Have I Got a Dish for You!

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Epaig ‘Stratford’ pre-1950s

People have addictions. It might just be that you overload on bowls of pasta while Netflix-binging on ‘Will and Grace’ every Saturday night, or that you secretly smoke cigarettes in the pantry between the shelves of canned pickles and paper towels, or worse inclinations that require serious help; mine (well one of them anyways) is purchasing dishes.

Dishes do something to me. I get mentally and emotionally elevated, dreamy and romantic; I get downright high. My eyes become fixated on the color and pattern. My fingers almost erotically find pleasure in the smooth curve of the plate or comfortable fit of the handle. If I am anywhere near dishes in a store, I find myself so distracted by a set, or maybe even one piece, that I can’t look at anything else. I circle back around, walk up and down that same aisle, and stalk any other shoppers who move toward the object of my desire. All the while, I’m imagining a million ways I could dress my table with these delicate obsessions or how they can be perched behind some other trinket in a vignette in my dining room.

I should be over this. I’m almost sixty years old, for goodness sakes, and everyone around me is reminding me that I should be giving away all my crap, that I should be down-sizing not adding more to my stockpile of stuff. I get that, and feel that, for the most part, but not when it comes to dishes. If time is good to me, I’ll have many more Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving Day meals to host as the grandchildren are making their arrivals. I don’t use paper or plastic plates so they’ll have to eat off of something, right?! I really want to ‘entertain’ again, like in the old days, with interesting people enjoying deep conversation and hardy, belly-filled laughs and teary-eyed toasts  across the comfortable ambiance of my candlelit tablescape. I still have plans that involve dishes, so I’m justified, right?

Blue Danube China

Blue Danube China

The problem is I don’t have any more space to store all these lovely, mostly vintage china pieces. The Inn is full. I know the obvious solution. It’s time to get rid of some of the others, but that’s the thing. The ‘others’ hold the memories that have graced my table for years and whisper of Sunday dinners and homespun conversations with our kids, every time they are placed on the table. They mean too much to me and besides, I hope that at some point my daughter, or daughter-in-laws, maybe my grown granddaughters may want to inherit them. Maybe. It’s hard to say these days, but it doesn’t seem to matter where they will go after I’m gone. I like having them NOW. Apparently, I’m a dish-whore or hoarder; I’m not sure which is worse. But, let’s just say it sweetly, I’m a lover of beautiful things, primarily dishes, some of which I must possess.

A couple of month ago I was spending the day with my daughter in a beautiful, quaint Texas Hill Country town, a place where charm and historic homes just seem to command, ‘You must buy something while you’re here!” I had braced myself for this, did a lot of self-talk on the road, and asked my daughter to ‘stop me’ if I got too caught-up in any dishes, “I simply don’t have any more room, Sweetie, so remind me of that when the time comes.” Much like a recovering alcoholic who isn’t ready to sit in a bar, it didn’t work. All the promises I made to myself went right out the door and across the gingerbread porch of the antique store we were in, as soon as I saw the perky pattern and colors that could be used in just about any season, hidden inside.

At first I saw a few orphaned plates of blue and white that called to me, but I was strong and just gave them a knowing sigh as I moved on. I chuckled at all the ‘antique’ dishes on display that were from MY time, MY youth; stuff my mom got at the Montgomery Wards and Sears & Roebucks. Are we antiques already? That’s just plain weird.

Then I saw my daughter off in another section staring dropped-jaw into a large glass, upright display case. Walking towards her, she waved me off, told me not to come her way, ‘Mom…just don’t!’ Too late, I was there, opposite her on the other side of the glass completely captivated, mesmerized, in love; I was a goner (as us antiques used to say).

Simple, yet elegant, with a dancing line of gold, orange, green, even pink flowers around the edges, held in by a metallic gold rim (something that has never before appealed to me); Epaig ‘Stratford,’ made in Czechoslovakia; it was like I found my long, lost love of the dish world. Youthful, yet pre-1950s vintage; playful, yet serious; light enough for Spring, warm enough for Autumn; a whole serving set on sale for only $100. Let’s be real, I could go to Target for toilet paper and end up spending twice that much on a bunch of nothing; why look away from this?!

We just stood there, my daughter and I, silently staring for quite some time, both knowing what the other was thinking, “I don’t have room. Dad’s going to kill you if you bring home another dish. You already have enough dishes to serve a small village. Don’t do it, mom. No, I can’t…” I walked away….several times…but I was drunk on the beauty of them, injected with the poison of mealtime pleasure, aglow on the anticipation of spreading a beautiful table, and weak-in-the-knee by the thought of hand washing them; I could feel their fragile strength warm and sleek in my soapy hands.

I bought them.

It was tough, on that hot Texas day, getting three huge boxes of individually wrapped dishes into a small car with a trunk the size of a bread box, but of course we did it…with a little swearing and a lot of sweat. I got home to an empty house, and painstakingly rushed them into the house alone (having to take them out of the boxes in small loads, since I couldn’t carry the weight of the boxes), and hid them, yes hid them, in the closet under the stairs.

The dishes have been in-hiding since that summer day.

Tonight, while a roasting pork loin filled the kitchen with a warm aroma of home, I systematically (okay, I snuck in-and-out of the closet) retrieved enough of my secret stash for a four-place setting. When my husband sat down, he said, ‘Oh no, what is this?” My son’s girlfriend, who was not privy to my dish ordeal at all, immediately commented on how lovely they were. Thank God for womenfolk! So, I revealed that I had fallen off the wagon and bought a lovely set of dishes at a great price! I admit I strategically planned to bring them out when company was present. It worked.

