Sunday, December 27, 2009

There's nothing more over than. . .


"There's nothing more over than Christmas."
Naomi Elmendorf Johnsone

My mother, the above referenced Naomi Johnsone, said this every year shortly after Christmas. If we heard it once, we heard it a dozen times each year. By the early part of January, she usually managed to find a florist selling daffodils, and a small, thin vase holding five or six of the bright yellow flowers would appear our the dining room. I realize now this was no small feat--those were the days before flowers were flown from all over the world to be sold at supermarkets. That was before supermarkets.

Even though Hubby and I had a lovely Christmas, my mother's words return to haunt me this, and every, year. All the adorable items I so lovingly placed on sideboards, coffee table and bookcases, as I anticipated the holy day, don't look quite so adorable after Christmas. The music boxes, special red candles, Santa and St. Nicholas images, creches, the cookie jar, angels, two artificial wreaths, potholders, towels, throw rug, bells, mobiles . . .all of them need dusting and look tired. Finished for the year. Ready to retire to storage boxes. Maybe that's why people go to their apartments in Palm Springs and condos in Florida after Christmas. Maybe they're tired and ready to go into storage for a little while, too.

We'll leave it* all up until January 1, but I'm ready to bring on the daffodils. And go to Palm Springs.
(*it, in this case, is a dangling antecedant referring to Christmas crap, an affectionate term coined by a long-time deceased friend, Patsy O'Brian, meaning, "That which was cute before Christmas but has become burdensome after.")

Friday, December 18, 2009

REAL SANTA


As a third-grader, I was determined to stay awake on Christmas Eve. I was going to finally catch a glimpse of Santa Claus as he landed his sleigh lightly on the roof and wriggled down our chimney to bring presents. My father heard the jingle of sleigh bells every Christmas Eve and teased me, year after year, because I always fell asleep too early to hear them.

On the last school day before Christmas vacation, my mother picked me up from school in the car. I needed to ask her something privately, while just the two of us were together—so the drive home was the perfect setting. Linda, the class bully at our all girls’ school, had taunted me in front of our classmates and called me a baby because I believed in Santa. I had retorted angrily that my father knew more than she did, and if he said Santa was real (and he did!), then Santa was real.

I was sure I knew the answer to the question for my mother, but I needed to ask . . . just in case. “Linda said everyone knows their parents are really Santa Claus. I told her she was wrong! You and Daddy are not Santa Claus . . . are you?”

Mother’s answer stunned me. "Yes, honey, we are."

At first, I thought she might be joking, but she was not smiling. When I actually absorbed her short, one-word answer, I felt the same way I did when a dog had knocked the wind out of me the summer before. I felt as if I were about to die. Santa not real? If I had been old enough to think in similes, I would have described myself as cracking all over like flower pots did when the wind blew them off our deck onto the driveway below. Christmas without Santa’s magic? I cried in the car. I had already let go of tooth fairies, talking scarecrows, and mermaids. Now the last crumbs of my make-believe world were brushed away forever.

My mother gently reminded me I was too big to cry about something designed for little children. “I should have told you earlier,” she said. “I was worried something like this would happen.” I moped around the house for the rest of the day and cried myself to sleep that night. Christmas would never be the same.

Fifteen years later when I became a mother myself, it was with great ambivalence that I introduced the fat-elf mythology for our firstborn, Andrea. I knew other mothers who—determined never to lie to their children—had eliminated Santa Claus entirely from their newly formed families. Yet, as a child, I had loved the idea of Santa Claus so much I couldn’t bear to ban him completely from my new family traditions. I decided a little bit wouldn’t hurt, rationalizing I’d been just too old when I discovered the truth. I’ll level with Andrea before she gets too old, too attached to Santa, I told myself. Then three more babies arrived—Matthew, Philip, Peter—and Santa was as real and as imbedded in our family as if he were a distant cousin who visited once a year.

Santa consistently arrived unseen, late in the night on Christmas Eve, bringing gifts, fulfilling wishes, and creating joy. I consciously referred to him as the spirit of love when I talked about him, but we partook of all the lore—his team of flying reindeer, his hideaway workshop staffed by elves, his ability to scoot down millions of chimneys in one short night. Andrea, Matt, Phil, and Pete each mailed a letter or a wish list to the North Pole soon after Thanksgiving. Even the process of writing those letters became a beloved tradition among my children.

As the spirit of love, sometimes Santa was a stand-in disciplinarian, too, answering fake phone calls to the North Pole I made, at least once, each December. I’d dial a number (usually the recorded weather report) after announcing to rambunctious children that Santa would appreciate having an update on their behavior. “Santa? This is Mrs. Glerum in Seattle [and later, Wauwatosa]. I thought you might want to know that my children are verging on being too naughty to get presents this year.” Four little mouths would be instantly silenced; four pairs of eyes on the phone, four sets of ears straining to hear the one-sided dialog. For the rest of the day, four well-behaved, docile children would play politely until bedtime.

Nine years ticked away, and all four children were still believers. A week before Christmas, Andrea came bursting through the kitchen door—rosy cheeked, still breathing steam from having been out in the cold winter air. “Mommy, I have to know this. You have to tell me the truth. Is there a Santa Claus, or not? Is he pretend or real?”

The moment had come at last—the dreaded moment I had anticipated for so many years—the question that must be reckoned with. I felt a lurch in my stomach reminiscent of the one I’d felt inside my mother’s car almost twenty-five years earlier. “Let’s talk in the bedroom where we can close the door,” I answered. Even though the boys were all playing in the basement with their Tonka Trucks, I didn’t want to run the risk they’d overhear me. Once in the bedroom, I took a big breath and started the speech I’d been rehearsing for three years.

“You know how I’ve always told you Santa is the spirit of love?” Andrea nodded. “Well, Santa Claus is the symbol of the love who makes Christmas so wonderful. As Christians, we celebrate Christmas because we believe the arrival of Jesus in the world was the most magnificent gift imaginable from God. Love is real, right?” A solemn nine-year-old nodded in agreement. “We can feel love, can’t we?” Another nod. “Well, Santa Claus ‘personifies’ love (here I stopped to explain the word personify—using the example of Jack Frost as a pretend creator of a natural phenomenon), so wherever he is, we are reminded of love . . . and he is a perfect symbol for unselfish giving. But no, Andrea, Santa is not a real, walking-around elf. He’s a pretend elf.”

Andrea had sat absolutely still, taking in every word, studying my face as I talked. She broke into a wide toothy smile when I was done talking. “You mean?” she began . . . then started to laugh. “You mean that all those Santa presents came from you and Daddy? My doll? My bike? My watch? All those things came from you and Daddy?”

“Yes, everything.”

“And you just gave me and the boys our Santa presents all those years . . . and never expected a thank you? You just put them under the tree from Santa?” She was smiling so hard she could barely get out the words.

“That’s right.”

“And you just watched us open them, and we didn’t have to say thank you?”

I nodded.

“Oh, Mommy, that’s better than I thought. That is love. Thank you, Mommy—thank you now for all those presents,” and she threw her arms around me and squeezed a big, warm, tight hug.

When our hug was over, I asked, “Do you think the boys still believe in Santa?”

“For sure Pete and Phil do—and maybe Matt. But don’t worry, I won’t tell them—I love having this secret.” She hugged me again and ran out of the room to find the boys to see if her doll could ride in the back of one of their Tonka trucks.

My eyes welled up; relief and joy momentarily overwhelmed me.
© 2009 by Sara J. Glerum
All rights reserved. Electronic version published 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

SIDEWALK CAROL

When I first moved back to Seattle from Milwaukee (1986), I was shocked at the number of homeless people living on the streets. Many panhandled; others sat silently with signs describing their plights. I felt overcome with sadness as I walked to and from the downtown bus stop, wondering how I could be so lucky to have my health and a job when there was such misfortune in this city.

My boss, a prosperous businessman, was intolerant of the sight of the "beggars" downtown. Once he asked me to use my lunch hour Christmas shopping for him, so he wouldn't ruin his Christmas spirit encountering those "lazy no-goods" sitting on the sidewalk.

I began this poem in 1986 and just finished it this year. Do you know any singers who would like to put it to music?

SIDEWALK CAROL

Once upon a time remembered
A little child was homeless born.
A baby boy without possessions,
Swaddling rags inviting scorn.

I see snowflakes falling gently,
Each one fragile and unique.
I see homeless crouched in doorways,
Hovering there with prospects bleak.

A child today died on the street.
Hundreds more are huddling cold.
Nothing I can do will help them.
No frankincense, no myrrh or gold.

Mary, Joseph, babe in arms,
Bound in love and covenant,
Fled to Egypt seeking haven;
Left their home—itinerant.

I see snowflakes falling gently,
Homeless people young and old.
Curled up tight on bus stop seats
Shivering, frightened, freezing cold.

“Merry Christmas,” says my boss,
But not to beggars on the street.
“Let’s close our doors to celebrate—
Keep it private, keep it sweet.

“City homeless, what a scandal!
It’s not our problem they’ve no food.
Let’s have Christmas pure and merry
And not let ugliness intrude.”

Could we give just from our surplus?
Could we share with them our gold?
Could we be both hope and harbor
For the homeless—hungry, cold?

