Blame It On Birth Order

I felt mistreated when Mom assigned chores by age. Being too old for Barbara’s pretend work and too young for Carolyn’s skilled tasks, I drew the dull, dirty or distasteful jobs. I remember pushing our vacuum down the hall, trying to finish before the antiquated machine erupted. It needed to be emptied; I hoped to avoid doing so by stowing it away before Mom noticed the dust clouds oozing from its bloated pores.

I cut mean glances at Carolyn who ironed in the kitchen, popping nary a bead of sweat. She sneered back at me as she took a sip of lemonade, turned up the radio, and crooned along with Patti Page: “How much is that doggie in the window—arf! arf!” Seemed more like a party than work to me.

Pushing my belching machine into the living room, I aimed for Barbara, who sat on the floor pairing clean socks from the laundry. Concentrating on her task, she didn’t glance up, increasing my chances of inflicting serious injury. Unfortunately, I had to veer off when Mom appeared and gave Barbara towels to fold along with praise: “Look at the good job you’re doing; you’re getting to be a big help.”

What was I? An incompetent orphan on loan from the poor house?

No, I was a middle child.

Recently, in an article about the impact of birth order on the personalities of children, I read, “If you are a middle child, you probably have fewer photos in the family album.”

Bingo!

A stranger could skim our family albums and immediately identify me as the in-betweener. Baby pictures of the other six abound. My infant gallery consists of one fuzzy snapshot Mom said might be me.

Not that I’m complaining. For every disadvantage listed by experts for middle children, I experienced an advantage. Evidently, I should have felt unknown and unnoticed in the crowd. No problem. I liked doing anything I wanted during the chaos created by rebellious teenagers and needy babies.

Another accepted generalization: “Middle children may feel life is unfair since they enjoy neither the privileges of the older nor the attention given the younger.” But I, too, doted on the babies; and I knew those older did more chores and had to babysit the rest of us. Not my idea of a good time.

The positive middle-child descriptors — cooperative, flexible, independent — seemed a perfect fit for me; while the negative traits — secretive, avoids conflict, may exaggerate or lie to get attention — obviously didn’t apply.

My position in the middle also had advantages the researchers didn’t mention; for example, I received excellent parenting; Mom and Dad hit their stride with me. They’d learned from skirmishes with those older, but weren’t yet weary of the battle as with those younger.

I notice another blessing of my birth order at family reunions. Twenty-one years separate my oldest and youngest siblings. Lawrence was a Marine in Korea when Blaine was a toddler and JL was born. But I lived for several years with all my siblings; I know those older and those younger in alarming detail; and I love them all. I believe they feel the same about me.

“Feels unloved and left out,” one authority said of middle children.

Not in my family.

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Too Soon Finished

Finally summer, when young parents push strollers through mellow evenings; laughter drifts from fenced backyards; and rainbows of green enhance our lives. Under a summer sun, I’m less obsessed by how well I sleep or household tasks that need my attention. I stand taller, breathe easier and open more readily to spontaneity and stray dogs.

Recently, I encountered a friend at the post office: a lovely lady who exceeds me in wisdom, grace and years. “Summer has arrived,” she said, “I love this time of year because it makes me feel young again.”

“How did you spend your summers when you were young?” I asked, responding to her happy smile.

“Helped with chores around our place, mostly, but when I had time, I explored: studied anthills, tried to catch butterflies, searched the night sky for falling stars. Nature fascinated me. I paid attention to even the smallest things in my world.”

Later, I thought about her words and recalled my excitement when the bus pulled away from the elementary school and my friends and I chanted: “No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.” School and winter were vanquished; summer would never end; and the rituals of childhood could begin.

To test our stamina, my siblings and I tried to walk barefoot in the heat of the day down our dirt lane and along the gravel road it met without skittering or complaining. We timed one another to see who was fastest riding Bob’s bike to the mailbox and back. Pumping furiously, I sometimes misjudged a rut, crashed and then proudly displayed scraped elbows and knees.

