Get Back to Where You Once Belonged


They say there’s no going back. This is not actually true; often you can indeed go back, literally if not metaphorically. I did so myself this week when I revisited scenes from my youth during a quick overnight junket to northern Minnesota.

I had taken three days off last week, intending to have a writing retreat, and had casually thrown out the possibility of motoring north to Itasca and pitching my pup tent under the pines. However, studies have conclusively proven that a lone woman in a crowded, well-patrolled state park has a 100% chance of being killed by a serial killer. At least, that’s how my mother heard it. She proposed an alternative scenario: the same journey under the protection of her burly 89-year-old self, substituting a clean and comfortable hotel room for the pup tent. Having recently seen her go medieval on an errant bat with a broom, I was afraid to decline.

I made the 128-mile trek from Osakis to Bemidji many times while a student at Bemidji State University (Go, Beavers!). Thus it was with full confidence that I turned my little red Kia onto the first of a maze of back country roads that had shortened the distance when I was an undergraduate. “You do have a map in the glove compartment, don’t you?” my mother gently inquired. I scoffed.

Fifteen minutes from home we were lost. It’s possible the layout of the roads has changed in the quarter century since I last went this way. More likely, the steep cognitive decline that is said to commence at age 50 has already erased my memory of the way north. I bluffed certainty in our route until we stumbled upon the little town of Parkers Prairie. There a sign helpfully pointed us to Highway 29 and Wadena. I was back on firm ground, navigationally speaking.


We are two wild and crazy gals.

Our first stop on the way was in Menahga and the impressive monument to St. Urho. For those who don’t know (and that would be almost everyone), St. Urho was the brave hero who drove the grasshoppers out of Finland. Or so the legend goes – a legend, by the way, entirely concocted by a professor of history at Bemidji State University and adopted, inexplicably, by the good citizens of Menahga (most of whom presumably claim Finnish descent, if not a strong knowledge of their motherland’s history). In addition to being home to the shrine of St. Urho, Menahga also designates itself the Gateway to the Pines.sturho

From time immemorial it was here that the central plains gave way to the vast pine forests that once covered the northern half of my home state. Today, much of the land between Menahga and Park Rapids is turned to farming and the “pines” consist of narrow bands of firs lining the highway. Actually, since the branches of the trees facing the high-wire lines have been trimmed off by the utilities company, even these are only half-pines. Such is progress.

It is at Park Rapids that one begins to feel you are truly entering the woods. I turned off 71 to take the Lake George road. Back in the day, this was a rather narrow, winding trail through the forest, with trees crowding close up against the road, and it was awesome. These days it’s a newly repaved two-lane highway. Not so scenic, but still worth the drive. As mom pointed out about the time we hit Emmaville (a miniscule settlement most notable for the large sign that loudly proclaims, “Oops! You just missed Emmaville!” when you fail to discern the place itself), taking the Lake George Road meant we had to backtrack to get to our destination, Itasca State Park. No matter. It’s a beautiful drive.


Welcome to Itasca State Park

We entered the park at the east entrance. It’s a testament to the enduring belief in “Minnesota nice” that the entrance was unmanned; visitors are directed to tuck a $5 bill into an envelope and drop it in a slot. We did.

A large storm had raged through the north country a week before our arrival, and the park showed the marks of its passage in the form of many downed trees. I couldn’t help wondering how capricious Mother Nature chooses her victims. We passed many stands of apparently dead trees that still stood firm, while enormous red and white pines that one might expect to withstand the Final Reckoning lay twisted and jack-knifed beside the road.

We took the 10-mile Wildlife Loop and, as always, saw no wildlife. It did bring to mind an occasion when my niece Amy and I rented bicycles in the park, thinking to take a relaxing ride, and ended up half-dead after several miles of mostly hills.

Immediately after turning off the Wildlife Loop, a white-tailed deer sauntered out in front of the car.

ourtentItasca State Park figures large in my childhood memory, as it was a favorite place to camp for my family. We are camping people. Long after glossy, silver Airstreams began taking over the parks, my people continued to erect our blue-and-yellow tent. My parents camped on their honeymoon, and had I ever found a mate, that would have been my choice, too. I was introduced early to this form of recreation; my parents brought a portable cradle with them to the campground when I was still an infant. I can’t imagine my frugal folks spending good money on anything else with such a limited use and lifespan, which is evidence of the central role camping played in our lives.

We maintained a safe distance from the raging torrent.

We maintained a safe distance from the raging torrent.

We made the obligatory stop at the Headwaters of the Mississippi (which apparently isn’t). Both mom and I decided that scrambling across the slippery rocks was a broken hip waiting to happen. This is what it is to be old.

Faux Cabin

Thence down the road to the Pioneer Cabin, which is actually a Pioneer Cabin Reconstruction. The original cabin lies in an unrecognizable heap next to the spiffy fake. Nevertheless, I took many photos of the cabin and adjacent lumber sledge, both of which 19th century props figure largely in my novel-in-progress. (For those keeping track, my heroine is still sitting in a wagon somewhere on the Fosston trail, where she has languished since February. I sure hope them there canned preserves and salted meat she bought at the general store hold out until I get back to her in the fall, or I may find a bloated corpse where I left a lively girl. Then my novel becomes about zombies.)


Native American cemetery in its natural state.

A brief stop at the Indian Mounds illustrated how much times have changed. As a small child, I distinctly remember running up and over the neatly mowed mounds that resembled well-tended golfing greens. I hope at least my parents chided me for desecrating a grave, but I think in those days people didn’t connect such artifacts with the real people who made them.  I visited the mounds again when I was in college and found them overgrown with weeds and enclosed in a high fence. This was more culturally sensitive, perhaps, but gave the uncomfortable impression that the deceased were imprisoned. Given the history of white-native relations in the state, this was a bit awkward. On this trip, I found the entire area of the mounds enclosed in an attractive wooden fence. Inside, the native burial ground was so overgrown with trees, shrubs and other vegetation as to be unrecognizable. Presumably there are mounds within, but you’d never know it.

