Archives For Early Childhood

Too Late Smart

September 9, 2016 — Leave a comment

Americans are smarter than they used to be.

According to an article published by the American Psychology Association1, IQ’s have been on the rise steadily in this country for the last century. That makes the average person today smarter than 95% of the people living 100 years ago! Which is not to say that our brains have suddenly been engineered to accomplish greater things, but rather that our ability to attack a wider range of conceptual problems has improved. And get this – it’s due to the complexity of modern life.

My childhood happened in a simpler era: there was one breadwinner, one family car, one phone wired to the wall, and only three TV channels. We walked to school and came home for lunch, and we either walked or rode our bikes to after-school activities like Little League or Brownies. We would even walk to Sunday school. Way less complex.

Which would explain a lot about me, and my not being the sharpest crayon in the box, as evidenced by my repetition of behaviors that…

Always had a negative outcome. Color me a slow learner.

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Summer 1958

Exhibit A: I loved to ride my bike in the summer, and I also loved wearing flip flops. However, these two things never mixed well. But did this affect my decision to ride a bike in flip flops again and again?

No.

Moooooooom!!! I’m bleeeeeding!!!” I would wail as I charged through the front door.

From the kitchen, a calm reply: “Come here and let me see.”

“My toe – it huuurts!!!

“What happened?” she would ask, lifting me up onto the kitchen counter to get a closer look.

“I was riding my bike and scraped it on the curb.”

“Okay, we’ll wash it up and put a Band-Aid on it. It’ll be okay.” Then out would come the mercurochrome2 and a small metal box full of bandages. My folks should have bought stock in Johnson & Johnson for all the Band-Aids I blew through.

No pity is due me here, though. I owned tennis shoes. I just opted – again and again – not to wear them.

Exhibit B: There was a huge catalpa tree on our block. We called the long pods that hung from the branches “Indian cigars”. Were these pods actually cigars? No. But did that stop us from trying to light them so we could smoke? (Unfortunately tobacco products were in vogue during this “less complex” era.) Again, no.

I was recently admiring a magnificent catalpa tree in my cousin’s front yard, loaded with pods.

catalpa-pods

Photo credit: Linda Marlow

“Indian cigars! Did you guys try to smoke these pods when you were kids?”

“No.”

“Oh. We did, but it never worked.”

“Where did you get the fire?”

Good question. Where did we get the fire? “I don’t know,” I replied. “Probably matches, but Dad always had Zippos around, too.”

Yes. I knew kids weren’t supposed to play with matches. But I don’t recall having to be involved with the fire directly, seeing that I had an older brother.

So fire was easily obtained, but the concept of freshly picked catalpa pods being utterly inflammable due to their water content, was not so easily grasped.

We repeated that little ritual at least once a season, sad to say.

Exhibit C: Summers were not only full of scraped toes and catalpa pods, they were also teeming with – lightning bugs! And we meant to capture them!

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(Creative Commons by Jessica Lucia via nextdoornature.org)

Shortly after sunset, we could be found outside, running around like chickens with our heads cut off, darting after the elusive quarry. Invariably, one of us would come up with the brainy idea to run inside and get a jar. Mom could usually be counted on to wash out an empty pickle jar for us and, upon request, poke a few holes in the lid so our captives could breathe. The perfunctory twig and some blades of grass — for natural habitat’s sake – and voila! We were all set to…

Execute hapless insects. Slowly.

Not once did I wake up in the morning to find live lightning bugs. Always dead – every single time. But did this grim reality inform future lightning-bug-catching expeditions? Not in the least. We carried on in like fashion, ad infinitum, summer after summer.

De facto serial killers. All on account of being not so sharp.

You know, I hear from a lot of my peers that they aren’t too thrilled about getting older. But I say bring it. With the increasing complexity of the technologically advancing world, I think I finally have a shot at getting smarter.

__________

  1. “Smarter Than Ever”, by Lea Winerman. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2013/03/smarter.aspx
  2. Once upon a time, a staple of the family medicine cabinet. In 1998, the ubiquitous mercurochrome was declared by the FDA as being “not generally recognized as safe and effective” as an antiseptic. Suppose it had something to do with the mercury?

Butterfly Kisses

August 27, 2016 — 1 Comment

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Me and my mom, October 2013

I was in a group one time when we were all invited to share why we were grateful for our mothers. I could hardly believe how unabashedly sentimental folks got. Why, the things they said about their moms were worthy of a Hallmark Mother’s Day card.

My favorite was the guy who told us about getting “butterfly kisses” when he was little. He described his mom lifting him onto her lap, putting her face very close to his, then blinking so their eyelashes would touch. This from a grown man who had built his own house with his bare hands. Butterfly kisses.

There really is something about moms and how we feel about them. As the most primal relationship we will ever have in life, she is quite literally our life line in the beginning. But then as we leave infancy, we start teasing out our own identities, celebrating our separateness, and triumphing in our new ideas and opinions. But she’s still our life line. No amount of two-year-old swagger can negate this fundamental reality.

