Archives for : Savor the Moment

There are all Kinds of Surprises

There are all kinds of SURPRISES, and some of them look a little different from a kid’s perspective…Here’s One of Those Childhood Memories by Sharon Sheppard

One thing I figured out when I was still pretty little was that life is full of surprises, not all of them good. Just before my fourth birthday I ended up in the Pine River Hospital nine miles from home with whooping cough and pneumonia. I whooped and wheezed until my chest ached and my throat felt raw. I suppose it gave my folks quite a scare, because there wasn’t a whole lot anybody could do about it.

The doctor drilled a hole in my back and stuck a tube into the hole to drain some fluid off my lungs. I didn’t even know what lungs were until then, though I would just as soon have waited and found out some other way.

Anyway, right down the hall Johnny Russell was yelling his head off. He’s a kid I knew from my hometown who had whooping cough too, only he made a lot bigger fuss about it than I did. Maybe boys aren’t as tough as girls. Or maybe he was sicker than I was.

It would have been nice if Mama or Daddy could have stayed with me at the hospital, but Daddy had to work and Mama had enough problems of her own. She was about to have a baby, which nobody had bothered to tell me, and she also had to take care of my brothers. And to top it all off, she wasn’t feeling very well.

So every day after work, Daddy drove down to the hospital to see me. There was a pretty little pine tree outside my window, and Daddy and I adopted it. We called it “our tree,” and we checked on it each time he came. He read me stories, and every night before he left, he prayed and asked God to make me well.

I stayed in the hospital 40 days and 40 nights, and I didn’t like it one little bit. About half way through my stay, Mama came to the hospital to get the new baby. It turned out to be a girl! Finally some good news. I had a sister!

Her name was Dorothy Mae. I asked if Mama and the baby and I could all share a room, but the hospital wouldn’t let us. Mama had yellow jaundice, and I didn’t even get to see her and the new baby.

Mama and the baby got to go home before I did, and I cried with disappointment about having to stay. Finally, on the fortieth day, almost like Noah sitting in the ark with all those smelly animals waiting for the 40 days of rain to stop, I got to go home from the hospital. The doctor told Mama and Daddy that it was a Higher Power than his that pulled me through, because he didn’t think I was going to make it.

By that time our new baby was a couple weeks old, and I finally got to see what she looked like. She was skinny with no hair, unless you could count a little blond fuzz. I sure hoped she would get a lot cuter than that, but as it turned out, she never had the chance.

A few weeks after I got home from the hospital, Baby Dorothy started wheezing, and before I even got used to having a sister, something terrible happened. Our baby died and went to heaven. Going to heaven wasn’t terrible, but not being able to keep her with us was the disappointing part. I didn’t know exactly what it meant to be dead, I just knew I had never seen Mama so sad. I sure hoped it wasn’t my fault, the baby getting whooping cough and all.

Our Mama kept crying. I hugged her and tried to get her to stop, but she couldn’t. She went upstairs, maybe thinking we couldn’t hear her cry up there, but we could. I climbed the creaky wooden steps to give her a hug, and there she was slumped in a heap, sobbing her heart out.

“Mama, why are you crying?” I asked.

“Dorothy Mae is dead,” she said.

When I went back downstairs, I found my brothers standing in the dining room staring at our baby, who was sleeping on the table, wrapped in a blue flannel blanket in a bundle no bigger than a doll. She looked beautiful now, and she wasn’t wheezing any more. She looked like she was taking a nice, long nap.

Just then the doctor drove into our driveway in his big black car, picked up our baby, and took her away. And that was the last I ever saw of her.

After a while our mother didn’t spend so much time crying, at least when we were around. Then a year later, when I was five, we had another unexpected surprise. I guess our Mama and Daddy knew this was going to happen, but Ronnie and Paul and I didn’t.

We thought it was a little unusual that they sent us to the other church for Daily Vacation Bible School, since we had already gone to DVBS time at our own church. We grumbled a little about going to “The Cong”—our nickname for the Congregational Church down by the lake. And I can’t say we were thrilled when we finally figured out why Mama and Daddy were so anxious to get rid of the three of us that week either.

