“What the hell is THAT?”

smartphone-1987212_1920Ah, those famous words that greet the first sight of gray hair, facial lines (doesn’t that sound evah-so much nicer than wrinkles?), butt or boob drop, a thickening waist … oh, heck, add to the list on your own. We all have our demons. (That goes for you men as well; I’m not just talking about women here, although that’s what I’ll focus on since I am one…or was the last time I checked.)

Can’t  say I’m bothered by graying hair, although the first truly black strand that came out during a shower made me do a double-take. I’ve been blonde of one shade or another all my life. (I say it that way not because I’ve dyed my hair–I haven’t–but because I was born a tow-head, but my hair has decidedly darkened over time. Funny old world. When I was a kid, I badly wanted to be brunette like my mother and sisters–I thought it would be a way to fit in.)

See? Big difference.

Baby Writer              Graduation 1975            IMG_5663

Maybe I’m not bothered by the gray because there’s not that much of it (or so says the woman that cuts my hair). At this point, I’ve no intention of coloring it, and I rather hope that I’ll wind up with a great mane of silver or white hair. Guess we’ll see.

As for wrinkles (oops! ‘scuse me, facial lines) I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have them. Sure, I likely didn’t as a child, but by my teenage years (and all  that angst) I certainly did. Mom was forever telling me to stop frowning. “I’m not,” I’d say. “I’m concentrating.” It was all the same to her. But, yeah, it left me with two permanent upright marks between my eyebrows that she constantly tried to smooth out with the ball of her thumb. (Really, Ma?) Rough times of one sort and another bestowed the horizontal lines across my forehead that ain’t nevah gonna go ‘way now, sugah. Whatever. I’ve spent nearly 63 years living in my face. It’s bound to show it. And, anyway, I rather like the look of a lived-in face, mine as well as other people’s. There are stories in those lines, and stories are what make people interesting.

(Case in point: Take my former Coast Guard cadets–adoptees all into our household–now grown and experienced officers. Seasoned. Aged. They’re no longer the fresh-faced eighteen-year-olds we first met, scared and uncertain by the road they’d chosen to pursue. Now they’re approaching middle-age. They’ve braved bad seas, drug busts, and those much scarier rites of passage called matrimony, divorce, and parenthood. I loved their young adult faces, but the ones they carry now–ah! Those speak of Life, and I mean it with a capital “L” and emphasis.)

Butt and boob drop? Well, I’ve never had much in the way of breasts. (Boob is such a stupid word; I bet some man coined it first.) Always been small, something I regretted before I wised up and stopped buying into the societal party line. (A friend’s boyfriend once derided me for being “concave.” I’ve also received such endearments as “You’d have a perfect shape if only your breasts were bigger” (that one from my mother, if you can believe it) and “You’d be so much more attractive if only your breasts were bigger.”) News flash, folks–my breasts aren’t anyone’s frigging business.

As for the butt, well, suffice to say that I caught a sideways view of myself in the bathroom mirror after a shower and only one thought that arrowed through my brain:  “Oh, my God, I have Mom’s ass.”

Again, whatever. You get the gist.

Here’s the thing. see. I grew up knowing I wasn’t beautiful, wasn’t even pretty. It was said to me often enough, pointed out by family, that even if I hadn’t believed it at first, I certainly came to. (A guy I spent way too much time with years ago told me, “You’re not the best looking girl in the world, but you have a good heart.” Another–who’d actually expressed a desire to date me, said, “There’s nothing wrong with you that can’t be fixed with braces and contact lenses.” Gee. Thanks. I am overwhelmed.)

I wasn’t taught to think well of myself, and so I didn’t. And I was mistrustful of the rare individual who suggested I might, actually, not be all that hideous. What was wrong with them that they couldn’t see it? What did they really want from me?

I remember the day I decided I actually sort of like my face, that it’s not a bad old fizzog. Talk about a cocktail of epiphany and relief. Because if you can find peace in your own skin, what the rest of the world thinks and says in its arrogance and thoughtless stupidity (or rancor and general meanness), doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. Don’t let it matter.

“Books are stooooopid!”

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Me and the beloved

Thus spaketh my beloved five-year-old granddaughter, preparing to pitch a hissy fit because I refuses to watch a vulgar and moronic video with her before bedtime, and instead had suggested I read with her.

It was late, and I was tired. (She’s a night owl, and I’m not.) Without thinking, I bent down and got right in her face. Keeping my voice low and nonthreatening, I replied, “You just said that to the wrong person, kid, because I write books.”

