The Valentine Box

The Valentine Box

I love Valentine’s Day. I love red hearts and lace doilies, heart shaped boxes of chocolate candy, sentimental messages in beautiful cards and silly messages in funny cards – – “Roses are pink. Your feet really stink.” I love large February snowflakes that can be heard and felt when they thud on my parka. I love memories of exchanging valentines in elementary school, of slipping carefully selected cards into classmates’ decorated valentine boxes, usually a decorated shoe box with a card slot on the top.

One of my earliest Valentine’s Day memories involved a contest, a valentine box contest. I was six and in first grade, and, like most of my classmates, had never exchanged valentine cards. My older siblings had, so I knew about the tradition. 

My teacher, Miss Green, also loved Valentine’s Day. By mid-January she had covered the tall classroom windows with hearts and hand-cut snowflakes. She also displayed beautiful valentine cards on top of the piano. But what really made the occasion special was a bag of candy kisses tied with a pink ribbon. Miss Green had placed it on the corner of her desk after explaining, “The student who decorates the most beautiful valentine box will win the candy.” Then she added, “You may have someone help you decorate your box, a brother or sister, mom or dad.” Apparently, Miss Green intended this to be a family project. 

I wasn’t especially interested in winning the candy, but I knew exactly who I would ask for help. I would ask my big sister, Betty. She was fourteen years older than I was and was a busy mom, but I knew she would not be too busy to make me a valentine box. Betty was an artist, a real artist. I loved watching her fingers when she drew. Her pencil strokes could magically make Snow White or Bambi appear on a scrap of paper. After I explained the contest to Betty, she agreed to decorate the box and promised, “It will be perfect.” And it was. 

On the day of the party when I placed my box with the others on the long shelf beneath the classroom windows, my fellow first graders stared at it in awe. “You won!” Billy loudly exclaimed. Billy was the loudest kid in the class. All of the other children agreed, and so did I. It wasn’t that the other boxes were not beautiful, it was that my sister’s creation was stunning. She had first covered the box with red construction paper and over this had glued paper lace doilies. On the lid of the box, she had glued a garland of red and pink paper roses with green leaves that she had cut from construction paper. She had curled the leaves and petals to make them appear real. Finally, she tied the box with a red ribbon topping it with a beautiful bow.   

Yes, I was awarded the candy and now sixty-eight years later I don’t remember whether I gave it to my sister or shared it with my classmates, but each year during valentine season, I remember my sister’s valentine box for A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Keats. 

Excerpt from Lost and Found and Found Again: A Math Mystery

We Encounter Hitalittle

Bear Dog had been waiting for me at the door. He was talking to an old man who appeared to be able to understand dog talk. 

Bear said, “Here comes my friend.” 

            And the old man answered, “I’ll open the door. It’s a little big for you and your buddy.”

            “Thanks,” Bear Dog replied. 

The old man nodded and winked his right eye. I waved to him, and he waved back. Then, Bear and I started our walk home.

            “He was very nice. Could he understand what you were saying?” I asked.

“Yes. Some humans understand everything I say, especially the old ones. That old one’s name is Pete, and he said he has lived with a little cocker spaniel named Samantha for sixteen years. When he told me that, I said, ‘Sixteen . . . that would be a lot of cookies.’ Of course, he didn’t know what I was talking about. He seemed a little confused. I was going to explain about my learning to count with cookies, but you came.”

“A cocker spaniel named Samantha? What is a cocker spaniel?” I asked, and then added, “Would you like a lollipop?” I had been looking at the lollipops in my bag trying to decide which one to eat first.

            “No thank you,” Bear answered pleasantly. Then he continued, “A cocker spaniel is a certain kind of d .  .  . .” Suddenly he stopped talking! He stopped walking too! 

            I looked up in time to see the boy we had met earlier, the one who had been eating out of a bowl! He slowly stepped from behind a shrub . . . but he didn’t have a bowl this time! No! He had a big stick!  And he kept smacking the side of the stick across the palm of his left hand! He walked slowly toward us! 

            “Hey! You!” he snarled. “Do you live with that mutt?’

Mutt?” I thought to myself. “What is he talking about?”    

             “What’s your name?” he snarled again.

             I just stared at him.

            “You got a problem? Maybe you don’t have a tongue! Maybe you don’t know how to talk! I asked your name!”

            “Just smile,” Bear Dog whispered. “Just smile and tell him your name.”

            I smiled. I smiled real big, but when I opened my mouth to speak, I couldn’t make a sound!

            “Got a wise guy here, eh? Well, maybe if I tell the wise guy my name, maybe he’ll tell me his. Is that what you want? You want me to tell you my name? Sure . . . sure, I’ll tell you my name. It’s Hitalittle. Did you hear me? Hitalittle! Or do you have ear problems too?”

            “No, no . . .” I answered softly.

            “No? No?” the boy questioned. “Ya! Ya! My name’s Hitalittle, and do you know why my name’s Hitalittle?”

            “Noooo.” I managed to answer.