Surprisingly, he liked them (though he didn’t know just how many were stuffed under the stairs). Just the same, the hardest hurdle, the great ‘reveal,’ was over and now commencing with the storage issue would just work its way out. It always does. This isn’t my first auction haul!

As the evening wanes in a peaceful glow of acceptance, all the hand-washed dishes are stack proudly on my counter waiting for me to give them a comfortable shelf to dwell on, and my hubby is joyfully discovering facts about the vintage pattern, for if anything, he too appreciates time-worn things. It’s kind of sweet of him. It’s moments like these that he reminds of my father, who used to turn into a little kid whenever my new recipe cards from ‘Better Homes and Gardens’ would come in the mail as I was preparing for wifedom in the 1970s. He and I would spend hours combing through the recipes in the warmth of the kitchen light. When it comes to my husband, space or no space, it seems antiques continue to be our comfortable common ground.

You see, dishes, like recipes and meals, bring people together. Everyone has a memory of someone special at the glance of a familiar dish pattern. We see our aproned grandmothers and aunts bending and busy in the kitchens we loved, our mothers giving us the honored tasked of ‘getting out the good dishes’ when the hungry smell of a holiday dinner was filling the crowded house. Dishes clink and slide, stack and hide in all of our memories, and I am very much connected with that scene, mine and theirs, from the heart of the home, the kitchen.

Contemporary fun!

Contemporary fun!

From leaf-laced, autumn patterns to Blue Delft old-world charm, country white plates for simplicity, Christmas Spode gems, and round oatmeal glazed bowls just right for soups and stew, to bunny-shaped Easter favorites that the kids still love to see; my cupboards are filled with much more than porcelain artifacts. My dishes help tell the story of our lives. There is historic sweetness in a set of pink flowered, silver-rimmed dishes from my mother-in-law’s days of collecting dishes at the movie theatre one movie and dish at a time; I can see her trim and proper, with a huddle of blond-haired kids straight out of the “Dick & Jane” children’s book series, anxiously walking down her small town Midwestern street headed for the cinema and another new plate! Like the visual pleasure I receive from my 1950s era ‘Currier & Ives’ Royal blue village dishes which beckon back to my days around the crowded table of my parent’s house and the cupped aroma of coffee on cold Michigan mornings at our wood-smoke cottage; 1970s stoneware comes with a song; Transferware can transport. They all speak of places I’ve lived and people I’ve loved; each has a story, evokes memories, and allows for the pure pleasure of creatively setting a lovely table.

Currier & Ives Blue Royal, circa 1950s

Currier & Ives Blue Royal, circa 1950s

Have I justified my purchase with passion and purpose? Ha! I always say, if a thing doesn’t give you pleasure or serve a purpose, than it’s time to let it go.

All in all, it’s a harmless addiction, obsession, or hobby, whatever one wants to call it. It could be worse. I could collect unicorns, or gum wrappers, or expensive Italy leather shoes. In time, as time so cruelly will do, I’ll give them all away to someone else with kitchen memories and table dreams, while we finally empty our cupboards and down-size and succumb to the reality of Chinet disposable dishware. Ugh! Until that dreadful day, I’ll keep making memories, one delicious dish at a time…and, for sanity sakes, go on hiatus from browsing antique stores!

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Just An Ordinary Day, Sweetie-pie…

Some days, I just want to talk to my mother.

Not for any particular reason, but like before she was gone when we would just chat about everything and everyone and the real meaning, irony, truth, and humor that was under the surface of small talk, would just work its way out like the soreness out of a tired, overused muscle. Missing her is normal, I know. I’m not sad or angry, feeling needy or anything out of the ordinary. I guess that’s the point. My ordinary self, misses the ordinary conversations with my ordinary mom, in an extraordinary way, particularly today.

We develop all kinds of bonds in the course of a life time, some dramatic enough for a page-turning novel, some secret enough to speak of only in whispers and dreams, some drab enough to almost go unnoticed, and some angry enough to never utter a final goodbye or word of forgiveness. But the bond I had with my mother is irreplaceable, and I can only rely on memories of what she used to say, how she used to leave me questioning, inspired, and laughing. She always left me with just enough gumption to move me passed the moment and more able to carry on. I think that’s it. The same woman that could make me cry like a baby, piss and moan like a rolling-eyed teenager, and fire me up like a warrior against injustice, could also make me laugh ‘till I peed my pants. We had more and more of the latter in the last years of her life, both the peeing and laughter.

There is no remedy for the loss of a mother. It’s sort of like the loss of elasticity in the skin. You can replenish the collagen, well sort of, with a multitude of expensive creams and wonder-products, or go all the way to the point of surgically stretching those sags and wrinkles into a plastic duck face, but nothing really replaces the skin of youth. It’s gone.

When mother is gone, so is the one person that knew everything about you, things you didn’t even remember about yourself. That may not be the case with everyone, but that is the truth of my relationship with my mother. She held my secrets, hopes, desires, sadness and failures, joys and moments of triumph in her unconditional mother’s love and understanding; my complete, complicated history went with her to the grave. Where does a daughter go from there?

