We Shared a Path

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Sorting through my desk this morning, I found the photograph taken at my 50thclass reunion. The photographer had to shoot it with a wide-angle lens to accommodate the increased girth of the  ninety-three classmates in attendance.

We’d made an effort to look our best for the occasion. “I bought a new outfit,” a friend told me, “I planned to get a manicure and pedicure as well, but buying the dress exhausted me; so I decided to replace the batteries in my hearing aids and call it good.”

Despite such efforts, the photograph shows grandparents in comfortable shoes and generously sized clothing with hair dyed, gray, sparse or gone. We squint with puffy eyes below wrinkled brows as we suck in rounded bellies and square slumping shoulders.

But as I studied the photograph, I didn’t dwell on our time-altered appearance; instead, I noticed arms thrown fondly around one another and happy smiles on every face. Despite our aging bodies, the class of ’61 enjoyed its evening, which surprised me.

The three earlier reunions I attended had quickly clotted into the cliques and gossip of high school. I assumed this one would do the same. But a song by our class crooner established a more appreciative mood.

Every time Larry performed for a high school assembly, he received a standing ovation due to the popularity of his signature song, “Scotch and Soda,” a daring choice in a predominately Mormon school. We assumed our ancient principal, with his perfect posture and habit of addressing us as ladies and gentlemen, had never heard of jiggers of gin.

As I listened to Larry sing the song we’d once cheered, I was again eighteen, sitting in an auditorium among friends, happy to be young and looking forward to life after high school. I think others at the reunion felt a similar tug of nostalgia because Larry’s song kicked off the best part of the evening: mingling, conversing and re-discovering our past.

As classmates approached, I quickly read their nametags so I could identify the smiling woman who remembered throwing up on me during band practice and the old man with hairy ears who hugged me as though he’d done it before.

“Janet, you haven’t changed a bit,” some said. Others studied my nametag and exclaimed, “I would never have recognized you.” I found these contradictory statements puzzling, until I realized vanity had caused many of us to leave our glasses home, which confused the issue.

We found time had polished our positive qualities: Blake, former class clown, possessed a generous wit that amused everybody without demeaning anyone. Kathy and Ruby Ann, once energetic cheerleaders, laughed and drew others into their fun. Edgar, whose quirks challenged the social standards of high school, asked insightful questions and expressed affection and admiration openly. He had a crowd around him the entire evening.

So we socialized: groups forming, dispersing, and re-forming as tired spouses hoped a lightning strike would force evacuation of the building.

The sorting criteria of teenagers — who was in, out, best, worst, most, least — had been scrubbed out of us by years tinged with heartbreaks, illnesses, and disappointments. Our common struggles allowed us to see friends rather than jocks, grinds, beauties, nerds, winners and losers.

Our edges were worn away. We bore witness for each other: We’re here. We made it. And, for part of the way, we walked together.

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Wasting Time

Because I was in love with Snooky Lanson, I watched “Your Hit Parade” every Saturday after doing the dinner dishes. But sometimes I dawdled and had to promise Mom I’d complete my chore when the program ended. One week, inspired by the show’s choreography, I forgot my promise and decided to practice my tap-dance moves instead, so I could become a Hit Parade dancer.

I convinced Barbara to sing “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” while I attempted various dance steps. I was working on a jaunty hoedown maneuver when Mom entered and silenced Barbara’s croaking with a look. She then said she’d never seen anyone waste time like I did and threatened me with no desert for a week, thus convincing me clean dishes would contribute more to my happiness than barn dancing in the living room.

It’s ironic that I tap danced rather than keeping a promise to my mother and could spend hours trying to peel the foil off a gum wrapper in one piece but became semi-hysterical when a sibling spent too much time reading the Sunday comics while I waited.

Waiting for others has always irritated me and made me wonder why their time is more valuable than mine. Though I fume inwardly at this who delay me, I say nothing; instead, I twitch with impatience, sigh with disgust, and moan in despair. When I vent in this manner in a shared waiting area, people move away from me.

My ugliness increases if I’m in a restaurant, hungry and waiting too long for my food — especially when no one explains. If the waitress would tell me my order was delayed because the busboy attacked the sous chef, I wouldn’t have to scowl and snarl until others avoid my table — even the mariachis.

Sitting forever in a dentist’s chair with my mouth numb makes me want to tear my hair. But I control myself. When the dentist finally appears, he might be put off by a patient with bloody bald spots, and I’d hate to be asked to reschedule. If I’m stopped by highway construction, I behave as though the multimillion-dollar operation was planned solely to make me wait. Too often, asphalt-splattered workers point and stare while I tie knots in the steering wheel.

But no horror can exceed waiting for twenty-eight minutes and thirty-two seconds in the skimpy gown required for unpleasant medical procedures in an exam room chilled to the point of goose bumps — with nothing to read but a chart illustrating the growth of cancer cells. I’m certain when medical professionals enter and observe my crazed demeanor, they consider calling security. If not, they should.

I’m ashamed of the inner monster I become when others waste my time because I fritter away my precious minutes as mindlessly as I did when young. Staring out the window with an open mouth and vacant mind, picking mindlessly at my cuticles or leafing through a Hanes underwear catalogue — while ten, twenty, thirty minutes slip by — doesn’t bother me at all.

And yet, if Joel should delay our departure for Denver by two minutes, I pace and mutter.

And I’m not proud of it.

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.

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.

Confessions of a Foodie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We felt better after we ate.