The Dummy Never Showed Up

[This essay received an honorable mention in the Wisconsin Writers Association’s 2022 Jade Ring Contest. To read the works of other winners, see the links after the essay.]

Charlie broke my heart in 1971. Dressed in a top hat and tuxedo, and well-groomed with manicured nails and combed hair, he was debonair, even if his monocle made him look a bit stuffy. Always ready with a smart comeback, a smooth put-down, or a drop of wisdom, he was witty, candid, and self-assured. Charlie was a dummy, but I wanted him anyway.

The big problem—he was unavailable. Like all desirable men, he was taken. Women everywhere had lined up to have a chance with him. Seems like everyone wanted a wise-cracking fella who was perpetually dressed for the opera.

My mother broke the news to me. “Honey, I have to talk to you about your Christmas list.” I was twelve, so we had long ago stopped calling it “my letter to Santa.”

“I’ve looked everywhere.” Her voice shrunk as she spoke. “I can’t find a Charlie McCarthy doll.” She asked me to think of something else to add to my list. I did, but I don’t recall what it was. I could’ve asked for a hand puppet, but that would’ve been like having to settle for Eddie Haskell after hoping to date Donny Osmond. There was no substitute for Charlie.

I wanted to be a ventriloquist. I was going to be famous. I was going to be a star. And I couldn’t do it without Charlie. My daydream about becoming a celebrated ventriloquist was another chapter in my someday-I’ll-be-a-famous-singer-actor-or-dancer book of fantasies. I spent hours singing with Doris Day, Petula Clark, Dionne Warwick, and Barbara Streisand, pretending to be them. Sometimes I sang along with Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., or Trini Lopez, pretending they had recognized me—a famous singer—in the audience and called me up on stage to sing with them. The exuberant audience, unable to contain their cheers and thunderous clapping, would rise to their feet moments before we had finished our duet.

Sometimes, I’d lay on the floral velour couch in the living room, the most elegant space in our farmhouse, and imagine myself a great actor giving spellbinding performances on stage or film. Or I would be Cyd Charisse, dancing, defying Newton’s laws of motion, giving men whiplash. When I wasn’t doing my famous talent stuff, I would travel to exotic places, win awards, and marry a leading man or a velvet-voiced crooner.

With Charlie I would’ve been more than a ventriloquist—I would’ve been funny! The see-saw, back-and-forth humorous banter between Charlie and Edgar Bergen captivated me. Bergen said things that came out of Charlie’s mouth. Through Charlie, Bergen insulted people and everyone laughed at Charlie. Through Charlie, Bergen flirted with women and everyone thought Charlie was adorable. Charlie sassed Edgar, his elder, and never got whapped alongside the head. My twelve-year-old mind found this setup very attractive. But reflecting on it now, I don’t think my mother would’ve whapped Charlie alongside his head.

After I learned Charlie wouldn’t be helping me on my way to ventriloquism fame, I crawled in the closet under the stairs. I sat with a box of hats, mittens, and scarves. I inhaled a mixture of musty wool and dust while tears rained down my cheeks. Charlie would never sit with me on the floral velour couch. I wouldn’t toss my voice into his throat. I wouldn’t watch our reflections in the mirrored wall as we practiced talking to each other. We might have sung along with Sinatra or Streisand, the three of us making harmony.

I was crushed. I was heartbroken. I was an overly-dramatic twelve-year-old. Oscar worthy, no doubt.

I’d like to say that I pined for Charlie and that Christmas Day was hollow without him and that I asked for him for my birthday in March. But I did none of that. I was over him before Christmas. I don’t remember what I got instead of Charlie, but it was the next best thing, and I’m sure I was happy with it. I ate my mom’s good cooking. I played board games with my sisters and cousins. And I read my new Nancy Drew mystery before I drifted off to sleep that night.

