I’m in the far bedroom with my daughter doing a biennial paring-down of “stuff.” We hope I can purge enough of the things stored in here so half of this room can be made into a guest sleeping area for my two grandsons. There’s not much furniture; that was whittled down during the previous purge. No, what we are dealing with are the stacks and stacks of boxes.
“Look,” I tell my daughter who’s here to make sure I don’t get sentimental about every little thing. “More of my diaries and journals. You know, I haven’t decided yet whether or not to dispose of these before I die. I’m not sure if I want others reading all I’ve poured out on these pages. Some entries, taken out of context, could be very hurtful.”
“Mom, you have nothing to worry about! There will likely be very few people around who will be able to read these!”
“What do you mean?”
“Reading cursive! Even now, most people my age don’t understand words written in cursive; it was already an option, not a requirement, when I was in school. Do you know I’m one of the few at the ambulance service who can read this type of penmanship?! It’s actually scary because at a recent call, I was the only one of the emergency personnel who could read the list of medications on the fridge the patient was taking!”
I can’t stop thinking about this conversation. It’s disturbing. I do know that cursive writing is no longer taught in public schools. And hasn’t been for a number of years. But this never stopped me from writing in cursive–letters to college friends, notes on birthday cards, journal entries and grocery list items. However, this is the first time I’ve pondered about humans losing the knowledge of reading cursive. Of the current and long-terms effects. This is a grim state of things indeed and something needs to be done before it is too late.
It’s highly unlikely that teaching children cursive will ever return to schools. Since the conversation with my daughter, I’ve seen some half-hearted efforts put into producing “Learning to Write Cursive” activity workbooks. My daughter bought one for my eleven-year-old grandson. He completed one page then moved on to advanced dot-to-dot books. The cursive workbook is about as motivational as writing Latin was in my junior and senior years of high school.
Latin class…. this gets me thinking. In Latin class, we weren’t taught to speak the language. The emphasis was on reading it–learning the meaning of words that are the tap roots of so much of what we write and speak today. Yes, we did conjugate verbs and write sentences, but mainly we worked on translating passages of historical writings. Religious writings had no place in public school so we were mainly stuck with boring accounts of military maneuvers and battles. But even today, my vocabulary benefits from having taken Latin.
What are the benefits of making sure generations to come can read cursive? Not everyone is going to inherit, from a parent or grandparent, journals or diaries written in cursive. However, I and many of my generation have saved special hand-written letters from friends and loved ones. Having a packrat tendency, I have every letter that my mother, father and grandmothers ever sent me. And others from aunts, cousins and best friends. Nearly all these are written in cursive. What a loss it would be if my descendants threw these away because of not being able to read them. And what about other documents written in cursive? Land records and historical documents–do we want to get to the stage where we will have to pay interpreters to do cursive translations for us?
So how do we right this? We need to bring courses in cursive back to our schools. I suggest starting with a course that is a requirement for all students, in fifth or sixth grade. And then through twelfth grade, mandatory refresher courses. Cursive is like typing. If you don’t use it, you start losing the skill. The initial class should be taught once or twice a week starting with the identification of upper- and lower-case letters. Then focus on how the words look strung together. After this is mastered, the students will advance to reading simple sentences. To keep the students motivated, each should be assigned a pen pal. An older relative writing a short letter to them every week in cursive. The pen pals will ask questions for the students to answer in print or type; letter-writing should always be a two-way effort. The cursive writers and students should be provided with notecards, stamps and pens. All letters going back and forth should be monitored by the teacher to make sure the subject matter is appropriate. If a student does not have an older person in their life who can be their pen pal, substitutions of approved residents at assisted living facilities can be arranged.
There are additional fun things to do with younger students just starting out reading cursive words–scavenger hunts–the clues given in cursive. Cursive reading contests run like spelling bees. “What is it?” games with each clue written in cursive. Darn, how I wish Mr. Pullman used some of these techniques during Latin class!
For older students, refresher classes once a week for a half of each school year would likely suffice. Letters, journal entries and hand-written wills of public record, all can be used as samples of subjects to translate. The introduction of reading different individuals’ handwriting is also important at this level. For example, my mother had textbook-perfect, cursive handwriting. My husband’s handwriting…let’s just say our children had me write all the notes to their teachers. And Grandma Hugo added extra loops all over the place.
If there is resistance amongst the educators to stand-alone refresher courses, then work cursive reading into other classes. Have the history, English, science and fine art teachers include assignments where one needs to be able to read script. Imagine the thrill of being able to read a copy of a handwritten letter from Mark Twain to his daughter! Or diary entries from an ill-fated pioneer heading west with his family, the impact of their plight made more real by reading words that get shakier and shakier as the family’s food and water supply dwindles.
In high school, there also should be the opportunity for an independent study option for learning to write script so that actually writing in cursive, what likely will be considered in the future as an endangered “art form,” will not be lost.
You can probably guess that by this time I’ve made the decision that I am not going to destroy or recycle my diaries and journals. Or toss even one of the hundreds of letters. If my children don’t want to be burdened with any of these, I will put in writing my wish that they be donated to cursive writing classes as samples for translating. And there is one more thing I am going to do as soon as I finish this piece. Print my emergency contact information and list of medications and post them on my fridge. Just to be on the safe side…
I don’t know about you, but this winter dragged on and on for me. My exercise routine of getting out walking on nature trails was severely limited by our heavy snowfalls. I’m no spring chicken. I’ve had a hip replacement, so walking on slippery surfaces just isn’t worth the risk for me. I was forced inside, where exercise can be a lonely business. I missed my weekly visits, as a volunteer, to a local youth prison. I missed the camaraderie of our group; their commitment to helping to make change, one young man at a time. I missed my library Friends group, planning a coffeehouse for local writers, and supporting other library programs with fundraising events. And I’m not even mentioning family and friends! Most of all I missed the faces of those near and dear. So, on a winter’s morning, faced with inches of snow, still accumulated on the landscape, I got into sweats and headed anxiously to the basement. With a smile on my face. Why a smile? Here is what went before.
In 2007, the approach of my son’s wedding amplified my desire to get into better shape. There was one huge problem. I am not a “join the gym” kinda person. We have exercise equipment of our own that I can use. The problem? The dream house we’d bought several months before had a basement that could have passed for a dungeon. Cobwebs hung from the eleven-foot ceiling, sawdust from the previous owner’s wood shop clung to the grey cement walls, and the exposed insulation made my skin itch. It was dirty, drab, and in this uninviting place our treadmill and spinner bicycle sat unused.
I fantasized about a workout space that would call me like the Sirens called to Odysseus!
“Gail, come use the treadmill. Ride the bike. Stretch. Stretch. Stretch!”
Could I do it? It didn’t take long for an assessment of the situation. After all, I have a modicum of creative energy and am handy with tools. How hard could it be? This task had me written all over it. My project objectives were to create an area, warm, personal, bright and the renovation had to fit my limited decorating budget. It began with a general cleaning of the whole area. I admit it; I’m not much help with housework like dusting and keeping the house presentable. My wife is a saint in that regard! This was too much to ask of her, and it was my project anyway. I put on gloves and tackled the job of wiping down the walls, getting them ready for paint or whatever would follow. Next came a trip to the local hardware store. Don’t let this scare you off! I’ve found that hardware store employees are often quite helpful with advice and product knowledge. I was introduced to sealing and waterproofing masonry products, along with clear plastic. Once home I hauled out the ladder and stapled the clear plastic over the exposed insulation extending two feet above the foundation walls. So far, easy peasy.
I also came home from the hardware store with a white, sealer primer coat, which paid off in brightness dividends immediately. I followed that with a coating of soft yellow latex paint. The natural lines and bumps of the foundation walls vexed me. The paint, although a much-needed upgrade, couldn’t hide the wall’s rough texture. We didn’t have the money for a complete foundation resurfacing, so I considered less expensive options. My first thought was to find a wall hanging. A pretty rug, large enough to cover most of the wall. That was moving away from Odysseus towards King Arthur’s castle! I was picturing in my mind, old European castles with large rugs covering bare walls, holding in heat and beautifying stone walls. That could be sweet. Until I thought of my allergies. To be fair, and not sound like a jerk, I don’t help with dusting/vacuuming because of my wheezing reaction to the vexatious particles. Was I setting a trap for myself, via a gorgeous, but dust collecting, wall rug? Besides, if we were going to invest in a beautiful rug, why not put it upstairs where we, and guests, would see it all the time? So I vetoed the rug idea. Soon, another thought took its place.
While working on the basement walls, we were also unpacking boxes and dealing with smaller pieces of furniture that didn’t quite fit in the new house. One such piece was a six foot + high room divider. Then there were the stacks of prized photos. I hated leaving them in boxes, stored away and forgotten. Could I fix both problems with one solution? The answer was in the room divider. It was 69 inches tall and had three vertical panels, each with cut outs for five 8×10 pictures. I got out my tools. The three wooden foldable panels were easy to take apart, making each a stand-alone photo gallery.
