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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Spring- Time for a Change!

crocus snowIt is the end of April and although the temperature at sunrise was only a few degrees above freezing, in New Hampshire we have spring on our minds.  I love winter with its frigid winds that blow drifts of alabaster frost against my window panes.  But in April, I am ready for a change.  And spring is a season of change- crocuses that peek out from under the flakes of a rogue snowstorm, the explosion of yellow forsythia, the promise of buds on the barren tree branches.

Where I work there is a ditch that separates the parking lot and a small field.  When the snow melts, the ditch fills with water that ices up at night and melts during the day.  A couple of weeks ago, I got into my car at the end of a long day of work and sat back, relishing the warmth left by the afternoon sun.  In silence, I watched the wind ripple the water in the ditch, and my mind flew back to the days when I was a child. 

Bodies of water hypnotize children, drawing them near, begging them to forage around the frozen earth until they find something that will float.   A dried oak leaf left behind by last October’s winds makes the perfect canoe, and a blade of new grass its navigator, and before long, an adventure ensues.  At the house on 30 Green Street, I had many such adventures.  On Saturday mornings, it was not unusual to hear my mother admonish us with “Shut off that idiot box and go outside and play!”  It didn’t take long to learn that dawdling inside resulted in being assigned a household chore, so as soon as Roy Rogers and Trigger headed for the sunset, I bolted out the door and headed across the street to play down by the river.

In April, down by the river was alive with the promise of spring.  Under the dark umbrella oftarzan fir trees, a small rivulet bubbled between frozen banks, creating the perfect opportunity to race leaf boats or splash chunks of ice under the surface to see how quickly they would melt.   Tiny sprigs of green peeked from under tufts of grass bleached dry by last summer’s heat.  And in the shaded areas never kissed by the pale winter sun, granular snow formed fields of ice crystals.   I had spent the winter watching Tarzan movies on our black and white television, and imagined the ice crystals were real diamonds, waiting to be scooped up and smuggled out of the African wild.  My fat, Persian cat, Perfidia, who loved to hunt down by the river, became a wild lion.  I faced him down like Tarzan did, yelling “Ungawa!” Undaunted, he sleepily blinked at me, and rolled over to let me scratch his belly.  When I had finished, my lion, purring contentedly, trotted off in search of a field mouse or a mole. 

We repeated this game for years, until I traded fashion magazines and lipstick for woodland adventures and Perfidia grew so old that one day he went down by the river and never came home.

As I sat in my car watching the ditch, I thought about change.  How curious that although I welcome the change of each New England season, I fight the changes that threaten to upset the delicate state of my life’s sameness.  I follow the same routines during most of my days.  I rise at five, shuffle from the bedroom to the kitchen to pour my coffee, and shuffle back to my bed where I sip and watch the news.  I always make my bed before work.  I always check the mailbox when I get home from work.  I always lock the door and turn down the heat before crawling between the covers at the end of a day. 

cruiseAnd yet, like the way spring sweeps away the cobwebs left behind by winter’s dry breath, the spring of my life is upon me.  I’ve packed away my winter coat and rearranged my closet to make room for summer clothes.  I’ve taken on a new and challenging project at work.  And I, who have not taken a vacation in over thirty years, have bought and paid for a cruise to Alaska’s Inner Passage, to be taken at the end of May.  It’s not exactly down by the river, but there will be water and adventure, and excitement. Besides, it’s spring- time for a change.

It’s Only Cardboard…

Yesterday at work, I took my soup to the microwave at the end of the hall to heat it.  While I stood waiting for the broth to bubble, I caught sight of several large sheets of cardboard leaning against the wall.  They were marked as trash, and my immediate reaction was, “Oh no!  Don’t throw it away.  There’s so much you can do with cardboard!”

When I was growing up at the house at 30 Green Street, cardboard was saved and used for  myriad art projects.  The lightweight sheets of cardboard around which my father’s dress shirts were folded quickly were doled out for art projects.  I loved to draw my own paper dolls, carefully cutting them out, sketching faces with colored pencils and fashioning clothes out of bits of construction paper reserved for school projects and sick-in-bed days.  Some days I used the cardboard to create masks for my younger siblings, cutting holes for eyes and nose, and stretching an old elastic band to hold the masks to their little faces.  Cardboard became a flag to tape to a pencil and wave at the veterans who marched in the Memorial Day parade or a poster to paint with tempera and advertise a sidewalk lemonade stand.  It was the stuff made into swords and shields to play pirates in the back yard, or a lean-to for imaginary hobos.

