Flipping the Bird

My sister, one summer, in a burst of generosity and a rare fit of de-cluttering, gave me an antique birdcage on a stand. It was one of her many unique purchases (either at a garage sale or an auction, I don’t remember which), and it, along with about another 1000 square feet of crap, was cluttering up her garage. So, she gave it to me. I thanked her profusely (“Are you sure you don’t want it?”) and, at the same time, promptly shoved it into the back of my mini-van before she came to her senses. I am almost positive she regrets her altruism today.

Since I sometimes feel guilty over having such a rare and exceptional treasure , I make sure that I get as much out of this gift as I can. Oddly enough, I’ve had more fun with that birdcage than one could imagine, and I don’t even have a live bird inside of it. Instead, I purchased a little fake chickadee-like thing at some craft store and painstakingly affixed it to the trapeze within. I did not want to permanently glue it in there because you never know when I might want to switch him out, for, what–maybe a live one?

Because he is not glued in place, the little guy has a tendency, after I’ve squeezed his little wire feet onto the dowel of the trapeze, to hang upside down, bat-like. This gives the impression that the bird is dead. He stays like that most of the time, because, well, he is a fake bird after all. That, and I’m too lazy to really do anything to make him stay upright.

Thus begins my story.

Shortly after I acquired this treasure of mine (cage and bird), I had the floors in my dining room, kitchen, bathroom, and foyer replaced with hardwoods. The fellow who replaced the floors contracted a carpet installer to come by and finish off the carpeting in the living room—butting it up against the hardwoods in the dining room.

One Sunday afternoon, carpet dude shows up, his truck parked and still running with his girlfriend inside chewing her nails. He came in, I showed him the area that needed attending, and he set about his task. I left him there and returned to my laundry folding or whatever it was that I was doing when he came-a-calling.

Once his carpet magic was finished, he hollered, “Ma’am? I’m done.”

I walked into the living room-dining room area to survey his handiwork. Then I glanced up at the birdcage. I made the split second decision to seize the opportunity to have a little fun and said, “Oh, hey…hey! What did you do to my bird? What did you do to my bird?”

Horrified, the guy walked over to the birdcage and cried, “I swear, I didn’t touch him! He was chirping away just a minute ago! I never touched him! Honest!”

Chirping? Nice touch.

Alas, the Oscar goes to me, because I even started crying, saying things like, “I’ve had him for years! What will I tell the children?” and, even better, “How will I go on? How will I go on?”

Carpet guy looked like he was going to vomit all over the floor he had just finished up, and began backing out of the room, still maintaining his innocence in the sudden fatality of the bird. I continued my mournful keening and sobbing, and then suddenly, I smiled and admitted, “Just kidding. It’s a fake bird.”

Most of the time when I prank someone, they respond with a self-deprecating chuckle in a “Ya’ got me!” kind of way. Not carpet dude. I really pissed this guy off. Glaring at me in a most hateful manner, he stormed out of the house, slammed the door, and tore off down the street with his nail chewing girlfriend, and to this day I almost but not quite regret my little joke. Why not? Because I’ve repeated it over and over again every time someone comes into my house for the first time. Hilarious.

In the big scheme of things, my bird caper was, well, just a lark. Or a chickadee.

Fat Bottomed Girls You Make the Rockin’ World Go ‘Round

You know that disease where girls look at themselves in the mirror and see nothing but a fat blob when in reality they’re thin—sometimes too thin? Yeah, well I don’t have that disease; apparently, I have the opposite condition. I look at myself in the mirror and say, “Oh, okay. I’m good. I look all right. These jeans don’t make my butt look big.” I go out, I have a good time, dance a little, pose for pictures, and the next day when all those pictures show up on Facebook, I am horrified. Disgusted. Wishing I was Amish and couldn’t pose for graven images. Wishing I was Amish and had never drunk boxes and boxes of cheap wine. Wishing I was Amish and wasn’t on Facebook to see my fat ass because apparently the Amish are the only demographic missing from Facebook. Wishing I was Amish and had never made the poor choice to put on a pair of jeans in the first place.

The good news is that I have never been a skinny girl. As a former gymnast, I’ve always been referred to as “athletic” or “solid”. The bad news is that I have never been a skinny girl, will never be a skinny girl, and to be referred to as “athletic” or “solid” is just about as bad as having someone tell you “It’ll grow out.” after you’ve just spent a fortune to have your hair cut in an asymmetrical bob.

Oh, there was a sweet time when I was younger and teaching between eight and ten step aerobics classes a week when I was not only thin, but I was buff. That’s when I met my husband. Poor Tim, he bought a pig in a poke, because shortly after we were married, I fell pregnant (that’s what the Amish call it anyway), and not only was I pregnant, I was pregnant with twins. Of course, I didn’t know about the twin thing until I was four months along, but there I was into maternity clothes a week after I took the pee-n-see test. My sudden inability to button my jeans was somewhat puzzling, because I could barely keep down the four pretzels and half a cup of 7up I consumed each day. I didn’t know pretzels and 7up were so fattening.

At my first OB appointment, the doctor tsk-tsked my weight, telling me that just because I was pregnant it didn’t mean that I had carte blanche at the cafeteria—he warned me of all the horrible things that could go wrong if I gained too much weight. Little did he know that I was throwing up around the clock and that any mention of food sent my face straight into the nearest toilet. I was almost brave enough to ask him to check for a second heartbeat, but I didn’t think I could stand his eye rolling. Two months later the joke was on him.

Once the “morning” (ha!) sickness was over and I could eat again, I was so hungry that I made up for lost time and figured that Big Macs and Quarter Pounders were good for the baby because of all that protein. Imagine my delight when at 16 weeks along I found out that baby was plural. I wondered, “Should I be eating for three?” What do you think? Hells, yeah!

I didn’t eat because I was bored, and I didn’t eat because I was pregnant. I ate because I was ferociously hungry, like lumberjack or longshoreman hungry. I have never ever been as hungry as I was when I was pregnant—well during months four, and part of five. After five months, there was no more real estate left for any food, and even if I did try to eat, it remained lodged somewhere between my throat and my ribs. Not fun.

I gained a whopping 70 pounds with my twins, lost about 40 of it, and the balance remains. When I was pregnant with baby number three, I only gained the recommended 25 …okay, 38 pounds, but I took all of that off crying over Princess Diana’s untimely demise. Coupled with my grief over Di and running around after two preschoolers, I didn’t have much desire or much time to eat, so losing those extra pounds was a breeze. Sad that it took a princess’ death in a horrific car crash to get me back into my size 10 jeans.

