Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Jan. 17, 2014

A different kind of New Year

Husband Art, youngest daughter Katie and I spent most of Dec. 31 on the road to Wisconsin. We began the day with a "drive-through" breakfast at Manhattan's west-side McDonald's. Then we headed northeast through Frankfort, Seneca and Sabetha and into Nebraska and then Iowa. It was an uneventful ride - broken only by a stop for lunch at a Culver's in Des Moines, Iowa, where we all partook of the restaurant's famous "Butter Burgers."

The journey from there to near Dubuque was easy, but then the snow-bordering-on-freezing-fog began as we reached the bluffs along the Mississippi River. The last 50 miles were in Wisconsin's Driftless Area - the land untouched by the last Ice Age glacier. The roads are hilly and winding and the scenery is beautiful when you're not worried about the weather. But this trip, I was more interested in getting to where we were going than looking at the snow-covered scenes passing by outside the car window. I breathed a small sigh of relief at each little town we went through. Yet I didn't relax completely until we arrived at our friend JoAnn's place, a Civil War-era farmhouse nestled in a little valley cut by a small trout stream.

When we arrived, Jo was shoveling snow to form a path for us. She gave us all quick hugs and then we began unloading the car. Nothing was to be left behind to freeze in the below-zero temperatures. We scurried into her kitchen, dropping off food items as we went. I stayed inside while Art and Katie retrieved the rest of our stuff and piled it in the dining room.

The warm home and aroma of chili and freshly-baked bread were welcome after the 10-plus hour trip. Art chastised Jo, telling her we had planned to take her out to dinner, but she said she wanted to stay indoors where it was nice and cozy.

And cozy it was. A nice fire crackled in the wood stove. Before long, Jo's two cats, Presley and Deuce, came to check us out. Presley, 18, was purchased for $1 by Jo's daughter Cari at a flea market. Deuce, about 3 or 4, adopted her by crawling into a hole in the home's foundation. Jo said she heard a muted cry for a couple of days and then investigated the cellar where Deuce had taken up residence.

After supper, we took our bags upstairs. Jo is a sometimes-antiques dealer who cycles the things she enjoys through her home. I rediscovered her collections of wire baskets, tomato-shaped pin cushions, photos, books, wooden bowls, clocks, dishes and old oil cans. Art and I had stayed at the house a few years back, and it felt like coming home to see the familiar furnishings. Jo describes her collections as "primitives." To me, she's an artist in the way she weaves antiques and collectibles among more modern items.

I never saw Jo's home in Chicago where she worked as a vice president of a bank, but Art and Katie had. Although it was a much newer home, they told me it was similarly decorated. Katie has repeatedly said that it takes a certain eye to gather such seemingly random items and make them somehow fit together. With most people, it would just be a house filled with junk.

The old wood floors of her "new" home are warmed by heated water in pipes below them. The warm floors on stocking-covered feet added to the feeling of coziness in spite of the cold and snow outside.

Art and Jo chatted while Katie and I unpacked some of our things in the bedrooms upstairs. We then joined them in front of the fire. We drank wine, talked about this and that and alternately watched the flames and the cats' antics. Deuce would visit each person briefly and then move on to chew on a piece of wood by the stove or shred a piece of paper in a dining room bowl. Presley's trick is to fetch two long gray strips of felt Jo puts on the door knob of her bedroom. When she tells Presley to get her felts, the cat pulls them off and brings them downstairs.

So comfortable was the setting and welcoming our hostess that the old year departed and the new one arrived without our taking notice it had happened. Shortly after, we retired.

A few minutes after each bedroom door closed, Jo called out, "Goodnight, John-Boy!" It was a ritual begun during earlier visits and inspired by "The Waltons," a heart-warming 1970s TV show about a close-knit family during the Depression and World War II years. I answered with "Goodnight, Jo!"

New Year's Day was nearly the same as the previous night. We ate, we talked and we watched the fire and the cats. The only addition was watching the birds outside Jo's windows.

I've never been a big New Year's Eve party person. With Christmas following close on the heels of the end of the semester, I'm usually more than ready to have some quiet time. In most years, watching "New Year's Rockin' Eve" with family is sufficient. We did attend the Little Apple New Year's Ball Drop in Manhattan one year with hundreds of other revelers, but once was enough.

This New Year's was even more quiet than most. There was no television program of loud music or crowd-filled Times Square ball drop, thanks to the little farmhouse set in a valley between two hills. During the day, the snow-filled landscape was marked only here and there by an occasional animal track. At night, the moonless sky provided an inky black background for millions of brilliant stars. And inside, the home's cozy interior seemed to be warmed as much by Jo's personality as the crackling fire in the wood stove.

I'm not quite sure how to do it, but I'm hoping to carry that feeling of our different kind of New Year into the rest of 2014.

Left: Jo's place after a freshly fallen snow; right: Gloria, left, and JoAnn.

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