9

Birthday Remembrance for Dad

Today would have been my dad’s 100th birthday, so I thought I’d repost this piece from Veteran’s Day a year ago.

Happy Birthday, Daddy.  I miss you.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Here are some photos of my dad from an earlier post I did on my family history.

I find this photo particularly poignant.  I managed to date it to Dec. 25, 1942 from the headline on the newspaper my Dad is reading.  He would be going into the Coast Guard soon to serve during WWII.  He had the opportunity to get a job at a factory that supplied the war effort and essentially sit out the war safely at home, but he wouldn't do it.  He didn't feel he could face his children if he didn't "do his part."  My Mother (on the right) is about 2 or 3 months pregnant with my older brother.  My Grandmother is on the left, lost in thought.  To me, this scene reminds me of a Norman Rockwell painting.

I find this photo particularly poignant. I managed to date it to Dec. 25, 1942 from the headline on the newspaper my Dad is reading. He would be going into the Coast Guard soon to serve during WWII. He had the opportunity to get a job at a factory that supplied the war effort and essentially sit out the war safely at home, but he wouldn’t do it. He didn’t feel he could face his children if he didn’t “do his part.” My Mother (on the right) is about 2 or 3 months pregnant with my older brother. My Grandmother is on the left, lost in thought. To me, this scene reminds me of a Norman Rockwell painting.

 

My mother found her own hunky dude in the form of my father, Jack, seen here on his Coast Guard ship during WWII.  His ancestors came to this country from the Alsace region of France, probably in the early 1700's.  (That region typically veered back and forth between the control of France and Germany until finally coming under French rule in recent times.)  My Dad's relative during the Revolutionary War provided meat to the troops, so we qualify for membership in the DAR for that "patriotic assistance."  They say an army travels on its stomach....

My mother found her own hunky dude in the form of my father, Jack, seen here on his Coast Guard ship during WWII. His ancestors came to this country from the Alsace region of France, probably in the early 1700’s. (That region typically veered back and forth between the control of France and Germany until finally coming under French rule in recent times.) My Dad’s relative during the Revolutionary War provided meat to the troops, so we qualify for membership in the DAR for that “patriotic assistance.” They say an army travels on its stomach….

 

Jack Coast Guard

When I was a kid, my Dad would let us play with the semaphore flags he had brought back from the war. Sometimes he would demonstrate how to send certain messages and occasionally, with a mischievous gleam in his eye, he would spell out words that we knew had to be “naughty,” but we didn’t know what they were. My mother would just say, “Oh, Jack!” and laugh along with us.

 

My parents' union was "blessed" first with the arrival of my brother, Tim, in 1943 and then with me in 1947.  Get a load of the noggin on that baby!

My parents’ union was “blessed” first with the arrival of my brother, Tim, in 1943 and then with me in 1947. Get a load of the noggin on that baby!

Dad passed away in 1998 at the age of 82.  His generation had to deal with the Great Depression and WWII.  They had a job to do and they stepped up and did it.  Many never returned to their families.  We were among the lucky ones.  Thanks, Dad.

8

It Bears Repeating: Richard’s Story

(I originally posted this in 2010, but with the recent outbreak of the measles virus and the continued resistance of many parents to vaccinating their children, I offer it once again.  It won’t change the minds of those who can’t look beyond the “science” of Jenny McCarthy, but it does bear repeating.)

Polio.  Perhaps to someone born after 1957, this word probably doesn’t evoke much more than hazy images remembered from a high school history book or health class.  But to people who were born prior to that year, it was a word that held an icy grip on the hearts of parents and families across the nation.

The polio epidemic of 1952 was one of the worst outbreaks in the U.S., with 58,000 reported cases that year alone.  The following year saw over 35,000 victims.  Nearly everyone either had a family member affected by the disease or knew someone who had been touched by it.  The cause and the transmission of polio weren’t widely understood.  Parents lived in fear of summer vacation because that time of year seemed to be the peak season for infection.  Mothers kept their children home and inside, away from any possible contact with others.  Public swimming pools were closed.  Some people even resorted to keeping their windows sealed tight, out of fear the disease was somehow borne on the summer breezes.

In 1953 I was about six years old and my older brother was ten.  Our neighbors across the street had four children, two of them grown and on their own.  The youngest, Richard, was thirteen and was often a playmate of my brother’s.  Richard was an active, happy-go-lucky kid of the 1950’s.  But that all changed forever.

In July of 1953 Richard and his family had just returned from a camping trip.  My brother had gone over to Richard’s house and the two of them were having fun playing in the family’s travel trailer.  A day or two later, Richard woke up with a stiff neck and back, which worsened over the course of the day.  A visit to the doctor resulted in his being taken to L.A. County General Hospital to the communicable diseases ward, filled with many child patients just like him.  As his condition deteriorated, he underwent a painful spinal tap, a tracheotomy and was put on a respirator.  All this without ever being told exactly what it was he had or what he could expect.  He was later transferred to Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey, California, which was located in our hometown.  (“Rancho,” as it has come to be known, became the hub of polio treatment and continues to this day to be an important center for rehabilitation for spinal cord injuries and other neurological conditions.)

