Uncle Kenny, that’s Ken to you.

When I was a little girl I spent a lot of time at Grandpa and Grandma Z’s house. Aunt Annie was just a little girl. Uncle Kenny was almost a grownup. Aunt Annie L-O-V-E, loved Deanna. Uncle Kenny was my pal. He was my godfather, too.

I don’t remember that much about Uncle Ken from when I was a little girl, but Grandma Z told me lots of stories and so did Mom. Maybe it was Uncle Kenny’s wedding that I went to with the shiner as big as my Mom’s fist. Of course it wasn’t that big when the wedding came, but still big enough for me to be the center of attention. That was fun.

Grandma told me Uncle Kenny was a bald baby, just like I was. And it took him a while to start talking, just like Vickie. She didn’t want anyone to know he was bald, because then people would think he was a Moron. So she cut a piece of her own hair and sewed it to the inside of his baby bonnet. Just a wisp of a curl sticking out at the front, so people wouldn’t know baby Kenny was bald.

Mom told me Uncle Kenny was a pipsqueak all through high school. I couldn’t even imagine him being small. I guess he grew so fast Continue reading

The microscope and the lipstick

You can see that fashion was far from a priority for me.

When I was a not so little girl, I wanted a microscope for my birthday.

I was in sixth grade.  I was old enough to know this gift was far beyond the birthday budget, and would set a  precedent for birthdays in a family of nine children, that was well, in polite language—which we always used—a precedent that was unacceptable.  In the language of my sister, Bonita, it was selfish.

Maybe it was selfish, but I wanted that microscope more than anything, and I knew I wasn’t going to get it.  That didn’t stop me from talking about it.

“I know I can’t have it,”  I said. “But I want it more than anything.”

“I know,” Mom said for the umpteenth time.

“I know it’s too expensive.”

“You’re right, it is. If I get you a gift that expensive, everyone will want the same.”

I knew I was never going to get that microscope.  No matter how much I wanted it. There were more important ways for Dad’s money to be spent. Still, I hoped. I prayed.  I wished for a microscope.

I was old enough to understood reality. I prepared for a gift I would love, but wouldn’t be a microscope.  Mom was a pretty smart cookie about what her kids liked.  After all, she got me science books before I could read.  She knew I had Grandpa Z’s set of concave and convex lenses and a bag full of iron ore samples from the Upper Peninsula. She’d think of something that would be almost as good as a microscope.

My day came.  I knew there would be no microscope waiting for me.

What? No, it couldn’t be.

A panty-girdle, a pair of nylon stockings, and a tube of lipstick.

Just this past summer I had bowed to Deanna’s bullying, and started wearing a bra.  Really, now I had to wear nylons and lipstick?  And what kind of birthday present was that, anyways.

To coin the popular song, “Oh what a birthday surprise!”

Well, it was my birthday and like the Leslie Gore would say,

“It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to.”  And I did. A lot.

“I’ll take them back and get you something else,” Mom said.

“I knew I wasn’t getting a microscope,” I blubbered. “But this?”

Two days later I had a microscope.  A beautiful, student microscope.  I don’t know how much it cost. I do know that Mom helped adjust that mirror so I could see the yeast grow that she put on the slide.

I never even thought about how my tears affected Mom until years later. Bonita teased me about how I cried to get my way.

“No I didn’t,” I argued.  “It’s just nylons and lipstick was the last thing in the world I wanted.”

Mom came to my defense.  “I learned a lesson that day,” she said. It turned out the year before, that very gift thrilled Deanna out of her 12-year old mind.  Mom continued,  “Just because one daughter loves a gift, doesn’t mean the next one will.” 

Mom is about the wisest person I know.

I don’t know why that story popped into my mind the other day.  Maybe because it’s been so long since I’ve written a Little Girl story.  Maybe because the News makes me so sad, and I just wanted to remember that sometimes the happy ending comes later, and it can have an even happier ending later still. That’s the beauty of time and perspective.


At any rate, have you ever had a disappointing birthday present, that brought along a life-lesson?

After I drafted this post, I gave Mom a call. Believe it or not, she had just been to a seminar on suffering. She said it brought up a lot of memories. Guess what memory she recalled. We had a good laugh together.

