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Tuesday, August 26, 2014


Today, I took a trip back in time. Back 86 years to be precise. I didn't need a time machine. All I needed was a house key....and a real estate agent. With the help of those two components, I was instantly transported into another era....back to an unseen period of my ancestral family history. It turns out that the enchanting, old house that once belonged to my maternal grandmother and grandfather and lived in by them along with my own mother and her five brothers and sisters....86 years up for sale.

My grandparents....John and Cecelia Grotenrath....built the charming Tudor style home in 1928.  At the time the house was built, the area consisted mostly of fields and vast forested plots. It was an up and coming, desirable new neighborhood. Today, the house is nestled on a pleasant, tree-shaded, quiet street in a modest-income, residential neighborhood.

Over the years, I've walked by this house many times. I always wanted to take a peek inside but the opportunity never arose. The yard usually seemed well tended but we never saw any evidence that people actually lived there. Today, the house is vacant, abandoned. The elderly seller has moved away. Yet, even now, 86 years since it was built....the house remains fascinating from the outside. Red brick construction with Tudor style architecture, decorative half timbering, gracefully arched windows and a steeply pitched roof give it the look of a quaint English cottage. A colossal oak tree, planted by my grandparents, towers over the front yard.

The realtor unlocked the heavy, solid mahogany front door. The very same front door that my grandparents excitedly opened when they first crossed the threshold 86 years ago. My husband and I stepped inside. Suddenly, we found ourselves catapulted backward into the year 1928. Incredibly, the interior is almost exactly as it would have looked nearly a century ago. I could not believe my eyes! What an astonishing time warp!  After ALL these years and a multitude of was painfully obvious that very little updating, remodeling or maintenance had been done to the house. The house seemed exactly the way it might have looked when my mother and her family lived there.

Sadly, the once beautiful home is in distress and disrepair. It's literally falling apart. Decades of encrusted grime, gaping holes, peeling plaster, rotting wood, ancient plumbing and dangerous electrical wiring reveal a home in wretched demise. It has not been well cared for....perhaps not well loved. All the walls look like they had not been painted in fifty years....maybe longer. Surprisingly, the kitchen and bathrooms retain many of the original cabinets and fixtures. I shined my flashlight up toward the ceiling, behind the doors and into the corners. Even the cobwebs looked one hundred years old. It was surreal.

My grandmother had wonderful design sensibilities as did my grandfather. Together, they must have spent an extraordinary amount of time designing this house so many years ago. Amazingly the magnificent, original architectural features....chosen by my grandparents....still remain.

Gently curving cove ceilings give height to the interior rooms. Dramatic, multi-paned arched windows highlight the staircase landing. Handsome etched glass doors framed in beautiful mahogany wood, stand tall and stately throughout the entire home. Not a single glass panel was broken in any of the doors. The narrow-planked, maple wood floors glow with a golden patina from nearly a century of wear. Classic French doors lead out from the dining room to the back yard. The extra-wide mahogany staircase radiates a classic refinement with its shapely, hand-tooled spindles....not a single spindle missing or broken.  As I gazed at the lovely staircase, I noticed how the deep mahogany color had faded in sections on each step....delineating where countless footsteps had trudged up and down every day for 86 years.

In my mind's eye, I visualized my mother (who is now 93 years old) as a vivacious young girl along with her fun-loving down the stairs every morning to eat breakfast before walking the short distance to their elementary school. In the spacious living room, the original wood-burning fireplace still remains....surrounded by a simple yet gracious mantle. I envisioned the family on cold winter nights, huddled around the hearth, telling stories or listening to the radio. I pictured my young aunts and uncles playing hide and seek in the cubby-hole storage spaces that line the lower walls of the upstairs bedrooms. I imagined my grandmother's pretty dinner plates in the custom-made niches off the dining room.

This was a well-built house. Sturdy. Structurally sound. A thoughtfully planned home....with loving attention to detail and constructed with solid, top quality materials. It was hardly a mansion. Yet it was a home of distinction for the times. It even has sizable clothes closets! Back then, most ordinary homes were not outfitted with built-in closets. A needless extravagance. I'm guessing this house must have cost my grandparents a small fortune back in 1928, especially factoring in all the wonderful decorative details. They were not a rich couple. They were not flamboyant or pretentious. They were staunch and determined and always hard-working. Growing up, my grandmother led a harsh and often sorrow-filled childhood. By the time they moved into their new home, my grandfather had become a successful businessman. My feisty grandmother was 37 years old and a devoted mother of six rambunctious children. My own mother was about 7 years old. They were a boisterous, happy family living in the home of their dreams. Two years after they settled into the house, the Great Depression devastated the entire country. I recall my mother telling me that she had only two dresses to wear to school for an entire year. Her mother sewed them for her. Yet somehow, my grandparents managed to financially hold on to their beautiful home.

