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.

Itching For a New Nose

This is the time year when I close the windows and turn on the air filter.  I begin days when Jack Frost paints the fields with a layer of white icing.  Years before I knew Ragweed was my enemy, I wished for the sweet relief a killing frost would bring.  A world of itching filled late summer and early fall, when I was a little girl.  The real kind, not the figurative kind that’s good for us all.

My skin itched like crazy.  Sometimes, Mom taped popsicle sticks to the inside of my arms, so I had to keep my arms straight.  She thought that would keep me from scratching.  I scratched the back of my knees, and my ankles.  My skin itched from the inside out.  I needed to scratch down to the bone; not like the picky itch that a wooly sweater gives, or the sweaty itch that humid heat gives, or even the itch of a dozen mosquito bites.  It was an itch from the inside out.

“Stop that scratching,”  Mom said.  I looked down, and sure enough, there were my fingers right under the hem of my dress or wrinkling up my pant leg,just a-scratching away, without my permission.  I knew what it meant to have an itch that couldn’t be scratched.  Mom put a thick, white cream on my skin to help the itch go away.  Maybe it helped; maybe the itch would have been worse without that metallic smelling cream smeared all over me.

I knew the worst was on its way when my throat started itching.  I could get at the top of my throat with the back of my tongue, but that was just the beginning.  My eyes itched, the inside of my ears itched, and my nose itched. I pushed my nose up with the palm of my hand and rubbed it around and around in circles just to get some relief. That traitor nose Continue reading

Lemons, Smiles, and The One

Citrus x limon flowers.

Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday a dear friend from high school told me he always liked my smile.  I do like to smile.  For some reason that simple statement reminded me of something I did long ago when I was still a little girl, trying hard to be grown-up.  I wrote a letter to Ann Landers, the advice columnist.  Yes, I was so sure I was in the right and Mom was wrong, I wrote a letter to get documentation from a respected outside source.

Dear Ann Landers,” I wrote using my stationery with the violets on the upper left corner.  “My Mom forbids me to go steady. I’m not going steady, I just want to date the same boy.  I’ve liked him since 8th grade, and only this year have I been allowed to date.   I don’t have his ring or anything and we don’t say we’re going steady.  He’s just the only boy I’m interested in.  I know he’s The One.  That’s not enough for Mom.  Now she insists that I go on three dates with other boys between each date with The One.  I think this is unfair.  I am only allowed to go out on a date once a week, which is stricter than any other parents.   Mom’s new rule means I will be able to date The One only once a month.  How should I handle this situation.  Sincerely, Love Thwarted.”

That last word before my signature,  ‘situation’, proved I was grown for sure, and ‘Love Thwarted,’ well, that was better than any signature I ever saw in Ann Landers’s newspaper column.

I waited and waited, watching the mailbox every day.  Running down our long gravel drive, the only driveway with stupid black walnuts in the ruts, to assure no one else saw my letter first.  I never got any privacy.  I planned to read Ann Landers’s reply out-loud.  Preferably at the supper table.

At last my response came in the Self-addressed Stamped Envelope I provided.  That’s how I recognized it.  I opened the letter in the kitchen, ready to proclaim the respected and sage advice of Ann Landers to that ever kitchen-occupying mother of mine.  My plans changed on the spot.  I couldn’t possibly wait all the way to suppertime.  I would show Mom the error of her ways right now.  She didn’t have a clue about how the real world worked.  I was about to one-up her, big time. Continue reading

Working at The Grill

A picture of a picture of The Grill. I took this, with permission, at the Railroad Museum

I got my first job when I was sixteen.    I was old enough to get out there an earn some money with a real job.  M-78 Grill decided to give me my first break:  A summer job as a car-hop.  My memory fails to recall the name of the owners, so I will call them Floyd and Mabel.  Hazel was the cook.  I thought I knew so much, at sixteen. I was no longer a little girl.  Yet, I was still a lot younger than I thought.

Deanna already worked at the William’s Drug Store for a whole year.  She made sundaes and sodas and sold people Nickle Cokes and made up special Cherry Cokes, which you couldn’t buy in a bottle back then. A squirt of cherry syrup got mixed into the coke, special at the fountain.  Deanna was Cool; everybody liked Deanna.  Especially Boys; they all came in and ordered Nickle Cokes, just to be close to Deanna.  Half of them were afraid to even say “hi” to her.  Sometimes she worked behind the counter.  Once an old man about as old as Dad came in and asked for rubbers. Continue reading

Hot Times at Kewpee: So Cool

Summertime seemed to last forever, when I was a little girl.  By the time the first official day of summer came, it seemed like the weather had blazed hot for months.  Hot and humid, the skies threatened thunderstorms and I could smell heat lightning even before I could see it on the horizon.  No one wanted to work.  No one wanted to cook.  No one even cared about playing.  Those were days for loading into the car, rolling the window down and going for a drive.

Deanna was almost a teenager when Dad and Mom first took us to get a Kewpee burger.  Maybe she was actually a teenager, ’cause she sure acted like one.  Deanna was only 13 months older than me, just a little more than a year, but for the two of us that was more like in dog years, ’cause when it came to boys and friends, I was way, way behind her.  I was still giving little kids pony-back rides and running on the beach on all fours pretending to be a dog right along with Bonita and Vickie, when Deanna was wearing a bra and rolling her hair in curlers and ratting her hair way up and bobby-pinning a tiny grosgrain bow right at the base of the mountain of hair she made and stuck in place with Aqua Net.  She had a whole bag full of those bows, so she had just the right one to match every single thing she wore.  I just threw on shorts and a shirt, and let Mom pull my hair back in a ponytail and hoped Deanna or Mom didn’t say I looked like a ragamuffin, which meant go change your clothes.  Changing clothes was such a waste of time.

I heard Mom and Dad talk about Kewpee burgers all the time, but they never took us before.  Not that I remember, anyhow.  I remembered that time with Deanna though, ’cause Dad was marching his magpies into that store proud as a mother duck marching her

This Kewpee is in Lansing, MI to this very day. It looks a lot like the one Dad and Mom took us to.

ducklings down to the lake for their first swim, only we looked a whole lot less organized than those ducks all in a straight row.  Deanna took off a bee-line straight to Kewpee, with her nose in the air sniffing Continue reading