Author: mboucher

Summer 2016

It’s a warm summer day.

Just warm, not hot or humid enough to be stifling. I have the door propped open and the windows up, to let in as much fresh air as I can. I can hear kids laughing as they play in the yard next door, and the crunch of gravel as they ride bikes down the street outside. I can’t join them, and to be honest, I hate the sound of their happiness. I don’t like to admit that, but I do. I hate it because they’re outside enjoying themselves and I’m inside, opening a new box of garbage bags because I ran out of the others. It turns out that it takes a lot of garbage bags to pack up a life.

I am in my house on Maple Street, and my mother has gone to Minnesota. We’ve lived here a few years, and it had been a celebration when we first arrived. It was us leaving behind the old cobweb filled house and moving somewhere new. I can remember what my mom said when we walked through the front door. This will be our haven, she had said. Our safe place. But the alcohol followed us here, and so did a stepdad and stepsiblings, and parties and fighting and texts that said ‘come get me’.

It was a few weeks ago that she asked to move to Minnesota, and I told her to go. I knew what would happen if she stayed here, but I didn’t know what would happen in Minnesota. It seemed like there was at least a fighting chance there. I had told her that I would figure it out, and so here I was, left behind in the house that she had sold. I have two weeks left to pack everything up and get out, not the two months I had been promised, so I have to figure out things much faster than I had thought.

My stepmom is with me. It was nice of her to help, and we talk as we clear out the cabinets under the kitchen sink. Who knew how much could fit under there? I clear out cleaning supplies and a tin full of coins, and I try to crack jokes because otherwise it’s too sad. The kitchen is a bright yellow, with white curtains that are drifting ever so slightly in the breeze. The perfect kitchen for a warm summer day. I should be standing at the counter and looking out over the neighborhood, sipping on tea or lemonade, thinking about who I want to visit or what book I want to read next. I shouldn’t be trying to figure out if I can be bothered to hold onto our Santa cookie jar, or if my mom wants to hold onto this picture of her and her golfing buddies.

The screen door opens, and I look up to see who’s in our house. It’s the woman who will be moving in two weeks from now, when I’m gone. She opens the door wider to let in her friends, not even acknowledging me, though some of her friends give questioning glances. Who’s that in the kitchen? They must be wondering. What are they doing? But no one asks. The woman just starts giving them the grand tour, telling them what she’ll do with the floor space, where she plans on hanging up her pictures. The women with her chime in their own ideas. They talk about ripping up the carpet, and I want to scream.

This is my house, I want to scream. It’s still my house. It’s not yours. You’re the strangers here! This is my life. You can’t just waltz in here and take my life! This was supposed to be my safe haven! I want to chase them down and make sure they hear it – but I don’t scream anything, of course. I just go back to packing.

I make a lot of promises to myself today about what my future kids wouldn’t have to deal with.

My brief recruitment into the military

During my senior year of high school I kept receiving calls from military recruiters. They wouldn’t stop calling. One of the kids who had been in my freshman science class, Joel Detleff, was going into the Marines, and he worked it out with his recruiter to bring me in to the recruiting station. Apparently they thought that since I didn’t know how to say ‘no’ that meant I was a possible sucker.

I went to the recruiting station with Joel after school one day and the recruiter sat me down in his office and had me take some form of standardized test. At this point I still had absolutely no intention of ever joining any military branch, let alone the Marines. He scored the test and told me that I did extremely well. That meant I would have my choice of what kind of role I wanted to play in the Marines. When I tried to tell him I really liked my friends and my life in Milwaukee he asked me – and I remember this very clearly – ‘Who are you going to listen to regarding your own life, yourself or your friends?’ As if he had somehow made the statement that my personal choice was going into the military. My answer was that I would listen to my friends – partly because at that point in my life, that was probably true. I was very close to a group of people and I didn’t want to leave them. However, I saw that as my way of finally being able to tell this recruiter that I really wasn’t interested. Well, that’s at least how he took it. He looked at me with a disgusted scowl and told me that I wasn’t fit to be a Marine anyway.