I got a little too big for my britches once when I was about three. I kept ignoring my mom’s instructions to stay with her while shopping in a department store, being more interested in playing underneath the dress racks. But my mom got weary of chasing me down and decided to help me learn an important lesson. She “hid” until I noticed she was gone. When I finally realized she hadn’t come looking for me in a while and looked up to spot her, I got a little panicky. (She was watching the whole time, so I was never in danger.) It worked. I determined never to let her get out of my sight again.

Because mom is critical to a child’s well being.

This truth became even more evident one day when I was in about second grade. I came bursting through the front door and made my usual beeline for the kitchen.

“Hi, Mom! I’m home!”

Something about the way she answered led me to suspect something was amiss. When I walked through the kitchen door, I saw she had her lower leg wrapped in an elastic bandage and propped up on a kitchen chair.

“What’s wrong?”

“I was sitting here at the table writing letters and my leg fell asleep. When I stood up and started to walk on it, I twisted my ankle.”

“But it’s going to be okay, right?”

“Well, it hurts a lot right now. I can’t walk on it at all.”

A torrent of questions flooded my mind: If Mom is unable to get around, who is going to take care of us? Who will fix us dinner? And where in the world is DAD?!! Having no context for a badly sprained ankle and how this thing might go, I was plunged into a sea of insecurity and worry. I slowly walked out of the room, feeling disoriented, I wondered what it all meant.

It wasn’t long before she needed to go to the bathroom, which meant a trip upstairs. She had already figured out she could get around by rolling on a task chair she used for sewing. But when she got to the staircase, she had to turn around and go up one stair at a time on her bottom. That was it. My world was officially unraveling. It was clear to see that my mother was functionally disabled and that life as I’d known it was now over.

Fortunately, my high anxiety didn’t last all that long because Dad eventually got home and took the helm. The details of what happened from this point elude me, but apparently we did eat a meal, did some homework, got our baths, and went to bed – all without incident. And apparently the injured ankle healed in the normal time frame. However, I never forgot how devastated I felt as my imagination ran amuck. The thought of her being taken out of commission and not being able to care for us had absolutely rocked my world.

Eventually, I got a little older and began to believe I didn’t need her so much. After all, I was getting to be pretty mature, you know. I mean, not too much longer and I’d be learning to drive. The high water mark of this wave of denial came about the time I packed a steamer trunk and a couple of suitcases and got on a plane to go to college in California.

Curiously, from that very moment on, I’ve been returning to – albeit, at a glacial rate – a level of knowing how truly vital my connectedness to my mom is that rivals my early childhood. Obviously, I no longer depend on her for the practical support I was so concerned about when she got injured. Nowadays it’s just emotional support I yearn for. How aware I’ve become of this phenomenon in the past several years surprises me.

I was with Mom just last weekend. We’d been out and about all afternoon, then returned to her house for a snack before I headed home. As we were in the middle of a good conversation, I noticed this impulse I kept having to tell her stuff, hoping and waiting for her affirming comments. It was sort of like a verbal variation of handing her my pictures to put up on the fridge.

For cryin’ out loud, Linda, grow up. You don’t have to be the center of attention here. Why don’t you just try listening to her stuff and celebrating it. Like an adult.

But as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t stop the impulse.

Because no matter how old we get, we still love butterfly kisses from our moms.

rcb w LKD 1963

My dad lost his job when I was 9 ½ years old. It was a while before he found his niche as an over-the-road truck driver and managed to get his footing. In the meantime he worked a series of odd jobs.

They’re called odd” jobs, but these were fairly run of the mill: general laborer in a sheet metal plant, shipping clerk, mechanic in a transmission shop, custodian, etc. He didn’t really stay at any one of them very long – weeks? months? maybe a year? – but none of them actually suited him like trucking eventually would.

One of these odd jobs was noteworthy, though, simply because of an incident that occurred while he was working that job. Dad was hired as an attendant at a full-service gas station – you know, the kind where they rolled carts of tires out of the bay and closer to the sidewalk each morning, where you got your windshield washed and your oil checked with every fill up, and where if you need the ladies’ restroom you had to go to the office and get a key (that would invariably be hanging on a nail and also chained to a random block of wood!) to unlock the door which would be on the outside of the building, toward the back. That kind of gas station. Self service and convenience stores weren’t a figment of anyone’s imagination  just yet.

The owner would open the station early in the morning and work till about 3:00, then Dad took over in the mid afternoon and worked until close, at 11:00. It was very near the end of Dad’s shift and he was nearly finished with the close-up-shop routine. Then all of a sudden, before he even knew what happened, two men rushed into the office and held him up at gun-point.

But what was happening registered, Dad was scared. Fortunately, he had a capacity to stay calm and level-headed in emergencies, so his demeanor under duress probably influenced the outcome of the ordeal.

The robbers demanded he give them all the money on the premises. Who knows whether they imagined the amount of cash to be large enough to make it worth the risk, or whether they were just desperate. But it became obvious they had been casing the station and knew exactly when Dad would likely be alone as he shut things down. Once they had the loot they forced him into a storeroom where they bound and gagged him. Despite being a man of faith, Dad was acutely aware that these could be his last moments on earth.