But one afternoon when we came home clutching construction paper drawings with pasted-on cotton balls for clouds, Daddy met us on the back porch. He was grinning.

“I’ve got a surprise for you,” he said.

With all my heart I hoped that it would be strawberries and cream, but it was just another brother. That made the score three boys to one girl. Not a good ratio.


Hygge: Nesting in…

One of autumn’s coziest aspects is nesting–and what could be more inviting than a crackling fire on the beach, a Thermos of steaming hot chocolate, and the sound of loons on one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes?   by Sharon Sheppard

The Danes have a special word for it that’s become trendy in the U.S. in recent months.  And since my blog partner Mary (the City Cousin) and I (the Country Cousin) are both Minnesotans and half Danish by birth, we decided that fall is a perfect time to feature Hygge (pronounced hoo-ga or HUEgah, depending on whom you ask.

Though Hygge defies a tidy definition, it involves the art of savoring coziness—getting comfortable, being present in the moment, taking pleasure in simple things–soothing things.   Scandinavians are big on candlelight, sweets, music, board games, hot drinks, comfy sweaters, and wool socks, and more…

*Cooking food the slow way, often doing it with others, and enjoying the process.

*Savoring hot homemade soups and pastries, especially as the days grow shorter and temperatures begin to sink.

*Adjusting the lighting to a soft glow.  (Though Americans immediately think: fire hazard! Danes have lit candles in offices, school classrooms, and places of business.)

*Spending carefree evenings with family or friends, talking or playing board games.

*Nurturing a sense of feeling safe and shielded from the world.

In a survey among Danes, a team of researchers asked what things they associated with the word hygge.  Hot drinks topped the list, and candles came in second.

The Danes love tea, hot chocolate, or mulled wine, but their favorite hot drink is coffee.  They are the world’s fourth biggest coffee drinkers, consuming around 33 percent more per capita than Americans.

I come from a family of coffee-drinkers. My mother’s parents emigrated from Denmark, and I remember asking her one time, “Mama, on what day of the week was I born?”

She said, “You were born on a Saturday, just in time for afternoon coffee.”

With hygge as a defining feature of their culture, it’s no accident that Denmark consistently ranks as one of the top three happiest countries worldwide, according to the Happiness Research Institute, an independent think tank focusing on well-being, happiness, and quality of life in countries throughout the world.

Similarly, there seems to be a growing hunger in the U.S. for nurturing a love of simple joys.  And in a world of growing turmoil, it strikes me as a healthy trend.

Autumn is a great time to start.


Perspectives on Patience

PERSPECTIVES on PATIENCE… by Lacey, age 18, this month’s guest writer

As I live through my short life here on earth, I am constantly learning and experimenting with myself through trial and error, as we all do. Lately, I have become more aware of my recurring struggle with patience. Those who know me well know that patience is not something that comes easy to me.

While on a trip to Montana this summer I had the spontaneous urge to try stone balancing. This not only takes a tremendous amount of patience, it also forces the body to give all its attention to the feel of the stones and their placement. As I experimented with stone balancing, I noticed that the process made me go into a sort of meditative state, and to my surprise, I didn’t lose my temper when the whole stack fell down.

I found something that I enjoy and that also takes an incredible amount of patience. This may not seem like a big deal to some people on my friends list, but to me I see this as a success story. I am beyond proud of my little discovery and excited to move forward with this art form. This photo shows one of my stacks from today.


The Big Lake

The Big Lake
This summer has truly been the lazy, hazy days of summer. I, Mary
Zigan, have just returned from another Mille Lacs Lake get-away. In
Minnesota, it is the right thing to do…and it reminds me of my childhood and
all the fun times with family.
I thought of some more of the memories I wrote in my Memoir, An
Upside-Down Heart, and would like to share them with you:
Sundays in the summer after morning chores, we could hardly wait to
head north. Usually, my sister Sharon and I would be singing in the car all
the way because our first stop was the little community church in Cove Bay
of Mille Lacs Lake. When we walked into the church– typically, about 15
people made up the congregation—invariably somebody would say, “Here
come the Sorensen sisters. That’s our music for today.” We would proudly
sing one or two hymns.
Mother would always bring food to the lake in order to add to
everyone else’s supply in the family. One thing we kids dreaded was the
“one hour restriction” after lunch to go swimming. No one was allowed to
break this rule! We would walk through the woods to get to the Big Lake
for swimming. The big lake was the larger side of Mille Lacs and had a
public access with more beach front. We detested the blood suckers we
encountered while swimming, but knew they would come right off with salt
when we returned to the cabin. At one time or another, all of my cousins,
Jan, Gloria, KD, Pat, Kaye, Dean, Jack, and Jay, played in those waters.
We often ended up with beet-red sunburns, but, Noxema gave some relief!
Our times spent at the lake with cousins and family are happy
For more about my Memoir:

Thoughts on Growth

Hi, it’s Mary’s grandson Brad back with thoughts from Alaska.

The other morning, my phone showed me a photo, reminding me that it had happened exactly five years ago on that day.  The picture was of my friend Aaron on the 4th of July.  We had both been living in South Korea for about six months, and for the holiday we had decided to hike to an observation deck on a mountain to see the fireworks being shot off on one of the US Army bases nearby.  The photo isn’t anything spectacular, but I realized when I saw it the other day that it marked the beginning of my exploration into photography.  I remember specifically researching techniques that I wanted to try, and they had ended up working.  I was very proud.

There are many people who know me from my pre-Korea days when I had no particular artistic inclination. What I never actually realized is that most “talents” people have, artistic or otherwise, are really skills that have been developed over time. The person who made me see this, and in turn is due credit for what is now a large part of who I am, is my friend Aaron. He recognized the tiniest spark of interest buried inside of me, an interest I myself would’ve squashed because of doubt, and he encouraged me. His encouragement was almost like permission for me to be interested in something that wasn’t a “talent” and sent me on the path I’m on today. Aaron and photography taught me that we aren’t confined by what we are today. We can continue to adapt, change, and become better and more whole people by deciding to take baby steps each and every day. Think about this the next time you put yourself or anybody else into a box because of what you perceive them to be, and good golly, encourage them. You never know how important it will be in their life.

Just for fun, here’s a more recent 4th of July photo, taken in Juneau, Alaska.

Live it Up!

Live it UP!

By Sharon Sheppard

A scary thing happened the other day.  My daughter and her two sons were at my house, and before one of them was going to leave, he said, “I wonder if it’s snowing?”

All three of them whipped out smart phones and started checking their weather apps.  Then before any of them had found an answer to the question, the younger son said, “I suppose we could look out the window.”

He walked over to the window, opened the blinds, and said, “Yep.  It’s snowing.”

It’s scary because we’ve become a culture that tends to put more stock in technology than in reality.

This is not going to be a technology-dissing essay, just a reminder to you and to myself that life is precious.  Lately I’ve been asking myself how I want to spend the rest of it.

Okay, maybe I’ll indulge in just a teeny bit of tech dissing.

David Strayer, a professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah, observed that “Through Twitter or Facebook or email, someone in your social network is contacting you in some way all of the time.”

Do I really want to spend a good share of my time checking and responding to messages? Or are there some personal relationships that could benefit from more focused, face-to-face time?

This quote might seem like stating the obvious, but Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

So my point is this: How will you and I wish we’d spent our days when we come to the end of life?  Here are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself:

  • Am I living life to the fullest? If, at the end of my time here on earth, someone were to hand me a tally of the number of hours I’d spent doing various activities, would I have some regrets?
  • Will I have spent time doing what I love?
  • Am I devoting my life to things that matter?
  • Am I living in a way that reflects my values and goals?

Admittedly, we all have to do some things we don’t love doing.  It’s one of the facts of life.  But there are things we can do to enhance our life experiences–even those that we’re not crazy about.

Here are a few suggestions I’ve gleaned from others (and am trying to put into practice) for living more mindfully and meaningfully:


Slow down!  Sharpen your 5 senses.

Take time to eat slowly, savoring the taste and texture and aroma of your food.

Treat yourself to wonderful music that lifts your spirits.

Inhale the wonders of God’s creation, savoring the magnificent sights and sounds and smells, enjoying them to the full.