            “Well, it’s easy to figure out,” he said slowly. It’s because I HIT A LITTLE!”  

            As he said this, the boy hit Bear Dog with the stick!

            Bear yipped in pain and looked confused! He staggered backward a little but then turned quickly and raced away with his tail tucked between his legs!

            “Why did you do that? Bear didn’t do anything to you?” I asked in a shaky voice. I could barely breathe.

            “What? What?” Hitalittle demanded. “Are you asking me a question? But you haven’t answered my question! If you want me to answer your question, you have to answer my question!”                             

“Question? Question?” I thought to myself. “What question did he ask?” I couldn’t think! I couldn’t think at all! I looked for Bear Dog, but tears filled my eyes and made it difficult to see. I blinked to clear them away, and they squeezed out and rolled down my cheeks. I was having a very difficult time breathing.

            “Oh, what’s this? Tears?” Hitalittle asked in a sassy sweet voice. “Ya, that’s what I thought. You’re a little baby, a little cry baby. What’s your name, little cry baby? Hey, little cry baby, what’s your name?”

            I gasped for air and tried to answer. “My name is Tai . . . .” That is all I said. I had been looking down at the sidewalk and it started spinning. I fell to my knees. I could see nothing, only blackness. 

Then, I did see something. I saw a little girl wading in shallow water at the edge of a river. She was picking up small stones and putting them in the pocket of her dress. She had blond hair and was smiling. 

“Oh, this is a nice one,” she said.  She held the stone up so that I could see it.“It’s an agate.” She bent down to pick up another stone, and then suddenly, she vanished! 

            The next thing I remember was feeling something tugging at my arm. I turned and looked into the furry brown face of a river creature. It had beady black eyes and was pulling at me, trying to drag me!  I screamed and screamed again! As I screamed and stared in the creature’s furry face, it slowly transformed into the face of HITALITTLE!!  

The bully was pulling at my arm and shouting, “Hey you! Kid! Shut up!” But I kept screaming! He let go of my arm and said, “Okay, I’m going! I’m going!” As he turned and walked away, I heard him mumble, “What a wimp!”

I lay sprawled on the sidewalk.  I couldn’t move, but I could hear Bear Dog shouting. He had been hiding quite a distance away between a house and a garage.

            “Don’t just lay there! Get up!” he hollered. We’ve got to get out of here! He’ll come back!”

            The urgency in Bear’s voice made me scramble to my feet. I grabbed the sucker bag and ran! But as I ran, I heard feet pounding against the cement behind me! The sound kept coming closer and closer! Someone was running, running after me! I pumped my legs as fast as they would go! My throat burned! I could hardly breathe! I knew I couldn’t run any faster, but the pounding kept getting closer! Then, just when I thought I would collapse, Bear Dog raced past and shouted over his shoulder, “There’s his house! Don’t look! Just run!”

After passing Hitalittle’s house, I slowed down. My side was hurting very badly. “We’re almost home! Can we stop for a while?” I pleaded.

            “No!” Bear called back. “We’ll stop after we get inside!”


Lost and Found and Found Again: A Math Mystery is a unique child’s story that seamlessly weaves primary level mathematics into a fantasy adventure. Ideal as a classroom read-aloud, for homeschool math instruction, or pleasure reading. Mathematics that focuses on solving word problems and developing number sense is carefully sequenced to correspond with the developmental stages of children’s thinking as outlined by Cognitively Guided Instruction. A dice game accompanies this 164 pp book (book and game $25, tax and shipping included). To purchase, contact the author at

Coon Hunting

Besides being a trapper, my father was also a hunting guide, mainly guiding nighttime racoon hunts. This was a popular sport in Illinois during and after the Depression. Besides being a great way for men to get together at night to swap jokes, wade through bogs, and chase baying hounds, if a coon met its demise, they could also acquire a pelt worth one dollar. Farmers welcomed coon hunters too and for two reasons: racoons love corn and can devastate a corn field, and they also love fresh chicken and are clever enough to open a chicken coop’s hook-and-eye door lock. 

My father had a reputation for being one of the best hunting guides in the area. Papa also had his own well-trained redbone and bluetick hounds that served as lead dogs. Men who wanted to train a green dog, a young untrained hound, would contract with Papa to go on a hunt. 

When I was about four years old, I listened as Papa described to Mama details of such a hunt. And from his descriptions, I conjured up images of dogs running through the woods, of Papa telling men to stop and listen when the dogs treed a coon, of Papa describing the sound of dogs singing, of Papa blowing his hollowed goat horn to signal the dogs to return. 

“Please, please, let me go with you,” I begged. Then I added, “Ted and Steve got to go.”

“Pinky,” Papa replied. “I don’t think your little legs are long enough to keep up with the dogs once they start running a trail.”

“I can ride on your shoulders,” I persisted.

“Well, I don’t think you would really like it,” Papa replied.

“Oh yes I would. I know I would,” I asserted. 

“If you get tired, you can’t complain. I have to stay with the men and dogs.”