That took care of fifteen photos and about a third of one wall. I wanted more. If fifteen photos were good, why not thirty, or forty-five? I felt I was on to something. Not remembering where the original room divider came from, I hit the internet. I found more dividers in the same style after a brief search. Thank you, Ebay! Soon I had three more room dividers in hand and embraced the exciting task of choosing more photos to frame.
Trips to the basement now are a chance to say “Hello” to family and friends. Our beloved malamute, Beau, is there. My son, Allen, holding our cat, Raven, greets me. The sandstone formations of Canyonlands are there. The photo triggers a memory of spending a worrisome night lost out there. My dad in his Navy uniform shines here, along with Barb’s in his Air Force uniform. Glacier National Park, in all its grandeur is here too. The photos send me on journeys down memory lane. So what if I can’t travel outside my neighborhood right now! The time on the treadmill doesn’t seem quite so daunting. Who knew, that thirteen years later, I would reap the benefits of that project when the pandemic forced all of us to spend so much more time at home. Although not the same as in person, I can actually hang out with friends and family daily. These photos on the walls remind me of all the connections that are important to me.
And for as long as this pandemic lasts, or in a non-pandemic world, when I awake to snow, or a rainy, spring day, I can exercise among familiar, beloved people, pets, and places. It’s a fun project that anyone can do. It’s more than a fixer upper. All the faces and places make it priceless!
We called the new dog Tater. The reason? We’re in a part of Florida that resembles Georgia and Alabama more than Miami and Palm Beach so we wanted him to have a name fit for the local culture. In this neck of the woods there’s a lot of hunting and fishing. Our neighbor hunts doves by the dozens, then eats their walnut-sized breasts. Others hunt pigs and it’s not unusual to see their pickup trucks with a few dogs in the back eyeballing you through the grates of portable kennels. Snakes and gators get hunted too. Then there is the collection of annoying critters like jumping spiders, copperheads and rattlers. Thank the Lord pythons have yet to make it up here from the Everglades where they’ve squeezed nearly every native animal to the brink of eradication. Needless to say, when looking for a name, we rejected Dove, Snake, Hog, Copperhead, Rattler and Python as too redneck. We didn’t consider calling him Gator, but it’s a swell name.
Down here the cooking is definitely Southern: barbecue chicken and ribs for example and fried stuff of every sort from okra to pickles. Sometimes when too lazy to cook, we’ll get fried chicken from the local Winn-Dixie, along with sides of cole slaw and tater salad. And that’s where the new dog’s name originated.
As I type this, Tater is lying on his belly looking intently at me with what the dachshund rescue and rehab lady called “eyes like a person.” Or he was. Now he’s burying his little body in the blanket we use to keep dog excesses from destroying our leather couch.
His little eighteen-pound body is a thing to behold. The front half of this mostly black fellow is dappled, stout and strong, while the all-black rear looks like it belonged to a skinny breed, maybe a chihuahua. It’s as if a Dr. Frankenstein joined two entirely different canines that he’d been keeping around for spare parts. Worse still for Tater is that there’s something neurological going on with his back half. When he runs, his rear legs trail askew which forces him to skip forward on every third step to catch up with the rest of his body. When standing still, he struggles a bit to stay upright as his back legs wobble and hips swivel loosely like a slinky.
Up front of this comical body is a handsome little face with a long snout like a dachshund’s with a small bump on the top that’s common to the breed.
He came to us about a month ago when, on a bright Sunday morning, the dachshund rescue lady drove him up to our place for a meet and greet. She called him Donny, short for Don Juan, which didn’t quite fit the frightened little fellow that clung close to her. We sat in green plastic Adirondack chairs on the grass in a three-spoke circle as he nervously checked out the smells, sights and sounds of our cottage and fenced-in yard. One by one my wife brought out our three pooches starting with Peanut, our little red dachshund, who must have recognized Donny as one of his own kind, as he approached him with tail wagging to beat the band.
Next came Barney, our big yellow rescue from the Caribbean, who could have cared less, followed by Gooch, the bouncing ten-pound mound of black and white fur, who was only momentarily curious before settling in at my wife’s feet.
Sonja, the rescue lady praised the little fellow who she said came from the streets of Ocala where he was found dragging two damaged rear paws behind him. Her careful rehab had healed his feet but his back end remained shaky, loose at the hips as if some nuts had come loose that needed to be tightened.
At the end of the meet and greet, we decided to give Donny a trial run for ten days. I was ambivalent because I’d been hoping for a dog that looked like a dachshund, not like a doggy imposter. What I didn’t know at the time was my wife had already made up her mind. We would adopt this funny looking little fellow with the gait of a drunken sailor.
Why we got Tater when we already had three other dogs is another story. It begins about ten years before in a motel parking lot in Roanoke, Virginia, a city in the Blue Ridge Mountains that is about mid-point between a dachshund rescue north of Memphis and our place in Bethlehem, Connecticut. We were picking up a bonded pair of little red heads: males named Theo and Peanut. The rescue lady had a third dog with her: a tiny dappled girl named Shelby who was completely adorable. Peanut and Theo were pretty cute too. Peanut was as little and round as the name implies, while Theo, slightly larger, had a broad, handsome face that resembled a golden retriever as much as it did a dachshund.
In the lot, after she put the two boys on leashes, I started off with Theo for some green grass and a good pee. Theo wouldn’t have it. After we’d walked about twenty feet Theo slipped his collar and headed back toward his pal Peanut. When I caught him, he turned and snapped at my hand before running back to join his friend. It wasn’t going well, so we decided to let Peanut and Theo stay with the rescue lady overnight while we took the ever-cute Shelby to our room. I kept thinking we’d made a mistake and would have been better off with the little girl than with these two.
On the way home, the two boys slept in the back seat, intertwined like a doggy pretzel. Clearly bonded, Peanut and Theo were spooning.
The rescue lady who had the boys for four months, mentioned that Peanut was the more loveable of the two, though he wasn’t as handsome as big brother Theo.
And that was true. Peanut was the more endearing, more affectionate of the two, while Theo seemed more aloof, independent and stubborn. At obedience class, the instructor, who was quite annoyed with our lack of progress, decided to show me how it’s done. When he found that Theo wouldn’t respond to tugs on the nylon collar that tightens uncomfortably as the dog resists, he replaced it with a choke chain. When that didn’t work, he tried a more aggressive chain collar: one I imagine designed to cause sufficient pain to get most any dog’s attention. From that experience we learned that Theo is made of stouter stuff than most canines. No way a collar that induced a gag response when it constricted his airway could cause him to obey the simple commands “sit” and “stay.” Theo was having none of it, and in ten minutes the instructor, seething in defeat, passed back the leash of his most difficult student. So much for obedience class.
And so life went on for eight or nine years. Mr. Independent Theo never coming when called and always looking for a way to head down the driveway to check for leftovers in the food bowl of our neighbor’s Jack Russell terrier. Worry about his escapades was a daily experience. As far as being affectionate, he and Peanut had different styles. Peanut was always ready for a belly rub, or to sit in your lap, or offer a generous kiss. Theo couldn’t be bothered until the morning last September when he skipped breakfast for the first time, had trouble jumping onto the couch and grimaced in pain when I went to help him up.
Within an hour we were at the vets. He’s a very sick dog she told me. How could that be, I wondered, when he was himself as recently as last evening when he and Peanut, after the last pee of the day, squirmed excitedly in anticipation of their evening milkbone?
An ultrasound showed a growth on his spleen and blood in his abdominal cavity.
She gave me the options: euthanasia at the office, taking him home to die, or letting them keep him overnight in hope a little treatment would get him strong enough for surgery. The shock was too much. Euthanize a pup that had been fine twelve hours ago? Let him die at home? No thanks. We had to try. Overnight the bleeding in his abdomen stopped and he responded well to the infusion of fluids. $2500 later I brought him home. Though sore and frail after surgery, he bounced back quickly. The vet was surprised just how far he’d come when I brought him in after ten days for the removal of the staples that closed the surgeon’s cut. Surprised too that he hadn’t reacted when she pulled out the staples and how within five minutes he greeted me with a wagging tail. The biopsy confirmed that the tumor was cancerous: an aggressive, fast-growing kind that usually finishes the job in a few months.
“It could be two months,” the vet told me, or up to a year she said, given how well he was doing post-surgery. I hoped for the best. Some days he was his old enthusiastic self, and some days he moved so slowly it was as if he was a candle in the sun, sinking with agonizing slowness. Twice I brought him back to the vet for fluids and twice he bounced back.
Then, ten weeks out from surgery, he became quite ill and died in my arms at four in the morning. Earlier that evening when his breathing became labored he’d look up at me as I held him in my lap, as if asking for an explanation. “Dad’s here,” I’d tell him. After he died, I wrapped him in a white towel, to keep the dirt off his face. It seemed like he deserved better than the indignity of dirt shoveled over his eyes. My wife and I cried as we placed him in the grave we’d dug at the base of a huge live oak, a fortress of a tree that would keep him safe and from which his spirit could observe us as we went on with our lives.
