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This is Emma and Rudolf, close to their wedding day.

I only know Emma in flashes. In the first flash she stands with the man she loves, my great-grandfather Rudolf. She is persuading her parents to overlook his less than aristocratic birth, to see instead what she sees—a man with a fine mind and a drive to succeed. She wins that battle, though her family never really forgives her for taking Rudolf’s name, leaving her “von” behind her.

In the next flash she stands on a rough pier in Bremen, enormously pregnant, clutching her toddler daughter’s hand, keeping an eye on her energetic son as he runs back and forth, shouting, “Wir gehen nach Amerika! Wir gehen nach Amerika!” Rudolf stands with her, holding their tickets. He has $3,000 dollars in his pocket along with the Kuypchinski’s address. The Kuypchinskis are their destination in Wisconsin, the bit of home they will find waiting for them in America.

I see her next in bed in one of the Kaiser Wilhelm II’s cabins, dreadfully seasick, and in labor. The ship rolls in a storm, back and forth, back and forth. She heaves, and pushes, heaves, and pushes. At last she gives birth to a tiny daughter, Alitor.

Emma spends the remainder of the voyage in the bed, Alitor beside her, and small Meta in a basket on the floor. She tries to keep a hand on Meta’s basket, but seasickness and birth have weakened her, and the basket slips from her fingers and slides across the cabin when the ship rolls one way. It slides back to her when the ship rolls the other. Emma keeps grabbing for the basket, and losing her grip, and watching her daughter sail away from her, only to return, time after time.

I see Emma next in her house. Snow lies deep and pristine all around. Branches snap and crack in the cold. Emma’s mother-in-law Anna sits on the porch, holding Alitor wrapped in shawls and blankets. It is Wisconsin, and midwinter, and that night Alitor begins to cough. In a flash and an eternity, baby Alitor is gone. Emma’s arms are empty.

Emma (left) Bill (second from right) and cousins, I believe.

In the flashes, Emma is never center stage—she is the woman at the stove, a gentle presence at the heart of a family whirlwind. Her eight surviving children grow strong and musical. They start a band, and travel the area, providing dance music at house parties. They court, and marry. The family thrives.

That’s what’s important to Emma: family. Emma and Rudolf’s farm becomes a safe haven for more and more of her family. They set off from Klein Morin in Posen, journey to that pier in Bremen, cross the Atlantic, pass through Ellis Island and New York, then venture home to Emma in Wisconsin. They stay until they have enough English and money to navigate in America, then buy their own farms close by, or, in the case of the daughters, become farm wives or maids for wealthy families.

Emma, front and center, with her children behind her.

And still Emma is there, in her house at the farm. She is there the night the house catches fire. The family wakes and flees the blaze searing their backs and heels. Morning finds them with the clothes on their backs and a box of pictures—all they salvaged from the fire.

Rudolf, their sons, their friends, and their scattered family rally around to rebuild. And still the family in the Old Country keeps on coming. When Emma’s first child after Alitor, her son Wilhelm, marries, he brings his wife Gladys to the farm. His first two babies are born in the new birthing room just off Emma’s kitchen. It feels very modern and convenient, does that birthing room—purpose built with cupboards for all of the linens and paraphernalia birth requires, and close to the stove for hot water.

When Bill’s family moves into their own home a few miles away Emma misses her grandchildren terribly and woos them with gingersnaps with they come home to the farm each Sunday for chicken dinner and baseball. It all feels very American.

When Bill has a truck accident the children come back to the farm to live, while Bill’s wife goes to work in a furniture factory to pay their mortgage. Emma feeds the children, and her youngest sons—still little more than boys themselves–drive the children to school each day in their Model A’s and play with them when they aren’t working with Rudolf on the farm. Her oldest daughter Meta takes a shine to Bill’s oldest daughter. And so the farm becomes home to her children’s children.

Emma, with two of her daughters

Those are good days for Emma, at the center of the family from Posen, and the family from her body. And then one day Rudolf goes to bed, sick with some mysterious malady. The doctor says he can smell the cancer on Rudolf. Maybe he can. Rudolf lies in the birthing room just off the kitchen, dying in the bed where his grandchildren were born. He becomes convinced that Emma is trying to poison him, and refuses to eat. His grandchildren stand in the birthing room door and throw shoes at him until Emma makes them stop.