Richard spent many months in an iron lung, the tank-like device that breathed for him because he couldn’t do that for himself.  Eventually, he regained that ability and was finally allowed to return home.  He wore a full set of leg braces on each leg, enabling him to walk, but with difficulty.  He graduated from high school in 1959.  Because of his disability, he was prevented from working full-time but made up for that by becoming a writer for publications on medical disability issues and by working with medical students who needed to know more about polio and its effects. He is also president of The Amigos Fund which raises money for patient care at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital.

Despite all that polio took away from him, he still remained a positive and optimistic person.  However, in the 1980’s Richard encountered something that had begun to affect many polio survivors:  post-polio syndrome, or the onset of deterioration of the muscles and nerves that had been affected in the initial disease.  There are several theories about the cause of this, from the over-use of muscles compensating for the effects of polio to a possible reawakening of the virus responsible for the disease.  Whatever the reason, currently there are over 1.1 million polio survivors living in the U.S. and many are facing the same situation.  Richard subsquently required an electric wheelchair in order to be able to get around.  He also had to have another tracheotomy so he could use a portable respirator.

In one of those strange flukes that are so common now with the advent of the internet and “Googling,” I connected with Richard after all these years and found that he is president of a non-profit organization called The Polio Survivors Association.  His website is www.polioassociation.org.  It provides much needed information about post-polio syndrome to anyone who is interested.  There is also a forum for survivors run by the Salk Institute called Polio Today at www.poliotoday.org.

The average age of polio survivors is about 64.  The doctors who initially treated these patients are gone now, leaving a void in the understanding about the vagaries of this disease and its aftermath.  Richard will be celebrating his 70th birthday in June and remains an upbeat person, even while facing the loss of all the triumphs over polio he fought so hard for in the past.

Here is a brief video slide show set to music which he created for YouTube about his experience with polio.  Please take a moment to watch it and then give thanks for your health and for those determined people who pioneered the polio vaccine. Unfortunately, many parents today take this for granted and are against vaccinating their children for any childhood illnesses.

They need to watch Richard’s story and reflect on the lessons it holds for us all.

7

More “Fun with Silhouettes”

Okay, kiddies, gather ’round.  Here are two more silhouettes I used to do, only in pastel colors.  The top photo is from the now defunct magazine, Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, which did an article on my daughter’s home back in 2001.

The silhouettes were mounted on paper that I lightly crumpled before dipping in a tea dye. Once dried, I ironed the paper to flatten it out again.  The creases kept some of the tea stain, adding to the “old” look.  Then I would paint the frames for the silhouettes with two different pastel colors, “crackle” the surface, and wipe on an antiquing gel that would then be wiped off just enough to give the frames an old appearance.  The look we were going for was something that you might find up in your grandma’s attic.

I’ve included two views of what the backs of the frames would look like.  At the thrift store I’d found this funny little book that had to be from the 1950’s. It had poems about being good, helpful, etc., reminiscent of the old “Dick and Jane” stuff we read when I was a young’un.  I scanned the pages and would print them on card stock to go over the standard frame backing.  Just another little fillip to make the frames look homemade and one-of-a-kind.

The two silhouettes below are close-ups of the ones in the Home Companion photo. The boy with the dog silhouette I cut today.  (Here they’re on a purple background so they show up better.)

Since I’ve given away and sold so many of the ones I used to do, I discovered I don’t have many copies of my work.  Gasp.  So I’m determined to go back and re-cut as many as I can to create a record of sorts of all that I’ve done.  At least as long as the fingers and eyeballs hold out…

mary engelbreit

 

 

book back1

 

book back2

boy and dog

boy with trumpet

57

It’s Not Your Mother’s Oldsmobile…Or Is It?

Recently I wrote about my brother-in-law receiving a “sign” from his wife on the day she passed away, letting him know she was safe and that he could move on with his life.

I’m a big believer in things like this, even though I’m not what you’d call a religious person.  See my post “The Orthodox Agnostic” for the particulars.  Even so, I do believe we are connected to the spirit world.

I used to do Tarot card readings by email years ago and had close to one hundred of them under my belt before I took down my shingle, not because I wasn’t helping people but because too many folks had become dependent on me for advice.

The cards weren’t “powerful” or “magic.”  My view of them is they’re similar to a search engine.  You ask your questions and the answers pop into your head while you look at the cards.  I’d hazard a guess that if folks in biblical times could have seen someone using Google, they would have stoned them for heresy.

It’s the same with signs from the dearly departed.  My late father used to leave feathers for me over at my mother’s house as a way of telling me he appreciated what I was doing for her.