Treat your body with care, eating well and relieving tension by stretching and exercising.

Treat your mind with respect, focusing on positive, wholesome, inspiring thoughts and stimulating ideas.

Practice gratitude.  It does wonders for the disposition.

Annie Dillard says, “Spend the afternoon.  You can’t take it with you.”


From the wisdom of the Bible, here are some verses that have been helpful to me:

For those times when I’ve had to do hard things, like picking out my husband’s tombstone, I’ve repeated my favorite verse:  “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.”

Philippians 4:13

And for those times when life seems difficult, like when I left the home my husband and I had shared for most of our marriage so I could be closer to my children, I kept reminding myself of these verses:  “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances…” 

I Thessalonians 5:16-18

REMEMBER:  God is good.  Life is short.  Live it fully!


Daydreaming: Cheap Fun…

Daydreaming:  Cheap Fun . . .

By Sharon Sheppard

Rustling leaves of orange, amber, and magenta scud across the walk, begging to be picked up.  I bend down and choose the most brilliant specimens: birch, boxelder, and assorted sizes and colors of maple leaves–too appealing to pass up–and bring them inside to savor.

My thoughts wander to school days when we used to gather leaves for projects, learn to identify the trees that bore them, and carefully mount them with paste on colored construction paper.  Today as I reminisce about the simple, low-tech/no-tech autumn days of long ago, I catch myself yearning for some of those homespun pleasures.

It gets dark early in October in northern Minnesota, but inside it’s cozy and warm. I’m back in the kitchen of the home where I grew up, seated with my parents and brothers at our gate-leg table.  I can smell again the fragrant aroma of hot loaves of homemade bread being pulled out of the oven of the wood range, roasted grouse my dad or one of my brothers has hunted, potatoes dug from our garden, along with string beans Mother canned last summer.  Warm pumpkin pie for dessert.  Everything is homemade.

Good-natured kidding.  Silly laughter.

Simple joys.  Homemade fun.

No extra charge for the reminiscing.

We need time to dream, time to remember, and time to reach the infinite.  Time to be.    Author Gladys Taber (1899-1980)


There’s No Place Like Home



By Sharon Sheppard


Funny how childhood homes tend to shrink after you’ve been away for a while.

The last time I visited the small house where my brothers and I grew up—years after it had been sold to a classmate of mine—on a visit to my hometown I stopped to see her bearing a plate of muffins.

When I stepped into the cozy room we used to call the breakfast nook, it was only half the size I’d remembered.  A wave of homesickness swept over me, bringing a flood of nostalgic memories–sensory details that will forever spell home:  The aroma of Mother’s homemade cinnamon rolls hot from the oven, coupled with the smell of fresh coffee.  The tangy scent of her freshly canned pin cherry jelly.

The rhythmic bounce of the tennis ball my brothers dribbled basketball-style on the living room linoleum.  Halting notes plunked out on our out-of-tune piano as I practiced for my Tuesday lesson with May Johnson.  The whine of the saw rig just outside the kitchen window, filling the crisp fall air with the fragrant smell of fresh sawdust when Dad and my brothers put up our winter’s supply of wood.

How did the six of us ever get around the table in that tiny closet of a room, I asked myself.  And the adjoining kitchen—where did we find space for a bulky wood range, a sink with a pump, cupboards, a wood box, and our gate-leg table with six chairs.  That was before Dad enclosed the back porch, allowing us to spill out into the tiny room we grandly christened the breakfast nook.

New homes in the neighborhood where I live now boast thousands of square feet of floor space and include separate rooms for crafts, exercise, and media—whole rooms dedicated to TV viewing–with humongous screens, flanked by enormous, overstuffed sofas with built-in beverage holders.

Curiously, during our growing up years I don’t think it ever occurred to any of us that our little house was crowded.  My three brothers shared the second floor—one open, not-too-large room.  They sometimes complained about a skim of ice in the water glass on the nightstand on winter mornings, and claimed they occasionally woke up to snowdrifts at the foot of their beds, though I think they exaggerated on both counts.

