O Johnny, O Johnny, Heavens Above

When I was a little girl, Mom brought home a little brother she and Dad named John Ellis:  the last of nine, the third boy.  Well to be honest, I was not such a little girl anymore; I was 14, and in 7th grade.  My little Johnny was a bit like a puppy who I could cuddle and love and talk to endlessly,   a sweet oasis in my otherwise tumultuous life.    John gave me a reason to stay a child a little longer,  and helped me appreciate life.

Seventh grade was a mixture of fun and heartache:  On top of adolescence,  I had 60  city kids join my 30 country classmates;  I had more than one teacher, all of which I’d never seen before; I fell in love with Arthur, one of the city kids, who broke my heart; and President Kennedy told school kids to get in shape, and then he was assassinated.  Amidst all that, there was my Johnny, a sweet bundle of pure joy —Well, almost.

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                                    Johnny, Frank, Julie, Marcia, and Loren

John needed lots of attention because he had severe allergies which affected his skin and gave him asthma.  Twenty minutes, every two hours, according to doctor’s direction,  I helped bathe John in Balnetar bath oil, which helped relieve his itching.  Then I greased him up in Crisco, which Dr. Cookingham, the specialist, said was the best skin moisturizer around.  John went without a diaper, again Dr. Cookingham, but sometimes I thought this was a practical joke from the doctor, because John peed all the time, and his bottom was the only  skin clear and soft as a, well as a soft as baby’s behind.  Mom made John thick mittens out of flannel and the tops of old socks which I pinned, high up on his shirtsleeves and pajama-legs, so he couldn’t scratch in his sleep.  Most people smell talcum powder and think of babies, for me it’s pine tar and shortening:  what a sweet smell.

There was a whole bunch of stuff that John stayed away from:  wheat, milk, soy, eggs, chocolate, barley, dust, dander, pollen, mold—including anything with a fermented ingredient—no bologna, no mustard, no catchup, no cheese; you get the idea, I’m sure.  We had to replace a real Christmas tree with a plastic one, we carefully spaced any baking with eggs, absolutely no frying of an egg, and we could only cook a tom turkey for Thanksgiving dinner because of John’s egg allergy. Once he had an asthma attack because Mom switched from Gerber to Beechnut rice baby cereal; it turned out Beechnut added coconut oil; that was before food labeling requirements.  Once when he was a toddler, he got his hands on an oleo wrapper and collapsed on the floor.  No EMTs, no ambulances, Mom rushed him to the hospital, 30 minutes away, for an epinephrine shot.

In those days, every child got a smallpox vaccination; not me.  That was too dangerous for John:  he was at risk of  contracting the disease.  When he was still a baby, not talking yet, Mom gave him a his first haircut, which led to a skin infection over his entire body, yet another rush to the hospital, this one the most serious of all.   Mom came home one day and told me John might not make it, the infection was so severe, the doctor had John packed in ice.  My little Johnny stretched out his hand and said his first word, ” Mamma” to a mother, who I could see, even through all my teenage angst, felt absolutely powerless to help him.

What my little Johnny gave me was lots of storytelling time while I bathed him, some of which was about my woeful teenage life, because he didn’t care;  permission to still play like the child that I almost wasn’t anymore; lots of experimenting with wheatless, eggless, milkless recipes; and of course lots of laughs.

John ate Rice Krispies and 7-up for breakfast, had his own drawer of special cookies, and he didn’t have to eat anything “that makes my throat itch.”  Believe me, he learned to work that one.

Mom had a special song for John:

Oh, Johnny, Oh Johnny, Heavens above,

Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, How you can love,

You make my sad heart jump for joy,

And when you’re near I just can’t, sit still a minute.

He loved that song.  I had one, too:

Johnny get ang-ery, Johnny get mad.

Give me the biggest lecture, I’ve ever had.

I want a brave man, I want a cave man.

That made John ball up his fists, bare his little, baby teeth and hiss at me, then we both laughed, a wild abandoned laugh.

Mom always told us to eat our spinach (or green beans or tomatoes, or whatever) and we would grow hair on our chest like Popeye.  John, ever the puzzler, asked Mom, pointing to his crotch, “What do you have to eat to grow hair down here?” Deanna, Bonita, and I covered our mouths to stifle our shy teenage giggles.

