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About gretcheno

I grew up at the top of a 90ft. cliff, in Washington state, within sight of eagles, whales, Mt. Baker, and Canada. I quickly learned that I don't have one artistic bone in my body...except when it comes to words. I learned that I can make people smile with my writing. Finally, at age 41, with years spent in Oregon, Berlin, Germany, and now Minnesota, I'm ready for more than just my family and friends to read my words.

Live Music is Even Better than My Deck

So what do you do when you’re sitting out on the deck enjoying a lovely evening and suddenly you realize that the Worthington Area Symphony Orchestra concert starts in 17 minutes and you live at least 15 minutes away?

You jump up, shout, “The Concert!” Yell for your daughters to change their clothes, grab your purse, and step on the gas.

We were late. We missed the Star Spangled Banner entirely and we had to listen to Finlandia through the doors. But then we snuck in during the applause, found some seats on the side, and settled down in time for the fantastic performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor which I have loved all my life.

Even through the doors I thought that the orchestra sounded better than I’ve ever heard them, and sitting there in our seats, listening to Joan Mork playing such marvelous piano music along with the orchestra in full form, I was enthralled.

I don’t have a drop of Scandinavian blood in me (that I’m aware of) but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy the Scandinavian-themed concert. (Perhaps my Scottish blood counts for a sort of northern European connection?) I have always loved Grieg and used to imagine trolls tromping around banging things with wooden clubs as I listened to In the Hall of the Mountain King on CBC Radio – the Canadian Broadcasting Company station that was the only station my parents listened to (other than tuning in to Paul Harvey over lunchtime) back on Orcas Island.
That classical station enabled me to pass an entire year of music in college without ever having to crack open the cassettes that came with the textbook. (Cassettes! How old am I, anyway?!)

My parents made sure that, even in such a small town, my classical music education was complete. The Seattle Symphony used to come up to Orcas Island once a year and perform in the school gym. They would set up right there on the floor of the gym – over 100 members of the symphony orchestra with harps, kettle drums, a gong (all the things that kids found so very cool) – and it was amazing and inspiriting to sit and listen to them, even in uncomfortable folding chairs. I remember they played Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume and beat of the music, played just a few feet away from me. I love that piece of music to this day.

It is my hope that my daughters will remember Grieg with such fondness.

Truly, I believe that the Worthington Area Symphony Orchestra sounded fantastic. I love live music and hearing the entire 50+ member orchestra fill the auditorium with such marvelous music was the perfect way to spend the evening.

Even better than sitting out on my deck.

Winding Down…and Gearing Up

My youngest daughter just blew me a kiss as she got out of the car for school. Does it get any better than that?

It’s been a good school year for our three kids and now it’s winding down. The MCA tests have all been taken. The field trips are planned. The spelling lists have been completed.

It’s a good thing, because the school lunch account is on zero. And my son’s school shoes got ripped on barbed wire when he was playing capture the flag in the back yard. Not to mention the fact that all of his jeans are wearing out.

Our youngest daughter is on her third pair of shoelaces this year and this pair doesn’t even match her pink and turquoise worn-out tennies. Her clothes are all either too small or too big and she’s ready to live in t-shirts, skirts and flip flops.

Our middle daughter – always the overlooked child, right? – needed a new backpack a month or two ago and thinks that a day is spoiled if she can’t sleep in until at least 9:00am.

Yes, we’re all ready for a break. But, of course, while one thing is winding down the next thing is gearing up. We have a whole list of summer activities.

We’ve got two kids heading to band practice, two kids off to Camp Invention, and all three to Bible camp. Then there’s Family Camp, Summer Reading programs at the Library for our youngest and, oh yes, I almost forgot – backpacking on the North Shore for certain members of the family.

All of this doesn’t leave much time for, well, summer! But it’s all good, right? At least there isn’t homework each night and waking up at 6:15 every morning. We can actually sleep until 7:00!

Back when I was a kid my summer planned activities were limited to Library Reading Hour and swimming lessons. Which I failed. (Learning to swim in algae-infested waters wasn’t my cup of tea.) I remember spending hours on the beach collecting crabs and skinning my knees, and sleeping every night on the deck beneath the stars.