On the way out of the park, we stopped at the Mary Gibbs Visitor Center. Mary was the first female park commissioner. She had but a brief tenure; after upholding her mandate to protect the park by defying a logging company’s attempt to flood the park, she was demoted at the insistence of the politically powerful lumber industry, and subsequently resigned in protest. Good on ya, Mary!

I had a few of these paleface natives

I had a few of these paleface natives

Made by hand using traditional techniques honed over centuries.

Handmade by native artisans using traditional techniques honed over centuries.

We perused the gift shop only long enough for me to note another change from my youth. The “trading post” used to feature the kind of tacky, culturally insensitive trinkets that would cause mass demonstrations today. This was back when the local indigenous peoples were still called Chippewa and Sioux (an Ojibwe word that apparently translates roughly as “those bastards on the other side of the woods”), instead of Ojibwe and Lakota. I recall toy peace pipes (a wooden dowel painted black with a feather hung from one end), and we always went home with at least one “Indian drum,” which consisted of a piece of rubber stretched over a brightly colored tin can; occasionally I left clutching an Indian maiden doll. As I recall, they looked very much like myself, a little white girl, but had braids and wore a dress made of fringed suede. Educational!

With the afternoon waning, it was time to leave the scene of my childhood recreation and proceed to a place that recalls slightly more recent memories. On to Bemidji!

To be continued …



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A Very Little War

ant banner


A kidnapping in progress

We live in turbulent times. I was reminded last night that, even on the smallest scale, Mother Nature produces no peaceable kingdoms. While strolling through my rose garden, I became aware of a kind of seething movement beneath my feet. Looking down, I observed masses of large, red ants clambering over the pebble path. Large numbers were proceeding, with regimental precision, from a point beneath one of the shrub roses. Each of these held aloft a white egg case (technically a pupa, I guess). At the same time as these single-file rows of pupa-bearers streamed away from the point of origin, an equal number of unencumbered ants were marauding back in the direction of what I discovered to be a black carpenter ant colony under the shrub.

Fascinated, I watched the red raiders swarm the various entrance holes of the black anthill and emerge with their cylindrical spoils. I would have felt bad for the black ants, but they didn’t put up much of a fight, to be honest. Outnumbered and undersized, the adult inhabitants of the colony had fled the mound, taking refuge among the foliage of the bush, where they paced restlessly, watching the carnage below. Such immediate capitulation does not command respect.

One of these ants is not having a good time.

One of these ants is not having a good time.

I followed the red ants as far as I could, across the full length of the rose garden and over the plastic border of the path into the deep foliage beyond. It occurred to me that, in the context of the scale of these determined creatures, the distance they covered from their victims’ fortress to their own is the equivalent of many miles for a human. Moreover, the four-inch path border they surmounted must be an Everest for them. Yet not a one faltered or deviated from its course. They proceeded with steely determination, and no jagged chunk of rock, inconveniently rooted thistle or giant sandaled shoe would deter them. (After the first half dozen crept over my toes, I got the hell out of their way.)

Consulting Wikipedia, I learned that the red ants were likely formica sanguinea, the blood-red ant. This is a slave-making species, which means they raid other ants’ nests and – you guessed it – kidnap the pupae from the brood chamber. They take them back to their own lair, where they hatch and become slave workers for their oppressive overlords. Geez, and those antz from the cartoon seemed like such nice guys.

Don't be fooled by their friendly demeanor.

Don’t be fooled by their friendly demeanor.


And you think YOU’RE having a bad day

The insect world is full of this kind of weird stuff. One summer I discovered a caterpillar on the grape vines that looked like it had grown spikes all over its body. Nope. Turns out the “spikes” were the pupae of some kind of wasp that eats the caterpillar from the inside out. Other parasites are able to turn their host bugs into zombies, controlling what they eat and how they behave. There’s a species that causes the caterpillar they infect to become the invader’s bodyguard, violently fighting off predators of the cocoons, even though the caterpillar-defender is destined be consumed by the baby wasps as soon as they hatch. Talk about ungrateful!

There’s even a parasite that causes its host – an ant, ironically – effectively to commit suicide by climbing to the top of a long blade of grass, the better to be eaten by a cow; the parasite needs to reside a while in a cow’s gullet as part of its life cycle. (There was no data on what sordid things they make the cows do.)

This is in your brain AT THIS VERY MOMENT

This is in your brain AT THIS VERY MOMENT

Fortunately for us higher orders, our brains have evolved beyond the point of being influenced by parasitic Svengalis*. Oh, sure, scientists have made some crazy claims that the parasite T. gondii, which disseminates itself through cat feces and has thereby infected a third of the world’s population with toxoplasmosis, is able to exert subtle control over its human hosts. The theory seems to be that, since infection by T. gondii has been shown to make rodents unafraid of, and even attracted to, cats – their natural predator – it follows that the nasty little beggars can also make us humans overly fond of and ultimately in thrall to our feline life partners.

What nonsense! In fact, I’d offer a mountain of conclusive proof that this isn’t true … but I suddenly feel compelled to go buy a case of Fancy Feast.



*Svengali is a character in George du Maurier’s 1895 novel, Trilby. The character holds an uncanny hypnotic power over his protégé. She is a singer, not an ant.

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Breaking Bat


It was a dark and stormy night …

No, it really was. Last Saturday we had the first real thunderstorm of the season after a hot and muggy day. Around midnight I was lying on the couch with fans blowing on me (no central AC) and watching the flicker of frequent lightning outside. There was a rustling in the sheer curtains behind my makeshift bed, and I reached up in the darkness to pet whichever cat had taken up residence on the back of the sofa.

It wasn’t a cat.

Actually, I didn’t feel anything under the palm that reached out to stroke thin air – but I did feel an abrupt scratch across the back of my hand. “That’s weird,” I thought. Then, in the next flash of electricity through the windows I saw something above my head.

Circling the ceiling fan. Swooping. Flapping.

