Beating the Heat

heat-strokeIt’s 90 degrees outside, and the temperature is still rising.  This is the second day of this heat; certainly not typical of June in New Hampshire, but sweltering none the less.  Earlier in the week my daughter Abby mentioned that her downstairs air conditioner was not working.

I am by nature a problem solver.  I immediately checked my bank account, while calculating what I believed to be an accurate guess of the square footage of Abby’s and John’s house.   I looked up a chart to find out what size unit was needed to cool the first floor.

And then I stopped.

Abby never asked me to help her.  In fact, she stated that by keeping the shades drawn, the downstairs was quite comfortable, and the family could always escape to an air conditioned bedroom.

This gave me pause to think about summers when I was a child.  When I was growing up, people rarely had home air conditioning.  In fact, many stores weren’t air conditioned.  When I was very young, my family had only one small table top fan that whirred like an airplane and threatened little fingers with menacing metal blades.  My older sister and I took turns sitting in front of it on hot nights when our beds were too tangled and we were too sweaty for sleep.  As I grew older,  I discovered that by moving my pillow to the floor underneath the windowsill, I could catch a cool breeze and read by the streetlight at the same time.  I felt as if I had won the lottery.

PopsicleWe children found relief from the heat in many ways. We hiked up Academy Hill to the town library, and sat inside the cool granite walls, turning the pages to lose ourselves in adventures of exotic people in far-off lands.  We sat beneath the shade of the catalpa tree, drawing tic-tac-toes in the earth below the eaves on the north end of the house on Green Street.  We checked the pay phone at the corner of Main and Lincoln Streets for spare dimes and bought Popsicles to split and share.  And on rare occasions, ended the day with a swim at a lake, hanging our bare feet from the back of the station wagon on the ride home.

As a teen I watched my mother orchestrate a daily game of hide and seek with the summer sun.  Early in the morning she opened the shades on the west side of the house and shut the blinds on the east side.  She turned newly purchased window fans to the highest setting to bring in the cool morning air, and then as the sun rose high in the sky, shut them off and pulled the blinds, keeping the house as dark and cool as possible. Housework was done in the early hours, and the evening meal was not cooked until the sun began to dip, making for leisurely dinners savored well after dark.

judah 6.13Certainly reminiscences of the Days-Before-Air-Conditioning are more pleasurable done in the comfort of my apartment, where central air is included in the rent, and window fans are forbidden.  However, I do believe that given uncomfortable circumstances, most people will find creative solutions.  As I learned from my mother, Abby learned from me how drawing the shades and keeping the house neat, clean and calm lends itself to a cooler environment for her little boys.  Yesterday she filled a wading pool for Judah and let him splash until his toes looked like prunes and his hair formed spikes that dripped pool water over his face.  She took him out for sorbet…before lunch! She found a spot in the shade for Abram, who undisturbed by the sound of traffic and his brother’s happy shrieks, turned his face toward the breeze and settled into a relaxed summer snooze.abram

Tomorrow a cold front is supposed to move in, and by Wednesday night the temperatures are supposed to drop to the high 40s.  But for today, the fans are whirring, the cicadas are humming, and I hear an ice cream cone calling my name.

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Ten Optimistic Ways to Look at Aging…Or How to Find a Nugget of Gold in a Pile of Sh*t

Warning: Momma G is feeling snarky.  If you faint at the sound of cuss words and think that life is a Disney movie, you may want to close the page and pick up Reader’s Digest instead.

My sister Robin is having a landmark birthday soon. I know she’s dreading it, because I went through the same thing a couple of years ago.  I’m not sure why we freak out at ten year intervals, but we do. When we hit 30 we mourn the loss of our youth and the days of being carefree twenty-something.  At 40 we ignore the fact that our careers are firmly anchored and our kids are becoming more self-sufficient, and instead concentrate on the crow’s feet around our eyes and gray that appears at the temples.  50 should be a celebration of living half a century.  Often instead of reveling and toasting, we wistfully look back, and wonder why we squandered our youth on things that really never mattered.  And now, another decade has passed and the reality sinks in.  We are never going to be young again.  Ever.