Help us, Jesus, savior, friend,
Help us, Christ, the lamb and king,
Grant compassion, help us see
Your presence, here, in everything.

I see snowflakes falling gently
I hear church bells in my mind
Help us, Jesus, learn to love them,
Learn compassion and be more kind.

You were homeless and reviled.
Through my tears the snowflakes blur.
You were homeless just like them . . .
Gold and frankincense and myrrh.

I see snowflakes falling gently,
Each one fragile and unique.
I hear church bells in my mind,
Ringing in the night’s mystique.

Gold and frankincense and myrrh,
Gold and frankincense and myrrh.


© 2009 by Sara J. Glerum
All rights reserved. Electronic version published 2009

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

It's beginning to look a lot like . . .

Winter! Seattle has rarely had such a prolonged cold snap as the one we're currently experiencing. Temperatures are running in the twenties and teens--the highs never rising above freezing. Rhododendrons have curled up their leaves in self-protection, making them look like bushes loaded with New Year's Eve party horns. But it's beautifully sunny and clear during the day; at night the stars from our front porch are bright and twinkly.

There's much to be thankful for, particularly a warm house (Halleluiah for the efficient furnace). I'm grateful for running water (no frozen pipes, praise be) and functioning electric lines making possible, in addition to more essential light, the special lights of the season. Sometimes I fixate on the doom of the unknown and inevitable, but today I am essentially fixating on the present and its blessings.

Like many others, I can get caught up in the rush of seasonal deadlines and the scurry of societal pressures to buy stuff. How fortunate I feel when grace envelops me with a lacy moment. I understand how lucky I am, and see what's wonderful about this tiny space of time I occupy. So many people are struggling worldwide, going without their essential needs being met. I grieve for them. But how did I get so fortunate? Only by the luck of the draw do I luxuriate in such comfort. So today, in the winter sun and surrounded by Christmas decor, I am taking a minute to wallow in my good fortune.

Rocky, the stone cat on our front porch looks particularly festive in his new hat. He had a several-year-old Santa hat, which became waterlogged and essentially ruined in last year's constant rain, so I was tickled to find the perfect fit as a replacement. Outside, Hubby and I draped a small evergreen tree (an eight-footer) with tiny blue lights. A wreath with white lights replaces our porch light this time of year. The whole effect is lovely.

Br-r-r-r. It's cold outside, but hearts are warm and life is good . . .inshallah.





Saturday, December 5, 2009

Thirty-seven years ago today . . .


It was December 5, 1972, when my new friend from the neighborhood, Sue Prein, phoned me. After standard fluffy niceties, she asked, “So . . . are you all ready for tomorrow?”

“What’s tomorrow?” I asked bewilderedly.

“St. Nicholas Day! What do you mean? Don’t you celebrate St. Nicholas?”

As a matter of fact, our Seattle-based family had never had reason to celebrate St. Nicholas Day. Why, we’d never even thought about it. As far as I was concerned, St. Nicholas was a scrawny old bishop from some place in Turkey who rode a white horse and brought an impoverished family a dowry for its unmarried daughter. I knew there was a tradition of men disguising themselves and knocking on doors in Eastern European countries with gold coins or lumps of coal for children. But in Milwaukee, Wisconsin? How preposterous!

I had a quick lesson in Wisconsin history on the phone. Huge numbers of Polish immigrants had thoroughly integrated their seasonal practices into the new world, and the other large ethnic population there—Germans—had thoroughly embraced the practice. By 1972, practically everyone who lived in greater Milwaukee celebrated it. I wasn’t sure quite what to do, but just to be sure, I went to the corner variety store and bought two dollars’ worth of penny candy.

At 3:00 p.m. the four Glerum children burst through the door, home from school and as bouncy as the jumping beans displayed on the counter of the variety store. “Mom,” one yelled. “Guess who’s coming tonight! St. Nicholas! We have to put our socks out!”

“We can put out our shoes, instead,” chimed in another.” “We’ll get coal if we’re bad and candy if we’re good.” All four scurried upstairs to find suitable foot ware for St. Nick.

“I sure hope I’ve been good enough,” I heard one say and realized this tradition might be a useful one.

When I told Hubby that night what Sue told me, he rolled his eyes. “OK,” he said. “But I guess that means they don’t get to hang stockings on Christmas Eve—what a shame.”

“Oh, no,” I answered. “I asked Sue, and she said all the kids and their kids’ friends hang them up both times.” Hubby just rolled his eyes—consumerism rearing its ugly head. “But it’s leverage,” I reminded him. “And good leverage, too.”

In the morning all four kids at candy for breakfast. Living in a house where candy was rationed, it wasn’t surprising that one of our boys remarked, “Boy, I’m glad we moved to Milwaukee.” The other kids quickly seconded their delight in their newly adopted city.

At school (public, mind you), the crayoned paper-stockings the kids had made with their respective teachers each contained a few gold candy coins, and a candy cane. Not one kid in four classrooms was left a lump of coal! (Yes, I specifically asked each of my children the question.) Hard to believe for me, having helped out in the classrooms a few times in the fall. But I’d leave well enough alone. I, too, was learning to love Milwaukee.

Happy St. Nicholas Day!




Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Here came . . . uh, went . . . December

Turning over the calendar page today brought me to my psychological knees, so to speak. How could the year already be over? I think of those movies that depict the passage of time by a calendar flipping ahead in a breeze blowing through the window . . . I need to run to catch up with the days, weeks, months.

It wasn’t that long ago that December seemed roomier, with plenty of space to pack whatever it needed it to contain. Now it feels like the size of a carryon bag.

At least December brings the end to the decline of light. In just a few weeks we can look up from the depth of darkness to detect our ever-so-subtle ascent into light. Anticipating more daylight as the days lengthen makes me happy. At our house, the dark and dreary days seem intensified by the Doug firs that stand guard around it. Perhaps it is a small price to pay for their blissful protection from the heat in summer, but they can be overbearing this time of year. There’s much to be said for the lacy light-leaking capacity of deciduous trees.

Rejoice, I tell myself. This is a happy month. And so it is, this December of 2009—as long as it sticks around for awhile . . . and slows down.

Monday, November 23, 2009

CRANBERRY MEMORIES

I wrote this personal essay in 1981. It was published in the Milwaukee Journal on Thanksgiving Day 1983.

The cranberries are washed and sorted. I have cleared my mind and my stove for this task.
It is time to find the recipe and begin the last chore standing between me and the relaxation of the holiday. I thumb through my recipe file to locate the 3x5 card, yellowed with age. Seeing the card brings on such a torrent of memories that I sit down for a moment to let them wash over me.

The recipe, written in my mother’s hand, is a simple one for whole berry sauce. She copied it for me when I was a bride of two months, almost twenty years ago. I have used it faithfully twice yearly since. I hear her voice: Don’t forget to skim the sauce when it gets cool.

She tells me that each time I make it, as she stands by my side in spirit. She has been dead for twelve Thanksgivings. A tear dismisses itself from my cheek and lands on the fading card, creating a little blur of ink.

This year, there is another absence. My daughter, just eighteen, will not be home for Thanksgiving. It is our first holiday without all of our children home. I am fiercely proud but mother-empty. My firstborn child has left the nest. Now I understand the unique sense of loss a mother knows, and it seems natural and good to be thinking of my own mother with this newfound wisdom.

I being to measure water, sugar, berries . . . remembering another kitchen in another era. Ration coupons had been hoarded to obtain the sugar for the sauce. I watched my mother measure these same ingredients and took my turn stirring until the berries began to pop. Her voice was as triumphant as a generals’ as she lifted the pot from the burner. “There, that’s done!”

I was told that I could skim off the foam when it was cool. Tasting the pink foam and finding it delicious, I asked, “Why do we have to skim it when it tastes so good like this?”

She replied, “Just for beauty’s sake.”

As the popping sounds of cooking cranberries begin in my own kitchen, I revel in my cranberry memories. After the war was over and gasoline was available for leisure driving, we took a drip that led us past blooming cranberry bogs. I asked my parents, “Did the berries get named for the color or the color for the berries? My sister laughed. My parents did not laugh. They recognized the quiet stirrings of philosophy and discussed the question with me gravely.

The Christmas I was fourteen, my father bought a gallon of the berries, hoping to rekindle the homespun goodness of his boyhood Christmases. We began to string them. But something had been forgotten—or never known—the trick of keeping them on the thread. As the overripe berries dropped onto the floor (and lay dying tin their clear, red blood), we began to laugh. It was such deep and healthy laughter. A newly fallible father was suddenly more dear than the one who never erred. With glee, we mopped up the mess and retrieved the foil tinsel from the attic. The birds ate cranberries in the snow.

As an adult, I traveled one November with my parents to Europe. It was my final vacation with my family of origin. Crossing the border into Italy on the fourth Thursday of our trip, we began to talk about how great it was going to be to have an authentic Italian meal. We hurried to the hotel dining room after checking into our rooms.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” were the first words from the maitre d’. After showing us to a table, he proudly announced the management’s ‘surprise for American guests, which was an adaptation of an American Thanksgiving dinner. We hid our disappointment as we ate roasted chicken, bread stuffing, acorn squash and lingonberry sauce masquerading as cranberries. My father teased my mother, whispering, “Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving without your whole-berry sauce.”

My sauce has finished cooking. The berries all have popped, and the juice is translucent.