“Shoot him!” one of the men shouted to the other. But then nothing.

“What’s wrong with you?!! He can identify us! SHOOT HIM!!”

I imagine that during those surreal few seconds, amid the shouting and his own racing thoughts, he would have been struggling to come to grips with his role in this grim drama, and his wife and five children, asleep at home, might have flashed through his mind.

But I also imagine this to be the very moment when the guardians of his fate intercepted and totally overcame the minions of darkness that threatened his demise.

“I said SHOOT HIM!!

The silent partner suddenly blurted, “I can’t!”

And in a flash they were gone, leaving the eye witness behind, unharmed.

Dad spent the rest of the night on the floor, unable to free himself and with no way to summon help. When his boss arrived in the morning to find the station wide open and unlocked, he immediately realized something was amiss and quickly found Dad. He freed him and drove him home. Later that morning while Dad slept, Mom filled us in on the terrible events of the night before. I was relieved and oh-so-grateful that my dad’s life had been spared.

Dad would go on to eventually find a job he really liked, fix up a house, watch his five children grow up and give him grandchildren and great grandchildren, involve himself in his neighborhood, serve in his church, cultivate iris, collect and enjoy books and recordings, eventually retire, celebrate a 60th wedding anniversary with his wife, and all sorts of other life-embracing activities. His was a full life.

Perhaps his most precious endeavor was comprised in a collection of cards he kept in his den, right beside his blue easy chair. He once showed me the thick stack of sturdy 4×5 note cards, each bearing a name inscribed in his distinctive calligraphy. Each card was covered in a hand-drawn grid, like graph paper, and each had a varying number of small boxes filled in. He explained that each time he prayed for that person he filled a little square.

He pulled out the card bearing my name. I was slightly crestfallen when I saw that mine didn’t have as many filled-in boxes as some of the others. Then he showed me another card that also had my name at the top – but this one had been completely filled in – front and back! He had prayed for me so often that he had to make a new card to catch the overflow.

I was staggered by the sheer number of tiny boxes, hundreds per card, each representing a separate petition. I was stunned by the relentlessness with which he lovingly covered everyone within his embrace. My siblings all had cards. Their spouses had cards. The grandchildren. Their children. His in-laws. Their families. His buddies. His neighbors. His friends at church. You name ‘em, they had a card.

I suppose when the possibility of a person’s very existence can be traced back to a single moment in time that perhaps pivoted on a prayer, one could become pretty convinced of the value of praying. In gratitude for having dodged a bullet, you might say Dad “prayed” it forward. Like nobody else I ever knew.

There’s this verse in the fifth chapter of the very last book of the Bible that refers to golden bowls in heaven filled with incense. It says the incense is the prayers of the people of God. There are moments in my life – to this day – when I feel like I’m still a beneficiary of his many prayers for me. It’s as if one of those other-worldly bowls gets tipped and then a prayer offered years ago sloshes over the rim and spills into my life. And I reap continuing goodness sown into my life during my dad’s years on this earth.

And I am grateful.

 

The Perfect Party

December 24, 2013 — Leave a comment

It was my eighth Christmas. Everyone on my mom’s side of the family had been invited to her sister’s house for a grand holiday gala. Appropriate attire was dressy, so, given my penchant for all things glam, this soiree would definitely be my cup of tea — or egg nog, as the case may be. Mom pulled out all the stops and bought me a to-die-for party dress: black velvet bodice overlaid with a crocheted lace “cumberbund”, and a gathered white organdy skirt with flocked black polka dots. I swooned. Before we left for the party, Dad pulled out the camera. The boys must have had their pictures taken, too, but all that didn’t really register, what with me being utterly blissed out that my “look” would be captured for posterity!

Xmas 1959 LKD party dress

The many guests “fit” nicely in my aunt and uncle’s spacious home: adults could be found chatting it up in the living room, dining room and even the kitchen, while youngsters congregated in the more kid-friendly areas of the home. Oh, how I loved being invited into other kids’ bedrooms and playing with their games and toys!

Another aunt and uncle and their three daughters had come all the way from California for the occasion. I was taken by the fact these (slightly older and therefore automatically glamorous) cousins all wore party dresses of the same pretty mint green fabric, but each one in a unique style. Way cool. With everyone donning such holiday finery, the spread of delicious food and the glittering decorations, it was an altogether splendid affair. About halfway through the evening, the doorbell rang, my aunt answered, and… magic happened.

She swung wide the door to the sight of perhaps a dozen people bundled in overcoats, hats, mufflers, gloves and muffs. She and my uncle called to everyone to gather onto the porch and in the doorway as the callers broke into song. I was completely mesmerized, drinking in the beauty of the a cappella harmonies. The appearance of the carolers sealed the deal in my (barely seven-year-old) judgment: this was indeed a perfect party. Not even a subsequent visit by Santa (if memory serves) could upstage that enchanting music. I don’t believe I could tell you even now what it was about the caroling that had such an impact, nor is it important that I understand it, but just that I cherish the memory.

