In Defense of Sardines: Happy 101st Birthday, Great Aunt Mary

Aunt Mary and her siblings

Great Aunt Mary (upper left) and her siblings, c. 1920. Grandpa Koshere was not born yet.

The things my great Aunt Mary credits for her 101 years are love, laughter, humor, blueberries, and sardines (two cans a month).

She was born on this day in 1913 to Slovenian immigrant parents in the Iron Range town of Chisholm, Minnesota. Her youngest brother, Frank, was my father’s father—Grandpa Koshere.

I recently visited her with my dad and stepmom. Before we came she warned us she would look different from last time; it had been a year since they last saw her and four since I did. She still lives in her own apartment on the third floor of an assisted living home, where she’s lived for the last 30 years, but she spent a few days in the hospital four months back. She said she’s lost weight, and her left hand’s no good anymore.

When we arrive she greets us at her front door with her walker. Her body is smaller than it was, but she stands straight. Her hair is still amply shaded by black pigment (it’s eating fresh vegetables, she says, that keeps some natural color in with the gray). Still, I can tell she has lost some of her strength. When we hug, she looks me over and then points down. “Look! I used to have such nice strong hips. Now I can hardly sleep on ‘em, they’re so bony.” Her left hand does seem to be limited these days—stroke? arthritis?—yet her eyes are deep-set and have what I always remember about them—a decisive, enthusiastic shimmer.

We unwrap a package of smoked Lake Superior ciscoes, a loaf of marble rye, and a bouquet of yellow flowers. She makes us coffee and serves us cupcakes—she baked them, and made the frosting, last night—and as we peel the skin and bones out of our smoked fish, Aunt Mary tells us stories.

She tells us about when my grandfather, Frank, and their brother Vic went off to the War together. There was that one night in France when Frank was standing guard, and it was so cold. He was so cold he wet his pants. He was so cold he couldn’t raise his arm to salute the commanding officer, a real devil of a guy. He worried he might be court-martialed for that.

When Frank and Vic came back from the war, Aunt Mary’s husband got them jobs in the mines in Chisholm, and they came to live with her family on the farm. Every month Frank and Vic paid $40 each for room and board. Aunt Mary would use twenty and save twenty.

On the farm she slaughtered pigs and made sausage. She fed Frank and Vic good bone-broth soup and baked them apple strudels. When Vic moved to Milwaukee a year later, and Frank a few months after that, for a factory job at Harnischfeger, Aunt Mary gave each one the savings that grew from his $20 a month. They had eaten well living with her, and before they moved her husband took them each to a men’s department store to fit them for some new clothes.

She weaves back and forth in this story. She often returns to when they first came home from the War. They were so skinny. She told them, “Tonight you’ll stay in a house and have a warm bed and a good meal.” Her eyes fill and shine. My dad’s and mine follow.

“When they got home from the War they were boys,” she says. “When they left me they were men.”

Her stories of my grandfather are in some ways an exception for Aunt Mary; we know when Grandpa Koshere was born, when he went to the War, and when he passed (I never knew him: lung cancer, 1984). But something I rarely know about her other stories is when in the last 101 years they took place.

There was the lake she used to swim across. One time—it must have been in eight, nine, feet of water—she looked down and saw a boat on the bottom, all filled with sand. She called up the boys, and they were able to get that boat out of the lake and hauled up on shore. The boys put the boat up on the hill for her, and she filled it with soil and flowers. From that point on everyone called it Mary’s garden. She planted so many flowers in that boat over the years.

Listening to her is like going swimming with her, flowing from 1927 to 1983 to 1949 to 1998, and perhaps all in the same breath. Decades ago, days ago? You never quite know.

So I can’t relay the chronology of when she found that boat at the bottom of the lake, or begin to guess who she means when she refers to the boys; there are a lot of family members I don’t know. But I do know how those people and those stories made her feel, how they make her feel still. Does it matter if she’s talking about 1972 or 1930? She’s laughing now. She’s crying now. What persists are the feelings of things.

The difficulty of knowing the dates of her stories has a lot to do with the pace of them. Aunt Mary speaks with urgency, and one story flows into the next before you realize she could very well be on to a new decade, or generation. You can tell the end of one story from the beginning of another when her emotion flares: she chuckles, or her eyes start to glisten. Sometimes she says something reflective like, “I sure had a lot of good experiences. We had lots of fun.”

