A Growing Bouquet

Out for an October walk

When I take my grandkids for a walk, they stroll and run along the city sidewalks, and with a child’s imagination, they turn each walk into an adventure. On an outing last October, they each picked a small bouquet of dandelions, Indian paintbrushes, and tiny yellow flowers from lawns overdue for a trim.

After we returned home, I put each child’s bouquet in its own bud vase and placed them around my kitchen. My five-year-old grandson had a prolific bouquet, so his vase stood on the kitchen table. By the next afternoon, the dandelions and Indian paintbrushes boarded themselves up like roadside stands at the end of the season, and the tiny yellow flowers discarded their petals like ticket stubs after a rock concert. I tossed the bouquets.

The flowers my sister sent.

A couple of days later my sister sent me a large yellow, orange, and red autumn-themed bouquet of flowers, a mix of daisies, a rose, and a sunflower. I placed it on the kitchen table.

Two days later my grandkids returned to visit. My five-year-old grandson walked by the large bouquet on my kitchen table, paused, then said, “I guess my flowers really grew.”

I gave him the facts—his flowers had died and were thrown in the garbage; these flowers were from my sister. He moved on and played with blocks on the living room floor.

Later I told my sister about his belief that his flowers had grown into the bouquet she’d sent. She hoped I hadn’t told him the truth, but I had. I’d been the Grinch before his heart grew, Scrooge before the Christmas ghosts visited, Joe Friday with the cold, hard facts.

Instead of entering my grandson’s world where it was possible for a handful of tiny flowers to grow into a substantial bouquet of large flowers, I used words like died and garbage. I’d become the eight-year-old neighbor boy who told me and my sister when we were five and four years old that there was no Santa Claus. I can still see him standing at the side of his house telling us Santa wasn’t real. My sister and I argued with him, but he clung to his story. We tried to believe after that, but we couldn’t—not even when our mother assured us the boy was wrong and Santa was real.

But if I’d gone along with Evan’s belief that his flowers had grown, he would’ve bragged to his older siblings, who would’ve set him straight.

He would’ve come back and asked, “Nana, did my flowers really grow big?”

If I’d said, “Yes, they did,” he would’ve doubted me, weighing what I said against what his siblings said, just like my sister and I weighed what my mother said about Santa against what the boy next door said.

If I’d said, “No, they didn’t,” he would’ve asked, “Then why did you say they did?”

But I still felt bad—I’d squelched a magical moment for him and replaced it with reality.

But the five-year-old wasn’t done. A couple of weeks later, he asked me, “Nana, did my flowers at least get big before they died and you threw them away?”

With the Grinch, Scrooge, and Joe Friday as my wingmen, I explained, “The type of flowers you picked don’t get any bigger than when you picked them. But they’re beautiful flowers and an important part of nature even if they’re small.”

However, if he ever asks me if Santa is real, I’m going to lie through my teeth and say, “Yes, he is.”

Remembering Nana Kitty on Her Birthday

My nana, Katherine Karius Stern Stamper, wore dresses and stockings. Born January 22, 1915, she didn’t believe in pants, declaring ladies didn’t wear them. In the mid-1970s, my mother (her daughter) bought her a coordinating outfit consisting of a pair of pants and a short-sleeve shirt. She informed my mother she wouldn’t wear it. My mother told her to just wear it at home. Soon Nana began wearing the pants and matching shirt in public. It became her favorite outfit. She looked adorable in it, and she knew it.

Nana Kitty

Nana still wore plenty of dresses and skirts.

Before she sat on the park bench, where someone snapped this picture, she would’ve dressed in her tiny pink bathroom, a fascinating place to me because of its laundry chute and the intricately embroidered scene of an English cottage and garden that hung on the wall. My sisters and I surreptitiously tossed toys down the chute, then skedaddled to the basement to retrieve them from the laundry basket until Nana said, “Stop the shenanigans!” The embroidered scene was a gift from her oldest sister Margaret. Nana didn’t do crafts; although in her sixties, she took a watercolor class and painted flowers and butterflies—but not convincingly.