7026175 - a close up of the small bat. isolated on white.You know the sound a bat makes, that ultra-high squeak that could shatter glass? That’s the sound *I* made when I realized what I had been trying to cuddle. The flash lasted just an instant, and then the room was in darkness again. I lunged for the afghan to cover myself with. Another flash, accompanied by a glimpse of the creature fluttering away in the direction of the kitchen, pursued by a dark shadow underneath it: one of the cats.


Flash! (No sign of the beast.)


The switch for the overnight light was at the opposite end of the room, so I wrapped myself in the afghan and sprinted to it. I flooded the living room with blessed light. Then the kitchen. The hall. Both unoccupied bedrooms (my mother slept through this whole event). Every room in the basement.


I snagged a flashlight and crept back to the couch, flipping off lights behind me. The rest of the night I lay awake, thinking about that possibly rabid bat lurking somewhere. Thinking about that scratch on the back of my hand.

Around 6 am my mother arose and came into the living room to watch her morning shows. I staggered off to the bedroom to try to get a few winks, tossing over my shoulder, “Unless I was hallucinating, there’s a bat in the house.”

Some time later I was awakened by an inhuman shriek. Nope, not the bat. My mom. I raced to the living room to find her 89-year-old self in the middle of the room, a broom raised high over her head. Something brown flopping around at her feet.

Whack! The wounded creature eluded her and sought refuge under the glider chair. My mother retreated to a safe distance while I fetched a plastic container and captured the intruder therein.

Okay, here’s where it gets bad. I have this injured, but still quite lively bat trapped in a Tupperware container. Ordinarily, since I am a live-and-let-live kind of gal, I’d just release the thing outside and wish it well.

But here’s the thing: I had physical contact with this bat. True, the scratch was barely perceptible and I couldn’t find any puncture marks to suggest I’d actually been bitten by the thing. Statistically, the odds I might get rabies from this poor little critter were infinitesimally small.

However, if DID get rabies, my odds of dying of it were 100%*. Now, I’m not much good at math, but that seems high to me.

feel lucky

Hasty research online presented me with two options: Have the bat tested for rabies, or have a series of prophylactic shots to protect me in the unlikely event that I was exposed to the deadly virus. I don’t much like shots. I also don’t much like the $8,000-$10,000 price tag for the treatment.

I pondered my health savings account balance, already likely to be zeroed out by the series of mammograms and ultrasound tests I’d had only days before.

It was Sunday morning. There were no veterinary clinics open. I called the emergency vet line, and was told to refrigerate the specimen and bring it in on Monday morning for testing.

I looked at the bat, crawling in restless circles around the bottom of the plastic bucket. I had no idea how to euthanize it humanely without damaging the head (needed for the testing).

Quietly I put the container in the downstairs refrigerator and closed the door.

You hate me now; I hate myself. My hope was that the bat would just get colder and colder and finally go to sleep and die, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Let me believe that’s what happened.

On Monday morning I carried the well-chilled container into my vet’s office to be express mailed to the Twin Cities for testing. I did not look to see how – or whether – the thing had died. “When there’s human contact, they usually turn these around pretty quickly,” the vet tech assured me. “The lab will contact your doctor directly. You should hear something in a day or so.”

Oh, and by the way, “There’s a $76 fee to send it in.”

7026175 - a close up of the small bat. isolated on white.I spent the first half hour of that day-or-so on the Internet, systematically making my way through the 435,000 results of Googling “bats and rabies.” Every single one of them promised that rabies could be avoided if treatment was started within 24 hours of contact.

Well, crap. It had already been 36 hours. I had taken the precaution of emailing my doctor’s office the night before, inquiring whether it was safe to wait until results came back on the bat, or whether I should begin the shots as a precaution. I didn’t hear from the doctor on Monday.

I didn’t hear from the doctor on Tuesday. Or the testing lab. I called the doctor’s office. Chipper voice mail greeting: “We’re all out of the office today! Leave a message!” I left a message. I called the switchboard. “Is there someone else I can talk to?” I asked. “The internet says I’m going to die if I don’t get shots.” I was put on hold. A minute later the switchboard operator came back on and said the on-call doctor would be in touch.

I didn’t hear from the on-call doctor. I started to panic.

Admittedly, given that only about 6% of bats test positive for rabies, my level of anxiety was perhaps overblown. But by a morbid coincidence, I have always had a special fascination with and horror of this disease. I think it dates to seeing “Old Yeller” when I was really small. And “Cujo.” And that one episode of “House.” In any case, I have developed a dangerous amount of informed ignorance on the subject of hydrophobia, as it used to be called. I even read a book on it during my vacation. (I also read a book on syphilis, but I was less worried about contracting that.)

In the 19th century, there was some debate about whether rabies even existed as a real malady, despite the rather regular newspaper reports of people dying of it. Historical treatments for the disease have included drinking a beverage made from the skull of a hanged man, wrapping with a poultice made from cloth and hyena skin, cauterization of the wound with a heated key, and the remedy popular right up until Pasteur developed his vaccine: the application of a “mad stone” to the bite. This was a stone or, preferably, a hair ball from the stomach of a deer (available from Sears-Roebuck, presumably), boiled in milk and placed over the wound. If the stone stuck to the skin, it signified the presence of rabies, and the stone was said to draw out the poison.

Mad stone … or mad chocolate chip cookie?

I have my doubts about the efficacy of these cures.

On Wednesday, I heard nothing from my doctor, the lab, or the vet’s office. I emailed the vet. I emailed the doctor again.

Wednesday evening I had a terse response from the vet’s office: “We’ll let you know when we hear something.” And an indifferent reply from my doctor: “Let me know when you hear something.”

I began foaming at the mouth – from frustration, not rabies. However, I was sure I felt some burning at the potential site of the infection, and was a little nauseous. The first signs!

Granted, it generally takes months for rabies symptoms to appear in an infected person. But I’ve always been an overachiever.

Thursday came and mostly went. At 4:10 pm, I had a call from the vet’s office. “Test came back negative.”

Great. So the poor bat died (Peacefully! Let me pretend it was peacefully!) for nothing.

If there as an afterlife for myotis lucifugus, the little brown bat, my victim will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that his home invasion cost me $76 and a helluva lot of stress. And though I am no longer worried about dying of rabies, I still have one other bat-borne condition to fret over.

