Thursday, December 28, 2023

It's a wrap

In a nutshell, 2023 was six months of desperation followed by two months of sweat and exhaustion, ending with wondering what day it was and trying to exorcise the demons that demanded I be frantically busy from morning to night.

The new year started by doubling down on cleaning out Mom’s house (hereafter known as The House), following her passing in late 2022. I didn’t have an end game in sight beyond a vague notion of a sale at some point. I literally couldn’t think beyond the immediate need to sort through the accumulation of six decades that filled each room. And the garages, barn, chicken house, granary and machine shed. They say nothing will make you a minimalist faster than having to clean out your parents’ house. They are right.


Also, the ancient furnace at The House went out. Multiple times. My immersion into being an absentee landlord (even for a vacant house) was not a kind and gentle one. I had the local plumbing and heating service on speed dial. January involved a lot of coffee.


 And there was a tornado in Iowa County. A freaking tornado in January. Guess who took this photo? It was not me. I was in the basement with the dogs, like any good NWS-trained storm spotter who is not interested in doing an intercept on her back porch, which was exactly where that thing was headed until it had the good sense to lift about a mile southwest of our house. It was rated an EF0 or EF1 but still managed to tear up some neighbors’ trees and buildings and flip a semi on Interstate 80.


 February was a 28-day repeat of January, including the coffee and furnace issues at The House but minus the tornado. 


In March, Banner threw up a nail. I have no idea why he ate a nail in the first place. It is further proof this dog would survive the zombie apocalypse. He would eat the zombies before they ate him.



March brought another round of wild weather, with a severe thunderstorm that did a number on our trees and farm buildings. The storm also left a spectacular display of mammatus clouds in its wake. This delighted me because until then, I’d only seen mammatus while watching reruns of “Storm Chasers.” 


 Things started to get a little twitchy with my job in the spring. The shine had gone off the new publisher’s promises to make everything sparkly and golden in my ragged little newspaper kingdom. Opinions were voiced. Things were said. I was handed a fifth paper to run, in addition to the four I was already struggling to keep afloat as the sole full-time editor/reporter/photographer and chief mugwump. 


April was a blur. I went to dog shows and kept cleaning out The House. I also made a Big Decision.


May brought a trip to USASA nationals, a delightful escape from reality, confirming my decision to follow the meme and build a life I didn’t need to escape from.


I came home from nationals and quit my job. I’d been running the papers solo since 2019, with a few dedicated stringers who kept me from totally losing my mind but it was clear the corporate cavalry was never going to send reinforcements. I was burned out, stressed out, up to my eyeballs in dealing with The House and my parents’ farm, being executor for Mom’s estate and acting as care advocate for my aunt in a care center. I was living on iced coffee and Mt. Dew. This was not a sustainable life plan.


I smiled as I walked out of the office for the last time. No regrets. Zero ducks to give.


 Summer was a whirlwind of cleaning and decisions at The House. What to keep? What to sell? What is this worth? What IS this? 


I brought home a few special pieces and let the rest go. One of the best discoveries was this flower garden quilt, hand-pieced by my grandma Hanson, who died before I was born.


One of the more memorable achievements of The House’s clean-out was orchestrating the move of a walnut blanket chest handmade by my grandfather down the suicide stairs from the second floor. The Farmer said it wouldn’t fit. I said it would. The chest was 27 inches wide. The staircase was 27.5 inches wide. I was careful not to point out who was right because I needed the person who was wrong to help move the thing. The move was accomplished without getting 911 involved and both the Farmer and my bro-in-law are still speaking to me.


The end was in sight. We hauled over a ton of junk to the landfill. Wonderful friends helped me box and price what remained. So. Many. Boxes. I may have developed an unnatural inclination to fondle boxes while whispering, "My precious."

They also helped carry things down from the second floor and no one took a header down the stairs, which is saying quite a bit. A Sawzall was involved in order to get a few things out. I am not kidding. Seriously. I continued to be grateful we'd come this far without getting a trauma center involved and was confident I was marching toward victory in the battle of Woman vs. House.