Emma and Rudolf, in their driveway

When he dies Emma goes on keeping house for her youngest sons, the two designated to stay home and care for her in her old age. Bill’s children grow up. Her granddaughter, my mother, moves across America with her own husband and young daughter, to start again. And then, amid her dwindling family, Emma herself begins to slip away.

It’s little things at first: A burned pot of potatoes, laundry left wet in the basket rather than hung on the line. The gingersnap jar stands empty. The vorgarten–the flowers she loved and planted on the gentle slope between her new house and the road–lies indifferently watered and poorly weeded. It gets worse. Emma, for whom home and family has always been everything, forgets them. While her sons work the family farm she begins to wander. Her sons seek her out when she goes voyaging alone and confused on roads and paths that have become foreign to her. They find her clothing first, and then Emma herself, naked, lost, seeking the home and children she can no longer find.

https://magicdogpress.wordpress.com/2021/01/10/emmas-family/
Emma, with two of Bill’s grandchildren.

Emma, who has been the center of the family, swings in increasingly irregular orbits. She cannot hold, and so they put her away. It’s called the County Home. Emma’s grandchildren call it the Poor Farm. It’s where families put people like Emma in those days before nursing homes. It’s where the county also houses the orphans, the indigent, and everybody else who no longer comfortably fits in the world.

And there Emma stays. Alone. My mother says they didn’t visit her because “she wouldn’t have wanted us to see her like that.” Maybe she’s right. I know my mother loved her—she wept bitterly when Emma died three months after I was born. At least the people at the County Home probably kept Emma clothed, inside, off the roads and out of the Wisconsin winter. But even now, nearly sixty years after my birth and her death, I think of her, spending her last days in a strange place, amid strange people, strange sounds, strange food, and strange smells, far from home and family. I wish it could have been different.

I never knew Emma, but the world she built lives on for decades after her death. The year I turn ten the whole family meets at the farm for a picnic and baseball. Dinner is an enormous cauldron of what Emma’s family call “barbecue” but most people call “sloppy Joes.” Emma’s daughters cook the barbecue over a fire outside the back door of Emma’s kitchen that green, humid summer day. We, Emma’s family, fill the farm to bursting, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren running, laughing, arguing, and eating. Women wear light summer dresses. The men wear plaid shirts and khakis, or bib overalls. One or two bold sons-in-law wear bermuda shorts. The air is filled with German and English, spoken in rich Wisconsin dialect.

The last flash comes one winter’s day. I am young and lost, and far from home. Somehow I find myself back to the farm. I sit in Emma’s kitchen with Great Uncle Fred, who has custody of the pictures rescued from the fire long ago. Thin winter sun pours over us, and over the pictures Uncle Fred has spread on the old formica table. His thick brown farmer’s fingers gently slide the pictures around as he tells me stories and laughs gently. Across the kitchen stands Emma’s stove, not far from the birthing room door. The winter house smells sharp, like cedar and damp wool. The sun warms my head, though icy air swirls around our ankles. At last I understand that though Emma and I only shared the world for a few short months,  I have found my family right where Emma left it for me.

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These are not my legs, nor are the legs in the approved Potty Dance stance, nor are these my shoes. About the only thing this illustration has going for it is that it looks awkward and funny, and the legs don’t look hairy. Don’t judge. I’ll put in a nice car farther down, and maybe a bike.

So I’ve fallen down–or up–stairs three times in the last month. This has had me concerned. I mean, I’m falling down more often than my mother does, but then she’s a remarkably fit 84. Actually she runs circles around me on a regular basis. So anyhow, falling down and worrying. This has had me thinking. And then tonight, as I was limping across my office and standing timidly at the top of the stairs, worrying about my descent, I suddenly realized that I was falling not because I was getting old–is 59 old these days?–but because my body is inattentive to bodily things until conditions have reached DefCon 1.

If you’re a classy sort who doesn’t discuss body stuff in mixed company, you’ll want to stop here, because I’m about to tell you about the Potty Dance. I’ll wait a minute.

Okay, they’re gone. On with the story. I learned the Potty Dance in early childhood. I executed it frequently because, my body’s pee meter wasn’t a gauge, which measures slowly increasing pressure, but more of an idiot light, which, like the little oil lamp in my car, only comes on when it’s far, far too late. This system does not work well, and never has.

As a small child I provided a lot of entertainment for my siblings and their friends, who took delight in trying to make me laugh when they could see I was performing the Potty Dance, a sort of Drunkard’s Path path executed with thighs pressed tightly together and legs scissoring in a sort of circular motion–all of this performed with what I must confess was an absolutely transparent air of casual ease–I was just staggering toward the bathroom this way because I wanted to. There is still a story enshrined in family history about the time I staggered into the bathroom door at my mom’s friend’s house, nearly knocking her lovely full-length mirror to the floor.

