Small Town Girl

I have spent so much of my life lamenting on the fact that I am still living in the same small Wisconsin town in which I was born and raised. I watched my classmates scatter in different directions, but here I stayed. I did make an attempt at flying the coop, but failed miserably, ended up back at home, and upon meeting my husband, remained firmly in place. We raised two children, bought a home in the country and proceeded to create a place of comfort and peace amid our crazy lives.

We have family here-lots of it! And they are an endless supply of support, inspiration, and just plain fun. From family campouts to holiday celebrations, birthday parties and all those times that nothing can replace.

Yet, I still wondered, what if…

Well, guess what? I am now the Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce and am beginning a beautification committee for our struggling small town. Funny how life takes us down paths we never expected.

It began with a nagging thought. “Put up or shut up!” Our little town isn’t the same charming place I remember from my childhood. Maybe I’m looking through those rosy colored glasses, but the high school band practiced in the white gazebo in the downtown park, old-fashioned lights lit the sidewalks, store fronts carried bounties of goods and the shop owners knew your name and those of your parents and grandparents. The largest fish caught that week was displayed in the cooler in front of Scully’s Sporting Goods, and the lunch counter in Jeske’s Drug had the best cherry cokes around.

Now, the gazebo is long gone, half of the park was eaten up by a newly built bank, the band doesn’t come downtown anymore because the school was moved to the outskirts. Those old stores are gone, replaced by thrift shops and those with any enterprising optimism generally do not prevail. The buildings are deteriorating rapidly and the local mill is barely hanging on. Families are struggling to feel their children and meth has invaded our midst.

Sounds soul-sucking, doesn’t it? But despite all this, there is a movement happening here. A feeling that we can’t afford to wait around for industry to find us and save the day with good paying jobs, we need to save this place ourselves. Maybe reinvent our place in the Wisconsin landscape. The city, with grants and State aid, have done what they can. Trees have been planted and the old bridge crossing our river has been replaced, sidewalks have been repaired, and decorative street lights now illuminate our streets. And one thing that excites me is that the many artisans we have here.

There is the inkling of a rebirth happening here. A rekindling of spirit and community. A feeling that this place is reestablishing itself as a small town with so much to offer. We can walk down our streets in safety, enjoy the quiet of nights under the stars, a crackling fire filling the air with the sparks and the aroma of wood smoke, picnic next to a rambling river, glide down a snowy hill and fish from a rickety shack on the ice, take to the many trails for walking, ATVing, and snowmobiling, enjoy a concert in the park, and friendship at the local pub. It’s what a small town was meant to be.

And I can’t wait to see what happens next.

 

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Tribute to a Soldier – Vernon F. Cummings

Tribute to a Soldier – Vernon F. Cummings

There is a stone set flat into the earth at Emery Cemetery east of Phillips, WI. An American flag waves alongside. Vernon F. Cummings it reads. October 7, 1919 to May 8, 1944. He was just over 24 years old.

Vernon was raised in Emery township, the son of Mr. and Mrs. James Cummings and in May of 1941 he married Marie ‘Mary’ Huml, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Huml, also of Emery.

Curly, as he was known, bravely answered the call to defend the world against the Nazi regime. His love of country and his love of family, one in the same. For a young man raised on a Wisconsin farm, the adventure the military life offered must have seemed heady indeed.

It was 1942 when he entered the Army and began his basic training in Florida. He then went on to the Armored Schools in California and Colorado before gunnery training in Nevada and Utah. With Mary at his side and their young daughter, Laverne, he completed his training at Riverside, California as a right waist gunner on a B24 Liberator.

Then in January of 1944, he left to join the fight overseas. Mary returned home to Emery to await his return and the birth of another child.

A mere two months later the Phillips Bee carried the headline, ‘Vernon Cummings Bags Nazi Plane,’ and quoted a story that had first run in the Milwaukee Sentinel. Family and friends bragged, “That’s our boy!”  Mary was so proud. The crew of the Liberator had been flying back from Berlin, on their way to England, when they encountered a column of German fighters. They were praying one minute and cussing the next, the article said. Three Nazi planes were taken out that day. Curly claimed one of them. Safely back on England’s soil one can only imagine the celebration.

Then, a short month later, the Liberator came under surprise attack. They were flying over Brunswick, getting ready to turn for the bombing run, when German fighters came from four thousand feet below and another group from above. It happened so fast the Liberator crew did not see them until they were in their faces. Curly kept them in his sights and fought for all he was worth. The firestorm was over in minutes, but the plane took nearly a hundred bullet holes ranging from baseball size to rips more than a foot long. One 20-millimeter shell tore through one side of the plane passing under Curly’s arm and out the other side within inches of another gunner. It was a miracle that not one of the crew suffered a single scratch.