Cardboard boxes were used to store summer clothes during the winter months, and winter clothes that my mother packed away in spring.  They stored tools in the garage, linens in the attic, and books that no longer fit on the shelves in the living room.

Cardboard boxes also made great summer sleds.  One sibling would sit inside the box, holding a jump rope or baton.  The designated puller would drag the rider all over the back yard, until the puller tired and the roles were reversed.

One hot summer afternoon, my sister Robin and I decided that dragging through the yard was not nearly exciting enough, and decided to try riding our cardboard box sled down the stairs.  My taste for adventure trumped my better judgement, and I volunteered to make the maiden voyage.  The stairs in our old New Englander were steep and covered with a green and brown print runner, worn thin at the edges.  At the top of the stairs, I sat in the box, and bracing my hands against the bannister and wall like a luger, pushed off.

I have never careened down a staircase faster.

I landed with a thud against the heavy front door and lay crumpled on the landing, wondering if there was blood was running from my aching head.  Robin quickly abandoned the idea of a second attempt, and went off in search of a popsicle and a bit of shade under the maple tree.

Perhaps the most common use of cardboard in our home was for patchwork.  Our house was  close to a hundred years old, with wall with holeplaster and horsehair walls that lifted from the lathing and crumbled when curious small fingers poked at them.  Small holes became big ones, and without the funds to do proper repairs, my mother resorted to patching the holes with sheets of cardboard and masking tape.  I saw nothing unusual in this, and actually liked the patches, pretending they were secret portals to unknown worlds.  It wasn’t until I was well into my teens that my parents had the funds to replace plaster and patches with sheet rock.

Looking back, I wonder if visitors thought the cardboard and masking tape patches were strange. They must have noticed- they were in plain sight, among the peeling wallpaper, threadbare rugs and chipped woodwork.  And yet, our house was always full.

What I know now is that people didn’t visit 30 Green Street for the décor of the walls.  It was the love that lived within the walls that lured the steady stream of children and adults who entered through the front door and exited through the back.  The sound of laughter from the kitchen table and the offer of coffee and conversation permeated the crumbling walls and blurred the cardboard patches that held them together.

Now, I live in an apartment with clean white walls.  I keep my out-of-season clothes in plastic bins that keep my garments clean and dry.  There are no patches in my life- at least none that can be seen. My use for cardboard is limited to times I need to donate items to the Salvation Army or Goodwill.

But still, when I see large sheets like those waiting for the cleaning crew to tidy my work hallway, I think of the possibilities and wonder…