It would be about 45 years before I revisited that magic. I had an opportunity to join a group who were making plans to carol in our church’s neighborhood. We practiced our abbreviated song list and headed out, battery operated candles in hand and brightly wrapped gift mugs containing cocoa mix in tow. I was particularly eager to (hopefully) replicate the experience I had had for another child. But, to my surprise, it was the expression on the faces of adults who opened their doors to the sound of “Jingle Bells” or “Silent Night” that indicated they also felt the magic — just as I had, so many years earlier. Perhaps it’s just something that strikes a chord in our psyches, harking back to an age when folks would have gathered around troubadours and minstrels, when music was shared person-to-person, not via earbuds.

So here’s my vote for creating more music ourselves (rather than relegating it to professionals exclusively) and sharing it with others, face to face.

And too, here’s a big YES vote for my aunt and uncle having created my memory of an utterly perfect holiday party.

One of my professional duties is the administration of student evaluations of our faculty. Each semester I prepare packets containing a standardized evaluation forms (you know, those fun little “bubbles” you fill in with a No. 2 pencil – whee!) and comment sheets on which students can address matters that may not be covered on the standardized questionnaire. I’ve been performing this duty for a number of years, but last week when the evals came back in was the first time it really struck me:

          Very, very few of the written comments are in cursive. 

Granted, one factor may be the awkwardness of penning anything with a golf pencil. But I’m guessing this trend speaks more to the technological developments that have rendered cursive fairly obsolete. Now, I’m not one to bandy about wailing over its demise, nor will I take up a placard and picket to maintain it in elementary curricula. Nevertheless, I admit feeling a little wistful that elegant penmanship seems to have become the domain of the few.

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Letter I received from Grandpa

I remember wanting to learn to write cursive before it was part of classroom instruction. It was something big people did, and I was all about emulating whatever they did. It was also what one particular big person did in grand style: it is my understanding that my dad’s dad served as an official recorder for his community, whose entries in ledgers and on legal documents can probably still be viewed in the local archives. To be able to write like Grandpa would have been tantamount to arriving.

Then there was my dad’s fancy Speedball calligraphy book that also captured my imagination. I wanted him to teach me how to do that jazzy stuff, but before he’d even begin teaching me, he insisted I practice, practice, practice the rudiments.

lkd penmanship

Third grade assignment – can’t figure out if it was for spelling, vocabulary or penmanship – but no matter: it earned me a robin sticker!

So practice I did, at the dining table, for what seemed like hours. Loop after loop, above the line, below the line, to the left, and then to the right, followed by angled lines and then smooth, slanted ovals. I fully intended to get this handwriting thing down.

Then in fourth grade, Mrs. Carver upped the ante.

We were instructed to use fountain pens to practice our penmanship. She said that a ball point was incapable of producing excellent and beautiful writing. Next thing I knew, my parents and I were off shopping for a fountain pen, in compliance with the new regulation. I think we wound up getting a little Scripto number, complete with refill cartridges, for a grand total of about one dollar (hey, my weekly allowance back then was only about 25 cents!). But I had to agree with Mrs. Carver: cursive writing absolutely flowed using a fountain pen.

You might think that all of this would have put me in hog heaven, but not so. Instead, I spent the year consumed by frustration due to the utter futility of all my efforts to approach the dizzying heights of the Colossus of Cursive Coolness: MarianneTanaka.

Miss Tanaka consistently produced the most beautiful writing I’d ever seen from a kid. Her ovals and loops were p-e-r-f-e-c-t. I mean, the people that manufactured the poster board alphabet cards that lined the top of the blackboard (standard issue in every classroom I was ever in) should have used her handwriting as their pattern!

I convinced myself her mad skills were a result of daddy splurging on daughter’s very fancy Parker pen — a pen as gorgeous as the words that daily filled her sheet of paper. But deep down, I believe I knew that even if we traded pens, her handwriting would still be drool worthy. So I decided to slow down, hoping that if I just focused harder, I might be able to replicate her output. But to no avail. ‘Twas a sad fact, but true: I fell somewhere in the middle of the bell curve, and Miss Tanaka was a couple of standard deviations beyond.

I am unable to report that my take-away from this experience had anything to do with the folly of comparing myself with others or learning to accept my own strengths and weaknesses gracefully. No, I had seen the mountain top and was determined to get there somehow. Whether it was competition or inspiration, I stuck by the practice, practice, practice motto until I had mastery of this thing called cursive.

And eventually it paid off. By the time I was a young adult, I had my own Speedball calligraphy handbook, along with a set of nibs and some India ink, with which I produced some pretty nice invitations, programs, place cards, etc. — even got hired to pen a set of wedding invitations for a small wedding.

Then, a couple decades later, along came our family’s first PC — a total game-changer. Now with the click of a mouse, I can go from a 4-point to a 72-point font, from Roman to Gothic, from sans serif to script! And I can still produce place cards, invitations, and programs — without the messy ink bottles, nibs to wash, or stained finger tips. And lo and behold, I thoroughly enjoy expressing myself utilizing desktop publishing software.

