BY Kat Stickroth
In conversations with friends about spiritual matters, I have often said, “Well, God isn’t Santa Claus.” After last week’s Christmas, however, I’m not so sure.
In June 2015, I had to have my dog Brownie put down. It’s still hard to talk about that heart wrenching time. She was a rescue dog, Aussie/Terrier mix. We had weathered some tough times over 12 years and shared a deep love and devotion.
Constantly under her watchful eye, I was her flock, and she was my shepherd.
For weeks after her passing, restless nights were filled with deep grief seasoned with guilt over that decision. But things shifted during one dozing, when I dreamed that God handed me a golden blonde pup with white markings.
“I will bring it to you,” He said.
I awoke with peace in my heart and tear-filled eyes. Perhaps hope, perhaps faith, fueled my waiting.
My good friend, Janie Tippett, called in September, “I’ve found a dog for you.”
Allen Voortman, who owns Pride and Joy Dairy in Granger, Washington with his wife Cheryl, had told Janie of a wild female dog who took up with his band of sheep and shepherded them about his acreage. Over time she warmed up to Allen and became a pet to his family.
He was so impressed with her, she was bred with a terrier and produced a litter of six, with one remaining puppy. Janie replied, “I know someone who needs him.”
She told me the pup’s story and gave me a photo of him. Golden blonde with white markings.
Three days before Christmas, I stood by Janie’s snow covered driveway as Allen, a large man sporting a white beard and Santa hat, piled out of his truck and gave me a big hug.
“Wow! Hugged by Santa!” I thought.
Then he retrieved Petey and placed a wiggling cutie pie in my arms.
Allen is invited to speak around the country of his organic dairy practices which render health giving milk products. That he would bring such a special gift to me is humbling and fills me with warm gratitude.
My little pup is presently snuggled next to me, resting his head on my laptop while I wordsmith this story.
Petey is a reminder to keep open to the possibilities of what the New Year may bring. Blessed surprises, great and small, show up in the most amazing of ways.
Originally published December 30, 2015 in the La Grande Observer newspaper. Reprinted with permission.
THE YOUTHFUL PROPERTIES OF (COOKING) WITH BACON GREASE
By Kat Stickroth
My grandmother’s sister, Aunt Carrie, is the epitome of a Southern genteel lady. She is 101 years old now, an intellectually sharp woman apprised of current events.
Think the leading actress in “Driving Miss Daisy,” and you’ll get the picture.
Aunt Carrie was relentless during my growing up years to transform me into a Southern Belle. More often, however, I returned home with muddy jeans and brambles in my hair.
To me, it was futile to plaster my face with makeup and douse my hair with spray. The moment I stepped outside, 100% humidity would melt me into a chemical mess.
I tried, I really tried.
She moved in with me at 98 years old, and I became her caregiver. Frequent doctor visits amused me, for they consistently remarked on how young Aunt Carrie looked, like in her late 60’s- slender, upright, and with smooth tanned skin.
Her youthful appearance was the opening topic at a confab of her girlfriends who met for coffee one afternoon.
She glowed at their greetings, “Carolyn, you look so young! How do you do it?”
I summarily answered, “Bacon grease!”
I believed it. She used bacon grease to season her turnip greens, her green beans, her squash. You name it, her food was cooked with bacon grease. While my education abounded with the lessons of the harmfulness of too much fat in the diet, I couldn’t dismiss the fact she was healthier than I was, though 30 years older.
She insisted I butt out of the conversation, so I left to run errands as a sound similar to cackling hens diminished behind me.
Most of the ladies were gone by the time I returned. Aunt Carrie had enjoyed the stimulating conversation.
The next morning, she received a phone call in her room. I was putzing about in the kitchen and heard this:
“Yes, I use bacon grease a lot.”
“How much? Oh, about a tablespoon."
Then she burst out laughing.
“No, I COOK with it.”
The call ended and through her giggles she recounted that one of her friends wanted to know how the bacon grease was applied to her face, “With your fingers?”
Every time I helped cook afterward, Aunt Carrie and I laughed when she reached for her special flavoring.
For me, I’ll cast my chance for any youthful looks to the fresh air, real food, and mountain hikes I find in Wallowa County.