Mom, Me and Jack Daniels

   Yesterday, my cousin Mark sent a very sweet email to our family in remembrance of my mother.  Her birthday was January 7th- one day after her mother’s, my Grammie Dow.  Because my birthday is also in January, my mother and Grammie told me I was special like them.  I believed them and to this day, January is my favorite month.
   To celebrate our January birthdays, my mother and I often “split” a gift.  We took each other out for lunch to celebrate.  In reality, it was just an excuse to sit across a restaurant table and catch up, but it was a nice way to give each other a small gift.  Mark’s email reminded me of how much I miss sharing that birthday lunch, and also reminded me of how I have chosen to celebrate my mother’s life on her birthday.
jack daniels   A week or two before my mother passed away, my nephew Jason brought a small bottle of whiskey to her at the hospice house.  She liked whiskey, and when I was growing up, she and my father often would enjoy a drink before dinner.  My father drank Jim Beam or Jack Daniels on the rocks with soda and my mother drank hers with water.  I never understood how they could drink the stuff.  To me it tastes like medicine, and the only time I could swallow it was when my father mixed a teaspoon with honey and lemon to quiet my coughs.
   It was against the rules to have alcohol in the hospice house (I guess they were afraid that dying people might get drunk and rowdy) and the nurses asked me to take the bottle with me when I left for the evening. I took it to my house and stuck it in the cabinet.
   After Mom died, I decided to drink a toast to her on her birthday, and on January 7, alone in my kitchen, I poured a shot (more like a half shot) of the whiskey and after toasting her, drank the entire thing down in one swallow.  I shuddered for almost fifteen minutes, and while I can’t say I enjoyed it, the warmth that followed the shudder made it tolerable.
   Last year on Mom’s birthday, I did the same thing, with the same reaction of shuddering for a good  fifteen minutes.  Maybe it was the whiskey, but I imagined that I could hear her chuckle at me.  I have to admit that I imagined the warmth that spread from my stomach to my toes was more a hug from my mother than a blast of alcohol.
   You would think that after two years, I would be used missing my mother, but I am not. Not a day goes by that I do not think of her- miss her soft gray eyes and warm embrace.  I see her in my children.  I see her in myself.  But when I feel  my eyes become hot with tears and my heart wrings with loneliness, I remember her last hours.  As she hovered between this life and the next, I saw her exert great effort to raise her arms toward Heaven.  Again and again, she would raise her hands to the sky and then, not strong enough to hold them up, she allowed them to drop to her bed.  I knew that she was transitioning- that her eyes were no longer set on earth and her loved ones here, but instead on the God who had steadfastly guided her through the past eighty-two years.  And as much as I wanted to call her back and beg her to stay a few more hours, I could not.  She had taught me well.  Part of loving is letting go.
   The bottle of whiskey still remains in my cupboard, untouched since January 7, 2012.  Tonight I will again pour a half shot (guess I will never be much of a drinker) and toast my mother, and her mother. Heck- I’ll toast all our mothers, since they are more alike than different.  Perhaps you will join me.  Pour a shot- whiskey, wine, rum…even milk.  It doesn’t matter.  Raise your glass, think of your mother and thank God for the time you had with her.  If you shudder like I will, and listen very carefully, you might hear a tinkle of laughter from on high. That’s Grammie and Mom, waiting for the rest of us.

Did You Make Your Bed This Morning?

unmadeWhile waiting at the dentist’s office this week, I read an article called “Happy Habit: Make Your Bed” but Jackie Ashton. In the article, Ms Ashton admits to hating to make her bed and resolves to amend her ways, explaining how this daily chore sets the stage for a more orderly and productive day. Her catch phrase, “messy bed, messy head” spoke a resounding truth to me, for I am a bed Nazi.

I’m not sure where it began, but I think I can blame my mother for my obsession with a neat bed. It was my mother’s expectation that our beds be made before we left for school in the morning, and I, being one of the eldest of the clan, had to set an example for my six younger siblings.

Without fail, at 30 Green Street, every Saturday morning all beds were stripped and all sheets washed. My mother hung them on the clothes lines, where they would flap in the breezes of the backyard until they were dry, to be carefully returned to the beds before the youngest child’s bedtime. The ritual did not stop there, however. When Saturday evening came, all heads were shampooed and all nails trimmed, and by nightfall, every child was scrubbed and shiny, clad in clean pajamas and tucked between smooth percale sheets that smelled of fresh air and sunshine.

I was a teenager before we had contour sheets for our beds. My father, who had been in the Navy, taught us to make square corners from flat sheets, showing us that sheets on a well-made bed would endure several nights of slumber before coming un-tucked. We often paired up in teams of two to make beds on Saturday afternoons, and my sister Robin and I devised ways to make the chore more enjoyable. Making beds for ten people could be a daunting task, but our games made the work less mundane. We bent back the mattresses and pretended they were horses while we jumped on the bed springs. We folded blankets like flags, creating tidy wool triangles that sat on the sheets until it was time to unfold them and tuck them under at the foot. We tried flipping coins on our freshly made beds, in hopes that they would be as taut as those in the military barracks my father had described. square corners

The real test of our bed-making skills came when my mother came to our beds to hear our prayers and tuck us in. A poorly made bed would result in a “tsk tsk” as my mother smoothed the sheets and refolded the square corners. She would unscrew the handle on the steaming radiator to turn off the heat, and prop the window open a few inches- even if the night skies were filled with snowflakes. She would sit on the side of the bed, stroke our heads and listen to our vespers, then with a kiss the cheek, she would tuck in the sides of our covers so tightly it was almost impossible to roll over. The ritual worked. It took me moments to enter dreamland, and I never woke until morning.

