Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Being Thankful in a Rocky World

Dear George,
Because of the disgusting political climate in Washington (and many other places including Ohio), I seem to be in a less thankful mood this holiday season than in the past.  However, I’m doing my best to break free from the deplorables and keep them from wrecking my life.  Compiling a list of reasons to be thankful is definitely helpful.  

First of all, I’m thankful for my parents and the family they created.  Not flawless, but our mother and father provided their kids with a rich and stimulating environment, fostered good values, and created foundations for happy lives.  Then I think of falling in love with Katja at first sight and, miracle of miracles, winding up being married.  I can’t imagine what my life would be like if this hadn’t happened.  Parenting was a great joy, and our son and daughter-in-law, J and K, and grandkids, V and L, are what make the future bright.  I owe a lot to Antioch College and the University of Michigan.  We’ve made good use of the many resources of Cincinnati and our Clifton neighborhood. 

I’m thankful, too, for still being around and in a good state of health.  Hikes, walks, and expeditions with long-time friends give me much of my current life satisfaction.  Line dancing too, even working out at the fitness center.  We enjoy local music, theater, art museums, and indie movies at the Esquire Theater.  I thrive on my OLLI poetry class.  And I’m surprisingly appreciative of having the Internet available. 

Now I’m in a better mood than when I started out thinking about this.  It’s a good challenge to keep one’s equilibrium in the face of grungy national events.  At the moment my thoughts are centered on Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie.  This makes me salivate.


Friday, November 10, 2017

Trees of River House

Dear George,
We’ve lived in our Cincinnati home on Ludlow Avenue for over forty years.  We just have a very small yard on the front and east sides of the house.  The other day I counted the trees on our lawn.  There were twelve.  It dawned on me that I’ve been unaware of most of these trees for all the time we’ve lived here.  Still more revealing, I don’t know the species name of a single tree on our property.  

That’s the complete opposite of my childhood experience.  We had a large lawn at our house on the Menominee River with a lot of trees.  Even today I could draw a map which would locate virtually every one of those trees.  And I knew the name of every one as well (oak, cedar, spruce, etc.).  One reason for this is that we spent so much time playing out in the yard, and the trees were a significant part of our environment.  In addition, our parents were nature lovers, and they taught us the names of all the trees, as well as birds, flowers, animals, and insects.  Trees were not just part of the surroundings, but most of them had significant meaning, emotion, and memories connected with them.  Here are some of my father’s family photos  that include images of trees in our yard, along with a story or two for each species.     

Norway pine

There were three pairs of Norway pines that stood on our lawn: one pair toward the west border, outside our parents’ bedroom; one pair visible from our dining room window in the center of the lawn; and a third pair toward the eastern edge, closer to the river bank.  The Norway pines, tall and straight with their lowest branches perhaps twenty feet above the ground, were the most stately trees on our property.  Our house was built from Norway pine planks, so we had a special connection to these trees.  My father always said we had many wonderful trees, but it was the Norways that best symbolized our property and lives.  We played most frequently around the two Norways outside the dining room window, tying a rope between them to serve as a goalpost in our touch football games.  The Norways produced large pine cones which I’d use in arts and crafts projects, constructing little people by adding acorns and pipe cleaners.  On one memorable occasion, when we were playing cowboys and Indians, my brother Steve tied me to one of the Norways, then pummeled me with his fists till I broke free and chased him into the house where he hid behind our mother.  When my sister Vicki reached school age, our dad erected a swing between the easternmost pair of Norways, and we all enjoyed it for years.   

Oaks (right side of photo) 

There were three oaks, growing in a cluster together outside our dining room door, and another tall oak was in the center of our driveway.  Providing a plentiful supply of acorns, the oaks attracted the squirrel families that we saw in the yard every day.  The acorns also attracted little kids.  Steven and I (and later Peter and Vicki) used them as ammunition in daily acorn fights.  Our one rule was to throw only at the body, not at the head (to prevent putting out an eye).  On one horrifying occasion, Steve started climbing up one of the oaks as I was throwing acorns at him, and a branch broke.  He plummeted to the ground and broke his arm, winding up at St. Joseph-Lloyd Hospital. A year or two later my father built a tree house in the three-oak cluster which we accessed with our bunkbed ladder.  Steve, Frankie St. Peter, and I formed our clubhouse there, requiring a secret password for admission (perhaps “Shazam”).  

