Radio Head

I love the radio.  Most days while I work, I keep mine tuned to a Boston station that plays an eclectic mix of oldies and Indies.  I find that music sets a tone of relaxed enthusiasm in my office and helps my creative juices flow.  The clock radio I have at my desk is one that I received as a Christmas gift the year I was expecting Gabriel.  In 1984 it was cutting edge, with a blue LED display and snooze button.  The sound quality is surprisingly good, and the sight of it makes people laugh because it looks so “old school.”

For as long as I remember, I have listened to the radio.  My parents often had one playing in the kitchen while they juggled coffee, eggs and kids in the mad rush between sleep and school.  Their favorite was Bob Steele, whose chatty relaxed style made WTIC from Hartford the preferred station in our house.  To me, Bob Steele was as familiar as my father, as jovial as Captain Kangaroo and as comforting as Walter Cronkite.  On the mornings when I missed the bus, my father would drive me to school and together we would listen to Bob play the Dad’s favorites- Billy Butterfield, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles.  I remember one particularly difficult conversation with my angry second grade teacher who demanded to know why I was again so late.  “It’s my father’s fault,” I mumbled, cheeks red.  “He made me listen to the Big Bopper sing “Chantilly Lace.”

The spring that I had the measles, my mother made a bed on the couch in the den so I could listen to talk radio between naps.  Too ill to watch television, I laid in bed and listened for the “beep!” that announced that the speaker had changed from the host to the caller. The callers, in an attempt to hear themselves over the air, often kept their radios turned on, despite the host’s urgings to turn them off.  They were always betrayed by the echo of their voices, and the host would again tell them to turn off their radios, his exasperation evident in his tone. I found this far more entertaining than the actual discussion.

The Christmas before I turned fifteen I got my first transistor radio.  It ran by battery and had a single ear plug so I could listen to it from under my covers.  I stayed awake past midnight listening to “Midnight Confessions,”  “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and “Hey Jude.”  My radio became a constant companion, as the Hi Fi in the living room was usually playing music of my parents’ choice, and besides, I had no money for records.  I listened to my favorite artists while I dressed for school, while I did my homework and while I drifted off to sleep. I lazed on a blanket in the hot beach sand, listening to “Sweet Caroline” and “Marrakesh Express” on AM radio’s Top 40.  

When I went to college, I discovered FM radio- cool stations manned by students with beards and pony tails who had shelves and shelves of albums in the studio.  It was through FM radio that I honed my love for acoustic music instead of the over-produced studio sounds.  I listened to FM radio when I joined VISTA and went to Idaho, but when “Dust in the Wind” was replaced by “Hooked on Classics” my love affair with radio began to fade.  By the time the back of my station wagon was filled with car seats, I had pretty much given up radio all together, choosing to have my toddlers sing along with a tape of Raffi’s “Baby Beluga” instead of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”

When Elizabeth was four, I returned to work, and once again rekindled my relationship with the radio- mostly to make the half hour commute more palatable.  As the children grew, I found listening to their favorite stations brought us closer together, and although my preference may not have been boy bands and Hootie and the Blowfish, I endured endless repetitions of “Tearin’ Up My Heart” to bridge the gap between parent and teenager, and it worked. 

My office radio has kept me in touch with the changing world.  The OklahomaCity bombing, the verdict of the OJ Simpson murder trial, and the divorce of Prince Charles and Princess Diana were announced through the radio on my desk.  On September 11, I fought back tears as my favorite radio program was interrupted by the falling of the Twin Towers.

This morning, like most mornings, I entered my office, switched on my computer and tuned my radio to a Boston station.  I know what the traffic is like, what weather is predicted and when the pressure from my job starts to build, I can float away- just for a moment. 

Now if you’ll excuse me, Van Morrison is on the radio and I love this song…

Why Momma G Loves the TV

“I’ve been craving old shows of Julia Child and the Frugal Gourmet.”  This was in an email from my daughter Abby.  She is in Nashville now, navigating life in a new city with a new husband, looking for a new job.