John stayed my buddy, he even offered to be my ring bearer when I got married. He joined the wrestling team in high school, he took his date to the prom in a vintage Mustang, and he let a greased pig go in the middle of the high school, and married a beauty who is his best friend.   He doesn’t remember that much about me, because I was grown and he was growing, but thanks to Mom, I kept up with my little Johnny.

I still love talking to him, except now it’s much better, because it’s a two-way street:  what he says is as important to me as his listening skills.

Many years ago, when he was remodeling the old farmhouse he and his family now live in, he asked me, “When will people stop thinking of me as the baby?  No one listens to me.”

He paused, considering what he wanted to say next. “Loren says the exact same thing I do, and people listen to him.”

“Loren’s got one thing you don’t, John.”  I told him.  He looked at me with his clear steady eyes, just like our father’s.

“He’s got grey hair.  Just give yourself a little time.”  I said.  You’ll be surprised how much more people will listen when you have a little grey in those curls.”   John’s pulled on his chin and looked far away like he was thinking through a riddle, then he raked his fingers through his hair, and a smile started up one side of his face.  “You could have something there.”  he said.

Of course I was right, I always have been a pretty smart cookie.  The house turned from a ramshackle ruin to a beautiful home, then John took another risk and started his own business.  He’s everyone’s go-to guy in a psychedelic electrician’s van.  Still and all, he’ll always be my sweet little Johnny.

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                          John, Mom, and Loren

Shhh… help me keep that last part a secret.

Grandpa and the Superbowl

Yes, I remember the very first Superbowl.  Every Superbowl makes me think of that very first Superbowl.  Why?  Because that memory links forever with Grandpa Z.

Grandpa-ZyberWhen I was a little girl, Grandpa  was my favorite.  He did fun things, like make things out of wood, and make stuffed animals come alive, and he gave slobby dog kisses.  He had lots of fun books to read, too.  My favorite was the Time-Life series about the human body.  Second favorite: National Geographic.

Grandpa Z liked to watch TV, too. Most of his TV watching was stuff I hated.  Especially, boxing. No, maybe football was worse than boxing, because football lasted forever, and boxing could be for just a short while.  Especially if one guy got knocked out.

I liked to watch big time wrestling, which is way different from boxing.  Cuz for one thing, wrestling had crazy costumes and crazy people.  Big people and little people, and people in masks, and women, too. Me and Bonita liked to pretend big time wrestling. I could almost always beat her, cuz she was sorta wimpy and cried easy.  One time she said she’d pee on me, if I didn’t let her up. That time she beat me. Continue reading

Angels We Have Heard on High

mary had a baby - 1The story of Jesus and Santa Claus seemed to be about of equal importance when I was a little girl. They both seemed impossible.  Different sorts of miracles. I mean, who can get reindeer to fly? And what about having a baby in a barn?  That’s weird.  Who cares if the inn is full? You’re not supposed to have a baby in a hotel.  For Pete’s sake. Everyone knows babies get born in a hospital.

Stella Brady Visits Santa in Crystal LakeI never thought too much about how Jesus got into Mary.  Of course I knew super-early that babies grow inside moms.  I’d have to be some sort of do-do bird not to know that.  Mom almost always had a baby growing. That’s what happens when you get married.  Except for Mary. She got visited by an angel who told her God chose her to have a baby without a husband.  I found out when I was old enough to read newspapers that lots of girls get chosen like that, but most of them never get visited by angels. That’s a different kind of miracle and those girls just have to trust God.  No angels came and give them a message.

Mary was super-lucky, cuz an angel came right to her in broad daylight and told her not to worry one iota about having a baby without a husband.  Everything would be just fine, on account of God picking her long ago, when she was just a little baby herself, and he’d been keeping an eye on her, and she proved she was a good person, never thinking or doing mean things like most of the other people on the earth. I guess God was sorta like Santa, keeping an eye on who’s good and bad. But Santa only brings Tiny Tears, not real babies.  I asked for a real baby once, cuz I thought I needed one more sister.  It takes a long time to make babies, so I never got my baby sister until the next September.