It’s Memorial Day

When I was a little girl, I had an Uncle Gene.  He was Mom’s brother.  Most of my uncles were Dad’s brother, except for Uncle Gene and Uncle Ken.  Uncle Ken lived far away, Uncle Gene lived right next door to Grandma and Grandpa Z with his two kids and Aunt Marion.

Mom said Uncle Gene was full of fun and mischief when they were kids.  I only knew Uncle Gene when he was solemn and kinda grumpy.  That’s on account of him being in the War.  Grandpa wrote about it when he wrote down all his memories back when he was about 95.   (Grandpa’s name was Frank and Grandma’s name was Stella.)  Here’s what he wrote:

The war still going on and we had Germany in a bad way and ready to give up, but Japan was still giving us a lot of trouble.  The army and navy needed many more men and were asking for enlistments and were drafting.  We knew that before long Gene would be called, and him still in high school.  There were a lot of urging by the teachers and others to enlist.  The enlistment was only for the duration of the war.  Gene did want to enlist so badly that Stella and I finally let him do it.  At this time, Stella was in the Saratoga Hospital and after being discharged, Dr. Granger wanted her to stay at his house until she felt better. [Dr. Granger was Grandma’s brother.]

I decided to visit her, and while there, Gene kept bugging me about him enlisting.  Stella and I talked it over and Detroit was the only recruiting office as Flint did not have one.  We thought of taking him there and maybe it might be several weeks or more before he would be called and hoping that it would not happen.

So Gene and I went to downtown Detroit where the office was and after finding the place and getting in there was no waiting.  He was written up and in no time and no further waiting was told that he would stay there till morning and would have to take the physical.  This did kind of surprise Gene and he just didn’t know what to say.  He was told that if he passed the physical, he could go home for a couple of days and then go to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station near Chicago.  I myself could hardly believe it to be true and felt very much alone going back to Stella.  Then she asked how we made out and I said that I left him there as they wanted him right away, but he would be home tomorrow some time.  It was kind of a shock to her but as she said, “There is nothing we can do.”…..

Gene was aboard the Saratoga somewhere in the Pacific.  I just can’t say how long he was in, but something was going on that we were not to know.  Till one day Dr. Granger let it slip that the Saratoga was hit by Japanese planes.  He would say no more.  It made us kind of uneasy and not long after that we got a letter from someone in Hawaii.  It was from a buddy of Gene’s and it was quite difficult to get the meaning of it.  Many words were blanked out, but it was enough to tell us that Gene was okay and we would be hearing from him before long.  There was nothing said about the ship nor where Gene was, only it did should like it was the island. This did worry us considerably and we waited what seemed like several weeks and finally we did get a letter from Gene.  It was from Seattle Washington and saying that his ship was damaged and they were in for repairs.  Shortly after that, we got a letter from Bernard Granger. [I did not know who Bernard Granger is.]  He said that Gene was in the navy hospital in Seattle for a check up and that Gene had a leave due him and would be coming home. That more or less did quiet us down and sure enough he did write and said that he was leaving there but not coming home.  Instead he was being shipped to a rest camp in Sun Valley, Idaho.  He would not say for how long. At least we knew now that he was okay…..

As the train [from Chicago] stopped, Gene was already standing on the step ready to jump off.  Was he glad to be back.  He looked kind of tired, but otherwise okay.  It was a two week leave while the ship was being repaired.  He had a lot to tell us and did have a lot of fun with his buddies here.  But the time kept slipping away and there were only a few more days and I began to see that Gene hated to go back.  He was told that when the ship was repaired it would go back to sea.  I never will forget that day when Gene was to leave.  I went to his bed room to get him up and he laid there awake and when I told him it was time to go, he had cried and didn’t want to go.  He asked me if I could possibly get in touch with the Red Cross and get an extension to his leave.  I called the Red Cross and they told me what to do.  I told Gene what I was doing, but in the meantime, I told him to get ready…It was a sad day for all of us.

Every time the phone rang I was hoping it was good news, but no word.  I was trying hard to make Gene understand that he would not go to sea again because by now the ship was probably on its way.  Furthermore, you are in no condition to go and there will be a fresh crew to take your place. I tried so hard to make him see that the war was almost over and I was willing to bet that in maybe a month you will be on your way home.  He cheered up a bit and we heard the sound of the train and soon it was at a stand still and time to get in.  How he hated to go and stood there in the doorway till he disappeared in the distance.  We also stood there looking until the last coach no longer was to be seen.