If Charlie hadn’t stood me up, truth is, I would’ve dumped him. Within a month or so, he would’ve been tucked away in my closet, along with my fantasies of winning an Oscar or a Grammy. I hope all the Charlies found better homes.

I never became a famous singer, dancer, or actor. I can’t carry a tune. I have no sense of rhythm. And in seventh grade, I learned I had terrible stage fright.

Funny, when I was twelve, I never imagined myself as a famous writer. I started writing after I retired, so I’m too old for silly fantasies now. But if I were twelve, I would win a Pulitzer Prize, I would make Oprah’s reading list every other year, and the New Yorker would call me and beg for one of my short stories.

[All the winners of the 2022 Jade Ring Contest can be read in the online Creative Wisconsin Magazine, along with other essays, poetry, and articles. If you wish to purchase a copy of the Wisconsin Writers Association Anthology 2022: Jade Ring and Youth Writing Contest, click here.]

It’s Not Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie, But . . .

On Sunday I made strawberry-rhubarb crisp. I’m not much into cooking these days because cooking causes dirty dishes. And I’m not into washing dishes. But I had three reasons for making the strawberry-rhubarb crisp.

One: Rhubarb is plentiful. If you have any growing in your garden, you know what I’m talking about. You ask people, “Say, could you use some rhubarb?” If they say no, you ask, “Are you sure? I’ve got plenty.” You bring bags of rhubarb stalks and set them on the lunch table in the breakroom or the coffee table in the church hall. I don’t grow rhubarb, but I never have to buy it in the grocery store (where I recently saw a tiny package of it for two dollars and change). I have connections. I know people desperate to share their abundance of rhubarb.

Two: I found a recipe for strawberry-rhubarb crisp in Southern Living that I could make in my Le Creuset Heritage Tart Tatin Dish. (I had no idea the dish had such a fancy name until I looked it up to get the name right.) I bought my Heritage Tart Tatin Dish because it was orange and sexy. These are, by the way, two good reasons to buy a kitchen implement. Another rule for buying a kitchen implement is that it should serve two purposes. (I’ve been known to break this rule, but only if the single-use implement will get lots of use, like my garlic press, lemon squeezer, or mango slicer.) Until last Sunday, I had only used the orange, sexy Heritage Tart Tatin a few times in the last ten years to make jalapeño corn bread. So, making the strawberry rhubarb crisp gave my dish dual-use status. It’s not just another pretty tart dish.

Three: My grandmother Olive made the best strawberry-rhubarb pie or any other kind of pie. I haven’t had a good piece of strawberry-rhubarb pie since I lived with her. I don’t bake pies. I cheat and make crisps because I don’t know how to make crusts. Grandma Olive made pie crusts from scratch, and they were as a pie crust should be–flakey, tender, and golden brown. She also knew her way around the fillings. She never made a pie with canned fruit filling. Baking a strawberry-rhubarb crisp was the closest I was going to get to Grandma Olive’s pie version.

The crisp turned out well. I served it with whipped cream or ice cream. The filling is equal parts strawberry and rhubarb, so it’s tart, even with the cup of added sugar. You have to like tart if you’re going to eat something made with rhubarb.

If you have your very own Le Creuset Heritage Tart Tatin Dish and you want to make the recipe from Southern Living, you’ll need to adjust the quantity of rhubarb and strawberries. I used three cups of each, instead of four because I was worried my tart dish wasn’t deep enough. (Please, no jokes about my shallow tart dish.) I didn’t reduce the amount of sugar or any other ingredient. Also, I didn’t have any chopped roasted salted Marcona almonds, so I used some chopped unsalted roasted almonds. That makes this a healthy recipe. (As long as we don’t mention the brown sugar in the oat topping and the cup of sugar mixed in with the fruit.)

Grandma Olive with my sister and me (in the foreground)

When I served the strawberry-rhubarb crisp, I thought of Grandma Olive. I miss her. She and Grandpa had a big garden with their own patch of rhubarb and strawberries. I wonder how much rhubarb they tried to foist off on friends.

