Stories in the woods grow to fill the space

Our collective family is meeting my brother’s collective family in a small river town on the banks of the Missouri. It has been two years since we have all been together. It is a crisp fall day. The sky is bright blue and “the air tastes good here” according to one of the kids.

After everyone has arrived, hugged one another, ogled the new babies, put a serious dent in all the food, taken pictures and ogled the new babies some more, it is time for a walk in the woods.

The kids tear down the trail, laughing and yelling, scaring nearby wildlife into early hibernation.

We are identifying leaves that have fallen—maple, oak, elm, sycamore, when I find a leaf no one can identify.

It looks like a mitten with two large thumbs, one on each side.

There are numerous guesses, all of which are dismissed, when someone finally says, “Sassafrass. I think it’s a sassafrass.”

Of course, it is.

My brother, who speaks with authority whenever he spins a yarn, corrects the pronunciation. “It’s sassyfrass. Sassy. Frass.”

He asks if any of the kids know what the sassyfrass leaf is for.

They are mum and their eyes grow big.

“Long ago, people made tea with the sassyfrass leaf and gave it to their children. It would frass the sass right out of them. Yes, sir, sassyfrass tea—frasses the sass out of kids.”

Quiet descends on the group. Then a meek voice asks, “What’s sass?”

“Sass is when your mom or dad tell you to do something and you talk back or argue with them.”

The bulk of the group looks relieved, but a few squirm uncomfortably.

We continue our walk, some gathering sassyfrass leaves, others vigorously kicking them aside, when a black cat crosses our path in the distance. By the time news of the black cat reaches the tail end of the group, it may have been a large black cat but it was more likely a small black bear.

Stories in the woods grow to fill the space.

We return to our hotel before dinner and everyone props open their room doors so kids can come and go. I am making a cup of hot tea to take the chill off when one of the girls pops in.

“I see you’re having tea, Grandma. Is it, you know, some of that sassyfrass tea that takes the sass out?”

“Why yes, it is,” I say submerging my Earl Grey tea bag and doing my part to keep the story growing.

She darts off, probably to tell the group that Grandma soon will be a changed woman.

The next morning, she asks if I think the sassyfrass tea worked.

“I can’t tell as though I’m any less or any more sassy than I was before,” I say.

“I don’t think you were sassy, Grandma. Maybe it only works on real sassy people.” There is a twinkle in her eye. We both know who needs the sass frassed out of him.

I’ve read that families are like fudge, mostly sweet with a few nuts.

Ours is no exception.


No matter how you stack it, some still prefer paper

Every morning I engage in a ritual on the verge of extinction. I walk outside and bring in the morning newspaper.

There was a time when every house on both sides of the street had a newspaper in the driveway. Of course, there was also a time when every house had a landline, too. But not anymore. Not in a long time.

The husband takes the demise of print edition newspapers particularly hard as he worked his entire career in newspapers. He started when he was 16. Even before that, he was what you would call an independent publisher. He received a small typesetting kit with a hand-cranked press as a child and printed a family newsletter.

Circulation never passed two dozen or so extended family members, but it kept him entertained, and cousins and aunts and uncles were well informed about the boys his older sister was dating.

We were at a Chicago park recently, herding a few of our grands, as kids swarmed like bees. The husband had a newspaper he had been reading folded under his arm. He sat down and put the paper on the bench beside him. A girl about 9 walked over, looked at the newspaper, picked it up and asked, “What’s this?”

I nearly screamed, “Get back little girl! Run as fast as your legs can carry you!”

I thought the man was going to croak. The color drained out of his face. His eyes rolled back in his head and his legs were giving out.

I rolled up his paper and rapped him on the head with it.

He was still swooning, so I waved it under his nose.

The fumes from the ink brought him to.

Some people simply love paper—the feel, the portability, the pleasure of old newspapers stacked in piles, the pleasure of stacking them higher and higher until your wife cries, “Enough!”