My husband has been up since early this morning doing his (well-trained since his 1960s youth) Saturday morning cleaning. Humming, banging things, running the vacuum cleaner, scrubbing sinks like a perky bride in her newly won home. Christ! I just want to smack him upside the head! After a long week of averaging twelve hours of work a day, I can hardly get my tired legs to carry me up the stairs, and he wants to play Ozzie and Harriet! His energy level is draining the last drop of life out of my fading spirit.

My mother would say to give him a piece of my mind; that he should be quiet and let me sleep, but of course she’d say that in a much more sarcastic and sharp-edged tongue. She was ‘a clever wife,’ something she told me I lacked. If I say anything, in my ‘could-you-please-consider-my-feelings-right-now-dear, kind of way,’ I’d have an angry man on my hands, who’d throw in the towel (so to speak), and pout and grumble obscenities and curses at me in the yard as he stares at the back fence wondering what he did wrong to deserve such a wife! She’d say; he doesn’t deserve me, but again in words that would cut his throat. He seemed to like that about her. In fact, they seemed to be made of the same cloth, and I realized years ago that I married my mother. Not sure I really wanted to do that because, well, he’s not my mother, nor is my daughter, my son, or my best friend. No one other than one’s ‘mother’ can make-up that unique, intimate relationship that started at the taking of one’s first breath, and lasted through the gentle years, agonized through the rough years, hoped through the leaving years, and rekindled in the final years. It’s a long stretch of life that only one’s mother understands and can endure with a constant, unwavering love.

Just talking to my mom this morning would have let my steam out, got me laughing, stirred up my energy and maybe even given me a bit of old-fashion ‘Saturday morning cleaning’ zest! She certainly had her share of that and would have reminded me of it.

But the mother void is deep and hollow; there is no healing waters left for dipping. ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child….” In fact, I am.

I just don’t like it. Of which she would reply, “Well, that’s just too damn bad, kiddo. Go do a load of laundry. The smell of the fresh clean clothes will make you feel better. And give your ‘little old bride’ a long grocery list and send him to the store. Then grab a nap.” Simple, ordinary advice on an ordinary topic, something I might even say to my own daughter.

But, I’d like to hear it from my mother in her own ordinary voice, with the added, “I love you, sweetie-pie. Everything will be okay.”

cupcakes croppedThe last time my mother visited my home we were readying for my son’s graduation party. She was getting on my last nerve, asking for a dust cloth to dust my shelves, “Why do you keep so many books?” …looking for the broom, begging at every turn for something to do to help. I finally gave her something to do which, I admit with regret, at the time I really didn’t care about. I just wanted to keep her busy and out of my way. I asked her to put some candies, a mini-Reese’s peanut butter cup and a small square of a Hershey’s bar, together to make a graduation cap that was to be perched on top of the cupcakes. It was something I had decided not to do in the last minutes, but since she wouldn’t leave me alone to attend to my all-important, party flair work, I sat her down with that task.

I can still see her now, her frail bend body with a mess of gray hair gone wildly past the days of her prim, put-together style, intensely, carefully putting those little caps together, like it was the most important part of my party statement. Many times she asked for confirmation, “Am I doing this right? Do they look okay?” I’d swing by with a pat and a casual, “Yes, mother, they’re fine. You’re doing great!” And she did do a great job, making something that initially meant so little into something precious and permanently etched in my now ‘mother-less’ mind.

Oh, mama, I’m so sorry.

I would do anything to have her back in my kitchen again, nagging or fussy, talking or laughing or anything; it wouldn’t matter what. But, I would stop and BE with her, recognizing that she was just trying to be a part of my life no matter what I was doing, and be wise enough to know that those would be fleeting moments not to be recaptured and relived.

Such things we take for granted when we have them and suffer without a cure when they are gone. But, wemom at tay graduation move forward in the busyness of life …with maybe a little less gumption and a messier house, and as the years pass by only a faint hint of a mother’s voice reminding us that we are ‘sweetie-pies’ and that “everything will be okay.”

And, of course, it will be…on this and every ordinary day, because of my extraordinary mother who left me with just enough of her spunky-self to carry on without her. Maybe by the time I’m sat down to make little useless candy decorations, I’ll finally be ‘the clever wife’ she hoped I would eventually become.

Meanwhile, Harriet is back from the grocery store, “So much for that nap, mom. I’ll call you later, Love you, bye… forever.”

Memories Stuffed in Little Purses

“As the purse is emptied, the heart is filled.” ~Victor Hugo

My mother had a quiet passion for little coin purses. We called them ‘change purses.’ She had them, lots of them, tucked away in her dresser drawers, in the night stand and her stored-away handbags. She sent them as gifts, especially to her granddaughters, handed random ones off to people who admired them, secretly slid a special change purse into the tightly packed suitcases of loved-ones leaving her home, and chronically gave in to the urge to ‘spend a little’ on a new one, or an old one at a yard sale, or a creative one at an art fair.

Maybe it was a throwback to her childhood days during The Great Depression, when people only carried change …‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ ….and when paper money was rarely seen. The purse was as important as the coins it held, and my mother seemed to still value and delight in the styling of those little pouches. One of the charms of living far from home, was the arrival of brown-paper packages filled with a menagerie of trinkets, newspaper clippings, and little things my mother was giving away, which, even in my children’s words, was ‘such a grandma thing,’ and is now missed. Always, there would be a change purse buried in the box.