So now I’m conflicted. I still have the Speedball set, and I’m not quite ready to give away just yet, even though it’s about as useful to me these days as a rotary phone or an 8-track tape player. I suppose it’s sentimental attachment — sorta like one might have to a first bike, or perhaps a very first pair of running shoes — as a symbol of one’s earliest stages of mastering a thing.

Come to think of it, I only threw out those college track shoes just a couple years ago…

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The Chinese Dance

I went with my daughter and husband to the ballet last night. The Moscow Ballet was in town to perform none other than the great Russian Nutcracker, and it was fabulous.

I’ve only been to one other classical ballet, a few years ago — that time to see the St. Louis Ballet perform the same program. I don’t know whether this says I’m not much of a ballet aficionado, or whether it says I love the Nutcracker. Probably the latter, because Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite was the very first piece of classical music I cataloged in my memory bank, at about age four or five.

My dad was sitting in a chair next to the hi-fi when I approached. The sounds emanating from the living room had captured my interest and I stood there listening with him for a bit.

“This is some of the most beautiful music in the world,” he murmured, informing the new audience of one. His eyes closed and his head tilted back as the rapturous music played. Meanwhile, I became intrigued by the cover art on the record jacket propped against the hi-fi cabinet.TCHAIKOVSKI_NUTCRACKER-SUITE-EP

“This is The Nutcracker Suite. Composed by Tchaikovsky,” noticing my interest in the picture. (Dad was known to talk above my head, but I think that trait always encouraged me to get up to speed on things.) To my young eyes, that nutcracker dude on the record jacket looked mildly sinister, but I couldn’t deny the captivating beauty of the melodies I was hearing.

“This part is called the Waltz of the Flowers,” he said, waving a hand in time with the 3-4 beat. I especially loved that tune with its gorgeous french horns. A couple of other favorite parts were the Dance of the Reed Flutes, and Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. I would hear these strains again and again, as Dad played them frequently on the hi-fi, and their appeal never faded.

Something dawned on me as I listened to the Nutcracker yet again last night. The suite’s various segments highlight many different orchestra instruments, but the selections that have always captured my fancy all featured very treble instruments, most notably, the flute. Which presents a which came first, the chicken or the egg sort of question: did my attraction to these melodies in this, my very first classical piece, influence my affinity for the flute? Or did I previously have a sweet spot for the the flute’s sound, which is what drew me to these selections? Who knows.

My dad was too engrossed in the music to relate the story line of Nutcracker the Ballet that day. I would later learn about a Christmas Eve celebration, a little girls’s dream, and toys coming to life, which all seemed pretty far-fetched to me. I mean, really? That scary nutcracker dude becomes a prince? I don’t think so.

Confession: there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the make-believe stories I rejected as a kid, and those I embraced. I just know that I didn’t much care for many of the classic children’s stories (one big exception being The Wizard of Oz — which I read and reread). But then I might go ga-ga over some obscure fairy tale in a library book I dragged home from school.

Like one I discovered in fourth grade: The Tale of Mrs. Nutter. (Never heard of it? Why am I not surprised…) Oh, how I loved the title character in this little story! She was a Thumbelina-sized woman who lived in the woods, was friends with the woodland creatures, and used a walnut shell for a boat to float down the stream. That’s about all I can remember, although I do recall that she met with and overcame some dangerous obstacles. I renewed the book as many times as the teacher would let me, I enjoyed it so much. One day, my mom asked what I was reading.

“It’s a story about this little woman who’s so small she would fit in the palm of your hand. Her name is Mrs. Nutter, and she lives in the woods.”

“Wow, that’s a pretty fanciful story, isn’t it? Why do you think you like to read books about imaginary things that could never really happen?”

Well, now, why did I? I didn’t really have an answer. I just knew that I did. But only sometimes. If the story struck my fancy. But Mom’s question got me wondering, so when it was time to check out another library book, I decided to get one a more sensible one. Maybe all that make-believe stuff was for little girls. So I brought home a book all about horses. And for what seemed like weeks and weeks, I’d come home from school every day and draw pictures of horses. For-real horses. Scads of them. (Go ahead, ask me about withers and “hands”…)

All the while, the image of a little person as big as your thumb never completely left my imagination. I day-dreamed about how wonderful it would be to have a secret companion like tiny Mrs. Nutter. I mean, wouldn’t it be neat to take her to school with you and she could stay in your pocket and no one would know. You could even break off tiny bits of your peanut butter sandwich and sneak them to her — I mean, a raisin would be a veritable feast! And in the privacy of your bedroom you’d have this confidante to discuss all the stuff that a girl needs to talk about.

Well, time wore on, and gradually the idea of a Mrs. Nutter friend sort of fell off my radar. I didn’t think of having a tiny little buddy for years. But apparently, she never completely disappeared, because one day, not all that long ago, she sprang to life again in the chapters of a children’s book I wrote. A tiny little friend comes to live with a young girl who, as it just so happens, has things she needs to talk through.

