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.

Memory Waves on a Rainy Day

Death was part of life on the farm, when I was a little girl.  Cats died from milk fever, dogs got hit by cars, the cows and pigs we knew by name got sent to the butcher’s and returned as beef and pork for dinner.  People only died when they got really old, like Dziadzia, he was my great-grandfather, or like that truck driver Mom and Dad knew who had a heart attack when he was 43.   People always lived a long time.  Except for Bobbie-Jo.

My sister Deanna’s good friend, Cleta, had a big sister, Bobbie-Jo. Cleta and Bobbie-Jo rode my bus to school.  Bobbie-Jo wore big skirts with three can-cans underneath, so she barely fit through the aisle of the bus. She swished past me, heading for the back of the bus where the slick teenagers sat, but not in the very back seat.  The hoods sat in the very back seats, with their DA haircuts all slicked back except for a slippery curl in the middle of their foreheads.  I could smell just a whisper of lily-of-the-valley after Bobbie-Jo squeezed by; I tried to hold that smell in the back of my nose and not let go, she smelled so good.  I probably smelled like wet straw, from doing morning chores.

Bobbie-Jo’s hair was dark brown, even darker than Bonita’s, and pulled back in a tight, high ponytail that she brushed into a loose ringlet.  When she walked, the tip of that curl brushed against the back of her neck.   Bobbie-Jo was always laughing and smiling, that nice kind of smile that meant ‘I really like my life’ or maybe her ponytail just tickled her neck all the time.  Sometimes I just wanted to tug on her skirt and say, “Hey Bobbie-Jo, you can sit by me.”  Of course I  never did, ’cause my best-friend-from-the-bus, Betty, got on first and always sat right down next to me, and besides, Bobbie-Jo was a teenager, she only liked other teenagers.  And her sister, Cleta.  Of course she liked Cleta.  Mom said you have to be good to your sister, you will never find a better friend, ’cause your sister’s gonna know you from the time you’re born. No one else will know you  forever like that.  A sister will always be there for you.

Bobbie-Jo learned to drive and got a part-time job after school over in the City.  Sometimes, she had to drive home kinda late at night, especially on the weekend.  One night when it was raining really hard, a man drove right into her lane and hit her straight, head-on.  Bobbie-Jo never knew what hit her.  She died right then and there. I know that because I heard it straight from the guy at the funeral parlor.

Cleta’s phone was on the same party-line as my phone.  If you had a party-line and if you heard a voice on the line, you had to hang up really fast.  Listening-in was super rude and an invasion of privacy.  Besides that, Mom got hopping mad if she caught anyone listening-in.  Deanna could lift that phone up and cover the receiver; she listened-in without anyone knowing.  I tried sometimes, ’cause it was kind of interesting to hear boring stuff going on at somebody else’s house, but usually whoever was talking, mostly Lois, my best-friend-from-the-bus, Betty’s, teenager sister, would say “Hang up the phone!” in an angry voice.  I hated people getting angry at me, even when they didn’t know it was me.  Anyway, when Bobbie-Jo got in that car wreck, I stayed right away from that phone.  I only picked it up once, and I heard Cleta’s mom crying to the undertaker.  That was the worst kind of sadness I ever heard.

Teacher took the whole class to the funeral home to pay our respects to Cleta and her family; it was only three blocks away, so we all walked down there at Noon Hour.  I think the whole school went to the funeral home that day.  Lots of adults stood around saying how good Bobbie-Jo looked.  That body in there did not even look like Bobbie-Jo to me:  no smile, no can-cans fluffing her dress way out, and no ponytail at all, just a fancy curly hairstyle, kind of like her mom’s, that Bobbie-Jo never, ever wore in real life.

Now Cleta had no sister at all.  Who was going to be her friend for life? I was so lucky, I had five sisters.  Five friends for life.  Cleta only had Bobbie-Jo.

