Pumpkin Pie and Aunt Mary

Adapted from a chapter in my book, “A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns.”Thank_01.png.jpeg

I love Thanksgiving. Growing up, I looked forward to the quiet holiday tucked between my birthday and Christmas because I could eat all I wanted — an unusual occurrence when competing on a daily basis with six hungry and determined siblings. I discovered Thanksgiving meant more to me than abundant food, however, when I celebrated it with a college friend and her family.

I remember sitting with careful posture at a crowded table, wondering what I would talk about with these people who didn’t ask a blessing on the food and argued about the Viet Nam war while passing the gravy. I felt like a water balloon, full of bottled-up tears, ready to burst.

Then, unannounced, Aunt Mary, whom I adored, danced into my head. I smelled her perfume and saw her flushed cheeks as she kicked off her shoes after Thanksgiving dinner and performed a Charleston to music on my cousin’s transistor radio. Just a flash of memory, then she was gone; and the truth hit me: I was homesick.

Every Thanksgiving my family drove from Lake Shore to Provo in a bulging sedan, balancing foil-covered pans of dinner rolls and newspaper-wrapped casseroles, to gather in a church recreation hall with Mom’s family.

It was a large and raucous group: grandma, aunts, uncles, and too many cousins to count, ranging from college students striving to appear intellectual to babies being passed around. Grandma, Mom and my aunts ruled the kitchen, laughing and working in a precise choreography only they understood and shooing away interlopers looking for a taste of turkey.

A volleyball game with fluid teams ebbed and flowed at one end of the gym. Toddlers, playing tag, ran through the court, disrupting play, dodging between the legs of the players. Uncle Norley’s laugh boomed as he and Dad swapped hunting stories; Mr. Potato Head pieces crunched underfoot; and marbles from the Chinese checkers game bounced off the board. In a corner, teenagers clustered to pose and share insider information, banning younger siblings from their circle.

When Aunt Arlene didn’t finish lining the tables with butcher paper and later wondered why anyone would put walnuts in fruit salad, we noticed. But we reserved judgment; she was from Oregon, after all, and new to the clan.

During the meal, familiar stories were repeated; cousins compared ballooning bellies; and the cooks were applauded. Everyone agreed it was the best meal yet and that Grandpa would have loved it. Then Grandma prepared packets of food for each family to take home and hugged us to her as we left.

Being thankful is easily done when surrounded by loved ones.

Over the years, my definition of family has  expanded and now includes the dear friends and new relatives who have brightened my favorite holiday.

Still, at some point during the happiness of Thanksgiving, a moment arrives when my mind rushes back to a family-filled gym where I see the smile of my still-young mom and enjoy the antics of her kin.

For Lawrence

Lawrence Marine

Filing into a pew reserved for family members, I looked for my siblings: Carolyn, who became an athlete under her older brother’s supervision; Bob, his shadow who knew him best; Barbara, so young she thought he was the school principal when he came home on leave; Blaine and JL, toddlers who responded to the happiness his return visits brought to our home. I included myself, the middle child who idolized him. When I realized I had counted only six, I thought, “But that’s wrong. We’ve always been seven.”

It would take time to learn to live with Lawrence’s absence.

Waiting for his funeral to begin, I revisited the wave of grief that jolted me from myself when Bob called with news of our older brother’s heart attack and death. An overwhelming sense of profound loss overcame my usual constraints, and I mourned, my emotions raw and unrestrained.

When young, I knew my parents would probably die before I did, but assumed my siblings and I would move through life together, dying en masse when very, very, very old. More recently, I understood Lawrence’s problematic heart would one day fail him, but didn’t know that when it did so, it would break mine as well.

In the days following the news of his death, I called my siblings; they called me; we called each other again as we tried to process our loss, to make it believable, to acknowledge that death had entered our ranks and now walked among us. If our steadfast older brother had died, so could we. We were now the generation that would slip away — a few at a time at first and then with increasing frequency — as the world went about its business.

A year has passed, but I still feel moments of loneliness for my brother, Lawrence. I sense the hand that steadied my bicycle, the voice that made Mom laugh, the teasing that never became mean, the gleeful cackle that punctuated our lives. I see the long, slender, adolescent body stretched high in a cottonwood tree hanging a swing and then pushing me in it if I asked politely.

I remember the marine sergeant who answered my letters at length and danced — so poorly it hurt to watch — at his wedding. I see the proud young father who posed for pictures holding his first child cradled against him with one hand and his college diploma in the other. I hear the voice of the middle-aged man who wept when he called to tell me his beloved daughter, the same child he held after his graduation, had died at sixteen.