Because my sisters and I visited Nana, who lived in Milwaukee, for three or four days at a time, I often watched her get-gussied-up-to-meet-the-world routine. We were allowed to wander in and out of the bathroom while she got ready.

First, Nana put on white, ordinary undergarments. She spent her money, but never frivolously, on fashion the public could see, not on fancy underwear that never showed from beneath her clothes.

Next, she slipped bobby pins from her pin-curled hair and brushed the tight coils into luscious waves of Nice’n Easy-dyed tresses, replicating the reddish-brown color from her youth.  She pulled her white turtleneck over her loose curls then used her fingers to reshape them. She had sensitivities to most makeup, but she powdered her face to cover up a faded scar on her cheek. When she was a young woman, she’d been in a car accident and was cut by a piece of glass.

With care she rolled her pantyhose over her feet, easing them up her legs to avoid causing a runner. As part of a school assignment, I once asked her, “What’s the greatest invention of your lifetime?” Without a moment’s reflection, she answered, “Pantyhose.” Having used a garter belt the first time I wore nylons at my fourth-grade Christmas concert, I knew her answer wasn’t frivolous. Nearly finished she stepped into her skirt and fastened it at her back.

Finally, she looked into the mirror. Holding a tube of lipstick in her hand, she applied a shade between pink and red to her lips. She never left the house without lipstick. Face powder was the only other makeup she wore. But she needed none. Her high cheekbones, arched eyebrows, cocoa-brown eyes, and flawless complexion were of the quality that described a beautiful lady in a nineteenth-century novel.

Her last act before emerging from the bathroom was to blot her lips with a square of toilet paper, which she’d saved from the end of the roll. She was a child of the Great Depression. She called it tissue paper because she had sensibilities about what she termed “potty talk.” She folded the white square in half, parted her lips and placed the tissue between them, then pressed them together. She opened the tissue and admired the pink shaped lips she left behind. The best ones she stored on a shelf in the linen closet, small squares of vanity resting behind a closed door.

English cottage and garden, stitched by Nana’s sister Margaret

Smelling of soap, face powder, and freshly applied lipstick, Nana emerged–a butterfly from the cocoon of her snug, pink bathroom. She was ready for an outing.

We might go to Sherman Park to play, the same park my mother and her brother played at when they were children. She pushed us on the swings and sang “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Nearly a mile-and-a-half from Nana’s house, the park was a long walk for small children, so she splurged on bus fare.

On the way home, we’d stop at St. John de Nepomuc Catholic Church. In the 1960s and early ’70s, its doors were always unlocked. Nana led us into the church lit only by sunlight filtering through the stained-glass windows and candles burning near the alter. Like ducklings we followed her, imitating her moves. She would genuflect and make the sign of the cross before entering a pew, and we would genuflect and make the sign of the cross before entering the pew. She knelt on the kneeler; we knelt on the kneeler. She prayed, we prayed. I never asked Nana what she prayed about. I figured she prayed for her dead husband and her dead nephew, for she often talked about them. I prayed about whatever was bothering me that week. Catholicism, God, and Baby Jesus were very important to her. My sisters and I weren’t Catholic. My mother left the Church to marry a Presbyterian, but we didn’t practice Presbyterianism either. Nana neither asked about our church-going habits nor tried to convert us to Catholicism, and my mother never fussed about our side trips into St. John’s.

We might go to the grocery store. On the way there, my sister and I took turns pulling our little sister in a wagon. Nana never learned to drive. She walked or rode the city bus. On the way home, she pulled the wagon containing our sister and a bag of groceries, and my sister and I each carried another bag. On a hot summer day, the city became an urban desert. Heat rose off the concrete and choked the air as our small caravan traveled along the city blocks. Burdened with a sack of groceries and oppressed by the temperature, I spit like an angry camel: “It’s too hot. Can’t we rest? Why can’t the groceries ride in the wagon and Suzanne walk?” Nana wouldn’t stop or put my sister out of the wagon. She ignored me until I drove her crazy, then she’d snap, “Be quiet!” Nana never told anyone to shut up, a phrase she considered too rude, even for the devil.