 In spite of the prep for the estate sale dominating nearly every aspect of my life through the summer, I stuck with my goal of training with Raider in two new places each week from May 1 through Sept. 1. I cannot emphasize how effectively this knocked my rose-colored “He’s perfect at home so he knows how to do it, right?” glasses right off my face. We worked through rabbits in the Conroy Park, squirrels in the Williamsburg Park and ghosts at the Homestead Church Museum. Raid thinks this chunk of sidewalk in Williamsburg belongs to him. It has his name on it and everything. 


 In August, my folks' estate sale was blessed with decent weather, fantastic turn-out and tons of help from incredible friends. And if I never have to do another one, it will be too soon.


By Sept. 1, The House was listed with a realtor. I celebrated another trip around the sun with a homemade chocolate cake. It was extra good because I put it on my grandma’s antique cut glass cake stand. 


Autumn arrived and Raider and I enjoyed more trials. He was good and he was bad and he got some ribbons and pieces of paper that claim he Knows Things. He is the best Chaos Goblin ever.


(Photo by Pix 'N Pages)

In November, I signed the final papers, passing The House to a new owner. The relief was palpable and bittersweet.  


So now I’m sitting here as the old year fades, relieved that a lot of really hard things are behind me and thankful for the friends (and dogs and coffee) who helped me put them there. I’m not sure what retirement is supposed to feel like but I can appreciate the deadlines I live by now are of my own creation. And I’m getting a little better at doing nothing some days and being happily exhausted from it.


(Photo by Kathy Davidson)

Wishing you all the very best in the coming year.

Friday, December 15, 2023

So long, farewell

I signed the papers to sell Mom and Dad’s house a few weeks ago. This closed a 15-month saga that involved a serious relationship with the Louisa County solid waste department, my first (and last) estate sale and an education about deeds, abstracts, surveyors, realtors, subdivision regulations and the county board of supervisors, not to mention prospective buyers who made absurd offers as if they did not understand the concept of math. 

My grandmother, Laurel Hanson, at The House

The House (yes, uppercase, it was a law unto itself and deserving of being a proper noun) and farm in southeast Iowa were home to three generations of my family, starting with my grandparents, John E. and Laurel (Gaskell) Hanson, who settled there in the 1930s.


John and Laurel Hanson, my grandparents.
If I were a better family historian, I'd be able to
provide a date but am guessing it was taken in the 1950s.

Signing the final paperwork to sell the newly surveyed acreage (house and farm outbuildings) was bittersweet. Even though I hadn’t lived there for 40 years and the place had given me more gray hair in the last year than any of my dogs and The Farmer combined, it was hard to accept that every signature on every document made it that much closer to no longer being mine.

The House fell squarely on my shoulders after mom’s death. Her sister, who had lived with her since my father died, had moved to a care center and the place was sitting empty (figuratively speaking), never a healthy situation for houses in the country. If anything was to be done with the family farmstead, I was going to have to do the doing. 


From October of 2022 through late summer of this year, I spent most weekends making the 200-mile round trip to The House to clean and sort and pitch. It was an odyssey of garbage bags and WTF discoveries and childhood memories.


Mom was a saver and not a terribly organized one. I’ll just leave it at that. I’d find cash stashed in boxes filled with yellowed recipe clippings and 10-year-old receipts for Casey’s pizza. This meant every dusty box, envelope and file folder had to be sifted through, lest I toss Ulysses S. Grant and Ben Franklin out with the bathwater.


My dad, Frank Hanson, before his service in the Korean War


We’re not going to talk about Mom's will, which I may or may not have thrown out. There WAS a will. I found multiple copies, all carefully stamped COPY in red ink. Where the original dwelt remains a mystery for the ages. It was not in any of the appropriate places where one might put one’s will—like on file at the lawyer’s office or a safe deposit box in the bank. Mom’s sister swore it was in an envelope on the kitchen counter.


This was not helpful intelligence.


However, since there were about 5,000 other assorted items piled in teetering stacks on the kitchen counter, I’m sure it was perfectly safe there. No one would have ever found it, including me. By the time I’d started sorting through the archaeological dig that was the kitchen, I’d already stumbled across a box of cash totaling $4,973 in small bills so I was wise to my mother’s proclivities. I threw out nothing without examining it closely first.