But those of you who read Momma G’s posts know that I am an eternal optimist who believes that in every situation we must find the golden nugget, even if we have to dig a bit to find it.  Here are ten such nuggets.

  1. When we turn 60 people stop telling us what to do. They either think we are older and wiser than they (we are) or old and set in our ways (we are) or it’s just a waste of time since we are old enough to do what we want anyway (and we will.)
  2. photoshoppedWhen we turn 60 people stop remarking that we look tired, and start saying things like “she looks good for her age.” This means we can spend less time on our hair, or makeup.  We can finally let go of the Wall Street myth that tells us we should look like the photo-shopped model who is really only 17 but is playing the part of a 35-year-old who runs a successful business, raises genius children who don’t get messy and has a husband who washes dishes and put his smelly socks in the hamper.
  3. When we turn 60 and buy alcohol we don’t get carded by the kid at the checkout who is young enough to be our grandchild. And if we get a little tipsy (just a little) our kids think we are “cute.”
  4. When we turn 60 people think we are wise, even though we don’t know shit about Snapchat, Vimeo and Twitter.
  5. When we turn 60 our kids think we are hilarious if we swear. Especially if we use the F-bomb.
  6. When we turn 60 our kids think of us as frail and start doing chores like taking the trash out and making sure they don’t leave our cars on empty. My advice? Ride the wave!  Ride the wave!
  7. When we turn 60 it no longer matters who was popular or cool in high school and college. We are all creaky, pudgy, and gray now. The barriers are down and it’s amazing how much easier it is to like each other.
  8. When we turn 60 it doesn’t matter if we dance well or badly. We all look silly on the dance floor, but we don’t care, because we are 60 and life is for dancing.
  9. ladies on the beachWhen we turn 60 we may look like fat old ladies on the beach but nobody judges us, because we are fat old ladies on the beach.
  10. stock-illustration-17749637-gold-minerWhen we turn 60 we realize that most of what we thought were of value- career, money, fame, notoriety didn’t really bring us the happiness promised. But the people we touched- family, friends, strangers in need- they are the jewels of our lives.  The jewels were always there.  We just forgot to look for them.  But the good news is there’s still time to go mining.

Thanks for Caring

deckNew England has been hammered with heavy snow and frigid temperatures for the past several weeks. Boston has been practically shut down and even New Hampshire, where snowy winters and subzero temperatures are common, has been challenged by the relentless cold and drifting snow.

After the fourth blizzard in as many weekends, I woke Monday morning and checked the news for the  temperature.  It was five below zero with wind chills at least four times as cold.  After a hot shower and two cups of coffee, I layered a scarf under my coat, pulled on my boots and trudged through the snow to my car.   It reluctantly but thankfully started, and shivering all the while, I drove to work.  The parking lot at work looked like something from a science fiction movie, with twelve-foot snowbanks and snow-covered paths.   Trying to ignore the wind that bit at my face, I locked my car and hurried into the shelter of the building, where I bumped into the smiling face of one of my coworkers.

He is a favorite of almost every employee where I work.  He is in his early twenties, with spiky red hair and a perpetual grin.  He comes from Project Search, a program that places high school graduates with developmental challenges in the workplace.  He has been at my workplace for several years, and often stops at my office to chat. He tells me his favorite video games and the movies he’s watched over the weekend.  He asks my favorite football team and laughs at me when I admit to not knowing how a fantasy team works.  I know he usually walks to work and back, even though he lives a couple of miles away.

“Are you walking home today?” I asked, concerned about the subzero wind chill.

“Nope.”  My dad drove me here and he’s picking me up.”  He replied.

“Great.  Have a good day,” I smiled, and started for the elevator.

Right before the door closed, I heard his voice, “Thanks for caring.”

Thanks for caring.