Helen Keller said, “Those you have loved deeply remain part of you forever.”

I take comfort in the truth of her statement; but my heart still misses a beat when I realize that now we are six.

Adapted from an earlier column published in the Craig Daily Press. My apologies to my Craig readers for the repetition of content, but I wanted to acquaint my blog friends with my oldest brother and what losing him has meant to me.

Nostalgia 

Nostalgia: a wistful yearning to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a tenderness for the happiness of a former place or time.                        

Late last fall, after a dry summer in which dust devils danced and mountains shed their snow-caps too early, rain sneaked in overnight and fell unnoticed on our parched part of the west. Early the next morning, Joel and I set out to walk a mountain’s rim in the after-glow of dawn.

thin path near the lawn with purple flowers in the shade of trees on a hillside in rays of sunset

Our chosen trail abruptly left the valley floor and twined up a steep ravine pocked with boulders and damp with rain. As we climbed, stretching our legs and breathing deeply, we moved into the pungent smell of wet sage with its distinctive fragrance of warm spices cooled.

The earthy odor, a familiar presence during my formative years, surrounded me; and as I inhaled it, I was once again a young girl, standing at the edge of early morning alongside a vast, yellowing field.Hunting Silhouette

Sleepy-eyed, I watched loved ones clothed in red — father, brothers, uncles, cousins — pace in silence through rain-soaked sage, watching for the flash of pheasant. Ahead of them, Spot swept swiftly, stealthily, back and forth across the field, nose to the ground, intent.

The memory fading, I stopped on the side of the mountain, letting Joel move ahead, breathing the scented air of my past, transfused by a mental yearning, a physical ache for the place, the family, the pet, the place, and the child I lost as I aged.

Those feelings, triggered when the smell of sage transformed a mountain path into my childhood, remained with me, gradually losing their power, until I had the wisdom to secure them with these words.

Such memories, when we manage to recapture them, are to be treasured, recorded, and shared with loved ones. They add up to a life.

Of Food and Puffer Bellies

Young Dad In 3rd grade I made my dad a card shaped like a necktie for Father’s Day. I covered it with colorful stripes, avoiding pink because Dad wouldn’t wear pink. Inside I wrote, “I’m glad you are my father and work so hard to make money for food so we can eat good.” As I aged, I recognized other fine qualities my father possessed—honesty and humility, humor and quirkiness, absolute love for his family—but at eight, I didn’t see far beyond my stomach.

Twice a month, Dad, with a flourish, presented his check from Geneva Steel to Mom. “You earned lots of overtime, old boy,” she’d comment, the pride and affection in her voice making him grin. The rest of us headed for the car, anticipating our payday trip.

Dad drove and sang, his smooth tenor accompanying our commotion, while Mom refereed. The two little ones crawled back and forth, trying out the comfort of different laps. Squeezed into the back, the rest of us bashed each other about and complained: “Mom, she’s touching me.” Our interest picked up as we approached Ironton where Dad worked on the blast furnace—sometimes worked too hard on searing summer days, so that he came home sunken-eyed, hollow-cheeked, and weak-voiced. On those days, we stopped our play and whispered a phrase we’d heard, but didn’t understand: heat exhaustion.

As the car climbed Ironton Hill, the plant’s smell engulfed us: an oily, metallic odor spewing from rusty smokestacks and hovering in a yellowish haze over stacks of windowless structures, dark and looming. Small railroad cars, filled with molten refuse from Dad’s furnace, traveled along the plant’s massive slagheap, dumping their contents. At night the slag glowed red as it poured like lava over the sides of the pile. To me, Ironton looked like the devil’s playground.

If we chanced to pass when the small engine and cars appeared, Dad would begin to sing, “Down by the station, early in the morning, see the little puffer bellies all in a row,” and the rest of us would join in, though sometimes a haughty teenager refused to participate.

Reaching Provo, we drove to Ream’s Discount Groceries, where we walked behind our parents like ants following a trail of crumbs as they piled our cart with staples: flour, sugar, beans, rice, oatmeal, fruits and vegetables not grown in our garden or canned in our kitchen. After collecting these necessities, if they had enough money, they added luxury items that made our stomachs dance: a bag of oranges, a brick of cheese, licorice, hotdogs.

We never asked for treats. We knew better. We also knew we’d go to the Dairy Queen next, where Dad’s announcement, “Let’s have at it, kids,” triggered a stampede that terrified the teenage workers.