It is probably because of my childhood that I am so obsessive about my bed. Every morning, as soon as I have showered, I make my bed. I do not remember a time when I have left it rumpled from the last night’s sleep. I hate when people sit or lie on my bed during the day, but I tolerate it, knowing that having my kids flop on my mattress for a heart to heart talk is more important that how my bed looks.

But when it is time for bed, the rules must be followed. The bottom sheet has to be wrinkle free. The top sheet has to be neatly pulled up to my chin and carefully folded over the end of my comforter. My pillows must be plumped, smooth and cool. And truth be told, during the winter I am known to open the windows just a crack, even if the snow falls from the night skies.

bedI have thought about my bed making rituals many times. Perhaps it is to bring order to the chaos of the day. Perhaps it is to prove to myself that although I cannot control the entire world, I can control mine. At least a little bit. Perhaps it is just a way to pay homage to my parents, who gave me years of peaceful dreams in a little house with too many kids.

Ms Ashton, I am happy you have joined the ranks of the bed-making brigade. Now, let’s talk about the towels on the bathroom floor…

The Christmas Gift

wrapping paperIt is December, and is time to wrap the gifts I’ve carefully selected for my children.  A few evenings ago, I rummaged through the attic in search of paper and ribbon and came across a box marked “Sentimental Stuff.”  Inside is a music box with a dancing clown.

In the late summer of 1982, I window shopped at Johnson’s Bookstore in Springfield, Massachusetts with my husband, Paul.  Johnson’s was an amazing store with rooms upon rooms of books, toys and art supplies.  We browsed for hours, leafing through pages, and dreaming of giving the beautiful dolls, books and teddy bears to our unborn child.  On a shelf were small shadow boxes containing jointed paper clowns that danced when the music box on the back was wound. I was immediately taken by them, but I knew my practical farm-raised husband would not recognize the value in such frivolity.  Besides, in those lean years, our pennies were carefully counted and reserved for bare necessities, so after a few moments of watching the paper clown dance, I turned and left the store.

That December as the holidays approached, we struggled to pay for food and oil.  We kept our heat only high enough to keep our pipes from freezing, and heated water on the stove for dishes and bathing.  Our finances were grave, but our mood was bright.  It was Christmas, after all- the celebration of our Savior’s birth.  Christ was born into poverty with the sole purpose of dying for all mankind.  And yet, there was no bitterness in His birth.  The heavens rejoiced, and so would we.  We decorated a small tree and settled in front of the fireplace to discuss our gift giving budget.

After a long conversation, we settled on rules for our yuletide celebration.   We would each have ten dollars to spend on each other.  There would be no cheating, no borrowing, no allowing anyone else foot the bill.  Everything under the tree would have to be something we made ourselves, or bought within the ten-dollar budget. 

During the following weeks, I stretched my sweater over my growing belly and concentrated on knitting wool scraps into mittens for my husband.  I used my ten dollars on wool socks, a flannel shirt, and Christmas goodies to fill Paul’s stocking.  A few days before Christmas, I finally finished the mittens.  They were pieced together in stripes- tan, rust and brown, all from yarn left over from my mother’s past projects, but the stitches were tight and they promised to keep his hands warm when he shoveled our long driveway on snowy mornings.  I carefully wrapped them, hoping they would fit his hands, and wondering if he would like them.

Christmas morning dawned and we feasted on eggs, homemade muffins, and coffee.  We prayed our thanks to God for the amazing gift of His son and sat at the foot of the tree to open gifts.  Paul was pleased with his. The shirt and socks fit and he promised me that he loved the mittens and would wear them often.  Then he handed me a small box.

I slowly opened the red and white paper and to my surprise, discovered the dancing clown music box clownfrom  Johnson’s Bookstore. 

My eyes filled with tears.  “You cheated!” I accused, knowing the music boxes cost far more than our budget had allowed.

“No- really,” he protested.  I kept looking and looking but I couldn’t find anything I liked that I could afford.  I went into Johnson’s and this was the only one left.  It was stuck in a corner and was a bit dusty.  There wasn’t a price tag on it, so I asked.  The clerk couldn’t find a price, so he offered to sell it to me for ten dollars.” 

“I saw how much you loved it last summer,” he said softly.  “I wanted to get it then, but I couldn’t afford it.”