When I read, Grandpa Z’s words, my chest gets tight and tears fill my eyes.  I can’t imagine what it was like for him and Grandma to see their son off and depend only on letters for updates. I will never know what it was like for the night-yet-out-of-high-school Uncle Gene.  The Saratoga was in several battles and on one occasion was hit by a torpedo.  To read more, click here.

On Memorial Day we remember those who lost their lives during active military duty.  Even those that came home physically whole, often lost a part of themselves at war.  Some are never the same.  Neither are their families.


Wake up World, It’s Easter Again

When I was a little girl, waking up Easter Morning was the second best time of the year for me.  Right between Christmas morning and the First Day of School.  The night before, we put our Easter Baskets by the front door, and in the morning they were gone, hidden somewhere in the house.  Anticipation of the goodness waiting for me, if I just searched hard enough, made my stomach jittery like too much coffee does now.

Forty days and forty nights ago, all the statues and the crucifix got covered in purple cloth and the little bowls of holy water at the back of the church got emptied.  I thought I’d never remember to forget about blessing myself when I came in and out of church; no point with an empty blessing-cup.  Finally, no holy water was normal and then comes Easter morning:  Surprise, everything is changed again;  bright and wonderful.  At church, it was glorious ’cause everything was like brand new.

Easter was when I got to put on my new hat, and the brand new dress Mom made just for Easter. All the girls and women had on new straw hats, with flowers in the ribbon, and the dresses looked like a field of flowers: pink tulips, red roses, yellow daffodils, and purple hyacinths.  Starched stiff, with bows tied straight across behind all the girls dresses, just like we were freshly wrapped presents.  Even Father looked like sunshine with his white vestment embroidered with a crucifix across the whole front and back with golden rays of sun just a-shooting out of it.

The whole church was full of Easter Lilies, and the  two sets of three candles were lit on the altar, not just the one lonely candles on each side like all during Lent.  Most of the time, I held my breath when the my friend Mike’s big brother Bob, who was an altar boy, came out to light the candles.  Girls couldn’t be altar boys, ’cause only boys can get to be priest, that’s another one of those rules.  I guess when he was building the church and making up the rules about who could run things, Peter forgot all about the Marys and Veronica, who stayed right by Jesus when he got tortured and nailed on the cross and died.  Mom said that a smart woman lets the man think he’s running things, ’cause then his feelings don’t get hurt.  That was another one I had a hard time catching on to, like keeping my lip zipped.

All during Lent, just one candle on each side got lit, that was a low mass:  pretty quick.  If three candles got lit on each side:  high mass, never during Lent.  High mass meant gobs  of singing in Latin, on and on, Ed come spur tutu, oh and dominoes Nabisco, until I thought it would never end.  I thought it was polite how Bob sent out a little signal with the candles like that, then I knew whether I had to get ready for the long haul with a bunch of day-dreaming.   On Easter, right behind the gospel side of church, stood a brand-new-taller-than-me Pascal candle, which Bob had to reach way up on tip toes to light.

On Easter it was always high mass, except it seemed like it was so long ago that Father did a high mass that all that singing, one note over and over, then everyone changing it up a bit all at the same time like they learned to sing that way when they were still up in heaven before they got born, made my stomach feel all relaxed and happy, like after having a cup of hot chocolate.

The singing, all the hallalulias and hosannas, and the bell ringing  for the high mass just got me reminded how empty all of Lent was, and now it was like everything woke up and came alive, just like Jesus did.  God sure picked a good time to make the most super-duper miracle of all, ’cause the whole world was just like a big rock got rolled back and rose from the dead.

Happy Easter Everyone.

Forcing a bit of sunshine in a somber season

When I was a little girl, Lent was a time of anticipation.  I remember watching a vase of sticks underneath the statue of the Blessed Virgin.  As the 40 days and 40 nights progressed, the twigs turn into beautiful yellow flowers, filling the church with the promise of better days to come.

And, of course sacrifice there was sacrifice.

I always gave something up for Lent. I got to pick my “give-up” except for the one big thing Mom picked out for the whole family, that I had to do whether I liked it or not.

Blood Sister

Connie and Me when we were seven.