Twice Curly’s bravery earned him the Air Medal for Exceptionally Meritorious Service in action over enemy territory. The mixture of fear and pride young Mary must have felt at reading of the exploits of her husband. All she wanted was for him to come home safe and sound. For the three of them to be a family. For the baby on the way to be healthy and know the love of its father.

But then, in May, only five months after he had left, his letters stopped. A seed of fear settled over the family waiting in Emery. And then the telegram came. It was from the War Department. ‘Tech Sergeant Vernon Cummings has been reported missing in action over Germany since May the eighth’ it said.

Mary was terrified at the possibility that all her hopes for his safe return would be dashed. She made phone calls and wrote letters, but no one could give her the assurance she needed. The pilot and other members of the crew, she learned, were reported as prisoners of war in Germany. Surely, he was among them. Simply missing from the list.

For three long months she waited, as did their families, and all of Emery. In that time, Mary gave birth to another daughter, Sheila. She looked into the face of that tiny girl, praying for the day she could share her with Curly.

Then in August another telegram. This one from the International Red Cross. Vernon Cummings had been killed in action. At that time, his body had not been recovered.

This could not be. Mary refused to accept the terrible news. In time, she contacted the other members of the crew searching for some evidence that he was still alive. The crew members were certain he had been killed by gunfire as they parachuted out.

What heartbreaking news that must have been. Mary would have to find her way in this life without him and she did. She eventually married again, had another daughter, and raised a step-son. But she never forgot that brave young man that took her heart soaring with him over Germany.

Love, you see, never dies. It takes on different shapes and forms and is sometimes sent to a place in our hearts that may not be seen, but is always felt. Curly never came home, but he was always there. And he was waiting when Mary joined him nearly 50 years later. Her ashes lay at the foot of his empty grave in Emery and their daughter Sheila is buried a few yards away. Cancer took her at 53. Laverne lives in Idaho and Utah but returns to her Cummings and Huml relatives when she can.

In Belgium, at the American Cemetery, 5,329 white crosses mark the sacrifices of the men and women who gave their lives during WWII. There is a cross for Curly among them. He was a true American hero and Emery is his home.

 

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Debarking the Family Tree

Have you ever searched your family tree?  I don’t mean filling in the blanks of a geneological chart.  What I’m talking about is digging into the meat and bones of those that came before you, getting beneath the names to the history.  The stories you find may surprise you.  The hardships our ancestors endured are nearly unimaginable in the society we live in now.  I can’t imagine being put on a boat to go across the ocean knowing I would never see my family again.  That’s what my great-grandmother faced.  Not so long ago, women had little choice what directions their lives would take.  What if your husband made you give up the chidren from your first marriage because he didn’t want to raise them?  I found so many harrowing tales, not just of the women, but the men as well.  These stories are what inspire me to write.  Talk to those old people in your family sitting along the sidelines at parties and weddings and reunions.  What they have to say may shock and fascinate you.  How about that uncle that served in the war, or the grandmother whose voice still carries the lilt of another country?   Talk to them…before it’s too late.

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For my Grandfather – Ladd Loula

The wooden swing soars back and forth, back and forth, as it carries me through an early summer breeze. Overhead ropes creak, squeak, against burly maple bark. White blossoms drift and dance from a nearby apple tree. The curls upon my shoulders caress my back, then my face. A robin alights from the emerald carpet below while a finch warbles from somewhere unseen. An early afternoon sun bestows warmth upon my bare arms, hands holding tight. My Mary Janes push out before me, then back in syncopation as I am carried back and forth, back and forth.

From around the corner of the log shed he comes. A wreath of pipe smoke about his head, glasses perched upon his nose. Rugged hands place wood upon a sawhorse and before he begins his work, sends me a wink and a grin. The saw begins in rhythm to my movement, back and forth, back and forth. I watch in fascination for before my eyes he is creating with his hammer and saw. The destination of his toil unknown to me, but I do not care. I continue back and forth, back and forth.

From my seat upon the stoop an autumn zephyr touches my cheeks as gray unfurls overhead. The swing under the maple moves with the wind, back and forth, back and forth. The apple tree is long bare of fruit and blossom and leaves. His sawhorse is empty, his place here is gone. A blackbird dips, then climbs, and dips again. Leaves tumble across the lawn, back and forth, back and forth.

