Friday, February 24, 2017

My Immigrant Legacy

A refugee, he planted trees 
on land he truly owned.
Grandpa’s branches held me 
taught legs to climb,
eyes see 
the world was mine.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my German Grandpa. He died 42 years ago, when I was in kindergarten, so I never really knew him. But for more than 25 years I have lived in the little masonry house he built. The view from my work room is dominated by two trees he planted: a blue spruce and a cherry tree.

Walter and Gertrud Menssen 1936
I’m sure Grandpa would be the first to object to some poetic license in that short opening verse. He was not a refugee when he immigrated to the United States in 1949. But five years earlier, when Hamburg was bombed, my grandparents spent time as internally-displaced refugees. They were herded to farm communities tin the south, where my father was born. 

As soon as sanely possible, Grandma and Grandpa and their three little children travelled back to Hamburg to reunite with friends and family. They had nothing but a rented garden plot, but were able to get a prefabricated house. Then they scavenged bricks to add another room. My dad has an early memory of floating paper boats on a bomb-crater formed pond. Cabbage grown on that little lot helped feed their (now four) children and the neighbors.
Hamburg after WWII bombing

The end of the war and the first couple years after was a starving time in most of Europe. Grandpa helped feed the family by smuggling potatoes onto trains. He and a neighbor got firewood by cutting down a tree in a park, which fell across the road and blocked traffic. They somehow talked a policeman into letting them clean up the mess and take it home. 

But by 1949, life was better. The Marshall Plan was in full swing. Grandpa was a machinist with a good job. Immigration was not a search for better economic conditions, it was a pilgrimage. Religion drew my family from Germany to Utah. 

We are Mormons. One of the most precious goals of all Mormon families is to attend a temple and be sealed together for eternity. There were no temples in Germany. (The first one, in Frieberg, was dedicated in 1985.) If My Grandparents had known there would be a temple in Switzerland in 1955, they might have stayed in Europe. 

Most Utah Mormons have family stories of ancestors who gave up everything to escape persecution in the eastern U.S. These pioneers walked across the plains to a desert no one else wanted and tried to build their own promised land.

I have these stories too, on my Mom’s side, but our family also counts our German grandparents as pioneers. Here is a poem I wrote several years ago about that journey. In this case I focused on my dad. 


my dad crossed the plains 
on a Greyhound bus

one of four siblings 
who whined 
and barfed 
from New York
to Chicago
to Salt Lake

pulled Zion-ward by immigrant parents
to a small town 
where no one named kids 

My dad is a quiet person who would rather not stand out, so the foreignness of his name has always been a burden to him. That burden of  otherness, like an unmistakable accent, was something Grandma struggled with as well.

But I'm not sure Grandpa did. He was an extrovert, a charmer, who loved to talk to people. He won over the farmers who had to shelter them as refugees. He talked his way out of trouble with policemen when stealing bricks and firewood. Grandpa won the trust of a German air force colonel who helped him stay out of combat and close to his family (and later allowed him to desert). Those same social skills quickly endeared him to people in Utah.

There is nothing Grandpa wanted more than to be a real American. One of my neighbors recently told me that Grandpa was the person in our neighborhood who helped boy scouts earn their citizenship merit badges. Grandpa was an Eagle Scout.  He had recently become an official American citizen so he had all the facts, but more importantly, he had the burning patriotism perhaps reserved for immigrants and military families—people who never really have the option of taking freedom for granted. 

The kids all became as American as possible—forgetting German as quickly as they learned English. Integration was the goal, not bilingualism or ethnic pride. Three more children were born after my grandparents arrived in Utah. With very few exceptions, most of us know only enough German to fake our way through “Stille Nacht” on Christmas Eve. 

Grandpa never went back to Germany. He never expressed a desire to. But there had to be things he missed.

In his youth, he was obsessed with football (soccer in America), which didn't really exist in Utah in the 50s. Softball was the game in our small community of Granite. The Menssens played softball together as a family on Sunday afternoons.
The boys played in the church league and Grandpa often volunteered as umpire. His accent made him famous for rumbling rolled Rs when calling strikes. The family remains sports-obsessed, but I wonder if Grandpa missed his first sports love.

