Five Star Book!

Reviewed by K.C. Finn for Readers’ Favorite

The Witness Tree is a work of fiction in the women’s literature
genre penned by author Terri Morrison Kaiser. It is aimed at mature
readers, owing to the presence of some violence and moderate
sexual content. The book follows two women in the Foley family
across two generations after the discovery of human remains leads
Helen Foley to confront the decisions that her mother Esther made
to find a better life for them both. The book tells the stories of both
Esther, as she commits an act of mad desperation that forever
scars the family history, and Helen, as she is forced to confront the
truth of where her family came from and what they have done.

Author Terri Morrison Kaiser has delivered a highly engaging
literary fiction novel that features family history at the forefront of
suspense in a very uniquely crafted way. One of the most enjoyable
things about this novel was Kaiser’s ability to craft well-thought-out
and relatable characters. Both Esther and Helen are a joy to follow
and I particularly loved the story being narrated by both characters
which I felt offered a deeper insight into the past and present. The
story tells a beautiful tale that demonstrates the high and lows of
life whilst still sending an overall message of hope. The Witness
Tree is a story that will appeal to a wide audience as it has
elements of romance, mystery, and history, which are tied together
masterfully. I would not hesitate to recommend The Witness Tree to
fans of books that offer an emotional and thought-provoking
journey, and those readers looking for a vivid and imaginative

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I Can…I Think

Did you ever watch someone perform a song or read a poem, paint a picture, quilt a cozy blanket, or carve out of wood, and think ‘I could do that’. I think we all have. The artist creates or performs with such grace that it appears to be effortless, lulling us into that false sense of ‘I think I can’. Please don’t be deterred. Stepping out of our comfort zone is definitely worthwhile.

Our over-inflated opinion of what we are capable of can serve to inflate our egos quite handily until, that is, we actually try that which we think we can do. At times, we surprise ourselves with our accomplishments, and other times we gain another life lesson in humility. And who among us can’t use more life lessons? But for heavens sake, try. You never know.

I like to sing. Sometimes, I think I’m rather good at it, but every once in a while I hit a clunker of a note and my ego balloon pops like a pimple on a teenager. Sorry, that was gross. But there are so many things I like to tell myself that I can do if only I had the time to do it, the resources to make it, and the knowledge to understand how.

Once upon a time, I joined a singing group only to find that the way I sound in my car, does not rival the real deal. I could blame it on the accompanist and say she used a key too high for me, but honestly it was probably stage fright, a giant case of the nerves. Yes, that was probably it. I can sing just fine in my car or my living room, but in front of others? I could have a coronary just thinking about it. Most times, that nasty thing called fear robs of much of what we could accomplish.

I might be able to paint a pretty picture if I practice long enough. I enjoyed it in high school. Art class was the highlight of my day back then. I haven’t really tried since, other than to paint some flowers on our mailbox, which didn’t turn out too shabby. Not too long ago, I went to one of those painting parties. It was great fun and I’d love to do it again, but I found I was no Picasso, although abstract art is really not my thing. I’m more into landscapes.

Growing up, my Mom sewed a lot of our outfits. In high school I tried, truly I did, to make some of my own clothes, but my taste in pattern was questionable. The most memorable was a maxi dress with peace and love signs all over it in a plethora of colors. Good grief, I was a geek. I can only assume there was a lot of shaking of heads and rolling of eyes wherever I went.

I am pretty good in the kitchen. The smoke alarm rarely goes off these days. I can make a mean strawberry/rhubarb cream pie or a pumpkin dump cake or smothered chicken and my pork and dumplings is to die for. There’s no better way to beat stress than putting on some great music, pouring a glass of wine, and creating something yummy. But, I will say my downfall here is that I look in cookbooks and if there’s a lot of steps to a recipe, or too many ingredients, I am most likely to turn the page. I guess when it comes to it, I’m a great cook if I don’t have to work too hard.

The main thing is, we try. You never know when you may uncover hidden talents. And if you don’t, it’s really the journey that counts. Try that recipe, sing that song, paint that picture, sew a new wardrobe, just create to your hearts content. As long as we take pleasure in the process, it’s worth every second. It’s corny to say, but there’s no success without failure. And there’s nothing wrong with trial and error. That’s how we navigate through this life and find our place.