If we were lucky, we went to George Webb’s for a hamburger, a rare treat on her tight budget. We always wanted to sit at the counter because the stools spun around, but Nana never let us. There were four of us. “Counters,” she said, “are for customers who eat alone.” She held different jobs over the years, but from my earliest memory until she retired, she worked as a waitress in a series of small diners and restaurants. Her last job was at the Perkins Pancake House on Wisconsin Avenue. She worked there for thirteen years, retiring when she was sixty-eight. The family who owned the restaurant adored her.

On our outings people often complimented “her beautiful children.” She always thanked them, and never corrected them, and neither did we. It was fun to share an inside joke with her. Later on, she would tell my mother how many times that day someone had assumed she was our mother instead of our nana.

She never told people how old she was, but if someone was tactless enough to ask, she’d say, “A lady never tells her age.” Today, if she were still alive, she’d be 107 years old. I like to think that if she’d lived that long, instead of being cryptic about her age, she would brag about it while wearing a pair of pants and asking how we all survived the toilet paper shortage during the big pandemic.

If I Could Travel Back in Time . . .

[Bloganuary wants to know. It’s the WordPress blog prompt for January 21, 2022.]

My uncle and mother with their mother, my nana,
circa 1946

I’d pick a summer day in 1950 when my mother was ten and her brother was eight. They lived in Milwaukee in a middle-class neighborhood about ten blocks from A.O. Smith, a large manufacturing plant.

The sun would shine, the temperature would be 75°, and the breeze would be slight.

I’d go out to play with my mother, her brother, and their friends. We’d run down the sidewalks on our way to Sherman Park or maybe Washington Park. We’d ride the bus at least one way because Washington Park is two-and-a-half miles from their house. At the parks we’d swim, play baseball, and swing. If we saved bus fare we’d buy a treat at the concession stand.

Maybe we’d stay home and play games of tag through the front yards, up and down the block. Or games of cops and robbers or army, escaping through backyards by climbing fences or slipping through gates. Or games of hide-and-seek, hoping not to be the first one found.

We’d sit on the front stoop of someone’s house and drink a cold lemonade squeezed from lemons and sweetened with sugar.

Refreshed, we’d play hopscotch or jacks or marbles. If someone ran home to grab a section of clothesline, we’d jump rope and chant, “Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear” or “I’m a Little Dutch Girl” or “I Went Downtown.”

I’d know all the games and songs because an older child teaches a younger child. Ever notice that we don’t learn these from our parents?

We’d call each other by our childhood nicknames, squabble about the rules of games, laugh at our silly antics.

Maybe we’d go home with skinned knees or elbows, wouldn’t matter because we’d spent the day together. We’d eat our dinner and wash the dishes. We’d sit on the floor in front the radio and listen to Jack Benny, The Lone Ranger, or The Green Hornet.

If I could travel back in time, I’d pick that warm summer day in 1950 and play with my mother and her brother because Oh, what larks! to play with your mother and your favorite uncle when they were children.

What Is One of My Favorite Photos That I’ve Ever Taken?

[Bloganuary wants to know. It’s the WordPress blog prompt for January 20, 2022. The blog prompt actually asked me to choose my favorite photo ever. I have too many favorites, so I picked one of my favorites from 2021.]

Foreground to background: Evan, Clara, and Michael. Not pictured: me pushing Charlie in his stroller and walking my two dogs, Cabela and Ziva

This photo, taken April 14, 2021, is one of my favorites. My grandchildren love to go for a walk, so on days when they come to my house, we often stroll around the neighborhood.

Evan holds a grabber, and you can’t see it, but Michael carries a plastic grocery bag filled with trash and another grabber. In the spring our walks become garbage patrols. The snow has melted, and hidden wrappers, disposable cups, bottles, cigarette butts, and the odd mitten or piece of clothing dot the landscape.

My grandkids blurt exclamations of joy when they spot a piece of garbage. It’s an accomplishment. I know how they feel. When we were children, my sisters and I pulled a red wagon down our country road and picked up garbage. We were influenced by Lady Bird Johnson’s “Keep America Beautiful” campaign. We didn’t have grabbers, so we used our hands. Things were tougher when my generation was young. (As we age, we enter the I-walked-to-school-in-blinding-snow generation.)

