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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Summer, 1949

Looking over the backseat of a ‘36 Chevy is an early memory I have about cars. I stood, holding onto the back seat and peering over it, across my parents’ shoulders. We were probably on our way to my Grandpa’s house in our small Ohio town, the place where all the family I had still lived. The actual year is cloudy; perhaps it was 1949, just post war. The car had probably been grandpa’s. It was the sort of hand-me-down + all-in-the-family cash-deal that people did a lot of in those days. So many young men were back from the War, and jobs -- and cars -- were hard to get.

“Hold on,” Mother always said. Maybe she’d repeat the story about the inattentive kid who got his teeth bashed out when the car he was riding in stopped suddenly. This reminded me to pay attention to what was going on as we traveled. In 1949, that was good mothering, sufficient unto the day.

We probably never drove faster than 25 mph to get to Grandpa’s because we went through town. With a small thriving college there, the streets were always busy with an odd mix of farmers and students from big Eastern cities.

I remember a tall stick shift protruding from the floor, and the strength it seemed to need to move it. My Mother could manage shifting as well as Daddy, though, a thing which gave her potency in my eyes, even though she was a small woman. She put a cushion in the driver's seat for height, and she drove like a champ. I remember her small, broad saddle-shoed feet stomping on brake or clutch while she shifted with great dispatch and authority.

Even as young as I was, I knew it was bad form to grind the gears, although I heard a lot of others do it. Not my parents! As the car had been Grandpa’s it was probably in perfect shape. My Father, who painted houses and studied to be an engineer, was every bit as good at taking care of things.

It was summer, so I think we might have been going to a picnic at Grandpa and Grandma’s house. They had a big white four-square along wide Xenia Avenue, which still had trolley tracks running down the middle. Behind the house was a spacious red brick patio that Grandpa had laid himself. It was flat and smooth and surrounded the largest, shapeliest sugar maple in town.

It was a lovely shady spot, always cool and filled with birdsong. Sometimes my Aunt Jeanie and her husband, Richard DeWine, would be there with Cousin Michael, who was younger than me, but fun to hang out with anyway. If it was a special occasion, Richard’s parents, George and Alice, might be there, or maybe our Aunt Judy would have come home from Ohio State. Mike and I both liked our lively, attentive Aunt Judy.

A table with a checkered oil cloth waited for whatever was about to be served, a lot, if I’m remembering correctly, of fried chicken with either biscuits or homemade bread. I'm sure there were pickles, coleslaw, potato salad and baked beans, but like most kids, I didn't eat that stuff. For dessert, there was certainly homemade cake or fresh fruit pie. If there wasn’t, the grand finale might have been Grandpa’s ice cream, which was so sublime that even kids knew it didn’t have to be chocolate.

Another Nirvana-like childhood dining experience came the day Grandpa and George DeWine served us morels. These I’ve never had since, but I’ve never forgotten them, either, the Holy Grail of Mushrooms, fresh, fragrant, and lovingly fried in sweet butter.

Friday, May 15, 2009


This term was defined by Dr. Eric Berne in the 60’s in his popular psychology book “Games People Play.” I heard “nowadays…” from my elders all the time. I’d nod, 20 year old wise- acre, and note the complaining and fault finding that always followed such a preamble. “Nowadays…” was categorized by Dr. Berne as a fairly harmless pastime of old folks—if not too vitriolic. Otherwise, it was a “game,” inviting others on the same wave-length to agree and add their own stories of what used to be a far superior way of life. Whether “pastime” or the higher ante “game,” “nowadays” was labeled as an inauthentic way to relate to others.

Well, I’m now in my 60+’s, and despite Dr. Berne, “nowadays…” pops out of my mouth with some frequency. For instance, last week, I was at my local feed store, and a young gal who works there was talking about her new baby. All winter we shoppers had been chatting with her about the coming blessed event. Now baby had arrived, and here she was, hardly missing a beat, and back to work. It wasn’t easy, though. This was her second child, and, of course, two are always a heck of a lot more work than one. Unfortunately, the new baby had “colic.”

