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The Road Home for Thanksgiving

The Road Home for Thanksgiving

The road home for Thanksgiving was a long one when we lived in Harding County.

550 miles from Camp Crook, South Dakota to Le Mars, Iowa.
Speed limit 55, even on the interstate.

School dismissed an hour early on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and we were on our way by at 2:45. It was a 12 1/2 hour drive with 1 time change to slow us down. That meant we would arrive at my parents’ home around 4 in the morning if nothing went wrong.

Something always went wrong.
Not during the few remaining daylight hours spent on desolate stretches of highway.
Not when we drove through Rapid City where there was a gas station and motel at every exit.
Not before midnight when we were part of the steady stream of home goers on Interstate 90.

Our troubles lurked in the darkness, waiting for the wee hours of the morning until we neared the bridge over the Missouri River. Year after year, like clockwork, as we drove past Chamberlain and our car tires hit the bridge, snow began to fall. The snowfall grew heavier as the car climbed the hill on the east side of the bridge. When we crested the hill and hit the open prairie, the wind blew. By the time we reached Mitchell, sixty miles further on, we were driving through blizzard conditions. More than once–in fact I think every single year we drove the road home for Thanksgiving–we ended up in a cheap motel room somewhere between Chamberlain and Sioux Falls. We called my parents (remember, no cell phones) to update them, woke up the next morning, and hung around until the weather came on the television (again, no cell phones). Then we got in the car and drove the remaining 2-3 hours home.

Sometimes on drifted roads.
Sometimes through ice storms.
Sometimes in frigid temperatures.
Every time, we made it home in time for Thanksgiving dinner with our extended family.

Our experiences on the road home for Thanksgiving made their way into the first chapter of See Jane Dance!–with a few notable changes.

Jane’s parents live in Sioux City, so her trip home is a little shorter than ours was.
She is single so she makes the trip by herself.
She encounters bad weather on the way home from Thanksgiving.
She spends the night in her car instead of a motel.

She’s going to stay right there until the fall of 2022 when the publisher releases See Jane Dance! It’s a long time to be stuck in a car, but don’t worry. Jane’s mother, just like mine, loaded her down with Thanksgiving leftovers, so she won’t starve between now and then.

With Thanksgiving only a day away, neither will I!

If You’re Wondering Why Jane Is a School Teacher…

If You’re Wondering Why Jane Is a School Teacher…

If you’re wondering why Jane is a school teacher–and the Jane being referred to here is the protagonist of See Jane Run!, the picture above holds the explanation.

See the woman in the second row, far left, standing by the little girl with the pixie hair cut? That’s my mother. She taught school for 39 years.
Do you know how many students were in her third grade classroom during the 1963-64 school year? 32

That’s 32.

In a time when
classrooms weren’t air conditioned,
special education classes were few and far between,
men were paid more than women for doing the same job,
and women had to wear dresses and hose every day, even during recess duty in the winter.

While Mom was in charge of the education of 32 eight and nine-year-olds, she was also

furthering her education by completing her 4 year degree and a master’s degree,
caring for a husband who had multiple sclerosis,
raising three kids, who were 10, 7, and 4 in 1963-63,
and raising a ruckus with the school board which resulted in women’s salaries being raised to the same level as their male counterparts.

My mom was living proof that an elementary school teacher are tough enough to be the protagonist of a cozy mystery series. The country school and the town where Jane teaches are based upon my teaching experience, not Mom’s. As a result, Jane’s

biggest class consisted of 15 students in three grades (1st-3rd),
she earns the same salary as men,
she wears pants in fall, winter, and spring,
and her classroom isn’t air conditioned.


Jane can afford to go to the cafe for supper,
she can spend less time correcting papers and more time looking for clues,
and she can run around the short grass prairie in blue jeans in all kinds of weather.

All of which make the story move along faster,
make me grateful for my tough elementary school teacher mom,
and even more grateful never to have had a class of 32 students!

Sign up to receive website updates and See Jane Run! book news on Gravel Road’s home page right under the picture of–you guessed it–the gravel road.

Jane’s Mom and Mine: What’s the Same and What’s Not

Jane’s Mom and Mine: What’s the Same and What’s Not

Fiction writers, whether they admit to it or not, write from what they know. I’ve made it very clear that See Jane Run! is based upon the years my husband and I spent in northwestern South Dakota.

A major character in the book is Jane’s mother, Doris Stanton. She is fashioned after my mother Dorothea Stratton. The two mothers are similar in many ways, but they are not identical. No character, setting, event, or sequence of events in See Jane Run! is identical to the original. To give you a peek at how that works, at least in the case of Doris/Dorothea here are 5 ways the fictional character and the real person are the same, and 5 ways they are different.