As soon as I finish the rest of the illustrations (one day soon, I hope), I’ll be able to give the book to my granddaughter.

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Sketches of the girl and her new buddy. Stay tuned…penelope button bust 1

A cat-dog-bird tale

November 22, 2013 — Leave a comment

When my daughter was very young, she asked if she could have a kitty. We told her that our landlord wouldn’t let us have pets, and that included kitties. Periodically, overcome by kitty love, she’d pop the question again. Despite our reply always being the same, her hope never waned.

The truth of matter? Our lease’s restriction provided a smoke screen that concealed my actual distaste for all things feline. I was loathe to divulge my genuine feelings — she would surely recoil in horror at such an aberrant attitude. I hoped this whole kitty thing would simply be a phase she’d outgrow.

During the Winter of Her Discontent, my parents came for an overnight visit. My mom couldn’t help but notice the theme in my little one’s bedroom: a profusion of kitty memorabilia.

“She sure does love kitties, doesn’t she?”

“No kidding.”

“Reminds me of somebody I used to know,” she added with a little grin.

For a split second I wondered who in the world she was talking about. But then her facial expression, in addition to the tone of her voice, registered.

“You mean me?”

“Well, yes! When you were about her age you carried your kitty around with you everywhere, draped across your little arm.”

Wait a minute, here. What’s she talking about? I don’t even like cats. Not one bit.

My stunned look prompted her next remark.

“Surely you remember…”

But I didn’t remember. Yet I believed her.

Following this brief interaction, I wrestled with the notion that during my early childhood I had been a Cat Lover. This identity was dissonant with the persona I’d adopted for myself. My denial rose up to defy the new information. Me? A cat person? Hardly! But I knew my mom wouldn’t have described my behavior that way unless that’s how it had been.

In the ensuing weeks and months, the barricade I’d constructed around the kitty memories began to crumble. I began to recall a little grey cat with very soft fur. I also recalled holding it on my lap as I sat on the sofa, and listening to it purr. I remembered telling my mom it sounded like her motor was running. And I remembered carrying it draped across my arm. I began to embrace the notion that I had once loved a cat.

A couple of years later, interest rates lowered and we began house hunting. By this time our girl was six.

“If we get a new house, can I have a kitty then?”

Uhhhhh… what to say now?

“I guess so.”

As that brief reply spilled from my mouth, I experienced a moment of dread. A reasonable dread — at least to the heart of the four-year-old that still beat in my chest. There was a genesis to the wall I’d built around my cat loving heart. It happened one afternoon…

My mom was preparing to clean the parakeet’s cage, so she put the daschund out in the back yard, leaving the bird  free to flit about the house. If the identity of the person who then opened the back door is known, it has always been withheld from the tale’s recounting. The dog ran back inside, did what dogs instinctively do, and attacked the parakeet. The bird’s demise in the dog’s jaws was no doubt quick and relatively free from suffering.

With the dog barking, the bird squawking, mom shouting, and kids crying, Dad came rushing in. Through all the clamor, he ascertained that the dog had just taken out the newest addition to our little menagerie. He heatedly scolded the dog, and chased it through the house. She escaped out the front door.

What I never knew until my parents’ visit, was that the dog ran straight into the street and was struck by a car and killed as quickly as the parakeet. Count ’em: that’s two pets down in probably a less than two minutes’ time. But it gets worse. The adorable little grey kitty became so traumatized by the mayhem and madness that she ran away, never to return.

My mom tells the story of how I, sitting on a family friend’s lap shortly thereafter, told him my pitiful tale of woe.

“Unca Bob…?”

“What, honey?”

“We got bird food and no bird. We got dog food and no dog. And we got cat food and no cat.” Sigh.

The big people thought the way I shared my sorrow was rather cute. But I’m thinking it must have been right about then that I began fortressing myself against the risk of feeling any future loss and pain on account of some cat. I believe I vowed not to love kitties, ever again. And in the process actually forgot that I ever had.

We ended up buying about the thirteenth house we looked at. Within a month or two of moving in, we were invited to dinner by some folks who lived in the country. And wouldn’t you know it, they had two baby kittens that had just been weaned by their mother. My daughter carried one of them around the entire time we were there. And yes, she asked our hostess if she could take it home.

“Sweetie, I’d love to say yes, but your mama would probably kill me if I said you could have it.” Prior to my regaining the kitty memories, that probably would have been the case. However, shortly before we said our goodbyes, I discreetly let the woman know that if she was serious, I had previously decided to let my little girl have a kitten.

That night, after a quick errand to buy litter, a litter box, and kitty chow, everyone else was in bed and I found myself holding a little ball of fluff. And wouldn’t you know it? His teensy motor was running. And right then and there I made the conscious decision to let this itty bitty creature “in”.

Thanks to my girl, I found my way back home to my real self.

