Catalog Clothing

The summer before my fifth-grade year, wanting a sophisticated look my home-sewn wardrobe failed to deliver, I spent my cherry-picking money on store-bought, back-to-school clothes. In rural Utah in the 1950’s, store-bought meant catalog-ordered; so the Montgomery Wards catalog became my fashion consultant as I earmarked pages, pondered options and wallowed in excited indecision.

Eventually, I chose a set of seven panties — each embroidered with a day of the week so I would know when to wear them — a sack of red, white, and blue anklets because I liked their patriotic flair and a red dress with white polka dots on the skirt and a droopy white bow at the collar.

When I totaled the cost of my selections and double-checked my math, the order came to $15.34 including sales tax and postage, which left thirty-seven cents for Snickers bars and giant jawbreakers.

I next went to work on the order form, happily recording item numbers and descriptions until I encountered the problem of sizing. I assumed the clothing would come in 5th-grade-girl sizes. It didn’t. Stymied, I thought of asking my siblings for help, but they would criticize my choices and say my brain was smaller than my nose. Mom knew my size because the clothes she sewed for me fit, but she wasn’t home. Besides, the last time I asked which anklets she thought I should order, she looked wild-eyed and dodged into the bathroom.

When I decided to search the catalog for help, I discovered size charts on page 215. Studying the chart for young misses, I learned my size depended on my chest, hip and waist measurements. Good grief.

I secreted myself in the bathroom with Dad’s tape measure. I knew my chest measurement, being in the habit of checking, and I quickly measured my waist. But hips stumped me. The instructions said to measure nine inches from my waist and around the fullest part. Of what? Each leg? After a few contortions, I came up with a number. Alrighty. Then, going back to the charts, I realized my measurements didn’t fit one size. Different parts of me matched different sizes.

I was a freak.

Frustrated, I marked my selections with what seemed to be the size in the middle of the list, thinking things would average out.

During the following weeks, the mailman and I became best buddies as we waited for the package that would give me the air of a catalog model when I went back to school. The day he handed the bulky parcel to me, my new friend seemed as happy and relieved as I was. Beaming, I ran home to try on my new clothes — try being the right word.

My beautiful dress the color of strawberries wouldn’t go over my shoulders though I wriggled and strained until stitches popped. The socks didn’t stretch over my foot no matter how much I hopped and yanked; and the panties, rebelling mid-hip, labeled my thigh as Monday.

Overcome by my first case of catalog despair, I collapsed on the floor in sobs with my beautiful back-to-school clothes stuck on odd parts of my body. And stayed there, snuffling and snorting, until Mom rescued me.

To this day, I open packages of clothing I’ve ordered with trepidation; and I often use the return envelope — though I no longer collapse and cry.

Advertisements

At a Loss for Words

The average English speaker makes seven to twenty-two slips of the tongue each day and fails to think of the right word another two to four times according to Michael Erard, who explores verbal gaffes in his book Um.

My life validates his research.

In fourth grade, asked to read from a book called Pesky Penelope, I pronounced the heroine’s name the way it looked to me: pen-e-lope, rhymes with cantaloupe. When Mrs. Thomas corrected my pronunciation, I flushed with embarrassment while my cousin Blake laughed so raucously he fell off his chair. I still question his worth.

Then, years later in high school, I was asked to give a speech in church about one of my pioneer ancestors. As always, I discussed the topic with my mother, and she suggested I talk about her great grandmother. I read a brief, handwritten history of our plucky ancestor then wrote and memorized a speech destined to be a humdinger.

On the assigned day, I donned my Sunday best, slicked my bangs and walked to the podium radiating confidence. But when I began by describing how my mother’s great grandmother, Harriet Beecher Stowe, had carried her baby and walked across the plains from Illinois to Salt Lake City, Mom looked startled.

“Do I have bits of breakfast stuck to my teeth?” I wondered, “I brushed them, didn’t I? She’s probably surprised I came up with an attention-getting introduction by myself.”

But when I joined my family after the services, one of Mom’s best friends, a giggling Adele Evans, was saying, “Myrl, I had no idea your great grandmother wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Was that before or after she crossed the plains?” Then they both laughed in an unladylike manner.

My stomach sank; my face flushed; and I earned my status as a snide teenager by thinking, “Well. I may have confused my ancestor Harriet Bradford Simmons with a famous author, but I know better than to guffaw and snort at the mistakes of others while leaving church.”

As a result of misadventures with my wayward tongue, I’m sympathetic when candidate Al Gore assures his audience, “A zebra doesn’t change its spots” or baseball manager Wes Westrum summarizes a close game, “Well, that was a cliff-dweller.”