I’ve thought about this all week.   How often do we say thanks for caring?  How often does someone say it to us?  And, is caring such an anomaly that it deserves special recognition?

It was by watching my mother that I learned that acts of caring are generally free, but their value is more precious than gold.  She was one of the most caring people I have ever met.  She checked in on the neighbors during storms.  She baked bread and mended clothes for people at work.  It was a rare dinner when there was not an extra place set for a visitor. And she was never too busy to offer coffee and sympathy to someone who was sad, or hurt or just needed an ear.  She always took time for a hug.  She never walked past a stranger without smiling a hello.  She stayed up late when her eyes were heavy with fatigue to finish sewing a costume or a dress that was needed the next morning.

When she became ill, Mom gave me a list of people to contact for her.  She asked me to write letters she was too weak to write by herself. They were letters of kindness that expressed her regret of a moment of carelessness, a word of encouragement, a gentle and final farewell.  And the night she passed away, she took a long look at me and said, “I’m worried about you.”

“Me?  Why?  I’m fine!” I replied, hiding the fear that the lump in my throat would choke the very life from me.

“You’re all alone,” she stated, her eyes filling with tears.  We didn’t speak of the real truth.  Where my siblings had their elderly-handsspouses, I was divorced.  Alone.  She knew she wouldn’t be there to comfort me, to guide me, to help me bear the sorrow in the days to come.

“I’m fine,” I lied.  “I have wonderful family and friends.  I’m never alone.”

Her gaze relaxed and she smiled.  Releasing her from her responsibility was the last gift I could give her.

You taught me well, Mom.  Thanks for caring.

Touchdown!

$(KGrHqN,!p8FIM6+Fs-3BSI7UbdNlQ~~60_1My father had a love/hate relationship with football.  He loved the game and talked about playing when he was in college, although I never knew if he was a member of the school team or if his career was limited to pickup games on the campus fields.  At any rate, he watched game after game on the television during fall and winter weekends.  The family only owned one television set, and my dad hogged, dictated, directed the programming.  Weekends were devoted to sports, and most often that meant football.

My dad sat in his easy chair and alternately cheered for and yelled at the quarterback.  When his team was down, he stomped from the living room to the kitchen, swearing off football forever, and then returned to his chair to watch the rest of the game.  He yelled if my mother’s sewing machine created static on the screen during a play.  He yelled if we kids walked between him and the set.  He yelled because his team was ahead.  He yelled because his team was behind.

Once, in an attempt to bond with him, I asked him to explain the game.  Thirty minute later, my eyes glazed over, I stumbled from the living room more confused than ever.  I was convinced that I would never understand the game and decided that I would spend my weekend afternoons doing something more interesting.

53-4294-coffee-1375134029To fully grasp this, you need to understand that I was brought up in a generation that valued women one notch below the family dog.  If you don’t believe this, take a look at the advertisements that were popular when I was in my formative years.  53-4312-blender-1375143694When I was a kid, girls were taught that they could grow up to be housewives (really? married to a house?) nurses, teachers or secretaries.  Always a bit of a rebel, I was the first girl to ever ask to take high school shop.  I thought the principal was going to have apoplexy, but after several meetings, permission was reluctantly granted.  Oh the times they were a-changing.

For the next few decades, I was content to avoid football games.  My son and his father often watched games on TV, but I busied myself with other activities.  When my kids were part of the high school band, I went to football games, but mostly concentrated on what the band was playing rather than how the team was doing.  I never felt that I was missing anything.  Until last winter.

At the end of football season I was channel surfing on a Sunday afternoon and fell upon a Patriot’s game.  I had noticed that many of my women friends watch football, so I thought I might give it a few minutes.  Something strange happened- I rather enjoyed it.   When the season ended, I thought nothing of it, but when this season began, I started to keep track of the Patriots wins and losses.  I went to the NFL website and read the rules of the game.  By the play- offs, I was watching from my sofa, yelling and cheering.   Dad would have been proud.

