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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Happiness Committee or Clean your room

Implements of torture (or so say some...)

Okay. My first born is a son. Whom I love dearly, as I do all of my four children. Of course. I have always said that sometimes I wish I could put all four of them in a bag and shake them up so that all of everything could be distributed equally. Now that they are adults, I no longer feel this way and realize the extremes of each of their personalities is their "design feature", so to speak.

Anyway, back to my point. My son is the chairman of the morale committee where he works (I could not make this up) and in this "position of power" he sends out emails to alert the staff to what is coming next in their work week. He calls these epistles "News from the Happiness Committee", which makes me laugh. Very hard.

Someone he knows has been taking his email messages and producing short videos with voice over. Link to video: Happiness Committee Clean-up Day

(If you take a look at the video, you will get a bird's eye view of what I was up against as a parent. A very verbally adept young man that would make me laugh and would get himself off the hook.)

Why is this all so funny?  Because when the children were little I spent many hours getting them to "clean up" their rooms, I'll bet you did the same with any progeny you might have had too. It is a thankless task. Now, here he is (the king of resistance to cleaning his room as a child) encouraging folks to tidy their office space, it makes a mother's heart sing to think he is trying to accomplish this very same task now that he is an adult.  Redemptive... almost.

True, when I was attempting to teach my young'uns that "cleanliness was next to godliness" I was an overwhelmed mother of four children, which arrived in five years (what was I thinking?!) Most likely, I was not very funny and had few visual aides other than attempting to lead by example. Which by the way, I still believe is the best approach. Unfortunately, I think I have been more of a "do as I say and not as I do" mother then I ever realized at the time. Sigh.

None the less, it is always thought provoking when I see what my children have brought to adulthood from their childhood. I hope, that along with wanting their living space to be tidy, (or tidier then it was when they were children) they also brought with them the fact:  they are loved, even when they have not tidied up their room.

Monday, January 28, 2013


Clementine, our dog, which has nothing to do with this post
I have kept a journal my whole life. Always. Should someone sneak a peek between the covers that record my life events (just writing that makes me feel very vulnerable), they might be surprised. I certainly have been, when I have looked back on what I have written over the years. It is my safe haven of thoughts, events, and a safety valve for anger, hurt and happiness (even happiness needs a safety valve, believe it or not). Oddly enough, it is where I am the most unconscious of myself. I don't write wondering what anyone thinks or if my words are hurtful or written poorly or spelled wrong.  It is freeing, and with all of the research: "journaling reduces stress", "journaling helps mental health", "journaling helps process events", "journaling heals" and a host of other reasons, it has been an exercise I have benefited from.

I love to read journals and other people's mail. When the Mitford sister's letters were published, I could hardly wait to read them, undaunted by the 830 pages, I finished them in record time. Pepy's Diary, unedited, please. Anyone's letters or diaries printed and I am eagerly reading them and hoping they have been uncensored. 

So, when it comes to my diaries, I think I must burn them. It is all well and good to read other's thoughts, disappointment, and journeys, but I do not think I want anyone to read mine.  Double standard, I know. I am painfully aware of my own ridiculousness on any given day (my children are excellent at pointing it out, God love them) but even more so when I think of my own journals.

More Clementine, one of the few times she is not barking
When my four children where little, I started journals for each of them. I would write once a week, in lovely cloth covered books, thinking tenderly of the time they would read my words. Sort of a "love letter", from me, for them to read when I am gone. I am always a romantic.  I chose the books carefully, looking for ones that I thought were both beautiful and reflective of each child's personality. I kept them by my bed, on a table I had purchased from the 1st Presbyterian church annual rummage sale for $15, along with the current journal I was writing in. (It drives my children crazy that I remember how much everything costs and where I purchased it, they often quiz me by showing me an object and asking " where and what did it cost?" I have yet to disappoint them by not knowing the answer.)