Her eyes darted from side-to-side. “Oh.”

Oh, indeed, Snooks.

Beloved’s mother, my own beloved daughter, loves books, but admits that her reading time has been curtailed to those few minutes before she falls asleep at night. Who can blame her? She’s the full-time mom to a rambunctious five-year-old with the sleep schedule of a vampire.

“I need to read more in front of her,” she says, and I believe she means to try. It’s a good point. Kids emulate what they see their parents do, and if Beloved sees her mother enjoying books, well, she might, too.

Beloved’s dad, on the other hand, is no fan of books. That’s not to say he doesn’t like the written word, merely that he prefers to read from a screen rather than a printed page. To each their own, so long as they’re reading, but I feel a pang under my heart for several reasons when he denigrates physical books, particularly in Beloved’s hearing.

See, a love of books is something I’d hoped to bring to this growing relationship between me and my granddaughter. Not just a love of words, which would be nice, too, of course, but also an appreciation of physical books; to enjoy their smell, their weight, and the texture of their pages. I want for her to experience the deep contentment of settling into a favorite chair or into bed with a new or much-loved book, something “snuggleable.” I want to engage her imagination. Yes, please! I dream of talking about her favorite scenes and how she sees them in her mind’s eye, how they compare with my own. I want to share favorite passages, and even argue over the merits of a story.

I send her books, but it’s hard to convey the love from several hundred miles away. And, sure, yes, she can read and imagine and share with glowing words printed on a hard screen. And yet…

And yet.

Those who don’t cuddle with books can’t, or won’t, understand. I’m a dinosaur in this age of electronics, but a proud one that maintains there’s value in the page-printed word. And I’ll likely be clutching one of those most beloved books when the asteroid hits and wipes us all away again.

 

Growing Pains

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Image by RyanMcGuire from Pixabay

I remember watching my mother put on lipstick.

This was back in the day when most ladies wore lipstick as regularly as underwear. It was part of their getting ready for the day, a social ritual no matter whether they were going to the office, to buy groceries, or tackle six loads of laundry. Without it, they felt naked, and Mom was no different. She never became particularly proficient in applying makeup, and never wore much more than lipstick, powder, maybe a bit of mascara or rouge, but she managed.

She had an array of lipstick cases. Some were fancy, metallic; whorled and scrolled and filigreed, and likely purchased in a department store. Some were plain, utilitarian, serviceable and unremarkable as a bullet casing. The majority, however, were tiny white plastic tubes about half the length of her index finger, perhaps as big around as a pencil; samples she’d been given by the local Avon lady. Mom would stand at the bathroom mirror, carefully apply crimson color in her lips–first top, then bottom–and press them around a bit of tissue in a kiss to blot the excess.

In our family, Mom was the Tissue Queen. She carried at least half-a-ton in every purse she owned (and she had at least a half-dozen in service at any given time) because you never knew when you might need one in a public restroom devoid of toilet paper. These tissues carried a perpetual smell, an unidentifiable odor reminiscent of funeral homes, toilet bowl cleanser, or cheap perfume. I don’t know if that fragrance was applied at the factory in some misbegotten belief that it smelled good, or if it was something the tissues picked up from the interior of Mom’s pocketbook, but I recoiled with a snarl of literally stomach-turning revulsion whenever she drew one forth, especially when she spit on it and tried to scrub a bit of smutch from my face.

Ugh. It still makes me shudder.

As she grew older, Mom’s tissues migrated. She still carried a flock in her purse, but now they appeared elsewhere, usually inside the waistband of her pants or tucked inside the cuff of her shirt or sweater. When she came to live with us, it became protocol to search for tissues gone astray before putting her clothing in the washer. (There’s nothing quite so much fun as pulling wet clothes from the machine only to find them liberally dotted with shreds of disintegrating paper.) After Mom died, I found tissues everywhere–tucked in pockets, poked up sleeves, placed between the pages of a book, and rolled in her sock drawer. Who knows what her brain was telling her to do by then?

These days, whenever one of us forgets about a tissue and it suicides in the washer, I smile, take it as a sign, and say, “Hi, Mom.” I like to think she smiles back.

 

Where is Grandma’s smile?

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My maternal grandmother, Geneva Lucy Shorey Crandall Sherman Burton

I can’t remember ever seeing my grandmother smile.  This studio portrait, taken God knows when, is the closest she comes to it.