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My girl and her first love

Number three son stopped by the house last night. He mentioned visiting my blog earlier in the day and liking 10 Awesome Things About Being a Kid, as well as its follow up, 10 Awesome Things: A Response.

“But you should have added snow days. You know — how when you’re a kid, snow days are just awesome?”

I agreed: snow days are pretty awesome when you’re a kid.

“I mean, think about it: you don’t have to go to school, you get to drink hot chocolate and play outside in the snow! It’s just cool!

“Yep,” I nodded.

“But…,” he went on, “when you’re an adult, snow days are totally different. You’ve got the driveway and sidewalks to shovel, vehicles to clear off, then driving through the stuff to go to work or school, or whatever. You don’t get to stay home. Definitely not the same experience.”

True, true.

After he left, I started to  reminisce about snow days when I was a kid.

Ah, yes. All one of them.

Seriously. I can only remember one. And I’m not even sure it was a snow day. I can’t actually recall anyone saying “snow day” or “school is closed”. But all the neighborhood kids were home too, and I don’t remember Dad being home, which is a good indicator it was a week day, not the weekend. But who knows.

What I do remember was the big ordeal that it was to gather all the sweaters, coats, gloves, mufflers, scarves, earmuffs, caps, extra pants, extra socks, boots, etc. One by one, Mom helped stuff us into all that gear — like little sausages — and then closed the back door behind us as we waddled down the steps and out into the winter wonderland.

Oh, the feel of snowflakes landing on the nose and cheeks! The “clouds” that appeared with each warm exhale! (“Look, look! I’m smoking!) The layers upon layers of frosty white wonderfulness that bid us frolic!

We made snow angels and a snowman. (Knock, knock, knock… Mom, can we have a carrot for a nose?) Then my brother suggested we build a fort behind which we could stockpile an obscene supply of snowballs and create for ourselves an impenetrable defense against a heavy enemy attack. We slaved away, building and stockpiling. I pitied the fool who might mindlessly wander within our range.

Once we finished, we huddled behind our barricade and waited. And waited. And waited some more. No one came. I guess the other kids were huddled in their own forts, waiting for us to stumble along.

We got cold. But we stuck it out and waited some more. After all, we had built a totally imposing fort which was worth holding out to defend. And we definitely had the ammo. But eventually, our fingers would threaten to become icicles and drive us indoors. Without having thrown hardly a snowball, as I recall. Sigh.

Mom spread out layers of newspaper in the mudroom to handle the mound of soggy outerwear. Then we changed into2292 warm, dry clothes and had something hot to eat — Campbell’s chicken noodle soup being pretty standard fare back in the day. I honestly don’t remember if we went back outside that day or not. But I do have a hazy recollection that it took way more than a few days for the fort to melt. Heh heh.

Fast forward to snow days as an adult. (I can even remember more than just one!)

There have been a few snow days due to blizzard conditions or icy conditions, during which no one — kid or adult — ventured outside. But there have also been plenty of snow days that pretty much followed the same pattern as that snow day of my childhood: Mom helping kids locate coats, gloves, mufflers, ski masks, long johns, snow pants, boots, etc.; stuffing the sausage casings; scuttling them out the back door; then sitting down with a mug of coffee and a magazine, only to have them knocking on the back door minutes later. These gloves have a hole in them… Can we make snow cones? We need a carrot for our snowman…

During the process, I generally made an attempt to press a measure of snow removal service from the kids while they played. As they got older it became a badge of honor to get the entire driveway cleared before Dad came home.

And invariably, in about an hour, the gang would be back inside, all changed into cozy sweats, wet duds tumbling in the dryer. I’d make hot cocoa (but never seemed to have those little marshmallows on hand — drat!) and they’d settle in for some reruns, a movie, or a board game.

Yup. Snow days are pretty awesome when you’re a kid.

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Click on the pic… there’s a smile frozen on my face…

Our house was only a few blocks from the school when we lived in the city, so I walked. But sometimes… seriously… sometimes I wonder if I hadn’t been a walker, whether they’d have made me ride the short bus.

I mean, from time to time I was a little sharper than a marble. Like, I knew some stuff.

For instance: you imagesCACENI07wouldn’t get warts from holding a frog. Can you even believe some of the things kids say? I think I always knew that just because kids said so, didn’t automatically mean a thing was true. So I fearlessly handled lots of frogs. I was just brave like that. But I did get a wart in fourth grade though. And I hadn’t messed with any amphibians for months. Well, maybe weeks. Or was it a few days…?

Here’s some other stuff I just knew:

  • a watermelon wouldn’t grow in my stomach if I swallowed a seed
  • it wouldn’t break my mother’s back if I stepped on a crack
  • my eyes wouldn’t freeze that way if I crossed my eyes (sheesh!)
  • finding a four-leaf clover was definitely good luck
  • if you tossed a cat off the banister of the front porch, it would always, always land on its feet. Please don’t make me tell you how I knew that…

Then there were other things I just wasn’t all that sure about, so I hedged my bets: I avoided walking under ladders, I collected rabbit’s feet for good luck, and I tried like the Dickens to blow out all the candles with one breath so my wish would come true.