Rainy days like today are good days for thinking about sad memories.  Somehow we manage to keep going after deep losses; I guess it’s just what’s called human resiliency. But sometimes the memories come swelling up from way deep inside like a wave.  The kind of wave that I can hardly see approaching until all of a sudden, I’m deep in over my head.  I hope people like Cleta find someone who can be as good a friend as a sister is.  I thank God everyday that I have five sisters far away, yet close in spirit.  Everybody needs friends like that.

(Just for the record, my brothers are pretty darn keen friends, too.)

Rules? Whose rules?

When I was a little girl, playtime I had was pretty much unsupervised.  I could roam the fields, walk over to my friend Betty’s house, or play ball at Mike’s with his brother and sister, and the rest of the neighborhood kids.  I dared to go down Terry Lane with Nancy and Dougie, and built villages in the brush with Tommy and Bonita.  Of course we had rules.  Some got handed out by parents, some were rules of the games, some we made up by ourselves.

“Walk on the left side of the road,” Mom said.  “So you can see what’s coming.” Continue reading

Sometimes a Picture is Just a Picture

I loved to draw and color and play with clay, but I could never get the media to do what I wanted it to do.  When I was a little girl, Mom thought I might like a paint by number set; perhaps she thought some guidance would help me get the hang of things. That was a disaster.  Still, Janet, a daughter of one of Dad’s army buddies, did teach me a thing or two about drawing and I passed what I learned on to my little sister Vickie.

Shirley and Bob adopted Janet from Germany.  They adopted her brother, too, whose name I don’t remember, so I’ll just call him Gordon.  Dad and Mom knew Shirley and Bob from way back when they were alive, before they all got married.  I could call them by their first name with no Mrs., or Aunt tacked on or anything.  God forgot to give them babies of their own, so they adopted some from Germany.  That was Janet and Gordon.  Bob went to work every day in Sunday clothes.  Shirley smelled like lily of the valley; she was tall and so skinny her hip bones stuck out of her skirt like giant elbows.  She was a mother, same as every woman I knew, except teachers, who lived at the school and had enough of kids all day long, so were happy not having any of their own.

Janet was super-good at drawing things.  She showed me her lesson book that she got in the mail every month, same as I got books from the Weekly Reader Summer Reading program.  Janet said she could share her lessons with me next time I came over.  My mom learned everything from books, so I gave it a whirl, too. I learned how to draw a tree with branches and bark from Janet’s book.  I never did learn how to put the leaves on, though, ’cause that lesson came the next month, and by the time I saw Janet, she and I forgot all about the art lessons she promised me.  Anyways, I just drew bare-naked trees with terrific branches and bark, so all my pictures were either fall or winter pictures.  I knew how to draw a big pile of leaves on the ground, and anybody can draw snow:  You just have to color the ground white, or even leave that part blank.  Janet had a box of special charcoal pencils, which worked way better than the Number 2 pencils I had, but Number 2 was good enough for me, ’cause those charcoal pencils smudged around on the page, and on the heel of my hand and before I knew it, black smudges were on my face and blouse, and it seemed like they even got in my nose hairs so I smelled charcoal all day long, which was kinda a good smell and dirty smelling all at the same time.

I learned a bit about drawing people at school.  Teacher told me people’s eyes are about 1/3 the way down their face, and ears are about level with eyes, and elbows reach the waist, and hands are the same size as the face.  I got the face down alright, and the arms the right length, and I got the hand the right size, but I never did figure out how to get the fingers right.  Just like with the tree leaves, I figured out how to fix my picture so nobody knew about my drawing handicap:  I either made closed fists on the people I drew, or I put their hands behind their back.

Vickie was the littlest of the big kids, and she sorta looked up to me, even though lots of times she did stuff just as well as me.  Vickie had gigantic blue eyes that always looked like she was asking a question and lips that pouted out in a nice way; plus she had hair just like a guardian angel’s, all wispy and white. When Vickie was sad her face got all still and  her eyes filled up with tears, just sitting there like a little lake, until her eyelashes pushed them over the edge and the tears ran down her face in little rivers.  That face was just about impossible to say no to.  My face got all squinchy-pruney when I cried, which made people laugh and take pictures.