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Town brings the feeling of heart and home coming together, doesn’t it? The idea of ‘town’ makes me think of tiny, little burgs tucked in among the woods with church steeples and kids riding bikes, and old poops gathering in the local diner for coffee. And whether where you live has your heart or not, there should be a place on this planet that does. If you’re not feeling it, for heavens sake, find it.

Small towns are the backbones of this planet and what makes them are the people that inhabit them. Let’s face it, there are some quirky characters in our towns. We all know them, and they know us. You never really know on which side of quirky you stand in the eyes of others. I can think of a few as I grew up and I believe that here, we don’t discard each other as much as we might if it was easier for us all to get lost in a crowd.

When I think of my small town, I relive the push and pull of it. Growing up, I could think of no place better, but never felt it would be my forever home. I lived away for a few years and then circumstances brought me back. Still, I thought of it as a temporary situation, but it wasn’t. For a long time, I never truly appreciated small town life, but as the wisdom of, I hate to say it, age set in, I finally realized the value of here, this place, this small town.

We share a place on this planet that is small and large all at at the same time. Bring up Google Earth and you will see the tiny speck we are in relation to this huge, beautiful planet. But then, on the other hand, look at the treasures we offer those who do not want to live in a city, who do not want to raise their children among the throngs of city dwellers. There is a place for us small towners; a place to enjoy the big sky at night, see in real-time the toil of our farmers, toss in a line at the end of a work day, shoosh through the snow on a weekend, let the beauty of nature inspire us.

There are so many places we could have all landed, but we’re here. Why? Is it some divine plan within the cosmos, the simple science of ancestry, or just plainly how life worked itself out? Either way, as Dolly Parton once said, you gotta grow where you’re planted.

You know the greatest thing about a small town? The way we come together for those experiencing the things in life we hope never cross our paths. I have been at many fund raisers and benefits and have been nearly brought to tears over the way we all come together, the enthusiasm to do what we can, the generosity of our neighbors.

You may not have thought of her in awhile, but there is the case of Jayme Closs. I was no prouder to be a small town Wisconsinite than when she experienced her tragedy…and triumph. The town of Barron wrapped it’s arms around her and held on tight. And I know they will for years to come. That is not unusual in a small town.

We are struggling here in the north woods. It’s a scary time when our businesses are not employing the numbers they once were. All we can do is be a community, a small town, and hold those effected in our hearts and our minds and simply care. The stronger we are together, the harder it is to take us down!

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Ruffed Grouse, Partridge, whatever…

I hear there’s a movement started to make the Partridge, or the Ruffed Grouse, the Wisconsin State Game Bird. This would be quite a feather in the cap of Park Falls as we have the distinguished title of Ruffed Grouse Capital of the World.

First off, are they a Partridge or a Ruffed Grouse? Make up your mind, people.

Personally, I like Partridge better. It rolls off the tongue easier and hey, it reminds me of the Partridge Family. You know, the ’70’s television show with David Cassidy. David’s mug graced my teenage bedroom walls and I was sure we were destined to be together. Truly.

Okay, I know, I’ve gotten WAY off track, but I was never aware of Ruffed Grouse until our town received that lofty honor. SO, I will refer to them as Partridge.

That being said, I do not like Partridge. I will allow that they aren’t an ugly bird. They are plump and juicy for those that like to eat them. I do not. Some find their drumming in the woods to be entertaining. I do not. In fact, the sound, to me, is like that in a movie that insinuates impending doom. I will explain this later. I will admit I enjoy riding around the countryside with my husband as he is in pursuit of Partridge but I am always up for a nice ride in the country and am genuinely happy when he shoots one.

Okay, here’s the scoop. I was riding my bike on a beautiful fall afternoon. As I ventured down a hill, a line of little brown puffballs came running across the road. Baby Partridge. I thought ‘how cute’ and, in the spirit of pure kindness and love of nature, slowed to a stop to let them pass. Suddenly, out of the ditch came the Mother of all Partridge. She tried attacking my bare, delicate ankle. I screamed like a banshee and pedaled back up the hill. Lungs burning, heart pounding, I watched as the bird went to her babies and ushered them into the woods. I stayed at the top of the hill and waited, and waited.

