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

Fighting the Weasel Monster

I posted this back in 2010.  Yesterday, a small cat crossed in front of the car.  She had short little legs that made her almost slink.  If it weren’t for the slight calico markings on her dark coat, I might have thought she was a weasel.  Mom and  the weasel popped into my head and I started to laugh.  

When I was a little girl, I lived in a big house full of mysteries.  The windows had shutters operated by ropes inside the house, except paint made the ropes stick and there was one window which had shutters that never opened.  I could only see the shuttered window from the outside, so sometimes on rainy days, I searched the inside, looking for the secret window.  The basement floor was dirt, and sometimes animals like moles would make their way into the house.  Once a skunk got in there and got scared, and woke us all up in the middle of the night to a dreadful smell.   There always seemed to be places to explore and mysteries to contemplate in that house.

The bottom corner of each bedroom door had a half-circle of wood missing. Maybe  a hungry wood-eating monster took a bite out of each door.  Mom said squirrels lived in the house before we moved there because  the house was empty for a while.   I tried hard to imagine that house empty, no one there at all, and it seemed impossible, my house was a house that needed noise.   Continue reading

Vickie: The Littlest of the Big Kids

When I was a little girl, I had a little sister named Vickie. Vickie was the first baby I remember Mom bringing home, mainly because I was always trying so hard to get a peek at her.  Vickie was the littlest of the Big Kids.  The Big Kids had the most responsibility when we were growing up.

I had to stand on my tippiest-tip-toes to barely see Vickie wrapped up tight in her pink striped receiving blanket in that eyelet covered bassinet. Once, or maybe more times, I tipped the whole kit-n-kaboodle over on top of me and spilled Vickie right out into my lap.  There we were, under the bassinet, little rays of sun coming through the basket weaves, like a cozy hide-away smelling like Ivory Snow and baby oil.  I felt like I just swallowed one of those sunbeams, until Mom sucked in her breath really hard, as if she was getting ready to blow up a balloon , as big as the giant one that I saw outside the Dodge car-store.  I knew that sound meant trouble.  After that, Mom gave me a little stool to stand on, then I could see Vickie with no trouble at all.

img037Vickie had blond hair and blue eyes and a beauty mark on her cheek; not the cheek on her face either, the other one that only people who are really close to her ever get to see.  I helped Mom change Vickie’s diapers, so I saw Vickie’s beauty mark lots of times.  Having a beauty mark means the angels marked you special ’cause you’re so beautiful.  Mom had a beauty mark too, on her big toe; she told me once that she almost got missed, but an angel grabbed her by the big toe, just as she was diving down from heaven.  I don’t have any beauty marks.

Mom read us a book one time about a little angel that couldn’t get her star shined up good enough and kept getting in trouble with the head honcho angel, probably Michael, but the book didn’t point any fingers, you’re not supposed to tattle.  The littlest angel always tried really hard to keep up with the bigger angels; she just kept rubbing and rubbing her star, never quite satisfied.  For some reason, Vickie always made me think of that angel; probably ’cause her white hair floated around her head like a halo and her eyes were so true-blue, she must have gotten them in heaven, and her lips were like a little rosebud; or maybe because she tried hard to keep up with the other Big Kids.

Dad drilled  holes in two boards, and threaded big thick hemp rope through the holes;  he tossed the rope over a giant limb of a boxelder tree growing right outside the house, and voíla,  we had two swings.  Sometimes Deanna, me and Bonita pumped way up high and jumped out to see who could jump the  farthest.  We did this so much, the grass just got tired of trying to grow around there; not even weeds would give it a try, and we had weeds everywhere.  If it rained, a big puddle of rain-water sat there right under the swings, then we had to run and jump to get on the swings and not get our shoes wet.  One day Tom and Cathy, from next door, and Doug and Nancy, from across the road, were over and we had a big swing jumping contest.  Two at a time jumped and then we marked a line in the dirt, so the next jumpers could see how far they had to go to be the winner.   All us kids got really excited and we lost track of where Vickie was; she was too little to jump, she couldn’t even get up in the swing by herself, that’s how little she was.  I guess she wanted to be a Big Kids ’cause the next thing I knew BAM! one of the swings hit her right in the mouth.  That swing almost knocked one of her dog-teeth right out of her head.  The tooth just stayed that way, all loose and dangly, reminding me that I let her get hurt,  until she got to second grade and it was supposed to come out.  Then the tooth fairy left her a whole dollar bill, and a note thanking Vickie for taking such good care of that tooth for such a long time.