Twenty years later, I’ve had my ups and downs with the pounds, and I had thought that I had finally come to terms with my ‘build’. I hesitate to use the word ‘size’, because for those of you who don’t know me or who haven’t seen me in a long time, I do not want to give you the false impression that I look like Jabba the Hutt. Or maybe I do. Damn! Anyway, I thought that I had made peace with my station in life, until I saw some recent pictures of me that my sister had taken. My brother and I were dancing up a storm, having a good ol’ time, and she was clicking away. In the back of my mind I’m thinking, “Good! I can put these up on Facebook! No one will ever accuse me of being Amish (even though I was dancing with my brother).”

Then I saw the pictures. Ugh. Chinny-chin-chins, and my arms! Ugh! Why did I think wearing a sleeveless dress was a good idea? Did no one love me enough to tell me to put on something else, like a burqa? Or a navy blue dress with no buttons? Lucky for me I have a good sister who knows that if she uploads unflattering photos of me onto her Facebook page and is dumb enough to tag me or any of my friends in them, that she, too, will find images of her equally impressive form gracing its pages.

In all seriousness, though, I have much to be thankful for with this bod of mine. No, I can no longer throw a side aerial nor execute a round off back handspring. I can, however (if I stretch) still do a cartwheel and a rather impressive handstand into a split. So, it’s not all that bad.

And every time I get really down on myself about these weighty issues, I have this recurring image of meeting up with a genie who grants me three wishes. My first wish is to lose those 30 pounds. Then I look down and my legs are gone.

Don’t Know Much About History

I don’t claim to be an historian, but I do like to study history. It is true what your teachers always told you: If you don’t study history, you’ll be doomed to repeat it. I only wish someone would have given me an equally strong argument for studying algebra, because to this day I can’t understand why I had to suffer through that particular indignity.

When I tell people that my grandparents were born in the 19th century and my father in 1918, they look at me very carefully wondering just how much work I’ve had done. The answer is none. Apparently, at age 45, my dad was still hip and virile enough to pull ‘er back and let ‘er rip, and, well, here I am. My father was one of Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation, World War II Purple Heart and all. The man had seen some stuff. So while most of my friends had dads who could actually do things with them like swimming, shooting hoops, or playing catch, my dad was good at telling me how to do those things while reminiscing about his days as a young athlete. It wasn’t all bad, though. Two distinct advantages of having an elderly father—wisdom and history.

I get my love of history from him, and though he himself was a Civil War aficionado, I claim to be the familial doyenne of the World War II era—specifically the European Theater. With that love of learning about the history of the Second World War, I have developed—through years of teaching—a fascination with the Holocaust.

I realize that the word ‘fascination’ has a rather light-hearted tone to it, but I’m at a loss to find a better way to describe my interest. It is not an obsession; more like a pursuit. If you truly study the Holocaust (like a real historian, not like an Indiana housewife), you really have to go all the way back to the Jewish Diaspora of the 6th century BC. I like history, but my knowledge of the Biblical era is pitiful if not downright shameful and is best left to my husband, the Bible scholar. That’s why my Holocaust history begins with the 1919 signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

In short, after World War I (my knowledge of which is limited to having read All Quiet on the Western Front and watching Downton Abbey) the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles left Germany with no economy, no military, and, most frightening of all, no stable government. With that dearth of structure and lack of confidence in the various political parties in the Fatherland, Germans were ready to listen to anyone, even an extremist like Adolf Hitler. Hitler essentially told the beleaguered Germans that if they simply put all of their faith and trust in him, he would solve all the complex problems of a post World War I Germany. When people are hungry, they’ll listen to just about anything.

Hitler found his whipping boy in the Jews. Contrary to what many may think, Hitler did not invent anti-Semitism. It’s been around for awhile. Thus, it was not difficult for him to spread his vitriol throughout Germany; the Jews were used to being picked last for teams. What was most frightening of all, though, and the thing to which we as Americans need to pay very close attention, was the insidious nature of the Nazi’s relentless gathering of information about the Jews. This by no means caught the Jews off guard, but they were somewhat surprised by the ferocity and assiduousness with which the Nazis pursued them.

When I taught my eighth grade students these facts (a necessary scaffolding of information prior to our reading the play The Diary of Anne Frank), their questions were predictable. “Why didn’t the Jews just leave?” Why should they? This was their home. They owned businesses in these towns and they worshipped and attended school there. “Why didn’t they just say they weren’t Jewish?” Some did deny their heritage, but many felt it was a betrayal of their culture to do so, and why should they? They weren’t doing anything wrong. And, the best question of all, “How did the Nazis know who the Jews were?”

My answer to that last question was that the Nazis made it their business to know everybody’s business. The Nazi’s ruthless pursuit of information, their subsequent Nuremburg Laws, and the resulting horror of the “Final Solution” manufactured a hell that is nearly impossible to comprehend. “However,” I calmly soothed my eighth graders, “nothing like this would ever happen here in the United States because we have laws protecting our civil liberties and our rights as citizens. We are blessed to live in a democracy.”

Don’t I feel like a fool today.

It begs the question, how many Americans actually comprehend the serious nature of our government’s escalating interest in and infringement upon our privacy, our rights as citizens to assemble peacefully, and our ability to make our own decisions when it comes to our health, our children, our collective livelihood, and our spirituality? This is it, my friends. Our government is, without apology, stealing our freedom.

My father has been gone for seventeen years. I often wonder what he and others of his generation and of his parents’ generation would think of our government’s flagrant disregard for the Constitution. My father and his parents suffered through some of the worst economic and most frightening eras our modern world has ever seen, so I can only imagine that an imaginary conversation with any of them about today’s federal government would contain portents of a catastrophic collapse of the United States of America.

Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.

Word.

Ina, Giada, Paula, and Me

I love cooking shows. They’re inspiring, they’re informational, and they’re so believable sometimes that I actually think that I, too, can have a hot body like Giada DeLaurentis and still eat like a truck driver at a Flying J. With this in mind, let’s examine, shall we, the various nuances of each of my favorite shows—past and present—then compare and contrast.