Then, a sliver of a pause—and it’s on to the next tale. It seems her pace only increases the more stories she tells. There is so much to share, and only so much time for sharing. She can’t form the words fast enough. Suddenly her telling is doing something noticeable to her whole physical presence. Her eyes shine, her forehead rises, and her voice speeds.

There’s a good word for Aunt Mary as storyteller: lively. Of life. As she approaches the edge of a lifetime, I can’t help but see her stories as her vitality itself. To watch her tell them, you know they keep her blood hot, they keep her voice on. Her stories give life to a grandfather I never knew. They bring flowers back to gardens long gone. They return her, and they ground her.

Her stories are the life she stands on.

Aunt Mary’s vitality is a teacher for me. What matters more than stories, I wonder? But then I think of how lucky Aunt Mary truly is. She’s a rare one who lives, this long, to tell the tale. What happened to the stories that preceded her? And what’s going to happen to hers? Does a lifetime of stories set like the sun?

Think of all the stories that are gone—paper burned, ink blotted, memory lost. Think of all the voices that no longer exist to tell them: disaster, famine, war, genocide. Think of all the, all the, stories obliterated from this planet. What, really, do hers—do any of ours—matter?

The letter Aunt Mary received from President Obama on the occasion of her 100th birthday thanked her for the vital contribution her life has made to the American narrative.

The American narrative. That’s an idea I want to take comfort in: the threads of her stories live on in a broader tapestry. But is that all? Is that enough? Her story contributed to the American narrative, but her people came from Slovenia. Another letter arrived for her on her 100th birthday; it was in Slovenian, and she could read it. Hers is also an immigrant narrative, and a Minnesotan. A Catholic’s and a woman’s. A story can be named and named.

Naming the universals of a life’s story gives me comfort and discomfort, and for the same reason: we call out the universals because our details will, someday, be lost. We’re going to lose them, or our children will, or our great niece will.

In the face of all that, Aunt Mary’s stories teach me:

What stories do is end.

What stories do is keep on.

What stories do is find new details.

And what we live for, what our stories and our voices are for while they’re here, are the details.

Happy 101st birthday, Aunt Mary.

Dad, Aunt Mary, and me

April 5, 2014: Dad, Aunt Mary, and me

Questions I Have for Whales

Gray whale

Do you see the gray whale? This one’s headed north, to eat. Point Loma, California, beyond.

I recently went on a wildlife tour from San Diego to view gray whales. Every year, gray whales swim one of the world’s longest marine mammal migrations: from 5-6,000 miles, each way, between their summer feeding grounds north of the Aleutian Islands and the warm lagoons of Baja California. At this transition time of the season, in waters so close to Baja, the whales we found might be headed in either direction. Yet whenever we spotted a whale, our captain and guides were quick to assess: “Here’s one still making its way south,” or “This pair’s headed north.”

My first question: how did they know with such clean confidence where a given whale was going, which part of the journey it was doing?

The answer: You know by which way the whale is headed. North? North. South? South. The whale goes where it’s facing; the whale faces where it’s going.

Huh! Are we sure it’s not more complicated? This seems too simple. I thought of the many questions I’ve asked about place and direction and orientation in my life, and those of my friends—especially at this life stage.

What makes it so simple for the whales? What talks to them, says, Go this way? From whom and from where is that original voice?

I’m no marine biologist. I imagine there’s nuance here that I don’t know and can’t understand. But I find myself envious. I envy the seeming simplicity of their orientation. If my friends and I were whales, what would we look like to a boat of eager tourists? We’d be spinning, swimming in big circles and small circles, cruising back and forth between two or three or four or more places. We’d be ridiculous as whales! The whale guides from the natural history museum would frown. They would say, “This behavior is puzzling. They’re wasting precious blubber. Who knows how these whales expect to survive to eat and mate and calve.”

Of course, whales we are not. But are our wanderings anything like their migrations? What tells us, too, to move? Is it the same voice that talks to them?

And perhaps biggest of all my questions: what’s the voice that says, OK, you can stop now. To them? To us?

Some Ideas Resurrected from a Box in the Closet

Box from the closet

One day’s closet box is another day’s treasure.