Mary  was engaged to Joseph, but not married yet, so he got sorta confused when she told him the good news. Mary’s news was sorta unbelievable on account of them just being engaged, not married. Joseph musta thought the donkey was getting ahead of the cart.  He wasn’t as lucky as Mary. No angel showed up to tell him everything was going to be alright.  Well, unless you count a dream.  Joseph dreamed about an angel setting him straight about what a good person Mary was, and that the baby was God’s son, not Joseph’s.  I wondered if Joseph made sure to tell someone the dream before breakfast.  That’s how you make dreams come true.  So if you have a bad dream, keep it to yourself until after breakfast.  Only tell the good dreams to someone before breakfast. Still and all, I wondered a lot about God and angels.  It seemed like he should have sent the angel in broad daylight to Joseph and left the dreaming part to Mary. I especially thought that after I learned how fathers help babies get inside moms.

God kept talking to Joseph through angels and dreams.  If I was Joseph, I would’ve been afraid to go to sleep at night.  Angels never told Joseph easy things like, ‘put a tree in the corner and in the morning there will be presents under it.’

After Jesus was born, an angel told Joseph to move clear to Egypt. The angel said that bad people were trying to kill Jesus.  Those bad people ended up killing all the baby boys cuz they had a hard time figuring out which one was Jesus. Tons of moms and dads were crying their eyes out, and probably the ones with daughters were super-glad they had girls. In the meantime, Joseph skedaddled in the middle of the night with Mary and Jesus and a donkey.  Later, the angel told Joseph to move back home again. Man-on-man, that Joseph had a lot of faith.  Just when he got all settled and comfortable and finding friends, he had to get his carpenter tools packed up and start his business all over again.  If that was me, I’d be putting my hands up in the air and saying “For the love of Mike.”

Santa had his workshop up at the North Pole and never-ever moved that anywhere.  Tools are heavy and you have to keep them organized if you want to get anything done.  I learned that from Grandpa.  He had a whole room full of tools, all with their own special places. Santa would probably miss a whole Christmas if he had to move. Santa could get all around the world in one night with a sleigh full of toys, but moving his tools was asking way too much.  Well, I suppose if an angel came in broad daylight and asked Santa to move, he would do it. I think angels have extra good arguing powers, cuz people seem to listen to them a lot. Mom said I was a good arguer, and someday I should be in debate, then I could argue by head off if I wanted to. To tell, the truth, I’d never ever argue with an angel, whether in broad daylight or in a dream. I’m sorta scared of angels. Except for guardian angels.  My guardian angel never let me down.

Now, as I juggle work and shopping list, and rush from recitals to parties, I struggle to keep the mystery and wonder of Christmas foremost in my mind and heart.  Still, when I see a grandchild on Santa’s lap, the feeling rushes over me.  And, I do think that Joseph’s faith is under-rated.  Think about it.  Mary knew the truth. Joseph relied solely on trust. That poor man of such great faith.  I strive to be follow the voice of angels when they speak to me in dreams.  Believe me, sometimes my dreams are so entertaining and vivid, I am 99.9% sure my guardian angel is still looking out for me.






Hurray for the Fun is the Pudding Done

These 40+ year old sleds are completely origin...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was a little girl, summer lasted an eternity. I thought school would never start again. Once school started, I looked for snow.

Before I went to bed, I knelt in front of Mom and her part-knitted mittens going round and round on four needles for the next kid who poked a thumb through last year’s.  Mom was a knitting maniac.

Way away in the spring I was gonna make my first communion, so I practiced the Act of Contrition kneeling down in front of Mom and her knitting. The Act of Contrition is the prayer I had to say after I confessed all my sins and had my soul scrubbed clean for Jesus. It’s a special pray to say you’re really sorry for all the bad things you did or might be planning to do, and you promise with all your heart to keep away from sinning and not to even think about it. Prayers say things fancy for God. I had to say, “Oh my God, I am heartily sorry, for having offended thee,” instead of just “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, God.”  I guessed God likes fancy words.

My friend Beth got to pray with her own words.  She was Methodist. If I could do that, I’d pray for snow, that’s for sure. Anyways, I had to say fancy words like “I detest all my sins, because of Thy just punishment.” Being Catholic sure was good for the vocabulary.  Mom said God knows what everybody needs.  No sense in bothering him, if he already knows everything.  He’s different from Santa, who only knows Continue reading

Great Dining Room

There was no such thing as great-rooms and open space, when I was a little girl.  Every room was distinct. You might think the dining room was for dining, but that was just the beginning. Everything went on in the dining room at my house.  The dining room led everywhere, and everyone ended up there.  The dining room had four doors:  one to the back room, one to the frunchroom, one to the stairway, and one to the kitchen.   The dining room was for bringing together and sending out.  The dining room was for fortifying and uniting.