On the other hand, as the only girl, I slept on the living room couch where it was warmer, thanks to the barrel stove.  One evening as I undressed for bed, I backed up a bit too close to the wood-burning heater.  For the next several weeks I sported a tattoo on my bottom that read Farwell, Ozmun & Kirk—the name of the factory that manufactured the iron stove door.

Some time around my twelfth birthday my dad enclosed the back porch, and a seven-by-eight-foot portion of it became all mine, the haven of quietness and privacy I’d always craved.

Known for their hospitality, our parents, Martin and Esther Anderson, opened our home to friends and acquaintances 24 hours a day.  Nearly every day we were blessed with drop-in company for morning or afternoon coffee (or both).  There was always room for one more unexpected guest at the kitchen table.  My mother produced an endless supply of freshly-baked pies, cakes, and cookies, along with a listening, empathetic ear that wouldn’t quit.  No wonder people kept coming!

With its full component of leaves, our dining room table could accommodate a pretty good-sized crowd for Sunday dinners.  Our parents invited those who were lonely or in need of a good meal to join us for the beef roast or baked chicken that had been left in the oven on low heat while we attended church across the street.

During hard times, transients hopped off the train, and, as though guided by an underground network map pinpointing the homes of gullible townspeople, they mysteriously made a beeline for our house, where they could count on a home-cooked meal our mother gamely dished out.

Ten-year-old Judy Beggs, a more gregarious kid than most and blessed with the Beggs sense of humor, regularly dropped in at our house and most of the other homes in town.  Once my mother said to her, “I’ll bet you’ve been upstairs and downstairs in every house in town.”

“No,” Judy replied, “I’ve never been in Spillanes’ attic or Eslers’ basement.”

Though physical space was at a premium, we loved it when aunts and uncles and cousins came from Milaca or The City for the weekend.  When our Danish relatives came to visit, the house brimmed with raucous laughter, an abundance of food, and a repertoire of maudlin stories that slipped into Danish just when the plot was getting good.

Unlike modern homes, ours didn’t have a media room.  The Philco radio didn’t take up much space.  But my brothers had a well-used indoor basketball court, a.k.a. the living/dining room.  I don’t know why my mother put up with this, but the boys had permanently mounted a hoop above the door lintel (the ring off a Folger’s coffee can), and, dodging furniture, they rowdily raced from one end of the room to the other, endlessly dribbling the ball and shooting.

Long shots arced over the dining room table and sometimes ricocheted off the wall dangerously close to windows or the china closet.  More than a few zapped me as I sat at the piano, stumbling through Handel’s Largo or a Chopin prelude, trying my best to ignore the din.

One of the boys customarily doubled as sportscaster, keeping up a dramatic running account of the game for an imaginary radio listening audience.  “Anderson shoots from the center line…and …he scores!”

To distinguish one Anderson from another, Ron and Paul and Carl often adopted the names of their favorite Minneapolis Lakers heroes: George Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen, and Whitey Skoog.

One of the most appealing advantages of small town living was that you could walk to any place you’d want to go in ten minutes or less, and you’d know everybody you met along the way.

We lived two blocks from Bailey’s Grocery Store, four blocks from school, and four blocks from Pine Mountain Lake, where we fished and swam and whiled away the long and lazy days of a northern Minnesota summer.

During those simpler times, the pace was slower, the entertainment less structured.  A summer afternoon might include a barefoot walk on the railroad tracks to pick tiger lilies, a leisurely hunt for agates along the road to the beach, or a trap line check to see how many gophers we’d caught.  We could bring the gopher tails in to Backus State Bank and collect our bounty from Banker Aaron Zaffke–a dime a tail.                           Evenings we’d rustle up enough kids for a neighborhood game of Hide and Seek, Tin Can Alley, or Annie Annie Over until it was too dark to see the ball.  Afterwards we might watch the northern lights or punch holes in the lid of a Mason jar and catch enough lightning bugs to use for a night light.

Come winter, we skated, tobogganed out on Old Baldy, drove across the lake on the ice, and skied with a tow rope behind a car on icy country roads.

So when Lorraine Coon recently called to say that our old house was being torn down, memories of all those years of fun made my heart plummet.  How could they? I wondered.