There's a vaccine for this, right?

There’s a vaccine for this, right?

Hear that twittering sound? It’s the bat ghost. Giggling.

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Intimations of Mortality*

13484257 - grim reaper on the road

Since I reached the half-century mark last fall, I’ve been a little preoccupied with my impending demise. Not that I’m planning on shrugging off this mortal coil any time soon, but it’s, you know … out there. Death, I mean.

You see, I’ve reached the stage of life where my own body is beginning actively trying to kill me. It seems Mother Nature figures by this time any offspring I may have produced are old enough to more or less fend for themselves, and I’m not spawning any more, so really I’m just taking up space. Even the very oxygen I breathe is turning my formerly well-disciplined and law-abiding cells into havoc-causing free radicals.

As a spinster, I occupy a higher-than-average space on evolution’s hit list. It seems I may be penalized for failing to fulfil the biological imperative (i.e., reproducing) with an increased risk for ovarian and breast cancers. Protest though I may, Ma Nature simply smirks, “I don’t care how skilled you are at propagating dahlias. Your job is to propagate your OWN species, slacker.”

Mother Nature’s opinion of me:

It doesn’t help that I’m 1) kind of a hypochondriac; and 2) morbidly fascinated by deadly disease. I tend to diagnose any twinge or twitch as some exotic malady I spent two hours observing on YouTube the night before. Sleepless night? Must be Fatal Familial Insomnia Syndrome. A nosebleed has me wondering how on earth I got exposed to Ebola.

You get the idea.

Despite my fascination with horrible things that can happen to me, I strenuously avoid any opportunity to actually find out if something’s wrong. Thus it was with extreme reluctance that I went in for a physical exam – my first in eight years – a couple of days ago. My doctor poked and prodded in the usual ways, probed all of my orifices (this is why they get paid the big money) and pronounced me apparently healthy, if not fit. Then she sent me downstairs for a mammogram after extracting a promise to schedule my next exciting adventure, which involves a lot of laxative and a flexible hose, sometime soon.

The next day I got my test results in my personal “My Chart” online account. Under mammogram, I found the following: “No suspicious mass, asymmetric density, architectural distortion or suspicious microcalcification in the right breast.”


Then: “Small area of architectural distortion in the outer left breast middle depth.”

Oh. How could this be? My left boob has always been my good boob; my right boob is the problem child, subject to cyclical soreness and random burning sensations. Leftie, by contrast, has always just hung their quietly, minding its own business.

Moments later I was on the phone with the nurse at my doctor’s office.

ME: I just looked up architectural distortion on the Internet–

NURSE: Don’t. Don’t look up stuff.

screaming womanToo late. It is enough to say that what I had learned from Dr. Google was not a day brightener. Additional scans were recommended; I set up an appointment at their earliest convenience. (MY earliest convenience would have been at that very moment, dammit.) For the next two days I avoided further search engine forays, but did spend a fruitless few moments looking for “home mastectomy kit” on Amazon Prime.  Might as well get my money’s worth out of that annual fee.

6154052 - x-ray mammogram

Stunt breast. (Not my actual mammogram.)

I had the follow-up scans. The technician was initially perky and reassuring. “These things are almost always just overlapping glandular tissue,” she explained.

(Did she just call me fat?)

She dashed off to send my films to the radiologist for evaluation, leaving me alone to notice that for follow-up exams they move you from the generic, hospital-green exam rooms to the rather ominous Susan-Komen-pink exam room.  One of my scans was on the screen behind the leaded glass barrier. A dark outline of an oval shape filled with squiggly white lines and blobs, like something colored by a toddler.

I remembered something else from the test result: “scattered fibroglandular densities.”

28155186 - portrait of 4d ultrasound scanning machine operator

These technicians are always very cheerful. And why not? THEY’RE not dying.

The technician returned. “The radiologist would like to see a few more pictures,” she said, just a little less brightly than before. She started pulling out a series of plastic attachments designed to squeeze my ample bosom into various unnatural configurations. “Looks like I’m dirtying up every dish in the kitchen!” she quipped.

Ha ha**.

Off again to consult the doctor. Back again, after a slightly longer interval than the first time.

“Well, we’re going to go ahead and send you on down to ultrasound.”

Awkward pause as I reached for a kleenex.

“I’m sure she just wants to confirm that the area of density was compressed out by the scan,” she said – or something like that. I have no idea what that meant, but I was apparently supposed to interpret it as encouraging.

I changed out of the pink gown and trudged down the hall to Ultrasound Imaging. Was escorted to a dimly lit, all-white room. Directed to put on an all-white gown (slightly unsettling color scheme; invokes associations with ghosts and angels and other DEAD things).

I had forgotten to remove the little nipple sticker with the little ball bearing on it from my last exam. I tucked it into my purse. Might come in handy as part of a costume if I ever decide to get into pole dancing.

Lying on the exam table (draped in white, natch), I contemplated the possible implications of all this testing. Mostly I dreaded having to tell my mom I have cancer. This was partly because she’s been hounding me years to have a mammogram (“I’ve heard buxom women are at higher risk.”). But mostly it was because she’s almost 90 years old and doesn’t need to hear THAT kind of news. My grandmother died of breast cancer that metastasized into her bones, a painful death that gave my mother a particular terror of breast cancer. It was a fear I never really shared.

Until now.

The young woman who conducted the ultrasound was pleasant, albeit less aggressively upbeat than the mammogram lady. She was also, inexplicably, wearing blue scrubs. She had me lie on my side, then smeared me up with some kind of gel. I closed my eyes as she moved her probe over my naked flesh – over the breast once, then again. Pause, and a tap on the keyboard under her screen. Around the suspect area again. Another keyboard click. The probe moved to my armpit. More movement. More clicks.

The technician finished up. These professionals are trained not to divulge anything they may or may not see. So I was surprised – and deeply grateful – when she remarked, “I don’t know what was on your mammogram, but I think you’ll get a good result from the ultrasound.”

“I hope so,” I answered, “because this is scary.”

