Those Who Live in Glass Houses

 

I indulged in gluttony in front of my loved ones at a funeral lunch and I was ashamed. But not sorry.

When I entered the hall and scanned the tables heaped with an abundance of appealing homemade food, my youngest grandchildren had already grabbed a soft drink, piled chips on top of their fried chicken and headed toward the dessert table.

I smiled at their self-indulgent choices and complimented myself on my healthy selections. Then I neared the salad section and saw several shimmering, sugary Jell-O salads: red, green, and orange Jell-O; Jell-O containing bananas, grapes, raspberries, and pineapple; Jell-O with nuts, cream cheese and whipped cream blended in or spread on top; mouth-watering salads with nary a vegetable lurking in their soft, creamy depths.

I picked up an extra plate.

Despite my funereal fall from grace, I eat healthy foods most of the time. But I remember fondly the foods I yearned for as a child in the fifties, foods much like those my young loved ones crave today.

I used to spend the pennies, nickels and dimes I earned doing extra chores for my mother on anything sugared and frozen on a stick, especially blueberry popsicles that dyed my mouth an alarming fluorescent blue. I also liked orange and white dreamsicles and chocolate-covered milk nickels. But I never bought fudgsicles..

I quit eating the chocolate treats when Dad bought one for everybody in the car. Those of us in the backseat whooped with appreciation, but Mom took one bite, said it tasted like brown chalk and tossed the remains out the window. Dad yelped, “Hide ‘em, kids, or she’ll get yours too,” but I sided with Mom and threw mine away. Carolyn called me a copycat; Bob said I was too stupid to be in third grade.

Like today’s teenagers, I craved soft drinks of any sort, spending far too much of my babysitting and fruit-picking money at the Arctic Circle trying to decide between lemon lime and orange. I routinely convinced my younger sister Barbara to trade tastes. I would take a generous swallow of hers then say she couldn’t taste mine because I didn’t want her cooties. I also accepted dates with young men I didn’t care for because I hoped the A&W would be on the itinerary.

Raised in a home where caffeine in any form was frowned upon, I didn’t discover cola drinks until later in life. But I‘ll never forget the illicit thrill that ran through me when I was ten and told Mrs. Tucker how much I liked the birthday cake she’d made for her daughter’s party. Mrs. Tucker thanked me and said that cherry cola cake was her family’s favorite. I ate two pieces and walked home convinced I was drunk.

So today, when I notice young people inhaling chips, soft drink, candy and ice cream, I keep quiet about their poor choices and my longing for Jell-O salad with bananas and whipped cream.

A Memory For Fathers’ Day

I remember how my dad took his children to Schroeder’s, despite a lack of ready cash. Screen door slamming; tall, work-slim body striding across the yard, he yelled to any of us within hearing, “If you want to go, climb aboard. I’m on my way.”

Word spread, “He might be going to Schroeder’s.” Deserting chores, we scrambled into our dilapidated jeep, jockeying for position. Dad gunned the engine, shot away and, singing that he’d take Kathleen home again, paid no mind to his passengers caught in mid-scramble.

A fast five miles of irrigated farmland flashed by, dotted by an occasional house hunched beneath massive outbuildings. The finger-smeared windows through which we peered softened the countryside and gentled farmyard clutter. Dad, more interested in his vibrato than our battles, bounced the jeep along rough roads in tempo to his tune, until, gravel flying, he executed his usual abrupt stop. “Whoa there, old boy, whoa there,” he shouted to our great amusement as he flamboyantly pulled back on the wheel and stomped on the brakes at Schroeder’s Auto Repair.

The single, rusted-out gas pump reflecting long departed prices isn’t tempt us; nor did the garage’s shadowed interior with its thick air smelling of rubber and oil. We didn’t stop to examine Schroeder’s grease-begrimed tools or the fly spotted glass case holding PayDay bars, Juicy Fruit gum, and hide-a–key containers. Instead, clutching unfamiliar dimes Dad distributed from a near-empty wallet — an act our money-worried mother wouldn’t approve — we ran to the rectangular soda machine sitting like a dusty treasure chest in a far corner, burbling moistly to itself.

While Dad discussed man things — lay-offs, unemployment checks, failed crops — with big-voiced, thoroughly dirty Schroeder, we circled the red machine and argued best flavors: orange and strawberry being top contenders. Then, decisions made, we clinked our dimes into the coin slot. The machine’s scratched red lid sighed reluctantly as we lifted it, exhaling cold air that washed over our peering faces.