Here’s the bike I promised you, because I always keep my word. Also because I love this guy, with his big nose and his clodhoppers and his fat-tired bike, freewheeling through life. I would never dare to do this. Again, this has nothing to do with the subject matter, but who cares? I’m feeling rebellious. Who says stories and illustrations have to match? Not me! At least not today. It’s a guy on a bike.

When I was a teenager I worked on a ranch. Much of my time was spent in fields where men might come driving up in pickups at any moment. Having to strip in the field (bib overalls were my garments of choice in those days) for a quick whiz was risky business. So how did I cope, you ask? Did I go to the bathroom in the outhouse down by the grain elevator at the river?

I did not. The outhouse was there for the convenience of the truckers, true, but none of us ever used it. This was because we had robust senses of humor. We found it hilarious to pelt the outhouse–which was metal–with rocks if anybody went inside. For some reason there was an outside latch on the door. Rumor had it that some newby had gone into the outhouse one time, and a trucker had locked him in. And then everyone stood around and pointed and laughed as the newby huddled inside, mortified. So–no outhouse for me.

Instead, I developed a bladder that could have doubled for a blacksmith’s bellows. I mean, that thing had muscles on its muscles. Halfway through my first summer driving harvest I realized that I was going all day–that’s twelve to fourteen hours, for those of you who have never drive a harvest truck–without a potty break. Nor was I performing the Potty Dance. How did this happen? I don’t know. I just know that during the summers I developed muscles everywhere, even where nobody ever thought to look.

Ah, if only that happy state of affairs had continued. I had a baby. I had my lady parts removed a few years ago. And suddenly here I am, performing the Potty Dance regularly again. It still provokes amusement. Now it is my son who takes pleasure in my complicated and gyrations as I stagger to the bathroom.

And now my feet are getting temperamental, going along for months, carrying me everywhere without an issue. And then one morning I’ll swing them to the floor, stand up, and fall back on the bed because it hurts too much to stand. My feet will have cracked in the night. Imagine, if you will, trying to stagger through the Potty Dance when your feet insist that yes, you can and should levitate.

But there’s another complication, this one psychological rather than physical. Like all new mothers, I was faced with the complication of having to wrap, feed, and carry my child using my hands and arms. I got very good at juggling a baby, a diaper bag, a baby seat, various bags of groceries, and sometimes a cat.

In those days, I learned to load myself up on trips between the car and the house. Otherwise I would have been toting groceries all day. I’ve never really broken the habit. When I can’t skive off completely and rush into the house while Patrick and whoever is riding with us at the time bring in the groceries–Potty Dance!–I Do My Part. I load myself up with boxes of soda, jugs of milk, occasionally the eggs when I’m feeling very brave, the bread, vegetables–you get the idea.

So picture me a couple weeks ago, loading myself up with groceries and juggling a large cup of ice water and a Strawberry Mist Frost as well–a Strawberry Mist Frost from which I had only taken two small sips. I got two steps from the car and the idiot light went on. I Assumed the Position–thighs clamped to the knees, lower legs swinging out to clear the gravel and leaves lying beside the driveway. I made it to the two little steps leading up into our pergola, stared at them doubtfully, took an enormous risk, and unclamped my thighs just enough to lift my foot onto the bottom step. I knew instantly that had been a mistake, but I still had another step to go and then the walk to yet more steps unless I wanted to spend the night under the wisteria bush. I grimly lifted my other foot, resigned to the knowledge that I would be changing my trousers in just a few minutes.

And then I navigated the walkway, doing a flamboyant, twisting rendition of the Potty Dance, tacking back and forth across the walkway like a sailboat in a strong wind. The sole mercy was that The Boy had preceded me into the house so there were no witnesses. I made it to the steps. My arms ached. I took a better grip on my Strawberry Mist Frost and my water cup, hoisted the grocery bags, and attempted the first step. I got my foot up on it, but I was off balance. I lifted my other foot quickly to the second step–always a mistake when one is performing the Potty Dance. I made it again, but there was another step, and now I was really off-balance. I lifted the first foot quickly to the porch, then took a couple little running steps, thinking, as I always do at times like this, that if I could just catch up with myself I’d be okay. I don’t know why I believe this because never has that ever worked. I did, however, realize suddenly that that idiot light had gone on for a reason, and it would shortly be going off again, whether I made it to the bathroom or not. I didn’t have a lot of time to think about this because by now I was seriously falling. I was close enough to the door that I smacked it with my forehead–hard enough to break the door jamb and pop it open, but not so close that my head couldn’t continue its journey to bounce on the concrete porch.