A few years after the deaths of our parents, their seven children reunited for a van trip around Utah Valley, the mountain-protected home we had loved. When the van neared Ironton, abandoned and mostly dismantled, we spontaneously burst into Dad’s song about puffer bellies and stationmasters. And everybody participated. I wondered if I was the only one who heard Dad’s voice soaring above ours.

A Tale of Two Floors 

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My childhood home from a painting by Lois Hall Black, my aunt

My mom raised seven children in a house built by her pioneer ancestors on the shores of Utah Lake. My parents worked hard to make the old house as up-to-date and comfortable as they could within a limited budget. Two floors in this work-in-progress home illustrate my mother’s character.

The living room had the most welcoming floor in the house, thanks to Mom’s industriousness and ingenuity. When she decided to beautify this central room with a rug, she searched thrift stores for items made of sturdy fabric and accumulated family clothing no longer deemed worthy of hand-me-down status.

From these cast-offs, she cut narrow lengths of fabric to sew together and braid into fat plaits of multi-colored fabric. Next, using a curved needle and twine, she sewed these thick braids into an oval rug where one color faded into another in perfect harmony. It was a grand, attention-grabbing rug, fifteen-feet long and nine-feet wide, the only carpet we ever had.

We wrestled, played Parcheesi, and spilled popcorn on this work of art; Mom’s projects were intended for use rather than protected with rules or saved for special occasions. We smiled as though we helped create the rug when visitors praised its magnificence — but fought viciously over whose turn it was to vacuum our source of pride.

The floor in the remodeled kitchen didn’t have the same allure.

Between working swing shifts at Ironton Steel and farming, Dad accomplished a kitchen remodel with minimal missteps and profanity — until he and mom covered the floor with asphalt tile.

When they finished, the confetti-patterned floor looked grand. Then we walked on it. With each step, the black adhesive Mom and Dad applied too liberally as bonding material oozed between the squares, belching and befouling the new surface. It glopped here and there and dried in swirling, 3-d patterns, intriguing to children but a disappointment to Mom. She had wanted an attractive, easy-to-clean floor and instead walked on the creature from the black lagoon.

Unhappy as Mom was, however, she brooked no nonsense from her children about either the unsightly floor or the effort involved in fixing it.

It became my job to use SOS Pads to scrub the tarry protrusions until they gradually disappeared, a slow, tedious battle. The scope of work exceeded normal chores, so I was given a dime for each hour I toiled. I thought the pay generous because candy bars only cost a nickel; but I still whined.

One morning, scrubbing and complaining, I muttered, “Why couldn’t Dad have done it right in the first place so I wouldn’t have to do this yucky job.”

Mom usually ignored her children’s petty grumblings, but not this time. With ice in her voice and fire in her eyes, she responded: “Janet, you should give thanks every day for a father with the strength and determination to work a full-time, exhausting job and a farm. And then, when he has a few hours off, he remodels this house for his family. I did the tile with him. We made a mistake. You sound like a selfish, unappreciative person this morning, and I’m not sure I like you.”

My mother molded me and filled our home with beauty: I both liked and loved her.

Happy Mother’s Day.

 

 

Forgive… and Forget If You Can

Traveling with my mother across Wyoming toward Salt Lake City, I droned on and on about a recent embarrassment, dissecting every disastrous detail, even though the poor woman was present when I humiliated myself.

contentA month before, as a student speaker at my junior college graduation, I had astonished both the audience and myself: During the random minutes not obligated to finals or my boyfriend — the current love of my life and thus quite distracting — I outlined, practiced, and memorized my speech. Then I misjudged my mental capacity and carried no notes with me to the podium.

Halfway through my memorized words, I ran out of them. Like a discordant music box winding down, I lurched between blurted phrases and agonizing silences, then died: “My fellow graduates and I have…my fellow graduates and… My-y-y-…………..”

What an impressive sight: eyes bulged, mouth agape, mind blank. Mom looked horrified; Dad hung his head until his forehead rested on his knees; and my siblings tried to appear unrelated. Twenty seconds of absolute silence crawled by while I stood mute, trying to reconnect with my brain.

Four weeks later, as Mom and I passed Evanston, I continued to obsess about the sea of eyeballs riveted on my stricken face as I searched for my AWOL words — until Mom abruptly interrupted my monologue.

“Janet, let it go,” she said with rather more force than I thought appropriate. “Learn what you can from the experience, forgive yourself, and move on. Dwelling on it does no one any good. Least of all me.”