My reverie is broken by my three sons arriving home from school. These teenage men-boys swagger into the kitchen, ready to empty the refrigerator of its leftovers from yesterday. They are not interested in cranberry sauce or any food that is earmarked for Thanksgiving Day, but in the need to fill their cavernous stomachs now, just to hold them over until tonight’s meal.

They are joking and roughhousing and crowd the kitchen with their energy and activity. holidays force them into slow motion. On Thursday, I will gather memories of tenderness and togetherness for times bereft of such a luxury.

When my mother died, there was a matching pair of cut crystal bowls. There was no doubt in either my sister’s or my mind that we should split the pair and each have one. It is necessary to present the cranberry sauce in crystal. There is still a reverent silence when the berry bowl is set upon the table. Translucent berries shimmer in clear and brilliant juice. Candlelight spells red shadows upon the snow white linen. Anticipation of the bittersweet taste triggers memories of joys and heartbreaks throughout the year, and we give thanks.

The sauce in my kitchen is cool enough to skim. Cooking bubbles have risen to the surface and solidified into the pink foam. Suddenly, I understand my feelings of sadness and nostalgia. I am blessed to have my sons at home, but likewise blessed that my daughter has the courage to be absent. She is free to skim away the cloudy covering of childhood and, in so doing, will behold with clarity the beauty of her adult life as it unfolds. We will dine in one another’s presence in love and memory.

A voice interrupts me. It is my youngest son’s. “Ill skim off the foam for you. I like making the sauce beautiful and clear.”

We are ready for our Thanksgiving to begin.


© 1983 by Sara J. Glerum
All rights reserved. Electronic version published 2009

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Food for Thought . . . Words to Live By


At the suggestion of our daughter, we sought out the FDR Memorial while we were in DC recently. I knew nothing about it, so I wasn't ready for its emotional impact. I remember our daughter saying--back when G. W. Bush was president--she wished our president would walk through it every morning before he started work.
I felt the same way--only I'd like to prescribe it for every senator and representative, as well. During a slow walk through the four outdoor rooms, you'll find enough poignant, pithy statements carved into stone to take your breath away.

I recommend seeing it to everyone who has any work, business, or vacation time in our nation's capitol, although you might feel discouraged at how little progress we have made.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Popcorn of the Opera

Last night I sat spellbound at my local movie house—taking advantage of the “Live HD from the Met” program of simulcast opera performances from Metropolitan Opera. Puccini’s Turandot was an “encore,” meaning the performance I was watching had been captured at a live performance a week and a half earlier. So . . . it was a rerun, of sorts—but still a better way to spend a stormy evening than almost anything else I can think of. I sat enraptured, taking in the music and the gorgeous stage settings from what felt like the best seat in the house.

Not only was I loving the opera, I was loving the film crew’s brilliant use of the thirty-minute intermissions by showing what’s happening backstage as more than 100 stagehands bust their buns bringing in an extravaganza of scenery.

During the second intermission, with the cameras fixed on front-of-house for the final ten minutes before Act III, I allowed myself my own extravagance: a small bag of popcorn and a Coke. This purchase of movie snacks was a rarity at the movies for me. As Hubby will attest, I sometimes I smuggle my own Junior Mints into a Hollywood-type cinema, but I NEVER buy popcorn or a soft drink.

But there was something so silly about the idea, so twenty-first century-ish, that I couldn’t resist the impulse. Seeing Princess Turandot in her opulent palace feel love for the first time in her life while I was munching popcorn and sipping soda (with my best quiet manners) was fabulous, anachronistic fun. And even at the god-awful price of $10.50 for my treats (on top of the $18 for the special-event showing), I was spending only about one-tenth of what the best seat in the house would have cost me at the Met itself.

Such a deal.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Is it an E or an R?


As I was driving the other day, I turned on NPR just as The Writer’s Almanac was finishing up—you know, that ten-minute program Garrison Keillor puts on in the afternoons, the one where he reads a poem and shares tidbits about several writers, particularly those whose birthday it is.

I was only half-listening because there was heavy traffic, but this is what I thought I heard at the end of the program.

The Writer’s Almanac is brought to you, in part, by the NRA.”

What? I thought. The National Rifle Association? How GREAT! Maybe I need to rethink my opinion of the NRA. There have to be good guys within the organization if it sponsors this radio program!

My mind leapt to imagery of orange-vested, gun-toting tough guys hunkered down, waiting for a stag to meander by, and babbling verse to each other. “Hey, did you hear the one by ee cummings?” Maybe blank verse would even inspire them to load their rifles with blanks. I imagined a couple of guys in army-green raingear calling in turkeys up in Vermont while rhythmically moving to the cadence of Robert Frost.

Just then I realized my mistake. The announcer had said “NEA” not “NRA.” I had to laugh at my naïve assumption. But my fantasy continued. Why am I stereotyping gun owners to think they don’t enjoy poetry, or knowing which literary giant’s birthday it is? What if the National Riffle Association really did sponsor The Writer’s Almanac instead of, or along with, the National Endowment for the Arts? Doing such a thing would help to break down stereotypes, something we all could use—especially me, apparently.

Shall I write the NRA to suggest it?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Thomas Jefferson





On November 9, 2009, I saw the Thomas Jefferson Monument in Washington D.C. for the first time.



Nothing I can say about it would be fresh, so I won't say anything.
If you've seen it, you know what I mean. If you haven't seen it, just hope that someday you can.

Library of Congress

At age 69, I finally made it to the Library of Congress! I was unaware, until a few days ago, that there are three buildings comprising the LOC, and that the Thomas Jefferson Building—with its elaborate neo-classical structure—has such a radiantly beautiful interior.

Hubby and I spent an hour there reflecting on a special exhibition of Herblock’s political cartoons spanning eight decades that brought back memories of all the things wrong with government over the years. Blunders and accomplishments of past administrations became immediate again as we lingered over his poignant timeless cartoons. Some cartoons made me want to cry and others prompted a deep, satisfying nod—as if a friend had just pinpointed a trouble I’d not been able to articulate.

But my tears were unstoppable when I stepped into Thomas Jefferson’s library—and stood surrounded in a circle of books of his own collection. I don’t think I ever knew that his sale to the nation of his personal library of over 6,000 volumes enabled our country to reestablish its official library after a fire destroyed the country’s collection of books. Jefferson knew a national library was essential if our nation were to endure. The magnitude of Jefferson’s interests, and his singular way of organizing his book collection brought him alive to me in a new way. I have rarely been that moved by the sight of books.

Monday, November 2, 2009

BREAKING THE FAST, WINNING THE WAR

My mother always whistled melodic popular tunes while fixing breakfast. Her stride, as she went from the stove to the fridge to the stove again, was distinctive, an oddity she explained by saying she “favored” her right foot. I would lie awake, with gray light piercing the edges of my bedroom curtains, listening to her whistling in rhythm with the clip-clip, clip-clip of her steps as she bustled across the kitchen, which was just below my room.

She made glorious breakfasts. On weekends we could hope for Dutch babies or marmalade muffins, bacon omelets or steamy waffles, but on school days she just made eggs, which were soft-boiled, fried, or occasionally scrambled, a variety of toasted breads, and bacon. My favorite breakfast (beginning at age five) was hot white rice covered with melted butter and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, but that was not allowed unless I was sick, because—as my mother would say—“there is no nourishment in white rice.”

Our whole family—Mother, Dad, my sister, and I—ate breakfast together, although Mother, a dutiful, apron-garbed housewife, rarely sat with us, but moved back and forth between stove and table to serve us. By the time I was in high school, my body rebelled from digestive activity early in the morning and nothing in the way of food appealed to me before about eleven o’clock, especially not eggs. This aversion lasted for well over a year, prompting a running argument every morning.

“You have to eat something.”

“No, I don’t.”

“You’ll do better in school with breakfast—it’s fuel in your tank.”

“My health teacher says that’s a myth. We should eat only when we are hungry.”

Ah, the ancient foil for parents—the word of an expert, teacher, tossed into the conversation to weight the argument, which continued endlessly. Finally, Mother and I would find a compromise: “At least, please eat a piece of toast, or ask your father for a 'dog bite'.”

"Dog bites" were my father’s invention. The dogs at our house changed periodically—Alice, Josh, Jake, Winston, Pat—but the food tidbits he dubbed "dog bites" never changed. They were devised by Dad who enjoyed sneaking breakfast to the dogs. Everyone in our house “knew better than to feed dogs at the table” (Mother’s words) and we likewise understood that healthy dogs need to eat only once a day. In our house, that meant in the evening. But oh, those doleful eyes beneath the morning table! The dogs all learned to snuggle up to Dad’s chair, to patiently wait for a bite of his breakfast. And this is what they got from a man whose weekday breakfast rarely varied: A corner of toast, buttered and dipped in coffee laced with milk and sugar; one forkful of egg—usually the white rather than the yolk “because there is more of it” (Dad’s words); and a nibble of bacon. The whole thing was topped off with a dollop of Seville orange marmalade. The dogs would swallow this delicacy in one gulp and promptly beg for more.