“Yeah, I know,” she agreed.

relayforlifeBack in my car, in the parking lot, I wept.  Then I drove to my office, where I found the whole place draped in purple. I remembered that it was Relay For Life day, an annual event to raise awareness of … wait for it … cancer. Oh, irony. You so crazy.

Though the mammogram lady had said they’d try to get results back to me by the end of the day, because otherwise it would be all damned weekend, I didn’t hear anything on Friday. I checked my email frequently over the course of Saturday. Bupkis.

Finally, at 5:00 pm today, an email. A report. Findings benign. Come back next year.

You better believe I will.***



*”Intimations of Mortality” is a poem by Wordsworth about death and stuff.

**Really, she was very nice. But I wasn’t feeling terribly jocular at the moment.

**Now all I have to worry about is rabies. Wait for another post on THAT. My life. Oy.



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The Journey West

Little Town on the Prairie

Little Town on the Prairie

This past weekend mom and I made the trek back to the ancestral homeland. Not northern Europe, but eastern South Dakota. It was the occasion of the annual Mohror family reunion. For many families, such gatherings are days-long events. By contrast the Mohrors, in keeping with their (allegedly) German heritage, practice brisk efficiency. The reunion commences at noon with a tasty potluck lunch, followed by a short business meeting (I know; I don’t get it, either), a group photo of the oldest generation, and general dispersal.

The whole thing is over by a little after 2:00 pm.

Home of the Arlington Cardinals (I guess)

This is slightly disappointing for my branch of the family tree, who drive four hours to get there. But it’s always nice to see our kin, for however brief a time, and since we were locked into an overnight reservation at the world-famous Pheasant Hotel, we had plenty of time to explore the wellspring of the Mohror tribe – Arlington, South Dakota.

Arlington was founded in 1880 and was originally called Nordland, with all streets given Norwegian names. It was briefly – and inexplicably – renamed Denver, but the postal service frowned, so the town fathers decided on Arlington (since there are no other cities named Arlington in the world, I guess). I don’t know what caused the Norwegians to lose their Valhalla on the prairie, but I imagine it was a bitter day when Olaf Street was renamed Main Street.

I expect the Battle for Nordland looked something like this:

My great-grandparents ordered this home in a kit from Sears Roebuck. Family legend has it they later lost the place in a poker game.

My great-grandparents ordered this home in a kit from Sears Roebuck. Family legend has it they later lost the place in a poker game.

The Mohror tribe came to Dakota from Iowa, I believe, though the circumstances of their migration are hazy. On my mother’s side, the clan fled west from southern Minnesota during the Sioux uprising of 1862. Seems like heading back east would have been the more sensible course, but my folk have never had much of a sense of direction.

Our first stop on the grand tour was American Legion Post 42’s damned impressive veterans’ memorial. It has life-size statues of the different branches of the service, plus an assortment of engraved benches, nine flagpoles and black granite tablets inscribed with the names of those from Arlington who served. We found my father, Clarence Junior Mohror, as well as others my mother remembered well. “That boy used to throw my shoes out the bus window a quarter mile from our driveway,” she commented, pointing at one etched name. “He was killed by a sniper in the war.” (Subtext: good enough for him.)

Salley headstone

Salley headstone

Next stop was the Arlington Cemetery. Apparently they mix Protestants and Catholics all together in this town, which seems a bit radical. We located the Welsh kin, with their modest headstones, then trooped down the hill to the Salley family plot. My great-grandparents, Warren and Sabina Salley, were early auto enthusiasts. They drove their new-fangled Model T all over the country in the years just following the Great War. Great-grandma collected pretty stones from the places they visited, and after her death a local craftsman embedded these small treasures in the family headstone. It’s not clear to me who is actually buried under it, though, as my mom casually commented, “I think they buried grandma in the wrong place. Grandpa was a little fuzzy in the head by the time she was buried.”


Ella Flora Oliphant was the daughter of Daniel Salley, patriarch of the Salley clan. Thanks,!

Ella Flora Oliphant was the daughter of Daniel Salley, patriarch of the Salley clan. Thanks,!

Next to the Salley headstone is a tall, stone obelisk. “Oh, there’s that Oliphant!” my mother exclaimed, and I looked around wildly for some unusual species of pachyderm. “Mom always insisted on putting flowers on that grave, since they’re supposed to be some kind of relative. But nobody knows who they are.” God bless, Oliphants. Gone but not forgotten. Well, gone and forgotten. But be-flowered, at least.

JohnMohrorheadstoneThe Mohror dead are some distance away (perhaps the Protestants and Catholics are separated by distance, even if they don’t have their own exclusive graveyards). We are humble, unassuming people, and this is reflected in the simple headstones our forebears bear. However, a scion of some other branch of the Mohror tree has recently erected what can only be described as a Grand Edifice to himself (he’s not in residence yet, but apparently wanted to save his spot). I gather he made a fortune in almonds out in California.

Seems fitting. I’ve always said we’re all a little nuts.









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But, Weight! There’s More!

Mom photos batch 3 013

Mom and me, around my 47-pound ideal weight.

In kindergarten, I weighed 47 pounds. I remember this distinctly, because I was the lightest one in my class and I’d already absorbed our culture’s core value: skinny = good. Unfortunately, soon after that I began to absorb other things, like pizza, French fries and ice cream. I wasn’t 47 pounds for very long.


Look at those adorable fat rolls!

Actually, my battle with the bulge started very early. As an infant, my cheeks were so fat that they pushed my lower lashes into my eyeballs; I required some sort of doctoring for that, I gather. A baby dumpling is adorable; an adolescent dumplarge, not so much.

Over the subsequent five decades, my girth has fluctuated – never really achieving svelte, but always just this side of genuinely obese. Since I turned 50 last October, things have changed. With the onset of perimenopause, my always-sluggish metabolism seems to have ground to a halt.

It’s slower than the giant Galapagos tortoise, which heaves its considerable bulk at a top speed of .2 mph. It’s slower than the South American sloth, a creature whose very name means “reluctance to make an effort.” It’s slower than the saguaro cactus, which musters a paltry one inch of growth in its first 10 years.