“I won’t complain,” I promised.

Papa looked at Mama, and she nodded.

So on a hot August night, I found myself holding Papa’s hand while he and three men walked their hounds to the edge of a cornfield and turned them lose. 

“Go get ’em, Blue!” Papa commanded. “Show ’em how it’s done.” 

The dogs quickly disappeared while yapping into the cornfield.

Though the night was moonless and dark, the men turned off their flashlights and stood quietly listening.  

Shortly afterward, the dogs started baying wildly, and Papa said, “They’re running one.” And when he heard Blue’s deep baying change to more rhythmic howling, he announced, “It’s treed.”

Papa quickly lifted me to his shoulders and started to run with the men in the direction of the baying dogs. He held my ankles as he ran, and I leaned down close to his head to avoid being slapped in the face by branches. Flashlight beams danced wildly reflecting tree trunks and men stepping over logs and pushing back brush. 

Blue’s distinct deep baying guided the hunters to a large elm tree. The dogs circled the tree baying wildly and jumping against its trunk. When flashlight beams searched the tree’s high branches, a large racoon was illuminated, its eyes reflecting the light. 

Then I noticed for the first time that one of the hunters was carrying a gun, a 22 rifle. I watched as he aimed at the racoon, and I heard a shot. The coon fell from the tree instantly, and just as quickly, the hunters grabbed the collars of their hounds, and Papa yelled, “Back Blue! Back!”

It all happened too quickly! 

When Papa lifted me from his shoulders, I walked to the dead racoon. 

One of the hunters said, “Wow! It’s a big one! Maybe Jaffe will pay a dollar fifty.”

I knelt next to the coon and stroked its soft fur and whispered, “I’m sorry.” I swallowed to keep from crying and looked up questioningly at Papa.

He lifted me gently, “Let’s to go home,” he said. 

Part of the coon hunting tradition was participation in Coon Dog Trials. These were events where hunters got together to test their best dog’s ability to track and tree a coon. The summer of 1955 a Coon Dog Trial was held at a tavern close to a wooded area near Plano, Illinois. Hunters from around the state, some from neighboring states, arrived in pick-ups with hounds in truck beds: redbones, blueticks, redticks, black and tans. There were a few large beagles, but most were heavy jowled, large boned, long tailed, long eared, sleepy eyed gentle hounds. Men came mainly to meet old friends, swap stories, drink beer, but prize money also attracted them to the event. Ted and I accompanied Mama and Papa on one of these outings, but only one. 

The Coon Trial proceedings were well established. A fake trail was made by dragging a dead racoon from a starting point down, around, up and through a wooded area, eventually hanging the carcass in a tree located near the starting point. A pack of four or five hounds would be set loose on the trail, and the first dog to find the end-point tree was the winner. Such trials were run throughout the day. 

The culminating trial was for hounds that qualified by placing in pre-trials and involved a live racoon. This final trial was designed not only to test trailing ability but also obedience. The plan was that late in the afternoon after all the day trials had been run, a coon would be released at the edge of a wooded area, and towards evening, the owners would meet at the release site with their qualifying entries and set their hounds on the trail. Then the men would follow the dogs, and after the coon was treed and shot, an experienced hunter would watch to judge how well the dogs obeyed. Did the hounds immediately go to their masters when called or did they rip at the racoon and cause pelt damage?

As the afternoon dragged on, Ted and I wandered around the grounds petting and talking to hounds that seemed especially friendly while Mama and Papa visited with other hunters and their wives and watched as trials were run. We were the only children. There were some teenagers, but no kids our age. I was five and Ted was seven. Like me, Ted knew all about coon hunting. Papa had taken him on a hunt, and like me, afterward he felt badly for the racoon. He even cried.

During our afternoon wanderings, we explored several sheds behind the main building, and in one of the sheds, we found a cage holding a live racoon. It was adorable. After poking bits of grass and scraps of paper into the cage, we hurried back to Mama and Papa and asked if they would buy some popcorn, which they did, and we returned to the racoon. It loved the popcorn. We laughed as it poked its long black fingers through the cage wire and gently took the kernels we offered.

“You’ve got such soft fingers,” I whispered. “Feel its fingers, Ted. Aren’t they soft?” 

We watched as it washed the kernels in its water dish. 

“Don’t do that!” Ted scolded. “Look, now your popcorn’s soggy.” 

We must have been watching and talking to the racoon for quite a while because when Mama came walking around the building she said, “Oh. There you are. We were wondering where you were.”

“Look at him, Mama. Isn’t he adorable?” I asked. 

 She nodded, smiled a sad smile, and added, “Just stay around.”

“Judy,” Ted said quietly. “You know what’s going to happen to him, don’t you?”  

We stood silently thinking about the fate of treed racoons. 

“Oh, that’s awful!” we whispered simultaneously.

Then, also simultaneously, we looked at the clip lock on the cage. We didn’t say anything. Just nodded to each other. Ted undid the lock and I swung the door open.