The mention of Julia Child and the Frugal Gourmet brought me back to a simpler time of watching television with my kids- the days when we all crowded on the couch in front of the lone 19 inch portable that sat behind closed cupboard doors in our living room.

When we were theoretical parents, we were not going to let our children watch TV.  We felt their time would be better spent reading books and engaging in intelligent conversation.  But then life happened.  I was a stay-at-home mother with a one-year-old.  Stuck in a rural home without a car, I felt isolated and alone.  We could not afford cable, so our TV only got one channel.  I had a strong disdain for daytime television dramas, but at eleven o’clock each morning I turned on “The Price Is Right” and watched it with my daughter.   Abby stood transfixed in front of the screen.  When the contestants jumped up and down, she bobbed up and down, clapped her chubby hands and yelled “Come on down!”  We were hooked.

Shortly after that, we moved to a new apartment, which was “cable ready,” and although we still could not afford the cable services, by plugging into the outlet we could get the major networks and PBS.  Public television opened a whole new world of entertainment for the kids- and for me.  We became friends with the gang from Sesame Street.  We listened to stories on Reading Rainbow.  We visited the Neighborhood with Mr. Rogers and we learned to cook with Julia Child, The Frugal Gourmet and Jacques Pepin.

For my kids, watching television was a participatory sport.  When Gabe was three, he was given a cardigan sweater that opened and closed with a zipper.  He took a hanger from his closet and every time Mr. Rogers changed sweaters, Gabriel did the same, zipping and unzipping, taking off the sweater and carefully hanging it on the doorknob to the hall closet.

One winter PBS aired “Sleeping Beauty on Ice,” and Abby decided she should become a professional ice skater.  She didn’t have skates, but she announced that the large frozen puddle outside our apartment would work perfectly as a rink.  She convinced her little brother to be her skating partner, and the two of them spent the afternoon sliding their boots across its surface in a complicated dance choreographed by my five-year-old daughter.  They fell so often that the next morning Abby’s knees were black and blue, and Gabe’s right ankle collapsed every time he tried to run.

As the children grew their television horizons expanded, but only under careful scrutiny by their father and me.  I thought we were doing fairly well at keeping to innocent and educational programs, until one day I watched as Elizabeth and a boy from the neighborhood played outside with a Perfection game.  They would carefully place the pieces into the frame, set the timer, wait several seconds, and run away. When the clock ran out of time and spewed the game pieces onto the sidewalk, my six-year-old and her friend would throw themselves to the ground, rolling over and over.  Puzzled at their antics, I finally asked what they were doing.

My little girl looked up from the grass, pulled a leaf from her unraveling braid, looked at me with that “Mom-don’t-you-know-anything?” expression and said, “We’re playing MacGyver.  It’s a bomb.”  So much for violence-free TV.

When the children were in elementary school we spent the better part of a year with no TV at all.  Gabe and Abby were squabbling over what show to watch and their father, who was not raised with a TV in the house and rarely chose to watch it, got fed up.  He silently walked to the shelf where the “boob tube” rested, picked it up and yanked the plug out of the wall.  It sat in a storage shed until the end of the summer when a hurricane threatened the east coast and I convinced him that for our safety we needed to reconnect it.

As the children grew, I found that watching television with them was more important than arbitrarily deciding what shows were acceptable and what were not.  Cuddling together on the couch in front of their favorite program gave us the opportunity to talk about the values and decisions of the characters.  I suffered through hours of teenage angst while watching Dawson’s Creek with Abby, but it opened the door to talk about many of the topics she had been reluctant to discuss- teenage sex, drinking, drugs.  By talking about the characters’ choices, we could share opinions and values.  Once she knew I would not condemn Dawson and Joey, she could trust that I would not condemn her or her friends.

By watching TV with my kids, I learned what sports heroes my children admired and why.  I found out what kind of music they listened to, what clothing they liked, what politicians they believed in and what kind of adults they aspired to be.  But most importantly, it gave us the opportunity to have fun together. Together we laughed at Seinfeld.  Together we cried during “E.R.”  Together we sang with the cast of “Les Miserables” and together we waited for next week’s episode of “X-Files.”