My daughter quickly picked up on the love of the little purse. We’d find change purses hidden away in her room and closet, carrying an orphaned Barbie shoe, a sparkly sticker, sometimes an unstrung bead or a dropped bird’s feather, and a penny or two. Sometimes we would find tiny pieces of ripped up paper, a small colorful collection of seed beads, and strands of doll hair cut from the head of some unsuspecting doll; a collage of tidbits that seemed to have no rhyme or reason, except perhaps in her beautiful mind. Good Lord, we were always so curious, and a little nervous, when we opened them.

The tiny plastic change purse I bought for a dime in the 1960s.

The tiny plastic change purse I bought for a dime in the 1960s.

When I was little and we would spend our summers in our family cabin in Mid-Michigan, the summer wasn’t complete without a ‘trip to town’ and a stop at the old ‘Dime Store’ in Gladwin, Michigan. One time, my mother had given each of us little kids ten-cents for spending. That was big deal in my seven-year-old world, and we couldn’t wait to browse the wooden-floored, old-fashioned store with its aisle bursting of penny candy and childhood play things like pop-guns, paper dolls, coloring books, marbles, polished rocks, miniature puzzles, tiny games where we were challenged to line-up little steely balls into strategically placed holes, rubber snakes, whoopee cushions, wiffle balls and plastic bats, and six-shooters in kid-sized gun belts. My sister Clara and I eventually eyed our prized purchase, two little plastic change purses. Our eyes met, our hearts stopped; we knew right away that is why we had come to town. Those two little purses might as well have had our names printed on them. We were in a state of consumer bliss when we slid our skinny, silver dimes over the counter to the cashier. Fifty years later, we both still have them, and the sweet memory of that day.

My mother now gone, my daughter since moved away from home, I am here still holding on to a multitude of tiny money cases that once were treasures to those two beloved women in my life, plus a couple of my own. I even have one of my father’s. Worn leather with tiny travel decals now faded out; it was designed to look like a traveler’s suitcase of those romantic train travel days. I remember looking at it in wonder and seeing it in my father’s handsome hands that I loved so well.

Like so much of what we gather, hold on to, save, and cherish, I’m at that point in life when I’m incline to start letting these things go. Done filling rooms, no longer in hopes of finding a ‘big’ house for all my bits of antiquity; there simply isn’t a drawer or closet left for one more little change purse.

And yet, I look at them, this collection of my mother and daughters, and I put them back into a bigger bag and wait for another day; a day, when I am feeling courageous or maybe too feeble to care.

Sometimes I bravely muse at the possibility of selling those little change purses at a garage sale. I imagine some little girl, whose mother has given her a small amount of money to spend on some choice item during their day of exploring garage sales, eyeing my collection of change purses. I see her fingers plying the tartan, the beaded kitty, or tiny embroidery embellishments, her eyes wide open at the beauty of such a small purse that fits so nicely in her little hand.

I’m charmed by the thought of ‘giving them away’ for some other child to bring back to life just by hearing some coins jingle in its pouch once again.

I could do that; give them away, let them go. Except maybe not the little soft-haired cowhide one that my daughter loved to rub up against her rosy cheeks, or the one that my father carried for years with the tiny travel labels faded off, and certainly not the last change purse my mother carried before she died, her perfume still lingering on the green leather and tiny golden shamrocks, reminding me of her love of change purses, now almost as obsolete and devalued as the pennies people once cherished.

Memories, all stuffed in little purses, like little bits of torn colored paper, a tarnish locket, or an ancient Avon lipstick sample; holding, holding, holding…for someone like my mother, with a story, a child’s heart and a reminiscent smile, and a few coins to spare, to come along and carry away in a new pair of loving hands.

We Had Nothing and Everything

It seems like we really had nothing, especially by today’s standards. Summers in an old drafty cabin, hand-me-down clothes, simple cereal breakfasts and PB&J lunches, bamboo poles & earth worms for fishing on an old dock, an uncle’s thick 78 LPs for dancing around the cabin kitchen, 49 cent coloring books and crayons and dime store novels for quiet time, yeah we didn’t have much, but we had each other. More importantly, we had parents who spent time with us, sang with us, held conversations with us, told us stories about their lives, taught us how to do things, including listening and watching with patience, and knew when to give us our freedom to roam and discover and ‘just be kids.’ Based on what I’ve seen and heard over the years, we actually had a gold mine!

Summers at the cabin, nothing more than a broken down old log and cinderblock shack on a river, with a natural outdoor classroom where we were free to dig, climb, get scrapped and bitten, lost and found, and have ‘parent free’ hours of discovery, were only a small, but treasured, part of our formative years in the 1960s.

I think what made our lives ‘rich and golden,’ compared to so many of today’s families who have much more material wealth but more lost and troublesome kids, is that we had an element of freedom that kids don’t have today, wrapped safely in family devotion, routines and responsibilities, high behavioral expectations, and in ‘time together,’ not staring into our phones or video games, or focused on ‘things.’

My parents were not perfect. They smoked, enjoyed a beer or two, argued and swore sometimes in front of us, yet they also included us in conversations about philosophy, religion, history, film and politics. There was a clear ‘this is adult and this is for children’ line, though, and society as a whole supported that standard. There was little room for vanity or personal pageantry, in our family, no money for private lessons; what one had the other’s had, for the most part. They taught us how to hook our own worms, thread our own needles, wash, iron, and fold clothes, write letters, read maps, make cakes, cookies, casseroles and soups. They gardened, planted trees, and watched birds; so did we. They gave us boxes of their ‘old’ clothes to play with, started challenging group puzzles on the card table, taught us how to play card games and count money, and encouraged us to ‘mindfully’ sing, in harmony of course, and dance so we understood what we were doing.