Ina Garten is The Barefoot Contessa, but let me tell you she bears absolutely no resemblance to sex kitten Ava Gardner, so I have no idea where she came up with that sobriquet. Maybe Ava Gardner’s fat aunt, but Ina’s definitely no Maria Vargas (subject of my next blog: My newfound respect for Wikipedia). Ina is, in a word, plump. I could say ‘fat’, but I’m trying to be gracious. She has a cute face, but she clearly has stuffed too much foie gras into her cake hole.  And cake.

Giada DeLaurentis, star of Everyday Italian, is the granddaughter of actual Italian Dino DeLaurentis, notable scary movie director. Giada is all of a buck fifteen soaking wet, and though she has a big ol’ head, I can only surmise that whatever she eats while she’s taping her show is all she eats—ever. I’ve always been jealous of skinny girls with big boobs, and Giada’s no exception. It also irritates me when she pronounces everyday Italian words like ‘spaghetti’ with an Italian accent (‘spi-GIT-tee’).

Paula Deen used to be everybody’s favorite southerner and used to be a real favorite of mine; that is, before she transformed herself into PuAula DuhEEn, the Scarlett O’Hara of the kitchen.  Poor Paula.  She no longer cooks for us on TV ever since it was revealed that she said a bad word about eleventy-thousand years ago while having a gun pointed to her head.  What was she thinking?  However, when she was still beloved enough to be on television, you’ll have noticed that in her earlier shows, she looks like someone’s mama or meemaw—down-to-earth, simple, comfortable; her later “look”, though, was reminiscent of someone 25 years younger with better hair. I don’t know what she looks like now because she’s not allowed to be on television. And just how does one’s accent become thicker with age? Is the accent commensurate with the amount of butter…no, bout-ter one ingests? Maybe she and Giada had the same diction coach, I don’t know.

Okay, so you’re saying, “But Kelly…you haven’t mentioned their actual talent for cooking! Who cares what they act or sound like?” Fine. As I’ve admitted, I have learned much and have been inspired by each of them. But really, if you want me to bore you with a litany of recipes, go to foodnetwork.com and have at it.  Geez. This is about the women, not the food.

Back to Ina. Ina is a Long Islander, and everything about her speaks to her East Hampton-ish lack of understanding of the reality of the everyday cook, like me. Ina’s always imploring us to use the good” olive oil, like we all have a pantry stocked with olive oil of varying quality. “Good” olive oil, to me, is the cheapest jug I can find at Sam’s Club. And she never fails to use fresh ingredients, as if we all have a freaking farmer’s market in our little village, where you grab a handmade basket upon entering the shop, a tinkling bell announcing your arrival to the proprietress, who, of course, is among Ina’s circle of merchants with whom she is on a first-name basis. She loads up her basket with “one of each”, and passes the proprietress a dollar bill that she’s had safely tucked in the palm of her hand.  Then it’s off to the florist’s shoppe.  With an ‘e’.  She’ll spend more on flowers for her tablescape than I would on an entire meal. If she were a real woman, she’d know that all of the ingredients for her esoteric menus and the flowers can be found at any Walmart. (Ina in Walmart. I just spit coffee all over my keyboard.) Invariably, she’s only cooking for herself (of course) and one other—her purse-holding, empty-sacked husband Jeffrey or some other Long Island lock-jawed acquaintance. Here’s another thing: Watch when she opens her oven. Spotless. The only other person with a cleaner oven than Ina’s is my mother-in-law. The difference? My mother-in-law actually cleans her own oven (daily, it seems). I can only guess that Ina has a new Viking installed after every taping.

She bugs me.

Giada, though, is a little more earthy, that is, until she starts in with that Italian accent. I’ll admit that I have copied her style, all the way down to the color of polish she uses on her fingernails, and she dresses well—as well as someone can with those big boobs and skinny arms, poor thing.  She also seems to eat outside a lot. Al fresco, I think they call it in everyday Italian.  I guess Id eat outside, too, if my house sat adjacent to the Pacific Ocean. There’s probably no bugs on her patio.  Oh, and she drinks a lot of alcohol, too. My kind of girl.

I just can’t get over the fake-ety-fake accent.

Then there’s Paula. Of the three, her recipes were possibly the most realistic. That Type II Diabetes thing? I could have called that one years ago. Paula’s a woman who knows how to eat; thus, I can’t believe anyone was remotely surprised when she revealed her A1C level. But aside from her affected Southern accent and her purple hair, I did so love  that she had a dirty oven. It wasn’t call-the-health-department dirty or anything, but she didn’t have a new one installed after every episode like Ina does. While it’s true that the original (read:  old) Paula was more authentic and believable, once she got wind that folks—and Oprah—thought her accent was cute, she really hammed it up (pun intended).

Obviously, there are more shows worthy of a look than these three. I like the Pioneer Woman, except that her oh-so-perfectly-polite and pleasingly compliant children set my teeth on edge. Her home-schooled git always bound in from their cattle rustling or sheep herding or whatever they do on a ranch raring to go and ready to devour, with gusto, anything she puts in front of them (including, it seems, the script from whence originates their witty banter). Prune cake? Really Rhee? My kid might eat my cooking if I wrapped it up and served it to him in a Jimmy John’s bag, but I can guaran-damn-tee you he wouldn’t go near anything with prunes.

I also used to like Down Home with the Neelys, but it practically turned into half hour of soft porn, and I get embarrassed watching people make love to each other during prime time…well, any time. They made fixin’ up a mess o’ barbecue nauseatingly blue with their constant PDA and television-inappropriate canoodling. Leave the jiggity out of the kitchen, for crying out loud.  Sadly, I hear that the canoodling and jiggity are no longer part of the Neely’s repertoire—they’ve apparently “divided their ingredients”, so to speak. Acting!

My sister Becky and I have come up with a great idea for an hour-long cooking show. It will be called Becky and Kelly Cook with Wine. We start off with two, three, or five bottles of wine, or, if it’s been a rough week, a box or two. We start drinking and cooking and see what we come up with at the end of the hour. Genius, huh? Maybe some of the wine goes into the dishes, maybe not—that’s the beauty of the cooking with wine concept. I plan to write to the producers of the Food Network and pitch my idea, so don’t be surprised if you see two Midwestern not-so-skinny girls with not-so-big boobs with no fake accents (just slurred words), and dirty ovens cooking up a mess o’ good food.

And no canoodling, I promise.

