Saturday, November 28, 2015

Lore Keeper

I recently found this photo of my
dad--the lore keeper of his
family's history. It was taken--no doubt--
for a work-related purpose.
Back in 2002, before my second granddaughter was born, her father plied me with questions about my dad, a man--because of his early death--whom none of my children were privileged to meet. 

In response, I wrote a long memoir about him, entitled "Paper Dolls of My Father." In it, I wrote myriad vignettes in an attempt to capture the man my dad was. Just as a paper doll can become any character just by changing clothing, I hoped that each small memory could become an overlay to let my children and grandchildren glimpse a man they never met.

What follows is the vignette I called the  "Lore Keeper Outfit" for the paper doll. I share it here as a Thanksgiving (yes, late) reflection:

LORE KEEPER (written in 2002)

Once a year my dad cooked up a batch Minute Pudding and invited his wife and [two] daughters, to share it with him. Minute Pudding is made from flour, milk, baking powder, and salt—flavored with nutmeg. The gooey dough looks something like dumpling dough raw, and after it cooks it still looks like a big, doughy lump. To eat it, we would put sugar on it and pour milk over it. It was like doughy bread. I would grimace, but tried to like it because Dad seemed to.

“Can you imagine eating this as your entire meal?” Dad would ask. 
“This would taste pretty darn good on an empty stomach.” Then he would say something like, “M-m-m-m . . .  there’s nothing quite like minute pudding.” 

He was right; there is nothing like it in any recipe book I’ve ever seen.
Minute Pudding Recipe ( copied in my hand thirty years ago)
Bring 1 pint of milk to a boil
Add Salt and nutmeg to taste
Sift flour (start with one cup) with ¼ tsp. baking powder
Keep adding flour to the milk until thick. Turn into a bowl and bake 
                       for 20 minutes in a slow (300 degrees) oven.
And . . . in my handwriting I had added, “Eat with reverence.”

As we ate our Minute Pudding, we listened to Dad’s narrative about the times when our grandfather (who was born in 1860) went to bed hungry, and how he and his two sisters thought they might starve to death if someone didn’t shoot a turkey or some other wild animal for them to eat. My grandfather (who had died when I was three) was the son of an itinerant Methodist minister based in Iowa but traveling to Minnesota on horseback for much of his work. For that reason my great-grandfather was gone frequently from home for long work-related trips. He was also a drunkard (my father’s words, no doubt reflecting the words he'd heard from his father), so when the man was home, he was often unable to provide for his family. 

It took me a long time to realize that my father really did not love this concoction called Minute Pudding, but that he prepared and ate it as a personal ritual to remember how blessed he was, and to instill in his children a sense of good fortune, which—of course—we would not fully understand until we were grown.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Double Take

When I was a service rep at the home office of Northwestern Mutual Life (1982-86) and routinely entering numbers into its main frame computer, I forced myself to memorize the keyboard number pad so I could input numbers quickly and efficiently. I've typed numbers from the number pad ever since, and rarely use those number keys that sit above the alpha keys. Part of the joy of the number pad is its dedicated decimal point. No reaching over to the center keyboard—it's a compact and easy keystroke to add the decimal.

That intro is by way of background to properly convey my big gulp when the following happened: I was paying a utility online—a small quarterly bill for $33.40—and typed in the amount on the number pad. I hit ‘enter,’ to (presumably) review the payment, and then hit ‘enter’ again to submit the payment.  It wasn’t until I had signed out of my bank account when something triggered a mental double-take—and I signed back in. Yes, the decimal point on the number keyboard had stopped working.The payment I had just set up was for $3,340!

I edited the payment and all is well now. (I also cleaned under the decimal key.) For obvious reasons, I would prefer not to pay forward the utility by twenty-seven years! Let us all be mindful of this powerful lesson: Pay attention when making payments.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Yesterday MY chimes rang . . .

Yesterday I was on a step-stool, hunting for something on a top shelf in the guest room when I spied a plastic bag shoved way back into the corner. I had no recollection of putting anything on the closet shelf.What is it? I wondered, and gingerly pulled it forward and peered through the clear plastic to see lumpy parcels of tissue and bubble wrap. OMG . . . could it be? Is it possible . . . ?

Yes!  In the bag were three marionettes from my grade school days. THREE! Two “store-bought,” a clown and a young man manufactured by Hazelle, and one I made as an eleven-year-old under the tutelage of my sixth grade teacher, Miss Mary Metcalf.

I couldn’t have been more excited to find Holger, the character who was hero of the script, Why the Chimes Rang, a puppet play presented to the entire school body at McGilvra Elementary school (a Seattle public school) by our classroom in December of 1951. 

As it happens, I am in the midst of writing about my grade school years—legacy for my granddaughters—so I have thought a lot about the creative and energetic teachers I was lucky enough to have in the intermediate grades, and how much work and fun it was to make marionettes. I was certain my puppet, Holger, had been thrown away in one of our many moves—but I was wrong. I couldn’t have been more excited. I carefully unwrapped him, then gently twisted his strings counterclockwise to allow him to hang naturally from his controls. Wrinkled and worse for wear, yes, thrillingly heartwarming, as well. I could see my primitive stitching of his costume and my attempt to give him an expression that would reflect neutrality so he could act happy OR sad.

Why the Chimes Rang was written in 1928, a faith-based play set in medieval Germany. The cathedral's chimes in the town ring, at the most, just once a year—and only when a truly selfless gift is presented at the altar on Christmas Eve. When the play opens, the chimes have not been heard for 100 years. Holger and his younger brother—orphans who live with their uncle in poverty—are just headed out to church when an old woman knocks at their cottage door.

Twelve-year-old Holger invites the shivering stranger into the cottage to get warm, and thereby misses his chance to go to the cathedral—an event he's eagerly anticipated for a year. His brother and uncle go on without him. As he talks to the old woman, he realizes she’s starving and offers her the last crust of his bread. Of course, it is Holger’s act that causes the chimes to ring. I still remember the beautiful sound of chimes from a record that a fellow sixth-grade cued up perfectly. I manipulated Holger's controls to make him kneel in reverence as he hears the chimes in the distance, unaware of his selfless role in their ringing. By the time his uncle and brother return to narrate the excitement of the entire town, the old woman has mysteriously disappeared. 
If you think it’s bad form to pray before a public school football game, imagine a public school teacher spending hours of classroom time preparing her students to present overtly religious plays for the entire student body of their public school.  Everyone in class was involved--making the marionettes from scratch and rehearsing the plays for weeks in the classroom. 

I would not go back in time for anything—I’m not a devotee to that fictional notion of the “good old days.” I think the sensitivity, awareness, and respect shown to all beliefs that now prevail in public schools is a far superior approach than what we did then. But I am still grateful to have had that sixth grade experience. And I am so thrilled to be reunited with Holger. After all, he made the chimes ring—and I can still get a little teary thinking about it.