I love walking with my grandkids. But before I took this idyllic photograph, pandemonium ruled, as it does before every walk. Once we decide to go, strategical planning and the ensuing chaos from working that plan almost swamp me. Everyone needs to go to the bathroom, including me. “There are no porta potties on the walk,” I say. I check Charlie’s diaper. We dress for the weather, and during the winter that means helping two toddlers into snow pants, jackets, boots, hats, and mittens. I put leashes on the dogs, who plead to be included, and I stuff poo bags in my jacket. It sounds simple, but understand that all four grandkids and both dogs are moving targets. Just as we are about to exit the house, one of my grandkids usually utters, “I think I have to go to the bathroom, again.”

At this point I think to myself, “Eisenhower had it easy–he only had to organize D-Day.”

However, once we hit the paved trail, serenity settles in, and my grandkids race each other, hunt for garbage, climb trees along the boulevard, and play games with rules only they know. Watching them, my memory of the pre-walk havoc fades. These walks will become cherished memories for my grandkids and me.

Today’s My Ideal Day

[Bloganuary wants to know. It’s the WordPress blog prompt for January 13, 2022.]

Senior Dog

Today was my ideal day. I took what it gave me because thinking about what my “most ideal day looks like” would’ve taken more creative energy than I wanted to spend. Besides, no day is ideal. I cherish the days my sons were born, but labor was tough. I have fond memories of my wedding. But I spent seven hours with over a hundred people, and I had to talk to all of them. Lovely people, but I’m an introvert—I was exhausted.

So today had its blessings—

My senior dog didn’t wake me at 4:00 a.m. to go outside. Once or twice a week she knocks on my door. She wants to go outside and pee. She doesn’t have opposable thumbs, so I get out of bed and turn the doorknobs for her. But this morning she let me sleep.

I wrote a shitty first draft of an essay this morning. When I started to slow down and think too much about finding the perfect word or writing a better sentence, I went all Anne Lamott on myself: Write don’t revise, get the thoughts on paper—all the thoughts, on the paper, now! Regardless of spelling, grammar, punctuation. Without care for lyricism or flow or insight. When I finished, I had almost 1,300 words. I can’t have more than 500 for the piece I want to submit. But I’ve got a chunk of wood to carve into a sculptured essay. (I hope.) I saved the file, feeling a little smug about all the crap I had on my shitty draft. I gave myself permission to not think about the essay until tomorrow.

I talked to a friend, my mother, my sister, and my nephew. Four conversations with people I love, but who don’t live in my house. I talked to a clerk at Honest Dog Books and ordered a book. The bookstore is an hour and a half away, but sometimes I order books from there because the clerk remembers me. The staff writes a note to me and tosses in a couple of paper bookmarks when they ship my order. The book I ordered is being shipped to my nephew. He’s getting an autographed copy of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. She visited Bayfield, Wisconsin, this summer, wandered into Honest Dog, and signed some of her books that were on the shelves. My copy of Writing Down the Bones is unsigned. But no day is perfect, not even an ideal day.

I put on a white turtleneck, a red winter-themed sweater, and a pair of garnet earrings someone gifted me. A couple of weeks ago, I decided I needed to stop wearing the same three turtlenecks my mother bought me in 2003. So, each day I find something in my closet that I haven’t worn for a while and I wear it. I do this even if I don’t leave the house, which is most days. Turns out I like dressing up a little to stay home. Reminds me of my nana wearing a house dress to do her laundry and scrub her floors. I did neither of those chores today. Those aren’t ideal-day activities.

I went to two coffee shops. Not to meet anyone. I don’t go inside places without a mask. I won’t eat or drink coffee in public spaces—I’m not removing the mask. I dropped off bookmarks and hung posters to advertise a writing contest. I bought two cupcakes to go in the first coffee shop, one for me and one for my husband. I ate mine as soon as I got home. I bought a mocha coffee to go in the second coffee shop. It paired nicely with my cupcake.