But my mother has been gone these past nine months and I hadn’t really received anything that I could definitively point to and say it was from her.  I chalked it up to the fact she always, always hesitated to try anything new because she had this fear she would somehow make a mistake and screw it up.

So I asked that she and my dad get together on this and let me know they were, indeed, together again.  A joint metaphysical effort, if you will.

And this time I asked for something quite specific.

The “sign” would be an Oldsmobile from the late 1940s or early ’50s like the one my parents had when I was a kid.  It was a light baby blue and the car my mother used when she learned to drive at the advanced age of about 35.  I remember lying in the backseat (no seat belts, of course) getting kind of nauseous from going around and around in an empty parking lot as my mother practiced her driving under my father’s tutelage.

This sign could come in any form—verbal, pictorial or written.  Didn’t matter.  I just knew that if I encountered it in some way, that would be it.

A couple of weeks went by and I gave the sign only occasional thought.  The thing about it is—you really can’t go “looking” for it.  It has to come unexpectedly, which is part of the thrill of having one turn up.

So, I was at our local park having lunch after one of my exercise classes and decided, on a whim, to walk around a bit in town and look at some of the shops.  We don’t do this nearly often enough because I’ve found that living in what is essentially a tourist town tends to make hermits out of us locals.  We go out of our way to avoid driving or parking on the main drag because it’s just that—a drag.  Consequently, we only do the “tourist” thing ourselves sporadically.  And it’s a shame because we have some great shops.

I’d gone up one side of the street and was almost down to the corner of the other side where I would go back across to the park, when I decided to go into a shop that I’d enjoyed in the past but hadn’t visited in a while.  It had an eclectic mix of stuff I like—funny, quirky and artsy-fartsy. I wandered in a counter-clockwise pattern from the door and found myself in front of a display of Christmas ornaments and decorations.  It was now September but I knew this display was kept up all year.

Last year, about a month before my mother passed away on Dec. 22, someone broke into a storage unit where we were keeping a lot of our stuff while we prepared to move from our place out in the country to our new house in town.  Luckily, this unit was the “overflow” one of the two we had and it didn’t have a lot in it of value.

However, the thieves made off with all of my Christmas decorations and ornaments, ones I’d had for fifty years or more.  Irreplaceable things my kids had made, or I had made when they were small, and old ornaments belonging to my late in-laws; also some my mother had when she was young.  Gone, too, were my daughter’s red baby socks with white pom poms on each cuff from her first Christmas when she was just a month old.

Yeah, Mr. Grinch.  I’m lookin’ at you.

I stood wistfully in front of the display.  I couldn’t have a Christmas tree last year because of the pilfered ornaments and my other holiday decorating was somewhat listless and not really in the spirit of things.  Understandable, given the situation with my mother.  So I gazed at the ornaments and gradually discovered that a lot of them looked like the old ones I’d lost.  They were undoubtedly new, but they were “antiqued” to look old and some were reproductions of the old Shiny Brite brand of which I had quite a few, thanks to my in-laws.  There was a wreath made with these “old” ornaments that was remarkably similar to my dear, departed decorations.  Even though I couldn’t take all of them with me, it felt like a reunion of sorts.

As I turned and started to walk back toward the door, I spotted a standing display of knitted Christmas stockings.  Each stocking was nearly two feet long.  My stocking from when I was a kid only came up to mid-calf on me.  It was red and white striped cotton and kind of grubby, but I’d kept it for over 60 years until it also disappeared with the rest of my things.

When I looked at the cuff on these new stockings, I found they had the same Santa figure standing in front of the fireplace saying “Merry Christmas” just like mine did.  Probably a pretty popular design from that era, but it strengthened the feeling of being reunited with my lost belongings.

I sighed and turned back toward the front of the shop.  A few steps away were some revolving racks with greeting cards.  These were all from independent card companies, not Hallmark, and they had vintage black and white photos on the front with funny sayings inside.  I picked up a couple and had to laugh.  Then, I picked up one that had a car with two ladies in ’50s attire standing proudly next to it.  I did a double take.

“Seriously?  An Oldsmobile?”

The car, although a convertible, was shown in three-quarter view with the rear end facing the viewer.   The iconic Rocket 88 insignia on the trunk unmistakably proved it was an Oldsmobile from the era I’d requested.  The photo was in black and white but the car was light colored—perhaps baby blue?

The impact of this encounter didn’t really hit me until the next day when I had an email exchange with my son in California.  He’d sent me a photo of the spot in the Pacific where he’d scattered my mother’s ashes, as per her wishes.  I half-mentioned that I’d received a sign from my folks and in several back and forth emails I finally told him about the Oldsmobile.  He said, “Oh, now I get it…I’m scared…but I get it.”

I’m not sure if he’s scared for my sanity or scared about the general “woo-woo-ness” of the experience.   Probably both.

Anyway, my folks came through for me (thanks to Dad) and maybe now I can feel better about moving on.