I sat in offended silence for several miles, but over the years I remembered my mother’s words. Eventually, I realized I could readily forgive my friends and loved ones when they hurt my feelings, dropped cherry pie on my new carpet, forgot a commitment, or wore out their welcome, but I didn’t extend the same courtesy to myself. Finally, I began to follow Mom’s advice: to learn what I can from my foibles, then let go of them by forgiving myself.

But, forgiven though I am, I find some incidents impossible to forget.

1st year teacherAs an anxious student teacher, I gazed out the window of a classroom still echoing with the clamor of recently departed students. Below on the lawn, I could see two robins fighting over a worm; I related to the prey.

“Mrs. Phillips isn’t angry; she’s just worried about Rose’s grades,” my supervising teacher told me, “Remember to greet her, then introduce yourself, encourage her to talk, and listen carefully before you answer. You know Rose and her work well; you’ll be fine. And I’ll be here if you need me.”

Then she added, “One caution, Janet: Don’t stare at Mrs. Phillip’s nose. It’s huge, and according to rumor, she’s sensitive about it.”

As I waited for Rose’s mother to arrive, I studied the construction-paper daffodils dancing around the room and worried.

Mrs. Phillips entered. I stood and stared.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Phillips. I’m Janet Bohart, Mrs. Miller’s student teacher. I understand you want to talk to me about your daughter’s nose.”

Forgive myself, yes; forget, never.

 

 

 

 

 

Challenge: a drawer, an ode, and apostrophe

And ode provides a compelling description of an object and, sometimes, the poet’s relationship to it. An apostrophe means a speaker directly addresses a person or an object in a poem.

Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel 1565

A much-traveled print, framed in green,
found in a drawer when a family
sorted the leavings of a thoughtful life;
art their mother liked deserved a home.

Carried through Wyoming’s expansive night,
jumbled in a truck with other displaced goods,
a master’s rendition of a scene familiar from
Christmas cards and books of art:

Encompassing snow, swoop-roofed cottages
spires and crags, river and rounded hills, trees
where magpies watch over a village astir and
ice flattens the pond, freezes the motion of the mill;

Three hunters—leather leggings, caps, tunics —
silently trudge with slender spears of wood
a single fox hung from a slumping back above
slinking thin dogs, weary from a useless hunt.

She hung it in a corner and studied it
through the years — What did my mother see
in you? Did she wonder, as I do, whether the
hunters and their children knew hunger that night?

Would she like what I’ve become?

 

Enjoying the Holiday Season

The following is adapted from a column published in the Craig Daily Press in 2012.

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My husband Joel and I disagree about holiday movies. He refuses to watch A Christmas Story every year, and I’m not interested in reruns of Miracle on 34th Street.

Compared to other anxiety-ridden situations that surface during the holidays, disagreeing about whether to watch the shenanigans of a department store Santa or Ralphie’s pleas for a BB gun seem insignificant.

Fortunately, we have experts eager to tell us how to glide gracefully through the holiday season without exploding into hysteria, eating a pound of peanut brittle, or crawling under a bed.

Their advice flows freely: Get enough sleep. Make a list of tasks to be accomplished and stick to it. Stay within your budget. Relax in a bubble bath before your guests arrive.

Right.

They warn that when we deny ourselves the special foods of the season, we’ll binge later on stale marshmallows. Instead, we should indulge in all the goodies that come our way, but only sample them: take half of a brownie and a taste or two of ice cream.

Seriously? Might as well ask a flea not to bite.

Despite expert advice, most of us experience stress during the holidays. We over-schedule our lives and become cranky as we rush about. We grow too weary, or drink more than a sip or two of eggnog, and then say things we regret. We question gifts we receive—elf house slippers or salt-and-peppershakers from Branson—and worry when others don’t seem to like the gift we gave them.

And through it all, we wonder why we don’t feel the joy of Christmas like we did when young: everybody happy, everything beautiful, each moment perfect. Advice columnists answer this one correctly: the wonder of childhood Christmases cannot be duplicated; nor were they perfect.

As an adult, looking through my Aunt Mary’s photograph album, I came across a snapshot she took when I was eight — the year I asked Santa for a redheaded princess doll. The photo, dated 1950, showed me bludgeoning my brother Bob with a blonde baby doll, and bawling, as we battled in front of a Christmas tree that tilted awkwardly to one side, as though trying to escape.

But I remember the Christmases of my childhood as perfectly joyous occasions.

