At One With Aunt Bertha 

When I glanced at my wrist, the girl seated next to me said, “You still tell time on a watch?” When I asked a fresh-faced nurse to call my home phone with my test results, she raised her eyebrows, ”You still have a landline?” “Don’t bother with Snapchat,” a nephew advised, “It’s for young people.”

I’m annoyed when others assume I’m technologically inept because I’m old. But I’m also amused. Their comments remind me of the fun my family had when the telephone reached the rural community where I was raised, and older folks acted like a dangerous stranger had come to town.

Because of Lake Shore’s sparse population and remote location, Mountain Bell took its time finding us. My siblings and I watched the slow progress of the line crews and thought if we got a phone, we’d be too old and deaf to use it. Our cousins who lived in Provo increased our anticipation by demonstrating their telephone’s entertainment value. We took turns calling random numbers and burping at length in the ear of anyone who answered.

After weeks of waiting, the summer day arrived when a lineman, whose tool belt dragged his pants dangerously low, entered our yard and perched atop a pole to connect us. Bob and I, in a frenzy of excitement, provided a demolition derby for his amusement: Bob rushed at me pushing a wheelbarrow with a flat tire; I defended myself with an abandoned baby buggy loaded with Barbara. The lineman looked alarmed and quickened his pace.

After the phone was installed, we stampeded when it rang, hoping to be the one to answer, then stayed to listen to the conversation. When no one else was around, I dialed the operator over and over, disguising my voice each time I said, “Time, please.” My fun ended when an operator replied, “Little girl! Stop it!! Right Now!!!”

Quickly recognizing the possibilities of a two-party line, Barbara and I quietly lifted the receiver and listened when we heard Anderson’s ring. Then Mrs. Anderson stopped by our pew at church and said, “Little pitchers have big ears, don’t they, girls?” She must have been disappointed when we looked puzzled rather than abashed.

Dad said we could not call anyone without permission. Mom explained a new monthly bill made him nervous; he thought we should limit the phone’s use until we knew how much it would cost. She felt certain he’d settle down eventually. But for years, by the time we said the second syllable of hello, Dad yelled, “You’ve been on that phone long enough. Hang up.”

Aunt Bertha

We didn’t bother to stifle our giggles when we visited our great aunt Bertha and she used her phone. She held it away from her ear so her hearing wouldn’t be harmed, then complained that people mumbled. She also spoke tersely and hung up without saying goodbye when she deemed the conversation finished. Eventually, Mom discovered our thrifty aunt thought she’d be charged by the word — like a telegram.

Once, after giving me ice cream and cake to “satisfy my sweet tooth,” Aunt Bertha confided she often ignored her ringing phone, because she refused to be interrupted by an “irksome nuisance people use for no good reason at all.”

Now, sixty-five years later, I drive to Steamboat, ignore the sparkly tune I programmed for my ringtone and feel a close kinship with Great Aunt Bertha.


Confessions of a Foodie

I’m an eager eater. Growing up with Dad as a role model and six pace-setting siblings, I was neither fussy about taste nor shy about consumption. Mom once described her hungry children at the dinner table as piglets at a trough: squeals of excitement, jostling for position and dedication to the task.

My love of all things edible has never faltered. I remember restaurants where I ate outstanding food like others remember the names of their children. Though I’m a bit more refined than a brother who claims he’s never eaten a bad meal in a restaurant, I can find something I can enjoy on any menu. When traveling, I order the most unusual item offered: sautéed squid, braised armadillo, chitlins, a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich at Graceland.

I never find a dessert too sweet or gooey. When others complain, “My, I can’t eat this; it’s too rich,” I wonder how they’d react if I snatched the offending item from their plate and ate it.

Those who don’t share my passion for food puzzle me: An acquaintance once stopped the happy buzz of party guests around the appetizer table by announcing she didn’t live to eat. She ate to live. Overwhelmed by pity for her dire situation, I choked on a chocolate-covered strawberry.

I also have no patience with fussy eaters who spend more time picking their food apart than eating it. I keep my opinion to myself, though, after an experience I had as a rooky teacher.