I wonder, sometimes, if my kids have the freedom that I had. If they’re getting to experience the care-free, unscheduled, laid-back summers that I had every year.

The truth is, they’re not. And yet there are so many things I DON’T sign them up for! They could be scheduled from dawn until dusk – and later – every day. But I don’t believe that’s wise. I want them to get up in the morning, yes – and not sleep until noon – but I want them to have time to dig holes in the dirt. To hunt for frogs. To take walks to the lake and sleep in a tent. To read books out on the deck and sip iced tea and pick cherry tomatoes from starts they helped me to plant.

I want them to be kids. After all, my oldest begins high school this fall and he doesn’t have much time left before he’ll want a job and a car and college applications.

So for now, for this summer at least, we’ll play. Time enough to be serious in the future.

Humbled by Awareness

There are moments in our lives which stand out as light bulb moments. Moments where, in an instant, we are not the same people we were when we last breathed in. I had one such moment today, sitting at my favorite table at BenLees, writing a story for an upcoming special edition of The Daily Globe.

The story is about a man – a gentle, sincere spirit – who moved to Worthington from Mexico. This is not an unusual story in Worthington. There are hundreds of similar stories to be found here on the prairie, miles away from the homes of their birth, the land of their blood, their hearts.

But it is this story which has captured my attention. It is this story which has made me realize how blessed I am to have been born a US Citizen, to have grown up in a normal, middle class family, expecting as my right that things would go well with me. That I would grow up to have a job, a husband, children, a cozy home and food on my table. Never having to fear retaliation for my beliefs – political, religious, or philosophical – because here in America we can say what we want, stand up for whatever we choose without fear, firmly believing that the United States Constitution is on our side.

I am under no delusions that life is perfect in the US. That injustice never happens or truth is never suppressed. Nor am I saying that every American grows up to have an ideal life or that, if they don’t have what I have, they are somehow less fortunate. I’m just saying that, for me, my life is pretty darn good and I really can’t complain about anything because – other than growing up to be a famous opera singer, which never did happen – I pretty much have the life I always dreamed of. (Well, I’d like to be a published author without all the bother of being one. One always needs a dream, right?)

What I am saying is that I have taken for granted the assumptions I grew up with, that I hold still. I have taken them for granted because they have been fulfilled. And yet there are people all around me who have worked their whole lives to reach the place I was born to, the rights that are inherent in my birth. This does not make me special or them somehow less than me. Heaven forbid!

On the contrary, it makes them rather amazing in my eyes. Amazing for their perseverance. For their dedication to their goals. I am where I am because I was born to it. They are where they are because they’ve worked their butts off to get here.

I’m embarrassed that I have been so unappreciative for so long.

Their stories are all around us. There is often a huge gulf between “people like me” and “people like them” but there doesn’t have to be. Knowing a person’s story brings understanding and, hopefully, a bridging of that gulf. Knowing a person’s story opens our eyes. Knowing a person’s story takes our focus off of our self-centered selves and places it where it belongs – on others. And then, hopefully, we can figure out where and if we fit into their stories.

I am, truly, overwhelmed. I’ve traveled a lot in my life. Seen a lot of countries, both third world and first. But it’s the story of this man – my neighbor, so to speak – that has opened my eyes.

I am so thankful.

Children Shine On Stage With the Missoula Children’s Theater

One year ago, my daughter did something which she had never been able to do before. We’d wanted to do it before…but something always got in the way – like vacation, or busyness…or my memory.

But then, last January, she finally was able to try out and was in the Missoula Children’s Theater’s production of Hansel and Gretel.

This year, she did it again, playing the role of Martha in MCT’s The Secret Garden here in Worthington at the Memorial Auditorium.

I cannot adequately explain how great this experience is for the kids!
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Here’s how it works, for those unfamiliar. Two staff members with MCT lead the production. They travel to different towns – both small and large – to put on these “residency weeks”. The interested kids show up on Monday after school. (Or, as in the case this year in Worthington, on Tuesday because on that Monday all schools across Minnesota were closed due to the extreme cold.) The kids audition and after a short dinner break, they begin rehearsals.

They continue to rehearse every day after school until 8:15 each night.

Then, on Friday and Saturday, they perform. (This year locally they only had one performance, on Saturday, again due to the lack of that Monday’s rehearsal time.)