We had ‘SHARED’ everything: marbles, blocks, dolls, bikes, big farms sets (one Christmas gift for all of us) on the ping-pong table that everyone played with, shared clothes, books, paint sets, and even shared rooms, dressers and beds; later we had shared cars. We had a garage full of old field hockey equipment, balls and rackets of every kind, and dad taught us how to throw them, bounce them, shoot them, hit them, and how to form teams and understand the game, and then he left us alone to play.

And all of this was done in our own house and backyard. No organized sports, no private clubs, no special camps; just stuff we did without much of a plan.

Family dinner 1962

Family dinner 1962

There were routines, of course. There had to be, or a house of 10 would be pure chaos. We helped each other; the older ones helped the younger ones. Some helped mom take care of the babies, others helped dad with the lawn. We were taught self discipline through example, but without a harsh militant edge and certainly with an element of humor. We did major cleaning on Saturday mornings, and sometimes all week if a holiday or Holy day was coming up. When my mom would go grocery shopping, we all helped carry the groceries in and put them away. The babies were just passed around to free arms. We got up and dressed (on our own) in our best for church every Sunday, learned not to eat before Mass, and learned when we ate that we would only get so much so there was enough for everyone. What was on the table is what we ate. There was no question as to whether we would do our homework; it was a given. No one preached it, but we understood that education was everything. Authority was to be respected, mostly because if it wasn’t it would be an embarrassment to our family. Television, listening to records, and playing or pleasure reading was reserved for certain times when everything else was done. This was true even of the little ones.

We didn’t have any special anything and few material advantages, yet all eight of us kids worked our way through college earning at least one degree, in some cases more, and became accomplished professionals in a variety of fields. Would we have liked a childhood that was easier, richer in things, with prettier clothes (certainly better haircuts) and more exciting opportunities? Sure. But, looking back at how much we accomplished with so little, I’m starting to think there was more wisdom and learning in an environment with very few ‘things’ and a whole lot of family togetherness.

I know there were flaws in our world, in our family dynamics, some even quite painful leaving scars, but somehow we retained a sense of family loyalty and honor, regardless of our personal struggles. And when those struggles surfaced, there was always someone, a sister or brother, mom or dad, or all of us to support each other. There were boundaries and moral guidelines, and our parents were the role models through all of this even during radically changing times in our society. When THEY were lost and uncertain, our parents trusted their growing children, whom they had carefully raised, to lead the way in new ways of thinking or operating in the world.

I know that times are different today. The pressure to perform, to dazzle, and to compete is higher and more demanding than in the 1960s and 70s. But, frankly, I think parents can do more for their children with fewer things and ‘out there, expensive’ experiences. We rarely went to amusement parks. We learned to amuse ourselves. It’s a life skill that seems to be going ‘a drift’ these days. We had a broken down old upright piano, yet we all learned how to sing (well) and play instruments. All we had in the way of a library were my dad’s old Shakespeare volumes and encyclopedias, yet we all learned to love reading. We had one television with six channels, and one radio that sat on the top of the refrigerator where our parent’s stations ruled the day. We learned to listen to and appreciate a variety of music and opinions. In the car, we looked out the windows, talked and sang. At worst, we fought over the Rand McNally Road Atlas. I still love reading maps to this day. We were always interacting and learning from each other, something, again, that’s been lost to distractive technology which numbs children from responding to the world around them.

One family luxury was the pool. My parents always provided us with an above ground pool to play and

1969 day in the pool with family and friends. Nothing big, but it did the trick.

1969 day in the pool with family and friends. Nothing big, but it did the trick.

swim in. If we were going to dally our summer days away, it would be there….together.

Though much has been gained with technology, so much has been lost, mostly in the development of children’s ability to think and create. I know. I have watched the decline of comprehension and problem solving skills, vocabulary development, and creativity more and more every year in the elementary school classroom as more and smarter technology has come into our children’s hands. It is well-researched and documented that children learn through play, conversation, and natural exploration, not video games and another app. Yet, even the poor have their technology.

I think it’s time for parents to put away the gadgets and ‘get back to the garden,’ to use an old lyric. It’s not what they have or what flashy, extravagant places parents take their kids that teach them to connect and grow in this world. It’s the ‘meaningful’ experiences, conversations, and moments of personal discovery that mold the child into a viable, interesting adult, able to ‘work well with others.’ Most importantly, it’s ‘time,’ in a safe environment with parents who actively ‘engage’ with their children, which makes the difference.

cousins playing a board game around the table. No phones, of course. Just conversation.

Cousins playing a board game around the table. No phones, of course. Just conversation.

Even with very few ‘things’ and space, very little individual attention and special treatment, when we went to bed each night, usually two to a bed, we felt safe, exhausted from a day well-lived, and we felt loved by both parents. We knew we would have to walk to school in rain or shine the next day, and that we’d have a bologna sandwich on white bread, with carrot sticks, and a dime wrapped in wax-paper for our milk at lunch. We knew we’d have tea and crackers as an after school treat, and maybe get to watch a TV show when we finished our homework and were done practicing our ‘rented’ instruments. We knew dad would come home, that we would eat around the table together, and we knew we’d watch ‘family appropriate’ TV shows until bedtime, washed, brushed, ready for prayers, and together. We never went to bed or left the house without kisses and hugs. Even as adult children, that was the norm. Our family time was protected, celebrated, and cherished. ‘Relating,’ eye-to-eye, word-to-word, expression-to-expression was intentional. I whole-heartedly believe that is sorely missing in today’s families. Parents need to take steps necessary to keep sacred and intentional their ‘interactions’ with their children and the family as a whole.