 “Hurry! Run!” we encouraged. And within a matter of seconds the racoon had escaped into a grove of trees. 

Ted and I closed the cage door, latched it, and quietly continued to a shed where we climbed a ladder up to a low-ceilinged attic and rummaged through boxes filled with old clothes and magazines. Eventually, we returned to Mama and Papa and were given a root beer to share. 

“So, what have you been up to?” Papa asked.

“Nothing,” we replied. 

Suddenly there was a commotion! 

“It’s gone! Someone let that damn coon out of its cage!” a tall man blurted from the side door. “An’ it weren’t no accident. No coon would latch its cage after escapin’.” Then he added, “An’ there’s popcorn kernels in its water bowl!”

While looking at Ted and me, Papa turned to Mama and said, “I think we better go.” 

Mama’s Goat Barn

(Excerpt from the memoir Nettles and Roses)

Mama’s goat barn before it was condemned. Oil painting by the author.

In the summer of 1965 Mama placed a two-hundred-dollar silent bid on an abandoned house and the three acres on which it sat; the property abutted her land. Actually, the house had been a cozy cottage at one time. However, the elderly woman who had lived there, being crippled and unable to use the outdoor toilet, had emptied her pot on the floor of a spare bedroom creating a disgusting odor. The stench and the fact that the electrical wiring was outdated caused the property to be condemned, but the old house was a perfect acquisition for Mama. The barn where the goats and sheep were penned was large and drafty compared to the little house.

After shoveling, shall we say, a deep layer of “used food” from the bedroom, Mama filled the room to the ceiling with sweet smelling hay, and once the broken furniture and trash from the kitchen and sitting room were cleared, she spread a layer of hay on the floor, and introduced four nanny goats, all milkers, to their new home. Landis Spurbeck, one of the elderly bachelors Mama had befriended, built a raised milking stanchion with a feed bin in what had been a kitchen.

As for lighting, Mama could milk her goats by the light of a kerosene lamp as she had in the barn. The fact that the building had no electricity was almost a plus, since when the summer sun set late, light for milking wasn’t necessary, and when the winter sun set early, the glow of a kerosene lamp reflecting off the loose hay covering the floor created for Mama a sacred space. 

Over time, the goat barn became Mama’s preferred living space. She still slept and ate meals in the house, but the quality part of her day was spent in the barn among her growing family of small animals. Besides goats, she had chickens, turkeys, ducks, sheep, ponies, cats, dogs, and even a pot-bellied pig. As her farm family scratched for corn and munched on hay, she would often sit on a bench reading her Bible and was inspired by the words in as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto me. 

At the beginning of October, planning for a spring birthing season, Mama arranged to have a neighbor release his billy goat in the pasture with her four sweet and even-tempered nannies. The billy’s disposition was quite the opposite of the nannies’, but worse than his temperament was his stench! There’s a reason for the expression “stinks like a goat”! Nannies have no odor, but billies stink with a strong musky scent, which comes partly from their urine and partly from glands located near their horns. During rut, billies usually spray their faces, their beards, the inside of their front legs, and their chest with urine. Nannies find this disgusting scent irresistible and will rub admiringly against this fragrant ladies’ man.  The consequence? When Mama positioned each nanny in the stanchion and rested her head on the animal’s side while milking, the stench got on her barn clothes and in her hair. Lack of modern bathing facilities added to the problem. When a basin or a bucket is the only bathtub, and one’s hair is pinned up in long braids that wrap around the head, a full top-to-bottom bath was typically taken once a month. Consequently, during the rutting season, Mama was scented with the oduer of billy-goat musk.                                                                                                                

Mama was never fashion conscious. Her printed cotton summer dresses, winter corduroy slacks, sweaters, jackets, and coats came from rummage sales or second-hand stores, as did her shoes and boots. During warm-weather months, she usually wore cotton print dresses whether she was planning to go to town or working in the barn, but her winter go-to-town and barn attires were distinctly different. Her winter-town-attire was fairly conventional: corduroy slacks under a cotton dress, a quilted car coat, and a diagonally folded wool scarf tied under her chin. But her winter-barn-attire resembled that of a Tibetan yak farmer. She wore wool pants over long johns, layers of sweaters, a long coat cinched snuggly with a giant safety pin, a stocking cap, and a muffler wrapped around her neck. On her feet were oversized rubber-bottomed, leather-topped boots with grubby liners. Most of the time Mama was dressed in barn attire.                                        

Occasionally, Mama went to town during the week to buy grain, dog food, and a few groceries, but she went every Saturday to attend services at the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It typically took Mama two hours to complete barn chores: carry buckets of water to fill watering pans, feed grain to all the grain-eating creatures, milk nannies, give milk to all the milk-drinking creatures, and strain the milk. Sabbath mornings were especially hectic, since Mama’s favorite part of the Sabbath service was Bible study, she had to head to town by 9:00 a.m. to arrive on time. So, she did chores in her church clothes, nylons and a dress, while wearing her barn boots. After straining the milk and setting it on the back porch to cool, she quickly washed her face and hands, unpinned her braids, fluffed the hair around her face, re-pinned the braids tightly, put on her church coat, grabbed her Bible and rushed out the door.  

