The Marker, the Bedspread, and One Evil Sister

As evocative as this title appears, these three seemingly unrelated objects shaped a sizable chunk of my youth.  How?  Oh, I’ll tell you how.  And I’ll share with you the remnants of a tormented soul, a child who lived in fear nearly every single day of that anguished era—a time when a little girl’s conscience should be free to laugh, to play, to sing, to dance, and dream—but instead, was reminded every morning that this could be the very day when the truth about the mark on the bedspread would be revealed.

Remember those sweet years in elementary school when teachers would lovingly prepare their young charges for St. Valentine’s Day by asking them to construct a Valentine’s box—a repository of love promises, chalky hearts, and the occasional marriage proposal?  The year was 1972, and I had just turned nine years old.  I remember that I was nine because my mother, in an uncharacteristic burst of ‘Best Mum in the ‘Hood’-edness, had thrown me a birthday party, complete with guests, games, prizes, treat bags, and an amazingly luscious cake adorned with all eight characters from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.  Stop counting—she left the Evil Queen out of the tableau.  After all, my sister Becky was already in attendance.

But more about Becky later.  The cake with the figurines was truly my favorite part of the one and only birthday party my mother had ever thrown (in all fairness to the other two sibs, she never threw them even one birthday party), and I treasured those little plastic friends, even going so far as to bring them to school with me one day and stash them secretly in the back left corner of my desk.  When Miss Eaton wasn’t looking (or wasn’t chewing off some other poor child’s face—more about her later), I would take out Snow White and talk to her, tell her a little about my day, what we were having for lunch, and who had just let a really bad stinker over in the third row.  Remember, I am the one who, a few years earlier, spent most of my waking hours with my imaginary friend Robin, so don’t judge.

That afternoon, Miss Eaton described for us our task.  We were to construct, out of found items (nothing bought!), a Valentine’s box that—and this was the most important thing—was decorated to reflect something about ourselves.  We would then play a game and guess who had created each masterpiece before depositing our hand-written Valentine greetings into each others’ repository.  Oh, what fun!

If I do say so myself, I was quite the creative little artist when I was a child, and, fortunately, my mother, too, had an artistic flair, so our house was not going to lack for “found items”.  That night, I began planning my creation, my tour de force, my Snow White Valentine’s box. 

That you already knew that my box would be adorned (last time you’ll see me type those words—ever) with the Snow White characters (sans witch) means that you are an attentive reader.  That you’re wondering how the three items in my title created an everlasting hell during my formative years means that I’ve kept you in suspense.  Here’s what happened:

Becky and I shared a room.  My mother, ever the artist, had recently re-decorated said room for about the fourth or fifth time.  Part of the re-decorating budget was dedicated to the purchase of two matching bedspreads with accompanying pillow shams.  The bedspreads were red with yellow ruffles, each color adorned with a small flower print pattern.  These bedspreads had to be special-ordered from the JCPenney catalogue (light years before Bed, Bath, and Beyond, my blog-readin’ friends), and Susan had threatened us with a painful and embarrassing punishment if we so much as left an errant booger on any part of these newly purchased and quite beautiful bed linens. 

In fashioning my masterpiece of a Valentine’s box, I was fortunate to have in my possession an entire rainbow of magic markers—a birthday present from Ronnie C., I think—that I was going to use to fabricate some of the original artwork that would adorn the Valentine’s box.  The box had already been wrapped in sky blue—yes blue—tissue paper (daringly original?  I think so), and plans to glue Snow White and her little boyfriends on top of the box were already cranking away in my nine year-old brain. 

In my haste to release the vivid, vibrant, and permanent magic markers from their plastic prison, I tore open the package whilst sitting on my bed, resulting in a shower of markers exploding all over the place and landing upon that sacred bedspread. 

Panicked, I scurried to my feet and snatched up the markers, careful to not un-cap any of them.  Now that I had no home for them, I simply opened up my newly assembled Valentine’s day box and tossed them inside, quickly, as if that would erase the fact that they were ever on my bed in the first place.  I did not realize until it was too late that one single, stray, brown marker, sans cap, had nestled itself under my stuffed bunny rabbit. 