Originally published January 6, 2016 in the La Grande Observer. Reprinted with permission.
By Kat Stickroth
Just as Dorothy was told upon arriving in the Land of Oz, “This isn’t Kansas,” I repeatedly am reminded, “Katherine, this is NOT the urban South.”
I am grateful for my personal council of Wallowa County elders who have time on their hands to teach me about Wallowa life. Among them are Manford and Vera Isley. How to drive in hazardous road conditions was the first lesson in my Wallowa Life education.
The problem of speeding climaxed last December. Manford and Vera invited me to their daughter’s Christmas dinner in Athena. We agreed to go in my truck. He drove up there; I drove back. It was when we approached and topped Tollgate in the freezing dark that he began firmly repeating, “Slow down, Katherine.”
Vera was in the back seat, probably praying.
The road was icy with a cover of light snow. I applied brakes, which gave the truck a sliding wiggle. I realized I didn't know what to do.
“Do you want to drive?” I invited him.
“No. Just keep going,” he replied.
Manford told me when to downshift and to keep a steady speed and whatever happens, don’t stop. It was more than I thought I could handle, but he insisted I could do this.
The tension in the air was oppressive by the time we pulled into Joseph. We were all glad to place our feet on terra firma.
After a few days, I knocked on their door and Manford answered. I blurted out, “The other night on the way home, it became obvious I don’t know how to drive on these winter roads. Would you teach me?”
With my instructor at the wheel, we headed for Imnaha. I felt like a 15 year old in Drivers Ed as he showed me how to recognize black ice. He pointed out how to approach a blind curve, with my eyes fixed on the limits of field of vision to anticipate the approach of an unseen vehicle. He explained how snow sits on ice, and how careful I NEED TO PAY ATTENTION.
After two weeks of practice, I asked him for a check ride. We wound through the canyons and back without my hearing, “Slow down.”
My teacher does not readily hand out A’s, but when Manford got out and said with a smile, “You’re learning,” I took that as maybe a B, and could not have been happier.
Originally published January 13, 2016 in the La Grande Observer. Reprinted with permission.
CLASS IS IN SESSION
by Kat Stickroth
A friend and I spent much of last summer together, in what I would call an intense internship on being “A Wallowa Gal.”
We headed for Imnaha one hot morning to pick blackberries. Daydreaming of buckets of juicy fruit to be gathered, I commented, “Oh, look. A snake in the road.”
“Kill it!” she exploded. “Every Wallowa Gal should kill a rattlesnake!”
I snapped into a brain freeze, not immediately willing to switch my thoughts from
blackberries to rattlesnakes.
She corrected me as I eased onto the road’s edge, “NO! You have to run over it!” I secretly dubbed her Tawanda.
“I can’t do this,” I whined.
“Just drive over it slowly. Only get the head. We don’t want to damage the skin.”
Squish, squish. Crunch, crunch.
My breakfast wanted to get reacquainted with me.
The deed completed, I hoped to continue on to our berry picking.
“Turn around,” she commanded. “We have to make sure it’s dead.”
So now I was driving back up the highway.
Same bump, bump. Same sound. I was glad we were headed in the direction of home.
"Go back. One more time.”
“But I don’t want to do this.”
“Go back.” Yes, Tawanda.
After the final pass, we pulled over and retrieved a shovel from my truck to harvest the now deceased reptile. “We need to hurry before anyone else gets it,” she cautioned.
Please, God, send someone!
“Do you have a bag?” she asked.
“We’re going to take it to Sally who owns the Tavern. She’ll skin it and make a hatband for you.”
“The last thing I want to wear is a snake hatband.”
My eyes squeezed shut when she approached me to drop the snake into the Safeway bag held by my far extended hands.
Sally happily examined the prize stretched out on the bar. Her display of hand crafted snake skin accessories couldn’t be missed.
What is it with these women? Suddenly, the South I had renounced seemed most appealing. What am I doing here?
I hurried to the door, but Tawanda caught me. “Wait! You must record this on the annual Rattlesnake Count sheet.”
As we piled into the truck, Tawanda announced, “Now you’re a real Wallowa Gal!” She was so pleased.
I could only respond, “Can we pick blackberries now?”
