We “inherited” a trio of cement garden figurines when we purchased the Wisconsin lake home we call Northern Bliss. Noting their blue-and-white outfits, we assumed them to be of Swedish descent.  We named the couple wired to the wooden bench Ole and Lena.  I proceeded to paint the bench baby blue to match their clothes. We rescued a little boy figurine from the weeds near the lake, placed him on a tree stump, and called him Sven.


Growing up in Wisconsin, I’d heard plenty of Ole & Lena jokes. My German father Lester liked to use them to tease my Swedish mother Sigrid, so I assumed that they were Swedish put-downs, like the Polish jokes that also circulated in the Midwest.  Last week, soon after repainting that bench and securing the figures, I read a notice in the Amery Free Press about the a play being put on by the Amery Community Theater  called  “Ole & Lena Go to da Lake.”  This would be an excellent opportunity to acquaint Günter, who emigrated from Germany, with my Swedish heritage. Or so I thought.

We went to the play, wonderfully performed by the local theatre group. We thoroughly enjoyed it and laughed at all the Ole and Lena jokes. But I realized then that while Ole and Lena are indeed Scandinavian, they are Norwegians, not Swedes.  And Sven is the Swedish friend of Ole, who is not quite as bright as he is (which is not saying much).  Here’s the description of these characters given in the program:

  • Ole (Jim Thompson): Thick-headed Scandinavian, fond of fishing, campfires, and beer. Loves his wife so much he almost told her once.
  • Lena (Laura Sjogren): Ole’s long-suffering bride. Scandinavian down to her socks, but strangely passionate when it comes to stoic Ole.
  • Sven (Scott Kaml): Odiferous fishing partner and best buddy to Ole. Guileless. Every now and then he stops to think, but forgets to start again.

After we returned, I asked Gunter whether he’d ever heard Ole & Lena jokes in Europe. “No, they only told Polish jokes,” he answered.

So I researched on-line. According to Wikipedia, one would not even find Ole & Lena jokes in Sweden and Norway. That’s because they are an outgrowth of the American immigrant experience. Turning the misunderstandings and mistakes of a learning a new language into jokes enabled Scandinavians to jest about embarrassing incidents.  The primary reason the jokes have endured is that they are quaint and well meaning.  In fact, the core of this folk humor, says Wikipedia, is probably “the strongly egalitarian sense that permeates the cultural code in the Nordic countries.”

Here are a few of the jokes used in the play (paraphrased):

  • Sven goes out one day to use the outhouse, and he finds Ole there. He has his wallet out, and he’s throwing money down into the hole of the outhouse. “Uff da!” Sven says.  “Ole, you’re throwing the ten dollar bill down into the hole of the outhouse! Whatcha doin’ that for?” Ole answers, “Well, when I pulled up my trousers I dropped a nickel down there—and I’m never going to convince Lena to go down into that mess for just a nickel!”
  • Ole and Lena got married. On their honeymoon trip they were nearing Minneapolis when Ole put his hand on Lena’s knee. Giggling, Lena said, “Ole, you can go a little further now if you want to …” So Ole drove to Duluth.
  • Sven and Ole went to the lake, rented a boat and went fishing. They eventually found a great spot and quickly caught their limit. On the way back to the dock Ole said, “That surely was good fishing. How will we ever find that place again?” Sven said, “Don’t worry. While we were there, I put an X on the side of the boat.”  “But that won’t work!” Ole said.  “Why not?”  “How do we know we’ll get the same boat next time?”

New jokes are invented to fit the modern age. Here’s one from the play about using a cell phone:

  • Ole and Lena were so excited to get a new cell phone. Ole was to call when he was on his way home from town. Ole called Lena when he entered the freeway.  “Lena, put supper on, I’m on my way home.”  Lena said, “Be careful! I hear some nut is driving the wrong way on the freeway.”  “It’s worse than that Lena. Where I am, there are a hundred cars going the wrong way!”

And here’s a parody of that infamous 3 a.m. phone call:

  • A Norwegian answers the phone at 3 a.m. Wrong number, so the caller apologizes.  “That’s OK,” says the Norwegian. “I had to get up to answer the phone anyway.”