I landed on top of my Strawberry Mist Frost and my cup of ice water. I also bruised a lot of vegetables. The Boy appeared to see my lying flat on my belly, cursing into the concrete as the Strawberry Mist Frost soaked through my coat. “You need help, Mom?” he asked, because he really is a good and kind person.

“No, I’m fine,” I said even though idiot lights were going off all over my body at that point. It is part of my Code that I must get myself back to my feet On My Own at times like this. Having help would be taking unfair advantage. I got myself down there; now I have to get myself back up. Don’t look for logic in this–there is none. I clawed my way back upright, limped inside, and continued to the bathroom without needing to perform a single step of the Potty Dance, if you take my meaning.

So that was one fall. The falls before that had resulted from a simple arithmetic error: I went down a flight of six steps, but only planned on five. It could happen to anybody, I tell myself. And then tonight I stood up from my desk, only to realize my feet had developed cracks like the Grand Canyon, but had kept that information for a little surprise. I winced and rolled up on my heels–the cracks run across the balls of my feet–only to have the idiot light come on.

I hobbled to the steps, doing a strange truncated version of the Potty Dance. I stood at the top for a long time. And then I slowly, slowly descended, sideways, one step at a time, bracing myself on the wall. And I made it. I’m learning. I’m learning to think in terms of time since my last visit to the bathroom, rather than expecting my bladder to alert me that perhaps I should start planning a trip. I’m learning to accept my son’s arm when I go up and down the outside steps. I’m learning to stop loading myself up like a pack mule when there are groceries to bring in. Making a second trip is not a mortal sin.

And I’m learning to laugh at myself when this happens, even though it feels shameful and humiliating. I’m learning that changing my trousers in the middle of the day is not the end of the world. Well, it kind of is right now, since our dryer’s on the fritz, but I digress. Mostly, I’m just letting my idiot light and my poor feet remind me that I’m traveling through life with somewhat temperamental equipment, and if some things don’t work as well as they once did, other things work a lot better. I’m learning that it’s okay to be human.

And here’s the car, like I also promised. Here’s hoping I’m not feeling as rebellious tomorrow. I really do like it when my stories and pictures match…

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Do you have a COVID-19 story? You should send it our way. To read more COVID-19 stories check out Corona City: Voices from an Epicenter on Amazon, or visit the Corona City Online Supplement.

In the beginning, I could almost understand people thinking the virus was being over-blown. After all, I grew up in a family where admitting pain was called “being dramatic.” And so it was that I bled all over the floor of Grain Growers Co-op in Hermiston because my toe, which had been crushed in a car door, netted me parts trips. I had to drive with my left foot and keep my crushed and bleeding toe up on the seat, cushioned on a towel, because to suggest that perhaps active medical intervention might be warranted would have been “being dramatic.” 

This fall, when I came down with a cough, diarrhea, messed up breathing passages, and so forth, I almost didn’t get tested because entertaining the possibility I might have COVID-19 felt like “being dramatic.” And then I thought of my son, the young man who rents a room from us, the local pastor I’ve been working with on administering a grant, and my university students, who were undergoing daily health screenings, isolation, and a scrubbing routine before and after classes. 

I realized that I was going to have to bite the bullet and just be dramatic, as much as it embarrassed me. I got tested. I went into quarantine. I taught my classes via Teams. It turned out I was indeed “being dramatic”–my test came back negative. You know what, though? I was still pretty darned miserable. Just because this wasn’t Covid-19 (and thank goodness it wasn’t) taking those steps quite likely spared some or all of my students a nasty bout with the flu just as they were heading into Finals week. 

Covid-19 has sharpened our awareness of communicable disease, and rightly so. For everyone like me, who finds themselves wondering if they should be tested or not, choose to be dramatic. You might need to stay isolated for a few days (you will, actually). You might worry that you’ll look all dramatic–like you’re jumping on the bandwagon–if it turns out that–like me–you’ve just got the flu. 