It worried me that Peanut might not do well without his constant companion; that he’d be stressed and unhappy, which is why within eight days after Theo’s passing we found Tater. The two dogs have bonded, spoon on the dog bed, eat together and journey outside as a pair. Though the adjustment is better than I expected, Peanut has changed. He’s not as energetic, doesn’t search me out as Theo and he had always done. He seems more timid.
The inseparable duo of Peanut and Theo has gone the way that all things eventually go. Theo’s been replaced by a splayed legged hobo: a funny looking, funny acting fellow that has adjusted well to his new role in his new home. One thing though. Tater leaks. Every little excitement gets him sprinkling, which stinks because there always seems to be a little excitement in his life. Fortunately, the wet is easily cleaned off the concrete floor in our Florida house. Unfortunately, he leaks out the back end too. Usually the rear leakage comes anywhere from a few minutes to a half hour after eating when, without warning, he’ll squat like a peeing female dog, to let chunks of pooh of a size you’d associate with a much larger dog plop from his butt. The result is a long trail of five or six very large acorn-sized bon bons spaced every couple of feet. Like the business with his hind quarter, I figure this too is “neurological.” God willing, we’ll figure out how to reduce the number of poop trails that he leaves in the house, and increase the number of outside droppings; hopefully in a place where I won’t step. I’ll let you know how it ends.
The blizzard is raging throughout New England. It’s fifteen below zero and the wind is whipping at fifty miles an hour. We’re climbing over the snowplow pile that stands six feet high over Farmington Avenue. I’m thinking about our chances when we slide down onto Farmington Avenue. I know if I fall, I might not get up in time to get out of the path of the cars careening down the street like pinballs.
Declan yells, “Geronimo,” and leaps. He lands in a crouch that sends him sliding halfway across the street. I’m not surprised. At twelve Dec is a natural athlete. But I’ve been hard on his heels all of my eleven years.
He knows I can match him dare for dare. I get into a power crouch and launch myself into the white-out. I land with a thud, still on my feet and glide with a whoop across the frozen street. Brendan is crying and chickens out at the last minute. He slides down the bank on his back and lands like an overturned turtle.
Declan is cursing and I’m racing back to grab Bren upright and drag him out of the path of the cars we can barely see. Brendan is nine and not able to keep up. We’ve been dragging and bullying him through the snow for the last half hour.
We’ve been at this for the last two hours, battling our way through the storm to get a hundred and forty newspapers delivered. It’s full dark now and we can’t see more than a few feet in front of us. We’ve just delivered the last paper and have turned for home.
The problem is none of us can feel our feet and Brendan is barely able to walk. With Declan pulling him from in front and me pushing him from behind we’ve climbed over the last snow pile. We’re only about a half a mile from home.
But now we have to leave the lighted street and cut through the fields and a patch of woods before we hit the hill overlooking our house. On a good day I could do this walk in my sleep. These fields and woods are our playground, our plunder ground and our shelter from neighborhood bullies. The fields are full of fruit trees, grape vines and vegetable gardens. They are our lunch counter and our snack shop.
Now they have turned into an evil white waste land. I feel like the Snow Queen has us in her grasp and we don’t have any magic reindeer to carry us away. Dec and I have been taking turns at being in the lead, plowing through the snow, but now Brendan has fallen and he won’t get up. No amount of yelling or kicking is working to make him. Declan and I shout back and forth trying to think out a plan.
The truth is we are both beginning to panic—exactly what Mom always warns us against. We can see it in each other’s eyes. We both agree we have a crisis.
This is good because we have lots of practice dealing with crisis.
There was the time the tent blew over with all of us in it—my fault—I didn’t set the stakes deep enough. Or the time the Christmas tree toppled, soaking all the presents—Declan’s fault for not tying it to the window latch. Yep. We know how to behave in a crisis.
O.K. So the first rule in a crisis is to assign blame. That way you don’t waste time arguing and can get down to business.
O.K. We all agree Brendan is to blame for our predicament. Even he agrees because he knows we have shifted into crisis mode and a plan is sure to follow.
We try dragging Brendan in the strong canvas paper bag with its reinforced strap. But the bag just fills up with snow and becomes impossible to pull. Dec and I agree that Bren will have to be carried. But since none of us can feel our hands, Bren won’t be able to grab Dec’s coat to stay piggy back. We need another plan. We decide Brendan will stand in Dec’s paper bag and Dec will sling it across his chest and around his shoulders just like a horse in harness. Then Brendan’s arms can go around Declan’s neck and be tucked under the strap in front. When Declan stands up, we discover the plan is genius and we all whoop and crow.
I put my hands inside my own paper bag to protect them, stretch out my arms and get out front to plow the path. Declan will follow me.
We can barely see and are keeping a lookout for the first marker—the old bandstand in the field. I’m keeping my head down so the stinging ice pellets aren’t drilling my face. But I have to look up every few steps to make sure we aren’t going in circles. I almost weep when I crash into the edge of the platform. I don’t even care that I’m sure to have a black eye because now, for the first time in over an hour, I really believe I might survive. We briefly discuss trying to break in to get out of the storm but we all know we would just freeze to death in the abandoned building. So we plow on.
The next marker is the grape trellises. There are eleven rows of trellises and when I bump square into one I give a shout. Of course no one can hear me over the howling wind but Dec is right on my tail. I know I have to feel my way to the end of the row and turn left. The thing I don’t know is what row I bumped into—was it the first, or the fourth, or more? Nothing to do but plunge on.
My paper bag drags uselessly at my side. I have one hand on the grape vines and the other stretched back to Declan.
I’m plowing with my chest and legs now. At the end of the row I turn and start counting off the rows. After only five rows I stumble forward and can’t feel another row.
A quick conference. We use my paper bag over all our heads to cut the wind so we can hear each other.
This is the most dangerous part. Now we have to turn right and walk until we hit the barbed wire fence. Then we have to feel along it for the hole in the fence. Declan insists on taking the lead and honest to God I’m grateful. I’m working on sheer nerve at this point and it’s giving out fast. So I put Bren in the bag over my head and chest and follow Declan.
It isn’t long before Dec falls forward through the hole and I fall right on top of him. Bren tumbles out of the paper bag into the snow on top of Declan’s head. And here we are a pig pile of frozen kids, whooping and hollering because from here it is all downhill, straight into our own yard.
And there are the lights of the kitchen window and back door. And we’re laughing and crying and plowing through the snow yelling and screaming.
After eternity, here’s Mom opening the door, gathering us in, stripping our clothes off, and wrapping us up in blankets she’s warmed. She scolding, and laughing, and a few tears are leaking out, but she turns so we won’t see them.
And before we know it, we’re bundled into warm sheets and blankets all in the bed like a pile of puppies. Puppy icicles.
Mom leaves us for a few minutes and comes back with cups of steaming tea laced with honey and a healthy wallop of whiskey. Clutching it in my frost-bitten paws, I gulp it all down and find myself drifting off to a cozy dreamland where a magic reindeer sails me through the snow and up into the stars.
Today, the LTWG welcomes guest contributor Carmen Neale of the Litchfield Writers Guild.Her story about growing up in Colombia, South America, proves that teenagers worry about the same things no matter where they live.We know that you’ll enjoy this lovely piece.
In retrospect, growing up in the 1960’s in my hometown, tucked in the Colombian Andes, was probably not much fun. The American music and culture that resounded throughout the world in that decade filtered through the mountains, weak, and without flavor. For example, the first time I heard “The House of the Rising Sun,” a friend of mine had me listen to it, with such special delight and in such secretive manner, that for a moment I thought he was going to introduce me to communist propaganda. But it was just music from “The Animals.” The truth is that today I am as ignorant about the words of that song as the day I heard them for the first time. But I still like its “cool” sound. Of the Rolling Stones I knew “Satisfaction” because it had easy words to understand and pronounce. And as to The Beatles, I shared the view of my parents and aunts. They were a bunch of crazy guys who screamed instead of singing and had very long hair. I didn’t know better.
About politics, I had heard of John F. Kennedy because, I guess, his name was everywhere. But only after he was assassinated did I learn that he was the one to thank for the powdered milk and other items given to poor children in Colombian public schools. I never knew about hippies and all the revolution of ideas that was taking place in the United States.
In the early 60s I was a thirteen-year-old learning about the opposite sex. I learned from school friends what I would now call “cruising” on foot. It was the exhilarating walking up and down Third Street, the main street in town, with the basic intention of flirting, although I didn’t realize that was what I was doing, at the time. Third Street was the place where everyone gathered. Men of all ages stood casually alongside the street, by the cafes or the shop entrances, to discuss business or simply to watch the rest of the town go by. Third Street was the place to go if you wanted to see and be seen.