The Talented Mr. Abercrombie: Tales of the Boy Jamie

Oh, see, now you’re thinking that I’m going to write another clever treatise about my father, but no.  In honor of his 54th birthday, I am going to attempt to capture the spirit of the other James R. Abercrombie–the guy three boys call ‘Dad’, one baby girl calls ‘Papa’, and one hot babe of a wife calls ‘Jame’.  To those of you who think you know Jamie, let me tell you, you only know the adult version.  I’m here to shed some light on the youthful Jamie.  And I’ll try to spare him any embarrassment in the process.  Maybe.

My grandmother once remarked that my brother Jamie was born old.  This could not be more accurate.  Jamie is the oldest child in our family, which probably does not surprise many of you given his hardworking nature, his decisiveness, and his level of responsible behavior.  He exhibited those virtues as a child, also.  But what you don’t know about Jamie is that, as a child, he was ruled by his sister Becky, 16 months his junior.  She could talk Jamie into nearly anything, but she was careful to limit his conduct to things that would ultimately be to her future benefit. 

Take the first incident with the matches.  Long before I, Jamie’s youngest sister by four years, was cognizant of that special relationship between my two sibs, Becky proffered a rather dangerous dare to Jamie involving the lighting of matches.  Becky talked Jamie into lighting matches in the room that was, at that time, our dining area, but what later became known as the back porch.  The back porch was a little square room surrounded with windows, many windows adorned with fluttering, frilly curtains.  Matches were lit, curtains caught fire, and Jamie—though later to prove his über intelligence through his academic achievements—decided that the most resourceful way to suppress the fire was to spray the flaming curtains with Lysol. 

This story had a happy ending; I just don’t know what it was.  Obviously our house did not burn down, but the incident with the matches—and the second incident to follow involving Jamie lighting matches in the woods in front of our house—provided Becky with enough leverage to get just about anything she wanted.  How do I know this?  Because she blackmailed me on any number of occasions.  Masterful manipulator that she was (is?), she had Jamie and me right in the palm of her hand.  While most boys Jamie’s age sought out boys of similar age with whom to toss the football, play catch, shoot hoops, and conduct games of torture, Jamie had a built-in playmate in Becky.  As for me?  I was the pitiful recipient of their cruelty and subsequent source of amusement when it was too cold for them to go outside to play.

But in the end, one can only take so much Becky, so, as a respite from her antics, Jamie would often escape to the safety of his room.  One of my most indelible memories of Jamie as a boy involved those little green army men that boys in the 1960s played with.  Understand that this was the Vietnam era, and those of us who remember that time will recall that video footage of the war as it was happening was taped and later broadcast on the nightly news.  An historic first.  Parents at that time never felt the need to filter whatever was on TV for their wide-eyed children, so at least for me, I thought war was perpetual.  I think Jamie did, too.

As a result, Jamie learned to stage epic battles using those little green army men.  Meanwhile, Becky and I were in our room performing beauty pageants with our Barbie dolls—forgive me, with my Barbie dolls (hers remained upon the shelf with the protective wrap still around their heads—mine had the toes chewed off, had chopped off hair from when Becky played beauty shop, and were always naked).  In the safety of his room, Jamie would have carefully researched the most famous battles of World War II and would accurately re-enact these clashes on his bedroom floor.  We never actually witnessed these battles; instead, we heard them.  Jamie had a unique talent for making bombing noises—a sound that I could not hope to reproduce no matter how hard I tried.  Ask him today to make the war sounds.  You, too, will be impressed.

Decades before the sagas of Bella and Edward, Jamie harbored a fascination with vampires.  On any given Friday or Saturday night, after growing tired of his war games, he would painstakingly remain awake so that he could stay up and watch Weirdo—a late-night offering that showed old horror movies—in the hope that some Mystery Science Theater-ish Dracula movie would be featured.  His enchantment with the dark side was so real to him that he took to hanging garlic around his neck, sleeping with a crucifix, and asking my dad if we had any hawthorn branches that he could use to make a stake.  Apparently, the danger of a vampire attacking him in the middle of the night was imminent, and he wanted to be safe.  He was nothing if not well prepared.

In addition to his partiality to vampires, Jamie loved space.  Becoming an astronaut was just about every boy’s fantasy in the 1960s, and this boy was no different.  Perhaps it was the Tang he drank or those chocolate space food sticks he downed, but Jamie was NASA ready.  And when I say ‘ready’, I mean husky-sized Star Trek Captain Kirk pajamas and all. 

Vampires and Apollo 11 fell by the wayside when Jamie started playing Little League baseball.  I cannot remember Jamie ever having played any position other than catcher, but he undoubtedly could have been a more versatile player, given the right circumstances.  He was a ‘Cub’, and twice weekly, my parents kept vigil from the bleachers at the Linesville Little League while Becky and I wore a path back and forth to the concession stand.  Jamie’s goal–the goal of every Linesville Little Leaguer–was to shatter the front window of the Dairy Isle (a parking lot away from the outfield fence) with a game-winning homerun.  I don’t know if he ever reached his goal; I was too busy stuffing my pie hole with Jolly Ranchers.

Back at home, the obsession with baseball continued.  Adjacent to our property was a large field owned by our uncle.  This field was perfect for baseball, and throughout the summer, the neighborhood boys and my sister Becky would assemble on non-Little League nights for a marathon game.  With the exception of Becky, no other girls in the ‘hood were interested in baseball except for me, and because I lacked my sister’s substantial skill on the diamond, Jamie magnanimously made me the behind the plate umpire.  I really had no idea what an umpire was to do during a baseball game, not really paying attention to Sheena calling the game at the Little League field, but Jamie assured me that it was the most important job in a baseball game, more important than that of the pitcher.  All I had to do was stand behind the catcher for the entire game, or until I got tired of being bitten by mosquitos.

Jamie’s athleticism, combined with his inordinate ability to memorize just about anything, was impressive enough that my parents bought him a subscription to Sports Illustrated.  Jamie devoured the statistics, facts, minutiae, and trivia about every player in the major leagues.  While some men of his generation proudly show off their boyhood collection of Playboy magazines, Jamie would be proud to show off his rather impressive collection of Sports Illustrated.  I’m convinced his wife would be even more elated to toss the entire collection in the dumpster behind the Yarn Barn.