My eyes filled with tears and I hugged him as tightly as my swollen belly would allow.  We placed the clown on a shelf where it served as a reminder that young love can overcome the tightest budgets and the toughest obstacles.

Somewhere in the years that followed the music box stopped working.  Perhaps it was wound too tightly, or maybe its Christmas magic just ran out.  But the clown stopped dancing, and the music stopped playing, and eventually the marriage ended.

But in December, there is no room for bitterness. Although we are no longer a couple, I still remember that Christmas with great fondness.  Even though we cannot live as husband and wife now, the love we shared on that day, and for many more was real and true. 

I carefully put the clown back in its box and closed the lid.  Then, taking a deep breath, I grabbed a roll of paper, turned out the light and shut the door to the attic.

Tinkerbell, NSYNC and other Magical Moments

A friend of mine returned to the office today after spending a week at Disney with her family.  Jodi has two beautiful daughters who are the perfect ages for a wonderland full of magical creatures.  She told me how they waited in line for an hour to see Tinkerbell and Periwinkle, the two fairies that appear in Disney’s latest movie.  I imagined standing in line with two antsy, excited little girls, surrounded by other antsy, excited children.  Somehow, the mental picture was rather unappealing. Indeed, just yesterday I was at the mall, doing some preliminary scouting for Christmas gifts.   There was a long line of families waiting to see Santa and I heard child after cranky child whining and crying because they were too tired, too impatient, too hungry or too indulged.  Standing in line for an hour for kid’s stuff does not in any way appeal to me.

Jodi broke my train of thought.  “The girls were really well behaved, and besides, seeing the looks on their faces when they finally caught a glimpse of Tinkerbell and Periwinkle made it all worth it,” she explained.

And then I remembered.

It was the late 90’s, and Abby was fifteen. She and her friends were huge fans of the boy band, NSYNC.  She  listened to NSYNC mix tapes.  She watched NSYNC videos.  She was glued to the TV set for NSYNC interviews and had NSYNC posters. There were times when I thought if I had to listen to “Tearin’ Up My Heart” one more time I would tear out my own heart.  But as every teen’s parent knows, if you share your kids’ music, they let you into their lives, so I listened to Justin, Chris, Lance, Joey and JC croon in perfectly choreographed harmony until they sang “Bye, Bye, Bye” and Abby moved on to more mature music.

In the midst of this musical obsession, Abby and her friend Elizabeth saved enough money to go to an NSYNC concert.  Abby asked her father to buy them tickets and after spending an hour on the phone and finding nothing available in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, he purchased two seats in Albany, New York- a three hour drive from our home.

The morning of the concert, snow fell so hard that school was canceled.  I considered canceling the trip to New York, but after taking one look at Abby’s crushed face, her dad insisted that we go.  We navigated the icy highway and arrived in Albany a couple of hours before the concert and found a parking spot directly across the street from the arena, in front of an Italian restaurant.  We ate a quick dinner and after instructions to stay together, with breathless goodbyes the girls sprinted across the street, while we sat in the car.

Our finances were limited and the night was cold, so we ran the car for short periods of time- just long enough to warm our fingers and toes.  Every hour we fed the parking meter a few quarters and once we took a short trip to the Italian restaurant for coffee and a bathroom break. We were cold.  We were tired.  We were bored.

But at eleven o’clock, the arena doors opened and the streets filled with teenage girls searching for their rides.  Amid the crowd were Abby and Elizabeth-faces flushed, feet barely skipping on the pavement, bubbling with excitement.  I had never seen my daughter so happy, and the look on her face warmed my soul and radiated to my frozen toes.

The three hour drive home passed quickly as Abby and Elizabeth chattered about the concert, and when we finally got home, I tucked my sleepy teenager into bed, knowing that sweet choruses of “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You” would drift through her head and fill her dreams. I climbed into bed, cuddling my icy feet against my already sleeping husband, a feeling of utter satisfaction lulling me to sleep.

That was more than ten years ago, but as I listened to Jodi speak about her little girls and the thrill of meeting Tinkerbell and Periwinkle, it became yesterday.  This is the stuff of perfect memories- the frustrations of standing in line, waiting on hold, or sitting in a frigid car melt with the sparkle of your child’s eye.  They are worth the effort.  Because acts of love are truly magic. 