As a child, I didn’t understand her lack of smiles and (I confess) took it personally. (I was an emotional, empathetic, introvert; of course I took it personally.) I now believe Life knocked the smiles out of her.

She was born November 1894 in Oakfield, Maine, way up in The County (Aroostook to the unenlightened). Grover Cleveland was President. Coca Cola was sold in bottles for the first time. Twelve thousand NYC tailors struck against sweatshop conditions. Norman Rockwell, Jack Benny, Bessie Smith, and Dashiell Hammett were also born that year.

Geneva was the youngest of five children (all “useless” daughters, God forbid) born to William and Minnie Shorey. Described by my mother as “the meanest woman that ever lived,” Minnie often locked her in a dark closet. William had a prodigious temper (the source, I believe, if what’s come to be known as the “Crandall Temper”). One one occasion, a neighbor returned a borrowed wagon broken. When William discovered it, he hacked at the wagon with an ax until he brought on a heart attack and fell over stone-dead.

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Minnie and William flank Napoleon Bonaparte Crandall (I’m not joking).

Look at these faces. Even given the era, and the need to hold very still for this portrait, they’re exceedingly grim. Can you imagine growing up in that household? Can you imagine what their childhoods must have been like?

(My mother’s family had a propensity for historically-derived names. “Uncle Bony,” as he was called, had a brother named George Washington Crandall. I’ve also discovered William Wallace Crandall, James Madison Crandall, and others. My husband believes if we search long enough, we’ll discover a Jesus Christ Crandall. Oh, and let’s not forget the unfortunately named “Weighty Marie.”)

It’s impossible for me to imagine Geneva as a child … as a young school teacher … or as a bride. She married Abel Crandall in either 1912, 1913, or 1915. (There’s documentation listing each of those dates.) Their children arrived in 1916, 1917, 1919, 1922, and my mother in 1923. (Roundabout five months after the birth of their first child, Abel was named in a paternity suit filed by a neighbor’s wife. The child, a daughter, was raised by the family into which she was born, and he never bore any responsibility for her, but this must have been a real treat for Geneva. Incidentally, this tidbit of news only came to light in 2019.)

In October 1923, Abel’s appendix ruptured. He died three weeks before my mother was born. So here’s Geneva: four children ranging in age from seven years to 15 months, 8 1/2 months pregnant, her husband dead, the Great Depression looming. And her mother refuses to help her.

For nine years, my grandmother did what she could to survive, taking in laundry, mending clothes, and selling eggs. Her fresh-churned butter was said to be the best in the area. She baked bread and became proficient at “Poverty Stew,” a watery mix of salt pork, onions or carrots when she could get them, a single potato diced fine.

In April 1932, Geneva married Abel’s best friend, Paul Sherman, for whom she worked as a housekeeper. (In the 1930 census, she’s listed as “servant.”) Their son Paul, Jr. arrived five months later. Make of that what you will. Two years later, Paul Sherman died of tuberculosis. In the 1940 census, she’s listed as “head of household” with four of her six children living with her. My mother, as the only girl at home, shouldered much of the domestic burden and her mother’s rancor, and married badly at 18 to escape. (Geneva was lenient with her boy, not so much with her girls, an unfortunate trend that continued throughout her life. Mom died at the age of 92 without ever hearing her mother say “I love you.”)

So it went. In 1957, Geneva married a third time, to Walter Burton (the man I knew as my grandfather), for whom she’d also kept house. And buried him in 1977.  So is it any wonder there were precious few smiles to go around?

And yet, Geneva had her pleasures, chief among them her involvement in her church, visits with old and dear friends, and most particularly, her youngest son’s three boys who lived next door and on whom she doted. Her preferential treatment put a crick in the nose of the rest of us grandkids, but we got over it.

Maybe.

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Geneva and her kids (l to r): Paul, Darrell, William, Virginia (my mom), Goldie, and Jean.

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And some of the grandkids: Paul, Patric, and Eric in back; Darrell, me, and Sterling in front.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

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Circa early 50s

So begins the gothic novel Rebecca, written in 1938 by Dame Daphne du Maurier. My own version might begin, “Last night I dreamt of the house in Clifton Park.”