To read more Ole and Lena jokes, click here.

One of the expressions my mother used to say when something went wrong was Uff da. Commonly used in these jokes, it’s a handy all-purpose expression I’d forgotten. It has many uses, such as:

  • Uff da – replaces Charlie Brown’s “Good Grief.”
  • Uff da – walking to the next room and then wondering what you wanted.
  • Uff da – waking yourself up in church with your own snoring.
  • Uff da – when something doesn’t work out, such as trying to pour two buckets of manure into one bucket.
  • Uff da – (for the guys) when your two “steady” girl friends find out about each other.

After checking into their past, there’s no doubt that Ole and Lena will remain seated on that bench I painted for them, watching over little Sven.  All they will need is a couple of fishing poles. We wanted to create a heritage home, and these figurines, I’ve decided, are an integral part. Now for that German garden gnome…

P1060233 Ole & Lena view the lake and keep and eye on Little Sven

This night, I leave my bedroom window open, just in case the intruder comes again…

We already knew that a bear was in the vicinity. “Blackie” left signs of destruction everywhere: mangled garbage cans with the lids torn off, crushed metal bird feeders with bent poles, and even scat (bear droppings) on the flagstone path to our dock at Northern Bliss.

But no one visiting our Heritage Home  this summer has actually seen him. The suspense escalates.

Will Blackie come again tonight? It’s been three days now since he left the scat behind. We turn on the exterior floodlights to take a final peek outside before turning in.

At 5 a.m., I’m awakened by the clank of metal against wood. The racket is too loud to be just the coons playing around. Still wearing my PJs, I tiptoe barefoot to the kitchen counter and grab my camera. Then I tiptoe towards the window. That’s him! He is down near the tipped canoe. He’s angrily smashing the round feeder that rolled down against it. I aim the camera at an angle so that it doesn’t focus on the screen. I zoom out the telephoto to catch Blackie at work. He looks back briefly and then continues banging the feeder against the canoe.

Before I heard the ruckus, Blackie had already bent down the two bird feeders near the patio. Now he gives up on this feeder and stands on his hind legs to reach for my new copper squirrel-proof feeder hanging from a tree. Should I chase him away? I think not! Snap.

P1040926 Bear reaches up to check out the copper feeder

He gives up on the copper feeder and rambles on toward the lake. Snap! I note that his length is about half that of the canoe.

P1040929 He walks away in search of other food

He heads for the planter for more food. None there. Just geraniums eaten down by the deer.  Not interested. He turns to gaze at White Ash Lake, flooded in the pastel colors of dawn. Primitive beast against impressionist palette. What glorious contrast! Snap!

P1040932 Black Bear at Sunrise

Blackie heads back, behind the canoe and up the hill from the lake. Halfway up the hill, he stops. How about this wooden feeder?  More food for me? But there’s none there. So he walks right past our upper patio table as I tiptoe toward the door. Snap!

Then he rambles off our property, across the road, and back into the woods. My telephoto is zoomed out as far as it can go.  The photo turns out fuzzy—but Blackie will always remain sharp in my memory. I hope he visits us again.

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After seeing the Lord of the Forest, an ancient kauri tree, while touring New Zealand, I still could not get those kauri trees out of my mind. So when we saw some furniture made of kauri wood in a museum, I made a wish: Someday, if I would have a lake or mountain home, and if I could somehow manage to purchase and ship some of that kauri wood to the States, I would have a coffee table made of a slice of that marvelous wood. Never mind that this is a protected species, like the ancient California redwoods. I put it “out there” anyway.

We walk through the Waipoua Forest to see the ancient, graying Tane Mahuta, Lord of the Forest, the world's largest living kauri tree (Photo from p. 197 of

We walk through the Waipoua Forest to see the ancient, graying Tane Mahuta, Lord of the Forest, the world’s largest living kauri tree (Photo from p. 197 of “Sailing the South Pacific”)

Years later, part of the money from the sale of Pacific Bliss enabled us to purchase Northern Bliss, our family heritage home on a Wisconsin lake. Amazingly, my wish has come true. During the remodeling process of our lodge-style home, wonderfully completed by my son-in-law, Mike Mowers , I googled kauri wood. I discovered that—lo and behold—there was one distributor of kauri wood in the U.S. and he happened to be in Wisconsin! The company is called Ancientwood Ltd, owned by Bob Teisburg. The kauri he sells is pulled out of New Zealand swamps. It’s taken a year, but I finally have a coffee table and fireplace mantle made of that ancient kauri wood.