Walking aimlessly for the sake of walking was not proper for a girl my age, however. It was not our business to act like men. If we were on Third Street, we were on our way somewhere. And, of course, I began to find excuses to go “cruising” on Third Street. And I began to volunteer to be sent on errands by my mother. Even if the errand was far away from that street, I always managed to detour one or two blocks in that direction. Once there, I would wiggle my hips trying to look both elegant and attractive at the same time. I made sure that my lips were shiny, and my hair was in perfect order. And all that preparation just to flirt with guys, familiar by sight, and yet total strangers. They would smile and whisper silly nonsensical phrases when I passed by. I felt in heaven! To me, all of those silly and insincere compliments were as necessary to feel good about myself as it is necessary for a plant to have water to grow and feel beautiful.
But the thrill of the walk through the busy street intimidated me too much to do it alone. I always made sure that one of my sisters or cousins was with me, competing for compliments with me with the swinging of her hips. Together we had the courage to giggle after every compliment, hoping to make the source of the words feel equally uncomfortable. None of the walks, ever amounted to more than just that, however—innocent walks. But one day, unexpectedly, I had to do it alone.
It was during Easter vacation. I was tremendously bored at home, listening to the mandatory classical music and the sermons, which were the only thing we were allowed to listen to on the radio during those special days. Suddenly, my mother asked me to buy a dozen eggs at a specialty store that happened to be exactly on Third and Twelfth streets, the busiest corner in town. I was to go alone, she said. My sisters had been caught listening to rock ‘n roll songs on their transistor radio and were being punished. No one else was available to go.
I made sure that my hair was perfect, and the make-up in place, though barely visible to avoid my mother’s and aunt’s disapproval for my lack of respect to the sacredness of the day. I felt very excited and a bit anxious. My mother gave me the exact amount of money, as she had verified the price over the phone.
Being alone on the street made me feel too self-conscious. I caught myself trying to walk the way I had practiced so many times. I avoided going on Third Street until it was inevitable. Then I turned and walked the one block to the store feeling every pair of eyes on me—on my legs, on my body. My movements were awkward rather than rhythmic. I felt my face burning.
I went inside the store. I bought a dozen of the freshest eggs, as I had been asked. The attendant handed them to me piled up in a thick brown paper bag folded at the top, since there were no special cartons made for eggs at that time, and I left.
As I crossed the entrance door, I brushed my arm against somebody trying to go in. The bag of eggs plopped on the ground. Instinctively, I lifted the bag carefully, hoping that they were unharmed. But the bag felt different, as if it had suddenly inflated like a balloon, perhaps from the broken eggs.
What could I do? I had no money to replace the eggs. Besides, I wanted to believe that some of them had survived the fall. I didn’t dare look inside the bag either. I raised my head high, drawing upon the pride my mother had instilled in me about our family, and started walking up Third Street with my overblown bag. A few minutes later I began to feel the bag sagging and slowly, dripping. I ignored all of that and kept on walking. I just prayed that the bag wouldn’t rip. The usual compliments of the idle men standing in groups sounded full of pity. Two blocks with broken eggs and broken pride lasted an eternity. I finally arrived at the closest safe place, my aunt’s office. There, I felt better, even though people who knew me were staring at me with my bag dripping eggs all over the elevator and up to the seventh floor.
I never thought of throwing away the eggs. I felt that I needed proof that I was a responsible young woman. I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone believing that I had used the money for something else and created the broken egg story. But to my surprise, my aunt threw away the eggs, gave me money to buy another dozen and, by the way she treated me, I understood that no one would have doubted my word if I had just told the truth.
I went back down Third Street to buy the eggs again. I felt people recognizing me as the girl with the bag of broken eggs. I thought I saw it in their eyes. I passed by them humbly, without swinging my hips. I was a woman with a real purpose for being there.
On my way home with my freshly purchased bag of eggs held very tightly, a neighbor I had admired in silence spoke to me for the first time and, carrying the bag of eggs for me, walked me home. It was the first time that a boy had walked beside me. This was the real heaven! He was sweet and naïve. I bet he had never heard of The Animals or “The House of the Rising Sun.”
(Aerial photo of Ibagué, Colombia, where my story takes place)
I watched the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. This day was set aside for the Congress to accept the Electoral College designation of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as winners of the 2020 presidential election.
Witnessing the break into the Capitol building by a group of anarchists was not what I would ever have expected to see in Washington, D. C.
The four years leading up to this mayhem have been filled with vitriol and untruths from the administration. The 45th president claimed the press gave us “fake news” and took every avenue to prove the election had been stolen through conspiracy and nefarious behavior. It was upheld to be a fair and honest outcome.
On January 6, the President is heard inciting his followers to riot, thus thwarting the necessary work of the Congress. For this, he has been impeached, again.
My perspective is that at this profoundly serious time in our fight against the Coronavirus, we need to focus on getting the numbers vaccinated that are needed for herd immunity to work. Thus, the kids will be back in school and the economy will be up and running.
Much has transpired in the past four years of a questionable nature. Asking foreign powers to help him win the election, and separating South American children from their parents are only two of many issues. For me, the 30,000 untruths told, and believed, by his followers, are most egregious, such as stating that the virus was being dealt with and would soon go away. The numbers of extremely sick Americans have stressed the health care community beyond their capacity. The number of dead is well over 400,000 as of January 25, 2021.
The coronavirus is not in our realm to control, except to use our positive behavior to limit the rate of positivity, illness, and death. Masks are part of this positive living.
For these same years we have been contending with and trying to understand the mind set of this unfit leader who has taken us to the precipice of the canyon and left us to our own devices.
Unfortunately, too many have decided to drink the Kool-Aid, as Jim Jones’ followers did. Such is the charismatic hold of the President. We humans will try to deal with our lives by investing ourselves behind such larger-than-life people.
Some of us humans are motivated by hopes for spiritual growth while others are spurred on by greed–greed for power, money, or both. The thrill of revolution for its own sake is another.
The insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 seemed to embody these tenets, along with some Christians seeking who-knows-what by extremely un-Christian and un-American acts of terror and mayhem.
As I watched, many times watched, the animalistic visages of the mob breaking into the Capitol building frightened me. They were assaulting their fellow Americans and several people died due to this carnage.
Our duly elected leader had again used his “might makes right” routine to gather his cult-like troops. For over four years, we the people, have been subjected to this philosophy of, “If you want it, grab it. It’s yours.” It doesn’t matter that the cost is in human currency.
Some of this fall out are 611 South American children seeking the parents they knew. I realize they all were illegal, but human beings. They may be orphaned forever. Well, that is the cost of doing business.
Denying the pandemic and then its severity put all Americans at risk, severe risk. The number of deceased in this country exceeds 400,000 souls. Family structures will change forever. “It’s nothing” was the hue and cry of the leader as the scientific community tried to tell us the truth.
We have been endeavoring to live our lives with the clear and present[SW1] danger of this double-edged sword seeking out the soft spots in our bodies, minds and hearts, by the 45th president.
Watching the news coverage live from D.C. I kept shouting “to no one there,” this is America, not a banana republic.
Okay, so no close contact, no hugs, or reaching out to quell the loneliness within. This is our sacred mantra. Phone a friend, ZOOM a meeting, Gmail a group, text a remark—the atmosphere is vibrating with no-touch validation. For most of us it is a half-assed remedy!
In the week leading up to the inauguration I wanted a peaceful transfer of power in D.C. I also wished for the health and safety of my fellow Americans; yes, even those rioters looking too mean for even COVID to break in, and I wanted hope for my psyche to play with—hope coming out of hiding and reiterating our commitment to ourselves and our democracy. We must, we will.
Between January 6 and January 20 most of us were aware of the possibilities of some further destruction by the election loser. “The football,” the access to nuclear power, was in his pocket. Fortunately, some pardons were issued, as was his prerogative.
The FBI, the D.C. Capitol police, and the National Guard (25,000 strong), worked tirelessly to address any possible threat which might be coming.
History will lay out the last four years for good or not. Perhaps it will be acknowledged that the 45th president did some things which may have been of benefit.
Yet, it is difficult for me, a fiscally responsible moderate, to see and hear past the 30,000 untruths told by 45 to advance his agenda. Added to this was his refusal to accept blame for the proliferation of COVID. Indeed, his failures in his life were never his fault. According to in-depth reporting (not fake news) 45 will leave office deeply in debt. By refusing to acknowledge his loss of the election he keeps his avid followers believing and contributing to him.
January 20th dawned on our nation’s capital with sunshine, portending much hope for the future. Not perfect, but upbeat. The arrival of dignitaries outside were met with smiling eyes (all wore masks) and elbow bumps. Party did not seem to matter as greetings were exchanged in the chill but calm sphere. I watched with hungry eyes and my appetite for peace was satisfied.
Lovely lights memorialized 400,000 souls, U.S. flags flew for absent spectators, and homage was paid to the Unknown Soldier by presidents, past and present.
We made it–united–as Joe wants it. We need each other to keep our hard-won democracy intact and thriving. We are in it together.