We dove or belly-flopped into the chlorine-heavy water of Arrowhead Pool and swam as far underwater as we could, carefully marking one another’s progress. Sitting atop our horse, we took pride in not holding onto each other as the oldest guided it along country roads framed by crops.

On July 4th, we played with cap guns because we liked the smell of burned caps and ate lunch in Grandma Hall’s backyard, saving the heart of our slice of watermelon to eat last and ridiculing cousins who gnawed their final bite from the rind.

We held dandelions under one another’s chins to see who liked butter and split the bottom of their stems with our tongues, sucking them until they curled like a slinky. When my friends visited, we plucked petals from daisies to discover if he loved us or loved us not and made dolls from hollyhock blossoms that we threw at Bob when he wouldn’t leave us alone.

As one summer day of my childhood melted into another, I didn’t realize how quickly my freedom to experience and explore would be replaced by the jobs and responsibilities of adulthood.

I didn’t know that when I grew old, the months of June, July, and August would begin to spin by like carousel horses running wild. Now my summers race by so fast I worry I won’t have time to savor them — to store away the smell of roses, the feel of dancing breezes, the sight of goldfinches jostling on a bird feeder and the shouts of children riding their bicycles pell-mell to the pool.

Like my lovely friend, I find summer glorious. I only wish it could slow to the pace it kept when I was young.

First, Label Three Piles           

Spring, too long a rumor, has finally established itself in the Yampa Valley. Snow decorates only the highest peaks; birds reproduce willy-nilly; bare toes sally forth in sandals; and cleaning experts ruin our fun by telling us its time to de-clutter our homes.

The other day a professional organizer on TV offered the following helpful tips: We should get rid of junk mail the day it arrives, store extra toilet paper where it’s handy and throw away pens that no longer work. She also said clearing the clutter from our dinner tables would benefit us socially.

I suppose without her expert help we’d paste junk mail in scrapbooks, put toilet paper under the coffee table and use defunct pens to stir our coffee. And I don’t know about your entertaining habits, but I almost never seat dinner guests among piles of unfolded laundry and unpaid bills.

While I dread housecleaning — moving dirt and dust about on a weekly basis — I enjoy sorting and organizing. I feel virtuous as I recycle books, alphabetize spices and discard the plastic pitcher the hospital sent home as a souvenir of Joel’s shoulder surgery.

Most experts advocate sorting clutter into three piles: recycle, discard and keep. I recommend an additional group: give to loved ones. This category enlivens my family reunions; folks scatter, running like the ten-year-olds they once were, when I approach with my treasures: “Look, Barbara, my high school pompoms! Remember how I wouldn’t let you play with them? Well now you can.”

Professional organizers also tell us to make decisions without hesitation and to never second-guess ourselves. I disagree. I enjoy debating with myself while I sort: “This charred hot pad was my first 4-H project; I can’t abandon it. Maybe I could work it into a quilt.” “You never know; we might decide to eat fondue again. The pot stays.”

I also recommend a practice I adopted to prevent my clothes from bulging out of my closet like bread dough left to rise too long: when I buy a new article of clothing, I get rid of an old one. At first, I cheated: “Let’s see, I bought new jeans. Hmm. Well, I haven’t worn this mate-less sock in ages. Out it goes.”

So now I make myself choose something similar. Recently when I brought home a new fleece hoodie, I recycled the down jacket I made from an REI kit in 1977, burned a hole in ten years later while camping and haven’t worn since.

Another strategy I propose: don’t involve the man in your life. One look at his collection of ball caps should tell you why not. Too often, as soon as I discard something and it’s irretrievably gone, Joel needs it. When we combined our households in 1996, I threw away the multitude of coffee-stained styrofoam cups he had dragged home from every meeting he attended since 1990. Twenty-two years later, he still asks for them.