Germany is green. Watering the garden was never an issue there. It is everything here. Going from a 600 square foot lot to three acres was amazing, but it was three acres of cheat grass--one of the few things that will grow without intentional watering. Today we have irrigation water in pipes and sprinklers. But well after Grandpa passed away, irrigation was still done the old-fashioned way, with pumps and ditches and lots of labor to make sure water went where it should. Irrigation turns were scheduled around the clock. Irrigation was the only reason my grandparents would break the sabbath with garden work. Water was too precious not to. Did he miss Hamburg rain during starlit water turns?

Grandpa was a storyteller, but not a writer. All we have are a few precious pages at the end of a history Grandma composed. And those pages only tell about his life up until marriage. I know there is much more of his story to be found. I'm hoping this blog will circle around the family a bit and bring me some more stories. 

Grandpa’s cherry tree is slowly dying. Fruit trees are not long-lived. Fifteen years ago, a big wind blew off almost half of it. It survived, but large sections break off or die every year. It’s a living reminder of my need to translate my feelings and heritage into words, so I can pass along the legacy.


I'm still under the weather, so no newly finished knitting to show off, but if you are searching for the right St. Patrick's Day gift, it's in my shop. 

Friday, February 17, 2017


I am speechless,


unable to scream into a void of space that cannot hear me.

This is because I have laryngitis, again.

While teaching I would lose my voice several times each year. It is largely an overuse injury caused by reading too many good novels aloud to my students (something currently frowned upon by the system). Once my voice was vulnerable, every case of the sniffles moved into my throat and stifled me.

I had hoped that when I stopped speaking full time, my voice would recover. Maybe, in time,  it still will, but for now my version of the cold/flu my husband is still fighting consists mostly of a runny noise and lost voice. (All the other flu symptoms--fever, tiredness, aching, are my normal.)

One can teach well-trained high school classes with instructions on the board. Not so in middle school, at least not in the rather chatty atmosphere I allowed. Since I never liked to face my students angry, when my voice left, so did I. It was a relief when substitute requests became computerized because telling someone about laryngitis one the phone was literally painful.

Being voiceless is helpless, frustrating, isolating. Even if I didn't worry about contagion, I would hesitate to go out right now because I would have to exchange pleasantries with people at the store, the gym, or the aquarium.

Right now it's easier to talk to my husband and my kids over Facebook Messenger than in person.

That isn't terribly odd for me because I've always been more comfortable writing than talking. Hence this blog.

But this is a somewhat one-sided conversation. I'm not really sure who is reading--my husband, mom, sisters, a neighbor, you. This really feels like a message in a bottle sometimes.

In 1977 Earth sent out two messages in bottles, actually on golden records,  aboard the Voyager Space Probes. In addition to sending back information about our solar system, both probes carry records with basic information about earth in case someone finds them. So far there has been no response.

Despite, or  because of all the communicating we do online, a lot of our messages seem to have been shot into space or dropped into the sea. Metaphorically, I think many of us feel like our voices are lost--drowned out by the crowd or too small or unimportant to be heard. 

Some respond by yelling louder or standing on soapboxes. Many give up and stop talking. 

I could get political with this now (your vote does matter) but that really isn't where my thoughts are headed. 

I have a lot of experience sending out communication without any idea if or how it will be received. While raising teenage sons, all information not connected to food or computers  was met with non-committal grunts. 

As a teacher it felt like every day I would carefully explain the day's activities in front of the classroom only to see my students turn to each other to find out what we were doing. 

Now I write, tweet, Facebook, and email my congressmen wondering if my communication will result in even a checkmark made by an intern.

But whenever I literally shout to the sky, I have always feel heard. Faith doesn't come easily to me, and I am skeptical of a lot of things I learned in Sunday School. But no matter how logical arguments to the contrary may be, I have never been able to doubt that there is a God, that He listens and He loves me. 

I don't do a great job of getting on my knees morning and night, but I run a constant Tevye-like conversation throughout the day and it never feels one-sided.