Female staff members went out to dinner once a month to celebrate birthdays. The first time I attended, I sat next to Trudy, a stern-looking lady rumored to be uppity. When I ordered peanut-butter pie for desert, she sniffed, “Obviously, Janet has yet to outgrow her juvenile taste in food.”

Though embarrassed by her put-down, I stifled my response: “It’s also obvious, Snooty Trudy, that we could hang Christmas decorations on your enormous nose and stand you in the school’s lobby as our tree.”

So when a friend picked the pepperoni from a pizza and another ordered a hamburger without mustard, onion, lettuce or pickle and with the tomato chopped rather than sliced, I didn’t comment. And when a relative spent five minutes removing the raisins from a piece of raisin cake, I said not a word.

I love comfort food and believe in its power. Whenever misfortune struck a member of my family — not making the basketball team, a baby-sitting job from hell, acne — Mom assured us we’d feel better after we ate. And she was right.

Funeral food is comfort food at its best. After my paternal grandmother’s services, I sat with Dad on the steps to the upstairs bedroom in her pioneer-era home. We juggled plates of food and observed the crowd in silence.

I didn’t know how to console my Dad: I wasn’t sure how he felt about his mother, who left the raising of him to his grandmother and didn’t seem interested in his life when we visited. But he seemed melancholy and withdrawn. Not knowing what to say, I kept quiet, but slid close.

As we munched on potato-and-cheese casserole, pot roast, Jell-O salad, green beans with bits of bacon, homemade rolls, and apple pie, we began to talk. Dad told me he’d never met a piece of pie he didn’t like, and I made him laugh with a story about my college roommate who wouldn’t go to bed without eating a bowl of Raisin Bran and five jelly beans.

We felt better after we ate.

The Roles We Play

Growing up in a rural area in the years following World War II, my friends and I quickly absorbed the behaviors deemed appropriate for boys and girls; behaviors we learned from picture books, movies, parents, peers and siblings.

Boys misbehaved, threw rocks and amused themselves by making odd noises. They roughhoused, excelled at math and hated to bathe. They worked outside: cutting the lawn, milking cows, delivering papers and shoveling snow. They weren’t supposed to cry, show fear or play dress-up. And all of them would become athletes or presidents.

Girls, on the other hand, quietly complied, won spelling bees, chatted and shared. They wore pink, wept over dead sparrows and hummed happily as they dressed and undressed dolls. They did housework: washing dishes, ironing, vacuuming, tending babies. They weren’t supposed to rebel, spit or wrestle in the dirt. And all of them would become wives.

For the most part, my siblings and I played our assigned roles. I remember putting my dolls to bed on a pillow in a cardboard box. As I carefully tucked a towel around the disreputable lot, Bob came along, kidnapped Shirley Temple, and attempted to strangle her with a slinky. I was indignantly appalled, but not surprised.

Years later, when my algebra teacher told me he was glad I wasn’t like my older brother, I thought, “What’s he talking about? Bob’s way better at math.” Then I realized he was comparing our behavior, which made all kinds of sense.

However, as I observed others, I sometimes questioned my assumptions about the roles men and women played. Dad made all the money, but Mom made most of the decisions. My brothers lived to play sports, but Carolyn was the best athlete. We girls helped Mom with the cooking, but JL was the one who learned to cook from her.

One of my grade school friends, a boy, showed more interest in reading, insects and bird watching than in scuffling and ball games. Another, a girl, chased boys then tackled them and kissed them — not because she liked them but because she knew they hated it. A friend’s dad knitted scarves, hats and mittens for his family; and a neighbor lady handled a tractor better than most men. Rumor had it she out-cursed them as well.

Today, the gender expectations of the 1940s and 50’s seem antiquated to me and unbelievable to my grandchildren: teenagers and young adults who debunk and challenge the gender roles I learned and imitated in my childhood.