Nonetheless, the will remained AWOL.


I admit to harboring uncharitable thoughts about how much easier my life would be if a natural disaster were to reduce The House to ash or rubble. Through the spring and summer of 2023, I held my breath every time a tornado warning was issued for Louisa County. At first, I prayed a nice, short track EF5 would decimate the whole place and turn it into little more than an insurance claim and a phone call to a guy with a bulldozer. As the summer progressed, my thoughts changed to pure panic whenever severe weather rolled through. I was terrified that was exactly what would happen and all my dusty weekend hours of filling trash bags would be for naught.


Spring - 1980s; we never sprayed for dandelions.
The bees must have been so happy.

In the end, The House withstood everything Mother Nature threw at it, just like it had for the last 100+ years. The Farmer and I finished cleaning it and outbuildings, held an estate sale, then hired the services of an estate buyer who waved his magic wand and made everything that didn’t sell, vanish. Including the garbage. Seriously. He was marvelous. I could have hugged him if it hadn’t been August and I was sweating like a water buffalo. By that point I was close to losing my ever-loving sh*t if I had to deal with another box of 1960s kitchenware or the hulk of some antique whatchamacallit that threatened to dissolve into rust if we had to move it one more time. 


I met the new owner for exactly 45 minutes at the closing. He was genuinely delighted with the property and even though I think his pleasure was geared more to the barn and outbuildings than The House, his  obvious joy made it easier to hand over the keys. I signed the last document and shook his hand, suddenly wanting to tell him about the bee tree in the north corner of the grove behind the barn and how I used to sit near it and listen to bees humming merrily away and if I was brave enough to get close, I could see the combs, dripping honey deep in the trunk. I wondered if it was still there. How long do bees stay in one place?


And how there used to be a row of red cedar trees lining the driveway until straight-line winds (it was a derecho before anyone knew what derechos were) in June of 1998 dropped a couple of them on The House and my parents had them all cut down.


And how the original pocket doors from the first floor were still out in the granary, their fanciful Victorian hardware rusting away, a victim of the energy crisis in the 1970s, when The House’s high ceilings were lowered and the pocket doors removed.


Pocket door hardware. The House had
doorknobs and hinges to match.


And how the second floor bedroom, the one painted Pepto Bismol pink, was mine—my eyrie at the top of The House where I spent endless hours lost in books, only slightly disappointed my parents would not allow me to have a television in my room although my friends thought this was the height of neglect.


And that the draft horse harnesses used by my Grandpa Hanson were still hanging in the loft of the century-old barn with its pegged mortise and tenon joints.


And about all the time I spent in that barn, looking for nests of kittens in the spring.


And the endless parade of wildlife that routinely marches across the lawn between The House and the adjacent field on its way to and from the business of wild creatures in the river bottoms—deer, wild turkeys, pheasants, raccoons, skunks, possums and the occasional fox and coyote.


And the front porch, with its curlicue millwork, where my mom used to sit and watch while I trained my 4-H project dogs on the lawn on summer evenings.


And all the fruit trees (apple, cherry, apricot and persimmon), the asparagus and strawberry beds and rhubarb patch that my parents used to cultivate.


And how the kitchen smell of melted wax when I blew out the candles on my birthday cakes—homemade angel food with Mom’s sticky white frosting—and of tart, sweet fruit and sugar when she and Dad made jam in the summers.


The House

And about the 25+ black walnut trees that still are, thanks to my Grandma Hanson’s love of walnuts. (The guy didn’t look stupid. He’ll figure that out in a hurry.)


And the scent of a fresh cut river bottom cedar tree filling The House at Christmas.


And the suicide stairs to the second floor. Okay, they're the only stairs to the second floor. You got used to them.


And why there is a plaster bust of Native American Chief Keomah sitting in front of the attic door because if you don’t prop the door open when you go inside, it swings shut and even though it doesn’t latch, believe me, when you are 13 years old and already reading too much Steven King and the attic door closes of its own accord, you learn not to take chances. (Chief Keomah’s plaster likeness was a showmanship prize at a dog show back in the 1970s. I hope the new owner appreciates his door stop abilities.)