I experienced a couple of firsts with Jamie.  He took me to see Star Wars when it first came out (I think I fell asleep), and one night in 1975 we both stayed up to see the debut of Saturday Night Live—John Belushi played Captain Kirk in a Star Trek parody, and we both laughed so hard we nearly puked.  Also, for the very first time, we gave back to Becky all that she had given to us when she introduced us to her new boyfriend.  In a lovesick burst of heartfelt sincerity, she had foolishly revealed to both Jamie and me that the new guy in her life raised rabbits, as in bunny rabbits.  Upon meeting Randy for the first time, Jamie and I welcomed him by doing the bunny hop.  That was the last time she ever brought a new boyfriend home to meet us.

So you see, there is much about young Jamie that you never knew.  He’s certainly not one to talk much about himself, or brag about his accomplishments, unless they involve his wife or his sons.  Lucky for me I have all the crayons in my box to color a picture of this husky-then-not-so-husky-explosion-sound making, space loving, vampire fearing, Little League catching, Sports Illustrated memorizing guy!  Happy birthday, Jamie!  

Now don’t be hatin’ on me for telling all your secrets.

 

 

My Dad and Billy Graham: Some material may not be suitable for all family members. Reader discretion advised

Just as Christ turned the other cheek and forgave sinners, I’d like to think that when Billy Graham enters the gates of Heaven, he’ll look for my dad.

To say that my dad was a contrarian is like saying that the Pope is from Argentina.  The principal JRA, known as “Mr. A.” to the high school students he shepherded was an avuncular figure, a hand on a shoulder, an understanding adult in an otherwise tumultuous environment.  The real JRA, the one we called “Dad”, took sarcasm and cynicism to a whole new level.  And was kind of hilarious in the process.  Most of the time.

My dad was an equal opportunity critic.  I don’t apologize for this particular attribute of his—it was what it was.  Any man, woman, or child who happened to irritate him was fodder for his misanthropy.  He would find one particular aspect of a person—be it one’s countenance, social class, suspect parentage, or peculiarity—and run with it.  Usually he had names for people that somehow related to one or more of the aforementioned characteristics, like his college acquaintance Jim Balog.  Jim Balog, apparently, ate like a pig; ergo, the name ‘Jim Balog’ was synonymous with having bad table manners.  If, at the dinner table, we failed to hold our knife correctly or forgot to place our napkin on our lap properly, we were compared to the ill-mannered Jim Balog.  That was just the way my dad was with people for whom he had any degree of disdain.

Take my father’s relationship with Billy Graham.  Today when we think of Billy Graham, we place him in the same category as Mother Teresa.  Billy Graham represents the best of Christianity, and he is revered and honored, just as he should be. In the 1960s and 1970s, Billy Graham was often featured on television preaching to his enraptured followers in packed revivals, delivering the Gospel to stadiums full of Christians eager to hear his interpretation of the Word.  His popularity among believers was and remains steadfast.  Few would dispute his ability to incite a crowd of the faithful to rise to their feet in adoration.  Who among us could find fault with that?

Who indeed.

Before I describe my father’s rather merciless and prejudicial one sided affiliation with BG, understand that JRA was a devout Believer; however, his attendance at Sunday services—any Sunday services—were non-existent.  He blamed his failure to attend Church on his upbringing.  It seems as if his parents’ lives revolved around the Church, and, being a contrarian, little Raymond had to be dragged there each week under extreme duress.  Once he became an adult, he claimed that he attended Church while he was riding his tractor plowing a field to prepare it for a crop he would plant but never harvest.  Though he wasn’t technically a farmer, he loved driving his tractor, and he loved plowing, so if riding on his tractor plowing the crap out of a field was his Church, far be it for us to keep him from his worship.

Dad worked long hours as a high school principal, and he faithfully attended every basketball game, every baseball game, every band concert (such as they were), and chaperoned every dance and prom.  Since he so faithfully attended each school activity , maybe he felt the need to faithfully attend church simply more time spent away from his tractor, I don’t know.  I do know that when he finally came home each evening, he was tired, he wanted to relax, and he wanted to watch his programs.

It was a Thursday night after my dad had enjoyed a few pulls from a recently purchased fifth of Seagram’s 7 (only top shelf for the Old Boy), that the unspeakable occurred.  All week my dad looked forward to Thursday night so he could watch Ironside starring Raymond Burr. After a hard day of herding adolescents, Dad just wanted some Burr.

That night, though, Billy Graham’s ability to draw faithful viewers trumped Burr.

Upon hearing the words, “Tonight’s episode of Ironside will be pre-empted so that we may bring you this special program” followed by the text “The Billy Graham Crusade” crawling across the screen, my dad lost his shit.  He called Billy Graham names I’m not going to print here out of respect for my dad and for Mr. Graham. With a furious energy that belied his inebriated status, he began scrambling in the junk drawer, found the phone book, and surprisingly was able to locate the long distance number to Erie, Pennsylvania’s NBC affiliate WICU Channel 12.  Making long distant phone calls in those days was an expense usually reserved for Grandma in Florida, but Dad considered the station’s preemption of Ironside such an egregious breach of contract between him and Channel 12 it wouldn’t have mattered if the station had been located in Bangladesh, he was going to let them have it.  We could only hear his side of the conversation, of course, and it went something like this:

“Why is it that every g*d-damn time I want to sit down and watch a show you have to interrupt my program with that insufferable preacher?”

“Of course I believe in God!”

“Well just because I can’t stand his ingratiating preaching does not mean that I’m not a good Christian!”

“How dare you ask me if I go to church!  That’s none of your g*d-damn business!”

“No. I. Have. Not. Been. Drinking!”

“My name?”

I cannot recall just how many Billy Graham crusades I had to suffer through—not necessarily because I disliked altar calls or group hymns, but because we knew Dad would come unglued and it would be up to us to put Humpty back together again.  What we wouldn’t have given for cable TV, a DVD player, or even the Internet to placate him, but that technology was a few years down the road.

In later years, my dad’s relationship with Billy Graham softened somewhat, and a kind of one-sided rapprochement occurred. He actually began to enjoy the man’s quiet and dignified approach to the Gospel and revered his message once Mr. Graham’s esteem and popularity had evolved to such a degree that his telecasts never again encroached upon Dad’s nighttime television lineup.

Just as Christ turned the other cheek and forgave sinners, I’d like to think that when Billy Graham enters the gates of Heaven, he’ll look for my dad.  Hopefully he’ll be able to find him.