The entire time, from the start of the calls to that day in his office, I felt that the recruiter really didn’t care if I wanted to go in or not, he just wanted to meet his quota. It made me feel very uncomfortable and I still feel that way whenever I see recruiting stations.

After that day I would still get calls from other military branches, but not the Marines. At the end of each call they would always ask if I knew any other kids who would be interested. These guys were so pushy I felt I had to give them names – kind of like the Hollywood Blacklist. So I would give them names of kids I knew – NONE of which would probably have any interest at all in the military. I often wondered if those kids had the guts that I didn’t have to just tell those guys that they simply weren’t interested.

My Other Mother

I first met Barbara Harris when I was in my early 20s. I worked at JCPenney in the shoe department. She and her husband Earle had seven children. She was in the store often buying shoes for them.

One day as I fitted shoes on one of her kids, Barb asked me if I would have lunch with her at the American Café across the street. I was surprised, but I said sure. As we ate our sandwiches, she asked me if I would like to have a blind date. I was surprised, to say the least.

“It’s okay,” she said, “I’m a minister’s wife.”

She told me about a young man she knew who had said, “Barbara, find me a wife.” And that’s how I met Barb.

I had a couple of dates with the young man, but we really didn’t click. On the other hand, there definitely was a click with the Harris family. The oldest sibling, Grant, was married and gone from home, but the remaining six siblings were still at home, and they opened their arms to me and drew me in.

It was a difficult time in my life. I didn’t know who I was or where I was going. I was still living at home with my mother. Her health was poor, and it was a pretty scary time for me as I had lost my father at the age of eight. I was a lost soul, and Barbara and her family seemed to sense my need.

Two of the sisters, Barbara Ann and Martha, were near my age, and we hung out together a lot. I often was invited to stay to dinner. There were so many nights, I rode my bicycle home with aching stomach muscles from all the laughing I did while sitting around their long kitchen table. In addition to being a Presbyterian minister, Earle taught English at LSSU. He was a master at the art of the pun. The kids all fed off him. The laughter was contagious and healing for me.

If it hadn’t been for Barbara and Earle and their family, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to start college. They gave me the encouragement I so desperately needed. I believe that many times people come into our lives when we need them. Barbara was my other mother. She and her family nurtured me toward a different life. Even after the older girls left Sault Ste. Marie, Barb and I maintained a friendship. We often had lunch together. She would walk down the hill and we’d meet at the American Café.

When Earle retired from teaching, they sold their home and bought a mobile home. It wasn’t long after that, they decided to move to Florida. I was profoundly sorry to see them go. We saw each other a few times, but they never moved back to the Sault.

I watched and listened in March as the Harris family, scattered across the country, coped with Barb’s last days. They set up a private Facebook page to give all of us daily reports. It meant a lot to me to be included in that group so I could offer whatever comfort and support to the family.

I have always been attracted to large families. It has seemed to me that it helps to divide the grief when a member is lost. My other mother died peacefully on April 3 and is now with her husband, Earle. The family agreed she had a good death.

We all should be so blessed.

Cris Roll

Aunt Thelma and the Garage

While I was living with Aunt Thelma in the 80s, she had to have some work done on the garage, which was built into a hill so you entered the basement from the garage. The south wall of the garage was buckling, and it had to be fixed. Thelma’s son-in-law, Rundle, and one of the neighbors took care of the job.

There was a gentle slope from where the garage was attached to the house down to the level of the driveway. I saw that as a good place to put a flower garden and a good opportunity because it was already torn up. I said as much to Rundle and asked him to have his helper put down a layer of well rotted manure to mix in with the sand.

Rundle started waving his arms and hollering and told me that was a bad idea because the soil would wash down. He said they were going to put sod down up against the garage along the roofline.

I was angry. Hopping mad. I stomped into the kitchen. Aunt Thelma asked me what was wrong. I waved my arms around a bit myself and told her what Rundle had said. I probably said a few more things, too.

Aunt Thelma stood there patiently in the middle of the kitchen floor while I ranted.