One door led to the back door.  That’s where I wrote my name in blue crayola.  It took me so long time learn how to write my name.    Mom taught me the right way so all my Valentines would come out right, I knew better, but there was no wallpaper or pretty colored paint or anything back there by the door; just a white Continue reading

Colleen and Kailey

Colleen and KaileyWait.  Can this be  true.  It’s been over a year since I introduced you to another “Little Girls Then and When.”

I met Colleen and Kailey through my photojournaling with the Marengo-Union Times.  They agreed to share a little with you and me.

Colleen is 33 years old. He single mom raised her and her two sister in a western suburb of Chicago. Colleen knows, more than most, how important it is to be a strong mother.

Colleen loves being a Stay-at-home Mom.  She even home-schools her 5 kids. Kailey is her only daughter. Colleen sons are 13, 6, 4, and 2 years old. She says the scariest thing about raising a daughter is whether she’ll find a good husband and be happy.
When she was a little girl, Colleen dreamed of being a veterinarian.  She loved Friday nights, because that was Pizza Night. Colleen describes Kailey as outstanding:  “She’s very intelligent and independent.”

Kailey is 11 years old and in the 7th grade. Besides baking (she’s a State Fair Superior Ribbon winner,) Kailey gets involved in a lot of different things. She loves animals: she raises chickens, and she volunteers at “Hooves to Heal,” an organization that helps people with disabilities through interaction with horses.  Kailey is a seamstress, a photographer, and an archer.  She loves science and history. Her favorite color is purple and her favorite number is 24. “I just like those two numbers together,” she told me, without an ounce of hesitation.

When she’s a grown woman Kailey plans to be therapist. Her oldest brother has Down’s Syndrome; his therapist inspires Kailey’s career goals.

Kailey says she’s more like her Mom than anyone else.  She thinks she looks like her mom.  What do you think?






Working to Relax

Last Saturday, I read this story at a local music festival.  Telling or reading a story is so different from writing it and waiting for a response. It was the second year for me at the festival. Last year, I got to know the real definition of stage fright. You know when people say they are so nervous might pee their pants? Yeah. No exaggeration. I was that scared.  This year, I was much less nervous.  People laughed in all the right places. I think I like this story-telling gig.  I just might do it again. Here' my story:

When I was a little girl, every August Dad took two weeks off from working at Ma Bell for a vacation.

One week was for getting ready to go, and one week was for the actual vacation.

He always took us camping. Dad learned how to camp in the army.

Mom camped when she was a little girl, back when Times Were Tough, before campgrounds. Grandpa had to put bees’ wax on his tent to get it waterproofed.

Grandpa just drove the family around until Grandma said “dinner’s ready.” She had food cooking in a pot under the hood of their engine.

They camped right beside the road; wherever they stopped. Usually by some lake or river.

The first thing WE had to do to get ready was bake cookies. Mom had a big lard-tin that had to get filled up.

My sister, Deanna baked Cherry Winks. Yuck, I hated those: maraschino cherries and corn flakes. I hated Corn flakes ’cause of the six thousand boxes we ate saving Post Toasties box tops so all eleven of us got free cereal bowls and juice glasses. Besides that, maraschino cherries were so sweet they made my teeth hurt.

Vickie made no bake chocolate cookies. Vickie was the littlest Big Kid, so she got an easy recipe.

Bonita made peanut butter cookies. I liked those warm with a glass of good, cold milk. I held a bite of cookie in my mouth and added the milk. That’s almost the same as dunking, but no crumbs in the milk glass.

Mom hated dunking, it was against the rules.

I made the chocolate chip cookies. Those were my Blue Ribbon specialty. I had to eat some right out of the oven, ’cause that caramelly-good smell mixed with melted chocolate made my mouth get slippery inside. Taking cookies left greasy stains on the newspaper. I put new cookies on top of those stains, so Mom wouldn’t know I snitched any.