And I wish the same for you in 2014.

 

 

 

 

For My Dad’s November Birthday

Dad with a group of his grandchildren, some of whom would grow up to comment about him on Facebook

Dad with a group of his grandchildren, some of whom, years later, commented about him on Facebook

In one of my favorite memories of my dad, we are power walking through an airport. Joel and I had flown with my father, eighty-eight at the time, to Nashville to visit my brother. Our flight home had a close connection in Houston, and we arrived late, thirty gates away from our next flight.

While Joel ran to try to detain the flight, I gave up on waiting for a cart, linked arms with Dad, and walked with him as fast as possible through the thronged concourse, counting down the gates. We were at twenty-two, on our way to fourteen, when Dad nudged me with his elbow, “Don’t worry, Janet; we’ll make it. I’m saving my kick for the finish.”

My siblings and I never talk about Dad for any length of time without telling stories and laughing. In-laws and grandchildren do the same. With his understated wit, amusing stories, singular descriptive phrases, and insistence on being himself, he made me laugh — even when, a petulant teenager, I tried not to.

In a Facebook post last year, I described how my father once mailed his adult offspring articles touting the consumption of large quantities of raw garlic. Some of his grandchildren and a daughter-in-law responded. Their comments follow:

Lori: Oh man, I vividly remember the garlic.

Katie: I also remember being treated to large glasses of apple cider vinegar.

Rebecca: Oh this made me miss Grandpa! The garlic brings back such sweet memories, but it also makes me wonder if I will be a happy old person like Grandpa was. I hope so.

Janice: Ah yes the garlic! I remember it well. I also thought of the olive oil; he believed it saved him from appendicitis and drank it often to prevent all manner of ills!

Shawna: Garlic and olive oil. I remember him expounding on how drinking olive oil was going to make him as old as Methuselah at our dining table in Alaska.

Lori: Yes, Shawna, I remember that! And he’d cackle after he said “MeTHUselah!”

Kelsey: He also ate parsley off the plate because “It’s good for your eyes.”

Katie: My favorite was “Ain’t that right, fellers?” Followed by that cackle.

Ruth: Love, love, love it!!

Oh how we loved this man and his quirks. Happy Birthday, Dad. We miss you.

 

 

Thoughts About Hunting

images-3Though I don’t hunt, I never disparage those who do. As a child, hunting was as familiar to me as swatting mosquitoes or tattling. I grew up thinking everybody ate venison, hung antlers on outbuildings, and transported dead deer on their car fenders.

My high school principal overlooked absentees on the first day of deer season, and the town sponsored a deer hunters’ ball the night before — an event featuring red hunting apparel and more action in the parking lot than the dance hall.

My dad initiated my brothers into the culture of hunting, but not my sisters and me. I don’t remember caring — except in recent years when my brothers tell stories about hunting with Dad, and I can’t correct them on the details.

When my brother, Bob, served a mission in Canada for two years, he admitted being homesick during hunting season. He missed the smell of crushed sagebrush in fields of pheasant, dreamed about stalking deer up a draw, longed to sight ducks in the cold morning fog on Utah Lake. He didn’t mention being homesick at Christmastime, on his birthday, or for his family. I guess we were so much chopped liver.

My dad worked night shift at an iron mill, hunted deer during the day, and never met a mountain he couldn’t climb with quick efficiency. He hunted through his eighties, though he no longer cared if he killed anything; he didn’t need the meat; he just liked looking out from the top of a mountain.

I have one deer story of my own: My parents moved to Lander, Wyoming, while I was in college, so I traveled there for Christmas vacations. The first year I did so, a friend I’d met the summer before called to see if I wanted to go sledding up Sink’s Canyon that night with her and a couple of Lander boys she knew.

A full moon lit our way down a swooping track crossed by tree shadows, and a bonfire warmed us between runs. I began to see the appeal of a life in Lander.

Later, as we drove down the canyon, a deer jumped in front of the car. After impact, it struggled on the ground until one of the boys took a gun from the trunk and killed it. Familiar stuff, until the experience took a new twist. The guys dressed out the deer, found its liver, cut off a chunk, and ate it.

When offered a piece, I declined.

I felt at home when I moved into the hunting town where I now live. Local hunters seem safe and skilled, and visiting hunters seem appreciative of our area. Though I miss some of the hikes my husband and I discontinue so hunters can have their day, I like the uptick of activity as the days shorten, the mountains change color, snow rides into town, and hunters take to the hills.