Vickie got interested in drawing ’cause she liked me and wanted to do stuff I did.   I taught her how to draw trees and people, the same way I learned how.  Vickie had a hard time with hands, just like me, so I taught her how to draw fists and hide hands behind the people’s backs, and I taught her how to draw leaves on the ground.  I liked teaching stuff to Vickie.  I already knew I was a pretty smart little girl; still, the way Vickie looked at me when I was showing her stuff I knew made me feel super-extra special. Continue reading

Sisters: Rainy Day Friends

Death was part of life on the farm, when I was a little girl.  Cats died from milk fever, dogs got hit by cars, the cows and pigs we knew by name got sent to the butcher’s and returned as beef and pork for dinner.  People only died when they got really old, like Dziadzia, he was my great-grandfather, or like that truck driver Mom and Dad knew who had a heart attack when he was 43.   People always lived a long time.  Except for Bobbie-Jo.

My sister Deanna’s good friend, Cleta, had a big sister, Bobbie-Jo. Cleta and Bobbie-Jo rode my bus to school.  Bobbie-Jo wore big skirts with three can-cans underneath, so she barely fit through the aisle of the bus. She swished past me, heading for the back of the bus where the slick teenagers sat, but not in the very back seat, where the hoods were.  I could smell just a whisper of lily-of-the-valley after Bobbie-Jo squeezed by; I tried to hold that smell in the back of my nose and not let go, she smelled so good.  I probably smelled like straw, from doing morning chores.

Bobbie-Jo’s hair was dark brown, even darker than Bonita’s, and pulled back in a tight, high ponytail that she brushed into a loose ringlet.  When she walked, the tip of that curl brushed against the back of her neck.   Bobbie-Jo was always laughing and smiling, that nice kind of smile that meant ‘I really like my life’ or maybe her ponytail just tickled her neck all the time.  Sometimes I just wanted to tug on her skirt and say, “Hey Bobbie-Jo, you can sit by me.”  Of course I  never did, ’cause my friend Betty got on the school bus first and always sat right down next to me, and besides, Bobbie-Jo was a teenager, she only liked other teenagers.  And Cleta.  Of course she liked Cleta.  Mom said you have to be good to your sister, you will never find a better friend, ’cause your sister’s gonna know you from the time you’re born:  forever.  A sister will always be there for you.

Bobbie-Jo learned to drive and got a part-time job after school over in the City.  Sometimes, she had to drive home kinda late at night, especially on the weekend.  One night when it was raining really hard, a man drove right into her lane and hit her straight, head-on.  Bobbie-Jo never knew what hit her.  She died right then and there.

Cleta’s phone was on the same party-line as my phone.  If you had a party-line and if you heard a voice on the line, you had to hang up really fast.  Listening-in was super rude and an invasion of privacy.  Besides that, Mom got hopping mad if she caught anyone listening-in.  Deanna could lift that phone up and cover the receiver; she listened-in without anyone knowing.  I tried sometimes, ’cause it was kind of interesting to hear boring stuff going on at somebody else’s house, but usually whoever was talking, mostly Lois, my friend Betty’s teenager sister, would say “Get off the phone!” in an angry voice.  I hated people getting angry at me, even when they didn’t know it was me.  Anyway, when Bobbie-Jo got in that car wreck, I stayed right away from that phone.  I only picked it up once, and I heard Cleta’s mom crying to the undertaker.  That was the worst kind of sadness I ever heard.

Teacher took the whole class to the funeral home to pay our respects to Cleta and her family; it was only three blocks away, so we all walked down there at Noon Hour.  I think the whole school went to the funeral home that day.  Lots of adults stood around saying how good Bobbie-Jo looked.  That body in there did not even look like Bobbie-Jo to me:  no smile, no can-cans fluffing her dress way out, and no ponytail at all, just a fancy curly hairstyle, kind of like her mom’s, that Bobbie-Jo never, ever wore in real life.