Sometimes I get discouraged. Recently, I worked hard to clean and organize my kitchen cupboards. A month later, I’d crammed everything into the handiest spaces again. Perhaps a niece of mine has the best method for de-cluttering: pursue a lucrative career and hire an expert to sort and organize for you. An added bonus: you’ll be certain your toilet paper is in a handy place.

For National Teachers’ Day, May 8

At forty-five, dumbfounded and dismayed, I thought, “This guy expects me to write in the first five minutes of a class designed to help me improve my students’ writing? He has to be kidding!”

The instructor, a six-foot man burdened with unreasonable expectations and a teddy-bear body, introduced himself as Neil then announced we had five minutes to write a description of a time we were unhappy with a parent. “After that, you’ll all share what you wrote,” he said and beamed at us as though we’d be thrilled by the opportunity.

As my classmates scribbled away as if they were hell-bent on winning a Pulitzer, I wasted three minutes feeling put-upon before squeezing out four sentences. “It was a hot day in August. My mother and I were working in the garden. She was tired and disappointed by my behavior; and I was being belligerent because I thought she was picking on me.”

Neil then told us to reread our writing and circle each verb of being we’d used. For those of us a bit fuzzy about the verbs in question, he turned to the board and wrote “is, be, am, are, was, were, been, being.”

I smiled smugly as I circled six of the verbs; then Neil said, “Now, I want you to rewrite your piece without using the verbs you circled. Keep your situation, but get rid of every verb of being you can. You’ll probably have to add details and think of livelier verbs. It’s an interesting task, like a puzzle. I think you’ll enjoy solving it and the results you’ll get.”

Oh.

The assignment intrigued me; so I willingly went to work and felt pleased with the result: “My mother and I pulled weeds in our vegetable garden under a hot August sun. Mom, tired from a new baby and canning peaches all day in a hot kitchen, looked at me with disappointment. But I continued to complain, “Why do I have to weed the garden? You expect me to work for free while Bob and Carolyn go earn money for themselves hoeing sugar beets. I hate doing their work.”

Next, Neil asked us to read both drafts to one another. In every case, the version written without verbs of being allowed our listeners to better visualize the characters, actions and emotions in our writing.

So, of course, that night when we did our homework assignment, a description of a childhood illness or accident, we over-reacted. Reading to one another the next day, we realized we’d written rambling sentences stuffed with excessive verbs and overblown details. Verbs of being couldn’t be found, but neither could simplicity, ease of reading or a clear story line.

The teacher we now trusted next led a three-pronged class discussion about the traditional belief of moderation in all things, the effective use of verbs of being and the understanding that any writing technique can became problematic when overdone.

During two fifty-minute classes, an extraordinary teacher had strengthened my writing and informed my teaching without assigning a worksheet or delivering a lecture.

Neil died recently. When I heard, I remembered telling him on the last day of class how his meaningful instruction had changed me as a writer and a teacher; and then I remembered the way  he beamed —  as though he had been thrilled by the opportunity.

What Runner’s High?

I used to run for exercise; though, toward the end, shuffling quickly would have been a better description of my movement. As a young adult, I read Dr. Kennet Cooper’s book, “Aerobics,” purchased running shoes, loaded up the dog and drove to the old railroad grade between Carson City and Virginia City, Nevada.

From Dr. Cooper’s research, I knew cardio conditioning requires continuous movement, so I decided I’d run for thirty minutes. Having no idea how to pace myself, I sprinted along the grade, then lurched along the grade, then vomited on the grade.

Miraculously, I didn’t give up, and though I added other cardio activities over the years, I always preferred running. I can’t brag about my speed or my distance, but I’m proud of my consistency: a minimum of thirty minutes, five days a week, year in and year out.

Like brushing my teeth, exercising is an engrained habit for me: I feel something’s amiss when I don’t do it. Dread keeps me moving as well. I’m afraid if I quit for any length of time, I could never make myself go through the agony of starting again.