The old farmhouse on Plant Road wasn’t much to look at when my parents purchased it, the barn and garage across the road, and the surrounding acreage in the early 1950s for what was then the princely sum of ten thousand dollars. The house was old even then; how old, I don’t know although certainly in excess of one hundred years. A covered porch ran across the front in the years before I was born, ultimately torn down and a raised cement slab erected in its place. (I think Mom had some ideas of a patio, but that’s as far as it ever got and I don’t remember us using it for much of anything.) Dad and a friend, George Carley, built the chimney and fireplace that adorned the west end of the living room and became a central hub in winter, the place where we huddled on the coldest of nights.

An immense sycamore grew just outside the kitchen window, a tree so large that it took at least three adults, arms extended, to circle its trunk. It grew much too close to the house and its root system eventually invaded the foundation, slowing tearing the structure apart and precipitating my parents’ move to Saratoga. Dad hung first a tire and then a wooden-seated swing on a limb and I spent hours spinning myself to fall-down dizziness. (Mom hated the tree, with its propensity for shedding bark everywhere, but I loved it, and used the bark like parchment, scrawling messages.)

Each season in that house brings its memories: wet springs when the meadow would flood and the frogs appear; baking summers playing outdoors while Mom listened to her beloved Yankees on the radio; autumns of leaf piles made only for jumping; winters sailing down the hill out back in a metal saucer, the bottom of which Mom had polished with Pledge. (I think she harbored a secret desire to kill me; she once used Pledge on my metal slide, too. I shot down it so fast–and off the end, clearing several feet–that it scared me to tears.) I remember nights playing outdoors beyond sunset, rolling down the hill in the long grass and catching fireflies in a jar.

IMG_3122I best remember the house at Christmas, when I draped my pajamas over the hearth screen to warm before putting them on and Mom hung the cards we received against the brickwork. The fireplace had a raised marble hearthstone custom made for sitting, where I placed Santa’s plate of cookies and mug of hot chocolate on Christmas Eve. (Much later, Dad installed a matching mantelpiece that Mom festooned with garland.) The walls were an ugly pale gray/brown wallboard that Dad eventually replaced with the warm, golden glow of knotty pine. Mom was forever rearranging the furniture, so the Christmas tree might end up anywhere, so long as it wasn’t too near the fire. The windows were hung with red cellophane wreaths with electric candles, and a two-candle art deco piece I still own (which my husband is  rewiring so I can use it).

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That horrible wallboard

This was the house of my growing up; the house I was brought to after being born at Albany Medical Center in 1957; the house I learned to crawl in, then walk, then run. The house where I learned to ride a bike and enjoyed the pride of having my training wheels removed. The house where dogs and cats sprawled (and my mother once–under protest–housed a few gerbils overnight.) From there I set forth in late October to trick-or-treat with my then best friend, David Micklas, returning with plastic sacks bursting with swag. From there we set out together on bike adventures, or to roam the woods, play baseball or play pretend. On one memorable occasion we beat his older brothers, Tom and Bob, at war, ambushing poor Bob from inside a culvert that ran beneath the road, then ruthlessly hunting Tom with our plastic guns. This was home from kindergarten through high school graduation, and beyond. I married my first husband in that living room, and played with my first and second generation of nieces and nephews.

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Dad’s knotty pine

The house is gone now, torn down to make way for a Stewart’s. (For those of you unfamiliar with the franchise, it’s a chain of convenience stores.) The sycamore is still there, grand in its old age and, I hope, protected. (If the house was old, the tree is far older.) There’s a poignancy to visiting the old place in dreams, walking through those rooms. I see them so clearly, though its been well over 40 years. Each has its echo, a sound I will always hear.

 

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Circa 1970s

Ghost of Christmas Past

39Although the tryptophan/sleep myth has been debunked, there’s something about Thanksgiving that incites relatives to break out old hurts and vendettas with scripted regularity; an urge to pick the scabs off ancient wounds in their eagerness to get to the pumpkin pie. Maybe it’s the flow of alcohol, which often begins quite early, or maybe it’s the onus of having to spend protracted time in the company of people you’d rather lived at the bottom of a very deep and dark hole.

In any case, the opposite seems to be true at Christmas. The resentments are still there, but they bubble and sizzle just beneath the surface, keeping conversations spritely and people moving from room to room as they try to avoid one another. Maybe it’s the threat of Santa’s ever-watchful eye (not to mention those of the children, who see and hear everything), or that oft-repeated wish for peace on earth, but something about Christmas makes people behave just a teensy bit better than usual.