I saved this recipe, and I’ll make it once a year in the early summer. I don’t want to strain my rhubarb supplier.

Sunny Dandelions on a Spring Day

Me, about 11 or 12

In March 1971, I turned twelve. That spring and summer I spent a lot of time singing the Coca-Cola jingle, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” a song about love and harmony. And in May of that same year, while I sat in a chorus of dandelions on a sunny day, I was in harmony with hundreds of them growing on the hillside in front of our weathered barn. Warmed by sunshine, surrounded by velvety yellow, and sitting with my best friend, I was in love with the world. As a child, dandelions were my favorite flower.

ButI didn’t know their name was derived from the French phrase dent de lion meaning tooth of the lion, most likely because their serrated leaves look like teeth. I thought dandelions were named after lions because their round, shaggy, golden flowers resembled a lion’s head with a fluffy mane.

On that May afternoon, with my strawberry blonde hair topped by a crown of braided dandelions and a face freckled by the kisses of sunbeams, I watched butterflies and bees flit from golden bloom to golden bloom. I was fairy princess meets flower child.

But I didn’t know that dandelions were flowers—like asters, daisies, and sunflowers, all belonging to the same family, Asteraceae. That by the 1800s people could buy different varieties of dandelion seeds from catalogs to plant in their gardens. That Emily Dickenson wrote a poem about them and made mention of them in three other poems. I’d been told they were weeds.

My friend, wearing her own crown of dandelions, had brown hair, hazel eyes, and just a sprinkle of freckles across her nose. We plucked the flowers from the ground, choosing tall ones, and braided their thick, flexible stems, making necklaces to match our crowns. She, too, was fairy princess meets flower child.

But I didn’t know that a dandelion’s thick, hollow, supple stem had evolved to withstand strong winds. That our plucking the tall flowers would cause the next dandelions to grow shorter, hoping to avoid being picked. That when a lawn mower lopped off their flowers before they could seed, dandelions countered by sending new blooms to squat closer to the ground, hoping to keep their heads below a mower’s blades. I didn’t know dandelions had the survival skills of a toothy lion on an African plain.

As I plaited dandelion stems, a white, milky sap stained my fingers, making them sticky. I knew it wasn’t poisonous, and that it would wash away with soap and water.

But I didn’t know the substance was latex, a bitter tasting compound that protects dandelion roots from insects. I didn’t know dandelions were edible. That their leaves could be eaten in a salad and had more nutrients and vitamins than the spinach that gave Popeye the strength to defeat Brutus. That their roots could be dried, roasted, and made into a coffee-like drink. That their flowers could be made into tea or wine. That dandelions had been used for medicine, alleviating diseases caused by deficiencies in calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C.

I’m not sure what my friend and I chatted about that day. But I was crazy about the boy next door, and she was crazy about a boy she would eventually marry. We probably gossiped about those boys, our friends, and summer plans. And talked about the latest fashions and hairstyles because each of us wanted to fit in at the middle school.

But I didn’t know dandelions were considered a blight upon lawns because my parents never treated our yard with herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. I didn’t know that in the 1800s wealthy Americans would admire the expansive green manicured lawns of wealthy Europeans and would copy their style. That with the invention of the first mowers in the 1830s, middle-class Americans would soon covet green manicured lawns, a nod to status and belonging. The dandelion slid from grace and became a weed.

My friend and I rubbed dandelions under each other’s chins to see who liked butter, a childish game for a pair of twelve-year-old girls who talked of boys and love.

But I didn’t know twelve was the cusp between youth and young adulthood. That the buttery-colored powder was pollen, a delicacy for bees, butterflies, and insects. That dandelion blooms were masses of tubular florets, an early spring smorgasbord for hungry pollinators while they waited for other flowers to open for business.