The youngest two grandchildren — ninth-grade cousins, a boy and a girl — are best friends who move easily together from shooting hoops to video games to making music. Three granddaughters play sports aggressively, passionately and successfully. Another was recently deployed in Dubai. One grandson possesses exceptional verbal and networking skills once thought impossible for boys. Another is in the Air Force ROTC but also capable of giving  fashion advice: “Baggy, below-the-knee shorts aren’t the thing anymore, Grandpa.”

All are wonderful. All see possibilities I didn’t.

I pondered these thoughts yesterday morning and at the same time played my feminine role: watching Joel assemble a piece of furniture, admiring his efforts and shining the flashlight in all the wrong places.


Go Ahead, Let Me Have It

I want realistic descriptions not false optimism. I’m unhappy when anticipated rosy outcomes lose their glow. M doctor said, “You won’t even feel this,” then forced a turkey-baster-sized needle into my arm. I jerked, glared and snarled. His mild deception made me act like an indignant child. As a senior citizen, that’s embarrassing.

Cookbook authors should admit making a soufflé is a bit tricky rather than describing their recipe as foolproof. Does a sunken soufflé mean I’m a fool? If my dermatologist had mentioned, before “… a minor treatment with no side effects,” that a huge scab would adorn my nose for most of a month, I wouldn’t have attended my class reunion wearing Mt. Vesuvius on my nose.

I’m not alone in dealing with hard truths  better than reassuring pleasantries. As a teacher, I saw most students react with persistence and determination when told a new learning would be difficult but achievable with work and practice. In contrast, when assured a lesson would be easy and everyone would master it quickly, some students displayed frustration and wanted to quit when they experienced difficulties.

As a fledgling staff developer, I once told participants in my adult workshop we would finish by 4:00, probably sooner, then kept them until 4:10. It was the only time in my forty years as an educator I felt endangered.

Most of us can stand anything if told what to expect in advance. The truth allows us to handle problematic circumstances with dignity. This is evident on delayed airplanes. When people are stuffed on a plane and stranded on the runway for more than an hour without explanation, they begin to exhibit the behavior of caged animals: snarling, pacing, glaring. Children cry; couples bicker; belligerence balloons.

Yet I’ve waited with passengers on a packed flight for almost two hours, with no breaches of civility, because the pilot promised to update us every fifteen minutes and did so. He described the problem with the cargo door, explained why possible options wouldn’t work, reported on the progress of the repairs and apologized for the uncomfortable wait. Some mumbling, sighing and impatient shuffling occurred in the crowded cabin, but calm acceptance, if not good humor, reigned.

If I do encounter honesty about difficult circumstances, I’m appreciative. When a sign along I-70 advises me it will take thirty minutes to reach Denver, I don’t fume at the slow traffic; rather, I’m delighted when we arrive in twenty-five. In airports, I’m less anxious standing in a line that loops forever when posted signs tell me it will take ten minutes to clear security from where I stand. That knowledge helps me decide if a quick shuffle will get me to my gate on time, or if I must abandon all pride and gallop.

The first time I endured the discomfort of a colonoscopy, I appreciated the health care professional who described the escalating unpleasantness of the preparations I had to do the night before. Her explanation allowed me to think, “Well, this isn’t so bad after all,” rather than, “This is awful. Something must be wrong with the directions. This can’t be right.”

I don’t want to be soothed with snake-oil promises. I want the truth. I want to feel either relief when I weather the storm more easily than I anticipated or composed acceptance when it’s as bad as I was warned it could be.


I’ve Misplaced My Derring-Do

Great Aunt Beulah said, “People think old folks like me are daft and feeble.” Then she decapitated a chicken.

Her words stuck with me; and since my retirement, I’ve realized their truth. When I attend meetings like those I used to facilitate, the other participants allow me to sit in silence and look wise. On crowded buses, parents tell their children to stand up and “offer that lady your seat.” Teenagers with spiked hair hold doors until I totter through.

When I took a bowling class, fresh-faced classmates offered one another advice: “Start your release sooner,” or, “ Move a couple of boards left.” Their feedback to me was “Nice try” and a vacated seat so I could catch my breath after rolling two gutter balls. When I walk with younger family members, motorists who stop for directions address their questions to those with unlined brows, as though my wrinkles mean I no longer recognize my neighborhood.