So, though I may question the reality of Orrin Hatch, the benevolence of Jason Chaffetz, and sometimes even the existence of you, dear readers, I always know there is Someone listening.

I keep you all in my prayers.


I finished nothing this week. Everything is a work in progress. Kind of like life. I can partially blame illness, being less productive than usual this week, but the main problem is having four projects on needles. I need to finish up at least one this weekend. Probably this one:

This will soon be an amazingly soft warm-weather sweater. By the time I'm done knitting for the night, it will start looking like a sweater. This photograph cannot do the yarn justice. The brown is recycled wool and Angora from Renaissance Yarns. The blue and purple are wool/alpaca/Angora by Jill Draper. 

Next priority is the project I showed you last week.

It will eventually be a cowl/eternity scarf, but it was too thick and using up yarn too quickly, so I had to start again. It should work up quickly once I am again smart enough for color work. The amazing mountain merino is raised, spun, and died in Wyoming by Mountain Meadow Wool (and came through their legacy wool club.)

This will eventually be an amazing circular shawl. The mixed color is my homespun wool. The pink and black is 100% recycled cashmere--once again by Renaissance Yarns.

Finally, Bingo helped me photograph what will eventually be a skirt.

I have been working on this since before Christmas. I am not small and I wear my skirts long. If it is ever finished, it will match with almost half of my tops.


Today, Feb 17, is Random Act of Kindness Day. I will be kind to myself by watching lots of nature shows, but will ponder what else to do. 

I consider Sandra Boynton's artistic postings on Twitter and Facebook to be acts of kindness in themselves.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

One More Warren Meme: With a Cat!

This t-shirt is almost breaking my resolve not to buy more t-shirts. $15 more to refugees worldwide

This cat looks far more purposeful than my lazy moochers.

It would be fun to debate the political leanings of my cats. They are probably monarchists. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Tropical Staycation

I have fallen for a fish. This arapaima is beautiful and enormous. You can learn more about him here:


As part of self-care, I have to get out of the house. I need the distraction from my own pain and worries and the escape from social media constantly reminding me that America is in danger. (I also need to escape social media so I don't buy more political t-shirts--of course I have been donating to LDS Humanitarian Aid instead.) 

I long to travel, but my body objects, finances are carefully controlled, and my first plan to mooch a trip with my parents is in May.

But I have found a solution. I can now take mini vacations, so far weekly, to the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium in Draper, Utah. I bought a membership which will pay for itself after about two more visits. 

It is a large, two story building divided into five main environments: Utah, Ocean, Antarctic, Asian Rainforest, and South American Rainforest. There is really too much to see in one visit, but attempting to see it all took my family two hours. 

The biggest draws are the otters (three from Utah, two from Asia) and the gentoo penguins. Getting to pet starfish and stingrays is pretty awesome too.

But South America is my favorite. It takes about a quarter of the building on both stories, with a full wall of windows and rainforest heat and humidity. There are no mammals in this exhibit, but there are free-flying birds, jungle plants, caimans, piranha, poison dart frogs, and a fifteen-foot-long anaconda. There is also a waterfall and a series of little streams with fresh water rays and tiny fish you may have in a home aquarium. 

Though I am a desert girl in my soul, my skin disagrees. What little humidity we have out here has been frozen for months. My whole body itches. I have not been without coldsores since before Thanksgiving.

South America makes me feel better. My muscles relax in the heat. Humidity softens my skin. Even the noise helps. The combination of piped-in drums and bird song mixed with children laughing or crying apparently matches the ambient sound level I got used to while teaching middle school. I think better there. 

Thinking while there is particularly nice because I am trying to write a novel set in the Orinoco river area of Venezuela. What I know comes from books and television. I can now add the aquarium to my sources.

 Good thing this is a horror novel, so the need for accuracy is limited. (Don't expect this novel any time soon. I started months ago and am beginning chapter 2.)

There is also gentle exercise involved. I walk up a ramp through the penguins, then down a ramp in South America. If I feel lively, I can walk both or either ramp twice. There are stairs if I get really ambitious and elevators if things become desperately bad. No matter what, there are plenty of benches and other perches (throughout the aquarium) where I can sit to rest or write. 