My sister Clara and I doing homework with no laptops or phones. Imagine? It's even hard for me to imagine that, and we lived it.

My sister Clara and I doing homework with no laptops or phones. Imagine? It’s even hard for me to imagine that, and we lived it.

I don’t think this is a mystery or novel idea. History teaches us everything, and parents just need to settle down, take stock, re-evaluate their priorities, UNPLUG and pay attention to those short, but make-or-break childrearing years. It’s trite but true; less is more, particularly when it comes to raising children. Just make sure the ‘less’ is meaningful.

I’m not all about gloom and doom, preaching moral values, or ‘the good old days’ ideals. I appreciate technological advances, use technology as much as the next person, even teach it. In fact, I’ve seen some very healthy, conscientious parents out there trying to refocus more on family life and less on impressing others with big, expensive birthday parties and more video games.  Like them, I think it’s the little things that can turn the tide of thinking away from excessive social media sharing and one-upping, or distracting their kids (and themselves) with electronic entertainment, to nurturing the private, engaging family life experience.

Take them fishing….on a dock with bamboo poles….without your Iphone, or sit and color with your kids,

My little brother Tim, drawing with no distractions.

My little brother Tim in 1977, drawing with no distractions.

without Instagraming the final product. Just be together, and whether you have money or not, lots of electronic gadgets or just the air you breathe, the moments of ‘relating’ will make your child’s early years as ‘golden’ as their grandparent’s were….when everyone wasn’t so distracted by entertainment devices and people weren’t as ‘rich’ with things, but definitely life was more engaging and enriching.

We really didn’t have much, and we knew it. But we didn’t blame society, our parents, or each other, we just learned to make our lives better, and the fertile garden of a simpler life seemed to help us grow into well-rounded students and adults, to adapt and innovate in a changing world, to effectively communicate and engage in life, in order to prosper. Isn’t that what every parent wants for their child? The childrearing years fly-by; the window for opportunity brief. Engage them, talk to them, and don’t worry so much about updating your status and texting your friends. Your kids are only little for so long, then they leave. Make sure they are ready for the world.

Something to think about…

The Surprising Civility of Civic Duty

Like many people who get a jury summons, I cringed and pissed and moaned upon its arrival. What a way to end my summer. Ugh! God knows how long I could be tied up doing my civic duty! After another postponement, I got a firm warning that if I rescheduled one more time, I’d get a bench warrant for my arrest. Really? Now I’m a criminal?

Practicing avoidance, I checked on the validity of that threat, and it seemed pretty legit. There was plenty of evidence of hefty fines and warrant round-ups; they’ve even arrested people at their work place. Yeah, I didn’t need that. There was no getting out of this one.

In Bexar County, Texas, where San Antonio is the largest city, registered voters are summoned every three years to make the traffic-laden crawl ‘downtown’ on demand, where they sit in a room with another 200 people of all walks of life, and wait and wait to be called upon. Sometimes one waits all day. Sometimes you’re called up on ‘a panel,’ only to be returned to ‘the holding room’ if the parties at war decide to settle. There’s a lot of waiting.

In the past, this has not been a good experience. With the exception of a little casual socializing with the other ‘inmates,’ one sits, reads, scrolls through their phone, walks up and down the halls of justice, and visits the bathroom often, as in my case.

But today, there was a different feel in the air right from the beginning. I think it was something akin to ‘kindness and civility’ that permeated the scene, maybe even something else like, dare I say it, ‘fun,’ which began as I was leaving the third floor of the parking ramp in route to the court house.

A young fresh-faced woman, new to San Antonio from Houston, walked beside me on our way out of the parking garage. Sharply dressed, polite; she had a radiance that was hard to miss. She asked the usual questions that many of us ask when we first try to navigate toward this lawful drudgery. “Do you know where we go into the building?’ she inquired. “There aren’t any instructions as to what to do when we get in there.“ I gave her a quick run-down based on what I had experienced as the ‘walk/don’t walk’ sign audibly counted down “5,4,3,2,1…begin walking, walk, walk, walk,” until we were safely across South Flores Street which was already steaming up in the south Texas heat and humidity, the bus fumes hanging in the air like a cloud of doom. Her companionship brightened the dark journey.

When we walked in the door with dozens of other summoned folks, one of the officers yelled, “Okay, who smells like cotton candy?’ I knew it was me. I get that all the time. I cautiously waved my hand. My purse lit-up, literally, through the x-ray machine at the same time that the metal detector alarmed with bells and whistles when I stood under its arch. ‘Come over here, Cotton Candy.” Ugh! “I have a metal rod in my arm from a horseback riding accident,” I explained as my limbs were being wanded. The two middle-aged officers in starched uniforms, armed and intimidating, seemed to have a kind of good cop, bad cop comedy routine going. Maybe it was tipsy Tuesday, or something, but they were so unusually fun-loving I was waiting for one of them to offer me a drink. The scent detecting officer ran my purse through the x-ray machine again and yelled, “What is THAT?’ his voice booming down the corridor. “A banana?” I replied, thinking, “Good God, what did he think it was?” turning as pink as my newly appointed nickname. “Great! Now I’m going to be arrested for the fruit in my bag?” Officer Bald and Bold, jokingly offered me my purse (and banana) back while asking me the name of my perfume.