The Kitchen Table

During the years when I was growing up at 30 Green Street, a young couple, Bill and Alice, lived diagonally across the street from us.  When I was in elementary school, I walked their cocker spaniel, Suzie, and when I got old enough, I answered their business phone when they went out to dinner.  I was their children’s first babysitter.  They held my wedding reception in their home. And on an almost daily basis, they had coffee at my parents’ kitchen table.

This was the way of life in the neighborhood where I was raised.  Neighbors spent almost as much time at each other’s homes as they did their own.  Everybody used the back door, and rarely rang a doorbell.  Instead, we gave a quick knock, cautiously opened the door and called, “Anybody home?”

In my neighborhood, we held impromptu pot luck dinners, pooling our salad, pasta and sauce, carrying chairs to each other’s homes to cram around the table.  We cooked out and played no-rules croquet games in each other’s yards during the summer.  We shoveled each other’s sidewalks during the winter.  When someone’s car broke down, men rolled up their sleeves to make repairs.  When someone died, women delivered casseroles and comfort.

At my parents’ house at 30 Green Street the coffee was hot and plentiful and everyone was welcome for a cup and a chat.  It always amazed me that people flocked to our old house. Its old plaster walls were riddled with crumbling holes and peeling wallpaper.  The furniture was a hodgepodge of hand-me-downs.  The rugs were faded and threadbare.  And the kitchen table- the altar around which all people gathered- was rickety and small, with warped extenders that wouldn’t stay open unless a matchbook was wedged between the leaf and the support that held it up.

It was at the kitchen table that I struggled with algebra, kneaded bread, and learned to sew on buttons.  At the table I gave haircuts to my brothers and taught my sisters how to apply makeup.  At the end of the summer, my mother and I would can tomatoes from her garden, lining dozens of Ball jars on the kitchen table and listening for the lids to pop as they cooled.

I think my parents’ guiding belief was “if you brew it, they will come,” because our kitchen table was always surrounded by people sipping coffee.  On Saturday mornings, the lady who delivered eggs stopped for a quick cup and to update my parents on how the chickens were laying.  Tuesdays, Ernie the dry cleaner hung the clean wool suits in front of the cellar door and had a few slurps before trotting back to his truck.  Young mothers spooned sugar into their cups as they asked for my mother’s advice on potty training and temper tantrums.   Elderly neighbors sipped and shared small town gossip. The insurance man always drank two cups.  Father Kennedy, our priest from St. Patrick’s, usually had one.

One evening when I was nine, my father sat at the kitchen table with a man from the car dealership where he worked.  I had been sent to bed and was dawdling in the bathroom when I heard their voices through the metal grate between the bathroom floor and the kitchen below.  I got down on my knees to listen more closely and could see their steaming cups of coffee on the kitchen table.  The visitor’s voice cracked with emotion as he told Dad how sad he was since the death of his father.  My father’s voice was low and gentle, and reassuring.  I don’t remember the words he said, but I remember going to bed that night proud that my father was someone who could give solace to a broken heart.

If the kitchen table was the mecca for conversation, coffee was the vehicle by which it was served. When I was very young, my father would pour his own coffee, and then pour a small amount into my cup and fill the rest with milk. He would stir in a spoonful of sugar and we would sit and talk.  He did this with all of his children, encouraging us to share our opinions about school, sports and politics.  At the kitchen table there was no rank. Everyone’s ideas were welcome. Everyone had equal value.

The kitchen table was Switzerland- a place on neutral ground over which family arguments were solved. At the table, broken hearts were soothed and tears were dried.  At the table, my parents lectured me about my grades, my boyfriends, and my lapses in judgment.  One Sunday morning during my teen years, I sat at the kitchen table nursing a headache left by too much wine and not enough sleep.  My father entered the door, carrying a wine bottle I had hidden under the front steps and sternly declared, “Three o’clock in the morning is too late, and don’t ever leave your trash lying around like that again.”  Then he poured me a cup of coffee.  I never made either mistake again.

Last week I received word that Bill had passed on.  Sunday there will be a memorial service for him and I will again return to my old neighborhood.  I will hug his children and share their tears, because although we are adults, we are orphans.

And after the food and the embraces and the tears, I will walk very quietly by the house at 30 Green Street, because I am sure if I listen closely, I will hear laughter from the kitchen table.