Once home to a pair of Merrell boots, the box in my living room closet labeled GRAD SCHOOL is now home to a pile of chewed-up old folders: syllabi, lesson plans, thesis, writing feedback. For nearly two years, I haven’t done anything with that box but schlep it around—Missoula to DC to Wisconsin to Minnesota.

Until yesterday. Yesterday I moved the stuff piled on top of it, pulled the box out of the closet, and went scrounging around in there. My mission? Find notes  from the 2011 Environmental Writing Institute I participated in with Rick Bass at the University of Montana. Here’s what I found in the process:

  • Trust your obsessions. They lead you somewhere.
  • For every idea you develop, find the contrary. Counter yourself.
  • What does your character want? (Wait, what do want?)
  • Your only hope of survival? Write shorter.
  • Rick Bass, screaming through a closed window toward a bunch of toddlers frolicking merrily on the lawn outside: “CLIMATE CHANGE!”
  • Your reader is hungry for the real, physical world.
  • Nouns and verbs invite a reader’s interpretation. Adjectives and adverbs impose an author’s interpretation.
  • Re: creative nonfiction: how much of my crap does anyone actually want to know?
  • Read lots of good poetry.
  • Your best sentence must be your last. Your second-best? First.

Hmm! These ideas might be worth keeping closer than a box in the closet. Especially that bit about CLIMATE CHANGE, right? Take that, innocent happy children!

What I Wore to the Packers Game

Torso layers 1-6 and 8. Missing: the coat borrowed from my mom that covered my butt.

Torso layers 1-6 and 8. Missing: layer 7, the coat borrowed from my mom that covered my butt and layer 9, the Packers fleece blanket I bought at Lambeau.


  • Layer 1: Merino wool hiking t-shirt with zip-up collar to seal off my neck: the one snagged by various tree branches and stained brown with blood from mosquitoes that bit me on Shoshone Lake in Yellowstone six years ago. This one has been with me through thick and thin; you gotta trust the layer closest your skin.
  • Layer 2: Another merino wool shirt, this one long-sleeved. Because, wool! Also because cotton kills. And, as my sister said, quoting my dad, “It’s all about the gear.”
  • Layer 3: A long-sleeved poly shirt, white, to match…
  • Layer 4:…My brand-new green and gold Packers long-sleeved t-shirt, which I ordered from the Pro Shop online last Sunday night after our win over the Bears. Little did I know when I ordered that I’d be headed to the Pro Shop in person less than a week later.
  • Layer 5: A fleece jacket.
  • Layer 6: A fleece vest.
  • Layer 7: An old faux-fur-trimmed coat of my mom’s from the 90s. Suggesting it before we left River Falls on Saturday, she said, “It won’t look the best, but it has a hood, and it’ll cover your butt.” It didn’t look the best, but it had a hood, and it covered my butt.
  • Layer 8: A down jacket I bought two years ago at REI in Missoula.
  • Layer 9: The new green and gold fleece blanket I bought at the Pro Shop, in person, before the game.


  • Layer 1: Long underwear. (Side rant that’s extra annoying now that I live back in the bragging-rights-cold Midwest: why were so many people in DC so complainey about temps the second they dipped below 30 degrees yet so reluctant to own, or say the words, long underwear?) Long underwear! Long underwear! Long underwear!
  • Layer 2: Ski pants. So comfy and cozy. I wish I could live wearing ski pants all day every day.
  • Layer 3: Green wool pants. I think my dad got these at Fleet Farm in the military surplus section? He gave them to me for ice fishing. By the time I inched them up over all my other layers, the top button didn’t close, but no one noticed because, good news, I had that jacket from my mom that covered my butt!
  • Oh, and inside each back pocket of the wool pants: hand warmers for my butt. I think this was the secret to my completely chill-free game experience.


  • Layer 1: Wool socks.
  • Layer 2: Wool socks.
  • Layer 3: Wool socks.
  • Also: A foot-shaped boot warmer scored by my sister. Great find, Kathryn! Not even the super-salted icy cement of Lambeau Field could chill its way through that baby.
  • Layer 4: Mukluks. I may be a Packers fan, but I live in Minnesota now.