It may not have been my mother’s Oldsmobile, but it was good enough for me.

images50olds88sedan

20

The Queen Is in Da House

Note from the Eldercare Underground:  Royalty Edition

There used to be a television program in the 1950’s called “Queen for a Day,” hosted by Jack Bailey.  Here’s what good old Wikipedia says about it: 

The show opened with host Jack Bailey asking the audience—mostly women—”Would YOU like to be Queen for a day?” After this, the contestants were introduced and interviewed, one at a time, with commercials and fashion commentary interspersed between each contestant.

Using the classic applause meter, as did many game and hit-parade style shows of the time, Queen for a Day had its own special twist: each contestant had to talk publicly about the recent financial and emotional hard times she had been through. The applause meter had also been used on earlier series, including Fred Allen’s Judge for Yourself a variety and game show which aired on NBC from 1953-1954.

Bailey began each interview gently, asking the contestant first about her life and family, and maintaining a positive and upbeat response no matter what she told him. For instance, when a woman said she had a crippled child, he would ask if her second child was “Okay.” On learning that the second child was not crippled, he might say, “Well, that’s good, you have one healthy child.”

The interview would climax with Bailey asking the contestant what she needed most and why she wanted to win the title of Queen for a Day. Often the request was for medical care or therapeutic equipment to help a chronically ill child, but sometimes it was as simple as the need for a hearing aid, a new washing machine, or a refrigerator. Many women broke down sobbing as they described their plights, and Bailey was always quick to comfort them and offer a clean white handkerchief to dry their eyes.

The harsher the circumstances under which the contestant labored, the likelier the studio audience was to ring the applause meter’s highest level. The winner, to the musical accompaniment of “Pomp and Circumstance”, would be draped in a sable-trimmed red velvet robe, given a glittering jeweled crown to wear, placed on a velvet-upholstered throne, and handed a dozen long-stemmed roses to hold as she wept, often uncontrollably, while her list of prizes was announced.

The prizes, many of which were donated by sponsoring companies, began with the necessary help the woman had requested, but built from there. They might include a variety of extras, such as a vacation trip, a night on the town with her husband, silver-plated flatware, an array of kitchen appliances, or a selection of fashion clothing. The losing contestants were each given smaller prizes; no one went away from the show without a meaningful gift.

Bailey’s trademark sign-off was “This is Jack Bailey, wishing we could make every woman a queen, for every single day!”

Mark Evanier, veteran television writer, has dubbed it “one of the most ghastly shows ever produced” and further stated it was “tasteless, demeaning to women, demeaning to anyone who watched it, cheap, insulting and utterly degrading to the human spirit.”

The reason I bring this up (apart from the fact that we actually watched this show when I was a kid) is that my mother has often referred to herself as “The Queen.”

Usually this would happen after we’d picked her up to take her to a family gathering.  As she would get out of the car, she would stop, look around and smilingly say “The Queen has arrived.”

We were never quite sure where this self-appellation came from.

My friend, Mary, over at Merrilymarylee’s Weblog has concurred that her mother-in-law seems to hold the same high opinion of herself when it comes to making queenly requests of her grown children.  Mary and I came to the conclusion that it’s probably a generational thing.

Until today.

I’ve been noodling around the genealogical website, Geni.com, and went clicking my way back through my mother’s family tree on her father’s side.  Click, click, click….back and further back I went, through information that I hadn’t seen before.

What I found was a shock.  We’ve got royalty in our tree.

My mother is descended from William the Conqueror of England and, as an extra added attraction, Welsh kings and Norse kings and queens.  It goes without saying that probably everyone of English, French or Scandinavian extraction could claim the same thing, but….still.

Here’s the progression, starting from my mother’s great-grandmother on her father’s side:

Juliette Gillett (Head)–>Britton Head–>Britton Head–>Joseph Head–>Henry Head–>Elizabeth Head–>William Palmer–>William Palmer–>William Palmer, Sr.–>Sir John William Palmer, Dr. (bone setter, barber, and physician)–>Catherine Palmer (Stradling) (maid of honor to Henry VIII’s wife, Anne of Cleves)–>Sir Edward Stradling–>Janet Stradling–>Thomas Mathew, Esq., of Radyr, Glamorgan–>Gwenllian verch Dafydd–>Gwenllian verch Philip–>Nest verch Gwilym–>Gwilym Ap Madog–>Madog Felyn–>Sara le Sore–>Mabel de Montfort, Countess of Gloucester–>William Fitz Robert, 2nd Earl of Gloucester–>Robert de Caen, Earl of Gloucester (illegitimate, although recognized, son of)–>Henry I Beauclerc, King of England–>William the Conqueror, King of England.

And, as my husband reminded me about the violent nature of the English and Norse kings, it’s not too much of a stretch for my mother to tell me (as she did recently at the hospital when she was getting a chest x-ray) that she was going to “knock the crap right out of me some day.”

Oy.  My mother was right.  “The Queen” is in da house.