Me, only faster.

I’ve read that in subarctic regions there is a species of frog that occasionally freezes solid. It can stay that way for years, in suspended animation, until a thaw revives it.

My metabolism is slower than that amphibian’s.

The result of this near-comatose condition is that my weight has ballooned exponentially (at least something about me moves fast). Now, let me stop you before you launch into advice for reversing this trend. I know: eat less and move more.

Okay, but what are my OTHER options?

Back in January, I blogged about my new fitness regime, which consisted of walking briskly through a rather poorly animated Wii environment called “Rhythm Island.” Over the course of about three months, I faithfully strapped on the controller and numchuck and wandered through this cartoon world in time to up-tempo music. It was a slightly creepy routine, as this artificial landscape reminded me uncomfortably of the 1960s show, “The Prisoner,” in which Patrick McGoohan found himself hostage on a mysterious island, surrounded by strange people and balloon creatures. A feature of Rhythm Island was a silent population of humanoid creatures who seemingly spend their entire lives staring blankly out to sea, waving their arms randomly in response to nothing I could identify, and following my virtual progress through unblinking, pupil-less eyes.

Apparently, exercising while experiencing a low level anxiety and paranoia isn’t effective, because although my perky cartoon coach Dora assured me at the end of each session that I’d walked several miles and burned hundreds of calories, the weight kept piling on. To hell with that. I broke up with Dora in March.

Since then I’ve been working nightly in my garden. Admittedly, picking worms off the rose bushes doesn’t raise one’s heart rate all that much (unless you really don’t like worms). But with the number of times I’ve bent from the waist to pull a weed – approximately 1 million times – I’d expect at least my waist to be trimmer by now. Not so’s you’d notice.

There’s a commercial that runs every night touting some new body sculpting procedure. “Get back the figure you had in one day!” it promises. Okay, but do I get to pick which figure that was? There have been so many …

I’m skeptical of this wonder solution, but perhaps it bears further investigation. In the meantime, I’ve sent away for that home liposuction kit I saw advertised. You just hook it up to your vacuum and away you go – literally.

body-contouringPretty sure that will work.

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Call of the Wild

Mortal Enemies?

Mortal Enemies?

We have varmints. Well, one varmint. Specifically, Neotamias umbrinus, the Western chipmunk. At least, that’s what we believe streaked past my mother in the basement yesterday. It was immediately followed by a black streak that she definitely identified as our cat Remington. I don’t know which startled mom most: a woodland rodent in this very unnatural habitat, or the usually somnolent Rem’s sudden burst of ambition. I suppose the innate hunting instinct overcomes acquired sloth in even the most pampered pets.

This is not the first time we’ve been invaded by denizens of the Wild Kingdom. For several autumns running we attracted a solitary (as far as we knew) shrew or mouse. In any case, we only discovered a single corpse each year, usually in the hallway leading to the bedrooms. Presumably the victim had been cornered, caught and carried from the basement up to the inhabited areas of the house so we humans would be sure to note and appreciate the predator’s laudable killing skills.

Peep, displaying the razor-keen hunting instinct that has made our home a rodent resort.

Peep, displaying the razor-keen hunting instinct that has made our home a rodent resort.

Fortunately, the current resident hunters leave the body intact. Before I was born, our family had a Siamese cat who hunted outside and had a habit of leaving a single piece of its prey, some unidentifiable internal organ, for its owners to find on the front steps in the morning. I would have assumed it was a love offering, but my mother disagrees. Apparently this cat held a grudge against my father for an unfortunate falling-into-an-open-toilet incident, and mom believes the awful offal was intended as a warning, like a decapitated horse’s head in a bed: “You’re next.”

A few years ago, under the tenure of cats Jeff and Mr. Fuzzy, I was distracted one evening by the sounds of both felines hollering at me from the basement stairs like a pair of insistent preschoolers: “Hey! Hey! Mom! Mom! Hey! Mom!” Rolling my eyes, I went to investigate. I found both fierce predators stationed about halfway down the steps. This was suspicious; usually these two gave each other a wide berth, but just now they were huddled up together, staring at something below. Descending to their level (physically, not emotionally), I instantly saw the source of their fussing: a LARGE garter snake was slithering a lazy S-shape across the concrete floor. Now it was MY turn to holler. I’ve seen nature documentaries of mongooses attacking 6-foot pythons; obviously, Jeff and Fuzzy weren’t mongooses (mongeese?), but I still expected them to act more like carnivores than adolescent girls. In the end, since I am as much as scaredy-cat as my scaredy cats, I called my brother 10 miles away to come and dispatch the monster.

So apparently chipmunks in tiny outfits are a thing.

So apparently chipmunks in tiny outfits are a thing.

But back to the chipmunk. It’s unusual to see a chippy around our place; they generally prefer a more wooded environment. The “tamius” in their genus name is Greek for “steward” or “housekeeper,” which gives the little guys kind of a homey, efficient vibe. I picture a little rodent in a neat apron and babushka, holding a diminuative broom and briskly tidying up the seedy debris left behind in the room where I overwinter my tender bulbs. In reality, of course, the vermin is scurrying around among the boxes of Christmas ornaments and out-of-season clothing, pooping in my best dishware and incubating bubonic plague, hantavirus and hemorrhagic fever in its twitchy little body. I’ve been reading a book about rabies (spoiler alert: you don’t want to get this disease), so I also imagine the critter, frothy-mouthed and raging, lurking behind a jar of homemade pickles, waiting to leap out and bite me on the ankle. Death by chipmunk lacks the heroic dignity I aspire to.

Rem & Peep are too busy watching kitty porn to bother with chipmunks.

Rem & Peep are too busy watching kitty porn to bother with chipmunks.

As of this morning, we’ve seen no further evidence of the invader, alive or dead. Perhaps Remington, having read the same Wikipedia article I did, has discovered that chippers sleep an average of 15 hours a day, and thus feels enough in common with the thing to befriend it. Just what I need: one more freeloader.