 I found while writing to them, my internal censor kept me from writing much more then "I love you" over and over. This, I think, would be very boring to read, even for them. I was just so painfully aware of the way things can be so woefully misunderstood by the reader (remember, I have read lots of other peoples journals) and did not want to do any inadvertent damage. You know, the kind that damage that happens when you are trying to do something quite nice and it backfires. There were days when one of these darling, angelic, children would make my blood boil, of course, it would be the day I most wanted  to write in their "book" and write them the words that simply should not be recorded. "Words are sharp knives", my mother always said.  The worse part is, these thoughts would most likely be read after I am gone and I would not be able to correct any misunderstanding caused by my anger, long since dissipated. I just could not have that; too hurtful in the end and what would the point be in that?

While I have often cursed Daphne Du Maurier for sealing her diaries until 2030, (and I am so curious about her relationship to James Barry…) and I have enjoyed a life time of entering the lives of people in a very personal way, I think, I will just give my journals a last look, before they get a heave ho. 


Friday, January 25, 2013

Mrs Shellenger or the practical side of Love

Mrs. Shellenger's quilts

As the result of my friend, moving to another state, I inherited a grandmother. There was no other family left in the area for this elderly Finnish woman. Over the years I had met her at my friend's house and grown very fond of her, so this was not a hardship in anyway.

My younger daughter was seven when we first started visiting her regularly. We would drive up after school, when her other three siblings were otherwise engaged, and take tea.  I would listen to this woman's stories, her gift to me; were well worth the time. Her sing-song English, which only a Scandinavian can produce, would lull me into time past.

Mrs. Shellenger lived in a small cottage her husband had built. At the time the house was built, there was nothing but farmland around. The land had long disappeared into other small houses, like a cash crop, around her.  This was about twenty minutes north from our home but might as well been another country. The neighborhood had changed a great deal over the time she had lived there. Not nearly as genteel as it once was, my friend was happy to have a set of eyes checking in on her grandmother, and eased my friend's worry about moving away.

Mrs. Shellenger was a tall thin woman, who once told me, she was always surprise by her image, when she would catch it in the hallway mirror as she walked past.
I asked "why?"
She said "I never expect to see grey hair or wrinkles."

SOme of Mrs. Shellenger's incompleted work

She had grey hair she wore like a halo around her head. Her glasses were rimless and rested three quarters of the way down her nose, most of the time; her eyes were a very clear blue, which could look right through to your brain. She had a pragmatic bent that I am quite sure kept her from ever being scammed on anything. Coupled  the facts, she had lived a long life and understood human nature in a way a younger person is not yet educated in, kept her safe from harm.

Mrs. Shellenger was around ninety at this time. All of her four children had preceded her in death along with her husband and her seven siblings. Her grand children all lived in other parts of the country so she managed to get by with a woman named Rata, that came several mornings a week to help out, and us. We filled in the companionship void that was left by my friend's move.

Since I was a small child, I have always enjoyed the company of the elderly; it began with my own grandparents, who I could listen to for hours. Of my four children, only one had that same ease with older people.  So, she and I would head out together each week and spend time with Mrs. Shellenger, at first out of love for my friend, and soon because we loved Mrs. Shellenger too.

I have many stories from those quiet afternoons, but my favorite one is   this:
Normally, she would be sewing small pieces of fabric together that would eventually be assembled into quilt tops and I would knit socks, while my daughter would investigate Mrs. Shellenger button box, which was a treasure trove of riches (rhinestone buttons being the item of fascination at this time, Jewels!), allowing my daughter to keep (just) one each visit.

This one afternoon, while enjoying the companionship of each other, I asked Mrs. Shellenger had been anyone else that she had been interested in prior to her husband? She stopped sewing, which she never ever did in our typical conversation, peered out over her glasses at me and said:
 "Why yes there was."

I waited sensing this pregnant pause was going to give birth to a story, I did not want press, but I did want to hear. Slowly she spoke, without looking up:

"Before I met Mr. Shellenger (that was how she spoke, never ever referring to her husband by his Christian name to me) there was another young man I was courted by."