Having nannies enamored with an odiferous billy goat altered where Mama sat while at church. From the time I was a child until I left home to attend college, she typically sat on the right side of the sanctuary in the central pew section. Post the billy goat’s entry into her life, she sat in the back row — you might say in “her own pew.” She knew she smelled, and she knew she couldn’t do anything about it. Even if she had bathed the night before, she realized there was no way she could avoid coming in contact with the billy’s musk in the morning. It was to her advantage that several of the elderly men were farmers and emanated the distinct scent of “cow barn.” 

A granddaughter shares memories of Mama’s goat barn: I recall evenings with Grandmother when I would nestle into the hay as she milked the goats and prayed. There were a lot of goats and the prayers went on and on, blending with the sound and rhythm of the milking. All of the prayers were for blessing and protection, with frequent requests for wisdom and understanding. She would begin with her nearest and dearest (which included her animals as well as the pets of family and friends) and would then make her way through the names of every person she knew in the little town nearby and then those she knew personally throughout the state and the country. She would pray a blessing for each of the states of the union and for the nation’s presidents past and present. At the time of my particular memory, she would have been praying most fervently for President Ford. After praying for the entire country and for all the newscasters and movie stars that she could name (Phil Donahue being one of the important ones at this time) she would proceed to name and ask God to bless each continent and then each country. Prayer times were always sealed by her requesting of God to “send myriads of your blessed holy angels to encompass each of us and the entire planet round about.” My grandmother’s prayers not only influenced my young mind to consider the entire world, but also ingrained in me a sense of connection, care, and responsibility for all beings.
In this moment I can see her twinkling blue eyes, I hear her giggle, and I feel her prayers touching me. My relationship with her continues outside of time and space and her influence continues to inform my understanding of the spiritual interconnectedness of all that is. I am deeply grateful to have such a spirited, soul-full, and loving Grandmother. We are blessed beyond measure.

Outhouse Spelunking

Excerpt from the memoir titled Nettles and Roses

Papa, with Charles’ help, dug a new hole for the outhouse when the contents of the previous hole had almost reached ground level. One day shortly before a new hole was dug, Ted and I found ourselves examining Mama’s new refillable ink pen. Ted was nine years old and I was seven. The year was 1953.

The pen fascinated us. When the tip was placed in an inkbottle, and a little lever on its side pulled up, ink was sucked into the body of the pen. Ted and I knew that we were not to fiddle with it for two reasons – we would likely spill the ink or manage to break the pen. But the thought of making squiggles on scraps of paper tempted us to quietly remove the pen from the top of the dresser where Mama kept it, tuck it and the inkbottle in pockets, and slip outside.  

We filled the pen and took turns drawing and attempting to write elegantly on old envelopes and scraps of paper. Our artistic and literary endeavors ended when I had to pee. We walked to the outhouse, and I kept the door open, talking to Ted while relieving myself. After pulling up my panties and picking up the pen that I had placed next to the toilet hole, I was suddenly compelled to hold the pen over the hole. Ted watched mesmerized by the thought that I might drop it. I looked at him, looked at the pen, and for a reason that still eludes me, my fingers opened, and the pen dropped into the muck below. Ted and I looked at each other in disbelief. Then we both looked through the hole and could barely see the end of the pen. 

“We’ve got to get it out,” I said quietly.

“You’ve got to get it out,” Ted replied. 

I agreed that it was my responsibility, and I was small enough to fit through the opening. So, we devised a plan – boards for standing on would be dropped onto the muck and Ted would lower me down on a rope. After acting on our plan, I found myself standing on boards that were sinking slowly into foul smelling excrement. I pulled the pen from where it protruded, wiped it off with a page from the Sear Roebuck catalog that Ted dropped down to me, and stuck it in my pocket. Looking up, I could see Ted’s face staring through the toilet hole. 

“Okay, pull me up,” I said.

I felt the rope tightening on my waist, but I remained standing on the boards.

“You’re too heavy,” Ted called. Then he added, “I’m going to tie the rope to the tractor.” Luckily it was parked nearby. “You’ll have to climb out on your own.”

And that’s what I did. Holding the rope tightly, I braced my back against the base of the toilet wall and climbed hand over hand until I could reach Ted’s outstretched arm. He then grabbed the collar of my dress and pulled me through the opening intended for expulsion rather than extraction.

We looked at each other, and he said, “You stink.”

Together we walked to the river and waded in fully dressed. I scrubbed my shoes, and Ted scrubbed the back of my dress. I carefully removed the pen from my pocket and rinsed it thoroughly. Afterward, we sat in the sun while our clothes dried. Mama waved to us from the garden, and we waved back as though nothing was amiss. 

“I’ll put it back on the dresser. You wait here,” I whispered.

When I returned and sat down near Ted, he looked at me and asked, “Why did you drop the pen?”