Canadian Geese...complete with a Canadian vocabulary, eh?

Canadian Geese…complete with a Canadian vocabulary, eh?

The team comes complete with costumes, easy to manipulate and attractive sets, and all the scripts and teaching necessary for the kids to be successful. What emerges is a wonderful performance – funny, age-appropriate, cute-as-all-get-out. Kids from kindergarten through 12th grade are eligible.

It is a fabulous opportunity for kids to gain confidence through inter-personal skills, public speaking skills, and yes, even acting skills! It also gives them experience in theater and even in independence, giving each child a little shove towards self-discipline and self-awareness. They are encouraged through their team work and their personal achievements.

What garden is complete without flowers?

What garden is complete without flowers?

In a town our size, I think that pretty much everyone who auditions gets a part (in fact, they had to cut a few roles this year because there weren’t enough children), but that’s not always the case. However, auditions in and of themselves – even without success at the end – are learning experiences and can be good opportunities in learning how to handle disappointment. Kids need to learn that life doesn’t always give them what they want. The MCT website offers a little wisdom on how to handle the disappointment of a failed audition.

Sheep, foxes, squirrels, and, of course, a robin.

Sheep, foxes, squirrels, and, of course, a robin.

The Missoula Children’s Theater began the early 70’s. It is an international organization. They have around 75 people listed as Tour Staff, meaning that there are approximately 40 teams that travel around, winter and summer.

The Missoula Children’s Theater’s mission statement is,”The development of life skills in children through participation in the performing arts.”

They go on to say this: “MCT…strives to use participation in the performing arts as a vehicle to develop the life skills (social skills, communication skills, self-discipline, a strong work ethic, an understanding of the team concept and self-esteem) necessary to answer the challenges of our time.”

In other words, whatever the skill-level of your child – whether used to performing or compete novices – they can and will grow through the MTC experience.

The humans in The Secret Garden.

The humans in The Secret Garden.

As a parent, it is a thrill to see five intense days culminate in a splendid performance. I encourage everyone, with or without kids in the cast, to attend the show at the end of the week – it’s a great way to encourage the young children of your acquaintance and to spend 60 or so minutes enjoying the fun of a live performance – complete with the happy unexpected joys of children on stage!

Many thanks to Missoula Children’s Theater for their recent visit to Worthington!

Born for the stage!

Born for the stage!

Sherlock: Masterpiece Mystery’s Masterpiece

I love to read. No shock there to anyone who knows me. Yet somehow, in all my years of reading, I have never gotten around to reading anything by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Shame on me.

Even though I have never read any Holmes books, I am, like pretty much every other person in the English-speaking world, familiar with his stories. I have watched a few movies – including the newest version starring the Ironman himself, Robert Downey, Jr.

But it’s not that franchise that has inspired me today. It’s the version, simply titled Sherlock, starring Khan (of Star Trek Into Darkness fame), aka, Benedict Cumberbatch, that is currently in its third season, Sunday nights on Masterpiece Mystery on PBS.

Oy, Vey, how did I not know about this series prior to a month or so ago?

Back in early December, while ushering at the Downton Abbey premier in Worthington, Minnesota, I was talking to Les Heen, the General Manager at Pioneer Public Broadcasting. I hope he doesn’t mind me indirectly quoting him when I say that he asked me if I watched Sherlock. In fact, he mentioned the series twice.

I looked at him blankly. But I remembered that he’d asked because I felt, somehow, like I was missing out on something I really ought to know about.

Then, a couple of weeks later, low and behold, Sherlock showed up on PBS as they replayed season two in preparation for the next season, which began on January 19th. I saw it in the lineup and thought, “Oh, what the heck, I’ll record it.”

I put it on the next evening. My husband came home halfway through and sat down to watch as well.

We were hooked.

Within days, thanks to Netflix, we had watched all existent episodes and then watched some of them again as they came on TV. That’s the kind of show this is: the kind you can watch again and again because you see hidden things that you didn’t catch the first time.

What is it about this show? How is it that Khan and Bilbo make such a wonderful team? (Martin Freeman, the inestimable Bilbo of The Hobbit, plays Dr. Watson. Ironically, Cumberbatch is the voice of Smaug the dragon of the same movie – fun to think of Bilbo and Smaug being friends.)