Over the next few days I commiserated with my brothers by email and phone.  We reminisced about fish fries, practical jokes, Christmas Eves, and the notches hacked into the woodwork to mark our annual growth spurts.

I suppose I’d fantasized throughout the years that I could always go back to that house and nothing would have changed.  The attic would still be filled with old letters and castoff clothes.  The notches we’d carved into the woodwork by the stairway door would still be there, and I could see how tall I’d been the year I turned ten.  I could walk into the living room with its frosted glass panel above the big window and the etched scene in the window of the front door, and sit down at the upright piano and play one more song by ear.  “Love Lifted Me,” number 98 in the old brown hymnal.  I wouldn’t need the music.

The house we remembered wasn’t the one that was short on space, but the one that was long on love.  One that rang with music and laughter and wholesome fun.

As my brother Paul said, “The house might be gone, but nothing can take away our memories of the wonderful love we shared, and the godly values we learned there.”

It might be a cliché, but home, as it turns out, really is where the heart is.


Lessons From a Little Brick Schoolhouse


By Sharon Sheppard

Some might say we were educationally deprived, growing up as we did in a small town.  But just because there were only 350 of us in the whole village–most of us dirt poor–doesn’t mean we didn’t get a proper education.

These days you have to go to a fancy private school if you want small class size.  When I was growing up, all the classes were small.  My younger brother’s senior class fit into a phone booth—all 13 of them.  Not that we had any phone booths in our town.  They had to drive nine miles to Pine River to find one.  My graduating class boasted 22 members.

The town fathers knew good and well that kindergarten was a lousy investment, so, ready-or-not, we jumped right into first grade when we turned six, and most of us turned out none the worse for the wear.

I adored Miss Lyons, my first-grade teacher, but she quit mid-year to join the WACs, and in all my years of schooling that followed, no other teacher ever quite lived  up to her angelic status in my eyes.

Our little school had a motley spectrum of teachers over the years, and while small-town salaries tended not to attract the cream of the crop, we did truly have some bright and conscientious role models.  Murray Warren, my high school math and science teacher, set a terrific example.  Smart, articulate, and patient, he brought out the best in us—which for some of us was, unfortunately, none too good.

Georgie Sycks, a local boy who went away to college, came back home again to teach—all grown up and polished as could be.  He was a fine teacher, but even after he became high school principal and had all that authority, he never succeeded in shaking his old nickname:  Georgie.

Others who shall remain nameless include the eccentric English teacher, rumored to have kept a flask in the adjoining cloak room, and the unmotivated music teacher who also taught social studies and history and business and a raft of other courses he never trained for.  He often slept through class.

Also remaining nameless is the superintendent who forgot to send in the registration for our musical group after we’d qualified to compete at the state level (under the direction of the above-mentioned sleeping music teacher).

After placing at the regional vocal music contest and spending countless hours perfecting “I Heard a Forest Praying,” and after a four-hour ride from northern Minnesota to Minneapolis, our triple trio arrived at Northrup Auditorium, as excited as any of us had ever been.   This was to be our crowning fifteen minutes of fame—a chance to put Backus, Minnesota, on the map.  Dressed in our Sunday best, we’d prepared to knock the socks off those snooty University of Minnesota judges and show them that we weren’t your average small town hicks.  But we never got the chance.

Imagine our dismay when we learned that because of our superintendent’s snafu, we wouldn’t be allowed to compete.  Our fearless but disorganized leader had goofed again.  Dismay was only the first of a whole slew of emotions I won’t bring up here, some of which triggered more than a few choice words for the superintendent of schools whom we thoroughly trashed during the four-hour ride back home.  I can now empathize with the host of people who have throughout the millennia been turned away from the Pearly Gates because they didn’t have the right ticket.

I suppose there may have been a lesson to be learned from this disappointing experience, but I haven’t yet figured it out.

We had a lot of good times too, and small classes meant less competition, which, come to think of it, probably wasn’t the best motivator either.   A small school meant anybody could become a big fish in a microscopic puddle.  Any high school male could letter in all three sports. Any warm body could join the choir.  And almost anybody who cracked a book a few times could become valedictorian if she set her mind to it.