But in the end, I didn’t say any of it because these were my memories to treasure and didn’t need to be shared with strangers. The new owners will make their own and if any of them overlap, then I hope the discoveries bring them as much happiness as I found there.


The House, autumn 2023


Saturday, December 2, 2023

My grandmother’s reluctant contribution to World War II

The farm in southeast Iowa where I grew up had an old Victorian house with bullseye woodwork and stained glass and a big red barn with a running horse weathervane and glass lightning rod balls on the roof's ridgeline. It had sheds, corncribs and three chicken coops (a small brooder house for chicks, a bigger coop for laying hens and/or broilers and a third coop, for chicken overflow, I suppose). There were fruit trees (sour cherry, apple, apricot, pear, white peach and persimmon). There were strawberry, rhubarb and asparagus beds and a huge garden space, all the product of generations of a family who took self-sufficiency seriously.

And there were a lot of walnut trees. An approximate sh*t ton of walnut trees. That’s more than a crap load, in case you’re wondering. I never questioned why there were so many. They were just a fact of life. In the fall, I had to help pick up the fallen nuts because you could turn your ankle trying to walk on them. 


Also, you do not want to know what happens when you hit the fallen nuts with a riding lawn mower. The result is akin to a chainsaw slasher movie, only instead of blood, everything within a 20-foot vicinity is splattered with ink-like walnut juice. If that happens to be the outbuilding you spent part of your summer scraping, priming and painting (white, of course), it’s all the more horrifying.

The fruit trees, Dutch elms, red cedars and catalpa trees at my parents' farm
fell victim to severe thunderstorms, ice storms, age and disease over the years.
But the walnut trees? They're gonna live forever.


As a child, I helped (read: child labor under protest) my dad gather and run the walnuts through a hand-cranked corn sheller to remove the hulls and then they were dried, cracked and the nut meats picked out. After that, my mom proceeded to ruin years of perfectly good baked goods by putting black walnuts in everything. Once I learned to bake, I made it clear there would be no nuts in anything I made. I stand by that rule today. Walnuts have their place and it is NOT in chocolate chip cookies or brownies or quick bread or cake.


This summer, while cleaning out mom and dad's house, I decided to count the walnut trees for kicks. I quit when I got to 25 because I didn’t have the ambition to go stomping around in the grove behind the barn. So 25 is an approximation. There might be more. Or I might have counted the same one more than once, lost in a flashback of walnut gathering trauma . . . err . . . memories.


My dad’s sister, Aunt Joyce, recently shared the following story of the Hanson family walnut trees, my grandmother, Laurel, and how she nearly declared war on the U.S. Government as a result of them. 


Laurel (Gaskell) Hanson
I love this picture - it looks like she's ready to head off
on an adventure (not involving walnuts).

These are my aunt's words (mildly edited by yours truly – cuz old editors never die, they just keep rewriting the text):


By Joyce Hanson Richter Sorensen


I can’t think of more patriotic Americans during World War II than my mother—Laurel—and Aunt Myrtle and Aunt Olive (Editor: Laurel, Myrtle and Olive were sisters). They followed the rules/regulations of rationing and did all they could to support the war effort by darning socks, making feed sack material dresses, saving all metals and fats and repairing everything they could. Aunt Olive worked at the Rock Island (Illinois) arsenal making ammunition. 


And yet I well remember the one time their patriotism was put to a strong test. The three Gaskell women were in an uproar.


America was not at all prepared to go to war when the attack on Pearl Harbor forced it upon us. Our nation scrambled to find ways to provide the war materials and objects that were needed. One of the things needed were lots of guns, of all types, for our servicemen.


Our government turned to its people for help. One thing that was needed was a good strong, sturdy wood to use for the gun stocks of the M1 Garand rifle the infantry used. The wood they wanted was from a walnut tree and there was a lot of it in the pastures and forests of the Midwest. So the government sent out buyers to obtain all the walnut wood they could.


Now the problem was Mom and her sisters always collected the walnuts from those trees in the fall. They would pick them up by the bushels-full to use. They are a very hard-shelled nut about the size of a silver dollar, and when they grew, they had a thick, approximately one-half inch green soft husk covering the shell.