My father, ostensibly understanding my aversion to breakfast, seemed pleased to supply me with "dog bites," too—as long as Mother cooked him three eggs instead of two. He would slip one across the table to me as if we were conspirators, although she knew and approved because of her nutritional convictions. For whatever reason, a “dog bite” was a hundred times more appetizing to me than anything on my own plate. Many mornings I left the house with my books, homework, violin, lunch bag, and two of these tasty items in my stomach.

My preference for mooching from my father’s plate instead of eating my own food must have driven my mother nearly crazy. Because breakfast had become such a source of contention between us, she continued to challenge me to think of a food I would be willing to eat in the morning. That’s when I had my wonderful idea. Because I didn’t really like our weekday breakfast fare—eggs, toast, or even bacon—why not have dinner for breakfast! Dinner in the morning would appease my mother’s desire to feed me, and allow me to eat with appetite. A roast—yummy! Spuds, a veggie, gravy! These were my favorite foods. Initially Mother scoffed at my proposal, but eventually she caved to my cajoling, demanding, and pleading. Mother announced one Sunday evening, a month after my campaign began, that dinner would be served at 7:00 a.m. the next day.

Dreaming of my favorite dinner foods—rare roast beef, carrots cooked in cream, and mashed potatoes—I awoke to hear my whistling mother accompanying her distinctive footsteps. She sounded especially cheery. Food aromas permeated my bed-clothes and my room, and they were not, thank goodness, eggy smells. I could not quite place them, however, so I dressed quickly, trying on only two outfits (instead of the usual four) before deciding what to wear. Entering the kitchen, I greeted my mother with enthusiastic exclamations about this morning’s “breakfast” and offered to help. As I set the table in the dining room (a departure from the morning routine), the food didn’t smell quite as appetizing as I had imagined it would. It wasn’t until Mother asked me to put mint sauce on the table that I realized what her menu was. She had prepared leg of lamb infused with garlic, and had chosen to make her famous tomato-eggplant casserole, potatoes browned in lamb drippings then oven roasted, and a pan of dark-brown lamb gravy.

As we gathered around the table, artificial cheerfulness pervaded. Mother joined us and took off her apron. Dad carved the lamb and served up dinner-sized portions. I managed to finish my plateful but passed on seconds, as did my sister and dad. As my mother spooned a tiny second helping of eggplant onto her plate, I thought I noticed a tiny, smug smile on her face. After clearing my dishes in silence, I left for school. We never discussed the meal again, and my great idea about breakfast died a quiet and natural death. Mother had won the breakfast war, without raising her voice or ceasing to whistle.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Pumpkins-on-Pikes, Northwest Version


Inspired by Matt Glerum's Pumpkins-on-Pikes party recently held in Marin County (his 17th such event), we created a mini version (a mere five jack-o-lanterns impaled on pikes, compared to his 150 plus) in our side yard. We're calling it Mini-PoP. With two flickering electric tea-lights to illuminate them all night long, these faces look better the darker it gets. (His pumpkins have real tea-lights inside, which make them burn brighter, but ours don't burn out.) Without a timed exposure, the camera cannot capture the magic. But . . . you get the idea.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

HALLOWEEN MENU IDEA

These Halloween goodies were made by yours truly two years ago at son Matt's house, under the supervision and inspiration of Candra, his wife. Spiders are nothing but olives cut in half (bodies) or sliced (legs). One olive yields one delicious spider.

If the pants fit . . .

Have 32” inseam, will travel.

Thirty-two inch inseams—that’s us—the Glerum family. Our common dimension allows us to exchange clothing from time to time, in what has to be one of the silliest but practical sides of our relatedness: The hand-me-downs, -overs, and-ups of pants.

Hubby returned home from our trip to California with a couple pairs of “new” jeans, hand-me-ups from offspring! In the car on the way home, as I was admiring stylish look, we began to laugh. That Gap and Lucky men’s jeans could make a kid's closet in Point Richmond to his closet in Lake Forest Park is our own time-honored tradition, our version of the traveling pants.

Yes, all six of us have the same inseam measurement. Whether it’s because one person’s curvaceous rear-end allows more drape in the fabric or another person’s trimmer thighs lets the fabric fall straighter, each of us takes a 32” inseam, despite the fact that none of us is the same height or weight—or waist size at any given moment. Luckily, we all like a casual look and feel at home in deep-pocketed men's pants. So, we can exchange trousers by our waist-sizes alone, which—like those of many Americans—fluctuate in the ratio of eating to exercise. “Hey, see if these practically new cargo pants fit; you might like them.”

We also can trade shirts, workout jackets, and even sweaters, depending on the universality of the style—but we’re famous for our pants exchanges. Hubby has notched up his fashion quotient, thanks to this recent acquisition. And during the next visit with offspring, someone else will have inevitably subtracted or added a few inches around the middle, allowing the exchanges to continue. Apparently, everyone ‘wears the pants’ in our family—each other’s. I consider that a great compliment, as well as a quirky family trait.

Our seeming similarities manifest themselves in our inseams.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I Got Just Thirty Bucks

In front of me today at the supermarket was a man with a modest basket of food. I intentionally got into line behind him because I thought it’d be quick. So much for that assumption, because when presented with the total due, a prose version of this conversation began . . ..

Take the pineapple for sure
maybe the carrots . . . and the pear.
I s’pose the tomatoes will help,
too. What’s the total? Are we there?

No? Still need another couple bucks?
OK, bananas—but can we split ‘em . . .
only take back a few? Nah . . .
all or nothin’. Damn,

I was really lookin’ forward
to them. Oh, well. I have to use
cash because my bank has
put on the screws—

guess I overdrew too many
times—it’s all f_cked up. It’s
hell bein’ out of work—excuse the “French.”
Yeah, no kiddin’—no job’s the pits.

Now . . . what’s the total? We’re
at $30.47? I got just thirty bucks.
What’s there to make up the 47 cents?
Huh? Call it even? Ah, shucks,

mister, that’s really nice.
Thanks a lot. You made my day.
You, too . . . you have a good one!
Thanks again. See ya’ next Tuesday.


I felt embarrassed to have witnessed this personal scene, and sad, too, that everything the man returned was good stuff. It wasn't as he was returning Fritos and Pepsi. Understandably, the only item from produce he kept was the bag of potatoes. The clerk, a man in midlife, was extremely courteous and pleasant.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are: 2 Sideways Thumbs

I eagerly paid my money and took my seat on the second night of the movie's release. After seeing previews, I knew I had to be among the first to see the film and find out for myself where and how the wild things were.

Was it scary? No, probably not even for children—the monsters, anyway. The scariest thing to me was the casting of a ten-year-old as Max. Watching a youngster old enough to have learned a measure of self control so completely out-of-control with anger—that’s scary. The book depicts a very little boy, probably a preschooler, who’s temper gets the best of him, and that’s a very different scenario . But a ten year old? Worrisome, at the very least.

The monsters were enormously likeable, and only when I let myself imagine Tony Soprano in a fuzzy monster suit did James Gandolfini’s voice work, as Carol—the dominant monster—project a scary edge. Doesn’t the mob recruit young men who have anger management issues? Was Max being groomed for a life of organized crime?

I loved Lauren Ambrose’s voice for her character, the hopeful, but disappointed, female monster, KW. The film had a measure of sweet, empathic moments. If I’d taken a child with me to see the movie, say a seven- or eight-year- old, we could have had a good discussion afterwards. That would have made it worthwhile.

As it was—it verged on boring. Give me thirty-two pages, any day, of nearly wordless narrative and the fabulous artwork of Maurice Sendak over the technically dazzling treatment of Hollywood. When all is said and done, it’s the reader’s imagination that brings a book alive.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

For love of forty-four cents

My love affair with the US post office started many years ago with penny postcards. My mother always had a supply on hand—blank cards with a purple stamp imprinted on one side. I don’t know how she used them or why, but they were a staple in our house as I grew up. Those were the days when letters cost just three cents to mail.

Over the years, grumbling about postal rates has also become something of a staple. If one is in the company of bellyachers, eventually postal prices will come up, as well as the subject of the postal monopoly. Gripe, gripe, gripe. Maybe the cost of postage has risen more than other expenses over my lifetime, but you won’t find me complaining.

At forty-four cents a pop, it’s the best damn deal in town. Imagine what it would cost for me to deliver a letter to South Carolina or Minnesota, California, or New Hampshire. The handling of a single letter—from picking it up from my mail box to delivering it correctly to someone else’s—is astonishing in, and of, itself. Just think of the journey of that one little note, from box to truck to bag to sorting assembly line to bag to truck to airport and the whole thing done in reverse. And correctly? Wow!

When my friend, Karen, was confined to her home in Vancouver, Washington, because of her illness, I wrote her as many as five times a week. For two years, and particularly the last six months of her life, I became a regular at the post office, standing in line to buy stamps, chatting with customers, and observing the clerks accepting packages, dispensing postage, providing information and even, once in a while, advice. Yes, sometimes the lines and the wait were too long. I moaned about that sometimes, but never—ever—did I complain about the cost of a stamp. A short note could cheer Karen up and kept our connectivity in tact, despite distance and illness.