An ongoing tradition in our town dictated that the junior class trek out to “the point” on Pine Mountain Lake each spring and gather a truckload of cedar branches.   Poked into chicken wire, the boughs created a fragrant on-stage backdrop for the graduation ceremonies—a sort of Christmas-in-May effect.  It also fell to the juniors to make and suspend letters across the stage spelling out the senior class motto in front of the cedar background.

Principal Georgie Sycks provided a booklet of motto options he considered appropriate, and our class had no trouble choosing one.   It was a no-brainer.  The longest would mean the most work for the juniors.  We ended up with “Failure to hit the bull’s eye is not the fault of the target.”  A profound sentiment that inspires me to this day.

Just because we didn’t have electives or up-to-date textbooks or more than a couple hundred library books for all twelve grades was no sign we didn’t learn the basics, one way or another.  Our schooling may not have been ideal preparation for college, but it made pretty good training for real life.  Rolling with the punches, making do, resolving conflicts, pulling together, learning to enjoy homespun fun.  Those lessons have served us well for a lifetime.

No matter how far I travel in either miles or time, in my heart I’m never far from my hometown.  I’ve always been disoriented when it comes to directions, and I think I must have been gone the day Mrs. Wirt taught map reading in fifth grade.  But if I want to figure out directions, in my mind’s eye I go back to our front yard and face the school.  To my left is Pine Mountain Lake—that’s west.  To my right is the cemetery out on the edge of town—that’s east.  And the school—that’s my north star.

Memories of freshly waxed, creaking oak floors, polished wooden desks with ink wells, freshly washed blackboards and a newly starched, scratchy homemade pinafore spell the first day of school in the fall.  The aroma of cedar coupled with fragrant bouquets of lilacs and the sound of “Pomp and Circumstance” played on the school’s upright piano–these indelibly spell graduation night—my last in this humble building.

A few Backus High School graduates have gone on to earn advanced degrees–master’s and Ph.D.s.  Some became teachers, nurses, or pastors, and a few wrote books.  As for me, I went on to a state university where I majored in English (despite my being ill-prepared by my alcoholic high school English teacher’s sketchy instruction) and minored in music (drowsy, unmotivated high school music teacher notwithstanding).

Now that I’ve learned to proofread, the last time I drove by our hometown school I noticed that the L had dropped off the Backus Public Schools nameplate.  The sign gracing the front lawn now reads:  Backus Pubic Schools.

Somehow, it didn’t surprise me a bit.



My Friend, Shirt



Remembering the summer I was ten

Backus, Minnesota, Population: 350

By Sharon Sheppard


My best friend Shirt and I (her real name was Shirley) shared a lot of adventures whenever we were lucky enough to sneak away from her little sister and my little brother, which didn’t happen nearly as often as we would’ve liked. If we could get away without the little kids’ noticing, our moms said, we could have our freedom.  But if they found us, we’d be responsible for seeing that they didn’t drown or get run over.  As if there was ever enough traffic in our small town to be a problem.

If we went someplace predictable like Pine Mountain Lake to fish for perch off Rocky Dock, either Judy or Carl was sure to show up almost before we got started.  But if we sneaked off to the hazelnut patch, we could sometimes hide in the brush long enough to keep from being discovered.  At the grain elevator where my dad worked, we could sometimes duck in and out of crannies fast enough to escape kid-sitting duties.

On one of the hottest days of the summer, somebody on Main Street said it was so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.  Shirt and I decided to check it out.  The trick was to sneak back to our chicken coop and snatch an egg without getting caught, because if either Carl or Judy saw us, they’d be sure to whine to our parents.  The kids were at that awkward age where they were too little to have fun with but not too little to tattle on us.

As it turned out, we did manage to smuggle an egg.  We made kind of a mess on the sidewalk, but sure enough, the transparent part of our easy-over egg turned a little milky, proving that “hot enough to fry an egg” wasn’t just an expression.  But we already had a pretty good idea of the temperature that day because our bare feet stung from contact with the hot tar road and the sun-baked cement sidewalk.