On the Beach

When you’re little, you think that every aspect of your life is normal because you don’t really have a grasp of what others may have, what they have encountered, or what they must endure.  Whatever it is that you’re experiencing as a child is what every child your age is experiencing, and your expectations of that normalcy remain until you grow up, move away, and realize that those experiences were special.  My life has been like that.  Looking back, I realize that my childhood was unique in so many ways both good and bad, but blissfully, I mostly remember the best.  Without a doubt, my brother and sister would agree with me that the most enduring experience we had in our youth was our daily summertime ritual of going to the beach.  Because, after all, didn’t everybody grow up with a beach?

This wasn’t exactly “our” beach, and we did not live within walking distance of it.  Nor was it a proper beach—it was neither an ocean nor a shore—but to us, in our naiveté, it was a paradise like no other.  Geographically, Pymatuning Lake (or as my dad called it, the “Swamp”) is a large reservoir straddling the Pennsylvania-Ohio border between the two Pennsylvania towns of Linesville and Jamestown on the east, and the Ohio burg of Andover on the west.  My father, 45 years my senior (more later about the advantages of having an elderly father), remembers that during the Great Depression, his father found work helping to dig out Pymatuning, created by damming the Shenango River to the south.  I could wax historic here about the rich history of the building of Pymatuning, the spooky myths involving entire farms being submerged under water, and the scary number of men who died whilst digging out the mud hole (no, no, my grandfather survived), but those facts are not germane to my epistle.  My fascination with the beach is.

The Saturday of Memorial Day weekend began each summer of beachiness.  The beach did not open properly until 11 am daily, so our mornings—from 7 am until 10:50 am–were spent getting ready for the beach.  This involved packing lunches—either peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or chip-chop ham sandwiches with mustard—a bag of Wise potato chips, and a large thermos full of Kool-Aid mixed with lemonade (such a creative mum!).  If we had them, a box of Ho-ho’s were thrown in.  We then retrieved from the clothesline our beach blanket and our crusty beach towels, which, I am almost but not quite ashamed to say, were, along with our bathing suits, our hair, and ourselves, never, ever washed during the summer, only hung on the line once we got home in the late afternoon.  Towels, blanket, and bathing suits, not us.

Becky and I were nearly apoplectic waiting for Mum to get herself ready so that we could leave; Jamie less so.  Those were the days of Little League baseball where, on a game day, coaches forbade their players from engaging in rigorous activities like swimming, and my brother, being the rule follower that he is, honored his coach’s demands.  After all, it’s common knowledge that Little League baseball requires an inordinate amount of vigor and stamina from the average eight year old boy.  Come to think of it, he probably should have taken a nap, too.

It seemed to take years for my Mum to get ready.  Her toilette involved both hair and makeup; my mother did not discriminate when it came to glamor.  Then she would wiggle into her bikini and preen in front of the full length mirror making sure that no stretch marks were visible.  Once satisfied with her little sassy self, she would slip on a matching cover-up and an equally sassy pair of sandals.  Yes, my Mum was a little hottie in a bikini back in the day—again, wasn’t everybody’s Mum? 

You may be wondering why she bothered to do her hair when she was going to be sitting on a beach and occasionally entering the water to cool off, but let me tell you, Susan’s hair did not get wet.  Ever.  Her weekly trips to Jean’s Beauty salon were the only opportunity for those tresses to be washed, set, and coiffed, and woe to the child daft enough to splash around Susan while she was taking a dip…up to her shoulders.  Like her daughter in later years, my mum had no problem yelling at other people’s kids.

Finally, finally, it was time to go!  We were always the first to arrive at the beach; only the lifeguards beat us to the punch.  My mum barely had time to put the car into park before my sister and I barreled out and ran barefooted (another shameful secret of my childhood:  we did not wear shoes all summer) full speed from the gravel parking lot into the water, leaving my mum and brother to haul all of our stuff to our spot.  My mum did not worry about me and my ability to handle myself in eight feet of muddy water.  I don’t remember learning how to swim, so I can only imagine that when I was a baby, Susan tossed me into the deep end and hoped for the best.  Lucky for me, I didn’t disappoint.  

We swam, we dove, we turned front somersaults and back somersaults.  We played tag, we poured mud from the silty bottom into our hair pretending we had beehive hairdos, and played endless games of Marco Polio—apparently we were more familiar with childhood diseases than with early explorers.  We engaged in all of these water activities without the added benefit of any manner of flotation device.  Flotation devices were listed as number three on the beach’s ‘strictly forbidden’ list, and to this day, I have no idea why.  This prohibition of anything floaty was such a mainstay of the rules of the beach that we seasoned swimmers often laid in wait to watch some poor unfortunate about to break the rules.  We cackled in delight whenever a child—most likely some wayward youngster from Pittsburgh, slathered head to toe in Coppertone lotion and unschooled in the rules of the beach–gleefully pounced into the water with his little animal-shaped floaty only to draw the shrill trill of the lifeguard’s whistle.  Oh, the shame he must have endured having to plod back to his parents’ blanket and surrender his little seahorse.  We delighted in our first taste of schadenfreude.

About every hour or so, the lifeguards would call a ‘safety break’, a time when all swimmers had to get out of the water so that the lifeguards could either take a swim and cool off or get out of the sun for a time.  Safety breaks lasted no longer than 15 minutes, and at about minute 13, we were at the shoreline poised like runners at the start awaiting the signal that the safety break was over.  Oh, some kids were still stuck on line at the concession stand, waiting for their giant pixie stix and their sno-cones, and some kids were stupid enough to have eaten their lunch during the safety break (and not before) and were forced by their mothers to wait a half hour before getting back into the water.  But man, once that whistle blew, we nearly killed one another to be the first one into the water, and to this day, there might still be a body or two lying at bottom of the swimming area. 

Five o’clock was our time to leave the beach.  The sun would begin to wane, and it would begin to get chilly.  Good mother that she was, though, nearly every trip home involved Susan making a detour to the Dairy Isle for ice cream, as if we hadn’t ingested enough sugary junk for the day.  Once we were finally home, bathing suits, bearing the fishiness of the lake mixed with the smell of gasoline from the boats anchored near the swimming area were returned to the clothesline along with our towels and the blanket.  My sister and I would attempt to comb out our fishy smelling hair, but eventually we gave up.  After all, we would be repeating the day’s adventure in a few short hours, and who cared about combed hair anyway? 