Now that Karen is gone, I buy stamps much less frequently. It used to be that whenever I passed a post office, I’d do a quick inventory in my head. How am I fixed for postage? These days, I don’t need to—I write only occasional cards and notes now. But the weirdest thing happens to me whenever I see the U.S. flag flying over a post office: I get that little lurch in my heartbeat, that quick shiver inside my mouth, and one of those belly surges that together comprise a “pang.” In an instant, by just passing a post office, I am reminded of Karen and how much I miss her and all because of forty-four cents. There are many times in a week when I miss her, but my postal pangs have to be among the quirkiest.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

PUMPKINS-ON-PIKES

Next week, in California, our son is hosting his twenty-third pumpkin carving party. I wrote the following reflection in 2007 after attending the party for the first time.

After getting second-hand reports throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s about the annual pumpkin carving parties given by our son, Matt, I could scarcely believe it when Hubby and I actually booked airline tickets to see it for ourselves. Known for many years as Pumpkins-on-Pikes and always staged the weekend before Halloween, the party has grown from a college kid’s get-together in Minnesota to a talk-of-the-town event in New Hampshire that more than a hundred people attend.

Matt has enchanted us over the years with tales of the party’s success and people’s reactions to it. I soak it up, of course, because I am ever thirsty with my mother’s pride. I love hearing success stories as told to me by my children. But nothing ever takes the place of first-hand observation.

In twenty-one prior Pumpkins-on-Pikes, the weather had cooperated with crisp sunny afternoons and moonlit nights. Oh, there was that one year it snowed—memorable for anyone trying to carve a jack-o-lantern while wearing mittens—but otherwise the weather was dependably good. In 2007, though—the year the Seattle parents traveled 3,000 miles to the Franconia home of Matt and his wife, Candra, to see the event for themselves—it rained. It didn’t just drizzle, either. It poured.

When the skies open up and drench the earth, what do the party hosts do with 150 pumpkins intended for carving outside? Heap them in the garage so the carving tables will fit in, too. Sure, the motorcycle can be edged over a bit, the tandem stood on its end, the cars put up on the road. Where will the hot cider be served when the outdoor tablecloths are blowing away? From the stove, itself, of course! What about the tarp that acts like a sail when the wind whips it up and nearly pulls the railing off the deck? Untie it, take it down, fold it up, and kiss it off. Tarp not provided!

The inside of the house needs some adjustments, too. Roll up the rugs, cover the carpet, set up spotlights, and thank the gods a Porta-Potty was ordered and delivered earlier in the week. Put down towels for foot wiping and make room for piles of wet slickers and boots. Smile. Button up in waterproof jackets, pull on the knee-high Wellingtons, and don fishing-hats. Grin and say repeatedly in cheerful voices, “Maybe it will clear up later,” or “It’s supposed to blow over by nightfall . . ..”

When the rain and winds intensify and the guests start arriving, relax! Nothing to do now but pass the deviled eggs, de-mud the pumpkins in a sudsy washtub in the driveway, set out all the serrated knives and carving tools from the pumpkin bin, and offer to open beers for those with gooey hands. Crowd around the makeshift tables and carve away. As each jack-o-lanterns is finished, load it up with two or three tea-candles and run down the hilly backyard to impale them on pikes. Mud everywhere. A toddler jumps in the puddles forming in the driveway. Laugh. Pass the treat bag to the children, fill the cider cups, and barbecue the pork loin under the garage’s overhang. Pile up those tea lights inside the carved pumpkins, in case the rain lifts. Keep on praying for the rain to stop—can’t light the pumpkins in a downpour. Keep on hoping, just in case.

Candra is busy inside. “There’re towels for your feet . . . set your casserole anywhere there’s a space.” Beslickered Matt tirelessly trudges back and forth from the garage to the woods in the back of the yard with pumpkin guts, which deer and rodents will devour in a day or two. Several of Matt and Candra’s close friends, recruited ahead of time to help, have worn their Macintoshes and Wellingtons, prepared to brave the ferocious storm in the name of friendship. They’ve been to other Pumpkins-on-Pikes where the weather’s been perfect.

And then it happened. A tiny crack in the cloud cover opened up and spread. As light waned and darkness crept into Franconia, slowly, surely, the rain slowed. Clouds began to roll and blow across the sky. The moon struggled to make an appearance—late, like a drunken actor, not at its brightest, or best—but there! Several optimistic guests and their host scurried around the yard with lighter-wands, climbing ladders up to tall pikes and stooping over to reach low pikes. Through varying thicknesses of squash skins, pumpkin faces began to emerge from the darkness, and the magic happened. The very thing I had imagined all those years—pumpkins glowing in deep yellows and oranges—began to appear in the navy-blue night.

Standing at the top of Matt and Candra’s sloping backyard, I felt as though I were a minor deity commanding inanimate objects to come to life. The backyard in Franconia isn’t wired for electricity, so the moonlight leaking through the clouds barely illuminated the pikes. Only the glowing pumpkins themselves were visible. Faces emerged—ugly, cute, clever, scary—and graphic images of spiders, or the words, “Go, Sox” (the World Series was in full swing). Floating images in all sizes, some near, some at the edge of the yard where it meets the woods. Faint outlines of guests rippled among the pikes as they braved the squishy grass and soggy earth to roam this nocturnal illuminated sculpture garden. Everyone was an artist that night.

A nine-year-old who had come to the party with his mother sat at the top of the hill near me and narrated the scene to a large hand-puppet he’d brought along. The puppet answered him back in an animated fashion. “Spooky and wonderful,” they seemed to be saying—“this is what Halloween should always be like.”

I thought about the Druid origins of the holiday and felt a pang of kinship with primitive people in their veneration of light in darkness and creation of effigies to ward off the unfriendly spirits. The darkness, illuminated by glowing pumpkins, was both eerie and unknowable. Our shadows could have been from either world—the physical or metaphysical. A few children raced around with glow-in-the-dark bracelets provided by their hosts. I shivered and came inside. But several times I went back outside to revisit the scene, to press it into my retinas.

Guests finally drifted home. Ninety-five pumpkins glowed on until, one by one, their candles fizzled out. The party was over for another year, but indelibly imprinted in my memory. And in my heart. Seeing Pumpkins-on-Pikes is one of my lifetime highlights.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Aloha, Coqui Prince

When we arrived at Uncle Billy’s Hilo Hotel, we made arrangements to meet our travel companions, Mike and Jane, in half an hour so we could enjoy the remaining daylight. After the long flight from Seattle to Kona and the drive from Kona to Hilo, we were all eager for what we’d come the distance to enjoy—the sun, ocean, and ambience of the big island. After quick unpacking and washing-up, the four of us headed on foot along Banyan Drive to Queen Liliuokalani Park on Hilo Bay. There we walked through winding paths and over footbridges, enjoying the largest formal Japanese garden outside of Japan, to make our way to views of the surf. I could feel myself relaxing.

Following our leisurely dinner at the hotel (complete with live music and two gray-haired hula-dancers), we explored the grounds of “Uncle Billy’s Hotel,” which are picturesque and exotic—exactly the Hawaii you’d expect to find in, say the ‘50s. Because the hotel is old and only has been minimally modernized, there’s a feel about the grounds that made me imagine Cuba in the 21st century—few updates and a semblance of the old colonial look. And tropical. As we strolled through the overgrown, fragrant courtyard area, we were overwhelmed by the chirping of what we first took to be an evening bird of some sort. The sound was so loud, I actually wondered aloud if it could be artificially piped in, ala Disney. Nah—not here, not Uncle Billy’s! But because I saw no activity in tree branches, I became obsessively curious about the origin of the sound. As intense as the chirping was, I expected to see fluttering leaves if birds were settling down for the night. But nothing. The trees were completely still, radiating warmth in the early darkness.

The four of us walked carefully, looking upwards mostly, searching for the creatures emitting the incessent chirping. Jane produced a flashlight from her purse and gave it to Mike, who began methodically to search the origins of the sound. He came up with nothing for the first few minutes. Then we heard, “Ah hah!” We gathered around Mike who was shining the light under a roofed overhang on an adjunct structure in the hotel garden. A small brown frog appeared a seam in the roofing. “Yes, that’s it, all right,” Mike proclaimed. “A type of tree frog.” He shone his light on the little guy so we could get a good look.

I was awed to think the volume of chirping could be caused by such a small creature—there must have been thousands of them in this garden, alone—and for the next several nights, shook my head in wonderment as I imagined these tiny frogs, about the size of my thumb, carrying on their circadian quest with such intensity.

When I got home and started sorting photos, I needed to identify a few locales in Hawaii. In doing so, I stumbled upon a Web site that contained a reference to an invasive species of frog on the big island, which is causing ecologists and conservations to squawk loudly with their own sound. I clicked on the picture, and there was “our frog.” These Coqui frogs (named for the sound of their chirp, “Ko-kee”) are recently arrived, accidental tourists from Puerto Rico. They have thrived so thoroughly in the Hawaiian islands, particularly on the “big island,” they are endangering indigenous insects and displacing native frogs. So . . . the very thing I thought was wonderful in Hawaii became a monster in Seattle, in the time it took to read two paragraphs.

I got to thinking how ironic it was to discover something that was once enchanting has taken on an evil quality. One minute it’s unadulterated pleasure; the next minute it’s a threatening presence, hazard, forbidden fruit: riding a bike without a helmet, driving a car without a seatbelt, attending a rock concert without ear protection; DDT, cigarettes, hot dogs, amalgam fillings, Gumi Bears, asbestos, dams, bacon, and transplanted Coqui frogs. The list goes on. Until we cross the threshold from innocence to informed consumer or curious citizen, we are free to enjoy the pleasure of the pleasure. And maybe that’s not all bad. We can’t live forever.