My mother and her siblings (my aunts and uncles) grew up in this charming house during their formative years. They attended grade school and high school in this house. They did chores together. They played together. When my mother was eight, she fell on the bank of a nearby creek and severely gashed open an artery in her arm. Blood splattered everywhere. My uncle, Len, who was with her, raced home through the fields and got help. He actually saved her life. The three sisters towel-dried dishes together in the kitchen every evening after dinner while they shared secrets and giggled over silly girl talk. This morning as I stood inside the now dingy, forlorn inner halls of the silent house, I listened carefully. But the walls were not talking.

It's sad to see the deterioration of this once lively home. I don't know how long it's been in disrepair. I'm sure many other families lived wonderful lives here also. But it's hard to fathom the dismal lack of upkeep and non-refurbishment over the decades. The reasons will remain stories forever left untold. Yet on the positive side, it's astounding and heartwarming to discover how many original features of the home have survived intact. The sense of my ancestors' presence here is resoundingly evident.

Since the house was for sale, my husband and I considered purchasing it as an investment and to preserve a piece of family history. It was about to go into foreclosure. No doubt, my grandparents are turning over in their graves! The asking price was up for bids. With the help of a designer and contractors, we figured we could rehab the house back to its original glory; updated with modern elegance and state of the art conveniences. We'd either resell it, rent it out or possibly move into it ourselves after a while. However, the decaying structure needs monumental reconstruction. New roof, all new wiring, new walls, new ceilings, new kitchen, new baths, new plumbing, central air-conditioning ductwork installed throughout, structural reinforcement and on and on. Nothing is up to code. After plunking down hard cash to buy the place, we estimated it would cost several hundred thousand dollars more to completely renovate the house to where we could feel it was safe to live in as well as be aesthetically pleasing. Basically, we would have had to update by almost an entire century. Unfortunately, the current and future market value of the existing neighborhood does not warrant anywhere near such a lavish investment. We prudently passed on the deal with no regrets. However, I am thrilled to the moon and back that I had this wondrous and unexpected opportunity to see and touch and savor a rare glimpse into my family's living history. For me, it was a fleeting but poignant, sentimental journey back almost 100 years, to my mother's childhood home.....remarkably still frozen in time.
My mother's childhood home. Photo taken 10 years ago with my son, daughter and myself.

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Thursday, June 12, 2014


I had a Mammogram today. It wasn’t the first time. It won’t be the last time. There is certainly no humor in breast cancer itself and I have no intention of making light of serious illness. Yet after undergoing this very quick procedure to screen for breast cancer, I found myself curiously visualizing the comical absurdities of the entire experience. If you've ever had a mammogram, I suspect you may have felt the same emotions.

Spoiler Alert….if you’ve never had a mammogram, PLEASE remember, I am only joking. Do not let my macabre humor dissuade you from getting this vital, life-saving test.   

Having said that…. this is a test only a man could love...but not for himself. And it's got to be a test only a man could have invented. First off….it’s downright medieval. It’s humiliating. It’s bombastic. Here’s how it works. A woman, already nervous, stressed and worried about the possible results….enters the exam area. She is told to undress and wrap her upper body in a hospital gown the size of a cocktail napkin. Launch humiliation process now.  In my case, being the robust woman that I am…..I grabbed 2 gowns… for each side. Luckily, the technician was pleasant, friendly and had a good sense of humor. 

Upon entering the testing room, you will observe an enormous steel contraption that resembles the “rack” from ye olde, gruesome, medieval torture chambers. Yes, it’s a tad off-putting but mentally go to your happy place. As the technician was working to lift and position my duo body parts on the shiny, cold metal rack/slab, I could tell she needed assistance. Suddenly, she pulled out a red whistle and blew a shrill, ear-splitting SOS call. Immediately a giant construction crane crashed into the room, operated by two hefty women in hard hats, orange vests and aviator sunglasses who looked liked they had just made a quick and dirty break from a prison work squad on the interstate. In seconds, the crane hoisted my endomorphic upper anatomy onto the slab. The giant vise machine roared into motion and cranked downward. Lower and lower and lower. I was squeezed, squished, compressed and flattened to the steel slab like an overcooked, mammary pancake. There was no escape. Then I was told:  “Hold your breath, hon.”  Photos were taken. Then more photos. Finally I was allowed to breathe again. Then the test was over. My gown was tossed back to me. The construction gals slapped me on the back, laughed raunchily and disappeared. Presumably back to their cell blocks. The technician smiled sweetly and said I was free to go.