The two of them play off each other superbly. You are irritated with Sherlock as Watson is irritated onscreen. You love him when he smiles ironically and shows those rare moments of caring. You love Watson, too, because he’s so sincere and vulnerable. You cringe when Moriarty scores a point and you flinch when Sherlock blunders along in his interpersonal relationships even as you smile when he floors you with his deductions.

It is, in short, a marvelous show. Intelligent, funny, and clever, it holds your attention and leaves you thirsting for more. And, I must say, part of its charm is that both my husband and I can watch and enjoy it equally together. There aren’t a whole lot of shows that can claim that.

And now, I really need to rectify a long-held wrong and go read the books. Because any books that have survived this long in history must be fabulous.

But first I need to make sure that my DVR is set to record the one remaining episode. Because my life will not be complete if I forget.

All That I Remember of my Grandparents

The dirt road, coming up from our beach on Orcas Island.  There was an old orchard at the end of the road.  Yum!  I'm the smallest one, holding my grandma's hand.

The dirt road, coming up from our beach on Orcas Island. There was an old orchard at the end of the road. Yum! I’m the smallest one, holding my grandma’s hand.

My mom’s parents lived up the road from us when I was young. I remember very little about them, as Grandpa died a day or two after my 4th birthday and Grandma later that summer.

I remember that Grandpa kept candy in his desk drawer. I remember that they both liked picnics on the beach. I remember their car.

I remember watching Davy Crocket on The Wonderful World of Disney one Sunday night when Grandma, my sister and I were all home sick and weren’t able to go to church that evening. My sister and I must have been sent to stay with Grandma while Mom and Dad were gone. We ate popcorn as we watched.

I remember finding a piece of driftwood on the beach that looked like a duck and giving it to Grandma because she loved ducks. She was pleased. I remember that.

And I remember being in the car on a trip – in my memory we were in Oregon, but I’m not really sure that we were – and I was bored out of my skull. Grandma, my sister and I were all in the back seat and Mom and Dad were in the front. I was grouchy and I called my sister a dumb dumb.

And I got in trouble from Mom.

I was silent for a moment. And then I began to sing. Quietly.

“Dum, dum, dum, dum,” I sang. “Dum, dum, dum…”

I got a little louder.

“Dum, Dum, Dum!”

I thought I was being so clever.

Until Mom turned around and said, “I told you not to use that word. You are not to call your sister a dumb dumb.”

And Grandma said, “Oh, she’s not calling names. She’s just singing.”

I looked down at my lap. Tears pricked my eyes and waves of guilt washed over me.

Because I wasn’t just singing. I was calling my sister a dumb dumb in song.

Mom knew.

Grandma probably knew, too.

She smiled at me. Patted my leg. And I stopped singing.

And that’s what I remember of my Grandma.
g-ma beach

Frasers

“Hang it All!”

I recently finished reading a book. It was a good book, well-written, kept me interested all the way through. But then I got to the last page. Only I didn’t realize it was the last page. I was reading on my Kindle and so there was no thickness of the remaining pages to clue me in. I knew from the “% read” at the bottom of the screen that I was nearly done. Knew too, that there was no Glossary or Tolkien-esque appendix that took up half of the book, but I assumed, as I pressed the “Next Page” button, that there would be an epilogue if not a short final chapter.

I read to the end of the page. I turned to the next. And the book was done. And I did what I have never done before. I shouted,

“You jerk!”

as if the author could hear me.

I am a person who likes her loose ends tied up. As a writer I keep a list of loose ends that I must not forget about. As a reader I do this too, only they’re mental lists and not separate files on my computer.

Loose ends Drive Me Bananas. And the loose ends in this book I read were HUGE.

I suppose you’re all dying to know what the book was. I debated telling you or not, but I guess I will because I’m not saying she is a bad writer, or that I disliked the book…I just HATED being left hanging!

I know, I know: it’s a writer’s prerogative. She or he can do whatever they like and if they like leaving their readers unfulfilled, well, fine. They have a right. For whatever reason, she wanted to leave the reader wondering, pondering, considering her book as we drive down the road to pick our children up from school. She wanted us to think. She wanted us to have lively discussions at book club – which I know we will! She wanted us to blog about it.