  • A red silk scarf that my dad gave me. He said I might look like a cow puncher when I wear it, but there’s a reason cow punchers had (red) silk scarves around their necks…turns out, silk scarves are super warm in the winter and super cool in the summer. Go figure! They are also good for breathing through when the cattle you’re driving to Montana get to churning up big clouds of  West Texas dust.
  • The maroon and black paisley pashmina Amanda brought back for me from India six years ago. Amanda, you were there with me in spirit! (Amanda is the one who said, “Our dairy makes us strong, our beer makes us fearless.”)
Aaron and me and Robbie from Associated Bank and, oh, another Aaron!

Face of Aaron and me and Robbie from Associated Bank and, oh, look–another Face of Aaron!


  • Layer 1: Hair. I wore it down for a reason!
  • Layer 2: A yellow fleece headband.
  • Layer 3: That wool stocking cap I wear to sleep all the time when I go camping, the one with ear flaps that tie under the chin.
  • Layer 4: A new Packers stocking hat, which came with some cool free buttons! Also purchased at the Pro Shop, in person, before the game.


  • The warmest pair of chopper gloves you could ever meet. The things are seriously indomitable. All told, my digits spent a good six hours in these babies on Sunday, yet the only place I put hand warmers all day were the pockets on my butt. I found this pair of choppers lying in a snowbank off a forest service road in northern Wisconsin near the trailhead to Porcupine Lake, a favorite spot for ice fishing. Dear person who dropped these, I can tell by all the stains and cuts in the leather that you wore them and loved ‘em good. They are the best pair of gloves I never intended to have, and while I bet your winter gear will never be the same, I can only wonder how many fish they helped you catch. Now your choppers have seen a fellow Wisconsinite through a subzero Packers playoff game in the frozen tundra: for your history with them and for my own, these choppers will be treasured as they ought to be.

Things I Wish I’d Worn

  • A beard, so I could have beer freeze all over in it like that drunk guy two rows ahead of us who turned around and gave everyone enthusiastic, mitten-blunted high-fives after every play that went even slightly in the Packers’ favor (i.e., any play that did not lead directly to points for the 9ers—there was a lot of high-fiving with that guy).
  • Those yellow foam, cheese-head style bra things? Nope…actually, I do not wish I’d worn one of those. So actually I only wish I’d had the beard, for freezing beer in.

Miscellaneous other things I wore

  • A big white G—Packers temporary tattoo—on my cheek. Just like my mom and sister.
  • A green and gold pom-pom that my sister wedged carefully between some layers near my shoulder/neck area. I was so bundled up I couldn’t feel it and forgot it was there. But after halftime I elbowed my way back to my seat (actually, confession: I didn’t want to miss a second of the third quarter, so I was being pretty pushy). A few minutes after I got settled back in the stands, a man in blaze orange showed up on the steps at the end of my row waving a green and gold pom-pom at me. “Excuse me, miss? You dropped this back there.” As my sister said: Only. At. Lambeau.
  • Eight 50-ml bottles of Buttershots, Bailey’s, and cake-flavored vodka—purchased at Dick’s Liquor store in River Falls after the attendant, who was also planning to go to the Packers game the next day, told me there was going to be free hot chocolate at Lambeau. I wedged them into the folds of my mukluks, and then, boy, did I feel badass.  (Make that, we all did—my mom and my sister also smuggled some in.)
  • Pride. I also wore pride. It’s a fierce, unwavering pride in the tradition and history and culture evoked by that one place and that one team. It’s a pride at once so irrational it’s hard to believe and yet so simple it can’t possibly be foolish—a pride in a tradition of my home and in the people of that tradition, the people of my home.

So that’s what I wore. In the end, the Packers lost. But I’m actually not too sad about it. The absence of a victory lets me treasure all the other stuff more: the fact that I didn’t spend a second of the game feeling cold (layers for the win!), the cheese curds and beer cheese burger at Curley’s pub, the day of fun with my mom and my sister and images of Aaron Rodgers’s face in various shapes and sizes. I treasure all that  Sunday simply was, game aside.

Ladies at Lambeau

Ladies at Lambeau (don’t worry, this was before we donned our real gear for the game)

And anyway, even if we’re out of the playoffs this year, the Packers are still, and will always be, the team that invented victory. (If it’s a Lombardi Trophy you yearn for, you can’t disagree.)