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Garden of Weedin’



My small town collects yard waste once a year, in the spring. This year, on the morning of the collection, I gazed up and down the street in bafflement. A couple of my neighbors had set out a bag or two at the curb; most had none.

I had 32.

In the three weeks since then I have already amassed a new mountain of debris at the back of the property large enough to be mistaken by a passing archaeologist for the remnants of a long-lost civilization. It’s composed primarily of weeds pulled from my flowerbeds and dead branches trimmed from the shrubbery.

My question: What do OTHER people do with their crap?

Granted, my landscaping is far more garden-oriented than my neighbors’. Most maintain long, uninterrupted stretches of lawn they just have to mow once a week. The guy next door, though, has a sizable vegetable garden, and I don’t see the margins of his yard becoming fortified with bulwarks of decaying organic matter. He must have SOME weeds. Where do they go?


I tend to foster more unwanted vegetation than I would if my beds were blanketed in a nice, thick layer of mulch. In addition to keeping down weeds, I understand that a covering of wood chips or coconut hulls tends to keep the ground cooler, retains precious moisture and improves the quality of the soil. I did mulch for several years, but my mother isn’t fond of the looks of the stuff and, frankly, with as many beds as I have now, it gets damned expensive. And so I weed.

I don’t mind that part. In fact, I find weeding very nearly as relaxing and cathartic as flicking sawfly larvae off the rose bushes. A gal can get a lot of heavy thinking done while performing the mindless exercise of pulling quackgrass and purslane from among the daisies and gladioli. It’s what to do with the haul that’s vexing.

For years, this arbor hid a multitude of sins ... er, snakes.

For years, this arbor hid a multitude of sins … er, snakes.

My first several years gardening, I was all about composting. I bought first a plastic, snap-together compost bin, then later a kind of silo made of polyurethane, and threw my pickings in them. When these quickly filled, I started throwing stuff in the u-shaped enclosure formed by an old dog pen my Dad erected (his dog Ralph spent a total of about 10 minutes in there over a lifetime of 15 years) that has now become the frame of the grapevine arbor. Soon that receptacle, too, achieved maximum capacity.

Articles in gardening magazines (I have stockpiled a mountainous collection of those, too) give the impression that one need only dump green and brown organic matter in a heap, stir it around a bit once in a while and presto! Dark, rich, loamy compost magically appears in short order. But years after I started my various piles of wilted weedage, they remained … piles of weedage Actually, that’s not entirely true. They remained piles into which species of vermin had taken up residence – notably, snakes.

Snakes! Nope. Nope. Nopety-nope-nope.

This is NOT OKAY.

This is NOT OKAY.

The moment my sneakered foot was swarmed by baby garter snakes was the moment I decided to get out of the compost business. So now I’ve started accumulating plastic garbage receptacles, which I place in more or less orderly rows behind the shed. Theoretically, at some point I will haul the already-overflowing units to the municipal compost heap (aka Snake Valley). The hitch with this plan is that my little, red Kia can’t tote many garbage cans. Precisely, it can tote zero many. And so the garbage receptacles continue to proliferate almost as fast as the weeds that fill them.

So much NOT pretty.

So much NOT pretty.

I believe this is known as the Circle of Life. Isn’t nature fascinating?


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A Short Biography of a Simple Man

Dad and his little girl

Dad and his little girl

My dad was a good man in all the ways that used to mean more than they do now. He worked hard. He paid his bills and lived within his means. He loved his family. He served his country and his community.

There’s a reason they call his generation the greatest.

Little DaddyBorn on the South Dakota prairie, Dad was the oldest child of a large family that struggled to make ends meet during the Depression, yet somehow found room to take in kin even harder-up than themselves. Dad’s stories of his childhood paint a kind of Tom Sawyer-ish – or perhaps even more, a Huck Finnish – portrait. He scrambled aboard slow-moving freight trains to catch a ride to the swimming hole a few miles out of town. He hung out with the transient hoboes, which were numerous during those hard years. Falling off a horse, he broke his wrist so badly that it had to be set with a pin – an expense that must have been a hardship for the family. As a teen, he accidentally shot himself while hunting; afraid to tell his mom, he tried to hide the injury by wrapping his arm in his coat … but was caught out when his mother saw blood seeping through the material.

At 16, my dad left school, taking a job driving a truck to help support the family when his father became an invalid. In 1944, at age 18, he joined the Army for the money that would be sent back home to the family. He trained in Oklahoma, then boarded a troop ship for La Havre, France (“Twenty-one days over; 21 days back; sick as a dog every minute of ’em,” Dad recalled of his shipboard experiences.) He trained as a radio operator and was stationed in Germany during the Allied Occupation after the fighting was over. In the army he learned to smoke and to dance. Upon his return home, my disapproving mother cured him of the first habit, but he loved to dance all his life.

Young love

Young love

Who are these wild kids? Not my parents, surely!

Who are these wild kids? Not my parents, surely!

Letters and photos from the period of my parents’ courtship are a revelation. It’s always strange to imagine one’s parents as young and in love. Especially for me, a late-in-life baby who only knew my folks in their middle and later years, the photos of a laughing young man with movie-star looks (Mom has admitted she married him because he looked like Robert Walker; alas, soon after they wed, he began losing all that curly brown hair) is hard to square with the somewhat taciturn, very responsible man I called Daddy.

Call me biased, but I think Dad was better looking.

Call me biased, but I think Dad was better looking.

After early jobs as a movie projectionist, night watchman and a particularly disagreeable stint at a hatchery, where my soft-hearted pop was tasked with manually drowning chicks (he didn’t last long there), Dad took a job with a lumber supply company. Practicing the kind of company loyalty that doesn’t exist today, he spent the rest of his working life with them. A 1960 transfer took the family from Gary, SD, to Osakis, MN, where I was born in 1965. Dad quickly became active in this little community. He was a member of the VFW, on the board of the parochial school, and spent decades as a volunteer fireman and EMT. He was elected to the city council, serving 23 years in that capacity, followed by three terms as mayor.