Wally

Wally, the brilliant squirrel who hacks my birdfeeders, stopped by to eat. He stood on the baffle, meant to keep him out of the feeder, and feasted on seeds. I washed dishes because it gave me an excuse to watch him steal bird food. Washing dishes isn’t ideal, but neither is looking at dirty dishes.

My senior dog needed to go to the vet for a shot. She’s had to go for a series of them. She wants to leave before we get in the door. But she’s always gracious to the vet and the assistants, who are kind and gentle with her and always say how much they love her.

I decided not to cook supper tonight. Leftovers are wonderful. But I made mashed potatoes for tomorrow’s homemade ham-and-bean soup that I’ll make in the morning.

Something I wrote yesterday made someone feel better. My husband loved the cupcake I brought home for him. My dogs enjoyed their evening walk.

It’s late and the house is quiet. I’m the only one up. The wind is howling outside, but I’m snug in my winter-themed sweater.

It wasn’t a perfect day, but it was my ideal day.

Tree Guy Update

Tree Guy waits for spring.

Yesterday, after reading my blog story “Tree Guy,” my sister implied—in a forthright manner—that I should look for Tree Guy’s other eye. She’s met him, and she likes him. She also lives in Tucson where she’d never have to brave subzero temperatures and dig in the snow for a cartoonish eye that a wayward squirrel kicked off a tree.

However, the cold snap broke yesterday afternoon, so I went outside. I figured it would be a lost cause, but I leaned over the deck railing. Tree Guy’s eye glared at me. It sat on a heap of snow as tall as the deck, so I leaned farther over the railing, trying to reach the eye. Then farther and farther. I was almost parallel to the earth, a teeter totter balanced on the railing. Then I realized I was attempting the same type of maneuver that caused my best friend to fall into a garbage can. A neighbor witnessed her graceful move and thought she was drunk. But she didn’t drink. She and I laughed a lot about that episode. I stood up, bent down, and reached through the spindles for the eye. I like to think my friend sent a message to me from Heaven in the form of a thought. That she saved me from tumbling over the railing and into the snowbank.

I rehung Tree Guy’s eye and noticed his nose was gone!

Why hadn’t I spotted his missing nose yesterday? Because Tree Guy’s bedroom eyes are more captivating than his Jimmy Durante schnoz. I’m sure the squirrels knocked the nose off too. I checked the top of the snow pile again but didn’t find it.

When my husband came home from work, I asked, “Last week did you say the tree’s nose was buried in the snow?” Turns out he’d said nose, not eye. When I walked outside yesterday, I only saw the eye was missing. I’d mixed up the details.

“Did you know one of the eyes had been knocked off?” No, he hadn’t. I didn’t tell him I’d mixed up the missing nose with the missing eye. I told him about finding the eye. I like to lead with my strengths, then stop talking.

I apologized to Tree Guy for neglecting to notice his missing nose. He told me not to worry. He still has his smile, and he appreciates having both eyes again.

He hopes to have his nose back in the spring. Maybe the world will smell better. Tree Guy knows how to play the long game.

Tree Guy

One-Eyed Tree Guy, January 2022

Tree Guy lost an eye during our last snowstorm, and by the time we noticed, it was buried under six inches snow. Neither my husband nor I were willing to dig in the snowdrifts around Tree Guy to find his eye because after the snow, Subzero Temperature blew in escorted by his companion Windchill. My husband declared, “We’ll find the eye in spring.”

Tree Guy as Old Man Winter

How did Tree Guy lose an eye during a lake-effect snowstorm? Maybe the wind blew it down, but most likely a squirrel knocked it off. Squirrels are the usual suspects, but have you ever tried to round them up for questioning? Because they run up and down his trunk, Tree Guy has had each of his eyes and his mouth knocked off numerous times over the years. My husband has reglued the mouth a few times, and last summer he gave it a new coat of paint. He takes good care of his tree buddy.

Michael, two, communes with Tree Guy, 2015

I didn’t want the maple tree by our deck to become Tree Guy. My husband pointed out the eyes and nose in a store and said, “Isn’t this neat? I think it’s really neat! We should get this!”