Me and my best-friend-at-school Connie, liked to sacrifice by walking to church at Noon Hour on Fridays and doing the Stations of the Cross.  We put on our snow-pants and boots, coats and mittens, and slap-footed out the big double doors; not the ones to the playground, the ones at the front of the school.  Our moms wrote notes giving us permission; still we felt like the high schoolers, who could go downtown every Noon Hour, without notes from home.  Me and Connie walked along with Daylene, who went home for lunch.  Daylene’s mom was Cherokee, something I found out after I was all grown up.  Nobody talked about where they were from, or who their ancestors were, that was as boring as History, we just talked about where our dads worked.  Most of the dads worked in The Shop making cars; my dad worked for Bell Telephone fixing lines and phones and doing installations.  He had all kinds of neat stories about strange people he met all day long and jams he got himself into.  I was proud of my dad ’cause he did something no other dads did.  Connie’s dad was a principal at a school that only had High School kids, not like ours that had high schoolers and grade schoolers and kindergarteners; he had loads of funny stories, too, and sometimes he told jokes that me and Connie didn’t understand, like the one about the Teddy Bear saying he had cotton balls.  Connie’s big brother thought that one was hilarious; we never did figure it out.  Our funniest joke was:  What happened when the Indian drank too much Red Rose Tea?  He drowned in his Tee-Pee.  I never stopped laughing about that one.

Anyways, after Daylene’s house, we walked to St. Joseph’s and did The Stations.  Sister said some people did all The Stations on their knees because they wanted to suffer like Jesus did; there was even a place overseas someplace where people walked on their knees four miles praying and saying the rosary.  Me and Connie didn’t want to suffer that much, and we had to get downtown to buy some Faygo to have with our peanut butter sandwiches, so we just said The Stations in the usual way, except we walked around reading the prayers and genuflecting, instead of sitting in the pew while the priest and the altar boys walked around.  There was no incense, like when the priest does The Stations, so I breathed in real deep to get some leftover smell from Sunday.   I felt a little bit holy when we push the door open and the bright sun hits us in the face.

One year I gave up all candy.  Every Sunday after church, Dad gave me a nickle to buy candy at Glebe’s, unless I was bad in church, then I got a scolding.  Once when I was talking, Mom made me kneel in the vestibule and think about how bad I was for the whole rest of Mass, I didn’t get any candy that week.  Most of the time I was good, though.  The year I gave up candy, Dad let me spend my nickle anyway, and I put my candy away in a paper sack until Easter came.  Every Sunday, I emptied the bag on my bed and counted up the loot. That was the keenest idea ever, ’cause when Easter came I added what was in my paper sack to what the Easter Bunny left, and I had three times the candy as all the other kids.  All that candy tasted three times as good too, since I hadn’t had any for 40 days and 40 nights.  I only did that one year, ’cause I had a bad cases of the runs the next day, and after that, even thinking about it gave me cramps.

Mom made the whole family give up television one Lent.  The first week was really hard, because we didn’t know where to eat our popcorn on Saturday night.  That’s the night we watched Ponderosa.  Deanna liked Adam the best ’cause he was the handsomest.  Bonita liked Little Joe; I liked Hoss the best, ’cause he just looked like he needed a hug and because most of the girls on the show were after Adam and Little Joe, so I figured Hoss needed someone to consider him the best.  Mom always made a big bowl of popcorn, and  put it in front of the TV so  Deanna, Bonita, Vickie, Loren, and I could eat until our bellies popped out and we looked like we were going to have babies.    That first week without TV, Mom just put the popcorn bowl on the floor in front of the TV anyway.  We just sat around in front of a blank screen, chowing down looking like we were watching something.  After that, Mom got Lad a Dog, from the Bookmobile and read it to us.  I liked that a whole lot better than TV; still after Easter, I was happy to see Hoss on the Ponderosa again.

Back then, Lent was a somber time of the year:  We fasted every day, abstained every Friday, prayed and sacrificed things that were important to us.  There was a real sense of community supporting our efforts. Like winter twigs, we transformed, and we grew, and perhaps with a bit of forcing, we blossomed.

It’s difficult to know how good it was for my soul, but I  know it was good for my spirit:  It taught me how to focus and it taught me self-control, it helped me try new things, and it taught me that anticipation can make life a little sweeter. I’ve continued the practice, some years with more enthusiasm than others. This year, perhaps more begrudgingly than some others.

Yesterday, forsythias forced to bloom in front of the Virgin Mary sprouted up from my memory.  I went out in the cold and clipped a vaseful of twigs. I hope they inspire me to do better, be better, and love more throughout the year.