22

Majorly Medical

More notes from the Eldercare Underground:

Back in May, my mother got a letter from her primary care physician stating that he was going to be retiring on June 24th and would be closing his practice. 

She’d been seeing him every 6 months or so for the twelve years that she’s been living in Texas.

The letter went on to say that no one in his medical group would be taking over his patients (all 2,000 of them!  The town has a population of approx. 11,000 people) and that everyone would need to find a new doctor.  He included a list of doctors in the area who are currently accepting new patients.

Swell.

The first office that I called on the list, I got a recording that said the receptionist was unavailable at the moment and to leave a message and she would get back to me.  Yuh huh.

After not having heard from them by the next day, I called again—only to find the office was closed because it was a Wednesday. 

(She never did return my call—ever.)

Scratch that doctor off my list.

I called another office and got an actual person who told me to leave a voicemail message on another line that was set up for this new influx of desperate patients, but the person in charge of my mother’s fate probably wouldn’t get back to me for a few days since there had been such a demand.  She said that if I didn’t hear from them after a week, to try again. 

This made me a little nervous.  What if, in the meantime, all the other offices on the list had met their quota of refugees and we were out of luck?

When I left my voicemail message, I felt like I was applying for political asylum or something.  I tried to sweeten the deal for my mother by pleading that even though she was ninety-one, she didn’t have any major medical issues and really, really wouldn’t be much of a bother, I promise.  Then I left it up to God and the woman in charge of deciding who gets in—and I wasn’t sure who had the greater power here.

Sure enough, after a week I hadn’t heard from them so I called again.  This time they took pity on me and let me talk directly with the Great and Powerful Decision Maker who agreed that my mother wouldn’t be much of a burden on the system and set us up with an appointment.  Whew.

We went today to see the new doctor (a woman–which sometimes is good with my mother and sometimes not, depending on the situation) and I was pleased with the way the appointment went.  My mother didn’t complain too much, except after the really nice medical assistant had thoroughly gone over her history and there was a little wait for the doctor to come into the exam room. 

My mother let out a dramatic sigh and said,

“Well, where the hell is the doctor?” 

But at least nobody heard her except me.

While we were continuing our wait, my mother asked me just what it was when I was about four or five that the nurses at the pediatrician’s office used to prompt me to tell them every time we went in. 

It’s funny, because she can’t remember what day it is, but she can remember something that happened about 60 years ago.  Maybe that’s the beauty of being one of what they now call the “old-old.”  You can live in your memories of the past.

The anecdote she was remembering centered around the time my mother had been seen by her doctor (with me in tow) and then I saw my pediatrician right afterward.  The nurses had asked me what my mother had had done at her doctor’s appointment and I’d answered

“She got a shot in she butt.” 

Every visit thereafter, until I was practically a teen-ager, the nurses would gather around me and ask me to repeat what I had said, to the hilarity of all.

But for the grace of God and other Decision Makers, that could have been the start of a brilliant stand-up comedy career.

 

20

Middle School Makeover

All of the hoopla surrounding the Royal Wedding in England and the subsequent extreme scrutiny of the attendees’ attire and figures reminded me of my own first encounter with a body image critic at the young age of twelve or thirteen and what it meant to be a girl in the late 1950’s.

Here’s a post I wrote about it in this blog’s infancy:

“Does This Teacher Make My Butt Look Big?”

The phantom of Miss Elwell still follows me about, even after fifty years.

It was 1959 and I had just entered junior high school. In those days, a girl’s highest aspiration was to become a wife and mother. This may not have been stated outright, but it certainly was implied by society and the general culture of the times.

The curricula for seventh-grade girls included a year of “Home Economics.” This entailed a semester of cooking instruction and a semester of sewing. Having just come from a previous school year where I had excelled at touch football with the boys at recess, this was not welcome news. I could kick and pass a perfect spiral and, because the boys were still on the shrimpy side at that age, I had reigned supreme. Now I was supposed to be a lady? I was completely thrown for a loop.

The Home Ec. teacher was a rather portly woman in her 50′s by the name of Miss Frances Elwell. She was charged with the formidable task of trying to whip all this green talent into some kind of reasonably feminine shape by year’s end.

I never did quite figure out why this domestic onslaught had to be imposed on the seventh graders and not the more “mature” (relatively speaking) ninth graders. I guess the school board felt that we were more malleable at that age, before we got any further into the smart-ass teen years where it would be next to impossible to get any kind of response out of us beyond a sneer.

By the luck of the draw, I had been assigned the cooking section for my first semester. We were divided up into groups and given our own little versions of the Happy Homemaker kitchen. No Easy-Bake ovens here. This was the real deal.

Thinking back, I was so oblivious to everything of a domestic nature at that age. My Mother didn’t make me do any housework at home under the assumption that ”You’ll be doing it for the rest of your life” so why bother with it now? The fallacy in all that was how will you know what to do when the time comes if nobody shows you how to do it beforehand?