The day Shirt learned to sing alto was a red-letter day in our books.  She discovered that if she just sang a couple of notches lower than I did, we could harmonize.  We whipped through all the hymns and choruses we could think of, trying out our new sound, then we begged to be allowed to sing a duet in church.

Our mothers sewed us matching feed sack skirts and peasant blouses, and our debut number was The Spelling Song, a perky little jingle condemning some of the shocking worldly sins of the flesh.  The parts I remember went like this:


Some folks jump up and down all night at a D-A-N-C-E,

While others go to church to show off their brand new H-A-T.

They smear their faces with great daubs of P-A-I-N-T,

And then they laugh at us because we’re S-A-V-E-D.


I’m H-A-P-P-Y to know that I’m S-A-V-E-D.

’Tis G-L-O-R-Y to know that I’m F-R- double E…


You get the idea.  It was fun to see how fast we could sing it the second and third time around.

But our singing career came to an unexpected halt the day the doctor told my parents and me that I had rheumatic fever.  Not that there had been a lot of call for a couple of ten-year-olds in matching outfits speed-singing The Spelling Song after we’d done it once.  But now with my sore throat and fever, singing was no longer an option.

Things were pretty quiet in our old Model A the day we drove home from the clinic in Pine River.  There would have been more heavy-duty crying from the back seat if I’d known I would be spending the whole next year of my life in bed.

My legs had ached for weeks—growing pains, everybody guessed—but I was more tired than a ten-year-old oughta be.  Frankly, I was glad that the doctor’s diagnosis of a heart murmur finally gave me permission to rest.  Little did I realize that I’d miss out on my whole fifth-grade year of school.

At any rate, during many of those long, boring, pre-penicillin days when I was laid up, Shirley sat on the edge of my bed and kept me company.  Sometimes as we cut out clothes for our paper dolls or assembled toy-town villages from cereal boxes, Shirt and I were so quiet my mom didn’t even remember that I had company.

Nobody had heard of home school education in those days, so a year later, when the following school term rolled around, and I was finally up on my feet, I realized I’d had a growth spurt.  There I was—the tallest kid in fifth grade—except for one kid, who had flunked a grade or two.  Not only was I taller, but I felt more mature.  Who were these short, silly kids?  I belonged with the friends I’d grown up with who were now in sixth grade.  The only good thing about it was that I was now in the same grade with Shirt, who was a year and a day younger than me.

If I had known that the railroad would soon transfer Shirt’s dad to Guthrie, I’d have been really sick all over again.  But that’s a whole other story.

After Shirt moved away, life was pretty dull.  I spent more time with my older cousin Marilie, and she shared my love for music, but life was never the same.

My dad’s brother and family lived on a farm, and they went to the same church as we did.  After Sunday services were over, we’d potluck with them.  Later, when we’d polished off Aunt Emma’s roast beef, mashed potatoes, and gravy, along with my mother’s exquisite coconut cream pie, Marilie and I excused ourselves from the table and raided the hen house for real eggs to use in our mud pies.

They had a mean old bull with horns, and he was penned into the pasture by what seemed like a flimsy barbed-wire fence.  I was terrified of the ferocious bull, and it seemed like a dumb thing for them to keep him at all, especially when he didn’t even give milk.  But when I asked why they kept him, my older boy cousins just snickered like I was a dummy.

Later in the afternoon, their whole family would take out musical instruments—banjo, accordion, mandolin, and guitars, and sometimes a harmonica, and along with my tall, gentle uncle on the violin—they made wonderful music together.  For me, it was the best part of the whole day.  They played everything from old hymns to “Turkey in the Straw,” and not a one of them could read a note.

After Uncle Alfred died, an old friend sent condolences to my dad.  In the letter he wrote, “I will never forget the last time I heard Alfred play the violin.  It was on a Sunday evening in church.  When he played “I’m a Child of the King,” I had never heard anything more beautiful!  It seemed like the angels touched the strings that night.”

Many years later, after my cousin Marilie died, her husband gave me my Uncle Alfred’s violin.  It will never sound very good under my fingers and bow—I could use some help from the angels.  But I can still hear the echo of the music made by my ear-playing Norwegian uncle, the one who was the son of a King.