I survived the ordeal without injury except to my pride along with occasional nightmares of construction cranes. I recommend mammograms to women because they've been proven to save countless lives. BUT for the love of God, in this uber techno, super sophisticated society, why have they not come up with a more civilized, kinder, gentler, super, pin-point accurate way to check women for breast cancer?  There has got to be a better, less sadistic way. Would a man EVER subject himself to a similar test for prostate cancer? I submit the answer is: Never! 

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Friday, May 9, 2014



As the mother of two grown children, I often wish I had lived in the moment more often when my kids were little, cherubic and carefree.  I wish I had invested more of my busy time in their play time and foolish childhood pleasures than always trying to keep them busy....always worrying about them, making sure they didn't get hurt and trying to turn them into responsible adults---perhaps way too early. Like many harried, working moms, I allowed time to slip away. I was distracted, stressed and I sometimes forgot to balance life, to seize the innocent childhood moments of my own children. Many more times I should have tossed my bulging briefcase aside and plopped down beside my kids and taken precious time to listen to them and to laugh out loud at their wildly precocious juvenile antics, their priceless utterances out of the mouths of babe and their sweet, childhood wonderment.

Luckily for my husband and me...and perhaps without our slightest assistance.... our two children have evolved into amazing, wonderful, beautiful, accomplished adults with children of their own.  And there it is....our saving grace.  Our chance for a do over.  Our grandchildren. We have been reprieved from a life of "if only".  Every chance we get, we plop down with our grands and savor every juicy moment with them.

It's Mother's Day this Sunday and I can't help but compare my own, now very elderly mother to my sweet, adorable grandkids. With severe short term memory loss, my 93 year old mom cannot remember much of anything....except anecdotes from decades ago. Yet I can carry on delicious, long, happy conversations with her even now. Nearly all of her current everyday life exists "in the moment"  which she can't remember 5 minutes after the fact. But it's still a beautiful thing because she has forgotten any past sorrows or heartaches or unhappiness. Her memory has selectively erased all the negative cacophony in her life. She appreciates even the slightest kindness and gets excited as a child when we tell her about an upcoming fun event.  Of course, she won't remember. But when the event happens....she's just as thrilled as the first time she heard about it. Everything is "new" to her.

Living in the myself, my mother was not always able to enjoy that blissful luxury of being open and mindful and carefree all that much when she was raising six rambunctious children in the era before microwaves. But now she resides "in the moment" all the time. When you think about it.....not a bad way to spend the day.  Happy Mother's Day to all the imperfect mothers out there. Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, April 13, 2014


A spring stroll along Lake Michigan. It's April and it's still bone-chilling cold! But the snow has melted along the wide, soft, sandy beach and there's not another soul in sight. We have the entire shore to ourselves. Out in the big blue water, it appears as if hundreds of small islands have popped up over the winter. Closer inspection reveals they are not islands at all. They are icebergs! During the wild and wicked winter of of the coldest winters on record....all of the five great lakes froze 95 percent over. Now the ice pack is breaking up and forming millions of iceberg colonies which accumulate along the shoreline. "Spring break" takes on a whole new meaning along this chilly beach coastline.

The icebergs are gritty and sharp edged. They have broken off from massive hulks of the frozen lake. The Lake Michigan bergs are not in as pristine condition as their ancient arctic iceberg counterparts. Some of the lake icebergs retain their white frosty color but many of them are encrusted with brown sand as they scrape the bottom of the lake near the shoreline. They resemble the jagged tops of volcanoes jutting up from the lake depths. Still, it's mesmerizing to watch as the mammoth blobs of ice gracefully bob up and down in the big lake waters like giant polar bears doing a back float.

My companion and I are fascinated. Bundled up in warm winter parkas, sporting gloves and scarves, we stand on the deserted beach and gaze out into the lake at this incredible spring phenomenon. The icebergs stretch as far as the eye can see. Suddenly a thick fog slides across the cove. We are shrouded in an eerie mist. We can barely see each other. Then the fog passes as quickly as it came and a sliver of sunlight glints through the clouds. In another few months, throngs of sunbathers will be relaxing on this very beach. But for's just us and the icebergs.

The large masses in background are not islands. They're icebergs out in L. Michigan.
Shrouded in fog.

Finally thawing out. Nearly all of L. Michigan froze during winter 2014.
View from above. Those are not giant rocks. They are icebergs.

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