Our dear Auntie Mae started it all. Every Christmas, she would celebrate the Swedish thread of the Hoffman family by giving every household a tin of imported pepparkakor, the thin, spicy ginger snaps so popular in Sweden at Christmastime. We all coveted our tins, presented at the Christmas Eve gathering, glad that we each had one of our own that we could take home and not have to share. We’d tuck them under our chairs and look forward to breaking them open the next day to dunk in our Christmas morning coffee.
Maesie passed in 2005, and while we have picked up boxes of pepparkakor a couple of times at IKEA over the years, it was never the same.
So, this year, it occurred to me that it might be fun to start a new tradition in honor of the old one. Instead of hunting for pepparkakor to buy for Christmas gifts, I would try making them myself. The gift of a little box of homemade pepparkakor, in memory of Maesie, would be a nice surprise.
There were two obstacles to this idea. First, it was Christmas 2020. Everything was different. There were to be no family gatherings, no celebrations outside immediate households. Christmas would be quiet this year, the joy squelched by an uncontrolled pandemic.
All the more reason to bring back a little tradition, I thought. This whole year has been swathed in stress and uncertainty. Maybe these thin, crispy, spicy cookies of days gone by would bring some happy memories and some hope for 2021. I’d bake first and work out the logistics later.
The second obstacle was more immediate. If the family were to pick someone to reimagine a tradition that involved baking, I guarantee that it wouldn’t be me. My culinary skills are famously limited and I hardly ever bake things from scratch. Better it should be Ginny whose cinnamon breads and sticky buns, birthday cakes and fruit pies are the stuff of family legend, much anticipated and appreciated throughout the realm. Ginny has the baker’s intuition, the skill, the experience, the touch you might say, to pull this off. Not me. She would be the best one to tackle this project, except for one thing.
It was my idea.
So armed with a recipe that I found online and bravado gained from watching several seasons of The Great British Baking Show, I plunged in. How hard could it be?
The recipe I decided on was simple enough. Flour, baking soda, sugar, butter, brown sugar, an egg, molasses, orange extract, salt, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and black pepper. Some recipes include cardamom, a flavor that I find overpowering, so I was happy to find one without it. Also, this recipe didn’t involve rolled-out dough and cookie cutters, a step thoroughly intimidating to me. Instead, all I had to do was to roll the dough into little balls with my hands and squish them flat with the bottom of a glass. Easy! Fun! Let’s do it!
I made an experimental batch, following the recipe exactly. Mix the flour and baking soda and set aside. Put everything else (except the egg) in a pot and melt it into a syrup until it simmers. Cool it, whisk in the egg and fold the mixture into the flour. Pop it into the fridge and cool for at least two hours. See? A breeze!
Look, Ma! I’m doing it!
Roll cooled dough into balls by the tablespoonful and place on parchment-paper-covered cookie sheets. Cover with plastic wrap and squish each ball into a thin round disk. Remove the plastic wrap and bake at 350 for 14-16 minutes. (I love that the recipe writer felt the need to tell me to remove the plastic wrap before baking. Must’ve run the draft by the lawyers before posting it.) Yield—24 cookies.
Results? Too big, too thick, too spicy. Next time, less dough, more squish, easy on the peppar—er—pepper.
In the second batch, I cut back on the pepper and made the balls a little smaller. I discovered that the first ones were too thick in the middle because the bottom of the glass I used for squishing has a slight curvature to it. Who knew? These cookies are very crisp so if they’re too thick, you have to shove them in your mouth like a Neanderthal and bite them off with your back teeth. Since it’s hard to enjoy a cookie if you’re worried about a dental emergency, I had to find a better squisher. I searched and found a truly flat-bottomed old-fashioned glass in the way-back of the highest shelf in my cabinet. Perfect. Anything to avoid the dreaded rolling pin. And I tried again.
Results? Shape, size and thickness—pretty good. Not at all consistent from cookie to cookie, but, hey. At least now our teeth are safe. Flavor? OK. There’s still some heat from the ginger, but the pepper, I discovered, is important, too. Hence the name—pepparkakor. The pepper gets top billing, not the ginger. I guess there’s a reason for that. Having married into this family, I have no Swedish blood in my veins and am, therefore, in no position to question.
So in the third batch, I restored the original measure of pepper and cut back on the ginger.
Results? Happily, less heat. Sadly, less flavor. Overall assessment—meh.
And so, finally, after three batches and so many days of pepparkakian experimentation, I was ready to bake in earnest. Sizing and squishing adjustments made to produce a smaller, thinner cookie were in place. As for the ingredients themselves?
With three experimental batches to my credit and no problems with the consistency and workability of the dough, I was wholly unprepared for what came next.
Since I needed a lot of cookies and since the dough needed to chill for at least two hours (and could stay unbaked in the fridge for up to two days), I decided to cover them in plastic wrap and put them in the fridge where they would sit and chill until the next day. I measured carefully (I thought), mixed thoroughly (I was certain) and created five lovely, light brown, aromatic, identical (I had no doubt) packages of pepparkakor potential.
The next day, I prepared my cookie sheets, pre-heated my oven, laid out my utensils, cooling racks and storage containers, gloved my hands and pulled the first batch of dough out of the fridge. All three batches of experimental dough had been moist and pliable after chilling, easy to scoop with the melon baller I was using as a measure, rollable, squishable and generally cooperative.
This one took a different direction.
It was dense. Hard as a rock. It had no give whatsoever when I poked it with my finger. When I tried to dig in with the melon baller, I couldn’t even crack the surface.
What the hell?
I decided that perhaps I had chilled this one into a torpor and so I left it out on the counter, unwrapped, to warm up a bit and reanimate itself.
I reached for the next batch which was only slightly better. So I left it, too, naked on the counter to think about how it needed to behave.
Batches three through five were fine, smooth, pliable, workable. I managed to get over sixty cookies from each batch. Try as I might, though, I couldn’t achieve consistency in shape and size. Normally, this wouldn’t be anything that would even remotely concern me, but Paul and Prue and Mary Berry, judges on The Great British Baking Show are all hot about the precision, evenness and uniformity of baked goods, so it was on my mind. And though my brain says that precision is an illustration of skill and so a lofty goal, my heart says that variety keeps life interesting and maybe those judges need to loosen up and live a little.
It was with this thought that I went back to those first two batches of dough. I decided that they weren’t bad after all. Just misunderstood. I hearkened back to my teaching days and thought, what would I do with students who couldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t perform as I had hoped? Would I just throw them away? Never. I would try to get to the root of the problem or find another way that they could be successful.
So I looked up what makes dough go wrong. The best answer was that the flour didn’t adequately absorb the liquid and so became dense and crumbly instead of smooth and pliable. Was that the flour’s fault? I thought that I had mixed each batch the same. Apparently not. I don’t know what I did differently, but it’s sure that it was something. As a teacher and a mother, I’m used to being blamed for every anomaly in the lives of the children in my charge. Apparently, the same rules hold for dough.
And since there was no changing it, I would find a way to celebrate its differences.
It was now room temperature and a bit more workable. I could get the melon baller into it for measuring purposes anyway, but the dough was so dry and crumbly that there was no way it was going to roll into a ball. Even the warmth of my hands wasn’t enough to coax it into shape. So I took the dough in measured amounts, smooshed it together as best I could into mounds, squished the mounds flat with the glass until they looked like splats of paint on the carpet and baked them that way. As long as they held together, I’d be happy.
They did and I was.
True, they didn’t have the look of the others. Instead of thin and flat, they puffed up some, like turtles with a round back and limbs flaying out in all directions. Also, they were a little hard to bite into. Well, maybe more than a little.
Ultimately, though, their flavor was as good as the rest. The differences were purely cosmetic. Nothing a dunk in a cup of coffee wouldn’t fix. Or a dab of Cool Whip.
I was sure to include a few of these in each box of cookies that I gave this Christmas. They were survivors, a fitting symbol for the year that we have just endured.
We delivered cookies to several people on our list, properly masked and distanced, of course. (To those we missed, a fresh batch will make it to you AVD—After Vaccination Day.) This initial attempt at pepparkakorizing met with good reviews, so I am encouraged to stick with it. It was a learning experience on many levels, for sure. And now that I have the basics down, I will look for other recipes and may even work up to getting myself a rolling pin and some cookie cutters for next year. We’ll see.
Until then, I will continue to escape the madness with The Great British Baking Show, where the biggest worry is how to get cherries distributed evenly throughout a sponge. I will work on making pepparkakor my thing and think back to Maesie who brought them to us in the first place.
Then I’ll look ahead to better times–and better cookies. They’re coming.
Happy New Year! We start 2021 with an essay by guest writer Richard O. Benton. Dick, a local novelist and prolific short story writer, is the president and moderator of the Litchfield Writers Guild. You can learn more about Dick and his work at www.richardobenton.com.
The story is true and I say it at the beginning because while reading this you may become perplexed, uncomfortable, incredulous, or harbor thoughts of downright denial. Writing this is fun. Believing it is up to you.