What’s the Same

  1. Both women helped their daughters move from tame Iowa to the wilds of South Dakota. (See above picture with Dorothea standing on a hillside on the east side of Missouri River near Chamberlain.)
  2. Both women wear polyester pant suits they sewed themselves. (Again see the picture above.)
  3. Both women had bouffant hair styles, and the South Dakota wind did a number on in both cases.
  4. Neither Doris or Dorothea were excited about their daughters being a 12 1/2 hour drive from home.
  5. Both mother/daughter pairs shared a bed during the first night in the daughters’ new homes. Both mothers clung to their daughters through the night and repeatedly whimpered, “I can’t believe my baby is going to live here.” (I’m not creative enough to make a scene like that up.)

What’s Not

  1. While neither mother was thrilled to have a daughter living so far away, Doris is far more bent out of shape by it than Dorothea ever was.
  2. Both mothers gave their daughters advice over the phone, but Doris (she’s the fictional one, in case you’re confused) gave way more advice and it wasn’t as helpful as Dorothea’s (she’s the real deal) was.
  3. Doris was an unapologetic matchmaker on Jane’s behalf. Dorothea never, not even once, tried to find me a husband because I already had one. Mom’s always been good that way.
  4. Doris sent money so Jane could treat herself to a haircut and buy groceries. Such a thought would never have occurred to Dorothea. If it had, she would have taken two aspirin and gone to bed early in hopes of feeling more like herself in the morning.
  5. Doris was not a fan of Jane’s neighbor Merle Laird. Dorothea got a kick out of the real person Merle Laird is fashioned after. She even milked his cow, made butter, and talked gardening with him. I think he had a crush on her because he was always asking about her.

Sign up to receive website updates and See Jane Run! book news on Gravel Road’s home page right under the picture of–you guessed it–the gravel road.

Exciting Times on Our Gravel Road

Exciting Times on Our Gravel Road

This summer's adventure has been our dive into multi-generational living. We're still figuring things out, but these four ideas have made a difference so far.The Summer of 2016 will go down in history as a most exciting one. The Man of Steel’s basement project, with its main components being large dirt piles, big holes, and large equipment, has been an ongoing source of wonder for our three young grandchildren. (The above action shot, the action being the dirt pouring out of the bucket, was highly appreciated by the 3 1/2-year-old.) The Wonderfully Made Family Camp (WMFC) at Hidden Acres, the trip to Latvia to be part of a special needs camp, and family camp in Idaho each had their own exciting elements.

But, as the summer winds down I have to say that our adventures in multi-generational living, which began on May 20 when our daughter, our son-in-law, and grandson moved into our upstairs, leave all others in the dust.* All in all, the transition has gone well. The fact that the upstairs consists of three large rooms and a full bath that is completely their space, makes the arrangement easier. But, we’ve learned, and are still learning, much about how to live together in shared spaces: the kitchen, the laundry room, the dining room, and sometimes the living room.

Over the next few months, the daughter and I will be sharing our perspectives about what has worked, what hasn’t, and how we’ve resolved what doesn’t. To start things off, here are four systems we’ve put in place that make multi-generational living much easier.

First, a command center is a must. Ours is a giant whiteboard in the kitchen. It’s a monthly calendar where everyone posts their work and travel schedules. Once that’s in place, we decide who’s going to cook each night and plan menus. We also record financial reminders about what’s owed for groceries and utilities and payment due to the daughter and son-in-law for projects we’ve hired them to complete. Honestly, without this system, we couldn’t function.

Second, compile grocery lists. This one took a couple months to get in place, mainly because I was gone so much it was hard to plan menus. We now have 2 lists, 1 for our local grocery store and 1 for Costco, Trader Joe’s and a Mennonite market where we purchase hard-to-find baking ingredients. Everyone knows where the grocery lists are and they are encouraged to add items that are running low or used up. We visit the local grocery store weekly. I make the Costco/Trader Joe’s/Mennonite market run about once a month, usually after a visit to Dorothy since those stores are 45 minutes from our Gravel Road, but only 20 minutes from her.

Third, get a joint credit card for groceries. This card is used only for what’s on the menu and each family pays half the bill. This simplifies finances immensely.

Fourth, only one joint meal is served per day. That meal is usually supper, though depending on schedules, it is sometimes lunch. The freezer, fridge, and pantry are stocked with breakfast items and everyone serves themselves. The same is true for lunch, at which leftovers are also fair game.