Now Cleta had no sister at all.  Who was going to be her friend for life? I was so lucky, I had five sisters.  Five friends for life.  Cleta only had Bobbie-Jo.

Rainy days like today are good days for thinking about sad memories.  Somehow we manage to keep going after deep losses; I guess it’s just what’s called human resiliency.  I hope people like Cleta find someone who can be as good a friend as a sister is.  I thank God everyday that I have five sisters far away, yet close in spirit.  Everybody needs friends like that.

(Just for the record, my brothers are pretty darn keen friends, too.)

A New Day, A New Car, A New Deal

When I was a little girl, we had the same black and white, two-door car, just packing in one more child each year, getting more and more crowded.  We never named our cars, like some people do.  Heck, Mom and Dad had enough trouble naming all the kids; but we kept that car around long enough to feel like they were part of the family.  Dad decided one day that it was time to get a brand, spanking new car:  a station wagon.  Now maybe Julie could get a little space; she hated to be touched and was all the time squealing, “Don’t touch me,” especially in the summer, which was near impossible to do with five kids squeezed together into the back seat, one in the middle front, and Frankie on Mom’s lap.

Dad took all us Magpies to look for a new car. He loved taking us places like that ’cause he could count on somebody’s mouth getting all round and surprised looking and saying something like, “Are these all yours?” Dad was always telling people he had three or four more at home, or another one in the oven, which I knew was a lie, but I didn’t think it counted as a sin.  Sometimes, he said something different, like  “That’s what I’m told.”  Once in a while people said Bonita was the Milkman’s  ’cause she was the only one with dark brown hair the same color as walnuts.  That was pretty silly, ’cause we didn’t buy milk, Dad brought it in from the barn, so any way you looked at it, Bonita was his.  Besides that, Bonita was Dad’s favorite girl, sometime she called her Spider because she had long legs.  I had super short legs, study like tree-trunks, Grandma liked to tell me.  I think she thought that was a good thing. Continue reading

Flowers for Mother’s Day

One time Mom asked me who I would want for a mother if I didn’t have her.  Right off I said my best friend Connie’s mother, then I stopped and thought about it a minute.  Nope, I only wanted Connie’s mom so I could live with Connie.  Connie’s mom was terrible about putting pony tails in Connie’s hair; Mom could put my hair back in a pony tail neat enough to stay all day long.  Connie’s hair was always coming loose and sticking out all wild-looking.  Not Annette’s mom that’s for sure.  She was good at sewing and cooked food from the old country, like nobody’s business, but she was super strict, and probably would make me stop wearing shorts in the summertime; Annette never got to wear shorts.  Betty’s mom knew a whole lot about other people, but if I lived with Betty, I’d get a big sister and a big brother; one big sister was enough for me to keep up with.   I told Mom I guessed I better stick with her.

“Hmmm,” was all Mom had to say to that and she got a look on her face like she did when she was studying a new dress pattern and wanted to make sure she got it right, ’cause she hated to tear stitches out.

Sunday was Mother’s Day, and me and Bonita had our eyes on the lilacs.  Not full bloom yet, but about half-way. Close enough.  I got dressed fast and hurried up Bonita and Vickie, so we could get outside before Mom noticed.

“Where’re you going?” Deanna hissed at me, as she was brushing her teeth.

“To get some lilacs for Mother’s Day.”  I said.

“Mom said not to pick those flowers unless they were fully bloomed.”  Deanna shifted her weight to one side and put her hand on her hip.  She spit out her baking soda and salt solution like she was mad at the sink.  We didn’t use toothpaste ever since Dad said no matter what he did, us kids wouldn’t squeeze from the bottom, and toothpaste was too expensive to waste, and besides that, baking soda and salt are the best for teeth, which was probably true, ’cause my teeth really sparkled.  Anyway, Deanna sure did look like Mom standing there, looking down at me, like I already should know better.  That just made me more determined to get those lilacs.