My brother Bob turned 81 on November 29, 2020. He’s my little brother. He is his own person; stubborn, unconventional, opinionated as may be true, but he is also a teddy bear, a man who would knowingly hurt no one. Bob is Bob and that’s the only character sketch I can offer. The other character in this is me. I’m Dick. I’m 82. He’s Robert and I’m Richard, names common to the 1930’s. We took our everyday handles 70 or so years ago. It is what it is. If you have the picture now, we can go on.
Bob called me at 11:25 a.m. on December 15, 2020. Take the dialogue with a grain of salt. I will recall it as best I can, but keep in mind that I am 82.
I get his call. “Hey, could you come over today?”
“I need some help getting my bike into my workroom.”
He’s referring to his motorcycle.
Picture the rambling Abernathy store built on a hill in West Torrington in 1740 and repurposed into a dwelling sometime in the last 280 years. Stone foundation, dirt floor typical of the building practices of the age, etc. Below the living part in what I will term a cellar, Bob has his workroom. It runs the length of the house with a door on either end.
Bob is a saver. He can find a use for just about anything, so his space is cluttered and only he can find what he wants, and maybe not even him. He is also frugal. These two aspects of his personality shine forth in everything he does. I am a different kind of frugal, but I understand him.
“So, could you come over?” he says.
I hedge while I think about what I have to do that day. I have to get out my writers group’s newsletter. I publish it twice a month on the 15th and 30th. It brings the group up to date and continues a connection with former members who want to remain in touch with the group. I recently compiled a number of stories that I have to go through, as in update and reedit for my fourth anthology. I planned to work on it that day. I want it published in the first couple of months of 2021 and it won’t happen if I don’t get those ducks in a row.
“I want to get it in before the snowstorm,” he says.
I didn’t mention, but we’re expecting 10-18 inches starting tomorrow evening.
I’m torn. First, I’m old, if numbers mean anything. He is too, using the same numbers. Second, I have a day planned and it’s important to work one’s plan.
Then there’s Bob, my last living sibling. Older brother Dave died three years ago on December 17th from a heart attack nine days before his 83rd birthday. My sister Judy, only 76, died two days later from lung cancer. Bob has had a heart attack and has diabetes, but he is otherwise strong as an ox. Me, I have metal in my back and neck from a couple of operations, but I’m good for a little job like this.
My wife hears the conversation and tells me I shouldn’t do it. “You’re 82.”
I’ve covered that. I consider. Bob and I only live 12 miles apart but seldom see each other as we conduct our lives in different directions. It’s brotherly; I’ll do it.
“Yeah, I can come over. Now?”
Hesitation. Then he says, “Could we make it 1 p.m.”
My young wife (not quite 73) has tennis 1-2:30 p.m. at Pinewoods Health and Racket Club, a half-hour drive from our place. She’ll be busy.
“Sure, I’ll come over at one.”
My wife takes the Impreza and I take the Miata. This past quite mild Sunday we did a top-down COVID drive-by for a friend’s 50th birthday. It got cold after that and guess what; you can’t put up the vinyl top until the temperature is greater than 41º. It’s right in the manual. I have to drive over to his place with the temp in the low 30s. Windows up, heater on, warm jacket, no problem.
I leave my place about 12:30 p.m. and arrive at 12:50. I get a lot of curious looks on my way over. As I drive in, I see Bob’s Kia flash its lights. Evidently he has just returned from another ride. He did mention getting breakfast in Avon. Perfect timing. He gets out. He’s wearing a dark collared polo shirt and shorts. Why not; it’s December.
We walk back of his house and on the expansive lawn beyond is his now ancient and not working but beloved Honda Gold Wing, 800+ pounds of machinery. We reconnoiter. The bike is about 20 feet, no more, from the door to his workroom.
We hem and haw about just how to do it. First we attempt to move it, standing one on a side. It won’t move. It appears to be in gear.
“I thought it was out of gear,” he says.
We stand it up and I try to get it out of gear. I hear a click and I think it’s okay now, but between us we still can’t move it. It’s been sitting so long in one spot the tires have made their own wallow. It’s going to require surgery.
Bob has a GMC truck with plow attached. He has a very long driveway.
“If I put the truck behind it and you guide it, would that work?” he says.
“We can give it a try.”
He fires up his truck. It sounds like a Harley…throaty, you know.
He gets it positioned and I guide the height of his plow so we don’t damage the plastic and chrome back end or its carrier. Here we go. The bike moves slowly, haltingly out of the depression it lived in and for a few feet it works, but soon I feel the bike getting unstable. The Gold Wing is top-heavy, as are most two-wheeled vehicles and all standard motorcycles. Balancing is one thing, but if it falls over I’m not sure the two of us could pick it up again.
He stops, gets out and comes over to look. We have 15 feet to go. We’re on dry, green grass.
“I had trouble keeping the handle bar straight with your pushing from behind.”
We ponder. I have a bright idea.
“Do you have a Come-A-Long?” I ask.
He thinks, strolls back into his workroom, rummages around and comes up with an ancient powered unit. We attach it to a ¼ inch hook that’s embedded in a 2 x 8 ceiling joist. The Come-A-Long reels out but won’t reel back in. We scratch our collective heads. Bob suggests we reel it all the way out and then reverse the cable.
Whatever works, right?
Disconnecting the wire from the bike is a problem. We have to be careful of the sheathed wires and brake lines, not much room there, but we get it, run the cable all the way out, untangle the universal tendency of a cable on a spindle to tie itself in knots, and start it reeling in.
It works! To a point. The motor protests and stops pulling. I don’t know how old this Come-A-Long is, but I know for a fact that they don’t make electrical connectors like that anymore, maybe since the late 1930s.
Using that method we get the bike much closer.
Now we have another problem. Bob has things piled on both sides of the double doors, and we find that the plow is too wide. We move as much as we can to widen our access. He repositions the truck to almost clip the doors on each side. That gets us another three feet closer to the threshold, which is four inches above ground level.
Meantime I either balance the bike or use the kickstand to keep it upright. All this time, Bob is either in the truck or getting out to look at our progress. Worse, he didn’t put in his hearing aids that day, so I have to shout a lot. Leaning out his window to hear over the noise of the engine doesn’t work so he ends up getting out of the truck to hear my directions.
Back at it, he revs his motor and I rebalance the bike. As carefully as he is working his accelerator and brake, on my end it is jerky. That makes it hard to keep the bike upright. It really wants to lie down. I know this. I sense it.
Now, we have to come in at an angle because the place Bob has carved out to park his bike is in a corner, so I leave the kick down and come around to the right side where I now have more room to move. In a milestone move, the plow pushing and me balancing, we get the front wheel over the threshold and onto his planking.
“Slow but sure,” I say.
No it’s not discouraging, it’s actually fun, an adventure. But now we’re stuck. No way can we get the back wheel up over the four-inch rise and the plow won’t go very much further forward. Bob gets out again and we mull. I’m not sure what number “mull” this is, but I remember seeing a short piece of 4 x 4 fence post inside, leaning against something. I mention it.
“If we can get the bike high enough off the ground to put it under the wheel, it will roll right in,” I tell him. It’s an idea. We try it and the piece is too long. The bottom of the plow hits one end and threshold stops the other. Good idea…not good enough.
He says, “I can cut it in half with my miter saw.”
Another good idea. He cuts it. It’s short enough. We are soooo close. One more wheel and home free!
Then our big break. Once he’s back in the truck he guides the plow blade under the carrier while I tell him how to position it. I cross my fingers. One does not use a snowplow blade to lift the plastic part of an 800-pound motorcycle off the ground so the co-hero of this saga can stuff a piece of a post under a wheel. It’s not done. I visualize hundreds of bikers shaking their heads
“What are these ‘airheads’ doing?” Their language is saltier, but you get it.
Bob moves forward. I level the bike and guide the bars toward the final resting place. As he picks up the back end, the bike moves a few inches forward.
The back wheel is on the sill. We did it! I call to Bob to back up his plow truck. He can’t hear me, so he gets out again and sees for himself.
“Back it up,” I say, “I’m holding the front brake.” He backs away.
I hold the Gold Wing steady until he comes to the bike’s left side and we muscle it into its place. The kick is down. All secure. We feel good. Bob closes his workroom up, puts the truck back where it goes and walks me to my car.
We have had our exercise. We have our success. I need to get home.
December 22, 1976. The Greyhound bus stop in downtown Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was the starting point of my nine-hour journey home. Pre-advised by fellow students, I chose a “safe” seat upon boarding the bus, one next to an elderly lady. Her wrinkled face, under a handknitted hat, glanced quickly at me then back out the window. Arthritic hands tightened around a lumpy shopping bag taking up her lap. As I sat down, smelling pine, I knew made a wise choice; I’d be riding home next to Christmas.
“May I put your bag in the overhead compartment?” I offered. “I’m tall so can store it carefully if there’s anything breakable in there. And lift it back down if I get off first.”