Then she said, “That’s all right. You go ahead and let them do what they want to do”

“What? What?” I sputtered. “But, but—“

“And then when they’re all done and gone, you go ahead and do what you want to do.”

I looked at her just dumbfounded. And then I started to laugh.

“Is that what you’ve been doing all these years?”

She smiled at me and grinned. “You’ll learn,” she said.

Cris Roll

An International Incident

I should make this clear right away. I say that with tongue in cheek.

Every summer for several years, I have volunteered to host Chinese students who come to LSSU for a few weeks to take classes, improve their language skills, and get to know us. Normally, I take two girls for the weekend. This year because there was a dearth of available people to host students, I said I would take four girls. I have only one guest room, but I do have an air mattress to put in the living room. Two could sleep in the bedroom, and two could sleep on the floor. I told the girls they could figure out among themselves who got the bed and who got the floor. I realized immediately that these girls were clever and fair, because they had already decided they would switch the second night, and the ones who slept on the floor the first night had the bed the second night.

The four girls were unrelated, but their behavior seemed like sisters. They genuinely seemed to enjoy each other’s company. And I enjoyed them right back. I asked the girls if they would like to see a classic American film about young people and they eagerly said yes. I pulled out my copy of Dirty Dancing because the foreign students I entertained last winter seemed to really enjoy it. These girls liked it, too, and I gave them a running commentary to explain some of the expressions and behavior.

On Saturday, we formed a convoy with other friends and drove to the Oswald Bear Ranch, a facility that rescues bears and is licensed by the state and federal governments. I had to twist the girls’ arms a bit to get them to pose for a picture with a bear cub. I told them it was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity, but they seemed to enjoy it. They especially enjoyed feeding the bears apples from viewing platforms that allowed better vision of the animal enclosures. The bears were funny as they had learned to sit up and beg for the sweet treats.

After a picnic lunch at the bear farm, we soldiered on to Whitefish Point where we took in the museum and the girls had a chance to enjoy the beach scene. By 4:30 we were all dragging, but we still had to get home. I told the girls they could go to sleep if they wanted to, but as for me, I had to sing all the way so I wouldn’t fall asleep. I put some ‘60s music in the cd player and sang all the way home. They may have gone to sleep to avoid listening to me, but I think it was that they were tired out. Once home, we had a lovely dinner, and then I put Mamma Mia in the cd player. The girls kindly woke me up halfway through and told me it was okay for me to go to bed, and they would shut everything down. I took them up on it, bless their hearts.

On Sunday, we had the international incident. My four students had asked me on Friday if I like Chinese food. I told them I do like it very much. They were all excited and asked if they could cook a meal for me. I said sure, we could do that on Sunday. On Sunday morning, they spent two hours planning the dishes they would make. I showed them the vegetables I had in my house and told them to feel free to use whatever they wanted. They were pleased that I already had ingredients they could use. When they were done with their planning, we piled in the car and went to Walmart. It was great fun watching them shop and make decisions about what to buy.

The best part of this story was watching them take over my kitchen. My kitchen was brand new three years ago and larger than it previously was, but the sight of four girls all peeling and chopping and rinsing and chopping and cooking and chopping in my small kitchen just put a big smile on my face. It certainly was an international incident. Occasionally, they would ask, “Miss Crees, do you have…” I told them they didn’t have to ask permission to use anything. Just go ahead and use whatever dishes or pots and pans they needed.

When a friend arrived with her two students and more ingredients, it got even funnier and noisier. We now had six girls chopping and cooking away in my kitchen that seemed to get smaller by the minute. Steam poured out of pots on the stove. Oil sizzled as ingredients were tossed into the wok. My friend wisely sat down in the living room to finish some work on her laptop and then pulled out her flute to practice for a concert. I seldom see that level of activity in my house. The flute music and the happy chatter in the kitchen was a glorious thing to behold.

When the meal was ready, we laid it all out on the dining room table and fell into the feast. The food was colorful and delicious. It was a meal fit for kings and queens. Suddenly, the chatter stopped as hungry mouths filled up with wonderful dishes.