Since brown wasn’t a color I wished to feature on a beautifully crafted Valentine’s Day box, I didn’t miss my little nut-colored friend, not until I sat back down on my recently purchased JCPenney red and yellow ruffled bedspread with the accompanying pillow sham.  Blissfully unaware of how my life was about to change, I rolled atop Mr. Brown, causing him to leave a decidedly dark, bleeding, and permanent memory of himself right smack dab in the middle of the bedspread.

Remember, I shared a room with Becky; ergo, as luck would have it, Becky was present when I, in horror, gasped in disbelief at the recently minted and clearly visible brown splotch, searched in vain for the marker’s cap, and began sobbing uncontrollably at my astonishing misfortune.  What had so lovingly begun as an exercise in creativity would forever remain, indelible as that stain on my bed, as the fateful night that Becky took possession of my very soul.

How?  Simple sisterly blackmail.  I became, in present day patois, her bitch.  There wasn’t a thing that I could do about it or she would tell Mum about the mark on my bed.  In fact, as I write those words—the mark on my bed—I still get a sick feeling in my gut that my careless blunder might even today launch the planet into Armageddon so indelible were those words she uttered lo’ those forty-one years ago:  “I’ll tell Mum about the mark on the bed.”  For months, ‘the mark on the bed’ represented my tortured psyche—she owned me spot, cap, and marker.

Utterly brutalized by her daily reminder of my shame, after nearly a year, I caved.  Seeing no other possible way out of my servitude, I tearfully confessed my egregious sin to my mother, shakily handing her one of her Puma tennis shoes so that she could turn me over her knee and beat my ass with it (I thought that if I assisted her in my punishment that it wouldn’t be so painful).  Gulping, sobbing, with rivers of snot running out of my nose, I told her how sorry I was for ruining my new bedspread. 

Her response?  “Oh, honey, don’t worry, I know it was an accident.  Becky told me all about it months ago.  Why are you crying?”

Magnanimously, and because I have a loving and gentle heart, I managed to forgive my sister Becky for the mirthful ease with which she tortured me that year.  Doubtless, she was probably getting even for my being the only child in our family to have had a birthday party.  I get it.















Two Towns, Two Lakes, Not Too Long Ago

Even in the 60s and 70s, my hometown Linesville, Pennsylvania, for all of its perceived artlessness, was actually a small tourist town and remains so today, at least from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Each Saturday of Memorial Day weekend heralded the official start of summer, and the beaches and campgrounds of Pymatuning Lake unfurled themselves from the winter’s gloom and spring’s muddy wetness in time for another season of swimming, fishing, and camping. After Labor Day, Linesville and Pymatuning said goodbye to its summer explosion of visitors, exhaled, then folded inward onto itself, returning to attach to the high school as the epicenter for what passed as bustle and activity—much like most little towns of that era.

Summer in Linesville was unique if only because of the assortment of people who landed there from the working class steel cities south of Pymatuning—an array of out-of-towners who, whether it was for a week, a weekend, or for the entire season, straggled into the area towing their sleek campers and state-of-the-art fishing boats behind rusted out pickup trucks and patched station wagons. Along with the townies, these summer folks ate breakfast at the Driftwood Restaurant, played pinball and shopped for sundries at Coursen’s Cut Rate, bought Coleman lanterns and replacement propane tanks at Tabor’s Hardware, pawed through the musty assortment of tents and used camping supplies at Morrison’s Army Surplus, purchased Cokes and Saegertown Ginger Ale at Grant Woodard’s grocery store, stopped in to Isaly’s to stock up on chip-chop ham, wandered through the three cramped aisles of the Five and Ten for penny candy, plastic kiddie toys, and, of course, never failed to step next door to the bait and tackle shop to prepare for the day’s fishing. The summertime shower of out-of-towners were well aware that Linesville lacked the charm of more commercial tourist towns, towns like Put-in-Bay, in Ohio or Mackanaw Island, in Michigan; nonetheless, for a working class family from Pittsburgh or Youngstown or Kittanning, a camping excursion or a fishing trip to Pymatuning was a chance to break free from the grit of the city, breathe in some fresh air, drink Iron City beer, and roast wieners alongside other working class folks from Youngstown, Pittsburgh, or Kittanning.