Dandelions didn’t grow in our next-door neighbor’s yard. They treated their lawn every year with a powdered chemical. If someone had asked my twelve-year-old self to explain why my parents didn’t do the same, I would’ve chalked it up to money and time. The neighbors had more income, so they could afford weed killer. They had less than an acre of land, and my parents had two point two acres. It would’ve taken more money and time to kill the dandelions in our yard.

But I didn’t know my parents weren’t conforming to a neighborhood standard of weed-free lawns. That the neighbors had to keep treating their lawn every year. That dead shriveled leaves of poisoned dandelions left small barren spaces where new dandelion seeds, blowing in on a wind like Mary Poppins, could settle and thrive. That dandelions could regenerate from parts of their surviving roots. That if the neighbors stopped treating their yard, dandelions would once again crowd their lawn.

On the day I sat in the dandelions, I knew my great-grandfather had immigrated to America from Sweden in 1869. That other relatives had emigrated from Ireland, England, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, and Hungary.

But I didn’t know that dandelions were immigrants too. That the first wave of dandelion ancestors came over the Bering land bridge and settled as far east as the Great Plains. That the second wave arrived in the 1600s, carried across the Atlantic by European settlers as an herb used for medicine and food.

Later in the spring the dandelions would go to seed, and I would fill my lungs with air, hold the seed head in front of my mouth, and blow as hard as I could. If I dispersed every seed, I would earn a wish, and I always wished the boy next door would be my beau.

But I didn’t know the feathery seeds I blew into the air in the service of love would fall to earth at an angle, and the barbs along their edges would hook into the soil. The seeds, like me, would wait to see if their wishes would come true.

Napoleon

My friend and I watched my orange-and-white cat, Napoleon, hopelessly swat at butterflies as he lazed nearby in a layer of gold. At best he was an indifferent hunter, preferring to take his meals from a can and to leave nature’s creatures unharmed.

But I didn’t know that Napoleon had the good fortune to lie on an untreated lawn. That people, pets, birds, and insects could be harmed by chemicals. That a woman named Rachel Carson had written a book called Silent Spring. That as an adult I would be pressured into treating my lawn. That I would use my children and pets as excuses to avoid having herbicides and pesticides sprayed on my lawn. That I would dig hundreds of dandelions by hand to avoid chemical treatments. That after decades, I would learn that dandelions are early pollinators and that I would stop digging them.

The sea of dandelions that flooded the sunniest part of our lawn every spring, made my young heart zing. From that sea I picked buckets of bouquets, braided countless crowns and necklaces, buttered scads of chins with pollen, and blew thousands of fuzzy seeds into the air. But I remember best that day in May 1971 when I was twelve, and my friend and I sat among the waves of gold and talked of love while plaiting crowns and necklaces. While the butterflies and bees gathered pollen in harmony. And I wanted to teach the world to sing.

Resources:

The Dandelion’s Fall From Grace Has Been a Doozy. Can This Weed Become a Flower Again?

Ten Things You Might Not Know About Dandelions

The Reader. “In Praise of the Dandelion” by Jim Lundstrom

Lives of Weeds: Opportunism, Resistance, Folly by John Cardina

Pearls from Nana

Dear Nana,

Nana Kitty, circa 1940

Remember how you always said, “The early bird gets the worm.” And I would answer back, “I don’t like worms” because I wanted to sleep until noon. I thought you’d like to know that now I rarely sleep past 6:00 a.m.

Remember how you always said, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” And I would answer back, “I don’t care” because I wanted to watch the late movie on TV. I thought you’d like to know that now I usually fall asleep before 10:00 p.m.

Remember how you always said, “You can win more flies with honey than vinegar” when I was spitting mad and wanted to tell someone off. And I would answer back, “Vinegar is what she deserves” because I desired payback. I thought you’d like to know that now I believe honey is a better tonic.