The kitchen, however, looked like a bomb had gone off. After dinner, I didn’t have to say a word. All six girls attacked the dirty kitchen the same way they attacked the job of preparing the meal, accompanied by happy chatter. It wasn’t long before the kitchen looked just as good as it did before they started. They even wanted to scrub my floor, but I drew the line there. I told them I would take care of it the next day.

I had to take my girls back to their dormitory, and my friend left with her two girls. There were emotional hugs and expressions of thanks in the parking lot. A lot of it came from me as well. I have always had fun with the Asian students when they visit LSSU, but this visit was especially fun. Maybe it was having four girls instead of two. I certainly think that having other friends along on Saturday made it more meaningful for my girls because they had other young people to relate to.

So there’s my international incident. I have never seen such activity in my kitchen, and it will probably be a long time before I see that much again.

Cris Roll

The Rat

I first saw the rat on Labor Day as I was cutting the grass. It was skittering along the gutter across the street. I paused because I wasn’t sure what it was at first. It didn’t have a fluffy long tail, and it didn’t move like a squirrel. It was too large to be a chipmunk. When it jumped up onto the curb, I saw a ratty profile.

The next day I talked to one of my neighbors on the phone to alert them that we had a rat in the neighborhood. Now, I live in a nice neighborhood. Well kept houses. Clean yards. I had never seen anything like this before. I got off the phone and headed to the bathroom. I happened to glance out the window and saw a rat scurrying along the side of my storage building. Where was this thing coming from?

About a week later, my neighbor across the street told me she had seen it running along the east side of my storage building. She thought the rat might be living in the woodpile next door. It had never occurred to me, but she was probably right. That was when I declared war on the rat.

I borrowed a live trap from one of the neighbors and baited it with peanut butter. The next morning, the peanut butter was gone, but the trap hadn’t been set off. I surmised that the trap was too large and whatever ate the bait didn’t weigh enough to set off the trap. A friend adjusted the trap that night and we re-set it behind the storage building. The next morning I went to see if I had caught the rat.

Instead of the rat, I had caught a very angry and frantic gray squirrel. “Oh, no!” I said. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry!” I called as I rushed over to the trap to release the squirrel, who flew up into a nearby maple tree. That squirrel was about as mad as I have ever seen a squirrel. He scolded me. He ripped me a new one. Later in the day, I came out of the house to pick up my neighbor’s dog for a walk, and that same squirrel, I’m sure, was in the spruce tree out front. He must have recognized me because he scolded me all over again.

We re-baited the trap and set it up again that night. The next morning, I peeked around the corner of the storage building to see if I had finally caught the rat. There was something in the trap all right. It was black and had two white stripes on its back. What was I going to do now? I couldn’t leave it there, but I sure wasn’t going to stroll over to it to open the trap.

I went next door and knocked on the front door. “Don’t let your dog out the back door,” I said when the man of the house opened up. “I was trying to catch that rat, but I got a skunk this morning instead.” He looked at me calmly and said, “I’ll take care of it.” I could have kissed him!

I watched from the house as he and his young son carried a blanket through the yard and disappeared behind the storage building. That was the last I saw of them until later in the day. “Did you have any problems?” I asked. He grinned. “What does that mean?” He proceeded to tell me how his son got nailed while they were trying to free the skunk from the trap. I was horrified, but he seemed to think it was a big adventure. I told him I had a gift card for pizza to thank him for taking care of my problem. “I guess you’d better share it with your little boy,” I said.

It was a bonding experience with my neighbors. I never told them it was their wood pile the doggone rat was probably living in.

Cris Roll

Off to get a Christmas tree

Uncle Stuart was the husband of my mother’s sister, Thelma. He looked out for the widow ladies in the family: his sister Margaret; my mother; and one of her sisters, Leota. He had a bit of a round belly and sat with his hands folded over his belly when he sat at the table with a cup of tea. Stuart made home repairs, picked up the ladies to play cards, and sometimes took us on Sunday drives and picnics in his red station wagon. Stewie seemed to know the name of every plant in the woods, and he could identify a bird simply by the shape of the outline in the sky.