“No, thank you. I’ll hang onto this.” The woman turned and eyed me again.
“Sorry, if I’m too forward in asking. I’m overly giddy about returning north to be with my family. I haven’t seen them since September. I’m Jennie, by the way.”
Wrinkles disappeared as her face relaxed. “I’m Lucy. And I appreciate your asking. I just can’t risk anything happening to this. You know, I wish I had some of your giddiness. I haven’t felt that emotion in years. I’m traveling to be with my son and his family for Christmas. And mostly dreading it. Holidays for them, are like our Iowa twisters. Spinning out of control and leaving chaos in their wake. Scheduling this and that down to the last minute. Go, go, go with the preparations. Not one bit of slowing down to experience what this holiday should be all about.” Lucy patted the bag. “So, this year I’m bringing a part of Christmas I love to them.”
“Candles?” I asked.
Lucy opened the bag and tipped it gently. Inside were pine cones, squat and fanning out at the base. “I have glue and glitter and sequins with me and plan to have the grandchildren help me decorate these. I even brought yarn so we can hang them outside on a small spruce. My daughter-in-law would never allow these on her perfectly decorated indoor tree.” She sighed. “I miss when my sons were young and money was tight. Some of the best holiday time was spent making homemade ornaments for our tree. During the year, I’d set aside possible ornament materials–popsicle sticks, old Christmas cards, ribbon, etc. And then in early December we’d spend a day making ornaments from them, for our tree and for gifts. Doing something altogether–that’s what made it so special. I’m hoping this will bring to my grandchildren an hour or two of quiet enjoyment with their grandmother in the midst of all the usual craziness. I’m talking too much. What will you be doing for Christmas?”
“I think Norman Rockwell missed out not painting our Hugo Family Christmases,” I smiled. “Over twenty of us, my parents, sister, aunts, uncles, cousins and me, making the holiday pilgrimage to Grandma’s massive Victorian house in central Massachusetts. Grandma Hugo’s smiles brighter than the lit star on the tree. Presents piled so high under it that no one ever notices how few branches are on it. The two-hour late turkey brought for the midday feast by Aunt Celia who lives ten minutes away. Having to wait a few more minutes after the food is placed on the table while we sing grace. Pies and cookies laid out as the aunts clean up before we open presents. The centerpiece of the desserts is a turkey platter brimming with holiday cookies; the favorites are the decorated gingerbread cookies made by Mom and me. That’s on the top of my list of favorite things for the holiday season: spending a good part of a day making and decorating gingerbread cookies with Mom. Pink, green and white icing. Sprinkles and other edible decorations on top. I can’t imagine a gingerbread cookieless Christmas. Did you do any baking for the Christmases in Iowa?”
Lucy and I chatted all the way to New York City. At Port Authority she was to change buses and head to Boston while I transferred to a Bonanza bus for western Connecticut. Lucy reached deep into the large bag and pulled out smaller one. In it she put a pine cone, a thin tube of silver glitter and a piece of white yarn. “Here dear, I want to share some of my Christmases with you.”
“Thank you so much! So sorry I don’t have a gingerbread man for you!”
“You know, in a way you’ve given me one, your describing baking and decorating with your mother. And hearing about your family’s celebration. Thank you. Merry Christmas!”
When I arrived in Danbury, tired from the lengthy trip, I didn’t initially pick up on the warning signs of the holiday storm that was brewing at home. I waited fifteen minutes for Mom flattened against a brick building as rain and sleet volleyed back and forth. When Mom finally arrived, she almost forgot to give me a hug. “We’re taking a detour home,” she announced distractedly. “I want to stop at Bradlees to pick up a scarf for your Uncle Earl and a set of blocks for Larry. Oh, and maybe some hand cream for your grandmother’s stocking…” An hour and a half later we finally pulled into our driveway. Home! Looking at the dark house, I wished someone had plugged in the lights on our Christmas tree by the living room window. I’d plug them in, as soon as I got inside.
However, there weren’t any lights to plug in! In fact, Lucy’s Iowa twisters came to mind as I entered the living room. Shopping bags strewn here and there. The couch half covered with partial boxes of holiday cards, address books and loose-leafed notebooks where Mom meticulously recorded gift purchases. Rolls of wrapping paper strewn like pick-up sticks in the easy chair. The ironing board commanded the space where the tree should be, a couple of gifts in tissue paper, tags and bows on it.
“You didn’t decorate?!” I managed to squeak out.
“I’m behind,” Mom said tiredly. “Having to stay with your Grandma six weeks after her foot surgery and not returning to Connecticut until after Thanksgiving put me way behind. Plus, this is the first year you haven’t been here to help. I’ve had to scale back.”
“Scale back? How much?!”
“My focus is gifts for you, your sister and the Massachusetts crowd. I’m barely managing that. It makes no sense to put up a tree here since we’ll be spending Christmas at Grandma’s. Holiday cards—I’m only giving them to those sending us one. And Christmas cookies—I bought ingredients but at this point, there’s no time for baking.
“What about the gingerbread men?” I asked. “Mom, everyone will be so disappointed if we don’t bring gingerbread cookies!”
“I’m sorry, Jennie. No time for cookies. Tomorrow I need your help with wrapping gifts. They need to be ready to pack Christmas Eve morning.”
Dad came out of his study to welcome me home then went back to tallying final grades for his high school English classes. Rebecca, my younger sister, popped out to give me a hug then disappeared for some final alone time before I reclaimed my side of our bedroom. In the living room, Mom started rustling through the bags we just brought in, checking her gift lists.
After eating a TV dinner alone in the kitchen, I dejectedly lugged my suitcase down the hall to the bedroom. Rebecca and I made small talk as I unpacked. It felt like meeting a new college roommate for the first time because we’d had no direct communication with each other since I started my freshman year at college. While at away school, I exchanged weekly letters with Mom and Dad. But not Rebecca; my sister wasn’t a letter writer.
“It doesn’t feel much like Christmas, does it?” I asked flopping onto my bed.
“I’m making my own Christmas this year,” Rebecca said. “There are things my Christmases just can’t do without. Like your reading a Christmas story to me. Look, I found this at the library, The Homecoming by Earl Hamner Jr. It’s the story made into a pilot for The Waltons TV show. If you start reading tonight, you should finish it on Christmas.”
“You still want me to read to you?! I’d love too, but you’re thirteen!”
“No one is too old to be read to! I look forward to waking up early Christmas morning, too early to check out our Christmas stockings. And your finishing, in whispers, the year’s holiday book selection… Remember last year when you nearly woke everyone up reading the end of A Christmas Carol!?” We both giggled at the memory.
“Plus,” Rebecca reached down and plugged in a cord, “it wouldn’t be Christmas without lights!” A strand of multicolored lights lit up around the top of the bureau.
“Becca–wow–this is great!” My spirits brightened seeing the lights twinkle. “Of course, I’ll read to you.”
My mind was warm and fuzzy when I went to bed after reading to my sister. I thought about how Rebecca made sure the book and holiday lights, Christmas musts for her, were woven into this year’s disjointed holiday. And of Lucy and her decoration-making.
“Are there more strands of lights?”
“Two more, under my bed.”
“And how do you feel about making gingerbread cookies?”
“The dough grosses me out; it looks like cow patties. I like gift wrapping, though.”
I found Mom the next morning asleep on the footstool, leaning forward onto the couch. Next to her was a short stack of holiday cards ready for mailing. When Mom stirred, I sat down on the floor next to her.
“I’m so sorry, Jen,” she leaned toward me. “I just wish Christmas were over; I’ve never felt this way about this holiday…never! At least there will be a present for every person at your Grandma’s. Two for the little ones …”
I hugged her. “I know the gift-giving is important and I understand the need to cut back on Christmas this year, I really do. But walking in here last evening, it felt like it was almost completely erased. So, Rebecca and I are adding back to Christmas. Don’t worry, the gift wrapping will get done and you’ll have extra time to work on cards.”
After breakfast, Rebecca replaced the ironing board with a card table. We wound Christmas lights around the perimeter of the top and two of the legs. I selected a Goodyear annual Christmas album to play on the stereo. Rebecca set up a wrapping station on the living room floor and Mom passed her gifts to wrap after recording each purchase. The wrapped gifts piled up on the card table, a large decoration of sorts.
I took over the kitchen, mixing up a double batch of the gooey, yellow-brown, gingerbread dough. Then rolling out the chilled dough on the kitchen table and cutting out bells, stars, trees and men shaped like the tin woodsman in The Wizard of Oz. Smells of molasses, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves in the kitchen and the music and lights in the adjoining living room. Chatter, Singing. Laughter. Christmas was making a comeback.
It wasn’t until daylight faded that we realized we had lost track of time. Supper needed to be started and then Rebecca offered to help me clean up the kitchen while Mom packed gifts into empty boxes from the grocers.
“Girls, there isn’t time to ice and decorate the cookies,” Mom sighed. “Your Dad says we should leave by mid-morning tomorrow because a winter storm is coming.”