Evan, almost three, hugs Tree Guy, 2019

I didn’t think it was neat. I’m not a let’s-turn-our-trees-into-faces kind of person. He’d shown me these faces before, but never with such eagerness. It’s hard to resist youthful enthusiasm in an adult, and I had to admit this particular face did have a friendly, calm appearance. We struck a deal: the tree face could come home with us as long as it would be the only one in our yard. (A neighbor a couple blocks away had a face on every tree in her yard, and it was creepy.)

My in-laws with Tree Guy as Carman Miranda, 2008

My husband kept his word. Tree Guy wears the only face in our yard. Over the years his face has amused guests and bewitched our grandkids. He greets me every time I walk out the back door. His looks change throughout the year. In winter, snow and ice transform him into Old Man Winter. In summer with flowering plants hanging on each side of him, he becomes Carmen Miranda about to sing, “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat.”

I hope we find his eye in the spring. But if we don’t Tree Guy will still be with us. Perhaps I can talk my husband into making a wooden eye patch for him, and he can become a pirate, ready to chant, “Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum!”

What Makes Me Laugh?

Ziva, the poodle paper shredder. It’s never funny at the time. But tragedy plus time equals comedy.

Bloganuary is asking. It’s the WordPress blog prompt for January 7, 2022.

Lots of things make me laugh, and lots of things make me chuckle or grin. So, I’m setting the bar higher: What makes me laugh so hard that I can hardly breathe, that tears trickled down my cheeks, that I cross my legs tight, that I can’t stop laughing because everything becomes hilarious?

Very little.

I’m not a curmudgeon. I like humor. I watch a lot of comedy. I like reading humor. Satire is my favorite. I’m currently watching Upstart Crow on Britbox. The show is a parody and satire of Shakespeare and history and modern times all mixed up into one delicious, sinful sundae topped with the works. I chuckle and marvel at the brilliant wordplay and acting, but I pay close attention to the rapid-fire exchange of dialogue and that probably stifles unhinged laughter on my part.

I can’t remember any recent bouts of uncontrollable laughter. But I remember some past episodes. When I was about fourteen, my mom and I had an argument, so I stormed upstairs and refused to eat supper. She made me come back downstairs. My parents were getting ready to go out, so it was just us kids at the table. I was crying, and my mom was yelling.

My sister picked up the plastic milk carton, which was almost empty, drank the milk, then sucked the air from the carton, causing it to collapse inward. She pulled the carton from her lips, and said, “Good to the last drop!” I had just taken a swig of milk. Laugher and milk erupted from my mouth, spraying the table and my siblings. We laughed so hard. Mom yelled at us to stop, but that made us laugh harder. My dad told her, “Leave the kids alone,” and we laughed ourselves out in peace.

When I was about nineteen, I took my first communion at the Presbyterian church my grandparents belonged to. My grandmother played the piano and organ at the church. Almost no one was married or buried without her accompanying the event. The solemnity of the minister’s words about communion paired with the crackers and grape juice started me laughing. The more I tried to suppress it, the more I laughed—it was my Chuckles the Clown moment. My laughter so shocked me that I’ve never taken communion again.

The following are memorable works that reduced me to jiggling jelly:

Bud Abbot and Lou Costello performing their “Who’s on First” routine.

Carol Burnett playing Scarlet O’Hara in a parody of the curtains-to-dress scene from Gone with the Wind. (Burnett’s show cracked me up. I consider it the best comedy/variety show ever televised.)

Harpo Marx cutting a piece of material from the dress of a snooty customer in The Big Store.

Harpo and Chico Marx packing and unpacking clothes in a scene from A Night in Casablanca.

The final scene of Moonstruck when all the characters are gathered at the kitchen table. The movie is a wonderfully told yarn that culminates in a grand punchline during breakfast.

Anything written by Patrick F. McManus, Dave Barry, P.G. Wodehouse (especially the stories with Jeeves and Wooster) and Erma Bombeck, the first writer to make me laugh uproariously. I started reading her column when I was in middle school. I recently reread some of her work. She’s timeless.

Laughter is indispensable, so thanks for asking, Bloganuary! I smiled and chuckled while writing my answer.

Nana Kitty

My nana died in 2003, but she still inspires me.