For several years while I was still in school, Stuart picked me up on a Saturday near Christmas, and we drove out to their farm to look for a Christmas tree. He poured hot water on the engine of his rusty old tractor. It chugged a few times before it got running, then off we went back through the woods behind the house. I loved riding on the tractor and looking for the tracks of small animals in the snow. Stewie always seemed to know what made them.

Sometimes we brought home a spruce, but I favored balsam Christmas trees. I liked them best because there was plenty of space for the ornaments to hang free, unlike many of the trimmed and cultivated ones from the tree farm. (I suspect Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree was a balsam.) One year we found a tree that had grown up alongside another tree. It was mostly flat on one side. I decided it was perfect for us because it would fit well in the corner where we always put the tree.

When Uncle Stuart stopped the tractor, the silence was nearly complete. Just the wind blowing lonely through the trees and maybe the call of a chickadee. After the tree was cut down, we dragged it to the scoop on the tractor to take it back through the woods. Before we headed back, Stewie broke off branches of spruce, pine, cedar, and hemlock so we could make a wreath. I especially liked the tiny needles on the hemlock. And I loved the smell of the fresh greens.

When we got back home, we dragged the tree to the shed on the back of the house and stood it up to shake the loose snow off it. We’d set it up later. There was always a glass of warm milk with Nestle’s Quik stirred into it to chase away the cold.

I cherish the memories of those wonderful times

Cris Roll

Mom’s Broken Leg

When I was seven or so, my mother broke one of her legs.

It was a dark, cold, and icy winter night. My dad was at work, and we were out of toilet paper. We didn’t have a car, so Mom decided to walk up to Payment’s Store on the corner of Ashmun and Newton. It was only a few blocks away. In those days, there were mom and pop stores all over town before the larger grocery stores came into popularity.

As she trudged along through the snow, Mom slipped and fell. She was pretty sure her leg had snapped, and she couldn’t walk. She lay on the ice for what seemed like forever. Finally a taxi came along, and my mother flagged it down. The taxi driver took her down to the hospital where they confirmed that she had indeed broken her leg. I don’t remember how long she was in the hospital for it. Back then people weren’t treated and packed off to be sent home again. I remember she was still in the cast when spring came. I have a photo somewhere of her standing in the back yard holding her crutch with the cast above her knee.

It must have been so difficult for her to get around on crutches with three kids in the house.

Cris Roll

Living with the Veyettes

When my mother went through the change of life, she had a rough time of it. Her health was poor, and the changes in her body made her miserable.

She had multiple things wrong. The doctors gave her hormones, and I think that made it all worse. I remember at one family reunion, I went looking for her and found her curled in the fetal position in the back of someone’s car. Her doctor recommended that she go to Newberry State Hospital. She went twice. In the summer, it was no big deal. But when school started, I was sent off to stay with my grown Veyette cousins. My sister and brother could manage for themselves. But I was only seven.

I understand now why they sent me to the Veyettes who lived across town. But at that time, I felt punished. I felt singled out. I thought I must have done something wrong. Maybe it was my fault that Mom had to go way. The Veyette sisters were kind and loving. There were three of them living together at the time in a lovely old apartment by the Pullar Stadium. They cared for their aged father, Uncle John who was in his 90s.

I had to sleep with Geanne, and I started wetting the bed again. I was embarrassed when she had to wake me up in the night because the bed was wet. We would get up and change the sheets and go back to sleep.

On Saturday mornings, it was my job to dust the living room and dining room. The living room faced east and the morning sun poured into the room. As I dusted the piano desk, I watched the dust motes rise up into the air and re-settle on the surface. It was a kind of game I played with the dust. Swipe, watch, swipe again. There was a three piece bookcase that fit into one of the corners. That’s where they kept a little plastic tea set that I played with. They had other toys for all the children that visited. These were unmarried ladies, but they loved having children around. There were always fat, soft sugar cookies and molasses cookies for the little children—and the big children, too.