He was recently making another case for print, citing Exhibit A—our youngest daughter and son-in-law. When they lived with us, they raced to pull the crossword puzzle from the paper every day. The man has a point. It’s hard to do a crossword online. Pencil doesn’t come off a computer screen as easily as you might think.

Now the husband will be thrilled that I have found further proof there may still be hope for the survival of print.  I was visiting with a young, married, mother of four little ones who subscribes to the daily newspaper in print.

Stunned, I asked why she did something so old school. She looked shocked.

“Because it’s print!” she said. “I love print! When the paper didn’t come one day, would you believe I called the main number to let them know and the lady said, ‘Why don’t you just subscribe to the online version?’”

She shook her head in disbelief.

The husband will be so thrilled he may write this young woman into our will. I say we make her beneficiary of all our stacks of old newspapers.

Take cover, zucchini are exploding

We have long kept a small backyard garden to teach our children, and now our grandchildren, a few basics about gardening.

The biggest lesson they have learned is this: If we had to live on the food we grow, we would all be very thin and very hungry.

Unless, of course, you could be well fed on cherry tomatoes. We do well with cherry tomatoes and any other plant that thrives on neglect.

We are currently yielding 11 bright red cherry tomatoes for every one minuscule raspberry.

We like the itty-bitty tomatoes and are grateful for them, but man does not live on itty bitty tomatoes alone. Man also needs olive oil, mozzarella and pasta to accompany tomatoes, all of which we have had no success growing.

Tomatoes are like cucumbers and zucchini—plants that start out as unassuming frail seedlings, emerging a leaf or two here and there. They keep you guessing whether they will endure the dip in night temperatures, the torrents of rain or the scorch of the sun. You check on them every day. Then one day, in a matter of seconds, they are mature and fully grown, virtually exploding, intent on taking over the entire garden. They become, shall we say, overbearing? They multiply like crazy.

Last week I dropped off a friend at her home after having lunch. Her husband ran out of the house when he saw the car pull into the driveway and said he wouldn’t take his wife back until I agreed to take some cucumbers home with me.

She is a good friend, and because our cucumbers had not yet started exploding, I agreed to take a few.

He reappeared on a dead run, cradling a basket with 16 cucumbers.

By the time I got home (90 seconds later), our cucumbers were also exploding. I’ve made cucumber soup, tossed cucumbers in salads, on sandwiches, in vinegar and sour cream, and even tried wearing slices of them under my eyes to reduce puffiness.

Every backyard gardener is giving cucumbers and tomatoes to neighbors who already have more than enough, so they give them to other friends and neighbors who give them to other friends and neighbors. Some tomatoes and cucumbers have been known to travel three time zones in a single day.

We also do well growing herbs that thrive on neglect thereby complementing the produce we grow that thrives on neglect. There’s a pattern here, isn’t there?

Last week I tucked a bag filled with rosemary in my purse for a friend and forgot to give it to her, or force it on her, whichever you like.

My purse is now permanently fragranced like rosemary. On the upside, every time I open my purse, my sinuses clear.

We have foisted all the cherry tomatoes and cucumbers we can on friends and neighbors. The time has come for us to draw the curtains and bolt the doors in case they have plans to reciprocate. We’re taking no chances. Zucchini season is coming.


Sprinkle that doughnut dash with fun

We conducted a Doughnut Dash not long ago. Our goal was to hit as many doughnut shops as possible and find the best doughnuts in town.

It was a worthy Saturday morning endeavor, although the dash part of the Doughnut Dash was a misnomer. We had five little ones in tow.

You don’t dash anywhere when passengers require car seats with five-point harnesses, booster seats and stubborn seat belts.

Our mission was noble, but overly ambitious.  We made a total of two stops, which was probably one too many.

The kids are at an age where they talk a lot—all of them—all at the same time.

We are driving along when a 4-year-old yells, “Hey! I know where we are. This is where the policeman stopped my mom!”

“Is that so?” I ask.

“Yes. But we’re not going to tell Dad about it!”

We reach our destination and unload like clowns bursting out of a phone booth.