I notice these age-based reactions without letting them disturb my peace of mind or nap. I do, however, worry that I expect less of myself. During the years I worked as a consultant to small school districts in northwest Colorado, I drove alone through the darkness of winter on narrow, two-lane roads curving along rivers and through ranch lands. I maneuvered steep passes buttressed by frozen waves of snow, made lonely by the absence of homes and fellow travelers. I sang with the radio as sparse snow thickened and fell with increased determination.

Now I hesitate to drive three miles in full daylight if a skiff of snow is blowing across the highway.

I used to anticipate the challenge of walking into a workshop filled with seventy-five professionals sizing up the stranger who would instruct them. I liked convincing skeptics I had content knowledge, could make training meaningful and was serious when I said we would keep the break to fifteen minutes.

Now when a friend asks for volunteers to tell stories of the past to first graders, I avoid eye contact.

In my personal life, I thought nothing of cleaning bathrooms while doing laundry, scrubbing floors while making a shopping list, re-potting houseplants while calling my sister, cooking dinner while preparing to party.

Now I feel unduly burdened by one such task, and it takes most of a day to prepare for an evening out — there are so many more problems to disguise.

I used to fuss about my growing reluctance to engage, to rush from task to task, to agree to do things I don’t want to do. But I slowly realized it is permissible to do things I enjoy, not those others expect. It’s O.K. to relax into the rhythms of the life I have rather than trying to maintain the cadences of my younger self.

Living more slowly allows me to recognize my growing need for simplicity: a cluster on the back fence of sweet peas I grew from seed give me more happiness than watching the latest hit movie. As autumn advances, sharing a homemade meal of soup and bread with Joel pleases me more than dining in a restaurant, and sitting in the backyard surrounded by chickadees doing their flighty thing while I read or write seems more satisfying than a trip abroad.

Simple things refresh me, soothe me, fill me with wonder because I now have the time and wisdom to notice them.


My Resolution for the New Year

Maybe going public with my resolution for 2018 will shame me into keeping it, so here it is: I will stop talking about my medical issues, even though doing so will be more painful for me than my wry neck; I love clucking away with friends and family about the latest indignity imposed on my body.

I first noticed an upswing in my interest in discussing bunions and bursitis a few years ago at a party when I joined male and female friends in an animated discussion at a party and realized I used to run from such conversations.

For forty-five minutes, we discussed tinnitus, sciatica, cataracts, arthritis, insomnia, knee replacements and leg cramps. We described symptoms, suggested remedies, and updated one another — “You mean there’s a difference between floaters and flashers?”

The same people who used to chatter about jobs, sports, politics, travel, children, hobbies, and preferred beer had discovered another universal connection.

Why the sudden interest in high blood pressure? It’s not like my friends and I had never been sick. We’d endured a variety of ills our entire lives, but we hadn’t felt compelled to share them with all the fishes in the sea.

Like most people, I was born into a pinball machine of childhood illnesses, bumped around by colds, mumps, measles, chickenpox and sore throats. My siblings and I suffered earaches, stomachaches, runny noses, pink eye and the flu. We worried about tonsillitis, because it could lead to a tonsillectomy and polio because it lurked in the background of every day we lived.

We were quarantined to our rooms and confined to our beds. We whined, complained of boredom, begged for drinks of water and hoped nausea didn’t force us to use the bucket placed beside our beds.

We sweated under mustard plasters, soaked in Epsom salts, and scratched our red spots when our mother wasn’t looking. At the height of the polio scare, we were barred from swimming in public pools and dragged to Provo to take part in a blind test of the promising vaccine named after a Dr. Salk.

At one point, to cure my chronic sinus congestions and colds, the doctor told Mom to make me put on a hat or scarf when outside, wear a stocking cap to bed on cold nights, and forego sugary treats; so while my siblings ate lemon meringue pie and made fun of my night cap, I blew my nose and ate a banana.

I don’t remember inflicting the details of these ailments on others. I would never have introduced my hangnail-infected big toe into a late night conversation with my college roommates or my impacted wisdom teeth into the lunchroom buzz in the faculty lounge.