Dad and Ralph

Dad and Ralph

I’m proud of my Dad for these accomplishments, but remember him also for so much more …

  • He loved music- though I never heard him sing a note- and babies and animals. (His springer spaniel Ralph was the constant companion of his retirement years.)
  • He was colorful in his speech, fond of descriptive analogies that have found their way into my own lexicon: “blacker than a wolf’s mouth,” “fuller than a woodtick,” “dumber than a box of rocks,” “wilder than a pet coon,” etc. He gave people nonsensical nicknames like Cabbage and Sliver and Scratchpad.
  • He was proud of his children and attended all of our school programs – including being the only father at the Future Homemakers of America annual banquet the year I was president of that club; bizarrely, the “entertainment” that year was a short film about venereal disease, which must have been deeply mortifying for my rather prudish pop.
  • He and my mother remained committed to each other for half a century.
  • He was soft-hearted and generous.

True, Dad wasn’t exactly Ward Cleaver. Patience was not a virtue he espoused. He was quick-tempered and hard-nosed, moody and often ornery (characteristics we attributed to his German heritage). Dad held what some might call “traditional values” that are frankly appalling today – for example, my brother was exempt from chores like washing dishes because Dad felt doing “women’s work” would turn him into a sissy. Dad suffered chronic, debilitating back pain nearly all his life and what I suspect was lifelong clinical depression that was only addressed and treated near the end of his life. His final years were marred by painful physical and cognitive decline. He was, in body and spirit, old before his time – and he left us too early, succumbing on May 12, 2001, to adult acute respiratory distress syndrome incident to pancreatitis. He was just 75.

I don’t think my father, who was always keenly aware of his humble origins, lack of education and modest financial status, would have described himself as a successful man. Yet the church was full for his funeral and many spoke of how much he meant to them and how appreciated were his contributions and essential good-heartedness. His passing merited a front-page tribute in the local newspaper. My Dad was more respected, more loved, in his lifetime than I think he knew.

Clarence Junior Mohror

Clarence Junior Mohror

After 15 years I still think of and miss my father every day. I am grateful for all the things he taught me … about working hard, taking responsibility, giving back. I miss hearing him refer to me as “the little one.” I miss his bear hugs. I miss his not-heard-often-enough laugh. Psychologists say that women, when choosing a life partner, look for a model of their father. Perhaps that’s why I remain a spinster; I’ve never found a man to match my dad. As they say, a good man is hard to find. I am blessed to have known, loved and been loved by one of the best.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy.

My Daddy

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June 19, 2016 · 1:24 am

Who’s In Charge Here?

Last evening, surveying the carnage the children had created in the living room, I was moved to mutter that age-old maternal lament: “Where have I failed?” In a fit of pique, I even threatened to put the miscreants under the deck to fend for themselves. Don’t call social services; my kids are cats, not homo sapiens, and the threat was an idle one. I’d never expose my darlings to the Cold, Cruel World – and they know it.

I currently share my life with two cats. People often seem surprised to hear this. Perhaps my catlady zeal makes them assume I co-mingle with at least 40 felines – or perhaps it’s just the way I smell. In any case, though I tend to think three is the optimal number of cats for a single household, for the time being I am making do with my pair.

Separated at birth?

Separated at birth?

My younger furkid is Remington, named for the 1980s TV character played by Pierce Brosnan. I like to tell him he’s a swank tuxedo cat (he has shaky self esteem), but the patchy quality of his black and white markings suggests an unseemly liaison with a Holstein in his family history. I guess I will discourage him from participating in that PBS “find your ancestors” show. Despite his questionable lineage, Remington does have an almost regal air. Long and sleek, at repose on his belly with his long front legs extended and his sharply pointed ears erect, Rem resembles one of those statues of the Egyptian cat goddess, Bastet. His jaguar-like appearance belies his personality, however. Far from a powerful predator, Remington is, to put it bluntly, a wuss.

"Oh ... were you trying to work? I don't care."

“Oh … were you trying to work? I don’t care.”

On the other hand, Peep, my little, orange girl, is a smug bully. You wouldn’t guess it to look at her. Like her human mother, Peep is soft, round and a bit slovenly; she sprawls rather than lays, and on a subway she’d be the guy manspreading over three seats. While noises as subtle as a heavy sigh send Remington scrambling for the basement, Peep confronts a howling vaccum, grinding garbage disposal or shrieking smoke detector with indifference bordering on contempt.

Modern technology meets immovable object.

Modern technology meets immovable object.

Lately Peep has made it a point to assert her dominance over Lucifer, the robot vacuum, whom she seems to believe is another cat, hairless and even rounder than herself. When Luci begins its rounds in the living room, Peep deliberately plants her considerable bulk directly in the machine’s path and stares it down. If a cat could talk, Peep surely would speak with a tough Brooklyn accent: “You want a piece of this? I got your rotating brushes right here.”

A few mornings ago I was getting ready for work. My bedroom door was closed, but not shut (after 50 years of settling, no vertical line of our house remains in plumb, and there isn’t a door in the structure that actually latches without the Herculean effort of simultaneously lifting and pushing it into position). I was standing on one foot, wrestling the other into the leghole of my granny panties, when the door was pushed open and Peep muscled his way in, followed by Remington. It reminded me of Lenny & Squiggy’s characteristic entrance into Laverne & Shirley’s apartment – Peep played the role of swaggering Lenny, while twerpy Rem was the Squiggish sidekick.

wassupThe duo disregarded my immodest appearance – indeed, ignored me entirely – and marched across the room like they own the place (which, for all intents and purposes, they do). Up onto the bookcase under the window, blithely knocking off a stack of CD cases in the process, and into the windowsill. Hearing the ruckus, my mom (who seems to believe me to be in feeble health) called urgently, “Did you fall?”

“Nah. Just the cats tearing the place apart,” I responded.


‘Nuff said.

Mom and I have grown resigned to the fact that we are the least important inhabitants of Mohror Manor, functioning largely as domestic staff. I’m not bothered; it’s actually nice to know one’s place in the grand scheme of things. I’m content to accept how Peep has arranged the Great Chain of Being in our household – with cats perched at the very top.

"I'm the King of the world!"

“I’m the King of the world!”

Bastet would approve.



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