If you were to ask me today if I prefer to swim in a chlorinated pool or a in a lake, I would choose the latter.  And if you were to ask me to recall my favorite smell it would be—yep—that fishy-gasoline-y lake smell.  Go figure.  That mud hole of a lake has provided me with so many memories—too many to recall in one entry.  Prepare yourselves for more tales from Pymatuning.

 

We’re Five Again

I spent Saturday moving the twins back home from their esteemed university.  Babies’ daddy had to, just had to travel out of town for business that day, so it fell to me to schlep up to said university and pack it up and tear it down, ala Jackson Browne (“The Load-Out”, circa 1977).  The girls chose not to room together, mores the pity, and though they were in the same hole of a dorm, they were on different floors.  Husband’s last words to me that morning were, “It won’t be that bad.  The roommates have already moved out, and the girls told me they’ve thrown out a ton of stuff already.”  I would soon discover that somebody had been lying.  The liars (who shall remain nameless) later revealed to me that this was a lie told with love so that I might be spared the desolation of a depressing drive from Indy to West Lafayette.  Bless their little hearts.

Needless to say, I was dreading the redding (‘redding=Pittsburghese).

Don’t get me wrong, I was excited that the twins would be home for the summer, but I was not looking forward to the understandably unpleasant task at hand.  Regretfully, the twins did not inherit their parents’ genetic propensity for structure, order, or neatness.  It seems as if hoarding–as in TLC and A&E reality show hoarding– might be in their future, minus the cats.  The Old Man and I are neat freaks, plain and simple.  The twins?  Quite the opposite.

I arrive at the Purdue campus that afternoon and text Thing One to let her know that I’m within spitting distance. She tells me she’s at lunch, but her room is open so “Just go on in and get started.”  Started?  Started.  As in, “Begin to eliminate all detritus and pack up all belongings.”  Upon entering her dorm room, my fears (and the aforementioned lie) were confirmed.  She hadn’t done a damn thing.  Her room, even without her roommate and her load of crap, was a 19th century rookery.  Any minute I expected to see Oliver Twist emerge from under the bed with a possum and a nest of mice.  Remarking to daughter one later about her obvious lack of housekeeping prowess and her rather urgent need to acquire such skills before moving into her sorority house in the fall, she responded with, “We’ll have maids.”

Dear God.  Let her marry a man with a trust fund.

So while I’m shoveling equal amounts of crap into garbage bags and clothes into duffel bags, Thing Two, sleepy-eyed, bed headed, and, I suspect, hungover, shuffles into her sister’s room and says, “Wow.  At least I don’t have as much stuff.”  The best news I had heard so far, so it emboldened me somewhat.  I left Thing One’s room and followed sister up one floor to her room.  Unfortunately, her assessment on the crap-o-meter was quite distorted.  The crap was just packed in more tightly.

When will I learn?

Well, as long as I was there, I decided to fill up the garbage bag I was still holding from the first room with the trash from room two.  Once full and painfully knotted, I gave this bulging repository of crap to my daughter to take to the Dumpster, then proceeded to sort through clothes, shoes, clothes, books, clothes, pictures, clothes, notebooks, clothes, grooming products, clothes, makeup, and clothes.  Daughter two was taking her time getting back from the Dumpster, but about 30 minutes later she arrived back in her room holding an open can of Pringles under one arm and texting someone who must have been involved with national security because what else could have been more important than helping me get that room cleared out?

At this point, I was thinking that it was going to take an act of Congress to empty both rooms, squeeze the girls’ insane amount of clothes and all their other stuff into the car, and render both rooms hygienically adjusted well enough to pass the eagle eyes and noses of each of the girls’ Resident Assistants.  Daughter number one, with her glacier-like speed, was “sorting” clothes with one hand and texting with the other; daughter number two was texting with both hands and using the toes on her left foot to pick up panties and deposit them into a clothes basket.  Meanwhile, I’m sweating so much I can taste it, and my shirt and shorts are sticking to me in places I can’t talk about.  The dust and dirt involved in moving all of that stuff was killing my eyes, making me sneeze, and I was just in an altogether wretched state.

Alas, my little princesses looked as cool and beautiful as ever.

Finally, after daughter two and I successfully carried a broken futon out to the Dumpster (not ‘in’ the Dumpster, so we had to walk away rather quickly), pitched a microwave that probably should have been donated to the microbiology department,  and relieved daughter one from the arduous task of using a dustpan to retrieve her ID from under the dresser, we were ready to shove the last of the mess into the Towne and Country and start home.  And no one was leaving in a body bag.  I call that a successful day.

On the way back to Indy, both girls told me how much they were looking forward to coming home to live in a clean house, take showers that were always hot, and allow me to take care of them.  Ah, that kind of made the day’s experience all worth it, don’t you think?  It’s now day three, and I think I only have about ten more loads of laundry to do, but it is nice to be five of us again.

Mom and Pop Shop

Contrary to my DNA and my chromosomal structure, I absolutely hate to shop. The idea of spending even fifteen minutes of my life in a mall causes me to break out in hives, a cold sweat, a hot sweat; I’ll sneeze, I’ll cough, or I’ll even throw a tantrum if the aforementioned behaviors fail to foil the shopping trip. I like going to the grocery store, because I like to cook. And there’s nothing better than a trip to a hardware store, especially if it features a healthy garden supply department. But general “shopping”, as in, “Let’s all of us girls get together and go shopping! Then we can go to lunch!” is the most detestable of all activities. I would rather stick needles in my eyes. Or have a pap smear.

Now that I have made my point about how much I loathe shopping, let me tell you why. It may be because my mum (if you’re from western PA, you have a mum) would drag my sister and me shopping every single Saturday between September and May (summer Saturdays were spent at the beach, and that’s another blog altogether). Not only would we shop on Saturdays, we would shop on Monday nights, because apparently, that was Susan’s best time to find a bargain? Whatever she wanted on Saturday but ran out of money for was on sale Monday night? I don’t know. I do know that even if the merchandise shopped for were meant for Becky and me, I couldn’t have cared less. Most of the time it was Mum trying on clothes and Becky and me trying to amuse ourselves by hiding among the racks of Ship and Shore sportswear or over in lingerie trying on huge bras over our little bitty…bodies.