As for frogs—their chorus was wonderful. I’m sorry they’re taking over habitat from other creatures in Hawaii, but hearing their song remains implanted in my memory as a magical moment in Hawaii.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Reaction

Recently, I heard about a seventieth birthday party where a jukebox loaded with tunes from the '50s was rented . . .

Remind me—when I’m seventy—to act my age: global and open minded. Remind me not to be a stereotypical old woman, the kind who wants to hear Oldies played on a jukebox for her birthday or receive crocheted afghans and sachets as gifts. Or a card with pages of Remember When trivia.

Remind me that I’m wise in the world. Remind me, because I don’t want to end up intolerant and narrow-minded. I want to celebrate the many good changes occurring in my lifetime. Let everyone see me as an old woman who’s comfortable with diverse self-expression.

On my birthday, how about taking me to a rock concert, a rave, or a hip-hop marathon? If those don’t work out, maybe we can see a skateboard championship or get tattoos together. I don’t really want a tattoo, but I refuse to be a blue-haired clucker who condemns every tattoo she sees, or the set-in-her-ways crone who longs for the days when girls wore skirts that covered their fannies and boys opened doors for ladies--the "good old days" when people shook hands or (god help us) curtsied, instead of high-fiving. I love the now! Maybe standing outside a tattoo parlor and admiring the newly decorated body parts would be a nice compromise.

I am glad to be a modern woman who appreciates a diversity of tastes and attitudes. I love country western music and plainsong, alternate rock and bagpipes. I’d be hard pressed to choose between two museums if one featured Rothko and Pollock and the other Cassatt and Renoir. I’d happily take a plane to see a Christo installation or stand in line for tickets to Rent. I’d also love to take you on a tour to appreciate far-out buildings, such as Seattle’s own Experience Music Project designed by Frank Gehry or its public library by Rem Koolhaus. But I deeply appreciate the classic beauty of the Parthenon, long to see Monticello, and am moved by the serene simplicity of a Japanese garden.

I refuse to exclaim, as I snip past a store from which strobe lights flash and booming music blasts, “I don’t know how anyone could shop in such a place.” Neither will I boycott a display of religious art from the Vatican because of the wealth it represents. What's not to enjoy? I try to be open to different viewpoints about art and music, literature and film. I try to take opportunities to grow and learn. It takes all kinds of self expression to make our world.

When I sit in my idling car at a red light, I do not want to be one of those old people who glowers in the rear-view mirror at the car behind with its woofers cranked up into a throbbing beat, asking what so many of my contemporaries do: “Why would anyone turn on the radio that loud?” Bring it on! Sometimes, when I’m driving alone, I crank up the volume on hard rock. And sometimes I sing along at the top of my voice with Christian folk music.

Why can’t old people enjoy what kids, middle-agers and all those other age groups enjoy? I can be ornery and irritable, but I’m trying not to be biased. Yes, I can be opinionated. But I’m still trying to be open-minded. I’m as comfortable with gays as with straights. And I’ve found a way to be nice to enthusiastic evangelical Christians, providing I’m not being pushed to buy into their doctrine. I feel I must tolerate uptight narrow-minded bigots, or I’m displaying the same behavior I dislike. Oh, and did I mention some of my good friends are Republicans?

No matter how the aging process plays out in my life, please don’t let me get intolerant. I’m so grateful to have gotten beyond the “good old days,” when homosexual orientation was frequently cloaked in layers of secrets and denial and upper-class whites insisted their "negro servants" were incapable of fending for themselves. The time when war was considered a noble and righteous endeavor. I’m glad to be here in these challenging new days—in the agonizing and wide-open world of now. It’s my world, and I love it as much as anyone does.

So when I’m seventy (and I’m almost there), don’t hand me a CD of Perry Como and expect me to swoon. I’ll take a U-2 album any day.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Aloha


After a lovely and relaxing soujourn on the "big island," I'm back in the world of laundry and grocery shopping, e-mails and Facebook, TV and the daily news. It'll take a few days to adjust to the sounds of home after hearing the surf pounding just across 78-6665 Alii Drive where we were staying (on the Kona side). On the Hilo side our lanai overlooked the ocean as it whooshed up onto the rocks below. Tree frogs chirped so loudly we had to shout to be heard over them. But now . . . the dryer is buzzing. Aloha!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sweet Tooth



Mae: Are we going to have bessert now?

Grandpa: Laughs. But we just finished breakfast! And don’t you mean dee-ssert?

Mae: That’s what I said, bee-ssert.

Grandpa: Ah, I see. Bessert is something sweet after the meal.

Mae: Laughs.

Grandpa: Dee-ssert is something we have after dinner, yes?

Mae: Nods.

Grandpa: Maybe bee-sert is something we have after breakfast.

Mae: Grins.

Grandpa: Well, if bessert is after breakfast and dessert is after dinner, hm-m-m . . . I wonder what lessert would be.

Mae: That’s bessert after lunch?

Grandpa: Laughs. Yup! Bessert, lessert, dessert.

Mae: Dee-ssert.

Grandpa: Oh, my . . . you said it perfectly! But now, since we finished our cereal and fruit,I guess we need some bee-ssert. Would you like jam on your toast?

Mae: Smile breaks into a head-thrown-back, open-mouthed laugh. Sure!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

CINDY Part II

Cindy, the life-sized doll, went everywhere with me for a while. In her blue soft wool hat and coat, she looked almost real sitting next to me. She sat in the backseat on the car seat, and I would turn her so she could look out the window. Sometimes I made her wave at children who were looking out their backseat windows from in cars in adjacent lanes. Sometimes I held her on my lap and narrated the scenery.

Our family was invited to the Olympic Peninsula for a weekend with friends. I asked Mother if Cindy could come; the answer was yes. Part of that trip was a ferry ride, and after we drove our car onto the auto deck, we went above to the cabin for the thirty-minute crossing. I lugged Cindy up the ferry’s stairs with her face looking over my shoulder, carrying her as if she were a real child. Her legs and arms were stiff and straight because her knees and elbows were not jointed.

As I reached the top of the stairs and entered the sitting area, a woman passenger looked up from her magazine with a look of horror. Then she began to laugh. “Oh,” she said, “I thought your doll was a real child with polio.”

I explained the reason I wanted to get such a big doll was because she was life-sized—like a little sister—and “she wears the same size clothing a two-year-old would wear,” I added proudly. I propped Cindy up to look at the water and other boats while we crossed Puget Sound, conversing with her the entire trip. My real sister, four years older than I, didn’t want to be seen with her childish ten-year-old sibling who was talking to a doll on the ferry. How embarrassing my behavior was for her.

As fifth grade wore on, my interest in Cindy receded slightly. My teacher engaged her students from day-one, in what turned out to be the most dynamic year of my schooling before or after. I would lug Cindy into the breakfast nook to share weekend breakfasts and lunches with our family, but I don’t remember playing with her as much. I did change her clothes often before propping her up in a chair in my room. I never wanted to give my mother an occasion to say “I told you so.” My grade school friends admired her, but we rarely played dolls together.

All through junior and senior high school, Cindy stayed visible in my room, the only doll so honored, although she shared a spot with several stuffed animals on the small studio couch in my bedroom. I still believed her to be the most beautiful doll manufactured in my lifetime. When I moved into my own apartment as a university junior, Cindy took a place of honor in my vacated room—on the bed. Lying on the bedspread with her head on the pillow and gathering dust, she looked like a miniature, blond Sleeping Beauty. Once in a while Mother would ask if I was ready to give her up. My answer never changed: No.

My mother sold the family house in 1967, and at her insistence, my sister and I purged and removed anything we still wanted. Free storage of surplus belongings was no longer available. Cindy, my life-sized doll, was one of many items I dragged to my husband’s and my modest duplex—we had three children by then. This big, floppy blond-wigged doll was instantly interesting to them. Initially, I was reluctant to let them play with her, and then thought—why not? She would add a new dimension to the toy box as “a girl” for my daughter to play with and a willing wagon-rider for the boys to pull around outside or down the basement.

Because of my three live ‘dolls’ (not just life-sized, but growing), I no longer needed a pretend doll to dress up a doll for amusement. My three wiggle-warts needed dressing each morning and sometimes again later in the day, as well. From the first day at our duplex, Cindy was the new favorite toy for all three children. They held her hands and made her dance; they made her ‘walk’ around the house to see things; they pretended to feed her lunch; they put her to sleep in the laundry basket. Seeing Cindy flopped in a laundry basket actually pleased me. She had more than paid back her initially high investment price, I thought—she had been around for twenty-five years and was still bringing enjoyment.

When my husband came home from work that first day and saw her flopped into the laundry basket, he dubbed her Ophie . . . after Ophelia in Hamlet, a play he was currently working on at one of his moonlighting jobs. Ophie seemed like a perfect name for her. Calling her Cindy instead of Ophie helped make a transition for me, too—her sentimental value immediately diminished.

The amount of amusement she provided—from being stuffed into a wagon and hauled around to being tossed high in the air with her limbs flailing about, from being pushed in a swing to becoming a stand-in patron at the pretend shoe store—was invaluable.