If Linesville laid claim to Pymatuning Lake, its neighbor to the east, the Town of Conneaut Lake, boasted its pride and joy and its namesake–Conneaut Lake. Town-wise, there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between Linesville and the Town of Conneaut Lake, but an unspoken and solid reality existed: Conneaut Lake, and the Town of Conneaut Lake which sits right to its south, featured a captivating measure of vacation magic that made it much more alluring to tourists, especially those with more capital than Linesville’s summertime flotsam and jetsam. If Linesville was a bologna sandwich on white bread, Conneaut Lake was steak and lobster.

Though the lake itself was smaller, Conneaut Lake, unlike its bigger brother Pymatuning, was a clear, crisp, spring-fed glacier-made body of water that had existed long before the wooly mammoths and Iroquois Indians had inhabited the deciduous forest surrounding it. Its main attraction, its crowning glory, and, for many families, the pinnacle of their summer vacation was a magical day spent at Conneaut Lake Park, an historic turn-of-the-century amusement park featuring an exciting assortment of rides, its own charming boardwalk overlooking the entire lake, the popular nighttime hangout The Beach Club, the stately and prestigious Hotel Conneaut, an impressive and historic midway, and one of the country’s oldest and most thrilling wooden roller coasters, The Blue Streak. If one was looking for magic in this little corner of northwestern Pennsylvania, it certainly could be found at Conneaut Lake Park. The entire Park was gushing with enchantment, charm, and its own Fairyland Forest, a sweet addendum located across the road from the main Park, which showcased exotic creatures nested in a storybook setting—an added attraction for smaller children and animal lovers. That the establishment’s resident chimpanzee was notorious for flinging fresh feces at its gawkers and the bear was suffering from some type of mange did not detract from the number of delighted visitors flocking to Fairyland Forest for a calm respite following the bustle of The Park.

A mere ten miles to the west lay the vast and steady shores of Pymatuning, with its safely benign ten horsepower motor limit and profusion of fat pontoon boats teeming with life-jacketed retirees and flat-bottomed outboard fishing boats. Pymatuning was a “Fisherman’s Paradise”; its main attraction The Spillway, located about a mile south of town, an asphalt funnel about twenty feet in diameter where fish that were bred and hatched at the park’s upper lake fish hatchery would gather in such profusion (before being sucked through the funnel and ferried under the dividing causeway’s bridge to the lower lake) that it became a favorite stop for visitors who liked to throw bread over the rail and watch the fish devour it. Though a variety of fish were bred at the hatchery, The Spillway’s most frequent guests were carp,—big, bloated oversized goldfish that bullied themselves over to The Spillway because in some corner of their paraphyletic brains, they learned that food was being proffered. Then, once the area’s ducks discovered that human visitors were actually casting entire loaves of stale bread into the spillway to feed the bloated goldfish, these fowl were savvy enough to learn how to walk on the backs of those same fish in order to snatch the bread before it was consumed by the gaping, sucking mouths of the greedy carp. Thus, Linesville became known as the town “Where the Ducks Walk on the Fish”. Most first-time visitors to the area thought the moniker was a clever slogan made up by the Chamber of Commerce to entice hunters and fishermen to the area, but once initiated into the reality that is The Spillway, they soon discovered that the ducks do indeed walk on the fish in order to nick some bread—or empty beer cans, or the twist ties from the bread bags, or cigarette butts or any other manner of detritus cruelly heaved at fish and fowl.

