It wasn’t long after we moved to Michigan (1987) before I started meeting the neighbors. These gals were a really friendly bunch. The houses in our neighborhood were not close together like in Davenport. Each property had an acre. It was Pat Olsen, just south of me who had a luncheon to introduce me to a couple of them. First was Mildred. She was exactly double my age. I had recently turned 36. She had just lost her husband and lived next to Pat.
|A watercolor given to me. Hung in the guest bathroom at Mildred’s|
Mildred’s husband Ed had been the president of a large company called Commonwealth. She would keep me enthralled for 20 years with stories of their world travel. In the 40’s and 50’s Ed had worked in Africa putting up nuclear power plants. Back then it was still legal for people to go into diamond mines. When Ed worked there he would buy loose, precious stones, then have them designed into elaborate pieces for Mildred. The first time Mildred got her jewelry out, I thought it was costume jewelry. The stones were so big, they bordered on gaudy. Not the diamonds. The diamonds were gorgeous. Every piece Mildred owned was set in platinum, and not one was a solitare of anything. And they were all matched sets. Never just a ring. It was a brooch, earrings, necklace, often a bracelet to boot. The 2 most exquisite sets I remember were an aquamarine brooch. The main stone was the size of a quarter. Surrounded by diamonds. Matching earrings which I would have made into 2 separate rings. The stones were size of my ring fingernail. The other stunning set were some kind of amber/gold stones, maybe citrine. The color of light honey. There was a tennis style bracelet with rectangular shaped stones, the size of my pinkie nail, and diamonds in between. Beautiful but a little flamboyant for my taste.
|I got Mildred’s 60 yr. old Christmas Cactus from which I’ve started a dozen new plants…|
Seven years later, after I moved to North Muskegon, I often stayed with Mildred when I went back to visit. Shannon and her crew were out the door by 7 a.m. most mornings. When I’d visit, I’d go to Shannon’s in the afternoon, make supper and be there when they were getting home from school, daycare and work. Stay until the little ones were in bed, and Shannon and I were done yakking for the night. Then drive over to Mildred’s 5 miles away, visit with her for a comple hours before heading to bed. She loved the company and I really enjoyed staying with her. In the morning we’d have breakfast together. Whole strawberries dusted with powdered sugar. Toasted English muffins accompanied with fancy jars filled with exotic jams. Coddled eggs. Never heard of that before. You butter the inside of the egg coddler, crack and drop in a raw egg. Screw the lid tight, and plop the whole thing in simmering water for a few minutes. Another way for a fancy English soft boiled egg. Told you she was elegant. Then we’d go shopping downtown Jackson at Jacobson’s. A fabulous department store a step up from Macy’s. I never bought much there, too fancy and expensive. The clerks were always eager to wait on Mildred.
|Egg Coddler from Mildred.|
The other gal I met that day was Diane. She was my age and had 2 kids about the ages of Shannon and Josh. Diane’s still one of my dearest friends. She’s the second oldest kid in a family of 12! We certainly didn’t seem to have much in common in the beginning. The reason. She’s everything I’m not. She can sew men’s suits and make lined draperies. Me, maybe sew a button back on after it fell off a shirt 6 months ago. That John’s reminded me of 10 times and needed for work. And poke myself a dozen times in the process. She can cross-stitch, embroider, needle-point, knit, crochet, make artistic ribboned bows as big as a table. Design and create spectacular silk floral arrangements and wreaths. It kind of makes you feel inept when you’re around her a lot. You tend to be green with envy, plus feel hapless and hopeless cause you have none of these gifts or skills. Plus she worked full time and kept her house immaculate. Then there’s her yard. She does not embrace the same outdoor philosophy as me. Mine, “when I’m outdoors, I’m reading, not weeding.” And usually in a swimsuit on a chaise in the 2 square feet of moving sunshine in our shade filled yard. No, Diane has a yard that makes even John envious. And she enjoys working in it and keeping it so. Who knew there are women like that alive? (I think I might be a better baker. Not sure. Wouldn’t stake my life on it).
But it would be Diane who would introduce me to the variety of Michigan’s fabulous and different fruit seasons. Within months she had me crawling along sand filled rows, picking strawberries. Really nothing compares to eating a fresh picked strawberry, warm from the sun, even with a couple of grains of sand stuck on it. Our pants would be stained from squashed strawberries when we were done. Then follow the short seasons of cucumbers, peaches, raspberries, blackberries, (the nastiest of the bunch to pick. The bushes will grab your clothes, rip your skin and are about 10 feet tall) finally beets and apples. All within of few miles of where we lived. It was Diane who taught me how to can. Don’t think she realized what an obsession it would become for me. She first convinced me to can my own pickled beets that my Mom and I loved. Then she got me hooked on Bread and Butter pickles. I helped her can Bread and Butter pickles for a few years. When I moved 150 miles west, she happily sent along the recipe and convinced me I could do it on my own. For the past 20 years I’ve accepted praise and kudos for my awesome Bread and Butter pickles. The glory really belongs to my dear friend Diane.