Coffee table made of kauri wood from New Zealand

Coffee table made of kauri wood from New Zealand

Here’s an excerpt from Sailing the South Pacific:

The Lord of the Forest

I cannot get those giant kauri trees out of my mind.They say that even the redwoods of Big Sur, California, cannot compete with the kauris’ ancient appearance and aura. I must have another look.

We take the West Coast Road (also called the Kauri Coast Road) south. We follow signs posted for Tani Mahuta Track and the Waipoua Forest. There, we have been assured, we will find Tani Mahuta, Lord of the Forest, the world’s largest living kauri tree, guaranteed to take our breath away. This great work of nature was discovered in the 1920s by surveyors who had been contracted to build Highway 12 through the forest. They called it Tani Mahuta after a god in Maori mythology. Tani was the son of Ranginui, the Sky Father and Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother.  Being a jealous child, he separated his parents and then, out of love for his mother, created the living forest to clothe her. As a result, even today, all creatures of the forest are considered to be Tani’s children.

Walking the short track that leads through the cooling shade of the forest canopy, I flush with anticipation. Not far into the walk, we sweep around a corner and I stop dead in my tracks. There he is! Suddenly, I’m brought face to face with the Lord of the Forest. I stand perfectly still. I stare. My first glimpse of this magnificent tree takes my breath away! I can sense Tani Mahuta’s ancient presence and animal strength. He dominates the forest. 

Almost 2000 years old, he, too, is almost 16 stories high, but he has a circumference of over 45 feet.  He is the giant of giants!  An enormous growth that dwarfs everything else. 

A wooden fence protects him. A viewing bench surrounds him. I sit in silence. Awed. I wonder at the centuries that have come and gone under the spreading branches of this primeval forest patriarch. Then, I stand and move back…farther…farther…farther.  I must fit this entire majestic being into my camera lens. I must…I must….And, finally, I rejoice…because I have him!

Part I of the “Northern Bliss/Heritage Home” blog series

August 2012, Balsam Lake, Wisconsin

“What will happen to all your beautiful flowers when we leave here in three weeks?” Gunter asks as he watches me just a’diggin’ in the dirt.

I’ve been gardening for over two hours this morning. Enhancing the flower gardens here at our lake home is more than just a chore.  I am returning to my roots. I was born in Polk County, Wisconsin—in Cushing, less than 30 miles from here.

I set my tools down and move my kneeling pad over to the next clump of weeds to be pulled. “Leave? I’m just settling in, marking my territory.”

Digging in the dirt has become a compulsion since we moved many of our belongings from San Diego in mid-July.

“This reminds me of carrying pails and pails of water for my mother’s and grandmother’s gardens,” Gunter answers.  He points to the foxgloves. “The flowers in Bavaria were very similar to these. Only the flowers had different names.”

Foxglove (Digitalis Purpurea)

Huge hydrangea

Tiger lilies grow well in Wisconsin

I’m not sure how to explain this drive to dig in the dirt, to go back to one’s roots. The compulsion comes from deep within and the process provides deep satisfaction. And when I’m all tired out, my chores completed for the morning, Gunter says I always return with a smile on my face. So it must be good for me.

Even though I’ve been a sailor throughout much of my life, and made my home on the sea for eight years, as a farmer’s daughter, the need to return to the land is a primal instinct. This is not unusual. Captain Cook, who sailed farther than any man had sailed before, retired on a farm in England near where he grew up, that is, until he was called back to sea again for his final voyage.

This land also provides for me a sense of completion. My family lost its dairy farm to foreclosure after the dreaded Bang’s Disease swept through the herd and the milk could not be sold. I was a freshman in college at the time, and I never had an opportunity to say good-bye to that land. It all happened so fast. Perhaps that created a longing in me that I’ve buried as deep as the foxgloves I have planted here.