Consequently, my Mother did quite a bit of my homework for me for cooking class. Make that just about all. One important assignment was to create a place setting for an imaginary individual whom Miss Elwell had randomly chosen for each of us. My Mother and I slaved over every detail. Well, she slaved and I watched her slave.

When I presented the setting to Miss Elwell, I closely watched her face for some sign of benevolence. She critically observed the place setting before her and looked at me with twinkling eyes. Then she said, “Do you really think an elderly bachelor would want a pink paper parasol in his juice glass?”

If I knew then what I know now, I would have responded with:

 “Yes, if he were Truman Capote.”

The actual cooking assignments in class were ones that I had to wing on my own. Only one of those stands out in my memory. (There may have been successes, but I doubt it.) We had to bake muffins, which sounds easy but can be very tricky. You’re not supposed to over beat the batter because that can cause too much air to become incorporated into the mix, creating all manner of havoc and the end of the world, apparently.

After my batch came out of the oven, I nervously took my burnt offering up to the altar of Miss Elwell and waited for the verdict. She broke one open and studied it like an oracle examining the entrails of a goat. Then she pronounced,

“These have tunnels so large you could drive a truck through them.”

I mentally made a note to look for a husband who was wheat intolerant.

Having gone down in flames in the cooking department (figuratively, not literally) I had the sewing semester to redeem myself. It turns out I was even less adept at this than I was in the culinary arts.

My Mother, of course, was a veritable whiz at sewing. She made most of my clothes for school and really knew her way around a sewing machine. I viewed it as an instrument of torture. So, again, my Mother commandeered my sewing projects while I wandered off and watched American Bandstand on t.v.

The main project for the semester was a circle skirt or full skirt. It should have been a fairly straight-forward task but, again, nothing came easy for me in Miss Elwell’s bastion of the feminine arts. I couldn’t find a pattern that fit me. My Mother had to do a lot of cutting and pinning and sweating to get the thing to correspond to my dimensions. All those years of being a tomboy had given me an athletic build. Not good in the world of Elwell.

So when I went before her with the finished product, it was pretty obvious that my Mother had cranked it out. I couldn’t do work like that and Miss Elwell knew it. She gave it a cursory glance and said simply “C,” for my grade. Which was fine with me because I just wanted the ordeal over with.

But when I said something about not being able to find a pattern to fit me, Miss Elwell uttered the words that have stuck with me to this very day, some fifty years later. Words that have haunted me in every dressing room of any clothing store I’ve ever been in and before every mirror where I have stood and contemplated my visage.

Sitting at her desk she looked up at me with those twinkling eyes and said,

 “You have an oddball shape.”

This was spoken by a woman who was as wide as she was tall.

There was one happy memory from that year of living femininely. I had to sew a shank button on a piece of fabric, which meant sewing the button on loosely and then wrapping the thread many times around the bottom of the button to make it more secure. I tentatively placed it in Miss Elwell’s hands and waited for the usual. Instead, she looked at me with those twinkling eyes, smiled and said “A.”

I may be an oddball, but I wouldn’t be an old maid after all.

This ATC’s for you, Miss Elwell.

22

Holding to the Oldies

I had to call my mother’s AARP health insurance company this morning to find out what the deductible was on her medicare supplement plan. 

Several months ago I’d tried to talk about her plan over the phone with them and was told she would have to submit a written form designating me as someone who could be trusted to act in her behalf. 

(The whole purpose behind that call was to see if they’d received the check I’d sent them after I found out my mother hadn’t paid her premiums for the last two months and was in danger of having her insurance terminated.  I don’t know what a person would do if their parent wasn’t lucid enough to fill out that form—forgery, perhaps?  Appearing in person at their corporate offices dressed up as Mrs. Doubtfire maybe?)

Anyway, I got into their system and proceeded through the automated menu with the help of the nice disembodied female voice on the other end of the line.  She had the soft, reassuring tones of Miss Nancy on the old t.v. show “Romper Room.”  All I needed was some graham crackers and milk and I was back in the 1950’s again.

After jumping through the automated hoops I was finally going to be turned over to a living breathing agent.  But first I had to be on hold for awhile.  Now, some businesses have really annoying “music to hold by.”  Often I’ve had to put the phone out at arm’s length to keep from being deafened before the end of the call.

This time it was different.  For a company primarily dedicated to older folks, their music wasn’t very loud at all.  Go figure.  And the tune I was listening to also took me back to the 1950’s. 

It was Perry Como singing “Papa Loves Mambo,” kind of the quintessential fifties song—slightly silly lyrics with a bit of sexual innuendo thrown in for good measure.  I liked it. 

Perry Como recorded it on August 31, 1954; it was released in September, and charted on October 4, eventually peaking at number four, spending eighteen weeks on the charts. It was Perry’s 98th hit.

So here it is for you to enjoy.  I’m sure when we baby boomers get a little further along in age and find ourselves put on hold when calling AARP, we’ll be listening to the music from our youth too. 

