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In autumn of life, crafter still has spring in her soul

PLUM CITY--Her hands aren't as limber as they used to be, but 85-year-old Violet Kuesel has kept busy crafting nonetheless.

The Plum City Care Center resident recently heralded the spring season with Easter egg "trees" she's made. Several of the colorful plant-sized creations filled her nursing home room last week and another brightened a dining room at the facility.

"I can't stand it to sit and do nothing," Kuesel said Thursday.

Although the Little Arkansaw Valley native's only been assembling the freestanding Easter decorations the last few years, she's produced over 30 for family and friends, she said. She's given away six of them outright, yet can't afford to part with more for free because of the investment in materials. Further, her failing health has her resigned to cutting back such activity.

"It took me two whole days to make the last one," said the sufferer of Raynaud's Disease, a constriction of the blood veins.

Determined to continue, Kuesel said she recruited help from center staff with the project. A maintenance man drilled holes in the plastic pastel eggs and cut wire for them to be tied to lilac branches. A kitchen employee brought her the branches from home as well as assisted with the tying process. Pots of sand and soil covered with foil serve as the base; ribbon and bows are additional highlights.

She would still like to try more of the 27-inch-high Christmas trees she used to cover with small lights, little bows and pearls, she said. In the only craft classes she's ever taken, at May's Floral in Eau Claire, she learned to make Christmas centerpieces. Silk flower arrangements were formerly one of her specialties, too, as were decorative Easter eggs.

"I helped decorate the nursing home for the holidays this (past) year," she said, remembering it was the first her family had spent Christmas Day away from her home and the last for her late husband, Herman, who died in January.

Kuesel's top claim to creativity has to be 43 years of baking and decorating cakes. Her interest began when her mother, Helen Murray, bought her a cake-making book. She made from scratch Lady Baltimore cakes, wedding cakes, anniversary cakes, even a cake for the 100th anniversary celebration at St. John's, her home church, in Hatchville.

"It took me a week to make it," she said about the silver-and-white rose-themed confection for 300 people.

The cake artist taught technical school classes in her specialty for 10 years, she said. When her students finished the six-week sessions, they knew how to form roses using special tips. From doll cakes, they advanced to larger efforts.

Their teacher, a graduate of Arkansaw High School, had already proven capability in a wide range of pursuits, from knitting and crocheting to helping defend her country. She had worked in a Honeywell defense plant in the Twin Cities during World War II, she said.

Kuesel grew up on the farm of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Percy Murray, she said. She and her brothers, Wayne and Robert, and a sister, Fern, helped with milking, haying, tapping trees for maple syrup and other chores.

After marriage, she moved to her spouse's home farm north of Elmwood in 1940, she said. On their 40 acres, they not only kept cows, but sheep and chickens. She recalled plucking so many pin feathers off the latter that she forced her mate to change his plan to add 200 more. He was also quite a gardener, growing everything from apple trees to pear trees, she said.

The couple have a son, Allen, who bought the family farm in 1980 and now raises beef cattle plus Belgian horses, and a daughter, Ruth Ann, who lives in Menomonie, a supplier for their mom's craft projects. There are five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

The care center isn't Kuesel's first experience with nursing homes. She said she was an activity director at the homes in Elmwood and Spring Valley for four years. Her stepmother was once a resident at the center in Plum City.

She herself came there after several health-related mishaps. The osteoporosis patient recalled picking strawberries when she collapsed and was hospitalized in Eau Claire with a broken back in 1997. She had to wear a brace for four years. Then, she broke her wrist and went to the nursing home for the first time, in Elmwood. Since undergoing a series of setbacks with both feet, her ankle, knee and back again, she's had two stints at Plum City's center, the latest dating to last October.

She said she's pleased with the care she's been given at the center, the good food and the friends she's made there, along with, of course, the support for craft projects such as handmade Easter egg trees.