Lunch to Go

Most work days, I carry my lunch to work.  It’s less expensive than eating out, and I am more apt to limit my meal to something more healthful and less calorie laden.  More often than not, I pack a salad and fruit into re-useable plastic containers and carry them to work in a fabric tote bag.  The bag was a gift from a coworker- a little calico sack that is just the right size, and can be washed when something leaks.

This morning while slicing cucumbers into my salad, I thought about how I used to pack lunches when my children were in school.  Much the same as when I was a child, my kids were not fond of the food from the school cafeteria, and it did not make sense to pay for lunches they would not eat.  Besides, one of the thrills of beginning each new school year was the rite of choosing a lunch box.

I recently read an article that lunchboxes are becoming a thing of the past.  This made me sad, since some of my fondest memories of school were examining my classmates’ lunchboxes. My best friend had one that was decorated to look like a barn. I coveted that lunchbox, with its matching thermos that looked like a silo and fit inside the domed lid.  Other children had boxes with Woody Woodpecker, Superman, and Mickey Mouse. One even had a box that looked (be still my heart) like a real T.V. set.  We who had “cold lunches” could begin eating immediately, instead of standing in line for our trays to be filled with the cafeteria fare that smelled the same every day, no matter what it was.

I carried a red plaid lunchbox made of aluminum that had been my older sister’s.  In those days, thermoses were made of glass, housed in aluminum.  The unlucky child who clumsily dropped his lunch box was sure when opening a thermos at lunch time, to find its contents riddled with shards of glass.  The matching thermos for my  lunchbox had broken long before it was handed down to me, but for less than a nickel, I would buy a glass bottle of milk, shake it to make sure the cream and milk were mixed and carefully pull the cardboard stopper.  Older boys in the cafeteria drank from the bottle, but I would insert a straw and sip, watching through the glass as the level of creamy white slowly declined.  I rarely finished before I was full.

My lunch usually consisted of a sandwich, cookie and fruit.  My mother made our bread and cookies from scratch and wrapped them in waxed paper.  I envied those kids who had sandwiches of Wonder Bread, that “built strong bodies 12 ways” and Hostess Twinkies with their lovely cream centers and came in packages of twos.  Now, when I think of how my mother baked every day to keep her growing brood in oatmeal raisin cookies, I wonder how I could have been so keen to trade for something from a store. 

My mother would make a grocery list on the back of a used envelope.  I would watch, hoping to see something like Drakes Cakes or Funny Bones on the list.  They never were.  “Couldn’t you at least buy those little wax paper bags instead of flat sheets of Cut-Rite?” I begged.  It would be years before I understood the economics of feeing a family of ten.  A generation later, my children begged me to buy sandwich size zip-lock bags instead of the less expensive bags that folded to close.  Some things never really change.

When my own children started school, I enthusiastically took them shopping for lunch boxes.  Aluminum had been replaced by plastic, but the decorations were still enticing.  They lingered before the display, carefully choosing what would carry their lunches- sandwiches on wheat bread, fruit, and homemade oatmeal cookies.  One year, her father naively let Abby choose a “90210” lunchbox- practically scandalous, since she was not allowed to watch the program on television.  I let her keep it, sure that she gained several popularity points in the fourth grade because of the coolness of that lunchbox.

At our house, old lunch boxes were used to house small toys, like crayons, doll shoes, and little green army men.  They lined the bottom shelf of the bookcase where we kept toys and the kids identified the contents by the character on the front; Barbie held crayons, Spider Man held Matchbox cars, and so on.  They made the perfect container-easy to identify and easy to carry. 

In my attic is a trunk filled with well-loved dolls, stuffed animals and small toys, and in it there are two old lunchboxes.  One contains a small brush, comb and assorted empty makeup containers, and the other, an empty travel sized shave cream, disposable razor (blade removed) and an empty bottle of after shave. I made these kits for the kids for Christmas gifts when they were little and our wallets were thin. They provided years of entertainment, and I saved them in hopes that someday I will have grandchildren who will enjoy them as well.

Look! They have red plaid!

By the time my kids reached junior high, they had transitioned from lunchboxes to  brown paper bags, and my days of shopping for lunchboxes ended.  If the article I read is correct, my yet-unheard-of grandchildren might never know the joy of walking store aisles the week before school starts in search of that perfect lunchbox.  Of  course, I could start a vintage collection…  

What was your favorite way to carry your lunch to school?