Remember how you always said, “Turn the other cheek.” And I would answer back, “If I do, someone will just slap the other one” because I was hurt and didn’t want to forgive. I thought you’d like to know that now I try to practice the other-cheek philosophy.

Remember how you always said, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” You were a widow scrapping by on a waitress’s earnings. But I wanted things, so once I badgered you into buying me a troll doll and another time a delivery pizza that you couldn’t afford. I thought you’d like to know I’m sorry, and that fifty years later I still have the doll. And the pizza didn’t taste good that night because I regretted my behavior before it was delivered. Best of all, I became good at saving money. You’d be proud.

Remember how you always said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” That was good advice. And I thought you’d like to know that after years of practice, I’ve gotten better. I could be such a wiseass when I was a teenager.

Remember how you always said, “Never trust a man who doesn’t like animals.” I embraced that advice. Some of the men I dated weren’t the best, but they all loved animals. My husband loves dogs. We have two. And he is the best.

Remember how you always said, “Silence speaks volumes.” I didn’t understand what that meant, but I never asked you to explain because I wanted you to think I was smart. I thought you’d like to know that now I get it. But I also know you didn’t mean that I should always be silent because you spoke up when it mattered.

Remember how you always said, “Wear clean underwear every day in case you get in an accident.” I never answered back because it made sense. As I got older, I discovered that piece of wisdom was a great source of comedic mockery. But I thought you’d like to know that it’s still stellar advice. And I bet the mocking comedians change their underwear every day because their mother or nana told them to.

With love,

Your granddaughter who is wiser because you always took the time to say . . .

Remembering Audrey and Malene

Malene Fylling on her 88th birthday, September 14, 1958

My mother-in-law, Audrey Smith, loved learning about her ancestors. During her 60s and 70s, she took genealogy classes, but in her early 80s, early dementia slowed her down. Then a broken femur required surgery and an extended stay at a nursing home. Audrey balked at being in the nursing home. To help her pass the days, I interviewed her about her life. When she returned home, we continued working on her life story, and we used her genealogy research to add stories about her ancestors.

One of Audrey’s favorite relatives was her paternal great-grandmother, Malene Fylling, née Tenfjord. Audrey remembered her great-grandma as “the sweetest old lady” who was always happy to see her. When Audrey traveled with her parents from Superior, Wisconsin, to Crookston, Minnesota, Malene doted on her, giving her cookies, asking her questions, and telling her stories. When Audrey and her parents traveled to Crookston for Christmas, they ate lutefisk cooked by Malene. Audrey’s great-grandparents had a large house, so they put their Christmas tree in the middle of the living room. After dinner the family held hands, circled around the tree, and sang Norwegian and English songs, blending their old world with their new world.

Malene was born in Geiranger, Norway, on September 14, 1863. She had an eighth-grade education. On May 7, 1886, she married John Fylling. They had seven children in Norway, but a daughter died before they emigrated. I wonder what it was like for Malene to know that after she left Norway, she could never again visit her deceased daughter’s grave. After they settled in Crookston, Minnesota, she and John had two more children.

In June 1903, Malene, John, and their six children, ages 16, 12, 10, 7, 3, and 8 months, arrived in Quebec, Canada, on the SS Bavarian, a steamship owned by the Allan Line. Steamships were faster and more comfortable than sail ships, but imagine making a transatlantic crossing with six children. From Quebec they traveled to Winnipeg and applied for permission to enter the United States. Their destination was Crookston, Minnesota, where John’s brother, Ole Fylling, lived. Ole wrote to Malene and John about opportunities in Crookston. For Malene and John, having family in Minnesota eased the pain of leaving their families behind. By 1920, both Malene and John were naturalized citizens.

Economic hardship motivated Malene and John to immigrate to America. During the second half of the 1800s, Norway’s economy deteriorated. Steamships made it easier for Europeans to immigrate but also caused widespread unemployment among Norway’s shipbuilders, dockhands, and sailors. Farmers, who never had an easy time in Norway, were undercut by low-priced grain from Europe because of cheap transportation. Audrey often said, “The Norwegians had nothing but rocks.” She heard this repeatedly from her Norwegian relatives, who told her how difficult farming was in Norway.