Originally published January 20, 2016 in the La Grande Observer newspaper. Reprinted with permission.
LETTERS LOST, THEN FOUND
By Kat Stickroth
Last fall I told my writing mentor, Barbara, that I wanted a book project for 2016. I shared some ideas, and she recommended the story of my great-great uncle Marvin, who was killed in WWI and posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest commendation from the Army.
I asked my son, Sam, in Texas to mail me the box of family history I had left with him during my move up here. His wife mailed the contents in three separate boxes.
Only two arrived.
Sam texted me a photo of a shred of cardboard with my address on it, a notification from the postal service that the box was damaged and the items lost.
In examining the two boxes, I realized the most important things for me to complete the project were missing- the original letters between Marvin and his family, photos and news clippings I had researched and found, and the transcript of the letters I had typed fifteen years ago.
“Oh well,” I regretted. “I guess God doesn’t want me to write that book.”
Three weeks ago, I received a voicemail from a woman named Mallory saying she had some contents I might be interested in. She didn’t identify who she worked for, so I was puzzled about who she might be.
When I returned the call, she said she worked for a research company who contracts with shipping companies. When contents without a box or any identification are found during the shipping process, the items are sent to her company to research and find the proper owner.
“What do you think was in the missing box?” she asked.
“A packet of faded letters wrapped with a ribbon, old photos and news clippings,” hope answered. “I was going to write a book about those.”
“Yes, I have those, plus the letters typed up. They are so fascinating and will make a great book!” she said happily.
After giving her the tracking number to confirm my ownership, as well as my address, I received the shipment this past Tuesday. When I pulled the top packing off, there was the packet of letters- letters which spent decades on the mantle of the family fireplace, were placed in my hands 25 years ago, traveled to Montana, back to Mississippi, to Texas, then who-knows-where, and finally here. Finally home, with me.
“Tell the story we hold,” they say.
Originally published January 27, 2016 in the La Grande Observer newspaper. Reprinted with permission.
By Kat Stickroth
When I told a friend I was writing a column, she advised I not talk about my pets too often. Yet I feel the need to introduce my readers to Mosie, my cat.
My husband, Richard, tamed this feral kitten over 8 years ago. I tolerated her for his sake, but I’ve never considered myself a cat person.
I’ve nothing against cats and admire my friends who adore their feline friends, but I just don’t get how a person can enjoy a pet that is aloof, independent, opinionated and doesn’t need anyone.
My dog, Brownie, shared the same assessment. Mosie adored Brownie and would nuzzle up to her. But Brownie would look at me and roll her eyes, “Oh, PLEASE! Get this thing away from me.” Brownie was never mean to Mosie. She just wished the cat would go away.
Brownie had been ours for five years before Mosie appeared on the scene. Her domain of our family unit had been established. But all that changed when Mosie appeared.
I wanted to name her Mosaic, for she had a beautiful calico coat with a myriad of colors. But I thought that sounded dumb, so I changed it to Mosie.
I wish I’d named her Speedy, for she chose to live up to her name. She doesn’t get in a hurry about anything. When she was an outside cat, I’d stand at the door and call her to come eat. She’d appear from the tree line at the back of the yard. Upon making eye contact with me, she’d mosey hyper-slow toward the house regardless of how hungry she might be. Sniff a blade of grass that had been there all summer. Stop and watch a cloud pass by. You get the picture.
It felt like she was controlling me, and I resented it. If I closed the door to rest my arm, she’d stop walking until I opened it again, even though she was still 50 yards away.
Our power struggle has a long history, but it came to a head when Brownie died.
I tried to make Mosie into my next dog, which she did NOT appreciate. No Ma’am. No walks. No cuddles. No chasing the ball.
After a few months of futile attempts, ending in a cat bite on my hand, I relented and agreed that she was the cat, and in charge.
Peace has reigned ever since.
Originally published February 3, 2016 in the La Grande newspaper. Reprinted with permission.
MY FRIEND HILLTON
By Kat Stickroth
I have a confession to make.
Remember in the movie, The Sixth Sense, the boy looks up to Bruce Willis and says, “I see dead people”?
Well, it’s not that bad, but… I see faces.
I’m not talking about the features on the front of the head of a person. I mean in nature- on mountains, in trees, in the most unlikely of places.