I noticed small changes in how TV land regards women.  Commercials shown during half-time are no longer as demeaning toward women.  Women reporters are interviewing players on the field.   According to a September 2014 in the Washington Post, women account for 45% of the NFL’s fan base.  I found that astounding.  And encouraging.

My children were raised to believe that their desires should not be dictated by their gender.  My daughters embrace their femininity, but have never been afraid to try something because it has been branded as a “boy” activity.  My son respects women and regards them as different in substance but equal in value.

Will I ever turn down dinner and a performance of “La Boheme” so I can watch a football game?  Not on your life.  But will I be tuning in to see if the Patriots win the Super Bowl?  You bet your life.

We’ve come a long way, baby.  Rottenecards_2437311_p4tztdknk8

Zing! Thwack! Bull’s Eye!

Years ago, I tried my hand at target shooting with a bow and arrow.  I had tried archery several times at Bow_and_arrow
summer camp, and had little success.  However, this time I had a teacher who taught me the proper focus, stance and grip.

“Keep your focus entirely on the target,” he said.  “Don’t think of anything else. Breathe slowly and calm yourself.”

I mimicked his stance and tried to follow his instruction.

He explained that the bow should be brought into position and the string pulled back in one motion, and promised me that when I found the rhythm it would feel right and I’d know when to let go of the arrow.  My first few attempts sent arrows everywhere but the target, but finally I centered myself and slowly heeded my instructor’s patient words.  It was like a form of meditation, only with a weapon, I realized. I considered the bow an extension of my own arm, and in one smooth motion, drew it up to my chin, pulled back the string and released it.  It was a Zen moment; I will never forget the “zing” of the arrow and the “thwack!” as it pierced the bull’s eye.

In many ways, life is like shooting an arrow.

Most of the time we go through life taking aim at what we believe to be the right target, and give it our best shot.  Sometimes we hit it. Sometimes we miss.  We take our shot and move on, often not seeing where the arrow landed.  But every once in a while, we hit our mark. And if we’re really, really lucky, we get to hear about it.

collegeThe day after Christmas I received the following message from an old friend I recently reconnected with via Facebook.  I had not seen or heard from him since the early 70s.  I clearly remember our last encounter.  It was one of those times when I took careful aim, shot an arrow, and walked away, never seeing where it landed. I doubt that my message was delivered with tact or skill. I was a know-it-all-twenty-something who shot first and asked questions later.  But what I lacked in diplomacy was made up in honesty, for I truly did care about the recipient of the message.

“Garrie, wanted to let you know something. When I last saw you in college, you told me something that I took to heart. You told me that you cared about me and that I was throwing my life away. You were much younger than I but I valued the message and it helped me straighten around. Not long after that I stopped the heavy drinking, focused on what I wanted and ended up landing a professorship at BU. It was an important “lecture” and you delivered it from the heart. Never had a chance to let you know. Now I have. Merry, merry Christmas!”bigstockphoto_arrows_in_the_target_1393338_v_Variation_1

It is a rare and special moment when we get to see that we have positively impacted someone’s life.  It may have taken forty years, but on December 26, I heard the “zing” and then the “thwack!”

Bull’s eye!

Footprints

christmas_tree_decorations_200943It is December and Christmas magic is rolling in like fog across the ocean.  Secrets are whispered behind loved ones’ backs, bells and ribbons are pulled from the attic, and the aroma of pine and cinnamon send shivers down the spine.  The brown soil that November left behind is covered with fresh snow.  It is a time of peace, good tidings and joy.  Everyone is happy.  

Almost.

I came across my nephew’s post on Facebook tonight;

“The world has grown cold now that you’ve gone away, Constance Madison.”

It was followed by comments from my niece, my sister, and my daughter.  They shared the same sentiments.  As I read, the lump that I keep stuffed deep in my throat reminded me that it still lives.  My eyes threatened to spill the hot tears that I blink back whenever my heart longs for my mother, and I thought, “It has been almost four years.”  

