Dinner Time and Holy Thursday

When I was a little girl, supper time was an important time of the day.  I was on my own for breakfast, and lunch was flexible, but at supper time, everyone came together.  No one could start eating until hands were washed, everyone was at the table and the prayer was said.

The Last Supper

Mom said no books, no games, no homework, no newspapers, no elbows on the table during supper.  No radio, no TV, that was in the fronch room anyway, but still it had to be turned off, and no singing at the table during supper. We had a lot of “no’s,” but that left lots of room for talking, asking questions, and laughing.

No matter what was for supper, if I was the table-setter, I put down a plate with a fork on the left, knife on the right, and a teaspoon right next to the knife, plastic glass above the knife, glass- glass for Dad, he didn’t like the feel of plastic.  Of course, the baby only got a bowl and a spoon on the tray of the hi-chair pulled up, to the corner right there between Mom and Dad, no one would give a baby a knife and fork. Sometimes when Dad had to work overtime, his chair was empty.  I always sat a place for him anyway, just in case he got home, so it was a tinsy bit like he was there, even if he wasn’t.

At our house, Mom sat at the head of the table in the rolling chair, so she could get up fast to get stuff.  The table-setter sat in a rolling chair, too, ‘cuz the table-setter was the “hopper,” hopping up and down to fetch things.

Dad liked a whole bunch of special stuff that I thought was disgusting:  blue cheese, sardines, and that white stuff in the middle of the meat bone.  Whenever Dad had his special food, Bonita and Deanna and Vickie begged to have some.  I was pretty sure they liked it just ‘cuz he did, and I had a mind of my own, something that got pointed out to me at least once a day; sometimes it seemed like a good thing, “Way to go.  I always knew you had a mind of your own;” and sometimes it was a bad thing, “Why can’t you just do what you’re told, instead of always having a mind of your own.”

Once I told Dad that blue cheese smelled like his feet.  That made him hopping mad.  Dad hardly ever got mad at us kids, but when he did, it was usually at me.  He kinda liked me having a mind of my own, but not so much me saying all my thoughts out loud.  I figured out later, with the help of Mom, that I hurt Dad’s feelings by saying his feet smelled like blue cheese.  Dads sometimes got mad when their feelings got hurt, instead of just saying like moms do, “Hey, that was mean, now say you’re sorry,” then after that, everything gets back on track.   I always hated being off track with people, especially Dad.

That’s probably how Jesus and all the Apostles felt at the last supper:  all off track.  Here they were having a nice Passover supper, ‘cuz of no Easter yet.  First everybody started fighting about who would sit next to Jesus, just like Deanna and Bonita and Vickie fought over getting some of that white stuff from the meat bone.  Then Jesus announces that one of his best friends was gonna turn against him, and all the apostles  started saying “not me, not me,” and looking around, trying to figure out who had the guilty look on his face.

Judas was a bad guy for turning Jesus over, but I felt sorry for him anyways.  I got to thinking maybe he just had a mind of his own, and thought he was doing a good thing, ‘cuz afterward he felt so sorry he hung himself.  Sometimes my ideas turned out all wrong, like when I took a bite out of the rubber spatula just to see how it tasted, and then it seemed like nobody wanted to listen to the reasons why I did it.  I was just in trouble.

Maybe Judas should have talked thing over with Jesus’s mom before he got the whole ball rolling.  Mary was probably good at figuring things out, on account of most moms are.  Or maybe he should have just spoke right up, instead of sneaking around and making all those plans by himself.  Then somebody would for sure have said, “Wait just a minute now, that’s not nice,” and everything could get back on track.

With all my ability to reason with a grown up mind, this story continues to puzzle me.  Why must the story of our salvation be such a sad and confusing story of  mistrust, betrayal and brutal suffering?   Once long after I was no longer a little girl, a nun asked this provocative question:  Could Jesus’ death have the power to redeem, if he had not been executed and instead, died of old age?  I asked G-Money that question and after pondering it a bit, he said, “Well, maybe it’s good we only sinned as much as we did, because sometimes living a long time and dying of old age means enduring boat loads of suffering.”

I asked Mom that question and she said, “For the love of Mike, sometimes I just can’t believe the things you think about.”  Right after ‘thinking for myself’, ‘thinking too much’ is the next most often compliment-complaint I hear.

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.

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

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.

A Girl and her Cow

One day in the early spring, our cow, Belle, gave birth to a perfect little heifer.  She was mine.  It was my job to train her, feed her, and clean her.  In August, I would show the world just what a capable 10-year-old I was.  This was no ordinary calf, she was a registered Holstein.  She needed a name that would befit her lineage.

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This is my niece. She’s growing up on the same farm that I did.

I named my first calf Tiny.  That was a good name for a calf, but not so good for a grown cow, besides there was only one Tiny, and this new little wobbly-legged calf was not her.  This new calf looked a lot like Belle: mostly black with just the perfect amount of white marking across her back, up her feet and legs and under her belly.  Belle never even saw my calf’s father.  That’s because Dr. Friese came over with his little frozen vial, and that’s how Belle got pregnant.  It didn’t take any love or marriage for cows, ’cause cows didn’t have souls.  They were still God’s creatures, that’s for sure, but they never ate apples from that tree in the Garden of Eden, so no rules, and no sins. ‘Course there weren’t any cows in heaven either, so that was the down side of all that freedom.

Dad was really good at picking out names; he picked out all the girls names at my house, except for Mom’s of course.  Any Dodo bird would know that.  Dad even helped me name my doll, Jonesy-Belle, so for sure he would be a good help with this new calf of mine, the only one, besides Belle who was a genuine, registered Holstein.  Me and Dad put our heads together for days, trying to come up with names.  Dad helped Bonita name her calf Black Eyes; that was easy, she was mostly white with a few giant black blotches, and big black circles around her eyes.  Besides that, Dad called Bonita his black-eyed Susan, so Bonita loved calling her calf, Black Eyes.  Bonita was too little for 4-H and Black Eyes was just a regular old Holstein calf, not a registered Holstein, like mine.

One evening, while Dad was milking Belle, he said, “I got an idea, let’s name her after someone in the Vice-President’s family.”  He rested his head against Belle’s belly, and turned just enough to look at me. Continue reading

Midnight Rides, Trees, and Abou

When I was a little girl, I memorized all kinds of things:  Catechism, addition tables, spelling words, times tables, all the State’s capitols, and poetry.  I loved poetry especially the kind that tells a story that made my heart happy:  Like The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or Trees by Joyce Kilmer:

“I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree..”

Climbing HighThat said a lot for climbing a tree, hanging in a crook and just smelling all those green leaves and maybe finding a robin nest with little baby birds, just a cheep-cheeping away stretching their mouths up wide, waiting for a chewed up worm from their mama.  It made me want to forget all about memorizing or poetry, or anything except being right there.

Every week, I had a new poem to memorize.  Once my class had a choice, The Chambered Nautilus by Oliver Wendall Holmes, or Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  I chose the poem about Paul Revere ’cause it sounded like a song and it had an exciting story.  Most everyone else chose The Chambered Nautilus because Continue reading