I looked at him with bewildered eyes and shook my head. I didn’t have an answer. That evening, to silence my troubled conscience, I told Mama about the incident, and she asked the same question, “Why did you drop it?”

“I don’t know. I just couldn’t stop myself. I held my hand over the hole and opened my fingers.”

“Well, the next time you feel the urge to do something that you know is wrong or just plain stupid, remind yourself of the toilet hole,” Mama wisely advised. She knew that I felt sincerely remorseful.

When I think back on this experience, I still don’t know why I dropped the pen, but one thing is certain, if my childhood home had had the convenience of indoor plumbing, I wouldn’t have had the unusual experience of rappelling and spelunking in a well-used outhouse. 

The Owl Catcher

Oil Painting of a Screech Owl Painted on A Wooden Panel by Author

The child dragged a five-foot ladder as she walked the grassy path between a ripened cornfield and the bank of a slow-moving river. The child’s foraging bag hung from her shoulder and in the bag was a pair of her father’s work gloves. She wore a faded cotton dress and was walking barefoot. The year was 1955 and the child was nine years old. This was a time when little girls wore dresses, even little girls who climbed trees and caught frogs along muddy shorelines. 

The child had walked this path at sunrise when dew clung to blades of grass, and her destination then as now was the same. She leaned the ladder against the trunk of a dead oak and carefully climbed each rung until she was level with a hole, a hole large enough for an arm to reach inside. When she visited the tree earlier, she had knocked loudly with a knuckled fist and had placed her ear against the trunk to listen. The occupant clicked a reply, and the child smiled and said aloud, “I’ll be back.

Now, balancing herself on the ladder, feet spread and leaning her body against the trunk, she pulled on her father’s gloves before reaching with her right hand into the hole. When she touched the soft body at the bottom of the hole, a thrill raced through her fingers and into her heart. “Don’t worry,” she whispered, as she gently lifted a tiny screech owl from its home. “Don’t be afraid. It’s just me. Remember?”

Still leaning against the gnarled trunk, she cupped the small owl with both hands while stepping slowly down the ladder to the ground. The little creature stared at her with startled eyes, and bit fiercely at the work gloves. While blowing gently in the face of the little owl, the child soothed, “I won’t hurt you. You don’t have to bite,” and the owl stopped biting.  

Leaving the ladder leaning against the tree, the child walked hurriedly home. There, she placed the little owl in a cage, one of her mother’s empty canary cages.  It hopped to a perch and stared at her through large black pupils set in golden irises. Its feathers were several shades of brown, light and dark shades that formed patterns, with white under feathers.  

The child carried the cage to the garden where her mother was picking the season’s last green beans and tomatoes. The mother bent and looked into the cage, “Ah, your friend,” she said softly. The child knelt and looked closely at the little owl, and the mother knelt beside her. 

“Isn’t she cute?” the child whispered excitedly. 

“Yes,” her mother agreed, and then added, “Look, her feet are covered with feathers, and she has little feather horns.” 

“She looks angry,” the child said softly. 

“The feather pattern above her eyes makes her look that way,” her mother replied, nodding. 

The two sat for several minutes studying the small owl, then the mother returned to picking green beans. The child sat quietly next to the cage. She felt somehow connected to the little bird. She knew it was a wildling, that she couldn’t keep it, that it needed to hunt at night for food, and that it needed to spread its wings and fly. Still, she felt comforted just knowing it was alive and that it knew how to fly, that it knew how to find its own food, that it knew where its home was. This little owl and she shared something. They shared life.

“I think it’s time,” the mother directed.

 “I know. It’s time to return her to her home,” the child replied. 

Her mother answered with a smile.

The child carried the caged owl back to its home tree. After setting the cage on the ground next to the ladder, she gently lifted the small bird with a gloved hand and then carefully climbed while leaning into the ladder and graspingone rung at a time with her free hand. She placed the little owl inside its hollow oak. “There, you’re home,” she assured. 

While still standing on the ladder, the child looked across the cornfield to a line of orange and golden maple trees. The sky was a glorious blue, and the song of cicadas, warmed by the autumn sun, filled the air. She leaned close to the opening of the little owl’s home and whispered, “Thank you.”

Playing with Dead Rats: Searching for Humanbeingness

During lunch break, a group of teachers, all women, had gathered in the lounge to savor cups of hot coffee, check out catalog bargains, and talk about home and school. In one of the conversations, a second-grade teacher shared that several little girls in her class regularly brought Barbie and Ken dolls to school. She remarked that their play episodes mirrored the drama of TV soap operas, and her comments sparked a lively conversation about the loss of innocence, about premature sophistication, and about the powerful influence of television. 

The conversation also led teachers to reminisce, and they shared their experiences with dolls, baby dolls mostly. They talked of dressing them, putting them to bed, playing school and teaching them. They spoke of favorite dolls, described how they looked, and recalled their names. The conversation triggered memories for me also, and so I shared.          