Inside the rectangular chest, icy water bathed cold bottles that we slowly worked along notched metal rows until we could each lift our choice clear, remove its crimped cap with the built-in opener, and take the first sweetly stinging swallow.

Carolyn, a teenager, assumed a pose of nonchalance and sophistication, drinking as though it was almost more than she could manage. Bob threw his head back and drank like the rowdy boy he was, pausing only to burp. I sipped, savoring and saving. Barbara, who had yet to grasp the science of swallowing, let orange liquid flow down her throat in an uninterrupted stream, plugging it with her tongue when she needed to breathe.

As we drank and laughed, Dad looked over at us and grinned.

If the total of a man is made of small acts, our dad was a giant.

This post was adapted from my book, A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns

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.

You’ll Regret It Someday

clipartpanda

clipartpanda

I stifled a wail when I read Mike Spoor’s BuzzFeed list of “Thirty-seven Things You’ll Regret When You’re Old,” because I’m a shining example of his regrettables. Mr. Spoor provided the bolded descriptions of youthful follies; the confessions are mine.

Not learning another language: I sensed in 4th grade that I wouldn’t be a linguist when I failed to master Pig Latin. Then in high school and college, I took every literature class offered, which left no time to study another language. To me, analyzing Moby Dick seemed more entertaining than conjugating French verbs.

As a result, when visiting foreign countries, I repeat phrases from a traveler’s dictionary with increasing volume to any approachable stranger and receive confused shoulder-shrugs or incorrect information due to my mangled pronunciations. A dapper gentleman once led me two blocks to a zoo when I asked for directions to a restroom. Conjugating verbs has its rewards.

Not Using sunscreen: In the sixties, my high school friends and I believed we’d be more attractive with a deep tan. So we slathered baby oil on any exposed skin and lounged on top of Meldrum’s chicken coop, miserably roasting in the sun, hoping to look like Annette Funicello — and failing.

Then my college roommates and I sunbathed on the thick grass of a cemetery that bordered our dorm. We misted water on our hot skin with a spray bottle, poked one another to test for doneness, kept a wary eye out for cemetery workers and suffered unsightly sunburns that drew looks of pity rather than admiration.

Years later, my youthful skin-toasting financed my dermatologist’s second home..

Being afraid to do things: Some things frighten me — deep water, selling things and fried liver; other things don’t — spiders, public speaking and Jack Nicholson in The Shining. My fears of climbing a Colorado fourteener and traveling by myself faded when I did those things, but no matter how many times I drive big-city interstates, my hair stands on end, and I hyperventilate. My age has nothing to do with it.

Caring too much about what other people think. When sunburn didn’t make my teenage face flame red, embarrassment did: “But nobody else will wear a coat; I’ll look stupid.” “I hate it when Dad sings while my friends are in the car. They look at each other.” “Why is it when I drive up with one of my boyfriends, Blaine and JL greet us by riding around on the tire-less rims of our old bicycle? They look deficient.”

Eventually, as they matured, my family quit embarrassing me. It’s nice.

Worrying too much. Evidently it’s OK to worry a little. I’m an outstanding worrier, so I’d hate to give it up completely. During the last five minutes, I fretted about my cravings for dessert, the sharp pain I had yesterday behind my eye, and whether the weatherman feels bad about his poor forecasting record.

With age, I’ve begun to realize the futility of some of my worries like fretting that I won’t be able to open an airplane’s emergency door after I assured the stewardess I could. But I still worry that not worrying about something will give it permission to happen.

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.

Frankly, er, if you will 

Clip Art Panda

Clip Art Panda

A few months ago, I read the following letter in Dear Annie’s newspaper column: “Over the years, my husband has developed an odd habit. When asked a simple question, such as, ’Would you like another cup of coffee?’ he replies, ‘If you are so inclined.’ I find this peculiar, not to mention condescending, and it’s driving me crazy.”

I’d have advised her to run away from home.

The mindless use of words or phrases we develop a fondness for and sprinkle throughout our conversations can be irksome, especially to our loved ones. My normally patient mother looked grim when my father, preparing his bowl of oatmeal, habitually said, “Please pass the shug, Shug,” Seems a small thing, but hearing it several mornings a week, year in and year out, might wear on a person.

Sometimes Joel mentions a flaw in my operating system, such as letting me know he hates it when I assume he’s finished and put his coffee cup in the dishwasher. After I give my routine reply, “I know you do, Joel,” I’m struck by his resemblance to my mother on oatmeal mornings.

My sister Barbara developed a conversational habit when young that turned her siblings mean. When asked a question, she’d answer it and add, “Hint hint.”

“Barbara, would you quit banging on the piano?”