We would go as a family in the fall after the first hard freeze, when they fell, and pick them up. The folks (Editor: my grandparents, John and Laurel (Gaskell) Hanson) always knew which trees in their pasture and the neighbors’ produced the biggest and best nuts and we picked up lots—like 80 or 90 bushels of them. (Editor: That also qualifies as a sh*t ton, in case you were wondering.)

John and Laurel (Gaskell) Hanson

They were then spread out on the roof of several sheds and the chicken house to dry. The outer green husk would eventually turn dry and then we would put them through the old hand-crank corn sheller to take this off. You couldn’t take the green husk off until dry as it had a brown liquid that would stain your skin brown for several days.


Then the nuts were stored out of the ways of varmints and after the field work was done in the fall, it became a family project to get the nut meats out of the nut. They had a very hard shell and it took a hammer to crack them, so Dad would bring a big old heavy iron anvil onto our enclosed back porch and he or one of the boys would crack them. Then Mom and the rest of us kids would sit and pick out the nut meat. Not a hard job but very boring.

I have a picture of the Hanson clan sitting around the kitchen table cracking walnuts but do you think I can find it? So enjoy this one instead: back row, from left, John N., Rosemary, Frank (my dad); front row, David, Laurel, John E. and Joyce.


However, it was to the benefit of us all, as not only did Mom use them in cooking and nothing is better than cookies with black walnuts in them (Editor: clearly, this is not a genetic preference), but she also sold the bigger pieces and the money obtained always went toward Christmas presents for us kids. People in town would call and get their names on the list for nuts.


But then the government man came around and wanted to buy all the walnut trees over a certain size in the area. I think they would pay $10 a tree and that was good money in those days. But not the way my mom and her sisters saw it. They were willing to sell some of the trees but not all as they wanted the nuts for themselves. The government didn’t see it that way. They wanted the trees. End of discussion. 


The women got pretty hot about it. Aunt Olive went to the Government War Office in Muscatine to protest. My peaceful, quiet mom wrote a letter to the War Office. All to no avail. They came and cut down most of the walnut trees in the area. And so, the ones that were left were either a stunted tree or had some defect. Those trees produced some nut but not many. And those trees were watched like hawks in the fall with signs up that kept “nut robbers” away.


However, there were other nuts we gathered in the fall, like hickory nuts, and they were in big demand. Aunt Olive was great in the woods and she located some places where the folks could go get them. Also, several years, they went down to where Uncle Charles lived south of us on the Iowa/Missouri border where there were some walnut trees he would scout for them. But that was a problem as it took gas to get down there.


Mom decided at that time that they were never going to be without walnut trees again, so she planted several bucketsful of nuts so they would grow into trees for her. She planted them all along the lane to get to the field on the other side of the railroad tracks. She would dig a hole, place a nut and them cover it up and put a small piece of wood over it so the squirrels wouldn’t dig it up. She wanted her walnut trees!


When some came up, she would water them in dry times. Unfortunately, she died before any of the trees got much more than several feet high. 


Laurel Hanson, quilting

Those trees drove Frank, my brother, (Editor: my father) nuts. Literally. He purchased the farm after Mom’s death and Dad had moved to town—but Frank inherited lots and lots of walnuts. And they had lots and lots of nuts, which created some problems. His wife, Marie (Editor: my mom) would rake up piles of them to get them off the lawn and driveway and they would take them across the road and dump them into the pasture.


How Frank hated them, and those trees again got cut, but not for money or gun stocks this time. I know Aunt Myrtle also planted trees in their pasture. Believe me, it did no good to mention to those women that their walnut sacrifice was helping win the war. It was just a subject that wasn’t discussed.


(Editor: so it remains a family mystery, if my father cut the things down after he bought the farm from my grandparents, where did the 25 +/- current walnut trees came from? Some could have been planted by industrious and forgetful squirrels but there remains a line of them along the farm lane stretching out to the fields. Perhaps re-growth from trees that were cut but stumps not pulled? Clearly my grandmother was serious about always having walnuts at her disposal!)