One in particular I see every time I drive to Enterprise from Joseph along Highway 82.
A certain morning after a snowstorm, I spotted the dark eyes and a smile embedded on the first hill of about a ton of gravel in the Moffit Construction yard.
“C’mon, Katherine. Give me a break,” I chastised myself. But he couldn’t be missed.
I named him Hillton, and he has become my attitude meter.
Now, when passing Eggleson Corner, I wonder, “How is Hillton doing today?”
The “face” on the south side of the gravel is more noticeable with white cover.
Depending on how the wind shifts the snow, he sometimes has a frowny face. I think, “What’s up with that, Hillton?”
Then I realize I myself am grumpy about something, and change my attitude before I reach my destination. But I have to say, most of the time he wears a big grin.
A circle of my friends say, “Spot it? Got it!” That is, if I’m complaining about someone else’s behavior, more than likely I do the same thing. Otherwise, how would I recognize it in the first place? It took days for my toes to recover from that one.
This awareness has contributed to my usually withholding my opinion until I’m asked. (Remember “If I wanted your opinion I would have asked for it?” I finally get what that means.)
The result of my changing attitude is that I and my friends are much happier now.
Years ago, I heard, “Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.” That one cracks me up.
Within the book of Proverbs is stated, “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.”
I am grateful for friends like Hillton Moffit, who teach me how to live in harmony with myself and others.
My grandkids have yet to visit Wallowa County. I hope they will come soon. Hillton will be among the many they will be introduced to.
Originally published February 10, 2016 in the La Grande Observer newspaper. Reprinted with permission.
Personal note: The above column caused consternation among some of my readers. They wondered if I had lost my mind. I failed to say that this was something fun to see with children. Below is a photo to verify that indeed, the gravel pile looked as though it wore a face. This photo was not published with the article.
MOTHERHOOD AND FISHING
By Kat Stickroth
Mama cows are gathered in Wallowa Valley now, and I empathize with their near bursting bellies. Bovines who spent part of the winter in the canyons have climbed to thousand foot elevations to nourish themselves and the babies inside. Some have traveled several miles, practically waddling to accommodate the extra weight they carry.
They have spent most of their pregnancy standing to graze, standing in huddles to stay warm, standing to avoid the icy ground.
I hear older women in the coffee shop discussing how beautiful the cows are. We are eager for the bouncing baby calves to be born. Mothers have a kindred heart that way.
I loved being pregnant with my children. At least the idea of it. The first three months of morning sickness weren’t that appealing. My changing taste in food was a curiosity. I was going to college, and my large body swinging back and forth around campus the final weeks must have generated pity, for many students pulled up in their cars offering a ride.
That last month, I was tired.
The day before our first child was born, his daddy and I went fishing with my sister and her husband. Alongside the farm pond, I sat in a lawn chair brought for my comfort. Sister stood close by.
The guys were on the water in a john boat. Though they were fishing, they also kept their eyes on me, offering comments and suggestions to improve my chances of a catch.
The pond held smallmouth bass and bream. With each cast, I held my rod firm. At each jiggle, I yanked it up to set the hook. No fish, but the cricket was still intact.
“Must be a little bream,” my husband said. “They can’t always get the bait.”
“Don’t yank it so hard,” Brother-In-Law advised.
The men began philosophizing between them as to why I couldn’t catch a fish, which instilled a fierce determination within me to not be outdone. Amplified intent to react at the perfect time to reel one in led me to forget the contractions squeezing my back.
Still no luck.
“Ooh,” I gasped, as the rod practically bounced out of my hands.
Questioned about why I was laughing so hard, I explained the butt of the rod had been pressed against my rotund belly; all that time the jiggling the line had been from Baby’s kicks, not nibbling fish.
Originally published February 17, 2016 in the La Grande Observer newspaper. Reprinted with permission.
A TRIBUTE TO MOTHERS OF TEENAGE BOYS
By Kat Stickroth
Oh my goodness! I had forgotten how it was. My little Petey is now “fully emerged,” as veterinarian Dr. Rice described my pup’s maleness. The two week process created mayhem with the following count: chewed up eyeglasses, annihilated rolls of toilet paper, and the cat is hiding in the closet. I feel like the single mother of a teenage son.