But try to think of this way. Your world, like mine, is full of people you’re not prepared to lose just yet–people I’m sure you’d like to spare the pain of the flu, let alone a life-threatening bout with COVID-19. Think of the temporary morgues. Think of the full ICU’s. Think of the doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers who are fighting against overwhelming odds, because too many of us worry about being dramatic.

It’s time to accept the reality around us. It’s time to accept our own mortality. It’s time to entertain the idea that we might actually be really, really sick, and being positive and tough and self-reliant just might not get us through this. 

So take my advice. Be dramatic. Get good, scientific information. It’ll let you make the smart, informed choices that might not only save your life, but the lives of the people around you. Sure, you might only have the flu. But are you willing to take that chance with the people you love, the people you meet, the grocery store clerks, the first responders, the hospital staff–heck, strangers on the street? Isn’t that worth a little embarrassment? If you think you might have been exposed and you find yourself thinking, “I’m just fine. This is overblown,” stop yourself. Get the test. If you won’t do it for yourself–and you should–do it for the rest of us. We’ll do the same for you. 

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It’s the night before November 3–voting day. I live in Oregon, where we’ve been voting by mail for years, so my ballot has been safe in the bosom of whoever holds onto votes until they get counted.

The choice of who to vote for is not complicated this time around for any of us. I live in a “red” part of a “blue” state. There have been Trump rallies in my town. A significant portion of my family support Trump. I’ve been reading essays and articles about how all of us are equally to blame for our shattered family relationships, and how if we would just learn to see beyond political divisions we could all, in the words of Rodney King, “just get along.”

But here’s the thing–this campaign is not about politics for many of us. Authors Tim Reid, Gabriella Borter, Michael Martina quote professor of psychology and neural science at New York University John J. Bavel in their article “‘You are no longer my mother’: How the election is dividing American families.” “This ‘political sectarianism’ has become not only tribal, but moral.”

For many of us, this election has become a litmus test. For me, it’s forced me to ask myself a question. I read a question on a Gallup poll a few months ago: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” I thought about that, sitting in my house, isolated to flatten the curve. I thought about the loss of one of my primary sources of income to the depredations of the virus. It was hard to say I was better off–but then again, I’ve always flirted with bankruptcy.

It just seemed like the wrong question to me. How did it happen that finances became the sole criteria of how one was doing in life? What about love? What about raising happy kids? What about doing a good and worthwhile job that simply didn’t pay as well as, oh say a political consulting job? What about having time to develop as a person? What about having time and energy to give back? In short, what about all those good, worthy, and fulfilling things that we do when we can step off the wage slave treadmill for a few minutes? What about looking who I have become in the last four years?

I realized that the question, for me, isn’t, “Am I better off?” but, “Am I better?” And that’s where this becomes a simple calculation for me. Eight years ago I missed Barack Obama’s inauguration. I missed it because I had listened to him speak during the campaign. He spoke about how we are better together, how together we can change things, how there is still hope that our better angels will prevail–but that it would take all of us, working together.

And so when a predatory lending company called me and insisted I go across the street and tell my little old neighbor lady that she needed to call them about a debt I didn’t just hang up and ignore the situation. I went across the street. I talked to my ninety-year-old neighbor lady and learned that she had been trying for months to convince the company that the debt was not hers. The calls had gotten so bad that this lady, would couldn’t walk to a car, had stopped answering her telephone.

I went back to my house. I called the Better Business Bureau. I called the state Attorney General’s office. And then I called the company. It took hours. I talked my way up the organization ladder to the vice president for customer relations. And at last–at last–I found the person who could correct the record and set my neighbor lady free to answer her phone again, and to go out into the neighborhood without the knowledge that all of her neighbors had been informed that she was a cheat.

I did that because Candidate Obama had reminded me that I could be Better. I could make a difference. Yes, I missed the inauguration, but I felt–and still feel–pretty amazing about that. I missed the inauguration, but I stepped into my neighbor lady’s corner and started swinging, and together, we prevailed.

I’m not perfect, but because of the Obama candidacy I am Better. And now I ask myself the same question about the Trump candidacy. This is his second term, so I am very clear on what he inspires his followers to do. So are you. I think we’d both agree that if we are inspired by Trump we might be many things, but we won’t be better neighbors, better husbands, better wives, better parents, better children, better parents…Better.

This election is about more than politics. It’s about who we each aspire to be. I don’t just want to be better off. I want to be Better. Joe Biden wasn’t my first choice, or my second. But here’s the thing, there is room in his world for the decent, the honorable, the generous. There is room to be Better. And that’s how I’m voting.

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