Another long pause, as if she was transported back to that time. She shook her head, as if some private joke had been told that I was not to know, and went on to say:
"He was very kind and taller than me and we always found something to say to each other"
Mrs. Shellenger's silk tie crazy quilt
I had never met her husband, but from the photographs, he was shorter than his Finnish wife.
Not wanting to push, but also intensely curious at this point, I waited a bit before asking:
 "What happened? Did the war separate the two of you or…?"

She shook her head, ever so slightly, looking down at her sewing and taking another stitch, before she answered "No. He had a big head."

I waited for her to elaborate, and when she did not I asked:
"Big head? Like full of himself?"
"No" she countered, quickly, like she did not want me to get the wrong idea, "a big head, in size, not his nature"
"Well," she said, "It would have been very painful to have his children and so I thought better of it."

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

I Write

I write with renegade fat first-grade pencils
While the laundry waits.
Catching the words from my mind before they are
Folded away.
I write with remnants of red crayon
Rescued from the broom
As the dustpan beckons.
I write with pointless pencils
To keep sharp words
From cutting me inside.
I write on scraps
Recycled from third-grade homework 
To write words
Recycled in my mind.
I write to remember
Who I am and to
Record who I am becoming.

Originally published in Yankee Magazine, January 2000

The Roger Smith Hotel

Rodger Smith Hotel

I will always think of the Roger Smith Hotel with fondness. Nestled on 47th and Lex with its flags calling attention to its gentle state of decline. The hotel clerk: effortlessly speaking Portuguese, counting out cash, answering phones and air kissing guests as they took their leave for the airport. "Receipt?  No? Good, can't seem to find it anyway! Check you credit card statement, let me know, ok?"

It was charming, and oh so different from any world I had ever inhabited hereto for. I had been invited to participate on a panel for the first ever "Cookbook Conference" that was taking place at the Hotel. 

I had flown from Chicago to New Jersey, to see a friend, and then took the train on to New York City. I had caught the train in Hazlet, New Jersey and was disembarking at Penn Station, New York City.

Watching like a hawk, Penn Station finally appeared on the lighted sign as the next stop. Imagine this: a middle age women, "rollie" suitcase in hand, sitting perched on the edge of her seat watching all of the signs very carefully. Blue eyes peering out of rimless glasses, without which she would be legally blind, brown/grey curly hair ruffled up with frequent tussling by nervous hands attempting to look as though she was an old hand with the NJ Transit System. 

 After exiting the train, quickly finding out that I was not in NYC or Kansas, I dragged my roller bag to the clerk window to inquire just where I was. He repeated for me, several times, "YOU are in New Jersey". His accent was like nothing I had ever heard previously in my life, (so at least my hearing was not the problem) I needed to go back up the stairs and stand on the platform and wait for the next train. 

Eventually, I did get to Penn Station, NYC and from there, via cab, (as I no longer trusted my ability to navigate public transit) to the Roger Smith Hotel and the lovely Portuguese woman at the front desk. I was shown to my room, which would be my NYC base for the next two weeks, and felt immediately at home. It was a little worn around the edges, in a genteel sort of way, which was more than vaguely familiar. It was on the sixth floor and faced the street with a view I was enchanted by. 

I spent the first part of the conference meeting some of the other presenters. We met in small groups and talked about "apps" versus books and Social media platforms on which authors must spend their time versus actually writing and testing recipes. There were all different kinds of editors; index editors, content editors, acquiring editors, and proof editors and recipe testing editors. There were authors like: Judith Jones, Jane Lear, Amanda Hesser, Dorie Greenspan, and Molly O'Neil. Plus, a whole bunch of up and coming authors too. We all talked about the future of cookbooks, history of cook books, cooking apps, and any other aspect of the cook book world. All fascinating. The second part of the conference was panel discussions. That was where I came in, that was also where my nerves kicked in. 