As a mother, Nana received mixed reviews from her children. But as a grandparent, Nana had a marvelous second act, a comeback. And isn’t that what being a grandparent is about? A do-over, a second chance, a revival?

Nana inspired me because she survived shit. Her father died of typhoid fever in 1921 when she was seven. He left behind seven children and a pregnant wife before the social safety nets of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Nana grew up poor and hungry. When she turned twenty-one in 1936, she voted for Roosevelt.

Nana Kitty is sitting on her mother’s lap. Mary and Joseph, Nana’s parents, would have two more children. But the eighth one was born after Joseph died from typhoid fever.

After she turned nine, she worked summers picking beans in the fields around West Bend, Wisconsin. When I was nine, I picked dandelions. Seven months after the stock market crash of 1929, she graduated from eighth grade. She yearned to go to high school, but her mother told her she had to work. Shortly before she retired from waitressing at sixty-eight, she applied to Milwaukee Area Technical College. She worked toward her GED, tutored students in math, and took college-level courses in English and psychology all at the same time. She was sixty-nine when she earned her GED. I was a college student.

Nana lived by one of her favorite maxims, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” On a low-come wage, she saved change until she and her first husband had enough money to move from their low-income neighborhood and buy their own home, the smallest house in a middle-class neighborhood. She wanted her children to have a better life than she had. She was widowed at forty-seven, but she worked hard to keep her house and pay off the mortgage.

Nana inspired me because she loved each of her seven grandchildren, which included my three cousins, with a passion. She forgave our mistakes and bad behavior and defended us against our common enemies—the parents. To her each of us was special and beautiful and interesting. She gave us lots of hugs, kisses, and Cracker Jacks. She played Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button? and Cat’s Cradle with us. She told us stories and sang to us. She danced with us in her kitchen. She loved Bobby Darin and 50s rock-n-roll. Her favorite dance was The Twist, which she danced at my wedding.

Nana always had time for a phone call. I memorized her number before anyone else’s. If I called and was upset, she listened. I once tested the limits of Nana’s ability to listen by following her around her house, describing the scene-by-scene detail of a movie I’d watched and loved. Like a typical ten-year-old, I thought every detail of a story was significant. At some point, I realized I was boring her and that she kept leaving rooms, hoping I wouldn’t follow. I began testing her limits. I waited for her to say, enough already. If she had, I wouldn’t have blamed her. But she didn’t. I’d love to say I have the same patience with my grandchildren when they prattle on about a movie or video game, but I don’t. I find a way to change the subject. But I didn’t admire Nana because she could do what I could do. I admired her because she could do what I couldn’t do.

Nana Kitty helping my sister and me (far left) with a puzzle. My cousin watches.

Nana loved me even when I behaved like a brat. When I was about eight, I wanted her to buy me a troll doll from a drugstore. I whined and cajoled and dropped a few tears until she folded. She took me back into the store and bought me the doll. She wasn’t happy. She couldn’t afford to be frivolous with her money. She bought us Cracker Jacks because they cost a quarter. The troll doll cost over a dollar. “You’d better not lose that doll,” she snapped. After we walked back to her house, I asked her for a comb and a few bobby pins. I spent the rest of the afternoon rearranging the troll’s purple hair in one hairdo after another. Nana was no longer angry with me. Over the years, I would tell her, “I still have the troll doll with the purple hair.” I wish I could still tell her I have it.

I live by many of Nana’s favorite sayings. (Although I didn’t warm to some of them until I was older.)

1. The early bird gets the worm. (I told her I didn’t want worms.)

2. Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. (I was a night owl.)

3. Silence is golden.

4. You win more flies with honey than vinegar. (I told her I didn’t want to be nice to people who were mean to me.)

5. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.

6. A penny saved is a penny earned. (I’ve learned to be a better saver.)

7. Waste not, want not.

Nana’s birthday is January 22. If she were alive, she’d be 107 years old. Funny thing—sometimes, for a moment, I think, I should call Nana. And then I remember, she’s gone. So, I talk to her without a phone.

[Written in response to #bloganuary prompt #6: Who is someone that inspires you and why? For more information click on: Bloganuary.]