Well, as I listened to her anxious recitation to another shopper, it wasn’t colic, it was allergies. Baby was allergic to his formula—to soy formula, to corn oil formula, and apparently to all the other expensive substitutes that Nabisco and all the other pharmaceutical/agri-businesses have devised. She complained that her milk had dried up, but I could tell by the way she said this that her own milk hadn’t been given much encouragement. The first baby, she explained, had taken to canned cow straightaway like a champ.

The young mother is now near panic; I can hear it in her endless rambling. Her six week old baby is at home with Nana, screaming and puking. She’s an emotional wreck and not getting much sleep. But where is she? Behind that counter, at work--at least, sort of. Here's “nowadays” for you. Young marrieds think they have to have it all right now—the big house in the ‘burbs, the SUV for Mommy, a diesel truck for Daddy, the newest washer/dryer, fancy kitchen, freezer, flat screen TV’s, Cable + movie packages, riding mowers, gas grills, etc., etc. They are only doing what TV taught them to do—owe their souls to the Company Store.

I felt terribly sad as I listened. Like most women of my age, I wanted to say something helpful, to give some useful advice that would soothe her, maybe, even, bring relief to the suffering baby. (Imagine starting life in constant pain. In no future I can imagine will a kid with this kind of awful start be a “happy camper.”) It’s not just the raging consumer madness that drives the young couple, but the inability of the mother to simply do as Nature intended--without shame, without pressure, without having to get to work on time, without her husband or her relatives being embarrassed by an “animalistic” display--and give the child of her body the comfort and nourishment of her breast. This, after all, is the perfect “formula” for that particular small new individual’s tender stomach.
I'm glad my husband and I were too dumb to do anything except what came naturally. We were 19, married, and living pretty much hand to mouth. I was a part-time student and a very part time waitress, but I was lucky enough to be home in our 2 rooms/1 bath apartment--mostly. Milk that came from me was a heck of a lot cheaper than formula, so that was what my babies got. I washed clothes at the laundromat and hung them out in all weather to dry. Our prize possession was a VW bug, but if my husband needed the car for work or school, I walked to wherever I needed to go, pushing a stroller. A new book or a record was a big treat.
Yes, we had some occasional help from our folks, but then we didn't even have a credit card until some years later. Sometimes we had to scrounge in the couch cushions for coins to go to the laundry or gas up the car or buy oatmeal, but we got by. We longed to have "stuff," sure, but we knew that acquiring all these things, for plain middle class folks like us, would take time.
Don't take this wrong. A woman must have education and/or job skills with which to support herself. Otherwise, she ends up a victim. I don't know--and I wish I did--what the answer is for that distressed young mother, but I am sure that it's not the best of all possible worlds when a paycheck is more important than taking care of the baby.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Tulip Ruminations

Here in southern PA, the tulips have already gone by. It’s sad. You study catalogs, choose bulbs, dig and plant, crawling around on your old, creaking knees for hours making certain they are comfortably bedded down. Then, in they appear, bloom, and in less than a week, their glorious moment is past. This year, three record breaking days of 90 degree heat finished them off in record time.

Daffodils last a bit longer, and there is quite a selection of these nowadays, ones that come early, ones that bloom late, ones with ruffles, ones in pink and white as well as yellow. What’s more, squirrels don’t think daffodils are quite as yummy as tulips, so the bulbs—and the flowers—are more likely to survive. (Bob Cat has done a good job of young squirrel crunching, but he isn’t as hungry as he used to be.) Our apple tree, too, flowered and dropped in record time. I hope the pollinators had a chance to do their job and make us some apples. The bloom lasted such a short time that I never found an instant to go and stand under the tree and catch the scent, or listen to the busy humming over my head, and contemplate the miracle of flower and fruit upon which life on our little planet depends.

Think I’ve learned my lesson about tulips. They were once the sole property of aristocratic gardens, and maybe that’s how it should still be. Corporations and Outlet Malls can bring in troops of gardeners and plant annuals over the bulb’s heads way faster than I can. Better for this home gardener to plant perennial native plants that bush and straggle, but which do bloom and feed the local pollinators for a respectable amount of time. Better for this home gardener to raise a few veggies, tomatoes, salad and herbs in pots on the patio, and eat from home rather than what came in on the truck From Heaven Knows Where, sprayed with Heaven Knows What.