*I was presenting on the opportunities for authors and the sale of their books in a new way that had previously been untapped. I had been working on this plan and implementing it for the last four years with continued success and increased sales for everyone all around. I was joining four others, Jennifer Reeves (Tipsy Baker Blog Fame, the owner of Omnivore Books in California, a buyer for COOP (Harvard's bookstore) and the author of a cookie decorating cook book*. (I am ashamed to say her name escapes me, though I liked her very much).

We all shared what had worked for us and what had not. We also had a really appreciative audience. My heart is still warmed to this day by all of the kind words, genuine interest, and people laughing at our jokes. Which is very gratifying to a presenter, I can assure you. 

I will always think of the Roger Smith Hotel as my New York City home. I also hope Thomas Wolff is incorrect about "You Can't Go Home Again" as I fully intend to go back "home" sometime soon.

Should you care to find out more:  For information on the Roger Smith Hotel:

*Here is the link to my paper, should you care to read it:

* Her name is Julia Usher:
Jennifer Reeves:
Omnivore Books:

Friday, January 18, 2013

Opportunities for Growth or why I never lived alone

Not MY large family, but you
get the picture..

All of my life, I have written stories on small scraps of paper.  When ideas for stories rush into my head from something someone has said, I record it on what ever is handy. Grocery receipts, back of gum wrappers, CD envelopes, recycled homework and old business cards. Anything, just so I capture the words before they are lost.

My husband and I both come from large families. We are both number five in the family's birth order. We are both observers and we are both very patient. Together, we have four children, so almost needless to say, I have seldom been alone. The best part of my situation is; I always have stories, though discerning which is my story to tell and which is not, can be very tricky.  That is the blessing and curse of living with so many people all of the time. One gets so much material to write about, but cannot always use it.

I have never lived alone. I went from my mother's house to my husband's house with nary a gap between. I do not regret this choice.  It was an unusual path to take in 1978, the year I was married, but in my mother's day it was not. Once again, it has become the norm, but for very different circumstances.

Some might say; that one must live alone to truly know oneself, but I am not sure that is always the case. It is by living with others that I have learned what my true agendas are and whether they work for the circle I exist in and by extension the world at large or… maybe not.

My mother likens adult children living at home to litter training. She is referring to puppies raised with the litter. The results of this are: socially acclimated animals that in turn make better pets. Like puppies, siblings do not put up with much from each other and so the rough edges are smoothed off with a clarity not often found from strangers.

I grew up with four brothers and one sister and then later two step-sisters and one step-brother were added to the mix. While I never lived in the same house with the step-siblings, these new relationships ended up being just another part of loosing more ruff edges. All good, in the game of life.

So, with all of this economic meltdown and adult children are coming back home to live, I have been given a huge gift as a person and parent. All of our four adult children returned home and in the process have taught me many things about myself, some good and some I had been loath to face.

I like to say, when I faced with obstacles or difficult moments; Oh Boy! Another opportunity for growth. It helps me, and I need a lot of help. I also remind myself, this will make a really good day.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

An Afternoon With an Old Friend (or why silk painting is like life.

Putting on resist
Yesterday, after scrambling to finish laundry and dishes, my dear friend of thirty years came over to silk paint.  Silk painting is a process that is very similar to watercolor painting. First the silk fabric is stretched onto a frame, like an oil painting, and is attached with pushpins to keep it in place. After it is all secured on the frame, the hard part starts. What to paint onto the blank piece of fabric.

While waiting for inspiration, we chatted about when my oldest son (married and thirty years old) and her youngest son (married, thirty years old and about to become a father for the first time) caused us to meet.

Somewhere in this conversation our brains kicked in and we began the design process. Using small bottles with metal tips filled with water soluble resist, we each drew our designs onto the fabric, trying to think backwards. 

