Notice the joyful things in life -- and be kind about the kerosene pickles

Mrs. Betty Evans sent us a fresh batch of her secret recipe dill pickles every spring. They were terrible. Once upon a time, the delicacies won awards at the county fair, but something mysterious happened and the pickles tasted very odd. We always thanked her warmly and looked frantically for a place to bury them, under the porch or in the outhouse, where they made a satisfying splash.

Apparently, her new secret ingredient was kerosene or something that tasted very much like it. Now you might wonder why we didn’t just tell her the pickles were bad, but in Warland, Montana, population barely 100, hurt feelings couldn’t be risked. Our tiny town without electricity or even running water was really like a close, very sensitive family. I was only 5 but when all of the Evans kerosene pickles ended up hidden in my playhouse, even I could see that some things in life simply cannot be changed or even mentioned, even though the solution may seem obvious. In fact, “tastes like Betty’s kerosene pickles” came to be a tagline for subjects better left alone.

With World War II in the air, my family left the pickles and Montana behind and moved to Spokane. By 1942, a gallon of gas cost 15 cents and rationing restricted everyone to 3 gallons a week. Of course, we didn’t own a car so it didn’t matter. Congress created The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. And of course, The Manhattan Project started, I didn’t know any of that either, of course. I did know that kerosene was rationed, and I was glad.

By the time my teen years rolled around, I was still pretty confused about what could be changed, what must be accepted, and what couldn’t even be talked about.

I started a brief college career at Gonzaga University. The first class of women had just been admitted. which was good, but the reasoning was puzzling. One brochure, still on display, said that the decision to admit female students was made on the basis that Catholic education should extend as far as possible and admitting female students would allow male students to more easily find Catholic girls to marry. Still, I shouldn’t complain. I found a husband in the Dean’s Office and spent the next decades following him over the world through 22 moves.

At 90, I am convinced that growing old is a lot like going through the teen years again in a large unruly family. They won’t let you use the car, you make lots of mistakes, and everybody gives you useful advice that you are determined not to follow.

“Mom, you need to live very frugally,” my son said. “If you run out of money, you’ll just have to die sooner.” I think he was kidding.

Having dinner at a large restaurant recently, I saw a gentleman looking at me intently and I thought perhaps he was expressing interest, but it turned out he was just distracted by the toilet paper that stuck to my shoe when I left the restroom. I turned gracefully on my heel and fled back to the Ladies Room, where I stayed until they threatened to charge rent.

I read an article yesterday which said that 37% of women who reach the age of 90 will also get to be 100. Now, that may seem like more than plenty to you, and you’re saying, “Wow! 37%! That’s a lot, but I’m saying, “Really? Only 37%?” Where do I go to complain?

My grandson is preparing to graduate from high school in Minnesota. “The temperature in Minneapolis is in the 80s and the gnats and mosquitoes are out,” my son wrote. “I can’t imagine why Minnesota isn’t more of a tourist attraction.”

I’m just coming to terms with the fact that I will not be able to travel back to Minnesota for the graduation ceremony. But surely a grandmother is entitled to give a little wise advice.

So, my dear grandson, Matt, here is what I’ve learned the hard way — which turned out to be the way most important lessons are learned:

Every day is filled with opportunities. Most people don’t even notice them. Don’t be one of those. Be a noticer. Laughter fills the heart. Be a laugher. Often, what seems a failure is the open door to success. You already are a success. It’s just a question of noticing.

A friend at dinner last night was having trouble managing her implements because of a tremor in her hands. She put her knife and fork down with a sigh. “It’s that terrible four-letter word,” she said. “O-L-D.” We all laughed, but if old is a “four letter word,” so is “joy.” I’ll have a second helping of that, please. Hold the kerosene.

Where to find Dorothy in April

April 8: 9 a.m. – Coffee Chat and Change the World Zoom presentation. Get registration information at

Or catch her podcast, Swimming Upstream, at There’s a new show every Monday.