The aquarium is mostly inhabited people-wise with mothers and grandmothers herding toddlers, but this weird blue-haired lady with a notebook is now a regular too.

(I'm having trouble with captions today, but all of my pictures come from the aquarium website linked above. That weird mammal you are wondering about is a binturong from the Asia exhibit. You can learn more about each of these creatures on-line or at the aquarium.)


Hats sell best in my shop, so I decided to make a few more, starting with my best-selling Space Invaders,

and then a couple of lizards inspired by the aquarium.

I have a couple other projects on needles right now, in particular one from a yarn subscription through The yarn is gorgeous, but I had a different idea from the patterns they sent. I'll let you know if it works out next week.


So, I have another state-sponsored doctor appointment tomorrow for disability assessment. The info said it might take up to two hours!?

 My husband has been home sick, so I've tried to devote some of my feeble nursing, or at least hot-beverage-making skills on him.

I'm tired. I'm not sure the human condition is ever not overwhelming. Nevertheless - - -


Though the commentary is aimed at women, I think men, at least the introspective men I have lived with, face a similar sort of confusion. There are so many voices, inside and out, judging us and telling us what to do. I'm adding my voice as well because 

My opinion is that you should be kind to yourself this week. I'll try to do likewise.

Here is a link to a project that could help you be kind to yourself and someone else  It is a bit chaotic, but also a chance to do something kind for a stranger.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Scrub Jay of Scrappiness

This tough native bird knows how to survive year round.
Scrub jays don't help with housework. I need bluebirds. 


I've never seen a blue bird. The closest we have around here are blue jays, except that our blue jays aren't real blue jays, but scrub jays, named after the scrub oak that carpets our foothills.  

Related to crows and magpies, scrub jays eat everything. They have a particular love for the walnuts off my dad's tree and the peanuts I put in the feeder.

Like much of life, these birds are mostly grey, but like the bluebirds of happiness and Disney movies, they also provide flashes of brilliant blue.

Too much happiness is rare and can be dangerous. I so was excited about feeling better last week, that I overdid it and hurt myself. During the multiple painful days it takes to recover, days I want to die, I am most aware of the value of each bright flash of joy.

I am also reminded that life is meant to be a struggle, a test, with moments of joy to make it all worthwhile. LDS president Gordon B. Hinkley compares life to riding on a train.

I'm not allowed many "thrilling bursts of speed" and most of the beautiful vistas I see these days are on a screen, but my family and friends make the ride worth taking.

The original metaphor of the "bluebird of happiness" is also one of flashes rather than constancy. Hope may "perch within the soul," but happiness circles overhead. It is something we have the right to pursue, not the right to keep in a cage by the window. 

In troubled times and grey days of late winter, joy can seem to be in short supply. That is when we need to create our own. 

Bright color helps me with this. So I've added green back to the blue in my hair. I also bought a US flag to hang on my front door. just looking at it makes me feel stronger and happier.

We all have battles to fight--work, health, politics, family. When storm clouds aren't overhead, they are on the horizon. 

But to survive, we have to feed ourselves with moments of joy. So grab a peanut from the feeder. Rewatch your favorite movie. Buy an ice cream cone. Read Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings.

 Sit on the bed and sing to the kids about your favorite things so you, and they, will be ready to face the next thunderstorm, and even bigger challenges to come.

When you have enough peanuts, please share with the rest of us.

Although it was inspired by my scrub jays, I call this "Bluejay." It is available in my shop.


I planned the bluejay shawl before the yarn was even made. I received a bag of blue and grey wool through a subscription from and bought additional wool in a natural grey from Spun together, they created a yarn that looks quite a bit like my favorite noisy birds I used a "cherry leaf" lace pattern, meant to look like feathers.

The other shawl I want to show off is made from gradient shades of green in a super soft merino and cashmere blend. I call it "Wrapped in Summer"--how we always wish we could feel. It would be the perfect cover-up for a prom dress. Of course, it is available in my shop.