it invokes?

But I am attached. Like a barnacle, I cling to that little cat and to the memory of my Granny Wagner. I know that the attachment is silly. I know that the cat is impermanent and that my memories are impermanent. After all, once I am gone, so will my memories be gone.  Nevertheless, I would like to give memories to someone new, knowing full well that, in the grand scheme of things, even those memories will be impermanent, just like the fragile little cat.

Someday, when I am eighty, I know I will want to find a new home for my cat. I would like to think that it will be a true gift, that the gift of love that the cat represents will give pleasure to its recipient, as it gave pleasure to me. I would also like to think that the receiver of my gift understands the impermanence of things and of people and even of memory, and that the little cat will be no more than a token.

Dairy Store

April 19, 2020

I was a transplant to Wisconsin back in the ‘80s, and while I lived there, I learned to love dairy products. It was the rare Wisconsinite who disliked dairy. Even the smallest grocery or convenience store carried cheese.  Once, out of curiosity, my husband paced off the display of cheeses at a small grocery in a northern tourist town. He measured out 120 linear feet of Wisconsin cheese. He didn’t bother pacing out the displays of imported cheeses. I began to believe in the seriousness of the local bumper stickers: Eat Cheese, Or Die.

It wasn’t long after our move from Chicago to Madison that I became a devotee of dairy. Cheese, cream, milk, butter — all fresh from local farms — were staples in our house. I loved them all, but most of all I loved the ice cream. Full butterfat ice cream in any flavor on offer at Bill’s Grocery was my drug of choice. Not only could I satisfy my junkie’s craving for ice cream at the grocery, but I discovered that southern Wisconsin also is home to a type of business I had never heard of: the dairy store. Basically, a dairy store was a place you could get a milkshake, cone, or sundae. You could also order a sandwich, but they’d look at you funny if you ordered one.

Salted-Caramel-Toffee-Ice-Cream-transparent-background-500x500

Babcock Hall’s Salted Caramel Toffee

 

One dairy store that sent native Madisonians into raptures was Babcock Hall. Like most dairy stores, it offered a full menu of sandwiches, but I never heard anyone rave about a burger and fries at Babcock. Rather, Babcock Hall was a sort of Mecca for ice cream lovers. If you lived in Madison, you made your pilgrimage to Linden Drive and ordered up an ice cream cone in your favorite flavor, or flavors, if you couldn’t decide and went the towering multi-scoop route.

I regret never having visited Babcock Hall’s Dairy Store when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin. The dairy plant and retail store help support University of Wisconsin’s Food Science Department. That I never handed over cash at the dairy store to support the school’s mission, I regret very little. What I regret is that I never once tasted Babcock Hall’s famous ice cream, and now that I live in a distinctly non-dairy state (I can’t tell you when I last saw a cow), I feel that omission keenly.

Now, it’s up to our local ice cream stand to distract me. The Chocolate Moose reigns supreme among ice cream shops around here, and their Moose Chocolate Shake is the best chocolate shake I’ve tasted. Time to drive on down, and get one.

 

 

Bears

April 14, 2020
Eyeball Bear
Eyeball Bear, sewn from a pattern drawn by my 4-year-old son in 1983

I like bears, in theory at least. I have had countless teddy bears, including a peppermint pink bear named Sally that I received for my birthday one year.  I liked Sally so much, fact, that I, who never tidied my room except under duress, cleaned and rearranged the shelves just to make a spot for her.

In addition to my love affair with Sally and her compatriots, I enjoyed visiting bears at the zoo. I looked forward to visiting the black bears, brown bears, spectacled bears and the zoo’s lone grizzly bear. The bears sat around looking cute – even the grizzly, whose enclosure label described it as one of the most vicious bears of all. My favorite bears, however, were the polar bears. Unlike their cousins, they did more than sit morosely in their pens. Not only were they cute, polar bears played. They played with toys and with each other. They played in the water and seemed almost human in their childlike glee.

My unconditional affection for bears was challenged during a visit to the Smoky Mountains. I was delighted to see whole families of black bears browsing along the roadside, looking as cute as the teddy bears on my shelf back home. In addition to the bears, however, there were also ominous signs posted at intervals along the roadway cautioning visitors to keep away from the bears.  Danger! they warned, Bears are wild animals. Do not approach the bears. I was more than a little unnerved by one such sign: it was splintered and scraped with huge claw marks. It looked like a ruined scratching post. Bears were becoming a little less cute in my mind.

On the same trip, I made friends with some kids at the resort where we were staying. The resort offered a movie night, and we gathered to see the current film: Night of the Grizzly. I remember nothing about the film except being terrified. The terror was made worse on the way back to our cabins when the boys jumped, growling out of the bushes at us girls and made us scream.