Reason being, you have to figure out what part of the finished design you would like to stay white and put the "resist" there. The areas without resist will be were the dye will stain. This requires great forethought and planning so the results are what one hopes for.  I am not insensitive to how this process is a metaphor for life.
"Dear Friend's" Design

Mine, of course was more traditional in nature and my friend's was, of course, more contemporary. That had always been the way with our friendship too. All of the givens that made up my world were not even suggestions in hers and vice versus.  We each had four children, two boys, two girls, even the birth order was the same. We both married young and were still married to the same man. We both loved painting, helping others, reading, and observing the beauty around us. We both loved our children fiercely and at all costs tried to do right by them. Easier said than done sometimes.  

When I would have a particularly troubling day, this dear friend would be there. When she would have a particularly troubling day, I would be there. Sometimes in our zeal to help the other we would do things that instead of comforting would cause more pain. We forgave each other easily and quickly. That had been our way and continues to be so. This is a gift she has given me. 
My Design

When something happened in my family that seemed like I could: never forgive or live through, she helped me to see I could. When the days seemed the darkest, she would pry me out of my darkness with love and tempt me with kindness. She was right. I could forgive and I could keep hoping, partly because she was right there next to me showing me how it was done, everyday. 

We continued working on our project in my kitchen this very cold and sunny afternoon in silent companionship. We had reached a time where few words or many words did not make a difference to us. 

Our progress was steady and messy as artwork and life often are.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Nurses at Night or who washes the bodies?

Vintage nurse, they have come a long way...

This is something I have pondered for several years. When my eldest daughter (the now married one) was still at home and had just started her first nursing job, she worked nights.

I would drive her to the hospital she was employed at for two reasons:

 1. We simply did not have enough cars (2 cars with 6 drivers)
 2. She was concerned; that after working all night, the drive in the morning home on the expressway would prove to be too much for her tired brain (I was concerned too).

So the nights she worked, which was three out of every seven, I would bring her to her place of employment for a start time of 7:15 PM and on the drive there listen to all of her thoughts and concerns about: life, the universe and everything (to borrow a phrase form Douglas Adams) and leave her there for the night. Then I would make the return trip in the morning at 7:30 AM after I slept all night and she had worked all night, so presumably, I was well rested while she was tired to the bone.

At this time in history, my husband I still had all four of our (almost) adult children living at home with us. We have two girls and two boys, for the record.

After ferrying her to the hospital, I would go home and finish eating dinner and clean up the dishes. After leaving to drive her, often the inmates of our house would scatter which meant; I would come home to dinner on the table or clean up in various states of in-completion  Which to be honest was not glamorous. I would call upstairs and capture anyone I was able to, and begin the clean up. Then I would sew or iron or do some leftover work from my employment, take the dog for a walk with my husband. I would get ready for bed, read for a couple of hours, then turn in. Nothing terribly exciting.

Before I drifted off to sleep, I would think of my daughter and hope that her night was going well. It felt a bit strange to think that as my day was ending, hers was continuing to go strong.

One morning as I was making a pot of tea and preparing my breakfast of bran and strawberries, my other daughter said something that gave me great pause for thought.
 She said: "Isn't it strange to think that Emmy has to wash the bodies of the people that die during her shift at the hospital?"
 I turned and faced her with amazement.
 "She does what?"  I asked.

Before I could question her further about this new information, I had to run off to the hospital and retrieve my worn out child.  I thought about it all the way there. When I arrived and was parked out front waiting for her to appear from her labors, I thought about it some more.  My lovely, tired daughter finally staggered through the sliding doors of the ER and into my car and we started the drive home. I saw her so differently now. I deferentially inquired of her if this was true, that she washed the bodies of the patients that had died in the night.

She nodded sleepily and said: "two died last night. I barely got one taken care of, then my other patient went."
I was stunned to silence. Washed two bodies in the night. At twenty-four years of age. I was fifty and had never even touched a body that wasn't alive until I was forty-five, let alone washed one.

I waited to see if she would share more. She did not. Just dozed off.  When we arrived home she pulled her body out of the car, into the house, up the stairs to the bath. I went at sat at the kitchen table in wonderment. My daughter KR was sitting at the table.
"How was her night", she asked.
I said "Two of her patients died in the night."