“No I won’t. Hint hint.” Our days were filled with hint hints and thumps.

My first principal relied heavily on behoove. He behooved the staff to use less construction paper, the students to walk in the halls, and the school board to think twice. Every staff meeting ended with “And one last thing: it would behoove you to include more detail in your lesson plans.”

The oldest member of the staff began entertaining the rest of us during staff meetings by dropping his pencil to the floor each time he heard a behoove. He quit after a record-setting fourteen drops because bending over to retrieve his pencil so many times made him lightheaded.

While on a cruise, Joel and I along with fifty other good-timers crowded onto a powerboat that ferried us from our ship to the port of Belize. A young Belizean welcomed us aboard and explained the rules, relying heavily on “right” to check our understanding: “Life jackets for adults are under the seats, right? You should put them on children first, right? And please stay in your seats until we arrive, right?”

He had more than his share of charm and a bright smile, so the passengers began teasing him with a good-natured “Right!” in response. His smile increased, especially when he had the last laugh, “You don’t need to say right every time I say right. Right?”

I sometimes watch a cable talk show during which a panel discusses political issues and current happenings. One of the moderators begins most of her opinions with “I’m sorry, but….”

I long to tell her, “Frankly, my dear, it would behoove you to buck up, if you will. In other words, quit apologizing. Actually, you know, I don’t think you’re really sorry, get it? Like, in all honesty, if you’re sorry, technically, you, um, wouldn’t continue. Right? Hint hint.”

So anyway, I’ve lost my train of thought, OK? Could you, uh, share with me where I was? If you’re so inclined.

Moments of Clarity

 

janet-and-grandchildren

Throughout my life, I experienced moments of clarity that occurred without fanfare or expectation and illuminated my future: moments of insight that arrived unbidden and surprised me with their power.

At fourteen, rather than going home after the church youth meeting as instructed by our parents, five friends and I took a joyride through the countryside in an old Ford. I climbed into the back seat with the Anderson sisters as we defied parental authority and took a joyride through a lake-tinged night.

The newly-licensed driver, the oldest among us, chattered nonstop, her ponytail swishing as she turned her head to look around, waved her hands for emphasis and ignored warning signs about an upcoming curve.

The sisters — made anxious by the speed, the darkness and the disapproval we’d face should our parents discover this crazed ride — held hands and worried in silence. But a sudden understanding liberated me and filled me with anticipation: I had lived my life based on the expectations and conventions of others; but as I traveled into my future, I would have the power of choice. My decisions, wise or foolish, would decide my future. Sensing my coming independence, I laughed aloud in the window-wind of the back seat.

At twenty, I walked across the grounds of the Wyoming State Training School with my special-needs charges: a group of happy, chattering female residents. We were returning to the ward where I worked and they lived after attending a 4th of July party where everybody danced every dance with total joy and abandon. We strolled beneath the fluttering leaves of large ash trees that filtered the light of a mellow moon and softened the lines of the institutional buildings we passed.

My mind preoccupied with thoughts of a recent break-up with a boyfriend I’d once thought perfect, full of self doubt and bleakness, I hardly noticed when Yvonne, a large woman with garbled speech, multiple disabilities and the mental age of a child, moved to my side, put an arm around me, smiled broadly and pointed at the gentleness of the glowing moon. Then, in half-swallowed words I had learned to interpret, she said, “I love you, Mom.”

In that instant, I knew as surely as I’d ever known anything, that throughout my life love would come to me from many different sources, that I would love and be loved in return. I slid my arm around Yvonne as we walked together through the shimmering night.

At sixty, sweltering in the heat and humidity of a Midwest summer, I sat on a chair shaded by an over-arching pecan tree, glad my husband Joel and our daughter Jenny were fitting and cementing stones to form a patio, while I had the easier task of entertaining grandchildren.

One child sat on my lap holding a picture book he wanted to hear “one more time, please, please, please,” while a toddler, fiercely determined, scrabbled and squeezed onto my lap as well, demanding “Me, too!”

I opened Grahame Green’s Jabberwocky and began to read.

When I married Joel, I immediately liked and became friends with his mostly grown children. Then, as they had children, I became a grandparent, responding, as grandparents do, with patience, pleasure, and love.

But always, unconsciously, I held something back, kept a part of myself in reserve, felt I was an interloper. Then, on this heat-slick day, holding two sticky boys on my lap, smelling their sun-warmed hair, I realized I had never been happier, that I loved and would protect these children and their siblings, that I was as totally committed to them as I would be if my blood ran through their veins.

Such moments of enlightenment don’t come to me often, but when they do, they enrich my life.