If so, that longing didn’t surface until I attended my 50th class reunion in St. Croix Falls in September, 2010. I rarely attended reunions, and may not have come to this one had not my granddaughter scheduled her wedding the week prior. During the event, a classmate of mine asked me, “Are you here to look at a summer home?” Her question startled me. “Lake homes here are selling for half of what they were before the 2008 crash.”

That comment set the process in motion.

For the next two days, Gunter and I drove through the countryside admiring the fall foliage.  “I love all the deep blue lakes, the lush rolling hills, and the wonderful colors. It reminds me of my own roots in Bavaria,” Gunter exclaimed.

“That’s probably why so many German immigrants settled in Wisconsin,” I replied.  “They must have thought the same thing.”

“Lots of FOR SALE signs around here,” he noted. “Interested?”

My heart skipped a beat. “Yes! The home should be here in Polk County.”

Now why did I say that? I’ve never even thought of buying a home here. Not sure I want this. Too many memories—not all of them pleasant.

But the die was cast. Actually, the die had been cast two years earlier, when we completed our world circumnavigation. The planned trilogy, “In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss,” would cover the eight years of our sailing adventures. But even then, I thought about writing a book about what happened in the years before we left to go sailing.

During presentations promoting the first book in the series, MAIDEN VOYAGE, many readers asked about our lives before sailing. That would make an interesting story: how did a farm girl from Wisconsin who wanted to escape her past and succeed at business and a boy from Munich who loved math and science meet each other—after many wrong turns in life—and become soul mates?

What would I need to do to write such a book?

I would need to pick up the dialect I’d forgotten. I would need to stay where I grew up for a while to re-acquaint myself with the farming culture again, to regain that sense of place.

OK, I can do that!

Beware of setting a goal. It just may have a way of happening before you know it! I had only a goal. I had no strategy in mind, not even a plan. My writing goal, however, seemed to fit with our shared goal of providing ways to keep our families in touch with each other. Since both of our parents died, Gunter and I have taken seriously the responsibilities of being the matriarch and patriarch of our respective families. We sponsor family reunions where all the children, grandchildren and cousins can get together. Could having one central property for those reunions—sort of a Heritage Home—work for us?

The following year, 2011, we organized a family reunion by renting a cabin on the shores of Balsam Lake, the largest lake in Polk County, to market test the idea.

If we build it, will they come?

It worked!  During the main event, a barbeque on the cabin’s big deck, I counted 28 attendees; they were all related. So the search for an appropriate lake home began.

If it all proceeds smoothly, it’s meant to be.

By the time we left the cabin, Gunter and I had made an offer on a home on nearby White Ash Lake.  After returning to San Diego, and negotiating back and forth, we soon found ourselves the proud owners of a family home.

But the task of remodeling it to make room for our four children and their spouses, five grandchildren (two with spouses), and two great grandchildren was just beginning. We would knock out three walls to make a massive Great Room. I planned the kitchen and dining area to seat 17, the patios to seat 16 and all the bedrooms—including a bunk room we would build—to sleep 16, with space for additional air mattresses. Not all would always come at the same time, but there are always a few extras in any gathering! I am the eldest of ten (nine living), visits by siblings needed to considered as well.

As my readers know by now, Gunter and I love to travel! We had already committed to two international trips—to India and South America—when we purchased the home. In between trips, Mike, my son-in-law, and I managed the remodeling (he did most of the work himself). It was an amazing process and a tight schedule, but a mere two hours before the first visitors arrived in July, the carpet had been laid in the bunk room and the bunk beds installed! (For those readers asking why the India and South America travel blogs remain unfinished, this is my excuse. They will be completed sometime this winter!)

When all the hub-bub becomes too much, I retreat to my garden to dig in the dirt. The birds chirp merrily as they perch on their feeders and splash in their birdbath. The breeze whispers through the pines, birch and oak—so different from the palms in Southern California. And across our dead end street near the woods, a doe stands and stares, daring me to chase her from my hostas.

Life is good here.

She dares me to chase her away from my hostas


Yellow Goldfinch at the bird feeder