Over the years, friends and family have teased me about my persistence. A brother told me he’d read an article about the impact of cardio exercise on longevity: consistent exercisers lived only a few months longer than non-exercisers. With ill-concealed glee, he said: “You drip sweat and jar your joints to  live eighty-five years and nine months instead of eighty-five years and seven months. Seems like a low return on your investment to me.”

Even my dad piled on, telling me he never saw runners with smiles on their faces and asking for my thoughts on why they look so grim. “Well, Dad, they’re concentrating on avoiding the old guy in the careening pickup who seems oblivious to traffic lanes and regulations.”

I love my family, but sometimes they try my patience.

I exercise not for longevity, but because I enjoy its day-to-day benefits  — increased energy, sound sleep, no dieting. But exercising has never been easy for me. Recently NPR aired a program on running. The panel discussed endorphins and the fabled runner’s high. I was cheered by a bit of research they shared: five to eight percent of runners experience no high —  other than a feeling of relief when they stop.

I identify.

One of my fondest memories of my dad involves running through an airport. Joel and I had flown with my eighty-eight-year-old father to Nashville to visit my brother. Our flight home had a close connection in Houston, where we arrived late.

While Joel ran ahead to try to hold our flight, I linked arms with Dad, and we scooted as quickly as possible, counting down gates. We were at twenty, on our way to twelve, when Dad reassured me, “Don’t worry, Janet; we’ll make it in plenty of time. I’m saving my kick for the finish.”

I remember our dash through the airport and Dad’s laughter at his own remark whenever I’m struggling through a fast, steep walk or a brisk workout. The memory helps me continue.

And some days, I need all the help I can get.

An Easter Dress to Die For

I liked to sit on the floor and watch Mom’s feet rock the treadle as she sewed. Sometimes I played; other times she told me stories; always she worked: creating curtains, dresses, shirts and flannel nightgowns for babies.

I have a faded photograph of Carolyn and me at three and seven holding hands, standing next to Mom, who ignores the camera and looks at us. We wear winter coats sewn on the treadle machine and accessorized with rabbit fur from a thrift-store find. Fur collars frame our faces; our hands snuggle inside fur muffs; and hats decorated with fur balls sit on our heads. As a child, I studied the photograph and assumed Mom’s smiling face reflected pride in her handiwork. My older eyes recognize the look of love.

When Mom and Dad came home with a new Singer sewing machine, the family gathered to admire the electric foot-control that replaced the swinging treadle. With this modern marvel, Mom more efficiently clothed a family richer in children than in dollars. When I was twelve, she created an Easter dress for me I’ll never forget.

I crawled into my top bunk, tired and sunburned from a glorious Saturday on West Mountain chucking dyed eggs at the heads of my classmates—an Easter tradition in Lake Shore. As I fell asleep, I replayed my victorious egg shots and pictured my entry into church the next morning in my Easter dress.

Each year Mom made dresses that shot her daughters to the head of the Easter parade. This year, however, I insisted on choosing the fabric and pattern myself, thinking I had better fashion sense than my mother, who was getting old.

I had poured over pattern books and materials at Christenson’s until I found the perfect combination: a snug, red corduroy sheath. I disregarded Mom’s opinion that I didn’t have the years or curves to fill out such a tightly fitted dress, so she made me the dress I wanted; and I loved it.

On Easter morning, my red sunburn a-glow, I sashayed into church in my bright red dress. As I entered a pew, Lehi Smith, who had lobbed enough eggs at my head the day before to make me think he liked me, leaned forward from the bench behind and whispered, “Wow, Janet, you look like a skinny glass of tomato juice.”

I flounced by without answering, shot a threatening glance at Barbara, and forgave Mom’s stifled snorts, thinking they were sounds of sympathy. Lehi, I wrote off as a numbskull, not worthy of my attention.

I wore my tomato-juice sheath for years, and every time I put it on, I felt beautiful and loved in a dress my mother made for me.

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.