"Poor thing. She takes it so hard. She has to tell the family, then after she give the family time with their loved one, she has to take all of the tubes out of the body, get a basin of warm water, wash the body, and hair. She wrangles the body into the bag, calls the morgue to come get the body."

"How does she do this not once, but twice in one night?" asking not really expecting the answer I received.

"Oh, she sings to the body as she washes them. Emmy once told me that she hopes it comforts the patient as it certainly comforts herself."

"What does she sing?" I asked.

"Em says; mostly lullabies and hymns she knows by heart. She told me about one little old lady that was wearing hot pink nail polish, that got her the most, the nail polish. It made it seem more personal somehow. She could see the lady's daughter or some friend putting it on for her. Emmy sometimes cries the whole time she is doing it. The older nurses often laugh at her and tell her she is going to have to toughen up or she will never make it."

KR and I look at each other and both say almost at the same time: Kind of hard.

I had always thought some other person, not the nurses, or in particular, not my daughter, did this ritual. Someone more qualified, someone that it did not matter to so much or someone I don't know nor have to think about.  This task has been done for centuries by family members for their loved ones and now it is done by my loved one.

So, now as I lay in my bed, sliding into slumber, I say a silent prayer for all of the night nurses.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Musings in the morning

This morning, after I jarred myself out of sleep, I ran into the kitchen, looking similarly like Wilkie Collins' Woman in White (I have included a picture for your point of reference, though note: I am neither young nor as romantically attired), only in a pastel patterned flannel nightgown, not yards of what is most likely muslin, but kind of looks like cheesecloth, I found I had slept through all human activities that normally would have broken my sweet slumbers

My husband has risen, showered, dressed and banged about in all of his usual ways and I did not hear any of it.  My "remaining" son at home did not wake me with his usual pounding down the stairs in fast and furious steps and the crisp clip of the bathroom door closing did nothing to invade my slumbers. My "remaining" daughter at home "claims" she knocked upon my door to "remind me" that I needed to get going so as not to impede her progress to go to her job.  Clementine, the dog, who feels the need to bark at all manner of things as they pass by our front window, (very similarly to what she is doing right now as I type); also did nothing to interrupt my reverie of sleep. I missed it all.

Which is to say, I have now raised my daughter's interior alarms to a three, think fire department here, and have 15 minutes to put on the kettle,( for two imprecise teaspoons of loose leaf Earl Grey), dredge boneless short ribs and brown, rough cut onions, celery, carrots, garlic, deglaze the pan with red wine and chicken stock and request "remaining daughter" to retrieve three cans of diced canned tomatoes and to open them with the hand can opener that does leak some of the dishwater form the handle from the last time it was washed (which is pointed out by said daughter), throw it all into the slow cooker, which I have remembered to plug in, which in the past may or may not have happened. (Forgot to note that "remaining daughter" was perturbed that her new dress she has donned for the office will now smell of browned beef.)

I then pour the water over the Earl Grey, run to my room, throw on the pile of clothes that are in front of my dresser and run back out to the kitchen, "remaining" daughter's comment is: " I did not recognize you without your red fleece" while stinging, is true.

I have taken, since loosing my job back in September, in an attempt to cut down on the quantity of laundry to be done, to wearing what my family likes to call "a onesie". This is; either a pair of blue sweat pants that have been worn for painting various things over the years or blue jeans, a turtle neck and a red fleece, that zips up the front, and was a gift from my dear friend Barbara several Christmas ago. If the red fleece is in need of a wash, then it is a grey sweatshirt from the daughter's (that has departed the home for marriage) Alma mater.

I do inspect the "outfit" it every day to make sure there are no obvious reasons why I should find a replacement article in my ensemble, but as I am no longer leaving the house, except to drive or retrieve, my standards are not as precise as they once were. The few friends that I continue to see in my malaise of unemployment are such good companions they either do not notice or are to kind to care.