I had to go to confession for that: stealing, lying, disobeying. I never knew how I should categorize it. Or was that three sins in one action I had to be careful, cuz not confessing a sin was a sin too.

Sometimes I forgot to set the timer and got lost in one of my Book-mobile. Pretty soon Mom was shouting:

“The cookies are burning,” and “are you trying to burn the house down?” That was one of those questions I wasn’t really supposed to answer.

I just kept my smart-aleck thoughts in my head where they belonged and shook my head ‘no.’

Girl on tractorDad got busy fixing up stuff in the barn to make it easy for Ralph. He was one of the teenagers Dad hired at haying and vacation time. He lived three miles away, so if the cows got out while we were gone, they could be wandering for hours before Ralph knew about it, with our phone ringing off the hook and neighbors knocking our door down, and nobody to get the cows back behind the fence.

Cows are super-smart about discovering bad fences. Dad said they put their chin hairs up against the wire to see if it tickles. No tickling and they just barged on through.

Good fences are more important than anything before vacation.

I helped Dad make sure the fences were in tip-top shape. That was fun, ’cause he let me drive the tractor, and test the fences for grounds. It was quiet out there in the pastures with the cows all around, and Queen Anne’s lace blooming up to my shoulders making everything smell like green carrots.

Sometimes a sweat-bee would buzz around me.

Mom knew how to show a sweat-bee who’s boss. Just swatted ’em straight down toward the ground; then the bee would buzz off all dizzy, hardly knowing which way was up. You can do that to a sweat bee.

Never try that with the kinds of bees that like to live in wood piles behind the church. Those will chase you right into the church and pretty soon all the women who’ve ever been moms, or ever had a mom will be swarming around, putting ice on you or baking soda poultices and ointment; oooing and ahhing like nobody’s business. If that didn’t feel so good, it might be embarrassing.

Tons of stuff in the garden got ready for picking right about when we were ready for vacation. Early in the morning, us kids picked beans and tomatoes and cucumbers and corn.

Mom was right there in the kitchen we baked cookies, canning away, so nothing got wasted. Besides canning, she packed things up so we had fresh stuff to eat while we were camping. That saved money.

Nobody ever said so, but I was pretty sure God gave some extra points off in purgatory for being thrifty.

Mom and us kids dragged all the camping gear down for the attic: A huge tent that was about big enough for a circus, and wooden tent poles and stakes. Dad said it was an army tent. We could’ve fit all the Little Kids in the tent bag and had ‘em come out one by one, like a clown car. Tarps, canvas cots, sleeping bags, ice box, Coleman stove, lantern, flashlights, pots and pans, clothesline, clothespins, water bucket, dipper, dish pans, hatchet, and lots and lots of playing cards.

Mom gave each Kid an empty beer crate for packing our clothes: new shorts and shirts Mom made specially for the trip, a pair of jeans, our beach towel, sweatshirt, underwear and bathing suit. If it didn’t fit in that beer case, tough luck, it was staying home. Anyways, most of the time we wore our bathing suits; clothes were only for if it got cold or we went to town.

Each Big Kids helped a Little Kid pack up their beer crate.

Mom packed all the food and Dad packed up the trailer.

Nobody helped Dad pack the trailer, except to hand him stuff, ’cause he had to have the trailer ‘just so.’

Nobody knew what ‘just so’ was, except Dad. It took lots of studying and adjusting and loads of time.

By the time Dad got everything packed ‘just so’, he was letting out low grunt noises and rubbing the back of his neck up there where his head sits, and pinching the top of his nose between his eyebrows.

Amidst all this hubbub, the house was getting cleaned from top to bottom: dusting, mopping, scrubbing, and vacuuming. The whole place got Spin-n-Span and smelling like pine and Bon-Ami. It looked like company was coming on Easter Sunday, when we finally got in the car to go UP NORTH. Mom said, she didn’t want anyone coming in a messy house if we got in a car accident and died while we were on vacation.

I always said a Sincere Act of Contrition when Dad started up the engine. I said sorry for all the bad things I did, forgot to do, or forgot I did. I wanted to be on the other side of the Pearly Gates before the neighbors started talking. I’m pretty sure criticism gets a busy signal in heaven.

I hear a lot of talk about how life was simpler back in the good old days. Maybe some things were. But it sure seems like it was a whole lot more work to relax back then.