I remember when the hormones started rising in my own sons, Matthew and Sam. I often wondered if my sweet boys had been kidnapped and space aliens planted in their place.
Upon arising in the morning, they would walk past a perfectly good clean bathroom, out the kitchen door at the other end of the house, and anoint a tree in the back yard. I often scolded (to deaf ears) that they should be mindful of the privacy and decorum of living in town. I was grateful our house sat way back off the road so neighbors could not see.
Throughout the day, I’d walk in the kitchen and have to close cabinets and drawers. Every single one would be open. What were they looking for? That is, the snack cabinet made sense, but what about the cabinets holding fine china, or the one with cooking spices? I’d close them all, then go fold laundry or do yard work. Upon returning an hour later, doors would be flung open again. Couldn’t they remember that certain cabinets held nothing of interest to them? So why open them? Did they think I rearranged the contents every hour to keep them guessing? I just didn’t get it.
I purchased a gallon of milk on the way home after church on a Wednesday night. Opening the refrigerator the next morning, expecting to add milk to my coffee, I’d find the jug empty, still sitting on the top shelf, with the cap lying next to it.
The kicker was whenever I asked Matthew to empty the garbage. His eyes would glaze over and he would appear distracted, as though listening to an inner voice, “YOUR-MOTHER-IS-SPEAKING-TO-YOU. HER-LIPS-ARE-MOVING. ACT-LIKE-YOU-DON’T-HEAR-AND-SHE-MIGHT-GO-AWAY.”
The miracle of it all is that my boys grew up into responsible, well-adjusted men who provide for their families. So I can only hope that Petey pup will settle down after this week’s surgery and mature into the dog I hope for.
Originally published February 24, 2016 in the La Grande Observer newspaper. Reprinted with permission.
CELEBRATING SIX-MONTH ANNIVERSARY
By Kat Stickroth
You know, this Wallowa Gal thing was supposed to be a joke in that I was a city girl from the South just trying to make her way in unfamiliar country. But now I’m not so sure…
I was helping a friend with her chickens and noticed the door to her chicken yard wouldn’t shut properly. I studied the dilapidated door. At my feet lay an old bone, bleached white from sun rays, about six inches long. Very easily, I jammed the bone through a hole in the door created by a lost knothole. I cut some wire from a rotted utility pole lying on the ground nearby, made a small loop and wrapped it around a nail on the door post. Voila! The wire can easily wrap off and on the bone to open and close the door.
While visiting a friend in La Grande a few weeks ago, I noticed his storm door swaying in the wind. I saw the door closer unit was missing a bolt that secured the door piece to the frame. Scratching my head for a few minutes, I went to my truck and from the cup holder dug out a fencing nail. This remnant of last summer’s project of helping friends build fence is a u- shaped nail. I inserted one of its legs into the bolt hole, with the other side just dangling, and it’s still holding.
The kicker was last month’s meeting at the Observer for the freelance writers. While different topics were being discussed, my eyes could not avoid a blue cord wadded up in the corner across the room. I glanced at it throughout the meeting, wondering the whole time, “I can’t understand why the Observer would need baling twine in this office.” It later proved to be an unused computer cord.
Be careful what you call yourself, it may come true.
Today marks six months since I began this column and writing for the Observer. I have had so much fun and have been fascinated by the people interviewed for the human interest stories. I appreciate their time for my interviews, but more than that, their kindness. I’ve come home with bags of vegetables from their gardens or gifts from their businesses.
But mostly I’ve received gifts to my heart. Watching a former drug addict mother who kisses her son before he boards the Head Start bus; observing the deep affection shared between an old muleskinner and a single mother, because his friendship and guidance restored her confidence; having a corsage pinned to my jacket by a WWII veteran and ham radio operator who makes and gives corsages to his wife. She has Alzheimer’s and resides at the Senior Living Center. His companion of over 60 years doesn’t know who he is, but he knows who she is, and hasn’t missed a day since she began her residency. He was on day 200 when I interviewed him.
I get choked up recalling these wonderful people, who make me so grateful I get to live in Wallowa County.
Originally published March 2, 2016 in the La Grande Observer. Reprinted with permission.