I’m especially partial to the gaffes of President George W. Bush because he modeled an effective way to handle verbal mishaps. When asked what it was like to be raised in Midland, Texas, he responded, “It was inebriating.” Then, realizing what he’d said, he laughed at himself and repeated his blooper for the amusement of others.

I wish I had used the president’s tactic when the junior high school principal was observing my teaching for the first time and I told my students Romeo and Juliet was a great Shakespearean travesty.

Home Nursing

Not my mother

Not my mother

When sick, Mom maintained a stoic silence and went to bed, telling my siblings and me to move our squabbles beyond her hearing; so we dutifully went outside when thumping one another became unavoidable.

She expected the same bed rest and silence from us when we complained of swollen glands, stomachaches, or ingrown toenails, “Go to bed. You’ll feel better after a nap.” Her job description didn’t leave time for entertaining us or clucking over our earaches and bee stings.

One day Mom heard howls coming from the yard where Barbara had taught Blaine and JL an exciting new game in which she threw rocks and they dodged them. When Mom went outside to investigate and discovered the crooked, bloody mess that used to be Blaine’s nose, she pinched it into shape, staunched the bleeding, applied tape and told him to go take a nap. She then advised Barbara to run away from home and returned to her ironing.

When a chronic problem, unusual symptom, or something she couldn’t fix prompted a visit to the doctor, she enforced any recommendations with rigor. After we bared our behinds for penicillin shots, we stayed in bed until well, swallowed pills so big we didn’t need breakfast and huddled beneath blankets breathing the pungent fumes of a vaporizer. As directed.

I’ve had sinus problems my entire life. I sometimes imagine the thought process that accompanied my creation: “We’ve given this girl sturdy feet. Let’s even things out by equipping her with flawed sinuses.” One winter, our family doctor told my mom to irrigate my sinuses daily and showed her how to do so. That night, she filled our all-purpose hot water bottle with a saline solution and attached a tube to it with a special nozzle I had to stick up my nose.

She held the contraption level with her head, pinching off the tube, while I bent over the bathroom basin, then let ‘er rip. Oh, the caterwauling and grief. Water and mucus spouting from my nostrils and mouth, I gagged and pleaded; but the water continued to flow. So I pulled the nozzle from my erupting nose and threw it in the basin.

“Janet, you have to do this.” She leaned over, reinserted the tube, and held it firmly in place as I wept. We did this dance for two weeks, as prescribed. I eventually accepted my fate with stony-faced dignity, and my siblings quit clustering around the bathroom door for the evening entertainment.

We couldn’t look to Dad for sympathy or coddling either. He had robust health and didn’t fall prey to common illnesses, so he reacted to the sicknesses of his loved ones with indignation and expressed his worry as anger: “Oh, get up, there’s nothing wrong with you that a little fresh air or work won’t fix.”

Naturally, I inherited Mom’s no-nonsense bedside manner punctuated with Dad’s irrational irritation: “Why doesn’t he just go to bed?” I wonder as Joel wheezes and snuffles around the house, giving me hourly updates on his symptoms.

But the mother who tenderly cared for my sister, Carolyn, during her childhood struggles with polio and rheumatic fever; and the father who visibly worried about Carolyn and checked on her as soon as he got home from work are part of me as well. I learned from my parents to respond to serious illnesses with attention and sympathetic care.

Perhaps the secret of good home nursing is knowing when to nurture kindly and when to stick the nozzle back up your screaming daughter’s nose.

What’s So Funny About That?

jeering

“I don’t have answers; but I do have questions designed to make you think,” said the workshop leader, a young man with kind eyes and hair beyond his control.

“Oh great,” I thought, “I signed up for a workshop on humor in the classroom to get ideas on how to make learning fun; instead I’m going to spend forty-five minutes thinking lofty thoughts. Good grief.”

The instructor then asked a series of questions that, indeed, required thought. Worse, after each query, he stood silently for what seemed like an eternity looking at his participants as though we were thinking. So we did.

“Think about a time when unkind words, parading as humor, hurt you or someone you know,” he said. “How did you feel?”

In response, I remembered one of my fourth-grade students and her family entering my classroom during a back-to-school open house. I smiled at the shy but bright youngster, “Hi, Marlene, would you like to introduce me to your family?”

“Marlene?” her teenaged brother said, “We call her Toad. Just look at her. She looks like Grandpa.” As Marlene’s parents chuckled fondly, I saw the light in a little girl’s eyes go out. And it didn’t come back for some time.

I ignored the comment and said, “It’s a pleasure to work with Marlene; she’s an excellent, hardworking student.” I remember feeling inadequate in the moment, and the intervening years hadn’t changed my opinion.