After a few months her shoulder tore, and one arm began to dangle, which gave her a strange, uneven look. When dressed, that arm hung longer at her side—when undressed, she looked broken. One of the children suggested they should just spare her further discomfort by ripping off her arm. They did the deed. It wasn’t long before her wig disintegrated, pulled loose by too much attention. She was soiled, fingertips blackened by too much outside play, and the brand imprint on the back of her neck was filling in with soil. After a while she lost her novelty and became just another toy, occasionally invited out of the toy box, but less and less frequently.

The time came for a massive weeding out of all possessions in 1972. We were selling our house and moving to the Midwest. I spent weeks sorting through every piece of clothing of the children’s, every toy, every book, every possession I’d accumulated over my lifetime. The remains of Ophie were put into the thrift-store donation pile. By then no one remembered to play with her, but I hadn’t been able to bring myself to discard her.

One night as I was hauling more stuff to the giveaway pile, I saw her arms and feet sticking out from the other toys and in a sudden sentimental urge, I pulled her out. I realized it was Cindy peering out at me, not Ophie. I looked at her beautiful face and well-made vinyl (remaining) arm and legs. It occurred to me that she probably could be restored to her original luster. I also still had her original dress and shoes tucked away.

Carefully I snipped away at the filthy fabric body—now with red Kool-Aid spilled on it and marks of ballpoint—removing her head, legs and the one arm still attached. I put the body fluff and stuff in the trash can. Then collecting her limbs (I still had the loose arm) and her head (now resembling one of the heads depicted in Glenda of OZ book where Glenda chooses the head of her choice to wear), I tied a pink satin ribbon around them. On a 3x5 card I wrote:

This is a Madame Alexander doll, circa 1950.
With a new body and some loving care,
she will be, once again, a beautiful doll.

I put her into tissue with her dress, panties, shoes and socks and put everything into a plastic bag and marked her price as five dollars. She was now in the garage for the rummage-sale instead of the thrift store pile. The sale would be held the following Saturday.

Shortly after nine o’clock when the garage door opened, two old women with a push cart walked up the street toward our house. They were joining many others who came in by the carload—people who were crowding around to take the best of the junk, to capitalize on one family’s change of fortune by scarfing up their treasures. The two old women entered the garage and looked around carefully. One of the them spied the package doll pieces and parts. “Look,” she said to the other one as she nudged her gently. “Look at that. “Is it what I think it is? A Madame Alexander?”

The other woman’s face lit up. “Oh, yes indeed. No doubt about it.” They picked up the plastic bag and turned the parts over inside. “What do you say . . . should we? . . . oh, let’s!”

“How much for the doll parts?”

When I told her five dollars, the other one looked ecstatic. “You know,” she told me, “My sister, Effie, here, has a large collection of dolls who have their own room in our house. They sit in their rocking chairs and chatter all day long. . . and we know how to fix them.”

Was this an omen? A sign of providence at work? These women would turn Ophie into Cindy again—my beautiful doll restored . . . and loved. She would have a wonderful new life.

Effie opened her coin purse and pulled out a wrinkled five-dollar bill, then lovingly opened the plastic bag, took out the doll’s head, arms, and legs and arranged them carefully in the push cart. I watched the two women walking down the street wheeling their precious cargo. They were talking to Cindy as they pushed. Her face was staring back at them, her arms raised up in alleluia praise.

The perfect ending for my doll—and the beginning for theirs.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Not the End

A summer and an era—endings of both were celebrated yesterday by Karen’s family at its summer home on Hood Canal. My hubby and I were lucky enough to be included, and I’ve thought of little else since. This was the opportunity to hug, and be hugged by, the people Karen held dearest—to console, and be consoled by, each one singly and collectively: her sons, sister, brother, and neices, as well as their partners and children. This was their first family gathering at the canal since her death last month.

In its second generation of owners, the summer-house is a kaleidoscopic kind of place, cozied up with comfy furniture ranging from overstuffed chairs and sofas to an assortment of stools and benches. It feels like a family quilt with its jumble of levels and rooms added over the years and unified with paneling and wall art in the same way quilt pieces are overlaid with stitches. And it’s as comforting as a quilt, too, with its nooks and crannies. The front windows and generous deck face the serenely beautiful fjord known as "the canal."

Yesterday’s gathering included about two dozen people, ranging in age from two to seventy. We were the only people not related by blood or marriage. Adults and the older children roamed (depending on the weather) from beach and dock to the house, to the house two doors away belonging to Karen’s nieces, and back again. Blustery rain continued to blow in, but periods of hopeful clearing brightened the sky throughout the afternoon. Conversation abounded, accompanied by commensurate laughter and tears.

With the house as the setting, this reminiscing and talking about Karen felt exactly right. I haven't been at the house a lot, and never without her being there, or, for that matter, her mother, Kay—the matriarch who ruled over events with power and presence. Kay died in 2008. I could feel them both. The house seems organically to lodge the spirit of the clan. Everyone brought food and beverages to share, with many of the items made from Karen’s favorite recipes. Everything about the afternoon reflected a family who is at ease with itself even in grief.

On our way back to Seattle (my hubby drove, which allowed me to became a pensive passenger), I reflected on the conversations I’d had. Although I’d had a chance to talk with almost everyone, there were so many things I had wanted to say, especially to her sons. But for some reason I didn’t. Either time ran out or I wasn't listening closely enough to my heart. So although satisfying, the afternoon felt unfinished, too.

As I stared out the window, I noticed color in the sky. “Look,” I said to Hubby, “straight ahead . . . a rainbow!” Right there, visible through the front windshield and glowing from the gray, turbulent clouds, colors were getting brighter by the moment. Within a minute or so, we could see the entire arch. We could see both of the rainbow's ends and quipped that we might be able to drive underneath it.

As if bumped off a shelf, another memory plopped itself into my consciousness: Karen’s reaction to hearing “Over the Rainbow” in a broadcast of Tim Russert’s memorial service in June 2008. She told me how moved she was by the singer’s beautiful voice and simple ukulele accompaniment, and wondered who the artist was. I immediately knew: the song was recorded by the late Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (“Iz”). I sent her a link to a YouTube video of his rendition of the song.

Several times she profusely thanked me in the days that followed. Maybe because she knew it wouldn’t be long before she followed Russert and, for that matter, Iz himself, or maybe because it offered her hope and beauty in the face of her own dwindling health, she purchased the album so she could play it as often as she liked.

As I looked at the rainbow last night, I found myself wishing I had taken a copy of the song to the canal house to play to in the presence of her family. I felt inordinantly sad about having forgotten such an important thing: she loved "Over the Rainbow" by Iz. But as the colors faded, I realized that’s how it is with those who’ve gone on ahead. The littlest thing can trigger a memory of a shared conversation or event and we relive the moment. That’s how we keep those dearest to us in our hearts. It's OK, I thought. There'll be other chances to share, and I felt grateful and content.


To listen to Iz sing “Over the Rainbow,” click the title of this post, or paste http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ltAGuuru7Q into your browser.

Friday, September 4, 2009

CINDY Part I


She stared back through the window, lips glistening, eyes wide open looking directly at me. I couldn’t tear myself away. Her perfect blond curly hair and rosy cheeks were an eye-magnet. Everything about her, from her impeccably ironed organza dress to her dainty little shoes called to me—Are you the one? Will you rescue me?

My parents slowed their pace but didn’t stop. “Come along, dear, we have a lot of errands to do.” Begrudgingly I followed them into the record store next door, but even the brightly colored posters and strains of music leaking out of the glass listening-booths didn’t distract me. I couldn’t stop thinking about her.

“All right,” Mother sighed an hour later after several errands had been accomplished, “we’ll stop by the store on our way back to the car . . . to ask how much she costs.”

Once inside Fifth Avenue Toys, I hastily made my way past mounds of alluring items—stuffed animals and Teddy bears, Lincoln logs, Parcheesi games, Erector sets, and model airplane kits—to the doll corner where her twin sat with a price tag of $25.

“No, absolutely not!” said my mother when I started to ask the inevitable. “Don’t be ridiculous! You’ve almost outgrown playing with dolls, so you’re not getting a doll that costs that much,” as if a doll’s value could be amortized over the months it was played with. Wisely, my father stayed out of our discussion, although I sneaked peaks at him to see if I could detect a glimmer of empathy. No dice. This was girl talk and he had intentionally disconnected.

All the way home from the backseat of the car I jabbered. “She’s so big, almost the size of real a two year old,” I speculated. “Isn’t she beautiful? Her cheeks are so rosy, her hair is so blond.”

“We are not spending that much money on a doll, period,” said my mother again. Her tone wasn’t mean, just decisive.

By the next morning I’d devised a scheme. Trying it out first on my father, I asked, “Will you go halvsies with me? If I save my allowance until I have $12.50?”

Maybe because my math was impeccable, more likely because he was an entrepreneur himself, he smiled. “That’s a possibility,” he conceded. “Better talk to Mother, though.”

Now that I had Dad in my camp, I approached Mother with confidence. “We’ll see,” she said.