|The best Bread and Butter pickles in the world. Yeah, I’m bragging…|
Diane convinced me all her super human abilities were not gifts that she was given from God. She truly thought I could learn some of these skills. (Such a wonderful friend, she did not see or realize the magnitude of all my hopeless shortcomings) She had run into a gal who was holding art fabric painting classes. (This was a popular fad in the early ’90’s) Diane cajoled me into taking some classes with her. I know. I’m shaking my head too. Nothing about me has ever been artsy-fartsy. (If you follow me on Facebook, you know that when my 5 year old grandson Graham and I do art projects, his usually turn out better than mine).
|Yup, they’re supposed to be iris’s.|
Anyway we signed up for the classes. We’d look through the pattern books. I’d pick out something that appealed to me, but was way above my level of coloring (painting) inside the lines. We’d each buy a sweatshirt or a tote bag to paint. Hazel, the art teacher would supervise. Not Diane, who was a better painter than Hazel, but me, so Diane could clip along at her own pace. Ugh, I was hopeless. I did sort of learn to follow, (copy) the pattern, but I just didn’t SEE the same stuff as these artists. For instance, if I was painting a bent arm, I truly did not notice the shadows in the crook of the arm. (And I had a picture showing me these shadows). Where the part of the bent arm should be darker. Diane or Hazel would kindly point out the 3-D-ish stuff my eyes did not pick up on. But it was fun. And I still have some of the rather cute things I did finish. But for me it wasn’t a fun gift but a real and often frustrating challenge, and something I would never be very good at.
|My one attempt at a portrait. John a month after he quit smoking…|
One other neighbor would have an huge impact on my life while I lived in Jackson. Her name was Elissa and she was several houses south of us. We did not know them well. They had one son in college. BJ was Joshua’s age and Elizabeth was in Adam’s class. We’d see them at school’s open house, and parent-teacher conferences, but knew them just to say hi. Elissa taught high school in a district 20 miles away and Mike owned a successful business. They did not travel in the same social circles as us. Well, we had no circles yet, but they were a couple notches above us however long we would have lived there. Josh and BJ were becoming good friends. Adam and Elizabeth would never see eye to eye on anything.
One morning about 10 there was a knock on my door. It was a weekday, kids were in school. We’d probably been living there almost 2 years by then. To my surprise it was Elissa at the door. I invited her in and asked if she wanted a cup of coffee. She was visibly upset about something. I sat across from her at the kitchen table and waited. It was like she didn’t know how to start talking. Geez, she taught English and was the advisor/director of their high school class plays. Couldn’t imagine anything bad enough that she couldn’t just spit it out. Doubted it had anything to do with Josh or BJ. Both good kids and not troublemakers. Hope Adam hadn’t decked Elizabeth. She was kind of a diva, even back then. So I waited. All of a sudden words just start spilling out. Her 39 year old hubby, Mike had just been diagnosed with liver cancer that morning. Through sobs she’s asking advice on how she’s going break this news to their kids after school? Devastating, but how in the world could I be of help? Actually, I didn’t need to do much. Elissa was working these issues out in front of me. I guess kind of like a sounding board. We had no history together, and no baggage. I think it was easier practicing on me, virtually a stranger that morning. If there had been any kind of social caste system before this day, it was gone now. I had seen her in a way not many ever would.
Mike and Elissa would embark on a 2-1/2 year ferocious fight. Journey from chemo, to colonics, to Mayo Clinic, to a specialized cancer treatment center in Houston, to some radical, not legal here in the states stuff down in Mexico. Mike NEVER accepted he was dying. Much like my dear friend Rosemary, he fought so hard, and tried everything he could to stay alive. He had an addition put on the house, doubling the size of it. He went to the Masters Golf tournament in Georgia which had been on his bucket list. Sometimes if Elissa was teaching, I’d drive him to Ann Arbor for appointments. He signed up with John to be co-leader of Adam and Elizabeth’s class of Odessy of the Mind competition. Had to stay busy, doing, doing, doing. If they were gone for a few days, BJ would stay with us, and we’d keep watch over their menagerie of animals from destroying their beautiful home.
But Mike continued to get sicker and lose ground. He passed away in September of 1991, a couple years before we moved to North Muskegon. He had just made an appointment for another cancer treatment option in Mexico to try something else. The hardest fighter next to Rosemary I’ve ever witnessed. Don’t know if I agree with their thinking, logic or methods. But I’ve never been in their shoes either. From where I was watching, Rosemary should have been in Hospice Care months earlier. Mike never even considered it, and should have. I admire that kind of fierce fighting spirit. I wonder if I have that kind of fight in me. Hope I never have to find out…
|I got Mildred’s 60 yr. old Christmas Cactus. I’ve started a dozen new plants in 8 years…|