I was relieved when the workshop instructor interrupted my self-critique with his next question: “When you feel uneasy or put down by words others find funny, how do you react?”

This time, my memory returned me to a faculty lounge in a new school in a new state where a colleague bombarded me with Mormon jokes after he heard my background. Daily, he greeted me with a new joke: “Hey, Janet, what do you call a good-looking woman in Salt Lake City? A tourist. What’s the difference between a Mormon woman and an elephant? About ten pounds. What is a Mormon woman’s favorite wine? When-ner we gun-na ha-va ‘nother baaaa-by?”

My colleagues laughed uneasily. I felt harassed, uncomfortable and defensive. Soon, I began to avoid the lounge.

Fortunately, my unhappy memories were ended by another question from the workshop instructor: “In the past, how have you responded to offensive or hurtful comments, stories or jokes presented as humor? Do you wish you’d responded differently? If so, how?”

“Obviously,” I thought, “I haven’t responded. I either pretend to ignore hurtful humor or avoid it. Then I feel ineffective. I wish this man would just tell us what to do.”

Once again, he didn’t enlighten us. Instead, he divided us into small groups and said, “We’ll never reach consensus on the best way to recognize and react to negative humor, but we can raise our consciousness by discussing our experiences with it.”

The intense discussion in my group included a response strategy suggested by a matronly lady with a kind smile: When someone used negative humor, she would wait until the laughter died and then pretend she didn’t understand the joke: “I don’t get it. What’s funny about that?” She told us that, usually, when someone attempts to explain negative humor, the joke’s put-down, hurtful nature is revealed.

After our group discussions, the workshop leader shared a quote:

“My pain may be the reason for somebody’s laugh. But my laugh must never be the reason for somebody’s pain.”
Charlie Chaplin

He then dismissed us.

As I left the room, I knew this brief workshop had forever changed the way I would hear, use and react to humor.

Stresses of the Season

janet-stressedYears ago, my friend Judy invited me to drop by for a visit the day after Christmas. When I arrived, I found her draping wet laundry around her kitchen and wiping away tears. She wasn’t crying about her dead dryer.

On Christmas Eve, she and her husband were helping her recently married son and his wife prepare dinner in their new home when her son said, “Why don’t you let Mom fix the gravy, Bev. She knows how I like it.”

In response, Bev burst into tears and said to Judy, “I’m sick of hearing about your perfect Christmases, your perfect cooking, your perfect dinners. Why don’t you go home? Here, take my car. I’m sure you’ll drive it perfectly.” Then she grabbed her keys, threw them at Judy and ran from the house, leaving an open-mouthed family, a half-cooked turkey and a doomed merry little Christmas behind.

“I felt like I was in a country-western song,” Judy told me, “It was terrible.”

More recently, friends and I discussed the anxieties of gift giving: “I need guidelines,” said one, “What do you buy for the grandchildren you loved when they already get too much for Christmas? What do you give babies who have no concept of Santa and would rather chew on a cardboard box? Or teenagers who have demanding taste in clothing or want specific, expensive technology?”

Another friend added, “My husband and I buy things for our children and grandchildren throughout the year, when they need it; we also help finance school trips and events, and we’re happy to do so. We spent a lot last year, so we gave less expensive gifts for Christmas. And I felt guilty the entire season.”

Fortunately, we have media experts who tell us how to glide gracefully through the holiday 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 also warn if we deny ourselves the foods of the season, we’ll binge later on stale marshmallows or stray chocolate chips. Instead, we should enjoy the goodies that come our way by sampling them: take half a brownie and a taste or two of ice cream.

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

Despite such expert advice, most of us experience some 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 wonder about gifts we receive — elf house slippers or salt-and-pepper shakers from Branson — and worry others won’t like the gifts we chose for them.

We also wonder why we don’t feel the joy of Christmas we did when young: everybody happy, everything beautiful, each moment perfect. Experts answer this one correctly: the wonder of childhood Christmases cannot be duplicated; nor were they perfect.

I remember seeing a photograph taken by my aunt when I was eight — the year I asked Santa for a red-headed princess doll — that shows me using a blonde baby doll to bludgeon Bob as we battle fiercely in front of a tree tilted awkwardly to one side as though trying to escape.But, in my memory, 1950 was a perfectly joyful Christmas; and I wish the same for you in 2016.

Changing My Perspective

 

clipart-kid

clipart-kid

Picture a perfect late-summer evening in Craig, Colorado, five years ago: flowers a-bloom, birds a-chirp, breezes a-stir. Harmless clouds cluster in the east; children bounce bicycles over curbs; and volunteer parents gather at Sunset Elementary to ready its outdoor areas for the coming school year.