By this time, I was on to the sass, and replied, “Well, officer, I can’t tell you. My scent is a secret.” He giggled, yes giggled, then sternly looked into my eyes and asked, rather nicely, “Can you tell me your secret?” Yeeeaah, so I told him, fearing shackles and a single phone call. He graciously smiled and sent me on my way. Nothing like a little flirting at 7:45 in the morning to rev-up an old gal’s engine! Meanwhile, the sweet young girl from the parking garage was just steps ahead of me and the first person we joined in the line was a young man who, with a few facial differences, was the spittin’ image of my 20 year-old son. He had the same easy-going, social skills and even the way he smiled and moved his hands when he talked kind of put me in a state of affectionate shock. I had to fight my maternal urge to hug him. Before we knew it, a rich conversation evolved about what to expect inside and what we’ve experience before, dotted with laughter, and laced with personal information about ourselves; the three of us were like best buddies even before the jury room doors opened.

In all-day situations like this, it’s nice to connect with people, unless you are one of those totally anti-social, angry people who are eternally pissed off. And there were a few of those as expected, as well as the drooling sleepers, who remarkably slumber sitting up-right and don’t stir unless their name is called.

I’ve always loved ‘school.’ Even in college, in those big auditorium lecture halls, I loved the feel of filing in and settling into my chair ready to be instructed and inspired. As so it was, the filing in, the handout of rules and procedures, the gift of the special ‘jury pin’ that one must wear at all times, and surprisingly, the humor of which all of this was delivered.

Seriously? When did all these civil servants get a sense of humor? From the initial over-seeing Judge who swore us in to the minor characters who read off the lists of names and validated our parking passes, everyone was so cordial and light-hearted it threw me for a loop! I was waiting for someone to start passing out the appetizers and Jell-O shots, it was so weirdly festive.

In time, it got quiet and subdued, seats emptied; people found their corners and did their own thing during the long wait. My son’s doppelganger ended up in another row, though I could hear his familiar voice above the hum of others as he chatted with some other appreciative mother yearning for her son. The happy young lady from Houston and I engaged in conversation about her military days in Ohio at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, one of which I knew something about since I’d spent a little time with my sister, also a veteran, in Yellow Springs at her little hippie farmhouse 40 years ago. “Oh, Yellow Springs is still very much a little hippie town,” this 30 something-year-old confirmed. “It was always fun to visit that town,” she mused with a far-away smile lost in some bittersweet memory. Hmmmm….she has stories, I observed. She pretty much had me when she referred to her classic, button-up sweater as a ‘cardigan.’ Like finding a shining penny deep in a pocket of dull coins, it’s so refreshing to be around other people who use appropriate ‘vocabulary.’

From FFA stories, (she was raised by a single mother in rural Missouri), to travel, to the best school districts in San Antonio, up until the moment I was called to serve on a panel; we talked away like two old friends who hadn’t seen each other in years! It was so charming and completely unexpected.

I was the first person called, number #1, and was the lead in a 60 person panel up the stairs to circuit court 226. It was only 9:00 AM, and most of us in that first group of 60 were thrilled that we were called so early! We knew the panel would get whittled down to maybe 12 jurors, so the odds were that we’d be done before noon! We were light-hearted and curious about what kinds of questions would be asked of us, not at all a tone of resignation or frustration among the lot of us!

One gravelly voiced, wrinkled gal, a retired construction worker, loudly proclaimed, after the bailiff told us that we had to move in and out of the courtroom as ‘one’ during HIS comedy routine, that us women over 50 would need to use the restroom more than others, “So be prepared, y’all, to ‘move as one’ if one of us has to go!” sending a ripple of laughter down the line of stern business men, disheveled college students, heavy-ankled grandmas, and sleep deprived young mothers.

Before we even had the chance to take our jovial selves into the courtroom, we were informed that the plaintiffs had settled out-of-court, and we all had to return to the main jury room and wait to be called again. Yet, we all kind of jokingly filed back down the stairs to ‘the basement…dungeon…troll room’ full of other ‘waitees’ until lunch.

Though my gracious friend and I kept trying to give each other space, we just naturally gravitated towards each other, and we ended up having lunch at the same table in the court house café. And that is where something remarkable happened. Two virtual strangers, 25 years apart in age, one white, one African American, one on the brink of her new career adventure in San Antonio, and one almost done with her career, babies grown and gone, got to talking like women with no racial, economic, or generational differences. Women talk deep, you know, if all the stars are aligned and there is an openness felt between them. It’s one of the strengths of womankind to naturally reach out to each other, in spite of the entire back-stabbing, competitive, tit’n ass propaganda splashed all over our social media pages. Women are social glue, natural networkers and communicators, intuitive and sensitive to unspoken messages. I speak from years of experience among women, with a certain amount of higher education on the subject. This may not be everyone’s truth, but it’s mine.