Great American Road Trip 2013: A Story in Lists

I am back in the Midwest after a long post-DC road trip from Wisconsin to Montana to Oregon to California to New Mexico and back home. Because you can’t quite write a single thing about such a diverse trip, I decided to try to share the story of my trip in lists. I’m hoping this form also makes it easier to skim and scan to the details that might most interest you!

Oregon Coast! Cape Cove Beach

Oregon Coast! Cape Cove Beach

By the numbers

  • Miles: just about 6,000
  • Days: 21
  • States: 14
  • Friends visited: 15. As full of good places as it was, this was a trip, more than anything, of good people. Thank you, everyone who shared your time and space with me!
  • Brothers visited/road-tripped from Portland to San Diego with: 1 (but I have just the one, Frankie, so that worked out well)
  • Waves I definitely didn’t actually surf on but at least didn’t really fall off of when Frankie gave me a surfing lesson: 2
  • Ratio of nights in motels to nights camping: 4:4
  • Nights with friends/family: 13. Thank you to all my hostesses and hosts!
  • Discs listened to, of 20 comprising the Moby Dick audio book I got from the library: 10 (print book now on my nightstand to finish)
Here is my brother jumping into Crater Lake. We heart Oregon!

Here is my brother jumping into Crater Lake. We heart Oregon!

Best and worst road food decisions


  • Green Giant Broccoli Medley (pre-washed and cut broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower: mmm, road-body is always grateful for veg!)
  • Gin-Gins Ginger Chews. Have you had these yet? Get. The perfect edible traveling companion, excellent when you haven’t had enough to eat, exceptional when maybe you’ve had too much.


  • Eating approximately eighty toffee almonds from a farm stand California while stuck in traffic in Albuquerque, bored and annoyed after finding no local radio station suitable for the occasion. Damn you, Albuquerque!
  • Accepting the “buy one, get one for 10 cents” deal on Hershey’s candy bars at the Chevron in Yuma. Never accept the “buy one, get one for 10 cents” deal on Hershey’s candy bars at the Chevron in Yuma, because you’re about to drive across the Sonoran Desert and it’s about to be 110 degrees at 10:30 am and even though you will have the AC on full blast (resulting in getting half the fuel efficiency you’re used to), in 20 minutes both those candy bars are going to MELT, and when you finally eat them, one hour and one day later, you will get melted chocolate all over your fingers and steering wheel, and it’s also going to end up in your hair somehow and all over your khaki shorts, so the next time you stop for gas you’re going to be not only wound up on nasty cheap sugar, but sticky and messy and gooey, and also your car is going to smell like a melted Reese’s Fast Break for the next four days, and finally you will realize with a hot, heavy heart that your loves of chocolate and desert will always be incompatible.

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On My Last Day in Montana


On my last day under the Big Sky

On my last day in Montana, I reached a sheep ranch outside the town of Roundup. A friend–a Wisconsin native, Montana transplant like me–had been working and living there for the season. I played with Akbash puppies and entered the pen of orphan lambs, called bums. They suckled my fingers and chewed the belt loops on my jeans. I saw a horse named Boone buck a man off onto hard ground patched by greasewood and sage. The explanation was simple: “Some horses never buck. Some never quit.”

Read more here

I’ve really been looking forward to sharing my essay “On My Last Day in Montana,” which appears in the latest issue of PoecologyIt’s short, and it’s one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever written. I hope you’ll read the whole essay here:

Also, Poecology has a new literary place map, the LitLocator. If you’re like me and love maps, take a second to check it out. Do you see the point on the map that corresponds to where “On My Last Day in Montana” takes place? How about the point in Wisconsin?

Postcard from Frog Bay

Frog Bay Tribal National Park, Wisconsin

Frog Bay Tribal National Park, Wisconsin

My first full day back in Wisconsin, and a hot one! Mom and I drove to Lake Superior. On the beach at Frog Bay Tribal National Park we ate smoked Lake Superior whitefish and Wisconsin cheese and wild Bayfield Peninsula blackberries and raspberries. We entered the water and swam for a long time–out ahead, the forest heights of Oak Island patched by cloud shadows. I took in the sweet cedar smell of the boreal forest and thought of how Kathleen Dean Moore recently told my friend Beth, in a writing workshop, that we must love life before we love its meaning: Wisconsin, Superior, mother.

More postcards on floWord: from Assateague Island, the Billy Goat Trail, Gettysburg, Salt Lake Citythe bare woodsspringtime