Wanting to enjoy the pleasant evening, my husband and I decided to take an after-dinner walk. As we exited the gate to our driveway, Joel looked around and asked, “Where’s the car?”

We then reverted to form and assumed the other had done something unreasonable with it: “I don’t know. Where’d you park it?”

“In the driveway. Where’d you move it?”

“What are you talking about? I haven’t driven it since you came home.”

Then reality struck; and Joel expressed it: “If you’re not joking, the car’s been stolen.”

Denying any prank, I peered up and down the street as though our headstrong car had wandered off like a mischievous puppy and would soon come home. My husband displayed more decisiveness: “I’d better call 911.” That quickly we became embroiled in loss of property, police reports, insurance negotiations and a realization of our need — even fondness — for a reliable, comfortable car.

Three adult drug-users took it from our driveway while inside the house I started the dishwasher, exchanged flip-flops for walking shoes and rounded up Joel. As we walked through the yard discussing which border flowers might need transplanting, the thieves drove at high speed up the hill on Barclay toward 10th Street through quiet residential areas. While we paused at the gate and examined the Russian willow to see if we had arrested its aphid problem, our car bottomed out in an intersection, lurched out of control, and hit two parked trucks. As we discovered our loss, the three fled.

As we waited in the driveway for an officer to respond to Joel’s 911 call, a patrol car come around the corner, and we waved it over. When the officer said he’d be back after investigating a nearby accident, we realized our car might be involved. Joel, who carries data like the car’s year, model and license number in his head, waited for the officer, and I took the truck to look for the accident.

I found it. Our car sat sideways on Barkley street: crumpled at each end, air bags deployed, interior untouched and Joel’s golf bag squashed up against the back window. I drove home to report I’d found our car: wrecked, totaled, looking as abandoned as an old couch left curbside.

Not only does Joel act while I dither, his perceptions are fast, focused, and true compared to my foggy ruminations. His first response: “I hope nobody was hurt.”

I pictured young girls with bouncing hair skipping along a sidewalk; grinning boys flying down the hill on bicycles; a family on its way to a soccer game driving into the intersection as a missile launched across it. “Oh, I didn’t think of that.”

I’d never experienced what I knew: Some who live in Craig make bad decisions born of addiction, greed, anger, or disregard for the lives and property of others; and innocent parties suffer because of those decisions. I didn’t understand how quickly feelings of security and safety shatter, even when your loss is only a car and some golf clubs.

And I hadn’t thought that our replaceable loss could have been a tragedy. I gave thanks that it was not.

About Craig and Caring

coal keeps lightsProblems abound in my small town. On every block, small black-and-white signs promoting coal reflect our threatened economy. Houses stand empty; for-sale and for-rent signs decorate neighborhoods. Our schools lose students, and teacher turnover is high. Too many families exist on incomes below the poverty level; too many children go to school with unattended medical and dental issues.

Even the sidewalks have given up.

But it’s my town.

A banner from Trapper Coal Mine and a woodcarving of a miner from Craig’s annual Whittle the Wood contest stand outside our courthouse.

After Joel and I retired, we were asked, “When will you be moving?”

Not whether we’d be leaving, but when.

We’ll be staying.

Last summer, I was encouraged when I read the words of a young resident who volunteers for a local non-profit that works with at-risk teens: “I feel I should give back to my community,” she told a newspaper reporter, “It’s been good for me, and I want it to be good for others.”

My husband has long acted on his belief that if you enjoy living where you do — whether its a farming or ranching area with far-flung neighbors, a small town, a suburb, a row house in a large city — you should help care for it so it continues to be a place you choose to call home. When we married, watching Joel work to improve our community, I adopted his belief.

Fortunately, most residents share our conviction. They provide transportation to medical appointments for those who can’t drive themselves, buy band instruments for students who can’t afford them, and cook free lunches and dinners twice a week for anybody who shows up. They created and continue to maintain a colorful garden that welcomes visitors to town. They clean up the Yampa River, staff the Food Bank, assist victims of abuse, and maintain mountain trails.

In addition, they open their wallets to help neighbors in need and keep non-profits afloat, giving to United Way so generously that Craig’s donations are in the top 10% per capita in the nation.

These folks neither ignore Craig’s problems nor move away from them. They serve our town because they see the same positive things about life here that I do: light traffic, an easy-going pace, the grandeur of the mountains and the respite they provide when we go to them, the unrestricted river that rambles by, the parks well used and maintained on a modest budget, business owners who greet customers by name, drivers who wave, neighbors who chat. And an ice cream truck that roams our summer streets playing Jingle Bells.

In the aftermath of Christmas and on this New Year’s Day, let’s resolve to list the gifts we could give our communities during the coming year — and check it twice.