Now that my kids are grown, I usually watch television alone.  Once in a while, we watch something together, but mostly they are too busy with work or friends to sit on the couch with their mother.  But someday, I’ll have grandchildren. We will cuddle together in front of Grammie’s TV and turn on PBS.  I can’t wait to see what Bert and Ernie have been up to.

Labor of Love

This weekend while I was reorganizing I came across a box full of fabric that had belonged to my mother.  In the box were several yards of green flannel. I suspect my mother intended it for a flannel shirt, perhaps for one of my brothers.

For as long as I remembered, my mother sewed.  I thought perhaps it was because she was very tall and found it hard to find ready-to-wear clothing, or maybe it was the generation in which she was born, or even because she hated shopping.  Whatever the reason, her old White sewing machine was usually left open and our dining room was often strewn with patterns and fabric.

One of my favorites of Mom’s sewing projects was the snowsuit she made for my older sister, Martha-Jean.  Like many young couples, my parents’ income was limited, and heavy wool was a luxury she could not afford.  She cut up my father’s Navy topcoat for the outside and lined it in soft plaid flannel.  After Martha-Jean outgrew it, it became mine and when I outgrew it, I passed it to Robin.  I’m not sure how many Madison children the snowsuit survived, but whenever I see pictures of it, I smile at my mother’s ingenuity and resourcefulness.

Over the years, many outfits were fashioned in our dining room.  My mother, ever pregnant with yet another of her eight children sewed maternity jumpers to cover her swelling belly.  She made skirts and dresses for the girls, wool shirts for my father and brothers.

I never really appreciated what it took to clothe eight children.  In fifth grade I was to play the clarinet in the Memorial Day parade.  We were instructed to wear navy blue serge skirts, and I didn’t own one.  Mom went to her sewing machine and made a skirt out of gray wool that was left over from another project.  The morning of the parade the other girls pointed out how different my skirt looked from everyone else’s.  My cheeks burned as I looked at my gray in a sea of blue and realized that they were right.  I only thought of how embarrassing it was to stand out from the group.  I never considered that my mother had stayed up most of the night making do with what she could afford.  And although I never mentioned it to her, I never thanked her for it either.

When I was in junior high school I came home to announce that a boy had asked me to a dance that was to take place the next evening. My mother hid her dismay, smiled and worked most of the night to produce a beautiful blue dress.  She finished the hem minutes before my date arrived.  Far too late I appreciated the fact that she had taught school all day, cooked dinner for ten people and tucked her children into bed before she even started to cut the pattern.

As she did for many of my sisters, Mom made my wedding gown.  When I called her from Idaho to announce my engagement, she took my measurements over the phone, and went to the fabric store to select yards of sparkle organza and two dozen pearl buttons.  She carefully cut and sewed three underskirts, painstakingly created fabric loops for each button and meticulously measured and sewed tiny tucks in the bodice.  The dress was magnificent- a frothy confection of sheer layers with a long train and billowing sleeves.  I returned to Massachusetts only a few days before the wedding and again she stayed up late to hem the skirts and take in the waist so it would fit.  She never complained and although I thanked her for it, I didn’t fully realize how difficult and time-consuming a project it was.

Now that my children are grown, I know that my mother sewed partly out of necessity and partly because she loved to make something from nothing for the people she loved.  I know this because I did the same thing.  I sewed Bermuda shorts and matching tops for Elizabeth.  I made MC Hammer pants for Gabe.  When winter came and the children needed pajamas, I cut and stitched thick flannel to keep them warm while they slept.  And when Abby’s huge eyes grew large with envy at a classmate’s floral dress with a black velvet bodice, I sewed late into the night on Christmas Eve to finish one for her.

What I know now is that creating something from scratch for someone you love is an expression that speaks louder than words.  Every slice of the scissor, every stitch of the needle, every pressing of a seam sings the phrase “I love you.” 

So now that the holidays are over and I’m settled in for a long stretch of cold weather, I’m thinking that it’s time to pull out my sewing machine and work on a new labor of love.  I wonder who would like a shirt made out of that green flannel?