Two maples on a mound (left side of photo) 

We had maples in the front of the house (just outside the dining room door) and also in the back of the house near the driveway (between Vicki’s bedroom and the garage).  The maples’ leaves turned bright red in autumn, and I’d gather up a bunch and press and dry them for months inside an encyclopedia volume.  The maples’ fruit, called samara, are in the form of little wings, and we liked to drop them and watching them flutter to the ground like tiny helicopters.  The two maples in the back yard grew on a mound that was roughly five feet by eight feet.  My Uncle Karl took me aside one day and explained that the Menominee Indians had lived along the river, including where our property was now located.  Karl said it was very likely that the mound on which the maples were growing was an Indian burial mound.  He said if I dug deep enough I could recover the treasures that were buried in the graves.  Perhaps even gold.  He told me not to tell my parents beforehand because they would forbid me from digging it up.  My uncle Karl had a perverse sense of humor, so I didn’t take him at his word.  I considered digging a smallish hole to find the treasure, but I never got around to it. 

Blue Spruce

The blue spruce was another of our most handsome trees.  Each year we chopped down our own Christmas tree from our family property across the road, but the spruce in our front yard was the most majestic Christmas tree of all.  Because its branches were too dense and too close to the ground, it was one of the few trees that we didn’t use for climbing or other play activities.  Instead, we admired the spruce’s beauty from a distance.      


The willow tree, on the west end of the lawn close to the riverbank, was the best tree on our property for climbing.  The lowest branches were just a few feet off the ground, and there were plenty of subsequent branches which allowed us to climb all the way up near the top of the tree.  My associations with the willow tree aren’t entirely pleasurable.  Sometimes, when I’d get in trouble for torturing Steven, my mother would send me out to cut a branch off the willow tree to be used in my spanking.

Young cedar trees (under the righthand window)

A pair of small cedar trees grew outside my parents’ bedroom window on the west side of our house.  They smelled good and produced little pine cones that we used in craft projects.  Deer fed on cedar foliage in the winter, and, because we’d see them in the nextdoor field from time to time, it’s likely that they visited our cedar trees in the night as well.    

Box Elder (branches at the right edge of photo) 

The box elder, near our outdoor stone fireplace, was the other tree on our property that was excellent for climbing, though we’d have to bring our bunk bed ladder out to reach the lowest branch.  One summer we put my sister Vicki’s pet chameleon on the trunk of the tree, but got distracted and then couldn’t find it.  We looked for that chameleon all summer long but with no luck.  I fantasized for years that its descendants lived on the elder, but we never found one. 

Birch on the river bank 

There was a large stand of birch trees on the unmowed property just to the east of our lawn, as well as a small cluster of birches on the riverbank in front of our house.  The birches were handsome and romantic – romantic because we associated them with birchbark canoes of Native Americans who occupied the river hundreds of years before Europeans’ arrival.  We used the white birch bark for writing notes and for doing various craft projects, e.g., making miniature canoes.  We weren’t allowed by our parents to strip bark off of the live birch trees, so we’d row across the river to Pig Island and cut big strips of bark from fallen birch tree trunks.

Vicki and Peter at my tag alder camp table

There were a hundred yards or so of undeveloped, overgrown property between our house and Riverside Boulevard, and it was swampy land, largely populated by tag alder.  Miserable and lonely in my mid-teens, I decided to build a secret camp there to get away from my family and the rest of the world.  Tag alder, in my father’s view, was an inferior species of tree, and I was allowed to cut down as much of it as I wanted.  I used tag alder to build a lean-to hut, a table, a rack for holding cooking utensils, a pot holder over the fire pit, and other accessories.  The photo shows my sister Vicki and my brother Peter on a rare visit to my camp.  If I remember correctly, I blindfolded them so they could never find the way by themselves. 

My parents sold our house on the river in the early nineteen seventies and moved into their newly renovated Farm at Birch Creek.  My dad had the Birch Creek property incorporated as a tree farm.  Over the next several years, he planted many hundreds of evergreens and hardwoods in the open fields.  We’d go for hikes in the forest there, and my dad would hug his favorite trees.  I may have inherited some of that tree-hugging inclination.