After a time, they had to be deep into the woods by then so I flew down the hill, still a bit traumatized, but enjoying the wind in my hair and the sun on my back. Well, this is where I learned what devious, manipulative, and vicious birds they are. The bird was obviously lying in wait for me, hiding in the tall grass in the ditch, beady little eyes watching, sharpening her talons, ready for the kill.

As I passed, the Mother of all Partridge flew at the back of my head, hissing, spitting, her sharp talons trying to inflict pain and bloodshed. I remained just out of her reach and pedaled for all I was worth, screaming at the top of my lungs, heart pounding in panic. The bird chased me for about a hundred yards and then, when she felt she had me at the edge, flew off. I biked back to the house where my husband offered no sympathy whatsoever. In fact, he laughed. Yes, folks, he laughed.

So now you understand my dislike of Partridge/Ruffed Grouse. They are mean little buggers and I wish all the hunters the best of luck.

As a side note, I hit one with my car once. I know, by now you’re thinking I did it on purpose, but I didn’t. The thought did cross my mind that there was now one less in the world and I may have stifled a grin. I know, that’s not nice of me.

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As the Flowage Flows…

It happened a few years ago, another harrowing story of survival while camping, as members of my family and I lazily drifted along on our floaties. We drifted upon the waters of the Chippewa Flowage, catching some sun, sharing a laugh or two, and basking in the beauty around us. Suddenly, three of us noticed we had drifted a bit away from the rest.

Yep, we were caught in the current. The other two weren’t ensnared enough and were able to ease into the water and touch bottom. Not me. Are you surprised? Me neither. No matter how I flailed my flabby arms in the water, trying to paddle my way out of it, the current continued to carry me away. My family called after me, offering instructions, but there was nothing I could do. I waved good bye as I rounded the bend and disappeared behind the rushes. I probably should have been afraid, but I wasn’t. Sooner or later, land and I would meet once again and all would be good.

I knew there were other campers father down where the campground continued and surely they would move heaven and earth to save me. Wouldn’t they? Well, the campsites were empty of all human activity and it appeared I was completely on my own. I did think I would have seen my family coming after me by this point, but no. In their defense, they may have thought that once I rounded the bend I was able to loosen myself from the current and was hiking back through the woods.

The current continued to hold on tight, pulling me out into the middle of the channel, farther out into the water, away from land. Further the flowage, there was a culvert where a road connected the islands. I was quite certain that once I neared the culvert, I should be able to touch bottom. Of course, if I couldn’t touch and the current spit me through to the other side, that would be bad. And, if I hoisted myself off the tube to test the depth, how in the world would I get back in if I couldn’t touch? My swimming skills weren’t what they used to be, so that was a bit worrisome.

Realizing there was nothing I could do until I reached the culvert, I kicked back in my tube, pulled my straw cowboy hat over my face, crossed my ankles, arms resting on the tube, and enjoyed the ride. What else could I do?

Suddenly a thought hit me. What if this old tube I had shoved my bottom into sprung a leak? After all, it was old and now carrying the girth of someone a long way from petite. And, what if, in the murky depths below, a musky was eyeing my hind quarters for lunch. I swear I heard the theme song to ‘Jaws’ pulsing over the waves.

I was vulnerable and no amount of panic was going to fix that. And still, no family in sight. I’m not always a peach to live with, but for heaven’s sake, I really thought they liked me better than that.

Just when I had resigned myself to circling the flowage for the rest of my days, or the life of my tube, from around the far bend came my sister, Betti, in her kayak. God bless her! Upon spying me bobbing upon the waves, she doubled over and laughed so hard she couldn’t work the paddles. She still had tears of laughter running down her face when she pulled up alongside. Once she was able to get a hold of herself, I flipped over on the tube, grabbed the back of her kayak and was towed to shore like a big, old barge of cellulite.

In closing, this is one of those camping stories that doesn’t go away. Nor should it. It still makes us laugh like crazy, but was a good lesson in how fast Mother Nature can take over. Be safe out there, people. Betti can only be so many places at once!

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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

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