The Silver Maple at 30 Green Street

When I was growing up, my siblings and I frequently perused the pages of the World Book  Encyclopedia, devouring articles that told of far-away places and intriguing science experiments.  One of my favorite sections was one on the five senses.  Time and time again, I would read the chapter, staring at the examples of optical illusions and sampling foods with my eyes closed.

We all know that our senses are strong- a familiar perfume, a sip of a drink, the softness of a favorite pair of jeans- senses can set off myriad memories and transport us to days that have hidden in the archives of our memories since we were young children.

Last Saturday, I had one of those sensory transports as I visited my sister Martha-Jean at her country home in Northwood.  It was a beautiful day and as we sipped iced coffee on her deck, I watched the breeze ruffle the leaves of the silver maple tree in her back yard.  The fluttering leaves sang a familiar song and immediately my mind went back to the house where we grew up- the house at 30 Green Street.

The house at 30 Green Street was an old New Englander, built as housing for foremen who worked at Ellis Mills, a textile factory that produced rich and luxurious wool fabrics.  I was a child during the end of the woolen mills era.  The mill was a mighty giant that sat at the foot of Dye House Hill- big, strong, and to me, a little scary.  At night its windows lit the sky with a pale industrial glow as its walls echoed with electrical hums and rhythmic banging. During the day my siblings and I stood on the bridge across from the mill and watch as the fabric dye cascaded into the Chicopee Brook.  It seemed to me that the sleepless giant would always be there, but when synthetic blends wooed textile consumers away from expensive wools, the mills closed. The whirring and banging were silenced and the darkened night sky snuffed the glow from the windows.

In the back yard of our house was a large silver maple tree, and when the sounds from Ellis Mills ceased, the rustling of its leaves whispered a lullaby that drifted through my bedroom window.   The tree’s shelter created a stage for Martha-Jean to act as Pied Piper in her wonderful imaginations.  Under its branches, we created a pirate ship where we made Robin and Scott walk the plank we had fashioned from wooden boards found in the garage.  We tied Teri to the trunk, declaring her to be our ship’s pet monkey, and served bread and water to the crew- neighbor kids who brought sticks to use as oars.

Under the tree we built a doctor’s office and made poultices from mashed catalpa tree flowers, rubbing them on each other’s mosquito bites, convinced that the sap would stop the itching.  We spread blankets on the ground and played with baby dolls, sprinkling real talc upon their plastic bottoms and pinning cloth diapers that we stole from our baby brother’s bassinette.

When he was eight, my brother Scott climbed the silver maple.  He sat in its swaying branches, higher than the house roof while my mother stood below, yelling that if he did not fall and kill himself, she might just do the job herself.  And it was under the silver maple that Kevin and Eric were caught having sword fights with two-foot long barbecue skewers, and were subsequently grounded for most of the summer.

In the winter I would lie on my bed and stare at the bare branches of the silver maple, looking for the twining tendrils to outline shapes against the frigid sky.  Here was a castle, here an old man’s hat, and there a horse’s head.  The shapes disappeared with the wind, and then reappeared when the branches stopped dancing in the breeze, creating endless distraction from my homework.

In the spring, the helicopter seed pods would flutter from the tree to the ground. We split  the seeds in half, keeping them attached to the blade, and placed them on our noses like the horns on a rhino.  And in the fall, when the October winds turned inky black and smelled of bonfires and pumpkin, the bare branches of the tree moaned warnings of witches and ghosts, urging me to quicken my steps when it was my turn to take the trash to the back yard burn barrel.

“That tree is driving me crazy!” Martha-Jean observed, shaking me from my reminiscence.  “It’s so messy.”

“Oh, I like it.  It takes me back,” I sighed.  I wondered if the silver maple at 30 Green Street was still standing, or if it, like Ellis Mills, had outworn its usefulness.  The whisper of the tree’s branches were suddenly sad to me- a swan song announcing the end of yet another era.

“C’mon, let’s go pick some strawberries,” she urged.

I stole one last glance at the tree, and followed her to the garden.  I carefully tucked the fresh memory of 30 Green Street away.  “I’ll be back,” I silently promised.  “I’ll be back.”

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