Christmas in Michigan–Christmas Day, Past and Present

December 25, 2021

Christmas Day Past—

My sisters, my brother, and I enjoy a visit from St. Nick. (I’m holding the present.) The cat was not a present. He was a stray we adopted and named George, after our grandpa.

After the longest night of the year loosened its grip and gave way to Christmas morning, my siblings and I had to wait for my parents to get up before opening gifts. Sometimes we snuck downstairs to peek at the tree surrounded by wrapped boxes then snuck back upstairs. This made waiting more difficult, but we knew that to open even one present before they got up would rob them of the joy of seeing our rapturous faces as we opened our gifts. We also knew we’d be in BIG trouble. It was always a late night for them. “The bundle of toys” they brought home in sacks needed to be wrapped and ribboned and tagged times four.

We were fortunate that Christmas morning never disappointed—not even the year my mother told me before Christmas that she couldn’t find Charlie McCarthy, the ventriloquist’s dummy I’d asked Santa for. She and I had to suspend our willing suspension of disbelief regarding Santa for that conversation. Turns out lots of aspiring ventriloquists had asked Santa for a Charlie McCarthy doll. My mother told me she’d try to get me one after Christmas. But even before Christmas morning, my shiny dream of becoming a ventriloquist lost its luster. I told her to forget Charlie.

My mother was good at buying gifts on behalf of Santa. Every year a smorgasbord awaited under our tree. We each received an outfit and a pair of pajamas. I loved going back to school after the holidays dressed in new clothes. And climbing into bed on Christmas night in a new pair of soft pajamas that were still fuzzy because they hadn’t been washed dozens of times was divine. We each received a special toy or two that we’d asked Santa for. He also brought us board games, art projects, and books. Santa wanted us to stay busy during Christmas break.

We had to open our gifts slowly because my father didn’t want to miss a single Kodak moment. He liked to take photos. When he got a Polaroid camera, we had near instant photo results, but this slowed down the gift opening because we were thrilled by watching ourselves materialize before our eyes.

Each of us had a spot on the floor to pile our gifts as we opened them. After all the gifts were opened, I felt like a princess with a pile of riches. I also felt guilty. The gifts my parents received took up little room on the coffee table in front of them, such a small cache of swag. But worst of all they hadn’t received one toy or game or art project. I’d contemplate all they’d given me in the name of Santa, then look at the gift I’d given them—always something handmade at school. A Christmas tree constructed from a toilet paper roll and cotton balls. An imprint of my hand in plaster of paris. A silhouette of my profile. A Styrofoam ball decorated with ribbon and sequins to hang on the tree. I didn’t buy my parents gifts until I turned sixteen and had a job and a driver’s license. It wasn’t until I was a parent that I understood it was more fun to see my children opening gifts, and that I treasured the gifts they made for me more than anything that came from a store.

Christmas Day Present—

On this Christmas morning the youngest one among us is 23. No one snuck out of bed to look at wrapped presents under the tree. (Maybe because they were stacked on a desk.) I got up early because my dogs wanted to go outside. No one was in a hurry to see what Santa brought. We ate breakfast and visited. My sister and one of her sons went to Mass at ten o’clock. No one minded. Waiting wouldn’t short-circuit our wiring. We didn’t open gifts until eleven-thirty.

My mother is still good at buying gifts, but no one pretended they were from Santa. I loved the warm shirt she bought me. I’m of the age where any object meant to keep me warm in the frozen North makes my heart toasty. She gave me a humorous book that pokes fun of British mysteries. I love humor and British mysteries. (Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village by Maureen Johnson & Jay Cooper)

My nephew, distributing gifts off the desk. Bogey, before he gets his pink flamingo.

No one got toys—except Bogey, my mother’s seven-year-old poodle. My husband and I bought him a stuffed pink flamingo. He played with it and played with it, shaking it by the leg, tossing it in the air, and making it squeal. I think he looked at the gifts in front of us humans and felt sorry for us because not one of us had a stuffed toy with a squeaker. He’s too young to understand that not one of us wanted a squeaking flamingo. But we sure enjoyed watching him play with his new toy.

[Words in quotes are a nod to “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”]