I could smell lilac all around me as soon as I stepped out on the back porch.  The sunshine made the grass all dazzly and the dandelions looked just like baby suns, all shining and happy looking, so I sent Vickie to pick a bunch, while Bonita and I tackled the lilacs, and grabbed some mustard flowers from behind the Brooder House.  We had to work together to get the lilacs, ’cause the flowers were way up high; so I pulled the branches down, and Bonita ripped the flowers off.  That was pretty tough, but we managed to get a giant armful.  Mom was gonna love these.  Some of the branches stayed down, but the lilac bush had a lot of branches still sticking straight up, so I was pretty sure Mom would never notice.  Then we all went to the side of our house to top our bouquet off with some white quince.  Now that was super-fun, ’cause we called those bushes ‘snow bushes’.  The flowers were just right for shaking.  I got Vickie to sit underneath and Bonita and I just shook and shook, and made those flower petals snow down all around Vickie, sticking in her blond hair and all over her dress.  She looked up at us with her blue eyes dancing, reaching her hands up and laughing up at us.  That was keen as keen can be.  We almost forgot we were getting a bouquet for Mother’s Day.

“Bonita and Adela, where are you?” Mom called from the back porch.  Almost always when she called like that, it meant me and Bonita were close to trouble or already there, so we high-tailed it to the house.  For sure, Vickie was safe, she was too little and innocent to be in any trouble.

“Look at you,”  Mom said.  That’s when I saw those sick yellow-green dandelion streaks all over Vickie’s dress, making it look like she puked all over herself, plus her socks were all wet and muddy looking sticking out of  her pretty Sunday sandals, with  old flower petals stuck all over them and in her dress too.

Mom clicked her tongue in the back of her mouth, and she smiled at us, but it looked kind of like she  pasted that smile on her face, ’cause her eyes looked droopy like mine felt just before I cried after somebody hurts my feelings, and she moved around fast and jerky, like she did when she was a little bit mad about being late.  Plus, Loren lost his shoes again, and Deanna was scurrying around looking for them.  As soon as Bonita and I heard that, we started pulling toys out of the toy box, ’cause for some reason, Loren was always putting his shoes in there, and no one sat still when Mom was looking for something and it was time to go to church, ’cause any minute she might have one of her screaming banshee fits, and nobody wanted that, especially on Mother’s Day.

When it was time for Father Wishmaier to tell us what the Bible story meant, he changed up his mind, and just told us about how we should be good to our mothers instead.  Everybody in the world knew that, nobody needs to say it.  But that day, he said something that stuck with me.  Father said we should be good to our mothers, because if we don’t, we’ll have two kids just like us when we grow up. After church, I asked Mom if she was bad when she was a kid and if she thought I was her punishment, and if I was, did that mean I would still have two kids like me, or if I was off the hook.  She just rolled her eyes over to Dad and said, “I’d like to figure out how your mind comes up with the things you do,” and she pretended to be disgusted with me, but I could see by the way her eyes danced that she was feeling more like when I came home with my report cards and had all A’s.

By the time we got home, the lilacs were all droopy in the vase Mom put them in,  and the dandelions were hanging their heads down resting against the sides, looking sad and almost dead; only the wild mustard flowers still stood at attention, looking all happy to be in the house and where people could see them.  When Grandma got there, she said, “Look at these, don’t they just make the house smell so good.  I bet the Magpies picked those for you.”

“The loveliest centerpiece a Mother’s Day table ever had.” Mom said, and this time I could tell her smile was for real.

In the years since I’ve seen some Mother’s Days almost exactly like that one when I was a little girl.  The one that sticks in my memory the clearest is when my oldest plucked all my tulips and held them out to me with gleeful anticipation with dirt and bulbs still hanging from the limp stems.  If I could choose anyone in the world to be my Mom, I would still choose her.  If I was her punishment, I’m sure by now, she’s more than earned her way into heaven with her love, her restraint and her wisdom.  She’s the best Mom a little girl, or a big girl could ever want.

The Magpies