Sadly, Conneaut Lake did not feature any manner of pedestrian attraction equal to the evolutionary marvel that The Spillway represented. On Conneaut Lake, though, visitors could delight at the panorama of slick Chris Crafts and Ski Nautiques pulling bikinied water skiers eagerly waving to the bathers on Fireman’s Beach or on the docks of the private Iroquois Club, or better yet, witness a ‘ski-by’ past The Park’s boardwalk. Those who vacationed on Conneaut Lake could choose among a variety of fun and exciting water activities—speed boating, water skiing, floating endlessly on plump, brightly colored rafts, and could enjoy swimming with inflatable toys, beach balls, and other accessories such as fins and masks, while Pymatuning’s water enthusiasts were left floating on Grandpa’s boat, fishing for walleye, or swimming at one of the State Park’s beaches notorious for their draconian rules (no inflatables!) that sucked all of the fun out of the swimming experience. This triggered envy among many of Pymatuning’s vacationers. If, in the course of their trip, they had been unfortunate enough to have peeked at the excitement that Conneaut Lake had to offer—perhaps after spending a dizzying day at The Park—these same folks might have longed for a more civilized holiday. Instead of a moldy tent or a musty pop up camper in which to sleep, they just might pine for the luxury of falling into deep Adirondack chairs perched on the back lawn of their lakeside cottage while watching the twinkling of boat lights on Conneaut Lake as their children enjoy a midnight swim off the dock. Pymatuning’s campers were the kids on the field trip to the ketchup factory; Conneaut Lake’s tourists were at Disney World. The younger the tourist, the more pleasure Conneaut Lake provided. It wasn’t unusual on a Saturday or Sunday to find ten to twenty boats lashed together on the sandbar in Conneaut Lake’s Huidekoper Bay, tethered coolers of beer floating between boats; the urine content of the bay most likely rendering the entire lake unsuitable for swimming. It was as if Conneaut Lake was the rich cousin with the expensive toys everyone wanted to play with and Pymatuning was the matron aunt with the comfortable lap and the stale breath that smelled like old people.

Curiously enough, this distinction often played out in the rivalry that existed between the townspeople of both Conneaut Lake and Linesville. Conneaut Lake was hip, it was fun, it was where everyone wanted to be in the summer; Pymatuning, and its accompanying village of Linesville, was like returning to something safe and quiet, earthy, and serene. Summertime cottages surrounded Conneaut Lake; Pymatuning’s shoreline was protected wildlife areas—the entire reservoir and its surrounding wetlands were all part of the state park.

Those summertime cottages that dotted Conneaut Lake’s shoreline were usually owned by wealthy folks from Pittsburgh; that is, they were wealthy by Linesville’s standards. Farther inland, the year round homes were either large family estates that had been broken up into smaller pieces of acreage and owned by locals, or were comprised of one or two acres upon which more modern mid-century ranch homes were built. Thus, not only did the summertime fun discrepancy between the two towns loom large, but the differences in lifestyles among each town’s inhabitants created an interesting dynamic when it came time to play each other in high school basketball.

Today, some parts of Linesville appear as if frozen in time, while others, like The Spillway—that steadfast attraction that remains thanks to the resolute nature of fish, ducks, and bread—have been updated and modernized. In contrast, Conneaut Lake, as the tragic result of The Park’s tumultuous management and mysterious demise, represents what happens when the stewardship of a veritable jewel falls into the hands of individuals with less than honorable motives. The Town and its surrounding area have sadly deteriorated.

Like many of life’s sparkling treasures, one doesn’t appreciate the gifts enjoyed in youth until they no longer exist.

June Bride

I have recently experienced what many would call an awakening—an epiphany. I am willingly and graciously recanting some—er–statements that I posted in an earlier blog. I’ll let you figure out which one. It’s my prerogative, after all, as a woman, to change my mind every once in awhile. And it proves that I am human.

Last evening, while many of my contemporaries were enjoying the finer things in life–like, oh, maybe the aroma of a good cigar, an elegant dinner with dear friends, a quiet moment shared with a lover, or were simply curled up with a good book, I was in a hotel room outside of Cleveland, Ohio (yep, the same one) watching television. I’m not proud, and I’m not–I’m not going to pretend that this time around I wasn’t utterly fascinated with last night’s repeat of the season finale of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo—the wedding—pardon me, the commitment ceremony episode where Mama June, after nine years of shacking up, marries her baby’s daddy Sugar Bear. Nor will I make fun of everything that transpired during the episode, just the highlights.