Now, however, Joel and I consider a day poorly spent if we don’t devote several minutes of conversation to the soundness of our sleep and the status of our nagging issues. At family reunions, my siblings and I provide health updates to a sympathetic chorus of sighs and advice: “Don’t waste your time trying to wish your sciatica into oblivion. You need physical therapy.”

I admire my sister-in-law from my first marriage, a professional woman and involved grandmother with wit, intelligence and frightening health issues that would allow her to dominate any discussion. But she doesn’t mention them. Ever. When directly asked by those who love her, she responds simply and briefly and then gracefully changes the topic to grandchildren, pets or politics.

Thus, my resolution for 2018: I will stop pouring a description of my latest symptoms into every available ear.

But I don’t promise to stop writing about them.




The Gift of a Memory

Years have passed since the deaths of my parents and, later, my oldest brother, and I’m slowly losing the nuances that made them unique: their laughs, their intonations, their expressions, their walks. But Christmas helps me remember. As I bake cookies, hang ornaments or listen to the gentle notes of carols, memories of those who shared my early Christmases bring them back in their entirety.

Recently, my sister Carolyn reminded me of a Christmas memory I’d like to share with you. I think of it as “The Dance of the Reindeer.”

On Christmas Eve, we usually drove to our grandmother’s house in Provo. Inside the small, orderly home filled with relatives, warmth, and the smell of baking, we’d tussle with our cousins until told to “settle down or else…” which we did when Grandma’s homemade cookies and candy appeared. Silenced by our chewing, we’d listen to the unfortunate cousins whose parents had convinced them to recite, sing, or play Christmas tunes on their band instruments. When food, talent, and patience had worn thin, Grandma read the story of the first Christmas from the Bible; then we drove home through fields crusted with snow-diamonds under a sky filled with low-hanging stars.

As soon as we arrived, Mom announced bedtime, and with minimal grumbling, we left the warmth of the living room for our unheated bedrooms: Bob and Lawrence in one room and Carolyn, Barbara and me in another.

I don’t know what our brothers did, but we girls partied.

We talked, giggled, climbed in and out of each other’s beds, watched out frost-etched windows for Santa, and took turns trying to sneak into the living room because we needed to go to the bathroom “really, really bad.” When the grandfather clock in the living room chimed, we quieted and counted: Mom had warned us not to get out of bed again until the clock chimed six times.

One year, five-hear-old Barbara listened intently as the clock struck, then said, “Oh, no, I counted eleven. Way past six. Now we have to wait until the big hand makes it to six again. I forgot. How many does it go to before it starts over? A hundred? That’ll take forever.”

But on my eighth Christmas, as we began to doze, Carolyn startled us awake: “Listen, can you hear that? Shh. There’s a noise on the roof. Be quiet!” We sat up in our beds, straining our ears, until we heard a faint clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop on the roof. We held our breath and listened as the clops grew louder and more frequent — a herd of deer tap-danced over our heads until, gradually, the hoedown calmed into silence.

Only then did we squeal with excitement and wonder if we should wake everyone to tell them what they missed. Eventually, we decided rousing the household would be unwise and drifted into sleep.

The next morning, after the chaotic joy of presents, Barbara remembered: “We heard them,” she announced into the general din, “We did.”

Only Lawrence caught her remark. “Who’d you hear?” he asked.

“Rudolph and those other ones.”

“Huh,” Dad said, “ What did they sound like, fellers?”

As we re-produced the sound of the dancing deer we heard in the night, the others exclaimed, questioned and chuckled.

Later, Carolyn, older, more skeptical and not above threatening Bob with physical harm, discovered the truth of our nighttime visitors: Lawrence had saved two deer hooves from his successful hunt that fall. Then, on Christmas Eve, waiting until we lost steam, he climbed onto the roof and clopped until he could clop no more.

In doing so, he gave us a meaningful gift: a Christmas memory of prancing reindeer, laughing parents and an older brother who took the time to create fun for his sisters.