And so I say to Ann Patchett, author of State of Wonder, yes, you’ve made me think. You’ve made me consider Easter’s fate and the narrator’s future and the crotchety doctor’s wishes as I wash the dishes and fold the clothes and do other things that I’m too proper to write about.

And you’re driving me nuts.

So my question for you all is this: do you like loose ends that make you think? Or do you wish that all authors would tie their loose ends up in pretty bows that don’t stress you out and cause you to call them names when you reach the last page and discover THE END written in nasty, bold letters?

As my children like to ask, “Which would you rather?”

Curious Creatures, Cats

As the life of outdoor cats go, our two cats have it pretty good. Very good, I’d even venture to say. But in these frigid days, we’ve worried that they’re warm enough in their fully insulated, electrically-padded Kitty Chalet, complete with heated water bowl and food two times a day.

In case you’re wondering, they are. We know because their ears, nose and toes are cuddly-warm when they deign to wander out, proving that even in negative 22 degrees, outdoor cats can survive just fine as long as they have a Kitty Chalet to protect them.

The cozy warm Kitty Chalet is still second best to inside.

They, of course, beg to differ.

“Let me come in. Gotta get in. I mean now. You terrible person. You don’t understand how badly I need this. NOW. IN. ME. Did I mention now?”

They sit by the deck door and look in – sometimes even voicing their complaints – for minutes on end until it’s too cold to beg any longer and they then turn their backs on us and stalk away or we feel guilty and open the door just enough for them to shove in quickly before we shut their tails in the door in our hurry to keep the arctic air away.

They then stretch, possibly rub against their food box, often attempt to sharpen their claws on the carpet, and then run away as fast as they can to avoid the dreaded holding and petting and being loved scenario.

Once we catch them – sometimes a two-person job – they wiggle (even as they are purring) to be let down to wander the forbidden universe of our house.

After about three seconds of struggling, they get a resigned look in their eyes. As if they are thinking, “Fine, I’ll do my duty as a living blanket, but only for as long as I want to do so. You aren’t forcing me a moment longer. I mean it!”

Sometimes they consent to fall asleep in our laps. Always they consent to at least a good neck rub. But then, if something bothers them or distracts them, in an instant it’s, “Let me out. Gotta get out. Why did you bring me in? I hate in. Out. That’s where it is. LET ME OUT. Cold-Schmold! I want. To. Go. Out!”

And so we release them into the freezing universe beyond the glass door and they turn to look at us like, “What am I doing out here? You betrayed me! I allowed you to pet me and I get this?! All I wanted was to run around your house unmolested! Is that so much to ask? Well is it? Meow?”

Finicky creatures, cats. Why do we put up with them?

Because when they do consent to fall asleep on our laps, or lick our fingers with their sandpaper tongues, it’s pretty great.

Especially in this frigid weather.

My LGB Train of Happiness

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What is it about toy trains that triggers our smiling muscles? Is it their disarming little chug, chug, chug as they circle around the track beneath the Christmas tree? Or is it their tiny whistle (or not so tiny in some cases) that echoes the steam engines of the past? Or is it just that humans like anything in miniature?

I lived in West Berlin, Germany, for my last two years of high school and I came home from school one day to discover that my dad had bought a wonderful “Lehmann Gross Bahn” toy train! The “Lehmann Large Train” is the largest gauge toy train that I’ve ever seen, though admittedly I am no expert on such things. During their four years in Germany, Dad added to the train each year until he had six cars and many other add-ons such as a Gandy Dancer, gates that rise and fall when the train approaches and passes by, street lights, a signal bridge, people, trees, and even a typical notice pillar (which I can’t remember the German name of) – a common sight around Berlin which lends a small-town atmosphere to the sprawling city.
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In the 25 years since I graduated and moved back to the states, the train stayed with my parents for a few years and with my sister (who had young boys) for quite a few more. But now it has come home to me! In three large “Max Marotzke” boxes (and one smaller one holding nothing but track), the train arrived. Max Marotzke was the name of the moving company that moved Mom and Dad from Berlin to Connecticut…well, Pan Am shipped them – in their own sweet time – but that’s another story!