The show truly is like a bad car wreck in terms of voyeuristic affinities. As you’re watching, you know you shouldn’t be—not only should you be doing something more productive with your time, like, well, just about…anything, but the peek through the keyhole of this family’s existence, this intimate snapshot of the day-to-day life involving this family is, well, downright embarrassing at times. However, once the viewer experiences the essence of Mama June and the mischievous charm of her young’uns, it simply can’t be helped. Who does that stuff—the farting, the snorting of snot, the scratching of bellies and bums, the belching, and the cussing? Who but June and her lovely daughters, that’s who.

For the uninitiated, the reality TV series Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is a spin-off of the network’s (and I’m refusing to name the network because absolutely no learning is going on; its just prurience) makes-you-want-to-bitch-slap-that-mother offering Toddlers and Tiaras. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’s principal player is Alana Thompson, a.k.a. Honey Boo Boo, a frequent flyer of the child beauty pageant circuit who sashays her chubby little self across the stage at various pageant venues that take place a half tank of gas and a few hour’s truck drive away from her McIntyre, Georgia home. You know the house—it’s the one next to the railroad track.

To summarize:

Mama June, while working in some factory, got her foot runned over by a forklift so now she has a wonky foot that she calls her ‘forklift foot’. It aint pretty. You can find it in Google images. Ew.

Sugar Bear is Alana’s daddy. He is pure redneck. Nuff said.

One of the girls, Anna, I think, but they call her Chickadee, has a kid—a baby named Kaitlyn (I’m not sure how Anna spells it this week). The baby is passed around the sisters like a little doll.

Punkin (sic) is another one of the sisters, and she’s kinda’ fat. She has masculine tendencies, so don’t be surprised if she up and exchanges her panties for boxers or briefs.

There’s another chubby sister, but at this point they all seem to sound and look the same, so I’m not remembering anything special ‘bout her.

Honey Boo Boo, the show’s namesake, is also kinda fat like Punkin and likes to grab her belly and make it talk. She’s Sugar Bear’s daughter. And June’s.

And now here’s the Hillbilly Highlights of last night’s episode:

• Mama June wore a cammo-themed wedding dress.
• Sugar Bear wore cammo pants and an orange vest.
• The older girls were bridesmaids, and Boo Boo and Baby Kaitlyn were little flower girls.
• Kaitlyn was pulled down the aisle in a wagon.
• The dog was the first one down the aisle, and I kept waiting for it to take a dump.
• Or at least take a leak on Sugar Bear’s pant leg.
• They wrote their own vows.
• Sugar Bear cried.
• I cried.

Yes. I cried.

Now that I have delivered my stuck-up, snotty, snooty, bourgeois assessment of this family, let me share with you the takeaway. Boo Boo’s family, for all of their coarse manners and common language, genuinely love, laugh, and live for one another. Yes, I realize that one of June’s daughters is a teen mom, but for an ardent proponent of life like myself, I am profoundly grateful that the young lady made the choice to bring the child into this world and did not march off to Planned Parenthood in order to “take care of it” (such an oxymoron, don’t you think?). Sorry, folks, but that took guts.

Despite her daughter’s less than pristine virtue, June is a good mother, in her own coupon clipping way. She may not have a nutritionist’s grasp of the benefits of a healthy diet, but she certainly makes sure everyone is fed. The family eats dinner together (albeit on the sofa). Sugar Bear, despite his dearth of visible teeth (they’re in there—I checked, you just can’t see them), loves June. For a man with three stepdaughters, he doesn’t play favorites, treating all of the girls as if they were his own.

Their reality may not be my reality, but it is real. This is verisimilitude in its purest form. So if you tell me that you’ve never farted in front of anyone, you’ve never been spied scratching your itchy butt, you’ve never attempted to burp the alphabet, nor shot a snot rocket out of your nose, go ahead and stick up that oh-so perfect NPR listening, public television watching nose of yours at the Boo Boos of the world.

As for me, I can’t help myself. I think they’re wonderful. Just don’t call it a ‘biscuit’.