“I really didn’t like store bought dolls,” I explained. “They were never real enough for me. You see, my father was a trapper. Each winter morning, he would leave the house before daybreak to check his traps and would return home around breakfast. I remember eagerly waiting for his return, waiting for the sound of him kicking snow off his boots outside the kitchen door. If when he stepped inside, he smiled and nodded, I knew that there would be a baby muskrat, one drowned in a trap but too small to skin for its pelt. So, I would hurry to his hunting jacket and search its pockets for the little furry creature that would become my doll for the day. A muskrat baby was a perfect doll. I would diaper it, would cut a hole in little squares of cloth for its tail – it would actually mess its diaper, and if I pried an eyelid open, there was a real eye inside.” 

I was so engaged with relaying this treasured childhood memory, that I was unaware of how silent the room had become. My story was abruptly ended when a teacher gasped, “Oh my dear! She played with dead rats as a child!”

“They weren’t dead rats,” I defended. “They were clean, silky young muskrats, and I would only play with them for one day. They never smelled.” The looks of horror registering on listener’s faces cautioned me not to relay that too much handling caused blood to ooze out of the tiny nose. Neither did I explain that I knew Papa would feed the carcass of “my doll” to the dogs at the end of the day.

Prior to this conversation, I had never considered the idea of handling the carcasses of dead muskrats anything but a reasonable act. As a child I often watched my father skin-out pelts in the main room of our home, in a corner away from the wood stove. He would, having hung a muskrat head down suspended from the ceiling on two wires, one through each hind paw, carefully slit around the tail and hind legs and then skillfully pull the skin off as though turning a glove inside out. Papa sold the pelts. This was how he made money in winter. Muskrat pelts were what made Christmas gifts possible. 

“Now we understand,” one teacher blurted out. “We understand why you are the way you are.”

I did not consider this comment an insult. I knew that my colleagues regarded me as a creative and successful Gifted and Talented educator. But, during the fleeting moments of this interchange, I realized that my early years differed drastically from those of my peers. What I grew up believing to be a wonderful experience, one of the fondest of my childhood, was being viewed with disgust and misunderstanding. Isolated from the context of my family life, using a dead baby muskrat as a doll became playing with the carcass of a dead rat.   

Though time has distanced me from this conversation and the stories shared by my fellow teachers have been forgotten, the emotional impact of the experience will remain with me forever. I had always thought that my childhood was different, but not very different. The opportunity to reminisce about a shared experience, playing with dolls, affirmed likeness. I, like the other teachers, played with dolls; it was just that my dolls were young muskrats, dead young muskrats.  

At the time of the conversation, shock and horror communicated by my colleagues isolated me for several moments. In that isolation, I was able to step away from myself and view my memory from a different perspective. I understood the teachers’ horror and attempted clarification to gain their understanding, but I also knew the circumstances of my childhood and defensively refused to compromise my memory. This attempt to uncompromisingly clarify left me speechless, and I sat in silent reflection. Though my childhood was unique, I had really never considered myself culturally different, but this talk of dolls had forced me to consider the error of my assumption. It also illuminated another reality, my peers, having never had the opportunity to play with silky muskrats, would never appreciate the pleasure of that experience. I came to realize that I was of an “other culture”, and realization of my “otherness” allowed me the opportunity to reflect on my perspective in its relationship to a different perspective. To this day, I consider my reflection during this conversation about dolls and dead rats an awakening.

Herein lies the purpose behind sharing this story, a purpose that might not appear to follow logically. I assumed that others would have no difficulty relating to my childhood memory. As strange as it may seem, I had never considered that playing with a muskrat carcass would be considered offensive. I had never had reason to question the family culture in which I had been socialized. Now, after my awakening, I propose that one reason racial schisms exist and threaten to deepen is because members of separate cultures view other culture members as “different” and rarely consider the shared values and beliefs that underlie differences – the teachers heard my story and responded with repugnance, and I listened to their responses through my dual-culture, my childhood memories as well as common beliefs about dead animals. I understood their repugnance yet treasured my memory. I could have been hurt by this conversation, by assumptions that my childhood was deprived, even depraved, but I knew differently, and I also knew that my colleagues and I shared a common experience – playing mother.

 After telling this story to Dr. Carl Grant, a black scholar and UW Madison Professor Emerita, Carl shared his concern that the focus on diversity in multicultural education threatens to separate rather than unite people. When discussing racism with Dorothy Davids, a friend and Native American elder, Dorothy commented, “We must celebrate “humanbeingness.” She recommended accomplishing this by identifying and discussing underlying values shared across cultures. 

I believe application of Dorothy’s and Carl’s wisdom, the wisdom of two elders, can bridge today’s racial divide. I believe that it is imperative for parents, teachers, professors, and journalists to consider how divisive focusing on diversity has become. Perhaps searching for cultural commonalities should be the purpose of multi-cultural education. Perhaps the most important questions to be answered by Critical Race Theorists today are, “How are differing culture groups alike, and what does it mean to be HUMAN?”