There was a piece of coral on the top of the bookshelf. I didn’t like looking at it because it was full of little holes. I didn’t know why I didn’t like it, but one of the sisters said it might be because there had once been living things growing inside the little holes. In the dining room, I was allowed to wind the Seth Thomas clock that stood on the buffet once a week with supervision. Another one of my jobs was to do dishes. I spent a lot of time playing with the soap suds in the sink.

Leona Veyette had polio as a child. She later had to use a wheelchair, but when I lived with them, she was able to get around with crutches and leg braces. In spite of her handicap, Leona could do just about anything. I don’t think she ever used deodorant, because Leona always had a sweaty smell when she hugged me. Geanne was Regina. She sailed on the Great Lakes during World War II and later worked at Crisp Laundry. Mary Jo was a nurse’s aide. She worked at the hospital until she retired.

I loved them all for their kindness to me. But I was so happy the day my family came in a taxi to take me home. My mother had come home, and I was going home, too.

Cris Roll

Jean Kane

When I was growing up, most of the moms didn’t have jobs outside the home.

The Kane family lived directly across the alley from the Nortons, who lived three doors down from us. Jean Kane had her hands full. They had five kids of their own, and her husband, George, traveled with his job a lot. In addition to her own five, there were four Elliott kids who spent every summer with their grandmother, Jean’s mother, who lived next door. The Elliotts had lost their mother quite young, thus spending summers with Grammy Elliott, our neighborhood grandmother.

The Kane house was very small, but the kitchen had been enlarged a bit. The table stood in a kind of bump-out, and there was a large picture window that looked out onto the driveway. From this spot, Jean easily could keep an eye on the kid activity—and there was a lot of it.

There was often a gaggle of kids surrounding her table. The Kane kitchen table just seemed to be magnet for kids. Jean drank green tea. My mother had allowed me to have tea with her sometimes, so I asked Jean one day if I could taste her green tea. I didn’t like it then. And I still don’t. But she let me try it.

As we girls all began to grow into our teenage years, Jean let us pile into her car and go to Sherman Park to lie on the beach, play in the water, and flirt with the boys. There might have been anywhere between five to seven of us girls whose mothers had sent enough change with us to get a Popsicle at the vending stand. We were brown as nuts by the end of the summer. I don’t remember if she took us every day, but it sure seemed like that. It was a generous thing for her to do for the neighborhood kids. But I think back on it now and realize that it probably gave her a much needed break.

I also remember a few birthday parties either in the Kane’s basement or around that magnetic kitchen table. I loved the countless hours spent in the Kane house. When folk music grew in popularity in the 60s, there were many nights we gathered around the table and sang songs like Michael Row the Boat Ashore.

One summer, we planned a nighttime adventure. A couple of the girls and I had a sleepover at my house. I had been stashing rolls of toilet paper for weeks in my bedroom closet. We ¬¬¬¬¬¬plotted our strategy after my mother went to bed. I thought I was clever by turning out the kitchen light as we sneaked out the back door wearing dark clothes and carrying our toilet paper. We were going to cover a neighbor’s lilac bush with it. As we crept across the alley in the dark and cut through Kane’s yard, suddenly the yard was washed in floodlight at Kane’s back door. (She had been ready to lock the back door when she saw shadows coming out my back door. She knew we were up to some kind of mischief.) We scattered and hid. Jean came out the front door and said, “All right, you girls—I know you’re out there!”

We crept out of our hiding places to face her in the dark. She drilled us with questions and scolded us for trying to toilet paper the neighbor’s lilac. She told us that we’d better scoot back across the alley and pick up the phone as soon as she called or my mother would hear about it. Our adventure was foiled, but she admitted many years later that it was all she could do not to laugh at our antics.

That was a very special time. We were Baby Boomers, but we didn’t call ourselves that at the time. I think kids don’t have neighborhood moms anymore where they can gather and play and grow. These days, most mothers work and many kids come home from school to an empty house. We were blessed to have Jean Kane in our lives. I still miss her.

Cris Roll