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My sister sent the first box way back in March and my kids very much enjoyed discovering all the hidden treasures beneath all those Styrofoam peanuts! Then, this past summer, when we were out in Washington, my husband packed the rest of the train stuff and the day after we arrived home the US postal service delivered it to our door.

Now, finally, after all that waiting, the boxes are open and we’re setting up the train! It is easy enough to put together the track and set the train on top of it – even I can do that – but woe betide my children if they didn’t have their dad to make it go, light up the lights and make the engine steam. I am no engineer, but he, thankfully, is. For real. (Yet another reason this English major married a mechanically-minded man.)

The train station needs a little model glue...

The train station needs a little model glue…

And so, thanks to my husband, my father, my sister, and Max Marotzke, the train circles our tree as well as the entire living room here in Southwest Minnesota – thousands of miles and 25 years after it first circled our tree in West Berlin.

(Talk about the passage of time and miles – what about the passage of political tyrannies? I returned to a united Berlin a few years ago – what a joy it was to see the unified city as it was meant to be!)

Yes, there are many reasons that this toy train makes me smile. But the best reason of all is the newest reason – my three kids, engrossed by the circling engine as it chugs into their lives as it once chug, chug, chugged into mine.

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Plastic Fish Head Cozies for Christmas?

I’m sitting in my favorite coffee shop – Benlee’s – and basking in the Christmas glory of about a dozen Christmas trees of various sizes, carols playing, and Highlander Grogg in my coffee cup. A fire blazes in the hearth and I am forced to admit something to myself. Something that I have secretly known for a long time but have never said out loud before…

I am not good at choosing Christmas gifts.

Finding the perfect items for my immediate family is not too difficult, though it’s funny how some years are easier for certain people. I’m doing pretty well for my husband this year, for example, whereas in other years I’ve been pulling out my hair by this point in Santa-induced frustration. The kids, too, are usually not too hard to figure out…though my pocketbook may beg to differ.

But consider this: THE BROTHERS-IN-LAW. Oy, vey, how I have failed them!

I try. I try all year long. Come January, I’m on the lookout for The Perfect Gift – for my sisters and their husbands, my dad, my mom, my nieces and nephews and their kids. (Yes, I’m a great-aunt. Makes me sound like I wear horned-rimmed spectacles and scold the neighborhood children every time they roll a ball into my pristine yard. “You hoodlums!” she said, shaking her fist. “Leave my flowers alone! Now get over here and help me rescue my cat from the tree.”)

Part of the problem, of course, is that with adults, you’re dealing with people who can go out and buy whatever the heck they want at any time of the year so they’re not sitting around, writing hopeful wish-lists and posting them to the North Pole.

This means you are forced to be creative. Or very smart. Or to shop on Black Friday. (NO STINKIN’ WAY.) Or to spend vast amounts of money. Problem: my self-imposed Christmas budget-per-person is approximately the same as it was during the Bush Administration. The first George.

So I try being creative, because when it comes to gifts, I simply am not smart.

Exhibit A: A few years back, I found myself, come this time of year, pondering my brother-in-law who lives on Orcas Island, WA. “He’s an out-doors-ish kind of guy,” I thought. “He goes hunting and camps out when he hunts. Doesn’t he…?”

So, taking my vast knowledge of him to the L.L.Bean website, I began to shop. “This thing? Too expensive. That thing? I think he has one. This? Hmmm…well…maybe!” And so Charley got a lantern for Christmas that year. Now, lest you applaud me, allow me to describe said lantern: it was eight inches tall, black, decorated with a moose, and held a tea light candle as its entire light-source.

Charley, bless his heart, has a sense of humor. I don’t THINK he said, “What am I supposed to do with this?” but he probably thought it. I responded to his unsaid thought like this: “Well, everyone needs a light when camping, right?” Charley [tentatively]: “Yes…” Me [always the optimist]: “Well, now you have a nice new one!” Charley [looking skeptical]: “But it’s too small to help much.” Me [looking on the bright side]: “Yes, but it’s so romantic!”

Charley burst into laughter. It lasted quite a long time.

Exhibit B: The year I gave him open-mouthed fish cozies for his beer cans. I think he actually uses those…at least my sister tells me he does.

I’m not even going to tell you what I’m getting him this year. Mostly because I don’t know yet.

Merry shopping, everyone!!

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