A Christmas Story: Eight Hens Roosting

Excerpt from the memoir titled Nettles and Roses

Sixty-four Year Old Santa Under the Christmas Tree

(Henry David, a vintage doll, sits next next to Santa. Henry (named after Thoreau) was rescued from an abandoned cabin shortly before it was demolished.)

After the house burned and while we were living in a one room tar-paper shack, Papa got an offer to transport house trailers between Florida and Indiana, an offer he couldn’t turn down. This job gave him something he yearned for, the opportunity to travel. Mama did not protest when Papa explained that the trucking job meant he would have to spend time away from home. If the job made Papa happy, she was happy.  

Ted and I were thrilled by the stories that Papa shared when he returned from a trip. Ted was twelve and I was ten. Papa described trees draped in Spanish moss and brought home samples of the moss to hang from a nail in the shanty. He brought a cypress tree table lamp. Mama picked up a shade for it at the Salvation Army store. He brought pecans and oranges. One time he brought home two baby alligators, one for Ted and one for me. 

Ted opened the small crate his was in first and gently lifted the little creature while saying, “Cool! An alligator.” I hurriedly opened my crate only to find that mine had died. When tears welled in my eyes, Ted said, “Here, Judy. You can have this one.”

“No, Ted. That’s yours,” I protested.

“It’s ours,” he replied. 

We didn’t keep this exotic pet for long. Being a cold-blooded reptile, he had to be kept warm, and the shanty was far from warm. Ted and I took turns sleeping with him at night, after tucking him inside a wool sock. Feeding him was also troublesome – he would only eat if submerged and would only eat raw hamburger. Neither Ted nor I objected when Mama traded him for a parakeet.

When Papa left on a haul in mid-December, Ted and I quietly discussed our concern that he might not return before Christmas. Overhearing our conversation, Mama assured us that he would. 

“Are we going to have a Christmas tree?” I asked. 

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Mama answered. “This year I think we should have a live tree, one that that can be planted in the yard in the spring. We can get one at the greenhouse.” 

And that’s what we had, a foot-tall spruce tree in a bucket. Mama set the tree on top of the small black and white TV that Papa had brought home after one of his trips. She wrapped a towel around the bucket and hung tiny blue baubles on the tree.

But another type of tree filled a corner of the shanty. It was made of ascending poles placed across a corner of the room, the longest at the base, and shorter ones toward the ceiling. This was a chicken roosting tree. December was extremely cold, so cold that at night the chickens’ feet were freezing in the coop, so Mama decided to let them roost in the shanty, with newspapers spread beneath their roosting area. During the day, they were returned to the coop. We made a joke of it singing, “On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eight hens a-roosting.” We didn’t mind sharing space with chickens. It was the right thing, the kind thing to do. We were also awarded each morning by one hen that chose to lay an egg at day-break. She always sang her egg-laying song afterward, “Puck puck pu duck! Puck puck pu duck!” 

Schuler Pharmacy on Main Street in a nearby town displayed and sold toys in the upper level of the store at Christmastime. Several days before Christmas, Mama stopped there with Ted and me. 

“You may each pick out one gift for yourself and a game that you can share. After you have made your decisions, let me know what you want,” she directed.

Ted and I each knew what we wanted. We had looked through the toy selection earlier in the week. Ted wanted a BB gun, and I wanted a stuffed foot-tall Coca Cola Santa Clause with a realistic hard rubber face holding a miniature Coke bottle. But we took our time studying the games before deciding, eventually settling on the Marlon Perkins’ Wild Kingdom Trivia Game. 

Papa arrived home late in the afternoon on December 24th, and shortly afterward, he and Mama left to get Ted’s and my presents. Schuler’s stayed open until six on Christmas Eve.

“We’re going to Schuler’s,” Mama said. “We won’t be long.”

While they were away, Ted and I put fresh newspaper under the chickens, straightened the dishes and pans, and made our cots. After smoothing every wrinkle from the bedspread covering Mama’s and Papa’s bed, we placed the gifts we bought for them on their pillows, a wool scarf for Mama and a pair of socks for Papa.

Finally, the door burst open, and Mama and Papa blew in with snow and icy air. They quickly closed the door and placed the bags containing our unwrapped presents on the bed. 

Ted was given a BB gun, and I was given the Coca Cola Santa. Sixty plus years later, I still have this jolly old elf, though his face is grimy with age, his cloth body has cotton protruding through holes, and the tiny Coke bottle was lost long ago. Each Christmas I wrap him in a soft yellow blanket, my oldest son’s baby blanket, and tuck him under my Christmas tree in a judicious spot where he can watch what’s going on without being seen and having his feelings hurt when someone asks, “Why do you have that under your tree?  Looks like he should have gone up the chimney a long time ago.” But for me, when I see this dear old Santa smiling at me from under the tree, I am reminded that blue baubles on a small tree growing in a bucket are more memorable than those on a grandly decorated one, that Christmas is as thrilling for a child receiving a few gifts as for one receiving many, and that waking to the cackling of a hen gifting an egg on Christmas morning was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.