We had a cousin, Janet, who was the same age as Vickie;  Janet was Uncle Gerald’s and Aunt Millie’s little girl.  Janet had the same angel-blond hair and angel-blue eyes as Vickie’s, and the two of them sucked the same finger of their hand when they got tired.  Sometimes I asked Vickie if I could have some of her finger juice; she just shook her head “no” and laughed; that was a pretty funny joke we had.  One Sunday, Vickie got right in Uncle Gerald’s car when it was time to go home.  Uncle Gerald turned around in the driver’s seat to count his kids; he saw Vickie there and thought she was Janet.  I guess he was a bad counter, ’cause he had one extra little girl.  When he got all the way to his house, and Aunt Millie sat the supper-table, they realized they had an extra kid.  Uncle Gerald just laughed because he thought Dad was playing a joke on him; those brothers were always playing jokes on each other.  In the meantime, everybody else searched frantic-like for Vickie.  Whenever something was lost and Mom wanted it found, I dropped everything and started looking, ’cause Mom got super-grouchy when she was looking for stuff and nobody helped.  We even had a special prayer to St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things: “Tony Tony, look around, something’s lost and must be found.”  That day  St. Anthony must have dropped everything, because everyone was praying, even the non-catholics.  I bet a whole lot of  prayers were left unanswered,  on account of all the ones going up about Vickie; and the entire time she was at Uncle Gerald’s having a bowl of ice cream.

Vickie was the last of the Big Kids:  Sometimes I was trying my darndest to be like Deanna, who just wanted to be left alone, Vickie was trying to be like Bonita, who was trying to be Dad’s best boy.  Maybe we were always in some version of that swing contest, we just kept swinging and jumping and trying hard to make our mark, and once in a while something got knocked loose.  I guess we all got lost now and then, sometimes we didn’t even realize it.  The  most important thing is that someone is always there to dust us off when we got knocked in the teeth and someone is there to celebrate when we find our way again.

Happy Birthday, Vickie

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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.

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

Load ’em Up, Head ’em Out

Dad took two weeks of vacation every summer. 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, but he learned how much fun it could be from Mom. Mom camped when she was a little girl, and that’s before there were even campgrounds.

First off, we had to bake cookies for the trip. Mom had a big lard-tin that had to get filled up with home-baked cookies.

Deanna baked Cherry Winks, yucky, I hated those: marachino cherries and corn flakes. I hated Corn flakes ’cause of the six thousand boxes we ate saving Post Toasties box tops for all those free cereal bowls and juice glasses, and marachino cherries were so sweet they made my teeth hurt.

Vickie made no bake chocolate cookies, that’s the first thing I learned how to make in 4-H Cooking; except for learning how to make a root beer float,  that’s just scooping and pouring. Any do-do bird can do that.

Bonita made peanut butter cookies. Yum, those were best still warm with a glass of good, cold milk. I liked to hold a bite of cookie in my mouth and let the milk soak in. That’s almost the same as dunking, but no crumbs in the milk glass. Mom hated dunking, it was against the rules.

I made chocolate chip cookies, my very favorite kind, and the kind I got my first blue ribbon for in my first year of 4-H. Each of us Big Kids made about 10 dozen cookies each. I had to eat some right out of the oven, ’cause that caramel-good smell with melting chocolate made my mouth get slippery inside and it seemed like those cookies just begged to be eaten. That left a big greasy stain on the newspaper, so I put new cookies on those stains, so Mom wouldn’t know I snitched cookies.

Making cookies took a long time, ’cause I could only bake one sheet at a time, and each sheet took exactly 12 minutes. Let’s see, that’s 12X10 or 120 minutes. Okay that was only 2 hours of baking, but then there was the mixing and washing the dishes, and finally packing into the tin, with a perfect circle of waxed paper between every layer of cookies. Holy smokes, that was a project. Twelve minutes was too long to just sit around staring at the oven, so I liked to read in between. The only trouble was, if I got lost in my book and forgot to set the timer, pretty soon somebody was yelling,

“The cookies are burning,” which was usually Mom, ’cause nobody else paid attention to smoke like Mom did. Grandpa was a fireman, so she knew all about fires and she was scared to death of our house burning. She was always saying, “Are you trying to burn the house down?” That was another one of those questions I wasn’t supposed to answer.

Once I wondered what she would say if
Continue reading