Only with our luck, it’ll be The Captain and Tennille singing “Muskrat Love.”

Papa loves mambo
Mama loves mambo
Look at ’em sway with it
Gettin’ so gay with it
Shoutin’ “olay” with it, wow (huh)

Papa loves mambo
(Papa loves mambo)
Mama loves mambo
(Mama loves mambo)
Papa does great with it
Swings like a gate with it
He loses weight with it, now

He goes to, she goes fro
He goes fast, she goes slow
He goes left ‘n’ she goes right

(Papa’s lookin’ for Mama)
(But mama is nowhere in sight) (huh)

Papa loves mambo
Mama loves mambo
Havin’ their fling again
Younger than spring again
Feelin’ that zing again, wow (huh)

Papa loves mambo
(Papa loves mambo)
Mama loves mambo
(Mama loves mambo)
Don’t let her rumba and don’t let her samba
‘Cause Papa loves Mama tonight (huh)

20

The Bed and I

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“When I was sick and lay a-bed,

I had two pillows at my head. 

And all my toys beside me lay

To keep me happy all the day.”

                               from Land of the Counterpane by Robert Louis Stevenson

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

On the rare occasion when I was sick enough to stay home and miss school, my mother would allow me to spend the day in my parents’ bed.  It was a double bed with an iron headboard and footboard, done in fancy scrolls to mimic the more expensive brass variety. 

Since my mother was a frustrated interior decorator, (who now gets to live vicariously through her furniture designer granddaughter) she painted it with an antique-gold paint to jazz it up. 

Getting to loll in that gilded bed, though achy with the flu, was a treat.

My mother would bring me Cream O’ Wheat for breakfast and hover over me throughout the day, feeling my forehead and fussing.

And then there was her reliable cure-all…the silver bullet of medicine…God’s gift to mothers everywhere…the magic elixir:  a jar of Vicks VapoRub. 

My mother is now 91 and I attribute her longevity to her liberal use of Vicks, applied to any area of skin or orifice above the waistline.  It didn’t matter that the label on the jar warned against using the product internally.  Pish, tosh!  That was for sissies. 

Mom put it up her nose, in her mouth and globbed big dollops of the stuff into the water of the vaporizer that spewed steam out at me all day and night during respiratory illnesses.

Her refusal to acknowledge the warnings about something she insisted was beneficial also surfaced once during a family dinner years ago. 

My brother, an adult by then, told her he couldn’t eat a particular Mexican dish she’d prepared because he was allergic to cilantro.  She told him “you’re going to eat it and you’re going to like it” and spun on her heel to return to the kitchen. 

I guess we were all lucky that Vicks didn’t turn up somewhere on the menu. 

To keep me entertained during my stay in the gilded bed, my mother would dig through our huge comic book collection in the den closet and bring me some choice Donald Ducks or Uncle Scrooges.  Also, there were many well-thumbed copies of Reader’s Digest to…well…digest. 

They were immensely better than the sad thing being passed off as the Digest now.  The old Digests of the 1950s actually had interesting stories and condensed books.  My mother-in-law sends us the Digest, so I went through a recent copy and ripped out every ad for pharmaceuticals or weight loss aids just to see what was left.  It was pretty pitiful.  

Enough to make you sick, if you weren’t already.

The best time I had while ill was when I was around twelve years old.  My mother had acquired a copy of the book “The Egg and I” by Betty MacDonald.  (A 1947 movie based on the book starred Claudette Colbert, Fred McMurray, Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride.) 

The story was about a husband and wife who start out their new marriage on a chicken farm in Washington state, although neither one of them has had any experience with farming or chickens.

I love to read aloud, so my mother sat at the foot of the gilded bed while I read to her.  Ma and Pa Kettle were the stand-outs of the story, with their kitchen filled with kids, chaos and roaming chickens. 

(Kind of like mine with roaming cats, but we won’t go there.) 

One of the Kettles’ many children was a daughter they’d nicknamed “Tits,” but Ma insisted it stood for “sister.”  For a twelve year-old this was heady stuff and high humor. 

We both rolled around on the bed with laughter throughout the time it took to finish the book, between applications of VapoRub and the shaking out of the sheets so my dad wouldn’t have to sleep on toast crumbs that night. 

Laughter is almost as good a medicine as Vicks.

My mother still has that bed, although she has slept in it by herself for the last eleven years since my father died.  A few months ago she gave it another coat of antique-gold paint because it was getting worn and patchy in a few spots. 

The bed seems so small now, nothing like the luxurious bed of my memory. 

And I recently replaced one of her ancient, satin-edged wool blankets that dated all the way back, some fifty-odd years ago, to spending sick days in that bed as a young child.  The blanket had become so tattered at the bottom it was almost like tissue paper, it was so thin.

Surprisingly, I experienced a twinge of regret at disposing of the wretched thing.  I had some good times lying underneath that blanket with Ma and Pa Kettle, Donald Duck, and my mother. 