Five generations. Seated, L to R: Audrey (Malene’s great-granddaughter); Malene; Jennifer (Malene’s great-great-granddaughter); Standing: George (Malene’s grandson); Alpha (Malene’s daughter)

Malene was forty when she came to Minnesota, but she learned to speak English. Her status on the U.S. Census was always “wife” and “homemaker.” She didn’t need to work outside the home that she and John owned by 1910. John worked as a carpenter and later had a small grocery store. After John died in 1937 at seventy-three, one of his sons ran the store. Another son and a son-in-law owned a creamery. Their youngest daughter became a bookkeeper and worked for the public school system then at her brother’s creamery. At a time when marriage was the usual occupation for women, their daughters married well and had comfortable lives. Malene and John’s dreams of a better life in Minnesota, for themselves and their children became reality.

Malene stayed in the family home after John’s death but later lived with one of her daughters in Crookston. She died in 1960 at ninety-seven. Her funeral was held at Trinity Lutheran Church, and she was buried with family at Oakdale Cemetery in Crookston.

Years later Malene and John’s home was either razed or moved (along with other homes) because the Red Lake River, which ran behind their home, flooded so often. “Imagine living on the bank of a river—a good-sized river—and watching those kids,” Audrey said—shuddering as she pictured Malene raising children near the river. But, Malene never lost any of her children to the river. Her census status as “wife” and “homemaker” may not be exciting family history, but Malene was an important force in the lives of three generations of children, most of whom made Minnesota their permanent home.

When I finished interviewing Audrey, I organized and typed up her stories. She had loads of wonderful photographs of her ancestors and family, so I was able to scan photos and add them to the book I made for her. When I finished, I took my file to a local printing shop, and they printed it on 8 ½ x 11 paper and spiral bound it. It was 257 pages. When I presented it to my mother-in-law, she thumbed through it, then looked up at me with tears in her eyes. “I can’t believe you did all this for me,” she said.

Once I saw this photo of Audrey (about 5), I knew it was the photo for her book cover. This photo captures so much of Audrey’s spirit.

“It was fun working with you on this,” I answered. What I should have told her was that she’d been the best mother-in-law a daughter-in-law could have. But neither of us were good with sentimental speeches. And we were both already choking back tears. A year later she passed away, about a month before her 87th birthday. When she started taking all those genealogy classes, it had been her dream to write a family history. I have so many fond memories of Audrey, but working with her to complete her book is my fondest memory.

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.

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.”]

Christmas in Michigan—A Tale of Two Eves

December 24, 2021, 10:30 p.m.

Christmas tree, 1966

The night before Christmas, when I was a child, I would gaze out a small rectangular window and scan the sky for Santa’s sleigh. I watched ’til I spotted a red flashing light tracking far above the snow-covered earth. I would declare it was Rudolph leading Santa’s sleigh. (But I knew it was an airplane “so lively and quick” headed to Billy Mitchell Airport ten miles away.) Pretending that Santa’s reindeer would soon be “prancing and pawing” on the roof, I’d snuggle under the covers and close my eyes. Sleep was elusive because visions of Christmas morning danced in my head.

In Michigan this Christmas Eve, before I drifted off to sleep, I read The Quiller Memorandum, a spy thriller from 1965. Quiller, a British agent, brings Nazis to justice and prevents Hitler-loving neo-Nazis from starting a war. None of the characters had twinkling eyes or merry dimples. Not a one “was chubby and plump” or “a right jolly old elf.” It didn’t matter—sleep wasn’t elusive. Because neither the Nazi-chasing agent nor visions of Christmas morning danced through my head.

Although, the idea of people idolizing a person with totalitarian aspirations, should give me something to dread.

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