As an old woman sixty years later, I don’t think of myself as a person with a lot of drive, staying- power, focus, or determination. But that summer I was one-track-minded and consumed with focus. Stashing about three dollars a week in allowance and chores, I decided I would name her Cynthia and call her Cindy for short. She would be my playmate, my best friend, my confidante and my little sister. By mid-July I had twelve dollars. “You still need fifty cents more and there’ll be tax,” reminded my mother. “You’d better save at least thirteen dollars.” Even though I was so close to achieving my goal, she must have hoped I’d still change my mind.

When I finally had enough money, a new worry overtook me. What if Cindy wasn’t still at the toy store? What if she had been bought by someone else? But miraculously, she was still there, on the shelf, not in the window.

“I have come for you, at last, Cynthia,” I whispered as I lifted her off the shelf. She was as beautiful as I remembered, radiant in her human-like softness. I patted her crunchy nylon hair and ran my fingers over her smooth vinyl cheeks into the crevice of her mouth. Her fingers and elbows were dimpled, her body was cuddly, made from soft flesh-colored fabric. I carried her carefully to the counter and opened my wallet. My father opened his, as well.

For an entire week I thought of nothing else. She slept next to me during the night and came to the breakfast table. My mother, softened considerably about the doll once she was sharing her roof, located some old baby clothes for Cindy to wear as pajamas. The doll was too sophisticated to be wearing toddler overalls or V-necked T-shirts during the day, but those items were perfect as sleepware. After breakfast, I changed her out of her pjs and put her in her store-perfect organdy dress, delicate shoes and lacey socks. When I brushed her hair, a few shiny strands of her nylon wig (glued to her head) came loose, but it didn’t matter. She was still the most alluring doll I had ever seen—and she was mine! She sat by the window when I went out to play with my neighbor in the next-door vacant lot. Cindy couldn’t play with us outside because her body was cloth. I was not going to let her get dirty.

Every night she joined the family for dinner. Her straight, unbending arms thrust out beside her or rested on the table edge. Although her feet stuck out straight ahead of her when sitting in a chair, I made sure she was included in the conversation. My parents and my sister must have become exasperated as they waited out my obsession, hoping I’d lose interest in her and discover something (anything!) else. But nothing made me waiver from my inordinate affection for Cindy.

One morning in late August, just days before fifth grade was going to start, I put Cindy in a patio chair on our veranda. When my neighbor came over, we ran off to play. (We had formed a gang called “The Monkeys,” which did mischief—things like helping ourselves to a Coca-Cola from the basement storage room at her house.) While I was gone, a summer storm blew in and when I arrived home for lunch, I was dismayed to see a fine layer of soot all over Cindy’s face. Although she was damp from rain, she desperately needed a washing.

Carefully carrying her to the upstairs bathroom, I pulled my washcloth down from where it hung over the bathtub. I soaped up the cloth and began to scrub her vinyl face. My mother was calling me for lunch. As I hurried my task along, I noticed slivers of red on the washcloth. When I looked closely, I saw . . . paint! Her mouth color was flaking off in front of my eyes. Little bubbles were rising up from her lips, then popping and peeling off.

Tears welled up in my own eyes, and I let out a yelp. My mother, assuming the worst—perhaps I had fallen on a knife—was up the stairs in moments. “What’s wrong? What have you done?” She was ashen. The combination of the horrifying disintegration of Cindy combined with my mother’s reaction set off my sobs—bellowing sobs. I scared myself they were so loud.

I gasped through spurting tears, “I washed off some of Cindy’s lips.”

My mother who had, until that moment, been the epitome of a caring mother, was no doubt so relieved it was only the doll and not her daughter who was losing red substance from her face, and brusquely snapped, “What? You’re crying over your doll? Oh, for heavens sake! Stop crying and come to lunch,” which made me blubber all the harder. Now my mother was shouting, something she rarely did. “She’s just a doll, for heaven’s sake, Sallie! Get a-hold of yourself.”

The more Mother reacted, the more I cried. I couldn’t stop, I didn’t know how. “Take a breath and hold it—or you’ll have hysterics,” she commanded. By now I felt as though I was in another place, inside someone else’s body. I no more knew how to stop crying than I knew how to fly.

Finally, Mother suggested that I lie down in the guest room. She pulled the shades halfway down, making the room calm and shady. “You have to get a-hold of yourself,” she said as she left the room and closed the door. “No one but you can stop your crying.” I heaved big sighs and started all over again, terrified by my inability to stop.

A few minutes later, my father came into the guest room. “We can fix Cindy, I’m sure, Sallie. She’ll be as good as new.”

Then I heard my mother say to my father, “She’s having a case of hysterics,” which frightened me even more. As I lay there, someone put a cool wash cloth on my forehead. Eventually I must have slept because the next thing I knew, it was nearly dark outside. I woke up exhausted. When I went downstairs, both parents were very solicitous. Mother gave me supper and brought my pajamas downstairs, then offered to read to me until I was sleepy and ready for bed.

Within moments of awaking the following morning, I remembered something unpleasant had happened the day before. When I entered the kitchen, Dad was sitting at the breakfast table. He looked up from his plate. “We can buy nail polish in exactly the same red,” he began, “and paint Cindy's lips with that. I think it will look quite professional.” Thinking about Cindy made me feel queasy, but I trusted my dad’s assessment. He could probably repair her just fine.

After breakfast while Mother did the dishes, my dad and I went to the local dime store to select nail enamel. I picked out a deep coral without worrying if it matched her current lips because—my dad explained—it would be best to remove all the original lip paint so the color would be smooth. After we bought the polish, he spent the rest of the morning gently washing off her flaking lip paint, picking off the splinters with a wash cloth. Eventually her lips were unadorned and pale.

Dad repainted her mouth with a great flourish, the way a surgeon would prepare a patient, carefully covering the rest of her body so as not to get a speck of unwanted nail enamel on anything else. I watched. He decided to let the paint dry for at least an hour. "Come on, Sallie--let's go to the arboretum to feed ducks while we wait."

When we got back, Cindy’s lips looked fine, but I knew we could never go back. We were both scarred. Cindy had sustained lip damage; I had had my heart broken. Although Cindy looked like herself . . . I knew she wasn’t. She was no longer the most beautiful doll in the world, she was just a doll, my doll. And I was a girl who knew what it meant when mothers lowered their voices and whispered about someone, “Then she became hysterical.”

Monday, August 31, 2009

Götterdämmerung

My head is so full today, I can scarcely concentrate on the matters at hand. Preoccupation with the Twilight of the Gods is the reason.

Not only did I survive the final episode of The Ring, but I sat enraptured for most of its five-and-a-half hours. The first time around for this year’s Seattle Opera’s production had mixed reviews—some bungled horn work (unforgivable when it happens in Wagner), several scene-changing delays due to technical snafus, and a Siegfried, who carries the third and most of the fourth opera, suffering from a virus that affected his vocal chords. By the time I saw the third iteration of the production, those problems had been ironed out.

In the auditorium, I was transported into another time and place, caught up in the demise of the gods. The imagery of the world ash tree, broken and poised for destruction by fire, is heartbreaking, and the unraveling of the skein of fate ominous. I let the opera pull me into the world of Valhalla and Nibelung and sat there spellbound as the twilight descended.

In the lobby, however, I was in the moment. Nowhere but Seattle could you see the mix of getups worn by Ringheads and newbies. From souvenir Ring tee-shirts worn cockily with Dockers to crown jewels topping gold lamé, I saw everything imaginable in the way of clothing. The shoes were particularly amazing, from drugstore flip flops, athletic shoes, hiking boots and Crocs to dainty sandals, bejeweled pumps and five-inch heels. There was even a pair of oxfords with orange desert-sunset scenes painted on them, worn by a man wearing a sunset-orange shirt to match. Trained not to stare, my only double take was when I saw three-inch platform saddle-shoes worn by a twenty-something woman in bright yellow tights.

Handbags ranged from canvas totes filled with dinner snacks (the woman next to me even gave me the menu of her purse-feast) and binoculars, to sequined clutches big enough to hold one breath mint and a tissue. Men wore everything from tuxedos to jeans, while the variety of women’s wear was astonishing, especially the fabrics: Thai silk, denim, corduroy, satin, ribbon knits, cotton knits, gold and silver lamé taffeta, jersey, and spandex. Styles ranged from bridesmaid dresses to clothing suitable for grocery shopping—from strapless to turtlenecks, leather to gossamer. Clearly some women had dug deep into their closets to find that one fancy dress—right out of the 70s or 80s, judging from the look.

But designer clothing abounded, too, peppered throughout all lobby levels. One gorgeous outfit stands out in the kaleidoscope. Made of chocolate brown silk, it was a two-piece dressy suit with a floor-length, slender skirt made in a layered petal pattern. Stunning—and the more so because there were two such outfits—identical—worn by two gorgeous women standing together who could have been sisters, or mother and daughter. The younger one was pushing seventy.

Lots of people needed mobility assistance, but apparatuses were plentiful: trekking sticks, walkers, canes, crutches, bunion boots, more canes, and even a seeing-eye dog that—miracle of miracles—successfully guided her mistress to an available toilet stall at intermission.

We all came to the opera house hoping for a memorable experience, and some of us probably had more transformative experiences than others. But even the man who sat behind me and audibly yawned through several prolonged sequences throughout all four evenings, loudly announced to his companion that he’d learned a lot by enduring seventeen hours of opera.

Amen.