It has only been four years.

Almost immediately, I thought of a Christmas carol I learned long ago.

When I was a child, my mother had a beautiful book of Christmas sheet music.  Each carol was meticulously illustrated with angelic children with blushing cheeks and curls gilded with glittering gold.  The pages were as much a delight to peruse as the strains of the noels it contained.

It was from this book that I learned all the traditional carols, from “Silent Night” to “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella.”  My mother pounded the keys of our old upright piano, while we children clustered around her, eagerly chorusing for yet another favorite.   Some of the keys stuck. Some didn’t play at all, but to us it was music of the gods.

One of Mom’s favorite carols was “Good King Wenceslas.”  It’s not one of the more commonly sung carols, and I’ve never understood why, but I know why Mom loved it so.  

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.

“Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither. “
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.

I remember my mother wearing the same old coat every winter.  She lived in a house with threadbare rugs and holes in the plaster walls.  But she never hesitated to give a portion of what she had to someone who was in need.

“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”

I remember putting my small feet into my mother’s slippers when I was a child.  They were big and flopped from my feet.

“Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”

“In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.

The slippers still held the heat from my mother, and warmed my icy toes.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.”

I think it is time to walk where my mother stepped.  To take up where she left off- to christmasmirror her love, and kindness. To give a little more and hold on to a little less. 

I close my eyes, and remember her smile, and the world is a bit warmer once again.

Whimsical Wednesday- A Time for Wishing

Make_a_Wish_by_VefobitseqI have a fairly active imagination and sometimes catch myself engaging in a long diatribe of wishful thinking.  Today, on “Whimsical Wednesday” I decided to indulge and invite you to do the same.  You may be surprised when you give voice to some of your deepest desires.  What do you wish?

I wish that…

Fat cells came off as fast as they accumulate.  I can scoff down an ice cream sundae with extra whipped cream in minutes.  However, it takes hours to burn the calories accumulated by such an indulgence. This is grossly unfair.

I wish that…

Money did grow on trees.  I would own a nursery, although with my current gardening skills such a venture might result in bankruptcy.   Still, it would be fun to harvest dollar bills every fall and give away bundles of them for Christmas gifts.

I wish that…

I had bought a little cottage on the beach back when it was affordable.  It wouldn’t have mattered if it beach 29were small and
simple, because most of my time during the summer would be outside.  Besides, when it comes to cottages, the kitschier, the better.   How nice it would be to drink my morning coffee while watching the sun rise over the Atlantic.

I wish that…

Time travel was possible, because there are some people I would really like to dine with- Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Michelangelo, Elizabeth Blackwell, George Gershwin, and Corrie Ten Boom, to name only a few.  I’d love to meet the little girl who my grandmother once was, and my great, great, great-grandchildren who aren’t even yet a glimmer in a young man’s eye.

I wish that…

The days didn’t pass so quickly.  For all its trappings, I love this life and wish it didn’t speed by at such a breakneck pace.  There is never enough time to spend with loved ones, or watch old movies on TV, or sew, or write or splash in puddles during an August rain.

I wish that…

Every child had at least eighteen years of unconditional love.  I suspect that the world would have a lot fewer problems if we didn’t have to spend so much time making up for being unloved, uncared for and feeling unworthy.

I wish that…

Our culture would stop sending subliminal messages to children that hold them to impossible standards of beauty and body shape.  If we put as much energy into shaping our insides as we do to our outsides, there would be no more eating disorders and many more random acts of kindness.

I wish that…

Time1Life gave us equal time for play as it does for work.  Can you imagine how much fun it would be to have an eight day week- four for work and four for play?  Who says we have to be on a seven day cycle anyway? After all, this is wishing…

I wish that…

We could, as Cher put it, turn back time.  I would do a few things differently.  I would have been more patient with my children.  I would have been more understanding of my father and spent more time with him and my mother.  I would have laughed more and loved better, and taken a vacation more than once every thirty years.

Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Puccini Early in the Morning

mimiWhen I was growing up, my mother often listened to opera music on the record player.  She had loved the opera since she was a girl, and often took the train into Boston to see a matinée performance. My siblings and I heard stories of how she always missed the final act of La boheme, never seeing Mimi fall into her final repose, because she had to catch the final train back to Andover.  She explained the story lines, encouraging us to read the librettos that were neatly folded in the record jackets.  I would scan the page, listen for a few polite minutes, and run off to play hop scotch or kick ball.

My father disliked opera music, and openly complained if my mother played it, but when he was not home, my mother had free reign over the hi fi.  On days when she planned to sew, she carefully removed a vinyl disc from its cover, blew off any dust, and gingerly placed the needle at the beginning.  Soon, echoes of Carmen, Rigoletto and La Traviata would fill the house.   We children often made fun of it, mimicking the mezzo-soprano arias, but my mother blissfully hummed along, pins in her mouth, sewing machine at full tilt.

As I matured, so did my taste for music.  One Sunday evening, Aida was on PBS and having never seen an entire opera, I sat down to watch – just for a few moments.  By the end, two hours later, I was sobbing.  However, my family did not enjoy opera so for the next ten or fifteen years, I never listened to it, save part of an aria bastardized for a television commercial.

Over the years, Mom replaced her scratchy records with DVDs and even put some of her favorite performances on her Ipod.  When she died, I inherited much of her collection, and about a year ago, I began listening to the opera music she loved so much.  I find it enchanting.  Enrapturing.  I forget what I’m doing and find myself in the midst of the scene, surrounded by the players

This morning as I readied for work, I listened to Maria Callas sing “Un bel di” from Puccini’s Madam Butterfly.  The aria is sung by Butterfly – a young Japanese woman who had married an American at fifteen years old.  She married out of love and reverence. He, out of convenience.  As she awaits his return after a three-year absence, she sings, not knowing that he brings his American wife with him, intending to divorce the naïve Japanese teenager.

…He will call, he will callbutterfly
“Little one, dear wife
Blossom of orange”
The names he called me at his last coming.
All this will happen,
I promise you this
Hold back your fears –
I with secure faith wait for him.

It is a heartbreaking piece of music- filled with emotion that wrenches the hardest heart, pulling tears from the driest eyes.

And therein lies the rub.  For a few short rapt moments, I was sitting by Butterfly and she poured out her heart, forgetting that I had just finished applying my morning makeup.  I remembered my first love, the excitement and intensity of it all, and the crushing blow at the realization that it was not to be. My heart swelled with the music, and spilled over, leaving streams of black mascara in its wake.  I had to wipe it off and start all over. Mom would have been proud.

Okay, I admit I am a bit overly emotional.  But here’s the thing.  Opera speaks to the soul as much as it does the eyes and ears.  If you’ve not ever sampled it, try a small sip- just a small bit.  It may be like a fine wine, where you have to acquire a taste for it, rather than say, a margarita that you have to keep yourself from chugging.  But it is truly worth sampling, again and again.

So try it. Just not in the morning when you are putting on your makeup.

Breaking Bread

Usually I pack my lunch before going to work, but today I bought a cup of soup at the soupcafé on the first floor of the building where I work. I burned my tongue on the thin broth while answering my email and searched the bottom of the styrofoam cup for bits of chicken and summer vegetables.  After the soup I ate a handful of cherries, and an hour later, I was hungry again.

Listening to my stomach growl, I wished I had brought something from home that might fill the empty gap.  From the depths of my past came the memory of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on my mother’s homemade bread.

We rarely bought bread from a store when I was growing up. Instead, my mother made it from scratch, six loaves at a time, every few days.   She mixed it in a large aluminum pail fitted with a hand-held churn.  It took two people to start the mixing process- one to hold the bucket and one to work the churn, but in no time, the flour, milk, butter and yeast came together to form a giant ball, which she would turn out on the counter and knead until it was smooth.  Once in a while, she used the side of her hand to form crease in the middle of the rounded loaf and spanked the “baby’s bottom.”  We children would explode in peals of laughter and beg to give the bottom a spank too.