The same was true in our house. Mom hated Thanksgiving because it meant a day of cooking and a meal with relatives she couldn’t stand (Dad’s side of the family). In fairness, no one except my married eldest sister ever contributed a dish to the meal, so I can see Mom’s point of view. Christmas, on the other hand, was all about baking. Mom loved that … and all the trappings that came with Christmas. Having grown up dirt poor in rural Maine, about as far up in the state as you can go without getting a nosebleed, the chance to create the Christmas of her dreams proved irresistible.

Dishes of hard candy bright as jewels. Bowls of almonds, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts (what Dad called filberts), and walnuts waiting for the silver cracker to reveal the treasure hidden inside their shells. Peanut brittle. Homemade popcorn balls. Chocolate fudge, peanut butter fudge, and buttery cookie cutouts decorated with egg yolk paints and sprinkles. Pies galore—mince, coconut custard, apple, pumpkin, and pecan.

Nary a surface went undecorated. One year, little elves with folding legs (a precursor to today’s “Elf on a Shelf”) came with bottles of dish detergent. Mom collected them all and placed them throughout the house. Wreaths made of red cellophane hung in the living room windows, plugged into the baseboard below so the center candle in each case a red glow against the early winter darkness. A art deco-y candelabra with three electric tiers sat in another window. (I have it now, although at more than 60 years of age, its wiring makes it unsafe to light.) A balsam door wreath purchased fresh each year hung on the front door, tricked out with added decorations bought specifically for that use. On another door hung a long Styrofoam candy cane. And, of course, there was the tree—purchased two weeks before Christmas and decorated with lights, garland, bulbs (new then, antique now), a collection of what were called “Special Ornaments” (those that were particularly fragile or one of a kind), and the whole thing topped with tinsel icicles until the whole thing shimmered and swayed in the slightest breeze.

I served as the proud Licker of Stamps when Mom wrote out the cards, and served the same duty for the seals used to secure packages in place of cellophane tape and long before the advent of self-adhesives. The cards we received hung on the brick front of our fireplace, secured with curls of masking tape. When Mom wanted me out of the way (usually when wrapping my gifts), she’d set me up on a corner of the couch with a glass of ginger ale and the three immense holiday catalogs we received from JC Penny’s, Sears (“The Wish Book,” including 33 pages of dolls that I swiftly passed over), and Montgomery Ward to craft my list for Santa.

Music tied it all together. As soon as the Thanksgiving carnage had been swept away, out came the Christmas record albums, and that’s what we listened to exclusively as the anticipation swelled, until the day after Christmas when they were safely packed away once more. (For those of you who don’t know what I mean by “record albums,” Google it.)

We owned several holiday albums: Ferrante and Teicher, Sandler and Young, Roger Williams, Mario Lanza, Ken Griffin, and others. My favorites were a series of records produced by Firestone. Yup, the tire folks. A bit of quick internet research revealed that there were seven of these albums, although we owned only three. They featured the likes of Julie Andrews, Vic Damone, Roberta Peters, and others, and were beautifully engineered considering they cost probably one dollar apiece at the time. For me, these album were Christmas.

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But time passed. I grew up and moved away from home. My parents graduated from albums to cassette tapes, to 8-track tapes, and finally to CDs. The old albums were packed away. When my parents moved, a series of garage sales cleaned out the old house in preparation for the shift.

Dad died in 2012. After a bit of “shuffling” (the best word I can use for it at this point without initiating incendiary excuse-hurling by certain individuals), my husband and I moved Mom in with us. Once again, this time with sad finality, their house was packed up, cleaned out, sold. I discovered the Christmas albums in the basement, tucked beneath the counter of what would have been bar, in what would have been a rumpus room, had my parents either drank or raised rumpuses.

I brought them home with the idea that “one of these days” I would break out my old turntable and receiver and give them a whirl. When I did, I discovered that the drive belt on the turntable had desiccated into a dozen pieces. I finally located a replacement belt, and the speakers went on the fritz. New speakers, and now it was the receiver’s turn to die. In frustration, I shelved the project. After Mom died in 2015, I felt little desire for much of anything.

However, this year, we figured out how to connect the ancient turntable (coming up on its fortieth birthday) to our very modern Bose outfit, and voila!

We’ve a stack of vinyl between us—Rolling Stones and Rush, the soundtracks to The Magic Show and The Muppet Movie, Marc Bolan and Robin Williamson, among others—but I saved the Christmas albums for when I was alone. Yesterday, I played Volume 4 of the Firestone albums

Yeah, I cried. For the past, for my Mom and her deep love of Christmas, for what might have been and wasn’t, but mostly for the shine those old memories still possess.