I forgot about bears until years later, when my husband and I decided to take up backpacking. We read up on all the skills needed to have a safe and enjoyable trip.  One thing common to every book and magazine article was an extensive discussion about bears. A bear is not your friend, I read. I should avoid them at all costs. The books taught me how to keep bears away by carrying pepper spray, wearing bells, and singing while I walked. I studied it all, but all I could think about was Night of the Grizzly. I was a wreck even before we hit the trail.

On our first trip out, I heard a bear snuffling in the undergrowth near the trail. Or at least I’m pretty sure it was a bear. I didn’t wait around to find out. John says he’d never seen me move as fast as I did that day –running back the way we’d come, with my forty-pound backpack bouncing up and down, while I desperately sang Ninety Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall as loudly as I could until I reached the safety of our campsite. It wasn’t until preparing for our next backpacking trip that it dawned on me that a campsite isn’t particularly safe.

So, I hit the books again, and I learned about hanging your food bags off the ground on a rope tied high between two trees (there was never any advice on how to climb the trees to get the rope high enough). I learned never to eat a candy bar in the tent. And I learned once again about singing and bells and pepper spray. The articles I read were also fond of bear-backpacker jokes. One advised that you don’t have to outrun the bear, you just need to outrun your hiking buddy. Another was about avoiding a bear encounter by being alert to the different kinds of bear scat. It ended with the punch line, “Black bear droppings are smaller and often contain berries, leaves, and possibly bits of fur. Grizzly bear droppings tend to contain bells and smell like pepper.”  I laughed at that one, but to me, it was no joke. It reminded me that I really might encounter a bear, and it really might eat me.

On our first major backpacking trip, two weeks in the Colorado Rockies, we discovered that I could no longer sleep while camping. Four nights into the hike through bear country, I had not yet slept, and I was becoming even more irrational about bears than usual. Bears would claw through the tent in the night and eat me, I reasoned, and I should be awake for the occasion so that I could jingle my bells and squirt my pepper spray. Clearly, I had lost it. So, ten days early, I staggered out, covering ground twice as fast as I had when we hiked in, John gamely keeping up the rear. We spent the rest of that vacation visiting tourist sites from the safety of our car. We don’t have many photographs of our hiking trip, but I do have a postcard of Pike’s Peak.

John continued backpacking with my blessing, so long as I didn’t have to accompany him into the wilderness. I remained happily at home, playing with my son and his teddy bears. In all the many years he backpacked, John only once encountered a bear. But that’s a story for another day.

 

 

 

 

 

Hike

April 10, 2020
IMG_1319

McCormick’s Creek

The first thing you notice is the silence. The quiet comes on you almost suddenly. One minute you are surrounded with noise, the next you hear the silence.

First you are oblivious — oblivious to the rush of tires on the highway, indifferent to the sound of doors slamming in the parking area, senseless of the radios that suddenly blast into life as people switch on their cars, preparing to leave.  You hum a bit to the tune that’s stuck itself to you when you turned your own radio off.  Afterward, when you enter the woods, sound begins to recede, although you don’t notice right away.  But the silence comes, before you even know you are ready for it.

Backpack on, boots laced just loosely enough to allow your feet to swell without pinching, you walk. You carry a stick, because that’s what backpackers do. At first, you talk. Great weather for hiking. Aren’t the colors beautiful? Did you see that movie last week? The one with the car chase at the end? It was nothing like the book. Boy, this pack is heavy. How much food are you carrying? Too much, I guess. At least it’ll get lighter after dinner. Backpacker humor.

After the talk dies down – there hadn’t been much to say, anyway – the silence slides in, almost imperceptibly. The hum of car tires, the buzz of electricity, the constant interactions with people, the symbiotic connection with machines – all fade to silence. You hear the squeak of your boots, but you are quiet. And then the forest begins to speak. A rustle of leaves, the gurgle of water in an unseen creek, the hoarse call of a crow, the thump of acorns falling to the forest floor. This is stillness. This is silence. You didn’t know until just now, but this is what you’ve longed for all your life.

Bird bath

April 8, 2020

I’ve been hearing birdsong a lot these past few weeks, and it reminds me that I need to shift myself from my usual lethargy and hook up the garden hose so I can fill the birdbath. It hasn’t been raining much, and I imagine the birds would enjoy a dip in the pool. I remember the summer of the drought, the summer when the grass became parched and thin, and cracks appeared in the hard-baked dirt in the yard. Cicadas droned in the heat, and thirsty-looking birds sheltered in whatever shade they could find. It was the summer I took pity and filled a birdbath, sometimes three times a day, to give the birds some respite.

The bath was made of concrete aggregate with a course, pebbly surface. The inside of the bowl was as smooth as a water slide. It tilted rakishly in defiance of my best efforts to level it in the leafy shelter of the wild honeysuckle near the dusty viburnum hedge. Because of its tilt, the birdbath had a deep end and a shallow end, just like a swimming pool.