Finally, there was this third category. You know, those things about which I was utterly clueless. As in: half-baked, dim-witted, bubble-headed.

Take, for instance, all those times I punched holes in the lid of a glass jar with an ice pick so I could have a “night light” by catching lots of fireflies. Didn’t my tiny prisoners always quit lighting up after a few minutes, then fade to black shortly thereafter, never mind the few blades of grass and leaves thrown in to “keep them alive”? And despite this consistent grim outcome, didn’t I commit this harebrained stunt repeatedly? Sigh.

And then there was this really huge catalpa tree on our block. You know, one of those trees with the gigantic heartcatbig1b-shaped leaves and those pods that hang down from it like enormous green beans. The neighborhood kids called it an Indian Cigar Tree. Ooooo, a tree that grows cigars? Dad smokes cigars, and he is cool. Maybe I’ll be cool too if I smoke an Indian Cigar. (Okay, you can see where this is going, right?) Let’s just say, it wasn’t cool. Not one bit. Didn’t have the sense to realize the pods would have to dry before they would light. (And don’t ask who brought the lighter to this little soiree. Not me. No pockets, remember?)

And lastly, there was the time my dad brought home a really cool inflatable globe. This wonderful educational resource was probably 20 inches in diameter and spun on its axis. It totally commanded a spot in our dining room. Unfortunately, my dad’s desk was in proximity, in another corner of the dining room. On his bulletin board was a map with little brightly colored map pins indicating the location of every Goodyear dealer in his sales territory. I mean, these little map pins were so colorful… so I took a notion to put a cute little map pin in every star on that globe. You know, like Washington DC, London, Paris, Tokyo, Mexico City, Moscow… it was great.

Now, let me hasten to add: I was fully aware that a pin stuck in a balloon would make it pop. And I’d watched my dad and brother patch many inner tubes, so I knew that a nail in a tire caused it to deflate. I also knew that the globe was, well let’s see… inflated. So don’t ask me why I imagined that the globe would magically be okay after my little decorating party. I guess my elevator just didn’t get to the top floor on that one. Even though I never intended to kill our wonderful globe, my parents were, nonetheless, displeased. Putting it mildly.

I wish I could say I’ve outgrown all my miscalculations and blunders. But, regrettably, I still have my short bus moments. I figure if I ever stop having them, somebody had better call the undertaker. I’ll be dearly departed.

The medicine cabinet

November 7, 2013 — Leave a comment

The medicine cabinet of my childhood contained a bunch of interesting stuff. Most of it just isn’t in my medicine cabinet today. First off, there were the true first aid items: Bayer Aspirin — the analgesic of choice — and an oral thermometer. (Today it’s more like Tylenol and Advil.) For tummy troubles, there was Pepto-Bismol (which is still around). And for boo-boo’s there was a bottle of mercurochrome antiseptic and a box of assorted Band-Aids (also a staple) and some Vaseline Petroleum Jelly. (I guess if we boomers didn’t get blottoed by ingesting lead-based paint, we could always rely on the residual build-up from mercury-based topical remedies!) Seems like almost everything that ailed us back in the day was treated with these few items.

The medicine cabinet also housed personal grooming items for both dental care and hair care. I believe our brand of choice was Colgate toothpaste, but other popular brands from that era were Crest, Pepsodent, Macleans, and Gleem. Flouride was just beginning to be added to toothpastes, as recent studies had shown it lowered the incidence of cavities. And then, after brushing, one could use either Lavoris or Listerine mouthwash. But not me, I didn’t like either one — yucky!

The tube of Brylcreem hair styling cream (“for men who care a lot about their hair”) that always sat on the medicine cabinet’s glass shelf looked way too much like the tube of Colgate, and one time — you see where this is headed? — I loaded my toothbrush with the wrong stuff. I’m not a super quick study, but you can bet I never made that mistake again. While all these products had their signature advertising slogans and jingles, I think the one I liked best was “Brylcreem — A Little Dab’ll Do Ya!“. Well, that or the Pepsodent tune that went: “You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent!

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No. 1 son watches as Grandpa “shaves” his brother, No. 2 son

But the Medicine Cabinet Mystique Award would have to go to the shaving mug and brush. Every single morning dad would whip up some lather in that chunky mug, using his shaving brush of lustrous badger hair, then, safety razor in hand, proceeded to eliminate yesterday’s stubble with the grace and precision of a fencer. There wasn’t a single portion of his well-choreographed routine that wasn’t mesmerizing — all the way down to the tiny patch of t.p. he’d apply to a nick to stop the bleeding.

I guess one day, standing there gazing up at this Ballet du Barber, I must have asked just the right combination of questions, because he decided to invite me into the experience. First he lathered my face and then, after removing the double-edge Wilkinson’s Sword blade from the safety razor, gave me my first (and only) “shave”. I loved it. I suspect that if he did this for me, he surely did it at least once, if not multiple times, for my brothers. In fact, when the next generation took to standing by the sink and watching, they too got “the shave”.

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