From my point of view, these four systems are life savers. We’ll see what the daughter has to say at a future date. It could be interesting!

*Please note: The use of this idiom was deliberate in light of the name of this blog.

Do you have a multi-generational living arrangement? How do you make it work? Leave a comment.



Geranium Whispers on a Fantastic Friday

Geranium Whispers on a Fantastic Friday

Change, rain-kissed geraniums, and the sorrow of Alzheimer's in this week's Fantastic Friday offering.This Friday’s post from July of 2009 was selected for two reasons. First, it shows how much life has changed in the last 7 years. Second, I love this picture. Rarely does this geranium plant produce such a perfect bloom and even more rarely are the blossoms so beautifully rain-kissed. Enjoy!

Geranium Whispers

On this rainy Friday morning, I bustled around the house, opening window shades. The clouds were thick and the house was gloomy, so I eagerly coaxed the weak light that penetrated the clouds inside for a visit.

When I opened the shades to the patio, the blossoms of an heirloom geranium took my breath away. Mom gave me the plant over a year ago, when she still lived in her own home and had no idea she would soon break up housekeeping. Decades before her mother, Josephine Newell Hess, had given her a slip from the plant her mother, Cora Rose Newell, had given her a slip from in the 1940s.

Had Mom waited one more winter, it might have been too late to pass on the plant and the history behind it. In the past twelve months, Alzheimer’s has taken its relentless toll on her memory, stamina, and abilities. Our daily phone calls get shorter and shorter as she finds it increasingly difficult to hold up her end of a conversation. She still loves to read and do crossword puzzles, but has no interest in visiting friends or going new places. Quilting and jigsaw puzzles confuse her. She can’t make decisions.

Slowly but surely, Alzheimer’s is turning my steely, determined mother into a soft, hesitant whisper of a woman. But this morning, when I opened the shade and those bright red blossoms waved at me, they comforted me and reminded me that all is not lost.

“She’s with you,” they whispered. “She’s right here.”

“Thanks,” I said, and then I waved back.

The Demise of a Barbie Zipline on this Fantastic Friday

The Demise of a Barbie Zipline on this Fantastic Friday

What happens when you combine 2 girls, 1 Barbie doll, a huge tree, a clothes hanger, and a second story bedroom? A Barbie Zipline, of course.Hard as it may be to believe, our staid yard used to be home to a zipline that provided ours of entertainment for our daughter and her friends. This Fantastic Friday post shows how a tree, a clothes hanger, a toy, and two creative little girls can make memories to last a lifetime.

Bye, Bye, Barbie Zipline

In last Friday’s post about the felling of a huge sugar maple in our yard, I neglected to mention a major repercussion of the grand tree’s demise.

The Barbie zip line is no more.

Yes, you read that right. The Barbie zip line. Anne’s Barbie zip line, to be exact. Of course, it hasn’t seen much action in the last decade, but in it’s day, my daughter’s rope and clothes hanger contraption provided hours of entertainment.

At the time I wondered why Anne and her friends kept running in and out of the house.

Turns out, the little girls, many of them Anne’s cousins, had taken the screen out of her second floor bedroom window. It was located about six feet below the peak of the highest roof in the above picture. She and her partners in crime creativity would then throw a long rope out the window, and finally run downstairs and outside to tie the end of the rope around the huge trunk of the old sugar maple. Then they would run back upstairs, strap Barbie dolls to metal clothes hangers and send them down the zip line. Once all the Barbie’s had succumbed to gravity’s relentless pull, the girls would clump down the stairs, and run outside to retrieve the Barbies and haul them back upstairs for another ride.

Had I known, I would ended their fun, worried the girls might fall out the window.

But, I didn’t investigate too closely since they happy since they were occupied so I could do my own thing–work on scrapbooks or freeze meals for the start of school. Besides, none of the children fell out the window, and they still giggle and grin when the subject of Barbie zip lines and bungee jumping Barbies (that’s a subject for another post) enters the conversation.

Today, looking out the window at the fallen tree, I’m homesick for the Barbie zip line days.

I miss my summer-tan little girl flashing her self-conscious smile as she runs past me and out the door. I miss her little friends saying, “Hi, Mrs, Philo!” and her cousins yelling, “Aunt Jo, this is so much fun!” as they rush by. I miss Anne’s tissue boxes lined with torn paper used to house her Beanie Babies. I miss her tempera paint all over the bathroom sink.

Those days are long gone, but until Friday the Barbie zip line tree stood tall.

Why, I wonder, as I lean my head against the window and gaze at the fallen memories littering my front yard, do the best things have to end?