I felt defeated as Rebecca and I packed up cooled cookies in large round tins. Instead of being thrilled we were to have a white Christmas, I felt I’d rather see white icing on gingerbread cookies. And colorful decorations.
Half-heartedly, I read two chapters of The Homecoming to Rebecca that night. Well, I told myself, at least we got the cookies baked. And it really was a fun day. I turned off the lamp.
“Jennie, are you awake?!”
“I’m not sure how you can do it, but don’t give up on making your own Christmas.”
I lay awake thinking about these words. Glancing towards the bureau top, there was the bag from Lucy. Backlit by the Christmas lights, I saw a silhouette of the pine cone; it looked like a small evergreen tree in an opening in a forest. I wondered if Lucy had decorated cones with her grandchildren. Decorate with children … Wait, that was it!
By the time the rest of the family stirred the next morning, I had an extra box packed to go to Grandma’s. “I’ll just keep this with me in the back seat!” I said mysteriously. “Precious cargo!”
We made it to Grandma’s before the storm. Her house was a bustle of relatives setting up and decorating the bargain-priced Christmas tree purchased that morning, making up beds, carrying food into the kitchen and pantry and visiting. Younger cousins were running around playing hide and seek while the older ones started a game of Monopoly. I helped Grandma set up two card tables side by side against a wall in the dining room for the kids’ eating area.
“Grandma,” I whispered to her when we finished. “Can we talk gingerbread cookies?”
Christmas morning galloped into a blur of activity that slowed down to a crawl waiting for Aunt Celia and the turkey. I felt the giddiness I experienced at the start of my bus trip rising after grace was sung and the feasting commenced.
“Rebecca, would you mind helping me clear off the kids’ table?” I whispered as relatives started leaving table. “I’m getting ready to make my own Christmas.”
When family members wandered back into the dining room for some dessert, there were offerings of lemon meringue, mincemeat and pumpkin pie on the adult table. Aunt Lil set out her Rice Crispy trees and no-bake peanut butter balls on a snowman plate for the young children. But there was not a turkey platter piled with decorated gingerbread cookies. Instead, set up on the kids’ tables was a decorate-it-yourself gingerbread cookie station. At one end, I mixed up bowls of pink, green and white icings. Rebecca sat next to me spreading the icings on the gingerbread shapes then handing cookies back to relatives who in turn added sprinkles, red hots, raisins and chocolate chips from bowls to the not-yet-set icing. Soon a friendly decorating contest started with even Grandma joining in.
“Oh my!” Mom entered the room after finishing up dishwashing with Aunt Celia.
“I hope you’re not mad,” I couldn’t read the expression on her face. “I just brought all of the decorating things with us. It just wouldn’t be Christmas for me, for all of us really, if we didn’t have fully decked out gingerbread cookies. I promise, I will clean up the mess when we’re done.”
“Mad?!” Mom’s eyes glistened. “No, not mad at all. I just … seeing everyone in here working on the cookies… I don’t want this day to end. Now, should I decorate a tree or a bell?!”
The fun in the dining room delayed gift unwrapping an hour. No one, not even Grandma minded. When we finally sang the first carol, “Silent Night,” around the tree, I said silent thanks to Lucy and to Rebecca for finding a way to add back to Christmas. And I promised myself that when we returned to Connecticut, I’d find time with Rebecca to put silver glitter on a pine cone.
Now that I’m at the point in my life when age and golf score start to line up, I figure I ought to downsize. To do so means moving to a smaller house, jettisoning my little mountain of possessions and even whittling down my dreams and expectations. Sometimes, I think I ought to do the same with dysfunctional friendships, bad habits, grudges, or any one of a number of useless things that deserve the old heave ho. It won’t be easy.
There’re lots of reasons for unloading stuff such as, “I haven’t used the item since Season One of the Dick Van Dyke Show.” I don’t need it anymore. It’s taking up too much space. Somebody else could use it, or needs it more than I do. It’s in the way. I trip over it. I have to pick it up now and again to dust under it. My dogs pee on it. It’ll only get rusty if I leave it where it is. It’s turning yellow.
Complicating matters is the equal number of competing reasons for holding on. At the top of the list is “I might need it sometime.” How many times have I regretted throwing something out because I needed it a few days later? I don’t know for sure but it could be a lot. The truth, though, is hardly ever, maybe four or five times, but that seems like it ought to be enough to justify hanging onto just about anything and everything.
Case in point: I needed a piece of sheet rock to replace the one I ripped out to fix some rot under a window. Not a big piece: maybe four feet by two feet. Or about the size of the one I took to the dump last month. At the time I thought that if I ever needed a piece, it’d probably be a full four by eight sheet. Wrong. As I sit here typing, I’m still longing for the piece that I tossed without fanfare into the dumpster. Sad.
There’s a second reason I hold on to stuff: “It might be valuable someday.” Ten years ago, when my wife was de-cluttering our kitchen cabinets, I didn’t notice that she tossed out my Car Talk traveling coffee mug. Not until I got to the dump and emptied the trash barrel into the compactor. That’s when I saw it sitting forlornly on the top of the heap. Fish it out or not? At the time, the mug was too big for the cup holder in whatever auto I was driving, so I just turned my back on it and went home. Big mistake when you consider how many times I’ve thought about that mug and how much it’ll bring at the Antiques Road Show in a few decades. I loved Tom and Ray, who were as close to me as any two guys I listened to regularly on Saturday mornings. Closer maybe, and my careless disregard for the Car Talk mug is a kind of insult to them. Or worse, a betrayal. And now that Tom has gone to the great auto-recycling center slash radio studio in the sky, it’s an insult to his memory. No wonder I’ve contemplated buying a replacement on Amazon, and pretending it’s the one I threw away.
When it comes to computers, reason one (“I might need it sometime”) applies. In this case what I might need is whatever files remain on the hard drive like digital photos, an abandoned short story or some forgotten but really important scanned documents. Needless to say I have several idle computers at my house. One lives in the basement where it’ll stay damp and dust-covered until it’s so hopelessly wrecked I’ll have no choice, save chucking it. When that day comes, I’ll drive it to the dump where I’ll load it into the trailer that’ll bring it someplace else to be loaded into another trailer, before it’s loaded into a shipping container that will end up in a resource-challenged country where slum dwellers will harvest what they can sell. When that day comes, I know I’ll wonder whether bits of my old computer wound up in a desperately poor Indian’s collection of stuff he can’t part with too. One more thing about the computer in the basement—somebody ripped out the hard drive. Even with its memory gone, I haven’t gotten around to sending it on its way.
Reason number three: “I might regret it” while similar, is not to be confused with “I might need it” and “It might be valuable.” The other day, I threw out a bunch of papers my mom had saved from way, way back. Some were from my grammar school and even though they’d been around for sixty years and weren’t bothering anybody, it still made sense to dump them. Others were from my college days when for a brief period I was an English major. After giving them a quick once over, I decided that they were too painful to keep. There might have been a decent paper in there somewhere, but, because the search for it was bound to be depressing, I sent them packing. They’ve been gone just a few weeks, which is not long enough to regret having tossed them, but I’m already thinking, what if someday I get the urge to read a particularly lousy term paper?
Books fall into a couple of different categories, but “somebody, including me, might want them,” is at the top of the list. I have all kinds of books around that I might want to read for the first time or re-read. These days re-reading is pretty much the same as a first read, since I won’t recall much from the initial go round. Even if I didn’t entertain the fantasy of reading them, it’s not easy to find the somebody who may want them. There’s not much demand for books that aren’t perfect, so tossing them is about my only option. Certainly it’s the easiest, but I might feel guilty if I did, which is why my wife and I have developed a strategy for getting rid of books. You put them in a place, attic, basement or garage where something bad (flood, mold or bat guano) is bound to happen to them, and when it does, you just chuck ‘em. Guilt free.
Dishes fall into the “I might regret it” category too. I’ve got dishes that migrated to my house from my mother’s house over the years. I figure mom must have sent me home with something in the dish, and I never got it back to her. I’ve got dishes from when I was a little kid, that I recall mom buying from a local store in my hometown. She bought them at Stratfield Stationery, owned by Lee Hinckley, brother of Ray Hinckley, the weird seventh grade science teacher, who liked to sing and play the piano with his female students in the Junior High School’s basement. In other words, I know the dishes’ provenance. I figure if I get rid of them, I’ll be losing some appreciation of my childhood, which includes appreciation for mom and the thousands of meals, hugs, and loving moments she gave me. I’d toss them if I could, but I can’t. I’ll just hide them in the back of a cupboard.
Heck it’s tough to get rid of old computers, books and other items, it’s tougher still to chuck dysfunctional relationships, habits and grudges. If I ever get around to it, I’ll ask myself if I need a particular dysfunctional relationship, or if I’ll regret letting go of a bad habit, or that I’ll realize the true value of an old grudge after it’s gone. Chances are, I’ll think some of those useless things are too precious to let go. Hopefully I’m wrong.