My mum’s favorite store “in town”—that town being Meadville—was Trask’s, which soon morphed into Carlisle’s. I believe I have correctly placed the apostrophes in the proper places, for each of these department stores were probably first owned by someone named Trask or Carlisle, who knows or cares. What I do know is that my mum spent more time and money in Trask’s/Carlisle’s in her short life as a wife and mum than she ever did in a grocery store or hardware store. Which is why the whole shopping gene must have skipped a generation.

My straight up hatred of shopping could stem, too, from the fact that I hate to part with money. I like having things, but the act of passing over a credit card, writing a check, or saying goodbye to the few dead presidents who might be lurking in my wallet has a rather unsettling effect upon me. I can’t help but think there might be something that I will really need and that I won’t be able to get because of a foolish decision to buy purple eye shadow or a new pair of sunglasses. So, yes, while I hate to shop, I am sometimes forced to.

Today, I needed a gift for a little friend who just made her First Communion. It was raining. I had a lot of work to do. And it was raining. The last thing I wanted to do was to go shopping (I think I’ve made that abundantly clear), and I knew that neither the grocery store nor the hardware store carried First Communion items, so I settled the matter by taking my business to a little boutique right in my neighborhood.

And here’s where my utter revulsion for the whole shopping experience left my very being like a rabid monkey stubbornly clinging to my back. I love this little boutique. Delaney’s–its namesake the proprietress’ daughter– has just about everything one could ever want in a repository of charm, and while that in itself is important (especially if you need something charming), it’s the atmosphere and the personnel that make the shopping excursion an altogether lovely experience. The best part of Shopping at Delaney’s is that there is always someone willing to find for me just what I need. Every time. It’s a bit pricey (well, for me, because, you know, I hate to part with cash), but the personal attention at Delaney’s goes well beyond what I have ever found anywhere else. And, no, I don’t mean Wal-Mart; I mean other boutique-y places where most of the time the personnel treat me like I’m Julia Roberts shopping on Rodeo Drive (did I mention that I often shop wearing the same clothes I wear while picking up dog poop in the yard?) except that I’m neither Julia Roberts, nor am I a prostitute.

No one paid me to write this. It’s just that when I can essentially walk from my house into this little neighborhood emporium of sweetness in under ten minutes, find the perfect gift and have it gift-bagged in just about the coolest little bag imaginable, well that, my friends, is noteworthy. And when a small business owner in your neighborhood brings a little bling into your life without your having to wash your hair, put on makeup, and schlep into “town”, that small business owner deserves a shout out. Love you, Delaney’s!

Let me tell you: My child would never do THAT.

My children are perfect. They are perfectly children—well, now perfectly young adults. When I say that they are perfect, I am not extolling their virtuous deeds, their academic prowess, or their respectful and deferential treatment of their elders. I mean that they have or–in the case of my youngest–are in the process of making mistakes, pulling bone-head moves, and driving me certifiably insane.

When young couples are contemplating starting a family, their older friends need to stage an intervention. Not to dissuade them from procreating, but to educate them on the reality of being a parent. Once born, these types of instructions aren’t included when you bring baby (ies) home from the hospital. Shouldn’t there be a warning label stating, “Caution: Do not for one minute think that this kid is going to grow up without A) embarrassing you, B) causing your hair to fall out in great clumps, or C) initiating contact with a bail bondsman”?

When I was a younger mother, I would experience the galling and appalling behaviors of my eighth grade students and say to myself, “Good Lord, MY CHILD will NEVER do THAT! I feel sorry for his/her parents!” Someone should have slapped me at that point. I have learned the hard way that my children have done THAT. Anyone who says their kids would “never do THAT”–‘THAT’ being anything from dropping the f-bomb to building a bomb–had better eat their idiotic words toute suite, because I guarantee that your kids will do THAT. Whether or not you ever find out about THAT is another thing.

For the record, none of my three perfect children has ever built a bomb, nor have we ever sought the services of a bail bondsman. And, no, I’m not going to satisfy your curiosity by listing all of their shortcomings, their peccadillos, or all of the times I’ve been ready to put them up for adoption—our family subscribes to the ancient and not-so-often practiced principle of keeping what happens among family–well, among family. In short, you won’t see us on an episode of Dr. Phil anytime soon.
Have they disappointed me? Yes. Have they worried me to distraction? Oh, yes! Do they sometimes make decisions that cause me to wonder if I brought home the wrong babies from the hospital? Absolutely. But here’s my problem:

I grew up under rather unusual circumstances. My mother, a force to be reckoned with mom-wise, left this earth way too early at 40 (I was 11) leaving my brother, sister (both teenagers at the time), and me with a much older father. In retrospect, I think that my dad felt that we were such great kids and that our mom had done such a phenomenal job raising us so far that he really didn’t have to do much to mold his young breed any further. My brother was a saint, my sister’s charm and athleticism made up for the laundry list of crap that she pulled as a teenager, and I? Well let’s just say that I fell somewhere in between.

The problem I have with my own children is that I lack a template. Most moms of teenagers look back on their own upbringing and say, “WWMD?” Or even better, they call their own moms and say, “Did I pull this **** when I was 15?” When I wonder what my mom would do, I’m at a loss. So I do what I think she would do, and for the most part, that works.

Here’s the good news: My two oldest are in their first year of college. Their first year has been an unbelievable and, frankly, surprising success. I almost feel as if all of the prayers to the Blessed Mother, the hair pulling, the rendering of garments, and the tears and frustrations I’ve experienced with them have rewarded me with two young ladies who finally get it.

This bodes well for child number three, who, right now, is driving me berserk in an altogether different way. There is no shouting, no yelling, no eye rolling. His modus operandi is passivity. I can’t yell at him—he just looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind. When I talk to him, my used-to-be mommy’s boy mumbles something inarticulate. He’s a totally different animal than my first two when it comes to the mother-child relationship.

My point is this: To all you young mothers and mothers of teenagers-to-be, do not for a moment say, “My child would NEVER do THAT.” Why? Those same mothers who used to say that to me have children who I have witnessed first-hand DOING THAT. Sometimes your children have told me about doing THAT. One thing I can say about my three—they usually tell me about THAT before I find out by any other means.

If I’ve learned anything from my first two, it is this: Stand your ground and know that this too shall pass.

Come on; go with me on this—I’ve got one more to get through high school. Hopefully, he, too, will take a page from his sisters’ playbook and shock and awe me and become the amazing young man that I know is lurking inside of that surly little teenager.