Together we shared our thoughts about today’s political scene, racism, abortion, moral compasses, the father role, the Confederate Flag removal, and gay marriage among other intense subjects with ease and conversational fluidity. It was interesting to hear her perspective of being one of only two black students in a K-12 school in rural America, the other student being her sister. Her views on the removal of the Confederate Flag were different than mine, me being an advocate for history, good or bad, and acutely against revisionists. Yet, she was so articulate about her thoughts on the subject that I began to understand her point of view. She in turned asked me about the feminist movement, of which I was very involved during the 70s and 80s. There was a kind of bridging of the generational gap when I explained what it was like to be a girl athlete BEFORE the passage of Title Nine. Being a student of Women’s History in college, I shared my knowledge of the beginnings of Planned Parenthood, the social depravities that motivated the leaders of that social reform, and how the right-to-choose verses the right-to-life movement evolved from the turn of the 20th century to its present day controversy standing. Though we came from different perspectives on some issues, there was an atmosphere of respect and civility between the two of us. We laughingly agreed that we were gray-shaded people in a black and white world, and no one was listening to the wisdom of the middle. In so many ways I felt like this day that I had initially dreaded was turning into a blessing, just because I had met this astute and refined young woman and shared a meal with her.

Heads tilted toward each other, our words carefully spoken and hushed among the other jurors lunching; we were suddenly summoned back to the courtroom in mid-sentence. For a second there, both of us looked terribly disappointed. We had had our own civics lesson right there over ham and cheese sandwiches, and there was so much more to discuss. We were so engaged in meaningful conversation that it seemed a shame to have to end it so abruptly.

My original 60 person panel was called up again, lined-up in the hall and graciously let go; my day was done. And though I felt some relief that there would be no more waiting, I felt a little sad to leave. My beautiful young friend came out of the jury room and connected with me one more time before I left. We exchanged numbers and embraced like mother and daughter, teacher and student, sisters, friends. As I was leaving, I looked back at her standing in the hall in her bright yellow cardigan and trim, finely-cut floral dress. So prim and proper she was, this soldier who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and now had a career as a medical records administrator and still hopeful about meeting the man of her dreams. She was everything we ‘early feminists’ wanted for our daughters: confident, self-sufficient, accomplished and still very much a poised and attractive woman. I felt a satisfying form of confirmation for everything my generation of women, and women before me, had fought for. Her bright smile and wave sent me off with a feeling like maybe this is what all of this ‘duty’ is about: connecting with other humans, strangers corralled in a room together, like an experiment in tolerance and humanity, as we do our part to keep the American judicial system in working order.

Certainly, connecting is NOT the goal of jury duty. I would wager that most people come and go out of the situation with little if any redeeming value from their experience. But today, from the humorous officers just trying to make the 8 AM reluctant participants feel a little more comfortable, to the other jurors who seemed to be of the attitude that, well, ‘attitude is everything, let’s make it a good one;’ my civic duty was a bit of a joy! Unexpected connections, shared conversation, and three more years before I’m summoned again certainly off-set the $3.99 protein drink at the counter and agony of driving into the city chaos. It was all worth it! And, I got a little mutual flirting in with the cops, who reminded me that I smell sweet! Ha!

Some personal growth, an unexpected encounter, and a boost in confidence…all in the line of duty! And with the exception of my banana scare, I wasn’t arrested.

Photo from the 1960 film “La Verite,” courtesy of deeperintomovies. net

Stories That Gate Could Sweetly Tell

Our exit to freedom and welcomed return,

broken-hearted, the champions, the loved, and the burned.

Over its pickets long kisses, deep trances,

prayers and curses and sweet romances.

 

We’d run out the gate in boots or high heels,

through snow drifts, the deep woods, across football fields.

The path led home to whence we came,

in pride or in shame, the same pebbled lane.

 

Mom in her garden with roses and saints.

Dad with his ladder and buckets of paint.

We’d lie in the sun, sister-talk sharing all;

star-spangled barbeques, colored leaves in the fall.

 

The apple blossom tree pink and frilly,

winter haven for rabbits, where the lights glowed so pretty.

Bird houses, lilacs, wind chimes tinkling in the breeze,

gave solace and hope to the gardener on her knees.

 

I’d float in the pool all alone in the dark,

watching the stars in that shadowy park.

Warm light from the windows of the place I called home,

Never knowing back then how far I would roam.

 

Sneaking in late, a drunken stumble;

secret laughter, backward glances, his engine rumble.

Three brides left veiled in white-laced frocks,

stepped over its threshold to the church beyond its lock.

 

Covered in snow it would creak and whine;

a portal positioned beneath arching pines.

In blinding sun and weathering rain,

It still swings open and calls my name.

 

Once in a dream I saw you there,

looking at me with your blue-eyed stare.

It was in a time when we were young,

before the lessons and lies, the sever and run.

 

In thunderous storm, standing wet in the grass,

You whispered and pleaded, said our love would last.

We left through that passage-way and promise no harm,

Then you let go of my hand, ripped me from your arms.

 

Child after child reached for its latch,

Until time and usage worn a dark smooth patch;

Not far from the place that once was my sill,

where I sang and wrote letters; I can see it all still.

 

With the chime of the church bells we’d run with guitars,

To lead and sing praise just steps from our yard.

Watching from windows out on that scene,

white birches, fiery maple, and seasons of green.

 

The band uniforms, gauze dresses, and football gear,

The singing, the gatherings and games played there.

The gate let us in, let us out; a revolving door,

until no one was left, it’s not ours anymore.

 

On that worn trodden path draped in gray and black,

empty and mournful in the last look back;

There’s my brother, my mother, my youthful love,

perched on the fence a chickadee, a cardinal, a cooing dove.

 

The stories that gate could sweetly tell,

of wishes and kisses and wedding bells;

Of a hundred goodbyes waved through smiling tears,

from the gate in our backyard over forty years.

~Stories That Gate Could Sweetly Tell, by Cynthia Currie