From this basic white bread recipe, my mother made countless treats.  She filled muffin cups with balls of dough to produce steaming dinner rolls that dripped with melted butter and sopped up gravy from Sunday’s roast.  At Christmas she decorated stollen with a sugary glaze and candied fruit, and gave them as holiday gifts to our neighbors and friends.  During the summer she fried dough and sprinkled it with cinnamon and sugar, creating a treat for hungry children who entered the house from the front door and exited from the back.  She toasted bread for breakfast, sharing the crust with Greta, our collie shepherd, who preferred hers with a bit of peanut butter.

On most days, however, Mom formed six even loaves, carefully kneaded and risen, and baked them three to a rack in an old gas oven.  Half way through the baking, she moved the loaves on the top rack to the bottom, and vice versa, to ensure that they were evenly baked. She taught me to remove the golden loaves from the oven, dump them out of their pans and tap on the bottom with a finger.  The ring of a hollow thump meant the loaf was fully baked.  A dull thump indicated that the loaf needed a few more minutes in the oven, least it be gummy in the center.  Placed on racks to cool, each loaf was coated with a thin layer of butter, so a soft crust would form.  An hour later, the cooled loaves were sealed in plastic bags, ready for the next hungry batch of children.

There was nothing like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from my mother’s sunbeamkitchen.  A huge slab of bread was spread with Sultana peanut butter, which was sold in a huge yellow tub that was later used to collect sea shells and starfish at the beach.  A second slab of bread was spread with strawberry preserves that Mom canned on hot June evenings.  The slabs were gently pressed together and cut on the bias.  Paired with a cold glass of milk, it was a filling repast fit for any king, or at least any kid.

As a child, I didn’t understand why my mother made bread instead of buying it at the grocery store.  My friends ate Wonder Bread, or Batter-whipped Sunbeam bread.  Their sandwiches fit neatly into little bags, while mine were bigger, sloppier and had to be wrapped in flat sheets of waxed paper.  It seemed to me that Mom could have been doing things that were much more fun than kneading and baking.

I was right. Mom could have been doing other things.  But to her, feeding her family was an extension of who she was.  Her hands- the same gentle hands that wiped tears from little cheeks and pushed back bangs from sweaty foreheads firmly kneaded the loaves that would nourish her growing children.  Every cup of flour was measured with care.  Every slice of bread was a gift.  A metaphorical kiss.  A work of art laced with love.

Wish as I might, there will be no peanut butter and jelly on my mother’s homemade bread for me, today, or any other day.  But the memory is as sweet as Mom’s strawberry preserves, and the memory alone got me through to the next meal.  And it made me think of the meals I cook for my family.  Do I put as much love into the dishes I serve them?  Hmmm…food for thought.

Five Things I Learned from My Dad

June 19 marked the fifteenth anniversary of my father’s passing.  I was amazed that fifteen years had passed since I stood by his bed and watched the last spark of life drain from his ocean blue eyes.  And strangely, I missed him more this June than I have in several years.

dadMy dad was a flawed man.  He was a late-in-life only child, and never really mastered money management and the responsibilities that came with having a wife and eight children.  He had a temper- we kids drew straws to see who would get stuck waking him from a nap- but his outbursts were only verbal, and by the time I was a teen I realized he was pretty much all bark and no bite.

Some men’s sins are hidden from view, but Dad’s hung on his sleeve for all to see, and often my siblings and I lost patience with the man who was supposed to be our role model.  But as I age I see more clearly that nobody is all good or all bad, and that instead of fixating on the tragic flaws of our heroes, we do better when we focus on their qualities.  Here are a few of the lessons that Dad taught me.  I hope you will learn from them too.