I’d imagined that birds would come gratefully to sip the cool water I provided, but I was wrong, or at least partly so. The wrens and sparrows did indeed perch daintily on the edge of the pool, and they did dip their beaks into the water, but this was only after the robins came. The robins were always first to arrive, diving in almost before I’d finished filling the bath. One particular robin would cannonball in before the others and would splash around as exuberantly as a seven-year-old at the community pool, until the water became shallow and smelly and more than a little bit muddy. So, I’d fill the bath again, and the rest of the robins jumped in for their turn at the swimming hole.

Once the robins were busy preening themselves in the shrubbery, the littler birds ventured in to take their own small baths, and they’d drink a bit from the robin-polluted water. I imagined them screwing up their tiny avian faces in distaste, and I’d take pity, and fill the bath yet again. And, while the little birds were splashing their little splashes, and sipping their little sips, in dove the bully robin once again to splatter away whatever he could. I could hear the watery riot from the back porch, where I sat with my iced tea, watching the action in the birdbath.

The first few times this happened, I shooed away the robins, but to no avail. The robins came first, no matter what. So, I kept watch, like a lifeguard, over the birds’ swimming pool, and refreshed the water until everyone seemed satisfied. Eventually, the birds flew on to some other yard, leaving the birdbath a murky, shallow swamp – not at all like the peaceful oasis I’d imagined it would be.

I’ve since made my peace with the robins, and now allow nature to take its course. The robins come first, and who am I to intervene?

 

Life Cycle of a Frog

April 6, 2020

Long, unforgotten years before the day of my biology lab, I spent spring afternoons squatting in the mud beside a frog pond, contemplating the life cycle of amphibians. Spawn, tadpole, frog.

My mother was big on teaching life cycles. In her second-grade classroom, she kept an aquarium, which for a few weeks each spring was home to tadpoles.

My job was to supply them. As soon as the weather began to warm, I headed down to the frog pond, quart-size canning jar in hand. I’d dip the jar into the water to scoop up as many tadpoles as I could. Once in the jar, the wriggling black commas went to school for the children to monitor. When the tadpoles finally sprouted legs and lost their tails, the little froglets were graduated from the second grade, and Mom brought them home for me to dump back into the pond. I like to think of them growing there, unmolested by birds or second-graders, happy in the algae-scummed water.

***

In biology class, our frogs are called specimens. They are alive. They arrive in a plastic shoebox holding about a dozen. I expect a chorus of ribbets and croaks, but the shoebox is silent. Distressed frogs make no sound, I learned later. I wait at my lab station to receive my own personal frog for that day’s lesson. In those days, there was no opt-out, no virtual frog dissection videos, no PETA to protest our experiments. Instead, we each have at our station a diagram, a scalpel, and a sharpened awl arranged beside a tray on which our living frog will be dissected.

***

On warm afternoons at the pond, I gazed in happy revulsion at the frogspawn bubbling up on rafts of green algae. The tapioca-like bubbles each contained a black dot, a future tadpole. The air above the pond stank of decay, but I returned every afternoon to make my observations. For hours and days, I squatted in the mud on the pond’s edge and watched the bubbles. Water sliders skimmed across the still surface of the murky water. I shook my arms to keep the blackflies off. Bass-voiced bullfrogs hid in the reeds and made noises like plucked rubber bands. Ga-plunk. Ga-plunk.

***

In the classroom, teenage boys whoop and joke and pound each other’s backs while most of the girls cower in the back of the classroom squealing and exchanging anxious whispers. I wait, stoic, at my station, waiting to be dispensed a frog.

***

Once, I caught a fat frog and put it into a cardboard shoebox. I punched air holes in the lid so it could breathe. I stuffed dead flies from the windowsill through the holes for food. I lifted the lid from time to time to inspect the frog. When it finally started to look a little thin and peaked, my mother made me take it back to the pond where, presumably, it lived out its happy frog existence. A splash, then silence. As I left, I heard them calling. Ga-plunk, ga-plunk.

***

To render a frog insensate, you must pith it. Pithing requires that you jab an awl into the base of the frog’s skull. The procedure is quick, painless, and paralyzing if done correctly, we are told. The teacher demonstrates, making it look easy. He holds a limp (but not dead) frog aloft to prove the efficacy of the method. Dissection, we are assured, will be a piece of cake. A few girls gag in the back of the room. I hear a sick groan from one of the boys.

Not all of our pithing endeavors go according to plan. The teacher rushes in to complete the job. Frogs do not scream out loud. They writhe.

***

Once, on a dare, I waded into the black water of our frog pond. The silt at the bottom was cold, and it sucked at my feet. I feel sucked in by our biology lesson. I wonder if I’ll ever pull free, if I’ll ever return to the pond.

***

My frog specimen is female. Slice into her belly, part the flesh, and peer inside. Before I can see the beating heart, I have to scoop out all the eggs that overflow the abdominal cavity obscuring the organs. There are a lot of eggs, eggs enough to foam up over rafts of algae on our frog pond in early spring. Ga-plunk, ga-plunk.

Finally, I weep.

###

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