They scramble to the counter and begin placing their orders. Sprinkles—any and everything with sprinkles. If there are doughnuts that are nothing but sprinkles, we’ll take those, too.

Wolfing them down, one announces, “I made a card for Mommy with a heart that says, ‘I love you.’ Mommy says it is so special she is going to save it forever.”

“Wow!” exclaims her older sister with sprinkles plastered to her face. “She usually trashes everything I make.”

“I need to use the restroom,” announces another. “My hands are sticky.”

Five kids parade to the restroom to wash their sticky hands, each returning with clean hands only to re-engage sticky doughnuts.

“THESE ARE THE BEST!” one of them yells. She is loud because she is the youngest of three and must be loud to be heard.

The staff behind the counter hears her, smiles and nods approvingly.



“Keep your voice down,” I whisper.


“Look at my arms,” shouts one of the girls.

“What about them?”

“They’re HAIRY! I think I’m turning into Daddy.”

Laughter explodes, the table rocks and napkins fly as everyone compares arm hair.

“I have long legs like Daddy,” another says.

“Dancers have long legs,” says another.

“You know what I’m going to be when I grow up?”


“A Rockette.”

A couple stops by to comment on how well behaved the girls are. The table begins bouncing as the soon-to-be Rockette warms up her high-kicks from below.

“Thanks,” I say. “It’s still early.”

The husband begins reading coffee selections aloud from the menu.

“Dark Roast Caribou–”

They are wiggling and giggling, an uncontainable mass of life, motion and energy. Sprinkles ricochet off the table in every direction.

“Dream Bean Coffee–” he continues. There’s now a kid on his lap, another one draped around his neck and he has sprinkles in his hair.

“Look at that last coffee.” he says. “It’s called Jamaican Me Crazy”


Business as usual under the stars

The chief topic of conversation has been the would-be intruder. I noticed the footprints while cleaning the glass on the French doors. The culprit had tracked through mud before stealing onto the patio, leaning against the door and peering into the house. There was no mistaking the prints. They were large, distinct and clearly those of a raccoon.

Naturally, this sort of news spreads fast. Many of the grands have had a look to analyze the situation for themselves. Theories abound. Maybe he was hungry, maybe he heard the music, or the laughing, or nothing at all. Maybe it wasn’t a he but a she—a momma looking for food for her babies.

And to think that something as thin as window glass separated us from a night visitor. It is a reminder of an entire world that operates largely unseen beneath the cover of darkness.

Raccoons explore, deer forage and bats dip low over streams for a quick drink. Frogs telegraph news bulletins to one another across the pond.

Clouds glide through the sky, pulling entire weather systems behind them. Some carry nothing more than a whispering breeze, others release gentle rains that soothe the grass and awaken blooms. Still others jar those sleeping with bolts of lightning and a barrage of thunder.

Not only animals and the elements stir at night, humans do, too. Night shifts keeps power plants running, planes landing, and hospitals operating.

Even if we don’t work the night shift, our bodies are working as we sleep. According to a book on learning how to learn, the brain rehearses new information acquired in the daytime while we sleep at night. Electrical signals travel again and again through the same set of neurons strengthening brain-link pathways, like practice runs before the big race.

The human body regenerates in a myriad of ways under the blanket of night. Worry dissipates for a time, the limbs relax, scrapes on children’s knees grow new skin cells, surgical incisions knit together, and even broken hearts may slowly begin to heal.

Of course, not everything that happens under the stars is of a quiet or healing nature.  Clothes hangers multiply, dresser drawers gleefully rearrange their contents, and storage containers and lids in the kitchen cabinet party like it’s New Year’s Eve.

An entire unseen world surrounds us, and even supports us, yet we tend to gravitate to that which we see. Makes you wonder how life might be different if we paid more attention to the things that so often go unnoticed and undetected. We might find ourselves a little more resilient, a little more hopeful and lot more appreciative. We might even be a little more enthralled with the wonders and mysteries of life.

To the furry nighttime visitor at the back door —“Sorry we missed seeing you. Maybe next time.”