It is as if time slows, the chill abates. The gray loses its grip on the sky and sun streams in celestial rays. The breeze releases my curls and the leaves cease to dance. A hand upon my shoulder, a kiss upon my face. No one is there…but yet he is. He is in the breeze, and the tree, and the swing, and the leaves, and the blackbird overhead. And as quickly as life stopped, it began again. Back and forth, back and forth.

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The Third Story Writers Guild

I belong to a writer’s group at our local library.  We call ourselves The Third Story Writers Guild.  We are so much more than a critique group. These people have become my mentors, my cheerleaders, my ‘what were you thinking here’ people, and my buddies.  Lately I’ve come to realize how important it is in life to have friends of a similar interest.

Living in a small town, with an hour or two to drive to any sizeable community, finding like minded people, I thought, was daunting.  Most people here are salt-of-the-earth types.  They work hard, play hard, and will give you the shirt off their backs.  It wasn’t until a local newspaper contributor, Karen Dums, founded our group, that we’ve come out to proclaim our love of writing.  Every year we add new and interesting members to fill out our family.  Many thanks to Karen and all her hard work.

Our addition to the community has been very well-received.  In fact, we gathered our courage and performed a reading one evening at a local bar.  I have to admit, I thought we’d be booed out the door.  To my delight, everyone seemed to hang on every word.  They clapped and laughed and sighed in all the right places.  It was very rewarding.

My advice-take a chance.  Form it, and they will come.  Check us out at thirdstorywritersguild.blogspot.com.

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Reconnecting

I recently reconnected with a girlfriend that I’d had since grade school.  We came up through school in different circumstances, she in Catholic school, I in public, but we were neighbors and then in the same Girl Scout troop.  I believe we were called the Daisy’s, or something cutsie like that.  We hung out in high school some, but she always had a boyfriend and I was too busy being a rebel, or actually, a little shit.  We drifted apart after high school and for many years barely saw each other.  Then, after running into her unexpectedly, and discovering a shared passion – writing – we picked up again seamlessly. We correspond weekly and see each other every chance we can.  She has become for me, that friend with whom I can share anything.  Friendship, like a fine wine, ages gracefully and with a little nurturing, opens like a rare flower.  Thanks, Barb.

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Strength

I have been forever fascinated by the sheer strength in the core of a woman.  We women have an ability to reach inside ourselves and find a fortitude we possiblty never knew resided there.  In ‘The Book of Esther’ my goal was to bring this out in each generation of the women of the Foley family.  Esther is very much a woman of the ’40’s, yet her troubles and triumphs transcend all four generations.  Helen is haunted by heartaches of the past, yet she is able to let go and salvage her life.  A bout with cancer leaves Ivy lost in a vortex of regret.  A near tragedy and the love of those around her help her to see her part in the choices life has presented.  And young Maddie, so angry at the world, uses her art to deal with the pain.  Together all of these women, in their own way, will chip away at the past to discover the truth of their family.

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Supporting the arts

My husband and I attended Jonesfest in Kennan, WI this last Saturday night.  This is the perfect example of a few making a difference for many.  The event was put together by people who simply love to perform and saw a need.  It is no secret that our rural schools here in northern Wisconsin are suffering as I’m sure rural schools are across the country.

Local bands performed in front of a cabin free of charge to a crowd of about 400 (I’m guessing), served food for a donation and sold beverages.  Several raffles took place as well.  The generosity of people was amazing as was the talent displayed.

As I sat there on my lawn chair under the stars, white lights hanging from the trees, a bonfire lighting the night from beyond, and the rousing strains of fiddles and guitars filling my ears, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect country night.

And the best part – all proceeds went to the Phillips School Districts music department.

 

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Local Tragedy

As I wrote “The Book of Esther’, where four generations of women come together to solve a family mystery, I paid special attention to the differences between those generations. Esther’s life was very different, her choices were different, than those of her granddaughter, Ivy.

This had come very much to light this week as the small town I live in suffered a tragedy. A young woman was killed by her husband. Immediately, people are thinking, how did I know her, did I know the monster she was married to, could I have done something, is there something I can do now? This is the beauty of life in a small town. The most pressing question now – who will raise her young son and what scars will he be left to bare?

Yes, times have changed, but something like this tells me that some things don’t. God speed, Dawn.

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Festival time!

I love this part of summer when the weather is perfect and there is always a festival to be found.  Today it’s Flambeau Rama in Park Falls.  Always great to run into old classmates and relatives.  And you never know what treasures I’ll find at the craft fair.  And the music!  PF always does it’s best to bring us the best.

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