Now it is January

When I was a child, I loved the month of January.  I think this was because it is the month of my birth, and to children, a birthday is a day of enormous importance.  I would look forward to a card from my grandmother and a gift from my parents, as well as a cake my mother always made from scratch.  My family would sing “Happy Birthday,” the candles were blown out and the gift opened.  By the time the cake was served, the birthday was a memory, but the status of being a year older remained for the year. 

I do not celebrate birthdays any longer.  The years no longer give me a reason to boast and I would just as soon let the day slip by unnoticed.  Just the same, January is still a favorite month because it is…orderly.

December is a riot of Christmas color and sparkle.  Its days are strewn with wrapping paper, ribbons, and lists.  Trees glow red and gold.  Tables groan with platters laden with succulent savories and delectable desserts.  Carols create a backdrop for reunions with loved ones.  Parents whisper plans behind closed doors while their children dance with the anticipation of Santa’s appearance.  December is a cheery crescendo of the year’s hopes and dreams, spangled and glittering like the twinkling lights that herald the coming of the New Year.

As much as I love December, as soon as it passes I welcome the hush of January. In New England, January snows fall quickly and often, covering the gray streets and brown lawns in quiet blankets of alabaster.  Colors are faded and sounds are muted. Even the scraping of snowplows and shovels are muffled under January’s mantle of white. 

This year there is no snow, so the transition from December to January has been marked by what happened inside my apartment instead of outside my windows.  There have been no days of watching snowflakes drift lazily from the sky to the earth.  There has been no waking to a fresh coat of snow on my windshield.  There has been no crunch beneath my boots when I walk across Mother Nature’s spotless carpet.  There has been no stark white to reflect the blinding January sun shining against an azure sky. 

Despite the lack of precipitation, December has indeed given way to January, and although I hate the job of packing away Christmas, I love the peaceful organization that comes when all the tinsel and blown glass are tucked away in tissue paper and taken to the attic.  Putting away Christmas inspires me to set things in carefully categorized arrangement. Corners are scrubbed, furniture rearranged, shelves and drawers are straightened.   I evaluate the stuff that clutters my home, considering whether its worth equals the space it occupies. 

My need for order has been more pronounced this January.  In December, my little apartment was bursting at the seams, and there was more happy chaos than peace on Earth.  Gabe was home for the holidays.  Jennifer, a young family friend, visited from Japan.  Abby was in the midst of packing for her move to Nashville, and Elizabeth was still unpacking from her move from Florida.  There were cookies to bake, gifts to give and of course, there was THE WEDDING.

After weeks of preparation, Christmas Eve arrived and so did THE WEDDING, more beautiful than I had ever imagined.  But after THE WEDDING came THE MOVE, as the bride and groom made their way to their new home more than a thousand miles away.  The week Abby moved out, I made the drive to Logan airport twice; once to say “Sayonara” to Jennifer, and the next day to kiss Gabe goodbye.  When Abby and Johnny closed the door behind them, our home looked a lot like Whoville after the Grinch had stolen Christmas. 

Elizabeth and I sat in the living room in deafening silence, trying to swallow the lumps in our throats.  Gone were the gifts, the suitcases, the ornaments, the food.  Most of all, gone were the people we love most in this world.  December had exited, and taken our joy with it.  Most certainly, being left behind is far more difficult than moving away.  When loved ones depart there is always a footprint left behind; a stray blouse left on a hanger, a forgotten belt in a drawer.  The orphan items screamed in silent barrenness and tore at my lonely heart until my eyes stung and overflowed. 

But it is January and the way we cope with loss is we clean.  And reorganize. We categorize and sanitize.  So Elizabeth and I moved furniture and dusted and polished and redesigned. The washer and dryer hummed. The vacuum sang.  Our home took on a new look and a new sound.  And slowly, we readjusted our hearts to accept the emptiness of our apartment and find contentment in our new surroundings.

Just as I know December will return, I know that my loved ones will also be back.  When the summer sun blazes through my apartment window, they will reappear and our home will again be cluttered and chaotic.  But now it is January, and it is quiet and neat and orderly.  And I hear it is supposed to snow.

2011 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,700 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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