And a jar of Vicks, of course.  

     

18

Re-post: Childhood Heroines Redux

I really didn’t like playing with dolls, much to the despair of my mother.  Back in the 1950’s, little girls were expected to want to play mommy to their inert little babies, who would just lie there in their doll beds with their sleep-a-bye eyes closed tight.  Where was the fun in that?  I craved action and excitement, like the boys had with their toys.  It wasn’t until Barbie was introduced in 1959, when I was approaching age 12, that I finally got enthused about dolls. 

Now we’re talkin’! 

I ask you, would you rather play with a typical 50’s doll that looked like this…..         baby                                                                                                      

 …..or a Barbie that looked like this…..

barbie

Who looks like a better time?  I rest my case. 

Awhile back I read an article in the New York Times about the powerful women in our country who read Nancy Drew books when they were young.  The list ranged from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to Nancy Pelosi, to many women in law, education and industry whose eyes were opened to the possibilities that had seemed beyond their reach.  If Nancy could be daring and adventurous and go against what was deemed the norm for young ladies back then, well so could they. 

I remember owning some Nancy Drew mysteries, but they never became my favorite reading, although I did (and still do) love to read.  I think her books probably wound up somewhere at the bottom of my toy drawer underneath my toy Winchester repeating rifle and the wooden tomahawk my Dad made for me.  (I think there was a little derringer in there too, like the one Paladin had on “Have Gun Will Travel.”) 

My heroines were of the action variety; ones who could give the good ol’ boys a run for their money.  So I thought I would put together a list of the ladies whom I held in the highest esteem during my childhood, along with some sketches of them to illustrate my point.

First up…..Joan of Arc.

joan 

I loved reading about how Joan heard angelic voices telling her that it was up to her to go to battle to save France.  She cut her hair short (like mine!), put on armor (basically boys’ clothes), and got to ride around on her steed telling the guys what to do.  What’s not to like? 

(Except for that whole burning at the stake thing.)

Most of the paintings of Joan show her wearing a skirt over her armor.  I have a difficult time believing anyone who went as far beyond what was considered proper behavior for a young lady as she did would even think about adding a skirt to keep the neighbors’ tongues from wagging.  Joan was such an all-time favorite of mine that I created an artist trading card in her honor for my “Great Cats in Art” series, starring my cat Neferkitty—“The Pussycat of Orleans.”

pussycat

Next up is Gail Davis of the “Annie Oakley” television show of the 1950’s.

 gail2

From the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture:

“Gail Davis was an Arkansas-born actress who starred as the legendary sharpshooter in the groundbreaking TV Western series Annie Oakley, which ran from 1954 through 1956. She appeared in thirty-two feature films, was guest on a number of TV shows, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, and was an early role model for young women.  

At just over five feet tall and under 100 pounds, Davis was a charming heroine on Annie Oakley who wore pigtails and stopped criminals by outsmarting them or shooting the guns out of their hands. She rode horses and did many of her own stunts. She was the first woman to star in a TV western. Many young women later said they were influenced by watching Gail Davis as Annie Oakley, a female character in a traditionally male role. In the show, Gail took care of her younger brother, Tagg, in the fictional town of Diablo and solved crimes with handsome deputy sheriff Lofty Craig.”

My kind of gal.  Plus, she had cute outfits.

Finally, we have Irish McCalla as “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.”

sheena

From Wikipedia:

“In a newspaper interview, McCalla recalled being discovered by a Nassour Studios representative while throwing a bamboo spear on a Malibu, California, beach, famously adding of her Sheena experience, “I couldn’t act, but I could swing through the trees”.  Her 26-episode series aired in first-run syndication from 1955-56.

The athletic, reportedly 5’10” McCalla said she performed her own stunts on the series, filmed in Mexico, until the day she grabbed an unsecured vine and slammed into a tree, breaking her arm. Her elder son, Kim McIntyre, once told the press he remembered watching his mother swinging from vine to vine and wrestling mechanical alligators.”

I was so enthralled with Sheena’s capabilities.  (She could really kick butt.) 

Near our house in Southern California was an orange orchard that was being turned into a housing tract development.  There had been a lot of excavating done by heavy equipment and one morning my mother got a phone call from a neighbor who said “I don’t want to alarm you, Iris, but Melissa’s walking down the street with a snake around her neck.”  (I was around seven or eight years old—Nancy Drew had unsupervised adventures too.) 

I remember sashaying down our street with the snake draped around me, a la Sheena, with a gaggle of admiring followers trailing behind.  God knows what kind of snake it was or how long it had been dead, but that didn’t matter to my mother who hated snakes of any stripe or color.  My homage to Sheena was cut short.  But I loved it….it was so cool.

I enjoy looking back at the heroines of my youth.  I still hold them dear to my heart.  I’m just so glad that there are so many more now for young girls to emulate than there were in my childhood. 

But I still think these gals hold up pretty well even after all these years.