1.  Listen to the music

When I was in elementary school, it was not unusual for me to miss the bus.  Unhurried, my dad would take the last sip of his coffee, saunter to the car, and drive me to Hillside Elementary.  We always listened to the radio on the way, and Dad, a fan of pop music and jazz, would slow to a crawl as we approached the building, so we could listen to the last part of the song.

My teachers, hands on hips at my late arrival, never understood the excuse, “Buddy Rich was playing a drum solo,” or “Bobby Darin was singing “Mack the Knife,” and I finally just quit trying to explain.  What they didn’t understand is that music is the soundtrack over which our life is played.  Start the morning with a great song, and I guarantee the rest of the day will be a little better.  Even now, when there is a song playing on the radio that I particularly like, I find it hard to turn off the ignition before it ends- even if I’m late for work.

2. Talk to your kids as if they are adults.

I’ll never know if it was a conscious decision or because my dad craved company, but he treated his children as if their opinions had value that equaled his.  From the time I remembered, he would welcome us at the kitchen table, pour a cup of coffee (half milk for those under seven) and engage in conversation about current events, sports, television or our plans for the future.  Conversations were heavily dosed with stories about his youth- some of them factual, and some embellished- but as much as he talked, he also listened.  There were no lines drawn by age or maturity.  Nobody ever said, “This conversation is for adults only,” and because of this, I grew up believing my ideas had merit, and consequently, I believed I had value.

3. Laugh loudly and heartily.

My father was not a silly man.  He did not like slapstick or stupid situation comedies on TV.  dad 60sHe rarely told jokes, and he very much disliked humor that was humiliating or embarrassing to anyone.  However, whenever something struck his funny bone, he laughed long and hard.  He was a huge fan of Johnny Carson and loved Carson’s one-liners and the camera mugs that made his audience explode in peals of belly shaking laughter.  One of my favorite childhood memories is when I would lie in bed way after dark,  and hear my parents roar with laughter at the late night antics of Johnny and Ed McMahon.

4. Find your voice. 

When I was four years old, I began racing quarter midgets.  I wasn’t very good, but one night I finished second in a race, earning myself a ribbon.  When presentations of trophies were made at the end of the races, my name was not called.  Tears streaming down my cheeks, I went to my father, who picked me up in his arms and carried me to the officials’ table.  Drying my eyes with his handkerchief, he explained that I had to speak up and collect my winnings.  Rather than doing the talking for me, he prompted me to explain to the officials that I had taken second place in my race,  and had been missed in the presentations.  His presence gave me courage, and a moment later I was running to my older sister to show her my purple ribbon.  Although it was a small lesson, I have never forgotten it, for that evening I learned to bravely speak up when I believe myself to be right.

5. Figure it out.

Although I would never call my dad lazy, he was often unmotivated to do chores when his children could do them for him.  It was Dad’s expectation that his kids figure out how to take care of him and their younger siblings with little or no instruction.  Those who could read could certainly follow directions.  He and my mother let us have free reign in the kitchen, the cellar work bench and the back yard.  I changed cloth diapers and fed babies before I entered school, and could cook a meal for ten people before I was in sixth grade.  I weeded the garden, hung wallpaper and taped sheet rock, and my brothers learned to wire for electricity and rebuild motorcycles- with little guidance and absolutely no hovering.  Trial and error may not be the most efficient way to learn, but it leaves lasting impressions.  Just ask my brother Scott, who discovered the strength of electricity by inserting a bobby pin into a wall socket.

I’m not sure if Dad knew the value of self-directed learning, but I do know that his children grew up to be independent, motivated adults who take pride in figuring out how to complete a project by themselves.dad 70s

So today I salute my flawed, imperfect Dad.  Every time I ride a wave, or pour a cup of coffee, or watch television with my feet tucked up under me, I remember that a part of him still lives in me.  I remember his blue eyes, the way he jingled his pocket change and coughed when he came home from work, and how he drove through snowstorms to bring me home from college for a long weekend.  I remember, and with a lump in my throat, I give thanks.

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